Hearing his cousin's shout, Duo rolled forward past Heero's attack, ending up at the prince's back. He executed several backwards 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.
Power.. .energy... light...
The travelers from Hane felt something inexplicable wash over them. It caressed their skin and sent waves of bright energy into the depths of their beings. A maelstrom of wind suddenly filled the throne room, forcing the astonished bystanders to raise their arms to shield their faces. Stares of amazement peeked out at the Shi prince, who stood calmly at the center of the storm.
Duo's eyes were closed, a look of utter peace upon his handsome face. His hair whipped around him in a tumult of chestnut silk, completely freed from its restraining plait by the magical wind.
More than one heart filled with fear, uncertain who this new Duo would turn out to be. If power had the ability to corrupt the soul, how would the ultimate power of the Scepter affect the orphaned gypsy boy?
Wufei gripped Hilde's arm, not sure whether he was trying to protect her or to reassure himself. She looked up at him and smiled. The joy of seeing her cousin finally fulfill his destiny shone from her pretty face. Wufei found himself relaxing and returning her smile before turning his gaze back towards Duo. His brief feeling of calm fled, however, as he saw Heero, seemingly unaffected by the torrents of wind swirling around room, renew his attack on the long-haired prince.
Wufei, Quatre, and the remaining unenchanted soldiers called a warning to the apparently unaware young man.
Time seemed to slow as Heero's blade came closer and closer, aimed to deprive the amethyst-eyed boy of his head.
"Duo..." Hilde whispered her cousin's name, worry rising within her as it seemed her cousin would not react to the threat in time.
"Duo!" Quatre repeated his fearful cry, his aquamarine eyes widening in terror, the blade mere inches from Duo's neck.
But just before the blade connected, Duo's eyes opened. His free hand flashed up and caught the sword in a strong grip. Amazingly, no blood was drawn as the blade that should have cut into his skin was rendered harmless. Calm amethyst eyes gazed into deep, vacant blue.
"Heero, come back to me."
As Duo spoke he released some of his power, augmented a hundred-fold by the presence of the Scepter, and sent it coursing down the blade and into the ensorcelled prince. Duo ignored the bolts of energy that streaked at him, called by the enraged duke. They bounced away harmlessly, deflected by the sheer power that flowed through and around him.
Trapped within his own body but fully aware, Heero cried out and struggled yet again against the bonds that held him captive and that forced him to attack his lover. He begged silently for Duo to use his power to protect himself and cursed the braided boy's stubborn refusal to raise a hand against him in defense. He watched as Duo caught the Scepter and, even in his bespelled state, could feel the rush of power released from the boy. But then, as if he were a helpless bystander to his own body, he saw himself swinging a decapitating blow and his heart bled in agony.
Unable to bear watching his body killing his beloved, Heero turned his thoughts inward. He swore that as soon as he had regained control, and after he had destroyed Dermail, his own life would be forfeit.
The sexy, familiar voice broke through his fatalistic musings. He looked outward and saw the blade in Duo's sure grip. Those amethyst eyes that he always fell into so helplessly were focused on him and suffused him with hope.
"...come back to me."
Heero felt a wave of power wash over him, starting from where his accursed hands gripped the sword and moving quickly through the rest of him. Heero inhaled as he suddenly realized that he once again had complete control over his body.
Heero blinked and released his hold on the sword. He stared at the vision Duo made with his beautiful hair flying about him and his incredible eyes filled with determination and love. A familiar, mischievous smile crossing the Shi prince's face, Duo offered the sword back to the speechless blue-eyed young man.
"Welcome back," Duo said softly as Heero took the proffered sword.
Dermail sent another attack towards Duo but he merely raised the Scepter, not sparing the sorcerer even a glance, and sent the bolt winging back towards the duke. Heero flinched as he saw the energy bolt streaking towards his lover and his lips parted in amazement as Duo effortlessly repelled the attack.
Duo winked at the gaping young man and turned his attention to the group of soldiers still imprisoned by Dermail's freeze spell. He raised his hand and, with a slight exertion of his power, released Trowa and the others. The freed men immediately drew their weapons and turned enraged glares towards the duke.
Hilde blinked as Duo suddenly spoke in her mind.
'Get them out of here.'
Hilde nodded in understanding and turned to Quatre, Wufei, and the soldiers standing with them.
"Duo says that we must go, now! Trowa," she called to the green-eyed guard, "that means you too!"
The men looked at her as if she'd taken leave of her senses. There was no way they were going to leave Duo alone with that bastard, no matter how powerful the young Shi prince had become.
Hilde's determined gaze swept across them.
"Do you have so little faith in my cousin, then? Tell me, what help do you think you could possibly offer? The only one who can face Dermail is Duo. The rest of us would just get in the way!"
Quatre nodded reluctantly, knowing that she spoke the truth. He looked at the others.
"She's right. This is Duo's kingdom and we shouldn't disobey his wishes. Let's go."
Wufei looked as though he would protest but instead bowed his head in defeat, realizing that it would be pointless to argue against both Hilde and Quatre. Looking up at them, he nodded his acquiescence. Then he glanced towards Heero, still standing next to Duo in the center of the room.
"What about him," Wufei gestured towards his prince with his chin.
Quatre followed Wufei's gaze and sighed. If it had been difficult to convince the others to go, convincing Heero to leave his lover alone would be nigh impossible.
"I think Duo will have to deal with Heero."
Wufei huffed in mild amusement. "Alright, let's go then."
Duo noted the others making their way from the throne room with relief. Duo sensed a sudden focusing of energy and exerted his power to block Dermail's attack from reaching the retreating group. He threw an irritated glance over his shoulder towards the fuming duke then dismissed him for a moment, returning his gaze to Heero.
Heero had seen the others safely exit the hall. Now he glared at his lover and shook his head, denying the request in the amethyst eyes.
"No, I'm not leaving you here with that bastard."
Duo exhaled sharply in frustration. "Heero, please..."
"No! Absolutely not! I left you with him once before and look what happened!"
Duo looked into his lover's angry, blue glare. He saw the fear and the love behind the anger and spoke again in a calm voice.
"Heero, I'm not the same person now that I was then. You know that."
Heero's eyes flashed briefly in protest but he was unable to argue the point.
"I can handle Dermail," Duo continued, "but I *need* to know that you're safe. Please, Heero. This will all be over soon. Then you can be as pissed off as you like."
Heero's eyes fixed on Duo's slightly smiling lips before returning to meet his calm gaze. Heero knew that Duo was right. The Shi prince was not the same boy who had been captured and tortured by Dermail. Now, he was a prince in his own right, no, a king, and commanded more power than Heero ever could hope to comprehend. Still, Heero couldn't help his overwhelming need to protect the beautiful young man with his very life, if necessary.
Indigo and amethyst tangled in a battle of wills for a moment longer until Duo was forced to deflect another attack by Dermail.
"Heero, go now. Let me do what I need to do, what my family and kingdom demand. It's time for Dermail to die."
Heero heard the command in Duo's voice and nodded slowly, the hesitant gesture indicating his extreme reluctance. With a growl, he leaned forward and captured Duo's lips in a searing kiss.
"I'll see you soon," he warned as he pulled away to stare at his lover with a desperate intensity, his tone indicating that Duo had better treat those words as though they were a proclamation from the gods themselves. Heero held Duo's gaze for a moment longer before turning and running from the hall.
Duo sighed in relief. However, any warm feelings Heero had garnered within him vanished as Duo turned around and fixed his attention on Duke Dermail.
Dermail's chest heaved in rage - and not a little fear - as Duo finally focused upon him. He was exhausted from the continuous use of his most powerful offensive attacks, attacks that the long-haired brat had turned away with disgusting ease.
Dermail had seen the liberated Scepter in the girl's hand as she ran into the throne room. His cruel heart filled with dark joy, his chance to possess the Scepter finally at hand. But when he tried to telekinetically call the Scepter to him, he was left howling in frustration. The Scepter nullified his magic and remained firmly in the girl's grip. He grimly realized that there was virtually no chance he would ever have the Scepter for his own, not with the damned artifact itself fighting his control.
Dermail felt true fear for the first time in his accursed life when the girl threw the Scepter through the air and it landed in Duo's hand. The terrible power that poured from the boy was overwhelming. When the puppet prince attacked, Dermail thought that victory might be his after all. But Duo caught the blade and freed Heero from the control spell.
Dermail tried to destroy the Shi prince and then the Hane soldiers as they retreated from the throne room. But the little bastard had stop his attacks as though he - the most powerful sorcerer in the world - were a mere fledgling novice.
Now, Dermail watched Heero exit the hall and felt an inkling of dread return as amethyst eyes that sparked with power were turned on him.
"It's over Dermail. It ends now."
Dermail snarled, denying the tremor the confident voice sent through him. "Not yet, you little brat. Witness my true power and tremble!"
Dermail raised his arms and threw back his head, preparing to sacrifice his very soul. If he could not possess the Scepter, then he would make sure that he destroyed this arrogant boy and all that he loved.
"Lord of the Abyss! Hear your faithful servant! Aid me now! Help me exalt your dark glory by annihilating this worthless gypsy!"
Duo stared at the duke, puzzled when nothing happened. Duo raised a mocking eyebrow and opened his mouth to berate Dermail for his apparent foolishness, but before he could speak a word the floor beneath his feet shifted as the entire castle shuddered. Duo blinked in surprise, watching in fascination as the duke began to glow.
Dermail lowered his head and looked at Duo with smoldering red eyes. The duke's teeth clenched in apparent pain as his body began to transmogrify, bones stretching, muscles enlarging, skin taking on a blood-red hue. The duke's robes began to tear until they hung about him in tatters.
Duo's eyes narrowed at the monster the duke was becoming. Dermail had grown a full eight feet and looked strong enough to tear Duo limb from limb. But even more intriguing to the young man was the five foot sword that had appeared in the creature's massive hands. The beast that Dermail had become roared and began waving the sword, circling it wildly above his now horned head. Dermail lowered the weapon and pointed it at the slender figure of the Shi prince.
"And now," the creature grated, "you *die*!"
Duo cocked his head to the side and sent the monster a curious look.
"Hmmm... I guess we'll just have to see about that."
Dermail howled at the insolent response, but fell silent as Duo held the Scepter out before him and released it. Hanging in mid-air, the rod began to glow. The light grew in intensity as the Scepter shrank until it was a small ball of energy. Duo place a hand on either side of the sphere and slowly pulled his hands apart. As he did, the shining orb began to separate into two equal parts until two identical globes hung before the long-haired prince.
Duo grasped a sphere in each hand and closed his eyes. The brightness of the orbs increased until there was a tremendous flash that forced the beastly duke to shield his eyes with a massive arm. When the creature looked up again, Duo stood calmly returning the red gaze, in possession of two new objects.
Duo's left side was now protected by a large, ebony black shield that boasted a large amethyst in its center. In his right hand, a deadly looking sword with a black blade was held at the ready, the hilt decorated with a single stone that matched the shade of the prince's incredible eyes.
Duo held the monster's gaze for a moment, then nodded.
Dermail snarled. "You cocky little bastard! *DIE*!!"
Roaring in fury, Dermail charged forward, the huge sword raised in a two-fisted grip above his horned head. Duo watched the duke approach and realized that the transformation hadn't improved the duke's questionable swordsmanship. But nevertheless, the duke's strength was now considerable. Duo could have easily avoided the attack, but he felt a mild curiosity about the extent of the duke's new-found strength. Raising his shield, the young prince brace for the blow.
Dermail brought the impressive blade crashing down against the ebony shield. Duo fell to one knee, staggered and somewhat impressed by the force of the strike. However, Dermail, supremely confident in his new powers and unaware that the first rule of a sword fight is to press any and all advantages, backed away from the fallen prince, looking down to admire his handwork.
Duo lowered the shield and met the creature's mocking glare. He smiled and used his sword to push away the duke's sword. Demonstrating his incredible agility, Duo rolled forward, under the monster's guard, and struck out with the black sword before Dermail could react. The monstrous duke howled in pain and rage as a long gash was opened on his massive calf.
Duo stood and regarded the noisy beast as it reared back in agony. He considered just using his power to destroy the duke once and for all but rejected that option. It would be over too quickly, the duke blasted into so much dust. No, he wanted Dermail to suffer for all of the years of pain that he had caused to the people that Duo loved. Duo decided instead to hack the creature into pieces, bit by tiny bit. Satisfied with this plan, Duo smiled and waited for the duke to make his next move.
Dermail recovered from his injury enough to attack the amused prince again. He was determined to wipe that damned grin off the boy's face. But again he found his attack deflected by the whelp's amazing speed and skill. He came away with another painful wound, this time to his arm.
Duo continued to torment the duke, either using his quick agility to dodge the monster's attacks or blocking the blows on his magical shield. Dermail, however, did not fare nearly as well. Even with all of his great strength, his bulky body was just too slow and his sword-work too sloppy. After several minutes, Dermail was covered with bloody gashes while Duo stood uninjured.
The duke heaved, exhausted by his life's blood slowly leaking from his myriad of wounds. Desperate, Dermail raised his sword for one last attack. He swung again at the young prince, watching carefully as Duo brought up his shield to deflect the blow. However, at the last moment, Dermail reversed his stroke, abandoning the feint and attacked Duo on his unprotected side.
Dermail smiled as he realized Duo would never be able to bring his shield to bear in time to stop the huge sword. Victory tasted sweet on Dermail's tongue but his dark elation quickly turned to terror when Duo caught the attack on his black blade, holding the duke at bay with a strength unimaginable for the young man's slim build. Duo met the duke's dull red eyes and smiled before channeling some of his power into the blade. Dermail found himself sailing through the air as Duo's power struck him.
Duo watched dispassionately as the monster fell against the dais, striking his misshapen head against one of the thrones. Torturing the duke had been extremely therapeutic, but now, Duo was ready to end the duke's miserable life and rejoin his friends and family. Duo made the shield and sword rejoin. Holding the Scepter once more, Duo focused his attention upon the misbegotten monster that was attempting to struggle to its feet.
Head ringing from being struck against the solid throne, Dermail watched in terror as Duo approached him, a look of quiet calm on his beautiful face.
"You tried, Dermail, but now you've been defeated. It's all over. Time for you to die."
Dermail snarled. "Oh no, my boy, it's not just I who will die here today. You love this miserable pile of stones so much. Then watch it crumble around you're accursed head!"
Duo's eyes narrowed as Dermail raised one large hand into the air. Before Duo could react, Dermail spoke a single word of power. The floor began to heave beneath Duo's feet and huge chunks of stone began to fall around him. Duo used his power to erect a shield, deflecting the massive blocks that fell around him.
'My home!' Duo looked back to Dermail, intending to curse the duke's black heart. But he turned to the creature just in time to see a large piece of the stone ceiling fall on the malicious monster. Dermail roared in pain as he died, crushed by his own evil.
Duo growled. "This is *my* home and now that I've finally found it, nothing will ever take it from me again!"
Raising the Scepter above his head with one hand at either end of the long staff, Duo closed his eyes and released his full power.
Standing in the main courtyard, having retreated there after leaving the throne room, the travelers watched in horror as the Shi castle shuddered and groaned, falling in upon itself. Wufei, Trowa, Quatre, and at least five other soldiers struggled to hold back the terrified Hane prince. Heero had been whisked back to the night of the Aku attack, when he thought Duo had been destroyed along with the duke's castle.
Knowing that the duke was behind this, Heero cursed Dermail's black heart and lunged forward again, determined to break his friends' hold and rush into the collapsing castle to find his lover, or to die trying.
"Heero!" Hilde yelled to get the enraged prince's attention. "Duo will be alright!"
Heero ignored the girl, a vision of Duo lying crushed beneath tons of stone lending him incredible strength. With a fierce growl, Heero broke away from his captors and headed straight for the castle's main entrance.
The horrified shouts of his companions failed to penetrate Heero's intense fear. His only thought was to reach his beloved. Heero had nearly made it to the archway of the castle's main entrance when he found himself lying on the ground, several feet away from where he'd just been. A strong wind had blown him back and now he looked at the castle with wide-eyed wonder.
"Duo!" Hilde yelled joyously as she picked herself up off of the ground, enraptured as she felt his power flowing around her. She watched with the others as the battered castle miraculously began to repair itself, correcting not only the damage done by Dermail's treacherous spell, but also the damage done by Dermail's attack years before. Fallen chunks of stone whisked back to their proper places while tattered banners were returned to their former, fluttering glory. Broken windows reformed until their perfect, polished surfaces gleamed in the bright sunlight.
Hilde gasped as she felt her cousin's power whisk past her, out into the surrounding countryside. She could feel the villagers, cursed for so long, finally being released.
"Duo!" she cried. "You've done it! The people of Shi are free!"
The others looked towards her, smiles growing on their faces as they comprehended the meaning of her exultant shout. All eyes returned to the newly restored castle as a slight figure with ridiculously long, windblown hair appeared through the raised iron gate.
Heero's heart cried out in unbearable joy as Duo stepped out into the sunlit courtyard, brushing the strands of his unruly hair away from his face. Duo met Heero's astonished gaze and his face spilt in a manic grin. The Shi prince ran towards his lover and wrapped him in an eager embrace. Heero held the smiling young man to him, his tight hold daring fate itself to every try to take Duo from him again.
Duo returned his lover's embrace for a long moment. Then Duo stepped away and placed a tender hand against his lover's cheek before turning to his cousin. He walked over to her and lifted her in his arms. They spun around, Hilde laughing her joy.
"It's over, pixie! It's finally over. Let's go home."
She smiled up at him as he sat her back on the ground and nodded in enthusiastic agreement. Taking hold of her hand, Duo turned back to the others.
"Come on! The Scepter must be returned to it's proper place. And let's get something to eat. I'm starving!"
Laughing at the Shi prince and his bottomless stomach, the happy travelers retired into the castle for a well-deserved rest.