The Wars of Light and Shadow: An Ill Fate Marshalling

Chapter 16

© 1999 by E. Liddell


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Almandite

September 20, 993AD

When the last door opened up in front of us, we stepped out of the wind-torn darkness and into utopia. All I could do was stand there, holding Serena's and my husband's hands, and stare.

I never thought that it could be so beautiful.

The palace wasn't built like anything I had ever seen before. The stonework was very... open, I suppose you'd say, pierced by multiple windows and arched doorways. Not too terribly defensible, my Negaverse training suggested. I ignored it. I didn't want to find fault with this gorgeous, fairytale place.

Serena was staring too, I discovered when I finally managed to tear my eyes away from the building, but Nephrite seemed to be immune. Instead of looking up, he was scanning the immediate area. He had also assumed the perfectly neutral expression that I knew usually concealed some painful emotion.

<<What's wrong?>> I asked.

<<Nothing that anyone can help me with. And you should be paying more attention to what's going on around you. If someone had come up behind you just now, you wouldn't have noticed him until he tapped you on the shoulder. I shouldn't have to tell you how dangerous that is. Zoisite would be appalled.>>

I nodded and grimaced. Over the course of my combat training, I'd squared off with all of the original Negaverse Four at one time or another. Malachite, Nephrite, and Jadeite could beat me easily through sheer strength, but, after the first few months, only Zoisite was able to trick me into losing. After each of those sessions, he had shown me what I had done wrong and how to correct it. It had been unusual generosity for the littlest General to show a woman, even if she was his Weavemate, and Nephrite had encouraged me to pay attention because of that. I'd learned to have the equivalent of eyes in the back of my head, which had almost been a survival requirement in Beryl's Negaverse.

Scanning the immediate area, I discovered that we were in a small courtyard somewhere in the outer reaches of the palace complex. It was wedge-shaped and empty of anything, including dust. Even the cracks between the flagstones that paved it were clear of grime. The walls were pierced by two archways, one at the narrow end of the wedge and one not far from where we were standing. The wall at the wide end was barely a token barrier, about three feet tall, and it was over that that I had been staring at the rest of the palace. The other walls were smooth and unbroken below the ten-foot level, except for the doors that I've already mentioned.

"What is this place?" I asked aloud, and saw Serena jump as my voice pulled her out of her own stare state.

"I'm not absolutely sure," Nephrite said, his eyes darting warily from shadow to shadow. "I never visited the Moon Kingdom during the Silver Millennium, except... well..." He didn't have to say any more. It wasn't likely that any of us would forget what was going to happen here in a few months' time. "I think this may be the Sailor Scouts' practice area," he added. "Not exactly a good place for us to be caught, especially not wearing these clothes."

I glanced down at my uniform. Now that he's mentioned it, I *do* feel kind of like a cat who's trying to sneak into the local dog pound while wearing a lion costume. Nephrite, of course, was wearing much the same thing. Serena's clothes at least didn't blatantly identify her as the enemy, but they were probably too casual for the environment here at court.

My husband sighed. "Give me a moment." He shut his eyes, and frowned. Slowly, his Negaverse greys changed into a tunic and trousers made of rich blue velvet. Interestingly, the boots and belt stayed the same.

<<It would pass on Earth, anyway,>> he stated, observing the results, <<and I doubt that the Moon Kingdom places very strict standards on foreigners. Your turn.>>

He waved his hand at me, and I felt my clothes change. I was now wearing a fairly good copy of one of my more modest Earth-Realm evening gowns, skirts lengthened until they almost trailed on the floor. I'd rarely worn anything so long. Fighting in it would have been hellish.

Serena's casual skirt and sweater became a white gown even more elaborate than my blue-green one, and we were finally ready to proceed -- and none too soon.

"Might I be of some assistance, my lord, my ladies?"

Nephrite and I spun -- reflexively, very fast, and almost startling the servant who had spoken out of his wits.

"We seem to be lost," my husband said. To anyone else, he would have seemed calm, but I could feel tension in the hand that I held. "Could you show us the way to the north wing, please?" <<Beloved, I think you can let go of Serena's hand now.>>

<<Oh!>> I felt the heat of a blush rising in my cheeks as I released my friend.

"Of course. Follow me, please."

Serena trailed us as we followed the servant through the door in the wide end of the wedge. I wondered if she'd understood any part of the conversation. I hadn't dared say anything myself -- the servant had been speaking a Silver Millennese language that Nephrite had taught me to understand, but I had never tried to speak it before and I knew that my accent would be horrible. Making a comment in modern Japanese or English would only have roused the man's suspicions. But poor Serena didn't know any of the local languages, unless her past-life memories were clearer than she'd always led me to believe.

The servant led us along several corridors and up a staircase. "The north wing, my lord. Will there be anything further?"

"No," Nephrite said, adding, "You are dismissed," in his best regal, second-in-command-of-the-Negaverse manner.

"What do we do now?" I whispered when I thought that the man's retreating back was probably far enough away.

"Find another servant," my husband murmured cryptically, "and lodge a complaint."

I was mystified as to what he was going about at first. We collared a chambermaid, who was induced to summon her supervisor, and from there we were passed to increasingly high-ranking servants, and then to minor palace officials, until we finally found someone with enough authority to make a decision. To all of these, Nephrite claimed that we were noble visitors from Earth and should have been expected, and demanded to know where our luggage had gotten to and why rooms hadn't been prepared for us. It shouldn't have worked -- if I had been doing it, I know it wouldn't have worked -- but either Nephrite's air of authority impressed them, or they were worried about being turned into newts. I'm fairly sure that at least some of them managed to identify him as a Crystal Weaver. In any case, a little more than an hour later, we'd been installed in a small suite on the fourth floor and several porters had been dispatched to look for our nonexistent baggage.

"Nothing to it," my husband remarked as soon as he had dismissed the last servant. "As I told you, my position at Earth's court is verifiable. Once they checked that, they were more or less obliged to believe the rest of the story."

"I don't see how this helps us get in to see my mother," Serena said.

"I never thought that we'd get a private audience with her," Nephrite admitted. "The best we can hope for is the opportunity to speak to her at some public event. There's a ball tonight. Hopefully she'll attend. In the meanwhile, I think we should all get some sleep."

It was a strange, peaceful interlude in the middle of what should have been a frantic race against time. To my surprise, I actually did manage to fall asleep, lying in Nephrite's arms in a bed far larger than the one we shared back home.

When we woke up, Serena was gone.

Serena

I couldn't stay in the suite once we got there. I just couldn't. It made me feel claustrophobic. There was just something about being back in the Moon Kingdom that made me feel strange. It was home, as much as Tokyo had ever been, in a thousand tiny ways that I wasn't even consciously aware of, but at the same time there was something that didn't entirely feel right.

I knew that Nephrite wouldn't let me out to explore on my own if I asked him. I wasn't sure which he trusted less -- me or the Moon Kingdom -- but it was obvious that he was worried about something. Even to me. At best, he would have asked Molly to go with me, and at worst... at worst, he would have insisted on coming himself. And having him looming over my shoulder would have provided me with a constant reminder of what was going to happen here in a few months' time. Having Molly as an escort wouldn't have been quite as bad, but it still wouldn't have been good. She'd been my best friend once, but the Negaverse had changed her. Hardened her. We all change as part of the process of growing up, I guess, but there were times when I literally could not recognize the girl who'd dated Melvin and gone with me on so many shopping sprees in the cold yellow eyes of the Negaverse General that she had become.

And that's why I waited until they were asleep before I snuck out of the rooms that it looked like we were going to share.

I found myself walking down a long passageway with no real awareness of how I'd gotten there. The wall to my left was composed entirely of windows that stretched from floor to ceiling. I stopped and turned in that direction, to look out.

Below me, the palace grounds opened out into a huge garden. As I stepped forward for a better look, I caught a glimpse of my reflection in the glass. The dress that Nephrite had conjured for me looked uncannily like my old Moon Princess gown, retailored just a bit to fit at my thickened waistline. Was that where he had gotten the idea? I didn't normally wear white, not back then. It got dirty too easily, especially since I was so clumsy.

I turned my attention to the garden below, instead. There was a big hedge-maze at the center of it, and I could see people walking back and forth inside. I remembered it vaguely as a quiet, green, shady place where even a princess could escape from most of the court for a little while.

One man in particular caught my eye. Not overly tall, as far as I could tell when looking down on him from above, with dark hair, and dressed in black and midnight blue, in sharp contrast to most of the people around him. Pastels seemed to be in style here. Then he turned, and I caught a glimpse of his profile. His very familiar profile.

"Darien!" I barely managed to keep from screaming the name. But, no, not Darien. Not yet. Still Endymion. My Darien won't be born for another thousand years. They were the same person, and yet... they weren't. Any more than I was the same person as Queen Serenity's cherished daughter, Serena the Moon Princess. And if we're wrong, if we fail, if this somehow doesn't work, I may never see my Darien again.

Every time I thought that, it hit me like a punch in the stomach. My hands moved instinctively to cradle the little bulge that was Rini, to protect her from all danger. She was all that I had left now.

"Milady?" said a soft, respectful voice from somewhere down near my ankle. "Are you all right?"

I glanced down, and immediately thought Luna, not so much because this new cat resembled her as because I didn't know if I would ever see my old friend and mentor again either. I hadn't even been able to say a proper good-bye. She'd been sleeping when I'd gone in to do that, and Molly had practically ordered me, earlier that day, to let her sleep whenever she could, so that she'd heal.

This other cat was smaller than Luna, and, I guessed, younger, a plain brown tabby of the sort that you see fishing through garbage cans in alleyways in just about all of the world's major cities. The only thing that set her apart (other than the fact that she could talk, which wasn't obvious if you were just looking at her) was the crescent moon on her forehead.

I smiled tremulously, and bent down to place myself on a level closer to hers. "I've just had a difficult week, that's all. No big deal. Really."

The cat cocked her head to one side. "Pardon me, but you look familiar. Are you by any chance related to Queen Serenity?"

Meatball Head! I berated myself. I should have had the sense to change my distinctive hairstyle before going off to wander around the palace. It wasn't that I minded being recognized so much as that Nephrite probably wouldn't approve, and sacrificing my meatballs seemed like a small enough price to pay to keep him happy.

"Only distantly," I lied, "although I'm told that the resemblance is rather striking. I'm from Earth, you see, and I've never actually met the Queen..."

"Oh, you're one of the group who was causing such an uproar among the service staff, earlier."

I grimaced. "Lord Nephrite will insist on having his way, even if it inconveniences other people. I don't much like these whirlwind trips, especially when my husband can't get away, but Nephrite's wife did ask me along, and we've been friends for such a long time that I didn't feel it was right to refuse her."

"Oh," the cat said, in a tone so enlightened that I must admit I gave her a bit of a suspicious look. "But I'm being very rude. My name is Vesta. I'm a junior advisor to the Queen. I do hope that your stay with us will be pleasant." She winked. "Lord Nephrite's peculiar whims notwithstanding."

"My name is --" Can't tell her that I'm Serena. She must be suspicious already. Junior advisor to the Queen -- and I had to lean down to give her a better view of my locket -- what have I done? "-- Usagi," I finished, trying to make it sound smooth. That was a nickname that Molly had invented for me, back when we were in kindergarten together and she'd first discovered that rabbits were my favorite animal.

"I'm pleased to meet you, Lady Usagi," Vesta said. "Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm already a bit late..."

"Oh, of course."

I felt numb inside, watching her tail waving in the air as she headed off down the hall. Well, I guess that Serenity is at least going to know that we're here now.

Nephrite

Silver Millennium court dress, I thought with a snort as I straightened my tunic. I'd never been much for dressing up, but in this case it was necessary to the role I was playing. At least I had my choice of colors.

<<Are you almost ready?>> I asked my wife.

<<Have a look,>> she invited.

I turned... and froze, staring.

<<You look gorgeous,>> I couldn't help but state.

She'd taken my vague memories of women's court clothing in this era and produced a dress based on them that was nothing short of a work of art, pale blue-green and clinging in all the right places, accenting her already substantial beauty to perfection.

<<Do you really think so?>> she asked, and I sensed that she was pleased. <<I didn't think that guys ever noticed how women dressed.>>

<<I'm supposed to be observant, remember? I notice everything.>> Including Serena's absence from our rooms when we had woken early this evening. Fortunately for her, she had reappeared before I'd finished dressing, or she would have regretted her little unauthorized expedition even more than she did.

I probably shouldn't have chewed her out the way that I had, but just being here was setting me on edge. Looking up at the face of the palace from the courtyard where we had arrived, all I could remember was that one fateful day when I'd helped to lead the youma that had torn it apart, with the Invincible Shadow looming above us, and Malachite's sickening laughter coming from my left. I'd been surprised, when I had looked down, not to find my hands red with the blood of the innocents that I had killed on that day. Sailors Mercury and Mars had been among them. I was probably fortunate that they didn't remember. Zoisite had taken Sailor Neptune from the back while she and her lover, Uranus, had been trying to fight Malachite, and Jadeite had faced off with Saturn and her Silence Glaive...

Strange, how easily it all came back. At that moment, I wished that my memories of the old days had never returned. The guilt was smothering, soul-destroying.

Then I'm just going to have to atone for my actions, I told myself firmly.

"Let's go," I said, and offered Almandite my arm. I could see the concern in her eyes as she took it, but pretended to ignore it. This expedition had done one good thing, though -- it had snapped her out of the introspective state that she'd been in for the past couple of days and made her interested in the world again.

Serena -- No, Usagi. I will have to remember that for the duration of our stay -- trailed behind us again as we proceeded downstairs to the grand ballroom. As we descended the grand staircase, I was very nearly overwhelmed by the sheer number of people in the room. I hadn't been in the presence of so many ordinary humans since... Well, come to think of it, since that business with the "Imperial Crystal" at Princess Diamond's ball, where Almandite, or Molly, as she had still been then, had first introduced me to her mother. A lifetime ago. I'd been a completely different person.

I made a quick scan of the crowd. No Queen Serenity, and I'd seen enough pictures of Serena's past-life mother that I was fairly sure that I would recognize her, even though I'd seen her in person only once, and that under rather trying circumstances.

Not for the first time, I wondered if this would work. Even if we made contact with Serenity, and she agreed to do whatever was necessary to make Serena the anchor point for the ancient ward, was there enough of Serenity's daughter the Moon Princess left in Serena to make it possible? Or were we going to discover that all of this had been an incredible waste of time?

<<Would you like to dance?>> Almandite's question held a wistful tone that told me that I'd been ignoring her again.

<<I'm sorry,>> I told her as I led her out into the center of the floor. <<It's just-->>

<<--we're here on business, and you're distracted. I know. But since we're just marking time and waiting for Serenity to turn up right now, do you think you could give me your full attention for the next few minutes, at least?>>

I looked deep into her eyes, and willed myself not to think about Serenity, or demons, or anything else, only the dance, and the woman in my arms, the beautiful impossibility who was my wife.

<<That's better,>> she stated with satisfaction, and, as the music slowed, pulled my head down to steal a quick kiss.

Unfortunately, it was just at that moment that the screaming started and the music jangled to a discordant stop.

<<What the--?!>> we both asked, more or less in unison.

<<Whatever it is, we'd better find out,>> I stated grimly. It was easy to tell what direction we had to go in to find the source of the disturbance. The problem had to be in the place that everyone else was trying to leave. And so we fought our way upstream.

When the crowd had cleared out of our way, we were left at the center of an open area comprising roughly half the ballroom. Over against the far wall, there were three more people. One, a young man, was lying unconscious on the ground. The second, a youma, was standing over him. The third, Serena, was pinned against the wall by the second. She was glaring back at the youma defiantly, and one hand was moving upward toward the locket containing the Silver Crystal as she drew in a deep breath.

<<We have to stop her!>> If Serena revealed herself prematurely, I wasn't sure what would happen, but I doubted it would be good.

"Hey, you!" Almandite shouted at the youma -- in modern Japanese, as it happened, but I doubted that it mattered. The youma didn't turn away from its prey, but Serena was distracted and froze without beginning her transformation sequence. Damn! It's probably mistaken her for Serenity! Not too much of a stretch, if you ignored the fact that Serena's hair was gold and her mother's was silver. "Look at me when I'm talking to you!" My wife raised her hand, no doubt to fling some of her trademark darts of light at the creature.

Twang...

Desperately, I tackled Almandite to the floor, but I'd recognized the soft sound a fraction of a second too late. The arrow slammed into her upper right arm, pinning it to her body. An arrow of light. Magic. Negaverse magic, I realized. Idiot! A youma wouldn't be sent to work alone here! It has to have a controller!

I lowered my wife gently to the floor. <<I'll be back in just a minute, love,>> I told her. I was well and truly enraged now.

A negligent wave of my hand destroyed the youma. I wasn't interested in it anymore. The arrow must have come from up there. Most of the people on the grand staircase were staring at the events down here, but there was one man who was looking down and away from both me and the dead youma. Eyes blazing, I sprang at him, knocking him over backwards. Other people went flying out of the way.

"You are going to regret what you've just done," I said. "In fact, by the time I'm done with you, you're going to regret that you were ever born."

He snarled at me and used what I recognized as one of Zantisa's favorite tricks to try to break my grip on his throat. Unfortunately for him, I knew that one, and the counter, but it was sufficient to make me focus on his face instead of my rage. He looked familiar. Very familiar. I smiled. Slowly. For the first time, he began to look a bit worried.

"Well," I purred. "If it isn't Achroite, General of the Negaverse." Ex-General, by the time Malachite and Jadeite and Zoisite and I had been captured, actually, but he'd made a wonderful piece of statuary after Beryl had frozen him in Eternal Sleep. "You know, I don't think I'm going to take you apart with my bare hands after all. In fact, I'm going to send you home."

Calling a Warp was simplicity itself. I watched Achroite's face while I did so, and saw his expression shift from worry to incomprehension to surprise to terror.

"Who are you?" he whispered.

I smiled. "You'll never know." And then I tossed him through and closed up the hole behind him.

I glanced around and realized that everyone was staring at me, shrugged a little, and vaulted over the railing to land on the floor below. I then pushed my way through the crowd that had begun to gather around Almandite and Serena. Humans. Too many damned humans! I'll be glad to get out of here!

"Are you going to be all right?" I asked, kneeling by my wife's side. A man in a servant's uniform, with the insignia of a minor healer-mage, was trying to examine her, and she was trying to wave him away. He was the one who actually answered my question, though.

"The damage is not serious. I'm more afraid that the shock may cause her to miscarry."

Miscarry?

But it's Serena that's pregnant, not my wife. Isn't it?

<<I wanted to tell you, but I was afraid that you'd get overprotective and make me stay behind,>> her voice said inside my mind. <<Now I wish that I had, and you had. Stupid of me...>> And her eyes slid shut. She was only unconscious, not dead. I could tell. But it was still worrisome.

"What has happened here?"

I forced myself to look up and meet Queen Serenity's eyes as her assembled subjects parted to let her through.

"Your Majesty," I said, "we must speak to you in private." And I glanced pointedly at Serena.

Serenity's eyebrows rose. "I shall be interested in what you have to say, my lord."

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