Dhan flew away from the castle at high speed, stopping only once he was at a sizeable clearing rather deep in the forest. Dhati flew up with a deer and deposited it. She then flew off to hunt for herself and her mate, while Wufei and Meiran built a small fire and roasted some of the meat from the first deer.
“Where to now?” Meiran asked sourly, glaring at Wufei.
“To Lunos,” Wufei said. “Don’t look so sour. It’s for the best. I discussed this with Heero and Trowa and--”
“And WHAT?!” she all but shouted. “If you and animal-boy and the king of this ACCURSED country were discussing some potentially IMPORTANT PLANS why weren’t Duo, Quatre and I included?”
“Well…” Wufei started. He swallowed, bit into a piece of deer meat, and thought. Even all his book smarts couldn’t save him here.
“Just as I thought, you have no good excuse,” Meiran said savagely. She glared at him fiercely, her black eyes sparkling in the firelight. “Next time, if there IS a next time, be sure that I’m on this council.”
With that, she tore into a piece of meat, and the clearing fell into an uneasy silence.
Quatre held rapid conversations with the trees, waking a few from their winter sleep. Buds began to sprout, and he quickly staunched this—he didn’t want innocent plants to suffer on his account. He listened to their words and soon they reached a clearing, and just as Trowa climbed off of Trick, he collapsed.
“Trowa?!” Quatre said, alarmed. He hopped down, both Legend and Trick coming to look at their riders anxiously. The cause of Trowa’s collapse was quite obvious—two arrows stuck completely through the calf muscle in his lower left leg.
Quatre looked at the arrows carefully—they had barbed arrowheads, but they’d gone through the leg. However, that meant that the muscle was probably torn and might never heal properly. Quatre shook with suppressed fear—what if his friend was never able to truly walk again? It was an awful prospect.
“Trowa…I’ve got to take these out,” he told his friend. Trowa managed a nod, and Quatre built a fire, mixing herbs and water together and then forcing the potion down Trowa’s throat. The other boy was quickly asleep.
Quatre quickly cut the arrowheads and fletching away from the shafts of the arrows with his knife, then talked to the wooden shafts quietly. They obliged him quite willingly—almost cheerfully—and all but flew out of Trowa’s leg into the blonde boy’s hand. Quatre immediately threw them away.
One task remained, the worst. He pulled away up the cloth of Trowa’s pants and examined the leg—the flesh was torn, but it appeared that the arrow had gone through in such a way that it hadn’t caused as much damage as it could have. For that, Quatre would be eternally grateful. He quickly pulled some supplies out of Legend’s saddlebags and placed four patches of thinly woven stalks, thick with healing herbs, out of his supplies. He gently laid one over each of the four wounds in Trowa’s leg and layered fresh, slightly wet healing herbs over them. He finished with a bandage made of cloth woven from various plant fibers and infused with magic that he only had to call upon to activate. The last healing barrier was set, and he quickly cleared away the worst of the snow from the area around the fire as he built it up and began rummaging for things to eat. All he had was a few strips of preserved meat, some thick grain to be made into porridge, and a selection of dried fruits and vegetables. Trail rations. Heero had all the fish they’d gotten at Crosswaters, and they’d eaten all they’d gotten from Pine Ring the night before they’d arrived at Nangana, expecting a more pleasant reception there than had been received..
Sighing, the naturemage mixed some dried fruit into the porridge grain with a bit of the water from their waterskins, hoping for a thick, body warming porridge if nothing else.
Later, Trowa awoke, to the smell of cooking porridge and a throbbing pain in his leg. He sat up halfway and looked at Quatre.
“Quatre?” he asked.
The blonde boy pressed a bowl of porridge into Trowa’s hands and looked at him.
“Eat that, please,” he said.
Trowa shrugged and began eating the porridge. It wasn’t the best, but it definitely could have been worse.
“We don’t have much food, Trowa,” Quatre said quietly.
Trowa’s eyes unfocused for a moment, then they refocused and he smiled slightly.
“Don’t worry about it, everything’s been taken care of,” Trowa assured him, tucking away at the porridge again.
Quatre looked at the beastmage curiously, then sighed, suspecting he’d find out soon enough.
“It’s getting dark, we’d better get some sleep. Are you done with that porridge yet?” he asked.
“Yes,” Trowa said, finishing the last bite and settling down as Quatre pulled the blankets about them. They were thin—meant only for emergencies—but the fire and their own body heat would pick up some of the slack.
Duo stood on the other side of the clearing from his friend, rearranging items in their saddlebags. He sighed, slightly worried; even though Heero had said he wasn’t going to give up, the boy didn’t look good. Duo loaded more of Heero’s pain into his own body and felt his shoulder throb despite the lack of a wound. Just then the thief got a rude shock.
-Silly little wing-human,- a masculine voice snapped right into his mind, -you’re not doing yourself any good.-
At that, most of his pain evaporated. Shocked, Duo said the only thing that would apply.
-That would be me, but please be more quiet. You don’t want to wake his royal highness over there, after all,- the black winged one said teasingly.
“Why…how are you talking to me?” Duo managed.
-Your need is what spurred our wings to come out, and talking to you is a needful thing as well,- Shadow explained.
“Oh,” Duo managed.
-Don’t look so beaten, wing-human,- Shadow said.
-Friend of my wing-human! I think he’s waking up!- A feminine voice said in his mind.
Duo shook his head—it could only be Tsubasa—and walked over to where Heero was. Sure enough, the king was waking.
“Heero—I have the most incredible thing to tell you…” Duo began.
Wufei managed to apologize to Meiran enough later on and the two ‘bounds hopped onto their dragons once they’d eaten.
“Dhan, head towards Lunos,” Wufei told his dragon.
-No, there is unfinished business, you will see,- his dragon said, then flew back towards Nangana. Dhati followed.
The two dragons arrived shortly and their ‘bounds saw that the silver and sapphire banners bearing a cougar of the royal family of Marenia had been replaced with ones of red and gold with a jackal and three coiled cobras. That was the crest of the imperials of Zarisnia. Worse than the banners were the creatures patrolling the area and perched on the towers; they were the gryphons. Huge, though not as big as the dragons by any means, their feathered eagle forequarters both contrasted and harmonized with their furred lion hindquarters. The humans on their backs wore strange armor; the stuff was extra strong and the joints were made of soft but impenetrable leather. Perfect for dancing, and that was how the gryphondancers cast their spells.
Fortunately, dragonclaws could pierce that armor, so Dhan and Dhati set to work.
They cast invisibility spells, then went downward through the clouds and picked off the ‘dancers one by one, their claws crushing the chests of the poor humans. As their humans died, the gryphons emitted a loud eagle shriek that faded to the low, defeated rumble of a lion. Then they collapsed, falling and cracking open upon and in the towers and courtyards of the castle. Dhan and Dhati left the bodies of the ‘dancers themselves in a pile in the middle of the courtyard as a warning and an offering, as well as a small statuette of a dragon in flight, carved of obsidian and flat red stone.
As they were flying away, Wufei frowned. Dhan quickly asked what was wrong.
“They were weak. It was an unsatisfactory battle,” Wufei supplied.
Dhan shook his head and flew onward, ignoring his ‘bound’s words.
The next morning, Quatre awoke to find two wolves sitting in the clearing, gazing at him over the body of a medium-sized stag. He sat up the rest of the way and the wolves glanced at Trowa, then at him.
“Hello,” he said quietly. “Is this for us?” he asked, indicating the deer.
The wolves looked at each other, then nodded at him in a very un-wolf like way.
“I can’t thank you enough,” Quatre said sincerely, quite used to the odd behavior of animals, especially when around Trowa.
The two wolves smiled as best they could and wagged their tails. When Quatre skinned and gutted the deer—a duty he didn’t particularly like, but had to do, for Trowa’s sake—he gave both of them some of the meat, which they accepted gratefully.
Trowa woke up shortly after Quatre finished the final parts of cutting up the deer and saw the wolves, then smiled. They all but leapt across the clearing and sat on either side of Trowa, shoving their noses into his hands and wagging their tails like family dogs instead of the skilled hunters they were. Trowa laughed.
“Quatre, this is Toki,” he said, laying his hand on the head of one of the wolves, who had a white-dipped muzzle and four white paws, “and this is Meko,” he said, indicating the other wolf, who was average in coloration everywhere but his slender muzzle, which was pure black.
“I’m pleased to meet you both,” Quatre said.
They wagged their tails in reply.
“They’re going to be traveling with us when we leave. And so is she,” Trowa said, jerking his head towards the tree behind him.
Confused, Quatre looked up into the branches of the tree—and saw yellow-green eyes looking back at him, from a feline face, with a grayish-tan body to match.
“Her name is Ni’hat’cha,” Trowa explained.
The cougar leapt down out of the tree and walked into the clearing. Quatre politely offered her a bit of deer meat and she took it solemnly.
“Pleased to meet you, Ni’hat’cha,” Quatre said formally.
“She says to call her Ni,” Trowa put in quickly.
Quatre settled in to cook after a last glance at the cougar, and the three predatory animals settled in like dogs and a cat as he did so.
That same morning, Heero awoke to find Duo—and Shadow—gone. Only Tsubasa remained and she nudged him gently with her nose until he struggled into a sitting position and managed to loop his good arm over her neck.
-Little winged one,- she said kindly, -you need so much care.-
Trying hard to comprehend the fact that his horse was talking to him, Heero finally managed to talk back. “Where’s Duo? And Shadow?” he asked.
-They went hunting,- Tsubasa told him. She neighed out a laugh that sounded like the fine chiming of tiny bells and stood, forcing him to stand as well. Feeling a bit energized by his winged one’s infectiously kind nature, he tried to move his bad arm. It was stiff, and hurt abominably when he tried to flex it. Tsubasa drained away the pain and chided him for moving it, so he decided not to try it again.
Soon, Duo returned with a couple of squirrels and Heero’s bow. He sheepishly put the bow back, then turned to the king.
“I hope you don’t mind my using your bow, but I figured at least if I did, and you killed me, I’d have at least gotten to use the great bow of King Heero!” Duo said, in a mock-praising tone.
Heero scowled, then smirked. “Quiet, you,” he told Duo.
“Ouch, I’m stung,” Duo said, then sat down to skin the squirrels.
The next morning, the dragons halted in midair to tell their ‘bounds that they’d found transportation spells that could easily take them back to the Dragon Provinces to restock. Since the ‘bounds were getting ready for war, they agreed, and the dragons flew upwards into the clouds, spiraling around and around and teleporting as they did so.
Soon, the ‘bounds were standing in the courtyard of one of the dragon-castles in the Dragon Provinces, near Canai. Contrary to popular and untrue belief, dragonbounds weren’t all born in the Dragon Provinces; in fact many came from other countries, it was just that nobody realized it. Wufei and Meiran both came from Canai. Therefore, the armories stocked weapons from many countries, not just one. All the better—that way all the ‘bounds had a nice selection of weaponry.
First stop was in their rooms, where they exchanged the silk ceremonial gear for hardier, more protective clothing made of plant fiber cloth and animal skins, in both light and dark colors. Extra sets of clothing went into their packs. They kept their Canai blades and picked up Marenian-style recurved bows and quivers of magicked arrows, as well as a long Marenian lance and a Sword Islander pike each. Then they went outside to see about their dragon partners.
Walker, another ‘bound, one who had a brown dragon as a partner, was overseeing the sharpening of their claws and fangs. The crew was just finishing up as Wufei and Meiran walked out and Walker saluted them as they swung onto the backs of their dragons and spiraled upwards into the sky.
Later that afternoon, Toki went off to find some smaller animals for his own dinner, and Meko’s. Meanwhile, Quatre sat down to talk to Trowa.
“Trowa, I had an idea. Could you possibly shift into some small animal? Then I could carry you, since it’d be awkward for you to ride with your leg injured, and we could get going. I don’t like the way nature is feeling right now—it’s upset, and the sooner we get back on the road the better,” Quatre said.
“Sounds like a good idea. However, we need tack for the horses, and we aren’t going to find any here. Unless you can make blankets out of that cloth we were taking to trade with,” Trowa said, “and besides that, we need to wait for Toki.”
“I wouldn’t dream of leaving without him,” Quatre assured his friend, walking over to get the cloth out of the saddlebags. Once he had it, he concentrated and reawakened the dead plant fibers, making them grow and shift. Soon, he had two very serviceable thick blankets with loops to tie on the saddlebags, and two tough, braided bridles. Trowa nodded in approval.
Toki soon returned with three squirrels, one each for himself, Meko, and Ni. The other two animals ate theirs quickly and the mages settled down to try and find something for Trowa to shift into.
“How about a wildcat?” Quatre suggested. “That way, if you had to, you could defend yourself, and if asked, I can just say that you’re my familiar.”
“Sounds like a good idea,” Trowa said, and started to shift as Quatre broke camp.
The naturemage’s special clothing flickered and rippled outwards into fur, covering the boy’s body in clothes made of wildcat fur. Then, without warning, they slapped tight to his body and he shrank quickly, his skull reforming and his knees changing direction with a series of sickening pops. Bone shifted, a tail sprouted, and before long, Trowa was a wildcat.
With that, his bandage fell off, and he hissed at the wolves.
Quatre sighed and walked over to the cat. He retied Trowa’s bandage carefully.
“I don’t suppose you can talk to me, can you?” Quatre asked.
Trowa shook his head slightly.
Quatre tied the last few packs to Trick and Legend’s ‘saddles’, then swung up onto Legend’s back, carrying Trowa across his shoulders and shifting him down into his lap after.
With that, he set off, leading Trick, with Toki and Meko pacing through the underbrush and Ni leaping through trees, sending showers of snow cascading to the ground.
Heero and Duo waited all of that day and half of the next before setting out. The perches they had on their winged one’s backs were precarious at best, but they managed due to the unconscious bond they had with their animals. They used vines for bridles and held the saddlebags over their own shoulders.
-Little winged human,- Heero heard Shadow calling in his mind, -my human wishes to know how you’re doing.-
Heero scowled. –Tell him I’m doing fine and not to worry so much,- he said back to the winged one.
In a second, he saw Shadow swooping towards Tsubasa. He unconsciously pulled her to one side but the winged ones settled into a matched flight, just far enough apart that their wings wouldn’t foul the others flight.
“It’s easy to do!” Duo shouted.
“What?” Heero shouted back.
“Worry about you so much! You’re impossible to take care of!” Duo shouted back, jokingly.
“You’ll pay for that!” Heero shouted back in the same teasing tone and guided Tsubasa to follow Shadow as closely as she could. Woefully, it seemed that Duo was using a teasing bit of windmage power to further his horse’s flight, which Heero couldn’t do.
With a sigh, the king settled down to follow his friend as best he could.
Before long, Wufei and Meiran had arrived at Port Lunos and examined the port town from above as they hovered on their dragons.
The portmaster lived in the castle of the baron that watched over the lands in the human’s stead. The castle itself was perched back from the coast and fortified heavily against pirate and raider attacks. The high port wall had defenses as well, though it didn’t stretch all the way—it was more of a first-glance precaution.
The houses here, as well, were made of stone, probably because of the fierce storms—rather than the more modern houses in the capital made of wood and other materials.
Then again, Wufei mused, Maren City’s worst storms were considered light storms here.
The center of the town was a mysteriously green group of trees with a tunnel made of the green boughs leading back through the town and to the forest. That was the castle of the unicorns, called the Tree Circle by their kind. The unicorns themselves hovered about it, some walking up and down the streets of the port town itself, going into shops just like humans. The shops here were tall to accommodate them, for they were just as intelligent as humans and this was really their land, and they allowed humans to live on it by a long standing agreement and a mutually beneficial alliance.
The unicorns themselves were three or four hands higher than normal horses—even taller than the winged ones—and their coats varied with the same base. Pure white hair, with an oversheen of silver, which was most common, or gold or bronze. A few had oversheens of gem colors, bright sapphire and emerald and ruby, and at least one or two had the dim oversheen of obsidian.
The most fascinating and magnificent thing about them, however, was their horns—a long horn, the curls and patterns of which varied from unicorn to unicorn, as much as a human’s face varies. Different colors, strips of gem and precious metals, were sometimes used to ornament, but oftentimes the horns were streaked with color from birth, so no decoration was necessary.
After examining the unicorns and the town for a while, the two dragons landed outside the city, satisfied, and their ‘bounds walked into it and to the inn to procure a room, and to wait for the others to arrive.
Trowa and Quatre, however, were making tedious progress through the woods. Legend had plenty of grain to eat, but the somewhat dampened spirits of his owner and the beastmage were sinking into his own emotions and the golden horse’s feet fell in plodding movements, rather than the sharp, crisp ones they had upon starting out. The wolves and Ni tried to keep the boys cheerful, with only limited success. Toki had taken to hanging around Quatre. It seemed that the wolf liked the naturemage.
Soon, however, respite came in view—a tower top above the trees. Hoping that the inhabitants were friendly, Quatre rode closer—and saw, with dismay, that the tower was decrepit. He was so discouraged by the crumbling stone that he missed the beautifully carved images in it, of kings with wings and winged horses and dragons rampant, of cougars leaping from shields, all ornamented with chipped overlay of precious metal.
However, something occurred—a girl stepped out of the front door of the tower. To see someone so young stepping from something so ancient came as a rather large shock.
“Hello,” she called to them. Quatre looked closer—she had bright blonde hair, braided into two braids, and blue-green eyes nearly the same shade as his own. She was younger than he—he could tell that much, but not her age. She wore a long dress, in a curiously ancient style, with intricate embroidery on the sleeves and the panels of the skirt of cougars and dragons and knights on horses. It was a dress with a story behind it.
“Hello!” Quatre said back, riding closer. Even Legend seemed a bit cheerier. “I’m afraid we’ve lost our way. I’m Quatre and this is my familiar, Cat,” he said, indicating Trowa.
What the girl said next nearly knocked him over. It was totally unexpected.
“You’re lying,” she said, quite calmly.
“I…I beg your pardon?” he said. Trowa dug claws into the leather of his vest and he risked a glimpse at the mage. The other boy looked up at him with his green feline wildcat eyes, almost as good as talking.
“I can’t tell the Truth of the matter,” the girl began again. Quatre looked up at her. “But you are lying. That’s all I can tell, because you’re being UnTruthful, that’s all the Tower can tell me. It’s getting old,” she said, smiling ruefully.
Quatre’s eyes widened as he realized the situation. He’d heard the tales—every child in Marenia had.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t realize this was the Tower of Truth,” he said apologetically. The Tower of Truth was an ancient tower, said to be left over from a war between the gods of light and the gods of shadow. Whatever the matter, it was rumored to possess powers of magic that specialized in truth, as had just been proven. None of this had been confirmed, for the tower had never been found—until now.
“It’s all right, were you lying to protect something?” the girl asked. “By the way, my name is Sylvia—I’m the current Speaker of the Tower.”
“Yes, to protect him,” Quatre indicated Trowa. The mage-turned-cat sat up and looked at Sylvia as best his leg would allow.
“Oh!” Sylvia said, eyes widening. “Won’t you come inside?”
“Certainly,” Quatre replied to be polite.
“The wolves and cougar are welcome inside, but it would be rather kind of you to leave your horses outside—for now. I won’t let them stay outside too long,” she said.
“That’s fine,” Quatre assured her, and led the two horses over to the entryway. He looped Legend’s reins onto a protruding spike of broken stone and hopped down, carrying Trowa carefully. He followed Sylvia into the tower, and Meko, Toki and Ni in turn followed him.
“Here,” Sylvia said, leading them into a library that filled most of the first floor. None of the outside walls were broken here—but Quatre hadn’t seen any signs of damage. Perhaps it was all rubble from the top of the tower, or was an illusion. In any case, the library was rich, filled with books, and a warm fire was burning in the huge fireplace. Quatre puzzled at this, for he hadn’t seen any smoke, but decided not to harp and pick at things. It was most likely mage-controlled.
“Have a seat,” Sylvia offered graciously, and sank into a large stuffed chair herself. Quatre sat on a sofa and put Trowa down next to him. Taking the hint, Trowa shifted back to his normal form quickly, the bandage tugging uncomfortably on his leg until Quatre ordered for it to fall off.
Sylvia’s eyes opened wide in shock and she walked over. “Why? And how?”
“I’m a beastmage,” Trowa offered. “And it was because I was injured, it’d be easier to carry me, and we were afraid of pursuit.”
“Injured? Where?” Sylvia said.
Trowa gingerly peeled away the leg of his pants, revealing the wound. Sylvia gasped, then knelt, holding her hands on either side of Trowa’s leg and casting magic in a wash of pale pink light.
Ah, so she’s a healer, Quatre thought.
Within seconds, Trowa’s leg was whole once again. Sylvia stood.
“Now, it’s going to be sort of sore for a while…and pretty tender, so I wouldn’t go running any races!” she said jokingly.
“Thank you,” Trowa said.
“No problem,” she said. “So, down to business. Who was pursuing you?”
“Well, we don’t know if she was or not, but we were afraid of it,” Quatre said. Realizing that that statement didn’t answer the girl’s question, he went on. “We went to Fief Nangana, us and four others, and we were attacked by archers from within the fief itself. It was probably the Lady’s doing, but we shouldn’t be making assumptions,” he finished.
Sylvia frowned. “Well, I can reprovision you, and give you best wishes on finding the other four and finding out the Truth of the matter. That and lodging, for as long as you need it.”
“That would be wonderful,” Quatre said happily.
“Just for one night,” Trowa said flatly. “And we could use a good map. We need to get to Port Lunos.”
“A map? That’s easy enough!” Sylvia said. “Let’s go get the horses inside before it gets really cold, then we’ll work out everything else…”
With that, the three trailed through the tower, getting ready for the approaching night.