* * * * * * * *
I leaned out a window to watch the blinking lights of an airplane as it flew over our house to land ten miles away, at the municipal airport. The ingenuity of modern humanity never ceased to amaze me. It might have taken them nearly ten centuries to reach this point, but they were well on their way to regaining the sort of technology that they had lost at the end of the Silver Millennium. And this time, they had done it without any magic whatsoever. It was incredible.
Warm hands wrapped a blanket around my bare shoulders.
"Hey, there, dreamer, you're going to freeze if you stay there all night."
I smiled and shook my head, but reached up with my good hand to hold the blanket in place. It would have been easier to use just the tiniest bit of magic to adjust my body temperature, but it would have been very difficult to explain that to Susan. She knew that I was different, but I didn't want to let her know just how different. Even after ten years of marriage, she didn't know that I was anything other than an eccentric man with a few peculiar physical features and enough investments to allow me to live reasonably well off the compound interest. We had a comfortable friendship. It was nothing like what I had felt for Talina, but then, I wasn't the same man as when I had known her.
For a thousand years, I had been living almost like a human. I couldn't remember the last time I had directly employed my powers--probably twelve years ago, when those two thugs had jumped me in an alleyway. The care I had taken had prevented the systemic poisoning which Alexandrite had long ago diagnosed from getting much worse. I was aging, infinitesimally slowly, but I hadn't had an acute attack in more than a hundred years. Although my hair was almost white at the temples, I still looked no older than perhaps forty. With care, I might survive another five or six centuries. Eighteen hundred years is more than respectable in terms of Crystal Weaver lifespans.
I had spent the first century or so after Serenity's death and the fall of the Moon Kingdom searching frantically for any sign of the Negaverse, Beryl, or Malachite and his Weave. Although some human survivors from Beryl's army had been able to tell me enough that I'd developed a sort of mental image of what the Negaverse was, none of them had been able to tell me how to get there. Gradually, as the years had spun past and I'd still found nothing, the search became less frantic, until I'd almost given up, content to wait until some tidbit of information fell into my hands. I remained, perforce, a wanderer. If I stayed in one place for too long, the local human population started to wonder why I didn't seem to age. Even though I'd been forced to virtually renounce them, my powers still exacted a price from me. In the modern world, that meant a new identity every twenty years or so, and they were getting more and more difficult to fabricate.
In any case, in all this time, I'd found no sign of the Negaverse or the people it had swallowed up, and if it hadn't been for the four spirit crystals that I still carried with me, I might have wondered whether the events that I remembered had ever taken place at all. After a thousand years of fruitless searching, I had more or less decided that whatever had happened to them at the end of the Silver Millennium had isolated them from this dimension for good. And so I had dared to try to settle down again. I had taken another wife. And I had sired another daughter.
I hoped that Amber would finally be my one lasting contribution to posterity. I had refused to make with her the same mistake that I had made with Beryl. I had given her none of my power. But, at the same time, I had given her all of my love. The result to date was a bright, spunky six-year-old.
I turned away from the window to discover Susan sprawled across our bed, her nakedness hidden only by her long, blonde hair. It was a pretty sight. But, as I reached out to touch her, pain stabbed up my arm, escalating quickly into a burning sensation that affected every nerve ending in my body. And then I sensed the touch of an unwelcome, familiar power.
It had been over eleven hundred years since I had last sensed those accursed creatures, and I had hoped that I would never sense them again. I felt my face set itself into familiar, grim lines as I backed away from Susan.
They do have the most damnable timing. If there were more than a few, and after eleven centuries there would have to be, I wouldn't be able to fight them, not alone, and there were no other Crystal Weavers left that I could ask for help. I didn't dare try to make any more, either. Not only had I failed on two previous occasions, but even the stupidest Empyrean wouldn't be able to miss the sort of energy surge that a neophyte Crystal Weaver would create on his first attempt to use his power. If I'd been able to protect someone else, I might have done things a bit differently, but although I was no longer too terribly bitter about the loss of my hand, it still crippled me.
Susan was staring at me with concern. I would have to leave her, of course. I couldn't expose her and Amber to what was coming. But it tore at my heart. I'd been human for a very long time. I didn't want to have to become a Crystal Weaver again.
* * * * * * * *
I paced restlessly, occasionally stopping to test the barrier that the Silver Crystal had long ago erected between the Negaverse and the Earth Realm. It was gradually wearing thinner. Perhaps, one day soon, I would have my full powers back.
Being without any access to the stars disturbed me in a way I cannot describe. I was trapped here, and I loathed the Negaverse with the same passion with which I feared the Earth Realm. And so, instead of joining the others in their petty politicking and constant adjustments of internal pecking order, I isolated myself here, in the grim grey building I had constructed for my own use, and paced, and called to stars that never answered. And waited.
I left my workroom at last, in favor of the balcony which overhung the sole mundane entrance to my home. An open bottle of liquor waited for me on the table there. I had long since chosen to dispense with the formality of glasses. It was terrible stuff, mushroom moonshine brewed up by some youma, but it was strong, and if I drank enough of it fast enough, I could achieve a state of slightly euphoric detachment that was as close as I ever got to getting truly drunk. I might have conjured up something better, but remembering Earth's wines just took too much effort, after living here for so long.
I took a long pull from the bottle, and shuddered. I'd hoped that letting it stand open here for a few hours would improve it, but all it had done was intensify the liquor's acid tang.
"Nephrite, you're turning into a wino." The voice that spoke up from behind me was even more acidic than the liquid in the bottle that I held.
"Buzz off, Zoisite," I said. It had become ritual, almost. She--no, he! I had to remember that, keep a grasp on that fact, no matter what Zoisite chose to look like or act like!--would show up on my doorstep and make a snide remark, and I would warn him off. Sometimes that would make him leave, but not often. "I don't want to play word games with you today."
Zoisite played with a curl of his blonde hair as he floated above me. "I'm here with a message, not on a social call."
"Then tell me what it is and get out of here," I ordered, and called up just enough of my power to make my eyes flash blue- white. Zoisite sometimes needed to be reminded of our relative positions in the local pecking order. Unfortunately, I'd never dare to actually attack him. If I damaged him, Malachite would come hunting me, and Zoisite's white-haired lover was one of only two people in the Negaverse who were more powerful than I.
"The Queen is concerned that you've been neglecting your duties."
"Is she, now." Just to annoy him, I took another long drink from my bottle. "Then I'm surprised she hasn't bothered to tell me so herself."
Zoisite's eyes narrowed. I was right, I congratulated myself. He's just trying to pull my chain.
"If that's all you have to tell me, then go." Deliberately, I looked down, away from him. He said something extremely rude, but then a scrap of pink drifted down onto the table in front of me, and I knew he was gone.
I leaned back in my chair, and stared up at the tops of the pine trees that surrounded my home. It had taken dozens of tries to develop a strain of magically augmented evergreen that would grow here, under the sunless, foggy grey sky of the Negaverse.
I tested the barrier between the universes again, and decided that it was infinitesimally more frayed than it had been the last time.
Soon, I promised myself. Soon.
* * * * * * * *
"Something's been on your mind lately."
I shrugged in a way that might have passed for an affirmative.
"Onyx, please. Tell me what's wrong."
I had to look away from her. Susan's concerned frown was more than I could take just then. "I can't talk about it."
"Can't?" she asked softly. "Or won't?"
"Shouldn't." It came out sounding very flat.
"I'm worried about you." She reached across the kitchen table to wrap her hand around my good one. "I don't want to pry, but . . ."
"I really can't tell you." I gripped her hand fiercely, and wished I would never have to let go. "But there are some things that you probably should know." I'd put some money aside, for her and for Amber. Not too much. But enough to live comfortably, as we had been, for the rest of their lives. It wasn't until years later that I found out what a mistake I'd made by not setting up a separate trust fund for my daughter. Susan lost most of it to . . . Well, it doesn't matter. In any case, I described the financial arrangements to her, and told her where to find the papers.
"You're making this sound . . . so final."
I bowed my head. "It is. It has to be. I'm sorry. If I stay I'll put you and Amber both in terrible danger. If I'm not here . . . they'll ignore you. I can't fight this. I wish I could. All I can do is run for my life, and hope that someone else comes along and puts a stop to it." Dancing around the things I couldn't tell her and hoping that it would be enough. "If . . . if it ends, somehow, and I'm still alive, I'll try to come back."
She sighed. "If I were the suspicious type, I'd think it was another woman, but I don't think you'd abandon Amber over that, or leave without starting the divorce proceedings. No. I trust you. I don't think you've ever lied to me."
"Three times," I said.
"I've lied to you three times." When you asked my last name, how old I was, and where my money came from. And probably dozens of additional times, by omission. "It's all part of the same convoluted mess." I'd hoped to get away with staying long enough to see my daughter grow up. By then, you would have guessed at least some of the answers. "I--"
A bright blue flash illuminated the kitchen, blinding both of us for several seconds, and I felt a sharp pain across my chest.
"My God, your shirt's on fire!" Susan shrieked.
I beat it out with my impervious prosthetic hand. Even with its limited sense of touch, I could feel the heat radiating from Nephrite's spirit crystal, which I wore under my shirt. There was a patch of blistered skin where it had rested. I lifted the chain over my head, careful not to touch the stone, and cupped it in the palm of my artificial hand.
Even with that tremendous flood of power, I sensed that Nephrite had not quite broken through into our universe. Whatever barrier had prevented him and the others from returning was still trapping him in the Negaverse. But it might not last much longer. Eventually, he would break through, or one of the others would.
I stared down at the blue crystal, completely forgetting that Susan was still there. My four students were alive, and they would be back. An additional danger--or my salvation? I just didn't know.
I was about to say something to Susan--an explanation, perhaps, or an excuse--but at that point Amber came running into the room, and I lost my chance.
I left that night. The last thing I did was slip into Amber's room and just stand, looking down at her and trying to impress the shape of her face in my memory for all time. I might have stayed there all night, but another of the featherlight Empyrean probes that had been brushing against my consciousness all week chose that moment to arrive, and I forced myself to move on, picking up my suitcase and walking out the door, never to return.
* * * * * * * *
<<It's too dangerous,>> Zoisite protested.
<<Nephrite almost managed it,>> I argued, <<and he was working alone. The two of us together may be sufficient to pierce the barrier. And if we do, it will be permanently weakened. Zoisite, we have to try!>>
<<You just want to curry favor with Beryl,>> he sulked.
I stroked his hair. <<A little,>> I admitted, rare honesty that I would never have offered anyone else. <<The happier she is, the less trouble she gives us, and the more time we have for . . . other pursuits.>> My love, I nearly added, but didn't. We'd always thought that no one could listen in on this form of quasitelepathic communication, but we had no absolute proof of that, and if there was even a chance that we might be overheard, a confession of affection would have been foolish (not to mention dangerous). The youma assumed we were just using each other. Hopefully Beryl, Nephrite, and Jadeite all thought the same. <<Will you help me?>>
Zoisite smiled and slid his arms around me. <<Of course I will, Malachite. I just wanted to make absolutely sure that you realized the risks.>>
I chuckled. <<Caution? From you? That must be a first!>> I untied the ribbon that held his pony tail in place, letting his hair fall loose about his shoulders. Now I could really bury my hands in it.
"Hey! If I have to go find a hairbrush, you're going to have to postpone your little experiment," he said. I winced a little. That damnable high-pitched voice . . . I bent down to kiss the faint white line of scarring that cut across his throat. Odd that that still remained, when the other wounds that Serenity had inflicted on us were almost a thousand years healed.
"Let's get back to business," I said after a moment. "We'd probably better sit down. I don't think either of us is going to have much strength left when we're done."
"Why not lie down?" Zoisite purred.
"Because if we do, neither of us is going to be able to concentrate on what we're supposed to be doing," I admitted, guiding him gently toward the only two padded chairs in the room--quite possibly, the only two in the Negaverse. We sat down opposite each other and linked hands, the better to transfer power between us. In this matter, Zoisite was going to be the primary worker. I would just be acting as a sort of magical storage battery.
I closed my eyes, leaned back in the chair, and went passive, prepared to supply him with anything he needed. The loss of strength was almost immediate. It seemed to drain the very marrow out of my bones. And it went on, and on, and on.
I was teetering on the edge of unconsciousness when Zoisite's, <<I've got it!>> came roaring back at me. I could feel it too--the pinpoint hole we had created in the ward. Not even a mote of dust would be able to pass through it. But it was a breach, and every breach weakened the barrier. We'd been worried that centuries more might pass before the Negaverse returned to Earth. Now we were looking at less than two decades, and the powerful individuals like myself and Zoisite would be able to pass through much sooner. Queen Beryl would be pleased. For all that that bitch's opinion matters. But I was too tired to stay awake any longer.
* * * * * * * *
I was in Europe, some ten days after the first incident, when my shirt burst into flame again. Unfortunately it happened, not in the privacy of my hotel room, but in a crowded restaurant. I doused the conflagration with a glass of water, ripped my shirt open, pulled at all four of the spirit crystals that I wore there until the chains snapped (smelling smoldering leather as I did so, since I didn't dare remove my glove), and fled the room, knocking at least one waiter flying.
I stopped in an alleyway some two blocks from the restaurant to take stock. Which one?
Two of the crystals were glowing--Zoisite's and Malachite's. They flared more brightly even as I watched, and I was glad that I wasn't wearing the damn things around my neck at that moment. The burn that I already had was more than sufficient.
I felt a feather-light brush of power. Their efforts had breached the dimensional barrier, however briefly, and the presence of their spirit crystals had drawn to me the tiny fraction of their energies that had actually crossed over. But the crystals were cooling, now. They'd barely had the power to pierce the wall.
As that energy dissipated, I sensed another familiar power at work. <<Demantoid?>>
As usual, there was no answer. It took me a moment to realize what had to be going on.
--I won't let them take away your future!--
--Serena and her court will need your help if the Negaverse ever breaks free.--
--All of you will be reborn on Earth--
-- if evil forces should try to repeat what happened here, you two will know what to do.--
It could only be Serenity's final spell. In retrospect, it made sense. Those young folk from the Moon Kingdom wouldn't be much good against the Negaverse if they were reborn at the wrong time. But they would be of no help to me, not with the Silver Crystal gone . . .
Behind me, a stray cat yowled and ran away, making a surprising amount of noise. That cat saved my life, since I'd been assuming that the burning sensation in my wrist came from the heat thrown off by the spirit crystals and absorbed by my metal hand.
I barely turned in time to see and dodge the glowing white form that launched itself at me. I reacted instinctively to the attack, lashing out against the Empyrean with tendrils of black energy. Fortunately, I hit it on the first strike. I wouldn't have been able to make another.
When the pain had finally ebbed enough to let me straighten, I used the tiniest bit of power to repair the ripped front of my shirt, pocketed the spirit crystals, and left the alley. The Empyrean, like all of its kind, had fortunately left no evidence of its passing.
I returned to the hotel and checked out, pausing only to perform first-aid on my burn. I needed to move faster, staying in any one location for no more than a day or two. Or . . . perhaps there was one place I could go where they wouldn't be able to detect me. But it wouldn't be easy to get there.
Heart heavy, I went to the airport and bought a ticket for the first flight to any semi-appropriate region of Asia. I found a quiet corner of the departure lounge and slid a small photograph out of my pocket, stared at the smiling faces of the two people in the world who meant the most to me. Susan. And Amber.
What about Beryl? my conscience nagged. I had no photograph of her, or of Talina, either. I had left our Martian home too precipitately, and never been able to return.
Over the years, I had forced myself to believe that Beryl was dead. And perhaps she was. I had seen nothing of the shy woman who had been my daughter in the creature who had attacked the Moon Kingdom. All that was left was a shell, which the Negaverse had filled with a bitter semblance of a personality and used for its own purposes. She was as lost to me as Demantoid, or as my parents, who had died more than a millennium ago during the Empyrean War.
Tears stung at my eyes. I put the photograph of my family back in my pocket. I didn't want to damage it.
I had nothing else left.
* * * * * * * *
I prodded the interdimensional barrier again, an action that had become almost ritual. Since Malachite and Zoisite had breached it some ten years earlier, it had been crumbling quickly. Now it was weak enough. Maybe.
"I ask for power from the stars," I whispered. The response was faint, as though from somewhere very far away, but it was there. For the first time in centuries, it was there! I laughed. The sound echoed back, distorted, from the high ceiling of my workroom.
The space above me darkened slowly, and the starscape formed, faint and wavering.
"Show me the Earth Realm as it is today," I ordered.
The images that replaced the starscape wavered and flickered so much that it was almost impossible to tell what they were showing. I cursed softly and banished the vision. There was only one possible alternative.
I would have to go to Earth and see the changes that time had wrought for myself.
The thought excited me. Even Malachite hadn't stepped through to the other side yet, but then, everything he wanted-- Zoisite, that is--was here in the Negaverse. As for me . . . what did I have? A large, bizarre-looking building and a few bottles of mushroom moonshine. And a title that I didn't really want, since all it seemed to do was give Queen Beryl the right to interrupt me at inopportune times, and . . . no, I didn't want to think about that.
All in all, it's high time for me to get out of here.
I closed my eyes to improve my concentration. This is it. Red mist swirled around me.
I was in no-time, no-place. The cold was bone-numbing, and I knew that, outside of my vaporous red shield, there was nothing, only an emptiness that stretched to infinity. Except that it couldn't be entirely empty, or I wouldn't be stuck here. Normally the transition lasts barely long enough for the person in transit to notice what's going on.
I stretched out my arms. Just beyond my sight, there was a . . . something. It felt like a membrane, thin, tough, and elastic, springing back when I pushed against it. For a barrier that I knew to be in the last stages of disintegration, it was very strong. And there was something about the magic that formed it that was oddly familiar. It was not anything like the Negaforce's power. But it was a little like my own. Could I use that to my advantage?
I touched the barrier with the tip of one finger. One finger on my left hand. If this didn't work, I might do myself some damage, and I didn't want to lose any vital body parts. I used my power to form a sort of bubble around it. See? I coaxed the ward. This is like you. It is very like you. In fact, it is a part of you.
My finger slid through the membrane without encountering any resistance, although it did sting a little. I pulled it back out again. No damage. All right. Here goes nothing.
I generated a much larger bubble and merged it with the barrier. Passing through it still stung, but I had experienced far worse things on the occasions when I had displeased Beryl. On the other side, I barely had time to dissolve the bubble again before my teleport spontaneously completed itself.
I landed in the middle of a street in downtown Tokyo. In retrospect, I'm surprised that I survived. Piercing Serenity's ward had taken a lot of my energy, even though I had cheated, and the sunlight was dazzling eyes that had been unaccustomed to it for far too long, and for a few seconds, all I could think was, Some sort of motorized transport . . . ? as a car came racing right at me. Then my mind caught up with my body and I jumped out of the way.
People stared at me as I landed on the sidewalk. That's hardly surprising, I suppose, when you considered that I had just appeared out of nowhere and then broken the world record for the standing broad jump. And I wasn't exactly dressed like a local, either. I just ignored the stares, marched past the watchers, and turned left into the first alleyway I saw. I wasn't followed.
I leaned against a dirty wall and considered my next course of action. It would be a day or two before I had regained enough energy to return to the Negaverse. I only hoped that Beryl wouldn't notice that I was missing. With any luck, this would be one of the months where she forgot that I existed. In any case, my first task was to learn whatever language was spoken here. I hadn't understood anything said by the people who had watched my spectacular arrival, and wouldn't have expected human speech to have remained unchanged since the Silver Millennium anyway. Then I would need to find or create less noticeable clothing, and acquire a store of whatever passed for money here. Did they still value diamonds? And then . . .
* * * * * * * *
It happened for the third time while I was out hunting. In fact, the sharp pain of the burns from the overheated spirit crystal made me miss my shot. I shrugged philosophically as my arrow splintered itself against stone and my quarry fled. So much for dinner.
It had been Nephrite's spirit crystal again. Had he broken through? I wasn't sure. I would need to check.
I trotted back toward the ruined Crystal Weaver city as quickly as I could. If I wanted to perform a divination without alerting the Empyrean, I would have to do it from a shielded area.
I had taken up residence in the southeast corner of the city, which was as far as possible from the old citadel, the swathe of destruction cut by the Empyrean, and the northwest quarter, where I had lived as a child. I had rarely been here in the days when the city had been inhabited, and the absence of familiar landmarks made the absence of the people who should have been here hurt less. If I'd had a choice, I would never have come within a thousand miles of here again, but this valley was the only place in the world where enough residual crystal power still lingered to obscure my own signature from the Empyrean. There had been hundreds of thousands of spells involved in the day-to-day running of the city, and many of the stronger ones still survived.
I had considered going back for Susan and Amber, and bringing them here, but I didn't feel that it would have been fair. They deserved a normal life. Friends. Family. News from the outside world. They couldn't have had any of that here. The only easy way in or out of the valley was by magic, in the form of teleportation or a gate spell, since there was an old ward that prevented the valley from being spotted from the air. Admittedly, I had walked to get here, but it had taken me nine months, and I had passed through some of the most rugged country on the planet along the way. The Himalayas are not exactly hospitable.
I slathered burn ointment on the blistered area of my chest, reflecting that I was an idiot for wearing someone else's spirit crystal, anyway. My own couldn't have burned me no matter how much power I exerted. Once the damage had been tended to, I lifted a shallow bowl carved from crystal down from the shelf where it had been languishing, ignored, for the past eight years, and carried it downstairs.
The globes which illuminated the cellar still flared to life when I passed them, even after a thousand years. Whoever had last owned this house had been an able spellcaster, and pretty well everything here still worked, which was why I had chosen it as my . . . headquarters. Not home, not really. Home was nearly half a world away, with the people that I loved.
I set the bowl down on a bench and filled it with water, then knelt down in front of it on the floor. I hadn't performed any type of divination in a very long time, and it took me a moment to remember the words. Then I had them. The water stilled, and an image formed on its surface. Nephrite. Dressed in ordinary clothing, walking down a street somewhere. Entering a store. Judging from the glimpse I got of the sign in the window, he was somewhere in the Orient. He's back. That means that the others will return. Perhaps I do have a chance.
Then I felt a shiver run up my spine. But that assumes that the Empyrean don't get to them first. Usually, Empyrean attacks only killed the body. The affected person could be revived afterwards, assuming that his spirit crystal survived intact. But sometimes the spirit would be damaged, and the mind along with it, leaving the revived Crystal Weaver a drooling idiot, or, worse, a vegetable. No individual so damaged had ever recovered.
I could warn him, but would he listen to me? I doubt it. When we last parted, he hated me. And if I don't warn him, or the others, they'll have no way to protect themselves, if they even remember how. That means . . . That means that I will be the one who has to protect them.
I banished the image that still flickered on the surface of the water in the bowl. I promised that you would be free again. I don't know how I'm going to accomplish that. But if I am to do it, I need you alive, or at least resurrectable.
There was an old gate spell under the citadel which I should be able to redirect. I would have to pinpoint Nephrite's location more clearly, however, before I began that painstaking and exhausting task.
I turned back to the bowl, spoke the words again, and waited.
* * * * * * * *
"Mmmm?" He barely looked up from his desk, but I had no right to complain about his inattention, since he was doing my share of the paperwork as well as his own.
"Where do you think Nephrite has been disappearing to, lately?"
Now he did look up. "I wasn't aware that he had been."
I smiled and played with the tip of my ponytail. Malachite might be the most powerful of the Negaverse Generals, but I still had the better spy network. And I had more watchers and more spells following Nephrite around than I had attached to anyone else, even Queen Beryl.
"He's been vanishing for days at a time. Even Beryl doesn't know where he's been going. She's quite furious about it."
"I'm sure that you'll get to the bottom of it. I have every confidence in your abilities, Zoisite."
"Thank you, my lord." His obvious regard for me made me feel all strange inside. Was there a word for what we shared? I was almost certain that there was, but in the eight hundred or so years that I could remember, I didn't think that I had ever heard it. I suppose that wasn't really surprising. I had never seen any other creature demonstrate the kind of affection that we felt for each other. Even we never spoke of it, or displayed it in front of others.
My first memories were of Malachite caring for me. He had told me, once, that there had been a time before my earliest memories, but I had been so badly hurt that I had blocked it all out. I wasn't certain whether I believed him or not. We were all facile liars, here. But I knew that, if he was lying, he did it only to keep from hurting me.
I glanced over at his desk. The stacks of papers there would be good for at least another two or three hours. I floated down beside him.
"I'll be back," I murmured in his ear, and kissed him on the cheek. He didn't reply, but I saw him smile.
Nephrite had warded his home very thoroughly, but I had long ago found a weak spot in his defenses where I could slip through. I couldn't remember learning these skills of magical analysis, any more than I remembered how I acquired my skills with things mechanical. The abilities were just there, even in my earliest memories.
I materialized on the balcony where Nephrite often sat to drink and gaze out over his domain. The trees here were like nothing else in the Negaverse. Malachite had once told me that they had been imported from the Earth realm, long ago, before Queen Serenity had created the barrier between the two worlds.
Although I came here often, since I disliked Nephrite and he was so much fun to tease, I had never actually been inside his house. I had felt that that would be overstepping the bounds of the pseudotruce we maintained--I wouldn't do anything worse than tease him, and he wouldn't use his much greater power to blast me out of existence. But . . . I probed the building. No, he wasn't here now. And there was a concentration of strange magic inside which I very much wanted to analyze.
To my surprise, the door wasn't locked. Evidently he relied too much on his wards. I entered the hallway slowly, scanning the area for traps. None became immediately apparent, and my respect for Nephrite's abilities dropped another notch.
None of the inside doors were locked, either. Most of them opened on empty rooms. I let the tantalizing thread of alien magic that I had sensed earlier draw me onward into the building. It led me to a massive double door, one side of which stood ajar. I slipped sideways through the opening, which was barely wide enough to accommodate me. I wasn't sure if I could have shifted the door, had it been shut. There were times when I envied Nephrite and Malachite their impressive physiques.
Inside, the room was lit only by the light from the murky grey sky outside, tinted by the colored glass of the windows. It wasn't really enough to see by. I invoked my powers, creating a ball of greenish light, and the room snapped into sudden existence around me. It was huge, and mostly empty. A symbol that I didn't recognize was engraved at the center of the floor. It looked vaguely like a stylized "ne" kana. Above it floated . . . Well, well, well. He's diverted a warp hole and locked it open. I wonder where it leads?
Finally, the explanation for Nephrite's disappearances was in front of me. I floated through the warp.
Bright light stabbed at my eyes, and I threw up my arm to shield them. I was in an empty, dilapidated building. It was open to the sky--a brilliantly lit blue sky, completely unlike the familiar misty grey sky of the Negaverse.
This must be the Earth Realm! I scuttled into the shadow that lined one of the walls. It helped enough that I was able to drop my arm. I bit my lip. I should go back. I'd like to go back. But Malachite's going to be curious. I'd better have a look around.
* * * * * * * *
I had been watching Nephrite for some weeks now. He had sold some diamonds for cash and was using the money to play the stock market, for reasons that I couldn't fathom. His ability with divinations gave him a slight edge over the humans who did the same. He had also rented himself an apartment, bought some expensive suits, and was taking driving lessons. Surprisingly, no Empyrean were pursuing him yet. But then, Nephrite's power signature had always been just a little bit odd. It was possible that, between his normal peculiarities and the distortions that the Negaforce had imposed on his powers, the Empyrean were unable to recognize him as a Crystal Weaver.
I saw a grey blur out of the corner of my eye, and magnified it into a slim figure dressed in grey, which had jumped from street level to the roof of a building, a feat possible only with magical assistance. His back was turned to me, but the long, darkish blonde hair was familiar. Zoisite?
And then, on another roof, one that was lower than my vantage point but higher than the one on which my ex-protege stood, three glowing figures appeared. Empyrean. Damn. What are the odds that they're just out here for a holiday?
I jumped from the roof I was on, using progressively shorter buildings as giant stairsteps. Just a few seconds! Just stay where you are for a few seconds!
My wish--prayer? Curse?--was granted. They stayed where they were for a few seconds, most likely assessing their quarry, trying to be certain that the dark-tainted signature they had found really belonged to a Crystal Weaver. And that gave me enough time to reach them.
I had to attack them all at once, even knowing how I would pay for it afterwards. My infirmity didn't allow me second chances. Better to take a risk, and maybe get them all, than kill one or two, and then be slaughtered by the survivors while I was unable to fight back.
I was lucky. That time.
I spent the ten minutes or so after they died lying on my side, curled up in a little ball, and praying that the agony would end sometime soon. The pain seemed to go on and on and on, stretching out to infinity. It was my universe.
Then it began to ebb. A little later, I was able to sit up. I looked down at the lower rooftop where Zoisite had been standing.
He was gone. Probably he had never even looked up, or seen the life-and-death struggle in which I had engaged on his behalf, except perhaps as a vague blur of light and darkness. But I had saved him. This time.
Although I didn't know it, that afternoon was destined to set the pattern for the better part of a decade.
* * * * * * * *
How could everything have gone so completely wrong? A few minutes ago, I had been, as the humans say, on top of the world. I had wrestled that fool Tuxedo Mask down under the water, and held him there, unable to breathe, until he had gone limp and floated away on the current. Then I had risen up out of the water to savor my moment of triumph, and enjoy the looks of shock and terror on the faces of the Sailor Scouts.
"Jadeite, what have you done to him?" Sailor Moon had breathed.
I had laughed, enjoying the sensation of finally being rid of the most annoying of my enemies. If it hadn't been for him, Sailor Moon would have been destroyed on her first appearance.
Glancing down and seeing a scrap of redness float to the surface, I had said, "That's all that's left of him--that stupid rose! Tuxedo Mask didn't have a chance against me. And now, it's your turn. Do you really think you can defeat me?" And I had laughed again while they gave one of their usual little speeches on teamwork and how they would vanquish my evil. With her strongest protector gone, how could Sailor Moon hope to save herself?
But I had reckoned without Sailor Mercury and her damned bubble fog. How could I attack what I couldn't see? I had just missed a shot at Mercury herself. If only I had hit her! Perhaps that would have dissipated this wretched mist.
Then something landed on my back, and suddenly my body was on fire, and the aircraft that I had animated to herd the Sailor Scouts were tracking me instead. "What is it?" I asked, not expecting an answer. "What's happening? Why are they coming after me?" I couldn't think. The pain was almost as severe as that from one of those torture sessions that were Beryl's idea of punishment, and I hadn't quite recovered from my last one of those, either. Beryl had been very annoyed with me for losing Titus. I still didn't understand why. She had only been a youma, albeit a very old and powerful one.
I staggered forward. One step. Two. Then the fog cleared a bit.
"Huh?" How could I have missed seeing them until now? I wondered how long they had spent posing for this little tableau.
"You underestimated us, Jadeite!" Sailor Moon said. "Together, the three of us are stronger than all of your evil!"
I still couldn't concentrate, couldn't focus my powers well enough to teleport . . . couldn't reach around to get the whatever-it-was off my back without increasing the pain to the point where I almost passed out.
"Tell me! Tell me how you did this to me!" I said it to buy a little time. I had to concentrate, to reach through the pain, to focus well enough to do something, preferably something along the lines of blasting them. What Beryl had done to me after the recent loss of Titus on board the ocean liner would be nothing compared to what she would do to me if I went back without defeating the Sailor Scouts. I didn't really believe that she would put me in Eternal Sleep, as she had suggested in front of the court. I was too powerful and too valuable to her. But she had made, more privately, some mention of possibly flaying me alive . . .
"Because all your thoughts are wicked," Sailor Mars, or, rather, Raye, was saying. That was the one bargaining point I would have with Beryl. I knew who they really were. Hopefully, the information would have enough value that she wouldn't injure me permanently.
"That's right, Jadeite!" Mercury added. "You're caught in your own trap."
I ignored their lecturing and posturing and tried to concentrate. Just a little bit more . . . Lightning is easy, you know that . . .
Sailor Moon flung her tiara. I dodged, stumbled, and it flew past my ear. I breathed a sigh of relief. I couldn't have stopped it, not this time, and while I was no youma to be killed by such a pathetic device, I didn't need any additional pain.
Then I realized that I had forgotten something. I had animated the damned airplanes, and I had never negated that spell. I didn't have enough control over my powers to undo it just then, and even if I had, sheer inertia would still have carried the plane in front of me forward, to roll over me like an unstoppable juggernaut.
<<ALEX!!>> I didn't understand why the name was important, or why the fact that I was unable to remember hurt so.
The use of my magic to form a thin layer of protection over my skin was automatic, instinctive even. If it hadn't been, I wouldn't have survived. As it was, I was knocked over onto my back, forced to lie there on the pavement and stare straight up at the huge wheel that ran right over me, leaving black smudges on my face and uniform. It pushed me forward a little as it ground over my body, scraping the pain-causing object that the Scouts had hung on my back off against the pavement. Once the giant tire was gone, I reached out and picked it up. It was just a little slip of paper marked with kanji characters. One of Raye's charms from the shrine. Damn. Why had I tried to enact one of my plans at what was probably the only shrine in the entire city of Tokyo to be inhabited by a genuine mystic?
I withdrew the rest of my power from the airplanes and stood up on shaky legs. Somewhere over to my left, beyond the body of the jet that had run me over, the Sailor Scouts were talking to someone, but I wasn't about to challenge them again. I didn't think I could take two defeats in one night. That left only one place for me to go.
I crumpled the strip of paper in my hand and tossed it over my shoulder. I still wasn't entirely steady on my feet when I teleported back to the Negaverse.
"Queen Beryl," I gasped out the moment that I arrived, hoping for at least a moment of clemency, "I have important information for you." My knees were weakened by fear, as well as pain and exhaustion, and I staggered forward a few steps before achieving something that approximated my normal erect posture.
"You failed to defeat the Sailor Scouts, Jadeite." Beryl's tone sent shivers running up my spine. I had always been able to gauge her moods, and I really didn't like the look of this one.
I was a dead man. And I suddenly realized that I didn't want to die. Until recently, it hadn't seemed to matter very much, but now I wanted my revenge. And for that, I had to be alive.
"But Queen Beryl, I have learned the identities of the Sailor Scouts!" My eyes swam with tears as I spoke those words, my last desperate gamble. My last chance at re-entering Beryl's good graces.
"I will hear no excuses!" Beryl's hands rose to hover above her crystal ball. "Sleep! Forever!"
"Queen Beryl! Wait!" I screamed. But she wasn't listening.
I raised my hands, tried to generate a shield, a ward, anything, but I was still too weak after my battle with the Sailor Scouts. The cold closed around me. And then there was nothing.
* * * * * * * *
I was perched on the control tower of the airport, surveying the aftermath of Jadeite's battle with the Sailor Scouts, when one of the spirit crystals I wore became burningly cold for an instant. When I opened my shirt, a spot of white, frostbitten skin showed between the burn scars that covered much of the area just below my collarbones.
I held up the crystals in front of my eyes, and watched the light that glittered from Jadeite's dim, as though it were somehow going dormant. I had never seen anything like it before. What could cause a spirit crystal to transmit such absolute cold?
A coughing fit jarred me from my contemplations. While Jadeite had been fighting Sailor Scouts, I had been fighting the Empyrean that he had attracted. The nagging cough I had recently acquired seemed to be the result of the increasingly advanced poisoning caused by my metal hand, and it was always at its worst after a fight. I'd begun losing weight, as well, since I seemed to have no appetite despite the fact that I was making physically straining use of my powers on a regular basis. And there was more grey in my hair. Susan wouldn't even recognize me.
Susan . . . Gods of light and darkness, it's been almost twenty years, and I've never tried to contact them! What a fool I've been . . . the consummate Crystal Weaver, assuming that since time mostly stands still for me, it does the same for those that I love . . .
I took my glove off. I had no water here, or fire, so I would have to use crystal for my divination, and the only ones I had on hand were the various spirit crystals. Better to use my own than risk the Negaforce distorting the results if I used one of the others.
Susan first. I said the words softly . . . and found myself looking at the wavering image of a tombstone. I closed my eyes. I am such a fool.
Amber, as it turned out, was still alive, but . . . When I scried for her, I found a tired-looking woman with a young son. My grandchild . . . whom I'll never meet. My reasons for leaving twenty years ago still held now. I wouldn't lead the Empyrean back to them. But maybe I could give a little help from a distance. I resolved to look into the situation.
The effort of performing the divinations had started another coughing fit. Once it had abated, I decided to actually go rent a hotel room for the night and sleep in a decent bed for a change. I couldn't do anything immediate for Amber, and there was nothing at all I could do for Jadeite. I didn't even know what had happened to him. But I needed rest if I was going to protect the others.
* * * * * * * *
"Tell me, do you have any holidays in that evil society of yours?"
I couldn't help it. I laughed. Such frivolous concerns! It was no wonder that the humans were such easy victims! But it was difficult to think such thoughts while sitting beside this one. Molly. My Molly. I had never felt such tenderness toward anyone before. I was certain of that. Even during the Silver Millennium, which I remembered only as a vague blur, I had never known anyone quite like her.
"Nephrite, you're actually laughing!" And she started to giggle along with me. "Hey, it's funny! I'm laughing and crying at the same time!"
What is it that you are to me? I asked myself. Somewhere in the back of my mind, the Negaforce was howling and raging at me, but I had locked it up inside a tiny portion of myself and thrown away the key. I wasn't going to risk harming her again. Not my Molly. And what am I going to do now? If I went back, Beryl would be in a towering fury because I didn't have the Silver Crystal, and Zoisite would no doubt have told her by this time that I had fought off his youma to protect a human. The problem was not so much what I had done as why I had done it. I still didn't understand why this human girl, so much younger than I, was so important to me.
I'll leave the Negaverse. The thought had never occurred to me before, but the more I considered it, the more I liked it. There wasn't much there that I would miss. Maxfield Stanton was a rich man. I could live well, even if I didn't use my powers . . .
I caught sight of a flicker of motion out of the corner of my eye and instinctively tackled Molly out of the way. I saved her life by doing so. But I wasn't quick enough to save myself as well.
I snarled silently as the thorns bit into my shoulder, not willing to give my attackers the satisfaction of hearing me scream. The cold that spread from the point of entry told me that I was going to have to be very careful indeed if I wanted to live through this. I needed to get those lengths of vegetable matter out of my body as soon as possible, or I was going to be drained, an easy target for Zoisite when he appeared, as I knew he must.
"Getting careless, aren't you?" said a snide voice, which I recognized as belonging to one of Zoisite's youma minions, no doubt out for revenge. "Those thorns will suck your energy and shrink your body to Negadust!"
I glared at her and clenched my hand into a fist. If she expected a surrender, she wasn't going to get one.
"If you don't want the girl hurt, then give us the Star Crystal!" the youma prodded.
"No!" Molly was still there, behind me, on the verge of going hysterical.
"Fine, it's yours, take it." It was a small enough price to pay for our lives. I could always make another, if I needed it. "Now, go!" I snapped at Molly.
"Run!" I didn't want to be distracted by the need to protect both of us.
"Oh, no!" She was leaning over me, pulling on two of the thorns, and shocking both of us when her actions activated the aversion field that surrounded them.
"Silly girl, she'll never get that out!" The talkative youma echoed my thought, but Molly was stubborn, and a lot more courageous than I had thought.
"Quickly, it's all right! Stop!" I needed to get her out of here before Zoisite arrived. Then I felt the impossible.
The thorns had shifted.
"It's not possible!" Apparently, the creature that had attacked me was given to histrionics.
"Nephrite, don't die, please don't die!" Molly pled as she dragged at the thorns. She almost had the first pair out. Incredible. I hadn't thought that she was so brave . . . but perhaps I should have expected it. After all, she'd been brave enough to deal with me, even knowing what I was--
"What a nuisance!" It was one of the other youma who spoke. "Now I'll have to destroy them both! Farewell!"
I didn't have a chance. There was no way that I could have moved fast enough to remove myself from the line of fire when she threw the bombs. So instead, I acted to save the only one of us who had any chance of surviving.
I shielded Molly with my body. In the process, I rammed the loosened thorns back into my shoulder and lost quite a bit of blood.
"Molly," I whispered, "are you all right? Oh . . ." The pain was just too much for a second, and I had to rest.
"Well done, girls!" said Zoisite's voice from above me. It hurt to see my Star Crystal in his hand. He was the last person to whom I would have given it if I'd had a choice. "You're pathetic," he added to me in his best snide tone. "First you lose your Crystal, and now you lose your girlfriend too. We don't tolerate traitors." And he vanished again in a swirl of flower petals.
"Heartless . . . creature . . ." I choked out. But I knew it wasn't true. Zoisite had a heart. It was just that he had given it to Malachite. Although I wasn't quite certain why Malachite had wanted it.
"Heh. Parting is such sweet sorrow," said one of the youma.
"Leave me!" I insisted to Molly once more. And once more she refused.
I'd never thought I would be glad to hear that voice.
"Just because you're in love, you want to torment them, and that's not right. I am Sailor Moon . . ."
I ignored the speech, since I had heard it all before. Instead, I turned a concept over in my mind. Love. Was I in love? Was that why I had saved her? Love wasn't something I knew much about. It was rare in the Negaverse, and almost equally rare in the corporate circles where Maxfield Stanton spent most of his time. Love.
I had no energy to watch the Sailor Scouts as they fought the youma. I couldn't even manage to sit up. I recognized the combined effects of blood loss and energy drain, and knew that I was dying. There was no way that I could have saved myself now. Then the youma were dead, and all four of them, all four girls, were bending over me.
"Sailor Moon, it looks like your true identity will remain a secret." That was the first thing I had to say. For some reason, it was important to me that she know that I hadn't passed the information on.
"What are you saying?" she asked. There were actually tears in her eyes. Was she crying? For me? I neither wanted nor deserved it. Tears are for the weak.
"Sorry," I whispered. It didn't seem like there was anything else to say. I felt so cold . . .
"For what?" Molly asked. She, too, was trembling on the verge of tears.
"Looks like we're not going to be having . . . that chocolate parfait." It was a trivial matter, but I had promised her . . . I managed a pained chuckled as I reached up to touch her face. Her skin was so soft, and warm under my hand. It had always felt cool to me before. "Sorry I lied to you again, but this time, I really didn't mean to. Forgive me."
She held my hand against her cheek as her tears finally spilled over. If I'd been a little stronger, I would have tried to wipe them away. I didn't want to see her sad.
"Don't forget me," I murmured. Then, needing to express these strange new feelings that had no place inside the being of a Negaverse Warrior, I added, "I want you to know you're in my heart." And then I just couldn't stay awake any longer.
I could hear her babbling frantically, "Nephrite, don't go! We'll get a doctor, and everything will be all right!" But I couldn't feel her arms anymore. My body . . . just didn't seem to be there. And there was a light, somewhere in the distance, tugging at me . . .
"Nephrite, I need you, don't go, please don't leave me!" she was screaming, floating further and further away. "NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!!!!! NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!"
I heard the sound of her sobs for a few seconds more. Then there was silence, and emptiness. An ending.
* * * * * * * *
There was no response, a sensation that was becoming extremely familiar. If I didn't know better, I would have believed that I was the last Crystal Weaver in the world. But I would have sworn that, just for an instant, I had felt his presence here.
I need to get out more, I told myself. I've become so damned isolated that my mind is playing tricks on me.
All the same, I fished Nephrite's spirit crystal out from under my shirt. Those crystals had become the nearest thing that I had to company. It was such a strange life that I led here, not daring to touch down enough to make even so much as a casual friendship. I hadn't realized, before this happened, just how much I depended on human contact to fill the empty space inside me that had been left by the death of my Weave and the slaughter of my people. It was a poor second-best, obviously, but better than nothing.
The crystal pulsed in my hand, seeming to grow heavier, then lighter, then heavier again. The light that glittered from it brightened. I recognized the phenomenon, and wasn't certain whether to be glad or sorry.
<<So I have at least one of you back now,>> I told the crystal and the soul now imprisoned inside it. <<I'll make it all up to you. Somehow. In the meanwhile, I'm going to put you in a safe place. Welcome home, Nephrite.>> I knew that he couldn't hear me--the crystal could barely maintain a dormant personality; its matrix wasn't nearly complex enough to enable it to retain consciousness as well--but the exercise made me feel a little better, allowing me as it did to release a tiny portion of the tremendous burden of guilt that I had carried with me all of these years.
I rose from my chair, stretched, scanned the city for other Crystal Weavers or Empyrean that had somehow passed through my defenses. I found nothing, except for the residue of Jadeite's power that still lingered at the airport. Zoisite had been in the city not long ago, but he was gone now. It wouldn't matter, then, if I left for a little while. I wanted to take Nephrite's spirit crystal back to the old Crystal Weaver city, where it would be safe. Then I would return to monitor the others. And when I had them all, perhaps I would finally be able to cleanse them of this darkness that had forced itself into their lives.
* * * * * * * *
I knew that there was cold stone under my back, but for the most part, I couldn't feel it. I hadn't been able to feel anything much below shoulder level since Queen Beryl had blasted me, not even the pain that should have been there. And that frightened me. Almost as much as the look in Malachite's eyes as he bent over me frightened me. I thought I had seen him in every possible mood-- angry, laughing, lustful, tender. Hating. But I had never seen him look lost or guilty or frightened. Or hurt. He was all of these things now.
"Oh, Zoisite, I'm sorry! Queen Beryl should have punished me, for not teaching you to be more patient! I'm so sorry! I failed you!"
"Hold me," I requested softly. I was so very cold. I needed the warmth of his arms. "The only one who failed was me, Malachite. You told me not to seek revenge, but I didn't listen." <<Please, forgive my stupidity. I thought I'd progressed beyond the need for your lessons. I was wrong.>>
It wasn't like me to accept fault for anything, but I was worried more about him than about me. I feared what my death would do to him. Especially after the others . . .
We had been standing at the rear of the youma assembly when Beryl had frozen Jadeite in eternal sleep, mainly because attracting Beryl's attention when she was angry was always dangerous, and seeing the two of us together seemed to make her angry as often as not. But it had been fortunate that we weren't anywhere near the front, because the moment the crystal sealed itself around Jadeite, Malachite gasped and staggered, and the hand that was holding mine became ice cold. It had only lasted for a split second. He'd steadied himself against my shoulder, then recovered his equilibrium and seemed to be all right. I had felt a bit of a chill myself at about the same instant, but I put it down to the fact that Beryl's action had clearly pointed out that she considered even her generals expendable, and since I ranked lower than Jadeite, my life expectancy might be no better than that of a youma if I got on Beryl's bad side . . .
On the night I had arranged Nephrite's death, I had returned home to discover Malachite pale-faced and gasping, clutching at his shoulder. Again, that attack lasted only a fraction of a second, although the effects had lingered for several minutes. Afterwards, he had taken me up to bed and practically ripped my clothes off my back, as though he needed to reassure himself that we were both still alive.
In the instant when Beryl had attacked me, I had blocked, as best I could, the tenuous linkage between us, but I had still seen him flinch, although I couldn't have said whether it was out of fear, or pain, or concern. But now there was no pain left. I hoped that would help.
"Promise, just promise me one last thing, Malachite . . ." I murmured.
You've given me so much, all of my life that I can remember . . . I feel guilty, asking yet another service of you now, but you're the only one who can do it. There are so many who will remember me with hatred. I don't want that. Strange, when I worked so hard to inspire it . . .
"Don't forget me . . ." I whispered. The look in those grey eyes was terrible. They had always sparkled a bit, before, giving me the impression of molten metal. Now they were shadowed, almost . . . dead. Like Jadeite's eyes had always been.
"I would never." His arms tightened.
I didn't have the strength to speak anymore. <<I remember . . . you walking with me in a garden somewhere. A long time ago. It must have been on Earth, because there were roses growing there. It was so beautiful . . . not like this grey place.>> But when I had gone back to Earth, I had hated it, unable to bear the sunlight. And unable to bear being apart from him.
<<I don't think I ever noticed the gardens,>> he told me now. <<All I ever wanted to look at was you.>> But his mind played with the image nonetheless, and it almost seemed like I could see a field of flowers, all around us, blotting out the grey emptiness that we had always lived in here. I felt so light . . . as though I could blow away on the wind . . .
"Good-bye, my love," I heard him whisper, from somewhere far away.
Love. So there is a name for what we felt, after all. I wonder why he never told me? Good-bye, my love. Please, try not to blame yourself too much for my death. It really was my fault.
* * * * * * * *
By the time I had killed the last of the Empyrean who had surrounded the Starlight Tower, the palm of my good hand was blistered from a near miss, as was my left ear, and I wasn't in the best of moods. And then came the shock of feeling the sudden fullness of another spirit crystal, far sooner than I had expected such a thing to happen. Zoisite. Gods. Poor Malachite . . . I had no doubt that they had still been together when it happened. The type of love they shared was something extremely rare and special, and I didn't think that even the Negaforce could destroy it. I suppose that, subconsciously, I had always expected that they would die together, or that Malachite would die first and then Zoisite would do something horribly melodramatic and join him.
Once I was certain that no more Empyrean were going to come and join their brethren in the attack, I took Zoisite's crystal back to the ruined city. I had intended to place it with Nephrite's, but when I brought the two together, Zoisite's crystal stung me, even though I was holding it in my metal hand (the other being bandaged and slathered with burn ointment, of which I'd been buying enough that opening my own manufacturing plant might actually have been cheaper, but I didn't dare go to a human doctor). Apparently, Zoisite had harbored an incredible hatred of Nephrite at the time that he died. What did they do to you? It wasn't this way before.
In the end, I had to position the crystals several feet apart to prevent them from burning holes in whatever I put underneath them. I eventually found a satisfactory configuration, and left them there. I had found a few books on magic that had been well enough warded to survive centuries of neglect, and I wanted to take a look at them now. I wasn't making much progress on the task of cleansing my proteges' spirit crystals of the evil they had absorbed, and hoped that the texts would offer me some clue.
* * * * * * * *
"Your guardian days are over, furballs!" I blasted the cats savagely. Lately, my only pleasure came from destruction. My life was in ruins. Why shouldn't everyone else's be, too?
I hadn't believed that I would miss him that much. Even remembering how I had felt that other time, when Beryl had traumatized him and thus stolen him from me for a while, I hadn't understood what it would feel like to have a Zoisite-shaped hole inside my heart. I hadn't realized how much of our shared joy in life . . . had been his. Now the Negaverse and the Earth Realm both seemed equally bleak to me. Because he wasn't there.
And she had killed him . . . why? Just because of Endymion? I doubted it. Beryl could just as easily have found some other young human male to . . . play with. No, I couldn't believe that it had been that simple. Beryl had always hated Zoisite. She resented the fact that my first loyalty was to him and not to her--and probably she wasn't pleased with the fact that he made a prettier girl than she did, either.
I hadn't realized that the Sailor Scouts were back from wherever they had vanished to. Very well, then. This time, I wasn't going to back out of the battle the moment it looked like they might become more trouble than they were worth. This time, I was going to finish them. Whatever it took.
"Artemis! We'll save you!"
And you, Sailor Venus--I'm going to particularly enjoy destroying you! My knuckles still stung where her Crescent Beam had creased them . . . had it been a week ago? Two? Since Zoisite's death, time had ceased to matter much to me.
"No, just run!" the white cat said as it collapsed into a heap. Good advice, furball, but I doubt they're going to follow it.
"This is low, even for a slime like you!" Well, if I'd aimed any higher, I would have missed, I thought, with a touch of wry humor. Even an idiot like you should be able to see that, Sailor Moon. And I think you need some practice with the insults. "Slime" is neither powerful nor original.
"You can't blame me, brat!" Perhaps I needed a refresher course on insults myself. All of my favorites seemed to be in dead languages. "They're the ones who trained you to be as annoying as you are!"
"Let's show this jerk what Luna and Artemis really taught us!" Jupiter snapped.
"Excellent idea," Venus added. "Hasta la vista, pretty boy!"
That could almost be confused with a compliment.
"You're finished!" Mercury hadn't even managed to come up with an insult at all.
"Yeah, majorly toasted, blondie!" And then there was Mars, who couldn't even speak the language properly.
"Let's cut to the chase, girls," I snapped. "Are you going to stand there, or are you going to fight?"
"I'm warning you, Malachite! You're not winning this one, and you're never getting my crystal!"
And I'm going to send you down to the afterlife of your choice, and then send Beryl and Endymion after you, and the two of you can fight over your boy-toy for the rest of eternity! "Didn't your mother teach you to never say never?"
I blasted them first. Then I attacked with my energy boomerangs. It had been a long time since I had used them for anything other than practice.
Even their most powerful attack couldn't harm me, and I knew it. I left them in little heaps on the floor. All except for Sailor Moon. This entire chain of events had begun with her. She was going to watch her friends die, just as I had been forced to do with my Zoisite!
"I am Sailor Moon, Champion of Justice, Princess of the Moon Kingdom, and your worst nightmare! On behalf of the Moon, I will right all wrongs and triumph over all evil--and you're the worst kind of evil! Cosmic Moon Power!" She held up her wand, and light flashed from it. I shielded myself.
"No! I'm not letting this moon child defeat me! She's no match for the Negapower!"
Damn, why did she have to pick tonight to grow a backbone? She's no kind of a warrior, but that damned Crystal . . . I'm going to have to be careful.
And then I hesitated. Careful, yes. If I was careful, I would defeat her. I would go back to the Negaverse . . . and spent the gods of darkness only knew how many more years as Beryl's lackey and Endymion's favorite rose-hurling practice target. Without my beloved.
My life was empty of meaning. Why was I trying so hard to hang onto it? Without me, Beryl would be easy pickings for the Sailor Scouts. Neither she nor Endymion was any kind of a battle commander.
My death would be my final revenge on the woman that had destroyed my life.
I created a fresh set of boomerangs and threw them, knowing what would probably happen as a result. They came hurtling back toward me. My hands moved on their own, whipping my cape up in front of me so that the rudimentary ward woven through it would shield me for a few seconds longer.
I'm . . . losing strength . . . It was a welcome realization. When I'd created that last boomerang, I'd put all the force of my hatred into it. It was stronger than any ward or shield that I could create.
"Zoisite!" I called. "It's me. I'll be coming to join you real soon, Zoisite. Do you hear me?"
<<I'm waiting for you, my love.>>
Perhaps it was just a figment of my imagination. But it comforted me as I felt my body disintegrate into dust, and something tugged me gently away from it . . .
* * * * * * * *
There had been no Empyrean in Tokyo for several days, which was fortunate. I'd spent the time in bed, nursing the usual cough, which now refused to go away for any substantial period of time. The poisoning had gone beyond the point of no return. I was dying. I had accepted that. It would be a slow death by human standards--I might last several years more, if I gave up fighting the Empyrean--but there was nothing that could stop it. I could only hope that I would hold together for long enough to heal the others.
The sudden weight in Malachite's spirit crystal told me that it was almost over. Three of them were finally free of the Negaverse. Only Jadeite remained, and I was mystified as to what had become of him. I had given up any hope of ever freeing Beryl.
I considered the trip to the ruined city to place Malachite's crystal with the others. I think I'll wait until morning . . . Something tickled at the back of my throat, and I started coughing again.
What in hell? The buzzing sound seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere. I eventually traced it to Malachite's spirit crystal, which was glowing and becoming increasingly hot. Not possible. Even someone of his power shouldn't be able to exert his will this way when his spirit crystal is all that's left of him . . . but he probably doesn't know that. I never did quite finish training them. The question becomes, what does he want?
I could only think of one thing that it could possibly be. Damn you, Malachite. I was hoping to get something resembling a decent night's sleep . . .
I forced myself to get up and dress, then go downstairs and find myself a taxi. The Tokyo terminus of the gate spell that I used for my travels was located in a dead-end alleyway on the fringes of town, and I lacked the energy to teleport even such a short distance.
I stepped through to the other side and stumbled up the stairs that led out of the depths of the ruined fortress where the gate was located. Climbing over the piles of rubble which blocked the gate wasn't easy, especially not in my condition, but Malachite's spirit crystal, now bright enough to light my way, was prompting me to hurry if I didn't want another set of burns.
Finally, I reached the small house on the fringes of town where I had been living intermittently for the past twenty years. I descended to the basement workroom. Nephrite's spirit crystal was at the end of the table nearest the door. I ignored it. It wasn't what I needed.
Malachite's crystal quieted immediately when I put my hand on Zoisite's. I removed the white crystal and twined their chains around each other until the two were touching--the lovers reunited at last. Malachite's crystal dimmed, and I had to grope my way back out of the room.
A coughing fit forced me to sit down on the stairs and rest. It's almost over. Gods give me strength to see it through.
* * * * * * * *
"I can't be defeated again!" There were little bits of rock digging into every part of me that was in contact with the floor. Sprawled as I was on the ground in front of the Negaforce's sphere, that accounted for a quite substantial portion of my body. "I've waited too long for this!" I had battled Malachite and Serenity and the Silver Crystal itself to reach this point, only to be defeated by a stupid musical locket and one man's foolish sense of honor. The tiny hole that Endymion's rose had left in my torso burned. I had wanted him, once. Now I only wanted him dead. "Tell me how to win this," I pleaded. I had come too far to concede defeat.
"Don't whine at me, Beryl," my Master's voice said. "You are nearly as incompetent as your minions. I should abandon you, but I am giving you this last chance. Use it well."
The sphere shattered, and darkness poured out of it. Strangely, in the instant before it encompassed me completely, its hold over me broke. And I understood.
The being that called itself the Negaforce had needed three things in order to free itself from this place:
Life energy, in order to regain its strength.
The death of Serenity, the last crowned queen of the Moon Kingdom, whose bloodline played some obscure part in the spell that bound it here.
And the body of a Crystal Weaver, or some comparable creature that combined a nominally human body with a capacity for magic that would have fried a normal human's mind, to serve as a vessel for it. It had collected Crystal Weavers for that purpose. I was the only one left now. Severely flawed though I was, it would force me to serve, although the use of my body would restrict its access to its powers.
It had shaped my every thought with the intent of furthering its goals. My desire for Endymion, my hatred for Serenity, my burning need to dominate Malachite and the others . . . all for its good, and not my own.
What would I have done differently, left to myself? Anything. Nothing. I don't know. I hated them all, but not to that extent. Not enough to destroy worlds. Or at least, I don't think I did. How can I tell?
The darkness sank into me, blended with me, and the brief moment of clarity was lost. I became the hatred. Nothing could ever change what I was, now, or bring back the girl that I had been, who had only wanted to fit in. She was dead, and I might as well be.
* * * * * * * *
I didn't recognize the moment that Beryl died, but I know that it must have happened. I felt a twist in space-time, a lessening of some faint distortion in the universe, when Sailor Moon vanquished the Negaforce, but it was some time before I found out that that was what I had felt. Instead, I experienced severe puzzlement as I watched the Sailor Scouts, whose identities I had long ago traced, go about their normal business in the days immediately following the Negaverse's defeat. I had harbored some vague hope of following them back to Beryl, their adversary, and saving her as I had saved the others. As it turned out, I was too late.
I used the time to trace Amber, instead. I discovered the name of my grandson. Jasper. When I read that, I wished . . . so many things, none of which would ever come to fruition. About all I could do for them was provide a little unobtrusive financial help, since Susan had very nearly bankrupted them before she had died. I didn't even dare send a letter. I did make out a will, for the first time in my very long life, naming Amber and Jasper as beneficiaries, but I suspected that my death would never be reported to the authorities, which meant that they would never see the money. Still, I didn't see what else I could do.
It was during that period of time, when I felt almost drained of purpose, that Jadeite finally died. I still didn't understand what had happened to him. Perhaps, one day, he would be in a position to tell me. I hoped.
The Empyrean appeared to have almost given up the hunt. None had come after me since Malachite's death. I suppose it was the lack of tell-tale energy signatures. I hadn't been using my powers at all. The creatures would be back eventually, to hunt for human life-energy again, but I suspected that they wanted to regroup first. I had killed quite a number of them over the past few years.
I intended to do a little regrouping of my own, close the gate spell that led to Tokyo and hide in the Crystal Weaver city until the Empyrean returned, or until I discovered some way to heal Malachite and the others of what they had suffered, but I had something else to do first.
I don't know who left the artefacts where I found them, and probably I never will. Finding magic devices in a cave in an uninhabited area of the Himalayas had been quite unexpected. For all I knew, they had been lying there since the Silver Millennium. It wasn't until twenty years later that I realized that there was a connection between these various wands and oddments and the Sailor Scouts, and figured out what to do with them.
I had seen the Scouts' cats retrieve enough artefacts from the dimensional pocket where Serenity had left them to be able to reverse the process and deposit the things that I had found there. I wasn't entirely happy until I had dropped in the last little star-topped wand and sealed the pocket up again. Then the sense of urgency left me, and I realized that I had been manipulated. Picking on your little brother again, eh, Demantoid? But I couldn't begrudge Serenity the use of the Silver Crystal in this matter. And, since events during the Silver Millennium had implied that Zoisite had stolen these in the first place, I felt a little bit responsible for what had happened.
After that, everything remained peaceful for most of a year. I experimented with various spirit crystal cleansing techniques and was at best partially successful. The Empyrean didn't return. Perhaps they were hoping that I would die of my infirmities and thus give them free reign to assault a helpless humanity. A lot they knew.
Then, one day, I sensed the power signature of something that might have come from the Negaverse. Hoping against hope that it was my daughter, somehow returned from--not exactly the dead, but close enough--I traced it to Tokyo and reopened the gate that had led there. I felt that I had to investigate.
I had been out of contact with most of humanity for quite a while, and so I hadn't heard about the gigantic black crystal that had appeared in the middle of the city, seeming to grow right out of the middle of a street. But it instantly made me curious.
I teleported to a rooftop that I felt would offer me a good vantage point. Not a good idea, as it turned out. I'd thought that the effects of the poisoning were fading a bit. I was wrong. I collapsed to my knees, coughing blood, frightened but unable to stop, and then lost consciousness a little while later.
I woke up lying flat on my back in an empty white room that smelled of disinfectant. Great. A human hospital. This is just what I needed. I gritted my teeth and forced myself to sit up.
"Sir, please, lie back. You're in no condition to be getting up."
I glared at the nurse. "My condition isn't exactly going to improve much, and I'm damned if I'm going to stay here." I swung my legs over the edge of the bed, ignoring the coughing fit that ensued, and took a tentative step toward the door. I felt ridiculous wearing the open-backed hospital gown, but I didn't want to waste my powers on changing it into something more appropriate. "Where are my clothes?"
"Sir, please!" The nurse shook her head and went to the door. I heard her call someone to help restrain me, and decided that it was time for a strategic retreat.
In for a sheep, in for a lamb, I thought. I teleported to the alleyway where the Tokyo gate terminus was located, and stumbled through. I can only hope that no one saw me, because I was still wearing the hospital gown.
I sat on a block of stone in the courtyard of the ruined fortress and coughed my lungs out for a while, spattering blood everywhere, then slowly began the climb that would take me down to the more habitable regions of the city.
I had run out of time. My death was coming for me. I might have a few days or weeks more, but certainly not another year. I had no more time for experimentation. I had to revive Malachite, Nephrite, Jadeite, and Zoisite now, or I might never have the chance.
I dressed, then descended to the basement workroom and retrieved the spirit crystals, hanging them around my neck once more. Zoisite's crystal buzzed ominously when it came near Nephrite's, but they didn't attack each other this time, thankfully.
I fetched the scrying bowl. Surely I would be able to find four of the sort of people that I needed somewhere in the world tonight. I refused to cut the life of a human, or any other intelligent creature, short just to revive these four, so I needed people who were already dying or intending to die.
I found my first victim standing at the edge of a bridge somewhere in North America. This may be easier than I thought. No longer caring what sort of damage I did to myself, and hoping that the Empyrean would be confused if they even noticed me at all, I teleported.
* * * * * * * *
return to Index / go to Epilogue
The Crystal Weaver Saga Index
The Nephrite and Naru Treasury