Chapter Fifteen: The Storm Clouds Gathering
by Casey Valhalla
Long fingers of the morning sun stretched across the sand dunes of Sabaku, reaching to touch the white walls of the Talmac in glistening trails. Slowly, the light traveled up the stones, but as it reached the balustrades it veered sharply around a pesky shadow. The light nudged at the edges of the black patch, but the shadow remained, immobile. The morning glow was forced to continue on, leaving the misplaced patch of darkness behind.
When the sun was free of the eastern horizon, and the tents of the army encampment in front of the fortress were beginning to rustle, the shadow shifted. It writhed against itself for a moment, then deposited a very unhappy-looking Relic onto the stones of the balustrades. The demon picked himself up and shot a glare at the offending shadow as it shrank and melted into the growing sunlight.
Duo rubbed at his bangs sleepily and cast a look across the landscape below the Talmac walls. The troops were stirring. He leaned against the casement leisurely, and reached out a hand to press against the translucent shield. The surface rippled under his fingers and solidified, charged fully for another day. Duo gave the ground troops a lazy grin.
He was winning, and he knew it. The knowledge didn’t make him feel any better.
Duo sensed Quatre approaching but didn’t turn around. The Minister was carrying his staff, and took a poised position at the demon’s side, not speaking.
Duo spoke to the sandy ground in front of the fortress. "You’ll be staying here from now on, I expect."
"You can send me away now, if you want." The Relic’s voice was sullen.
"No," the blond shook his head. "You are a valuable ally, Duo." He looked over and tried to meet the demon’s gaze. "And a good friend."
Duo looked up and saw a flicker of gold flash across Quatre’s eyes. He took a step backwards. "You didn’t…"
"I fused with Zero, yes," the Minister replied evenly. "But I am still myself." He smiled wryly. "We have a precisely defined student-teacher relationship."
The Relic sighed and leaned his back against the casement stones. "It’s still dangerous, Q. I hope you know that."
"I do." Quatre cast a critical look over the dunes before his fortress. "They’re thinning. But this isn’t over, not nearly."
"Way to rain on my parade." Duo grinned, but the expression was displeased.
The blond cast a concerned look at his companion. "Is something troubling you?"
"No." The demon’s voice was flat and final.
Quatre ignored it. "I’ve discovered for myself that Zero has no tact. Don’t take anything it says personally."
"Zero has nothing to do with it," Duo spat. "Just drop it, Q. The ground forces are moving in."
Mishide woke with a start, the knowledge of something disastrous ringing in his mind.
He wriggled in his bunk for a moment, disentangling his legs from the bed linens, ignoring the cold sweat that had broken out on his skin. Paying no mind to the fact that he was only wearing his black jersey pants, he fled his sleeping quarters and raced down the corridor, leaving his door banging hollowly against the metal walls.
The demon gave no attention to the startled soldiers he passed by, slipping out of the grasp of anyone who tried to detain him and ignoring the puzzled stares. He ran, bare feet slapping in a staccattoed echo against the polished floors. He rounded a corner and flung himself against a door, beating on it frantically with his fists.
A muffled curse was barely audible on the other side, and the door was wrenched open to reveal a frazzled Dorothy. Her hair was in two tangled plaits that may have been neat when she wove them the night before. Her eyes were groggy and narrow as she glowered down at the panting, trembling Relic on her doorstep.
"What?" she snapped.
"Demons," Mishide gasped. "An – an *army* of demons." He looked up to lock gazes with Dorothy, his own glowing gray eyes glazed and vague. "They’re here! Doro, they – Runair – your mother – she’s commanding them!"
Slowly, the young woman’s face went slack in comprehension. "Kami preserve me…"
"Doro!" Mishide’s cry was insistent, pleading. "You have to do something. You *have* to. If he – the Eldest—"
"I know," Dorothy said quietly. "I know, Mishide. Stay here. I’ll go talk to her."
Breakfast was interrupted by a shadow passing across the open window.
"What the fuck?" Chea muttered.
Trowa and Heero exchanged a glance, and the elf nodded. He rose silently from his place and left the kitchen, grabbing a pair of binoculars out of a box on his way out.
Janus glared at the assassin across the table. "Maybe it’s a search party coming to kill you, Wing."
Heero glared back. "Maybe it’s the god of cheats and liars come to sacrifice you to its superiors, Tzumara."
Chea muttered something under his breath.
"We hate each other equally, you know," Heero said with a smirk. "It could be worse."
The shout came from outside, and the tone was frantic. The assassin shot out of his chair and raced out the door, leaving the two captives alone with the unpalatable omelets.
Janus immediately rose and grabbed a paring knife off the counter, twisting her fingers to cut through the ropes that bound her wrists.
Chea watched her actions with a puzzled expression. "What are you doing?"
"I, for one, want to know what the Hell’s going on," she spat, freeing herself with a satisfied grunt. She grabbed the male cadet’s hands and sliced through the ropes easily. "Come on."
The elf and the assassin stood side by side on a covered veranda, watching a small fleet of ships converging in the atmosphere of Dorobo, their arms folded over their chests. The two cadets burst out of the house behind them, but neither of the Resistance operatives turned to acknowledge them.
"Oh look, you’re free," Trowa commented in a bored voice.
"You’re dead, Wing," Janus growled, but Chea jerked on her arm, staring with a slack-jawed expression at the sky.
"That isn’t the ISG," the male cadet breathed.
"Unmarked stealth models," Heero said, finally turning to look at the elf beside him. "The same ones we fought on Kaji."
Trowa nodded solemnly. "And Duo’s on the surface."
The assassin’s face darkened. "They won’t touch him," he growled, hissing through gritted teeth. "Not while I live."
Janus stepped between the two and shoved them apart with a single, violent gesture. "If you wouldn’t mind, would some one *please* explain," her voice rose to a shout, "just what the FUCK is going on?"
"We’re about to be attacked by an army of demons," the elf commented in the same bored voice.
Janus froze where she stood. Chea was still staring at the sky in wide-eyed disbelief.
"Trowa, get the ship ready," Heero barked. "Tzumara, I want you on communications. Secure us a channel underneath the scrambler Trowa set up. I know you can do it, if you’re half as intelligent as you pretend to be. Chea—"
The cadet looked over at the assassin with a squeak.
"Come with me."
"Why?" Chea inquired in a strained voice.
The blond cadet’s eyes bulged, then a brilliant grin spread across his face. "You got it, Wing."
Heero grimaced, then looked at both of the cadets in turn. "This is an extreme situation. And in extreme situations, all presumed discrepancies are dropped."
Janus crossed her arms and glowered. Chea scratched his head and blinked.
The assassin sighed. "The enemy of my enemy is my friend."
"How do I know *those*," Janus pointed out at the assembly of ships, "are my enemies?"
Heero shrugged. "Put it this way. If they bomb this house, you’ll die just as easily as I will."
For a long stretch, the two opposing sides of the same war stared each other down. Then, tentatively, Janus nodded.
The assassin let out a breath, and lifted a hand to touch his chest. "Heero Yuy. Pleasure."
The elf bowed his head lightly. "Trowa Barton."
"See, you’re not nameless, after all," Chea grinned. He spread his arms and gave a sweeping bow. "Daxiel Chea, at your service."
Janus glared at the blue-eyed man, a dubious expression on her face. Then she set her jaw and held out a hand. "Janus Tzumara. For the time being." She clasped Heero’s hand, briefly. "But when all this is over, I *will* kill you, Yuy."
The assassin smirked. "I look forward to it, Tzumara."
Runair was already on the bridge, sitting ramrod straight in the captain’s chair. Her fingers tapped idly on the armrests, and she stared at the viewscreen with a closed look. Dorothy approached her carefully, coming to stand silently at the admiral’s side. The screen at the front of the bridge showed the Talmac, huge and impregnable among a sea of sand dunes. Two figures stood on the walls, a golden-haired boy with a staff in his hand, and a black-clad Relic with a chestnut braid trailing over his shoulder. Dorothy identified them easily – the Grand Minister of Sabaku, Quatre Winner; and the Eldest Relic, Duo Maxwell.
In the sky above the fortress a mass of unmarked ships were assembling, taking formation for a frontal assault.
"Mother…" Dorothy began softly.
Runair raised a hand to halt her query. "My superior has sent me reinforcements. That is all you need to know, Opal."
"Mishide is distressed," the young woman commented dryly. "He claims you have a demon army at your disposal."
"I do not question the actions of my superiors," Runair spat. She turned slightly to level a dark stare at her daughter. "And *I* do not provide answers to a meddling girl, who didn’t have the foresight to inform her commanding officer that there were two Resistance operatives hiding out on Sabaku’s second moon."
Dorothy’s expression didn’t change. "I was not provided with such information."
Runair’s eyes narrowed. "I am no longer certain if I should believe you, Opal." Without changing position, she gestured to the communications officer. "Play the recording."
"What—" Dorothy looked up as the viewscreen erupted into static, then switched to an overhead view of her own quarters. The video played quietly, but the display required no sound to incriminate her.
The admiral gestured again to pause the recording, and the screen zoomed in to focus on the face of the man sitting on Dorothy’s couch. "He’s not an easy one to spot," Runair drawled, leaning back in her seat and steepling her fingers under her chin. "But we have records of his image from the fiasco on Niccon III. Would you care to explain to me, Opal, why my daughter was assisting Resistance operative Wing onboard my command ship?"
Dorothy smiled secretively to hide her nervous swallow. "Why mother, I didn’t think you had such an interest in my romantic affairs…"
"Do not try my patience." Runair didn’t turn, or move, but suddenly two soldiers were flanking Dorothy, taking the young woman’s arms in steel grips. "Fortunately, Opal, your fate shall be decided at a later date. I have more important things to tend to at the moment."
The admiral didn’t watch as her daughter was led away. Had she looked, she would have seen Dorothy’s expression set into a mask of defiance, even as a sob of despair for her mother caught in her throat.
On a couch in one of the Azurmala’s living quarters, a demon curled into a ball and echoed that sound, at the same time muttering a prayer to the god of nightmares.
For, inevitably, all the plans on Seol Runair’s mind, were also on his.
Heero gritted his teeth at the sound emitting over the fighter’s intercom, and focused on the joysticks in his hands. The ship had a turret-style gunnery. His seat spun as he fired a volley of bullets, as Chea’s flight path took them recklessly through the middle of the fleet formation. The momentum flung him against his harness, cutting off any comment he might have made in response to the pilot’s grandstanding.
/Can’t beat demon pilots for maneuverability, hey, Wing?/
Heero grunted and aimed a new barrage of fire on a nearby fighter. The ship dropped into a controlled dive. "As long as you don’t lose your breakfast flying like this, we’ll be fine."
/You mean you actually ATE that sludge?/ A muffled laugh sounded over the comm link. /Actually, the biscuits were quite good. Remind me to tell Nanashi that when we touch down./
"Do NOT talk about food right now," the assassin commented as his chair spun again to aim at the ships tailing their fighter. "Or we’ll trade. I do mean that as the threat it is, Chea."
The cadet chuckled and pulled them out of the dive, curving the fighter in a wide arc to bring them back into the midst of the amassed fleet. /Hey, if I join the Resistance, will I get a code name, too?/
Heero snorted. "Sure. We’ll call you SHUT UP."
A sudden jolt rocked the ship. It began falling into a rapid spin.
Chea’s voice echoed over the link. /Shit, shit, shit!/
"Are we hit?" the assassin barked. He felled another trailing fighter and stopped the turret’s motion, reaching for his harness straps.
/Roger that, Wing,/ Chea’s voice replied, still amused despite the worsening situation. /I’m holding, but we’re going down./
Quatre flattened himself against the floor stones of the balustrades as another blast rocked the Talmac. He crawled over to where Duo was crouched, pressed against the casement. The noise was overwhelming, a cacaphony of passing ships, gunfire, and the occasional bloodcurdling scream.
The Relic was huddled against the stones, his black coat drawn close as though for warmth, despite the soldering heat on the fortress walls. His bangs were plastered to his forehead, trails of sweat trickling down his temples. He was pale, his skin taking on a grayish tinge. Quatre knew the Relic was exhausted almost to the point of illness. Yoko was curled at Duo’s feet, her plaintive meows lost amid the ruckus.
The Minister nearly had to scream to be heard. "The shield needs reinforcement!"
Duo nodded absently, his eyes dim. His fingers clenched against the sleeves of his coat, and he didn’t reply.
Quatre leaned in close, but still had to shout in the demon’s ear. "I just need you to cover me while I recharge it, okay? Then you can rest. I promise."
Duo nodded again and pushed his coat off his shoulders. He formed a quick, weak spell that would shield the Minister from the ground troops’ fire, and rose quickly to throw it over the wall. Quatre thought he heard the demon whisper, "Wave," but then a fountain of water was plummeting down on the troops below. The blond hurriedly recharged the shield and retreated back behind the casement.
The Relic slumped into a heap against him, and some of the noise dispersed as the Manganacs paused to reload. Quatre cradled Duo’s head against his shoulder, feeling his own exhaustion settling over him. He barely heard the demon’s hoarse whisper.
The blond nodded solemnly in response. In the sky above them was proof of that statement, a huge fleet of unmarked ships that had appeared not long after the morning’s round of battle had begun. They were fast, hard to hit, and to top it off another freighter had deposited fresh ground troops on the surface a few hours before. It was almost noon.
The prospects of the ensuing day were debatable.
Yoko nudged Quatre’s hand, and he pulled her into his lap. Duo’s skin was clammy, and the demon shivered in his arms. Quatre reached for the discarded coat, pulling it over the three of them. He was beginning to feel cold as well, but from neither weather nor exhaustion. His extra sense was ringing, a shrill, foreboding sound that was no sound at all.
Suddenly, the battlefield went inexplicably silent. The hairs on Quatre’s arms stood on end.
The shout came from Rashid, who was standing poised beside the casement several yards away. Duo shifted, lifting his head slightly.
Slowly, the Minister stood, supporting the demon as Duo swayed on his feet. They turned together, and gazed down at the dunes.
Another freighter had landed a quarter-mile from the fortress, but this one wasn’t carrying ground troops. The cargo doors were flung open. Out of the ship rolled a gigantic metal monstrosity, a forty-foot long gun barrel perched on top of it. It ground forward on track wheels, plowing through the desert terrain without difficulty. It shuddered to a halt less than two hundred yards away.
"What in the Seven Hells—"
Quatre didn’t turn to see who shouted. "A plasma cannon," he whispered. Duo nodded. "The shield won’t hold up against that, and neither will the Talmac."
The demon canted his head to look at the blond, and Quatre smiled, a quiet, sad expression.
All the Maganacs were on their feet, weapons ready but resting at their sides. Waiting.
"I can’t…" Duo began.
Quatre clutched the staff at his side. Yoko crawled onto Duo’s shoulder and blinked her bright green eyes at the sky. The defending troops, scattered across the Talmac’s front walls, fell silent.
On the ground, the barrel of the cannon shifted. Gears cranked as the barrel took aim. Then it paused. Waiting.
"Allah and the Saints preserve your soul, my friend," Quatre said suddenly, turning to meet Duo’s glowing purple stare. "It will be an honor to die at your side."
The demon nodded without breaking his gaze. "May you rest in darkness, and Azrael guide you along the Paths of the Dead."
The serpent and the scarab turned as one, to face down the barrel of the cannon, poised and ready.