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

Chapter 31

© 2006 by E. Liddell


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Adamant

"He did what?"

"Nailed Rhodolite through the shoulder with some kind of energy weapon. I don't know what it was--I'd never seen anything quite like it before."

"But why?" I glared at the man in frustration. You were supposed to watch him and make sure that nothing like this happened, damn it!

"I don't know, m'lord." The guard stared studiously at his feet.

"It's your job to know! What in hell were you doing out there?" Then I stopped and bit my lip. Am I overreacting just a bit?

It had been a confusing, frustrating day. Several of our sentries had reported contact with small demons, indicating that the creatures were on the move, but I didn't understand why. And now this, coming on top of that...

"Where are Malachite and Rhodolite now?" I asked, with exaggerated patience, as the guard shuffled, looking uncomfortable.

"In the infirmary, m'lord. Malachite insisted on my summoning a healer right away."

I was already heading for the tent flap, but paused before stepping outside.

"Stay right there," I told the guard. "I'm not finished with you."

The infirmary tent was in its usual state of well-ordered chaos. I grabbed one of the healers by the arm in order to attract his attention.

<<Rhodolite?>>

He pointed, then shook my hand off in order to return to his duties. I let him go, and threaded my way between cots and mattresses and piles of blankets lying on the earth to reach the injured youth's side.

They hadn't been able to find a cot for him. He lay sleeping on a pile of blankets, shoulder bandaged but otherwise seeming not much the worse for wear.

<<He might have bled to death if the stranger hadn't thrown a ward over the wound and then sent someone here for help,>> one of the healers observed as he strode past me. <<He's very lucky. It may be a few days before we have any healing to spare for him.>>

I stared down at the sleeping boy's face, but it wasn't him that I was seeing.

I knew without asking that I would find him behind the curtain. He was lying on his back, staring silently into space, but he sat up immediately when he noticed me.

<<There's no need to ask why you're here, I suppose.>>

<<Do you mind telling me what happened?>> I returned.

A faint smile graced Malachite's lips. <<I overreacted. I'm sorry. Fortunately, the healers tell me that there's no permanent damage and young Rhodolite should be up and around again in a couple of days.>>

He followed that with a report so dryly precise that it could have come from one of my scouts. I judged that he omitted nothing when it came to the physical events that had taken place, but...

<<Why did you stay and help him, instead of attacking your guard and running away?>>

A long, long hesitation, so long that I started to wonder whether he was going to answer me at all.

<<Because it would have been wrong,>> he stated at last. Truth? Falsehood? I couldn't tell. The look in those silver eyes was distant and strange and a little bit fey. <<And because I can't leave until we're both ready to travel,>> he added, glancing over to where his companion still lay. <<It would betray a trust that's... very important to me... if I were to leave him behind.>>

That last did have the feel of truth, and I was a bit surprised that he was being so frank with me. I searched his face, looking for some further insight into the man, or at least some hint of emotion, but saw nothing I could interpret.

<<You're still going to owe some kind of blood price,>> I told him.

<<I understand.>>

<<You know, it would help if I knew why you carry that impression of... of demonicness on you.>>

His fingers dug into the mattress on which he sat, but he replied readily enough, <<When we were much younger and more foolish, my Weave and I were captured and brainwashed by a demon. We served it for a number of years before breaking loose.>>

<<You served it?>> I wasn't--I couldn't be--understanding him correctly.

<<We had very little choice. We remembered nothing of who we had been, only the demon's service. It's a period of our lives that we all deeply regret, but perhaps for precisely that reason, it's proven difficult to completely put it behind us.>> His fingers touched the spirit crystal that hung at his throat as he stared through me, looking instead at some phantom of his past. <<That's part of the reason that I attacked Rhodolite so viciously. What he intended as a mere prank to humiliate a stranger, my subconscious reacted to as though it had been a serious attempt on my life, as, in the old days, it would have been. We're strangers here, and unfamiliarity and uncertainty make it easy to fall back into old patterns of behaviour, even when they're not appropriate.>>

<<We don't mean you any harm,>> I told him gently, <<any more than you seem to mean us any.>>

<<You don't mean us any harm,>> he corrected. <<Your people are not all of the same mind, or Rhodolite and I would never have tangled in the first place.>>

There wasn't much I could say to that, particularly since it was true.

<<Maybe there's a way you can prove yourself to the others,>> I stated suddenly, wondering, in the next moment, if I was out of my mind.

Malachite raised an eyebrow. <<Go on.>>

<<I'm organizing some sweeps around the edges of the camp. We've been having a lot of trouble with smallish demons lately--it's almost as though something is stirring them up.>>

<<And you want me to join in? Is that really wise?>>

<<I'm hoping that, if some of my people see you fighting the demons alongside them, it may help them accept you.>> I really am out of my mind. Andalusite is going to kill me.

<<You're assuming that being accepted by you is part of my goal.>>

<<Well, it can't hurt, can it?>> Gods, that sounded inane.

Malachite gave me an odd look. Then his mouth curved into a smile and he chuckled softly.

<<I suppose it can't, at that. Very well. Where do you want you want me to be, and when?>>


Malachite

I must be out of my mind.

Around me, the other demon hunters were assembling-- perhaps a dozen of them, all carrying both spirit crystals and mundane weapons. I shook my head. They all just looked so very young. None of them could be much older than Nephrite and Almandite's twin sons.

I watched one young man bend down to gather a little boy into his arms for a quick embrace. They looked much alike, and couldn't be anything other than father and son. Seeing them together gave me a strange feeling.

What is that boy going to do if his father doesn't come back? And with a twinge, I remembered a fine-boned, dark-skinned, tear-stained face, so like Zoisite's and yet so different...

I'm not sure whether or not I should even wish for his safety. He might still be some sort of subtle time bomb. I haven't learned anything since arriving here. I should have put my questions to Adamant right away, but my damned paranoia wouldn't let me do it.

And then, feeling an odd jolt inside myself, I glanced down at my gold-banded wrist. Had it been my paranoia that had pulled me into this? Or had it been... ?

And if the Ward was subtly tampering with my mind, why was it doing it and what was it waiting for?

<<Pardon me, but are you Malachite? Not that you could logically be anyone else.>>

I shook my head and forced myself to focus my attention on the man in front of me--the one I had seen earlier with the little boy in his arms, I realized.

<<I am Malachite,>> I agreed. <<And you are?>>

<<Hematite. Andalusite... suggested that I partner with you.>> He glanced in the direction of the armoured woman who was moving through our little group, apparently giving people their assignments.

Suggested that you keep an eye on me, you mean, I filled in. Well, at least he doesn't seem to be a particular friend of young Rhodolite's. If he were, he'd be more upset about working with me.

<<Good enough. I don't suppose you could convince her to return my sword...>> I hadn't meant to ask, really, but I was the only person here who wasn't carrying some sort of mundane weapon, and my lack of one made me feel... underdressed. And besides, the blade they had confiscated was Zoisite's gift sword, and I wanted it back. If something had gone wrong with the others, that might turn out to be the only...

Don't even think that, I admonished myself. You can't afford to waste the time.

<<I doubt it. Sorry,>> my new companion added.

I shrugged. He was a poor substitute for Nephrite, or for my beloved Zoisite, or even for Jadeite or Almandite or Alex, but I supposed we would have to make do.

<<I want you two on the north ridge. Phenakite was supposed to be posted there, but he hasn't reported back in a while. Check on him, and then on any disturbances he has to report.>> The armoured woman had brushed past us before I had even entirely realized that we were the ones she was addressing.

<<North ridge?>> I queried Hematite.

<<I'll take us there.>>

I gestured my permission, and we were instantly enveloped in a shower of... fish? I couldn't think of any Negaverse Crystal Weaver but Morgan who might have chosen such an odd teleport effect, but it was really none of my business.

We emerged from nothingness on a narrow, rocky ledge halfway up a cliff. Alone. I couldn't sense any other being, living or demonic, anywhere nearby.

<<Where's your sentry?>> I asked.

<<I don't know. He should be here. Phenakite?>>

I scanned the ledge. It was perhaps twelve feet long, and of irregular width, ranging from less than an inch where it petered out at one end, to several feet where a fold in the rock had created something that was almost a cave. I frowned, peering into the shadows of that fold. Was there something there? Yes. But not, I thought, alive.

I moved cautiously along the ledge until I could get a clearer view. No, definitely not alive. More like a mummy, actually, made of parchment skin over bone and curled up into a fetal position. The clothes were similar in cut and fabric to those worn by Adamant's people, and didn't appear to be much weathered, so it couldn't have been here for long.

In fact, as I discovered when I cautiously touched its arm, it was still just slightly warm.

When I raised my head, I found Hematite beside me, tears glistening in his eyes.

<<He was... barely more than a boy...>>

I nodded. The skull under the shrunken flesh had the elegant bone structure peculiar to people who were Crystal Weavers by blood as well as by power. <<His spirit crystal?>>

<<He wore a pendant.>>

I nodded again and began to fish around inside the corpse's collar, the task complicated by the fact that his knees were drawn up to his chest, and his body, sucked dry of fluids, couldn't be unfolded. The chain that I eventually found was heavy and crude--I thought it might be made out of bronze--and the crystal set into it was greyish and dull.

It crumbled into dust when I touched it with a fingertip.

<<Oh, dear gods...>> Hematite somehow managed to slide down into a sitting position on the ledge, not far from the corpse.

<<Stop that,>> I snapped. <<We don't have time for it. Something very dangerous is loose somewhere around here. Contact Andalusite and tell her what we've found. Tell her that we need reinforcements. I don't think she'll listen to me, and I don't think it's a good idea for us to tackle this alone. If it's a demon, I doubt it's smart enough to think of attacking us each, in turn, from behind, but you never know. Oh, and warn her that it probably isn't one of the types of demon that's bothered by light--in fact, it may even seek it out.>> That last tidbit had appeared in my mind unexpectedly and without explanation, welling up from my subconscious in a way that indicated that the information had probably been provided by the Ward, and while I didn't trust it when it started meddling in my life, I did trust it to know about demons.

Hematite nodded and closed his eyes, tears still leaking out from under his lids now and again. I leaned against the cliff face beside him and concentrated on expanding my wards, layer by layer, until they were spread over a radius of several feet. It wasn't something that I could maintain for long, but I most emphatically did not want whatever had killed Phenakite sneaking up on us.

<<She says there's another incursion in the east, possibly even worse than here, and it's going to be an hour or two before she can spare anyone to help us,>> Hematite stated. <<We're to do what we can, and then return to camp.>>

I muttered something brief, abrupt, and unsuited to mixed company while I considered our options. First, and most obvious, was that of throwing in the towel immediately and returning to the camp. But, while it would have been prudent, it also would have been an admission of weakness.

The second option was to stay here and hope that the demon either didn't show up before reinforcements did, or that if it did, it would do something stupid and permit itself to be captured. Unfortunately, while demons are notoriously stupid, their stupidity in any given situation cannot be counted upon.

That left option three: go out and actively hunt the demon. At first glance, that seemed like a recipe for suicide, but upon reflection, I wasn't so sure. At least it would put the demon on the defensive, instead of us. And, in any case, I've always preferred to take the initiative instead of tamely waiting for something to happen.

Now my only problem is going to be convincing Hematite to go along with it.

But, to my surprise, when I turned to speak to him, he was already on his feet.

<<Let's go. I don't want to stay here with what's left of poor Phenakite any longer. I want to find that creature and make it pay.>>

I nodded. <<All right. Keep your eyes open and push your wards out as far as you can make them go. If it takes us by surprise, it'll kill us, and that's far from the most pleasant way for a man to die.>>

<<I know.>>

Which left us with only one problem: where to look.

If I were a demon, where would I be?

I considered what we knew about the creature. Given its method of feeding, it had to have a physical body of some sort, although most likely a small and easily concealed one, or Phenakite would have noticed it in time. And it probably liked light.

More importantly, how did it get to the ledge, and how did it leave again?

I knelt and looked down over the edge of the cliff. The sheer face didn't have much in the way of hand or footholds, and furthermore, it was undercut just below the ledge. I couldn't see anything in its right mind climbing up there, not even a demon. Glancing up, I saw that the rock above us would be an equally awkward climb, one that I wouldn't even consider without ropes and equipment.

So it didn't get here via the rockface. It could have teleported, or flown. In which case we might as well return to the tent village, because there was no way that we would ever find the creature. Or was there... ?

I examined the alcove in which Phenakite's body was lying a little more closely than I had before. Hmmm. Was that... ? Yes. A patch of shadow little larger than my head resolved itself into an opening, although into what, I couldn't tell.

I extended my senses into the rock as best I could, even though this didn't seem like a very likely place to find a light-loving demon, but I couldn't sense anything beyond a couple of feet. I thought that little hole opened out into a much larger cave, but I couldn't be certain.

If we were going in after it, we would have to teleport blind.

Normally, the prospect wouldn't have worried me too much, but the spatial disruption we had encountered when Mena Kimlubeniz had invaded the Negaverse and Crystal Tokyo was still fresh in my memory, and there might be other creatures around here who were capable of the same thing, since Nephrite and I had fallen back into a time before the binding of the greater demons. It wasn't exactly a prospect that I enjoyed thinking about.

Oh, stop being an idiot, I told myself. There was paranoid, and then there was ridiculous. I gestured Hematite over to stand beside me, and the world flickered around us.

We arrived in the middle of a dark, mostly empty space. There wasn't enough light in here for even Crystal Weaver eyes, and it was difficult to get anything intelligible from my subtler senses without sight to use as a guide. I could hear water dripping somewhere nearby, though.

Hematite shuffled a little to one side of me, and then yelped. <<Sorry. Stalagmite, I think. Are you going to make some light?>>

<<I suppose we don't have any choice, but if it's in here, it'll probably come to the light,>> I warned him. <<Be ready.>>

I raised a hand, and allowed white radiance to flower from it.

The cavern reminded me uncomfortably of the room where the Negaforce had once resided. We stood at the center of a half-circle of stalagmites, while corresponding stalactites dotted the ceiling above, far out of my reach, one or two of them occasionally trailing a drop of moisture. I couldn't see or sense any sign of the demo--no, wait!

I bent down, light globe in hand, to study the floor. No, those little wet tracks, indicating as they did webbed toes tipped in cruel talons, could not have been made by any natural creature that I knew of, and Hematite, when I pointed that out to him, agreed.

We followed the tracks along a winding course between the stalagmites. More than once, one or the other of us slipped in a patch of moisture and hit one of the stone teeth hard, but neither of us dared voice even the tiniest noise of complaint. We were stalking now.

Then the tracks vanished--not because the creature's feet had finally dried, no, but because of something much worse.

Hematite and I knelt side by side on the floor.

<<There must be hundreds of them,>> he stated grimly. <<Maybe even thousands. But, by all the gods, why here and why now?>>

<<I don't know,>> I replied as I examined tracks overlaying tracks overlaying yet more tracks, those that were clearly visible also clearly belonging to no natural beast. <<Let's go. We have to get back to the camp, and warn them.>>

Goto Chapter 32


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