Demon of Justice + Chapter 11 (cont)
We Couldn't Be That Lucky

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Following a Purple Lord around a half-burned grain field at night, stumbling over clods of earth while clouds of fine ash floated up and generously distributed themselves over his clothes, was not Karthan's idea of a good time. It wasn't Cameron's idea of a good time, either, but Karthan thought he had the worst of it.

"At least you're up high enough that the ash isn't going up your nose," he muttered, glaring up at the human. "And you won't have to brush it out of your beard, either-- haa*CHOO*!"

"I don't have a beard," Cameron pointed out.

"By point egzackly," the dwarf replied in a muffled voice, vigorously shaking his kerchief to get the ash off before mopping his runny nose.

"Console yourself with the thought that you're probably going to win those five coppers," his friend recommended, nodding towards Lord Yithar and lowering his voice even further. "His Annoying Lordship is staying well clear of the woods. Looks like cowardice has outweighed stupidity."

"Why couldn't he be coward enough to stay out of the fields, then?"

"Because--"

"--we couldn't be that lucky," they chorused, and grinned at each other; then Karthan sneezed again, and went back to grumbling as he dragged his kerchief out of his pocket again.

"Everybody back in the square NOW!" Uthmar roared from the village. "Order of Torframos, form line on the southern side! Armsmen, form line behind the Order! All noncombatants to the north end of the village and make ready to leave!"

There was a faint tremor through the ground underfoot, and all the torchbugs to the south of the village blinked out. Karthan and Cameron exchanged one eloquent glance in the dim moonlight, then lunged at Yithar.

"Who does that upstart commoner think he's fool-- EEYAH! What-- who-- put me down! I demand that you unhand me at once!"

"Would you rather stay here and get eaten by a demon, m'lord?" Cameron inquired politely, clamping Yithar's left arm to his side as he ran. Karthan's grip was a little inelegant, involving the slack material in the half-elf's breeches, but it did the job; Yithar's feet were scrabbling helplessly a few inches above the ground.

"The only demon in the area is straight ahead, you fools!" Yithar screeched, flailing around with his free arm and kicking frantically.

There was another jolt through the ground, strong enough to make several trees shudder and drop leaves, just as Yithar hooked one foot behind Cameron's knee and yanked hard. The combination was enough to send all three of them sprawling; Yithar scrambled up onto his hands and knees, spitting out ashes and dirt, took one look at Nataku's glowing green eyes rising above the village rooftops, and took off southwards like a hunted rabbit.

"Bloody hellfire -- Come back here, you blithering idiot!" Karthan bellowed, sprinting after him. Cameron limped in their wake, swearing about the pain in his wrenched knee.

"I'm not stayng here to be killed by your precious pet monsters!" the half-elf screamed, stumbling towards the dark forest. "I'm going to register a complaint with my cousin Taihar! He's in the army! And--" The breath went out of his body in a pained grunt as he tripped and fell, choking on ash. The ground shuddered again, pushing up into a low mound between him and the treeline, but he didn't see it; he had rolled over onto his back and was staring up at Nataku, stalking towards him with its right arm raised. A fanged head seemed to grow out of the end of it, replacing the hand, and it lashed out at him--

--passing over his head and plunging into the ground behind him, spraying him with clods of earth but not crushing him as he'd expected.

"It... only wanted to scare me?" he whimpered as Karthan skidded to a halt next to him. "It-- that-- that beast is dead, I swear I'll see it dead for this insult--"

Then the earth seemed to explode as something reared up out of the mound, shrieking like a damned soul, and a sudden stink told Karthan that the Purple Lord had done worse than wet his pants this time.

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Wufei struck with Nataku's dragon-arm again, driving the demon back a little further, trying to give the small figures in front of it time to get away. It was an indistinct, writhing mass, warbling on a half-dozen teeth-jarring notes. Thick tentacles tipped with circular, fang-filled mouths lashed out from the central mass, then seemed to be absorbed back into it, and the whole thing was glowing an unhealthy shade of green.

It doesn't seem to have any real shape, he thought, batting away several mouths and firing a short burst of anti-personnel fire into it from the gunports on Nataku's head; it absorbed the bullets without visible effect. I think a lot of it's still underground, too; I'll have to watch out for it bringing another section of itself up behind me...

In front of Nataku's feet, Karthan picked Yithar up and bodily threw him into Cameron's arms as the human came panting up, then pulled his axe off his back and started to back warily away, covering Cameron as he turned around and started running back to the village.

I'd rather he ran too,* Wufei thought, gritting his teeth as fangs struck Nataku's armour and scraped along it with a noise like giant fingernails on a blackboard, *but at least he's out of the way--

Green light seemed to well up out of the ground under Karthan's feet.

Shit! He can't see it! "Karthan! RUN!"

The dwarf shot a startled look upwards and leapt sideways just as a tentacle burst up out of the earth where he'd been standing. It struck him a glancing blow, staggering him, then lashed out and clubbed him to the ground. More green light began to appear in patches around him.

"TORFRAMOS!"

A glowing gold axe spun into view, slashed through the tentacle as it bent towards Karthan, and whirled back to Uthmar's hand as he came charging up. He was glowing golden too, blazing with energy, and the wounded tentacle shrank away into the ground as he approached.

Fifteen more tentacles, however, sprouted from the demon's body, and spots of green light were starting to appear all over the field.

Cameron and Yithar are well clear, Wufei thought hurriedly, squashing a brief ignoble regret that Yithar had gotten away without a scratch, and everyone else is staying well back. Whatever Uthmar is doing, he seems to be doing it well! But Karthan is not going to get clear.

The dwarf Champion was cutting down every tentacle that attacked him, and by the way the demon recoiled and screeched every time it was struck, it seemed as if the glowing axe was hurting it. It was also clear that Uthmar could see the green glow that showed where the demon was launching an attack from underground, because several times he slashed into the ground, driving tentacles back down before they could emerge. He was protecting Karthan as well as himself, and the other dwarf was trying to get to his feet, but Wufei didn't think he'd make it in time.

It didn't take more than a second for him to come to a decision.

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Struggling to breathe despite the pain in his back and side, Karthan heaved himself up onto his hands and knees. This would undoubtably be a very heroic way to die, he thought sourly (and a little light-headedly), but I really don't want my last act in this life to be saving that idiot Yithar!

<<Move,>> a deep, metallic voice snapped, and Nataku stepped towards him.

"I'm trying," Karthan wheezed, glaring up at the giant demon. Not so giant, actually, now that I've seen this other one, he thought, mind wandering dizzily. Is that Wufei or Nataku talking?

<<Uthmar, move,>> the voice repeated; then one hand swept the long metal staff off Nataku's back, slashing at the multitude of attacking tentacles and forcing them back for a moment -- just long enough for the other hand to swoop down and pick Karthan up. He had one brief, vertigo-inducing glimpse of the ground dropping away beneath him before he was deposited, reasonably gently, on a smooth metal slab.

"Karthan, in!" Wufei said urgently, beckoning from inside the... hole? cave? in Nataku's chest.

He's tied to the chair? Karthan thought, confused, crawling shakily into the offered shelter. He didn't trust his legs to support him, especially not with Nataku swaying and jolting as it fended off more attacks.

As soon as the dwarf was within reach, Wufei caught the back of his tunic and hauled him in, pulling him around behind the strange padded chair. "Hold," he commanded, then reached out and tapped something; the quality of the light changed, and when Karthan looked up he saw that a heavy metal door had closed over the entrance.

He had only a few moments to take in the strange surroundings -- green and yellow lights, and chirping noises, and strange windows that didn't seem to be looking out on the same view from one moment to the next -- before the small room tilted and shook violently, almost tearing him away from his grip on the back of the chair. Wufei spat out something that sounded like swear words as a section of lights abruptly turned red, and then the shriek of tearing metal came from somewhere nearby.

* * * * *

"I just twisted the damn thing," Duo insisted stubbornly as Sally carefully felt at his knee. "I don't need to-- OW!"

"Sorry," she said absent-mindedly, fingers probing around his kneecap. "You may have 'just twisted' it to begin with, Duo, but it's not 'just twisted' now. I'll bet you haven't been resting much, have you?"

"Well..."

"You definitely haven't been staying off your feet. How many times have you fallen over or hit it since the original injury?"

"Um... three. I think."

"This last time, he didn't just hit it; he twisted it as he went down," Heero added.

Standing up, Sally shot a sardonic glance at her patient. "You may all be tougher than any normal human has a right to be, but even you have to take it easy when you're injured! I think you've damaged the tendons in that knee, and maybe the cartilage as well, so I'm going to book you in for an MRI scan and x-rays. It's an outpatient procedure, so you won't have to stay at the hospital overnight," she added as Duo started to look even more mutinous. Unless it turns out that you need surgery...

Duo didn't actually agree, but he didn't argue any more either; he just hunched down underneath the covers and looked sulky. Heero found himself staring at Duo's mouth, remembering how he'd tasted when they kissed, wondering what it would feel like to kiss the pout away...

"--all right, Heero?"

"Huh?"

"I said," Sally drawled with exaggerated patience, "I can get Duo booked into the local hospital, no questions asked, early tomorrow morning. However, I can't arrange transport without making people curious. Can you handle that end of things?"

"Oh. Yeah. Fine," he stuttered.

She looked at him oddly, but didn't say anything more until she'd finished rebandaging Duo's knee and repacked her bag; then she shoved it into his hands and turned to the door. "You dragged me out here on my rostered day off, so you can carry that out to the car," she tossed over her shoulder. "See you tomorrow, Duo!"

"(mumble mumble) who had the bright idea to call her anyway (mumble mumble)," Duo bitched under his breath.

"All right, talk," Sally ordered Heero as soon as they were outside.

"...About what?"

"Heero, you waylaid me just outside Duo's door and muttered 'Don't mention Wufei'," she said acidly, opening the boot of the car for him to deposit her bag inside. "Did you honestly think I wouldn't want to find out why?"

He grimaced. "I could hope."

"Cough it up," she advised him. "The war is officially over, and it actually seems to be for real. This is a very odd time for Chang to... leave? Argue with the rest of you? Desert?"

"Vanish," Heero sighed, giving in to the inevitable.

"Ah. I see. Missing, presumed... what?"

"Quatre believes he's dead. Duo is extremely insistent that he's alive, and gets very upset when the subject is raised. I don't know what Trowa thinks, but he's not disagreeing with Quatre in public."

"What's your opinion?"

"I... am reserving judgement."

"In other words, you think Quatre's right but you don't want to upset Duo," she said, mouth twisting.

"No," he snapped, "I want more information before I make up my mind! I don't want to upset Duo, but I'm not going to lie to him." He snorted briefly. "That would piss him off worse than if I disagreed with him on this, I think."

"Well... I hope Duo's right," she sighed. "Keep me informed?"

"All right."

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It was roughly an hour later, after Heero had finally managed to cook breakfast, that Trowa heard his laptop beep and checked his mail.

"What is it?" Quatre asked, muting the TV and cutting off a reporter who was enthusing about the 'deep significance for future generations of today's historic events'.

"Go get Heero," Trowa replied, staring fixedly at the screen. "It's from the doctors... about Wufei."

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