Author: Maldoror
see chap. 1 for warnings, disclaimer

Two Halves + Chapter 17
Crosing Guards

Four and a half years later, the political landscape of the kingdoms of that continent had changed considerably. Being overrun by fiends of hell can do a lot more than diplomacy sometimes...

The baron of Sansbury would once have died at the thought his barony could be invaded by the lords of Lin, like Sanq had once been.

Now he'd personally invited two of them to help him save his lands.

Well actually he'd only sent a desperate plea for help to the two great powers in his immediate neighborhood. Sanq had responded with a white mage who'd been slaughtered almost on arrival, the kingdom had its own problems and had been unable to do more. Lin had sent their two strongest young Lords and a hundred men or so, which was a very impressive response indeed. But then again, when it came to fighting fiends from hell, Lin had a natural advantage.

The problem had crept up on baron Sansbury, as it had on other leaders of the kingdoms on the continent. The increase in the numbers of monsters raiding villages had gone unnoticed for a time. They were just isolated reports of ugly incidents in the backwaters here and there... Then a bad year turned into several, turned into worst, then turned into a nightmare, as even small towns were raided by the powerful creatures.

No one could figure out where they were coming from. They were not conjurations, which were magical creatures, build at great cost of time and power to serve the sorcerer who captured and enslaved the demon to inhabit them. Conjurations were far and few between. They were also easy to recognize, perpetually wounded, hulking masses of flesh, slow but powerful, and never further than a stone's throw from their mage and master.

The nightmares that had come slowly to the lands of the scattered kingdoms were of a different sort altogether. Small, agile, skittering shapes, half flesh, half spirit; forms fluid like puddles of dark oil suddenly solidifying into a horror of thrashing tentacles and claws. Not very strong physically but they were numerous now and their touch could chill, poison or kill.

All of the kingdoms had been affected. Lin had been no exception, though their long habit of demonic magic made them very successful in fighting them off. Other kingdoms such as Sanq retreated behind barriers of white magic and tried to study this new foe, so far without success. And the smaller kingdoms, lands and baronies suffered. New alliances were being formed as their leaders tried to oppose this growing threat. Politically and militarily, Lin had successfully stepped into the breach.

The baron of Sansbury had been amazed -and very suspicious - when Lin had sent him two companies to defend him. But they were very efficient, tremendously so. Each company seemed in fact hells-bent on outdoing the other in numbers of creatures killed and towns saved. It was almost, he reflected a bit dourly, as if they were having some sort of competition...

A clatter of hooves made him turn. Half a dozen riders were making their way towards him over the dry cruel rocks of the mountain pass. For once the two Lords of Lin were actually together, which was a surprise. It didn't take a great feat of perception to realize the Lords Rao Karon and Duo Maxwell couldn't stand one another.

The fact that they were both here meant that the two nests of fiends they had been sent to uproot were now messes of flame and ichor. They were very efficient, he had to give them that.

The baron of Sansbury had left a message back at the main camp that a large group of the creatures were trying to get past this mountain col to prey on the farmlands beyond. He'd assumed though that they would need some rest before coming back to the fray. Apparently this was true of their men, but the young Lords had energy to spare, and were probably coming to sneer at his own attempts to solve his country's problems. The lord sighed, he would have rather they'd rested with their troops.

*

Duo dismounted, throwing his reins to a page. Wu Fei followed a few steps behind him as he advanced towards the edge of the bluff rising a hundred meters from the col. The baron of Sansbury gave him a respectful nod.

"Glad you could join us, Lord Duo." The baron visibly lied. "I hope we won't need any of your help today."

Duo looked down at the forty men below him and the seething mass of creatures trying to rush them over the col. "... You do have a backup plan, right?"

"Did you invite us here to see your men torn to pieces?" Rao inquired, not even bothering to get off his horse, towering over the baron and his general. His tone suggested that this was an acceptable way of passing the time as far as he was concerned.

"Those aren't my men." The baron's moustache had twitched, but his tone was calm. "They're a mercenary band from Kespar, they're very good, particularly at fighting these infernal creatures. We hired them to guard our southern border a few months ago, and this is the first time anything has actually managed to get this far." His tone implied that though he was grateful for the assistance of Lin, he did have other resources to fall back on.

Rao's handsome, urbane smile didn't register the slight barb but Duo knew his enemy well now and thought the baron of Sansbury had probably made something of a mistake. The two children of Lin were only here because the council of sorcerers had thought it would be a good occasion for the two remaining candidates in the trials to learn field tactics, the command of men, and distinguish themselves in battle. If the council told them to leave tomorrow, Rao would do so in an instant, possibly torching the barony of Sansbury on his way out.

"Duo, come and look at this."

Duo came over to the edge of the bluff, which was a small natural wall against the upcoming wave of creatures. Sansbury had his men ready to defend the rampart, while the mercenaries were below, taking on the enemy as they came out of a narrow pass onto the col. Duo hadn't been looking too intently, knowing that none of his small band of men were involved in the skirmish. He wanted to talk to Sansbury about accommodations, and getting some better rations for his troops, he wasn't all that interested in the fight, but Wu Fei's voice had a tinge of excitement that intrigued him.

"What is it, Fei?"

The oriental was silent, his eyes still on the action below as Duo drew level with him. They'd both grown in the past four years, Duo topping Wu Fei by an inch or so. Duo, always in black from head to toe, was lither than his friend. Wu Fei's body showed the effects of his constant sword practice; he was still slender but his shoulders were broader than Duo's and his chest was strong and muscular. He was dressed in practical leather armor, but he often chose to wear white when in court, in a style that harkened back to his native land, and a pleasing contrast to Duo.

Wu Fei's position in Lin had changed slowly but surely as Duo had risen in the trials. He was still a hostage, his life would still belong to the heir of Lin when he would be decided. In the meantime, Duo used him as his first lieutenant and completely ignored what anybody had to say about it. If someone got too pushy about this... Well, Duo occasionally let his relaxed, easy-going façade slip, enough times that he was being nicknamed 'Death's Hand' or even 'The God of Death' in the hallways and fortresses of Lin.

Their friendship looked easy and casual. In actually it ran deep, as they watched each other's backs in the plot-strewn corridors of Lin.

Duo's long braid swayed as he shook his head in a parody of enthusiasm. "Wow, a battle field. Never seen one of those before. What am I looking at, Fei?"

His voice trailed away as he saw what Wu Fei was watching.

The mercenaries formed a motley band, disparate armor and no uniforms. But they were visibly well trained and coordinated, ruthlessly cutting down any attempts by the chittering, crawling menaces to outflank them. For a moment Duo was puzzled, because they'd left a chink in their defense, where only two men stood, back to back. But it was obvious, as a few of the half-intelligent creatures found the gap and skittered in, that this was not a flaw in the defense but the jaws of the trap that was slowly chewing the enemy to pieces.

The creatures looked like half-melted crabs but moved like spiders, darting back and forth, skittering sideways, lunging with pincers that would suddenly sprout from their shoulders, their heads, from between their grotesque faceted eyes or from other limbs. The two men were parrying the thrusts and then retaliating with deadly efficiency. The taller figure was doing most of the parrying, two short swords flashing and dancing as they cut and blocked, keeping the other from being overwhelmed. His partner was doing the killing and being very efficient about it.

Duo felt his jaw drop a bit as the man dropped in a crouch to dodge a hooked claw, came up like a spring trap inside the creature's guard to lop off a misshapen head, spin to slash at another while a steel-toed boot shot out to crash down on a tentacle snatching at him, spinning again to slice the twitching limb off before bringing the sword straight up through the jaws of the nightmare plunging towards his throat in one smooth continuous swing.

Duo knew his deathblows, and he was impressed. The man never stopped moving, every movement was a deadly strike and also the preparation for the next cut, like a complex formal dance.

"That is a very impressive warrior." Wu Fei, who still disdained magic, was openly admiring.

"He'd better be." Duo sighed. He might be a child of Lin, and the god of death to his enemies, but he didn't like to see people who hadn't hurt him be massacred, and he had a feeling that was about to happen.

The creatures -no one had a name for them, but they were called fiends as a convenient handle- had fallen back a bit, and something else started crawling through the pass. Every one of the fiends was different, in size, form, shades of black, strength, smarts... and some were obviously bigger and better than others. The thing dragging itself over the ground was as big as a horse, twice the size of the others, and that meant a similar increase in strength, speed and cunning as well. It slithered forward, and the others regrouped behind it, a wall of chitin that would overwhelm the defenders.

At a signal from the taller of the two main defenders, the mercenaries started to fall back in admirable order, still fighting those fiends who hadn't gathered behind their leader. The creature, two huge arms pulling it along the ground, two pincer limbs slicing the air, the rest of its body dragging behind it like an obscene fat snake, accelerated towards the two men who had been the pivot of the attack and were now defending the retreat to the bluff. A face like a squashed praying mantis screeched in anticipation of red blood.

Duo barely heard a panicked baron Sansbury order his men to get ready. A retreat was never pretty, but the mercenaries were regrouping well, in a tighter formation backs to the bluff, where Sansbury's archers and pikemen could lend them support. The two men who were at the pivot of their previous attack were now at the apex of their defense, the first to face their enemies while their men regrouped and prepared. The shorter one had taken a step forward, menacing, and was visibly going to take on the hulking monster crawling towards him with little or no backup.

"That man does not know the meaning of the word fear." Wu Fei said quietly.

"He's about to learn the meaning of the word dismemberment though." Duo muttered.

"This should be amusing." Rao had dismounted and wandered up to the lip of the bluff as well. Baron Sansbury had hurried up behind them and was twisting him hands, wondering how to ask the Lords of Lin for help, knowing that they wouldn't give it, since their troops were an hour or more away.

"Sirs, Lords, I wonder, these men are valuable fighters, I wonder if you could-"

Rao sneered. "I'm sorry, I don't have the energy to waste on hired riffraff."

"That's ok Ra-baby," Duo drawled, "I've got it to spare."

The warning was barely enough; Wu Fei managed to hurl himself backwards, jerking Sansbury along with him, as black energy erupted from his deadly friend.

"Maxwell!" Rao's enraged shriek was covered by the crackle of rising energy crashing against his wards as he stumbled back, his cloak smouldering.

The big creature was smart, it had pulled up immediately and hunched down defensively when it felt the curling of black forces in the air. It was nonetheless picked up like a stuffed doll and hurled back into the side of the col a dozen meters away with an ichorous crack that could be heard even over the rumbles of energy sweeping the mountain pass.

"No, stay back!" Wu Fei shouted as some of the mercenaries below started to move forward in an instinctive move to take advantage of the suddenly hesitant creatures. It was good strategy but Wu Fei recognized the sudden hitch in power and the manic grin on Duo's face, half-seen in the rippling air around him. Duo had been under a lot of pressure the last few weeks, forced to restrain himself and command troops to do his fighting. Someone else would have decided to rest and recuperate, but Duo had another approach to work-related stress...

Duo took a step off the bluff - and the bucking screaming air seemed to support him for a few paces as he floated more than fell to the ground. Wu Fei threw himself off the bluff, keeping a safe distance from his friend -a distance he'd learned the hard way, through many painful burns and brushes with death- and charged towards the men at the foot of the bluff. The oriental warrior didn't want to see good men killed by his friend, even accidentally.

"Everybody get down, now!"

Someone was apparently familiar with black magic and its tendency to not discriminate friend from foe, because similar shouts were rising from the ranks, and most men were crouching defensively.

The energy changed, the billowing force dropped in strength but increased in intensity. Wu Fei, nearing the two leaders of the troop, swore and crouched as well, throwing his leather hood up to protect his long ponytail.

The air crackled and burst into flame, but fortunately Duo had improved his control immensely during his years in the harshest of schools. The fire started a few meters away from the front of the troops and swept outwards in a deadly wall, the occasional explosion of boiling ichors and chitin marking its effectiveness. The backwash of smoke and heat blew Wu Fei's cape out behind him, he could feel the skin of his face prickle, but nothing worse, this time. He didn't see how many of the fiends managed to escape and dodge back behind the col, but judging from the stinking carbonized mess in front of him, there weren't enough to mount a counterattack any time soon.

The silence was sudden and deafening; the only noise in the pass were a few whimpers from frightened soldiers, the cooling ping of rock and the bubbling hiss of smoking fluids. A clatter of feet over stone made Wu Fei lift his head and throw back his hood.

"Fei!" Duo forced his step to slow as he saw his friend was all right. Of all the stupid stunts, running forwards instead of back-! Wu Fei of all people should know better by now! Duo glanced around, tallying. His head felt light, his body tingled with release, the tension of the last few days blasted away. It didn't look like he'd killed anybody either, that was good. Control was always his greatest problem, but working with his own troops for a year, having to protect those lives from his own powers, had taught him much more than Doctor G.'s lessons ever could.

A scramble of feet made him turn, flexing his protective wards instinctively. Rao had only tried to attack him once before after a blast; just a probe, a discreet jab, to test his defences. Duo had left him off relatively unharmed, it had been too early on in the trials to move against him openly. But he was ready for a rematch.

It wasn't Rao, though his rival had skidded down the buff and was walking forwards slowly, his cloak singed and his face dark with anger. It was Sansbury's general, a dour old warrior who didn't look like anything -fiends from hell, black magic, Lords of Lin- could faze him. He was walking swiftly towards the two leaders of the mercs, also glancing over the men and checking for damage. He gave Duo a respectful nod in passing, visibly thankful that the sorcerer hadn't harmed any of the troops.

The three men -Wu Fei had waited for them, shrugging arrogantly at Duo's reproving scowl- approached the leaders of the mercs who were still facing the col, barking orders to their men, getting ready for a possible counter attack. When it was obvious none would come, the taller one fell back to check his men, the shorter whipped off his half-helmet and spun, scowling, towards the approaching men.

"That was dangerous and unnecessary, we -"

His voice strangled itself, the scowl momentarily faltering.

Duo's feet caught against the stone and he felt his vision waver, his breath catching and tearing in his chest. The diplomatic voice of Sansbury's general sounded very far away.

"Lord Maxwell, if you don't mind, may I introduce Captain Yuy?"

The man in front of Duo had dropped his eyes almost immediately, letting a curtain of brown bangs fall over them. He was running a rag over his sword mechanically, cleaning it of ichor and fluids and chunks of flesh. Duo found his voice after a bit of searching. It sounded higher than usual. He was trying to get a better glimpse of the man's face.

"Have we met?" It seemed stupid to say, right off like that, yet...

... In the third year of the trials, candidates learned to teleport. Duo was abysmal at it, like he was at any kind of magic that didn't involve blowing things up. That hadn't stopped the council's teleporter from dropping Duo at the top of the highest mountain in Lin -and that was very high indeed- since potential heirs were always tested more strenuously than others.

The cold had been a vicious hand stripping his skin from his body in slivers. The air had been so thin it seemed to want to suck his lungs out, he'd been gasping and shaking like a leaf after only a few seconds. He'd struggled to get the energy and concentration to teleport back, or at least further down the mountain. He'd tipped his head back, trying to look away from the snow-covered rocks that might be his grave marker if he failed this test of the trial.

The sky had been the most amazing shade of cobalt blue, so pure. Clear and cold and uncaring, it had almost provided that fatal distraction that might have killed him...

As the stranger lifted his eyes to him, he was seeing that same patch of sky. The feeling of breathless, heartless, killing cold was exactly the same as well.

"No." Said Captain Yuy with a voice as hard as the mountain. "We've never met before."

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