In the meantime, Heero, Quatre, and Trowa had been talking to the Lady. Or they assumed that they had, for the courtyard they were in, although it was open to the air (and showed a beautifully colored view of the sunset and appearance of the stars) was swathed in depthless shadows along one end. A kind woman’s voice spoke to them from there, but they couldn’t see her, even with magical senses.
“…so, I’m very sorry about breaking into the castle, but as you see, we’re trying to help our friend and we needed water,” Quatre said, finishing up the tail end of a comment.
“Yes,” the Lady replied.
Suddenly, and without warning, Quatre felt an intense pain in his head, like the worst of all headaches. He moaned slightly and rocked forwards, but thankfully, Trowa caught him.
Just as quickly as it had come, the pain vanished, and someone started prying through his thoughts like they were no more than a pile of books. To his horror and amazement, Quatre was unable to shield against the probing because of the residual pain in his head. Whoever was doing this had some idea how to, in any case.
At last, the search was finished, and the shadows vanished, revealing a tall lady—as tall as any one of them—wearing a long black robe thickly embroidered with gryphons, their feathers and bodies picked out in metallic red, gold, and orange. Her long black hair had sections wrapped in what appeared to be red and gold ribbons, and her golden skin glowed in the torchlight. Behind her, against one of the stone walls surrounding the courtyard, stood four gryphons—one of the typical warrior-gryphon type, a light honey gold color, one that was steel grey all over, one that was a dark brown color, and one that was sand colored with black banding. Their gazes almost slipped over the sand-colored one, but then they looked back to him, for there was something quite odd about him—his hind half wasn’t lion-like! He had FOUR clawed eagle’s feet, and a tail like a raptor—wholly birdlike. Quatre felt compelled to stare at him, but turned his gaze back to the Lady instead.
“Forgive me for my rudeness,” she said, walking forward and looking directly at Quatre, “But I had to make sure that your motives were pure, and give you something…”
The naturemage suddenly
felt a memory unlock in his mind with all the casual grace of a flower
opening. He saw again the servant that
had died to bring him to Marenia, and she bore a striking resemblance to the
Lady. What the young gryphon had told
them raced to the front of his mind and he felt a wash of guilt. She had died for him?
’Little one, you’re really a cougar, you strive for peace and justice just as they do, but you wear a jackal’s skin…sometimes,’ she told him, as the waves washed over their boat. ‘This little boat won’t last much longer…little one, remember, you’ll metamorphose into a gryphon one day! Remember…’
At that second, the boat had broken apart and left Quatre in the ocean to defend for himself.
Now back in the present, the mage Quatre looked up at the Lady.
“My Lady, I am ready to become a gryphon.”
The Trickster, temporarily away from Duo, watched the goings on from above. He wasn’t happy, either. If this got carried out, it would ruin all of his plans. Therefore, he’d just have to stop it before something undesirable happened.
He floated down and made himself visible, facing the Lady.
“Dear Lady,” he said, his tone at its most condescending, “I simply can’t allow you to do this. You’ll understand someday, if you live long enough, that is.”
The Lady glared at him, while Trowa, Quatre, and Heero simply stared. They couldn’t help but notice that he looked an awful lot like Duo…
“I suppose I’ll have to kill all these humans, those pitiful bags of feathers, and you as well. It’s a pity, I mean, you made awesome fruit pies, but it was not to be,” the Trickster said with mock sorrow. His expression changed suddenly into one of grim determination, and he shouted something in a language that the humans couldn’t make out. As soon as he shouted it, he started to change.
The Lady shouted something else and she began to change as well.
The transformations were impossibly fast and smooth. Almost before they realized it, the Trickster was a golden-red firebird, with evil emerald eyes, and the Lady a black gryphon, fully raptorlike instead of half-lion.
The two shrieked loudly and took to the air, starting a battle. The Trickster spat a fireball at the Lady, but she ducked and shot a barrage of magical missiles at the other god. He dodged them easily.
“It’s a stalemate,” Heero said, gritting his teeth. He drew his blade. “We have to help her, don’t we?”
“Yes,” Quatre replied, watching the battle from the ground. He looked at Heero. “But how do we get up there to fight?”
Heero smirked. “A problem easily solved,” the king said, sprouting his wings, which passed through his magical armor. With a jump and a few strong flaps, the king was up into the fight.
Trowa concentrated, focusing on a subtler level of magic, and formed wings, patching together several types of birds’ wings. He wouldn’t be able to hold them for long, so he held up his sword, ready to fly, when the silver wolf on the hilt leapt off of it, leaving a long, two handed-grip, which was considerably easier to handle than the old one had been. The diminutive wolf looked up at the beastmage, and then spoke into his mind again.
-I must go find those wolves and the cougar that came with you. I have something to tell them,- he said, and vanished.
Trowa watched curiously as a large droplet of golden liquid splattered to the ground, and looked upwards. To his shock, it was the Trickster’s blood—Heero had already scored several slashing cuts, and while they weren’t particularly deep or serious, they were doing a great job of gumming up the god-bird’s feathers.
The beastmage took off then, flapping upwards. He waited for an opening, when both Heero and the Lady attacked at the same time, and when the Trickster flew upwards, he swung his sword down hard. It bit deep into the Trickster’s shoulder, and the bird froze for a second, but that was all the opening that the king and the goddess needed. They both attacked, hard, and the Trickster fell. He labored to stand up, and when he finally did, he glared viciously before speaking.
“Fiiiiiineee you wiiiiin,” he screeched. “For now!” With that, the god vanished in a swarm of red and golden sparks. The three fighters landed neatly on the ground, Heero and Trowa making their wings vanish, and the Lady changing back into her other form. They took a moment to rest, and then the Lady turned to Quatre.
“Quatre, now it’s more important than ever that you become what you were always meant to be. I saw you glancing at my youngest son earlier,” she said, indicating the sand-colored gryphon. “Look at him again.”
Quatre swallowed, his mouth suddenly dry, and turned to look at the gryphon. He met its eyes, and suddenly it spoke into his mind.
-Quatre, I am Ka’tor. I will help and guide you…-
That was the last he heard, for he passed out.
When Quatre regained consciousness, he saw Ka’tor, Rashid, and Trowa hovering above him anxiously, silhouetted by a dark sky turning lighter.
-I’m sorry,- Ka’tor immediately said. –If I had known that you would faint, I would never have done it,- the gryphon rattled out.
“Ka’tor,” Quatre said, as kindly as he could, “It’s okay. Stop apologizing.”
The gryphon promptly shut up.
Trowa looked at the little naturemage curiously. “So, are you a gryphondancer now?”
“No…not exactly…” Quatre replied. “I don’t know the word for it…”
“Gryphonmage,” the Lady said, stepping up to the small group. “They’re extremely rare, and that’s a pity, because they made all the best emperors.”
Quatre nodded slightly, even now feeling Ka’tor hovering unobtrusively in the back of his mind and promising to lend him power for spells, should he need it.
“Little half-son,” the Lady said quietly, leaning forward as the boy sat up to run a hand through his soft blond hair, “I understand that you must leave soon, perhaps in no more than a few candlemarks, if not sooner. However, let me explain a few things…the Maguanacs have decided to set a course for the Cat Dunes, if that is all right with you. You can obtain supplies there, and the Sand Cat priestesses will aid you, since that particular goddess married one of the first gryphonmages who was rewarded for his deeds. I’ve given you enough provisions to get there easily…but, little one, watch out, please, for Ka’tor, and for yourself. He is my youngest son, and probably the last one I’ll ever have. I won’t lie and say I won’t miss him,” she said. She then looked at the others, who had moved off slightly, and leaned in closer with a whisper. “You might have told them that you’re a necromancer, but you didn’t tell them what kind, did you? Does even Trowa know the whole truth? If so, if it happens--”
“I pray it doesn’t,” Quatre said, going pale.
“If it does,” the goddess continued firmly, “Ka’tor will watch out for you, and help.”
“I don’t want to hurt him,” the naturemage began in protest.
“You won’t. He’s smart, for all that he’s my youngest,” she replied. “In addition, he will get along well with those dragons better than a half-lion gryphon will.”
“All right,” Quatre finally replied, grudgingly.
“Oh, if only I could keep you here and safe from the Trickster’s plots…he is not evil, but his judgment has been warped, and he is more stubborn than a mule. I do realize that you will probably have to walk into his clutches to free your friend, though, so let me give you this,” she said, handing Quatre a black crossbow. “This crossbow never needs to be reloaded. Use it well, little one.”
“Master Quatre, most excellent Lady,” Rashid said apologetically, breaking into the conversation, “we must leave soon.”
“I understand, Rashid,” Quatre replied. He turned to the Lady and thanked her by throwing his arms around her in a hug. She smiled slightly and hugged him back, then pushed him towards Ka’tor.
“Go now, little one, free your friend and Zarisnia!” she cried.
Quatre nodded and ran towards the gryphon and the others, who gathered packs and moved towards a secret passage leading outside quickly. The naturemage leapt onto the gryphon’s back, easily catching hold of the slick feathers, and they were off. They landed outside the castle gates and met with the others. As they tied packs to their horses, the wolves and Ni revealed the truth; that they had been drawn here by the very wolf that had been on Trowa’s sword, and were now ready to fight. They also had some business with hyenas and sand cats, or so they said, and had decided to follow and fight for the sake of Duo.
Legend was another matter, as Quatre now had to choose between a gryphon and a horse. Fortunately, the horse handed himself over to be used as a packhorse, to the relief of all. It would make the going much easier.
At last, they were off, going onwards towards their destination, as the sun began to rise.
Duo didn’t even look up from where he was seated when the Trickster entered. He knew better than to do that; the Trickster might beat him if he did so. However, when he saw golden blood spattering on the ground near the Trickster’s feet, he did glance up slightly, and saw that the god was bleeding from many wounds.
The god glared at the thief angrily. “That stupid king of yours is too strong. I can’t believe that he’d be idiot enough to attack ME!”
It was as if the words ‘too strong’ had set off something in Duo’s mind—comments about Heero were usually that he was weak, stupid, mean, and vicious, and only out to hurt Duo. Duo realized suddenly that Heero had attacked the Trickster, that the Trickster was imprisoning him, and that he’d been broken. He felt like cursing himself out a million times over. Instead, he looked up at the god, keeping his expression bland, and readied a magical spell. While the Trickster was still raving, Duo lashed out with the cutting blade of power and slashed the god across each cheek, leaving his golden blood trickling down his face and neck.
The Trickster stopped his tirade and stared at Duo, mixed emotions flitting across his face. Finally he settled for a contemptuous sneer and tried false bravado.
“You don’t seriously believe I was telling the truth, do you?” he said. “About the king.”
“Go,” Duo said icily, “before I slit your throat. I bet I just can, can’t I, since I have god’s blood?”
The Trickster swallowed and left.
After traveling for several days, the group reached the Cat Dunes, as predicted by the Lady. Also as predicted, the Sand Cat’s priestesses welcomed them with open arms as soon as they realized what Quatre was. They were allowed to stay in the temple itself and so they unloaded the horses and went out to shop, except for Heero, that is.
The king stayed behind, as he was suffering from exhaustion. Quatre sympathized and led on, leaving his friend behind for some much needed rest. Heero curled up in the room lent to him by the Sand Cat priestesses and quickly fell asleep.
He wasn’t expecting for anything to happen, but something did. As soon as he fell into the dreamscape, Duo appeared before him, looking fairly well and worried. As soon as he saw Heero, the thief threw himself at the king, colliding with him mercilessly and knocking the breath out of his dream lungs.
“Heero,” Duo said quickly, “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have pushed you away like that.”
“It’s all right,” Heero replied. “Anybody can be broken.”
“I wish I hadn’t been,” Duo replied. He frowned, then looked at Heero and managed a weak grin. “At least I’m better now, though. And by the way, nice job on the Trickster.”
Heero managed a weak smile of his own, just as he felt himself being jerked back. He frowned; he’d thought that he’d get to sleep longer than this.
“Duo, someone’s waking me up,” he told the thief. “Can you stay…safe until we come to get you? We’re nearly there.”
“Yes,” Duo replied fiercely. “Yes, I can. Now go, it must be important, you just fell asleep after all.”
Heero nodded slightly, just before he was jerked into full wakefulness.
“Heero! Heero!” Wufei said urgently, shaking the king’s shoulders. “I’m sorry, but we have to leave. Now!”
“Why?” Heero asked, dragging himself into wakefulness as quickly as he could manage.
“Zerixco’s sent his most elite soldiers after us, and they’re on our tail. We’ll have to travel as quickly as we can.”
The Sand Cat priestesses helped the group to the edge of the settlement just as the sun sank beneath the dunes, taking its heat with it, and making the thick cloaks they’d packed necessary. The moon rose, casting a silvery light over the dunes, and sent small silver dust devils whirling about in chilly winds.
“We’ll try to throw your opponents off,” one of the priestesses said bravely, “but you must flee!”
The group nodded their assent, almost as one. Heero agitatedly realized that they had been rushed more and more as of late, as if being drawn towards their goal by something…he hoped that it wasn’t a trap.
The horses stood ready for endurance-spells to be laced upon them, as they might have to endure miles of trotting or even galloping with little rest. Trowa moved among them, passing out special feed as well, and soon everybody was ready. All looked determined, even Relena and the Maguanacs, and none were ready to back down.
At last they were ready to go, and they ran.
It wasn’t until five days later that everything happened at once. Heero and his group were rushing towards the Trickster’s Temple and finally topped a dune, bringing it into full view.
It was a gigantic, towering, spiraling mass of rock, more so than even the castle of the gryphons, and written over with runes that glowed an eerie shade of red. The tallest tower was a speck from the ground, and the group froze for a moment as Heero tried to think.
Meanwhile, Duo was on that same top tower, for no apparent reason—it was a strange and awful coincidence that Zerixco had pulled him up to the very top of the temple on the very day that his soulbonded and the others arrived. The light was fantastic, as the sun was barely sinking into the horizon, and after days of darkness, Duo’s eyes watered a bit at the sight.
“You’re all covered in blood,” Zerixco said, pointing out the obvious as he looked at Duo’s proud but broken wings and frame. “You do need a bath, don’t you?”
Without warning, the evil emperor summoned a large amount of seawater with a rough but powerful spell. It crashed into Duo mercilessly, sending salt deep into his fresh cuts and breaking the older ones open; they then received the same treatment. Duo couldn’t hold back a hoarse scream as the water battered his broken wings.
Zerixco daintily stepped through the water, having used a spell to keep himself dry, and looked at Duo, sodden thoroughly and shivering once the downpour ended. He looked over the boy and licked his lips slightly, leaning in.
“You’ve got to give me more credit than that, you bastard,” Duo said, throwing his bangs out of his eyes.
“Oh, but if you were to forsake your country, I’m sure this…incident…could be mended and forgotten, and you’d be in the lap of luxury…” Zerixco began.
“Never,” Duo said forcefully, glaring. He felt something tugging at the edge of his senses, something that refused to be ignored. His thieving senses sprang to life and screamed to be recognized, and he realized what it was. His heart soared with joy, yet he kept his face locked in a mask. “May you burn eternally in the worst hell there is, and may you be aware for every second of it,” Duo said icily as the sun sank, casting bright red light around them.
Zerixco seemed to sense that something was wrong, but couldn’t place it—and turned just in time to see Ka’tor dive towards him and brutally ram him, throwing him backwards and off the tower.
The emperor, however, not to be outdone, grabbed Duo’s wrist, jerking the thief after him. The fall and the wind rushing past and upsetting his damaged wings was too much for Duo—the thief king passed out.
Heero was clinging to Tsubasa’s back, riding towards the castle at her fastest gallop, when he saw Zerixco and Duo start the deadly plummet. He shouted for Shadow immediately, but the black winged one was a step and a wingbeat ahead, and already flying towards his master. The black horse kicked Zerixco savagely, snapping the man’s arm away from Duo’s wrist and breaking it in the process, and dove, catching the thief on his back and flying away at full speed.
Heero turned to the emperor with a glare. He couldn’t go after Duo now—not when he had other matters to deal with. Something stopped him, however—a sight of reddish plumage from the top of the tower.
That had to be dealt with.
Heero guided Tsubasa upwards.
Quatre and Ka’tor dove as fast as the sandy gryphon could go, heading downwards, hoping to stop Duo’s descent. Upon seeing Shadow catch the thief, they halted momentarily, but when they saw Zerixco slow his own descent with a spell and land perfectly, Quatre’s rage boiled over.
-Quatre,- Ka’tor said worriedly, -Try and keep calm.-
“I’m calm,” Quatre said out loud. He kept repeating it to himself. He was calm. He had to be calm at the moment. However, he motioned for Ka’tor to land all the same. The gryphon complied, and the naturemage leapt off of his back neatly, turning to stare at the emperor.
Zerixco took one look at the gryphon and nonchalantly threw a spell at him. Ka’tor deflected it easily, but it only served to feed his mounting fury.
“Ahh, let me see here,” Zerixco said, looking over Quatre and Ka’tor. “If I’m not mistaken, you’re one of those vile Winners, aren’t you? Peace gets us nowhere, you do understand that,” he remarked. “I also hope you know that your father is finally dead. I completed it myself, and what a pity, it appeared he was on the mend.”
Perhaps the emperor had been hoping to make Quatre go out of his mind with grief, or scream that it wasn’t true, giving him the chance to launch an attack. However, that wasn’t what happened. Instead, the comment knocked Quatre’s rage over the edge and out of control.
Not even Ka’tor could save him now.
Quatre’s Rage-Necromancer side had been unlocked, and it wanted blood and vengeance.
“It’s quiet,” Relena whispered to Noin. “It’s too quiet.”
“Shh,” Noin said, motioning for Relena to be quiet. The dragons behind them laid hunched down and mostly covered in sand, their ‘bounds hidden as Relena’s small group, the Maguanacs, and the animals were.
-Something’s coming,- a voice said in their minds. After a brief moment’s search, they realized it was Dhan. They wasted no time in wonderment, however, but instead readied themselves for battle.
Sure enough, it was forty of Zerixco’s elite soldiers, and they were ready to fight. According to the odds, it was slightly less than two to one against—but the dragons tipped the odds in their favor somewhat. That wasn’t the issue though—making sure they didn’t reach Heero, Quatre, and Trowa was.
-Attack,- Dhati whispered, just as the dragons broke from the sand and began wreaking havoc. Wufei and Meiran drew their swords and leapt into the fray, while the Maguanacs used thick, heavy scimitars to their advantage. Relena raised a crossbow and hit one in the arm, leaving him stupefied for a moment while Noin finished him off. Hilde fought hard as well, as did Sally.
Perhaps the greatest accomplishment was that of the two wolves and Ni. They were everywhere at once—or so it seemed—biting, slashing, roaring, and mauling their opponents. The battle raged on, but the forces were evenly matched, and the outcome was somewhat unclear.
Heero flew upwards on Tsubasa’s back and finally landed on top of the tower. Sure enough, the Trickster was there, in his Firebird form, watching with baleful emerald eyes. He stepped back when he saw Heero, as if debating, but then flapped his wings together, throwing a cyclone of flame at the king.
Heero leapt to one side, going into a diving roll, and sprang to his feet, putting an arrow to his readied bow and firing. It hit the Trickster in the wing, the barbed arrowhead slamming deep into the flesh. The gigantic god-bird screeched, and Heero froze for a moment, totally stupefied by the noise. Only Tsubasa saved him from being incinerated by grabbing the back of his tunic in her teeth and jerking hard. His back cracked against the stone, and he remembered the task at hand. He whipped another arrow to the string and shot it quickly, and hit the Trickster in the eye. This time he was ready, and plugged his ears as the bird flailed about, screaming loudly. The noise quit quickly enough and Heero drew his sword, sprouting his wings. He stayed to the god’s now blind side, and flapped up, slashing.
What he didn’t count on was the horrific speed of the bird. Shooting at even swift targets was manageable, but by the time he swung his sword, the Trickster had long since dodged. In the battle with the Lady, the bird had been too concentrated on the goddess to worry about the king, but Heero had no such advantage now unless he could make one for himself.
“Haste,” he whispered, his voice rippling away in silver waves. Silver feathers appeared from nowhere and small silver tornadoes appeared. The two talismans of air whipped around his body, lightening it and granting it more speed. Heero used it well. He was now a match for the Trickster in speed and went to work.
Zerixco watched in amazement and no little amount of curiosity as the boy before him…shifted. That was the only word for it—his pale hair turned black, his blue eyes red, and his skin took on a dull ashen hue. Even his clothing changed in the blink of an eye from a long desert robe to thick black armor that he seemed to wear like air.
Quatre, now fully in rage-necromancer form, ignored the wails of Ka’tor in his mind and turned to Zerixco.
“You ruined a country,” he said, raising the crossbow the Lady had given him. He fired a bolt, hitting Zerixco’s left knee.
“You impoverished her people,” he remarked, firing again and hitting the emperor’s other knee. The man fell to his knees, driving the wood and metal in further.
“You used magic and it ruined her weather,” he hissed, eyes narrowing as he shot the emperor in his left elbow.
“You stole her riches for herself!” Quatre shouted, firing and hitting the emperor in his broken arm.
“Mostly, though, you’ve imprisoned and tortured so many. Duo, those animals from your menagerie that aren’t beautiful enough—surprised that I know?” Quatre asked, firing and hitting the man in his chest. Zerixco gasped, knowing that he was dying, but too enthralled by the killing machine before him to fight back.
“And you killed more than you even imprisoned, which is the worst of all. My father is not the only one—you killed unicorns. You killed innocents. You killed your own. For that alone you deserve death. Consider this a kindness,” Quatre said, firing a bolt straight into Zerixco’s head.
The boy suddenly dropped the crossbow as his coloration changed back to normal. He glanced at the dead emperor, and suddenly the full impact of what he’d done hit him.
“By the goddess, what have I done?” he whispered, falling to his hands and knees and sobbing, ignoring the relieved sighs of the very land herself, and the sound of footfalls on sand as Trowa ran towards him.
The second that the emperor died, the Trickster turned and glared at Heero.
“My business here is done,” he screeched, “but don’t think you’ve seen the last of me!”
With that, the god vanished, leaving Heero attacking something that wasn’t there. The king cursed and landed, staring at empty air. He then turned to Tsubasa.
“Let’s find Duo,” he said.
Just as the last of Zerixco’s soldiers were defeated, the Maguanacs stopped and stared up at the sky. Relena and the others paused and looked at them for a second. At last, the princess walked up to Rashid and gently placed a hand on his arm.
“Rashid, sir, excuse me, but what are you looking at?” she asked. “Do the constellations say something?”
“No, no…the sky is simply free…at last…” was all that Rashid would say.
Quatre finally stopped sobbing and simply leaned against Trowa’s chest, listening to the beastmage speak.
“It had to be done, Quatre,” Trowa said softly. “Even if we’d managed to imprison him, he’d have to be executed for his crimes. You have to understand that.”
Quatre nodded slightly.
“What you did can’t be considered murder either, since you weren’t yourself at the time,” Trowa said. He felt Quatre stiffen in his arms. “I saw it. But don’t worry, we’ll find a way to help you.”
“Oh, Trowa, thank you,” Quatre whispered, hugging him tightly.
“I believe you’re the emperor then, aren’t you?” Trowa asked, smiling at the boy. Quatre managed a shaky smile in return.
Tsubasa flew over the dunes quickly, the rising moonlight casting a dreamy silver tint over everything. At last, she found Shadow, and landed nearby. Duo was there; he was laid out on the silver sand, broken wings horribly evident. He was still unconscious.
Heero walked over quickly and winced at all the injuries. He turned to the winged ones, a pained look on his face.
“Is there any way I can heal him?” he asked.
-It’s there, inside your soul,- was all that Tsubasa told him.
The king turned and began to search. He found something that might work, and so set to using it—he managed to mend all of Duo’s injuries except for the wings. To his horror and dismay, he found that he could not manage to fix them, except to heal the breaks. They had been broken too badly to ever set properly again.
Heero fixed up the wings as best he could, and sat back. Soon, Duo awoke, and smiled upon seeing Heero.
“Heero, you found me at last,” he said, grinning. “I never had any doubt you would, but…think you could have gotten here, oh, say, ten minutes earlier? That salt water was pretty harsh.”
Heero managed a weak smile and crawled over to sit next to Duo. The two sat in silence for a moment before Heero managed to speak. “Duo…your wings are broken too badly. I don’t think you’ll ever fly again.”
Duo glanced at the king slightly, and then leaned against him, pulling the broken wings back into his body as he did so.
“They were born of sorrow. I’d rather fly with yours…yours came from triumph, after all,” he said, grinning. “Remember, I was there to hold your hand through the whole ordeal. You cried like a baby, Sir King!”
Heero glanced accusingly at the thief. “It hurt…”
“Some things worth having do,” Duo said softly. He glanced at the winged ones, then out at the sand. “Some things worth having always do.”