Demon of Justice + Chapter 7 (cont)
I Can't Say

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Uthmardanharknar dihna' Shirkanath was working very hard to suppress a scowl as he watched the villagers scurry into the square under the eyes of Yithar's armsmen.

I like this arrogant young idiot less and less, the more I see of how he acts, he thought. Half this village's fields are stubble and ash, several men have bandages... they've clearly suffered an attack in the last few days, but does he care? No! His first thought is to get a drink! And then he pours it out on the ground because it's not as good as he gets in his own house.

He turned away from watching Yithar berate the bowing, apologising brewer with a faint sigh of relief as the two scouts returned. "Ah, Cameron, Karthan... what have you found?"

The human, Cameron, stepped forward and saluted. "Sir Uthmar, there's tracks all round the village; it looks like the thing was prowling in circles, then went off down the trail to the east."

"So it didn't come in and try for a meal? Lucky for them!" Uthmar mused.

"Well, that's certainly the way it looks, Sir, but..." Cameron flicked a quick glance around, then lowered his voice and leaned down nearer to the dwarf's ear. "I can't say for sure, Sir, but if it didn't seem stupid I'd almost swear the tracks to the west are older than the ones around the village and to the east. A couple of days older. It's hard to say, though; they all fall on hard ground and rock. That's strange, too; the thing never once wandered into the grain fields, didn't crush any bushes, even avoided thick grass! I spoke with Karthan, and he agrees with me. It's like it wanted to leave tracks, just not clear tracks. And--"

"And I for one would like to know what made _that_," Karthan muttered, nodding slightly towards the huge tree that shaded half of the square. "I noticed it just now, Sir; the bark on that tree is crushed all up this side. It's a fresh mark; I can smell the sap from here. Something heavy hit that tree, Sir, or leaned against it for a while."

"In-ter-es-ting," Uthmar purred, raising one eyebrow. "We'll see what these people say about it soon enough..."

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Wufei crept along behind the back wall of the smithy to the door and slipped inside.

I need a weapon... something a little less threatening than my sword. A little less deadly, too!* he thought, examining the piles of metal stock and other supplies stacked along the wall. *If I understood Naiya and the others correctly, these men are doing their duty; they have no way of knowing that I have no evil intent. If it comes to a fight, I don't want to kill them! And with my new strength, he grimaced, I have to be even more careful... ah! This should do. He pulled a long wood stave carefully out of its pile. Probably intended to be a spear shaft, but it should make an adequate bo staff.

Easing the door open, he slid out once more and went in search of a good place to observe from.

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"...and I don't mind telling you that we were all pretty scared, sirs," Royce stammered, twisting his cap between his hands, "but it went off before dawn and we've seen nor heard nothing of it since." He didn't have to fake nervousness; he was well aware of what could happen if anything went wrong, and the dwarf champion's stare was incredibly disconcerting.

"Let me see if I've got all this straight," Uthmar said, starting to pace. "This priest of Sharna and his men attacked the village, kidnapped three girls and sacrificed one to summon a demon. It broke loose and killed them all... but didn't harm the two remaining girls?"

"No, sir," Royce said earnestly. "Looked straight at them, it did, but never raised a finger to stop them when they ran away."

"The men who'd gone after the kidnappers met up with the girls, and all returned to the village--"

"Craven fools," Lord Yithar snorted. "Cowards!"

"Lord, sir, what else could they do?" Royce protested. "We've boar-spears, bows and logging axes as weapons, nothing more -- unless you count Cord's forgehammer," he added, jerking a thumb towards the blacksmith.

And that's another thing, Uthmar mused. What are two hradani doing in a human village, on a half-elf lord's land? Horse Stealer hradani, too, unless I miss my guess... what are they doing so far south?

"We were willing enough to go up against men," the headman continued. "But when the girls told 'em they were all dead, and a giant demon was loose... going up against something like that 'ud be suicide for folks like us! We knew someone would have felt the magic, so we just clung close to the village and prayed you'd reach us in time."

"Yet the demon got here first," Uthmar pointed out, "and you're all still alive."

"That's true, sir, and we can't offer an explanation for it... except... well, it had plenty of time to kill the girls, and it didn't. It could've killed us, and it didn't. What if it's not evil? I, ah, know that's a strange idea, but..."

"It killed that priest and his men fast enough!" one of Yithar's armsmen snorted.

"Well, yes, that it did... but they had it captive and were trying to enslave it. They did it a wrong. None of us ever did it a wrong, sir, and maybe that's why it never did us harm." Royce looked earnestly at Uthmar, twisting his cap so hard the dwarf almost expected to hear the leather tear. "Is that possible, Milord Champion, sir?"

"Anything's possible," Uthmar growled skeptically, "but a demon that's not evil doesn't seem very likely. I'd rather find out more before I make a judgement like that. To continue: that night you heard the demon walking all around the village, but it never came in?"

"That's as I've said, sir, yes."

"None of you saw it."

"No, sir."

"What's that, then?" Uthmar asked, pointing at the tree.

"Eh? I'm afraid I don't follow your meaning, sir..."

"That mark on the tree," the dwarf said, watching the headman closely. "The bark is damaged. What did that?"

"Eh?!" Royce blinked rapidly, swallowing as he looked from Uthmar to the tree and back again. Behind him, the other villagers shifted nervously and looked at each other. "That, ah, well, I... really can't say, m'lord. Sir."

That wasn't 'I don't know', the Champion thought grimly. That was 'I know perfectly well what caused that mark, but I really don't want to tell you'. This gets more and more interesting... hm. Are you there, Lord?

=*Yes,*= a deep voice said within his mind.

The signs back at the canyon were strange, Uthmar thought, pretending to study the tree. The altar had been very thoroughly destroyed and de-sanctified, but I couldn't tell what power had done it. And I don't feel anything 'wrong' from these villagers, but they're definitely hiding something. I don't know... it's far-fetched, but could someone have taken hostages and ordered them to lie to us? It looks like about the right number of people for this size village, but they needn't have taken many.

=*They seem to be doing their best 'not' to lie... or at least, to lie as little as possible,*= the voice mused. =*Keep asking questions. Events are developing.*=

Events? What events?!

A chuckle. =*Now, now, you know I can't tell you 'everything', Uthmar.*=

You've told me almost nothing! Torframos!

There was no answer; Uthmar growled softly and pinched the bridge of his nose, squeezing his eyes shut.

"Something wrong, milord?" Karthan asked softly.

"Our Lord is being more than usually cryptic at me," Uthmar muttered, turning back towards Royce. "Now then," he said, raising his voice, "I'd like to speak to the girls who were kidnapped."

"Certainly, m'lord Champion. That's Rami and Naiya... come on, girls, come forward..." Royce fretted at his cap as the girls stepped out of the crowd, Rami timidly clutching at Naiya's hand; he forced himself not to stare or grimace at the blonde girl. Gods help us if she doesn't remember what to do! One wrong word out of her mouth could kill us all -- she's far too likely to mention Wufei, or call Nataku by name--

Naiya bobbed a curtsy to the Champion, slightly hampered by the fact that Rami wouldn't let go. "What is it you want to know, sir?"

"I just want you both to tell me what happened when the priest--" He broke off as Rami began to sniffle, tears welling up in her huge blue eyes.

"He-he-he tied Dena up, and-and-and then he--" She took a shuddering breath, voice rising. "--he was going to kill us, they w-were going to-to-to-- PAPAAA~!" And she crumpled into a sobbing, hiccupping little heap on the ground.

Gwent rushed to her side, followed by his wife. "Rami! Rami, baby, Papa's here-- it's all right--" He turned beseechingly to Uthmar as his wife gathered Rami to her ample bosom. "Please, m'lord Champion, don't make her speak of it! She's our only living child, and she's always been a delicate little thing--"

Delicate, my left foot! Royce thought, nearly grinning in relief. She's healthy as a horse and about as bright, sometimes -- but at least she did the right thing this time! "It's true, sir," he said in a concerned voice, stepping forwards. "She's never been strong-willed, and she hasn't been able to speak of it without this happening. If it weren't for Naiya here, I don't think she would've made it back to us."

"Very well!" Uthmar said hastily, waving the little family away; he hid a sigh as they vanished back into the crowd and Rami's sobs subsided.

"What did you want, again, sir?" Naiya asked calmly, folding her hands in front of her.

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Wufei relaxed slightly, watching from behind the chimney of Cord and Naiya's house. Their roof was shingled, not thatched, which meant it was easier to climb, and the storeroom at the back had its own flat roof; if it looked like someone was about to walk around to somewhere he could be seen from, he could slide down, lie flat and remain hidden.

Things seem to be going well enough, he thought, watching Naiya gesture as she talked to the short... um...

He's not a human, and he certainly isn't a hradani like Cord, Wufei mused. Short and very broad, ears with slight points, thick beards... I might as well call those ones dwarves. And then there's the slim fop with the very pointy ears, Yithar; he's another type again. A slight, wry smile crossed his lips. Two new nonhuman races, and all I do is mentally catalogue them? All the surprises I've had lately are making me jaded.

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"What did you say?!" Yithar burst out angrily.

Naiya raised her chin stubbornly. "I said, m'lord, that I was scared... but I never felt _hreatened by the demon. And I don't believe it's evil."

"That is the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard!" he shouted, waving his riding crop. "It's a demon!"

"A moment, if you please, Lord Yithar," Uthmar cut in smoothly, raising a hand. "Would you mind explaining that, Naiya?"

"The demon could have killed me along with the priest, but it struck over me," she said determinedly. "It could have killed Rami and me both when it shot down the priest's men, but it didn't. It could have caught us as we ran, but it let us go! It looked right at us, m'lord, it knew we were there for the taking, and it never lifted a finger against us. I don't think things would've happened that way if he were evil?"

"'He'?" the Champion repeated; she flushed, clasping her hands more tightly.

"Well, m'lord, I suppose... with it being shaped like a man, however big... 'he' seems appropriate."

"That's a good answer," Uthmar nodded, "but I can't help feeling there's something more to it."

"More... m'lord?"

"Yes. A lot of little things don't quite fit... the tracks around this village that aren't all the same age, for one thing."

Naiya stiffened. "Aren't they? Well, I... I'm sure I can't explain that, if it's true."

"And that makes two of you," he mused. "'I can't say' and 'I can't explain', not 'I don't know'. Can't or won't?"

"...Can't. Sir."

"Really? As you say. But there's still the way you and Goodman Royce seem determined to persuade me that a giant demon he's supposedly never seen isn't evil... there's that mark on the tree... and you call it 'he'. I can't help thinking that you know where that demon's gone," he said quietly.

There was a breathless pause; then, amazingly, Naiya smiled.

"As to that, m'lord Champion..." she said calmly, "...I really can't say."

"Oh, you'll say," Yithar said viciously, "and we'll find it! And then--"

"NO!"

"Jarad, no, come back here! JARAD!" a woman's voice shrieked as a small form hurtled out of the crowd, fists clenched.

"You leave them alone!" he howled, running towards Yithar. "Wufei's my friend! They're nice!"

Yithar lunged forwards and backhanded the boy across the face, knocking him to the ground. "You little piece of shit!" he hissed, raising his riding crop. "How dare you oppose me--"

*CRACK!*

He staggered back a step, gaping at the figure that had appeared out of nowhere. Wufei dropped the broken riding crop and spun his makeshift staff forward, stopping it with one end just touching the half-elf's throat.

"Is child," he said coldly, glaring into Yithar's terrified eyes. "Not hit!"

* * * * *

Quatre slid out of Wufei's room, closing the door silently behind him.

"I'm surprised," Trowa said quietly, standing up from where he'd been leaning against the wall. "You're letting Heero stay with him?"

The smaller boy smiled tiredly. "He's finally admitted how he feels -- to himself and to us -- so he won't hurt Duo on purpose; and he's so terrified of hurting Duo by accident that he'll be handling him like eggs. I think it's safe enough. Of course," he added, voice hardening, "if Duo wakes up and doesn't want him there, it'll be another story."

Trowa chuckled softly, shaking his head. "Cyclone Quatre," he whispered.

"What?"

"Nothing."

Trowa held his silence until they reached the kitchen, then stopped his lover with a gentle hand on his shoulder. "Quatre, what you said earlier... 'we should be celebrating the end of the war, or mourning Wufei'..." He swallowed. "Do you really believe he's dead?"

Quatre slumped slightly. "What other possibility is there, Trowa? We all saw the crater. OZ -- whatever's left of them -- doesn't seem to have him... and I haven't been able to feel him since."

"You said you didn't feel him die."

"Maybe... if it was fast enough... he didn't feel it, either." One trembling hand lifted to wipe at his eyes. "I h-hope so..."

Trowa pulled Quatre into his arms and held him close as he cried.

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