Love Conquers All
by Karen Hickman
Thin shafts of twilight streaked the rocky cliffs. The river flowing between the sheer faces was tinted with the evening shadow's purple hues. A lone figure stood beside the bubbling water. Silently it gazed towards the East, studying the river's steady flow until the twisting and turning of its course disappeared from sight.
High above the gorge, among the craggy granite outcrops, another solitary form prowled in stealthy movements. Black slanted eyes surveyed the lower expanses where the river carved out its path. Motionlessly it sat crouched on its haunches eyes narrowed to pick out shapes made vague by the gathering dusk.
Ryuujin, the Dragon God, had been ruler of this dark, lofty kingdom since time began or so said the legends. The ominous tales had been passed down from generation to generation. Retold by the firelight, each story had been repeated with the same foreboding counsel. Each time a warning had been proclaimed not to venture too far from the village's safety or Ryuujin would claim your soul.
Unfortunately many villagers had not heeded the Elders wise counsel. Many had dared to wander to the river's edge and none had returned. They had vanished without a trace lost forever to the Dragon's taste for human flesh and his driving desire for mortal souls. Now one more foolish human stood on the riverbank perhaps entranced by the murky water's fabled hypnotic whisper. But it was not the river's alluring call that had brought the human there. A force more powerful was responsible. The pain of lost love was the compelling factor.
Duo Maxwell was a commoner and had no right to claim a soldier, but the when it came to matters of the heart, love knew no bounds. The soldier had returned this love, had thrown caution to the wind for secret nights in his lover's arms. He had offered to resign his command when his affair had been discovered. His status as a high-ranking warrior in the King's Army held no meaning, no reward, if it meant giving up the only light in his life.
The King had not accepted his soldier's resignation deciding that an occasional sexual liaison, however low the cast, was not worth losing one of his best Captains. Beside, the King told himself, Heero Yuy would quickly tire of this genital infatuation for surely this ordinary, uncultured peasant was only a passing fancy; something to use as a bed-warmer until someone more fitting came along.
Yuy could have his pick of many willing partners, after all being a warrior's paramour was a most sought after position. No, Yuy would soon come to his senses, kick out the whore and all would be as it should be once more.
But to the King's dismay the unsanctioned affair did not end. The castle's gossipmongers spread the news until there was not a courtier who had not heard. Now everyone in daily attendance was babbling about the King's Captain, the commoner and their scandalous behavior. Of course such ridicule was the height of hypocrisy for there was not one person in the King's favor who was not playing a game of "musical beds" at every opportunity.
Then when the King found out that Yuy was involved with a male and not a female has he had assumed, he knew he could not allow his Captain's conduct to continue. Such immoral activities, he feared, would reflect badly on the Royal Station so he set a plan in motion. He instructed the castle servants to start a rumor that Captain Yuy was involved with the daughter of a Lieutenant serving under his command. The King knew the erroneous information would quickly reach the village and that it would not be long before the object of Yuy's enamored interest would hear. That was end the affair, of that the King was certain.
The false report traveled fast. Yuy's lover did indeed hear. Duo Maxwell was well aware of his lowly status He had constantly been reminded of it since he was old enough to understand his place and experience the painful shunning. He had endured mean spirited remarks and physical mistreatment especially at the hands of the Noble's children. Even though the village priest had taught the "peasant brats" to read and write the limited education had not improved Duo's situation as far as the Noblemen were concerned. Duo was still lower class and would never be anything more.
Since his teenage years Duo had accepted his lot in life until two months ago when fate sent the King's Captain to him. As much as Duo wanted to believe that Heero Yuy loved him, he could not shake the doubts and fears that one day his soldier would leave. Duo had nothing to offer, no money, no position. The question of gender, too, was something to seriously consider. He knew that the unusual nature of their relationship could hurt Heero's chances for promotion, could ruin his career as a soldier.
Heero Yuy had been born with privilege. His father had risen through the ranks to become a General in the King's Service. Heero grew up in the Army's encampment. He learned to handle a sword as soon as he could walk; to ride a horse before his legs could reach the stirrups. Yuy had the spark of battle in his soul. Duo knew he could not let his love, as pure as it was, interfere with Heero's devotion to the military, his very reason for living.
Duo made a pledge to himself that he would never hurt his soldier, that his feelings would always be secondary to Heero's happiness. If leaving his soul mate for the sake of Heero's well being ever became necessary then the resulting pain would be worth the price. Duo could not be so unfair as to stand in the way of his lover's dreams.
The murky water lapped at the riverbank as the waning sun yielded to night's approach. With a sigh Duo read aloud the message he had penned to his lover. It was his declaration of Heero's freedom.
"My dearest Heero. I know you belong with a girl that is your equal, your proper partner," the letter began, "so I must release you for both our sakes. I will never know love again in this lifetime. I only hope that in the next life I can have the peace I can not find here. Please do not feel guilty about my decision to try to find that happiness. I will always hold a place for you in my heart. Perhaps if one day we meet again on the other side fate will allow us to be together. That is my sincerest wish. Do not mourn for me. Be happy. I will never forget you. With all my love, Duo."
In the muted light of sunset Duo rolled up the paper, removed the red satin ribbon securing the end of his hip length braided hair and tied the crimson band around the letter. Once after making love, as he and Heero rested in each other's arms, his koi had given him the ribbon. "Red," Heero declared, "was the color of passion." Duo promised that night that the scarlet symbol of their passion would always bind his braid just as their love would always bind his heart.
Now it seemed appropriate that the undoing of his braid, the releasing of the red ribbon, would make their severance complete. Duo did not want to give Heero a moment's pain but he could not break his promise without leaving it behind. Maybe in some strange way the ribbon would give Heero comfort. Duo closed his eyes and prayed that the satin strand would be a reminder of the brief time they were lovers. That even hours of love could last a lifetime when shared with the right person.
Slowly Duo stripped off his clothing. Each piece was folded neatly into pile. Around his neck Duo wore a tarnished gold-toned cross hung from a black cord. The village Priest had given Duo the holy symbol knowing he was too poor to buy one made from expensive metals. But as plain as the cross was Duo held it as his most sacred treasure.
"No matter how simple the cross it is precious to God." Duo remembered the Priest's words.
When he was nude except for his crude breechcloth Duo lovingly laid the bound paper on top of the folded clothes. His loosened hair feathered in the wind helping to hide his nakedness but not easing the chill.
In anticipation of the water's cold caress Duo took a deep breath and began to wade in. The water splashed around his ankles. There was no good way to die but Duo had always felt comfortable in the water. Swimming in its liquid depths he had found freedom from both his physical and mental burdens. There was a soothing sensation when the water wrapped around his body and now he trusted that the same sensation would ease his journey from this life to the next.
Deeper, up to his knees. Once more he hoped the frigid temperature would hasten his death. That it would steal away his breath as soon as he was covered by the icy currents. To his waist. A shiver coursed through his entire body, not much longer. Duo looked skyward numbly watching the last rays of the sun sink below the cliffs just as he intended to sink below the frosty flow.
"Heero please forgive me." Duo begged his lover's pardon, "I will always love you." he whispered as the water rose higher floating his hair out like a cape behind him.
Duo started to turn around for a final, longing look at the red ribbon. He wanted to remember the passion and be happy one last time. "Don't turn around." his inner voice ordered, "Remember how it was not how it is now."
Perched on a russet point jutting out from the cliff's side, Ryuujin curiously observed the mortal's odd behavior. Did the human not know of his domain? But what to expect of a foolish woman. "So be it then," he growled, "if she has no more sense than to trespass into my forbidden territory then she deserves her fate."
The Dragon God smiled down wickedly at his anticipated victim. Licking his lips he relished the thought of rent flesh, savored the scent of fresh blood. Yes the hunting would be good tonight.
Another wave of expectation coursed through his body as the mortal undid her red hair, shook it loose and began to undress. Surely she didn't intend to bath in the icy river? But no matter she would not have time to become cold not before she surrendered her fragile life to Ryuujin's mighty power. Maybe he would spare her long enough to satisfy his mounting carnality. After a day or two, when he finally climaxed, she would be so close to death anyway that it would be a blessing to release her worthless soul.
Then something peculiar caused the Dragon to lean forward craning his neck over the point. A slight tilt of his head showed his confusion. Slowly he realized it was not a female he was watching but a male. A beautiful man-child was baring himself for full inspection. He straightened to his full height unfurling massive scaly wings.
"How delicious." The Dragon purred running his forked tongue back across his lips. "I have not had a male lover in months. Yes delicious indeed."
Duo closed his eyes tightly as the water reached his chin. A few more steps then mercifully his pain would be gone. He did not see the broad shadow that enveloped the river. His hearing did not pick up the whine of rushing air, the whistling sound being muted by the rising water. As a pair of great wings whipped through the ebony sky, the black silhouette bore down at an incredible speed. It was not until the winged beast was directly overhead did Duo sense anything at all. By then it was too late.
Razor talons grabbed hold of the frightened boy's shoulders. Wailing out in searing pain and heart wrenching terror, Duo could do nothing more than flail arms and legs in a feeble attempt to escape the Dragon's unyielding grasp.
"HEERO!" he cried out even though he knew his lover could not hear.
Higher above the water Ryuujin and his captured prey soared. Nearer to the cliffs and the Dragon's hidden lair they rose on the narrow gorge's updraft. The shadowy outline that emerged along the sunset streaked horizon showed a large shape moving quickly under the power of board wings. Below the shape's long muscular legs a smaller form hung limply as if all breath was been expelled, all life extinguished by sheer shock. Duo's head tilted downwards, his chin rested on his chest. Arms and legs wobbled loosely in the battering wind. But despite looking like a puppet whose strings had been cut, there was a spark of lifeforce still beating in his chest. Duo was not dead, not yet.
With one last swish of webbed wings the Dragon God cleared the crest. Several more flaps carried the fearsome creature and his quarry towards a structure hidden by aged stone walls that kept their protective enfoldment so tightly not even the sunlight was permitted entrance. The remnants of an ancient castle loomed darkly against the inky sky.
Landing with surprising ease for his considerable bulk Ryuujin folded his wings against his back. Standing on one foot so not to crush his prize, the Dragon transferred Duo from his clawed talons to his arms. Duo's almost nude body was cold to the touch. His wet skin had taken on a bluish tint as the wind had chill him through and through. His lips were even more purple. Ryuujin knew that he had to warm his captive or he would be good for nothing but dinner.
Carefully carrying the rag doll bundle as Duo's head lopped to the side, Ryuujin stepped through a solid iron gate then closed it behind him letting its denseness shallow up all evidence of his presence.
With a stooped posture Ryuujin and his helpless victim traveled deeper into a natural catacomb that linked the outside courtyard and the castle. Bone chilling currents flowed harshly through the sunless hallway. Black eyes adjusted quickly although the Dragon could have easily found his way in total darkness. The old keep had been his home since before recorded time and he knew every inch of its interior like a familiar friend.
Gradually a soft glow began to flicker along the walls. The smell of sulfur surged forth in a nostril stinging flow. Ahead a Great Room opened up with walls high enough to allow Ryuujin to stand upright.
The rectangular room was framed with massive timbers. The high ceiling was supported by gray stone columns carved from solid rock. The impressive space was lit at regular intervals by torches lining either wall. The same lifeless cold that had permeated every inch of the corridor was evident as the swirling flow battered the torch's flames. Even the heat from the mystical torches that burned day and night could not influence the death-chill that inundated The Dragon's Lair.
A fireplace tall enough for a man to stand inside was fashioned into the rear wall. It was dark with only cold ashes lying in the smudged hearth. Inside Ryuujin's stronghold it was as if any warmth was immediately swallowed up by a pervasive frost that diffused its icy shroud over everything. The room's left side was bare except for a stained wooden table and four dingy velvet-covered chairs.
To the right, through a crumbing archway, a smaller alcove served as Ryuujin's Incantation Chamber. From its center forward the dimly lit space was filled to overflow with spell books. Shelves held the attending jars and bottles containing all the elements needed to make the Dragon's every evil wish bear its rancid fruits. The contents of the jars were suspended in a soupy gray liquid. Many of the persevered items looked suspiciously like various animal parts. Others, more disturbingly, appeared to be human remains.
Along the Chamber's left wall a number of torturous apparatuses set in a haphazard arrangement. Several devices held a mystery as to their use but for most of the Dragon's "toys" their function was horribly apparent. There was no doubt that each of the wicked instruments could inflect a great amount of suffering and most certainly death if that was the Dragon God's desire. Bolted into the floor iron rings holding chains and shackles added to the tormenting assortment.
As a perfect finishing touch to the bizarre decor, death masks molded from Ryuujin's countless victims lined the wall's entire length. If the horrific display was intended to produce a spine-chilling, blood-curdling repulsiveness then it had accomplished its task. Each mask's facial features were frozen forever in a gruesome grimace. Their vacant stares and grotesquely twisted expressions gave mute testimony to the horrendous nature of each person's demise. The macabre collection, along with the implements of pain, offered clear evidence of the Dragon's vile brand of depravity.
But the oddest appointment included in the dark Lord's ghastly design was a five foot tall gold cross standing by itself in the corner. Its smooth polished surface shone brightly in shark contrast to the chamber's otherwise soot and smoke-tainted interior. It was apparent that the cross had been cared for in a manner quite contrary to the rest of the room's delinquent attention. Ryuujin and a cross that was indeed a mystery.
The Lord of the Castle paused to tuck Duo's dangling arms up out of the way so they would not scrape along the rough-hewn hallway. Duo's partly damp hair hung in stringy strands. Its considerable length allowed the snarled ends to brush on the dirty floor. Ryuujin had to be careful not to step on the long tresses as he moved further into the castle's bowels.
Passing by the rectangular room Ryuujin went straightway to his bedchamber. A thick wooden door reinforced with iron plates was so heavy that only the Dragon's unnatural strength could push it open. Hinges groaned in protest grating in their rusty mountings. More eternal touches cast wavering shadows. Their flames danced in the constant gushes of air that seeped in through cracks in the loose-fitting window frames.
Centered against the opposite wall a large bed occupied most of the space. The headboard was decorated with carved dragon's heads and stalking lions. A silken canopy that once guarded the bed fluttered in tattered shreds from four carved bedposts. A down comforter, worn with age, lay in a crumpled heap in the middle. The crimson and gold embroidered cover was soot-soiled; the once vivid colors faded from neglect. The wrinkled sheets and sweat-stained pillows also showed the same unkempt dinginess.
Mounted above the high headboard a stuffed stag's head with wide spread antlers kept a glassy eyed vigil. Flanking either side of the room brass incense burners molded into the shape of dragon heads were suspended from long chains attached to the ceiling. Thin wisps of smoke curled through the burner's eyes and over the mouth's long metal fangs. The scented haze churned into clouds that wafted midway up the wall. Instead of adding freshness to the bedchamber, the sweet odor blended with the lingering smell of sulfur creating a choking, nauseating mixture.
On the far wall hung a huge roughly woven tapestry. Frayed around the edges its coarse threads were faded, yellowed by smoke and time. The tapestry depicted an unearthly battle between angels and devils with mankind trapped helplessly in between the two warring armies. Scenes of ravaging destruction and gory deaths played themselves out over the heavy wall covering's surface. Snarling, fire-belching dragons were entwined among the multitude of slain figures. Also scavenging demons of all hellish descriptions stood knee-deep in the blood as they picked the fallen warrior's bones clean.
Beside a scratched washstand cluttered with the Dragon's collection of keepsakes a brass brazier sat on a tri-legged stand. Ryuujin drew in a breath then blew a concentrated stream of fire over the dead coals. Soon whiffs of blue smoke funneled in the intermittent draft. Orange flames licking up from the steadily reddening coals could be seen just above the brazier's rim. Whether the fire could overcome the constant draft and warm the room to a temperature hot enough to save Duo remained to be seen.
Still cradling Duo's limp body the Dragon pushed aside the long mane clinging to Duo's toned chest for a better look at his delicious man-child. It was immediately clear that the boy was use to physical work, the defined contours of his body attested to that fact. Deep punctures made by the Dragon's claws during Duo's capture lined the back and front of both shoulders. The blood flow had begun to coagulate. It now oozed out thickly forming a matted black mass over each wound. The surrounding skin was bruised and swollen.
"I can not have this." Ryuujin declared as he examined the bloodied, discolored skin, "You must be perfect for me."
Lowering his head the Dragon God ran his forked tongue over each wound leaving behind a slick coating of salvia. As soon as the glistening fluid touched the damage skin the holes began to close up. In a moment that was no hint that anything had ever been wrong. Duo's skin was smooth, unblemished...perfect.
The dark Lord looked lustfully on the youth. He raked back more interfering hair determined to see all of his prize. Something, however, prevented a good inspection. Further investigation revealed that a cord holding a cross had become entangled in the auburn tresses.
With a discussed snort Ryuujin examined his find more closely, "How curious." he stated lifting the cord with a single hooked talon. "Well my beautiful boy do you aspire to some beliefs? But will they save your soul, that is another question isn't it now?" he sneered as the cross swung back and forth.
Ryuujin straightened out the comforter and wrapped it around Duo before
easing him onto the bed. A soft groan escaped over Duo's blue lips. "Let's
see how strong you are. If you survive you might give me a challenge after
all." the Dragon announced sitting back on his haunches, "Time will tell
my Pretty One, time will tell."
Heero staggered partly blinded by too much wine and his tears. Almost falling over his feet he braced a quivering hand against the wall. Easing himself onto a seated position on the floor the wall at his back was the only thing that kept him sitting upright. The bed would be more comfortable but in his drunken stupor it was too far away to make the effort. Besides the sheets still reeked from the last time he vomited and he had not been able to find his pillow for two days.
Grabbing up a previously discarded bottle he turned it up only to find it empty. "Damn!" he shouted flinging the container across his bedchamber. "Damn everything to hell!" he wheezed fighting the urge to be sick again.
Crawling from one empty bottle to another Heero Yuy didn't look like one of the King's top-ranking soldiers. He wore only his breechcloth and a torn shirt strained with a wide variety of fluids. His hair was dirty matted with sweat and dust. He hadn't bathed in three days but what difference did it make. His only reason for existing on this cruel earth was gone.
If his lover had been a solider and fallen in battle Heero might had been able to cope, make some sense of his loss. If the fates had claimed Duo in an accident maybe, just maybe, the separation could one day be accepted. But Duo had taken his own life and according to the Priest's teachings that act would surely send him to hell.
Heero Yuy had never made a secret that he did not have much use for religion. He had seen little evidence of prayer's influence or any deity's intersession. He had no reason, he believed, to call on a higher authority, had no deferential need to believe in any being supreme or otherwise.
It was not that Yuy viewed himself as superior, actually he possessed no vanity concerning his self-worth, but he still was not ready to give up that much control over his life. He had always relied solely on his own volitions, his skills as a warrior and surrendering even a fraction of the mastery of his fate was something he was not yet prepared to do.
Oddly Heero did believe in heaven and hell although their plane of existence was not always clear in his mind. It seemed that both locations often manifested their attitudes on earth depending on the circumstances one found themselves in at the time. But whether, upon shedding one's mortal connection, their soul went to one place or the other had never been of pressing importance until now.
If the village Priest, who constantly begged for Heero's salvation, was correct in his warnings about a soul's deliverance then Yuy supposed his sins far outweighed his virtues. And if those transgressions were not of a forgivable nature then he had no choice but to accept his damnation.
Duo died believing a lie, believing that Heero no longer loved him. In his farewell letter Duo begged his lover not to grieve, to find comfort in the brief love they had shared. Heero looked down at his wrist, at the red ribbon tied there. It was Duo's ribbon, the one he promised he would always wear. The thin scarlet strip was all Heero had left, the "tie that binds" according to the old saying.
"Duo." he sobbed surprised that he had any tears left. "I have to...come to you." he whispered as complete despondence torn his heart in two, "You have to know I still...still love you that I always...will."
If Duo was indeed in hell then that is where Heero wanted to be. Far better to share eternity in hell with Duo than live the "hell on earth" he was suffering now without his lover.
Finally finding a mostly full bottle the heartbroken soldier drank in long gulps letting the wine burn his throat and crash in sickening waves inside his empty stomach. His sword, secured in its sheath embossed with the King's Crest, laid on the opposite side of the room. As drunk as Heero was the bladed weapon might just as well have been in the next Shire.
The first night after Heero found Duo's clothes and letter, the King had sent a member of his Royal Guard to check on Yuy. When Heero's screaming of vulgar curses did not stop the pounding on his door, he threw it open, grabbed the unfortunate guard and slammed him hard against the wall. As the man sputtered to regain the breath the sudden assault had dislodged, Heero pressed his sword's blade to the shocked man's throat.
"If you want to live to see the next moment," Heero growled his liquor-fouled breath hissing in the man's face, "then I suggest you get the hell out of here." No one had dared to disturbed the volatile madman since that night.
Yuy's dagger rested about a foot under the bed close enough to reach if he put all his concentration into one focused crawl. If it had not been for his inability to stand the simpler weapon would not have been discovered. "The fates have done something right." Heero declared then issued a loud bout of swearing as his head bumped on the cross-slates. The King's Captain made several swipes before his trembling fingers closed around the slender knife's handle.
Wine bottle in one hand, dagger in the other Yuy debate which was the deadlier weapon. Together, he decided, they made a formidable pair. The bottle for false courage and the dagger his means to go to his lost love. Another drink fortified his resolve. Two more swallows finished the lukewarm fermented liquid. Blinking his eyes Heero tried to clear his blurry sight, to stop the room from spinning around him.
"You have to do this for Duo." he ordered pushing himself to follow through with his plan, "It is the only course." he continued the self-debate. Raising the dagger to eye level Heero studied the blade's sharp edge, "Red ribbon on one side, red ribbon on the other." he chanted out the words in a slurred singsong melody.
Centering the honed edge over the wrist free of Duo's red ribbon he applied steady pressure until a thin crimson line began to appear. One or two slashes, lay back among the bedchamber's squalor and wait...that was all he had to do. Strangely there was no pain but as pickled as his brain was Yuy was not surprised. Lifting the blade he moved it next to the first cut. Another bloody line appeared. This one was more inclined to be freer in its flow unlike the first that just leaked out his life. A third cut, a fourth, it wouldn't be long now.
A suddenly shiver engulfed Heero's entire body. The wine had thinned his blood hastening the hemorrhage. Dots danced over his vision then merged into one gray mass. Slumping over Heero curled up on his side. "Wait." he whispered drawing his knees to his chest. "Duo...wait for me."
Whiffs of clouds set on fire by the sunset drifted along the skyline. Duo clumsily picked his way through a labyrinth of rocky spires lining the cliff. Far below him the river snaked between the steep granite ravine. Clutching the nearest outcrop Duo dared to lean into the fitful wind. His hair whipped stinging his bare back, his auburn bangs also tossed about to block his vision. The rock's sharp angles had cut his hands, torn his exposed skin but he didn't see the blood, didn't feel the pain.
Duo could see Heero walking by the river. He watched helplessly as his lover knelt by his discard clothes. His breathing increased as Heero removed the red ribbon and read the farewell letter. Duo's heart shattered as his reason for living clutched his middle rocking back and forth like a wounded animal. Then Heero lifted his hand, the red ribbon held high to the heartless heavens and let out a gut-deep wail as if his soul had been torn away.
"HEERO!" Duo screamed out his lover's name. "Oh merciful God. Heero I'm here!" he shouted as the whistling wind blew his words back into his head.
Heero continued to wail, travailing in sheer anguish. "WHY?" he demanded of the deity that surely could hear, "Duo why?" the tormented question rose from his raspy throat.
Duo leaned further ignoring the battering wind and the dizzying heights. His tattered hands held loosely, barely keep him from falling forward. "HEERO!" he cried again, "LOOK UP!" he pleaded for his lover to see him.
Heero did not look up, he did not hear. He beat in fists into the sandy soil crying and cursing and asking the same heart-wrenching question over and over again. "No Duo no." Duo's wretched soul mate sobbed pressing the red ribbon to his heaving chest.
Duo bent further. Heero had to know he was alive, had to know how much he loved his heart-broken soldier. Heero slowly gathered up Duo's clothes and with a defeated posture began to walk away.
"HEERO! NO!" Duo screamed in one last desperate attempt to make his lover hear him.
Suddenly Duo's tenuous grip failed, his numbed fingers slipped free from the rocks. Head first he plunged towards the rushing water below. Even as the icy wind froze the tears in his eyes and robbed him of his ability to breath, Duo kept his failing eyesight fixed on his departing lover. Closer and closer he dropped like a lead cannonball, his body becoming heavy, his mind becoming dull.
"Heero please," Duo prayed, "don't go." he whispered as his body hit the water and his lungs begged for one last breath.
A sharp pain raced through Duo's chest. A hard gasp for air surged in his lungs causing his eyes to fly open. He sat up trembling, bathed in a cold sweat, struggling to regulate his rapid breathing. Running quivering hands over his face Duo fought the overwhelming urge to be sick. "It was a dream." his inner voice explained. "Only a dream." it repeated echoing inside Duo's throbbing head.
Raking back his bangs Duo stared into a red-tinted haze wondering what had happened and where he was. Gradually his stomach stopped churning, his chest hurt less. Duo was in a dim room. On one side flames flickered creating wavy patterns on the dingy stone walls. Just as slowly he realized he was naked expect for his breechcloth. A scratchy blanket hung off his shoulders. Pulling the rough woven cover around his still trembling body Duo felt panic begin to swell in his gut.
Without warning the panic evolved into full-fledged terror. Pain seared about his shoulders as he remember being swept from the water. The fear increased as he recalled looking down, being lifted higher and higher then looking up to see the scaly underbelly of a green demon looming over him. Now fear compelled him to flee and the same fear held him in place. "No." he whispered lowly wrapping the blanket closer, "I AM dead and this must be hell."
"This is neither heaven nor hell." a voice spoke from the shadows cast up by the firelight. "This is my domain, a place unclaimed by either influence. Welcome to Dragon's Lair."
Duo, in spite of the gripping fear, turned his head his eyes darting to find the phantom sound. He drew in a halting breath as his sight rested on a pair of ebony eyes that seem to float in the dim light. "Who are you?" Duo asked afraid of what the answer might be.
The hidden figure stirred bringing a face into clear view. Green scaly skin covered a long snout. Two bony horns rose from a spiny head. A great mouth flexed, lips parting to reveal rows of yellowed teeth and a set of four inch fangs. A heat rose from the creature's skin that could be felt even from Duo's considerable distance from the beast. The thing that spawn nightmares reared back on his muscular legs curving its equally scaly tail into a lax curl to help balance his massive form. A green forked tongue teased the tip of its lips as if it was tasting the air.
"Please forgive my rudeness," the creature sneered with much sarcasm hissing in its deep voice, "I don't usually have many visitors that live long enough to engage in conversation." he declared his lips stretching into a sly grin. "I am Ryuujin, Ruler of the Dragon's Lair."
A woozy webbing threatened to envelop Duo in its cold grip. Only a deep breath stayed off the faintness. "The Dragon God." Duo murmured in shock hoping that he was still dreaming.
"You are correct my Pretty One." Ryuujin replied bowing his head in mock humbleness, his black eyes leering at his beautiful prize.
From somewhere in his quaking heart Duo found a bit of courage, "What do you want...with me?" the question quivered to the surface.
Ryuujin let the grin break into a delighted smile, "You are to be my lover. If you are as good as I believe you to be then perhaps I will spare your life. But spurn me, disappoint me in any way and you will not live to see the morning." the Dragon God promised, "And have no doubt that your end will not come quickly or painlessly." he added straightened up to his full height.
Duo drew back as the towering beast approached the bed. Leaning over Ryuujin sniffed at his beautiful man-child, "Ah..." he groaned, "such a sweet smell and this mane of fire." he purred reaching out to stoke Duo's auburn hair.
"Please, no." Duo begged knowing that the rape Ryuujin was planning would surely tear him apart. "If you love me I will die." he stated hoping his logic would be heard and considered.
The Dragon tiled his head, his eyes narrowed in concentration, "That is true." he agreed his hot breath blowing through Duo's hair, "But you see, mortal, I can take on many forms. Perhaps this one will be more to your liking."
The beast raised his long arms extending razor talons above his head. A wavy outline pulsed beginning at his claws, moving in ripples down his sides before washing out at his feet. Bit by bit his body began to compress. Little by little the beast faded away and a human figure emerged from the flowing lines.
A slender form at least a head taller than Duo was born of the vibrating energy that sparkled in a shimmering glow. The black brooding eyes softened. Even though their were still as dark as before they had a more indulgent look. Heavy black hair replaced the bony spikes cascading over strong shoulders, reaching halfway down his back. Tanned skin transformed from green scales. Then the light evaporated leaving in its wake a handsome Asian man. His body was trim, almost graceful. His overall features were totally opposite from the vile beast that moments before had held Duo in such a frightened state.
The transfigured human stood naked and unashamed before the astonished object of his desire. "Is this more pleasing?" he inquired in a husky voice that seemed to purr.
Duo blinked, not believe what he had witnessed. But as fascinated as he was Duo could not for one moment forget that this strikingly beautiful man was stillm Ryuujin. That no matter what bewitching form he chose the Dragon God was still a creature of death. A primitive, lascivious beast who had an appetite for human flesh and whose brand of passion could kill as easily as his brute strength could break every bone. That he possessed a viciousness that could tear out your heart without one second of remorse. No the form did not matter, Duo was still in danger for his life. One wrong move, one miscalculation could be his final act.
"Be careful how you answer." Duo's inner voice warned.
Duo was alive. Although he had lost Heero's love and tried to end his life, now he wanted to live. Duo made himself a promise, one he intended to keep this time. He would do whatever was necessary to survive even if it meant copulation with this hellish beast. Where there was life there was hope. Duo would bide his time and if it took days or months he would one day escape and return to tell Heero that he still loved him. At least his precious soldier would know he was alive and would not have to grieve anymore. Duo swallowed hard washing a tense lump from his throat. His answer would set the tone, could be the difference between living and dying. Carefully he formed his thoughts, crafted his words. It had to be this way he had no other choice.
"Yes very pleasing." Duo lied trying to hide his repulsiveness at being touched by the unearthly creature.
"You will give yourself willingly?" Ryuujin asked moving closer to the bed.
Duo closed his eyes fighting hard not to draw away from the advancing transformation. "Anything you desire." he promised letting his eyes meet the alluring dark sight now fixed squarely upon him.
A thin-lipped smile crept over the Dragon's mouth, "While I am in this
form I am Chang Wufei but you will call me Master." Chang instructed bracing
one knee on the bed. Cupping his hand behind Duo's head Chang twisted his
fingers into his Pretty One's hair to hold him steady then leaned forward
until their lips were inches apart. "Give me a reason to spare your life."
he whispered before deepening the kiss.
Heero was so cold. Too weak to open his eyes he laid, pale and still, in the deepening darkness. A considerable amount of blood pooled under his limp wrist. He could no longer sense his body; no cognizant thoughts flickered in his brain. Only one word remained in his muddled mind and that single syllable repeated over and over again....Duo.
Then strangely a remnant of sensation rippled through the subconscious fog. Something struck a spark of energy, enough to prod him to open his eyes. Straight ahead, perfectly aligned in his blurred sight, Heero could just make out a shimmer of light. No, two glittering balls floated in midair.
"It is the wine and you slipping away." Heero's mind explained the odd visions. "Go to sleep so you can find Duo." it urged attempting to ease him back into his dying state as gently as possible.
But something more powerful than his desire for eternal sleep kept tapping at his mind. "AWAKE." it ordered leaving no room for misinterpretation. A radiating heat gradually began to replace the death-chill. Heero's sight became clearer.
The balls bobbed seemingly of their own accord. At first they appeared almost transparent, then they grew more solid. With steady pulsing the twin orbs elongated into sparkling columns. One shone with bright white light, its partner displayed a darker, bluish hue. Heero quickly raised his good hand to shield his sensitive eyes from the blinding brightness. Duo's red ribbon brushed against his clammy cheek once again reminding Heero of his unbearable loss.
The lengthening continued until the peculiar pillar's bottom ends rested on the floor. The columns widened taking on more recognizable structures. Torsos formed, appendages sprouted from the dazzling auras. Finally heads topped off the mysterious apparitions. Both spectral manifestations appeared to be male.
The white light completed the transformation first. The figure had a petite frame making him more feminine in his stature. Silky blond tresses framed a fair face. Wide azure eyes held Heero in a kind embrace. The blue light was taller, broader across the shoulders. Rich brown hair hung low over his eyes hiding their expression. But what could be seen beneath the sheltering bangs showed emerald eyes that fixed on Heero with a brooding stare quite opposite of his partner's soft vision. Both males stood in silence appearing to study the confused human lying weakly before them.
Heero blinked trying to concentrate on the voice inside his head that still demanded that he stay awake. In the mere second that it took him to blink the mysterious beings moved from their distant place and now stood inches from Heero. The King's Captain who never showed fear in battle recoiled from the sudden closeness. His back hit hard against the wall. The impact brought on a bout of dizziness and cold sweat that threatened to make him pass out.
Blood was smeared all over Yuy's legs, his breechcloth stiff with the congealing fluid. The coppery stench, mixed with pure terror, caused him to retch up what little wine remained in his stomach. Shaking uncontrollable Heero curled into a tight fetal position disobeying the voice in his head. All he wanted to do was sleep, escape this waking nightmare. And if the specters standing over him wanted his life so be it. All he asked was that they spared his soul so he could be with his beloved.
Heero was vaguely aware of a hand touching his shoulder. His horror-stricken mind barely registered a gentle voice telling him that everything would be all right. "Awake Heero Yuy." On some level the words broke through. The terror subsided and a comforting warmth surrounded the fallen warrior.
His glassy stare dropped away. Once more Heero dared to blink accepting that the ghostly strangers were in control, that he had no strength to ward any attack they chose to mount. His less-clouded eyesight met the kind azure eyes as they gazed meekly upon him. "It will be all right." the words repeated in his mind with a sincere promise.
"You know my name." Heero stated more than asked.
The phantom of white light slipped his arm under Heero's less rigid body carefully helping him to sit up against the wall. The blue light knelt beside his counterpart lending a hand to keep the frail mortal steady. "Yes we have been watching you for some time." the darker one stated with no discernible emotion sounding in his voice.
The fair immortal spirit encircled pale fingers about Heero's bleeding wrist. A hot wave surged over the cut skin. In moments the slashes closed up. In another brief measure of time the skin healed completely. The shocked Captain rubbed over the smooth skin marveling at the magic. For the first time he felt at ease with his strange visitors.
Heero used the return of his strength to wonder aloud, "Who are you?" he whispered sensing some heavenly influence was at work.
"We are the Gods of Light and Darkness." the fair one answered.
Heero closed his eyes taking in a deep cleansing breath. When they opened again he was much more alert, no longer frightened as curiosity replaced the fear. A barrage of questions erupted in his mind.
"Do you mean you control good and evil?"
The taller man rested against the wall beside Heero. The blond sat cross-legged settling back on his partner's chest. It was the light being that took up the explanation.
"No we have no control over good and evil, they are a force unto themselves." he replied, "We are the Rulers of night and day. While we are separate entities we compliment each other. We complete a circle the same way day and night follow each other to make the daily cycle.
I am called Quatre. I control the elements of day. The sun's fiery energy, the winds invisible power, all hours of daylight are mine to command. My partner is called Trowa, he controls the elements of night. The moon's influence over the tides is under his sway. The star's ability to brighten the somber blanket of heaven answers only to him."
Heero took a moment to digest the information. One pressing question begged for an answer. Suddenly a wave of indignation swamped Heero's better judgment. "Why are you here?" he hissed.
The fact that these eternal beings were superior, that they could squash Yuy like a bothersome fly, was forgotten as he realized that they had stopped his journey to be with Duo. "What right to you have to interfere with my wish to die?" he demanded as the pain in his heart took over.
Quatre looked on the heartbroken mortal with a mixture of awe and pity. Awe at the fierceness of Heero's determination to be with his lover. Pity at the senseless waste had he succeeded in his mission. Placing a hand on Heero's arm Quatre replied calmly, "You do not understand Heero Yuy. You do not have to die to be with your soul mate. Duo is alive."
"Alive." Heero repeated certain he could not have heard correctly. "But the letter. Duo said..." the rest of the sentence evaporated as Heero was overwhelmed with the possibility that his beautiful lover had not perished.
Trowa shifted his green eyes string at the infuriating human who asked too many questions. "Was there a body found?" he inquired even though he already knew the answer.
Heero shook his head, "No but the currents are so swift that a body would wash miles down steam. If Duo was alive I would have felt it." he proclaimed believing that he and Duo's connection was strong enough to transcend any boundaries.
Quatre looked gently on the human, "Did you feel Duo die in your heart?"
An astonished look swept over Heero's face. For the first time he realized that he had never felt Duo slip away. There was never an empty place in his soul. He had been so despondent, so drunk that he had not stopped to listen to his heart. How he could be such a fool? All his instincts, the very disposition of his intuitive knowledge, his training as a soldier, all had been ignored.
"The fates were not cruel." Heero whispered, "Duo is alive."
Heero Yuy broke down weeping unashamedly. Quatre wrapped his arms about the sobbing Captain and let him cry until the releasing tears set his pain-shackled soul free. "Are you ready to reclaim your lover?" Quatre asked after all of Yuy's tears were spent.
Heero straightened sharply. "Where is he?" he demanded pushing to get to his feet. A renewed wave of faintness quickly put him back on the floor.
"Steady." Trowa ordered lending a hand to support the wobbly human. "You must regain your strength if you hope to rescue Duo from Ryuujin.
At the mention of the vile name, one feared and hated by all who knew it, Heero drew in a strangled breath. "The Dragon God! No he can't have Duo! NO!." Heero screamed struggling to get up again.
Trowa kept his hold firmly in place determined to keep the erratic human from hurting himself. "Will you be still mortal." he sighed as Heero resisted his unyielding grip. Heero could tell if the Dark One's use of the term "mortal" was intended to be an aspersion on his character or not.
Heero locked his sight with Trowa. Superior or not this God of Darkness was not going to keep him from leaving. Trowa read the human's mind then decided that if it was Yuy's wish to be released then that was fine with him. He let go and sat back. Heero braced his hands on the wall, centered his feet, stood up and promptly pitched forward. With another sigh Trowa intercepted the falling Captain just before he hit the floor.
Quatre intervened before both Heero and Trowa's quick tempers got the better of them, "You must be quiet and listen if you have any hope of rescuing Duo." he insisted as Trowa eased the woozy soldier back against the wall.
Heero was too faint to do anything but listen as he breathed deeply to chase away the cobwebs in his brain. He shook his head in an affirmative manner relaxing on the cold stone surface.
Quatre took Trowa's hand interlacing their fingers, "We have been to the Dragon's Lair. Duo has been enslaved." he stated bluntly knowing that Heero deserved to know the truth no matter how painful it might be, "For now Duo is being spared because he is submitting to the Dragon's sexual desires. I believe Duo will do whatever he must to stay alive so he can be reunited with you. His love for you is his driving force, the one thing that keeps him from giving up."
"If you were there why didn't you free Duo?" Heero hissed fighting hard to hold his anger in check. The thought of that vile creature touching his beloved ate through his gut. Visions of that beast raping his beloved soul mate was almost too much for Heero to bear. But he had to keep his wits about him if he had any hope of rescuing Duo.
"We could have tried to free Duo but Ryuujin would have sensed our presence before we reached his inner stronghold and most certainly would have killed Duo. It was too dangerous to try without your help"
"If you can not defeat Ryuujin then why to you think I can?" Heero proclaimed knowing his mortal power was no match for any of the supreme forces.
"Because you have one thing Ryuujin can not sense, your love for Duo. Your purity of heart and conviction of soul will be your means to win." Quatre declared with certainty, "There is one turn of events that is on your side. When Ryuujin is in his Dragon configuration he can not have sex with Duo without doing irreparable harm so he must return to his original state. In that form he is much more vulnerable and that will be your means to kill him."
"His original form, hasn't Ryuujin always been the Dragon God?"
Now it was Trowa's turn to for explanations, "At the beginning of recorded time Quatre and I were Priests at the Temple of Light located parallel to your mortal plane. There was a Bishop named Chang Wufei who was in charge of the Holy Symbols. Chang was once a devout and faithful man but his casual dabbling in unsanctioned occult religions soon became an overpowering doctrine, a heady intoxication destroying any righteous theology he ever upheld.
Soon Chang's blasphemous ranting that he had conquered the natural elements and harness their mighty powers had him declared a heretic. The straying cleric's absurd claims that he was the reincarnation of the vanquished God of War, Balzar, labeled him an untouchable by the Elders. His claims of immortally granted to him by his rebirth as the defeated unearthly deity, the Temple Priests believed, further proved Chang's total insanity.
The stripping of Chang's priestly duties, his banishment from the Temple, was the final blow that pushed his connection with reality well beyond any hope of recovery. The black magic and mystic amazements slowly ate away at the holy man's mind and eroded his soul until nothing remained but an empty black pit in his heart.
One day during the Noon Prayer Hour the defrocked priest, now a slave to his evil principles, burst through the Temple gates. Chang Wufei's lunacy had finally disintegrated into pure deranged rage, an unpredictable and quite volatile madness. From the Temple's marble steps the self-proclaimed Sorcerer of the three natural elements, Earth, Wind and Fire, announced his authority over the soul of everyone within our realm. Chang swore that with the aide of nature's most violent forces and the Triad of Darkness, War, Famine and Pestilence, he would redeem his lost position. One day soon, he promised, he would take his rightful place as Supreme Prophet and Highest Priest."
Trowa paused taking a moment to run a hand over Quatre's face to soothe his remembrances of that awful day. Satisfied that his partner's fears had been calmed, he continued. "After that fateful day Chang disappeared from our realm. It was rumored that he traveled to the mortal world and became a reclusive madman dwelling in an ancient castle on the cliffs above a river. It was said that he had not left his solitary confines since that day.
But some said he did occasionally leave but ventured out only at night to avoid the sun's purifying light. Under the cover of darkness, when the Triad's powers were the greatest, Chang Wufei would leave in a carriage drawn by four black horses and go down into the valley. There he would converse with evil spirits and perform all manner of unspeakable ritualistic ceremonies on the riverbank. These wicked rituals were all designed to bring about the fall of the Temple of Light and cause the damnation of his fellow Priests whom he viewed as traitorous unbelievers. When the Temple was overthrown then he would be able to take his ruling position over both realms enslaving mortals and immortals forever.
Quatre and I, along with a highly trained Band of Believers, were sent to your plane to find out if the rumors were true and, if so, destroy Chang before he could put his evil plan into motion. Chang found out we were coming and conspired with a mortal witch. In exchange for granting the devil's whore immortality the witch gave him a spell that enabled Chang to change his shape at will. As his favored form he chose the dragon, the most powerful beast in your realm. That is when Chang Wufei became Ryuujin, the Dragon God. He has preyed on your kind ever since.
Our Army of Believers engaged Chang on battle. He stayed in his human form using the deception to lure us into his ancient fortress. When we were well inside the castle's strong stone walls the fiend transformed into Ryuujin. We were almost slaughtered to every man. Only a handful of us escaped back to our world. Ever since that deadly day Quatre and I have watched and waited for Chang to make a mistake, to let down his guard so the next time he took on his human form we would be ready to hunt him down. A hundred years we have waited," Trowa declared, "now is the time to strike."
Quatre shook his head in agreement, "Unfortunately we could not foresee that what would cause Chang to change would be a mortal. That is why you are so important to our cause, Heero Yuy. We need your soldier's training, your battle honed instincts and, most of all, your mortal love to defeat Chang and end his hellish rule forever."
Heero locked his sight with the two immortal warriors. He was also a warrior, a kindred spirit. He knew he had the one power that all the supreme beings together could never possess; he had the love of Duo Maxwell. "Tell me what I need to do."
Quatre smiled certain that with Yuy's help they would send the Dragon God back to the infernal underworld where his depraved wickedness was spawned. "First you have to regain your strength. You must sleep tonight and eat in the morning. We can lend you mental courage and heal your wounds but you still must rest and take in nourishment."
As anxious as Heero was to start off for the cliffs, as frightened as he was for Duo's life, he knew that a soldier had to be one hundred percent physically, mentally and emotionally ready if he was to defeat his enemy. Chang Wufei was more powerful than anyone Yuy had ever faced. He would need all his strength, all his wits sharp or Duo would surely be lost.
Heero nodded taking in his disheveled appearance. For the first time he realized how much he stank, how his near naked, filthy state of undress showed just how far he had fallen from his pride in being a soldier to a dirty drunkard. Heero hung his head in shame letting more stinging tears fall freely.
Quatre mopped back stringy brown bangs sticking in the mixture of oily grim and salty moisture clinging to Heero's face. "We will clean you up." he promised, "As exhausted as you are you will sleep soundly tonight."
The God of Light pressed his palms together. As he pulled them apart an earthen bowl appeared. The next manipulation created a pitcher made of the same material filled with fragrant water. He set down the bowl and pitcher then repeated the spell producing three clean white towels from nowhere. Quatre wetted one towel and gently began to bathe the human warrior. The towel immediately turn dark stained with blood, sweat and tears. The water, likewise, was fouled by the three-day accumulation. A pass of Quatre's hand and the tainted water evaporated.
Fresh liquid was poured from the pitcher that never seemed to run dry and the cleansing operation began again. At one point Quatre began to untie the red ribbon but Heero staunchly refused. The scarlet band was his only link to Duo and it would not be parted from him until he personally tied it back on Duo's braid. The alternating washing and drying continued until every inch of the King's Captain was clean. Next a sweet scented oil was thoroughly rubbed into Heero's shoulder length hair. More wiping with a towel and his fresh hair lay in shimmering locks around Heero's broard shoulders. The washing finished Quatre snapped his fingers sending the bowl, pitcher and towels back to where they came from.
Trowa went to a large wooden wardrobe collecting clean bed linens. He stripped the bed then decided that the soiled bedcovers were too nasty to keep so with a wave of his hand they vanished into thin air. He made the bed, found Heero's missing pillow wedged behind the washstand, how it got there was anyone's guess. Another pass, the God of Night produced a new down-filled coverlet from the same phantom space that the dirty linens had disappeared into.
With a clean body redressed in a fresh breechcloth, clean hair and an equally clean bed Heero was ready to give into his exhaustion. Trowa picked up the drowsy man as if he weighed nothing, carried him to the bed and carefully covered the weary warrior. Heero rolled onto his side facing the immortal pair that would be his comrades in the upcoming battle.
"Thank you." he sighed as sleep overtook his haggard body. Heero didn't hear Quatre and Trowa bade him a good night or their solemn oath that they would keep a faithful watch. Quatre touched Heero's forehead smoothing back his brown bangs. "No dreams tonight." he promised using a blocking spell to keep the mental night visions at bay.
Trowa cradled his lover in his arms as they lay together in the soothing
darkness. The only sounds were Heero's steady breathing and the wind whining
outside the wavy windows.
Duo curled up on the floor in the corner of his Master's bedchamber. Chang had been "kind" enough to give him a straw-stuffed mattress and a thin blanket for his bed. Duo was dressed in only a knee-length rough cotton tunic. Chang had decided that a breechcloth was not necessary since it interfered with his immediate assess to his Pretty One's genitals whenever he needed to quench his lusty thirst.
Dull hair curtained Duo's face and shoulders in ragged cords, tangled and snarled. There was an ashen tint to his skin. His once bright blue eyes were listless from lack of sleep and secret crying. Oddly Chang had allowed Duo to keep his plain cross. He did not understand his Master's generosity but he didn't question his motives either. He was simply thankful that the fates had not taken everything from him. But as downtrodden as Maxwell looked on the outside, in his soul there was still a fire that continually burned fueled by his hatred for Chang and his love for Heero. Tucking the blanket under his chin Duo shut his eyes and shivered in the never-ending night of the Dragon's Lair.
Chang fed Duo meager meals designed to keep him alive but not provide sufficient energy for him to do much more than keep the Dragon's house and withstand the long and often painful lovemaking sessions his Master demanded any hour of the day or night. He was allowed to bathe but as hard as Duo scrubbed he could not wash off Chang's sexual scent. It was as though he had been permanently marked and no amount of soap and water could remove the claim.
When Chang was at "home" Duo was allowed to move freely about his prison. The diabolical creature had a mental connection with his pet, he could sense him at all times. This link made it impossible for Duo to go anywhere within the castle's confines without Chang knowing exactly where he was and what he was doing.
Duo also suspected that Chang could read his thoughts. Sometimes his owner seemed to study him as Duo did his assigned chores. His slanted ebony eyes followed his slave with intense interest as if his mind was recording every movement. Even when Duo was alone there was always a tingle in his head, the same phantom feeling he always experienced whenever Chang did his studying.
There was one room, however, that was always locked. While the bolted door created some curiosity, it was just as well that Duo didn't know what was inside.
"The elements of black dreaming." Duo would tell himself each time he passed the mysterious door.
Whenever Ryuujin left to hunt Duo was shackled in the Incantation Chamber's morbid misery. There was the constant stench of sulfur, an unyielding chill and the death mask's vacant stares. He would lay in the damp darkness clutching his tarnished cross, staring in wonder at the gleaming cross standing in the corner that held such a profound mystery. But Duo still preferred the desolation to Chang's company. He dreaded the Dragon's return from his hunting. First there was the sound of great wings beating the air then the scraping of claws on the stone floors. Ryuujin would enter the Great Room then stand silently in the Chamber's archway proudly showing off his kill to his shackled pet. This display of his latest victim's limp bloodied body was used to validate his skill and strength and to remind Duo that the same horrible death would come to him if he every refused his Master's wishes.
Three nights after his capture Duo managed to steal a knife while he was cleaning up after supper. It was Chang's practice in the evening to retire to the Incantation Chamber for his nightly meditation. The Dragon, defying another natural law, hovered above the floor in a lotus position, eyes closed, breathing steady and even. In this state of complete relaxation Chang was the most unguarded, his senses not as in tune with what went on around him.
Duo knew if he had any hope of escape he had to disable Chang and that during his meditation time was the best opportunity. Duo took advantage of his bare feet to quietly sneak up behind his merciless Master. Foot by foot he closed the gap holding the knife at shoulder height, muscles tensed and ready to plunge the sharpened blade deep into the base of Chang's skull.
Finally the distance was closed. Daring not to even breathe Duo put all his mental focus into carrying out his deadly mission. The Dragon would die by his hand or Duo would die trying. His arm quivered from the tension but nothing in this life or the next was going to stay his hand.
The knife started forward set squarely on its deadly path. At the blade's very tip a reddish glow sparkling over the tempered metal. The glow increased spreading up the blade, the handle then over Duo's hand. A prickling, like when your hand or foot goes to sleep, traveled upwards over his wrist. Picking up speed the glow intensified, the tingling growing hotter on his skin. Rapidly it gathered in his muscles then shot straight up into his shoulder. An excruciating pain drove out Duo's breath. Cold sweat beaded on his forehead. His fingers went numb releasing the knife. The dropped weapon hit the floor with a hollow clink. Duo grabbed his shoulder doubling over at the waist. Looking up through his moist bangs Duo could see that Chang had rotated in his elevated position. A phantom grin was fixed on his face as if Duo's act of defiance was quite amusing.
"I was wondering when you would gather the courage to try to best me." Chang sneered narrowing his eyes on his rebellious pet. "You are brave I will grant you that, but you do know that this disobedience can not go unpunished."
Duo bow his head and closed his eyes knowing all he could do was suffer whatever retribution his Master decided was suitable for his crime.
Chang took advantage of his Chamber's implements. Duo was strapped in an overextended spread eagle fashion on a rough-hewn frame. That night the Dragon took his time to gratify his sexual appetite. All Duo could do was scream and beg his tormentor to quickly end his suffering. "I am sorry my pet but you gave me no other choice." Chang responded to Duo's pleading, "You should be grateful that I have remained in my human form. I do this for your sake because you have been a wondrous lover."
After the first session of the Dragon's passions Duo passed out but that did not save him, Chang merely waited until he came around and began over again.
Duo still bore both physical and mental scars of that night. The horrid abuse played itself out over and over again in his night terrors. He had not slept through the night since then and during the day moved sorely through his daily tasks. But Duo would not give up. Being separated from Heero was far worse that any torturous acts Chang could do to him. One day Chang would pay for his sins. One day!
The Dragon's "mind tingle" crept through Duo's sleep-dulled brain. The memory of his failed attempt to kill the Dragon came on with full force. Duo shuddered knowing Chang was standing over him even before he opened his eyes. Knowing how dangerous it was to ignore his Master Duo submissively stared up into brooding black eyes.
An unreadable smile tugged at Chang's mouth as the leaned down over his pet. "Did you fetch the water?"
"And the firewood?"
Chang's smile broadened. He was pleased with his Pretty One's surrender. "It did not take as long as I thought to break the mortal's spirit." he told himself turning towards the bed. With a contented sigh he sat down. "Come here." he ordered harshly as he untied his overvest and slipped it over his shoulders.
Duo got to his feet bracing a hand on the wall for support. With a wobbly gait he crossed the short distance to stand before his Master. "The boots." Chang growled
lifting his foot. Duo knelt pulling off first one then the other knee-high boot then remained submissively bowed in his lowly position, eyes downcast, awaiting his next duty. The first night after Duo's capture he made the mistake of locking his sight with Chang's. The back handed slap and physical ravaging the insolent look triggered was something that Duo did not want repeated.
Chang tilted his head basking in the victorious sight of his pet's deferential posture. A single slender finger hooked under his Pretty One's chin. Duo raised his head but not his eyes. "As long as you are in that delightful position," Chang literally purred, "you might as well do some good." he finished spreading his legs to allow Duo access to the laces on his trousers that had already began to bulge in anticipation.
Without looking up Duo unlaced the pants. Chang lifted his hips so the interfering material could slip down until both legs were bare. Likewise the breechcloth followed. Now there was nothing between his manhood and his slave's quite talented mouth.
Duo pushed the thought of what he was about to do out of his mind. The only way he could perform his sexual duties and not become deathly sick was not to think at all. Once Duo considered pretending that it was Heero that he was pleasuring but he was afraid that Chang would read his mind and discover his coping fantasy. Duo knew that the Dragon would not deal well with another competitor and that it could mean his life if Chang discovered that the imaginary rival was Heero Yuy. No a blank mind and a numb heart was safer.
"Take it slowly my pet," Chang instructed, "a satisfying release will sharpen my hunting instincts." he announced grabbing a handful of hair to encourage Duo to do as he was told.
"Yes Master." Duo nodded as he felt Chang tighten his grip. Reaching up Duo wrapped one hand around Chang's manhood. "Don't think, don't think." Duo repeated over in his mind. The other hand cupped the sac gently massaging the tender area. Without any conscious thought, completely automatically, Duo began to perform his task. He had learned through harsh reprimands that Chang like him to flicker his tongue over the penis' head lapping the pre-cum like a dog in heat. The Dragon was a primitive beast, one reached on only the most lustful levels. The foreplay was often rough, carried out with a feral brutality. Bruises, pulled muscles and scarred skin were the ingredients of the Dragon's passion.
He knew that even though Chang said he wanted him to take it slow that too much time spent in the preliminary preparation could result in a flare of temper. A few more light brushes over the tip then Duo swallowed the enlarged member to its base. Chang grunted as his body reacted to the pressure of Duo's lips as he slid them from base to tip and back again. Two hands entangled in Duo's hair, more pressure was applied to keep his pet focused. Duo bobbed his head keeping to a carefully measured rhythm. Too slow and his Master might become angry, too fast and he might come too soon. A happy medium had to be maintained or Duo risked the pain of Chang's scathing reproach.
Chang lifted his knees draping them over Duo's shoulders. Now Duo not only had to concentrate on pleasing his Master but his frail body was expected to bear the full weight of Chang's leg as well. The cotton tunic clung to Duo's sweat-soaked back, twisting and binding, and making an already difficult job even harder.
Chang was breathing faster, panting like a wolf in chase of his prey. Duo could feel his Master's manhood twitch, knew it would not be much longer before the powerful ejaculation and the spray of acidic seed that would follow. But Duo could not bring the Dragon to release without explicit permission. He was not in charge he was only carrying out the his Master's wishes. Duo paused drawing his lips back enough to speak. "Now Master?" he asked looking up meekly into Chang's pleasure contorted face.
The owner of Duo's life leaned close to his pet's ear running his tongue over the lobe. "You will not move until I am finished." he hissed. "Go on but the end had better please me." he warned Duo of the painful consequences should he fail.
Duo nodded respectfully tightening his stomach to fight the urge to vomit when the hot seed gushed forth. He closed his eyes preparing to bring Chang to a mind-blowing orgasm. "Heero." the name echoed in Duo's head. "Oh merciful God, no." Duo's mind screamed at the slip in control. "Maybe Chang was too close to coming to read my thoughts." he hoped taking in a sharp breath.
Chang tensed. His half-closed eyes popped open. One glare from his widened ebony pupils told Duo that the Dragon God had indeed intercepted the stray thoughts. Heero's name had been but a brief glimmer passing away in a second but Chang had heard, had felt the warmth the soldier's memory had sparked in Duo's heart.
The weighty legs fell off of Duo's stooped shoulders. One hand dropped away but the other kept its tangled hold. All Duo could do was hold his breath and ready himself as best as he could for the inevitable punishment. Duo's head snapped backwards, the sudden rearrangement bending his back as well. Chang's free hand grabbed solidly under Duo's chin. Now Chang's pupils were so wide that the white area surrounding them disappeared. From his eye's enlarged centers flames erupted like embers from a stirred fire.
"So your thoughts have betrayed you at last." the Dragon hissed increasing the pressure until Duo believed his jaw would break. "You know how I reward disloyalty." he screamed drawing back his hand. The anger-clenched fist crashed into Duo's cheekbone bringing on a flash of white light.
Duo struggled helplessly in Chang's rage-induced grip. "No Master," he gasped out the pleading words as the powerful grip closed off his throat. "Please." he begged as his lungs fought painfully for one life-saving gulp of air. Duo hands grappled at Chang's hands as long claws began to emerge from his fingertips. The razor talons cut into Duo's neck piercing the skin and drawing crimson droplets to the surface.
Duo's face was chalky, his lips blue as the very breath of life was slowly being squeezed out of him. "Before you die you unfaithful whore I will show you how passionate Ryuujin can be." Chang shouted.
Lifting Duo by his throat the enraged demon tossed him onto the bed before releasing his strangulating grip. Duo sputtered and wheezed as his lungs seized in his chest. Chang threw back his head unleashing an unearthly roar that started deep in his gut and exploded from his lungs in a deafening bellow. Towering over his terrified victim Chang transformed into Ryuujin in a blink of an eye. The tunic was ripped to spreads with one powerful swipe. The barbed claws also left deep cuts across Duo's chest that issued forth more scarlet strips.
The Dragon God climbed on the bed sinking his claws into Duo's legs and spreading them apart until Duo feared the pelvic joints would snap. From between his legs Ryuujin's huge manhood quivered fully erect and ready. Duo's hands were pinned over his head; his thin frame compressed under the Dragon God's massive weight. No preparation, no easing into Duo's battered body. As the bluish swollen head began to penetrate his unprepared opening Duo closed his eyes knowing it would be only seconds before he would be torn apart.
"Heero I love you!" Duo shouted with all the strength he had left wanting
the calling of his lover's name and the declaration of his eternal love
to be the last thing Ryuujin heard. Duo wanted the vile God of Evil to
know that he might be able to take his body and his life but Heero would
always have his heart and soul.
Thin shifts of dawn-colored sunlight crossed Heero's face. He tightened his eyes against the unwelcome brightness. Lying an arm over his face to hide from the prodding light a little longer he sighed deeply. Gradually he was aware of the scent of clean sheets mixed with some other delicious aroma. The unmistakable smell of hot oat porridge and freshly baked wheat bread helped to stir him fully awake.
Pushing up on his elbows Heero saw Quatre sitting cross-legged by a pot floating above the floor. Strangely there was no fire beneath, no heat source of any kind to cause the porridge to cook but nevertheless it bubbled filling the bedchamber with the wonderful morning smells.
More surprising was the immaculate state of his room. There were no traces of the wine bottles or soiled clothing that had littered the floor. The pools of blackened blood from his foolish attempt to take his life had vanished. Heero knew that the porous planking would have absorbed the blood making it impossible to remove all the stains yet the space was spotless. "More magic." he murmured to himself shifting to sit up.
Trowa sat on a chair by the window wiping down Heero's sword with a soft cloth. Occasionally he would hold the finely honed blade up to the light studying the way the sunbeams bounced off its polished surface. A fleeting smile showed his approval. His sensitive hearing must have heard Heero's mumbled reference to the magic worked in his room. "Something had to be done to this pigsty." he snorted the sudden sound of his voice causing Yuy to jump in spite of himself.
Quatre glanced up smiling first at his lover then at his wakened comrade. "Good morning." he beamed happy to see Heero looking so rested.
Heero wrapped the coverlet around his bare body to tame the morning chill. Carefully he slipped his legs over the bed's side knowing that getting up slowly would be in his best interest. Just as carefully he stood pausing to be certain that his legs would hold him up. When they complied, he took several shaky steps towards Quatre.
The Light God stirred the pot then lifted the spoon for Heero to taste. "Is it good?" he inquired.
Heero eased down tucking the coverlet under his legs. "Yes it is very good." he praised.
Quatre waved his hand and a pitcher of fresh water appeared at his side. A cup soon followed. He filled the cup handing it to Yuy. "Water is as strong as you need this morning." Heero gladly accepted the cup. He sipped slowly letting the cool liquid wet his parched throat and quench his thirst.
"How do you feel?" Quatre wondered noticing that his comrade was a bit pale.
Heero finished the cup setting it on the floor, "I feel like a huge spider has been weaving a web in my head and that bugs have been crawling in my stomach." he answered honestly.
"Breakfast will help. I do know you slept well." Quatre replied spooning the porridge into a bowl that had just as magically materialized. "Be careful it is hot." A goodly portion of warm wheat bread was also offered.
"I hope you don't mind me clean your sword?" the God of Darkness asked holding up the fine weapon for closer inspection. 'The workmanship is masterful." he commented extending the sword to admire its perfect balance.
Heero turned to watch with pleasure Trowa's admiration for his treasured weapon, "My father had a master sword smith make it for my sixteenth birthday. I hold it as one of my most prized possessions. It is a symbol of my status as a soldier and defender of my King." he proudly declared, "I don't mind the cleaning. I will admit I have been lax in my duties lately but as of this morning all that will change.
Then Heero's relaxed mood suddenly went tense, "I didn't think anything could have ever mean as much to me as my sword until I found Duo." he whispered his beloved's name as renewed fear lanced through his heart. "Oh Duo have I lost you forever?"
Quatre sensing Heero's pain laid his hand on his arm, "Duo is still with us but I will not lie, we need to reach him soon for I fear he can not endure much longer."
Trowa joined his lover and brother in arms on the floor. Wrapping an arm around Quatre's shoulders he placed a gentle kiss on his cheek. "We will win this time." he proclaimed. Then he offered his hand to Yuy in a gesture of unity. "Together we will send Ryuujin back to the hellish pit of his occult birth, back to the viper's nest of evil where he can suffer forever with his witch."
Heero took the offered hand giving it a firm shake, "Together," he reaffirmed his commitment to his lover, his comrades and his King. "we will rid my world and yours of the damned spawn of Hades."
Over breakfast, the sharing of the fortifying nutrition of grain and water, the warrior trio made plans to face the Dragon God. It would not be easy but nothing worth having ever was. Heero would face his most formidable foe. A cunning creature who had nature's most violent elements under his command. Ryuujin had no conscience, no sense of honor. When they did meet there would be no rules; any battle strategy would be fair play. Heero knew he would have to forget all his proper soldierly training and call on his most primitive nature if he was going to defeat the evil Son of Satan.
Duo woke with a shudder his entire body recoiling in panic. Tense tightness gathered in his shoulders. Not one inch of the aching body was dry. He threw up his arms to ward off the advancing beast charging with frightening clarity in his mind's eye but something stopped them with a hard jerk. Chains clanged against the floor, heavy metal bands torn at his wrists. Panting to catch his breath Duo opened his eyes with a start. Sulfur's stench was sucked into his nose with each pounding gasp for air, its bitter taste laid rancid on his tongue. It took a few moments before his addled senses registered his surroundings. Another minute until his pain-racked body let him do more than fight for his next breath.
He shivered on the Incantation Chamber's floor kept in his prone position by the familiar shackles secured by short chains attached to iron rings set into the damp stone. This time there was no straw mattress to cushion the hard surface. Chang had left the thin blanket but it was not much help against the constant soul-numbing cold. Duo was dressed in a new tunic but the rough fabric was stained with dried blood. His auburn hair was held back in a loose ponytail.
The slight movement was rewarded with pain that fluctuated between the feel of stinging barbs and a dull ache. Through his weakness induced haze one question slowly seeped into Duo's brain. "How had he survived Ryuujin's rape?" With sluggish responses governed by the tenderness of his body and the cloudiness of the mind Duo somehow managed to sit up against the soot-stained wall. Now his surroundings were known. The cruel instruments, the death masks, the pristine polished cross all helped him to recall where he was.
The question asked again in a more demanding manner. "Why? What had intervened to save him from the horrible death?"
"Mercy my Pretty One." a hauntingly familiar voice replied in his head. Duo jumped at the sudden invasion of his thoughts. His eyes darted trying to see everywhere at once. Duo was alone as far as he could tell, physically anyway, but the Dragon's voice echoing in his head told him that he would never be free from Ryuujin. Would total submission ease his pain? Was his situation hopeless?
"No." Duo answered auguring against his muddled mind's urging to give up. "I will not lose hope as long as there is breath in my body." Closing his eyes Duo concentrated on his lover. He pictured Heero's face, the way his muscles rippled as he practiced with his sword. The memories of days filled with laugher, nights filled with passion. They would give Duo the strength and courage to endure whatever he must. His reunion with his beloved soldier that was all that mattered.
Outside the Incantation Chamber's archway Chang stood in silence. Reading Maxwell's thoughts he drew up against the power of love. The Dragon knew, at that moment, he would never have Duo's heart. But maybe, if Heero Yuy was dead, Chang could possess his pet's pure soul for surely with Yuy's death Duo would finally give up.
It would have been an easy act for Quatre and Trowa to transport to the Dragon's Lair for time and space were no obstacles. But, unfortunately, his realm's physical laws bound Heero so the immortal pair would have to accompany their human counterpart the old fashion way, on horseback. Another factor also dictated their need to arrive together, the element of surprise. The God of Light and the God of Darkness could not risk Ryuujin sensing their presence. If their rescue plan was going to work total anonymity was essential.
A line of riders aboard their equine transportation snaked through the valley's forest. They would keep to the trees to avoid Ryuujin's excellence eyesight and hopefully the wood's earthy scents would fool the Dragon's equally keen sense of smell. Heero rode in the lead as it was his home they traversed. He knew the shortest and less traveled route to the river. Duo's soldier had armed himself with his trusted sword and his sharpened dagger. Yuy had donned his dark blue uniform with the King's Double Lion Crest attached to his coat. The embroidered patch of crimson and gold was centered over his heart.
Magic and mystic fortitude were the immortal's weapons of choice. Luck and fate's blessing were also counted among their arsenal. From Quatre's saddle a crossbow hung on one side, a quiver of special arrows empowered by a poison spell hung on the other. He believed that the addition of the "human weapons" did not show weakness but wisdom as Chang could take many forms and being human was one of them. Trowa had his own means of protection that was not as obvious but just as deadly.
The river fog drifting above the forest's green canopy told the warriors that they were nearing the first part of their quest, crossing the water's strong currents. The rocky cliffs that would surely be slippery from the early morning mist was their next obstacle. When the cliff's sheer heights were conquered then the Dragon's Lair and its vile Master would be within their reach.
Quatre and Trowa had made several reconnaissance trips to the lofty keep. They had observed the Dragon's routine, studied his habits. They were not sure if the addition of Duo to his castle had altered his routine but they would have to go with what they knew as facts and adjust to any changes when it became necessary.
Heero knew from experience that even the best battle plans were fallible. All the warriors could do was trust their instincts, apply their knowledge and training and pray that the fates would grant them victory. Heero hated having to partly rely on external circumstances but he had no other option. For Duo's sake Yuy had to defer some of his control to a power greater than himself and hope that power would not fail.
Rushing water sounded at the forest's edge. The lonesome cry of the hawk bounced off the towering rock walls. The Gods and the Soldier could not worry that Ryuujin might, at that very moment, be crouched in the sheltering outcrops high above them. That the wicked winged monster could take flight, snagging them from the horses. That they could be carried to the top, slain and consumed in a primal feeding frenzy.
Heero hoped if they were snatched from the riverbank that Ryuujin would, if for no other reason than to prolong the torment, take his captives to his castle. Then maybe Heero could see Duo one last time. Perhaps he could hold him and tell him that he never betrayed him and that his love was still the center of his world.
All was quiet except for the thrashing black liquid beating against the sandy bank. Standing at the water's edge brought back a sudden flood of memories that took Heero by surprise. The awful afternoon when he found Duo's clothes, the letter, they all came rushing back with frightening force. The red ribbon. Heero lifted his arm to reassure himself that the scarlet symbol of his lover's connection was still there. Now he could not afford to dwell on past memories, not when the future depended on his mind, body and soul acting as a single unit. Duo was his focus, his sole reason for pursuing Ryuujin and nothing short of the Dragon's death was acceptable.
"Are you ready?" Quatre asked dismounting his white mare. Trowa climbed down from his black stallion staring across the swift water, "Yes."
Heero stood beside his roan stallion whose coat was the same fiery color as Duo's hair. He lifted his eyes locking them squarely on his objective. "I am ready.' he answered boldly leaving no room for doubt. Heero started forward leading his horse into a swallow part of the cold currents.
The horse followed without hesitation trusting that he and his Master would reach the other side. Quatre and Trowa tightened their hold on their steed's reins stepping bravely into the river. When the soggy trio emerged on the opposite bank they paused to look back knowing that it might be the last time they saw the forest, heard the hawk's call or returned home.
The horses were left to forge for grass by the river. Trowa placed an invisible border around the four-legged beasts to keep them from wandering off and to protect them from predators so they would be safe and satisfied until their return.
Heero's sword hung from his belt resting securely in its sheath. The dagger was tucked in his left boot well hidden by his pants. As Quatre had said before Yuy's immortal brothers in arms could lend him courage and heal wounds but their could not revive the dead. When Heero came face to face with the Dragon God he would be subject to all of his mortal frailties but he would have it no other way. Warrior against warrior was the only true measure of one's abilities and risking death the only true test of a man's spirit.
Duo stirred restlessly tangled in the flimsy blanket. He drifted somewhere in between being awake and an odd dark dreaming that probed inside his head. There were visions, voices and something that sounded like the cry of a hawk. Splashes of water touched his skin making the Chamber's chill more acute. He felt a touch in his mind, a cerebral connection that was just beyond his comprehension. A face shrouded in mist floated before him. Intense blue eyes stared straight ahead as if they were totally focus on a goal. A flash of red flared at his side-vision.
"Am I going mad?" Duo inner voice wondered at the peculiar sensations.
Duo strained to see through the hazy fog. He reached out his hand to
touch the phantom face. His fingers lightly brushed the tanned skin. "Heero."
his lover's magical name echoed in his mind.
Hand over hand, foothold to foothold the Light and Dark and human scaled the unforgiving cliffs. Each placement was crucial for they had climbed high enough that any mistake in grip or judgment would prove fatal. Actually Quatre and Trowa could simply float in the murky fog swirling about the cliffs, could use their levitation powers to glide to the top but they promised Heero they would remain with him and they always kept their promises. Also by being at the mortal's side they might be able to save him from a long and nasty fall. Heero was not opposed to stopping on one of the narrow ledges to rest. He was corporeal, not spiritual and thus given to waning energy. He believed that neither the Fair One nor the Dark One would think any less of him or his "human" qualities.
The fog evaporated as they reached the top. The moisture and slick green moss that thrived in the wet environment also was not as abundant. Grabbing onto a protruding granite shelf Heero completed the final pull that brought his body over the crest. As he lay panting at the advanced altitude and the thinner air that went with it, the King's Captain wheezed hoarsely. He didn't notice that Quatre and Trowa did cheat a bit as, hand in hand, they floated the last ten feet over the ridge to settle down effortlessly beside him.
Heero pushed up on his elbows gasping for air. Quatre laid a hand on his arm encouraging him to be quiet. "Rest." he advised seeing how Yuy's damp hair hung limply about his shoulders. "Drink." he insisted calling up three cups of water from of his never ending supply of magic.
"But..." Heero began struggling to get up.
Trowa rolled his eyes hoping that he would not have to engage in another battle of wills with the stubborn mortal. "If you don't rest you will fail. Do you want that?"
The tall God's line of logic could not be argued against. Heero eased back on the grass littered with grainy pebbles, "Minutes but no more than that." he informed the concerned pair as he slowly sipped his water.
"Agreed." Quatre nodded taking the opportunity to enjoy a few restful moments in his lover's arms while sharing their water.
"How far from here?" Heero asked craning his neck to see past a stand of bowed saplings permanently bent by the fitful wind.
Trowa's green sight followed Yuy's gaze, "Twenty maybe thirty minutes at the most."
Heero stood up deciding that rest time was over, "Let's go." he ordered raising his hand to shield his face from the pelting bits of sand tossed by the wind. Duo's red ribbon whipped in the stiff breeze. "I'm coming my love." he whispered lowly, "Hold on I'm coming."
The Soldier and his comrades used what little vegetation grew in the harsh setting as cover as their moved closer to their goal. The meandering course took more time but saving a few minutes would not matter if they were discovered. Closer and closer they traveled and with each step the sunlight seemed to be swallowed up by a creeping, vague darkness. At last they squatted in the thick undergrowth of a scrub bush staring up at the high stone wall guarding the Dragon's Lair. A battering draft hit their faces as they peered up at the fortified stronghold.
A foul current, different from the wind that funneled up from the cliffs, blew raw and cold. Like the sunlight, no warmth was allowed any sway. Great black birds, their broad wingspans silhouetted against the graying sky, cast dense shadows as they circled the castle's twin towers. Their haunting cries echoed repeating again and again in the wind's pitiless blowing.
Staying low the trespassing trio ran the last fifty yards pulling up at the wall's base. There were no trees or other growth strong enough to climb and from their vantage point the wall was solid in both directions. "We can't climb over or go through," Heero observed, "and I don't think we can dig under unless one of you can transform into a gopher." he grinned feeling the need to lighten the mood.
"There appears to be a gate." Quatre announced pointing to the left. "See over there." They moved left, another twenty yards took them to the desire location. Of course it would have been too much to expect the tall iron gate to be opened. How foolish to think that Ryuujin would leave the threshold to his keep any way but shut up tight and bolted from the inside.
Quatre and Trowa exchanged an odd smile immediately telling Yuy that a plan was being hatched. Without any words between the immoral lovers Trowa stepped back, closed his eyes and began to glow. His body sparked as he reverted back to his "ball of blue energy". Growing lighter the bits of his shimmering orb seemed to be scattered by the wind. Then in a blink of an eye Trowa was gone.
Before Heero could question his vanishing there was a scrapping heard behind the iron entrance. The hindrance to their forward motion groaned as the weather-encrusted hinges gave way and the gate opened just wide enough for the remaining pair to slip inside. Heero couldn't help the shudder he felt as the sturdy iron creaked back into place shutting off their only escape route.
"Now we find a door." Heero stated looking across a desolate courtyard. Again no sizable vegetation grew to provide cover for a stealthy dash from the wall to the castle. Trowa and Quatre might be able to dissolve into nothing but Heero was not blessed with such wondrous abilities. Nevertheless the trek, cover or no cover, had to be made.
The hint of footsteps could just be heard above the howling wind. The Captain's training automatically kicked in as he flattened on the wall. The two immortal allies followed Yuy's example. Now Heero was really wishing for just one broad tree trunk to hide behind. They were exposed and no amount of wishing was going to change that fact.
A lone figure stepped from a doorway that, until then, Heero had not seen. But he had quickly learn since his first encounter with "the beings from the parallel realm" that nothing was ever as it seemed to be. As the "person" moved outside the castle's veiling shadows Heero was certain that it was a man. The male was slender but muscular dressed in trim pants, a flared-sleeve shirt and a quilted overvest. All the garments were the color of blood. His pant's hems were tucked into knee-high black boots. Heavy ebony hair hung well passed his shoulders. He moved in graceful strides but Yuy's trained eye told him that there was a deceiving quickness hidden in the casual gait.
Quatre drew in a startled breath and Heero could sense a tenseness suddenly come upon the gentle Light God. "Who is he?" the Captain asked realizing by Quatre's reaction the man was known to him.
"Chang Wufei." the Fair One hissed growling out the name with an uncharacteristic ruthlessness.
"He doesn't look so dangerous." Yuy observed then reminded himself once more that looks can be deceiving.
Trowa moved beside his Fair One placing a hand on his shoulder. "We believed the same thing until he transformed into Ryuujin and slaughtered most of our army." There was a tremble in his voice as he recalled that horrible day.
Heero recalled the story of Chang's deadly metamorphosis, "We should take him now while he is human." he declared reaching for his sword.
Trowa grabbed Yuy's arm, "No Chang can change in a blink of an eye."
"So I can't reach him with my sword but Quatre has the crossbow surely he can bring down Chang from this range." Heero reasoned.
Trowa shook his head, "The Son of Satan would transform long before the arrow hit its mark. Any action now would alert Chang that something was wrong. Our only hope is to catch him off guard. We need to rescue Duo first only then can we be certain of his safety." he replied, "Let the bastard go for now that will give us time to find Duo. The Dragon always returns to his liar, always."
"Yes we will secure Duo then lie in wait until the opportunity for a sure victory presents itself." Quatre agreed, "Duo first then the Dragon."
Again the logic was flawless. Heero forced himself to relax but did not take his eyes off the Dragon God. "When I finally come face to face with the hell-spawned beast," Heero stated locking his brooding blue eyes on his comrades, "I want him to myself. No interference and no help, understand?" he declared sternly, "The vile servant of the Devil took what is mine, claimed my lover and for that he will pay with his life."
Quatre nodded in agreement, "That has been our intention from the beginning. Why do you think you are the chosen one Heero Yuy? If we had not been absolutely certain of your ability, your skill as a warrior, we would not have come to you. From the day of your birth you were destined to unite our realms, to be the means to slay Ryuujin and bring peace to both your people and ours as well."
"We will support you in every confrontation, every challenge that Chang might mount up against us but you have our solemn oath that Ryuujin will be yours to destroy." the God of Darkness sincerely pledged.
Chang moved on leaving by the front gate. When Heero and the others were sure he was gone they began to look for a way inside the ancient keep, a way to Duo. A whitish mist drifted over the courtyard's ground. The same chilled wind that had buffeted the warriors by the wall swirled the pallid fog in a most fitful fashion. Once more Heero shook off a foreboding shiver.
The previously unnoticed door, fixed securely in the castle's outer wall, blocked the group's advancement. Heero took hold of the handle's large iron ring and pulled. The door didn't budge. Again he put all the strength he had into moving the stubborn barrier but the results were unchanged.
"It's locked from the inside." he stated an exhausted breath sliding over his words.
Quatre stood quietly before the unyielding entrance, "No there is no lock." he proclaimed running his hand over the rough surface, "You and Trowa try again."
Trowa folded his hand above Heero's. Together they combined their efforts. Muscles bulged, swear broke out across their faces which surprised Heero since he had believed that immortals did not possess any human qualities. Maybe they had used their magic so often that the superior Gods had gotten soft. He and Trowa paused to catch their breaths, to sure up their grips as moist hands wanted to slip then tugged once more.
Heero cursed under his breath. The irreverent pronouncements graphically describing the inanimate object's questionable parentage were repeated with more volume bringing a pink tinge to Quatre's cheeks. "We have to get this opened." Heero hissed clenching his teeth with another hard pull. "Don't you have a spell or something to move this damn thing?" he snapped directing his question to both immortals.
Quatre shook his head in a negative manner, "Sorry no spell for this situation."
"We can do this." Trowa declared lending all the physical power he could muster to pulling.
The door seemed to give a little. Heero prayed that the movement was not his imagination as he kept up a firm, steady pressure on the handle. Ever so slowly they began making progress. A narrow crack showed in the doorframe. Again rusty hinges groaned, "Doesn't that bastard have any oil?" Trowa wondered aloud as the grating sound assaulted his ears. Flecks of rust sprinkled on the ground and blew back in their faces. It took two more pulls but the obstinate door finally began to slide back.
Dank, cold air hit their faces as the open space revealed nothing but a blank blackness. The icy flow blew steadily but its source was not known. The breeze made a low mournful cry that carried on the currents with a spine-chilling wail.
"I can't see anything." Heero announced daring to lean into the dense darkness.
Quatre smiled seemingly very pleased with himself, "Now I CAN do something about the lack of light." he stated waving his hand high into the air. "Three brightly-lit torches arrived from that same mysterious place where everything else he conjured up came from. Each warrior took a light aiming it into the perpetual night. The angry current battered the flames trying its best to snuff out the intrusive brightness.
Quatre had to hold his torch to one side to keep the fire's backwash fluttering from hitting his face. "This is an awful place." he declared as a stout shiver coursed up his spine.
"And I don't believe it will get any better." Trowa stated wrapping an arm about his lover's quivering body.
Heero stood in silence knowing that his soul mate was in Quatre's "awful place". He put his torch out in front holding it high, " Come on." he said taking the lead. One cautious step and he was inside Dragon's Lair. Quatre went next, Trowa formed the rear guard. Gradually the torchlight was swallowed up by the opaque shadows. One by one the lights faded into nothingness and all proof of the warrior's presence were gone.
Across the courtyard, sitting atop the outer wall, Chang watched the invaders move into his hellish stronghold with a mixture of satisfaction and amusement. "How delightful." he sneered as he began his transformation. Ryuujin perched on the wall's rim holding on with long curved talons.
"Follow them." he ordered addressing a dark outline standing at his side. The dim form balanced perfectly on the irregular rim. "I want to know their every move." the Dragon finished his instructions. "Meanwhile I shall resurrect three of my sleeping demons. Three challengers created from nature to test the human and those pesky relics from my realm."
The Dragon God reared up on his hind legs stretching to his full height, "If they do not survive my champions it is just as well. If they do then I will know that the mortal will be a worthy opponent, someone who will give me a good fight before I kill him. When the human is eliminated I will vanquish those impotent Priests to hell so they can never interfere again. Yes with Duo's soldier gone my precious pet will have no hope then his soul will truly be mine forever."
"Yes Master." the Shadow Spy answered with a respectful bow. "I will follow and report." he bowed again before his dusky form joined the wind and blew into the opened doorway to pursue his quarry.
Ryuujin flicked out his forked tongue tasting the air, licking up the
human's and the immortal's lingering scent. "Delightful indeed." he hissed.
Duo gazed glassy eyed at Chang. The blank look was not one of indifference but of thirst, hunger and lack of sleep. His joints ached from being on the hard, cold floor. His wrists were bruised and bloody from thrashing about when exhaustion took over and he was plunged into night terrors.
Breakfast sat on the floor untouched and it was passed noon. Duo had not taken in a drop of moisture since the day before. Chang squatted down by his pet reaching out to smooth back his once beautiful auburn hair that now hung in ratty lengths about his stooped shoulders. Duo drew back from his Master's hand tugging the blanket up as a shield.
"Eat." Chang urged trying to keep his voice even and his annoyance under control.
"When I am free." Duo replied weakly directing his listless eyes to the iron bands binding his wrists.
"If I return you to my bedchamber will you cooperate?"
Duo shook his head "no" but said nothing.
Chang let out a bothered snort. "You know I can make you eat. Is that what you want to be forced?" he inquired impatiently.
"I want my freedom." Duo snapped back sending a glare in his Master's direction. Duo didn't care if the obstinate look was rewarded with punishment. There was nothing else Chang could do to him physically or mentally. And Duo's soul--well that had been locked away surrounded by a spirit wall of his own making. No one would penetrate that barrier, no one except Heero Yuy.
Chang stood with a sigh, "If you are holding out for your soldier do not waste your energy or my time. He will not come for you." Chang lied as he already knew that Heero was at that moment wandering through the maze of hallways in the castle's outer perimeter. "Your lover believes you are dead so why would he come for a dead man?"
Duo offered no reply. He returned his glazed-over sight to the chains and shackles.
"Do as you like," Chang stated moving to stand next to the tall gold cross, "but soon you will be too weak to resist my mind probes." he spoke the truth. The defrocked heretic studied his reflection in the holy symbol's polished finish. "Be certain of one thing, my Pretty One, I WILL NOT let you die." he promised turning towards the archway.
Leaving his pet to wallow in his misery Chang made a straightway path to the mysterious bolted door at the corridor's end. "I will deal with you, my lover, after I have dealt with the intruders." Chang mumbled to himself as he extracted a brass key from his overvest's pocket. He had a trio of demons to stir from their spellbound sleep. The slaves created from the elements of Earth, Wind and Fire would soon be sent forth to defend their Master.
The door creaked; the groan reverberated down the vacant hall. Chang lifted a cold torch from its holder and passed his hand over the blackened end. Sparks shot from his fingertips igniting an instant flame. The door shut behind lending privacy for the Dragon to awaken his slumbering demons.
The domed hall was really more like a tunnel that wound around in no certain direction. The floor was damp, the surface covered over with a slippery cushion of green moss and other, less identifiable, but equally slimy substances. A lingering smell of sulfur mingled with the dampness.
"Stay close." Heero called back to his comrades as he could not do much more than feel his way along the eerie passageway in the limited torchlight. He knew how easily someone could become lost should they lose sight of the others.
Yuy stated to put a hand on the waterlogged wall for support, to shore up his insecure footing but before his fingers touched the wet stone he thought better of the idea. "You wouldn't want to grab hold of some creature that might thrive in these soggy conditions." his inner voice warned. Heero quickly pushed the thought out of his mind before it interfered with his willingness to go on.
Keeping a guarded distance behind the wandering trio a blue-gray outline scurried along the floor. When the Shadow Spy became bored with the bottom route he would cling to the walls or dash over the ceiling in his silent pursuit. His fleeing essence blended perfectly with the gloom making it impossible for anyone to detect his movements. "Follow and report." he repeated the simple orders over again in his head. Chang knew his stealthy agent did not have the brightest mind but he was certain he could rely on his spy's easily influenced loyalty. "Yes Master, no move will go unseen." the Shadow Spy whispered dangling from the ceiling.
All three lights offered feeble illumination in the dim tunnel. Their combined glow showed only limited parts of the musty corridor's serpentine configuration. Trowa leaned nearer to Quatre as they followed yet another bend in the gloomy hallway. He couldn't resist repeating an old fashion "ghost tale" that he hoped would make his lover want to stay particularly close to him.
"I have heard stories," he began lowering his voice to a husky whisper, "that each night Chang turns himself into a handsome young man and travels to the village to seduce incredibly beautiful women in the darkness. Then he brings them back under his spell leading them through these meandering halls to his bedchamber.
There he loves them passionately all night long until the ecstasy is burned into their souls." Trowa paused reading the look on his partner's face to see if the tale was doing its job. It seemed to be working.
"Then in the morning when the spell is broken and the women find out what happened they go mad. It is said that these females still wander naked through the castle's labyrinth of passageways in a dazed, soul-dead trance forever seeking the bewitching young man who stole their hearts. Never finding him the rejected lovers fall deeper into despair. Never finding their way out drives them further into a state of insanity from which they can not recover."
Trowa put his arm around Quatre's waist hoping his erotic tale would produce enough apprehension and sexual excitement to get his lover to hold onto him tightly. Perhaps the sensuously woven story would put his Fair One in the right frame of mind to allow Trowa to steal a kiss.
Unfortunately for all of Trowa's efforts Quatre did not respond with the desired results his partner had hoped for. Quatre had spent far too many centuries with his mate and had too shrew instincts to be swayed by such a lane attempt at seduction. He had long ago learned what genital forces drove his lover and he was determined not to play along.
"That sounds like a fable invented to keep young virgins home at night." he replied with a mischievous grin.
Trowa grinned back, "Maybe so but it is told that after the Dragon loves these women they never grow old. They have an insatiable thirst for blood and no one who encounters these feral females ever returns. Do you think we might meet one of the enchantresses and that you will need my protection?"
Trowa's Fair One wrinkled his nose at the recurring scent of sulfur wafting down the tunnel. "What I think is that you have been listening to too many stories made up by those drunken fools you sit with at the tavern."
The tunnel curved around once more. The floor was definitely tilting upwards. A gradual slope was taking the intruders higher into the darkness. As they moved on and the torchlight dimmed the thick shades of night closed as if the hall was disappearing behind them. Walking in a single file the trespassers shared the light and encouraged each other to keep moving. Several times along the way Heero stopped short to look and listen. Each time the immortal's bodies bumped into his. But no complains were made about the slow progress. No one wanted to come up on anything unexpected lurking within the ebony veiled corridor.
Even though the wind whistling down the tunnel was not as strong the chill grew icier. The occasional sulfur smell seemed to occur more often. It would rise up seemingly from nowhere then dissipate just as quickly.
Heero raised a hand halting the procession. "Hold up," he whispered, "I think I see something."
Quatre and Trowa stopped beside Yuy who held his torch out in front to better see the path ahead. "Stay here." he ordered drawing his sword. For the first time he felt the need for his weapon. His water-muted footsteps faded away, his body melted into the darkness and an unnerving silence followed. Moments that seemed like hours passed. Nothing was seen or heard. No sound, no movement.
"Heero." Quatre dared to call lowly becoming uneasy with the silence. In the stillness even his hushed voice seemed to scream as it bounced back in a mocking echo. He called again and once more the sound returned on the frosty breeze with a hollow resonance.
Trowa took the crossbow, loaded an arrow and pulled back the bowline until a click told him that the trigger set was engaged. "Stay here." he repeated Heero's orders starting to step into the same gloom that Yuy had disappeared into.
"Oh no," the Light God stated taking hold of his partner's arm, "you are not going to leave me alone." he firmly declared.
Trowa sighed knowing this was not the time to quibble, "All right but stay behind me until I find out what is going on." he instructed holding the crossbow at the ready.
About twenty yards were traveled before Yuy's voice floated back on the wind. "Over here." the disembodied words called. The cautiously advancing pair found Heero kneeling at what appear to be the edge of the hall. At first Trowa believed that the floor had broken away leaving behind a breach. With all the moisture and the castle's age it was conceivable that the mortar holding the floor stones together could have been undermined allowing the entire portion to cave in.
Upon closer inspection, however, they found that they were actually standing at the base of a staircase that appeared to be craved into the wall where it again curved sharply upwards. The bent path bowed the stairs in a spiral twist until all but the first few bottom steps were not enveloped in the impenetrable darkness. How far up into the murkiness one had to travel to reach the Dragon's inner sanctuary was anyone's guess as the torchlight ran out long before it showed the top of the snaking stairway.
"I don't like this." Trowa announced leaning forward into the gloom. "This cold...the entire atmosphere is of an unholy nature. An evil source rules here I can feel it."
"Unnatural or not," Heero responded to the immortal's declaration, "Duo is up there and neither heaven nor hell will keep me from him."
Quatre nodded sensing that they were very near their goal. "Then we go up as far as "up" takes us but we must be careful the stairs are as slippery as the floor." he observed as the stone steps glistened in the torch's yellow light.
A slinking shiver clawed up Trowa's back. A fleeting rush of hot breath brushed along his neck. Holding his light above his head the Dark God pivoted sure that someone or something was behind him but he saw nothing in the dusky dimness. "It is just my overworked senses playing tricks." he reassured himself as he started up the stairs after Quatre.
The Dragon's Shadow Spy giggled like a spiteful child playing a game of hide and seek. He took the loftier path scooting over the ceiling to get ahead of the foolish intruders. "Watch and wait." he said dropping nimbly from the top before blending into the shadowy fringes.
Debris, mostly loose mortar from the decaying walls, rolled under the warrior's boots. Three shadowy figures surrounded by wavy circles of light ascended the staircase. Each stride was calculated, each step carefully felt out before the next was taken. Heero decided to give up his notion concerning the presence of some beast clinging to the wall as he used every means at his disposal for support. With a torch in one hand and his sword in the other elbows and knees were employed to keep his balance on the slick surface.
The steps coiled tighter, the radius narrowing. The upward pitch rapidly became more acute. It was increasingly harder to maintain a sure footing. The slippery steps, the gloomy darkness and the bone chilling dampness all combined to slow the pace and aggravate already frayed threadbare nerves.
The higher they traveled the worse the air became. The once faint essence of sulfur now rankled in their noses. More caustic odors seemed to waft from every crack and crevice. The foul stink of stagnate water, mixed with the allotropic elements, was sucked into their lungs with each labored breath making the trespassing trio lightheaded and queasy. Accompanying the bad air, dust borne inhalants burned their throats threatening to clog everyone's airways. Quatre swallowed hard to wash down the rough dryness. His next gulp of the tainted air triggered a jarring cough. His body sagged, his shoulders bumped against the wall.
Trowa slipped his arm around his partner's waist. "Easy, take it slow," he advised, "we are almost there. At least I think we are." he added looking at Heero for conformation. Heero shrugged not exactly certain of their proximity to the top since his torchlight did not cut the darkness more than a few feet ahead.
Finally the nearly exhausted trio cleared the last tread. Standing together in the castle's morbid surroundings their united torchlight showed another narrow hall. But at least this one was straight and the ceiling high enough so no one had to worry about bumping his head. Heero squinted readjusting his sight in the improved illumination. Their shadows elongated by the flames stretched out along rough-hewn walls. Their footsteps that had been softened by the watery puddles below were now louder as the Captain and his comrades moved forward.
"This way." Yuy instructed using his perceptual connection to Duo to guide him in the right direction. Some fifty yards ahead the hallway intersected with another. Duo's lover kept to the left sensing an increased power in the link with his partner's mind. Heero concentrated on finding the correct path not allowing himself to dwell on the fact that his precious soul mate was imprisoned in such horrible circumstances.
"There!" Heero called out to his divine cohorts pointing at yet another wooden barrier. The less stubborn door pulled back without protest. The portal opened into a square room. Raising his torch Heero could just make out the outline of another door at the opposite end.
Quatre quickly covered his mouth and nose as a different reek of decay literally slammed into his face. Trowa and Heero also were forced back as their gagging reflexes kicked in. The pungency was not produced by stagnate water or moldy fungus or rotten wood. The unmistakable putrid stench gave evidence that decomposing flesh was responsible for the nauseating odor.
"By all that is holy." Quatre cried out staggering back into his mate. Trowa's hand on his Fair One's back was all that kept Quatre from falling as he shrank back in horror. He leaned into his partner's welcome support as the color drained from his face.
"I think we have found the Dragon's depository." Yuy choked out the words struggling against the sickening waves churning in his stomach.
"No I can not go in there." Quatre declared clutching onto his lover. The God of Light was both blessed and cursed with empathetic insight. Now the curse was in full force. The death-cries of Ryuujin's victims howled in his mind. Hundreds of voices wailed out in agony as their life was violently ripped from their bodies and their tormented souls were doomed to eternal damnation.
Screaming in pain Quatre grabbed his head trying to stop the travailing howls bouncing inside his brain. An invisible mourning shroud wrapped over his face. The constricting veil shut off his breath. Pure panic set in as he clawed at the unseen suffocating material.
The Dark God eased his convulsing mate to the floor. Cupping his hands on Quatre's chalky cheeks Trowa aligned his lover's fear-struck eyes with his green centers of sight. "Quatre, my love, listen to me." he demanded. The thrashing worsened, frothy saliva coated Quatre's lips. Trowa lifted his lover locking his emerald eyes. A shimmering line streaked from greens eyes to azure eyes. "Hear me now!" The radiant bond reached deeply into Quatre's mind. His breathing slowly began to even out, the quaking stilled leaving him limp and exhausted.
While Heero felt sympathy for the gentle Child of Light he could not deviate from his course. He could see no other path to reach his beloved Duo. There might be another way to avoid crossing through the Dragon's mock mausoleum but searching for the alterative route would take moments they didn't have. No matter how secretive they were or how helpful the fates the warriors would be granted only so many minutes before Ryuujin would sense someone had invaded his inner sanctum.
Quatre might be correct that the Dragon God couldn't "see" through love but sooner or later he would have to sense that something was not right. Ever since they had entered the ancient keep Heero had a nagging in his gut that they were being observed. Call it instinct or a soldier's hunch but Yuy couldn't shake the feeling that their presence would not go undiscovered much longer.
He knelt beside his comrades taking Quatre's hand, "I'm sorry but we have no other choice. We have to brave the vestiges of humanity."
Trowa shook his head, "No, I will not force my mate to endure any further pain."
Heero began to mount his arguments against any more delays but Trowa raised his hand gesturing for his fellow warrior to let him finish. Heero deferred and held his tongue.
"We can use our transporting powers to move from one side to the other. That way Quatre will be spared any further upset and we will be able to keep watch until you join us. I know this it is a breach of our promise to stay with you but I can not risk any harm to Quatre. I hope you will forgive us this one time." the God of Darkness begged the soldier's pardon.
Quatre weakly looked up into Yuy's face that was etched with concern for his lost lover. "I can not in good conscience ask you to make this morbid journey alone."
Heero shook his head, "It's all right. There is nothing that will keep me from Duo. With strength borne of his love I can do anything." he proclaimed getting to his feet, "I will meet you on the other side."
Again the courageous Captain braved the offensive odors. He extended
his torch, glanced back at his brothers-in-arms and, without pause, stepped
through the door into the Devil's ossuary. *
One guarded step at a time Heero moved farther into the macabre tomb. Inside there was an impenetrable bewitching twilight. A preternatural fog crept over the floor, clinging to his legs like vaporous serpents. The dampness was infused with various gases given off by the decomposing corpses. Only his single mindedness to reach Duo kept him from succumbing to the poisonous concentration.
There was an odd current that ebbed and flowed in much the same way that a human's breathing kept to a regular pattern. The "breathing" feathered the torchlight causing it to give off a ghostly glow. Strange sounds like droplets dripping repeated in a rhythmic meter growing louder in the absolute stillness. It was conceivable that, if a person were to become trapped in the perennial midnight, the constant dripping would soon drive that person insane.
Heero's arm extended further pushing the torch out ahead as far as his reach would allow. The mist-filtered light was immediately devoured by the dank duskiness leaving Duo's champion to grope along in halting steps. Something akin to walking on eggshells crunched under his boots. But Yuy knew that it was not an egg's discarded casing that crumbled underfoot but the brittle bones of the pitiful departed souls who could find no peaceful rest in the Dragon's keep.
A startled gasp stuck in the brave soldier's throat. An icy quiver clawed its way through his insides. Springing from the gloomy void a hollow-eyed skull popped out inches from his face. The skinless head was slick was a greenish film of fungus. The slime foamed in a syrupy coating oozing from the skull's vacant eye-sockets. A toothless mouth offered a gruesome grin from its slackened jaw.
To add to the ghastly discovery and its sickening results dozens of hard-shelled beetles, each at least two inches long and covered in the gooey slime, quickly crawled back inside the visionless "eyes" to evade the unwelcome torchlight. A pair of hind feet and a long hairless tail, no doubt belonging to a large breed of rodent, scurried after the exiting bugs to also elude the light.
Heero's stomach knotted. A gut wrenching wave washed over in a cold sweat. Drawing back from the horrible sight his back bumped another gaunt form whose decay-slick cranium also "smiled" in the same mimicking manner. The mockingly pleased skull set atop an equally green skeletal frame held to the wall by rusted iron shackles. Both knee joints had long ago rotted away. This disunion left the thighbones dangling like ghoulish wind chimes.
The contact snapped the skeleton's right arm allowing it to slip through the iron ring. The freed bones clattered to the floor where they scattered about in an unorganized fashion. Yuy froze in place to avoid any further collisions with the rotting residents. "I would say that the chambermaids haven't cleaned in here for awhile." he joked hoping that making light of his awful surroundings would help allay his shock.
Carefully Heero moved again keeping a straight path down the center of more skeletons lined up on either side like hellish soldiers awaiting inspection. As he walked it felt as though a thousand fingers brushed against his arms and legs and, at each point of contact, his skin burned with a frigid tingle.
Puddles of putrefied liquid, shining with the same green sliminess, were also avoided on his way to the other door. More waterlogged bones were strewn along the way in a haphazard pattern. Judging by the large number of these green-gray pieces of discarded framework Heero guessed that they represented quite a few unfortunate victims.
Finally he reached the end of the distasteful mess. His hand closed about the door's handle and he began to pull. A multitude of voices cried in unison, "FREE US!" The anguished plea moaned both outside and inside Heero's mind.
He turned to study the gruesome gauntlet he had just passed through, "I am not a Priest. I can not help you."
The united voices wailed out, "You are a warrior, avenge us."
"Kill the Dragon."
The door pulled back dragging on the bothersome bones. Dim light filtered in from the hall but the King's Captain didn't look back to see what other horrors it might expose.
Quatre, his color improved and the trembling gone, stood beside Trowa. His angelic smile greeted the returning ally. "We were beginning to worry." he confessed, "Are you all right?"
Heero nodded, "We have to find Duo and get him out of this madhouse.
"Ryuujin?" Trowa asked knowing Heero could not deny his destiny.
"He will be destroyed." Heero promised, "Once Duo is safely hidden beyond the outer wall you can guard him while I return to seek out the Dragon. That vile Son of Satan will pay for his defiling acts. I will reap the vengeance of all that is holy upon his despicable soul."
The Shadow Spy materialized through the bolted door standing silently so as not to disturb his Master. Chang stood before a trio of stone caskets, each with their heavy lids removed. Behind the opened boxes three indistinct outlines stood just beyond the torchlight's limits. Chang chanted from a tattered text he held reverently before him.
"Master. My report." the veiled agent spoke lowly not wanting to interrupt and risk the Dragon's wrath.
Chang nodded but kept his back to his Shadow Spy.
"The intruders have reached your Incantation Chamber." he dutifully reported.
Chang tilted his head then quietly closed the ancient Book of Spells. Still he didn't turn around.
"Master?" the Spy whispered not certain his report had been heard. "What should I do?"
"Nothing." came the husky reply.
"But Master they will take your pet."
The Lord of Dragon's Lair pivoted slowly. His narrowed eyes rested on the shadowy servant. The Shadow Spy couldn't read his Master's expression that seemed to be a mixture of annoyance and wonderment and, oddly, a measure of pleasure.
"They are more resourceful than I thought, but their bravery and cunning will not change the inevitable." Chang proclaimed, "Let them believe they have won, that false notion will encourage them not to be as watchful. I have awakened my champions." he continued waving a hand at the phantom images lurking in the darkness. "They will see to it that the troublesome trespassers will pay for their insolence with their lives."
"But your pet...I thought..." the Shadow Spy began but he was quickly silenced by a annoyed glare from his Master.
"I have given my Demons permission to do what they like with the immortal betrayers." Chang smiled as he envisioned the Demons feasting on the priestly pair's flesh.
"As for the foolhardy human," Chang spat out the disparaging description with acidic distain. "he will meet a more painful end. It seems fitting that his demise should come in extended stages. Don't you think a slow evisceration would be appropriate? I will hang his entrails on the courtyard gate and display his head on a pike as proof of my absolute authority."
The Shadow Spy bowed his head nodding in agreement but his conscience was troubled by the Dragon's plans. But whether or not he approved of his Master's intensions he knew to hold his tongue. Opposition in any form was not tolerated.
"Yes the mortal's death will be particularly pleasing since he is the last barrier to my Pretty One's heart." Chang stated, "My pet will not be harmed but brought back to me in total submission. What better way to finally break his spirit than to watch his lover die. That will be my greatest victory. The sound of Heero Yuy begging my Demons to end his suffering will be burned into my lover's soul. The memory of his soldier's excruciating demise, the ultimate abandonment, will remove the last hindrance of hope. His willfulness will be destroyed and then he will be mine forever."
The Shadow Spy silently considered his Master's words; in principle they rang with truth. But he also knew much about the human heart for the Dragon's agent had once been a mortal warrior. He had been flesh and bone before he challenged the Devil and lost. Now he dwelled for eternity in the shadows, doomed to always exist in the lonely limbo between daylight and darkness. Still he had not forgotten how strong the human spirit was, how it had the ability to survive long after the will to live had been taken away.
True Chang might, by killing his pet's lover, dominant Duo's body and mind but Chang Wufei would never truly win. For all his satanic powers, the Devil's bastard-child could not conquer love. The Dragon's doomed agent also knew that his Master's possession of Duo would be short lived. At the first opportunity the human captive would surely commit suicide for the need to be with his soldier would overpower any sway Chang might have over his imprisoned slave. In the end Ryuujin would lose it could be no other way.
Three shadows elongated on the corridor's wall. The blue-gray tagalongs matched their fleshy counterpart's movements perfectly as the soldier and his eternal comrades followed Heero's connection to Duo. Yuy's instincts were their only guide but Quatre and Trowa had no doubts that the heart-path was true in its directions. Heero stopped at an entrance to a large rectangular room, extinguished his light and laid it aside. Inside the soft glow of touches lining the walls provided sufficient light but did nothing to improve the chilly currents flowing through the opened door. His sword angled across his body and without a word Yuy walked in leaving his fellow warriors to follow in silent anticipation that their long and arduous journey was over.
The Captain did not waver in his route. Duo was there of that he was certain. But the link with his lover was faint, more frail than he would have thought it should be at such close range. It was like Duo was drifting away and if Heero didn't find him soon his precious soul mate would be beyond reclaiming. An archway carved in the right wall gave off the strongest vibrations. Again Yuy moved with positive steps.
Three startled breaths were drawn in unison as the immortals and the human took in their first sight of the smaller room's horrid atmosphere. Trowa felt his partner shiver as Quatre's empathy was again bombarded with the anguished torment of the countless victims of Ryuujin's cruelty. "By all that is holy." Quatre sighed calling for some divine intercession. But he knew, in the unconsecrated evil of the Dragon's Lair, no heavenly help would be forthcoming.
In more muted torchlight Ryuujin's implements of despair and pain somehow seemed a fitting addition to the terrible room. The death masks and their hideous features also kept to the intent of the hellish decor. "Duo could not be in such a wicked place." Quatre declared hoping against hope that this time Yuy's instincts were wrong. One look into Heero's sad eyes told the Fair One that his hope like everything else in this foreboding prison had been forsaken.
Quatre and Trowa followed the human's gaze to the room's furthest wall. An eerie white fog floated only there as if it was trying to hide that portion from view but the soupy haze did not completely succeed in its mission. A small form surrounded by lengths of chains lay in the corner's angular recesses. The mist-veiled outline was draped in some kind of material making it impossible to identify the shape beneath. "Duo?" the unsure question quivered from Heero's lips as he struggled to feel the fleeting connection.
Trowa's hand on his back encouraged the tentative soldier to take a step. Heero paused drawing in a deep breath to steady his nerves and fortify his courage before closing the distance between himself and the mysterious shape. The dark material was a thin blanket. The figure concealed under the woven cover was bowed into a tight fetal curl, knees pressed to its body. Long hair, snarled in knotted confusion, covered the head like a mourning veil shielding the features from Heero's searching eyes. Heero laid his sword my his feet and crouched beside the still form.
Squatting in the fog Yuy could not see any rise or fall from the body's torso. He heard no sounds of breath being drawn in or let out. With trembling fingers Heero lifted the matted mane afraid of what he might find. As the hair raised from the fog he saw that it was auburn although the silken and usually shiny red hues were now rough and dull.
In the mist Heero and his immortal allies knelt around the silent figure. "Oh merciful heavens." Heero whispered finally seeing his lover's face and realizing that it was tinted with an unmistakable death-pallor. The only color that could be discerned in the low light was deep purple circles under Duo's eyes. His eyelids were slightly parted and the empty gaze behind them showed no signs of focus.
"He is not gone." Heero told himself as he was certain his and his lover's link had not been completely severed.
Heero fumbled under the blanket trying to find his lover's hand believing that his mate was not too far gone to sense his touch. The clink of metal against metal and the cold feel of steel gave only a moment's warning before Duo's shackled hand cleared the blanket. His wrist was bruised and swollen under the iron ring, totally encircled by the blue discolorations. Dried blood and filthy grim tinged the folds of his skin. His hand was cold, his fingers limp as Heero started to clutch Duo's hand to his chest. The short length of chain connecting the second iron band tugged at Duo's opposite wrist which followed the upwards lifting in a sluggish manner.
Trowa reached around Heero passing his hand over the shackles. A sparkling blue line jumped from his fingertips to the iron bands. With a sharp snap the band's catch sprung open. Duo's hands dropped free plopping down on his chest. It was obvious he had fought the metal bindings and Heero was amazed that in the fighting he had not broken his wrists. Duo had a strong resistance to control. Submissive behavior had never been part of his stubborn nature. One way Duo had chosen to show his devotion to his soldier had been to give up that part of his nature and let his lover to be the dominant one in their lovemaking.
Easing his arm under Duo's shoulders Heero carefully sat him up until he was able to slide under his lover's lax frame. Supporting Duo's back against his chest, he cradled his head as it wanted to lop to one side. Even in such close contact Heero still could not feel Duo breathing. Laying his hand over his heart there was not trace of its beating.
"No you can't leave me." Heero whimpered shoring up his hold and rocking his soul mate back and forth as a mother would comfort her child. Had Duo slipped beyond recovery? Was there nothing more that could be done?
Heero locked his tear-moist eyes on his comrades. " Do something!" he demanded, the order screamed in anger-choked words.
Tears streaked Quatre's fair cheeks. "We can heal but we can not reverse death." he whispered as the possibility of total failure crashed in on the God of Light.
"Damn it," Heero growled placing a hand under Duo's chin, "I will not let you go." he swore bending over to kiss Duo's ashen lips. "That bastard will not win. Duo do you hear me, Ryuujin will not win." he declared deepening the kiss, determined to use its power to transfer the very breath of life to his beloved mate.
Fragrant blossoms like snowdrift fields swayed overhead. Duo laid naked on a carpet of cool, green grass as warm sunlight filtered through the graceful tree branches. Nestled within the flowering limbs a songbird warbled out a sweet melody.
Duo wrapped his legs around Heero's waist drawing him closer. His also nude lover ravished kisses on Duo's face, his neck, stopping at his chest to concentrate on nipples hardened with passion. Duo moaned as his partner pleasured him in all the ways only a familiar lover can. Duo raised his hips to better align his anal opening with Heero's quite ready manhood. With deliberate caution Duo's soldier entered into his hot channel. Both lover's breathing increased, both held on tightly as Heero's aroused member continued its ecstatic journey.
Finally fully seated Heero paused bathing in the pure joy of being one with his precious soul mate. He kissed Duo once more sliding his tongue inside to taste the deliciousness, to savor the essence that was Duo's alone.
"Love me my soldier." Duo whispered close to Heero's ear then licked over the lobe to further entice immediate action.
With a mixture of lust and love Heero pulled halfway out then pushed in with a focused thrust burying his erection as far as it would go. Duo closed his eyes almost overwhelmed by his happiness. He was with his soldier, his savior, united as one in body, heart and soul. "More." he begged in ragged pants of exhilaration. "Harder." he urged pressing his hips up in an anxious manner.
Heero set to a steady rhythm. He knew his lover so well that every movement, each withdrawal and thrust was designed to bring Duo to the brink but not yet allow him to go over the edge. Duo lifted his arms enfolding them around Heero's neck. Heero placed one hand under Duo's hips to make their union more secure.
With the other hand he reached between their rocking bodies to capture his lover's enlarged manhood. "Yes, my love, yes." Duo growled as his own primitive passion took over.
As a single unit the lovers engaged in a dance as old as time. The sensual music played in their heads, the meter and steps were remembered in their bodies. Picking up the pace Heero lovingly guided his mate to the dance's thundering finale. Several more strokes along his throbbing erection and Duo could feel a tingle growing in his groin.
The flood moved upwards gathering in hot waves then with a spasmodic shudder Duo came surrendering his seed. The release caused him to tighten around Heero's manhood eroding the last of his control. "Duo." Heero whispered with respectful appreciation for his mate's unwavering trust in him as he filled his lover with his most valuable gift.
Duo closed his eyes letting the afterglow carry him to a closer connection with his soldier. Suddenly Heero's weight was gone, his warmth evaporated leaving in its wake a cruel cold. Duo opened his eyes and stared in disbelief. His lover had vanished. Not a trace of his essence remained, not even the faintest scent of his sex lingered in the icy air.
Panic gripped Duo's heart, a pure fear so strong that it froze in his chest and shut off his breathing. "Heero!" he called out to his vanished lover. He looked overhead. All the blossoms had wilted and the only thing that could be seen through the gnarled tree branches was a dead songbird and a black veil covering the sun.
"HEERO!" Duo wailed now suddenly aware that he could no longer sense his soldier at all. It was as if the earth had opened up and drew his lover into the very depths of hell.
Then a distant voice caressed his mind. "Duo." It faded away almost before it was heard. "Duo." It called again now more of an feeling than a sound. It was Heero's voice and he knew his mate was calling from far away almost too far to be heard.
"Heero I'm here." Duo answered the weak calling. "Where are you? Tell me where and I will come to you." he begged as the voice faded further away. "Heero, please."
"Your soldier can not reach you." another voice declared booming from the blackened sun. "You are mine and he can not have you."
Duo stared in horror as a great creature dropped from the dying sun's ebony backwash. Growing larger against the inky sky it beat its massive wings swooping down to claim its prize. "MINE!" it roared as wisps of smoke and fire belched from his nose and mouth.
"NO!" Duo screamed. "HEERO SAVE ME!" as the beast's claws snatched up
his victim. "NO!" Duo wailed batting his fists against his captor.
Duo twitched in Heero's arms. Under his weakness-laden eyelids his eyes moved rapidly as he watched another night terror unfold from the depths of his subconscious. Heero put his hand on Duo's forehead to keep him from twisting his neck. His head felt hotter that it should while his cheeks were just as clammy as before. At the touch of his partner's hand, feeling twice as cold on his feverish brow, Duo jumped with a flinch that took Heero by surprise.
The sudden increase in movement spurred Duo's chill-dormant senses. Another jerk expanded his chest. A hard inhalation sucked in a gulp of air filling his starved lungs so quickly it felt as though they were tearing apart.
"Duo it's Heero can you hear me?" the Captain asked lifting more tangled tresses from Duo's eyes to free up his sight.
Again Duo's entire body jerked in a convulsive fit. More raspy gasps rose through the white fog. Now his harsh breathing rattled in the dank mist. A congestive cough shook deeply in his chest produced by stale fluids that had gathered too long in his stationary posture. Even though a change in position could further aggravate any injuries Duo might have suffered Heero dared to straighten his neck and spine hoping to more fully open his clogged windpipe. A gagging retched up blood tainted saliva from the back of Duo's throat. Heero wiped away the ejected fluid adding another layer to the fusion of sweat and dirt staining his hands.
"Duo awake up." Heero called loudly daring to give his lover a firm shake. Sluggishly Duo's eyelids parted then slid shut. Heero shook again. This time his eyes seemed more inclined to make a concentrative effort to stay open. At first Duo's restored sight remained fuzzy and unfocused. His dulled perceptions were unable to give his confused mind an understandable picture of his surroundings and an even less lucid interpretation of the strange figures hovering over him.
Duo's curled form began to relax, his knees to come away from his body. Heero laid his hand on Duo's chest hoping that by firming up the pressure it would ease his breathing and help Duo to be more aware of his lover's reassuring caress. Another extension, a wince as stiff muscles and joints untangled from their restrictive state.
Heero leaned over so his face was in line with Duo's wandering sight. "That's it." he praised to encourage Duo to continue in his painful rearrangements. "Take it slow." he instructed trying to help all that he could.
Duo's last memories were of Chang closing the iron shackles around his wrists. His final remembrances were of his Master forcing him back on the cold floor, baring his genitals and entering his unprepared anal opening with one hard thrust. He could still hear the Dragon's panting, his grunts and groans as he rutted and rode his Pretty One. The pain and blood were brought back in terrifying realism as Duo gritted his teeth to keep from screaming out loud.
The rape had taken only minutes that last time, as Chang seemed to have other things on his mind. As his Master merely went through the motions the sex did not seem intended to satisfy his bodily appetite or to meter out punishment but to be an act that he did simply because he could do it. When the evil bastard finished he looked down at his pet laying limply on the hard floor, wet with blood and Chang's sexual excretions, without any emotion at all in his black eyes. "Mine." he growled running a slender finger along Duo's damp cheek.
After that night Duo retreated into a self-imposed withdrawal, a disconnection designed to screen his senses from any more defilement. A numbed state so his body would not feel the physical degradation and to shield his mind from the trauma and the eventual insanity Chang's brand of loving would spawn. That night Duo's spirit wall was born and no one would find a way to breach that wall but his one true love.
Now Duo's confusion-clouded mind could not isolate prior retrospections from reality. His befuddled senses offered only misinformation and frightening phantom sensations. Suddenly becoming aware of the restrictions on his body, hearing a male voice's deep resonance echoing in his ears, Duo's tormented recollections came rushing back in a seizing wave of terror. Instinctively his self-preservation took over. Stiff fingers curled into tight fists. Arms tightened, muscles poised to fight back, no matter how feebly, against his Master's advances.
Without warning Duo struck out, his clenched fists batting at the vague shape looming above. Enlarged pupils reflected his panic. "No more you damn Son of Satan." he shouted determined to fight off the Dragon's lecherous attack. His enraged blows came within inches of Yuy's jaw as he felt a rush of air pass under his chin. Rage-tightened hands crashed into Heero's chest with unbridled fury. Considering his faint condition and his weakness impaired reflexes the strength in Duo's punches surprised his soldier.
Heero's hands sprang up in his own defense intercepting his frightened lover's fists and grabbing on as gently as he could. He knew the pressure on Duo's severely bruised wrists would be painful but, at that moment, Heero had to protect Duo from hurting himself. He held on as far up on Duo's hands as he could to lessen the pain. Somehow, though, Heero doubted his partner even realized he was hurting as he strained against the unyielding grip.
"Duo!" Heero exclaimed with startled excitement, "Calm down." he urged in a lower tone hoping the softer words would reach his lover's fear-consumed mind.
But the words and pleading had no affect. Duo breaths now came in short winded puffs. If this struggling and straining didn't end soon hyperventilation would set in then convulsions and passing out could follow. In Duo's weakened state Heero was afraid that if he did lose consciousness that he might not awake up again. No matter what had to be done Duo could not be allowed to black out.
Heero held firm knowing he did not need to use excessive restraint to control Duo's pounding. "Duo look at me." Heero implored urging him to recognize his face, to respond to his voice, anything that would bring him out of his mind's horrified state. Again Heero's entreatments fell on terror-deafened ears. Once more Heero grappled with uncertain resolve. What more could he do to bring Duo out of his memory trance and back to his love where he belonged.
Until then Quatre and Trowa had let Heero do what he thought was best, after all Duo was his lover. Both of the immortals knew how protective they were of each other and that the human would have no less need to protect his own but it was clear that Heero's pleading was doing no good. Witnessing Yuy's failure the gentle God of Light decided it was time for intervention.
He moved to kneel closer to the mortal pair. His eyes narrowed on Duo's pale face wet with exerted moisture. "That wicked Dragon is responsible for this, " he announced, "so the sound of a male voice will be the last thing to calm Duo down." he reasoned, "Let me try something different."
Laying one flattened palm on Duo's forehead Quatre took in a focusing breath, held it for a few seconds then exhaled in a long sigh. Placing his other hand on Duo's heaving chest he leaned close to his ear. "It is all right." Quatre said in a voice at least two tones higher than normal. If Heero had closed his eye and listened he would have sworn that a female had spoken the words. "Now listen to me." the Fair One ordered.
Duo showed no signs of hearing or understanding. Quatre repeated the order with a firmer tone accenting the command. Heero thought Duo relaxed ever so slightly but he could not be certain. He had to believe that the immortal's words, his gentle tactile touches, were getting through. The Light One stroked Duo's tangled hair and repeated the insistent words. This time Heero did sense a definite response as he felt the tension in Duo's body ease up. "Try again." he urged.
"Duo," Quatre whispered, "I want you to come back." He paused taking in another deep breath. Now his cheeks glistened with a sheen of sweat as the God of Light put all his concentration into rescuing Duo's from his mind's hellish bondage. "Can you hear my voice, feel my touch?"
Slowly Duo's eyes redirected their wild sight in the direction of the "female" voice's soothing pitch. They searched through dim shadows for the comforting sound's source.
"Can you feel my touch?" Quatre asked again.
Finally Duo's eyes centered on Quatre. With an almost indiscernible nod he confirmed the connection had been made. "Your lover is here. He is holding you now. Look up, see his face." Duo's eyes lifted, their blue sight more alert.
Heero took over, "Duo look at me. Tell me who I am."
Duo's eyes blinked pulling his soldier's strong features from the misty gloom. "Heero?" he whispered hoarsely. With a questioning tone the single word was forced through labored, wheezing gulps of air.
A wide smile spread over Quatre fair face. "That is correct. Follow my voice to return to your lover. Duo Maxwell use my strength to come back."
Trowa reached out catching his lover as Duo took the last of Quatre's power and his energy reserves gave out. With a contented sigh Quatre relaxed on Trowa's chest.
Heero held fast to his own recovering mate. As the last of the fight gave out and Duo's arms went limp Yuy guided them down folding them across his stomach. Duo's head tilted, his sight rising to converge with Heero's misty eyes as they gazed lovingly back. "Heero." The name was repeated with more strength, more awareness.
Heero leaned over tightening his arms about his rewakened soul mate, "Welcome back my love." he greeted his returned lover as his tears flowed freely. Their lips touched, the brushing kiss healing all the hurt and reuniting their souls with a bond so strong that no one or nothing could ever separate them again.
Heero and Duo held each other close afraid if they let go that one or the other would disappear. They cried together, kissed and gave thanks to the fates and the deities who had guided their paths. "I thought I had lost you." Heero sighed wiping his eyes with the back of his hand.
"I was so foolish to doubt your love." Duo confessed.
"You should have come to me when those rumors began." Heero replied, "You know you are the only one in by heart."
"I know. Can you ever forgive me?" Duo begged his soldier's pardon. "When I think of what almost happened..." the rest of the sentence was choked off by a renewed flow of tears.
"Let us not speak of this again." Heero proclaimed, "The past is gone, the future is beyond our control. All we have is this moment so let us live that to the fullest."
Quatre snuggled in Trowa's arm his heart filled with joy over the reunited lovers. "I love you." he whispered to his mate. "I love you." Trowa answered in kind sealing the promise of his devotion with a kiss.
"Soon with my help all this will be forgotten." Heero promised, "Chang and his castle will fade from your thoughts because all your days and nights will be filled with so much love that there will be no room for anything else."
"Ryuujin." Duo remembered beginning to tense up again. He pushed against Heero as all he could think of was escaping from the Dragon's Lair. A raw ache caught in his over-exerted muscles. The biting pain caused him to wince dredging up a distressed groan from deep in his throat.
"Shhhh." Heero whispered, "rest now then we will leave. I promise my protection. Do you trust me?"
"With my life." Duo declared without hesitation.
Quatre shifted in Trowa's arms and for the first time Duo was aware that he and Heero were not alone. His wide sight settled on the two strangers sitting by his soldier's side. "Who are you?" he wondered calmly sure that if they were with Heero they poised no threat.
"I am Quatre and this is Trowa." the God of Light replied, "I think, however, that more explanations can wait until we are safely away from this pit of vipers."
Duo looked at Heero who nodded in agreement. "All right," he also agreed, "but it is nice to meet you."
"There are a few things that need to be changed." Quatre announced pressing his palms together. His actions told Heero that something magical was about to happen. As the Fair One's hands parted socks, pants, a shirt and a fleecy coat appeared in a neatly folded pile. A pair of fine leather boots completed the enchanted outfit.
Duo's eyes widened at the sight of the instant clothes. "Wow" he whispered looking so much like a child in a candy shop. "Something tells me you two have a lot of explaining to do." he grinned reaching out to touch the soft coat.
"Let me help you dress." Heero offered gathering up the new clothes.
"Wait," Quatre called, "before you dress let me clean you up."
This time the magic was done with two swipes of his hand and a strange chant. In a blink of an eye the stained tunic vanished and Duo was clean. Days of dirt and sweat vanished replaced by soft fresh skin. And with the cleansing the bruises and scars faded away. His ratty hair was smooth and sparkled with thousands of fiery points of light. It hung straight down his back brushing along his spine. In shimmering auburn cascades it pooled over the floor.
The torn flesh left behind by Chang's repeated rapes was perfect as if nothing had happened. Duo knew it would take longer for his mental scars to heal but he also knew with Heero's love he would not have to do it alone.
Duo looked down at his wrists, at his body made perfect once more. As he sat naked but unashamed before his lover and his new friends tears welled again in his clear blue eyes. With reverent care he held his tarnished cross closing his misty eyes in a prayer of gratitude. "Amen." he whispered softly. "Thank you." he offered verbal gratitude to the immortal allies.
Quatre and Trowa exchanged smiles, "You are welcomed." they answered in unison. "Dress now and we will leave this awful place." Quatre urged motioning to the clothes.
Dressed and ready Duo was understandably anxious to leave. "One more task before we go." Heero announced pushing up his uniform jacket sleeve. Duo's eyes widened then misted up again as he watched his brave soldier untie the red ribbon from his wrist. His heart told him the creased cloth band was the same one Heero had given him as a keepsake of their love.
"We can not leave until this ribbon is back where it belongs." Heero proclaimed, "Turn around and let me braid your hair then I will secure the end with our symbol of passion."
Heero combed his fingers through Duo's auburn mane; its fiery hue so near the ribbon's color that one seemed to blend with the other. Lovingly he separated the flowing locks into three sections. With the same heartfelt fondness Heero plaited them into a long rope. As Duo held the end he tied on the ribbon.
Duo stared at the scarlet band still not quite believing that what he saw and felt was real. Heero pulled his only reason for living into a tight embrace, "Beautiful." he declared letting Duo know with a kiss that it was not a dream.
Taking up his sword, Yuy helped his lover to stand. Duo's legs were unsteady for they hadn't been asked to support him for quite some time. "Slowly, one step at a time." Heero instructed slipping an arm around his waist. "Lean on me; let me do all the work."
One step, then another. Slowly his legs began to cooperate. Trowa handed the quiver of arrows to his immortal partner, shouldered the crossbow then took a position on Duo's opposite side. He took the shaky mortal's elbow lending his magic-based stamina.
Quatre moved to the chamber's archway taking a guarded peek into the rectangle room, "All clear."
"Watch yourselves." Heero cautioned as the nagging feeling that they were being watched again alerted his soldier's instincts. "I still believe we got in here much too simply. Something tells me that we might not get out as easily."
"Simply." Trowa repeated rolling his green eyes, "You call our journey
here simple?" he asked cutting his sight back at his Fair One.
Duo's strength continued to improve. His need to get away from Ryuujin's hellhole was more than enough incentive to move quickly. The retreating quartet neared the door leading into the outer corridor. Heero didn't particularly want to retrace their path along the labyrinth of hallways and he was not under any circumstances taking Duo through the Dragon's ossuary. There had to be a more direct escape route.
"Do you remember how you were brought in?" Heero inquired hoping Duo would know of a quicker way out.
Duo shook his head, "No I have no memory before I woke up in the Chang's bedchamber."
Heero consider their options, mulled over other possible paths. "When we get to the hall we are going to take the opposite way." he announced letting it be known by his tone and manner that the statement was an order not a suggestion.
Trowa wrinkled his forehead and Quatre could "see" his mind working on a solution. "Quatre can stay with you while I transport through an outside wall. I will get an idea of where the closest exit is located then return with the bearings."
"All right." Heero agreed, "How long will it take?"
"Not long. Most castles have only two main entrances to make it harder for an enemy to get in."
"Or get out." Duo spoke up trying not to sound too smart-assed.
Quatre glanced back apprehensively at the archway and its horrid memories, "Let us not tarry another moment." he spoke for everyone.
Ten more steps then twelve, almost to the door. Quatre felt it first. Suddenly there was a disturbance in his empathic link like the fabric of time was being tattered. Trowa's darker side, his tie with nature's more violent tendencies also registered the unsettling shift. The humans did not sense the change directly but they knew something was wrong as they saw the look of terror in Quatre's eyes.
"He is coming." the God of Light declared grabbing Trowa's hand.
Now Duo was clinging to his soldier. "Ryuujin." he whispered as all the panic and pain returned with heart-seizing force.
Quatre shook his head, "No."
"Chang?" Heero asked the next logical question.
Again the Light God shook his head negatively.
"Who?" Heero and Duo wondered in unison.
A red glow brightened the rectangle room's doorway. The frame and threshold became wavy ripples in a confusion light and illusion. Centered between the distorted framework a large brass key floated of its own accord. The key swiveled aligning with a keyhole that materialized from the increasingly dazzling light. The key slid in and turned. A loud click was heard before the key disappeared and a door within a door opened wide.
Humans and immortals raised their hands to protect their eyes from a second light's powerful blaze. Silhouetted and surrounded a vague lineation floated through the blinding brilliance. The glow parted on either side of the arriving apparition then closed behind the outline that seemed to glow with the same bright light. Just as quickly as it began the unnatural phenomenon started to fade. In moments the room was again dim with only the yellow-orange tint of torchlight coloring its interior.
A tall figure stood in the weak flame's shadow-veiled fringes. A full length scarlet overcape concealed the mysterious visitor's form. The cape's heavy cowl presented a black void where a face should have been. A wrinkled ashen hand, looking more skeletal than human, held a tall metal staff. An eagle with wide spread wings, carved from some reddish stone that had been polished to a bright gleam, adorned the staff's top. On either side, fastened along the bottom edges of the bird of prey's unfurled wings, three solid gold rings laced through the stone "feathers".
Thick silence hung over the room and not even the human's hard inhalations as they struggled to keep their fear under control could be heard. "Welcome." The deep voice bounced off the stone walls as it greeted the captive confederates.
Duo jumped at the sudden sound ducking behind his soldier. Heero raised his sword gliding into a ready stance, prepared to protect his lover. Trowa leveled the crossbow and motioned for his partner to copy Duo's shielding technique.
Heero took a step forward extending the sword's blade, aiming the finely honed tip at the mysterious figure's middle. "Who are you?" he demanded. His no nonsense tone and focused glare confirm his unwillingness to be patient for the answer.
"Someone to be feared."
Heero stood his ground, "I fear no one." he boldly proclaimed, his resolve strengthened by his promise to protect his lover.
Slowly a second hand parted the overcape just enough to move up to the cowl's outer hem. Bony gnarled fingers caught the hood then slid it back revealing gaunt, pale facial features. The figure's thin skin was stretched over hollow cheekbones giving it a ghostly texture. The individual was male. Stringy silver-gray hair draped loosely about the man's shoulders except for a braided length hanging down the front on either side. He had long, equally gray bread that had been divided and braided into three sections.
Black deep-set eyes, glaring from their recessed sockets, drilled their boring sight through human and immortal alike groping through their outer shell into their heart's most guarded depths. Again Quatre shuddered as the strange enigma's piercing sight raked across his intuitive mental link.
"By all that is holy." the Fair One mumbled in a surprisingly incoherent manner. Despite his outwardly meek attitude Quatre had always been bold in his speech.
Trowa cut his eyes back at his quivering mate attempting to see his face and keep watch at the same time. "What is wrong?" he asked lowly not wanting the mysterious man to hear.
"Do you see," the God of Light whispered back to his concerned partner, "he holds the Staff of Triad."
Trowa drew in a troubled breath as the realization of who stood before him grabbed at his gut. "Decador." he hissed out the unholy name.
"The Staff of Triad." Duo repeated peering around his soldier, "What is that and who is Decador?"
"The Staff of Triad can only be carried by the Chosen One. The eagle is an icon of strength and power. The red stone represents blood. Three gold rings are for the Gods of Darkness Triad, War, Famine and Pestilence." Trowa explained, "The continuous circles symbolize completeness, the unbroken alliance with the unholy trinity.
Decador is a person and an entity, a being of energy in fleshy form. He is both a wizard and the evil emissary of the Fallen Angels, the holy ones who fell from grace when Satan was banished from Heaven. Decador holds sway over all the violent elements of nature and has used them to ruin mankind since the beginning of time."
"Very good Dark One." the scarlet draped wizard praised, "I see you are well versed in the ancient texts. But I fear you have not experienced the worse of my powers." he warned shaking the staff so that the rings bounced against each other. Their contact sent out a shrill wave of white noise that could have easily cracked the walls if the volume had been a full force.
"The Devil's servant or not," Heero sneered daring to lock his sight with Decador's boring orbs, "we will waste no more time. Step aside or I will run you through." he issued the only warning he was going to give.
Decador's expression did not change nor did he alter his blocking posture. A strong odor, a blending of sulfur and decay seemed to emanate from the sinister sorcerer. Once more a blanched fog drifted along the floor stones seeming to flow from no particular place. As the fog rose higher the room's temperature suddenly chilled.
With a dramatic flare the wizard threw back the scarlet overcape revealing blue and gold satin vestments. Decador wore the priestly robes for no other reasons than to defile the sacred garments. After all, he reasoned, what better way to show his superiority over those misguided fools at the Temple especially Chang Wufei who had fallen the furthest from grace.
"Do not try my patience human." Decador hissed leaning into the sword's honed tip, "Bargains can be broken." he declared then straightened again without further explanation of his cryptic statement.
"Bargains?" Trowa negatively nodded his head, "We will not bargain with you."
A sneer tugged at Decador's lips, "My bargain is not with you but with your defrocked comrade."
"Chang?" Quatre asked knowing that Decador would never make any deals with someone as limited in ability as Chang. "We do not understand."
"I believe Chang's covenant with me has something to do with his human whore." the wizard announced using the Staff to point at Duo. "You must have made quite an impression." he added as another smirk threaded across his mouth.
Heero bristled. The tip of his sword quivered not from fright but intense anger. "Enough of this!" he yelled as indignant rage boiled to the surface, "You will hold your damned tongue or I will..."
"Or you will what?" Decador spat back striking the Staff on the floor, raising sparks despite the damp mist. "No more mercy!" he roared his eyes flashing with fiery internal light. Lifting his free hand the Sorcerer flattened his palm. In the center a blue-white glow spun into a sphere emitting wavering streaks of energy. The "lightning fingers" shot out arcing and whipping in funnel-like circles. Without warning a single bolt sprang out sizzling along the sword's blade traveling its length in seconds. An explosion of light burst from the handle. The stench of burnt flesh filled the air just before Heero screamed in pain and dropped the white-hot weapon.
Duo intercepted his partner keeping him from sinking to the floor. Heero doubled over pressing his burnt hand to his chest, his face twisted in agony. "You demonic fiend!" Duo shouted supporting Heero with one hand and reaching for the glowing sword with the other.
"Duo no!" Quatre called grabbing up the sword then quickly stepped back beside Trowa.
Decador let a belly deep laugh bounce over the room, "I can see why Chang was willing to fight for you. You are made up of spit and fire my Pretty One." he mocked using Chang's twisted term of endearment as he reached out to touch Duo's flushed face. "Perhaps you can show me what skills you used to enamor Chang so completely as to cause him to risk his life to make a deal with me."
Duo drew back his hand letting an anger-clenched fist fly forward with enough determination to take off the evil wizard's head. With supernatural reflexes Decador's hand caught hold of Maxwell's wrist stopping the fist just inches from its intended target. A wringing twist caused Duo to cry out in pain, another downward turn bent his arm making sure he couldn't pull away.
"I will give you credit for courage," Decador stated increasing the pressure on Duo's wrist, "but your actions have done nothing to dissuade my interest, except I will not be as gentle." he promised giving his wrist another painful twist.
Heero drew in a quick breath afraid that Duo daring to spurn the wizard's attention had enraged Decador's already unstable mental balance. That his even more daring attack had pushed the Dark Lord's unpredictable and quite volatile temper pass the point of any redemptive hope.
"Duo. No." Heero whispered then held his next intake of air as the dread of what retaliatory reprisal Duo's actions might produce seized his mind and stabbed at his heart.
Duo, ignoring the pain in his arm, straightened sharply surprising the wizard with his show of strength. Without a moment's thought of the possible consequences he threw back his head and spat squarely in his wicked assailant's face. Then with a defiant stare in force Maxwell stood staunchly ready to suffer whatever punishment his contemptuous act might inspire.
A long silence one that seemed to last forever filled the room as if even the restless icy currents hid from the insane Sorcerer's wrathful reaction. His fingers on his free hand hooked roughly on the cord holding Duo's cross. Clearly Decador was still intent on his own brand of debauchery but it was obvious that he felt threatened by the holy symbol.
"Well, well." the lustful wizard's edgy voice finally broke the silence. He moped the spittle from his cheek and chin, "You do have spirit." he declared wiping his moist hand on his scarlet overcape, "If I had known how truly enchanting you could be I would have had you brought to me first instead of allowing the Dragon to have his way."
Suddenly Decador's hand left the cross and with a blur of motion flew free. Duo braced for the strike it was about to deliver. Heero and the immortals flinched in sympathetic anticipation of the painful slap. But the flattened palm raced pass with only a rush of air brushing by Duo's cheek. Instead of a hard hit the fingers grabbed a fistful of auburn hair with a powerful jerk.
Quatre felt Heero tense at his side his temper now sparked by Decador's assault. Trowa cut his eyes and told Yuy by a hard sideways nod to control his impulse to stop the wizard's aggression. Heero gritted his teeth. His jaw tightened as he fought, for his lover's sake, the urge to wrap his hands around the vile warlock's throat and wring out the profane hunger from his sordid soul's decaying core.
"Yes my Pretty One you could be quite a treat. But now let us see if you can as easily beguile the demons. Maybe you can use your delightfully sensuous charms to cool their bloodlust and spare yourself. Tell me is your wanton whoring good enough to save your lover and his pitiful friends, too?"
The Sorcerer's grip pulled back making sure that Duo could not escape his lecherous intensions. Duo closed his eyes shutting out Decador's leering grin. "But then," he hissed licking his tongue over Duo's cheek, "my legions might find your flesh as delicious as I do." he proclaimed with one more hard yank before letting go. "Go back to your scum you teasing harlot." he growled cutting his maddened eyes pass Duo to Heero.
"Decador." a voice called from the hallway, "We had a deal." it reminded in a stern tone. All eyes looked to the door as Chang walked through the thickening mist. He did not stop until he stood shoulder to shoulder with Hell's Dark Lord.
Duo used the opportunity to refocus on Heero who by now did not seem to be in as much pain. "Duo stay by me," he ordered, "there will be another time to finish this."
"So now you are making deals with Lucifer's bastard." Trowa addressed the Dragon, "What do you hope to gain? More power, a place at his side?" he shook his head, "You know Decador can not be trusted."
"I have no other choice." Chang admitted tilting his head in Duo's direction. There was a surprising hint of sadness in Chang's black eyes. "I have righteous reasons. This time you must believe me." he stated. Again a hint of some softer sound touched his words.
"Reasons." Heero snorted in complete disdain, "Surely Chang's worthless reasons are not the sole purpose for our presence." he declared centering his harsh glare on Decador.
"And what do you think is the reason for your presence?" the Dark Lord Decador asked in a smug tone.
"You mean to kill us or make us wish that we were dead." Heero answered trying to keep wildly imagined scenes of suffering from invading his mind. He knew he had to maintain a clear head, not one bewitched by maddening designs of the circumstances of his death.
A very pleased smile spread over the wizard's furrow-creased features. Once more envisioned pictures of anguished torment stabbed through Heero's thoughts. "Oh no you are quite mistaken." The smile grew wider. "No, killing you out right would be too easy and besides where would be the sport in that? I intend for your demise to be more of a challenge. It seems some of Chang's demons have become restless, grown tired of their everyday plaguing of you mere mortals."
The wizard's merciless eyes centered on Heero, "Reports of your skill and resourcefulness as a soldier have been repeated many times in both your realm and mine and you have affirmed you courage by your willingness to dare my wrath."
Decador stepped forward. The smiled disappeared. "What I have purposed to the Dragon is a contest, a test you might call it. You and your allies against three of his best demon warriors, the representatives of nature's most basic elements, Earth, Wind and Fire. To make it a more stimulating match I will let you keep your weapons and give you the Dragon's entire domain within these castle walls as your battleground. I will even grant you a decent head start.
With those advantages," the evil warlock proclaimed, "you should be able to hold out a few moments longer, give my voracious devils some small competition before you lose and they tear you apart. Yes, flesh and bone is their favorite meal."
"As for you disloyal Priests," Decador continued, "since you see fit to keep company with humans then you should be like them. While you are engaging my champions your magic will be blocked. It should be interesting to find out just how good you are without your spells and illusions."
"And what happens if we win?" Heero offered a thin-lipped sneer displaying all the confidence he could muster.
The Dark Lord's smile returned but whether it was from amusement or sarcasm it was not clear, "If by some miracle you do defeat my legion and survive," he snorted at the mortal's folly in believing he could win, "then you will have earned your freedom."
"What guarantee do we have that you will keep your word?" Trowa asked shaking his head in disbelief.
Decador glared at the Dark God who dared to question the conditions of engagement, "I am still a man of truthful commitment," the rejected entity swore striking the Staff's end soundly on the stone floor, "My word is my bond." he announced gazing with wild-eyed wonder at the cross hanging around Duo's neck.
Quatre set his azure eyes squarely on Chang who promptly lowered his sight rather than look into the Fair One's heated scowl, "I can not believe you think this vile Son of Satan will honor his word, you can not be that stupid."
"The fight may not be fair but it is a chance." Chang answered, "I have done all I can to help you, please do not press your luck." he begged giving Duo another sad longing look.
Decador lifted the Staff of Triad holding it before his body. It was clear that he had reached his limits in dealing with the troublesome quartet of humans and immortals. "Now go from my sight before I change my mind and send all of you and the Dragon as well to the deepest regions of Hell. "GO!" the Devil's emissary screamed shaking the Staff in a pure fit of rage.
Quatre and Trowa had often puzzled if all that was ascribed to Dark Lord Decador and his controlling capabilities were true. Had the tales that were told in the Temple been repeated and, in their constant retelling, become embellished until the narratives had taken on a life of their own? Had myth and fable and fact been so intermingled that the Sorcerer's monstrous mystique was but an illusion of power?
Or was the truth concealed in a mirage? Had a mind-curtain been thrown up by Decador to hide his evil nature until his strength had grown too great to overcome? Would what appeared as fallacy one day be proven real?
"I suppose we are about to discover the Chosen One's true nature." Quatre
declared as they stepped through the door into the unknown.
The Great Room's heavy door slammed shut. The terminal tenor of its closing exploded in a deafening report echoing down the dim corridor. The soldier, his lover and the immortal Priests stood together. Heero raised his sword angling it across his chest then reached back to take Duo's hand. Trowa checked the crossbow making certain the arrow was firmly in place and the trigger set engaged. He handed the quiver of arrows to Quatre.
"Well this is it." Trowa declared as he lifted the crossbow and sighted down the shaft.
Quatre shivered as he felt as though a thousand eyes were peering from the hall's gloomy expanse. He took in a deep breath using its tension releasing energy to focus his intuitive insight to its most heightened levels. His physical instincts were, with sure evidence, being touched by something unseen. Some transcendental link had been made. The resulting connection was troubling and carried with it a real danger.
Beyond the arched passage's black edges an almost transparent silhouette, more shadow than substance, crawled along the wall. The God of Light sensed its approach but when he turned to look the invisible "tracker" quickly scaled the rough stone. Its elusive shaped blended perfectly with the dim shade where the wall's angle met the ceiling. Two pinpoints glowed red as the creature's eyes watched the soon to be combatants below. Then with swift and silent flight Chang's Shadow Spy went ahead to ready the element warriors for their upcoming contest.
As the Sorcerer's objects of sport gathered their wits Heero paused a moment to get his bearings then took the lead. Duo and Quatre made up the small group's nucleus with Trowa acting as rearguard. Steadily but prudently they advanced. After Decador's quite graphic demonstration of his powers, as Yuy's blistered hand ached and the sword's blade bared the discolored scorches of heat, no one doubted that the deranged wizard could produce Chang's three Dark Element Warriors as promised. Quatre's failure to heal Heero's hand was further proof that the Dark Lord did indeed rule over the Dragon's domain.
Where would the damnable devils be waiting? Would they strike as one or would each, in turn, choose the time and place for their battle? What personal means of vicious and ruinous devastation could they, like their mad Master, invoke?
Those bewildering questions groped inside everyone's thoughts. The terrifying puzzlements attempted by pure horror to drive the hapless victim's minds into a state so fearful as to cause them to jump at their own shadows. Human and immortal alike knew they had to guard their minds and hearts for if the evil essence of Decador's influence was allowed to take hold each knew they would be beaten before they began.
Each person trusted that they could count on their comrade's strength and purity of heart, that not one of them would fall without the other's intervenient force to save them. And if the courage was not sufficient they all would, if necessary, resign themselves together to death's icy entombment.
The corridor curved to the right, dark and dank, the way ahead melting into the murky gloom. An odd noise like stone scraping on stone cause the gathered guardians of both realms to freeze in place. But as quickly as the strange sound began it fell suddenly silent leaving only an eerie quiet. Heero stared into the blanket of shadows and angled his sword to intercept any forthcoming threat. Trowa moved beside his human counterpart his crossbow held at the ready.
Gradually a solid shape towering well above the cautious group filled their path. The "human" outline was at least ten feet tall with shoulders so broad that they brushed against the walls. A gray face with skin rough and cracked glared down from the corridor's dim obscurity. One eye shone with a dull amber glow. Its optical partner, almost entirely covered over with jagged thick scars, appeared all but useless. The way the large form tilted its head, aiming its left eye downwards, further confirmed the lost of sight on the right side.
Heero had no intension of giving the first of Chang's challengers a moment to prepare for battle. He raised his sword in a double-handed grip. Jumping forward he swiftly struck the figure's middle. The heavy blade bounced off a hardened surface. The resulting shockwave traveled through the hardened steel. Yuy's hand shook, the strong quivering nearly causing him to lose his grip as a nerve-biting tingle coursed up his arm and shoulder.
The hulking form never flinched offering no noticeable reaction to the well-aimed thrust. From the darkness an huge hand swept across. The powerful swipe hit Heero's upper body from stomach to head sending him sprawling at Trowa's feet. Wheezing from having his air expelled the King's Captain pushed up on wobbly arms shaking his head to halt the woozy images swirling behind his eyes.
Again the outstretched arm snaked down this time reaching for Quatre. He backed away gasping with a startled intake of air. His withdrawal was too late. The Rock Giant, the Element of Earth, folded a massive hand about Quatre's head. Stony gray fingers wrapped well around his temples meeting at the back. The Fair One's fists flung wildly beating at his captor's crushing grip but none of his frail blows made a difference.
"LET HIM GO!" Trowa shouted stepping past Heero who with Duo's help was just managing to sit up.
The Dark God threw up the crossbow until the arrow's steel tip came into line with the Giant's craggy features. "Let him go or I will fire." Trowa hissed steadying up his aim.
An amused grim followed the crooked lines etched around the Giant's mouth, "I think not," the stone Demon declared with a sneer, "not unless you want the boy to die."
Trowa set his jaw, "I WILL kill you." he promised trying to ignore the pleading in his lover's frightened eyes. He could not allow anything to distract his attention; too much was at stake.
"Well immortal let us see if you are fast enough to stop me before I crush his skull." the demon challenged Trowa's skill as he lifted Quatre off the floor.
Quatre continued to lash out at the granite beast. His fists struck solidly with no results than to bruise and bloody his knuckles. The monster, its pleased smile expanding to expose a mouthful of smooth pointed teeth like stalactites in a great carven, increased the pressure. Slowly Quatre's punches lost their power, his strength failing as his weakened body gave into the crippling vice-like grip. All at once his struggling stopped. Arms flopped hanging limp at his side. Shallow raspy breaths were all that showed he was still alive.
"QUATRE! NO!" The crossbow rose higher.
"Your pitiful weapon will have no affect on me; you would have more success attacking a mountain you foolish creature. And your magic has no power here."
The hulking form leaned closer displaying a murderous scowl, "I can end it now or you can surrender." the earthen devil announced, " If you yield I might just take the boy's spirit and leave the rest. Of course in that case you would only have a shell that breaths but the choice is yours. I would rather enslave you than kill you that is if I can convince the Dragon that you are worth the trouble."
Trowa's eyes narrowed sighting along the arrow's shaft. His finger tightened on the trigger set until the bowline quivered from the tautness. His arm muscles also quivered as they maintained the proper firing level.
"If you try to destroy me," the beast declared sensing Trowa's readiness to deliver the arrow's death sting, "you will surely end your lover's life."
"You release Quatre now," the Dark God ordered, "or you both will die. Either way he will be free."
"But you would not sacrifice your mate?"
Trowa swallowed hard trying to force down the lump clogging his throat so it no longer blocked his trembling breaths. Willfully he summoned up the last of his waning courage and prepared to do what he had to. The decision was the hardest one he ever had to make but for Quatre's sake he had to follow through.
"If his living means his soul would be forever under your evil sway I will not hesitate." he proclaimed, "Quatre would be dead to me whether he surrendered his spirit or his life."
From Heero's lowly position by the gargantuan's stony feet its ankles and shins were the only body parts he could see. Gently touching several sore knots on his face Yuy found no part of his jaw or chin had been spared from the Rock Demon hand's contact. "His whole body is made of rock." he whispered to Duo as he knelt by his side.
"Every part can not be invincible." Maxwell reasoned, "He has to have one vulnerable spot. Everything does." he added knowing that nothing in nature was perfect.
"Everything we have knowledge of." Heero countered Duo's assessment of the huge demon's physical qualities. "Stay here." he ordered getting up on his hands and knees. "Guard this until I return." he requested handing his partner his Father's beloved present.
Duo nodded, "Be careful." Heero smiled squeezing his lover's hand then brushed his lips across the same hand's pale palm. "I will." he promised determined that he and Duo would have the rest of their lives together.
With the Giant's limited sight focused on Quatre as he swayed like a rag doll in his grasp and his concentration divided by Trowa's bold efforts to save his lover, the human soldier had all but been forgotten. Likewise his auburn haired partner, viewed as a small speck of humanity, had been deemed no threat at all.
As Heero crawled towards the two stone pillars that passed as the Giant's legs he craned his neck trying to estimate the demon's full height but his sight ran out long before the enormous head and one glowing eye could be seen.
"There has to be way to bring him down." Yuy insisted to himself.
By gradual degrees Heero's soldier's instinct that served as his soul's council spoke with assured clarity. Its message was gratefully accepted as it offered a clear direction. Heero smiled with relief knowing at last how to overcome the Rock Demon.
He inched forward pausing by Trowa. "When I tell you to shoot for his eye." he instructed. A slight shift in his immortal allies' stance told Yuy that Trowa heard and understood.
Now marksman's skill not magic was Quatre's redemption. The Dark God held his breath putting all his attention into assuring that his shot would hit the single small target and create a mortal wound. One chance was all he had. If the Giant was not immediately disabled, if the shot was anything but fatal, the pain the Earth Demon would suffer and resulting anger would surely mean his lover's end. If the arrow's deathblow was instantaneous perhaps the clasping fingers would become frozen. Maybe then the deadly grip would be broken and Quatre would be freed.
*"If not?"* a haunting voice asked inside Trowa's mind. "It will work." he insisted ignoring the disturbing question, "It has to work."
Making himself as compact as possible Heero crept up to the stone demon. Carefully he raised up on his knees reaching for Quatre's dangling legs then his hips before finally slipping one arm around the Fair One's slim waist. Just as cautiously Yuy slide the other arm about the sagging body and ever so slowly stood up. This was one instant that Heero Yuy was glad he was an insignificant human.
Steadying his balance Heero took a deep breath and screamed out Quatre's means of deliverance. "TROWA DO IT NOW!"
The order echoed along the walls. The reverberative words caused the supposedly infallible beast to tilt his head in an inquiring manner. Unfortunately for the Element of Earth the angular repositioning directed its one good eye exactly where they wished it to be. Trowa's practiced skill centered his target. His finger finished the pull. "Die you seed of Sheol!" the God of Darkness yelled releasing the arrow's tension and sending it on its deadly mission.
At the same moment of Trowa's damning cry the arrow's steel-tipped end bore into the Giant's eye spewing bloody fluid everywhere. Its powerful flight did not end until it became embedded deeply enough in the Rock Demon's skull to plant its entire shaft into its brain.
Heero jerked Quatre down and backwards seconds before long stony fingers curled into a tight fist. Scrambling for a foothold on the damp floor Yuy dragged the Fair One's lax frame to the far wall. Gathering up his comrade Heero pivoted using his own body as a shield. Protectively cradling Quatre between himself and the wall he watched in horror as Trowa's skillfully executed shot started a chain reaction.
A howling shriek resounded as the Giant's agonizing screams bounced again and again over the bare corridor. Great stone hands clawed at the blood-soaked shaft with only the feathery end protruding from the blinded socket. The anguished wails rattled along the hall until the death throe cry's volume faded away into silence. A guttural growl shook in the Giant's throat then a gurgle then nothing.
The Earth Element stiffened, its rigid posture taking on a quite convincing imitation of a statue as blood stained hands dropped swinging loosely at his sides. The crimson flow continued unchecked gushing out of the mangled eye socket running with rapid speed over its craggy features. Large droplets gathered on its chin until their union merged and gave into gravity. Their condensed dripping, like scarlet rain, splattered on the gritty floor in a wide overspread. Then a long creak gave the only warning that the battle was over and the Chang's first warrior had been defeated.
Wrapping his arms and legs around Quatre, Heero rolled to the side. Just as quickly Duo dropped to one knee, threw out both hands and pushed in the opposite direction. Trowa barely had time to jump away before the Rock Demon's wavering form began to pitch over. A shrill grating, followed by a sharp pop told everyone the towering Giant's joints were coming undone. Like a felled tree the massive stature of now petrified stone toppled forward the entire body stiff and erect.
Trowa crossed his arms over his head, closed his eyes and prayed that he had moved far enough to avoid the crushing colossus falling straight for him. Walls shook, the floor vibrated as the mammoth stone form crashed with deafening thunder. The body seemed to explode breaking into pieces ranging from large boulders to pulverized pebbles. Then a tense silence enveloped the corridor. Thick clouds of choking dust saturated the hall. The sifting concentration covered everyone and everything. Not one of the scattered group was untouched by the fine powder.
Trowa slowly relaxed squinting through the gray haze left behind in the fallen Demon's wake. He tensed once more as he realized a huge and quite heavy section of torso laid only a foot or so from his own prone body. Another lesser piece but one still large enough to crush bone was actually touching his right leg. Eyes watering and head throbbing Trowa planted his hands on the powder strewn floor and started to sit up. A raspy wheeze shook in his lungs stinging his insides before two ponderous breaths caught in his chest.
The God of Darkness' partners in the Rock Giant toppling adventure were also, by a sluggish process, restoring themselves to some measure of normalcy. Like Trowa's harsh breathing, a fit of coughing erupted from each of his shaken comrades.
"Is everyone all right?" Duo anxiously asked shaking the whitish grit from his hair and clothing. It seemed from his initial observation that all of his brothers in arms had indeed come through the ordeal with bodies in tact if not a little worse for the wear.
Heero sat up holding Quatre against his chest. His head lopped on Yuy's shoulder but a low moan and quivering limbs told Heero that he was alive, however in what condition of body and mind was not immediately clear. Duo joined his soldier giving him a quick kiss before leaning himself and the sword against the wall.
Trowa knelt by his mate's side using soft words and gentle touches to encourage him awake. Fluttering eyelids fought the heaviness still in force from the Giant's squeezing assault. More encouragement from his partner and Quatre's lids rose giving him a marginal view of his dusty surroundings and his equally dusty comrades.
Heero shored up Quatre's weighty posture straightening his back to aid his shallow respirations. No doubt the powder-polluted atmosphere was not helping his struggle to suck in one good inhalation. Another moan, louder and stronger, showed he was winning the battle to come around. Trowa quietly called his lover's name using trembling fingers to wipe away the sandy grit coating Quatre's nose and mouth.
Finally the Fair One's eyes opened but their weak gaze still searched for some focal point, some steady sight to guide him to full awareness. Trowa took his hand rubbing more grainy residue from his skin. "Quatre my love I am here." he called adding his own brand of encouragement.
The God of Light shifted his sight following the sound of his name spoken by a familiar voice. Then he looked up into Trowa and Heero's dirt streaked faces.
"Trowa." he whispered still gazing somewhat unfocused into the settling gray haze.
"I am here." Trowa repeated tightening his hold to emphasize his promise that his mate was not alone. He pushed stray hair from Quatre's wandering eyes leaning close to allow his partner's blurred vision to better see him. "We are all here." he stated blinking back his tears of relief.
Quatre tried to sit up bowing his back against Heero. Yuy tightened his hold helping to add more stability to his friend's slumping posture. "Be still." he urged, "Don't move until we are certain you are not hurt."
"What happened?" he asked in a confused tone. Then the picture of a jagged face and a glowing amber eye returned suddenly. The alarming scene was flawlessly reproduced with frightening clarity in Quatre's mind. "NO!" he screamed throwing his arms up in front of his face attempting with terrified panic to hide from the horrendous features invading his mind.
Heero wrapped his embrace tighter to bind up his flinging arms rocking Quatre's shivering body to counteract the dreadful vision. Trowa caught his wrists not wanting his lover's wild waving about to cause any further injury. "Quatre please, it is all right." he coaxed keeping his gentle but firm restraint in force.
"Shhhhh." Duo whispered stroking Quatre's silken hair as he, too, wanted so desperately to chase away the mental demons.
"Let me have him." Trowa said. Duo helped Heero with the transfer. Holding his lover close, Trowa placed his hand under his mate's chin guiding anxious azure eyes in line with his green centers of sight. "Look at me." he ordered raising his voice to get his attention, "Quatre I said look at me." The Light God's widened pupils continued their unfixed wandering, "Quatre." Trowa repeated.
Little by little Quatre's sight locked onto Trowa's face. Gradually his quaking gave way to lesser tremors until the panic melted away into a limp release of tension. Gentle sobs helped to carry away the remaining anxiety. Finally the Fair One settled down completely exhausted from his near-death encounter. "Rest now my love." Trowa urged hoping that the two remaining demons would not launch their challenges just then.
Heero in a much similar fashion held Duo who, in his own way, was recovering from the frightening contest. The King's Captain would not have readily admitted it but he, too, needed time to restore his own rickety composure. He tried to relax as best he could as Duo snuggled against his chest but a firm grip on his sword, watchful eyes, keen hearing and his instincts all served to remind Heero Yuy that freedom was far from being a reality.
As much as Heero wanted to give his comrades sufficient recuperative time he knew besting the first of Chang's unnatural trio would most likely bolster the remaining competitor's thrust for blood. By their victory he supposed the worthless humans, perhaps in the demon's simple minds, might have been elevated one step beyond soulless animals. If so, the degree of their mortal humanity might have also been raised bringing the entire human race a bit closer to the immortal's superior plane.
Whether or not this trivial promotion would lend them some advantage was not known. It could very well work against them serving to deplete the legion's already short supply of patience with the lesser beings called humans. If the successive Elements believed the mortals were any threat at all to their supremacy what tiny measure of mercy the human warriors might have hoped for would surely now be null and void.
Trowa helped Quatre to stand. The God of Light took in a deep cleansing breath. "I am all right." he announced despite his wobbly wavering. With a determined focus of mind, body and spirit he drew strength from his internal fortitude and his lover's magical kiss. Heero also pulled Duo to his feet grasping his sword in one hand and Duo's hand in the other.
Trowa picked up the reloaded crossbow attaching the quiver to his belt. Quatre paused to steady his gait then started forward, "We need to go." he insisted as his "second sight" sensed a strong presence nearby. "Our next rival is coming."
The castle's clammy dampness had been a constant companion since the brave group's expulsion from the Dragon's Great Room. The chill had continued to doggedly pursue the strangers traveling about its interior. But now something more foreboding had been added to the bone-bare cold. A frosty coating began to glisten along the passage. Sharp spikes of icicles hung from the ceiling. The dropping temperatures caused muscles to ache and joints to move with alterative stiffness. Expelled breath hung in icy clouds further demonstrating the declining warmth.
A blue-white mist had begun to swirl around their feet, the blanched stream seeming to gush up through the floor's crumbling mortar seams. It's soundless drifting created a hauntingly eerie, but somehow beautiful, effect. Everyone stopped short as the raw frigid fog elevated higher covering their boots, clinging to their ankles and finally reaching their knees. A lancing bitterness permeated every inch of the corridor's glacial environment biting the skin and chilling the lungs.
Duo leaned over studying the strange wispy haze. "I don't like this." he declared with an involuntary shiver, expressing the other's physical and mental discomfort with the pervasive mist.
Quatre shook his head in agreement, "I believe we are about to meet
our second foe."
Duo's eyes widened as he clung to Heero. The Light God and the Dark God put all their instinctive discernment at full attention. Each combatant, in turn, fought their own natural impulse to flee the uncertain situation as the rapidly thickening frigid fog swallowed up both the way ahead and the path behind. Now the entire corridor shimmered with thousands of blue-white crystal "ice diamonds".
Some twenty feet in front the haze began to swell. A white wall rose from the floor creating an opaque barrier of frozen mist. Before the solid obstruction the still fluid fog appeared to bend inwards building one horizontal layer on the other. Gradually the layers began to compact into a wavy outline. The churning mist folded in on itself becoming more tightly packed until the blanched vapors resembled a human shape. Bit by bit a face emerged. Long strips of the flowing vapors stretched out from the head whipping like pallid hair blown by the wind. Then with clear and perfect definition a female body veiled in the same fluctuating wisps of white took on its final aspect.
The Mist Maiden, the Element of Wind, was peculiarly beautiful but her deceptively delicate facial features were marred by vacant holes where her eyes should have been. These hollow openings allowed one to see through to the icy wall behind. Her ashen lips curved into a hint of a smile but she made no attempt to speak. More mingling mist ebbed and flowed in ever-changing patterns. Its teasing transparency concealed then revealed her curvaceous nude condition. Full creamy breasts, as well as every other inch of her nakedness, were brazenly presented for the male's inspection.
It would have been easy for Heero and Duo to find themselves spellbound by the Lady's seductively displayed charms. To let her alluring enticements draw them into a disastrous moment of inattention, a too long lingering instant of heedless negligence from which they might not escape. The two immortals were not as easily beguiled by the Maiden's temptable inducements, not as simply lead astray but they, too, felt a certain tug in their genitals that could not be ignored. No it seemed that even being attracted to one's own gender did not totally negate the Maiden's bewitching influence.
"Be careful." Quatre warned his human counterparts sensing that their minds were already being clouded by the Maiden's strong sensuality.
Heero's sword swayed in his loose grip as the lovely Lady's enchanting trance began to take hold. Duo reached out to interlace his fingers with his soldier's free hand hoping the warm contact would compel his mind to resist the female's daydream daze. But his cold-numbed touch refused to cooperate as his hand slipped away.
The God of Light leaned closer to his Dark One, "Remember your story about Chang's transformation into the seductive young man and the affects he had on his adducted victims." he asked recalling Trowa's tale of alluring love and the madness that followed.
Trowa nodded affirmatively.
"Don't become part of your own narrative." he counseled.
Once more the tantalizing mist parted. Once more the enchantress' enthralling nakedness was laid bare. Heero blinked hard to force his quickly waning senses from their mesmerized daze. As his sight and mind recovered he became aware of the bladed weapon's hilt pressed against his hand. Without pause he brought the sword about. This time being confident that the blade would not meet with the Rock Giant's stony resistance he struck out with all the power he had. But contrary to the Giant's hardened surface halting the strike, the blade passed straight through the Maiden's misty middle.
"Of course," Heero chided himself a bit embarrassed by his ineffectual action, "one no can cut the wind."
From the female's churning center a hand sprang out. Slender fingers, like ghostly snakes, rippled with the same illusory deception as the Maiden's flowing "hair". Heero felt an unseen tension on his chest then as if someone had given him a hard shove Yuy was flung against the far wall. His sword struck the floor with a metallic clatter. The "invisible hand" held him firmly in place with head, shoulders and arms pinned by the driving pressure.
Heero fought back but he could not overcome the weighty encumbrance as he struggled to catch his breath. The heaviness continued to squeeze tighter around his aching chest. His ribs pressed into his lungs feeling as though they might splinter at any moment. As hard as he tried he could not even draw in a shallow gasp. His compressed lungs burned. A dim film glazed over his eyes blinding his sight as he felt himself blacking out.
Duo grabbed up the sword. Surprised by the weapon's heaviness he had to use a double handed grip to raise the broad blade. Spurred by the Maiden's crushing assault he reacted with the same flawed reasoning as his soldier had before. With a throaty growl he swung the blade bringing it to bear on the Demon of the Wind.
But before the sharpen tip made contact a second hand extended from the icy haze. Thin fingers caught Duo's face then closed around his chin roughly guiding his mouth until it almost brushed the Maiden's ashen lips. "Would you like to kiss me?" she hissed like wind whistling through tree branches.
The wintry Lady poised her lips and blew out a steady stream of bone-chilling breath. A cloud made up of blue-white ice crystals enfolded around Yuy's defender. Again the sword met the floor. Folding his arms across his chill-lanced body Duo dropped to his knees doubling over at the waist. As the unforgiving frigidity seeped into every pore he shivered uncontrollably. The unbearable cold numbed his mind. Its stinging currents made his lungs painfully contract with each intake of the glacial air. A frosty layer coated over his skin causing it to become gray and his lips to turn blue. The same frozen traces sparkled in his hair making both the braid and the scarlet ribbon brittle. Duo's mouth gaped open with a silent scream as his system gave into the moribund freezing.
"STOP IT!" Quatre screamed wrapping his arms about Duo's quivering frame to rescue him from the Maiden's icy entombment. Only his natural heat could be employed as his magic had grown as cold as the surrounding atmosphere. He pulled Duo closer praying that by some miracle his bodily warmth would be sufficient to save his comrade. Trowa knelt on the other side adding his own embrace to the thawing effort.
The Maiden's empty eye sockets aimed their blank stare first at Heero whose futile flailing had stopped. He hung limply in his pinned position, his blue uniform jacket now tainted with traces of white. His eyes were closed, his face chalky and his chest showed no outward signs of respiratory movement. Next her hollow sight fell on the two immortals with a measure of confusion at their attempts to free the second mortal from his deadly frozen state.
Puzzlement not pity caused the Wind Demon to break her hold on both humans at once. The sudden release of her wretched prey was just as tortuous as each man's previously painful status. Heero slumped on the wall gasping to refill his oxygen-starved lungs. Double vision shook before his eyes, only shutting them tightly eased the dizzying twitching. His chest caught with each labored breath causing him to pant and wheeze. Slowly he slid his back along the wall until he lay in a crumpled heap on the frosty floor.
Duo collapsed rocking sideways on one hip. Trowa sat down helping to brace his limp body as Quatre struggled to keep his friend from pitching forward. "Duo can you hear me?" Trowa asked briskly rubbing Maxwell's arms to restore their sluggish circulation.
"Duo?" Quatre repeated in a panicked tone frightened by Duo's lack of response.
A seizing shiver threatened to jerk Duo from Quatre's grasp. Purple lips trembled, teeth chattered as his pale face contorted against the agonizing bone-jarring convulsions tearing through his stiff muscles. The God of Light shored up his hold striving to reverse the fatal affects of Duo's dangerously low body temperature.
Trowa pushed back masses of icicle encrusted hair from Duo's face. "You have to keep fighting." he ordered cradling his shivering comrade's head on his chest.
"What frail creatures." a soft voice declared in a hauntingly melodious tone. There was no hint of murderous malice in the Wind Maiden's silky voice, not one note of harshness to indicate her truly violent nature. Again her vacant stare turned to rest on Heero. "Strange." she commented as her vaporous "hair" flowed in rhythmic waves fanning out in all directions.
Heero pushed a quivering hand against the wall and with great effort managed to stand on shaky legs. Steadying his shoulder on the glistening stone he studied Chang's second Element through sweat-soaked stands of heavy dark hair that had already begun to stiffen up in the relentless cold. From his place on the opposite side he could not see his lover's perilous condition or his fellow warrior's interventions to save him.
"Who are you?" he wheezed out the question. His vision again wanted to jerk and again he was forced to close his eyes to still the tremors. When he opened them the Element of Wind had tilted her head at the fascinating creature Chang called human.
"I am but an essence." the Maiden answered blowing out chilled puffs with each word, "I can be as gentle as a breeze or as turbulent as a whirlwind. You can no more control me than you can command the wind." The concealing currents drew back once more momentarily exposing her creamy breasts.
"Yet another trick designed to conquer the males." Trowa proclaimed loudly not bothering to hide his detestable attitude.
Quatre nodded in agreement, "She is an arrogant bitch," he announced, "and she will fall just as easily as her rocky associate did."
With the Light God's biting pronouncement the Wind Demon refocused her attention on the pair of immortals and their pitiful human. Her shifting allowed Yuy a full view of his partner and his brothers in arms. Heero's heart skipped a beat as he saw Duo's fitful trembling. Despite his battered body that did not seem
at all inclined to cooperate, Duo's soldier quickly joined his lover and his comrades. Kneeling by Duo he took his hand rubbing the chilled flesh hoping that he would feel the warm touch and know his soldier was there. Quatre, with Trowa's help, gently guided Duo to a seated position to help his ragged breathing. The stoop of Maxwell's shoulders and the flopping of his head clearly showed his feeble condition.
"Duo...please...open your eyes." Heero begged increasing the friction on his grayish hand. At the sound of his lover's voice Duo's fingers curled against Yuy's palm. Duo's lids parted but his eyes could not find his mate even though Heero's face was only inches from him. The weakness-laden lids began to close. Heero leaned over pressing his mouth to his lover's lips. "Please," he whispered, "see me."
Cold expelled breath hit Heero's face leaving a hint of crystallized droplets on his skin. "Heero." Duo called using the kiss' lingering warmth to guide him back to his soldier. "Hold me." he implored longing for more of that wonderful warmth. Heero pulled his shivering partner as close as possible not caring if the Wind Demon decided to encase them in an everlasting arctic cocoon. At that moment all that matter was comforting his mate and if they were destined to remain frozen for eternity in each other's arms then damn the fates and let them have their way.
The Maiden floated closer to the reunited warriors, "Is that all the challenge you impotent males can offer?" she taunted pointing at the assembled group, "Are there no females among your ranks, no one that is even near my equal?"
Suddenly Quatre stood up leaving his partner to protect Duo and Heero. Even though Trowa knew that the crossbow's arrow would be as ineffectual as Yuy's sword he kept one hand on the loaded weapon. "False courage," he told himself, "is better than nothing."
Without pause the Fair Immortal moved to stand before the Mist Maiden. Stopping in line with her vacant eyeholes he centered his azure sight. No verbal sound passed between the Lady and the Light God as both intuitive beings silently studied the other. Each no doubt was as fascinated and, at the same time, repulsed by how much they were actually akin.
Then without looking away from his mysterious opponent Quatre stepped backward until his legs touched Trowa. "We can defeat her." he whispered under his breath keeping his eyes locked on the Lady.
Trowa leaned closer, "But she is made of mist and wind, how can we hope to hurt her?"
"She has to become solid to strike a deadly blow."
"She seems to be doing damn well at deadly blows in her present form." Heero stated, "How much deadlier does she have to be?"
"Her powers can not carry her will all the way to death as long as she is mist." Quatre explained.
Heero shored up his support as Maxwell continued to quiver in his arms. A glassy glaze still washed over Duo's half-closed eyes but his color had improved and his breathing was steadier. "How do you know?" he asked tensely knowing that their lives depended on Quatre being correct in his reading of the Maiden's mind. "Are you sure?"
With a worn sigh Quatre touched Duo's pale face. Duo shifted his sluggish sight in response to the warm hand's caress. "Heero." he whispered faintly before his head drooped back on his soldier's chest. "Are you sure?" Heero had to ask again more fearful for his lover than himself.
"Yes trust me." The Fair One declared, "I saw her limitations in her thoughts. She tried to hide them from me but I saw them clearly. She would not have tried to shield her mind had she not been afraid I would learn her secret."
"What do we have to do?" Heero asked taking up his sword.
"You stay with Duo." Trowa advised reaching for the crossbow.
Heero negatively shook his head, "No this is my fight. I promised to be Duo's defender and I will not be denied."
"All right let me have him." Trowa eased Duo down until his head rested in his lap.
Quatre glanced back at the Maiden who, for the moment, seemed content to watch the fascinating group whisper among themselves. "Over there." he pointed keeping his hand near his body to hide the gesture, "Take your sword and conceal yourself where the corridor curves back on itself. I will lure Chang's bitch to you then make certain by sufficient harassment that she turns into her most vulnerable state."
"How do you purpose to do that?"
"Leave the plan to me. Now take up your sword and when I have her attention steal away and wait."
Quatre nodded to his lover then stepped forward daring to stare into the Wind Element's blackened sockets. "You seem to have many resources to work your magic on men." he stated. "Is that why you seek them out for your pitiful acts of aggression? Answer me this you whoring handmaiden of Satan would you be so brave if there was a female here to challenge you?"
Bobbing lightly above the floor Satan's mistress took a moment to consider the questions, "I see no such challenger," she replied, "but then no woman warrior would keep company with mere males, not if she was truly worthy of her rank and title."
Quatre let a sneer play at his mouth's corners. His usually wide eyes narrowed until azure slits were all that could be seen. The deceptively cunning immortal pressed his palms together. Bright flickers of light began to filter through his fingers. Parting his hands the clusters of pulsing energy expanded in all directions enveloping the Fair One in a luminescent bubble.
Inside the ball an unexpected transmutation was put into motion. Quatre's body became shapely beneath his cloths, more feminine in its contours. His blond hair that already touched his shoulders grew longer until it brushed along his waist. His face was more girlish, his cheekbones higher. The conversion complete the metamorphic bubble dissolved leaving behind an even fairer version of Trowa's mate.
Heero stared at the newly altered God with a full measure of surprise and a bit of disbelief then his enlarged eyes centered on Trowa. "I thought your magic would not work here." he stated in confusion even though the proof of the mystical modification stood before him.
Trowa smiled appearing not at all surprised, "What you just witnessed is not magic Quatre was born with the ability to change his gender."
"Does he do it often?" Heero wondered aloud, as he was suddenly aware that the Light God's feminine form that was as mesmerizing as the Mist Maiden.
"I....see." Heero muttered with an uncharacteristic stammer.
The Element of Wind was also shocked by Quatre's changes. She, too, stared at the bewitching beauty with the a matching mixture of astonishment and skepticism.
"Here is your challenger." Quatre announced boldly.
The Maiden offered no reply as she continued to mutely study the puzzling manifestation.
"What is wrong, are you afraid of a female confrontation? Do you fear me because I am a powerful warrior, one equal to you in every way?"
"That ought to set things in motion." Trowa grinned up at his human counterpart, "I think you had better hide yourself."
Heero nodded leaning over to place a gentle kiss on Duo's cheek as he recuperated in the Dark One's protective embrace. Clearing his mind and preparing his body for battle Yuy started to slink backward becoming one with the fog's darkened fringes.
The Wind Demon cocked her head at an inquiring angle. Quatre could not read her expression. Her face was impassive showing neither fear nor curiosity. "I can not believe that insult was not strong enough to goad the Devil's consort into action." he told himself certain he had read the Maiden's mind correctly, "Have I made a mistake?"
*"Trust yourself."* his inner voice answered, *"Push her further."*
"If you believe your powers are indeed a match for mine," Quatre spoke with reaffirmed conviction putting as much haughty attitude as he could in his tone, "then I purpose a contest."
"A contest, how interesting." the Maiden replied floating closer to the recently born "she-creature", "You are either foolish or have a death wish if you believe you could stand before my supreme domination." she announced.
"I have the strength of virtue and truth on my side." Quatre declared without a hint of fear, "You are the fool if you think your alliance with the Dragon and Decador will save you from defeat. This hour you will reap the rewards of your allegiance to the Devil."
Several silent seconds passed as the Element of Wind considered the Light God's brazen invitation to fight. "So be it." came the Maiden's reply. "If you are the strongest of your kind then your death will be a most gratifying victory. Afterwards I can without further interference release your comrades from their fleshy bonds to this realm and send them to my Master for proper punishment."
Heero stayed low using the fog's murky blanket to hide his withdrawal. The base works for a ceiling buttress stuck out from the wall's flat plane. On either side a narrow niche set back about two feet. He settled in the niche nearest Quatre and his misty opponent.
Pulling back into the junction so his dark blue uniform jacket blended with the shadowy gloom, he held the sword vertically along his body letting the tip rest on his shoulder. Now the Captain's camouflage was complete as he and his weapon disappeared into the dusky gloom.
Satisfied that the Wind Demon had taken the bait, Quatre put his plan into motion, "I have one request." he stated knowing that the Maiden would listen if for no other reason than curiosity.
The Maiden locked her hollow eyes on the idiotic immortal who in her opinion was wasting her time. "Yes."
"Let us move where we will have room for a proper battle. If by chance one of my comrades were to get in the way and be struck down then you would be deprived of one more pleasurable taste of winning," he stated, "that is if you do win." he added as a final barb.
The Maiden's lips curled into a confident sneer, "Very well, since you
are the challenger you may pick your place to die."
Quatre stepped beyond his concerned companions gliding into a ready stance, raising his weaponless hands to protect his shapelier body. The fog began to swell. The chilled currents batted against his skin with the same threatening force that the Maiden used to launch her attack on Duo.
The Maiden, wafting in her muted misty form, did not copy the immortal's skirting path around Trowa and Duo but parted in half and floated passed on either side. The journey complete the Element's divided vapors once again mingled with the fog as she returned to her mystical whole.
Quatre gave a quick sideways glance at the dim recesses along the wall. He more felt his brother in arms than saw him. Through the haze it was almost impossible to pick out Yuy's camouflaged concealment. An ever so slight movement confirmed Heero's hiding then all motion stopped as he became secretly still. The Fair Immortal stopped a little way past Heero's position waiting for the Element of Wind to move into siege range.
The Mist Maiden's hollow "eyes" locked onto Quatre's face. The flowing waves of "hair" whipped higher as the cold currents increased in strength. A low wailing cry like a thousand anguished voices rose in volume. Shrill and harsh the sound's high-pitched screech tore at the ears. The piercing noise sent vibrations along the passage rattling the walls and bouncing inside everyone's skulls.
Quatre took a deep breath and focused his concentration throwing up a mental blockade to dampen the resounding bellows. "Your blaring racket holds no impressive sway with me you howling whore." he yelled above the deafening screams.
The Wind Demon's mouth opened wider. Ear-splitting shrieks rebounded along the hallway. Reverberations shook loose sections of the frozen walls. Dislodged fragments sifted from the splintering cracks. Small bits bounced on the floor and soon larger chunks joined the rain of mortar and stone.
Despite the fact that the corridor was collapsing around him Quatre's mind-block never wavered under the intensity of the thunderous screeching. The mental obstruction held firm, its barrier remaining strong against the Maiden's sonorous roar.
"Stop that useless noise now!" the Light God exclaimed pointing at the Maiden. "I said be silent!" he ordered closing his hand into a tight fist.
Abruptly the incessant howls ceased. The silence that came after was, in its own way, as terrible as the noise it replaced. "How dare you presume to issue orders!" the Wind Element shouted raising higher off the floor to tower over her challenger.
The Fair One stood his ground. "I will do or say what pleases me." he replied taking another luring step backward, "You are making me weary with your ineffective display." he continued the goading casting another covert glance over at the concealed Captain. "This is my final ultimatum either stand now and fight or take your paltry powers and be gone!" he declared.
Above the floor where the Demon's feathery body swayed in midair small funnels of fog began to rotate. They sprang from the white cold each merging with the next until a great whirlwind coiled about the Maiden. Winding around tighter the swirling compression embraced the Lady of Mist. The compact vapors pressed together becoming closely knit, denser with each narrowing encompassment.
"This is it." Quatre sent out the mental message bracing for the Demon's attack. As fear knotted in his stomach the cerebral transmission flickered out in connecting waves with Heero's mind, "Do not fail me."
The she-demon's translucency disappeared as the tornadic tempest reached its full fury. As the whirlwind abated the whipping mist settled over her nudity like a silken gown then all motion stopped. Wispy "hair" gathered around the Element's pale cheeks, draping heavily over her shoulders. The Mist Maiden stood in stately splendor. Her slender figure and delicate aspects exhibited a surprisingly graceful countenance rivaling the finest porcelain statures owned by the King. Indeed the Wind Maiden could have made the staunchest man's mind become mush and his body swell with need until he willingly sold his soul to the Devil she served for one moment of whoring with the bewitching beauty.
Chang's demonic minion stood on the floor in her most lethal state. Now nothing passed through her solid body. No light. No mist. Slowly her eye's hollow sockets began to glow. Pinpoints of arcing energy flashed in their darkened centers. The gleam deepened, the sparking diffraction spread radiating in ever-widening bands, growing and uniting into a single beam.
Without warning a brilliant flash turned the mist icy-blue. The flare lit up the corridor with blinding reflections of azure light that touched Quatre's own centers of sight perfectly matching his blue eyes. Again it was amazing how much alike the Light God and the Maiden were in both coloring and characteristics.
Two condensed balls shot from the arctic Element's optic orbs. Both sapphire spheres raced for Quatre. Dropping to his knees he rolled sideways making himself as small a target as possible. One globe flew over his balled body missing by inches but its pulsing partner was surer in its flight. Shards of dispersed energy flew apart as the icefall slammed with full force into Quatre's shoulder. A sharp shout followed the frozen "burn" as it melted deep into his flesh. Trowa's lover grabbed the blistered welt fighting the urge to become sick.
The Element of Wind tilted her head preparing to send down her rain of doom. To once and for all destroy the impertinent "female" who failed to pay proper deference to her predominant supremacy. Quatre curled arms and legs together closing his eyes against the biting pain. Their closing shut out his last sight of the Mist Demon as Chang's warrior readied herself to shoot out the final deathblow.
"Prepare to watch your champion die!" the Maiden screamed.
A travailing cry echoed along the icy hall's harsh encasement and this time even the dense fog could not dampen the gut-deep wail. Quatre opened his eyes. The Maiden's mouth gaped wide. Eye sockets were again vacant holes. Hand clutched at her middle where the bloodied blade of Heero's sword had pierced all the way through from behind. The broad blade's stabbing protrusion was covered with bits of rent flesh and skewered insides. Ragged clumps of "skin" spread back from the slicing incision.
Gushing blood sprayed from the gorged perforation spilling around the sword's steel edges. Uniting in a single scarlet stream, the liquid effusion soaked the Maiden's silken gown racing along the fabric's nap-line. The reddened rush congregated in droplets at the hem dripping into an overspreading pool.
Quatre drew back cowering from the advancing flow as it seemed the Maiden, even in death, was still reaching out for him. But the Dragon's apparitional Lady of Mist and Wind had become frozen in a red frosty solidity. Encased in her own icy vapors the second Element was not longer able to deliver any harmful vengeance.
White whiffs of the Demon's substance drifted off her rigid frame still so perfect in its curving contours. In mercurial degrees her beautiful body evaporated. Each condensed cloud carried away another layer until the Wind Warrior once more began to reunite with the mist that had given her breath and form and life.
Heero stood silently where he had flanked the Demon before running her through. Still holding the sword he watched in awe as the Maiden quickly evaporated into nothingness. Then with the final fading away the weapon's bloody blade dropped toward the floor as he guided the reddened tip in its downward journey.
Taking up the sword Yuy's sight found Quatre whose tightly curled body lay by the thickened curd-like pool of blood. The jellied fluid was all that remained of Chang's supernatural stepchild. Stepping over the coagulated puddle he knelt by Quatre. His hand touched his comrade's trembling arm. "Quatre," he whispered, "It is over."
With wandering sight Quatre looked up as his tear weakened eyes fought to focus on his friend's face. "Over." he repeated lowly.
"Yes." Heero confirmed shoring up his grip, "Come on get up." he ordered softly. Relaxing his curved posture the Light God stood up letting Heero's reassuring hold support his shaky balance.
"Steady now." Heero sighed slipping his arm about Quatre's waist. "You have taken the worse both times." he declared gently stroking the "female" God's blond mane.
Quatre's fingers reached for the raw sore left behind by the icefall's impact. "Don't touch." Heero instructed intercepting the Fair One's dirty hand as it brushed his coat's ragged threads where the frozen ball had hit.
Heero guided Quatre to where Trowa sat on the floor holding Duo. The Captain's precious partner was alert and fully aware that the worse was over. A warmer pinkish glow had replaced the gray tint on Maxwell's skin and the bluish cast in his lips. In fact if one hadn't know of the Wind Maiden's attack they would have had no real evidence, just by observation, to prove anything had happened. At the very instant of the Element's death all injuries to both human and immortal inflected by her hand had vanished. Likewise the frigid fog and glacial shimmer on the walls and ceiling had departed just as quickly.
"You did it." Trowa smiled reaching up to take his lover's hand, "I knew you had the cunning." he continued his praise.
Quatre returned the smile then shakily sat down by his congratulator as his legs decided they had done enough supporting for awhile. "WE did it." he responded offering his own sweet smile to his lover.
With an exhausted sigh the Light God pressed his hands together. This time when they parted the gender alteration was reversed. In a matter of second's his female form reconfigured and his long tresses reverted to their original length.
Heero felt an odd absence as he had grown fond of the "womanly" warrior's feminine version. "May I ask you something?" he directed the question to Quatre.
"When did you realize you were a changeling?"
Quatre leaned back against Dark partner with renewed strength, "When I reached puberty but that was a long, long time ago."
As the weary quartet dared to take a few minutes to catch their breath and regroup their scattered senses they took comfort in their closeness. Heero held Duo, Trowa held his mate. No one talked, they didn't need to. They had become so accustomed to each other that words were no longer necessary.
In the strange silence that always follows a battle, those merciful moments were best used not to debrief or review strategy but to offer thanks for the victory and prayers for the dead on both sides. Even though Chang's first two Elements were wicked and their intent had been to kill, there was a diminutive part of one's soul that mourned their demise. Yes it was a peculiar feeling to know that sending them back to their home in Hell was not such a gratifying victory after all.
Heero looked into each of his friend's faces. In each he saw fretful worry and pain. They had survived two trails, beaten two unnatural beasts but the third and perhaps the vilest still lurked somewhere between them and their questionable freedom. Suddenly a pang of guilt stabbed through Yuy's heart. His most cherished love and his faithful companions were in trouble and he knew that their dire circumstances were mostly his doing.
"This is all my fault." Heero whispered in choked words, lowering his eyes away from the hurt in his comrade's faces, away from his devoted Duo. "In the beginning if I had been bold in the declaration of my love for Duo, brave enough to stand and claim him before the King and the heavens, the rumors would have never been started."
He leaned back raising his watery eyes to meet Duo's blue orbs, "I am so sorry for putting you in these dangerous conditions. If it had not been for my cowardly hesitation Chang could not have taken you, defiled your beautiful body and damaged your unfailing trust." he apologized with distressed despondency.
Squeezing his eyes the tears of regret and profound sorrow spilled over his cheeks, "Can you ever find it in your heart to forgive me?" he begged feeling as though his whole world was tearing apart.
"Heero!" Duo exclaimed shocked by his soldier's blame of himself. After all if he had not been bold and brave they would not be together at that moment. "I will hear no more of this unwarranted confession."
Heero shook his head heavily, "Perhaps Decador was right," he bowed his head letting the tears flow freely, "maybe I have not earned your trust by rightful accomplishments. Maybe I..."
"Never!" Duo swore, "I know you would offer up your life for me, for all of us." Duo fixed a firm grip on Heero's chin lifting his face to his, "I trust you with all my heart and soul. You and I can take on the world." Duo brought his mouth to his champion's mouth placing a heated kiss on his quivering lips. "We will get through whatever happens and we will do it together."
Then Duo shook his lover ever so gently to emphasis his sincerity. "Do
not allow another such foolish notion to enter your thoughts." he ordered
pulling Yuy into a tight embrace, "Now let us face the last of the Dragon's
Demons and share in the pleasure of its defeat then we can all go home."
The first two representatives of Chang's baleful wickedness had arrived close together joining in a sequential conspiracy. The last it seemed was in no hurry to show itself. On the one hand the lengthy lull after the group's victories could prove to be a disadvantage to the final Element as it gave its quarry much needed recovery time. But on the other, the lapse could also serve to wear down the prey, to work on nerves and give fear time to strengthen its tentacular grasp.
Perhaps the Demon's purpose in its delay was to let the warriors believe they would reach the outer courtyard unopposed. To give false expectations only to dash their hopes just short of their independence. There were plenty of places for an ambush, enough hidden sites to block their path as the way had been blocked before. Whatever the Element's battle plan Heero and his comrades moved in a watchful state, ever ready and ever alert.
Touches had been taken up as once more as damp haze gathered along the hall's interior. A quartet of shadows rippled over the dank passageway's stone walls. Each wavering likeness trailed the next copying its host as Decador's playthings traveled, with cautious vigilance, nearer to freedom. Thick clumps of waterlogged moss covered everywhere the torchlight touched. The soggy atmosphere was so concentrated that a watery cloud actually floated above the slippery floor stones.
"Is there not a dry spot in this accursed place?" Trowa wondered aloud as his boots yet again slid on the mossy film.
"We must be beneath the canal." his fair partner supposed carefully avoiding a slimy puddle.
Quatre didn't dare reveal his mind's plain pictures of possible disaster instead he hoped the constant seepage would not choose that moment to undermine the ceiling. Visions of the roof crashing down, trapping them under its considerable tonnage replayed again and again. And if they did survive the crushing weight then it was certain that drowning from the resulting flood as thousands of gallons were unleashed would surely finish the job.
"Canal?" Duo asked then cringed when a large droplet from the regular trickle overhead splashed at the base of his braid. The chilled globule exploded on contact sending the majority of it slinking down his neck. "We are too far above the river for any waterworks to be constructed." he decided pulling his collar up against the liquid bombardment.
Quatre nodded seeming to have acquired a workable knowledge of the castle's aqueduct system. "Fresh water is furnished by a series of canals linking the creek at the rear wall to the inside and judging by the increased moisture I would say we are near the outside source."
"The system connects to a well in the main section." Duo took up the architectural review, "That is where I always fetched water for my Mas..." the rest of the word trailed off as the awful memories of Chang's slavery caused Duo to shudder.
Heero put his arm about his lover's shoulders giving them a reassuring squeeze, "That bastard Son of Satan will never harm you again," he solemnly promised, "not as long as there is breath in my body and fire in my soul."
"Once we find the source," Quatre continued wanting to quickly change Duo's line of thought, "we could wade outside."
"I would prefer to find a door." Trowa announced as his own mental pictures showed green, scum matted water gathered in stagnant pools at the conduit's mouth. Wide places where gaseous bubbles strained at the surface tension until they popped releasing a stomach-turning stench. He also had vivid visions of scaly, snaky ripples under the filthy film and he was not that anxious to find out what creatures made the mysterious ringlets.
Despite the possible inaccuracies of his hazy intuition, Trowa could not help but wonder if some large serpent, no doubt sporting shape claws and long teeth called the decaying canal home. No, wading through the rotten slick secretions that passed as water was not at all acceptable.
The Fair One must have read his Dark Lover's thoughts. He offered a knowing nod to his partner, "But then again wading may not be our best choice."
As if on cue strong swampy odors flowed along the passage affirming the geographical correctness of the aqueduct's location. Ahead the corridor brightened but just a little as a faint natural glow could be seem beyond the passageway's bend. The lapping of water could be faintly heard from the same direction as the increased light. To their left the hall's structure began to change. Now the sides were only about four feet high. At the shorter wall's top an opened archway showed part of the old canal system. More sizeable clusters of green-gray vegetation cling to the slick stones that formed the half-clogged channel.
Other moss-like lichens hung heavily from the ceiling and draped about the archway. Rusty remains of a pulley, with large links of iron chains still strung over equally rusted wheels, was attached somewhere in the stringy overgrowth. The constant dripping from the saturated plants pelted the floor and walls leaving russet streaks and brownish puddles. The drops also plopped into the stagnant water encircling the contact points with ever- widening rings.
"It can't be much further to the courtyard." Duo announced sidestepping a completely unidentifiable chunk of something slimy.
His curiosity finally winning out, Trowa paused leaning over the archway's rim just enough to see a narrow ledge jutting out from the side. Unfortunately the murky gloom wafting above the canal concealed how far the waterline dropped below the ledge. "Where could it be?" The Dark God asked the strange question that seemed to spring from nowhere in his mind.
Heero turned slightly carefully maneuvering over a shallow stream leaking across his path. "What?" he replied sure that the foul environment had finally eroded the immortal's brain.
"The last Element." The green-eyed god clarified.
"You can bet it is nearby," the King's Captain answered with certainty, "Decador might be mad but he is far from delusional. If he says there are three warriors then the last of the vile creatures will soon appear."
"Well don't encourage its coming by talking about it." Duo stated.
The superstitious notion that not acknowledging the Element's existence would keep it at bay, Quatre knew, had no basis in fact. The tightening along his spine that had proceeded the first two creature's arrival had again caught hold. The grabbing, as his back muscles tensed and a tingle crawled upwards, told the God of Light that they were about to meet the final Demon face to face.
"It is coming." Quatre confirmed moments before frightening alterations began in the passage.
A familiar sulfur scent suddenly filled the corridor but this time it was laced with the pungent smell of smoke. This time a reddish fog formed above the floor. But instead of misty clouds floating lazily along the crimson-tinted haze curled in swirling rolls traveling with fearful force. The torches went dark.
The smoke surged forth, the powerful currents covering the four combatants tearing their eyes and clogging their lungs. Everyone took to a fit of coughing as the rank air invaded noses and throats. Eyes burned and watered until all visions were clouded.
Duo swayed at his soldier's side. Heero caught his arm lending as much support as he could considering his own impaired senses. "I don't want to leave you like this." he stated wiping Duo's tear-streaked cheek.
"I will be all right." Duo encouraged his lover to take up his duty, "As I said before we will make short work of Chang's last bastard child and be home before morning."
Trowa removed the last two arrows, handed the empty quiver to Quatre then joined Heero at the point position. Standing shoulder to shoulder they had to question whether the weapon's display would be any more of an effectual deterrent on the third advancing creature. The sword and crossbow had not helped before still they had to at least mount a bluff even if the ruse was all show with no substance.
Just short of the allies' defense line the smoke paused. Again they were left to wonder if the instruments of combat had anything to do with arresting the vapor's progress. Heero shifted his weight leveling his sword. Trowa, too, aimed the arrow taking in a long breath then letting it hiss out between his clenched teeth.
As anticipated the pause with short lived. In much the same fashion as the ice wall had formed, the fog began to bank into a thinly visible wall. In contrast to the Mist Maiden's bitter bite of frost and cold, a rush of hot air fused with the smoke and haze. It was as if the very pits of Hell had been thrown open and had expelled their fiery fury in the corridor's closeness.
However where the Maiden's barrier only blocked the front passage, the hot haze gathered both ahead and behind sandwiching the Demon's prey in between. In such close quarters the temperature quickly built up until the enclosed space resembled an oven. The nearby canal's high moisture content also was warmed causing an immediate rise in humidity.
Along the floor the dampness-drenched smoke began to curve into a cylindrical funnel winding counterclockwise around its center point. The spiral compacted creating a vertical column. The helical shaft sucked in smoke from the bottom pulling it up like a chimney. Quickly the coil grew reaching for the ceiling. Several feet below the top the dense textured pillar reserved its course. With a powerful "whoosh" the returning vapors raced downward slamming to the bottom so hard that vertical turned horizontal in a heartbeat.
From the violent dispersion a four-legged beast was born. The Hellhound, the Element of Fire, measured eight feet at its broad shoulders and at least ten feet in length from its square muzzle to the tip of its bushy tail. Coarse hair made up a saggy coat. A longer silver-gray cape started at the nape of its neck, hanging raggedly from the withers, almost brushing the floor. Large eyes glowed red with internal light like circles of liquid fire. Ears were flattened and lips snarled exposing a mouthful of froth-covered, razor-edged teeth. A guttural growl along with the aggressive body language gave notice that the ensuing battle would test everyone's skills and cunning.
"Who dares enter my realm?" the hellish monster bellowed blowing out fire-flicked sparks with each word.
Heero and Trowa repressed their fear knowing that the Devil Dog could sense it in their mind and smell it on their skin. "We are but lost wanders." Heero declared fighting to keep the tremble from his voice.
Trowa nodded, "We were only seeking a way out." he lied knowing full well that he would not be believed but still he had to try.
The Hound shook his head tossing the mantle of long hair. "My Master told me to be watchful for encroachers." The set of ruby eyes narrowed to better study the strange intruders who had foolishly entered the Dragon's territory.
Now humans and immortals faced the final Element, one borne of smoke and fire, whose materialization was now complete and quite lethal. Heero shielded his face from the sweltering heat as the Hound's snout expelled billowy smoke.
"Do not lie!" it hissed with another sparking puff. The Demon Dog tightened its shoulder muscles and leaned its weight forward preparing at any moment to pounce on its puny prey.
Even at their distance from the malevolent mongrel Duo and Quatre could feel the heat, smell the sulfur-tainted breath and see the eye's scarlet pinpoints piercing through the churning fog.
"By all that is holy." the Light God repeated his favorite phase. Duo quivered beside the Fair One afraid for his soldier and his immortal friend. Clutching the tarnished cross he lifted up a silent prayer for their safety and a quick victory.
"What now?" Trowa whispered eager for any suggestion as to the beast's defeat.
The King's Captain kept the Hound firmly in his sights turning slightly to reply, "We are not going to tarry with this one." he announced, "I have grown tired of Decador's game of fox and geese. This will be finished quickly."
Glancing over his shoulder at Duo and Quatre he trusted the God of Darkness to keep watch, "Move back beyond the archway." he instructed not caring whether or not the beast heard.
"But..." Duo began to question his soldier's intensions.
"That is an order!" Yuy growled out the command as Captain, not lover and friend.
Duo hesitated opening his mouth to protest not the order or the tone but him leaving Heero alone. He did not at all like Heero being so near the fiery foe but he had to trust that his soldier had a plan and right then was not the time for second-guessing.
Quatre, too, hated putting more space between himself and his mate but he knew that Trowa and Heero's attention could not be divided by worry over he and Duo's safety. Quatre took Duo's arm giving a gentle tug to start him in the right direction. "Yes." was his soft reply as he guided the reluctant human backward toward the outside's soft light.
"What are they going to do?" Duo asked after he and Quatre stopped a decent margin from the Hellhound.
Quatre shrugged, "They know what they are doing." he answered once more putting his trust in Heero and Trowa's abilities.
Heero took several steps forward never lessening his concentration. He knew that if they failed to bring the beast down that Duo and Quatre would have no hope of survival. With the Hound's taut posture Chang's Devil Dog could spring into action without warning so he had to be alert and ready.
Trowa, keeping the rear guard, pressed the crossbow's stock into his shoulder. Closing one eye he used the other to help center the beast in the target sight. The junction along the neck seemed to be the slimmest part, the one section most vulnerable to the arrow's penetration.
More smoky haze rolled in. Now the soupy mixture swelled passed the waist. Much to Trowa's vexation the grayish cloud and wavering heat was rapidly rising between his place and where the human held his solitary confrontment with the Underworld's guardian of Hades. Firing the crossbow would be Trowa's last choice. Not knowing Heero's exact plan, even though the target sight was well above Yuy's head, he had no way of knowing where his comrade might end up when he did execute his course of action. Still he could not wait indefinitely. The building haze was swiftly obscuring his sight range.
Trowa knew from past experience how quickly bodies could become a blur of motion once close combat began. The smoke would act to further hinder his already poor vision. "No." he squinted as sweat stung his eyes, "unleashing the arrow would definitely be his last act of interposition.
Chang's Devil Dog continued to growl and snarl shaking his head from side to side. The reddened eyes altered to a deeper shade of intensity. The lips curled back in a sneering "smile" baring the tearing teeth. The full measure of his height was shone as muscles rippled under the disheveled coat. A brownish drool seeped from its mouth's corners as it savored the essence of the weak creatures that would soon be its fleshy reward. A long tongue snaked out licking the thick secretion.
Heero stood firm even though hot breath mixed with the choking smoke made his eyes water and his chest ache. His brave facade held. The steady balance of his sword raised defiantly in opposition did not give away his wildly pounding heart or his trembling limbs.
The beast raised his head. Its mouth widened into a mocking grin. "So you dare to stand alone." the gruff statement echoed along the humid hallway. "I did not know your kind possessed such boldness," he continued, "or is your brazen display merely false courage?"
"I suppose we will see." Heero replied believing that the term "we" also applied to his immortal backup and the pair waiting at the archway's end.
The canine's heavy head reared back. Razor-fanged teeth glistened frothy and slick against its gaping mouth's black hollow. Once more the tongue lapped at the froth. A bellowing roar bounced over the corridor's vacancy as the Hound of Hades leaped forward aiming his pointed incisors straight for Heero's throat.
Double-gripping his sword Yuy dropped the tip then swung upward in an arcing slice. The broad blade struck at an angle ripping a wide gash across the beast's square snout. A sharp yelp confirmed the blow's contact. Spraying blood sprinkled over the wall and the lone warrior standing staunchly in his place.
Heero pushed aside sweat-soaked bangs mopping the smoke-slick film and hefty measure of the Hound's thick blood from his forehead and eyes. Again the blade held a fixed guard between his chest and Decador's firedrake who fiercely shook its head to free itself from the deep cut's stinging pain.
Dark puffs of spark-lanced vapors belched from the beast's nose and mouth. The seething thick smoke formed a curtain around the Hound's head blocking Heero's view of the enraged monster. He tightened his grip on the sword's sweat-slick hilt, shored up his stance and forced himself to take a hard, centering breath.
"Roasted flesh and charred bones will be all that is left of the one alone." the Fire Element hissed as his head raised upright.
The vertical lifting was designed to allow Chang's bastard beast a full intake of sweltering breath as it prepared to carry out a second strike. The powerful inhalation was done solely to kindle the smothering embers deep inside its flammable entrails, to ready itself to expel fireballs meant to envelope the hapless human in searing agony and give him a firsthand taste of hell.
Arching its spine and bristling the thick mantle of hair, the Element of Fire attempted to make itself appear even larger and more menacing. Twin glowing orbs pierced the smoky veil, their increased flare giving Heero but a few seconds warning before a stream of fire boiled out with a deafening whoosh.
"NO!" Duo screamed as the flames engulfing his lover was all he could
see, "HEERO! NO!"
It took all of Quatre's power to hold Duo, to keep him from charging into the encompassing blaze that had surely swallowed whole his soldier.
Yuy heard Duo scream his name just before he leaped clear of the rapidly advancing flames. A wall of red rose higher broiling over everything. The blistering swells scorched the wet stone walls sending superheated steam to join the propelled fireballs.
Quatre took both of Duo's arms struggling to maintain his grip. "Duo look at me." he ordered giving the frantic human a firm shake. The command did not punch through the pure panic. "Duo look at me now!" the Light God demanded forcing Maxwell to look him in the eyes. As quickly as the fighting began it ended as Duo's limited strength gave out.
"Heero is not hurt" Quatre stated sensing a full measure of the Captain's lifeforce. "Do you understanding what I am saying?"
Duo raised his hand shielding his eyes from the wavering fire's brightness. "Are you...sure?" he asked his words trembling in his throat.
"Yes." Quatre answered his voice steady with surprising calmness. "Yes." he repeated to reinforce the truth of his feelings.
As the stone walls offered no fuel source the hungry flames soon receded until only a drift of smoke and steam remained behind. Slowly the reddened remnants faded leaving sooty walls and a blackened floor. Duo and Quatre blinked hard trying to find a trace of Heero. Trowa kept the crossbow level staring over the shaft at the empty spot where Yuy once stood.
The Dragon's Element, too, searched for some sign of its elusive prey. The tip of its tail twitched fitfully. His head cocked first one way then the other as nothing but the seared stones could be seen. The only evidence of the human's existence was a lone sword, the blade still smoking, lying in the corridor's center.
The two immortals and the human did not have to share any empathic connection to know what they all were thinking. Where was Heero? There were no charred skeleton, no stench of brunt flesh. As skilled as Yuy was as a soldier he did not process the transporting powers of the pair of Gods. He could not have simply vanished into thin air.
Quatre continued to focus on the strong lifeforce sending a steady signal for his intuitive validation. Gradually his mental investigate showed him where the disappearing human was hiding. "There." he whispered to Duo showing him where to look with a nod of his head. At the same instant Trowa received his mate's mental message.
When the hellish cur shot out its blazing attack Heero had jumped clear just ahead of the rolling tide. His sideways leap had taken him through the archway where he grabbed onto one rusty chain dangling above the murky canal. At that moment he had little time to wonder if the weakened iron would support his weigh. Now he hung swinging back and forth from the pitted links. His smoke dingy uniform jacket and soot streaked face against the moss-gray wall's backdrop offered an odd silhouette.
The Hellhound pivoted. Balancing on four sturdy legs it prepared to unleash another firestorm at the helpless human swaying beyond the archway. Trowa, sensing the beast's impending actions, let the arrow fly. The shaft struck dead center in the neck. However the arrow drove in only a few inches as the tough tendons averted the deathblow. The wound was not deep and certainly not mortal.
A claw closed about the shaft pulling the arrow free. Only a small spurt of blood followed the extraction. A high-pitched howl resounded through the hall. The enraged Fire Demon turned to face the bowman and the two intruders who were bravely standing their ground a bit further away.
"RUN!" Quatre yelled to his Dark Mate beginning to push Duo in the opposite direction towards the courtyard. He started to move then realized that Trowa had not fallen in line instead he rested on one knee reloading the crossbow.
"Trowa NO!" Heero shouted as he, too, realized that his comrade was not fleeing the Hound's fury. "Leave me and protect Duo and Quatre." he pleaded knowing he could do nothing to save his lover and his friend.
"Trowa!" Quatre called again, "Please come on."
The Demon's mouth opened wide. A rushing of hot currents could be heard boiling up from its gut surging to the surface. "Damn your stubborn pride." Heero cursed at the Dark God as the roaring of flames reached a frightened crescendo.
Trowa stood up throwing the stock against his cheek. His finger drew back on the trigger set. Pure instinct set the focus. The arrow flew but it never reached its mark. A rush of flames surrounded the flying shaft. In a fleeting flicker of time the arrow's steel tip hit the floor with a faint ring as the wooden shaft evaporated in the intense heat. Without pause the Hound leap forward ready to regurgitate another blazing flood.
The God of Darkness remained fixed in place. Although he held the crossbow he had no more arrows and he knew it would be useless to try to outrun the Element's fiery assault. His green sight locked on Chang's satanic servant never weaving in their determined focus.
"Quatre take Duo and go from this place." he instructed without turning around. He didn't want to see the terror in his lover's eyes but wanted to remember their azure warmth as they had often held him in their loving caress.
"I will not leave you." came his mate's resolved reply.
"I SAID GO!"
Heero refastened his grip on the corroded chain pulling himself higher above the rancid water. He knew he had but a second to distract the hellish beast. Only the briefest amount of time to save his brave but stubborn comrade from the deadly duty of his mission. An even shorter period to keep Trowa's equally headstrong mate from joining his lover in a baptism of fire that might secure their souls but not save their lives. And he knew if Quatre defied his orders Duo would not be far behind. For everyone's sake he had to refocus the Hound's wrath.
"Hey you whoring bastard!" Heero shouted pulling his dagger from his boot.
At the slanderous description and negative aspersion to the its questionable parentage the Demon shook its head in a fit of anger and reared up on its hind legs. Holding the blade by the tip Heero drew back and threw the slender weapon with all the power could muster. A twist of the wrist sent the dagger twirling end over end. Keeping true to it course the weapon embedded in the beast's belly. Claws clutched at the firmly set blade. Louder more anguished howls echoed. The Element of Fire spun about acute ire now guiding it to a single objective.
Heero relaxed his grip letting his body slide smoothly along the chain until he stood on the archway's rim. His hands still gripping the rough links he stalwartly stared down Chang's last threat. The Element hissed spitting out sparks. A shriller shriek bounced off the walls as unadulterated hatred drove the Devil Dog into a fury of rage. Driven by pain-blind madness the Fire Demon rushed headlong for the helpless unarmed human.
"COME ON YOU SPAWN OF HELL!" Heero challenged the charging Devil. "That crazy charlatan can not help you now." he growled under his breath gritting his teeth for the final confrontation.
The Fire Element paused just long enough to transfer its power into its hind leg muscles. Squatting slightly it rocked back on his haunches putting all its strength and energy into one final, fatal leap. Its head tilted upwards, its mouth snarled in anticipation of ripping flesh and gnawing bones. Eyes blazed like bellows-blown embers. Now a single motive held its attention one set on tearing the haughty human limb from limb.
Suddenly the great Hellhound was airborne. Long wicked claws struck out to snag and hold its intended victim. Pointed teeth parted to deliver their shredding bite. The brave soldier stood tall his eyes locked on the rampaging canine. Seconds before its massive body flew over the archway's top, at the last possible moment before powerful jaws closed about Heero's head, the cunning Captain let loose his hands. The Element of Fire realized too late that its intended prey had dropped beyond its reach. Too late it found its quarry had disappeared and that the maddened charge left it diving through thin air.
Scummy water, moss algae and other distasteful crud splashed over the rim. The foul liquid spattered across the floor releasing the putrid stench of rotten eggs. The panicked beast flung its limbs in an unsuccessful attempt to halt its headlong plunge toward the deadly water. One last hallow howl ricocheted along the slim-clogged channel. Clouds of superheated steam belched out of the archway. The flushed spray boiled up the walls quickly filling the passage with humid fog. Lingering for an instant the muggy evaporation, much like the Wind Maiden's wispy demise, floated along the corridor until the rancid smell of death and decay was all that marked the Fire Element's passing. Water, fire's natural enemy, had done what Decador's pawns in his gruesome game could not, quench the Hellhound's ferocious inferno.
Trowa rested the crossbow on the floor using it for balance. Although the fog had thinned out he still could not see clearly enough to locate his mortal partner. Duo and Quatre stood motionless. The Light God touched his comrade's shoulder leaning around as his eyes searched anxiously for any sign of Heero but the archway and the hall were vacant.
Quatre felt Duo tensed beside him, "Where is he?" Duo whispered as fearful alarm tore through his heart.
"Trowa," Duo called as desperation took a firm hold, "do you see him?" Trowa shook his head, "No." he replied leaning further into the drifting haze.
Duo pushed passed the Fair One rushing to Trowa's side. "Quatre where is he?" he repeated begging his intuitive friend to assure him that his lover was all right.
Taking in a calming breath Quatre tried to focus his mind on Heero's lifeforce signals. "Wait." he instructed touching Maxwell's arm.
Duo's eyes flashed as he jerked away, "Wait for what?" he hissed starting toward the archway.
Quatre pointed below shorter links where the remainder of the chain had pulled free from the top, "There." he sighed.
One grimy hand, slick and green, eased over the rim. Some inches apart a matching hand followed clumsily catching the equally slick stones. Slowly a tangled mass of wet black hair rose above the low wall. Trowa reached over clasping Heero's wrists. With a steady pull Yuy's chest cleared the top, then his hips and finally his knees. Swinging his legs over Heero settled down inside the archway.
Ignoring the nasty mess covering his soldier, Duo wrapping both arms about his brave hero. "Are you all right?" he whispered close to Heero's ear tightening his hug to make certain his lover did not slip from his grasp.
"I will be," Heero answered squirming a bit in Duo's bear hug, "if you will let me breathe."
Duo lessened his hold leaning back for a better look. He wanted to study Yuy's eyes, he could always tell a person's condition by their eyes. "Oh God I love you Heero Yuy." Again ignoring the slime and smell he deeply kissed his soul mate. "We will never be apart. This I promise with my heart and on my life." Duo declared as he broke the kiss. The old phase states that "love is blind" but love must not have very sensitive sinuses either.
The Gods of Light and Dark did a fair job of restraining their eagerness to also hug and fuss over their victorious comrade. Their enthusiastic fervor was quelled somewhat by the fact that Heero did smell like a stable in serious need of cleaning. The ledge above the waterline was all that had kept Yuy from a scalding swim with Chang's Ambassador from Hell and a possible drowning had he become pinned beneath the Hound's considerable weight. But the backwash from the Element's plunge had managed to soak his clothes and hair leaving behind a peculiar and quite perfuse perfume. A thorough bath would definitely be the first order of business when the group arrived back at the village.
Giving Heero a moment to catch his breath and regroup his thoughts Duo continued to hold his lover. Quatre and Trowa also held each other closely as they rested on the canal's short wall. Duo pushed back damp hair from Heero's face rechecking the alertness in his eyes.
"You know," he began moving his blue sight to the immortals then back to his partner, "it is amazing how much we are like the Dragon's three Elements."
"ALIKE!" Heero exclaimed, "Have you lost your mind?"
Duo shook his head, "Just think as the Demons were forged from the natural elements of Earth, Wind and Fire we, too, were created in much the same manner. Our bodies were born from the Earth, our breath from the Wind and the Fire of life burns hot within our souls."
"Yes but the one important difference that separates us from those Spawns of Satan," Quatre added to Duo's accurate insight, "is our ability to love. That is what gives our fiery souls their spark of life." No one found any argument with that statement.
With the final Demon's defeat the next question occupying everyone's
thoughts was, "Would Decador be true to his word and let then leave?" Although
the sincerity of his promise was doubtful all the conquering quartet could
do was find an exit, stay alert and pray there would be no more surprises.
Much to Trowa's delight an outside door was located at the canal's mouth. Four faces peered out into the late afternoon brightness squinting at the change from the castle's gloominess to the outside's daylight.
The courtyard was barren of both live plant growth and guards. After meeting the mad wizard it was clear why nothing survived within his circle of evil influence. The lack of life, human or otherwise, was certainly not unexpected. Most creatures especially those of questionable origin knew better than to wander too far from the courtyard's protection.
The high stone wall ringed the bare border closing up all sides. Most courtyards were designed with a gate at each main compass point so it stood to reason that this particular section had an exit somewhere along its length. A few taller treetops could be seen towering some distance outside the wall but the absence of sizeable vegetation on their side cancelled any hope of climbing over.
From that moment of realization the escape plan became simple. Cross the exposed courtyard, find the gate and figure out how to open it. Maybe "simple" was not the best term. Dangerous was more befitting the title and the task for despite Decador's promise of their freedom the humans and immortals doubted that the satanic sorcerer would keep his word. Nothing the heretic had done up to that point gave one reason to believe that he could be trusted. And even though Chang had bargained for their lives everyone knew the Dragon had no real power only what Decador granted.
Heero holding his sword eased out first. Duo followed close behind. Trowa, empty crossbow in hand, came next. Quatre took one last look back into the passage's dank bowels then fell in beside his mate. Powerful premonitions told him that, unfortunately, their trials were not over.
Yuy's raised hand brought the "parade" to a temporary standstill. Leaving the rest of his loyal comrades by the castle's outer wall he stepped out a little further checking the way. Cautiously Heero surveyed the battlements above for any sign of soldiers or archers or another beast that might have taken up a position along the parapets. Another silent signal called for the others to join him.
"Careful now." he whispered beginning to move forward.
A darksome coloring like a great bird's shadow glided overhead. Suddenly the air chilled and just as quickly the sun lost its light. Angry clouds as black as midnight swelled in high banks. Wind blew in fitful gusts carrying on the strong currents that all too familiar scent of sulfur. The abrupt weather changes were made even more frightening by a strange peculiarity. Beyond the courtyard wall, where the forest's heights touched the skyline, the sun shone brightly and fluffy clouds mingled among clear sapphire hues.
It was very apparent that the storm gathering over the courtyard was not of natural origins. The fearsome fury had its roots in Decador's profane marriage with Satan's evil forces. His unholy union with the Triad of Darkness had spawned the sacrilegious abnormality whose sole purpose was the retreating victor's most unpleasant destruction. Again the vile wizard had broken every law of nature, perverted all that was pure.
"I knew that damn warlock would try to stop us." Heero shouted above the storm's mournful howl as miniature whirlwinds of dust zigzagged across the courtyard.
"We have to reach the gate and make good our escape." Quatre yelled back, "Decador's influence has no power beyond these walls."
Lifting his forearm to protect his face from the pelting dirt Heero fought to see through the windblown debris kicked up by the anomalous storm. "There!" he pointed to the right.
As the retreating champions raced for their freedom the wind blew harder. Wickedly the sound of Decador's crazed laugher mixed with the shrill whine. A fused canopy, a thick ebony overcast, sealed over the sky. Red-orange sparks of energy flickered and danced inside the churning clouds. Blue-white lightning flared across the furious firmament then, spreading spider web fingers, streaked downward to touch the land. Bouncing and sizzling over the ground the spiking spears exploded gouging out chunks of soil and igniting dry grasses and dead foliage. A rush of unearthed grit and choking smoke surged toward the helpless quartet. Running for their lives the terrified escapees made a dash for the gate.
Four castle guards with an unmistakable spellbound glaze over their eyes charged into the abnormal fury from the courtyard's far side. Weapons in hand and more fearful of Decador than the storm they dared to brave the unnatural tempest. The first two bewitched soldiers made it no further than the outer fringes. A blinding flash popped overhead. The resulting fireball divided into twin columns. One bolt struck a nearby tree. The splintered trunk burst apart flinging out dozens of jagged wooden "daggers". The multiple barbs formed a lethal hail impaling one man and sending him with an agonizing scream to the ground.
The divided bolt's partner decided to take the express route delivering its fatal power in a direct hit. The second victim froze momentarily held in a rigid posture by the coursing raw energy. Wavering lines encased the writhing body. Smoke seethed from the glowing corpse's nose and mouth. Slowly the smoldering outline, no longer recognizable as human, soundlessly pitched over into a heap of charred bones. A few electrified residuum twitches jerked within the twisted pile then all motion stopped. The burning flesh's stomach-churning stench intermingled with the thrashing wind in a sickening saturation.
The last the spellbound pair made it fifty or so yards further. But unlike their fellow soldier's quite shocking end their elimination was achieved by being caught up in a dust-choked whirlwind. Lifting them well above the treetops the enveloping updraft contorted their bodies then dissipated dropping them to the unyielding earth below. The stark deformity of frame and form clearly showed that their shattered remains were only kept from falling apart by stringy tendons and shredded skin. Many bloodied slivers of broken bones pierced the pulpy flesh as their fractured points erupted through the skin like spiny needles.
Trowa nodded over at the slaughtered quartet wrinkling his nose at the macabre mess, "It appears that Decador wants no help in our termination." he shouted as the heavens seemed to tear apart with a deafening boom of thunder.
Heero took Duo's hand, "Run and don't stop until we reach the gate!"
Midway between the insurgent band and their portal to freedom the windswept haze of dust and smoke parted. Lanky figures could be seen ahead. The phantom shapes formed an unbroken line standing shoulder to shoulder in a row of at least a dozen. Through the smoggy veil the linear formation was odd in outline and makeup. The wind shifted once more thinning out the gritty curtain.
Every eye was drawn to the adversative blockade and held fast in horror at the sight. An army of skeletons blocked their way. Vacant eye sockets long ago having become void of their orbs gave no sign of seeing. Earth encrusted bones hung loosely from creaking joints. Crooked fingers curled about various deadly devices. Swords, battleaxes and lances, rusted and tarnished as if they had been buried with the unearthed warriors, gave the Army of the Dead quite an advantage since Heero's sword and an empty crossbow did not make for a very formable arsenal.
"What the hell!" Trowa exclaimed.
Duo his auburn braid flapping about him in shivering waves shook his head, "Hell is the best description I can think of." he announced.
With a wobbly gait the fleshless cadavers began their attack. Their slack-jointed anatomy did serve to slow their movements. This lazy animation would certainly aide the confronted band in combat that is if they could figure out how to fight the clattering foes. Heero and Trowa formed the front battle line. The Dark God cursed in exasperation at his arrowless disadvantage. Duo and Quatre with their own brand of swearing expressed their frustration as they felt helpless to join in their comrade's defense.
Quickly Duo decided to do something about his and Quatre's lack of weapons. "I will be only a minute." he stated starting to run back towards the opened side door.
"Duo what are you doing?" the Fair One called, "Come back!" His calling was too late as Duo had already disappeared into the gloomy shade inside the castle.
"Just once I wish he would not be so impulsive." Heero sighed debating whether or not to go after his headstrong lover, "No better stay here and keep the way clear." he finally decided.
"Maybe there is something he can do to help." Trowa declared knowing they could use all the intersession, human, divine, or otherwise, they could get.
Duo soon returned carrying what remained of the pulley's rusty chain. "It's not much but it is better than nothing." he stated looping several links around his hand letting the end dangle free. Quatre took up a sturdy limb left behind from the lightning-felled tree. "Ready?" he asked centering his weight and fortifying his courage.
The storm's artificial ecliptic twilight grew darker. The clatter of bones was plainly heard above the wind's wailing. Gruesome "smiles" anticipating an easy victory showed on the skeleton's toothless mouths as their bottom jawbones gaped low. The human and immortal warriors formed a semi-circle, weapons held ready and hearts united for the ensuing battle.
"Stand firm." Heero shouted over the storm's thundering voice as it sounded the attack call.
As the gap narrowed the skeletons parted flanking three to the right, six to the middle and three to the left. A scarlet glow from an unknown source shone from inside each eye socket's hollow recesses. The hellish army brought their weapons into the ready position quickening their awkward strides.
Trowa held the crossbow by the stock's end like a club leveling off at the three bony warriors furthest to the left. Heero raised his sword to intercept the next three. The remaining comrades in turn targeted each trio after that until everyone took equal responsibility.
Standing almost face to face with the skinless soldiers it suddenly occurred to Heero that he had no idea how to kill something that was already dead. Where to strike? What areas were vulnerable? There were no meaty muscles, no tissue that would accept a lethal slice. No internal organs to pierce, nothing to bleed away.
"One question," he began to ask as one of his assignments mounted a charge, " where are we supposed to hit them?" he yelled jumping aside to avoid a pitted sword.
The Dark Immortal didn't answer as he was too busy sidestepping a chopping battleaxe. His responding swing crashed the crossbow across the attacker's lanky neck shattering the brittle bones, "Like this." he proclaimed pivoting to face his next opponent as the decapitated skull rolled beside his feet.
Yuy took aim stepping into one bony combatant with a forceful thrust. The blade's tip glanced off a grim-stained shoulder blade as harmlessly as if he had used a feather. His unaffected assailant threw up its sword bringing it around in a curved slice. Heero felt the rush of air as the blade passed uncomfortably close to his head. "That tactic doesn't always work." he informed the Dark God.
"If I can't kill it I can at least disarm it." he thought centering his sword in line with the bony combatant's hand as it raised the rusty blade for another swing. This time Yuy's strike hit along the wrist bone successfully shattering the fragile joint. The hand and sword dropped away along with thousands of powdery particles. Mechanically the handless skeleton continued to slash as if the hand was still attached to the arm's blunt nub.
A second competitor reinforced the line on Heero's side. A battleaxe held in a double-grip came down with enough force to create a buzz as it cut through the stormy haze. He desperately dodged the axe as both skeletons attacked in unison. It was clear that the unearthed soldiers were operating with a single mindset---Kill The Intruders.
Now Trowa had become quite efficient with the crossbow's defensive moves. He brought the previously useless weapon around ramming the cross section squarely into a charging skeleton's breastbone. Fractured fragments disintegrated causing the fragile body to break in half. The severed frame collapsed into a heap.
Heero's axe-welding attacker became entangled in the bone pile but mindlessly kept to his task. As his feet snarled among the shards his balance was compromised. Captain Yuy transferred his weight to his back leg bringing his front foot up for a high side kick. His boot plowed straight through where the snaky spinal column attached to the hips. The frail warrior copied exactly his partner's crumbing away adding its bones to the increasing mound.
All the while the storm raged on. Wind-whipped funnels flung out anything caught up in the tornadic twisting. Gorged soil, chunks from the exploded tree, dead vegetation and bits of bone all combined into a dangerous blast of debris. The hellish sky spewed forth brilliant bolts charging the air with static so thick it caused a tingle on everyone's skin. The blinding brightness made it hard to see the enemy and even harder to mount a defense.
But in all its fury, in all the energy expelled throughout the courtyard, no rain fell. It was as if the heavens had no tears of either woe or regret. No remorse for the loathsome alliance between the warlock and his exhumed soldiers and no pity for his victims. The building tempest seemed to give life to Decador's demonic army. They drank in the power as lovers desiring a certain brand of corporeal lust and passion. They whored after it like an orgy of hellhounds giving into their depraved debauchery.
It didn't take long for Duo and Quatre to learn how to defeat their skinless foes. With uncharacteristic aggression Quatre double-clutched the tree limb chopping down his adversaries like firewood. One swing to the right then to the left took out all threats quickly and cleanly. It didn't take much strength just a good eye and aim.
Duo followed suit circling the chain over his head then snapping it out like a whip. In a crisscross fashion he plowed through the advancing troops. One skeleton with a huge hole in its skull that was probably the original cause of death proved to be more difficult in its destruction. Armed with a long lance it could stay out of Duo's reach and still inflect quite serious injuries. Twice the pike's slender point was shoved at Maxwell's middle. Both times the braided boy countered with a clanking smack from the chain but with only minimal results. In order to do enough damage to disarm his attacker Duo needed to get nearer but the trick was how to do it and keep his body in one piece.
The next charge he saw was high, definitely going for his head. He dropped under the stabbing shaft bending one knee so that he crouched compactly on the ground then he straightened the other leg bringing it around in a broad sweeping motion. His boot contacted with the lance owner's ankles totally upsetting his equilibrium. All the way down the extremely emaciated soldier rattled like bamboo wind chimes. The lance fell forward striking Duo's shoulder but inflecting little harm.
Standing quickly Duo dodged a broadsword. Once more the chain did a wonderful job cracking into the chipped blade as it came about. However the skeleton in possession of the ancient weapon managed to catch hold of the chain knotting the russet links around its thin fingers. A stout jerk pulled Duo off his feet bumping his head and back soundly on the ground. The jarring contact drove the breath from his lungs and set a swirling of dark dots in motion over his sight.
Shaky arms struggled as Duo tried to sit up. A cold sweat beaded on his skin. His eyes watered freely offering only a teary trace of vision. He knew the bare carcass and its sizeable weapon had to be near, probably standing over him, still he could not make out any shape or movement through his blurry sight and scattered senses. A heart-wrenching chill grabbed hold as the unmistakable clink of metal and the clatter of slack joints met his ears. Clawing in the grainy soil Duo retreated, sliding on his butt, trying in vain to elude the horrible menace looming over him. A vague impression, a shifting outline, swam in Duo's muddled mind. He threw up his arms knowing full well the protective gesture would do no good.
"Please have mercy on my soul." he prayed begging a higher deity for a measure of soul-saving grace should he perish by the skeleton's hands.
His vision cleared a bit but its unveiling presented a terrifying picture. The broadsword's pitted point hovered directly over his chest meaning to set it deeply into his heart.
"NO!" he screamed finding himself too paralyzed by fear to move. The blade came down. His heart skipped a beat then everything went black.
Gliding among wispy clouds a rainbow of colors surrounded Duo. The fresh scent of wildflowers wafted on the cool breeze. A weightless floating sensation buoyed his body across a sparkling diamond-studded sky. Each of the thousand faceted prisms reflected the vivid colors like jeweled butterfly wings. He soared viewing vast valleys and plains below. The lush landscape stretched on in an ever-changing natural quilt of varying shades and textures. The pristine panorama, he told himself, had to be so much like what a falcon must see each time the great bird of prey took flight.
Duo was free. The freedom from fear was exquisite, his delight excellent and his peace unexplainable. If this was the afterlife then all the suffering at the end was well worth the pain. He closed his eyes drinking in the pleasure, the total contentment. But there was a twinge of sadness laced with the beautiful state of consciousness. Realizing that Heero had been left behind hinted of a loneliness that tempered his joy. A forlorn disheartenment stole away some of the bliss leaving a void in his soul.
He had no way of knowing how long it would be before he and his lover would be reunited. He missed Heero's smile, his touch and most of all his love. Could it be this despondent melancholy was because he had not been ready to leave his beloved soldier? Had his soul not been prepared for the separation, not willing to endure the severance from his earthy plain to the next realm?
Duo looked around at the perfect place in which he dwelled. As much as he wanted to stay protectively enfolded in feathery wings of dazzling colors and soothing sounds he wanted, no needed, to return to his soul mate. Even though his homeland was filled with turmoil, scarred by the wounds of war. Although hatred spoiled the peace and marred the soul he wanted so desperately to go back. But did he have the power? Could he return back through the doorway between mortal frailty and the immortality of this perfect place?
"I am sorry," Duo whispered to the angels he knew had to be watching him, "but I have to go back. My duty is not done. I still have to finish the fight. I have to hold my lover and grow old with him. Please grant me my leave." he petitioned the supreme authority that ruled over life and death, "I promise I will stay true to the course set before me if I be allowed to return." he swore on his heart and soul, "Please!"
There was a stab of pain as the celestial sky's fabric rent about him. A dimness folded over him soothing him to sleep. Duo drifted again. Pass the rainbow, the butterflies. The colors faded and the internal peace gave way to an uneasy apprehension. But Duo knew the journey was not the end of his death but the renewed beginning of his life. A lifetime with Heero Yuy.
A far-off voice called his name so distantly that Duo was not certain of its source but his ears told him it was real. His eyes conveyed the parting of the black cloudbank and they hurt in the stabbing brightness of the lightning bolts. His weary weight settled on the earth's hard surface so opposite the fluffy cloud's softness. A chill covered over with only one centered bit of warmth to cut its shiver. The voice called again.
"Duo." it sounded so close but still the source was unknown. "Duo please." it begged as the warmth radiated in ever-widening rings.
Slowly Duo opened his eyes. They looked directly into the fearsome storm lashing out its violence all around. A hard breath shook his aching body and pounded in his starved lungs. Then Heero's face gradually emerged from the swirling dust and intense savagery of the evil sorcerer's vengeance.
"Duo." Heero repeated gently lifting his partner's throbbing head resting it in his lap. "Thank the saints you are awake." his soldier breathed out a relieved sigh.
Duo shifted his sight to take in the concerned faces of Quatre and Trowa. Each of his immortal brothers in arms displayed the same easement from their worry as they realized Duo's focus fell on them. "Stay still and rest." Quatre ordered taking Duo's hand. "We thought we had...lost you." he declared with a halting quiver in his voice.
"What happened?" Duo began to question then the second-sight of the broadsword plunging down shook every nerve bringing on a lancing shiver. "NO!" he screamed drawing arms and legs into a tight ball. The sudden displacement brought on a surge of pain and a feeble faintness.
Heero wrapped his arms about Duo's trembling frame. "It is all right, nothing can hurt you, I promise." he pledged rocking his frighten lover back and forth.
"Decador's entire baleful horde is gone." Trowa declared.
"All?" Duo whispered closing his eyes against the battering storm both inside his mind and outside his body.
"Every one of them." Heero proclaimed sliding one arm under Duo's shoulders and the other under his knees. Duo fastened his arms around his neck. Quatre reached around tucking up his comrade's auburn braid so it would not brush the ground. Lifting steadily Duo's brave soldier stood up cradling his lover as close as possible. "Let us all go home." he whispered placing a gentle kiss on Duo's pale lips.
Leaning over Heero held his lover to his chest to shield him from the storm-flung litter as they headed directly for the side gate. Trowa slid his arm about his Fair One's waist lending his protection as the wind whipped and the heavens continued to roar. "Once we leave this forsaken place," he told his mate, "we will be free of Decador's damnable influence."
As the victorious quartet reached the gate a voice boomed over the wind's roaring. "You have defeated my Elements and bested my Army of the Dead." Decador stated his words blending with the storm.
"Then will you keep your bargain?" Heero shouted above the rumbling of thunder and the disembodied voice.
There was a uneasy pause as the humans and immortals awaited the answer. The Gods of Light and Dark moved closer to Heero and Duo. Quatre shuddered as the pure evil of the Triad of Darkness' Chosen One touched his soul.
"You WILL let us leave!" Heero announced as his patience with Satan's bastard step-child finally reached the breaking point.
The wind grew harsher. The black clouds boiled. Angry flickers of energy spiked overhead. Duo hid his face in Heero's chest dreading what he knew the answer would be.
"NO!" Decador shouted as he suddenly materialized on the castle's parapets. His scarlet overcape folded about him like the wings of a great vulture eyeing his next meal.
Heero set Duo down on his feet. With a gentle touch he guided his reason for living to the immortals. "This will be finished now." he announced stepping away from his lover and comrades.
"I love you." Duo called after his soldier.
Heero turned partly around but did not look directly into Duo's wide blue eyes for fear that if he did he would lose his resolve to fight. "I love you."
"Return to me my love." was Duo's only request as he resisted the urge to follow.
"I will." Heero promised then began walking. He did look back.
Decador watched with interest as the human warrior made his way to the courtyard's center. Pushing back wind-tousled hair from his eyes, the Captain craned his neck up to the battlements. The wind rose under Decador's overcape flaring it out like wings. The taut material swelled with the battering breeze billowing out. Slowly the wizard began to rise over the parapet. He glided down silently and landed so softly that he hardly raised a sandy cloud.
Stretching out his hand a swirl of light radiated from his palm. The sparkling particles compacted then elongated into a straight line. From the glow the Staff of Triad materialized. Decador slid one hand to the Staff's bottom, the other hand slid to the top stopping just below the golden rings. The wind caused the ringlets to bounce one into the other producing a mystic melody.
Heero locked his unwavering sight on the evil sorcerer, "I have grown tired of your games old man. I will warn you that patience is not one of my virtues." Yuy declared angling his sword across his body, "If you leave now I will spare you life." he said giving the evil wizard an honorable way out.
Decador cocked his head at an inquiring angle, "My life, how gracious of you. You are no threat to me human but you are pesky like a fly. I think I shall squash you to see how much you bleed."
"Then let us end this here and now." Heero shouted over the storm's mounting fury.
Lightning flashed overhead feeding on the energy pulsing between the two combatants. Heero glided into a ready stance centering his weight. The wizard copied his opponent's posture preparing for battle. With a throaty growl Heero made the first charge. Decador pivoted swinging the Staff to intercept the sword. A hollow clang sounded above the wind and sparks were flung in all directions. The Devil's emissary answered with a swift return. Heero parried the thrust as his blade zipped through the air inches from Decador's head.
As handily as Heero was blocking each of the wizard's strikes, Decador had two advantages that Yuy could not match, magic and the dark powers of nature. Again and again Decador threw up a barrier of dust and debris that blocked Heero's sight and compromised his movements. The constant battering was beginning to take its toll. The human warrior wheezed from inhaling the airborne grit. His eyes stung from sweat.
More than once he stumbled and each time Decador did not waste the opportunity. One faltering step left Heero too exposed. The stone eagle's tapered wingtip sliced across his cheek. The gash was not deep but long running from under his eye to his jaw. The cut oozed out a steady crimson flow. Salty perspiration mingling with the bloody discharge added to the pain. Heero ignored the stinging; nothing could interfere with his concentration.
Exhaustion and lack of oxygen were now as much an enemy as Yuy's foe. But he could not give into the weakness and certainly not give up. He promised his precious partner he would return to him and a warrior always keeps his word. He had to remain strong for Duo's and his comrade's sakes. If not all would be lost.
On the courtyard's far side Duo fought against his overwhelming fear for his lover. As frightening as it was to watch the battle Duo could not avert his eyes. He trusted his soldier, had faith in his abilities. He also had to believe that the fates would not be so cruel as to tear them apart not after all they had been through.
Quatre held onto Maxwell's hand offering up an intercessory plea. The Dark God stood on the other side but curses not heavenly entreatments were offered as he felt helpless to aid his friends. Together the trio tried to lend their strength but their spirits were so weary from the pervious confrontations the simply act of praying was a struggle.
Attack and counterattack, on and on the battle raged. Heero used back-pedaling and offensive maneuvers to stay just beyond Decador's reach. He knew from experience that the evasive moves would frustrate his opponent. He hoped that the resulting irritation would quickly turn to anger and anger to carelessness. Uncontrolled emotions were a soldier's worse hindrance. One moment of inattention, one instant of straying alertness was all the opening Captain Yuy needed. But the mistake had to happen soon for Heero's waning energy was not going to grant him that much longer to fight.
The human's strategy of charge and retreat was having the desired affect. Decador was rapidly losing his willingness to endure the agile human's irritating behavior. A curt puff was the Captain's first clue that his plan was working. The gritting of teeth and a hiss of air was all the warning he needed. Decador, clutching the Staff in a white knuckled grip, rushed in but his aim was too high. Heero brought his sword over his shoulder then over in a tight arc. The riposte struck along the Staff's end. The stone eagle flew free reflecting a reddish gleam as the lightning streaked overhead. The golden rings jingled briefly before their mystic music was silenced in the dirt.
Decador stared at the Staff's blunt end. A mixture of shock and confusion showed in his odd expression. Then his eyes widened in surprise as the finely honed blade of Yuy's sword pressed across his wrinkled neck.
Heero applied persuasive pressure until the skin drew taut. "Do you yield?" he asked panting out the question.
Despite the sword's painful placement Decador titled his head to get a better look at the "fly" who for the moment seemed to have bested him. "Do you really believe you have won?" he hissed glaring down at the annoying human.
"Do you think I have?" came the Captain's rhetorical question.
"You have made a serious miscalculation human." the Chosen One stated as scarlet sparks exploded in his pupils that were as black as his heart.
Heero pressed the blade harder, "It seems to me that you are the one at the disadvantage. I ask again, do you yield?"
A hallow laugh rose from Decador's distended throat. The storm returned the sound of amusement in repeated echoes multiplying the harsh tones. "You want an answer then so be it."
At the sorcerer's feet the soil began to glow. Shimmering blue-white ripples worked up his body encasing his entire frame in the wavy outline. Decador lifted his hands to the turbulent sky. The overcape again fanned out but this time the material thinned and developed a web of greenish membranes. The cape became one with Decador's arms in much the same way a bat's wings are attached to its body. Growing taller the vile Son of Satan quickly overshadowed the speck of humanity standing before him.
Glistening scales replaced ashen skin. Stringy gray hair gave way to bony spikes. Black eyes darkened to a ruby hue. A long snout appeared. The flared nostrils seethed sulfur-laced smoke and tiny embers. A wide mouth that held twin rows of pointed teeth drooled out a thick yellowish liquid. A green forked tongue slithering out mopping about the shape fangs then paused to flicker in the air no doubt to taste the storm and savor the human's building fear. From his spine a barbed-tipped tail swayed momentarily before it crashed to the ground sending up a drift of dust. Tremors rumbled through the courtyard quaking out in ever widening circles.
Crouching on the parapet's rim a bluish outline viewed the events unfolding below. Shuddering in the whipping gale, the Shadow Spy leaned into the wind. "I can not remain silent any longer." he sighed upset by the human's plight. "My Master will listen this time." he swore his anger causing him to loss some of his transparency.
Crawling up the aged stone walls, well above the weathered battlements, the slip of light and shadows that once occupied a solid human form hurried to find his Master. "He will listen." The fading words were carried away on the frenzied currents as his fleeting essence disappeared into the castle's gloom.
Lowering his arms the Dragon Decador brought razor talons to bear on his challenger. His scaly head titled as he studied the mortal who, in spite of his impending death, was still brave in his statue and bold in his speech. The lanky neck bobbed low enough over Heero that he could feel each blast of hot breath. "I hope your affairs are in order and all your debts paid." the serpent snorted puffing out more fire-tinged smoke.
Heero raised his sword hoping his hardened facade would hold and not crumble away leaving his soul bare to the great beast. "Your parlor tricks do not scare me." Again a rhetorical question was asked. "I have right on my side, what do you claim as your help?"
"I need no help to end your miserable existence. But I will make one promise that I do intend keep. When you are gone I will take good care of your whore. Chang's Pretty One should provide some amusement on those long winter nights. Tell me human is he good enough to fight for?"
"Try me and see." Heero replied resisting Decador's attempts to goad him into a fit of anger that would surly be a grave mistake.
By the gate Duo and the immortals stared in disbelief at the sorcerer's terrifying transmogrification. The supernatural mutation held then in stunned silence. Their eyes conveyed the frightening picture but their minds could not comprehend the change.
"By all that is holy." Quatre whispered reaching for his dark mate.
Duo, too, was overcome with dread that soon turned to pure terror. Transfixed by the dragon's sudden appearance Duo could do nothing but fight an overpowering faintness. He swayed beside Quatre and only the support of the two deities kept him for sinking to the ground.
"Heero...no...oh merciful saints...please." Duo mumbled in a state of total incoherency as fear gripped his soul. "No." he repeated with more volume as the fear gave way to a surprising calm. Duo Maxwell had decided, if his lover was going to die then he would die with him.
Without pause Duo walked beyond Quatre's reach making a straightway path to his beloved soldier. Quatre began to go after the clearly confused human. He intended to use words or force if necessary to bring Duo back to his and Trowa's protection.
Trowa laid a hand on his Fair One's arm. "Let him go."
"But..." Quatre began to protest his mate's intervention.
Trowa lovingly put his hands on his partner's shoulders leaning down until their eyesight met. "What would you do if I were in Heero's situation?" he inquired.
Quatre glanced back at the human that he had grown so fond of. Tears brimmed in his eyes and a tremble touched his voice. "I would go to be with you." he answered honestly. "My heart is breaking." he admitted letting the tears flow freely.
"We will offered up prayers for both their souls and greet them in the next realm." Trowa said drawing his sobbing mate into his arms.
Heero could not hear his lover's approach over the wind's whistling but he keenly sensed him drawing nearer. As much as the creature looming over him brought on heart-wrenching terror, the Captain's precious partner's presence brought on an even stronger peace.
Finally Duo stopped beside his solder. "Hello my love." he greeted his soul mate then placed a loving kiss on Heero's parched lips. "I have missed you." Despite the grimy film on his face and that his auburn hair had frayed from the braid Heero thought that Duo was the most perfect sight he had ever seen.
Duo reached up to Heero's cut cheek. Carefully he allowed his fingers to gather a goodly amount of the congealed blood. He then smeared the stiff liquid on each of his own cheeks staining his creamy skin with his lover's life fluid. It had long been a practice among the King's troops to mark each other with battle-shed blood as a symbol of their brotherhood of soldiers and Defenders of the Kingdom. Now Duo was using the same tradition to display his eternal bond with his soldier.
Lowering his sword Heero slid his arm about Duo's slender waist returning the kiss. Heero's heart wanted to hold on to Duo forever. His mind, however, told him that he should send Duo back to the immortals and hope that by some miracle they might find a way to survive. Then love not logic took over. If this was to be the end then he and Duo had no other choice but to be together. He knew that nothing in this world or the next could keep them apart, that their bond was mightier than death and that love could conquer all.
Decador viewed the strangely composed humans with wonder. Deep in the rancid recesses of his heart he longed for the commitment the mortals shared. He hurt for his loss of fondness, the undeniable connection that two people in love had. There had been love long ago. There had been joyous laugher and passion that lasted all night. He had once greeted the dawn in a lover's arms eons ago when his soul was free from the Devil's heinous hold.
But the wizard could not afford to dwell on the past for if he did he might not be able to perform his duty. Nothing less than the human's demise would satisfy his hellish Master and Decador knew that the punishment for any disobedience would be swift and merciless. The Ruler of Hades could not kill Decador but he could easily make him beg for release from the indescribable torment.
The creature of the Underworld reared back his spiked head. Lowering his snaky neck the dragon Decador prepared to unleash a cremating inferno designed to give the soldier and his lover a taste of Hell.
Duo wrapped his arms around Heero's waist, settled his head on his mate's broad shoulder, closed his eyes and let out a peaceful sigh. "Goodnight my love." he whispered close to Heero's ear so no one but him could hear. "We will awake together on the other side." he promised having complete faith that his brave soldier could guide him into the afterlife.
"How touching." Decador roared sucking in a deep breath to expel his deadly flames. A boiling like the rumble from a blast furnace sounded deep inside the dragon's gut. The raging growl increased as the searing heat rushed up the beast's gullet to spew forth a stream of fierce fire.
Heero pulled Duo closer finding an unexplainable serenity in his mate's embrace. "I love you." he reaffirmed his pledge of loyalty and love. Duo nodded. There was not a tremble in his body as the sound of superheated air sizzled to the surface.
"STOP!" A voiced boomed above the storm. "I SAID STOP NOW." it ordered loudly.
The immortals stared across the courtyard. Likewise the embraced mortals searched through the haze to find the disembodied calling. Decador choked back the rushing flames straightening his neck to see who dared to issue orders in such a demanding fashion.
Chang Wufei dressed in his Clan's white outfit of robe, loose pants and soft shoes stood unflinching in the battering debris. His shiny black hair, pulled back in a ponytail, feathered along his back. With a defiant glare Chang centered his ebony sight on the Devil's serpent. "This game had gone on long enough." he announced moving so lightly over the ground that he appeared to float. He stopped several feet from the humans surveying them with a somber gaze. Then his attention turned to the great scaly beast who had again reared back on his hind legs using his barbed tail for balance.
Decador weaved his spiked head from side to side in the mesmerizing sway of a cobra ready to strike. Wings fluttered with fitful tension. Steady streams of ember-laced smoke drifted from his nostrils as he studied his servant's newly found boldness. "So you decided to crawl out of your hole." he stated with a degree of bother. "It is just as well for now you can watch your whore and his warrior die."
"There will be no mortal death this day." Chang proclaimed raising an anger-clenched fist at his soon to be adversary.
The serpent swayed once more this time adding his whole body to the rocking motion. "Oh yes that will be death and you will be included in the slaughter." he promised.
"You never intended to keep your word." Chang declared even though he had known from the beginning how much treachery lived in Decador's soul.
Scaly lips pulled back into a sneer. The forked tongue darted out lapping at the slimy spittle oozing over the frothy fangs. "Why would I honor your disloyalty by keeping my word?"
"Then I can not count on your pledge to release the humans and their comrades?" Chang rightfully assumed.
Decador shook his massive head. An increased stream of smoke and sparks showed the dragon's irritation with his unfaithful servant. "No the only thing you can count on is dying." he hissed seconds before he bared his teeth to deliver a death bite. *"Ultima ratio regum."
In a blink of an eye, in the moment between heartbeats, Chang Wufei mutated into Ryuujin. The Dragon God reared up to his full height using his own clawed hands to bat away Decador's charge. The intercepting swipe glanced off of the serpent's snout opening up a hefty gash. Decador shook his head spraying blood and frothy drool in all directions.
"Get safely away." the Dragon God shouted at the dumbstruck mortals who still stood frozen in each other's arms. Disbelief swamped their minds. Fear held them petrified in place. "GO NOW!" he screamed finally gaining their attention.
Heero took Duo's hand pulling him back toward the equally stunned immortals. Deja vu. Duo kept glancing back over his shoulder sure that one vile beast or the other would postpone their battle to stop his and Heero's retreat. It was not until they reached the relative security of the godly pair that Duo permitted himself to take a breath. Burying his head in Heero's chest he desperately tried to shut out the sights and sounds of the demonic combat.
The apocalyptic battle raged on. The enraged mythical monsters raised dense dust clouds. Sparks shot into the storm-tossed haze. Lightning zigzagged overhead feeding on the raw energy surging between the invincible demons. Talons slashed, teeth tore. Horrifying bellows resounded over the courtyard bouncing off the walls. Reptilian bodied twisted and snarled becoming a blur of motion.
Decador sunk both sets of claws so deeply into Ryuujin's shoulders that the talons disappeared well pass the first joint. The barbed tail cracked across the Dragon God's back ripping out huge chunks of flesh. He threw back his head releasing a deafening wail of pain. His answering swipe caught along Decador's underbelly gorging out a large section of tissue and allowing a sizable amount of entrails to protrude. The slicing strike successfully detached the claws and sent the serpent reeling backwards. A travailing cry accented the agony.
Ryuujin wasted no time in retaliation. As Decador straightened his neck to roar in pain the Dragon God bared his teeth and latched onto the serpent's exposed throat. With a vise-like grip Ryuujin bit deeper. The sound of rent flesh preceded the crunch of bones as Decador's windpipe was crushed. Blind rage now controlled the Dragon God. Savagely he shook his head lifting his prey off the ground. Another crunch and the Chosen One stopped thrashing. One more jerk finished the job and Ryuujin let go.
Decador immediately returned to his human form. Clawing at his throat he collapsed on his back. Gurgles and gasps for air confirmed the deathblow had been delivered. Sightless eyes stared into the storm quickly becoming just as dark and cloudy. Twitching of arms and legs showed that the end was near. Slowly the convulsing faded. Then with one last sucking inhalation Satan's consort breathed his last. A faint hiss sang in his severed windpipe and he was gone.
Before the final throes grew cold and the escaping breath was carried away by the whipping wind the ground surrounding Decador's body began to bulge. The earth split, the sandy crust divided. From the dissections anguished moans surged to the surface. Bony hands much like the skeleton army rose through the cracks grappling over arms and legs, snagging onto clothes until Decador's corpse was covered with the gnarled fingers. The groans and wails grew louder as the bleached bones pulled the evil emissary back to the Underworld where he would at last have a place to rule. Then as quickly as the earth had parted it fused over again. A few ripples fluctuated then the ground smoothed back to its original texture leaving no hint of what had just happened.
With Decador's death his blocking spell was broken. Immediately Quatre and Trowa felt their powers return. Even the human's sensed that things had come back to normal. The storm also vanished. Clear blue replaced dark cloudbanks. Fresh air cleansed the haze. Sun shone brightly.
Ryuujin rocked back on his hunches and let out a victorious roar. The bellows joined with nature's celebration to orchestrate a song of liberation for the humans and immortals and Chang himself. Satisfied with his winning Ryuujin reverted back to his moral body. But like Decador the fragile form was battered, bloody and broken. An unaccustomed faintness washing over Wufei. Bracing trembling arms he flopped down on the blood-splattered ground. His once white outfit was blotched in scarlet. His shiny hair had slipped from the ponytail and hung in matted curtains about his pale face. A jarring cough shook his body lancing it with pain.
Duo with a caring look watched Chang in his struggle with his mortality. "Chang." he whispered lowly. "Heero I have to go to him." he informed his lover.
Without question or pause Heero took Duo's hand and with swift steps guided him to his former abuser. Trowa and Quatre followed closely behind. Chang looked up in amazement as his pet knelt by his side. His puzzlement turned to fear as Duo reached out. Chang drew back but lacked the strength to escape Maxwell's touch. "Do what you will...with me." he choked out the words between short gasps for air. "I deserve whatever punishment you desire."
Another cough retched up thick blood-tainted salvia. Chang tottered as he attempted to spit on the foul fluid. Duo placed his hand on Wufei's clammy forehead lending his aide. Ignoring the crimson clothing Duo eased down leaning Chang back against his chest and encouraging his heavy head to rest on his shoulder. It seemed that the failing human wanted to resist Duo's tender touch but again his strength betrayed his efforts.
"I have no reprisals." Duo declared shoring up his support.
Gazing up into his Pretty One's soft sight Chang gave up fighting. "Duo why?"
Duo tensed at the sound of his name. Tears welled at the implication. "Do you realized that is the first time you have called me by my name?"
Chang lowered his sight. No longer could he gaze into Duo's soulful eyes. "I knew from the beginning that I had no right to defile your name." he stated, "I held you in awe, was jealous of your steadfastness, of your devotion to your soldier." he sucked in a labored breath, "I longed for the same warmth, ached for one night of willing passion." he unashamedly admitted. "But you see I have forgotten how to love. It had been centuries since I have felt a comforting caress. Decades since..." a stabbing pain shuddered through him as cold sweat broke out on his pasty skin.
"Rest now." Duo urged the repentant Priest. "You saved my life, all our lives. You offered yourself without consideration of the outcome. You redeemed yourself," he proclaimed, "it was not my doing."
Quatre squatted down on one side. He laid his hand over Chang's damp brow. A radiant glow began to emit from his fingers. The shimmer grew brighter. Wufei reached up and with quivering fingers pushed Quatre's hand aside. "Please let me go." he wheezed out the request. "It is the only way I can find true peace." The God of Light nodded returning again to his mate's embrace. Duo wiped away more coppery drool smearing Chang's mouth with scarlet. "Be quiet, save your strength." he instructed.
"You have to know...before the end you have to know." Wufei implored his precious Pretty One to listen. "I have no right...to beg your pardon for I have committed many grievous sins against both worlds. All I ask is that you...do not hate me." he begged his eyes brimming with tears.
"I could never hate you." Duo replied truthfully mopping back stringy hair from Chang's failing eyes.
Wufei coughed again. This time he had no strength to turn his head. Strangling on the ejected phlegm he fought an overwhelming urge to close his eyes and simply go to sleep. "Do you feel pity for me?" he whispered his voice becoming fainter.
Duo shook his head. "I feel heartfelt appreciation for your sacrifice." His own voice fettered with mixed emotions Duo squeezed his watery eyes shut. Crystal droplets spilled over the lids forming grim-streaked tracks on his cheeks. The tears gathered on his chin then gave into gravity. They dripped on Chang's ashen face mingling with his own shed tears of remorse and regret.
Air hissed in his lungs as Chang drowned from internal bleeding. More bloody fluid sprang from his clogged windpipe. One last dim gaze on Duo's fair face. One memory for a keepsake as his journey to the other side began.
Duo held tightly to his savior's hand. He could feel Wufei slipping away and knew he had no saving grace with which to halt his passing. Now weakened sight searched for a final glimpse but failed to focus. A raspy breath fought to voice one last question.
"Duo." came the calling of his cherished name.
"I am here."
"Do you think.." Suck in. "that one day..." Wheeze out. "someone will write...a Requiem...for me?" the last syllable faded away. A content countenance replaced the tortured expression of pain and sorrow. A final soft sigh, a peaceful repose and Chang Wufei expired.
Duo clutched the limp form pulling Wufei as close as possible. His heart broke and a spillway of tears flooded through the rip in his soul. Silently sobbing Duo allowed all his hurt to dissolve. Heero knelt by his mournful mate rubbing his back and offering soothing words. Trowa comforted his lover as Quatre, too, wept openly.
Chang Wufei, the Dragon God, had in the end obtained an ennobled soul. He had willingly made the ultimate sacrifice. He had saved two worlds and four lives had been set free. Duo touched his tarnished cross to Chang's forehead. Privately he offered up an appeal for his safe journey into a better place. "May the wind guide your wings till you find your way home." he breathed out the "Petition for the Dead" he had learned from the village Priest.
Heero and Trowa carefully carried Chang's body outside the courtyard away from any residual influence that Decador might have left behind. Reverently they buried the fallen warrior under a graceful oak tree. Quatre used his restored magic to fashion a cross from a large quartz stone. With his finger he etched Chang's full Christian name and the date of death. Since Wufei was much older than the immortals they did not know the year of his birth.
Needing some time to himself Duo wandered from his lover and companions to walk among the towering trees. As he gathered wildflowers for Wufei's grave he ponder all that had happened. His faith in mankind had been reaffirmed. The power of love had been proven true. He no longer feared death for he knew that he and Heero's souls were united forever. There was a blessed closure, a perfect peace.
Soon Duo joined his comrades. Placing the flowers on the newly disturbed earth he offered a final request to the heavenly deities for divine guidance and asked the fates for their blessings for a long life with his friend, lover and soul mate, Heero Yuy.
As the victors disappeared into the forest they left no trace of their presence. Only a lone grave remained as mute testimony to all that had transpired. The setting sun painted vivid hues of orange, pink and red over the rocky cliffs. Somewhere in the dusk-shrouded woods a nighthawk sang out a haunting call then unfurled his strong wings. Gliding above the ancient castle's spires, silhouetted against the gathering twilight, perhaps the soaring symbol of strength and grace carried Chang's soul to its final rest.
*Ultima ratio regum is Latin meaning, "The final argument of Kings."
There was great celebration in the land. The castle's Great Hall was packed with Senators, Generals and Clergy. Noble families and courtiers bedecked in their flashy finery mingled among the impressive assemblage. The King's troops, each company identified by their Standard Flag, stood in orderly formation on either side of the massive room. The outer courtyard was filled to overflowing with all manner of commoners who had also gathered to welcome the victorious warriors. The King had declared a day of feasting and everyone of all stations had been invited.
King Stephen stood on a raised platform before twin thrones decorated with elaborate carvings accented by gold leaf, precious gemstones and seat cushions embroidered in shimmering silk threads of red, blue and gold. The Kingdom's Coat of Arms, bearing the Crest of Elon and inscribed with the phrase: "Strength Tempered With Justice." hung on the wall behind the Seats of Power.
Attired in his formal suit of wine-colored velvet complete with a hip-length cape the Monarch was a striking figure. His Queen Jacqueline in her beautiful silver satin gown stood stately by her husband's side. The royal pair were elated, their joy apparent in their smiles as they looked out over the excited crowd.
On the floor level Captain Yuy dressed in his dark blue dress uniform embellished with a double row of brass buttons stood at attention before his Commander in Chief. Heero's unsheathed sword, still tarnished by bloodstains, hung from his belt. He had deliberately not cleaned the blade because he wanted its tainted condition to be a reminder of the high cost of the Kingdom's liberation.
Duo Maxwell, his roughly woven peasant clothes exchanged for an outfit of pale blue linen and knee-length leather boots, stood quietly beside his soldier. A wrinkled red ribbon dangled from the end of his braid seeming out of place with the finer attire. Behind the human pair, adorned in their priestly robes and surrounded by a radiant aura, the Gods of Light and Darkness were honored to be counted among the guests.
A murmur rose from the crowd as the King made his way down the polished stone stairs to reach the floor. The Queen followed stopping on the bottom step. The humans and immortals bowed in respect. Duo smiled at Heero then in his own form of admiration took several steps back to join Quatre and Trowa.
The King raised his hand signaling for quiet. A hush fell over the chamber. "This is indeed a glorious day." he proclaimed as a wide smile beamed on his face, "We have come together to honor our returning heroes." Thunderous applause erupted as everyone responded in unified agreement. Again a hand was raised requesting silence.
Reaching inside his cape the King drew out his personal sword, the same one that had belonged to his father and grandfather and each generation after in a continual line of succession. For this royal rite he did not wish to use the fancy Ceremonial Sword. No, only a weapon baptized in battle would be fitting for such a solemn occasion.
"Captain Heero Yuy kneel before me." the King ordered loudly so everyone could hear. Heero braced one leg on the floor, draped his arms over the bent knee and lowered his head in his Lord's presence.
Turning his war-scarred weapon on its side the King gently laid the flattened blade on his humbled Captain's left shoulder. "All who are within the sound of my voice hear my words." he announced, "Let all those here this hour bear witness to my declaration and actions. By my power as Ruler of the territories between the Great Mountains and the River Elon I, King Stephen of the House of Kent, do hereby dub thee Heero Yuy a Knight in my service." he lifted the sword letting it rest on Yuy's right shoulder, "You have through your selfless dedication as a soldier proven yourself worthy of this rank and title." The blade was returned to an upright position. "Arise Sir Yuy and take your place among the Knights of Kent."
"Thank you your Majesty." Heero acknowledged the promotion and the serious duties it would entail. "I can not accept full credit." he declared raising his eyes to meet his King's, "I could not have done anything without the help of my faithful friends. Sire may I make one request?" he asked in total humility.
"When the Feast Day is over may I be permitted to hold a memorial service for Chang Wufei?" he requested, "If it had not been for the sacrifice of his life your Kingdom would not be free." he proclaimed.
The King leaned nearer wanting the rest of their conversation to be private. "You may have anything you wish with my blessing." he promised.
As Sir Yuy stood the Hall once more echoed with congratulatory applause. Heero bowed to his King and Queen then turned to bow to the joyous multitude. His face showed an uncharacteristic blush at the overwhelming attention. The warm flush burned hotter as Duo unashamedly pulled his knight into a strong hug and planted a full kiss on his mouth. Quatre and Trowa also embraced their newly knighted comrade adding their praise and admiration.
As the clapping died down the quartet faced the front. King Stephen motioned for Heero and Duo to move closer. With a wave of his hand the King summoned the village Priest to come forward. The Regional Bishop accompanied the elderly Minister. "It is a privilege to welcome you to my court." King Stephen greeted both holy men then joined his Queen on the bottom step.
Father Michael had known Duo Maxwell since his childhood. From a young age the lanky lad had attended the Parish school and, despite his poor circumstances, been an excellent student. Although the braided boy was prone to mischief and was often a bit restless during Sunday services the kindly Father had been pleased with Duo's faithful devotion.
On this wonderful day the Priest was overjoyed that he could perform a Union Ceremony for Duo and his soldier. The Bishop's presence would lend even more credence to the joining. It was indeed an honor to have such a high-ranking member of the Clergy co-officiate.
Father Michael smiled as he stood before Duo and Heero. Duo smiled back at his spiritual mentor as complete contentment beamed on his fair features. "It is an honor to be here today." the Father addressed the crowd, "Sir Yuy would you take Duo's left hand in your left hand." he instructed. Heero and Duo joined hands their joy evident in the glow in their eyes and the smiles on their faces.
"We have come together to celebrate several events." he began, "The safe return of our warriors, the release of our land from a dreaded curse and the uniting of two people who are obviously very much in love. The union of Duo Maxwell and Sir Heero Yuy may be viewed as odd by some and may even be uncomfortable to others but I can not in good conscience deny their commitment so it is with great joy that I grant their request to be joined.
Who here will stand up for Duo and Heero?" the Priest asked.
"We will." the immortals replied in unison. Trowa took his place beside Heero, Quatre beside Duo.
Father Michael nodded and continued, "Someone once said that time heals all wounds but love is the medication that begins the process. Love can heal the heart, mend the mind and soothe the spirit. We are lucky indeed to find that one true love that will last a lifetime and I believe that Duo and Heero have found that bond.
Heero Yuy will you be faithful to Duo? Will you comfort him in sadness and sickness and share his joy and triumphant? Will you hold him sacred above all others and keep always unto him as you grow old together even unto death?"
Heero locked his misty sight with Duo's azure eyes that were also brimming with tears of joy. "I will even unto death." he pledged his loyalty and trust.
The Priest repeated the same vows to Duo. Duo swallowed to push down an emotional lump before answering, "I will even unto death."
"Do you have a token of your devotion to exchange?"
"We do." Heero and Duo replied together facing each other.
Trowa handed Heero a simple band of gold. Heero slipped the symbol of his commitment over Duo's ring finger on his left hand. "With this ring I show before all witnesses my love." he declared, "May the continual circle represent a never ending promise and the gold a sign of purity. I pledge to you each moment from this day forward." he finished as his voice choked with happiness.
Duo took another band of gold from Quatre and placed it on Heero's ring finger. He repeated the exact words as his voice, too, reflected his happiness.
The exchange completed they turned to face the two holy men. The Bishop took a gold cord and wrapped it loosely around Heero and Duo's joined hands. "This cord is the tie that binds." he announced then instructed the lovers kneel for his blessing. "By your verbal pledge and the outward sign of your rings you both have affirmed you love." the Bishop laid a hand on Duo and Heero's bowed heads. "Father Michael and I by the power of our ministerial offices jointly declare that Duo Maxwell and Heero Yuy are one in body, mind and spirit and that their bond is recognized under the laws of this Kingdom. Duo, Heero you may rise and seal your bond with a kiss." the Bishop proclaimed.
Tears streaked Duo's cheeks as he faced his husband. The gold cord felled to the floor as Duo's slipped his arms around Heero's neck. The newly joined pair brushed their lips in chaste affection before Heero drew Duo's closed for a more satisfying kiss. Then Quatre and Trowa embraced their mortal friends.
King Stephen shook Duo and Heero's hand, Queen Jacqueline gently kissed their moist cheeks. "From this hour this union will be granted the same rights and privileges as any other. Sir Heero Yuy and Duo Maxwell-Yuy are partners in all legal matters and will be treated as such before this court." the King announced, "Congratulations."
That night Heero and Duo made love in the same bed that they had shared before all the trouble. But this time their night of passion was not hidden in the shadows, was not done in secrecy for fear that someone would find out. As they laid tangled in damp sheets in a sated embrace they were secure in their bond, knew that they were a rightfully joined couple free to establish a home and be open in their relationship.
During the Feast King Stephen had taken Duo and Heero to his private chambers and offered heartfelt apologies for his initial interference. He admitted that he would have suffered greatly had his spreading of false rumors resulted in their loss of each other or their lives. He humbly begged the couple's forgiveness not as the King but as a truly sorrowful man. Duo and Heero accepted Stephen's regrets with humility, expressing their understanding of the King's reasons even though they could not condone his actions. They did promise, for Stephen's sake as well as their own, that the entire matter would be forgiven and forgotten.
During the private meeting Duo took the opportunity to petition the King. He asked if he might be allowed to assist Father Michael at the Parish school and that enough money be set aside so that all children in the village and surrounding areas would be able to attend. King Stephen was pleased with the request. Going one step further he proposed that Duo be put in charge of expanding the study programs to include apprenticeships with the local craftsmen and merchants.
"With you and the good Father in charge of our children's education and Sir Yuy's duties as my trusted Knight my Kingdom will surly prosper." the King declared.
Two days later as late afternoon rays painted over the cliffs, the Knight and his husband walked hand in hand to the river. They paused on the sandy bank looking up at the ancient castle's spiny spires silhouetted in the sunset's fiery brilliance. The rippling water reflected the flaming light taking on the same crimson color as the ribbon holding Duo's braid.
Heero took Duo into his arms pulling him as close as physically possible. With a sigh Duo rested his head on his partner's shoulder. Despite his total contentment there was a mournful cast to his azure eyes as Duo gazed up at the dusk-streaked outcrop skirting the castle's entrance.
Heero sensed his lover's despondency, "What's wrong?" he whispered wrapping his arms tighter against the evening chill.
Duo nodded against Heero's shoulder his auburn bangs tickling under Yuy's chin, "It is so sad." Duo answered redirecting his sight to his husband's strong face, "Our love started the horrible trouble. If I had trusted you completely, if I had not doubted your feelings and tried to end my sorrow beneath these waters, if...."
Heero placed his fingers on Duo's quivering lips. "Shhh, I will hear no more of such talk." he lovingly ordered, "It was not our love that began the events but other's intolerance. It was the low status forced by unfair restrictions that made you doubt that you as a commoner could be loved by a soldier. There were circumstances beyond our control that fueled the fires, but it was those fires that lit the light of freedom for us and the Kingdom."
Duo smiled at his passionate soldier, "How did you become so wise?"
"It is not wisdom. If everyone would remember we are all part of the same world, created from the same earth, the surface differences would soon cease to exist." Heero stated. "It is our differences that make us special and should be viewed as an asset to society. But let us not dwell on that now." he suggested planting a warm kiss on his lover's lips.
Duo gazed back at the cliffs. The sun dropped lower draping lengthy shadows over the rocky precipice. Suddenly his eyes widen and he took in a sharp breath. "Heero," he said excitedly pointing towards the uppermost outcrop, "look, do you see?" he asked the strange question.
"What?" Heero inquired directing his sight where Duo's hand was waving.
"On that jutting point where the forest begins." Duo tried to clarify his odd statement. "The shape, up there."
Heero craned his neck, narrowing his eyes against the mingling of light and shadow. Then slowly from the irregular shade an outline began to take form. A head appeared, a long neck, then a broad body. A slender tail twitched. Twin ember eyes pierced through the gathering dusk.
Ever so slowly the realization of what they were seeing crept into Heero and Duo's mind. What they viewed crouching atop the russet point was not real in the solid sense but in their mind's eyes the images was actual. There was no fear as they watched the shadows transform into a ghostly vision. Guarding the cliffs as he always did the spirit of Ryuujin watched over the valley below. If one concentrated with their imagination and not what was based in reality they could see every detail, every ripple of muscles and even the redden steam puffing from flared nostrils.
Then the apparitional manifestation gave way to a human figure. Chang Wufei dressed in his Clan's white outfit stood in the Dragon God's place. His heavy black hair feathered in the steady breeze. There was a serene smile on his face; one that told the observing pair that all was well. He lifted his hand in a sign of acknowledgement to let Duo and Heero know that they were not alone.
Duo raised his hand in a return gesture to tell Chang that he understood. "Guard your Kingdom." Duo called hoping the swirling currents would carry his message to the Dragon's hearing. "We will meet again." Heero nodded affirmatively with his lover's wishes that they would someday see Wufei in another realm.
The phantom sighting was not disturbing, not frightening. It was merely a reminder that although the physical body may pass on that the eternal spirit lives forever. It was a comfort, a reassurance that life goes on even after we throw off our mortality. A certain peace followed the reaffirmation of the afterlife. The essence of both human and God drifted away with a fine mist that rose from the scarlet tinted water until only the weather-scarred rocks showed through the increasing haze.
"Let us go home." Heero encouraged his partner. As the night crept in on quiet footsteps and the twilight shrouded the forest, the lovers cuddling against the chill leaving the Dragon God to hunt in the moonlight.
Spring turned to summer inviting Duo and Heero to take nude midnight swims together. Summer drifted into autumn painting the countryside with a kaleidoscope of ever-changing colors; encouraging the lovers to take long walks in the woods. Autumn gave way to winter's frosted landscape. The days grew shorter, the climate took on a crispy edge and the nights were so clear that you could count the stars.
With winter's arrival Heero and Duo would spend each evening snuggling under a blanket in front of the fireplace. They would let cups of wine and the warmth of their love ease them into the night's rest. Heero would smoke his briarwood pipe and Duo would make up stories about lovers and gods and dragons. Days passed into months, months into years and they grew old together.
Love Conquers All--Karen Hickman--April 2002
Thank you for reading and for the wonderful feedback!!!!