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

Chapter 23

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April 10 (11?), 2002

The darkness that overwhelmed me when I touched the crystal was smothering, choking. It wasn't until it withdrew that I realized what Lord Jadeite had done. I staggered away with his exhortation to Finish it still ringing in my mind.

I ran around to the other side of the Doom Phantom's crystal prison, and stopped.

So what in hell do I do now? I knew wards, yes, I'd practiced those and other protection spells forwards and backwards and in my sleep until I could create them at a moment's notice, but those had always been wards intended to keep things out, rather than hold them in. My only possible guide was the old spell that Adamant had designed to confine the thing in the first place, and in order to reconstruct a trace that faint, I would have to touch the crystal again. And I didn't dare. Only Jadeite's sacrifice had enabled me to break free the first time. But if I didn't . . .

Something screamed. It was a thin, keening sound that seemed to bore right into my brain. I clapped my hands over my ears, but it didn't help. The sound wasn't external. It was inside me.

The Doom Phantom was screaming.

One of the other groups must have succeeded, I thought. Either that, or Father did something. Either way, now's my chance!

I lunged forward and laid my left hand on the crystal, trying to sense whatever magic might be inside.

Darkness. Infinite shades of darkness. No one who has never experienced it can understand what infinite variety there can be in evil. The Doom Phantom was incredibly old, impossibly complex . . . and very weak and hungry. Bound here for thousands of years, it had come close to starving to death. Only in the past few years had its bonds weakened enough for it to feed, and even then only a little, with Earth so far away. Until its future self had funneled the Enclavites in its direction.

But I couldn't find the remains of the old wards! It was like trying to figure out if a lamp was lit with the sun directly behind it. The Doom Phantom's influence obscured everything else.

There was a pattern in the darkness. Or so I seemed to perceive. How very strange. I'd thought at first that the demon was completely chaotic, but it did have a form. It just wasn't any sort of form that I'd ever encountered before. It was fascinating, actually.

I shook my head and jerked my hand away from the crystal. The pattern had been more than fascinating, actually. It had been seductive. Hypnotic. And I doubted that effect had been entirely natural. Had the Doom Phantom gotten annoyed with my steadfast refusal to be controlled, and changed its tactics?

I gritted my teeth and put my hand back where it had been. If I'd broken free once, I could do so again. And I thought I saw a way in which the pattern could be used against the creature. It had slotted itself together inside my head with an ease that I wasn't accustomed to. I'm not normally a very creative person.

Was this my special magical talent, then? Binding demons? If so, I hoped it was one that I wouldn't need to use all that often. The Doom Phantom was still trying to entice me, and I was afraid that I would give in. I was afraid that I just wasn't strong enough.

Mina, if I don't make it . . . remember me, I thought. My father's spirit crystal, its broken chain still wrapped around my hand, felt warm under my touch. I didn't dare try to communicate with him, in case I opened up some sort of channel to the Doom Phantom and endangered him further, but I was fairly sure that I knew where his thoughts were. And my mother's could only be with us both. That comforted me a little.

I closed my eyes, reached inside the crystal with my mind, and wove. That's another thing that I can't explain, except to say that I used the Doom Phantom's own energies against it. For the next thousand years, the creature would be its own jailer.

Task completed, I tried to step away from the crystal. Of course, what really happened was that my knees failed and I sat down rather abruptly. Demon binding is hard work. But there was no time for me to rest. The Doom Phantom might be bound, but that didn't mean it was powerless. Not when it had already infused a portion of its power into the landscape and the people living here. While I'd been linked to it, I'd been able to sense a little of the web it had created.

I needed to get out of here before it remembered that there were parts of it outside the crystal and decided to use them. Wearily, I forced myself upright and walked back around the crystal to where I had left Lord Jadeite.

<<Jas! Look out!>>

The warning arrived too late. Something thin and hard had already jumped onto my back and grabbed me around the neck. It felt like . . . bones?

<<It is bones,>> Jadeite informed me. <<Meet Wise Man. Or what will one day be Wise Man. I forced part of the Doom Phantom's power into one of the Enclavites and it basically tore him apart. Unfortunately, the energies seem to be clinging to his skeleton. Can you get it off?>>

I twisted, but my wings were in the way, and using them to batter at the thing that was riding me wouldn't be terribly effective unless I wanted to risk knocking myself unconscious in the process. And it was beginning to choke off my air supply.

<<No,>> I replied.

<<Hold on, then.>>

Little colored sparks were beginning to dance in front of my eyes by the time the arm bones were pried away from my throat and the skeleton, deprived of its best grip, dropped away. I massaged my throat while Lord Jadeite and the proto-Wise Man stared at each other.

"You can't win, you know," my father said after several minutes of silence. "Your minions won't be back for quite some time--even you couldn't override their self-preservation instincts to such an extent that they'd ignore what happened to your host--there are two of us to your one, and you've been weakened by starvation." It was only when I thought, And you look pretty damned starved to me--you're not even skin and bones! that I realized that exhaustion, partial strangulation, and dark power were combining to make me light-headed.

Several more moments of silence. Then the skeleton turned away from us, and even though its face was perforce expressionless, I had the impression that it snarled. But it didn't try to hinder me as I approached my father and handed his spirit crystal back to him. He nodded his thanks.

<<What are you doing standing up and walking around, anyway?>> I asked. <<I thought you'd sprained your ankle.>>

<<It's a cheat,>> he replied. <<Basically, I'm holding it immobile and focusing what little healing ability I have on blocking the worst of the pain. Let's get out of here quickly before my concentration goes and that thing figures out what bad shape I'm in.>>

It took both of us, pooling our powers, to initiate the teleport. And we still didn't know if the other groups had succeeded or failed.

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The lower reaches of the Negaverse, where neither youma nor Generals normally went, were cold and quiet. And dark. The glowing fungus which lit most of the public areas in the warren of tunnels didn't appear to have been properly tended in quite some time, and patches of it had died, leaving the corridors stippled with shadow. The area had been largely abandoned, I suspected, since . . . Well, since I had first met Malachite, if you could really call that event a meeting.

Zantisa had tried to discourage me from coming down here, but I wanted to spend a little time in a place that was empty of youma, and the Earth Realm, as these people called it, was just too damned cold right now.

I didn't understand this place or its inhabitants. In fact, I was beginning to wonder if I could ever understand. Nothing in my experience had prepared me to deal with a people that had been so twisted by their long exposure to a demon's power that some of them were actually proud of what they had become. Nor was I comfortable with their harsh, militaristic society, despite having the advantage of starting at the top.

I didn't fit in here. Nor would any other untainted being. Malachite, for whatever reason of his own, had given me a place here without forcing me to accept the evil that was so much a part of him and the others. Even Amber, my niece, and her child, who hadn't even been born when the demon had finally been destroyed, bore the creature's mark.

I had reached the door for which I had been searching. It hung askew on its hinges, damaged, perhaps, during that final battle, which had taken place here years ago. Cautiously, I stepped through.

Something crunched under my foot. It was dark in here. No glowing fungus hung from the ceiling, and I doubted that any of the walls were studded with the ingenious magical half-globes common to the upper reaches. When this room had been in use, it hadn't needed an auxiliary light source. The Negaforce's own red light had illuminated it.

I created a ball of fire and tossed it up toward the ceiling, filling the room with a greenish twilight that was more than adequate for me to see by.

The massive globe, shattered though it was, still dominated the room and lent it an oppressive feel. My boot had landed on a shard of it. The floor still looked like the lower jaw of an animal, although something had knocked out several of its stalagmite teeth. A pile of bones rested near the tip of the jaw. I kicked shards away so that I could kneel beside it.

Citrine's skull grinned at me when I reached out and turned it to face me. Poor, misunderstood creature. I'd shared his mind for several hours on that fateful day. It was odd, really, how much we were alike. In our own ways, we were both the last of our kind--he, the last Empyrean, and I, the last formally trained Crystal Weaver of pure blood.

Would you have understood how I feel now? I wondered.

My entire culture, language, the gods I had worshipped, the customs I had held . . . all gone. I was the last who remembered. And even if I taught the others, they wouldn't understand. They'd spent too long following different customs and worshipping different gods (if they worshipped gods at all, which I admit I wasn't certain of) to adopt those of my ancestors. Not even necessarily their ancestors. Whatever their powers, Nephrite and Jadeite and Almandite were of purely human lineage, and only Amber, Jasper, and Cuprite had any significant fraction of Crystal Weaver blood.

Like Citrine, I had become unique.

I could have done without being unique.

A tracery of white light suddenly ran over the surface of the shattered globe above me. My head snapped up. What . . . ?



<<The one and only,>> he agreed.

I felt a burden being lifted off my shoulders. What had frightened me most was the possibility that I would have to rule these people, as per Malachite's last orders to me. But there was no chance of that happening now that there was a more senior General available. Now there was only one thing left on my mind. <<Did it work? Did you-->>

<<It worked,>> he affirmed. <<Serena- -or, rather, Neo-Queen Serenity, as I suppose we should start calling her--has taken up her position at the center of the ward. I won't claim that we came out of this completely unscathed, but we got the results that we needed.>>

I rose to my feet and teleported, homing in on the source of his message. I emerged in a small sitting room. Nephrite and Almandite were sitting together on a couch. They were rather oddly dressed.

Across from them, Serenity sat alone. The Silver Crystal, separated from its setting, lay in her lap beside her transformation locket. Such a strange feeling, to be looking at my ancient prison from the outside . . .


I looked up, and realized that not only had I been staring into the Crystal's hypnotic radiance for several minutes, but Amber, carrying Luna, had arrived during my period of distraction. The black cat was fighting to get out of Amber's arms and across the room, but Amber wasn't having any of it. She did, however, carry the cat over to Serenity and lower her onto the arm of the young woman's chair.

"Are you all right?" the cat added.

"I am . . . not certain," the blonde woman murmured. "However, it pleases me to see you looking so well. Have your wounds healed?"

"I'm fine. Serena, what happened to you?"

"It is not something that I can readily explain--" Serenity began, but was interrupted by another pair of arrivals.

They appeared rather closer to the ceiling than the floor. Jasper was able to partially spread his wings and achieve a controlled landing that way (although I think he came fairly close to breaking at least one bone against the walls, since his wingspan was far greater than even the diagonal cross-section of the room), but Jadeite just fell, and was apparently too exhausted to produce any protest more substantial than a muttered, "Ouch," when he landed. Amber rushed forward to help her husband to a chair, wincing when she saw his black eye and the other contusions and abrasions ruining the symmetry of his face. I wished I could tell what they were saying to each other, but one art these people had mastered was that of keeping their private conversations private.

Jasper folded his wings and faded into the shadowiest corner of the room. He bore no obvious injuries, but the black crescent on his forehead was a good indicator that something had gone badly wrong. A moment's concentration led me to discover that Jadeite was also reeking of negative power residues.

<<I'll have to force it out sometime,>> Jasper told me, apparently noticing my stare, <<but I'm just too damned tired right now.>>

I nodded. <<I think I may be able to help,>> I told him privately. <<Come to me tomorrow, and we'll discuss it.>>

"Did it work?" Nephrite was asking, intent.

"I think so," Jadeite replied. "Or, at least, I hope so."

And the two groups of returnees began to tell their stories. I suspected that they felt as I did, and were trying to take their minds off the still-missing final group: Cuprite, Zoisite, and Malachite.

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