Chapter Thirteen: Guards and Warnings
by Casey Valhalla
Duo prided himself at the ability to multitask.
The red glow of afternoon was settling over the battlefield, as another wave of ground troops breached the shield and renewed the attack on the Talmac’s walls. On the balustrades, Duo was sitting with his back to the casement, both hands occupied with the keyboard of a portable computer unit, a Ruger ready at his side, it’s magazine half-full. At odd intervals he turned and took aim through the gap in the casement stones, firing a round or two before returning to his terminal.
On the sand outside the fortress, the sea of chaos writhed. In two days, it had tripled in size. Its edges lapped at the infantry lines, sucking in any soldiers who got too close and devouring them. If it grew another two feet, it would reach the walls. And the shield wasn’t stopping the encroaching chaos any more than it kept the ground troops away.
Duo glared at the growing mass of chaos every time he turned to take a shot.
He reloaded the pistol with a few violent gestures and stared at the lines of code scrolling across the computer screen. He’d left messages on all the servers he knew Kirin frequented. If he was lucky, he’d be able to reach the 11th Relic by the end of the day.
If not, there would be a gaping hole in the side of the Talmac by morning.
Duo twisted again and fired two rounds into the invading ranks, and barely heard the sharp beep of the terminal over the surrounding racket. His head turned slowly to take in the blinking icon that had appeared on the screen. He set the gun down and punched a button on the keyboard, and a comm screen opened. Duo tapped his fingers against the terminal, waiting for it to load, and almost sighed in relief at the face that appeared.
Loose, chin-length black hair hung over a pale, stoic face, currently marred by a bored smirk. Kirin was leaning back in his chair, one arm slung behind his head, the other resting on his crooked knee with a cigarette between his fingers. Dim-lit, deep, murky green eyes blinked dispassionately at the screen from behind a pair of rectangular glasses, the thick black frames set off against his white skin. He was dressed in his usual attire of black slacks and a white button-down shirt, with a dark gray scarf hanging around his shoulders. His eyes provided the only hint of color about his person.
Kirin *always* looked fabulous.
"You rang?" Not a trace of surprise or amusement crossed the 11th Relic’s face.
Duo narrowed his eyes. "Yeah."
Kirin sighed. "Spill, Duo, you must need me for something if you went through all the trouble of contacting me."
"Don’t laugh," the braided demon warned, schooling his features into a ‘don’t fuck with the Eldest’ expression. "I need help."
The demon on the opposite line snorted. "Oh, this is rich."
"Then tell me what you want. I’m not allowed to use the comm, and if anyone catches me here I’ll lose my vacation next month." He leaned forward slightly, a decidedly evil glow emerging in his forest-green eyes. "And you know how I hold grudges."
"Don’t threaten me, Kirin." Duo growled low in his throat, then bared his teeth when the other demon started chuckling. "Very funny. Long story short, I made use of your spellbook and now have a sea of chaos to deal with. Any suggestions?"
Kirin took a drag of his cigarette and let it out thoughtfully. "There’s a variety of things I could say right now, but since I’m speaking to the Eldest, I think it’s better they were left unsaid."
"The word ‘moron’ comes to mind."
Duo decided it was a better option to growl some more, rather than smashing the terminal in front of him in effigy.
A trace of amusement was leaking into Kirin’s smirk. "There should have been a containment spell included in the book."
"There *was*, and it *is* contained," Duo spoke through his teeth. "It just won’t go away."
Leisurely, as though he had all the time in the world, Kirin kicked his feet up on his desk and leaned back in the office chair he was sitting in, dropping his head back and taking a long drag. He blew the smoke out in a cloud towards the ceiling, and spoke to the empty air above him rather than to Duo directly. "My, my, what a mess."
"Stop fucking around, Kirin!" Duo was irritated enough by the situation as it was. A subordinate, milking it for all it was worth, only compounded the problem.
If Kirin had been physically present, he would have been getting strangled at this point.
The 11th Relic exhaled another cloud. "Tell me where you are. I’ll upload the spell to your datareader." His smirk widened into a grin. "Solo’s gonna love this…"
"Don’t you *dare*…"
"Let it go, Duo, just let it go. How often do we have the opportunity to see *you* make a mistake?" Kirin flexed his legs and rocked side to side in his chair.
Duo balled his fists, then let out a breath and relaxed. "I’m on Sabaku."
Kirin brought his legs down with a thud and rolled his chair forward, his face inches away from the screen. All traces of his grin had vanished. "You’re WHAT?"
"I’m on Sabaku, defending the Talmac." A grin of triumph tried to make its way onto his face, but he kept his expression neutral.
Kirin narrowed his eyes and frowned. "I hate you."
Duo allowed part of his smile to show. Unfortunately at that moment a bullet ricocheted off the stones behind him, and he cringed, ducking his head. Which completely ruined the entire moment. "Really? And why is that?"
"Because you’re doing something interesting, and I’m stuck here sitting on a cold rooftop night after night, scaring away pubescent suitors with lutes." Kirin snorted and looked to the side. "Damn you, Maxwell, someday I’m going to get away from this uppity snot-nosed clan…"
Duo smiled brilliantly for a moment, then his face fell. "Mishide is here."
Kirin turned his head back slightly and raised his nearer eyebrow. "With you?"
The black-haired relic gazed across the link blankly for a moment, then dropped his eyes to the keyboard. "Understood. I’ll inform the others."
He looked back up to Duo, eyes glowing a question. Their gazes met and held for a moment, then Duo offered a wry half-smile. "Bastard," the Eldest whispered, but his voice was warm.
The other demon grinned widely. "Asshole."
Without another word, the link was cut.
Heero and Trowa strolled across the docking bay with practiced ease. No one gave them a second look. The elf hefted the helmet under his arm and cast a sideways glance at his companion. "Any obstacles?"
"Dorothy is keeping the admiral busy," Heero whispered back. "That’s as much as she can do, but I don’t foresee any problems."
Trowa located their appropriated ship and steered them in that direction. Several other fighters were taking off, and they planned to slip away along with the squadron.
They boarded the ship. Heero squeezed into the small cockpit, while Trowa climbed up into the gunnery. The assassin started the engines and steered the ship into the line forming behind the air lock gates.
"Who’s Dorothy?" Trowa’s voice asked over their private intercom. The elf had made doubly sure it was private while he was repairing the damaged ship.
"Another operative. I’ll explain later." Heero adjusted the straps on his chair and waited for his turn to come up.
A flashing light indicated a signal on the open link, and he switched the intercom. A tinny voice rang in his ear inside the flight helmet. "Requesting access codes."
The assassin punched the required string into the control panel and sat back, waiting. After only a brief moment, the voice returned, vibrant with humor. "Yes, Chea, those are your *entrance* codes. I need the codes for *exiting*."
Heero stared at the control panel for a minute before grunting and muttering a curse. He flipped the intercom back to the private line. "Trowa, get the kid out of the cargo bay."
Trowa’s voice carried a hint of concern. "What’s wrong?"
"That bitch Tzumara only gave me the entry codes," the assassin spat. "Get the kid. The flight officers know this is his ship. I need him to talk to them."
There was a muffled rustle, and he heard the elf climbing down the ladder behind him. A moment later a metallic clang sounded through the cockpit, and Trowa pushed Cadet Chea into the small space, holding him by his bound arms. The boy’s expression was petulant.
Heero removed his helmet to look the cadet full in the eye. "Your partner failed to provide me with exit codes."
Chea grinned lazily. "Can’t get out, huh?"
The assassin gritted his teeth. "You’re damn lucky you’re an idiot, or the officers at the monitoring stations would already be breaking in here. Then I’d have to use you as a hostage, and you wouldn’t like that, would you?"
The grin vanished, and the cadet’s look grew dark. "I could call you in right now." His eyes strayed to the control panel, only a foot away.
"That would not be wise," Heero said, a cold smile forming on his lips. "Your friend is locked in a closet on Dorobo, in a house no one has visited in ten years. If we’re captured, how long do you think it will take for her to starve to death?"
Chea swallowed, and his eyes widened slightly. "They – they’d send a rescue party…"
Trowa spoke up from behind him, softly, his voice conversational. "That house is very well hidden. Do you remember seeing it when you flew over?" When the cadet shook his head he continued. "If we don’t tell them where it is, and I assure you we won’t, how will they find her in time?"
A shadow of doubt had fallen over the blond boy’s features, and Heero gave the elf a blank nod over Chea’s head. A silent thanks.
"I – I don’t know the codes," the cadet admitted haltingly. "Janus did. I could never remember them."
"Then you’re going to talk to them," Heero said, catching the boy’s gaze. "Tell them your partner is asleep or something. They know it’s you, they know this is your ship. Get new codes or something. Tell them it’s urgent."
Chea nodded once. Heero fitted the helmet over his head, and switched the intercom to the open channel.
The boy’s voice fell instantly into a cheerful banter. The assassin let out a breath and listened in.
"Hey Stanett… no, just scatterbrained, as usual… dunno, she’s passed out in the gunnery… heh, yeah, probably, I usually don’t ask…"
Heero turned his attention to the control panel, activating the view screen to see if there were any suspicious soldiers congregating near the fighter. There weren’t.
"Great!" Chea’s voice broke through his concentration. "Thanks, Stanett… sure, no problem! See ya." The cadet nodded to Heero, who switched the intercom off.
Trowa removed the helmet to reveal a sullen face. Chea glowered at the assassin. "Can I at least see her when we get back?"
Heero took the helmet from Trowa and gave the boy an appraising look. "Since you’ve been cooperative, perhaps."
The boy nodded mutely, and the elf pulled him back to the cargo bay. Heero shoved the helmet back on his head, gunned the engines, and the fighter shot away from the looming bulk of the Azurmala, streaking across the sky.
It was after nightfall when Duo made his way down to the lower ballroom. He hugged his coat tightly around him, taking the steps two at a time. He’d grown so used to the heat on the fortress walls over the past few days that the cool interior of the Talmac was chilly against his skin.
At least the sea of chaos was gone, finally.
He opened the door to see Quatre seated cross-legged on the wooden floor, facing the completed circle. Yoko was curled in his lap, and he stroked her ears absently, staring into middle-space.
The Minister jumped when Duo closed the doors. His head turned slowly to take in the presence of the demon, and he smiled. The demon grimaced and held a sleeve over his nose. "Is this going to take long?"
"I don’t think so." Quatre unfolded himself and deposited Yoko on the floor, standing and stretching. "You may want to keep back, though. I’m not entirely sure what’s going to happen."
Duo raised an eyebrow. "You’re telling me this *now*?"
The blond chuckled and flexed his shoulder muscles. "Don’t worry about it. I know the entire procedure by heart."
The demon nodded dubiously and shifted to lean against the wall behind Quatre. Yoko sat at his feet, watching with interest.
Quatre raised his hands in front of him, palms down, and began to chant. The incantation was melodious, with a steady, pulsing beat, but the language was unfamiliar. Duo struggled to identify it, and a vague sense of recognition nibbled at the back of his mind, but he couldn’t place it. He shrugged away the need to understand the words, and watched.
The circle began to glow, starting at the perimeter and snaking inwards along the intertwined lines and symbols. As the chant moved along into a higher pitch, the glow intensified, glaring white against Duo’s eyes. A bulb of light began to grow at the circle’s center, opaque, like a luminous, round egg.
The stench of White Magic was thickening in the air, and the demon swooned where he stood. His face felt hot, feverish, and he wondered if he should really have agreed to Quatre’s request that he be present for the summoning. He kept his arm pressed against his nose and mouth, breathing in shallow gulps. The chant rose to a peak, catching his attention, and he refocused on the proceedings just in time to see Quatre raise his arms over his head, and slam them back down to his sides with a force that sent the air currents in the room whirling.
The circle’s light vanished, casting the room into dusk at its absence. The round, glowing ball in the center trembled slightly.
Then it exploded.
Instinctively, Duo ducked and turned his back to the burst, but the fragments dissolved before they hit him. When he looked back up, there was a figure huddled in the center of the circle, and there was not even a trace of the scent of White Magic in the room.
The figure was white – unbelievably white, so much so that it seemed to glow of it’s own accord. The form was human, but the look of it decidedly not so. Long trailing white hair hung along the creature’s back, smooth, paper-white skin covered the arms and legs, the rest of the body hidden by a crisp white robe. As Duo watched, it raised its head, revealing a blazing pair of golden eyes.
Eyes that looked right at the demon.
Quatre swayed slightly where he stood, and rubbed a hand over his forehead. Yoko trotted over to his feet and meowed consolingly. Duo froze where he stood, immobilized by the recognition shining in the summoned creature’s face.
The Minister’s voice broke the spell. "I bind thee by—"
"NO!" Duo shot forward, grabbing Quatre by the arm and slapping a hand over his mouth. "Don’t bind him. Don’t *ever* bind *anything*! You have no idea what it’s like…" his voice trailed off and he released the blond, backing up and folding in on himself. "What it’s like to lose your freedom."
A deep chuckle sounded from the circle. The white creature was laughing, his golden eyes still fixed on Duo. "He speaks the truth, White Mage. It would be wise to heed the advice of ageless beings."
The demon narrowed his eyes, but Quatre wore a bright smile. "But ageless beings are beyond a human’s power, and therefore must be controlled."
"Your sense of humanity is skewed, young one," the creature replied. It nodded to the Relic. "Ask him."
Duo’s voice dripped with venom. "You don’t know me. So stop pretending you do."
"If you were free, Duo, would you truly bring harm to the human race?" The creature’s question rang eerily in the ballroom. When the demon didn’t reply, it chuckled again. "I didn’t think so."
Quatre turned his head to Duo, a questioning look on his soft features. "Do you know him?"
"No," the Relic snapped.
The creature smiled pleasantly, but its tone was mocking. "Duo was the first one called to this world, and he allowed himself to be controlled by those less powerful than himself, because he believed that was the proper order of things."
"You LIE!" Duo stormed forwards, only to have his path blocked at the edge of the circle. He slammed one fist against the invisible barrier. "What the Hell would you know? What the FUCK makes you think you know me?"
In reply, the creature stood. White hair tumbled down it’s back, falling in brilliant cascades to its ankles. Gold eyes flashed. "I know, because you were like me once, Duo." It turned, folding its arms with its back to the seething Relic. "Now you are nothing more than a demon."
"Liar," Duo hissed, but his voice had lost some of its conviction. His balled fists were resting against the barrier that kept him out of the circle.
"Am I?" the creature asked over his shoulder. "Perhaps you prefer to believe you were summoned from the pits of Hell. Or maybe you like to think you were created from a piece of the shattered body of Azrael, as so many demons seem to have adopted into their faith these days." It’s voice lowered into a murmur. "Perhaps you believe you are nothing."
"Why does it matter now?" Duo spoke in a barely audible whisper.
Quatre looked back and forth from the demon to the creature he had summoned, not quite sure what was happening. The figure in the circle was confident, standing proudly and casting its eyes back to look over both of them in turn. Waves of denial rolled off Duo, staggering in their intensity. Hesitantly, the Minister placed a hand on the demon’s shoulder.
The Relic exploded into motion, spinning around and away from Quatre to race for the door. It slammed closed behind him, the sound ringing against the walls of the ballroom.
On the floor, Yoko gave a plaintive meow. Quatre bent to lift her up, and turned back to the white being in the circle. "I did not expect this."
"Understandable," the creature replied, its voice soft and reassuring. "I assume you have need of me, or you would not have called, White Mage."
"Quatre," the blond said by way of introduction. "What may I call you?"
A sad smile appeared on the creature’s face. "Zero."
Duo ran the entire way back up through the Talmac, slamming through doors, his feet pounding heavily against the fur-lined floors. He didn’t stop until he reached the balustrades, collapsing against the casement in a shuddering heap. He drew in air in deep gulps, his lungs burning, his muscles quivering from the sudden strain.
He slid down to lie on his back against the stones, gazing up at the canopy of stars and the three crescents of Sabaku’s moons. His eyes settled on Dorobo, knowing that his controller had arrived back safely from his sojourn to the ISG’s command ship, but somehow Heero’s presence was no longer a comfort. Not tonight.
It was dark, blessedly dark, and silent on the battlefield. The war had halted for the night, the only sound that of the wind playing softly over the sand dunes, the only light that which came from the sky.
Duo curled into the darkness, wrapping it around himself like a blanket. The dark was comforting, safe and warm, as it had always been to him. Darkness, fire and blood. He was a demon, a product of Azrael and the Seven Hells. He had nothing at all to do with the white being Quatre had summoned. He had no amount of purity to compare with the ageless one’s blazing grace.
Nothing at all.
Quatre clasped his arms around his knees and met the golden gaze of the being sitting in front of him, on the opposite side of the circle’s barrier. "I won’t bind you, though. Duo wouldn’t like it."
"And I would not allow myself to be bound," Zero replied, its voice light and airy. "What I propose is a partnership. It may be uncomfortable at first, and most likely painful at the initiation, but I believe it would work to your best advantage."
The blond raised an eyebrow. "What sort of partnership?"
"I will allow my consciousness to merge with yours." Zero held up a hand when Quatre started to protest. "You will keep your identity, of course, and when your conflict is over you may dismiss me, or do so sooner if you find the arrangement unsatisfactory. Keep in mind, though, that once you do dismiss me, I will be gone, and you will be unable to summon me back."
The Minister leaned back against his hands, thinking over the proposal. "What do you have to offer me?"
Zero smiled, a kind look, although eerie in it’s own way. "An eternity of tactical judgment, young one. The singular power of probability."
Quatre sighed and slid to the floor, running his fingers through his bangs. After a long moment, he sat back up, his features set in a look of determination. "I accept."
"Then brace yourself, young one."
The blond sat straight, palms flat on the floor, and closed his eyes, waiting.
A stab of pain ripped through his body from head to foot, and his world swirled to black.