Chapter Nineteen: The Battle for the Talmac
by Casey Valhalla
Two squadrons of the Resistance fleet had landed in a ring around the Talmac walls, and within the barrier they created, at the front gates, an army was forming. Quatre walked among the ranks, assessing the condition of his troops, watching the formation of each unit as soldiers flooded out of the fortress, and out of the cruiser that had landed just in front of it. The operatives nodded deferentially as he passed, and he lowered his blue eyes briefly in return. The Resistance did not stand on ceremony.
In the front lines Rashid was arranging the Maganacs, forming a heavy column that stretched the width of the main forces. The Minister stopped at his Captain's shoulder, receiving a bow from the assemblage of troops who had guarded him since birth.
Duo was nowhere to be seen.
"I can't say I like this at all, Master Quatre," Rashid said softly. "War has a way of getting ugly. If you can't be with us, I would prefer you were not here at all."
"I understand," the blond replied with a small smile. His eyes flashed gold briefly. "This is my home as well as yours, Rashid, and this army is my army. I will fight alongside them, at whatever cost."
The Captain looked over the troops, his eyes narrowing. "Where is our commander, then?"
Quatre frowned. "I don't know."
The ranks of Maganacs shifted, and a few mutters circulated among the soldiers. A moment later Duo appeared and drew level with Rashid, silently. Quatre peered around the captain's folded arms. "You're late."
"My apologies, sir," the demon replied without looking up. Duo was adjusting his trenchcoat, tightening the buckles around his wrists, and kept his eyes focused on the task.
"Safe, if it pleases you, sir."
A thin line formed between Quatre's eyebrows. "Why the formalities all of a sudden?"
Duo drew the coat tight around his waist and fastened his belt with a jerk. "It seems to me I ought to address my superiors properly."
"What the hell are you-" The Minister stopped short and turned away sharply. He patted Rashid's shoulder briefly in parting, and took two steps back towards the central ranks before turning to frown at the Relic's back. "It doesn't matter, Duo. You should know that by now."
The cruiser at the front of the assembled troops powered up and began rising, leaving swirls of sand in its wake that blocked the view of the front lines. Rashid held his ground before the Maganacs, and at his side Duo continued his preparations.
"You will need to give orders to your men," the Relic said, drawing a vial of clear liquid and a black scarf out of his pockets. "I'll go out first. The rest of you should stay as far away from me as possible."
Rashid shot him a sidelong glance, but nodded.
"I can't kill humans, not without direct orders from my controller, so you and your troops will have to deal with the ISG soldiers," Duo continued. He opened the vial and poured a few drops onto the scarf before closing it and replacing it in his pocket. He rubbed the material between his hands for a few moments before he spoke again. "Leave the demons to me."
The sand began clearing as the cruiser moved on into the atmosphere. Rashid adjusted the machine gun at his hip and looked down at the demon. "Anything else?"
A devilish grin split the Relic's face. "Make sure no one looks me in the eye."
Duo reached up and tied the scarf around his face, adjusting the fabric over his chin so that it covered his mouth and nose completely. Then, with a slight nod to the captain, he strode forwards and disappeared into the settling clouds of sand.
Heero braced the hangar gate open and turned to Trowa. "What?"
The elf nodded at the cruiser the two operatives had flown in on. "Are we taking that out? Or." He trailed off and turned his gaze pointedly at the two cadets, standing side by side across the hangar.
"Can we afford to let them go, at this point?" Heero looked dubious. "Chea, we could keep around safely, I think, but Tzumara."
"Has a grudge?" the elf smirked.
"I don't think it's a good idea."
Trowa shrugged and leaned back against the wall. "Suggestions?"
Heero thought for a moment, scratching a hand through his hair. He spared a glare for his unruly bangs, then nodded decisively. "Secure them on the cruiser. We'll take them to the command ship."
The elf raised an eyebrow.
"They're not our responsibility anymore." The assassin's eyes darted around the hanger again. "Where's Naki?"
"Getting her ship."
"Hn." Heero stepped away from the doors, jerking his head in a motion for Trowa to follow. "You know, there are only two kinds of ships I know of that are equipped with tow cables like hers."
Trowa's expression was surprised, but it looked forced. "Oh, and what's that?"
"Tow freighters," Heero replied, and shot him a sideways glance, "and pirate cruisers."
"You don't say."
"When this is over, I'm locking us both in a conference room for a few days, and we're going to have a long chat."
The control room had grown steadily warmer as the hours passed. By mid-morning Wufei had stripped to his blue undershirt and tied his hair back in a tight tail, though a few wisps of black had still escaped and plastered themselves to his forehead. His two aides were so similar in appearance that he had yet to devise a way of telling them apart, and had already forgotten their names three times. He'd taken to simply bellowing an order to the room at large and hoping it was followed, since neither of the aides ever stayed in one place for more than two seconds, anyway.
The docking bay was steadily emptying, though the traffic in and out was still such that it appeared to be full to capacity. An hour earlier the order had gone out for all squadrons to disembark for the atmosphere, to chase away what remained of the ISG fleet and the demon army that remained after the Azurmala was detonated. However, such an order on a crowded mother ship with a skeleton chain of command was easier said than done.
Wufei had just finished explaining to a flustered soldier-in-training how to successfully disengage the auto-lock on his blaster rifle when the headset emitted another buzz.
"Permission to board requested, Operative Wing reporting."
"Yuy!" Wufei nearly fell off his stool in surprise, but caught himself gracefully before Aide 1 or Aide 2 had the chance to notice. "It's about damn time."
"Wufei." He could almost hear that smug smirk.
"Acceptable. Operative Nanashi present, Operative Jade is in transit. We have prisoners."
"I'll notify the commander. Get your ass in here."
"Notify me of what?"
Wufei's head jerked up to look at the door, and he managed not to scowl too much as Meiran stepped into the room and closed the door, leaning back against the frame and folding her arms, waiting.
"That was Wing."
Meiran raised one arched black eyebrow slowly, her eyes fixed on Wufei. "And?"
He snorted. "And I gave him clearance to land, of course."
"Is that all?"
She continued staring, not moving a muscle.
Wufei stared back, still bent over the console, his face a mask of stone.
"What else did Wing have to say?"
"Oh, is that what you want?"
"Well, why didn't you say so?"
Meiran's eyes narrowed dangerously.
Wufei's eyes widened innocently.
A sharp rap sounded at the door. Wufei nodded at it. "There he is now. Why not ask him for yourself?"
If it was physically possible, Meiran's eyes would have shot black sparks at him before she whirled around and yanked open the door.
She was met by the round face of a young, sandy-haired man in a flight suit, who winced slightly at her expression. "Umm, bad time, miss? Wasn't my decision, you know, I'm rather tied up at the moment." He worked his elbows a bit to show that his hands were, in fact, tied behind his back.
Meiran's brows knit in confusion. "Who the hell are you?"
The young man grinned brightly. "Daxiel Chea, miss, ISG cadet, first class."
"Someone has a death wish," Wufei snickered from behind her.
The cadet shrugged as well as he could with his hands bound. "No sense in dispensing with formalities when meeting a young lady, no matter what the circumstances. I was raised better than that."
Meiran's eyebrows slowly crept up her forehead, and she turned slightly to look at Wufei, who shrugged. "What do we do with him?"
"Begging your pardon, miss," Chea piped up, clicking his heels together. "I'd salute but, you know." He tugged a bit at his bonds and smiled sheepishly. "Wing asked me to inform you that he and Nanashi are having some trouble with my partner - you know, the other prisoner - but they should be along soon. Oh, and Naki just landed, she's trying to give them a hand. Sir. Uh, ma'am. Sorry."
Meiran blinked at him for a moment, trying to get a grasp of the situation. "Wing took you captive?"
"And - he just let you loose to wander up here on your own, huh?"
"I wouldn't say loose, this rope is damn tight, but yes'm."
"Right." She turned back to Wufei again, who was turning a brilliant shade of red, his cheeks puffed out and his nose making light snorting sounds in a valiant effort to keep from laughing hysterically. "Shape up, Chang. Take him to the brig, I'll have Naki take over here when she arrives."
Wufei bit back a snicker. "As my lady wishes."
Meiran's glare followed him across the room and out the door, then turned on Aide 1 (or was it Aide 2?) who was blinking blankly at the scene. "Back to work! We're running a war here, if you haven't forgotten!"
When the sand settled, Duo found himself staring down a heavy line of lesser demons, a legion that stretched back almost a hundred yards from the front ranks. ISG troops flanked either side, but he dismissed them out of hand the moment he registered their presence. With luck the Fear would keep them away if the Maganacs didn't.
He wrinkled his nose against the makeshift mask over his face; the combined scents of cinnamon, cumin and ginger still stung a bit, but the effects were fading, and his sensitive nose wasn't picking up any other smells. Good.
The line of demons hadn't moved. They were looking him over, their expressions - or what could be discerned as expressions from the myriad of warped and grotesque faces - ranged from disdainful to uncertain, to bloodthirsty. Duo smiled cruelly to himself, the effects lost on the assembly before him due to the mask, and raised his right arm out to the side, his hand curved as though prepared to grasp something.
It was like casting Cantrips, or Fear. He'd done it so many times he didn't need to recite the words anymore, or even make a gesture.
The air around his hand shimmered, a thin strip of violet appearing within the curve of his thumb and forefinger. It lengthened, glimmering, into a long staff of magic-borne light, and shot off the front tip into a curving arc. The light strengthened, solidified, and Duo closed his hand around the smooth wooden handle of a scythe.
He took a few experimental sniffs, but even the sting of the spice blend wasn't registering anymore. Slowly, he reached back and untied the scarf, whipping it away from his face with a flourish before stuffing in back in a pocket. All part of the show.
The demons were shifting slightly in their ranks, perhaps nervous, perhaps anxious to get the battle started. Duo was in no rush. He swung the scythe at his side experimentally for a moment, then brought it around in front of him, planting the butt of the staff in the sand at his feet. He leaned his forehead against the cool wood and closed his eyes, running the fingers of his left hand along the outside edge of the blade reverently.
Usually at this point he whispered a prayer to Azrael. But he hadn't prayed in years, and power was building inside him, fed by rage, and it demanded release.
What he found himself whispering was, "There is no glory."
The Eldest Relic opened his eyes.
A spiraling wind picked up around him, kicking sand into the air and snapping in the loose tails of Duo's coat. It whirled in a column up into the sky, and where it narrowed to vanish in the atmosphere black clouds began forming, blocking out the glaring light of Sabaku's sun. Where Duo stood the whirlwind took on an eerie green glow, pulsing with phantom heartbeats, and within it a brilliant purple light flashed.
Duo raised the scythe, positioning it in his hands with long-practiced ease. In one swift, fluid motion he swung it once around his head and lashed at the wall of wind surrounding him.
The air exploded.
The force sent a shockwave rippling out in a circle through the ranks of both armies, leaving the weaker-willed fighters stumbling to their knees. In the sky the black clouds burst from the gathering point to shoot across the sky like meteors, leaving the battlefield in a cover of half-light in a matter of seconds.
At the apex of it all Duo crouched with the blade of his scythe buried in the sand, grinning like a skeleton.
"If the local Slime population had learned the art of birth control I wouldn't have to lower myself to kicking your asses," he sneered. His tongue darted out to wet his lips. "As it stands, though." The sneer deepened into a cruel chuckle. "Come fight me, you fucking cowards!"
One of the demons - an unidentifiable creature - in the front lines snarled and rushed forward, and then the entire line descended in a wave. Duo held his ground and grinned, still crouching. Waiting.
The move was almost too fast to see. One second the Relic was perfectly still, the next, he was a whirlwind of black and chestnut and steel, and the head of the demon who lead the charge was flying back into the ranks. The Troglodytes flanking it on either side found themselves severed at the waist a moment before a row of Hobgoblins behind them lost their arms and legs in rapid succession.
Duo danced with the scythe as though it was part of his body, the whirling blade keeping a ring of space around him clear of enemies. He carved a line of destruction through the ranks. Behind him heard the sound of the Maganacs rushing the battlefield, and beyond that the bursts of magic signaling the central forces joining the fight. He closed off his thoughts and let his senses take over. His instincts guided him from one foe to the next in a smooth continuum, every movement deliberate and effective.
This was Azrael's Waltz.
Have to get *out*.
Mishide's fingers scrabbled at the cold metal of the escape pod's hatch. A drop of liquid trickled into his eye and he wiped it away absently, searching through the darkness for the latch. The air around him was thick and suffocating, but through the haze covering his senses he couldn't tell if it was real or the product of his deluded imagination.
He had to get out.
A voice was speaking on the opposite side of the hatch, the vibrations of the deep tones rumbling against his sweating palms. A second joined it, lighter but still audible beyond the metal. He slammed a fist roughly against the paneling, numb to the pain it caused. The first voice gave a sharp yell.
The pod depressurized and the hatch opened suddenly. He stumbled over the frame and tumbled out, landing in a bed of soft, warm sand. He closed his eyes and lay still for a moment, gasping in the fresh air, until a pair of rough hands grabbed him by the shoulders and lifted him up.
"Oy, Cavotti, isn't this the admiral's boy?"
It was the first voice, and the sound made his ears ring. He raised his head wearily to see the uniform of an ISG soldier and blinked dispassionately at the insignia. Mishide sighed and went limp, letting the man's firm grip hold him up.
He had almost given in to the dark space of unconsciousness when he felt himself being shaken, and his head lifted slightly only to feel a heavy blow land on his left cheek. The force snapped his head to the side and he dropped to his knees in the sand, cradling his face in his arms.
"I've got her, she's in here!" The second voice pierced his ears, and he shuddered. The soldier gave him a final shake and left him to curl up on himself, trembling, the pain finally registering through the haze.
"No." His voice came out hoarse and broken, and he curled up tighter, drawing himself into a ball.
"Look at me."
He peeked over the curve of his arm. One of the soldiers was supporting Runair, who was favoring her right leg. With her hair loose around her face she looked softer, her eyebrows drawn in concern. "You're bleeding."
Mishide sniffed and shivered. There were dark clouds in the sky, blocking out the light of a sun that would have blinded him otherwise. Runair shifted and dropped to her knees cautiously in front of him, studying his face carefully. "Hold still now, while I clean this up."
She drew a handkerchief out of her pocket and dabbed at his forehead, and the white fabric came away red. Runair looked up at the soldier who had backhanded him. "Do you have water?"
He squeezed his eyes shut as she continued cleaning the cut, wincing when it stung a bit, and he felt her touch his shoulder gently. He sighed again, and hoped this time he could sleep. The darkness was creeping up around him again.
He squeezed his eyes tighter and dug his fingers into the folds of his shirt.
"Look at me."
He opened his eyes with a tiny whimper, barely audible. Runair's gaze was chilly.
Slowly, he got to his feet and trembled where he stood, knees wobbling, his arms wrapped around his waist as though he could hold himself up. He kept his eyes on Runair.
He flinched and stumbled back a step, almost falling, but the admiral caught him by the elbows and held him steady. One hand came up to grab his chin, forcing him to look her in the face. He sucked in a breath.
"You will kill Grand Minister Quatre Winner."