* * * * * * * *
"Well, at least we know for sure now that they're not working with the Empyrean," Lita said from where she sat on the steps.
"That doesn't mean they're up to anything good, though," Raye stated.
"I agree," Mina said. "Once Negasleaze, always Negasleaze, that's what I say."
"And I'm sure they've done something to Molly," Serena added. "She's just really not been herself since Nephrite came back."
"Maybe we should call them on it. Amy, what do you think?"
Lita's question made the blue-haired Scout glance up from her computer for the first time since the meeting had started. "I think we're jumping to conclusions," she said firmly. "We have no solid evidence so far that they're back to their old tricks. In fact, they've been almost helpful. Zoisite's done almost as much work on this analysis of the Empyrean as I have. And they saved Serena's life. If they'd wanted to hurt us, all they would have had to do was walk away and leave her to the Empyrean."
"But what about Molly?" Serena half-wailed.
"Serena, think. If you went for a year thinking that Darien had died, and then suddenly discovered that he'd come back to life, I think you'd be acting a bit weird yourself. Molly will be all right. She just needs to get used to the idea of having Nephrite there again."
Lita shook her head. "I really hope you're right--especially since I think Jadeite is kind of a hunk."
Mina, Raye and Serena groaned. "Get a life, Lita! He does not look like Freddy!"
"Maybe not, but he's cute all the same."
Raye rolled her eyes. "Give me a break! Lita, if we beat up on one Empyrean for every crush you have, we'll have gone through them all in no time."
"And anyway, Jadeite's from the Negaverse," Serena pointed out. "He's too dangerous to make a good date."
"Says the girl who nearly fell for him at least twice," Luna observed from her perch on the roof.
Serena had the grace to blush while the others laughed.
* * * * * * * *
I'd like to consign this useless body to the Eternal Darkness, the Ancient thought. Now it needs to be fueled again. Where am I going to get food for it?
He crouched near the mouth of an alley and surveyed the street through narrowed eyes. Something about him seemed to shock the humans whenever he got near them, despite the fact that he had yet to find any real difference between his appearance and theirs, so he had learned to stay hidden in the shadows and observe them covertly.
The Ancient, like the other Empyrean, had never understood about humans and clothing.
"Geez, what's with him?"
"I don't believe it. He's just sitting there with his ass bare for everyone to see."
"Must be a moron. C'mon, let's have some fun!"
The Ancient rose slowly to his feet and turned to face the three teenagers. A human would have recognized them as gang members. This was not exactly the healthiest part of town for a lone, unarmed person. The boys were grinning broadly, seeing only a slender, naked man with pale skin and light blonde hair.
The portion of Light that the god had granted him flared bright inside the confines of his body. Not yet, he told it. Let them get closer. I need to know what they are.
"Hey, man, you lost or somethin'?" The three sniggered.
"I am where I need to be," the Ancient said calmly. It was the first time he had attempted to speak while in this form, and the words sounded odd to him without their associated Empyrean sibilance.
One of them reached toward him. The Ancient reached out to intercept the hand. It was only as his eyes began to glow that the boys began to suspect they had made a bad mistake.
One of them pulled a knife. The Ancient whipped around, bringing the body of the boy he was holding between himself and the other two. Time for a change, he decided. You have more than enough energy for it, don't you? Through his touch on the boy's arm, he tapped into his life force and twisted it back on the owner.
It was only as the body of their friend began to swell and twist into a monstrous shape that the other two boys decided they had had enough. Both turned and ran along the alley. But one of them wasn't quick enough. The Ancient's newly made monster caught the knife-wielder in mid-stride and slapped him to the ground.
The creature leaned forward over the human, drooling, but the Ancient grabbed at the rags of its clothing and hauled it back with a strength that would not have been expected from such a slender body. "No! Get back! I can use this one, too."
The monster had just enough of a mind left to understand and obey the orders that the Ancient gave it. The boy it had knocked down found himself staring up into the unshaven face of the blonde man, who was smiling a very cold smile.
"Now, let's see what we can make of you, shall we?" he said almost lovingly.
In this district of town, nobody bothered to heed the screams coming from the alley. They only hurried on, going about their business and hoping that they would not be next.
* * * * * * * *
#Have you found it?# "my lord" asked the technician.
#I'm not certain. It looks like the Ancient's signature, but it is . . . changed.#
#The Eternal Light may have done something to the Ancient. Its ways are mysterious. Bit you have the coordinates?#
#Excellent. I had best take a squad with me. We cannot be certain what we will find.#
* * * * * * * *
"Enough for one afternoon," Malachite said to the girl, having noticed their audience. "I will expect you here at the same time tomorrow." And he teleported, leaving the two of them alone.
"Malachite's been running you ragged, hasn't he?"
"Nephrite!" She ran up the steps and flung herself into his arms. "Where have you been? I haven't seen you since . . . since . . ."
Since the night Onyx died, Nephrite filled in as they sat down together on the steps. "I had a few things to take care of."
"Like what?" The girl shifted over so that she was leaning against him. He put his arm around her. Odd how that was beginning to seem natural.
"Like legal identities for Malachite and the others." He tossed the folders casually down behind him. "It's always easier to move around in human society if you obey the rules. I think the worst part was figuring out appropriate names. I challenge you to think of any male name that sounds in the least like 'Zoisite'. Eventually, I just gave up and called him Zois Edwards."
"'Maxfield' doesn't sound anything like 'Nephrite'," she observed.
"And you have no idea how long it took before I remembered to answer to it. Maxfield Stanton was a bit of a mistake that way."
"Not as far as I'm concerned."
He smiled and reached over to stroke her hair. It felt thicker and softer than he remembered under his hand. "I'm glad to hear it."
Her body tensed against him. "Are you really eleven hundred years old?"
He knew that wasn't the question she really wanted to ask. She was strung too tight. "Roughly, yes. We were . . . part of the King of Earth's court for about a hundred years." Sort of. Now there are some memories I wish had remained buried.
"I had assumed that Beryl kept you alive after you went over to her side, but that couldn't be so, could it? Not if you were already a hundred years old when you joined her."
Nephrite understood what she wanted to know now. And he suspected that she wouldn't like the answer he had to give. "Beryl had nothing to do with it. It was our own powers that kept us alive. As yours are going to do for you. Whether you want them to or not.
"There's more," he added, not wanting to tell her but unable to stop. "I . . . You must have noticed that we're all a bit strange. Physically, I mean."
"Green blood," Molly whispered.
He wondered just how much she had worked out for herself. "That, yes. Malachite's coloring, Zoisite with a body that will never be older than about sixteen . . . Crystal power affects different people in different ways, but one thing it always does is mess with the body's systems. I don't know what it will be like for you, but I can see it beginning." They looked at each other. Her eyes had gone from the blue-green he remembered to a yellow-green like those of some cats. One day soon, he suspected, they would be entirely yellow. "It also speeds up aging for the first year or so, until your body has a chance to adapt."
He kissed her gently, on the forehead, then on the lips. Carefully. She's completely new to these feelings. "Don't be afraid," he said. "No matter what happens, no matter what you become, I will always be with you. Always." A year ago, I wouldn't have been able to say such things.
A year ago, I died.
"I love you, Molly. I'll stay with you until the end of time, if life gives us the chance." But he could not help but wonder if, in this as in so many other things, he lied to her.
* * * * * * * *
#Here? What could he possibly be doing in this . . . this . . . It's a mess even by human standards!#
#I wouldn't know, my lord. But the Ancient is definitely here.#
The dimness inside the abandoned building took them all by surprise. No Empyrean would live in the dark by choice. What had happened? Huge shapes stirred in the darkness, but the hunters sensed that none of them was the one they sought and ignored them, concentrating on their goal.
#My brothers, is it truly you?# The question was so faint that "my lord" could barely make it out, but he recognized the speaker as being the Ancient.
#It is we. Where are you? What happened?#
#The Eternal Light felt that we lacked experience of the embodied. It decided that I was to make up that lack. I'm over by the far window. Don't be surprised by what you see . . .#
The dirty glass admitted little light except where one or two of the panes had shattered, but it was enough for "my lord" to see the slender blonde human standing there. #Light and Darkness! Ancient, is that really you?#
#Mostly, at any rate.# The (incongruously) young man sighed. #I'm trapped in here. This Darkness-consigned body is me, and it appears that I'll live and die with it. The Eternal Light warned me that I would be an exile for the rest of my existence. I just wish that it had told me why. If it had, I would have acknowledged the price of its help too high.#
#Whatever possessed it to think that forcing you to become embodied would help us against the Crystal Weavers?#
#It may yet. I understand some things now that I wouldn't have before--in particular, certain applications of power.# Huge shapes loomed up out of the darkness, surrounding the Ancient's pitiful human body. #You see, there is a detail that we forgot. There have only been a few thousand of us for so long that we underestimate the power of numbers, I think. There are only five Crystal Weavers in a city of millions of humans. Now imagine what would happen if all those humans, or even just a quarter of them, were hunting our Crystal Weavers. It will take time and energy, but I think that it will be worth it in the end.#
#In case you hadn't noticed, if you twist a quarter of the humans in the city to the degree that you've twisted these, the other humans will be looking for us, too, and I don't expect them to be in a very good mood.#
#But that's the beauty of it. These were only my first victims, from before I understood the potential of . . . more subtle . . . methods.# The Ancient made a beckoning gesture. Two figures approached from the rear of the pack. #As far as anyone else will be able to tell, these two are perfectly human. And yet they will do whatever I tell them to.#
To the one on the left, a woman, he said, "Kill him," gesturing to the man on the right. The man just stood there while she strangled him.
"Enough." #I could have let her go all the way, but I would prefer not to lose any of my assets.#
#Reasonable. How soon do you think you will be able to set your plan in motion?#
#With your help, some three or four days as the humans measure time. The ones you see here, I converted by physical contact. That is far too slow. We will need some form of transmitter, so that I may spread my powers over a wider area. However, in the meanwhile, I see no reason not to have those I can convert in person begin the search.#
A few words from the Ancient sent his two servant humans lumbering out the door, toward the street and the unsuspecting population of Tokyo.
And now we serve the embodied, "my lord" thought. How far we have fallen. What value does this world have to us if we lose what we are?
* * * * * * * *
"That's weird," Lita said. "Those two people over there . . . They look kinda like zombies."
"You're right, that is weird," Serena said. "Think we should check it out?"
"Yeah, it might be Scout business."
They followed the two shambling strangers through the heart of the city. It wasn't hard. The two walked fairly slowly, and never looked left or right, although they seemed to retain enough sentience to wait for traffic lights to be in their favor before crossing streets. They trudged through a shopping district, then past a row of blank-faced warehouses, and out into a residential zone.
"Where do you think they're headed?"
"I don't know, but they'd better get there soon, because my feet are really tired," Serena complained. "Hello, what's that?"
"It's a hill, Meatball Head. What does it look like?"
"Yeah, but a forested hill in the middle of the city? You'd think we would have heard of something like that."
It took them some time to realize that the two near-zombies were circling the base of the hill.
"Are they looking for a way up?"
"I think so." Lita frowned. "Say, if they are, this is our chance to get ahead of them!"
"Do we have to? My feet are really, really sore."
Lita dragged her friend along. It only took them a few minutes to get ahead of the zombies.
They continued around the base of the hill for half an hour before arriving back where they had started.
"Now that really is weird," Lita said. "It's like the phantom hill. It looks perfectly solid from a distance, but whenever you try to get close, it's like it moves on you."
"Say, I know where I've heard of this place before! I think Molly described it to me the other day. Is that some sort of building, about halfway up?" Serena pointed.
Lita shaded her eyes for a better view. "Yeah, looks like it. Some sort of great big gloomy thing. Do you think that's where our zombies are headed?"
"I don't know, but I'm pretty sure that it's where Nephrite and the others are living. I doubt the zombies will be able to get there. Molly said it was a pretty hard place to find your way to."
"I wonder if that's good or bad."
Neither of them were quite sure about that.
* * * * * * * *
return to Index / go to Chapter 10
The Crystal Weaver Saga Index
The Nephrite and Naru Treasury