* * * * * * * *
A few nights after the ball, Sifabi shook Naru awake. "It is coming," she said, her face more grim than usual.
"What is?" Naru asked, though she knew there could only be one answer to that question.
"The Star Swallower. You must defeat it this time, Princess. You know how our people have been weakened in our struggle against it. If we do not destroy it, it will destroy the sun, and with it all life in this solar system. The people of all the moons and planets are depending on you."
"Do you think I'm strong enough?" The last time the Star Swallower had attacked, the previous Princess, her mother, had driven it off but hadn't managed to destroy it. Naru was the last Princess, so it was up to her to put an end to the monster, but she didn't know if she was even as strong as her mother had been.
"You have no choice," Sifabi said. "You must be strong enough. No matter what happens, you must press your attacks with all your strength, and never let up. We must not let it get away again. This could be our last chance."
Naru nodded, steeling herself to fight to the very end, to her death if necessary, as long as she took the Star Swallower with her.
* * * * * * * *
The shadow descended before dawn. Naru had been sitting awake outside her tent, waiting. She closed her eyes for a few moments of power-focusing meditation, then stood up.
The shadow hovered above the camp, vast, dark, vaguely dragon-like in form but with constantly-shifting outlines. From the other tents she heard the terrified whimpers and wails of the few remaining Sun People, old men and women who had somehow managed to survive the Star Swallower's previous forays. Naru strode to the middle of the encampment and called out, "Star Swallower! I am here, and I will not let you take any more of my people! I will not let you swallow the sun and end all the lives in this solar system! Sunburst!" Naru fired a flash of brilliant, white-hot light at the enormous shadow. The light hit the Star Swallower and its outlines blurred and trembled. Naru immediately fired a Sunburst Beam, which struck the very center of the shadow while it was still recovering from the first attack. She gathered her power for one more attack, but then a tangible weight of darkness slammed down on her mind.
Naru staggered and fell back. She tried to fight her way out of the heavy darkness, as though trying to free herself from a blanket that someone was trying to smother her with. She got free just long enough to collect a quick Sunbeam attack and fling it wildly at the Star Swallower, then the darkness closed over her again.
There could be no more holding back. She had one chance to destroy the Star Swallower; she couldn't let it regroup or she would be smothered by the heavy darkness. Reserving only a minimal amount of strength to keep from being crushed by the shadow, she gathered in the rest of her power. From deep inside of her, she dredged up every fragment of Sun power she could find, and began shaping it into a Sunspot Flare, the most devastating attack she knew.
The flimsy walls she had erected around her mind trembled under the darkness that was pressing down on her. Naru gathered power and compressed it, scraped together more power and compressed it even more tightly, until she held a highly concentrated mass of Sun power. As she shaped the power, she saw a new pattern forming, something even more powerful than the Sunspot Flare. Instinctively she knew the name of this new attack: Sunspot Flare Devastation. She wondered if she was the first to discover it.
The attack was shaped and ready to fire. She drew inwards, preparing for the launch, then raised her arms, her hands cupped around the dense ball of power. "Sunspot Flare Devas --"
And then the darkness shattered her mind, and she saw --
Three Priestesses, not the ones she knew, conferring with a handful of elderly men. Eldren of the Sun People, she somehow knew. She could hear their thoughts, see into their minds. The Sun People's lack of a permanent home was a source of deep humiliation. All the other nations of the Silver Millennium had a piece of land to call their own, a place to defend, to build on or use in any other way they pleased, to invite others to or to order them away from. A place to pass down to their descendants. The Sun People did not have this. Thus, for all their pride and ancient heritage and power, they felt that they were seen as wandering beggars without wealth or pride or dignity. They had to beg a place to pitch their tents. Having no physical resources, they had to trade the meager services they could offer for the food and other supplies they needed. They had perfected the art of rug-weaving, using wool consigned to them by people with land to raise flocks. They could work a handful of spells, mostly weather-related, that were unique to Sun Power. But that was all they had. It galled their pride that they had to act as hired laborers to everyone else in the solar system.
These Priestesses and Eldren thought they had found a way to change that. They were the People of the Sun; why shouldn't they be able to make the sun their home? Of course the sun was uninhabitable; no one could come within hailing distance of it without being incinerated. But why couldn't the fires of the sun be harnessed and tamed? They were the People of the Sun; they had its power; surely they could change the sun by using its own power.
Of course, such taming of the Sun's heat and light would condemn the other peoples of the solar system to dark, icy extinction, though the people of Mercury and Venus, closest to the Sun, might be spared. Otherwise, there would be no one left to see and acknowledge the Sun People's new pride and position. But the Eldren and Priestesses wanted a kingdom of their own, and if it meant the extinction of those who they felt had mocked them and used them as servants, that was a matter of complete indifference to them.
And so the spell was cast that was meant to tame the sun and turn it into a home for the Sun People. But this use of the Sun's own power against it was so deeply in opposition to the natural laws of the universe that the spell backfired, turning against those who had made it and consuming them.
Given a kind of primitive sentience by the souls it had devoured, it wandered the universe. Every so often, bored or hungry, it returned to the people who had first made and fed it and consumed more of them, a grand feast after years or decades or even centuries of abstinence. Those who tried to fight it were consumed or else fled in fear before it could devour them. The truth of its origin was hushed up and eventually all but forgotten by everyone except those who understood that what had been done had to be undone, and that the crime had to be concealed from those who would have been its victims.
For a brief moment, Naru was paralyzed with horror at what her people had tried to do. The she collected herself and began her attack again. "Sunspot Flare --"
A thousand screams sliced into her mind. Again distracted from her attack, Naru listened. Gradually she was able to make sense out of the maelstrom of terror and sorrow. It was the voices of people crying and pleading with her not to destroy them but to find a way to set them free of the unending horror in which they were trapped.
It was the souls of those who had been consumed by the Star Swallower. They still existed as conscious, separate individuals, living in an eternal nightmare of darkness and confusion. Despite the horror, though, they didn't want oblivion. They wanted to be free to move on to whatever awaited them on the other side of the veil between life and death.
She couldn't destroy them. Not until she had tried and failed to find a way to free them. It was a terrible choice to have to make, but Naru knew she had to let them, and the Star Swallower, live until she could find a way to free them. For now, until she found the answer, she would only defend and drive it away. Naru let go of the dreadful attack she had formed, and stood, waiting to defend herself against the next attack from the Star Swallower.
But no attack came. All at once, the shadow gathered itself and fled. Naru caught a hint of fear, not the terror of the souls trapped within the Star Swallower, but a primitive fear emitted by the shadow itself.
Naru was left looking up at the starry pre-dawn sky. Her senses, still attuned to things beyond the physical dimension, detected a vague disturbance. Something else was coming, something even more dreadful than the Star Swallower. What could the Star Swallower possibly fear?
Sifabe, Serare, and Issoril hurried out of their tent. "You almost had it!" Sifabe shouted. Her thin, aged voice trembled with fury. She grabbed Naru's arm and shook her. Naru stared, shocked, at where the priestess had laid hands on her, the Princess. "I felt that attack you were ready to use! An attack that no one has mastered in generations! You could have destroyed it -- why did you stop? What kind of fool are you?"
"Remove your hands from me, if you please." Ever since her small defiance at Prince Endymion's birthday ball, it was a little easier to assert herself. "Destroying it would have destroyed the souls of the people it consumed. I know the truth now. I know that the Star Swallower is a monster of our own making. For the sake of our pride, we would have destroyed everyone else in the solar system. My whole purpose as Princess, and every Princess since it happened, has been nothing more than to cover up our ancestors' crime."
Sifabe was speechless, for once. She dropped Naru's arm.
"I'm not going to destroy it until I know how to free the souls it's holding captive," Naru continued. "But for now, it ran away from something it's afraid of. And if it's afraid of this something, I think we should be too. I think we should go to the King of Earth, or maybe to Queen Serenity, to find out what's happening and offer our help."
"Absolutely not," Sifabe said. There was venom in her voice. "It is true, you have one purpose, and one purpose only, in your life, and that is to protect your people. The troubles of the rest of the solar system are none of your concern. Since you have failed to carry out your duty, you must continue your studies until the next chance comes. But first you will offer your apologies to your people and beg their forgiveness." The dozen or so elderly men and women who were all who that was left of the Sun People had emerged from their tents and stood staring at the confrontation between the Princess and the priestess.
Naru turned looked around at them. "My people," she said. "I promise you that I will do what is best for you, and for those who were taken by the monster. Have faith in me."
They whispered and murmured among themselves. A few of them nodded in acknowledgement of her words. Then, slowly, one and two at a time, they shuffled back to their tents, too old and tired and disspirited to care.
* * * * * * * *
Again there was the jolt of dark and cold, then Naru found herself in the hideout with her arms around Nephrite. Memories of her encounter with the Star Swallower and the events that came after swirled through her mind. Drained by the travel and by the battle and emotions she had just experienced, overwhelmed by the onslaught of memories, she fell to her knees, her head resting against Nephrite's legs, her hands clutching his trousers.
Nephrite knelt in front of her. "Are you all right, Naru-chan?"
She nodded. "Yeah. I will be, anyway. There's too much, and I'm so tired..."
"Are you ready to go back? The next important point in time I've found is dangerous; too dangerous, I think, but if you need to --"
"No. I've learned what we need to know. And the rest... I think I remember everything now. It's like going back opened up the place in my mind where all the memories were locked away." As the memories flooded her mind, she forgot who and where she was.
* * * * * * * *
return to Index / go to Chapter 12
The Nephrite and Naru Treasury