Quatre was more unsettled by the incident with the undead battle than he let on, but didn’t reveal the fact to anybody but Trowa. However, he’d sworn the beastmage to secrecy, so that didn’t really count. In truth, he was simply worried—his life was becoming more tangled by the moment. Therefore, he did the only thing he could think of—and snuck off into the dunes to pray.
“Desert goddess,” he said quietly, eyes fixed on the golden sand before him, dotted with miniscule tufts of grass, “what should I do? I fear that my friends might desert me…if…If they find out the truth…oh, please give me some guidance!”
There was no sign. A faint puff of wind swirled across the sand, but that was all. Defeated, Quatre slumped to the sand, but as he did so, the movement scared a sand lizard out of her burrow. Quatre sat up quickly so as not to harm the creature, and as she dashed away, her tail left a long string of words in ornate writing perfectly etched into the sand.
Tell the truth, the goddess had said.
Quatre gathered his bravery, nodded, and left, not noticing that another breath of wind obliterated all evidence of the occurrence behind him.
That night, around the campfire, the group talked quietly, mainly about the attack, but about other things as well. Finally, Quatre gathered his bits of bravery and stood to speak.
“I lied to you all,” Quatre began quietly. “To…to all of you. Some of you…well, I’ve been lying to some of you for years, but now I have to tell the truth. The Death Dunes, first of all, aren’t the site of a holy sacrifice…they’re the site of a war that was waged here many years ago. Thousands died…that’s where the undead came from this morning. Everything else is tangled up as well…I’m actually the heir to the throne here…my father is the first of Zerixco’s lords that had a son, so like it or not, the emperor’s crown falls to me. Zerixco can’t change it unless he brings proof of my death, and none of his other lords had sons anyway. In addition—well, Heero—I…I told you a necromancer’s spell went awry. I didn’t say…I didn’t say that the necromancer was me.”
Most of them sat back in shock at this news.
“So…that’s why you told us to leave for a while this morning…” Relena mused quietly. “You knew what was coming…”
Quatre nodded slightly, feeling that something bad was about to happen, surely. However, nothing did. Heero looked up at Quatre, and then nodded to where he’d been sitting.
“Sit down, we’re not going to disown you,” the king said. “In fact, I wouldn’t want to form a peace treaty with this country if any ruler but you was in that throne.”
“Heero…I’m not exactly on the throne yet…” Quatre replied nervously.
“Yet,” Heero said softly. “Yet. Zarisnia has been attacking us for a long time—and numerous attempts have been made on Zerixco’s life. In addition—I have a feeling that he’s the one that took Duo to that prison. If so…” the king let the sentence hang in the air, the rest unspoken. “Let’s plan to leave on the dawn,” he said finally. He smiled. “And hopefully have no delays.”
The others smiled as well, bolstered by the king’s smile, and he left, going back to the tent that he shared with Trowa and Quatre.
The next morning, they did set out at last. The Maguanacs provided a guard and guide again, leaving ample opportunity for the others to talk to Quatre. They didn’t waste this opportunity—they used it to ask about his power of necromancy.
Quatre tried to steer away from the conversations; he was clearly uncomfortable in the direction they were taking. He didn’t want to tell the whole truth about his power to anybody, not even Trowa. His power was volatile and erupted only when his emotions went out of control—and it almost always spelled disaster. Yesterday’s incident hadn’t been the real thing—he had actually been trying to revive dead wood when the power seeped into the ground and awakened the undead. He was personally glad that it hadn’t gone further, for if it had—
Better not to think about it.
Trowa hovered nearby, not able to decipher Quatre’s dark thoughts, but getting wafts of dark emotions, carefully restrained, just not carefully enough. He was worried about the blond haired boy—depending on what direction this quest took, they might be getting more than they bargained for.
When the travelers arrived at their destination, they were somewhat disappointed. True enough, the Gryphon’s Castle was impressive—a jagged black spire, towers carved from a pinnacle of natural stone that had seemingly come from nowhere. Its black color was impressive, but the drifts of sand pushed against its walls by the process of time were not. The whole place looked rundown and deserted, which it probably was, due to the rusted portcullis half-barring the entryway and the remains of logs from the broken drawbridge. If there had been a moat, it was now completely filled with sand.
The group rode closer, and as they did, they could see gargoyle-like representations of gryphons—not the normal gryphons one saw that were half-lion, or leogryphs, as the true name went, but the ‘true gryphons’, ones that were fully birdlike, with four taloned feet and a raptor’s tail. They sat, coolly watching the hot desert, heads dipped, ear tufts raised. The gryph-gargoyles were massive in size, and it had to have taken ages to carve, unless they were not fashioned by human hands.
Heero turned to look at the Maguanacs after observing the castle quietly for a moment. “Why is this a good stop? It looks deserted, to say the least.”
“Inside this castle, in a certain closed-up room, there is a spring of water that never stops flowing. We have used it before,” Rashid explained.
Heero looked at the portcullis, which was barring the way. “So how do we get in?”
Rashid frowned. “That is a good question. The portcullis had not been lowered when we were last here.”
“So we need to get past…” Heero said quietly. He shaded his eyes and looked up. His eyes flashed silver for a moment as he tossed an attention-catching spell high up into the air. More quickly than he expected, two specks appeared in the sky and lowered until they became discernable as dragons. Dhan and Dhati to be specific.
They landed neatly and Wufei looked over at Heero from his perch on the dragon’s back. He glanced up at the skies, then back at Heero. “What do you need?” he asked.
Heero pointed at the portcullis. “Can your dragons help remove that? Their strength is many times what ours is.”
Wufei and Dhan turned as one and examined the portcullis. Finally Wufei nodded. “Back up,” he warned. When the group backed up, Wufei himself leapt down from Dhan’s back and the black dragon stepped forward, digging his claws into rusted sections of the crossed metal bars and jamming them through, then gripping the portcullis and pulling.
It worked. The metal was rusted near the top, and it snapped away. Dhan pulled the mess of metal and rust out of the entrance and flew away, depositing it in the sand.
Rashid looked inside. “It is shady inside, and we have not rested for a while. Why don’t we take a break?”
“An excellent idea,” Hilde said dramatically. “I’m about to drop.” With that said, the group moved forward and into the shaded courtyard, meant to keep the desert sun off of its occupants. The design succeeded, and the group separated to rest for a while. Heero found a nice spot behind a deep stone basin that held the remains of a long-dead tree, and curled up there. He quickly fell asleep.
As Heero’s spirit self wandered the dreamscape he’d been in twice now, he realized that he hadn’t seen Duo—or Duo’s memories—in his dreams for the past four days. He started to chalk it up to traveling, but then he decided that might not be the right answer, for the bond was unnaturally thin as well. He made up his mind to try and find Duo, but the bland charcoal-grey colored landscape revealed nothing. Therefore, he was forced to try using the bond. He grabbed the thread-thin golden strand, and, carefully gripping it, started to follow it.
Nothing seemed to happen at first, but eventually, the bond grew a tiny bit thicker, and the charcoal grey darker. He kept following. By the time he reached his destination, the bond was fairly thick—as it should be—and the surroundings were a deep and morose black.
It was then that he saw Duo. The thief’s image was torn and twisted, nearly faded through completely, and he looked awful. Heero knelt to try and talk to him, to see what was wrong, but Duo’s eyes sprang open, and he glanced at Heero with an unmistakable emotion.
“No! Stay away!” Duo shouted, panicking. Without warning, the boy vanished.
Heero suddenly realized that the thief had willed himself into wakefulness, just to get away from him. He was stunned and shocked, and his vision grew dim as he watched the bond become thread-thin again, as if Duo was fighting to put distance between himself and the king.
“Goodbye,” Heero called, even though nobody would be able to hear him.
It echoed forever. Goodbye…goodbye…goodbye…
Rashid parceled out waterskins and a few light barrels amongst Relena, her guards, the ‘bounds and his Maguanacs. He looked up and around for Quatre, Trowa, and Heero.
Quatre walked up to him. “Are you looking for Trowa and Heero?”
Rashid was a bit startled. “Why, yes, Master Quatre.”
“Heero is asleep…let him stay that way. He’s in pain and I’m going to try and get him out of it. I don’t know where Trowa is, but if you’ll go on to get the water, I’ll wake Heero and we’ll try and find him and then we’ll meet you again,” Quatre offered.
Rashid nodded a bit uncertainly. “All right, Master Quatre. But maybe I’d better leave a guard…”
“Rashid,” Quatre said, “I lived for many years without you and your guards. If I get in trouble, I know how to defend myself.”
Rashid, defeated, nodded and led the Sword Islanders and the ‘bounds away, his Maguanacs following the group resolutely. Quatre turned back to Heero, as he’d felt a sharp burst of anguish from the boy, and wanted to see what was wrong.
As he watched, Heero awoke and looked at him with pained eyes.
“Quatre,” He said, “I think they’ve driven Duo insane…”
“Dear gods,” Quatre said in horror. “Come on…let’s go outside and get some fresh air. It’s getting cooler outside—the sun is setting. We’ll probably have to spend the night here anyway, so taking a break for a moment won’t hurt.”
Trowa, at the moment, was lost.
He had gone off just for a moment to see to the horses, and entered through a different door than he had previously—which was not good. He had invariably been turned around in the passages and was now wandering, hoping only that he could find a way out without subjecting Quatre to worry. If worse came to worse, he could use his soulbond to find a way out, but that was tricky in itself, so he preferred not to. Besides that, the castle was fascinating.
Large carved portraits of gryphons and one human decorated many of the walls. The one human appeared many times, and Trowa wondered about this a little, for she seemed to be the only human included in these pictures. Unless she wasn’t really a human, but a goddess instead; that would actually make more sense.
After he had wandered for quite some time, Trowa stumbled into a large chamber, almost by accident. Its ceiling was impossibly high, perhaps stretching all the way to the roof of the castle, and it appeared to be a fighting arena of some sort by lines etched deep into the stone of the floor and old, dust-covered mirrors to reflect natural light onto the battlefield, as well as iron rings to hold torches.
The beastmage wandered about the chamber a bit until something caught his eye. It was an old, rusted rack of swords. Most of the swords had rusted with age, but one still gleamed like the day it had been forged. That was odd—it bespoke of a magical sword of some kind, usually, unless someone had been here recently. Trowa walked over and picked it up.
The first thing he noticed was that the sword had a curious grip—shaped like a running wolf, and rather hard to work one’s hands around. It might have been ornamental, but even an amateur would be able to see that the hilt was absurd. Trowa turned it around. Other than the awful grip, it was a fantastic blade, fine gleaming silver that still bore a sharp edge.
That was when he heard the voice.
It rattled in his head like metal clicking against metal, and finally settled into a strange, but not unpleasant buzz in the very back of his mind. At last, the buzzing resolved itself into words, and though they could be discerned, they seemed to hold the quality of steel ringing against steel, the cries of battle, and the blistering, crackling fire of the forge.
-You found me.-
Trowa looked at the sword in shock. He was sure it was the sword—after all, who else could it be? However, talking swords could be dangerous—they’d been known to make choices independent of their users, and other such things.
-Don’t worry, boy. I’m not that kind of talking sword. Used to, maybe I could do that, but not any more. My magic has weakened too much. I can still tell a few things though…-
At that, Trowa got a burst of knowledge, enough so that he felt that the sword must have jammed it into his head somehow. The sword’s name was the Wolfaen, the living Sword of Howling Rage. Trowa was still trying to process the information he’d been given when the sword spoke again.
-Boy, there’s a gryphon behind you and he’s trying to be sneaky. Don’t turn around, but shapeshift into your largest bird-form and carry me. I’ll give us a breeze to get out of here and make myself as light as I can. Speed is imperative, so move.-
Trowa saw it all through the eyes of the wolf on the sword and had no grounds to doubt it, so shapeshifted into the largest bird he knew how to—a battling-eagle—and closed his talons around the sword’s hilt even as a burst of wind struck into his wings and he was lifted off the ground slightly.
-Fly, boy, fly, that gryphon is coming fast now.-
Indeed, Trowa could hear the clicking of eagle talons and lion claws on the floor behind him and the rumbling growl of the gryphon, and flapped, flying as hard as he could up towards the ceiling. What plan did the sword have?
-Silly. If there’s light in here, there must be a way for it to get in, right? And as much light as this room takes—well, it’ll be a big enough hole for you to get out of for sure, and maybe even the gryphon, but we’ll be far enough ahead by then that it won’t matter, if you hurry.-
Trowa didn’t nod, but looked up and flapped harder, rising on the magical wind and searching. At last, he saw it—a gigantic hole in the ceiling, partially hidden from where he had been standing. He flew up and through it, into the cooling desert air as the sun sank into the western horizon. He was surrounded by spires and towers, and flew as quickly as he could, banking through and around them. The gryphon boiled out of the hole behind him, shrieking its fury as it flew. The beastmage dove quickly once he cleared the towers, and thankfully, saw Heero and Quatre standing outside. He dropped the sword with a shriek once he was low enough to know he wouldn’t drop it on either one of them, and landed firmly on Quatre’s shoulder, knowing the boy wore a thick leather and chainmail mesh tunic. The slender blond mage was rocked from the impact of the large bird, but righted himself. Trowa quickly sent panic signals into Quatre’s mind, just as Heero picked up the sword.
Quatre grabbed Heero’s arm and started dragging him, eyes wide. He’d gotten Trowa’s meaning, and, despite Heero’s protests, dragged the king with a strength neither of them knew he possessed. They got out of the way just in time, for the gryphon landed behind them and started running.
Quatre found a room with a sturdy wooden door and ran in. Once Heero was in as well, Quatre slammed the door closed with naturemage force and set the bar in it just in time, for the gryphon hit it powerfully, and his claws sank deep into the decaying wood. Quatre quickly reinforced it by convincing it to grow. The gryphon growled in fury and kept hitting it.
Trowa took the opportunity to flap down to the ground and shift back to his normal form. He looked at the door as soon as he was finished and listened to the sounds of splintering wood as the gryphon continued his relentless assault on it.
“Heero, can I have my sword?” he asked.
“This is yours?” Heero replied, glancing at the blade, with its uncomfortable grip.
“Well, kind of, I found it,” Trowa said, taking the blade when Heero held it out. “What are we going to do?”
Quatre bit his lip. “Scare it maybe? I don’t want to kill it…I mean, we might have to, when we try and escape, but…”
“Scaring it’s good,” Trowa assured him, glancing at Heero. “Isn’t it?”
“Yes,” Heero replied curtly, unsheathing his royal sword. “Whenever you’re ready.”
Quatre reached down to the stone floor and drew upon the part of his magic that connected him to the earth and stone, and then drew a stone blade from the floor. He handled it effortlessly despite its obvious weight and turned to look at Trowa and Heero—both in stances, ready to charge, and then at the door. Without a backward glance, he flung it open.
The gryphon froze for a second, and that was all that the boys needed. They ran forward, shouting battlecries and waving their swords. The gryphon, as they had hoped he would, backed up quickly. He glared at them, and then finally spoke, into their minds.
-What are you dong here?- he asked. –Why’d you trespass in our castle, against our will and the Lady’s?-
Quatre stepped forward, and started to talk, hoping to keep his tone nonthreatening. “I’m sorry, but we needed water. Who is the lady you speak of?”
-She is our guardian, our guide, and our protector,- the gryphon said. –She guides us as a black gryphon and speaks for us when we need to be heard as a human, though once she ‘died’ when she was trying to save another human doing that…-
Quatre froze when the gryphon said that, but the other two didn’t seem to notice. Heero stepped forward, sheathing his sword as he did so. “Is this lady here, and if so, may we speak with her?”
The gryphon gazed at each of them in turn, stopping with his glare on Trowa. –Tell me why you stole that sword first, then I MIGHT,- the gryphon said, a false sense of danger in his mind-voice.
Heero guessed that this might be a younger gryphon, possibly set on a patrol, with no real way to back up his authority without brute force, which he obviously didn’t have a lot of—he was quite a bit smaller than the normal battle gryphons that they saw, in any case.
-You’re a fool,- the sword told the gryphon. –I chose this human; he didn’t steal me. Stop talking nonsense and take us to the Lady.-
The gryphon seemed to be burning with questions, but turned, if a bit resentfully, and began walking away. The humans had no idea why he’d given up so easily—maybe the sword had told him something privately. Perhaps they’d never know.
Meanwhile, Rashid, his Maguanacs, Relena and her bodyguards, and the dragonbounds were in the tiny room with the spring inside it, which was still guarded by a heavy wooden door that had not yet begun to rot away. Closed away from the outside world, they filled the waterskins and few barrels in relative peace.
At last, Rashid looked up. “Where are Master Quatre and his friends?”
“I don’t know,” Noin said, looking around. “I could have sworn Trowa was with us…and shouldn’t Quatre have been back by now?”
“Yes,” Rashid replied grimly. “Gather the water, and let’s go.” With that said, the head Maguanac walked over to the door and opened it.
He was greeted with the sight of a gryphon.
-Don’t be afraid,- she said quickly. –Your friends are safe, but I’ve been sent to lead you to them after you put up your water. Would you like to go?-
“Yes,” Rashid managed to reply. The others, to their credit, managed to stay composed as well.
-Let’s go then,- she said, turning her back to them and walking off down the halls.