Oy vey, thanks to the plunnyjam and so on it's been over eight months since the last chapter of DoJ fought its way out of our heads. Sorry! If it's any consolation, it does look like the DoJ plot bunny has re-sharpened its teeth and is ready to get back to work on a regular basis...
AUTHORS: Mel and Christy, Pillaging Onnas Incorporated
WARNINGS: Yaoi, angst, sap, language, some OOC, AU...
PAIRINGS: 1x2, 3x4, 5x?
DISCLAIMER: We do not own ‘Gundam Wing’ and the ‘Oath of Swords’ series, or their characters. If we win the lottery we’ll look into buying the rights, n’kay? ;)
FEEDBACK: The more, the merrier!
APOLOGY: We apologise for the delay in writing this chapter; the damn characters insisted on doing things their way instead of ours. For example, Norfram wasn’t supposed to show up at all, but there he is, looking kinda like Balthier from Final Fantasy XII with longer hair. (Mee-yow
. He can stay.)
SECOND APOLOGY: Okay, this isn’t an apology, this is an excuse. The further
delay in writing this chapter has been due to the plunnyjam. If you’re not sure what that is, Mel bitched about it on her LJ a couple of times. Blame the plunnies, not us.
WUFEI: Weren’t you supposed to go after some Korean boy band for the onnas?
HEERO: Shhh! I’m hoping they forget about it.
WUFEI: That’s probably the most sensible course of action, but I’m surprised you’re willing to avoid a mission after accepting it...
HEERO: Given that the fate of the colonies does not
ride on the missions the crazy writers give us--
WUFEI: *mutter* Just the fate of their libidos, usually.
HEERO: --I’ve gotten a bit more flexible about dodging them since getting stuck here. Besides, they haven’t mentioned it since and I don’t think they’ve even watched any more videos of Shiny or Sunny or whatever the hell that band was called.
DUO: Shinee, with two E’s. Shame really, I was enjoying it. God only knows what they’ll switch to watching next.
KRASHNARK: Anime. Again. More of it. Mostly involving pretty boys, like that’s a surprise.
DUO: See, I was right! God knows. Well, a
KRASHNARK: Only because I saw Christy cackling like a loon over her latest order.
WUFEI: She’s buying more?! They’ve already got enough between them to last for years!
HEERO: If they watched it at a normal pace, maybe. Even animes with hundreds of episodes don’t last when you’re going through twenty a day and skipping the worse fillers.
DUO: Mel did take a while to finish Inuyasha, but then she’s guaranteed to watch any scene with Sesshoumaru in it at least twice, with frequent use of the pause button.
WUFEI: Where is Sesshoumaru, anyway?
HEERO: I’m hoping the wards they used to keep him and Schuldig here have worn off.
DUO: Better hope they haven’t.
DUO: Because if their beloved Fluffy-sama has escaped, they’re guaranteed to send you after him again... and there’s no way they’ll forget that
Demon of Justice
“I’m not doing this lying down.”
“Uh, guys? We have camouflage.”
Heero twisted away from his laptop to blink at Duo. Quatre and Trowa had almost identical bewildered expressions as they looked up from their low-voiced discussion at the other end of the room.
“Seriously, come look,” Duo said, beckoning from his post by the front window; the curtains were open a crack, letting him peer out through the sheers behind them without being seen from outside. “I think the gossip ladies decided to help out,” he added, leaning back in his chair to let Quatre see past him.
“Oh!” Quatre stared for a moment, then snickered. “Yes, that should make our house look more like a family home and less like a hideout...”
Heero walked to the other side of the window and shifted the curtain half an inch with one finger. It was a beautiful day outdoors, with the sort of brilliant sun and crisp blue sky that you only get in early autumn; a day that was a positive invitation to get outside and enjoy the weather with friends.
Half a dozen children were apparently doing just that in the driveway. Ranging in age from approximately eight to eleven, they had a bucket of sidewalk chalk and were starting to sketch out drawings on the concrete; three seemed to be discussing something cooperative.
All six were chewing happily on enormous home-made cookies.
“You think the gossip ladies bribed them to play here?” Heero asked, changing angles to study the red-brick house across the street. Five cats were visible in the screened-in porch, sunning themselves in anatomically unlikely poses, and Miss Neppy was settled comfortably in a deck chair with a drink and a book.
“Considering that those are all members of the group of kids who normally hang around their place playing with the cats, I do indeed think that,” Duo grinned. “It can’t hurt, at least.”
Miss Neppy didn’t move, but something about her seemed to tense, alerting Heero a few seconds before a nondescript dark blue sedan came into view. It was moving slowly, almost kerb-crawling, and the driver -- a man with, Heero was interested to note, possibly the most hideously manscaped sideburns he’d ever seen -- was scanning each house as he passed. The car prowled out of view towards the end of the cul-de-sac, then reappeared a minute later and passed in the other direction.
“Either they haven’t pinpointed our location yet, or that guy’s really good at hiding which house he’s actually interested in,” Duo noted coolly.
“They haven’t pinpointed us yet,” Trowa said flatly, turning back towards his seat. “Anyone good enough to disguise their interest that well would have better surveillance technique than re-running the ‘lost car’ scenario multiple times a day, and
“Oh come on Tro, be fair!” Duo snickered. “The guy shaves! Very carefully, and with fifteen different shaping tools, but he shaves!”
“Then he should shave more
. As in, all of it.”
* * * * *
“’Ware snag to port!” the cabin boy screamed from the bow, backing up the verbal warning with broad hand gestures. The unnatural circling winds that were keeping Chemalka’s storm in place were making the Wind Dancer
’s rigging sing, strange moaning noises that wavered up and down the scale and occasionally harmonised into chords, and his high-pitched voice was better at cutting through than anyone else’s. Evark had called the lookout down from the crow’s nest even before they sailed into the sheeting rain, then posted him in the bow with Kelov, peering into the dimness ahead for hazards. The black clouds overhead had plunged the landscape into deep twilight, though by rights it was early afternoon.
The howling winds were driving the Marfanger ship forward under less than a quarter of its normal sail, making slow progress against the rushing water. The river had risen inch by inch as they’d approached the storm, until now they were navigating as much by Kelov’s memory of landmarks and where the banks should
be as by sight; the lowlands were flooding, and this section was like a moving lake with the river’s normal channel marked out by two winding rows of half-submerged scrub willows.
“I hope that dwarf’s memory is as good as he thinks it is,” Holderman muttered, shielding his eyes from the rain as he glanced from side to side. The floating tree the boy had warned against spun in the eddies as it swept down Wind Dancer
’s port side, barely missing the hull as Evark shifted the wheel in tiny increments, and whirled away into the darkness behind them.
“I hope his memory is better
than he thinks it is,” Evark grunted, shifting the wheel back. “Or were you missing the fact that he’s not confident about this at all?”
“I was trying to ignore that bit,” Holderman sighed. “Seeing as how he’s only been over this part of the river twice, and so on.”
“I guess you wouldn’t like me to start talking about how we’ll be fine because the gods are with us?”
“The gods were with that damned idiot in Derm, but I don’t see you welcoming him on board for his company!”
“Ha!” Evark spat to one side, sodden moustache bristling. “It’s his company I was objecting to, not the gods’; they’re doing as well by us as they can, I think. The Lady of the Storm is giving us remarkably well-behaved winds, for one thing.”
“Aye, she is that.” Holderman squinted up into the rigging as the constant moaning changed pitch again, checking for any sign that something was about to give way for what felt like the thousandth time. The wind was strong enough to make him fear for the masts, but more importantly it was steady, blowing in one direction with only minor shifts in force and angle. Without that predictability, what they were trying -- sailing up a shallow, poorly-mapped river in flood conditions, aboard a ship that normally measured its manoeuvring room in miles instead of yards -- would have been impossible. As it was, it was ‘only’ fiendishly difficult.
“Makes a man wonder,” Evark said, sounding almost absent-minded, most of his attention clearly on the ship rather than what he was saying.
“About whether the gods were stirring the pot even before we realised,” the captain shrugged, breaking off to whistle a sharp command as one of the sail lines thrummed unpleasantly, straining. He relaxed fractionally as two crewmen loosened the over-tight rope, trimming the sail before anything gave way, and went on. “I’m not so sure any more that it was just chance that we were on the spot when Longlegs lit his signal fire. Any Marfanger ship would have done if all he needed was a rescue, but...” He frowned, shifting the wheel again in response to another signal from the watchers crouched in the bow.
“You’ve a point there,” Holderman mused. “I can’t think of more than three other captains who’d be willing to even try this, Marfangers or not, and I’d not wish to be on board with them if they did.”
Evark snorted. “Aye, me neither! Not that I’m thinking I’m so all-fired wonderful that no other captain could manage this--”
Holderman made a rude noise, and white teeth flashed as Evark grinned at him.
“--but I wouldn’t want to be here with a different ship, or a different crew. So, did
Foam Beard nudge things to put us in the right place at the right time, or was it luck?”
“Given that I didn’t know I was going to need you there before it happened, I certainly didn’t do any ‘nudging’,” Korthrala muttered, frowning at the scrying pool he was hunched over. Always more comfortable with watery imagery and focuses than the mirrors and windows his siblings used, he’d formed a large bowl full of seawater to watch the Wind Dancer
struggling upriver. “That doesn’t mean nobody did, though... hmm.”
he thought, flicking the inquiry out towards one of his younger brothers.
=*Are you poking around in Norfressa?*=
A mental laugh shivered down the connection between him and the Lord of Chance. =*No more than usual.*=
=*That isn’t a ‘no’,*=
Korthrala pointed out, grinning despite himself.
=*I’m always poking around in Norfressa, brother. You’ll have to be a little more specific than that. Poking what, exactly?*=
Korthrala opened the connection a little more, bringing a mental image of the situation he was watching up to where Norfram could ‘see’ it. =*One of My captains just pointed out that it was very lucky he was in the right place at the right time to pick up someone who needed exactly the sort of help he could provide. I didn’t set that up; did you?*=
Norfram’s reply was a little slow in coming. =*I... think I did, yes.*=
=*You ‘think’?! What do you mean, you ‘think’ you did?! Either you did or you didn’t!*=
There was a shimmer in the air, and Norfram stepped through. The younger god looked rather like one of the gamblers who prayed to him, dressed in fine embroidered linen and lace, and he absentmindedly rubbed his clean-shaven chin as he bent to study the image in Korthrala’s pool.
“I mean,” he said aloud, “that there are several people and situations that I’ve influenced recently, without knowing what I’m influencing them towards.” He turned his head, quirking a sardonic eyebrow at his brother. “I’ve been trying to give this captain of yours and his passenger good luck, but it’s been a bit tricky since I didn’t know what outcome would be
good. I gather it worked out?”
“So far, but please don’t stop yet... um. Why
Norfram’s mouth twitched, not quite a grimace or a smile. “Orfressa asked me to.”
“Korthrala, you know
Father doesn’t like you calling her that--”
“Why would Grandma be asking you to poke people?!”
“You make it sound so dirty,” Norfram murmured, definitely smirking now. “How should I know Orfressa’s motivations? You know how she is; we can’t actually talk
to her. She just let me know it was important.” He shrugged, straightening up. “It started a bit over four five-days ago, nearly a month really, when she wanted me to give very bad
luck to a priest of Sharna. Since then she’s been nudging me practically every candlemark! I’ve been juggling chance like a mad jester, and believe me the amount of work I’ve had to do to balance it all out has not been trivial. That demon Torframos is watching, a whole city full of hradani up north, your captain and that other hradani, assorted humans and dwarves... there’s a human down south in Purple Lord lands who’s used up a village’s worth of good luck in the last couple of days, and if I hadn’t managed to offset some of it by giving it to him in the form of opportune bad
luck he’d be paying for it in stubbed toes and lame horses for the rest of his life! She had me giving temporary good luck to a second priest of Sharna, too,” he mused thoughtfully, “but it whiplashed on him not long afterwards. I didn’t even have to tweak that part.”
“...Yikes,” was all Korthrala could think of to say.
“You’re so eloquent, brother.”
“Oh, shut up.” Korthrala tugged at his bristling red-brown beard, mock-scowling at Norfram. “And you said you weren’t poking around more than usual!”
“I’m not!” Norfram sniffed. “It’s just that most of what I’m doing is concentrated in a few areas right now. Quite a number of my most ardent devotees are feeling rather neglected at the moment,” he added sheepishly. “Most of what Orfressa’s asked for has been a lot harder than my usual efforts, too.”
Norfram formed a chair with a flick of thought and sat down, lounging elegantly with one fist propping up his chin. “Normally, I have a definite aim in mind when I shift chances,” he sighed, leaning over to watch the scrying pool again. “Gamblers ask for the right fall of the dice or turn of a card, and pay for it by, say, being unlucky in love. Your little captain there has double good luck with the wind and waves, since he’s getting a blessing from you as well as my finger in the pie.”
The sea-god’s scowl turned serious. “And how’s he paying for it? He has to somehow, right?”
“He gets into more than his fair share of trouble, both ashore and afloat. Given that he enjoys
said trouble, he doesn’t think of it as bad luck.” The younger god grinned, one lock of sandy brown hair falling over his forehead until he swept it back. “And since the good luck that had him in the right place to pick up your hradani also got him neck-deep into whatever mess Sharna’s stirring up, that’s balanced already -- more than balanced, really -- and I’m free to keep helping him out. He’s not likely to hit any snags or lose a mast on this run.”
“Good,” Korthrala almost growled. “So why’s it hard?”
“Because I didn’t know
he needed to meet up with your hradani, or that your hradani needed to meet the right ship!” Norfram explained in exasperated tones, throwing up his hands. “I thought your hradani just needed to find a
ship, and not bleed to death in the meantime, so imagine my surprise when a whacking great dose of good luck made him pass out and miss two ships going the right way. I can’t focus the chance when I don’t know what I’m aiming it at, so I have to throw a bigger warhammer to make sure I hit the target, so to speak. That human down south was fairly easy, because I knew he needed to not get caught; he needed to not get caught a lot of times, and there were several good trackers in the area, so it took a lot of nudging, but it was focussed nudges. He was even going the right way, so I didn’t have to do anything about that. On the other hand, when Orfressa wanted me to help that demon--!” He rolled his eyes. “I don’t think even she
knew what needed to happen! I pushed the probabilities around him as hard as I could towards ‘good results’, and in the end all that happened was that I affected his music twice!”
? And that worked?”
“Yes, it did. You don’t need to sound quite so incredulous, you know.”
Norfram relented, reaching out to thump his brother’s shoulder. “Never mind, I was fairly incredulous myself when it happened. I could feel everything tip over towards... well, towards a better future, so I know it worked somehow
, but damned if I know why it worked or what that better future involves.”
“I’m sure we’ll find out,” Korthrala grumbled half-heartedly, hunching forward to stare at the Wind Dancer
’s image again.
“Oh, we will,” Norfram said wryly. “And given that not even Father knows what Orfressa is doing some of the time, here’s hoping that we agree with her definition of what ‘better’ means, hey?”
Brandark bit off a heartfelt curse as the deck shuddered under his makeshift pallet, bringing every one of his half-healed wounds to his attention. The Wind Dancer
’s hull groaned and creaked, almost drowning out the eerie howl of the winds, and he swallowed another string of swear words as a frothing wave splashed up over the cabin’s single porthole.
“Far be it from me to cast aspersions on the sanity of a man who’s doing me an immense favour,” he said, struggling to keep his voice light, “but your captain is insane
Two of the wounded halflings sharing his sickroom laughed, sounding surprisingly unworried for people stuck on a ship that seemed to be in imminent danger of sinking. “Oh, he’s sane enough,” one told him cheerfully, bracing himself against the bunk above with his unbandaged leg. “He’s just Evark Pitchallow.”
“I’m sure that would make sense if I were from Marfang Island,” Brandark muttered, grabbing at the bulkhead as the deck pitched and he started to slide sideways.
“He’s the best,” the cheerful halfling shrugged. “The best Marfanger captain, which means the best ship captain on all the seas... which means he needs to keep provin’ it.”
“He don’t need to,” the halfling in the bunk above him disagreed. “He just wants
“Comes to the same thing in the end, dunnit?”
“’S more fun if yer doin’ it ‘cause you want to.” The top-bunk halfling leaned over to wink at Brandark, not seeming to care that one lurch of the ship in the wrong direction could catapult him out of his precarious perch. “An’ see, we’re the best Marfanger crew on the best Marfanger ship, so--”
“--So you’re the best of the best, and you’re proving it,” Brandark sighed.
“So you’ve got nothin’ to worry ‘bout! Get some sleep or somethin’, ain’t nothin’ gonna go wrong.”
?!” His voice cracked and he coughed, continuing at a lower volume. “Sleep? You seriously expect me to sleep through this?”
“You got somethin’ better to do?”
Marshalling his wits for a suitably scathing retort, Brandark paused as a quiet sound that had been going almost unnoticed, submerged under the louder and more worrying noises made by the ship and the storm, finally penetrated his awareness. The third of the four injured halflings sharing the cabin with him, occupying the top bunk on the other wall, was snoring
. Cocooned in blankets until the only part of him visible was a shock of near-white hair and two ivory horns, held secure by what looked like a small fishing net hooked across the front of his bunk, he was sound asleep.
“See?” the halfling Brandark was starting to think of as ‘top-bunk’ said, jerking his thumb in that direction. “Gurak’s got the right idea.”
“...I stand corrected,” the hradani said, clinging desperately to a beam with his one good hand as the pallet started to slide again. “It’s not just your captain. You’re all
Whatever reply the halflings might have made went unspoken as the ship shuddered again, harder this time. There was a long, low grinding noise from beneath them as its keel dragged across something, creaking rising to a crescendo as the hull flexed. The sleeping halfling -- Gurak -- had snapped upright revealing bandages across his forehead and one eye, one hand poised ready to unhook the netting across his bunk as he listened intently. The grinding was getting louder, Brandark’s hand was starting to cramp as he held himself in place and he could feel the ship slow down, starting to tip to one side--
A sharp whistle cut through all the other sounds, and feet thumped across the deck overhead. Ropes creaked, there was a sound like a giant whip cracking as a sail flapped, and the Wind Dancer
jerked forward again, sliding over whatever was making the grinding noise and away.
“What in Krahana’s deepest hells was that
“A ford,” Chihar said sourly from the doorway, eyes flicking from bunk to bunk and down to Brandark as he checked his patients. “All secure in here? Put your nets up, you morons!”
“Mmph,” Gurak commented indistinctly, disappearing back into his nest of blankets. “Di’ m’n a’ready...” His voice trailed off into renewed snores.
“Yes, well, good to see at least one of you has a functioning brain left even if he is the one who got hit in the head,” Chihar snapped, bending to grasp the folded quilts forming Brandark’s bed; the hradani suppressed a startled yelp as he tugged the pallet back into place in one smooth motion.
“I don’t have a net to put up,” he pointed out meekly.
“Yes you do, you just don’t know about it.” Chihar moved around and shoved again, driving the pallet against the wall, then yanked the outer edge up and produced a net seemingly out of nowhere. One edge fastened to small hooks countersunk in the floor, the other attached to similar hooks on the bulkhead, and Brandark found himself nearly as tightly cocooned as Gurak was. “Hm. That’ll keep you out from underfoot, big ‘un.” The surgeon slid one hand through the mesh, gentle fingers contrasting with his brusque voice as he checked Brandark’s temperature.
“How’s things on deck?” ‘top-bunk’ asked, behind his own net now and apparently trying to look as if it had been there from the start.
“Oh, the Captain’s having a fine
old time,” Chihar snorted, moving to check on the fourth halfling. The most badly hurt of the crew members injured in the battle with the cult ship, he’d been unconscious ever since, lying in the bunk underneath Gurak’s. Instead of a net, Chihar had slotted planks into the bunk rails, converting it into something like a deep cradle; now, he leaned over the padded edge, reaching to check his patient’s pulse as he kept talking. “We lost two sounding lines on snags looking for that Phrobus-cursed ford and the current’s strong enough that they’re not much use anyhow, so we’re back to having the lookouts trying to see through rain so thick it’s a vertical lake, but the Captain’s grinning fit to catch flying fish in his teeth... huh.” He stilled for a moment, then drew back, turning to go.
Brandark didn’t realise that Chihar had drawn the top blanket up over the other halfling’s face until the surgeon was nearly out the door.
“What was his name?” he asked quietly.
Chihar stopped without turning around, one hand on the doorjamb. “Vannar,” he replied, voice just as soft.
Brandark blinked. “I... if I hadn’t--”
“Vannar died quiet in his bunk, and he took at least three of those Sharna-kissing bastards out before they cut him down,” Chihar interrupted, shooting a fierce glare back over his shoulder. “You don’t get a much better death at sea; and he and Kaedir and Peross will be remembered. That’s what matters. Don’t waste your strength feeling sorry for him
, you big lunk! Feel sorry for anyone else who gets in our way!”
Almost against his will, Brandark’s mouth crooked up in a lopsided smile. “You know, I think you lot are going to get on just fine with the Horse Stealers. Can I watch?”
* * * * *
“I have to admit,” Wufei said flatly, “that this is quite possibly the most boring journey I’ve been on in my life.”
There was a sputter of laughter out of thin air, and he mock-scowled. “Well may you laugh! You aren’t stuck in a small metal box underwater with only two telepathic connections for company!”
=*It could be worse,*=
Krashnark’s rich voice said in the back of his mind, unsuccessfully suppressing laughter. =*You could be stuck in a small metal box underwater with Vaijon for company. He did volunteer, after all.*=
“It would at least mean I had three people to talk to,” Wufei pointed out.
=*Until you killed him.*=
“There is that.” He wriggled in his seat, briefly wishing that it could be configured to allow him to lean back. Or lean sideways, or slouch, or take any
position that wasn’t rigidly upright with perfect posture!
=*Surely you’ve been in situations before where you needed to... I believe ‘lay low’ is the term?*=
“Of course, but there was always something I could do
,” Wufei sighed, trying not to sound like he was whining. “I could monitor enemy communications, plan missions, hack into OZ bank accounts--”
“Steal money from the bad guys,” he translated dryly.
=*I thought we were talking about occasions where you had to remain hidden?*=
Wufei opened his mouth, considered how to start, and snorted. “Ah. That’s not an easy one to explain. It’s... a form of theft that you can do from a distance? Rather like... er... sending a letter that convinces the bank that the money is yours, only faster.”
=*I’ll take your word for it. I’m also a little surprised to find you condoning theft.*=
“While I don’t subscribe to the school of thought that says ‘All’s fair in love and war’, there are a few
things that aren’t crimes if you’re doing them to your enemy.”
“Well... loot, certainly.” Wufei smiled wryly. “Pillage tends to be taken from civilians.”
=*An important distinction.*=
There was a slight pause. =*Still bored?*=
And if you ask me that again, I’ll start asking if we’re there yet.”
=*A formidable threat,*=
“I’ve had Duo do it to me, too, so I know all sorts of refinements to make it worse, including ‘I need to pee’, half a dozen versions of ‘The Wheels On The Bus Go Round And Round’, and ‘Tie The Knot In Your Pyjamas’,” Wufei informed him, stretching. As he settled back into his seat, he ran his hands back over his hair, smoothing it into place and then tugging at his ponytail to keep it taut in a thoughtless gesture he did dozens of times a day.
His hair tie snapped, dropping a swathe of fine strands over his face.
“Pfleh!” Spitting hair out of his mouth, he raked it out of his eyes with both hands and scowled. “Lovely. Well, now I have something to do,” he grumbled, opening the nearest storage compartment and searching through it.
Twenty minutes later...
“I must have one
* * * * *
“Have we got the reinforcements onto the walls yet?” Arsham Churnazhson asked, shielding his eyes from the torrential rain as he stared up at the boiling clouds.
“Aye,” the messenger nodded, squinting upwards himself. “Your Highness,” he added in a hasty mumble, noticing the glares several army officers were sending his way.
“Never mind that,” Arsham told him, waving the title off. “What about the squads in the streets?”
“There’s been a bit more trouble there,” the shorter hradani admitted, a little nervously. “They’ve been running up against people who’ve been taken by the Rage, and, well...”
“And what?” the prince asked impatiently, scowling at him. “They’re losing the fights? Getting bogged down restraining them? What?”
“Falling into the Rage themselves, half the time,” the messenger shrugged. “They’re already worried, see. It doesn’t take much to tip ‘em over the edge.”
“Can’t blame ‘em,” one of the officers muttered, ears back and fists clenching as he stared upwards. There was a strained note to his voice that had the other hradani standing near him eyeing him warily.
“Doesn’t mean we’ve got the time to waste by giving in ourselves,” Arsham said firmly, reaching out to take his shoulder in a hard grip. He held it for a long, tense moment, then shook him. “You hear me, Ferak?”
The officer took a deep breath and looked away from the clouds, ears flicking partway up and back down again. “Aye, I hear you, but it’d be a lot easier if we could just find whatever Phrobus-cursed wizard or priest is doing
There was a rumble of agreement from everyone present, almost a snarl, and the prince grinned nastily. “Wouldn’t it just? Until we find out who’s doing this and what their game is, though, we need to concentrate on keeping Navahk secure and the people calm -- as calm as possible, at least,” he amended wryly. “We won’t be able to fight whoever’s behind this if we’ve all been taken by the Rage and run howling into the wilds, hey?”
“I hear you,” Ferak repeated, and Arsham released his shoulder with another, gentler shake.
“All right, then,” he went on, glancing upwards one more time before determinedly turning his face away from the churning storm. His ears dipped momentarily as lightning flashed across the sky, but otherwise he refused to react. “We need the steadiest men we’ve got ready to move the moment there’s any news--”
“Let’s hope they’re ready, then, because that looks like news on the way,” another officer snorted, jerking his chin towards the other side of the square they were assembled in. A uniformed hradani had just come into view, riding a lathered horse, and was headed in their direction at a fast trot.
“Prince Arsham?” he called, standing in his stirrups as he approached.
“Here!” Arsham beckoned him over. “What’s the word?”
“There’s a ship on the river,” the new messenger told him, gesturing vaguely northwards.
“In this weather?!” he couldn’t help exclaiming, ears tilting to odd angles. The officer who’d first spotted the horseman coming scowled.
“A boat on the damned river? What makes you think that’s worth the Prince’s time, you--”
“Not a boat,” the messenger interrupted. “A ship
. Got to be at least a chain and a half long, two masts an’ all! They’re headed east, going upriver.”
It was Arsham’s turn to interrupt, and the officer fell silent as his Prince’s hand touched his arm. “That sounds like an ocean ship,” he murmured. “Blue water. How in all of Krahana’s hells did they get this far up the Saram? There’s fords
“The river’s flooding pretty bad,” the messenger shrugged, raising his voice over another roll of thunder. “The ship’s sailing where the channel usually is, but the water’s up over a lot of farmland an’ suchlike, so I guess the fords’re drowned pretty deep. Without the storm they’d be stuck down at Derm,” he added.
As one, all the hradani present looked up at the black clouds overhead.
“...Right,” Arsham said grimly. “Somebody fetch my horse.”
“They’re halflings!” someone said incredulously, and Arsham snorted, shielding his eyes against the rain as he peered at the distant ship. He and his officers had waded their horses out to a low hill that still stood clear of the floodwaters, but were still far enough away from the slow-moving vessel to make him wish somebody had thought to bring a spyglass along.
“They are that,” he agreed. “Makes sense, really; I can’t think of anyone other than Marfang Island halflings who’d be brave enough to try what they’re doing. I can think of a few who’d be stupid
enough to try it,” he added thoughtfully, “but they wouldn’t succeed.”
“They’re still halflings
,” the other hradani grumbled mutinously, and he snorted again.
“Say that after you’ve tried raiding ‘em,” he suggested, smiling for a moment. “I hear it’ll get you a sore hide and not much loot, if any.”
“Think the storm is their doing?” someone else asked dubiously.
“...I don’t know,” Arsham admitted after a moment’s thought. “If it’s not them calling it, then it’s one hell of a coincidence that there’s an unnatural storm and a flood right when they want to head upriver, but... they’re Marfangers, and from what else
I hear, they hate wizards and dark sorcery nearly as much as we hradani do.”
“That don’t stop some of our people from messing with what they ought not to,” Ferak said, voice low and grim. “It wouldn’t surprise me too much to find that some Marfangers are fool enough to play with fire, too.”
“You have a point,” Arsham admitted, mouth twisting bitterly, and reined his horse around. “Let’s get back to higher ground before the water comes up any further and cuts us off.”
“What do we do about them?” another officer asked, jerking his head back towards the river.
“They’re not stopping, and damned if we can reach ‘em through all that, so there’s not much we can
do, is there? Set extra sentries and keep them supplied with horses in case they were just the start of something bigger. In the meantime, I have to get back and report to my father,” Arsham finished grimly, wiping rainwater off his face. If I can find him. And then I need to go talk to someone else, too...
* * * * *
“You know, Relena’s right,” Duo said out of nowhere.
“About what?” Heero asked absently, not looking up from the fifteenth revision of his mass/volume calculations.
“It is pretty damn weird that we’re accepting all this so easily,” the long-haired pilot shrugged, grinning at him across the table. “I mean, think about it! Gods? Magic? We’re planning a fucking traumatic evacuation from our own universe
, for crying out loud, and the biggest reaction any of us had to the idea was basically ‘Huh. Okay’,” he snickered.
Heero blinked, thinking about that, and then laughed. “I think my reaction also involved objecting to the idea you might get kidnapped, but otherwise you have a point,” he grinned back. “I certainly didn’t waste time arguing that it was impossible.”
“See? I think I know why, though. We never came out of Mission Mode.”
“Mission Mode?” Heero asked, pushing his laptop away and resting his chin on one hand, eyeing Duo curiously. “And what exactly is Mission Mode?”
“Thinking like you, actually,” Duo grinned. “Seriously! If you’re given a mission, what do you do?”
“...Is this a trick question?”
“No. Humour me.”
“I do it,” Heero shrugged.
“Exactly!” Duo waved one hand at the Japanese pilot. “You don’t waste time considering whether you should
do it, or wondering if there is actually a mission there to be done, or anything like that; you just work out how
, and then you go do it. You treat a lot of stuff in everyday life like that, too. Remember the bar fridge?” He snickered. “The rest of us do the same thing, but only with missions, not with anything else. Anyway, when Wufei disappeared, we all treated that like a mission -- ‘find him and get him back’ -- and when the war ended, we still had that ‘mission’ to take care of, so we stayed in that mindset.”
“But then the Doctors worked out what had happened,” Heero objected.
“Yeah, but we didn’t get any closure, did we? So, when we found out the rest of the details--”
“Gods, and magic, and a friendly alternate universe who ‘needs’ you,” he supplied obligingly.
“--yeah, that, we were still in Mission Mode, so we accepted the scenario as presented. No time wasted going ‘wait, what the fuck
?!’, we jumped straight to ‘how do we complete this mission?’ I.e., getting ourselves over there to join Wufei,” Duo concluded triumphantly, flinging his hands out to the sides.
“And thus we find ourselves here,” Trowa commented dryly from the doorway, “watching Sideburns Man drive up and down the street in assorted cars and calculating how many spare parts we can fit in a shipping container, instead of working out how to live as civilians. I can’t say I really mind.”
“Sideburns Dude is back? Again
?” Duo sighed, flopping dramatically onto the table.
“Persistent, isn’t he?”
Heero frowned. “It’s getting to the point where I think we should
move. Even if they haven’t pinpointed us yet, and I’m not so sure about that any more, having him out there six times a day is a serious hindrance. There’s still a few things we need to organise in person, and if we can’t leave the house--”
“We could ask the gossip ladies to do some of it,” Quatre suggested tentatively, poking his head around Trowa’s shoulder.
“I meant things like getting the Gundams ready!”
meant things like buying coffee and tea in bulk,” the blond pilot countered. “Actually, not even things like that, exactly
that. We can’t guarantee they’ll have coffee where we’re going, and do you honestly want to deal with Duo and me going through caffeine withdrawal?”
“I don’t want to deal with myself
going through caffeine withdrawal,” Trowa murmured thoughtfully.
“The Doctors and the Manguanacs can retrieve the Gundams from our last safe house and finish the repairs,” Quatre pointed out. “Howard is sorting out the spare parts for us and can deliver them directly to wherever the Doctors pick as a good, er, launch point. We’ve sorted out most of the money and trade goods, and my sisters are finishing the conversion of my personal assets to portable forms of wealth, which, again, the Manguanacs can pick up. All we
need to organise in person is our own personal gear, and mine is
going to include coffee. About a ton of it,” he finished determinedly.
“I’m with him,” Duo declared, sitting up. “Instant or beans, Q?”
“Both. Unroasted beans, too, because they keep a lot longer.”
“Uh. Quatre, dude, not to sound mean or anything, but... if you take green coffee, someone’s gonna have to roast it, and I know I
“I may not be able to cook,” Quatre sniffed, “but coffee is different. I can
roast coffee. In a pan, too,” he elaborated, “not anything that needs electricity, before you ask.”
Trowa raised his hand. “I can roast coffee over a campfire,” he said quietly, smiling at Quatre. “Between us I think we’ll be fine.”
“I’m outvoted, aren’t I?” Heero said dryly.
“Three to one!” Duo grinned.
“I concede. Still, are the gossip ladies going to be able to get that much unroasted coffee?”
“Miss Neppy is a coffee addict,” Trowa reminded him. “Even if she doesn’t roast her own, she probably knows where to buy it.”
“True, but I should probably ask my sisters to get the beans,” Quatre mused. “They can buy in bulk and hide it as a family purchase, or... I’m fairly sure Winner Enterprises owns something
that could plausibly need a lot of coffee on short notice. The tea, too. We can ask the gossip ladies to get the instant.”
“I repeat my question with a slight change. Are the gossip ladies going to be able to get that much instant coffee?” Heero asked. “And are the gossip ladies going to be able to transport
that much instant coffee?”
“You haven’t seen their second car,” Duo snickered. “Actually, sorry, that’s badly phrased. You haven’t seen their second form of transport. The Beast is not
“...’The Beast’?” Heero said faintly. “The gossip ladies own a vehicle called ‘The Beast’?”
“If it had bigger tyres, it’d be a monster truck,” Trowa snorted. “As it is, it’s ‘only’ a very large 4WD. They don’t drive it often, but they’re very proud of it; it’s everyone else who calls it The Beast.”
“I withdraw my objections,” he sighed. “Okay. Fine. The gossip ladies can get, and transport, sufficient instant coffee to satisfy everyone’s caffeine addictions. Got it. Just one more thing.”
transport that much instant coffee?!”
Quatre thought for a moment, then shrugged. “If we borrow The Beast, sure.”
When Heero and Quatre went to see them later that day, after Sideburns Man had cruised slowly up and down the cul-de-sac once more and was safely out of the way for at least half an hour, both Miss Immy and Miss Neppy were delighted to help.
“Of course we’ll get the coffee for you, dears,” Miss Neppy said, beaming at them. “And of course you can borrow the big car! It’ll do it good to be driven.”
“Thank you,” Quatre told her sincerely, patting one of the cats cruising around his ankles. “We do appreciate it.”
“What are neighbours for?” she asked vaguely, clearly expecting no answer.
“Is there anything else you’d like us to pick up for you while we’re shopping?” Miss Immy inquired, looking at Heero. “Tea? Food? First aid supplies?”
He opened his mouth to refuse, then found himself pausing to think. “...Rechargeable batteries?” he replied tentatively. “Duo was saying something about not having enough after all...”
“Certainly! What sizes, and how many?”
By the time they got out of the comfortable red-brick house (after checking, again, for Sideburns Man), the ladies had asked enough shrewd questions and made enough suggestions that their shopping list had expanded to cover a page and a half in Miss Immy’s cloth-covered notebook.
“I didn’t realise we still needed that much stuff,” Heero said, a little dazed.
“They must be really
good at packing for holidays,” Quatre agreed fervently.
“I was thinking interrogations, but you’re right.”
* * * * *
Hurgrum’s docks were a ramshackle affair by Marfang Island standards, clearly never expected to serve anything larger than a dinghy and mostly submerged under the risen waters, but they’d been built by Horse Stealer hradani -- and ones under the command of Prince Bahnak, at that, a man who was determined to drag his people up out of barbarism and into civilisation. Accordingly, they were solidly built, with massive timbers sunk deep in the riverbed, and had suffered no more damage than a loosened plank or two despite having been struck by at least one large tree during the flood.
The numerous halflings (and one dwarf) aboard the Wind Dancer
had an excellent view of their condition, because the rain cut off as if a giant watering can had finally emptied itself as they drew up alongside the logs sticking up out of the water. The wind dropped to barely a breeze, the dark clouds that had spun unnaturally overhead for most of a day and a night began to disperse, and wan shafts of mid-morning sunlight broke through to illuminate the soggy landscape.
“Well,” Evark said cynically, stripping water out of his moustache, “that
won’t make ‘em think we’re odd at all.”
“Oh, aye, and here I was thinking that we were going to blend right in,” Holderman said mildly. “There’s a disappointment for you.”
Evark gave him a fulminating look, then turned to Kelov, who was sagging against the rail, utterly exhausted by lack of sleep and unrelenting strain. “Well done!” he said more cheerfully, reaching up to slap the dwarf on the shoulder. “Damn well done, and I’ll be happy to have you on my ship any time. If we ever end up in this end of the world again, that is,” he added. “You never know.”
“I’d be happier knowing we were going to be able to get out
of this end of the world,” Holderman muttered, eyeing the logs that the Wind Dancer
’s crew had tied up to. Sticking up out of the floodwaters at the end of the short dock, each of them had a sort of tide-mark of mud and bits of debris on their upstream side, showing the highest point the water had risen to. There was already a small but visible gap between the bottom edge of the tide-marks and the water surface as it began to ebb.
“...I would too,” Evark admitted, following Holderman’s gaze. “I’m thinking the Lady of Storms won’t be as eager to raise a flood for the rescue of one small ship as she was for an important message. Still, we’ll work out what we can when we can and see what happens, eh?”
“I’d be very
happy if I was sure we were going to survive the next candlemark,” Kelov said abruptly, lifting his head to stare down the length of the submerged dock.
Holderman whistled, long and low. “...An’ we’ve been calling our passenger big,” he said eventually, eyeing the massive forms gathering at the water’s edge.
“Well, the Horse Stealers have this tendency to overdo everything,” a strained voice said from behind them, struggling to sound nonchalant. “Including growing.”
Brandark was leaning heavily on a pair of rough crutches, pale and sweating, right leg dragging limply behind him. Chihar was standing nearby, watching him with an expression of frustration on his face.
“I thought,” Evark said carefully, “that Chihar was going to organise a stretcher? In fact, I’m pretty sure we talked about this, and there wasn’t anything in there about you walking on your own, or crutches. Crutches that look like they started out as two of my boathooks, for that matter!”
“Oh, aye, they did, because the oars turned out to not be long enough,” Chihar said sarcastically. “And we did have that talk about a stretcher, but somebody here’s too stubborn for his own good, and it ain’t me.”
“Captain Pitchallow,” Brandark cut in, “thank you. Really. But it’s going to be bad enough when a Bloody Sword hradani walks into a pack of Horse Stealers and tells their prince and clan lord that one of his sons is dead. Killed, might I add, by a bunch of hradani from Navahk, which is where I’m
Evark absent-mindedly lifted a hand to twirl the end of his moustache, then wiped more water out of it instead as it squelched. “I’m not seeing how this ties in with you walking instead of accepting a ride on a stretcher?”
The hradani’s smile was completely humourless, ears twitching as if they wanted to lay flat against his head. “You’ve heard the saying, ‘I’m not taking this lying down’? Well, Captain, I’m not doing
this lying down. There’s at least half a chance they’re going to kill me, you know--”
And at least half of you is hoping they do,
Evark thought grimly, watching Brandark’s face.
“--and I’d rather die on my feet,” he finished, ruined left hand fumbling for a better grip on his crutch. “Shall we?”
Hurgrum was bigger than Brandark had expected.
He’d seen far larger towns in human and dwarven lands, of course, since setting out in Bahzell’s company; by the standards of the Empire of the Axe or the Empire of the Spear Hurgrum was small, and provincial, and woefully uncivilised. Still, coming back to hradani lands had led Brandark to expect a typical hradani city-state, and he’d based those expectations on Navahk.
Compared to Navahk, Hurgrum was a marvel. It had an actual sewer system and smelled more like woodsmoke than shit, for one thing; its buildings were mostly stone and brick, well-built and warm, not rickety wooden things that would burn down in winter when -- not if -- somebody’s lantern broke or their stove tipped over, for another. Most obvious, though, was the way the inhabitants stood and looked curiously at their little party of strangers, warily but unafraid, and even called questions to their escort.
called questions to their escort, to hradani guardsmen showing the symbols of the city’s Prince, instead of ducking their heads and hiding indoors to evade notice... something that would never happen in Navahk. Not now, not under Churnazh, and Brandark felt his ears flatten in shame.
My home is rotten to the core, now, and all I can do is hope that Bahnak leaves my father alive when he burns the rot out,
he thought sadly, struggling up the last hill towards the fortress-like ‘palace’. His leg burned, throbbing like the bone was on fire, and he hid a wince. Looks like I won’t live to see it, one way or another... and I’m glad, and isn’t that just a coward’s way to think of it?
“Now that’s a dark and dreary building,” Evark commented, and Brandark looked down at him, glad of the distraction. The tiny halfling captain had changed into his most flamboyant clothes before leaving the ship, and was dressed rather like Brandark at his best -- which meant he was far better dressed than Brandark now
, what with several months of travel and abandoned luggage behind the hradani.
“It’s a defensible building,” he explained, keeping his voice steady with an effort as his foot dragged over the cobblestones. “The Horse Stealers are closer to the Wind Plain and the Sothoii than any other hradani, and Hurgrum is near one of the easiest routes down from their territory. Raids occasionally make it this far.”
“The Sothoii raid you
?” Evark asked incredulously, and one of their listening escorts snorted.
“Everybody raids hradani,” he rumbled, deep voice sarcastic. “They’re thinking as how we don’t have any right to live, y’see, much less near their
precious homes and families, where we might take it into our heads to go massacring for no good reason at all, at all. So they raid us to make a point, like, and burn our homes and crops and massacre our
families. An’ then we’ve got nowt to eat, so we raid ‘em back an’ eat their horses,” he said wryly, “and they say ‘See? Savages, y’ can’t trust ‘em,’ and it all starts again.”
Evark looked him up and down, twirling his now-dry and freshly waxed moustache. “Would that be why you’re called ‘Horse Stealers’, then? I was thinking it was a bit odd, seeing as how you’re bigger than any horse I’ve ever seen could carry. Don’t the Sothoii have cows and suchlike for you to steal instead?”
Several of their escorts grinned, broad, nasty grins full of strong white teeth. “Oh, aye, they do, but there’s more good eating on a horse than on a sheep, y’see, and tastier than a cow if you’re used to it... and the Sothoii cosset their horses like babies, so it hurts
“Not to mention that ‘Cow Stealers’ just doesn’t have the same ring to it,” Brandark said through gritted teeth, setting off again.
The throne room was full of grim-faced hradani, fully armed and armoured, and as Brandark made his way slowly across the floor towards the dais at the other end he hoped, privately, that Evark and his crewmen would make it out even if things turned ugly and Brandark didn’t. He wasn’t in the habit of praying -- very few hradani were -- but surely Korthrala cared about Evark? He’d seen the trident pendant the little captain-dedicate wore, and Evark had said that Korthrala liked him
, even, so perhaps he would be heard if he tried?
He said Chesmirsa likes me too,
he thought, a little bitterly, but did she ever grant me a spark from her lamp? A touch of grace? A trace of true bardic talent, so that I could write a song better than doggerel -- hells, so that I could write a proper song for Bahzell... no. The gods don’t care. And if I was going to try prayer,
he added to himself, lifting his eyes to meet those of the grey-haired hradani on the throne, I should have started earlier...
Bahnak Karathson, Prince of Hurgrum and Lord of Clan Iron Axe, leaned forwards, staring down at Brandark with his ears pressed flat to his head. “Well then,” he said quietly, voice even deeper than Bahzell’s had been. “You’d be Brandark? Son of Brandark, of Navahk and the Raven Talon clan?”
“Yes,” Brandark nodded, standing as straight as he could. He didn’t bother with honorifics; Prince Churnazh might demand every bow and title he could squeeze out of his subjects, but Bahnak was as far different as you could get and still be the same race. “I’d say ‘formerly’ of Navahk and the Raven Talons, though, for it’s very surprised I’d be to find out Churnazh wants me back.”
“Oh, he wants you back all right!” Bahnak barked a laugh, sitting back. “Not in a friendly sort of way, if you get me, and not as a member of his clan, but he wants you back indeed; alive if possible, though he’ll take dead and nail your ears to the wall of his throne room if that’s all he can get, or so I’m told. That said, I take your meaning, and I won’t be calling you Raven Talon or Navahkian if you’d rather not.”
Brandark winced at that, and Bahnak’s expression sharpened. “Thinking twice about disavowing them, are you?”
“I never did or said any such thing,” Brandark snapped back, glaring. Armed hradani shifted, muttering, but Bahnak waved them down and Brandark ignored them. “It’s not the clan or the city I’ve a problem with, it’s the clan lord and the prince, not that he deserves either title! I’m a Bloody Sword and a Raven Talon and a Navahkian and I want to be proud
of it, but so long as he’s sitting on that throne I can’t be! So you feel free to call me Raven Talon if you like, and I’ll answer to it happily enough,” he finished, pushing some of the sudden anger back and forcing his ears up a bit, “but I’m thinking Churnazh’ll not appreciate it.”
“Oh, aye, he wouldn’t at that, would he?” There was the faintest suspicion of a twinkle in Bahnak’s eye for a moment. “Well then, Brandark, son of Brandark, of Navahk and the Raven Talons, it’s time we were putting aside what Black Churnazh would and wouldn’t appreciate, for I’m thinking that his likes and dislikes weren’t what you came all this way to be speaking to me about.”
“...No,” Brandark agreed, swallowing hard against a suddenly dry mouth. “It wasn’t.”
“Aye. And so I’m asking you to tell me true, lad.” Bahnak leaned forward again, and the room was deathly silent. “What has happened to my son?”
End chapter 40
MEL: Right! Everybody, in the lounge room, now! Mission!
[The inhabitants of Mel’s as-yet-unnamed house and Christy’s House of Bishounen Torment assemble with varying degrees of willingness and interest.]
CHRISTY: All right you lot, quit sulking! This mission is critical to your health and well-being!
CHRISTY: Because if you don’t complete it, we’ll make your lives a living hell.
HEERO: ...I thought it would be something like that.
MEL: You know us so well. Anyway! Since you’ve decided not to get us Shinee--
CHRISTY: Yes, we noticed, and we don’t really want them any more, so we’re letting you get away with it.
MEL: --we’re sending you after someone else. Several someone elses. We have a list.
CHRISTY: And we’re not going to let you skip out on this
mission, so don’t try.
MEL: They’re all from the same anime, so you should only have to make one trip. We’ll be providing you with special extra-strength wards to make the job a bit easier--
WUFEI: *suspiciously* Wait, you’re actually giving us tools?
MEL: --and we’re going to be sending Krashnark and Deathscythe with you as well--
WUFEI: And reinforcements?! How bad are these targets of yours?
CHRISTY: Gee, Wufei, you really don’t trust us, do you?
WUFEI: Should I?!
CHRISTY: Hell no.
MEL: Here’s the list!
[Wufei snatches it out of her hand, reads it, and goes pale.]
WUFEI: Oh hell no. I’ve seen
Bleach. I know
these characters! You picked the worst ones of the lot!
MEL: Oi! Hanatarou is nice!
WUFEI: You also want Grimmjow and Kenpachi! How are we supposed to survive
trying to catch Grimmjow and Kenpachi?! Never mind Ichigo and Renji and Hitsugaya, we won’t live to find them!
CHRISTY: That’s why we’re sending Krashnark and Deathscythe. They won’t let you die, and even if they do, ‘Scythe can fix that.
WUFEI: That is not reassuring, onna!
MEL: Shaddap and go fetch. And before you say ‘no’, just consider; which is worse? Almost certain death at the hands of massively powerful spirits, or us determined to make your lives hell?
HEERO: ...Can we at least take our Gundams?