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

Two Halves: Circles + Chapter 12
Circles of Hell

Heero's sword swung and struck, sending another dead thing stumbling back, mouth open in a soundless scream of rage and a stink of humid cellars. He shoved and lashed out with a kick at something leathery that grasped at his waist. Then he spun and thwacked a hand like a withered root that was reaching towards a struggling Duo.

Duo was cursing but that was about all he could do, his small dagger didn't have the weight or heft to help him keep the dead at a distance, and there were no weapons anywhere in the ruins that could help.

Heero spun as his husband shouted, swore and dived into the press of dead bodies trying to drag Duo away. He couldn't swing wide with his sword anymore without risking a hit on the sorcerer. Duo braced himself but was dragged a few more feet away by dead hands.

A powerful buffet sent two of the creatures flailing, and a strong arm latched around his waist. "Hang on!"

Duo grasped Heero's shoulders. Withered hands slowly wrapped around his limbs, his body and tried to pull him away with the slow relentless tug of roots wrenching through rock, but the arm around his waist was like steel. Duo glanced up and swore. Heero had dropped his sword and had his other arm hooked around a thick rock pillar rearing up through the debris. Duo knew his husband was unnaturally strong, but this was only a temporary solution at best.

Hands gripped and tore, though careful not to wound them seriously. Obviously they were still wanted alive. Heero put all his strength and concentration into his grip on Duo's waist and the pillar. Despite their closeness nothing went bang, but then, this was hardly a romantic embrace he was likely to lose himself in; it felt like he was being slowly pulled apart. He gritted his teeth. At one point he would have to let go, or lose his arm. If he were seriously wounded he would lose his hold on Duo. There was no way his husband was going through that portal alone. Duo groaned against him as his arm crushed his ribs.

"Heero- let go... maybe- if they drag me through my- magic will come back-"

Heero didn't have the breath to answer but his glare made the ends of Duo's bangs crinkle, so the sorcerer gritted his teeth and held fast. They wanted Heero too, anyway, they wouldn't be happy with him alone, so-

Suddenly the relentless pulls on them weakened, then stopped.

Heero gasped and collapsed against the pillar at the sudden slack. He glanced around, eyes wide.

The dead were standing still around them. As they watched, first one then another staggered away to their right. Others were streaming towards something they couldn't see. The corpses seemed to stop some distance off, as if listening. And slowly fell, with a soft dry noise like driftwood, still and at peace again. As more and more of the dead approached, listened and returned to their interrupted rest, a small group of the living became visible, slowly walking towards the pair.

The spouses gaped. G and Jay were in the group, ready to fire away bolts, and Sally and Amon and a few guards were there as well, but the one at the forefront of the group, and apparently responsible for the fall of their enemies, was Wufei.

"What the... " Duo muttered.

Wufei held a bowl before him with a frown of concentration. It was smoking and sputtering. The oriental man appeared to be reciting something to himself beneath his breath, his eyes almost closed as he advanced slowly.

"They're okay!" Sally beamed at them. A sleeve of her leather uniform had been ripped off and the arm beneath it was badly bruised. Wufei and Jay also had welts and torn clothing, they'd obviously been through an intense fight.

A dead body crumpled like paper and huddled near Heero who stared at it blindly as he tried to shake some feeling back into his numbed arms. Then he glanced at Wufei.

"What's he doing?"

"Something no self-respecting sorcerer would think of doing." Jay grunted as he stalked over to them, shooting an almost offended look at Wufei over his shoulder. The oriental man glared back at him without breaking the string of words he was reciting in his native tongue.

"And that is... ?"

"Oh it's some shamanistic claptrap." Jay snorted. "All alchemy and hoodoo and useless prayers to long-dead ancestors. Superstitious nonsense."

Heero glared pointedly at the corpses that were finally still around them. Jay had the decency to look embarrassed.

"I thought you said shamanism only worked if you believed in it." Heero snapped.

"Well what can I say, the dead must be gullible!" His mentor retaliated. Heero snorted.

"Actually my people have no dealings with magic of either kind, but we do have a certain understanding with our departed ancestors." Wufei said in his precise tone, finally interrupting his low chant as the last corpse huddled into a still bone-dry heap. "And when the understanding breaks down, we do have other methods of... negotiation." He waved some of the smoke away from his face. Duo sniffed. He recognized saltpeter, wormwood and citronella, and the tang of burning parchment, but nothing he would qualify as offensive magic. He'd have to have a long conversation with his friend, maybe there was something to learn here. The living dead had been insensitive to magic and not very impressed by swordplay either; he'd like to learn the ritual that could make them curl up and go back to sleep so easily.

The sorcerer rubbed his bruises and groaned. Then his eyes narrowed. He flicked his fingers quickly. Still no juice. That meant the caster was alive... And he thought he knew where. He was remembering a strong but brief grip on his ankle before everything went crazy around him. Something had touched him, and Heero too. The only other time he'd lost his magic, the fiend had also had him in his grasp, while Heero, standing several feet away, hadn't been affected. None of the other fiends who had attacked him had gotten near him and his magic had been fine on those occasions...

G yelped as his charge surged up and grabbed him by the arm, dragging him off towards the mound where he and Heero had first stood, not glancing at the withered bodies he was sidestepping. "Wufee, take care of Heero!" He shouted over his shoulder.

"I can take care of myself... " Heero muttered, getting his feet under him awkwardly without using his aching arms. He blinked at a light brown hand that appeared before him. He glanced at Wufei in suspicion, but the man was looking at him steadily.

"Looks like Duo owes you his life again, Yuy." The oriental man said as he held his hand out, ignoring Heero's scowl.

"Yeah... " Heero reached out and painfully grabbed the offered hand. "Wufei, my name is Heero."

"... fine. Heero. Let's go see what Duo's up to." He jerked the prince of Sanq unceremoniously to his feet. Heero grunted; it might have been thanks.

Behind them, Sally rolled her eyes. Men...

Duo had dragged G to the spot where the trouble had started. Jay had trailed after them curiously.

"Right, my magic is on the blink, so I need you to send a power bolt here. Loosen and get rid of some of this dirt. Not too much and no fire though."

G looked at him strangely but complied. A soft whoomph echoed through the ruins of Maseng, and the three backed away to avoid getting showered with grit and gravel.

"Again." Duo said tightly. He could smell something lurking behind the scent of dust and dirt. A faint hint of rot.

G made another gesture, more debris scattered, a hole was beginning to form...

With something squirming at the bottom.

It wasn't the same as the dead of Maseng, which had been cured to the consistency of leather by the mage-flame and poison vapors, and a long stint beneath dirt and stone.

The thing writhing before them, still partially covered in dirt, was a maggot-ridden infestation of rotting flesh and suppurating fluids. It twisted beneath their repulsed gazes and a toothless mouth opened in a silent scream full of worms.

Even Duo was speechless, for once.

"Well... " G finally said, a hand over his long nose. The smell wafting up from the thing was putrid beyond belief. "Now what? Want to take it fishing and use it as bait?"

"No, I want to know how it annulled our powers by touching us." Duo ground out, eyes fixed on the thing with distaste.

"I don't think it can talk."

"... we'll find a way to- damn!"

The thing had been squirming faster and faster, and they realized suddenly that it was sinking into the ground. G lifted his hands again, sending a blast down to clear the dirt that was covering it. And realized-

"By the ninth circle of Hell! It's melting!"

"What did you say?" Jay barked, staring at his colleague.

"It's melting! Look at it!" The thing was actually decomposing, shreds of flesh and maggots falling to the earth and sinking into it. But Jay was staring at G with a strange light in his eyes.

"It's escaping, I think... " Duo muttered. He didn't think the thing was disintegrating like the first fiend they'd seen. This felt deliberate somehow. He growled and flexed his fingers. Nothing, no power. The creature was definitely not destroyed. Duo's power would come back eventually, when the fiend who had cast the spell got far enough away from him, but he wouldn't have the answer to his questions...

The three sorcerers glanced at each other, but nobody offered to jump into the pit and try to stop the creature from escaping. Despite the consequences, that was one they were rather happy to let go.

"Did you find any- what's that smell?!" Heero, still rubbing his arms, approached from behind.

"If you want to keep your breakfast, stay back. Otherwise there's not much we can do." Duo turned away from the nearly empty pit with an unpleasant roil to his stomach, partly due to frustration. "Come on, let's go see the damage. Did we lose anybody?"

"There's still counting heads, I think." Jay said. "A few might have gotten pulled under before we could get ourselves organized."

"P-pulled under?"

"Don't ask. Come on, let's go down, Zechs must be... what's all the shouting about?"

"I'm not under your command, Wufei! I'm in the Lin militia, not Duo's personal guard! You had no right to order me to stay hiding behind Amon! You are not my superior officer!"

"That's no excuse for putting yourself at risk, Lieutenant!"

"That's plenty of excuse! Let's get one thing straight, Chang! I'm not your dead wife! I can take care of myself or I will accept the consequences of that!"

"S-Sally!"

"I'm sorry but it's true. You have to let the past go, Wufei. Locking me away won't keep me safe, especially since I won't allow it."

"I-... just don't want to see you get hurt."

"Well I don't want to see you hurt either, did you ever think of that? Listen to me and listen good, Chang! You will never order me about like that again!"

"Bu-"

"I'm not going go accept any kind of orders from you, particularly if you order me to stay back and watch you get killed! In fact I don't think I'll take any orders from you at all! Except maybe if you marry me, and then I might pretend to obey you, but-"

"Mu- 'marry me'?! Wh-"

"You finally ask! And it's about time too! What, you think I was going to wait around for ever?"

"... !"

"Let's leave them be." Duo said, smiling like a cat who'd caught a flock of canaries. "I think they have some stuff to sort out."

*

"You okay?"

"For the dozenth time, Duo-"

"There's no such word."

"-I'm fine!"

Duo hung back, sitting on a camp chair, watching Heero try to settle comfortably at the low command table in their tent, attempting to get his arms into a comfortable position while reviewing the damage report. Duo had... he wasn't sure he fully understood why but he had an unbelievably strong urge to hop over and rub those strong aching shoulders. His fingers were actually twitching. He kept repeating like a mantra - the tent is combustible, the tent is combustible, the tent-

Since the age of twelve he was used to things bursting into flames or exploding around him whenever he lost his temper, but when Heero was added to the equation, the effect was catastrophic. His guards would ignore a little explosion from force of habit, but if the whole tent collapsed or caught fire... Duo groaned inside. He'd not had the time to think about their little-

"Relax boys, we have the solution!" G barked, throwing the tent's flap aside.

Glory be! Oh wait... G didn't know-

"That's good, what's the problem?" Heero ground out, nodding a greeting at Jay who followed his smaller comrade, Trowa and Quatre on his heels.

"What's the problem?" G stared at him over his long nose. "What, you actually enjoy being jumped on by fiends every time you travel?"

"That problem.Right, explain." Heero said curtly.

"Humph, charming. I can see you went to Jay's finishing school for the socially inept. My naturally brilliant mind-"

"He accidentally said something that made me think." Jay intervened.

"Excuse me, I only said it because subconsciously I'd figured out-"

"Explain." Heero's voice had an edge to it, his aching arms were putting him in a tetchy mood. Duo felt the urge again but ignored it more easily now they had an audience. He glanced up and found Quatre looking at him oddly, though the blonde smiled at him gently when he returned the look.

"G took one look at wormfood back there and swore by the ninth circle of Hell." Jay ground out. "Now I can see Duo has already figured out what we were talking about-" The King of Lin had shot out of the chair, gaping. "Unfortunately I neglected the arcane education of my boys, so maybe his majesty can explain it. Better than hearing this short annoyance here smarm on about it."

"Oh go back to the desert and dry up, you fossil."

"Duo?" Heero asked him -a lot more nicely he noticed happily.

"Well... you all know about the circles of Hell, right?"

"Yes, we're not that ignorant."

"What you may not know is that these are sort of worlds in their own right. They are very different from ours, and have their own logic. Er, very insane, twisted, evil logic, but nonetheless- the souls of the dead end up in the first circle, Limbo, where they stand around reflecting on their past crimes and mistakes until they've paid their dues and can reincarnate. Unless they've been very very very bad in their previous life, in which case they get to visit aspects of the other circles. Not the circles themselves though, because nothing human can survive there, it's too alien. But they fall asleep in Limbo and their dreams take them there and I hear that's bad enough."

"I always assumed that was something the priests said to make us behave." Heero muttered.

"Well there's debate about that, especially in Lin. We're not very respectful of religion. You see, the Lin sorcerers with the ability to summon can conjure fiends from the circles into a magical ring, to enslave them or get them to tell them magical secrets. It makes 'em a bit blasé about the whole thing."

"And then they send them to attack us."

Duo waved his arms about. "No, you see, that's what's been puzzling us from the start. The fiends that have attacked us are very different from conjurations and- look it's simple. Humans cannot exist in the circles of hell and real fiends cannot exist in the human world. We're just all too different. They need to be contained, protected almost, if you want. Either within a conjuration circle, or within a conjured body. Otherwise poof."

"If only it had been that simple the last four times we were attacked." Heero muttered. "Okay, so no poof. Wait, the fiends that were attacking us before we closed the Gap didn't go poof." Heero frowned, remembering the chittering black menaces, half hard bodies half smoke, that had invaded the kingdoms, escaping from the weakened breach Septim was trying to open.

G intervened. "They weren't fiends, they were phantasms, dredges living on the edge of one of the circles of hell, not in it. That was why they were so... shapeless."

"So these are the same?" Heero asked, trying to reign in his impatience.

"No, that's just the point." G said. "We were operating under the illusion they were, that or they were some random Lin monster, because we couldn't imagine what else they could be. But these are actual denizens of the circles of Hell. All of the circles. They're appearing in our world with characteristics that are the physical translation of the logic of their worlds. Their shape here is... it's like a metaphor for what the dimension is really like. Their appearance is a sort of illusion, though they feel real enough to us creatures of clay. So far we've seen some from the third, fourth, ninth and tenth circle, as far as we can figure."

Duo's eyes narrowed. "The circles of Flesh is the third circle. That would be the one in my room? Then the fourth circle is Hunger -yeah I can see that. Decay, the ninth circle you mentioned - definitely - and Fire, the tenth. It certainly matches."

"Yes, that's what's so interesting."

"I'd call it mind-grippingly terrifying myself." Jay muttered. "It means there's a breach open and active."

Heero turned a blazing look at him. "I thought you said an open breach would lead to the invasion by fiends from - you lead me to believe it would be more impressive than this!"

"It's supposed to be! That's the other thing that's so interesting!" G shouted, waving his arms enthusiastically. "We can't figure it out! If a breach is open, then that creates a link between the Circles and our world that allows fiends to survive here, on earth, and then all hell breaks loose, very, very literally. We should be hip-deep in worse fiends than those! But if a breach is not open, then these creatures cannot exist in our world. So it's a mystery. We're still working on that."

"Work faster." Heero murmured menacingly.

"Well, what would really speed things up is a live specimen of one of these things to study. And that-" Jay smiled like razor blades, "is where you two come in."

Heero and Duo exchanged suddenly worried glances.

*

Side-note: Just because the end of this chapter wasn't dry enough (sorry, but had to get that explanation out somehow!)... Feel free to skip this bit if you don't need to know that much about the fantasy/magical background of Two Halves. But if you are curious about some of the stuff I based my ideas on, read on!

The idea of Hell in this fic is more related to that of ancient religions (very early greek and such) than the Christian concept. Everybody, good or bad, ends up in the underworld (Limbo here), and wanders around getting cold and bored, until they've reflected enough on their past mistakes and get to reincarnate (the better people they were the quicker it happens). Except if you were amazingly, and I mean REAL bad, in which case you get a special punishment to help you realize just how badly you screwed up. In Two Halves, this punishment still takes place in Limbo though, the sinners in this world do not reside in the circles of Hell. They just get postcards... nasty postcards.

The other circles of Hell are actually more similar to a concept of different dimensions, which is not something I can have one of the protagonist in a non-sci-fi fantasy explain so I'm doing it here. They are worlds completely alien to what we know as normal, with different physics and logic. The force known as magic is much more common there, for one. We'll see what this implies later in the story.

While I'm on the subject, note that the use of the terms black and white magic do not denote good and evil. It's more along the lines of defensive and healing magic, versus chaotic, destructive magic. The terms black and white were coined by the Sanq priests who wanted to be sure everyone understood that Lin sorcerers were the bad guys (the countries and their philosophies have been at odds for many generations). The Lords of Lin were probably amused. And they do like to wear black a lot. But in actuality, Lin magic is not evil, it's how you use it that can be, like any powerful weapon. As for summoning fiends from the circles of Hell, this is not in fact demonology, since they're not servants of evil, they're simply inhabitants of other worlds. Not NICE inhabitants, but then you know how rude tourists can be...

A big thanks to TKMaxwell777 for pointing out the possible black/white connotations which I'd not fully appreciated. Hope this makes things a bit clearer!

And since I'm boring you anyway... the symbols from the fortune sticks (which are the length of a child's finger, according to the first fic) that make up Duo and Heero's pendants, and the gifts that go with each wedding circle, are taken from the Tarot symbology, which, I reassure you, I do not believe in, but it seemed appropriate for divination sticks and forgotten shamanistic symbols. The full significance of the Bolt, the Heart, the Circle, the Oak, as well as cups, crowns, wands and swords can be found at http: // www.themysticeye.com / info / tarotsymbols.htm (remove spaces), if you are curious.

As for Wufei's spell in this chapter: Wormwood and citronella are part of some magical mumbo-jumbo potion called Chinese Wash (seemed appropriate) to protect you and to rid your house of dead spirits, and saltpetre is a protective agent and a combustible. The paper Wufei was burning for his shamanistic spell is the kind they use in Asia, where they write prayers and spells on paper and burn them to get them over to the next world. Why am I using these real-life superstitions in a fantasy fic instead of inventing my own? Well, I would have made mine a lot more logical! But logic isn't the point here, and these superstitions and symbols have evolved over thousands of generations and probably 'feel' truer than something made up. Besides doing the research was fun (email me if you want a list of all the weird and wonderful sites I've bookmarked since I started writing GW fics, it's quite a laugh; everything from voodoo and psychotropic agents to information on explosives). I just love my stupid little details...

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