The Crystal Weaver Saga: An Ill Fate Marshalling
by E. Liddell

Chapter 15

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April 10, 2002

<<Do you even know what we're looking for?>> Jasper asked as we scanned the barren, grey, rocky plain below us.

<<No, not really,>> I admitted. I'd assumed that the Doom Phantom's prison was a globe not unlike the one that had held the Negaforce, but I didn't know for certain. <<We'd better get down out of the air before someone spots us.>> Levitation didn't take much magic, but if anyone down on the surface happened to so much as glance at the sky they would spot us immediately, and although humans don't often look up, I wasn't willing to take any bets on the usual behavior of who- or whatever inhabited Nemesis.

Jasper shot me a resentful glance as he dropped to the ground beside me. He seemed to be touchy, lately, about people exerting authority over him. Or was it just my authority that he resented?

Malachite had told me, privately, about what had happened between Jasper and Lapis of the Dark Moon, and that fiasco on board her spaceship. That did provide a partial explanation for the way that Jasper was acting--I'd have been a little out of sorts myself, if my girlfriend had tricked, stabbed, and almost killed me--but that didn't explain the growing rift between the two of us. My ability to read people made it obvious what was going on, but it couldn't tell me why, and I somehow thought that it had to be more than delayed adolescent rebellion.

"Do you have a directional preference?" I asked, ignoring my son's behavior as best I could.

"Up," he said, concisely.

I sighed. "Up where?"

Jasper shot me a smoldering glare. "Up there," he said, pointing at a hillside to our left. "It looks like the best vantage point in the area. I may even be able to launch from there. Not all of us need magic to fly, you know."

I nodded. Of course, he couldn't really fly--even with those massive shoulders of his, he just didn't carry enough muscle to get himself off the ground from a standing start--but he had a large enough wingspan to glide. And an unpowered aerial reconnaissance might give us just the edge that we needed.

"After you," I said.

I was to regret that several times in the ensuing hour, as his efforts to reach the top of the hill (perhaps a little more enthusiastic than strictly necessary) sent loose gravel tumbling down past me. I hate having rocks down my collar. And then there were the places where the hillside steepened, becoming almost vertical, and I had to wedge the tips of my fingers into tiny cracks in the grey rock. I would have preferred to be back in the Negaverse, hunting renegade youma through the outer reaches. At least then I could have teleported to the top of the ridge.

We were about two-thirds of the way up, just past one of those horrible vertical stretches, when I called a halt. I flexed my shoulder muscles and winced. Damn it all! I just wasn't built for this! Jasper, with his prodigious upper-body strength, found the vertical climbs much easier. I didn't think that I'd be able to keep up with him much longer. At least my gloves had kept me from bloodying my fingers on the stone.

I sighed and leaned back against the rockface. There was a subtle wrongness about this place that was sapping my strength. The rock underneath and behind me felt . . . well, dead, in a way that I didn't feel that it should have. I suppose that I'd been expecting the Doom Phantom to imbue Nemesis with the same kind of magical pseudo-life that the Negaforce had given the Negaverse, but there was nothing like that here. Nemesis was completely sterile. All of my particular gifts-- my talent for reading people, my low-level healing ability, all of it-- were founded in life, not this emptiness. For the first time in my life, I was almost grateful to Beryl for having taken me into the Negaverse. If that hadn't happened, I might have ended up as another victim of the Doom Phantom, like Cuprite's relatives, and it wouldn't have taken long for this place to drive me insane if I had been trapped here.

I glanced up at Jasper. We still didn't know what my son's special magical skill, if any, was. Perhaps Demantoid would know of some tests that we could apply. Assuming that we survived and completed our present tasks, that was.

We climbed the rest of the way up the hill in silence. There was a neat little nest of boulders at the top that would shield us from the view of anyone below. It was better than lying on our stomachs in the gravel, anyway. While I rested to recover from our climb, Jasper strode impatiently from boulder to boulder, peering out through the openings between the rocks and trying to spot any variation in the terrain below. Suddenly he stopped, swore softly, and gestured for me to come over for a look. I shuffled slowly over, looked out and down, and flattened myself against the side of a convenient boulder.

Nestled against the base of the hill directly below us was a cluster of crude huts. At the center of the little group of shelters was a huge black crystal that seemed to grow straight up out of the ground. That's it--it must be!

"We're right on top of them!" I hissed. Right on top of it, I corrected myself, because there was no doubt in my mind that this was the Doom Phantom's prison. I exchanged glances with Jasper, and, for the first time since we had started out on this little trip, saw no animosity in his eyes.

"The Enclavites must be living in those hovels down there," he whispered back. "Do you have any idea how we can get past them?"

I frowned, considering the problem. "Well, the people down there come from two widely separated communities and have been suddenly thrown together within the past month or so. They can't all know each other yet. It's just barely possible that one of us may be able to simply walk in there without any of them thinking to stop us."

We looked at each other again, then down at the settlement, where someone was just emerging from one of the huts. A short, slender someone.

"It'll have to be me," I said. True, I was much taller than any Enclave Crystal Weaver, but Jasper, with his wings, was an even worse choice. I wished very much that we dared use illusion to disguise ourselves, but in a community of Crystal Weavers, even weak ones, that would have made our discovery even more likely than appearing in our own personas and trusting to luck did.

Jas didn't even try to argue with me. Instead, he whispered, "I think it's less steep off to the left, and anyway, there's more cover there. Good luck."

I nodded and threaded my way among the boulders to begin my descent.

It took me hours to work my way down the slope without being seen. There was just barely enough cover, but most of the ground was covered in gravel and loose shale, and I had to be careful not to start a rock slide. By the time I had reached the level of the settlement, I was tired and bruised and covered in dust. Actually, the dirt was all to the good. It might help disguise my uniform a bit. All the same, I removed my jacket and hid it under a pile of rocks before approaching the first of the huts. Grey trousers with red piping and a blue shirt might pass, but the uniform jacket never would. Nor would my sword, unfortunately. I was forced to leave the weapon with the discarded article of clothing.

I scrubbed dust across my forehead and disarranged my bangs to cover for the lack of a black crescent on my forehead, and sallied forth into the township.

It actually wasn't quite as bad as it looked at first glance. The hovels were only intended to be temporary shelters, from the looks of things, and they were already excavating the foundations for larger, more permanent buildings out of the Nemisian gravel. Even with magic, it would be the task of lifetimes, and I couldn't see much evidence that they were using their powers on this. Meanwhile, the piles of rubble provided me with something to hide behind while I worked my way toward the center of the settlement.

<<Hey, you over there! Just what do you think you're doing, tall guy?>>

I pretended to ignore the voice in my head, and walked off in a direction opposite to the one that I thought it was coming from. Unfortunately, I didn't guess quite right.

Someone grabbed my by the arm. A short, slender someone with slanted, jewel-toned eyes. I could have broken him in half without even using my powers. The question was, did I dare? People were already turning to stare at us. In a moment, one of them would penetrate my inadequate disguise.

<<I didn't think you were talking to me,>> I returned, and most of the starers looked away again.

<<I don't care what you thought! What I want to know is, why were you walking around without a work assignment?>>

<<I wasn't given one,>> I improvised. <<Things are still a bit confused-->>

<<And you thought you'd just take the day off, did you, you miserable, lazy slug! Well, you're going to work now! Get down into that pit and start digging! Who are you, and who's your foreman?>>

I hesitated for the barest instant, then shrugged. Well, why not? This was one of the few places where no one would question my using my own name. <<Jadeite. My "foreman" is Malachite.>> I hoped he hadn't noticed the quotation marks.

<<Huh,>> my accoster stated eloquently, and pointed at the pit again. I took the hint and swung myself down over the edge. It was only a bit more than three feet deep at this, the lowest end. Although I hated both the delay and the thought of helping the Nemisians (not to mention what this was going to do to muscles already abused by climbing up and down hills all day), the best way to allay everyone's suspicions at this point was to put in a little work, and then try to sneak away again in an hour or two when they weren't paying such close attention.

I had to be careful to pace myself and avoid working too much faster than the others there. I would just attract attention if I demonstrated my level of physical strength, so much greater than their own. On the other hand, I didn't dare spend my time leaning on a shovel to keep from falling over, either. That would just bring me to the notice of the heckler--foreman?--again.

I put in about an hour and a half in the pit before I figured that it was safe to leave again. The rubble that we excavated had to be moved periodically anyway. All that I had to do was keep on going once I reached the rockpile. I filled one of the sledges that they were using to haul the stuff around and threw myself into the harness. The Nemisians had no beasts of burden, here, and weren't powerful enough to move large masses by mental force. When they had to shift something, they had to do it in the most primitive fashion. Damn, but I wish I had a youma here to do the heavy work! When I get home, I'll never be nasty to one again!

Most of the Nemisians preferred to work in silence, or at least spoke only to those they knew and on private thought- bandwidths. When I heard a scrap of vocal conversation, I was therefore startled enough to listen.

"--no Jadeite in my group," someone was saying, "blonde or otherwise."

"He said he was," replied a semi-familiar voice--the guy who had grabbed my arm and asked me about my work assignment. I resisted the temptation to look over my shoulder at them, instead gave the sledge a mental nudge to make it move forward a bit faster. The demon wouldn't be able to spot my personal energy expenditure when there were other Crystal Weavers pouring out their power all around us, would it? But it was wasted effort. It didn't seem to help much.

<<Jadeite! Damn you, stop right there! Malachite and I have a few questions for you!>>

I'm sure you do. Knowing that I had only a few seconds before they figured out that something strange was going on, I ripped at the buckles that secured the harness to my body. Come on, come on! Free, I sprinted between two rock piles, back in the general direction of the hill above. Damn, damn, damn! It's going to be ten times more difficult now. They won't let us get this close again.

The original pursuit group fell behind as I pushed myself, victims of their own shorter legs, and I almost began to believe that I might make it. Then my foot landed on something that wasn't broken rock, and I slipped. I was back on my feet again almost immediately, but I had lost most of my lead.

The first tackle hit me at knee height. I kicked free and fought my way back to my feet again, but by that time, some of them were ahead of me. Don't have much of a choice now. I gathered myself to teleport, picturing the nest of rocks on top of the hill, where Jasper and I had hidden, and . . .

Nothing. The teleport didn't work.

For a moment I could only stand there, rigid with shock. Malachite mentioned something called the Dark Crystal inhibiting his powers when he went to rescue Zoisite from Lapis. Is that what they really have in the center of this town?

<<Jasper!>> I called. I didn't know if I was getting through or not, but I'd been able to communicate with the overseer earlier, and the push I'd given the sledge had worked a bit, so it seemed like there was a chance. <<Be careful! There's something down here that negates most of our magics!>>

I scanned the circle of grim faces around me, and shivered. Still, none of them stood higher than my shoulder. Powers or no powers, I was going to go down fighting.

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