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

Chapter 44

© 2006 by E. Liddell


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Nephrite

I sat with my back to the wall, staring at the altar with a kind of bemused fascination.

The voices of the gods.

It was the answer to a question that had been nagging at me for most of my life. Why did I have such a strong magical affinity for the Stars? Because the Stars were the physical manifestation of the Crystal Weaver gods. Part of me instantly dismissed that as nonsense--stars were balls of flaming gas that hung in the far reaches of space, nothing more, or so said the science I had been taught in early childhood--but another part knew that belief and magic were capable of warping reality in ways that were sometimes difficult to believe.

But why me? Why me and why now? Why wasn't someone like me born all those years ago, before the Empyrean War nearly wiped us out?

There was an immediately obvious answer to that question, but it was one that I had to reject out of hand. I would not--dared not--believe that we were in direr straits now than Demantoid and the others had been then. It was just too frightening a thought.

Malachite was standing not far from me, his eyes also on the altar, and I didn't have to check the Weavelink to know that he felt the same bizarre fascination with it as I did. Adamant sat in the farthest corner of the room, still holding the spirit crystals that we had brought with us in his lap. He hadn't spoken to us in quite a while, and I was beginning to wonder if he would ever forgive us for not attempting to do the impossible and save everyone instead of just him.

<<Nephrite?>>

<<Yes, my King?>>

<<I hope you're doing better than I am in terms of figuring out some kind of plan, because we need one desperately and I'm completely out of ideas.>>

<<Why don't we just wait and hope that it goes away on its own?>> I suggested, only half facetiously.

<<I was afraid you would say that.>>

We looked at each other for a long moment, and then I slowly rose to my feet and walked over to the altar.

I laid both my hands on the inset block that bore the mysterious symbol that was echoed on my forehead, and closed my eyes.

<<Damn you! You were the ones who brought us here! Why don't you help me?!>>

<<Examine the nature of your opponent. The answers you need are there for the taking.>>

<<What in hell is that supposed to mean?>> I snapped, but there was no answer.

So, then. The nature of our opponent. Mena Kimlubeniz. Well... It was a demon. A very powerful demon. It had magic, it preferred to manifest itself as a cloud of darkness, although it could take other forms, and it fed... Come to think of it, how did it feed? It almost certainly preferred to eat human life energy--demons almost always do--but it would take an awful lot of life energy to keep something like that going...

I remembered the impression I'd had of it outside. Hungry. There couldn't be enough human life energy in the world, not this far back in history, to give something like that a really good, really satisfying meal. Was there some way that we could use that to trap it?

<<Only if we can develop a trap that will hold it,>> Malachite stated wryly, and I realized that he had been listening in on my thoughts through the Weavelink.

<<Something was holding it down here before,>> I replied. <<There has to be a way.>>

Adamant stirred. <<What are you two talking about?>>

Malachite remained silent while I explained. Finally, Adamant shook his head.

<<I don't think that even the three of us working together could put up a ward that it couldn't batter down eventually.>>

<<We need some way of preventing it from bringing its power to bear against whatever kind of bonds we put on it,>> Malachite mused. <<Some sort of distraction. Hopefully, at this stage in its evolution, it's just as stupid as any other demon.>>

I frowned. Distraction. Hungry demon. A maze of tunnels... <<I think I have an idea.>>


Malachite

I stood just inside the mouth of the tunnel, and waited.

Nephrite had practically demanded to take my place, but I had refused him, both because I honestly didn't think he had a high enough power level to act as convincing bait, and because he had a wife and two children, and I had... no one...

I forced the image of a delicate face with wide green eyes, and another, similar one that was younger and darker-skinned, out of my mind. One was lost to me by his own choice, and the other probably wasn't what he seemed to be.

I was alone.

<<Are you two ready?>> I asked.

<<Almost,>> Adamant replied. <<There are still a few weak spots. Give us a little longer.>>

I leaned against the wall and stared up and out into the blackness that was the demon. I couldn't hear any sounds at all coming from beyond the tunnel complex. It was as though the entire world had been smothered under a sound-deadening black blanket.

Is anyone or anything even still alive out there?

I could have asked Adamant about the spirit crystals that he carried, of course, and found out whether the owners were still alive or not, but something held me back. If they were dead, I didn't want him to find out about it until this was over. And it wasn't because I wasn't sure that he could take the emotional strain. He might be young--young!--but I knew he was strong. It was just that...

He'll never forgive himself...

I almost laughed as I realized what near-atrophied emotion was stirring to life inside me. Compassion. It had been so long since I had felt anything of the sort (at least, for anyone except Zoisite and my Weavemates and perhaps Kyanite) that I hadn't even recognized it at first.

Better to let him believe that they could be alive for just a little longer.

<<We're ready.>>

<<All right.>>

I took a step forward, then another, until I was almost touching the black wall that was the demon. Then I bowed my head in concentration.

It was both easier and more difficult than burning away the mist demon had been--easier because there was less sheer power involved, more difficult because I was trying to create something much more subtle than just light this time.

It was a simple, straightforward, and yet infinitely devious plan. First, create a maze of wards inside the tunnels, a maze that would be difficult, although not completely impossible, for the demon to break free of. And secondly... keep it distracted. Give it the illusion that there was a concentration of life energy just out of its reach, and keep it chasing after that until it was weakened by starvation to such an extent that it couldn't break free anymore.

The only problem lay in getting it into the trap in the first place. And that was my job.

I was bait.

I could feel its attention turning to me, being drawn in my direction by the imitation of a group of several hundred humans that I was projecting, and strengthened my personal wards. This was no time to make a mistake of that nature!

I turned away from the opening and strolled casually a little further back into the tunnels. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see the dark mist following like a well-trained dog. A little farther, a little farther, wait until it's committed... Now!

I sprinted forward, even using my powers to part the air molecules around me as much as I could and gain myself a little extra speed by lowering the wind resistance. The shrine was my only possible sanctuary now, and it was absolutely vital that I reach it at least a few seconds before the demon did.

I hadn't run so far so fast in many, many years. My breath came in short gasps as I sped my way downward, and I thanked the Gods of Darkness that I wasn't wearing my jacket or my cape.

Not much longer now...

It was a good thing that life in the Negaverse had given me a good sense of direction underground, because I would have gotten lost fairly fast otherwise, unable to stop and take my bearings at the intersections between the various passageways. The rough walls sped past in what was little more than a blur.

Almost there...

My foot caught on some little roughness in the floor, and I stumbled. I recovered before the mist managed to touch me, but I had lost most of my lead.

<<Nephrite!>>

<<Yes, my King?>>

<<If I can't make it in time, you're going to have to close the door and leave me outside.>>

<<No!>>

<<You must! Otherwise, Adamant will die, and we can't risk that. It's my command, possibly the last one I'll ever give you. And more than that... it's my request. Old friend.>>


Nephrite

Malachite...

Old friend...

<<I understand.>> It wasn't until a drop of water struck the altar that I realized that I was crying.

<<You're afraid for him.>> Adamant's face was inscrutable behind his tumble of multicoloured hair, even to someone with my peculiar talents.

<<Yes.>> It took all my willpower to prevent my hands from clenching into fists, but I was afraid that, if I gave in to that urge, my nails would gash my palms. <<I should have convinced him to let me go in his place. Or at least I should have made him give me his spirit crystal. He has a lover waiting for him- -one of our Weavemates--who would be absolutely devastated if he didn't come back alive. If we lose him, we probably lose them both, and I'm not sure that the rest of us would be able to bear that.>> Once upon a time, long ago, I would have given almost anything to be rid of Malachite and, especially, Zoisite. Now, I would give almost anything to have them both survive.

I could hear the sound of running feet approaching along the corridor. Thank the gods. I strode over to the doors and worked one open.

Black. Absolutely black. Mist filled the hallway.

Heartsick, I slammed the door again, just as a black tendril was extending itself tentatively across the threshold, and pressed my back against the heavy panel. Adamant's eyes were wide, his mouth set in a grim line, but I didn't have any time to waste on him.

<<Malachite!>>

<<I'm still here. The demon's blocking the doors, isn't it?>>

<<Yes.>>

<<Then you must keep them closed. Teleport yourselves out. Don't worry about me. I may still be able to get to one of the entrances to the tunnel complex and escape that way.>>

But I could tell that he didn't really believe it, and he couldn't teleport from inside the tunnels--one of the wards we had set up was intended to prevent that, so that the demon couldn't escape that way.

<<Malachite...>>

<<Damn you, go! That's a royal command, Nephrite.>>

<<I understand, my King.>>

But understanding didn't necessarily mean obedience.

I knelt down in front of the altar, bowed my head, and focussed all of my energy on delivering a single, specific message to a group of beings who might not be willing to receive it. All right, damn you, you got us into this. Now get us out!


Malachite

I'm not going to make it.

I had reversed my course, and was running as fast as I could for the tunnel mouth. The maze-wards would--should--let me pass, and once outside them, I could teleport to safety. But the demon was cutting through my own personal wards just as fast as I could put them up, and the band of gold around my wrist either couldn't or wouldn't help me.

A particularly hard shove against my protections staggered me, but I managed to keep my feet under me. I would almost have sworn that I could see light through the mists.

And then I smashed full-length into a barrier that gave only slightly, despite the force with which I had struck it.

The maze-ward, I thought muzzily.

It won't let me through.

It must think that I'm a demon.

I fell to my knees.

I'm really not going to make it this time. I felt an odd sense of wonder as the thought crossed my mind. It probably won't even let my spirit crystal pass through.

There were probably worse ways to die than this, far from home, with my lover gods only knew where--perhaps even in danger--and a terrible threat looming over the Negaverse and the people that I had tried to protect. I just couldn't think of any of them, just then.

At least Adamant and Nephrite are safe. I'm sorry, old friend, you're going to have to go on without me. You're going to be the next king. Gods of Light and Darkness guard you.

Kyanite, I... would have liked to see you grow up, but it looks like that's not going to happen now. Hopefully, someone will look after you, wherever you are.

Zoisite... I love you.

The mist was squeezing my personal protections in toward me.

It wouldn't be much longer now.

Goto Interlude XI


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