Trowa used the tip of his sword to push open the door of the cabin. After all the attacks they had been through recently, he wasn't taking any chances. The interior of the small cabin was dim, the cobwebs covering the windows blocking out much of the sunlight. His sweeping glance observed nothing untoward so, with a nod to Quatre and Wufei who waited behind him, he moved into the room.
Quatre had been feeling very uneasy since Hilde's warning. He'd gotten into the habit of dampening his empathic gift but now he opened himself fully in order to get a sense of what had given the brave girl such a fright.
Trowa turned quickly to his lover as he heard Quatre's startled gasp. The blond mage's complexion had acquired a greenish tint and he looked decidedly nauseous.
"Quatre, what is it?" Trowa asked softly.
Quatre took deep heaving breaths in order to control his rebellious stomach.
"I don't know. It's just this place... There's something horribly wrong here."
Wufei had stepped away from them and gone to investigate a room off to the side of the cabin. He opened the door and froze. Sensing the guard's sudden distress, Quatre looked towards Wufei with wide eyes. He had never felt anything like the despair and anger that rolled off of the usually stolid young man.
"Wufei, what's in there? What do you see?"
Wufei, unable to answer, stepped away from the door and further into the room. Quatre and Trowa moved through the vacated doorway. Trowa's brow furrowed fiercely, lips pressed together in an effort to restrain the cry that threatened to burst from him. Quatre was not so reticent.
"*No*!" he shouted. Quatre fell to his knees, his legs no longer able to support him.
The door led to a small kitchen, the room's purpose made known by the rough but sturdy table and chairs that sat in the middle of the floor as well as the fireplace that contained a cooking pot hanging from a peg over cold firewood. As in rest of the cottage, the surfaces of the room were covered with a light gauze of cobwebs, as were the three people sitting huddled by the wall beneath a small window.
A young man sat holding a young woman who in turn held on her lap a small boy of about two. The man's eyes were wide with fear, staring blankly at some unseen horror. Tears dripped down the woman's cheeks, frozen in time. The child was caught in an eternal scream, his little face scrunched up. A bluish glow surrounded the ill-fated family.
Trowa knelt at Quatre's side. He placed strong arms around the trembling mage and held him close as he cried. Quatre's heart was filled with pain, the fear and terror pouring from the young family overwhelming his empathic senses.
"By the ancients, Trowa. They're alive but in some sort of stasis. Who could do such a thing?"
Wufei stared at the motionless trio. "It's... it's as if they'd been..."
"Cursed," a soft voice finished behind him.
Wufei spun around to find Hilde standing in the doorway, supporting herself with one hand on the doorframe. In the face of her obvious distress he found himself unable to berate her for failing to follow orders. Silent tears ran down her pale face. Her haunted eyes looked at the bewitched family with sadness rather than surprise.
"I saw this in a vision as we approached the village, but I couldn't believe that what I saw was real."
Quatre clamped down on his empathic abilities as he looked towards her. Taking a deep breath, he regained his feet with Trowa's help. Hilde's anguished gaze met his.
"Can't you hear them, Quatre? They're screaming..."
Wufei walked swiftly to her and took her arm.
"Come on. Let's get out of here and find Heero and Duo."
The distraught group left the cabin hurriedly. They blinked as they stepped out into the bright sun, almost surprised that the day was still so cheerful after the horror they'd just witnessed. Across from them, the door to a cottage opened and Duo and Heero stepped out. It was clear from the stricken look on their faces that they'd beheld a similar sight. Wufei and Trowa moved off to quickly check the other few houses that made up the small village.
Duo met Hilde's eyes and stepped over to her. Wordlessly, he took her into his arms. Closing his eyes, he rested his head atop hers and held her while she cried. Heero tore his gaze away from his lover long enough to glance at the others.
"Quatre," he rasped, "what happened here?"
Quatre sighed, drained by the emotional onslaught he'd just been subjected to, and shook his head.
"Honestly, Heero, I'm not sure. If I had to hazard a guess, I'd have to say that someone or something placed a powerful spell over this place. The people we saw were alive but trapped in their own bodies, suspended in time. But from the feelings I got from them, they're aware of what's happened to them." Quatre paused to take a shuddering breath. "It's awful..."
"Can you reverse whatever's been done?" Heero asked grimly.
Quatre shook his head. "No, the magic I'm detecting is very powerful. If I'm to have any chance to help, I need to know exactly what happened."
Wufei and Trowa returned, their expressions declaring the grim news that the rest of the villagers suffered a similar fate.
Heero nodded. "Then let's move on and try to find someone who can help us."
Heero moved close to Duo and placed a hand on his shoulder. Weary amethyst eyes looked up and met his. Duo nodded and stepped back from Hilde. Keeping an arm around her shoulder he led her, following the others as they rejoined the soldiers waiting just outside the village.
Heero briefly explained to his men what they'd found. After the outburst of shock had quieted he told them that they would continue on and look for someone who could shed some light on the unspeakable evil that had befallen the village.
A few hours later, they encountered another slightly larger community. The deserted streets warned that the condition of the people here would be no better. A quick examination of the dozen or so cottages and cabins confirmed their grim suspicions. Everyone had been affected by the same evil enchantment that had befallen the previous village.
Duo felt his power rise in response to his anger. These people were citizens of Shi. That meant that they were his responsibility, his to protect. His sense of helplessness grated on him and increased with every new victim they found.
The group continued on to the next village and the next until it became clear that everyone in the entire kingdom must have been placed under the same curse.
"Damn it!" Duo yelled, infuriated by the condition of the people he'd already begun to feel for. Heero's dour countenance indicated that he shared Duo's sentiment.
Hilde did her best to try and block out the screams she could hear coming from the beleaguered populace, but she had little success. Tears of distress ran ceaselessly down her pale cheeks.
Quatre kept a firm damper on his gift, wary that the feelings of terror that nearly saturated the air would cause him to descend into madness.
Finally the travelers came upon an open market and stared in shock at the horror that lay before them.
Whereas the villagers they'd come across previously had fled into their homes to escape whatever had bespelled them, the people in the market place had not been so fortunate.
The streets were crowded with living statues. Merchants silently hawked their wares from tattered booths, their identities declared by battered signs. Desiccated fruit and long rotted meat hung from rusty hooks. Moth eaten cloth and tarnished silver beckoned to multitudes of immobile shoppers. Ragged banners flapped in the breeze, emphasizing the unnatural hush of the once bustling square.
Duo's eyes closed as his heart twisted in pain. He looked into the faces of the enchanted people and realized that most had been unaware of the danger that was soon to befall them. A mother looked down at her daughter and held a cloak stretched out over the child like a shelter, smiling as the little girl tried on a once shiny bracelet. Two young men's faces were lit with eternal laughter as they raced motionlessly amongst the booths.
A keening wail of agony fell from Hilde's lips and she pressed trembling hands against her ears as scores of suffering cries assaulted her. Wufei rode over to her and effortlessly plucked her from her saddle. Holding her to him, he rubbed a hand along her back, trying in vain to comfort her.
"Please, help me," she whispered. Thinking that she was addressing him, Wufei opened his mouth to reassure her when she spoke again.
"Please help me to understand."
Wufei realized that Hilde was beseeching her power, begging for the knowledge of what had occurred. He pressed his lips together, knowing she was destined to fail. Her power allowed her to see into the future, but surely held no sway over the past.
The error of his assumption became apparent when Hilde suddenly straightened with a gasp. The hair on the back of Wufei's neck stood on end as he felt the energy coursing through her. Her lips parted in surprise and her eyes focused on something only she could see. Duo and the others looked over at her as she began to speak in a hollow voice.
"The attack came eighteen years ago. The people had little warning - only a slight darkening of the sky. Then lighting filled the heavens. The villagers took to their homes to avoid the coming rain. Those in the market simply resigned themselves to getting drenched in a downpour. But there was no rain. Instead, an evil cloud filled the land. The people in their homes saw the cloud and were frightened but many in the market were unaware, busy as they were with shopping and haggling.
"The smoke covered them and stole their ability to move. The people screamed, imprisoned inside their own bodies. But there was no one to hear them. The smoke missed no one. Only those in the castle were spared. But a far worse fate awaited them."
Duo stared at his cousin as she spoke. He could feel her power rushing through her and knew that it was causing her vision of the past. The thought of what these people had suffered filled him with rage. 'Eighteen years,' he thought in dismay. He growled deep in his throat.
"Hilde, who did this?"
"A powerful sorcerer," she replied. "He coveted the Scepter and wanted to destroy the king and the rest of the royal family. But first he wanted to make them suffer. So he cursed everyone who lived in Shi, all of the people who looked to the king for protection."
"Hilde, can you tell us the identity of the sorcerer?" Quatre asked. His amazement at Hilde's new gift didn't override his desire to determine how to reverse the spell and free the people.
"The sorcerer Tuberov... also known as Duke Dermail."
Duo spat a gypsy curse. "Dermail! Why am I not surprised?"
Quatre shook his head. "I knew that the duke was powerful, but I had no idea. Not only to do this but to be able to get past the forest and the guardians. The forest is supposed to shield the kingdom from detection as well as to repel any magical invasion. Dermail must have struck a deal with the Lord of the Abyss himself to get that kind of power."
Hilde inhaled sharply. Released from her vision, she blinked and looked around at the others.
"Hilde," Wufei asked, "how did you do that?"
She looked at him with wide, blue eyes. "The Scepter is very near. I can feel it. It's enhancing my power." She turned to her cousin. "Duo, don't you feel it?"
Heero turned to the braided prince in time to see him nod.
"Yes, I can feel it. It is nearby. I guess Dermail wasn't able to find it, even after he'd killed our parents." Duo's body quivered, his muscles tight with angry tension. "Hilde, ask the Scepter how we can save our people."
Hilde nodded then took a deep breath and closed her eyes. She let her power fill her and flow outward, seeking the presence of the Scepter. Suddenly, her power came into contact with the powerful staff. Hilde inhaled as she was filled with a sense of calm and peace. Respectfully, she asked for the knowledge of how to counteract Dermail's evil. The answer was given and her power pulsed with gratitude.
Duo could feel the exchange although he was unable to interpret the Scepter's message. He looked at his cousin eagerly when she opened her eyes, a small smile on her lips.
"Well? What do we do?"
Hilde laughed softly as his impatience. "It's actually very simple, Duo. The Scepter, acting through you, has the power to break the spell. All you must do is find the Scepter and wish for the spell to be broken. You alone can do this since only the king can access the Scepter's full power."
Duo nodded eagerly. "Good, that sounds easy enough. So where is the Scepter?"
"It's in the castle, hidden by protective magics," she replied.
"Okay." Duo nodded, filled with a fiery determination, and took hold of his reins, ready to ride off. Then he paused and looked sheepishly at his cousin.
"Ummm... where is the castle?"
Heero and the others looked around. The castle was not in sight.
"It must be further on," Heero commented.
Filled with the Scepter's gift of knowledge, Hilde smiled and shook her head.
"No, the castle is right before us."
Duo looked around in puzzlement. He turned back towards the grinning girl.
"Where?" he asked.
Hilde turned away from Wufei and looked towards the large field. She raised a delicate but capable hand, facing it palm out.
"Dermail has hidden it from view to deceive us. But I will ask the Scepter to reveal it."
Hilde closed her eyes and released her power to communicate with the Scepter once more. Suddenly the air over the field seemed to shimmer. Quatre heard the wind itself sigh with relief as the powerful spell was suddenly broken. He gasped along with the others as the illusory fog that had lain over the field was lifted.
Soaring towers of light gray, marbled stone slowly came into view. High battlements were next to appear. Bit by bit a beautiful castle was revealed to the astonished assembly. Sunlight reflected brilliantly from scores of gleaming windows and flags emblazoned with the Shi symbol, identical to the design of Duo's and Hilde's tattoos, fluttered in a gentle breeze. Last to appear was a large portcullis that led into an immense courtyard.
Heero, Wufei, Quatre, and Trowa stared along with the soldiers at the now visible castle. The fortress put even Hane's beautiful palace to shame. More than one mouth fell agape as Shi Castle emerged from hiding.
Hilde lowered her hand and smiled at the sight of the incredible structure. She turned to her cousin, her smile growing larger at the wonder apparent on his face.
Duo turned to meet her gaze, his heart filled with joy. He had seen this castle in his dreams and felt as though he'd lived here his entire life. He knew that if he were to walk the halls, he would know them as though he'd walked them every day. It had taken eighteen long years, but he'd finally come back to where he belonged.
"Home," he sighed, turning eyes back to the castle.
Heero looked at Duo, and this time, he smiled.
A/N: Hilde is knowledge girl! Hey, Quatre can't have all of the fun! ^_~