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

Chapter 36

© 2006 by E. Liddell


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Jasper

I was already in the middle of the teleport when I drew my sword.

Maybe rushing out of that meeting like that wasn't the most brilliant thing I could have done. But what alternative was there? There were lives at stake. My wife's and daughter's lives, and my Weavemate's. The two people who were most valuable to me in this or any world, and a woman who, for all her differences with the rest of us, was closer to me than a sister. I couldn't not drop everything to help them when they were in danger.

Malachite would have done the same, if it were his Zoisite. I am not being irresponsible. I amnot!

I emerged from nonspace high above Crystal Tokyo--higher above it than I had intended, truth be known. There was enough of a pressure difference to make my ears pop, and I suppose that anyone not from the Negaverse would have considered it cold. Well, so be it.

I folded my wings close to my sides and negated the magic that was holding me up, and I fell, arrowing towards my goal, a Dark Angel cast out of the heavens.

Odd. How many years has it been since I last thought about the fictitious history Dad invented for me? I suppose it's just been overwhelmed by new experiences. Real memories. Memories that matter. Memories of Mina, of Cass. Of family. Of my Weave and of my work.

Just a minute, here. Isn't it supposed to be at the moment of your death that your life flashes before your eyes? And I have no intention of dying today, not even temporarily. I have too much to do.

I snapped my wings out, gritting my teeth against the strain as the air filled them with a sound like a thunderclap, slowing my descent. Ouch. Next time, I'm going to start braking a little earlier. But I knew that I was lying to myself. Every second spent in transit could have meant... could have meant...

It didn't happen, I told myself as I dropped into the center of the circle of berserk youma.

"Hello, dear," I said. "Sorry I'm late."

Mina smiled and clipped another youma with her--what was that crescent-shaped thing, anyway? "That's all right. I'm just glad that you made it here at all."

"You didn't think that I'd abandon you, did you?" I batted a youma's weapon aside with my sword. Damn, but it's been a long time since we last had a chance to work together like this. I wish we could team up more often. It was a shame that cooperation between the Negaverse and Crystal Tokyo had rarely been close enough to make that possible. Not that I regretted marrying across the line, not for an instant. It was just that, at times like this, I realized how good we could be together, in more ways than one...

<<Cass? Are you all right?>> For an instant, I'd actually forgotten about my daughter. Not that she wasn't a big girl and couldn't take care of herself, but...

<<Dad? I'm all right for now, but I could use a little help up here--this guy is good, and Tourmaline's a little too tied up to help me...>>

<<All right. Give me a couple of minutes to pry myself and your mother loose.>>

<<That's fine, but try not to take too long.>>

I had to duck rather precipitately as I returned my attention to what was happening around me. The irregular chunk of board wielded as a club by the purple youma who had swung at me skimmed my ear, and, I would swear, gave me a splinter, but I managed to avoid being seriously damaged.

"Cover me for a moment, will you, dear?" I asked, then closed my eyes without waiting for a response. It has to be powerful, but it also only has to last for a few seconds... But it was difficult to concentrate in the middle of a battle, and the magical energies I was reaching for weren't cooperating. They squirmed out of my grasp over and over again, forcing me to waste precious seconds securing them and bending them to my will. Now. Ward.

I almost had it when Mina screamed, "Jasper! Look out!" and broke my concentration again. Unfortunately, I didn't return to the real world quite quickly enough to save myself.

I screamed as something tore into the tender flesh right at the base of my wing, then clamped my jaw shut and refused to voice my pain again, even though, if anything, it got worse after the initial shock. I could feel the warm wetness of blood soaking my jacket. Haven't been this badly hurt since the Dark Moon War... Damn... In an instant, the battle had gone from something almost certainly won to something far more uncertain.

"Jas!"

"Concentrate on keeping them off us," I gritted out. "I'll be all right if you can just gain me a few seconds."

I didn't have the time or the concentration now to pull magic from the lines of force around us, so I used my own reserves to apply the magical equivalent of a bandage to the damaged area. I'm not a healer, but anyone can perform that kind of first aid. Once I was sure that it was firmly in place and the bleeding was under control, I straightened up and raised my sword again.

<<Avi!>> I called. <<Get over here, now! I need you.>>

But my projected thought seemed to tumble away into emptiness, and all I got back was the sound of soft, malicious laughter.

"We're on our own," I told Mina grimly. "Try to manoeuvre towards the wall of that warehouse. We need a direction that they can't attack us from."

I fought them by hand, trying to conserve my magic, cursing every time I felt my magical pseudobandage not quite moving with me and letting a little more blood leak down my back. A hand-and-a-half broadsword isn't exactly the best weapon for a man with a damaged shoulder, but it wasn't like I could not fight just then.

It felt like hours before the tip of my good wing brushed against the wall of the warehouse, but I think it was really more like five minutes.

"Can you cover me this time?" I asked Mina. "I have to get some wards up and push them away, or by the time we get out of here, they'll have kidnapped Tourmaline back to Nemesis with them, and we'll never see her again."

"I think it'll be all right," my wife said. "Give it a shot."

I stepped back, placing myself between her and the wall. In fact, I got a little too close to the wall, knocking my bad wing against it. The pain almost drove me to my knees, but I once again gritted my teeth and endured. Can't afford to be weak right now... Not now...

Magic tingled through my body, and I built a ward, fast and sloppy, in a semicircle in front of us, pushing the youma back to where they couldn't touch us. "Come on!" I said.

She backed against me, and I wrapped one arm around her and jumped.

Our ascent wasn't as graceful as it might have been, mainly because of the instinctive downstroke I made with my wings. I could feel flesh tearing as I fought not to put a spin on us. Damn, damn, damn, damn... have to keep going... My vision blurred for a moment, and I thought I was going to black out. But... if I do... Mina is going to fall... no! Adrenaline cleared my eyesight and pushed the pain away, but I knew I was running on borrowed time, and I'd probably go into shock when it wore off. Ten minutes, if I'm lucky... have to see this through...

"Dad! Mom! Over here!"

So Cass was still alive, over on the other side of the chimney that hid our view of the other side of the roof. Mina was already breaking my grip on her, about to run toward the voice. I stopped her by placing my bad hand on her shoulder.

"Mina, if I don't make it, and they can't revive me before the end... you'll look after Cass, won't you?"

"Of course."

A single tear trickled down her cheek. I leaned forward to kiss it away. A silly, romantic gesture. I really should have just brushed it away with my fingers, but I was still carrying a mucking great broadsword in one hand, and my other shoulder hurt too much to even think of raising the arm that far.

And besides, being near my beloved wife makes a silly romantic out of me every time.

"Let's go!" I said.

If this was going to be my last stand, I intended to make our enemies remember it.


Cass

The little son-of-a-bitch refused to stay put. And he was fast. He bounced from roof to roof, leaving me panting to keep up. Damn. Where's he going? It's almost as though we're circling back around to where Mom is... Is that where he's left Tourmaline? Come here, Blondie... As though he could hear me, or would care if he could. All right, enough of this stupidity.

I shaped the magic between my hands with care. It had to be strong enough to get through his wards while still seeming weak enough not to alarm him, and most importantly, it had to track and follow him, since he was too quick for me to hit with a straight shot.

What I ended up with looked sort of like a dart of yellow light. I blew on it gently and sent it winging off across the rooftops in pursuit of its quarry.

I saw it penetrate his outer ward layers. Unfortunately, so did he, and he slapped it aside with a blast of demon-tainted magic that made my teeth ache. But the distraction had slowed him enough for me to close with him.

The next few moments were a blur of attack and counterattack that I can't remember well enough to describe. I was moving so fast that I had to operate on instinct. I had expected Blondie to be afraid to close with me physically, given that he lacked an inch or two of my height and was somewhat slimmer, but he produced a bizarre, bladed, curved something-or-other and threw himself at me with gusto. I had to be careful of that, because the odd little hooked projections sticking out of his weapon were just the sort of thing that could be used to trap my sword, or twist it out of my hands, and if I ended up defenseless for even a moment, I knew that it would mean my death.

Eventually, we separated, panting. I could feel the sweat trickling down my back, and I suspected that my opponent was in a similar condition.

<<Cass? Are you all right?>>

I jumped at the unexpectedness of the call. Not that I didn't remember having asked him for help, but it felt like I'd been fighting for hours and I'd pretty much given up on him, or anyone else, showing up in time for a rescue.

<<Dad? I'm all right for now, but I could use a little help up here--this guy is good, and Tourmaline's a little too tied up to help me...>> Or at least, I hoped she was only captured and not dead. The spirit crystal that I carried was reassuring in its way, though. It didn't feel like a dead person's crystal.

<<All right. Give me a couple of minutes to pry myself and your mother loose.>>

<<That's fine, but try not to take too long.>>

Blondie was shifting his grip on his weapon, and I did the same with my sword.

It was going to be a long time before help got there.


Tourmaline

"You get away from her, you--"

My memory has mercifully censored the rest of what Cass said just then. It isn't that I'm a prude or anything, but that young woman has one of the... widest-ranging... vocabularies that I've ever encountered. Still, even her cursing was a welcome sound.

I couldn't see anything. Blondie had tied me and blindfolded me before he'd ripped my spirit crystal off, and after that, I'd been feeling too sick and disoriented to do anything about trying to get loose. It had been a relief to have my crystal fall back into friendly hands. I was still uncomfortable, but at least I could focus now.

Damn it, what's happening out there?! I could hear thumps and scuffing sounds and the crackling of some particularly nasty destructive spells, but I couldn't tell who was doing what, except when someone spoke or the princess laughed. How could anything human laugh like that?

Hours. I know I was lying there forever before I felt someone's hands working at the ties around my wrists.

"Who's there?" I asked sharply. They hadn't bothered to gag me, Gods of Darkness knew why.

"Mina Aino-Tsumeta."

My tongue seized up. I just could not manage to say anything. She's... rescuing . . . me?

I barely even noticed when the pressure at my wrists went away, freeing me, and the hands that had been working there rose to lift my blindfold away. I found myself staring into a face I had only seen at a distance before, not young but still pretty, marked here and there with faint laugh lines, wide blue eyes shadowed with worry.

"You are all right, aren't you?" she asked.

"My spirit crystal?" That should have been my first, last, and only concern, but...

"Cass has it. Look, if you're all right, I'm going to leave you to do your feet yourself. I have to get back to the others. Jas isn't..."

"Jasper isn't what?" I asked sharply, but she was already standing up and turning away from me.

Using a few words that I'd picked up from Cass, I went to work on the ropes around my ankles.

It was all already almost over by the time I made it over there. Jasper was on his knees in front of Blondie, with Cass and Mina in between them. The Princess was nowhere in sight.

Blondie was smiling. "Do you still honestly think that you can take me? The strongest of you wasn't even proof against my servants. You're all dead. Fools."

My eyes narrowed. He's stalling. Why? Where's his partner in crime? Why do I think... why do I keep seeing... Traps. And wheels within wheels. It was such a long time before they took the bait and attacked us... Traps. What if it wasn't just Mina and I and Cass that they wanted to trap?

When black lightning began to coalesce silently behind Jasper, I knew that I'd been right. What I didn't know was whether or not there was enough time to stop what was coming.

I threw myself forward in my best, Negaverse-approved, knocking-someone-out-of-the- path-of-a-spell-or-projectile manner. Jasper screamed as I crashed into his back, and I almost screamed, too. So much of my attention had been on his attacker that I hadn't noticed his wound or the fact that the back of his jacket was still damp with blood. I wanted to cry, but instead I flattened myself on top of him as something hot and bright whizzed past just above my head to dissipate against Cass's shields.

<<Tourmaline... get off me...>>

<<I'm sorry,>> I responded, mortified. <<I didn't mean to hurt you, I just-->>

<<It's all right,>> Jasper stated. <<But please. You're not light, and I'm on the verge of passing out as it is.>>

I pushed myself up and off of him. I offered him a hand to help him to his feet, but he ignored it, choosing instead to lever himself up with his massive sword. Then he turned to look at the fight.

"Oh, Cass..."

Belatedly, I turned to follow his line of sight.

Cassiterite was crouching in front of her mother. She had laid her sword down at her feet and closed her eyes, and I thought her lips were moving, but it was difficult to be sure, given the spectacular lightshow going on in front of her. She had extended her wards into a sphere enclosing herself and her mother, and Princess Serenity and the blonde man from the Dark Moon were both pounding away at them, trying to break through to Jasper's wife and daughter.

"How long can she keep that up?" I asked, voice hushed.

"Not much longer. Cass is strong enough, but not Center-strong, and they're hitting her with an incredible amount of power. Tourmaline, I need your help."

"My help?" I was way out of my league here, and I knew it. I'm not very strong, as Crystal Weavers go. Not really a fighter, although I accepted that it was part of my job to try. I could no more break up a fight like that than the sun could rise in the west.

"Cass is too busy to fight back, and any attack of Mina's would just bounce off the outside of the shield. We have to break them out from out here, but I've lost a lot of blood, and I don't have the strength left to mount any kind of useful attack. On the other hand, if you let me tap your power, added to what I have left, it might be enough..."

I swallowed. In order to tap my powers, he'd have to enter my mind through the Weavelink, and when he did, he find out everything. "Is that an order, my Lord Regent?"

His expression firmed suddenly, went grim. "If it has to be. Yes. My personal feelings aside, we can't afford to lose General Cassiterite."

No...

I looked at the warded sphere, the figures within now almost invisible behind the glow of energies that was typical of a ward approaching overload. If I refused, if I fought him, even for an instant, Mina Aino-Tsumeta would die, but she wouldn't die alone. And Jasper would never look at me again.

"Do what you have to," I said.

He didn't even bother to voice a reply before tearing away the black veil that I'd created to separate our minds. He wasn't cruel, but there was no time for gentleness, either, as he groped around inside me for the meager power that I possessed. I felt him find it, felt him pull it out of me and into himself... it was almost as though, for an instant, we were some kind of bizarre gestalt creature. My mind was with his throughout the stages he needed to shape our combined power into an effective weapon, and I could feel his muscles rippling as though they were my own when he threw the glowing white pseudofeather that he had created.

I had expected him to aim at the princess, but instead his missile sped straight for Blondie.

<<He's less expendable to the demon,>> his mind whispered. <<It might be willing to sacrifice the princess, but not him.>> Slowly, Jasper was sinking to his knees. His wound had broken open again now that he no longer had the power to maintain the seal he had placed on it. I could feel his pain in my own flesh, even now that he was no longer tapping my power and our minds had separated a bit. It was unnerving. I hadn't allowed my mind to be so open to any other member of my Weave since the instant in which I'd been bound to them. I tried to pull away, to reestablish the black curtain, but the sudden wave of Jasper's distress broke my concentration.

<<Don't leave me, Tourmaline,>> his voice whispered inside my mind. <<I'm sorry. I understand now. Maybe... If I had never met her... I don't know... So tired...>>

I tried to struggle as I felt him begin to lose consciousness, but even in that condition, he was too strong for me, and he dragged me down into the darkness with him.


David

I don't know how much time passed between their departure and their reappearance. Trapped as I was in Nemesis's eternal globe-lit night, I had completely lost my sense of time. And I wouldn't even have noticed their return if they hadn't been shouting at each other.

"'A little stealth is more effective than a direct confrontation.' Ha!"

"We would have had them if you had just done your job and hit Jasper," Grossularite snarled. Something about him didn't look quite right. I blinked, trying to focus my bleary eyes, and realized that there was a raw burn the size of my hand on his chest just above the heart. "Without him, the rest would have been completely useless. As it is--" Suddenly he hissed, swore, and doubled over.

"As it is, he almost parboiled your guts in their own juices," Wicked Lady completed snidely. "Well, next time, we're doing things my way. No more of this sneaking around in the dark."

"For now," Grossularite replied, seemingly recovered and moving in the direction of the throne that I crouched beside. But in the instant that he stood even with me, I could see that his hands were ever-so-slightly shaking. Then a boot swung out to reacquaint itself with my already bruised ribs. "Don't stare, slave."

I didn't sigh, much though I wanted to. I had figured out a while ago that Grossularite would take any reaction of mine to anything that he did as an excuse for more beatings and more pain, and I didn't think I could take much more pain. Most of my body was bruised or scraped or whip-welted and oozing blood. My only consolation was that neither of them had ever tried to rape me. For some reason, that just didn't seem to be a form of sport that appealed to them.

It'll be over, I told myself. One day. Someone will rescue me, and it'll be all right again.

"So what did you have in mind?" Grossularite asked Wicked Lady.

"We capture the Prince of Crystal Tokyo," she said, smiling. "He isn't a valuable enough piece that they'll be guarding him all the time, but if we take him, they're going to want him back. If we bring him here, and they follow, they'll fall right into all the traps that we will have laid."

"It'll do for now," Grossularite said, but his answering smile chilled me to the bone.

Please. I wasn't really praying, since I was certain that no god could possibly hear me here, but I focused my thoughts all the same. If they do succeed in capturing the prince, please let someone catch on to what they're up to. Please don't let anyone...

And there I stopped. Because if no one followed them back here, then I was stuck. But...

I don't want Pyrope to be hurt, I finished. Please. Just that. Don't let him be hurt.

Goto Interlude IX


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