* * * * * * * *
<<There's something wrong, isn't there?>> I had known it from the moment that he had walked into the room and tossed his cape over the back of the chair. He looked tired. And old. Despite his white hair, he had never looked old to me before. <<Malachite, tell me. Please.>>
<<They lost contact with Pluto yesterday.>> He sat down on the edge of the bed and brushed his hair impatiently away from his eyes before leaning down to pull his boots off. He could have used his powers to do that, of course, but there are times when it just isn't worth it. <<No one is quite sure what happened, but I'm getting a bad feeling about it. I hope Nephrite gets back soon. I need him to try a divination.>>
<<You could try yourself,>> I reminded him. In my opinion, we'd all grown too reliant on Nephrite's divinations of late.
Malachite shook his head. <<Too risky. The basic divinations are the same types that the human mages use, and we're easy to detect when we use them. We're too powerful for our own good, I suppose. No, we'll wait for Nephrite. Zoisite?>>
<<Yes?>> I sat down beside him and leaned against his shoulder. He wrapped his arm around me. It was a familiar, comfortable position for both of us.
<<Does it bother you, that we've been waiting a hundred years for a war that never came?>>
<<I don't know . . . but I think that we may be about to get our war. A century too late.>> He scuffed his bare feet against the carpet. It was thick and plushy now, not threadbare, but like almost everything else in the room we shared, it was a sham. Everything here was either a conjury or paid for by conjury (mostly the latter, since spinning material objects out of thin air and magic isn't as easy as humans seem to think). The court gave us nothing except bare tolerance, and even that was wearing thin.
<<Is there such a thing as too late for immortals?>> I asked playfully.
<<Of course there is. A hundred years ago, we had the king's support. Now . . . I trust King Adonis about as far as his teenaged son can throw him. Five people--even five Crystal Weavers--can't defeat an army alone. Except possibly with a suicide strike. And, selfishly, I want to live.>>
<<And I want you to live, too.>> I gave him a long, lingering kiss, needing to distract him before he pulled me down with him into whatever deep pool of gloom he was mired in.
<<Ha. I'll just bet that you do.>> He pushed me down onto my back and turned to straddle me. But behind the carefully formed thought that carried the impression of his physical voice, I could sense that a faint unease was still with him. And because he feared, I began to do the same.
* * * * * * * *
It was the middle of the night when I finally sensed Nephrite's return. I wasn't quite sure where he'd been disappearing to, lately, other than that it wasn't a woman. Alone of all of us, he had remained completely free of such entanglements over the century we had been together. Even Alexandrite, whom the rest of us, I must admit, often considered to be a mere child, had had a serious relationship with one of the nurses that he worked with, lasting over three years. Nephrite, on the other hand, while he took the occasional tumble with an attractive serving girl, refused to ever get himself emotionally involved beyond the level of a one-night stand.
I slipped out of bed, kissing Zoisite lightly on the forehead. He mumbled something and shifted position slightly, but didn't wake.
My clothes were strewn all over the floor, mixed with his. Separating the two outfits wouldn't be possible without a light, which would have woken my lover. Instead of trying it, I closed my eyes and concentrated. A moment later, I was clothed in one of the training uniforms that we all seemed to prefer when we didn't have anyone to impress. Unlike the others, I didn't have a strong color preference, so my uniforms varied from grey to dark blue to black. I chose black, that night. It seemed to fit my mood.
I followed my sense of Nephrite's presence out into the hallway and along the line of doors to his room. It occurred to me suddenly to wonder why none of us had ever taken over Onyx's much larger room at the top of the tower, which had been vacant for slightly over a century now. Were we subconsciously worried about psychic contamination? I smiled thinly as I stopped outside Nephrite's door.
<<May I come in?>> I asked.
<<Certainly, my lord.>> And indeed, the door swung open without my having to touch it.
<<So,>> Nephrite added, turning his back to me in order to light the lamp that stood on the desk, <<what is it that's important enough to bring you here in the middle of the night, Malachite?>>
<<You haven't heard, then.>> Like Zoisite and myself, Nephrite had long since replaced most of the furnishings in his room. The decor was dark, with little bits of white and silver showing in unexpected places. In the faint light from the lamp, it almost managed to look like a starscape. <<Sometime around midafternoon, the entire population of Pluto just sort of . . . vanished. Transmissions, ships, magical Gateways . . . all gone. They still don't know what happened, and it's going to take another two days for ships to get there from the nearest Neptunian moon. I think something's gone badly wrong, something that may threaten us all, and I want you to divine exactly what that something is.>>
Nephrite sighed. <<If I didn't know all the problems involved with any of us using standard divinations, I'd refuse. Just a moment.>> He fished through the drawers of his desk, finally pulling out a white crystal about the size of a finger.
"The Stars know everything," he murmured aloud, cupping it in his hand. The lamplight seemed to flicker and go out, and we were surrounded by a galaxy of stars. "Powers of the Universe, I seek your wisdom. Show me what has become of the people of Pluto!"
The image that flickered to life in front of us was a grim one. Together, we watched the slaughter of Pluto's people by monstrous creatures the likes of which neither of us had ever seen before, and saw buildings destroyed by fire and explosion and evil power. Once the fighting was over, there were a few minutes of silence, and then . . .
We both saw it disappear--the silvery shimmer that marked the boundary of Pluto's atmosphere. The creation of the envelopes that sustained livable conditions on every planet and moon except Earth and Venus had been the life's work of hundreds of human mages. The destruction of this one implied that the destroyers had immense power.
Nephrite and I exchanged glances. He needed no prompting from me to ask the final question: Who was responsible for this atrocity?
Image of a stranger: a red-haired woman with some of the bleakest, ugliest eyes I had ever seen. Her appearance repulsed me immediately, although I don't suppose she would have been considered ugly by any objective standard.
When the images and the starscape had faded into Nephrite's dimly-lit room, I realized that I had clenched my hands into fists at some point during the proceedings, and my fingernails were now on the verge of drawing blood. Carefully, I relaxed my hands.
<<We're going to have to try to warn the king,>> I stated grimly.
<<And you don't think we're going to have much luck,>> Nephrite observed.
<<No, I don't. But we have to try.>>
* * * * * * * *
The next day, I argued my way into an audience with King Adonis. That was no small task. While I had some influence at court, my circle most decidedly did not include the Lord Chamberlain, who controlled official access to his Majesty. In the seven years since I and the others had sworn ourselves to him, I had scarcely ever been in the same room with the King, despite the fact that I lived at the palace.
Adonis had been aptly named. With his wavy dark hair and blue eyes, he was far, far too gorgeous for a mere human male, if not exactly my type. He was also a notorious dandy, with very little interest in anything except his personal appearance. I still wish that his older brother, Phaethon, had survived to ascend the throne. If he had, the series of events that followed might have turned out very differently. Phaethon had been a good man, and might have made a good king. Adonis, unfortunately, was weak. The only thing that he had ever done right in his life was sending his son Endymion to live with Queen Serenity, on the Moon. Hopefully, the boy would turn out to have a better character than his father did.
In any case, after cooling my heels outside the throne room for more than three hours, I eventually managed a five-minute interview with Adonis. When my name was called, I strode through the open double doors and walked down the long expanse of carpet to drop to one knee before the throne, although it was debatable whether protocol required me to kneel. I was addressed by a nobleman's title, but since neither I nor my family had any lands, I occupied an ambiguous place at court. I had, however, decided that it was safest to kneel.
"Lord . . ." The king had to wait for one of his advisors to whisper in his ear. " . . . Malachite, is it?"
"Yes, my King." I bowed my head, wishing that he'd give me some word or gesture that I could interpret as a command to rise. I knew that some people found my height intimidating, and I needed every edge I could get. And I knew that I was going to start to feel rather cramped if I had to maintain this position for more than a few minutes.
"You may state your concern, my lord." Adonis waved a negligent hand in my direction. I allowed myself to interpret that last as an order to get up.
"Your Majesty is no doubt aware of the attack on Pluto," I said, drawing myself to my full height. "My King, I have reason to believe that that attack was only the beginning. We may all be at serious risk."
Adonis's eyes narrowed. "Are you suggesting that We are not taking this attack seriously?"
I repressed a wince as I heard the royal We in that coldly spoken formal sentence. Perhaps I should have remained in my kneeling pose. My desire to intimidate him had backfired on me, and I had made him irritated and suspicious instead. Judging from what I had heard about Adonis, that would make him more inclined to want to assert his authority, which, in this case, meant refusing me anything I might ask for.
Nevertheless, I had to try. "I was not in any way attempting to impugn your Majesty's wisdom, but merely to appraise you of facts that you might not otherwise know."
"And what do you have to back up this supposed fact?"
I gave him a long, level look. Adonis only half-believed in magic, despite having seen it around him all his life. If I told him that my knowledge came from a colleague's divination, he would dismiss it out of hand. I was hoping that Crystal Weaver mystique would let me slip through without giving any explanation at all.
Unfortunately, Adonis wasn't quite certain that he believed in Crystal Weavers, either.
"I . . . see," he said, glancing suddenly up at the ceiling to break the eye contact. I was surprised that he had managed to hold it for so long. Then, more formally, "We will take your words under consideration, my lord."
Which meant that he would do nothing. I felt my eyes blaze. Wind whipped around me and tugged at my hair and cloak, although not a breeze disturbed the fringes of the draperies over to my left. With an effort, I throttled my power back down. The destruction of the Throne Room wouldn't accomplish anything positive.
But I couldn't keep the bite out of my voice as I said, "My only hope is that you live to regret your words, my King." And I teleported without waiting to be dismissed, in a blatant breach of protocol. I didn't care what I did, at that point. The King would most likely never permit me back into his presence again, so it didn't matter anyway.
I said nothing when I got back to the tower. But I was certain that the others knew. After all, it wasn't every day that I left the tower wearing blue and came back in wearing black, my clothes darkening to match my grim mood.
That evening, we received news that Titan, the largest of Saturn's inhabited moons (the planet itself being totally uninhabitable for any real period of time even with magic) had fallen to another attack, and had its atmosphere destroyed, as had happened at Pluto.
My lovemaking with Zoisite had an unusually frantic quality that night as I tried to compress as much as possible into the little space of time that we had. I suspected that eternity was going to end for us soon, and suddenly, a century together didn't seem like nearly enough.
* * * * * * * *
I was re-checking the supplies in the infirmary for the third time that month. Normally, this inventory was performed only once a year, and by someone else, but I suspected that we might have a sudden influx of patients soon, and was determined to make certain that we were prepared to handle it.
Someone touched my shoulder from behind. I spun around, raising one hand.
<<Damn, you are nervous, aren't you? What's wrong?>> Jadeite smiled crookedly at me. I glared at him in exasperation.
<<"What's wrong?" he says. In case you hadn't noticed, the outer planets are being slaughtered because no-one can patch a system-wide defense treaty together. Once this mysterious dark force has gobbled up the rest of Uranus's moons, who do you think it's going to go after next? The obvious pattern has it working its way inward. Towards us.>> I crushed a roll of bandaging in my hands.
<<So? We'll be all right. I'm sure of it. These things can't possibly be as bad as the Empyrean.>>
<<Oh, that's reassuring. Jay, none of us has actually seen an Empyrean, or had you forgotten that? None of us has actually ever fought in a battle, either. The entire solar system's just been too damned peaceful since the end of the Empyrean War.>> I threw the rolled bandage back onto the pile with enough force to send several others rolling down to land in front of my feet.
<<We've still got the best chance of anyone.>> Jadeite perched at the edge of one of the narrow cots that were very nearly the only furnishings in the room. <<It isn't as though they can destroy Earth's atmosphere the way they did with the ones on those moons.>>
<<No. But . . . Damn it, I'm not a fighter! I'm a healer! I . . . I'm just not going to be able to do anything to help.>> With a lot of coaching from the others, I had managed to learn the basic attack skills, but I knew that I was still abysmal in a fight. Any of them could flatten me in our practice sessions. Actually, even some human mages could probably have flattened me. My handling of destructive energies was almost as poor as Nephrite's handling of conventional divinations.
I bowed my head, looking down, away from my brother's face. It isn't entirely me that I'm worried about, Jay. It's you. And the others, but you especially. What happens if you're killed because I'm not able to help? I don't want you to die because of me.
Jay reached out and ruffled my hair, or tried to. It was difficult when I kept it all braided back. I didn't even have much in the way of bangs.
<<We can't all be warriors, Alex. Each of us has some sort of skill that goes beyond fighting. Yours is the most valuable of those. It stands to reason that you'd have to be weaker in some other area to compensate. Don't worry. We'll protect you. I'll protect you. That's what I'm here for. That's why I came with you in the first place. I could have had a normal life, you know.>>
I snorted. <<So tell me what "normal" is. We've both been Crystal Weavers since we were children. I can barely remember a time when I didn't have crystal power, and I don't think you can, either. For us, the life we lead is normal, Jadeite.>>
<<I know.>> He stood up and gave me a quick hug. <<But still. Don't worry.>>
<<I'll try not to--Mother,>> I teased.
He said something obscene and shook his head as he vanished in a swirling column of blue flame. I went back to counting bandages.
* * * * * * * *
The explosions started sometime after midnight. I woke to feel the bed shaking under us while trickles of plaster dust fell from the ceiling. Some of it landed on Zoisite's face. He wrinkled his nose and rolled over without really waking up. I grabbed his shoulder and shook, hard.
<<Mmph . . . Malachite? What's wrong?>> The emerald eyes opened slowly, still hazed with sleep.
<<I don't know, but whatever it is, I have a feeling that it's serious.>>
<<Malachite? Malachite, are you there? We're under attack!>>
<<Attack from whom? Nephrite, what's going on?>> I threw off the covers and got up, conjuring clothing as I did so.
<<Whatever those things were that attacked the outer worlds, they're here, and they're out for blood. I'm going to wake Jaddo and Alex. Hurry!>>
I reached for the sword leaning against the bedside table, the one that Zoisite had given me, and buckled the attached belt around my waist. On the other side of the bed, Zoisite was doing the same with the sword I had given him. The light he had conjured at some point in the proceedings gave his face a sickly, greenish cast.
I slammed the door open and strode out into the hallway, with him following behind me. Nephrite was already there, with Jadeite. Alexandrite, half-dressed, burst through his door only seconds after we arrived.
<<Get some proper clothes on,>> I ordered him. <<Nephrite, where are they?>>
<<The north and east wings.>> The tip of the crystal that he seemed to use in most of his divinations was just peeping out of the space between the thumb and forefinger of his left hand. I wondered what he wanted with it. <<They're taking hostages as well as killing, this time,>> he added.
I felt my mouth flatten into a grim line. <<Well, we're going to put a stop to that! There's an old escape tunnel that ends behind one of the tapestries in that little study near the East Ballroom. We ought to at least be able to get some people out through that. Are they down in the town yet?>>
<<I'm not certain, m'lord,>> Nephrite replied. Normally, when he gave me that title, it was with sarcasm. This time, he sounded sincere. <<My guess is that it's just the palace this time.>>
<<And this is going to be the only time,>> I stated firmly. <<Let's go.>>
We teleported together to the corridor outside the little room. There was blood smeared on the walls and carpeted floor, but both hall and room were mercifully free of antagonists. I left Alexandrite to open and check the tunnel--position of least risk, since he was the weakest--and sent Jadeite and Nephrite off along the hallway in one direction while Zoisite and I took the other.
We encountered our first youma (although at the time, we didn't know what they were called) after turning left at the first T-junction. The next hour was a nightmare of blood and falling, dismembered corpses. We sent as many people as we could back toward the study and its exit tunnel. I'm not certain how many there were. It might have been as few as twenty or as many as four hundred.
I was blasting something blue with long orange hair when I heard the sound of another explosion. Behind me, Zoisite screamed, a sound that was quickly cut off. I spun toward him, feeling a sharp pain in my neck as my sword flung drops of odd- colored blood in all directions. A fragment of red-dyed metal had lodged in his throat.
"<<ZOISITE!!!>>" I screamed it, both internally and aloud. He looked in my direction.
<< . . . Malachite . . .>> It was barely a whisper. Then his eyes rolled backward in his head, and he lost consciousness. If I hadn't been able to sense him through the linkage we shared, I might have believed him dead.
A purple thing with tentacles was eyeing me with interest. I glared in her direction, gathered Zoisite's body into my arms, and teleported. For a moment, I wasn't certain that I would ever come out of the in-between place we passed through during teleportation, because I couldn't concentrate on my destination. Instead, the words, Please don't die, please don't die, were cycling through my head like some insane mantra.
<<ALEX!!!>> I screamed as soon as I felt solid ground under my feet again.
<<Malachite? What is--Great Gods of Light and Darkness!>> He eased Zoisite gently out of my arms and deposited him on the floor for a closer examination. <<I felt it when it happened--I'm sure we all did--but I didn't expect anything this bad . . . >>
<<Will he be all right?>>
<<I don't know. We really need to get him to safety, but I don't dare move him again quite yet. If I pull this metal out of him he'll probably bleed to death, but I can't do anything to help him while he's like this . . . If Jay were here, maybe . . .>>
<<Jadeite!>> I called.
<<Malachite? It wasn't you that got hit, was it?>>
<<No, it was Zoisite. He's dying. Alex doesn't think he can save him without your help.>> Tears stung my eyes, but I forced them back. I had no time for them now.
<<We'll be there in a few minutes,>> Jadeite informed me grimly. <<We're fighting a rear-guard action now. You'll probably be seeing the first of the last batch of refugees in a few seconds.>>
And all of a sudden, the corridor outside was filled with a writhing mass of humanity. I guided people past me and into the tunnel as fast as I could, then grabbed the arm of a guard officer who seemed to be reasonably steady and delegated the duty to him so that I could teleport.
I landed at the far end of the corridor, just behind Nephrite and Jadeite, who were blasting with all their might into a packed mass of youma.
<<I'll take over here,>> I told Jadeite. <<I need you to go back and help Zoisite.>>
He nodded and vanished. I stepped forward into the space he had left and conjured an energy boomerang in my free hand.
No matter what Nephrite and I did, we were inexorably forced back toward the room where the others were. The youma came on in solid waves, filling the hallway and often having to scramble over each other to get to us. They trampled the bodies of their predecessors into pulp under their feet.
Finally, we were backed up against the door of the little study. We glanced at each other, and both of us nodded firmly. No more running. The last of the humans were just pushing their way into the tunnel entrance now. We needed to buy them time.
A tentacle tipped with a bony club smashed into the side of Nephrite's face, knocking him backwards, and suddenly I was fighting alone, my system so full of adrenaline that I barely felt his injury. Behind me, I could hear Jadeite talking into the communications terminal built into the desk.
Then something--I'm not sure exactly what to call it--exploded near the center of the palace, and the building was flooded with dark magical energy. For a moment, I felt the same way that Nephrite must have when the club smashed him in the face. Then I couldn't feel anything at all.
* * * * * * * *
I woke to darkness and the faint sound of water dripping somewhere far away. I tried to conjure some light, but the attempt only gave me a headache, and I stopped again immediately. A quick self-examination showed that I was battered and bruised and had overstrained my powers, and that I had received some sort of magical shock that had knocked me out, but there was no serious organic damage.
My wrists were chained somewhere high above my head, and the steady ache in my arms told me that my entire weight had been on them for quite some time. The absence of any ground under my bare feet--what had happened to my boots?--indicated that things would probably stay that way for the foreseeable future.
<<Is anyone awake?>> My throat was too dry for me to even attempt to speak in the conventional fashion.
<<Alex, is that you?>>
<<Yes, Malachite. My lord,>> I corrected myself. In our present hopeless situation, it was easier to hand any potential decisions off onto him.
He sighed. <<Thank the gods that one of you is finally awake. I was afraid that I was going to die alone.>>
<<Is that all we can do?>> I asked. <<Die?>>
<<I've been awake for several hours,>> he stated, not answering me directly. <<They took me out and knocked me around a bit, at one point. I hope that there's some way out of this other than feet first, but I'm not betting on it. Zoisite's in no shape to run, and I'm not too sure about Nephrite, either.>>
Zoisite! I had forgotten the blonde man's terrible injury. I had barely managed, with Jadeite's help, to get him into a more- or-less stable condition, when that last attack had knocked us out.
<<Are the others here?>> I asked.
<<I got a fairly good look when they dragged me back in. You're nearest the door, I'm beside you, and beyond me are Nephrite, Jadeite, and Zoisite, in that order.>>
<<Alex? Is that you?>>
I grimaced. <<Yes, Jay, it's me.>>
<<I think I'm going to complain about the accommodations. And the refreshments. Especially the refreshments.>>
<<This is no time for comedy,>> Malachite snapped. <<Jadeite, you have a little healing talent. Nephrite and Zoisite are on either side of you, and neither of them has regained consciousness yet. See if you can find out what condition they're in.>>
<<In the state I'm in, that will need physical contact, and I'm not sure I can reach them.>>
<<Do what you can,>> Malachite ordered. <<Alex is even farther away.>>
I could hear chains jingling as Jadeite stretched to the limits of his reach.
<<Are you all right, my lord?>> I asked Malachite privately. <<You mentioned torture . . .>>
<<I wouldn't exactly glorify it by calling it torture, but I've been better,>> Malachite admitted. <<It's nothing serious, mostly just minor burns and small cuts. The worst of it's a broken ankle. So long as I don't have to walk, and that doesn't seem likely anytime soon, I'll be fine. It's the others that I'm worried about.>>
<<Nephrite's in a pretty bad way,>> Jadeite interjected before either of us could make any further comments. <<Broken jaw, possible broken cheekbone, massive swelling. Miraculously, there doesn't seem to be any brain damage. He should wake up soon, although I doubt he's going to enjoy it. Zoisite . . . Well. He's still stable, but that's about all. He isn't breathing very well. Unless we get out of here, or we find some way to get a little healing energy into him, I'm afraid he hasn't got much of a chance.>>
<<Maybe . . . Jay, do you remember those experiments we did on transmitting healing energy through solid substances?>> I asked.
<<Yes, I do. Attenuation by a factor of ten, roughly. And you're already exhausted.>>
<<I have to try,>> I replied grimly. Power exhaustion might kill me, but if Jadeite was right, this was the only way to save Zoisite's life.
I shut my eyes--for all the difference that it made--and reached out. The rock of the wall behind me, peculiar stuff that it was, turned out to be a better than average conductor. I found Zoisite and examined his injury. Swelling was almost blocking his trachea. I winced when I observed the hash that the shrapnel had made of his vocal cords. Even if he survived, there was a good chance that he'd be mute for the rest of his life. Several minutes of concentration were needed to bring the swelling under control.
<<I think he's getting enough air now, my lord,>> I stated to Malachite. <<I can channel a little healing power through the wall behind us. I just wish they'd hung him beside me.>> Even so minimal a healing had taken a lot out of me, and I was dizzy with exhaustion.
<<Alexandrite? Will he live?>> I was surprised that Malachite had used my formal name. Hardly anyone ever did anymore. It was a strong indication of how serious this was to him.
<<Not if he doesn't get some water soon,>> I admitted. <<He lost a lot of blood. Those bastards !>> I recognized the beginning of hysteria brought on by stress and exhaustion, but was unable to bring myself to shut up. <<I don't know why they bothered taking us alive if all they wanted was to kill us through dehydration and abuse!>> I sobbed, feeling tears running down my cheeks--a waste of valuable water, when my body had so little . . .
<<Alex, pull yourself together!>> Jadeite told me.
I only cried harder. <<What am I doing here, Jay? I'm not any kind of fighter! How did I end up here?>> It was getting difficult to frame my thoughts at all coherently.
<<If you don't get ahold of yourself, it may mean all of our lives, Alex! With two of us so badly injured, it's going to be difficult to get out of here, and you're going to have to help!>> But underneath the sharp words, I sensed something else. Love. And that was what managed to snap me out of my hysterics. I sniffed a little, then slowly dropped into an uneasy doze.
I was woken by the sound of the door opening. Ten or twelve of the monsters that we had fought at the palace entered the room. Two of them came to unchain me. I didn't resist. I was probably too weak for resistance to do any good, anyway. Two others went over to the area on the other side of Malachite. I wasn't certain what they were doing, until I heard our Center force his lover's name out from between lips that were no doubt as dry, cracked and bloody as my own. Seeing, out of the corner of my eye, Malachite's attempt to strangle one of the creatures with his legs, I threw myself against the one that was holding my right arm, and managed to shake it off.
If there had been fewer of them, we might actually have won. As it was, it took six to recapture me. I hadn't known that there was enough anger in me to fuel that kind of combative spirit.
I endured the beating that followed as stoically as I could manage. The dryness of my throat kept me from screaming, reducing my range of expression to grunts, moans, whimpers, and an assortment of croaks. Inwardly, I cursed the creatures in every language I knew. To my surprise, when they finally let up, I was more bruised and bloody but still not seriously damaged. Evidently they'd had some sort of orders about that.
<<Don't worry, my lord,>> I told Malachite as the creatures finally dragged me out of the room. <<They wouldn't be taking an unconscious man to torture. I'll take care of him.>>
I tried to gather my feet under me as they dragged Zoisite and I along the hall, but it was hopeless. I hurt too much. But at least now I could see where we were. This looked more like a cave than any sort of building I had ever encountered. The rock looked almost organic, in a weird, repulsive sort of way.
Finally, they pulled us around a corner and into a room, and dropped both of us unceremoniously on the floor. I was so grateful for the opportunity to catch my breath that I didn't immediately notice anything about my surroundings other than the pattern of the veins in the floor.
When I did, I began to feel sick to my stomach.
The overall impression was that of sitting inside the lower jaw of some giant beast, waiting to be devoured. In front of us, on a pedestal, stood a large globe full of some sort of red liquid. It was the feeling of twisted, evil power coming from that artefact that was making me feel ill.
With the help of a toothlike stalagmite, I pulled myself to my feet, and stood there, shaking and glaring at the globe. The creatures who barred the path back out made no move to stop me. Encouraged, I knelt beside Zoisite, and channeled the fraction of power that I had regained into healing him.
Something brushed against the back of my neck. I ignored it. It snaked around to probe at my ear. Still I ignored it, thinking that it was probably one of those creatures trying to rattle me.
I was wrong.
Suddenly, there was something dark clamped around my throat, over my face, spreading over every surface of my body and trying to force itself into every available orifice. Despite my best efforts, some of it managed to seep inside my head . . . I felt something cold and hard try to clamp itself around my mind, realized that I was looking down at Zoisite, unable to remember why I had been trying to save him.
I forced the coldness away. This is not who I am. This is not who I am! I'm a healer . . . I believe in the value of life . . . All life . . . But it was too strong, and I had no power left. And so I did the only thing that I could.
I bent over Zoisite again and drained everything I had left into him, forcing my life's energy out and away until I knew that I didn't have enough left to survive. But it might be enough to save him. At least my death could achieve that much good.
<<I'm sorry, Jay,>> I thought blearily, as a different darkness began to lap over me like a warm sea. <<I'm just not strong enough to live in this kind of world. Please. Remember me. And take care of yourself.>> And then everything blurred and slid down into the darkness, and was lost.
* * * * * * * *
<< . . . sorry . . .>> came the faint whisper. << . . . not strong enough . . . kind of world . . . Remember me . . .>>
<<Alex? ALEX!>> But the tenuous linkage shattered, and he was gone.
Beside me, Nephrite, unconscious again, moaned and flinched, as though from a blow. I did nothing. I still couldn't cry, for my brother or for myself. Perhaps I was just too dehydrated.
Some undefined period of time later, the creatures came for me. I didn't even try to fight them. It didn't matter. Nothing mattered. Alex was dead.
Instead of dragging me, they prodded me ahead of them. I stumbled along mechanically, going where I was told. Then they forced me through a door. I stood inside the lower jaw of some giant creature. To my left was a cocoon of dark energy. To my right . . .
"No," I whispered. But there was no denying it. It was my brother's body.
The youma didn't try to stop me as I stumbled forward and knelt, reaching out with a trembling hand to gently shut his eyes. The tears came then, a century overdue. A century too late. I cried, not only for Alex, but for the rest of our family, long gone to dust, and for myself. Especially for myself.
I was still kneeling there, with tears streaming from my eyes, when the darkness wrapped itself around me. Black ice muted the pain inside me, and if I didn't exactly welcome it, I didn't exactly fight it either. And the world spun away.
* * * * * * * *
I awoke lying on the floor, with rocks digging into my back. I was naked, and there were patches of something green and slimy on my skin. My throat hurt.
"Zoisite," called a commanding voice.
Despite the fact that I ached in every muscle, I forced myself up to my knees and turned to face away from the door. Anything less would have been disrespectful.
"Master," I murmured, lowering my eyes to keep from looking at the globe directly. I didn't want to anger it.
"Ah, you're awake. Excellent," said a different voice, a woman's voice, from behind me. And I recognized it, without knowing how, just as I had recognized the terrible voice of the globe.
"My Queen." My voice sounded strange in my own ears--almost painfully shrill. I touched my throat, and felt a hint of scarring under my fingertips.
"You will be escorted to your quarters," the queen said. "Clean and dress yourself, then go down to the holding cell and bring the remaining two prisoners here for processing. With your permission, of course, mighty Negaforce," she added.
Two youma flanked me as I walked through the halls, unobtrusively steering me when they thought I was going in the wrong direction. It occurred to me to take exception to this, until I realized that I had no idea of where I was supposed to be going. After that, I submitted, but not with good grace, and I examined all the symbols on the walls in careful detail.
My "quarters" turned out to be a small suite of five rooms, located some distance away from the place where I had awoken. Like everything else, they seemed only vaguely familiar. I did notice that they were oddly bare of personal artefacts of any kind, except for a few items of clothing.
After showering (and nearly scalding myself before I discovered certain problems with the plumbing), I dressed in a high- collared, green-trimmed grey uniform. Although it fit fairly well, I found it uncomfortable. Then what am I used to wearing? I drew a blank, but for some reason, that didn't particularly bother me.
The two youma were waiting outside my door when I emerged. They were joined by several others as we made our way down to the prison cells. All of the creatures addressed my punctiliously as "General" or "Lord Zoisite". That meant I was probably someone important. I liked that idea.
"Bring them both," I ordered grandly as we swept into the prison cell. Then I stopped, staring.
The man hanging nearest to the door, dressed in ragged grey trousers and the ripped remains of what might once have been a shirt or tunic, was surely the most magnificent person I had ever seen, despite the fact that he was more than a little the worse for wear.
<<Zoisite!>> he called. His name was . . . His name was . . .
<<Malachite.>> It was strange, how this more intimate form of communication seemed to come to me more easily than normal speech. I sensed a tenuous linkage between the two of us. But how could that be? He was the enemy. And yet . . . I could remember the feel of the glorious white hair, matted now with blood and dust, under my hands . . . <<How pleasant to see you again.>> It wasn't what I wanted to tell him--what did I want to tell him?--but it was sufficient to serve as conversational filler.
He moved away from me, although his chains wouldn't let him go far. <<What did they do to you?>>
I stalked along the line of manacles, past the place where the youma were unchaining the other man--Nephrite, my memory supplied--and looked up at the set of chains nearest the far wall. I knew these people. Had I been one of the enemy?
Yes. The thought that whispered through my mind might or might not have been my own. You were one of them. But no longer. Now you know the true source of all power and happiness. Now you have joined with the enlightened servants of the Negaforce.
I tried to laugh. It came out as a giggle.
"You always were soft, 'beloved'," I told Malachite. "You'll learn better soon enough." Accept the darkness, and then perhaps I can have you again . . . I wanted so very badly to touch him. But it was an unacceptable temptation. I let the youma carry him as we left the cell to take the two of them to the Negaforce.
From a distance, I watched my Master embrace them. Then I ordered the youma to help the other man, Jadeite, whom the Negaforce had recently released from its grip. He was only semiconscious as they carried him down the hallway. No doubt Beryl had had quarters prepared for him as well.
My duties for the next several days included familiarizing myself with my new home and the youma who had been placed under me. Once, I passed near the portal which would have taken me back to the Earth realm. I felt no temptation to pass through. My memories of the human world were of being powerless, uncomfortable, and exposed. I liked the shadows here, which could hide many secrets, better than the brightness of Earth's sunlight.
I returned to the Negaforce's room three days later, in command of the youma force sent to pick up Nephrite and Malachite after their conversion. Nephrite I left to the creatures I had brought with me, but I pulled Malachite's limp arm over my own shoulders and teleported with him back to my rooms. Once there, I cleaned the green slime off his skin and carefully brushed the tangled, bloody hair until it fell free about his shoulders.
It was as soft as I had remembered.
Then I deposited him in my bed, and, not questioning why I did it, took off my own clothes and slipped in beside him. I ran my fingertips lightly up his arm, across his throat, over his chest, desperately needing to re-familiarize myself with that beautiful body.
Suddenly, he sat up, tumbling me over onto my back. His eyes blazed blue-white as he drew back his hand to strike . . . and then lowered it again.
<<Zoisite, I'm sorry. I was having a bad dream. We were . . . back on Earth . . .>>
And instead of attacking me, he kissed me, and stroked my hair. Inside me, below the layers and layers of icy armor which the darkness had helped me build around my emotions, there was a tiny spark of warmth.
So this is what love is. And for the first time since I had woken up, everything was absolutely, perfectly right .
* * * * * * * *
Something was wrong.
I stared up at the ceiling of the darkened room, unable to rid myself of the feeling. Something, somewhere, was very wrong.
I felt a gentle vibration against my throat. But there was nothing there, except . . .
Conjuring light, I examined each of the spirit crystals in turn. Malachite's, Nephrite's and Jadeite's all seemed normal enough. Alexandrite's . . .
As I held it up by its chain, the faint glow which was common to all healthy spirit crystals went out. Worried, I touched it with a fingertip . . . and watched in horror as it disintegrated in a puff of dust, leaving me holding a chain and an empty setting.
Something Alexandrite had done, or something that had been done to him, had caused him to drain his powers down to the dregs, using up even the tiny fraction of latent power that linked him to the crystal I had so lately held. Which meant that he was dead beyond any hope of resurrection.
I wondered numbly if he had left a body behind, and what I could do about it if he had. Normally, the body of a Crystal Weaver disintegrates the moment his spirit leaves it, but healers are different sometimes, for reasons I had never really understood. Perhaps their cell structures were simply better maintained.
I pulled myself out of bed and grabbed a convenient pitcher of water off the dresser. Talina had always left one there, and in the years since her death, I had continued the custom.
I passed my good hand over the surface of the water and it darkened and became cloudy. I suspected that this wasn't a good idea--it had been years since I had used my powers for anything more demanding that simple conjury like the lights--but I needed to know.
I closed my eyes for a moment and attempted to empty my mind of all thought. That's the reason why Crystal Weavers use divination patterns almost exactly like those of human mages, actually: thoughts. When you try to manipulate magic directly in so delicate a matter, anything you may happen to be thinking about at the time can distort the image that you conjure, so that instead of seeing what is truly happening in some place far away, you see what you hope for, or what you fear, or simply what you expect, and all of those are useless. And so I kept my eyes closed as I muttered a short phrase in my native tongue.
I opened my eyes. The water in the pitcher was still, and perfectly, pristinely black. I cursed softly and raised my hand to make another pass and break the spell.
A tiny dot of red flickered into existence in the center of the blackness, and I lowered my hand again. The dot grew slowly, until it became a globe, a glowing red eye . . .
It slipped out of my hand and fell to the floor, the water soaking into the heavy carpet, the pitcher bouncing and then rolling in a small circle. But I had seen enough.
I held up the spirit crystals of my four surviving apprentices. Zoisite's was changing. Oh, it wasn't on the verge of disintegrating like Alexandrite's, and maybe under any other circumstances I would have considered it a figment of my imagination, but it seemed that, while the faint glitter of light surrounding it was the same as always, the core of it had grown deeper. Darker. Shadowy. As though to conceal some terrible secret.
Over the next few days, I watched the same happen to Jadeite's crystal, and then to Nephrite's. Malachite, my ice blade, was strong enough and slippery enough to escape the clutches of the Darkness for a while, and for a few hours I almost dared to hope, but in the end, he succumbed as well.
They were gone, lost to me. I had seen the shadow on them, all those years ago, and now it hid them from me.
I hatched plans, daring ones, desperate ones, to go and rescue them, but I never put any of those schemes into action. If I could have counted on their cooperation, perhaps matters would have been different, but I knew that they would resist me, and I knew that I couldn't fight them. Not me. Not an aging cripple who had never been stronger than any but the least of them.
I would have to wait for destiny to play itself out, and hope that there was a dawn hiding somewhere beyond the end of this night.
* * * * * * * *
"Don't be a fool," I snarled. "That will never work, and you know it."
Nephrite glared back at me, his handsome face expressionless. Only his eyes spoke of his hate, and I knew that mine were replying with similar sentiment. Hatred was so much easier than love or affection . . . Thinking about that, my hand reached across, under the conference table, to grip Zoisite's. Hatred was usually easier than love. But I knew that there was one person that I would never be able to bring myself to hate.
"One wonders if you're spending all this time shooting down our plans to hide the fact that you've got none of your own." Jadeite leaned back in his chair, arms folded. His eyes held no expression at all. They were as dead as glass orbs.
"The way to proceed is obvious," I snapped. "We go on as we have been. All the planets except Earth and Venus are vulnerable to attacks against their atmospheric domes, and dead people can't oppose us."
Beryl, who hadn't spoken yet, applauded slowly. The four of us immediately turned to face her. None of us liked her, but we didn't dare offer her anything less than absolute respect. With the Negaforce backing her, she was far more powerful than any of us.
"Your enthusiasm is impressive, Malachite," she said. And it was your strategy that I commended, I thought. Beryl could be extremely predictable sometimes. "I leave the project in your capable hands." She pushed her chair away from the table and stood. Going to have another look at that pretty boy of hers--what's his name, Endymion?--in her crystal ball, no doubt. Sickening. But there was a smile on my lips that just wouldn't go away.
I couldn't help it. As soon as Beryl was gone, I began to laugh. The sound was pure evil, and the stone walls of the room seemed to amplify it. Nephrite winced and raised his hands to his ears. Zoisite looked at me with concern. Jadeite merely continued to stare straight ahead, his dead eyes fixed on a point somewhere beyond my left shoulder.
<<Coming, my love?>> I asked as I stood up. <<I need to review the troops. Our next target is Ganymede.>>
* * * * * * * *
What the . . . ? I closed the book I was reading and deposited it on the floor at my feet, then reached up to touch my throat with my good hand. No, I hadn't imagined it. The spirit crystals of Malachite and his surviving Weavemates were warm and vibrating again. And glowing. Presumably, in the news tomorrow, I would hear that another world had been destroyed. Or that another district of Earth had surrendered to the invaders.
The premonition was so strong that it almost made me ill. I waited for a few moments, taking deep breaths to steady myself and hoping that it would go away again, but, if anything, the feeling got worse.
A breeze caught at my hair, blowing strands of it across my face. Irritably, I brushed it back. Wait a minute. Wind? Inside the house? I know that there isn't any sort of fan on . . .
Then I heard the muffled roar of an explosion somewhere outside, and I finally realized what was going on. They're here. I had known that it would happen eventually.
I wanted to stay. I wanted to fight. But I knew that there was nothing that I could accomplish except getting myself killed, and that wouldn't do anyone any good. I just wasn't strong enough to face them. I clenched both of my hands into fists, tightening the right one until I could feel the strain in the cables despite the relative lack of tactile sensation in my artificial hand. Demantoid . . . Why did it have to be me? Why? The bitterness was so thick that I could taste it.
Another explosion, much closer. I couldn't afford to wait here any longer. An attempt at interplanetary teleportation would strain my powers to the limit, even without passengers, the distances being larger by an order of magnitude than those involved in a normal teleport, but I had no choice now.
I raised my metal hand and pressed the back of it, with its embedded spirit crystal, against my forehead, and concentrated. Darkness and cold encompassed me just as a bright flash obscured the living room of the little Martian house that Talina and I had called home.
I flickered back into existence three feet above the ground, and fell, crashing to my knees. I was too dazed to do anything but glance around at the abandoned city in the mountain valley and think, Oh, hell. Why here? before I curled up on my side and fell asleep, bruises and heartache notwithstanding.
* * * * * * * *
I floated some six feet above the floor, a pink flower petal occasionally swirling away from me to lodge in Malachite's hair. I took full advantage of the rare opportunity to look down on him and admire that gorgeous profile . . . not to mention the rest of him . . .
"And so Mars is gone," he murmured, "and, if Nephrite is successful, Mercury will follow within the hour. Venus is ours already, what's left of it . . . I wish that we could do something about the atmosphere, but there seems to be no way we can keep it from poisoning itself. Earth is in chaos and bereft of leadership. Which leaves only Earth's Moon."
I laughed, wincing inwardly. That facet of my new voice annoyed even me, but it seemed to annoy Nephrite more, so I kept on laughing in just the same way. I had noticed the way that green- blooded freak had been looking at my Malachite lately, even if Malachite himself hadn't. I wasn't sure if there had ever been anything between them--the time before the Negaverse was hazy in my mind--but Malachite was mine!
"The Lunarians are fools," I told him now. "They're acting like the Earth-creature known as an 'ostrich'."
Malachite's left eyebrow quirked upward. "Oh?"
"When danger approaches, the ostrich hides its head in the sand, or so it's said, believing that if it can't see what's coming, then whatever is coming can't see it either," I explained. "The Lunarians are continuing with their normal round of festivities, holding fancy dress balls while the rest of the solar system crumbles into ruin. They're hoping that we'll just go away if they ignore us."
"Under other circumstances, they might even be right," Malachite admitted. "The Moon Kingdom's magical resources are far greater than those of the other planets, and the Sailor Scouts are said to be formidable opponents. That's why we've been saving them for last. Have you found out . . . ?"
"The Scouts' powers come from magical artefacts," I said. I had, at Malachite's request, been doing a little spying on the side. No one expected a spy to disguise himself as a chambermaid . . . although I would have to find a better way to create a false bosom. One of the noblemen had tried to feel me up on my last visit, and I'd been afraid that he was going to find out that I'd stuffed my bodice with cloth. A slap across the face had convinced him that I really wasn't interested in him, but next time I might not react fast enough . . . "Each of them seems to have several transformation tools, of varying power levels. I may be able to steal some of them."
Malachite was beginning to smile. "Leave them the weakest artefacts. We wouldn't want the battle to be completely boring for our good Queen . . ."
I inclined my head. "As you wish." Did that mean he wanted Beryl's position? I hoped so, but Malachite kept some parts of his plans secret even from me. "I'm more worried about the Silver Crystal . . ."
"A legend designed to inspire fear in credulous fools," Malachite scoffed. "There is no such artefact." He grabbed my ankle and yanked, tumbling me down into his arms. <<And now, let's work on strategy, shall we?>> he joked as we kissed.
* * * * * * * *
I sat on a bench in the Moon-Queen's garden. Unable to bring myself to stay in the empty city where I had been born, I had come here, to the last outpost of Silver Millennium civilization. I wasn't sure how long I would be able to bring myself to stay. The feel of future danger hanging over this place was choking. Not that everywhere else wasn't equally bad.
"Endymion! Oh, finally, you are here!"
The sound of voices drew my attention over toward the palace wall. That's Serenity's daughter! And the boy must be the Earthan Prince . . . the one who left his people without a leader when they needed him the most . . .
"I have some bad news, Princess," the prince was saying.
"You cannot come to the ball?" Is that her worst worry? I know Serenity has been keeping her sheltered, but I never expected this . . .
"If it were only that, Serena. Terrible things are happening on Earth. An evil power is taking over there." Well, you're only about two months late realizing it. Didn't those refugees from your father's palace give you a clue?
"Then you must go," the Princess said. She sounded very sad at the prospect.
"Yes, but by the time I get back home, it may already be too late." It's been too late for weeks, you fool. "This Queen Beryl--she appeared out of nowhere, and her warriors are amazingly strong, maybe even unbeatable!"
Beryl . . . my poor, poor Beryl . . . Tears stung my eyes, an increasingly familiar sensation lately. I had been crying myself to sleep every night since I had left Mars.
"Stop him! He might be a spy!"
As the guard patrol went thundering past, I caught a glimpse, out of the corner of my eye, of a green too bright to be the color of a plant. I turned. A petite blonde woman wearing a green dress was striding rapidly along a path that ran parallel to the one on which my bench was located, separated from me by a thin hedge. She looked vaguely familiar, but I didn't realize why until I noticed that her bodice was skewed to one side in what had to be a most uncomfortable fashion. In fact, it's an anatomically impossible fashion if there's actually anything in here, which makes me wonder if she's a girl at all . . . Zoisite? Is that . . .? Great gods . . .
"She" vanished around a corner before I could get a good enough look to be certain, and when I teleported to intercept "her", "she" wasn't there. I decided not to mention this to anyone. After all, there was always the possibility that I might have been mistaken.
* * * * * * * *
<<Success, my lord,>> Zoisite informed me.
<<Excellent, Zoisite. Find some secure place to leave the Scouts' toys. I don't want you bringing them home, just in case Serenity has some way of tracking them.>> While I waited for him to get back, I sorted through the papers that were beginning to clutter the table in the main room of our small suite. With Jadeite more dead than alive, Nephrite spending most of his time hidden away as far from Beryl's court as he could manage, and Zoisite busy spying on the Moon Kingdom, I had been made responsible for most of the necessary administrivia involved in running the Negaverse. Beryl would never stoop to doing paperwork. Meanwhile, having to read all the trivial detail information that passed across my . . . table . . . was allowing me to build a picture of how this place worked, and how I could suborn Beryl's servants. One day, I would be able to do away with her altogether, and then . . .
I quashed the thought ruthlessly. The destruction of the Moon Kingdom was more important than the Negaverse's internal pecking order. I needed to take things one step at a time. Which meant tackling the mound of paper in front of me before I tried to do anything else.
I really do need a proper desk, I decided as a precarious stack toppled over into my lap. And I would prefer quarters further away from Beryl. I found the red-haired Queen disturbing, and I didn't like the way she had been looking at me lately. How like Zoisite to waste his jealousy on Nephrite, who, as far as I could tell, had no interest in me whatsoever, when he had a would-be rival closer to hand! But I had no wish to let anything come between us. Zoisite was the only person that I had ever . . . loved. I barely dared use the word anymore, even in the privacy of my own mind. Even though it was the truth.
What is this place doing to us?
But the soft, cold voice that lurked in the back of my mind told me not to worry. It was only that I saw more clearly now than in my old life. Love was for weaklings. Love left a hole in one's internal armor for the strong to exploit.
No. I took a deep breath. Love may be a weakness, but it is also a strength. It lets Zoisite and I work together, cooperatively, without either of us having to worry about being betrayed by the other.
The voice didn't respond. It never did anything when I argued with it. It just slid back down into the depths of my mind and hid, leaving me to wonder if it had ever really been there at all.
<<All done,>> Zoisite told me.
I smiled. <<Excellent. We'll attack tonight.>>
* * * * * * * *
I felt the warmth and vibration at my throat a moment before the cats came running through screaming, "We're under attack! Under attack!"
"Prepare yourselves!" the white one added. "We need everyone we can get to fight!"
The Lunarians populating the ballroom scattered, some of them running for the armory, others for the secure bunker under the palace. I couldn't move. It may end here, after all. I wasn't sad, exactly. Death would be a relief.
I ignored the rest of the formulae being spoken behind me as the Sailor Scouts invoked their powers. Their magical artefacts weren't strong enough to give them any chance of winning against four Crystal Weavers.
I looked down at my gloved hands. One blast. I would be capable of only one blast, after which I would need several minutes of recovery time. Or . . .
Belatedly, I ran for the armory. Even if I couldn't use my powers, I could still wield a weapon just as well as any human.
I never made it to my destination.
"Pathetic humans, I will vanquish you!"
I stopped in my tracks and stared at the black colossus that towered over the palace as it blasted four of the Sailor Scouts. What is that? Surely Malachite and the others can't have made . . . No, this is something else. Something alive.
Then, somewhere behind me, someone laughed evilly. I turned to face . . . Beryl? My poor child . . . She had changed. The most noticeable physical differences were the absence of the right wrist spike--surgically removed, I guessed, although I couldn't begin to fathom her reasons--and the fact that her body was so charged with power that her hair was standing up on end. Her expression distorted her face into a cruel mask.
"Very soon I'll have the entire universe under my control!" she shouted. "I'll have Queen Serenity begging for mercy! No one can defeat the power of the Negaforce! The universe is no longer! Only the Negaverse will prevail!"
It was all too much. I fell to my knees among the shards of rubble that littered the devastated palace. It's over. It's all over. Demantoid, whatever you meant to do, it didn't work. The human world is destroyed. Did you foresee this, brother? And if so, why didn't you warn me?
* * * * * * * *
I laughed evilly as the human core of our army, formed of the men we had captured on Earth and on Venus and brainwashed, streamed past us. I was drunk, in a way, on the sheer pleasure of destruction. Only minutes ago, Sailor Uranus had fallen under my sword. She had been a worthy opponent.
The Invincible Shadow hovered over our heads, occasionally blasting some unsuspecting defender. I hoped it was enjoying this as much as I was.
I scanned the battlefield. Beryl was hovering above a balcony far to my left. Curious as to what she was doing, I decided to exert a little of my power for eavesdropping purposes.
"Well, if it isn't little miss Moon Princess," Beryl was saying. Good. That means she's found the girl. With the Scouts already destroyed, all we have to worry about now is Serenity. "All dressed up and nowhere to go--except oblivion!"
I didn't see what happened next, but something made Beryl check her headlong plunge toward the balcony.
"What is it? Who are you?" she was asking some unseen person.
"I am Prince Endymion, sworn to defend the Moon Kingdom against evil like you!"
I groaned. "Who are you?" indeed. You've spent so much time watching him lately that I would have thought you could identify him from behind in the dark. Have you gone completely insane, Beryl? Not that that would take much. Serenity's still loose around here somewhere. Stop playing with your boy-toy and go find her! She had been an idiot to forbid us to look for the Moon Queen. I had never quite understood what she had against Serenity anyway.
"Prince Endymion? From Earth?" Beryl asked. "I've heard of you. You have great promise." You have something to learn about pickup lines, I thought. "Well, I can see why she'd hang on to you, but you're wasting your time with this twit. Why not taste the joy of winning, Endymion? Come join with me, and we will rule the Negaverse together!" If she tries that, I'll initiate the coup the next morning, I promised myself. Working for Beryl alone was bad enough.
"Thanks for the offer, by why would I want to join forces with a snake like you, all twisted and ugly and bitter?" the prince asked. Very bad move, boy.
"No one ever speaks to Queen Beryl like that!" Beryl snarled. And it's high time that someone did!
The Invincible Shadow blasted the balcony, and I could see a dark-clad form drifting upward, past Beryl, screaming.
"Endymion, what is happening?"
I don't believe it! And I thought that Beryl was stupid! From the sound of it, the Princeling and his Princess deserve each other!
"Run, Serena!" the prince shouted.
"No, I want to be with you!" A white-clad from drifted up into the sky, extending a hand toward the dark-clad one that had preceded it.
"Serena, don't! Serena!" But he reached toward her. For an instant, their hands touched . . . gripped . . . Then Beryl gestured, and the Invincible Shadow blasted them apart.
Beryl laughed. "Perfect! The pretty twit and her prince are gone, and the snake survives! They'll never mess with me again!"
Feeling vaguely sickened, I broke the spell that was channeling her words to me. Although I considered Prince Endymion and Princess Serena to be a pair of idiots, their deaths tore at some part of me that the Negaforce hadn't yet managed to encase in emotion-numbing ice.
Then a burning white light flooded the sky, blistering every exposed skin surface and doing its damndest to tear the flesh from my bones. I screamed.
* * * * * * * *
A heavy block of stone tumbled from the palace's upper stories and struck me a glancing blow across the shoulders. I landed face down on the pavement, and, semi-conscious, allowed myself to be buried by a pile of rubble and debris.
It wasn't until several minutes later that I managed to pull myself out from under, and by that time, the scene around me had been drastically changed. The palace was in ruins, shadowed by the immense dark form that loomed over it, and somewhere nearby, Beryl was laughing. Being long past the point of caring whether I lived or died, I found a more or less comfortable position on the rubble-strewn ground and settled there to wait for the end.
"Serena!" The voice was quite nearby, just beyond a tumble of stone blocks. Becoming the least bit curious, I dragged my bruised body forward until I could see. Queen Serenity stood in one of the few spaces still clear of debris, flanked by two cats. "No, it can't be! I won't let it end this way." She held something in her hands, and I felt a familiar presence.
It was only wishful thinking, of course. What I had sensed was my brother's power and spirit, locked inside the Silver Crystal. Of the mind that had been the man, nothing remained.
"I won't let them take away your future," Serenity stated firmly.
"Queen Serenity," the black cat protested tearfully, "if you use the Imperium Silver Crystal, you won't have any strength left!"
Serenity bowed her head. "It's the only way, Luna. I must sacrifice my kingdom if we're to regain our peace. Cosmic Moon Power!"
I had given her great-grandmother that formula myself, when I had brought the Crystal to the Moon Kingdom. Demantoid had written both activation formulae down on a slip of paper and left it in my pocket while I slept, on the night when he and the others had given their lives to create the accursed artefact.
I closed my eyes as the Crystal began to glow, wiping away the shadows that now infested this place. Malachite and the others were screaming.
"What is this?" Beryl shouted. "You can't do this to me! You haven't seen the last of me!" And then I could no longer sense her presence. Dead, or just teleported? I examined the crystals that I wore, but took only a few moments to confirm that none of them contained a spirit. Teleported, then, most likely, back to where she and the others had been hiding.
Serenity had fallen to the ground, her entire body lax. I recognized the condition as being caused by severe magical energy exhaustion. If she rested for a few days, she would be all right. Time was the only cure.
"Majesty, you beat them!" said Luna, the black cat.
"I trapped them all, yes." Serenity's voice was so weak that I could barely hear her. "If I had destroyed them, I would have destroyed Serena and the others too. They're all trapped inside the power of the Crystal. And now, I must send them to a new future on Earth." She sobbed.
"You saved them," the cat stated. "Why are you so sad?"
"Because none of them will remember this time and this place, and I will never see my sweet daughter again, or you two either, but this is the only way for any of you to live on."
At least your daughter will have another chance at happiness, I thought bitterly. And meanwhile, my Beryl is lost in some strange darkness, trapped there for all time. Everything I have worked for, everything I tried to build or nurture . . . all for nothing. It would have been better if I had died during the Empyrean War! This is all my fault!
I lifted my head. <<Demantoid?>>
<<Onyx. There will be second chances, at least for some. I promise you.>>
<<Don't leave me!>>
There was no response.
"I have enough power to send everything you'll need in the future to Earth," Serenity was saying. "Serena and her court will need your assistance if the Negaverse ever breaks free."
"Yes," the cats responded.
The Negaverse. If I knew what it was . . . where it came from . . . then perhaps . . .
"All of you will be reborn on Earth," Serenity said, "with no memory of the Moon Kingdom whatsoever, but if evil forces should try to repeat what happened here, you two will know what to do. Now, good-bye all of you, and good luck. Good-bye, Serena. You are in my heart, always."
I felt the surge of a familiar power, Rutile's and Demantoid's and Vermarine's all mingled together, before the Crystal floated up and away from her hand, and . . . split? Seven variously colored shards sped off rapidly toward the Earth, but the majority of the Crystal became a series of glowing globes, each holding a sleeping person. I looked frantically from one to the next, but I didn't see Beryl or any of my four ex-proteges. The globes trailed off like a river of stardust in the direction of the Earth, following the same path as the seven shards that had preceded them.
"Be happy," Serenity murmured. "On behalf of the Moon, you will be free again. Perhaps we'll meet again." Then her body slumped, and her head lolled against the stone block on which she lay, and if she wasn't dead, she was as good as.
The cats only had time to shout, "Queen Serenity!" before they became encased in traveling capsules of their own, leaving me the only wakeful, living thing on the surface of the Moon.
I pulled myself to my feet and walked over to Serenity's body. There was still a service that I could perform for her.
Ignited by my powers, the corpse burned with a blue flame until it was completely consumed. Staring into the fire, I made a vow of my own.
Somehow, somewhere, somewhen, I will find them. On behalf of the gods of my forefathers, I swear that they will be freed. I will devote my life to making it so.
Curiously, once it was done, I felt free of the bitterness that had been weighing me down. I stayed by the impromptu pyre until it burned down, and watched the stardust trail across the sky as it meandered slowly towards Earth.
Demantoid, if he had really been there, had promised me second chances. I could only hope that one of those chances belonged to a man named Onyx. I'd made a terrible hash of things, with my bitterness and arrogance and self-pity. Now I needed to set things right.
* * * * * * * *
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