Duo's body quivered visibly with the effort it took not to rush into the castle courtyard ahead of the others. He could hardly believe that after eighteen years, he would finally see his birthplace. His home.
The group cautiously passed through the portcullis and entered the courtyard, wary for any tokens of welcome the duke might have left for them. A protective wall surrounded the large, open area on three sides. The side furthest from the portcullis comprised a large archway that led into the castle's lower levels. The courtyard was deserted, the grounds unkempt and covered with wildflowers.
Duo and Hilde shared a glance. Although they knew that neither of them had seen this place since they were infants, the sense of recognition that came over them was incredible. Duo knew that the stables were located just to the right through the archway. To the left, a large door led to an enormous storage area where all the goods for the castle's residents were kept. And finally, straight ahead there was a tall, iron gate leading into the castle proper.
Drawn forward despite the need for caution, Duo and Hilde rode ahead of the rest through the archway, ignoring the calls of warning. Duo looked over his shoulder and smiled at a glowering Heero.
"Well, are you coming? Or are you going to wait out here all day?"
Heero grunted a frustrated 'hn' and moved to join his eager lover. Wufei, Quatre, Trowa, and the remaining soldiers followed hesitantly.
Heero rode abreast of the cousins who had dismounted and were leading their horses into the stable. He sighed and swung himself off of his horse. Entering the stable, he looked around and was impressed with the size of the facility. It was even larger than the main stables at Hane Castle. Clearly Shi had once hosted a large number of inhabitants.
Heero's eyes narrowed as his thoughts turned towards the people in the surrounding villages. He could only guess at the terrible fate that must have befallen those that had resided in the castle itself.
Duo removed the saddle and settled his mount as best he could, only able to offer the beast stale hay from the stable's troughs and tepid water from his own rations. He turned to see the others doing the same. Eventually, everyone had completed their task and looked to Duo, waiting to hear his plans.
Duo blinked as all eyes were suddenly on him. He felt a fleeting temptation to let Heero take charge, but he knew that here, he was the prince. Whatever happened here was his responsibility.
"We need to find the Scepter," he said, addressing the entire group. "Only with its power will we be able to free the villagers from Dermail's spell."
Everyone nodded in understanding.
"Okay," Duo continued. "Now, I figure the Scepter will be in one of the high towers." He looked towards Quatre who bowed his head in agreement. "However, we can't be certain which one..."
"I know where it is," Hilde interrupted, fixing her cousin with a steady gaze.
Duo looked at her for a moment in puzzlement. Then his face lit up with a wide smile.
"Of course! How could I be so stupid?" Duo exclaimed. Duo smiled at his cousin.
"Alright, pixie. We'll all follow you."
Hilde grinned at the sound of her nickname and moved towards the stable door. Everyone filed out after her and found themselves facing the closed iron gate. Moving towards the gate, Trowa examined the edges of the barrier, looking for a way to open it. After a few moments, he turned to Heero and shook his head.
"I can find no hinge, latch, or any other mechanism for this gate. I have no idea how to open it."
Heero looked at Duo, only to find the braided prince wearing a mischievous grin.
"Watch this," Duo said, a teasing lilt in his voice. He sauntered jauntily over to the wall on the left side of the gate and placed his hand on one of the gray stones. Turning to look at Heero over his shoulder, grin still firmly in place, Duo pressed lightly on the stone.
Hilde smiled at the startled expressions that appeared on the others' faces as the gate began to creep upwards with a noisy grating sound. She too had known about the trip-stone, the knowledge granted by her proximity to the Scepter.
Duo turned towards the amazed men. Flinging a polite arm towards the newly revealed entrance, he bowed slightly.
He walked to Hilde and took her arm. "May I escort you home, my lady?" he said cheerfully.
Hilde laughed at his playfulness. "Yes, my lord, you may!"
Leaving the other to follow as they would, the Crown Prince and Grand Duchess of Shi entered their rightful home.
Duo and Hilde led the group unerringly through the multitude of hallways as though they'd lived in the castle their whole lives. When they reached the main hall above the entranceway, Duo paused and shot his cousin a meaningful glance, his lighthearted mood suddenly replaced by tension. Hilde smiled at him softly, instinctively understanding his silent request. She gave his arm a small squeeze and nodded.
Duo turned towards Heero who stood directly behind him.
"Heero, would you mind if we made a slight detour? There's something we have to see."
Heero frowned but shrugged. With a nod, he indicated for Duo to lead on.
Duo smiled his thanks and turned back towards Hilde. She nodded at him again and he took a deep breath. Without further comment, he led them through a doorway to the right of the main hall that opened onto a side corridor, at the end of which was another archway.
Heero noticed the slight hesitation in Duo's step as they made their way towards the far archway. He saw Hilde take her cousin's hand and give squeeze it tightly, her hand shaking almost imperceptibly. His brow furrowed as he wondered what could possible be through the archway that was making the couple so nervous.
As they passed through the entrance, Heero looked around and saw that they were in some sort of picture gallery. His own castle at Hane had such a gallery, filled with pictures of Heero's ancestors and relatives. Heero inhaled as the reason for Duo and Hilde's desire and trepidation suddenly occurred to him.
Heero looked around for the cousins and saw them standing in front of two large portraits. The paintings, which ran nearly from the floor to the ceiling, were rendered in exquisite detail.
In the rightmost picture, a handsome, smiling man stood next to a beautiful, kind-looking woman. Her hand rested on his arm and he covered her delicate hand with his larger one. The man wore a dark blue doublet that exactly matched the color of his eyes. The woman's wine-colored, crushed velvet gown made a wonderful contrast to her straight, midnight-black locks.
Wufei moved forward to look at the portraits and blinked in amazement when he looked at the woman in the wine-colored dress. He looked away from the painting towards Hilde and then back to the painting. The woman's resemblance to short-haired girl was unmistakable. Hilde's raven hair was the same inky black as the woman and the man's blue eyes looked out from Hilde's flushed face. Wufei walked over to the young woman and placed a strong arm around her shoulders, wordlessly offering her support as she quietly cried.
Duo stood in front of the leftmost picture, looking up at it silently. Heero went to stand next to him, reading the tension in the braided boy's taut, slim form. Heero placed a hand on Duo's shoulder and turned to look up at the painting.
Like the other portrait, a man and a woman appeared, both wearing bright smiles, their hands tightly clasped. The woman wore a forest green gown, the mastery of the artist catching the exact fall of the silken fabric. A diamond tiara sat atop her wealth of hair, proclaiming her station. Heero stared at her. He had seen her smile countless times on his lover's face and the chestnut tresses that tumbled down her back were unmistakable.
But when Heero turned his attention to the man in the painting, his breath caught in his throat. 'So this is what Duo will look like in ten years...absolutely beautiful' he thought, staring fixedly at the handsome Shi King. The man's violet doublet enhanced his stunning amethyst-hued eyes and he wore his jewel-encrusted ceremonial crown with confident ease.
Quatre moved between the couples and read the plaque that hung on the wall between the two portraits.
"Gregory and Marissa Schbeiker, the Grand Duke and Duchess of Uji," he read. "And the ones on the left are their Royal Highnesses, King Damien and Queen Tatiana Maxwell, the King and Queen of Shi."
"My parents," Duo breathed. The others politely made no remarks concerning the tears running openly down the Shi prince's face. Heero removed his hand from Duo's shoulder and moved behind him, both arms around the sobbing boy's waist.
Hilde's voice cracked with her tears. "Look at my m-mother, Wufei. Wasn't she beautiful?"
"You look just like her," Wufei answer softly, tightening his hold on her.
Keeping a firm reign on his empathic gift, Quatre stepped back from the plaque to regard the portraits. Trowa came to stand next to him and Quatre addressed his remarks to him so as not to intrude on Duo or Hilde's grief. However, he pitched his voice so they could easily hear him.
"Trowa, don't you see a resemblance between the king and the grand duchess? They must have been siblings. So Duo and Hilde are first cousins."
Hearing Quatre's words, Duo cleared his throat and took a deep breath, trying to regain his composure. Hilde blinked and looked towards the blond mage.
"Yes," she said. "My mother and the king were brother and sister. Duo's mother, Queen Tatiana, was also a true member of the royal family, a distant cousin of the king. My father, Gregory, was the duke of Uji, a principality within the Shi kingdom."
Hilde turned to look at her cousin who met her gaze with tear-bright amethyst eyes. She smiled, glad that the Scepter was granting her this knowledge.
"Duo, your father and mother knew each other as children and fell in love even then. When he was six and she only four, they informed their parents that they would wed when Tatiana reached her eighteenth year since, according to Shi law, marriages where either party was under eighteen, were illegal. They weren't taken seriously, of course, until fourteen years later when Prince Damien announced his betrothal to his beautiful cousin. Their amazing wedding was his birthday gift to her."
Duo chuckled and wiped the last traces of tears from his cheeks. "At least my old man had style," he quipped. "What about your parents, Hilde?"
Hilde sighed as the 'memories' filled her mind. "The king kept his only daughter rather sheltered, half fearing that her beauty would have intrepid suitors storming the castle on a daily basis. So she wasn't introduced into society until she was sixteen. She met my father a year after your parents were married at her coming-out ball. Gregory was a good friend of Prince Damien's and so had managed to catch glimpses of his friend's seemingly shy little sister over the years. But at her ball, she shined with an inner radiance that matched her beauty and he fell completely. Biding his time until Marissa's eighteenth birthday, Gregory courted her for two years. When she came of age, they wed."
Quatre's kind heart warmed at the sweet tales of young love. But his smile faded as he though about what had happened to the king and queen and the duke and duchess. Duo and Hilde were raised outside of Shi because their parents had been murdered. Quatre hated to put a damper on the mood, but he felt the need to remind everyone of the task at hand.
"Hilde, can you tell us anything about the final attack on the castle?" he asked gently.
Hilde sighed and nodded. Fresh tears spilled from her eyes as the images filled her mind. Her words painted a picture that had more than one person sharing in her tears.
"Screams...demons...blood everywhere. Dermail sent his winged monsters to attack the castle after he'd trapped the villagers with his evil spell. Damien...he felt so helpless, so angry that his guards and servants were dying needlessly. Oh!" she exclaimed, "He never did know what had happened to the villagers. My uncle found my mother crying over the dead body of..."
Hilde broke off with a heart-wrenching sob. Wufei relinquished his place at her side as Duo, moving away from Heero, came and took her into his arms.
Hilde sobbed uncontrollably as the images of her father's gruesome death filled her head. Duo held her tightly, wishing that he could help her. But unfortunately, she was the only one who could see the Scepter's visions. After a few moments, Hilde took a shuddering breath and raised her head, meeting his eyes. Duo winced at the pain he saw mingled in with the deep blue.
"Hilde, you don't have to continue..."
"No," she interjected. "Duo, I... I have to do this. We have to know what happened to them."
Duo looked at her for a moment longer, then nodded.
"Alright." He smiled softly at her pale, upturned face and stroked her cheek with his thumb, wiping away her tears. "You know, pixie, your bravery constantly astounds me."
She returned his smile. Then she took a deep breath and closed her eyes, letting the visions come.
"The demons killed my father and my mother found him. Uncle Damien found her weeping over her husband's body and had to force her from his side, lest the demons came back for her. He took her to the nursery were Aunt Tatiana waited with the children..."
Duo looked at Hilde with a furrowed brow as she suddenly smiled through her tears.
"What? What's so funny?"
Hilde looked up at him, the vision of them as children in her head.
"Oh, Duo! You were such a cute baby!"
Quatre smiled and Wufei snickered softly. The corner of Heero's mouth turned up as Duo blinked at his cousin for a moment before regaining his composure.
"Well, of course I was a cute baby. What else did you expect?" he teased, relieved that he was, in some small way, able to ease the horror of her vision.
Hilde continued to smile as she closed her eyes to return to her vision. Her amusement was quickly squelched as the next scenes came to her.
"Our parents asked my mother's maids, Aunt Martha and Aunt Rose, to look after us while they went after the Scepter. King Damien was not as powerful as you, Duo. He needed to be in physical contact with the Scepter in order to stop the demons and Dermail's soldiers. He couldn't use it from a distance like we can.
"Our mothers joined him, thinking that they could use their own Shi power to help him. But there were just too many of the creatures. Without the Scepter, there was nothing any of them could do."
Hilde looked up at Duo, her eyes a sea of enraged blue. "Dermail's demons tore our parents to pieces. He killed them for his own selfish greed!"
Duo's eyes flashed as he took her chin in his hand. "I promise you, pixie, and I promise them," he said looking towards the portraits, "Dermail *will* die."
"Hilde," Quatre asked gently, "how were you and Duo spared?"
"My mother's maids, the women we knew as our aunts, took us from the castle when they learned from a dying soldier that our parents were all dead. They saved us and raised us as their own, until they too were killed."
Duo took a calming breath, quieting the anger Hilde's tale had caused and focusing on the task at hand. He gave her a final squeeze and stepped away, looking towards Heero with an evil grin.
"I think it's time we went duke hunting. Let's find the Scepter and finish that bastard for good."
Heero nodded and turned to walk back towards the gallery entrance. Suddenly, he vanished.
Everyone stood frozen in shock after Heero disappeared. Duo blinked and walked tentatively to the spot where Heero had just been.
"Heero?" he said softly, his tone indicating his disbelief.
Quatre closed his eyes and invoked a tracing spell. He gasped and opened his eyes.
"Dermail has him."
Duo's amethyst gaze went molten with fury. The sudden breeze that whipped through the room denoted the powerful prince's agitated emotions. Duo growled and began shouting orders.
"Quatre, Wufei, take Hilde and half of the men. Find the Scepter and bring it to me. Trowa, you and everyone else come with me. We're going to find Heero. And if we find Dermail and kill him in the process, so much the better!"
Duo's orders went unquestioned as the two groups parted to pursue their separate quests.
Heero blinked and looked around at his suddenly different surroundings. Just a moment before, he had been in the portrait gallery with the others, and now...now he had no idea where he was.
"Well, well! Welcome, Prince Heero."
Heero spun around at the sound of the disturbingly familiar voice. He growled low in his throat as his eyes lit on Duke Dermail. The duke smiled at him, his dark robes against his pale skin making him resemble a walking corpse. The image brought a sudden thought to Heero's mind.
"You sent the liches... and the demons."
Dermail's smile broadened. "Why, of course! Who else would have cared enough to raise both the dead and creatures of the Abyss to stop you?"
Heero bared his teeth. "My men died because of you!"
Dermail shrugged. "I do apologize, but, you know there are always casualties in any power struggle."
Heero's deep blue glare filled with rage at the duke's flippant response. His hand fell to his sword hilt, but before he could draw the long blade, Dermail spoke a single word. Heero suddenly found himself paralyzed.
"Ah, ah, my dear prince. We wouldn't want you hurting anyone with that little knife of yours, now would we? It has been a long time, hasn't it? Yes, I've not seen you since I invited young Duo to be a guest at my camp."
Dermail sighed. "Such a beautiful boy. So very talented. We did have some great fun alone in my tent."
Dermail laughed as Heero snarled, frustrated at his inability to struggle against his magical bonds.
"Well, it seems as though you've managed to arrive here despite my numerous attempts to stop you. So, now I find that I have need of you, my dear boy. I'm afraid that our beautiful little Duo cannot be allowed to find the Scepter."
Heero's teeth clenched as he tried in vain to break through the freezing spell. Dermail chuckled, amused at his attempts.
"Oh, don't bother to resist. It will do you no good. I picked this little out of the way spot because I will need a bit of time to prepare my surprise for our darling Duo and it wouldn't do to be interrupted."
Dermail stepped closer to the helpless prince. "Now, just relax..."
Heero's mind shouted a warning to his beloved as the duke began chanting softly.
A/N: Did you get teary when Duo and Hilde finally saw their parents? I sure did! <sniff>