Author: Maldoror
see chap. 1 for warnings, notes, disclaimer

Two Halves: Circles + Chapter 11
Dead Things

"What's with those two... " Sally muttered.

Wufei glanced at her, tearing his eyes away from the ruins around them.

"Who?"

"Those two."

"What do you mean?" Wufei cast a professional eye over his king and the prince of Sanq.

"Oh please, don't you see it?" Sally gave him a condescending grin, which made Wufei bridle. Sally shook her head with a sigh. Wufei could be pretty obtuse sometimes. Well, most times. Actually, all the time...

She shared a glance with Amon, who had also noticed the odd interaction between his liege and his consort. And felt Wufei bristle slightly behind her. Well it was his fault for being so... so-...

Up ahead, Heero gathered Duo's reins before tossing them to a page. There it was again. Something different than the easy camaraderie that had defined those two before. A slight smile -from Yuy, that spoke volumes- a shared look that lasted a bit too long, a silence -from Duo no less!- that curled into a small grin... But there was something else... Sally tried to hang the word 'shy' onto a highly proficient killer on one hand and the most powerful mage of Lin on the other and failed miserably, falling back on 'constrained'. There was a distance between them that had never been there before. Like they were making an effort to keep three feet of space constantly between them. It felt quite deliberate, and Sally wondered if they'd had a falling out, but all the other signs indicated quite the contrary... Duo was her king but he'd been her friend first, and Sally wondered if she should be worried.

"Keep your eyes on the surroundings." Wufei snapped, and Sally rolled her eyes. She could tell by the slight frown above onyx eyes that he'd instantly regretted his tone - he knew that she was a professional soldier first and foremost and had never lost sight of their surroundings- but didn't know how to tell her this. He didn't have to. Sally had endless reserves of understanding and patience, and was used to having both called upon by Wufei. Besides, she knew that he'd been sharp because she'd been sharing a moment with Amon. Charming, urbane, high-born, ambitious, handsome Amon. Yeah, right. Stupid black-eyed twit, as if that was likely to go anywhere... Amon wouldn't object, not at all, and he'd made that clear, but Sally had the wisdom to know herself. She preferred unadorned black iron to gilded gold, was the bottom line.

Unfortunately the iron wasn't only in Wufei's soul but also between his ears. Twit...

It had almost been easier when Wufei had been a hostage, paradoxically... They'd both known he had a good chance of being executed at the end of the Trials, and so their relations had been sober, clear-cut and professional, though the plain understanding was there that if things had been different... Well now things were different. But Wufei wasn't.

Sally had been raised a soldier in a family of soldiers, she'd lost her parents at the Gap of Sevring, thirteen years ago, she'd grown to become a strong and respected commander of troops, and she could fight and endure and swear with the best of them.

For some reason the only thing that came to mind was: Twit...

***

"You okay?" Heero instinctively reached back to give Duo a hand then frowned and took a step away instead. Hand-holding was okay, normally, but all it needed was one stumble, a moment of surprise leading to a cling, and bang. Literally.

"Yeah yeah." Duo grunted. They were climbing onto a pile of loose earth and shattered stone that used to be the sacred heart temple of Maseng. Duo, still exhausted by the ride and the after-effects of his damaged lungs, was panting more than normal. He really should have had more than two days to rest before heading back to Lin, but there just wasn't the time. They had to prepare for the next circle ceremony two weeks from now. It was being held in the small town of Peaknought, which was on the border between Sanq and Lin and as near Kespar and Sansbury as could be, which would allow a ceremony attended by all the local royalty. The town of Peaknought had an old amphitheater that would do, but it was pretty ancient and since its heyday the town had dwindled to a few thousand souls, counting the goats, so there would be a lot of work making it ready for the third wedding circle.

This stop... it was a detour but in some ways it was much more important to the peace between Sanq and Lin than the wedding.

The town of Maseng had become a symbol to both sides of the extremes of war. Treize had captured the town early on in his invasion of Sanq, twenty odd years ago, and its population had been subdued and integrated into the new borders of Lin. It had been a sleepy border town before the invasion, but afterwards quite a few people had moved from the mountainous country of Lin to live there, and, far from the front, a fragile truce had sprung up between the two sides, born of normal people just trying to live their lives.

Those were the ones who had died when the tide of war had turned and Treize had had to retreat back to Sevring. To give his army time to maneuver past the Gap, he'd laid a trap for Zechs in the town. As soon as the first unit had moved in, the place had become a heaving hell of poisonous gasses and mage-flame, catching both Zechs' army but also the population, from both Lin and Sanq, in the miasma. No one knew if this had been deliberate or not but it had been a bloodbath. In the end they couldn't even bury the dead, and Jay's sorcerers had sent shockwaves and tremors over the town to knock over buildings and put the fallen to rest where they lay, in dirt, stone and ashes. Maseng had been burned from the map.

Duo and Heero looked at each other grimly and then turned towards the assembly below them. They were both visible on top of the temple's remains to the hundred or so people that had ridden with them here, a mixture of Sanq and Lin nobles and dignitaries, as well as their guards. People were looking at them soberly. They had a speech prepared by Zechs' ministers and the Lin council, but really, the only thing that mattered was their presence here side by side, a silent pledge. This will never happen again.

Heero sighed under his breath and took a step forward. He'd rather fight a fiend than make a speech, but this was what was required of him. If he went first, Duo would have some time to catch his breath.

The debris-ridden ground shifted beneath his feet. And shifted...

Heero shouted as something erupted out of the broken stone and packed dirt and grabbed his ankle. Behind him he heard Duo yelp and then the sorcerer stumbled against him, throwing them both to the ground. Fortunately the contact was only fleeting and caught them by surprise, so nothing blew up.

Heero's blade was in his hand in a flash of light, swinging down to his leg, but whatever it was that had grabbed him -and it was a grab, he could still feel the bruising fingers against his ankle- had disappeared. Duo, on his rump by his side, was staring at his feet in amazement. A shout echoed out from the people assembled a distance away.

"What-"

Several grinding crunches nearby. Heero looked around wildly. Something was worming its way up through the stone and debris, several somethings.

A dozen feet away from them, a flat piece of broken mural was shoved out of the way, and a hand, withered and yellow like old parchment, grasped the ground and heaved. Dust and dirt fell away, and the thing pulled and wrenched itself from the ground which groaned reluctantly as it relinquished it.

Heero heard screams from the group nearby and realized the same thing was happening all around them. He stared at the humanoid figure staggering to its feet before them. Dry empty orbs blindly quested for them, wrinkled, desiccated skin flaked over withered twisted limbs, barely covered by the torn and stained robes of a temple priest.

The dead of Maseng were rising.

Heero scrambled to his feet, weapon ready, keeping an eye on the four other figures that had ripped themselves from their graves.

"Heero?"

"What?"

"... Is your magic working?"

Heero cast a wild glance at his husband, who had a hand pointing at one of the dead things staggering to its feet nearby. A hand empty of any kind of power. Heero extended his own hand, trembling slightly in anticipated pain, and let loose a bolt of magic at-

It felt as if the magic that normally wrenched through his veins as if it were pulling itself out of his very flesh was immobile, frozen.

"No!"

"Well that's interesting... I think we're screwed."

"Hn."

*

There were two hundred people in a shallow dip below the promontory, in a rough circle rapidly surrounded by the dead of Maseng.

If their attackers had been hoping to create a panic, they'd succeeded. But if they were hoping for a bloodbath... they'd not considered the make-up of the crowd. There were a dozen or so nobles of Lin in the group. And you can only be a noble of Lin if you are very good at offensive magic.

Three corpses were sent rocketing back into a tumbled-down pillar. G sneered. "Well this is easy enough, like a game of skittles."

"And how long can you keep bowling?" Jay asked tightly.

The dead things were picking themselves up, apparently unharmed, and moving forward again, staggering blind, withered arms groping out towards them.

Behind them, something screamed, a terrible sound. One of the horses had tried to bolt, and several dead things had latched onto it as it fled. As the doctors watched, the creatures gripped it and, still holding the struggling animal, dug into the loose debris like moles, dragging it down with them. The horse disappeared in a trash of limbs, the ground closing over it like a sealed grave.

"... as long as I bloody well can... " G muttered. A dozen feet away, a young page was saved from the same fate by a Sanq guard and a Lin sorcerer who blew and bowled his attackers away. The young man, pale as death, was already buried halfway to his waist and whimpered as several hands dug him out, headless of his broken leg. Resistance was organizing against the dead in a tattered ring. No one could tell how many people had already been pulled down into the ruined stones of Maseng by the vengeful dead.

G sent another burst of power at the three dead things nearest them. They went down again, but soon picked themselves up. He'd put enough power in it to rip a normal man limb from limb.

"They're tough. Impervious to magic, maybe." He muttered.

Jay grunted. "Have you tried fire?"

"Of course, my brain hasn't been turned to mush by old age yet, that's the first thing I tried. It flickered over them then just went out like they were made of stone."

"They were murdered by mage-flame, magic and poison. Maybe they're impervious to that now."

"Or maybe the gods hate us."

"Well that's always a possibility. Do you see the boys?"

"They're up on the temple mound still." A sharp voice rang out behind them. "Do either of you have any saltpeter?"

The two doctors turned to stare at the intense young man behind them.

"Chang? Have you lost you mind? What-"

"Yes or no!"

"No, I don't carry my lab around with me."

"Saltpeter?" Sally had approached behind Wufei. He spun on her with a snarl.

"I told you to stay near Amon! He can keep them away with his magic blasts!"

"Twit!"

"What?!"

"I said I'd watch your back and you run off! Why do you need saltpeter for?" Sally yelled at him using the same tone for both sentences, which was confusing to say the least.

"You two are really very cute together." G ground out, sending another wave of force at a group of undead things creeping towards them. "But this is really not the time or place-"

"Shut up you old goat!" Sally barked at him. "Now, I have saltpeter, I keep it in my medical bag. It's on my horse. Which is somewhere over there." She pointed at a smaller group of people in the luggage train, separated from the main circle of defenders by several dozen creatures. "It's going to be hard to get so- Wufei!"

"Stay here!" Wufei shouted over his shoulder as he ran towards the edge of the defensive circle.

"No!" Sally shouted grimly as she followed him. "I'm going with you, damn you for a -"

"I can't curse as well as the pretty lady but I'll go with you too." Jay said smoothly, appearing next to Wufei and listening appreciatively as Sally scorched the air. He sent a wave of force sweeping ahead of them, blasting away a few of the undead in their path to the smaller circle of defenders around the panicking horses. "Saltpeter, hm?" He smiled coldly at Wufei's startled expression. "I think I know what you have in mind, boy. You think it will actually work?"

"I'll know when I try it."

"Even if you have to fight your way through a wall of dead to do it?"

"Yes!"

"I can see why you and Heero don't get along." Jay said enigmatically. "I can take care of some of these things but we'll have to punch through the final lines around the baggage train the hard way or we might injure one of our guys."

Two swords sung out of scabbards. Wufei glared at Sally who glared back.

"Okay, lovebirds, let's go." Jay chuckled dryly.

*

Up on the mound, things weren't going smoothly.

"I can't cut them with my sword." Heero scowled. The blade twanged and bounced off of dead limbs like it was hitting dry ropy cordwood.

"My dagger is even more useless." Duo muttered, pressed against his back as he stared at the circle around them, slowly growing smaller. They shoved the creatures back with blade and hurled masonry, but the dead things picked themselves up and came back again, twenty or so strong, relentless. They were pressing more on one side of the circle than the other, and the pair had taken quite a few steps away from their previous position until they realized they were being herded towards a small dip in the ruins... where the flickering blue fire of a portal glowed.

The two young men dug in their heels, but it was clear they were moments away from being overwhelmed.

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