3: Down into the Dungeons

     "What's wrong?" Quatre looked searchingly at his tense lover, his hand straying instinctively towards his quiver.
     The bronze boy shook his head just barely, dark eyes scanning the surrounding trees as their horses clopped serenely down the dusty path. "I think we're being followed...something's not right."
     "I sensed them earlier," Heero said calmly over his shoulder, eyes straight ahead. "Goblins. Wait until I give the word."
     The two nodded, slowly readying their weapons, eyes flicking to and fro, muscles taut in readiness. Before them, their captain seemed cool and collected, not even bothering to reach for his sword, yet.
     Quatre cursed his fluctuating Gift for the millionth time. It was always fighting with him; sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn't. Heero was a powerful expert with his Gift, and Wufei was too much of the warrior not to know when he was being followed, but Quatre, though a good soldier, always felt a step behind the two in the critical moments before actual confrontation.
     His horse snorted, tossing its head and tensing beneath him, the scent of the goblins bothering him. Quatre loosened his grip on his bow to lean over and pat its neck, and that was when they struck.
     They leapt from the bushes howling like banshees, waving gangly arms and flashing blunt teeth in menacing snarls as they clutched at the manes and reins of the horses with long curving nails. Quatre's mount reacted instinctively, rearing on its hind legs and whinnying loudly, lashing out with its front hooves and catching one of the ugly creatures right in the head, crushing its skull instantly. Quatre lost his grip and tumbled to the ground with a yell, his bow clattering out of reach.
     One of the creatures turned from his horse, beady eyes narrowing under bushy brows as it advanced, slobbering and growling. The other two soldiers were too busy fighting off the rest of them to aid their companion. Scrambling backwards frantically on his hind end, the young blond reached inside for his Gift, entreating it to surface. It sputtered once, and died. His heart skipped a beat before the spark in him flared to life once more, and he seized control of it, throwing it through his fingertips at the creature that leapt towards him with a howl, ribbons of crackling yellow light twisting around the goblin and sending fatal jolts of electricity and Power through its thrashing body, its howls of pain cut short. It fell to the ground, charred fur smoldering, the breath gone from its lungs, and Quatre was already scrambling to his feet, whipping the long dagger from his belt and facing off the two other monsters that were circling him.
     His horse, trained to serve a soldier well, gave another shriek of terror and anger and lashed at the goblins with its hooves. One managed to dart out of harm's way, but the other suffered a shattered hip and screamed its agony, staggering away from the warhorse.
     "Quatre!" Polished steel sliced through flesh and bone like butter, blood spattering on the startled blonde's tunic as Wufei galloped to the rescue atop his own horse, face grim as he cut through the hissing creatures. Quatre hurriedly snatched up his bow.
     "Where the hell are they all coming from?" Wufei snarled as more and more of the ugly things poured from the bushes shrieking and howling.
     Heero's steed reared above the chaos, the stone-faced warrior riding him swinging his blade in precise, practiced moves, slicing off heads and limbs left and right, his commanding voice rising above the screams of the goblins. "There's too many of them. Retreat! We don't have the time or blood to waste on the likes of them. We must have stumbled into their territory."
     "Stupid vermin," Wufei growled, tossing his sword quickly to his left hand and reaching down with the other, seizing Quatre's wrist and hauling the slender boy up behind him in one powerful yank. Quatre almost slid off, grabbing frantically at his lover's waist as the soldier yelled and dug his heels into his mount, causing the horse to jump and tear off down the path like a bat out of hell, the other two horses galloping close behind, the entire tribe of goblins swarming afterwards, still yammering and screeching for blood.
     "Stay low, Quatre," Wufei called over his shoulder, and the blond obeyed quickly, huddling down behind the safety of his partner's back, arms entwined tightly around his waist, cheek pressed to his shoulder blades as he battled the resisting Power within him, trying to drag it out once more. This time, however, it refused to cooperate. Wufei swung his sword grimly, cutting down those goblins that had managed to catch up to him and were leaping up at his horse's sides.
     Heero glanced over his shoulder quickly at the main bunch of the goblins, eyes narrowing. They were persistent little bastards. There was no helping it, then. Glancing up to make sure the other two horses were sufficiently far ahead, he sheathed his sword and gave the reins a savage yank, forcing the horse to spin around, facing the coming goblins. As it reared in instinctive terror, Heero lifted his free hand, the other gripping the reins tightly, liquid words spilling from his lips, palm glowing with red light.
"Guardian of the forest, come to me;
Aid your servant and vanquish his enemies
In the name of Fire!"

     An enormous lightening bolt of pure crimson energy shot from his hand, slamming into the hoard of goblins and killing the majority of them swiftly and painfully, the scent of burned meat and sulfur as heavy on the air as the screams of agony and fury, the force of the blow scattering the bodies of those alive and dead left and right.
     Giving the smallest hint of a fierce grin, Heero twisted the reins once more, digging his heels into his stallion's flanks. "Yah!" It raced after its companions, leaving the burning bodies behind, the surrounding foliage blackened, leaving a mark on the landscape to show the passage of the warrior sorcerer.

     He caught up with them by a stream, their horses gulping the clear sweet water greedily as their riders wiped the lather from them with cloths. They looked up as their captain entered the small clearing.
     "Good going, Heero," Quatre praised, smiling and moving downstream to rinse off the cloth before tucking it back in his pack. "I guess we got too close to their dens."
     "Hn." The soldier dropped from his horse, leading it to the water and rummaging for his own cloth. "They won't be bothering us again."
     "Good thing," Wufei snorted, dipping his cloth in the stream and using it to slick the blood from his sword. "Those damn little vultures are like ticks."
     Heero unbuckled his sheath and withdrew the sword, frowning at the blood along its edge. He had been forced to sheath it when he'd done the spell. Blood could ruin a sheath. He followed Wufei's example after wiping off his own mount, glancing over as Quatre seated himself by the stream, pulling the cork from his canteen and dipping it into the lifesaving liquid.
     "So where to now, Heero?" the smaller mage looked around, thankful for the breather. "Any idea where he could have gone?"
     The captain frowned slightly, dunking his sheath in the water downstream as he squinted up at the treetops, probing with his Gift. "Defensive magic," he said finally. "At least three days old." He pointed to the east. "That direction."
     Wufei sighed, checking the flawless steel of his blade before pushing it into its sheath once more, the weight settling comfortably against his left hip as he crossed his arms over his chest. "Defensive magic, eh? Think the kid got jumped?"
     Heero shrugged, not looking up as he rinsed the sheath carefully. "Who knows. Plenty of dangers lurk in the woods. Goblins, bandits, Furies..."
     "The Plains are to the east," Quatre said, suddenly interrupting, worry marking his handsome features. "There isn't any water out there, and it's more than a day's journey to get to woodlands on the other side."
     "He'll be fine as long as he was smart enough to pack water," Wufei scoffed.
     "But if he was robbed-"
     "Enough." Heero rose, shaking the water from his sheath and hanging it carefully from his horse's saddle so it could dry. He took a long spare rag from his pack and wrapped his blade with it quickly, thrusting it into his belt. "We'd better get moving. Whatever happened, it probably slowed him down, and we have a better chance of catching up." He swung up into the saddle, careful not to prick himself with his sword point. His companions quickly followed his example, patting their horses' sides comfortingly before climbing aboard.


     He was restless once again.
     The monotonous tapping of pen against desk was beginning to drive him insane. Putting down the quill firmly, he pushed back his chair and rose from his desk, reaching into his drawer and pulling out a poisoned dagger, sliding it carefully into his boot. A walk would do him good. But he would have to slip past the guards. He could never relax when those lumbering fools were hounding him as if he would be murdered any second.
     Hn. As if he couldn't look after himself.
     Striding over to the wall, he lifted a large tapestry hanging there and revealed the hidden door. Glancing once over his shoulder, he opened it quickly and stepped inside, shutting it quietly behind him. Hilde wouldn't panic if she found him missing; she and Zechs were used to his disappearing acts by now.
     As he stepped silently through the dark winding tunnels that riddled the castle walls, he contemplated his situation.
     The General had ordered him to this province over a month ago on a mission, and still he had failed to discover the whereabouts of this "keystone" he'd made such a big deal about. What could possibly be so important about a little pebble, anyhow?
     He didn't realize he'd wandered so far down into the old castle depths until he noticed a sudden chill. Reaching out blindly, he finally encountered a trick latch and pushed it aside, nudging open the door carefully. He peeked out, glancing around, squinting in the gloom, the sputtering torches set in sconces doing little to light up the dreary hall. It had to be the dungeons. Aside from the cellar it was the deepest, chilliest part of the castle, even in the summertime.
     'How primitive,' he thought to himself, stepping from the secret tunnel and shutting the door behind him, glancing around to make sure there were no guards posted in the area he had appeared. This castle that he had taken over for the duration of his stay had been so old it had been abandoned even before he'd come in with the king's troops. Having the dungeon on the lower levels was a foolish, old-fashioned idea. Prisoners had been known to dig themselves out. Besides, it was closer to the front doors if someone managed to sneak in and rescue them. In the king's castle, his dungeons were wisely set in the highest, most unreachable towers. So far there had been no escapes.
     He looked around, unimpressed. The occasional cough of the few prisoners-the odd thief or fool who wouldn't pay the king's taxes -echoed in the air, accompanied by the slow drip of water coming from the ceiling, giving the whole place an almost eerie air.
     He turned away with the idea to seek out the library and try to find more on the elusive Stone he had been sent to find, but a low humming caught his ear, and he hesitated.
     He turned his head, straining his ears to catch the sound again.
     Someone was quietly humming some silly song or other. Strangely, it didn't sound forlorn or even pitiful; the kind of song you would expect a prisoner to sing. Instead, it was a bouncy, happy tune that piqued his curiosity. It was definitely coming from one of the cells.
     Tugging a torch from its place in the wall, he walked briskly down the stone corridor, searching for the sound, boots clapping brusquely on the damp floor. He heard the shuffle of wary prisoners shrinking back from the sound and the light, getting as far from their doors as possible.
     Perhaps they feared the guards? Well, prison guards were generally known to tease their captives, poking at them with swords and withholding food to amuse themselves.
     Or was it the Baron himself they were afraid of?
     If so, then with good cause.
     He halted at last before the correct cell, lifting the torch without warning to get a better view, peering into the dimness of the interior. Something in the darkest corner shifted, revealing a slim silhouette. Light reflected off dark eyes that rose boldly to meet his, white teeth flashing in a wide grin as the humming abruptly cut off, replaced with a cheery, masculine voice.
     "Oi, what's up, man? Are you the room service I called? It's about time. Do me a favor, buddy, do something about the rats. And bring me a nice t-bone steak while you're at it, there's a good boy."
     The Baron arched one sharp eyebrow. What gall.
     "Who do you think you're referring to, boy?" he demanded quietly but with authority. "Prisoners should be seen and not heard. I should have you caned for your impudence."
     "Ho, speaking of canes..." the boy dragged himself to his feet, straw rustling, his features still hidden in the shadows. The Baron thought he caught a glimpse of a braid. A boy with hair that long? "..Do you think you could lend me one?" the boy continued cheekily. "I wanna surprise a few of your friends, know what I mean?" He winked broadly.
     "Come into the light," his captor ordered firmly, lifting the torch higher, eyes narrowing.
     The boy paused, lowering his head slightly, the shadows of his ragged bangs hiding his burning eyes. "...Do I look like your slave?" he asked at last, his voice no longer teasing, but quiet and defiant.
     "You're not a very smart brat," the Baron observed, impatience tingeing his tone. "If you don't do as I tell you, you'll get only half a cane. I will have broken the other half over your back."
     Another hesitation, then finally the prisoner stepped forward, every motion shouting with grudging defiance and animosity.
     No wonder he had been so hard to see, with those black clothes. He must be a thief, the Baron decided quickly. Black was the color of thieves and assassins. That explained what he was doing here. Not that he cared. Yes, he had been right-that was a braid snaking down the back of the slender boy. The hair was dirty and a little matted, but looked to be chestnut brown. He was slim almost to the point of being scrawny-an unpleasing sight on any other boy, but an appealing one on this street rat. Still the bangs covered those defiant eyes, and the older man reached out unthinkingly, determined to see the rest of that pretty face, ignoring the full lips that twitched in warning as he caught the pointed chin with gloved fingers, jerking up the dirty face to finally look him in the eye.
     He almost dropped the torch.
     Eyes widening, he had released the boy and taken a step back before he knew what he was doing, the low laughter of the prisoner quickly helping him to regain his composure. "You have..."
     "What's wrong, yer holiness?" the boy sneered, violet eyes so like his own burning into him like twin flames, a window into his soul. "Your little lapdog bitch reacted a lot like you. Do my eyes bother you so much?"
     He stepped forward once more, leaning close to the bars, torch held up, eyes narrowing as their gazes held and locked, each equally fierce. "Who are you, boy? You can't be just another rat off the streets. Did someone send you to kill me?"
     "Me, an assassin?" the boy laughed harshly. "You insult me, Baron. Don't be so surprised. Who else could you be?" He tapped the side of his nose, winking. "You and I...we're two of a kind, ne? I've been told by the Elder that I'm a rarity. I've been treated like a freak by more than one superstitious villager. Becoming a thief was the only way I could survive." He laughed again, a mirthless sound. "But it looks like things have changed, eh? I don't seem to be the only violet-eyed beauty this side of the country...and I won't be doing any more thieving thanks to your stupid captain." He rolled his eyes, presenting his back and shrugging, crossing his arms over his chest nonchalantly. "I'll either rot in here or be hanged. Feh. Doesn't matter to me." He glanced over his shoulder and stuck his tongue out impudently. "Beehhh!! See if I care, Mr. High and Mighty!" He laughed wickedly, striding over to his corner, humming once more.
     How dare this whelp laugh at him and turn his back on him! "I didn't give you permission to-"
     "Yeah, yeah, whatever," the prisoner said airily, flapping a hand over his shoulder in dismissal, plopping down on the straw, hiding himself in the shadows again. "Don't get your eartails in a fizzy, old man."
     Old man??
     He glanced up, lowering his torch and fighting down his fury as a guard walked towards him, looking confused. He was probably wondering how his Baron had managed to get downstairs without him noticing. "Uh, everything all right, sir?" he inquired hesitatingly.
     "You, what is this boy's name?" he snapped, pointing.
     "Uh.." the larger man scratched his head for a minute. "I t'ink the kids called 'im Doo or somethin'..."
     "'Doo'?" His commander narrowed his eyes, repeating the name. "That's a stupid name. What kids?" he demanded.
     The big man shrugged, looking uncomfortable, not blind to the sour mood his Baron was in. "When we grabbed 'im a whole bunch o' kids started throwing rocks and shoutin' at us. Friends o' his, I guess."
     "'Doo'." The Baron said the name scornfully, his lip curling. "What kind of name is that?"
     "That's DUO, you friggin' numbskull," the boy in the cell shouted impatiently, leaping to the door and seizing the bars, glaring out at them in exasperation. "You big dummy, are you deaf? Where the fuck did DOO come from?! And what kind of retard hires stupid oafs like this?!"
     "Hey, you can't insult His Lordship like that!" the guard shouted angrily, rattling the bars with his spear threateningly, causing the boy to leap back to avoid getting impaled. "You're gonna get a beating for that, you scrawny little rat."
     "Try it!"
     "That's enough, you," the Baron snapped impatiently, slapping the spear aside and glaring at his startled henchman. "This one isn't to be harmed or killed without my express orders. If I am disobeyed in this, every guard will answer to me."
     "Hey, now, ojisan, why the sudden protectiveness, eh?" Duo lounged against the bars, arms dangling through as he grinned up wickedly at his captor. "How touching." He winked one eye slowly. "It's these eyes o' mine, ain't it? Yeah, they always attracted the bolder girls..."
     The Baron moved almost too quickly for the eye to follow, his free hand snapping out and seizing the boy by the throat in a tight grip.
     The boy's eyes flared as he gasped for breath, yanking his arms back inside and clawing uselessly at the gloved hand, staring wide-eyed into narrowed violet slits. "I don't know what you're hiding, brat, but don't think you can keep it from me. You aren't fooling anyone. It isn't everyday someone is born with your eyes. I intend to see what you're capable of." He released him suddenly, giving him a savage push that sent him stumbling backwards before he caught his balance, leaning over and coughing violently, pulling air greedily into his lungs.
     The Baron gave a small noise of scorn and turned away dismissively. "Keep him fed, but don't spoil the runt. I want him alive for questioning, and untouched. Keep an eye on this one."
     The guard saluted quickly. "Yes sir!"
     The man paused, glancing coolly over his shoulder at the wheezing prisoner. "Don't think you can get away with your bullshit around me, street rat," he said in tones of ice. "You'll regret it."
     Duo squinted up at him, breathing harshly for a few moments before the ghost of a smirk tugged at his lips. "How impolite..Baron. I gave you my name. Now give me yours."
     "It might make me more 'cooperative' if I know who my interrogator is," Duo added mockingly, but his steady gaze told he would not back down.
     "..." The older man's eyes narrowed slightly as he lowered the torch, the light and shadows playing with his crimson hair, turning it blood-red.
     "Very well, brat. But don't think you can call me by it."
     "Ran. Baron Fujiimiya Ran." A cold smile played on the man's pale face. "It would do you well to remember the name, child."
     He turned and disappeared into the shadows, leaving his prisoner behind under the suddenly wary eye of his guard.
     Duo sighed, leaning against the wall and raising his eyes to the ceiling. "Mou...It's gonna be harder than I thought to break outta this joint," he sighed loudly with a pout. "What an ice cube. Who stuck a mace up his ass?"
     "Hey, you," the guard snapped, banging his spear against the bars threateningly. "Keep quiet about the Baron, y'hear?"
     "Oh, go stuff yourself," the boy shot back lazily, not even favoring him with a look. "Hm," he continued to himself, "pity he's such a cold bastard, he's pretty for someone white as a vampire. What's he do, lock his royal ass in his office all day?"
     "Hey, are you listening to me??"
     "I was hopin' to charm him a liddle; maybe get his guard down and get outta this stinkin' place..." He raised a hand to his cheek, voice lowering. An image of narrowed violet eyes came back to him, and he shuddered in spite of himself. "Looks like he's got other plans for me, though," he murmured. "And I don't think I'm going to like them...."

To be continued...

To be continued...

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Ch. 1
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Ch. 6
Ch. 7
Ch. 8
Ch. 9