4-16-2006

Disclaimer. I do not own Gundam Wing or its characters
Title: Wolf Moon
Author: Karen, The Huntress hickman@rockbridge.net
Rating: R
Warning: AU, angst.
Pairing: 3x4, 1+2+5, future 1x2
Part: 21-30/?
Feedback: Always appreciated
Archive: http://www.kikotei.net/gw/dhml/ficarch/karen.html

Summary: Five unique men form an odd alliance to stop a war between the living and the dead.

Wolf Moon

 

Part Twenty-one:

A crystal stream borne of pure mountain springs meandered beside the road. In narrower places water slipped between rocks like iridescent threads. Wider, deeper pools shimmered like polished mirrors and reflected perfect images of the graceful weeping willows lining the bank.

Beneath the stream's glassy surface minnows darted around clumps of marsh marigolds. Yellow perch and brown spotted trout slithered silently in their underwater home.

When Wufei dipped his cupped hands into the cool water, the variety of aquatic residences darted in all directions. Only a lone crayfish was left to defend the stream but the Asian warrior ignored its plucky pose of rearing up on its tail and waving its small pinchers.

Wufei slurped the first handfuls of water. The second dipping was splashed on his face and used to smooth back shorter stands of ebony hair that had escaped from his ponytail.

Quatre squatted beside the veiled wolf and employed a similar procedure to quench his thirst then sat back to gaze at wispy clouds tinted in sunset hues ranging from pale pink to rich crimson.

As the waning sun hovered just above the horizon, the Manipulator stated, "We'll have to quicken our pace to reach the mill before nightfall."

Trowa followed his lover's skyward line-of-sight. "It shouldn't be more two or three miles." he estimated the distance to their destination.

Duo looked down the road in the mill's direction. "Less than an hour."

Heero rearranged the crossbow hanging on his shoulder, nodded in agreement and started walking.

******

Dusky shadows shrouded Mary's Mill lending a gloomy aspect to the two-story wooden structure. The sluice was closed and the water leaking under the spillway gate was not powerful enough to rotate the iron waterwheel, instead the trickling rivulets cascaded over the wheel's rim to sprinkle the spanner vanes like gentle rain.

On the hilltop, the miller's thatched-roofed cottage, the stables and two outbuildings were cloaked in blanched fog swirling up from the creek. Amber light shining through the windows struggled to provide a beacon to guide the weary travelers, weighed down by baggage and weapons, as they trudged the last hundred or so yards up the road's steeper grade.

Finally, with a collective sigh of relief, the quinque gathered on the creek bank opposite the mill then where to cross became the topic of conversation.

Straining to see through the mist, Heero stated. "There has to be a bridge."

Wufei surveyed left then right. "Must be further upstream."

"It'll soon be too dark to see." Duo declared as the sun slipped from sight and the rapidly cooling air thickened the enveloping haze.

Trowa stood quietly, staff in hand, eyes studying the murky water. Without a word he tapped the staff, stepped off the bank and began walking across with hardly a splash to wet his boots.

Heero stared in disbelief then stammered. "Trowa...can...command the elements"

"Yes he can," Quatre agreed, "but not in this case."

"But how?"

A smile bloomed on the Fair Manipulator's lips and, to multiply Heero's bewilderment, Duo also seemed to understand.

The braided Irishman tilted his head towards the Cleric who was only a few steps from completing his miraculous crossing. "He knows where the rocks are." Duo announced before copying the "walk on water" route.

Quatre followed with Heero and Wufei close behind. Soon the group reassembled on dry land and together walked up the crushed stone path to the miller's cottage.

******

"Duo, tis so good to see ya."

Mary McFaddin, a stout women in her fifties with rosy cheeks and a liberal peppering of gray in her auburn hair, pulled Duo into a tight hug.

Duo eagerly returned the welcoming embrace from the women who had years ago taken in the orphaned wanderer when he had no place to lay his head and no one to assure him that everything would be all right.

Mary stepped back and held Duo at arm's length."Let me look at ya boy. Just as handsome as ever but a bit weary."

"Long journey." Duo explained his haggard appearance.

Mary turned Duo around for a closer inspection. "You're too thin. Skin and bones." she continued her appraisal of his slender frame that, in her opinion, bordered on being emaciated. "Well no matter, I'll fatten ya up."

Next the miller's attention centered on the eccentric quartet standing just inside the front door. "Ya brought ya friends along. This will be a good evenin' indeed."

Miller Mary motioned for the new arrivals to move nearer to the fireplace and after a few scrutinizing moments declared. "I'd say ya all need a hot bath, a warm meal and a soft bed. Come on now, put down ya things."

Each traveler situated his bags and weapons by the hearth. Duo made the introductions. "This is Trowa."

"Ah yes, the Priest of Twilight." Mary nodded at the tri-ringed staff. "My home is truly blessed."

Trowa inclined his head."I'm pleased to meet you."

"This is Quatre and Wufei."

"Welcome Quatre."

Quatre offered his hand. "Thank you for your hospitality."

"And..." Mary paused as she tried to wrap her tongue around the odd Asian name."Woo Fee."

Although Wufei inwardly cringed at the miller's mispronunciation, he bowed in respect and made no attempt to correct the mistake.

Mary leaned forward and cocked her head at Heero. "Ya must be Heero Yuy."

The fact that, without previous presentation, Mary already knew Heero's name should have triggered his hunter's instincts but the familiarity in her tone and the fondness in her green eyes told the Demon Tracker that he had nothing to fear.

Duo sensed Heero's confusion."Mary is a telepath." A blush brightened his cheeks, "I guess she sorta read my mind."

"My dear Duo please forgive my intrusion into ya thoughts but the bond between ya and Heero was so strong."

Then Mary directed her apology to Heero. "And please, sir, I humbly beg ya pardon."

Now it was Heero who felt his cheeks warm, which was rather unbecoming for a Demon Tracker. "There's no need to express regrets. Duo and I are linked by dreams so I suppose its natural that we also share a mental connection."

Mary gestured down a hallway off the main room and took on a motherly attitude. "There are tubs in the washhouse. Take ya baths while I get supper."

When Duo walked by the intuitive miller, Mary leaned close and whispered. "I don't have to read ya mind. I can feel the passion in your heart."

******

Even though computations had never been Duo's strong suit, he reckoned that three tin tubs and five people meant that, if the quinque wanted to bathe while the water was hot, there had to be some doublin'-up.

Since Quatre and Trowa shared a bed, they had no problem jointly occupying the first tub. In fact they took great delight in the sensation of soapy skin against soapy skin as they engaged in a discreet bout of underwater fondling that was occasionally betrayed by a soft gasp or a husky groan.

With a scowl and a menacing growl deep in his throat, Wufei didn't hesitate to claim the second tub solely for himself. With a victorious sigh, he stretched out and lounged contently in the balmy water.

Legs tucked to their chests and knees bumping together, Duo and Heero squirmed. As hands struggled to grip the tub's slippery rim and bare bottoms were clumsily submerged, displaced water splashed on the limestone walls and splattered the russet tile floor.

After tentative maneuvering, guttural grumbling and crude cursing, the Duel Spirit and the Lone Hunter finally settled into a relatively comfortable position despite the forced intimacy caused by the tub's snug confines. However there was one problem...how to wash without inappropriately touching each other.

Undaunted by the limited space dilemma, Heero employed his tactical training. "I'll turn around and you wash my back," he instructed, "then you turn around and I'll wash your back and help wash your hair, if you'd like."

In forty-five minutes, the Warriors of the Rose were scrubbed, shampooed and redressed in fresh garments.

They were wiping up the washhouse when Mary called them for a supper of barley, mushroom and potato soup, warm rye bread, honey-blend butter and hard apple cider.

******

Outside the crescent moon reflecting on the mist glazed the landscape with a silvery glimmer. Dense condensation clung to a spider web festooning the windowpane to form silky pearl drops that shimmered in the firelight. More moisture dripped from the thatch, struck the sill and exploded in an array of rainbow colors.

At the table Mary listened intently while the brotherhood of Twilight recalled their various encounters with Shadow Spies and undead minions and humans whose hate-hardened souls were just as lifeless and without hope of salvation.

But as the cider worked its fermented magic, the remembrances became muddled and the tales of adventure took on a fanciful combination of fact and fantasy.

Flickering flames painted ghostly pictures on the walls. Mary lit extra candles but the improved lighting did nothing to chase away the spectral apparitions. Hours passed and midnight marked a new day.

Mary banked the fire, kissed Duo's cheek, wished her guests pleasant dreams and retired to her bedchamber.

The cider had lulled Quatre and Trowa into a tranquil state that encouraged the lovers towards the cottage's loft where futons had been laid out in the makeshift bedroom.

Eyes blurry with sleep, blankets wrapped around their shoulders and a candle to illuminate their way, the Cleric and the Manipulator bade their comrades goodnight and climbed up the loft's ladder until the wavy light danced around the edges of the darkness then disappeared.

Unlike Trowa and Quatre's drowsy condition, Wufei was restless. The moon beckoned. The forest enticed his primal nature. With his enhanced audible range he could hear the haunting howls of wolves that were also made mad by the lunar "Eye of Heaven" and he was inherently bound to answer the call to hunt transmitted through the magic mist.

At the window Duo watched through the glistening spider web and was once again awestruck by the beast's unveiling.

Bipedal into four paws. Golden skin cloaked in sleek black. Erect ears, scent-sensitive muzzle, powerful jaws and fangs that could effortlessly rip flesh from bone.

But in either form the eyes were always Wufei's eyes.

Ancient.

Mysterious.

Gleaming in the moon glow.

Ablaze with an internal fire that had burned from the beginning of time when wolves were created to be the guardians of humans.

Duo watched and the Duel Spirit within him longed to copy the wondrous transformation, to shed its earthbound shackles and soar.

Duo fought back tears and squinted to see through the preternatural fog until the regal lupine, gliding with predatory grace, vanished from sight as if Wufei had been just a mirage.

Seated at the table, Heero was also watching. He studied Duo's silhouette. How the moonlight caressed his hair to accentuate the cinnamon highlights in his braid. He put to memory the ridge of Duo's cheekbones, the curve of his neck, his toned muscles, trim waist...his firm buttocks.

Duo was certainly sexy but Heero discovered that concern, not lust, was directing his concentrative observations. There was a stoop in Duo's posture that spoke of more than travel fatigue and a disturbing tremble in his shoulders

Duo sensed Heero standing behind him merely moments before the Lone Hunter's reflection materialized in the vapor-clouded windowpane. There was a faint essence of a contact just before Heero's hand rested lightly on his arm.

Heero's voice echoed in Duo's ear milliseconds before the he actually asked out loud. "Are you all right?"

Involuntarily Duo leaned into the warmth of Heero's touch but he dared not turn around or make eye contact, for surly Heero would read the yearning in his violet orbs.

Not lying but not telling the whole truth, Duo replied. "I'm tired."

Although Heero plainly heard a hint of falsehood in Duo's answer he didn't press for honesty for that would have been hypocritical, instead he gently squeezed Duo's arm. "Let's go to bed."

The warrior pair quietly ascended the loft's ladder, laid down side by side on two of the three remaining futons and tucked their blankets against the damp chill.

On the windowless room's opposite side, Trowa and Quatre were curled up together in peaceful slumber. As Heero blew out his candle and soothing darkness settled in, he hoped that he and Duo would also drift into a dreamless sleep because, that night, neither of them had the strength to battle nightmare demons.

~~~~***~~~~

Tomorrow will come soon enough and, if the fates grant safe passage, in six days the quinque will arrive at Deep World.

The trek will take them north to traverse the Valley of Visions then across the Devil's Divide, a hellish region of perilous forests and noxious swampland that segregates the land of the living from the land of the dead. The last challenge to reaching their destination will be the River of Souls---the river that runs in reverse.

An arduous journey lay ahead but the Warriors of the Rose are cunning and clever and determined for failure not only means their deaths but the ruin of the Peacecraft Kingdom and the enslavement of every citizen.

Treize Khushrenada is equally resolute and he, too, is skillful in the art of war. However his mental instability continually eroded by wine, his ego falsely inflated by General Septum's praise and his emotional volatility further deteriorated by his lover's rejection makes the Dark Lord of Aragon unpredictable and extremely dangerous.

Once the quinque unites with Zechs Merquise the future will be set in motion and nothing in heaven or hell or purgatory can halt the impending battle that will pit evil against good with the victor ruling the world.

 

Part Twenty-two:

The aroma of sizzling bacon and hearth-baked wheat bread wafted up to meet the Demon Tracker as he descended the loft's ladder.

"Good mornin' to ya." Mary greeted.

She stirred the porridge pot hanging over the fire, wiped her hands on her apron then motioned for Heero to sit at the table. "Rest well?"

"Yes."

"No dreams." was a statement rather than a question. "For ya or Duo." Mary added handing her guest an earthenware mug of hot tea.

Spearmint steam rising over the rim immediately began to detangle the drowsy strands of sleep wrapped around Heero's brain. A careful sip of the honey-sweetened liquid further cleared the cobwebs.

Mary set pewter bowls, spoons and additional mugs on the table. "I sent Duo to the stables to fetch Trowa and Quatre. If ya need to take care of nature's business the privy is behind the cottage."

Heero finished his tea in two gulps and headed outside to "take care of business". When he exited the outhouse, he headed up the well-worn path to the stables where he found Quatre in the paddock currycombing a dapple-gray mare.

In his usual cheerful mood Quatre called, "Good morning."

Trowa emptied a bag of freshly milled oats into a wooden feed trough. With his sleeves rolled up and his tunic sprinkled with grain dust, he looked more like a page than a priest. He patted a red roan stallion then stepped aside to allow the gray mare to join the stallion, a black mare and two brown geldings as they lined up for their morning meal.

Duo, his braid frayed and his eyes closed, lounged lazily atop a pile of loose hay. At the sound of Heero's voice the Irishman mumbled. "So you decided to get up before noon."

Heero nudged Duo's leg with his boot. "At least I'm on my feet. Aren't you supposed to be fetching Quatre and Trowa?"

One violet eye cracked opened and squinted up at the Tracker but its partner was less inclined to cooperate. "I told them but the horses needed tendin'." he stated, the last word swallowed up by a yawn.

Trowa brushed off his tunic. A chunk of limestone was set in place to prop open the paddock gate so the horses could get to the creek.

Quatre joined his lover and finger-combed stalks of straw from Trowa's hair. "The horses have their breakfast, now it's our turn."

Duo stretched, planted his hands in the hay and got to his feet. "I'm ready."

"You're always ready to eat." Quatre stated from previous experience with the Irishman's hardy appetite.

"I'm a growin' boy."

Heero took an impromptu headcount."Excuse me for butting into your bantering but has anyone seen Wufei?"

Trowa pointed his thumb back at the stable."He's asleep inside in his natural form so you might consider leaving him alone." he advised.

Heero studied the Cleric's suggestion."Your counsel for caution is appreciated but it would be wiser to risk the beast's ire for disturbing his sleep than have Wufei pissed off over missing breakfast."

Duo nodded in agreement. "Better let me wake him; I ain't lost any fingers yet."

The black wolf was curled up with his tail draped over his haunches and his muzzle buried in the straw.

Duo squatted just out of strike range of the beast's massive paws and spoke softly so as not to startle the slumbering canine. "Wufei wake up."

Receiving no response to the verbal urging, Duo repeated the whispered appeal. "Wake up." then added an extra incentive. "You want breakfast?"

An ear twitched. Eyes that gleamed like polished coal offered a brooding stare.

"Are you hungry?"

A snort ruffled the straw.

Duo reached out slowly, paused to let the wolf sniff his hand then scratched behind a silky ear. "I'll wait outside while you transform."

******

Midmorning sun had burned off the haze and dried the dewy grass. Five horses waited under an oak tree's shady branches.

One saddlebag filled with five fluffy biscuits, three thick wedges of white cheese, a half dozen spring apples, a pouch of spearmint tea and tin cups was secured on the stallion.

A second bag containing three bottles of ruby wine cushioned with scraps from a coarsely woven wool blanket was tied to a gelding's saddle. The three remaining equines carried baggage and various weapons.

The quinque planned to spend the night and restock supplies in Baleward, the last pocket of civilization before Hell's Gate Pass, a rocky ravine that lead directly to the Valley of Visions.

Unless they encountered unforeseen obstacles such as a washed-out bridge or bandits or spiteful wood trolls or an undead army led by a delusional Dark Lord they would reach their destination by nightfall.

But if the fates chose to abandon their safeguards then all their planning could be pointless and their journey end in either heaven or hell.

******

Beside the cottage's front steps, Mary McFaddin said her bittersweet goodbyes to the Twilight warriors. "I'll make a supplication for your protection in my nightly prayers."

"I'll also hold you in my prayers." Duo promised as he hugged the miller who had steadfastly shown him motherly love.

Quatre willingly accepted a hug. "Thank you for your kindness." he expressed his gratitude.

Wufei bowed but Mary ignored the Asian's aloof nature and pulled him into a tight embrace. "Safe journey."

Heero offered no resistance to a similar embrace. Just before Mary let go, she whispered in his ear. "Follow your heart."

Trowa raised his staff and recited an ancient entreatment."May the sun shine on your face and the wind be at your back. May the saints bless your house and angels guard your dreams."

******

Morning passed into afternoon encouraging the Twilight travelers to stop for lunch in a grassy meadow ringed by white pines.

Hollyhocks swayed on slender stalks. Butterflies danced on the wind and gently caressed the vibrant flowers. Daisies, buttercups and dandelions in varied hues of yellow mingled with blue-purple violets that reminded Heero of Duo's eyes.

Unfortunately the brilliant blossoms also attracted honeybees so where to sit had to be carefully considered. As usual Duo didn't mince words when he declared. "A bee in the bum would hurt like hell."

******

"The Gray Goose tavern has food but there's no inn." the stable boy replied to Trowa's inquiry concerning lodging for the night.

The adolescent lad seemed genuinely surprised by the question. Few people trekked that far north and those who did seldom spent the night in the sparsely settled hamlet of Baleward.

The Twilight Priest rested the Staff of the Rose against his shoulder. "What's your name?"

"Andrew."

"Would you like extra coins in your pocket?"

Andrew studied the tall man with the fancy stick. "Depends on what you want."

"Let us sleep in the stable."

Andrew shifted his weight and tightened his grip on the pitchfork he angled across his chest. "I don't come with the deal." he announced in a stern tone that indicated he might have previously been propositioned for sexual favors.

Duo stepped forward but was careful not to encroach into the boy's personal space. "We need a place to sleep, nothing more."

"Two pence each above the price for feeding and watering the horses." Andrew struck a deal with the odd collection of strangers.

******

Blustery wind rattled the stable's shutters, forced large drops of rain through cracks in the rough-hewn plank walls and trickled through gaps in the waterlogged roof to splatter on the straw-strewn floor.

Thunder's deep baritone vibrated through the ground. Spikes of blue-white lightning split angry clouds and momentarily turned midnight into noon.

Duo huddled in the narrow space between a feed bin and the wall and hoped that the lightning's blinding flashes wouldn't reveal his hiding place. Shrinking back into the murky gloom he shivered from cloths and hair drenched by the cold rain and trembled with fright that he would be discovered.

A burly man with wet stringy hair plastered to his swarthy face cursed under his breath and raised his torch higher. The yellow-orange flame tinted the room in eerie light and elongated his shadow as it rippled across vacant stalls, rat gnawed grain bags bundled in the corner and dry-rotted tack hanging on the wall.

The wind howled again. The rickety walls creaked and groaned.

"That pretty boy has to be in here." the man stated with certainty since the stable was the only structure on the abandoned farm that hadn't completely fallen into ruins.

A second man, his cloak leaving a spotty trail where water dripped from the hem, strained to pick out details that were distorted by the wind-battered torchlight.

"Come on, Jake," he sighed in frustration, "I'll admit he could be a good piece of ass but it's late and I'm cold. Let's get some ale to warm our bellies, hell, I'll even buy you a whore."

Jake walked closer to the feed bin, extended his arm and surveyed the limited area illuminated by the wavy flame. The spot on the wall directly above Duo's head glowed, he sucked in a quivering breath.

"Tell you what boy, come out now and I'll take you slow and easy but if you force me to find you I'll fuck you so hard you'll beg me to slit your throat."

No motion except for the torch's flickering flame.

No sound except for the moaning wind and the rumble of thunder.

No compliance to Jake's unconditional ultimatum.

Jake turned around and the malevolence in his eyes made his friend's blood run cold. "I got a better idea. Instead of searching I'll burn the bastard out."

Before his friend could register any protest or move to stop him, Jake tossed the torch in the nearest stall and bolted for the door. His friend had no choice but to also run for his life.

In seconds flames erupted. The heat was so intense that water leaking through the roof evaporated. Fed by old straw and bone-dry wood, the fire crept along the floor and clawed up the walls.

Thick gray smoke rolled in waves to blind the eyes and hot air stole the breath away.

Duo threw his arms over his face but superheated air scorched his skin. He fought to breathe but his lungs burned. He wanted to scream but all he could do was whimper and pray that he would suffocate before he was burned alive.

Duo drew his legs to his chest, curled into a fetal position and calmly surrendered, he would not beg or bargain for his life.

Something wrapped around his body. A phantom caress soothed his blistered skin. The air cooled but his lungs still heaved in shallow gasps for air.

 

A voice called, softly at first then more demanding in its volume."Duo."

The voice...Heero's voice.

"Duo wake up."

Duo opened his eyes. He was indeed in a stable but there was no smoke or fire. He was not alone but was held securely in Heero's arms.

"You had that dream again." Heero stated with certainty since his dream bond had also allowed him to share Duo's fear and pain.

Duo looked across the stable to find Quatre, Trowa and Wufei sleeping peacefully then gazed up to Heero's haggard face. "I'm sorry you suffered, too." he whispered so as not to disturb his comrades.

Heero slid up to rest his back on the wall and pulled Duo tighter against his chest. "I willingly accept our link. I don't ever want you to travel your dreamscape alone." he stated sincerely then placed a chaste kiss Duo's moist forehead."I do have a question."

"Ask me anything, I'll keep no secrets from you."

"Is this recurring dream based in reality?"

Duo snuggled closer, gleaned strength from Heero's comforting embrace and answered honestly. "Yes the fire really happened."

"How did you survive?"

Duo closed his eyes and let a long sigh escaped over his lips. "I don't remember."

 

Part Twenty-three:

Heero leaned back in his saddle to gaze up the towering stone walls that framed the entrance to Hell Gate's Pass. "I don't like this." he announced above the whining wind.

Wufei craned his neck to study the sheer vertical configuration that rose steeply on either side of the narrow channel."We would be vulnerable in an attack." he finished the Tracker's line of thought then added his own observation, "It would be extremely difficult to turn the horses or mount a defense.

"Is this the only route to Deep World?" Heero wondered.

Trowa nodded affirmatively. "This is the only way." He tapped his horse's sides to move the equine forward. Without a word, yea or nag, Quatre guided his horse in line behind his lover.

"It's not too bad." Duo commented as he boldly followed the leader.

"Why am I not surprised you'd think that way?" Wufei replied to the Irishman's optimistic statement.

Duo titled his head at an inquiring angle. "Ya should be more positive."

"That's easy for you to say." Wufei snorted, "If trouble starts you can fly out of here."

"True but a swift four-legged beastie with fangs also makes a dangerous opponent."

******

Half an hour and the sandy path became broader but still not wide enough for Heero or Wufei to be comfortable within the ravine's restricted confines.

Stubby bushes made up a hedgy border. Stalks of yellow-green fox grass was entwined with wild honeysuckle vines bedecked with thousands of ashen flowers that secreted a sickly sweet perfume.

Like skeletal sentries, gangly trees kept watch over the quinque. Stunted by shallow roots, deformed by the hot currents funneling through the pass and shrouded in wilted leaves, the saplings jutted from crevices etched in the wall's craggy surface.

Branches bowed and stretched out gnarled fingers as if to snatch the riders from their mounts. Boulders ranging from cantaloupe size to several tons perched precariously along the sides and in some places blocked the sun.

The bizarre combination of hot wind and nightmarish landscape left no doubt how Hell Gate's Pass had earned its name.

The mirage of light and shadows, the constant, howling wind befuddled the senses. Now it was not just the Tracker who felt "eyes on his back", his fellow warriors were also aware of the eerie elements that played tricks on the eyes and ears and mind.

Duo's used his enhanced falcon sight to scan the rocky rim for signs that they were being trailed by humans or stalked by something ethereal. Wufei employed his keen nose to sniff out unnatural odors. Quatre reached out empathetically and Trowa concentrated on any subtle vibrations emitted by the Staff of the Rose.

Whether there was real danger or an imaginary threat, the horses mirrored their riders' apprehension in their tense muscles and skittish behavior.

Heero patted the roan stallion's neck. "Easy boy." he whispered in a reassuring tone.

"How much longer?" Wufei asked the Priest of Twilight.

"A mile, maybe more."

Duo's head snapped up. His eyes darted, first at a large rock halfway up the right side then further upward almost to the top.

Heero copied the Irishman's line of sight. "What?"

"I thought I saw movement."

Quatre placed his hand on Duo's arm and closed his eyes so it was easier to see with his mind. "I don't sense anything."

Duo took a moment to focus then, without averting his eyes, added. "It might have been my imagination."

Wufei unsheathed his sword. "Imagination or not, I suggest we don't tarry."

Trowa concurred with the Beast's wise counsel. "No point in tempting the fates."

When the last horse rounded a bend and disappeared. When the wind erased the hoof prints and the gloom once again claimed the path, a blue-gray mist levitated, settled on a granite outcrop and fused together.

The Shadow Spy "sat" a few inches above the sand-pitted rock, its outline wavering in the wind. "It is frustrating that Khushrenada only bids me to follow but my Master has promised that once he takes the bastard's lives, I can have their souls."

As the last words were hissed into the wind, the Dark Lord's vaporous agent faded away like the sun swallowed up by the night.

******

Heero was the first rider to materialize from Hell Gate's Pass. As his comrades emerged into the welcomed sunlight, each one breathed a sigh of relief.

Straight trees stood proudly and supple green leaves were feathered by a cool, fresh breeze. This time Duo did see movement but birds flittering and squirrels scampering were easily identified as friendly.

The road ahead was a ribbon that stretched over a series of small hills as it descended into the Valley of Visions.

No bloodthirsty beasts dwelled in the valley. No beautiful maidens who were really witches or seductive sirens that would lure humans to their deaths with spells or enchanting songs.

It was not what was in the valley but what you took in with you.

Memories were read in the forest. Sadness, fear, pity and pain were multiplied. Past remembrances that plagued the conscience or recollections that rent the heart were manifested in visions that appeared based in reality and designed to cause madness.

Trowa had warned his comrades of the valley's influence. Quatre had sworn an oath of intercession, to use his own ability to cloud his thoughts for the warrior's protection. But the Priest and the Manipulator's authority only extended to the mind and not the body.

While the horses would be immune, Heero's hunter instincts would cease to speak to him. Wufei and Duo would not be able to transform. Each man would be stripped of his bodily alterations and their minds laid bare to the raw agony of guilt or regret.

Nevertheless, the Valley of Visions could not be avoided. It was yet another test of the warriors' physical grit, mental fortitude and their allegiance that might require them to give up their lives for the brotherhood.

******

The overgrown road vanished into a densely packed forest of oaks and chestnuts and blue cedars. An abnormal chill surged from the tree line to wash over the Hunter, the Duel Spirit, the Cleric, the Manipulator and the Beast.

Dead leaves carpeted the ground in thick layers of damp black humus. Tubular mushrooms thrived in the moisture-laden soil. Mounds of cushion moss huddled between exposed roots. Scaly lichens clung to bark and cloaked stones. Thorny vines snaked around the trees and stretched across from branch to branch to seize anyone whose attention lapsed.

Overhead the treetops fused into a compact canopy that allowed only faint traces of sunlight and, unlike the continual wind in Hell Gate's Pass, there was not so much as a puff of air to ruffle the foliage.

Since Trowa and Quatre had made the trek before they took the point. Backs straight and shoulders squared, they rode confidently. Their posture conveyed knowledge of the forest but in no way gave the impression of someone totally at ease. Ever alert, their heads tilted often and their ears strained to decipher each sound and decided if it was in harmony or discord.

As the horses wove single-file through the wooded labyrinth, the equines' ears flattened and their nostrils snorted their discontentment. With equal irritation the riders' glares and scowls clearly showed their displeasure with the dim, dank environment.

Duo's waist length braid snagged on an oak's low hanging branch. He tugged it free and declared. "This is a damnable place...dark as a grave and cold as a whore's heart."

Wufei ducked under a cedar bough then flinched when his ebony ponytail also fell victim to a painful entanglement. He cursed in Chinese but didn't bother to translate the curt expletives, which was probably just as well.

"If its any consolation," Heero interjected in opinion, "these hostile surroundings will prove much more difficult for Lord Khushrenada and his bastardly troops and should sufficiently slow their progress."

******

The quinque sat astride their mounts, five abreast, and gazed down from the hill crest into the Valley of Visions.

Blanched fog blanketed the valley floor. In some areas lifeless trees, pale as bleached bones, protruded from the swirling vapors. In other spots wispy whirlpools sucked the mist into hollow vortexes.

Outside the forest the same chilly currents that had greeted the travelers blew up the hill to buffet the Warriors of the Rose but now the tides were infused with the pungent odor of sulfur.

"We lead the horses from here." Trowa announced as his dismounted.

Further into the valley the quinque became acutely aware of the earth moving under their boots. It was as if the soil was alive, slithering like a colossal serpent or, perhaps, it was a thin crust that would give to the breaking point then split apart to devour both humans and horses.

"Whose mind is makin' the ground move?" Duo demanded without a hint of sarcasm.

Quatre glanced over his shoulder at his comrade. "It's always like this."

"That don't make it any easier to put up with."

Without turning around or slowing his pace, Trowa warned. "Don't believe anything you see or hear or feel. In this place your senses can not be trusted."

******

Heero was alone; looking through a tunnel of fog that curled up then rolled under in a churning motion like waves wrenched by a riptide. Straight ahead he could clearly see a woman dressed in a pink satin kimono embroidered with blue and gold flowers.

The woman had a delicate figure. Her skin was as smooth as porcelain and her feet were bare. Shiny black hair was gathered at the nape of her neck and secured with a silver pick shaped like a katana.

Her face was partly hidden by a rice paper fan decorated with red peonies and white cranes that was held in her right hand. Her left hand rested on a tawny elkhound standing by her side.

Heero's eyes were unsure but his heart...

"Mother?"

The fan dropped away to disclose the woman's true aspect.

Black eyes bore into Heero's heart. "You failed to slay the demons."

"There were too many."

Heero heard the words in his head but he couldn't remember speaking.

"No!" The woman shook her head so fiercely the pick slipped from her hair and unleashed a heavy mane that hung beyond her waist. "You failed to set me free."

Again Heero's reply was not voiced but issued mentally. "I'm trying. I won't rest until..."

"YOU FAILED!" was wailed with such rage that the fog shrunk back from the fury to leave Heero totally exposed.

Heero staggered. His legs gave up their support. His knees struck the ground so hard it sent shock waves through his body. His heart hammered and a tightness wrapped so tightly around his chest he struggled to breathe.

"Please mother," he begged between gasps for air. "I would give up my life to save you." he swore an unconditional oath.

Keiko Yuy centered her dark sight on her son. Her next question was whispered hoarsely. "Would you join me in my madness?"

Heero braced his hands on the ground that sagged under his weight. "I can't save you if I'm mad."

"Will you forsake me again?"

"The final battle will be fought. The Lord of Darkness will be defeated...I swear on my soul."

Keiko's fingers raked through the elkhound's scruffy coat. "I can not bear for you to leave me again."

The massive canine gazed up at his mistress then redirected his glowing eyes at the penitent son who was wheezing and weeping and clawing up handfuls of dirt.

A growl rumbled in the elkhound's throat but Heero didn't hear. Lips drew back, fangs dripped with frothy saliva but Heero didn't see. Muscles rippled as the devil dog started forward to stalk his prey before ripping flesh from bone and feasting on the blood.

Heero didn't care.

He had failed his mother, dishonored his family. He was not a Demon Tracker...no Warrior of the Rose...only a charade, a pretender who didn't have the guts to surrender his sanity for his mother's sake.

The elkhound froze in place, granting Heero one final moment to scream or beg or pray. Heero locked his tear-reddened eyes with the beast's fiery orbs and steeled himself for death.

******

Duo stood on a cliff in County Maxwell with his back to the sea.

Waves crashed against the craggy shoreline that was awash with white foam then hissed as they were sucked out by the tide. Seagulls, their lonesome cries echoing over the rocky precipice, glided on updrafts and swooped through the salty spray.

As a steady breeze ruffled Duo's hair and caused his braid to sway, he shielded his eyes to better see a figure walking toward him with an odd stagger in its stride.

Another tentative step.

With a puzzled expression, Duo tilted his head. Slowly the sun retreated behind the clouds, the glare lessened and the phantasmic form's true features were revealed.

Duo's breath hitched in his chest and his heart skipped a beat. "Merciful saints."

Sallow skin hung loosely from an emaciated frame draped in ragged, mud-encrusted clothes. Stringy hair, matted with what appeared to be moss, straggled around the stranger's shoulders and stuck to his gaunt face.

But it was the man's eyes, sunk deep into their sockets, that held Duo in macabre fascination. The eyes were vacant, void of any spark of life.

The emotionless orbs locked on Duo with a sightless stare that sent chills clawing up his spine.

"Who...what...are you?" Duo stammered as the question shivered through his throat and turned icy on his tongue.

Thin lips pulled back in a yellow-toothed grin. "Don't you recognize me?"

Rendered speechless by the unexpected response, all Duo could do was shake his head negatively.

The man, if that what he was, leaned nearer with a shrill scraping of bone against bone that made Duo cringe. "Has it been so long that you've forgotten your brother?"

"You're not Solo." Duo whispered in disbelief, "You can't be." he stated, his voice a bit stronger.

"Why?"

"Because my brother died years ago."

"Are you so sure?"

Duo centered his violet eyes on the being that had surly been spawned by the devil. "I'll not listen to your lies." he growled.

He pulled the silver cross from under his shirt and held it up as far as the chain would allow. "Be gone, damned demon, back to the depths of hell."

Quicker than the eye could measure the motion, the creature sprang forward. A bony hand grabbed Duo's arm and yanked him closer.

With a shout of surprise Duo tried to jerk free.

Long, dirt-stained fingernails dug into Duo's skin. The claws scraped across his wrist leaving bloody lines in their wake and causing him to yelp from the pain.

Fetid breath, rancid as rotting meat, hissed in Duo's face. "You might have made a deal before but not this time."

Despite the overpowering stench that made Duo's stomach queasy and bile to rise in his throat, he choked out, "I don't...understand."

The unearthly assailant narrowed his eyes and Duo drew back in fear from the sparks flaring in their blank pupils. "A deal with death, a bargain to cheat the Claimer of Souls."

Suddenly Duo's mind was clear of confusion. His eyes saw beyond the hideous shell that once was his brother's body to gaze into a soul rent with the unbearable anguish of loneliness and despair.

Duo stopped fighting; his body went limp. His daily struggle with guilt had left no more strength to do battle with the dead. "Solo." he breathed out his brother's name.

Tears overflowed the floodgates and tracked down his cheeks. "I'm sorry I couldn't save you. I begged for your recovery. By all that's holy I prayed to be taken instead of you.

After you died I considered taking my life, you were gone, Mother was gone and it hurt to be alone. But I was afraid, not of dying but that suicide would damn my soul to hell and then we would be separated for eternity."

Duo sunk to his knees and looked up at Solo. For a fleeting moment youthful skin replaced decaying tissue, curly auburn hair shone in the sunlight and his brother's peaceful smile mirrored absolute contentment.

"Don't leave me again." Duo begged.

"I have too."

Duo closed his eyes and willingly allowed the calm of surrender to banish the guilt. "I want to go with you."

Solo knelt in front of his younger brother and took his hands. "Are you sure?"

"Yes, I'm sure."

"Once we go there's no turning back."

"I know."

Solo pulled Duo into a reassuring embrace. Sand sucked around Duo and Solo's knees, rose up their thighs, their hips, chest high. Duo held on as the sun disappeared and the roar of the waves was reduced to faint swishes.

******

The full moon painted the forest with its radiance. Dewy leaves glistened and crickets chirped in perfect time as an owl hooted its haunting song.

Wufei paused to gaze up at the magnificent "Eye of Heaven". There were four stars inside the bright aura that haloed the moon. Four angels keeping watch from the circle of light.

A fresh breeze feathered the leaves but it also carried an ancient essence that stirred Wufei's memories, past remembrances of his pack, his family and of Meilan, a noble shewolf that had once been his mate.

Pangs of sorrow touched his heart but he could not weep, for his tears had long ago been cried out. He had mourned his mate, burned incense at her grave and offered prayers for her reunion with her ancestors then he'd focused his grief on revenge.

It had been a year since Wufei metered out his retribution. One by one the hunters who killed the four pack-members became his prey. Each man had been stalked and teased with brief sightings of a black wolf with glowing eyes that was rumored to be both beast and human.

Each man was given one week to think about his death, to realize that he could do nothing to stop his demise and no mercy had been shown when the payment of their lives was required.

Meilan still visited Wufei's dreams. Every night he and Meilan would run through the forest, lay together in the meadow and watch the stars twinkle against heaven's ebony backdrop.

And each month when the full moon bathed the land, the Lone Wolf would stand on the highest hill and howl and in his heart Meilan would answer his wails of loneliness.

This night was different.

The owl took flight and the crickets suddenly became silent. In the moon's halo, the four stars linked together to emit a bright pulse of pure white light.

There was not merely a sensation but a strong presence. Wufei sniffed the air...wild roses mingled with Meilan's scent.

"Wufei." His name carried softly on the breeze.

Meilan stood in the meadow silhouetted by moon glow. However, the shadow cast by the silvery light didn't copy her human outline but projected the profile of her true nature.

Wufei held his breath. He was afraid that his mate was only a light-reflected likeness and that the slightest stirring of air might scatter her image beyond reclaiming or perhaps she was dream and he would wake up to find himself alone.

Meilan held out her hand. "Come." she beckoned.

Before Wufei's mind could comprehend, his body obeyed. He reached out; sparks arced between his and Meilan's hands. A tentative touch then fingers intertwined.

With her free hand Meilan caressed her mate's cheek. "Stay with me."

"How? I dwell with the living and you dwell with the dead."

"Dear husband, love is our bridge."

"Then we will never be parted again." Wufei promised then sealed his vow with a kiss.

Blue light enveloped the embracing lovers. Bodies shimmered, became translucent and began to blend with the moonlight.

******

Heero, Duo and Wufei lay on their backs, eyes transfixed by their visions. Their respirations were shallow and their heartbeats had slowed to dangerous levels.

The Hunter, the Duel Spirit and the Breast were slipping away and their passage into the land of illusions was quickly reaching the point of no return.

Trowa and Quatre knelt by their comatose comrades.

Trowa angled the Staff of the Rose across the warriors in an attempt to stave off the valley's influence.

Quatre collected handfuls of fog, spun the mist into three balls and set a ball to hover over Heero, Duo and Wufei's chests. He closed his eyes, clutched his pouch of wolfsbane and, as he rocked back and forth, whispered an exchange incantation.

When the balls had expanded to three times their size, Quatre poised his lips and blew gently. Thistledown swirled on the artificial currents and fell like snow to cover the prone bodies.

"Will the spell work." Trowa asked apprehensively.

Quatre looked up at his lover with anxious eyes. "It has too."

Moments passed like years. Quatre blew again, more flurries descended on the motionless forms.

Duo was the first to suck in a lungful of air. Wufei and Heero's reawakening followed a few seconds behind. In unison the trance-ensnared trio opened their eyes and gazed up at their liberators.

Trowa sat back and arranged the staff lengthwise across his knees. "Welcome back."

Heero pushed to sit up but his arms wouldn't cooperate. Cursing under his breath, he tried again with the same results.

Quatre placed his hand on the Tracker's shoulder and applied sufficient pressure to emphasize his order. "Lay still."

With some effort, Duo managed to roll on his side to face Heero. "What happened?"

"What do you remember?" Quatre asked.

"Nothing. Just traces of feelings."

Wufei was a bit more successful. He braced his hands then scooted on his trim rear end until his back settled against a tree trunk. He stared up through the fog that all but obscured the overhead branches. "The Valley." he stated then frowned as he brushed fluffs of white from his ebony hair.

"Rest awhile," Trowa urged, "then we'll leave this accursted place. There will be no more visions."

 

Part Twenty-four:

Slinking behind the hills, the fading sun stubbornly stalked the quinque. Gray clouds bloomed across the horizon, long purple shadows trailed the horses plodding along the path and rapidly cooling air chilled their riders.

Trowa rode closely beside Quatre who was exhausted from freeing his comrades from their Valley of Visions trances. Heero, Duo and Wufei, who were also suffering similar aftereffects of lethargy and dull headaches, slumped in their saddles.

Trowa took his lover's hand and was shocked to find it icy. "We need to find shelter for the night." he announced as the wind whistled through the trees and slammed against his back.

"We have no physical reserves to ward off the cold." Wufei agreed.

Heero continued the discussion. "An open fire would do little good in this blustery weather."

Despite Quatre's considerable fatigue, his mental processes were still functioning. "Isn't there a cottage in the next vale?"

"Yes," Trowa replied, "if we keep up our pace we'll reach it before nightfall."

******

The woodman's cottage, constructed of rough sawed planks and roofed with wood shingles, was used during firewood cutting season in late summer and early autumn so the travelers were not surprised to find it unoccupied.

Each man put his weariness aside to beat the approaching darkness. After Quatre "told" the horses not to wander off, Heero helped Trowa remove the saddles, blankets and bridles and store the tack inside then left the mounts to munch on spring grass and drink from the nearby creek.

Duo and Wufei made two trips to carry in weapons, bags and bedrolls. Luckily there were plenty of sticks and larger limbs lying about the forest floor and soon sufficient wood was gathered to not only build a fire in the stone fireplace but to also bank it for the night.

Although there was no glass in the windows and the latched shutters rattled in the wind, the cottage's small, single room was snug. Add cloaks and blankets and the warriors were quite comfortable. A simple supper of dried venison, slightly stale biscuits and the last bottle of wine was shared with little conversation.

No one tarried before bed. The journey from Twilight had been arduous, their Valley ordeals difficult and they would surly face more trials before reaching Deep World.

Trowa and Quatre made their bed in the far corner, layered their blankets and snuggled together for warmth and to engaged in private pillow talk.

Wufei transformed into his natural state. He curled up opposite the whispering lovers, rested his muzzle on his paws and, with a relaxing exhalation, drifted off to sleep.

Heero smoothed out his bedroll then took several minutes to organize his blanket and cloak for maximum heat retention. Duo was not so particular with his bedding and his hurried preparations earned a frown from Heero.

"What?" the Irishman wondered with a sarcastic inflection.

Heero shook his head sending strands of dark hair over his eyes. "I don't understand how you can sleep in such disorder."

Duo crouched like a cat then leaned nearer as if to share a secret. "I'm not as tight assed."

Outside the wind whimpered and the trees shivered. Inside the modest shelter five travelers yielded their weary bodies and fret-worn minds to slumber's drowsy persuasion.

******

North of the Valley of Visions, in a dell between the foothills, nine campfires cast an eerie glow.

Soldiers wrapped in blankets huddled in small groups. Sentries patrolled the camp's perimeter. Night Watchers kept the Soulless Slaves from wandering off and quelled the creatures' constant quarreling which took the form of hissing, clawing, biting and occasionally devouring each other.

Although breaking up squabbles and beating back snarling zombies was dangerous, reporting any reduction in the reanimated army to General Khushrenada often proved to be more hazardous. The Lord of Darkness had been known to kill guards who failed to maintain order and use their corpses as replacements.

Khushrenada took a sip from his cup of wine. In his liquor-induced stupor, he stared into the fire's scarlet heart with dead eyes that dully reflected the light. A gust of wind flared the flames, brightened the embers and sent blue-gray smoke swirling towards the stars but Khushrenada took no notice.

Odin sat beside his Commander, his wool cloak draped around his shoulders and a blanket tucked over and beneath his legs. The fire had lessened the damp chill but not the chronic pain that served to focus his hatred of Heero Yuy.

Rubbing to relieve the soreness that never entirely went away, Odin mumbled, "Fuck those Warriors of the Rose." He angled his thigh closer hoping the heat would ease the throbbing. "If it weren't for their damned quest I'd be in my bed with a thick down comforter and a whore to keep me warm."

At the mention of Deep World, the Dark Lord redirected his dazed sight at his henchman. "We'll overtake them soon." he declared in slurred words.

"Remember you promised me the Tracker."

Khushrenada drained his cup in one gulp. "He'll be yours but only after that Twilight Priest tells me the way to Deep World."

Odin rearranged his leg and finally found a measure of relief. "The Priest would rather die than tell."

"He might not fear death but the fear of his comrade's entrails hanging from the trees will loosen his tongue."

Khushrenada gazed into the fire and, for several seconds, appeared lost in thought."I'll also take great pleasure in breaking Chang's spirit." he growled, "Yes, the noble Lone Wolf cowering at my feet will be very enjoyable indeed."

******

Heero's eyelids cracked opened just enough to verify dawn's pale rays filtering through the shutters. His sleep-dulled senses didn't register any particular sensations other than that his head felt like it was stuffed with cotton and his eyes were sticky.

Across the room, Trowa lay on his back. Tuffs of Quatre's blond hair were barely visible above the blanket's hem where his head rested against his lover's shoulder.

Sometime during the night the Chinese wolf had turned around and now granted the Tracker an unobstructed view of his furry rear end.

Snoring softly, Duo was curled up on his side facing Heero. One leg snarled in his blanket, his ratty braid snaked over his shoulder and his cinnamon bangs tangled in his long eyelashes matched the unkempt condition of his sloppily constructed bedding.

With a sigh, Heero closed his eyes, laid still and allowed his ears to relay the morning's sounds to his sluggish brain. At first the timbre was subdued then gradually the subtle quiet wasn't quiet anymore.

Heavy dew shrouded the forest. Beads of moisture collected at the end of every leaf. One droplet succumbing to gravity would hardly be noticed but when thousands strike the shingles in unison they can create a thunderous plopping.

Heero closed his eyes tighter.

Outside the window an unidentified tree dweller generated a single, shrill note. Quickly the sole musical tone became a repetitious cry, screeched out at an accelerated rate.

Raw nerves cringed. Eardrums pounded in protest.

"Enough!" Heero's mind screamed against the multi-front assault.

The Tracker slowly opened his eyes, squinted then blinked to adjust his hazy optics to the red-orange glow streaming through the shutter's slates. Exhaling in a hard puff, he braced his elbows and pushed to sit up. Again he squinted but this time it was to separate a fuzzy image from the dim light.

His clearing vision revealed a slender green body at least a foot in length supported by four scaly appendages. "It" sat or stood, Heero couldn't be certain, less than four feet from his outstretched legs. The being had an oval head fitted with a thin mouth. A paler green tongue darted in and out with a rhythmic meter.

Heero's moving about must have caught the beastie's attention for, on the last trip out, the emerald tongue was left sticking rigidly from a smirking grin. The tip quivered either tasting the air or displaying a rather rude opinion of the stranger sitting in its midst.

But the creature's most prominent feature was bright amber eyes that set on either side of its bony head and the bewildering way each orb was capable of independent swiveling.

The eye nearest Heero was fixed directly on him while its partner was aimed at the ceiling. This cockeyed optical ability was probably very beneficial to the "whatever it is", however, the split viewing did nothing for the Tracker's mental well being.

Heero stared. The one fixed eye stared back.

Doubt began to slip into Heero's mind. He began to wonder if the mini-monster was a mirage from the dregs of a dream. If the beast was not some nightmarish residue...if it was real.

The critter didn't look dangerous but in this foreign land Heero couldn't assume anything. Now his mind was making serious inquires as to whether the mocking mouth was home to more than a flickering tongue. Suddenly he envisioned the seemingly innocent grin parting to expose a wide expanse of razor sharp bits of enamel.

He also had no way to judge the creature's speed or ferocity. The possibility of being set upon by a fast, ravenous "whatever it is" sent chills clawing up his spine and, as luck would have it, his crossbow laid well beyond his reach.

Heero tried to dismiss his fears. He countered his uncertainty by remaining himself that he was at least fifty times larger that the bug-eyed beast and certainly much stronger. Still, without proper biological particulars, it paid to be cautious.

With all the doubts and possibilities planted firmly in his mind, Heero proceeded to carefully slide, by way of series of slow, steady movements, into a fully seated position.

The eye aimed at the ceiling rotated to join its golden partner. The vulgar, vibrating tongue retreated back into the menacing mouth with a slurp.

Heero eased back. The "whatever it is" tilted its head. Both man and beast froze in place.

Without warning the creature reared up on its scaly hind legs, bounced twice then gave the startled Tracker a quick bob of its green head before scurrying up the wall and disappearing into the timbered eaves.

Heero's entire body jerked. All his taut muscles recoiled at once sending him sprawling on the floor. Panting, he laid on his back, stared at the ceiling where the beastie had vanished and fought to vanquish the visions of the creature jumping down on him.

Cold sweat beaded on Heero's face. As he struggled to catch his breath, his head pounded, his heart hammered, his stomach churned and he felt foolish.

It occurred to him that after all his battles with humans, after all the times he'd faced foes that inhabited the other side of the spectral plane, his one moment of greatest vacillation had been caused by a green, bulging eyed "whatever it is".

With some effort, Heero sat up and ran his hands over his clammy face. "I'm getting too old for this." he mumbled under his breath.

Light pressure feathered along Heero's back. Before his brain had a chance to give an order, his survival instincts put his body in motion.

In the blink of an eye he pivoted on his buttocks. His right hand grabbed at shadowy air that turned solid in his tightly clenched fingers. His left hand curled into a fist and his arm cocked back to deliver a swift punch.

"WHOA!" Duo yelped in alarm.

Heero's fist quivered in midair then all the tension drained out at once. His hand loosened its grip and his arm limply dropped away.

"What in the hell are ya tyin' to do...break my arm?" Duo hissed as he rubbed the red fingerprints encircling his wrist.

"You startled me...I thought you...were..." Heero stammered before the remainder of his explanation trailed away with a trembling sigh.

Examining the fingernail indentations marring his skin, Duo wondered. "Were what?"

"I woke up and there was this...this...." Descriptions flooded Heero's mind then receded in a tide of confusion. "I'm sorry."

Duo eased back on his hip and studied the disorientation in the Tracker's eyes. "I sensed no dreams." he stated with equal puzzlement. "Are you all right?"

"I'm not sure." was whispered so lowly Duo strained to hear.

There is a thin line between reality and illusion. Truth is often a matter of perception and many factors can skew actuality. Now Heero was questioning his grasp on that intangible concept called sanity.

Had Heero Yuy finally crossed that hallucinatory line? Could he trust his instincts or have confidence in his inner counsel? Had he lost a portion of his soul in the Valley of Visions and would the apparitions hovering just outside his memory eventually drive him mad?

The touch of Duo's hand on Heero's hand caused him to raise his head and meet the Duel Spirit's concerned eyes. Sunrise bathed Duo's face in golden light and caused his eyes to shimmer like finely faceted violet diamonds.

"Lay with me." Duo encouraged Heero to share his disheveled bed.

"But we..."

Duo placed a finger on Heero's lips to silent any further objections. "Hush." he ordered softly.

Surprisingly, Heero submitted without protest and allowed Duo to pull him into an embrace.

"Do you trust me?" Duo whispered.

"Yes."

"With your heart?"

Heero fixed Duo's tender gaze and without hesitation declared. "With my life."

"Then you'll never journey alone." Duo pledged before sealing his promised with a kiss.

Heero closed his eyes and melted into the kiss. There was no lust, no grappling or grinding of bodies, just two people clinging to each other for a few fleeting moments of consolation.

The kiss ended with a mutual sigh. Duo brushed his fingers over Heero's cheek. "Hold me for now. Today will unfold as it wishes. Tomorrow will take care of itself and the Devil can wait."

 

Part Twenty-five:

Heero rolled onto his back and stretched until his spine popped. Sunlight streaming through the cottage's shutters caused him to squint as he discreetly surveyed the small room. The mystery critter had evidently decided not to make another appearance, which suited the Tracker, as he had no wish for a repeat encounter.

All the bedding, except the blankets he and Duo had shared, was folded and stacked along the wall. Saddles, bridles and attending tack set by the door. Heero's traveling companions, like the "whatever it is" were nowhere in sight but voices speaking outside confirmed that he hadn't been left behind.

He sat up then chided himself for sleeping through the early morning preparations. There was a time not long ago when the snapping of a twig or the slightest stirring would have immediately awakened him. He reckoned if he had been alone his instincts would've been on full alert but in the security of his comrades' company he didn't need to be constantly on edge.

Heero tucked shoulder-length hair behind his ears and, with a grunt, pushed to stand up. The opening door caused him to pause in mid push. Duo's slender frame, silhouetted in a golden backwash, filled the doorway.

Shielding his eyes against the intrusive brightness, Heero mumbled under his breath and, with exaggerated hand waving, prompted Duo to close the door.

"You look awful." Duo teased, wrinkling his nose to mirror Heero's sour expression.

The Tracker snorted at the unsolicited appraisal of his demeanor. "Good morning to you." he replied with all the sarcasm he could muster.

Duo frowned at his friend's irritability. "Crabby this morning." was more an observation than a question. "Drink this." he said handing down a cup of dark liquid. "Be careful it's hot."

Heero cautiously sniffed at the steam rising from the cup. "What is this?" he wondered putting the emphasis on "this".

Duo eased down next to"Mr. Grumpy"and leaned over to also scrutinize the steam. "Ah...sorta...tea."

"Sorta tea?"

"Quatre conjured it up from herbs or flowers or..." the remaining explanation came in the form of a shrug. "It's supposed to clear ya head and give ya energy."

Heero touched his lips to the cup, tested the heat level then took a wary sip. At first there was no noticeable reaction. A second sip and a moment of further contemplation. "Not bad but I don't think tea will sustain us for the day's journey."

"Thanks to Wufei's hunting skills we have breakfast."

"Dare I ask what he considers breakfast?"

Duo got to his feet and held out his hand."Rabbit."

Heero took the offered hand and stood up. "More than one?"

"Enough."

******

Morning dissolved into midday. Scraggy trees were more frequently replaced by larger expanses of smooth ebony outcrops. The ribbons of rock would materialize from the ground at random intervals then burrow under the sandy surface in a serpentine fashion.

Other formations, resembling snakes chasing their tails, formed circular patterns that Duo named Viper Nests. One such "nest" provided the quinque with an opportunity to walk around, ease the kinks in their saddle-stiff legs and allow the horses to forage for grass and weeds spiking through clumps of fox grass.

Lunch for the warriors was cold meat leftover from breakfast and wild mushrooms that Trowa guaranteed were nonpoisonous and would not produce fantasies of the mind.

Quatre made the provisions a bit more palatable by combining the meat and mushrooms in a swallow pan, gathering sunbeams on his fingertips and heating the simple fare until it sizzled.

"How much longer to Deep World?" Wufei inquired as he licked his fingers clean.

Trowa mentally calculated the distance and traveling time. "If all goes well, three days."

Duo wiped his hands on his pants, interlaced his fingers behind his head and leaned back against a stony snake."I don't suppose there's an inn or tavern along the way." he wondered rhetorically.

With his head pillowed in Trowa's lap, Quatre gazed at the cloudless sky and stated. "Heaven will be our roof and the land will provide our sustenance."

"And the wind will guide our way." Duo declared as he, too, looked skyward and wished he was soaring on an endless updraft.

******

The late afternoon sun hovered on the horizon like a fiery dragon's eye.

Elongated shadows stalked the singled file of horses trudging along the zigzag path. As the equines navigated the twists and turns they appeared bored, preferring a fast, free gallop.

However, their riders were not as anxious for a quicker pace. Although the quinque longed to arrive at Deep World, charging off into unknown terrain wasn't very prudent.

Thorny vines still dangled from branches. Tangled undergrowth invaded the seldom-traveled trail and threatened to make the horses stumble. Occasionally more glassy outcrops interrupted the restrictive route but even these open areas were canopied by dense vegetation, glistening with chilly moisture that dripped on heads and dampened backs.

Many branches were festooned with thin fibers that crisscrossed overhead in no particular pattern or ran from the limbs to the ground leaving slimy spots at each connection. In some places the fibers were so concentrated they knotted into masses that were impossible to see through.

Heero let his hand brush lightly along the haphazardly arranged network of peculiar threads. His forehead wrinkled when his fingers snagged on a sticky compound.

When his index finger and thumb were pressed together then parted stubbornly, Heero raised an eyebrow at the strands stringing from his fingertips.

Trowa rode up beside his confused comrade. "Tree Creepers." he stated in response to Heero's puzzlement.

The Tracker continued to expand the strands, wondering how far they would stretch without breaking. "What?" he mumbled, obviously fascinated with his new discovery.

"Tree Creepers spin these threads." the Twilight Priest explained as he nodded his head for emphasis.

Duo spoke for Heero, Wufei and himself, "Do we want to know what they are?"

"They," Trowa repeated, "have round fuzzy bodies, eight legs and heads that look a lot like humans."

Now it was Wufei's turn to study the overabundance of shiny filaments. "How many Creepers constitute a colony?" he asked even though he wasn't sure he really wanted to know.

"Yeah," Duo pushed the point, "how many is many?"

Trowa glanced overhead."Probably no more that fifteen or twenty."

Heero's curiosity was quickly giving way to uneasiness. "Then they are either very large or very busy." he commented as he tried to wipe off the gooey fibers.

Quatre joined the conversation. "Both." he smiled, but his nonchalant attitude did little to alleviate his companions' misgivings.

"The Creepers aren't dangerous, except during hatching season." Trowa supplied additional information but, like his partner, his tone sounded less than positive.

Heero shook his fingers in a futile effort to dislodge the tenacious goo that was no longer fascinating but damned irritating. "When is hatching season?" he grumbled under his breath.

"About this time of year."

Duo craned his neck to stare up into the treetops. "That makes me feel a hell of lot better."

Heero's eyes darted from branch to branch. With the recent memories of the "whatever it is" still fresh in his mind, he swore he saw movement in the complex labyrinth the Creepers called home.

"I promise," Heero directed his pledge of reprisal at Trowa and Quatre, "if anything natural or unnatural skitters, scurries or jumps from these...these...webs, I'll pin both of you to a tree with bolts from my crossbow and leave your carcasses for crow food."

Without warning the wind picked up and changed its heading. It was as if a door opened sucking hot currents down from the craggy stone mountain, haloed with a crimson glow, rising in the distant. The summit was shrouded in blanched fog and the strong odor of sulfur saturated each sultry wave of the peculiarly altered atmosphere.

Thick haze drifted through the surrounding forest and floated just above the ground in a silent overlay that seemed to come from nowhere and everywhere at once. Then the wind would shift again and push the murky smog to the treetops.

Trowa and Quatre were the first ones to sense the invisible border. Straightaway Duo, Wufei and Heero also experienced the tingle that slithered up their spines and prickled across their skin with a ghostly touch that left goose bumps in its wake.

The line of separation.

The Devil's Divide.

And beyond the foreboding threshold, the hellish ground the Warriors of the Rose would have to traverse to reach the River of Souls.

Trowa showed no hesitation nor did he look back as he tapped his heels to move his horse forward. Quatre shot a quick glance at his comrades then followed his lover's lead.

Wufei set his steed on an unwavering course. Heero and Duo made up the rear guard.

As the quinque disappeared around the last bend, swirling dank mist blended in and erased all evidence of their passing.

Darkness would come sooner to this curious place beyond the Devil's Divide. Wafting vapors, tinged with sulfur, devoured sunset's waning rays and unlike previous evenings when night robbed the land of warmth, the invading dusk was humid.

No leaves fluttered. No nocturnal birds called or crickets chirped...only dead calm and silence.

Wufei ducked under a low hanging branch then cursed in Chinese as his ponytail snagged on a thorny twig. "Exactly who picked this forsaken route?" he hissed in English.

Duo cut his eyes at the Twilight Priest."Trowa." he announced in a tattletale tone.

Ignoring the Irishman's cheeky attitude, Trowa reined in his horse. He scanned a clearing that was little more than a narrow space by the road."We'll camp here tonight.

Heero dismounted and surveyed the limited area that could still be seen in the rapidly encompassing darkness."Remember we're in hostile territory. Everyone should watch his back." he reminded his comrades.

The grave warning, coupled with the campsite's unreceptive surroundings, was not much comfort as the sun blended into the shadows like ink through rice paper.

******

While Quatre settled the horses, Heero and Duo arranged the bedrolls in a semicircle and laid their respective weapons within easy reach. Wufei, in his canine form, had gone hunting for his and his friends' supper.

Trowa constructed a fire ring from the abundance of black stones littering the roadside. Twigs and bits of bark were layered with small branches broken to kindling size. Finally heftier limbs that would produce a hot fire and retain the heat were interwoven on top.

With a pleased sigh Trowa stood back to admire his workmanship.

"Nice." Duo praised a job well done. "But its not much use unlit." he finished his observations.

A clever smile tugged at Trowa's lips. "The lighting, my friend, is the easiest part."

With that pronouncement the Cleric snapped his fingers and sent sparks raining down on the dry wood. In a matter of seconds red-orange flames feathered around the wood and blue-gray smoke curled toward the night-shrouded sky.

Quail skewed on sticks and roasted over the fire supplied a satisfying meal. Water from a cheek filtering through smooth pebbles, that Heero decided were remnants of old lava flows, provided liquid refreshment.

The night was eerily quiet. The crescent moon cast a silvery glow on wispy clouds and the stars twinkled against an ebony backdrop.

Quatre, Trowa and Wufei stood off to the side. Judging by the trio's hand gestures and pointing at the distant mountain, Heero knew they were plotting tomorrow's course.

Heero pulled his knees to his chest and listened to Duo's steady breathing as he slept. Surrendering to his own physical and mental fatigue, Heero wrapped his cloak around his shoulders, tucked it under his hips then eased down to lay beside Duo who immediately gravitated toward the additional body heat which Heero was quite willing to share.

Staring up at the stars, a multitude of thoughts crowded Heero's mind. Retracing the circumstances that had brought the quinque to this strange place, he struggled to put each event in its proper perceptive and to glean some intuitive understanding.

He carefully studied how five unique individuals, left to their own accord, would have never become the Warriors of the Rose. Yet here they were united by tragic twists of fate and prepared to give up their lives to thwart evil, vanquish the devil and seal the gates of hell forever.

With a heavy sigh, Heero curled up facing Duo. "Did fate bring you and I together for more than war?" he whispered.

The fire reflected softly on Duo's high cheekbones and accented the cinnamon highlights in his hair and for the first time Heero realized that Duo was beautiful.

Perhaps beautiful would better describe a female but as far as Heero was concerned it was the only word worthy of the Duel Spirit's combination of strength, grace and nobility.

Just before Heero drifted off into, hopefully, a dreamless sleep, he recalled Duo's loss of his family, his home and a part of his soul that might never be reclaimed. A twinge of sadness touched his heart as he realized that he and Duo shared more than a common quest...they also shared the loss of love.

Tears welled up in Heero's eyes, tears of regret because Duo had suffered so much. But there were also tears of rage because Heero didn't know how to help make Duo whole again.

Then the Lone Hunter, whose fear of a broken heart had forced him into emotional exile, did something quite contrary to his defensive nature. Heero Yuy took Duo's hand and placed a kiss, not borne of lust but of genuine affection, gently on his lips.

 

Part Twenty-six:

The Lone Hunter, whose fear of a broken heart had forced him into emotional exile, did something quite contrary to his defensive nature. Heero Yuy took Duo's hand and placed a kiss, not borne of lust but of genuine affection, gently on his lips.

Spurred by the brushing kiss, Duo shifted in his sleep. Eyelids fluttered then parted just enough to show glimpses of violet.

Suddenly Heero experienced an unexpected sensation...panic.

Despite Heero's impassive facade, he was human. Many times the Demon Tracker has been plagued with uncertainty, although it never lasted long. If pressed, he might even admit to being nervous before battle.

But the last time he'd felt panic was when the hunting party returned to Willow Grove to find the estate in ruins, Baron and Baroness Weisman dead along with most of the household staff and his mother, Keiko, a mere shadow of herself.

That day Heero's world crumbled. His heart, benumbed by guilt, became stone. His soul, scorched by rage, became fertile ground for the hatred that kept him in a marginal state of sanity.

Now a simple kiss had exhumed the dread, the alarm...the fear.

Heero was not fearful that the honorable Irishman would mock his feeble attempt at compassion, for Duo had initiated their first tender moment with his kiss.

No, risking a crack in his hardened heart spawned Heero's panic. The subsequent fear that the thin line would splinter so badly the breach could never be repair made him vulnerable and that was totally unacceptable.

A warrior could not afford to care; it would prove too perilous for anyone who loved him. Yet Heero desperately wanted to wake Duo with a kiss. He yeaned to be embraced and caressed, to whisper in the darkness or scream Duo's name in orgasmic ecstasy.

A sigh escaped over Duo's lips, more violet was revealed.

*You can't cross the line.* Heero's private counsel ordered.

"Just for tonight."

*There will be other nights.*

Heero closed his eyes. "No one is promised tomorrow." he argued as logically as he could.

*Wait.* echoed inside his mind.

With a hard puff of air, Heero opened his eyes then leaned closer to Duo who was hovering on the edge of waking. "Shhhhh. Go back to sleep." he urged while he stroked Duo's forehead to encourage his return to dreamland.

A second sigh eased the Duel Spirit back into slumber's enfoldment. Violet was covered up and his chest rose and fell with the rhythmic meter of deep sleep.

Wrapping his cloak tighter to ward off a chill not produced by the night's declining temperatures but by his inner emptiness, Heero inched away from the source of his temptation.

Duo wiggled into the vacant space, drew his knees to his chest and burrowed under his blanket until only the base of his braid and a few wispy bangs were exposed to the nocturnal elements.

******

Quatre and Trowa slept in the tree line's limited shelter. In his human form Wufei prowled the camp's perimeter, sword in hand, looking and listening and sniffing the sulfur scented air.

The crescent moon washed silver on dewy leaves and sparkled like diamond dust over the pitted outcrops. Bluish smoke curled around the wind that whined out mournful music. The fire's flickering fingertips engaged light and shadows in a dance macabre over the ominous landscape.

Heero poked ruby embers with a stick and watched apathetically as pinpoint sparks swirled on the heated updrafts. He was neither lost in thought nor mesmerized by the flames' kaleidoscopic waltz but had yet again withdrawn behind the wall that guarded his heart and had resigned himself to the solitude required of a Lone Hunter.

Grouped together in a stand of pines, the horses shifted restlessly. The roan stallion raised his head with a start, snorted and stared wide-eyed into the murky fog enveloping the camp. As the jittery steed backed passed a rocky ridge, the reins tethering him to a branch slipped free.

Trowa grunted in his sleep unaware that large, heavy hooves had barely missed his outstretched legs but Wufei's keen sight quickly spied the exiting equine.

"Heero." he called to the man silhouetted in the fire's crimson glow.

Receiving no response, he shouted loud enough to wake the dead. "HEERO!"

As his name ricocheted over the clearing, Heero flinched then shot an annoyed glared at the veiled Beast. "What?" he snapped not bothering to hide his irritation.

Wufei growled deep in his throat at the curt reply before pointing at the retreating animal. "Isn't that your horse?"

"Dammit." Heero hissed at both the stallion and the kinks that snarled in his back when he stood up.

"Need help?" Wufei offered his finely honed senses to aid in the retrieval mission.

For a greater range of movement, Heero slipped the cloak from his shoulders. "No." he called above the crackling fire then added, "Thank you." in apology for his rude reply."Stay here and guard the camp."

Heero glanced back at Duo then directed a string of vengeful oaths, including one about desertion being punishable by death, at the departing horse. Dampness muting his profanities, the Tracker disappeared into the fog leaving Wufei behind to watch and wait.

******

Moonlight cut pale shafts through overhead branches and pooled faintly on the dense undergrowth but didn't provide adequate light for sure footing or to see more than a few feet ahead. Away from the fire, the air chilled making Heero wish he hadn't discarded his cloak.

In this ghostly environment, mist-shrouded trees took on the guise of trolls. Limbs became arms; thinner twigs reached out from the darkness like skeletal fingers.

Vague shapes sprang up from the fog and brought to mind myths of unicorns or Minotaurs. Perhaps Cerberus, the three-headed dog that guarded the gates of Hades, would devour the Tracker or a flock of screeching Harpies would snatch him up.

But Heero's most disquieting feeling was "eyes on his back". He froze, looked left then right then behind but all he could see was gloomy mirages and all he could hear was the wind moaning like a heartbroken lover.

"This was a damn stupid idea." he mumbled under his breath. "I don't even know where to start looking."

Just as Heero decided to return to camp and hope that the horse would find his way back in his own, an outline moved in the moonlight. A snort and the scraping of hooves on the stony ground identified the phantom form as the truant stallion.

Heero picked his way around a maze of rotten stumps. Several intertwined branches blocked his sight, he pushed them aside. The parting showed the horse contently nibbling on an ivy vine.

The stallion's eyes widened then lost their surprise as Heero slowly stepped forward. "Easy." he whispered. The last thing he wanted was to be trampled by a spooked horse.

"It's all right." he reassured, rubbing the stallion's velvety nose. Steadily he reached out until his fingers caught the reins. A tug got the troublesome beast moving in the right direction.

"Come on you sorry excuse for a...."

The remainder of the sentence died on Heero's lips as a massive shadow swallowed up his exit path.

What towered over the Tracker appeared to be male. Ratty scraps of mud splattered cloth hung from broad shoulders, strained across a muscular torso twice as wide as Heero's body and barely covered legs the size of tree trunks. Oily hair curtained a filthy face and partly obscured expressionless eyes.

Long moments of tense silence passed between the Tracker and the hefty collection of sweaty flesh and solid bones. While Heero debated if the hulking figure was indeed human one fact was immediately clear, the "giant", for lack of a better description, was not friendly.

Staring up at the man who reeked of rancid meat, Heero began an inner dialogue. "I don't think he's going to move."

He reached for a weapon that wasn't there."Shit." he hissed out loud as he realized both his crossbow and his dagger had been left at camp.

With speed that caught Heero off guard, the giant planted a wide hand in the middle of his breastbone and with a guttural growl, delivered a powerful push.

Heero stutter-stepped but somehow he managed to stay on his feet. He recovered just in time to see the burly stranger grabbing for the stallion that back away with an alarmed whinny.

"Hey, you bastard, that's my horse!" Heero shouted, bolting for the smelly thief.

******

Trowa opened his eyes. He was awake but he wasn't certain what had disturbed his sleep. It wasn't Quatre who was snuggled beside him and snoring softly.

The puzzled Priest braced his elbows, eased up enough to look over the campsite and did a quick head count.

On the fire's opposite side, Duo was curled up under his woven covers. To Trowa's right, Wufei had settled his back against a glossy outcrop with his legs drawn to his chest, ankles crossed and his sword lying across his knees.

Trowa's moving about captured Wufei's attention. He stretched and got to his feet. Several strides closed the distance then he crouched down beside his comrade. "Everything is quiet." he reported.

Trowa rubbed his hands over his sleep-clouded eyes. "Where's Heero?"

Wufei gazed dully in the forest's general direction."His horse got loose." he stated tucking bothersome hair that had slipped from his ponytail behind his ears, "He went to fetch it."

"He did what?" Trowa's voice boomed across the camp.

The Priest's unexpected reaction jarred the drowsy cobwebs from Wufei's brain. His lips parted but his reply was abruptly cut off.

"You let him leave!"

Wufei shook his head in bewilderment, wondering why Trowa's pissed-off attitude was aimed at him. "I'm not the Hunter's keeper." he stated in his own defense.

"Which way did he go?"

Afraid his answered would be cut off again, Wufei pointed at the tree line where the absent Tracker had disappeared into the fog.

"Quatre, wake up." Trowa shook his lover until his stirred from his sleep. "Duo!"

he called with sufficient volume to rouse the braided Irishman. "Get your ass over here!"

Before anyone could ask what happened to prompt such a commotion, Trowa began issuing orders. "Wufei, Duo, scout the northern perimeter. Quatre and I will pick up the trail in the forest." He paused long enough to catch his breath, "And get your weapons."

Duo raised his hand to slow the Priest's rapid-fire commands to a more understandable pace. "Hold a minute." he demanded, "What exactly are we doing?"

"Heero...that damn fool...went wandering off on his own."

"He's big enough to take care of himself." Duo declared, quite irritated with Trowa's name calling. "You don't have to be insulting." he added for good measure.

Trowa whirled around and didn't hesitate to challenge the Duel Spirit's smart-ass attitude. "Listen," he hissed, struggling to keep his temper in check, "this is barbarian territory."

"We can handle a few barbarians?" Wufei stated with cocksure confidence.

"These barbarians are mutated descendents of giants. They're simple-minded, strong as an ox and will eat any flesh, animal or man, and Heero is strolling around in the middle of their hunting grounds."

******

A fist the size of a cantaloupe sent Heero reeling backwards before the momentum set him down hard on his butt. His right cheek stung, dots danced over his vision. A salty taste touched his lips; a wipe with the back of his hand left his skin smeared with crimson.

"Son of a bitch." Heero hissed angrily.

Jumping to his feet, Heero centered his balance, lowered his shoulder and aimed squarely for the mutant's midsection. Unfortunately he would have had better luck ramming a tree.

Air was forcefully expelled. All he could do was wheeze and gasp and struggled to inflate his lungs. Watering eyes blurred and it took several blinks to clear his sight.

Heero needed a moment to regroup, to plan his next strategic maneuver but beefy hands seized fistfuls of his shirt and sent him flying. Once more the Tracker found himself sitting, staring up at a crooked grin that made his blood run cold.

A belly deep laugh gushed from the giant's guts. His enormous form blocked the moon's silver crescent and spread an icy shadow across Heero's eyes. From the purple gloom arms reached down, hands tried to warp around Heero's throat.

As Heero scooted back to avoid having his neck wrung, his fingers dug in the dirt shoved aside by his legs. With a grunt of effort, a handful of sandy particles was flung in his attacker's face effectively slowing his advance.

Roaring with rage, the brute's heavily booted foot stomped down but, blinded by the blackened soil, his aim was off target allowing Heero to roll clear. The next roll, just ahead of the boot's crushing weight, bumped him into a boulder protruding from the ground.

Now the Lone Hunter had no means of escape. Sandwiched between "the rock and", in this case, "a harder place", all he could do was draw up and pray that the third stomping assault would also fail to make contact.

A sneer pulled back the giant's lips exposing yellow teeth that looked more like fangs. However this time, instead of using his boot to break bones and turn the Tracker's insides to mush, he selected a huge, weathered rock as his weapon of choice.

Even though it was difficult to focus through puffy eyelids, Heero never averted his sight from the colossus that was intent on reducing his head to a bloody blend of splintered skull and pulpy brain matter.

Heero had no option but to survive. For his mother's sake, to free her from her madness. For his comrades' sake, to complete the Warriors of the Rose.

But most of all he had to live for an impish Irishman named Duo Maxwell who had chiseled away his carefully crafted facade and filled the hollow in his heart with unconditional kindness.

"As long as there's breath there's hope." Duo's voice whispered inside Heero's head.

Heero instinctively knew he was not alone. He could feel Duo's strength and, lingering in his soul, his promise of protection.

The mutant's malevolent grin also held a promise...human flesh would be his midnight meal.

The rock hovered in midair then was hurled with a mighty whoosh. Quick as a fox, Heero twisted to one side then dove for the giant's knees to topple his assailant. As before the attempted tackle proved to be an exercise in futility.

In one swift movement, the Tracker was hauled up and shaken like a willow in a windstorm. When Heero's senses were sufficiently scrambled, the giant grasped his chin and tilted his head at a painful angle.

Foul, hot breath, that caused Heero's stomach to churn, hit in his face as the mutant prepared to sink his teeth into his exposed throat and tear out his windpipe.

Light glinted from the tree line then the fleeting flash vanished like it was never there. With a battle cry designed to send chills down an opponent's spine, Wufei charged into the clearing.

His sword arced upward then whined through the air. The blade slashed across the giant's ribcage, opening a long gash and spewing a fine spray of scarlet over Heero's ashen face.

A howl of pain ricocheted off the trees. Still clutching his prey, the wounded mutant spun to face the Chinese warrior who had slid into a defensive stance and raised the bloody blade for another slice.

Wufei took a deep breath, his arms tensed. The sword quivered but hesitation checked its strike. A viselike grip encircled Heero's neck. His battered body dangled, his feet brushed the ground and his arms hung limply at his sides. Swollen eyes showed only thin slits of cobalt and his lips were a sickly shade of blue.

For a moment, the veiled beast debated whether or not to transform into a wolf. The alteration would surly shock the mutant and give Wufei the few seconds needed to pounce but was he fast enough to reach Heero before the Tracker's neck was snapped like a brittle twig?

There was no readable reaction in the giant's stony expression. It seemed as if his injury was being ignored or, perhaps, it had briefly registered in the creature's dim-witted brain and had already been forgotten.

But Wufei was certain of one thing, his surrender would not improved his or the Tracker's odds of seeing the sunrise. The sword struck the ground with a muted clang.

"We live together or die together." Wufei pledged to his fellow warrior as a blue aura began to shimmer about his body.

A growl rumbled in the mutant's throat. Fingers tighten on Heero's neck, the constrictions producing garbled sounds.

Suddenly the giant froze. The squeezing stopped, fingers relaxed their death-grip. Heero slipped from the lax grasp and crumpled in a heap like a loose-jointed rag doll. Luckily the hard contact jarred his restricted respiration and triggered a shape intake of air.

The aura faded as quickly as it began. Wufei frowned and studied the mutant's perplexing response. He took a single cautious step, ready to counter any attack but none was forthcoming.

Fixed eyes gazed in a glassy stare then the sightless orbs rolled back into the mutant's shaggy head. In slow motion the spawn of Goliath pitched forward and hit the ground with a bone splintering crash. Only then was the reason for his odd behavior revealed.

An arrow had been expertly set between the mutant's shoulder blades. Three quarters of the protruding shaft had been buried in the spine with hardly a trickle of blood to discolor the feathery end.

Duo emerged from the tree line. His right hand held Heero's crossbow; his left hand held two additional arrows. His bangs were plastered to his moist forehead and there was an awkward gait in his steps as if his legs were struggling to support his weight.

Duo and Wufei knelt beside their fallen comrade. Duo carefully eased up the Tracker's body until Heero's back rested against his chest and his shoulder pillowed Heero's head.

Heero coughed and sucked in labored breaths. Lightheaded sensations spun the stars. Queasy waves churned in his stomach, cold sweat soaked his body and turned icy on his skin.

"Heero." Duo whispered as bushed back damp hair so he could look for any signs of recognition in his blurry eyes. "Please...talk to me."

It took great effort for Heero to calm his winded wheezing and put his muddled mind back in some order. Right then he didn't care about the stray horse or even if more barbarians lurked in the forest. He leaned heavily on Duo and tried to focus on sounds that made words and other noises that made no sense at all.

Finally he managed to glean some understanding of his surroundings. Gradually he became aware of Wufei leaning over him, sword in hand. He felt Duo's warmth radiating at his back and realized he was being held in the secure enfoldment of Duo's arms. But when his recovering sight centered on the lifeless mutant, a shiver seized his body so strongly it caused Duo to flinch.

For the first time Heero fully comprehended the exact size of his attacker. The realization that his comrades' intervention had spared him from great damage to his anatomy shook him to the core. Also the vision of partially eaten body parts scattered over the clearing made him cringe and draw up in Duo's embrace.

"I'm here, everything's goin' be all right." Duo assured, tightening his arms and placing a kiss on Heero's crown.

Rustling leaves prompted Wufei to his feet. Branches rattled and parted. Wufei leveled his sword just as Trowa and Quatre burst into the clearing.

The Priest and Manipulator's valiant charge ended abruptly. Pebbles shot from under Trowa's boots as he skidded to a halt. Quatre in his zeal for battle bumped into his lover nearly upsetting his equilibrium.

It took Wufei but a moment to identify the images rushing headlong toward him and about the same brief measure of time for his heart to skip a beat.

Trowa's eyes widened as they surveyed the chaotic scene. "What in the hell happened here?" he wondered, sidestepping the massive prone figure blocking his way.

"We," Heero replied nodding at the mutant, "had a disagreement over my horse."

Quatre braced his hands on his knees and leaned over for a closer inspection. "Are you all right?" he asked at the sight of welts on Heero's cheek, his cracked lips and the blue bruises encircling his neck.

"Yeah." Heero responded although he wasn't sure how "all right" he really was.

Trowa glanced over the clearing then at the moon that had already begun its descent into dawn."We need to get back to camp." he said extending his hand. "Can you stand?"

Heero nodded, yes, then winced when pain stung through his chest. With Duo's assistance he planted his feet then paused to regain his balance. Pressing a supportive arm across his aching ribs, Heero proceeded to take one step at a time.

"Damn I hoped I haven't popped anything loose." He mumbled as Duo helped shore his wobbly stance.

When the warriors reached the tree line, Heero wondered. "How did you find me?"

"Quatre sensed your distress and we followed him." the Twilight Priest explained. He stopped to scan the outer fringes. "Where's the horse that was worth a stomping?"

Heero shrugged. "I guess he ran off."

Wufei inclined his head, listened then sniffed the breeze. Without a word he made a straightway path into the forest and moments later returned leading the fidgety stallion.

With Wufei on one side and Duo on the other side, they lifted Heero and settled him on the equine that was responsible for his impromptu adventure. Duo climb up behind Heero, took the reins and turned the horse in the camp's direction.

"I was worry about you." Duo confessed so lowly that only Heero to hear.

Heero rearranged his posture to ease the pressure on his tender ribs. "I'm sorry."

Duo rested his chin on Heero's shoulder. "Promise you'll never go off on your own again."

"I can't promise that."

"Promise I can hold you until first light."

Heero turned his head far enough to look into the Duel's Spirit's hopeful eyes. "You can hold me forever."

 

Part Twenty-seven:

Although the Warriors of the Rose were two day's travel from Deep World, the most perilous stages of their journey were yet to come. Crossing the Atlos Foothills, traversing Boar Bog and navigating the River of Souls would demand all the quinque's instincts and cunning...anything less would not see them through.

Quatre and Trowa had made the trek several times and they knew how unpredictable the conditions could be. They knew how, in less than a heartbeat, the landscape could change, usually for the worse.

The stench of sulfur that clogged the air and the thick clouds that muted the sunlight served as heralds from a most inhospitable land. Dense fog crept along the ground. Pungent vapors irritated eyes and caused lungs to labor for a cleansing breath.

Duo leaned beneath his horse and tightened the saddle's girth strap. His nose wrinkled as a disapproving frown thinned out his lips. "Why is it," he directed his comments to Wufei, "that everywhere we've traveled so far has been misty, dusty or creepy?"

Wufei secured his saddlebag and sword. "I guess we like variety." Then gazing off at the gray horizon he predicted, "I don't think conditions will get better in the near future."

******

The Atlos Foothills were little more than wide lava flows encrusted with a thin layer of sand and grainy pebbles. When the trial pitched up sharply Trowa dismounted and announced. "From here on we lead the horses."

Glassy ground refused to yield even a toehold. Humans and horses fought for footing. Heero panted and coaxed his stallion one difficult step at a time. Duo grunted and cursed and tugged his mount upwards.

Wufei wiped his watery eyes, urged his horse with a hard yank on the reins then coughed in a futile attempt to improve his respiratory functions that were almost to the point of overload.

Quatre paused in his pulling. "I'm beginning to think," he stated between short gasps, "that it would have been wiser to barter with the Borians to use the eastern passage."

His lover's preoccupation with simply standing up precluded an immediate answer. After a moment's reflection, Trowa replied. "Maybe but they might have fancied Duo and I wasn't in the mood for a confrontation."

At the mention of his name, Duo came to an abrupt halt. "Fancy me." he repeated. "What's that suppose to mean?"

The Twilight Priest peered over his horse."The Borians prefer the company of men and you, my friend, are too pretty for your own good."

******

Gradually the steep incline leveled out. The exhausted quintet and the equally drained equines assembled on a narrow plateau. Well above the tree line, the unobstructed view offered a hellish panorama.

Boar Bog spread in irregular patches across the valley floor then pressed its borders against jagged russet cliffs streaked by a caustic mixture of steam and volcanic ash. The sunless plane was devoid of any sizeable vegetation and only an ashen aura betrayed the sun's placement above the crimson tinted skyline.

Plumes of acidic smoke bellowed from a distant peak. Scarlet lines snaked down the mountain's sides. Strong updrafts battered the plateau and the hot currents spewed up sandy particles that struck the warriors' faces with stinging sensations and caused them to shield their eyes.

Subdued, serious in thought, no one spoke as each man mustered his courage and steeled his nerves.

Finally Trowa broke the silence. "If we're going to make it through this accursed place before nightfall, we'd better get started."

Duo flashed a sly grin. "No problem."

Heero slid his boot in the stirrup. "Yeah no problem." he agreed with a generous amount of sarcasm then winced when swinging his leg over the saddle aggravated his sore ribs.

The downhill path to Boar Bog was not as treacherous but, even though the sandy surface was somewhat improved, stable footing had to be carefully sought out.

At the lower attitude, the air was saturated with humid smog. The acute contamination soon became evident in the horses' raspy exhaling. Wisely the quinque slowed their pace to give the winded equines a chance to regulate their oxygen-starved wheezing.

When the boggy terrain suddenly devoured the trail, Trowa raised his hand to command everyone's attention. "This is not a scenic tour. The ground is honeycombed with mud pits and quicksand. Get off the path and you're gone."

Steam vents pumped, hissed and regurgitated rusty water from deep beneath the swamp's thin crust. Stagnate pools, thickly coated over with brown slime and decayed matter, undulated between the vents.

From time to time the soupy mud would pulsate with bubbles. Often these gaseous bulges would expand beyond their tension point and explode in a loud POP. Other areas would sputter, belching forth foul secretions that made everyone's stomachs queasy.

Marshy expanses also churned but it wasn't always clear what created the ripples. Once Duo swore by the saints that he saw a scaly spine slink just below surface then, with an irreverent oath, he further declared that a tentacle had protruded from the matted film.

But when Duo guided his horse away from the gurgling mire, Heero's puzzled expression at the Irishman's swift relocation triggered a curt statement.

"I AM NOT goin' to be anything's supper!" Duo exclaimed with another round of swearing that would make a sailor blush.

Humid air wrapped around the weary travelers in saturated blankets. The muggy enveloping combined with concentrated gases quickly took its toll.

Again it became necessary to lead rather than ride. This arrangement suited Wufei, as he preferred walking to taking a chance that one of the horses might misstep and plunge itself and its rider into a bottomless quagmire.

Hoping to prevent a mutiny Trowa proclaimed, "If the warriors made it through the primeval swamp, the road to the River of Souls might be more hospitable."

Wufei took exception to the words "if" and "might" then questioned the Priest's sincerity.

Quatre came to his lover's defense, pointing out that the metamorphic wolf's comments would do nothing to alter the situation then strongly suggested that it wasn't prudent to anger the man who knew where the quick spots were.

******

Two hours before sunset and the daylight had all but vanished.

To the north, wind-whipped ash formed an ecliptic cloak over the smothering mountain. Almost to the towering peak's crest, smoke curled into funnel clouds and rivulets of glowing magma catapulted from a ragged gap. Just below the belching seam more ash swirled on a whirlwind of superheated air.

Half a mile to the border.

The trail pressed uncomfortably close to the restless volcano. Its mammoth height dwarfed the apprehensive travelers and, as the soil quivered with each tremulous vibration, they could feel the raw power shuddered through their bones.

"Providence had no hand in this wicked place." Heero announced as he took a parting look at the land forsaken by nature.

No one disagreed.

******

True to Trowa's word, the land slowly began to firm up. The mountain's angry rumbling was less intense. Boiling springs calmed, the air cooled to a more tolerable temperature.

In the fleeting minutes before dusk, the quinque pushed as hard as they dared. Even with the improved air, coughing plagued their progress. The persistent group hadn't stopped to eat and their water intake hadn't equaled the loss in perspiration.

Exhaustion depleted their energy; dehydration burned their throats. Although Trowa had hoped to be further along by nightfall he decided they had pushed far enough.

"This way." he nodded towards the first stand of trees they'd encountered since leaving Boar Bog.

Clearer pools, the same color as Quatre's azure eyes and ringed with crystallized minerals, intermingled between open areas of green grass. Trowa and Wufei took charge of the horses, settling them where they would be easier to watch.

Heero was pleased with the compact grouping, as he had no wish for another horse hunt. He sat, hunched over, resting his forehead on his bended knees. A headache ran from temple to temple, the welts on his face were tender and his ribs hurt too much to sit up straight.

A cool hand gently touched his shoulder. "Drink this." Duo said as he eased down beside the Tracker.

"More sorta tea?" Heero wondered, nodding at the cup in Duo's hands.

"Nope, just water. Quatre is unpacking the last of the food."

Heero took a long drink and let the refreshing liquid slowly slide down his parched throat. "I don't suppose there's a hot spring around here." He took another drink. "I smell like horse and my muscles could use a good soaking."

"In the morning searching for a suitable bath will be first on our "things to do" list." Duo declared with a wink.

Droplets of chilled mist, reflecting the last rays of sunset, clung to the trees. To the north, a scarlet glow tinted the horizon.

Trowa and Quatre slept in each other's arms. Wufei also slumbered under the Sandman's influence but there was no rest for Heero and Duo.

Heero hurt in places he didn't know he had. His head felt much bigger than it should be. The dull ache along his ribs and his puffy right eye were constant reminders of his battle with the barbarian.

Duo sat opposite the battered Tracker. Heero could see the noticeable tremble in the Duel Spirit's hand as he applied a paste of crushed Comfrey leaves combined with water that Quatre promised would ease soreness and minimize bruising.

Despite Duo's gentle strokes, many welts were still painful to the touch especially a deeper blue bruise running from Heero's cheek or his chin.

When a particularly sensitive spot stung and Heero flinched, Duo jerked back his hand as if he'd been burned. "Sorry." he whispered, staring down at the herbal mixture stuck to his fingers.

"It's all right." Heero repeated twice before Duo raised his eyes and fixed his gaze. "If I remember correctly," he declared, "you promised to hold me."

Duo smiled, "I always keep my promise."

Without another word, Duo brushed his fingers off on his pants, retrieved Heero's cloak and carefully wrapped it around his shoulders. With the same care, he helped Heero lay down then settled face to face with his friend.

Blankets were tucked; bodies snuggled close for shared warmth. Heero buried his face in the crook of Duo's neck and showed no hesitation as Duo intertwined their fingers and squeezed.

"I was afraid for you last night." Duo confessed with a shiver in his voice that was more telling than his words.

"I'm part of the Brotherhood now." Heero admitted that a change in his independent nature was in order."I shouldn't have gone off by myself."

Duo eased back so Heero could see the irritation in his eyes. "Damn the Brotherhood." he hissed.

Before Heero could react or question the source of the Irishman's unexpected reaction, Duo continued. "I'm talkin' about being scare for you...not Trowa or Quatre or Wufei...but you."

Heero's mouth opened then closed without a sound.

Since becoming a Demon Tracker, Heero Yuy had followed three simple rules that had served him well.

First, never trust your eyes or ears, for the human senses are easily fooled. Secondly, rely only on yourself, because evil often takes on the guise of faithfulness to hide its betrayal. But most important of all, guard your heart, for once the heart is broken nothing save a perfect love can make it whole.

Now Heero was being asked to shed the self-sufficiency he had for so long put into practice, to trust that friendship could be offered without ulterior motives and to test the vulnerability of his heart.

But could he surrender even a small part of himself? Did he lack trust in Duo or was it commitment that scared the hell out of him? Could he break the rules and not tempt the Fates to dispense swift reprisal?

Duo's voice brought Heero back from his musing over the elusive concepts of trust and commitment. "I swear you can be the most stubborn son of a bit...."

The evaluation of the Tracker's mulish temperament was cut off by an unpredicted kiss. Ignoring the pain from his split lip, Heero let passion overrule his doubts. At that moment he didn't give a damn if lust clouded his sensibility or if the Fates were pissed off.

Heero clung to Duo like a drowning man grappling for anything to keep him afloat. He rolled over and flattened his body over Duo. His right hand snaked under Duo's shirt; his left hand forced its way between Duo's thighs.

It took a few seconds for Duo to comprehend what was happening. Heero's mouth was sealed over his lips, his tongue persistently searched for a way inside. Anxious fingers trailed over his chest and more fingers fondled his groin.

And the kiss...the kiss was hard and hungry and out of control.

Duo tried to object but his parting lips allowed Heero's tongue to impede his protests. He tried to wiggle free but Heero's heavier weight held him in place.

As the Lone Hunter sought to make Duo his prey, his mind screamed "Stop!" but his body paid no heed.

Finally Duo was able to plant his hands on Heero's breastbone and push him away enough to speak. "No." he implored.

Despite the pain that surged across Heero's tender ribs,"Want you." was stated with a husky growl. The hand seizing Duo's crotch squeezed tighter.

Duo clenched his teeth, sucked in a deep breath and shouted. "NO!"

Heero froze.

He stared at Duo with a faraway look like he had just awoken from a nightmare and wasn't sure where he was. His chest heaved and, with each winded gasp, his entire body quivered. He blinked once, twice before his eyes focused and he realized he had Duo pinned to the ground.

Fingers slipped away. Arms and legs drew up. Heero curled into a ball and covered his face with his hands. Once more his body shuddered, however this time, it wasn't physical exertion that made him tremble but gut-wrenching weeping.

Duo sat up, settled over on his hip and took a moment to recover. His hand hovered hesitatingly over Heero's shoulder. "Heero?" The hand made contact. Heero recoiled and whimpered like a frightened child.

He brushed back bangs stuck to Heero's damp forehead and leaned nearer to see between his friend's interlaced fingers that were soaked with tears. "Please," he begged, "please look at me."

Duo wasn't angry...confused was a more fitting description of his emotional state. It would have been hypocritical to deny that he longed to be claimed by Heero but he wanted to be loved, not taken in the throes of lust driven desire.

Duo also knew how fiercely Heero guarded his heart. Had he sent mixed signals? Had he teased too often or tempted him to do something so contrary to his nature?

"Merciful saints." Now Duo was crying. "Can you forgive me?"

At Duo's declaration of guilt, upon hearing his entreatment for absolution, Heero lowered one hand. A red-rimmed orb studied Duo's tear-tracked cheeks and bloodshot eyes.

"You did nothing wrong." was whispered through lingering sniffles.

"But I...." Duo began before the lump in his throat choked off his explanation.

Heero braced his hands on the ground and with extra effort sat up. Mirroring Duo's confusion, he tilted his head and tried to figure why his friend required his pardon.

"You have no reason to be ashamed. I crossed the line. It was like...." A sigh then silence.

"What?" Duo pressed for an answer.

Heero struggled to put his perplexing feelings into rational words. "It was as though a fire exploded in my soul and if I didn't quench the blaze, the heat would consume me."

Duo nodded, not as if he was merely agreeing but like he understood. "Desire has the hottest flames and it is the Devil's wish that humans dance into the fire."

He took Heero's hand and offered a reassuring smile. "When the time is right, when we both hear the same music, we will dance and the inferno we ignite will rival Hell."

 

Part Twenty-eight:

Perched atop a granite ledge on Standish Mountain, Eagle Eyrie had once been a grand castle but the constant battering of wind, frigid winter temperatures and years of neglect had not been kind to the ancient fortress.

Mortar crumbled from outer walls leaving wide gaps between the rough-cut stone blocks. Wind whistled through most windows and swirled dust to coat thick cobwebs festooning the dim passageways. Only the innermost rooms were livable...barely.

Still the castle's shambled condition was preferred to the damp mist churning around the bramble-choked courtyard. Pitiful blazes in three blackened fireplaces were better than the Dark Lord's army being chilled to the bone.

Even in a forsaken chamber set off to itself, where the wind moaned with disembodied voices and shadows danced with forlorn spirits that would not or could not leave, Treize Khushrenada found a strange brand of solace.

The exiled General lay on his back under a double layer of blankets. Partly concealed beneath the rumpled coverings, a naked man-child was draped over his Master's bare chest in post-copulated slumber.

Gazing at the spectral pictures projected on the ceiling by orange flickering flames, Treize stroked the young boy's honey blond hair and fantasized that it was a river of Zechs' silky, platinum hair flowing over his body.

He closed his eyes and imagined it was Zechs' weight resting on his chest, it was Zechs' breath tickling his nipple and Zechs' ear pressed over his heart.

Treize's fingers curled tighter in the boy's hair as the memory of his lover lying on satin sheets, his creamy skin glowing in the firelight and his lean legs spread wide in an invitation for a night of passion caused the Lord's manhood to throb against the lad's thigh.

"Wake up." Treize ordered with a shake sufficient to rouse the sated boy.

A sigh. The rush of expelled air tingled across Treize's chest.

Another shake. The lad's eyes opened. He fixed a drowsy gaze with his Master's icy orbs then wrinkled his nose as Treize's wine-sour breath hit his face.

"What?"

"My cock needs attention."

"Again?"

Treize was quickly losing patience with the lad's cheeky attitude. "As often as I wish." he growled before grabbing a fistful of hair and redirecting the youth's sight to his quivering erection.

Knowing from previous experience that it was wiser to comply than risk a beating, the boy sat up and wriggled free from the restrictive blankets. "Want to take me on my back or from behind?"

Treize considered his options then decided he was too comfortable to busy himself with fucking. "Just suck me off." he instructed, pushing the blankets down to allow the lad unhindered access.

With an ease gained from much practice, the boy snaked his tongue down the engorged length then back up to tease the tip. Down then back again until Treize cursed and thrust his hips in an insistent manner.

A cunning smile curved up the boy's mouth. "You might be my Master." he hissed under his breath, "but you're a slave to my talents."

With the boastful declaration the boy moistened his lips, tunneled them around Treize's manhood and set about to transport the Dark Lord of Aragon further into his realm of madness.

******

In measured degrees the blazing "Eye of Heaven" slipped from view.

Purple shadows lengthened to match the sun's descent. Residual heat rippled across the hazy landscape. Wavy mirages shimmered above the ground. A bright corona rested momentarily on the junction of horizon and sky then, with a final burst of fiery radiance, sunset melted into twilight.

Thin stripes of steel-gray clouds chased the fleeting daylight. In that elusive instant when color turns to black and white, as stars blinked out one by one, night's ebony curtain became studded with a thousand pinpoints of twinkling light. The crescent moon slipped free from dusk's embrace and lent her silvery luster to aid the angels in their flight.

To the west, the towering mountain peak cast a reddish glow against the gathering darkness. Subterranean vibrations quaked through the sandy soil to confirm that the volcanic giant was very much alive.

Deserted by the sun's warmth, the air cooled rapidly. The wind shifted directions, blowing away from Boar Bog. Purified of some toxicity, the cleaner air was better accommodated by the lungs and eyes.

Ringed around the warrior's campsite, stunted trees huddled together as if to ward off the cold. There were no nocturnal calls, no crickets or the haunting hoots of an owl.

As far as anyone could see, nothing moved about outside the firelight's limited scope. It seemed that the five visitors to this unholy land were the only living creatures but that was just as well.

The last of the provisions, supplemented by wild raspberries, were eaten without conversation. The quinque was travel sore and totally depleted of energy. Even in their harsh and hostile surroundings, sleep would be welcomed like a friend and their security would be assigned to the Fates or whatever deity took pity on the weary band of sojourners.

Wufei made his bed near the horses. The Priest and his fair lover retired amongst a clump of saplings in hopes of privacy.

After the Tracker offered two heartfelt apologizes for his prior lack of control and after Duo twice gave his pardon, Heero surrendered to exhaustion. Duo tucked the Tracker's cloak snuggly around Heero's shoulders then curled up in his own blanket next to his penitent friend.

The fresher breeze scrambled the moon-kissed clouds causing them to play hide and seek with the stars. Duo searched the astral luminaries for familiar constellations, something to center him in this strange place.

Duo smiled as he remembered the night in Twilight when he and Heero studied the stars. He had pointed out the Pleiades and told the story about the seven daughters of Atlas.

That late evening hour was the first time Duo realized he was drawn to the Demon Tracker. Lying in the cool grass, sharing the stars, Heero was no longer a Lone Hunter destined for a solitary life but a man meant to complete the Warriors of the Rose, fight along side his comrades and perhaps share more than the stars with Duo.

Duo lifted his finger and traced the Big Dipper then followed the pointer stars in the Dipper's bowl to the North Star.

"A traveler can always find his way." he stated, "tapping" the brilliant white light.

As the clouds retreated and glimmers of moonlight caressed Heero's face, Duo wondered aloud. "Did the stars guide us to each other?"

******

Midmorning. Six miles from the last vestige of civilization before reaching the River of Souls.

Trowa took the point, guiding his horse along the seldom-traveled path. The remainder of the brotherhood followed single file with Wufei acting as rearguard.

Since no suitable bathing spot had been found at camp, the Tracker inquired, "Is there a bathhouse in Hamptonshire?"

Duo shrugged then pulled his frayed braid over his shoulder to inspect its disheveled condition. "If there's not I'll never get a comb through these damn tangles."

Trowa shifted in his saddle to look back at his unkempt companions. "I promise baths, clean garments, hot food and comfortable beds."

"And wine." Duo added with a hopeful nod of his head.

Trowa offered a rare grin to the optimistic Irishman."Yes wine."

Wufei snorted. "Can you promise the River of Soul will be as hospitable?"

"I make no promises where the river is concerned."

******

The trail blended into a grassy meadow profusely strewn with delicate flowers. Rainbow blossoms in shades of yellow, red, blue and violet that were clustered on long stems swayed in time with the breeze. Butterflies flitted among white daisies and orange poppies. Sparrows twittered as they searched for seeds.

Unfortunately, when Wufei found himself downwind, he discovered the flower-mingled fragrances did little to diminish his comrade's less-than-aromatic scents. But the Chinese warrior kept any comments concerning the ripe odors in check knowing that he, too, didn't smell like a field of honeysuckle.

Three hundred yards ahead. The eight-foot wall made of sturdy wooden poles secured by long spikes that encircled the remote hamlet of Hamptonshire appeared to sprout from the ground.

Double wooden gates, constructed in the same manner as the wall and reinforced with bands of iron, protected the main entrance. A single back gate served as an escape route into the dense forest dotted with caves.

Thin columns of gray smoke drifting into the azure sky were the only proof that the Shire was inhabited.

At Trowa's order everyone dismounted and slowed their pace.

Studying the impressive height of the tightly fastened gates, Wufei commented with a hint of skepticism. "There doesn't seem to be a reception delegation."

Heero squinted in the bright sun. "We may not be welcomed."

Always positive, Duo replied. "Of course we'll be welcomed, we're travelin' with the Priest of Twilight."

A hundred yards. Fifty yards.

Heero loaded his crossbow but pointed the shaft toward the ground in a defensive position. The quiver was repositioned on his shoulder for swift arrow retrieval.

Twenty yards.

Wufei kept his sword parallel to his leg in a non-threatening posture but never lessened his alertness.

Movement atop the wall caught Wufei's attention. "Archers." he whispered to Heero. "Two left of the gate, three right."

Cutting his eyes at the longbows aimed between the pointed poles, the Tracker confirmed he understood as he discretely lifted his crossbow to rest on his hip and slid his finger over the trigger set.

The shrill groan of hinges briefly proceeded one gate opening halfway.

Silence.

Trowa angled the Staff of the Rose across his chest. Quatre and Duo moved nearer to the Priest and, judging by their ready stances, they were also primed for action.

A shadow stretched from just outside the gate then a man stepped around the wooden barrier.

Sunlight glinted off a broadsword's polished blade but the weapon didn't appear to be brandish in a threatening way. However the two men carrying crossbows that followed close behind gave the impression they were not as easygoing.

As the Hamptonshire trio narrowed the gap more details concerning the lead man's appearance were revealed. Coarse auburn hair, much darker than Duo's cinnamon tresses, curtained the man's face. Thick bangs veiled deep-set green eyes that reflected limited light.

A ginger mustache sheltered full lips while high cheekbones and a strong jaw line supported an equally heavy beard in the same rich reddish hues that was woven into a braid.

The man was every inch as tall as Trowa. A plain cotton shirt with flared sleeves fit snuggly over a muscular chest and broad shoulders. A wide leather belt defined his trim waistline. A red and gold tartan kilt was draped over slim hips and knee-high animal skin boots protected well-developed legs.

Heero guessed that the man was at least thirty years old but the abundance of facial hair made it difficult to determine an exact age. One thing was certain---the mystery male moved with the predatory grace of a hunter and displayed the unmistakable confidence of an experienced soldier.

The Tracker and the veiled Beast exchanged subtle glances then allowed battle-taut muscles to relax but only a bit. Flanking the Twilight Priest, Duo and Quatre were also not comfortable enough to let their guard down completely.

On the other hand, Trowa didn't have any such doubts. The staff was lowered and held loosely in his right hand as he swept passed the watchful Manipulator and Duel Spirit.

With a smile brightening his face, Trowa embrace his friend. "William McClure, how in the hell are you?"

Will, as his Clan called him, sheathed his sword, grabbed Trowa's shoulders with beefy hands and held him at arm's length. "Ya haven't changed ya old devil." he stated before giving Trowa a playful slap on the arm. "Sorry for the harsh greetin' but I wasn't sure it was ya at first."

Will signaled to the archers who, in the blink of an eye, vanished as if they were never there. The backup pair armed with crossbows eased the tension on the bowstrings, removed the steel-tipped bolts and returned them to pouches hanging from their belts.

The Chieftain of Clan McClure took a minute to consider Trowa's comrades."I heard rumors the Priest had left Twilight and he was keepin' odd company." he grinned then waved a hand for emphasis at the assorted warriors who weren't sure if "odd" was a descriptive adjective or a rude remark.

Trowa took a quick survey of his friends. "I wouldn't call them odd...perhaps... unique is a more fitting description. Let me make the introductions. This is William Robert McClure. His descendants have claimed this land for nigh two hundred years."

As soon as Will saw how Trowa looked at Quatre, he declared. "Ya can't hide a lover's gaze. This one has to be Quatre."

"Nice to meet you." Quatre replied, holding out his hand.

Duo was quite happy to meet someone akin to his background."I'm Duo of County Maxwell."

Trowa gestured to the Lone Wolf. "Chang Wufei."

Wufei bowed politely but didn't offer his hand.

The final Warrior of the Rose, although not recognized by face or name, was well known by reputation. "Ah yes, the Demon Tracker." Will responded with a firm handshake. "Tis an honor indeed to meet ya, Heero Yuy."

Along the southern skyline, clouds trimmed gray around the edges bloomed in high banks above the horizon. The breeze turned gusty, the trees shivered and the distinct smell of moisture saturated the air.

"Looks like the weather is about to turn." Will observed. "Let's get inside before the sky breaks loose."

******

A wide dirt street divided twenty structures laid out in a semi-circle pattern. Whether used for trade or homes, all buildings, save the modest stone church with a golden cross adorning the bell tower, were framed from rough-hewn planks and roofed with thatch.

On the left, the blacksmith shop and stables sat beside the butcher. Communal gardens and one of two wells that supplied fresh water set on the right. A boardinghouse owned by Angus and Molly Godfrey sheltered the occasional visitor.

The largest building housed the Swam and Dove Tavern that offered liquid refreshment and served as a banquet hall for celebrations or a meetinghouse when disputes needed to be mediated.

At the far end of the village, houses were grouped around the second well. Pig pens and small sheds for sheep, goats and milk cows took up the remaining acreage.

The horses were left in a stable hand's care. The remainder of the journey would be a short trek on foot to the River of Souls, then by boat to Deep World where again walking would be the only choice.

Villagers paused in their daily routine to scrutinize the new faces in their midst and express their opinions in whispered comments. Children peeked around their mothers or peered from doorways to point and giggle.

The majority of the older males were conspicuous in their absence. Will explained the men were either hunting or on patrol but all would be present that evening at a supper in honor of the Warriors of the Rose.

A pack of mongrels barked and tagged along behind Will and his strangers. The alpha male, a lanky Deerhound with a shaggy dappled gray coat, tattered ears and battle-scarred muzzle, sniffled at Wufei and immediately perceived the Breast's wild nature.

Hair bristled along the dog's spine, lips curled back to bare teeth and a menacing growl rumbled through his throat.

"Be careful of that one, he has a mean disposition." Will warned, curling his fingers around his sword's hilt.

Wufei pivoted in place and locked his black eyes on the aggressive dog. "There's no need to fight. You and I are one in the same."

At first it seemed the Deerhound would stand his ground. But with Wufei's piercing sight in force and tempered by his voice's soothing influence, the growl was replaced by a whimper.

Displaying a subservient posture, head hung low and tail tuck between his legs, the now calmer canine nuzzled Wufei's hand then allowed the veiled Beast to scratched behind his ear.

"Well I'll be damned!" Will exclaimed with a baffled shake of his head.

Trowa smiled at his friend's astonishment. "Wufei has a way with animals." was all the explanation he offered.

Further down the street, a girl about five or six with flaxen curls framing her angelic face, tilted her head to examine Duo's braid. When the Irishman took notice, the lass offered a shy smile.

"Is that real?" she inquired about the unusual hairstyle.

"What's your name?"

"Colleen."

Duo braced his hands on his knees, leaned down until he was eye to eye with the inquisitive child and held out his braid for a better look.

"Yes Colleen, its real. You can touch it if you want to."

Colleen took a tentative step then stared at the long rope of hair as if it was three snakes entwined together. An index finger was extended, cautious but steady, a quick brush and the finger retreated back into a petite fist.

"Ohhhh." was voiced in delight.

Uncle Will glanced at the gathering storm clouds then patted his niece's head. "Best be gettin' home lassie, ya know sugar melts in the rain."

******

"The room might be a bit cramped." Will stated as he used the key Molly Godfrey had given him to unlocked the first door on the right.

Opposite the door, the window shutters were latched but thin lines of light streaming through the slats brightened the room enough to keep from bumping into the sparse furnishings.

Four beds, each with a straw mattress covered by a feather tick, sheet and blanket, took up most of the floor space. A washstand with three drawers held a glazed stone bowl, a matching pitcher and a stack of nearly folded unbleached cotton towels. A cedar wardrobe provided storage for the guests' property.

Trowa propped the Staff of the Rose against the wall. The ruby stone in its center ring cast a red reflection across his face. "Thank you, the room will be fine."

"Five bodies and four beds." Will observed. "That'll mean some doublin' up." With a sassy wink directed at Trowa and Quatre, he added. "But I'm guessin' that won't be a problem where you're concerned. Get settled in then come out back to the bathhouse and soak your bones."

Instead of individual tubs for bathing a large tin-lined square sunk into the bathhouse floor offered the quinque amply opportunity to stretch out in the steamy water.

As sizeable raindrops plopped on the roof, cakes of lavender scented soap dissolved layers of grit and sweat and eliminated the "horsy smell". Two bottles of herbal shampoo were also shared with greedy abandon.

With stealthy stolen glances, Duo took pleasure in watching water trickle over Heero's chest, splash over his stomach and, although the rippling waves distorted his view of the Tracker's impressive genitalia, Duo was still treated to an enjoyable sight.

Unbeknownst to Duo, Heero was doing some spying of his own. He studied with delight how the lamplight glowed on Duo's velvety skin, marveled at how his freshly shampooed hair shimmered as if it was embellished with dazzling rubies.

The Irishman's lower anatomy was just as appreciated. In fact Heero found every aspect of the Duel Spirit quite alluring, so much so that he was forced to bend his knees to hide his spontaneous erection.

The stimulated Tracker was trying to figure a way to get out of the bath without exposing the evidence of his...ah...reaction, when Trowa's voice broke his concentration. "We need to get ready for supper, wouldn't want to be rude by arriving late."

"Right...wouldn't want to be...late." Heero concurred as he reached for a towel.

******

The Swam and Dove played host to the entire hamlet of forty-three people.

Wooden tables had been pushed end to end to form two long rows bordered by wooden benches. A full blaze in the oversized fireplace and numerous candles lent a diffused glow to soften the room's stark wood paneling and wide plank floors.

The aroma of roasting meat whetted the appetite. Abundant bottles of wine and two kegs of ale promised to satisfy the thirst. Men and women mingled amid the hum of conversation. Children wandered among the grownups or played a game of fox and geese in the expansive dining hall.

The Guests of Honor, dressed in borrowed garments until their clothes could be washed, were greeted warmly then saluted with a toast that ended in a rousing cheer of "Hurrah!"

Over a meal of butter-braised pork, a chucky stew of potatoes, carrots and onions in cream sauce, thick slices of wheat bread and cups of fermented brew, the citizens traded stories, engaged in gossip and stated their views on everything from the weather to their satisfaction with the lambing season.

Heero, Wufei and Trowa debated strategy and battle tactics with Will and his middle brother, Colin, a widower who was Colleen's father and his younger brother, Connor, who had not yet taken a wife.

Further down the table, Quatre conversed about herbal remedies and natural cures with the village physician.

After the sumptuous supper, Duo sat on the floor, gathered the children around him and entertained them with shadow puppets and tales of dragons and trolls and witches and men who transform into birds of prey.

Hours drifted toward midnight. Candles melted away, fireplace flames withered and embers began to cool. In groups, in pairs, by families or one by one the inhabitants of Hamptonshire slipped into the night and deserted the Swam and Dove for home and bed.

Will and his brothers bade Heero, Duo, Wufei, Quatre and Trowa a fond goodnight and wished them pleasant dreams.

The rain had stopped but a chilly mist lingered. Wufei wandered ahead. Hand in hand Quatre and Trowa lagged behind their comrades.

Having imbibed a bit too much wine, Duo was unusually quiet. Twice Heero grasped Duo's arm to steady him then slid his arm around Duo's waist to see him safely back to their temporary residence.

"Sometimes I wish..."Duo began then interrupted the sentence with a sigh.

Heero leaned closer to study Duo's face but couldn't decipher his expression. "Wish what?"

"That I had somewhere to settle down. Maybe, once Khushrenada is put in his place, maybe when we get back to Twilight." Duo rubbed his eyes, another sigh. "But right now I'm sleepy." he declared leaning into Heero's embrace.

******

A nighthawk took flight. One pale beam of moonlight sliced through the clouds.

The Manipulator and the Priest slept side by side. Wufei claimed the bed nearest the door, altered to his true form and curled up on the blanket with his nose resting on his paws.

Duo stripped down to his shirt and breechcloth, slipped between the feather tick and sheet and drifted off as soon as his head hit the pillow.

In the remaining bed, Heero closed his eyes but slumber didn't come as easily.

Duo's wish for a permanent home and a stable life weighted heavily on Heero's mind. Quatre and Trowa had Twilight. Wufei had his pack. Even the Demon Tracker had a family waiting for his return but Duo was alone.

"It will not be so."Heero swore on his heart and soul. "By all that's holy, I make an oath. If I survive the upcoming battle Duo will not be abandoned."
 
 

Part Twenty-nine:

"There it is." Trowa announced with a tilt of his head.

On a wide expanse of water-polished pebbles, the Cleric, the Manipulator, the Duel Spirit, the Beast and the Demon Tracker stood shoulder to shoulder beside a crude wooden boat and surveyed their last barrier before reaching Deep World.

The River of Souls slithered like a glistening snake sandwiched between sheer granite cliffs that cast cold shadows over the Warriors of the Rose. Keeping true to its serpentine configuration, the river twisted left then right then disappeared around a rocky bend.

Along the river's swallow banks black water lapped smoothly but the deeper, boulder-strewn center channel was deceptively swift. Strong undercurrents churned up frothy white foam, created sucking whirlpools and put the quinque on notice that navigating the hazardous waterway would require all their skill and a generous portion of luck.

Canvas bags, waterproofed with pine pitch to keep personal belongings and various weapons dry, were secured on board. Wufei and Quatre grabbed a rope attached to the boat's bow, tugged until the water buoyed the simple craft then jumped in to sit in front of Heero.

Duo planted one boot on the bank, braced his hands on the stern section, pushed and slid his leg over the side.

As the boat rocked in a side to side motion, Duo settled beside Heero. He gazed up the vertical rock walls then mentally measured the gap that appeared too narrow to pass through.

"I guess Trowa knows what he's doin'." he stated lowly so the Twilight Priest wouldn't hear.

Heero followed his comrade's line of sight, shrugged in a non-committed manner and offered no opinion on the Trowa's waterman qualifications.

Muscles bulged as Trowa angled the rudder to turn the boat downstream then his arms relaxed when the current took over. "Ready?" Receiving positive nods he ordered, "Steady the oars. Stay to the right and watch for slipstreams."

The boat picked up speed. Trowa steeled his nerve and silently recited a prayer of protection he'd learned as a boy.

******

Odin stopped at the top of nineteen stone steps leading to Eagle Eyre's parapets. He raised a hand; first to mop his damp forehead then to shield his eyes when the sun slipped free from billowing clouds that looked like dandelion tufts.

The steep climb had cramped Odin's crippled leg and left him wheezing but it was hesitation that kept him in place just inside the moss encrusted portico. Directly ahead, framed by a fusion of light and shadows, Treize Khushrenada rested his forearms on the castle's crumbling breastworks.

Earlier that morning Treize had emerged from his bedchamber in a sullen mood. The exiled General had aimed acidic glares, shrieked foul oaths and used physical intimidation to display his displeasure with the world.

With a brooding posture, he slumped over a breakfast of oat porridge washed down with wine and alternated between grumbling under his breath and fondling the handsome man-child who was the newest whore to curry his master's favor.

Now still as a statue, with his cloak rippling across his shoulders, it wasn't clear if the Dark Lord's gaze was focused on the downy clouds or on three black vultures soaring in lazy circles. It was just a likely he was held spellbound by delusional visions spawned from his deranged grasp of reality.

Sensing his rooftop sanctuary had been invaded, Treize growled. "Who is it?"

"Odin, sire."

Not a muscle twitched. "What do you want?"

Odin swallowed to dislodge the lump in his throat and tested his voice before answering. "The Shadow Spy has returned."

Treize straightened slightly but didn't turn around. "Does he have news of the quinque?"

"Yes, sire.

"Tell him to wait in the Great Hall."

Hopeful that his descending trek would be easier on his leg and his lungs, Odin started off with hobbled strides to deliver the Dark Lord's orders.

Buffeted by the wind howling across the ramparts, Treize's cloak flared out like black wings as he pivoted in place. "Do you believe in fate?"

Odin took a moment to consider the peculiar question. "I'm certain external powers influence our lives but whether fate is the deciding factor...well...I'm not that wise."

******

Drenched and exhausted, Trowa struggled to steer in the erratic currents. Muscles burning and hearts hammering, Quatre and Duo rowed while Heero and Wufei back paddled then the oarsmen's roles were reversed to prevent a collision with the cliff's craggy sides.

The river hissed lending credence that the warriors were indeed riding along a fluid serpent's spine. Boulders blurred into gray masses. Without warning the bow thrust into the turbulent torrents.

Wufei braced against the deluge that threatened to swamp the boat but he was no match for the powerful surge. The oar twisted in his hand, his body followed suit.

Suddenly his was tumbling towards the swirling water with nothing to grab onto but empty air.

Heero's oar struck the hull with a thud. Just as Wufei pitched forward, Heero's fingers managed to snag Wufei's shirt but the momentum continued to drag both the Beast and the Demon Hunter overboard.

"Dammit!" Duo yelled as his comrades plunged headfirst towards the raging rapids.

All Duo had time to do was wrap one arm around Heero's waist and tackle the Tracker. Duo gritted his teeth and tugged. Inch by inch, with the boat bucking and the blood-rush humming in his ears, he hauled Heero back from the brink of disaster. In turn, Wufei was also spared being bashed on the rocks and spending eternity in a watery grave.

The salvaged survivors and their champion sprawled at Quatre's feet in a tangled heap of arms and legs. While Heero was offered an enticing view of Duo's trim buttocks; the Duel Spirit's braid peeked out from under Wufei's chin.

For a moment the treacherous trip and the likelihood of physical harm was forgotten. The trio's attention was temporarily occupied with regulating labored breathing, reducing the panicked heartbeats pounding against their ribs and staving off the sturdy shivers created by the being soaked to the bone.

However, Quatre wasn't free to indulge in a gradual regaining of his physical fitness. With a declaration liberally saturated with swearing, he reminded his counterparts that he was the only person keeping their sorry asses afloat.

Additional incentive for a speedy recovery was encouraged when Trowa announced loudly. "THE RIVER IS REVERSING!"

Duo raised up. A shallow breath hitched in his chest. "Merciful saints."

Wufei unraveled himself from his fellow warriors and scrambled to his knees. Heero sat up and was equally stunned at the sight before him.

The River of Souls was racing, with gut-wrenching speed, at a barrier of stone so high it vanished into the mist-shrouded sky. Even more frightening, the river appeared to run out of space as it slammed into the wall with such force the backwash produced a powerful undertow.

A deep rumble like a thousand thunderclaps reverberated off the walls. The boat slipped sideways then rotated so the rudder butted against the current which effectively negated its control.

In the back of Duo's mind he knew that Trowa and Quatre had made several journeys to Deep World and he knew, from their presences, they had somehow outsmarted the River of Souls.

But as the boat wanted to spin and the rudder was useless, he had to wonder what quirk of fate had intervened on previous trips. Perhaps Quatre had bartered with nature or Trowa had bargained with the devil. Or maybe this entire adventure was a dream and he would wake up unscathed but somehow Duo doubted that was true.

Heero and Wufei must have been experiencing similar skepticism concerning their chances of survival. They stared ahead, gawked wide-eyed with an indescribable expression fixed on their faces. Neither man made a move to take up the oars nor did they act as though their brains were in any way communicating with their bodies.

What Trowa did next was utterly stupefying. He made his way to Quatre who was crouched between the seats then he and Quatre laid down and curled up in each other's arms.

"Join us!"

The words were not an invitation but an order issued with the utmost importance. Then contrary to the urgent inflection in Trowa's voice, the Twilight Priest and his lover closed their eyes as if they were settling down to sleep.

Duo, Heero and Wufei exchanged curious glances. Finally Duo figured he and his comrades were running out of time and he reckoned he'd take the chance that Trowa wasn't daft or if he was, he was crazy like a fox.

Five bodies lay down. Five souls united in trust, and in that mutual conviction, the quinque shared an instinctive connection that everything would be all right.

Heero intertwined his fingers with Duo's fingers and whispered. "We'll face this together."

"I'll never leave you." Duo pledged then copied his friends and closed his eyes.

******

The Shadow Spy hovered above the floor in a vaporous configuration designed to mimic human contours.

Odin sat by the fire, lame leg stretched out in hopes that the heat would ease its aching. He wasn't at all comfortable with the phantasmic representation that didn't cast a reflection or leave footprints nor did he trust Septum who was pacing by the soot-clouded window.

Hinges groaned. Heavy wooden doors opened into the Great Hall. The Dark Lord of Aragon cut his eyes at Odin then centered the icy blue orbs on his wispy agent.

"Report."

A mouth mismatched to the words announced. "The quinque has reached the River of Souls."

Treize rubbed his chin, his fingertips scratching over a two-day growth of stubble. "Will they reached Deep World or be dashed against the cliffs?" he asked, not that the Spy's opinion mattered.

"The Priest and the Manipulator have made the journey before and they have always tamed the river."

Treize redirected his attention to where Septum leaned his shoulder against the wall, arms folded across his chest. "It will take too long to secure enough boats," Treize declared as he mentally calculated the troop numbers, "The western passage is the only reasonable route."

Septum couldn't argue with the logistical problems of moving an army from Point A to Point B., especially when the Soulless Slaves had to be herded like cattle.

"The western passage will take longer but I suppose we have no other alternative."

The Dark Lord flopped down in a chair upholstered in faded red satin. "The Priest and his impotent companions won't be inclined to leave Deep World." Sadness flickered over Treize's eyes."After all they adore Zechs."

******

Duo let out a breath he didn't realize he was holding. Eyes still shut tight, he tried to make sense of his circumstances.

Violent shudders had given way to a gentle bobbing sensation. A soft sloshing sound had replaced the roar of angry water and the shrill creaking of overstressed wood.

Cautiously opening his eyes, Duo gazed into a sea of cobalt blue. "What in the hell happened?"

"I'm not sure." Heero answered honestly.

Behind the puzzled pair, Wufei moaned then, with calculated movements, sat up to surveyed his surroundings.

The boat was drifting towards a natural archway Wufei estimated to be fifty feet tall at its apex. Cursing in Chinese, he craned his neck at the yawning breach that was not only consuming the water but the sunlight as well.

Trowa and Quatre unlaced their embrace and eased up to confirm that they exactly where they should be.

"We've arrived." Trowa announced with a smile that bordered on being cocky.

Crossing the cavernous threshold of Deep World the boat bearing the Warriors of the Rose was enveloped by murky gloom that left no trace their passing.
 
 

Part Thirty:

Two miles into Deep World.

Dusky gloom shrouded the battered boat but, instead of drifting in darkness, the quinque was washed over in pale amber light that had no visible source.

The phantom radiance didn't flicker like firelight or produce any heat to counter the cavern's chilly currents but it was bright enough to cause an eerie intermingling of light and shadows to dance over the pitted walls. It also illuminated the ceiling, which saved skulls from bumping into low sections or being bashed by stalactites.

A limestone shelf served as a makeshift dock. Trowa threaded the bow rope through a rusty ring fixed on an iron stake and tied off a hitch knot.

Black water sloshing against the boat's sides was the only sound as the assorted warriors gathered their meager belongings and stepped out of the moored craft.

Heero secured his cloak and hung the quiver over his left shoulder; his crossbow took its place against his right hip. Quatre and Duo took up bags and bedrolls and readied themselves for the final leg of their arduous journey.

Wufei secured his sheathed sword to his belt then tucked stray strands of ebony hair behind his ears. "I don't suppose you can explain this odd light?" he directed the question to Trowa.

The Cleric, his skin tinted a sickly color, admitted to the curious Beast. "I don't know everything."

Duo offered an explanation as good as any. "Tis magic."

Trowa tapped the Staff of the Rose on the ledge. The ruby stone fashioned into a rose fitted in the center ring shone crimson. "Now we walk."

******

The path narrowed and curved to the left. Promptly the gloom filled in and erased all proof of the travelers' passing.

Footing was adequate considering the abundant moisture. Like smooth mirrors, puddles reflected the amber light. Water trickled over thick moss and traced slimy tracks through green algae.

Constant dripping plopped on hair, dampened shoulders and hefty droplets ran down collars much to the quinque's dismay.

The trespassers into this peculiar place soon discovered they were not alone. Dim fissures provided shelter for colonies of hard-shell brown beetles. Emerald bugs with gauzy wings flittered in and out of countless cracks and crevices.

Beady-eyed gray rats, bristled hair covering their slender bodies except for their bare four-inch long tails, scurried in all directions. Suspended from the honeycombed ceiling, black bats fluttered and squeaked at the intrusive strangers.

In fact, judging by the flurry of activity, one could only guess as to the number of subterranean residents dwelling in the cavity-laced world.

Once when Duo sidestepped a puddle he braced his hand on the wall for balance. A chunk of rock about the size of his fist pulled free, bounced twice then rolled until it stopped by his boots.

After the Irishman vanished from sight and the echo of his footsteps faded, the "rock" opened its eyes, raised up on spindly legs, darted across the path then scaled the opposite wall where it once again disguised itself in stony camouflage.

The underground labyrinth continued to twist and turn, to widen then narrow. At one point the passage forked. With the Staff's crimson gleam appearing to float beside his head, Trowa didn't alter his stride as he veered to the right. Quatre followed his lover without hesitation.

It occurred to the Tracker, that without expert guidance, how easily he and his fellow warriors could become lost in the intricate maze of tunnels.

Heero glanced back, passed Wufei and Duo who were craning their necks at wings flapping overhead, then looked forward with no clue as to the correct way to go."What would we do if something happened to you and Quatre?"

The Twilight Priest pivoted to face his concerned comrade. "Your cross knows the way. Trust it and your instincts." he offered his wise counsel.

******

Moving further into the heart of Deep World, natural laws that governed the surface regions no longer applied. Many organisms functioned without ever seeing sunlight, some without seeing at all having long ago evolved into sightless creatures.

Air lacked the outer wind's fresh vigor. Currents flowed in halts and starts, heavy and dank, saturated with the scent of forgotten time. Minus the solar rays, cold oozed from every inch. It embraced the warriors, seeped into soles of boots and through trousers, shirts and cloaks.

No one said it out loud but if the amber light they clung to was extinguished, if they were suddenly plunged into eternal icy midnight then madness would surely follow.

Single file the Priest, the Manipulator, the Duel Spirit, the Beast and the Demon Hunter trudged on.

The Brotherhood had traveled since early morning with only brief stops to catch their breaths. Breakfast was but a memory and they had packed no food. Adding to their misery, their water rations were almost depleted.

Legs heavy, stomach grumbling and throat dry, Duo stepped up between Quatre and Trowa. "I'm not one to nag," he prefaced his statement, "but this journey is draggin' on a bit longer than I..." he looked pleadingly at Heero and Wufei hoping to garner their support "ah...we expected."

Quatre offered an understanding smile."Time is merely an illusion."

"Yeah," Duo snorted, "and I reckon the next thing ya have me believe is all this," he waved his hand for emphasis, "is a damn dream."

"It could very well be." Trowa added with a degree of seriousness that made Duo question his perception of reality.

******

"What the hell!" Heero exclaimed as he stared through a rough-cut doorway into an antechamber bathed in a new color spectrum as mottled shades of sapphire had replaced the lemony light.

Stalactites of various lengths, streaked with stripes ranging from russet to pink, hung from the room's vaulted roof. Stalagmites, shimmering like they were sprinkled with diamond dust, spiked up from the floor.

A waterfall cascaded into a aquamarine pool ringed with iridescent mineral deposits that was home to long, slender shapes, that might or might not be fish.

But the most bizarre environmental alteration was that the walls continually shifted in contour and design.

Wufei squinted at the ever-changing patterns and wondered if his senses had finally succumbed to his perverted surroundings. At the risk of sounding daft, he asked, "Are the walls moving?"

Quatre pointed at a particularly active spot. "The walls are covered with thousands of Cerulean Beetles that produce blue light. The younger the beetle, the deeper the color. When they move around they make pretty pictures."

As the image of five blue-tinted skeletons with bones picked clean and vacant holes where eyes used to be flickered through Duo's mind, a shiver slinked up his spine. "I hope those creepy-crawlers don't eat meat."

Trowa made no effort to hide his amusement at the Irishman's fear of becoming the creepy-crawlers' feast. "They're harmless but they will hiss if you touch them."

******

Large smooth stones, their edge to edge alignment proof that man not nature had a hand in their precise placement, flanked the final passage leading to the Temple of Deep World.

Six ten-foot crosses, three set on either side where the path broadened considerably, were also evidence of human intervention. Each cross was carved from flawless white marble and was etched with interwoven leafy vines bedecked with hundreds of roses in various stages of blooming.

Heero paused to examine one holy icon. His hand hovered over the detailed engravings, an index finger poised to stroke the delicate blossoms. But when his fingertip touched the cool, ashen stone, a painful prick caused him to yelp and jerk back his hand.

The Tracker held up his finger and watched in stunned silence as a lone drop of blood leaked from a pinpoint puncture. "What...happened?" he stammered from the unexpected piercing of his flesh.

"Roses have thorns."Trowa stated the fact of nature.

Heero gazed at the Twilight Priest then redirected his wide eyes to the flora that pretended to be harmless. When he looked at his finger again, four more individual drops had encircled the first.

Trowa leaned closer and studied "the four around the one". "Crimson symbolizes courage." He took Heero's hand and held it up for Quatre, Wufei and Duo to see. "Blood binds warrior's hearts and now blood will blush the roses."

With that declaration, Trowa pressed Heero's finger to a single flower. The pressure combined the drops, which started a suffusion that overspread the cross's entire surface. The scarlet stain traced lines, crept around curves and settled into the petals' veins. One by one the roses turned red but the vines remained white.

As if guided by supernatural authority, the other crosses also copied the miraculous transformation until every rose on the six stone markers was kissed with crimson.

The Lone Hunter, who believed that showing emotions was a sign of weakness, did nothing to hide the tears misting in his eyes. "Amazing." was whispered with reverent awe.

Trowa placed his hand on Heero's shoulder."You have displayed bravery in battle and have been a noble comrade. Now, Heero Yuy, you have bound the Warriors of the Rose by blood. You have purified us to join Zechs Merquise and together we will shake the foundations of Hell."

******

Four twenty-foot columns decorated with carved flowers and vines supported the impressive arch that guarded the Temple of Deep World.

Humans and animals stood out in detailed relief from the arch's polished surface. The animals included deer, bears, boars, lions and great winged horses.

Lovely women in gossamer dresses that clung to hips and teasingly exposed breasts danced with Nymphs and Fairies. Men, clad for battle with breastplates and shields, wielded swords and lances against fire-belching dragons.

However not all the forms were pleasant or heroic. Harpies hovered above a six-headed Hydra. A Minotaur wrestled with a Centaur.

One figure that stood upright like a man but had the facial features of a wolf peaked the Beast's interest. Wufei had heard stories about wolves that were cursed by the moon and, therefore, could never fully veil their true forms. He had chosen to dismiss the fanciful tales but perhaps the accounts were based on some measure of truth after all.

Beyond the graceful span, the passage formed a circle around two statures flanking a limestone tablet with scrolled edges.

A nude male demon with barbed wings and cloven hooves stood on tablet's left side. An angel with feathery wings, her modesty preserved by billowing garments, stood the right side.

Between the agents of wickedness and righteousness, ancient artisans had inscribed letters and symbols from an unknown language.

Duo tilted his head. His eyebrows drew together as he attempted to decipher the strange characters. "Not Gaelic."

"Nor Japanese." Heero confirmed.

Wufei shook his head negatively. "Could be some form of Cantonese." he supposed.

Trowa took pity on the baffled trio and translated the mysterious script. "Beware all who enter the Temple of Deep World..."

"That don't sound too friendly." Duo declared.

"Let Trowa finish." Quatre ordered with an admonishing glare sufficient to silence the Irishman.

"Beware all who enter the Temple of Deep World for the Guardians that never sleep watch the gate. Good will beget good, evil will beget evil and judgment with be absolute."

With the grave warning fixed in their minds, the Warriors of the Rose walked the last fifty yards to the Temple of Deep World.

End Part Thirty

TBC