A/N: Apologies, it has now been over a year since the last chapter but the story is still going although at times I may lose focus. I find music helps me write and I could not have done this chapter without the wonderful help of the Final Fantasy VII OST and the Lord of the Rings Fellowship of the Ring soundtrack. Lol, you need epic music to get you in the epic mood don't ask why I picked those; they just help me get going.
Chapter XVII – Perseverance and Resolve
The misty figure of the castle took shape through the rain. Cushioned tight within thick arms and flanked by winged monkeys on both sides, Relena was escorted towards the tallest tower. The winged monkeys ascended, breaking formation as they approached. Heavyarms and Wing remained on their course for the open window. They flew through and landed inside, bringing with them a flurry of rainwater and wind. Une hovered over her crystal ball, watching with glee the arrival of her captive, however, She backed away perceiving with distaste the sopping wet pair of monkeys. Her expression transformed at the sight of Relena and she stepped forward with a cackle, "At last my pretty, you are mine."
Wing moved forward, "With the fulfilment of this last command, we are now free." Une paused and surveyed Relena as she hung limp and lifeless in Heavyarms' embrace. Her eyes were open but they stared blankly as if she were someplace else. The Witch reached out until her fingers were inches from touching the girl but she hesitated. A drop of rain water dripped from the end of Relena's chin and searched for the floor, coming to rest with a soft smack that was audible across the room. Une drew her hand back and barked a summons. A great clunking arose on the stone steps as a huge tin bear staggered into the room and growled. "Take her," Une gestured, "To the deepest part of the castle and lock her up." The bear stumbled forward awkwardly and Relena was scooped up easily into his large paws. As he turned for the stairs she seemed to animate against the tin, shivering slightly. The bear took a clumsy first step and, once in motion, plodded back down the stairs with surprising speed.
Une turned back to Wing who met her eyes boldly. "We are free," He said firmly. Une's fingers tightened around the golden cap, but even as she did so it began to fade away in her hands until it had disappeared completely. Wing simply laughed at her outraged look and turned to the window; "Three services were yours, no more." He climbed upon the sill and took flight, his great wings spreading wide. Heavyarms followed and Une moved forward to look out after them as they rejoined the other winged monkeys. They flew over and under one another in joy, ululating with celebration that echoed through the air. One by one they shot upwards through the dark clouds and disappeared from sight.
"Now do you scorn me?" Une scoffed to the empty air. "I have the girl and the ruby slippers, now nothing can stop me." Her dress shimmered as she moved away from the window.
"You do not have the ruby slippers yet," Said a soft voice emerging from Une's mouth. It sounded weak and very sad.
"We shall see sister, we shall see."
The light from the torches danced across Hilde's face as she peered from her hiding place tucked away in the folds of Relena's dress. For a moment she could not believe she had just been in the presence of the witch. She only dared to look out now, when they were safely away, for back there the voices had been scary enough to keep her frozen in place. Now she turned her attention to the castle around her; a place she had never ever imagined she would be. Flanked by dark shadows the torches could not chase away and enclosed by stone, Hilde began to suffocate. She longed for trees and the reassuring earthly smell of soil beneath her. Plink! Plink! The drops of water falling from Relena christened each step the tin bear clanked down. The sound echoed eerily across the walls as they descended. Hilde shrank back and covered herself with cloth until only one eye peeked out nervously.
The bottom of the stairs eventually opened out into a narrow passage; a tunnel between the witch's tower and the main keep. At the end of the passageway a huge hall lined with doors awaited them. Grey guards in the form of various animals stood watch here. The bear did not pause for a second and rushed through a door, turning down a stairwell with such speed that Hilde, from her position, could not take stock which one it had been. She bit her lip and kept her eyes peeled. It got darker as they descended until she couldn't even make out her hand in front of her face. They must be underground by now much to Hilde's distress; fairies did not do deep underground. Soon enough the darkness became a murky gloom which meant there had to be a light somewhere. A torch appeared, signalling the end of the stairs, and Hilde breathed a quiet sigh of relief. The bear stumbled into a musty dungeon filled with cells. He lowered Relena by the cell closest to the stairwell. Hilde fluttered her wings to stay aloft under the dress and watched with concern as, below her, Relena's legs and feet wobbled unsteadily. The bear nudged Relena with his paw and growled until she eventually took a shaky step inside the cell. He then shut the door, locked it clumsily with his bulky paws and stared at her through the bars of the cage. Hilde waited with trepidation but the bear just gave a muted roar, scratched his collar, and then shuffled back up the stairs with the key. Relena sank down to the ground and bent her head. Hilde clambered out and flew up to her, "Are you all right?" She whispered with concern.
"I've been better," Relena said quietly.
Hilde poked her head through the golden curtain of hair so she could see Relena's face, "What are we going to do now?"
"I have absolutely no idea," The response was tinged with sadness.
Hilde pushed through Relena's hair and settled down in her lap. "They're going to be okay you know." Relena's shoulders seem to sag on those words. "They are!" Hilde said fiercely, "They have to be ok and we're going to see them again." Her lower lip wobbled, "I'm not as strong as they are and I couldn't fight with them but I'm holding out that there's something I can do to help. I want to help!"
Relena lifted her head slightly and stared curiously at the fairy crouched on her lap. She reached out and picked Hilde up carefully in her hand. "I don't know your name," She confessed.
The gentleness and care with which she asked it had Hilde speechless. "I'm Hilde."
Relena lifted her up closer. "You seem strong enough to me Hilde," She said seriously. "Without thinking twice you became a captive with me when you should've escaped. You're not restricted by this prison and you can get out. I, on the other hand can do nothing at all right now."
"That's not true," Hilde cried, "You're strong too! Everyone believes in you and I...I want to believe in you too!"
Relena sank back, "No you're wrong." She looked aside, "The slippers didn't work." Hilde looked lost so she pointed at the ruby shoes on her feet. "This was going to be my secret weapon against the witch. I've used them before but I was never aware of it. I thought I could control them if I tried but when the time came I failed."
Hilde looked at the slippers and then at Relena, "Well maybe you just need practice?"
The corner of Relena's mouth twitched. "Maybe," She acknowledged.
"Or you might just be trying too hard," Hilde suggested eagerly.
"That might be it," The twitch turned into a faint smile.
"Oh! Or maybe it's one of those things which only works when you're in real danger so the witch has to blast you or something and then bam! The power kicks in and blasts her instead!"
"I think we'll leave that experiment till last," Relena commented dryly. But she was smiling clearly now and some life had returned to her face and eyes. She sighed, "Hilde you need to get out of here; it's too dangerous to stay."
"No," Hilde shook her head, "There's nothing for me to go back to and I want to stay here with you."
"What about Scarecrow?" Relena asked softly.
"I just know he would've asked me to go with you," Hilde turned her face away and set her shoulders. "You don't know how determined him and the others were. They just kept going and going and all they could think of was that they had to find you. I don't think anything can stop them."
"I know it only too well," Relena whispered and fell silent, a look of consternation forming on her face. For Hilde, the silence that followed was too heavy and full of melancholy. She desperately wanted to keep conversing but she could think of nothing further to say. Longing for the comfort of warmth and contact, she crawled into Relena's hand and snuggled down. She glanced up at Relena but she seemed lost in thought. The crackling of the torch caught her attention momentarily as its flame hungrily consumed whatever fuel it was doused in. The glow it cast illuminated only part of the cell, leaving the rest in darkness. Within its light all Hilde could see were the rusty but rigid bars of the cage and the old but firm stone walls of the cell. There was an ancient feel to this place and being down here felt like one was forgotten from all time. A little shiver travelled up Hilde's spine.
"I still think you should go Hilde," Relena suggested kindly. Hilde looked up in surprise; the atmosphere had changed subtly from despair to a strange sense of calm and peacefulness. Was it coming from Relena? "I'm staying here with you," Hilde said stubbornly. Relena smiled, shook her head and pushed her hand out beyond the bars. "Hey!" Hilde cried, grabbing Relena's thumb for balance.
"You want to help don't you?" Hilde nodded. "There's not much you're going to be able to do trapped down here with me. I've been thinking; when the others come they'll have to find me in this big place and from what I've seen I don't think it will be that easy. If you get out of here you can remember what you see and where you go. You can help them. You follow me?"
Hilde was stunned; this girl was something else. Her skin was pale in the light but her eyes were shining with a steady flame of their own. The way the others had talked about her, Hilde had first imagined some great warrior striding in to challenge the witch. Then she beheld the limp girl thrown into Scarecrow's arms and had been more than a little disappointed. Now, when she expected this same girl to be cowering in fear, she was talking strategy. The resolve emanating from her was addictive; it pulled Hilde in and enveloped her. She understood a little of why the others believed in her so much. She snapped to action and saluted, "I read you loud and clear!"
"Then go!" Relena whispered and Hilde flapped her wings and lifted herself up. A sudden doubt gnawed at her, "But what about you?"
"I'll be fine. Practice makes perfect," Relena gave her a wink. Hilde grinned but the smile died on her face and she became grim. Flying down, she grabbed Relena's thumb in a tight hug with her eyes squeezed shut. "Be careful..." Relena's words trailed after her softly as she flew up the stairwell and back to the castle above.
Relena waited until she had disappeared before bringing her knees up and burying her face in them. "Please let her get out safely and let the others be ok." She sighed, "I never wanted to have to be protected nor have people put themselves in danger because of me; I wanted to be strong and do things by myself. But look at what's happened." She took a breath, "I still don't know how I'm going to do this but I'm not going to try and do it alone if there are others willing to stand with me." Her voice broke and she stifled a sob, "But please just let them all be ok. Please."
The crack of thunder awoke him with a start and the world was divided into wet columns. Lifting his head caused waves of dizziness to push him back down. He waited until they had subsided and tried again to find that this time the world did not shake so much. His focus now switched to the rest of his body, which felt as stiff as a rock. He tried to stop the onslaught of past events spinning through his mind but it was too difficult and her name emerged from his mouth, "Wuff!"
It was no use; she had been snatched away and was long gone. When Toto tried to move, electricity shot up his back leg causing him to wince. Testing it against the ground numerous times eventually numbed the pain until it surrendered into a familiar discomfort. He limped forward slowly, taking stock of his surroundings. Through the shroud he spotted a large mound and made his way towards it slowly. As he approached, the immense mass of Lion materialised out of the gloom and Toto sank against the large feline, panting from the effort. Lion remained still and silent. "Wuff?" There was no response. Working his way along the line of Lion's back, Toto came across his head. Lion looked terrible, his mane tangled and dark spots along his face and body where he was bruised. Toto wondered if he looked any better himself. He lifted a paw and patted Lion's face as gently as he could but there was no movement. Toto patted him harder to wake him up but Lion did not open his eyes. Taking a breath, he stepped back and leapt up on top of the beast. His bad leg collapsed when it landed and gave way causing him to sprawl and slide back. Alarmed, he reached out to grab whatever he could and his teeth sank deep into Lion's ear. The body beneath him stirred and groaned. Toto let go, slid down to the ground and whined softly.
"Runt...?" Came the croaky reply. The ground shook slightly as Lion slowly lifted himself up. There was a gasp of pain and his eyes lost focus for a moment. When they cleared he stared around in a daze. "We couldn't save her," He whispered. "She's gone, away into the skies." He lifted his head slowly, "Gone beyond our reach..." He coughed and groaned.
"Wuff Ruff Rowf!" We can still go after her, Toto barked reassuringly. He watched with concern as Lion lowered himself back down to the ground. A tremendous shudder ran through his body as he laid his head down. "Yes we can still go after her..." He murmured softly. When he did not move Toto stamped on the ground and gave a series of short, sharp barks. Lion sighed. "I'm wounded runt," A shiver ran through him. "I really can't be roused right now; let me rest a while." Toto frowned as Lion shuddered with each breath. "It would have been better to die honourably in battle but I carry on," He wheezed and closed his eyes, "No courage." Toto sat with him for a while and when Lion had closed his eyes he urgently turned and limped away. Help the others and we help each other.
Tinman he found easily; the silent statue standing alone in the centre of what was, moments before, a battlefield. A large, ugly gash glared from across his body and his arm was outstretched, his expression anguished. Here stood a completely different statue from the one they had originally found what seemed like so long ago. Toto caught a flash of blue close by and he moved to investigate. He dragged back in his mouth Relena's ribbon and, tied to it, the oilcan rattled along the ground as it followed. He analysed the steel warrior but was at a loss; he did not have the dexterity to use the oilcan and the rain still poured down relentlessly even if he could. He was forced to move on.
Scarecrow was much harder to locate and Toto was forced to search the ground methodically for any sign until he came upon him; a mess of cloth thrown untidily across the ground. He was barely recognisable and a whine escaped Toto at the sight. But at least here there was work that could be done and he began the laborious task of putting Scarecrow back together. He picked up clods of soaked straw in his mouth and made his way back to Scarecrow, placing it carefully inside. It was slow progress for the straw was scattered everywhere and he was only able to contain a small amount in his mouth at a time. Toto stolidly continued without pause. Sometime during his labour he became aware that the endless torrent of rain had slowed to the last few drops, which was a relief, but he could not stop. Once the last clump of straw was in Toto walked across Scarecrow in various places to even him out until he somewhat resembled a thin and sodden form of his old self at last. He sank back on his haunches tiredly and barked. Slowly, ever so slowly, there was a weak intake of breath and Scarecrow's whole body shuddered. He attempted a small smile, "Thanks..." He managed and curled his fingers with his thumb lifted up. Toto barked and sank down beside him, nuzzling him with relief. Despite this small victory, however, he felt totally helpless. Scarecrow was too weak to move, Lion was hurt and Tinman he hadn't been able to help at all. The rain no longer fell and perhaps his joints could be oiled but the effort from fixing Scarecrow had used so much energy and he was exhausted. He wondered how she would be faring right now. He lifted his head and a pained howl escaped him and pierced the forest. He howled until his voice began to fade and his eyes began to close.
When Hilde emerged from the stairwell, she noted which one it was and established the beginnings of a mental map in her head. She flew up from the stairwell and perched herself by a fissure in the stone wall. She glanced about the main hall, I have to analyse the situation before I make my next move, she thought. There were so many doors, each possibly leading to the exit, that she wondered how she would ever be able to locate the right one? Tin guards milled about in the main hall and most probably throughout this whole castle. Hilde watched cautiously for any clues but they only moved about, scratched at their collars, and grunted at each other. At least until a tin crocodile emerged into the main hall with his tail clanging against the floor as he moved. "On your guard you lazy slackers," He snapped left and right. The tin soldiers jumped to attention. "You're supposed to be on patrol and here you are." He paused to crash his jaws at a dozy looking hippopotamus, startling him. "That especially means you Nine Five. Now get moving."
"Yes Three," They all chimed mechanically. Hilde watched as the tin animals clunked their separate ways through different passages. The crocodile called Three stared around the main hall, his glowing eyes slitting suspiciously. Hilde shrank back into the fissure and tried not to breathe. Eventually she heard the clank of Three's tail as he left and made sure it had receded into the distance before she dared to look again. The number of tin guards in the room had reduced to a single hippo, the one called Nine Five. He plodded around the main hall, occasionally inspecting doors, but mostly opening his jaws wide and yawning loudly. It should be fairly easy to keep out of his way and Hilde decided her only option was to try the doors one by one to find the right one. She made sure to keep an eye on the hippo and started to examine them in order. She found more stairwells leading down into the ground, stairwells leading up into towers, dark passageways leading to other towers, storerooms, and furnished but otherwise empty rooms. One room was beautifully draped with thick tapestries depicting the history of Oz, the division of the four lands and the reign of the old King and Queen. In her search she also came upon an empty room containing a single glass case in its centre. The glass case held inside it a gorgeous sapphire circlet and a wand adorned with a sapphire rose. Hilde held her breath, The Witch of the West before she was bad. Hilde slowly backed out and added the room to the map she was slowly but surely drawing in her mind.
The next door she tried had a crack along the bottom where the door did not quite touch the stone floor. As she hovered there she felt a slight draft from beyond. That's air from outside coming through; there must be a window or maybe the exit! She wondered excitedly. It wasn't a big gap but she might be able to squeeze through. After much squeezing, Hilde emerged on the other side of the door cautiously. Once it was clear there was no one there, she sighed and allowed her face to soak in the cold breeze coming from the chamber at the end of the passage. Light filtered through and it wasn't fire from a torchlight; it was the kind of light you got from outside. Hilde punched the air in victory. She flew slowly down the corridor thinking soon she would be out of this castle and on her way to find the others. She could even hear the birds singing outside already. She skidded to stop a few wingspans away from the entrance to the chamber; birds? There were hardly any birds in the forest and this was a cacophony. Hilde swallowed and tiptoed on air to the edge of the chamber. Windows! Glorious windows! There were so many lining this circular room. A window would do nicely since she already had plenty of information about the castle. Her face fell when her gaze moved from the windows to the rest of the room; hundreds of crows perched between her and escape. They flew from one end of the room to the other, ruffled their feathers, cawed at one another and, most noticeably, their beady eyes flitted about sharply. Hilde bit her lip and stared longingly at the outside with its cloudy grey sky. She could even see that the rain had stopped. The sight was so alluring she was almost tempted to make a break for it but visions of being pecked to death filled her eyes.
"Be still you infernal creatures I am trying to account for you all!"
Hilde froze solid at the sly voice emerging from the centre of the room. She chanced a glance and espied a tin fox with a notepad and pen in his hand. "The mistress must know how many of you are left in the castle and you want me to give an accurate figure because we don't want to displease her do we?" The cawing slowed to a stop and the crows seemed to settle down. "That's better," Hilde heard the fox say, "Now let's get back to the tally..." Hilde slowly began to back away but her gaze was still arrested by those beautiful windows until she backed into the stone wall of the passage banging her head in the process. "Ow!"
"What was that?"
Hilde clapped her hands over her mouth, Oh no! She raced down the passage heading for the door. As she sped toward it, the door suddenly opened and the huge hippo from the main hall poked his head through. Hilde clamped her lips together to keep from crying out and skidded to a stop. She wasn't able to stop fast enough, however, and found herself wedged between the hippo and the doorframe. The Hippo seemed oblivious to her presence. "Hello?" He boomed.
"Who's there?" The fox's voice sounded closer and was followed by the clatter of his delicate feet on stone.
"Oh nuts," Hilde whispered and tried to extricate herself. "Come on," She urged. The fox's footsteps became louder and Hilde pushed harder until she came free with a soft pop. "Hmm?" The hippo glanced down but Hilde had ducked down and escaped by flying down and between his legs. She managed to make it up to the doorframe and landed on the top ridge of the door hidden from sight.
"Nine Five it's you!" The fox called Seven groaned. "For a moment I thought there was someone else there. Get back to your patrol you big buffoon." The fox turned and his feet delicately clattered back down the corridor. "But I heard something too," Nine Five sighed and backed out of the doorway into the main hall. Hilde watched him waddle off to do his rounds and collapsed with relief. "This is going to kill me I just know it."
Toto came to when he felt himself being lifted. He whined as someone touched his leg and lifted his head drowsily. "You're hurt?" Toto nodded and sank into Scarecrow's arms. "You did great," Scarecrow said cheerily, although his voice was still strained. He sat up and placed Toto in his lap while he dug around in his shirt sleeve. Pulling out a needle and a spool of thread he turned to patch himself up with precision. Toto watched him detach spare patches of cloth fixed to his hat and sew them into his clothes where the monkeys had ripped into him. When he was done he sank back and took a minute's rest. "Now let's see what we can do for the others," He eventually said.
They made their way over to Tinman and Scarecrow pulled out another scrap of cloth nestled in his clothes. He wiped rain water off the steel figure carefully. Toto took hold of the ribbon and pulled the oilcan over to him. Scarecrow lifted it up and proceeded to oil Tinman down. When he was done those eyes remained dark. "Come on buddy," Scarecrow took hold of his shoulders and gave him a good shake, "We have to go after Relena." Toto barked and nudged Tinman's foot to wake him up. "No no," Scarecrow shook his head, "He might need something more dramatic." He waved his hands in front of Tinman's face, "Hello? Relena needs us. Relena's in trouble. The witch has her! R-E-L-E-N-A."
A dim light flicked on deep inside Tinman's sockets and slowly but surely intensified to its usual glow. Tinman slowly blinked and took in a tired and worn out looking Scarecrow and Toto. Scarecrow put a hand on his shoulder, "We've got to get ourselves together and go after Relena." His eyes focused and flashed brightly as he nodded. Scarecrow looked at the huge gash running down his chest and drew in a breath, "You're hurt pretty bad."
"I'll handle it," Tinman mumbled in deep tones. He flexed each of his joints with many a painful creak until they moved smoothly. Putting his hands on each side of his body he began to press both sides together. The tin began to bend and the gap narrowed. Tinman grunted in pain at the effort but he kept going until the edges of the tear in his body overlapped. He began to examine himself for nuts or screws that he could use to hold it together. He took one from each leg and arm, relying on the other screws to continue keeping him together.
"I should be making a joke right now but I'm hurting too much," Scarecrow laughed faintly. "I'll let ya get on while I help patch Lion up."
Tinman glanced over at Lion and surveyed his condition. "Do you have any bandages?" He grunted, banging the screws into his body with his bare fist. His face did not betray a wince or even a single twitch of the pain as each screw tore through the overlapping panels of tin.
"Nope, I have nothing," Scarecrow said helplessly, "I don't have enough spare cloth and I don't know what else could be used...hold on." He left Tinman and moved over to the trees at the edge of the clearing. Toto limped after him curiously. "Tinman can you break some bark off this tree?"
"What for?" Regardless of his question, Tinman came over and moved toward the tree Scarecrow was pointing at.
"Make it as thin as you can," Scarecrow requested.
Tinman ripped a thin piece of fraying bark off the tree Scarecrow was pointing at. Scarecrow took the scrap of bark and soaked it in a puddle of water. It readily absorbed the water and became soft as paper in his hands. "Poochy come over here a second," He called. Toto came forward warily and was scooped off his feet into Scarecrow's arms. He yelped as Scarecrow took hold of his back leg and carefully wrapped the wet bandage tightly over his wound. Pulling a long piece of straw from his body he knotted it securely and put Toto back on the ground, standing back. "How's that?"
Toto shook his leg and tried walking a few steps. He gave a satisfied bark. "How did you know?" Tinman raised his steel eyebrows.
Scarecrow shrugged, "I look around and trees are all I can see; bark the only thing we have to use. This tree has soft wood so I figured it should work. Could you break more? A lot more...for Lion?" Tinman nodded and got to work.
Scarecrow walked over to Lion and knelt down beside him. He stroked along Lion's fur with his hands to find his hurt. The beast twitched when Scarecrow's hands skimmed over his midriff. "Do you mind?" Lion's weak voice tried to sound indignant.
"We're going to patch you up Lion. It's going to be ok."
"Well I hope so," Lion huffed, "We've got places to be."
"Yeah you can say that again," Scarecrow smiled.
Lion opened one eye and squinted up at Scarecrow, "You're all ok?"
"A bit worse for wear but we're all right." Scarecrow stooped down to receive the long strips of bark Toto pulled over with his mouth. Lion stared at the bandage on his leg quietly; the bark was drying and still keeping shape over his leg. Lion nodded in understanding. When Scarecrow put the first wet piece of bark over Lion's wound a growl of pain escaped him and he twitched again. But he settled down and let Scarecrow wrap the bark around his body slowly. Once Lion's middle section was covered Scarecrow moved on to the next step of securing the bark with pieces of straw tied together. Lion shifted uncomfortably each time Scarecrow removed straw from his sleeve. Eventually he burst out, "Is this ok? That's a part of you..."
Scarecrow looked at his sleeve, "The straw?" He continued tying pieces together around Lion. "It hurts a little because I've already lost a lot but we gotta keep each other going right?"
Lion frowned but in his eyes there was a newfound respect. "It seems there is more to honour than winning a battle or dying with dignity," He admitted grudgingly. Scarecrow grinned and finished his work. Lion slowly lifted himself to his feet. When he straightened his legs he shook a little and swayed but managed to stay standing. His first step came with a groan but he nodded, "It is not so bad."
Scarecrow looked at each of them and extended his arms, "We're so awesome; group hug!"
"We're all wounded you mean," Lion retorted, "A group hug would hurt too much. How are we going to storm a castle in this state?"
"We'll do it together!" Scarecrow said confidently, "I repeat, group hug!"
"I know the castle and can get us in," Tinman asserted, his arms crossed.
Toto barked, getting their attention, and then pointed his head toward the direction of the castle and barked again. The others nodded and began to make their way toward it.
Fiddlesticks! Hilde cursed as another door turned out to be a dud. At this rate she would never find the way out and Relena would be cooked alive and eaten by that horrid witch, figuratively speaking. She was hovering on the verge of panic because she had not been able to even find a single opening she could escape by! This whole place was like a prison. Weakness tugged at her conscience, tempting her to return to Relena's side but she wrenched herself away deliberately. No! For the short time she had spent with Scarecrow and the others she knew if there was even a tiny chance they would take it and come here. If so, they would never be able to find Relena without her help. She had to get out of here but the only windows in this infernal place were guarded by crows. She had been watching that hippo, Nine Five, while she contemplated her next move when one of the doors creaked open and an old man hobbled through. Nine Five barely gave the old man a glance which aroused Hilde's curiosity. Her eyes glanced over the metal claw on the old man's hand and she connected it to the tinsmith known as J. He was heading toward a wooden door with a metal frame which Hilde had not yet checked. Could it be possible that he was heading where there may be an exit? Such an important person to the witch had to be going somewhere equally as important surely? As long as it was not to the witch herself Hilde decided that it was worth a try. She flitted after him carefully and when the door opened she ducked inside it quickly before it closed with a clang behind her. It was very dark in the room beyond and Hilde couldn't even see a place to hide, or whether she even needed to hide in such darkness. She could hear the thud of the old man's metal supports as he moved below her through the room. Her eyes could barely make out his silhouette so she followed at a distance. He was murmuring to himself constantly, "Hmm, we're ready for a little trial now aren't we but alas, there's no one to do a little experiment on is there? Won't somebody come along to disturb the peace of this castle?" Hilde frowned as she tried to decipher what he was saying. "Such a beauty I have made and nobody to appreciate you."
It was then that Hilde heard a low, guttural breathing from the other end of the room. Her eyes had begun to adjust slowly and she could make out long rows of boxes, no, cages lined up along the walls of the room. She could see the lines of the bars that enclosed them. In some she could see soft lights of various sizes; the dim glow of eyes. The heavy breathing came from where J stood. In front of him stood an enormous cage that stretched all the way up to the ceiling. Beyond the bars of this cage came the strange breathing that drowned out any other noise in the room. All at once Hilde felt awfully uneasy and a terrible sense of something wrong took over her. She felt like fleeing but couldn't seem to move.
"You'd like to be tested out wouldn't you One Thousand?" Chuckled J, "You must be so tired of being all cooped in here without having the chance to stretch out and show me what you can do." The sound of a huge chain thumping against the ground came from the cage and something snarled menacingly. "Don't give me that attitude," J sounded put off, "I am your master!" He did something then which Hilde could not see but all at once a huge roar shook the bars and almost blew Hilde away. Two huge lights flicked on inside the cage with a lot of hissing and snarling. Hilde trembled from head to foot at the sight of it. What is that thing!?
"Oh dear me, the bigger they are the wilder they do get," The old man chuckled without an ounce of fear. "But little flies remain silent and hide themselves away don't they." He tutted, "Don't they know that the room adjacent to this one, the one that has a door with a cracked keyhole, leads to a passageway? Down the passageway and to the right, then down and to the left leads them out and away!"
Hilde couldn't believe her ears. First she thought J could see her and ducked behind a hook hanging from the wall. However, J was facing the cage at the end of the room and he was not looking in her direction at all. Was it her imagination or was he just revealing where the exit was?
"Maybe we will have someone to play with soon?" J turned around and began to walk toward the door. Hilde crouched behind the hook and watched him leave. Why was he revealing where the exit was? Hilde felt everything about this man was strange and creepy. When J opened the door however, Hilde had a short moment to realise she had to dash for it or be stuck in here alone with the mysterious occupant of the cage at the end of the room. That thought alone had her rushing after J and through the door. The light beyond was so dazzling that she raised her arm to shield her eyes and instinctively flew up where she might be safer and less noticed. Why had J revealed where the exit was? The thought circled her mind and all sorts of traps and secret ambushes plagued her mind. But an exit was an exit and she could see no other choice but to follow his direction. The alternative was to endlessly scour the rest of the rooms until she found the exit herself but she had wasted so much time already and Relena was counting on her. When she could see again she watched J walk away, chuckling to himself. Nine Five continued to waddle around the hall. Hilde flitted over to the adjacent door and noted the cracked keyhole. Without a moment's hesitation she flew through and beyond.
There was nothing to do in the cell but sit with her thoughts and fears. Relena wished for Hilde's safety and the other's health constantly. For a while she attempted to stare down her ruby slippers till they worked; the glitter detail etched itself into her brain but she didn't become any wiser. She was staring off into space blankly when the light of the torch went out. She blinked in surprise and tried to see but her eyes couldn't adjust to anything; the darkness was absolute. Feeling a little frightened, Relena groped out and thankfully found the bars of the cell with her hands. Holding on she stared into what she thought was the direction of the stairs. "Hello?" She called into the darkness. What had made the torch go out? "Is anybody there?"
If this was a tactic to scare her it was succeeding. She was trapped in a cell in the old basement of some castle in the dark and nobody could hear her. Relena shook the bars of the cage and felt like screaming. "Somebody help please!"
"Don't like the dark?" Two glowing lights appeared beyond the bars she held. She let out a cry and fell back in alarm. There was a rustling noise and then a light was shone into her face. She lifted a hand to shield her eyes. Something clanged in the dark and echoed across the cell.
"You are very pretty," The glowing eyes acknowledged, "Even prettier in the flesh, but still not as pretty as my creations." There was a pause and then the voice confessed, "I wanted to see for myself."
"Who are you?" Relena sat up and the torchlight moved to a point on the ground so a dim glow was cast around the both of them. Relena beheld an old man with grey whiskers and goggles that flashed in the dark. In one hand he held a device producing the light that shone around them, paler and artificial compared to the flame torches hung along the walls of the castle. The other hand was a hook with three prongs that he clashed together.
"How is my dear boy? My Zero One?"
Relena blinked, "You are J, the tinsmith," She realised immediately.
J was silent for a moment, "I created that boy. But then I lost him you see. When I saw him in the crystal ball I felt like I had found him again."
His voice betrayed a hint of emotion but any expression was hidden behind those cold, unrevealing goggles. Relena missed the soft blue glow of Tinman's eyes then. She remembered his pain and anger welled up in her at this man. "Not lost, he ran away," Relena grabbed the bars of the cell and pulled herself closer, "How could you make him that way; without a heart?"
"None of them have hearts," J said grimly, "For hearts cannot be made of tin and are useless on a battlefield. But where does this talk of hearts come from?"
"Tinman wants a heart, he wants to feel but you made him into a killing machine, nothing more than a weapon," She accused, "Don't you have any idea how much of a burden it was to bear?"
"Zero One wants a...heart?" J seemed confused. He mulled over the thought and started mumbling to himself. "None of the animals care but being a human model Zero One perceived he was missing something...fascinating. And he has come with you because of this? You gave him a name, a purpose, a mission eh?" J eyed her up, "I see you now; you really are something special and worth fighting for. My dear, I'd like to show you my creations!"
Relena fell silent and looked at J as if he were crazy. She sighed, "I do not wish to see your creations. I wish to be left alone please."
"This is not the time for being left alone!" J clacked his hand near Relena's face causing her to flinch. "Don't you know the party is about to begin and believe me you will not miss it. Indeed, you'll be the centrepiece."
"I don't understand," Relena cried out as his goggles receded and vanished into the darkness. "J?" She hugged herself for comfort and curled up against the bars. She could hear the thud of feet climbing the stairs and croaky laughter wafted down in its wake.
A few seconds passed in the darkness until the torch exploded back into life casting its welcoming light back into her cell.
A/N: A bit of trivia about this chapter - The conversation between Hilde and Relena vaguely parallels the conversation they share in Gundam Wing episode 45 Signs of the Final Battle. Hilde sneaks aboard Libra to steal the schematics of the place and runs into Relena. They both realise they both know a Gundam Pilot. In this chapter Relena's dialogue "You seem strong enough to me Hilde...I, on the other hand can do nothing at all right now" resembles the dialogue Relena says in this episode: "You seem strong enough to me. I doubt if I can do anything to help them out." Hilde the fairy begins to make a mental map of the castle just like Hilde stealing Libra's layout schematic in the episodes. Did you notice the parallel? Let me know and review please!
I wonder what J is planning hmm? I sense a new character equivalence coming up! There hasn't been one for a while :)