Choices - Chapter 2

© 1999 by E. Liddell


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Jasper

I spent most of the night staring into the darkness that hid the rest of the room and listening to the sound of Mina's breathing, with my back and shoulders itching like mad. I reached back more than once to pull out a loose feather and toss it to the floor beside the bed. I would be glad when this was over and I was able to sleep nights again. There are times when having wings is purest hell.

I gave up on sleep long before what would have been dawn in the Earth Realm -- a dawn which I never saw. There is no sun in the Negaverse, and so we use Tokyo's calendar to keep time basically by default.

My feet got tangled in a discarded item of clothing as I rose from the bed, and I swayed and flapped for a minute or so, not wanting to fall and wake Mina but unable to get myself loose. My own fault for not making sure that everything ended up in the laundry basket... Not that I'd taken the time to think about such things last night. Mina always tried to be extra-nice to me during my molts.

I stroked the globe beside the bed and called up just enough light to see by, which was so little that no human would ever have noticed it, and disentangled myself from what turned out to be my discarded jacket. Then I looked down at Mina.

Asleep, she seemed almost as young as she had been when I'd first met her. Well, not that she'd looked young to me then. I'd been a mere child, about half her age. But now... Now I could see the beginnings of laugh lines forming on her face. She was thirty-two, whereas I was physically frozen somewhere in my mid- or late twenties. She'd get older gracefully, I was sure, but she would get older. And I wouldn't.

I'd never admitted to her that I sometimes worried about that. I didn't want to destroy the few, fragile years of happiness that we were destined to have together. She wasn't a Crystal Weaver, and couldn't touch my mind. And I am a Negaverse General, accustomed to keeping secrets. I intended to keep that one from her for the rest of her life.

I sometimes wondered how Sapphire felt about his relationship with Prisma. They would have to face the same problems as Mina and I, some day. But I'd never quite gotten up the courage to ask.

I teleported a fresh uniform out of the wardrobe and into my hand, and headed for the shower.

When I emerged from the bathroom, half-dressed, struggling into my shirt and with my jacket floating along behind me when I remembered to levitate it, Mina was sitting up, stretching and yawning.

"Oh, you're hopeless!" she said, seeing my antics. Then she flashed me a smile and came to help.

I suppose that's what made my relationship with Mina so solid. After ten years of marriage, we were still friends, and, when the differences in our status didn't prevent it, partners. I'm not about to underestimate the importance of that, given the way the two of us had seen Rae's marriage to Chad blow up because of the way she treated him. They'd finally divorced three years ago. Anyway, I'm convinced that friendship does a lot more to make a marriage work than love does.

"So what are you up to today?" she asked. Her job as a Sailor Scout, of course, is always the same, so I don't bother to ask in advance. All I have to do is check Queen Serenity's itinerary to figure out where my wife will be. It's at the end of the day that we talk about her work, tell each other stories about palace life and the youma and how much easier it would be if we became accountants.

"Customs. With Morgan," I added, and made a face. Morgan Stanton, AKA Morganite. Not my favorite working partner. Ever since Malachite had decided that I was too valuable to be wasted as my father's junior partner, it seemed like I'd been paired with all the worst duffers in the Negaverse. Oh, Morgan is competent enough when he tries, but... Anyway, I wasn't looking forward to the morning.

"Hey, don't complain. At least you get to be in one place and off your feet most of the time. Serena's giving audiences today, so I'm going to be standing around in the Throne Room. In those damned heels, yet."

I shrugged into my jacket, allowing her to fasten the collar at the back. The modifications that let me get my uniform on past my wings are inconvenient sometimes. I hope I never get promoted to Senior General. I'll have a very hard time finding somewhere to put the epaulettes.

"See you tonight," I said, and leaned down for a quick kiss. Mina was wandering toward the shower as I teleported away.

I wanted to get to my office -- or at least, the private office of the General-in-charge of the Customs office, although it wasn't really mine -- but fate seemed to be conspiring against me. First of all, Morganite got there late, and I felt obliged to chew him out. I am puzzled as to how Nephrite and Almandite could have produced such a child. He never takes his duties seriously. Then there was a problem with one of the warps. It was almost mid-morning before I managed to clear everything up and snatch a little time to be alone.

I had some misgivings when I logged onto the computer system. Cass is the only person I know who seems able to turn a completely innocuous idea into a total disaster through no fault of her own. And I knew that Zoisite had been working on something big lately. Something that he was trying to keep very quiet. Very few people knew exactly what was going on. My father, being Zoisite's Weavemate, was probably in the loop, but he didn't confide in me nearly as often as he once had. And I sure as hell wanted to know what was going on. If this youma had something to do with it, then maybe...

I put in my request for Taro Kagami's file.

The holographic display in front of me blanked for a moment, as it usually did when the computer was trying to make a connection to an exterior data bank. And then a red light began to flash and a siren went off.

Damn, Cass, what have you stumbled into this time? I'd have had to be deaf, blind and stupid not to recognize this as a Class One security alarm. Someone, probably Zoisite, wanted that file to stay locked up. Badly.

I closed my eyes, the better to concentrate on thinking up excuses. Zoisite, or whoever, was going to turn up soon, and I had to have something to tell him or them.

I didn't want Cass to get in any additional trouble.

Cassiterite

I got up early that morning, so that I could put in an hour of practice before breakfast. Before formal breakfast with the court, that was. On my way out of my room, I grabbed a mushroom globe out of the bowl by the door, kept stocked by youma servants even when I wasn't in residence. I wasn't overly fond of most of the fungi that were the staple diet of the Negaverse's lower classes, but these green spheres, with their mild, almost pear-like flavour, had always been a favorite of mine for some reason.

"Venus Star Power!" I mumbled past a mouthful of chewy green mushroom the moment I had passed through the Warp and entered the Crystal Palace. I had to repeat myself before the wand recognized the words and transformed me into Sailor Venus, Junior.

I never experience the feeling of heightened power that all the other Scouts claim comes over them during the transformation. Maybe it's because I'm a Crystal Weaver. Certainly the Crescent Beam, Meteor Shower, and Love Chain attacks that the wand conferred on me were a joke, compared to what I could summon using my own magic. I could have done the job without using the wand at all -- or wearing the annoying too-short skirt -- but that was unthinkable, counter to all tradition. Then again, so was the concept of a potential Negaverse General also being a potential Sailor Scout.

I jerked the hem of the skirt downward, in a futile attempt to cover my knees that was rapidly becoming habitual, and set off for the practice grounds. Once there, I checked the schedule to see where I was supposed to drill. The far range. Great. Stationary targets, long distance shooting... unrealistic and far too simple. And not interesting enough to distract me.

"Venus Crescent Beam Smash!" And another innocent target bit the dust. It was just so damned boring. I'd been doing these exercises in the Negaverse since I was four months old.

A wicked thought came over me, and I glanced at the observers' area behind me to make sure that I was alone. Well, why not?

I raised one hand over my head, and invoked my real power in conjury. Then I threw the object that I had created, shouting, "Venus Cream Pie Smash!"

It worked, too -- knocked the target right over in a rain of banana cream. Giggling, I knocked the last target over with a coconut cream frisbee.

"Isn't it a little too early in the morning to be on a sugar high?" inquired a voice from behind me.

Turning, I blushed bright red. "Sailor Uranus." I knew her real name, of course, but I wasn't supposed to use it while she was in uniform. Another ridiculous Crystal Tokyoan rule. Well, in her case I suppose it made sense, because she seemed to go out of her way to be mistaken for a man in her mundane persona, but it was pointless for most of the others.

"Was that pure silliness, or frustration?" she asked now.

I shrugged. "A bit of both, I guess."

"Ah." She actually did sound quite remarkably enlightened. "Want to talk about it?"

I glanced up, gauged the angle of the sun, and swore. "No, or at least, not right now. I'm late for breakfast."

"I'll see you later, then." She strode down the length of the practice yard to right the targets. I saw her scoop up a fingerful of banana cream, taste it, and raise an eyebrow, before I turned a corner and she was lost to my sight.

Breakfast was a bust, as it usually was at the Crystal Palace. I had to spend most of my time trying to remember the etiquette and table manners appropriate for dining among the nobility, and that didn't leave me with much time to eat. How Mom managed, I just don't know. After that, I was supposed to spend time with my tutor, but I stole a few minutes to detour to the private wing and check on Sumire.

I found her in my room, sitting at my desk and paging, with every sign of attentiveness, through my Protocol textbook. Well, she could have that one, for all of me. I hated it. But she put it aside immediately when I opened the door, and centered her attention on me.

"Did you find him? Is there any news at all?"

"I've asked someone to check on it," I replied. "It's going to take a little while, though. I think --"

"Delivery for Miss Aino-Tsumeta!"

My heart jumped up into my throat for a second. Then I recognized the voice.

"Morgan, you idiot! What do you think you're doing? Get in here!" Suiting actions to words, I dragged him inside the room and closed the door. "Aren't you supposed to be down at the customs office? Seems to me that you pulled duty there this week."

"Before I deliver your message, Cousin Cass, won't you introduce me to your charming companion?" Morganite smiled, showing a beautiful array of white teeth. He was dressed like a mundane today, in a blue-and-silver outfit that would almost, from a distance, match that of a Palace Guard.

I rolled my eyes. "Sumire, this is... Morgan Stanton." By the protocol rules of Crystal Tokyo, I had to introduce him that way unless he was actually in uniform. Odd, that he'd turn up here in civvies, but it did save me the trouble of explaining to Sumire how I knew a Negaverse General. "He isn't really my cousin, although his father is an old friend of my grandfather's. Morgan, this is Sumire Kagami."

Morgan bowed. "Honored," he said. Sumire blushed. I admit, Morgan is quite the package if you don't know what kind of reckless idiot he is. Marcasite, his twin, is fortunately as completely unlike him in personality as two people can get, as well as being the more powerful of the two. And they're fraternal twins, so no one has to worry about mistaking one for the other. Still, I had to break this up before Sumire drowned in my not-really-cousin's big blue eyes.

"So what was that message?" I asked.

"It's from your father. Evidently, when he tried to pull up 'the file you wanted', whatever that's supposed to mean, it set off alarms all over the place, and Zoisite turned up in his office in person. Your Dad managed to convince him that it was all a mistake and he'd accidentally punched in the wrong call code. After the Green-Eyed Menace left in a huff, I got sent up here to tell you."

"Thanks," I told him, drumming my fingers on the desk. I'm just one of those people who can never be still for more than a few seconds, I guess. "Thank Dad for me too, and tell him that I'm sorry he got in trouble."

It took a few seconds for Morganite to figure out that that was a good-bye. Then he bowed and smiled at Sumire again and walked out the door. I rolled my eyes.

To her credit, Sumire recovered fairly quickly. "So much for that idea, I guess. So what's the next plan?"

I flopped backwards onto the bed, glancing at the clock as I did so. Damn. Way late. Well, I guess in that case, a few minutes more won't matter. Maybe I'll just play hooky for the morning. Of course, they'll get on my case for being irresponsible, but don't they always?

"I don't know," I admitted. "But I don't think we're going to get anything useful out of the official records. It's a long shot, I admit, but maybe we should go to the Negaverse ourselves, and do a little poking around."

Sumire

I think my jaw was hanging somewhere down around my ankles. "You think we should what?"

"Go to the Negaverse," Cass said impatiently. "And see if we can find your brother ourselves. Lord Zoisite's lab would probably be a good place to start."

"That's what I thought you said." I rubbed my temples -- I was beginning to get a headache. "I don't think that it's a good idea," I added with a shudder. Be a good girl, or the Negaverse will get you! Even now that I was old enough to know better than that, it still wasn't very high on my list of places to visit -- a dim, grey land, populated only by monsters and Crystal Weavers, and run like a military camp. And she wanted to sneak around in there? I didn't even want to think about what the penalty for being caught would be. "Besides, they wouldn't let us past the border."

"They will if we set it up right," Cass corrected, rummaging in the closet. "There are two kinds of people who can cross the border without asking for permission: Sailor Scouts and Negaverse Generals. Which means that all we have to do is find some way of making it seem like you're with me... Here we are." The cloth in her hands was white and blue. When she shook it out, I realized that it was the uniform of a page here at the palace. "This should fit you reasonably well, since we're about the same size."

I swallowed and accepted the outfit. Why am I letting her talk me into this? I wish I could think of something else that stood a chance of working! Moment of truth: just how badly do I want to find my brother? The cloth was silky soft between my fingers. Badly, I realized. Taro, you'd better appreciate this.

"I'll go change," I said, and hurried off to the bathroom next door before she could say anything.

The clothes actually did fit pretty well, although the tunic was a bit baggy. It was good enough to be convincing to the casual observer, anyway. I still felt a bit silly, though, like a little girl playing dress-up. I think it was the white boots. No one wears white boots in real life.

Cass walked around me, inspecting, when I got back.

"You'll do," she said. "Let's go." And she had a grip on my arm again, and was pulling me out the door and down the hall. I actually had to run a couple of steps to avoid having my arm pulled out of its socket.

"What was it like growing up here?" I asked, when we'd reached a more populated area of the building and my native guide had been forced to slow down a bit.

"Lonely, mostly. And boring. I have a lot of lessons, but not a lot of time to do what I want to do..."

We talked a bit more about things like that: lessons, music, clothes. Boys. I'd thought her almost-cousin Morgan was gorgeous. Cass said that he was a good-looking zero, and had a number of stories to prove it. The one thing we didn't talk about was family. I did manage to gather from the oblique hints that Cass dropped that her mother was a Sailor Scout and that she didn't have any brothers or sisters. As for me, I'd already talked as much about Taro as I was going to, and my parents had been dead for ten years -- or about a thousand, depending on whether you were talking about subjective or objective time. They'd been flying home from a business trip when the ice had come, and their plane had fallen into the ocean. The wreck, like so many others, had never been found.

"Is that it?" I asked, indicating the big, grey building with a wave of my hand. We'd been walking for more than half an hour.

"That's it," Cass confirmed. "Now, follow me and don't say anything."

She let go of my wrist and strode up the front steps. I followed, a bit more slowly. It would almost have been easier if she had kept on towing me along -- at least I wouldn't have had the opportunity to chicken out -- but I guess it would have looked odd.

The inside was even greyer and gloomier than the outside. The only light in the foyer came from a series of greenish half-globes embedded in the ceiling and walls.

The room was almost empty. There was a desk at the far end that was manned (if that's the right word) by a female something that I didn't want to look at too closely, not when the greenish lighting made her skin look like it was a particularly ugly shade of khaki. Leaning forward, with both hands on the desk, and speaking to her earnestly, was a human-looking someone with long, red, wavy hair, wearing the grey uniform of a Negaverse General. Cass was ignoring both of them and making a beeline for a corridor that opened out to the left. Somewhat more timidly, I followed, but I couldn't help looking to the right now and again to see if either of them had noticed me.

I was almost safe, almost at the archway through which Cass had already passed, when I looked up to see that the General had turned in my direction. He straightened his red-gold-trimmed jacket, smiled engagingly, and winked at me.

Morgan? I mouthed, incredulous. There was no mistaking those brilliant blue eyes.

He nodded, and jerked his head in the direction of the archway in front of me, while the youma stared fixedly at a corner of the ceiling. He didn't have to hint twice. I plunged ahead, not stopping until I'd almost caught up with Cass.

Morganite, I'll bet, I thought as my partner in crime wrestled with a door. But if he's a Negaverse General, and she knows him that well... what does that make her? Especially given that, judging from what they said earlier, he works with her father. Here? She was pretty careful to avoid talking about her dad. Is he a youma? Great gods, I hope not. That would be... sick. Especially since her mother's normal. Or --

"Got it," Cass reported with satisfaction, and swung the door open.

The room on the other side was as huge and dimly-greenly lit as the lobby had been, but the one item of interest inside wasn't a desk, occupied or otherwise. It was a giant black hole that just hung there in the air, a few inches above the ground.

"What is that?" I whispered. Something in the situation seemed to call for whispering.

"It's a warp hole," Cass replied, in a normal tone of voice. "It's also our way into the Negaverse. Come on!"

She grabbed me again, which was probably just as well, since I was on the verge of running back out of the building. I swallowed, edged forward, and raised my left foot to step over the edge of the warp hole.

There was an instant of cold and blackness and a sensation vaguely like falling, and then we were in another big empty room with a warp hole. But the stone walls and floor of this room were veined with pulsing green lines, and the lighting, more purple than green, came from some sort of growth on the ceiling. Furthermore, the air tasted... not stale exactly, but wrong. Oppressive?

Cass grinned at me again.

"Welcome to the Negaverse," she said.

Mina

"Lita, have you seen Cass?"

"I thought she was with you," my friend replied.

I shook my head. "Not a sign. She wasn't with her tutor when I went to pick her up." Oh, Cass, what have you done now? A litany that ran through my mind so often that it was almost normal. It wasn't that Cass was irresponsible, or anything. In fact, she was very dutiful, and always had the best of intentions for everything that she did.

It was just that so many of her schemes turned out wrong.

"Call one of the servants to look for her, then. We've gotta get going." Lita was already striding toward the door. She just didn't understand. Oddly enough, boy-crazy Lita was the only one of us five original Scouts who had never so much as considered having children, possibly because she'd never found a man that she really wanted to have them with. Even Chad and Rae had considered children, before their violent breakup. Ami and Greg had a daughter, six years old now. Jasper and I had Cass. And Serena and Darien had Rini, of course.

I shook my head, flipped a strand of hair that had gotten into my face back over my shoulder where it belonged, and headed for the door myself. Cass is a Crystal Weaver, I reminded myself. She's capable of taking care of herself, even at her age. Most of the time. And if she hasn't shown up by lunch time, I'll send some of the servants to look for her. Maybe a few youma, too.

It didn't help that Jasper's pillow talk last night had mostly been about how he thought Zoisite was up to something. I'd gotten resigned to the fact that my husband was paranoid about his... co-workers, and that he'd proven, from time to time, that he was right to be paranoid. At least he considered me trustworthy enough to share his suspicions with, something made all the more incredible by the fact that we lived in such very different worlds.

The door opened on the throne room. More precisely, it was located in a little curtained alcove behind the throne, artfully concealed by blue and white draperies to make it invisible to newscasters. The only people who used it were ourselves -- the Sailor Scouts -- and the members of the royal family.

Lita had already positioned herself to the left of the throne. She had her communicator out, no doubt warning Serena that Cass wasn't here and so we'd need another ceremonial guard. I took up my position to the right of the throne, sitting down on the steps that led up to the dais. Maybe it wasn't all that dignified, but I was going to have to stand there all afternoon wearing these blasted high heels, and my feet hurt already. I really envied Lita those ankle-high boots of hers. I'll have to ask Jasper to ask Demantoid if there might be a way to reprogram our transformation tools a bit...

The door swung open again. "Heads up, guys! Here we come!"

I shook my head as I dutifully heaved myself to my feet. How can Haruka be so infernally cheerful about the prospect of having to stand here for hours, pretending to be alert? Oh, that explains it. Michiru emerged from the door right behind her lover. They hadn't originally been supposed to have the same duty cycle today. Cass's absence might turn out to be a blessing in disguise for them, giving them more time to be together tonight.

Serena and Darien emerged next. She was leaning on his arm and looked, if anything, even weaker than she had yesterday. I was getting more and more worried about her. Six months pregnant, and she had spent most of those months so far looking more than slightly grey-green. And her personal physician wouldn't talk to me. I kept on hoping that she'd let me convince her to let Almandite look her over, since the Crystal Weaver had been her attending physician when she'd been pregnant with Rini -- and was also her oldest friend. Maybe she'd be able to make Serena see sense. None of the rest of us had had much success.

The servants were about to throw open the doors at the front of the room. I stretched luxuriously one last time and took up the least objectionable variation of the ceremonial guard pose, trying not to worry about Cass or Serena.

It was going to be a miserable morning.

Zoisite

<<It's about time that you did this!>>

I shot Jadeite one of my nastiest glares, but didn't otherwise react to his comment. I suppose that, from his point of view, it might even have been deserved. I had been keeping him in the dark deliberately, nursing my wounded pride. I hate it when something happens that results in my being taken for a fool.

<<I didn't ask the damned thing to break out of its cell!>> I snapped as I pushed the door to my lab open.

I hesitated in the doorway. Something wasn't quite right. That stack of papers should have been where the astrolabe was, and I was certain that I hadn't left that book on the bench like that...

I shook my head. Probably just one of the youma cleaning staff. The experienced ones would be aware of my standing order to leave the shelves and tables and benches alone, but there might be a new one working here, given that my last lab assistant's employment here had been terminated rather abruptly. She'd had next to no training as a warrior, and had gotten herself skewered by a Dark Moon Droid. Since then, I'd been having Maintenance assign someone to clean the place once a month or so, which was how this mess had begun.

<<Has someone been tampering with your stuff?>> Alex asked from behind me.

<<I think so,>> I replied. <<It might be something perfectly innocent, but keep your eyes open, both of you. We were keeping him in here -->>

I pushed open the door to the little two-celled prison area that I'd used for my experimental subjects, back in Beryl's day. Then I froze, astounded.

"And just what do you think you're doing here?" I snapped.

Cassiterite

Maybe I should just have taken her down to the warp in the palace basement, but, selfishly, I wanted to keep my secret from her just a little longer. I was lucky that it had been Morganite, the practical joker, in the lobby, and not someone more conscientious or more senior. Anyone but Morgan would have turned me in, but he was willing to be an accessory if I chose to do something crazy like smuggle my human friend across the border.

Sumire had the strangest look on her face as I led her down the hallway, like she'd rather be almost anywhere else. If I'd known how frightened she was of this place, I might not have suggested this tactic. Oh, well, it was too late now...

A passing youma turned to stare at us. I glared at her, and she looked away and down again quickly. Lesser youma are easy to dominate, and this one wasn't even a warrior, just a member of the palace housekeeping staff, judging from her badge.

Okay, that probably gives us about two hours before she reports to someone, and who knows how long after that before her superior reports to Zantisa or Cuprite. It's a damned good thing that I brought us here through the emergency evacuation warp and not the main portal, or they'd have caught us right away. I glanced at Sumire. That page's uniform had seemed like a good idea at the time, but as usual, I hadn't been thinking far enough ahead. It stuck out like a sore thumb here.

"Where are we going?" Sumire whispered.

"Service area," I muttered back. "This is the main palace, and we need to get to the king's private residence. That means another warp, and the only one I know of is down in the service transit area. Well, there's another, but it's miles from here, and it's above ground, which we aren't dressed for. Me especially, in this stupid skirt."

Down a level. The glowfungus was thinner here, and although there were more youma, most of them were too busy hurrying along on their errands to have any time for staring at us.

A few minutes later, we found the warp and stepped through... into an area that wasn't much different from the one we had left. But I'd been expecting that. There isn't much to differentiate one section of tunnel from the others. Since I wasn't properly part of the Negaverse yet -- opinion was divided as to whether or not attuning me to the Negaforce's residue would make it impossible to become Sailor Venus -- I couldn't read the negative energy signatures that most inhabitants use as signposts, or at least, not without stopping and spending several minutes in deep concentration. Instead, I'd been forced to invoke a location spell, centered on Lord Zoisite's private laboratory. Hopefully, it wouldn't be detected.

Up one flight of stairs, then a second. By that time, I was wishing that I had dared teleport. Even if I hadn't wanted to keep my nature secret from Sumire, it wouldn't have been possible, though. Zoisite was known to set formidable wards against intrusions of that sort.

"Skip this step," I told Sumire, stepping over the third step from the top of the second flight of stairs. I didn't know what kind of trap it would have triggered, but I could sense that there was one there.

There was another trap on the door of the lab, but, once I was sure that no one was inside, I managed to deactivate it.

Inside, the room was a mess. Two walls were lined with tables which were littered with the weirdest assortment of debris I'd ever had the misfortune to lay eyes on. Crystals of all shapes, sizes, and colors, chemical apparatus, stacks of notes in Lord Zoisite's impossible handwriting, a silver bowl, an inkwell and quill pen lying beside a modern ball-point, and what might have been a small animal-type youma frozen in Eternal Sleep -- or maybe it was just a paperweight. Or both? That sounded a bit more like Zoisite's style.

The other two walls were lined with shelves, and here again there was a bewildering jumble of glassware, bottles and jars, and the odd book. Some of them very odd, from the looks of things. And then there was the deep pit in the center of the floor, blackened as though it were used as a fireplace, and bounded by some of the strongest wards I'd ever seen.

I looked at Sumire. The expression of dismay on her face was pretty well identical to mine.

"How are we ever going to find anything in here?" we said in near-perfect unison.

I thought about it for a moment, then sighed. "I guess we start with the most recent notes -- the ones that don't look like they were written with that quill -- what's it doing here, anyway? Surely they didn't use those during the Silver Millennium! -- and hope that we find something useful and that we can read it." Somehow I didn't feel very optimistic, though. "Try not to touch anything else," I added. "Gods only know what kind of spells are on most of this stuff."

Sumire nodded and went over to the nearest table. I headed for the other.

Half an hour later, I looked up from the pile of papers that I had been studying.

"This was a dumb idea," I admitted.

"I'm beginning to agree," Sumire said. "You know, with all the stuff I've heard about the Negaverse, I never expected that I'd be bored to tears so soon after getting here."

I snorted. "Life here isn't really all that different from life anywhere else. It's just a lot, well, rougher."

Sumire gave me a strange look. But before she could say anything, we both heard voices in the hallway outside the door.

"-- tampering --?"

"-- think so --"

"We've got to hide," I hissed. And there was nowhere in here to do so. We both bolted for the door in the far wall, the only other exit from the room.

It opened onto a narrow hallway that ran between two barred cells. From the left, a small, blue-skinned youma stared at us listlessly. The cell on the right was empty, its door standing open. Not that it could have held anything even if the door had been shut. Some extremely strong creature had twisted five of the bars into uselessness. On the stone floor within lay a shredded heap of cloth.

"I think..." Sumire whispered, stepping through the door and picking something from among the rags. A pendant, I think, on a broken leather thong. I didn't get a good look at it.

"This was his. Taro's."

"So he was here," I said thoughtfully.

<<We were keeping him in here -->>

I spun toward the door as Zoisite's voice resonated in my mind, only to fetch up face to face with him.

"And just what do you think you're doing here?" he snapped.

The Nameless

I lowered the unconscious human to the ground, not being especially careful to avoid damaging him. He was valueless even by the standards of these creatures, homeless and poor.

I snarled as the sun, swinging along its normal course from east to west, struck me in the eye despite the high walls of the alleyway. It burned my eyes. I needed better shelter, but this green-skinned youma body was too noticeable here, and I couldn't risk attracting the attention of the humans. I knew that instinctively, even though my memories of the time before the youma had shattered my prison were limited to dark emptiness and hatred.

I know a place.

I hadn't expected any help from the former tenant of this body, now crammed into the back of my mind where he would be out of the way.

Go on, I invited.

Well, it's like this...

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