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

Chapter 26

© 2006 by E. Liddell


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Marcasite

"We can't go on like this," I said, and there was no argument from anyone.

We sat together, in conference, in the central room of King Samuel's chambers. The door to the bedroom was open, so that Sumire could participate in the meeting. Around me sat six other Sailor Scouts, three other Negaverse Generals, one person who was both, three moon cats, and the Prince of Earth. And I seemed to be in charge, damn it all, and I wasn't liking it one bit.

Several of the others were in various states of disrepair. Morgan, of course, still had a touch of concussion. Sailor Mars was white-faced, her skin barely darker than the fabric of the sling that supported her broken arm. Opal had managed to save her life, but only just. Jupiter was bruised and battered and had a spectacular black eye, but Zircon had managed to protect her from serious injury. Mercury was uninjured, but only because Cass was experienced and quick-thinking. Of the four pairs of hunters who had ventured into the city, Phaeton and I were the only ones who hadn't been attacked, and I suspected that that was only because I was the strongest of us five, and I had watched my charge like a hawk ever since I had received Zircon's original warning.

I hadn't really wanted to send the Scouts out with us in the first place, but at the time, it had seemed politically expedient, although not necessarily wise in the short term. We needed to teach the people of Crystal Tokyo that they were capable of at least helping to rescue themselves. That meant letting the Sailor Scouts "help" us. Maybe, if they weren't so convinced of their own helplessness, they wouldn't drag us over to the other side the next time they had a crisis. Or that had been the idea. A shame that it seemed to have backfired.

I have rarely been so angry at anyone in my life as I was at Jasper when he gave me the order to come here. We were needed at home, damn it! Crystal Tokyo could handle a few dozen crazy youma for a while, but the problems of the Negaverse needed immediate attention. But Jasper was senior to me, and although I knew I was magically stronger, I also knew that there was no way that I'd be able to take him. Raw magical strength is less significant in a battle between Negaverse Crystal Weavers than experience and cunning, and Jasper had both in spades. So I'd swallowed my anger and led the others here and into the present mess.

"We all know that it's been the same two people every time," I added wearily. "Princess Serenity and a blonde, male Crystal Weaver that none of us recognize. I think it's obvious that we need to lay a trap for them. Capture or kill those two, and our problems are over."

Phaeton stirred, no doubt about to voice the obvious objection, but I forestalled him.

"Obviously we must avoid killing the princess if at all possible, but if it's the only way..." I let the sentence trail off, knowing that the others would have no trouble completing my thought.

"That wasn't what I was going to say." It was the first thing that the young prince had said since we'd entered the room. Everything I'd seen of Phaeton so far indicated that he was quiet, almost shy. Odd that Cass's description of him was so much at variance with that.

I quirked an eyebrow at him, inviting him to continue.

"Your race is nearly extinct, isn't it?" he asked. "I mean, there are no more Crystal Weavers left except the ones living in the Negaverse, right? And everyone from Nemesis was killed in the War. So who is this blonde guy?"

I shrugged. "Your guess is as good as mine. There must be hundreds of humans with Crystal Weaver blood running around the planet, between the Lost and the occasional Enclavite marrying out." In fact, Sapphire had conducted a search for them at one point. He'd found five or six--all adults long past the age at which they could safely be empowered, unfortunately--before Zoisite had ordered him to stop, on the grounds that he was wasting time and trained youma. "Given that they'd have a lot more magical potential than the average human, it's hardly surprising that Mena Kimlubeniz would be pleased to use any of them it could find as a tool. So he might be one of them, or he might be a Nemisian who went into hiding here at the end of the War." I would have to remember to run his image past Sapphire and see if he recognized the stranger.

"And there could be more of them," Cass added. "We're going to have to be very careful."

I hadn't wanted to mention that possibility to the Scouts. They had enough problems. Aack. My head aches. Damn you, Morgan, why did you have to get whacked on the head? I can't think straight, and it's all your fault. Okay, so that wasn't really fair. I should have been glad that my feckless little brother had demonstrated a sense of responsibility for a change. I suppose it would have been easier for me to be happy if it had been possible for me to block the linkage between us, but I'd never been able to manage that except when he was asleep.

"Under the circumstances," I said, suddenly aware that it had become very quiet, "I think it's best that the Scouts stay here at the Palace and guard King Samuel. The rest of us will figure out some way of dealing with these strangers." I expected Cass to ask me, over the Weave-link, whether I was including her with the Scouts or the "rest of us", but instead she was blocking me, hard. I frowned. That had been happening more and more often, lately, and I didn't understand what was bothering her. That worried me. I could have forced her barriers, of course, but that was a violation so total that I refused to do it except in life-or-death situations. "Unless anyone else has some sort of idea, I guess that's it."

It hadn't really been much of a meeting, as Morgan immediately let me know. I ignored him, and remained seated, rubbing at my temples, while the others filed out of the room.

The Crystal Palace... why did I have to be here, in a place where a vision had shown me standing out on the front steps, covered in blood? Damn it all, I had to talk to Jasper... No. To Alexandrite. Odd though it felt, with Demantoid eschewing command and all the more senior Generals absent, the inoffensive Healer was the only one who could overrule Jasper. Maybe he'd be able to do something about this hopeless mess of a situation.


Mina

I ducked back into one of the convenient little alcoves that lined the Palace corridors as they came filing out of Sammy's suite. It hadn't been easy to hear what they were saying from out in the hallway, but I'd gotten enough to figure out that Marcasite Stanton didn't really know what to do, except order the Sailor Scouts out of harm's way. Conscientious to a fault, like most of the other young Generals. Not that I blamed him, not after the way those kids had gotten hurt.

So. They didn't have a plan, but I also knew that they wouldn't listen to mine. Well, so be it, then. I'd do it alone.

It took me most of the afternoon to get home after that. No, not the Crystal Palace--the suite that Jasper and Cass and I had shared in the Negaverse. The other Scouts of my generation had been my closest friends, but my heart has always been with my family. All I can say is, thank the gods for the youma border guards at Nephrite's place. Without them, I would never have made it.

"I'm home!" I called as I crossed the threshold. There was no reply, but I hadn't really expected any. Jasper and Cass were both busy, and our youma servants were sure to have been reassigned to more important tasks for the duration of the emergency here. I was alone, which was just what I had wanted.

Tears stung my eyes as I entered the bedroom that Jasper and I had shared for so many years. He hadn't changed a thing. Even my old bathrobe was still there, lying across the back of the chair where I'd flung it fourteen years ago. Seeing that... it was almost like those empty years had never happened. There were no bewilderingly changed friends here to confuse me. I really was home.

Confident, now, I opened the drawer in my bedside table. After all these years, the catch that held the hidden compartment shut was stiff, but I worked at it until it let go, then upended it on the bed to release the two items that still lay inside.

I sat there for a long time, just looking at them. How many years had it been since anyone had used that wand? Alone of all my transformation tools, I'd never passed this one on to Cass. I hadn't felt it was worth it. Sailor V had never had any official standing with the court of Crystal Tokyo. She was the Scout that time had forgotten. Until now, when I needed her again.

My hand closed on the wand, and I slid it and the compact into my pocket. Then I restored the drawer to its original position, trying my best to make it look like I had never been here at all. I didn't want Jas to know that I was doing this. He'd only worry, and he had enough other things to worry about.

I'd better get going, if I want to be back at the Palace before dark, I told myself. But instead, I found myself lingering, poking my head into different rooms to see what had changed during the years of my absence. Jasper's study... The dining room... I hesitated outside the door to Cass's bedroom. Was she even still living here? She could easily have commandeered a suite of her own, either here or at the Crystal Palace.

Just a peek, I told myself, and turned the knob.

I jumped when I saw what was inside the room. Cass just turned away from the mirror with a martyred sigh.

"Mom, what are you doing here? I thought you were back at the Crystal Palace."

"Is there something wrong with my wanting to come home?" I asked. Then, getting a good look at her for the first time, "What are you doing, Cass?"

She rolled her eyes and tossed the roll of surgical tape she had been holding onto the bed. "Binding my breasts. What does it look like I'm doing?"

"Yes, but why?"

"Because I want to pass myself off as a guy."

I sighed. "And here I thought I wouldn't have to play Twenty Questions with you again after you hit the age of ten. Why do you want to pass yourself off as a man?"

"Because Rini and that blonde guy--I assume you have heard about that, right?--hopefully won't recognize me then."

I couldn't help it. I started to laugh, and went on laughing until I was leaning against the doorframe, hopelessly weak- kneed.

"Mom? Are you okay?"

"Yes," I choked out. "It's just that... I find it ironic... that you and I... seem to have had the same idea." With an effort, I controlled myself. "I went and dug out my old Sailor V gear because I was pretty sure that they wouldn't recognize someone my age as a potentially dangerous Sailor Scout. I can't think of any way we're going to get them without ambushing them."

Cass smiled and shrugged. "Great minds think alike, I guess. But I'm not sure I like the idea of you doing this. I mean..."

"... I'm too old? Well, I don't like the idea of you doing it, either. No parent would. But I respect your judgement."

"And I... Oh, damn it, we have all been treating you like a feeble little old lady, haven't we? I'm sorry. Do you think we could do this together? I think we'd both feel better if we could watch each other's backs."

"I think you're probably right," I admitted.

"Then just let me finish up here, and we'll go out for a mother-and-son night on the town." A quick, brilliant grin, and then she was turning back toward the mirror.

I sat down on the bed to watch the rest of her preparations. Having flattened her chest to her satisfaction, Cass did a quick brush-in-wash-out dye job on her hair, turning it as brown as her father's, and tied it back in a loose ponytail instead of the more usual braid. The clothes she chose were a little loose on her, but that was probably just as well. Finally, she turned toward me.

"Well? What do you think?"

I think I jumped a little, because her voice came out sounding a lot deeper than I had expected.

"I've been practicing that," she added in more normal tones. "Well?"

I tilted my head and inspected her critically. Cass has always been more muscular and broader across the shoulders than is usual for a woman, and her hips are not especially wide. Her body language is a bit on the masculine side, too. She wasn't quite as convincing as Haruka had been, but part of that was the long hair.

"You're a bit on the pretty side for a boy," I said at last, "but I think you'll pass. As long as you keep all your clothes on, that is."

"Cool. Let's go." She offered me her arm, playing the part to the hilt. I smiled and shook my head and did what she wanted me to do. "We'll teleport from the hallway. I know the wards in here are supposed to be permeable going out, but I don't want to take any chances just now. One of the youma had a fatal accident only a few hours ago because she thought that nonspace was back to normal."

Agreeing seemed like the right thing to do at the time, but in hindsight, we probably should have taken the chance and left right from her room. If we had, we might have gotten away with it. Instead, we were almost at the door that sealed the suite off from the rest of Beryl's old palace when I felt a hand on my shoulder.

"What, in the names of all the Gods of Darkness, do the two of you think you're doing?" my husband asked.


Aventurine

<<I brought your supper.>>

No answer. Alex continued mechanically checking the pulse of the youma over whose bed he was leaning.

<<Damn it, are you even listening to me?>>

My son shook his head and seemed to come back to his senses. "Sorry. It's been a long day. I guess I'm just running on autopilot. Is that food?"

I wrinkled my nose. "Well, the cooks claim it is, but they could have fooled me. Still, you'd better eat it--it's even worse cold."

"Thanks." He accepted the tray and sat down on the edge of an empty bed to eat. I suspected that it hadn't been unoccupied for long, though, given that it was unmade and the blood on the sheets wasn't yet dry. Another youma lost, then. "You know, the worst part of having to eat this glop is that it doesn't even have the redeeming quality of being good for you. I'm surprised that you didn't send one of the servants with it, though. What brings you down here?"

"I need an excuse to visit my only child?" That... hurt. In a weird sort of way. Alex and I have never been close--it's almost as though he pushes me away, in fact--but he is my son, and I love him.

"I suppose not. It's just that everyone seems to be coming down here to talk to me today, and none of them did it just for the pleasure of my company. First there was Uncle Jas, looking for a pep shot and any news of the King, and then there was Pyrope, who wanted to know if I had any idea where his youma lover might have gone, and Sapphire, who as far as I could tell didn't want to talk about anything in particular but obviously had something on his mind, and most recently, Marcasite showed up to try to convince me that our appointed regent was suffering from lapses in judgment and that I should pull rank on him and take over. And I'm tired, and my Weavemates are gods-only- know-where, and people are dying all around me, and I can't do a damned thing about any of it!" He slammed his fist against the wall. "And on top of that, I'm raving like a child whose sister just stole his favourite toy. I'm sorry. You don't deserve to have any of this dumped on you."

"That's what mothers are for," I reassured him, but at the same time, I wondered. Certainly Alex had never brought anything like this to me before. I could only assume that it was his grandfather who normally listened to him pour out his frustration and exhaustion and heartache. He'd been such a strange, quiet child... Whenever I'd pointed that out to Cuprite, he'd just laughed and made jokes about changelings and shrugged it off. But then, my husband could not, and would never be able to, see the way our son's eyes sometimes went distant and dark and ancient. It was as though Alex knew some terrible secret that the rest of us just weren't privy to.

"It's almost like the trailing years of the Shadow Millennium," I said after a moment of silence. "The days when Malachite wasn't secure on his throne yet, the days when you had to have eyes in the back of your head and poisoned shuriken clipped to the back of your belt if you wanted to survive." It had been a very strange childhood. Children aren't supposed to have to develop that kind of watchfulness, but Mom and Dad and Jasper hadn't been able to protect me from everything. I'd been barely four months old when I had seen my first dead body, and maybe twice that age when I'd made my first kill. It had hardened me, I guess. Oh, not quite to the same extent as those who had served under Beryl--I'm not capable of the kind of gratuitous cruelty that they all inflicted, or, I think, of living with the consequences--but I can do what has to be done.

"It must be the most difficult for you young ones, I suppose. You've never been in the middle of a war before." I realized as I finished that it had been the wrong thing to say.

"Not in a very long time." It was barely more than a whisper, and I stared at him in sudden disquiet. He still radiated that familiar feeling of peace, but his voice... it had been like the voice of some sort of ghost. Another one of those little out-of-place remarks that he was always making... What was it about Alex? "Look, I have rounds to do, and you have youma to round up. I'll have one of the orderlies take my tray up later. Thanks for bringing my supper."

And I was left just sitting there as he rose to his feet and walked away, leaving the tray with his unfinished meal on it on the bed.


Jasper

<<Damn it, why do you want me to go with them?>> Tourmaline asked.

<<Because I can't afford the time to go myself, and if this blonde man really is from the Dark Moon, and fought in the War, he'll recognize Avi or Pyrope or Cuprite. You're the only member of our Weave that he wouldn't be familiar with, and I want someone through whose eyes I can watch this, without having to establish some kind of special linkage.>>

She flinched when I told her that. Now, I knew that she hated to link with any of us, but I hadn't expected that expression of absolute revulsion that crossed her face just then. Or the fear in her eyes. What was she so frightened of?

<<I know you never wanted this--any of this--but we're not your enemies, Tourmaline,>> I stated slowly. <<We're your friends. We're your Weave. Stop pushing us away like this.>> And I reached out toward her, along the Weavelink, only to be rebuffed by a familiar black wall.

<<My friends are all dead.>> It wasn't fear that colored her eyes now, although what the emotion was, I couldn't have said. <<I will follow your orders, General Jasper, but do not ask for anything more.>> Streamers of green light flickered around her, and she was gone.

I rose to my feet and stretched, spreading my wings to their fullest extent. It was a feat that took not a little careful manoeuvring, since I had to stick my left wingtip out the far door, but I managed.

It was well past midnight by our arbitrary clock, and the Negaverse was almost eerily quiet. The youma were in their dormitories downstairs, asleep, with guards posted on the doors, and my fellow Generals had sought their private, well-warded, suites some hours ago. We were all exhausted, myself not least. Well, I should be able to catch a few hours of sleep now. I'd done everything I could.

I gritted my teeth before beginning the teleport. The coldness of nonspace was still full of strange currents and undertows, but they weren't sufficient to pull me off-course anymore, and I arrived at my bedroom only a few inches off-target. Still, I didn't think that I was ever going to take that particular ability for granted again.

"So? What happened?" Mina was sitting up in bed. I paused for a moment to admire the way her nightgown clung to her. True, she wasn't the athletic young woman that I'd married anymore, but every line of her body was familiar and beloved.

"You should be asleep," I scolded gently. "Anyway, Tourmaline will be going with you tomorrow--or rather, following you, out of sight, as we agreed." I sat down to pull my boots off, then let her help me with my jacket. "Is Cass still... resigned?"

My wife smiled. "That's a good word for it. I hope that she gets over her desire to save the world single-handedly one day, or it's going to get her into trouble."

"As if it hasn't already." Finally undressed, I slid into bed, feeling a slender hand reach over to smooth the little patch of down between my wings as I settled myself. "Dear, I'd love to," I said, as Mina's fingers continued to explore, "but I'm exhausted, and we've both got very full agendas tomorrow, and we need to rest."

She sighed, but her hand stopped moving, settling at the base of my left wing. "At least you didn't try to claim that you've got a headache. And anyway, you're probably right. It's just that..."

"Just that?" I prompted.

"Just that I'm scared stiff," she said. "Oh, not about tomorrow..."

"Then what?"

"Jas, I woke up less than two days ago in a stranger's body. My mind and memory tell me that I'm barely middle-aged, but whenever I look in the mirror, I see this old woman staring back at me. I'm terrified that I'm going to start feeling the age that I know I really am, the age that I look. I don't want that. But being with you and seeing that you still love me and still want me, despite everything... that makes me feel young again."

I rolled over onto my side, so that I could wrap an arm around her and draw her in close to me. "I often wonder if I robbed you of something, by marrying you," I murmured in her ear. "Normal human couples... as I understand it, they look forward to growing old together. That's something I can never do with you."

I felt her fist thump lightly against my hip. "Don't be silly, Jas. It wouldn't have been the two of us getting older together, given what happened to me, it would have been you getting older alone. And anyway, I'm glad you didn't change. At least there was one familiar face there to welcome me back. Everyone else is different. Even Cass. She's matured so much from what I remember... Besides, if you've stolen from me, then I've stolen something equally valuable from you. You deserve a Crystal Weaver wife, someone who would be able to understand your powers and be part of your Weave. Someone who wouldn't die of old age and leave you and our daughter alone."

"We have to accept what the gods offer us," I said. "You're human, and I can't ever imagine being with anyone else. Maybe it isn't as fairytale-perfect as we'd like it to be, but you know, there are millions of people out there who never find real love. We've both already been tremendously lucky, don't you think?" I kissed her, long and hard, trying to put all of my love and all of my desire into it. "Now, we really do need to get some sleep."

Where her body was pressed against mine, I felt her breath catch in an unvoiced laugh. "You bastard. You're going to make me wait until morning to get satisfaction, aren't you? All right. But you'd better be ready for me then." And she slid her hand down and squeezed a very sensitive part of my anatomy.

Despite her protests, she fell asleep much sooner than I did. I ended up lying awake in the darkness, watching her breathe, and thinking dark thoughts.

What if I lose her tomorrow? What if I'm wrong, and Cass and Tourmaline can't protect her?

But I couldn't very well not let her go on the hunt. If I did, I'd be the one killing her--not in the same way, but just as surely.

Goto Chapter 27


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