Author: Maldoror
Genre: Action, Adventure, Humour, AU
Pairings: 3x4, 2x5, eventual 1x2x5
Rated:NC17 - for language, lots of violence, yaoi, sexual content
Feedback: Please! Particularly what you like/don't like about the fic.
Disclaimer: Gundam Wing belongs to its owners (Bandai, Sunset, and a whole host of others, none of which are me) and I'm not making any money off of them. Not a single peanut

AN: A huge thanks to the readers encouraging me via the GWAddiction review forms! It's tremendously encouraging! (It could also be seen as encouraging psychosis, so if my shrink wants a word with you, that'll be why)

The Source Of All Things + Chapter 34
A Source of Trouble



"This planet’s gone to hell in a hand basket!" Duo groaned, lifting his braid from his neck. The braid seemed to pick up the idea that he was hot and promptly coiled and tightened itself, leaving only a thin rope instead of the looser plait.

Then the Jishin’s spirit armour rippled and changed from scruffy leathers to thin pants and a tank top, outlining arms and chest that were slender but still rippled with lithe muscles and at that point Wufei realized he was staring; he tore his eyes away to glare at some harmless clump of lichen clinging to a rock.

"It’s just hot, Jishin! Are you so weak this is a problem for you?" Shenlong has already coiled up and down his back, torso and arms and turned on the cooling system.

"It’s not that it’s hot, Dragon. It’s the fact that we’re somewhere near the polar circle and it’s hot that’s got me intrigued," Duo sneered back.

"We knew there’d be consequences in casting the shield; I suspect this is one of them," Svale chipped in placidly. She was sitting on a rock a few feet away, staring at what looked like an active volcano over the next ridge. It wasn’t very high but its large cone was a few hundred meters in diameter and smoking. Everything in a mile radius was blackened. But it was much hotter than its mere presence could explain. It had been hot since Duo had ported them from the main Jishin sanctuary to a smaller one nearby, two hours away from this place.

It had not been Wufei’s idea to go on a day-trip with the Jishin and the crone. But he admitted that they needed a proper power supply for the shield. If the spell wasn’t protecting them when Jusan arrived-

…No. Juusan…the knowledge forced upon him two days ago, in the Jishin room of memories, prowled in the back of his mind, stalking him. He resented it; it confused him. The very similarities between his own tragedy and that of the Jishin created a link between them that he did not want, that he despised. It made him furious to even think about it, as if the Jishin were trying to creep into his head again, without even trying this time. And the way Duo had walked out of that room, head high and eyes determined, less than an hour after re-witnessing the destruction of his race…apparently accepting that his allies had needed to see that…Wufei knew, deep down, that he would not have had the strength of mind and purpose to do that, not that easily. That knowledge also burned in the back of Wufei’s mind, a mixture of anger, self-directed disappointment and something that was too close to respect for comfort.

So now he concentrated on killing the Scourge - whatever his name - and that was a whole lot less confusing and ambiguous.

They needed the shield when Juusan arrived. For the shield to work, they needed proper power to supply it; the magic Heero had fed into the shield would fade away within a few months. The strange little man with the long nose and ugly hairdo had said that he and his fellow 'wardens' had located two of the three power stones needed to fuel the spell. He’d given them a location, which turned out to be near an old Jishin mound with a teleport circle in it, so Duo had teleported them here, to save time.

Wherever 'here' was…

"I never imagined the side-effects of the shield would be this bad though…" Duo wiped the sweat from beneath bangs that had lost a lot of their bounce. "Stones and bones, Svale, we’re not even in the source yet!"

"In a way we are!" Svale cackled. Her eyes were still fixed on the volcano as a drift of yellow smoke trickled over its rim and tumbled gently down into the shallow plain below. "The shield has weakened the limits between the real world and the world of sources. That’s why it’s been so warm ever since we exited the teleport circle. This source appears to like things hot and smoky, and it’s spread its influence for miles around."

Duo muttered something about ‘hand basket’ again.

"Of course, I wish G had found a power stone in a slightly friendlier source," Svale muttered, eyes narrowing until they almost drowned in wrinkles. "I have a feeling this one’s a doozy."

"Friendly source? That’s a fucking contradiction in terms if I ever heard one," Duo snorted.

In response, Svale burst out into a high, loud cackle. "Oh, that’s not true, Maxie! If you’re one of Centre’s children, and you know your way around her, then you’ll know there are plenty of nice sources! Trowa is a wise man! He opted to go to the Anima source rather than this one!"

"Is it friendlier?"

Svale just laughed again. Wufei found the noise particularly irritating and grating. He’d have rather gone with Trowa and Quatre; but Svale had judged that Trowa could get the power stone from the other source with no difficulty, whereas there would probably be a fight for this one.

Who said fight, said Wufei and Heero. And Svale, because she was apparently the expert on sources in their group besides the shaman. And the Jishin, though he’d said he’d just ‘port them back and forth and cheer from the sidelines.

Considering the company, Wufei was in a great hurry to see this trip end already!

"Why are you two dawdling around here for?!" he barked.

Svale and Duo exchanged a knowing look before they both glanced at him a bit condescendingly. Wufei felt his teeth clenching to the point where they were about to crack. The Jishin had apparently forgiven the old witch for what she’d put him through - Wufei would have killed her, long before she could have dragged him into that room and put his pain on display where all could see it! Cold-blooded creatures, the both of them. If they didn’t stop giving him those pitying looks, he’d be testing the temperature of said liquid with his dragon’s fangs.

"We’re checking out the opposition, Chang," Duo drawled. "This is a big source, and it contains some kind of powerful artefact. That means trouble. You do know what a source is, right, Dragon?"

"Sure!" Wufei snorted. "So why aren’t we going in there and taking the damn thing?!"

"…You don’t know what a source is," Duo sighed. "Let me explain-"

Wufei sniffed contemptuously and prepared to walk down the ridge, only to find his way barred by Svale.

"No, no, no handsome! You really need to understand this, and I can explain! Let me sit on your lap and-"

"Very well, Jishin! You have five minutes! Explain!" Wufei ground out, rounding on Duo and ignoring Svale’s disappointed whine. Why did she always do that?! Wufei was so not interested in any form of physical contact with her that it would take terms normally employed for higher mathematics to describe it, and yet still she persisted! It was as if she were doing it on purpose! And he knew that unless he did something to shake her off, she’d follow him around and attach herself to his leg at any opportunity. Blows didn’t seem to faze her ­ it was more than annoying! And that left the bloody Jishin as his only source of arcane knowledge, now that the seer and the shaman were not available, and Wufei didn’t like this one bit!

If Duo had even smirked there would probably have been violence, but apparently the Jishin was paying only scant attention to the scene. His eyes were still fixed on the volcano.

"A source is a fracture in our reality," he started without preamble. "It's a doorway to a dimension beyond ours, made up of pure energy. Very complex, highly ordered energy. The sources are tiny cracks, so we don't get much of that energy seeping through. Which is good, they're hard enough to deal with as it is. So it's like having a wyrm stuffed through a very small aperture; in any one source, we only see a tail, an eye, a claw, a handful of scales...that's why sources are widely different, even though they all lead to the same place. With me so far, Dragon? Tell me if your brain starts overheating."

"Just-...tell me why we can't go in there, take the damned power supply-"

"Because powerful sources have Gods."

"There are no such things as Gods!" Wufei snapped.

There was a tense silence from Duo and Svale. The latter cleared her throat.

"Handsome, we're within stone's throw of a very powerful source and its boundaries are practically nonexistent. This is a really, really, really bad time to be an atheist."

"Or a techno-cabalist space monkey with less knowledge about the arcane than my imp," Duo muttered, eyes still on the volcano. On his shoulder, the little stone creature smirked and stuck a tiny barb-like tongue at Wufei who felt his temper slip a bit more towards the point of spontaneous combustion.

"Look," Duo snapped before Wufei could explode, finally turning to face the Dragon and address him properly. "I know they're not real Gods-"

"Maxie."

"We're gonna be in trouble with this guy anyway, Svale, when we try to take his magical whazit away from him. Might as well go for the burn. Okay, listen up, Dragon, this bit is really, really important. The power of sources is arcane and highly complex. As soon as it comes through into our world, it tries to organize itself into something coherent. That's its nature. It matches the arcane patterns it finds around it. Some of those arcane patterns originate from Centre's life-force, but mainly they come from humans, ever since we colonized the planet. The arcane is fuelled by people’s spirit, thoughts and beliefs. So the sources adapt themselves blindly to those beliefs. Most people, yeah, even magically inert techno-chimps like yourself-"

"Watch it, Maxwell."

"-believe, deep down, that there's Gods everywhere. When something goes wrong, a tiny part of you believes that fate has it out for you; that there's some evil spirit in the rock that tripped you out of nowhere; a gremlin in the machine that broke at the worst time without explanation; ghosts on an old battlefield; something alive and benevolent in the field with rich loam where things grow beautifully. It's human nature. The sources are just mindless energy, but they adapt to that and echo what we believe in."

"They're a mirror to our nature, and they reinforce it, by leaking magic and arcana and faith back into the world." Svale murmured in the background. "Gods are as real as our belief, and their reality reinforces our faith that humanity is more than a technologically advanced animal. They teach us about ourselves, if we're willing to listen..." She was staring at the volcano blindly and actually sounded serious this time. Until she fumbled into the black cloth bag she'd brought with her and brought out a small bottle. She uncorked it and Wufei could smell the alcohol ten feet away.

Duo had apparently not noticed that their font of knowledge on sources was attempting to get shit-faced. "Because humans are the highest form of life on this planet, bar a few oddities like Fen, we imprint the most on the sources. That means that inside each powerful source is a God, a representative of some particular belief, piece of lore or old story. We call them Gods because that's what they often believe themselves to be, and because within the limits of the source they are all-powerful, so it's very unwise to piss them off. You see what I'm getting at?"

"All-powerful?" Wufei asked, voice dripping with disbelief. He'd heard about sources, of course. Most people had; there were a few scattered about the galaxy. But he'd only heard rumours, and, as he'd been brought up by a technologist race, he'd believed that most of those rumours were mere superstition.

Of course, that was true; they were the embodiment of superstitions. With powers. Great.

"The energy that creates them is…beyond anything you can imagine," Duo said softly, his eyes blind and lost in the past. Then he shook himself and looked thoughtfully at the crater. "Within the limits of its crack in reality, that energy has its own law of physics and completely ignores ours. Fortunately, though the energy that creates them is all-powerful, the Gods themselves tend to obey strict rules that are born of the pattern they adopted. They can be placated by worship, or gifts, or they, er, what’s a good example. Say this source's power picked up a pattern that expresses itself in...oh...say, a dragon!"

Wufei glared and Duo smirked.

"Aren't dragons really mean, master?" Imp asked innocently.

Duo's smile faded and Svale choked on her liquor.

"Now that I come to think of it...that does look like a dragon's lair..." Duo stared at the volcano and he didn't look amused.

"You're talking about a huge mythical beast? A flying reptile?" Wufei asked, still not sure he believed any of this.

"Yeah...a big lizard with wings. Highly cunning, resistant to magic, extremely territorial and quite ornery..." Duo looked like he'd rather not have thought of the possibility. He and Svale were staring at the smoking cone and giving each other worried glances. "But okay. If it's a dragon, then, despite the fact it is born from an energy beyond our universe that has no known limitations, it will behave exactly like a dragon."

"Which don't exist."

"They exist in our minds!" Duo snapped, rubbing the bridge of his nose savagely. "So it'll exist here in all its fiery and scaly glory! But it’ll still be killable by a hero’s spear through the heart, and lying on a bed of gems and all that other legendary tripe! Are you getting this?!"

"Why is it sitting in that volcano if it's a powerful creature and the limits between sources and the real world have faded?" Wufei ground out.

"...Good question. I'm not sure myself..." Duo rubbed the sweat from the back of his neck thoughtfully.

"Gods tend to stick to their habits and territories," Svale put in, taking a swig from her bottle, apparently to settle her nerves. "Their rules are almost as constrictive as the boundaries of the sources that normally hold them captive, even when the latter have eroded. They don't have the imagination for world conquest, or for going further than a day or two away from their source. That doesn't mean the shield hasn't caused some almighty messes across the planet! The other wardens have been keeping track of it. The town of Lopus woke up three days ago covered in flowers, plant life growing out of every crack and crevice, which is funny because they had no idea they lived that near a source. It was a very quiet one, just a spring deity or dryad or something. Apparently she decided the town wasn't pretty enough and made a trip."

"That sounds nice," Imp commented. Wufei wondered how stupid it was, and then remembered what Iwanohone had looked like. Yeah, a Jishin and his pet would probably find that attractive.

"Well, less pretty is the fact that the river Reg has flooded the plains all around it repeatedly in the past few days. It's a mighty river born of a source, some river God archetype that creates a hundred thousand cubic feet per second of water out of thin air just because he can. When he goes for a walk outside his source, it's kinda noticeable. The nomads of Elseni have been beset by djins and devils that normally stay nice and safely in their sources. If a pissed-off Elsen nomad shows up on our doorstep one day, asking who's to blame for the shield, you all tell them I had nothing to do with it, okay? Oh, and the entire island-continent of Dath sunk to the bottom of the ocean without a tremor the other day."

"Dath?" Duo looked puzzled.

"Yeah. Horrible place, all rocks, sulphur springs and deserts, nobody lived there except a few Troglodytes who could probably stand a bath anyway. For all I know, that wasn't because of any source; I wasn't aware Dath had any. Maybe the island realized it was the arse-end of the planet and decided to commit suicide."

"Can we get back to this volcano and this stone we're supposed to fetch?" Wufei asked tightly, trying to drown out Svale's grating cackle.

"We're getting there, Fei."

"Wufei!"

"Whatever. The important thing about whatever's lurking in that source over there, is that it has rules. It has to obey them; it doesn't have a choice. But we have to play along too. Or we're toast. That's why Svale and I are studying the place. We'll figure out what lives there, what the rules are, and how best to use them to our advantage. Do you get it now?!"

"So there's a powerful entity in there that obeys its own logic and will probably attack us," Wufei summarized.

"Yes."

"So it's probably not a good thing that while you and Svale were busy observing this volcano carefully from a distance, Yuy went back a ways to get down into that gully over there and marched right into it."

There was a tense three seconds while Duo and Svale stared around wildly, finally noticing the absence of the fourth member of their party.

"Imp!" Duo picked up the little creature and hurled it into the air. Its stone wings flapped, carrying it higher - however aerodynamically impossible that was, a fact that somehow annoyed Wufei almost as much as the disrespectful creature itself.

"I can't see him, master!" the small speck in the sky wailed, its voice tiny in the stillness around the volcano.

Duo swore in an unknown tongue that seemed to torch the air around them. "Why didn't you say anything?!" he snarled, glaring at Wufei.

"Say what? I was about to follow him. I have no desire to spend any more time with the two of you than I have to," Wufei answered coolly. "I was just seeing what was holding you two up before I did so."

"Godsdammit, Wuf-"

"Less talking, more running, handsome!" Svale shouted, already halfway down the ridge where they'd stopped.

---

The approach to the crater was arduous. It had cracked and torn the land around it, leaving gullies and canyons. Wufei would have used Shenlong to fly, but he realized now that Svale's knowledge of what lay ahead might be valuable. And he felt no desire to carry her! She was springing up the rocks as lightly as a goat, so she wasn't holding them back too badly.

"Heero?!" she suddenly shouted.

Fearing the worst, Wufei scrambled up the lip of a gully, in time to see Heero come marching down what looked like a direct path up to the crater.

"He's okay!" Svale's voice echoed with honest relief.

"It'd take more than a stupid source to dent that thick head," Duo chuckled, climbing up behind Svale. "He doesn't look like he's got the stone with him, though."

Heero was scowling. It wasn't a reassuring expression. He'd spotted them and was walking towards them quickly.

"Chang," he said as the group met him near the start of the path. "This way."

"What?"

"Hey, Heero! What was the bright idea, running off like that-"

Heero ignored Duo, walked past Svale as if she weren't there, and grabbed Wufei by the wrist.

"Hey!" Wufei tried to rip his hand free. It was as if it were caught in solid Gundanium. He tried to dig his feet in and he still staggered a few steps after Heero. How strong was this man?!

"They need at least two. There has to be a choice," Heero stated. If it was meant to be an explanation, it rather failed to explain anything. Wufei glanced around helplessly to see Duo and Svale follow a few feet behind, looking just as puzzled.

"Wait! Yuy!" Wufei snarled. Shenlong flowed down his arm at his mental command. It surged beneath Heero's bruising hold on his wrist, and pried his fingers away.

"Come on." Heero let his hand drop, but the look he gave Wufei suggested it would be unwise to not comply. Wufei seethed, but he'd wanted to get this over with anyway.

"Lead on," he muttered.

"Whoa, nice Portal O' Dread!" Svale whistled behind them.

The path had apparently been carved right into the sides of the volcano's cone, leading directly to the crater. An arch of thick black basalt lanced over the road. It had been carved with gigantic skulls.

"Bit over the top, if you ask me," Duo sniffed. "Oy, Heero! Wait up! It's stupid to just go barging in like that! This god apparently has a rather underdeveloped sense of hospitality!"

"No matter," Svale sighed. Heero had, of course, completely ignored the Jishin and walked beneath the arch of rock as if it weren't there. "We're in the source already; we passed the boundary markers as soon as we stepped onto the path. We better play it through."

"Great."

"I just hope it's not a dragon," Svale muttered. "They like to give you puzzles. The 'answer now or I'll eat you' type. For some reason, I just can't concentrate on a quiz with twenty tons of murderous scale and brimstone staring at me, licking its lips."

"Yeah, foul-tempered, arrogant bastards, those dragons; they think they're smart even though they have a brain the size of a walnut," Duo commented loudly and cheerfully.

Go and get the power supply, Wufei told himself. Kill the Jishin later.

"Be polite, Maxie!" Svale's staff whistled, catching even the usually quick and cautious Jishin off his guard.

"Ouch! Godsdammit, woman!" Duo shouted.

- 'Ow!' the young boy shouted, rubbing his head vigorously, as Solo, his mentor, smiled at him with an equal blend of sardonic amusement and love-

Wufei shook his head sharply. Not thinking about that. Jishin. They were just Jishin. They had been the Dragon’s enemies! Dirty, traitorous magic users. Tricksters, playing with hundreds of worlds as if they were mere toys. Just…Jishin…

The arrival at the lip of the crater was a welcome distraction. Wufei's feelings about Duo were rather confused at the moment, and he didn't do 'confused'.

The path descended into the crater, which wasn't a poisonous lake of boiling magma, to everyone's relief. Weird clumps of extrusions poked up from the gritty black rock, twisted black basalt and smoking hot stone. Vapour twisted out of holes, and the stink of sulphur was cloying. But like the skull-decorated arch of stone above the path, the crater showed signs of construction. There was a wide circle of narrow man-high stone columns around a huge altar in the centre. Three figures stood in front of the altar, completely still. Wufei had to look twice before realizing they were not statues.

"Oh. It's an arena. A Trial." Svale didn't sound all that relieved at the absence of flying, fire-breathing reptiles.

"What does that mean?" Wufei asked, staring at the three men- well, it looked like men - waiting for them. Heero had already gone on ahead and crossed into the circle of stones.

"Well, you know those bedtime stories about a prince who has to get the magical Knitting Needle o' Doom from the Dread Palace of Never-Sober-Land in order to defeat the Evil Sorcerer of Odd and rescue the princess?"

"...Have a point, woman," Wufei murmured menacingly.

"You know how the prince has to face off with three challenges at some point in those stories? Depending on which mythology you’re dealing with, it can be three puzzles, three fairy godmothers you have to do favours for, or three bruisers you have to fight."

Wufei examined the three figures waiting for them. They were huge, easily a head taller than both Heero and himself, and overburdened with well-oiled muscle that seemed to glow in the sick sunlight filtering through the sulphur clouds. They were dressed in crude leather armour with pieces of fur sticking out in places where the hide hadn't been cured. Rings of metal were fastened on the leather, to strengthen them. They were wielding, respectively, a big club, a boar spear and a sword, though the latter looked more like something from a butcher's shop. The pride and joy of a really big butcher. Two of them had beards down to their bellies and hair sprouting wild from beneath crude helmets.

"I'm thinking we didn't get the fairy godmother option," Duo muttered, pretty much summing up Wufei’s own impression.

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