The armies departed for Aku the next morning. The journey took five days. During that time, Heero, Duo, Quatre, Trowa, and Wufei spent their time honing their fighting skills and finalizing their plans.
Duo, a skilled lock pick, and Quatre, armed with unlocking spells, would take care of any doors they came across, including the dungeon entrance and the cells themselves. Familiar with the layout of the lower levels of the castle due to the time he spent there, Duo would take the lead. The rest would act as backup, disposing of any guards they came across as quickly and quietly as possible.
Duo wanted to get Dermail. Heero promised him that if they had sufficient time after freeing the prisoners, they would go after the duke and take care of him once and for all.
Wufei had questioned the wisdom of allowing Duo to participate in the rescue operation. Although Wufei had resolved any doubts he had carried about Duo's trustworthiness, Duo's fighting skills were an unknown quantity to him. Heero and Duo usually sparred alone so none of the others had ever seen Duo fight. Wufei had come to like the braided boy, though he would never admit it, and was worried that Duo would get himself into trouble.
Not one to be shy or reticent, Wufei informed Heero and Duo of his concerns. Duo took the opportunity one afternoon while the armies had stopped for the noon meal to silence Wufei's doubts. He challenged Wufei to a sparring match. Wufei wanted to refuse but when Heero didn't object, Wufei assented. Wufei was well aware of Heero and Duo's relationship and if Heero wasn't worried that his lover would be endangered by sparring with Wufei, who's skill with a sword exceeded even his own, Wufei figured he must be confident that Duo could protect himself. Wufei almost changed his mind, however, when Duo chose to fight with long knives rather than a sword.
"Come one, Wufei. You're not afraid of a couple of knives, are you?" Duo sent Wufei a friendly but taunting smile. Wufei snorted in mild disgust and went into an en guard position. Duo adjusted his stance into his opening position as well, knives turned so they lay along his forearms.
Wufei realized that Duo was content to let him make the first move so he stepped in with a quick but careful jab to Duo's midsection. Duo deflected it easily.
"Wufei, surely you can do better than that. My cousin, Hilde, can swing a sword harder." Duo's smile remained firmly in place.
Heero hid a grin, knowing how Wufei would respond to being compared to a mere girl. Sure enough, Wufei narrowed his eyes and gritted his teeth. His next move was a fast, hard, accurate swing to Duo's head. Heero quickly lost his smile as he tensed.
He was about to shout a warning when Duo blocked the attack with the knife in his left hand. Before Wufei could recover his sword, Duo stepped in and swiped at Wufei's midsection with the knife in his right hand, which he'd quickly turned outward into an offensive position.
Wufei was barely able to leap back in time to avoid the knife. He recovered his sword to a guard position and looked at Duo with widened eyes. He was amazed at how quickly the braided boy had moved. Duo nodded at him, silently acknowledging the unspoken complement.
Quatre and Trowa looked on in wonder. They too had never seen Duo fight and were pleasantly surprised at his skill. Heero watched with a smile. He never tired of watching Duo fight. To Heero, Duo's fighting was as beautiful as his dancing, if much more deadly. The sparring match continued on, Wufei never able to get the upper hand. After half an hour had passed, Wufei called a halt.
"Duo, I can honestly say I'm impressed. I would never have thought that knives could be used so effectively against a sword. I'm happy to have you with us for the upcoming battle."
Duo smile broadly. He walked over to Wufei and placed a friendly arm around his shoulders.
"I'm glad to hear you say that, Wufei. Now if everyone is satisfied that I *can* handle myself in a fight, let's eat. I'm starving!"
Everyone laughed and went in search of food.
Two days after Duo had proven himself to Wufei, the armies finally reached Aku. Once darkness had fallen, Heero and his team left the army on the outskirts of the woods surrounding Dermail's castle. Quatre cast a spell that would allow him to keep track of their time.
Duo led them swiftly across the clearing that lay between the woods and the castle. The darkness of their clothing along with the moonless night ensured that they were not seen. Duo stopped at a door that he knew led to the lower levels of the castle.
Duo had told them that they would have to pass through the dungeon guards' quarters before reaching the dungeon itself. They knew that they would have to dispatch all of the guards quickly before an alarm could be raised.
Quatre used his unlock spell to open the large outer door. Once inside the castle, they would have to depend on Duo to get them through any locked doors. Quatre didn't know how powerful a mage the duke might be and didn't want to risk early detection by using his magic indiscriminately inside the castle. Quatre had brought his bow, with which he was quite proficient, to use in any minor skirmishes that might occur; his offensive magic he would save in case a more serious situation arose.
The five young men entered a long stone corridor lit intermittently with torches placed in holders on the walls. No doors led off of the corridor. The passage's only purpose, apparently, was to allow prisoners to be taken directly to the dungeons. Duo led the rest down the hallway swiftly and silently.
After a couple of minutes, they came to a door with a barred window. Duo looked through the window and saw the guards' quarters. Surprisingly, only two guards were on duty. Duo turned back to the others.
"There's a guard room beyond the door, but there are only two guards," he whispered.
"We need to take them out as silently as possible to avoid detection," Heero replied.
Duo thought for a moment. Then he looked back at the others with a sly smile.
"I'll take care of this."
Before Heero could question him, Duo reached into his boots and removed his knives. Suddenly guessing his plan, Heero frowned but nodded in agreement. Duo took a moment to pick the door lock then stood back and nodded his readiness to Heero. Heero put his hand on the door handle, and at a final look from Duo, quickly pulled the door open.
The two guards were sitting at a small table playing cards when they heard the outer door open. They looked up and saw a dark figure somersault silently into the room. Before they could react, the figure ended its tumble and flung two objects that glinted in the torchlight. The guards were dead before they could leave their seats, a knife buried to the hilt in their chests.
Duo retrieved his knives as the others filed into the room. He smiled at their astonished looks. Even Heero was surprised. Although they knew he could fight with the knives, no one had been aware of his deadly throwing accuracy. Heero had accepted Duo's plan only because of his complete faith in the braided boy. Now he'd discovered yet another hidden aspect of the young man he loved. He only hoped that they would be together long enough for him to discover all of Duo's secrets.
Another door sat on the far side of the guardroom. Through the barred window, Wufei saw that it led directly to the prisoner cells. He saw no other guards. He turned back to the others and frowned.
"This makes no sense. If Dermail is as paranoid as they say, why would he only have two guards watching his prisoners?"
Heero, Quatre, and Trowa looked at him, unable to think of a reply. Duo, however, shrugged.
"Look, I'm not one to question good fortune. Let's just get Hilde and the other prisoners and get out of here."
Wufei continued to frown but nodded in agreement, unable to argue with Duo's logic. Duo unlocked the door and they entered the dungeon proper. They paused briefly, amazed at the number of cells. There must have been nearly one hundred cells closely packed together along the long corridor. In the interest of time, which was swiftly passing away, Quatre used a spell to unlock all of the cells at once. The time for subtlety was past.
While the others went quickly from cell to cell to inform the prisoners of their freedom, Duo ran as fast as he could to the cell where he and Hilde had been kept. The one time Dermail had deigned to show him his cousin, he could tell that she was still in the same cell. Praying that she remained there, Duo finally reached the correct door. He yanked it open and stepped inside.
Heero's head jerked around at the anguished cry that came from a cell further down the corridor. Recognizing Duo's voice, he ran to join his lover, his heart in his throat at what he might find. He reached the cell and rushed inside to find Duo kneeling beside the cell's cot, the bed sheets balled in his fists.
"She's not here," Duo cried. "She's not here!"
Heero stepped forward and placed a strong hand on the hysterical boy's shoulder.
"We *will* find her, Duo," he said in a steady, reassuring voice. "Now, come on. The other prisoners are free and we need to get them out of here."
Duo looked up at him with wide eyes that sparkled with repressed tears. Heero's confident manner and expression reassured him. Nodding his understanding, he stood and followed Heero from the cell. They met up with the others and Heero explained the situation.
"Let's get these prisoners out of here then we'll try to think of some way to find Hilde."
On the way out, Heero decided that the prisoners should arm themselves with the spare weapons in the guardroom, in case they should run into trouble. His caution proved to be well-founded when they exited the castle into the clearing and found themselves surrounded by over a hundred guards.
Heero realized that Dermail must have become aware of their presence and had set a trap. However, the presence of the prisoners brought the number of his people nearly equal to that of the guards. An experienced and confident leader, Heero didn't hesitate in his orders.
The prisoners, armed and angry, rushed forward without hesitation. They were grateful to have the opportunity for revenge. Since many of the prisoners were captured soldiers, they acquitted themselves well against the guards.
Dermail's forces were surprised at the amount of resistance, having only expected to encounter a small force, but they were well trained and put up a good fight. However, they were unable to halt the furious onslaught of the enraged prisoners and the cold precision of Heero and his men.
Duo fought like a man possessed, thoughts and fears for Hilde fueling his rage. When he noticed that nearly all of Dermail's forces had been destroyed, he realized that they would need to keep at least one guard alive if he wished to find Hilde.
Duo spun around at the sound a guard charging him from behind. He parried the guard's initial attack and wasted no time in slashing the guard across his midsection with his other knife. The guard bent over slightly, grabbing his stomach in pain, and Duo sent a kick straight to the man's head. The guard fell to the ground, dazed but not unconscious.
Duo knelt over the guard and placed the fingers of his left hand around the guard's throat. His other hand held a knife, which Duo pressed against the guard's face right under his left eye.
"Where is the girl that was being held in the dungeon?"
"W-what girl?" The guard swallowed but was determined to call the long-haired boy's bluff. He began to rethink the wisdom of that decision when the boy's amethyst eyes narrowed into angry slits. The boy suddenly seemed infinitely more dangerous.
Duo growled. He tightened his grip on the guard's throat.
"The beautiful girl with dark hair and blue eyes. The *only* girl being held in the dungeon, you bastard!"
The guard started to shake his head, still more afraid of what the duke would do to him if he betrayed him than of this seemingly scrawny boy. But his eyes widened and his bravery fled as a strapping youth with ice cold dark blue eyes appeared over him and placed the point of a very long sword between his eyes.
Even through his anger, Duo had to force down a smile as the guard began to spill his guts. His love could be quite intimidating when he wished to be. Duo shot Heero a grateful glance, which Heero acknowledged with a nod.
"The girl is in the duke's study," the guard blubbered. "He wanted to keep an eye on her personally in case here c-cousin tried to rescue her."
Duo looked up at Heero. "I know where the study is. That's where Dermail taught me the incantation for the mirror."
Heero nodded and beckoned Duo to stand. Once Duo was no longer kneeling over the guard, Heero ran the coward through, Duo looking on with cold eyes. They went to join the others who waited nearby, having decimated Dermail's forces.
"Trowa, take the prisoners and return to the army. The rest of us will find Hilde and will join you as soon as we can."
Trowa nodded at Heero and with a brief look at Quatre, turned and led the prisoners into the woods.
Heero, Quatre, and Wufei followed Duo back into the castle, this time heading for the upper levels. They met with little resistance and were soon before the door to the duke's study. Duo checked the door and found it to be unlocked. Ignoring the other's puzzled and suspicious frowns, Duo yanked open the door and rushed into the room, the others on his heels.
"*Hilde*," Duo yelled. He looked around the book-lined room, but found no trace of his cousin. He clenched his jaw, believing that the guard had lied. Then, hearing a sound, he spun suddenly towards a large chair that sat in front of the fireplace.
"Duo? Is that you?"
The chair faced away from the room and towards the fire. Duo raced around to the front of the chair. He suddenly fell to his knees with a small cry. Heero, Quatre, and Wufei moved to join him and Wufei saw Duo kneeling in front of the chair crushing a slight, dark-haired figure to him. Wufei could hear the girl whispering Duo's name and he sighed, filled with the sense of accomplishment that came with successfully completing a mission.
Then the girl raised her head, blue eyes filled with tears and a smile of joy on her rosy lips. All thoughts but those of the girl's astounding beauty quickly left Wufei's head.
Duo forced himself to release Hilde before he crushed her with the force of his relieved and grateful embrace. He leaned back and wiped the tears from the beloved face he hadn't seen in over a month. The sight of her smile relieved the tightness that had been in his chest since he'd found the dungeon cell empty. Returning her smile, Duo turned to introduce her to his companions.
"Hilde, these are my friends who I trust with my life and yours. This is Heero, the one with the huge smile is Quatre, and the fierce looking one is Wufei."
Hilde smiled and nodded at each one in turn. But when she turned to Wufei, she felt her breath catch in her throat at the sight of the devastatingly handsome young man who gave her a deep, respectful bow. 'He is even more handsome than Duo,' she thought in awe. This was saying much as she genuinely believed her cousin walked on water.
Though loath to interrupt the happy family reunion, an anxious look from Quatre reminded Heero that the army would begin its attack at any moment. Before Heero could complete the thought, he heard the sound of a distant explosion. The bombardment of Aku had begun.
"Duo, we must go now."
Duo nodded at Heero and stood. He reached for Hilde's hands to help her rise when he noticed the shackle on her right wrist that kept her trapped in the chair. Clenching his jaw in anger, Duo made quick work of the lock and the group made their way out of the room.
They had started down the hall towards the exit when something made Duo look over his shoulder. His eyes stretched wide and he jerked in shock as he saw Dermail standing at the other end of the hall, face etched with a contemptuous smirk. Suddenly, Dermail turned and ran away.
Heero and the others spun around at Duo's enraged cry. Before they could ask Duo what was wrong, he took off running down the hall in the opposite direction.
"Take care of Hilde," Duo yelled over his shoulder.
"*Duo*!" Heero hesitated only a moment before taking off after the braided boy. "Get back to the others," he commanded before he and Duo disappeared from view.
Hilde moved to follow her cousin when Wufei placed a restraining hand on her arm.
"No, we must get you to safety. The castle is under attack." She looked at him stubbornly and he added, "Duo can take care of himself. He will be fine." Hilde looked back down the hall and then back at Wufei. She pressed her lips together in frustrated anxiety but nodded. She, Wufei, and Quatre quickly made their way out of the castle.
Heero followed Duo, not knowing what had caused Duo's sudden flight. Although he'd heard Duo's cry, he'd seen nothing in the hall himself. All he knew was that he had to protect Duo, even if it was from himself.
Duo ran through the castle's corridors without caution, led by the brief glimpses he would catch of Dermail's fleeing figure. He never stopped to question how it was possible that the older man was capable of moving so quickly. He continued his furious pursuit, barely aware of Heero behind him. He was determined to kill Dermail at all costs.
'*There*,' Duo thought as he saw Dermail disappear into a room. He entered at a run and felt himself pass through a dense fog. Suddenly, his headlong flight came to an abrupt end as he slammed against what felt like a stone wall.
He fell to the floor and lay there for a second, stunned by the force of the blow. Then he opened his eyes and saw that he was surrounded by some sort of shimmering magical force field that had let him in but didn't seem to want to let him back out. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw two feet standing next to his head. He looked up into the leering face of Duke Dermail. Duo quickly got to his feet and turned back towards the door just as Heero entered the room in hot pursuit.
"Heero, stop! It's a trap!"
Heero wrenched himself to an immediate halt. He saw that Duo was trapped in a magical barrier. Turning his head slightly he gritted his teeth as he saw Dermail.
"Well, isn't this nice. Here we all are, together at last. Prince Heero, I must say you're looking remarkably fit for someone who was so recently dead."
Heero turned back to Duo, not bothering to reply to Dermail's taunt.
"Ah ah," Dermail piped in when Heero reached a hand towards the barrier which held Duo prisoner. "I wouldn't touch that if I were you, not if you don't want to end up trapped like dear Duo."
Heero clenched his fist as he reluctantly lowered his hand back to his side. He met Duo's eyes as he felt the floor shake beneath his feet from the bombardment of the allied armies.
"Can you get out," he rasped in a low voice.
Duo struck his hand against the seemingly insubstantial fog. He hit what felt like solid stone.
"No," he replied softly.
They looked at each other, both realizing that Duo would not be leaving the castle. Heero's jaw clenched until it felt as though his teeth would shatter. A much closer explosion shifted the floor under his feet. Duo sent him a gentle, sad smile.
"Heero, you have to go."
Heero shook his head, refusing to even consider the possibility of leaving Duo there with Dermail.
Dermail laughed. "Listen to your friend, my young prince, unless you want to perish with us."
Heero and Duo sent the duke surprised glances.
"Yes," the duke replied, "I too will die here. Although I was aware of your presence here the moment you first entered the castle and I tried to set a trap, I was unaware of your army until recently. I'm quite aware that my castle and my soldiers will not survive. However, I thought that young Duo should join me in my defeat, seeing as how it is solely due to his betrayal. So I sent an image into his mind, one I knew would not fail to lead him into my trap. Yes, my dear boy, I'm afraid I allowed you to rescue your cousin. You are a much better prize."
Duo closed his eyes at his own stupidity. He opened them and looked back at a livid Heero. Heero's hand was on the hilt of his sword and Duo knew that he was about to attack the duke. But Duo also knew that if Heero didn't leave the castle right away, he would die there as well.
"Heero," Duo called out. "You must go now. You have to look after Hilde for me. You're the only one I trust."
Heero looked back with stubborn denial.
"Heero, please, there's nothing you can do. Don't let me enter the next world with the weight of your death on my heart," Duo whispered.
Heero felt tears sting his eyes. He shook his head, unable to accept that he could actually lose Duo. He looked back into the amethyst eyes that defined his world and wordlessly pleaded with Duo to tell him what to do. Duo shook his head. There was nothing to be done.
"Go, Heero. Go!" Duo yelled at Heero but he remained motionless.
"Please, Heero," Duo pleaded. "I love you. Please go."
Heero clenched his fists and the tears that had threatened spilled down his face. He turned to Dermail with a fierce growl.
"Damn you to every hell that exists!"
He turned back to Duo. "Mo aishiteru," he whispered. Then with an anguished cry he fled.
Duo closed his eyes and sighed in relief only to look up angrily as Dermail clapped mockingly.
"Such a touching scene. I never guessed you two had grown so close, although it does explain why you betrayed me. Well now, my lovely boy, it's time we made our own escape."
"*What*?" Duo looked at Dermail in shock.
"Why so surprised? You didn't actually think I would let myself die here, did you?" He shook his head. "I never would have guessed you to be so na´ve. No, I just wanted to make sure you were with me when I left."
Dermail stepped forward until his face was inches from Duo's. He smiled evilly. "I'm so going to enjoy having you service me, my beauty. And since no one will think you live, no one will ever look for you."
Duo looked back at Dermail with hatred and not a little fear. His last thought was of Heero as Dermail snapped his fingers and they disappeared.