AUTHORS: Mel and Christy, ZOMBIES RISEN FROM THE DEAD-- oh okay not really.
WARNINGS: Squick and torture! Yaoi, angst, sap, language, some OOC, AU...
PAIRINGS: 1x2, 3x4, 5x?
DISCLAIMER: 'Gundam Wing' and the 'Oath of Swords' series belong to their respective owners, not us. We love and respect 'em, which doesn't stop us doing horrible things to their characters.
FEEDBACK: Helps Mel be not depressed!
APOLOGY: We're sorry we haven't cheered Brandark up yet, but... well, he's still unconscious! Besides, if he cheered up about Bahzell this fast, he'd be a little warped, admit it.

Demon of Justice + Chapter 33
Will You Serve?

"...Get up," Wufei told Vaijon quietly. "Please."

The knight-probationer flushed a darker red, but obeyed, head down.

=*He thinks you're refusing his apology,*= Krashnark said quietly in Wufei's mind. =*If that is not your intent, I suggest you say something.*=

Ah. Thank you. "I accept your apology. As far as punishment goes, I can't speak for the Champions, but I require none beyond what you just assigned yourself."

The mortified blush was fading from Vaijon's face; now he looked mostly puzzled. "I... your pardon, Sir Wufei, but I don't follow."

"You apologised in public," Wufei explained, smiling a little ruefully. "I know how much that hurts."

"Sir Vaijon," came a quiet voice from behind him. "Sir Wufei. Is everything all right?"

Vaijon blushed again as the two Champions strolled up, looking unconvincingly casual. Cord was a step or two behind them, axe slung over his shoulder.

"Sir Vaijon was kind enough to assist me out here," Wufei told them. "He also apologised, and-- Vaijon, don't kneel again, once was enough!"

Arrested half-way, Vaijon straightened up, coughed, and settled for bowing. "Sir Wufei has been most forbearing and accepted my apology for the wrongs I have done him. I must apologise to you as well, sirs; my faults have been most grievous, and I shall do my best not to repeat them."

The watching armsmen had been edging closer, and were within earshot. Faint but clear, Wufei heard an anonymous mutter.

"Huh. Stick's at least half-way out again."

By the way Vaijon stiffened and his ears flamed red, Wufei guessed he'd heard too.

=*He probably hasn't blushed this much since he hit puberty,*= Krashnark mused, a trace of malicious humour in his mental voice.

"Well," Uthmar said, eyebrows nearly vanishing into his hairline. "A very proper speech, Sir Vaijon, and if your future actions back it up I'll be more than satisfied."

Vaijon bowed again. "Sir Wufei has also kindly said that he regards my apology as sufficient punishment to satisfy him. As for my transgressions against the Order's discipline, I await your judgement."

"Hm." Uthmar looked thoughtful... then stepped back, and nodded to Arwen, grinning. "Given that Sir Vaijon was specifically assigned to you by Sir Terrian, I believe this comes under your authority."

"Oh thank you," Arwen muttered under his breath, visibly restraining a glare. "...I'll think about it, Vaijon. Right at the moment, we should bring Sir Wufei up to date on what's been going on."

"Aye," Cord rumbled, one ear slanting back in what Wufei was beginning to recognise as the Hradani equivalent of a quirked eyebrow. "We've been a tad busy in the last couple of days."

...It has been at least that long since I really paid attention, isn't it? Wufei mused, a little annoyed at himself.

=*You were unconscious for much of that time,*= Krashnark pointed out drily.

Hmph.

"To cut a long story short," Uthmar said cheerfully, "the buried temple is not so buried any more, and we have prisoners."

"Not too many of 'em," Cord shrugged, "since they know the penalty for what they've done, an' less than we started with, since the dog brothers tend to be carryin' a way out."

Arwen grimaced. "Much as I hate to say it, they've saved us time. Worship of Sharna in and of itself isn't technically a hanging offence, but knowledge of and participation in sacrifices... well. Uthmar and I have the authority to judge and sentence them, which we'll be doing at dawn."

"And then we'll be leaving." Uthmar didn't look as uncomfortable as Arwen at the idea of executing their prisoners, but he certainly wasn't casual about it either. "We need to get started on our way to Axe Hallow; this has already delayed us more than I'm really happy with."

=*Indeed.*= Torframos's voice came from thin air, and everybody jumped. =*Not that I'm complaining; this did need to be properly cleaned up, and I don't see how you could have settled it faster than you did... but you will be needed elsewhere soon. All of you.*=

* * * * *

"Thank you, brother," Korthrala sighed. "I don't have any land-based servants near enough to handle this."

Torframos snorted quietly. "None of us do. Isn't that the problem? I think Lillinara has a few quiet devotees there, but no chapter house, and nobody she can really work through. You're doing better than me, really -- you've at least got one prospective hradani Champion."

"Not any more," the older god said grimly.

"He died? I'm sorry."

Korthrala shook his head. "He's alive, and between him and my little captain I can keep an eye on the situation, but... this has changed him. He's closed off, now. I don't think he'll ever be able to hear me. He loved his friend like a brother," he almost whispered, grieving. "It was part of what made him mine. He was all passion. Now... he's all grief and hate, and it's not the sort of hate I can work with."

* * * * *

Quatre stared, eyebrows raised and a bemused expression on his face.

"I know," Duo groaned, head flopping down to rest on his arms. "It's not the most believable story I've ever come out with."

"Oh, belief isn't the problem," the blond assured him. "I believe you. I have to believe you, after all, or decide that I'm having hallucinations that perfectly match yours; I felt... her. No, the boggling thing is that you were perfectly calm after being pulled into some sort of mental pocket universe for a chat by a goddess. A goddess from another dimension, at that!"

"Hey, Orfressa's cool!"

"You are just proving my point here, you know. I do see why you didn't tell Heero the whole story to begin with, though. Without confirmation it does sound a bit far-fetched."

Duo grinned. "Your talent for understatement is nearly as good as Tro's talent for silence, Q. But hey, I have confirmation now!"

"Yes, you do, but... why is a goddess from another dimension contacting you?! Is it something we should worry about?"

Duo's grin faded. "I dunno. She couldn't exactly explain details, y'know, it was all emotions and Twenty Questions. She likes me, though, I got that much, and... I think she needs me, somehow."

"Argh." Quatre rubbed at his eyes. "I really should have gotten coffee first. Honestly, Duo, the 'need' part does seem like something to worry about. I do not want to wake up one morning and discover that you've disappeared in the night because some goddess from another dimension decided she was lonely!"

"Don't tell Heero that, or he'll never even let me pee alone again!"

"Don't tell me what?"

Duo's gaze shifted, looking behind Quatre to where Heero had just stepped out of the sliding glass door; then he slowly sank, until only his braid was above water.

Heero walked to stand beside Quatre, gazing down through the bubbles at his boyfriend, who was apparently trying to either drown himself or turn invisible. "Hn. Quatre? What's going on?"

"...I refuse to answer that question on the grounds that I am insufficiently caffeinated to come up with anything."

"...Right." Sighing, Heero bent to grab Duo's braid, then straightened up, bringing the other pilot up out of the water. "Breakfast's ready. Coffee's on the table. And if I don't have answers in twenty minutes I'm going to be theorising all sorts of things, so you'd better come up with something fast."

----------

"Apparently, secrets are about to be explained, and for some reason this may cause me to monitor Duo's bathroom visits far more closely than either of us want," Heero deadpanned as Trowa walked into the dining room. "I don't suppose you're in on this?"

"Only in so far as I told Quatre to ask Duo about something that was bothering him," Trowa replied without turning a hair. "It may or may not be relevant."

"Since when did you two work up a comedy routine that uses us as the straight men?" Duo grumbled, hair still dripping onto the floor behind his chair.

"Since I walked in on a conversation that is probably going to need a lot of back story explained to make sense," Heero told him, passing out plates. "It's a defence mechanism. I learned it from you."

"Yay."

"At this point I think you're supposed to call me Grasshopper."

"Duo? I think you've created a monster," Quatre said plaintively.

"I didn't hear you complaining when Relena decided to be my padawan," Duo objected. "--Oh, wait, you did. Never mind."

"You have your coffee," Heero pointed out. "You have your pancakes. Now will someone tell me why I'm apparently going to need to develop an abnormal interest in Duo's peeing habits?"

"Never mind my peeing habits! My peeing habits have nothing to do with this!"

"You were the one who mentioned them first. Explanations?"

"Okay! We were going to tell you anyway!" Sighing, Duo dug his fork into his stack of pancakes and pushed his wet bangs back with his other hand. "Remember the dream I had in the hospital? The first one, where I got to talk directly to Wufei, not the one where I just freaked out about him being hurt."

"Of course."

"Well, I... didn't exactly tell you everything. I didn't lie, I just... okay, so I censored out some details, 'cause I figured they were too weird and if I told you about them you never woulda believed me, 'cause you woulda thought I was crazy."

Trowa raised his one visible eyebrow, smirking. "Whether or not you're crazy has nothing to do with whether or not we believe you, Duo."

"Ha ha. Anyway, Quatre felt Wufei the second time, which kinda proves I have been in touch with him, and he felt Orfressa in the kitchen, which proves she's real. Kind of. He believes it, anyway."

"...Orfressa? In the kitchen?" Heero asked.

"With a carving knife?" Trowa suggested. "Or are we not discussing Clue after all? I don't recognise that name as one of the suspects."

Duo stared at them for a moment, then turned his head to look plaintively at Quatre. "Is it this annoying when I do that?"

"Yes, Duo," he sighed, pouring himself another cup of coffee. "Only you've had more practice, so sometimes you're worse."

"Man, Heero, you must really love me. Anyway! You want explanations, you're getting them, now lemme finish!" Taking a deep breath, he waved his hands, groping for words. "...Argh. It was easier to explain this to Quatre, it didn't have to make logical sense... Okay. You know how the Doctors said some of the parallel universes in the Trousers of Time thing could have broken off early enough to have different laws of physics? Well, the world Wufei's in is kind of one of those, only it's got different laws of metaphysics. And gods. Plural. Active ones. One of which set up the first dream so that Wufei and I could talk, and one of which was talking to me yesterday, when I fell over in the kitchen."

"...Orfressa, I gather," Heero said, perfectly calm... except that his hand was clenched white-knuckled on his fork.

"Yeah. She, uh, likes me." Duo pulled his braid over his shoulder and started tugging at the sodden end tuft.

"You can confirm this?" Still outwardly calm, Heero looked at Quatre.

"I felt it," Quatre nodded. "Her. Distant, the same way I felt Wufei, but... powerful."

"What does she feel like, anyway?" Duo asked curiously. "Besides big, I mean. You said everyone's got a flavour, what's hers?"

"Just... big," Quatre shrugged. "Cold, but not in a bad way; not emotionally cold. Lonely?"

"So where do Duo's peeing habits come into this?" Trowa asked blandly.

"You had to remember that," Duo muttered. "Uh, well, as well as liking me, she... kinda seems to need me. So Quatre was saying he didn't want me vanishing in the middle of the night because some goddess from another dimension decided to Duo-nap me out of loneliness, and I said don't tell Heero or he won't leave me alone even to pee. Which is where Heero came in-- er, out-- and heard that."

The fork in Heero's hand bent. "I don't give a damn how much some goddess needs you," he snarled. "We need you more. I need you."

"I don't really think she's going to grab me or anything!" Duo protested. "I don't think she can, and even if she could I'm pretty sure she'd ask me, not just snatch!"

"'Pretty sure' isn't sure enough."

"I, uh, guess you believe me then?"

"Of course," Heero said almost absent-mindedly, shoving his chair back from the table.

Duo blinked. ...Wow. That's... wow. Something to think about later.

"Where are you going?" Quatre asked.

"To contact the Doctors," Heero tossed back over his shoulder as he stalked out. "If there's even a chance of Duo ending up where Wufei is, I want a plan in place for how to follow him."

Back at the table, the remaining three pilots looked at each other.

"That's right," Quatre said slowly, thinking back. "The doctors did say they could duplicate the accident that threw Wufei out of our world..."

"Hm." Trowa stood up, pushing his nearly untouched plate away. "I think I'll go help Heero plan."

* * * * *

"Wind Dancer, ahoy!"

Evark Pitchallow returned the harbour master's wave from the quarterdeck as his ship slid precisely into place alongside the dock. The city of Refuge was Marfang Island's main port, and Marfanger halflings had their pride, so even the dockworkers moved as quickly and efficiently as Evark's own crew.

"Welcome back," the harbour master grinned from the dock. "Anything to declare?"

"The usual," Evark shrugged, leaning on the rail. "Light cargo, cloth and spices mainly-- ah, never mind that," he interrupted himself, waving off the halfling dockworker hoisting a heavy coil of rope towards the nearest bollard. "Leave us on just light lines; we're off again as soon as we unload, so there's no point putting the heavy mooring on."

"Not taking on cargo?"

"We've got a charter, a speed job."

"Huh." The harbour master scratched the base of one horn. "Well, you've the ship for it if anyone does, Evark."

"Damn right I do," the captain agreed cheerfully. "I won't keep you."

"It's not like you need me to hold your hand, is it? Fair winds and Korthrala's waves to you!"

Evark nodded politely, then straightened up as the other halfling strode off, flexing the hand that had been clenched tight on his sword hilt, out of sight. This is Refuge, he thought, frustrated. My home port! I shouldn't have to fear enemies here!

Cold twinged on his breastbone, under his tunic, and his hand rose to cover it as a couple of roughly dressed humans walked past; sailors from one of the Purple Lord-owned ships further down the docks. He'd felt the same twinge and an impulse to secrecy every time they'd overhauled a wallowing Purple Lord vessel on their way to Marfang Island. Whatever's up with that hradani, you don't want the Purple Pissants finding out, do you, Lord? he thought, flicking a glance upwards. I hear you. Not a word to them... which means not a word to anyone, if it could be overheard. And I'll count being made to feel an outcast in my own home city as one more reason to hate the trade-strangling, money-grubbing bastards!

Holderman appeared at his shoulder, watching the humans as suspiciously as Pitchallow had. "We've started unloading," he said quietly. "Should be done in just over an hour."

"Good," Evark nodded. "After that, keep the boys on watch and head over to Seaspray's dock, talk to Marlok and get him to take our next cargo run. Tell him I owe him a favour, promise him a bribe, let him take over the run permanently if that's what it takes; the Purple Lords will notice if we don't fulfil our contract, but if they get their cargo they won't care who delivers it."

His first mate snorted. "I doubt they'll be able to tell the difference."

"True. So long as they don't start wondering where we are, I don't care."

"Fair enough." Holderman looked sideways at him. "You'd be able to get a better deal out of him..."

"I'm going to be busy elsewhere. I may not be able to talk to Korthrala direct, but I know where to find someone who can."

----------

There was a temple of Korthrala to be found in every port town, large or small, and Refuge was no exception -- and given the Marfangers' close relationship with the sea, it was one of the bigger and more impressive ones. It was a mixed blessing from Evark's point of view; the temple's size meant he anticipated no trouble finding a priest high enough in the hierarchy to help him, but its popularity meant he might not be able to get that priest alone.

Stepping in the open front doors, he dipped to one knee in a quick reverence towards the altar, then straightened, looking around. Now, where's--

"Captain Pitchallow?" a quiet voice said at his elbow, and he turned to see a young boy wearing the short robe of an acolyte.

"Yes?"

"This way, if you please, sir. Father Grahn is expecting you."

...Or the person I need to find could find me. This works.

Father Grahn turned out to be an elderly priest in the robes of a mid-level celebrant, ivory horns yellowing with age against his balding scalp. The room the acolyte bowed Evark into was strange, oddly proportioned and far too large for the few small pieces of furniture in it; the ceiling was at least three times as high as normal for a halfling building, and--

--cool blue-green light filled the room as Korthrala appeared, towering above them. "You made excellent time, Captain. Well done."

"My Lord," Evark murmured, dropping to his knees and bowing his head.

"Oh stop that, we don't have time," Korthrala snorted. "My brother is sending some of his servants to Axe Hallow-- well, they were going to go there anyway, but he's told them to hurry it up and he's going to loan them to this mission. You need to get Brandark to Hurgrum."

"Ah... Brandark, m'lord? That's his name?" Evark blinked, slowly standing up.

"Oh, right, he hasn't told you yet. Yes, his name is Brandark and he's very important-- both for his message, and for himself. Look after him for me, please? I like him a lot," the bearded god said sadly. "And he's one of Chesmirsa's favourites, too."

"Yes, m'lord."

"Good. Be well, Evark, and be careful; I like you too." And the god was gone.

"Tea?" Father Grahn asked cheerfully, holding up a large mug. "Sit down, do, Captain, before you fall down; he's a bit of a shock the first time, isn't he?"

"...hhhn," Evark squeaked, sitting down. He likes me?!

* * * * *

"No burial?" Wufei asked quietly, taking one last look at their abandoned camp before climbing into Nataku. Half a dozen of Sharna's armsmen, the few who had been captured alive and hadn't managed to suicide, were dangling from trees at the edge of the clearing.

Karthan shook his head. "It's written into the legal code as part of the sentence for anyone executed due to serving a Dark god. Unless there is risk of pestilence, contamination of drinking water, or something similar, the bodies are to remain hanging for a minimum of one week."

"In the middle of nowhere?" One elegant black eyebrow quirked. "I do understand the need for a display of force, but it's rather pointless if nobody is going to see it."

"Where there's one Dark temple, there's often more," Karthan shrugged, "and cultists travel back and forth from temples to cities -- sometimes just for a shopping trip. Even evil cultists need to eat. So it's entirely possible they'll serve as a warning."

"And even if they don't," Vaijon pointed out, "we are under orders to hurry."

Wufei managed -- barely -- to not glare. The tall knight-probationer was practically glued to his side, a circumstance that wasn't likely to change for a while. He has apologised, he reminded himself. He's behaving much better, so far... but that still doesn't mean I like the idea of him being assigned to serve me!

=*You have to admit it's an appropriate punishment,*= Krashnark said mildly in his head. =*Poetic, even.*=

That doesn't mean I have to like it! I prefer to do things for myself, I don't need a servant!

=*It's only until you're healed,*= the god pointed out, =*and he owes his Order extra service and obedience as penance for his disobedience. He might as well serve it with you. He won't feel that he's regained his honour otherwise. And,*= he added, cutting Wufei's next retort off, =*he can't hover at you during the march, since you'll be in Nataku.*=

...Hmph. You have a point.

=*I'm tempted to say 'of course', but I'm working on not being smug.*=

Wufei snorted, and Vaijon looked at him inquiringly. "Sir?"

"Nothing. Just a funny thought."

"Ah." A pause, and then Vaijon cleared his throat tentatively. "Are you certain you are healed enough to travel, Sir Wufei?"

"I healed a lot overnight," Wufei said. And the dreams I had make me suspect I had the link to Karthan open, so I may have been accidentally using him as a 'template' again... "Plus it's not as if I'll be marching on foot with the Order."

"True, sir."

"Sir Vaijon, would you do me a favour?"

"Of course, sir!"

"Stop calling me 'Sir'. Please. Just 'Wufei' is fine; I'm not a knight, and I'm definitely not used to being 'Sir'ed every time I turn around."

"Er." Vaijon looked conflicted. "But you are a prince, s-- um."

"In another world," Wufei pointed out. "It hardly matters here, and even if it did I would much rather be called just 'Wufei'."

"I can hardly call you by your bare name while you continue to call me 'Sir Vaijon'!"

Wufei eyed him dryly. "I'll stop if you will... Vaijon."

"...Very well. Wufei."

Excellent. One annoyance fixed. Now I just have to wait until I can stop walking around wearing nothing but pants and bandages.

----------

"Karthan?"

"Hm?" The dwarf looked up from his position seated next to Wufei's chair inside Nataku.

"You didn't wake up this morning with... cuts, or anything hurting, did you?"

"Nope. Not a scratch. Why?" he asked, suspecting he already knew the answer.

"If you were dreaming about riding on a cart that was travelling through a tunnel large enough for Nataku to walk along, I had the link open. And as I told Vaijon, I healed quite a bit last night, so..."

"You thought some of it might have transferred over?" Karthan shook his head. "No; I was dreaming that, and I suppose you were probably using the link to heal, but you didn't harm me."

"Good," Wufei muttered. "That's a relief."

"I would have mentioned waking up with sudden knife-wounds, you know," Karthan said sarcastically. "Not being completely oblivious to the fact that that's not normal."

Wufei snorted. "Forget I asked, I wasn't thinking. You sound like you're channelling Duo."

"I was thinking Gunnar, actually. Duo sounds like fun."

"Oh, he is." Wufei grinned. "I try not to admit that in public, though."

"I saw a little bit, that first night we had the link," Karthan admitted. "You dreamed about your friends. He does seem a lot like Gunnar... though I've never seen Gunnar throw food. I'm sure he's thought about it."

"Uthmar did say that Gunnar talking was more worrisome than Gunnar fighting. That sounds very like Duo. He's deadly in a battle when he needs to be, but he'd much rather taunt his enemies, make them lose their tempers, and leave them completely incapacitated but unharmed while he skips off with whatever he came for. And I do mean skip," Wufei added. "He danced his Gundam off one battlefield while singing a song about pigeons."

Karthan snorted. "Definitely Gunnar's style. I'm not sure whether a meeting between those two would be hilarious or terrifying."

"Both," Wufei said definitely.

* * * * *

Yanathor's face was impassive as he watched the 'faithful' trickling in to the hidden temple's main chamber, but if his expression had matched his mood he would have been grinning like a loon. Years of planning and preparation were finally beginning to pay off.

It would have taken much longer to get to this position if I'd stayed in Fiendark's priesthood, he mused, nodding regally as his underpriests bowed. Decades, perhaps... assuming I could have stabbed my way to the top without having someone else take me by surprise some dark night. Fiendark does so enjoy watching his worshippers scramble for position. And then, even at the very top, even if I'd made it to Archpriest, I still would have been under the god's thumb. Much better to be a temple High Priest under a god that never speaks! I can run things to please myself.

So... time to start really putting my stamp on things.

The new altar hadn't been easy to obtain. Getting it made had been the easiest part; it was hardly a complicated design, and Yanathor had been able to find an unscrupulous stonemason to carve the pattern he remembered from his time as an acolyte in Fiendark's service. Once it was completed, though, getting it into the city and to the temple had been tougher. Any guard who got a clear look at the pattern of grooves and chain attachment points on the slab of black granite would be able to identify it as a sacrificial altar immediately, and no amount of bribes would cover that up. Not even here.

If I'm to cement my grasp on their minds -- make it impossible for them to even think about betraying or defying me -- they have to damn themselves along with me, he thought coolly. They have to do things that will have their own neighbours, their own families calling for their blood if they're found out. Until now, they've done nothing irretrievable; even if they were exposed as worshippers of a Dark God, the general opinion would be "at least they picked the best of a bad lot". Some people might even respect them for their choice. After tonight... that won't be true any more.

Still smiling inwardly, Yanathor, the human High Priest of Navahk's secret Temple of Krashnark, lifted his hands and stepped forward to call the assembled hradani to worship.

----------

With an irritated shake of his head, Krashnark flicked his fingers and dismissed the scrying window he had been watching Nataku's progress through.

He can tell when I'm watching him, he told himself, pushing to his feet and beginning to pace. He's actually got a few hours to relax now, with that golden-haired twit unable to annoy him and the dwarf to talk to. He needs some peace and quiet, and that means peace from me too! I don't want to get him annoyed with me again...

If he wants to talk to me, he'll call. If he needs me for some reason, I'll feel it. The warm-spice-green-heat of Wufei's soul was a taste at the back of his mind, gently radiating, somehow calming, and Krashnark closed his eyes for a moment, savouring it. Hells. It's been a long time... I had a dozen Champions at once, sometimes, and I chose my priests from the worshippers who could hear me the best. But then it all soured, somehow, and I stopped listening. He snorted, frowning. Which lost me prayers, and power, and nearly lost me Wufei.

Absent-mindedly, he lifted one hand and started to sketch out a scrying window again, then realised what he was doing and stopped. Don't be an idiot! Do something useful -- like finding out exactly how much power I have to work with now, and working to increase it so I don't run out when I need it again!

A moment's concentration, shifting how he 'looked' at things, and several clots of his own red-glowing power made themselves known; he ignored the denser cluster to the south, for now, and peered closer at the scattered northern ones. Hm. Fewer than I remember, but still reasonable, I suppose. The rituals to set up and maintain consecrated ground only need a halfway competent priest calling on me, after all; they don't require me to actually answer or even notice the-- huh. I don't remember that one.

'Looking' closer, he poked a mental finger at the weave of power and huffed scornfully, almost laughing. I think this one was cast by an only quarter-competent priest. It's new, and feels like it's been reinforced recently, but it's fraying already. Where is this? Hradani lands? What are they up to?

Reaching out again, he opened himself to listen, touching the weave of power to bring any prayers from within it up above the gentle background surf of minds calling on him. There were more than he'd really expected, quick unformed flashes of need and want and fear from skirmishes across the continent, most not even shaped into words--

~give me strength~ ~lend me courage~ ~let me kill this bastard~ ~power to my sword arm~

--and then he focussed properly on the new temple, and felt the storm of emotion raging within it.

~this is wrong!~ ~killing in battle is one thing~ ~Lord, is this really--?~ ~foul, no, I won't~ ~can't be right~ ~power!~ ~someone will stop~ ~I won't~ ~PLEASE GODS NO OH NO PLEASE I DON'T WANT TO DIE LIKE THIS--~

----------

Things weren't going nearly as well as Yanathor had hoped.

He'd thought he'd prepared fully. He'd groomed his hradani congregation with sermons and exhortations about the power and prestige available to those who worshipped the Dark gods properly, dropped dark hints about what form that proper worship took, practiced verbally whipping them into a frenzy -- that part had been easy -- where they should have roared approval of whatever he did. Everyone knew what true Dark worship meant, after all, it wasn't as if they could honestly plead ignorance, so it shouldn't have come as a surprise... and all the time he'd been using the little trickles of power he could get from the rituals to nudge them his way.

Judging by his experience with human worshippers, they had been ready! They hadn't even flinched at animal sacrifice, and that was always a hard line to get people to cross. By all the indications, they should have been willing to cut the throats of their own mothers if he demanded it! They'd been bellowing the responses to his prayers, the new, bloodier prayers he'd composed himself, they'd been eager for the sacrifice, the air was so thick with bloodlust he could practically taste it...

...and then his acolytes dragged forth a bound and gagged hradani girl instead of the dog or pig they were expecting, and the mood had chilled in an instant. Shoulders had hunched and ears had gone flat all across the chamber, and for a moment the bloodlust had focussed on him.

He still had a hold on them. He'd turned on them and berated them for cowardice, jeered at their weakness, and they'd slowly settled. This was Navahk, after all, where the Prince held power through fear and force and weaklings died if they were lucky; if you weren't cruel you were seen as soft, and the soft couldn't last. Still, the first muffled wail from the girl as he'd begun to cut had brought their ears down again.

They would have broken right then if I hadn't left the gag in place. Damn them! he thought bitterly, able to feel the reservoirs of life and power still untapped within the sacrifice. I've barely tasted her potential. She could last hours, give me a store of power to use to sway their minds further, but if I draw this out any longer they're going to break. How did I misread them this badly?!

Enough. Kill her now, take what energy I can from her death, and use it to cow them. I'll still achieve one of my aims, at least; once they've participated in a sacrifice, even an abbreviated one, they're condemned by law and I'll have them by the throat.

The human acolyte holding the small tray of knives (not nearly as wide a selection as Yanathor wanted, but he had plans to expand it) was doing a good job of hiding the tremor in his hands, but his eyes were wide and ringed with white, flicking back and forth between his High Priest and the congregation. The responses had almost stopped, only a few voices chanting along with the underpriests, and there was a rising murmur, almost a growl. Dropping the thin flensing knife he'd been using onto the tray, Yanathor seized the largest blade and raised it above his head, aiming to strike directly at the girl's heart.

Power and rage blasted him, burning, and he dropped the knife and fell to the floor as a red-blazing figure appeared at the head of the altar.

----------

"Just what in the name of all My sister's hells do you fools think you're doing?!"

Krashnark's anger was a nearly physical thing, filling the underground chamber and pushing at the walls until dust and grit fell from the ceiling. "How dare you? This is not My worship. This has never been the form of My worship!"

The robed human at his feet flinched, feebly whimpering something about "honour" and "veneration"; Krashnark focussed his gaze on the man, examining his soul and crushing him into silence beneath the weight of his attention. Faugh. Not even a trace of an alignment to me, no alignment to anyone -- why would he even become a priest in the first place? Robed as one of My high priests!

...My own fault, I suppose. Without me selecting the ones I want to serve me, it makes sense that the greedy ones would creep in, he thought grimly.

Movement to one side caught his eye, and he turned to look. All the mortals in the chamber had reacted instinctively to his arrival and the force of his presence, going to their knees or even down on their bellies, but one of the hradani was struggling to his feet. "Your pardon, Lord," he choked out, managing to lift his gaze to Krashnark's chest. "We thought-- we knew it was wrong, but-- we'd followed him too far, and it was hard to stop. We-- I think-- I hope, we would have stopped him, but-- "

With an effort, Krashnark controlled his fury, drawing his power back until the assembled mortals could breathe freely again. "You have the opportunity to redeem yourselves in My sight," he told the hradani coldly. "I reject him. I repudiate all those here robed in My colours. They are no longer under My protection -- in truth, they never were -- and I condemn them for their offences against Me." His voice darkened.

"I'm sure you know what to do."

The five human ex-clergy and the two Navahkian acolytes never had a chance to run, as more than forty hradani gave themselves to the Rage and fell on them like wolves.

----------

Breathing hard, Akar turned from the ruin of the last acolyte and looked at Krashnark. The last fading remnants of the Rage were sputtering out, sparking along his nerves, and this time when he tried to face his God he could look him in the eyes.

Krashnark was leaning on the black altar, arms folded, seeming almost casual now that the smothering blanket of his anger had lifted from the room. The sacrifice -- the girl -- was huddled at his feet, clutching the rags of her skirt around her shoulders, and Akar dropped his gaze and went to his knees again as the shame returned. Why didn't I speak up? Why didn't I refuse? If just one of us had said something, done something, the rest of us would have followed-- why didn't I?

By hradani law, by bone-deep hradani instinct, women were to be protected. Immune to the Rage, they were lorekeepers, lawkeepers, rememberers of what scraps of oral history their persecuted race had managed to cling to in the decades immediately following the Fall of Kontovar. Even in Navahk, assault on a woman was the only crime that could not be excused by the Rage. Black Churnazh and his sons might not care, but even they had to hide their crimes instead of daring their subjects to object.

So why didn't we stop him?!

"Even an incompetent priest can influence the minds of his congregation," Krashnark said darkly, and Akar jerked as he realised the god was answering his unspoken question. "Even without Me paying attention, without Me deliberately lending him power, he had enough to... push you towards his way of thinking." White teeth glinted as he grinned nastily. "He badly underestimated hradani, though, if he thought you were sufficiently under his control to agree to this." One hand reached down to gently brush the girl's bare shoulder, and she leaned into the touch, head against Krashnark's knee.

=*Look at me,*= Krashnark's voice said insistently, somehow inside Akar's head, and he jerked his gaze up, wide-eyed. Three or four other hradani across the room were doing the same, ears coming up.

Akar cringed inside as his god's eyes looked at him, through him, but he couldn't turn away. He was being measured, and he was sure that he was failing some test, not meeting some standard that he couldn't even imagine... but Krashnark smiled.

=*Will you serve?*=

Lord! Akar swallowed hard. I'm not good enough-- I don't know how--

=*I don't need good, Akar,*= Krashnark replied. =*I need effective. I need someone who can hear me, and who is willing to do as I please. I want a priest who will learn, not one whose only thought is for his own power and advancement; and for a change, I'd like one who will carry My banner forward into battle, instead of staying behind the lines.*= The mental voice gentled. =*There's someone I'd like you to meet, later. I think you'd like him. In the meantime... will you serve?*=

...If you want me, Lord. I will.

* * * * *

Trowa walked into the dining room and stopped, blinking at the apparent blizzard of papers that had struck. White and yellow pages were scattered across the table, some stacked, others laid crosswise between piles or lying at random angles; the carpet was slowly disappearing under crumpled rejects, and Duo and Quatre were at either end of the table, scribbling madly on legal pads.

"Did I miss the ticker-tape parade?" he inquired mildly, reaching out to pick up one of the pages.

Quatre's hand slapped down on top of it, keeping it in place. "It may not look like it, but these are all organised," he said, still writing. "Don't mess up the placement before we get it all into a spreadsheet."

At the other end of the table, Duo tore the latest page off his pad and flicked it onto the mess, seemingly at random; then he stretched over to grab a different page, and began adding to the lines already there.

"...I see," Trowa blinked again. "Do you need more coffee, or would that be counterproductive?"

Two hands held mugs out to him without either boy looking up.

"I'll take that as a 'yes'."

Returning a few minutes later with fresh caffeine, Trowa leaned over to eye the pages without moving them. Seemingly-random scrawls (Duo's handwriting) and neat printing (Quatre's) met his eyes.

"Rechargeable batteries," he murmured, reading. "Solar panel chargers. Extra ammo, underlined six times. Krugerrands, retain minimal operating funds, precious stones... concentrate on smaller brilliant cuts, not large, not cabochon... hacksilver-- hacksilver?"

"Chopped-up bits of silver used as currency," Duo told him, not looking up. "Vikings and the old Rus used them, paid for stuff by weight and cut bits off to make change. They started out breaking up looted Roman plates and cutlery, but later on some of 'em wore special jewellery, armlets and coiled bracelets and things they could cut the ends off if they needed funds."

"Did you know the word 'ruble' is descended from the verb 'rubit', 'to chop'?" Quatre added.

"I did not know that."

"Neither did I until I asked Duo what hacksilver was half an hour ago," Quatre murmured, hiding a smile.

"So I paid attention to some bits of our history classes," Duo snorted, glancing up long enough to stick his tongue out at them both. "Besides, history is interesting. And useful right now."

"Useful for what?" Trowa asked, gesturing to the literary snowdrift. "What are you two planning?"

"What we're going to take when we go to the world Wufei's in." Quatre's tone was perfectly matter-of-fact.

"'When'?"

"Well, duh," Duo muttered. "Heero may be planning for 'Mission: If Duo Gets Godnapped', but we figure, why wait? We already have someone to go after. Besides..." He looked up again, blue-violet eyes uncharacteristically serious. "Quick question, answer without thinking, whatever pops into your head: what would we end up doing if we stayed here?"

Trowa opened his mouth, paused, closed it again, then lifted one finger. "Join the Preventers?"

"You had to think about it," Duo pointed out. "And really, why? Doing what, exactly? Do they need us? Us in particular, that is, our abilities, not just warm bodies to fill uniforms."

"They'll need mech pilots," Heero's voice pointed out from the door behind Trowa.

"They've got a thousand," Quatre noted. "And they don't need Gundam pilots. In fact, they don't need Gundams."

"What do you want to bet they demand we 'decommission' them?" Duo asked, eyes glinting. "Are you willing to hit another self-destruct button? Scrap Wing and Heavyarms? 'Cause I'm sure as hell not doing that to my buddy."

"I myself would... ah... 'strenuously resist' any order to dismantle Sandrock," Quatre chimed back in, voice suspiciously calm.

"Face it, guys, we don't fit here any more." Duo was grinning now. "Our skills aren't just obsolete, they're dangerous. Frankly, I don't want to join the Preventers; it's not my style. But if we don't..."

Quatre picked up the thread again. "We'll be a threat. We'd have to go into hiding to avoid surveillance, supervision, you name it; but then they'd be even more worried about what we might be up to. I could evade that by taking over WEI and becoming a good corporate front man, but why? My sisters are doing an excellent job, and who's going to take a seventeen-year-old CEO seriously? Unless I lean hard on my 'ex-Gundam Pilot' credentials, which would just feed the fears I theoretically went into WEI to appease."

"And again," Duo grinned, "he doesn't want to."

"Allah, no," Quatre muttered. "Early mornings, eighteen-hour days, legal tangles, board meetings that go on for six hours, you're not allowed to shoot your problems... that would suck."

Duo beamed. "Q-bean, I'm so proud of you! You've been paying attention."

"Just because shooting problems is not my first solution, doesn't mean I don't like having it as an option."

Trowa and Heero looked at each other. Trowa quirked one eyebrow. The corner of Heero's mouth twitched up a millimetre.

"Write down 'extra cores for Wing's beam sabre'," Heero noted, turning to leave.

"Fuel for Shenlong's Dragon Fang," Trowa pointed out, continuing on to whatever he'd been going to do when he first entered.

----------

Much later, Duo was hauled out of sleep by the ringing of his cellphone. Groaning, he pawed at his bedside table, squinting at the glowing numbers on his alarm clock. One-thirty? For the love of little pink elephants, who the fuck is calling me now? It can't be a mission. It had sure as hell better not be a mission!

Blinking to bring the caller ID into focus, he groaned softly. Relena? She'd better be calling me to report her own kidnapping or something...

"'Lena?" he mumbled into the phone, scrubbing his free hand across his forehead in a probably futile effort to clear his head. "What are you-- "

< < Duo? Duo, I'm sorry, I had to call you, I couldn't think of who else to talk to and I need to talk to somebody, I can't-- I need to, to, I don't know, I'm sorry-- > >

"'Lena, you're babbling," Duo informed her gravely. "First things first. Are you currently being kidnapped, held for ransom, having a gun pointed at you, in a building with a bomb threat or anything like that?"

Relena gulped audibly, getting herself somewhat under control. < < No, I-- no. Nothing like that. > >

"Cool. Just wanted to make sure. Now that we've got that out of the way, 'Lena, honey, it's oh-dark-hundred! It's not even sparrowfart yet! I've been in bed for about fifteen minutes, I just dropped off, I was starting up what looked like a pretty good dream and if you don't have a damn good reason for calling me right now I will tell you all the kinky details!"

< < ...I'm sorry... > >

Aw man no, don't cry, you'll make me feel bad. "Argh. Scratch that. You must have a good reason, you're not the sort of person who drunk-calls their friends from a club just so they can scream 'Woooo~!' down the line and hang up. I'm not mad, 'Lena, I promise, I just don't have my brain on straight yet, okay? What happened? > >

< < *sniff* I am sorry, Duo, I didn't even check the time before I dialled you. I just... this is ridiculous, I don't know where to start! > >

Ha. Been there. Almost against his will, Duo felt himself starting to grin as he flopped back into his pillows and relaxed. "Take a deep breath, hold it for a count of five,"'cause you sound like you're about to hyperventilate, "let it all out, get it straight in your head, then go. I'll wait."

< < *sniff* Okay. > >

Waiting for Relena to speak again -- he could hear her obediently doing the little breathe-hold-sigh exercise -- Duo heard his door swing a little further open and a shadowy figure leaned into the room. Duo waved, then gave a thumbs-up, and Heero nodded and faded back.

< < Okay, > > Relena said, sounding more under control. < < I had a lot of meetings and conference calls today. They went on pretty late, and after the last one my secretary told me Lady Une had called and requested I 'screen her after I was done, no matter what time it was. That sounded urgent, and she's already setting up the Preventers while finishing up OZ's disarmament, it could have been anything; so of course, I did. > >

"As you would," Duo muttered, stifling a yawn.

< < Lady Une was... acting a bit strange, I thought. At first she was talking around the subject, telling me about how she's been personally visiting bases that are being decommissioned, and sometimes she needs to counsel the soldiers. A lot of them have no idea what they can do now, where they can go, what's going to happen to their families and so on. She's been given quite a lot of discretionary power in the interests of getting it all sorted out quickly and neatly, so she's actually used ex-OZ funds to finance short-term assistance and housing for decommissioning soldiers. She told me it'll help keep them out of trouble, > > Relena giggled a little, then sobered.

"Well, it will," Duo agreed. "Leaving a bunch of people with military training at a loose end with nothing to do and nowhere to go is just asking for trouble." Ooh, d!"j ! vu and irony. Nice combo.

< < I know. She was talking about that, and went on to how she visited a base today. Specifically, the base hospital. A lot of the pilots who survived that last battle are being looked after there, and... > > She gulped hard. < < And... so is my brother Milliardo. > >

Duo's eyes snapped open. "Your what?"

< < My brother. > >

"I didn't know you had a brother!"

< < Neither did I! > > Relena almost shrieked. < < I mean, I knew I had a brother, but I thought Milliardo was dead! For, for years, he's been living under an assumed identity, and he believed Treize, believed in his goals, so he joined OZ, and-- and-- > >

Sitting up and swinging his good leg out of bed, Duo snapped the bedside light on and leaned over, fumbling for his crutches. "And what? 'Lena, this is good, right? I mean, ow, no contact for years, that's bad, but-- "

< < Duo, he asked her not to tell me! He said-- > > She gulped again, obviously trying not to cry. < < --there's too much blood on his hands, he said he doesn't deserve to be my brother. He told her he's planning to just disappear, take another new name and disappear, and-- I don't want him to, I want my brother back, but, I don't know, do I have the right to stop him? What if-- > >

"Hey, whoa, no," Duo interrupted. "What we do now is, your friend Duo goes to talk to your brother while he is conveniently stuck in hospital, and tells him to cut that shit out because his sister loves him and doesn't care. And then if he's still enough of a twit to go skulking off into the sunset being all emo and alone, we may just track his silly ass down together and slap him upside the head until he gets the idea he has a family, all right? What name is he admitted under?"

< < Zechs Merquise. > >

Duo fell out of bed.

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