Disclaimer: I do not own Gundam Wing or its characters
Title: Wolf Moon
Author: Karen, The Huntress firstname.lastname@example.org
Warning: AU, language
Pairing: 3x4, future 1x2
Feedback: Always appreciated
Summary: Five unique men form an odd alliance to stop a war between the living and the dead.
While Duo relished his freedom of flight, Heero and Wufei continued to Twilight by means of old fashion foot power.
Heero shouldered his crossbow and quiver; his cloak was draped over his bedroll hanging diagonally across his back. Wufei, his sword secured to his belt, had graciously taken over Duo's duty of carrying the Tracker's bag.
The path had become increasingly narrow and more frequently littered with smooth pebbles that rolled under boots to unbalance equilibrium. Shelves of gray slate jutted out to curl the trail tightly in a mazelike manner. Wiry saplings that offered less substantial handholds had replaced sizeable trees.
There was also a change in altitude, a distinctly elevated incline that turned walking into hiking and breathing into labored puffs. Both warriors prided themselves on their excellent physical condition but the upward slant, the hazardous footing and the thinner air were proving to be a challenge.
"I believe Duo chose the best way to travel." Heero declared between winded gasps.
Wufei used a jagged crevice etched by the elements in a russet outcrop to pull up a couple of steps then he, too, paused to catch his breath. "I have been lax in my training."
He tucked hair that had frayed from his ponytail behinds his ears. "We'll have to climb another fifty or so yards before we reach the Elon River Plateau then the pace will be easier."
Heero leaned his back against a moss-encrusted rock and squinted up at the cloudless sky hoping for a glimpse of the Duel Spirit but the sun stabbed at his eyes.
"He'll come down when he's ready." Wufei commented on Duo's independent nature.
Heero nodded in agreement. "I know how Duo came by his powers; may I ask how you're able to veil your true form from the human eye?"
"That I can not answer, not because it's forbidden but because the veiling is an instinctive part of me. Members of my clan can work the magic at birth, although it does take practice to master the subtleties that make the masking believable.
My kinsmen are born wolves but the knowledge of our origin was lost centuries ago when our ancestors took the secrets to their graves. Only the last generation has lived side by side with humans, learned their language and to read and write but the elders wisely decreed that we not take on the mind-set of man."
Wufei rested his hip on a rocky protrusion and crossed his arms over his chest. "Man is the only creature that kills, not for food but for sport or greed or jealously. Humans are so eager to possess what they want they start wars or covet another's mate. They are perplexing and irrational," he stated, "but surprisingly some people have admirable qualities and a few may be counted as friends."
"Am I counted among those few?" Heero inquired sincerely.
"You have proven to be a warrior worthy of comradeship." Wufei offered his praise as best as his reserved personality would allow.
Wufei paused a moment to watch patterns created by sunlight shimmering through the branches dance over the stony ground. "We should move on if we want to reach Twilight by evening."
Heero took the lead, proceeding with caution as the path snaked between a sheer vertical wall on his right and a deep gorge spiked with sharp stones on his left.
Sporadically lower ledges would protrude into the sparse walking space further compromising his and Wufei's precarious trek.
One horseshoe bend looped back on itself at such a severe angle he couldn't see the other side. The Tracker threaded through the tapered trail, each footstep sending a shower of pebbles and sandy ground into the ravine.
Likewise, not wishing to plunge over the edge to be impaled or have various body parts strewn about the abyss, Wufei exercised the same prudent vigilance as he carefully picked his way along the fragile route.
A hefty chunk of trail gave way and tumbled a few feet before shattering on the rocks. "Now I understand why Twilight offers sanctuary." Heero declared as he sidestepped the breach. "Only fools or those protected by the fates take this path."
Pressing his back against the rough stone wall, Wufei skirted the expanding hole. When his feet were once again on solid ground he wondered aloud, "Which best describes us?"
"Both but I suppose..." Heero's sentence was cut off seconds before he ducked to avoid a pair of boots hovering inches above his head.
An upward repositioning of Heero's eyes confirmed that the lean legs responsible for the dangling footwear did indeed belong to his and Wufei braided comrade.
"I was wonderin' when you two would come along." Duo announced with a grin that displayed a great measure of mischief.
Wufei craned his neck at the grinning Irishman. "Must you always perch so inappropriately?" he asked with a curt puff of air accenting the question.
Duo pulled his feet beneath him, stood up, centered his weight then, by means of a graceful somersault, joined his friends.
"Damn showoff." Wufei mumbled under his breath.
Duo mocked the Asian with an over-flourished bow. "Beggin' your Highness' pardon." he snickered then bounced back a few steps in case Wufei took exception to the good-natured royal reference.
Wufei scowled and Heero swore that, for a fleeting moment, the veil wavered to reveal a black wolf with lips drawn back in a snarl.
Duo seemed to take no notice of the ripple in the veil or if he did, he didn't feel endangered. "Shall we journey on to Twilight?"
Wufei sat Heero's bag at Duo's feet."You've played enough, now you can earn your keep." he announced before starting off down the path.
Duo picked up the bag and fell in step with Heero."His bark is worse than his bite." he whispered nodding at the wolf warrior.
Without turning around or altering his brisk strides, Wufei extended his arm and flipped the mischievous Irishman a middle finger salute.
True to Wufei's calculations, the path finally unfurled and the wall sloped back at a less acute angle allowing the Lone Hunter, the Duel Spirit and the Perpetual Beast more maneuvering room.
Lengthened by the waning sun, shadows stretched on ahead. Behind, the trail was rapidly swallowed up by the dusky gloom and all traces of the travelers vanished.
To the west the solar "orb of heaven" hovered on the horizon like a bloodshot dragon's eye to blush the sky with sunset's red and orange hues. As the forest anticipated nightfall, there was a chill in the air and the birds began to settle in the trees.
"Our journey is done." Wufei announced as he, Duo and Heero stepped from the tree line to stand on a hillcrest.
Free from the forest's visual interference the panoramic view of the Vale of Twilight was spectacular. As far as the eye could see lush fields were interspersed with graceful weeping willows and groves of cane bamboo so tall they appeared to pierce the sky.
Wildflowers carpeted the emerald expanses in shades of purple ranging from lavender to plum to mauve. Sprinkled in for contrast, reedy stalks topped with blossoms of red, gold and blue swayed in the breeze.
"There," Wufei pointed at a lone dwelling tucked away amongst the breathtaking beauty, "the Priest's home."
"The man in my dreams?" Heero wondered.
"Our dreams." Duo corrected.
"Does he have the answers?"
Wufei tilted his head at the Demon Tracker. "Answers often depend on the questions." he stated as he started down the hill to enter Twilight.
The modest abode was constructed entirely of bamboo. The roofline slanted from front to back to direct water away from the rough-hewn rock foundation. Sturdy bamboo poles were set on a front porch to support a lower roof that provided shelter from the sun and rain.
A flock of Cotwold sheep grazed in a meadow with no fences to limit their foraging. Ewes nibbled on tender spring grass while their twin kids kick up their heels and engaged in playful head butting. A ram with horns curled around his head kept watch over his herd from a nearby knoll.
Sharing the pasture, a pair of powerfully built Percheron horses was silhouetted against the sky ablaze with the last crimson rays as the sun slipped from sight.
Vegetable and herb gardens were laid out in neat rows on the house's east side. Slender stalks, most likely onion tops, had pushed several inches through the sandy soil. Stripes of green clearly showed other plantings and a few herbs had begun to bloom. On the south side, fig bushes grew in the shade of apples trees adorned with fluffy, white blossoms.
A three-foot ring of stones enclosed a fresh-water spring at the porch's corner. A wooden bucket was suspended from a rope tied somewhere under the eaves to facilitate the easy drawing of water in all weather conditions.
A natural pond ringed with bulrushes, cattails, swamp roses and marsh marigolds set just beyond the spring. Water lily pads dotted the surface but the single center buds were still tightly closed.
The walkway leading to the house was no more that a well-worn path that interrupted the abundance of yellow daisies, scarlet poppies and peony bushes heavy with buds ready to burst forth in white and pink.
As the weary travelers drew closer, they saw two figures sitting on the porch floor. The Demon Tracker usually didn't make assumptions, especially when dealing with perverted forces that followed no natural laws but he was reasonably sure the pair was human.
Duo had no such misgivings. He quickened his pace then broke into a run. Heero's bag bumped his hip but he didn't care.
Duo was home. The only place he felt safe. The only place he could truly be himself.
The pair stood in unison. The taller of the two was definitely male, dressed in tan loose-fitting pants, matching tunic and cloth shoes. His skin was bronzed and dark brown hair hung over one eye to add an air of mystery.
The second person's gender was not as easily identified. A light blue outfit of slimmer pants and a knee-length robe with flared sleeves was not necessarily male or female. Golden blond hair feathered around a fairer face and tangled in long eyelashes.
"DUO!" The blond shouted as he descended the three porch steps and ran toward his returning friend.
Duo dropped Heero's bag and embraced his dear friend. "Quatre, have you been well?"
The Manipulator of Seasons leaned back and held Duo by the shoulders at arm's length. "I'm well," he smiled, "but you, my friend, are still too thin."
"Definitely male." Heero decided by the masculine voice quality.
The taller man who, by process of elimination, had to be Trowa took his turn at a warm embrace. "We were becoming concerned something might have waylaid you along the road."
"We had a few minor challenges but all in all it was an uneventful journey."
"You're here now and that's all that matters." Quatre declared.
In contrast to Duo's enthusiastic greeting, Wufei remained in place merely observing the happy homecoming. Copying the Asian's aloof attitude, Quatre and Trowa stood side by side and bowed to the wolf warrior.
Wufei bowed then relaxed his stiff posture and offered his hand. "It is good to see you."
Trowa stepped forward. "You must be the Demon Tracker. Welcome to Twilight."
"Heero Yuy." Heero introduced himself. "I'm honored to be here."
Quatre waved to the bamboo house. "You're all exhausted and, "he grinned at Duo, "I know you're hungry. Come to the house. Come on." he urged.
Flanked by his quinque comrades, Duo walked up the path talking and using his hands to accent his excited conversation. Heero, having retrieved his bag, joined Wufei as they lagged a little behind.
"Where is the priest?" Heero wondered lowly.
Wufei let a rare smile grace his lips."Walking in front of you." he nodded to the tallest of the trio.
Heero shook his head in disbelief. "Him?"
"What did you expect?"
"I don't know, someone more imposing and..."
"Not as humble." Wufei finished the thought. He slowed his pace, forcing Heero to do the same. "Haven't you learned by now that humble men can wield great power?"
Dusky rays of sunlight melted away before the rapidly encroaching night. An ebony blanket cloaked the sky and a thousand pinpoints of light blinked and winked across the heavens.
In the house's main room illuminated by candlelight, several basins of warm water and handmade soap scented with peppermint oil were put to good use as Heero, Duo and Wufei washed their hands and scrubbed a full day's dust off their faces.
Duo finger-combed wet bangs that were determined to hinder his sight and announced he needed to visit the outhouse. "I'll help with supper when I'm finished."
"You WILL wash your hands again." Wufei warned then winced as soap stung in a cut on his palm, no doubt acquired from climbing over sharp rocks.
While Duo, with newly cleansed hands, and Quatre cut up vegetables, Trowa fanned a hibachi (1) filled with straw and twigs layered beneath chunks of coal.
Heero sat at a table observing the supper preparations. Since his offer to help had been graciously refused, "You are our guest." Quatre insisted, he experienced no guilt as he enjoyed a respite from the kitchen duties.
Soon the embers blazed and the aroma of frying trout wafted over the room. Chunks of potatoes, onions, carrots and water chestnuts shared five skewers arranged beside the fish. A salad of wild dandelion greens was tossed in a wooden bowl with dill leaves. Cold water drawn from the spring completed the appetizing meal.
At first supper was consumed in silence, mouths used to gratify hunger are much too busy to talk. Gradually as stomachs became content, words began to replace the sounds of chewing and drinking.
Wufei narrated the story of his, Duo and Heero's meeting outside the stable. He did skip the part about spying from the loft, figuring that was one piece of information better kept secret.
He recounted their encounter with the Shadow Spy, the defeat of his army of Soulless Slaves and how Duo's falcon transformation and his unveiling was revealed to Heero.
At regular intervals, Duo would interject colorful adjectives to illustrate the tale or included gruesome details of their escapades that would have sickened weaker men's guts.
Throughout the telling and embellishing Trowa put each part to memory so he could chronicle them in the Book of Adventures.
As much as Heero took pleasure in the retold tales, his curiosity concerning the Priest and the Fair One sitting by his side pressed him for answers.
When the last sentence was spoken and the account brought to an end, the Lone Hunter took his turn, not at telling but asking. "Sir, tell me how you came to be Priest of Twilight." he implored respectfully.
Trowa tilted his head so that the usually concealed eye joined the other orb to focus on Demon Tracker. "You wish to hear my story?"
"Then pour out the wine and I will tell you."
(1) Hibachi: A portable brazier used for cooking.
The silky glow of candlelight and several goblets of burgundy wine had eased the Twilight warriors into a tranquil mood.
Trowa took a long slip from his cup then kept his promise to tell his story.
"I was born in the Whetland Valley between the Sister Mountains. My father, Triton Bloom, was a Senator on the High Council of Elders that represented Whetland's nine provinces. As his only child I was to inherit my father's station so from an early age I was schooled in the Council's codes and creeds."
As if momentarily bewitched Trowa paused to gaze into a candle flame then continued. "Six weeks after my twelfth birthday there was a great division in the Council.
Five Senators believed Whetland had not received proper recognition from the Sanc Kingdom. They proposed declaring independence and forming their own government. The four opposing members viewed the desire for self-rule as treason and demanded the immediate expulsion of the traitors.
When tempers flared and heated arguments called for civil war, my father tried to be the voice of reason. He pointed out that independence might grant freedom but it also meant the loss of the King's protection.
He urged each Elder to write up a list of grievances then he offered to personally deliver the petitions to King Peacecraft and stay at court until all matters were satisfactorily resolved.
Despite the adamant objections of Senator Septum, a military officer from the ninth district, the Council finally agreed to give Senator Bloom's plan for diplomacy a chance."
Trowa paused again, not to stare into the candlelight but to slow the tide of resurfacing emotions. "My father wanted me to accompany him, he thought I could learn value mediation lessons.
My mother, Catherine, had the gift of premonitions. The night before my father's journey to court she had a death vision. With tearful pleas she begged him not to leave. He insisted he could not deny his destiny but he did agree to leave me at home, that was the last time I...."
The Priest lowered his eyes. A shaky sigh blew over his lips.
Quatre placed a hand on Trowa's arm, leaned closer and whispered. "You don't have to continue."
Duo agreed, "I can finish the story for Heero at a later time."
The slump of Trowa's shoulders and his comrade's concern prompted Heero to also concur. "There's no need to go on." he insisted.
"No, the memories keep me focused on what I must do."
Observing the constant touching and the caressing glances between Trowa and Quatre during supper, Heero was not surprised when the Fair Manipulator took Trowa's hand, interlaced his fingers and squeezed reassuringly.
Trowa finished his wine. With a steadier voice he mastered his memories. "The entire delegation was killed on the road to Sanc. The magistrate's investigation ruled that highwaymen committed the attack but the arrows responsible for the fatal wounds were too accurate in their target sights.
The assassinations," Trowa growled through clenched teeth, "were accomplished with skilled precision. Even at my young age I knew with certainty my father was murdered and that the only man who opposed his endeavors for a peaceful solution had ordered his death."
Heero locked his blue eyes with the Priest's emerald orbs that flared with fury. "Senator Septum." he supplied the assassin's name.
Trowa nodded, "The hell-spawned servant of Satan had covered his tracks, there was no evidence of his involvement but I knew the truth.
With Senator Bloom's pacific influence no longer in force and his calls for nonviolent negotiations silenced, the Elders who wanted secession pressed for a vote. Of course Septum was eager to encourage conflict to prove his military prowess, even if it meant securing the outcome by intimation."
Yearning for his lost childhood replaced the anger in Trowa's eyes and softened his voice. "The escalating hostilities and the lost of my father's protection caused my mother to fear for our safety. She made the decision to leave our home and seek shelter in the Vale of Twilight on the Elon River Plateau.
Legends told of a wise Priest who lived in Twilight surrounded by magnificent beauty. It was said the cleric carried a magical staff that allowed him to decipher dreams and that he had the power to keep the outside world at bay.
Our journey began at midnight under the full moon's glow but we were quickly confused by the labyrinth of trails and became lost. The elements also seemed determined to conspire against us. Wind-driven clouds swallowed up the moonlight and cold rain fell all night.
By morning my mother was chilled to the bone. A raspy cough rattled in her chest and stole her breath away.
"You have to go on without me." she urged.
"No, we find Twilight together or we die together." With that oath of unification I lay down beside my mother and waited for death to make its claim.
I have no memory of being found by the Twilight Priest. I woke up in a warm bed, snuggled in a downy coverlet beside a crackling fire. My mother rested next to me but I knew by her labored gasps for air that her recovery was hopeless.
The Priest, who couldn't have been more than twenty years of age, sat on the floor holding my mother's hand and reciting entreatments for her gentle easing into the afterlife.
When he noticed I was awake he offered a small, sad smile. "I am Zechs Merquise, come and comfort your mother." He moved aside to let me sit by her futon, put her limp hand in my hand then went outside to grant us our final private moments.
At my touch, my mother opened her eyes but had to search to find my face."I'm sorry, my son, I have to leave you." she whispered between racking coughs that shivered through her feverish body.
I didn't bother to hide my tears. "Father is gone I can't lose you, too." I sobbed as my heart shattered into a thousand grief-stricken shards. "I can't survive alone."
Sucking in a breath that failed to fully fill her lungs, she struggled to speak," The Priest will...care...for you
"Save your strength, please hang on."
"Promise me...." she wheezed.
"Learn from the Priest. Let him teach...you...the mysteries of...Twilight."
"I promise on my life."
Suddenly the haze vanished from my mother's eyes. She reached up and stroked my wet cheek. "Can you hear the angels singing? The song is beautiful." she declared.
I kissed her hand just before it slid down my face.
"After the Priest and I laid my mother to rest under the apple tree," Trowa tilted his head towards the window and the tree bedecked with white blossoms, "Zechs expressed fear that my surname, Bloom, could be a deadly liability so we decided to change my name to Barton.
I kept my promise and became a student of Twilight. Zechs taught me how to listen, not with my ears, but with my mind and that what the eye sees is not necessarily reality. He taught me the secret of dreams, how to interpret their meanings and how to traverse the realm of nightmares without going mad.
At the age of sixteen I was granted knowledge of the Staff of the Rose."
"The tri-ringed rod you carried in my dreams." Heero recalled.
"The staff is made of polished walnut wood. The intertwined rings are forged from gold and signify the three natural elements, earth, wind and water. The center ring protects a ruby stone carved into a flowering rose that symbolizes purity borne of fire." the young Priest explained.
Since Trowa's initial summons through dreams, the Demon Tracker's curiosity had become persistent with questions he couldn't answer. Now was the opportunity to quiet curiosity's nagging.
"Is the staff the source of your power?"
No, it channels the element's energy through me. I merely provide the path of least resistance."
"Can you command the elements?"
"Nature and I have a cooperative partnership that is mutually beneficial."
Heero dared to press for one more answer."May I ask what happened to Zechs Merquise?"
"When my lessons were finished, he went to dwell in Deep World as Keeper of the Temple. I," Trowa smiled at Quatre and corrected himself, "we visit him from time to time."
Wufei leaned back in his chair and stretched the kinks from his back. "We will journey to Deep World after a few days rest."
"Then plans for the Dark Lord's downfall will be finalized." Duo declared.
Trowa Barton, now as wise as his teacher, gave Heero a perceptive look. "You have one last question." was more stated than asked. "How Quatre came to be at Twilight."
Heero nodded, "If he wishes to tell me."
The Lord of Darkness sprawled in a slouchy recline staring into the fireplace. As usual he sat alone in the gloomy chamber, partly by choice but mostly because his disagreeable disposition discouraged companionship.
Treize Khushrenada--military genius fallen from glory--alone with his visions of conquest, those marginal mirages of memory, the perfect derangement that kept his madness-altered perceptions hovering in a state of delusional daydreams.
Red like blood-soaked earth, Khushrenada's glazed sight reflected the fire. In the flames, frayed around the edges by wafting gray smoke, he saw legions of the damned, vast hordes of soulless slaves with a single mindset, the eradication of priests and kings and beasts who hide behind fleshy veils.
Scenes of gory death played out in the fanciful world of illusion. Snaking through the smoke, fire-belching dragons scorched the skin of slain warriors. Scavenger demons wandered among the dead, knee-deep in blood, eviscerating corpses and picking bones clean. Devils ravished angels whose grotesquely twisted expressions gave mute testimony to the horrendous rape.
One dragon floated outside the flames and hung in midair. Its eyes were glowing embers, sulfur scented smoke coiled from its flared nostrils. The Dark Lord shifted and cocked his head at the strange manifestation as the mystic creature opened its mouth and puffed out the phantasmic Shadow Shy.
Khushrenada braced his elbows on the chair and push to sit straighter. "Report."
"The Warriors of the Rose have arrived at Twilight."
"Is the Priest there?"
"Yes, the Manipulator as well."
Khushrenada scratched the two-day growth of stubble that was finally itchy enough to warrant shaving. "Will they travel to Deep World?"
"I overheard the wolf say in a few days. Shall we strike now?"
Another thoughtful contemplation, more scratching at the scruff of whiskers on Treize's chin. "Merquise is the Temple Keeper." he thought out loud.
He leaned forward and locked his bloodshot eyes on the misty messenger. "We'll wait til all the heretics are in one place, yes, why not have a full dungeon."
The corners of Khushrenada's mouth twitched then broadened into a cryptic smile. "Perhaps I can persuade my wayward lover that my bed is better than a dank cell even if the chains do rattle every time I claim him."
Rubbery legs took several seconds to shore up the Dark Lord's weight. He tested his balance then stepped closer to the smoggy Spy. "Return to Twilight. Let me know when the quinque leaves for Deep World."
"As you wish."
A weaving stagger carried the isolated Lord down the hall to his bedchamber. Occasionally pausing to wait until the hall stopped spinning was necessary to remain upright. Mumbled curses accented his displeasure with the slow pace.
As Khushrenada approached, a young girl recently "acquired" to boost the aging staff shrunk back into the shadows and hoped she would go unnoticed but her fetching beauty had already sealed her fate.
Hands roughly seized the startled maiden's shoulders. Pressing his taller frame against her trembling body, the Dark Lord pinned her to the wall and slipped his knee between her legs to hold her in place.
A bruising kiss, bitter with sour wine, crushed her lips but the girl knew better than to resist her Master's advances. She had learned that any sign of noncompliance resulted in harsh repercussions.
The least reprimand she could hope for was a swift slap or punch. Sometimes a night in the dungeon was ordered where a female prisoner was apt to be taken by one or more guards so voluntary sex was not nearly as vicious a violation.
The worse brand of penance...another girl who had scorned Khushrenada's needs was brutally stabbed to death when his uncontrolled rage was set off by her refusal. Luckily, this time, the madman wasn't carrying his dagger but he could still visit violent punishment even if he only used his fists.
Khushrenada broke the hungry kiss but didn't decrease his body's pinning pressure. "What's your name wench?" he growled.
His fingers brushed lightly across the girl's flushed cheek. She fought the urge to flinch from his fiery touch. With a firmer stroke, his hand slid over her chin, her neck then the lecherous Lord grabbed a handful of breast and squeezed as if testing the goods before buying.
"Well, Andrea," he hissed as he rubbed the bulge from his swollen manhood against her thigh, "how would you like to be my whore tonight?"
The maiden could do nothing but comply with her Master's rhetorical request, say nothing for fear of possible deadly reprisals.
Hastily Khushrenada guided the terror-coerced girl toward his bedchamber. If he couldn't know the warmth of love, Zechs' love, then sex in its raw, fleshy form would have to satisfy his carnal appetite.
Pushing the maiden through the door, Khushrenada took several moments to run his lustful sight along her body, to study her flaxen hair and fair face. Andrea stood silently in a submissive posture, eyes downcast under her Master's lascivious scrutiny.
"Let's see how well you serve my needs."
The Dark Lord commanded huskily as the bedchamber door slammed shut.
Trowa put another log on the fire to stoke the embers. Flames cast wavy patterns of light and shadow on the walls. Sparks swirled in the updraft like fireflies dancing on a warm summer's night.
The Warriors of the Rose lounged around the table and Duo smoked his briarwood pipe as they listened to Quatre's Twilight story.
"I, too, lived in the Whetland Valley but my modest circumstances were opposite of Trowa's affluent lifestyle as a Senator's son. My mother, Angela, worked as a maid for Lord Hartford. I was born in the servant's quarters on his estate.
Unlike Trowa, I didn't know my father. My mother told me he was Quintin Winner, a sailor who was employed by the Trade Winds Export Company. When she told Quintin she was expecting his child, he sailed with the first high tide and never returned.
Lord and Lady Hartford had a daughter, Iria, who was a year older. Since Iria and I were the youngest children we played together and she was like a sister to me.
In appreciation for my kindness to her daughter, Lady Hartford permitted me to go with Iria to a private school set up exclusively for the noblemen's children.
To honor Lady Hartford, I put effort into my lessons and made good marks. Also, to show my gratitude for the learning opportunity, I taught Iria to ride and would sometimes accompany her on the hunt."
A faraway look briefly flickered across Quatre's blue eyes, a hint of sweet childhood remembrances.
"When I was thirteen Iria left to attend boarding school in Sanc. I missed her very much and spoke of stopping my courses but Lady Hartford insisted that I continue.
I was humble concerning my privilege. I never forgot my place, that I still lived in the servant's quarters, but for the next year I excelled in my studies and was pleased to make my mother proud.
However, a few servants were displeased that their children weren't granted the same advantages. Gertrude, with a particularly sour disposition and sharp tongue, worked in the kitchen. Although her son, Tom, was a brat, a bully and a thief she was resentful that Lady Hartford hadn't shown him equal attention.
Gertrude's jealousy was not only aimed at me but my mother as well. She spread demeaning gossip among the household; falsehoods she hoped would be repeated in the Lady's presence. She even started a rumor that I was Lord Hartford's bastard son and the guilt of his infidelity was the reason for his generosity.
Even though I was a bastard, I expressed my anger at the injustice and was determined to tell Lord Hartford about the mean-spirited lies. In response, my mother sat me down and told me something I've never forgotten.
"Don't define yourself by what other people say. If you stay true to your word your strength of character will be a sure defense against maliciousness. A brave heart will always defeat evil because evil can not flourish in the light of truth."
I endured the indignities for many weeks. I ignored the whispers behind my back and the scorn directed at my mother.
One evening as I was returning from the stables, Tom, his friend Johnny and another boy who had more brawn than brains, blocked the path.
"If ya Hartford's bastard then your mum must be his whore." Tom declared.
The other boys snickered.
"Let me pass." I demanded then tried to sidestep the taunting bully.
Tom stood his ground.
Johnny reached to grab my arm. I planted my fist aside his chin. With a yelp he stumbled backward and promptly sat down hard on his ass.
"You damn..." Tom began then finished with a flying fist. I ducked the wild punch but lost my balance and bumped into Tom's dimwitted tagalong.
Strong arms wrapped around from behind like a vice and lifted me until my feet barely touched the ground. Tom stalked forward, a sneer on his lips and malice in his eyes. I struggled but the arms squeezed tighter to crush my ribs and cut off my breath.
Tom stopped, leaned forward then hissed inches from my face. "I'm gonna beat that high-an-mighty attitude out of ya."
Johnny had recovered from my punch but he was still pressing a hand to his jaw when he joined Tom."When he's done thrashin' ya, we're," he nodded at the burly boy who had me in the bear hug, "gonna fuck you then Tom can have his turn."
Thick, black cloudbanks bloomed on the western horizon. Gusty wind shivered the trees. "Looks like rain." I commented cutting my eyes towards the approaching storm.
Tom glanced skyward, "So?"
"Shit melts in the rain."
The insult had the desired effect. Anger took over reason causing Tom to charge headlong, arm cocked back to deliver his promised punishment but he stopped short when my raised boot hit him squarely in the gut.
A whoosh of expelled air caused him to double over. A winded grunt was the only sound as he clutched his stomach.
Next the "bear" shrieked when I bit his arm hard enough to draw blood. He let go and with a string of curses accenting his pain, he stared wide-eyed at the double row of teeth prints marring his flesh."
Duo reared back in his chair and laughed out loud. "Ya plucky for ya size." he commented with a wave of his pipe.
"And resourceful." Wufei added his praise.
"Resourceful, yes and certainly not a coward," Quatre stated. "but I'm no fool. I was outnumbered and withdrawal being the better choice, I ran for the forest bordering the estate.
I could hear Tom shouting over the thunder that had amplified from a distant rumble to a resonant baritone.
"Johnny, go around left. You go right" Tom directed the hunt, "I'll go straight and flush out the milksop rabbit."
"Roots tangled my footings; branches clawed at my face and snagged my hair. Touch was my only guide through the snarled maze of trees.
Lightning that moments before was faint glimmers above the mountains cut the clouds with knives of raw energy and only in those brief flashes was I able to see the path. Finally I reached the outside tree line and stumbled into a clearing circled by dense woods."
Quatre shifted to settled his back against Trowa's chest, to seek comfort in his lover's arm as he related the frightening events.
"I've never been afraid of storms instead they fascinated me. I danced in the rain, I embraced the primitive power but there was an alarming aspect about the weather that night."
The wind howled like a wounded wolf. Lightning seared the sky and kissed the ground causing every nerve to tingle under my skin. Thunder boomed like a cannon's report and shook the earth beneath my feet as if trying to breach the gates of hell and unleashed all the exiled demons at once. But, strangely, no angel's tears were wept from heaven.
There was a blinding flash. In an instant I was enveloped in an iridescent mist that sparkled like fairy dust. I was floating above a pool of azure water that was as smooth as glass.
A voice whispered inside the mist. "Look upon your reflection."
"I could see myself in the water's mirror surface. An aura of pure, white light shimmered around my face and glowed softly on my hair.
In my right hand I held the sun, in my left hand, the moon. A ring of stars encircled my head. As I gazed in amazement, feathery wings unfurled from my shoulders.
The voice spoke again but, this time, an authoritative tone tempered the whisper. "You are the chosen one. I grant you dominion over the seasons, the cycles of the sun and moon. You will share your power with the one who carries the Staff of the Rose and rules the elements of earth, wind and water."
"Are you that person?" I dared to ask.
"No, I am the Priest of Twilight. Your partner in power is my student."
"How can I find Twilight?"
"You have always known the way. Follow your restless heart."
Suddenly I was falling. Wind whistled in my ears as I plunged to earth. Panic seized my mind and threatened to stop my heartbeat then, as if some instinctive force took over, I was gliding...my wings bolstered by the air.
That was the last thing I remembered until I woke up with my mother holding my hand. She told me I had staggered into the servant's quarters, drenched with rain, chilled from exposure and mumbling about finding Twilight before I collapsed in her arms.
Tom, Johnny and the "bear" returned to the estate, soaked, confused and lacking a bit of their sanity. They told a tale of seeing me float, with wings on my shoulders, bathed in white light. Johnny and his friend eventually let the matter go but Tom kept repeating the dubious story and soon went mad because no one believed him.
For three weeks I hovered between life and death. Delirious with fever, I dreamed of a land of breathtaking beauty, a place always peaceful but as hard as I searched, darkness and rocky roadblocks always hindered my path.
Lord Hartford brought in the best doctors but even their skills could not halt death's stalking and they finally conceded that only a miracle would save me.
Despite my mother's refusal to believe that all hope was lost, the village priest was called to administer last rites. Father Patrick sat by my bed, took my hand then trembled from the energy flowing from my fingertips.
"This boy will not die." he declared to the astonishment of everyone assembled in the room.
Lord Hartford's private physician challenged the holy man's assertion concerning my recovery. "He hasn't responded to anything we've done to cure him."
"That's because you treated his body and not his dreams."
"This man is mad." the doctor announced, "Be gone heretic."
"No!" my mother exclaimed, "My son needs a guide. Please show him the way home."
The wise Father reached into his robe and took out two silver Celtic crosses hanging on silver chains that were unlike any carried by a priest.
Vines curled up the staff and flowed in opposite directions on the crosspiece. At the center a circle joined the junction and the ring was etched with a relief of a rose.
Placing one cross on my right palm and one on my left palm, the priest brought my hands together until the crosses touched. A flare of silver light spiked between my fingers and radiated into the room like rays of sunshine.
I drew in a deep breath, expelled it in a slow, steady stream then opened my eyes. "Mother?"
Angela kissed my cheek. "My precious son."
I let each cross dangle from my fingers. "Why two?" I referred to the holy symbols.
"One for you and the other for your equal." the priest replied.
As I regained my strength over two week's time, I dreamed every night but I was no longer lost. On the Summer Solstice I bade my mother farewell, promised to visit from time to time and followed my heart to Twilight.
When I crested the last hill, Zechs Merquise was standing by the path. I knew I was finally where I belonged. As I stepped into the yard, a tall boy dressed in a simple brown robe and trousers, his feet covered with soft shoes, sat on the porch playing a bamboo flute."
"Hello, I'm Trowa."
"I'm Quatre." I said, then offered the second cross.
Trowa closed his hand around my hand so we held his cross together. "Welcome home."
Quatre tilted his head and tenderly gazed up at Trowa with an unmistakable look of love. "I knew without question that Trowa was the person I'd been seeking all my life."
Wufei pulled his cross from under his shirt and twirled the chain between his fingers. "Five crosses, the quinque is complete."
Duo tapped his pipe on the hearth to knock out the ashes then addressed Heero. "You know our stories, how fate set our paths now, Demon Tracker, tell us of your life."
Duo tapped his pipe on the hearth to knock out the ashes then addressed Heero. "You know our stories, how fate set our paths now, Demon Tracker, tell us of your life."
Heero raked his fingers through his heavy shoulder-length hair, smoothed stray stands behind his ears then struck a bargain with the braided Irishman. "I'll share my story if you share your pipe."
Duo dipped the briarwood pipe in a cloth pouch, filled the bowl, tamped the tobacco blended with crushed mint leaves with his thumb and handed it to Heero.
Heero took a long twig from the kindling box, set the end in the fire and torched the tobacco. Three forceful draws pulled the flame. Soon minty smoke curled lazily from the bowl.
The Lone Hunter sucked deeply through the pipe stem, savored the taste then let the exhaled smoke drift over his lips. "My story," he began, "is in many ways like your life tales.
As Duo discerned on our journey to Aragon, I was born into nobility but of a lesser station. My father, Edward Ware, was not a landowner but squired a country estate, Willow Grove, owned by Baron Frederic Weisman.
My father is English, my mother, Keiko Yuy, is Japanese. They met when my mother's family was hired to tend the estate's vineyard and winery. After a short courtship they were married, two years later I was born in the warden cottage.
I grew up in the best of English and Japanese worlds. My English training included protection of the land, supervision of the field workers and craftsmen, how to ride and how to hunt with a crossbow. My father taught me respect for family, King and country and that steadfastness to duty was the true measure of a man's character.
My mother's gentle nature provided a different brand of education. She believed nobility was not given by birthright but earned by a kind soul and genuine concern for every person no matter his or her circumstances.
She taught me strength should always be tempered with grace, wisdom came through an instinctive counsel that was often foolishly ignored and, most importantly, that knowledge was acquired from life lessons, not from books."
Heero leaned back, took another draw on the borrowed pipe and momentarily appeared to be lost in thought.
Much like Quatre's fond remembrances, Heero's eyes briefly mirrored memories of a serene childhood but, just as swiftly, rage shattered the tranquil trance and renewed the icy cobalt that glazed his brooding sight.
As Heero continued, there was a hardened edge to his voice. "By age fourteen I was Master of the Hunt. Regrettably, I had become arrogant, as I believed every breed of game, deer, turkey, even rabbits, was no match for my crossbow skills.
Late one spring evening, after my father and I had led a hunting party since sunrise, we were less than a mile from the estate when we came upon my two pet Elkhounds. The dogs were cowering by the road; tails tucked between their legs, whimpering and their fur was matted with blood.
My first thought was that they'd tangled with a wild boar or perhaps a bear but when they refused to come when I called and shrunk back from my attempts to reassure them I knew something was terribly wrong.
My father was also distressed by the dog's odd behavior. The entire group rode at a full gallop until the horses pounded passed the wooden gates that guarded Willow Grove. The scene we beheld when we reached the manor house will be forever etched in my mind."
Heero paused to suck in a shaky breath and steady his voice, "The courtyard looked like a battleground. Branches had been torn from the trees as if a great wind howled down from heaven.
Fences around the pig lots were broken and the swine had scattered into the orchard. The sables were in ruins and three of the horses were dead in their stalls. A fourth horse wandered by the springhouse, wide-eyed, trembling.
I dismounted and stood transfixed in shock. Slowly the shock gave way to the realization that I was surrounded by utter silence, no birds chirped, even the wind seemed to hold its breath.
Suddenly panic stabbed through my heart and I began to run up the lane to the manor house. The wrought iron gate at the end dangled from one hinge. Leaves on the boxwood hedge were brown and curled.
I burst through the lopsided gate and almost tripped over what I thought was another broken branch but I quickly realized the branch was covered in tattered cloth.
When I bent down to investigate the mysterious shape I found I was standing over a body and staring into a face so badly crushed it no longer looked human. I drew back from the misshapen blob that had once been a head but was now a bloody mass of skin and brain matter oozing from gaps in the shattered skull.
The stench of charred flesh rankled in my nose. Nauseous waves churned in my gut and I heaved up my dinner. As I fought off fainting, I wiped cold sweat from my forehead and tried to focus through a hazy film that wasn't on my eyes but was drifting from the smoldering shell of Willow Grove.
Two corpses, scorched skin peeling away from the bones, their frames contorted by drawn-up ligaments, lay side by side on the blackened porch. I dared to step closer and made a grave discovery, burnt arrow shafts in their backs offered proof that they were already dead before the fire consumed them.
"Baron Weisman." I swallowed hard to keep the bitter bile from rising again. "Baroness."
There was no doubt about the identities. On each left hand the skeletal fingers bore a band of gold and, despite the discoloration, I recognized the heart shaped ruby stones of the Baron and Baroness' matching wedding rings.
To the left five females, completely stripped of their clothing, were stacked up like firewood. Beyond the nude mound, the severed head of a woman with cloudy eyes and stringy hair framing her ashen face set atop a pike stuck in the ground. Her decapitated body was nowhere to be found.
Smoke clogged my lungs. I struggled to breathe. A second bout of sickness threatened to buckle my knees. My mind couldn't comprehend the gruesome aftermath; my soul didn't want to.
Footsteps at my back caused me to whirl around and grab at thin air for my crossbow that was still tied to my saddle but it didn't matter that I was defenseless, my instincts were too numb to care.
My father, his face streaked with sweat and gasping in winded puffs, skidded to a halt. "Merciful saints." he whispered so lowly I wasn't certain if he was talking to me or praying.
It had been a matter of minutes since the hunting party arrived at Willow Grove. Less than an hour to grasp what had happened or make any sense of the slaughter.
Without warning my stunned brain began to comprehend. A single thought exploded inside my head with such force dots danced before my eyes and my legs went rubbery.
I didn't realize I was going down until my father's strong arm wrapped around my waist and shored me up. "Mother?" I mumbled as my mind fogged again.
*Fight back!* my inner counsel demanded.
"My sight cleared, renewed strength flooded every muscle. "MOTHER!" I screamed, batting at my father, at the world, at the injustice.
"She's alive." my father answered as he tightened his grip around my flailing arms. "Heero, look at me."
I weakly strained against the encircling arms then gave up the fight and looked into my father's eyes.
"She's bewildered but alive."
"Ryushi." Mayu called to her husband as they were returning from the vineyard.
Mayu, Keiko's aunt, pointed towards the manor house. "See the cloud of dust moving along the road?"
Quickly Ryushi and Mayu climbed the last hill in time to see a horde on horseback charge into the courtyard.
Ryushi took Mayu's hand, "Hurry we must find Keiko"
Ryushi, Mayu and Keiko hid in the forest. Side by side they listened to shouts and screams and smelled the smoke.
Men haloed by a black aura that hinted of demoniac influence and dressed in breastplates bearing the insignia of a lion and a stag bound together by a scarlet cord, brandished broad swords and ransacked the cottage but didn't set it ablaze.
When the men left, Ryushi told Mayu and Keiko to stay hidden while he checked to see if it was safe. Once he'd gone a shadow passed overhead then a wisp of smoke rose from the ground.
The smoke curled tighter, took on a human outline then spoke to Keiko. "Woman."
In spite of Mayu's warnings, Keiko stood up and faced the undulating apparition. "What to you want with me?"
"Because he will become a warrior and my master does not want the challenge."
Keiko stepped forward and locked her ebony eyes on the mystic vapors. "Who is your master?"
"You do not need to know."
"Then be gone for we have nothing more to say."
"Your son," the wavy phantasm repeated, "give him to me."
Keiko lifted her slender hand, pulled out the long silver pin holding her coarse black hair then shook her head until the smooth, straight tresses caped around her shoulders. "Come closer and I'll tell you a secret." she cooed.
The mist laughed as best it could considering it had no throat. "Foolish woman, You are no better than the whoring succubus. Do you truly believe you can harm me? Do you intend to stab the air?
Keiko narrowed her sight. "No, I intend to save my son."
To the specter's surprise Keiko pointed the pin at the spot where its heart should be and jabbed it inside until her arm was totally engulfed in white mist.
The outline began to flow over Keiko. She gritted her teeth and closed her eyes against the pain as the mist traveled through her body and emerged on the other side.
Keiko dropped to her knees clutching her chest. "I've stolen your power." she wheezed barely above a whisper. "Go tell your master that my son, the warrior, will find him one day."
The mist thinned until it was once again a shadow. "You may have my power but I have your sanity. You will never again have a peaceful thought. You will battle demons by day and dream creepers all night. Tell me woman, was your son worth losing you mind?"
As the mist faded away, its final question echoed inside Keiko's head. She collapsed and gazed up at the vanquished shadow. "My mind and my heart and my soul."
The pipe had gone cold, as cold as the hollowness in Heero's eyes.
Duo eased the pipe from the Tracker's fingers before their absentminded laxness let it drop to the floor.
"You don't need to go on." Wufei declared to spare Heero further emotional distress.
Heero blinked slowly as if waking from a trance. "Twenty-two people were butchered that day."
A pause. A sigh.
"By fate's whims my father, aunt and uncle were spared but my mother was gone."
Quatre rested a hand on Heero's arm. "Your mother survived."
With the numbness in his eyes still in force, Heero shook his head. "Only a shell left behind...empty...because of me."
"It wasn't your fault." Trowa added his support. "If you had been at the estate you surely would've been killed."
"I would have gladly given my life for my..." Heero's voice cracked under the strain, "I would have done anything to save her."
"We know." Wufei spoke for his comrades, "Please let the memories rest."
Heero straighten in his chair. He drew in a deep breath, let the exhaled air carry away a measure of his heartache then insisted, "No, the memories have rested long enough, they need to be given a voice.
With the estate destroyed and only the hunters left alive there was no reason to stay. While the hunters gathered the bodies, I helped my father build a funeral pyre.
As flesh and bone was reduced to ashes the dead were freed from their mortal bonds. Ryushi added incense to please the gods and offered prayers for the dead's peaceful departure.
I sat on the ground beside my mother. I held her close for consolation but also to keep the remnants of her tattered chi, the essence of her soul, from joining the liberated spirits in their journey into the afterlife.
My mother looked on me with empty eyes but a single spark still shimmered in their ebony depths, one enduring point of light that gave me hope all was not lost.
Watching the sweetened smoke funnel up to heaven, I swore to my ancestors I would hunt down the monsters who had slain the innocent, even if it meant tracking them into hell.
In honor of my mother I took the surname Yuy and made a solemn oath that one day I would find a way to restore her mind and mend her splintered spirit.
The fire finished its task. My father and I rounded up the horses. Mayu rode with Ryushi and Keiko rode with Edward. When we reached the crossroads, where the road spilt apart in opposite directions, I chose to take the lone pathway, as it should be, for I was now destined for the solitary existence of a Demon Tracker.
I kissed my mother, bade my father farewell, repeated my vows of retribution and rode away.
The Priest of Twilight leaned forward until his emerald sight locked on Heero's face, that was yet again totally void of _expression. "You are not destined to hunt alone but to complete the quinque so together we can end the Devil's reign of terror and restore peace to this land."
Like a cauldron filled to overflow, Heero's emotions suddenly gushed over the edges. Expressionless eyes flared with pain that, when heated by anger, seethed to the surface.
"DAMN THE QUINQUE" he shouted, slamming his fists on the table. "DAMN YOU ALL TO HELL!"
The enraged Tracker stood up, upsetting his chair and sending it crashing to the floor. He bolted for the door and it banged back with such force it nearly jumped off the hinges. Boots pounded on the porch then the grass muted the sound of Heero's retreat.
Always the peacemaker, Quatre began to get up but Duo signaled for the Manipulator to stay seated. "I started this," the clearly penitent Irishman declared, "I'll weather the Tracker's storm and try to calm the raging winds."
Outside the night sky was studded with a thousand pinpoints of twinkling stars. The moon was almost full and the increased illumination helped Duo find his way across the yard.
The Lone Hunter stood under the apple tree. One hand was braced on the trunk as if to keep Heero from sinking to the ground. His free hand appeared to be swabbing his eyes, perhaps to wipe away tears that should have been shed long ago.
As Duo's moonlit shadow spread out at Heero's feet, he brushed back hair curtaining his profile, leveled his slumped shoulders and directed his fiery sight, that had not entirely been doused by tears, at his quinque counterpart.
Although Duo wasn't certain his apology would be accepted, he expressed his regret. "I'm so sorry, I...." Guilt joined the remorse, "I shouldn't have insisted. By all that's holy, Heero, I didn't mean to reopen your wounds."
Heero's voice was a bit softer than usual as he stated. "You didn't force me to speak." With a sigh borne of exhaustion he leaned his back heavily against the tree. "You'd think after four years the recalling wouldn't be so painful."
Duo leaned nearer to better see Heero's face. The silvery light filtering through the blossom bedecked branches enhanced Heero's high cheekbones and made his tanned skin glow.
"The most painful memories are always the last ones to be exorcised," Duo declared from personal experience, "but now you don't have to bear them by yourself."
Heero nodded. "I suppose I am a part of the brotherhood, the Warriors of the Rose."
Duo cupped Heero's chin and dared to whisper in his ear. "We are linked. I feel what you feel. I willingly share your joy and your pain. You will never be alone whether walking by day or wandering through the land of dreams."
Before Heero could react to the unexpected closeness. Before he recovered from the breathy words that tickled his ear and caused his heart skip a beat the Duel Spirit stepped back and broke the spell. "Its late, we're tried and fretful. Come to bed."
Inside the modest bamboo house, Quatre and Wufei had cleared the table, cleaned the dishes and Trowa had banked the fire for the night.
Heero humbly begged his comrade's pardon. "I'm sorry for my outburst. Each of you have your own bitter dregs to swallow. I have no right to act as though my troubles deserve special attention."
Quatre offered a warm smile."There is nothing to forgive. It is wiser to scream than to let your feelings fester until they make you sick."
Trowa stepped beside Quatre and wrapped an arm around his lover's slender waist. "May angels watch over you til morning."
After Trowa and Quatre retired to their bedroom. Heero and Duo laid futons side by side on the floor, stripped down to a less restrictive amount of clothing and snuggled under blankets woven from wool supplied by the sheep.
Wufei blew out the lamp."Good night." he said just before he dropped his veil and reverted to his true form.
As the room became bathed in the fire's soothing blush, the black wolf curled up on a woven rug, tucked his tail over his back, rested his sleek muzzle on his paws and closed his soulful eyes.
In the peace of Twilight, while the moon kept its silent vigil, the wolf sighed in his sleep and dreamed of running wild with his pack.
Brittle wind swept across the Valley of Aragon then swooped down the Elon River Plateau's sheer limestone walls like a war hawk. Atop the plateau's wide, level expanse that measured less than a mile, the perpetual currents buffeted brown grass, frail scrub bush and gnarled trees stripped bare by winter.
But the wind carried more than a bitter chill. Blanched mist, mingled with the stench of death, swirled over bodies and the body parts of humans and horses that littered the ground shrouded in scarlet snow. Broken lances, shattered swords and shields bearing the insignias of both armies lay scattered among the fallen.
Groans from the wounded and pleas for help from the dying were barely heard above the whining wind. Those few fortunate men who survived the carnage wandered aimlessly, minds numbed by shock.
Some distraught soldiers stumbled over their comrades and didn't bother to get up again seemingly content to let the cold claim what remained of their devastated humanity.
A lone man stands in the battle's macabre aftermath. His dark blue uniform, black knee-high boots and fir-trimmed cape are splattered with blood. A ranking officer's steel sword, its blade tarnished red, is clutched in an equally crimson stained hand.
Blue eyes, as icy as the wind, survey the battlefield. A satisfied smile mirrors the delight of triumph. "The King won't mock me again." he growls as the cape's fur collar feathers around his face.
The sound of snow muted hoof beats is heard in the distance. The galloping slows to a trot then stops altogether. The chestnut roan horse whinnies and snorts, it's expelled breath crystallized from the cold. The male rider dismounts and picks his way through the labyrinth of contorted corpses and useless weapons.
A mane of snow-white hair flows down the rider's back almost to his waist. His eyes are also blue but their hue is more akin to a cloudless sky. His boots, trousers, tunic, gloves and coarsely woven cloak are black in stark contrast to the wintry mantle crunching beneath his feet.
The uniformed man doesn't turn around, doesn't seek to discover the approaching stranger's identity. He knows who draws near, knows the cadence of his footsteps. The victorious officer can see the man in his mind's eye as clearly as if he stood next to him and for a moment his heart quickens.
Now the men stand side by side. The wind whistling around them is the only sound. Tension surges between the officer and the rider like lightning arcing from an enraged heaven.
The wind rises again, white hair flutters. The rider's voice is low, his throat choked by confusion.
One word, bitter with anger, hisses over his lips. "Why?"
The officer studies the singular question with serious consideration then gives a profound answer he hopes will ease the tension. "I did it for you."
The silence is deafening. The officer would rather the rider shout out his indignation, strike out with fists or slash with a sword but an intuitive statement is the man's only response.
"In truth this betrayal was for yourself not for me."
General Treize Khrushrenada dares to face his lover, dares to gaze into blue eyes lanced with inconsolable grief. "No...for you, only for you."
Treize's hand trembles as he reaches out then drops as Zechs bats it away.
"Disloyalty did not guide my choice," Treize declares, "but I could never be devoted to a King who isn't wise enough to recognize my military expertise or take my counsel seriously. I had to show Peacecraft that his army was no match for my talent and skills. General Septum understands. He, too, has suffered the King's rejection.
Look." Treize points across the field at a single tattered flag snapping on a staff planted in the crusty earth. "See the standard, the coat-of-arms. The lion is me. The stag is you. We are bound together by a cord colored with the blood of victory."
Zechs Merquise shakes his head sending platinum hair cascading over his right shoulder. "Surly you must know I can't be part of this treachery. I'm a holy man, a man who heals not kills. I can not have these murders on my soul.
Your allegiance is to Septum not to me. You have rent our bond, our fidelity. You have..." Zechs' voice cracks and he struggles to finish, "Treize you have broken my heart."
"But can't you see?" Treize waves frantically at the flag now drooping under the weight of the wind's fury. "The lion is strength. The stag is enlightenment. We are stronger together. Together we can conquer the world."
Zechs sucks in a quivering breath and sighs into the glacial gusts that threaten to freeze his heartbeats. "You have chosen gloom over the light. Your judgment has been corrupted by pride. Your soul has been unlocked and demons have been invited in."
Tears glisten in Zechs' eyes but are wiped away before they track down his cheeks. "You are the Lord of Darkness. I can not dwell in your shadows."
Zechs' shudders, not from the unrelenting cold but from the dying of the last ember of love. "I have to leave." He pulls the cloak tighter but it does nothing to stem the arctic tide of hopelessness.
"Where can you go?" Treize asks, knowing that he and Zechs have no life outside each other.
"I'm departing to Twilight."
"Twilight is a myth--outlandish tales told by old men who have lost touch with reality." Treize declares. "I beg you don't take my light away."
Zechs looks with pity on his lover but his conscience can no longer bear the pain. "Good bye." he whispers as he mounts his horse.
"NO!" Treize wails but his plea is swallow up by the howling wind.
"No." Treize mumbles into the pillow he clutches to his chest. The bedcovers tangle his arms as he reaches for his vanishing lover just as he has every night since Zechs left for Twilight.
His chest heaves. His forehead beads with sweat. Eyes pop open and anxiously searched the pre-dawn dimness. Then his hand brushes a bare shoulder. His fingers stroke long silky hair.
"Zechs." The name falls feebly from his lips.
At the tentative touch Andrea stirs in her sleep and Treize's mind once again retreated into madness.
A soft knock sounded at the bedchamber door. At first Treize reasoned the tapping was the product of his dream-altered state of reality. A second, more forceful pounding prodded him fully awake.
Wearily letting his hand slither from Andrea's hair, he eased up on the clammy pillow. "Who is it?" he muttered, not caring if the question could be heard through the thick wooden door.
There was a pause then a barely audible voice answered. "Odin."
"What in the hell do you want?" the Dark Lord growled out his annoyance at being disturbed at such an unsuitable hour.
Hearing the slurred words and the distinct irritation in the curt reply, Odin leaned his shoulder against the doorframe and reconsidered pursuing the conversation.
He really wasn't in the mood to endure the incoherent ramblings triggered by Treize's wine overindulgence. But a strategy session was in order and it couldn't wait until mid-morning or later when the cobwebs sufficiently untangled in Treize's addled brain for him to stagger from his bed.
Odin rolled his eyes and cursed the muddle-minded ex-General. "Damn drunkard." then raised his voice, "I need to speak to you now." he insisted in spite of his better judgment.
Wrapping a blanket around his nude body Treize eased out of bed. By means of shaky handholds on the bedpost, the washstand, then the wardrobe he carefully navigated through a maze of wrinkled clothing, mismatched footwear and empty wine bottles strewn about the floor.
He pulled back the stubborn latch and cringed as the squeak scraped inside his skull like a sword being drawn across steel.
The door cracked open far enough to see into the hall. One bloodshot eye peered out at the mercenary. "What's so important it couldn't wait?"
"We need to discuss the quinque."
The crack widened. Treize stepped aside to let Odin limp in. As the door closed to ensure a private discussion, he squeezed his eyes shut against the shrill whine from rusty hinges that was multiplied tenfold when processed through a hangover.
"I ought to slit your gullet for mentioning those mare-fucking bastards." the Dark Lord declared as he slowly made his way back to the bed.
Odin stopped midway into the chamber letting his sight linger on Andrea's flaxen hair spread out on her pillow and her torso that was scarcely hidden by the bedcovers. He licked his dry lips and tried to ignore the tightness growing in his groin.
Treize more flopped than sat on the bed. When it felt like his brain slipped off center, he winced, swore under his breath and cradled his head in his hands. The jolt woke Andrea who sleepily rolled from side to back baring both breasts.
"You have something to tell me?" Treize began before realizing that ogling his employer's temporary mistress had otherwise engaged Odin's attention.
"Odin." Treize hissed but the subdued volume still ricocheted in his ears.
A lecherous grin plastered on his lips, Odin redirected his thoughts back to the reason for his early morning intrusion. "Ah...the warriors are...in Twilight." he finally managed to finish the sentence.
Treize's throbbing head was made worse by Odin's inability to express an idea and since Andrea was the obvious cause of his henchman fumbling over his words she had to leave.
The Dark Lord took a moment to also enjoy the young girl's exposed anatomy before he snapped. "Get out!"
Andrea grabbed the sheet, covered her nakedness then slid her legs over the bed's side. She found her simple cotton frock, slipped it over her head and put on her shoes.
With a servant's submissive posture, Andrea threaded her way between the bed and the lewd mercenary. Odin reached out and snagged a handful of pale blond hair.
Lifting the silken tresses to his nose, Odin breathed deeply. "You smell of sex." He scowled at the timid maiden. "You'd better wash off your master's scent before I add mine to it."
Treize leaned over to find his breechcloth in the rumpled clothes heaped beside the bed. In spite of his cautious movements a queasy wave churned in his gut and he had to wait before tugging on the dingy undergarment.
"I know the warriors are in Twilight." he informed Odin. "Shit, where's my trousers?"
Odin used the bedpost to steady his balance. With his own degree of caution he sat beside the Dark Lord. "Now is the time to attack, when they can be eliminated with a single strike."
A wiggle and a yank pulled the trousers over Treize's hips. Next a shabby shirt was fished from the pile, put on but left unbuttoned.
"The magic guarding Twilight is too strong."
The Dark Lord rubbed his sore temples and silently wished for any brand of fermented liquor to pickle his brain or keep the memories at bay. "My spy tells me the quinque will soon journey to Deep World."
"Then they will die on the road."
"No. Zechs," Treize paused to savor the sound of his lover's name, "is in Deep World and I want to know exactly where he is.
That young apprentice, the new Priest, he knows the way. Let him be our guide, he and the other mystic men. Once I find Zechs, you and your army can do as you please with those impotent Warriors of the Rose."
Icy wind howled across the Elon River Plateau. Men's angry shouts, horse's terrified whinnies and the clang of tempered metal resounded over the battlefield. Sparks from clashing swords sizzled in the air and gushing blood turned white snow to scarlet.
In the midst the combat, at the height of the bloodshed, a man-child of sixteen aimed his crossbow and planted the bolt in an enemy soldier's throat. Another arrow, another soul snuffed out in less than a heartbeat, shot after shot until his quiver was empty and he had nothing left to defend his life.
A burly warhorse bore down on the defenseless archer. The rider, wearing a gleaming breastplate adorned with a lion and a stag bound by a scarlet cord, swung his broadsword and barely missed the archer's head.
As the human target ducked under the blade, the sword's tip sliced the young man's woolen coat and grazed his chest opening a gash from shoulder to breastbone.
Wounded and stunned, cold air seizing his lungs, the youth struggled to stand as the horse and rider came around for a second, most likely, lethal pass. To his left, the body of a decapitated soldier, his head still in his helmet and his hand closed around his sword, sprawled in the crimson snow.
The archer crawled to the fallen swordsman and with pounding hooves vibrating through the ground, he pried the bladed weapon from stiff, death-curled fingers then stood and faced his foe with only fearless determination as his armor.
By the youth's awkward stance, the way the heavy broadsword wobbled in his uncoordinated two-handed grip, it was clear the dark haired man was unskilled in the art of swordplay.
But there was a boldness in his brooding glare that gave his attacker a moment's pause, a defiance that displayed the courage borne of nobility.
Unexpectedly the rider pulled back on the reins, the horse abruptly halted its charge. With an amused sense of superiority, he dismounted and gave his novice challenger a mock salute.
"What's this, a boy trying to do a man's job?" The rider taunted, as he believed the youth was no match for his battle-honed proficiency.
"A warrior cannot be judged by his age."
"So warrior, what's your name?"
"Heero Yuy. May I know your name before I kill you?"
"Odin Lowe." came the reply as the soldier-of-fortune reassessed Heero Yuy's maturity irrespective of his age. "All right, lad, let's see what you're made of."
Heero set his jaw, narrowed his piercing blue eyes and hardened his muscles until they were like tightly coiled springs. He fixed his steely gaze on his opponent, steadied his stance and angled his sword. "Make your move."
Odin's lips curled into a thin-lipped smile. "This is going to be easy." he announced. His blade arced up then zipped through the air straight for Heero's head.
Heero watched the blade's downward slope, mentally calculating its strike point. "Wait." he mumbled under his breath, "Wait."
"Now!" Every muscle recoiled at once.
The swords struck crossways. The echo of blade on blade was distinctly heard above the battle's din.
The power and precision of Heero's countercheck caught Odin off guard. The smirk dissolved into a frown as the possibility of being bested by the young upstart hit him like a fist in the gut.
A throaty growl and a glint of light was Heero's only warning before Odin's sword came around again, this time with the intensions of an excruciating evisceration.
Heero reacted instinctively but lacked the strength to totally parry the thrust. His sword almost left his grasp with only a last minute tightening of his grip preventing the weapon's dislodgement.
Now Odin could sense the young man's weakness and moved in for the kill. Blow after blow he beat his rival down. Heero gritted his teeth and fought back until his arms quivered and exhaustion caused his legs to buckle under the strain.
One last frantic block upset Heero's balance sending him backward into the snow. Lungs begged for breath, salty sweat stung his eyes but at least the cold had numbed the cut across his chest.
With a blade poised over his heart, Heero stared up into Odin's face that showed no sign of leniency.
Odin pressed his boot on Heero's wrist, pinning his hand and the sword it held to the frozen ground. "I must admit you mounted a better offensive than I expected but I would've enjoyed a longer fight."
"You won't hear me beg."
"I didn't think you would."
"You won't win. That devil Septum and his damned Lord of Darkness will betray you."
Odin raised an eyebrow at the lad's prophetic declaration of his downfall. "Its make no difference. You won't be alive to witness my disgrace."
There was an odd glimmer in Heero's eyes or perhaps it was the waning sun reflecting off the snow. For an instant the cobalt blue became black as midnight then Odin swore that fire flared across the enlarged pupils.
"Today is not my time to die." Heero proclaimed.
Heero's free hand was a blur of motion as it planted a dagger in Odin's upper thigh until he felt the tip scrape the bone. A few inches to the left and the mercenary would've been transformed from stallion to gelding.
An anguished wail bellowed up to heaven but Heero was certain the angels had long ago hardened their hearts. Odin dropped his sword and collapsed on the ground where he writhed in agony and clawed at the slender blade buried to the hilt in his leg.
Having been granted a reprieve, at least for that hour, Heero scooted back and left handprints in the snow where he pushed to stand up.
Odin's broadsword lay at Heero's feet.
*Finish him!* Heero's inner counsel commanded.
*Why not? You've killed before.*
"Only in battle but never in cold blood."
*Do it! Carve out his hell-spawn heart and feed it to the wolves.*
"NO!" Heero screamed as he ran blindly into the white mist.
But as hard as he ran he couldn't escape the voice inside his head. *Coward!* echoed again and again.
"No." Heero mumbled in his sleep. "Please leave me alone."
Duo braced an elbow on his straw-stuffed futon and raised up until he could watch the angst-ridden expressions play across Heero's face.
Duo had shared Heero's dream just as he had many times but this night the images were scattered in disassembled scenes that never formed a complete picture.
Heero flinched. Arms and legs jerked from residual tension in his muscles. His breathing quickened from the exertion of fleeing the battlefield and foolishly trying to run away from himself.
Duo used his thumb to smooth out the Tracker's creased forehead. His fingers traced down Heero's temple, over his high cheekbone's curve before resting lightly on Heero's lips.
"Shhh." Duo whispered closed to Heero's ear. "You don't have to fight your demons alone."
With a surrendering sigh Heero relaxed. The laborious panting evened out into a rhythmic ebb and flow. He opened his eyes and beheld the intercessor that stood between him and the dream creepers.
"It's all right, I'm here."
The Duel Spirit interlaced his fingers with Heero's fingers, settled down with his head against Heero's shoulder and repeated his nightly entreatment for the brave warrior's sake.
"No more dreams."
Heero wrinkled his face then swatted at the fly tickling his nose. When the bothersome bug refused to be batted away, he cracked open one eye and squinted at the thin shafts of light leaking through the bamboo shades.
Trowa and Quatre's bedroom door was shut as they, no doubt, continued in their uninterrupted sleep. By the fireplace, Wufei in his unveiled state, was curled up as he, too, was still under the Sandman's influence.
The moving of his head stirred up the tickling again causing Heero to open his second cobalt orb. His twin eyesight revealed not a fly but Duo's braid lying across his shoulder, the feathery tip barely touching his nose.
The Tracker's vision focused at the braid's end then traced up the messy ginger plaits until he gazed at Duo's serene countenance as he slept with his forehead against Heero's bare arm.
Since Heero was very protective of his private space he should've been perturbed with the contact but somehow the closeness seemed right. His next discovery was that the fingers on his right hand were intertwined with Duo's fingers and, for some baffling reason, the handholding also seemed natural.
Normally when Heero slept half of his subconsciousness traversed strange dreamscapes, which was now less troublesome because Duo shared the journey, however the other half of his subliminal senses remained tactile.
He actually heard noises, wind rustling the trees, the scraping of claws or batting of wings. He could smell a fire demon's sulfur stench or the sticky sweet odor secreted by naughty nymphets.
The Tracker's wits remained keen even when exhaustion numbed his body and tried to fog his brain so Duo being that near and not setting off his instinctive alarms confirmed his and the Duel Spirit's bond of trust.
There was one sensation that needed no conformation, the insistence pressure in Heero's bladder. With a frustrated groan, he gave up the notion of returning to slumber's embrace or lingering in bed to enjoy Duo's company.
As Heero eased his fingers free, the sleeping Irishman momentarily tightened his knotted grip then relaxed with a contented sigh and mumbled. "No more dreams."
Careful not to disturb his bedmate, Heero slipped from the futon, smoothed the blanket over Duo's chest and crawled three feet then got to his feet. A spine-popping stretch loosened his body and a yawn reawakened his groggy brain.
Heero tugged on his trousers and pulled the laces tight enough for the waistband to rest on his hips. No use in securing the entire front since his needs called for "letting the horse out of the stable" once he reached the outhouse. He left his shirt unbuttoned then flopped in a chair, decided to forego his socks and wiggled his toes to help slide on his boots.
Heero's stirring about caused Wufei to raise his shaggy head and scowl at the Lone Hunter. A puff of air flared the wolf's nostrils, the snort intended to express his annoyance at the early morning commotion.
"Sorry." Heero whispered as he tiptoed to the door.
Wufei blinked his large black eyes, which had softened their glare then gathered his legs under his lean but muscular frame and got up. He braced his front paws on the floor, elevated his haunches and lowered his shoulders to stretch his spine all the way to his tail.
The wolf's elongated posture, with his head pointing downward, reminded Heero of Wufei in his human form offering a respectful bow.
Then an image flickered through Heero's mind of Chang Wufei as a ronin, the masterless samurai, adorned in heavy leather armor, a double-bladed katana clutched in one hand and a wakizashi held in the other hand, sitting astride a noble warhorse.
"Surely," Heero thought to himself, "the Oriental has the warrior's spirit of both a wolf and a human."
The wolf was unaware of the Tracker's paranormal perceptions as he padded across the room, stopped beside Heero and gazed at the door with a "let me out" look in his eyes.
The Demon Hunter and the Perpetual Beast paused on the porch to watch the sunrise paint bands of color ranging from deep rose, to pale pink, to grayish purple over the horizon. They shared the birdsongs and the fresh fragrance of dew-damp grass.
They walked side by side, only parting when Heero took the outhouse path and Wufei sniffed along the tree line. While Heero peed in private, the wolf cocked his leg on a lavender lilac bush then utilized his excellent sense of smell to ferret out something for breakfast.
Duo was standing on the porch wearing only trousers when Heero returned minus the prowling wolf. The dawn blushed his creamy skin and glowed on his bare chest. Although mussed from sleep, his hair sparkled with a thousand pinpoints of cinnamon-tinted light.
"Good mornin'." Duo called, raising his hand to shield his eyes against the steadily brightening morning.
"Good morning to you." Heero greeted the Duel Spirit.
Duo picked up the bucket setting by his bootless feet. "I'm fletching water for breakfast." he stated the obvious, "Is Wufei hunting?" he continued as he hooked the handle on the rope.
The wooden pail swung over the spring's stone rim. "Did ya sleep sound last night?" Duo inquired in a rhetorical tone.
"Sound enough for you to sneak up without me knowing."
There was a moment's silence, a splash then the rope went taut under the water's weight. As Duo hauled up the bucket, Heero was treated to a display of bulging biceps and an abdomen strong enough to bounce rocks off of.
"Let me help you." Heero volunteered, looking for an excuse to scrutinize Duo's athletic physique.
Inside Quatre was emptying a large scoop of dried oats into a pot hung in the fireplace. The water was already rolling in a rapid boil and the oats quickly joined in the topsy-turvy swirling. Trowa was slicing salted bacon from a thick slab set on a cutting board.
Quatre asked Duo to stir the oats while he sprinkled salt into the thickening pottage then delegated the workload as he addressed Heero. "You may get the plates and bowls from the cupboard."
Soon the aroma of bacon sizzling on the iron griddle placed on the firestones filled the room. The pot had been removed from the fire but the oats still bubbled from the residual heat.
Biscuits left over from supper, that had been wrapped in an unbleached cotton napkin and stored under a stone crock to keep out the mice, were arranged on a plate. A round of butter, a jar of strawberry jam and a pitcher of Duo's recently drawn water completed a meal fit for royalty.
The porridge had just been ladled put into four bowls and the bacon and biscuits passed around when the human Wufei shuffled in with a dejected stoop to his shoulders.
Again Duo stated the obvious. "No luck?" he mumbled around a bite of biscuit.
Wufei snorted. For an instant the veil slipped and the images of human and wolf intermingled. Another snort emphasized his exasperation. "Not so much as a damned rabbit."
Quatre pointed to the chair beside him. "Sit down and eat. One bad hunt shouldn't ruin the day."
"But I had my taste set for rabbit." Wufei declared holding out his bowl for several spoonfuls of cooked oats.
Duo couldn't resist some good-natured teasing. "Quail would've been good."
The Twilight Priest chimed in."No, pheasant in butter and brandy sauce."
"But Wufei doesn't like cooked meat." Duo added with an impish grin.
Wufei leaned over his portion. His unbound hair cut off his sight of the cheeky pair who was foolish enough to taunt him. "At this point," he raised his ebony eyes and focused a glare on Duo, "any meat will do."
The remainder of breakfast was eaten in silence except when Duo made nervous noises in his throat each time Wufei glanced his way.
Dishes washed, dried and put away; kitchen tidy and Duo properly chastised for tempting the beast's aggressive nature, the quinque decided that a bath in the hot springs would hopefully put everyone in a better mood.
"Might as well wash clothes at the same time." Trowa suggested after Wufei made the sarcastic comment that Duo was so ripe even wild boars would turn up their snouts.
The footpath leading to the springs meandered around mossy stones and was frequently interrupted by tree roots forcing the five men burdened with their bundles to travel single file.
Of course Heero didn't feel comfortable leaving his crossbow behind. The bow hung from his right shoulder. The quiver of arrows hung from his belt and bumped his hip with each step.
The Tracker already knew Wufei and Duo had their own means of defense and even though he had yet to see Trowa's tri-ringed staff or a demonstration of Quatre's powers of manipulation, he had no doubts that the lovers could take care of themselves.
Heero felt a twinge of envy as he realized he was the only member of the brotherhood that didn't have extraordinary abilities. *Don't discount your intuition.* his inner voice stated, *Your insight has always served you well.*
The Lone Hunter nodded in agreement with his wise counsel then refocused his attention on the path before the tricky terrain jeopardized his footing.
Clouds of white mist wafted over the springs fed by hot water gurgling up from underground. Fissures that were fifty feet deep transported the water to the surface in intermittent spurts that hissed and sprayed up foul-smelling mud.
A few pools were placid with hardly a ripple to disturb the blue-green water and the bottoms were solid, not oozy mud. Those sections were perfect for the cleansing quest of both bodies and clothes and to also soothe the mind and liberate the spirit.
Without hesitation, the quinque stripped. Even their breechcloths were peeled away so they could savor the freedom that could only be enjoyed when one was totally nude.
While Heero was not noticeably curious, he did discreetly check out his friends' manly attributes. Unashamedly he invested more minutes admiring Duo's manhood and was very much impressed. He was also granted the rare privilege of seeing Duo with his hair undone and caped around his shoulders.
The washing process was interesting, especially when performed in an "all-natural" state. Various garments were soaked, laid on surrounding rocks, scrubbed with a bar of hard-milled soap then rinse by dunking in the warm water. Nearby branches were soon festooned with trousers, shirts, socks and brighter breechcloths.
Although the water temperature was regulated by condensation in the air, it was prudent to ease into the warm liquid, especially when submerging private parts that weren't normally exposed and therefore were more sensitive.
Slowly, an inch at a time, the water rose to knees, then thighs, then over chests as the quinque descended into bliss. It wasn't long before the Warriors of the Rose lounged in a circle facing each other, each in their own state of ecstasy.
Somewhere above the bathers, a finch warbled melodious notes. The breeze fluttered leaves and carried the perfume of primroses. The active pools sputtered; bubbles stretched to the breaking point then exploded with a loud POP.
"I could stay like this forever." Duo sighed as his eyelids, made heavy by absolute contentment, slid shut.
Now it was Wufei's turn to tease. "You know," he began with a devilish gleam in his eyes, "I usually prefer raw meat but boiled flesh would be nice for a change." he declared then underscored his statement by poking Duo in the buttocks with his foot.
As every nerve ending jumped under his skin, Duo recoiled, "MERCIFUL SAINTS!"
Arms flailed. Duo clawed at the air that offered no handhold. Water splashed. "Dammit...what ya tryin' to do...give me heart failure?"
"Every deed has its reward." Quatre proclaimed.
Heero stifled a grin but hiding his amusement lasted just a second. The smile widened then burst forth in full-fledged laugher.
"It ain't funny." Duo growled. "I swear by all that's holy, Chang Wufei you'll pay for this."
The wolf threw down the gauntlet. "Any time, any place."
Trowa rolled his eyes at his fellow warriors' childish antics. "Play nice or I shall exile you from Twilight."
Afternoon cycled into evening. The unique brotherhood, refreshed and redressed, shared a supper of oat bread, white cheese and dried figs on the front porch. Wine replaced water to put everyone in a mellow mood.
Copying daybreak's dazzling display, the dusky sky was set ablaze by the waning sun. Rays spiked through wispy clouds like fiery threads weaving their way to heaven.
As the "eye of the dragon" sunk below the horizon, its iridescent aura melted into softer shades of scarlet then a final burst of brilliance signaled day surrendering to night. In those magical moments all color faded away and the landscape was shrouded in blue shadows.
The full moon shone on the dewy grass to provided suitable illumination so no lamps were required. One by one stars glimmered against the sky's inky backdrop. A nightingale's haunting song filtered from the forest and an owl took flight with a flapping of wings.
Wufei shed his boots, removed his shirt and clad his legs in hakama pants. His hair feathered over bare shoulders and reflected the lunar light in shimmering bands of silver on black.
A sheen of sweat glistened golden on Wufei's chest. Toes gripped the grass as he practiced his sword drills.
Moonlight glinted off steel. Precise movements flowed fluidly from one position to the other. Soundlessly the blade sliced the air. Ghostly shifts of balance blended force and form. Strength and grace combined into a dance where warrior and weapon moved as one.
A short distance from the house, Duo lay on his back gazing at the stars. He hadn't braided his hair but had secured it in a loose ponytail.
Heero made his way down the porch steps. He had debated whether or not to intrude but he was drawn to Duo as surly as a moth was drawn to a flame.
"Would you rather be alone?" he asked, hoping his comrade would choose his company instead of solitude.
Duo redirected his starry sight from the sky. "Join me."
Heero sat down and tilted his head back to observe the heavenly lights.
"You'll get a crick in your neck." Duo stated then patted the ground. "Lay here beside me."
When Heero was also settled on his back, Duo used an index finger to point at a cluster of stars. "See the six stars?" he moved his finger a little to the left. "And that lesser star makes seven."
"Those are the Pleiades in the Taurus constellation."
"The Seven Sisters." Duo explained. "The Pleiades are the daughters of Atlas and the nymph Pleione. A Greek myth says that Orion, the Great Hunter, wanted to love the sisters so Zeus turned them into stars and placed them safely in the sky.
The brighter stars were named Alcyone, Asterope, Celaeno, Elektra, Maia and Taygete. The seventh sister, Merope, is the dimmer star because she hides herself in shame over marrying a mortal."
Heero pushed to sit up. In wide-eyed surprise he asked. "How did you learn so much about the stars?"
"My brother, Solo, and I loved to look at the stars. My mother learned the legends from her mother and passed them on to us. I wish it was always night so I could discover their secrets."
Duo sat up with a sigh."Quatre says I'm star-struck."
"Because you're charmed by the stars?"
"No, because I can see the future in their glow."
"Tell me what the future holds for the Warriors of the Rose."
"There will be many obstacles to overcome and a great battle to fight but the quinque will be victorious."
Duo locked his eyes, which had deepened from violet to an enchanted shade of purple, on the inquisitive Tracker. "There will also be new lovers in Twilight."
Heero and Duo sat on the steps leaning their backs against the support poles.
Wufei sat cross-legged on the pouch. "Play for us." he requested.
Trowa slipped his bamboo flute from a cloth bag. Quatre plucked his fiddle's strings and adjusted the tuning until the tone was pleasant to the ear.
"How about a bargain?" Quatre grinned. "We'll play if Duo sings."
The Irishman straightened at his comrade's attempt to haggle a song. "I'll sing if you ask the elements to accompany me."
Quatre tucked the fiddle under his chin and pulled the bow across the strings. The single note soared on the breeze.
In the garden, cattails, their silhouettes resembling gaunt skeletons with smooth skulls and stalky bodies, ringed the pond that was aglow with foxfire. Crickets chirped a chorus of multi-layer melodies. A bullfrog's "burrrrump" provided the baritone.
With nature setting the cadence, Quatre fingered the frets and drew the bow back across the strings. Trowa put the flute to his lips and let his notes follow his lover's lead.
With fireflies twinkling like the Duel Spirit's beloved stars, Duo closed his eyes, took a deep breath and began to sing....
"Come with me to the twilight of a summer night for awhile. Tell me of a story never told in the past.
Take me to a land where my yearnings were born. The key to open the door is in your hand, now fly me there.
Fanatics find their heaven in never-ending stormy wind. Auguries of destruction is a lullaby for rebirth.
Consolations, be there in my dreamland to come. The key to the door is in your hand, take me there.
I believe in fantasies invisible to me. In the land of misery I'm searching for a sign, to the door of mystery and dignity. I'm wandering down the secret sun, to the land of twilight."
A katana is a sword with a 29" blade. A wakizashi is a sword with a 16" blade. Hakama pants are pleaded trousers with flared legs that hide movements and give the illusion of floating.
Foxfire is a gas produced by fungi or rotten wood that gives off a luminescent glow.
Duo's song is "Key of the Twilight" from the .hack//SIGN original soundtrack. Auguries refers to the rite conducted by an augur who is a priest that observes and interprets signs and omens.
Heero had been subliminally aware of Duo moving about on the adjacent futon but it wasn't until he stretched did he realize the Irishman was no longer lying beside him. In fact Trowa and Quatre's open bedroom door and Wufei's vacant spot by the fireplace confirmed that the Tracker was the last person to greet the new day.
The previous evening's imbibing of apple wine, the wondrous star gazing, the flute and the fiddle and Duo's sweet voice singing of Twilight had lulled Heero into such a relaxed state he had fallen asleep without his habitual apprehensions about closing his eyes.
The dream creepers must have also been placated by the same soothing influences for the midnight hour had passed into dawn without so much as a flicker of nightmares or, perhaps, it was Duo's subconscious intercession that had kept the beasts at bay.
Heero tugged on his trousers then hunted for his socks, finding one tucked under his pillow and the other hiding under the futon's corner. He rummaged through the cupboard and found a stone crock filled with oat biscuits. Three pilfered biscuits were smeared with honey and eaten while his pulled on his boots.
Socks and boots shielding his feet but minus his shirt Heero stepped outside into a puddle of golden sunlight shared by a drowsy brown toad.
An equally empty front porch gave Heero cause to wonder if his comrades had been eaten by dragons or wooed away by precocious wood nymphs that tempted humans with a wicked array of sexual enchantments.
Squinting through a cascade of tangled bangs, Heero resolved to have someone trim his hair before leaving for Deep World but, until such time, a thorough soaking and moping back would provide temporary relief from his sight interference.
A bucket of water drawn from the spring was splashed on Heero's face then he braved the cool water to wash both arms and his bare chest. Rivulets ran down the cross hanging around his neck then the droplets, shimmering silver, trickled over his stomach. Some water pooled in his navel but the majority of the moisture spilled over to wet his trousers' waistband.
A leather cord secured his damp shoulder-length hair in a loose ponytail, the shorter strands framing his face were tuck behind his ears then the Lone Hunter went in search of his fellow warriors.
When Heero paused at the tree line to empty his bladder, he couldn't help but grin as Quatre's disembodied voice inquired inside his head as to why the Tracker seldom used the outhouse.
"I don't have to worry about anyone sneaking up on me." Heero mumbled in reply to the Manipulator's recurring question then added for clarification, "I usually don't shit in the woods."
A mocking bird's diverse repertoire mingled with the speckled sparrow's twitter. The dove's gentle coo tempered the fussy calls of crows, but there was strange sound, something quite contrary to the warbled notes and the raucous cries.
Heero stopped to listen, to identify the unnatural noise. It didn't take long to sense a pattern of repeated resonance and to discover that the orchard was probably the source.
Zip. Thud. Zip. Thud.
The Tracker moved cautiously toward the spring green apple trees.
Heero strongly considered going back for his crossbow and quiver.
Pushing aside a feathery fern, its lacy fronds slipped over Heero's bare chest, tickled across his right nipple and continued the fleeting touches around his ribcage to his back.
For the briefest instant the fronds became Duo's fingers trailing over Heero's skin, leaving goose bumps in their wake.
A small shiver followed the tingling path but Heero shook off the sensual sensation and quickly returned his intuitive attention to the orchard. Armed with only his wits, the Tracker eased up, step by calculated step, until he had a clear sight-path between the fruit trees.
Dressed in a sleeveless tunic, Duo notched the fifth arrow on the longbow's string, centered his stance, drew back to the anchor point and held his breath. Frozen like a statue, with biceps bulging, he sighted in the target then only his fingers moved as they released the arrow.
The shaft sliced the air.
The arrow's tip sunk into a hopsack bag stuffed with straw suspended from a branch.
A sixth and seventh arrow lay by Duo's right boot. As he leaned over to pick one up, his braid brushed the ground. A rolling of his shoulder slipped the ginger plat over his back.
The process of loading the bow preceded the delightful flexing of muscles then Duo skillfully set the next arrow deep into the bag amongst the partly exposed shafts clustered together with hardly an inch in between.
The final arrow was retrieved. "Hello Heero." Duo called without glancing at the orchard.
"Damn." Heero swore upon his discovery by the shrewd Irishman, "How does Duo always know I'm watching?"
There was nothing to do but acknowledge the greeting. Heero stepped around the tree trunk."Good morning."
Duo's smile was well worth the failed spying mission.
"Mornin'. I was wondern' if ya was going to sleep the day away." Duo announced as he fluffed up the feathered end of the last arrow.
Heero took a moment to admire the marksmanship. "Very good." he praised Duel Spirit's proficiency.
Duo had witnessed Heero's deadly accuracy with a crossbow on several occasions."You're as good." he insisted.
Heero disagreed."Using a longbow calls for a different technique. Sustaining the bow tension while sighting the target requires a greater amount of strength and stamina. It also takes longer to reload so each shot has to be precise."
Duo shrugged, "Just takes practice. Wanna to try?"
Heero hesitated, not from uncertainty regarding his ability to learn but from the close proximity to Duo needed for the lesson.
"Come on, I don't bite."
*Cunning bastard.* Heero thought to himself as Duo employed his persuasive smile.
Before the Tracker could resume the debate between his mind and emotions, Duo grabbed his arm and tugged until he stood beside the crafty archer.
"Stand at an angle, like this." Duo instructed using pressure on Heero's shoulder to properly align him with the hopsack target. "I assume from watching you eat you're right handed?"
Heero nodded yes.
Duo handed the ancient weapon to Heero. "Left hand holds the bow. Notch the arrow on the string then catch it between your first and middle fingers."
Duo moved behind Heero and continued the teaching in breathy whispers designed to challenge the Lone Hunter's concentration. "Ease back the string."
Heero ignored the puffs of air accenting each word as they blew across his cheek; instead he focused on lining up the shot.
"Aim a bit higher than the target." Duo directed, savoring the fresh scent of Heero's recently washed body."Relax any muscle that isn't necessary for shooting." A single finger trailed down Heero's ponytail, the tip barely stroking the tanned skin beneath.
*How can I relax with you pawing at me?* Heero mentally protested the deliberate distraction. *FOCUS!* he ordered his lapsing attentiveness.
The fingertip cleared the ponytail's end. A shiver prickled along Heero's spine causing his manhood to twitch. "When you're ready." Duo cooed then the phantom caress vanished.
The bowstring unleashed its power setting the arrow on a true course to the target.
The shaft nestled among its counterparts very near the center.
"Well done." Duo congratulated the Tracker on a lesson learned in spite of his blatant attempts at misdirection.
While Heero was pleased with his archery accomplishments, he berated himself for his lack of control. "Dammit," he swore through clenched teeth, "you can never be distracted...NEVER!"
Even though Duo couldn't clearly hear Heero's self-issued reprimand, he could clearly read the Hunter's body language, clearly see the cobalt sparks flaring in his angry eyes.
Duo locked his confused sight on Heero's face with an insistence that couldn't be disregarded. "Heero?" his voice's inflection demanded an explanation.
Once again Heero fought for control, this time, to keep his anger in check but his resolve was rapidly fraying around the edges. "Don't ever touch me...like that...again." he hissed.
Duo neither shrank back from Heero's intense glare nor did he offer any ire in return. He stood quietly and, opposite his comrade's facial features twisted in rage, Duo's expression was unreadable.
The Tracker's reaction was puzzling. Heero had entrusted his fellow Warriors of the Rose with memories from his past, had willingly shared painful secrets and just the night before Duo and Heero had shared the stars.
Duo knew their cerebral connection had grown stronger, their empathy was undeniable yet playful flirtation had trigger an unexpected fierceness that bordered on violence. Had Duo mistakenly believed that sharing dreams made he and Heero physically closer? Was he foolish to hope for more than friendship?
"I'm sorry if I offended you." Duo apologized sincerely. With a dejected stoop in his shoulders he left the long bow on the ground and started back to the house.
Heero's control was threadbare but now regret replaced the anger. Duo didn't deserve to suffer for his insecurities. It wasn't Duo's fault that Heero had become so emotionally detached that he'd lost most of his humanity.
Heero was trembling. His heart was hammering so hard he was afraid it might shatter from the strain. He hadn't felt that way since his he sat among the blackened ruins of Willow Grove and held his mother who had sacrificed her mind to save him.
Not since that fateful day, when he swore to destroy every evil perversion, had he allowed anyone to get close for fear of losing them, too. But despite Heero's best efforts to guard his heart, a spirited Irishman named Duo Maxwell had broken down his carefully crafted barriers.
Heero called out, "Duo wait." before he realized he had spoken.
Duo's back stiffened but he didn't slow his pace or turn around.
Heero was running, reaching out. "Please."
"I..." Heero began but it was difficult to talk with a lump clogging his throat. He swallowed hard and finally recovered his voice. "I don't know how to..." The remainder of the sentence was choked off by a sob.
Duo pivoted in place. "How to what?" he asked even though he already knew the answer.
Heero sucked in a shaky breath, "How to open my heart."
Duo took Heero's hand and encouraged him to sit under an apple tree. When Duo had eased down beside the Tracker, he positioned himself so he could look directly into Heero's eyes. "Remember my oath that you'll never be alone?"
"I've been a thief, committed many sins to survive but I don't lie." Duo stated with sure conviction, "My word is the only pure part of myself I have left to give and I give it to you Heero Yuy."
As Heero sat in pensive silence, his mother's wise advice crept into his mind. "The past is gone, the future has yet to come so all you can do is live in the present."
"I don't want to be shackled by fear," Heero sighed, "but I've been in its cage for so long."
Duo's forefinger traced over the curve of Heero's high cheekbone then slipped lightly down his jaw until it hooked the chain and lifted the silver cross to eye level.
"I swear not only on this holy symbol but also on my life that your mind, your heart and your soul will always be safe with me." he pledged then sealed the promise with a kiss.
Duo's forefinger traced over the curve of Heero's high cheekbone then slipped lightly down his jaw until it hooked the chain and lifted the silver cross to eye level.
"I swear not only on this holy symbol but also on my life that your mind, your heart and your soul will always be safe with me." he pledged then sealed the promise with a kiss.
The kiss wasn't rough or demanding, more a chaste brushing of lips but Heero tensed at the unexpected contact. Duo rubbed his thumb in small circles on Heero's palm then leaned back to gaze into the Tracker's twin pools of cobalt blue staring back in surprise.
"Ya want to kiss me?"
The question purred through Duo's throat in a coaxing honey tone. The feathery traces of his thumb left tingling tracks on Heero's skin.
The Lone Hunter was often a man of few words but to find him totally speechless was rare indeed. Duo halted his thumb's distraction but didn't lessen the cunning captivation of his violet eyes.
"I'd like it very much if you'd kiss me." Duo stated sincerely.
Heero swallowed. His lips poised to reply but the answered stuck in his gullet. He swallowed again and was a bit more successful in mastering his voice, yet, "Yes." was all he could manage to whisper.
Duo cocked his head to align his and Heero's lips and make certain their noses didn't bump. "Are you sure?"
Where Heero's skills at verbal communication might be lacking, he had no problem with physical responses. He lived by a simple rule...actions always spoke louder than words.
Now it was the Irishman's turn to be stunned by an unpredicted move. The Tracker braced his left hand on the ground; his right hand reached around Duo's back and snagged his braid.
As Heero's opened mouth covered Duo's lips, a whimper replaced the syrupy sighs that had previously oozed from Duo's throat. This time it was Duo's eyes that enlarged to twice their size. And this time the kiss was hungry with need.
Duo slipped his arms over Heero's shoulders, pressed his body against a smooth, naked chest that was radiating enough heat to be keenly felt through his thin cotton tunic.
The kiss deepened. Tongues slithered, teased in a game of tag and retreat.
Duo held on like a drowning man clinging to driftwood. His fingernails dented Heero's bare back then left reddish trails as his hands slid down to grab up fistfuls of Heero's waistband.
The Duel Spirit and the Demon Tracker rocked and grappled, pawed and panted. If their mouths hadn't been so exquisitely engaged they could have produced more audible sounds than grunts and groans.
Duo wanted more and his manhood was in complete agreement. He guided his leg between Heero's legs then applied just enough insisted pressure to the Tracker's groin to convey his wishes.
Heero tighten his grip on the braid, clamped down on Duo's entrapped thigh, relaxed his left arm and sent he and the enamored Irishman sprawling under the apple tree. Hands roamed, hot breaths mingled. Bodies rubbed together and friction enkindled sparks that ignited an all-consuming firestorm of passion.
For lack of air, Heero broke the kiss. His face was flushed, sweat drenched his bangs and golden droplets glistened on his heaving chest. His manhood throbbed against Duo's thigh.
Likewise Duo sucked in short trembling breaths and likewise his penis also pulsed within his trousers' cramped confines.
As Duo endeavored to catch his breath, he wheezed, "Heero...we..."
In spite of the incomplete sentence Heero understood. "Our first time shouldn't be..."
"Like this." Duo supplied the ending.
While there was no denying there was a strong sexual attraction, lust was forbidden to be the driving force. Although their engorged erections begged for release, impatient genitals would not dictate their copulation.
With their first kiss, Heero Yuy and Duo Maxwell had suddenly discovered a bond beyond their dream empathy, a union not forged by fleshy desires but borne from mutual concern for each other's well being. A brand of love that was not selfish or demanding but willing to wait.
Heero rolled on his back, closed his eyes and tried to focus on anything but his painfully swollen manhood. Duo curled on his side and pressed his forehead against Heero's damp shoulder. He'd hoped the fetal form would help ease his discomfort but he, too, was granted only a small measure of relief.
Heero sighed, slowly opened his eyes then, without warning, a chuckle quivered through his chest. As the usually stoic Tracker broke into a full-blown fit of laugher, Duo propped up on one elbow and made a halfhearted attempt to stifle his own attack of giggles.
To anyone other than Duo, Heero might have appeared to be in the hysterical throes of madness and in some sense he was. The barriers around his heart had shattered the moment his and Duo's lips touched. The control he was so desperate to maintain had been compromised, perhaps beyond reclaiming but he didn't give a damn.
When the laugher subsided enough to speak, Heero announced. "I've been such a fool."
Heero sat up, tucked hair that had frayed from his ponytail behind his ears and offered an explanation. "For so long I allowed fear to rule my life. I withdrew from the world and filled the solitary void with hatred of anything that took perverse pleasure in tormenting mankind."
Duo leaned closer as if to share a secret. "You might be able to hide from the world but not from yourself."
Heero lowered his eyes, not to look at the ground but inwardly at himself. After a few moments he centered his sight on Duo. "Thank you." he whispered as he took Duo's hand.
"For making me feel secure enough to give up my control. At least with you." he added to establish the limited degree of his trust.
Duo kissed Heero's hand. "I only provided the opportunity. You followed your heart and made the decision."
"Shhhh. From this moment on we stand together with no more doubts or fears and I pity any human or demon that dares to challenge our resolve."
An apple blossom scented breeze fluttered the leaves like fairy wings. The sun, that had reached its midday zenith, filtered through the branches and painted mosaic patterns over the spring green grass.
Duo gazed overhead through the dancing white flowers and squinted in the bright streaks of light. "The sun and my stomach say it's time to eat. Let's gather up the longbow, arrows and target and see what we can find for lunch."
An ebony wolf slunk with stealthy steps along the garden's east border. A brown wolf sauntered by his side. A third wolf with a dappled coat of brown and tan paused to stiff the air then loped to catch up with his feral counterparts.
*Humans.* the dapple coat stated telepathically. *Not the two of Twilight.*
The black wolf's nose also tested the air. *Friends.* he responded in the same mental manner.
At the orchard's border, Heero stopped to study three shadowy shapes weaving through the garden. Contrary to the pink and white peonies, glimpses of earthier shades briefly showed through the leafy stems. Next the puzzling colors intermingled with the red poppies swaying in the breeze then vanished as if they were never there at all.
The canine trio's natural camouflage blending with the landscape made it difficult for the Tracker to confirm actual movement or whether it was merely a mirage of light and shadows tricking his eyes.
"Do you see?" he asked for Duo's visual verification.
Duo followed Heero's line of sight to the garden but had no idea what he was supposed to be seeing. "What?"
Heero decided to come down on the side of caution. "Hand me the longbow and an arrow." he instructed.
The lack of additional information proved frustrating to Duo."I've heard that being horny can make ya daft." he suggested as a possible reason for his partner's odd behavior, "So should we find some privacy and jerk ya off?"
"No!" Heero snapped at the Irishman's quite sincere offer of assistance, "Just hand me the damned bow."
An arrow was notched and the string pulled back until Heero's knuckles touched his chin. Sighting down the shaft, he mentally calculated where the phantom forms might emerge from the concealing foliage.
Duo stood by Heero's shoulder and, although he still didn't understand what he was looking for, he also sighted in a possible target.
The last row of peonies and poppies shuddered then parted with a rustle of shiny leaves.
A long snout poked out and sniffed at an array of scents. Large black eyes surveyed the immediate area. Long ears perked up and listened for the slightest sounds. Gradually a sleek, lean body glided into the garden.
"Wolf." Heero whispered.
*Are you sure?" his inner voice questioned.
The bowstring quivered. Heero's fingers loosened their grip in preparation to shoot. "I know what I see."
Duo tilted his head and focused his enhanced falcon sight on the four-legged trespassers. The brown and dapple-coated wolves were unknown but a tattletale blue aura clearly identified the natural form of Chang Wufei.
Without warning, as the arrow let go, Duo chopped down across the shaft and redirected the shot into the ground.
Heero whirled around, "What in the hell?" he demanded an explanation.
"Wufei." was all Duo could managed to say as he sucked in a quivering breath.
At the garden's edge, Wufei was unaware of how close he'd come to being unintentionally skewered. Flanked by his comrades, he became encased in sparkling blue pinpoints of light that flowed into wavy outlines then took on a solid human form. The same transformation altered the other wolves into a male and a female.
Now upright and bipedal the veiled trio started towards the house.
Heero stood frozen in stunned silence. The longbow dropped from lax fingers. A hard shuddered clawed up his spine and his knees became rubbery causing him to sway.
Duo caught his arm and shored up his support. "Easy now."
Heero stammered in shock."I almost made...a terrible...mistake."
"You had no way of knowing." Duo stated the truth, "Only with my keen vision was I able to distinguish the man within the beast."
Heero leaned heavily on the discerning Irishman. "From now on must I second-guess my instincts?"
Duo locked his sight on Heero."Look beyond the physical shell into the soul that's where a being's true nature dwells."
The Lone Hunter's impassive mask was firmly fixed in place when he and Duo found Quatre, Wufei and his clansmen visiting on the porch.
Wufei rose from where he sat on the steps and bowed to his fellow warriors. "May I introduce my cousin Chang Lee and his mate Maya."
"Lee and Maya have graciously agreed to watch over Twilight while we journey to Deep World." Quatre stated happily.
Trowa appeared at the door and beckoned to his friends and guests."Lunch is ready. Let's enjoy the food and each other's company."
As everyone filed inside, Heero paused beside Duo and leaned close to whisper. "Do you think it's a good idea to let the wolves guard the sheep?"
Duo grinned. "As long as the kitchen's well stocked."
First light found a flurry of activity in Twilight.
Quatre and Trowa were in their bedroom packing for the journey to Deep World. Since the Cleric and the Manipulator had chosen a modest life they had few worldly possessions.
Several changes of clothing and cloaks to ward off the night chill were neatly folded and tucked inside two rectangle tapestry bags with woven leather handles. Also included was hard milled soap, a bottle of aloe oil for washing the hair and a paste made from peppermint extract for cleaning the teeth.
To his bag Trowa added a leather pouch containing gemstone amulets for defense against the variety of creatures that would surly be dispatched by Lord Khushrenada.
Polished bloodstones were useful in repelling bloodsuckers that prowled at night. A bracelet of amethyst beads strung on thick thread spun from flax kept the dream creepers at bay and an oval pendant of jade attached to a silver chain could grant a glimpse into the future if the proper prayers were recited.
Lastly a white moonstone on a gold chain encircled Trowa's neck and served as the Priest's personal protection.
The day Zechs departed for Deep World, the wise teacher had given the moonstone to Trowa. At first Trowa protested that he wasn't worthy to wear the consecrated talisman that had been passed down from priest to apprentice for a thousand years.
Only after Zechs insisted that, through hard work and selfless sacrifice, Trowa had indeed earned his priesthood did he humbly accepted his Twilight duty. That day the moonstone joined the Warrior's Cross never to be removed until his death.
Likewise, Quatre assembled his natural arsenal of dried herbs and powdered potions. Lavender was particularly repulsive to daywalkers, Khushrenada's soulless slaves. Ginseng was a remedy for aliments of the stomach and head. Catnip made an excellent tea for insomnia. Balmroot healed wounds and counteracted poisons.
Quatre also had his own means of safeguard. Encircling his neck, along with his Warrior's Cross, was a small blue satin bag containing petrified wolfsbane.
A fortnight after Quatre's arrival in Twilight, Zechs performed the purification ritual that enabled the Fair Manipulator to commune with the sun, moon and stars and command the seasons.
During the rite Trowa, who was still an apprentice, took a handful of earth, summoned water from the ground and combined the elements into clay. He took a fresh sprig of wolfsbane, encased it in the mixture then called up the wind to harden the clay.
Trowa held the rough piece in his right palm; Quatre laid his right hand over Trowa's. They interlaced their fingers and squeezed until the earthen shell shattered to release the poisonous plant that was now preserved for eternity.
Trowa placed the wolfsbane in the satin bag sewn onto a satin cord. Quatre permanently sealed the seam by using his forefinger to guide a thin beam of sunlight along the edge. Zechs blessed the talisman then Trowa placed it around Quatre's neck and leaned over to kiss his cheek.
To Trowa's surprise, Quatre hooked his thumb under Trowa's chin and redirected his mouth to center over his lips. Without hesitation Trowa deepened the kiss.
"Trowa Barton, would you, this day, be joined to me?" Quatre whispered his heart's desire.
That night in the full moon's glow Zechs officiated the Joining Ceremony.
"This union is entered into with the mutual consent of Trowa and Quatre. It is their sincere wish to be joined in mind, heart and soul." Zechs declared. "Have you a Promise Token to exchange?"
"We do." Trowa and Quatre answered in unison as they handed Zechs two wide bands of gold they had jointly produced.
Quatre had intensified the heat from the sun to melt the gold and employed the moon's tidal force to fashion the bands. Trowa used the wind to transport the hot metal to a crystal stream where the rings were tempered by the cold water.
"There is no doubt concerning the depths of your love. "Zechs proclaimed, "Love that is strong enough to withstand any adversity that might rise against you. There is no reservation concerning the commitment of your hearts, that promise is evident in the light in your eyes.
Zechs held up the rings. "Never-ending circles. As one season follows the other, so do months revolve into years and years into a lifetime. May these rings serve as an outward sign of your bond and may your love always be an inward connection that can never be severed."
He handed the rings to Quatre and Trowa who, in turn, slipped them on each other's ring finger. A Blessing Prayer, a kiss and the lovers became as one forever.
Wufei, Heero and Duo's preparations for departure were not as detailed.
Wufei was a Spartan traveler. Regrettably in his veiled form, his wolf's sleek coat no longer covered his skin or leathery pads protected his feet and since most humans took offense at him wandering about naked, clothes were required. His sword had been cleaned and polished, a warrior's pride was always evident in the state of his weapon.
Heero repacked his bag and retied his bedroll. His dirk that he hadn't worn since coming to Twilight lay on his cloak waiting to be strapped to the Tracker's thigh. The crossbow and the quiver, refilled with new arrows Heero had made, sat patiently by the door.
Duo stuffed the whole of his belongings into a single satchel. He had no keepsakes from his past, only scars around his right wrist from being shackled in a hellhole with two insane men and the witch who had given his soul the means to soar.
He had memories. Memories bitter with cold and hunger and dark nightmares. But there was one token he always carried with him...a hole in his heart from his severance with his family that would never fully heal.
Twilight had given Duo a sense of serenity and a reason for hope. His fellow Warrior's of the Rose had promised the brotherhood's protection. His dream link with Heero had grounded his nights and the Tracker's friendship had made his days brighter. Duo proudly wore the same cross as his comrades and pledged the same vow to uphold the innocent and destroy depravity in every form.
While the Lord of Darkness' minions hadn't been brave enough to challenge the sanctity of Twilight Duo knew that once the quinque traversed its magical borders not only their salvation would be at stake but the world's redemption as well.
Soon the Hunter, the Duel Spirit, the Cleric, the Manipulator and the Veiled Beast would join Zechs Merquise, Keeper of the Temple. Soon the five would become six and woe to any Fallen Angel that dared to defy their righteous unification.
The increased activity in the Lord Khushrenada's cavernous quarters copied the travel preparations in Twilight. His personal servant, Michael, scurried around the bedchamber, selecting suitable garments from a walnut wardrobe and packing them in two leather saddlebags.
Treize's tarnished hauberk (1) lay on the bed. Scratched shin guards and a battered helmet topped with plumes of faded feathers were in an equally neglected condition. Propped against the damp stone wall a round shield, pitted and scored, bore the Dark Lord's Lion and Stag Coat of Arms.
Treize studied his reflection in the soot-clouded looking glass attached to the wall. Forty-eight hours without a drop of wine had not improved his surly attitude or lengthened the fuse on his quick temper but the liquor-laced cobwebs in his brain were less sticky and his ice blue eyes not as blurry or bloodshot.
Gazing at the shield's reverse image reflected in the mirror, Treize's thoughts drifted back to that January day on the Elon River Plateau and his the glorious defeat of King Peacecraft's army.
He had proven his warrior's prowess but the victory had been bittersweet. Instead of being extolled for his military genius, General Khushrenada was shunned at court and labeled a traitor by the High Council who charged him with treason and issued a warrant for his arrest.
Instead of a triumphant return to cheering crowds, Treize fled under the cover of darkness, destined to live in exile in the Sister Mountains' dank caverns, shut away from the sun and separated from his lover's light.
Trieze closed his eyes; it was too painful to gaze at the Lion and the Stag."Zechs I didn't lie. Don't you know I could rule the world and still have nothing without you by my side?"
Zechs was right, Treize Khushrenada was the Lord of Darkness. His heart was as black as midnight and his soul was the devil's whore. His mind had retreated into madness and the only time he was granted a brief reprieve was when he was drunk.
Suddenly Treize was shivering. He craved the wine's bitter taste on his tongue, its burn in his gullet and its heat in his belly. His back bumped the wall then his legs gave up their support. He slid down until he sat on the floor, knees drawn to his chest.
"You believe you have...sanctuary...in your damned temple," Treize mumbled as chills lanced his body but wouldn't numb his heart. "I'm sorry...my love...but even the depths of Hell won't provide asylum."
As he stared at the shield the Lion sprang forth and tore out the stag's throat."You will come back to me or be forever entombed in Deep World."
Michael glanced up from his packing but made no attempt to come to his master's aide. He wasn't about to risk a punch or a kick or broken bones. Luckily there was neither a sword nor a dagger within easy reach but Treize didn't need a weapon to maim or kill.
The prudent servant cinched up the saddlebags, draped Treize's dark blue cape over the bed's footboard and crept out of the room. The hinges creaked and whined then the door closed with a hollow thud leaving the Lord of Darkness alone with his delusions of a repentant lover.
(1) A hauberk is a long sleeveless coat of chain mail.
"The Staff of the Rose."
Heero reverently breathed the words more than spoke them out loud.
Trowa stood by the fireplace holding the sacred staff. The walnut wood reflected the firelight on its polished surface. The three intertwined gold rings that adorned the top shimmered. Mounted in the center ring, a ruby stone carved into a flowering rose seemed to absorb the flickering flames to cast a reddish glow from within.
To someone outside the brotherhood's circle the staff would appear to be nothing more than a five-foot walking stick made from the basal elements of wood and metal and stone. But the tri-ringed rod harnessed the power of earth, wind and water to act as a conduit between nature and man and in the hands of the Cleric of Twilight it was a formidable force.
Zechs had taught Trowa the staff's secrets and Trowa had learned the lessons well. As long as the staff was used to help, heal or defend, it would obey its master but if it ever became a tool for conquest and oppression it would revert back to its natural materials and be of no use to anyone.
"May I touch it?" Heero requested humbly.
"You may hold it."
Heero waved his hands in protest."No, I dare not do that."
A smile flittered across Trowa's lips. "It doesn't bite." he stated, offering the staff to the hesitant Tracker.
As Heero's hand closed around the staff, a tingle prickled through his fingers then radiated up his arm. "It feels...odd." he declared, not certain if the tingling was nerves or magic or both.
"The staff is reading your thoughts." Trowa informed.
"And your heart." Quatre added.
Duo circled the Tracker.
Heero clutched the staff and followed Duo with his eyes until the Duel Spirit walked beyond his peripheral vision then his ears took over until the scrutinizing Irishman reappeared on the opposite side.
"Mmmmmm." vibrated in Duo's throat.
Despite Heero's best efforts not to react he discovered he was shrinking back from the close inspection. *Why do I feel as if I'm being stalked like a fox after a rabbit?* he questioned in his mind not at all comfortable with the hungry aspect in Duo's violet centers of sight.
Duo completed the loop and stood still but didn't lessen the degree of his focused examination. "Mmmmm." he repeated.
"If you make that damn noise again, I'll use this staff to run you through." Heero issued the warning.
Amused rather than afraid, a sly smile tugged at the corners of Duo's mouth. Although he was tempted to make that "damn noise" again just to see if Heero would carry out his pseudo promise of bodily harm, he decided that praise was a better choice that provocation.
"Ya look noble. Perhaps you should become Trowa's apprentice."
Heero couldn't help but snort at the idea of him being the next Priest of Twilight. "I'm a hunter of wicked souls not disposed to prayer or patience but to swift retribution. There's no place for me in Twilight save the duty of security."
Duo tilted his head at a contemplated angle. "Do ya wish to be a hunter all your life?"
Again Heero felt ill at ease."I wish not to be interrogated." he growled.
The sharp edge to Heero's tone took him by surprise. He hadn't intended to sound so stern and Duo had said nothing to warrant such a rude response.
Averting his eyes from the confusion on Duo's face, Heero handed the staff back to Trowa. "I'm sorry." he directed the apology to his fellow warriors, especially to Duo. "I have no excuse for my discourtesy, I...." He swallowed hard to steady his voice, "I humbly beg your pardon."
Quatre spoke for himself, Trowa, his lover and Duo, his friend. "Everyone is experiencing frayed nerves concerning our journey to Deep World and what sort of evil foes we'll surely encounter along the way. There's no need to beg our pardons for you haven't wronged us in any way."
Duo laid his hand on Heero's shoulder and gave it a gentle squeeze. "Ya have the right to your own counsel for your life's direction, tis not my place to ask such personal questions." He nodded towards the front door. "Let's see if Wufei is ready to leave."
When Trowa and Quatre were alone, the Fair Manipulator gazed at the door then turned to his lover. "Do you think Heero's destiny is in Twilight?"
Trowa studied the ruby rose in the staff's center ring now glowing, not from the firelight, but of its own accord. "I'm not wise enough to know," he readily admitted, "but the Keeper of the Temple will read the signs. Zechs will know the answer."
Wufei, Lee and Maya, in their human form, sat cross-legged amongst the apple trees. The previous night three additional wolves had arrived in Twilight but, preferring not to interact with the humans, they'd slept in the forest.
Now six wolves, veiled and unveiled, visited beneath the fragrant white blossoms and discussed Wufei's upcoming trek to Deep World.
"It will take a week on foot." Lee calculated.
"That's why we plan to pick up horses at Mary's Mill." Wufei stated.
Maya nodded in agreement. " Horses will be faster. Also your four feet would be quicker than walking upright but I suppose you wish to ride with your humans."
Wufei smiled at Maya's erroneous understanding of his relationship with his comrades. "The humans don't belong to me."
*Aren't you the alpha male?* the gray wolf with blue eyes asked telepathically.
"The Warriors of the Rose have no leader; each of us is equal to the other."
The second gray wolf, a female that was blue-eye's litter mate, shook her shaggy head.*Then how is anything ever accomplished within the pack?*
"We discuss the matter and come to a mutual agreement."
The third wild canine, a male with silver mingled in his black muzzle and the wisdom of older years mirrored in his soulful eyes, continued the extrasensory discussion.
*Humans are emotional creatures and can be unpredictable,* the Elder observed, *but these individuals you consider friends have proven to be trustworthy. I also sense a strong bond with nature that transcends their corporeal limitations. I do believe you have chosen wisely, Chang Wufei.*
"Thank you, Master Long." Wufei bowed to his uncle. "It is my hope that one day wolves and humans can coexist in peace."
Master Long placed his paw on Wufei's hand. *I fear that humans and wolves will always be adversaries. The natures of the beasts are far too contrary but I suppose your friends do offer a ray of hope.*
As if on cue, Duo and Heero walked up then paused at the orchard's border so as not to interrupt Wufei and his pack's private conversation.
Wufei was pleased to see his brothers-in-arms. He stood and beckoned them to join the group. "Come, meet more of my cousins and my uncle as well. You remember Lee and Maya?"
Duo and Heero bowed. Lee and Maya also stood and returned the acts of respect. "It's good to see you again." Maya proclaimed sincerely.
Wufei continued the introductions. "This is my uncle Long Zi-ling." he indicted toward the Elder wolf, "and my cousins, Chang Jin," he indicated towards the male wolf, "and Chang Xiang, he nodded at the female wolf.
Uncle and cousins lowered their eyes and dipped their heads in a "wolffen" bow to Wufei's human companions. Heero and Duo copied the humble posture.
Zi-ling fixed his nephew's gaze and Wufei tilted his head as he listened to the telepathic dialogue. "My uncle says he is pleased with the talents of my soldiers."
Wufei leaned closer and whispered. "My kinsmen have the mistaken notion that I'm your leader. I've tried to tell them otherwise but...."
Duo stifled a chuckle then cut his eyes at Heero before he addressed the Elder uncle. "We are honored to serve under Wufei's excellent leadership."he stated with another deep bow.
When Duo straightened up he locked his eyes, that were gleaming with mischief, on his canine commander. "I will gladly follow him into battle." he announced putting a hard emphasis on "follow" then teased lowly, "Better watch your back, Chang."
With Twilight in the safekeeping of the pack, the quinque, bedecked with all manner of weaponry and traveling bags, bid their farewells and took the first steps on their long and hazardous trek.
A whiff of bluish haze snaked around the orchard then swirled up through the tender leaves and spent blossoms that had begun to fade to float above the treetops.
When the last Warrior of the Rose disappeared into the forest bordering the bamboo house, the Shadow Spy gathered its vapors into a wavy representation of a hawk and took wing to report to his dark master that the quest for Deep World was underway.
A stiff breeze buffeted the warriors' backs. To the east gray-rimmed clouds bellowed up in high banks against the irregular horizon.
"Think it'll rain?" Duo wondered to no one in particular.
Trowa glanced in an easterly direction and shrugged. "I have no sense of it.
"Nor do I." Quatre concurred.
Duo craned his neck and squinted in the afternoon sun."Nope, wouldn't dare rain today."
The descent from the Twilight was not any easier than Heero and Wufei's upward climb two weeks ago. That day Duo had taken the aerial path and avoided the strenuous hike but this day he struggled shoulder to shoulder with his comrades.
The narrow, winding trail was strewn with glassy pebbles that rolled under boots. Sandy ground gave way and crumbled off the path's sides. Large boulders, most much taller than the warriors, jutted out at odd angles and in some spots invaded into the limited space forcing a single file formation.
Then there was the wrestling with bags and bedrolls, a crossbow and quiver, a sword and a staff that were determined to bounce off the boulders and frequently bang into arms and legs and squirming buttocks.
Duo strongly resisted the urge to transform and take flight but he was wary of the irate reception that would surly await him when he was once again earthbound so he trudged along in silence except for an occasional grunt of exertion or a crude curse of complaint.
Almost two hours later the trail finally leveled off and widened into a navigable road allowing the quinque to spread out and sparing arms and legs from further bruising.
On either side stands of oak, walnut and pine trees were intermingled with grassy patches carpeted with lavender, pink phlox, buttercups, lady-slippers and daisies. Clumps of fox grass swayed and ferns unfurled these frilly fronds.
Shafts of sunlight filtered through the branches that formed a leafy canopy over the road. Sparrows chirped. A catbird called its mock meow. Blue jays and crows competed to see who could make the most racket.
Squirrels played tag among the branches, scampering and scurrying then stopped to watch the trespassers walk by beneath their lofty home. A pair of red foxes also paused in observation before silently padding off to hunt.
It would have been easy for the warriors to ease into a false sense of security. Surrounded by the purity of nature it seemed that no malice could pervade such beauty or that sinister spirits would never be permitted to mare the serenity.
But the world with all its heinous sins against nature and man lurked just outside the forest. Just beyond the flowers and ferns nettles of discord laid in wait to sting the skin and prick the soul. No, the quinque dared not lessen their watchfulness or be lulled into apathy.
Although engaged in quiet conversation, Trowa and Quatre were fully aware of every sight and sound and smell. The Staff of the Rose tapped the ground, metering out the cadence of each step as the Cleric and the Manipulator walked side by side.
Heero balanced his crossbow on his hip. His eyes darted from tree to tree, no movement went unnoticed. His ears strained to pick out any unnatural sounds, even the snapping of a twig or branches scraping together in the breeze was keenly heard.
Like their vigilant comrades, Duo and Wufei also surveyed their environment. Duo employed his falcon-enhanced eyesight to scan the perimeter. Wufei sniffed the air and trusted his finely honed canine instincts to warn him of impending danger.
A shiver tingled along Heero's spine. While the Tracker's reaction was barely noticeable on the outside, Duo immediately felt Heero's reaction to the internal stimulus.
The Duel Spirit quickened his pace to walk beside the Lone Hunter. "What's wrong?"
Heero didn't seem surprised by Duo's intuitive inquiry. "Eyes on my back." he replied, knowing that Duo would understand the seemingly incomplete explanation.
Duo nodded, "I know." then he glanced back at Wufei with his right hand resting heavily on his sword. "I think Chang feels something, too."
Without changing his pace or turning around, Trowa stated succinctly. "Shadow Spy."
Seven horses whinnied and pawed the ground, impatiently waiting for their riders to emerge from the cavern's gloomy entrance. Already assembled outside, three squads of human soldiers kept watch on thirty Soulless Slaves as the brain dead men and women milled about in an unfocused fashion.
A sturdier pair of Percherons was hitched to a cart loaded with sacks of flour, slabs of salted bacon wrapped in cotton cloth, buckets of potatoes and separate bags of carrots and onions and, of course, a large keg of wine.
Wooden boxes held broad swords and bows and lances. Quivers filled with arrows were tucked beside other boxes containing pots, plates, cups and carving knives.
Finally three flags embroidered with the Crest of Aragon and the tarnished shield bearing General Khushrenada's Lion and Stag Coat of Arms were carefully placed on top of the neatly packed provisions and covered with a tarp tied securely to the cart.
The Lord of Darkness proceeded Odin through the craggy opening in the mountain's side. On the limping henchman's heels General Septum, with his usual pompous attitude evident in his stride, began to issue orders.
"Round up those damned spawns of hell." he barked at a clearly nervous Lieutenant.
"You!" Septum yelled at two foot soldiers whose unfortunate placement near the woods caused them to draw the duty. "Get after those strays." he pointed at a man with one arm wandering aimlessly through a pine thicket trailed by two women dressed in tattered clothing that barely covered their nakedness.
Normally breasts jiggling under thin material and hints of firm asses showing through rips in fabric would poise a problem among males who could only relieve their lustful desires by humping each other. But sallow skin hanging loosely from gaunt frames and flesh peeling from bones was not sexy but sicken.
When the daywalkers were herded together and flanked by two squads with the third squad severing as rear guard, General Septum mounted his horse and took the point. With a great amount of effort, Odin climbed into his saddle and took his place at Septum's side.
The Lord of Darkness, sitting astride his black stallion and surrounded by his Elite Guard, reviewed his troops with an air of disdain.
Treize Khushrenada had once commanded hundreds of loyal men who would have given up their lives for him but now the exiled General was the leader of a ragtag army of humans and mindless zombies.
Now his body craved wine, his mind wallowed in madness and his putrid soul was festered with hate.
Now his heart was empty where Zechs Merquise's love once filled it to overflowing and the hollow hurt was unbearable.
Without a word Treize set his sights in Deep World's direction, spurred
his horse and in his madness imagined that legions were following him into
End Part Twenty