Hilde raced confidently through the castles' corridors and passage ways, heading steadily upwards. Quatre, Wufei and eight soldiers followed her without reservation.
"Quatre," Wufei breathed, "what if Dermail gets to the Scepter before us?"
Not pausing in her flight, Hilde responded before Quatre could speak.
"He can't get it. Only a member of the royal family can even touch the Scepter while it's in its protected alcove. Dermail learned this when he killed our parents. Uncle Damien, Aunt Tatiana, and my mother had reached the Scepter's room but the demons killed them before they could get the Scepter itself. The ancients themselves had set a very powerful protective seal over the Scepter. Dermail thought all he had to do was find it, but he was mistaken. He had one of his soldiers try to remove it, but the man disintegrated as soon as his hand touched it."
Quatre's eyes widened. "So, Dermail has never even used the Scepter." Quatre thought for a moment and then frowned. "Hilde, can he take the Scepter after you've removed it from its enclave?"
Hilde nodded grimly. "Unfortunately, yes. Once removed, the protective spells will be broken until the Scepter is returned to its resting place. Dermail will likely try to take it before we can reach Duo. We'll have to be careful."
Everyone nodded their understanding. The group reached the top level of the castle's main building and raced down a narrow hallway, dimly illuminated by light that streamed in through a few small windows. At the end of the passage a small doorway led to a steep stairwell. Hilde took the stairs at a run and the others followed.
The stairs went on for several flights and, just when it seemed that they would never reach the top, the stairs ended. Hilde came to an abrupt halt. Quatre, Wufei, and the others had to make an effort not to run into the suddenly motionless girl.
"What is it, Hilde?" Wufei asked, his breathing only mildly elevated from his run.
The dark-haired girl didn't reply. Instead she began walking down a dark hall, her eyes focused on a door at the far end. Torches set in the wall inexplicably flared into existence as she passed. The others exchanged startled glances but wordlessly followed her. Hilde stopped before the ancient iron door. The door had been painted silver and was covered in ancient runes. Quatre's eyes stretched with awe as he recognized the power of the magical sigils.
Hilde placed a slender on the heavy door and it began to glow. The light slowly intensified until the others were forced to cover their eyes. Suddenly, the light dimmed and the door silently swung open. Quatre gasped at the pure energy he could feel emanating from the room. Although he sensed nothing specific, the hairs on the back of Wufei's neck suddenly stood at attention. The soldiers shifted uneasily, unnerved despite all of the strangeness they had observed on this journey already.
Hilde walked into the room and paused before an alcove in the far wall, the surrounding wall covered in the sigils that had warded the door.
"Hello again," she said with a hushed tone.
Leaving the other men to guard the corridor, Quatre and Wufei went to join her. There, in the alcove, lay a long, narrow ebony staff. The staff widened slightly towards one end and suddenly flared to accommodate an enormous jewel of pure amethyst, exactly the same color as Duo's eyes.
"There it is," Quatre breathed.
Wufei could only stare, mouth slightly agape as he beheld the deceptively plain object of power.
Duo, Trowa, and the remaining soldiers raced from the portrait gallery.
"Duo, do you have any idea where Dermail could have taken Heero?" Trowa inquired.
Duo shook his head. "No, but I'll tear this entire place apart if I have to. I *will* find him."1
"What if he's not even still in the castle?"
"Then we'll search the whole countryside or the whole world," Duo bit back. "Whatever it takes!"
Trowa made no further comment as they ran back to the main hall.
Duo's half formed plan was to begin at the lower levels of the castle and work their way up, searching every possible location. But as he ran towards the main staircase, his tattoo began to tingle. Well use, at this point, to receiving messages from his power, Duo stopped short, ignoring the men who almost ran into him.
"What is it?" Trowa asked.
"Wait," Duo replied. He cocked his head and listened to something only he could hear.
"The throne room. That's where we must go. It's clear on the other side of the castle, so let's move it!"
Duo took off down the main hall, the others right behind him, retracing their steps. However, this time he bypassed the doorway leading to the side corridor and the portrait gallery and instead continued strait through the large archway at the end of the main hall. He knew that, even running, it would take some time to reach the throne room.
'Hang on, Heero,' he thought, conserving his breath. 'I'm coming!'
Hilde smiled at the Scepter as it lay in its protected alcove, her tattoo tingling pleasantly. Its powerful presence had been in her head for so long now that it felt as though she were greeting an old friend.
The opening of the alcove was completely covering by a glowing light that danced and moved like a living flame. The protective force field was indeed like a fire, for it would instantly destroy any person not of the Shi royal family who tried to retrieve the Scepter from the fire's protection.
Ignoring Wufei's warning, Hilde reached through the light and placed her hand on the ebony staff. She inhaled and closed her eyes as her mind filled with countless visions of Shi's past. It took a moment, but she was finally able to control her power and quiet the images. Taking a deep breath, she pulled the Scepter through the flaming light.
"Now," she said, turning to her awed companions, "let's find Duo and end Dermail's hold on this kingdom."
Hilde walked towards the silver door and paused. Then she nodded as if a suspicion had been confirmed
"Twenty of Dermail's soldiers and six mages are waiting for us at the bottom of the stairwell. Shall we go greet them?" she inquired, filled with the Scepter's calming influence.
Wufei nodded, knowing that he and the other soldiers could take care of the soldiers. Quatre, not knowing how powerful the mages were, was less certain. However, he trusted in Hilde and the power of the Scepter. He nodded once, indicating his readiness to fight.
Hilde turned back towards the iron door and led her contingent of warriors to battle.
Trowa silently marveled at the sheer size of the castle. They had been running for some time and still had not reached the throne room. Trowa suspected that the Shi palace was at least half again as large as Hane's castle.
Duo led them unerringly through the endless passages and hallways. His amethyst gaze narrowed as he took in the damage the castle had suffered, no doubt from the battle that had caused the death of his and Hilde's parents. Duo clenched his jaw, angered by destruction Dermail had visited upon his home. His ire only increased as the true extent of the damage became apparent. Tapestries hung on the walls in tatters. Scorch marks on the thick carpet showed where torches had fallen from their wall-holsters. In several places, the wooden beams of the ceiling supports had fallen to the ground.
Duo added yet another black mark against the vile duke as he continued on through the castle's myriad of corridors.
Finally, after a nearly fifteen minute journey, they reached the throne room. The room had once been a grand ballroom and was prodigious in its proportions. Dozens of stained glass windows, which remained unaffected by the years of neglect affecting the rest of the castle - another gift from the ancients, let multi-colored sunlight flood into the hall. The room could easily accommodate hundreds of people. To the right, scores of long tables and benches sat, waiting patiently to be laid out with a feast. Towards the left, a wide-open space had once seen beautifully dressed nobles, and often those of more humble birth, dancing gracefully over the smooth stone flooring. At the far end of the room on a low dais sat two large thrones, which Duo instinctively knew had seen little use.
But the space directly in front of the thrones drew Duo's undivided attention. For there stood Heero, and immediately to his left waited Duke Dermail.
"Heero!" Duo shouted as he rushed towards his lover, leaving the others behind.
"Ah, ah, my darling boy. I wouldn't do that if I were you."
Duo didn't hesitate at Dermail's words, only throwing the pale mage a hateful glare before reaching the Hane prince and pausing in front of him..
"Heero, are you alright?" Heero's eyes were directed towards the ground and he didn't response to Duo's worried query.
"Heero..." Puzzled by Heero's lack of response, Duo reached out and placed a hand on the silent young man's arm. Heero looked up then, and Duo gasped in horror at the sight of his lover's eyes. No pupils broke the expanse of dark blue and they glowed with an unholy light.
Duo backed away slightly as Dermail chuckled.
"I did warn you, Duo. I'm afraid Heero can no longer help you. Now, he is mine to command."
Duo shot the heinous duke a baleful glance before looking back at Heero. He shook his head in denial as Heero slowly drew his sword from its scabbard.
Duo heard Trowa and the other soldiers running towards him.
"No! Stay back!" he shouted over his shoulder. "I'll handle this!" Duo was afraid that Heero might be harmed if Trowa and the others got involved.
Duo returned his attention to Heero and backed away as the bespelled prince went into an en guard position.
"Heero, stop this," Duo pleaded.
His entreaty went unheard and Duo was forced to duck to avoid the swing of Heero's long sword. Before straightening from his crouch, Duo withdrew his long knives from his boots.
"Please, Heero. Don't do this! It's me, Duo!"
Dermail laughed again. "Heero is no longer home. His mind is tucked safely away and only his wonderfully capable body remains."
Dermail's smile broadened as Duo dodged another attack. "You won't be able to keep this up forever, my dear Duo. Soon, you'll have to defend yourself. And then what will you do? Either Heero will kill you or you'll have to kill him." Dermail clasped his hands in malevolent glee. "How very wonderful!"
Duo spared no thought for Dermail. His entire attention was focused on Heero. He was well aware that he didn't stand a chance against Heero's swordsmanship, especially if Heero was actually trying to kill him. Duo knew that he could use his power to stop Heero, but his mind rebelled completely at the notion. There was no way he could ever cause the death of his beloved.
'The Scepter can free him.'
The knowledge sprung into Duo's mind. All he had to do was hold out until Hilde and the others returned with the powerful staff. Using his knives only to block Heero's attacks, Duo depended on his acrobatic skills to keep him out of harm's way.
Trowa's hand clenched into helpless fists as he watch his friends fight. Trowa's first duty was to protect Heero but it was clear that Duo was in danger. Debating with himself as to what he should do, Trowa decided to obey Duo's orders. With a glance, he indicated to the other soldiers that they would follow Duo's command and wait. He only hoped that something positive happened soon.
Wufei had reached the bottom of the tower stairwell and was immediately embroiled in a battle against Dermail's soldiers. Wufei fought like a demon, his sword a living thing as he decimated Dermail's hired mercenaries, the other Hane soldiers supporting his efforts.
Quatre stayed out of the way as the sword fight raged on, instead turning his attention to the six old men who waited on the far side of the landing. The six mages locked eyes with the young blond, promising him a merciless death. Quatre held his ground and their gazes, silently praying to the gods for aid.
Hilde appeared at his shoulder and he looked down, meeting her serene gaze. Her blue eyes were filled with confidence and Quatre could feel her power racing through her as she laid a hand on his arm.
"You'll be alright," she said quietly. "I can help you."
Before Quatre could ask her what she meant, he gasped as a sudden burst of energy surged through him, strengthening him beyond his wildest dreams.
Dermail's mages paid no attention to the young girl by the Hane mage's side, failing to realize the significance of her hold on the Scepter. The mages chanted invocations of powerful spells that would destroy the Hane interlopers. They would then take the now liberated Scepter back to their liege.
The mages raised their thin arms and bony hands in unison, preparing to unleash their fearsome magic. But before they could utter a word, the young blond mage turned bright aquamarine eyes towards them. The old mages hesitated at the power they could see sparking from the boy.
Quatre, his power strengthened by the Scepter, raised his hand and invoked his most powerful offensive spell. Bolts of pure energy arched towards the six mages and they were forced to quickly turn their spell of attack into one of defense. Quatre's spell battered against their force field relentlessly, weakening it bit by bit.
The mages were in shock. How could this mere whelp be doing this?! Then one of the mages cried out in horrid realization.
"The Scepter! It strengthens him!"
Another beleaguered mage turned pale eyes upon Hilde.
"The girl holds the Scepter! She is Shi royalty!"
The others knew this to be the truth but the knowledge lent them no aid. Without warning, their force field shattered and the mages were incinerated by Quatre's attack.
Quatre took a breath and blinked at the dark spot on the floor, all that remained of the once formidable mages. He turned dazed eyes towards the smiling blue-eyed girl at his side.
"Well done, sir mage. Let's go find my cousin. He's in the main throne room and he needs our help."
Wufei patted Quatre heartily on the back as he passed, following Hilde back into the castle proper. The other soldiers voiced their praises as well. Finally, Quatre blinked and let the wonder of what had just occurred pass over him. He had felt the Scepter's incredible power, even if only briefly, and would be forever changed. A huge smile bloomed on his face as he followed the others.
Duo's arm vibrated from the shock of blocking yet another vicious blow. He had to use all of his considerable skill just to defend himself from Heero's increasingly ferocious attacks. Dermail's foul magic had not only stolen Heero's mind, it lent his already powerful body increased strength and endurance. Duo had stopped trying to talk to Heero, deciding instead to concentrate on not getting killed by the entranced prince. Duo realized that it was only a matter of time before Heero managed to get through his guard but refused to use his power against his lover to defend himself.
Duo parried a series of rapid thrusts with a dazzling display of blade-work and gritted his teeth as Dermail's annoying cackle reached his ears.
"You know, Duo, I've been looking for you and your charming cousin nearly your entire lives. After I killed your parents, you were to be next. You see, I couldn't leave behind anyone who could possibly use the Scepter against me. But then those old crones took you from Shi and out of my reach. I didn't find them until four years later when I burned them alive in that bakery fire."
Duo growled and spared Dermail a brief amethyst glare. "You killed my aunts?!"
"*Of course*, it was I. I placed a freezing spell on them so they were unable to flee the flames. I told them I would release them if they told me where you children were, but the old women were stubborn. So, I let them die, watching as they choked on the black smoke and roasted in the merry flames."
"*Bastard*!" Duo was tempted to attack Dermail, but his attention was fully captured by Heero.
"Huh," Dermail exhaled, wryly. "You can't imagine how I felt when you neatly fell into my lap, as it were, back in Aku. Stealing bread...my, my, that was no way for a prince to behave. I'd fully planned to kill you and the girl outright. But when I saw you, my beautiful boy..." Dermail paused and let the insinuation pass over Duo like a slimy hand.
"Yes, I thought I'd prefer to keep you around, and your cousin, as well. So I tried to use you to kill Heero as revenge for King Odin killing my son. But you let yourself be swayed by your hormones and betrayed me for the life of your handsome prince. I had every intention to kill you for that, my boy. But I just couldn't bring myself to destroy you. The world is better off graced with such beauty as yours, don't you think? So I took you to my camp and...well, you know how much fun we had there."
Duo felt his power gather within him, preparing to strike out at the vile duke. But his slight lapse in attention caused him to drop his guard. Duo hissed in pain as Heero scored a long gash on his left arm. Duo ducked the follow up attack and spun away.
"Heero," he whispered, blood running freely down his left arm. Duo knew that he wouldn't last much longer against the Hane prince now that he was injured. But he still couldn't bring himself to hurt his lover for actions beyond his control.
Trowa's resolve to follow Duo's orders vanished as Heero drew first blood. Though loath to attack his prince, he refused to stand by while Duo was summarily slaughtered. Trowa, gesturing silently to his men, briefly detailed his plans. He order them to attack Dermail while he helped Duo fend off Heero.
However, Trowa's surreptitious actions did not go unnoticed. Dermail flung a negligent hand towards the group of soldiers, stopping them with the same freeze spell that had been so effective against Heero and on Martha and Rose so many years before. Evading another feint from the tireless Hane prince, Duo observed his only possibility for help rendered completely ineffective.
'Hilde, please hurry,' Duo thought desperately as he raised his knives once again to a defensive position, a cold fatalism filling his soul.
"Duo," Hilde shouted, feeling his pain as he was wounded. "Hurry," she shouted over her shoulder, "he needs us!"
Panic hastened her dash through the castle and several moments later she burst into the throne room closely followed by the others. Hilde's gasp of shock was mirrored by Quatre and Wufei. Hilde had known that her cousin was in danger, but she had no idea that it was Heero he faced. Hilde's brow furrowed in utter confusion until she saw Dermail standing off to the side.
"Dermail!" she yelled. "Release Heero this instant!"
Dermail spared her an impatient glance. "Wait your turn, girl. I'll deal with you as soon as I've had my fun with these two."
Quatre analyzed the duke's control spell and realized that there was no way he could break it and free his prince. Wufei looked over and saw Trowa and the other soldiers watching the battle helplessly, immobilized by Dermail's magic. Duo defended himself admirably but Wufei noted his bleeding arm and knew that Duo's time was running out.
Hilde bared her teeth in anger. She turned her eyes to the powerful object in her hand and knew what she had to do. She looked back towards her cousin, watching him dodge another blow.
Hearing his cousin's shout, Duo rolled forward past Heero's attack, ending up at the prince's back. He executed several backward somersaults, putting some much needed distance between Heero and himself. He looked briefly towards Hilde but his attention was caught by the long, narrow, black object hurtling towards him. With nary a thought, he raised a hand and the Scepter fell neatly into it as though it had been seeking him out.
Duo barely heard Dermail's enraged roar as the Scepter's power filled him fully for the first time.
1. "Last of the Mohicans" anyone? Can ya tell I watch a lot of movies? ^_^