31st October 2013, 7:39 AM
A Stray Child (Slayers, Twoshot)
Warnings: Moments of Horror, Violence, Brief References to Drugs/Alcohol
Author's Note: Happy Halloween everyone! I think this is... what, the fourth year I've done a Slayers Halloween story? These things usually start with at least some inspiration from something in the horror genre and this one was developed with the influence of the classic Silent Hill games. It's meant to be a bit more serious than some of my past Halloween stories, but I hope you'll enjoy it anyway.
Despite the fact that I started working on this story much earlier than I usually get going on my Halloween stories, this one was a real struggle to get through. My interest was there, but the plan got bigger than I first imagined and October was full to the brim with distractions. That's why I had to make the decision to make this a two-parter. I'm sorry I couldn't get it all out in time for Halloween like in past years, but I think this will be for the best with this story.
I can't say with 100% certainty when I'll be able to finish and post up part 2. I'd intended to participate in NaNoWriMo for the first time this year and that'll take up a lot of my time this November. Maybe they'll be a nightmare before Christmas? I'm not sure. But I will work to get it out and finished as soon as I can.
With all that said, I hope you enjoy this. And thank you so much for reading! This is also posted on my fanfiction.net account. Since the first part breaks the character limit, I'll be posting it in two sections.
A Stray Child
Filia sat in the rocking seat of the carriage and silently wished she could will away the rain that had started pattering against the roof. If the weather had held out, she could’ve at least promised Val a bright sunny picnic later—a distantly hanging incentive that would’ve made this journey less a tedious business trip that he’d been dragged along for and more the family time that she desperately wanted it to be.
She hugged her small suitcase of luggage close to her as she tried to block out Jillas’s snores from the bench next to her and instead turned to Val, peering out the window. Well, of course he was. He’d made such a fuss about getting the window seat and yet now he seemed disappointed with the scenery he was getting.
It made sense that he was restive and that his mood was starting to match the weather. That she understood. What child Val’s age would want to be dragged along for a trip to check on a tardy clay distributor? It was tiresome business that meant nothing to him. But yet, there was more to his glum disposition than that—and it was no mystery to Filia what it was. That was why she’d brought him along in the first place—she didn’t want him to be alone with his thoughts; didn’t want his doubts to turn into certainties; didn’t want him to forget what family meant; didn’t want to be absent.
Potter’s Field wasn’t exactly the best place in the world to win the wavering good graces of a son back. She’d only been there once before, when making her original deal with Misters Peaceton and Avery (the gentlemen who owned the local quarry), and she remembered it as being a dull little mining town. There was little there to catch Val’s eye. But this trip couldn’t wait. It was more than a month past due and still her supply of clay hadn’t come in. She was running out of material to fashion into pottery for her shop and, besides that, she’d already plunked down the money for the best quality clay in the Outer World. Without so much as a word of explanation from her supplier, and with her letters going unanswered, Filia had no choice but to leave Gravos in charge of the shop and set out to the town herself to find out what was going on.
But Filia wished, as they drove alongside a lake whose surface trembled in the worsening rain, that this errand had come at some other time.
The carriage slowed to a halt, and Val put his face up closer to the drizzle-spattered window. She could only see his reflection in the glass.
“Is this it?”
It was amazing how soaked-to-the-bone they’d all ended up after covering the relatively short distance between the carriage and the unfortunately awning-free hotel. Filia was kicking herself for not packing rain gear or at least extra clothes, but the weather had been so nice in Achaea and they only intended to stay a night, so she hadn’t bothered.
“I’m going to be honest with you,” the woman behind the front desk in the lobby said, closing the book she’d been occupying her time with, “I’m not sure if I should even give you a room.”
“Not sure if you should give us a room?” Jillas repeated in disbelief. “‘ave you seen what it’s like out there?” he asked, trying to shake out his wet fur as discreetly as possible.
“Right, and that’s why,” the woman explained. “We’ve been getting rain like crazy here for the last several weeks. You don’t even know what it’s been like,” she added, making a face. “The ‘all clear’ sign only went out a few days ago and barely any of us are back and now it’s starting up again.” She shook her head. “Ground’s still full of water. No way we can take another hit. If it’s just gonna flood again and we’re all gonna evacuate, then I don’t see why I should even bother renting you a room.”
“Because we’re cold and wet and need a place to dry off and we have important business here,” Filia supplied stiffly, droplets of cold water dripping down from her hair.
The clerk cocked her head to the side, apparently weighing Filia’s rationale. “What important business?” she asked.
Filia sighed and let go of Val’s hand to reach into her pocket and take out a card. It was slightly gummy from the moisture, but still perfectly readable. She passed it to the clerk.
“…Vases and Maces?” the woman asked, upon reading it.
“This town is where I get the clay to sculpt the pottery I sell,” Filia explained. “I haven’t received the shipment I paid for and I haven’t been able to get in contact with Mister Peaceton or Mister Avery.”
The woman sucked in a breath through her teeth. “You wouldn’t happen to get your clay from Hangman’s Quarry, would you?”
“Yes, I think so,” Filia said, having seen that name on past receipts.
“…Did you see the lake when you came in?”
“Well, yes, but I don’t see…” Filia began, before her heart sank. “…Oh.”
“Yep. One and the same,” the woman said, crumpling up the moistened business card. “Nobody’s mining out of there any time soon. Probably why you haven’t gotten anything.”
Filia’s mouth hung open. Her hopes of leaving with the assurance that her supply was on its way were dashed. “Yes, but what about my money?” she asked. “If I’m not getting what I paid for then I demand a refund!”
The clerk shrugged. “I’m not the right person to demand, and I don’t know if your suppliers even came back here. Like I said, not many people have yet and probably won’t since the rain is starting up again.”
“Boss, what’re we gonna do?” Jillas asked, setting down his suitcase and looking lost for a next step.
Filia ground her teeth together. All this, traveling out of their way to this gloomy, rainy place and now the people they were looking for mightn’t even be around and what she was looking for was under several feet of rainwater.
She heard Val sigh next to her as he squeezed the water out of his shirt and onto the floor. He probably wasn’t following the particulars, but he could certainly tell that the business of the big people—the reason he’d been dragged along in the first place—wasn’t going well.
“We’ll stay,” Filia decided, determined not to make this trip a waste. “Someone from the company must’ve stuck around that we can talk to, and even if they didn’t, I’m sure we’ll find someone who knows where they went or at least some clue how to find them.”
“Right, Boss!” Jillas cheered, picking up his suitcase again with renewed vigor. “Positive thinking will out!”
Admittedly, Filia was not finding herself thinking too positively. Instead she was thinking about her wet clothes and the one outfit she’d packed with her. Sure, she could change into that and let the other dry, but to what purpose? The minute she stepped outside she’d be flirting with discomfort and pneumonia all over again.
“You wouldn’t happen to know where we could get our hands on any rain coats, would you?” she asked the woman at the front desk.
“Sure,” the woman said easily. “I could scare some up. Though,” she added, leaning in to look over the counter and to Val, “not sure I can find anything in a child’s size.”
That left Filia in a bind. She couldn’t leave Val by himself, which would mean keeping Jillas back at the hotel with him, which would make the job of finding the mine workers even more lengthy and difficult. Plus it negated the whole reason for bringing Val along in the first place.
“Relax,” the woman said, winking as she took in Val’s dismayed expression. “I’m not too shabby at sewing; I’m sure I can put something together for you if you come down after you’ve changed out of those wet things. It won’t be pretty, but it’ll work.”
This wormed a half-smile out of Val—a light which, even dimmed, Filia hadn’t seen in the last few days. “Thanks,” he said. He’d been raised to be polite—at least, most of the time.
The woman smiled and him, then braced herself against the desk surface to sit up straight again. “You sure you all want a room, now?” she asked, addressing Filia once more.
“Yes, please,” Filia said.
“Alright then,” the clerk relented, fishing around in her desk until she came up with a set of keys.
Filia took them. They somehow seemed very old—rusted—and bore the number 404.
“Fourth floor,” the woman went on. “Flood damage is too bad any lower than that.”
Filia took a deep breath, as though to will the universe to behave better. She clutched the keys in her fist.
“Thank you,” she said.
Filia might’ve complained about the somewhat mildewy smell in their third floor suite, if it weren’t for the fact that the diminished aroma was a relief to her nostrils after the sewage and damp stench of the lower floors. The water must’ve risen very high indeed for even the second floor to bear water marks and a coating of slime she’d chosen not to examine. The stairs were so slippery that she’d been forced to latch onto the railing, despite the liquid rust that came off onto her hand as she did so.
But now that she’d changed into a fresh set of clothes and dried off, she was feeling much more hopeful about their endeavor.
“Oi just hope they didn’t do a runner,” Jillas said, his fur slightly puffy from extensive towel-drying as he sat on the couch that would be his bed that night. “Cut their losses and ‘id from their customers, oi mean.”
It was weighing on Filia’s mind too. Their product was now rather uselessly under a vast lake. How expensive would it be to drain it? Probably more than it was worth to continue mining. And after taking that financial hit, they probably wouldn’t be in the mood for the word “refund.”
“Nobody just vanishes without a trace,” Filia said, despite this. “There’ll be some sign of where they went or at least somebody who knows them.”
Filia turned as the door to the small bathroom opened and Val stepped out in his changed clothes. A towel hung over his shoulders, separating them from his still wet hair. Filia stepped over to help him dry off his hair but he shrugged her off, doing it himself.
“Can I go down an’ get my coat now?” Val asked, running the towel over his aqua hair. “The lady said she could make me one after I dried off.”
Filia hesitated for a moment. It was reasonable to imagine that the clerk would need Val in order to figure out the sizing of his ad hoc raincoat, but it also seemed like he wanted an out. “Sure, Val,” she said in a deceptively light voice. “Why don’t you take your Uncle Jillas with you?”
Val flopped down the towel and began trotting for the door. “I’m okay by myself,” he protested, reaching up for the door handle. “Jillas doesn’t need to come.”
Jillas straightened up slowly in his seat as the door opened and closed, signaling the child’s exit. Filia numbly reached down to pick up the towel he’d discarded, folding it over her arm. They both heard what hadn’t been said.
“…A couple days ago,” Filia tried to explain, leaning against the arm of the couch, “Val had a play date with that Roland Dabner boy. I was going up to his room to bring them some lemonade when I heard them talking. They were saying something about a girl in their class who was… adopted.”
“Ah,” Jillas said, some of the mild sense of hurt from that lapsed descriptor of familiarity fading.
“And then Roland Dabner started asking Val if he was adopted,” Filia went on wretchedly. “…I don’t honestly think he’d ever thought about it before. And now…”
Jillas adopted a knowing posture. “Oi think all kids start wonderin’ at some point. Oi remember when oi was just a little kit and oi started thinking on the same thing. Pretty silly since everybody always said oi ‘ad me dear old mum’s eyes.” He brushed against the strap of his eye patch as though having some second thoughts. “Or, eye now, oi guess.”
“…Why would you think that?” Filia asked glumly, staring down at the towel. “Weren’t you happy with your family?”
“‘Course oi was!” Jillas answered without hesitation. “Oi think oi was just starting to figure out that oi was different from them, and that’s ‘ow oi thought of it. I reckon Lord Val’s just trying to figure out ‘o ‘e is.”
Who he is, Filia thought in a desolate kind of way. Could she really even explain that to him?
“I just…” Filia began, her words escaping as a sigh, “…don’t want him to think he’s adopted.”
Jillas gave her a skeptical look with his good eye. “…But ‘e is,” he pointed out, as if to remind her.
“I know that,” she said thickly.
Jillas tilted his head as he surveyed her. “Were yeh never gonna tell ‘im?”
“Of course I’m going to tell him,” Filia replied defensively. “I just don’t want it to be now. I don’t think he’s ready.”
Jillas was quiet for a moment. “For Lord Val,” he finally began, “figuring out ‘o ‘e really is must be ‘arder than it is for most. There’s so much about ‘imself that ‘e doesn’t know.”
Filia shook her head. “He was so… hurt and angry back then—that’s what led to all this. And I promised myself that he wouldn’t feel that this time around. This is his second-chance at childhood. I can’t ruin it by telling him everything he did… and everything that was done to him,” she added in a whisper.
Jillas was thoughtful again. “We, none of us that is, did everything the right way the first time around. But oi still think Lord Valgaav was a great man—and one that Lord Val can be proud to know ‘e was.”
Filia set the towel down on the floor. It had been a long time since she’d heard Jillas speak of what happened back then. She’d spoken of it with Xellos, but not Jillas. Of course his perspective was different. He’d wanted what Valgaav wanted—not because of what it was, but because Valgaav had wanted it.
A sour smile came onto Filia’s face. “I almost wish Xellos was here,” she said. “Whatever else you could say about him, he’s good at being a distraction.”
“Yeh can’t distract Lord Val forever,” Jillas pointed out.
“I know,” Filia answered. But she could try.
“‘ey,” Jillas said, putting a gloved paw on her shoulder, “why don’t oi check out the miners’ offices meself and you take Lord Val along with you to see if anyone knows anything about Mister Peaceton and Avery? That way you two can talk—and oi’m sure Lord Val will see that you’re a good mum, even if you’re not related to ‘im by blood.”
“Alright…” Filia said, and tried to put on an agreeable smile. Talking with Val was the reason she’d brought him along, after all. But she dreaded that talking would inevitably mean questions that she could not answer—and answers that no child could understand or deal with.
Val bobbed up and down like a yoyo, sending the growing puddles on the pavement splashing upward. Under normal circumstances Filia might’ve asked him to stop—after all, aside from the wet clothes they’d left to dry in their hotel room, they didn’t have any spares—but she didn’t want to show herself as a scold. Suddenly every move she could make as a parent she was forced to second guess. Would this make him see her as less of his mother? Would that?
The clerk had done a decent job with Val’s makeshift raincoat. An old picnic blanket was waterproof and provided enough material to make him an acceptable covering—if a rather shapeless and unstylish one. At least you couldn’t say that he didn’t stand out. The red and white checkered pattern could probably be seen clearly from a distance even in the heavy rain and the steam that billowed from the ground.
Filia held Val’s hand and tried to keep him close to her side, under the umbrella that she was laboring to hold steady against the wind. She prayed that the town wouldn’t flood again. Enough was wrong in the world without having to deal with an evacuation procedure in a strange place. A little rain, she was fine with. But any more than that…
A look at the gutters, though, as she walked by, made her wonder if this town could even take a little rain. The drains were clogged with clumps of earth and trash and other unidentifiable things. They bubbled up with muddy goo. The ground had to be completely saturated with water already.
But, as she gripped Val’s hand in hers, she found all concerns about the weather had faded into the background. He hadn’t said a word to her since they set out for the library—the only place the woman at the front desk had a suspicion that they might find someone still around.
“You know, Val,” Filia tried as gently as she could, “I’m sure Jillas is wondering why you don’t want to call him ‘uncle’ anymore. It probably hurts his feelings.” She bit her tongue on that last line. It was cheap and emotionally manipulative, she knew. What’s more, Jillas was dealing with all of this far more easily than she was.
Val shrugged, apparently not undone by this. “But he’s not my uncle. Rolly said he can’t be my uncle since he’s a fox man and I’m not,” he said simply.
Filia found herself thinking more uncharitable things about Roland Dabner than a seven-year-old probably deserved. “Alright, so he and Gravos aren’t related to you. But who cares?” she pressed on. “They both love you so much—as though you were their nephew. It doesn’t matter if they don’t look like you: they’re still your uncles at heart.”
“I guess,” was Val’s answer, but he didn’t sound too convinced.
For a moment, the only sound was the rain lashing against the puddles and the walkways and the distant lake that had once been a quarry. Filia could see nothing of the depths of mineral richness it held, only the rippling sheet of water that covered it.
“You know, Mommy…” Val began, with worrying hesitance, “…you don’t look like me either.”
Filia’s step nearly faltered. She clenched his hand tighter in hers.
“Are you…” Val went on with difficulty. “Are you my real—?”
“Oh, look! It’s the library!” Filia cut him off desperately as the multistory building with the sign “Potter’s Field Public Library” came into view beyond the curtain of rain. “Let’s… hurry and get out of the rain,” she added, quickening her pace and pulling him along. His face was drawn and his steps were slow, but she spirited him up the short concrete stoop and in past the double doors.
She let go of his hand as she closed her soggy yellow umbrella. She’d expected Val to try again—to not be distracted—to bury her under a barrage of questions as soon as they were in the (comparatively) dry building. She’d dreaded that, knowing that she could only put him off for so long and not having a clue what to say to him when he got those questions out. But he wasn’t asking… he was just staring at the floor. That was no better; it was as though her deflection had confirmed for him the very worst.
But even in the face of this crushing sense of failure before her son, there was something she saw as she looked up from standing her umbrella against the wall that nearly stole all of her attention away. As a focal point amongst the shelves of books that lined the perimeter of the first floor there was a pedestal, and on that pedestal, rising so high that it could be seen from the balconies of the upper floors and even beyond that into the glass-domed roof, was a skeleton: a skeleton with a very reptilian countenance.
She stepped toward it as though entranced. For a moment a sense of creeping disgust gripped her—the fear that she was looking at one of her own, glued together with its dead frame supported by iron, standing before her as a decoration. But, though dragon it most certainly was, she realized very quickly that it was no golden dragon. It was too big, for one, and the snout was differently shaped, and from its elbows jutted out a spike that her kind simply did not have.
A droplet of cold water from the back of her neck dripped down her spine, but it was not the source of her chill. She moved forward to get a look at the plaque in front of the calcified giant, but it didn’t tell her what she really wanted to know. “Dragon” it said, as though that wasn’t already immediately obvious; “Donated by the Avery Family” it went on, followed by last year’s date. No more information was available.
Filia gulped. Perhaps it was just because it was a dragon skeleton… Well, it was reasonable that it should remind her of that time. She’d only seen dragon bones back then—that once. It didn’t have to be one of them… She lacked the expertise to say for sure. But… if it was… what was it doing in this town?
“Val… what do you…?” Filia began, trying to break from the sickening hold the sight of the bones had on her. But as she turned back the child was nowhere to be seen.
She whipped around abruptly. She hadn’t even so much as heard him move, but with a sinking sense of dread she realized that her attention had probably been too captured by the dragon skeleton to notice. Panic stole over her in a pins-and-needles chill across her skin.
“Val?” she called out. “Val… come out, sweetie…”
He’d run off. He’d run off at the exact moment that he’d come face to face with the idea that the woman who’d raised him wasn’t really his mother. Filia’s brain reeled as she tried to figure which direction to go—how to remedy this as quickly as possible and tamper down the panic. Had he gone past her and farther into the building while she’d been distracted by the skeleton? Or had he slipped out the same door they’d only recently come in and the sound had been drowned out by the ceaseless patter of rain.
“…Can I help you, miss?”
Filia really was in no state of mind for an out-of-nowhere approach and barely stopped herself from jumping. She turned around with a hand against her heart to see a bespectacled older man in a sweater vest. The librarian, she could only assume.
“Oh, yes,” Filia answered, catching her breath. Up until a moment ago, she would’ve wanted help in finding the quarry owners or learning the origins of the dragon skeleton. Now only one question really mattered. “Have you seen a little boy? Around seven years old. Short, blueish-green hair. My son.”
The man looked at her critically. “I’m afraid not,” he said after a moment. “Aside from my assistant, you’re the only other person I’ve seen today. Is he lost?”
“I…” Filia bit her lip. “I think he may have run off. I have to find him.”
The librarian shifted his weight, giving the matter some thought. “Well, I think I would’ve seen a little boy running around in my library, so it seems to me likely that he went outside—probably wanted to play in the rain. You know kids.”
“Y-yes,” Filia said, nodding gratefully. Ordinarily Val might’ve been one of those kids who just wanted to play in the rain, but today… “I’ll go and check then,” she said, turning back toward the door.
“Miss?” the librarian added hurriedly, trying to catch her before she left.
“Hm?” Filia tried, looking over her shoulder at him in distracted apprehension to get going.
“Word of advice,” the librarian said, “once you find your son, you both should try to get out of here as fast as you can. This rain’s only going to get worse. Just as soon as my assistant and I get the important books to the upper levels, we’re evacuating. You should too. It’s not safe.”
“Oh… of course,” Filia responded, lamenting sticking to her guns and staying in the town despite the rain. Now an impending flood was on the way and Val was gone… “I will,” she vowed and opened the doorway onto the downpour.
Her umbrella forgotten, she tried in vain to shield her eyes from the rain. “Val!” she shouted, no longer in the timid tone of hope that he’d be right behind her having only wandered off momentarily. That desperate illusion had worn off. “Val! Come out! Please, we can talk about this!”
Her only answer was a distant rumble of thunder. She strained her vision through the rain and the mist but there was no sign of Val in the growing darkness.
Though… yes… As the rain hastened into a likely-momentary lull, she could swear that she saw a distant, dark shape through the drizzle.
She leapt into the puddles of the street, which were even then starting to unify into a river. “Val, is that you?” she called out into the wind. As she tried to navigate through the drenched street, she noticed something—a tendril of red flowing down from the hunched over figure.
She quickened her pace.
No… Despite in the adrenaline-fueled haze of terror the sight had brought her, she could see that it wasn’t blood. Even born down by the water it was too thick to be blood. But, whatever the biological compound, the fact that it wasn’t blood did not give her any relief.
As she approached the figure, she stopped. She took a step back.
“What… what are…?”
Too small. It’d been obvious even from a distance that the thing had been too small to be Val if he was standing, but she thought perhaps he might’ve fallen. But this… whatever it was, whatever creature, it was standing up to its full height, its broad limbs stretched forward like an overgrown bat or bird.
It was coated in that heavy, red ooze that dripped from its underdeveloped wings like liquefied muscle tissue. Its neck lolled about as it turned its elongated snout up toward her. It had a boneless, jelly-like quality to its movements, as though it was unfinished—raw. Something in interminable misery. Something that wasn’t ready to exist yet.
The pathetic, yet horrible thing let out the shriek of a reaper and lunged at her leg, tearing into her skin with its milk teeth. She let out a cry and flinched away from it. Her hand reached automatically for her hip where her mace was holstered, but she hesitated before she could grab it. Somehow she couldn’t bring herself to strike against the wretched creature.
It lifted its head. She could see no eyes and, even if it had them she didn’t suppose it could see, covered in its bag of melting meat as it was. Yet somehow she got the sense that it was…
She turned her head, trying to keep one eye on the creature as she looked behind her. Through the fog there were more—each trailing its spilling flesh on the rain-soaked pavement. Each with an inhuman croak rolling without end from the depths of its throat.
They stopped in a tight circle around her. Each thing opened its mouth, displaying teeth that seemed to be the only truly finished thing about them. Strings of rot dripped from the blackened roofs of their mouths. Filia felt the sting of her ankle bleeding as she bit the bullet and reached under her skirt for the reassuring handle of her mace.
A column of distortion shuddered in front of her. For one heart-fluttering moment she thought it was Xellos—that he was fazing in to handle whatever this threat was. But when the distortion didn’t quickly solidify into his form, she knew something was wrong.
A white limb shot out of the shadowy void, grabbing the arm that had been reaching for her mace with clammy, bloodless fingers. She let out a cry that was quickly silenced as another hand reached vertically out from the region that should’ve been the entity’s head and covered her mouth.
She kicked and fought as still more hands reached out, grabbing her legs and pulling her down to the sodden ground. The creatures trod hungrily closer. She bit against the spectral hand in an attempt to sting the thing into releasing her and tasted copper. The white powder that covered its disembodied arms and hands seemed to flake away, leaving a green-tinged, metallic skin—like a gold coin that had been left at the bottom of the sea for a hundred years, to tarnish and accumulate algae.
The hands held off all her efforts with a strength that couldn’t be of this world as the things pressed their slime-covered bodies ever closer. All her cries muffled, she closed her eyes.
What is happening?! What is going on with this town…?
What can I…?
Filia’s eyes shot open. None of the usual, slow waking up elements of transition accompanied her shift from unconsciousness to consciousness. There was no slow eyelid flutter, no soft groan as the light from the window became too much to ignore and as the senses slowly perked up to register birdsong and domestic bustle. She’d gone from laid out on the bed with her eyes closed to sitting up and staring wide-eyed at the peeling wallpaper in two seconds flat.
“No…” she said, gazing down at the covers of her hotel room bed as though they’d betrayed her. “It wasn’t a dream,” she declared, as though she could scold reality.
“It probably wasn’t,” a voice agreed. “But, then again, I don’t know what you dream about.”
She looked over at the figure sitting in the chair next to her bed. You had to be impressed at Xellos’s ability to either completely blend in with the background or demand every ounce of attention that could be given depending on his purpose. Well, more often curse it than be impressed by it, but still.
“If it was passing out in the middle of a half-flooded street and nearly drowning yourself in two inches of water, then: no, it wasn’t a dream,” Xellos went on, all derision.
“I didn’t just pass out!” Filia snapped back. The way he said it made it sound like she’d gotten a bout of the vapors or something. “I was attacked! There are monsters out there!”
“There’s a monster in here,” he reminded her simply.
“I don’t mean like you!” Filia sputtered in frustration. “Didn’t you see them when you…” She paused. Saved her? Was that what came next? Picked up her unconscious body from the street and taken her back to the hotel until she came to? She wondered for a moment how he’d even known this was the place to go, but then remembered the key in her pocket.
“Nobody was around when I fished you out of the gutter,” Xellos answered the unfinished question. He leaned back in his chair and gave her an appraising look. “So, I suppose your monsters that are so unlike me—by which I suppose you mean that they had unattractive haircuts—must’ve fled before I arrived.”
“Don’t make fun!” Filia shouted back, slamming her fist down on cushy surface of her mattress. Her heart still pounded with fight-or-flight adrenaline. “Val’s out there with those things!”
Chastening herself for her moment of disoriented inaction, she whipped the covers off her and hoisted herself out of bed. “I’ve got to find him!”
Xellos, to his credit, did not continue to make fun. Instead he furrowed his brows and though appreciating that this was a matter worthy of some concern. “He’s not with Jillas or Gravos?” he asked.
“No, he was with me,” Filia answered wretchedly. “Gravos is back at home and Jillas is…” She paused. This drowning town she’d landed in was being invaded by evil creatures and she’d been too focused on Val to even stop and worry about Jillas, who was also out there on his own. She consoled herself that Jillas could likely take care of himself. It wasn’t as though he’d be caught unprepared. Despite her best attempts, she’d never broken him of the habit of packing firepower. He always had more than enough of that to spare.
With that thought in mind, she turned on her heel and headed out toward the common room of their suite. Xellos followed, slightly mystified as she popped open the suitcase Jillas had left on the couch. Amidst the spare eye patches and a diagram-filled notepad, she found what she was looking for.
“Won’t your mace get jealous?” Xellos asked as Filia lifted out the pistol—Jillas’s spare. Not his favored one, but a handy extra.
“If you saw what I saw, you wouldn’t want to get close to them either,” Filia explained shoveling bullets out of the case.
“That’s all well and good,” Xellos replied, skepticism oiling over his nasal tone, “but do you even know how to use that? It’s a little more sophisticated than just bashing someone upside the head.”
Filia glowered. She wasn’t in the mood for shots at her preferred fighting style or her competence. “Why don’t we find out?” she asked, pointing the gun at him.
Instead of doing the reasonable thing and flinching at the prospect of a gun in his face, he beamed. “An excellent idea,” he said, walking over to the opposite wall so that he was several paces away from her. He turned as though to present himself to her. “Take your best shot and then we’ll see whether you’re a marksman or a menace with that thing.”
The gun wavered in her hand. There had been days in the past—a lot of them, really—where she’d have paid a handsome price to shoot Xellos. But, given the opportunity on a silver platter, it suddenly seemed unpalatable.
She lowered her gun. “I don’t have time to mess around like this,” she said, shaking her head. “I have to find Val.”
He grinned. “Fine, but don’t expect this offer to come around again. Now,” he went on, walking back over to her and shifting gears, “where do you suppose we’d find your wayward son?”
Filia took a deep breath and let it out, thinking. There was nothing for Val in this town. Nothing he’d especially want, but… “He ran off when I was in the library,” she said slowly. “I thought he’d gone outside since the librarian hadn’t seen him… but maybe he just slipped past him and has been there the whole time?” She hoped that was true—and that the roving horrors of the street hadn’t broken in.
With a destination in mind, she tucked the borrowed gun into her cloak and reached for the door handle in the dim light.
“Do you intend on trailing blood the whole way there?” Xellos asked, nodding downwards.
Filia looked down in the direction he was indicating. Beyond the hem of her skirt, a trickle of blood was flowing where the wound on her ankle from earlier hadn’t crusted over. She knelt down and placed her hands in the air over it. “One of those creatures bit me,” she muttered before trying to gather energy in her hands.
And then… nothing.
Filia’s eyes widened. She straightened up abruptly and stared at her hands.
“Aren’t you going to heal it?” Xellos asked, raising an eyebrow.
“Shh!” she cautioned, holding up a finger in his direction. She concentrated on her other hand before saying, firmly and clearly: “Lighting.”
A small orb of illuminated magic rose from her palm. It sent a weak glow into the unlit room, highlighting the shadows instead of banishing them.
Xellos’s raised eyebrow arced downwards. He didn’t appreciate being shushed by a dragon, and particularly not in the name of letting her focus on the simplest spell in all magic.
She turned to look at him helplessly. “I can do this, but the healing spell wouldn’t…”
Now Xellos was paying attention. “Your magical powers are being suppressed?”
She nodded. Even magicians in the Outer World could handle lighting spells, and suddenly all she could pull off was a weak one. She willed the light to float away from her hand and hover just above her. It seemed to take much more energy than usual.
Xellos appeared to be giving the matter some thought. “This… wouldn’t happen to be a… ahem… monthly issue, would it?”
She was really starting to regret not shooting him when she had the chance. Turning her back on him, she wrenched the door open and stomped into the hall.
“I’ll take that as a ‘no,’” Xellos deduced lightly, following her out of the room. “In that case, it seems like there might be something strange going on in this town after all.”
“Anyone with eyes could see that!” Filia snapped. Closed or otherwise, Xellos did possess a set of those.
She glowered as she walked along the hall, making for the staircase. She didn’t know where he got off with that little “after all” comment. As though the appearance of horrifying creatures in the street hadn’t been evidence enough. What, did he think she’d made the whole thing up? Her bleeding leg would’ve begged to differ with him!
“Is there anything about this town that could explain some kind of… oh, let’s say dimensional distortion of some kind that could interfere with your magical abilities?” Xellos asked, trailing behind her.
Filia shrugged her shoulders. “It’s just a mining town,” she answered, mystified. “There’s nothing special about it as far as I know.” …Though that dragon skeleton in the library had been rather curious…
“Hmm,” he hummed thoughtfully behind her. “Then what brings you here?”
Her supply woes seemed so unimportant now that she hardly even wanted to get into them. “My clay supplier stopped sending me material, so I came to check on them,” she said, with a little dismissive wave of her hand. “It looks like they got flooded out and just left.”
“Well, you certainly didn’t pick a nice place to stay,” Xellos observed, as they reached the stairwell and the scent of waterlogged carpeting hit full force.
Filia grit her teeth. “I didn’t have a lot of options, you know.”
But she had to admit, as they descended the steps, that the place looked a great deal shadier than it had seemed when she’d first checked in. She tried to tell herself that the elements were the same—buckling, floral wallpaper; a scent of mold from the stained carpet; a brass banister along the wall. But yet... it had changed. It wasn’t just shabby; it was sinister. The water-damaged wallpaper had pulled away from the paneling in places, making it look like some unknowable thing was trapped between the wall and its cover. Every time Filia looked away, she could swear that she saw those pockets of air expand and contract, as though breathing. But when she looked back, they’d be perfectly still.
The place had been flooded already and was now only being lit by the weak orb of light she’d summoned. It was really no wonder, she told herself, that it looked a little spooky. The thing was… the real thing was that all of the sudden the place didn’t look like it had been flooded just a few weeks ago. It looked like it had been flooded a hundred years ago and then abandoned. The carpet sagged beneath her feet as though it was supported by flooring that had been regurgitated by termites. The metal railing felt greasy and cold under her fingertips. Every creak of every step sounded like a cry of pain.
Who could blame her for being jumpy? After Val’s disappearance… after the assault from those creatures… and now with something going wrong with her magic, it was as though nothing was as it seemed. Nothing could be trusted. That alone was enough to lengthen the shadows and make the skin crawl.
But perhaps it wasn’t just that events had put her in a fearful frame of mind. There were monsters out there… perhaps not Xellos’s kind, but more like the kind children fear to find under their beds, and adults tell themselves don’t exist as night falls and they find themselves alone. This was a manifestation much more visceral than the scheming souls who fought for control of the world. The things she’d encountered in the street felt evil in such an impulse-driven way that they were even more horrifying. Perhaps those things had dragged the whole town to hell along with them. As the rain pounded against the ceiling and washed up against the walls, it certainly felt that way.
Whatever those things were, they were enough to make Xellos’s presence seem almost comforting by comparison. Though it wasn’t remotely comforting to wonder what would’ve happened if Xellos hadn’t found her.
Come to think of it, far from being appropriate for him to ask her what she was doing there, she really should’ve asked him what he was doing. But it seemed like a waste of time. He’d say it was a “secret” anyway. It might not even have been a secret. Filia had a sneaking suspicion that he liked to withhold information for no other reason than to be annoying.
But this certainly wasn’t the first time that Xellos had unexpectedly popped up when there was trouble. In fact, that seemed to be his preferred time to appear. Filia could never be sure if that was because he was the source of the trouble or if he just showed up because he found other people’s troubles amusing. Either way, she felt like she had the astral equivalent of a bell around her neck.
She blinked as she reached the lowest landing, unable to believe her eyes as she got her first look at the lobby. It, like the rest of the hotel, was dark. And, strangely enough, the woman who’d been at the front desk was nowhere to be seen. But that wasn’t what immediately grasped Filia’s gaze and wouldn’t let go. The person standing by the front door… that flash of messy, aqua hair cascading over the back. Unmistakable. His.
“Val? …Val!” she shouted, tripping down the last couple steps to make it down.
Xellos remained a few steps up from the ground floor—reticent.
“Filia,” he said in a slow, clear voice, cutting through her mad dash to the figure, “that’s not Val.”
Filia stopped. The figure moved, unfolded. This was no child facing the door. This was not her boy. The tall one stood up and turned to face her. The stranger’s eyes were amber, and wide open with unmistakable fury. Even the eyes were familiar. But the white robed woman’s figure was not.
Filia opened her mouth to speak—to question what this stranger was doing—but the unexplained, yet thoroughly intense anger in her eyes stopped her. No… it wasn’t just that. There was a reason why she’d mistaken this grown woman for her child…
The strange woman braced her white hands against the double doors of the hotel. Her stare didn’t leave Filia as her fingers curled around the doorknob.
“I’ll take him back,” she intoned, every word inflected to have the sharpness and temperature of an icepick.
It was only then that Filia noticed water leaking in from the crack beneath the door.
The woman ripped the door open, sending a torrent of water crashing into the lobby. Filia fell jarringly backwards, the collar of her coat pressing painfully against her neck, as Xellos pulled her back onto the steps.
The water seemed to exist in endless quantities. There couldn’t possibly have been so much, Filia couldn’t help but think against the shock and confusion, since she’d last been outside. The deluge flowed into the low-ceilinged room, pouring over the counter tops and splashing up the staircase.
And through all that, the woman just kept staring at Filia with the same wrath in her eyes. She didn’t even seem to notice the ocean rising to her shoulders, slapping its way up her chin and engulfing her mouth and nose. The dam had broken. The water rushed in with no consideration for its liberator.
With the indoor river lapping against her heels, Filia let Xellos lead her by the hand up the stairs—to the high ground of the second floor.
“Who was that?” Xellos asked once they’d reached the top of the staircase.
Filia still had her neck craned, looking behind her and down the steps. The water, always just two or three steps behind them, had stopped, finally, just short of the top. Its surface swayed slightly, but it no longer seemed propelled upward by the river of water from the first floor. “I… I don’t know,” Filia answered. The image of the woman’s fierce glare was stuck in her mind. Though she knew anyone who hadn’t escaped the tide must’ve drowned, she nevertheless couldn’t help but feel that the woman was still there—unmoved and unappeased at the bottom of an interior lake.
“She seemed to know you,” Xellos observed. He let go of her hand and walked a few steps forward, looking down the hall at the number-lined doors. “In any case, I don’t think we’ll be getting out through the front door.”
Filia tried to shake herself away from the sight of the water that now blocked their exit. How could all this have accumulated so fast? It was puddles before and now… the whole first floor was underwater. How long… how long had she been unconscious?
She bit her lip. The water was so high now and Val had been out there for goodness only knew how long. And then there were those creatures and… that woman…
I’ll take him back.
Xellos cocked his head toward one of the doors. “Perhaps we could find a window?”
Filia closed her eyes, forcing herself to push away any paralyzing anxiety. They had to move now…
She walked past him, placing her hand on the knob of the nearest door. She tried to turn it, but it wouldn’t budge. She grit her teeth. “One of these has to be unlocked,” she said, moving on to the next door over.
“…That’s not necessarily true,” Xellos pointed out, drifting after her, a slight smile on his face. “But I’ll take that as a declaration of your resolve to find a way out more so than a statement of fact.”
...The cold never bothered me anyway.
31st October 2013, 7:39 AM
Filia tried another door, but it stuck fast. Well, the hotel hadn’t been renting out lower rooms, so it made sense. But going up to her own unlocked room wasn’t a good solution either. That high up, a fall into the waters below wasn’t exactly feasible. There wouldn’t be room to transform and, with her magic suppressed, she wasn’t even sure if she could.
Xellos edged along behind her, supervising her efforts with mild interest. He could’ve tried to be helpful—he could’ve rattled at the doors along the opposite wall. Or he could’ve even seen if his own magic was working and helped to break them out with that. But it was always like this with Xellos. He mooched along and rarely did anything helpful. It was just annoying at home when she was trying to get dinner on the table, but with a lost child… it was more serious than that. But she was too distracted to properly rage at him.
She turned toward him, cupping her left shoulder in her right hand and looking at the floor. “Xellos,” she began uncertainly, “is there any way that there could be other ancient dragon survivors… besides Val, I mean?”
Xellos stared at her. “Of course not,” he answered. “Whatever else you could say about the Golden Dragons, they’re at least thorough. The only reason Val managed at all was because he joined with Gaav.”
Filia walked slowly to the next door. She knew all that, and yet…
“Why do you ask?” Xellos pushed.
“Oh, it’s just…” Filia began, she wanted to say “nothing” and just drop the whole thing, but it nagged at her too much. “That woman… don’t you think she looked a little like Val?”
Xellos raised his eyebrows, but appeared to give the notion a little thought. “I suppose they did have a similar hair color,” he admitted, “but actually, I thought if she resembled anyone, it would be you.”
Filia turned to give him a mystified look, her hand still braced on the doorknob. “Me?”
“Same face shape, same body type, same default expression,” Xellos ticked off on his fingers. “You know, you look the exact same way she did when you’re angry.”
Filia removed her gaze from him, clucking her tongue in exasperation. If Xellos thought that mysterious woman looked like her for that reason, then she was pretty sure that was only because he was so used to seeing her mad. Over the years, she’d probably just become his natural image of female fury.
No, the woman didn’t look anything like her. But she did resemble Val. It was tempting to think… but no, they couldn’t be related. Xellos was right. The ancient dragons were all gone—save Val.
But yet… the appearance of that woman… and that dragon skeleton from earlier… could it all really be just a coincidence?
Before her thoughts could take her anywhere, she heard the turning of a knob she’d expected to stay fast in place. She blinked away her surprise and let the door creak open.
The pale light from her spell fell into the opening, illuminating a room in disarray. Broken bottles large and small littered the carpet with spilled liquids and unidentified powders. The bedclothes had been torn down and lay on the floor in unwashed heaps. The greyed mattress was askew and a large, tea-colored stain blotched across its center. The place smelled of rot and shattered hopes and bodily fluids.
“Well,” Xellos said in a tone that Filia would have to classify as weirdly impressed. He strode past her into the room and gave it a look-around, “I’d say that this is the place where a great night turned into a horrible one.”
Filia stepped in gingerly after him, not wanting to touch anything.
Xellos, who didn’t share her reticence, hunkered down to get a better look at the paraphernalia that lay on the floor just next to the bed. He dipped a glove pinky into the spilled dusting from one of the smaller bottles and tasted it. “Yes, the exact place,” he confirmed.
“What is that?” Filia asked, edging closer.
He smiled up at her. “Just a certain mind-expanding substance. Nothing you’d be familiar with, right?”
She bristled. “Of course not!”
“Oh really?” he asked, brushing off the substance onto his cloak. “You have been seeing some strange things lately,” he pointed out, as though this was evidence of hallucinogen-intake on her part.
“So have you!” she snapped back.
He shrugged as though her definition of “strange” greatly varied from his.
“Hmm?” he said, catching sight of something halfway under the bed and obscured amongst the rubbish. He scooped up what turned to be a book. “‘The Fairy Thief,’” he read, examining the cover. “I’ve heard of this… I wonder what it’s doing in a place like this?”
Filia looked away from him. She hadn’t come to this room to discuss drugs and she certainly hadn’t come to join an impromptu book club. She headed for the curtains—much shabbier than the ones in her room—to see if she could get out through the window. She stepped over the discarded sheets and snagged her boot on them accidentally, disturbing some hidden beetles that had been nesting in the fabric. They skittered off into the corners of the room, their fat, translucent bodies filled with a dark red liquid that quivered back and forth as though they were living vials.
Xellos took her yelp of surprise as an expression of interest. “It’s a story about a woman whose son is kidnapped by fairies.”
Filia’s annoyance calmed her jackhammering heartbeat. She was already having to deal with a missing child in real life. She didn’t have the time to spare caring about a fictional loss.
“The fairies leave behind a decoy so as not to be noticed,” Xellos went on, oblivious to this fact. He turned a page. “…A piece of wood that’s been enchanted to appear like the woman’s son.”
That was a little too odd to just let pass. “…Who in their right mind would buy that?” she demanded. She’d heard of wooden acting, but…
“Not the mother,” Xellos said simply. “Unfortunately for her, the rest of the people in her village did.” He shrugged his shoulders. “It’s hard to take someone complaining about her missing son seriously when, by all outward appearances, he’s standing right next to her. They thought she was crazy and in the end they locked her up.” His conclusive tone was a little too bright and cheery for his subject matter.
Filia turned back toward the window. Yes… a story about a desperate woman who would do anything to get her child back, even if it meant looking insane in order to do it. Even if it failed. As long as there was a chance. She took a deep breath and pulled back the curtains.
“Oh my,” Xellos said, looking beyond her. “It’s really been raining chimeras and dragons out.”
Filia stared out into the grey exterior. Second floor. They were on the second floor and the water level had already crawled more than halfway up the window. “Chimeras and dragons” didn’t even begin to cover it. “This is not normal rain,” she insisted in a gloomy voice.
She tried to grasp around in the dark of her soul for hope. Get out of the hotel, go to the library, hope Val was inside, find him. There had been a plan. But now, with the water getting higher and higher, she had to come to grips with the unthinkable.
“…It’s gotten so bad out there,” she said in hushed tones. “How could he—all by himself, I don’t know if he’d be able to…” She couldn’t go to any of those places. Couldn’t follow up on her estimation of her young boy’s ability to survive in rapidly worsening flood conditions. Her vision blurred as she looked out into the dirty water outside the window.
“…Why is he out there all by himself?” Xellos asked, as though this was a question that had been growing in his mind for quite some time. “It’s not like him to just run off.”
Filia tried to control herself, but a lump was rising in her throat. “He… he’s starting to think that he’s adopted.”
Xellos paused for consideration. “Well, he is,” he answered.
“I know that!” Filia snapped, her voice breaking into a sob. “Why doesn’t anyone think I know that?!”
There was a thoughtful pause from Xellos. “I can see how this is a bit of a predicament for you. There are certain things you’d rather not tell him.”
Filia dragged the side of her hand across her eyes, trying to will them to stop weeping. She was glad Xellos couldn’t see her face. “He’s just a child,” she said thickly. “He’s not ready to know about everything that happened.”
“Yes,” Xellos agreed, an uncomfortable slyness mixed in with his understanding agreement. “And ‘Mommy’s people killed everyone you ever knew and loved’ is such a difficult conversation to have with a first grader.”
Filia’s mouth fell open. “That’s not…” she tried, but she cursed herself. It was never, ever wise to show emotional vulnerability around Xellos. Other people’s tragedy was a cudgel to be mean-spiritedly wielded.
She swallowed audibly. “I was only trying to do what was best for him,” she said. It sounded so weak. “He wouldn’t understand…”
“You’re a liar.”
Filia froze. The voice was familiar. So were the words. But they didn’t match with one another. Not quite.
“Ah, the prodigal son,” Xellos said. Filia sensed that the amused interest in his tone was only a veneer. Xellos liked to act like everything was just as he’d expected, but this wasn’t.
Filia revolved slowly to face the source of the voice. It was Val. Of course it was Val. After all, it had been his voice. But seeing him standing in the doorway, framed against the musty hall, with his eyes looking past her, she knew it wasn’t him either. Or, rather, it wasn’t the Val she’d known of late. He’d said those words—just that way—to the Supreme Elder, but then he’d been…
“What you fear most is not that Val won’t understand,” the child’s figure continued in bizarre third-person. “What you’re really afraid of is that he will understand. And what will that mean for you? What will that mean for the sin of the Golden Dragons which you hoped would remain buried?” His expression was blank, but the voice was passionate, vindictive, manic. “Just as you hoped that I would remain buried.”
She drew in a breath. She didn’t know how, just like she didn’t know what had brought him back there—what had helped him find them in that dank hotel room. But still, he could only be…
“Valgaav…” she breathed out.
He didn’t blink. “…At least the remaining memory,” he confirmed. “I have been forgotten, but I am not gone,” he said, as though he could etch word of his existence in stone. “…Much to your disappointment,” he added sourly. “Isn’t that why you raised me as you would a Golden Dragon?” he asked. “In the hopes that you could stamp me out? Make a new, more pliable Val out of the blank slate of a child?”
Filia opened her mouth to speak. “That wasn’t how…” she began, but… Now, hold on. Who had her role models been for mothering Val? Her grandmother, the brief recollections of her own mother, the matronly older priestesses? Well, how could she have helped it if they were all Golden Dragons? There were no more Ancient Dragons to present a countering example. And she knew next to nothing about them even besides that.
Yes, she realized. The race of the Ancient Dragons lived on in Val, but their culture was dead; not even fossilized so that a pale imitation could be conjured; dead and gone.
“Or perhaps,” the memory of Valgaav allowed, “that was just all you ever knew.” The phantom wasn’t making excuses for her. There was no forgiveness in his tone. Simply the acknowledgement that she was severely, disappointingly limited.
“And as though being raised like one of the destroyers of my race wasn’t enough,” Valgaav continued. Filia would’ve expected his nostrils to flare in anger, but the body of Val remained motionless, “you had to start playing house with that monster. My ‘mother’ the Golden Dragon—murders of my people. My ‘father’ the monster—killers of my Lord Gaav.”
Xellos shrugged. “I always considered myself more of a cool uncle.”
“He’s not like that at all,” Filia came back with, wishing that Xellos would not consider himself anything. “And I wouldn’t even let him near you at all if I thought he’d hurt you! That’s all I’ve done any of this for,” she insisted, feeling fresh tears roll down her cheeks, “to protect you from being hurt. That’s why I hadn’t told you everything yet.”
Val gave her a long, unseeing stare. “The only thing you’ve protected me—protected yourself—from is the truth,” he finally said, “and that will come out no matter what you do. …And so will I.”
Those last words came out as a hiss. Layered under the childlike tone of Val, there was the deeper voice of Valgaav. His form shuddered. Blackness seized him. It was like when Dark Star had first been summoned all over again. He was peeled away by the darkness piece by piece.
Where the… ghost? The memory? The trick? Whatever it had been, when it vanished into nothing, two strips of wood joined at the center with twine fell to the ground. It formed a cross… or an X.
Filia sunk to her knees, her hands over her mouth.
“Well now, an enchantment? Really?” Xellos said, as per usual, much more at ease than she. He drummed his fingers against the book he’d found thoughtfully. “This is very good news.”
Filia’s eyes were still on the spot where what had seemed to be her child had stood. His accusations rung in her head. “What could possibly be good about it?” she asked in a hushed voice.
“Because,” Xellos went on, striding forward to place the book on the filthy, tilted mattress, “it means that someone’s messing with you.”
Xellos seemed to give this an extra bit of thought and then let out a sigh. “…And here I thought we were exclusive,” he added.
Filia turned her head to stare at him. Her eyes were still wet with tears and her emotions close to the surface. At this point, even incomprehension could’ve pushed her into crying again. “There’s nothing at all good about that!”
“On the contrary,” Xellos disagreed, holding up a lecturing index finger. “We now know that someone or something in this town has a bone to pick with you. And, whoever they are or whatever they want, it has something to do with Val—the real one. I can think of few other reasons to feature him in an illusion.”
“You’re just making it sound even worse,” Filia pointed out. She was reaching her breaking point with his topsy-turvy value judgments.
“Filia,” Xellos went on, taking great pains to communicate that he was being patient with her inability to catch up, “if he’s important to whatever is behind this, then that means he is most likely being kept alive—at least for now. Whereas a flood is a mindless force of nature that would roll over Val without caring or even noticing.” He stooped over to give her a slightly closer look. “Malevolent interest is better than indifference, after all.”
Filia closed her eyes and took several deep breaths. It was such a nasty, desperate little hope—that Val was alive because whatever source of nightmare creatures and water and horror that was out there had designs on him. It was the best kind of optimism you could expect out of a monster, though, and it was better than nothing.
“So you think… someone’s taken him?” she asked in a quavering voice.
“That seems likely,” Xellos said, reaching down and picking up the wooden cross that had held the image of Val and the voice of Valgaav.
“So…” Filia trailed off, looking from the wooden cross to the book that Xellos had left on the bed, “…fairies?” It sounded silly even in her head.
Xellos looked at the cross and frowned. “…That seems unlikely.”
“Then what?” Filia demanded.
“I’m not sure,” Xellos answered, walking over and passing the cross down to her, “but it’s leading you somewhere.”
Filia took the cross numbly. Carved into the wood grain were the numbers: 342.
“Will you follow?” Xellos asked.
Filia gripped the cross in one hand and wiped her eyes with the other. She stood up.
“Let’s go,” she said hoarsely.
...The cold never bothered me anyway.