The Wars of Light and Shadow: An Ill Fate Marshalling

Chapter 21

© 1999 by E. Liddell


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Cuprite

The 30th Century

"Rise and shine -- we have to get out of here! Cuprite?"

"Zo'site? Too tired. Have to rest..." I felt as though my bones had turned into gelatin. Even opening my eyes would have been too much effort.

Zoisite growled a curse, and kicked me in the ribs. Hard. Exhausted or no, my eyes snapped open.

"Hey! Did you have to do that?"

"Apparently, and if you don't get up right now, I'm going to do it again. Several times."

"Sadist," I accused as I used the staff and his extended hand to pull myself to my feet. I almost fell again before he pulled my arm up and across his shoulders.

"And don't you forget it," Zoisite replied as we shuffled across the floor.

Makes me glad I don't know what he and Malachite do in bed, I thought fuzzily. My traitorous imagination then produced an image of Zoisite dressed in tight black leather and holding a whip. I tried to ignore it.

I should have hated Zoisite for the way he was pushing me, abusing me, even. But I was beginning to understand a bit. Unlike me, Zoisite didn't lack physical courage, but he didn't seem to be all that comfortable in the role of leader. He was bullying me because it was the only way he could make himself feel like he was in charge. My God, an honest-to-goodness insight! There may be hope for me yet!

Just on the far side of another archway, Zoisite stopped and looked up.

"Wha' is it?" I managed to ask, and felt him shrug.

"Window, I think. Just a second." He lowered me to the ground, where I gratefully collapsed, curling myself around the staff.

Zoisite wasn't gone for nearly long enough. When he returned and prodded me in the ribs, I tried to respond and pull myself to a standing position, but I was just too weak.

"Damn you, Cuprite! I can't carry you up that wall! You're going to have to climb it on your own, or I'll just have to leave you here!"

With tremendous effort, I managed to achieve a kneeling position, then dragged myself to my feet.

"Damned f'I'm staying here," I muttered. There was a gentle warmth against my palms -- the staff, reassuring me. Magics are beginning to work again. Then maybe...

<<Help me!>> I tried to tell the staff.

It became warmer. A little strength trickled back into my limbs, and I was able to stand without leaning on the staff. But a grinding pain in my joints accompanied this renewed vigor. Figures. It can give me energy to replace what I'm losing, but it's good, and I'm... tainted, thanks to Malachite and his peculiar policies. And so it hurts like hell. But it's only for a few minutes. I can manage for a few minutes, can't I?

I gritted my teeth and walked over to join Zoisite near the wall.

"It's about ten feet, I think," he said. "We can't climb the wall, obviously, but I think the brackets holding this tapestry up -- " He tugged at the length of decorated cloth -- "are strong enough to support us. Since you're the lightest, you'll be going first."

I swallowed, and measured the distance. It looked like a lot more than ten feet to me. But I slid the staff through my belt, so that it was lying across my back -- an awkward position, but I needed both my hands free -- and jumped as high as I could manage, reaching out to grab a double handful of cloth.

The climb seemed to take forever, but I think it was only a few minutes later that I was pulling myself up onto the windowsill.

"Okay!" I called back down. Zoisite was beside me in seconds.

"Now what?" I asked.

"Are we far enough out yet to use the staff to enter the Timestream?"

I shook my head. "Even if we are, I'd need more room to maneuver." In the narrow confines of the window ledge, I doubted that I could even get the staff down off my back.

"Then we jump," Zoisite said.

"Are you nuts? One of us could break something!"

I heard the distinct sound of teeth grinding together.

"We do not," Zoisite said, with what I recognized as exaggerated patience, "have time to search for another possible exit. They may be looking for us already. Now --" And he pushed me off our precarious perch.

It is a bit silly, I suppose, I thought as I fell. I took on those two great big droids all by myself, and now I'm scared of taking a little tumble off a windowsill. I need to develop a sense of proportion. Or something. Then I landed. At some point while I was still trying to sort myself out and stand up, Zoisite landed beside me. On his feet, yet. It really wasn't fair.

Before he could say anything, I lifted the staff above my head. "Okay, here it goes."

Grayness boiled up around us, and we were in the Timestream.

"Here." Zoisite wrapped the jacket that he had borrowed back around my shoulders. He'd probably conjured clothing for himself the moment it became possible. "So how do we find them?"

"I don't know. Just a second." As before, when I'd fallen off the bridge, the area was crisscrossed with strands of light. A green one had led me to Zoisite. Might a white one lead us to Malachite?

There! A white and a dark red, clustered close together. That had to be it. I wrapped my free hand around them and began to walk.

Demantoid

April 10, 2002

What was that?

For a moment, as I glanced up from my book, I'd thought that I saw a shadow move. I snorted and looked back down at the page. This damned place is making me jumpy. There's nothing there except more weird-looking rock and a bookshelf.

I was reading through the recent administrative records of the Negaverse. Dry as dust, but if it turned out that Malachite was gone for good, I wanted to know what resources I had to work with here. At least the white-haired King required meticulous record-keeping. And he reviewed at least some of the records personally. I kept on finding marginalia in what I thought was his handwriting, although I didn't recognize the language -- probably something human from the Silver Millennium.

Flicker.

Now, I'm sure I didn't imagine it this time. There's someone or something in here with me. The question is, why? To watch me? Given the general level of paranoia around here, Malachite may have thought that he needed to keep an eye on me. I think I'll --

Something cold and very narrow touched the side of my neck. I stiffened. I could just see the point of the knife now at my throat out of the corner of my eye.

"Don't move," whispered a voice. "If you're quiet and obedient, I'll let you die quickly. Otherwise, I can promise you that it'll be slow, and messy... and painful. Now stand up. Slowly."

As I understand it, this was the moment at which the hero of a human popular entertainment would have said, "You aren't going to get away with this," or words to that effect. I, on the other hand, was more interested in not getting my neck sliced than in grandstanding. I stood up, slowly, being careful to keep my hands where I thought they would be visible to my unseen captor.

<<Just go along with her. No, don't try to find me! I should get a clear shot as you head for the door.>>

I suppressed a frown. That had sounded... like a child?

<<There'll be time for introductions later, Great-Uncle Dem. Right now, there's someone down there who wants you to pay attention to her.>>

"I said move!" hissed my captor. "Are you deaf?"

I shuffled slowly toward the door. I wasn't permitted to stop until my nose was almost up against it.

"Open it!"

As my hand touched the handle, I heard a thunk and a grunting sound from behind me. The cold metal of the knife's edge fell away from my neck.

"Okay, it's safe now," piped the child's voice that I had heard in my mind before. I turned around just in time to see a Crystal Weaver girl perhaps two or three years old slip down off the top of the heaviest bookshelf. Walking over to the body of the youma that had attacked me, she pulled a star-shaped piece of metal -- shuriken, I believe they're called -- from its back.

"You've gotta be more careful," she added, and shot me a gamine grin.

<<Demantoid? Aventurine? Are you all right?>> Amber seemed worried.

<<We're -->> I began.

<<-- fine, Mom,>> my young savior concluded. <<But you're going to have to send someone in here to clean up.>>

The door swung open, nearly slapping me in the nose. "Thank god," Amber said as she surveyed the room. It was on the tip of my tongue to ask her which one, but I didn't.

"Does this happen often?" I said instead.

"Not so much anymore," my brother's daughter replied. "When I first came here, before Aventurine was born, there were attacks every few weeks, but most of the renegade youma are dead now. Actually, I suspect that I should revise that to, 'All of the renegade youma are dead,' judging from the number that have died here tonight. They must have thought that, with Malachite and the others gone, we'd be easy targets."

The more fool them, I thought, shivering a bit as I looked from the mother's face to the daughter's. They wore identical, slightly malicious expressions, and, for a moment, I thought I saw a demon's power shadowing Amber's eyes. She did not seem the least disturbed by the thought that she'd assisted in the killing of -- how many? Dozens, most likely -- of sentient beings tonight, or that her daughter had also killed.

I'd thought that I was beginning to understand these people. Obviously, I was wrong.

Pyrope

No Time

I had been trudging at Malachite's heels through the peculiarly indefinite series of caves that supposedly concealed the primary demon ward for what seemed like hours. The king of the Negaverse had refused to even look at me, much less speak to me, since he had discovered that I was not Zoisite. Nor had I made any attempt to make conversation. I didn't want to make him any angrier at me than he already was.

He must hate me now. And I deserve it. I sighed. He was still just as devastatingly attractive as I'd first thought him. And he'd never be mine, even if Zoisite never returned from Crystal Tokyo.

I rubbed at my temples as I tried to drag my mind back up above waist level. My headache wasn't helping my mood or my concentration. And there was absolutely nothing I could do about it. There were two forces at war inside me: the imperative that Wise Man had imposed on me, which required me to serve the Dark Moon, and Zoisite's order to protect Malachite. The headache was just the physical spillover from that conflict.

In front of me, Malachite abruptly came to a stop as the tunnel ended in a blank wall. Preoccupied, I nearly walked into him.

"Is there something wrong, my Lord?" I managed to ask.

To my surprise, he actually answered. "I don't know. Something's certainly odd, though. We should have come to some additional obstacle by now. Instead, nothing. Just more tunnels. And I'd swear that I've seen this particular dead end before."

"We're lost," I concluded gloomily.

Malachite shook his head. "Oh, I know how to get back the way we came. But I'm damned if I can find a way through all of this."

"Well, maybe we aren't supposed to find a way through at all," I said slowly.

"Go on."

"This entire place seems a little too definite for something located in the middle of the Timestream. It doesn't make sense." There was an idea nibbling at the back of my mind, but, as usual, it wouldn't come clear until I talked my way through everything leading up to it.

"And the tests that we've experienced so far haven't been anything that a lucky, well-equipped human couldn't have gotten through," Malachite added thoughtfully. "So it follows that the real test is something else. And if you're right, and all of this is an illusion, then the only way out is to break it." He seemed to stare into space for a moment. A hand reached out to tap the wall in front of him. Then he turned to me.

"I wonder," he said. "How much can I trust you?"

Malachite

"With your life, my Lord," came the instant answer, but I wasn't listening. I wouldn't have believed anything he told me, anyway. Zoisite had said that I could trust him. Was he right? And, in any case, did I have a choice but to go ahead with what I planned?

There are always choices, I reminded myself. I could admit failure, and go back. Or I could choose to risk this without hedging my bets.

Pyrope and I stared at each other for at least a minute, neither of us speaking. Then I reached up and removed the two spirit crystals I wore. I couldn't believe that I was going to place not only my life, but Zoisite's as well, in the hands of this lying Dark Moon impostor. But if we had misjudged, and the caves were real, I might easily kill myself and shatter both crystals by doing what I planned next.

"Take these," I told him, and thrust them into his hands. "Go back around the last couple of bends, and wait for me there."

He nodded and trotted away, holding the crystals by their chains. So.

I waited for a minute or two, until I was certain that he was out of harm's way. Then I began.

My cape was carried upward by the wind as I gathered my powers. I would have liked to have my entire Weave behind me, but if the ward against the demons was made to be maintained by a single Crystal Weaver, then it should be possible for me to break this spell without help. I hoped.

I focused all of my attention on the wall in front of me. I still couldn't find anything about it that said to me, This is false; this is an illusion. But if I didn't act on that assumption, our quest would end here.

I placed both hands on it. The stone was rough and cool under my hands, just like stone should be.

Then I let my power explode outwards as I denied its reality.

The ground shook under my feet. From somewhere far away, I heard someone calling my name.

<<Stand fast and wait,>> I returned, unable to concentrate on anything outside of myself for long enough to identify the voice.

The light was almost blinding even with my eyes closed, but when it faded, the darkness of the cave's interior did not return. When I finally dared to look, I saw the misty grey plane of the Timestream.

<<Malachite! Next time you intend to do that, warn me! I was frightened out of my wits.>>

That voice! I discovered that I was holding my breath.

The familiar, luminous green eyes appeared a moment before the rest of him did. He stopped a few feet away from me and struck a pose.

<<Miss me?>> he inquired coquettishly.

<<ZOISITE!!!>> I crushed him against my chest, feeling the ache as I squeezed just a little too hard. Neither of us cared. But I was regretting that I hadn't dared breathe for a good thirty seconds before we began to kiss.

<<Are you all right?>> I asked him.

<<I am now.>>

Someone cleared his throat. I glanced to my left, then extended a hand, in which Pyrope deposited the two spirit crystals that I had entrusted to him. He then bowed very low and stepped back, placing himself beside Cuprite, who was hanging onto his staff with a death grip. I drew breath to say I know not what, but was interrupted.

<<At last, you're here! I've been waiting for a very long time.>> The voice was that of a stranger.

I pulled Zoisite close to me, protectively.

<<Who's there?>> I asked.

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