Hello. I'm not certain why my muses inspired me to write this but they were most insistent. I hope this story will be entertaining in an odd sort of way. I will offered no further explanation, only a wish that you enjoy your reading. Take care. Hugs, Karen, The Huntress.
Disclaimer: I do not own Gundam Wing or its characters
Title: Wolf Moon
Author: Karen, The Huntress firstname.lastname@example.org
Warning: AU, language, suspense
Pairing: none in this part
Feedback: Always appreciated
Archive: DHML http://www.kikotei.net/gw/dhml/ficarch/karen.html
Shades and Echoes http://www.psinergy.com/dryerspace/gundaniumline/karen/karen.html
Summary: Five unique men form an odd alliance to stop a war between the living and the dead.
The curtain of night was studded with a thousand pinpoints of silent, twinkling stars. The moon was but a thin slice of light, its feeble illumination woefully inadequate to keep the shadow spirits at bay. A fitful wind shuddered through the trees and tapped against the wavy windowpanes of the Black Dog Tavern.
A pale glow, as pitiful as the impotent moonlight, shone through the soot-streaked windows tinting the vacant street pale yellow. Inside the tavern's single, crowded room amber lamplight reflected off thick smoky haze that reeked of cheap liquor and unwashed bodies.
Sitting at a corner table, a lone male dressed entirely in black discreetly observed both local patrons and the weary travelers who had sought respite from the night air of March that was as frosty as a whore's heart.
Heavy shoulder-length hair curtained the man's face and obscured brooding blue eyes. A crossbow and a quiver of steel-tipped arrows rested against the wall within easy reach and, concealed by the cloak draped over his lap, a dirk was strapped securely to his thigh.
The stranger's solitary location kept him from having to constantly watch his back while he ate his meager meal of venison stew, stale biscuits and watery ale. Although he had yet to find any meat hiding among the mushy vegetables, the simple fare was far better than going hungry.
He also couldn't criticize the patrons' unkempt conditions considering it had been three days since he'd had a proper bath. Dark stubble bristled on his cheeks and chin. Dust speckled his hair and his clothes smelled like swine had worn them. However, once his stomach was satisfied he intended to alter the foul status of both his body and his attire.
"More ale?" A barmaid inquired in slurred speech. Bending over so her ample cleavage strained against her blouse and threaten to overflow the flimsy material, she wobbled in an obviously inebriated state.
Glancing up the man seemed to take no notice of the flirtatious display as he softly replied "No." then asked the price of the meal.
Bracing one hand on the table the wanton wench leaned nearer. "The food is ten pence but for a few farthings more I could warm your bed tonight."
Steely eyes locked on the young girl's painted face and she was held spellbound. As the mesmerized maiden stared into the icy orb's deep blue depths, past memories merged with flickers of the future and fluttered around her mind like moths madly circling a flame.
Then fiery sparks flashed inside the mysterious man's enlarged pupils and besieged the blue ice. The optical link dissolved and the bewildered girl blinked twice before she realized that the stranger was standing closely beside her and that ten pence plus three farthings had been pushed into her hand.
"I'll sleep alone tonight.'' he whispered, the words brushing against her flushed cheek, "Use the farthings as you wish." he instructed then added as a warning. "Don't tarry on your way home."
Somewhere in the bordering forest an owl hooted out a haunting song. Wispy vapors overshadowed the moon's narrow crescent causing the cressets (1) lining the street to struggle against the cloudy obscurity.
The man tugged on his cloak then shouldered his cloth traveling bag, bedroll and quiver. Resting the crossbow against his hip he stepped out into the clammy mist. Outside the tavern he paused to allow his eyes' adjustment to the dim light and to study his immediate surroundings.
All about the stranger the night hid many secrets. As a tingle scurried up his spine his eyes darted up the street, back across the way then in the opposite direction. Nearby branches trembled and the leaves shivered as if they, too, suddenly sensed the unnatural disturbance.
"You can't hide forever." the man hissed under his breath as an abnormal chill permeated the air.
The land lying between twin mountains called, The Sisters, and the Aragonian Kingdom to the east had always been plagued with minor demon activity but in the last three months the incidents of dangerous encounters had increased not only in frequency but severity as well.
First the decreased population of wild animals stirred the local's curiosity. When livestock began to disappear from fields and barns curiosity quickly turned to uncertainty concerning the cause. Then over a two-week period, when a farmer vanished and four mutilated bodies were found scattered throughout the forest, uncertainty bloomed into panic and fear.
A Petition of Protection was dispatched to the Regional Magistrate. In answer to the urgent plea, soldiers were garrisoned outside of town. For five nights it seemed their patrolling presence had discouraged further trouble.
But upon the sixth sunrise it was discovered that the entire squad, save one man, had been slaughtered. Unfortunately the sole survivor, a Junior Lieutenant, didn't have enough mind left to answer any questions.
Finally the parish priest issued an appeal to the Diocesan Bishop stating that his parishioners were beyond man's help and that only godly intervention would save the village. Only then did the Church reluctantly agree to hire a Demon Tracker.
The Church did not officially sanction Demon Trackers. They were considered the last resort, the final stand between mankind and the profane minions that were in league with Satan and his unholy angels.
Many Trackers were defrocked priests. Other Trackers were men or women with an inborn talent to "feel" evil and the courage to face and defeat wickedness in its foulest forms.
Now the black-clad stranger surveyed the streets, a man skilled in all manner of defense against every perversion of heaven and earth...a Demon Tracker named Heero Yuy.
(1) Cresset--A metal bucket mounted on a pole to hold oil or pitch that is burned for illumination.
Heero Yuy gladly paid the price for a room at the Blue Bird Inn and four pence extra for the bathhouse. Wearily he trudged up the creaky birch board steps with his meager belongings then down the dim hall until he found door number seven.
The room's simple appointments consisted of a wooden bed with a feather tick mattress covered by a dingy cotton sheet, a pillow and downy duvet. A plain white pitcher, matching washbowl and two roughly woven towels set on a dresser with a cracked mirror.
If nature called there was an outhouse at the building's rear. Heero made a mental note to take care of "nature" before going to bed as he had no desire to stir from the warm coverlet and brave the night chill once he was settled in.
A straight back wooden chair set by a single window but the grim-clouded windowpane didn't permit a clear view of the street below. Heero felt reasonably secure in his second floor location. There were no outside stairs and the window's ledge was too narrow to stand on.
However, he didn't discount the fact that some creatures he'd been hired to eliminate were practiced in the art of levitation. Other mystic beings could transform into a hazy state that not only defied gravity but also allowed them to soundlessly slip through cracks and crevices.
Then there were the beguiling spirits that invaded the thoughts and altered the willpower of weak-minded people. Heero had long ago learned how to erect mental blocks against such influence. His unemotional detachment guarded his mind but the cold aloofness had numbed his spirit and all but destroyed his ability to love.
Heero was alone and often lonely. He couldn't afford to care; it was too dangerous for himself or anyone who got too close...especially close to his heart.
The heart is the center of life, the place were dreams dwell and love blooms. But the heart is a poor place to hide secrets because it can be so easily broken. No, alone was better for a Demon Tracker who had to traverse both the land of the living and the land of the dead.
The cloak and dirk were left on the bed. Carrying a lighted lamp, small leather satchel and his loaded crossbow Heero made his way downstairs to the bathhouse. He secured the door and began to strip. When he was naked except for his breechcloth he debated whether or not to shed the last protective layer.
"If you're going to wash yourself, why not the breechcloth as well?" he decided.
Heero checked the tin tub's firebox, added another stick of wood to bank up the blaze and carefully eased into the steamy water. Heated liquid surged around his legs, over his buttocks and inched up his chest in sultry waves sending rippling rings radiating out around his body in ever-widening circles until they crashed against the tub's side.
With a content sigh he settled back allowing warm water to splash under his chin. Momentarily he remained motionless savoring the pleasing sensations and letting the heat soothe his travel-worn muscles.
But the relaxed state was deceiving. Senses were on full alert. Eyes scanned the shadows; ears picked up the slightest sounds...wind whining outside...rats scratching in the walls.
A Tracker never let down his guard, never took anything or anyone at face value. Ever alert, ever ready because one moment's inattention could be the last mistake he made.
Satisfied that no uninvited beasts lurked among the shadow images dancing in the yellow lamplight, Heero slid under the water to thoroughly soak his heavy hair. Like a great creature rising from the sea's black depths, he popped to the surface then smoothed back his wet mane and tucked stray stands behind his ears.
An amused smile flickered across his lips as he watched three fleas, no doubt acquired from sleeping in a barn the previous night, bob on the artificial waves. A chunk of hard-milled soap was worked into a frothy lather that soon covered his golden skin with a slick film designed to evict any fellow fleas or other undesirable creepy-crawlies that might have decided to tag along.
A mixture of softened soap and aloe oil was massaged into his hair then rinsed out by several more dunks under the water that had begun to cool with the firebox's dying embers.
The refreshed tracker wiggled out of his waterlogged breechcloth, held the dripping material over the tub and rung out most of the moisture. Hopefully if the crude undergarment were hung up in his room, the drafty currents leaking through the poorly sealed windowpanes would dry it by morning.
Encouraged by a shiver produced from chilly air on damp skin, Heero briskly toweled his body and hair. He dressed in a loose-sleeved nightshirt, tugged on
his battle-scarred boots and stuffed his soiled clothes in the satchel. Crossbow in hand he headed back to his humble room.
Heero made certain the door was bolted tight and set the lamp on the dresser. He hung the damp breechcloth on the chair's back. In the morning he would pay a washerwoman a few pence to wash the rest of his cloths.
"It's good the Regional Magistrate met my price." Heero mumbled as he mentally calculated the job's necessary expenses and perhaps a few that might provide personal pleasure.
Coating his face with oil he used a crude razor to scrape away three-day's growth of beard, pausing after each pass to wipe the stubble-covered blade off on a towel.
When he was clean-shaven, Heero inspected his wavy reflection in the dresser's cracked mirror, slipped the razor in a leather case and transferred the lamp to a bedside table. In keeping with his usual bedtime preparations, he hid the dirk under his feather-filled pillow and placed the crossbow within easy reach.
Pulling off his boots, the Tracker slipped under the duvet, used the pillow to cushion his head against the bed's rickety headboard and took his journal from his traveling bag.
The chronicle of adventures was bound in worn leather that was creased from constant use. Nearly every page, except for the three most recently added, were tattered along the edges and the ink had almost faded away.
Heero carefully thumbed through the brittle pages then, with equal care, flattened the spine until the book remained opened of its own accord. The last entries were easier to see on the newer paper, the ink brighter and clearer. Still in the flickering lamplight, he had to squint to read his scrawled handwriting.
Running his index finger over the hastily penned words the circumstances concerning their source was recalled in disturbing details.
Seven days ago:
Misty gray dawn clung to the watery horizon the morning the Demon Tracker embarked on his quest. His fateful journey began with a three-mile trek along a beach littered with pebbles, broken shells and driftwood deposited by a fearsome storm that raged the previous night.
The deep rumble of thunder was reproduced by pounding waves capped with white foam that would crash, fling up a fine salty spray then retreat with a hiss of frothy bubbles to again engage the shoreline in an ageless dance of surf and sand.
Sea gulls scurried in the breakers and flocked in groups squawking and pecking out the meat of decaying crabs that had also fallen victim to the storm surge. As the human ventured into the gull's feeding frenzy some the scavenger birds took flight, caught the updrafts and soared skyward making Heero envious of their freedom.
The journey continued with a laborious climb over craggy outcrops that slithered like black stony serpents across a steep, scrub brush speckled hillside. Hand over hand, boots digging into continually shifting grains that refused a foothold, his crossbow tapping against his back, Heero inched his way to the crest and finally stood atop the sandy mount.
As he faced the remnants of Covenant Hill Abby, the sporadic gale howling up from the sea shivered against his back and billowed out his cloak like unfurled sails swelled by the tidal winds. The gull's shrill lonesome calls echoed over the hill or was it the haunting moans of abandoned souls that wailed in his ears?
Twin skeletal spires of shattered stone thrust toward the overcast sky. The heavy wooden gate that once guarded the consecrated monastery had long ago been rotted away by relentless moisture and splintered by battering wind currents.
The bell tower had also surrendered to the ravishing of time and the sea's merciless elements. The pitted brass bell now lay on the gritty ground, its once gleaming surface tarnished with rust. Its broken clapper offered mute testimony to having been forsaken by a generation who refused to answer its call to prayer.
Heero followed a meandering path around piles of unrecognizable debris. He walked across the overgrown quadrangle, passed collapsed walls with crumbling mortar and threaded through two rows of neglected headstones inscribed with forgotten names.
But the Tracker was not rambling aimlessly nor was he lost. His excursion into the monastic sanctuary was aided by a map he had "acquired" from a nobleman of the House of Trent.
The unauthorized acquisition wasn't considered stealing but more akin to a contribution to a holy cause. Besides Heero had politely explained the map's importance and had offered Lord Warwick a fair price only to be rudely informed by the arrogant ass that he didn't deal with "daft shadow chasers".
With a sure direction fixed firmly in his mind, Heero kept to a straightway route until he stepped into the scriptorium. Like the rest of the Abby, the room set aside for copying manuscripts, books or other scared texts had been reclaimed by sand and wind and rain. However the Tracker knew that not everything had been reduce to rubble or all the secrets totally destroyed.
Attached to the rear wall three stone panels had survived the determined forces of nature and were in remarkably good condition. Although the Latin letters carved by devoted monks almost a century ago were sandblasted, their indentations and shapes were still readable.
Heero leaned closer to the tablet trio and used puffs of air to dislodge layers of grit clogging the weathered words. A sturdy brush with his fingertips removed enough of the finer particles so he wouldn't have to strain his eyesight.
From a cloth pouch hanging on his belt he took out his leather-bound journal, a quill pen with the feathers cut off and a small bottle of pokeberry ink that look more purple than blue when written on the unrefined paper.
Squatting down at the best angle to take advantage of the weak rays of sunlight punching through the clouds, the Demon Tracker set about recording the clues that could help him locate and defeat the Lord of Darkness and his depraved minions.
It quickly became clear that the engravings were not scripture or moral edicts issued by a higher authority either in church or heaven. The first tablet contained a directive of unification but a riddle had been employed to hide the true message.
"Holy symbol from the Land of Elon unite the quinque.(1) The lone hunter, wise to demonic ways. The duel spirit of earth and sky. A cleric who rules a tri-ringed rod. The fair manipulator of seasons. The perpetual beast that fools the eye."
The second tablet continued with another puzzling inscription.
"Upon the Vernal Equinox follow the river that runs in reverse where the Temple Keeper dwells in Deep World. He shall guide the united ones to righteous victory."
The last tablet held a single sentence written in bolder capital letters as if to emphasis its urgency...SUB ROSA---LEST THE DEVIL DISCOVER".
Restless shadows crept along the bedchamber's walls. As Heero's thoughts returned from his remembrances, his finger paused on the final sentence. "Sub Rosa." he repeated out loud. "Under the rose." he translated from Latin to English. "In ancient times the rose was used as a token of secrecy."
Was he actually meant to find a rose, a sign in solid form that would help solve the mysterious clues? Or was the reference to a rose merely a warning, a call for caution?
With a sigh borne of both physical and mental lassitude, Heero set the journal aside, tucked the downy coverlet under his chin and blew out the bedside lamp.
"The riddle will be explained in time." he muttered in the murky gloom that quickly enveloped the room as the sullen moon refused to lend its glow.
"Patience." He whispered the virtuous charge of endurance.
Rolling onto his side towards the door, the solitary hunter reluctantly offered up his safety to fate's protective whims and dared to close his eyes.
Soon sleep would overtake his senses dulling their intuitive vigilance. Yet another night when dark dreaming would invade his soul and extinguish a bit more of his humanity.
Or perhaps the nightmarish slumber would open a portal to the next world and Heero could finally slip free from the mortal shackles that bound him to his isolated existence.
(1) Quinque--Latin for the number five.
As the midnight hour crept in like a silent sentinel, a silhouette made indistinct by the wavy windowpane, perched on the narrow sill with the sureness of a bird of prey. The phantom observer's eyes, reflecting an internal glimmer, had no problem seeing in the limited light as they scrutinized Heero's fetal-curled form. There was no malice in those odd orbs only curiosity tempered with concern.
"Tracker." The single word was whispered softly.
Heero stirred as if prodded by the calling. The word was repeated but, this time, not a verbal but a mental connection was made. Heero's face contorted into a frown and his brows drew together in puzzlement.
Beneath tightly closed lids, Heero's eyes jerked as they tried to follow the rapid succession of images flashing across his vision. His breathing increased until the bedroom's stillness was punctuated by the sound of panting.
Bright amber mist encircled Heero making it difficult to identify his surroundings. An unearthly cold rose around his legs and a shiver clawed up his spine. The stench of decaying flesh rankled in his nose sending queasy waves thrashing through his insides.
"Tracker, can you see?" The disembodied voice asked.
Shielding his eyes Heero drew in a startled breath at the carnage he saw. Mutilated bodies of humans and demons littered the blood-soaked ground as far as he could see. Nothing was alive. Trees were bare, the grass scorched, even the largest stones had been pulverized to dust.
Suddenly a tormented wail reverberated so harshly that Heero slapped his hands over his ears, dropped to his knees and trembled from the pain. It was a Banshee's scream...the forlorn howl that always followed the senseless destruction of battle.
The mist began to churn and born from the funneling vapors, thousands of lost spirits reached out in desperation. "Save us." They begged in one besieging voice.
Heero shrunk back from the imploring souls that writhed in misery and hopelessness. "What can...I...do?" he stammered as their icy hands threatened to freeze his skin and halt his heartbeat.
Then a new voice joined the utter despair. A soothing tone defused the anguished lamentations. "I know the way." the voice declared, "Trust me."
There was a promise of peace in the declaration that touched Heero's quivering body and dissolved his fear.
Heero lifted his head at the affirmation. Before him stood a young man dressed in a simple brown robe and narrow-hemmed pants. Soft shoes covered his feet. He held a polished wooden staff topped by three intertwining gold rings. The center ring was filled with a smooth ruby stone that glowed from within.
The amber mist laid about the man's shoulders like a cape and shrouded his head defeating Heero's attempts to see his face but his emerald eyes were clearly seen. They, too, held a promise that the terrible consequences of a full-fledged demon war could be avoided and that mankind could be saved.
Heero swallowed hard to wash a fearful lump from his throat so he could speak. "Who are you?"
Emerald eyes beheld the Tracker in a comforting gaze. "I am the Priest of Twilight."
Heero dared to be bolder. "What do you want with me?" he demanded as he stood up.
"Your skills and your knowledge." the Priest answered, "Also your courage."
"You don't need my help; you have your magic."
The green-eyed man tiled back his head and an amused laugh sparkled over his lips. "Magic? Are you so sure I am not a man like you?"
Heero opened his mouth in rebuttal but the priest raised his staff signaling for silence. "You will understand in time. I have sent a pair to guide you to your destiny. They will lead the way."
"A pair? A pair of what?" Heero growled. He was quickly becoming irritated with this Twilight Priest and their vague conversation.
"Sleep now. No more dreams."
The Priest waved his staff, the mist enfolded over him and he began to disappear into the swirling vapors.
"WAIT!" Heero shouted, "Dammit I'm not finished with you."
Despite Heero's demands the Priest became more and more transparent until he faded away. The dreadful sights and sounds and smells also dissipated and in their wake the land was reborn. Grass was green, flowers bloomed and birds warbled in the trees.
A heaviness of body overtook the Demon Tracker. Drowsy cobwebs were spun over his mind and he involuntary lay down in the cool, sweet grass. In the Inn's bedroom Heero's troubled countenance relaxed and his breathing evened out.
At the window the phantom watcher used a slender finger to trace a sacred sign on the filmy windowpane. "No more dreams." The voice repeated inside Heero's head.
Then the substantive form, flesh and blood but different, stepped off the sill into thin air. A flawless somersault and the lithe body landed gracefully on a branch. Seconds later the form scurried down the tree and stood beside his nomadic comrade.
Black eyes sparkled in the muted moonlight. "Did you speak to him?"
"Does he understand?"
The ebony-eyed figure leaned closer. "Will the Tracker follow?"
"Of course. No one can resist when I choose to have my way."
"Then let's copy his example and go to sleep. We have a long road before we reach Twilight."
Rosy sunrise streaked above the horizon and painted "The Sisters"mountains in multi-hued bands of scarlet. Heero squeezed his eyes tighter against the invading brightness, hissed out his curse-laden condemnation and pulled the duvet over his head.
Perched on a branch near the window, a mocking bird chirped cheerfully but the bird's constant crooning was not appreciated by the grumpy Tracker. Also a rooster's frequently occurring and quite enthusiastic crowing was viewed as an intolerable nuisance.
Issuing another mumbled mouthful of curt profanities, Heero snuggled deeper under the downy coverlet in an attempt to shut out the daybreak noises that had so rudely interrupted his slumber.
A bewildering dreams had plagued the Tracker's sleep but the subconscious vision was not the usual repetitive accounts of fiendish demons or humans who were equally evil. Oddly the peculiar dream was both frightening and alluring, filled with comforting familiarity but also urgent undertones that demanded immediate action.
The lingering alarm had tagged along even after Heero drifted back to sleep. A certain brand of restlessness pried at his mind and wouldn't allow his body to relax. And no matter how many times he changed positions or tried to exorcise the dread, the edgy feelings persistently vied for his attention.
*Three rings.* His mind subliminally recalled the riddle.
Heero's instincts were pressing him to the east, towards the Kingdom of Aragon. There was something near the twin mountains he was meant to find, some knowledge to learn. He also sensed that his demon quest would end there, one way or the other and that he had no choice but to discover his destiny.
Now the morning heralds of sunlight and song were quickly becoming more than he could abide. "Let me rest in peace." he growled into his pillow.
The natural order paid no heed to the Tracker's pleas for shadow and silence. A new day was beginning and no amount of swearing or threats could stay its arrival. Finally with a surrendering sigh, Heero eased back the duvet and begrudgingly greeted the dawn.
The Demon Tracker was an imposing figure, dressed entirely in black and carrying his lethal armaments. His heavy hair was tied back but long bangs feathered over his eyes to offer only brief glimpses of cobalt blue as he descended the stairs.
"Will you be staying another night?" the Inn's proprietor inquired.
Much to the owner's disappointment, Heero shook his head negatively. "Is the tavern open?"
The owner nodded "yes" eyeing the crossbow and quiver. "Expecting trouble?" he wondered as the cloak's side hem slid back to reveal the dirk strapped to Heero's thigh.
"Its been my experience that trouble usually comes when its least expected." The last of the reply faded away as Heero stepped out into the morning activity.
A modest stone chapel with unadorned windows, a single wooden door and a bell tower set opposite the Blue Bird Inn.
A priest dressed in a humble cassock, draped over his thin frame like a mourning shroud, stood in the opened door hoping that his parishioners would seek his help in defeating Satan's minions that maimed and killed and enslaved innocent souls.
Despite the villager's best efforts to carry on normal lives, there was always an underlining tension and an acute sense of fear. Even the daylight seemed inadequate to keep the spiteful shadow spirits at bay, to deter the day-walkers or discourage other unearthly fiends from their vicious maliciousness.
The hunter of hellhounds barely noticed the priest who, in his own way, desperately strived to keep the Sovereign of Sheol in his place. Heero had little confidence in religion or prayerful intervention. He had seen both forms of intersession fail too many times. No, a keen intuitive "second sense" combined with his crossbow's deadly sting had proven to be his only reliable salvation.
Despite his lack of conviction, Heero hadn't completely forgotten his childhood lessons or repeating daily prayers with his mother.
"Sometimes faith is all you have to lean on." his mother would say each time her son questioned why people had to suffer or why there was no one strong enough to stand against the wickedness of the world.
"Faith wasn't enough to save you, was it mother?" Heero mumbled bitterly.
"Perhaps your faith won't be betrayed." He wished on the holy man's behalf as he respectively nodded to the priest.
Heero squinted up at the bell tower and took a moment to scrutinize the blushing sky before he growled under his breath. "The damn devil doesn't understand anything but hatred. He answers to no force but raw power and he fears no one but me."
Wagon wheels creaked, horses whinnied and that irritating mocking bird continued to sing. A steady stream of villagers flowed up and down both sides of the wide dirt path that served as a street.
The only people conspicuously absent at that early hour were the whores who used the darkness to hide their sexual sins. No doubt they were tucked in their beds, sleeping peacefully, totally oblivious to the hustle and bustle.
Shopkeepers called from doorways to tempt customers to buy their merchandise. "Bread, fresh this mornin'." the baker announced.
"Potatoes, five for a shilling." was heard from another doorway. "Cabbage ten pence a head."
Poorer vendors in shoddier thatched-roof kiosks offered everything from live chickens and an occasional goose to roughly woven cloth and simple trinkets made of wood or amulets craved from stone.
An old woman with scarcely a tooth in her mouth and long white hair curtaining her gaunt face screeched out. "Talismans."
A metallic glint flickered in Heero's side vision. Slowing his pace, his head turned just enough to identify the phantom light's source.
The crone leaned over the kiosk's crude railing and motioned to Heero. "Come...buy a charm for your lady or a shield for your soul."
Gnarled fingers held up a heavy chain that was clearly not as delicate as those worn for mere adornment. A Celtic cross of equally high-quality composition dangled from the shiny links. As it swayed, its polished silver surface reflected shafts of sunlight slicing through the trees causing bands of crimson to shimmer across Heero's eyes.
Sidestepping a steaming pile of horse dung, the curious Tracker moved nearer to the crone to better inspect the cross that had so suddenly sparked in interest.
"Ah yes," the woman continued, "come see what I've got for ya." she cooed in a sweet tone that was totally opposite of her tart appearance.
Heero paused at what he considered a prudent distant in case the woman was really a witch who offered the cross as an enticement to lure him close enough to cast a spell. Nevertheless, his eyes perfectly copied the back and forth pendulous sway and, despite his caution, he found himself being drawn to the intriguing object.
*The cross is most likely stolen.* Heero's inner council warned as he stopped just inches from the railing.
*Most likely from a priest.* his council declared, then added for Heero's sake, *Returning it could save your soul.*
Heero sucked in a shaky breath. "Or damn it." he replied lowly as he remembered his mother's daily entreatments for his spiritual welfare.
The cross was lifted higher so the potential buyer could study the workmanship and precise details. "Pretty." the woman stated, "See how it twinkles? Like the stars."
Heero slid a single finger under the holy symbol to stop the mesmerizing swinging. Gracefully flowing vines intertwined around the ringed junction of the staff and crosspiece and a single rose bloomed in the circle's center. There were no other markings, no letters in Latin or other clues to identify its origin or owner.
Before Heero realized he had spoken, "How much?", echoed in his ears.
The hag tilted her head allowing more stringy strands to flow over her wrinkle-creased cheeks. "Two pounds, not a pence less."
"Too high." Heero argued to haggle down the price.
The nearly toothless woman narrowed her eyes that were dulled by age and further bowed her hunchbacked shoulders. "Ya can't put a price on divine defense." she stated, hoping that the promise of heavenly protection would be sufficient incentive for the black-clad stranger to part with his money.
Heero snorted at the crone's cunning salesmanship but considering that the tragic events plaguing the village had worsened over the last fortnight the Tracker couldn't blame her for using every persuasion at her disposal.
"One pound fifty." Heero offered his final price.
A grin thinned out the woman's pale lips. A raspy chuckle rattled around her throat before finally finding a voice. "Ya barter good."
Then the grin twisted into a frown and her clouded eyesight locked on the Tracker's face. ""Let's see if ya do as good with the devil." she declared, holding out her hand for payment.
The Tracker dropped several coins into the flattened palm then reached out to receive his newly acquired silver treasure.
As the chain slipped free, the woman's rough fingertips tracked across the back of Heero's hand. The fleeting touch prickled over his skin causing icy currents to race down each finger with such swiftness that the cross almost slipped from his numbed grasp.
An involuntarily gasp followed the sudden chill then Heero held his breath as the woman responsible for the witchery leaned closer and whispered. "Silvery ring round the moon, your dream will come true very soon."
Resisting the urge to use his dirk to silence the old crone's mad ramblings, Heero quickly shoved the cross in his trouser pocket then slung the crossbow's strap over his shoulder along side the arrow-laden quiver. He gathered his bag and bedroll in his left hand leaving his right hand free to come to his defense if necessary.
Employing his long-practiced habit of constantly shifting his sight, Heero merged smoothly into the crowd always alert to any dangers or challenges...human or otherwise.
As the Demon Tracker stepped over the tavern's threshold a current of cold air brushed across his back and bristled the hairs on the nape of his neck. He froze in place before his instincts prodded him to look back at the old woman who had sold him the cross.
An amber aura surrounded her head and shimmered around her shoulders and her once dull eyes glowed with the same golden light. Heero tilted his head in wonder that no one on the crowded street took notice of the woman's altered appearance as if he was the only one meant to see the changes.
Before Heero could question the unnatural chill or the validity of what he saw, a breathy whisper hissed in his ear. "Sub Rosa."
With a slight nod Heero acknowledged the telepathic command and made a solemn pledge."Protect the cross." he promised in the same silent response.
Most of the tavern's tables were empty. Heero took his preferred place against the wall, laid his belongings on a neighboring chair and motioned to the sweaty, heavyset man with a ruddy complexion standing behind the bar.
The breakfast menu was limited to oat porridge, flat bread, (hopefully without wheat grubs) and salted bacon. "Ain't no eggs."the barkeep stated as he wiped his greasy hands with a dingy cloth. "Ever since the spirits got stirred up the hens quit layin'."
"Porridge and water." Heero ordered. "Do you have butter?"
"Sugar?" Heero inquired, hoping for any flavoring that would make the meal more palatable.
"Nope." the man replied with another single syllable, "I might have honey."
While the Tracker waited for his food he studied the three other patrons sharing the room. A grubby man with stringy gray hair and bloodshot eyes sat to Heero's left. He was slumped sideways in his chair with a large tankard of ale cupped between his trembling hands.
With great effort the tankard was guided to the man's mouth but, in his state of extreme inebriation, for each fermented drop that successfully navigated over his lips, many more drizzled down his chin and joined the stinking stain on his shirt.
With each slosh and spill his reaction would alternate between loud curses mostly aimed at some woman named Abigail and muttering incoherently. Then he would miss his mouth again and the ranting would begin anew.
Normally Heero ignored such slobbery behavior but early in the morning, with his stomach grumbling to be fed, he didn't know how much of the drunken nonsense he could abide. If the fool wished to drink himself into oblivion he should quietly ease into a stupor without vulgar commentary and vaguely mumbled complaints.
On the opposite side two younger males matched the Tracker's posture as they also sat with their backs to the wall. From Heero's vantage point he could see the taller man had golden skin and raven hair secured in a short ponytail. It was hard to see clearly in the limited light but he also got the impression the man's eyes were slanted indicating he was probably an Oriental.
His plum shirt was loose fitting with a high collar and his trousers were slate gray. Knee-high black leather boots told Heero that the man was at least middle class. A sheathed sword hung from his leather belt. There was a serious air about the foreigner and an underlying strength in his confident attitude.
The second male wore a peculiar outfit of dark green and softer boots. A green and gold tartan that draped over his left shoulder, angled across his chest and back and knotted on his right side at his waist. His shirt and trousers were formfitting and accentuated a trim physique and toned muscles. His hair color was a fusion of ginger and cinnamon, woven into an unusually long braid.
Heero couldn't see the man's eyes for the tousled bangs and stray stands framing his creamier face. No form of weaponry was seen but Heero knew from experience that he wasn't the only person who could conceal his mode of protection.
The strangers seemed to take no specific notice of the Tracker but he was certain they were fully aware of the slightest variations in sight or sound or atmosphere.
The barkeep brought the porridge and a large cup of cold water. Fortunately two spoonfuls of honey made the taste less bland but did nothing to improve the lumps and sticky texture. Still, Heero reminded himself again, that even the least tantalizing meal was far better than going hungry.
Heero chewed, stared at nothing in particular and recalled when he feasted on roast pork, fresh vegetables, fluffy biscuits and ruby wine of the finest vintage. There was a time, not so long ago, when he enjoyed the social graces of art and music and dance, the company of friends and sexual favors from quite a few beautiful women.
Now the Demon Tracker dined alone. Sadness touched Heero's eyes as he remembered carefree days and nights of passion. Then he had a home and family, kith and kin. Then he had a peaceful mind and a kinder heart.
Then...before the Legions of the Damned wrought their wrath on the world. Before the sun turned red, the moon lost her glow and the heavens wept over the horrendous death and destruction.
But that was Heero Yuy's former life, a past so far removed from his present circumstances that brief flashes of memory and dark dreaming were his only connections to what once was a ordinary existence.
Now he was in voluntary exile, his heart hardened and his only quest was to seek out and destroy every fallen angel until he faced Satan's Lord of Darkness in the final battle that would have only one winner.
The lumps in the porridge were not nearly as large as the lump in Heero's throat. "Stop it." he ordered as he braced against the tears brimming in his eyes. "The past is dead, you can't go back."
A long drink of water washed down the last bite of porridge but Heero decided that something stronger was needed to drown his resurfacing emotions. "Ale!"
Heero had no intension of copying the fool who had collapsed on the tabletop and whose face was currently lying in a puddle of smelly drool. He wasn't going to befuddle his senses or muddled his mind to the point of becoming vulnerable to beguiling spirits. All he wanted was to dull the heartache and fuel the fire blazing in his gut.
Three gulps finished the tankard. The ale burned all the way down but the pain was preferred to the hurt in his heart. Now numb around the edges, Heero leaned back, took a deep breath and mentally prepared for his journey that he knew would be complicated by many perverted foes.
One last time he glanced around the tavern. The unconscious drunk was still content in his stuporous oblivion but the youthful males were nowhere to be seen. Had Heero's instincts slipped so badly that the odd pair had left unnoticed? Had they simply vanished or were they never there at all?
Still Heero detected the essence of two residual presences, one human...the second... more primitive as if man and animal had merged.
*Interesting.* Heero's inner voice commented as he gathered his belongings. He paid for the meal then wrapped his cloak around his body that shivered not from the cold but from the ale thinning his blood.
The Demon Tracker squinted in the mid-morning sun then took the eastern road toward Aragon, perhaps to find this mysterious Priest of Twilight.
Twin silhouettes stepped from the shadows and followed at a discreet distance.
The road rapidly left the village behind as it wound throughout the countryside. For the most part the rustic thoroughfare was dirt rutted by cart and carriage wheels and marred by horse's hooves. Occasionally planks had been buried in low areas that were inclined to flooding but their uneven surface was still rough and hazardous to one's footing.
On either side the forest created a woody border of stout oak, chestnut and popular trees. Intermingled amongst the hardwoods, green pines and blue spruces added a feathery texture and refreshing fragrance to the scent of decomposing leaves and damp humus.
Spring wildflowers thrust through the black soil. Sheltered by exposed roots, snarled undergrowth and rotten stumps that had been shredded by woodpeckers and hard-shelled beetles, the awakening flora provided splashes of color to the otherwise dank environment.
Heero's journey kept to a moderate pace. Although the Abby's riddle and his latest dream compelled him to discover the secrets of Twilight, he saw no reason to travel at such a hurried pace as to become exhausted in body and mind. His instincts had to be sharp, his physical fortitude at its peak if his quest was to end in triumphant, not defeat.
Ever since he left the village, Heero felt "eyes on his back" but his six sense told him that the phantom surveillance wasn't threatening but more akin to interested observation. Perhaps a game of "Follow the Leader" would make the trek less monotonous.
Morning gave way to midday. The furrowed road narrowed, the forest became denser and encroached further until its leafy canopy partially blocked the sun and afforded more places for the shadow dwellers, whether real or imagined, to conceal their spying.
Heero adjusted his crossbow's strap on his right shoulder and rearranged the weight of his bag, bedroll and quiver on his left shoulder. His back was beginning to ache and his stomach was rumbling for food but something more demanding now competed for his attention.
Ahead the road forked presenting the Tracker with a choice of direction and no marker to declare a destination. Heero stopped and stared at the division with an expression alternating between inquisitive and annoyed.
As he stood at the confusing crossroads he studied his options and discovered that both trails had identical features that gave no hint to aide in his decision.
"Damn." he mumbled under his breath, letting the crossbow slide off his shoulder to rest against his hip.
Neither side pointed strictly east. The Tracker looked right then left before centering his sight on a stand of assorted conifers that set squarely at the parting point.
With a sigh he closed his eyes and tried to visualize the right way to go. Behind his tightly closed eyelids swirls of blue and pinpoints of diffused light were all he could see. He cleared his mind, pushed aside the indecisiveness and concentrated on his inborn bearings.
Slowly an outline materialized in the swimming patterns of dim light and cobalt blue. A glint of silver spiked, elongated vertically then a second line of light flowed out horizontally to form a....
Heero eyes pressed against the lids to better see the emerging shape. "A cross?" he whispered out loud.
*Your cross.* his inner voice clarified his question.
Without hesitation he opened his eyes and fished the recently acquired treasure out of his trouser pocket. Wrapping the chain around his finger, he lifted the vine and rose embellished cross to eye level then extended his hand so it dangled freely.
For a moment nothing happened but Heero had learned that channeling energy could not be rushed. By degrees the chain became taunt then moved of its own accord until it quivered towards the left. Then just as quickly both cross and chain went slack.
"Left." Heero confirmed the course. He slipped the cross around his neck, tucked it inside his shirt and started down the now certain path.
A rivulet joined Heero on his journey and invited him to pause on its banks for midmeal. Like silken threads embroidering a natural tapestry, shiny slips of water stitched through a stony maze and slithered over a sandy bed on their way to the sea.
Content to rest beside the bubbling brook, Heero piled the sum of his possessions next to a moss-covered tree trunk with the crossbow on top for easy access. He removed his cloak and retrieved a cloth pouch holding several slices of dried venison and a biscuit leftover from breakfast.
Before partaking of his meager rations, he squatted on the bank to wash his hands in a deep pool of cool, azure water that mirrored the overhead branches and the cloud-speckled sky.
He settled back against the tree, tore off a mouthful of spicy meat with his teeth and chewed in contemplative silence. Only two clues to solving the riddle had been discovered, each one in a quite extraordinary fashion.
"Five." Heero recalled the individual parts that would make up the whole. "The demon hunter, that has to be me."
"A cleric who rules a tri-ringed rod." He repeated between chews then smiled wistfully as he remembered his mother's scolding for talking with his mouth full. "In my dream the Priest of Twilight carried a staff topped by three rings."
A bite of stale biscuit and the riddle recollection continued. "Duel spirit of earth and sky. Duel in Latin can mean two but spirit is singular so is the spirit in two forms or one combined?
The fair manipulator of seasons. Winter, spring, summer, autumn... manipulator...controller...can he or she command the tides or weather?
The perpetual beast that fools the eye." Heero swallowed the mushy bread and paused to consider the implications of a possible shape-shifter or maybe a wizard that veils himself in magic or.... The weary Tracker rubbed his temples where a dull ache had begun to grow.
The puzzle was still unclear and if that wasn't enough to totally perplex the senses, there was a river that runs in reverse, a Keeper of a Temple in somewhere called Deep World. Lastly there was the warning concerning the rose, no doubt the rose on his cross, that was shrouded in secrecy.
A frustrated puff of air feathered Heero's bangs and redirected them from shading his vision. He wasn't any closer to finding the answers and the troublesome importance of shrinking time until something terrible happened was weighting heavily on his mind.
"What am I meant to know!" he hissed through gritted teeth as anxiousness crept over him like a soul-snatcher stalking its prey.
Accepting the fact that no solutions would be immediately forthcoming but content in the knowledge that all things have a conclusion Heero, for the time being, would set his sights on Aragon then direct his search for this place called Twilight.
Once more he bent over the calm, clear pool and cupped his hands for a drink to wash away the aftertaste of venison and the residue of biscuit crumbs. He finished the first handful before the water slipped through his fingers then leaned over for another thirst-quenching gulp.
As the ripples evened out and were replaced by a glassy reflection, Heero caught a glimpse of motion behind him along the tree line. There was a darting, blurry movement that seemed transitory in nature but it was hard to tell if the source was the result of flickering sunlight or some other form either spectral or solid.
But when Heero spun quickly around nothing was there except a single tawny feather floating lazily on the breeze.
Afternoon ran ahead of Heero and he found himself trailing further behind. The sun, too, had maintained a faster pace and now hovered just above the treetops. Wispy clouds that had dotted the sky were amassing in gray banks to the north and there was a definite smell of moisture in the air.
The waning sun, combined with the thickening clouds, made the forest darker, the road harder to navigate and gave the lone hunter's imagination more chances to see shapes moving among the trees or hear footsteps crunch in the underbrush.
Heero was sure he wouldn't reach Aragon before it became too dark to find his way so seeking refuge before nightfall was imperative. He estimated he had an hour or less to find a suitable structure to ward off the night chill and provide protection from the impending rain.
If memory served him correctly, the Tracker knew that the forest would soon thin out and the road would descend into hilly farmland where hopefully a barn or stable would fit his needs.
As stronger gusts ruffled his hair, fluttered his cloak, shivered the leaves, bowed the branches and encouraged an owl to find a hollow to hide in, Heero stood at the forest's edge and surveyed landscape that stretched out in a patchwork pattern of plowed fields and rolling meadows. Mercifully, several wood-shingled buildings were scattered throughout the gently rolling terrain.
The wind rose again with a mournful wail but this time a voice was also carried on the currents. "What have we got here?"
Heero turned to find the inquiry's source and discovered that four burly lads had used the storm to sneak up on the Tracker who, under normal circumstances, would have heard them coming a hundred yards away.
The apparent boss of the hooligans, who Heero supposed had the greater amount of functioning brain cells, sported a shaggy crop of dirty blond hair, broad shoulders and upper arms the size of tree trunks. His topcoat was coarsely woven hopsack dappled with dried mud.
Clutched in one beefy hand, a long, serrated-blade hunting knife was waved about, no doubt, to bolster his courage or perhaps to compensate for the minor measure of his manhood.
The trio of equally disheveled men flanked their leader displaying dim-witted grins that gave the impression they foolishly believed they'd have an easy time relieving the traveler of the moneybag hanging from his belt.
A chubby man, who smelled strongly of rye whiskey, with an ugly scar running from the outside corner of his right eye to his jaw line, said to the man with the knife. "John, ain't his cloak pretty?"
"Yeah pretty." Another man named Harry, who was armed with an axe, concurred.
John rubbed his chin for a contemplative moment before replying. "Yeah, but that ain't all I fancy." he announced with a sneer that thinned out his lips and exposed a crooked row of tobacco-yellowed teeth "I'd like to see how pretty he is down on all fours with his bare ass full of my cock."
Wicked laugher in anticipation of a sexual romp at the stranger's expense echoed over the trees and distracted the scruffy quartet for the mere seconds it took Heero to spring into action.
In the blink of an eye he loaded his crossbow, set the trigger and had the steel-tipped arrow aimed at John's chest. The toothy smirk faded but John didn't seem particularly impressed with the lone man's challenge to his authority.
"Now I ain't had much learnin' but I can count and I figure you're outnumbered by four to one and you can't get but one man before the rest of us are on ya like vultures on dead meat." John stated with certainty.
"That may be true," Heero agreed with John's flawed logic, "but I'll be more than happy to take you to hell with me."
Another lackey named Jack with an eye patch and a missing front tooth leaned his shoulder against an oak tree with an air of amusement at the standoff between John and the brazen stranger.
Without warning a hand snaked down from an overhead branch, grabbed a fistful of Jack's collar and hoisted the startled man straight up into the dense foliage. Now only his legs could be seen kicking high above the ground and the frantic sounds of a struggle could barely be heard over the whistling wind.
Finally the chubby man took notice of his buddy's odd behavior then the fact he was in trouble slowly sank into his liquor-addled brain. "HEY!" he yelled, waving to get the other's attention then started off at a run towards his partner in crime.
John cast a hurried glance in the loud shout's direction but the knife remained poised in place. "Dammit, Jack, quit foolin' around." he spat out his irritation.
Heero nodded at the strange scene. "Looks like the wood trolls are restless."
Just as the scar-faced man and his axe-toting friend reached the tree a keen crack, like brittle twigs being snapped, sounded somewhere in the branches. Just as quickly the thrashing stilled and the muffled protects stopped. The legs went limp and one-eyed Jack's lifeless body dropped to the ground with a sickening thud.
The stunned pair stood beside the crumpled heap of flesh with its neck bent at an odd angle then tilted their heads up to see what manner of tree dwelling beast was responsible for the brutal attack. But they saw no unusual activity nor could they pick out anything unnatural among the shivering branches.
John appeared to be unaffected by Jack's gruesome demise, taking the attitude that one less man meant a bigger share of the traveler's money or a longer time to satisfy his lascivious appetite.
Even though Heero was a bit unnerved by the sudden reduction of the thugs' ranks he hid his surprise and commented. "It seems the odds are now three to one," he stated the obvious, "and I'll be greatly pleased to send all of you to hell."
The Tracker's smug remark had the desired effect spurring John to launch a headlong charge. Before the brute with the knife covered ten feet, the arrow was expertly set in his breastbone.
John froze, eyes wide in shock. A gurgle rose in his throat, frothy salvia tainted with blood trickled from his gaping mouth then he pitched forward like a felled tree.
The man with his axe raised above his head raced passed John's prone body with every intention of splitting the bowman's skull from top to bottom. Heero slid his hands down the crossbow, curled his fingers around the butt and swung the bow like a club.
The upper crosspiece connected with Harry's cheek, chin and nose at the same time. Harry's boots skidded on the grass, his torso spun sideways, the axe leaped from his grip and with a painful grunt he plopped down on his buttocks where he sat sputtering and cursing and holding his busted nose.
Without delay Heero centered his weight and delivered a high spin-kick that dispatched the last man and sent him sprawling into a thick, prickly patch of sweetbriers.
Now it was the Tracker's turn to sneer at his bested foes that were haphazardly strewn about the grassy clearing. The man in the brier bush grimaced and yowled each time he tried to extract himself from his thorny throne.
Harry was busy trying to stop the goodly amount of blood leaking from both nostrils. He looked up at Heero thought puffy eyelids that were undoubtedly vexing his vision.
"Bastard." The derogatory description was slurred by swollen lips that refused to cooperate.
As for John and Jack...they had nothing to say. John lay face down, his eyes closed, his face ashen and his arms twisted around his body. Part of the arrow's splintered shaft, which had been forced through from chest to back by the fall, protruded from his crimson-stained coat.
Heero walked to the tree where Jack's contorted body was ghastly evidence of his violent death. His opened eyes were fixed in terror, their widened pupils glazed over in a glassy, sightless stare. His right arm was trapped under his lax frame, his left arm folded across his chest.
Something clutched in Jack's hand called for closer examination. Heero rested a knee on the ground and pried open death-constricted fingers to inspect the item of interest.
To his surprise he found a feather. Twirling the feather between his fingers, he recalled it was the same tawny color as the feather he 'd seen earlier by the brook.
"Deja vu." he sighed in resignation that everything in life was destined to repeat itself.
To the north, thunder rumbled. The wind whipped around Heero as if to steal his breath and halt his heartbeat. A fine spray of rain heralded the escalating storm and he knew it wouldn't be long before a full-fledge downpour would send him scurrying for cover.
Paying no heed to the tempest's threats, he took a moment for silent reflection. Although he had sent many demonic beings back to Sheol and while his conscience was clear concerning those necessary terminations, Heero had not become so jaded that he still didn't feel a pang of guilt each time a human life ended.
It was not Heero's place to proclaim himself judge or executioner or decide the punishment for man's sins. Even the exorcism of the damned was decreed by the Church and, like the crusading knights of ancient lore, the Demon Tracker merely followed divine orders and carried out preordained sentences.
Also there would be no interment, no reunion with the earthy elements and the rain would surely extinguish a pyre's fiery consumption. Heero had neither the time nor the inclination for any burial rites. No, better to let the carnivores and carrion crows reign over the dead.
Closing his eyes, the chaser of elusive creatures of myth and legend offered up a prayer for the slain men's safe passage into the afterlife and whatever reward was deemed suitable for their transgressions.
"Amen." he whispered, "So be it."
Lightning zigzagged across the weeping firmament. Thunder boomed like a cannon's report and vibrated through the ground as if trying to shake the foundations of the world.
Windswept droplets pelted the Tracker, splattering his boots and trousers with mud and thoroughly soaking his cloak in the few minutes it took him to run the fifty or so yards to a pine-shingled building that set well off the road.
The remote location was just as well. The last thing Heero wanted to deal with was a hostile farmer taking exception to him trespassing on his property. Being killed at by an irate householder was definitely not how he wished to depart this life. Struck down in battle or shot by a jealous husband was a far more fitting way to go.
Heero put his shoulder to the waterlogged door, planted his boots and shoved twice before the stubborn latch broke loose. Rusty hinges squeaked shrilly setting his teeth on edge as the door opened just wide enough for him to squeeze through.
He dropped his crossbow and assorted personal property on the floor. With extra effort he defied the uncooperative hinges and shut up the entrance effectively cutting off the strong gusts that followed him inside.
Wind-blown dust particles trigged a fit of sneezing and coughing. The odor of moldy hay, mildew and manure permeated every inch of the musty interior. Wiping his watering eyes, Heero waited for them to adjust to the dusky gloom. When his vision cleared he found he was standing in a stable he reckoned hadn't been occupied in quite awhile.
Cautiously he picked a path through the main section that was now being used for storage. Straw-laden cobwebs hung from every nook and cranny and covered every surface with their tacky fibers confirming the room's neglected status.
To his right, a row of four stalls stopped at a side wall that was bedecked with leather harnesses, reins and the heavy collars worn by Shire horses. A dry-rotted saddle set on a barrel in the far corner.
Straight ahead a pair of square wooden trunks, reinforced with bands of tarnished tin, set side by side. An anvil, a blackened stone forge and a table covered with various hammers, chisels and heavy-duty tongs took up the remaining space.
A rickety ladder disappeared into a loft that spread out under the slanted roof. Directly overhead a pair of brown mourning doves cooed in the exposed rafters.
"Cozy." Heero declared sarcastically as he surveyed his crude accommodations.
The wind howled outside. The stable shuddered under the gusty onslaught that forced dampness through the poorly fitted walls causing Heero to quickly discover that his soggy cloak offered little protection from the raw chill.
Fortunately the forge was an ideal place to build a fire with minimum risk of burning down the stable. A base of straw was set ablaze by sparks struck from two pieces of flint rock. A layer of sticks was added. Finally planks pried from horse stalls finished the fire.
Heero draped his cloak over the table to dry."Fire bright...heat and light." He recited a poem he'd learned in childhood then realized he couldn't remember the rest of the rhyme.
"Might as well explore." he decided prompted more by boredom than curiosity.
The nearest trunk seemed the logical place to start. He slid an iron pin through the closing ring to free the latch."Let's see what secrets you're hiding."
The lid lifting revealed more harnesses and several small tin boxes with "Macleod's Farrier Shoppe" printed in faded red letters on the top. Horseshoes, hand-cut nails and spikes were evidence of the blacksmith's handiwork.
Heero debated whether or not to disturb the idle items that obviously had been there for a long time. The thought that a nest of beady-eyed rats or other vile creatures that might call the miscellaneous mess home was not at all appealing.
Carefully slipping his hand beneath the first layer, Heero shifted his weight ready to jump back should something vicious strike out from the dim depths.
"So far so good." he thought to himself testing the next layer.
With a bit more confidence but not dropping his guard, Heero lifted the tangled harnesses and discovered a wooden box with frayed rope handles. More caution was applied in removing the lid then he leaned forward slightly, again ready to make a swift retreat should any beasties be forthcoming.
To his amazement, as if fate had finally decided to smile on the weary Tracker, he found two heavy blankets with a distinct "horsy" smell.
But putting up with the unpleasant odor was a small price to pay in exchange for the warmth the blankets would provide.
Using the inside of his boot Heero piled up a "hay mattress" and laid a blanket on top. He made sure the dirk was securely strapped to his thigh and placed his loaded crossbow within easy reach.
He eased down then wiggled to sink deeper into the soft mound. With a relaxed sigh he tugged the second blanket up his legs to his chest and tucked the sides around his body.
Heero's empty stomach made occasional protests but it would have to wait until morning for its demands for sustenance to be satisfied. Oddly "roasted rat" flickered through the Tracker's mind but the notion of rotisserie rodent with brandy wine sauce wasn't too tempting.
The man with the braid stretched out on his stomach and peered down to watch the Tracker assembled his bed of hay. Inching forward for a better viewing angle sent a shower of straw sprinkling from the loft.
"Be careful or he'll see you." The man's ebony-eyed companion warned from his darkness-veiled obscurity.
"Nay. He won't see me."
"But he might see the results of you moving about."
Iridescent firelight played over the watcher's high cheekbones and enhanced the glimmer in his blue-purple eyes just before he ducked his head.
An intuitive tingle had prompted Heero to elevate his sight in the loft's direction but he saw nothing more than distorted patterns of light and shadows dancing on over rafters. "Imagination playing tricks." he argued against the wary sensation.
When the Tracker returned his attention to settling in for the night, the hidden observer sat up and scooted back to lean against the wall beside his friend.
"What do you think, two days to Twilight?"
Rubbing a soft cloth up and down his sword's finely honed blade, the Oriental paused in his polishing to figure. "I suppose the time depends on what the Dark Lord sends to stop us."
Raising up enough to tug his straw-adorned braid from under his trim rear end the auburn-haired man stated positively."Nothing will stop us."
Several minutes of silence, during which the only sounds were the fire crackling and the comforting coo of the doves, passed between the Priest of Twilight's tagalongs.
The sword was returned to its sheath. Its owner wrapped a blanket around his shoulders and lay down on his rude bed. The braided man sat with his knees pressed to his chest. "Do you think he'll dream tonight?" he whispered lowly.
The young spy's drowsy cohort shrugged in a noncommittal fashion. "Do you want him too?"
"Dreams will make the connection stronger."
The storm played out its sound and fury. The thunder lost its baritone voice and the lightning was only shimmers of white light behind the mountains. The doves tucked their heads under their wings.
Heero rolled onto his side and closed his eyes. Thankfully he was dry and warm. Just before he drifted off, hopefully into dreamless sleep, the sensation of "eyes on his back" snuggled beside him like a lover.
"Good night." he whispered secure in the knowledge that he was truly not alone.
"Where are you going?"
"To find the Lord of Darkness."
The Tracker's legs jerked as if they were walking down the dirt road. His eyes moved under sleep-weighted lids to focus on the figure keeping a corresponding cadence by his side.
The person, if it was indeed a human, was near enough to touch yet the face and form appeared wavy around the edges like they were being viewed through a foggy windowpane.
"What will you do when you find him?"
The question wasn't asked, at least not so Heero could hear the words aloud. It was more of an extrasensory inquiry that tickled in his ears and slinked inside his mind.
Likewise, Heero's reply was also accomplished without the aide of physical voice. "Kill him."
"If you go alone you will fail." the vague outline warned concerning the solitary hunter's lethal intentions.
Heero growled out his annoyance at the amorphous being and its unwanted advice. "I need no one."
"This is not solely your quest."
"And who is brave enough to stand and fight with me?"
"The Warriors of the Rose."
A flutter of wings lifted the pair of mourning doves from the rafters. Side by side they flew through a square window set high in the stable's wall and soared skyward to welcome a new day.
Heero raised his arms over his head to stretch the kinks from his shoulders. A barely audible pop along his back verified that the spinal extension was successful. The hay rustled as he sat up. He untwisted both blankets that had snarled around his legs then rubbed his tacky eyes with the heels of his hands.
In the early morning light the stable lost all of its mystery. The eerie shapes of tack hanging on the walls or ghostly tangles of cobwebs or the imagined movements from the loft were put in proper prospective.
Dust swirled in the pinkish sunlight streaming through the cracks. There was no more wind shivering the walls and the residual smoke curling from the forge fire's dying embers had sweetened the musty odors.
Much like the smoke's subtle vapors, an elusive hint of the Tracker's dream lingered in his mind but scraps of remembrances were often all that remained of Heero's morning memories. Long ago, for the sake of his sanity, he had stopped struggling to fit the bits and pieces together into a recognizable picture. It had been his experience that if the dreams were meant to be remembered then they would be revealed in time.
However there was one thing that was certain, Heero's bladder was demanding immediate attention. Kicking off the top blanket, he buried his hands to the wrists in the hay, set his weight on his left hip and pushed to stand.
He draped his cloak around his shoulders to ward off the morning chill and left the crossbow by the bed confident that its protection wouldn't be required. Besides the dirk was strapped to his thigh should he have any reason to use it.
A dense stand of waist-high pine saplings hid Heero's "taking care of nature" and preserved his decency as he tucked in his manhood, rearranged his breechcloth and buttoned his trousers.
A squirrel perched on an oak branch bristled its tail, barked at the stranger invading its territory then lobbed a seedpod to emphasize its irritation.
"All right, I'm going." Heero chuckled at the irate rodent's antics.
Assured that he was out of the squirrel's harassment range, he stood quietly to allow the morning sights, sounds and scents to soothe his soul.
All about the meditative Tracker the varied creatures that called the countryside home had also stirred from their slumber. Deer grazed in the meadow. Chipmunks scampered in the brushwood. Birds warbled and swooped down to snatch bugs for breakfast. Delighted to be awake from its winter hibernation, a woodchuck nibbled on tender spring grass.
Across emerald fields bathed in gossamer mist that shimmered like fairy tears, shaggy cattle and unshorn sheep shared pasture. Four horses galloped across the crest of a hill adjacent to a farmhouse.
A hawk in flight was silhouetted in bands of scarlet blazing on the horizon and further in the distance, rearing up against the painted sky,"The Sisters" mountains kept their timeless watch over all of creation.
The air was delicately perfumed with yellow primroses, pink honeysuckle, wild lilac and lavender. But a trace of another fragrance mingled with the woodsy freshness of flowers and dew-damp grass. A smoky smell wafted on the breeze and a hint of....
Heero sucked in a deep breath and held it so his brain could confirm what his empty belly was already certain of...meat! Someone was cooking meat! The scent was so sure that it caused his nose to twitch and his mouth to salivate.
A loud grumble announced his stomach's impatience and set his feet in motion to find the tempting aroma's source. However as much as Heero wished to ease his insistent hunger pangs, he employed caution and soundless, calculated steps until he peered from the forest fringes into a grassy clearing.
The Tracker's stalking skills were validated by his unseen surveillance of two men sitting beside a stone-ringed fire. Six sticks, striped of their leaves, were anchored between the stones and tilted at the ideal angle to roast the skewered chunks of sizzling meat. Occasionally melting fat would drip into the fire with a sputter and pop that generated wisps of aromatic smoke.
Upon closer observation and to Heero's surprise, he recognized the men from the previous morning at the tavern. There was no doubt.
The one man's slanted eyes and coal black hair, the sword at his side, plainly identified the Oriental. The second man's lengthy auburn braid, his gold and green tartan and the way the fire highlighted his creamy skin left no uncertainty in Heero's mind.
*An interesting turn of events.* the Tracker's inner voice declared.
"Interesting indeed." Heero agreed.
The Oriental rotated several sticks, more fat hissed in the fire. Heero's stomach growled most adamantly. How to approach the pair? Would they be inclined to share?
*You won't find the answers standing here.* his oftentimes pushy council urged Heero into motion.
"Hands in plain sight." the Tracker reviewed the best rule to keep from being mistaken for a highwayman.
Rule number two: Don't advance unless invited.
"Good morning sir." The unexpected greeting, accented with a thick Gaelic brogue, caused Heero to flinch and involuntarily draw back into forest's limited cover.
*You've already been seen,* Heero's inner voice stated the obvious, *might as well show yourself.*
"How did they know I was watching?" he wondered, rapidly evaluating his stealthy approach and what errors he might have made.
"Sir?" The inquiring inflection in the braided man's voice called for some kind of either verbal or physical response.
Empty hands raised in the universal posture of peace the Tracker, who was not so stealthy after all, stepped into the clearing.
"I told ya someone was there." the auburn-haired man boasted to his traveling companion as he pushed up off the ground.
A nod was the Oriental's reply as he also stood up. Luckily his sword remained in its sheath constructed of black lacquered wood and embellished with a golden serpentine dragon with fangs exposed, claws bared and polished red stones for eyes.
The Irishman and the Asian studied the spy who had materialized from the forest. The braided man's scrutiny took the form of a thorough inspection from head to toe as if he was undressing Heero with his oddly colored eyes. The Oriental's ebony centers of sight focused on the dirk and his fingers curled tensely around the sword's hilt in readiness to do battle.
The edgy inspection stretched on for several moments before Heero broke the uncomfortable silence. "I didn't mean to impose my presence," he declared with all the sincerity he could muster. "but your cooking aroused my curiosity."
The braided man cocked his head sideways and gazed up through ginger bangs in a roguish fashion. "You were at the tavern...yestermorning."
"Tis strange we'd come across each other."
For some reason Heero felt it necessary to come to his own defense. "This is the main road to Aragon is it not? I suppose many people travel this way."
The Oriental's took his turn to question the coincidental nature of his and the stranger's encounter. "Where did you camp last night? We saw no fires."
Heero was beginning to resent the pair's unwarranted interrogation. "I owe you no explanation." he stated, not bothering to hide his annoyance then decided that some cross-questioning was in order.
"It seems you weathered the storm last night so where did you take refuge?"
A grin flickered over the braided man's lips and Heero swore sparks flashed in his wide pupils. "Tis a fair question. We slept in a cave." he lied about his and his comrade's secretive lodging in the stable loft.
"Where did you "weather the storm"?" The Oriental asked with a contemptuous tone that made Heero wish he had his crossbow.
"In a stable just through the woods." Heero pointed over his shoulder, "Not that it's any of your business." he responded in kind to the Asian's sarcasm.
It was becoming obvious if the verbal sparring continued a physical fight would surely follow. The Irishman held up his hands to calm the angry tides.
"There's no need to argue and there's no need for fightin'. I say we enjoy the quail before it burns and the wine while its cold." he offered the hospitality of food, drink and friendlier conversation.
"My name is Duo of County Maxwell." the braided man introduced himself with a flourished bow clearly designed to mock the aristocracy.
In keeping with his dignified manner the Oriental stood tall, sword parallel to his body and bowed gracefully from the waist but he displayed no air of submissiveness nor did he averted his black eyes from Heero's face.
"I am Chang Wufei." he announced as he straightened up but volunteered no further information concerning his country or ancestry.
"Heero of the House of Yuy." the Tracker nodded to Duo and Wufei in turn. He also gave no account of his origin or background, deciding that such familiarity wasn't necessary to share a simple meal with strangers.
"You're a hunter." Wufei stated with certainty as Heero's no-nonsense attitude and his choice of weaponry attested to his skills to either capture or kill his quarry.
"I am." Heero nodded affirmatively but didn't name the game he hunted.
The eclectic trio settled around the fire to share their bountiful breakfast. Heero inwardly wished for salt but the game bird was tender and cooked through without being too dry.
A bottle of ruby wine had been chilling in the creek. It was passed around several times until the fermented drink had mellowed everyone's mood to mutually acceptable levels of relaxation.
Opposite of Heero's aloof disposition and Wufei's reserved personality; Duo was energetic, sociable and inclined to dominate the conversation.
Between tearing off bits of meat with his fingers and swigging goodly gulps of wine, the enthusiastic Irishman told a rambling story about the last town they visited called Goswick and his carousing with a man named Robert and woman named Lucy.
He went on describing in detail a ménage a trois that made Heero wonder how many of the facts had been remembered through a hangover or were exaggerated by his current imbibing of the fruit of the vine.
Some creditability was given to the dubious tale when Wufei admitted to dragging Duo out of the Millbrook Inn not five minutes before Lucy's husband, a brawny, extremely jealous man, arrived to find his wife in bed with, by then, one man.
The truth was further shored up by Wufei's grisly account of the enraged husband who threw his unfaithful wife out a second-story window. Then Robert, as naked as the day he was born, was chased down the back stairs and caught in the alley where Lucy's illicit lover was castrated for his adulterous deeds.
Heero winced as the gruesome scene replayed in his mind despite his best efforts to keep it at bay. Then it occurred to him that Duo was the one who should be cringing; after all he had barely avoided an identical retribution.
"It seems you're the fool." Heero stated honestly, "You could've just as easily gone from a stallion to a gelding."
Duo agreed, "I know but what's the point of living if you can't feel alive?"
This time Wufei took Heero's side. " Damn fool." he mumbled around a mouthful of meat.
Duo wisely decided that a change of subject was in order. "Are you going to Aragon?" he inquired of the stranger sharing his breakfast.
"Why don't we travel together?"
"There is safety in numbers." Wufei pointed out the obvious advantage.
Heero leaned back with a content sigh. His stomach was full and the wine had eased him into an agreeable mood. "Let me gathering my belongings and we'll begin our journey."
After Heero returned to the stable, Duo squatted beside Wufei, "Should we tell him we know he's a Demon Tracker?"
"What will you say when he asks how you learned such information?"
Duo shrugged. "I don't know."
Wufei used handfuls of dirt to smother the flames then stirred the ashes with a cooking stick until there was no trace of smoke raising from the charred wood.
"Everyone's true nature will be revealed in time, until then let the Tracker keep his secrets."
Midmorning sun flickered through the trees. A warm intermittent breeze feathered the leaves. Birds chirruped a joyous song. Everything seemed right with the world as the unsuspecting Demon Tracker and his Twilight guardians started off to Aragon.
The Shadow Spy's gray vaporous form funneled up from a branch overhanging the clearing then momentarily wafted above the treetops before it departed to do its Master's bidding...the travelers were not to see another sunset.
Content to keep to himself, Chang Wufei walked a few steps ahead of the reclusive Demon Tracker and the talkative Irishman.
Since Duo had no belongings he offered to carry Heero's bag and bedroll and, while the considerate gesture was appreciated, Duo's lack of any visible armaments bothered Heero.
Wufei had his sword and was most likely skilled in hand to hand combat. Heero had his crossbow and quiver, his dirk and his body could also be used as a weapon but the braided man appeared to be defenseless.
Finally Heero took advantage of a lull in Duo's constant chatter to satisfy his curiosity concerning his traveling companion's apparent lack of personal protection.
"I was wondering." he began then paused to make sure Duo was listening.
"What might you be wonderin' about?"
"You don't carry any weapons."
"Are you so sure?"
"I don't see any."
"Do you always trust your eyes?"
Heero answered truthfully, "No."
While the Tracker relied on all five senses and often the aide of his"sixth sense"...his intuitive council, he never fully put his trust in such fallible, human qualities especially when dealing with creatures that didn't obey the laws of nature.
Duo slowed his pace forcing Heero to do the same. "Don't judge a man's abilities by his outward appearance." he advised even though he was certain Heero had learned that lesson firsthand from many bizarre experiences.
Midmorning crept into early afternoon. The peculiar trio kept up a steady pace along the dusty road that was occasionally crisscrossed by lesser-used lanes. They trekked over gently rolling hills, through pastures shared by cattle, sheep, goats and horses.
Although thatched-roof cottages, crude barns and stables made up the majority of abodes for man and animal, they passed one grand house guarded by a stately stone wall and double wooden gates reinforced with bands of iron.
The manor's massive garden of mature boxwoods and white pines was intermingled with grassy paths lined by willowy bushes bursting with thousands of yellow flowers. A rose arbor and a cedar-shingled gazebo took up most of the heavy-timbered residence's side yard. Straight rows of trellises tinted with various hues of spring green stretched out over the vineyard as far as the eye could see.
Heero, Duo and Wufei stopped and dared to peek over the wall. There was no one moving about the garden but there was smoke billowing from the washhouse chimney.
Standing beside Heero, Duo snorted then mumbled, "Bastards."
"I take it you don't care for nobles." Heero replied to the Irishman's curt commentary.
"They're a bunch of pompous asses who hoard their wealth and abuse their power." Duo hissed out his contempt,"I have no use for them."
Even though it was clear the aristocracy had somehow wronged Duo, Heero didn't want all noblemen tainted by the minority of snobs who flaunted their higher station. "Not everyone born into privilege is like that."
Duo whirled around so quickly his braid whipped over his shoulder. "I'd say your opinion speaks of favoritism."
"You're of noble blood," Duo interrupted, "don't deny it."
"I've never tried to hide what I am but you shouldn't judge a man by his appearance." Heero declared, turning Duo's words back on him. "And you don't know what's in a man's heart."
"Ya right," Duo reluctantly admitted, "Tis clear you've chosen a different path." He locked his eyes, now devoid of anger, on Heero "Tell me truly, are you running from your past or towards your future?"
A long moment of silence passed between the Tracker and the wise Irishman before Heero sighed then answered as honestly as he could. "Both, I suppose."
Five brightly painted wagons were circled in a wildflower meadow. The muscular Percheron horses had been unhitched and stood sleepily in a shady grove of oak trees.
Two dozen swarthy men and women of various ages sat around a large fire. The Gypsies were dressed in colorful clothing embroidered with shiny red and blue threads. Their heads were covered with silky scarves and their ears were adorned with hoops of gold.
Handsome children, exact copies of the adults with dark wavy hair and large black eyes, romped with scruffy dogs or played an impromptu game of Duck and Geese.
Wufei and Duo glanced over at the caravan's campsite but they didn't seem inclined to stop. Contrary to the Oriental's and the Irishman's lack of interest, Heero saw the perfect opportunity to exchange the Regional Magistrate's money for food.
Heero handed Duo his crossbow and quiver then stood at the road's edge in his unarmed state. "Good day." he called to the nomadic wanders.
A slender man with salt-and-pepper hair rose from the wooden bench where he sat with three men. He lifted his hand to shield his deep-set eyes and studied the young man draped in the black cloak.
"State your business." the Gypsy elder shouted back.
"I'm Heero of the House of Yuy. I wish to buy food."
"Come here." was issued as an order not an invitation.
Upon the stranger's approach, the children ran to back to the group and curiously peaked around the grown-ups. Heero walked slowly, hands in plain sight, until he stopped a carefully measured distant from the leader.
"Enough for three?" the man asked, tilting his head to look at Wufei and Duo.
"If you have it to spare."
The Gypsy nodded to a boy Heero guessed to be twelve or thirteen who ran to a wagon and returned with a loaf of rye bread, a half-round of yellow cheese and two spring apples.
"Six pence." the elder demanded, holding up the provisions for inspection.
Six coins were counted from Heero's moneybag, the trade was made and without another word the deal was concluded.
Duo, Wufei and Heero figured if they wanted to reach Aragon before nightfall then eating while walking was their only option.
"You couldn't have haggle for three apples?" Duo teased as Heero used his dirk to divide the cheese into three portions.
Wufei tore off a chunk of bread and gave the loaf to Heero. Heero took his part then handed the rest to Duo who was trying to juggle his cheese, bread and both apples.
"Put the apples in my bag." Heero suggested, not bothering to hide his amusement at Duo's difficulties in managing his meal.
Finally the apples were safely stored away. The traveling trio settled into side by side strides and enjoyed their meal in peace since Duo's mouth was too busy eating to talk.
"How much further?" Heero wondered when the travelers stopped for a drink to wash down breadcrumbs and bits of cheese.
Wufei brought his cupped hands to his lips and slurped up a mouthful of water. "No more than an hour." he estimated the time.
Duo gnawed off the last bite of one apple, tossed the ragged core into the underbrush and crouched down by the bubbling brook.
"Hoot. Who. Who."
Duo froze in mid-drink letting the water spill through his fingers. "Owl in the daylight...bad omen."
"Perhaps it's just restless." Heero countered hoping that the superstitious Irishman was just being influenced by "old wives tales".
Wufei craned his neck to find the owl cleverly camouflaged among the dense foliage overhead. "If it is restless, what's the cause?"
"Whoooo. Whoooo." the normally nocturnal hunter repeated hauntingly.
Suddenly Wufei drew his sword, folded both hands around the hilt and fluidly slid into a defensive stance. With a purely instinctive response Heero loaded the crossbow, set the trigger and took his place beside the vigilant Oriental.
"I saw a shadow." Wufei whispered in reply to Heero's unspoken query.
"A shadow?" Duo asked for clarification. "A shadow can't harm ya." he added even though he didn't sound totally convinced.
Wufei nodded negatively. "This shadow has a wicked spirit, I can sense it." He took a single step forward never averting his focused scrutiny from the gloomy woods.
Heero sucked in a shaky breath as an icy shiver snaked up his spine. Wufei didn't look at the Tracker but his reaction confirmed that the ebony-eyed swordsman had also been chilled to the core.
Duo stepped beside Heero and it was clear that he, too, had been assaulted by the wintry gust that had abruptly swept across the road carrying with it the putrid scent of decay.
This time the Shadow Spy didn't attempt to conceal itself among the fitful leaves fluttering in the supernatural wind. It bloomed up from the forest floor in a great, gray puff like billowing smoke then transmuted into a wavy human outline.
"Demon Tracker." it hissed spewing foul smelling vapors from its ill-defined mouth.
Even though Heero knew the arrow would pass through the wispy fiend, desperation caused him to take aim at the semisolid agent of the damned.
"What do you want?" he growled in frustration at the arrow's uselessness.
The Shadow Spy hovered silently above the ground. Instead of eyes, vacant holes studied the Tracker who, to his credit, didn't shrink back from the smoggy specter.
"I want you to die." it stated leaving no room for misinterpretation.
Heero cocked his head and squared his shoulders in an arrogant posture. "I'm not easy to kill."
"Nor I." Wufei declared, angling his sword over his head to deliver a deathblow.
Duo, as well, displayed a disdainful attitude which perplexed the Shadow Spy since the braided man brandished no weapon. "You WILL NOT defeat us." he avowed in a confident tone that left no doubt of his resolve concerning a sure victory.
The Dark Lord's disciple's lopsided mouth formed the best imitation of a sneer it could manage."Let us see if you are as brave against my army." the Spy proclaimed before condensing into an opaque ball and shooting straight up into the sky.
"Army?" Heero whispered.
Wufei's eyes darted as they picked out traces of motion inside the tree line. Dry leaves crunched, branches rustled. All around, from every dim place where the sun refused to shine, vague silhouettes lurked just out of sight.
"I have a bad feelin' about this." Duo voiced what Wufei and Heero were thinking.
The unnatural wind bowed the trees as if to uproot the entire forest. Clouds slammed together to transform midday into midnight. The pungent smell of rotting flesh rankled in their noses and set queasy waves rolling inside their stomachs.
A mournful howl, not of the wind's invention, shrieked from ahead and behind at the same time. The warrior trio formed a triangle, back to back to back. Adrenaline tingled through every nerve ending. Hearts hammered and the resulting blood rush pounded in their ears.
"DAYWALKERS!" Heero shouted out the warning seconds before the first wave of soulless slaves poured from the tree line like angry hornets swarming from their nest.
Heero unleashed the arrow that hit its target between one emaciated male's sunken eyes. The bolt burrowed deep into a brain with only one goal, to sustain its owner's insatiable craving for flesh...alive, recently dead or in any stage of putrefaction.
The man's head jerked sideways from the arrow's force but still driven by the urge to feed, he staggered a few faltering steps before the bewitching spell was broken and the last spark of life was finally extinguished. With a loose-jointed clatter he crumpled into a skeletal heap.
A woman, whose face was paler than her white satin dressing gown stained with dirt, dried blood and large blotches of slimy green liquid, swayed like a drunkard. Her unbalanced stiff-legged gait was not designed for quickness and allowed Wufei ample time to cleanly sever her head from her shoulders.
With the same practiced skill, the Asian whirled in the opposite direction. His blade whined through the air and an equally deadly decapitation mercifully dispatched the headless man in a tattered green velvet topcoat on his long-overdo journey into the afterlife.
It took Heero mere seconds to reload and set the arrow into a young girl's breastbone to put her out of her mindless misery. But this time the death wasn't clean or soundlessly serene. The girl fell backwards, arms and legs flailed, her mouth gaped wide and an awful scream wailed above the whistling wind.
Heero began to tremble. It took all his willpower to resist the vocal assault's debilitating affects. Suddenly he stood in the bloody aftermath of a battle between man and demon. The screech became a Banshee bemoaning the carnage.
The dream was remembered with such clarity that Heero feared he was indeed trapped in a horrid nightmare and that there was a strong possibility he might not wake up.
The Twilight Priest, staff in hand, appeared again. The stone in the staff's center ring glowed then the scarlet light spread forth until Heero was enveloped in its soothing aura.
The Priest's emerald eyes beheld the frightened Tracker. "Come to me." he beckoned softly.
Heero blinked, the Priest vanished and his eyes refocused on the slain girl who had drifted peacefully into eternal slumber. His crossbow was in his left hand and an arrow was clutched in his right hand.
The number of the Shadow Spy's slaves had been whittled down to four. Heero pivoted just in time to watch Wufei slice a man with festering sores on his face, arms and hands in half.
The recovered Tracker used the arrow to spear another perverted creature that had ceased to be human then left the remaining twosome for Wufei to finish off.
Heero had a sudden realization. While fighting for his life, he'd lost contact with Duo. The braided man had been at his back before they were swamped by the tide of undead with bewitched brains and hollow hearts, now he was nowhere in sight.
"DUO!" Heero yelled in panic for his comrade-in-arms welfare.
Across the road where the forest fringes thinned into a wide patch of fox grass, an unnoticed monster, twice as tall and eight stones heavier than Duo, had him pinned against a tree. Burly hands wrapped around Duo's throat and brawny arms lifted him up until his feet dangled above the ground.
Heero leveled the crossbow but from his target angle the shot was unsure. He set off at a run determined to bury the arrow where the beast's spinal cord attached to his neck.
But in half a heartbeat, in the brief measure of time it took for the eyes to see and the brain to understand, Duo transformed from man to bird and his shocked assailant discovered he had two handfuls of the largest falcon Heero had ever seen.
The falcon's board wings whipped the air and battered the daywalker's face. Its razor sharp talons gripped the hands that were desperately trying to let go. The hooked beak ripped flesh and plucked out an eyeball in a gory spray of syrupy fluid.
The second eyeball was extracted with identical ease. Satisfied with its gruesome reprisal, the falcon let go and flew into a nearby tree. The man howled in anguish, clawed at his orbless sockets, pitched over, twitched in his final death throes and followed the Grim Reaper into hell.
Heero stood motionless, staring in disbelief. The stunned Tracker's wide eyes constantly shifted between the fallen foe and the great bird of prey, with a strange silvery glint on its breast, perched on a high branch.
The falcon's smooth feathers ranged in shades of brown to tan to...tawny. The feather at the brook, the feather in the one-eyed man's hand, the color as fresh in Heero's mind as if the events had happened only moments before.
"Perhaps it wasn't a wood troll," Heero whispered to himself, "perhaps Duo was the beast in the tree."
Wufei joined his victorious friend. Yes, friend for Heero had proven himself to be honest, generous and fearless in battle. The Oriental rested a golden hand splattered with blood on Heero's shoulder. "You fought well." he praised.
Heero nodded. "We fought well." he affirmed his comrades' unified success.
The wind spent its fury, the clouds melted away and the sky was blue. The sun shimmered on the falcon's sleek wings as they unfurled to allow the duel spirit of earth and sky to glide gracefully to the ground. The magic reversed, feathers became flesh and Duo was restored in the blink of an eye.
Heero realized he was walking. Wufei fell into step at his side. Duo lowered his eyes shyly. He was not sure of Heero's reaction, certainly shock, perhaps annoyance or maybe anger. But Duo's ability to alter from one state to another was his secret and only he decided when the mystery was revealed.
Duo raised his violet eyes and locked them with Heero's puzzled gaze. "I suppose I owe you an explanation."
"For my sanity's sake." Heero begged to comprehend the full extent of Duo's powers.
Duo sat down in the cool grass. With a heavy sigh he leaned his back against a tree. Wufei sat cross-legged beside the enigmatic Irishman. Heero settled opposite Duo and waited patiently to hear his extraordinary story.
Duo sat down in the cool grass. With a heavy sigh he leaned his back against a tree. Wufei sat cross-legged beside the enigmatic Irishman. Heero settled opposite Duo and waited patiently to hear his extraordinary story.
"My mother, my older brother, Solo, and I lived in the town of Fairfield in County Maxwell." Duo began the account of his life. "My father had gone to heaven six years earlier. Solo and I were woodworkers and made our living building furniture.
Three years ago, shortly after the Summer Solstice, a terrible sickness swept through the countryside. No family, including my own, was untouched.
Mother was stricken first. Her fever worsened until she no longer recognized Solo and me as we stayed steadfastly by her side doing what we could to save her but all our efforts were in vain."
Duo swallowed hard to stop the resurfacing emotions from choking off his words.
"Mercifully she departed this life before Solo collapsed for if the sickness hadn't taken her she would've surely died of a broken heart. Solo lingered four days more, growing weaker with each hour. He was," Duo paused to steady his voice, "laid to rest between my mother and father to dwell with them for eternity. Afterwards I went into seclusion and mourned alone."
Seeing Duo so forlorn broke Heero's heart. He laid a consoling hand on the Irishman's shoulder. "I'm very sorry."
Duo nodded. "Thank you." He let a long sigh flow over his quivering lips and continued. "I don't know why I didn't get sick but my survival did not go unnoticed by the superstitious townspeople who believed I'd cheated death because I was in league with the devil.
The night of the full moon the parish priest, accompanied by the sheriff and two guards, came to arrest me for being a warlock. I took a beating but I fought them off, escaped into the forest and disappeared into the darkness. Battered and bleeding, I stood on a hillside and watched the ungodly bastards torch my house and destroy the last link I had with my clansmen."
Tears clung to Duo's long eyelashes. Hungry flames consuming his home, fireballs shooting into the sky as the roof gave way and the walls caved in, every image burned into his memories. "With nothing left I became a wanderer, a vagabond...a thief...using any means to keep from starving."
Suddenly Duo straightened his stooped shoulders. His fingers curled into enraged fists until his knuckles whitened. Fiery sparks replaced the tears glistening in his eyes.
"I never sold my body! NEVER! No matter how cold or hungry, no matter how lonely, I never traded my flesh for food or a bed." he declared through gritted teeth.
Wufei shifted beside his comrade. "You're a good man." he expressed his feelings with uncharacteristic warmth.
"You don't have to continue." Heero insisted, not wanting to reopen Duo's emotional wounds.
Duo wiped his eyes with the back of his hand, "I promised an explanation and I'll finish the story. I joined a carnival troupe and earned my way repairing the wagons, carving wooden crosses and charms and performing with the acrobats.
One evening we'd set up camp outside a village named Goshen. There was a decent crowd and a goodly amount of money was made. After the show a pair of local lads, their common sense dulled by too much liquor, tried to steal the cash box. Of course they were caught and received a thrashing for their attempted larceny.
Both boys were nobleman's spoiled brats. Later that night an angry mob stormed the camp and hauled everyone including the children off to jail. I protested the unlawful arrests and harsh treatment, started a fight with a guard and took a blow to the head.
When I woke up I was in a dungeon set aside for people who were mad. Instead of individual cells there was one dank room. A barred window, which let in the wind and rain, was set high in the wall. Moldy straw scattered on the cold, stone floor was my bed. Scraps of food unfit for swine were my meager portions and a wooden bucket was my chamber pot.
My right wrist was shackled. A short chain, attached to the wristband then to the wall, allowed me to sit up or lay down but not stand up without bowing my back.
Three other prisoners were also locked away in that horrid place. One man huddled in his corner, mumbling and cursing and scratching his arms and legs with broken shards of pottery.
Another man's hairless head was covered with thick scars. His nose was a knob of crusty flesh and his skin was creased like dry leather. He spent all day and most of the night talking to his wife and children who died in the same fire that had disfigured him. If anyone interrupted his conversations with his ghosts, he'd fly into a fierce rage. That was the only time it was good everyone was chained in place.
The third madhouse dweller was a gaunt old woman who claimed to be a witch. Every morning she'd put on her faded scarlet cape and chant to the sun. Every sunset she'd chant to the moon. Each night she'd draw holy symbols and pentagrams in the straw then point a gnarled finger at me and ask the same question."
"If I gave you the power to leave would you bring me a bit of bread?"
"At first I paid no heed to the crazy crone. But one moonless night when the wind was bitter and I shivered under my threadbare blanket and my stomach begged to be fed, I heard a ring of truth in her recurring question.
"You would grant my freedom for bread?" I asked for clarification.
I wrapped the blanket tighter around my bony body and leaned against the damp wall. "Once I gain my freedom are you so sure I'd return to you?"
The woman stroked her stringy gray hair and I swear sparks flickered along the dull strands. "I know your heart." she whispered so lowly I could barely hear her above the howling wind, "You would not betray me."
"Even if these chains were broken," I rattled the heavy links, "what would be my means of escape?"
A knotty-jointed finger pointed to the window."There."
"Fool." I thought for listening to the daft witch."No more." I hissed, "I'll not let you drive me insane."
A raspy chuckle vibrated in her throat. "Do you have so little faith?"
"It's not a matter of faith but sensible reasoning." I argued back, "Even if you did have the magic..." A piercing glare cut off my words.
"Pledge your return and I'll give you the power." she growled, "If not we can rot away together. Your choice but I won't offer again."
"Could I act on faith or was I indeed a fool? But what future did I have in that forsaken room with no hope of rescue? I swear I will return." I promised then made the sign of the cross to prove my sincerity.
The woman or witch or maker of fools, whether mad or sane, leaned forward and locked her bewitching eyes on me. "No matter what happens don't look away or cry out." she instructed.
"As my heart hammered in my chest and fear threatened to stop the hammering, I swallowed hard and shook my head yes.
She drew a symbol I'd never seen before in the straw dust then passed both hands over the mysterious markings. She began to chant in a language foreign to my ears. The words were ancient, the meter spellbinding. Her voice smoothed out like warm honey. Gone was the husky tenor of age and the hoarseness from breathing musty air.
First there was a tickle on my skin like fingertips brushing along my arms and legs. Then the phantom touch began to tingle and heat rushed over my body until it felt like I was on fire. I gritted my teeth against the pain to keep from screaming. I twisted up handfuls of the blanket as my body shivered not from the cold but from every muscle contorting at once."
*She's killing you!* bellowed inside my head.
"Sweat soaked my ratty clothing and turned icy on my skin. I couldn't catch my breath nor could I look away from eyes that glowed like hot embers.
I saw my reflection in those blazing orbs and panic gripped my soul as welts raised under my flesh then feathers burst forth and layered into a sleek cover. The shackle slid off a wing much smaller than my wrist. Talons flattened on the floor. I saw clearly in the darkness as if a torch had been lit and the slightest sounds were magnified in my ears.
Now I was man and a powerful bird of prey with both spirits alive inside my soul. I stretched my wings, a shrill screech echoed in the gloomy chamber. Now I had my promised freedom for I could fly through the bars and soar far above the earthly planes."
"Remember your pledge." the witch reminded, pointing to the window.
"With one flap I was airborne. A second beating of wings on air carried me up and away. Above, the midnight sky twinkled with a thousand stars. Below, smoke drafted in bluish wisps from the prison's chimney and watch fires glowed orange in the darkness.
Strangely I had the instincts of a human and a sky dweller. As I glided on the updrafts and swooped over the treetops I was fully aware of each sensation. I could see the stars, hear the wind whistling and smell the sweet, fresh air.
As tempted as I was to keep flying until all my misery was but a memory, I kept my pledge and snatched up as many discarded crusts of bread I could find in the waste dump behind the tavern.
Just before reaching the prison a terrifying thought stole my breath away. Was I forever destined to be a falcon with my soul trapped within a mantle of plumes and spiky quills? Would I ever walk or talk or know the love of a woman?
*You know how to change.* echoed inside my head.
*How?* I questioned the inner voice.
*That knowledge has been inscribed on your soul since birth.* the voice declared, "You only have to learn how to use it.*
Duo paused and sucked a deep breath. He closed his eyes and envisioned buildings diminished from a falcon's lofty heights and people that looked like ants. Fleetingly he felt the breeze bolstering his wings and recalled the freedom of flying.
With a sigh mingled with sadness he opened his eyes and looked from Wufei to Heero then gazed at the horizon that was painted with the waning sun's red and orange hues.
"I soon mastered the transformation and the altering pains disappeared. Each night I took flight, returned with whatever morsels I could find and never begged for a bite.
A smile tugged at Duo's lips, "The witch and I hid our secret well. I would slip my wing through the shackle before changing and the guards never suspected. But even if the mumbling man and the man who talked to ghosts told the guards, no one would've believed them, after all each of us was mad in our particular way.
The adaptable Irishman glanced once more at the multicolored sunset and concluded his tale. "The moon traveled two full cycles. The leaves turned crimson and gold and the air was crisp with autumn's chill.
A week before All Saints Eve I flew through the bars but instead of the witch's usual grateful greeting, she was curled up on the floor with her death-glazed eyes fixed on the window.
For the first time, I ate the scavenged meal. Afterwards, in my human form, I held a wake until dawn chased away the darkness. I kissed the witch's cold cheek, bade my fellow madmen farewell, transformed and never looked back.
As I set my sights to the east, I realized I never learned the woman's name nor did she know mine but yet we had somehow become kindred spirits in the end.
I flew until exhaustion forced me from the sky. The landing was difficult and I barely had enough strength to transform before I passed out."
Duo leaned closer to Asian swordsman and placed a hand on his arm. "Wufei found me lying by the road, delirious with a high fever borne from fatigue and malnutrition. He took me to his house and nursed me back to health. If it hadn't been for his kindness I would have died."
Throughout Duo's wondrous narrative, Heero had remained silent. Although he had seen the proof of Duo's physical modifications with his own eyes, the tale of transformation still spoke of legends and folklore.
But the Demon Tracker had no cause to speculate about the truth veiled in such mystical stories. From the beginning of time, when the devil took on the serpent's guise, every man and beast and winged creature has tempted the senses. And every idea of what is normal in nature has been skewed until each man's reality is merely a mirage.
"The duel spirit of earth and sky." Heero said aloud as the realization of Duo's true nature became clear. "You're part of the quinque." he whispered reverently.
"The Priest of Twilight visited my dark dreams and promised his guidance." Heero stated with the same awe, "Please tell me is he the cleric who rules a tri-ringed rod?"
"Are you my guides to Twilight?"
Wufei beheld the lone hunter wise to demonic ways with ebony eyes that were shrouded in mystery. "We are your guides to Twilight."
Heero reached into his shirt, pulled out the silver cross and let in dangle from the chain. "Sub Rosa." he proclaimed.
In turn, Wufei and Duo displayed crosses that were exact copies. "Lest the devil discover." they replied in unison.
Heero acknowledged his comrades then stated, "Two members of the quinque have yet to be named. The fair manipulator of seasons and the perpetual beast that fools the eye." he recalled, "When will they be revealed?"
"Each one in their own time." Duo declared
There were so many questions and Heero was desperate for the answers. "Deep World, the Temple Keeper." he began breathlessly.
Wufei held up his hand, "Everything will be explained but until then we are charged with reaching Twilight in spite the Lord of Darkness attempts to stop us."
Duo motioned toward the rapidly graying horizon. "But first to Aragon, a hardy meal and a soft bed."
"To Aragon." Heero agreed.
"Aragon." Wufei announced as he, Duo and Heero stood atop a hill and gazed down at the dusk-shrouded town.
The main street extended south to north, a second street intersected midway up from west to east. From their elevated observation point the town's layout resembled a cross aglow with pale yellow light.
Most of the shops had closed for the evening but wavy reflections from a billowing fire, the stench of hot metal and the clink, clink, clink of a hammer told the recently arrived travelers that the blacksmith was hard at work.
At the adjacent livery stable an adolescent boy with curly brown hair used a hayfork to toss fodder to five horses. An older boy, who was unmistakably the younger male's brother, poured a bag of grounded oats along a wide planked feeding trough.
With a muffled growl, a brown terrier dug and rooted under the trough to ferret out any vermin that had also come to dinner.
The older brother draped the empty bag over an interior railing and rubbed his hands together to clean off the grain dust. "Come on Bear." he called to the excavating canine whose front paws were throwing gritty soil in all directions.
Stubbornly the ratter kept to his task. More dirt flew then the terrier snarled and lunged forward. As quickly as Bear's head disappeared into the hole, he backed out with a long, gray rat as his prize.
"Good dog." Bear's master praised.
As the shaggy terrier pranced proudly around with his quarry, the younger boy secured the back gate and took his rough wool topcoat from a support post. Followed by their four-legged hunter with a mouthful of limp rodent, the brothers started home for their own version of supper.
"Have you any vacant rooms?" Wufei inquired.
The Lords and Ladies Tavern barkeep dried a stoneware plate and stacked it in a freestanding cabinet. "Two, with one bed each. Want em both?"
"Twelve shillings. Six more for a bath."
Wufei frowned as he mentally figured his and Duo's limited monetary resources. He knew Heero had money but the Tracker had already brought their midday meal from the Gypsies and he would not ask him to also purchase a night's lodging.
He counted out the proper payment."One room and send someone to light the fire under three tubs." he ordered then added eight more shillings before pressing the money into the man's calloused hand.
The barkeep eyed the coins. He rested an elbow on the bar, leaned closer and nodded over at Heero and Duo sitting at a table. "Want me to keep hushed about the sleeping arrangements?" he winked as he gave the Oriental the key.
"The extra is for supper and don't water down the ale." Wufei warned.
Roast pork, boiled potatoes seasoned with leeks, biscuits and butter and undiluted drinks were a satisfying supper and the prospect of a hot bath made the meal much more enjoyable.
The Twilight trio trudged up the wooden stairs to find the fifth door down the hall.
The room was small but the accommodations were better than the previous night spent in a stable festooned with dusty cobwebs. Although the double bed would be a bit crowded, it was preferred to moldy straw and old blankets that smelled like horses.
"You take the bed; I'll sleep on the floor." Heero stated as he untied his bedroll.
Duo studied a moment then decided that the close sleeping arrangements wouldn't be so bad. "We can fit."
Heero disagreed. "I won't wake up with a crick in my neck."
Reluctantly Duo accepted the Tracker's logic concerning the bed's lack of space. "Knees in the back wouldn't be too restful but a bath tis an excellent idea."
Six tin tubs lined the bathhouse wall opposite the door. Three tubs had been filled and their fireboxes banked to hold the heat. While Duo secured the latch for privacy, Wufei stoked each fire to assure the water would stay hot during their baths.
Heero propped his crossbow against the nearest tub and began to undress. Wufei rested his sword on the next tub and unbuttoned his shirt. Duo unlaced his trousers then wiggled his hips to slither out of the form-fitting material.
There was no hesitation among the disrobing men. Soon outer garments lay in individual piles on the floor. Matching silver crosses gleamed in the amber lamplight.
Their breechcloths did remain in place, not out of modesty but for protection against any ailments that might have been left behind by prior patrons.
Heero paid no particular attention to his comrades' near nudity nor did Wufei take a second glance but Duo didn't waste the opportunity to inspect the Demon Tracker's strong shoulders, flat stomach, well-developed biceps, thighs that could crack a walnut and firm buttocks that resembled golden melons.
Also, when Heero raised his leg to step into his tub, the skimpy strip that supported the Tracker's manhood slid aside and granted the Irishman an alluring glimpse of the amply anatomy.
Swishing water was the only sound as the bathers used hard-milled soap to scrub off dust, sweat and traces of blood from under their fingernails. Hair washing for Heero and Wufei was accomplished with a simple lather and rinse but Duo had to invest considerable effort in the cleansing of his unbraided auburn mane.
After working up frothy bubbles Duo spent several minutes massaging aloe oil scented with rosemary down to the roots. The distribution of suds along the lengthy stands used up another five or six minutes followed by triple dunks. Finally Duo stood in the tub and wrung out as much water as he could from the dripping tresses.
As fascinated as Heero was with Duo's intricate shampooing process, he found himself captivated by the way the water rippled over Duo's lean frame, how the droplets glistened on his creamy skin and how his soaked breechcloth left little to the imagination.
Unfortunately the triple fires had died down. Chilly air on damp skin prodded the Tracker and his Twilight companions to swiftly dry off and dress. It was a shame to attire clean bodies in garments speckled with road dust and stable muck and boots smeared with daywalker slime but no one had a second change of clothes.
Duo swathed his shiny hair in a towel then wrapped it around his head. An amused smile pulled at Heero's lips as Duo's improvised headdress reminded him of the painting of a strange man called a sultan that hung in his home's front hall.
Back in their cramped quarters, Heero pulled off his scarred boots, stretched out on his bedroll, made certain his crossbow with within easy reach then tucked his cloak around his body. Duo sat on the bed's side and Wufei, his damp hair slicked back in a ponytail, sat cross-legged behind him.
First Wufei ran his fingers through Duo's hair to separate the larger tangles then carefully guided a wide-toothed comb craved from bone from Duo's crown to the waist-length tips
The combing out continued at a painstakingly slow pace but the Oriental's patience was finally rewarded when his fingers slipped smoothly through the silky locks. With equal care Wufei plaited and tied off the finished braid with a red ribbon that was tattered on both ends.
There was no casual conversation during the detangling and the braiding. The only sounds were occasional footsteps in the hall, muted voices and doors opening and closing. Outside a tree limb scraped against the tavern's wall or was it a restless spirit begging for admittance?
Heero curled under his cloak facing the door, the habit of constant vigilance was too ingrained to fall asleep any other way. Duo pulled up the cotton coverlet and snuggled close to Wufei in their usual platonic sleeping arrangement of the Irishman on one side and the Oriental's sword on the other side.
No moonlight shone through the dingy curtains. The sky was inky and the stars, like blue-white diamonds strewn across the ebony infinity, shimmered with polished luster. When the lamp was extinguished night crept in, filled the corners and made a mystery of the formerly familiar room.
Soft breaths of slumber soon joined the insistent scraping in a nocturnal lullaby set to nature's ageless melody.
The satyr stood upright on cloven hooves. Russet fur covered its haunches to just below the waist of its human torso and was dense enough to show only a hint of its well-endowed manhood. The man-goat had large brown eyes and a strikingly handsome face despite the twin ribbed horns that curled from its head.
Satyrs were typically docile beings that spent their days sleeping and their nights drinking, dancing, playing the flute and satisfying their sexual desires by seducing nymphs and bewitching women but there was an evil air about this creature.
Normally soulful eyes were cold. Sleek fur bristled into stiff spikes. Sparks flickered as the splayed hooves scraped over glossy volcanic rock.
A slender finger tipped with a two-inch claw beckoned, "Come to me." the Sylvan deity growled.
The beguiling beast slunk closer. A sneer drew back its leathery lips to expose long fangs drenched in frothy saliva. "Come." it cooed in a deceptive honey voice.
"No! Can't you see?"
"An angel...I see an angel."
"I hear a flute...beautiful music."
"Hear the deception in its voice, tis the devil that calls."
"You have no need to fear." the horned proclaimer of false promises declared.
One long fingernail caressed a cheek; the claw sliced the skin until the cut oozed scarlet. The captivated man leaned into the devilish touch...his awestruck eyes held fast by the beast's hypnotic gaze.
"Ah pretty one, let me love you."
The mesmerized man's eyes closed. His nude body sagged in surrender as he was positioned in a submissive posture on his hand and knees. The satyr's hands forcefully gripped the man's hips and ten pointed thorns speared the flesh.
Eyes widened as the man's mind registered the pain. Breath was sucked in so hard in felt like his lungs would explode but his paralyzed body was unable to move. At the realization he was powerless to escape the brutal rape, panic seized his heart and threatened to stop its beating.
A thick, barbed penis snaked from it furry sheath and its rigid shaft aligned with the terrified man's unprepared anal opening. Bending over the satyr licked the man's bloody cheek, took a moment to savor the salty taste then his foul, hot breath whispered close to his ear. "Scream for me."
Without warning the penis harpooned passed the first ring of muscles that tensed aganist the nonconsensual attack then just as rapidly tunneled through the second tight ring.
An anguish wail was garbled by pleas to stop the forceful invasion. The shaft was pulled halfway back then rammed deeper until it slammed against the begging man's prostate.
The satyr pounded again and again. Sweat mingled with blood from rent flesh to drenched the man's ashen skin and run over his body in crimson rivulets that quickly pooled on the floor.
Each thrust was accented with the beast grunting in ecstasy and his victim screaming and beseeching the gods to save him or bargaining with the devil to trade his soul for a merciful death.
Then in a final, pitiful petition, the man's pain-glazed eyes beheld his comrade who was helplessly shackled to a wall and, by the breast's curse, was unable to transform.
"Shinigami," the man implored weakly as his life bled away, "kill me."
Duo's eyes sprang open. A startled gasp shook his entire body. His hands clutched the coverlet so tightly his knuckles went white and his fingers cramped. It took a moment for his sight to adjust to the moonless gloom and to recognize his surroundings. Another short measure of time crept by as he wondered from what bizarre dreamscape the horrid nightmare had been spawned.
Duo planted his hands on the bed and, with extra effort from arms that were still quivering, pushed to sit. With a heavy sigh he moped tangled bangs from his damp forehead.
"A dream, that's all it was." he whispered aloud hoping the sound of his voice would chase away any traces of memory that lingered in the dark dream's aftermath.
Suddenly the picture of the wild beast ripping Heero apart from the inside out burned in Duo's mind. Empathic agony tore through his gut causing him to double over in pain and bury his face in his hands to muffle the groans.
The noise and moving around stirred Wufei from his sleep. He squinted through frayed hair that had escaped from his ponytail. "Duo?" he questioned groggily.
Duo parted his trembling hands just enough to answer his concerned bedmate. "Heero...dreaming...awful." was all he could say before another sharp wave crashed over and brought him to the verge of fainting.
"Hold on." Wufei urged as he supported Duo so he wouldn't pitch off the bed.
During the six weeks Duo and Wufei had been following the Heero and unbeknownst to him, Duo had shared the Tracker's dreams and had begun to forge an intuitive link.
Duo's mental connection had been employed to stave off the macabre visions and hellish hallucinations that past events had etched on the Tracker's memory. With each dream Duo had felt the fear and suffered from the utter loneliness that was leaching out Heero's humanity.
Over time some progress had been made. A degree of trust had been established but Duo had never been able to fully breach the barrier Heero had erected to guard his emotions.
Now the last obstruction between Heero's soul and Duo's desire to save him had been shattered in a single sadistic second. The wailed entreatments to heaven and hell for release from his excruciating torment echoed in Duo's ears and the acute pain wasn't merely remembered but real.
Heero flailed about on the floor, legs jerking and hands fending off the demon attacker. His pallid face mirrored the same stabbing pain Duo was experiencing. Sweat beaded on his skin and made his clothing stick and bind.
Duo gritted his teeth, ignored his own weakness and, with Wufei's help, slid off the bed and crawled to Heero's side. A tentative touch produced a bone jarring contortion so strong Duo was afraid muscles would be torn or joints dislocated.
To avoid the waving appendages Duo wrapped one arm around the Tracker's bowed body and settled his full weight across Heero's chest. Wufei straddled Heero's legs, grabbed his knees and bore down as hard as he could, even if it meant breaking a bone.
With his free hand Duo brushed hair from Heero's face so he could see his tightly squeezed eyes.
"Heero." Duo stroked his cheek, "Hear me. Dammit let me in."
Duo closed his eyes, forced his mind to move outside the pain and centered his concentration. He had to utilize every means to overrule the demon's authority and regain control before Heero slipped beyond reclaiming.
Leaning nearer to Heero's ear, Duo began to chant in the sacred dialect of Twilight. The isolation of valleys and the remoteness of mountains had kept the ancient language pure.
The mysterious mantra had been passed down from priest to priest for thousands of years. The tongue was strange but there was no vagueness in the meaning for either Heero or the Demon Master's disciple whose duty was to destroy the Warrior of the Rose.
Prayers were repeated, softly whispered but clearly heard. Gradually the nightmarish web woven around Heero's heart was made threadbare not only by the power of words but by the bond of love.
"Feel my touch." Duo ordered then sealed his lips over Heero's mouth and delivered the Kiss of Forgetfulness.
Immediately Heero responded to the tender persuasion. Taut muscles relaxed, breathing evened out and eyelids fluttered. First a hint of cobalt then his eyes opened fully.
With an expression painted over in confusion Heero asked. "What happened?"
"What do you remember?"
"That I dreamed but I can't recall any details."
Wisely Duo decided not to disclose his part in Heero's hazy recollections. He sat over on his hip and let out a relieved sigh. "Dreams have a habit of slipping away."
Heero stretched his shoulders then winced as he struggled to sit up. "I'm sore. I feel like I've been dragged behind a horse."
"Perhaps the floor doesn't make a good bed after all." Wufei stated.
Duo slipped his arm around Heero's waist, Wufei offered his hand. Together they eased Heero to his feet, guided him to the bed, scooted him to the middle and encouraged him to lie down.
The Irishman and the Asian flanked the Tracker. Wufei frowned, pulled his sword from under his butt, smoothed out the coverlet and strongly suggested that they settled down to sleep.
When Wufei was sure Heero was soundly asleep he whispered to Duo."Are you all right?"
"I will be."
"Judging by the frequency and increased severity of Heero's dreams, I'd say we're making the Lord of Darkness anxious."
"I'll continue my intercessions." Duo vowed, "And together the quinque
will properly vex the soulless bastard until we send him back to hell."
The tavern's breakfast menu was most impressive. Lean bacon, seasoned with the right amount of salt, pepper and sage, was a rare treat. The scrambled eggs weren't runny and the loaf bread was bake with whole-wheat flour.
Of course the tastier fare further drained the trio's moneybags. But after too many mornings of ingesting stringy wild game or food of questionable origin or no rations at all, the higher price was a suitable trade for avoiding the latter forms of digestive misery.
"Will we reach Twilight by nightfall?" Heero mumbled around a mouthful of crispy bacon.
In contrast to Heero's unpleasant habit of talking with his mouth full, Wufei chewed his portion of pork and washed it down with water before replying."There's no reason we shouldn't get there before sunset unless we encounter additional inhuman hindrances."
Much to Wufei's chagrin, Heero used his fingernail to dig out a bit of meat wedged between his back teeth then wiped the half-chewed gristle off on his trouser leg. "There's nothing that son of Satan can do to stop us." he declared, spearing a forkful of fluffy egg.
Likewise, Duo displayed his ignorance of etiquette. He crumbled up his bacon and bread and sprinkled the bite size pieces over his egg then added a generous helping of honey. With a spoon that was not only clean but free of rust, he stirred the odd concoction until, in Wufei' opinion, the mixture became unpalatable.
"It's not the fleshy monsters that worry me tis the mind stalkers ya have to watch out for." Duo stated from his previous night's experience.
Sharing the Tracker's horrid nightmare had left the empathic Irishman physically weary and mentally drained. While Heero was also experiencing the after affects of sore muscles and a dull headache, Duo took comfort in knowing Heero had no recollection of the demon-induced dream.
However the absence of memories didn't mean those awful remembrances had been totally exorcised. Dread still lurked just beyond the edges of Heero's mind awaiting the first opportunity to strike.
The illusory beasts, spawned from the Demon Master's magic, searched relentlessly for a breach in the carefully crafted barrier thrown up around the Tracker's soul. Like insects that continually weakened the timbers supporting a house, the nightmares were used to undermine Heero's confidence and gnaw away at his emotional endurance.
Heero had no difficulty fighting something made of flesh and bone, with or without a soul, but dreams were intangible to his tactile senses. There was no corporeal material that could be pierced with an arrow or severed with a sword.
Dreams didn't follow physical laws but existed in a surreal reality where truth was distorted like images viewed through rippling water and where phantom spirits could freeze a heart with fear.
There was no doubt in the warriors' minds concerning their uneventful travel to Twilight or, once they were united with the cleric and the manipulator of seasons, that the Lord of Darkness would permit the quinque unhindered passage to Deep World.
The only question concerning the journey was the brand of demons dispatched to stop them.
Aragon faded in the distant. In less than an hour all traces of civilization disappeared. The cart-rutted road became smoother and the grassy ribbon down the middle filled in leaving a vague path. From both sides the forest encroached on the dwindling trail making it necessary to walk single file.
Wufei took the point but his sword remained sheathed. Apparently he sensed no vile creatures prowling amongst the congested trees or the dense canopy that greatly reduced the sunlight filtering through branches interwoven with ivy, honeysuckle and wild grapevines.
The Tracker lined up directly behind the Oriental swordsman but left enough space to maneuver should any challenge be forthcoming. Although Heero also had no impression of imminent danger, the loaded crossbow resting against his hip offered a measure of security he wasn't willing to leave to intuitive chance.
Duo formed the rear guard carrying Heero's bag, bedroll and quiver. Self-assured in his transforming ability, he was still bothered by the conspicuous absence of birds, squirrels, deer or other wildlife that normally inhabited the forest.
The Duel Spirit and his comrades traversed a woody maze littered with moss- camouflaged stones and rotten logs infested with hordes of hard-shelled black beetles. Exposed roots compromised the travelers' footing and pinecone-laden limbs bowed to threaten the eyes or sag yard-long braided hair.
To further complicate an already troublesome trek, swampland was regularly interspersed among the natural obstacles. Spongy soil gave a false facade of firmness and sloshed up foul water.
When a misstep mired Wufei's fancy leather boots in a wet peat patch his cures were loudly voiced in a language foreign to Heero's ears.
Noting the Tracker's puzzled response to the peculiar dialect Duo supplied an explanation. "Chinese." he whispered to make certain Wufei's anger wouldn't be aimed at him.
"Chinese...that's what Wufei speaks when he ain't speakin English."
"Chi..." Heero struggled to wrap his tongue around the strange word. He paused to process the sounds then began again, "Chineeesss." he hissed like he didn't know how to rein in the snaky syllables.
"CHINESE!" Wufei shouted in frustration at Tracker's lingual ineptness.
The smirk on Duo's face betrayed his amusement at Heero's diction difficulties and Wufei's annoyed reaction.
"DAMMIT!" Wufei swore at his boots' defiance to be exhumed from the muck and the pleasure Duo was deriving at his expense.
The extracted boots finally popped free with a slurping noise. Duo stifled a giggle. "That's reminds me of the time we was in Hamptonshire and you and that whore thought it was a good idea to..."
"Shut up." Wufei growled then added a stern warning to prove he was serious."Unless you wish to be strung up by your braid."
The exasperated Asian continued to mutter and swear while attempting to wipe off his filthy footwear with a bunch of dry straw grass and even though Heero couldn't understands the words, the irate inflections clearly conveyed Wufei's vexation.
This time Duo wisely decided that silence was a virtue but when he was certain the boot cleaning had distracted Wufei he leaned closer to Heero. "I'll tell you the story sometimes when Wufei ain't actin' so tight assed." he promised.
The forest thinned out allowing the Twilight trio to walk side by side. Midday sunlight streamed overhead to brighten the wider trail that was much easier to navigate.
Wufei paused and took on an inquiring attitude. He tilted his head to separate subtle noises from the twittering of birds that had finally vanquished the unnatural silence.
Heero stepped up beside his cautious comrade. "What's wrong?"
Wufei sniffed the air. "I'm going to scout ahead."
"Wufei." Heero called after the exiting Oriental.
Duo placed a hand on Heero's shoulder. "Let him go."
"I don't like dividing the ranks. If that damn Shadow Spy and his soulless legions catch him alone..."
"Wufei can take care of himself." Duo declared from experience. "Come on, we'll tag a little behind."
The road curved to the right, not sharply but enough for Heero and Duo to briefly lose sight of their inquisitive friend. When they rounded the bend there was no sign of the Asian warrior as if the earth had swallowed him up.
"Where in the hell did he go?"
Duo shrugged."He's here somewhere."
"That's not an answer."
"I can change and be your eye in the sky."
"No, I don't need you missing, too."
Heero surveyed the dusky tree line, which appeared to be as vacant as the road. "We'll keep moving; Wufei will have to catch up as best he can."
The hair on Heero's neck stood on end.
At the same time an instinctive tingle prickled up his spine, a guttural growl close at his back validated that something was indeed wrong.
Heero's head turned to look over his shoulder then, by cautious degrees, his body pivoted to find himself face to face with a large male wolf that had seemingly materialized from thin air.
The carnivorous canine had the lean frame and strong shoulders of a predator. Stiff-legged in an unmistakable defensive stance, muscles rippled under a shaggy silver-gray coat that bristled along his back. Ears flattened against his head and lips were curled up to expose long, flesh-ripping fangs.
Pale blue eyes glared fiercely at the human who dared to trespass through the wolf's territory. Air was sucked into a heaving chest then the hot breath was expelled in a snarl that shook the wolf's entire body and put Heero on notice that he was in dire circumstances.
Now Heero had two choices. First he could utilize his crossbow to stop the dangerous beast but his battle with the daywalkers had depleted the arrow count to three and he might be required to use them against any even deadlier foe.
His second option was to reach some reasonable impasse. If he could communicate with Duo's falcon form then surely he could create an intuitive link with the cunning hunter. Besides he hated the idea of killing such a wondrous creature with which he shared an intrinsic kinship.
Slowly he let the crossbow slide to the ground. He deliberately stooped his shoulders and lowered his eyes in the passive posture of a submissive member of the pack. Still there was no guarantee that his surrender wouldn't result in him being mauled and left lying in a pool of blood with his throat torn out.
*A test of faith?* Heero's inner voice whispered inside his head.
"We will see." he muttered under his breath.
The wolf never lessened his intense stare or relaxed muscles coiled to strike at the slightest provocation or perceived challenge to his authority.
"Easy. We have no need to fight."
To reduce the tension that might shatter the invisible barrier keeping the wolf at bay, Heero slowly took one step backwards. A husky growl and a vicious sneer gave the Tracker cause to wonder if he'd made a fatal mistake.
Heero couldn't see Duo but he could sense his presence nearby. In his peripheral vision he caught a glimpse of the Irishman who seemed surprisingly calm considering he could succumb to the same fate.
Even though Duo's transforming capabilities gave him an edge and, with any luck, he could change and ascend before the wolf closed the gap, Heero wanted the beast's attention focused solely on him.
The Tracker's intercession was neither a death wish nor a need to establish his noble rank in society. Weeks ago Heero Yuy would have been the Lone Hunter. The elimination of the enemy would have been his prime goal. There would have been no remorse for anyone who got in his way or any regret if he'd lost his life in battle.
Now Heero was not longer unaided in his quest. He and Duo and Wufei were not only soldiers but friends who had vowed their mutual protection.
Even though Heero was reluctant to admit his reliance on his teammates, he had to truthfully acknowledge that Duo's intervention had kept him from plunging into the bottomless abyss of insanity.
True he didn't remember the dreams. Only vague recollections and hazy impressions were left in the nightmare's aftermath but he had sensed a connection with some force greater than himself.
It wasn't until the previous night, when he awoke sore of body and confused of mind, with traces of a kiss lingering on his lips, did he finally comprehend that Duo had always been there cloaked in the wisps of memory.
A touch on his arm brought Heero back from his contemplations. Duo stood by his side and, as before, he gave no outward sign that he was at all concerned for his well being.
The wolf was poised to attack. Although the loaded crossbow lay at Heero's feet and he had always trusted his quick reflexes he knew, this day, luck would come down on the beast's side.
Heero had failed in his pledge of protection and he was afraid that the failure had broken his bond with Duo leaving only flesh and bone without a soul for the wolf to feast on.
"Duo I'm sorry."
Duo increased the pressure on Heero's arm. A grin bloomed on his lips as he nodded across the road. "We'll be all right." he stated with such fervent conviction he made the Tracker believe anything was possible.
Like thunder from an angry sky, a gut-deep snarl rumbled through the wolf's throat but the animal's aggression was not directed at his victims but at another wolf that had boldly emerged from the forest fringes.
The second wolf was as tall as its counterpart but its brawny physique and glossy midnight coat were evidence of better nutrition. There was no menacing growl or baring of teeth. Ebony eyes locked on the gray wolf and fixed him in place with an alpha male's command of power that was not to be ignored.
The gray wolf momentarily considered standing his ground but the black wolf's dominating demeanor left no doubt that he wouldn't hesitate to thoroughly thrash his insolent opponent. Or that the ultimate price of death would be paid for anything short of total capitulate.
The "Monarch of the Wild" approached, the gray wolf cowered. Eyes that were once filled with fire could not meet the black wolf's glower. Bristled hair smoothed over the gray wolf's spine, his tail tucked between his legs and a piteous whimper begged for mercy.
"See I told ya we'd be fine." Duo stated confidently as if the pair of feral lupines were merely mirages of the mind.
However the cocky Irishman's optimism did nothing to allay Heero's fear that either he or Duo would remain unscathed. The authoritative leader and his docile follower...both fierce man killers...still impeded their path to freedom.
While Duo might be able to fly away, Heero was defenseless. The crossbow was out of reach and the dirk strapped to his thigh might as well have been a feather.
"How do you figure we're fine?"
Amber light began to glow around the black wolf's paws. Like fluttering fireflies, a thousand tiny pinpoints swarmed up the wolf's legs, traced along the contours of its chest and back then flowed in opposite directions over its head and bushy tail until the black beast was enveloped in a golden glow.
As Heero watched in disbelief, the "fireflies" compacted, elongated into a human outline, became translucent then vanished altogether.
Wufei stood before the stunned Tracker. Residual glimmers danced around his body and flickered over his unbound hair like heat lightning. In his right hand he held his sword while his left hand stroked the gray wolf's head.
Wufei slipped his fingers through the wolf's hair. "Go home." he ordered. The wild canine nuzzled the Asian's hand, padded across the road and blended into the shadows as if it was never there at all.
"You...can..." Heero stammered over elusive words processed through a befuddle brain, "can...change...like Duo." he finally finished the sentence.
"I am always a wolf." Wufei proclaimed, "I choose to veil myself in human form."
The Tracker had heard legends about men who could become beasts. Perhaps the modification hadn't been from one form to another but actually an unveiling of their true nature?
Duo looked from Wufei to Heero. "Every being is capable of incredible alterations." he rested his hand on Heero's hand, "Even you."
Heero nodded. "Then I shall embrace our differences and expect more astounding revelations once we reach Twilight."
Wufei let a rare smile grace his lips. "The secrets don't end at Twilight,
my friend, they begin."
"You failed me!"
A fist slammed down on the tabletop.
"I don't abide failure."
The statement was growled with such venomous malice that the Shadow Spy found it difficult to sustain its shape. Involuntary undulations rippled the outer outlines, fluttered around the edges and threatened to punch holes in its vaporous torso.
"There were not enough Soulless Slaves, if I..."
Eyes that were normally ice blue blazed with fire. The Lord of Darkness centered his angry orbs on his shadowy agent who shrunk back from the twin points of crimson.
"Give me a reason not to dispatch you to the trade winds and be rid of your incompetence forever."
"I am still a valuable spy." the agent declared, although the tremble in its voice lacked conviction.
"I have many spies."
The Dark Lord leered down at the mock-human mist hovering above the floor. "I will have one less if you dissatisfy me again."
"What is your bidding?"
"Are the Warriors of the Rose on the Aragon road?"
"Yes, Master. I need only a night to curse the dead and raise an army then the quinque will pay a heavy price for their meddling."
The Dark Lord rubbed his stubbled chin. Candlelight flickered amber across his eyes that had cooled from fire to ice. "No, let them reach Twilight."
An angry glare signaled for silence. The wispy agent held its tongue.
"Let the three become five. Let them believe they will be victorious, yes, that will make their defeat much harder to bear.
I don't want them dead," the Spy's superior stated, "not until I've broken their spirits and claimed their souls. Maybe then I'll grant them merciful release. Maybe.
Follow the three and report to me when they reach Twilight. Don't fail me." he hissed out the Spy's final warning.
The properly chastised Shadow Spy bowed as best he could then, with an apparitional aspect, floated to the window and wafted through a crack between the bottom frame and sill.
With a sigh borne of frustration, the Lord of Darkness raked blond bangs from his eyes and settled down behind a banquet table marred by deep scratches, dried candle wax and wine and food stains that had ruined the wooden surface. Another ingrained substance that looked like old blood added to the permanent discoloration.
He slouched down in an upholstered chair's dingy blue velvet cushions. The aged, crumpled fabric had lost its luster and reflected the generally unkempt conditions of Lord Khushrenada's dank subterranean fortress.
Stale smoke drifted about the chamber's wide expanse. Flames wavered in a large stone fireplace and lapped up the blackened sides with orange-tinted tongues but the fire did little to brighten the sullen atmosphere.
Nothing warm or radiant had touched the great room, not for a long time. The result of apathetic neglect that had become a normal pattern of life, a thick coating of dust and ash also dulled the other sparse furnishings.
Lord Khushrenada and a dwindling number of miserable servants were all that occupied the wintry rooms craved from stone. There were field workers, the blacksmith and stable hands but he seldom had contact with that part of his subjugated workforce.
The Lord of Darkness had an army but the bulk were soulless beings trapped in shells of decaying flesh and brittle bones. There were spies made of mist and dreams creepers that wormed into the mind during sleep but both forms of supernatural soldiers were difficult to supervise.
The Elite Guard, humans hired for Khushrenada's personal protection, were mercenaries whose level of loyalty varied with the sum of money he was willing to pay.
Only a handful of men were permitted access to the Lord's inner sanctuary but his paranoia concerning their allegiance had eroded his trust in anyone or anything leaving him abandoned to his madness.
Half-eaten food from midmeal remained strewn over the tabletop. The kitchen servants who had been warned of their master's moodiness, worse than other days, had procrastinated in their retrieval duties preferring to avoid his unpredictable and often volatile temper.
Two wine bottles had already been drained of their fruity contents, a third bottle sat nearby. A shaky hand closed around a goblet. Ruby liquid sloshed over the goblet's side as the Lord's altered senses misjudged the pouring but enough wine made it into the brass cup to satisfy his immediate needs.
Absentmindedly Khushrenada dipped his index finger into a purple puddle shimmering on the table. The finger was lifted to his lips and inspected by a darting tongue before being licked clean.
The shrill sound of squeaky hinges lanced across the chamber. As the uninvited visitor closed the distance to the table, Khushrenada's unfocused eyes glanced up to follow a slender figure draped in a hooded cloak of coarsely woven material.
Stringy stands of gray hair hung loosely below the hood that concealed the man's dark brooding eyes and pale, wrinkled face.
"I was wondering when you'd grace me with your presence." Khushrenada stated sarcastically before taking a long sip from his cup.
The mysterious figure tilted his head studying the Dark Lord's pathetic demeanor. "You know you need me." was whispered lowly.
Khushrenada finished the wine in one gulp and slammed down the goblet. The clang of it striking echoed sharply in the great room's vacancy. "I need no one." he proclaimed in slurred words.
Resting his elbow on the table, he realigned his slumped posture and locked his blurred sight on the cloaked intruder whose unwelcome appearance had disturbed his solitary imbibing.
With a huff Khushrenada grabbed up the bottle then decided to skip the pouring and decanted the fermented liquor directly into his mouth.
He frowned as the bitter dregs burned his throat. "What do you believe you can do for me?" he inquired dangling the empty bottle from lax fingertips.
"Deliver the wolf into your hands," came the hissed reply, "and include the whole of the renegades as well."
The Dark Lord perked up at the mention of his rival's name. A thin smile tugged at his lips. "Ah...Chang." The smile faded. "Be careful what you promise." he warned, "You know how I deal with those who don't keep their word."
The hooded figure didn't seem the least bit troubled by Khushrenada's stern pronouncement concerning failure to follow through on the purposed deal. "You know I can do it." he stated with surety.
The Lord of Darkness rose slowly. Trembling hands braced on the table and he centered his unsteady frame before standing completely. "Don't worry about the bastard's comrades." he declared with deceptive calmness. "Their fates will be sealed by my whims."
Shoulders straightened. Fire sparked in previously cloudy eyes. Khushrenada's tranquil facade exploded. "That beast will taste my retribution, upon my soul he will suffer by my hands." he screamed, hurling the bottle at the wall with all the power he could muster.
The glass popped then shattered into a thousand glistering shards. Again the enigmatic figure offered no visible reaction to the Lord's fit of impassioned hatred.
"I understand." came the faintly whispered reply.
Khushrenada's chest heaved in labored breaths. His unbalance body bumped painfully against the table's corner. He flopped down into the chair and wiped his moist brow. "Put your plan into action."
"As you wish."
Leaving no room for misunderstanding the Dark Lord cautioned, "General Septum, do not disappoint me."
Morning stretched into noon. Noon journeyed towards evening. For the last two hours the warrior trio had walked alone.
Sparrows, starlings and brown thrashers twittered in the treetops. An overabundance of crows cawed raucously at the intrusive humans. A woodpecker tapped out a hollow tune and a pair of mocking birds sang a duet of assorted songs.
Silhouetted against the clear, blue sky, a hawk caught an updraft then glided in lazy circles. Its haunting trill carried on the breeze causing Duo to crane his neck to spot the sleek bird of prey.
Heero brushed a cinnamon fern's velvety fronds away from his face and copied Duo's inquisitive posture.
"There." Duo pointed towards the cloudless firmament. "Isn't it beautiful?"
Wufei shielded his eyes for a better view of the magnificent winged creature. "Go on."
"Go on." Wufei urged, "It has been too long."
Heero started to ask for an explanation of the disjointed conversation but the yearning in Duo's eyes offered the answer. "You'll have no trouble catching up." the Tracker added his encouragement.
Duo glanced skywards then back at his comrades. "Thank you."
Heero laid his hand on Duo's shoulder, "Say hello to the angels for me."
In less than a heartbeat, the Duel Spirit replaced the Irishman. Tawny feathers, highlighted with auburn, shone in the sun and powerful wings propelled Duo on a heavenly path.
The magical falcon joined its kindred hawk and together they dipped and soared in an aerial dance metered by the wind's tempo.
"Beautiful." Heero sighed as he watched with envy from his earthbound location.
Wufei nodded in agreement. "Yes he is."
"Michael." The Dark Lord yelled his personal servant's name.
"MICHAEL!" was repeated with increased volume. "Where is that son of a bitch?"
"You called, sire?"
An elderly man, shoulders stooped and eyes lowed in timid apprehension, waited just outside the door. Michael remained quiet, staring at the floor, hoping he wouldn't have to venture too far into the Lord's lair.
"Find Odin and send him to me."
"Yes, sire." Michael bowed respectively then backed into the hall and disappeared before his moody master could issue any more orders.
Khushrenada slumped in his chair. His head throbbed and his stomach churned but his mind was quite lucid. Thoughts of torture temporarily subdued the insanity. Plans of pain bestowed on Chang Wufei granted a few moments of pleasure.
"You sent for me?" The unexpected question jolted Khushrenada's already frazzled nerves and brought his wicked imaginings to an abrupt halt.
Odin stood halfway in the shadows as if he had one foot in the dim room and the other on the stairwell descending to hell. He was a muscular man, trim not bulky, set on a solid frame. Light brown hair fell in confusion about his swarthy face. Deep set eyes reflected nothing but cold calculation.
His most prominent feature was a ragged scar running diagonally from his left eye's outer corner across his cheek to the jaw line.
The Dark Lord waved to his hired henchman, encouraging him to continue his inward trek. Odin stepped from the gloom with a noticeable limp, favoring his left hip and leg.
"Sit." Khushrenada motioned to a second sooty chair.
Odin eased down trying to arrange his weaker side in a, if not totally comfortable, at least a tolerable placement.
"Septum was here." was stated with icy contempt.
"What did he want?"
"He claims he can capture Chang Wufei." Khushrenada paused to trace his finger over a nick in the table, "The cocky bastard promised the rest of the Twilight warriors as well, including the Demon Tracker."
Odin leaned forward, as much from acute interest at the mention of Chang as to realign his aching leg. Pain was a constant companion and sitting always aggravated the condition.
It had been that way every day since Odin's lengthy recovery from his clan's clash with King Peacecraft's army on the Elon River Plateau. That fateful battle had served to intensify his fervent loathing of Aragon's royal family that he shared with Khushrenada.
"Do you think the pompous ass can make good on his scheme?" Odin wondered. He knew Septum's combat reputation, however the General frequently let his ego overrule his tactical training.
"I don't know," Khushrenada admitted, "but he's been warned not to disappoint me."
Odin mulled the possibilities over in his mind. "If the quinque were eliminated, the King would not only lose value counsel but the Tracker's exorcism expertise. He'd have to battle an earthly army as well as your legions of the damned," he stated, "and it can prove vexing when you can't kill something that's already dead."
The Dark Lord raised an eyebrow as his thoughts fell in line with Odin's logic. "Yes, Peacecraft couldn't possible stand against both armies. A double assault would surely guarantee his defeat."
Odin shifted in his seat. The careful rearrangement was not accomplished without a sharp twinge shooting through his leg. His winced and swore under his breath.
"With your knowledge and superior leadership no one can equal your command abilities."
A thin-lipped smile tugged at Khushrenada's lips. While the Dark Lord put Odin's lofty declarations of his warring supremacy in their proper perspective and while he knew how easily false praise flowed from his Captain's fickle soul, he still couldn't argue with the shrewd mercenary's assessment of the circumstances.
Odin continued with his own pleased smile, "I have many excellent ways to inflict great misery and each manner of extreme agony will be set to your discretion."
Khushrenada's smile widened. Vile delight shone in his eyes."With Peacecraft's advantage neutralized he'll quickly lose his willingness to fight and will have no choice but to surrender."
The Lord of Darkness leaned over the table and locked his sight on Odin. "I tell you truly, Peacecraft WILL capitulate to my authority.
Unfortunately for Aragon's King, even after he abdicates for his people's sake, he'll still have to atone for his multitude of sins against me and for those unforgivable transgressions I'm afraid he can not be allowed to live.
Chang will also pay for his foul deeds. The beast will suffer for my exile to this forsaken place, not with his life but his soul. I want the whore-spawned traitor locked away in my dungeon's deepest regions where he will spend a lifetime sealed away in absolute isolation.
But first he will watch as his comrades are brought step by excruciating step to their live's conclusions. The process will be drawn out over days, perhaps weeks, until he begs me to release them from their anguish.
When Chang's spirit is absolutely broken by his friend's beseeching screams for mercy. When their prolonged torture is etched on his mind and heart, I'll do what is barely required to keep him clinging to his mortal existence and each night I'll send the dreams creepers so he can experience the horrors again and again.
He will feel my pain. He will understand my hopelessness when there is no one left to rescue him, to save him from his despair. His pitiful plight will drive him into the same inescapable madness I endure daily.
After I imprison Chang's body and his mind becomes caged by his insanity, after endless lamenting, I'll personally send his black soul to hell and finally be granted a peaceful spirit."
A barely audible whisper accented the Dark Lord's forlorn disconsolation. "I've suffered too long; the fates would not be so cruel to deny me victory."
This time no amount of repositioning provided Odin relief. He braced his hands on the chair's arms, balanced his weight on his good side and stood up by gradual degrees.
When Odin's feet were squarely beneath him, Khushrenada's Captain affirmed his confidence in providential intersession whether by fate or the Ruler of Sheol."It will be so, my Lord."
The Dark Lord rose and walked around the table. "Go and await my orders. Very soon we'll moved against the Warriors of the Rose. When Chang and his impotent companions are under my power we will besiege Deep World and destroy Peacecraft's Kingdom."
End Part Ten
Wolf Moon--Karen Hickman--May 2005