Chapter Nine: "We called him Shinigami."
by Casey Valhalla
"We are under lockdown, gentlemen!" Quatre strode through the frentic activity in the gatehouse, barking out commands. The soldiers scrambled to add extra reinforcements to the main gates and gather weapons from the barracks between the outer and inner walls. "I want the walls under full guard, every gun turret manned, and a full lineup on the front balustrades." He gestured to a knot of men making their way down the outer stairs, knowing Rashid was keeping pace with him and memorizing every word. "I want every long-range weapon in this fortress at our disposal. Ground fighting is a last resort." The Minister spun as he reached the steps, addressing the entire company with a broad sweep of his arm. "Pick off the ground forces as soon as possible. If they storm the walls, we’re sealed inside until they find a way to rip this place apart. We *cannot* afford a single casualty." Quatre paused to turn and lean close to his Captain. "Rashid! If you need me…"
"Master…?" The dark man’s face drew into a frown.
The Minister dropped his voice below the harsh rumble of soldiers preparing for battle. "I have to finish the circle. It may be our last chance. If you desperately need my assistance, keep a runner ready to summon me. Otherwise, go to Duo."
Rashid wasn’t ready to give in. "But Master…"
Quatre shook his head once, a curt dismissal. "The Relics were made for war, Captain. In my absence, *he* is your commanding officer."
The Manganac cast his Grand Minister one last pleading look, but was met only with sea-blue eyes that had turned to ice. "As you wish it, Master Quatre."
The blonde nodded and turned away sharply, continuing up the stairs. Behind him, he heard gruff shouting commence as Rashid doled out orders to the small battalion that would defend the Talmac. The anxiety dripping off of them was nearly tangible to Quatre’s heightened empathic sense, but he didn’t have time to deal with soldiers who already knew they were hopelessly outnumbered. He didn’t have time for much of anything, at this point. Not while the circle was still incomplete.
The day was fading quickly, and a cool breeze touched Quatre’s cheek as he ascended to the balustrades. The light of sunset reflected pink and orange on the spaceships hanging in the sky. Duo was already standing on the causeway, back in his black ensemble with his trenchcoat hanging loose from his shoulders. Yoko sat erect on the stone casement in front of him, and she blinked warily at the blond as he approached. Duo’s eyes were closed, but his posture was relaxed and focused. As soon as Quatre drew up next to him, the Relic held up an hand for silence.
Quatre turned his face up to the sky. The command ship had entered the atmosphere, but was little more than a sparkling dot compared to the mammoth battleships and darting rings of fighters that hovered just a few miles distant. When he looked back, Duo was grinning, and not in a pleasant way. Quatre remembered the dark glare he’d received from the demon only two days earlier, when he thought Duo was indeed a dangerous creature.
Now the Minister decided he preferred the glare to this grin. His stomach knotted and every instinct in his body screamed at him to run as the Relic’s eyes slid open, the glow flashing into a brilliant gleam.
"Orders received," Duo said in a sultry voice. "Releasing restrictions to level three."
A sudden surge of power threatened to knock Quatre off his feet. He stumbled backwards a step, and the demon turned to look directly into his eyes.
The blond found himself frozen, immobile in terror. Duo stepped towards him, closing the distance between them. Quatre’s mind reeled, his lungs straining to form a prayer, or even a scream. His muscles spasmed with the need to escape the nightmare closing in on him.
Then the demon smiled, and it was just Duo again. The sudden, irrational fear dissolved, and the Minister’s body jerked in the realization that it could move.
Duo danced away and flung his arms out, spinning in a circle, his braid and the tails of his coat twirling in his wake. A cheerful cry echoed off the limestone walls of the Talmac. "WOOOOO-HOOOO! Oh man, level three!"
Quatre had one hand to his chest, trying to regain his breath and the power to speak, and stared at the Relic in something akin to shock. Presently, the demon stopped his grandstanding and came to rest next to the befuddled boy, ruffling his blonde hair in apology. "Sorry I did that to you, kiddo, I just wanted to make sure I hadn’t lost my touch. Level three! Damn, it’s been a long time."
"Suddenly," Quatre gasped after several attempts, "I find myself extraordinarily relieved that you’re on *my* side."
Duo grinned – in a *much* more pleasant way – and leaned casually against the casement. "Think they know I’m here yet?"
"Send them a welcome basket," Quatre deadpanned, folding his arms. Duo opened his mouth, but the Minister held up a hand to stop him. "*After* we have the shield up. You won’t have much time before it’s too dark out here."
The demon shook a finger at Quatre. "No such thing as low visibility in my spectrum of sight, kid. Leave me to it. I’ll give ‘em a show they’ll never forget."
The blond raised an eyebrow and threw a look over his shoulder at the mass of spacecraft. "Should I be disturbed at how happy you are about this?"
Duo stretched his arms over his head and bounced on his toes, then rubbed his hands together and licked his lips. There was a devious glint in his backlit purple eyes when he turned his gaze back to Quatre. "Personally, I’d be more concerned about *their* well-being." Duo stepped back from the wall, planting his feet firmly shoulder-width apart, and folded his arms behind his back. "Ready when you are, Q."
Quatre blinked. "Q?"
"You prefer ‘kid’?"
Quatre shook his head.
"Q it is, then." Duo smiled and rocked back and forth on his heels impatiently. "Now, how *exactly* are we supposed to accomplish this?"
"I set the foundations," the blond explained, dredging up the spell in his mind. "You just need to feed it power. I need all my resources to complete the circle, so while I’m working I need you here, holding up the shield." He offered the demon a half-smile. "And taking down anything that gets too close for the gun turrets to hit."
"Sounds good to me!"
"Give the Manganacs direction if they need it and I’m not available." Quatre cupped his hands together, chest height, and nodded to his companion. "Step away and brace yourself."
Duo backed up several paces and pressed the sleeve of his coat against his nose. Quatre closed his eyes.
In the blond boy’s cupped hands a ball of light formed, gaining intensity bit by bit until Duo had to turn away and squeeze his eyes shut. The desert wind picked up, whirling into a maelstrom centered around Quatre’s slight figure, whipping through his hair and clothes. At the height of the storm’s power, he released the orb and flung his hands out to his sides. White light exploded to engulf the entire fortress, the spinning winds circling the outside walls, giving one final shriek—
Then, in a heartbeat, the light and wind died. The sands settled back around the Talmac, and a translucent hemisphere glimmered faintly around it.
Quatre opened his eyes to see Duo huddled against the casement. The demon’s face was buried in the crook of one arm, Yoko nestled tightly in the other. Quatre smiled softly. "Was that the wind howling, or you?"
Purple eyes peeked at him from their hiding place, darting back and forth around the balustrades. "A little of both, maybe."
The White Mage leaned against the casement to examine his handiwork, reaching out to run his fingers over the clear shell that now enclosed the fortress. The surface rippled like water at his touch, then solidified as he drew his hand away. Duo stood up and studied the shield critically, edging away from it as though it would rear up and bite him.
Quatre gave him an expectant look. "You have to touch it, Duo."
The demon stiffened. "Whoa, hold on. First you almost blow me and my cat off the fu—off the walls, and now—"
"You don’t have to check your language around me, you know." Quatre smirked.
Duo shrugged. "Just trying to show some respect for my temporary boss."
"Then do as I say."
He grumbled a bit, but set Yoko down and gingerly approached the shield. She watched the proceedings with a decidedly bemused air.
"Once you’ve fed some energy into it, the White Magic won’t have a repulsive effect anymore," Quatre offered by way of encouragement.
Duo shot him a look that said quite clearly, ‘Don’t patronize me,’ and squared his shoulders. "Here goes."
The demon touched the shield with one finger, and jumped away with a yelp after only a few seconds, shaking the offended hand. When Quatre chuckled, Duo responded with a growl. "That *hurt* you know."
"Only for a second, though, am I right?"
"Yeah, but still…"
The blond gestured to the shield, which had taken on a slightly lavender hue. "It worked. Stop making a scene."
"Oh, I’ll make a scene, all right," the demon muttered, stooping to retrieve Yoko and cuddle her defensively. "I’ll fry a few of those ships, for starters."
"Serves you right for casting Fear on me," Quatre quipped, pushing away from the wall and ambling back towards the stairs.
"Hey, I apologized!"
"And I had the courtesy to warn you beforehand." The Minister passed an idle wave over his shoulder. "Remember to keep the shield at maximum strength. Have fun!"
Duo eyed Quatre’s retreating back, then looked down at the cat, stroking her under the chin in thought. "Well, he started our guests off with a light show," he mused, turning to take in the panorama of fighters in the evening sky. "What say we follow up with some fireworks, hmm, kitty?"
"We’re receiving a transmission, sir."
Admiral Seol Runair sat at attention in the captain’s chair of the ISG’s largest command ship, tapping her fingers thoughtfully on the armrest. She kept her features set in a stern mask, indifferent, her brown eyes sharp and calculating. Her dark, graying hair was pulled back severely into a short tail at the nape of her neck, and not a single wisp escaped to frame her face. "Where is it originating from?"
The communications officer at the console to her right turned in his chair, pulling off a headset to address his commander formally. "Lieutenant Finn on Omega cruiser is relaying the signal. He says there’s someone on the fortress walls who’s trying to reach the fleet admiral."
Runair closed her hand over the armrest. On her other side something nudged her leg, and the face of a boy peered around her knees. His dark gray eyes glowed in interest. The admiral frowned. "Is it Winner?"
The officer shook his head. "No, Winner hasn’t been sighted since we arrived. Shall I bring up the visual?"
She nodded once, and the main screen blurred into static. The boy seated on the floor at her side immediately focused his attention there, turning his head so fast that his unkempt black hair swirled with the motion. Runair narrowed her eyes. Her Relic had been silent since the ship entered the atmosphere, and whatever had suddenly grasped his interest was definitely something to take note of. His usually chaotic mental processes were rarely this focused.
The boy rose to his feet slowly to get a better view, darting furtive glances at his controller to detect any note of disapproval. Loose black clothing covered his thin frame, to her eternal dismay. She had tried on several occasions to cajole him into wearing a corporal’s uniform, but he was a stubborn demon, and explosively violent when he felt threatened.
Seol Runair cursed her ancestors daily for agreeing to be Bound to an insane Relic.
"Here it is," the officer announced, and the static was replaced by a tableau of the Talmac’s main gates. A figure was standing above them, on the outer wall’s balustrades. The officer adjusted his controls to zoom in on the lone combatant, and the blurry image resolved into a young man in a black trenchcoat and dark glasses, a long chestnut braid hanging casually over his shoulder. The boy at the admiral’s side made a small noise, but she ignored it to study the person on the screen. A small red cat was sitting on the casement next to him, and as she watched, the young man seemed to note that someone had their attention on him. A wicked smile spread across his face.
Every crew member on the bridge turned to look questioningly at the Relic standing next to Runair. The demon’s usual plaintive voice had taken on an assured tone, and he addressed the room as though *he* was the commanding officer, and not the stern woman in the captain’s chair. She glared her displeasure at him, but he continued without taking any notice. "Leave now, or we will all die!"
Runair caught the boy’s arm in a firm grip. He was trembling. Her words came out in a low hiss. "Silence, Mishide, or I’ll confine you to quarters!"
"We will all die!" he repeated, shaking off her hand. His fists clenched and unclenched at his sides.
The admiral noted the curious gazes of her subordinates, and she indicated the screen. "Do you know who he is?"
The Relic nodded, his backlit eyes round and shining, never leaving the image flickering on the view screen. "He is the Eldest. He knows I’m here."
Activity on the bridge descended into chaos from there. "What in the Seven Hells is the Eldest Relic doing on Sabaku?" "Get me intelligence! I want info from the Torreldaeo archives!" "Tell the front lines to keep back. We don’t know what he can do yet."
Amidst the agitation only Runair and her demon kept still and quiet. Mishide looked down at her, gray eyes stark in his pale face. She carefully placed a quieting hand on his arm. "Tell me about him."
The boy’s slight form shuddered, and he closed his eyes in thought. "We called him Shinigami." Mishide moved away from her touch and wrapped his arms around himself. "He was the first ever made. The most powerful. His Master… made him do terrible things. And he loved it. He killed more than all of us put together. Mages, soldiers, civilians, anyone who got in his way. But after…" He choked on his words, his lower lip trembling. "When our Masters died he gathered up all of us that were left and took us to Sen’Darven. He was always kind to me after that." Mishide’s mouth twitched into a small smile, though his posture remained tense. "He called me ototosan."
"Shinigami," Runair murmured to herself. ~In the old language it means ‘Death.’~ "Will he attack, now that he knows you’re here?"
The demon’s wistful expression vanished, his eyes blinking open slowly. "Yes." He studied the figure on the screen, raising one finger to trace the path of the image’s long braid in the air. "He won’t attack me specifically for being here, because he knows it isn’t my choice. But if I fight him…"
"It still isn’t your choice, if I order it," Runair interrupted.
Glowing gray eyes blinked at her dispassionately. "He is the Eldest. If I attack him, he will kill me. Such an indiscretion among our own means death. No one defies the Eldest. It doesn’t matter if it’s my will or not." A manic gleam crept into the demon’s look. "In killing me he restores my honor."
"What can you tell me about his life right now? What can we bargain with?" The admiral prodded her Relic, but Mishide had lost his focus, his thoughts traveling elsewhere. She cursed silently in resignation and turned her attentions back to her subordinates.
"He’s sending us a signal, sir," the communication’s officer said. "Accept or deny?"
On the screen, the young man identified as the Eldest Relic was holding up a com device. Runair nodded curtly. "Patch him through."
The braided demon smiled, and a lilting tenor voice crackled over the link. "This is Duo Maxwell, acting commander of the Sabaku forces. You have one opportunity to retreat from the atmosphere of this planet, beginning now."
The bridge fell silent. Runair’s voice echoed in the still space. "Is that an ultimatum?"
The smile widened into a feral grin. "The only one you’re gonna get."
The admiral set her jaw and motioned to her second-in-command with her chin. "Commence as planned."
"Then you die."
At her side, Mishide giggled. His voice came out a few notches too high. "Come forth the rapture! O Azrael, sweeter than the touch of Death, bring this, your servant, into your welcoming arms!"
The Relic onscreen faltered, almost imperceptibly. "Mishide?"
"May you be the resurrection of the god of nightmares, my friend!" the demon cried, leaning forward and feebly reaching for the projected image. "Duo-love, Death himself will sing your name at the end of all things."
The Eldest nodded, as though he understood whatever message Mishide was trying to send him. "Come and fight me then."
The view screen flickered into static.
Duo clicked the com shut and studied the ships above him. The fighters were moving into formation. He ruffled Yoko’s ears with one hand and pulled his glasses off with the other. "Time for the show."
"Yeah, I think fire would be a good start." He shrugged out of his coat, letting it fall carelessly to the stone floor, and flicked his braid over his shoulder. He held his left hand to his heart, fingers twined together, and with his right he indicated the approaching ships with two fingers. "Eeeny, meeny, miney…"
One of the fighters broke off from the others and fired a round of plasma beams at the fortress. The projectiles were absorbed harmlessly into the shield, leaving light ripples over the surface. Duo grinned. "You first."
A jolt of energy surged through his raised arm, and the attacking ship burst into flames. The demon laughed, watching orange tendrils snake around the fighter, singeing the metal a charred black. The ship’s course faltered, veering to the east of the fortress, and just as it fell into a dive for the unforgiving ground it exploded, sending a cloud of smoke and shrapnel into the air.
Yoko blinked wide green eyes at her person in approval. "Okay," Duo hummed, "what next?"
"Lightning! Fuck yeah!" He looked up and scanned the sky for clouds. "If I’m gonna do this, might as well make a production of it."
Duo closed his eyes in concentration, and drew several symbols in the air with one finger. The desert wind rose, gliding cool around his skin. In the background he heard several more fighters make a pass at the fortress, and two of the gun turrets began returning fire. But when he opened his eyes some of the ships were faltering at the sudden insurgence of dark, heavy clouds materializing above the Talmac.
The evil grin returned to Duo’s face, and he regarded the scene before him with something approaching religious fervor. ~I haven’t had this much fun in ages. Centuries, probably.~
Lightning streaked through the sky, lighting up the darkening evening in short, strobing bursts. Bolts of white-hot energy struck wherever Duo indicated, and the fighters fled. Two went down when the electricity short-circuited their controls. Three exploded on impact, leaving a charred stench to waft along in the wind. One strike hit a battle cruiser, and a series of small explosions made their way along the side of the ship before it tilted in it’s place in the sky and began the descent to the sand, gaining speed as it fell.
And on the wall, one booted foot propped up on the casement, Duo laughed.
As soon as Quatre closed the door to the lower ballroom, he collapsed onto the floor in a despondent, trembling heap.
~I really pushed it too far with that spell. But it had to be done.~ He turned his head, pressing his cheek to the cool wooden floor, blinking wearily at the still unfinished circle. The lines of white paint seemed to glow in the dim light. He snapped his fingers to illuminate the chandeliers, and the effort it took sent a sharp pain through his arm. He moaned softly, scrabbling his hands against the floor, trying to lift himself up. ~No. Have to work. Have to finish it…~
Slowly, he levered himself to his knees and began crawling forward. He stared down at his spayed fingers in concentration, wringing every last drop of energy from his exhausted body. As his right hand touched the border of the circle, his muscles gave out, and he dropped to the floor again.
~I have left a serpent at my gates to bite the heels of my enemy,~ he thought as his eyelids slipped closed. ~Trowa, love, I rest in safety. May all my dreams be of you.~