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

Chapter 43

© 2006 by E. Liddell


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Zoisite

I swore foully as the padding that filled out my skimpy leather bikini threatened to shift again. What in hell was I thinking when I agreed to this? And it didn't help that the skin and hair dyes itched, either, although the revealing clothing was the worst of it. That, and the sheer embarrassment of my apparent demotion.

Anyone looking at me could see that I wasn't a happy youma.

The others all had it much, much easier. Beryl hadn't even needed to dress up, Kunzite, whose scarred face had proven too difficult to disguise convincingly without an illusion so strong that it would have drawn the attention of everyone we passed, wore a voluminous dark robe with a hood and a mask, and Amber... Well, at least Amber didn't have the problem of needing to falsify a bustline, although she had dyed her skin green.

I hadn't really thought much of the idea from the beginning, but it had seemed like our best chance of sneaking into the Negaverse, stealing the Silver Crystal, and getting Amber and I out of there without having to fight a pitched battle with the youma. We would still have to help Beryl with her father, as we had agreed to do, but thankfully there was only one of him.

We passed a group of youma. Because the hallway we were in was so narrow, both of our parties had to squish down into a single-file arrangement. I snarled and clenched my hands into fists, but didn't look up, as a seven-foot-tall, horned, purple warrior pinched the exposed skin of my buttock. I didn't dare so much as slap her--not here, not now. I could have wiped the floor with her, of course, as I could have with any other youma, but that would have attracted too much attention, and it was vital that we be inconspicuous. As usual. Gods, I hate sneaking around...

Then we turned left, into a broader corridor, and left that particular group behind. In fact, for all that this hallway was wide and well-lit, with a nice, flat floor, it was completely deserted. But then, in the old days, there were few parts of the Negaverse that had ever been as unpopular as the throne room.

The door at the end of the corridor was closed. I couldn't remember ever having seen it in that position before, except once, during the years of unrest when Malachite had first assumed the throne of the Negaverse, when a group of youma rebels had tried to besiege us in there. That particular little battle hadn't lasted all that long, although the servants never had managed to get some of the char marks off the floors.

Beryl raised her hand to the door and frowned for a moment. There was a creaking sound, and a sharp crack!, and then it began to ease open. I had to stop myself from looking over my shoulder and checking to see if we were being watched. It would have been nice if we'd been able to teleport directly inside, but Kunzite, damn him, had wanted to see the lay of the land, so to speak, first, and I had reluctantly agreed with him. Right now, though, I was wondering whether I had agreed with him because I'd really thought it was a good idea, or whether I'd done it because of that connection between him and Malachite that still existed in my mind.

Kunzite was the first through the door, then Amber, then Beryl, with me bringing up the rear. I still didn't entirely trust Beryl or Kunzite, even though circumstances might have forced me into working with them, and I wasn't going to give either of them the opportunity to stab me in the back.

The air inside the throne room felt strange--dead, as though every entrance and air vent had been sealed off--and the lighting was dimmer than I remembered, although still more than sufficient to Crystal Weaver eyes. My sandaled foot tapped against something as I pulled the door shut behind us. I looked down. It was ivory-white and roundish, with holes in it. The skull of a fairly- biochemically-normal youma.

"I'm not impressed with the housekeeping," I said aloud, and immediately regretted it as the still air seemed to absorb my voice in the most uncanny sort of way. Objectively, this was far from the spookiest place I had ever been in, but there was something about it that made the back of my neck itch. Something is going to happen here. Very soon.

"Father and Sailor Moon fought right here, in front of the throne," Beryl said, her voice also getting swallowed up by the dead air. "That was when Father and the Negaforce fused for good, although they'd been in contact for quite some time. Since then, none of the youma have been willing to enter this room." <<And I don't blame them,>> she added in a bare whisper of thought.

"Huh." I tapped the skull with my toe. It went through three complete revolutions before stopping. Perhaps it wasn't a youma's skull after all. The bones of the Sailor Scouts had to be here somewhere, mixed in with the dozens of other dusty hummocks that dotted the floor. <<The Silver Crystal is here?>>

<<Yes. Father built the plinth right on top of the spot where Sailor Moon died.>>

<<So why are we standing here talking?>> I asked. <<Let's get the damned thing and get out of here.>>

I strode forward across the floor, straight towards the throne and the squat, square shape that I could now see in front of it. I was halfway there when I suddenly stopped again.

Wait a minute. Youma disintegrate when they die, just like us. How could I have forgotten that? And there are too many bones here for all of them to have come from a half-dozen or so idiotic young human would-be heroines. Andthat means...

<<Something isn't right,>> I told the others. <<Be on your guard, all of you. This may be a trap of some kind.>> Or it could just be that the demonic influence in the room was too strong to let youma corpses disintegrate as completely as they ought. But somehow I doubted it. <<Kunzite, give Amber her sword.>> Amber, not being very convincing as a warrior youma, had chosen to dress in a servant's smock, with which she couldn't wear weapons. If she had tried, they would have been noticed, and not in what I would call a good way. The warriors are jealous of their prerogatives and place in the pecking order, and while Amber could have taken any of them easily one- on-one, things in the Negaverse are rarely that fair.

Amber accepted the bare blade carefully. Instead of readying my own weapon, I concentrated on building a spell in the back of my mind--a couple of them, actually, a magic neutralizer and a high explosive. Surely one of those would be applicable to almost any situation we might encounter here. Kunzite, meanwhile, stripped off his voluminous robe and the mask, letting them fall to the floor.

I strained my senses, searching for magical anomalies, but it was difficult to feel much of anything through the demonic miasma that filled the room. You'd think that after all those years working for it, I would have gotten used to the Negaforce, but no such luck. I could sense vaguely that there was some sort of spell in here, but it could have been anything from a nasty "intruder control" system designed to blow the first person to touch the Silver Crystal into next week to a simple spell intended to help keep the floor clear of bloodstains. I couldn't tell. I could clearly identify the caster, though. Onyx. He'd always had a very distinctive style.

"I'm going to approach the plinth," I said aloud. "The rest of you stay back. Be ready to support me, or, if it looks like I've stirred up more trouble than we can handle, to run. If it comes to that, don't stop until you're out of the palace. I'll try to follow you." I didn't add that, if things got that bad, there wasn't much likelihood that I would survive. Kunzite and Beryl already knew that, and if Amber couldn't figure it out for herself, it ought to be easy enough for her to pick up through the Weavelink, which I wasn't about to waste energy on blocking.

I padded forward through the dust, detouring now and again to avoid little piles of maybe-bones, feeling ridiculous and underdressed. On second thought... I took off my leather bikini top and let it fall to the floor. I could always retrieve it later, and I would be a damned sight more comfortable without it.

Dressed only in loose leather shorts, a swordbelt, and a pair of sandals, I approached the square pillarish thing that supported the Silver Crystal. Even when I was within touching distance of it, I couldn't tell whether the spell I sensed was on it, or on something else in the immediate area.

Parts of a human skeleton lay scattered around the base of the plinth. The ribcage, a few inches from my left foot, was transfixed by a dried and withered black rose. Its wrinkled petals whispered against one another as I took another step forward and my movement stirred the air, while the Silver Crystal glittered balefully at me from its nest of midnight blue velvet on top of the plinth.

Slowly, I stretched out my hand, reaching for the gleaming, silver-white, faceted globe...

My fingers slid straight through it without resistance. Illusion?! Then where--

Click.

It was the sound of dry bone on bone. I suppose that, if this had been a work of fiction, they would have all joined together to form skeletons, but I considered that a wasteful option, and so, apparently, had the person who had prepared this trap. Instead, the bones came together in a latticework wall. I could see magenta fire glittering along the creamy-pale edges of ribs and femurs, and knew that the cage of bone was reinforced with magic. Experimentally, I tried to teleport, and was slammed back into the real world before I had completely entered nonspace. I threw my neutralizing spell at it, but while I'm a good magical theoretician and craftsman, I'm really not all that powerful, and the spell likewise wasn't strong enough to counter the trap. The explosion spell I'd chosen to prepare would fry me alive inside the barrier.

I cursed and reached out to touch it, ignoring the shocks it gave me as I used the connection formed by physical contact to perform a deep analysis, swearing again as I realized just how well- put-together the spell was. I could unravel it, yes, but it was going to take a good ten minutes.

It wasn't until I looked up that I realized that Kunzite and Amber were running towards the barrier, with Beryl hovering in the background as though she wasn't certain whether she wanted to help or not.

<<Get out of here, you idiots!>> I snapped at them. <<Getting yourselves trapped along with me won't help anything. You have to find the real Silver Crystal--it's our best chance of taking Onyx. Without it, we're going to be in serious trouble.>>

<<So very true.>>

I'd known intellectually, since we'd dropped into this crazy world and heard Kunzite's story, that it was possible that I might see him again, but the reality came as a bit of a shock. I'd gotten used to the idea that I was never going to hear that voice or feel that mind again, or at least not in this lifetime.

"Onyx," I breathed, then drew myself up to my full height and squared my shoulders. I was not about to let him see me as anything less than an equal.

I've never approved of the idea of dying while groveling abjectly at someone's feet. Regardless of how many times I have to do it, I will always die with dignity and beauty.


Kunzite

Seconds of quiet stretched into minutes as he stood watching us, but I wasn't about to give him the satisfaction of breaking the silence first, especially not given the way he was looking at me. Anger I could have taken. Hatred... I could have accepted that easily. But all I saw was amused, dismissive contempt. It made me want to leap forward and tear his throat out, but instead, I forced myself to feign a more normal bored disinterest.

This is the one at fault. This is the one who was really responsible for...

I shot a sideways glance at Beryl. No, it wasn't fair to say that Onyx was completely responsible for what had happened to my beloved. Beryl also bore her share of guilt... but she and I had an agreement.

It's going to be a fair trade, I reminded myself. That's all that matters. That, and making sure that she doesn't renege on the deal. And, The blame really belongs to the demon, anyway.

The demon. Yes, if I survived him and her, there were worse things I could do with my life than go down fighting that. That was my true enemy--had always been my true enemy, except that I'd been too thoroughly ensnared by it to be able to see it.

"A zombie, a ghost, a stranger, and my dear traitor daughter," Onyx mused aloud as a wave of his hand dismissed the wall of bones. "And what business could the four of you possibly have in here?"

"I think it's fairly obvious what we were doing," I said, before Zoisite could say anything, since I knew that he'd inevitably make things worse.

"Oh? I suppose you were looking for this." Onyx used his metal hand to fish something on a silver chain out from under his shirt. I cursed inwardly when I saw what it was. He carries iton him? Why didn't I ever sense it? "You didn't honestly think that I'd just leave the most important trophy that I ever won lying around in a glass case in a room that I never visit, did you? Not even you are that foolish."

No, but I hoped you were.

Onyx stepped forward. Zoisite shifted his weight, and I could see from the way that he had let his face go completely blank that he was about to try for Onyx's throat. I glared a warning at him. Remember how strong he is. He isn't the Onyx that you remember from your universe. You can't take him. And if he tried... I would try to rescue him. I knew I wouldn't be able to help myself. Instead of watching Zoisite die in front of my all over again, I would throw myself between him and Onyx and get mown down by the demon that possessed my former Emperor.

I have fallen in love all over again. It was an odd, bittersweet feeling. So like... so unlike... and he belonged to someone else. But I wanted... I wished...

<<Do you think I don't know that?>>

Onyx chuckled, looking down at the green-eyed man who was my dead lover's image. "Tell me, Kunzite, wherever did you find this one? He's absolutely perfect. He even has the facial expressions down pat. Tell me, do you have him--"

Then the dark-haired man turned slightly, and his eyes locked with Amber's. His voice trailed off into silence, and they stared at each other like a pair of statues.

<<Kunzite!>>

It was barely more than the mental equivalent of a whisper, tightly focused and brushing only very lightly against my mind. I nodded just a little to show Zoisite that I was listening.

<<Like this... then like this... then like this. I'm not powerful enough to make it work, but you are Do you understand?>>

I watched the spell-patterns unfurl before my mind's eye and nodded that tiny, minimal nod again.

<<You'll have to be touching him,>> Zoisite added. <<I'm sorry, but it's our best chance.>>

Nod.

<<If it works, it should stun him and Metallia both. Once we have the Silver Crystal, this ought to be easy.>>

I didn't bother to remind him that I couldn't use the Crystal, that it would identify me as demon-touched and burn me to ashes if I tried. Instead, I nodded one last time and shifted my stance, preparing to launch myself forward.

As Zoisite had said, it was the best chance we had.


Amber

"Tell me, do you have him--"

Then his eyes met mine, and time stopped for the two of us.

<<Who are you?>>

The weird echo-effect that marred his physical voice was less noticeable in the mindspeech, although I could still sense the demon inside him, tainting his thoughts with something that felt slimy and ugly and just plain wrong.

<<Who are you? Who?>>

He didn't really look like the father that I remembered, and not just because he was wearing a black version of the familiar grey Negaverse uniform, either, although that didn't help. He'd always been pale, but dressed that way, he looked as though his skin had no colour at all. However, if it hadn't been for all the other changes, I could have dealt with that.

The real shocks were his arm and his face. Now, my father's right hand had been metal, but the rest of him had always been flesh and blood. The man in front of me... was further gone than that. His uniform's right sleeve had been cut away, and the arm thus bared was entirely gleaming black. I stared at it, half fascinated and half disgusted. It had been cast in the precise shape of his real arm, and if he had covered it instead of flaunting it, I might never have known.

The metal must have continued up under his jacket, because that side of his neck, almost entirely hidden by his hair, was black and gleaming too, and his face... One corner of his mouth was also frozen in gleaming blackness, and it had just begun to engulf that side of his nose. It went all the way up to his cheekbone and back to somewhere near his ear. It was weird and eerie, simultaneously beautiful and ugly...

Something splashed against the back of my hand. I realized that it was a tear.

<<Why are you crying?>> His flesh-and- blood hand reached out to trace the tear-track back up my cheek, his glove absorbing the moisture.

<<Because it hurts to see someone who was once a good person being rotted out from the inside,>> I replied.

<<A good person? Who are you?>> It was clear from the look in his eyes that he--or the demon--thought I was insane.

<<I-->> And there I stopped. I just didn't know how to answer him. "Your daughter" wasn't really an appropriate response, because I wasn't. "Your enemy"? But that wasn't really what he was asking...

<<Someone who doesn't exist in this world,>> I stated at last. <<And someone who maybe should have.>>

He snorted. <<What nonsense. I don't understand why I even wasted my time asking.>> But his eyes were still focused on mine.

<<Don't you remember who you were?>> I insisted. This man wasn't really my father, but he was more like him than his twin brother would have been, one with him in mind, heart, and spirit. And perhaps it was because I hadn't been able to save or protect my father that it was so important to me to help this familiar stranger, as it had been important to me to help Beryl. Or perhaps it was just an initial hint of encroaching senility... <<What do you think Demantoid would have said about this?>>

<<That I was already beyond redemption, most likely... How do you know my brother's name? Who are you? I won't ask again.>>

His metal hand shot out and clamped itself around my throat. Stupid, stupid, should have backed away, Jay will kill me if he ever finds out about this... Can't... breathe...

<<Amber!>> Through the darkness that was beginning to shroud my peripheral vision, I saw Zoisite begin to move, one hand extended, the other clutching at his throat in pained sympathy. Then he stopped as someone else's hand closed over his shoulder.

<<Don't, Zoi. Please. I couldn't bear to watch... >>

<<Damn you, let me go! She's my Weavemate, and while I don't really expect you to understand what that means-->>

Kunzite's other hand, the one that wasn't on Zoisite's shoulder, was beginning to do something, though. He was making small gestures with it, little more than flicks of his fingers, really, and light was beginning to gather around it. A spell, obviously, but I had no idea what it was intended to do, since it's difficult to maintain the kind of concentration necessary for me to access my subtler senses while you're being choked to death.

<<Let me handle this,>> Kunzite stated quietly. <<Please, Zoi.>>

You fool! I thought in alarm, even though they seemed to be keeping the conversation more-or-less private, with me getting the overspill from Zoisite's mind through the Weavelink. There was no reason to believe that my not-father could hear them, but...

I wrenched at his hand, trying to distract him, knowing sickly that it wasn't going to be enough, that he couldn't possibly fail to miss the way magical forces were building up around Kunzite, since even I was beginning to sense them now--oh, I still couldn't tell what the spell was, but that familiar tension- in-the-air feeling was all around me. If I can just keep his attention on me for a little while longer...

His grip on my throat relaxed just as my vision was about to go entirely black, and I fell to the floor, half-stunned. No, no, no! But it was already too late.

Kunzite's hand came up at exactly the same moment that Onyx's did. There was an explosion of white and violet light that dazzled my already aching eyes, and a sudden sharp pain ripped through my head, and then, in the first seconds after it cleared, all I could see was that only one of the two tall men was still standing.

Goto Chapter 44


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