The Crystal Weaver Saga: An Ill Fate Marshalling
by E. Liddell
* * * * * * * *
It seemed like we had been walking forever. My feet were beginning to get sore. Zoisite must have been tiring, because he was trailing behind me. Ahead of us, Cuprite continued to walk forward into the mists. I would have been a lot happier if I'd known how he was choosing our route. It irked me to be dependent on him.
Then, suddenly, he stopped dead in his tracks. It was so unexpected that I almost walked into him.
"What is it?" I asked, a bit more sharply than I had intended.
"Whatever we need is here, somewhere," Cuprite said, with surprising confidence.
Zoisite, moving into place at my side, scowled. "How can you tell? It just looks like another patch of mist to me."
"It's here," Cuprite repeated, and spun Sailor Pluto's staff in his hands. He was becoming more proficient with it.
When nothing happened after a few seconds, he shook his head. "I don't understand."
"Well, I do," Zoisite snapped back. "I understand that you are an incompetent fool, and I am mystified as to why we've been wasting our time following you!"
<<Beloved, that's enough,>> I told him. <<I don't like this business of trusting ourselves to his hunches either, but I don't see that we have any choice. Can you see anything that he might have overlooked?>> As I swept my arm out in a gesture that indicated the scene in front of us, my sleeve brushed against the staff that Cuprite held diagonally in front of himself. I felt heat from the point of contact--only to be expected, since the staff was a Sailor Scout artefact--but beneath that, I sensed something else, as well. Experimentally, I reached out my left hand and wrapped my fingers loosely around the shaft just above the point where Cuprite was gripping it, ignoring the burning sensation that resulted. Somewhere deep below us, something rumbled.
By that time, I was in agony, but I maintained my grip on the staff. The ground under our feet began to move slowly downward into darkness. I didn't let go until it stopped.
<<It appears that we've passed some sort of test,>> I observed. <<I wouldn't be surprised if there were others. If the primary ward against the demons is located down here, it must be protected.>>
Even my Crystal Weaver night vision couldn't penetrate more than a few feet into the murky darkness, since the only light came from the distant opening into the mists, far above our heads. That wasn't nearly enough to let us get any impression of this place, although something about the feel of the air convinced me that we were inside a cave.
In the distance, I heard a faint sound that might have been scales slithering over stone.
<<Shield your eyes,>> I told the others. <<I'm going to make a light.>>
There was no point in caution--a small flash was likely to attract as much attention as a large one--so I created a large ball of fire and sent it spinning upwards to where it would light the maximum possible area of the cavern.
A huge head whose eyes reflected the pale glow of my fireball shot toward us out of the shadows, and I dropped to the ground to avoid it, sweeping a leg out to trip Cuprite, who seemed to have frozen. Or perhaps his peculiarly selective pseudovision had missed the danger altogether. Zoisite, with a split-second hesitation that wasn't like him and might easily have proved fatal, dove to the other side.
A teleport took me some twenty feet up into the air for my first good look at the creature. It appeared to be a dragon, of the classical serpentlike Chinese variety. Its scales were mottled grey, green, and black, and if it hadn't been rearing up it would have been almost invisible. Those who had placed it here as a guardian had no doubt created it with exactly that in mind.
The question that troubled me was that of where to attack it. There was no telling where its heart or other organs were, so I would have to take it in the eye or the throat. The latter was, from my present vantage point, concealed by its chin, and the former weren't very large targets--
Something flashed up from below, and the dragon let out a roar that ended in a peculiar coughing sound as blood fountained from its neck.
"Someone once told me that, if something attacks you, you should kill it, not stand around trying to figure out its motivations," Zoisite observed, and I winced, recognizing what might have been my own advice. Still, I had to admit, hitting a half- obscured target like the dragon's throat with an ice crystal spear thrown from below had been a magnificent piece of marksmanship.
Hopefully he's feeling better now, I thought. He normally didn't aim that sarcasm of his in my direction. In fact, his behavior was really starting to worry me. I didn't at all like the idea of being on the receiving end of one of those spears, and Zoisite in his present emotional state might just be volatile enough to lose his temper and attack me, although he'd be regretful and highly apologetic afterwards.
* * * * * * * *
Damn, that was close! I wonder if they know it was a lucky shot.
The dragon's attack had taken me completely by surprise. I'd felt Malachite's eyes raking me in the split second before I'd rolled out of the way of the creature's head. That hesitation had, I realized belatedly, probably not been too terribly Zoisite-like. I'd tried to compensate by using Zoisite's favorite attack on the dragon (I hadn't really expected to kill it--that had been purest luck, and I really wasn't sure whether it had been good or bad. If the thing had lived just a little longer, Cuprite might have gotten injured, even killed . . .), but I didn't think that I'd entirely succeeded. My mask was slipping, and Malachite was getting suspicious. I'd have to find some way of ending this soon.
At least I now knew why my dear cousin was so terribly important. None of the other Negaversites could possibly have handled Sailor Pluto's staff. Probably Cuprite would start having trouble with it in a few years, as the Negaforce's residue melded more thoroughly with his personal energies, but at the moment, he was only a little evil, and the staff was willing to overlook it.
We were walking down a long, narrow passageway that, to my eye, bore a repulsive resemblance to what the throat of the dragon that we had fought might have looked like. Or maybe that was just my emotional state coloring everything around me.
Ahead of us, the tunnel narrowed to an opening less than two feet wide. It looked like even I was going to have to slide through sideways. Cuprite and Malachite hadn't yet proceeded through, though. I wondered what they were waiting for. And somewhere nearby, something was howling eerily.
<<I think we've just discovered the next trial,>> Malachite stated as I came up beside them. He shifted a little, so that I could look through the narrow opening.
On the other side of the portal was . . . empty space. Mostly. A bridge precisely the width of the opening reached ahead and vanished into darkness. I could have laughed.
"Not much of a test, for one of us," I observed, having to raise my voice to be heard over the howling wind that rose from the chasm. "It must have been designed to keep the mortals out." No one who can fly is ever afraid of falling. "What are you waiting for?" I nudged Malachite's shoulder, which would have been an unpardonable liberty for anyone except the man that I appeared to be.
He had to contort himself into an improbable position to get through the narrow doorway, which was just a little bit shorter than he was. But then he was taking a tentative step forward onto the bridge. His hair and cape whipped abruptly to the left, lifted on a gust of wind.
<<This is a bit trickier than it looks,>> he told us. <<I'm having to exert a fair amount of power to keep myself from being blown over the edge, and there seems to be some sort of suction coming up from below. Be careful, both of you. Cuprite, you're next.>>
My cousin staggered a little as he stepped through. I thought I saw his lips moving for a moment, but whatever he had to say was blown away on the wind.
And then it was my turn. I slid sideways through the opening and out onto the bridge. The force of the wind almost took my breath away. As Malachite had indicated, I needed to push against it with my powers just to stay on the bridge. I shuffled carefully forward, straining my eyes to see if I could find the end of this. Malachite appeared to have found the precise level of force necessary to keep himself centered on the pathway despite the gale blowing around us, and was already quite far ahead of Cuprite and I when the wind suddenly gusted from the other direction, and the bridge slid out from under my feet.
My automatic reaction was to exert my powers to try to float. I wasn't as expert at floating as the real Zoisite supposedly was, but it still shouldn't have been all that difficult. Unfortunately, Malachite had been right about the suction, too. I was being pulled downward more strongly than I could push up. Fortunately for me, my primitive human reflexes kicked in at that point. As I fell past the bridge, my hands shot out to grip the edge of it, and I came to a full stop with a force that almost dislocated my shoulders.
<<Zoisite! Help me!>> Cuprite, too, had achieved a precarious grip on the bridge, but his was only one- handed. His other hand was curled around Sailor Pluto's staff. And the fingers of his supporting hand were slipping.
It was the chance that I'd been waiting for.
<<And just what do you expect me to do? Even if I were inclined to help you, I don't exactly have a hand free,>> I stated, with a silken malice that was worthy of the real Zoisite.
<<Pyrope? My God, you're alive! What happened? What are you doing?>>
There had been a time when I would have risked anything to help Cuprite, even a tumble into the abyss. Even my own death. But that had been before. Now he was only an obstacle to be gotten rid of. I swung my entire body to the side and slammed into him, loosening his grip further.
<<What happened to you? What did she do? Pyrope, stop it, please. Pyrope!>>
My body struck his again, and he lost his last hold. As he fell past me, I thought his mouth soundlessly shaped my name again. The wind eddied around me and snapped Zoisite's spirit crystal up to slap me on the chin. And that strange clarity of thought that I'd experienced once before came over me again.
My God, what have I done? I've just killed my best friend!
My stomach churned and I almost vomited into the void. I did lose control of the spell that was altering my facial features, and the relief as bone and muscle resumed their proper shapes was indescribable. It didn't matter now, anyway. I'd done what I'd come here for.
And I hadn't even gotten thirty pieces of silver for it.
Although I won't have to go looking for a rope to hang myself with, either. I had a ready-made method of suicide here. All I had to do was let go.
<<Oh no, you don't!>>
<<Who's there?>> Then I realized that the voice that had come into my mind was vaguely familiar. <<Zoisite?>>
I don't know whether he heard me or not. He had to be putting a tremendous effort into communication in order to reach me here in the Timestream. Against the stolen uniform that I wore, his spirit crystal blazed like a fallen star.
<<You've taken Malachite into danger,>> he stated. <<Well, you are just going to see him out of it again, do you understand?>> Each one of his words seemed to be imprinting itself in my brain, overriding even the Doom Phantom's gradually returning control. <<You will guard him and you will assist him--you will do everything that I would have done for him and more, until I am back at his side--or I'm going to make you regret that you ever heard of the Negaverse!>> This last was accompanied by a graphic image of exactly what his threat meant, and I came very close to being sick again.
"I already do," I whispered as his spirit crystal dimmed again. The words were whipped away by the wind. Then, with Zoisite's commands burning in my brain, I began the laborious task of dragging myself back up onto the bridge.
* * * * * * * *
I didn't know that anything was wrong until I reached the other side of the bridge. Then I turned to look back--and saw a solitary, slender figure in grey pulling himself back up over the edge. A cold knot of fear settled into place in my stomach.
Dark hair. Not blonde. Dark. Tears stung at my eyes.
<<What happened?!>> I asked the solitary figure as it made its slow way toward me on its hands and knees.
<<He fell.>> But it wasn't Cuprite's voice. Nor was it Zoisite's. The wind blew the tears from my eyes as I raised my head to stare.
Dark hair, long and pulled back into a ponytail. Dark eyes, full of pain, that cringed away from meeting mine. Green- trimmed grey uniform. Green crystal dangling just below the collar.
I was bounding forward onto the bridge, not even requiring conscious thought to stabilize myself against the wind. I grabbed the dark-haired man--a stranger in Zoisite's uniform? How had he dared?--by the jacket, and carried him back over to where we would be sheltered from the wind, ignoring the way that his face began turning blue as the collar choked him. I didn't want him to be blown away on the wind before I could question him, but I knew he couldn't suffocate in the thirty seconds or so that it would take to travel such a short distance.
I slammed him up against the wall and tilted his head back so that I could get a better look at him, saw the Dark Moon's crescent on his forehead, and slammed him back against the wall a second time, just for good measure.
"Where is he?" I snarled, shaking the impostor for emphasis.
"Lapis took him to the future--Please, my lord, stop!"
Pathetic. Is this all that the Dark Moon can find to send against me? Nevertheless, I stopped shaking him. If this young fool should turn out to be as fragile as Cuprite, I might damage him more severely than I intended to.
"He's in no danger," the Dark Moon Crystal Weaver continued. "Lapis is sweet on him. That part I didn't make up. She wouldn't stand for him being hurt. She just wants you out of the way so that she can be with him. She's too obsessed to see that he'd tear her guts out if he ever found out that she was responsible for your death."
Truth, I decided, looking deep into those tortured eyes. "Does the Dark Moon know that I'm here?" That was my next most urgent question.
"No. I didn't have time to report to them before we left, and I couldn't now if I wanted to. But I wouldn't put it past Wise Man to have guessed where you are."
And then there was only one question left. "So what do you think I should do with you?"
<<Put me out of my misery.>> Wide, dark eyes stared into mine. <<I . . . I just killed my best friend. Even the Dark Moon's power is not going to be able to make me forget that I was the reason that Cuprite fell from that bridge. Even without the . . . the geas on me now, it's going to tear me apart inside. Kill me. Please.>>
"Not a damned chance," I told him. I relaxed my grip on him and lowered him to the floor so that I could snatch Zoisite's spirit crystal away from him and hang it around my neck, where it clicked against my own crystal. "You're not worth the trouble."
<<Take him with you, beloved.>> Faint as a whisper, but I would have known him anywhere.
<<Zoisite? Are you all right? Where are you?>>
<<A cell somewhere. I'm a bit hungry and thirsty, but I haven't been hurt. Malachite, take Pyrope--that boy from the Dark Moon--with you. Since he was stupid enough to wear my spirit crystal, I was able to impress him with a command to serve you. Consider him my surrogate. And don't worry about me. I'll be all right.>>
He faded away again, but I retained a sense of his presence, stronger now than it had been since he'd made that disastrous decision to beard Lapis in her den.
"Get up," I snapped at Pyrope, gratified to see that he obeyed immediately. "Look at me." Now that I knew to look for it, I could see Zoisite's command lying there on the surface of this boy's mind, and the war inside him as that imperative fought with the instructions the Dark Moon had impressed upon him. He's no more guilty than we were, while we were under Beryl's control. It didn't make me feel any better about what he'd done, but it made his presence . . . endurable. And I felt a bit better now that I knew that it hadn't been Zoisite who had been snubbing me for the past few days.
"Come," I added, and led the way forward into the tunnel, ignoring the itching sensation that sprang up between my shoulderblades. I didn't know if I would be able to find my way to my destination without Cuprite or Zoisite's assistance, but I knew that I had to try. Much though I wanted to take time out to find my lover and rescue him, I couldn't. I had to finish this first, or I would put other people besides the two of us at risk.
* * * * * * * *
This time, there was a smile on my face when I woke out of the trance. The constant tension that had resulted from my spirit crystal being in a stranger's hands was gone, and I felt relaxed, even refreshed.
It was all in Malachite's hands now, and that meant that it would be all right.
I curled up on my side and went to sleep.
I sat bolt upright. Something was happening outside. Thumps, what sounded like a muffled curse . . . a fight?
"Who's there?" I croaked.
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