AUTHORS: Mel and Christy, continuing to be productive! Is this a sign of the Apocalypse?
WARNINGS: Yaoi, angst, sap, language, some OOC, AU...
PAIRINGS: 1x2, 3x4, 5x?
DISCLAIMER: 'Gundam Wing' and the 'Oath of Swords' series are not ours. Foo.
FEEDBACK: Continues to be awesome fun to read!
APOLOGY: Yithar's still Not Dead Yet. Sorry.

Demon of Justice + Chapter 35
Danger, Will Robinson, Danger!

"You want me to call a nurse or something?" Duo asked cheerfully. "Actually physically beating you up is not part of my current plan, so I don't mind getting you some more painkillers."

"That wasn't my point," Zechs sighed again. "If I had sufficient painkillers, I would be asleep and not have to deal with this."

"Suck it up, princess. Been there, done that, wrote the book on it. --Oh, wait, if you're Relena's brother then you really are a prince, right? Suck it up, princey boy!"

"Yet another reason not to return to my former life," Zechs pointed out. "Sanc doesn't need another heir complicating matters."

"So you don't go back to being Millardo Peacecraft," Duo shrugged. "You can stick around being Zechs Merquise, or maybe take a new identity like you planned, just without the leaving part. Or you renounce the throne in favour of your sister, whatever. That's handleable. What isn't handleable is you emo-ing off into the sunset and upsetting Relena, okay? She does care about you."

"She doesn't need me!"

"She begs to differ. It's not like she has any other family left, is it? And she's kind of short on genuine friends, too. She could really use your support."

"She apparently has you; I'd expect you to claim that you're better than a dozen other friends." Zechs blinked, thinking about that statement, and looked quizzically at Duo. "How did that happen, by the way?"

"I'm still kinda baffled myself," Duo grinned. "It works, though. Still..." He rubbed his nose and grimaced, sobering. "I might not always be around, you know? We -- all of us Gundam pilots -- look, this may not happen, okay, so don't tell your sister yet, but there's a chance we might all... leave. Which would pretty well wipe out most of your sister's close friends, all right? She's gonna need you even more if that happens."

"How is it that I'm not allowed to 'emo off into the sunset', but you are?"

"'Cause you'd be emo-ing away from something good and towards nothing, and we'd be emo-ing away to somewhere we're needed, okay? Also, there would be less emo and more explosions."

"...I'm not going to ask," Zechs decided eventually. "I think I'm afraid of the answers I'd get."

"You're demonstrating excellent judgement there. Now apply some of that excellent judgement to your current situation, i.e. your sister is your sister no matter how unworthy you feel. She disagrees about the unworthy bit, too."

"That's not her decision to make," Zechs snapped.

"I'd say it is. Or at the very least, it's a shared decision," Duo snapped back. "Neither of you gets to make choices for the other here. And, Zechsy, just a heads-up? You'd better make the right choice, 'cause you do not want me to chase you down and go Shinigami on your ass."

"Didn't you just say you were planning to leave? That's going to make chasing me inconvenient."

"Oh, I think we'll be able to get Relena settled first. Not, y'know, wanting to abandon her without a support structure," Duo said pointedly. "Plus, even if you wait for us to leave and then sneak off, she's perfectly capable of chasing you down herself. There would be less ass-beating than I'd provide, but a lot more big blue eyes and wobbly bottom lips. Trust me, that's worse. You do not know fear until you wake up in what you thought was a safe house and find a pink limousine outside your front door."

----------

Fifteen minutes later...

Is he ever going to shut up?

"Did I mention that I'll be bringing friends if I have to track you down for ass-beating? It's a very nice ass, by the way, we're all agreed that it's just about perfect even if we have to regard it platonically now that we know you're Relena's brother. It's a shame, really, I used to pass boring hours on stakeout imagining how you'd react if Une ever groped you-- you can't tell me she didn't appreciate it-- but now I have to regard you as sort-of a brother, which makes ass-appreciation kind of creepy. Anyway, as I was saying, friends. Multiple friends. Multiple friends with weapons and awesome skills at ass-beating while I sit back and rest my knee so Heero doesn't get all disappointed and pouty at me again. Did you know he can do pouty? He seems to have adopted it as an alternate strategy now that he's learned not to give me orders, and he's actually fairly good at it, though I think he'd be horrified if he realised what he was doing."

Stubbornly silent, Zechs stared at the ceiling tiles. Surely, if he could ignore the babbling Gundam pilot for long enough, Duo would give up and go away.

"Oh, and if you're trying to wait me out, I should warn you that I don't bore easily."

Damn.

"Nope, I can go on with stream-of-consciousness nagging for hours if I need to! It's easy, really, I just kind of disconnect my filters from between brain and mouth and let 'er rip, and yes I do have filters normally-- "

Could have fooled me.

"--which is proven by the fact that if I'd said half the things I was thinking to Heero when we first met two years ago, he woulda shot me then and there and I never woulda had the chance to see your ass. Did you ever notice that you've got a dimple in your right butt cheek, but not the left? Those pants you used to wear all the time were tight enough to show it off nicely. I thanked God for your tailor every night. Well, not every night, just when I'd had a chance to check out his work again. Getting back to the topic at hand-- "

Please!

"--i.e., you being all gloomy and feeling unworthy of your sister, have you considered that if you emo your way into the sunset, you never will be worthy of her? Lady Une's grasped the whole concept of redemption through good deeds, you know; I'm pretty sure she's heading up the Preventers to earn forgiveness, whether she consciously recognises it or not. Actually, I really doubt she consciously recognises it, especially since the person she most wants forgiveness from is dead. Your sister, however, is alive and kicking and loves you, aren't you lucky?"

Seething, Zechs clenched his teeth and continued trying to glare a hole in the ceiling tile directly above him.

"Wow, look at that expression! Anyone would think you weren't happy about that. What's not to like about having a sister like Relena? She's pretty, has good taste apart from her inclinations towards pink -- which I'm getting her away from, you can thank me later -- gets on with practically everyone, is actively working to improve the world, and is generally a pretty cool person. Okay, so she's kinda na 've, and a politician, but nobody's perfect; and as politicians go, she's a decent one. Doesn't take bribes, follows her convictions instead of pandering to financial interests, that sort of thing. The gushing about Total Pacifism gets a bit tired, but she seems to be toning that back too."

Pokerface. Stony expression. If he didn't react, didn't give Duo any feedback, surely this would eventually end?

"Man, you're determined. Anyone would think you actually had a hope of winning. By the way, I do realise that browbeating you into making the decision I want is pretty hypocritical given that I just got done telling you that nobody gets to make unilateral decisions about someone else's happiness, but I can live with that, so don't bother trying to use that as an argument against me."

Damn, again.

"Welp, I figure I've softened you up a bit, it's time for Round Two. I mentioned I bring friends, didn't I?" Rubber tips squeaked on the flooring as Duo heaved himself up on his crutches and headed for the door.

As if Winner is going to be able to convince me if you can't, Zechs thought contemptuously. The sweet-faced blond wouldn't be able to take being ignored for long.

"Okay, babe, your turn!"

...'Babe'?

Hesitant footsteps approached the bed. "Milliardo?"

Zech's head snapped up and he gaped in shock as his sister's eyes met his.

* * * * *

Akar looked around the... well, it certainly wasn't a sacrificial chamber any more. He'd taken a sledgehammer to the black granite slab himself, and one of the other hradani worshippers had turned out to work on what passed for a road gang here in Navahk; he'd carried the pieces away to be shattered further into gravel and used to repair potholes. It seemed like a fitting end for them.

Now he just had to figure out what to replace the slab with. Did the temple even need an altar? Krashnark had made it plain he didn't want sacrifices-- well, not of virgin maidens, at any rate.

The new-made priest sighed. He was supposed to be Krashnark's chief worshipper here, the one who led the others in the correct forms and rituals, and he had no idea what they were!

I could ask... Akar's ears flattened as he shied away from that thought. Hradani just didn't have anything to do with gods, Dark or Light, unless it was to swear by their names. Bad enough that he'd actually come to a temple to worship one, worse that he and the rest had followed that damned human priest into some fairly dark paths... worse still that he'd said yes to becoming a priest himself!

And yet... it had been the god himself who'd asked. He'd looked at Akar, into him, and asked. How could he say no?

All right, he could have. He'd felt the option there, and if he was frank with himself he'd admit that having the option to say no made him a lot happier about saying yes. Didn't mean he was going to be very happy about it, though.

And this isn't getting me any further towards working out what to do next, is it? he told himself grumpily. I need to ask.

...Which means I need to figure out how to ask, curse it!

Taking a deep breath, Akar looked around, ears flattening. Nobody else was around, for now, so if he was going to do it at all he figured now was the time.

Grumbling to himself under his breath, he knelt and closed his eyes.

----------

My lord?

Krashnark's attention was pulled away from the temple he was inspecting by the tentative mental call. He wasn't enjoying what he was finding out about the state of his church and the quality of his worshippers, so a prayer from the one priest he was currently happy with was a welcome reprieve.

=*Yes, Akar? What is it?*=

...Begging your pardon, m'lord, and I'm not wanting to disturb you, but--

The god found himself snorting incredulously. =*What's all this 'my lord' and 'pardon'? You're a hradani, Akar, I was under the impression you only speak formally to people you don't like?*=

There was a pause, and then Akar's thoughts were back, a little less tense: That's true and all, Krashnark, but I'm also Navahkian. We've gotten used over the last few years to our overlords wanting us to grovel.

=*Ha! Well put.*= Krashnark grinned. =*Well, since you've got my attention, what do you need? And never mind all the frills, I think I'd prefer you to speak plainly.*=

Ah. I will then. Ah... Another pause, and then a faint, not-meant-to-be-heard 'Curse it!' Sir, I don't know how to be a priest! You chose me, so I'll do my best for you, but what is it I'm meant to be doing? How should we worship you? How do we serve you? What do I tell the others when they ask me what they should do?

=*Be yourselves, mostly,*= Krashnark told him, sending a little of his amusement and pleasure along the connection. =*I didn't choose you to change you, Akar; you're fine just the way you are. I don't need you all to sit in a room somewhere and sing my praises. What I do want you to do is dedicate yourselves to me on the battlefield. Call on me for strength; you've got courage enough of your own, I think, but others can call on me for that too. Cut down your enemies and give me a thought then. Thank me if you think I've helped. Each prayer to me, each moment of battle, every enemy you defeat in My name -- whether you do so publicly or in secret -- is a moment of devotion. Tell the others so.*=

Then why did your last priest have this bloody huge useless temple built down here?! Akar sputtered. Er-- that came out wrong.

Krashnark laughed out loud, and felt Akar's relief as he heard it. =*No, Akar, that came out just fine. He built it because he wanted it, and I wasn't paying attention at the time. Use it for meetings; when you know there's a battle coming, call My worshippers in and bless them in My name. You can do that, you know.*=

Akar's mental touch cringed for a moment, and Krashnark imagined his ears flattening. I'm not sure I'll be any good at that part...

=*You don't have to be fancy about it. Call on me, and you'll know what to do.*=

Well... I'll try.

=*Anything else?*=

Uh, yes. What should I do about Mathel? The, um, girl.

=*The one who was going to be sacrificed?*= Krashnark's mental voice had darkened, and he felt Akar flinch, but the hradani didn't withdraw. =*How is she?*=

Well enough. That bastard didn't have time to do anything serious, and, well, she's a hradani same as the rest of us; she's healing fine. We, ah, haven't been keeping her prisoner or anything, but she's still here. I don't think she wants to go home.

=*Ask her why not,*= the god suggested. =*If it's something you can put right, do it. If not, let her stay. I may have a task or two for her later.*=

----------

Conversation with Akar finished, Krashnark returned to considering his other temples.

Not one, he thought sourly. Not even one of those priests is a good match for me. A couple of the minor acolytes, certainly, there were one or two with a bit of a spark, and some of the worshippers had potential, but otherwise? Nothing!

I know I have potentials out there. Akar is proof enough, and four more of those hradani heard me even when I wasn't specifically speaking to them! So why are there hardly any potentials in the rest of my church? I used to find nearly all my Champions there! Was three hundred years of neglect really enough to change it that much?

What is so different now that worshippers who match me aren't coming to my church?

Thinking back, Krashnark tried to pinpoint anything that had changed. Is it that the wrong people have been manoeuvring themselves into positions of power? Are they making it less attractive to the mortals who match me?

They are the wrong people. My priests are no longer mine in any way that matters. And yet... looking back, they're just like the ones I used to have. The ones that bored me, even though they did match me.

So the church hasn't changed that much, but... the mortals who match me have?!

* * * * *

By mid-morning, Wufei was already bored.

Nataku was as well hidden as he could manage, lying down in a dip with camouflage netting and cut brush arranged over her; it wasn't going to be as effective against close-range observation as it had been in the past against satellite photography and air searches, but it would do well enough so long as nobody actually walked right up to her. The port city on Marfang Island was interesting to watch for a while, but he didn't dare observe it too closely in case, as Arwen had said, some lookout with a good spyglass was checking this stretch of coast for lurking hradani raiders. This left him with nothing to do except take a short walk in the Shipwood -- short, because he didn't want to either get too far from Nataku or discover that today was the day foresters picked to select a new area to gather timber from -- and there was only so much to look at in old-growth forest with limited underbrush.

He also hadn't thought to inquire whether or not there was a local equivalent of poison ivy, and didn't want to find out there was by pushing through a stand of it. Just because he hadn't run into it yet didn't mean it wasn't there.

Rubbing sticky sap from his fingers, he checked Nataku's camouflage for the third time before reluctantly concluding that he couldn't do much to improve it. He turned away to make yet another circuit of the little mini-valley, and suddenly found his mouth watering at a faint, tangy scent.

...Citrus? It wasn't quite lemon, or grapefruit, but something in between.

Come to think of it, he hadn't had anything like citrus since he'd arrived in this world.

I can always consider this scurvy prevention, he decided, and set off to track down the smell.

----------

I wonder if there used to be a garden here? he thought, sizing up his discovery twenty minutes later. That was certainly a possible explanation for why half a dozen of the small, shrubby trees were clustered together in the same area, but on the other hand they were completely surrounded by huge hardwoods that had obviously been there for a long, long time. Or perhaps a bird ate some fruit and spread the seeds. I suppose it doesn't really matter.

What did matter was that although he didn't recognise the fruit studded along the thorny branches, they were clearly some sort of citrus. They looked a little like small limes, peeled like mandarins, segmented easily, and when he cautiously tasted a little of the juice he decided that the flavour was rather like pink grapefruit shot with lemon.

I could definitely get to like these, he decided, finishing the first one and taking off his shirt to use as a makeshift bag. I hope they're commonly grown! I'll take all the ripe ones just in case, though -- I'd kick myself if I passed up the chance and it turns out they're not popular.

Moving around to pick from the other side of the first tree, he stopped to check an area where several parallel cuts had been made in the bark. Sap had dribbled down to congeal in a sticky mass, and it looked as if globs of it had been scraped away.

Knife cuts, not claw marks, he decided, tentatively feeling at the dribbled sap. This has mostly hardened, sealing the cuts; I don't know how long that takes, but I would guess at least several days. I don't see any tracks. Why would someone collect sap from a citrus tree, though? Is it used for medicine? The only parallels he could think of were willow bark, used for the aspirin-like painkiller found in it, and opium farming.

Opium's definitely not citrus, though, he thought dryly. Sniffing carefully at the pungent sap -- which was probably how he'd found the trees in the first place, he realised -- he eventually shrugged, giving up on the puzzle for now. All I smell is citrus. I'd think it was children playing some sort of game, or gathering sap to use as chewing gum, if these weren't out in the middle of nowhere!

I'll ask Karthan and the others later.

* * * * *

"S? Is your boy bothering you about this ridiculous idea, too?"

"It's not exactly ridiculous," S protested, looking up from his computer. "We did tell them we could probably duplicate the effect, you know."

J snorted, crossing his arms. "Just because we can do it doesn't mean it's a good idea! We also told them we couldn't duplicate whatever happened next."

"I get the distinct impression they're planning to 'wing it'," S said dryly.

"And you think it's a good idea to let them?"

"No."

"Then why are you helping them?!"

S sighed, turning away from his keyboard and giving J his full attention. "Because if I don't help them, they're fully capable of trying to do this by themselves. Do you think they can build one of these things and time the energy surge precisely enough for it to work as intended?"

J snorted again. "Not a chance in a million."

"Which means they'll die." He met J's eyes for a long moment, until the other scientist looked away. "The best I can do for them is to make sure they understand all the risks -- which they do -- and then help them do whatever it is they choose. Well, they've chosen."

"But this is insane!" J burst out. "The absolute best that's going to happen is that they end up in a strange world, which won't be the one Chang is in, and have to deal with whatever they find with no allies, no support system, nothing! How is this a useful course of action?"

"At least they'll be doing something," S shrugged. "And... well, Trowa indicated they may have a way to track Chang."

J blinked. "Did he say what it was?"

"No."

"Then how are we supposed to set anything up to help them?!"

"I'm sure they'll let us know at some point."

"Which will probably be too late for us to incorporate whatever it is into the main design!" J huffed angrily, turning away. "I'm going to call Heero and give him a piece of my mind. Withholding critical information, he knows better--" The door slammed, cutting his mutters off.

S smiled gently, turning back to his computer. "Well, that got him back on task. Now for those power curve calculations..."

* * * * *

"Sis? Are you busy?"

Chemalka Orfressa looked towards the door of her quarters, and smothered a laugh as she saw her older brother peering in around the edge of it. "No, I've got nothing much happening right now. What is it, Korthrala?"

"What would you need to make the Saram River rise?"

"The Saram?" Chemalka's gaze went distant for a moment, then snapped back into focus. "It's not prone to flooding, and it's not due for another for a while yet. Why?"

"Um. I meant," Korthrala started again, "what would you neeeed, to make the Saram rise?"

"...Are you waggling your eyebrows at me?"

"Yes."

"What are-- oh, get in here, you look silly peeking around the door like that. Brother, are you actually trying to bribe me to warp weather patterns?!"

"Er... that depends. Would it work?" Korthrala looked sheepish.

"Sit," she told him, pointing commandingly to a chair that appeared out of nothing behind him. "And talk. What is so important that you need this river to flood for, hm?"

He sighed and sat, hands clasped between his knees. "One of My captains needs to get a message to Hurgrum, fast. He can't take the Spear river to get close to the city, because of the Purple Lords' embargo on foreign ships, so he's going up the Bellwater to the Saram."

"One of your captains?" she interrupted, surprised. "As in, a sea captain? He's taking a blue-water ship up the Saram?"

"See, you understand!" he said enthusiastically, gesturing. "The Saram isn't navigable by a keeled ship above Derm, it's got too many shallows, so when Evark finds that out he's going to have to make port at Derm and take Brandark cross-country. But that's too slow, and Brandark's really not well enough for a cart ride, so if you could just make the Saram flood a little..." He trailed off, looking at her hopefully.

"Korthrala, making the headwaters of the Saram navigable by a blue-water ship will take more than a little flood," she said dryly. "I'm not going to warp weather patterns over half of Norfressa for the next month and get Toragan angry at me for drowning one of his forests just to speed up one message!"

"But it's an important message!"

"What is it, then?"

"I don't know." At her look, he spread his hands. "Really! I don't know, exactly, just that it's something to do with Sharna. It's one of those ones where you can feel which mortal task is important but not why, you know?"

"I don't work with mortals, so no," she sighed.

He perked up suddenly. "Oh! And it's a Marfanger ship!"

"Which means?"

"It's kind of small, and it's got a shallow keel! It doesn't draw nearly as much water as most blue-water ships, so it really does need just a little flood, honest. Maybe not even a flood, just a -- a swell?"

It was Chemalka's turn to sigh. "Let me take another look," she told him, eyes going distant again as she examined weather patterns.

"Do you know which branch of the Upper Saram your captain is likely to take if he thinks they'll be navigable?" she asked eventually, still gazing off into the mists. "There are a couple of possibilities."

"Uh -- no," Korthrala admitted. "I don't do rivers much. He'll probably ask the locals about it."

"Hm. Well, I can do you a swell," she started, and he jumped up.

"Really? Thank you!"

"Just a swell!" she insisted, focussing on him. "And I'm only going to do it for part of the Upper Saram, so you're going to need to get word to him about which way to go. The rest is up to him; I hope he finds a good pilot!"

"He will!" he assured her, then paused. "Huh. I need to... hm..." His own eyes went distant, and he frowned. "He can't get there in time... um... she's busy... I don't have anyone in the right place inland. I might have to borrow one of Torframos's mortals again..."

"Isn't there somebody Father uses in Derm?" Chemalka asked, propping her chin on one hand. "I've heard Semkirk talk about him. Someone who can hear most of us?"

"In Derm--? Oh! Him!" Korthrala looked queasy. "I don't really want to use him..."

"Well, if you want to get your captain going up the right river, you might need to."

"Ugh. Oh well. Thanks so much, Chemalka!"

"Hold it," she said, stopping him before he could get out the door. "Now let's talk about that eyebrow-waggle implied bribe..."

* * * * *

"Kairic! Get in here!"

"Yes, my lord?"

By seeming to kill Lord Yithar's cousin Major Taihar -- and by being the only one of Yithar's guardsmen allowed to survive that mess -- Kairic had earned a promotion to head Yithar's personal guard. Even before his lord had picked up the emerald-hilted sword that he now carried everywhere, the human guardsman would have considered that a very mixed blessing; as things were now, he considered it a special miracle that he was still alive. He certainly didn't plan to keep his new position long enough to find out if it came with a raise.

"We need to head out," Yithar told him, staring out the window of his study with one hand on the hilt of his new sword. "South-west."

"Certainly, my lord. Did you have a particular destination in mind, or any specific preparations you would like made?"

"Not really," the half-elf said absently. "Just... that way. Bring everyone."

"Yes, my lord. I'll make the preparations and let you know as soon as we're ready to leave," Kairic murmured, bowing himself out.

That sword is giving the orders, he thought, hurrying down the stairs. Which means we'll be heading off to kill someone. Someone the Scorpion wants dead... so, a Champion, or a priest, or just someone who's caused Sharna enough trouble to get him mad. And that means Yithar probably wants all his guardsmen along to get in their way, and die, to make his job easier.

No thanks. I wasn't expecting to get a chance this soon, but now that I've got it I'm taking it!

"Lord Yithar does not wish to be disturbed," he said curtly to the guards flanking the bottom of the stairs.

"Yessir," they muttered, watching him go. Neither he nor Yithar had given any explanation for their return minus three guardsmen the day before, him because he hadn't been able to think of anything to say and Yithar... well, Yithar probably hadn't realised that anyone had noticed. Guardsmen were interchangeable, after all. As a result, all the other guards and half the servants were on edge.

Which should make this easier, he decided, and abruptly changed directions. Nobody's going to bother him to ask for confirmation of anything I choose to say.

Tyllar, the first of Yithar's guardsmen to die the day before, had actually been the only other guard Kairic had considered something of a friend; given that the easiest way to deflect their lord's temper was to redirect it to someone else, they tended to regard each other more as targets and enemies than comrades in arms.

...And that makes this a lot easier, Kairic thought grimly. There's only a couple of people I care about enough to warn.

"Ah, there you are, lad," the elderly cook said, eyes wary until she saw that he was alone. "Does his lordship want something?"

"Not at present, but there is something you need to do," he said pleasantly, heading straight past her into the massive pantry. "Come here for a moment, Alin, I need to explain the details..."

Alone in the dim, cool room, he turned to her, dropping his voice to a whisper. "I'm running, Alin, and you need to go too. It's not safe here any more. Have you got money?"

"A little, but-- Kairic, you know we can't leave!" Alin hissed. "We won't just have to dodge Himself, he'll have all his relatives and the army looking for us just out of spite! What in the world is going on?"

"He's got a new sword, Alin. He picked it up yesterday. It has a scorpion on it, Alin, that's what's going on, and that's why Tyllar and the others didn't come home with us last night. It's sending him after someone, and I don't think he can argue with it long enough to come after us himself, but staying here would be a really bad idea. You and your girls have to get out."

Alin had stiffened, eyes wide. "...You've seen it? It's not just a story?"

"It's real. Get out and go somewhere else, Alin; go anywhere. Just don't go south-west."

She was silent a moment, studying his eyes; then she nodded. "Himself gave me money for provisioning just last five-day," she whispered back. "That'll get us a good long way up the Spear. Do you need any?"

"I'll be fine." On impulse, he hugged her. "Go well, Alin."

"Go well," she choked out, hugging him back. "Lillinara light your path, Kairic, and bless you for warning us."

As he left, she was calling the two kitchenmaids to her. "Girls, come now, we need to go buy some things for the lord. Get the donkey cart and fetch your cloaks, hurry lass, he's in a bit of a bait..."

That's taken care of, he thought, feeling much better. She's a clever woman and the girls aren't fools either; they've got at least as good a chance as I do. Time to make the best of mine! Two remounts, travel light and fast, make the best time I can to... to... where? Not Bortalik. Not Marfang Island; whatever that sword is after, it's in that direction. Which way, then?

...North, he decided. Head out by the road to Bortalik, then once I'm out of sight swing north and head cross-country to Sindark. I'll decide where to next once I'm there; then I can buy passage down the Darkwater, or up towards Alfroma, or... anywhere, really. North first, though. I should be able to make a good few leagues before that twit realises it's taking me too long to get back to him.

* * * * *

//warning//

Wufei stirred in his sleep, wincing as one of his few remaining unhealed cuts stung. He was napping in the pilot's chair, trying to get some rest before nightfall, but there was something making his dreams uneasy...

//warning//

//danger//

//warning!//

"What?" he mumbled, stirring slightly.

//DANGER!//

He snapped awake, gasping. Instinct sent his hands flying, bringing screens to life and activating scans, searching for the threat and finding--

Nothing. The screens were blank.

"Ugh. Was I dreaming?" He relaxed slightly, rubbing at his eyes. It had seemed so clear for a moment...

//warning!//

"...Who's there?" he asked slowly, looking around. It's not Krashnark. I don't feel anyone watching me, but that was not my emotion!

//warning/danger/urgency//

"What sort of danger?"

//impatience/warning!//

"That's not helping! Danger from where?"

//frustration//

Wufei growled under his breath, bringing more of Nataku's systems active. I'll lose the camouflage net, but I'm not about to take the time to strike it properly. "You can't just show up and talk to me? Everyone else seems to!"

//frustration/amusement/frustration//

"Fine. How about this?" Sitting Nataku up, Wufei pointed directly north, then began swinging his hand slowly eastward.

As he pointed roughly east-north-east, the emotional surge came again.

//danger!//

"Is there another?"

//negation//

"Right. Thank you." Nataku! Long-range scan, on this bearing.

**UNIDENTIFIED ENERGY SOURCE**
**RANGE: 31.2 MILES**

Sharna. Something he's doing, anyway. Another demon?

Pulling clear of the camouflage, Nataku stood up and stepped out of the dip. About to turn towards the beach, Wufei hesitated, turning back towards the energy reading. If it's another demon, I should--

//NEGATION!/DANGER!//

"Gah! Don't do that!"

//apology/danger!//

"As Duo would say, 'Danger, Will Robinson, Danger!'" Wufei muttered, rubbing his abruptly-throbbing temples.

//affirmation/amusement//

"Heh, yes, he's-- wait. You know Duo?"

//affirmation// The emotional surge was startlingly matter-of-fact.

"...How?!"

//...//

//distance/connection/kinship//

"...This is ridiculous. Krashnark?!"

There was barely a pause before the answer. =*Yes?*=

"Who's talking to me?"

The tone of the reply was rather puzzled. =*What do you mean?*=

"Somebody, I assume a god, just woke me up and warned me about something Sharna is doing about ten leagues that way." Wufei pointed impatiently. "All I'm getting from them is emotion, though, and I don't have time for this. Who is it?"

=*...I should be able to tell if another god was speaking to you, and I don't--*=

//amusement//

=*--what?!*=

"That was rather my reaction too," Wufei said dryly. "Who's that?"

=*Orfressa?!*=

//affirmation//

//impatience/warning/danger//

=*Danger? What's my idiot brother up to?*=

"I was hoping you could tell me."

=*Let me--*= The mental connection hissed for a moment with anger-- and, Wufei realised with a start, a little fear. =*Ah. She's right, Wufei, you need to leave. That's... My little brother has broken a couple of rules to do that, and it's very dangerous.*=

"So I should just run away and leave whatever that is to do whatever Sharna wants?!"

=*That is a full-fledged Champion of Sharna, carrying a sword that is effectively a gateway straight to my brother. If it even scratches you -- or, I suspect, touches Nataku -- you will die, and I will not be able to protect you. I think it was originally aimed at someone else, but it's been repurposed to hunt you.*= Krashnark's tone lightened slightly. =*You really have pissed him off. In any case, since it's after you, it's... not exactly harmless to others, or even close to it, but the Champion shouldn't be able to spend much time playing around.*=

"How do I stop it?"

=*You don't. A Champion does, or preferably more than one. You run away. Please.*=

//agreement//

"Wonderful," Wufei muttered, turning Nataku towards the ocean. "Now I really have a lot to talk to Karthan about..."

----------

Karthan!

Fifteen leagues up the coast, on board the Osprey and heading north at speed, Karthan blinked. Yes? What is it, Wufei?

Can you get Uthmar and Arwen somewhere private to talk to them? Something -- multiple somethings -- just came up.

...I think so, yes. Give me a moment.

Spotting Uthmar first, Karthan headed in his direction as fast as he could, considering that the deck was on at least a fifteen-degree tilt and bucking up and down. Several of the Order's lay brothers were scattered around the railing, looking pale.

"Sir Uthmar?" he asked politely, nodding at the ship's captain in apology as he interrupted their quiet conversation. "Might I have a word with you and Sir Arwen in private?"

"In a--" Seeing his face, Uthmar cut himself off and frowned. "All right. Captain, is there somewhere we could go?"

"Aye, there's my cabin, but it's a bit low-ceilinged for even you," the halfling shrugged. "Or you could have your talk here, and my men and I will give you some room."

"Thank you. Sir Arwen!" the dwarf Champion bellowed.

"Coming!"

Once the human had joined them, Uthmar cocked his head to bring his fellow Champion down to dwarven head height, then looked at Karthan. "Well?"

"It's Wufei. One moment." Wufei?

Torframos needs to hear this.

Really? Eyebrows raised, Karthan passed that on.

"Huh. Torframos?" Arwen asked, glancing upwards. "Are you there?"

=*I am now,*= came the familiar voice out of nowhere, quieter than normal. =*I gather we're being subtle?*=

"Possibly," Karthan shrugged, rolling his eyes. He's here.

Will you lend me your voice and ears? This is going to take long enough even without you having to repeat everything both ways.

The way you've 'borrowed' before? All right.

From the others' point of view, Karthan blinked a couple of times, then straightened, expression shifting. "We have a problem," he said grimly, voice overlaid strangely with Wufei's tones. "Or rather, I have a problem, but you aren't going to like it either."

"What is it?" Uthmar asked, frowning again.

"In order? Sharna has a Champion ten leagues from where I am now. He or she is carrying a sword that Krashnark called a 'gateway', and is apparently tracking me. I have been told to run away, and am doing so, but judging from the commotion in the harbour I'm pretty sure at least one lookout from Marfang Island saw Nataku before I got underwater. And for the icing on the cake," he carried on, rolling right over Arwen as the human spat out an oath, "Orfressa delivered the original warning. From the way Krashnark reacted, I gather that's not usual? Oh-- and she knows Duo. Somehow. Even though I'm fairly sure he's still in the world I came from."

=*Grandma warned you?!*= Torframos squeaked. =*Father said she 'knew what she was doing', but she spoke to you?!*=

"Not in words, but I got the message all the same. Is this bad?"

Arwen swallowed, paling. "Well, we told you Orfressa doesn't notice mortals, but... sometimes she does, and when she does things can go very badly."

"Very," Uthmar agreed quietly, apparently chewing on a strand of his moustache. "This Champion of Sharna with a 'gateway' sword, though, what's that mean?"

Karthan/Wufei shrugged. "Krashnark said he broke some rules to make it. Frankly? Orfressa seems pleasant enough and certainly didn't do anything to me right away, so I'm far more worried about the sword."

=*As you should be,*= Torframos confirmed. =*G-Orfressa doesn't do anything without a good reason, whether the rest of us understand it or not. A sword that could be termed a 'gateway', though... there are only a couple of things I can think of that could be described that way, and they're bad.*=

"We should turn back then," Arwen said grimly. Uthmar nodded.

Torframos made a noncommittal noise. =*Perhaps,*= he said slowly.

"Perhaps?!" the human Champion yelped, then glanced around and lowered his voice again. "Torframos -- my lord -- something like this is what we're for!"

=*True. However, you're also needed up north, and if that sword is actually aimed at Wufei I don't want to bring him back within range of it. There are chapterhouses of at least three Orders in Bortalik, Arwen; you are not the only possible solution to this problem. --No, keep alert in case anything else is moving, but continue north. Now that I know about this Champion and the sword, My siblings and I can take steps.*=

* * * * *

"He's getting away!"

The guardsmen flanking the stairway exchanged nervous glances at the shriek of frustration and rage, then stiffened to attention as a door slammed open above them. Yithar ran down the stairs, taking two and three steps at a time, and slammed to a halt between them.

"Kairic? Kairic!" Panting, he glared around, then focussed abruptly on the guards. "Why aren't you getting ready to move out?!"

"Uh... my lord?"

"Where's Kairic?"

The guardsman swallowed, pointing towards the rear of the manor. "I don't know, my lord. He told us you didn't want to be disturbed, and went that way."

Yithar snarled. "Fine. You, both of you, get ready to leave. Horses, armour, all that sort of thing," he added, waving one hand dismissively; the other stayed clenched tight on the hilt of his sheathed sword. "Tell the others. Get my horse ready, and be quick about it. I'm going to go find Kairic."

But Kairic was nowhere to be found.

----------

By the time Major Rathan No'hai Taihar rode in through the gates of his cousin's manor, accompanied by a regiment of the Council's army, four priests, and a Champion of Lillinara, Yithar was gone. Half of his guard force had been ready to go when he came storming back from his futile search; the other half had still been saddling up or scrambling into their armour, and had been left behind.

"You say he went south-west?" Rathan asked again, glaring at the gatekeeper.

"Aye, sir. Well, a couple of points west of south-west to be precise," the human nodded. "He was in a right bait, too," the gatekeeper added, sizing up the major's mood and deciding that he was unlikely to be offended on his cousin's behalf. "Mad as a cut snake an' yelling about someone 'getting away'."

"Did he say who, exactly, he was after?"

"Not as such, sir." The gatekeeper scratched his chin. "Just 'hurry up, he's moving,' an' so on. He was in such a rush, first trying to find Kairic an' then going after whoever it was. None of 'em had remounts, so whoever he's after'd best not be far away, the way he was whipping 'em on."

"'Kairic'?"

"Himself's new guard commander, as of yesterday," the human shrugged. "Yeller-haired human, a bit taller than me. I dunno what happened yesterday, but the lord rode out with Kairic an' three others when he went to answer your message, sir, an' came back with just him."

"Ah." Rathan's eyes narrowed. "I believe I know the man. He's missing?"

"Aye. Rode out on the road to Bortalik about a candlemark before the lord started looking for him."

For the first time that day, Rathan smiled -- smirked, really. "Good to know he still has his wits about him."

----------

Riding back from the beach, Yithar had most of his attention on the mental conversation he was having. His guardsmen were straggling behind him, unwilling to approach him while he was in a bad mood, some gentling along horses that had strained legs or thrown shoes in their headlong rush to the coast over uneven ground.

=*Damn that demon! Slippery bastard,*= Sharna raged. =*I want him dead, curse it!*=

So do I! Yithar snarled back. There's only so many places he can go. We'll find him.

=*If you'd been faster getting on the road, instead of wasting time looking for that human--*=

You were the one yelling at me to not let Kairic get away!

=*You should have killed him yesterday! I said no witnesses!*=

Well if you weren't happy with me leaving him alive you should have said something then! You agreed with me that it would be convenient if I had a guard captain who knew what was going on. Besides--

=*Shut up. Just shut up.*=

Yithar fell silent, pouting. Sharna was silent too, and the half-elf rode along in both inner and outer silence for a few minutes.

=*Right,*= Sharna said eventually, calmer now. =*You need to prepare for a longer trip, and leave before that human can reach Bortalik and bring back forces to... 'deal' with you. Of course, he might not manage it.*=

What do you mean?

The god's voice positively sniggered. =*Half of the Council of Lords serve my sisters, or Fiendark, or me. If he talks to the wrong person first, they'll take care of him for us.*=

Yithar grinned nastily. Oh, I like that idea.

=*Best not depend on it,*= Sharna warned.

I won't. Still, even if he talks to the right person -- wrong person, from our point of view -- and convinces them that he's not either insane or lying, any force he can raise can't possibly make it back here from Bortalik until late tomorrow--

His tired horse lifted its head as they left the shade of the Shipwood's immense trees and moved onto the road. It knew it was close to familiar stables, warm grain and a rubdown from the grooms, and its stride lengthened as it turned towards home. Yithar's gaze lifted too, anticipating hot mulled wine and a bath.

"My lord?" one of his guardsmen asked tentatively, kneeing his mount forward to come within earshot. "Were you expecting your cousin? That's him, isn't it, with the army?"

Yithar's horse squealed as he hauled on the reins, staring in shock. Those were his cousin's banners, and a milling crowd of soldiers on horseback, light glinting off spearheads and swordhilts-- How? He was dead, I saw him, Kairic stabbed--

Kairic. Damn him for a traitorous bastard, Kairic faked it--

=*Move,*= Sharna said abruptly. =*Head north. Get off the road. There's a champion of Lillinara down there, and priests of Korthrala and Orr. I am not going to lose you and that sword because you hang about here gaping like a fool, get going north!*=

* * * * *

< < What's this nonsense about you having a way to track Chang? > >

Heero raised an eyebrow at Doctor J's image on his laptop, then turned back to the weight calculations the call had interrupted. "It's not nonsense."

< < Oh? Then why didn't you mention it before? > >

"It wasn't relevant." He grimaced inwardly as he heard the faint defensive note in his voice, knowing that J would hear it too.

< < Not relevant?! How is it not relevant? You're demanding we help blow you out of this universe, unleashing enough energy to destroy you if we get anything wrong, and you don't think telling us about something that might throw our calculations off is relevant? Whatever device you've MacGyvered up has got to be drawing sufficient power to potentially interfere-- > >

"It's not a device," Heero interrupted, pushing his notes away and turning back to the laptop. "Duo and Quatre can track Wufei."

The expected derision didn't come. Doctor J raised one eyebrow, mechanical eyes refocussing. < < Maxwell and Winner? Is this something to do with Winner's empathy? > > At Heero's dumbfounded look, he snorted. < < H quantified it scientifically years ago, it's not as if we're talking about some fake medium using cold reading to contact the dead on a broadcast show. So Maxwell has something similar? > >

Heero blinked. "Ah... sort of. He and Wufei have a link."

< < You've confirmed this? > >

"Quatre has..."

< < Hmph. Good enough, I suppose. I don't see how knowing where Chang ended up is supposed to help you get to the same universe as him, though. > >

"They've, uh, managed to communicate. We're planning to wait until after they talk again, and get Wufei to duplicate the conditions on his end that actually pulled him into that universe." Heero closed his mouth firmly, staring J down and almost daring him to demand further explanations. I am not going to tell him about gods stalking Wufei and 'needy' goddesses popping in to chat to Duo in the kitchen! It's surprising enough that he's willing to accept Quatre's empathy and Duo being linked to Wufei somehow...

J raised the other eyebrow this time. < < Managed to communicate? Hmm. Interesting. You know, if we'd just known this was going to happen we could have planned a series of experiments to determine the relative energy levels of the universes involved... hmm. > >

"If we'd known this was going to happen, it wouldn't have happened," Heero pointed out dryly.

< < Hah! True. > > J snorted again. < < Well. Fine. So we don't need to allow for some sort of Chang-sensor device in our calculations, good. Is there anything you're planning that we do need to allow for? > >

"Luggage?" Heero shrugged. "We have some rather extensive plans for things to take with us."

< < Going prepared? That's the most sensible thing you've said to me in weeks, > > J grumbled half-heartedly. < < All right, get us some mass and volume calculations as soon as you've worked them out and we'll determine the best way to arrange things. J out. > >

Heero breathed out a sigh of relief and leaned back in his chair as the com window closed. Phew. Duo's right, being truthful while not telling everything is harder than lying...

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