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

(August 30-September 13, 3023 AD)

Chapter 11

© 2000 by E. Liddell


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Jadeite

I perched myself at the edge of the roof, leaning out at something approaching a dangerous angle. We'd just finished warding the Customs building, and if I closed my eyes and extended my senses, I could feel the youma tearing at each other in the dim interior. Our best, hand-picked troops. Dying.

Behind me, Alex was pacing, his bootheels clicking against the surface of the roof. He seemed unable to stop moving, as though standing still would give him too much time to think about what was happening below.

It was hitting him worse than it did me or even Amber. I'd just rolled up all of my hard-won compassion and sympathy into a little ball and locked it into a little compartment deep in my mind. I knew I would feel horrible when this was over and I allowed myself to feel again, but in the meanwhile, I was floating in a sea of cold detachment. I'm not sure if any of that was rubbing off onto Amber or not, or whether the fact that she'd never worked much with any of these youma, since her duties had little to do with the warriors, was insulating her a bit. But Alex had been my working partner ever since Malachite had promoted him to full General, and he was as familiar with our troops as I was. And he'd never been able to detach himself from the suffering of others -- he was a healer, after all, and compassion was part of his stock-in-trade.

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

<<I'll live. But I do wish I could get down to ground level. This would be a lot easier to take if I were in contact with the earth...>>

<<That isn't safe right now, but I could conjure up a potted plant for you...>> I suggested, and was rewarded with a tired smile.

<<It wouldn't help -- for some reason, rooting myself in isolated scraps of soil just doesn't work -- but thanks for the thought.>> He came over to seat himself beside me. But the expression on his face was still troubled. Usually, Alex comes across as... almost serene. His present emotional state was touching off alarm bells at the back of my mind, where I'd locked my feelings away for the duration.

Delicately, I prodded at the Weave-link that bound us together, trying to get a more accurate sense of what was happening behind his eyes.

Fear. But not for himself, or even for the youma downstairs. For... me? Why?

<<Something really is wrong, isn't it?>> I asked. <<Come on, Alex. Tell me. Why are you so worried about me?>>

Alex closed his eyes as a shudder ran through him. <<I...>> He went silent for a long while. <<Jay, when you just about went berserk, what was going on inside your head?>>

I closed my eyes as well. <<I don't know how to describe it to you,>> I admitted. <<It was like being sealed away behind a wall of glass. Or ice.>> Not unlike what I was doing to myself right now, actually, in a way, but the difference was that I was in control now. I hadn't been when I'd been going for Amber's throat. That had been... terrible. I hadn't even realized who it was that was in front of me until Alex had snapped me out of it. <<Like being controlled by the Negaforce, only worse,>> I added.

<<That's what I thought. It brought it all back, Jay. A thousand years of watching you fall apart, and not being able to do anything. I'm sorry. I thought I was over this.>>

I opened my eyes, reaching out and taking his hand in mine, squeezing gently. <<But this time you did do something, Alex. You stopped me. I'm not sure that anyone else could have done that, little brother. I owe you the life of one of the people I love most in the world.>>

He shook his head. <<You underestimate her sometimes. I think she was about to tear into you with her wrist spikes when I stopped you.>>

I raised my eyebrows, glancing over in Amber's direction. She really had come a long way from the little drab mouse-woman that I'd first met all those years ago, and Alex was right -- I did tend to forget that sometimes.

<<Nevertheless, you stopped me,>> I emphasized. <<You were able to act, not just watch. You'll never have to go through that again, Alex. I promise you.>>

He managed a tentative smile. <<Thanks, Jay. I'll hold you to that.>>

<<Guys?>>

<<What is it, Amber?>> I asked.

<<Someone in the alleyway.>>

<<So?>> The citizens of Crystal Tokyo knew nothing about what was going on tonight. There was no reason why one of them shouldn't be out here.

<<I think he was wearing grays.>>

<<You're kidding me.>> Except that I knew that she wasn't.

<<No. But I still can't figure out who it could possibly have been. He was too short and slender to be anyone from our Weave except maybe Zoisite, and I'm fairly sure he wasn't blonde.>>

<<Then who?>> Alex asked.

<<I don't know,>> Amber replied. <<Under other circumstances, I'd think it was Cuprite or Pyrope, but they're trapped on the other side, aren't they?>>

I swore. <<Maybe not. If one of them was taken over by that thing that almost got me, it's possible that he'd be able to navigate the pathways, distorted though they are... Damn. Alex, go check it out, will you? And don't be afraid to call for help if our mystery visitor turns out not to be alone.>>

<<Right,>> my brother stated tersely before vaulting over the low wall that guarded the edge of the roof. I didn't lean over to watch him drop. Seeing your baby brother fall three stories unsupported isn't pleasant even if you know that he has enough magic to keep himself from going splat at the bottom.

My wife came over to perch beside me in his place.

<<I expected you to go yourself,>> she observed.

<<He needs something to do.>> I didn't bother to add that I couldn't very well have sent her -- she was aware enough of her own inadequacies as a warrior and a magic-user that I didn't have to rub them in. Then, curious, I added, <<When I attacked you, were you really going to rip into me with these?>> I ran one finger lightly over the exposed spike of bone that protruded from her nearer wrist. The cuffs of her uniform jackets had to be specially designed to allow for them.

Only my Crystal Weaver night vision permitted me to see her blush. <<It was all I could think of to do. I didn't want to hurt you, but...>>

<<It's all right,>> I told her. <<I understand.>>

We were just leaning tentatively towards each other when I heard Alex's voice in my mind.

<<Jay, I think you'd better come down here and see this.>>

Demantoid

I'd been hunting for it for several hours now. Normally, the lower reaches of Beryl's palace were a good place to find anything extremely evil that wandered into the Negaverse, but this time I was coming up blank. Or rather, there was just too much evil down here for me to trace it to its center.

I was surrounded by clouds of cloying, choking blackness that I understood to be the physical manifestation of a very high-grade demon. Well, maybe understood wasn't quite the right word. I felt it on a level so deep that I could only call it instinctive. It was a call to battle, a challenge that I couldn't refuse or deny.

"Emni Khimno," I whispered. Against the Evil. A battle-cry so ancient that Adamant himself must have invented it. The definition of what we were, in the days before the Empyrean.

I may be in trouble here, I realized as I moved deeper into the darkness, layer upon layer of wards glowing about me and protecting me from it. This was the most powerful demon that I'd ever encountered. And what worried me the most was that it was ignoring me. Although I'm not exactly in Malachite's or even Nephrite's league, I'm still powerful -- I was a Center for several years, after all -- but this thing seemed to be convinced that I wasn't a threat to it. I didn't like that. I didn't like that at all.

I spent about a half-hour more wandering around without making much progress before I stopped and sat down in the middle of a hallway. Or at least, I thought it was a hallway, but since I couldn't see anything beyond the bounds of my own wards, I wasn't absolutely sure.

All right, let's think about this a bit. Presumably, the demon had settled down here for the same reason that other magical creatures were attracted to the area: it had wanted to use the concentration of magical energy down here in some way. Magic typically concentrates itself along certain natural... I suppose they could be termed weaknesses or fractures in space/time... and Beryl's palace happened to be built over a place where several of the Negaverse's more powerful magic flows intersected. I wasn't certain whether that was natural or had been engineered by the Negaforce, but the upshot of it was that if the demon succeeded in corrupting the magic here, it would own the Negaverse. And I was very much afraid that it already had a head start on that. But that didn't help me find the creature's center, and I needed to do that if I wanted to attack it.

Logically, it would have centered itself where the magic was strongest, but I wasn't quite certain where --

Of course. The Negaforce's room! It was obvious!

Perhaps too much so, I added to myself. But it was the best idea I'd had so far.

Close examination of the one visible wall, which happened to be to my left, revealed a location marker. Noticing how faint it was, I made a mental note to arrange to have all of the signposts down here freshened up. If I survived, that was.

Now that I knew where I was and where I was going, things proceeded smoothly. A hundred or so paces along the hallway, a turn to the left, and I was there. I still couldn't see anything, but crunching sounds emanating from under my boots indicated that I was walking on the shards of the Negaforce's long-destroyed prison globe.

I took another few steps forward, then stopped.

<<I know you're here,>> I projected into the darkness.

<<And what if I am?>> The tone was lazy. Nonchalant, even. <<You are of no interest to me.>>

<<I've come to destroy you.>> I didn't mind telling it that. It would have to be stupid if it hadn't figured that out already.

<<You don't have the power. Nonetheless, if you wish to make the attempt...>>

I ignored it and raised my left hand to my forehead, pressing the ring that bore my spirit crystal to a point above and between my eyes. I just hoped that I remembered enough of what I needed to know. Having been born long after the end of the Blood Millennium War, I'd only been given very sketchy lessons on demon exorcism.

I formed the image in my mind as I'd been taught, drew in a breath to speak the first of the words... and then it struck. No, not the demon. A premonition.

If you do this, you will die, and, even worse, you will fail.

I lowered my hand again with a curse.

I felt the demon laugh. <<Ah. Perhaps you are wiser than you appear to be, after all. Understand this, little mortal. I am greater than any demon your kind has ever known. I am *Mena Kimlubeniz*. None of you will ever conquer me.>>

Mother of Demons, I translated. Had every other demon on Earth been the spawn of this thing, or was it just boasting?

<<Then what were you doing locked away in those tunnels under our city for so many thousands of years?>> Adamant had defeated this thing. He had to have. Which meant that just maybe...

The demon didn't answer, and I felt its attention shift away from me. Instinct and premonition led me to realize that there was a new force at work in the Negaverse.

Malachite had returned. And I had to help him. Even if I chose to ignore my oath of obedience, we still needed him to exorcise this thing.

I initiated my teleport amidst the demon's laughter. It took several times the power that it normally would have, and I knew that the demon's perversion of the magic here had twisted the fabric of nonspace out of alignment. I wasn't likely to arrive at my intended destination. Right now, though, I would settle for anything in the general area.

I had to get to Malachite before this thing did, or we were all doomed.

Jasper

My head felt like it was going to split open and spill my brains out on the floor. I couldn't remember the last time I'd felt this rotten.

<<Dad? Are you okay?>>

<<I'll live.>> I glanced up at Cass and was surprised to see how concerned she looked. <<Help me up, will you?>>

With her help, I staggered to my feet, opening my wings wide and waving them back and forth in an attempt to keep my balance. My shoulder muscles ached. I must have tensed them right up when whatever-it-was happened. What did happen? We were about to go through the Warp... and then... Blank.

I arched my back and rolled my shoulder muscles, trying to get a little of the stiffness out. Suddenly, I really wanted one of Mina's shoulder rubs.

I glanced around the room, wincing as the quick motions made my head pound even more. A heavy ward-dome had been flung up around us. Pyrope was out cold on the floor, Sapphire, with his son and daughter flanking him, was looking a bit shaky, and my sister was giving orders to the only youma inside the dome, a senior officer who dated from Beryl's reign.

<<Avi?>>

<<Jas? Oh, good, you're back with us. I don't think I like being senior.>>

I snorted. <<Well, you always were better at personal combat than at tactics. What's going on?>>

<<Other than half the youma going nuts, the Warp shifting spontaneously, and you and Pyrope collapsing -- and Sapphire coming close to doing the same? We don't know. That's what I've been trying to find out.>>

<<Great. Where's Malachite?>>

<<We don't know that, either. You're going to be senior until we find Demantoid, I'm afraid.>>

And after we've found him, too, I thought. Great-Uncle Demantoid was a nice enough guy, but he just wasn't the sort of person that you gave a combat command to if you could help it. As for me, well, I'm not a brilliant tactician, but I'm competent enough, especially when the enemy is a mob of berserk youma without the discipline to make an effective fighting force.

<<How many youma have we got under our command, and how are they organized?>> I asked my sister. <<For that matter, is everyone here except Demantoid and the ones that went with Malachite?>>

<<I sent Tourmaline after Demantoid. Everyone else should be here, except ...>> And she trailed off, glancing around the room.

<<What is it?>>

<<I don't see Kyanite. Zircon brought him back here, but none of us has been paying much attention to him since then. We've all been too busy.>>

<<Would he have been crazy enough to run away? In this?>>

She sighed. <<I don't know. I've only had a few days to get to know him, but I can tell you that he's one troubled kid. Yes, I suppose that it's possible that he might have done something that stupid.>>

<<Damn.>> There were two possibilities: either Kyanite was really in league with whatever was causing this, or he was bent on committing suicide. I didn't like either of those alternatives. I queried the others, quickly, but none of them had seen him for some minutes either. <<Well, if he's gone, we have to get him back. That means making a sortie to push the youma back ...>> I drummed my fingers against the side of my leg.

<<Shouldn't you tell Tourmaline to be on the lookout for him?>>

<<I'll try, Avi. But you know the way she blocks.>> Tourmaline never voluntarily allowed any of us inside her head. It made things... difficult.

We'd all tried to make her welcome, at first, but it had quickly become clear that she didn't want anything to do with any of us. Most of what I picked up from her when she did loosen her barriers was fear and resentment. She seemed determined to make herself as uncomfortable as possible.

<<In the meanwhile, see if you can round up fifty or so veteran youma, will you?>> I added. <<The chances of Tourmaline finding our wayward lordling aren't really all that high.>>

She nodded and turned away. I knelt down on the floor, furling my wings around myself, curving them forward so as to shut the rest of the world out and provide the only privacy I was likely to find here.

I tested the Weave-links that bound me to the others one by one, sensing the highly individual flavour of each mind. Avi always reminds me, incongruously enough, of a spiked club. Cuprite... I don't know how to describe Cuprite. Sensing him is like hearing a smell, or tasting a colour. Maybe it has something to do with his blindness. I don't know.

Pyrope was too deeply unconscious for me to get a good sense of his mind, but I checked that linkage anyway. Actually, it's difficult to get much of a sense of him even at the best of times. He's like a bed of embers hidden under a layer of ash -- nearly invisible, but still there and just waiting for a little encouragement to burst into flame.

Then I closed my eyes, gritted my teeth, and concentrated on piercing Tourmaline's barriers as the pounding in my head became worse and worse. Damn you, woman... I hammered away at the dark wall until I managed to knock a hole in it.

Tourmaline feels like a pool of deep water to me -- one with an unexpected undertow hidden somewhere out near the center.

<<Jasper? What is it?>> She responded instantly to my touch.

<<We think Kyanite is wandering around the palace somewhere.>> I came to the point immediately. <<If you see him...>>

<<Yes?>> she prompted.

<<Bring him back here,>> I stated firmly. <<Restrain him if you have to. He has no business being out there alone.>> And we still can't be sure that he's on our side.

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