Later that afternoon, Heero called an emergency meeting of the king’s council. He quickly told them of the problem and was astonished and infuriated when they didn’t agree with his thoughts on the matter.
“You don’t understand.” Heero told his council flatly. He couldn’t believe their comments. They were just going to sit there and wait for something to happen? By the time something happened…it would be too late.
“Your majesty…” one of the councilmembers said in a dry tone. “I assure you, the problem is under control…Port Lunos is the Capital of the Unicorns, and it’s heavily infused with magic. A few Zarisnian Gryphondancers, no matter what dance they use, won’t be able to get in there.”
“You don’t understand! This is MAGICPURE we’re talking about! Zarisnia won’t just send a few Gryphondancers; they’re going to send an army! The unicorns may be magical but they’re physically unstable if their court at Port Lunos is harmed because of the way they’re all connected to it,” Heero said. He glared at each councilmember in turn, hoping they’d reconsider their judgments. “The beaks and claws of a dancing gryphon will make minced-meat of the unicorns! They’ll destroy the court and then attack the rest of us! They’re intelligent!”
Councilmember Septem, one of the military advisors, nearly spat insults at the brash young king. “They’d certainly see such an attack coming! It’s not like they couldn’t call in troops in time!”
Heero looked at each councilmember in turn, and saw that he was, indeed, beaten. If he couldn’t convince his council that he knew with certainty that Zarisnia would hit Port Lunos with everything they had and as secretly as they could, the point was useless. He’d simply have to recollect his thoughts and try this again later.
“You’re all dismissed,” he said, turning on his heel and leaving immediately.
A scant hour later, both Quatre and Trowa knew. The three boys frowned in concentration as they tried to find a way to puzzle out the problem.
“Well…” Quatre said finally. “The only solution I see at the moment is for us to go there and use the crown to cage the magicpure. The crown has many strange abilities…it’s a very magical artifact. We can’t waste time on your trying to convince the council.”
Trowa nodded. “It seems best. We’d be a small group, but…”
“Not so small.” A female voice said from the shadows. Two figures stepped away from the shadows, one clad in black silk, and the other in fire-red. Wufei and Meiran.
“We have decided to go with you. A war of the magnitude this much magicpure could create might affect even the dragons,” Wufei said quietly. He smiled slightly. “Besides, gryphons and dragons are old enemies, and it would do good to have two dragons there to fight off any gryphons that come poking around.”
The king and his two mages smiled. “We’d be glad to have you,” Quatre said cheerfully.
“That’s all settled, when do we leave?” Meiran asked, straight and to the point as usual.
“Three days. That would be best,” Trowa said.
Heero tried to ignore the thoughts running through his head, but found he couldn’t.
I’ll find some excuse to make Duo come along, that’s all there is to it.
Later that same day, Heero walked into the back door of the Dusty Dragon and grabbed the elbow of one of the young thieves.
“Lead me to your king,” He ordered, releasing the girl. She gulped, nodded, and ran off. Heero followed swiftly.
As soon as Duo saw his friend enter the drinking-room, he brightened and stood. Within seconds, the thief-king had reached his quarry and proceeded to drag him upstairs to his rooms.
Heero sat back in a chair as Duo lit candles and poured wine. At last the boy was still and faced Heero with a slight smile.
“So, Heero, what brings you here?” he asked quietly.
“Zarisnian Gryphondancers have discovered magicpure in the west part of Marenia. My council doesn’t want to do anything about it, but I do, so I’m going, along with Quatre, Trowa, and the ‘bounds Chang Meiran and Chang Wufei. I…well…” Heero froze up and gripped the wineglass for comfort. “I thought maybe your assassin skills and apparent art of thievery would be useful…we’re going to be doing a lot of fighting, and you know a lot about the quieter arts of death…”
Duo grinned. “Heero, you didn’t even have to make something up. I would’ve gone with you even if you’d just asked me to.”
Heero coughed nervously. “Was it that obvious?”
“Yes,” Duo said, then laughed slightly. “All right. When do we leave?”
“Three days,” Heero said. “Do you think you can be ready?”
“More than!” Duo said. “Now go on, you’ve just got to have loads of stuff to do. I’ll be fine.”
Heero offered his friend a smile, then left.
Three days later, at sunup, Duo rode into the palace and stopped in the main field that Heero had mentioned to him. Shadow was loaded with gear, but not overly so; it wasn’t light packing, but everything had a use and he wouldn’t be short of anything. Lots of traveling had taught him how to pack, if nothing else.
Soon, Tsubasa, Legend, and Trick were lined up beside Shadow, their packs slightly more full and bulky, but not by a terrible lot. They explained to Shadow that Trowa, the beast that looked like a man, had sent them out here to wait. Shadow nodded; it was only natural. He’d talked to the beast that looked like a man before. It was eerie in a way but not at all bad.
Soon enough, the horses’ masters followed them outside. All three were dressed in pants, shirts, and riding tunics, with armguards on. Duo was somewhat thrilled to see that Heero was wearing the armguards that he’d given him as a midwinter present.
Behind the king and the mages, Wufei and Meiran stepped out of the doorway. Meiran looked over the packs on the horses in no small amount of contempt, all but snorting at what she considered to be messy packing. Wufei noticed this and sighed, rubbing the bridge of his nose. He had been hoping that his partner could keep her warlike spirit quelled for a good amount of time. Evidently a good amount of time for her was a few days at most. That was not a good thing. Just then, Wufei was snapped out of his reverie by Heero’s voice calling out orders.
“Let’s set out now. The better time we make now, the less we’ll worry later,” He said. Nobody disagreed. The four boys, now on their horses, rode off through the gate, and Wufei and Meiran looked up expectantly. Sure enough, Dhan and Dhati swooped down so that their ‘bounds could leap onto their backs.
Soon enough the two dragons flew into position over the four horses and the six travelers set a ground-eating pace in the direction of Port Lunos.
Two days later, the group stopped at the small town of Crosswaters. The settlement was named for the phenomena beneath and around it; eight small rivers ran in and out of a gigantic lake, four going in, four going out, in perfectly lined up angles, no less. The town itself was magically suspended over the lake, from which they gained fresh water and fish. Looking out, one could point in any of the cardinal directions and find a river directly lined up pointing in that direction. Some thought it a magical phenomenon, others simply a strange act of the gods, perhaps created by the trickster himself for a bit of fun.
Heero had decided to stop in the town to pick up some of their delicious fish, and the others moved on ahead, confident that Tsubasa could catch up with them quickly if she needed to. Heero moved among the fish racks, picking out some fresh fish to cook that night and a few racks of dried fish to gnaw on for trail rations.
It was then that he saw the scythe.
At first glance, it was nothing special whatsoever. However, when one paid it a bit more attention, it seemed to be a bit…special. Magical. It was just something about it that made it seem that way.
Heero finished bartering for his newest package of dried fish, the last one he’d get today. Tying it to Tsubasa’s saddle, he led her over to where the string of packhorses he’d seen the scythe tied to was.
At first glance, Heero saw nobody, so took a closer look at the scythe. The wood was worn in some places from constant use, and while the blade had a couple of nicks in it, it was one of the sharpest things he’d ever seen, doubtlessly. Just then he heard a throat clear beside him and looked up. It was a sly, wizened old Kir’a’ti trader. Moving through three languages before finding one they could both talk in, Heero settled down to barter.
“How much for the scythe?” he asked calmly.
“Not for sale.” The man replied. “Powerful, magical. Given to me by young man for three fine horses. Powerful magic, he say.”
Heero felt a sinking suspicion in his stomach. “What did this young man look like?”
“Ahh…” the trader replied, rubbing his chin thoughtfully. “He have long braid of brown hair, and bright eyes. Purple eyes.”
Heero forced himself to bite back a shout and glared at nothing until he was composed. Had Duo really traded away this weapon for three horses? Obviously there was something very special about it, and Heero was going to get it back for his friend. He gently worked something out of his pocket; a thick, heavy silver coin with sapphires embedded into it. A royal trading-mark, extremely rare, and ludicrously valuable…the king himself controlled every royal trading-mark given out.
The trader’s eyes lit up immediately as he gazed at the mark.
“Two.” He croaked.
Heero dug another mark out of his pocket, and then held out a hand for the scythe. The trader hurried to hand it over, and Heero delivered the marks. The trader scurried off and Heero, carefully handling the scythe, climbed up onto Tsubasa and made his way away from the town.
As he was crossing over one of the bridges, Heero looked down into the water with a sigh. Only a few chunks of ice managed to make it this far into the rivers due to the constant motion of the waters, he noted. The light blue color of the crystalline rivers lightened the grey in his eyes, making them appear bluer. People said the sky did the same thing, but he’d never been able to verify that.
Soon, he heard hoofbeats on the bridge ahead of him. Looking up, he saw Quatre coming towards him, his palomino stallion almost sighing from frustration.
“King Heero! There you are!” Quatre shouted. “I decided to stay behind and watch out…what’s that?” he asked, pointing at the scythe.
“Ah, well, I’ll soon find out if it’s what I think it is.” Heero replied cryptically, then flicked the reins against Tsubasa’s neck, flying ahead over the bridge and onto the tree-lined path on the other side.
Sighing, Quatre turned Legend and moved to follow. He couldn’t help but wonder what the king was up to. When he caught up with the group—and Heero—however, he found out.
Heero had moved Tsubasa to match Shadow’s pace and the silvery-white horse was moving in perfect harmony with the black one. Leaning a bit, Heero handed the scythe to Duo.
Duo’s eyes lit up in a mixture of happiness, shock, and surprise. He turned over the scythe, running his fingertips across the wood and fitting his hands onto the areas where he’d held it thousands of times, doubtlessly.
“Heero…how did you…?” he asked.
Heero smiled and leaned over. “I met up with a certain Kir’a’ti trader.” He told the thief.
Duo smiled, and then asked, “How much did it cost?”
Heero leaned over even further and placed a hand on Duo’s shoulder, moving to whisper into the thief’s ear. “No much is too much for you.”
Duo grinned when Heero moved back, and said quietly, but cheerfully, “Oh, it’s not that, I was just hoping you didn’t use all our funds, because I have this feeling the others wouldn’t like having to eat grass and fight with sticks.”
That evening, as reds and oranges streaked across the winter sky, Duo led the group down a small, deserted trail and straight to a sheltered campground. He looked around at it, then nodded and pointed to a firepit, and various other things. Evidently the thief had camped here at some time in the past.
Trowa gently took the tack off of the horses and rubbed them down, then led them to a small creek nearby to have a drink of water. They followed him without bolting; it was common. As the horses drank, Trowa struck up a conversation with a few of the smaller animals in the area. What he heard from them made him frown.
Trowa gently tugged the horses’ attentions away from the water and led them back to camp, instructing them on what to do. They nodded and ringed the camp, staying mainly in the same area as Trowa put out grain for them to eat. Only after he’d cared for the group’s horses did he go to find Quatre.
The blond naturemage was watching Dhan and Dhati make their landings on two gigantic trees, giants of the forests. Wufei and Meiran leapt down, buoyed by a bit of magical influence by their dragons, and went into the main camp.
“Quatre.” Trowa said quietly. “Have you had a chance to talk to the trees yet?”
Quatre looked startled. “No, I haven’t, why, is something wrong?”
“Well, the animals are saying strange things.” Trowa supplied.
The blonde mage frowned, then nodded. His eyes fluttered shut and he swayed ever-so-slightly from side to side as he conversed with the gigantic evergreen trees.
Suddenly the naturemage’s eyes sprang open and he nearly fell over. Trowa caught one of his arms, supporting him.
“What’s wrong?” the beastmage asked, as quietly as he could manage so as not to frighten the others.
“The trees…they say there’s a courtyard, stone, all of it stone…with weeds struggling to grow among the stones…and animals in cages! Eternally cloudy…” he said, as if in a daze.
Trowa frowned. It correlated perfectly with what the animals had told him.
“Quatre, we’ve got to check this out, the animals mentioned the same thing. Except minus the plants and the weather.” He said, a bit sharply. “We’ll have to do the soul-search.”
The blonde mage’s eyes widened and a drop of sweat beaded on the side of his head, despite the frigid air. “I…I…okay, Trowa.” He said, biting his lip. It was true that they needed to check it out, and if Trowa hated him for what he’d see…that was that. There was no way to turn back without seeming traitorous.
Trowa looked around, back at the camp, where Heero, Duo, Wufei and Meiran were talking animatedly, and then towards the trees. “Where should we go?”
Quatre closed his eyes slightly, then opened them and pointed down a barely visible trail into the woods. “There’s a close-grown cluster of trees that way.” He offered.
Trowa nodded and led his friend down the trail, to the trees. It was just as Quatre had said; they were close together and would provide excellent cover. The two boys settled down in the middle, knocking aside some snow, and raised their hands a bit slowly, resting their palms together in midair.
Quatre bit his lip and called on the magic within him, sending vine-like tendrils of green light spiraling along his arms and around his body, as if he’d made a spectral plant take root within him. Quickly, the vines of magic wrapped around Trowa’s arms as well, and tugged at Trowa’s own magic, enticing it.
The beastmage’s stormy blue magic rose reluctantly, and then rippled across Trowa’s skin, taking the form of fur, then feathers, then scales. It whipped to the vines and down Quatre’s arms, joining the two bright colors in an equally bright turquoise.
Simultaneously, both boys’ eyes snapped open and they gasped as they stared deep into each other’s eyes.
Trowa saw it all. Quatre’s father was on the Emperor’s Council in Zarisnia, and despite his peaceful ideals, he was still condemned. A member of the Emperor’s harem took the youngest Winner boy, who had no mother, and could easily pass for one not from Zarisnia with his odd coloration. The two escaped in a boat, but the Emperor sent a vicious storm. The boat washed up on Marenia’s shores: the girl was dead, Quatre alive. The young boy was found and brought to the palace, and King Terrence and Queen Sakura were about to order that he be locked in the dungeons when their young son stopped them. At Heero’s word, the boy, Quatre Winner, became a free citizen of the country of Marenia, and began a new life. Trowa felt no hatred towards the boy, only sympathy.
Quatre saw Trowa’s past as a boy lost in a gigantic forest, a world beyond his comprehension, with vague memories of living the show-troupe’s life and not much else. He saw each facet of the boy’s twisted past in the forest as he learned to communicate with all kinds of animals, one by one. Each type of animal rallied to his cause and helped him through the forest—and ultimately, to Maren City. He witnessed, with wonder, the first time Trowa transformed from human to animal—to a cougar. He gasped in awe as a group of animals spoke as one, naming their new friend Trowa Barton, after a patron saint and god of all animals. He felt wonder at Trowa’s past, full of adventure.
Then, as one, the boys’ souls followed their magic’s path and they slammed together, one being instantly. They felt each other’s thoughts and dreams, and after a moment’s shy hesitation, they conferred and as one single being composed entirely of magic and having no real shape as the word is commonly defined, flew towards the hideous garden.
Within seconds the boys arrived, and slowly split into beings crafted entirely of colored light and pure magic. Trowa was a stormy blue color, and though he had his usual shape, everything about him was blue. Quatre was emerald green. The two boys looked around the garden. They immediately started talking to the plants and to the animals, using their own personal skills to accomplish things.
Trowa turned to the caged animals, and in particular, a pair of peacocks trapped in a cage.
“Why are you here?” he asked, in a gemlike, chiming version of his own voice.
“We…the emperor…he didn’t think we were perfectly beautiful…so we’re being punished…” the peacocks replied, their voices dull.
Trowa turned to a tiger in a nearby cage. His fur was patchy, his body thinned from starvation.
“What about you, brother?” he asked the great cat.
“I was not handsome enough, so I was brought here.” The tiger replied, his tone flat and almost lifeless.
Trowa was becoming quite incensed by this time. He turned to a pair of gem-scaled snakes in another cage.
“What about you?” he inquired.
“Our sssscalesss did not sssparkle brightly enough.” They replied in low hisses.
“Where are we?” Trowa whispered.
“Zarissssnia.” The snakes replied.
Trowa immediately had a sense of foreboding. He whirled around to see Quatre looking up at the sky.
A chain of thoughts ran through his head.
This was the Zarisnian imperial palace. Or at least it was a part of it.
They were magical.
Zarisnians protected every inch of their land against magic.
They had probably overstepped many protections even now…
An outright magic spell…
“No! Quatre!” he shouted, even as the boy shouted to the skies and the clouds parted.
A bolt of bright yellow magic struck the boy, knocking him apart. His gem form flew into pieces, and he screamed in pain. The sky clouded back over, and Trowa ran over to where the pieces of Quatre were. He picked them up, one by one, then forced himself to turn into a liquid shape and surrounded the pieces of his friend, trying to soothe him. The naturemage was in a storm of pain, and he screamed in nothing but pain for a few seconds until he finally calmed down. When that happened, Trowa gently pulled Quatre’s soul into his, and ran for home, after shouting out a simple phrase to the evil garden.
“We’ll be back, I promise it.”
Within seconds, the two boys were back at their bodies and split into separate souls, going into their correct bodies. Quatre collapsed forward, shaking wildly. Trowa caught him and held him in a protective hug until the shaking subsided. Only then did Quatre look up at his friend.
“Trowa…you…you saw…and…you don’t hate me?” he asked quietly.
“No…why would I?” Trowa said. “You gave up on Zarisnia. It’s not like you’re a spy.”
Quatre nodded slightly and leaned against Trowa a bit more. “I…I guess you saw…everything…then…” he said, blushing.
“It’s not bad.” Trowa said, leaning one side of his face against Quatre’s soft blonde hair and closing his eyes. “I’m sure you saw that I felt the same way about you.”
Quatre nodded slightly. The two boys leaned back against a tree, as close together as they could get without melding their souls once again.