As the frigid darkness closed in, the last sound he heard was a teen-aged girl's heart-wrenching sobs. Poor, brave, foolish soul, he cynically thought. You should've known life's nothing but bitter disappointment.
He felt as if he was floating in nothingness, all sensation save that of his own existence stripped from his awareness. Is this, then, that which lies beyond? Drifting for eternity with only one's thoughts? If only . . .
He then became aware of something new. Looking outward beyond himself, he saw a single, brilliant star shining in the void. Unable to look away, he watched as the light grew larger and brighter, a gracefully-slender butterfly-winged form appearing in the heart of the star. Who are you? he asked.
I am the light of hope and love, was the reply, the soft, feminine voice sounding strangely familiar.
Love and hope are for fools and weaklings, he harshly responded.
Then which are you? the shining figure asked.
Neither. I have little tolerance for such idiocy.
If that's true, then why do you yearn to return to Earth?
To avenge myself against that double-crossing witch, he growled. How dare she turn on me!
The winged figure of light laughed, a sound that reminded him of tinkling bells. How little you must know yourself if you believe that that's what burns in your soul. With a wave of her glittering hand, the butterfly-winged angel caused a scene to appear.
A slender blond girl, long hair in twin ponytails that emerged from spherical buns atop her head, became visible. Wearing a short-skirted sailor suit that included knee-high red boots and elbow-long white gloves, the pretty teen-ager stood holding another girl similar in age, trying to comfort the sobbing red-head. Dressed in ripped pajamas and clutching a strip apparently torn from her top, the weeping girl was saying, "If only I'd been stronger. I know I could've saved him."
Overcome by odd, sickening sensations as he gazed at the angel's vision of the heart-broken red-head, he forced himself to turn away. Enough! he cried, unable to handle the unfamiliar emotions.
With another wave of her hand, the shimmering figure dismissed the scene.
Defeated, he said, All right! I admit it. I want to go back so she can smile once more. I want to be able to keep her safe from harm. She's been hurt enough, much of it at my own hands. But it's a futile desire at best, nothing more than dreams and stardust. The stars have spoken--the thread of my life is at its end.
Ah, yes. That's right, the gossamer angel replied. You were Nephrite, the Gemlord gifted with the power of the stars.
And if there's one thing I know, it's that destiny is destiny-- incapable of changing, incapable of caring. The movement of the stars rules everything; all things must bow to their will, he said.
Is that then your excuse for the evil you've spread? That you were fated to betray your duty as a Gemlord of Lithos and become Beryl's minion?
I have done as fate has commanded, as have all who live, he asserted.
There are forces that go beyond destiny, Nephrite. And of them all, love is the most powerful. With love, all things are possible, all destinies may be denied. Had you learned that, perhaps you could've changed much of the weave of your life.
The shining figure continued, However, I am here now, called to you by the spark within yourself, offering you a second chance. But before you choose, I must warn you. There is much for which you must atone, many lessons you have yet to learn. Accept your fate as it now stands, and you will remain here, going on to wherever Gemlord souls go. Decide to transcend that which was destined, then you will return with a long, hard task ahead. Each day will be a struggle and each lesson must be learned. Should you die again before your atonement has been completed, then your soul will cease to exist.
So I'm offered a choice between an existence robbed of all awareness, my soul sleeping perhaps forever within the stone of my power unless Lord Obsidian decides to awaken me, or return to life in all its pain and glory, under obligation to redeem myself from the evil I caused and facing the extinction of all that I am should I fail, Nephrite thought. A serious choice indeed.
Think well before you decide, the angel of light admonished. Once made, it cannot be undone.
However, Nephrite had already made up his mind, an image of the weeping, red-haired girl floating through his thoughts. No matter the challenge, no matter the price, I wish to return.
Very well, return you shall. The first lessons you must learn are empathy and humility. For centuries you have flaunted your powers, oppressing those weaker than you and viewing your victims with cruelty and contempt only because they had abilities that couldn't rival your own. Therefore, when you return to Earth, you will be limited to those strengths and weaknesses inherent in a human's body, the angel sternly informed him.
But if my powers are gone, I won't be able to keep my promise to Molly, nor will I be able to protect her from harm, Nephrite protested.
The shimmering, butterfly-winged figure reached out, and the Gemlord felt a sensation that seemed to be a warm hand on his forehead. Had you complained for your benefit alone, you would've begun with a perilous start indeed. However, since it is true concern for another that motivated your words, two concessions shall be made. Should danger ever threaten the one for whom you care, call upon the power of your stone and your abilities will be restored for as long as the danger remains.
Secondly, when you return, you shall be as you were before the final day of your life, but for twelve Earth hours only. Use your time well, for when it expires, you will become locked inside a human form.
For a moment, Nephrite floated there, too overwhelmed by unfamiliar emotions to form a coherent thought. Finally, however, he was able to put words to the gratitude he felt. Thank you, kind spirit, for all that you've done.
Don't thank me, Gemlord, the glowing angel replied, fading away. Thank Molly. Had she not had enough faith in you to awaken a spark within your soul, you would never have been given this second chance. Remember, your fate now lies within your own hands, not the realm of the stars. Just before she disappeared entirely, Nephrite thought he saw her true form. For just a flash, he looked into Queen Serenity's grave face.
With a sudden start, he awoke, jade-green eyes abruptly opening. Once more he could feel a body around himself and hear the song of the stars within his blood. Looking upward and seeing a familiar ceiling high above, Nephrite realized that he was lying on the floor of his headquarters, light streaming through the chapel's stained-glass windows. Sitting up, he moved his right elbow around in a circular motion; no stiffness or pain hindered the movement. There now were no signs of the injuries he'd sustained before his death.
Rising to his booted feet, he automatically tugged his uniform's gray coat back into place before he stopped himself, realizing that he still wore the uniform of a Negaverse warrior. With a feeling of disgust, he walked out of the chapel.
He strode through the huge, spooky mansion, never once halting until he reached the library. Standing before the impressive stone fireplace and noticing that he had set it for a fire before he'd left, he raised a hand and pointed at the grate within. A thin, laser-like beam of greenish-silver light shot out of his extended finger, kindling the paper and wood.
The moment the fire appeared capable of sustaining itself, Nephrite stripped down to his undergarments. Setting the boots aside and removing the brooches-- whose stones had reverted to their original jade-green color-- from the shoulders of his coat, the reddish-brown-haired man then threw the gray uniform into the fire. Firelight danced off his handsome face and long hair as he dispassionately watched the cloth go up in smoke.
Slipping on the knee-high black boots and glancing down at the golden brooches in his hand, Nephrite's deep voice intoned, "I call upon the powers of my stone. Restore to me the appearance I had as a Gemlord of Lithos."
Greenish-silver light shone around Nephrite's athletic form, momentarily distorting his outline. When it disappeared, he stood there, dressed in the outfit he'd worn long ago. Emerald-green pants were tucked into his tall boots and a greenish-white tunic trimmed in silver and emerald-green covered his trunk. On his broad shoulders were the brooches, holding in place a knee-length cape of emerald-green lined with silver. On his brow-- beneath his wavy, reddish-brown locks-- was a silver circlet, a single cabochon of deep green nephrite jade in its center.
Twelve hours, he thought as he walked back the way he'd come. Not much time. Entering the chapel once more, which was the only room in the old mansion with a high enough ceiling for what he planned to do, he looked up toward the sparkling rose window. As he centered himself, the atmosphere within the soaring chamber changed to gloom and shadow. An inky darkness filled the air, sucking up most of the light streaming in through the stained-glass windows. At Nephrite's trigger-phrase, "The movement of the stars rules everything," a model of the solar system appeared within the darkness, accurately showing the Gemlord the planets' movements around the Sun. He opened his mouth to speak the next phrase, then paused--unsure what to do--when he realized that he could no longer feel the dark energy of the Negaforce coursing through him. Instead, the only energy that sparkled through his soul was that from his gemstone and the stars.
Falling back on memories from long ago, Nephrite continued, "I call upon the mighty Zodiac, you twelve who oversee all the affairs of life, show me what has transpired since the day of my death." He couldn't help shuddering at his last two words.
A thin beam of silver light shot forth from the miniature Sun, striking the jade on the Gemlord's forehead. His eyes momentarily glowing with an eerie green light as the patterns of the past became clear, Nephrite silently watched the events unfold.
The search for the Rainbow Crystals and the defeat of the Seven Shadows. Zoisite's execution. The reawakening of the Moon Princess and the reconstruction of the Imperium Silver Crystal. The corruption of Tuxedo Mask, now known to be the reincarnation of the Earth Prince Darien. The death of Kunzite at the hands of Sailor Moon. The deaths of the Inner Senshi as they cleared the way for a final confrontation. The freeing and death of Prince Darien. The defeat of Queen Beryl and the resealing of the Negaverse by Princess Serena with the help of the spirits of her Senshi. The resurrection and return to normal life of the Prince, Princess and Senshi. The coming to Earth of a pair of aliens, searching for energy. The reawakening of the Sailors as they dealt with the troubles caused by the aliens. The coming of the Moonlight Knight. The defeat of the aliens, their hope of a new and better life, and the reunion of Prince Darien's soul. Then, just as the visions were fading away, Nephrite caught a glimpse of a tall, dark-glassed mirror glowing with a blackish-green light.
He stood there a moment longer, still looking upward, trying to let the information he'd received sink in. High above, the model of the solar system continued to mark out the planetary movements as he slowly shook his head. So much has happened. So much has changed. Too bad about Zoisite, he thought, a cold, wicked smile on his face. I really wanted a chance at that witch myself.
His dark desire for revenge thwarted, Nephrite turned his thoughts to the other matter he found pressing. "I call upon the planets Venus, who rules partnerships, harmony and cooperation, and Mars, ruler of energy and passion, show me the location of Molly Baker."
A new vision appeared within his mind. A sweet-looking teen-aged girl, wearing a blue and white sailor-like school uniform, was sitting on a park bench. A gentle breeze stirred her medium-length, bright red hair-- some of which was pulled back with a blue bow-- as she gazed out at the trees and absently swung her legs back and forth. With a start, Nephrite realized that he was looking at the same park-- nearly the exact same spot-- where he'd been attacked.
With a long sigh, he let the vision of the stars fade away. She seems well enough, he told himself as the chapel brightened considerably. Perhaps I should just leave her be. But then a memory flashed through his mind, of Molly saying that her dream was to go out and have a chocolate parfait with him. He closed his eyes, an expression of pain on his handsome face, as he fought back the torrent of strong, unfamiliar emotions the memory provoked. No, I can't let it be. I still want to do that for her. I realize now that making her little dream come true was the real reason I needed to come back. But I don't want to hurt her anymore, either. If I show up now, all I can do is disappoint her again since I won't be the same person she loved once the time limit expires.
With a growl of irritation, Nephrite opened his jade-green eyes, his jaw set in determination. To hell with it, he decided. I have to see her, come what may. Perhaps if I went as someone else... Fixing an image in his mind, he threw a hand up in the air. "Stardust Disguise."
A burst of greenish-silver light erupted from his hand, raining down a shower of glittering sparkles over his athletic form and obscuring his outline. When the twinkling sparks disappeared, another young man stood in Nephrite's place. Dressed in sneakers, jeans and a loose-fitting T-shirt, his hair now short, straight and blond, his eyes now colored golden-brown, the Gemlord's disguised form looked nothing like his true self. With a nod of satisfaction, he teleported.
I wonder what's keeping Serena so long? the red-headed teen thought as she continued to swing her feet. Another gust of wind blew across her, rustling the leaves of the nearby trees. Scanning the park one more time with her slate-blue eyes, she sighed. I hope she didn't forget that we were supposed to meet here today.
Just then, a low, quiet voice interrupted the girl's thoughts. "Excuse me, would you mind if I joined you?"
Startled, the red-head looked over at where the sound had come from. Seeing a young blond man-- apparently in his early twenties-- standing there at the end of the bench, the girl replied, "Sure, go ahead." She then scooted down to the other end, making room. As she straightened out her blue skirt, the newcomer gave her a slight nod of thanks and sat down.
For a long moment they sat there in silence, looking out into the wooded greenery. Finally, the man spoke. "Nice weather we're having."
The teen-ager blinked in surprise. Glancing up through the trees at the overcast sky, smelling the scent of possible rain in the wind, the red-haired girl thought his comment was strange indeed.
Next to her, the blond stranger waited for her reply. Getting none, he narrowed his golden-brown eyes in annoyance. "So, do you come here often?"
The girl nervously swallowed. Something about him just doesn't seem right, she thought. Deciding to go ahead and answer for civility's sake alone, she said, "Actually, no. I try to stay away. But I'm supposed to meet someone here today."
"Really? Who?" the man asked, an icy undercurrent creeping into his voice.
Astonished at his tone, the teen-ager turned slate-blue eyes on him. Despite his apparently annoyed voice, the expression on his good-looking face was only one of mild curiosity. "My best friend Serena. She and I are going to go shopping," she replied, carefully watching the stranger's face. Seeing something flicker deep within his eyes, she asked, "Do you know Serena?"
The blond man shook his head. Looking aside, an unreadable expression on his face, he answered, "No, never had the pleasure of meeting her."
Huh? the redhead thought. For just a split-second, there seemed to be something very familiar about him in the way he narrowed his eyes and set his jaw. But then his expression changed, and with it disappeared the feeling of familiarity. Confused, the girl began scanning the park grounds again.
After another few moments of silence, the blond stranger spoke once more. "You said that you tended to stay away from here. Why? It looks like a beautiful place to me."
Something in the way he said those words caused the teen-ager to stare at him yet again. He was still gazing out into the wooded land, a far-away look in his eyes and a gorgeous smile on his face.
Only once before had she seen a smile as beautiful as that. No. It can't be. It's just not possible, she thought, her heart leaping into her throat. However, before she could stop herself, she blurted out, "Nephrite?!"
At the sound of his name, the disguised Gemlord froze, stunned. Recovering quickly, he stared back at the still-amazed redhead. He started to protest that he wasn't who she thought he was, then recalled his final words to her before his death. And here I am, lying to her yet again-- this time on purpose. With a long sigh of defeat, he carefully looked around. Finding no one else in sight, he let the disguise drop.
The girl's slate-blue eyes grew even wider as shimmering greenish-silver light momentarily enveloped the stranger. When it disappeared, she saw sitting on the bench next to her the man who still sometimes haunted her dreams. "But how?" she gasped, her mind slower to grasp the truth that her heart and eyes already knew, that it was really him.
"Because of you, Molly," Nephrite replied. "Because of the love you had for someone as corrupted by evil as I, I've been given a short time on Earth to still make that little dream of yours come true."
Molly's angelic face went from astonishment to radiant joy to confused sadness in a matter of seconds. "You mean you can't stay?" she asked, her voice breaking.
He slowly shook his head, his dark reddish-brown bangs falling into his left eye. "Please believe me when I say that I truly didn't wish to cause you more pain, but I needed to see you again. That's why I came in disguise, but you still recognized me. I realize now that I shouldn't have come."
He started to stand, but Molly laid a hand on his arm. "Don't go. Please."
"Why? All I'll do is make things worse."
"I'd rather have what little time you were given than to have no time at all," the red-haired girl replied. "If all you can do is have that parfait you promised, then I'll be happy enough. At least I'll have that many more memories the next time you're gone."
"Are you sure?" Nephrite asked.
Molly thought it over, a serious look on her sweet face. "I've already accepted your loss once. I can do so again, especially since I know up front that this can't last."
Nephrite gave her a slight smile. "I seem to recall that you told me that there's a cafe downtown that you'd like to go to for a parfait."
He stood up then and held out a hand. When Molly reached up and placed her hand in his, he helped her up. Guiding her next to his athletic form and wrapping an arm around her waist, he said, "Clear your mind of all thought, then picture that place in your mind. Close your eyes and concentrate." After watching her do as he asked, he shut his own eyes and saw the image in his mind. Reaching out with his power, he teleported them both there.
Moments later, a slender teen-ager with extremely long twin ponytails walked over to the empty bench. Holding a double-scoop ice cream cone in each hand and clutching a paper bag-- from the top of which a comic book peeked out-- under her left arm, the blond girl called out, "Yoo-hoo! Molly! Guess what I got. Chocolate-fudge ripple and cherry ice cream and the new Sailor V comic." Realizing that there was no one there, she yelled again, a worried tone in her voice, "Molly? Molly! Where are you?"
Frowning, the slender, ponytailed blond thought, Wonder what happened to her? She was supposed to meet me here. She started to search around for her missing friend, but was then distracted by melting ice cream dripping onto her hands. Oh well. Her loss. Gonna have to eat them both before they make a mess.
Molly had forgotten just how weird of an experience teleporting could be. One second she was standing there in the park-- eyes closed and concentrating on her mental picture as Nephrite held her close-- and the next there was nothing save a soul-numbing chill, the sound of her own heart and a gut-wrenching feeling of vertigo. However, the nauseating sensations lasted for only a split-second. In a flash, she was suddenly aware that she could feel her own body, as well as his, again. Startled, she opened her slate-blue eyes.
They were standing in front of the downtown restaurant. It was just the way she'd pictured it, a small, family-run business that took up a corner of the first floor of a three-story building. Feeling Nephrite let her go and step away, she turned her head to look at him--then blinked in surprise. Somehow, in the middle of the teleport, he'd managed to change his appearance yet again. This time, he was wearing the yellow dress-shirt, white slacks and brown loafers of his human alter-ego, the eccentric millionaire Maxfield Stanton. "How do you do that?" she gasped.
"Lots of talent and a little practice," Nephrite replied. "I'll draw less attention to us this way."
Molly nodded in comprehension, thinking that his former caped outfit would have been a bit odd to those people who happened to be around. "How can you stand teleporting? Does it always feel like that?"
The reddish-brown-haired man shrugged, then opened the door for her. "You get used to it," he replied as he followed the teen-ager inside.
She stood quietly next to him, becoming suddenly shy and nervous, as he gave the couple's order to the matronly woman behind the counter. Watching him pay for the pair of parfaits, she couldn't help wondering where he'd got the money from, and she was still musing on that when she realized that he was waiting for her to take first pick. With a sheepish look, she grabbed one of the tall dessert glasses and a long-handled spoon, then followed him to a booth.
They sat down on opposite sides, facing one another, each one keeping their gaze on the cherry-topped treat in front of them. Both Molly and Nephrite waited for the other to start-- then, when it became apparent to each of them that the other one was expecting them to go first, they both picked up their spoon and dug in. The perfect synchronization of the entire episode struck Nephrite as amusingly absurd and he couldn't keep from laughing.
The red-haired teen went ahead and ate the bite of fudge-covered vanilla ice cream on her spoon, smiling at his amusement. "I missed your laugh," she said. "I only got to hear it that once."
The Gemlord ate his spoonful then, a thoughtful expression on his handsome face. After a pause, he declared, "Actually, that's not too bad."
"They don't have ice cream where you're from?"
Recalling her query from what had to be months ago, Nephrite smiled. "You ask the most innocent of questions, Molly. No, Sunday wasn't a day off for me and no, we didn't have any ice cream. In fact, I really don't have to eat to stay alive, but I do so when I'm on Earth so that I blend in better with you natives."
They fell silent for a few minutes, concentrating on their desserts, until Molly got enough courage to say, "Tell me about yourself, Nephrite."
Jade-green eyes stared straight into her slate-blue ones. "It's not a nice story, Molly," he warned.
"I already know that you've done a lot of bad things, but that doesn't matter. I want to know who the man is that I fell in love with," the teen-aged girl challenged.
"I wish I knew. If it was the person you see right now, then he's just imaginary, an identity I created in order to carry out my plans among you humans in secrecy. Yet even when I did tell you something about the truth of myself, it didn't stop you. You willingly put yourself in danger for my sake."
"But that's what love's about."
"So I've learned, I think," Nephrite admitted. A far-off look in his eyes, he added, "When Zoisite's goons took you hostage, I was going to abandon you, leaving you to her to do with as she willed--until I began to think about what she probably would do, and found that I couldn't let you face that. Then, during that last fight, all I could think about was keeping you from getting hurt." Focusing once again on Molly's angelic face, he watched, amazed, as his confession caused her form to brighten with an almost visible glow. Recognizing the brilliant light as the fascinatingly pure energy of her love and remembering how he sensed it crumbling into gray ashes while his own life-force was being sucked dry, he scowled. "Don't get too happy. Remember, I can't stay."
Although obviously crestfallen at his harsh words, the light still shone within the girl. "I know, but I can't help it. You love me."
He narrowed his eyes, about to angrily deny Molly's quiet statement, but then stopped himself before he uttered a sound. Despite the feelings of discomfort and irritation provoked by her words, he knew also that they had the ring of truth. "I care about you, and what happens to you. But love?" For just a few seconds, his face hardened into that cold, arrogant expression the red-headed teen remembered from the times before.
"When I was in your room that night and told you what it was like where I was from, I wasn't lying then even though my motives for telling you so were a sham. You may be cute and sweet, full of innocence, a true angel of starlight--" He quit in mid-sentence, suddenly realizing what he'd said. Rolling jade-green eyes in exasperation, he mentally growled, Now I'm beginning to sound like a love-sick fool.
Molly watched, amused by the play of emotions. "I kind of like that," she confessed. "Starlight angel."
The conversation lagged off, an atmosphere of uncertainty and hesitation surrounding the couple. They finished up their desserts in silence, Molly too shy to try to find out more and Nephrite too irritated and perplexed to say anything else. However, the red-haired girl kept glancing over at him, trying to build up the courage to speak again.
Nephrite sat there and stared at the empty, fudge-covered glass, trying to sort out the jumble of feelings inside. Then, like a bolt out of the blue, something hit his psychic awareness like a sledgehammer, shaking him to his very core. Gasping in pain at the overwhelming intensity, it took his astounded mind a moment to recognize it for what it was--an ancient, irresistible Call.
At the unexpected sound, Molly looked up and caught the look of utter astonishment on her companion's face. As she watched in sudden fright, his outline became a bit blurred and his body slightly transparent. "No! Wait! You can't go now."
"Not my doing," Nephrite hissed, fighting the summons. "I have . . . more time . . . but this . . . is something else." I can't go back and face him now. It may jeopardize everything, he silently raged. But it was a losing battle, as he knew it must be. No Gemlord of Lithos, no matter his or her past, could ignore that Call. Staring over at Molly's tear-blurred eyes and seeing the light shining within her sad, scared soul, he heard a voice speak from his memory: With love, all things are possible, all destinies may be denied. Could it be? he asked himself.
It took nearly everything he had to hold out an increasingly insubstantial hand to the girl. "Molly . . . hold me . . . keep me here . . . with the power . . . of your love."
Faced with the man of her dreams fading away right before her eyes, the teen-ager didn't need any more encouragement. With the blind trust of true faith, she grabbed his ghost-like hand in her own. An almost electric shock ran through them both at the contact. With the blinding light of Molly's love shimmering within them both, she could feel Nephrite's hand suddenly become solid again. But connected to him like that, she could see and feel other things besides.
The world exploded into the darkness of space, thousands of glimmering stars scattered about. She could hear the music they made as the planets danced among them, but she could hear something else as well--an irresistable urge to return to somewhere out there. In that moment, she knew that he had to stay behind, that he had things to do on Earth, and she resolved to help him the best she could. Catching the impression of a shadowy man with dark hair and dark eyes standing in the middle of space, she drew together the shimmering light of the stars around them both. Within the silver sphere, the summons could be heard no more.
She came back to her own awareness then, once more in the ice cream parlor and still holding Nephrite's hand. Glancing over at his now-solid form, she saw that he was smiling.
"Thank you. It wasn't time for me to go, yet."
"Who was that?" Molly asked.
The Gemlord remained silent for a long moment, then reluctantly replied, "Someone I knew long ago."
"Please, I want to understand. Who are you really?"
"You shouldn't trust me so much."
"I can't help it. Love's funny that way," the redhead shrugged.
In reply, he reached over and took her other hand in his own. With a second's concentration, he teleported them both again from the parlor's booth.
Having known a bit more what to expect, Molly found the second teleport not as upsetting as the first. Looking around, she saw that she was standing in some sort of chapel, a highly-vaulted ceiling soaring upwards. All around were tall, thin, stained-glass windows, while at one end of the rectangular room an intricate rose window overlooked the altar. She swallowed, a bit apprehensive, as she took in the signs of decay and gloom that filled the empty chamber and noticed the tall candlesticks that ringed the raised dais beneath the rose window. Oddly enough, their glass holders were different colors; blue, yellow, green and red, they stood at the four corners of the marble altar. Not sure what was going to happen next, she looked over at the man who still held her hands--and wasn't too surprised to find him back in his caped, green and white outfit.
He let her go, then turned to face the round window high above. "You should be careful what you wish for, Molly, for it may come to you," his rich baritone voice admonished. Before she could reply, he continued, "The movement of the stars rules everything. I call upon the outer planets, you who govern the destinies of generations, show this foolish girl the shadows of my past."
At the sound of his words, Molly watched, uneasy, as the gloom seemed to swallow up the entire room. Before her wide-open eyes, a vision of the solar system appeared, putting a picture to the music she'd recently heard. But then even the sparkling stars and majestic planets faded somewhat as images began to form within the heart of the darkness.
"I come from another planet in this solar system," Nephrite began explaining the visions, his words echoing slightly in the open room. A picture of a white-swirled blue world, similar to Earth, appeared. "And though this planet, Lithos by name, orbited between Mars and Jupiter, it was as filled with water and life as this Earth of yours. But whereas your world developed life because it was scientifically possible, Lithos sustained life because it was mystically possible."
The scene changed to that of a large mirror made of black glass, a tall man with dark hair dressed in dark clothes standing next to it. With a start, Molly recognized the image as that of the man she'd seen out in space. "Lithos was home to the Vortex Mirror, a mystic embodiment of the bridge between all places that exist in the Universe. It was the energy of that Symbol of the Cosmos that made life possible there. And guarding that Symbol, keeping it from being misused, was Obsidian, Lord of Lithos."
Another picture appeared. This time the teen-ager could see a black castle-like tower in the midst of a beautiful city, with many men and women walking around enjoying the sights. "Obsidian wasn't alone, however. As companions and assistants, the Gemlords of Lithos came into being. I can't explain how it happened--there are some things in the Universe that remain mysterious--but certain types of stones, generally recognized here on Earth by you humans as gems, developed souls that personified the mystic powers those stones contained. I am, you could say, the spirit of nephrite jade."
Another change of the vision. Five warrior women stood at guard before the black Tower, each one dressed in short-skirted battle gear. One had long dark, ruby-red hair and wore a costume of the same shade. One had long silver-blond hair streaked with pastel shades of pink, yellow, orange, blue, green and violet and was dressed in sapphire-blue. Another had shoulder-length golden-blond hair with a uniform of yellows and metallic gold. The fourth, with long deep-green hair, was outfitted in emerald-green while the fifth, who had long silver-blond hair, had a uniform of white and silver. "We weren't all awakened at once, nor were we all the same in power. Among the first to appear, and the most powerful, were the Tower Guard. Ruby, Sapphire, Amber, Emerald, and their captain, Diamond, were the Mirror's last line of defense save Obsidian himself."
"But there was another group as well, one almost as powerful as the Tower Guard. This group's job was to be the front line of defense, overseeing the organization of the other Gemlords under their command should the need ever arise." The scene changed, showing a tall man with silver-blond hair, pale lavender eyes and dressed in clothes similar to Nephrite's own--only these were in shades of violet-pink and had a nearly floor-length cloak. "Lord Kunzite, the leader, Commander of the Southern Quarter," Nephrite explained. "It was rumored that he was nearly as old as Obsidian and the Guard; he was certainly much older than I."
The image changed again, showing Molly a picture of Nephrite--looking almost identical to how he appeared now--with another man standing next to him. The other Gemlord had short, light blond hair and amber-colored eyes, his clothes colored in shades of orangish-yellow. "Jadeite and I came into being at nearly the same moment. I don't recall a childhood, I just suddenly was. Although we don't have families as such, Jadeite and I were sort of considered fraternal twins. We did nearly everything together--and were discovered by Kunzite as the Commanders of the Northern and Eastern Quarters he'd been searching for.
"For a long time, it was just the three of us, overseeing the organization of the defense of Lithos under Obsidian's command. However, we knew there would eventually be a fourth, for we needed someone to command the Western Quarter in order to be complete."
Another shift, showing the girl a slender, boyish-looking man with long golden-blond hair and violet-blue eyes wearing shades of violet-blue. Startled, Molly blurted out, "But that looks like . . ."
"The woman who took the star crystal and taunted me? It is. One of Zoisite's powers is the ability to change his or her form to whatever he or she feels like. Back then, he usually remained male. And he was found to be the Commander of the West Kunzite was looking for. Because Zoisite was so much younger than the rest of us, Kunzite worked especially hard on his training to get him up to speed. Finally, our group was complete."
The image then became one of peaceful existence within the beautiful city. "Things remained blissfully quiet for a long time. Although we continued to prepare, our plans for the defense of Lithos were never used. No one ever threatened to conquer the Mirror, and the rest of the solar system was united in peace under the gentle hand of Queen Serenity."
Molly then saw a picture of the Sailor Scouts standing at the ready. As Nephrite continued to remark on the pictures, she recognized the warrior girls as Venus, Mercury, Mars and Jupiter. "Queen Serenity had her own guard, whom you've met as the Sailor Scouts. Their job was to protect the Silver Millenium--Queen Serenity's peace--but most of all, protect the Moon Princess." Now the redhead could see a beautiful, graceful girl with long blond hair dressed in a gossamer gown of moonlight white.
"However, things eventually fell apart." The picture swirled into that of a tall, flame-haired woman wearing a long red gown. "Lady Beryl was caught using the Vortex Mirror without Obsidian's knowledge. For the first time ever, someone had used the Mirror's powers without the Guardian's authorization. Obsidian was livid, but not enough to execute her. Instead, he banished her to Earth, the only place our gemstone powers are weakened." Now Molly could see the woman bound and gagged, surrounded by the four Commanders as Obsidian and a man with short black hair and wearing black and silver armor talked. "Prince Darien, Earth's guardian, didn't take kindly to being ordered to imprison an exiled Gemlord on his planet. So in order to reassure the Prince that Beryl couldn't cause anymore trouble, Obsidian ordered the four of us to stay behind as well as Beryl's guards. We found a cave up near the North Magnetic Pole and used it as her cell, each one of us taking shifts watching over her."
The vision changed. This time the awed girl saw another image of Nephrite. He was sitting on what appeared to be a chair shaped out of the living rock of a cavern and was reading something. Nearby, a opening in the cave's wall was sealed up with a shimmering white light. "At first, we carried out our orders as diligently as we always had, each one of us dealing with a full twenty-four hours alone with the prisoner in that cave. But the duty became rather unbearable with nothing to do, so we each ended up staying at Prince Darien's court most of the time with whomever had the job for the day making periodic teleports into the cell to see if everything was as it should be." Another change. This time the picture showed the four commanders wearing white uniforms with trim the color of their gemstone-- the man identified as Kunzite having a long cloak instead of a cape-- standing behind the black-clad Earth Prince. "We spent so much time there, we became friends of Prince Darien and got caught up in the middle of a potential scandal."
The picture now showed the Moon Princess and the Earth Prince holding hands and staring into each other's eyes. "You see, although all of us from the other planets were supposed to stay away from Earth--and Earthlings were banned from the other planets--the Moon Princess was fascinated with the blue planet she could see in her sky. So she snuck down here, met Prince Darien--and it was love at first sight. But the Senshi found out about the Princess's trips and they continually foiled her attempts to visit."
The image then became one of the four white-clad commanders, each one talking to a Senshi one-on-one as the Prince and Princess were sneaking off in the background. "At Prince Darien's command, for Obsidian had placed us at the Prince's disposal, we used our teleporting powers and our persuasion to keep the Sailors busy while the royal couple went off by themselves. Whether it was here on Earth or up on the Moon, it became the job of each one of us to occupy a Senshi. My target was Princess Jupiter." In illustration, the vision turned to one of Nephrite in a large ballroom, dancing with a girl Molly recognized as Sailor Jupiter. In the background were the other commanders, each one dancing with a Senshi as well.
"It became an amusing game with the four of us, outwitting the Senshi like that. I suppose we were looking for anything to relieve the boredom of our true mission. Beryl remained safely imprisoned, out of harm's way, and we enjoyed trying to keep the Sailors in the dark about just how many times the Princess was here on Earth or the Prince was on the Moon. But then we began to suspect that Queen Serenity had found out what was going on, because there came a time that it felt like we were always being watched. When we tried to tell Prince Darien about it, he shrugged it off and said that if we were that worried about it, we should use our powers to find out what was going on."
The image became that of the cavern prison again, the four commanders standing together and arguing. "I can't tell you exactly what happened next, Molly, because I really don't know myself. I remember Zoisite yelling about being unappreciated by Obsidian and that it should've been someone else pulling this duty. Kunzite was trying to calm him down when suddenly Jadeite started agreeing, saying that he'd had enough of the whole thing. I started to disagree, when Zoisite put a hand on my shoulder. Just like that, I could see his point. Duty and honor suddenly meant absolutely nothing. I wanted recognition and power. After all, we four were the strongest of all the Gemlords outside of Obsidian and the Tower Guard. When I sided with the others, arguing that we should dump this backwater, go home and make Obsidian give us something more in keeping with our high status, Kunzite stormed off, sure we were all crazy."
A new scene appeared, with Zoisite, still dressed in the same uniform but now quite noticeably female, holding Kunzite by the hand and walking back to the other two. "It was after Kunzite decided to join us after all that Zoisite kept to a feminine form; she used her male form only one last time. And with us united again, we were standing there wondering just how to do what we wanted when Beryl spoke and told us of a plan."
When the image finished shifting again, it showed the tall, flame-haired woman--now clad in a long, indigo-blue gown--standing before the four commanders, a globe of dark energy between them. "The more she spoke, the more we realized that she was saying what we wanted to hear. Obsidian had been wrong to exile her, she really hadn't done anything wrong. And he shouldn't have ordered us to guard her; it seemed so obvious that he didn't appreciate the hard work and loyalty we'd shown on his behalf. All he cared about were the Vortex Mirror and the Tower Guard. If we would only join Beryl, acknowledge her as our Queen, she would give us all the power we needed to show Obsidian, Queen Serenity and anyone else that they shouldn't have messed with us. The four of us, full of resentment, bitterness and dissatisfaction, agreed." The picture changed, showing Nephrite--now dressed in the gray uniform that Molly had known him in all those months ago--on bended knee before the tall woman, kissing her outstretched hand as an aura of dark energy surrounded him. "One by one, we pledged our loyalty and ourselves to her as Queen, and in return, we each received an energy like I'd never sensed before. I felt like I could do anything, that I was invincible. We then began to put our Queen's plan into action."
The vision this time showed Nephrite in disguise walking among the humans of Earth, talking to them and finding excuses to lay a hand on them. Molly saw that all of the people he touched suddenly developed a barely-visible dark glow that quickly faded away. "With Jadeite taking Asia, Zoisite in Europe, Kunzite in Africa and the Middle East and myself in the Americas, the four of us went among the mortals of Earth. In order to carry out our Queen's plan, we needed troops, and the new power we had at our command needed a physical focus. So we used humans in order to set the pattern the energy would take. When the time came, we could call upon it and have it channeled through a human, thereby creating ourselves a warrior. But in the midst of it all, we received a summons from the Prince. Since we weren't ready, our Queen let us go, commanding us to fool everyone into thinking that nothing was amiss."
The new scene focused on an angry Prince Darien confronting the commanders--dressed in their white uniforms and Zoisite in his male form once more--demanding an explanation. "He wasn't happy that we hadn't been around in his court of late, especially since it had been a while since he'd seen the Princess. Every time they'd tried, the Senshi had caught them. We told him that we'd been busy trying to find out who was watching us so closely, and he grudgingly understood. After all, he had told us to do so the last time we'd seen him. We agreed to go with him to the Moon again so that he could attend that night's ball without interruption."
Molly kept staring upwards into the darkness, mouth slightly open in shock, as the images and Nephrite's low words continued. A vision of him dancing with Princess Jupiter again took form, with the Senshi wearing a long, gauzy gown of shimmering forest-green, her brown hair artfully arranged in an intricate style adorned with emeralds. In the background, the red-headed girl could see Jadeite dancing with Princess Mars, Kunzite paired with Princess Venus and a most-decidedly male Zoisite leading Princess Mercury. Each princess was dressed as elaborately as Jupiter, and Molly caught the impression that that particular ball had been a special event. "I kept her busy and distracted that entire night, my purpose two-fold. As always, I was to keep her from watching the Moon Princess so that she could safely meet with Prince Darien, but that night I had another job as well. While we talked and danced, I carefully used my powers to memorize her strengths and probe her weaknesses. By the time the celebration had ended, I knew Jupiter's powers inside-out and had found a way to bottle-up most of her energy inside her. Distracted fool that she was, she never knew what I had done."
The scene shimmered, resolving itself into one of Nephrite pulling Princess Jupiter close and giving her a deep kiss. Auras of dark energy momentarily surrounded them both right before Nephrite let her go, a coldly arrogant smile on his face. At the same time, the Gemlord standing near the Earth girl continued his narrative. "I gave her that last kiss knowing full well that as I did so, the power given to my by my Queen would weaken Sailor Jupiter to her most basic attack and defense. I knew then that the next time I would see her and the other Senshi, it would be on the opposite side of a battlefield. The others having accomplished the same mission with their respective princess, we returned triumphantly to our Queen."
The picture changed. Molly saw another image of the Earth from space, a noticeable darkness engulfing the blue planet. The vision then morphed into a scene of Queen Beryl, her appearance suddenly twisted into something demonic and surrounded by seven shadowy figures with glowing red eyes, raising her black, globe-topped staff high in the air. From the four corners of the Earth, shadows emerged from unsuspecting humans as the quartet of commanders--each one standing in the geographic center of their region and sending out a special telepathic command--Called the dark power they'd spread into life. The shadows quickly solidified into armed warriors as the humans from which they were patterned collapsed to the ground, unconscious.
The scenes of a battle appeared next, each gray-clad general leading his or her force toward a meeting place in what appeared to Molly to be Greenland. Along the way, the generals' forces battled the warriors of the Earth Prince, but the overwhelmed defenders could do little to hinder the attackers' movements. As the redhead watched, wide-eyed, Molly thought it odd that Prince Darien was suddenly nowhere to be found when it became a given that the four armies would soon join forces. The image then became one of the full army standing on a wind-swept plain, Queen Beryl and her shadowy attendants in the center. At the four corners of the area, the generals stood in their respective Quarters and linked their teleporting abilities together in order to move the whole force to a new place.
Molly then saw the army appear on another planet, the beautiful city with the tall black tower she'd seen earlier on the horizon. For the first time in a few moments, Nephrite spoke. "After collecting our troops and taking Earth, the first place we went was Lithos. All of us had a score to settle with our former Lord, Obsidian, and the dark power which fueled our actions and for which we worked promised us whatever we wished should we prove able to wrest control of the Vortex Mirror from its Guardian." The vision became that of another battle, with Queen Beryl, the Seven Shadows, Nephrite and Jadeite leading the attack on the Gemlord defenders. High on a mountain, overlooking the city, Kunzite and a female Zoisite stood within a force-field of violet-pink energy. Within Zoisite's embrace, her power augmenting his own, Kunzite had his silver-haired head bowed in concentration. High above, a thin, sparkling violet-pink shield covered the entire sky. "As the main force advanced on the city, we sustained moderate losses for each Gemlord we killed. As Jadeite and I lead the army over the territory we'd known so well, Kunzite and Zoisite set up a barrier around Lithos that kept any call for reinforcements from reaching the other planets. Then, on the outskirts of the city, we met the Tower Guard."
The image became that of the five amazon warriors, battle ready, the few remaining defenders preparing for another stand behind them. Although the generals--Kunzite and Zoisite having rejoined the main force--did their best to incapacitate the Guard, the amazons carved a path through the relatively-weak footsoldiers toward Queen Beryl. Seeing the threat, the demonic-appearing woman sent the Seven Shadows out to intercept them. As the quartet of generals picked off those lesser Gemlords that remained, the Shadow warriors pushed back the amazons' attack. Then a new form joined the fray, his blackish-green cloak and dark-brown hair flying as he took on the Shadows alone.
With the Shadows fighting tooth-and-nail with the Lord of Lithos, keeping him from helping his Guard, the four generals linked powers and used their combined energies to concentrate on one amazon at a time. "Our Queen and her Shadows were more than a match for the Mirror's Guardian, but to Obsidian's credit, he stopped their advance. Of the Tower Guard, Emerald was the first to fall beneath our combined might. Ruby became our next target as we sent the full force of what remained of our army against Sapphire's multiple attacks. The twin amazons fell together, united in death as they'd been in life. Amber was the last of the Tower Guard to be killed, giving her life in defense of the Mirror we sought to take.
"With them gone, there only remained Obsidian and Diamond, who both knew that the battle was lost. They both teleported to the Tower and we marched through the city in mass. Diamond made a final stand at the Tower's gates but, weakened as she was, she was no match for us then. Jadeite and I combined our energies once more and finished the Captain off."
A new picture formed. With the Tower protected by a deep-green force-field and the ground all around breaking up into huge pieces, the generals surrounded what remained of their forces and, with their combined teleport once more, moved the entire group back to Earth. "We'd failed, but barely. And even though we'd all used huge amounts of power, we seemed to increase in energy as the battles raged on, almost as if we'd been feeding off the death and destruction caused by our actions."
The picture then became one of the quartet spread throughout the Earth, sending out their Call to the dark power once more. All over the world, the poor humans who were just beginning to recover from the last summons fell to the ground, senseless again, as a new warrior of the dark energy was formed through their bodies. The four newly-created armies met up at the same place as before, but this time the frightened girl could see a huge, overwhelming Shadow overlooking the plain with glowing red eyes. Their ranks swollen once more, the army let out a war-cry that filled the air. Riding a tidal wave of dark energy formed by the enormous Shadow, the army charged toward the Kingdom of the Moon. "We'd lost many of our troops to the Gemlords of Lithos," the reddish-brown-haired man continued. "But with our powers increasing as they were, we used the humans as templates once again, making more warriors for our cause. When we gathered together in the far North again, we were joined by the Negaforce itself. With it fully awakened and at our Queen's disposal, we knew we were unstoppable. The Negaforce told us to not be overly disappointed at losing the Mirror, for once we had gained the Imperium Silver Crystal, we'd be able to use its power to locate where Obsidian took it. Caught up in the bloodlust, we cheered. The Moon, and Queen Serenity, became our next target."
The scene changed to one of wholesale destruction as the army and the Negaforce overran the unprepared kingdom. Carnage and rubble were everywhere as the army destroyed everything in sight. Molly saw the planetary Princesses become the Sailors and try to stop the rampaging Negaforce, but with their powers sabotaged by the four Commanders, they never had a chance. With one blast, they fell together.
At one point among the chaos, the red-headed teen saw Queen Beryl confront the Moon Princess, only to be stopped by Prince Darien. But when the Negaforce tried to take the Prince at Queen Beryl's command, the Princess chose to go as well--and both ended up dead, struck by the same beam of energy. Molly then saw a tall, ethereally-beautiful woman--with pale blond hair in twin, floor-length ponytails that emerged from spheres of hair on her head--run to the scene of the dead Prince and Princess in horror. Collapsing to the ground in despair, the pale, graceful woman pulled out a round, faceted gem that sparkled brighter than any diamond Molly had ever seen. The woman placed the colorless stone in a socket in her golden crescent-moon wand, stood up and raised it to the smoke-filled sky. The visions, and the darkness within the chapel, faded away with a brilliantly-pure, blindingly-white light.
Nephrite continued to stare up at the rose window. "Queen Serenity, overcome by the destruction of her kingdom and the deaths of those she loved, turned the power of the Imperium Silver Crystal against us all, defenders and invaders alike, trapping us body and soul within the Crystal's heart. She then sent the Crystal up into the sky and made it shatter, each fragment containing a separate spirit. But whereas all those who died defending her kingdom were sent ahead to another time on Earth, another fate lay in store for those of us who were channels of the Negaforce's dark power. Instead, we were exiled to the dimension from which it had originally come."
He turned and looked at the awe-struck girl. "Be thankful that you've spent your life in a place of warmth and sunlight, Molly. The Negaverse is nothing like that," he began, a melancholy expression deep within his jade-green eyes. "The best description I can give you is that it's like an extensive maze of underground caverns, full of coldness, gloom and shadow. For a thousand years we were there, the coldness and gloom slowly seeping into our souls and freezing what was there as the Negaforce, weakened by its encounter with the Crystal, lay comatose within the center of its home dimension.
"During that time, the four of us went our separate ways, a unit no longer. Jadeite and I, once as close as twin brothers, never did anything together after our exile began; we both withdrew into our own worlds of training and duties, awaiting the day when all of us could break free. Kunzite also withdrew into himself, keeping everyone except Zoisite at arm's length. And despite her obviously closer relationship with Kunzite, Zoisite became more vindictive and vain as time went on; there were times I was sure she'd stab even Kunzite in the back if it meant gaining greater favor from Queen Beryl. Since I was second-in-command after Kunzite, I naturally became a target of Zoisite's political games. It was that rivalry that eventually meant my doom.
"However, the seal around the Negaverse Queen Serenity set in her despair with the Crystal was flawed, and the gateway first opened up by Beryl with the Vortex Mirror was never fully closed. After a millennium of exile, we'd regained enough energy to reopen the way to Earth. Deciding to pick up where she'd left off, determined as ever, Beryl conferred with the four of us about ways to speed up the process of regaining our full strength. When Jadeite said that he had a few plans that could work, Beryl broke the weakened seal around the Negaverse, opened the gateway and put Jadeite in control of the mission.
"He would have done quite well had it not been for Sailor Moon and the two Senshi he'd accidentally awakened. When Beryl tired of his failures, she permanently imprisoned him in a crystal, alive but asleep. It then became my duty to round up energy in order to accelerate the Negaforce's reawakening. The rest you pretty much already know."
For an agonizingly long moment, absolute silence filled the shadowy chapel as the teen-aged girl and the centuries-old Gemlord stared at one another. Finally, Molly was able to whisper, "I just don't know what to say . . ."
"Then don't say anything," Nephrite replied, stepping forward and placing a hand on her forehead. With practiced ease, he pulled the girl's energy from her into himself, then carefully caught her before her unconscious body could hit the floor. Gathering her slight form up into his arms, the reddish-brown-haired man teleported again.
He reappeared in the red-haired girl's bedroom, his psychic senses telling him that no one was nearby. Nephrite glanced around for a moment, taking in his surroundings. They were much the same as he remembered they would be. Decorated in blues and greens, the obviously feminine room was pretty much what the Gemlord expected from an adolescent human girl. With a faint, almost whimsical smile, Nephrite carefully laid the unconscious teen down on her bed. Reaching out with his power, he telepathed to her sleeping mind.
**My time with you is nearly up. Thank you, Molly, for everything you've done for me, and I'm truly sorry I used you yet again, but I had to somehow ignore Obsidian's Call. Sleep now, go back to your life, remembering this as only a dream. And though I don't know what tomorrow will bring, I do know this: should danger ever threaten you again, I'll do my best to use my powers to keep you from harm.**
He turned away then, preparing to teleport back, when another thought crossed his mind. Telepathing again, he added, **Should our paths ever cross again in life, please remember that I could probably use a friend.** With that, he was gone, leaving Molly to sleep off the effects of his energy drain.
He teleported to the unkept lawn in front of the mansion he'd used as his headquarters. With the blustery wind blowing back his long, dark hair and silver-lined, green cape, making the trees around him dance, Nephrite held his hands out in front of himself. Conjuring a small sphere of bright white energy, he stared at it for a moment with jade-green eyes. Once, not long ago, this was my existence, he thought as he gazed into the heart of the energy he'd stolen from Molly. Taking from others so that the Negaforce could be reawakened. But with Beryl gone and my link to the Negaforce broken, I have no need for this. I only took it from her in order to render her unconscious.
He looked up into the stormy sky and let the energy go. It rose into the air, dissipating as it went, and disappeared in a shower of tiny silver stars.