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

Chapter 41

© 2006 by E. Liddell


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Alan

I hid in the upper branches of the tree to watch them assemble, the Sailor Scouts and the grey-clad strangers.

It had been damnably difficult following them up here. A hill half in one dimension and half in another... In a way, it was an obvious extension of the method we used to hide the Doom Tree, but the sheer scale of it was stunning. It had to have taken a fantastic amount of energy to shift that much matter. Energy that we needed, if we were to survive.

I knew the abilities and limitations of the Sailor Scouts already, so I was concentrating on watching the other three. The man didn't appear to be much of a threat--in fact, he seemed to be carrying so little energy, compared to the others, that I was surprised he was still alive. The woman didn't look like much at first glance, either, but I was rapidly becoming convinced that that was a lie, and she was concealing a fairly sizable reservoir of power under her unremarkable exterior. The boy...

The boy glowed. He was radiating more power than I had ever seen in one being before. Would the woman be like that too, if I managed to cut through whatever layers of artifice she was using to hide her true self? Well, I could hope. Even the boy alone represented enough life energy to keep us and the Doom Tree going for years.

"Mangoran," I whispered.

"Yes, m'lord?" The response was barely a breath of sound, and seemed to come from the tree trunk somewhere near my ear.

"Follow them wherever they choose to go. I need that boy's energy."

"Of course, m'lord." Shadow blended into shadow and oozed down the tree. I nodded in satisfaction, and teleported away.

There wasn't much I could do now except wait. Mangoran was a good Cardian. Surely it would bring back something for us.

It had to.


Kyanite

Home, I thought in satisfaction as we rematerialized. But my pleasure lasted no more than a few seconds.

No. No!

It was the Negaverse, but at the same time, it was absolutely and completely wrong. The universal heartbeat was there, but it was slow and sluggish, and as I extended my senses, I brushed up against something utterly cold and inimical that seemed to be woven into the fabric of the universe itself. The Negaforce, I realized. A demon. Our racial enemy. Weakened and bound in sleep, but not dead.

I shivered. The shadows in the corners seemed to ooze and wriggle along the floor. So. Not home after all. Well, I'd been getting disappointed an awful lot lately. Just add this one more thing to the list and go on, and don't show anyone how you feel about this, especially the Scouts.

Lady Almandite hadn't wanted to bring me along on this trip at all, but Lord Jadeite had, reluctantly, overruled her, saying that it wasn't a good idea for us to be separated right now. He'd also ordered me, point blank, to stay close to him, in the best protected position--right now, the best protected because he wasn't able to defend himself either, and so everyone would be looking out for him, but that situation would change once we found his former self's icy prison.

"North-north-west, and a little further down than we are now." Mercury shut her computer with a snap and dismissed her visor. None of us, not even Lord Jadeite, knew where the object of our search was located, so we had to rely on her computer's tracking abilities.

"This is probably the quickest way, then," Lady Almandite said, gesturing in the direction of a nearby tunnel, one of some two dozen that pierced the walls of the cavern in which we now stood. Judging from the direction markers I could see, this was one of the central connecting hubs in the servants' passageways under the old Palace. I wasn't sure exactly where that put us, though. Lady Almandite and Lord Jadeite hadn't bothered to tell me exactly where we were going to arrive.

Lady Almandite led the way into the passageway, with two of the Scouts immediately behind her. Then Lord Jadeite and I followed, and Sailor Moon brought up the rear, flanked by Mars and Jupiter.

The shadows seemed to move erratically as we walked, even though the light provided by the glowfungus above us was steady--bioluminescence doesn't normally flicker all that much. I'm getting paranoid, I told myself. It was just this place that I was in that was bothering me, this place that was like home, and yet completely unlike it in all the most important ways. I was under so much stress from what had happened over the past few days that I was seeing things that weren't there, that was all.

Still, I kept a careful eye on the pools of greater darkness to either side of us. Probably I was just being paranoid, but Lady Aventurine had told me that I should pay attention to my hunches and my instincts, too. So I kept watch, just on the off chance that there was something really wrong, but I didn't tell anybody.

Maybe I should have.

We'd been walking for perhaps fifteen minutes when I glimpsed two yellow pinpricks hiding in the shadows in one of the side tunnels that we passed. That I did report-- immediately, to Lord Jadeite, mind-to-mind, so as not to alarm our watcher.

<<I know she's there,>> came the reply. <<We've passed several others, as well. Scouts for the youma living in these areas of tunnel, I expect.>>

<<Do you think they're dangerous?>> I asked.

<<Possibly, if there are enough of them. One youma alone, or even a dozen together, wouldn't dare to attack any group that I'm a part of, but a larger band might be able to convince itself that it could win even against a General. Especially if they think they have the advantage of surprise... or if they realize that I'm bluffing and barely have enough strength to stand up.>>

<<The Scouts don't seem to be too concerned,>> I observed.

<<I doubt they've noticed that we're being watched. They were never trained for real scouting, or guerrilla warfare-- they're really a defensive strike force, odd though that may seem. And there's no way to tell them what's going on without alerting the youma.>>

But I thought that the youma were more likely to attack if they didn't know that we know that they're there... Belatedly, I put two and two together. <<You want the youma to attack us, don't you? Why--no, let me guess. You don't want to leave any witnesses behind, do you? Because it might muck up the Timestream, and we have to avoid that at all costs.>>

<<Avi's been doing a good job of training you, I see. Yes, that's exactly how I want it all to fall out, if possible. That's the other reason I don't dare tell the Scouts--they're a squeamish bunch, really, especially in this time period, and if it comes to a fight, we're going to need their help.>>

I nodded grimly and moved a little closer to Lord Jadeite. Unexpectedly, his hand closed on my shoulder and gave it a quick squeeze.

<<You understand the requirements of our situation. That's good. If we all make it out of this alive, Kyanite, you'll make a fine General.>>

My face suddenly felt very warm. He thinks... Lord Jadeite, one of my fathers' Weavemates, thinks that I have what it takes to make a good General. I don't believe this. I must be dreaming! I bit my lower lip, hard, and barely managed to smother a yelp. Well, maybe not. Gods of Darkness, that was stupid of me. I can pinch myself later, once we're out of enemy territory. Right now, I should be watching for more youma scouts.

I continued to eye the shadows cautiously as we moved along, but I saw nothing for a long while. Eventually, we stopped at an intersection and Lady Almandite, Lord Jadeite, and Sailor Mercury talked for a while. Then we turned and proceeded down a tunnel that was narrower than the first. Judging from the location markers, we were quite close to the throne room, although I knew that the service passageways didn't actually connect with that huge open space.

We stopped at the top of a narrow spiral stairway that had to lead down to the storage levels, where I'd never actually been before--they'd fallen into disuse since the population of the Negaverse had shrunk so abruptly at the end of Beryl's reign.

<<Something feels wrong,>> Lady Almandite observed. I could feel it too: a heaviness in the air that just hadn't been there before.

Lord Jadeite's mouth thinned, but all he said was, "Venus, Jupiter, you two will go first. The rest of us will wait here until you give the all-clear."

Jupiter looked like she was about to argue with him, but Lord Jadeite shot her a Look, and she shut up. The two Scouts filed into the stairwell and soon disappeared below the level of the floor.

We waited. No one called up from below. In fact, there had been no sound at all from the stairwell since the two Scouts had passed out of sight.

"Damnit, what's keeping them?" Mars was the first one to give in to the tension and ask. "It shouldn't be taking them this long. I'm going after them."

Lord Jadeite held up a hand. "I agree that there's something wrong, but if the two of them couldn't handle it, do you really think that getting another Scout caught in whatever trap is waiting down there is going to help them or us? Mercury, use that computer of yours. I want some information on what's at the bottom of those stairs."

The blue-skirted Sailor Scout touched her earring, bringing her visor into being, and began tapping away at her computer. "I can't get very good readings, I'm afraid. There's some sort of energy field blocking the stairwell."

Lord Jadeite cursed. <<I'm an idiot! I should be able to recognize a baffling ward when one shows up under my nose, but this damned energy drain makes me feel as though my head is stuffed full of sludge. Still, that doesn't explain why neither of them has come back up to find out why we can't hear them...>>

<<Presumably, something set the baffling ward,>> Lady Almandite observed. <<Or, more accurately, someone. It could be a permanent passive defense, but I doubt it. Most youma aren't powerful enough for that sort of thing.>>

"So there are several of them down there waiting for us," Lord Jadeite completed aloud, while the Sailor Scouts stared at him, a bit puzzled, no doubt, because they had missed half of the conversation. "And we're going to have to go down there after them, there's no question about that." <<After all, Venus is important to the future. We can't afford to lose her.>>

<<Admit it, you're just afraid for your daughter-in- law,>> Lady Almandite stated, but she was smiling a little.

<<Well, yes, a bit. Not to mention that Jasper would kill me if anything happened to her...>>

Lady Almandite shook her head.

"Mercury, can you aim a blast of that bubble fog of yours down the stairs?" Lord Jadeite asked aloud.

"Certainly." She waved her arms around said some words, and while I marveled at how silly the Scouts' attacks looked when you weren't on the receiving end of them, a cold mist filled the staircase.

"Almandite, the two of us are going to teleport down into the cross-corridor beyond the staircase and take whoever is waiting for us from behind. The rest of you are going to wait here until we call you. Mars, if you could see fit to aim a few more attacks down the stairwell and keep their attention on what's going on up here, instead of on Almandite and I, it would help."

"Seems to me that this an awful lot like the plan you just tried--you know, the one that didn't work," the dark-haired Scout said.

Lord Jadeite shrugged. "And if you don't hear from us within fifteen minutes, you can do as you see fit, but we agreed that I would be the leader on this little jaunt. If you have a better idea for taking them by surprise and getting your friends back, then I suggest you speak up right now."

Mars didn't answer, but it looked like she wanted to.

"That's settled, then. Remember--fifteen minutes." And Lord Jadeite and Lady Almandite vanished in a swirl of yellow sparks.

I moved well away from the stairwell and sat down on the floor, with my back against the wall, and rested my forehead against my knees. My spirit crystal twinged as I wrapped my arms around my knees. Damn it, anyway, I thought. The only thing I hated more than being here at all was knowing that I was useless. Dead weight. Damaged.

<<Stop feeling sorry for yourself, and start paying attention. Something is very wrong here.>>

<<You again!>> I snarled inwardly. <<Why can't you just go away and leave me alone?>>

<<Why don't you just let your soul float free of your body?>> Adamant retorted. <<Not that easy, is it? Now for the gods' sakes, stop staring at your legs and take a look around you. There's something in this tunnel with you that stinks of foreign magic.>>

<<It's probably just the Sailor Scouts,>> I stated sulkily.

<<No, and it isn't the demonic shadow that lies on this place, either.>>

I imagined sticking out my tongue at the unwanted passenger inside my head, but I still uncurled a bit and looked around.

The remaining Scouts were standing over by the stairwell, Mars and Moon arguing, Mercury just looking long- suffering. Nothing else was moving, except the shadows.

The shadows...

Since when do shadows have green eyes?

"Cardian!" I shouted it as I scrambled to my feet. The green eyes floating in the shadow along the wall gave me an amused, contemptuous look, and a black pseudopod snaked out toward me. I dodged, jumped, rolled, and nearly ended up falling down the stairs. The Sailor Scouts were only just turning. It felt like everything was happening in slow motion.

The finger of darkness slid on past me, aiming at another target.

"Sailor Moon, look out!" But I knew even as I warned her that it wouldn't be enough. It had caught all three of them flat-footed, and they wouldn't be able to dodge in time.

The choice was obvious. They could fight the creature. I couldn't. So my best chance of surviving was to protect them.

I threw myself in front of the extended finger of blackness, letting it wrap around me. Cold... So cold... I could feel the Cardian's draining magic begin to go to work on me. And then...

It happened without warning, just like the two previous times. The Cardian's magic suddenly reversed itself, and energy began flowing back into me. It felt horribly wrong, like drinking acid, but there didn't seem to be anything I could do to stop it. I heard the fabric of my jacket tear across the shoulders as that hot, swollen feeling came over me--much worse this time than it had when Mars' attack had hit me--and, knowing what was going to happen, fought to control the approaching backlash.

I didn't succeed very well. The explosion threw me back against the corridor's opposite wall with what would have been crushing force to anyone who didn't have at least minimal wards. And since my protections were only minimal, I wasn't too surprised to feel a sudden fiery pain in my chest, and hear bone crunching as several of my ribs broke.

I crashed to the floor, and lay there, eyes closed, just trying to breathe. I could vaguely hear someone fussing over me, but it didn't seem important.

Did I save them? Guess I must have.

And a little smile graced my mouth as I drifted off into the greyness of shock.


Jadeite

We materialized in a side corridor and poked our heads cautiously around the corner to get a view of the stairwell.

<<About a dozen of them,>> I observed. <<I can't see the Scouts, though.>>

<<I think they may have pushed them back up the stairs a little way,>> Almandite stated. <<I can see little wisps of magic coming from there that don't belong to the baffling ward or the bubble fog. It's a good thing that Raye's fire isn't likely to get through that ward.>>

I nodded. <<They put a lot of effort into that. Either that, or they made a blood sacrifice to the Negaforce. Still, it should fall apart when they get distracted.>> I straightened up, tugged at the hem of my jacket to make sure that it hung properly, and took a step forward.

Almandite grabbed my arm. <<And just where do you think you're going?>>

<<Out to run a scam,>> I replied. <<You should be able to free Venus and Jupiter while I've got them distracted. Don't show yourself until you've got them both loose, or unless I tell you to.>>

<<Or unless you start to collapse again,>> she told me firmly. <<You may be senior here, but I'm the Healer.>>

<<Whatever. I don't have the energy to argue with you right now.>> In fact, I barely had the energy to stand up on my own. Can't let the youma see that...

I never thought that I would be grateful to Beryl for all those punishments she had visited on me in the old days, but it was the need to get back to my own quarters after those sessions, without allowing the youma to notice that there was anything wrong, that had taught me how best to handle myself when I was in this kind of condition.

I squared my shoulders and tried my best to remember how the old Jadeite, Beryl's Jadeite, would have felt and acted upon discovering a pack of youma bent on this kind of mischief. Disdainful, yes. Cold--my worse half had always been cold. Yes. Jaw set, expression neutral to the point of being forbidding, eyes just slightly more lidded than normal... Like that.

I stepped out into the larger corridor that led to the stairwell.

"Just what do the lot of you think that you're doing?" I snapped.

Most of the youma flinched. Some froze in place, while others turned towards me. Two of them seemed to be ignoring me, but I'd seen them freeze for just a second as I spoke, and knew that they had heard me too.

There were eight of them in all. Two I recognized as having belonged to Nephrite, back in the bad old days, one had been Malachite's, and the others I had never seen before. Most likely, they had been servants here at the Palace. Servants had been beneath my notice, back then. But most importantly, I didn't recognize any of them as having survived to witness our return to the Negaverse, which meant that they were expendable.

It was one of those last who spoke. "And why should we answer to a walking dead man?"

I glared at her. "I am your superior officer, and you will show me respect, or I will remind you why I am your superior."

"Superior officer?" The speaker and one or two of the others laughed. The others just waited, silent, no doubt wanting to see who would come out on top before allying themselves to either side. "We aren't yours anymore, Lord Jadeite. You abandoned us, all of us, to starve here in the dark."

"I didn't abandon anyone," I said, taking a step forward. "Not by choice, anyway."

"No, you screwed up and Beryl turned you into an icicle."

"What did you say?" I spoke very slowly and precisely as I raised one hand in a gesture that I hoped would look like the beginning of an attack spell. In the old days, I would have blasted any youma who spoke to me that way. Hell, I wouldn't even have been particularly lenient to a youma from the modern Negaverse who slandered me or another General to my face. You just can't let behaviour like that go unpunished when you're trying to maintain even a pseudomilitary command structure.

The youma spokeswoman took a step forward, and most of the others followed her. "I said that you're a pathetic loser who isn't fit to be anything's superior officer. You got a problem with that?"

I gave her a nasty smile and drew the sword that I was wearing at my belt, somehow managing to keep my arm from shaking as I raised the blade, pointing it towards her.

"On the contrary," I said sweetly, "I'm always glad to have an excuse to kill underlings who don't know their place."

<<Jadeite, what in hell are you doing?! You can't fight them!>>

<<I know,>> I replied, <<but I have to get them away from those stairs. You'll have a minute or so to act in while they're demolishing me. Don't waste it.>>

"Yaaaaaaaaaah!" I threw myself forward, weapon extended, hoping that I wasn't about to fall flat on my face and make an utter fool of myself. Somehow, I managed to keep my feet under me and the sword pointing more-or-less at the youma. She moved to one side, but not quite fast enough, and I got her in the hip, opening a long, shallow gash. She clutched at the wound with one hand and hissed.

Not a fighter, I reflected. A fighter would have left a wound that trivial alone. That made it more or less an even match. She had no training, and no weapon but her teeth and claws. I had the training, and a weapon, but not the strength to use them. We'll just have to see which of us gets lucky first.

I dealt her a number of additional scratches and shallow wounds, but she was a lot quicker than I could manage to be, in the state I was in, and managed to avoid serious injury. It wasn't long before I was holding my sword in both hands, the muscles in my arms and shoulders burning.

<<Almandite!>>

<<I'm there. Unfortunately, they've got them trussed up but good. I need a good minute more to get them untied.>>

<<I understand.>> I aimed another cut at the youma, but she slapped my blade away, using the palm of her left hand against the flat.

I backed away, still keeping the weapon between us. The other youma were snickering. This isn't working, I thought. I need to try something else. I backed again, wiped the bloody tip of the blade clean against the top of my boot. Sheathed it.

"Are you surrendering?" Her minor injuries didn't seem to be dismaying the spokesyouma much--or at least, not while there was a General to humiliate.

I smiled right back at her. "No, I'm just through playing." And then I lunged at her again, barehanded, using the last of my strength to capture her wrists and force her hands up above her head. "You see, it wasn't very restful inside Beryl's little crystal prison. Not much energy available, either. And so I'm a bit weaker than I should be. Easily enough remedied, though. Since I don't have any energy of my own, I think I'll just take a bit of yours."

I was bluffing, of course. It takes energy to drain energy, and I had none.

Almandite, you'd better have them loose right now, or we're not going to make it.

A little cold shiver ran down my spine as my granddaughter's face flickered quickly in front of my mind's eye.

Cass, I promise it's going to be okay. We'll rescue your mother. You'll be fine. Really.

Goto Chapter 42


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