Source Of All Things + Chapter 23
"I didn't see any of you senile old fossils come up with anything!"
"Svale, you're older than all of us put together-"
"- and for your information I have people up in orbit planting a mystical mine-field that will-"
"Mine-field? I hate to agree with Svale but that won't even slow the Scourge down-"
("That's interesting. The headpiece is trying to flash information directly into your eye, almost subliminally...")
"But Svale, what you did was unconscionable! You just told the Scourge to hurry up and attack us because we're trying to set up some defences to stop him!"
"As they say, 'An enemy forewarned is an enemy armed doubly.'"
"Oh shut up, the both of you. I already told you-"
Trowa discreetly rubbed his eyes - though no-one was paying attention to him and Quatre, sitting off to one side of the open cirque of standing stones and pillars. He glanced to the right as he felt his lover shift by his side. Quatre's eyes were a bit wide as they flickered over each warden in turn.
"Jusan can have an army here in less than two weeks, you know!"
"And I told you I didn't trigger the spell on purpose -"
"That'll make us feel so much better when our sub-atomic particles are getting aerated by a well-placed mana flare!"
"That won't happen if we get the fucking shield working!"
"We can't get it working, Svale. I know Jishin work well enough to know that we need at least three hearthstones, and we don't have any."
"As they say, 'The best-laid plans go awry.'"
"'Best-laid plans'? We're cool then."
"What's that supposed to mean, G?!"
("Fascinating....take off your shirt....hmmm.")
Quatre shifted again. "So these...are the wardens."
"Yes." Trowa answered, trying not to sound too tired.
"And this is who we're counting on to come up with a solution?" Quatre turned towards him slowly.
"Yes." Trowa answered with a shrug.
Quatre stood up and went to get a drink from the table of refreshments Svale had reluctantly set out for her guests. Trowa could have sworn his lover had muttered something to himself as he left. It had sounded like 'we're screwed'.
"H! You're standing there like a fat stump without sayin' nothing! You have strong mystical connections with Centre, you can tell us where to find some stones! It's not like anybody here has any." Svale added in a mutter, and ignored the furious gazes trying to nail her to the floor.
"I wish I could, Svale. But it'd take me days to get into a trance that would allow me -"
"Get started then! Here, let me get you a chair. Trowa! Get the man a chair!"
"I need more than a chair, Svale."
"Okay, okay, all of you shut up."
"Shut up, Svale. Look, what's done is done-"
"As they say, 'It is a wise man who can roll with the blows.'"
"S...you're not helping here...Jusan is going to accelerate his attack but we might be able to hold his men off. The creature is still several months away from Centre. Between the six of us we can gather together a lot of power, enough to stall an army."
"While we look for some hearthstones! Good thinking, O! Knew one of you old geezers had some brains!"
The smell of tea pricked Trowa's nose and he turned to see Quatre sit down, sipping distractedly. Another cup was being held towards the shaman.
"I didn't want any tea, thank-" He realized his cup contained water, and took it with a prickle of unease though he made no further comment. Quatre said nothing either. His blue eyes were fixed on the four figures in the centre of the cirque, grouped around Svale's diminutive form.
The wardens were elderly in appearance, like Svale. The magic that kept them alive and intact didn't much care about looks, in fact several of them were scarred from their eventful lives from before their calling. They were all very different - Centre had deliberately chosen them for that. The one thing they had in common, besides their apparent age, was their natural habit of meddling in the affairs of Centre and all those around them. It was their calling, of course, but Trowa suspected it would be their hobby too if the job wasn't there. They were dressed in a wild variety of styles. H was dressed in clerical robes, simple and sober. O was dressed in an oriental style, brown tunic, pants and slippers. G, under his wild hair and nose, was dressed in a mage tunic, rather the worse for wear, with a coffee stain on the collar and burn marks on the cuffs. S was dressed in plain riding leather, as usual. And...
Trowa and Svale realized at the same time that someone was missing, and glanced off to one side, where Heero was sitting on a rock, bare-chested, with someone leaning close to his naked skin, fingering Wing's chest-plate.
"J!" Svale screeched like a scalded cat. "What are you doing to my boy! You old pervert!"
"There was so much irony in those words..." J murmured, still examining Wing, "...that a small black hole opened on the other side of the galaxy to compensate."
"Get your hands off!" Svale skittered over as if she were rolling on ball-bearings. "The only one who can grope gorgeous is me!"
"I'm only interested in this armour he's wearing." J ignored the staff threatening his head.
"Then you're a kink as well as a perv!"
J finally glanced down at her. The light flashed off the high-tech goggles he was wearing but even with his eyes covered and his long moustache shadowing his mouth Trowa could feel the man's annoyance.
"Can someone please kill this old bag for me?"
"Can't. She's immortal." G grumped, coming up behind a fuming Svale.
"Then there's something very wrong with the universe." J took up one of Heero's hands - Trowa tensed but the fighter appeared supremely indifferent to all of the fuss around him - and examined the wrist guards before taking an elaborate optical piece from the pocket of his ever-present lab coat. He fixed it on to one of his goggles, and peered at the armour more closely.
"What you got there?" G caught Svale's staff before she thwacked J and looked curiously over his fellow warden's shoulder.
Trowa wondered if he should interfere. J...J was no joke. The man could be chillingly callous when the defence of Centre called for it. Behind her usual mask of a cheerful old lech, he knew Svale was trying to keep J away from Heero and Wing.
"So Trowa, how are you?"
The Nightwalker turned away from the argument around Heero to nod to S, who had, for the moment, stopped spouting his usual platitudes and come over to talk to him.
"Well enough, sir." S had been a Nightwalker before he'd been called to the service of Centre as a warden, and when Trowa had been called as well, S had been his mentor. "Oh, S, this is Quatre Rebarba Winner. Quatre, this is...Quatre?"
"How do you do?" Quatre said without looking away from J, Heero, G and an aggravated Svale. His eyes were narrowed and flicking around the four as if he was following a spindle rapidly darting across a growing tapestry.
Trowa sighed internally and turned towards S, knowing the old man wouldn't be overly offended - none of the wardens were known for their manners, except for H, who had been a high-ranking priest in the worship of Gaia before being called to serve his goddess in a much more precise and down-to-earth way.
S grabbed one of the chairs and sat down at an angle to Trowa. "That young man J is examining...he's the one you found at the end of your line, isn't he?"
"Yes. His name is Heero Yuy. It apparently means the one and only in the Old Tongue, though I've heard from a completely unreliable source that my accent stinks."
S quirked an eyebrow at him but didn't comment. His chock-white hair stood up as if frightened, and the sun played off the guard he wore over his nose - a victim of a rather nasty encounter with a venom wyrm before he became a warden. Once Centre had chosen him as one of her wardens, he's become untouchable, like Svale and the others; he was as enduring as the planet, and would be so until Centre no longer required his services or until the planet was destroyed. These days the latter eventuality seemed the more likely.
"Is he the one who will fight Jusan, assuming the creature even gets here while we're all still alive?"
Trowa nodded. S scratched his head, adding a bit more havoc to the wild hairdo. "He doesn't look like much. But as they say, 'One should not judge a dragon by its hide.'"
"Not until you've seen Heero pound one into the dirt." Quatre agreed distantly, eyes still flickering over the trio after G had stomped back towards the others.
"People!" G shouted, at the centre of the cirque. "We need to decide what to do about the Scourge! Svale's boy toy won't be able to do much if Jusan blasts the planet from outer space, whether he's wearing Dragon armour or a thong and a feather!"
"Eep..." Svale said softly in the background, her eyes crossing for a moment.
"We have months before Jusan gets here." H said slowly. "In that time I should be able to pinpoint some energy sources that can be used as hearthstones, if you think you can adapt them to the use, G?"
"Svale?" G turned towards Svale, then snapped his fingers in front of her eyes a few times until he had her attention again. "You and I are the Jishin experts here. I can convert most power sources to work with a normal sanctuary, but do you know if that will work with this spell?"
"No idea." Svale shrugged. "But unless anyone else has any bright plans, it's as good as we got."
"How long do we have until Jusan gets here, precisely?" Master O asked, his deep bass voice echoing across the cirque towards J, who shrugged, turning away from Heero to join the rest.
"Best estimates are-"
"About a week."
There was a series of scuffling and scraping sounds as the people present turned towards the source of those last words.
Howard had appeared in all his glory - red shirt with brilliant blue and yellow parasols to be exact - at the entrance to the cirque.
"I was about to say, five months or so, Senior Cabalist Howard." J said calmly. "I'd be ready to give or take a month, but I don't think I can get it that wrong. The Scourge cannot rip ether and-"
"He can't but his herald can." Howard sauntered down the slight slope leading towards the heart of the cirque.
As Howard's words sunk in, a horrified hush fell over those present. Trowa, cold sweat sending shivers up his spine, heard a small creak and glanced at Quatre, who'd leaned forward abruptly in his chair. The healer was staring at the old technologist with a strangely intense air, but considering what Howard had just said...Trowa felt the leaden mass in his stomach grow. A week...what could be done in a week?!
"A herald." J's voice was cold and slightly curious and he didn't seem touched by the fear that was lit in all their eyes. "I didn't think the Scourge had one anymore. Not one powerful enough to make a difference. And he'd take months to strengthen one of his lesser minions up to the point he'd be able to channel enough of Jusan's power to threaten us."
"He found better than his usual run of minions. One that's quite strong enough to wipe us all off the face of the planet." Howard grimaced, then turned towards Heero, to Trowa's surprise. "Hey, boy, remember that Dragon you beat up a few weeks back?"
Heero looked at him fixedly but showed no signs of curiosity or anxiety.
"Well, he went and joined Jusan, of all people, and as a high Dragon with extremely powerful armour, he can carry a lot of the Scourge's power. A lot."
"And you know this how?" J asked softly.
Next to Trowa, Quatre slowly leaned back in his chair, then pushed it back to balance on two legs, his eyes still on Howard. He started swaying back and forth. Trowa looked at the healer's lines but didn't see anything out of place so brought his attention back to bear on the others.
"My second wife's goldfish."
Trowa blinked. Had he missed something? Then he realized the wardens were just as puzzled.
"Goddamit Howard! If you're gonna show up completely toasted the least you could do is bring some of that liquor with you!" Svale screeched.
"I'm as sober as the day I was born, though believe me I wish I wasn't." Howard grunted. "The Scourge has several technologists working for him, maintaining the Libra. One of them is my second wife. She keeps a journal on her private computer and her admin password is the name of her childhood pet. I break into it on a regular basis just to keep an eye on what the Scourge is doing. Plus it gives me ammo to fend her off the day she decides to ask me for money. I swear she was never that sexually adventurous when she was with me!"
"I wonder why." Svale muttered. "So she said - that is, recorded in her private diary which only a cad would read - that Jusan sent that Dragon as his herald?"
"That's right. Chang Wufei, of the Chang-Long clan. He took the Libra's best 'ripper, he'll be here in a week."
Creak-creak. Quatre was swaying back and forth on his chair, slowly. His eyes were fixed on Howard.
"As they say, 'The trumpets blow; the enemy approaches.'" S said calmly.
"We're screwed." G agreed. "An army we could have dealt with. A herald, with all of Jusan's powers at his command...well, not all of them, no human could bear that, but a good deal if what I hear of Dragons is correct - O? You spent some time with them. Am I panicking for nothing?"
"No." O's deep voice sounded depressed. "The Dragons may be technologically orientated but they have a deep spirituality and very strong minds to be able to dominate their armour. That kind of mind could carry enough of Jusan's power to blow us all to kingdom come."
"Damn. Howie, you got a plan or are you just bringing us bad news?" G snapped, turning towards the technologist again.
"I've called the Cabals from all sides of the galaxy, well, those that have vessels that are less than a week away. Colony ships, transports-"
"You want to evacuate the planet?" H asked in a choked voice.
"You see any other choice? I mean, I know you six guys are linked to Centre and so effectively stuck here and well, good luck. I hope you come up with something. In the meantime, I'll do my best to keep the death toll to something a bit less than a complete massacre."
"Do you have any idea of what effects the destruction of Centre will have?" J asked calmly. "All your so-called survivors will probably be dead before the year is out, it'll be chaos."
Howard shrugged. He didn't seem all that nervous. Creak-creak. Trowa frowned and glanced at Quatre again, but his lover's face was still unreadable, calm, his lines undisturbed....
Trowa felt a little frisson. No-one's lines should be undisturbed after hearing that they were all going to die in a week. What was Quatre thinking? And why was he hiding his lines from Trowa? The shaman didn't need to inquire about 'how'...
"H." Svale's voice was subdued. "Can we locate the hearthstones in a week?"
"No." H sounded very sure and rather sad at disappointing his colleagues.
"Svale..." O seemed thoughful. "What is it that we need exactly to put up this shield? You managed to get it running without the hearthstones."
"Yes, I managed to get the planet's magnetic field to ripple once with the effect. But the stones are needed to set up a continuous resonance. Otherwise we're looking at a ripple that will fade away in a few seconds."
"But how did you generate that ripple?"
Svale shrugged. "I used the energy of the Source beneath the sanctuary. It's not very powerful, though; its main use is to provide the spell that the sanctuary transmits to the earth, not a power source. That's what the hearthstones are for. They build up and repeat the spell until the earth resonates with it and can continue to keep it up on it's own. The Source will not give you that much continuous energy."
"What if we gave it another power source..." J's voice was quiet, his goggles fixed on the ground beneath his feet.
"I'm open to suggestions but it's gonna have to be major." Svale pointed out.
"I'll leave you guys to think about it." Howard said. He'd wondered over to the refreshment table, poked suspiciously at a rather stale cake, looked regretfully at an empty bottle, and had visibly decided to call it quits. "As a vulgar techno cabalist, I'm not going to be much help with all this magic rigmarole. I need to organize the evacuation."
"Thanks for the vote of confidence, you old goat." Svale muttered but she didn't put much heart into it.
"Every human who was born on Centre is a part of her." G said abruptly. "Keep in mind that by evacuating massive portions of her population, you may be weakening her right when she doesn't need it."
"I don't buy all that mystical connection bullshit and you know it." Howard said firmly over his shoulder. "I won't ask anybody to die in the hope that they'll be a little extra spark of power for a potentially doomed planet. If you guys need a technologist - and O isn't enough - you know how to reach me but otherwise don't disturb me, I'm going to be very busy." He stomped out of the cirque.
"Thanks for warning us about the herald!" H called after him politely. Everybody else just glared at the colourful retreating back then stared at the cirque. It was one of three, at different levels of the sanctuary. This one was the top one, a circle of several dozen meters in diameter under open sky, surrounded by standing stones, low brick walls, outcroppings of something that looked like glass, boulders, patches of sand...it seemed chaotic and unorganized but Trowa had learned from Svale that each element and their order was important in the function of the round cirque. But it was useless as long as the small dip in its centre remained empty of the hearthstone that was the power source of the whole construction.
The argument started as soon as Howard's colourful shirt had disappeared.
Trowa sighed and turned, to find an empty space where his heart should be.
He got up and wandered out of the cirque, following the slight tug of their connection, deep in thought. They were all concentrating really hard on getting the shield to work and of course that would stop the herald but remembering what Svale had said about the side-effects...He couldn't shake the feeling that they were planning on defeating Jusan by bringing on the apocalypse. Talk about counter-productive-...
"Don't lie to me. Talk."
He'd heard Howard's voice in the distance without paying much attention to the words. Quatre's voice was muffled by the breeze blowing over the sanctuary mounds, but clear enough. For all it had ended in a prompt for an answer the tone was incurious, distant. Cold. It brought Trowa's mind screaming to attention.
"I tell you boy, I don't know-"
"Howard." A gentle tone, that would have been reproving if it had cared enough to be so. Trowa accelerated with a feeling of foreboding.
"But-" Howard's voice was at a higher pitch.
"I can feel it, you're part of his pattern, a link in his chain of control over events. Now tell me. Where...is...he?" The voice dropped to a whisper that was somehow more menacing than any shouting.
Trowa turned a corner. Howard and Quatre were a few meters away. The Techno cabalist had backed up against a rock, and Quatre was leaning against it, arms on either side of the old man, pinning him in, his entire posture a threat, though he was smiling and - Trowa's heart thumped - it was still the same, gentle smile and clear blue eyes.
"I don't know!" Howard snapped, and Trowa could tell even with a superficial read of his lines that the man was telling the truth. He was upset about something but for that Trowa couldn't blame him. "Look, kiddo, I think that zero shit is burning your brain-"
"Oh but my brain is fine, Howard, you're the one I'm worried about." Quatre said with a smile like sunshine and a voice of commiseration. One of his hands curled into a fist against the rock. "You have no idea who you're dealing with. Oh you might think you do, but if you believe you're controlling the situation in any way-....No-one controls Shinigami, Howard. He's playing you like he plays everybody."
Trowa felt himself go numb as his mind tried to deny what was happening. Paranoia. He didn't know what exactly zero was showing to Quatre, but it was confusing him, making him see Duo's influence everywhere, making everyone appear to be puppets or conspirators of the plot that had cost Quatre so dearly.
Quatre drew a breath then paused, and turned abruptly. His eyes rested on Trowa and for the breadth of a heartbeat they were hard and resentful of the interruption. And then it was gone. His face and lines were smooth and relaxed as they had always been, with just that slight distance in his eyes...
Anybody else would have immediately discounted that flash of anger as a figment of their imagination. But the shaman knew what he saw and he trusted his senses implicitly. The lines coming from Howard were confused, but there was no sign of an immediate threat or betrayal. Trowa could not have said any more about the situation without meditation, moonlight or a Walk around the old man's lines. What had Quatre seen - or thought he'd seen?
Quatre reached across and idly straightened Howard's collar - the old man flinched - and stepped back slowly, turning a perfectly innocent gaze towards Trowa.
"Quatre...could I have a word with you?" Trowa asked in a weak voice. He didn't know what he wanted to say but he didn't want Howard around. Quatre said nothing; he turned and walked away between the stones. Trowa followed and made a mental note in passing to return later and apologize to the extremely powerful technologist his lover had apparently threatened.
He'd expected Quatre to wait for him but the light figure was walking down the hill with an unhurried pace, head tilted as if listening to something. Trowa ran and caught up.
"Quatre! Wait, what was that about?"
"Nothing that concerns you."
"What?!" Trowa caught Quatre by the elbow and spun him around. "Quatre, talk to me! Tell me what-"
Quatre's eyes were blank and fixed an inch above his ear. He appeared to be deep in thought. Trowa's mouth went dry.
"Svale needs you. That's all you need to know."
"What?" Trowa said weakly.
"That's about all that I can tell you. Anything else I say will lead this conversation down an avenue neither of us really want to go. Trust me, I've run all the probabilities." Quatre said precisely and turned. Trowa reached for him to find his lover had side-stepped as if he'd seen the movement ahead of time, and was walking down the hill again.
"Oh and just in case you think I'm deluded or something...just remember that I was right about Svale, and think about it." Quatre said crisply without looking back.
The shaman felt as if he'd walked into a wall that had materialized between himself and the disappearing figure.
It had been Svale's voice, ringing with urgency. Quatre had been right...
He stared at the retreating figure, his mind uncertain. Then he followed his instincts and turned back towards the cirque. Svale didn't sound serious like that - 'Svale needs you' - unless there was something very wrong. He'd talk to Quatre later.
"Trowa! Get your ass-! Oh there you are. Tell them they're fucking insane!" Svale was banging her staff on the ground and glaring at the other wardens. The other four had fallen behind J as if seeking out some protection. J, at the forefront, was grinning like a skull, with no amusement whatsoever.
"What are you squawking about, woman. It's the perfect solution."
"It's insane is what it is!"
"What solution?" Trowa asked sharply. He didn't like the way Svale's hands were gripping her staff.
"They want to channel Centre's own energy into this and they want to use me as the conduit!" Svale snarled, glaring at J.
Surprisingly it was H who sighed. "Svale, I would gladly do it in your stead -...but you know that none of us has the power to withstand-"
"Neither does Svale." Trowa said with quiet intensity, taking a step to stand next to his friend. "She's over five hundred, you can't expect her to do this."
"Yeah, I'm over- oh thanks, Trowa, that makes me feel so much better."
"She has the best chance of surviving it." J corrected, his demeanour as cold as his goggle-covered eyes.
"You're not listening, you old fool!" Svale screeched at him. "I can give my life for Centre as well as any one of you, but that's not the point! I cannot teach G everything he needs to know about manipulating the sanctuary in a week, not if I have to prepare for the channelling as well! I've been working for years to get this heap of rocks up to a point we can use it, it's attuned to me! If we use me as a channel it might or might not kill me, but it will certainly do no good since there'll be no-one to direct the spell and start the chain reaction!"
"That is a problem..." G sighed, acknowledging her words. "J? You're the second strongest here?"
"I'm not as powerful as the old bag." J shrugged. "But I can try-"
"No one should try, it's what I'm wasting my lungs telling you!" Svale jumped up and down. "Granted Centre can give us enough power but it'll be evanescent at best! And we can't afford to lose any wardens at this point. We need to find a better idea!"
"We're open to suggestions." J put his hands in his lab coat pockets and smiled at her coldly. "And to address your question-...yes the power will dissipate and reabsorb into Centre but it will give us some leeway to defeat the herald on equal terms, and a few months to look for hearthstones. Sounds like a plan to me."
"Could I do it?" Trowa asked softly. He glanced around instinctively, looking for Quatre, hating himself for making the suggestion when he knew he was not the only one concerned by it...but his life belonged to Centre as well as to his lover.
"Get that out of your head you foolish boy!" Svale's staff caught him near the ear in that moment of inattention.
"You don't have the power, Trowa." S said quickly, looking sideways at J who looked momentarily thoughtful before also nodding.
Quatre was standing at his elbow, smiling at them. It was the most disturbing smile Trowa had ever seen, and he's stared harpies and great wyrms in the teeth.
"I just thought you'd want to know..." A chuckle escaped Quatre. It was light, aimless and it seemed to surprise and amuse the healer. "Just for your information, we may have something of a problem. But at least I'm absolved of one crime. I swear I will not let Duo get away with this though."
Trowa and Svale turned to look where Quatre had pointed over his shoulder. A few of the wardens glanced over as well.
Someone was standing between two of the ley stones around the cirque. For a thunderous moment Trowa thought it was Duo, but the man's hair was blonde and flowing loose and his features were older and sharper than the amiable manipulator's cheeky grin.
"Hot damn...Hot damn! I don't care what you say, I'll never get tired of seeing all these gorgeous men show up on my doorstep!" Svale squawked, and shot off towards the newcomer who, Trowa had to admit, was indeed quite attractive. He wore cream-coloured leathers, a long white jacket and a short sword at his side. His hair hung like a banner of white gold down his back. Under his bangs, ice-blue eyes widened in alarm and he took two steps back from Svale, proving that the ethereal beauty was, in fact, human and subject to the same gut reactions as every other male subjected to the crone's attentions.
"Hello gorgeous!" Svale shouted and tried to latch on to one of the glorious long legs, only to be foiled by a sidestep. "Who you looking for? Please tell me you want someone to fulfill all your fantasies?"
"Not quite." The voice was melodious, a bit hard. Next to Trowa, Quatre chuckled again.
The stranger's eyes flitted over the assembled people, resting on Heero, then on Quatre, then on Heero again.
"Not quite. I'm looking for my murderer."
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