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

Chapter 30

© 2006 by E. Liddell


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Beryl

Endymion stirred and muttered something as I slid myself out of his embrace. I touched his mind, deepening his sleep and making sure that he wouldn't follow me. In the early days of our relationship, I'd gloried in his possessiveness. His desire to always be with me had been an ego boost, a proof that there was at least one man in this world who wasn't my father and who didn't find me repulsive. But these days, he was becoming more of a nuisance, getting underfoot whenever I most needed to be alone. And there was always that little nagging doubt in the back of my mind. If he hadn't been so thoroughly brainwashed, would he even have given me a second glance? In any case, it was fortunate that he lacked the instincts to go with the magic that Metallia had given him. It made him easy for me to manipulate.

I conjured myself a clean dress and made a mental note to tell the youma servants to change the sheets on our bed. We really were going to have to learn not to make so much of a mess of it every night...

Hell, what am I even doing up? I suppose I could go see Dad. It had been months since he'd even pretended to sleep. The youma took him food from time to time, so I knew that he still ate, although the intervals between his meals had been becoming longer and longer recently.

Is there anything... human... still left in him? Unshed tears prickled at my eyes. He had been so wonderful--the only person who had ever accepted me as I was, and cared about me--and now here he was, being taken over by a demon, while I compensated myself with a second-hand boy-toy... but what could I do? There was no way that I could get him back. No one in the Negaverse was strong enough to take on Metallia, and there was nothing left of Earth at all. We had destroyed it, under the demon goddess's direction, and not even the Silver Crystal had been strong enough to stop us. That last relic of Serenity's kingdom now sat on a glassed-in pedestal in the throne room that my father no longer used. There was nothing left, no chances... nothing.

I wandered out into the outer room of the suite that I shared with Endymion, and sat down at my desk, which was perpetually piled high with paperwork. I hated reading and approving all of those damned documents, but someone had to do it, and Endymion wouldn't, and my father couldn't anymore. If I'd known exactly what it was that Kunzite did with his time, I never would have demanded that he be exiled. You could fill books with what I didn't know and had never wanted to learn about this kind of administrative work.

Kunzite... What would he have done in my place? Until I had broken him, he had been the most powerful Crystal Weaver and the best strategist that I had ever known. How would he have dealt with my father and Metallia and a kingdom that was beginning to crumble, subtly, from lack of leadership? And why do I persist in thinking of him as though he's dead? Endymion had seen him and spoken to him barely two days ago. Or what was left of him. But my lover had described Kunzite as being "the same as ever", which, to my mind, meant "commanding and dangerous". Back in control of himself. Perhaps seeing his lover apparently alive again had made him pull himself back together.

Kunzite could help me stop this.

Great Metallia, what am I thinking? My utter lack of potential allies was making me see possibilities where none existed. And yet... Kunzite and whoever he might be with just now were probably the only people anywhere who weren't under the demon goddess's control. The only people who might work against her. But I had nothing to offer him or them.

Revenge? That was a laugh. The person against whom Kunzite most likely wanted revenge was myself, and that kind of self-sacrifice was more than I was capable of, even if it meant my father's life. Power, prestige... Well, Kunzite had cared about power, but in a chilly sort of way. I doubted that he would be willing to risk his life for it. And I couldn't give him the one thing that I knew he really wanted. I'd seen Zoisite's spirit crystal destroyed myself. Endymion's reports notwithstanding, Kunzite's blonde pretty-boy lover no longer existed.

I should have gone back to bed, crawled into Endymion's arms and forgotten all about this sort of stuff. Instead, I sat down at my desk and leaned my head against my folded arms.

I'm too weak to save him. I was fundamentally flawed, but then, if I hadn't been, I wouldn't have given myself over to Metallia, would I? It was a good thing that she didn't often eavesdrop on my thoughts these days. Even the black haze that normally clouded my mind hadn't seemed quite as thick lately. Because her attention is all on him.

And I still couldn't do anything about it.


Amber

I propped the mop against the wall and slid down into a sitting position on the section of floor that I'd just cleaned.

Why am I even bothering with this? It wasn't as though either of my companions-in-exile were likely to appreciate my efforts to make the abandoned mansion livable again. When we'd gotten here yesterday, Kunzite had made a weak effort to clean himself up, and then curled up on a dusty, crumbling mattress and gone to sleep. As far as I knew, he still hadn't woken up. Zoisite had retreated into Nephrite's workroom to consider our options for creating an amplifier or other device that might let us access the Timestream without Kunzite's help. Each time he'd emerged from there, he had seemed more irritated and out-of-sorts, and I had decided that it was probably best for me to stay out of his way, block the Weavelink, and generally try not to remind him that I existed.

Which left me alone, out here, with nothing to do but sit and wait. At least cleaning was better than that, even though it's a task that I've always loathed. In any case, I didn't have youma servants to do the work for me here, and I was damned if I was going to live in a pigsty, even for just a few days. When I'd been merely human, I'd cleaned, all right, no matter how much I'd hated it. I'd used it to keep my thoughts at bay back then, too.

A shame that it wasn't really all that effective.

He's alive here. It was almost the first time that I'd permitted myself to think it. Alive. My father. Here in this universe. But not the same, I reminded myself. Here, I suspected that he had never met a woman named Susan, never married her, never had a daughter with her. There wasn't--there couldn't be--a me in this universe. If there had been, I didn't think he could have become the monster that Kunzite had told us that he was.

Half flesh, half metal, more demonic than human, he rules the Negaverse with an iron hand. A chilling little portrait, and nothing at all like the gentle, melancholy man that I remembered. There had to be a way to heal him, though.

I shook my head. That isn't why we're here and you know it. We have to get back home beforeMena Kimlubeniz goes on a rampage and there's no home to go back to.

But oh dear gods, how I wished that weren't so.

<<Amber!>>

I gritted my teeth. <<What is it, Zoisite?>>

<<Go check Kunzite, and wake him if he's still asleep. We need to talk, all three of us.>>

I will not bite the little git's head off for assuming I'm his lackey, because I need him to get back home to my husband and children... <<All right. Give me a few minutes.>>


Kunzite

I leaned against the wall and watched him pace as he talked. Truth be known, I would have been happier sitting down, but there was no usable furniture in this room, and I refused to show my weakness in front of these strangers by seating myself on the floor.

I looked like a wreck regardless, though, and knew it. I had borrowed the clothes that I now wore from Nephrite's closet-- human clothes, not one of his uniforms--and they hung loosely on my emaciated frame, even though the auburn-haired General and I had originally been about the same size. How often in the last few months had I forgotten to even try to scavenge something to eat? I couldn't remember. The recent past was already beginning to fade into the mists of nightmare. At least Nephrite's brush had given me a means to untangle my neglected hair, although it was thinner now, after I'd cut the worst of the mats out. I'd combed it forward over the left side of my face, hiding the scarred ruin of my cheek and the empty eye socket above it.

There was no need to frighten myself every time I passed a mirror, after all.

"We need time--time for Kunzite to recover, time for me to scavenge raw materials and construct what devices I can to aid us--and I don't think we're going to get it. If the hunt isn't out for us in earnest yet, it will be soon, and while this place is well-hidden, it isn't impossible to find, especially given the numbers of youma that they'll be throwing into the search."

I'd forgotten, until meeting this Zoisite, that my lover's voice had once sounded like that: a man's voice, a medium-light tenor, instead of the woman's voice that his old throat wound had inflicted on him. But there were other reasons why I would never mistake this green-eyed man for my poor dead love ever again. The Zoisite I remembered would have floated, not paced, as he spoke, and he wouldn't have stood that way, with his shoulders squared and his head up. Overall, his body language had been less... masculine, less assertive, than that of the man in front of me. But they both had the same way of playing with their hair when they were nervous, and I had seen just that worried expression on my lover's face hundreds of times.

"We need to do something that they wouldn't expect. It's our only chance of coming out of this alive."

To my left, Amber stood, silent, listening. Now that I knew, I saw traces of her... father... in her every time I looked in her direction, and I couldn't believe that I hadn't noticed before.

"Attacking them would be unexpected," she offered.

"It would also be suicide," Zoisite snapped back. "I'm looking for a way to confuse them, not for a way to get us killed."

"Maybe not." Oh, I'd almost forgotten what it felt like, the cold pleasure of having a good plan take shape at the back of my mind... "Obviously, we can't attack them where they're strong, but guerrilla warfare, picking away at their patrols... That would be distracting for them, and it's something that the three of us, working together, can do. Onyx has no Generals left other than Beryl and Endymion. Onyx himself can't leave the Negaverse right now, and the other two can't be everywhere at once. A hit-and-run strategy should work."

"They'll track us back here." There was something unexpected and unpleasant showing in Zoisite's eyes. Anger? Why?

"Not if we pick our teleportation sites carefully," I said. "There's enough magical residue splattered around the city to conceal us--especially me and you, since our personal signatures will be close enough matches for some of those old flares--provided that we only teleport into and out of areas that are already saturated."

"All right." The slender, green-eyed man looked like he had tasted something sour. "Kunzite, we'll need to know where those concentrations of residual magic are. Make a list of locations. I may ask you to visualize some of them for us. Amber... It looks like we're going to be here for a while. Give some thought to where we might be able to find food. I don't want to waste energy on conjuring it if we don't have to. We'll stage our first attack this afternoon. Be ready."

He vanished in a swirl of pink as I shook my head. Decisive, strong, and tough... beautiful and delicate and high-strung. The same, yet different. I could fall in love all over again. But would it be right? He has someone waiting for him.

Or does he?

There's something wrong with the way he looks at me, and if he thought that I was his lover, his Malachite, when we first met, why did he punch me out? I get the feeling that I may have inadvertently stepped into the middle of a lovers' quarrel.

It was probably better just to ignore it, to accept the illusion that he had offered me as payment when the time came, and otherwise leave well enough alone.

Why did I have the strange feeling that I wouldn't be able to do so?


Zoisite

Son of a bitch! I don't need or want your help!

I was shaking when I came out of the teleport. I itched to blast something, anything. I knew that, regardless of what target I chose, it would be Kunzite's scarred face that I would be seeing.

It wasn't a bad plan, really. I'd had to acknowledge that. But I wished that it had been anyone but Kunzite that had given it to me. He had sounded too much like Malachite, and I'd started to defer to him before I had realized what I was doing. And I hadn't been able to come up with a decent plan by myself, either. It sickened me to realize that I was so dependent.

I'm supposed to be in charge here, not him!

It had been so much easier when he'd been tired and bedraggled and filthy. When he hadn't resembled Malachite quite so much, when I had thought he was broken.

Thought he was, hell. He'd spent--months? Years?--wandering around a devastated city in a daze. And yet, somehow, the moment we had snapped him out of it, he had pulled himself back together. He was back in control of himself again. The way I wished that I could be.

I wanted so badly just to let him take charge of this whole mess. And yet I couldn't. I didn't know for certain where his loyalties lay or what his priorities were. I needed to get Amber and myself back into the Timestream, and thence back home, and he needed to... what, if anything? I couldn't figure that out, and until I did, there was no way that I could trust him. And I had to trust him, that was the worst part. My calculations showed that it would take an amplifier on a level with the Silver Crystal for Amber and I to boost ourselves into the Timestream without his help.

We were trapped, and I knew it, and I was just thrashing around like a captured animal, trying to figure out which leg I needed to gnaw off in order to escape. Gods, what a repulsive image. But there had to be a way out of this.

I just wished that I could find it.


Beryl

"I'm sorry, m'lady. We tried."

I glared at the youma. It was shaking. Shaking! These creatures might claim to be proud and powerful warriors, but they were really anything but. Of course, this creature probably hadn't been all that impressive a specimen even as a human, but even so...

"How many this time?" I kept my voice deceptively soft, deceptively level.

"Twenty, m'lady. A second patrol went in to reinforce the first."

"Damn." That was fifty-six youma in four days. "All dead?"

"Three survivors, but they may never be fit to fight again."

I paced, considering. Obviously, there was only one person--or group of people--who could possibly be staging these attacks on our patrols. Kunzite and his friends.

Fifty-six youma. Dead. Granted, they wouldn't be much missed, given that the population of the Negaverse was now well over two billion, but the things that had been done to some of those youma... they hadn't just been killed. They'd been attacked brutally, usually from behind, and frequently dismembered or mangled and left to bleed to death. I found that odd. Kunzite had always been such a cold killer. Not like his little blonde lover. Perhaps he really had snapped. Or...

Ridiculous. He's dead.

"Did any of the survivors see what attacked them?"

"No, m'lady. They were hit with powerful blasts of magic, from a distance."

Which was exactly what the survivors from two previous patrols had reported. Obviously, we aren't going to flush them out with youma. What was that saying that the humans used? Ah, yes.

If you want something done right, do it yourself.

"Enough. You're dismissed." And I waited while the youma bowed and groveled its way back out of the room. Appearances had to be kept up, after all, and in any case, I wasn't so eager to move that I didn't want to first consider what one should take on a Crystal Weaver hunt.

Goto Chapter 31


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