"Your highness, long have we awaited your return! How may we serve you?"
Duo stared at the guardians, marveling at the beauty of the sound that issued from the frightening creatures. At the word "highness", Duo turned towards Heero, waiting to hear what his order would be.
"Duo," Quatre whispered behind him. "They are talking to *you*."
Duo threw the mage a puzzled glance before the truth dawned on him. '*I* am the "highness" they're talking about,' he mused. He turned back towards Heero, his wide amethyst eyes pleading for some hint as to what he should do. Heero returned his gaze, cobalt eyes filled with atypical uncertainty. The creatures fascinated and frightened him all at the same time. However, he had no clue as to what Duo should do now. He shook his head at his lover, indicating his inability to help.
Duo sighed at Heero's gesture and turned back towards the guardians. He cleared his throat as he racked his brain for some inkling as to what his next move should be. Finally, he decided to voice a question that had been in his mind since Quatre had first mentioned these incredible beings.
"Tell me, who or what are you, exactly?"
The creatures raised their heads in unison, regarding the braided prince with fathomless black eyes.
"We are the guardians of Shi woods. We protect the kingdom from all who seek entrance through this forest."
'So the kingdom does really exist,' Duo thought. Even after being faced with the manifestation of his powers, a niggling doubt as to the kingdom's existence had remained in the back of his mind. As he listened to the guardians, however, that doubt left him once and for all.
"But we failed in our duty," the guardians continued.
Duo's gaze sharpened at the self-deprecating words. "What do you mean you failed?"
"We failed to protect the kingdom. We failed to protect the members of the royal family and they perished. So we have been waiting these eighteen years for the return of the true king, the one who bears the mark. You are he."
The guardians bowed to Duo once again.
Duo shifted, uncomfortable at their obvious devotion. However, as he considered the creatures' words, another, more disturbing question entered his mind.
"What... what happened to the previous king?" Duo paused as a lump suddenly formed in his throat. "What happened to my father?" he continued in a pained whisper.
Heero moved to Duo's side, hearing the anguish in his lover's voice. He lifted a hand to Duo's shoulder but froze as the guardians heads snapped up. The creatures stared at him, menace burning clearly in their cold, black eyes. A low growl indicated their violent intentions as they shifted en masse towards the unmoving prince.
"*Stop*!" Duo yelled. "These are my friends and you are *not* to attack them!"
The creatures bowed once more. "Forgive us, your majesty! We thought he meant you harm. We just wish to protect you and any other members of the royal family that may still exist despite our ineptitude."
Duo sighed as the tension dissipated. He nodded at the creatures. "Then let me introduce my cousin, Hilde." He stepped over to her and took her hand. He smiled into her wide blue eyes in what he hoped was a reassuring manner and pulled her forward.
"This is Hilde, my cousin and another member of the royal family. You shall treat her words as you would my own."
The guardians bowed to her, respectfully. Duo nodded again and stepped back to Heero's side.
"And this is my consort, Prince Heero of Hane. You shall also obey his commands."
Again the guardians bowed in acknowledgement. Satisfied at their acceptance of his orders, Duo repeated his question.
"What happened to the previous king?"
"There was a terrible battle and the royal family was destroyed," the musical voice answered. "A great power attacked the castle and the surrounding villages. However, it somehow managed to bypass the forest. The ancients who created us decreed that we cannot leave Shi woods and so we were unable to help." The guardians bowed their heads in shame. "Please forgive us, your majesty at our failure to protect your family."
Duo blinked, wondering what kind of powerful being could possibly bypass the forest and the guardians. He also wondered how this mysterious being managed to defeat the Shi king, who had access to the Scepter and the Shi power. Duo shook his head, leaving the mystery for a later time.
"It's time to go home," he mumbled to himself. He took a deep breath as the words filled him with a sense of rightness. However, he failed to notice the narrow-eyed glance Heero shot him as he heard the soft spoken words.
"You are forgiven," Duo said aloud to the guardians. "It is clear that you are most formidable and would have stopped the attack had you been able. But now my companions and I must get through the forest and to the kingdom. Do you know the best route?"
Musical laughter filled the space between the trees. Duo looked over at Heero, wondering what he had said that was funny. Heero shrugged, not meeting Duo's eyes. Duo noticed that Heero had regained the expressionless countenance he had worn when they had first left Hane. Wondering at it's return, Duo's gaze lingered on Heero for a moment before he turned back to the guardians.
"We can take you and your friends, your majesty," the guardians declared. "Please get on your swift beasts."
Duo shrugged and turned towards the others. "You heard them," he quipped.
The surviving travelers mounted their horses and waited. Suddenly, the guardians moved towards them in a blur of motion. Without warning, the horses were borne up and the entire group was moving through the forest as fast as the wind.
A laugh of startled pleasure broke from Duo's throat as his horse whipped through the trees. Deadly obstacles loomed before him, only to be bypassed with laughable ease. Duo heard an awed gasp from Hilde and knew she was experiencing a similar emotion at the heart-pounding journey.
Duo closed his eyes as the wind tore past him, loosening his tightly braided hair from its restraint. Not wanting to miss a moment of the exhilarating voyage, Duo opened his eyes and tried to take in everything that he could.
Amazingly, although he was moving at a speed that could only be matched by the wind itself, he could see everything clearly. Startled woodland creatures looked up sharply and bounded away as they passed. Vines that were draped between trees rustled as if blown by a stiff breeze as they flew by.
Just as Duo looked over to Heero to see if he was enjoying the trip, his horse came to an abrupt halt. Duo tightened his legs around the saddle and gripped the pommel in an attempt to retain his seat against the force that threatened to throw him off of his mount. He looked around for the cause of their sudden halt, seeing his companions in similar states of disarray.
Duo's eyes stretched wide and his jaw dropped open when he saw that they were at the far edge of the forest. A journey that should have taken days had been accomplished in mere minutes. Behind them lay the verdant green expanse. But ahead, a field stretched out before them. Duo noticed how the tree line seemed to curve in on itself slightly and realized that the forest curved around the clearing in a large ring.
"We're in the Shi kingdom," he wondered aloud.
"Yes, your majesty. You have come home."
Duo turned to the guardians who seemed to meld into the trees. "Are you leaving?" he asked.
"Yes, your highness. Unfortunately, we can go no further. May the ancients protect you, Prince Duo."
With that, the guardians vanished back into the forest.
Quatre led his mount to Duo's side. "Well, Prince Duo, what do you want to do now?"
Duo turned to Quatre, ready with a retort to the teasing remark but he paused when he saw that Quatre was all seriousness. Out of habit, Duo looked towards Heero, waiting for a command. However, Heero merely returned the look with expressionless dark blue eyes.
'Not this again,' Duo sighed, noting Heero's sullen demeanor. Duo reminded himself of the promise Heero had made back at the river about always sharing his feelings as he turned back to Quatre.
"I guess we go forward and try to find out what happened to my family."
Duo glanced back once more at Heero, eyes indicating his displeasure at Heero's inexplicable brooding moodiness. Then he turned his mount away from the forest and headed out onto the field, the others following in his wake.
Duo sighed again as he slid a glance towards Heero for the umpteenth time. It had been several hours since they'd left the forest and the Hane prince had still not bothered to explain the reason for his sudden moroseness. But Duo resolved to be patient. He trusted that Heero would keep his promise. In the meantime, his mind teemed with questions and, after motioning Hilde to join him, he turned to the small, blond mage for answers.
"Quatre, I have a few things I want to ask you."
"Of course, your highness," Quatre replied with a bright smile.
Duo cut a narrowed-eyed glare at his cousin, causing her to stifle her sudden fit of giggles. With a sigh, he directed his gaze back to the blond mage.
"Quatre, cut it out. Just because the guardians talked to me like that doesn't mean you have to. I'm still just plain old Duo."
Quatre chuckled as he shook he head. "I don't think you've ever been just 'plain old' anything. But I will refrain from addressing you in the manner properly befitting your station." Quatre suppressed the urge to laugh at the disgusted look on the braided boy's face. "Now, what questions did you have for me, *Duo*."
Duo rolled his eyes but asked his first question. "Back when we first entered the forest Hilde's and my tattoos were stinging like they'd just been etched on with acid. Do you have any idea what that was all about?"
Quatre thought for a moment. "Well, I'd have to say that it was probably your power reacting to the forest."
Hilde and Duo regarded the mage with matching looks of confusion.
"Your power is focused through your tattoos," Quatre explained. "That's why you feel them tingle whenever you access your power. The Shi forest was created by the ancients, the same beings who created the Scepter and endowed the royal family with the Shi power. The power and the forest are connected so your power reacted to the forest when we first entered it. That's why your tattoos burned. The longer we were there, however, the more acclimated your power became to being in the woods. That's why the burning sensation faded after awhile."
Hilde nodded and Duo made a "hmm" of comprehension.
"Okay," Hilde said, "now I have a question. Actually, two questions. First of all, how did you know the guardians were there before I did? Considering how dangerous they were, it seems like I would have had a premonition of their arrival. And secondly, how did they know to be there at all? I mean, if they hadn't shown up and destroyed those liches, we'd all have been killed."
"The reason I saw the guardians before you felt them was because your power didn't recognize them as a threat. Your power warns you of danger, not of approaching allies. Remember, you are a part of the Shi royal family as well, Hilde, and the guardians are sworn to protect you just as much as Duo. Your power knew what the guardians were and therefore didn't warn you of their arrival."
"Okay," Hilde said after Quatre finished his explanation. "That makes sense. But how did they know to show up in the first place?"
"And why were they going to going to attack us at first if they're supposed to want to protect Hilde and me?" Duo added.
"As to your question, Hilde," Quatre began, "I don't know how they knew to show up. They came after you and Duo released your power into the forest. Duo, how did you know to do that? I'm sure that's what called to the guardians."
Duo shrugged. "I don't really know. Something just told me what to do."
"Hmmm," Quatre mused. "Somehow your power can impart knowledge to you that you ordinarily wouldn't have. Something similar happened at the river when you killed that creature. None of the rest of us knew what to do to save Heero, but you just stepped right up and dealt with the monster without hesitation. That must be what happened this time as well.
"As for why they didn't recognize you at first, Duo, well... the guardians couldn't sense your power since they are not magical in and of themselves. They were created by magic and you used magic to call them, but there was no way they could have known who you were without seeing your tattoo. Remember, they said that they'd been awaiting the return of the 'one who bore the mark'."
Duo nodded, his expression thoughtful. "Right. 'These eighteen years'. So whatever happened occurred when we were just babies."
Duo pondered this for another moment. Then his lips quirked in a mischievous grin and he shot Hilde a glance. "I guess it was a good thing I was there, Hilde. Otherwise, you would have been the one who would have had to take off her shirt. I'm sure Wufei would have appreciated it."
Hilde didn't deign to acknowledge her cackling cousin but kept her attention on Quatre. "Thank you, Quatre. You've been most informative."
Quatre smiled at her, as well as at Duo's remark. "You're most welcome, my lady."
"Oh no you don't," Hilde warned. "Don't start that 'my lady' stuff with me or you might end up with an arrow in your butt."
Heero looked over as the three broke out in laughter. Heero's gaze fell on Duo and he felt his chest tighten once more. The boy's aching beauty, his face still lit up by laughter and his hair flying around him, loosened by the flight through the forest, went straight to his heart. He clearly remembered the feeling of panic that had gripped him when Duo had called the Shi kingdom 'home'. Heero sighed. He knew that his fear that Duo would leave him, would get to Shi and tell him to go back to Hane, had made him behave coldly towards his lover. He'd promised Duo that he would never hide his feelings again and it was time he made good on that promise.
Duo looked over as he saw Heero approach from the corner of his eye. His laughing smile faded as he realized that the time had finally come to talk about whatever it was that was bothering the blue-eyed prince. Duo turned his mount away from Quatre and Hilde and went to meet Heero halfway.
They rode beside each other in silence for a few long moments, dropping to the back of the group by unspoken agreement.
"So, what wrong, Heero?" Duo asked finally, turning to look at his quiet lover.
"Hn," Heero replied, taking a moment to gather his thoughts. He decided the direct approach was the best.
"You called Shi 'home'. It bothered me."
Duo's amethyst eyes narrow in confusion. "So what? All this time you've been telling me that Shi *is* my home. I just finally agreed with you."
Heero took a deep breath. "I just... I just thought that you considered Hane your home. That's what you said when we rescued for Dermail's camp. That you wanted to go home."
Duo sighed, hearing everything that went unspoken. "Heero, I didn't mean that I wanted to go to Hane. I meant that I wanted go with you. *You* are my home. Home is wherever you are. If you want to stay with me in Shi, then Shi is my home. If not, then wherever we go will be my home."
Heero was unable to speak as he listened to Duo's impassioned explanation. He turned to look at the braided beauty and found himself drowning in deep amethyst pools. What's more, he had no desire to ever be rescued.
Duo's breath caught in his throat at the emotions that Heero's eyes expressed so eloquently. He suddenly wished for nothing more than to find an isolated spot where he could demonstrate to his prince just how much he loved him.
However, a sudden shout from Hilde made both young men turn away from each other and back towards the group. Speeding up their mounts, Duo and Heero made there way over to the frightened girl.
"Hilde, what's wrong?" Duo asked, looking around for impending doom. All he saw were several cottages indicating an outlying village. He turned back to his cousin, waiting for her to explain what her power had warned her of.
"That place," she whispered, pointing to the small village. "There's something wrong. I don't know... it feels like magic, evil magic."
Heero, Duo, and Quatre shared a quick glance. Then Heero turned away and rode to the front of the group.
"Be on your guard as we approach this village. Hilde says there is evil magic afoot. Trowa and Wufei, you will come with Duo, Quatre, and myself and check out the village. The rest of you, be ready to come if we need help. Hilde, stay here with the soldiers."
For once, Hilde didn't protest the protective order. She was pale and her blue eyes were wide with fright. Whatever had happened in the village, it clearly had her spooked and that alone was enough to make the others extremely wary.
Trowa, Quatre, and Wufei went together to the nearest house on the right while Duo and Heero took the first house on the left. Although he was become more and more confident of his power, Duo retrieved his knives from his boots, reassured at the feel of the blades in his hands. Heero unsheathed his sword and, with a final look towards Duo, stepped up to the cottage door.
His knock met with no answer and he cautiously pushed the unlocked door open with his foot. He looked to the left of the small room they entered while Duo covered the right side. They looked at each other in puzzlement when their sweeping gazes met with nothing other than an empty room. However, they had come to have much respect for Hilde's warnings and advanced into the cottage with caution.
Heero went to what appeared to be the kitchen while Duo opened the door on the far side of the main room. Heero's eyes narrowed at the cobwebs that lined the windowsills. It was obvious that no one had lived in the small cottage for some time. Then he heard Duo gasp from the other room and rushed out of the kitchen to help his lover.
Heero burst through the door Duo had disappeared through and stopped just shy of running into Duo's back. Duo didn't turn around at his abrupt entrance and Heero looked around the frozen boy to see what was holding his attention. Heero's blood ran cold at the sight before him.
The two young men stood in a bedroom and on the bed lay a man and a woman. The couple was old, but this was not strange. What was strange was the layer of cobwebs that covered the couple, and indeed the entire bed. And even more strange than this was that the couple were laying with their eyes wide open, staring at the ceiling as if dead. But beyond this, the couple was bathed in a blue light that seemed to radiate from them.
Heero broke his stillness first and stepped around the still frozen Duo to investigate. Gingerly he reached down and placed his fingers on the side of the old man's neck. A shiver ran through him at what he felt. With a look of uncharacteristic shock, Heero turned back toward the braided boy.
"Duo," he whispered, "They are alive."
A/N: AHHH, this darn story has taken on a life of its own and just will not end! Oh, well, I guess I could have writer's block instead. Oh, BTW, sorry about the Quatre expository. Sometimes that little blond is just full of useful information! ^_^