A Shadow of All Night Falling - Part 1: Mother of Demons

(August 30-September 13, 3023 AD)

Chapter 1

© 2000 by E. Liddell

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"Are you sure we should be here?"

I grinned as I helped my sister up and over a huge block of stone that had been part of the decaying tower. "Don't worry about it. I've been poking around here for years, and no one's ever said anything."

"I'm surprised you haven't broken your neck." The wind blew Opal's hair into her eyes, and she had to pause and claw strands of pale bluish green out of her face.

"It helps if you aren't wearing skirts." I was more sensibly dressed, in a battered, stained pair of grey trousers that had once been half of one of my uniforms, and a plain shirt. Not that you'd catch me dead wearing a skirt, or even a kilt. I'm not a cross-dresser. And, although I wear my hair long, like the majority of Negaverse Generals, I also have the sense to tie it back.

"You've got to admit that there's something to be said for the view," I said, flinging out one arm in a sweeping gesture. The citadel occupied the highest point in the ancient city, and from this vantage point we could see most of it spread out below us. The pattern of the streets and the design of the surviving buildings struck a sort of chord in me. Even though my ancestors had lived on Nemesis for a thousand years -- and in the Negaverse for most of a generation, now -- there was something about this place that made it feel like home, or at least like it could have been home. I suppose that made sense. This was the Crystal Weaver city, after all. This was a part of our heritage.

Opal must have picked up some of that through our Weave-link, because she said, "This place has been dead for two thousand years, Zircon. The Negaverse is our home."

I shrugged. "Strange that you'd say so. I'd have thought that you, if anyone, would be able to feel it." Opal's particular magical gift is what the humans used to call psychometry, which means that she picks up emotional resonances and sometimes even full-fledged visions from things that she touches. The stones here had to be telling her something.

"I've been blocking everything out. Remember, the last thing that happened here was a war. I don't want to feel all of those people dying."

I could understand that, I guess. The crumbled tower that we were climbing over and the swath of glassy fused rock beside it were more than adequate indicators of how this place had died. I'd never told anyone, but in one of those glassed-over expanses, over on the other side of the city, I'd seen a skeleton trapped just below the surface, one hand cupped over its chest in what looked like a vain attempt to protect its spirit crystal. I remember scrambling back when I saw it, and raising my own hand to a similar position. It had taken the feel of my own crystal under my fingers to steady me.

I guess most people would be surprised to realize that, despite living in the Negaverse all my life, I hadn't really had all that much contact with death. I was born in the thirteenth year of the Crystal Millennium, almost a decade after the Dark Moon War, and we hadn't been involved in a major conflict since. I'd certainly never had to kill anyone. Youma were executed from time to time, but Lord Zoisite always invoked his privilege as a Senior and did the dirty work himself. I'd watched a few of those, as part of my training, but it had never quite seemed real, somehow. That skeleton, on the other hand...

"Hey! Earth to Zircon! I thought you wanted to show me something, little brother."

"Sorry, I must have spaced out for a moment, there. This way."

It was easier going once we got down off the crumbling stone that had once been a tower and were walking through what had once been a courtyard. There was a bit of soil accumulating in the corners now, and a few tenacious weeds clung there, but it was really surprisingly undamaged for a construction that had been abandoned more than two thousand years ago. Ancient preservation spells clung to some parts of this city even more tenaciously than the weeds. Some of the buildings were crumbling piles of collapsed stone blocks, it was true, but others were completely intact. Some were even furnished, and I'd found one, a few blocks south of the citadel walls, that didn't need more than a little airing out to be perfectly habitable. I'm serious. There wasn't a bit of dust anywhere, the beds were all made, the closets were full of clothes (that, unlike the few other specimens I'd found, didn't crumble off the hangers when touched by a breath of wind), and there was a stasis field in the kitchen downstairs with a freshly plucked goose and some vegetables inside. As far as I could tell, they were unspoiled and would have been perfectly edible if I'd dared to take them out. Whoever set that place up must have been really good at household spells. My mother would probably have approved.

We passed through the main doors of the citadel and into the darkness of the hallway beyond. When we reached the edge of the little circle of daylight that the doors permitted inside, I pulled out a portable light globe, which is sort of the Negaverse answer to a flashlight, and stroked it into life. If I'd just been showing Opal through the upper levels I wouldn't have bothered -- there were windows here and there, and they admitted enough light for Crystal Weaver eyes -- but we were going downstairs, into a maze of corridors that hadn't been lit for over two thousand years, and conjured light was unreliable around here, as I'd discovered to my considerable dismay on more than one occasion.

Walk a hundred paces forward, then turn to the left and climb down the staircase, I prompted myself. Then left again, right, right, left, here's the shaft...

"See why I didn't want you to wear those skirts?" I asked my big sister as we gazed down it. To human eyes I suppose the darkness at the bottom would have made it seem infinitely deep, but we two could see where the ladder clamped to the side of the perfectly round hole ended, about thirty feet down, and I even fancied that I could see my old footprints in the dust, leading away from it.

"What's down there, anyway?" she asked.

I shrugged. "It's kind of like a labyrinth. The thing I wanted you to see... it's a door."

"You brought me all this way and expect me to climb down that thing just to look at a door? Zircon, I thought you were twenty years old, not two!"

"Twenty-one," I corrected. Youngest Crystal Weaver in the Negaverse, unfortunately. No one ever takes me seriously, you included. "And this isn't just any door. It's special. Sealed with Adamant's personal seal, if you're willing to believe what Demantoid told me."

Opal snorted. "Probably just where the old Crystal Weaver Council kept its slush fund. I'm out of here."

<<Wait!>> I called as I felt her gather herself to teleport. "You're not listening to me," I added rapidly. "I said Adamant's seal. Not the Council's. They were different." I knew that for certain -- I'd badgered Demantoid for all the details he remembered about our history often enough. "Whatever's down there has been there for twenty-five hundred years at least. It might even provide a clue to where Adamant went after he hid the Ward anchor in the Timestream. Opal, this could be the most important historical and archeological discovery of the Crystal Millennium!"

"Zircon, we have no idea what's behind that door. There might be a demon down there, for all we know! A powerful one! Open that door, and poof! Bye-bye, Mr. Amateur Archeologist, and his sister, too. No. I'm not helping you open it."

Just like everyone else. She thinks I'm a reckless idiot like Morgan, just because I come here in my off-time to try to figure a few things out about where we came from!

"I don't want to open the door," I explained with exaggerated patience. "I just want you to lay your hands on the outside and see if you can pick up any resonances from the person who sealed it. Please, Opal."

She frowned, then shrugged. "All right, but don't let your hand so much as drift in the direction of the doorknob, or I'll be out of here so fast your head will spin."

"Fair enough," I said. "Now, do you want to be the first down the ladder, or shall I?"

<<I don't understand why you didn't just teleport us straight to the place you wanted to go, instead of forcing me to do all this climbing around,>> she grumbled as we descended.

<<Drifting teleport wards,>> I replied. <<There were a lot of them down here, and some of them have become detached from their anchors due to lack of maintenance. After getting bounced a few times, I decided it was easier just to do the climb.>> I wasn't about to tell her about the time that I'd gotten bounced into a locked room with a one-way ward designed to keep people on the inside. Judging from what was left of the furniture, it had been meant as a nursery or something -- keeping a Crystal Weaver child out of trouble requires some pretty hefty precautions. But the window had a heavy metal grating over it, and the door had been locked with no keyhole on that side (or perhaps it was just really, really stuck -- I never found out for sure), and I couldn't get out. Eventually, my panic had raised my powers to such a level that I'd been able to blast through the door despite the lingering spells that had protected it.

I'd never told anyone about that, and thankfully it had been before I'd become joined to my Weave, three years ago. Marcasite, as our Center, would have known right away that I'd gotten myself in trouble, and I'd never have heard the end of it, even though I'd managed to get myself out of it without any help.

Opal was waiting for me at the bottom of the ladder, examining the many trails of footprints suspiciously. <<How often have you been down here, anyway?>>

<<Couple of dozen times in the last month,>> I admitted. <<There's no danger that I've ever been able to detect -- it's just a mess of tunnels, a lot of them natural, from the looks of it.>> I'd stuffed the light globe down the front of my shirt to free my hands for the climb. I brought it out now, and held it up so that we could both see the marks on the tunnel walls. <<Just follow the blue markings.>>

We walked for ten minutes in total silence. I must admit that, even though I knew it wasn't dangerous, there was something about this place that seemed to require silence. As though there were something down here that didn't want to be disturbed.

The soft glow of the seal on the doors was visible from quite some distance away. Once we spotted that, we no longer had to look at the blazes I'd left on the walls.

I caught Opal glancing at me in disquiet several times as we got closer. Once she stopped for a moment, and trailed her fingers along the wall.

<<What is it?>> I asked, watching her expression change.

<<I... don't know. It's almost like the stone down here has been deliberately cleansed of emotional residues. But under that, there's the faintest touch of ...resignation? Now, why would that be?>>

I was only able to shake my head.

A sealed double door confronted us as we turned the last corner. Splayed across it was a familiar glowing symbol: a pentagram, but this one was set in the middle of a square, and each corner of the square held a different, completely incomprehensible symbol.

Opal walked a few steps farther down the tunnel than I did, stopping less than a foot in front of the doors.

<<Are you sure this is safe?>> she asked.

I shrugged. <<Well, I don't see why it wouldn't be.>>

We stared at each other for a moment. Then my sister turned back toward the sealed portals and raised her hand, planting it squarely in the center of the pentagram.

<<So, you've come at last.>> The voice resonated to me along the Weave-link that I shared with Opal, but it wasn't hers. I could feel our other Weavemates stirring, their voices all merging as they asked the same question simultaneously.

<<What the hell?>>

<<Opal, Zircon, what have you been dabbling with?>> our Center asked.

<<Not now, Marc,>> I responded. Normally, I would have been glad to answer his question, but right now, I was more curious about the voice that was coming from the door.

<<Come inside,>> it told us. <<Quickly! Before you attract its attention.>>

The seal seemed to implode, and the door swung open under Opal's hand. The shadows around us seemed much colder all of a sudden, and I felt a prickling sensation at the back of my neck, as though I were being watched. I very nearly pushed Opal through the door ahead of me and into the room beyond, grabbing the doors' handles and swinging them firmly shut behind us.

I could sense that it wasn't just our Weavemates, Marc and Morgan and Cass, watching us now. No, there were others as well. At least a dozen. I tested the most powerful mind for its signature. Cold and slippery and sharp enough to cut... Gods of Darkness, that's the *King*!

<<Indeed,>> the dry reply came. <<Marcasite reported to me the moment you began hearing voices. I suspect this may be important to us all. Tell me what you see.>>

<<I... It looks like a chapel, my King, with an altar at the far end and what look like the remains of candlesticks and an incense burner,>> I replied. <<There's a lot of dust on the floor...>> Dust heaped up in one specific place right in front of the altar. And when you're dealing with Crystal Weavers or other magic-enhanced beings, large amounts of dust are as likely as not to mean a body.

There was something roundish and solid lying on top of the pile, but it was half-buried, and I couldn't tell what it was. I reached out a hand...

<<Don't touch that,>> Malachite snapped. <<Give me a location fix. I'm coming to you.>>

<<My King, I'm not certain that's wise-->> I began.

<<Perhaps not, but it appears to be necessary.>> The last word hadn't yet faded from my mind when Malachite materialized in the room with us. His cape flared as he bent down beside me, swirling the dust and revealing something that flickered with a faint internal light. Malachite picked the circular thing up and burnished the dust off it with the hem of his cape. The shrouded, tarnished form resolved itself into a gold armring with a pale crystal set into it. The stone itself was damaged, chipped, and it was from it that the fitful light had come.

<<Adamant's spirit crystal,>> Malachite observed. <<Apparently this was his final resting place. What I don't understand is why. What kind of danger could he have been in here, underneath his people's greatest stronghold? And what did this to his crystal?>>

A little gasp from Opal drew our attention away from the armring and over to the center of the room, where an image was forming.

It looked like a bad recording, constantly breaking up. It was just barely coherent enough that I could tell that the person in it was a man, an inch or so shorter than myself, wearing a gold armring. Most of his face was hidden behind long strands of multicolored hair, but what little I could see looked haggard.

<<Ma...chite! ...must...>> it broke up for several seconds after that, and all I heard (and apparently, all the others heard) was a sort of formless noise in my mind, like thought-static. Then, <<...I've hidden...in...safe place... future depends on...>> And the image shattered into shards of white light.

I turned to Malachite. <<My King, was that who I think it was?>>

<<It was Adamant,>> he confirmed. <<I just wish I knew what he was trying to tell us. It was obviously very important.>> He was turning the armring with its damaged crystal over and over in his hands. Then he sighed. <<I don't know if there's any chance of resurrecting him from this, but we'd better take it back with us. Come on.>>

He and Opal teleported away immediately, leaving me alone in the little sealed room with the pile of dust that had once been a man. I sighed and picked up the incense burner from the altar, wiping it clean on my sleeve. Somehow, I'd been expecting gold or platinum. Something precious, anyway. But it was made of copper, covered with verdigris under the dust. There was a design etched into it, but it was crude. I suddenly had the feeling that the objects on this altar were very old indeed, and I set the burner down with reverence. I wanted to examine it, and everything else in the room, more closely, but I knew that it wouldn't be safe to linger here, and even though I'd probably never be permitted to come back here, it still didn't seem right to take anything with me. Not when this place had probably been sacred.

I had that prickling feeling at the back of my neck again, and turned to face the doors. The shadows around them seemed a lot thicker all of a sudden, almost as though darkness was oozing through the crack between them.

But that's ridiculous, I told myself as I teleported. Darkness doesn't ooze. Gods know that I've seen enough of it, living in the Negaverse.

But I was wrong. Normal darkness doesn't ooze, no. But there are creatures that may choose to manifest themselves as darkness -- or as light, for that matter, or as anything else they please. And this one was due to run quite a gamut of manifestations by the time it was done.

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