A Shadow of All Night Falling - Part 2: Hunters of Worlds

Chapter 21

© 2006 by E. Liddell


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Nephrite

The wind howled at our backs, pushing us forward. Malachite's hand gripped mine firmly as we half-ran through the Timestream, following a phantom that always hovered a few feet ahead of us.

It shouldn't have been so easy. Travel through the Timestream is normally impeded by the roaring winds--sort of like having to go uphill in both directions--but this time, it was actually helping us. A manifestation of demonic disruption, or our guide helping us along? I couldn't tell.

I watched the image of Adamant warily. Was this just a creation of his, or another of the fragmentary shadows of himself that he'd warned me about? Either way, I didn't entirely trust it.

I nearly stopped dead in my tracks as another horrible thought crossed my mind. The demon tricked us before with a false image of Sailor Pluto. How do we know that this isn't another of its illusions? But we were committed now. Malachite would go on no matter what, I knew that. And I had to go with him, because I was all the help he had.

The door appeared in front of us so abruptly that, between our momentum and the wind pushing at us, we both hit it hard enough to stagger us.

<<I cannot cross the threshold with you,>> our guide informed us. <<They'll be on the other side, waiting nearby. Good luck.>>

That sounded ominous to me, but I wasn't given any time to think about it. The doors were opening, and the wind pushed us forward into misty drizzle.

We were standing at the center of what had once been a grove of trees. Slender branches still reached for the sky all around us, but most were leafless, and some were blackened, as well. Dead. And the air was thick with energies--the traces of a dozen small- to medium-sized demons, expended crystal power, human magic.

Instinctively, Malachite and I positioned ourselves back- to-back, weapons drawn.

<<Where do you think we are?>> my Center asked me. <<Future or past?>>

I shrugged. <<If I had to guess, I'd say distant past. I certainly hope it isn't the future. These little demons have been extinct for a very long time, haven't they?>>

<<Thousands of years,>> Malachite agreed. <<I wonder where the people are.>>

<<Miles from here, if they've got any sense,>> I replied sourly.

We stayed where we were for several minutes. Nothing happened. Then Malachite shrugged and sheathed his sword.

<<We're wasting time here. We need to find out where we are, and why.>>

I nodded, although I was beginning to have an unpleasant suspicion that I knew why.

--This version of me that you see here is only a shadow, as is the other one. Neither of us has the full knowledge or perception of the original. Do not place too much of your trust in either of us.-- The only question remaining in my mind was that of whether we were here because of an honest mistake... or because of true malice.

We moved cautiously forward into the drizzle, I a little behind Malachite and to his left. Visibility was limited to a few yards. We might almost still have been plowing through the outer reaches of the Timestream, if it hadn't been for the feel of dry grass crackling under our boots.

Click.

Malachite and I both stopped dead and looked at each other.

<<You're not expendable,>> I stated, and was rewarded with an irritable shrug and a small gesture of his free hand that I interpreted as permission to investigate.

I padded silently through the grass--not something that would have been possible without silence spells, given that the plants were yellow-brown and brittle. A grove that appeared to have been blasted by magic, ground cover that seemed to be frost-killed... where were we, and what had happened here?

Click.

I stopped again, frowning. That had come from my left. I was certain of that. And yet I had been moving directly toward the source of the original sound. So either the second noise had come from a different source...

... or it knew I was there, and was trying to circle around me.

I muttered a curse as I turned and ran back in the direction in which I had come.

Click. Click! Click-click-click-click-Click- CLICK!

Or, I thought as something smashed against my back and knocked me to the ground, that could be exactly what it wants me to think.

My sword went flying, and I found myself wrestling for my life with something that was human-sized, slimy-slick-purple- skinned, and in possession of altogether too many teeth. A lesser demon.

A clawed finger nicked my earlobe, and that entire side of my face was suddenly freezing cold and numb. Poisoned. Wonderful. I should have used magic on it, but it's difficult to focus your mind well enough for that when you're grappling with something that looks like a refugee from a childhood nightmare.

<<Nephrite!>>

Out of the corner of my eye, I could see white light lancing from Malachite's hands, knocking the thing off of me. Unfortunately, the critter was lucky. A desperate attempt to save itself didn't succeed, but its claws caught in the chain that supported my spirit crystal.

Its touch was the worst thing that I had ever experienced, a special torture that went beyond pain or rape or any other sort of violation. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Malachite drop to his knees as the reaction swept through him as well, but I was too busy convulsing to pay any attention.

If that thing gets away with my crystal, I'm dead, I thought, forcing myself to concentrate through the terrible sensation that resulted from a racial enemy holding a piece of my soul in its hand. But I can't function through this, and I'm dragging Malachite down with me. And he's my only chance. So I gathered a tiny bit of power and did the only thing I could, knowing that it might be suicide.

I knocked myself unconscious.


Malachite

For the first few moments after the pain ended, the only emotion I could manage was giddy relief. Then it occurred to me to wonder why it had stopped. Nephrite... can't be dead, can he? But no, a quick check along the Weavelink informed me that he was only unconscious, although he was also sinking fast.

I have to get his crystal back. Now, which way did that thing go?

I wasn't used to tracking demons through fog by following their magical traces, so I wasted precious time trying to figure out what direction I had to go in. The creature had to be laughing at me.

When I finally moved forward, I did so with a naked blade in my hand--Zoisite's gift sword, from all those years ago. I had considered leaving it behind, but there hadn't been a single other weapon in the armories that fitted my hand half so well. No doubt I would be bloodying it again soon.

Gibbering sounds from the mist, off to my left. I ignored what I assumed to be an attempt to distract me, and continued along my chosen course. Damn it all, when would this infernal fog lift? I felt like I was swimming through greyness. I'd had enough fog today to last me several lifetimes.

Click-crunch.

There, my instincts told me, and I shifted my stance, stalking, now, instead of striding. In all honesty, I was surprised that the thing had gotten this far. I had burned it pretty badly.

Even at my reduced pace, it was only a few seconds more before I reached my quarry. It was limping pitifully, not even seeming to notice the chain tangled in the claws of its left hand, much less the crystal that dangled from it.

It seemed like a waste to expend any more magic on this hapless and almost helpless creature. I'd finish it off by hand, then. Good enough. I half-ran forward, to close the distance between us, raised my sword, and swung it down. The little demon gave a piercing cry, and died.

I bent down and wiped my sword clean on its hide, then knelt to tease Nephrite's spirit crystal from between the slack, dead claws, knowing that every second that it remained in the creature's hand had to be a second of absolute agony for my Weavemate, even with him unconscious and the demon dead.

What would I do if I lost Nephrite? I needed him. Zoisite might be my anchor, but Nephrite was my right hand, and my heir. If anything happened to me, he would be the one who succeeded to the leadership of the Negaverse. He was irreplaceable, at least at present.

I jerked the chain free at last, then forced myself to close my eyes and clearly picture the place I had left my Weavemate. Normally, such concentration wouldn't have been necessary for a successful teleport, but I didn't know how far I'd come since leaving him, or what direction I'd moved in, so the image was my only referent, and I didn't dare land off-target. I'd left him unconscious and at the mercy of any demon that should happen along, and I needed to get back there as quickly as possible.

In fact, I was a little too well on target. I emerged from nonspace straddling Nephrite's knees. It's fortunate that we normally can't teleport into a space occupied by anyone or anything else, or something disastrous might have happened.

I stabbed a patch of coarse grass with my sword, leaving the blade standing upright and close to hand as I bent down to put Nephrite's spirit crystal back where it belonged. Making sure that your weapon is instantly available is an elementary precaution when you're in enemy territory.

However, in this case, it wasn't even nearly enough.

I was so intent on what I was doing that I never even noticed it coming. Not that I necessarily would have, in any case. There were so many recent demonic traces in the area that it was difficult to separate them.

It faded in from the mist. At first, I thought it was just a thicker-than-average swirl of fog, blowing in on the faint, cold breeze that was beginning to rise, and ignored it accordingly. It wasn't until the wind picked up a handful of dust and dead grass and swirled it into the image of a smirking face that I realized how much danger I was in.

Several things came together in my mind at that moment. This never had been a mist. It was the manifestation of a demon, one subtle enough to hide its traces and strong enough to conceal itself from the strongest Crystal Weaver in either world. It wasn't as powerful as the Negaforce or any of the others that were bound by Adamant's Ward, but this time I didn't have the Silver Crystal or the rest of my Weave to back me, and the gold band that I wore around my wrist was cold and inert, providing no guidance.

An equal match, I thought grimly, cupping one hand over my spirit crystal and narrowing my eyes to slits. My hair whipped around my face, encouraged by the rising wind created by the demon.

Oh, no, you don't. I focused my powers, and immediately, a bubble of air around me went... well, not exactly still, since there was still a wind, created by my own powers, rising around me, but almost. At least the demon could no longer whip the air into a gale capable of stripping flesh from bone. And now what? I wondered. The demon had hesitated, swirling, as though uncertain of what to do. As was I.

How do you dissipate a mist? With wind, but that was the demon's favorite weapon, and it was sure to have defenses against it. Or... with the heat and light of the sun. Well, I was no sun, but I could do heat and light.

It took a moment to disentangle the chain that supported my spirit crystal from my hair and take it off. Outside my ward, the demon was swirling faster and more violently, and I sensed that I wouldn't have much longer before it tried to mount an offensive of its own.

I raised the crystal up above my head, at arm's length, then arranged my other hand to shield my eyes. There was no need to blind myself while doing this. And now...

Is it in the Christian holy book that it's written, "And God said, 'Let there be light,'"? If so, I'm not all that impressed with their god. Spoken spells are for amateurs. I only had to will light, and it came, so bright that I had to close my eyes even behind my shading hand. For a few seconds, any observers must indeed have seen a small sun flare above that barren little patch of land.

The demon didn't exactly scream as it died. Screaming would have required it to be more corporeal. But I did feel it die-- which was a good thing, because killing it had taken almost everything I had.

With shaking hands, I wrapped the chain that supported my spirit crystal around my wrist. Then I forced myself to expend a little more energy, to set wards around Nephrite, still unconscious and thus helpless, and myself. Only when I had finished that could I allow myself to collapse beside my Weavemate.

The last thing I saw as I passed out was the final tatters of mist dissipating, exposing us to the brilliance of the sun where it hung in the bright blue sky above us.

Goto Chapter 22


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