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

Chapter 34

© 2006 by E. Liddell


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Adamant

<<... and having decided that trying to follow the horde was too dangerous, we returned here to report,>> Hematite finished.

Malachite was standing beside him, staring into the middle distance, inscrutable. I wondered what he was seeing. Andalusite, beside me, was frowning, looking as worried as I felt.

"What did you think of your partner?" I asked aloud. A muscle in Malachite's jaw twitched, but he didn't protest the sudden switch to a language that he didn't understand. Or that he claims not to understand, I reminded myself. He could have been lying. Or am I just getting paranoid in my old age?

"I don't know." Hematite's voice was soft and thoughtful. "He took charge immediately--very confidently, in fact- -and didn't make any mistakes that I could see. And yet..."

"And yet?" I prompted.

"He was... cold. He barely reacted at all to Phenakite's death. But I'm not sure whether that was because he honestly didn't care, or because he's just used to repressing his emotions..." The young man shook his head. "I want to trust him, but I'm not quite sure that I dare." He glanced to his left, where Malachite was still staring into space. The latter didn't react. Or did he? Was there just a flicker of something in those cold silver eyes?

But if you blink, you miss it, I thought, and shook my head. Still, he could be a tremendous asset to us, and I have the feeling that we're going to need all the help we can get, and very soon indeed...

Malachite seemed to snap out of a trance as I waved my hand to dismiss him and Hematite.

<<I need to talk to you,>> the tall man stated.

<<You... now?>>

<<As soon as possible.>>

<<Why?>> I asked.

<<Because I've been too much of a fool to remember that we're fighting the same enemy. I've been keeping things from you for no good reason at all, and that may turn out to have been a fatal mistake. I only hope that it isn't too late.>>

As soon as they left, I turned to Andalusite. <<What do you think?>>

<<I'm as puzzled as you and Hematite,>> she admitted. <<He's strong, both in terms of magic and in terms of personality. But... I just don't know. It would help if he weren't so secretive about who he is and why he's here.>>

I hesitated. Then, <<I'd better go talk to him.>>

Outside the tent where we'd been discussing the encroaching demon problem, the sunlight seemed subtly faded. I glanced up, but didn't see the thin haze of cloud cover that I expected. Something's odd.

Malachite was waiting for me around the side of the tent, out of the main path of all the foot traffic coming through. I couldn't see him from my position near the flap, but his power was like a beacon to my subtler senses, and I followed it directly to him.

<<What did you want to talk to me about?>> I asked.

I had the uncanny feeling that he was looking right through me as he stated, <<We both need answers, I think. First of all, I come from-->>

We both flinched at a crack of thunder somewhere off in the distance, then relaxed.

Wait. Thunder from a clear sky?

Except that it wasn't so clear anymore. Something dark and huge--not a cloud--was approaching from the east, and there was a sudden stench of demon in the air.

<<Wait here,>> I told Malachite. <<We'll talk afterwards, if we both come out of this in one piece.>>

I was already preparing for a teleport as the first reports from the perimeter began turning up in my mind's ear. There were so many of them that they began to mingle into a meaningless mental mush after the first few seconds, but I could pick out bits here and there, and two things were becoming rapidly apparent as I entered the darkness of nonspace.

The demons were attacking in force this time.


Malachite

<<Wait!>>

He vanished, and I swore, knowing that my shout had been futile.

Damn him.

It had been obvious that he didn't know what was causing the blackness that was beginning to conceal the sun, but I knew.

Mena Kimlubeniz. The feel of it was regrettably familiar to me.

I have to find him, or Andalusite. If they don't know what this is, they need to be warned. If they try to fight it as though it were just another demon... And that isn't even counting all the little ones that must be running around underfoot.

Unfortunately, before I could do anything, black mist enveloped the encampment. Swearing, I constructed the strongest anti-demon ward I knew (consciously, at any rate, but Adamant's Ward was quiescent), knowing that its complexity would force me to waste precious seconds, but knowing also that I wouldn't do anyone any good if I ended up possessed. That finished, I ran back to the tent, with only one thought on my mind now, Adamant forgotten.

Nephrite. He's trapped there, alone and unconscious and helpless. I have to get him out!


Nephrite

<<Wake up!>>

<<Wha--?>>

<<Wake up! You are in danger! You must wake!>>

The strange voice inside my head brought memory flooding back to me. Malachite--the demon--my spirit crystal... I still felt as though something had abraded me raw inside, but the sense of urgency was so strong now that I couldn't deny it. I forced my eyes open.

How did I end up here? For that matter, where is "here"? A tent, obviously. Had Malachite conjured... ? No, he wouldn't have been such a fool, not when heading into an unknown situation where every drop of magic might make a difference. He must have made contact with natives of whatever time and place we've ended up in. But where is he? I could see his cape, somewhat the worse for wear, lying folded on top of a wooden chest, beside my uniform, but my Center himself was nowhere in sight.

Something is wrong. Just a feeling, supported only by the memory of the voice that had woken me, but still... I sounded out the Weavelink. Zoisite... Amber... Alexandrite... Almandite... Nothing, as expected. Jadeite's strand radiated such a sense of cold that even focusing my attention on it gave me a sense of mental frostbite. Malachite... well, he seemed to be doing something complicated and magical that I felt I probably shouldn't distract him from.

I forced myself into a sitting position, although it hurt like blazes, and then swung my legs over the edge of the bed and stood up. Damn! I hadn't felt so bad since my last punishment by Beryl, way back when. Even dying hadn't hurt this much. Not physically, anyway.

I felt the air current as the curtain beside the bed was pushed open, and stumbled, trying to spin around to confront whoever it was that had just arrived.

"Taesdabyela te tröbe!"

I stared at the petite woman in astonishment as she reached for my arm, but shook her hand off the moment she touched me. She glared at me in exasperation, but didn't try to touch me again. It wasn't as though she could do anything to me by force, after all, even with me in such a pathetic condition. She was slender and barely came to mid-chest on me, which meant that she was barely more than four feet tall and probably weighed all of ninety-eight pounds, fully clothed and dripping wet.

She sighed and raised her hand. "Agiflechi tavekha kapa, ike..." The ring on her hand caught my eye, and I did a double-take. It was set with a deep brown stone that glittered with unnatural light. A spirit crystal? Belatedly, I realized that while I didn't understand her words, the cadence of her language was familiar to me.

She's a Crystal Weaver of the distant past. Well, that tells me very approximately when we are, anyway. Now...

<<Where is my friend?>> I asked.

Her eyes widened. <<I don't know. Lord Adamant gave him permission to come and go, if he wished-->>

Lord Adamant. I should probably have been more surprised, but the only reaction I could dredge up was, oh, gods, another one?

<<Thank you.>> I took a step toward the curtain from which she had emerged, then swore and dove for my pants, swearing again as the pain registered.

<<You should be in bed.>>

I glared at her. <<I don't have time for that! Will being up and walking around do me any actual physical damage?>>

<<No, but... I mean, you must be in tremendous pain...>>

<<I can live with pain,>> I told her, and ignored her thereafter.

Dressing gradually got easier as my body began to loosen up. I had to have been lying in bed with every muscle locked solid. It still hurt, but not nearly as much.

I was moving toward the curtain when the woman grabbed my arm again. <<Where are you going?>>

<<To find my K--my friend,>> I corrected myself. I didn't know what Malachite might have told these people.

<<You'll be killed!>>

I snorted. <<I doubt it. I've been doing this sort of thing for years now, and I'm still more or less in one piece.>> I forced myself to come across as dismissive, even mildly contemptuous, despite the fact that I could feel a huge mass of demonic energy pressing down on the outside of the tent. This wasn't the time to appear weak in front of a stranger. <<You, on the other hand, should stay here until it's over.>>

<<Wait--!>>

But I was already past her, half-running through the area beyond the curtain and out of the tent, into the choking, cloying, hungry darkness that the demon had created.

<<Malachite!>>

A hand fell to my shoulder, appearing from somewhere out of the black mist that surrounded us. <<I'm right here. Are you all right?>>

<<Tired and sore,>> I replied, <<but we hardly have time to worry about that now. I take it that we need to get out of here.>>

<<I wish it were that simple. No, we have to find Adamant.>>

<<Adamant? Why?>>

<<Do you know when we are, approximately?>>

I nodded.

<<Well, he's around here somewhere, and in just as much danger as everyone else. And if we let him die...>>

<<... we have no future,>> I concluded grimly. <<Lead on.>>


Adamant

<<Papa, everything's going to be all right, isn't it?>>

<<Of course it is.>>

I listened to Hematite reassuring his son as we all crouched together in the meagre shelter afforded by the shallow cave. The little boy was barely six months old, although the peculiarly accelerated growth common to all our children made him seem twelve times that age. The gods were cruel, robbing them of their youth, but I understood why it was necessary. I just didn't like it.

Is what I'm doing to these people right? I wondered, not for the first time. The gods' weapons...

I shook myself out of my reverie as two tall figures appeared out of the darkness that surrounded my wards. Demons? No, Malachite and his friend. The auburn-haired man was on his feet, unsupported by his companion, although he appeared weak.

<<Well? Are you going to let us in?>>

I got the impression that Malachite was far more accustomed to giving orders than asking permission.

<<I can't,>> I replied. <<If I do, it'll get in too.>>

<<I'll establish a second ward outside of yours. When it's solidly up, let yours down just long enough for us to cross, then re-establish it. I don't want to endanger you or the others.>>

<<All right.>> Mind you, I knew he hadn't been asking for permission or approval. He had been telling me what I was going to do.

The manoeuvre went off almost flawlessly, although the demon attacked Malachite's ward while he was still outside mine. The protection he had created buckled and flickered as he backed across the space which should have been occupied by mine, and I brought my own defenses back up only just in time. The white- haired man evidently realized this too, because he said something short, sharp, and exasperated out loud as he collapsed into a sitting position beside me.

<<Don't be so hard on yourself,>> I told him. <<It's the most powerful demon that I've ever seen, and I'm surprised that anyone's wards are able to hold up under it.>>

<<I can't afford lapses in judgment,>> he snapped back, <<and underpowering that ward came perilously close to being one.>>

<<We all make mistakes,>> I stated.

The look in those silver eyes was frightening. <<You're a leader, too. You should know why it isn't acceptable for me to make those kinds of mistakes. Especially when the future of our people depends on it.>>

The future of our people...

What was it that he knew that disturbed him so? I'd never seen such tension before. Some kind of fate was approaching for us, and he knew what it was, in a way that went beyond any precognition I had ever seen.

<<Who are you?>> I asked.

He made an abrupt gesture with his left hand. <<There's no time for that. We have to get out of here before Mena Kimlubeniz pounds us flat. Any ideas?>>

I shook my head. Mena Kimlubeniz. Mother of demons. Well, that made just as much sense as any other name. <<I've never seen a demon this strong before. I don't know if we can distract it even long enough for the children to get away.>>

Malachite turned to his auburn-haired companion and conversed aloud with him for a moment. I understood not a word of it, of course. I wasn't even certain what language they were speaking in. And the lives of the perhaps two dozen people--mostly young children and their parents--who were huddled here depended on what they were saying.

<<I don't think we have a choice,>> Malachite concluded, this time in a way I could understand. But that terrible look was in his companion's eyes now, too. It was... pain, I decided. But a very strange sort of pain. There was no anger in it, or pity, or any hint of another softening or explanatory emotion.

<<I know, it's just...>> It was the first whisper of thought I had heard out of the auburn-haired man.

<<What are you going to do?>> I asked.

<<What we must. You see, while all of you would help the future come into being, only one of you is truly essential. I'm sorry.>>

<<Wha-->>

Something heavy and hard smashed against the side of my head, and I fell back, dazed. Firm hands stopped me from falling too far, and braced me as the heavy thing struck again.


Malachite

I caught him as he slumped, unconscious, to the ground. For all his more solid build, Adamant was almost as light as Zoisite.

<<They're going to die, aren't they?>> Nephrite asked sadly. <<All of them.>>

I forced myself to raise my head, to look around at the handful of fellow Crystal Weavers who were sharing this meagre shelter with us. So many of them were only children...

<<I think so,>> I replied. <<The young ones can't shield themselves from this, and there aren't enough adults to protect them. The ward that Adamant set is solid, but if the demon gets through it...>> I didn't have to finish that. He already knew what would happen if Mena Kimlubeniz got past the defenses here. <<I wish there were something we could do, but I'm not sure we can even save ourselves and him.>>

Nephrite nodded. <<But if only...>>

<<"If only" wins no battles,>> I replied, even though I felt just as heartsick as he did. Hundreds of thousands of innocents had died to bring us to this point, and it looked like a couple of dozen more were about to die in order to secure the future of humanity. When would we be done wading through this river of blood?

I lifted Adamant, slinging his unconscious body across my shoulders. On second thought, he was heavier than Zoisite. Or perhaps it was only that I wasn't yet completely recovered from my encounter with the mist demon.

<<You're taking him, aren't you?>> Hematite. I hadn't noticed him before, but there he was, with the young boy I had seen him embrace before leaving for the demon hunt--had it only been a few hours ago?--seated, wide-eyed and trembling, beside him.

<<We don't have a choice,>> I replied. <<The future of the human race depends on his survival.>> And we couldn't let him heroically but stupidly sacrifice himself for his people.

<<And you can't take us with you.>>

<<No. We may not even be able to protect the three of us.>>

<<Then will you take our spirit crystals? For myself, I don't care, but the children...>>

<<You do realize what will happen if we're not strong enough.>> Statement, not question.

<<I know.>> He hesitated for a moment, and then added, <<I trust you.>>

A harsh laugh tickled the back of my throat. I forced myself to swallow it. These strangers wouldn't understand... or maybe they would.

One by one, Nephrite accepted the crystals. I fidgeted as he did so. I could feel the demon casting about for us, the delicious morsels of life energy that had somehow escaped it thus far. We couldn't afford to stay here much longer, but we also couldn't afford not to do this.

Then, at last, he was done.

<<This way, I think,>> he told me, and since I had no idea how to get out of there, I followed him.

Goto Chapter 35


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