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

Chapter 24

© 2006 by E. Liddell


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Zoisite

Eight... Nine... Ten. There. That's all of them. I relaxed a bit. We hadn't been spotted. This time.

The odds were bound to go against us eventually, though. We'd been in the ruins for... what? An hour? Two? And this was the fourth youma patrol we'd had to hide from. Forty youma. They must have converted every human on the planet. Frightening thought. And what they'd do to us, if they caught us... No. I'd kill myself, and Amber too, before I let us be captured. I wasn't going to let the Negaforce use me again.

Jadeite's wife was crouched beside me in the lee of a crumbling wall. She looked frighteningly fragile. Somehow, I wasn't surprised. Amber would barely have been up to the expedition into the Timestream that we had originally planned. This... this was too much for her, and she knew it.

I wished desperately that the two of us hadn't been flung here, alone together, or that I wasn't senior. I'm not really very good at being in charge of things. Or maybe there was a time when I was. I don't remember. It's all fragments--scraps and shadows. I was whole, once. Not fragile. Not flawed inside.

<<Zoisite? Are you all right?>>

I shook my head, realizing that the youma were long gone and I had clenched my hands into such tight fists that my nails would have bitten into my palms if my gloves hadn't been warded.

<<Come on, let's go,>> I told her, deliberately not answering her question. Not quite as efficient as slapping her across the face for deterring her curiosity, but close.

I led the way out of the ruined building--Factory? Warehouse? Apartments? Who could tell, now?--as decisively as I could, pretending that I had some destination in mind, but the truth was that I didn't know where we were going. We needed a safe haven, somewhere where I could build the power amplifier I would need to get us back into the Timestream, but I didn't know where we could find such a place. Under other circumstances, my first thought would have been of Nephrite's place, but I didn't know whether he was still alive in this reality or not. If he was, I didn't want to attract his attention.

I wished that I dared teleport. Outside the city, our chances might be better, but any major energy expenditure might attract the attention of whoever was leading the youma, and I didn't want to take on one of the others. I value my life too much to risk it that way. But still, getting out of a metropolitan area the size of old Tokyo on foot was going to take days, and I didn't think we had that long. Why couldn't I come up with some sort of viable plan?

My left hand rose to one of the gold-and-green epaulettes that marked me as a senior General. I wanted to tear it off in disgust, but doing so would have meant showing weakness in front of Amber. No. She might be my Weavemate, but I didn't trust her that much.

There has got to be somewhere around here that we can hide! Tokyo was riddled with tunnels. The subways were too obvious, too likely to be patrolled, but the sewers... No, I wasn't going to put myself through that again. One adventure with the rats was enough for several lifetimes. Not sewers, not subways... cellars? Most of the buildings around here probably had basements. The trick would be to find one whose entrance wasn't readily accessible to the youma, but that wasn't under a building so badly decayed that the walls and roof were likely to fall in and bury us, either...

Huh. You know, maybe I can do this , after all. I was so busy congratulating myself that I didn't notice what was underfoot until it was too late.

The planking must have been rotten, because I went right through it and straight on down into what must have been the cellar of the gutted building behind whose walls we had been skulking. I oofed as I hit some sort of structural beam just above waist level, grabbing it and holding on for dear life as debris rained down on top of me.

<<Are you all right?>> Amber peered down over the edge of the hole I had made.

<<Yes, damnit.>> I must look like an idiot. Now that I could stop and take stock, I knew that the beam I was jackknifed over was less than two feet off the floor. Cautiously, I slid off it and onto what looked like a reasonably solid pile of debris.

It wasn't.

It's difficult for me to say what happened just then--there was a lot of dust flying around and I couldn't see a damned thing-- but a few minutes later, I was underneath the beam, one leg pinned between it and what felt like a slab of cement. My passive wards had protected me from injury, but I was trapped.

"Damn," I muttered aloud. The beam was too heavy for me to lift, at least from the awkward angle that I had to assume in order to get any sort of grip on it, and I still didn't want to use magic if I could help it.

<<Are you stuck?>> Amber seemed to be trying very hard not to laugh, and I felt myself begin to flush with rage. <<I'm sorry, it's just that it doesn't fit well with that... aura... that you normally project.>>

"This is no laughing matter. Stop giggling and help me." I kept my voice soft. I didn't dare use mindvoice just then--I would have bitten her head off, from the inside. Just then I was willing to take the risk of Jadeite tying me into a pretzel when we got home. If we got home.

She sobered. <<What do you want me to do?>>

I forced myself to think through my irritation. It wasn't easy. I've let myself fall into a lot of bad habits, I realized.

<<Find a length of pipe or something,>> I told her. <<You're going to have to lever this damned thing off me, and you're going to have to try to do it quietly.>> Sound would probably only carry a few yards, but no sense in taking risks, especially not with all the youma that we'd seen.

<<I'm not sure I can even get down there...>>

I gave her a Look. <<You're going to have to. And hurry. If a patrol comes by while we're still trying to get me out of this...>> Then we were dead. Both of us. Amber wasn't a bad fighter, but she couldn't handle ten youma. I could, but not pinned like this. Much of my advantage in battle comes from my speed and agility.

Amber swung over the edge of the hole and let herself drop down onto the rubble beside me, then peered around, looking for something that she could use as a lever. I just closed my eyes, and tried not to notice that she was making enough noise for a herd of elephants. There was no help for it. If we tried to be stealthy about this, I'd be stuck here until the beam rusted out. Stupid, stupid, stupid! I raged at myself. If only Malachite were... No. No. I won't wish for him to save me. Not this time. Not when he's let that boy come between us. I will get us out of this myself. That'll show him.

Muddled thinking, I recognize that now, but you try thinking clearly under circumstances like those some time, and see how far you get!

<<Almost got it, I think. I can feel it beginning to lift.>>

<<Stop for a moment,>> I told her, unpleasantly certain that I had just heard a rhythmic crunching noise that had nothing to do with her attempts to free me. It became louder in the moments that we both waited, tense and still.

<<Go,>> I snapped at her. <<Hide. There's no use in us both getting caught.>>

<<But what about you?>>

<<I can turn their sight,>> I told her, trying to project confidence that I didn't feel. <<And even if my spells don't work, well, it's shadowy in here, and they have no reason to investigate. Go!>>

She hesitated again. If she'd been a youma, I would have killed her on the spot. As it was, I picked up a chunk of concrete lying near at hand, and threw it at her.

It was one of the worst mistakes that I have ever made.

My aim was as good as ever, and the grey chunk of artificial rock struck her shoulder and bounced off. It was almost round, so it rolled, clattering, down the rough pile of rubble, to come to rest against the rusted remains of some structural member.

The street outside was absolutely silent. That wasn't a good sign. It meant that the youma had realized that there was something here, something worth stalking. I swore, softly and incisively, and made reckless use of my powers to lift the beam and throw it aside, then grabbed Amber's arm and levitated us straight up out of that hole, not caring that I might be attracting someone's attention. I had to get out of there now.

But it was already too late.

Nine of them faded out of the shadows around us, and while I couldn't see the tenth, I had to bet that she was somewhere up above. That was a standard envelopment tactic. That left exactly three exits: down, which was suicide when we weren't sure what was there or whether there was some kind of exit, or via teleportation, which, with my luck, would be traced. Or through them.

I conjured an ice spear into my right hand, and drew back the other, preparing to blast them, but was interrupted.

"Well, well, well. What have we here?"

I had never seen him dressed that way, except in suppressed fragments of Malachite's memories, but I recognized him instantly. Darien. Darien as the evil Prince, an impossibly young man who stared at me with a supercilious smirk on his face.

"Can't you guess?" I snarled at him, tilting my hand to point my spear in what I considered to be the correct direction. I was sick and tired of people sneering at me, people insulting me, people attacking me. People hurting me. And this time, I wasn't going to stand for it. I was going to tear him apart!

Beside me, Amber tensed. She was unarmed, not much good at attack spells... a real leader would have remembered those things, I suppose. But I wasn't thinking of her. I was thinking of myself, my rage, my hatred. My pain.

I drove straight for the son-of-a-bitch's throat, spear extended. I think I may have shouted something. I'm not sure. I wasn't really paying attention to anything except that so-fascinating area of skin that I was trying to perforate.

It was pain that brought me up short. One moment, I had almost reached my target... the next, I was folded over, nursing an extremely sore abdomen. I barely even heard my spear clatter to the ground.

After a few moments, I recovered enough to realize that it wasn't my pain that I was feeling, and to glance over in Amber's direction. She was kneeling on the half-rotted floor with two youma standing over her.

<<Sorry.>> She managed a wan smile in my direction.

Two other youma grabbed my arms from behind. I made myself go limp. No reason to make their handling of me any easier on them than it had to be. Better to stick them with a dead weight, even though I knew they wouldn't be particularly gentle.

I twisted slightly, letting my spirit crystal dangle near one hand. They weren't going to get that, at least. I wasn't going to let myself be made so vulnerable to them. Better that it be lost in the rubble. And then... Would I have the courage to die, knowing that I would most likely never be resurrected? Better that than another thousand years of servitude.

My fingers were tangled in the chain. One good jerk...

A half-familiar sizzling sound made me flinch to one side. Something just barely kissed my face, drawing a thin line of blood at the corner of my mouth. But I barely noticed that, because I was coated in other blood--grey-green blood, yellow blood--not my blood. The youma's hands fell away from my arms as their headless bodies toppled to either side.

"And so the traitor resurfaces at last." Prince Endymion sounded more satisfied than afraid. "I wish you'd given me a little more advance warning that you were coming back. I could have had a better welcome prepared."

A glowing violet boomerang flew through the air and would have dealt him a shallow cut on the arm if he hadn't flinched back.

"Leave them alone!"

The voice was as familiar as the weapon. Unwillingly, I turned to look.

He stood half in shadow, only his right profile showing. His uniform looked like it had spent the past ten years tied to a youma's feet as substitute socks, and his hair was matted and unkempt, but there was no mistaking him.

Malachite.

"Do you honestly think that nine of you can take all three of us?" Familiar confidence and acid arrogance. "You aren't that good and you know it. Run home, little boy. I don't have time for the likes of you."

I slid one hand around behind me, conjuring an ice spear. Be ready... Wait for it... He was the last person I would have chosen to rescue me, but this was still better than death. Just barely.

Endymion hesitated. He had a black rose in his hand, but made no effort to throw it.

"It does not amuse me to kill you today, Kunzite," the Prince said at last. Kunzite?

Malachite made a small gesture with the hand that wasn't holding a boomerang. "Let us be honest. It never amuses you to do anything at the risk of your own life. Beryl saved you from me before, but she isn't here now, is she? And neither is he. You can't beat me on your own merits, and you know it. You're just not good enough."

Endymion's hand shook as he dropped the rose. Even a blind man couldn't have missed the murderous rage in his eyes.

"I'll be back," he said.

"I'm counting on it." Malachite inclined his head and dismissed his weapon.

The youma faded back into the shadows again. Endymion shot us one last murderous glare before vanishing. The impact of it was such that I shivered. I'll remember, his eyes said, even to me, and I'm normally blind to such things. Amber was still bent over, nursing the pain that I could still feel burning in the pit of her stomach. It wasn't nearly so vicious now, though, and I was able to straighten despite it.

"Are you all right?"

I don't know what I had been expecting, but it hadn't been solicitousness. A resumption of the cold distance that had been between us since Kyanite's arrival, perhaps. And I think it was surprise, more than anything else, that drove me over the edge again. How dared he act like nothing had ever changed between us?! He made it seem like he barely ever paid attention to me, except as a warm presence in his bed.

"I'm fine," I snapped. "What are you doing here? I would have thought that you'd be too busy."

"What am I doing here?" he echoed, moving closer, out of the shadows. Close up, his uniform looked even worse than it had from a distance, and I don't think he'd washed in quite a while. His hair was more matted than I had thought, too. The left side of his face was so completely hidden that I couldn't even see his eye glinting out from between the strands. How had he made such a mess of himself in just a few hours? Or had the Timestream flung him to a slightly different destination than it had us? "I thought I was rescuing you, beloved." He leaned closer, head tilting in a familiar way.

"I don't need your damned help!" I hadn't thought that there was that much pent-up frustration in me. Not that I'd never screamed at him before.

But I think that it was the first time that I ever kneed him in the crotch, and certainly the first time that I ever followed that particular piece of abuse up with a right to the jaw. He folded and toppled most gratifyingly. It was only when his head struck the rotten wood under our feet with a thunk that I found myself going cold all over. Because, when he had gone down, that matted hair had fallen back from his face.

<<Gods of Darkness!>> Amber was at my elbow. <<I... Zoi, I don't think this is our Malachite at all. I think he's theirs.>>

<<Kunzite,>> I corrected. <<Not Malachite.>> Normally, I would have chastised her for her familiarity--I had never been Zoi to her if I could help it-- but I was too busy staring at the man who lay at our feet, semiconscious.

The left side of his face... wasn't there. In place of the smooth, medium-dark skin that I would have expected, there was a red-white mass of scar tissue. His eye was gone, and there was something wrong with the bone under the scars--I think his cheekbone had been broken, and then not set quite right. It was hideous. And that, and his lack of a spirit crystal, was proof that I had just assaulted a total stranger.

Numb, I collapsed into a sitting position beside him. Gods... Gods of Light and Darkness... It wasn't that I objected to hurting someone I didn't know, it was just that... that... I don't know.

Amber summed it up best, I suppose. <<What are we going to do now?>>

Goto Interlude VI


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