Chapter Twelve: Into the Crush
by Casey Valhalla
It was early – too early for anyone important to notice him sneaking about. He was experiencing a moment of clarity, something rare in the routine of his days. Especially recent days, since the Eldest had appeared on the command ship’s viewscreen.
Mishide flattened himself against a wall as a guard passed down an adjoining corridor. The shadows weren’t thick enough in that part of the ship for him to hide himself properly. Instead, he resorted to lurking in doorways and dashing from hall to hall, avoiding any eyes that might send word to his controller. After a year aboard the Azurmala, he knew the ship like the back of his hand, and thus made quick progress to the communications room.
In the main areas of the ship, the lighting was dimmer, and he slid right past a post of guards through a deep shadow cast by the corridor walls. He could have killed all three of them before they even knew he was there. Mishide shoved the thought out of his mind before it had a chance to take root. He was focused now, and such things would only cast him back into the fog of guarded insanity.
The comm room was a small office, the walls lined with control panels and softly glowing monitors. The first shift didn’t start for another two hours, and the room was empty. Mishide slipped silently through the door and sank into one of the plush swivel chairs. He took a moment to relax, pressing the heels of his hands against his eyes, grateful that the last shift had left the lights off. Some days, he just couldn’t bear light.
Sighing, he sat up straight, and placed a call to the Torreldaeo Ministry.
"Please state your name, registration number, classification and status."
"Mishide Abareru, registration number 2005436, demon classified. Relic of the Mage War, twenty-eighth."
Backlit gray eyes blinked blearily at the screen as he was passed off from one secretary to the next, before finally sitting on hold for his agent. His fingers tapped impatiently against the console.
Mishide barely recognized the man’s face when it finally appeared on the screen. It was another middle-aged cleric, just like the hundred or so agents who had handled his case since the wars ended. The man looked surprised to see him, but didn’t comment on it. "What can I do for you today, Abareru?"
The demon did his best not to squirm, a habit of existing in such a young body. "I need to be removed from my controller temporarily."
The man cocked an eyebrow and frowned. Mishide couldn’t remember his name. "And just why is this?"
"I’ll be killed." Mishide kept his face perfectly blank.
The man chuckled and shook his head. "This is all very amusing, but I’m afraid I don’t have time for frivolities, Abareru."
The Relic scowled. "My controller is going to make me fight the Eldest. If I do, he will kill me."
"Ah," the agent said, and leaned backwards, his lips drawing into a long, thin line. "The Ministry cannot interfere with tribal law. You know this." He closed his eyes. "For that matter, as much as the council would like to think that we keep close tabs on Maxwell, the rest of us know better."
Mishide’s expression didn’t change, but the glow in his eyes dimmed. He spoke softly. "There’s nothing you can do?"
"I’m sorry, Abareru." The man on the com screen didn’t look at him. "I sincerely hope you find some way out of this."
The demon merely nodded and cut the connection without a word. For almost ten minutes, he sat perfectly still, staring at the keyboard in front of him.
The moment of clarity was passing.
He jerked to attention and began typing rapidly. The computer linked to a network of interstellar space channels, and he frantically scrolled through the list of user identifications, searching for a familiar code. The connection made several jumps to independent servers on Modicum planets, before settling on Veritas. There, he carried the connection to a personal datareader.
Not the easiest way to go about things, but the 7th Relic’s private line was usually the quickest way to contact him.
The visual was marred by static, but Mishide could make out the smiling face that greeted him. Glowing sea-green eyes peered at him through the interference, a matching scarf tied around a fall of dark red hair. Round, friendly features visibly brightened when the demon on the comm link realized who had called him.
"Mishide! Long time no see, kiddo! What’s up?"
The 28th Relic let out a long breath, and his blank expression cracked to reveal two millennia’s worth of weariness. The weight of the years had never been such a burden before. "I need a favor, Solo."
The redheaded demon’s smile vanished, and his brows knit in concern. One of his hands appeared along the side of the screen. "Hey, kid. Just tell me, okay? Tell me what’s wrong."
Mishide bowed his head, and told him everything.
"Okay, that didn’t work. Um… Dispell."
No change at all.
"Didn’t work either."
"Oh, keep quiet. Mmmmm… Extinguish?"
Still, nothing happened.
"Oh, right. Reverse!"
Duo was quite certain the sea of chaos was laughing at him.
"No dice, Yoko."
"Oh, sure, blame me."
Runair was woken by the sound of her private com line beeping. For a moment she hurried to make herself presentable, but just as her fingers were poised to tie her hair back in its regulation ponytail, she saw the lines of code running across the monitor. She sucked her breath in through her teeth, a low hiss the only sign of her discomfort.
Slowly, she let her arms drop, and she took a seat at her desk. The link opened automatically, revealing a stark black screen.
"I received word," a low, melodious baritone said over the connection. "They say the Eldest Relic is defending Sabaku."
"Yes, sir." Runair’s fingers clutched at her cotton pajama pants, fingering the seamline. Her face was set in its usual stoic mask.
"You address me improperly, Seol." The voice sounded at once amused and displeased. "I find it… unpleasant."
Her jaw tightened. "Yes, master."
The voice chuckled. "Much better. I shall send reinforcements to deal with this problem. They should arrive within 32 hours."
Runair swallowed before speaking. "Thank you, master."
"But you must understand, Seol," the voice continued, dipping into a deeper, cautioning tone, "the Eldest is to remain alive, at all costs."
"Understood, si… master."
Another low chuckle sounded over the link, then it went dead. Smoothly, as though entranced, Runair stood and dressed, preparing herself for the day ahead. An idle thought at the back of her mind wondered where her Relic was.
Mishide barely missed running into the first comm room shift, and ducked along the passageway to avoid being seen. At this point his controller might already be awake, and if so, he was in greater danger of being caught somewhere he shouldn’t be. Movement in the halls was growing steadily, and for a while he clung to a shadow, waiting for a knot of soldiers to pass.
A lone pilot was moving against the flow of traffic, still in his flight suit with a uniform cap pulled low over his ears. Mishide followed the man with his eyes, watching as he gracefully slipped through the oncoming soldiers and strode quickly down the corridor. As he passed the demon’s hiding place, Mishide caught a fleeting scent, the subtle remnants of White Magic.
Intrigued, he followed the pilot, sliding cautiously from one shadow to the next. He paused when the man stopped at the lifts, and watched carefully as the man stepped inside the contraption, going down.
Mishide smiled, and darted into another lift as soon as the first closed. There was only one floor below this one, the maintenance access area.
There were lots of shadows down there.
Heero cursed under his breath and moved aside to let another stream of soldiers pass by. The sheer volume of the command ship’s crew was enough to let him and Trowa pass unnoticed through the corridors, but they’d been onboard for hours. Sooner or later someone could discover ISG Cadet Daxiel Chea locked in the hold of the fighter they’d flown in on, and realize that there was at least one pilot on the ship who didn’t belong there.
He and Trowa had split up, the elf offering to do a little sabotage work on the Azurmala’s circuitry. Heero was steadily making his way to the ship’s mainframe. He hoped to cause further communication disruptions, and perhaps dig up some information that might connect the ISG to the demon attack on Kaji. And, if he was lucky, he might discover just how much the Interstellar Government knew about the Resistance.
Working his way through another press of soldiers, he caught a glimpse of platinum somewhere ahead. Frowning, he broke free of the moving bodies, and saw it again, disappearing around a corner.
Long hair, platinum blonde, flowing along behind the trails of a blue dress…
Heero darted around the corner in time to see Dorothy enter a nondescript room and close the door behind her. Sidling up to the doorway, he cast a quick look around the empty hall, then pressed an ear against the metal. He heard shuffling footsteps, the rustle of some papers, and gauged the room within to be small, probably living quarters, and empty besides the girl who had just entered.
Sucking in a breath, he pushed the door open and stepped inside.
A heartbeat later he found himself pinned to the wall, a knife pressed to the hollow of his throat. The only sound in the room was the soft click of the door swinging closed.
Dorothy raised one forked eyebrow, meeting Heero stare for stare. "Oh, it’s you." She released him.
Heero only grunted in reply and straightened his rumpled flight suit.
"I was wondering how long it would take you to get on board," she commented conversationally, bending to replace the knife it a boot sheath. "Commendable. I didn’t expect you for another day, at least."
Heero folded his arms and glared at her. "What in the Seven Hells are you doing here?"
"The same as you, Yuy. Can I get you a drink?"
He cast a glance around the room; it was small, as he expected, most of the space taken up by a couch and two armchairs set in a semicircle facing a viewscreen. A door to his left lead to sleeping quarters, and along the front wall was a kitchenette. Dorothy stood at the counter and lifted a kettle off the stove. "All I have is tea, I’m afraid."
"Give me one good reason," Heero muttered, his eyes narrowing at the blonde girl. "From where I stand, you look an awful lot like a double-agent."
Dorothy filled the kettle from a tap, and replaced it on the burner, flicking a switch to start the water boiling. "You want to know why you should trust me?" Her eyes darted sideways to meet his.
She let out a long sigh. "Then take a seat, Operative Wing," Dorothy said, with the slightest gesture towards the sofa. "As trite as it may sound, this is indeed a long story."
Trowa stopped and stilled himself again. He was certain of it this time – a set of footsteps were following him down the empty corridor, matching his own. He cast his gaze sideways, not turning his head, but all he could see was a dark patch of shadow. His expression never changed, and after a moment he began walking again.
He hadn’t gone two steps before the soft padding behind him started. Whoever it was following was closer this time, almost close enough to catch…
He spun, lashing one arm out to catch the stalker at his back, but his hand met empty air. The corridor was empty, shadowed in the dim light.
Trowa frowned. All his senses prickled, telling him there was someone there, and that someone was still close, looking right at him. "Show yourself."
The words were soft, echoing faintly in the empty hall. His ears twitched, and he heard a light chuckle coming from a patch of darkness on his right.
The shadow wriggled, shifted, and the slight form of a boy stepped out. Trowa took in the light glow of dark gray eyes, even before noting his mussed hair and oversized clothes. The elf raised one eyebrow, the only sign of his surprise. "A Relic?"
The boy grinned, a shocking expression on his pale, round face. "Mishide Abareru, the 28th, at your service." The demon placed an hand over his heart and gave a sweeping bow. Trowa wasn’t sure if it was a mockery or not.
"What are you doing here?" the elf asked, keeping his voice neutral.
The Relic straightened and folded his arms behind his back. "Awaiting my execution." The statement was nonchalant, delivered with a touch of wonder, as though he expected the explanation to be obvious.
Trowa frowned, wondering if he should offer this boy some sort of assistance, but before he could reply Mishide turned on his heel and began striding off down the corridor. "If you’re looking for the control panels, they’re this way."
Having no other choice, the elf followed him. The maintenance access floor was a maze of dark halls, open panels spitting snares of wire into every path. Mishide navigated them with practiced ease, and Trowa stepped carefully around every obstacle. After ten minutes of silent, hurried walking, the demon pointed him into a small room.
"You’d better hurry," he commented, kicking idly at a pile of metal sheets. "My controller’s distracted, but she won’t be for much longer. As soon as she knows what I do, every soldier on this ship will be after you." Mishide gave the elf another wide, unnatural grin.
Trowa held back a shudder. "Why are you helping me?"
The grin vanished, leaving behind the visage of a haunted child. The demon wrapped his arms around himself and backed away, looking at the floor. "Because… you’re the ones who should win, right?"
The elf shook his head. "What kind of answer is that?"
"It doesn’t matter anymore," Mishide murmured, and Trowa had to strain to hear him. "I’m going to die by the hands of the Eldest. That’s all I have left. That’s all I have to give."
Trowa’s mouth fell open, and he took a step forward. "Duo…?"
The demon looked up, his backlit eyes flashing dangerously. "Death sings for us all, even elf-kind, sooner or later. Shinigami sings for me, and to him I go."
Mishide spun again and darted away down the corridor. Trowa started to follow him, but within seconds the boy was lost among the shadows. With a puzzled frown, the elf turned back to the control room.
~What a strange demon…~ he thought, setting to work at an access panel. ~He can’t possibly mean what I think he does… can he?~ Trowa shook his head, clearing his thoughts for the task at hand. ~Worry about the future when it happens, just as I was taught.~
Heero rested his arms along the back of the sofa, watching Dorothy move silently around the kitchenette. "Does Wufei know that Runair is your mother?"
The young woman nodded without turning. "I was at the best advantage to observe the ISG fleet. The Dragon knew you’d manage an infiltration, and ordered me to assist when you arrived." She ducked her head to peer at Heero over her shoulder. "Your foster brother has quite a head for strategy."
"He’s a conniving little bastard."
Her laughter tinkled like bells through the sitting room. "I see he failed to inform you that I was your backup."
"He does things like this on purpose, because he knows I hate it."
"In any case," Dorothy continued, setting their empty teacups in the sink, "I can escort you to the mainframe, or as close as we can both get to it without being noticed."
"What about the Relic?"
She turned around and leaned back against the counter, drying her hands on a towel. "If I thought there was any way to get him out of here, or if he’d even agree to leave…" She left the sentence hanging.
Heero nodded, switching his gaze to the low table in front of him. "Understood."
"What are you going to do with your hostages?"
The assassin shoved away the guilt that surged through him at the reminder. "Keep them confined for the duration."
A secretive smile played over Dorothy’s face. "So you’re not a cold-hearted killer, after all."
Something about the words warmed him, dispelling the last of the regrets that lingered in his mind. His lips twitched slightly upwards. "No."
The young woman was at his side in three steps, offering a hand. "Shall we, then?"
Quatre arrived on the balustrades with a basket of food just as the sun reached its zenith. Duo was standing at the casement, coat pooled at his feet, Yoko sitting steady on his shoulder. The demon’s arms were folded, and he aimed an icy glare at the ground in front of the Talmac.
Quatre leaned on his white oak staff and chuckled. ~If he’s resorted to *glaring* at the chaos, things can’t be going too well.~
Duo’s eyes flashed over Quatre as he approached, and instantly returned to the object of his scrutiny. The blond set the basket down between them and waited.
The demon threw his arms up in despair. "I’ve tried everything I can think of. Everything! And the fucking stuff won’t go away! I swear, Q, there’s *nothing* else I can do." Duo sighed and slumped, dropping to sit on the stones with his elbows on his knees, hands buried in his bangs.
Quatre nudged the basket towards him with a foot. "Eat."
"What the Hell good is that going to do?"
The Minister smirked and bent over to peer at the demon. "You haven’t eaten in days, Duo."
"I’ve had more important things on my mind than food."
"At least you’re not squeamish about cussing around me anymore."
"Ha, ha. You’re killing me here, Q." Duo shot a derisive look up at Quatre, then glanced down at the basket. "Smells good. Wha’d you bring?"
"Curried chicken and rice pastries, with baklava for dessert."
The demon gave a whoop of delight and fell on the basket eagerly. The blond slid down to sit beside him, his back resting against the casement. "Have you managed to contact the person who wrote the spell?"
Duo grimaced around a mouthful of pastry. "You mean Kirin? No, I haven’t. Not his fault, really, the poor guy’s Bound to a high-ranking lady of nobility." The Relic snorted ungracefully. "She never lets him out of the house."
Quatre chuckled and twirled his staff between his fingers. Duo indicated it with the pastry in his hand. "That’s a swordcane, isn’t it? I can see the seams in the wood from here."
"Want to see?"
The demon nodded eagerly, grabbing a piece of baklava from the basket. "Dinner and a show. Only the best for the front line infantry, eh Q?"
"Prepare to be amazed," the Minister quipped, rising to his feet and backing away a few paces. He gripped the staff on either side, balancing it in front of him, and pulled.
With a flick of his wrists, the two ends of the staff released, and the center portion clattered to the stones. Quatre stood with a well-polished dagger in either hand, and spun them idly at his sides while Duo watched. He smiled. "I do have skills besides White Magic, after all."
The demon grinned and settled back on his elbows. "I guessed as much the day I met you."
Quatre picked up the length of his staff from the ground and deftly resheathed the blades, clicking them into place. "I didn’t come up here to show off, though." His face dropped into a serious expression, and his eyes locked with Duo’s.
In response, the Relic’s grin turned dark. "Plotting something, Q?"
The Minister closed his eyes and bowed his head, not quite an agreement. "The circle is complete."