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

Chapter 28

© 2006 by E. Liddell


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Adamant

"I still wish that you hadn't brought them back here."

I shook my head and tried to remember the name of the young man who had spoken. Rhodonite? Rhodizite? Something like that.

"We've been over this already," Andalusite said. I was grateful for her support at the same time as I was embarrassed to have her speaking for me.

<<Oh, stop that. Handling people just isn't your strong suit, old friend, and I'm glad to do it on your behalf.>>

<<Still, I'm supposed to be the leader here,>> I stated.

<<And you are. You make the plans and the decisions. I just convince everyone to go along with them. Stop being so insecure.>>

I didn't dare smile at her, not in the middle of a conference, but I could sense her feeling my wish to, which was almost as good.

"This is the easiest place to keep an eye on them," my friend continued. "They're both weak from fighting the mist demon, and their guards will report to myself or Lord Adamant if either of them should so much as twitch. We have nothing to worry about."

The youth--Rhodolite, that was it--shrugged. He didn't look particularly repentant, to my eye, but I told myself that that was just because I was having a hard time reading him. Again.

The meeting broke up shortly after that, and people began to drift away, until only Andalusite and I remained.

<<You're worried,>> she stated.

<<I'm worried,>> I agreed. <<Aren't you? Until these strangers arrived, I thought the demons were our total antithesis. How can it be possible for them to carry both sorts of power? What if they're some sort of... of anti- Crystal-Weavers created by the demons?>>

<<Then we'll deal with them,>> she replied firmly. <<Unless... You haven't received some sort of warning, have you?>>

I shook my head. <<Not even a nibble. I don't have any feelings about them at all. The gods have been silent ever since we found those two. Which could be good or bad.>>

<<So they could be irrelevant, or powerful enough to intercept any warnings that you should be receiving... or the gods could just be keeping secrets from us again.>> She stared at the mirror-polished surface of her helmet with a thoughtful frown. <<You know, I'm not sure which of those possibilities disturbs me the most.>>

<<Neither am I,>> I stated grimly.

I had to shade my eyes as I left the meeting tent. Damn. When was the last time I was outside in the middle of the afternoon? It feels like it's been forever... Most of the demons we'd been getting around here lately were of the nocturnal varieties, which meant that those of us who hunted them also had to live by night.

I had intended to head back toward my own little tent and my bed, but some impulse drew me toward the infirmary tent. Instantly wary, wondering whether this was really my own impulse or guidance from someone else entirely, I decided to look in on the strangers.

<<Any change?>> I asked the healer in charge of the tent.

<<Not in the auburn-haired one,>> she replied. <<He's had some kind of massive shock--I think the demon may have gotten at his spirit crystal. He's healing fast, but it's still going to be a day or two before he wakes up. The other one's a different story. I think he may already be awake, but it's nearly impossible for me to get anything from him through all the layers of wards he's carrying around, and he won't react to anything we do or say. I don't know. Maybe I'm wrong, but...>>

But. Exactly. If she was right, this all-too- powerful stranger who carried faint traces of demonic power with him was reacting as though he thought we were enemies, or at least, not friends. Who would their friends be, anyway? Where do they come from? Not from within our community, I knew that much. There weren't yet so many of us that I didn't know every Crystal Weaver by name--or so I'd thought until these two had shown up.

<<I'll look in on them, anyway,>> I told the healer, and stepped through curtain and ward to enter the part of the tent that had been closed off for our unexpected visitors. The guard flanking it nodded to me as I passed him.

Somehow, the healers had scrounged up cots for both of the strangers. The auburn-haired man lay on his back, one hand curled around his spirit crystal, breathing slowly but deeply. Still deep asleep, then, as the healer had said. Fair enough. The other...

I turned to face the other bed, and found myself taking an involuntary step backward. Damn! How did he... I should have heard him move. Or sensed him. He'sgood.

The white-haired man was on his feet--stark naked except for his spirit crystal and the band of enchanted metal around his left wrist, but if he didn't care (and why should he, with a physique like that?) then I didn't either. Cold silver eyes measured me, and the mind behind them decided... Well, to be honest, I don't know quite what it decided. Even after I learned his name, I was never quite able to figure out how that man thought.

<<Adamant, I presume. It's odd. Despite everything, I always thought you were taller.>>

How do you know my name? The obvious question appeared readily in my mind, and I almost projected it. Almost. In fact, I thought I had, but what came out instead was, <<Who are you?>> When I realized what had happened, I froze. A slip of the tongue, or of the mind, can have many causes for most people, but with me it most often meant that the gods were taking a hand in my life again, and they don't interfere for small stuff. If they cared about this man, that meant that he was important.

<<My name is Malachite.>> Another long, cool look, and he folded himself into a sitting position on the edge of his bed. To my surprise, I relaxed immediately once he was no longer towering over me.

It had been a long time since I had last met anyone powerful enough for my subconscious to consider him a threat, but Malachite was almost as magically powerful as I was, and in a purely physical contest, he'd be able to tie me into knots. And he radiated authority and confidence, albeit in a chilly sort of way. Overall, he was my equal. Maybe even my superior. Certainly I would have to be very careful around him.

<<I'd like to thank you for dealing with the mist demon,>> I added. <<It was... making a nuisance of itself.>> Probing. Are you an ally of the demons?

He shrugged. <<We didn't do it for you. In fact, we didn't even know you were here, although...>>

<<Although?>> I prompted.

<<Although it was implied that someone might be. Our guide offered us answers to our questions, which, to my mind, had to mean either people or records of some sort.>>

<<Your questions.>> And I waited.

He smiled, if one can glorify a minor quirk at one corner of someone's mouth with that term. <<Not yet. Not until I'm sure that you're the one I'm supposed to be putting them to.>>

I frowned. He really doesn't trust us. Not exactly a reassuring thought.

He glanced over at the bed where his companion lay. <<Do you know... is he going to be all right?>>

<<We think so. Can't you tell?>> It would have taken a far less perspicacious man than me to miss the Weavelink that bound the two of them together.

He shook his head. <<Only that he's deeply asleep- -closer to comatose, really. I take it that it would be better to leave him to wake on his own?>>

<<That's my understanding.>> I hesitated, then added, <<What happened to the rest of your Weave?>>

<<I don't know. We were attacked. The others could literally be anywhere.>>

<<You can't sense them?>>

<<No. The linkage between us has been blocked.>> For a moment, I thought I actually saw a hint of expression flicker across his face--deep concern, maybe even worry. Then it was gone again, and I was left to stare, once again, at the inscrutable icy facade that he seemed to prefer to present.

He reached over to pick up his clothes from where they lay folded at the foot of the bed, and shook them out. Another flicker, this time of disgust, marred his inscrutability. Then he muttered something out loud and began to pull his trousers on. I caught a word or two of what he had said, and frowned, because I couldn't understand it. Not at all. It didn't even sound like any language I knew.

"Can you understand me?" I asked aloud.

<<I don't know your language,>> came the brusque reply. <<Or rather, I only have a few words of it. If you want me to be able to understand you, you're going to have to confine your remarks to the mindspeech.>> He sat down on the edge of his bed and began to pull on his boots.

Well, that answersthat question...

Footwear in place, he ran his hand through his long, pale hair, and grimaced as his fingers snagged on a tangle. <<I don't suppose you have a comb, do you?>>

<<I'm afraid not. Why don't you just conjure one?>>

No response. I wasn't sure whether he thought he was still too weak to create something out of nothing and didn't want to admit it to me, or whether he was just being annoying.

<<Where are you from?>> That was a question that had been on my mind for some minutes now.

<<A place that you'll never see.>>

So much for that line of questioning.

<<What do you intend to do with us?>> He was still sitting with his head bowed, raking his hands through his hair, not looking at me.

<<I don't know,>> I admitted. <<I don't think you mean us harm, but...>>

<<But you don't trust us. Well, at least that proves you're sensible.>> Now he did look at me, silver eyes glittering up through a curtain of hair. <<I assume that this means that the guard outside is more than decorative, and that you don't intend to permit us to go anywhere alone.>>

<<That's right.>> I didn't quite hold my breath, but I came close. If he wanted to argue about it, things could get really messy really fast.

<<Very well. I accept your hospitality, at least for the present.>> His words were coloured with just the tiniest bit of razor-sharp humour.

<<What about him?>> I waved my hand in the direction of the auburn-haired man.

<<He'll abide by my word.>>

I wasn't certain that I believed him, but... <<Good. I'll tell the others that you're awake. Is there anything that you need? Other than a comb, I mean.>>

<<Nothing. Thank you.>> I got the impression that he was just the least bit... bemused.

<<You must be hungry, at least,>> I persisted.

<<It isn't polite for a guest to complain of discomfort to his host.>> His mouth moved again, quirking in that minimal way that seemed to symbolize humour.

<<I'll have them bring you something.>> Not the best exit line, but it would have to do.

I pushed back through the curtain and into the main tent, spoke briefly to one of the nurses, and then resumed my interrupted trek toward my bed, even though I suspected that I wouldn't be getting much sleep now.

Malachite. Proud and strong and cold, and yet, at the same time, charismatic and unexpectedly personable. I wanted to like him, but I didn't quite dare.

What is the connection between him and the demons?

The gods didn't answer. I was going to have to muddle through this one for myself.


Malachite

Well, that was certainly...

I groped for a word, and couldn't seem to find one. Unexpected seemed a bit too weak, surprising a bit too strong. He had been exactly as I had always imagined him, and yet... not. Weaker, more fallible, more... human.

At least I can disabuse myself now of the idea that Kyanite is just another incarnation of Adamant. Their mental signatures were completely different, and even total amnesia shouldn't have been able to cause that kind of change. Not even given the time elapsed.

I didn't want to admit to myself that I was relieved. It would have been... vaguely obscene... to think of such an ancient soul looking at me out of those eyes that were so much like Zoisite's...

I reached again for the place inside me where the Weavelink should have been, and felt only the black wall that had been there ever since we had been torn apart in the Timestream.

<<Zoisite!>>

I knew before I did it that it was futile for me to call for him, that my cry would just fall away into the black silence and be lost, but I was so afraid for him...

He's found his way home already. I have to believe that, or I won't be able to stay sane. He's home and he's safe. And Kyanite is too, I added as an afterthought. The only people I have to worry about are myself and Nephrite.

Which was more than enough.

Someone pushed the curtain through which Adamant had exited aside, and tentatively poked a tray through.

<<Come in,>> I told the stranger, still feeling a little bemused.

She was tiny, barely more than four and a half feet tall, and of a general physical type that I would have described as very Oriental, had we been in my own time. She was also wearing a spirit crystal set into a crude gold bracelet around her right wrist, and a short sword over her left hip. I somehow got the feeling that I shouldn't underestimate her.

She set the tray beside me on the cot. Stew, a hunk of bread, a wedge of cheese, a crude earthenware mug of water, and the requested comb.

<<Thank you,>> I told her as she turned to go back through the curtain. Being polite couldn't hurt, anyway.

<<Don't read too much into it.>>

I stared at the curtain for a long time after she had left, wondering why I had sensed such great hostility in her mindvoice. I had expected nervousness, fear, irritation--perhaps even anger--to be aimed in Nephrite's and my direction, but not hatred, and I was at a loss to explain why someone who didn't know anything about us would feel the way she had.

The stew was cooling when I finally began to eat, and I suspect that the water had been lukewarm from the moment she had brought it in, but it was still better than being hungry. After I had eaten, I went to work with the comb in an effort to make myself a bit more presentable. I should have asked for a bath and a change of clothes, or at least some wash water. I wasn't even about to try conjuring the required articles for myself. I had recovered somewhat from my little adventure with the mist demon while I slept, but my power reserves were still lower than I would have preferred, and I was effectively alone in strange, potentially hostile, territory.

But still, I hated to think about what I looked like just then. My appearance couldn't be very regal, under the circumstances. Not that it really mattered, when Zoisite wasn't here to see me.

This time, when the curtain was twitched to one side, it was the point of a spear and not a tray that confronted me.

<<Was there something that you wanted?>> I allowed myself to be a bit sharp this time. It is never polite to confront an unarmed man with a weapon in your hand, and I had already noticed that Nephrite's and my swords weren't here with us.

<<Lord Adamant suggested that you might want to see the camp,>> came the reply.

I narrowed my eyes. Going with my would-be escort would mean separating myself from Nephrite... and yet no one here had actually offered to harm us, and it was a chance to get to know these people better.

<<All right,>> I said at last, but I laid a light ward around Nephrite's bed before I rose from my cot. If anyone so much as straightened his blankets, I would know about it.

The man with the spear held the curtain to one side for me as I stepped through it and into the main part of the tent. Cots were the first things that greeted my eyes. A double row of cots, all occupied, with rough straw mattresses jammed into the spaces between them. I could smell blood and the roasted-meat odor peculiar to burned human flesh, along with other things that were far less wholesome. The ground underneath my feet had been grassy once, but most of it had been pounded bare by people walking back and forth, and the few remaining wisps of vegetation were yellowed, starved of sunlight by the canvas mere inches above my head. An infirmary. In a tent. Looks like they've been getting hit hard.

Adamant was nowhere to be seen. I walked forward, between the rows of wounded, pretending that I didn't notice that people were practically jumping out of my way, or that incomprehensible conversations were grinding to a halt as I passed, only to resume when they thought I was out of earshot. What do they think I am? Why are they so frightened?

My escort clung to my heels, spear at the ready, as I moved forward. He was barely shoulder-high to me, but solidly muscled, and like the woman who had brought the tray earlier, he wore a crude band of hammered gold around his wrist, inset with what could only be a spirit crystal. Glancing over my shoulder, I noted that another man of similar height and build, armed with a short sword in addition to a spear and his crystal, stood just to one side of the curtain that closed off the area where Nephrite still lay. They aren't taking any chances.

I pushed ahead, out through the tent flap.

The sunlight outside was bright enough to bring tears to my eyes. I frowned and squinted. More tents, perhaps two or three dozen of them. They had been here long enough that there were dirt tracks, the precursors of streets, winding between them. Here, too, people were stopping to stare at me, then hurrying about their business, conversing in low tones.

So very few... Where were all the others? And why did I think that there should be others? It wasn't until I asked myself that question that I realized that I recognized my surroundings. I had only visited the ruins of the Crystal Weaver city a couple of times in the modern period, and there was no city here yet, but the pattern formed by the mountain peaks on the horizon was unmistakable.

We've dropped back closer to five thousand years than four, I thought, incredulous. This was the very beginning of the Blood Millennium War, and these people around me, who lived in a tent village in a mountain valley, were the very first of my race. This was a time so long ago that I doubted even Demantoid could have told me much about it, should I have asked him.

Almost none of those around me displayed the peculiar facial structure that was characteristic of our race. In fact, I would have thought that most of them were humans, if it hadn't been for the feeling of power that they carried, and the occasional power deformity in evidence. And they were all so damned short. An effect of malnutrition, most likely, but it still made me feel like some kind of foreign giant.

I walked slowly along the street, wanting to get away from all the people for a while. That way they all had of not- looking at me was... disturbing. One young man, who had green feathers woven into his hair--or rather, I realized, growing from his head, a showy but harmless power deformity--actually turned away as I approached and spat on the ground. Again I was puzzled by the seemingly sourceless hatred that these people demonstrated. Neither Nephrite nor I had harmed any of them. In fact, we had helped them, by eliminating the mist demon. So why... ?

"Tödo klo kimlube-ishül mroesdabyelkha tözha!"

And there it was again. I couldn't understand the words, or see the speaker, but the tone indicated that it was abuse or insult, and I could sense that it had been aimed at me. However, I couldn't let it disturb me. I had a purpose here, in this place, and I could not permit myself to be distracted from it.

My meandering path had led me into a narrow gap between a tent and a low cliff perhaps ten feet high. I leaned back against the exposed rockface, feeling the warmth it had absorbed from the sun through my bare skin, and permitted myself to relax infinitesimally. I felt a little less paranoid with solid stone at my back.

I didn't even consciously sense the attack. Instead, I reacted reflexively, strengthening the light net of wards that always surrounded me and flinging an energy boomerang in what was roughly the appropriate direction before my eyes were even fully open again.

I was staring straight into the face of a youth--probably no more than six years old, although a human would have guessed him at fifteen or so--who was staring dumbly back at me, one hand groping at the redness that had suddenly flowered at his shoulder, where my boomerang had solidly buried itself.

Stupid! I chastised myself. I had reacted with full force to what had, I realized, been nothing more than an adolescent prank, a weak burst of energy intended to sting, not to harm. I had convinced myself a little too thoroughly of the fact that I was in dangerous territory, and now I was going to pay the price.

But not at the cost of an innocent life.

The boy's eyes were beginning to glaze over in shock. I grabbed him and tore his shirt open to get a better look at the wound. I wasn't any kind of an expert on anatomy, but I thought that, unless a power deformity that I didn't know about had distorted that part of his body, my weapon hadn't damaged anything vital. I dissolved the boomerang and immediately slapped a ward over the wound, flush with the skin, to keep as much as possible of his blood inside, where he needed it.

<<Well, don't just stand there!>> I snapped at my escort. <<Call a Healer! I can keep him from bleeding to death, but I can't do anything for shock. I'm not going anywhere.>>

<<How can I-->>

<<I'm not going anywhere,>> I repeated in irritation. <<I acknowledge that I am largely at fault here, and that there will be consequences, but now isn't the time to worry about that.>> And I didn't want to run away and leave Nephrite alone here in the camp, at the mercy of Adamant and his followers. Not yet. If I needed to escape, there would be other chances, I was certain.

My escort vanished in a swirl of pinkish light. I helped the boy seat himself on the ground, and sat beside him, the stone still warm against my back.

<<Why did you do it?>> I asked him, although I didn't really think that I was going to get an answer. His eyes looked too glazed for that.

<<Because you stink of demon.>>

I stared at him, but it wasn't him that I was seeing. And then, painfully, I began to laugh.

It was either that, or begin to cry.

Perhaps the Negaforce has killed me for good after all.

Goto Interlude VII


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