Duo stared at the liches in horror. There were so many that he could not see the end of the advancing horde. He realized that Hilde was right. There was no way he would be able to destroy them all, even with all of his newfound power.
The travelers took Heero's advice and fled the clearing, heading into the surrounding woods. Curses filled the air as horses stumbled over the uneven undergrowth. Although they tried to stay together, the difficult terrain spread the group out more than Heero would have liked. Heero and Duo rode towards the front, followed closely by Hilde and Wufei, then Quatre and Trowa. The soldiers kept towards the rear and the sides in a flanking position, bravely trying to protect their prince. Occasionally, someone would look back to determine the position of the undead creatures only to see them looming ever closer.
The fleeing group valiantly attempted to fend off the monsters' advance. From horseback, the archers who rode at the periphery of the pack picked off scores of the loathsome zombies. Quatre's well-aimed magical attacks dispatched dozens at a time. Duo, in turn, decimated the ranks of the creatures with powerful blasts of his power.
For all of their effort, however, the liches numbers were not appreciably diminished. They continued on in a seemingly unending, nightmarish surge, approaching the group en masse from behind. Without warning, the creatures increased their pace, moving slightly past the escaping humans on either side, threatening to enclose them in a pincer-like trap. Suddenly, a cry rang out as one of the rearmost soldiers was overtaken by the putrescent horde. Then more cries rang out in quick succession as three more men died horribly, ripped to shreds by the foul monsters.
Heero's teeth ground together in futile fury as he looked back to see his men and their mounts being savaged by the undead creatures. No matter how fast they ran, the liches consistently kept pace with them. 'If only we could get out of this damnable thicket,' he grated silently.
As if in answer to his prayers, the woods suddenly ended and the group found themselves in a wide open field. The field sloped up gently, leading to the top of a large hill. What lay on the other side of the rise was unknown, but there was no time to worry about navigating the unfamiliar landscape.
"Now is our chance," Heero yelled.
Eagerly following his lead, everyone increased their speed, rushing headlong across the gods' sent clearing. As terrified as their riders, the horses readily surged into full out gallops. The group raced across the field, assured that they were at last outpacing the liches.
Feeling a niggling sense of dread, Hilde cautiously turned in her saddle to determine how far ahead of the creatures they were. Her eyes opened wide in dismay. The liches, endowed with unholy speed, were having no problems keeping up with the band's flight.
"They're still with us!" she yelled in horrified alarm.
Duo cursed as he looked behind to verify Hilde's warning. Heero's let out a growl as he did the same. He didn't know what else to do but run and only hoped that the horses' endurance would be up to the task. 'Still, at least with this open land, we have a chance to outrun them,' Heero thought gratefully as he reached the top of the rise.
Fate, being a cruel mistress, caused Heero to regret his hasty assumption. No sooner had the notion crossed his mind than a dense wall of green rose up before him, previously hidden by the large hill. Heero narrowed his eyes in consternation as he took in the forest that blocked their path. He heard Duo gasp and knew the braided boy had reached the same conclusion he had.
"Heero, there is *no* way we'll be able to outrun these things if we have to go through *that*!"
Though never slowing his mount, Heero turned his head back and forth, desperately searching for an escape. His heart sank as his vantage point on the hilltop allowed him to take in the awesome extent of the vast thicket ahead of him. The forest led both to the left and the right with no discernable break in the foliage and stretched into the distance as far as he could see. Heero could only conjecture at how long it would take to circumvent the impenetrable woodland. They could end up riding at the edge of the forest forever, the liches ever behind them.
The prince clenched his jaw in frustration. There was no choice but to plunge straight into the verdant growth. Looking around at the faces of his companions, Heero observed that they were fully aware of their plight. All eyes turned to him, sending him looks that expressed complete faith in his leadership. With a grim nod, he led their headlong charge into the immense forest.
Quatre looked around while trying not to lose his seat. He took in the sheer density of forest with wide eyes. The thick undergrowth swallowed up sound so that only the horses' labored breathing could be heard. Suddenly, a thought occurred to him that made his heart thunder in his chest.
"Heero!" he yelled. "Wait!"
Heero's brow furrowed in puzzlement at the mage's cry. "*What*?" he shouted over his shoulder.
Duo turned slightly to look back at the seemingly insane blond. "Are you crazy? We can't stop! Those things will be all over us!"
"*No*!" Quatre cried in response. "This forest! I think it's the forest that surrounds Shi!"
"So what?!" Duo shouted back.
Quatre growled with uncharacteristic irritation. "Duo! The forest! The *guardians*!"
Duo cursed to himself as Quatre's meaning suddenly became clear. Heero shot him a confused glance.
"Guardians? What guardians?"
"The guardians of the Shi forest. The ones who protect the kingdom from being discovered." Duo swallowed as he continued. "The ones that move like the wind and can tear a man limb from limb."
Heero's eyes widened in disbelief at the description. Surely these guardians had to be a myth. If not, they had just rushed heedlessly into an even more dangerous situation than the one they were already in. Heero came out of his reverie. The sounds of the liches could be heard even over the dampening effects of the forest. They were closing in.
"We have no choice! Those things are still gaining on us!"
Heero's words turned out to be prophetic. Within seconds the liches caught up with them and claimed two more of the soldiers as victims. The survivors tried to increase their speed but their efforts were defeated by the impenetrable undergrowth. Death was upon them and no one had any illusions about their ability to escape the liches.
Simultaneously, Duo and Hilde gasped loudly, their hands flying to their respective shoulders.
"Duo, my shoulder! It burns!"
Duo could only groan in pained agreement. His shoulder felt like it was on fire. He hadn't felt anything like it since...
"Hilde! It's our power! It's trying to tell us something. My tattoo burned like this back at the river when that monster attacked!"
Duo gritted his teeth as the pain intensified for a brief moment. Hilde cried in agony, prompting Wufei to reach for her even though their horses were still in full flight. His movement caused him to overbalance. With a yell, he fell off of his fleeing mount.
"*Wufei*!" Hilde yelled in horror. Frantically, she flung herself off of her horse. She hit the ground, her forward momentum causing her to roll. When she came to a halt, she rushed towards the fallen guard.
"*Hilde*!" Duo cried. He imitated Hilde's action, though far more gracefully. He leapt from his horse in a move that would have done the gypsy horsemen who'd helped raised him proud. Shouting her name, he hit the ground in a roll then sprung immediately to his feet and rushed to his cousin's side.
Heero, followed by Quatre, Trowa, and the remaining soldiers quickly came to a halt. Heero and Trowa quickly dismounted and dashed to help Duo and Hilde while Quatre and the archers renewed their desperate, pointless, attack on the swarming liches. Pulling their swords, Heero and Trowa endeavored to keep the liches away from Duo, Hilde, and the dazed but recovering Wufei.
Hilde pressed a hand to Wufei's head, exerting her power and instantly healing a gashed he'd received in his fall. Unfortunately, he had no time to express his gratitude. With lightning quick reflexes, Wufei pushed Hilde to the side and unsheathed his sword. Before Hilde could protest, he struck out, impaling an attacking lich. He thrust her behind him as he got to his feet, brandishing his silvery blade.
Heero, Trowa, and Wufei, aided by Duo's explosive assaults, managed to keep the liches at bay for a short time. But soon, the sheer magnitude of the liches' forces began to overwhelm them. Quatre and the archers had no better luck as they inexorably lost ground to the advancing swarm.
Duo grunted as he focused his power into another attack. He threw Heero a quick glance while he gathered his power yet again.
"Heero, I'm sorry I got you into this."
Heero slashed at another of the endless throng. He spared his lover an intense, though hurried, gaze.
"You didn't get me into anything. Duo..."
Heero paused to swing at an advancing lich.
"Duo... ai shiteru."
Duo's heart swelled with emotion even as he cursed the unfairness of their plight.
"I love you too," he said softly.
Somewhat bolstered by the exchange, the two fighters turned back to the fray with renewed ferocity. Duo increased the intensity of his strikes, managing to destroy dozens of the undead creatures with a single blast. Yet, it was still not enough.
Trowa let out a grunt of pain as a lich scored a slash on his arm. Heero hissed soon after, blood oozing from a shallow wound in his side, a lich managing to get past his guard. Of the three swordsmen, only Wufei was uninjured, but exhaustion was slowly creeping up on him as he fought on.
Duo looked over to Quatre and the archers. The archers were running low on arrows and Quatre was visibly drained from the strain of using his offensive magics. Duo took in the grimness of their situation as he turned towards his cousin. Their eyes met and Duo was struck with a flash of inspiration.
"Hilde, give me your hand."
Responding to the command in his tone, she didn't question him as she placed her hand in his.
"Now," he continued, "focus your power. Bring it to the surface so that it feels like it's flowing out of you."
She closed her eyes and he did the same. The sensation in their shoulders had faded after that initial flare of pain, but now their respective tattoos tingled with renewed intensity. Hilde felt her power pour into the air around her and merge with Duo's own released energy. Their joined power spread out in an ever increasing sphere, moving swiftly through the forest.
The beleaguered defenders took no note of the focused pair. Their attention was completely dominated by the unending masses of the undead. But even they were distracted by the glow that suddenly emanated from the cousins and swelled to surround them all. Inexplicably, the liches halted their assault, apparently enthralled by the power filling the air around them.
The fighters, though confused by the liches' sudden inaction, moved to take advantage of the unprecedented opportunity. However, they faltered as an cacophonous noise swelled up from the surrounding trees.
Heero flinched at the discordant sound. His intense gaze searched the tree-line but found nothing to account for the sudden clamor. Then he shivered as he felt something brush by him. It moved so swiftly that he couldn't make out what it was. Sudden intakes of air from Trowa and Wufei told him that he was not alone in the experience.
Duo and Hilde opened their eyes, ceasing their outpouring of energy. Released from their thrall, the liches immediately renewed their attack. The defenders quickly went back on their guard, wearily prepared to continue the never-ending battle.
Then, without warning, some of the liches were seemingly shredded into pieces where they stood. Soon, more and more of the creatures were being torn apart. After a short time what had seemed to be an endless horde was no more.
The fighters stared around them in baffled astonishment. Everywhere, bits of the liches littered the ground. The defenders looked to each other, then turned to the two who had apparently precipitated this incredible occurrence.
Hilde had just been following her cousin's lead. Now she turned to him with the same confounded expression worn by the others. Duo, however, had no answers for her or for anyone. He had been acting on instinct. With wide eyes, he turned to Heero, his look conveying his ignorance as to how they had been saved.
All eyes spun towards Quatre when he suddenly let out a small cry. His huge aquamarine eyes looked past them and his mouth hung open in shock. Following his gaze, everyone turned to see what had garnered such a reaction from the usually composed mage. A collective gasp went up as they found their answer.
Five creatures stood silently beyond them, blending in with the trees. The figures were as tall as young saplings. The humans had an impression of mottled gray skin covering cadaverously thin bodies that were seemingly made of mist. They shimmered in and out of focus, so that their exact form was nearly impossible to ascertain. But what was horrifyingly clear were their empty black eyes and the dagger-like claws and shark-like teeth that had made such short work of the liches.
The soldiers raised their weapons, grimly aware of the futility of their actions. If the liches had been no match for these creatures, there was no hope for any of them.
Heero, Trowa, and Wufei raised their swords as well, prepared to continue the battle. Duo, Hilde, and Quatre, however, stood motionless, entranced by the mysterious creatures. A low growling noise emerged from the five beings as they gathered themselves, with flexes of claws and gnashing of teeth, to terminate the existence of the puny humans they faced. The fighters tensed, ready to continue the struggle for their lives.
Quatre's voice cut through the unnerving quiet that had come over the surrounding forest.
"Quickly, Duo, take off your tunic!"
Duo sent the mage a quick, puzzled glance, but didn't question the command.1 In one smooth motion, Duo divested himself of his tunic. His braid fell heavily against his back as it was freed from the garment. Shivering slightly in the cool air, Duo turned towards Quatre for further instructions.
However, Quatre had no opportunity for any additional response. The creatures uttered a melodious purr that was as pleasant as their initial cry had been raucous. Duo froze at the sound. He turned back around slowly, just in time to see the creatures kneel and bow towards him. Duo blinked in disbelief. Suddenly, a soothing voice rose out of nowhere.
"Your highness, long have we awaited your return! How may we serve you?"
1. Has anyone noticed how Duo's flashes of insight are completely unpredictable? In some desperate situations he knows just what to do, while at other times he's completely clueless. Hmm.... Good thing Quatre is there to pick up the slack, ne? (Presented to you by Plot Convenience Theatre and Co.) ^_^
A/N: You may be wondering why Hilde didn't sense the presence of the guardians before Quatre saw them. This will be explained by a bit of Quatre expository in the next installment. Stay tuned!