by Casey Valhalla
Two thousand years ago, the Mage Wars wreaked havoc on the lower portions of the galaxy. Two opposing factions of the Magus Centraeli, the high ruling council, vied for power, using defenseless planets as their battlegrounds and test sites for experimental magic and the development of demonic weapons.
The results of these were the Relics, manufactured demons trained to fight the enemy faction. Though they were slow to create, their occurrence grew steadily over the ensuing decades as the war continued on.
Finally, after forty-eight years of battle, the opposing forces met and clashed on the planet Torreldaeo, wiping each other out with a final blow that left the planet's surface a permanent, charred black. The Magus Centraeli was dismantled, the war complete, and one week later the remnants of the Relics - an assembly of twenty - surrendered to the military base on Sen'Darven.
Over a period of years the planetary systems of the lower galaxy kept to themselves, rebuilding slowly in the aftermath. The Relics, for their own safety as well as that of the galaxy's human and demi-human citizens, were Bound to the bloodlines of elite clans, and became the first class of demons to be registered with inter-system governments and military, and allowed to travel freely through space.
Eventually the lower galaxy split into two separate provinces - the Outer Rim territories, an alliance of kingdoms and democracies that governed a wide arc of conservative systems; and the Modicum Freestates, a loose confederation of planets run by clan syndicates, more technologically advanced due to their proximity to the Galactic Republic, which oversaw the rest of the galaxy.
Centuries later the Interstellar Government appeared in the L quadrant of the Outer Rim, spreading slowly across the Niccon and Sonata systems to make itself known over the course of a few decades, conquering and colonizing the more primitive planets in the allied territories. Recognizing this ambition, several systems in the Outer Rim sought assistance from the Modicum, forming a network of intelligence and covert operatives with the intention of resisting the encroaching force.
Despite accusations of unfair conquest and instigation of clan and syndicate infighting in the Modicum, the ISG continued on, and the Resistance struggled to hinder their movements as the Outer Rim became less and less determined to oppose them. Although inter-system treaties were still honored, un-Bound native demons of ISG-run territories were deported to the dark cities growing on Torreldaeo, and the presence of demons and Relics became less and less tolerated in the Outer Rim as the ISG's influence grew.
Fifteen years ago, civil tension in the Modicum came to a head, and several clans were almost completely wiped out in the ensuing bloodshed. The ISG, sensing a growing weakness outside their amassed borders, stepped up their plans to rule both the Outer Rim and the Modicum.
However, two years ago the installment of a new syndicate Mandate brought a cease fire to the fighting in the Modicum.
Two weeks ago, the ISG unknowingly incriminated itself as it took dishonorable action while under the scrutiny of a Resistance-employed Relic.
And two days ago, the contrived death of the Grand Minister of an Outer Rim system brought an unexpected leader to the forefront of the dangerously outmatched Resistance.
Chapter 1: Convening on Kaji
Ignoring the persistent beeps of the ship's nav computer, a small, red-furred cat continued to twine figure-eight's around the ankles of her person, pausing occasionally to offer up a piteous meow. Unfortunately the boy sleeping ungracefully in the pilot's seat was immune to both pleading cat and incessant computer, his only reaction a soft snort and slight shift of one hand. The cat, realizing her tactics were failing, paused to stare up at her person with impatient green eyes, considering other options. Momentarily, she pretended to stalk away, then turned slowly, as if changing her mind, and leapt onto the control panel, landing precisely on one particular button-
The entire ship shuddered in one massive vibration from the over-amplified thrum of electric guitars. The figure in the pilot's seat flinched spasmodically and two bleary eyes cracked open to glare daggers at the cat poised on the console. Another well-placed paw adjusted the music to a more tolerable level.
"That was *not* funny, Yoko." 
The boy straightened in his seat and rubbed his eyes, absently patting the cat when she decided it was safe to jump into his lap and bat at the end of the golden-brown braid dangling over his shoulder. He managed to yawn and rescue his hair from overly-playful kitty claws at the same time, then squinted at the viewscreen in front of him, belatedly noticing that the ship had jumped out of hyperspace during his nap. He groaned, turning off the still-beeping nav computer, feeling the tug at the back corners of his consciousness he knew would return as soon as he was no longer sleeping and no longer traveling at light speed. Cuddling a purring Yoko to his chest, he leaned back and waved absently at the space beside his left ear. "Yeah, yeah, I know, I'm on it. Ease up already."
"Yeah, you tell him, kitty."
He hadn't thought much about coordinates when he made the hyperspace jump - having been quite a bit more concerned about the Interstellar Government cruisers tailing him - so now, perusing his surroundings with no little interest, he found himself pleasantly surprised to be in familiar territory. Specifically quadrant B of the spinward end of a cluster of systems known to locals as the Modicum. "Yoko, you and I are two lucky sons-a-bitches."
The cat growled a protest at him failing to identify her true gender, but her person studiously ignored it, as usual; his violet eyes, now wide awake and glowing faintly, scanned the screen of the nav computer and one pale, fine-boned hand reached over to punch in new coordinates. "Better get goin' before they find us, huh? The boss man wouldn't be too happy if I got myself caught by the ISG just cause I took my sweet time cruising the Outer Rim, would he?"
As though in response the tugging at the back of his awareness intensified, earning a grunt of annoyance. "Dammit, I'm going! Get off my case already!"
"*You* try dealing with this sometime, Yoko."
"Yeah, we're going to Kaji. That should make him happy, doncha think?" He paused to brush a few cat hairs off his coveralls. "But I sure as hell ain't going like this. Get your cuddles while you can, kitty, cause you won't get any after I change. Red cat hair does not look good on black fabric."
"No, it doesn't."
"Yes, I'm gonna call the Mandate first. I don't have a death wish, yanno."
The incessant tugging abruptly solidified into two consecutive, repeating, words of command.
"I'm really not in the mood to be nagged right now, boss."
"Gods of Hell - roger. Roger! I fucking get it already! Sweet Azrael, you bastard..." A few more keystrokes brought up a com screen on the viewer. He stood, depositing the cat in his seat and turned towards the ship's interior and his cabin. "Let me know when we're close enough to raise Kaji, okay?"
Yoko sat obediently, watching the screen, as her person sauntered off to change out of his scruffy coveralls and probably find himself something caffeinated. She hoped he remembered it was past her breakfast time, which was why she woke him up to begin with.
Everyone in the conference hall was arguing, and it was beginning to give the syndicate Mandate a very bad, very temper-enhancing migraine. Darting dark glares at the men surrounding the table, he tucked a few loose strands of ebony hair behind his ears and pressed his fingers to his temples. ~I am positively sick of hearing the same arguments about the ISG over and over. We know they're moving quickly through the Outer Rim and have their sights set on the Modicum. Yelling about that is not going to change things. I need contact from the Resistance, any news at all to get these people to leave me alone for a while...~ He allowed himself a sigh of relief, knowing it would evaporate immediately in the surrounding atmosphere, when his earpiece emitted a low buzz, followed by his personal secretary's voice. "Call for you, Master Chang."
"On my way, Marco. Thank you."
"What's with the background noise, sir?"
"That's just what it is. Back to work, slacker."
Chang Wufei rose from his chair at the head of the table, pausing to adjust the red sash around his waist as the ranting quieted and the syndicate Council turned one by one to register his presence. One of the younger, braver members managed to blurt out, "Mandate?"
"If you'll excuse me, I have a rather urgent call. I'm sure you can continue your personal pissing contests without me." With a smirk, he spun on one heel and strode out the enameled twin doors with a deliberate flourish, leaving the assembled Council gaping after him.
Wufei set off down the corridor with a self-satisfied gait. ~I am going to kiss whoever is on the other side of that com screen. I don't care who it is or if the message is even important, at least it got me out of that hornet's nest.~ He smiled to himself and enjoyed the vast emptiness of the halls of Dirin Roth, the palatial stronghold of his small but well-tended home planet. Kaji had been syndicate-run for generations, but he hadn't expected to take his turn at the helm so early in his young life. Wufei could handle politics and running the often-chaotic government of his homeland, but in the grand scheme of things, he would much prefer the task had fallen into other hands.
Turning finally into his own offices, he closed the door with another sigh of relief, undid the red sash and shrugged out of a long white coat. He spared a sharp but mocking glance at his secretary, who was bent over a laptop in concentration.
"Are you working or playing video games, Marco?"
Brown eyes flashed up at him, followed by a wry half-smile. "Would you believe both, sir?"
"Call's holding in your office, oh great and wise Master."
"Good. At least try to look like you're doing something useful while I'm occupied, just in case someone should wander in."
He passed by the secretary's desk and strode into his private room, closing the door and flopping ungracefully into a large leather chair before straightening and bringing up his call on the computer monitor.
A pair of green eyes blinked at him at the other end of the link, belonging to a small red cat seated in a starship's pilot chair.
Wufei leaned forward and crossed his arms over the edge of the desk, peering at the cat. "Yoko, my dear. Where is your pet person, eh?"
"Is that so?"
"Yoko!" a voice called from off-screen. "I told you to call *me* when we were in range, not *him*!"
Wufei chuckled as the slight form of a teenage boy, by all appearances no older than he himself, took over the cat's seat, comfortably clad in black slacks and a sleeveless black top, sporting a brown braid long enough to brush the backs of his knees trailing behind him, and quite literally (and uncannily) glowing purple eyes. "Still mourning the possibility that your cat is smarter than you are, Maxwell?"
"At least I was smart enough to stay out of Modicum politics. How's it going, Fei?"
"As well as could be expected from my lot in life, my dearest Duo," he deadpanned.
"Got room for an extra body in your ever-growing sphere of social distinction?"
"That depends. You're not towing hot cargo, are you?"
"Do I detect a tone of remorse?"
"It's a long story, Fei, and I'm not preaching a word of it until I'm ensconced in one of your guestrooms. So give me clearance to land already before I get a command overload and go into a coma or something."
"Ah. Trouble with your employer again?"
"If I was employed I'd be getting paid for this shit."
Wufei chuckled. "Should I inform security, or would you like to perform a surprise inspection?"
The glow in his eyes increased a notch. "Got a new crew on the job, eh?"
Wufei nodded and shared a conspiratorial smile with his friend. "See how they measure up to dealing with the likes of you."
Duo steepled his fingers and tapped them against his nose. "Excellent."
"Yep, two guards on the landing pad, standard procedure. Let's see how far we get, huh?"
Duo shrugged into a black trenchcoat and steadied Yoko on one shoulder as he descended from the spaceship, pushing a pair of dark, round glasses up his nose and wishing he was actually trying to sneak in rather than seeing how observant Wufei's clearance station was. At least the infernal nagging in the back of his head had retreated once they touched down on Kaji.
The guards returned his afternoon greeting in two different languages - both of which he understood - and flanked him as he stepped briskly into the docking station. ~Don't recognize either of these two~ Duo thought regretfully. ~I haven't been here in way too long, not since Fei had his Mandate ceremony-whatever-they-called-it, two years ago already.~ He stuffed his hands in the pockets of his trenchcoat and surveyed the security checkpoint they were rapidly approaching. Three more unfamiliar guards, two mages and an errand boy milled around a large console, two desks and a wave scanner. ~Top of the line. Not bad.~
He passed through the wave scanner easily and provided his name, the identification codes for his ship and a contact number to the guard behind the console, and found himself rather disappointed when he was released, and turned for the door with a scowl. ~They didn't even look at me funny. Fei is *not* going to be happy about this...~
"Hold it right there!"
Duo halted abruptly - he knew the commanding tone of a mage when he heard it, and could already smell magic forming in the air. ~Ohh, this is *so* not good...~
He flinched away from the intricately woven ring of white, softly glowing light that appeared on the floor around him, feeling dizzy at the mere proximity of the spell. ~That *bastard*! Man, when my boss finds out about this you are gonna be one dead wizard.~
Sighing more out of annoyance than anything, Duo lifted his hands and laced his fingers behind his head, turning slowly to face the startled guards and one angry mage. "Going a little overboard, doncha think?" ~And Holy *would* be the one spell I *can't* break...~
The mage, a middle-aged, slightly balding brown-haired man with a pinched face in a horrendously old-fashioned brown robe looked Duo over with distaste. "I am not about to let an unregistered-"
Duo snorted. "Buddy, if I was unregistered I sure as hell wouldn't be just waltzing in here under all your noses, so drop the shield already. I'm staring to get nauseous." Yoko gave the man a growl of agreement.
In response the mage made a gesture and the ring tightened around the already uncomfortably small space Duo was standing in, eliciting another flinch. He closed his eyes momentarily to concentrate on keeping his stomach in control, and when he opened them the mage was staring at him with an unchecked expression of incredulity and fear.
"You! You should be writhing in pain! You can't possibly be withstanding-"
Duo chuckled humorlessly and tilted his head down to peer at him over the glasses, his backlit violet eyes brightened further by anger. "You'd be surprised what I can withstand, buddy. And your level of skill couldn't possibly cause me that kind of discomfort."
The guards took a step back and the mage's eyes widened. "A Relic!"
"Yeah, and you all just failed your security inspection. Badly. Let me go."
The mage moved to step forward and his gaze darkened. "Where is your controller, boy?"
"Not here, obviously."
The circle tightened again, and Duo fought off another wave of vertigo. "Why not? Who is he?"
"I'm not authorized to answer that question, but he's a mite overprotective and keeps me under constant surveillance, if you want to know. I'm sure he's planning your premature death by now."
The mage's eyes flashed and the ring shrank yet again, and this time it *did* hurt - like pinpricks all over his body. Duo wished he could shrink into himself to escape the invisible walls that were slowly pressing in towards his skin - he knew, despite his earlier boasting, that if they touched him it would be pure agony.
"You will not threaten me, demon! Who is your controller?"
"If you knew, Gadrius," a familiar voice spoke up from behind him, "you'd probably soil yourself."
"Sweet Azrael," Duo whispered, letting out a breath he didn't know he'd been holding. "Wufei."
The guards immediately came to attention, and the mage, Gadrius, had the courtesy to look aghast.
"You will cease in your mistreatment of my guest immediately," Wufei replied icily.
The shield was gone before the order finished echoing across the room.
Duo slumped and rubbed the stinging sensation from his arms, casting a grateful look to the side where his friend stood, boring a cold stare into the mage. Wufei's presence - resplendent in white silk, a knee-length, duster-style coat buttoned down the front and tied at the waist with a red sash, his dark hair flying loose around a finely drawn and suntanned face - dominated the floor of the docking station. Black eyes flashed over the assembly, draining the color out of the faces of everyone present, finally coming to rest on Duo as his features relaxed into a smug half-smile. "Good to see you again, my friend."
Duo nodded, returning the smile. "Security inspection is a no-go."
"So it appears." The Mandate crossed the floor to stand face-to-face with a frightened Gadrius, directing his question to the room at large. "So, who can demonstrate the *proper* security procedures for processing a demon?"
One of the guards - a young recruit, not much older than eighteen - straightened. "Sir!"
"Danoff," Wufei nodded. "Proceed. The rest of you observe, if you please."
The guard turned to Duo and waved him toward the console. "If you'll follow me, sir."
Duo grinned and winked at Wufei as he passed, depositing Yoko into his friend's arms.
"Remove your glasses, please."
Duo complied, tucking them into a pocket of his coat, and Danoff held up a pen-sized retinal scanner while he punched a few buttons on the panel. "Props on the equipment, Wu-man."
"Glad you're satisfied," was the reply.
Danoff looked back up and trained the scanner on Duo's right eye. "Please state, for the record, your name, registration number, classification, status, security clearance level and current level of restriction."
"Duo Maxwell, registration number 0125597, demon classified. Relic of the Mage War - Eldest. Security First Class. Currently operating at restriction level 7."
The guard clicked off the scanner. "First Class? You're one lucky demon." He looked down at the monitor, then over at Wufei. "All confirmed."
"Excellent. Now, class, what does it mean-" Wufei began, but was cut off rudely by Gadrius.
"A level *seven* restriction? Is your controller *mad*?"
Wufei was about to silence the distraught mage, but Duo leveled a glowing purple stare at the man and replied venomously, "No, he simply has more respect for his fellow life forms than you do."
Gadrius cringed and nearly backed into his Mandate. "You should really know better than to make a Relic angry," Wufei said in a flat but dangerous tone, then returned to instructing the guards. "Now, who can tell me what a First Class security clearance entails?"
Danoff responded. "Security First Class permits a Bound and registered demon to move freely at will, without the accompaniment of his controller and without any obligation to provide information concerning his controller, his business, or his current level of capability; and furthermore admonishes any attempt to assault or aggressively detain said demon without reasonable cause and/or permission from his controller."
"Magus Gadrius has just broken about four inter-system regulations of the Modicum Freestates."
"Indeed." Wufei paused, as though in thought, to stroke Yoko, who was sprawled in his arms and purring contentedly. "Magus, had you not been in my good graces before now, I might not be willing to overlook this incident due to the fact that I myself sent Master Maxwell through security unannounced as a surprise inspection, which you all undoubtedly failed. As it is, you, Gadrius, will spend the next two weeks on perimeter detail, and the rest of you will study up on Modicum regulations concerning demon classifieds and prepare for an exam on the subject the next time I inspect the docking station. I advise that you inform you peers of this incident and encourage them to do the same. Master Maxwell is a friend of myself and my family, and I will not tolerate any further mistreatment of his person or his stature. As you may have noted from the processing, he is the *Eldest* Relic, and will be treated with all due respect from here on in. Do I make myself perfectly clear?"
A flurry of salutes and a chorus of, "Yes, Mandate!" preceded the speech, and Wufei turned from the flabbergasted mage to guide Duo out the door.
Sunlight poured down on a railed walkway suspended over a broad garden, a rainbow assortment of flowers turned up to catch the last of the afternoon rays. Duo stretched lazily and shrugged out of his coat, catching the collar by two fingers and trailing it over his shoulder. "Damn, Fei, you're like a *leader* and shit."
The black-haired teenager shrugged and smirked at his friend. "When I find it necessary, yes."
"What? Don't believe me?"
"Not that. He's at it again. Shoulda known he'd start up as soon as I got out of that fix."
"You're Bound to a slavedriver, my friend."
"Agh!" Duo yelped, clutching his head with both hands. "Sweet fucking Azrael, I got it! Roger!"
Wufei winced at the name. "I wish you'd find another deity to worship."
"I don't worship him, I just swear at him a lot." He shook off the reverberations of the command still lingering in the confines of his headspace and shot Wufei a look. "Anyhow, with all the formalities out of the way, we need to talk. A lot."
Wufei raised an eyebrow. "I gathered that. Where are you flying in from?"
The Mandate stopped abruptly and spun to catch Duo by the shoulders. "Tell me you weren't involved in that mess."
"You heard the news, I take it."
The braided boy shook his head and stepped out of Wufei's grasp. "Not here. We need a secure room and a few stiff drinks."
He backed off and nodded an agreement. "You're right. If you've been on the run for a while, I have some news you might not have heard, and it's rather sensitive as well. Are you hungry?"
Duo grinned and started walking again. "Look who you're asking."
"And you, Yoko?"
"Whitefish it is, then."
The path ended at a set of stairs leading down into the city proper, a stream from the gardens gurgling over the steep slope alongside them. Standing at the top, with the sunlight darkening to red-gold, one would find oneself gazing across tile-roof houses to the sprawling fortress of Dirin Roth, the polished sandstone gleaming like fire from it's elevated seat in the center of the city. Rolling wheat-colored hills lined the horizon beyond the outer walls of the metropolis, darkening against a blue sky dotted with orange-tinted clouds. Duo dropped to sit on the top stair with a delighted sigh, drinking in the afternoon-come-evening cityscape. "Perfect timing, Fei."
The Mandate leaned against the railing and let his eyes travel over the sight, releasing Yoko to take a place at her person's side. "They say my ancestors named this planet Kaji for the sunsets, you know."
Duo nodded appreciatively. "Fitting." Unfortunately his moment of peace was rudely interrupted.
The braided boy shot to his feet angrily. "FUCK YOU! IF YOU'RE THAT FUCKING CONCERNED, WHY DON'T YOU GET YOUR ASS ON A TRANSPORT AND COME SEE ME YOURSELF!"
Wufei jumped at the outburst and grabbed Duo by the arm. "Calm down. You just got out of a few extremely compromising situations. He has every right to be worried. You can call him from my office before we talk."
Duo groaned and deflated. "Yeah, okay. Sorry about-"
Duo dropped his head into his hands and rubbed his temples. "Wu-man," he said at length, "you got room for another unexpected guest?"
 "Yoko has returned, they cry..." *snickers* I couldn't help myself. Red kitty, green eyes ... Yoko Kurama. Inevitable conclusion, ne?
 Kaji = fire, conflagration. Japanese dictionaries are fun.
Confused much yet? if so tell me. I don't want people to be confused. The same with any other problems -- that's what constructive criticism is all about!