'Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.
'Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch!'
He took his vorpal sword in hand:
Long time the manxome foe he sought-
So rested he by the Tumtum tree,
And stood awhile in thought.
And, as in uffish thought he stood,
The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,
And burbled as it came!
One, two! One, two! And through and through
The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
He left it dead, and with its head
He went galumphing back.
'And hast thou slain the Jabberwock?
Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!'
He chortled in his joy.
'Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.
~ Lewis Carroll
PART I: The Assassin
Long ago, before people didn't believe in them anymore, there roamed the earth such creatures as dragons and unicorns, and even more wondrous things. Werewolves haunted the plains and forests, griffins and dragons claimed the mountains, and fairies settled down in gardens and woodlands in droves. They were everywhere, of course, but Man swarmed over the earth like a disease, destroying their homes and hunting them down until they were so few left, they faced extinction.
And so they fled to the one place they were safe; a place where for the most part the people accepted them as a part of the earth, and where the forests took them in with open arms. That place isn't there anymore, and it is believed to be a myth. It was a continent that was said to have sunk below the sea, dragging its inhabitants down with it. Scholars called it "Atlantis" and created stories about it.
But the people who lived there called it Ar'anthis, and had little to do with the rest of the world if they could help it. The five kings of Ar'anthis ruled the men, but no man ruled the creatures. Werewolves took themselves apart from man, and fell into their own packs. The men who first scraped out a life in the mountain eventually became servants and friends to the awesome creatures who lived there, and shared a strange connection with them. The fairies governed themselves in hidden glades and shadowed forests. And those men with strange abilities of sorcery or animal-speech were looked upon with mixed feelings of fear and respect, and were more often than not nomads.
Perhaps three hundred years before the continent mysteriously disappeared from the face of the earth, young Treize Kushrenada came to the throne of the southern kingdom of Virvarn, and he was a ruthless king who invested much of the land's taxes in the army until his people were broken and poor. The other kings saw this, but turned away when their appeals went ignored. What could they do? He was a powerful king, with the largest army on the continent. None dared oppose him. Those assassination attempts that were made were unsuccessful, and the people despaired of ever being free of the monarch. And then, twelve years after ascending the throne, Kushrenada's formidable army began seeping into neighboring lands, destroying any mythical creature in their path, claiming them an abomination. Villages were terrorized, and opposing armies were crushed.
In desperation the four remaining kings came together and made counsel, and decided something had to be done. Their armies would never defeat Kushrenada's skilled forces; the only surefire way to cease his rule was to kill the mad king himself. Attending the assembly with the human kings were others who were just as concerned for their own people: Illivar, the fairy king; Ash, a respected dragon lord whose mind was so linked with his dragon's that he seemed more beast than human sometimes; the fearsome Regarr, ambassador of the griffins; and a tall male satyr, the last of his kind, who called himself Pan and for reasons unknown to the kings, received the utmost respect from the other mythical representatives. Accompanying him was a large gray wolf with golden eyes who was afraid of no man and lay in the corner listening to all that was said.
This counsel spoke for three days in secrecy, and at the end of the third day reached some sort of decision and went their separate ways. The people of each kingdom, ignorant to what had been said and decided behind closed doors, hoped fervently for a miracle, and tensely began to prepare themselves for war.
And out into Ar'anthis went the most skilled trackers in search of a handful of men. The assassination of the mad king of Virvarn was at hand. And here our story begins.
“The Forest of Nas”
Duo Maxwell was the best at what he did.
So good, in fact, that very few living men knew of his very existence. Most who passed him saw only a slender young man in dark clothes, his golden-brown hair trailing behind him in a thick braid that reached nearly to the back of his knees, and a wide, charming smile that flashed below cheerful amethyst eyes. No one really knew where he lived, or if he lived anywhere at all. He seemed content to wander from town to town, kingdom to kingdom, staying perhaps for a month or two before moving on. He was cheerful, open, and sarcastic to the point of aggravation, and people liked him immediately. He was the type of boy who made girls giggle on passing, and housewives shake their heads with helpless and rueful affection. He was a fast-talking little thief who could charm the birds from the trees if he put his mind to it; young boys admired him greatly, and there were many girls who would happily tumble into the nearest bed with him if he so much as glanced their way. There was an air of mystery to him that made it exciting just to know him. No one knew who he was, really. Perhaps just a traveling fool, or a professional thief, even. Maybe even runaway royalty. It had happened before. Duo would just smile when he heard these whispered stories, and say nothing. He let them think what they would, and kept his alternate identity a secret from the people. He sold his services only to those who were very rich and could keep their mouths shut.
Duo was an assassin—the best there was. He never failed, and he could make it look like a complete accident or completely natural, depending on the request. His services cost his employers staggering amounts, but they seemed to think it was worth it. And none who hired him were foolish enough to give up his identity. Betrayers of the smiling assassin didn't live to see the next sunrise.
He was called the God of Death, and people shuddered at the name, telling horror stories of a huge man-monster who ate bad little children and could disappear like smoke on the breeze, leaving behind him the scent of blood and death. He was more of a bogey monster to the majority of the people, and that was just fine with him. During the day he was simply Duo Maxwell: charmer, thief, and vagabond. But at night, when he was employed, he became the God of Death.
This week he was on the outskirts of the eastern kingdom of Margeha, in a town called Harkins that he had drifted through a few times before. He had quite a reputation with the ladies, and a not-so-favorable reputation with the shop owners. He was not well-known in every place he visited, but he was fond of Harkins in his own way. Perhaps he saw it as more of a “home” than the dozens of other places he’d been before in his young life.
It had been a week since his last job. He sat at a familiar pub, sipping at his ale as he hunched over a table and told the wide-eyed youngsters seated around him of his encounter in the nearby forest of Nas with a fearsome werewolf, embellishing as he went along.
"There I was, lost and with only a dagger between me and certain death," he said in an eerily hushed voice. "It was the biggest Were I've ever seen. He had to be almost ten feet tall, with fangs like daggers and claws like hooks. He stood there on his hind legs and wouldn't let me pass."
The collection of children squirmed in delightful fear. "Were ya scared?" one of them gasped.
"'Course I was scared," Duo scoffed. "You'd be scared too!"
"Did 'e eat ya?" another little boy asked breathlessly.
His companion cuffed him irritably. "What do you think?" he demanded. "He's still here, ent he? Be quiet!"
"What did he do?" one little girl asked Duo with wide eyes.
Duo took a judicious sip from his ale. "I'll tell you what he did—he started telling me how he was going to carve me up into little pieces and feed me to his cubs. 'I'll give your liver to the youngest, and your arms to my oldest two, and I'll separate you among my cubs and eat your heart myself' he said."
The children gasped.
Duo leaned back in his chair, enjoying himself and watching the tavern girl out of the corner of his eye as she fluttered her lashes at him across the room. "So I'm scared, right, but I tell him 'You're going to have to fight for your food, werewolf!' and all the sudden he jumped me, and we started fighting, rolling around on the ground, steel against claw, blood and fur flying everywhere…"
"Who won?" the youngest of them squeaked, looking petrified.
"I did, of course," Duo said smugly. "I taught him a lesson he won't forget in a hurry. Word's prob'ly spread by now, and every Were within a hundred miles will be looking out for yours truly."
"How very interesting," a dry voice said from directly behind him. "You must be very brave."
Duo straightened quickly, twisting in his seat. His hand flew instinctively towards the dagger in his belt, his heart giving a little lurch of surprise. He was an expert at being silent, and of stalking even the quietest prey. No one snuck up on him without his knowing it.
No one human.
The man behind him wasn't very tall at all, but the muscles stood out on his crossed arms, and his vest was tight with the broadness of chest and back. He gazed down at Duo with steady gray eyes that seemed to bore right into him, and something about him was vaguely… off. Duo couldn't describe it in words; but he'd been close enough to enough non-humans to recognize one when he saw one.
"Please, continue," the stranger said, his tone level. "It was just getting interesting. Tell me, how big was this Were again?"
Duo gave a sick sort of smile. "Sorry, story time's over. Something to entertain the kiddies, you know."
"Nice talking with you. See you next time, kids. I've got some shopping to do." Duo was halfway out of his seat when the man laid a hand on his shoulder and pushed him firmly back down. The strength in that simple gesture made Duo groan inwardly in realization. Just his luck a grumpy werewolf would overhear his tall tale.
"Not so fast, thief," the man said in a low voice that was a little too close to a growl for comfort. "You're a hard man to find." He glanced at the confused children. "Story time is over," he said flatly. They scattered.
Duo pasted on a cheerful grin and took another swallow of his ale, trying to look nonchalant, his quick eyes ever on the lookout for an escape. "How can I help you?" he quipped.
The werewolf released him and sat down slowly beside him, never taking his eyes from the young man. "You're the God of Death, right? I'm just the messenger—with a job offer. You're to come with me to Nas Forest."
Duo glanced around quickly to make sure there was no one in hearing range before leaning forward slightly, pointing at the short Were warningly. "Keep it down," he muttered quietly. "Anyhow, what do werewolves need with an assassin? You can look after yourselves."
The man grunted. "This isn't a job specifically for the Were," he said shortly. "But it's very important. You'll be paid exceptionally well if you succeed."
"Really. I'm expensive, you know."
The Were's lip curled slightly. "We're aware of that," he said in disdain. "Do you agree to come with me? Everything will be explained to you in the forest."
Duo finished off his ale and pushed the mug aside, considering. "Forgive me for being overcautious," he said sardonically, "but how do I know I can trust you?"
The man reached into his pocket and tossed a small money pouch on the table. "He said you'd ask that," he sniffed. "I don't bother to pay people I'm going to kill." The smile he flashed was unpleasant and full of very white teeth.
Duo took the money and pocketed in one smooth movement. "All right," he said with a careless shrug. "Can't hurt to hear the deal, I suppose. Doesn't mean I'm taking the job, yet, though," he added quickly.
"I know." The man rose, and Duo also stood, tossing a couple coins onto the worn tabletop. "Let's go. They're waiting for us."
"By the way," Duo asked curiously as they stepped outside into the cool autumn afternoon, "how did you know who I was?"
"The smell of death trails behind you like a fog," the man answered, looking straight at him again with flat eyes. "The Were you encountered in Nas last week knew you immediately. When he found out we were looking for you, he offered up what he knew." His smile was small and tight. "His story was a little different from yours, as I recall."
Duo coughed, reaching for his horse's reins. "Let's get a move-on, shall we?" he suggested quickly.
They reached the outer fringes of Nas forest just as twilight was beginning to bleed all the shadows together. Duo reigned in his horse right before they entered the forest, and his guide, who had traveled on foot without seeming to tire at all, halted, peering up at him.
"What are you doing?"
Duo frowned, rubbing his mount's neck almost absently as the horse shied away from the man for the umpteenth time. "No one goes into Nas Forest after dark," he said stubbornly. "No one human, anyhow."
"You're with me," the stocky Were pointed out, flashing a quick, fierce grin.
"Point taken," Duo sighed, coaxing his horse to follow as their guide stepped without hesitation into the darkening forest.
Nas Forest was said to be to be the oldest forest on the entire continent. The trees there seemed almost to whisper to each other, rising up into the sky to staggering heights. After only the first few feet, there were so many roots, brush, low branches, and overgrowth that Duo was forced to dismount and lead his horse along. The forest was not one that readily welcomed man, yet at the same time did not see them as a threat. It had been there long before they had, and it would be there long after they were gone. Only non-humans could possibly live in Nas and belong, and Duo felt decidedly jumpy as he reluctantly followed the silent Were deeper into the dark forest, the feel of hidden eyes making his skin crawl.
After an hour of stumbling and bumbling, Duo was ready to complain to his gruff guide, but suddenly the Were came to a halt. He turned partially to make sure Duo was keeping up, and pointed ahead. "Look," he grunted. "He's sent someone to show us the rest of the way."
Duo peered ahead and caught a faint flicker of light bobbing towards them. He leveled an accusing look at the Were. "You mean you didn't know where we were going?" he demanded.
The Were's teeth flashed in a silent snarl. "I know my territory, human." Duo winced at the pointed emphasis on that last word. "No one goes into the fairies' glen without a guide."
"Fairies?" Duo asked sharply. "I was hired by fairies?" The idea was so ludicrous he almost laughed.
The new guide was closer now, and a soft voice spoke from the shadows cast by the strange upheld light. "This is the God of Death?"
"That's me," Duo said before the Were could speak up. "Who are you?"
"Watch your tongue, human," the Were growled angrily.
Duo opened his mouth for a sharp retort, then thought better of it.
"You can't blame him for being wary," the soft voice admonished the Were gently. "Leave us now. I can show him the way. Thank you for finding him for us."
The Were gave a brief nod, then melted into the shadows without a sound. Duo stared at the spot where he'd been a moment before, feeling his skin crawl. The light bobbed again, and he looked back up sharply, sliding his hand down towards his dagger.
The 'lantern' was nothing but a small cloud of fireflies, blinking erratically and casting a faint, uneven light. In this weak light Duo could finally see the face of his new guide. It was a boy, he realized with a start, only his own age, perhaps younger. He had delicate features, golden hair, and wide baby-blue eyes full of a bizarre mix of young innocence and a tranquility that was usually only found in the very old or very wise.
"Who are you?" Duo asked again, unthinkingly.
The boy gave a small, soft smile. "I'm your guide," he reminded Duo. "My name is Quatre." He held up a hand in invitation. "Are you ready? My people are waiting for you."
That threw Duo for a moment before he remembered all the tales he'd heard about the creatures of Nas. "So it's true that fairies can make themselves look like humans?" he asked hesitantly as he followed the young man through the forest. Oddly, his horse seemed undisturbed by the blond boy's presence; the very sight and scent of the Were had made him nervous, but he seemed quite content to trail after this boy. Duo wondered about that.
Quatre glanced over his shoulder to offer another small smile. "We can take the guise of man or beast as we see fit," he confirmed. "My father thought it might make you more comfortable if we looked human to you during your stay."
"Ah.. I'll have to thank him for that," Duo said with a rueful grin. "Thoughtful of him."
Quatre smiled again and fell silent. He led Duo through the forest for what felt like hours, until Duo was stumbling with weariness, fighting to keep his eyes open. At the very moment he felt sure he couldn't go another step, he saw lights up ahead, and forced himself to keep going.
The trees arched protectively over the fairy glen, and flitting among the branches, Duo could see strange shapes that were too large to be fireflies but too small to be birds. There were a few men and women standing around, who turned at his appearance without surprise, and one very tall figure talking to a man who seemed to have something wrong with his legs that Duo couldn't quite discern in the poor light with his tired eyes. Someone took his horse's reins from him, but before he could protest, Quatre took his hand and led him towards a tree.
Once there, he pushed Duo down gently but firmly, and Duo discovered that the moss under the tree was thick and soft. He lay down, feeling almost lethargic, and someone draped a rough but warm blanket of some kind over him. He felt more drugged than tired, and though he fought to stay alert, sleep was dragging at him inexorably. Everything felt like a dream, and every time he tried to focus on one thing, it made his head hurt.
"Sleep, Duo," a new voice said, and the tall figure was standing beside Quatre, gazing down at him. "We will talk in the morning."
Duo's eyes fluttered, then closed, and darkness rose up to meet him and carry him away from consciousness.
Sunlight filtering through the foliage overhead directly into his eyes finally woke him the next morning. He pushed aside the strange rough blanket and sat up, rubbing grumpily at his eyes to get the sleep out of them. The morning air was cool, and he shivered, pulling the blanket up around his shoulders as he looked around with a mixture of curiosity and trepidation.
It had to be several hours after dawn already, and the strange inhabitants of the glen were up and active. The tall, slim man from last night was sitting in a small circle of men and women on the soft, springy moss; they were deep in discussion. Duo recognized the Were from last night among them, but the other faces were new. After last night, he doubted rather seriously that any of them were human, and the thought made him shudder.
"You're awake." Quatre appeared at his side, smiling in a friendly manner. "We've been waiting for you," he said, offering a hand. "Go and sit by my father, and I'll get you some breakfast."
Without having to ask, Duo knew who the small blonde's father was, and nervously seated himself on the empty ground beside the tall man. He looked around at the gathered people warily, and kept his mouth shut for once.
"That's him?" A woman with an arrogant face and wiry arms stared boldly at Duo in an unnerving manner. There was a strange tribal tattoo on her tanned thigh. Were. Duo suppressed a shiver. "Doesn't look like much, does he? Isn't he a little young, Illivar?"
Duo scowled at her. "I'm seventeen," he said shortly.
The woman's laughter was a short, haughty bark of a noise.
The Were who had brought Duo to Nas grinned at a boy beside him who looked about Duo's age. "You seem to have shrunk in a week," he joked. "You were ten feet tall when this little pipsqueak so nobly kicked your ass. Have you heard the story yet?"
Duo recognized the boy with a jolt, and felt like throwing something at the older Were. This was the boy Were he'd run into last week; the one he'd told the story about.
The boy looked across at him with those cold, emotionless Prussian eyes that had so chilled him when they'd first run across each other. His shock of dark, unruly hair shadowed part of his face. He bore the same tattoo as the female on his right shoulder. Duo had been afraid the boy would grow angry at Duo's lies, but his face was devoid of feeling. "I remember him," he said shortly.
Duo forced on a watery grin. "Just trying to amuse the village brats," he explained a little lamely.
"His name is Heero," the tall man beside Duo said in way of introduction, and the little thief was suddenly very glad he was sitting so close to the fairy man. "He's from the biggest pack in Nas, and next in line to be alpha."
Duo stared at the quiet boy in surprise. "Alpha? Isn't that like pack leader—the top banana? Aren't you a little young for that kind of responsibility?" he demanded.
Heero's eyes were cold and flat as he gazed back at Duo. "You're a little young for your reputation," he pointed out.
Duo wisely decided to let it drop.
"What about the Prince?" a slender woman asked quietly, looking around. Duo assumed she was fairy.
Quatre's father shook his head, flicking a glance towards the Were as they suddenly bared their teeth. "He couldn't join us here. Pan has informed him of his task; he'll be picked up along the way." He tugged at his short, white beard, frowning at Heero. "I hope he knows what he's doing," he muttered almost to himself. "Sticking the two of them together."
Duo cleared his throat politely. "Uh, hey, I don't suppose you could tell me exactly what you need my services for?" He glanced around at the assembly. "I've never been hired by such, ah, unusual people before."
The tall fairy looked solemnly at Duo. "What would you say if I told you your kings have need of your services?"
Duo laughed mirthlessly. "I don't have a king," he scoffed. "I don't have a home, so I don't have a king. I go wherever I want." He flipped his braid over his shoulder. "But out of curiosity, what kings are we talking about?"
"The four human kings of Aragay, Silun, Orvia, and Margeha, of course," the impatient female Were snapped.
Duo's eyebrows shot up. "What do four kings need with me?" he demanded, then blinked. He laughed abruptly. "Everyone but 'king mad' from Virvarn, eh? Don't tell me they want me to kill him?"
"He catches on quick," his short Were acquaintance from Harkins said drolly. Heero remained silent.
Quatre's father nodded soberly. "Assassination attempts have been made before, of course," he said, "but they've all failed."
"Then what makes you think it'll succeed this time?" Duo asked with a quirky grin, already anticipating the response.
"Because you're the best," the fairy said simply. "They call you the God of Death. If anyone can do it, you should be able to." His eyes flicked towards Heero briefly. "You'll have companions, of course, to assist you in getting to Virvarn and actually getting into the castle. But it lies upon you to do the deed."
Duo hadn't missed the quick glance, and he leaned back on his hands, quirking a brow. "And why would non-humans be interested in Kushrenada's death?" he demanded. He felt a little more secure now that he knew they so obviously needed him alive.
"Kushrenada has convinced his army that we are all an abomination to their god." It was Quatre, scooting in between Duo and the female fairy. His face was sad. "His men are cutting down fairy, Were, griffin, and man without pause. If he manages to crush the people under his heel, our time is short on this earth. We'll be slaughtered." He offered Duo a wooden plate of unfamiliar food almost as an afterthought.
"I think I heard something like that," Duo agreed, eyeing his food warily. "It's almost some twisted new religion or something. Anything non-human being an affront to Porinfargeh, I mean."
"Is that what you believe now, as well?" the arrogant Were demanded, her eyes flinty as she gazed at him unblinkingly.
Duo shrugged, popping what looked like some kind of small fruit into his mouth. "I don't trust most non-humans," he admitted, "but the gods made you, too, didn't they?"
That seemed to satisfy the Were, and some of the defensive tenseness went out of her shoulders.
"So that is why we are concerned with this as well," Quatre's father said gravely. "And I am grateful that you seem to have at least some semblance of open-mindedness, because none of the companions we have chosen for you are what you would perhaps call completely human."
"Father," Quatre protested quietly.
Duo frowned at the tall man. "What is that supposed to mean?"
The fairy shrugged slightly. "There will be a Beast Mage with you," he said, "which is human enough, but not always looked upon as so by other men."
"Beast Mage?" Duo perked up just a little. "That's human," he said firmly, glad to hear that he wouldn't be completely surrounded by mythical creatures that might want to eat him. He already had a sinking suspicion that his companions would consist mostly of werewolves. "I knew a guy once who could talk to snakes," he added. "Weird guy, but I've met weirder."
"Good." The tall fairy laid a hand affectionately on Quatre's shoulder. "My son will also accompany you. He specifically asked for the job. His powers may come in handy, and I'm sure he will be able to keep a straight head in any situation."
Quatre smiled gently at Duo, and Duo couldn't resist his own answering grin. Quatre might not be human, but at least he seemed nice enough.
Heero spoke before the fairy could, his normally calm cold voice hiding a hint of disgust. "My alpha sent me," he said shortly.
"One of us had to join this motley crew, so why not send the biggest threat to his position, right?" the short Were agreed, his eyes also hard. Duo got the impression that the present alpha didn't have much respect from his pack members. Of course, volunteering his rival for leadership to go on a dangerous quest wasn't exactly the bravest thing to do.
Duo groaned inwardly. Of all the Were, why this stone-eyed boy? Especially one who might hold a grudge against him for telling false tales of their first, brief meeting.
"Heero will be a valuable companion," Quatre's father said, soothing Heero's ruffled fur just a little bit. "You should be proud to have him by your side. He is very strong, like all his kind, and highly respected besides."
Duo forced himself to nod. Heero barely even glanced at him.
"Go west through Nas when you leave here; there should be a man waiting for you outside the forest. His name is Ash," the tall fairy continued. "You will need an adult with a good head on his shoulders, and Ash is very capable. He is a dragon lord from a very highly-respected family among his people. Almost nobility, I suppose you could call him."
"A dragon lord?" Duo repeated, startled. "I thought the dragon tribes don't concern themselves with the rest of the world. They just stay on their mountains with their dragons and ignore everything on the ground. How could Kushrenada be a threat to dragons?"
A great sadness crept into the fairy's eyes.
"This boy asks too many questions," the female Were interrupted. She looked straight at Duo. "All that should concern you is the job we offer you," she said firmly. "We're hiring you to kill King Treize of Virvarn. Will you do it or won't you?"
Duo winced. "Sounds much more like it is- treason –when you put it like that," he muttered sourly. He blew out a great breath and shrugged. "Sounds like a challenge," he admitted with a quirky grin. "Never offed a king before." He leaned back on his hands and cocked his head. "You should know I'm expensive. It costs men a lot of money just for me to knock off a rich man who's mingling with the wrong crowd. Costs even more to slit a noble's throat. But the King of the South…" he chuckled humorlessly. "Well, that's going to cost you a pretty penny."
"We are prepared to pay the price," the tall fairy agreed calmly, "provided you get the job done."
"Oh, it'll get done," Duo chuckled. "It'll be difficult, but not impossible. Nothing's impossible for one of my caliber."
"Stop boasting. It's unbecoming," the female Were snapped.
"I'm not boasting," Duo said with a shrug. "I'm just stating the facts. I'm the only one who can do what you've asked me to do. Kushrenada's surrounded by guards 99 percent of the time, and even when he's alone, you have to keep in mind he's an excellent swordsman."
"Just get the job done," the Were snorted, looking away in disdain.
"Yeah, yeah, keep your panties on," Duo said cheekily, tasting a fried tuber from the plate Quatre had provided him. "I'll do the job. We'll discuss a price when I get back; I always take into account the trickiness and danger of a job before stating a price."
"Sounds fair," the fairy said with a nod. He rose to his feet with a fluid grace that secretly impressed the young assassin. "Then unless anyone else has something to say, I believe our friends should start out as soon as possible. It's a long way to the south kingdom."
The others also rose. The three Were inclined their heads towards Quatre's father, then drew away to talk with Heero. The other two who had been at the meeting drifted off to the rest of the fairies, and Quatre's father turned to gaze up at the tree he had been leaning against, eyes softening and lips moving slightly as if he were conversing with someone unseen.
Duo glanced at the petite fairy boy beside him with an arched brow, popping a raspberry in his mouth. "Your dad must be pretty important," he observed. "Even the 'wolves seem to respect him."
Quatre smiled and nodded, drawing his legs up and resting his chin on his knees. "He's the fairy king."
"Of the fairies," Quatre corrected calmly.
Duo's brows rose to his hairline, and he whistled softly. "Damn," he muttered. Then, "So that makes you a prince? A fairy prince?"
"That's right." Quatre might as well have been discussing the sky overhead, or the weather, for all the thought he seemed to give it. He wasn't boastful, and didn't put on airs. Duo gave him a couple more brownie points and decided firmly that he and Quatre were going to get along. "Was it true when you said you don't have a home?" Quatre asked curiously.
Duo shrugged carelessly, examining the contents of his plate and wishing there was meat. "Yeah. I just wander around wherever and whenever I want. It suits me just fine."
"Doesn't it bother you at all?" Quatre pressed, looking upset. "Not having a place to call home? Or even a family?"
Duo chewed on another tuber to stall, before answering reluctantly, "My parents and my brother Solo died a long time ago. I hardly remember them. Besides, who needs a home? I do just fine on my own, and I know all kinds of people all over the country."
Quatre's face was such a picture of dismay that it made Duo uncomfortable. He had suddenly lost his appetite. He bounced to his feet, dusting himself off and pasting on a grin. "Anyway," he declared briskly, "shouldn't we be getting ready to get a move-on? We've got a long way to go, as your dad said, and we have to meet this Ash guy besides."
Quatre stood with the same effortless grace as his father, nodding with something like trepidation flickering in his sky-blue eyes. "Just let me say goodbye first," he said hastily.
Duo nodded, and watched the small boy hurry over to a cluster of flickering forms in the trees. Duo knew they were fairies in their true form, but every time he tried to look directly at one and get a good look, it flitted out of immediate view too quickly to follow. Giving up, Duo began to stretch to limber up, and looked around for his horse. He finally spotted the nervous stallion tied to a nearby tree, watching the three Were with wide eyes, his nostrils flaring. Duo walked over and laid a comforting hand on the horse's neck. "Don't worry, old boy, I'll make sure they don't eat you," he murmured, shooting a quick glance towards the three. "I'm not too happy about it, either. That Heero guy doesn't seem like the most friendly guy in the world, does he?"
As if he'd heard his name, Heero looked towards him, cobalt eyes boring into Duo's startled amethyst until the assassin turned quickly away, unnerved. "This is going to be a rough trip," he informed his horse sourly.
Quatre looked over his shoulder often as the three new companions set out from the fairy glade, back at the fairies who saw them off. The small blond was riding behind Duo on his horse, but Heero walked.
Duo craned his neck to look at the edgy fairy behind him, grinning encouragingly. "Never been away from home before?"
"No," Quatre admitted a little miserably. "I've never been out of Nas, and I rarely leave the glade, for that matter." He took a deep breath and tried to look calm. "But I volunteered for this. I wanted to help, so I suppose I can put up with a little homesickness for a week or so."
"A week or so?" Duo couldn't help but laugh at the boy's naiveté. "Quatre, Virvarn is in the southern peninsula—it's a long way. This is probably going to take at least a month."
Quatre's face showed his shock plainly.
Duo hastily tried to change tactics. "So, Heero," he asked, not quite looking at the silent Were striding easily alongside his nervous horse, "is this going to be your first time out of Nas, too?"
Heero looked up at him with his hard blue eyes, his face unreadable. It was an unnerving gaze, and Duo was glad he wasn't looking the dark-haired youth directly in the face. "No," he said simply.
Duo squirmed in the long, uncomfortable silence that followed that statement, before his irritation overrode his wariness. "Care to elaborate?" he asked pointedly.
Heero once more turned that uncanny gaze on him, but Quatre spoke up almost absently, still looking back to try and catch one last glimpse of his people. "He walks with Shangri-La sometimes."
"Huh?" Duo was nonplussed. "Who's that? What do you mean?"
"Oh, he's—" Quatre turned in time to catch Heero shooting him a dark, warning look. He closed his mouth so fast his teeth clicked, looking guilty and apologetic.
Duo looked quickly from one boy to the other, frustrated by the obvious secret they were keeping from him. He respected Quatre and feared Heero enough, however, not to press the issue. He reluctantly changed the subject.
"So this Beast Mage—the one that lady called Prince… When do we pick him up?"
Heero's lip lifted in a silent snarl on hearing the Mage mentioned, but Quatre answered cheerfully, "Oh, I suppose he'll find us. He wouldn't have felt comfortable at the meeting." He glanced towards Heero meaningfully. "Pan's with him right now," he added.
Duo was about to ask who Pan was, but had a sneaking suspicion they wouldn't answer that question, either. "Prince, huh?" he repeated, scratching absently at his jaw line. "He royalty or something?"
"Royalty? You could say that," Quatre said with a faint smile. "They call him the Prince of Cats."
Duo looked back at the small blond in surprise. "The Prince of Cats?" He laughed. "Let me get this straight… I'll be traveling with a dragon lord, a fairy prince, a guy who's practically an alpha wolf, and the Prince of Cats." He laughed again. "This is going to be an interesting trip, to say the least." He ducked a low branch just barely in time. Straightening once they had passed, he plucked bits of bark from his braided hair. "The Prince of Cats," he mused. "He's supposed to be one of those strong Beast Mages, right? Actually communicates with his animal and all that?"
Most Beast Mages were able to speak to specific animals; give them commands, coax them, or explain something to them. It was a one-sided conversation, but the Mages tended to understand the body language of their animal very well. Most Mages could only speak with a very specific creature; a Mage with a gift for dogs could speak to domestic dogs only—no wolves, no foxes. One Mage might be attuned to birds of prey such as eagles or hawks, while another could speak only to the noisy sparrows. But there were a few exceptions: a handful of extraordinary Beast Mages whose talent, or gift, was much more fine-tuned. The Prince of Cats could not only speak to any cat—lion, tabby, bobcat, or what have you—but they could speak back to him. It was said that in some ways his connection with his cats was something akin to the mind-link between the tribes of the mountains and their dragons. Word of him had spread quickly when he had saved a pair of children from an irritated lion; Duo himself had heard at least three different versions of the story.
“Well at least I won’t have to worry about the royal guard trying to throw me into a cell,” Duo chuckled, scratching at his chin. “I’d think Margeha’s dithering king wants me to make it to Virvarn safely.”
Quatre sounded shocked. “Cell? Dithering??”
Duo waved a hand carelessly. “Let’s just say I’ve set up a reputation for myself. I happen to be,” he said smugly, “pretty popular with the ladies. Unfortunately, a girl I bedded last summer just happened to be King Jerill’s favorite niece.” He pulled a wry face. “You’d have thought I’d just poisoned her instead of slept with her. He had his guards crawling all over the kingdom looking for my skinny ass.” He shrugged. “As for ‘dithering’, well, everyone knows King Jerill’s getting senile in his old age.”
Quatre was sputtering, his face red. He seemed torn between embarrassment at Duo’s unselfconscious claim of his vitality and amazement at his disrespectful reference to Margeha’s aged king.
“What about you, Heero?” Duo asked cheekily. “How many she-wolves have you done?”
“Duo!” Quatre gasped. He was positively crimson.
Heero fixed Duo with a steady, unfriendly look. “I have no interest in women,” he said flatly.
“No time, Heero, not no interest,” Duo corrected him, digging in his saddlebag for an apple. “If you act like you don’t like girls, you sound like a fairy.”
“What?” Quatre understandably looked baffled at the phrase.
“Where I come from, ‘fairy’ means something completely different,” Duo said with a grin.
Quatre opened his mouth to question the other boy, then seemed to think better of it. “I don’t think I want to know,” he declared meekly.
“Probably not,” Duo agreed cheerfully, buffing the apple on his shirt. “So anyway, Heero,” he continued, “why don’t you have time for girls? Aren’t the alpha guys supposed to have a wife?”
“Mate,” Heero corrected shortly. “And I don’t want to talk about it.”
Duo shrugged, taking a bite from his apple. “Suit yourself. Just trying to get to know the guys I’ll be traveling with, that’s all.”
“We’ll be out of the forest by noon,” Heero said shortly, eyes front once more. “Attempt to be silent until then.”
“You know, now I’m going to be annoying just because you said that,” Duo declared, irked by the other boy’s attitude. “Oh, hey, that reminds me. I’ve got a great story about this chick from Silun…”
Quatre gave a long-suffering sigh. “I suppose this is why Father was so eager about me going,” he murmured to himself. “This human could get us killed with his mouth.”
The werewolf, the fairy, and the assassin continued through the depths of the Nas forest on their dangerous journey, unaware of the pair of fierce eyes that observed them from the undergrowth.
~to be continued..~
Back to Amiko's fics