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

Chapter 29

© 2006 by E. Liddell


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Mina

"So if I'm the bait and you're the hook, where's the fish?"

Cass shrugged expressively. "I wish I knew. Damn, but this outfit is uncomfortable."

I almost laughed as she tugged at the collar of her Palace Guard's uniform. And this is coming from someone who spends most of her time wearing greys? She did make a convincing young Guardsman, though, with her breasts bound and her hair dyed and her voice pitched an octave deeper than normal. Or maybe it was just that it would have been difficult for anyone to look feminine while wearing such a big sword slung across her back... Four-and-a-half-foot edged weapons aren't really part of the standard Guard kit, but she'd refused to leave it behind. I just hoped that Rini didn't recognize it, or our whole operation would be a waste...

I tightened my hand around my compact. No. I won't let it be wasted. If need be, I'll... I'll... I don't know, but I'll sure as heck dosomething!

"And I feel like my head's stuffed full of something noxious. Never again."

"The magic nullifiers, you mean?" I asked. "Surely it can't be that bad."

Cass grimaced. "I know this is kind of a cliche, but it feels like I've been struck blind. I never realized how much I applied my magical perceptions to my surroundings until I couldn't anymore. I know it's the only way to keep them from detecting me, but... never again."

"At least you're not fifty-plus years old and walking down the street wearing a mini-skirt," I replied. I didn't really mind that so much, but the people we passed were giving me strange looks. Of course, it probably didn't help that the mini-skirt was part of a Sailor Scout uniform that none of them had ever seen before, but...

"And we've been at this for three hours already," Cass added, "and no sign of them. Damn. I wish I could contact Tourmaline."

"So do I," I admitted.

I glanced up, trying to be discreet as I scanned the rooftops. I didn't see anything, but the truth was that I didn't know what to look for, beyond checking for a certain shade of grey. I'd never actually met Tourmaline, and didn't really know much about her. Not that I really cared. She was of Jasper's Weave, and she was competent--if she hadn't been, he wouldn't have sent her. That was all I needed to know.

"I think this area might be too populated," Cass said at last. "When they attacked Mercury and I, we were alone on a rooftop. Zircon and Jupiter got ambushed in an alley behind a warehouse, and Opal and Mars were taking a shortcut across a construction site near the docks. We need to find somewhere where there aren't any witnesses. Hmmm. There's a freight yard over that way a few blocks." She waved her left hand. "Unless you've got a better idea."

"No, that's fine."

We turned left at the next intersection.

"So much for our mother-and-child night on the town," I added with a grin. "It's a shame. Marc tells me you don't get out much." Motherly meddling and I knew it, but with all the crises going on, Cass and I hadn't had time yet to just talk.

"Sumire and Rhea and I go out for dinner now and then."

"With Rhea along? Oh, dear. That can't be very romantic."

"Mom!"

I waved my hands. "All right, all right, I was just teasing--and you know it. But I would have thought by this time that you'd have met someone."

"Not yet. It isn't like I don't have time, after all.." But the expression on her face was... odd. "Mom, how old were you when you first fell in love with someone?"

"Thirteen. I was thirteen."

I barely heard Cass's, "Oh," because my mind was wandering through memories that I thought had vanished a long time ago. Kaitou Ace. Danburite. I couldn't remember the last time he'd even crossed my mind. It might even have been before Cass was born.

Poor fool.

"What was he like?"

I shook my head. "I didn't really get to know him all that well. It was just a silly crush. And he was a liar."

--I'll tell your final love fortune. Your love will be hopeless for all eternity.

I shivered. But he was wrong. I found love, with Jasper. He was wrong.

So why do his words give me a weird chill every time I remember them?

Geez, I'm acting like I'm another Demantoid, or something. Like my feelings about the future mean something. I need to lighten up.

But nevertheless, the back of my neck prickled as we walked up the increasingly deserted street. Precognition or no, I had the feeling that something was going to happen. Soon.


Cass

I had never felt more miserable in my life.

Oh, the uniform wasn't really so bad--the jacket collar was lower than the one on my greys, for one thing, although the pants were more fitted and hampered my movements a bit. It was the damned rings that I wore on either hand, the magic nullifiers, that were driving me nuts. Not that Sapphire hadn't warned me that that would be the case when he gave them to me. Not that I hadn't argued him into it, too. As a Crystal Weaver, I carry an impressive concentration of magic with me, and anyone sensitive to it would be able to track me without even trying. And that included Rini and her blonde friend. So I didn't have a choice.

But it felt like... Well, can you imagine waking up one morning and discovering that you've suddenly gone colourblind? Something subtle like that. Not really like true blindness, but there was a sense of something missing that should have been there.

I can't believe that I agreed to this when Dad suggested it. After all, the Flamingo Head and her sidekick had been willing to attack me before, knowing who and what I was. Why wouldn't they be willing to do it again?

Are we even doing a convincing Sailor Scout and Escort imitation? I glanced at Mom, who seemed to be lost in her own thoughts. The hope had been that Rini would think that we were desperate, that we were recalling the retired Scouts and sending them out with inadequate backup because we needed more help and didn't know where else to go for it, but I didn't know how plausible she'd find the idea, and her blonde friend was a totally unknown quantity. All we knew about him was that he wasn't from the modern Dark Moon, because Sapphire hadn't recognized him.

Evil is stupid, I reminded myself. Demons can't control people without clouding their minds. That's just how it works. It's a natural law. They'll fall for it.

But I still found myself surreptitiously checking to make sure I could get those rings off in a hurry. If--when--they attacked us, I would be a sitting duck without my magic, that was for sure.

The streets around us were completely empty now. It had been at least five minutes since we had last passed anyone. If there's an attack, it's going to come very soon.

Had that been a movement, back there in the shadows? I forced myself not to react, not to tear the rings off and reach for my sword. Wait for it...

Movement, yes, but the figure of which I'd caught a brief glimpse out of the corner of my eye had too many arms to be human even without the vestigial wings. And there was another over there, easily nine feet tall, and a third, so distorted that I couldn't count its limbs or judge its height.

I reached out and touched Mom's arm. "Careful. There are youma all around us. Don't react until they actually try something, though."

We kept walking, but it was difficult to keep my nervousness from showing in every move that I made.

We were supposed to have some warning of situations like this! Damn it, where is Tourmaline?


Tourmaline

I followed them at a distance, keeping mostly to the rooftops. It was an awkward mode of travel for someone who had never entirely mastered power-jumping, but I did the best I could. I didn't have much choice. I was under orders, after all.

Picturing Jasper standing there in front of me, I stuck out my tongue at the mental image. And just what is it that's supposed to give you the right?

I'm just not cut out for military discipline, I guess. It was the thing I loathed most about the Negaverse. The way some of the more senior Generals would look at me, as though they were gods and I was some lowly, disobedient mortal worshipper... well, let's just say that the ability to use my magic freely wasn't enough to make up for it. Not to mention that fact that it's difficult to conduct a romance with someone who is, at least nominally, your superior officer.

Not that there was any question of that anymore. Bitterly, I watched Mina Aino-Tsumeta and her daughter stroll down the street together. All I had left was that dream, and you took it away from me... but that wasn't really fair. I'd known all along that Jasper's heart belonged to someone else. I'd just forced myself to hide from the truth, because I'd had a choice between living in a fantasy world and trying to endure a reality where everyone who mattered to me was centuries dead.

I'm so alone... To my horror, I found that my eyes were stinging with tears. No. No! Jasper might tune in to my thoughts at any moment. I can't let him... can't let him know... My Weavemates would all despise me for showing emotional weakness. Almost the first thing I had learned about the Negaverse was that the appearance of strength was very important there.

I thought fixedly of my current project, the monumental sculpture that I had been working on, on and off, for years now, building the image of it in my mind. That detail of the central figure's collar... yes, it was a bit off. I would have to fix it, the next time I had a moment for that sort of work.

I looked down and cursed softly. The Aino-Tsumeta mother-and-daughter team had moved on while I'd been thinking and were now two blocks further ahead of me than I'd intended. I'd have to hurry to catch up with them. I wish I could have contacted Cass and told her to slow down, but the magical nullifiers she was wearing made mindspeech with her impossible. Given the choice, I would have preferred that she hadn't worn them, but I hadn't been given the opportunity to vote on that decision. Jasper had just told me that it would be the case, and that was it.

How could I be even sort-of, guiltily in love with a man that sometimes exasperated me so much?

Where in hell are they going? They'd just turned down a side street, one on the opposite side of the street from me. Figures. I jumped up to the roof of the building on my right, which was enough higher than its counterpart across the street to give me a little leeway in terms of landing, and I...

... stopped dead in my tracks, as something tapped me firmly on the shoulder. But when I turned, there was nothing there.

"Surprise," a man's voice whispered in my ear as something clamped tight around my body, binding my arms to my sides and clamping my legs to one another and basically making me helpless.

<<Jasper!>>

"Oh, you wish." A woman spoke from the side opposite the man as I felt my call fall away into empty darkness. I turned my head, which was just about the only part of me that could move. She had her back to me, but I could see pink hair. Princess Serenity. And on my other side... short, blonde hair and the crescent symbol of the Black Moon. Oh, hell...

<<Cuprite! Avi! Pyrope! Anyone!>> But it was useless. I'd spent so much time building barriers around my mind that I now had no idea of how to destroy those that had been imposed on me from outside.

The man reached out a hand to stroke my face.

"It was a nice little trap," he purred, his voice low and intimate. "A Sailor Scout as the bait, and an underpowered Crystal Weaver and a Palace Guard as her backup. It's a shame that Jasper wasn't bright enough to figure out that we'd spot you as well as her, isn't it? Did you think hopping around on the rooftops would be inconspicuous? You couldn't have made yourself easier to find without trailing a banner along behind you."

An underpowered Crystal Weaver and a Palace Guard as her backup... ? But that means that they don't know about Cass...

The demonic energy that they carry with them will cloud their senses, Jasper had told us. They'll still be able to find anything that they may be looking for, true, but they do have to be looking for it. Your job--all three of you--is to keep them from looking until it's too late.

We have a chance, I thought, and closed my eyes and bit my lip to keep myself from smiling with relief. A chance.

I had to believe it.


Cass

"This is going to be ugly." I barely breathed the words, not knowing whether or not Mom heard me. It didn't matter, anyway. She knew what was coming as well as I did.

There had to be thirty or forty of them surrounding us now. Thirty or forty! They really had to want us dead. Actually, even by that standard, they were being... cautious. I could take between ten and a dozen youma myself (depending on which youma they were), just as any other self-respecting General could, but twenty was a bit much. Either Rini and company were really, really afraid of Mom-as-Sailor-V, or they'd figured me out.

And still the damned youma weren't doing anything. They weren't even coming out of the shadows. What in hell... ?

"We need to get back to a more populated area," Mom said. "They don't seem to want to involve civilians."

"I doubt they'll let us." I glanced around. Closer to fifty, now... half the possessed people in the city must be converging on this spot. "Youma may be many things, but they aren't completely stupid, even when there's a demon controlling them. This is a trap, and they're going to herd us somewhere. And the truth is that there's so many of them that there isn't a damned thing we can do to stop them. But I suppose that turning back's worth a try, even if I don't expect it to work."

We turned and cautiously began to retrace our steps. Sure enough, youma began to fade in from the shadows on either side of us. A few moments later, the first spells were fired, shattering the sidewalk in front of us. Mom and I stopped dead in our tracks and took up a defensive position, back to back. I drew my sword, but I kept the nullifiers on.

These aren't our quarry. Our real targets haven't even shown up yet, and when they do, I want to take them by surprise, if I can.

The youma surrounded us, placing us at the center of a circle of flesh some fifteen feet in diameter. None of them spoke. Damn, but this is eerie. I don't think my life's ever been in danger in full daylight and total silence before.

"So what are you waiting for?" I had to say something, anything, just to break that disturbing total absence of sound. "Come on! Attack, or at least say something! Stop wasting my time! I've got places to be, you know."

A soft chuckle. "In that case, what are you doing wandering around here at this hour of the day?" asked an unfamiliar male voice. Not in the crowd, so where... ? I looked around as best I could, paying particular attention to up, and eventually locating the slender blonde figure standing on a roof over to my left. I couldn't see him very well at this distance, but I was certain that our quarry had finally shown himself. And even if I take the nullifiers off, he's too far away for me to be certain of hitting him even if my powers are strong enough to overcome his defenses, which I'm not sure about. Damn this self-induced pseudo-blindness!

"Oh, and if you're waiting for your Crystal Weaver backup, she isn't going to get here any time soon," the blonde added, glancing over his shoulder for a moment. "Although I suppose you might want this back..."

He drew his arm back and threw something at us, lofting it in a high arc over the heads of the youma. I shifted my grip on my sword, freeing one hand to reach up and catch the object. If it's a trap, if it's a bomb, better me than Mom. But it was a small, glittering, green-black crystal in a dulled metal setting.

My eyes widened. Tourmaline's spirit crystal! Oh, no!

"What have you done to her, you son of a bitch?" Tourmaline wasn't exactly my best friend or anything, but she was a fellow General and Crystal Weaver, and I wasn't about to leave her to the tender mercies of this... this creature.

"Now, that would be telling."

The words I yelled back described an anatomically impossible act in which his parents might possibly have indulged during their production of him. I think Mom winced at that point. She never has had much of an appreciation for the finer points of cussing someone out.

Swearing at him made me feel a bit better, so I added a few more choice phrases before winding down.

"Young man, you really do need to learn something about behaviour in polite society." Judging from the tone of voice, he had to be shaking his head in mock sadness. Well, let him. If I'd known how blind he was, I would have impugned his intelligence instead of his ancestry. He still thinks I'm a boy. Well, good.

"Crescent Boomerang!"

My eyes widened in surprise and admiration as I saw Mom's shot almost manage to clip the blonde man. He escaped only by ducking out of the way in a most undignified manner. I hadn't known that she had such good aim. Well, I never really did get to see her at the top of her form, the way she must have been during the wars. Still, I used to see her train often enough. I should have realized...

"Go after him."

My lips parted, and I was about to protest, but Mom repeated, "Go after him. One of us has to, or Tourmaline will die. And it has to be you. I can't fly, and I'm too old to power-jump."

"But if I leave you here alone, you'll die." We'd only just gotten her back! I wouldn't... I wasn't going to...

"Not if you scream for help the moment you take those nullifiers off. I think I can hold them off for ten minutes or so. Now go!"

I didn't need any more encouragement to tear the rings off my fingers.

<<Dad!>>

Goto Chapter 30


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