AUTHORS: Mel and Christy, amazingly coming close to sticking to a schedule here!
WARNINGS: Yaoi, angst, sap, language, some OOC, AU, and Yithar.
PAIRINGS: 1x2, 3x4, 5x?
DISCLAIMER: 'Gundam Wing' and the 'Oath of Swords' series do not belong to us. If they did, we would be better off and probably quite chuffed with ourselves.
FEEDBACK: Is better than caffeine!
APOLOGY: Oh look! Yithar's back! No, we're not apologising for him, plenty of people actually wanted him back. We will, however, apologise for thinking that those people are weird.

Demon of Justice + Chapter 34
Well, he is!

*THUD!*

"Your brother is Sexy Zechsy?!" Duo's voice yelped, loud enough to be clear in Heero's room.

What just happ-- Zechs? Heero doubled back through the bathroom to Duo's room, one hand automatically reaching for a gun he wasn't carrying.

Duo was sprawled on the floor, right leg sticking straight up over the edge of the bed, staring incredulously at his phone; then he yanked it back to his ear, listening. "I called him Sexy Zechsy. Look, it rhymes and he is, okay? I don't know how he looked back when you last saw him, hon, but right now your brother is an utter babe. OZ coulda got a few thousand extra female recruits if they'd just put him on a poster or two."

On reflection, Heero had to admit that Duo was probably right. Wait a moment. Duo's talking to Relena... Zechs is her brother?!

"Okay, 'Lena, this is-- look, you can tell me off for the nickname when you see me in person, 'kay? Go get some sleep if you can, and I'll see you for breakfast. Eight o'clock, clear your schedule for at least the morning 'cause we're gonna be busy." He glanced up at Heero and gave a sudden, distracted grin. "Heero's cooking, so you're in for a treat. --Yes he does, and he's an awesome cook, trust me. G'night hon, see you then."

"Duo, what have you just gotten me into? What's this about Zechs? And do you need a hand there?"

"Ah, yeah, thanks Heero," Duo said, appearing to notice his position for the first time. "You were gonna make breakfast anyway, weren't you? So I haven't committed you to anything extra, you just need to cook a bit more. Turns out Zechs's real name is Milliardo and he's Relena's brother, who woulda thought?"

Heero thought about that for a moment as he carefully helped Duo disentangle himself from the sheets and stand, then shook his head. "There isn't much of a resemblance, is there? Well, eye colour, but that's not so unusual; Quatre's are nearly the same."

"Yeah, you're right. I mean, their faces are totally different shapes, and the hair... both long and straight, but Relena's sort of a honey blonde and Zechs is platinum. Either he bleaches or he had one hell of a shock when he was younger."

"And went white?" Heero snorted. "You might as well assume Relena dyes hers."

"Nah, the tabloids woulda spotted that by now," Duo grinned. "Wow, though."

"No kidding. How's the knee?"

"Ah, it's fine. This is the first and probably only time I'm glad to be wearing a brace, though!"

Heero smirked. "It does have a use. So..."

"So?" Duo raised an eyebrow as Heero trailed off, looking thoughtful.

"So Zechs did survive. When we didn't hear any more about him after that one report before OZ surrendered, I wondered if it had been false. I... think I'm glad?" he said quietly, almost puzzled.

"Yeah." Duo's grin softened. "It's not like we wanted to kill him, is it? We didn't want to kill anyone... okay, a few people maybe deserved it, but most of 'em were just on the other side. Hell, even Une's not all bad, and I hated her guts for most of the war."

"Says the person who was the first to suggest hiring her," Heero muttered.

"Yeah, so I like giving second chances. I told you it was a crazy idea at the time."

"Yes you did, but your crazy ideas work more often than they don't." Heero glanced over at the clock again, and winced. "Well, if Relena's going to be here at eight, and I assume you still want your morning soak in the hot tub, I suggest we try to get some sleep."

"'Try' being the operative word," Duo muttered. "Damn. You know, finding out he's Relena's brother is going to spoil the whole Sexy part of Sexy Zechsy..."

* * * * *

"How's he doing?"

The ship's surgeon made a face as he turned away from the unconscious hradani. "Not too good, Captain. Mind, it's practically a miracle that he's still alive, so in some ways he's doing wonderfully. I'd heard hradani were tough, but this is ridiculous."

Evark frowned, one hand rubbing at his tunic over the pendant hidden beneath in the habit he'd picked up over the last couple of days. "He needs to live, Chihar, and I get the impression Korthrala won't be too happy if he's crippled either."

"Well, Korthrala's going to have to get used to the idea," Chihar snapped. "...Begging your pardon, Captain, but this is frustrating as all the hells. I should have realised how badly off he was and asked you to get a healer of some sort, a priest out of the temple maybe, but-- well, I didn't."

"Given that we need to keep him a secret, getting a healer-priest on board to tend him might have ended up getting him killed anyway," Evark muttered. "I wish I knew more about what's going on."

"He'll live long enough to tell his story, I'm sure enough of that," the surgeon shrugged. "Beyond that? I don't know. His wounds are closing fast, and like I said, he's tough; he survived losing enough blood to kill three humans. If anything, though, that chop to his leg closed too fast. I'm not entirely sure it drained clean before it closed up, and he'll never have much use of that leg even if it did."

"...I just need to make it to Hurgrum," a cracked voice whispered.

Chihar cursed under his breath as he whirled back to the makeshift pallet on the floor, and Evark's eyes widened as they met the hradani's gaze. He -- Brandark, Evark remembered -- was lying still, face pale and drawn, but his eyes were glittering with fever... and something more.

"Here, Longshanks," Chihar muttered, hands gentle as he raised Brandark's head and held a cup to his lips. "Get this down you, and we'll see about something a bit more substantial if you keep it down."

Brandark drank obediently, but never looked away from Evark, and his mouth quirked into a humourless smile as the cup left his mouth. "Just get me to Hurgrum," he repeated, voice clearer. "Get me there, and give me an hour to tell Prince Bahnak what he needs to know. Then I can die."

"You'll be doing no such thing if I have anything to say about it," the surgeon growled, "so I'll thank you not to be giving up while you're in my care! I'll-- "

"Swear at him later, Chihar," Evark interrupted, going to one knee by the pallet. "And hello to you, Brandark; I didn't get a chance to introduce myself before, but I'm Evark Pitchallow. We're on our way north up the coast to the Bay of Kolvania, and yes, we will get you to Hurgrum. My word on it."

Brandark frowned. "How--?"

"--do I know your name? Well, it was Korthrala who let me know we should stop and pick you up instead of sailing on by, and when I was able to get to His House in Refuge he told me your name. Apparently he likes you," Evark said dryly, one hand twirling his moustache as he felt a secret inner glow. And me!

The hradani's ears flattened uneasily, then struggled back up to half-mast. "Huh. That's... not something I ever expected to hear, frankly."

Likewise. "Well, it seems you're popular there, big 'un, because Foam Beard says his sister Chesmirsa likes you too."

"Huh." Now that brought the ears up for a moment, and Brandark's eyes lost their hard glitter, softening. "Well, isn't that a thing, now..."

"A hradani bard?" Chihar muttered, half-smiling. "Now that's new."

"Would-be bard," Brandark snorted. "I can play well enough, but I haven't the voice for it, and I can't compose anything better than satire. Bahzell says-- " His voice cut off abruptly and his face twisted in grief, ears flattening again.

Evark looked away and gestured to Chihar, giving the hradani a moment of privacy in his pain. "I'm needing a few minutes to talk to our passenger alone, if you think he's up to it."

Chihar grumbled. "I think it won't matter one way or another what I say if you and that big lunk want to talk. Let me know when you're done."

Evark watched him go, then turned back to Brandark. The hradani was staring blindly at the deckhead above them, but blinked and turned back to him when the halfling shifted. "Right then," Evark said, voice low. "Whatever message it is you're carrying, it's important enough to get my god fussed, and Korthrala's not the fussing sort. I've dropped a high-paid cargo run to shuttle you up north, boyo, and I won't be asking you for a bent copper kormak, but I will ask you this; can you tell me what in all the hells is going on? If you can't, then you can't, but if you can, I wish you would. I'd really like to know why I'm about to take a blue-water ship up the damned Saram River, through three different human kingdoms and a load of Bloody Sword hradani bandits -- saving your presence," he added dryly, "past the Forest of the Sharmi and Troll Garth, too, if it turns out that's the most navigable branch."

And, he thought, unspoken but seeing that the hradani understood him without words, if you die on the way I'd like something more to deliver than your corpse and a few cryptic words muttered on a beach.

* * * * *

Major Rathan No'hai Taihar scowled around at the mess. Oversized corpses littered the clearing, the damp ground was torn up and churned like a bad road after rain, a couple of the smaller trees had been uprooted or even snapped off in the melee, and frankly the half-elf major didn't think he'd ever seen a messier battlefield. Which wasn't making it any easier to work out what exactly had happened here.

A few things were immediately clear, of course, but that just led to more and murkier questions. What in Phrobus's name had a couple of dozen hradani been doing in the middle of the Shipwood?

Apart from dying, he commented dryly to himself, fastidiously nudging one of the corpses with his boot to bring its face into view.

"Well?" he asked coldly, and his second in command saluted.

"Sir," Halith said stiffly. "It appears that almost all of them belonged to the same group; they have fairly standardised gear, and-- "

"You call this mess standardised?" Rathan asked incredulously, gesturing at the various nearby corpses. Astonishingly, Halith smirked.

"Not by our standards, certainly," he murmured, and the major couldn't suppress a laugh. "Their cloaks and so forth certainly aren't, but they are all wearing similar armour and carrying nearly identical weapons, and while I can't read hradani runes I can tell that they all have the same markings on belt buckles and sheaths. So yes, sir; I do call this mess standardised, however painful it may be to warp the meaning of the poor word this much."

"Point taken," Rathan sighed. "Carry on."

"There are only two bodies that don't match," Halith said, gesturing to one side. "One is wearing a higher quality of gear, but with the same symbols, so I believe he was their leader. As for the other..." Leading the major past one of the fallen trees to a slight dip in the ground, he gestured elegantly.

"Bleeding hells."

"Quite, sir."

The body lying in the dip was immense, well over a foot taller than any of the other hradani corpses and much more heavily built. Not that the other hradani were slender, far from it; but Rathan would swear that each of the massive body's thighs were as thick as his own waist.

"That's either some sort of freak of nature, or..."

"A Horse Stealer, sir."

"This was ridiculous enough even if we assume the others are Wild Wash! What is a Horse Stealer hradani doing at this end of the continent?!"

Sensibly enough, Halith didn't answer the rhetorical question, instead crouching by the large corpse and wordlessly pulling back the cloak half-covering it. Rathan's eyes narrowed.

"I see," he said, dangerously quiet. "Are there any signs to tell us how many survivors there are?"

"Not as yet, sir," Halith shook his head, dropping the cloak back to cover the roughly-bandaged chest. "At least one, obviously, given that this one couldn't have managed that himself. I have the scouts searching for tracks now."

"Good. What about my cousin?"

"He should be here soon."

Rathan sniffed. "He'd be here already if he'd started out as soon as my messenger reached him. I suppose I should be thankful he's willing to stir his rear out of his mansion at all."

Halith coughed behind his hand and looked pointedly away from the major, diplomatically deaf.

Turning away from the mysterious corpse, Rathan kicked through the litter of bags and clothing lying nearby. Something twanged and jangled, and he leaned down to pull a smashed balalaika out of the bag that hadn't protected it. "Good grief," he muttered, turning it around in his hands. "It takes greedy bandits to steal musical instruments." One string parted with a quiet *ping*, and the balalaika twanged again as he dropped it, dismissing it from his mind.

Scanning the battlefield again, Rathan realised that Halith was still standing quietly at his shoulder, awaiting orders. "Well carry on, man, carry on," he said irritably, waving him away. "Report back if you find anything important." Halith saluted and strode off, and Rathan found himself in the perennial position of an officer in the field with good subordinates: temporarily without anything to do. He sighed.

"Where is that imbecile Yithar?"

----------

"Can't my cousin Taihar deal with this himself?" Yithar asked, almost whining. The army scout to whom he was directing the question shrugged very slightly.

"I'm sure he can, m'lord, but he felt that as the incident occurred on your land you would wish to be alerted."

Yithar huffed. "Oh, it's my land all right, but we're talking about the middle of the Shipwood! It's leagues away from any of my actual villages, it's not as if anyone ever goes out there!"

"Well, it seems that several somebodies did go there, m'lord." The scout shrugged again. "And died there. Given the circumstances, the army does have to concern itself."

"I still don't see why he needs me," Yithar muttered, but stopped arguing. He probably doesn't need me, he thought sourly. In fact, I'm sure he doesn't. He's just calling me there to be annoying, curse him.

The rest of the journey to the clearing in question was quiet, but certainly not peaceful; Yithar spent it cursing his cousin, his horse, his saddle, the saddle-sores he was sure he was going to develop, and the army scout for setting a pace much faster than Yithar was accustomed to travelling. The cursed grunt didn't even have the grace to look uncomfortable in the saddle.

Arriving at the ravaged clearing, Yithar paled at the sight of the bodies Rathan's squad were dragging into ragged lines. "You didn't say they were hradani! What-- what if some of them are still out there?!"

"We're checking that, m'lord," the scout said blandly.

"So why'd you call me out here before you were sure?!" Yithar dithered for a moment, briefly considering reining his horse back around and riding back where he came from, but saw Major Taihar approaching and pasted a sickly smile on his face. "Cousin! Er, what-- "

"What took you so long?" the major snapped, gesturing the scout away.

"I, well, I'm hardly prepared to ride out at a moment's notice..." Yithar could feel his smile slide towards apologetic and swore inwardly. Why does he always have this effect on me? Oh, now the eyebrow, of course!

Rathan had indeed raised one supercilious eyebrow, sniffing slightly. "Well. You're here now."

"Er, yes. Ah... what happened here?"

"As near as we can tell from the placement of the bodies and so forth," Rathan told him, turning away to gesture at the mess, "most of these died fighting a much smaller group of enemies. Wild Wash or one of the other, aheh, 'smaller' breed of hradani versus three or four Horse Stealers, it looks like. All or nearly all of the larger... well, more numerous... group died; only one of the others fell."

"If only one of them is dead, how do you know how many there were?" Yithar asked nervously, sidestepping away as two of Rathan's men dragged another body past him. "And how do you tell them apart? They all look alike to me."

His cousin gave him another raised-eyebrow look, but deigned to answer instead of just telling him it should be obvious. "There were three main clusters of dead, and one was bigger than the others so was probably made by them fighting against two opponents rather than just one. We've also found three sets of tracks leading away, one south towards the coast and the others heading north. As for how we can tell them apart?" His voice turned dry as he pointed to one end of the nearest row of corpses. "They may look alike to you, but if you look closely enough there are a few minor differences about that one there."

Yithar's eyes went wide and he sputtered for a moment before regaining his voice. "Gods! Um, eheh, I see your point, cousin..." He frowned, voice trailing off, then resumed in a low mutter. "He's nearly as big as the one in that damned village..."

Rathan scowled. "What one in which village?"

"Oh!" Yithar fairly jumped. "Ah, there were a couple of hradani living in one of my villages until recently. A blacksmith, even bigger than that one I think, and his daughter. They've left now, though," he hastened to assure the major.

"And you didn't think it was odd to find them there?" Rathan asked incredulously.

"Well, no!" he protested. "The Wild Wash are just up the coast, after all, I suppose one or two get in a feud and have to leave every so often. Besides, so long as he was productive I had no reason-- "

"I said that one's no Wild Wash brigand! The only hradani who grow that big are Horse Stealers, and they live up north by the Sothoii!"

"All that way?" Yithar blinked, then flushed angrily. "Well, I didn't know that!"

"Plainly," Rathan sneered. "I'll be wanting to speak to these hradani of yours."

"I told you, they left!"

"Then you'd best set about finding them, hadn't you?"

Yithar gnawed his lower lip, glaring at his cousin's back as the major stalked away. They're not my hradani, certainly not now! And if Taihar wants me to find them, or goes looking for them himself, that whole mess with the Order of Torframos and the demons is going to come out... He was uncomfortably aware that what Major Taihar found out, the Council of Lords at Bortalik would know soon after, and they weren't going to be pleased that he hadn't kept them fully informed. In fact, he hadn't kept them informed at all; that little 'incident' hadn't exactly shown him in the best light, and he'd spent very little time trying to decide on the best way to report it before deciding on 'not at all'.

He was going to have to report it now. The Council might have been happy with a delayed report if it had been less embarrassing, or if he'd made it before this happened to force his hand, but in the circumstances their position was going to be that he should have started sending them couriers as it was happening. They weren't going to take 'delayed paperwork' or 'pressures of his other duties' as an answer this time. And when he thought about exactly what he was going to have to report...

Temples of Sharna in the Spinewall, near enough to his lands that they were sure to claim he could have -- should have -- found out about it before now.

Demons being summoned and attacking his lands.

A demon prince being summoned, and going off with the Order of Torframos of all things.

His own less-than-scintillating performance during all of this. Yithar wished he could believe that lying about it would pass muster, but when this report reached the Council they were certain to send investigators to interrogate all the witnesses.

Finally, and worst of all, a member of one of the Militant Orders had threatened to use Yithar's own conduct as a formal repudiation by the Purple Lords of their legal code.

Yithar didn't realise it, but his complexion had turned pale enough to look faintly greenish.

"M'lord?" one of his human guardsmen asked tentatively, peering at him with a worried expression. "Are you all right?"

"Mind your own cursed business, Kairic," he snarled, happy to have even a minor target to strike at. "When and if I want you to poke your nose into mine, I'll tell you."

The blond guardsman stiffened to attention, face blank. "My apologies, m'lord. I spoke out of turn."

"Damn right you did," Yithar muttered, glaring venomously. The human stayed stiff, staring over his shoulder as if he'd been stuffed and mounted, and Yithar finally turned away. The rest of his small escort were blatantly Not Hearing Anything, carefully examining nearby corpses or diligently watching the trees for hypothetical ambushes, and he snorted mentally. Cowards, the lot of them.

Looking around at the squad still tidying up the bodies, he frowned. Rathan's words still stung, and he almost pouted as he looked at the hradani corpses. I don't see why I should be expected to know the difference between hradani tribes. It's not as if it's actually relevant to me. I didn't go into the army. Another pair of Rathan's men grabbed the arms of yet another corpse near him, starting to drag it away, and he eyed the body's gear, automatically valuing it. I can tell that this one is wearing far better gear than the others; depressingly plain and ugly, of course, but quite a high value. Surprisingly high, really. There, that's relevant to me... eh?

As they hauled the body away, something that had been hidden underneath it came into view, glinting brightly in the subdued afternoon sun. Curiosity piqued, Yithar strolled over, fastidiously avoiding the worst of the bloody mud.

A sword? Well now! That's a much better blade than I'd expect any of these filth to be carrying, quite elegant really. Valuable. I wonder who they stole it from?

...Is that an emerald as the pommel stone? It's huge!

Sun and leaf-shadows flickered as a gentle breeze stirred the trees, and Yithar's eyes widened as the emerald gleamed at him. It was bigger than his thumb-joint, with no flaws visible to a quick examination, and his mind started totalling up its possible price.

=*Pick it up,*= something whispered quietly to him.

...Rathan will take it, he thought dazedly. It's evidence, or spoils, or something; he'll say it should go to the Council...

=*Take it,*= the whisper insisted. =*This isn't for the likes of him. Something that fine should be yours. Claim it!*=

Almost without him willing it, Yithar reached out and picked up the sword. It came up out of the churned muck clean, not even a smear of dirt or blood marring its shine, and he turned it in his hand wonderingly, staring at it.

There was something engraved on the sword's guard. A... scorpion?

Yithar had just enough time to realise what that meant before a cold, gloating voice spoke in his mind.

=*You'll do just fine. Power and vengeance for you; souls and vengeance for me. Agreed? Agreed.*=

=*And for your first task as my Champion... leave no witnesses.*=

----------

Kairic hung back as his lord moved on, quietly letting the other guardsmen move ahead of him and hoping that he could remain mostly unnoticed for at least the next few minutes. If he didn't attract Lord Yithar's attention again until after he'd gotten over his current mood, chances were that the lord would have forgotten all about it by the time they got back to the estate.

Or he'll be more pissed at someone else by then, and ignore me in favour of punishing them, he thought, trading carefully expressionless glances with one of the other guardsmen. It was a dance he'd done before, carefully staying in Yithar's sight enough to be recognised as doing something, while not getting enough attention to be a target of too many of the lord's frequent snit fits.

I should have gone into the army... oh well. Shrugging mentally, Kairic followed as Yithar stopped glaring around the clearing and walked towards where one of the bodies had been lying. Now what's he doing? The way he hates blood and mess, I'd expect him to be balancing on a tussock and squeaking every time he looked at the bodies.

When the half-elf lord bent down and straightened up with a sword in his hand, Kairic blinked. Where did he get that?! I would have sworn there was nothing there! It's not even dirty, so it can't have been buried under the mud... Uneasily, he took half a step back, then another. His instincts were screaming at him all of a sudden, and there was something badly wrong here.

Then the sword in Yithar's hand burst into green flames, and he swung sideways without even looking to cut one of his own guardsmen down.

Oh fuck!

Backpedaling frantically to get clear, Kairic snatched out his own sword but hesitated, unsure of his next move. I know he's useless with a blade, but that sword--! He had no idea how to tell what sort of magic it was, but really he didn't need to; it was blatantly some kind of magic, and that was more than enough. Tyllar went down way too fast, that shouldn't have been enough of a cut to drop him like that -- whatever that sword does, it's bad--

His mouth dropped open as Yithar spun and ducked, bringing the sword around in an impossibly graceful motion to impale his second guardsman, then kicked the falling corpse off the flaming blade and slashed sideways. The tip barely reached his third target, slicing a shallow nick across the front of his throat, but the man dropped as if poleaxed.

Oh shit. Oh shit. It's helping him fight and he only has to scratch me, there's no way I can beat him like this!

Kairic could see his own death in his lord's eyes as the half-elf turned to him, sword lifting--

--and Major Taihar leapt at his cousin from behind, swinging his own sword in a two-handed arc at Yithar's head. "Gods damn you for a gutless fool!" he roared. "I knew you were an idiot, but this is-- "

Yithar backhanded him with the pommel, snapping his head back and sending him staggering to the ground. His face had been almost blank, sheened with sweat, but now it twisted into a manic grin. "Ha!" he crowed, seeming to forget Kairic completely as he turned to gloat. "Now who's the weakling? Now who's the failure? Now who's in charge?! I always hated you, you bastard!"

Oh thank the gods, thank you, let him forget me, let me pull something to live through this!

Kairic scrambled away, putting a tree between him and the raving half-elf, but somehow he couldn't bring himself to run. Knowing that that sword was behind him, expecting at any moment that it would strike his back and end his life... no. I'd end up trying to run backwards or something and that never works. Maybe, maybe, uh, if I-- there has to be a way!

Cringing, hating himself, he watched as Yithar slaughtered the Major's squad. Part of him wanted to charge and help, try to save someone else; part of him still wanted to run; part of him begged to hide and pray he wouldn't be found. Part of him saw one of the scouts on the other side of the clearing, white-faced, working his way backwards into hiding, and took shamed comfort in the idea that someone else was as scared as he was.

Yet another part, a tiny irrepressible speck, noted that Yithar must have found a really impressive cursed sword, if it could even lend him the ability to fight like that. Then he saw the Major groggily trying to stand, and had an idea.

Will it work?

It's got to. And Yithar is conceited enough that it just might!

It took all of Kairic's courage, more than he'd thought he had, to run towards the half-elves. Halfway there, he almost turned back as something occurred to him: If he's possessed or something, not really acting of his own volition, this won't work. It's an appeal to his vanity, to the leadership skills he thinks he has, it won't work if I can't flatter him!

--Well damn it, nothing else is going to give me much of a chance! Stop thinking and do it!

He reached Major Taihar just as the officer managed to straighten, bringing his sword up in a defensive position. Blood was running down his face from his nose and split lip and he swayed, clearly dazed, but he wasn't giving up.

Please let him be dazed enough to not react fast when I do this-- and let him have his wits about him enough for it to work!

Yithar cut down the last soldier and turned back towards the Major, grin widening, just as Kairic came up behind him. Kairic could almost see Yithar's thoughts in the flicker of his eyes as he noted the guardsman's presence and dismissed it as inconsequential, focussing on his cousin. Rathan spat blood and raised his swordtip, drawing breath to say something, defiant or insulting perhaps, certainly not a plea for the mercy Yithar clearly wasn't going to give.

Both half-elves froze, eyes going wide in shock, as Kairic wound his left arm around the Major's throat and jammed his short sword into his back. Rathan stiffened, lips moving wordlessly; then his eyes rolled closed and his breath huffed out as he went completely limp, spattering more blood. Kairic yanked backwards, going down on one knee beside his target as he dropped him flat in one of the deepest, messiest puddles of fresh blood and mud the new slaughter had left.

Leaving his sword in the muck, the human spat on his victim and shoved the limp body over onto its face, then turned and knelt submissively, bending his head. "My lord." Thank all the gods, my voice didn't crack!

"...Hm."

Kairic didn't dare peek up through his hair, but he could see Yithar's feet. The half-elf wasn't moving; then the tip of the cursed sword swung down to hang at his side, no longer flaming. There wasn't a mark on the blade, even now, as if the blood from his multiple kills hadn't stuck... or had been absorbed.

"I wanted to kill him myself, you know."

The guardsman almost fainted in relief. Yithar's tone was petty, sulking, and familiar. It was one he'd heard so many times before, telling him that his lord was annoyed -- but not quite annoyed enough to strike out at his servants. "I humbly beg your pardon, my lord," he said smoothly, bowing his head further. "I only thought to assist you, as is my place."

"Bah. You have a point, I suppose." Yithar stepped closer, feet turning to the side as if he was studying his cousin's corpse. A sideways glance without moving his head let Kairic see that the back of Rathan's tunic was soaked with bright blood, the ragged cut left by his sword showing clearly. "Well, dead is dead however it happens, and I have to admit he makes such an attractive cadaver," he went on, sounding almost cheerful.

"As my lord says."

"Hmm." Yithar's feet turned towards him, now, and there was a long pause; then the lord snorted and abruptly turned away. "Well, what are you waiting for? Go fetch the horses."

"Yes, my lord. Immediately."

Kairic spent a long minute gentling the horses before he untied them; they were unsettled by the violence and the scent of blood, and as he murmured soothingly to them he could feel his own racing heart slow as well. By the time they were calm, so was he. For a moment, he considered flinging himself on one of them, scattering the rest and sprinting for the distant road.

No, he thought, carefully not glancing back over his shoulder. Not yet. No matter how wilfully blind he is, he's got to be suspicious of me still. Go along with him, wait for a better moment and make it count.

When he turned, Yithar was watching him, sword in hand, and he barely managed to hide his shudder. Oh yes. Not now. Not yet. Then he plastered a blank look on his face, bowed, and held the stirrup for his lord.

----------

Once the sound of hoofbeats had died away, Rathan cautiously opened one eye. His face was pressed into the muck, he could barely breathe, he'd been holding his breath anyway in an effort to better imitate his own dead body... and he was damned if he was going to move before he was well and truly certain that his crazed cousin was far, far away.

He heard footsteps and snapped his eye shut again before registering that they were coming from the wrong direction.

"Sir?" a shaking voice whispered. "Major? Are... are you alive?"

Only the knowledge of exactly what was in the mud trying to flow into his mouth stopped him from gasping in relief. Lifting his head, he looked long and hard in the direction Yithar had ridden away in before turning to the trembling scout. "Did anyone else survive?" he asked tersely.

"Just Veleran, I think, sir," the scout told him, pointing back into the trees. "We were both scouting trails when-- when, uh, it happened, and I think Lord Yithar never saw us. We didn't want to both come out at once in case he wasn't really gone."

"And you drew the short straw," Rathan finished dryly. The scout managed a shaky smile for a moment.

"Rock-leaf-knife, sir. I always lose." Staring around at what was left of his squadmates, he lost the smile quickly. "I should check the others. If someone else is feigning-- "

"They won't be," the major told him grimly, levering himself up out of the muck. "One of his own men went straight down, stone dead from just a scratch. That sword kills with a touch."

"Sir, if it does that, how did you survive?"

Rathan swiped gory muck off his face, eyes distant as he remembered a desperate, hissed whisper in his ear and the feel of a sword rasping along the scale armour under his tunic.

'Play dead if you want to live through this!'

"I had help," he said shortly. "One of his guardsmen kept his wits about him and managed to both fake my death and prevent his own."

"Oh." The scout's eyes were wide. "Well done him."

"I've a heavy debt to pay that human if we both live through this mess," Rathan admitted, recovering his sword. "Do we still have our horses?"

"Yes sir. They only took the ones they came with."

"Good. Call Veleran in and fetch the six freshest horses; leave the others tied, we'll be coming back as fast as we can."

"Where are we going, sir?"

The Major shot him an exasperated look. "Bortalik, man! I'll be heading straight for the Council house, and while I do that one of you will be doing the rounds of every temple you can reach."

* * * * *

"So that's it?" Wufei asked. Half asleep on two cushions next to him, Karthan yawned, craned his neck to see the screen, and nodded.

"Yup. Marfang Island."

The channel between the large island and the beach where the Order of Torframos were setting up camp was wide enough for details to be lost in the distance, but still narrow enough that Wufei could see the lights of a small city springing up in the gathering dusk. It seemed to be a compact, neat little port, and the vague hint of docks he could make out seemed far more extensive than necessary for a town that size. Then again, Uthmar had said something about Marfangers being 'legendary seamen'...

"We made fairly good time here. I'll be glad to get out of this chair, though."

"What, is my scintillating personality not enough to keep you amused?"

"Not when two of my harness straps are directly over spots where that damned priest got all knife-happy, no," Wufei told him dryly, making Nataku kneel and reaching to unsnap the buckle. "Also not when I'm doing almost everything one-handed."

"Wufei!" Karthan jerked upright, scowling. "Damn it, the whole point of me insisting on riding with you was so I'd be here if you needed bandages changed or anything! Why didn't you mention it so I could get some extra padding in there or something?"

Wufei looked thoughtful. "Do you know, I didn't think of it?"

"So you sat there the whole time, griping at your harness, instead?"

"Apparently so. Oops?"

"Watch it, you, or I'll tell Naiya you're neglecting yourself."

"Just don't tell Vaijon as well," Wufei said, opening the hatch.

"I would have thought you'd rather have him change your bandages than her?"

"Naiya won't change my bandages," the pilot told him dryly, standing up carefully and wincing as he stretched. "She'll just turn her back while someone else does it, and lecture me the whole time. Vaijon, however, will change the bandages, wince every time he thinks he's hurt me, and lecture himself the whole time for not riding along and making sure I was properly looked after. While the last day or so has been a welcome change in his personality, that doesn't mean I appreciate all of it."

----------

Plans for the next couple of days were discussed around the Champions' campfire that night.

"A Marfanger ship can get us up to Belhadan in about ten days," Arwen began, cradling his mug in both hands.

"Really?" Vaijon blinked. "Ah, your pardon, Sir Arwen, but isn't it over two hundred leagues from here?"

"It is," the Champion nodded, "but a Marfanger captain who can't make twenty leagues a day is a Marfanger looking for a new ship. That's if they're only sailing during daylight -- if they sail at night they can double that distance, and they do."

"But we're not after planning to do that?" Cord asked.

"Right," Uthmar grinned in his beard. "That's when Wufei and Nataku will be catching up to us, and getting some sleep."

Wufei snorted. "Catching up? That would involve falling behind. Surely you jest. Still, I did wonder how you were going to explain us."

"We're not going to yet," the dwarf told him dryly, one eyebrow heading for his hairline. "Nataku can sustain twenty leagues a day?"

"More like forty, underwater, if she's making sure not to cause disturbances on the surface." Wufei shrugged, doing some quick calculations in his head. Probably even faster, given that I won't have to worry about OZ picking us up on sonar! Leagues seem to be the same length as the old measurements back on Earth, about three miles, so that means Belhadan is roughly six hundred miles from here... allowing for the ship's route not being a straight line... "I assume you intend for us to stay out of sight, and on land we'd be running into coastal villages all the time, so underwater it is. If we were flying, however, and knew where to go, we could make it to Belhadan in one day."

"...I didn't know she could fly," Uthmar finally said, both eyebrows attempting to become one with his scalp.

"We did," Terrin put in cheerfully. "I actually got to see it."

Arwen coughed, hauling his own eyebrows down to approximately their usual locations by sheer force of will. "Er. You're right, Wufei, we were planning for you to stay out of sight on the trip if it was possible. Once we reach Belhadan, though, we'll be contacting the chapter house and revealing your presence. We'll get a lot of attention on the way overland to Axe Hallow and the motherhouse," he added, grimacing, "but it can't be helped. The Empire of the Axe is far more densely populated than the Purple Lord lands, so keeping you secret from the general populace won't be feasible any more."

"I gather lords like Yithar are the reason we aren't hiring a Purple Lord ship?" Wufei asked.

"That's one of the reasons, yes."

"Plus the fact that the Purple Lords don't get on with anyone, including each other, so you never know which one is plotting what with whom," Gunnar put in, leaning back rather stiffly against a tree. "And they really don't like the militant orders, so we'd get price-gouged from here to the Wind Plains. And, their ships stink."

"Literally or metaphorically?"

"Both," he grinned. "A Purple Lord ship would be doing well to get us up to Belhadan before the snow flies."

"Let's not hire one, then."

"Let's not," Arwen agreed dryly. "So. Uthmar or I, along with a few of the men, will head across to Marfang Island at first light and find a ship; there are a couple of coastal villages just south-east of here who make money ferrying people across, so getting there won't be a problem. Wufei, if you wouldn't mind taking Nataku and playing least-in-sight while the ship picks the rest of us up, that would be appreciated; and, given that you can travel as fast as you say, you'd best wait until dusk tomorrow before coming out of hiding and following along. There's enough ship traffic along here during the day that you'll likely have a hard time finding an opportunity to get underwater with nobody in sight, not to mention that Refuge Harbour is close enough for a lookout with a good spyglass to get a clear view of this shore -- and with the Wild Wash hradani just a little way to the north-west, they'll be looking."

"How will Wufei be able to track us, though?" Naiya asked, concerned.

"If Karthan's on the ship with you," Wufei shrugged, "I can follow along. Plus, since he and I seem to be able to speak over our link no matter how far apart we are, we'll be able to stay in touch without having to risk actually meeting up on the way. I can stay underwater until you've got the people in Belhadan as prepared as they're going to get for our appearance."

"Might I travel with you, S-- Wufei?" Vaijon put in, a little diffidently. "In case you need assistance, or company?"

Ten days alone in a small metal box with Reformed Vaijon. Dear gods. Wufei was very proud of the fact that his voice didn't waver, and he was fairly sure that nothing of his reaction had shown on his face. "I'll be fine, Vaijon, really. I can still talk to Karthan, and I'm sure he-- " A quick jerk of his head upwards indicated who he meant. "--will pop in for a chat." Though he hasn't been around since we left the temple site this morning. I wonder why? "Besides," he added quickly as Vaijon drew breath, "I still don't know what triggered the link between Karthan and myself; I don't want to find out that just carrying someone else in the cabin with me will do it."

"And we're not going to do any experimenting with that right now," Uthmar agreed. "Or, probably, ever. No, Wufei will be fine, and it's not as if he can't come find us if he does need something."

With that idea shot down, talk -- thankfully -- turned in other directions.

* * * * *

"How could you nickname my brother Sexy Zechsy?!" Relena wailed as soon as she came in the door.

"Because I didn't know he was your brother at the time!" Duo protested from his seat at the table. "And like I said, he is! Believe me hon, if I'd known he was your brother my appreciation of his ass would have been purely platonic."

"You're not helping!"

"...What are you two talking about?" Quatre asked, eyes wide.

"Turns out Zechs is Relena's brother Milliardo," Heero explained dryly, dumping a stack of plates in front of Duo. "--Pass these out, please. Apparently he thinks he's not good enough to be her brother or something, so Duo is planning to beat some sense into him."

"I'm not going to actually hit him," Duo added hastily as Relena looked about to panic. "Of course, these plans may change if he stays stubborn and makes 'Lena cry."

"I still don't know if this is the right thing to do," Relena said miserably, sitting down next to him. "Maybe... maybe he'd be happier leaving again. I haven't seen him since I was tiny..."

"Well, yeah, maybe he would," Duo shrugged. "Thing is, he doesn't actually know that, does he? He doesn't know what sticking around and being your brother would be like. Plus, he's kinda basing his decision to leave again on what would be best for you, right? You and he disagree on what would be best, and he doesn't have the right to make that decision on his own anyway. So we tell him to be your brother on a trial basis or something. Give it six months or a year and then see how you both feel about it."

Quatre blinked, clearly still stuck on an earlier part of the conversation. "...Sexy Zechsy is Relena's brother?!"

"Oh, Quatre, not you too!"

"Well he is!"

Trowa nodded wordlessly, passing her a glass of juice.

"I don't believe this," she sighed.

"I think you two were supposed to be planning, not discussing Zechs's relative sexiness and whether or not his nickname is accurate," Heero said dryly.

"I'm not saying it's not accurate," Relena protested, "I'm just-- um." She blushed.

"Admit it, 'Lena, you've checked out his rear too," Duo said in a low voice, grinning wickedly.

"I have done no such thing!" There was a brief pause as her blush deepened; then she sighed, one corner of her mouth lifting into an embarrassed smile. "His shoulders, on the other hand, did give me a few interested moments. And if you ever reveal that to anyone, Duo, I'll-- I'll-- I don't know what I'll do, but I'll think up something and it will involve pink."

"Lips are sealed!" he said hastily, lifting his hands in surrender. "Not a word. I heard nothing."

----------

Zechs lay back, staring dully at the ceiling. His leg throbbed, his headache was bad enough to be giving him little sparkles in front of his eyes, he was certain he could feel every one of his seven broken ribs, and yet somehow he couldn't work up the energy to push the call button and ask for painkillers. It wasn't as if it really mattered, after all...

He heard the door swing open, but didn't bother to look. It was only going to be a nurse, or maybe the lunch trolley.

"You sure?" a familiar voice asked. "Okay. Q, you stay here, okay? I'll start, you can come in later. Oh, sweet! He's in traction! Yo, Zechsy, you can't get away from me now!"

When he looked towards the door, Zechs discovered with trepidation that no, he hadn't been experiencing some sort of auditory hallucination. Duo Maxwell really was in his hospital room, grinning at him.

"...What happened to you?" he asked, seeing the crutches.

"I'd say 'you did', except you had nothing to do with this," Duo said cheerfully, swinging over and flinging himself into the visitor's chair. "It was some stairs, mostly... and a ladder, and then the stairs again, and then I had surgery, which is why you find me here before you with my style slightly restrained by this brace. Only slightly, though."

"Why are you here?"

"Thanks to you feeling all emo and unworthy, sunshine, I got woken up at stupid o'clock this morning by a hysterical phone call from one Relena Peacecraft, who happens to be your sister and also -- now this bit is important -- my friend. I do not appreciate people upsetting my friends, much less making them wake me up at stupid o'clock. I'm a healing boy and need my rest. So! We're going to discuss this like the mature adults we aren't, and you are going to bow to the wisdom of my arguments and realise that your sister loves you, you moron, therefore you leaving is not the best thing for her, I don't care what you think. You might as well give in now, 'cause I'm not going anywhere until you do."

Zechs blinked.

"You going to say anything or just capitulate wordlessly?"

"...Do you ever have to breathe?"

"So I've got good lung capacity. It's a gift." Duo peered closer at Zechs's face, checking his eyes. "How much painkillers are you on?"

He sighed, closing his eyes for a moment. "Obviously not enough."

[chap. 33] [chap. 35] [back to Mel and Christy's fic]