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

Chapter 24

* * * * * * * *

No Time

I moved twice as fast as I usually did during a fight, trying to protect Malachite as well as myself. It wasn't easy, not when I was also feeling the pain of his injuries. He'd done something to at least one of his ribs--bruised only, I hoped, and not broken. If a splintered bone shifted, and pierced a lung, or his skin, the additional injury would endanger us both. I was just glad that Pyrope had brought my sword with him, and that I'd been able to get it back from him. Without it, this would have been far more difficult.

Lapis's whip swung forward again, aimed at my left eye. I dodged. You're not going to damage my face, you bitch! Her preference for staying on the fringe of the fight was beginning to frustrate me. I wanted a shot at her.

<<Later, beloved. Right now, we need to work our way over to that column in the center of the room far more than we need to humiliate her. We can't keep this up forever.>>

But it didn't look like we were going to have the chance. These Dark Moon types knew what they were doing. There were always at least two people between us and our goal.

Something small and very hot whizzed past my face, and I smelled smoke. I cursed and used my free hand to bat out the fire that was working its way rapidly up the single lock of hair that I wore forward of my left ear. Magic wasn't of much use in a battle at such close quarters--if your aim was just a little off, you were just as likely to hit someone on your own side as one of the enemy, or even have your projectile deflected back at you, and anyway it's difficult to muster even minimal concentration when you're fighting for your life and you feel like your side's being split open-- but that didn't mean that it wasn't being used at all, especially since Lapis didn't seem to care who she hit.

Getting into the spirit of things, I sent a burst of green fire running down the blade of my sword, screamed like a banshee, and jumped over the heads of the Dark Moon flunkies directly in front of me, heading for Lapis. Malachite waited a second or two to make sure that the Dark Moon types were looking at anyone but him, then threw a purple boomerang at the chest of the one man remaining between him and the column of light--resulting in our only successful kill so far, although the one Malachite had struck in the side earlier looked like he was in a bad way--and ran for the column. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw him reach it. It parted to let him inside.

Then I screamed in agony as the mental bond that linked us erupted into white noise. I forced myself to turn the pain into anger instead and use it as fuel for my attack. I jammed my shoulder into someone's chest, knocking him aside, and found myself hilt-to-whip-butt with Lapis.

I'm going to enjoy this, I thought, refusing to admit my fear, even to myself.

* * * * * * * *


From the moment that the curtain of light parted before me, I was alone. Alone as I hadn't been since I was a child. Even in those terrible last days before my death, I'd been able to feel a vague sense of the others' dormant presence in the back of my mind. Now . . . nothing. I might as well never have been a Center.


Nothing. Complete silence, within and without.

Realizing that I still held my sword, its point dangling to the ground and on the verge of being blunted, I sheathed it. Then I forced myself to turn toward the object at the center of the little circular area in which I found myself, to examine it.

He's all right, I told myself firmly. Believe it. You haven't come this far to fail because you're worried about your lover! But I just couldn't dismiss the cold lump in the pit of my stomach so lightly. Zoisite was too large a part of what made life worth living for me. Nonetheless, I had to finish this. It was the only way I'd be able to go back to him.

The glowing . . . thing . . . on top of the grey stone plinth in front of me was more sensed than seen. The light coming from it was far too bright for me to be able to make out its contours. Roundish and faceted? Please, let it not be another crystal. I'm tired of all these damned magical crystals! Is there anything wrong with magical mushrooms? Or lumps of lead? I sighed. Well, I guess they do call us Crystal Weavers for a reason.

I reached out a hand--the left hand, as was usual when I didn't know what I was going to be touching--toward the glowing whatever-it-was.

My fingers went right through it.

Another decoy? Damn, Adamant wasn't very trusting, was he? So where's the real key?

I closed my eyes and tried to sense the energy currents, but there was too much power crammed into this little space. All I could tell was that the focus of the ward was in here somewhere, with me. All right, process of elimination. And there isn't very much to eliminate. All that's in here is me, the ward/light curtain that's keeping the others out, the illusion, and the plinth--the plinth! It was so obvious that under other circumstances, I might have laughed. But is it the plinth itself, or something hidden inside it? An unfinished cube of rock three feet to a side provides a sizable interior volume to hide things in.

I walked around it, and discovered two rough handprints chiseled into the far side. Well, if that's how it's going to be . . .

I had to kneel to fit my hands into the prints. Apparently, they'd been designed that way. Not only that, but they'd apparently been designed for me. They fit almost as closely as my gloves. The only thing the sculptor apparently hadn't known about was the platinum ring that Zoisite had given me. I could feel the metal scraping against the stone. Neither wanted to give way for the other, but at last my hand slid the rest of the way into the shallow recess.

After the inevitable split-second lag--just enough time for me to wonder if anything was going to happen, as usual--the rock became fluid and washed down over the backs of my hands, hardening again immediately and effectively immobilizing them. Grimly, I waited for further developments. What else could I do? Even if I'd wanted to, it isn't really possible to amputate both of your own hands at the wrists, and that was what would have been required to get me out of there.

The palms of my hands, hidden somewhere under a layer of grey stone, tingled and then abruptly went numb. The absence of sensation spread slowly up my arms, until I felt like I had lead weights dangling from my shoulders.

It's draining my energy! I'd actually have preferred it to be draining my blood, no matter how ridiculous the concept of a vampire rock was. Blood loss could only kill me, but energy loss could destroy me completely, since magic was all that maintained my body and my spirit crystal.

Any human who claims that "turnabout is fair play" has never been in a situation like that one.

I kept my breathing slow and even and concentrated on other things, not wanting to waste valuable energy on a fight-or- flight response that could do me no good under the circumstances. But when I started shivering, I knew it was almost the end. My reserves had to be almost gone if the drain was compromising my ability to keep warm.

The glowing illusion on top of the plinth winked out. A split second later, the marrow-numbing energy drain ended, but my hands remained immobilized by the rock.

And then the plinth cracked. Right down the center, between my hands. Another crack appeared at right angles, and the entire block of stone collapsed in on itself, with a sound like a sigh.

<<Welcome, Malachite.>>

I stared at the miniature image that had appeared on top of the pile of rubble, barely a foot from my nose. It was almost identical to the one that had confronted us outside the doors, the one that had claimed to be the guardian of this place, except that this smaller figure wore only one armband, the one supporting his spirit crystal. His right arm was bare. There was also a subtly different quality to the voice inside my mind, a greater . . . depth? Resonance?

<<I assume that it is you,>> he continued. <<I can't be certain, unfortunately. I'm getting old, and my foresight is beginning to fail. Well, after twenty-five hundred years, I suppose that's hardly surprising. I was the first, after all. You're fortunate. I was never meant to be a leader, and it's ground me down. You, on the other hand, will enjoy it.>>

There was a soft, distinct clink as a golden circle fell out of nowhere, striking the pile of rubble, sliding down to within an inch of my left knee. The armring that was missing from the image.

<<Take it,>> the image of . . . Adamant? suggested. <<That's the key, the thing you've been searching for. Actually, the spell is bound to the raw gold, so you can have it melted down and cast into something else if you like. It just happened to be convenient for me to carry it in that form.>> He crossed his arms and seemed to wait expectantly. Impossible, of course. Unlike the image outside the door, this appeared to be nothing more than a pre-recorded message, incapable of interacting with me.

My hand shook as I reached down to pick up the golden circle. I ignored the sharp pain as concentrated energy shot up my arm, restoring all that I had lost and more at the cost of some minor burns, and slid the loop over my wrist. I was dizzy for a moment, and shook my head to clear it, then slid the gold up under my uniform sleeve. It wouldn't fit over my elbow. Obviously, I was bigger-boned than Adamant had been.

When I looked up, his image was grinning at me.

<<And that's all there is to it,>> he told me. <<The ward will interact with you on a subconscious level from now on, drawing your attention to sources of trouble and helping you handle the unusual situations that the other, static wards can't deal with. That's the aspect of it that's powered by your personal energies. The confinement portion of the ward draws on the ambient--it would kill you to try to sustain it on your own. This is the task for which the gods granted us these powers, Malachite. Good luck.>>

And he was gone. I flexed my arm, feeling the constriction of the gold band, and drew my sword again. After all, I still had to get out of here in one piece. Only then did I step through the curtain of light and into the main room.

<<Malachite, look out!>>

* * * * * * * *



<<Um?>> I asked muzzily. The energy drain that had been weakening me had stopped some time earlier, and I was recovering, but only slowly. I'd wanted to speak to Pyrope the moment I'd seen him again, but at the time, it had been all that I could do to stand up.

<<I--oh, God, that hurts!--I want to apologize. For what happened on that bridge in the wind tunnel. I didn't really want to hurt you. The Dark Moon-->> Pyrope didn't finish the sentence. I roused myself enough to sit up. He was holding his head in both hands, and what I could make out of the expression on his face was terrible . . .

<<Are you all right?>> I asked.

<<No. In fact, I think I may be going insane, with the Dark Moon pulling me in one direction and that damned imperative of Zoisite's pulling me in another. Cuprite, promise me something, please.>>

<<Like what?>> I wasn't about to commit myself without knowing. Not under the circumstances.

<<If it looks like I'm going back over to the other side--stop me. Kill me, if that's what it takes. Here.>> He unfastened his jacket, and, even half-blind as I was, I could see that every movement he made was costing him in agony.

Removing a belt from around his waist, he placed it in my hands.

<<My spirit crystal,>> he told me. <<I don't expect you to feel that it's worth preserving, but I don't want them to have it either. Not if it kills me.>>

I nodded, tears stinging my eyes. <<I'll keep you from screwing up again if you do the same for me,>> I stated.

<<Thanks. It's a deal.>> I could almost see him smiling that devil-may-care smile that had presaged so much mischief in the old days. We've lost so much . . . All I have left is him, and the Negaverse. He has even less.

<<Pyrope?>> It was sudden. Impulsive.


<<I forgive you.>>

A hand reached out and squeezed my shoulder. <<Thank you.>>

Acting on impulse again, I hugged him and leaned against his chest. He stiffened for a moment, and then his arms encircled me. Almost like the old days, when he'd taken the place of the older brother that I'd never had.

I buried my face in his jacket as I discovered that I was crying. The feel of the rough grey Negaverse uniform against my nose and chin was a subtle reminder of everything that separated us from our past.

<<If we get out of this alive, I'll try to make it up to you,>> Pyrope stated. Then his hands flew up to his head again. <<Aargh!>>

<<What is it?>> I asked, as he pulled away from me.

<<That damned command of Zoisite's just dug its claws in. I think your King is in danger. I'll be right back.>>

For a moment, all I could do was sit there, staff across my thighs, gripping the belt he had given me with both hands, watching him trot toward the doors.

To hell with this, I decided. I'm going with him.

* * * * * * * *


Why was the universe so cruel?

I must admit that when the curtain of light had parted to let Malachite inside, I hadn't expected him to ever re-emerge. But there was the white-gloved hand, extending through the curtain. In a moment, he'd be back on this side.

In front of me, Zoisite had frozen. Fortunately for me. If he'd had his attention on me during my moment of distraction, he might have decapitated me. As it was, I had a split second in which to teleport, reappearing next to the spot where Malachite was emerging.

How did he know that I was there?

Suddenly, there was someone between me and Malachite. A short, dark-haired, familiar someone. Instead of catching Malachite around the throat, my whip wrapped around the newcomer's upraised arm.

Pyrope didn't even whimper when my savage jerk broke the bone.

"Traitor!" I screamed at him.

His eyes flashed. "Not anymore," he said, face white with pain.

I glanced over to the left, where Malachite and Zoisite had both engaged the others. Perhaps there was still a chance . . .

My whip snapped out again, but Malachite stepped to one side and turned as his lover's sword drew a red line across Ammolite's chest. Cuprite, appearing out of nowhere, tripped Taafeite, who had almost had a clear shot at the white-haired King's back.

<<Did you honestly think I was that stupid?>> The words washed through my mind like acid. Malachite's eyes glittered with power as he raised his sword to strike.

But I wasn't there when the blow landed. I'm not stupid either.

<<WISE MAN!!!!!>> I called. This had all gotten beyond me. Malachite's diminutive allies formed up in a half-circle around him as I backed away to close ranks with the other Dark Moon survivors. With one of my allies dead at Malachite's hand, our numbers were equal. Unfortunately, I was fairly certain that the greater power belonged to the Negaverse's King. My one chance was that my master's power would be able to save me.

"You have failed me, Lapis." The voice, coming from behind me, sounded cold and ominous. "You have all failed me."

"He was too strong!" I had meant to sound irritated, but I think I came across more as a whining child.

"You had your chance and you threw it away!" Wise Man's voice thundered. "If you had followed my original orders and killed Cuprite, Malachite would never have found this place! I have no further use for a creature like you, Lapis, save one!"

Hard, bony hands snatched at my shoulders, and I felt the sudden coldness of my life bleeding away. But I still couldn't muster any fear or regret. I was only . . . confused.

I did the right thing, didn't I?

Didn't I?

Maybe I didn't.

I looked up into the eyes of the man I had thought I loved. They were like chips of emerald ice. If I had ever really cared about him, would I have wanted to separate him from his Malachite?

I suppose that it's better to learn some lessons late than never at all.

* * * * * * * *


I watched dispassionately as Wise Man drained each of the Dark Moon Crystal Weavers in turn, letting the empty, crumbling corpses fall to the ground. Little puffs of dust rose from where their spirit crystals sat--or, rather, had sat--in the ranks in front of the column. I wasn't about to regret the fact that they were gone for good. Actually, Wise Man had done me a favor. If he hadn't killed them, I would have had to do so myself. Loose, they would have been a menace, and I doubted our ability to keep them locked up for very long.

The other source of my disinclination to act was one that I found difficult to express in words. The moment that Wise Man had appeared, the gold armring that I wore under my jacket had become warm, and I had the impression that it was trying to tell me something. I just didn't understand what it wanted.

I had to grab Cuprite's shoulder to keep him from trying to run forward and do I knew not what. Pyrope, standing on Zoisite's far side, shivered when Wise Man first reached out his hand, but held firm after that, evidently more hardened to . . . necessity. Good. He might actually make a useful sort of General, once he had been purged of the power of the Dark Moon. I was no longer worried about his loyalty, or lack thereof. No one had asked him to take Lapis's attack for me. He had done it on his own initiative.

As I stood staring at the robed and cowled figure, I could just barely make out the planes of bare bone that the shadows of its hood attempted to hide. There really was a fleshless skull under there. Sailor Moon had said as much, but I hadn't believed it.

"And so here we have Adamant's would-be successor. Do you really think that you can defeat me, little kinglet?"

"Can't you do better than that?" Zoisite answered for me, in his most incisive tone of voice. "Why is it that no one can think up a really good insult these days? But I forgot--your head is probably just as bare on the inside as it is on the out! And anyway, we defeated the Negaforce, so we can certainly beat you!"

The gold circling my arm had gone from warm to hot, and it seemed to have shrunk. A hard squeeze from it somehow sent a false message out along my arm and made my hand twitch. I dropped my sword with a clatter. Zoisite looked up at me, and I could sense his concern, but I was suddenly certain that I wouldn't need the weapon.

Wise Man laughed. "The Negaforce was a lesser demon, one of the least powerful creatures that your ancestors fought. I, on the other hand, am one of the most powerful, and I am not confined to a stationary prison. I will prevail, and in a few moments you and your lover will be nothing but a memory, pretty boy."

A complicated, three-dimensional design suddenly displayed itself in front of me in lines of fire. None of the others reacted, and I doubted that they could see it. It looked like a part of some sort of spell. I hesitated for a moment as the armring tightened again, then raised my hand to trace the pattern.

"Do you actually think that I'm going to let you complete that?" The demon raised a hand to the crystal ball that floated in front of him, but was interrupted before he could attack.

<<Correction,>> a stranger stated coldly. <<You're a tiny fraction of a very powerful creature, most of which is still imprisoned back on Nemesis. Otherwise, you wouldn't have needed me or any of the others.>> A wavering image was forming between us and Wise Man--a man of medium height with shortish white hair, positioned with his back to us. <<I know what you intended for me. Did you honestly think that I'd tamely allow myself to be taken over by the larger part of you? You bred and trained me to be a ruler, not a self-sacrificing fool.>>

<<Prince Diamond?>> I didn't intend to project the thought, but it slipped out regardless.

<<King Malachite,>> he greeted me without turning around. <<May I ask a favor of you?>>

<<You may ask, but I don't guarantee that I'll deliver,>> I replied absently, most of my mind on the design that I was drawing. It was almost finished. <<Although I acknowledge that I owe you for distracting him.>>

<<Our crystals. Hide them or destroy them, but don't let anyone use them again.>>

His image flickered out just as I traced the last line of the pattern. There was a flash of white light.

<<What is that?>> Zoisite asked.

<<I have no idea, love,>> I replied, truthfully enough.

"NO!!!" Energy lanced from the floating crystal ball. It curved in midair and was sucked into the pattern. "You can't possibly know that spell! Who are you? Who gave you the power?!"

"You said it yourself." I wrapped my banded arm around Zoisite and smiled at Wise Man's skull face. "I am Adamant's successor. You, on the other hand, are soon going to be nothing at all." A word, an utterly unfamiliar word, appeared unbidden out of the depths of my mind, burning my throat and my tongue.

I spoke it.

The crystal ball fell to the floor and shattered as a stream of multicolored something shot out of Wise Man's clothes and was pulled into the pattern, which snapped shut around it, forming a ball, and shot up through the ceiling. The empty robe collapsed with a muffled clicking sound.

Then I fell to my knees, shivering. That spell, whatever it had been, had taken a lot out of me. I wrapped my cape around myself and waited for some of the tremendous energy in this room to soak into my body and fill up the hollow spaces. The last time I had felt so weak was immediately following my resurrection.

I flexed my arm, feeling the constriction of the gold band again. "Help you handle the unusual situations that the other, static wards can't deal with," he said. A little more warning of what that meant might have been nice.

I glanced up and met three pairs of eyes in turn--Zoisite's were concerned, Pyrope's, nervous, and Cuprite's as inscrutable as always.

"If any of you breathes a word of this to any of the youma I'll roast you over a slow fire," I said. "Start picking up those crystals. We've got a little work to do yet before we can go home."

* * * * * * * *


Spirit crystals. Hundreds of them. Some familiar, some strange. The souls of my entire race were arrayed before me. But I was looking for one stone in particular. And I couldn't find it.

What if she took it somewhere else? Horrible thought. Then I'd be at the mercy of anyone who found it. For the rest of my life. But, I had it in the future, I reminded myself, and forced myself to look again.

Then I felt it. It's such a strange sensation, having someone else touch your soul. At least it didn't hurt, this time. That meant that whoever had it was a friend.

<<Here you are.>> Pyrope put the stone in my hand and closed my fingers around it. <<Try not to lose it again. I'm tired of bailing you out of these scrapes.>>

I sputtered. <<You bail me out?! That'll be the day!>> Our elders at the Enclave had always said that it was a good thing that I was such a quiet person, because Pyrope got into enough trouble for two. I had a feeling that that wouldn't quite be the case anymore, but still . . .

Then I understood, and started to laugh. Pyrope laughed with me. I think Malachite may have turned to stare at us, and I'm certain that Zoisite did, but I didn't care. I was just happy that everything was the way it should be again.

* * * * * * * *

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