Tsuki no Namida XV
Serenity stood before the stairs that plummeted ever downward, hovering before the darkness, battling with her fear. She began to wonder if she would ever dare tread upon these steps, but then lowered herself one foot forward and then another. Terror trembled within her bones and sickened her heart, but her expression was serene and sure. Surviving one nightmare, she now threw herself into another--this time by choice, by a desperation so great she couldn't understand. It called to her like a sweet death, taunted her and mocked her as painful memories whispered in her mind. She walked into the Abyss.
The black world cradled itself around her, welcomed her with cold kisses and sightless eyes. She paused, shutting her eyes for just a moment against the memories. Her flesh tingled. Walls of stone she couldn't see suffocated her. Then she glared into the crooked tunnel, peering until she caught sight of a feeble flame in the distance. It clung to a bracket to the wall with aching loneliness, only the tiniest glow to share. As she gazed, it's light swelled and wavered, casting a dreadful glow against the dank stone ground and tossing shadows before her feet.
Stepping onto the trail of light, she found the strength to move forward. All too soon, she passed into the darkness once more. She didn't hesitate this time. Something crawled over her skin but she brushed it away, her mind focused on greater terrors. The blindness was terrible, maddening, but she kept herself from conjuring a flame. Such an act would call for her death in such a place. Light was a rare glimmer throughout these underground tunnels and chambers. Light was fire, and fire a forbidding element, used sparingly in these imprisoning depths. The next humble torch she came upon, she stole from its bracket and clutched before her.
Serenity's steps fell soft and wary in the silence. She peered into paths that branched from the tunnel, some as vast as a hall and others narrow as her person. She finally chose to venture into a dark hole. Her hand brushed the surface of rough, sharp walls. Another tunnel. She crept on, the fire of her torch sputtering as the shadows moved before her and a man appeared from within their depths. His uniform was a Watcher's dark gray and his face possessed a deathly pallor that seemed to be drifting above her. He flicked a dull, curious glance her way as she tensed. Perhaps he recognized her as the general's ward for he passed by without a word, slipping like a creature of shadow back into the darkness.
She shivered, beginning to feel the cold as she braved another turn and twist. This time she discovered life. Two guards stared at her like statues, obstinate in their silence. Her nerve almost failed her but she resisted the urge to retreat. Passing them into chamber they guarded, she was at once belittled by the sudden feeling of open space. The sound of whimpering circled around her, soft moans and coughing emerging from little throats pierced her ears. Her heart sank low in her stomach.
Serenity walked towards one of the cells to peer inside. A multitude of bright, silent eyes under a shroud of limp silvery hair stared at her. Children, pale and gaunt huddled near each other on the cold ground. They had no light, only ratty bedrolls for sleeping. A few cried and drew away from her presence haunting them from the other side of the bars. Most of the older ones didn't react at all, as if their spirits had already died.
A deep cold filled Serenity as her fingers curled around the bars. Somehow, she managed smile at them. Having nothing else to give them, she held out a hand. The flame of her torch leapt into a cheerful dance upon her palm. The attention of all the children directed at her as they stared in amazement, like moths under the spell of the flame. She pressed her finger over her lips, a warning to remain quiet as excitement lit their eyes. The tricks were ones she had done a million times before, for her own entertainment and that of others. The fleck of fire swirled like a golden snake around her fingers and then spun into the visage of a blazing flower. The children feasted their eyes hungrily as if they had never seen such a simple marvel--as if they didn't know such power was their right and had been stolen from them. They had been bred in captivity, taken from their mothers' arms. A tear dripped down Serenity's cheek at the thought.
This was what she had come to see, she realized. To remind herself why she couldn't hide and why it was impossible for her to live without hope. She looked at them as fastidiously as they did her, as if to memorize each similar face. Then a crumpled form distracted her. The familiar figure of a girl curled up on the cold ground unmoving. The sight shot fear through her. It was little Iris who had been taken from the Delacrae safe house. Serenity pressed herself against the heavy door, splinters digging into her hands. "What's wrong with her?" she asked.
The children squirmed, still gazing at her in a mixture of fear and fascination. It was an older boy who spoke up, no more than seven years of age. "She got like that days ago. Won't eat, won't move. Watchers don't care." A scrawny lad with a short scruff of silver hair and wild gold eyes appeared to have more life in him than the others, his posture stiff and defiant.
"Teach me how to do that!" he demanded. He stared enraptured at the fire flickering over her fingertips, desire in his expression.
"I can't," she told him. Serenity looked at the collar that encircled his neck and shook her head with regret. Fire reflected and burned in his golden eyes. It was a dream that he couldn't have.
Voices from behind startled her. A brisk mumbling and a silky murmur pervaded the air, echoing against the empty walls and drawing nearer. She started to pull away, pausing when the boy cried, "Wait!" He looked at her in desperation. "Will you be back?" Her little flame had vanished and the only light remaining was a distant torch in the main chamber.
She nearly told him that she didn't know, but the anwser caught in her throat. "Yes," she promised. "But only if you don't speak of me. Not a word." Her gaze slid over the rest of the children. Most of them nodded. She lingered a moment on the still girl's form, a knot in her chest, but forced herself to withdraw. She didn't get very far, not even to the entrance of the chamber when two men emerged. She stopped short before them, forcing down her dismay.
Both stopped and and Neklair raised a surprised brow at her. He stood, well groomed as always and clad in high-ranking black. Without his armor to hide them, golden buttons and an insignia glittered, pronouncing his station even higher than that of Raye. Such a rank could only be procured at the castle among the king's own soldiers. Serenity had been grateful that his visits to the Precinct were rare and far between, but now she didn't feel so very fortunate. His presence fit too well with the nature of the abyss and unsettled her greatly.
"Miss Delacrae?" the man beside him questioned, bewildered. A robed and elderly man, Serenity recognized him as one she had met and talked to on occasion. "Heavens child, what on earth are you doing down here?"
"I'm sorry, sir," Serenity said, not having to fake sounding contrite. "I was curious and only wanted to explore. You have told me so much about this place that I wanted to see it for myself."
The man puffed up as if he had been flattered but still frowned at her. "Be that as it may, it isn't wise to wander about on your own."
"That does tend to be a curious habit of hers," Neklair murmured dryly.
Serenity tensed at his tone but said nothing.
The older man sighed. "Be on your way then. Next time you feel like 'exploring' please wait for someone to guide you. Do you know your way back?"
"Yes sir," she said. Even if she didn't think she knew, she would have said anything to escape Neklair's presence; Serenity's heart beating with adrenaline and eyes cast down, she walked past them the way they had come. Again, the two guards paid her no mind. She continued by, nervous at being caught but glad that her presence had been accepted.
Serenity had been sure she knew the way back, but realized that she had lost her only light. She wouldn't risk creating a flame--not with Watcher's slipping though the dark like silent ghosts. Struggling to remember her steps, she felt her way against one wall.
Confusion and wariness gripped her. She had made too many turns. Just then, her eyes grasped a speck of light up ahead. She drew towards it in hope. Only the sight of a tall man with red, fiery hair startled her into ducking into the nearest passageway. Her nemesis from her previous stay in the Abyss stood just paces away. The watcher called Rubeus. Her heart fluttered in panic. If there was the slightest chance that he recognized her then all was lost. She backed herself further into the narrow path, uneven rock digging into her sides. Her foot fell upon only air and she gasped at her sudden state of misbalance, barely stopping herself from plummeting down the sudden drop of twisting stairs. She dragged in a harsh breath, body shaking as her feet found their footing on the unseen steps and her hands dragged across the cave like wall.
"Who's there?" Torchlight waved at the entrance to the tunnel. The noise had attracted the watcher's attention.
Serenity stared. Mute, for a moment at the approaching redhead. She came to her senses and fled down the steps, her movement as quiet as she could manage. Rendered completely blind, she slipped around a corner and clung as close as she could to the wall. Light shone near her toes and hung there for an excruciating moment. Each counted breath felt like a liftetime as she waited till it was gone. She held her breath, sick with relief as the footsteps stalked away.
Too afraid to venture back up the steps, she instead wandered down the path she had taken and let the darkness claim her. These lower tunnels confused her. She felt crevices and niches in the wall and the space around her expand and narrow at unexpected intervals. The walls were wetter than she thought they should be and moss slipped beneath her fingers. Confused, she thought she sensed the presence of running water nearby. She waited for another light, but none ever came and she despaired. An odd, smell teased her nose, sweet and horrid and stomach-turning all at once.
Fighting to find her way back to the stairs, the walls opened up around her and she stumbled over debris that clattered and gave way beneath her. She fell to her knees, hands reaching out to catch herself. The objects disturbed her and aroused her growing fear. Giving in, she called a great flame to her hand and struggled to muffle her scream. It choked in her throat and her stomach heaved at what she saw. She had fallen into a pile of bones and skulls. In terror, she shuffled frantically to her feet. The chamber cast shadows that moved along with the fire's light. Skeletons littered the floor at her feet, stacked and piled high. The niches in the walls made sudden horrifying sense--they were tombs. Every black chamber, every unseen corridor she had passed was the same.
Panic rose within as she found herself surrounded by graves. The shadows were as terrifying as was what the light revealed. She stumbled back, shrieking as she kicked a skull that rolled before her feet. Darkness prickled the corners of her vision and she swayed, sure that she was about to faint. The thought of waking up in such a place unnerved her and she was only vaguely aware that no pain came as she fell, that a pair of warm arms had caught her.
Darkness claimed her.
It was some time later that she began to rouse. Expecting only more darkness, the light surprised her and she blinked up at Raye who cradled her head. A whimper rose in her throat as her eyes moved to see they were still within the dark chamber of graves and forgotten bones. Raye helped her to rise and turned her without warning to face her.
"What were you thinking?" she shouted, violet eyes blazing furiously.
Serenity winced. Her head ached a little. "Don't be mad, Raye. Please. I had to come."
"Do you care to explain why after you've avoided coming down here like it was the plague?" Raye challenged, towering and bristling over her. Fire hovered over her hand and it bristled too. "Tell me that it's not because of him!"
Serenity looked down, flushing. "It's not," she mumbled. "It's just something I have to do."
That wasn't all together true. A soft rage and determination had filled her since that night and burned in her still. It was a fluttering, desperate need that erased intelligent thought. She was tired of being weak, of doing nothing and scared of Endymion being right. His words still taunted her. She wanted to prove that she could make a difference. Things could change, and she had already decided that it should start with the Precinct, the heart of Lunarian persecution. She hadn't quite figured out the how yet, but had hoped something would present itself.
Raye stepped back, composing herself as she continued to glare. Serenity glared back. She hadn't broken down crying since that night or even moped about for long. She didn't know why Raye was complaining. What did she expect Serenity to do?
"If you even think what I think you're thinking-," Raye said.
Serenity straightened. "Which is what?"
"Something crazy," Raye snapped at her. "Do you have a death wish? I said I would protect you but I won't help you kill yourself."
"I'm not trying to get myself killed!" Serenity's expression trembled with emotion as tears pierced her eyes. She didn't want to hear Raye say the same things that he did. Her words now were as much a belated response to him. "I refuse to believe that it's hopeless, that there's no way! There has to be a way. Even if it's just a little. I have to do something. Please Raye?"
Raye stared at her for a long moment. Sometimes, Serenity had a feeling the woman understood her better than she did herself. Raye frowned now, not happy by what she found. "How many?" she barked.
Serenity scuffed her feet. "Twelve--perhaps thirteen," she said. She looked up pleadingly. "They're only children. They shouldn't be in a place like this!"
A frustrated growl rose from Raye as she shook her head. "Not possible. This is different than freeing a grown Lunarian from a city home. No Lunarian has ever escaped the Precinct. And if they tried, the ones responsible wouldn't escape with their lives."
"But I have to try!" Serenity cried, her voice breaking.
Raye's softened, a sad expression on her face as she looked imploringly at Serenity. "Is it that important to you?"
Serenity nodded in hope, holding her breath.
Raye sighed and, for a long while, her gaze just drifted around the chamber. Then she stilled, seeming to listen and smiled.
"What is it?" Serenity asked, trying to listen as well. All she could hear was the faint sound of water.
"The sewers to the city," Raye murmured, eyes gleaming.
Serenity's heart leapt and her blood sped up. Her eyes searched and combed the chambers around them with a new sense of curiosity.
"It won't be easy," Raye, warned her, seeing her eagerness. "And you would risk everything--and for what? A couple of children out of hundreds. Are you sure that it is worth it?"
"Yes, I'm sure," Serenity, said. Conviction made her soft voice strong. It seemed to hang, sober and determined, over the bones of the dead.
"These are the catacombs," Raye told her. "The dead of the city, all but the royals and higher nobles, find their tombs here. It is as old as the kingdom itself and the Precinct was erected over it--for the convenience most likely. The abyss was built as an extension from its tunnels. The sewers spread out beneath the city, a labyrinth even greater than the Abyss. Thieves often use it to their advantage. Soldiers sometimes make sweeps down there, but hate the smell and do it as little as they must. Alone it would give you no advantage--you could be trapped easily within it. But it is your only chance for escape. Leaving the Precinct will not be your greatest challenge. It will be leaving the underground."
As was Raye's intention, her words quelled some of Serenity's zealousness and the girl sobered. Her eyes still burned with intensity, but fear and caution had altered her expression somewhat. The enormity of the ordeal weighed over her and the dangers finally seemed to sink in. She tried to be as practical as Raye to distract herself. "How do we get to the sewers from here? Does it connect?"
Raye gave her a grim smile. "I am afraid it won't be that easy. That will be your first challenge." She walked to a wall, touching the damp, trembling stones. Dust and webs covered the surface and it already had crumbled in places where a century of grime leaked in.
"I can't help you and the work will be agonizing and slow. Help the water and pockets of air to loosen the mortar but you will need to use your own two hands for the rest. Some here are sensitive to a Lunarian's powers. Aside from alerting them, the greater pressure of an element could easily cause a cave in. There are no cutting corners. Are you capable of such a task?"
With courage she didn't feel, Serenity jerked her head in assent.
"Very well," Raye sighed, as if hoping Serenity would have backed down. "Start tomorrow night--you're least likely to be seen in the earliest hours of morning. Watchers here often live oblivious to day and night, but there will be no surplus of visitors or activity. That is when you must be productive. No one should bother you here--not unless there is a death. If that should happen just douse your fire and hide. For a dead Lunarian, they will only drag the body down and leave it."
Serenity shivered, imagining having to work near a recently dead body. The skulls were ghosts, terrifying, but featureless. She decided she would not worry and dwell upon such a thought unless needs be.
The general's slender, cold hand rested on Serenity's shoulder. "If you can do such a thing, I will take care of the rest. You will need others to aid you. You can't do this alone." For a moment, Raye hesitated. "I wouldn't think you a coward if you changed your mind. There is no shame in it."
Stiffening, Serenity glared at the wall that stood before her. An image of a man surfaced in her mind, his hair black as night; eyes blue as the evening sky. She forgot the dull ache, focusing on the anger and a surge of stubborn will was loosed within her. She spoke not a word, the answer clear in her eyes. The stones seemed to whisper and cackle in their great, unmoving age; they were a nemesis to stand in her way. Her eyes narrowed, her heart beating with trepidation and excitement. In the days to come, she would need to prove herself as stubborn as the stone.
The city murmured, carrying a song for any soul quiet enough to listen. A soul forced to cling to its shadows, living beneath and around its sprawling buildings and streets. A heart existed within any kingdom, one that beat with the scramble of man--a thousand voices joining to form one discordant sound. The smallest, silliest matter could send them into a trill. But it was the greater hum--the silent notes—that Diamond had learned to listen to and take notice of. There was a curious tremble, a strange obscurity.
A shadow had fallen over the oblivious beings that couldn't listen, only murmur and wonder. The prince was in a strange mood, they said, having returned from his pilgrimage across the lands. As if something greater than a man or mortal, a ruler to be, a prince of earth, reflected part of himself among the people like the theme of an aria. To mimic and revere such a prince was to welcome part of him into oneself. To sense a change--a colder, more beautiful complexion, a more gracious but more indifferent bow that shivered down a spine and worried the heart. Words of a prince voiced and uttered well, the right inflection required for any moment or passing conflict. His shadows were their shadows; a noble darkness they ignorantly delighted in.
For a rebel with an ambitious desire to cure the wounds of his oppressed kind, such a future king needed to be placed under careful scrutiny. Diamond wasn't impressed by a dark prince who seemed without emotion, the embodiment of a silky threat following his forefathers.
He grew anxious and irritated, lost in thoughts of princes and princesses and their inherent ability to affect those around them. Even a princess who denied who she was couldn't escape the ripples that she created. He waited, lingering nearby--impatient, as she hid where he could not reach her. Listening to the sound of the city and contemplating was all that he could do.
Resigned to a very long wait--he would wait forever for such a Queen--he was surprised by the message that reached him. The general wanted to meet on her ward's behalf. Excitement and yearning filled him. He could compromise, he thought, if needs be.
He did not expect the reasons for this meeting to be a request for his help.
"You are both fools!" Diamond breathed, staring in horror at the woman before him. Raye watched him, unfazed and without insult. Her hand provided a careless burst of flame that flickered over both their faces, dark and light.
"And you would refuse aid to your princess?" she said, in a tone far too calm.
Diamond glared at her. "Of course not, but I will not help her destroy herself!"
"She plans to do it with or without your help," she told him serenely.
If it were possible for a man as pale as Diamond to grow paler, than he managed it.
"Better then to make sure she succeeds, don't you think?" she prompted. "Where is your rebellious nature now?"
"I know my limits and the risks! Does she?"
"No, but I think she wants to find out." Raye hid a wry smile. "She's surprisingly stubborn, you know."
"I think I am discovering that for myself," Diamond grumbled and then sighed. He had never known such a dilemma. A simple matter of rescue. "If we do this, everything changes."
"All change isn't bad," Raye pointed out. "For how long did you plan to stay as silver ghosts always retreating, your anger and power never seen?"
"A wise man and friend once advised me in such a way and he has never yet proven me wrong."
"And did this advisor of yours intend for such caution to last forever?"
Diamond frowned, wondering. He had always felt they were working steadily towards something greater, for the right time and moment. The question was, however, was it too soon? After a moment, he looked at Raye, decision in his eyes. "I am given no choice it seems. I will not reveal who she is until she is ready--though I don't guarantee I won't try to persuade her--but a Lunarian princess will always have the support of her people."
"I am pleased to hear you say that. My plans wouldn't work nearly so well alone," Raye smiled.
Diamond was curious, interested, against his will. "Plans?" he questioned. In the discussion following, he had to admit he was beginning to like the woman general. And maybe, just maybe, they wouldn't get themselves killed.
A hushed, excited air gripped the people of Ambrosia. Wondrous things seemed to be happening, a whispering in their hearts. After rumors of a girl capable of controlling all the elements, the first great occurrence during the absence of Diamond, Lunarian elders arrived, one by one, from across the lands. No one explained what suddenly attracted these wise ones, but the refugees felt it was something important. Each elder came, some with worried frowns, some with light in their eyes, all with expectation. The young Lunarians welcomed them with awe and reverence. The elders carried a great wisdom about them, like a shawl around their shoulders. Their faces were the palest, with the softest of fine wrinkles. Their eyes shown with a calm maturity gained over many years of experience; there were twelve men and women in all making up their company. These strangers like souls having banded together in an unspoken accord, observed their new surroundings, silent and waiting.
The Lunarians, proud of their homes and efforts, felt as children underneath the elders' presence. In awe, it seemed to them that the elders formed a great council, judging them. No one was quite sure whether the elders were impressed by the efforts and the hidden, growing community, but a few of their number were curious enough to venture around, asking questions. Among these was Siete, a woman of grand stature who was surprisingly beautiful in her great age. She walked as a queen might, serene and aloft, with rich crimson eyes and silver hair pulled back from her thin and noble face. Her questions were always the most probing. The elders were careful not to interfere, and created no great disturbance. The Lunarian, Kunzite, left in charge of Ambrosia in Diamond's absence, treated them both respectfully and warily. Zoicite holed himself in his scholarly den, his pride apparently hurt.
"Age doesn't always make one wiser," he had muttered to Amy. Amy had smiled in silent agreement. There was no arguing, however, that the elders were an impressive sight and possessed a great deal of knowledge--even if most of it they kept to themselves.
Since Diamond's absence, Kunzite was restless. With the elders' appearances, being the young, strong man that he was, he decided to do something about it in the practice rooms. His only regret was that Diamond, his only true rival with the sword, was not there. He did however discover the ex-soldier, Nephrite, sparring with the Terran woman. Both had wavy, chestnut hair, and made a pleasing match in both looks and abilities. They danced and crept around each other. Nephrite was of course the stronger, but his student had become a rival--and that was saying something. Lita matched his cunning moves with her own fearlessness, attacking rather than defending. She was a tall, sinewy woman, beautiful in her strength and as unpredictable as lightning.
He watched with interest, waiting, as the two fighters gained a small audience. He looked for a specific Terran maiden, and sure enough, Mina had trailed in after him. Hair like sunshine and eyes like the sky, she had both amazed and frustrated him with her endless questions and flighty presence. Her excitement and curiosity was like a child's--though definitely not a child--and her appearances had steadily grown on him.
He let out a sigh and continued to watch the two brunettes fight until she poked at his side, whispering, "Look. She's here!"
Amid the small, circling crowd, a few of the elders had slipped in. He noticed the woman, Siete, and shook his head at his uneasy feeling.
"Don't you think she's too pretty for how old she is?" Mina mused, still in a whisper.
Kunzite frowned with disapproval at the girl. "Mina," he said, his tone carrying a warning.
The girl turned to look up at him with large eyes, "Well she is!" she said stubbornly.
Kunzite flushed as eyes the color of deep roses turned on him from across the way. It was if she could sense she was being talked about. Diamond would have much to contend with when he returned.
Just then, the match ended and his attention was drawn back to the two combatants. The woman had managed to win. Both breathed heavily as they congratulated one another. Kunzite took his queue, walked towards them, and turned to the winner, bowing. "Would you honor me with a sword fight?" he asked.
She looked at him, startled, and then glanced to Nephrite in a wondering manner. "Are you sure? He's still better than I am. I only win a small portion of the time," she said.
"I'm sure," Kunzite smiled. The excitement and sudden challenge flashing in her green eyes told him that he had made the right choice.
She grinned at him, white teeth blinding, as they readied their swords and faced one another. "You know, I haven't fought anyone other than Nephrite," she informed him. It was obvious she itched to test her strength against another.
Her sword slashed out, clanging against his as he easily blocked. Her attacks were quick and striking. He defended, almost without thought. The pleasure of an adrenaline rush coursed through him as she changed tactics, withdrawing and lunging with varying levels of aggression and wit. Her greatest strength was in her unpredictability; but her greatest weakness was her hesitation to defend. She couldn't be content not to lash out, as if to defend was giving in. Kunzite began to attack, making use of this knowledge. She growled in frustration and reluctantly blocked, anxious to defeat her opponent. The tables turned as she began making mistakes, looking for openings that weren't there and going for them anyway.
She panted and sweated in her wasteful efforts. Her sword seemed to bristle and crackle, as did her spirit. The next parry would decide their fight, years of fighting had told him. He was impressed by her skill after such a short time, but was still more powerful and the better swordsman. A cry tore from her throat as she lunged at him. He prepared himself--what he was not prepared for, however, was what actually happened.
Lightning flickered and danced as it snapped down the length of the blade of her sword. Oblivious to it, she brought her weapon down upon his and they locked. Only he was too shocked to react, staring at the lightning on the blade that continued to lash like angry glowing snakes. Small stings pricked his skin where they thrashed. She knocked his sword free, victorious, pointing the end of her blade at his throat.
No one moved. No one spoke. She seemed to freeze and her smile dropped as if waking from the fervent mind of battle and seeing her sword for the first time. Her breaths were heavy and astonished. She threw the sword down and it clattered loudly to the floor. Lightning still lingered around her hand and she stared at it in amazement and horror. "What the hell's going on?" she croaked. "What's wrong with me?"
Whispers began to move around them, strong and wild.
Kunzite looked at her numbly. Mina bounded towards them, eyes wide in delight. "You can control lightning!" she squealed. Mina, spending all her spare time with any Lunarian in sight, was quick to recognize the situation.
"No I can't!" Lita said stupidly, despite the lightning still flickering before her eyes. She looked, suddenly confused, at Kunzite. "Can I?"
Kunzite nodded slowly. Everyone was watching them. He was forced to admit, "Yes... we have recently discovered two others. Terrans like yourself who have developed an ability to control the elements. One fire, and the other water." The people gasped at this revelation, some around slipping out to be the first to share this bewildering turn of events.
Lita and Mina both exclaimed at the same time, quick with the only questions they cared about at that moment.
Feeling a little uncomfortable, He answered Lita first, "We're not definitely sure why. You'll have to talk to Zoicite. He thinks there's some Lunarian blood from a long forgotten ancestor... lying dormant until now." It sounded crazy to him and he had no idea about such matters--even Zoicite had acted doubtful. Kunzite glanced at Mina and answered her question. "The other is Amy and another woman, the general of the Lunarian Precinct herself."
"That's not fair!" she squeaked, her eyes brimming with tears. He sighed. For a Terran girl, she was surprisingly fascinated with their kind and their powers. It was understandable that she felt left out with two of her friends gaining sudden control over water and now lightning. He had a weary feeling that she would only pester him more after this.
Nephrite looked dumbstruck. "My sister?"
"She was the first. Lita would be the third. Zoicite's going to have a field day with this," he muttered. He rubbed his eyes. Three once in a lifetime chances?
It was then that Eragon, a small man in stature, stepped forward. A frown weighed upon his old face as he looked at Kunzite. "Your Diamond did not mention this to us in his letters," he accused.
Kunzite sighed, "I think he had more important concerns on his mind--you know who he's looking for." Not to mention, Zoicite's pride would have been hurt.
"Nothing to do with it? It has everything to do with it!" the elder cried.
Siete slanted him a suspicious look. "What nonsense are you talking about, old man?" she said, never minding about her own age.
"The prophecy!" he shouted, exasperated by the fools around him. "It's all true! This proves it."
They stared at him, uncomprehending. "The prophecy?" Kunzite asked politely, speaking for all of them. Except for Siete's china-white skin had, if possible, become whiter.
"Bloody fools!" Eragon grumbled. "Take me to this Zoicite you speak of. Perhaps he'll have more sense."
The woman Siete disappeared. Lita shook nervously--she gave a strained smile to a worried looking Nephrite as they left. The elder bristled with disdain. Kunzite stopped himself from suggesting Mina stay back--the look she gave Kunzite left him in no doubt that from her point of view, the strongest wind in the world wouldn't keep her away and that he would regret it if he even tried.
Zoicite gave his grudging hospitality, curious despite himself after learning a third Terran now controlled an element. The elder barked for ink and parchment and bent crookedly to scribble something down. "Memorized it," he told them. "Back when our people actually cared about learning their history."
Handing it to Zoicite, the scholar scanned the lines. He read it aloud for all their benefit,
"The day the moon cries crimson tears
Will weave in silver many fears
Binding wings and bruising hearts
Is when the light of serenity starts
A silver kingdom will fall
One world will encompass all
Four shall rise of earthen blood
Of fire, lightning, heart, and flood
The moon itself will sift in their souls,
A bond unbreaking to make them whole
When the powers of true blood combine
The light of the moon will once again shine"
Amy sat pale in her seat. Zoicite's eyes lingered on her for a moment and he sighed. "I've never heard of this prophecy, but there has been much that has been lost. It definitely relates."
The elder puffed himself up. "I've been patient long enough, I think," he said. "Now tell me about the girl this Diamond searches for. Has he found her yet?"
Zoicite looked almost bored. He expected the question to come up eventually once the elders had arrived. "I haven't heard anything from him. It's been over a month since he left. Kunzite?"
Kunzite shrugged. "Some messages, all quite vague."
The elder frowned, displeased. Kunzite barely stopped himself from telling the old man to search for her himself if he thought Diamond was so incompetent. "He will find her," Kunzite said. "And send word to us when he does. We just have to wait."
Eragon shrugged, as if his impatience should be understood. "We need a queen, a princess of the blood. If she survived and he finds her, then he'll have my respect."
Kunzite faintly heard Mina muttering something about ungrateful old men and suppressed a smile. For once, he actually agreed with her.
Lita, remaining unusually quiet up to this point, tested herself. A snake of lightning whipped around her fist and she stared at it in sudden elation. "This isn't so bad," she said. "Can I kill anyone with it?"
Kunzite smothered a sudden laugh. Mina outright giggled at her friend--it figured the brunette would first consider its uses in battle.
The elder frowned in disapproval. "Nonsense, girl. You're not that strong--" he glanced at Zoicite, "or are they?"
Zoicite thought about it. "The two possessive of the power over fire and water are definitely no weaklings. I would venture to guess they may even be among the strongest in their elements with practive." He glanced at Lita. "But as for your question, no, a normal use of your lightning won't kill anyone, merely stun. That's not accounting, however, for the fact that you may be able to pull natural lightning from the sky--that would be quite destructive. I advise you not try it unless you really do want to kill someone."
"What are we expected to do?" Amy asked. "What if we don't want to be a part of this?"
"Speak for yourself," Lita muttered. Amy blushed, looking down at her hands, but her question still stood.
"I wouldn't worry about it too much," Zoicite told her, an odd gentleness about the cold scholar. "These things have a way of happening, but no one is going to force you to do anything." That seemed to satisfy her--if only slightly.
"So what do we do now?" Lita asked, her expression eager.
The elder, scowling, looked at Kunzite. "What he said. We wait."
The wait was much shorter than they resigned themselves to, but the excitement wasn't over the discovery of the girl who was the subject of all the many rumors. Only a few days later the messenger, Jadeite, arrived, sagging in exhaustion. He brought with him instructions from Diamond.
"He said to give this to you and you were to make the necessary arrangements," Jadeite gasped, still winded, as he handed a letter to Kunzite. That surprised no one--Kunzite always took command in Diamond's absence. A small crowd had already circled around him. Siete and the old man, the only elders among them, hovered like waiting phantoms, interfering just enough to keep them all on their toes.
"What's to do?" the old man grumbled. "He's just supposed to bring the girl back here." Siete waited without comment, crimson eyes narrowed but otherwise serene.
Kunzite's eyes widened as he read the letter. There was no mention of a princess, but highly detailed instructions regarding an escape attempt from the abyss. He told the nosy individuals standing around him as much, watching varying visages of surprise ripple across their faces. All looked sober. Kunzite felt a sense of grimness welling within also. This was no simple mission. The harm it could do was great, but even success would bring repercussions they could only imagine. Stealing Lunarians from the Abyss itself? The place was a fortress cradling an underground nightmare.
"Is such a thing even possible?" Nephrite asked, bewildered. Having been a soldier and brother to the general stationed there; of all of them, he understood best what slim chances they had.
Jadeite, obviously having already been informed by Diamond of the situation -- his voice unusually soft and serious -- spoke up, "The general herself is organizing it, though she doesn't plan to involve herself any further."
"It's a trap then," someone surmised.
Jadeite shook his head, a smile playing upon his lips. "I have met the woman in secret many times. She is one of us. She supports the efforts of a girl under her protection determined to free a band of children. I am told the girl is working in the catacombs, even as we speak, to forge a passage into the sewers. They will need help from there."
Nephrite grinned at the very idea of revolution. "The sewers--of course. It might actually succeed. What role do we play?"
"Will we get to fight?" Lita asked, excited about the idea.
"We most likely will be unable to avoid it, but that is not our mission," Kunzite frowned. "They need a distraction. Traps set in the sewers. People to bait them. They won't expect an escape attempt from the abyss. Surprise is our ally. We can only hope to confuse and divide the soldiers. We need to make sure there remains at least one safe passageway for the children into the city and make ourselves scarce as soon as they are safe. The sewers will be crawling with watchers and soldiers--it will not be easy. And I am to organize the volunteers."
The men around him stirred and straightened with the fire of eagerness in their eyes. Asking for volunteers did not seem necessary.
"I could perhaps steal back my old uniform," Nephrite mused, his mind quick to act. "I could get close to them easily--urge them astray in the panic." He slanted a thoughtful look at the wiry Jadeite. "I may even be able to find a uniform for you if you plan to join us."
Jadeite blinked at him in surprise, and then grinned, an amused, devious grin. "A soldier--I?" he scoffed. "Not me. I will be a thief, a beggar in the sewers. I am used to tricks that lead others astray."
"That isn't a bad idea," Kunzite said, "Nephrite, obtain as many uniforms as you can, there are a fair number of Terran men among us who could make use of such a disguise."
"What about me?" cried an all too familiar voice. "I want to help!" Kunzite glared at the blonde girl, brooding. She glared back.
Jadeite slapped his back with a laugh. "Don't be so stubborn. I'm sorry to say, but the girl's right. She's just what we need for a diversion. Both girls are blonde and blue-eyed from what I hear. They can divide the children among them where the catacombs meet the sewers; two smaller groups can move faster and be more confusing for their pursuers. What a jolly chase it will be!"
Kunzite scowled darkly at the man. "This isn't a game, fool."
Jadeite stared back with a serene smile, obnoxious as only he could be. "Life is a game of love and war, chance and cunning. I'd say you'd get grey hairs ahead of your time worrying so much if your hair wasn't already silver."
Sighing, Kunzite ignored him. Glancing through the increasing numbers within the crowd, he looked to find both elders were silent. Neither had expected such a turn of events, opting to refrain from giving their approval or disapproval. Just one more thing of which to be grateful the people around him began to bristle with excitement, murmuring among themselves.
"When will this be?" asked Lita, barely able to restrain herself.
Kunzite shook his head. "The message says only to prepare. They will send word when they are ready. All we can do is wait." Like a never-ending circle, once again the people of Ambrosia waited.
Darkness clung to Serenity, forever clawing at the edge of a small flame. Where it was absent -- it had become all encompassing. Serenity no longer shivered in what was now a weakened enemy, no longer worth her fear and anxiety. She was too tired, too obsessed, to fear it. She focused on her task with fervor, battling her own helplessness that seemed to choke hers. She tripped over the bones at her feet and skulls glared dolefully at her in the firelight. She worked as she had never worked before. Her arms ached with a constant pain, her body pushed to its limits and beyond. Dust and stale air filled her lungs along with a putrid, cloying smell.
She attacked and chipped away, stone by heavy chunk of stone. The small trowel had become an extension of her hand, its blade chipping away at the wall, digging into slowly loosening stone and shoveling away the rubble. Her fingers were raw, blistered and callused from prying into the stubborn mirage of stones that never seemed to disappear as she struggled to free the larger rocks. Her arms pulled, tugged and almost screamed as she tossed stones of all sizes into the growing mound. She crawled, slipped and moved slowly as she progressed. Sometimes sections of the wall and ceiling collapsed and near buried her in the rubble.
There was no one to disturb her, no witnesses to her despair other than the human remains and silent graves. Every small triumph, each stone removed, was replaced by one even larger than the last. Obstinate, she attacked the wall with greater fervor as if it were more than just stone and mortar, as if she were chipping away at her own weaknesses and fears. Grief was a memory in the shadow of her will.
So many nights had passed in a blur, more than she could possibly count, so centered was she on her tireless work. Exhaustion her only companion, sleep her only other thought. Her waking hours not spent in the hidden tombs of the abyss she spent with Raye, whom quizzed and lectured Serenity until her mind spun. When she returned to the catacombs, losing herself in the mindless agony of her toils, she thought of those conversations like a mantra. There was a task greater than the wall she sought to break through and conquer.
As a constant reminder, she visited the children of the cell, always returning as promised. She no longer let the stares of the watchers bother her, no longer jumped when they slunk by her into the darkness. Some hilarious part of her wanted to laugh at them. They were oblivious and ignorant, not ever considering that a slip of a girl was punching a hole into their beloved world of shadows.
Her life became an endless cycle; her heart and hands accepted the thankless work. A day came, the impossible day, when her fingers wrenched a stone and reaching mindlessly for the next, found only air. She gasped and wriggled her fingers through the small hole. An end was in sight and the days that followed thereafter were muddy with triumph. The hole grew steadily, a gaping wound, a shadow of freedom. She collapsed, light-headed with victory, when finally it was large enough for her frame to worm through and more than large enough for that of a child.
When she was content with her secret hole, Raye told her she must wait. It would be folly indeed to waste such efforts with recklessness. Chipping away at a rock wall had taught Serenity patience. The nights that Raye slipped away to secret meetings, she now brought Serenity with her as well. More than anything else, these nights impressed upon her the enormity of her task. She was humbled by the careful plans discussed, the instructions she was given.
Somehow, her personal decision had rippled ever outward and affected others. People wiser and stronger than her, remained unseen. Some names she knew well, others not at all. What had she done to cause strangers to help in the impossible task she set for herself? Suddenly the ordeal was greater than her abilities to perform the required task, greater than the lives of the children it might save, and the need to prove hope existed to a stubborn prince. It would affect almost everyone that she knew and cared for--and came to care for.
She got along marvelously with the man, Jadeite, who Raye secretly met with. A man of all sorts of trades and talents, he explained to her in detail their course of action and reasons for everything. While she had been digging through the wall of rock, he had combed the underground sewers and drains until he knew every turn, chamber, and exit by heart. She liked his crazy grins, easy attitude, and his cutting wit. He reminded her of a sneakier, more reckless version of Andrew. Jadeite seemed thrilled by the danger and the trouble he could cause, where her soldier friend took much convincing that they weren't all insane and looking for death. Of course, she couldn't avoid Andrew and Sparrow forever and eventually had to tell them her plans.
Diamond she saw once, suddenly one night and his presence set her nerves rankling. He didn't notice--or pretended not to. The man was all seriousness and down to earth. He spoke not a word of her being the princess or the future after their outrageous plan. As practical and strategy-minded as Raye, he focused only on the present. Pale as moonstone, she nodded at whatever she was told. She thought of all the people she was dragging into her selfish goal. Every friend she had gained, Terran or Lunarian, seemed to be in on it. Mina and Lita would be among those aiding them in the tunnels! Even Artemis, disguised and noble Artemis, had told her he would play his part.
Time began to beat like a waiting heart, counting down the restless days. Dread and excitement were her companions. A day was set. At Raye's suggestion, they waited for the prince's birthday, in the last days of winter when the streets would be crammed with visitors and celebration. Much easier, she had said, for Lunarians to slip into the sewers unnoticed and as a plus rested on the night of a full moon--a good omen for any Lunarian. That was fine with Serenity. She thought it ironic, a sense of justice, that Endymion should discover what they had done on his day of celebration. All would learn that the Lunarians had dared to steal some of their own from the depths of the abyss--demonstrating what they were capable of now. And they would succeed, she thought. The idea of failure, after their greatest efforts and the network of those involved, was unthinkable and far too dire to contemplate. So she waited, hope beating in her chest.
"I think you are distracted, sister," mused Neklair. He sat back lazily in his seat as they shared a goblet of wine. He had been surprised, but not adverse to her suggestion of visiting him at the castle and toast to the prince's birthday. Revelers spread across the city were doing much the same thing--if not in such a quiet, dignified manner as they.
Both brother and sister were much alike, enjoying their quiet, laid back moments together where they might speak. The castle was a promenade of nobles, ambassadors, and kings from across the lands. They would be occupied for days with their festivities including balls arranged in the name of the prince of Earth staying on long into the spring to attend councils where the order of business would be much more serious in tone. They would engage in united relations, and have the excuse of more parties in which to partake.
"Am I?" Raye asked. She looked at him with a serene smile tugging at her lips.
For the first time he was startled by her violet eyes. Strange, that he had never noticed such a vivid, rare color... His sister was a rare woman, the dark beauty of her mother and the spirit of her father. Noble to a fault, she disliked the frills, flighty concerns of women, scorning their circles, surprising all by following her father and brothers into the military. Now, the highest-ranking color, black, fit snuggly around her form, her silver buttons and insignia claiming a position higher than any but those of gold in the castle. Neklair himself enjoyed the garb of rich black and gold decoration, having long ago eased into his father's high position. His father had lost interest in the affairs of the castle, wasting away after the death of his wife.
"Does anything trouble you?" he probed.
Raye smiled a familiar, silky smile that he knew well from his own mirror. "I am afraid I may have been lost in thought. I wonder... since you live in the castle, how the prince has been of late?"
A considering frown slid over Neklair's expression. "The prince has been... different, since his return from his journey to the other lands. But perhaps he has merely begun taking his duties seriously? He was always a restless young man, but today he turns twenty-one. Mayhap age and his ambassadorial visits to the other kingdoms have done their job. One can only hope. He shows the promise of a great king, following in the footsteps of his father."
"Of course, his father..." Raye murmured distantly, staring into her drink. "A king for the legends, never to be forgotten."
"Indeed. He succeeded where his ancestors had failed--finally doing something about Lunarians."
"And I wonder," Raye reflected, "how he procured such knowledge to defeat them?"
Neklair shrugged, an elegant, careless action. "What does it matter?"
She gave a weary and tense look. "Perhaps it doesn't. I merely find it curious."
"You have always been too curious, Raye," he chuckled. 'But then I have the same malady."
"And you, my dear brother? Does anything concern you on this night or of late?"
"Not this night--no," he said.
"And what has bothered you recently?" she asked.
He laughed slightly. "I am afraid it is a personal affliction of mine. I haven't quite addressed my failure at the river. It grates me, even as I try to accept that even I am not capable of everything."
"One wouldn't guess that from knowing you," Raye said, amused.
"I simply prefer to be in control," Neklair digressed. "There was something strange around our captive. Odd coincidences? I couldn't foresee his cunning, to force the girl who treated him to cut him free. Ungrateful animals. I haven't forgiven myself for such lack of foresight. Even when we found them, I failed to capture the Lunarians. I can only be glad that we at least managed to save the girl from them. How goes she? You seem quite fond of her, to have invited her to stay with you. I hear her adopted father has visited her on good terms, so I assume all is well in that quarter."
"Yes--all is quite well in that quarter," Raye agreed, smiling, a shadow in her eyes as she wondered exactly how the girl faired at that very moment.
Serenity stood next to Artemis, her heart clunking within her chest the only betrayer of her fear, the adrenaline and unease that surged through her blood. Her expression was carefully masked, demure, next to her noble father. Artemis was her father--the only one she had ever really known. She envied his confident, assured walk in such cloying darkness. Even the shadows seemed to fear his presence.
The watcher who guided them was Rubeus, his head as red and glaring as she remembered. His eyes had flickered towards her in a worrying curioisity. Was there recognition in those lazy eyes, she wondered, or simply a male interest? Either of these possibilities bothered her. He glanced at her far too often for comfort. Serenity noticed vaguely when they passed the narrow corridor that twisted downward, she knew well, to the catacombs. She forced herself not to glance into its depths. Soon they followed the familiar paths, past the two shadowy guards and into the children's ward.
Rubeus stopped and sighed, looking around at the cells, unimpressed. "Here we are. Are you sure, was it a child slave you wanted? They're weak creatures. We have slightly older ones."
"No, this will be quite fine," Artemis said, calm and sure.
Rubeus shrugged. "Suit yourself. I suppose they would be easier to manage."
Serenity wandered in an aimless, careful manner around the cells as if possessed of only a mild curiosity. Eventually she reached the cell she wanted, that haunted her dreams and days, and stared into it. "How about in here?" she offered.
Both Rubeus and Artemis joined her for a closer look.
Serenity's eyes glittered and fell into shadow as she pointed a slender hand. "That boy there. Would he do?"
The children within were quiet, watching with curious eyes. As promised, they spoke not a word and looked at her without recognition. The boy she pointed to, the one with fiery gold eyes, met her steady gaze, a tense constraint about his shoulders.
"He will do just fine," Artemis said after a heavy moment. He looked at Rubeus who procured a key. It jangled loudly in the lock, and the door whined a little as it opened.
Rubeus stepped into the cell, growling, "Out with you now. Let's go." He grabbed the boy roughly by the arm, jerking him to his feet. "No problems from you now."
Artemis had shadowed Rubeus into the cell, and Serenity waited, on edge by the door. If anything alerted the two guards--but nothing did, not a sound, not a scream. A faint sizzle and crackle in the air, a glance of light and muffled thud. Serenity closed her eyes in gratefulness. Drawing strength, she slipped into the cell. "Out--quickly and quietly. We are freeing you," she whispered urgently to the children. "Do exactly as you are told!" They obeyed without hesitation, shuffling and moving out, silent as ghosts, excitement lighting their small faces. Perhaps they had thought--or hoped--her visits had meant something more but never dared to believe.
Serenity's eyes searched within the dark cell, worried whether she had been too late. Little Iris was still there, however, unmoving, pale and sick on the cold floor. Serenity slid to her knees, checking for and relieved to find a pulse. The little girl's features were gaunt and white, a bluish hue to her lips and a beading of sweat upon her brow. She did not move, nor moan, when prodded. The boy fell to her side like a loyal wolf cub, staring down at the little girl. "They gave her moonshire," he whispered, his young face strained and fierce. "When they first brought her here. They don't normally give it to children, but for some reason they gave it to her. Perhaps she fought them. She didn't look so bad when they first brought her here. She just looked pale and kept clawing at her collar. We've tried to wake her, but she won't move."
Serenity felt ill, wondering if she had been too late, and much too slow in her efforts in the catacombs, that this girl might have joined her there too soon. As it was, she feared whether it was already too late. She turned, feeling grateful to the boy beside her who stood straight and tall. He looked like he had prepared for this night for as long as Serenity had, despite having no warning at all. "What's your name?" she asked him.
He shrugged, suddenly defensive and flushing. "Got no name," he mumbled.
That jolted Serenity. What would it have been like, to find yourself so unwanted and not given a name--to be thrown and raised like a captive animal in a cage? She pursed her lips. "Then I'll just have to give you one," she told him. Everyone deserved a name.
Artemis reappeared at the cell's door. "This is no time to linger, Serenity," he warned. "The two guards are taken care of."
She looked at him in surprise, not even knowing that he had left. "You know, Artemis, I am glad I never got on your bad side as a child. You're somewhat frightening right now." A grin softened her words, pulling a wry smile from Artemis' lips. She turned, serious again, to the unconscious little girl, pulling her into her arms and cradling her as she stood. She found it terrifying how light the girl was.
They made haste, the children a whisper around them as they slipped through the passageways. Artemis acquired a torch and they crept and spilled down the dark steps and tunnels into the catacombs. The children kept their composure much better than Serenity had at the sight of human remains and the chambers of graves--too distracted, to excited, or simply too jaded to care.
Serenity hesitated at her mountain of ravaged stone and the dark hole, her great accomplishment. She clutched Iris tighter to her chest, feeling a sudden fear that it had all been a mistake.
Artemis turned her to face him. "Everything will be all right. Trust yourself and those that aid you this night. Now go." He looked painfully at the limp little girl, too familiar. "I will hand Iris to you once you're through and stay till the last of pas."
Serenity tried to push away her panic. "Why don't you come with me?" she pleaded.
"Serenity, I am not fitting through there," he admonished gently and then kissed her cheek. "Be safe and I will meet you in Ambrosia when all is over."
There was no time for long goodbyes. She crawled and squirmed through the hole, mindlessly taking Iris and waiting as the children poured from the opening like white mice. She watched, desolate, as the glow from the other side vanished. They were drenched in darkness, a slight foul smell in the air and water trickling down by their feet. If not for Iris clutched in her arms, she regretted not being able to call back a fire. Her mind raced over the memory of rough maps that Jadeite had sketched for her, knowing there was only one path until they had gotten nearer to the city. It was imperative she arrived where the tunnels breached out as quickly as possible. She only dreaded doing it in the dark.
Serenity acted on a suspicion. The boy with no name. She lowered herself to the floor, Iris in her lap to free one hand. A flame sparked to life in her palm. The boy was beside her, staring at the fire with envy. "Do you think you could do this?" she asked him. Her pulse beat with every wasted moment, but the lad nodded. She turned him around, removing his collar with the trick Raye had taught her. It took another moment, and she prayed with hope. If his element wasn't fire, she didn't know what was.
The boy screwed up his eyes, face angry with determination as he stared at his hand. Time was passing by, slipping away. Serenity almost told him to stop trying--even if his element were fire, it was probably expecting too much to have it surface that fast without prior use. Moonshire woven into the collars made it far more difficult to recover from such prolonged exposure. Some fire Lunarians couldn't even create flame--merely control it. She underestimated the boy's strength though. A flame, tiny at first, but sure and true, sprouted into the air before him. He looked at it in awe, pride, and glee.
"That's wonderful," Serenity said, praising him. "Just keep it going." She extinguished the flame in her own hand, arranging Iris back into her arms. Sweat clung to her face as they hurried through the tunnel. The children scrambled beside her with set, obedient faces.
It was a long way to go and difficult; fear continued to claw at her. Somehow, she had never envisioned going this far, endlessly burrowing through a solid granite wall. The night had come--she was really slipping through a sewer with children imprisoned in the abyss. She couldn't believe it.
The boy with the flame obvserved her strained features and suddenly asked, "What about my name?"
"I don't think this is the time." Her body trembled.
"Why not?" he demanded.
Serenity pushed down her anxiety and the tightness in her throat. The children were acting braver than she was. That sobered her, brought a fire to her eyes and she looked over at the boy. "How about Flick?" He was a scrap of a boy with an explosive will. His gold eyes flashed; the flick of flame in his hands. He smiled, a fiery grin of revelation and delight. The boy with no name finally had a name.
They continued on, Serenity with a new well of strength. She forced herself not to look back the way they had come. Surely, the watchers had discovered the unconscious guards and Rubeus in the empty cell--Raye had assured her that they wouldn't be able to follow. Somehow, Serenity still felt as if they were beings of shadow, slipping through any obstacle. She reasoned her worry away. She was small for a young woman of her age and had only just fit through the hole herself. Only a child could slip in after her.
Time seemed to stand still as they walked until they entered a larger sewer, one that breached out into different tunnels. Here water flowed through a sunken crevice and strips for walking flanked its sides. Two figures skulked in the shadows of one passage way and recognizing them she had to stifle her joy. Never before was she so glad to see two familiar faces. Jadeite grinned when he saw her, blonde hair mussed and grime on his face. He looked as if he had lived down in the sewers all his life. Mina smiled at Serenity in delight, her creased, worried brow smoothing. Blue eyes shone and her hair, a fairer blonde than Serenity's own, fell from Mina's gaping hood. "Serenity!" she cried.
Serenity joined them, the children quick to follow. "Is everything all right?" she said, her tone filled with worry.
Jadeite smirked at her. "Have more faith in us," he said. Then he glanced around the tunnels. "There's no time to waste though. This is where we split up. Mina will take some of the children."
"Yes, hurry," Mina whispered, and gazed at the unmoving girl in Serenity's arms with pity. "Let me take the girl."
Serenity almost refused, but then thought better of it, carefully giving Iris over. Mina cradled the girl in her arms, a concerned expression on her face.
"I'm going with you," Flick said, his tone firm, his eyes filled with loyalty.
Serenity nodded, and they then divided the other children among them. Mina slipped down one path and Jadeite pointed Serenity to another. She glanced back at him for reassurance only to find that he had already slunk off into the shadows. Her nerves screamed at her as they fled. One of the children whimpered, but Flick glared at the younger boy and shushed him.
Noise filtered through the labyrinth of sewers, faint shouts and footsteps running. Soldiers were underground. Serenity shrunk to the curved walls, eyes wild as she pressed on, the children doing the same. "Don't worry, I'll protect you," Flick told her, his tone serious and she loved him for it.
They filed out into a cross roads of tunnels and Serenity hesitated, bewildered, trying to remember the right one she was supposed to go down. She chose one she thought was the one and barreled over towards it. A body swept out of the shadow behind her--a watcher? Arms enveloped her, a hand clamping to stifle her scream. A familiar voice whispered in her ear. "Quiet now, it's all right. That passage isn't safe anymore. They didn't fall for all our traps. There's a fight."
Serenity breathed a sigh of relief, seeing the locks of silver hair emerging from under a great black hood. "Please don't scare me like that again," she begged Diamond.
Silvery blue eyes crinkled at her in humor. "Just don't forget this was your idea," he told her. "Now follow me. Kunzite is waiting for Mina and the other children so don't worry about them." He tugged her down another dark passageway. It felt colder as they walked with him. Water that dripped down the walls had glazed over in the form of ice.
"What's happening?" she breathed. "The others?"
"They're fine," he assured her. " Don't worry. Some of us are good at adapting."
Serenity stared at his back, suddenly emotional. "Why are you doing this? Is it because-"
"No," he said. "Don't think that way. Everyone who is here tonight wanted to be a part of this. One person can't take responsibility for this night and such an event had to happen eventually. You only hurried on the inevitable."
Somehow, he understood her underlying concern and fear. It felt good to hear his words--even if she didn't fully believe them.
"They would love you, you know," Diamond said after a moment of silence, his voice almost a sigh. "You would never be alone. I lead the people now because it was necessary, not because I wanted to. I have no pride. They chose to obey me."
"They wouldn't choose me," Serenity said.
"And would you deny them such a choice?" Diamond retorted, silencing her. "You act blind to your strengths, and every man has weaknesses. I am no exception. I was born as a non-entity. What place do I have rightfully in a kingdom? None. I learned to be who I am today, and it is something you must learn as well. You once asked me what you could give. I can only give them wars and more wars--you could one day bring them peace."
The children scuttled behind them, quiet as mice. They listened in confusion and Serenity was felt the prickling awareness of their stares. Flick glanced at her, a frown and curious look revealed in the light of the flame in his hand. Serenity looked away from him, unable to meet such penetrating golden eyes even if they were from a child--no, especially from a child.
Diamond seemed to expect no response from her and she offered him none, even as his words buried themselves within her mind for consideration later. Their steps tapped on the sewer floor, like a pattering of soft rain, sometimes dragging through the mucky water that always crept by them. It took all of Serenity's concentration to remember where they were, what turns they had made and which ones needed to be taken. Her hope increased and spirits lightened as she thought they had reached more than half way. It couldn't be much further.
In a clearing of arches and paths where two shallow rivers of sewage swept by, soldiers appeared with torches and swords drawn. They crept in out of tunnels and shadows like rats, too quiet. Diamond cursed. The soldiers had set their own traps, and they had just walked into one of them. He glanced to the passage they had been heading for and were near, his expression set and determined. "Go!" he urged Serenity forward. "I will hold them back. Get the children to safety."
In her surprise and horror, Serenity began to obey him without a thought. The path was covered in water that reached her thighs, and the children's bellies or chests. They moved into the tunnel. The water rippled around the children before her. She stopped, dismay overwhelming her. There was a rattling sensation within her bones as a chain and heavy gate clanked within the empty chamber. Then, a swift tumbling sound met her ears. She turned as the gate crashed into the water behind her, disturbing it as waves swept about her legs.
"What are you doing?" she cried. "How are you supposed to follow after us?" Her fingers clawed at the weave of metal, eyes pleading.
Diamond stared at her, an odd expression on his face. It looked pained, loving and sad all at the same time. "Don't forget what I told you," he whispered. "I promise you that you would make a great queen. Now go, Serenity. Go quickly."
"Not without you!" she sobbed. She hated the way he was talking. She wouldn't allow him to sacrifice himself.
"What about the children?" he asked her gently, his hand pressed upon the gate.
Her hands dropped limply from the bars and she turned in torment to see them waiting, having crawled up onto a dry path, shivering.
A sudden swelling of water at her feet distracted her and she breathed in sharply as she looked back. Diamond's smile was sad as the water snaked upwards like a vine around the gate, slowly freezing within a shell of ice. "Go Serenity," he said. "Remember the paths. Do you remember? Never look back."
Serenity forced herself to nod, her breathing caught in her throat as she choked up. A flood of water rose like a wall over the gate. She saw the sheen of sweat on Diamond's face. The soil-laden waters would require many times the effort to manipulate. Still, it had solidified, creating a frozen barrier with the icy winter-like air rising from it. Sounds fell mute on the other side, accompanied by a glittering blur of motion.
Flick had joined her back in the water where she numbly stood. "I could help you melt it," he said, a wrinkle on his worried brow.
She looked down at his eager eyes, shaking her head. "No. We must go." Her fingers wrapped around his hand and, reaching the children, they fled into the cold darkness.
"What's taking her so long?" Andrew squirmed in his uniform and glared at the dark cavity in the wall. Sparrow stood by him, silent and grim. The great bridge loomed over them like a hulking shadow as water lapped near their feet. The stone barriers to the river seemed to divide the city, turning it into a distant world of celebration up above. As planned, they were able to station themselves there. The long wait was more distressing to Andrew than if he had been able to fight--to know what was happening, to do something.
Neklair was livid when messengers had ridden like devils to the castle, crying of an escape and the sewers. The search party was quick and threatening in numbers as they slithered into the underground. All known exits were commanded to be under guard. Andrew and Sparrow managed to watch this particular exit to the sunken river. It was a small accomplishment.
They didn't see Neklair slinking out from the river wall until he materialized by their side. There was a storm in his quiet expression that they had never known before. Both Andrew and Sparrow were jolted into feelings of shame as if guilty children.
"Anything wrong, sir?" Andrew asked with a slight bow.
"I am afraid that there is too much wrong this night," Neklair murmured, his black eyes hooded. Andrew and Sparrow exchanged a wary look, both too nervous to respond. "Never mind," Neklair sighed, resting a hand on Andrew's shoulder. "I will make sure that all is put to rights. Stay here, both of you. I will explore these sewers myself."
"Sir," Andrew said. "Perhaps your men need you elsewhere? We have this exit well guarded. Why not--"
"Are you questioning my command?"
A cold shiver went through Andrew. "No sir. Of course not."
Without another word, Neklair vanished into the sewers--a dangerous man on the prowl. Serenity would run directly into his path.
"We have to warn her," Sparrow rasped.
Andrew ran a tormented hand through his hair. "How?" he demanded. He looked at Sparrow. "Go get help. I'm going to follow him down there."
"Just do it!" The order was a panicked, desperate plea and Sparrow grimaced at him for a moment.
"Go on then. Don't do anything stupid, kid," Sparrow barked. Grumbling, his large frame stalked off.
Andrew scrambled down to the lower depths, not knowing at all what he was doing. Perhaps he could direct Neklair elsewhere? He thought and thought fast, nothing reasonable occurring to him. The darkness of the sewers swallowed him and he lost all his bearings. He walked on, sure, that Neklair would have lit a torch. No flame reached his eyes and with new hesitation, he felt his way against a wall. The sound of water slipped in a crevice near his feet and he edged away from it. He peered uselessly, dragging his feet past one then another narrow passage gaping from the wall. Had Neklair gone down one of them? Andrew couldn't be sure or feel comforted.
Cloth rustled and air suddenly whispered at his back. Cold steel slid against his throat, accompanied by a soft stinging sensation. Paralyzed with fear, Andrew could only faintly gasp. "It's me. It's only me!"
A curse sounded behind him and the blade lifted. Yellow light blazed, swarming to life on the head of a torch. "Andrew!" Neklair's silky voice sounded unusually like a growl. "You dare to leave your post?"
Andrew swallowed his lump of fear, rubbing at his neck and a faint line of blood. "Sorry captain, but that's no reason to slit my throat, is it?" he asked.
For the barest moment, Neklair looked contrite. Then his face twisted into a scowl. "You should know better than to follow me. I know how to watch my back. Now I ask again. Why did you leave your post?"
"It wasn't to be disobedient," Andrew defended. "I know it's against orders, but surely, sir, you did not mean to go down here alone? Didn't you say yourself to stay grouped in numbers?"
Neklair raised a sleek eyebrow. "And you were worried about me, were you?"
Andrew stiffened, trying to contain his nerves and make his reasoning plausible. "We are dealing with Lunarians. Besides, Sparrow at a post is worth two of any man."
"Yes, indeed..." Neklair sighed and sheathed his sword. "I am not without my wits, young man. You may however, join me if you promise to do exactly as I say. No sense sending you back now, I suppose."
"Thank you, sir." Andrew bowed his head. Nervous sweat dripped over his eyes and his uniform felt unnaturally tight and cloying. "What now, if I may ask?"
A smile, cold and predatory, slipped over Neklair's expression. "We wait."
A scream of rage tore through Kunzite. Amid the swords and lashing bodies maneuvering the expanse of the underground, a man of silver-hair fell. He floated lifeless in one of the rivers of rust-colored water. Despite all their efforts, they had been found. Soldiers that had veered away from the trap set for them were soon followed by a misfit gang of Terrans and Lunarians. Kunzite was trapped in their battle, aware of Mina huddling with the silver-haired children nearby. The blonde's eyes shown bright, but she kept herself from the fight, clutching the small child in her arms. Only two among their number were obvious fighters. The ex-soldier Nephrite cut at his old comrades without compassion, curses and yells of traitor rolling harmlessly off his back. Behind him the Terran woman of lightning was putting up a good fight. She danced against her opponents with the ambition of a tigress, blade swinging and flickering with electric sparks snaking from it. Soldiers fell from the slashing of her sword and the lightning as it stunned its victims.
Two other Terran men loyal to Diamond bravely dueled on despite their wounds and their grunts of pain. One by one, the number of soldiers dwindled. Another soldier had the foolish idea, in desperation, to reach for the Lunarian children. Kunzite cut the man off. His blade whipped the air, currents trailed off and honed into a cutting wind. Without his sword even touching flesh, the blades of air sliced across the soldier. The man dropped lifelessly. One and then two more victims followed until there were no opponents left.
"Is everyone all right?" Kunzite demanded. He refused to look at the fallen bodies around him.
Nephrite sheathed his sword and smiled wearily. "Just scratches. Could have been worse."
"Scratches my ass," Lita muttered, catching the man over her shoulder as he stumbled. The two began to bicker and point out faults in the other's fighting technique. Kunzite hid a smile; those able to argue so passionately needed no worrying about.
A soldier on the floor writhed, fighting off death as he pressed his hands over the shallow gashes across his chest and the hole in his stomach. His bristly face glistened with sweat and his eyes dimmed with pain. "Why now?" the man asked in a gasp, his hysterical laughter turning to gagging. "Why show yourselves now? You risk your lives for pathetic children! Fools, ha-ha. What idiots."
"You dare to laugh at us now?" Kunzite asked quietly.
The soldier choked as he laughed, making a sickening sound, "You lost when the king destroyed your kind! What do you fight for, and what is left? Your strongest has already been defeated and captured; the man of water and ice."
Horror froze Kunzite's bones and a growl rumbled in his throat. "You lie."
"Believe me or not." The man spluttered and giggled in his dying amusement, blood spitting from his mouth. Just as Kunzite went to pull out his sword, the soldier's eyes rolled back and he never spoke again.
No one breathed or moved, a veil of uncertainty encompassing them. It was a lost, confused feeling that spoke as they looked at one another. The idea that of the leader, being defeated was absurd, but the possible reality of such an occurrence was enough to damage their confidence and they wondered. Kunzite stared at nothing in particular, as still as the air around him, lost within a whirlpool of inner turmoil. Fear. Frustration. Desolation. His life had ended and begun when he had met Diamond. After all, he had accomplished, after coming so far, how could he simply vanish? Kunzite wanted to yell that it was impossible but the icy chill within his heart seemed to creep up on him like a horrifying truth.
"What do we do?" Nephrite whispered, his complexion pale.
Kunzite's jaw tightened and his eyes grew hard. "Nothing's changed. We continue as planned." He turned to start walking, ignoring their hesitation. They had no choice but to follow. He felt their wounded looks on his back and was angry. He didn't have the luxury to grieve. His hands shook despite every muscle being as taut as a spinner's thread. His breaths thinned like a wind through the crack in a mountain.
A soft touch on his arm jolted him. Mina looked up at him with worry and some of his tension eased. Then he noticed how tired she seemed, the hollow cheeks, the dragging blink of her eyelids, and the droop of her shoulders. The smile she gave him was kind but exhausted. It was simply the contrast to her fountain of energy and brilliant smiles that made him concerned, he thought. They were all weary after all.
He frowned at her and the bundle she carried. "You've been carrying the child all this time. Let me take her for awhile," he said. He didn't really want to carry the sick little girl--children made him uncomfortable as a rule and this one had seemed a breath away from death. He hadn't the heart to tell Mina he didn't think the child would make it through the night. Mina clutched the girl so.
Mina hesitated but then, with a sigh of relief, nodded in gratitude. She let him take the girl from her.
Kunzite resigned himself to holding a near-dead child, but paused when the girl curled up in his arms like a doll. She murmured incoherently and burrowed for a more comforting fit. A healthy flush stained previously sallow cheeks. Her condition had been serious--possibly too serious to be reversed. But this child looked perfectly fine, if a little worn around the edges. She slept peacefully with calm and steady breaths. "What did you do?" he whispered.
Mina jerked to look at him, attempting to cover a yawn. "Hmmmm? Oh, yes. She seems to be doing better now. Don't you think?" She smiled and brushed her hand over the girl's forehead. "See, I told you, you would be fine, little one!" Kunzite noticed something odd just then. A soft, almost unnoticeable glow of the child's skin beneath Mina's fingers.
This marvel was followed by another. The girl's eyelashes fluttered open. Blurry hazel eyes peered at Mina in confusion and wonder. "Serenity? Is that you?" the child mumbled.
Elated, Mina sent Kunzite a triumphant look. Her expression gentle on the girl. "No. My name is Mina. But don't worry! We're all helping Serenity get you and the others to a safe place." The other children craned their heads, curious about the girl amongst them who had finally woken.
"That's good," the girl sighed, already closing her eyes and going back to sleep.
Lita and Nephrite stood nearby, waiting for Kunzite along with the others in their company. They were all eager to reach the surface. Kunzite was not ready to let his new thought go. "It is not natural to recover so quickly," he said.
Mina frowned at him. "She's better, isn't she? Then that is all that matters. Just because something good happens, you have to question it?"
"I'm a realist," Kunzite objected. And a good observer. He still wondered whether he imagined the faint glow emitting where Mina touched the girl. It was just so similar to... He turned and barked at Nephrite. "You're injured. Come here."
Nephrite limped over, his face strained. "I don't think we have time for this, Kunzite."
Kunzite ignored him. "Find where his leg is hurt," he told Mina. Her brows rose at him, but with a shrug she obeyed him. After sighing, Nephrite relented and removed one of his boots and flushed as the others stared. Above his foot, there was a sallow hue around his ankle, the flesh swollen and an angry smudge of color.
Lita, who had hovered over his shoulder with curiosity, raised her brow at him. "The warrior is felled by a twisted ankle?" she said with a smirk. "You taught me better than that."
He glared at the tall brunette. "This is nothing. I'm perfectly fine."
"It looks terrible," Mina, mused, stating the obvious as she knelt and probed the area. Nephrite winced and she looked to Kunzite for help, biting her lip with worry. "How do I know if it's broken or not? I don't know how to treat an injury!"
"Never mind that," Kunzite said, patient. "Put your hands over the wound and see what happens."
"Did you hit your head in the last fight?" Mina asked, quite serious.
"No," Kunzite sighed. "Now just do it. I need to see if I am right."
Exasperated, the girl did as she was told. Nothing happened after a long moment and everyone stared at her holding her hands over a man's leg. "I feel like an idiot!" she whined. "This isn't doing anything."
He was sure he was right. Kunzite did not imagine things. He scowled at the vexed blonde. "You're not trying."
"Trying to do what?" she gasped, losing her patience with the Lunarian man who towered over her. Even with a child in his arms, he looked a force to be reckoned with.
"When you held this girl, were you worried? Did you not want her to get better?" he asked.
Mina was indignant. "Of course I did!"
"Exactly. So try to feel the same way again. Concentrate!"
Grudgingly, Mina turned back to the wound. Her eyes shut and her brow wrinkled, her face still flushed in anger. This time something did happen. Nephrite drew in a sharp, startled breath and the others gathered in amazement. Kunzite watched and smiled.
"Bloody hell," Lita breathed. "It's glowing."
"Glowing? How Silly. I-" Mina opened her eyes and they widened. There was a soft illumination where her hands pressed. She gasped. "It's glowing--it really is glowing! Am I doing this?" Before their eyes, the skin was drained of its sickly color. The deformed skin seemed to sink and settle into its natural form, leaving behind the shadow of a bruise.
Satisfied, Kunzite said, "You can stop now."
She plopped back over her skirts, staring up at him with a stunned expression.
"You appear to have a gift for healing--you healed the girl you held without even knowing it."
"But I've never--I do?" Mina breathed. Her face seemed pulled by elation and puzzlement. "I don't understand. Is it an element? Like Lita?" She glanced up at Lita.
"No, not an element. But it does mean you are likely to have one," Kunzite said. "We have to accept the possibility due to recent events. In the case of Lunarians, it is extremely rare, but some develop gifts beyond their ability with an element. You seem to be such a case."
"Does that make me a Lunarian?" Mina asked, looking delighted by the idea.
"Certainly not. You're an abnormality," he said. Kunzite tilted his head, gazing up at the low ceiling. "Four of them," he breathed. What did it mean? Terran magic? If the elder's prophecy came true... then there was hope. Could Lunarians rise from the ashes? The generation of children had grown, but they were still so few, and now the man who had gathered and directed them was taken. A shadow passed over him at that thought. So many things were happening, and so suddenly. He didn't know whether the future bode well or ill, spelt freedom or disaster, but he was sure--as sure as he was of anything--that nothing would be the same again.
Kunzite's attention pulled back to the others with sudden decision. "Don't stand around gawking. Nephrite--put that boot back on; have your sword ready. This night isn't over yet."
They swung into action under his orders. Mina perked up. There was now a new radiant light and hint of excitement in the expressions of all as they twisted and turned through the maze of passages.
Weariness dragged at Serenity. Cunning as the shadows, it came upon her, overwhelming both body and mind. She pushed the vision of Diamond disappearing behind the iced gate out of her mind, Serenity struggled against the agony and fear of simply walking away. Her only comfort had been Diamond himself. A stronger, nobler man she never knew and couldn't imagine him losing to anyone. She pressed on alone with the quiet Lunarian children swarming around her, and she drew upon their innocent faith. They were so close, she encouraged herself. The trying night would soon be over. Every step felt like an eternal night of digging in the catacombs, her resolve warring against a hopeless struggle. But it hadn't been hopeless. She was there, and due to the efforts of so many, they had made it this far. Only a little farther to go.
A fiery torch somewhere up ahead entranced her. Its light flickered against the wall as if a token of the right path, of a journey's end. Her eyes grasped it in relief, sure it was put there for her benefit. She walked towards it. A shadow pulled back from the path across the thin line of water. Serenity turned towards it in fear, catching the glimpse of a soldier's livery. She took in the man's blonde features, sighing in relief as she recognized Andrew. A grim, wild expression stiffened his face. Andrew wasn't looking at her, but behind her. Flick tugged at her sleeve and she turned slowly. Dread filled the pit of her stomache.
Neklair stared at her, black eyes wide with revelation and triumph. "Miss Delacrae? What an interesting surprise. It seems your philanthropy has gone too far." He paused, a cold look passing over his face. "Or perhaps it already went too far?" His voice trailed off and it was quite clear to both Serenity and Andrew that the memory of a captive Lunarian passed over him.
Serenity stepped back, a strangled sound in her throat as Neklair advanced. It was the child at her side who lunged at Neklair, a small silver streak. Flick yelped painfully as the man's hand clamped over his boney, clawed one that cupped a tiny, raging flame. The grip tightened until the flame went out. "Children shouldn't play with fire," Neklair chastised, not letting the boy go despite his animal-like struggle. "And what did you hope to prove by this?" he asked Serenity. "This isn't a game. You play with treason and test my forgiveness. Come quietly and give up the children. I promise your life will be spared, though not without consequences. Defy me now and you will not be shown mercy under the king's judgment."
In response, Serenity struggled--fought--for her power to come to her aid. Whether in desperation or from weariness she didn't know, but the elements seemed sluggish and acted without direction. Waves disturbed the water and lapped over the edge and swept at their feet. Stones creaked and crumbled sending dust showering over their heads. Fire flickered high and low around the torch as if baffled.
"What sorcery is this?" Neklair demanded, observing the confused elements and the huddle of bound children. Serenity's brow was pressed in concentration and a new horror echoed in Neklair's eyes. "You-" Flick was released as Neklair started for Serenity, his arms rising.
Andrew moved fast, taking advantage of Neklair's confusion. "Stay away from her!" His sword rose threateningly to his captain's breast.
Neklair stared at Andrew as if he had never seen the lad before. His voice was dangerous as he spoke. "You would betray me? Betray the king you are sworn to?"
Andrew's arm shook but his resolve did not fail him. He waited for Serenity to reach for Flick and join the other children behind him. "Go back," he told them. "I'll handle this. Just get out of here!"
Serenity shook her head, scowling. "I'm not leaving you." Diamond was still a fresh wound and she refused to leave Andrew as well.
Andrew blanched, struggling to keep his sword aimed true.
Neklair met Andrew's wide eyes, his tranquility unperturbed by any perceived threat. When he spoke, it was as if to calm a scared and misbehaving pet. "Have some sense boy. You could never defeat me--you know me well enough. Fight me now and you become my enemy. Do you really wish that?"
"You give me no choice," Andrew barked. "I do what is right-"
"What is right?" Neklair laughed with disbelief and the barest of sneers pulling at his lips. "You are young and foolish. Their kind is not worth protecting. They pretend to be weak and gentle only to manipulate you. Beings with such powers shouldn't exist, and if they do, they must be controlled."
"I'm sorry I can't see it that way." Andrew moved his sword closer. "Now let us pass."
Neklair eyed the young soldier for a long moment, the disappointment in his eyes a greater weapon than his scorn. "Kill me then," he said. "If you can bring yourself to do it. Unlike you, I do not change my loyalties and I do not answer to traitors." Accusation barbed the challenge, his voice ripe with authority and unnerving composure. His stare was without end, eternally patient and condemning.
Serenity watched in mute horror as Andrew wavered, the briefest moment of uncertainty as he debated the intention of his sword. Surely, he had broken the law and nearly every vow he had made as a soldier, but could he kill? And not just any man, but one he had once admired? He didn't know and his tortured feelings showed through his ashen face.
Neklair had no such qualms or hesitation. Like a snake striking from its deceptive complacency, his sword slid free and swung in a blur. With a cry, Andrew moved to defend himself, blocking clumsily. Neklair withdrew only to attack again with renewed vigor, the strikes and slashing motion of his sword quick and cunning. The two blades battled, Andrew's barely catching the other in a raucous sound of sliding and clanging steel against steel. In an instant, his sword fell from his grasp and Neklair's plunged into his shoulder. A grunt and growl of agony ripped through him, teeth clenched as he fell to his knees. Gasping and shutting his eyes, he clutched at the bleeding wound.
Blinded by fear, fury, and sudden tears, Serenity moved. She ripped a strip of cloth from her dress, pressing it over the flower of blood. Andrew remained oblivious and without speech in his pain and shock. "How could you?" she cried, her breath caught in her throat. Not that she hadn't thought Neklair incapable of such cruelty, but to Andrew who had always been loyal to him? Lightning crackled around Neklair's gloved hand, a dozen tiny shocks that surprise him into dropping his sword.
He brought his hand up, slowly flexing it into a fist and stretched it back several times. When he was certain no damage had been done, he rounded on Serenity. He clamped his hand around her small neck, dragging her to her feet. She gasped and choked for air. Her toes barely felt the ground. She clutched onto his taught arm to lessen the suffocating pressure.
"Did you think you could make a fool of me?" he asked, his expression dead and cold. His fingers bit further into the flesh of her neck. "Did it amuse you to accept my hospitality even as you turned a loyal soldier against me? So many things happened that made no sense to me---but you... you were the cause all along. A young maid who looks like a Terran. What deception is this? Tell me now before I lose my patience."
In answer, Serenity fumbled at her necklace and jerked it until it broke free. It seemed to her that she had little more to lose. She glared at him defiantly. What did it matter now if he knew she was a Lunarian?
Neklair took her silver hair in stride with only a slight tightening around his lips. "This scheme tonight was elaborate. How many free Lunarians are there and what are they after? Surely they didn't act tonight because of a death wish."
Air eased its way back into Serenity's lungs and her throat burned. "What's so wrong about wanting to be free?" she croaked.
"Your kind never belonged here. This is our world and we have no obligation to accept you," Neklair said. "Perhaps your people were once revered on the moon--alien, magical beings of great beauty. It's a thought for any man to fancy--a kingdom on the moon. But the moon is only beautiful because it is far away. It's a different matter entirely when you came to Earth. A legend is supposed to stay a legend, not walk beside you as if it was only natural and their right. Your existence alone is an imbalance."
Serenity stared at Neklair, bleary eyed and trying to comprehend his anger. It didn't make any sense to her why things had to be any particular way at all. People had choices, didn't they? "It isn't just Andrew," she said, her voice weak. "There are many who help us. Some who even live among us. Are all of them wrong? Who decides what is right?"
"The King does and anyone against him is a traitor by law. Don't let the opinions of a few individuals reflect the whole. You'll be sorely disappointed."
"People can change!" If nothing else, she believed that.
"Yes they do. Sometimes for the worse," a new voice mused. Relief poured into Serenity at hearing the general but her tongue and eyes stayed quiet. Neklair glanced over his shoulder. Raye stood placidly, her arms crossed before her and her expression unreadable. Sparrow hulked like a hairy shadow behind her and even further back lurked what appeared to be a beggar from the slums.
"I thought you weren't going to involve yourself tonight." His brow rose questioningly. "You said it wasn't necessary and someone needed to stay at the precinct to watch over the incompetent fools there. Weren't those your words?"
"That was before I was informed that my brother was stupid enough to go into the sewers alone."
"Nothing I couldn't handle."
Raye looked pointedly at the wounded Andrew, the Lunarian children, and at Serenity still with Neklair's hand around her neck. "Indeed," she said dryly. "I think you can let the girl down now. She doesn't look as if she will give you any trouble."
"I suppose I did get carried away," Neklair conceded. Serenity fell to the ground, her legs folding under her. She bent her head, a curtain of silver falling around her face as she rubbed at her sore neck and coughed. The picture of defeat and sitting like a puddle on the ground, she waited; her heart pounding.
Raye turned and spoke softly to Sparrow who grimly moved forward and stooped to assist Andrew to his feet. He cried out in pain when he was moved, sweat beading around his face. Withought difficulty, Sparrow managed to lift the smaller man over his shoulder. Neklair sent the giant a suspicious look but there was no sign of remorse or concern on his dark, shaggy face.
Neklair nodded at his sister. "Your timing is quite convenient. You can return the children to their previous cells. The crime was not theirs. I would like to question the girl further."
"Very well," she said coolly. "But I think you will be quite occupied. Who is she to concern you in comparison to the leader of the resistance?"
Neklair froze, a light glittering in his eyes. "They caught him?"
Raye gave a wry smile. "You lost a couple of men and a few are none the worse for wear. I presume they are now warming themselves in front of a castle fire--some nasty cases of frostbite. The man, Diamond, I have been told, has been taken to the castle dungeons. Apparently the king has lost some of his faith in the precinct and wants to keep a closer eye on the man until he decides what to do with him."
Serenity's hand flew over her mouth and she looked at the general in horror. Diamond? She thought, going weak at the knees with horror. Impossible... Raye had to be fabricating. But Diamond's own words taunted her. They had sounded final... almost as if he knew or expected this. She had no more tears to shed. Dread and a freezing guilt slipped through her.
"What's there to decide? He will be executed." Neklair frowned.
"Oh? But how? The king will want to take full advantage of the situation as well as send a message. He will consider the matter carefully. You forget the presence of the other kingdoms are also to be accounted for and will be awaiting his judgment."
"Whatever it is to be, I will be needed at the castle. I will take Andrew and the girl to the dungeons there. I assume you can manage a few children," he said as he took hold of Serenity's arm and pulled her to her feet.
"I will do much better than that." The general turned and raised a brow at the beggar behind her with unspoken communication. Serenity watched quietly as Jadeite moved, hunched and smiling as he slipped by Neklair and ushered the children towards Raye. Most stumbled forward obediently, one or two with tears streaking their faces. The tallest boy broke from the pack with a growl and hurled himself at the general with a flame in his clawed hand. Like her brother, she caught his small wrist. A smile spread across her lips, violet eyes aglow. Flick stilled in amazement as her other hand, graceful and unhurried, brushed and stole his flame. She lifted her hand, watching the fire languidly move around her fingers. "You see brother, it was foolish for you to come down here alone. I had hoped it wouldn't come to this yet."
Neklair watched with an arrested expression. "Not you," he whispered. "You hate them more than I ever did."
Raye's shoulders lifted in a semblance of a shrug. "Recent events have made me come to terms with the past. Who am I now to condemn them?"
"It isn't possible." His head slowly shook back and forth, as he could not help but deny what he saw. Reason failed him and the sight of his sister smiling at the fire in her hand unnerved him.
"Tell me, brother," she mused. "Would you plunge your sword into me as easily as you did your own soldier? My sins are the greater, wouldn't you say?"
"I don't think such measures are necessary," he argued, his voice stretched thin. Serenity was utterly focused on Raye and not prepared for the cold blade brought to her neck as Neklair's hold on her tightened. "You seem to carry some fondness for this girl. You wouldn't want anything unfortunate to happen to her, would you? Come to your senses now."
Raye was not reasonable. Fury blazed on her expression and she acted. The fire in her hand exploded and swelled into a raging storm. Snakes of fire slipped and curled in the air with a threatening whisper. Flames licking the walls as heat billowed throughout the tunnel and beat down on them. Serenity watched the fire, entranced by its deadly beauty. Neklair breathed in horror and he pointed his sword at Raye as if that would save him. Amid the circle of raging fire, the woman's dark and beautiful face looked otherworldly in the hellish light. Violet eyes burned, the fire in them appearing more than a mere reflection.
Droplets of sweat formed on Neklair's ashen brow, but his black eyes glared not at the fire, but through them at his sister. "You will regret this, Raye," he growled.
"I never regret anything, brother. We share that trait," she said, her voice hallow and seeming to merge with the roar of the fire. Then her hand lifted, a supple movement. In the barest instant, Serenity's eyes caught Raye's in understanding. Serenity's breathing slowed to a whisper in her chest. Her eyes closed as a sudden torrent of fire swelled her vision and she felt heat blast over it, willing it harmless around her. For a breathless moment, she drowned in the hot flames. The agonized scream keening behind her sounded distant through the muffled roar in her ears. The arms around her vanished and she gasped as air, startlingly cold, cradled around her.
She looked over her shoulder, vaguely aware of the choking, groaning, screams of the man crouched over himself writhing on the ground. Arms thrown around his face, he looked a crumpled black being with remnants of flame still burning. A slender hand of great force turned Serenity away from the sight of the fallen man. She stared into Raye's eyes for only a moment, something crying within her. She searched for a glimpse of pain. Raye looked away and pushed her toward Jadeite.
At a streak of silver, Serenity turned to find Flick struggling to lift Neklair's fallen sword, his gold eyes glaring with vengeance. "Flick!" Serenity yelled. Raye grabbed the resisting boy and together they ran into the nearest passage. Darkness swallowed them, a massive body of moving, breathing limbs. Serenity shivered as tormented cries and curses followed them, fading into silence. It didn't matter that they couldn't see, only that they ran. Jadeite whispered instructions and warnings and they followed without question.
Serenity mindlessly picked up the youngest and slowest child by her feet and Sparrow carried the moaning Andrew. "I'm injured here, you know," he said after a gasp, letting out a resentful groan. Relief flooded Serenity at hearing his voice again. She welcomed his sudden string of curses just to know he was all right.
Raye was not so pleased by the influx of complaints. "Stop your moaning and be grateful. He could have killed you if he had wanted to--and if we're caught because of you I will gladly kill you myself."
Andrew quieted like a dog that had been chastised. Jadeite stopped and laughed, his voice whimsical. "Don't take it to heart. She's just irritated and doesn't want to admit it. The raven is one 'oaaaf' us 'naaaaow.' There's no returning."
A flame was then called forth within the palm of Raye's hand, casting a yellow glow in the cramped sewer passage. She scowled at Jadeite. "Stop wasting time. Why have we stopped?"
"If you haven't noticed, I've already led you to the way out," Jadeite announced with a superfluous bow. Raye pushed by him, lifting her fire and grimaced in disgust. The path dropped at the edge of a dark and murky waterway that disappeared some distance ahead. "I'm sorry; do you not enjoy a stroll through sewage water? Need I remind you-"
"Not another word," Raye snapped, bristling. She slid into the water as if it was the nastiest substance on earth, arms raised high as it slunk around her thighs.
Good-natured as he was, Jadeite turned to the others. "Don't worry. It's all quite clean at this point. The river water has to enter the sewers somewhere." He smiled down in response to the vicious glare Raye sent him. Jumping into the water, he slipped on ahead with an innocent whistle.
One by one, the children plopped into the water, eager to follow. Serenity trailed in after them, her skirts billowing around her and dragging sluggishly around her legs. The water was cold but as promised, fresh and almost comforting in its gentle pull. Sparrow dropped in behind her and the water spilled forth into waves and ripples causing one or two of the children to giggle. Their fears easing, this was a great adventure to them. A childhood in a cell was no childhood at all.
The odd party forged on ahead. There were no more pathways and soon they saw the glitter of moonlight upon the black water. Excitement rose and died as they drew closer. The rusted bars of a gate dove into the water, blocking the way to the river. Raye grabbed and shook the bars. They screamed and creaked, but did not give. "Is this your idea of the way out?" she demanded.
Jadeite remained unperturbed and gave a quick, loud whistle. Shadows formed and moved beyond the gate, shadows with bright eyes and toothy grins. A cast of young beggars and thieves swarmed the entrance and two began picking at a lock along with some odd mechanics. A dirty face came into view from somewhere above.
"Coast clear," a boy whispered, clinging like a monkey above the tunnel before swinging down and into the water to join the others.
"I made a few friends while down here," Jadeite whispered to Raye who refused to admit that she was impressed.
Serenity watched in amazement as the beggar children broke the lock and began tugging and pulling at a heavy chain. The gate lifted, grating and creaking as water poured off it. Soon all that were visible were the feet of its stakes poking high above the water. The children of the street whooped in triumph and crowded around the opening with avid curiosity at the band of silver haired children. The young Lunarians responded with equal fascination.
The tallest of the band grinned, teeth white on his grimy face. "The only children more unwanted than us!" he crowed. "And what do we care for the king or politics? Food in our bellies and another friend in the streets is all that ever matters."
"My friend, you are worth ten of every nobleman," Jadeite told the boy. Waist-high in water, the boy made a courtly bow in which Jadeite responded in good fun.
Flick's gold eyes burned as he watched the wild Terran children, the desire in him as great as when he had lusted after fire and freedom. These children lived by their wits. As the scum of the streets, they sought their own freedom and lived by their own rules despite the cage society had put them. Even if they lived no better than rats, Flick wanted to be one of them. He had a name now and felt he could do anything.
He looked to Serenity, almost begging. "Can I go with them?"
"It isn't safe," she said. "We have to go far away from here. There's no other choice." His obvious disappointment bothered her and she tried to console him. "It's not so bad where we're going. You'll see."
"Here now," cried the young leader. "That's not such a bad idea. We'll take him."
"But the soldiers-"
"Have more faith in us than that!" the boy said, deeply affronted. "This is our territory. What's your name, kid?"
Flick stood proudly and told him his name. For added effect, he raised his hand and created a spurt of flame. The beggar children exploded in excitement. "We could give the soldiers real trouble with that one, we could!" one said. "Nice trick, that is. Could come in handy," another pitched in. "What we waiting for?"
Serenity looked to Jadeite for his opinion and the young man gave a shrug and a mischievous smile equal to any of the beggar children. "They could hide him better than anyone in the kingdom. I'll vouch for that."
"No use hanging around here like a bunch of dead rats. Is the kid coming with us or not?"
Serenity nodded at the leader, sad to let the boy go. She felt as if she were abandoning her responsibility after freeing him and was rather attached to the boy after giving him his name. "You promise to protect him?"
"No worries. We look after our own!" He looked at Flick and gestured, tilting his head to one side.
Flick scurried towards them, a silver blur among the shadow-painted children. One of the older boys rumpled his hair. "I think it glows!" Another, laughing, pulled a rag over Flick's head and they were such a grimy mass of small, supple limbs that Serenity found it impossible to distinguish one from the other. She stopped trying as the children began to climb up the banks of the river into the city, distressed by how quickly they left. As sad as it made her to see them go, there was something comforting about how easily the children had accepted the silver-haired boy. Gold eyes suddenly gleamed at her, among the last to go. A set of teeth grinned and she returned the smile. In the next moment, Flick was gone.
It was rather lonely after the sudden appearance and disappearance of the beggar children and knowing that they were one less. The morose silence irritated Raye and she frowned at the others. "The thief's right. We're standing in the river like fools and this water is freezing!"
"I'm sure you have enough fire in you to warm us all up," Jadeite comforted. He climbed nimbly onto the bank, not giving Raye the dignity of a retort. The woman muttered under her breath as they followed him. The cold ravaged their already exhausted forms and only Jadeite and Sparrow seemed oblivious to the chill. The night had been trying, heavy with both triumph and loss and their journey stretched before them.
Serenity forgot all sense of her surroundings as they reached the safety of the woods, eyes lowered in distant thought. A child clung to each of her hands, reminding her of why she had endangered them all. Still she had to wonder if it had been worth the final cost. Was compassion or pride guiding her actions? Everyone had followed her decision blindly and that scared her. Had she done them more harm than good? She hadn't asked them to follow her. Just then, she wanted nothing more than to slip to the ground and rest. Her mind whirled with every listless step, but her body remembered its labors in the abyss. Separate from her mind, it pressed on as she had taught it to do, one-step after the other.
Gilded laughter and a murmuring of voices rang through the palace halls. Somewhere danced a noble parody of celebration and lofty amusements. Servants scrambled--in a regal fashion--to serve the great guests, following the pattern of their life's web. The prince was far removed from the tangle of well-dressed nobles and members of court, excusing himself after his father's mysterious disappearance. The king took joy and pride in the revelries and it was a curious matter that would draw him away. Endymion came upon his father in deep discussion, his dark and handsome, aged face unreadable as he faced the windows to stare at the glittering city below. The prince hesitated. The other men flanking his father were the ancient chief military advisor and the lieutenant of the king's guard. The lieutenant, a middle-aged man, was fazed by little but just then, weary lines weathered his face.
"Is something wrong father?" Endymion asked. His brow furrowed.
The king whirled at the voice of his son, his expression one of glee and triumph. "The rebels have finally showed themselves!" he shouted.
Endymion halted, wary of his father's happiness. "Is that a good thing?" he asked, his voice neutral.
The king grinned, his eyes a hellish blue. "It's all in how one views it," he said and waved his hand dismissively. "Oh--a few children were freed from the precinct."
Shock coursed through Endymion and he stood straighter. "Is that even possible?"
A shadow crossed over the king and he grimaced. "The general betrayed us. Some girl was involved--don't know how she matters but the captain was quite insistent about her. Burned quite badly--"
"No, boy! Where's your head? The captain of course. Neklair of the Hark family. Now there's a fine man. I had to force him to get his wounds treated and go rest. He was a nasty mess. Quite a shame really. But never mind that. His men's efforts have served well. They've captured the rebellion's leader!"
If the king was expecting a response from Endymion then he was sorely disappointed. Endymion's eyes lowered and stepped toward the window. "Oh? I haven't heard of this leader," he said. He stood as if at ease, but every muscle within him drew tense as his mind raced to comprehend the turn of events. His heart drummed faintly.
The king scowled at his back. "One day, my son, you will regret your lack of interest in Lunarian affairs. As the future king of Earth, you should show more concern! These problems will be yours one day. You will be thankful then for all my efforts!" he huffed.
Endymion stared down at the Earth's capital, not bothering to listen to his father. It was a familiar rant that he had heard before. Only now, it wasn't true that he had no interest--quite the opposite. Only that his father would not be pleased at the interest he developed and so he hid it well and played the good prince. He was tired of pretending to himself that he was angry, that he didn't care. He fell into one of his lapses now, despair threatening his cold mask and numb heart. The girl with hair of sunshine and moonlight haunted him always. She was a stranger, a beautiful dream. Every touch, every tear she shed and word she spoke embedded themselves within him. It was no use to remind himself that she had made the choice, had been the one to refuse him. He knew that he had hurt her. He had wanted her to cry for him, for as surely as he knew that one night he would cry for her.
His hands clenched behind him. She had asked for the impossible, for more than he could give. Why weren't the feelings of a prince good enough? She had to know he cared for her--what he risked by doing so. He wondered now at the festive streets below. As impossible as it was, he felt as if Serenity was involved in the night's events somehow. He was worried, and considered the thought. If she were among the Lunarian rebels, would she be safe? If he were not the prince, but a commoner, would he be with her now, fighting for whatever she believed in? That thought never went very far. He was the prince after all and there was no changing that. Still, her words lingered.
He looked to the king now, a cautious light in his eyes. "What if things could be different?" he asked. "What if we didn't need to worry about the Lunarians?"
The king regarded him with suspicion. "And how would you manage such a thing? I don't suppose you want me to massacre the rest of them." The king frowned to himself. "Not that I haven't considered that."
Endymion struggled with his horror and his jaw tightened. "I meant, so what if they were free? Would it be such a terrible thing? They've lived upon the Earth for nearly three centuries. Doesn't that count for something?"
The king choked and sputtered, red blooming on his cheeks and Endymion resigned himself to the torrent to come. The lieutenant raised his brow and the old advisor coughed and stepped forward to assist the king. "Your majesty," he said to the prince. "I believe what the king wishes to say is that your sensitivity, noble as it is, is quite misplaced. From a military standpoint, the Lunarians have always remained a threat. We have tried before to reason with them, give them allowances, but they have always refused our generous conditions. If they are not one of us, then they are against us. No people could be content as outcasts forever and with their unnatural abilities, they had the power to one day destroy us. They are more than just slaves you know. They are our enemies."
"Strange," Endymion said. "Weren't the other kingdoms our enemies once?" Ambassadors and royalty from all the nations who now danced and gathered in celebration nearby.
"That matter is completely irrelevant!" the king shouted. "They are people of Earth and allies of the greater kingdom--our kingdom. Your responsibility is greater than any future king is. For they will look to you to keep the Lunarians under control. Any kingdom that turns a blind eye to them deserves its fate! Would you challenge the world?"
King and son stared at one another for a long moment. The prince looked away, cool obscurity resting on his features once more. "Of course not, father," he said, his voice hallow. "You are always right. Forgive my presumption. Never fear. I am your son and your shadow."
The king gave a grunt, mollified. "Nothing to forgive," he said. "As long as you understand. A king must be cruel sometimes to protect his kingdom. Generosity will betray you."
"You speak wisely." Endymion bowed his head. "I have much to learn before I am king."
The king laughed, his anger forgotten. "There is plenty of time for that! Now enough with troublesome talk. This is your birthday! Let's share the good news of our unwilling guest and give the Earth even greater reason to celebrate!"
Endymion lingered behind as the three men left, his expression bleak. That was the truth of things and he could do nothing but play the part expected of him. A prince was still bound by the beliefs of the world and his own thoughts mattered little. The silver-haired race was too different, too gifted to ever be accepted. His father reaffirmed his thoughts. There was no hope in believing any differently. And so one day he would be king after his father and thoughts of love and freedom would forever remain dreams.
The old, abandoned cabin became their meeting place. A journey to ambrosia in winter, with both wounded and children, was impossible to consider. Those who were involved that night, who were able to, merely stopped to rest and move on. A raging fire gave warmth to the weary occupants, many who simply slumped against the walls and fell into exhausted slumber. Serenity awoke after no more than an hour's sleep, finding herself curled up by Raye's side. Too much had happened that night; too many thoughts and emotions whirled inside of her. The silence was comforting and dreadful at the same time. No one spoke but in hush murmurs, and only then when it was necessary. The only blessed sight was the twelve children nestled in sleep.
Wonder filled her. Twelve young lives freed against all odds--and one, dear little Iris well again. Mina's ability had shocked and warmed her. And not just Mina they told her, but four in all. Raye had lifted her eyebrow without comment. Lita had grinned and let a few sparks crackle around her hand. Serenity had accepted Raye's ability with fire without question, but now it was impossible not to wonder. Mina was a whirlwind of pride and joy in her new discovery. Kunzite finally directed her energy into helping heal the wounded. Andrew, the last and most seriously wounded, took the last of her power. Spent, the girl collapsed into slumber. Somehow she ended up leaning against Sparrow who snored softly by Andrew's side.
A hush had fallen, a silence of sleep or deep thinking. Raye stared into the fire, its warm light dancing over her. After long moments, her eyes would slide to rest on Jadeite who dozed against the parallel wall and then back to the fire once more. Faces, familiar or new scattered around Serenity, united by exhaustion and their beliefs. Serenity's heart pounded as she observed them, a great feeling swelling inside her that she couldn't name. Those around her gave her strength and humbled her. None seemed to blame her for the losses of the night. They acted with strength. But still, she saw the hesitation in some of their expressions--the fear of what was yet to come, of what would become of them now.
Tears suddenly burned Serenity's vision. They should blame her. If not for her they would still have a leader, still be safe within their hidden kingdom. The loss of Diamond hurt within her, stabbing at her conscience. She wrestled over every word he had spoken to her, surfed every blurred memory. How could he believe in her, sacrifice himself when it was he the Lunarian people needed? His faith in her was utterly misplaced, but still she wondered. What if he was right? She felt weak and unworthy, confused by all that she had done. What did it mean for her? She hadn't thought as far ahead as what would happen after she had freed the Lunarian children. Without Diamond's support, she never would have been able to do such a thing. She would have failed and proven the prince's philosophy was right, that nothing would change. Now everything was changing. They all felt it, without it even being said.
Whatever was to come, Serenity knew in her heart that they needed Diamond. Whatever the risk, they had no other option but to rescue him. She didn't know what she thought about herself anymore, but Diamond had done everything to help her and she would return the favor. She didn't think she could live with herself otherwise. The very thought of him being publicly murdered--of his strength and noble beliefs suddenly gone--made her feel ill. How much time did they have before the king decided what to do with him? She looked now to the only man standing. Kunzite was the only one who had not slept, had not even tried to. He stood by the fire like a statue, staring into its raging flames with an unreadable expression. Did the man already plan for Diamond's rescue? No matter how dangerous, Serenity would aid them in whatever way she could. Diamond had done as much for her. Rising, she walked to him, unnerved by the emptiness in his gray eyes. When he did not react to her presence, she suppressed a sigh and stepped up beside him, staring into the flames also.
She did not consider what she did. Her morose thoughts shaped a face within the golden flames. Diamond's face. Kunzite jerked back, his vision clearing and revealing pain. She shrunk with guilt as his attention turned to her. She hadn't meant to startle or upset him. With a haunted expression, she cast her gaze down. "I'm sorry," she whispered. "I didn't know--"
"He knew the risks and he accepted them," Kunzite cut her off, his voice soft but stern.
Water warmed and blurred in her eyes. "I know that I am not much... but I'll help you save him in whatever way that I can. Anything, no matter how small. Just please. Let me help make things right."
She ventured to look up when he didn't respond, caught by eyes that were sad and lifeless as stone. "There will be no rescue," Kunzite said.
She blinked at him without comprehension. His words meant nothing to her, a language she couldn't understand. "I think I've misunderstood you. You must be planning to get him back? He isn't dead--there's still hope."
Tension stiffened Kunzite's shoulders, his expression unyielding. "We have made it so far by our convictions. One man is not worth endangering the whole, no matter how much he means to us. Ever since we were just boys, we understood this. Those who fell behind were left behind because it was the only way to move on, the only way to survive. We must accept our loss. Too much is at stake. Diamond knew this--I think he always expected it to happen one day. I am bound to honor his wish. He would have done the same if I had been the one to be captured."
"I don't believe that," Serenity said, voice soft and stubborn as a determined wind. Her brow creased and her heart ached in objection. Would Diamond have let a fallen comrade stay imprisoned? A cold thought fell through her. What if she had been the one captured? Useless as she was, she wouldn't want anyone to risk himself or herself to save her. She could understand that. But not Diamond. Diamond was worth everything--the champion of his people. And she knew, with the ease that he had sacrificed himself that no matter his convictions he would have done anything to rescue her. The foolish man seemed to think she was worth something, that being a princess had some great meaning.
"What you believe is irrelevant. It's just the way it works, and don't think that you're the only one who cares that he is gone," Kunzite said.
"We can't abandon him!" Serenity cried. Within she burned in desperation and justifiable anger. Her loud cry drew gazes and roused others from sleep but she didn't care. She glared at Kunzite, breaths hitching as fury trembled over her. "I don't care what you believe either. You need him! And after all he's done for us, he needs someone now." Just then, Serenity had a revelation. How easy it was for one individual to feel unimportant. But everyone had value, the opportunity to challenge the way things were. Everyone had an impact, great or small, and didn't even have to be anyone special. Wasn't that what Diamond had tried to tell her? Everyone had different circumstances shaping their life--which helped make them the way they are. What was the difference between a coward and a hero, a beggar or a king?
"I refuse to argue with you," Kunzite growled. His expression grew pained. By this time, they had the attention of nearly all the occupants of the room.
"I will save him," Serenity said, the vow burning in her eyes along with a new awareness. Her head lifted back, a stubborn curve of her lips.
"Oh?" Kunzite said with mild scorn. "And how would you manage that? Walk right up to the king and demand the release of his prize prisoner, I suppose?"
"That's exactly what I will do!" Serenity vowed and her expression blazed with challenge. "As the rightful princess and heir to the Lunarian throne, that's what I will do and I will face them with or without you!" Serenity glared at him, clamping her mouth shut as her chest rose with exertion. In that moment, she was so upset that she didn't care if the entire Earth knew that she was the princess. And they would! Reason had fled from her mind. If Kunzite refused her just then, even if she looked like a beggar she would have marched up to the castle gates and not even care if they thought her insane or imprisoned her or put a noose around her neck. At least she wouldn't have run away.
She didn't quite realize the effect her words brought. The room had been silent before, but this was a new silence, heavy with shock and gaping eyes. The words had a monumental impact. Only the children were asleep or confused and Raye watched Serenity with a proud smile. The others waited with bated breaths and whirling minds. With all the fuss leading up to the night's rescues, the rumor of a princess had been pushed the furthest from their minds. How could they have forgotten?
Kunzite looked as if she had delivered a physical blow and stared at her with a new perception. "It was you," he whispered, "Who Diamond searched for. And he found you. He knew."
Anxiousness dampened Serenity's rage, a reluctant look coming to dwell in her eyes. She forced herself to swallow and nod. "He knew," she whispered. "He never told you because of me. I did not want it to be known. But it's different now! Don't you see--now that he's gone." Her gaze swept over the people around her and returned to Kunzite with pleading. "I still don't think I would make a good queen--and I'm sorry if you are disappointed. But if there is something that I can do to bring him back, I will do it. I swear it!"
"Well, this certainly changes things," Kunzite said. Slowly, a grin, the likes few had ever seen, pulled across his face. A new light shone in his eyes. "If we had a queen, who are we to deny her wishes? No Lunarian queen was ever without the support of her people."
Serenity's heart pounded as the full realization of what she had done made her breaths faint and her eyes large upon her pale face. Kunzite lowered himself to one knee, his head bowing as his hand rested across his breast. The show gave her a rush of panic, but she fought to contain it as she watched the others all round the room rise to their feet. A few, such as Andrew and Sparrow still looked dumbstruck and not a little awed. The rest showed varying visages of wonder, awkward humility, and excitement. She feared how they might treat her differently. A few faces comforted her. Both Jadeite and an auburn haired man wore enormous grins along with Lita. Raye leaned against the wall, arms crossed and an expression of approval on her face. An amused smile had quirked her lips and a rare, soft look in her violet eyes appeared. However, Mina beat them all. Teary eyed with a wondrous smile, the girl flew to Serenity and enveloped her in a wild hug.
The silence of before was broken. Excited murmurs broke out and smiles were freed. Questions whirled about, and stories and tales were coaxed out of Serenity. She began to smile with them. Even the questions she wouldn't answer bothered no one. She felt a sense of freedom she had never known before. A second, more personal freedom that meant so much. There would be time later to mourn for those lost in the sewers--their catacombs, it was time now to rejoice in what was gained, and soon enough the time would come to fight for those who could still be saved. To Serenity, nothing else mattered.
Next Chapter: XVI Imperium
My deepest thanks go to Loki for helping me shape these jumble of words and Aurora_rose for her feedback!
AN: Thank you everyone who is still reading this story. I know I held onto this chapter for a very long time but I hope it was worth the wait. All of your comments and feedback have encouraged me over the years and, as always, I look forward to knowing what you think! Don't lose hope in me and I will do my best to continue writing this story. I am a HUGE bookworm, and if any of you readers who enjoy this story are interested in finding some new good books I would highly recommend any stories by Sherwood Smith and Juliet Marillier! If you like Tsuki no Namida, you will love their books (fantasy, adventure, romance-what more can you ask for?)