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

Chapter 37

© 2006 by E. Liddell


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Nephrite

<<This way! Hurry!>>

I'd long since stopped wondering where the internal promptings that I was receiving were coming from. I just followed them, slavishly, automatically, leading Malachite and his precious burden through the maze of underground tunnels, swimming through the blackness spread by the demon. And I had a burden as well, one which weighed much less physically but bore down on me spiritually so heavily that I could have sworn that I was carrying the weight of the world on my shoulders.

Twenty-three spirit crystals. Twenty-three lives.

It was their only chance, I reminded myself. We couldn't have shielded so many, not with me so weak, but we can save their spirits for later rebirth.

But...

Do you have any idea how difficult it is to look at the face of a child, a child who might have been one of your own sons at that age, and know that you've just condemned him to die in terror and pain? I would almost rather have given myself to Mena Kimlubeniz. Gods, gods, gods...

Malachite was behind me, where I couldn't see his face or the look in his eyes, but I knew he felt as heart-sick as I did. At least I had only had to stand by and watch as he talked to them. I don't think I could have spoken the words myself. I would have cracked and wept under the strain, but somehow he had managed to speak.

Where's the Negaforce when you need it? This would have been so much easier if I could have given my emotions back over into its cold embrace.

Why had we ever thought that it was better to be able to feel?

<<It will be all right.>>

I snorted. <<Right. A lot you know.>> The thought felt like it was dropping away into silence, but I had expected no less.

I took a quick glance back over my shoulder. What is he going to think of us when he wakes up? I wondered. We've come here and drawn a demon down on him... murdered his people...

Is this some kind of punishment that the gods have wished on us? I'm not sure how much more I can take! But I knew the truth. A thousand years of horror had tempered me-- tempered us. We would hate ourselves when this was over, but we would survive.

And perhaps that was the most terrible part of all.

<<Nephrite?>>

<<Yes?>>

<<Where are we going, anyway?>>

I sighed. <<I wish I knew. Somewhere safe. I hope.>>

<<You hope?>>

<<Well, we'll know soon,>> I replied. <<We're very close.>>

<<There's something about this section of tunnel,>> Malachite stated pensively. <<The smell of it, or the feel... I don't know, but I'm certain that I've been here before.>>

<<The shrine where we found Adamant's armring was in these tunnels.>> The shrine that some fragment of Adamant had shown me, in a vision. That symbol on the altar...

<<Yes, I suppose they must be the same ones, mustn't they?>>

<<Turn left,>> the voices whispered.

<<Nephrite?>>

<<What?>>

<<The symbol on your forehead's glowing. I think it has been for quite a while, but I was too wrapped up in my own thoughts to notice until now.>>

I touched the space above and between my eyes, although naturally I didn't feel anything. Maybe it was glowing. But I wasn't performing any divinations right now, and normally it wouldn't glow for anything else.

What was going on here? Whose voice was I hearing in my mind?

Were we walking into a trap?

I couldn't sense the demon anymore. I hadn't been able to since we'd slid down the steep slope that had been the entrance to this place. It was as though the air of the tunnels was muffling my mind somehow. And I was so very, very tired. But I had to keep on going, since it seemed that the only way out was through. I had to survive the demon before I could go home again. Before I could see my wife and children again. Damn, but I've become domesticated.

An odd little half-smile quirked my lips, then faded. Almandite... I missed her fiercely, but at the same time, I was glad that she wasn't involved in this. Although whatever she was doing now might very well be even nastier and more dangerous... No. Don't think about that, or about what Marc and Morgan are doing. Can't afford to be driven mad with worry right now.

<<Here,>> the voices said to me. <<Inside the cave. You'll be safe there.>>

I stepped through the rough arch that was almost directly in front of me... and stopped dead in my tracks.

The brazier, the lamp, the other things on the altar... it was all the same, as though it had never been disturbed from now until we found it, except that it was completely dustless now. The bronze square set into the altar glinted in the glow from the globe of light that I held in my hand. There was no blackness in here, no taint of demon in the air. Why did that bother me so much?

I glanced back at Malachite. <<Have you ever wished that you were less perceptive?>> I asked him.

He quirked an eyebrow. <<Sometimes.>> Crossing the threshold, he bent down and gently laid Adamant on the floor. <<I wonder why this place seems to be immune to the demon now. It was anything but that before... or do I mean after?>>

To my surprise, I smiled. <<Time-travel is confusing, isn't it? And I think it was secure enough until Zircon opened the door. Obviously, something is protecting this place, probably something that gradually faded away over the years.>>

<<Yes, but what? You're better at this sort of thing than I am.>>

<<Not by much. We really need Cuprite.>> Still, I narrowed my eyes, concentrating on sounding the place out. <<I... This is very odd.>>

<<What is it?>>

<<This place feels almost like my workroom, only more so, if that makes sense. There's a lot of the kind of energy that I use in my divinations just lying around.>> A type of energy that I had thought never existed anywhere unless I created it. <<If you'd asked me an hour ago, I would have said that this place was impossible.>>

I walked over to the altar and looked at the bronze square with its inset symbol, which I had seen so briefly before, in a vision created by Phoebe's Ward. But now that I had a chance to really look at it, I got the impression that it was familiar, that it was... four stylized ne kana, symmetrically interlaced. The symbol on my forehead, multiplied fourfold.

<<Our symbol.>>

<<Damnit, who are you?>>

No answer. Frustrated, I sat down in front of the altar. Wonderful. Either I'm going completely crazy, or... But somehow I just didn't want to complete that thought.

<<You're not crazy,>> Malachite reassured me. <<Or at least you don't feel that way, although I still don't understand what you're talking to.>>

<<Neither do I,>> I admitted. <<That's why I asked.>>

<<Maybe Adamant will know what's going on.>>

I sighed. <<I hope so, my King. I really do.>>


Adamant

I woke to a familiar feeling of peace. This is the shrine. How did I get here? We had been outside, and then... My head was throbbing, and a quick check with my fingers turned up a tender lump just behind my left ear. Something--or someone?--hit me and brought me down here...

I opened my eyes and raised my head to meet Malachite's ironic gaze.

<<So it was you.>> I was beyond surprise. I wasn't sure how he and the auburn-haired man, whose name I still didn't know, had gotten me down here, but obviously they had. The grey-eyed man was seated with his back to the wall beside the altar. Abruptly, he broke eye contact with me and looked down at his lap. He was holding something there, something that glowed dimly in the near-darkness of this room, but I couldn't make it out from this angle. Still, it was about time that I try to sit up.

My first attempt ended with failure, dizziness, and spark- shot vision.

<<You could help me, you know,>> I grumbled.

<<How? Neither of us has any healing skills.>>

<<Aren't you capable of simple kindness?>> I made it up onto my elbows the second time. That was enough to get me a look at what he was holding. Oh, no, there wasn't a kind bone in either of those two. They must have... I wanted to vomit. How could I ever have thought that someone like him could be trusted?

<<You saved my life at the cost of the others',>> I stated, wanting to look away but mesmerized by the spirit crystals in Malachite's lap.

<<Yes.>>

<<And I thought that the demons were monsters.>>

Malachite's eyes flashed. <<How dare you judge us? You have no idea who we are, or what we had to do to get here, and most especially, you have no idea what's at stake. We couldn't let you throw your life away to save them.>>

My temper, which I hadn't lost in more than fifty years, was reaching the boiling point. <<So I don't understand, do I? Well, then, perhaps you'd better explain things to me, finally, although I doubt you'll be able to do it well enough to convince me that you were doing the right thing. Who in hell do you people think you are?>>

<<You don't know anything about hell, either, but that's neither here nor there.>> And for a moment, the shadow of a frosty, bitter smile fled across his face. <<I've been there, so I know.>>

There didn't seem to be an answer to that. Looking at him, I suddenly felt very young and naive, for all that I was more than a hundred years old.

He rose to his feet, gathering up the spirit crystals and walking over to deposit them in front of me, then loomed over me, standing with his arms folded across his chest. I couldn't read his expression. It spoke of something that I somehow didn't want to know about.

<<I am Malachite,>> he stated at last. <<King of the Negaverse, Lord of the Grey World, and leader of the two dozen or so Crystal Weavers still living in my time.>> And he bowed with unexpected elegance.

<<Your time?>> I echoed blankly.

<<About five thousand years in the future, we think.>>

<<You traveled five thousand years through the Timestream to... Why are you here?>> Are we still going to be needed fifty centuries from now? Dear gods... A single tear trickled from my eye and splashed on the stone floor.

His laugh was soft and brittle. <<We were looking for help. But it was just a waste of time, since you obviously can't fight that thing either.>>

<<The demon?>>

<<Yes. I would give you the whole story, but that might take years. Suffice to say that, in the time period from which we came, the demon from which we just fled is threatening the entire planet, and our best efforts haven't been enough to imprison or dispel it. We know that you somehow managed to bind it, down here, in these very tunnels, and we were hoping that... >>

<<That I could give you some advice?>> I suggested.

<<Something like that.>>

<<Well, then, I'm very sorry to have to disappoint you.>>

Cold silver eyes slid shut for a moment. <<Don't be sorry for us. Be sorry for them. The only thing worse than having to leave those children to die is knowing that we did it for nothing. Even monsters can be outraged by waste, Adamant. Even if it's only a drop or two of blood in an ocean.>>

<<Hell is a state of mind, isn't it?>> I asked.

<<Yes. Yes, it is.>>

He returned to the wall and slid back down into a sitting position. I ran my hands over the spirit crystals. Neither of us spoke.

After a few moments, Malachite's companion, apparently tired of pacing, came over and sat down beside his... King? Probably. I could see the deference, now that I was looking for it. I wonder when we developed into a monarchy...

<<Did your "voices" have any useful suggestions?>> Malachite asked, not even trying to keep the conversation private.

<<Not a one,>> the other replied. <<It would be nice if I knew what they were, and whether or not they're trustworthy.>>

<<Voices?>> I asked. <<By the way, I don't think we've been introduced,>> I added to the auburn- haired man. The fact that I didn't know his name was beginning to annoy me.

<<Nephrite. General of the Negaverse, et cetera. As for the voices, I don't know. Almost ever since we dropped into this time, something has been... speaking to me, to my mind. Not other Crystal Weavers, I know that much. But something.>>

Suddenly, I felt like I had ice instead of blood flowing in my veins. <<A chorus of voices, speaking all at once, in such a way that they almost but not quite merge into one.>> It wasn't a question. I understood, now, why they were here, if not why they had been chosen.

Had it really taken fifty centuries for our race to produce someone capable of doing what I thought this Nephrite was doing?

<<You know what I'm hearing.>> That wasn't a question, either. <<In fact, you've heard it yourself, haven't you?>>

I tried to smile, but my face seemed to be oddly stiff. <<Once. I've heard them once. A very long time ago.>> Back when my hair had still been dark. Back before I had made my pact... <<And I had hoped that none of our people would ever need to hear them again.>>

<<Explain yourself.>> That was Malachite, but I kept my eyes on Nephrite as I replied.

<<You're hearing the voices of the gods.>>

I don't know what kind of reaction I was expecting, but it certainly wasn't what I got.

The two of them stared at me for a moment, and then burst out laughing.

Goto Chapter 38


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