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Thread: The Oracle's Wish (Slayers) - Complete

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    Default The Oracle's Wish (Slayers) - Complete

    Rating: PG-PG-13
    Fandom: Slayers
    Genre: Adventure/Romance
    Status: Complete
    Pairing: Zelgadis/Amelia, Xellos/Filia (and later a little Martina/Zangulus)

    Author's Note: I've been working on development of this story for-evah and now it's finally getting written. It takes place after Slayers Try. Note that I have not seen Slayers Revolution yet so there will not be any reference to it. The main pairing would be Zelgadis/Amelia with some Xellos/Filia later on. I'm going to try to hold myself to a concrete schedule when I update this, but we'll see how that goes By the way, I am aware of just how girly the title of this fic is, but it won out since the rest of my titles sounded more appropriate with "Scooby-doo and the" in front of them XD Also posted on fanfiction.net under my name there.

    *****

    Prologue.

    It was a good-bye meal of sorts after the commotion that had been following them all this time. Well, not really. They wouldn’t call it that. After all, Filia had already gone on her own way and Xellos had disappeared soon after that. Tomorrow Lina and Gourry would be going off on their own to find treasure, cause trouble, and eat up a storm across the land. Amelia would be heading back to Seyruun at sunrise as well. After all, princesses can’t just go wandering all the time if they’re responsible, she found herself thinking somewhat bitterly. And Zelgadis? Well, you can guess.

    “Mister Zelgadis?” Amelia asked tentatively.

    The dining room of the inn was fairly empty. The rowdier drinkers were fishing around in their pockets and making sheepish, slurred excuses about their “pants being in their other wallet” before readying to make their staggering way home. The bartender was idly cleaning a glass with a rag. It was more busy work to wait until closing time came then any kind of productive action.

    Gourry and Lina had passed into gluttony-induced slumbers after their respective 22nd helping of chicken and 30th helping of lasagna and were currently drooling on the floor. Lina muttered something about not wanting any “lobster pudding” and Gourry something about “rats… always biting my face…”, but otherwise the two were quiet.

    Zelgadis and Amelia were still picking at the leftovers. Sometimes it’s easier to get a real meal after Gourry and Lina have finally finished. There’s less chance of losing a finger too.

    Zelgadis looked up from the remains of a roasted lamb. “What?”

    “I was just wondering,” Amelia said, her eyes turned away, “If you’d given any more thought to the idea of coming back to Seyruun with me.”

    Zelgadis swallowed his food and deliberately put his knife and fork on the plate in front of him. “I have,” he said. “Given it some thought, that is,” he added to clarify.

    “And?”

    Zelgadis sighed and leaned his chin against his hands. “Look, it’s not that I don’t want to go exactly,” he said. “It’s just that there are so many leads I’ve still got to follow. I know it might be a futile quest, and I don’t expect you to understand, but it’s important to me. So I just don’t have time to go with you now. Maybe some other time.”

    There was a pause. Then Amelia said, “I understand.”

    Zelgadis had his doubts about that, but had the decency not to say so. He turned to see Amelia loosening one of the white-magic enforced bracelets she always wears. Before he could ask why she reached out, grabbed his hand, and placed the amulet in his palm. “Here.”

    Zelgadis looked at her quizzically and said, “…Why?” That seemed to about cover it.

    Amelia shrugged as though she hadn’t really thought out her odd gesture and didn’t consider that to be any big deal. “I don’t know,” she said. “I guess so you won’t forget about me when you’re out traveling the world.” By “traveling the world” she probably meant stealing grimoires, interrogating scholars, and knocking down temples.

    Zelgadis looked away. For someone so eager to return himself to all things human, he wasn’t so keen on showing human emotions. “Is this one of those ‘friends in justice’ things?” he asked, trying to recover himself.

    Amelia smiled a little smile. “Something like that.”

    Chapter 1. The Return

    Zelgadis Greywords sat in the ruinous remains of an ancient temple in the midst of a staring contest with his canteen. There wasn’t much else to do after all, since the texts that the temple held were completely useless. To be fair, they were quite useful if you wanted to say, conduct a festival to bring rain, or ward off lesser-demons, or even if you wanted to know what Ceipheed considered to be the only proper way to construct an alter to it. They were useless, though, if your goal was to change yourself back to your human form after some freaking red priest turned you into a stoney-faced chimera.

    In any case, there was nowhere to go at the moment. A sandstorm of truly epic proportions was brewing outside, so leaving was out of the question. So, Zelgadis shook sand out of his cape for the seventy-fifth time in the last hour and continued to stare at his canteen.

    “It’s not like I’ve been avoiding it on purpose,” he said to an audience of approximately no one. “There’ve just been so many other things to do.”

    The canteen and the object perched on top of it stared back at him in judgment.

    “I don’t need people who aren’t involved in this getting in the way,” he snapped back at the silent objects.

    The canteen and the object perched on top of it considered this in an inanimate sort of way, but both seemed unmoved.

    “I’ve-,” Zelgadis began before suddenly stopping. He paused and shook his head. “I’ve got nowhere left to go and I’m talking to myself,” he declared before picking up the object on top of his canteen gingerly. He held it warily and took a drink from his canteen.

    The storm was raging now, he thought, but it’d be over soon. Sandstorms were common in this region and could be deadly if shelter wasn’t found, but they didn’t last.

    He looked over the top of his canteen at Amelia’s bracelet, still in his hand and couldn’t help but smiling a little.

    “Maybe I have been traveling alone for too long.”

    *****

    “I’m awake,” Amelia mumbled groggily as she unstuck a treaty from her face and took her elbow out of the inkwell.

    “Now you are,” an aide agreed.

    Amelia, still in a bit of a daze from her nap, attempted to wipe the ink off of her elbow with a newly proposed law before the aid deftly removed it from her possession.

    She yawned and stretched. Sometimes being a princess was such boring work. It wasn’t all justice and bravery, she reflected sadly. A very large amount of it was paperwork, and since Daddy was more of a bottom-line kind of person that meant she was stuck with a lot of the clerical duties. It was important work, she knew, but still…

    She blinked and looked around. There was a great deal of shouting in the halls and rushing about of the castle guards. “What’s going on?” she asked the aide.

    “That’s what I was trying to tell you,” the aide said bad-temperedly. “Some weirdo is out there fighting the castle guards.”

    “What?!” Amelia shouted as she stood up, suddenly wide awake.

    She tore down the passageway scattering proposals and treaties to the wind and leaving the unfortunate aide to clean up the mess. She stopped to catch her breath at the bottom of the stairs only for a moment and heard, in the outer courtyard, the clang of metal on metal.

    She rushed out into the sunlight. The situation looked bad, but it could’ve been worse. About three guards were barely managing to hold back a swords stroke with a single spear, two having been knocked out of their reach. A few other guards were out of the action, but the good news was that they didn’t seem to be badly hurt.

    Amelia braced herself. If only the guards would get out of the way then she could get a clear shot at the assailant. With the element of surprise she was sure she could…

    The guards were flung aside and onto the cobblestones where the worst injury that awaited them was a bruised tail-bone, which isn’t fun, but isn’t being skewered on a sword point either. Amelia began chanting as the white-clad fighter came into view.

    Wait a minute…

    “Flare Arrow!” Amelia shouted, redirecting the molten projectile up into the air at the last minute.

    The man in white’s gaze followed the spell. “Freeze Arrow!” he shouted, sending a bolt of ice straight for it.

    The two spells met in the air with a crackle like fireworks and the hiss of steam as the flames were extinguished and a light patter of warm rain fell to the street below.

    Amelia held up her hand until the drizzle stopped. “That was close,” she said.

    “You’re telling me,” agreed the man, walking forward.

    “Well,” Amelia said. “I didn’t know it was you, Mister Zelgadis.”

    “I could tell by the way you almost shot me,” Zelgadis said, lowering the scarf over his face.

    Amelia smiled and there was a glimmer in her eyes. After all, she appreciated a dramatic entrance more than anyone. “It’s really nice to see you again.”

    Zelgadis said nothing, but wished he’d left on the scarf. You’d think that a trade-off for having a stone face would be losing the ability to blush, but no, there can’t even be small favors. He rummaged in his pocket and muttered something. He took out the object he was looking for and tossed it in her direction.

    She caught it in both hands and looked down at it. “This…”

    “Your bracelet,” he said.

    She grinned broadly and threw it back to him. She held up her arm displaying her left wrist. “It’s alright. I’ve got a new one.”

    Zelgadis was busy giving her a “and what do you expect me to do with this?” look when the thundering of footsteps attracted their gaze toward the entryway.

    “Back villain!” Phil shouted as he burst through the scenery lobbing the helmet of a fallen guard blindly ahead of him. Crash! He paused as adrenaline released his hold. “Oh, it’s you,” he smiled and looked sheepish. “Sorry about that!”

    “I guess I should be used to that by now,” Zelgadis said, eyeing the battered helmet wedged two inches deep into the cement wall where his head was just a second ago. He gave the helmet an experimental tug and… nope, wall and helmet will never be torn asunder. You had to hand it to Phil, the man was good.

    Phil’s smile faded a fraction as he noted his hopelessly defeated personnel. “Not to be pushy or anything,” he began in his usual gruff but friendly voice, “but why did you pick a fight with my guards?”

    “Hey, that’s right,” Amelia said as though this had just occurred to her. Which it had.

    “I didn’t pick a fight with them. They attacked me.” Zelgadis, never being one to shy away from playing the chimera card, added, “I guess my appearance put them off.”

    “Oh!” Amelia said indignantly before leaning toward the nearest guard. “How many times have I told you guys never to judge people by appearances?!”

    “He… can’t hear you, Amelia,” Zel said, giving the unconscious soldier a sidelong glance. Even if those guys had attacked him, being knocked cold should excuse you from having to hear any justice-based lectures.

    “Well,” Amelia said, straightening up, fists clenched. “Be sure we’ll have a word with them about this when they’ve regained consciousness.”

    “Good to know,” Zelgadis said indifferently.

    It was then that Zelgadis noticed the crowd that had gathered to watch the fight. The people of Seyruun have perhaps a greater appreciation for “street theater” then those of any other city due to the, uh, interesting behavioral patterns of the royal family. There’d usually be some good entertainment to be had outside the palace. He put his hood back up.

    “We should probably get inside,” Amelia said, looking from the crowd to Zelgadis with an apprehensive expression on her face.

    “I won’t argue with that,” Zelgadis said quietly.

    Phil waved to his people energetically as his daughter and the hooded man made their way inside the castle gates. “Nothing to see here, good people. Just a misunderstanding.”

    The crowd looked questioningly from Phil to the out-cold guards and back to Phil.

    “A violent misunderstanding.”

    *****

    “You haven’t asked me why I came here yet,” Zelgadis noted as he and Amelia strolled through the peaceful courtyard. He looked around uneasily, hoping that no one was gawking at him. He always felt apprehensive in big cities and the castle itself was full to the brim with the benevolently curious. He didn’t really buy Amelia’s idea that, “Maybe they’re just looking at someone behind you”, but you never knew. Luckily the place seemed fairly deserted today. He guessed that the castle’s occupants might have something better to do with their time than studying their strange guest… something like running a kingdom. Amelia didn’t seem to be as busy as a princess ought to be considering the royal task he was following her on was basically inventorying the garden.

    “Well, no,” Amelia said, reaching one of the many bird-feeders that decorated the landscape and checking the seed level. She didn’t say anything else.

    This response seemed somewhat off to Zelgadis. “What? Do you not want to know?” he asked incredulously.

    “It’s not that,” Amelia said, making a mark in her notepad as they made their way to the next marble feeder. “It’s just… well…” She seemed to be having difficulty describing just what it was.

    “What?”

    She twisted her face toward him and adopted a watchful, uncertain expression. “It’s just that, y’know, I mean, I know you’re here for a reason. But I was thinking that I shouldn’t assume you do. You don’t have to have a reason to come here. So I thought I’d just… act like you were only visiting until you brought it up,” she finished somewhat meekly.

    Zelgadis considered this doubtfully. Going to the trouble to travel somewhere all for the purposes of shooting the breeze seemed a little bit stupid and, in any case, just wasn’t his style. No, he was the type to have a goal in mind and get straight to the point. All the niceties of such social calls seemed like such a waste of time.

    On the other hand, though, isn’t that what he’d done the last two days? It’s one thing to wait until after supper to blurt out the reasons for your presence, but two days? He’d had plenty of time to bring it up but kept letting the opportunities pass him by. After all, it had been… well, nice not to worry about things like infiltrating cults or getting buried alive under ruins for a little while.

    “So, why did you come here then?” Amelia asked, knowing which way the winds were blowing.

    Zelgadis looked down at the ground. When it came down to it, it was hard to say that… “Unfortunately it seems that, I’m just out of ideas and out of leads.” And out of money, he added silently to himself. “Don’t get me wrong, I’m not going to just give up, but I thought I could come here to figure out what to do next.”

    Amelia nodded, her eyes cast determinedly on the ground. “Of course.” When she looked up her eyes were blazing and her fists were clenched. “And I’ll do everything I can to help.”

    Zelgadis sighed and resisted the urge to either roll his eyes or bury his head in his hands at Amelia’s typical, poorly thought-out exuberance. “Now look,” he began. “As I’ve told you so many times before this is my—”

    “Hold that thought,” Amelia said, halting and stretching her arm out in front of him.

    “What?” Zelgadis asked, looking at her irritably. She nodded at the path in front of them. He turned his gaze and found a new question to ask. “What the heck is that?”

    “It’s the last bird feeder,” she said simply.

    “But that thing’s got to be fifteen feet!” he said, looking up at the marble monstrosity. It was big, it was tall, and it wasn’t as covered in bird crap as you might think. It was clearly well maintained and expensive. Friezes of birds of all sizes from hummingbirds to eagles decorated the sides of it and the basin on top which presumably held the bird food was carved to look just like a dragon’s mouth. Zelgadis found himself thinking that if he were a bird he’d do his best to avoid that particular "restaurant".

    “It’s the biggest bird feeder in Seyruun,” Amelia said, with civic pride shining in her eyes. “It’s mainly for the Vlatian condor, since they fly over here during their migration.”

    “…And the dragon?” Zelgadis asked with eyebrows raised.

    “Oh, that’s just decoration,” Amelia laughed. “I don’t think anyone actually expects a dragon to use it. I guess it is a little extreme though.”

    “No kidding. What’s the bird seed? Rats?” Zelgadis asked jokingly.

    “Mice actually.”

    “Oh.”

    “Well,” Amelia said, squaring up to do the job at hand. “I better go check on those mice then. See if they need anymore food.”

    “Hang on,” Zelgadis said. “Why do you care if the mice you’re just going to feed to the giant birds of prey have food?”

    “The condors like live mice,” Amelia said, not a little bit uneasy with the notion.

    “Of course,” Zelgadis said mockingly. “Why didn’t I think of that?”

    “I better get going then,” Amelia said, striding up to the monument. “Here I go.” She gripped the edge of a carving of a goose leisurely crossing a busy street and lifted herself up.

    Zelgadis watched with slight amusement as Amelia climbed her way up the giant statue. “Couldn’t you just use levitation?” he asked perplexedly.

    “But I like climbing,” Amelia said in a tired but cheerful voice from half-way up.

    This time Zelgadis did roll his eyes. Of course Amelia liked climbing and high places and things like that. Back when they were traveling with Lina and Gourry It seemed like every time you turned your back she had climbed a tree and started off a justice speech. Maybe it was because she liked being a booming voice from heaven or maybe idiots really do like high places. Maybe both.

    “I hope you like falling too. You’re gonna break your neck one of these days.”

    Amelia laughed, but either Zelgadis’s words rung prophetic or had just messed up her concentration, but the next words out of her mouth were “Whoops” as her fingers slipped on a particularly vicious looking relief of an ostrich followed by a scream as she hurtled back toward the ground.

    “Amelia!” Zelgadis shouted as he ran toward the base of the bird feeder, arms outstretched and… thlump. Caught her.

    “Ow,” she said, more out of surprise than pain.

    “Ow is right,” Zelgadis said irritably. “Next time just use levitation!”

    “Sorry,” she said, looking up at him in a way that was making him uncomfortable that he was still holding onto her.

    Their gazes were broken by heavy footsteps approaching them from the path behind. “Amelia!” a gruff, but familiar voice called. “Have you seen where I put that speech I was writing about the…” Phil stopped short as he reached them.

    “Hi Daddy!” Amelia said with her usual smile and wave. Zelgadis abruptly helped her back onto the ground where she belonged.

    Phil was quiet and looked miles away. Amelia kept smiling her determined smile and Zelgadis just as determinedly look at the ground. The only sound in the courtyard was the squeaking of mice some fifteen feet above them.

    “You were looking for something?” Amelia cued in helpfully.

    Phil appeared to come back to reality. “No, it’s nothing. What are you doing out here anyway? I thought Marcus was doing inventory this week.”

    “He was, but I thought I’d show Mister Zelgadis the grounds so I offered to do it.”

    “I see,” the crown-prince murmured thoughtfully. “That reminds me,” Phil said, turning to Zelgadis and grabbing his elbow in his meaty paw. “I’ve got to talk to you about something.” He began leading Zelgadis off before he had the chance to protest.

    “Is there something wrong, Daddy?” Amelia asked worriedly, jogging to keep up with them.

    “It’s nothing, Amelia,” Phil said with a fake smile plastered on his face. “You go on, we’ll see you at dinner.”

  2. #2
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    Chapter Two. A Shrine-Maiden Says What?

    So before Zelgadis knew it he’d been dragged onto a terrace and was left to try to massage the feeling back into his arm while Prince Phil, so eager to talk to him before, stared blankly into the sky.

    “So,” Zelgadis said, a little more loudly than usual in the hopes of snapping Phil out of his uncharacteristic moment of introspection. “You wanted to talk about something?”

    Phil looked up at Zelgadis in surprise as though he had forgotten he was there. Then he sighed, as though carrying a heavy burden. He turned back toward the sky and said, “She looks just like her mother, you know.”

    “Who?”

    “Amelia.”

    “Oh,” Zelgadis said. And because he realized that he was talking to the crown-ruler of Seyruun he did not say “So?”

    “I remember the first time I met her mother,” Phil said, leaning against the railing. “She was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen.”

    “Is,” Zelgadis began, trying to both get to grips with the conversation and derail the reminiscence train he could hear coming. “Is that what you wanted to talk to me about?”

    “For awhile after she died,” Phil went on, as though he hadn’t heard. “I didn’t know what I was going to do without her.” For a terrible moment Zelgadis thought the big man was going to start crying, but luckily for him Phil was made of tougher stuff. He clenched his fists. “But I had to soldier on for the people of Seyruun, even if I was alone.” He gestured out toward the bustling streets beyond the castle gate. “Someday, Amelia will have to lead the people of Seyruun just like me. She’s strong, and she can handle it.” He put a heavy hand of Zelgadis’s shoulder. “But I don’t want her to have to do it alone.”

    “Uh…”

    “Of course,” Phil said, abruptly removing his hand. “No matter how strong she is, I’ll always want to protect my beloved daughter.” He adopted a fierce expression usually reserved for dealing with the profoundly unjust. “And if anyone does anything to hurt her they’ll have to answer to the Pacifist-Crush!” He got a little carried away when he slammed his fist against the railing, but little dents and imperfections can give a building charm, or so it’s told. “Understand?”

    Zelgadis had the feeling that the smartest answer would be to nod emphatically and say nothing, so that’s exactly what he did.

    Phil nodded thoughtfully and then gave a pleased smile before walking in the other direction. “Glad we had this talk.”

    *****

    “So what did Daddy want to talk to you about?” Amelia asked as they met in the hall.

    “I… don’t really know,” Zelgadis admitted, before adding silently but for some reason I fear for my life.

    “Well anyway,” Amelia went on cheerfully. “I’ve got a surprise for you.”

    “Oh,” Zelgadis mentally crossed out “crap” and “no” and instead went with, “goody.”

    “Come on,” Amelia said, not at all phased by Zelgadis’s lack of enthusiasm. She grabbed him by the wrist and led him down the hall, pushing through the big double doors that led to… the library.

    He’d been in there before and it was still an impressive collection. He’d gotten quite a few tips out of this particular library the last time he’d been there. Nothing had panned out obviously, but still.

    He noted, among the shelves upon shelves of books, several old men in cleric’s robes and a handful of bright-faced and eager young pages standing as though they had been waiting for the two to arrive. This did nothing to quell his feeling of unease.

    “Princess Amelia,” the eldest of the priests said with a respectful nod.

    “What do you think, Mister Zelgadis?” Amelia asked, holding her arms out to the library denizens. After a beat she added, “It’s a research team,” in explanation.

    “I can see that, Amelia,” Zelgadis said in his patient voice. He rubbed his temple, fighting off a tension headache, and then said, “Look, I appreciate the thought, but I’ve already researched here and every lead was a dead end. We’d just be wasting our time.”

    “I was there when you ‘researched’,” Amelia said with a smug expression on her face. “You skimmed through each book in about a minute and then tossed them on the ground for someone else to clean up. Oh and you swore a lot.”

    “I was speed-reading!” Zelgadis shot back in his own defense. “I only had a limited amount of time.”

    “I know,” Amelia said, putting a hand on his shoulder. “But don’t you think you might’ve missed something?”

    Zelgadis muttered something along the lines of, “possibly”.

    “Look,” Amelia said, “You had to take shortcuts since you were working alone, but with all of us working together I’m sure we can figure out something to get you back to your human form.”

    “You’re sure, huh?” Zelgadis asked disbelievingly.

    Amelia stared him down for a moment before saying, “Well, no.”

    Zelgadis almost fell down from this refreshing but rather heartless bit of honesty. “No?! What kind of attitude is that from you?”

    “I know that the chances are pretty astronomical,” Amelia said fairly. “But we might at least find some interesting leads… and we’ll never find a cure if we don’t go through all the dead-ends. After all, we’re not really wasting our time on them since we’re still eliminating them as possibilities.”

    Zelgadis wasn’t buying this Edisonian optimism and was about to tune out completely when she went on, “And anyway, I know you’re not going to be satisfied if you just give in. You’re going to keep on trying.”

    Zelgadis wished fervently that a half-dozen palace employees weren’t listening in on their conversation with polite interest. The last thing he wanted to do was bring more people into this, and of course that was the first thing Amelia had decided to do. But… well, she had a point. There wasn’t much else to do but start all over again. Being back at square one was frustrating, but he knew that if he gave up then it would’ve been all for nothing.

    He tried his one last tack. “You can’t just pull people away from their jobs. This isn’t any of their concern.”

    Amelia smiled the smile of someone who felt they had prepared for everything. “What were you guys going to do tonight?” she asked her crack research team.

    “Sweep out the temple, maybe?” the lead elder said uncertainly.

    “And is that very important?”

    The priest shrugged. “It promotes inner peace, but on the other hand, what are maids for?”

    Zelgadis groaned. “And you guys?” he asked the pages who looked more than slightly intimidated at drawing the attention of the “creepy-looking chimera man”.

    “Some light filing?” one of them said. It was a question apparently.

    Zelgadis looked from Amelia’s 60 kilowatt smile to the priests and pages with their pens and note cards at the ready and knew when he was beat.

    “Alright then,” he said resignedly. “Let’s hit the books.”

    *****

    And so Amelia bent the considerable resources of Seyruun to help Zelgadis find a cure, much to his debilitating embarrassment. For the next three days they launched into a truly extreme information gathering expedition. Well… not so much “extreme” considering it mostly consisted of a lot of reading, note-taking, and accidentally falling asleep, but an expedition it most certainly was.

    Zelgadis himself was not doing quite as much reading as the others considering that quality control fell to him. When someone would say something like, “What about the secret alchemy society of Behrun?” he’d say “been there”. When someone said, “What about the Anguatic Ritual? The circumstances are a little bit different, but perhaps—”, he’d cut them off with “done that”. And when someone said, “What about the cycloptic crocodile? It’s said that if you defeat him you—”, he’d shake his head and say “lived to tell about it”.

    In the rare instance that a lead came along that actually seemed work investigating, an attendant would take the fastest horse in the kingdom out to investigate. This certainly didn’t do anything to support Amelia’s claims that their enterprise wasn’t taking anything away from the actual running of the castle. When questioned about it she simply shrugged and claimed that the horses needed “the exercise” anyway. Zelgadis figured they were already in too deep to argue much at that point and left it alone.

    Without having to do the follow-up work of investigating their leads, the researchers barely left the library for those next few days. Meals were brought in regularly which was, apparently, a big deal considering that the librarian of Seyruun was a complete tyrant and didn’t allow even a crumb of food to enter his domain, or so Amelia had told Zelgadis. He gathered he was supposed to be impressed, but wasn’t.

    The books were flying off the shelves, and sadly, the attendants were returning with a whole lotta nothing. The priests had cleared out ages ago since they had other duties that couldn’t wait, and toward the end even the pages couldn’t ignore the light filing that so desperately need their attention. Amelia was reading a book called The Varied Tales of Kerosene Acquisition in Alpine Zones, and the sad part was that it was probably their best bet left in the whole library.

    Zelgadis sighed from behind a pile of surprisingly useless, at least in that context, books. “It’s over Amelia.”

    “Not yet,” Amelia said determinedly, snapping the book shut. She turned her wide eyes toward him. “We can’t just give up! We’ve still got—” she looked back toward the almost empty bookshelves.

    “The accounting and hospitality sections,” Zelgadis stated in a monotone.

    “Well, you never know,” Amelia said, unwilling to let it go. “I mean, Mister Geoffrey found that really cool tip in a book about tropical frogs that you said he was stupid to check.”

    “That is true,” Zelgadis allowed. “But tell me honestly, Amelia, do you really think that’s going to happen again?”

    Amelia put the book down and leaned against the empty shelf next to her. She’d lost her spark and was drifting into dangerously sulky waters. “Not really.”

    Zelgadis looked over the list of leads they’d compiled. Most had seemed like long-shots, but a few had seemed like exciting possibilities. Each one had been crossed out. Each one was a failure. “I need a new plan,” he mumbled. He leaned back in his chair and looked up into a ceiling painted with extremely ugly cherubs. No sudden inspiration came to him.

    “Maybe I should just find Lina,” he said tiredly. “Supernatural trouble always seems to follow her anyway. Maybe I’ll find something that isn’t in these books.”

    That snapped Amelia right out of her mope-fest. “We don’t need, Miss Lina!” she insisted with a little more offense than was strictly necessary.

    This outburst seemed a little over the top to Zelgadis. He tried to remember what insensitive thing Lina could’ve done to Amelia to make her so touchy, but came up with nothing. Well, nothing more insensitive than usual. “Since when have you had a problem with Lina?” he asked.

    “It’s not that,” Amelia said, shaking her head. “It’s just that… you know how it is traveling with Miss Lina.” She desperately tried to put her objection into words. “Everything just ends up being all about her.” She crossed to the center of the room. “Remember when we were looking for the Claire Bible to help you and then we just ended up finding it so Lina could fight Gaav’s monsters?”

    Zelgadis couldn’t help but nod. When you traveled with Lina Inverse it sometimes seemed like you’d signed an agreement to become an instant side-kick. It wasn’t really Lina’s fault, she was just such a… such a main character. Of course, there was also the fact that she was selfish and greedy and that one was her fault.

    “You have a point. But honestly, since this has failed, I don’t know what else to do.”

    “There must be something else we can do,” Amelia said, looking determinedly out of the long windows as the light of the setting sun hit her just right (as it always seemed to do). “What about another one of the big libraries?”

    “No,” Zelgadis said firmly. He wasn’t eager to repeat the last few days in another town, with a different set of useless books, and an even crazier librarian (theirs was currently having a rest in the infirmary after seeing the current state of his precious collection). He gestured to the empty shelves and said, “I think it’s pretty safe to say at this point that if a cure does exist, it’s beyond human knowledge.”

    He felt an unpleasant jolt as he admitted that. It was logical, but it didn’t make the situation any less lousy. He leaned back in his chair again. Maybe it’s time to admit defeat, one side of his brain thought numbly.

    No freakin’ way! The rest of his brain shouted as he leaned back too far and went crashing to the cold and unforgiving yet cushiony and soft carpet below. He didn’t even have the vigor to say, “Ow”.

    “Are you okay?” Amelia asked, rushing forward.

    “No,” Zelgadis said irritably, pulling himself to his feet. He brushed himself off. “We’ve run out of answers.”

    “No we haven’t!” Amelia insisted, suddenly seeming more cheerful than Zelgadis felt that anyone deserved to be at the time. Perhaps, he thought bitterly, she was just glad that she hadn’t fallen over like an idiot.

    “Amelia,” he said, rubbing his temples in frustration for what seemed like the millionth time in so many days. “Have you been paying attention to anything I just said?”

    “I have,” Amelia said. “And that tells us exactly where we have to look to find the information we need.”

    “…What did I say?” Zelgadis asked, wondering vaguely if he had concussed himself, while knowing that this was pretty unlikely given his rocky skull. It was probably just another case of Amelia logic.

    “You said that the information we’re looking for is beyond human knowledge,” Amelia said, pointing at him rather impolitely. “So we just have to go to non-human sources. In other words,” she paused to give her words the most dramatic flair possible, “the monsters.”

    Zelgadis stared at her feeling strangely surprised, suspicious, and slightly impressed before saying, “Aren’t you supposed to be a shrine-maiden?”

    Amelia appeared to crumpled at this assertion. She tried to regain her poise. “I am. So?”

    “Consorting with monsters,” Zelgadis began slowly. “Is not exactly the activity of the just.”

    “I’m not talking about selling our souls or anything,” Amelia said, feeling the need to defend herself against any allegation that she might be something besides just. “We can just use them for information.”

    Zelgadis pondered this. He had actually been aware in many instances during his quest to find his human form that he hadn’t investigated the monster angle as thoroughly as he could have. He’d neglected it because as far as he could tell, when humans dealt with monsters it always ended badly for the humans. It didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that monsters didn’t have benefitting humanity high on their priority list. In fact it was quite the opposite. Plus, it was the kind of thing that Rezo would’ve done. That Rezo had done, point of fact.

    He shrugged. “I understand what you’re saying, but I just don’t think we’re going to get any information that way. I mean, I can’t summon from the astral plane and I know you can’t either. Even if we could, demons don’t just give out information. At least not accurate information.”

    “But we don’t have to summon,” Amelia plowed on, “Because we already know a monster.”

    Zelgadis could see immediately where she was going and wanted to stop this idea before it went any further. “No. Absolutely not.”

    “But think about it. All we have to do is find him and that shouldn’t be too hard.” Amelia insisted. “Mister Xellos is really high-ranking. I bet he know a lot of information that could help.”

    “Yeah, help get us killed,” Zelgadis shot back. “You know how he operates. And in any case, what makes you think he’d help us?”

    “Because,” Amelia said with an evil glint in her eye that certainly didn’t belong there, “If he doesn’t I might have to try to persuade him with justice, friendship, and the boundless optimism of humanity.”

    Zelgadis shivered. That had a negative effect on most humans. On monsters… well…

    “Alright, that could work,” he admitted sourly. “But you know as well as I do that just because Xellos is annoying doesn’t mean he isn’t dangerous. We’d be putting out lives at risk.”

    Amelia narrowed her eyes and said, “But we’ve put our lives at risk before. You just don’t want to ask Mister Xellos because you don’t like him.” Right on the money. “This is our last, best hope.”

    Zelgadis groaned. When your last, best hope is Xellos you know you’ve hit rock bottom.

  3. #3
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    Chapter 3. Two-Timer.

    And so they set out on their journey to find a monster, a horrifying creature that could blow up an entire city as easily as he could brush dandruff of his shoulders, and shake him down for information. The fact that it was Xellos and all made the idea seem considerably less suicidal. No matter what you knew about Xellos it was hard to take him seriously--which was basically how he wanted it. Sneak.

    They’d bid farewell to the castle and Seyruun. Amelia had set things up so her work would be taken care of in her absence which, apparently, had taken some doing.

    Phil had laughed his jolly laugh as he waved them good-bye and advised them to, “Have fun on their trip”. The finer points of their expedition had been explained to him, but he didn’t seem at all worried about letting his daughter go searching for a demon. Well, it was Amelia.

    Phil had, however, pulled Zelgadis aside just before their departure and said, “I’m sure I don’t have to remind you of our little chat”. Which seemed to indicate that he considered Zelgadis more of a threat to his daughter’s safety than all the demons in the world. Flattering.

    Only a vague plan had been established to find Xellos, mostly because going looking for Xellos just seemed ridiculous on the face of it. It was really the opposite of what any sane person should be doing.

    Since Xellos usually found them they half expected him to just pop up behind them asking what they “were looking for”. In case that didn’t happen though, the logic they were following in their search went something like this: Xellos is kind of a memorable guy. They figured if they asked around someone ought to have seen him and could point them in the right direction.

    Since just going around and asking innkeepers across creation, “have you seen a priest with purple hair and an annoying nasal voice? Carries a staff? He may, or may not have teleported or shown some other inhuman tendencies. Also known to be a lousy tipper,” seemed a bit broad if they wanted to find Xellos in the next decade or so, they tried to figure out where he was most likely to show up.

    “Well, let’s think,” Amelia said, folding her arms in thought as she looked up at the sun shining through the leaves of the forest, “What was Xellos trying to do last time we met him?”

    “Kill Valgav,” Zelgadis said. He’d been through this already.

    “He’s probably not trying to do that anymore though,” Amelia said dismissively.

    Zelgadis merely shrugged which threw Amelia way off.

    “I mean, why would he?” Amelia asked in a slightly panicked voice. “What with the circumstances and all it just seems like—”

    “Amelia,” Zelgadis said evenly. “You’re getting off topic.”

    “Right,” Amelia said, trying to get her mind back on track. “But he’s probably not, since, you know, he could’ve—”

    “Probably,” Zelgadis agreed since he knew there wasn’t any other way to get back on point, though he couldn’t keep the rising irritation out of his voice.

    “Alright,” Amelia said, satisfied. “Then what was he trying to do before that?”

    “Lead Lina to the Claire Bible,” Zelgadis said slightly bitterly.

    “Right,” Amelia said, slamming her fist into her open palm in the universal gesture for “I’ve just figured something out”. “But before that he was trying to destroy the Claire Bible manuscripts. Like remember when we first met him and he burned that one you were looking for in the bandit’s hideout?”

    “Oh, I remember,” Zelgadis said really bitterly, but he got the idea. “So if we find out about any manuscripts, Xellos probably won’t be far off.”

    Amelia nodded emphatically. “Yep!”

    “And,” Zelgadis said, somewhat to himself. “If I can find a manuscript then maybe we won’t even need to find Xellos.”

    Because that worked out so well the last time he tried.

    Amelia, not one to burst anyone’s bubble, said, “That’s right!”

    So the plan then became: 1. Ask people if they’ve seen Xellos and 2. Ask people if they’ve seen a Claire Bible manuscript. It wasn’t a very good plan, but damn it, it was better than libraries.

    *****

    Despite the fact that after five days of traveling and no luck finding a lead about Xellos or the Claire Bible manuscripts, both Amelia and Zelgadis were in relatively good spirits. After all, neither expected they’d get that lucky right off the bat considering the amount of places Xellos could possibly be (some of them not even in that dimension).

    It was nice not only to be traveling again, but to be traveling in a smaller group. Amelia had just been commenting that it was nice to get her own room and not to have to worry about Lina accidentally kicking her or punching her in the face in the middle of the night. Zelgadis nodded gravely as he remembered the black eyes.

    “Bet it’s nice not to have to share a room with Mister Gourry, right?” Amelia asked Zelgadis.

    He shrugged. “It wasn’t that bad all things considered. He did snore like a hacksaw though.” He frowned as he remembered something. “And he kept offering to let me braid his hair.”

    “What?!” Amelia said, completely thrown off this time.

    “Yeah,” Zelgadis said slowly. “He said it seems to cheer people up or something.”

    The two paused to reflect on Gourry’s dwindling intelligence level, or perhaps it was a moment of silence in remembrance of his dearly departed last brain cell.

    The trip was passing by unusually amicably. Sure, Amelia would occasionally say something justice related or painfully cheerful, but she really couldn’t be any other way. In fact, they were getting along so well that it was actually starting to make Zelgadis feel a little bit uneasy.

    “Doesn’t it feel like something’s missing?” Amelia asked, eerily reading his mind.

    “Like what?”

    “Oh, I don’t know,” Amelia said. “Someone to ask us stupid questions, eat all our food, or nearly blow us up?”

    “Don’t worry, Amelia,” Zelgadis said flatly. “When we find Xellos there’ll be plenty of annoyance to go around.”

    ******

    They had passed through the gates of Bibbus, a city renowned for its lemon-curd based deserts and ceramic cats. It wasn’t exactly a great place to search for any of the things they were looking for. On the other hand, it was lunch time.

    They had just finished ordering and Amelia was busy giving the waitress the usual “Have you seen this Xellos?” spiel, she’d even drawn a picture that she thought was not too shabby.

    “Hmm,” the waitress said, scratching behind her ear with her pencil. “You mean that guy over there?” she asked, pointing to a table in the corner.

    Zelgadis and Amelia turned around so rapidly that they knocked over the tin pail of peanuts that was on their table (because it was that kind of place). Low and behold, there was Xellos sipping coffee amiably in the company of several other travelers as though he wasn’t some kind of unstoppable force for evil.

    Zelgadis and Amelia nodded to each other resolutely and abandoned their table, trudging toward the table Xellos was sitting at as dramatically as they could considering that the sound of crunching peanut shells followed their every step.

    “What the hell are you doing here?” Zelgadis asked, because that is the traditional way Xellos is greeted.

    Xellos looked up from his coffee with mild surprise, tucked a strand of hair behind his ear and said, “…Having coffee? I might ask what you two are doing here.”

    “We’ve been looking all over for you!” Amelia exclaimed as if this was somehow Xellos’s fault and showing her general lack of volume control in public places.

    Xellos raised an eyebrow. “…Why?” he asked. It seemed like a reasonable question.

    “Tell him, Mr. Zelgadis!” Amelia said. She paused, but Zelgadis didn’t say anything.

    Instead he was staring at Xellos’s fellow diners with muted horror. “Mr. Zelgadis?” she asked, turning to see what he was looking at. “WHAAAT?!”

    “Oh, where are my manners?” Xellos said, ignoring Amelia’s mini-freak-out and turning to the other people sitting at his table. “These are my traveling companions. Miss Xena,” he gestured to a woman with long ginger hair and too much occult jewelry. “Mister Salvatore, called Tory for short,” a swordsman with platinum blonde hair nodded at them. “Mister Melgadus,” a lizard man smiled and waved at them. Zel sputtered incoherently. “And Miss Delia,” he gestured to a girl with short, soot-black hair and tunic and pants in a matching shade. “Everyone, this is Mr. Zelgadis and Miss Amelia,”

    Everyone nodded and smiled and said their “nice to meet you”’s except for Zelgadis and Amelia who were still in shock from the… vaguely familiar strangers and fighting off the weird feeling that they were being cheated on. Delia just cackled.

    “Pull up a chair,” Melgadus said with a winning smile. Amelia and Zelgadis just stared at him like he’d sprouted a second head. Melgadus, misinterpreting this, chuckled to himself. “It’s alright. I don’t bite. I may be a little bit scaley, but hey, nobody’s perfect!”

    Zelgadis recovered himself enough to pull the scarf from in front of his face and mutter, “You’re telling me.” He sat down and turned to the lizard man. “So let me guess,” he said, “You’re traveling with Xellos to try to find a cure to your chimeraism?”

    Melgadus laughed. “Oh goodness no! I’m perfectly happy with the way I am.”

    “Besides,” Delia said, from next to him. “It’s not like Xellos could help anyway. He’s useless!” she jabbed him with a fork. “Ain’t’cha?”

    “Now come on,” Xena said. “That’s not very nice Delia. Xellos is… well, I’m sure he has some good points. After all, there’s good in everyone.”

    “Not in me!” Delia declared. “I’m on the winning team and everyone knows that evil always triumphs!”

    Zelgadis’s reflexes were quick enough that he was able to cover Amelia’s mouth to muffle a justice-based diatribe and hold her back from laying a smack-down on the girl. After about thirty seconds of struggling Amelia appeared to settle down. “If I let you go,” Zelgadis began slowly, “are you going to be calm?”

    “Mphes,” Amelia promised. Zelgadis let her go slowly, ready to restrain her again should it prove necessary. Amelia took a deep breath and tried to go to her happy place where there weren’t villainous girls who looked ridiculously similar to her.

    “What’s with her?” Xena asked. “Does she have a tummy ache?”

    Tory sighed from next to her and put his head in his hands. “Xena, do you ever get tired of being wrong? Anyone with half a brain could tell that that girl is Amelia, princess of Seyruun. You know how those royals at Seyruun are, they love heroism and righteous causes and whatnot. Clearly hearing Delia start one of her ‘power of evil’ speeches is having an adverse effect on her.”

    “Oooh! You’re so smart Tory!” Xena exclaimed as comprehension donned. “Would you like some of my meatloaf? I’m not going to finish it.”

    That was the last straw. “Alright, that’s enough!” Zelgadis shouted as the confused group shut up. He turned to Xellos. “What do you do? Do you just get bored and follow around teenaged magic users?”

    Xellos played with his silverware absent-mindedly. “Maybe.”

    “Well, if you’re bored enough to hand out with these weirdos,” Amelia declared ignoring the mildly hurt expressions from those at the table. “then you have time to help us!”
    “Help you?” Xellos said laughingly. “I think you should know by now that I can’t just go around helping people.”

    “You will if you don’t want to hear the biggest speech about love, justice, and the beauty of life that I’ve ever given,” Amelia threatened.

    The color drained from Xellos’s face. “You wouldn’t,” he said, knowing full well that she would.

    “Why would that bother Xellos?” Xena asked confusedly.

    “Isn’t it obvious?” Tory asked. “The only creature that would be harmed by optimistic speeches—”

    “Besides Delia,” Melgadus said, giving her a playful punch to the shoulder.

    “Besides Delia,” Tory agreed, “Would be a monster!”

    Zelgadis and Amelia nodded. They could’ve told him that. The rest of the group gasped appropriately except for Delia who said, “Awesome!”

    “Well, I guess the cat’s out of the bag,” Xellos said. “Again.”

    “But how could one of our friends be a monster?” Xena cried softly.

    “He’s not really our friend, Xena,” Tory said. “He’s been fooling us this whole time.” He turned to Xellos. “I think it’s better if we went our separate ways.” Tory put his arm around Xena and led her out of the room. Melgadus followed, dragging a protesting Delia behind him.

    “Sorry about this,” Melgadus said with an apologetic smile to Xellos. “I know you probably didn’t mean to be a monster, but them’s the breaks.”

    “But I want to fight on the side of darkness!” Delia whined.

    “No you don’t,” Melgadus said, pulling her out the door and closing it behind them.
    Silence. “Well, look what you did,” Xellos said, sounding only slightly put-out.
    “Oh, we’re really sorry,” Zelgadis said pouring as much sarcasm as he could into a single sentence.

    “So now that you’re not with them anymore,” Amelia said. “Will you help us?”
    “That depends,” Xellos said, fearing the power of justice as he should. “What do you want?”

    “Mr. Zelgadis wants to find a way to change back to his human form,” Amelia explained when it seemed clear that Zelgadis didn’t intend to.

    “Really? Still?” Xellos asked. “And you’re helping him? Well, isn’t that sweet.” When it became clear, as they glared back at him that they weren’t rising to that particular bait he said, “What makes you think I’d have an idea?”

    “You’re a monster!” Amelia blurted out as if that explained everything.
    Xellos looked around the room slightly nervously. “You’re going to send the place into a panic if you keep shouting that.”

    “Just tell us where you’d start looking if you wanted to find out, Xellos,” Zelgadis said exasperatedly.

    Xellos appeared to give it some thought. He held onto the “I’m thinking about it,” expression for just long enough to really upset the people waiting for information.
    “Spit it out!” Zelgadis shouted, on the edge of totally losing it.

    “Well… I suppose I do have an acquaintance that might have an idea or two.”

  4. #4
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    Chapter 4. The Xellos and Filia Show.

    They traveled on with Xellos leading the way. Since Xellos wasn’t being a chatty-cathy they didn’t have much of a clue where they were going. Zelgadis really didn’t expect any more from Xellos and was closely examining a map of the area as they walked along, trying to figure out where they were going based on the direction and the path.

    “So where is this friend of yours anyway, Mr. Xellos?” Amelia asked, trying for the direct approach.

    Xellos paused and turned back to Amelia and the proto-map-questing Zelgadis. “My acquaintance,” he said, as though to remind them that he had no friends, “is located in the Desert of Fears.”

    “The Desert of Fears?!” Amelia repeated with appropriate panic. The continent was full of similarly named geographic features: The Forest of Silence, the Mountain of Tears, the Marsh of Nausea, the Sea of Possibilities, and so on. Some of them contained a warning about the feature itself (the Mountain of Tears, for example, being notorious difficult to climb), some of them conveyed the opposite of their true nature (The Forest of Silence, for example, being very loud considering all the dangerous beasts trying to kill you and the screaming and whatnot), and some made absolutely no sense at all (for example, the Isle of Hairy Alligators). The Desert of Fears, however, was considered notorious enough to have more than earned its name.

    To say that sandstorms were frequent there would be a lie—they were constant. Even the heartiest of desert-based flora and fauna avoided the waterless heat-trap that was the Desert of Fears. The only thing that seemed alive in the Desert of Fears was the restlessly shifting sand, ready to devour anyone who was foolish enough to enter.

    …Or at least that’s what the considerably more than half-crazed and extremely tanned skeletons who escaped the dreaded place claimed. This was usually followed by a claim that they were a. A prophet of Ceipheed b. extremely malnourished or c. “A fish! Floppity-floppity-flop!”.

    Zelgadis sighed as he inked in a circle around the Desert of Fears on his map. He’d just finished getting the sand out of his clothes from the last desert he was in.

    “If we’re going to survive in that place, we’re going to need to stock up on supplies!” Amelia exclaimed as she looked over Zelgadis’s shoulder at the map for a place to buy said supplies.

    Xellos merely shrugged as though the idea that they might die in the desert if they were unprepared simply hadn’t occurred to him.

    “Achaea is a pretty big city,” Zelgadis said to Amelia, pointing at the place on the map. “They’ll probably have what we need there, and it’s fairly close to the Desert.”

    “Achaea… Achaea…,” Amelia repeated faintly to herself. “Where have I heard that before?”

    “It’s where Filia opened her shop,” Xellos said with a dull sort of disgust.

    Zelgadis and Amelia gave him an odd look. To which Xellos responded a shade defensively, “Isn’t it my job to keep tabs on golden dragons living outside the temples and settlements?”

    Amelia and Zelgadis exchanged a look. Then Amelia turned back and said, “We… we wouldn’t really know about that, Mr. Xellos.”

    Xellos froze and began muttering vaguely to himself at that point realizing that he had, in a rare move, run his mouth off.

    “In any case,” Zelgadis said, cutting back to the point, “If Filia’s shop is in Achaea we can be fairly sure that she’ll let us stay while we’re getting ready to enter the Desert of Fears. After all, she does kind of owe us for averting the apocalypse.”

    “Which we would’ve done anyway,” Amelia commented. Zelgadis merely shrugged as though to communicate that he wasn’t so sure about himself on that. “Well anyway,” she said, “It’ll be nice if we can avoid the inns.”

    Zelgadis nodded. Aside from the obvious fact that he got treated like a side-show freak at inns unless they were negative star establishments with patrons largely made of up one-eared bandits in which Zelgadis stood out less (which brought up all sorts of other problems like being robbed and murdered in your sleep), inns in big cities really overcharged on the basis that they could. Now that they had to count on stocking up on extra supplies for the desert expedition they couldn’t afford to spend more than they had to.

    This wouldn’t have been a problem in the past, traveling with Amelia, as she used to carry the crest of Seyruun and they could get credit at practically any restaurant or inn. But since a former member of their traveling party who shall remain nameless (Lina Inverse) had over-used the thing to the point of giving Seyruun’s budgetary staff a nervous breakdown, Phil had taken away the crest, giving Amelia only a set amount of traveling money, yammering something about Amelia “learning the value of a dollar”.

    “So it’s settled then,” Zelgadis said. “We’ll stop off at Filia’s.” He turned to Xellos who was still in the midst of some kind of mental arithmetic. “Unless that’s some kind of problem, Xellos,” he said sharply.

    “Hmm?” Xellos said, retreating from whatever internal monologue he was having. “Why would I have a problem with that?”

    Amelia gave Zelgadis a worried look and then said, “Well, you know… since you two sorta… hate each other.”

    “Intensely,” Zelgadis added.

    Xellos gave a serene smile. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. I’m sure we’ll get along just fine.”

    *****

    “Xellos?!” Filia shrieked in rage as she slammed the door onto Zelgadis’s foot. Whether your foot is one third stone or not this is not a pleasant feeling, but Zelgadis’s quick thinking was the only thing that kept them from being completely shut out.

    “Hello!” Xellos said cheerfully, as Zelgadis and Amelia pushed at the door with all their might and Filia tried to close it with all her might.

    It had been after hours so the shop door had been locked, but since the whole point of looking Filia up was to avoid having to pay for an inn they decided to ring the bell and see if she was there. And indeed she was, which had seemed like a stroke of good luck for the thirty seconds that she hadn’t seen Xellos. After that it all kind of blew up.

    “Get lost you monster!” Filia shouted through gritted teeth as she struggled to shut the door.

    “Oh come on, Filia!” Zelgadis responded harshly, which surely can be attributed to the door slammed against his foot. “Can’t we just skip this stupid bit? We get it already, you hate Xellos. Now, can’t you just open up? We need your help.”

    “Besides,” Amelia said, pushing her weight against the door, “We all fought together against Darkstar. Can’t you just let bygones be bygones?”

    “It has nothing to do with that!” Filia insisted.

    Zelgadis and Amelia each gave a big push that sent the door flying open and Filia rocketing backwards. An unpleasant shattering sound filled the air.

    “You see?” Filia said, picking herself up after the dust had cleared. “Last time that was here,” she said, pointing at Xellos her contrived to look as innocently amused as possible, “He broke 32 prized Turner Vases.” She stared miserably at the clay carnage around her, picking up a brick red shard and cradling it as though it were a child. “And now he’s broken five more.”

    “Technically that was them,” Xellos pointed out, indicating Zelgadis and Amelia.

    “Don’t you even try to blame them!” Filia raged, throwing the shard like an arrow at Xellos’s face. He tilted his head to one side and let it imbed itself in the bulls eye of a darts board coincidentally nailed to the tree across the way from the shop, much to the amazement of the local youth. “If it hadn’t been for you showing up I would’ve just let them in.”

    “So,” Xellos said, scratching at his cheek thoughtfully, “by that logic, isn’t it your fault?”

    Filia merely stewed angrily as footsteps sounded down the hall. “You alright, boss?” Jillas asked, as he poked his head round the corner. He spotted the debris that remained of their merchandise and shouted into the other room, “Boss-Gravos, get the dust-pan, we’ve ‘ad another little accident!”

    “Got it,” said a gravelly voice from the other room, followed by the sound of rummaging.

    Filia just stood there in inconsolable fury, clenching her trembling fists as her assistants made quick work of cleaning up the mess. By the time they had finished she looked like she was calming down. She’d taken a few deep breaths and seemed to be counting to ten.

    “You know, it’s customary to offer your guests tea or something,” Xellos said, timing his comment for maximum effect. “Otherwise you might be thought impolite.”

    “You just shut up!” Filia shot at him, but at least something of Xellos’s miss manners lesson seemed to have gotten through to her given that she turned to the more than slightly uncomfortable Zelgadis and Amelia with a suddenly calm and friendly expression and said, “You two can come into the kitchen. I’ve just put on a pot of orange spice. You must be tired after your long trip.”

    She turned and walked resolutely into the pastel-tiled kitchen. Zelgadis and Amelia turned to look at each other and shrugged. They hoped that Filia had gotten it together and there would be no more unexpected explosions. Of course, since she was turned away from them they didn’t see the tic playing at her eye like a strobe light on overdrive, so they walked on after her.

    Of course, Xellos followed them.

    *****

    They were sitting around an expensive looking wooden round table carved with ornate patterns that were beautiful to look at but made it somewhat difficult to balance their puppy emblazoned mugs on. Not wanting to upset the volatile Filia anymore than she already was, though, they held their cups and said nothing.

    Filia seemed to be finding her center though. She’d even grudgingly given Xellos a cup of tea, perhaps because she’d taken his crack about her hostess status seriously. She did “accidentally” spill hot tea directly on his crotch, which could be considered less than hospitable, but from what Zelgadis and Amelia could gather he deserved it.

    It seemed like whenever he got bored he would pop in to Filia’s Vase & Mace Shop and cause some sort of ruckus, generally in the form of massive property damage. According to Xellos this had all been a colossal misunderstanding and he’d only showed up in the hopes of purchasing a vase. According to Filia, Xellos was full of crap.

    “So, how’s business been?” Amelia asked, trying to keep the conversation away from any controversial topic.

    “Oh, it’s been going wonderfully,” Filia said with her first genuine smile since the three had barged their way into her home business. “I don’t know which is more popular, my vases or my maces!” She laughed as if she had made a joke.

    “Looks like you’ve got another mace customer,” Zelgadis said, eyeing the window as a burly military type made his way toward the front door.

    “Oh! That’s Mr. Jorgen,” Filia said, standing up rapidly. “I forgot he was coming by for that custom piece. Jillas!” she shouted into the other room as the doorbell rang. “Do we have Mr. Jorgen’s custom vase ready?”

    “Right ‘ere, boss,” Jillas said, appearing with a large vase bedecked with flowers, butterflies, and rainbows in his arms. “I’ve got it taken care of.”

    “Thank you, Jillas,” Filia said, as she took her seat again as Jillas headed out to the main room and opened the door. “He’s a dear,” she announced to the room at large.

    Zelgadis and Amelia stared at her with their mouths wide open.

    “What?” she asked, feeling uncomfortable in the face of their stares. “He is.”

    “It’s not that,” Amelia said, “It’s just…”

    “…That guy didn’t really seem like the kind of person who’d want a vase,” Zelgadis said, finishing her thought.

    “Tough guys can like vases too!” Filia said defensively, as the ka-ching of a cash register from the other room conveyed money changing hands.

    Zelgadis shrugged. “I guess…”

    “Anyway, I’m actually selling a lot more maces to girls between the ages of 13-19,” Filia confided excitedly as the tinkling of a bell announced the customer’s exit.

    Amelia gave her a doubtful, confused look. “How could they even…?”

    “They’re mini-maces!” Filia said with a delighted giggle. She strode over to a cabinet and opened a drawer to reveal an array of multi-colored undersized maces. They were positively adorable.

    “That’s… stupid,” Zelgadis said, without a trace of tact.

    “They may be cute,” Filia said, pointing a robin’s egg blue mace with little pink hearts on it at him, “But they pack a powerful punch.” She turned to Amelia with a salesman’s smile. “How about it, Amelia? I’ve got them in every color, so I’m sure your favorite is here. I can give you a 5% discount.”

    “Uhh… no thanks,” Amelia said, looking sheepish. “They’re nice and all, but I just don’t like weapons.”

    Xellos raised his hand and said, “I’ll take one.”

    Filia gave him a glare so cold it could solve global warming if they pointed her at the polar ice caps. “Shop’s closed,” she said, slamming the drawer shut.

    “So, where’s Valg—Val, anyway?” Zelgadis asked, hoping that the longer he could keep this visit going the more likely they’d get to stay without having to argue their case, but at the same time not wanting to talk about fashion accessories that doubled as bludgeoning implements.

    “Oh, that’s right!” Filia said, hurriedly placing her mug on the counter by the sink. “I should take you to see Val.” She actually skipped out of the room, beckoning them to follow.

    She led them into a small room, papered with light blue and green stripes. The perimeter of the room was lined with a variety of teddy bears and other such things, so the first impression upon walking into the room was that you’d been surrounded by stuffed animals, their eyes glinting hostilely in the light coming in past the balloon patterned curtains.

    In the middle of the room was a basket with a fluffy, extra comfortable looking cushion on it. Ribbons were woven through the wicker lining, and the whole thing sat on a large doily. On the pillow was a small orb of light, glowing, as a barely recognizable form shone through the semi-translucent outer layer. The egg that contained the reborn Valgav… Val.

    “Awww,” Amelia said, cooing over the egg as though it were an adorable newborn.

    “When will it hatch?” Zelgadis asked, as though disappointed in Val’s lack of enthusiasm to escape his yolky prison.

    “Most of the sources I’ve read estimate ten years for an ancient dragon egg to hatch,” Filia answered. As soon as she had entered the nursery she’d seemed to glow right along with the egg as though filled with a joy much greater than the selling of flower containers and clubs could ever bring her.

    “That’s a long time.”

    “Not for a dragon,” Filia responded with a small smile.

    “Wow,” Amelia said, done fussing over the fetus. “Miss Filia, you’re going to be a mom!”

    “I know,” Filia said, with a smile and a loving glance toward the bassinet.

    “Adoptive,” Xellos said from the entranceway as though that debased the whole thing.

    Filia gave him a sharp look, but then appeared to recover. “When you think about it,” she said. “It was my Holy magic that caused him to be reborn in the end… so it’s like, in a way, I am his mother.”

    Xellos gave a snort. “The Holy magic alone would’ve purified him, which, at that point, would’ve been the same as destroying him, as Black magic would have on its own. It was the fusion of Black and Holy magic that caused him to be reborn, so if you’re going to follow that line of reasoning: if you’re his mother than I’m—”

    “Don’t say it!” Filia cut him off. “I get ill just thinking that.” She began to stomp toward the exit, clearly done with that conversation and the horrible place it had led.

    “Uh, Filia?” Zelgadis began, figuring now was as good a time as any. “Do you think we could stay here the night? Inns around here are so expensive and we have to—”

    “Fine,” Filia said, still in a snappish mood as she walked out the door. After a moment’s hesitation she stuck her head back into the room and said, “But not him.” And promptly left to grouse to herself somewhere else.

    “How typical of the dragon race,” Xellos said, loud enough so she could hear him as she walked down the hall. “No manners at all.” And then he withdrew onto the astral side.

    A frustrated scream and the sound of a fist pounding into the wall told Zelgadis and Amelia that Filia had heard Xellos’s little quip. They decided to give her a minute, and instead turned their attention back to the bundle of possibilities sleeping in the basket in front of them.

    “It’s amazing, isn’t it?” Amelia asked after a moment.

    “What?”

    “It’s just that… well, one minute Filia’s traveling with us, and the next minute she’s gonna be a mom.”

    “You mean the next ten years,” Zelgadis corrected.

    “You know what I mean,” Amelia said. “It’s just…,” she couldn’t decide on a word and went with, “weird.”

    “Yeah,” Zelgadis said. He didn’t know why, but he got an uneasy feeling watching Amelia watching that egg. It’s always that way with girls, isn’t it? Throw in a baby and the world just seems to light up for them. It’s odd.

    Still, he couldn’t help but think, looking at that egg that he was in the presence of something… what was it Amelia had said? Amazing.

  5. #5
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    Chapter 5. The Joke’s On You.

    “So basically,” Filia began to summarize as she drank her morning tea in a fit of anxiety, “You’re following around a known monster to a dangerous location known to be a hot bed of, not only natural forces, but of black magic as well, all in the name of changing your skin type?!”

    “Well, I wouldn’t put it that way,” Zelgadis said irritably, but not too irritably since that tea cup looked like it was about ready to fly out of Filia’s hand, “But I think you’ve got the gist.”

    He was already regretting letting Filia in on the details of their little quest, but it had been unavoidable. Her bad mood hadn’t left her by the morning light, but she was no longer distracted enough by Xellos’s presence to not wonder why she had house guests. So she’d prepared them an exquisite breakfast that had “trap” written all over it and pumped them for information while they were chained to their omelets.

    “Have you two completely lost your minds?” Filia demanded. “This is obviously a trap set by the monster race!”

    “A trap to do what, Filia?” Zelgadis asked dully.

    Filia stared at him and sputtered incoherently for a moment before finally saying, “Well, I don’t know.” She took a sip of her tea and tried to regain her poise before added, “But definitely something nefarious.”

    “We were the ones that went to find Mister Xellos, not the other way around,” Amelia pointed out. “So I don’t see how it could be a trap.”

    “Aha!” Filia said, gesturing triumphantly with her tea cup. “That what they want you to think!” It would’ve been rampant speciesist paranoia if it weren’t for the fact that monsters really are out to get you.

    Zelgadis and Amelia exchanged hopeless glances. They really couldn’t have expected behavior any different from a golden dragon.

    “Well it doesn’t matter,” Zelgadis said to close the matter, “because I’m going anyway.”

    “I can’t believe you!” Filia declared, shrill anger rising in personal affront to Zelgadis’s attitude. “You don’t know whose lives you could be risking, all for your own stupid, selfish goals!” Since Zelgadis seemed to be shutting off from her tirade she rounded on Amelia. “And you at least should know better!”

    “You’re the one who’s being selfish!” Amelia shot back, unable to contain herself, surprise surprise. “You don’t even care about Mr. Zelgadis, all you’re worried about is some silly grudge match between you and Xellos!”

    “I hardly think,” Filia began, looking away and trying to keep her voice high-minded and not shout, “That wanting to protect the world from the vile schemes of the monsters amounts to a silly grudge match.”

    “Yeah, sure,” Amelia said, unconvinced, and unleashing a rarely used gift: sarcasm. “This is just about protecting the world, right? It’s not at all about finding another opportunity to fight with Mister Xellos. Everyone knows what it means when two people bicker all the time.” She nodded like, yeah, I went there.

    Whoa. Zelgadis thought silently to himself and tried to edge his chair away from the table as quietly as possible.

    “What are you implying?!” Filia burst out in an unnaturally high voice. When it seemed that Amelia had said all that she was willing to say on the subject she turned to Zelgadis who was still trying to make his gradual escape. “What is she implying?!” she demanded.

    Zelgadis gave her a look that said, in no uncertain terms, “I am no longer part of this conversation”. This was… not good, he thought to himself. Amelia and Filia usually got along pretty well but this was rapidly getting personal. It was only a matter of time before…

    “And you call this justice, Miss Amelia?!”

    …that came up.

    Amelia’s resolve appeared to weaken for a moment as the j-word came up, but she clenched her fist and glared back a Filia before saying, “Sometimes helping someone you care about is more just than justice could ever be.”

    Zelgadis and Filia stared at Amelia as though she’d sprouted a third eye, grown a pair of antler, and begun singing a song called “Making Friends with Cannibals”… backwards.

    “Well, it’s true,” Amelia bristled. She got up from her chair and pushed her plate and silverware to the center of the uneven table. “Anyway, we’ve got a lot of work to do,” she said, pushing her chair in. “We’ve got to get supplies for the trip through the desert. Right, Mister Zelgadis?”

    “Uh… right,” Zelgadis said, taking a quick glance at Filia’s look of shock and appall and preserving it in his memory in case he needed a laugh sometime, before following Amelia out the door.

    *****

    Fifteen minutes later, the same look was still plastered across Filia’s face as she stared in disgust at the empty chair in front of her (which Amelia hadn’t bothered to push in, by the way). Her tea sat in its cup on a coaster, lonely, forgotten, and by now quite cold.

    Gravos waved a hand experimentally in front of her face. No change in her expression was forthcoming. He shook his head at Jillas.

    “Ummm… you alright, boss?” Jillas piped up loudly.

    Filia slowly unsnapped herself back to reality. It was really a sight to watch her expression unclench itself. “We’ve got to do something,” she told them.

    “About what, boss?” Gravos asked.

    “About those two!” Filia snapped. “They have no idea what they’re getting into!”

    “What uh… what are they getting into?” Jillas asked, figuring he’d have to sprint to keep up with this conversation.

    Filia sputtered again, unable to find a concrete answer. “Just… just something bad, okay? I just know Xellos is up to something, and they’re involved.”

    “If you’re so worried about it, why don’t you just come along?” asked a voice from the doorway behind them.

    Filia whipped her head around and… yes, who else? “Xellos! I thought I told you to get out of here!”

    “You told me I couldn’t stay here,” Xellos said, calmly. “This is just,” he waved a hand around expressively, “visiting.”

    “Well, visit someone else!” Filia snapped. “And,” she said, after she’d rewound their conversation back to his appearance and actually paid attention to what he said instead of being deafened by rage, “You should know that I can’t just pick up and leave to follow you around like those two fools,” presumably Amelia and Zelgadis. “I actually have responsibilities. I run my own business now and I have a son to look after.”

    “An antique shop and a child who will be in an egg for the next ten years,” Xellos mused. “You’re right, it would be the end of the world if you were to walk away from either of these things.”

    “Actually, we could look after the shop and young master Val,” Gravos commented in a manner that indicated that he thought he was being helpful.

    “Yeah,” Jillas agreed. “We did just fine those two weeks you went away to JarCon last summer.”

    “JarCon? Really?” Xellos mouthed mockingly at her. Filia just glared, but her responsibilities argument was disintegrating before her eyes.

    “Don’t even pretend like you want me to come along, Xellos.”

    Xellos shrugged. “I don’t care either way. It’s up to you whether you want to go along or stay here and inventory vases all day,” he paused in response to her glare before adding, “Which I’m sure is very personally satisfying, of course.”

    Filia scowled angrily back at him at this obvious slight at her career of choice, but couldn’t helping thinking about it anyway. What was Xellos trying to pull? Did he actually want her to come along or was he just tricking her into staying in the shop just to spite him. …Wait a minute…

    “AHA,” Filia declared. “I’ve figured out your game, Mister Xellos. You’re using reverse-psychology on me!”

    Xellos appeared caught offguard by this. “I’m what?”

    “And it almost worked to!” Filia said smugly. “But I’ve seen through it.” She got up off her chair and paced across the room. “First, you bring up the idea of me coming along, and I’m supposed to decide immediately not to go along because I don’t trust you.” She stroked her chin thoughtfully. “For some reason you don’t want me to come along, otherwise why would you have invited me?”

    “I didn’t exactly—”

    “Well, the joke’s on you, Xellos!” Filia plowed onward, “Because I’m coming along anyway!”

    “Fine,” Xellos said, not allowing Filia her moment of triumph, as a vein twitched in the vicinity of his forehead. “As I said before: I’m indifferent.”

    “You won’t be so indifferent when I stop your evil scheme,” Filia said with a smug gleam in her eye.

    Xellos merely shrugged and, deciding he had had enough of Filia for the moment, faded back into the astral plane.

    “You can’t just leave when I’m talking to you!” Filia shouted at him in the face of a preponderance of evidence to the contrary. She also threw her tea cup at him which wasn’t the most mature way to deal with the situation and only resulted in her breaking her own stuff.

    Filia was still shaking with rage and trying to catch her breath as Gravos once again got out the good old dust-bin to keep anyone from cutting their feet on the shards. An unpleasant thought occurred to her and she turned to Jillas with an expression of great anxiety.

    “What does it mean when two people bicker all the time?” she asked him nervously.

    “I don’t know, boss,” Jillas said, scratching at his ear and adjusting his hat. “I guess that they don’t like each other.”

    Filia breathed a sigh of relief and sank back down into her chair.

    "Yes, that’s what I thought.”

    *****

    Amelia stomped around the market square as though she was looking for a fight. Clearly she was still stinging from her tiff with Filia.

    “Easy,” Zelgadis said. “You’re scaring the merchants.”

    It was true. Unbeknownst to her, a street-vendor had just dived out of her way and was hiding worriedly behind his ice cream cart.

    “Sorry,” Amelia said, stopping and taking a deep breath. “But where does she get the nerve to—”

    “Filia’s always like that,” Zelgadis responded reasonably. “We shouldn’t have expected anything else.”

    “You’re right,” Amelia mumbled weakly, staring at the ground.

    Sometimes helping someone you care about is more just than justice could ever be.

    Zelgadis shook his head, as though he could dislodge the thought that way. “Hey,” he said. “Forget about Filia. We’ve got other things to worry about, like all the supplies we need to buy.”

    Amelia brightened, clearly having found something which to rally around again. “Yeah! Let’s go!” she shouted excitedly, leading the way down the bustling main street with purpose. Zelgadis followed with considerably less purpose, but was glad at least to have changed the subject.

    The ice cream vendor peered out from behind the stall. Once he was reasonably sure that the crazy girl and the creepy guy were gone he resumed selling his frozen wares.

    *****

    The big cities never fail to cater to their more rugged tourists---those who call themselves explorers and adventurers. Armories, blacksmiths, and general stores dotted the area. But what they needed was a bit more specialized, and the city provided.

    Achaea itself was built on farmland, but not too far off there were lush forests, high mountains, and of course the many desert valleys that accompanied them. For those daring enough to pass into these harsh environments, The Achaean Wilderness Store provided.

    Knowing that they were going to be traveling deep into the dreaded Desert of Fears, Amelia and Zelgadis stocked up on every amenity recommended for such scorching, sandy locales. Including, but not limited to, heavily anchored fold-up tents, white cloth hats meant to repel the sun, specially treated and stored food that would not spoil even if the sand got into it (actually, Zelgadis thought bitterly after he’d sampled the merchandise, sand might improve the flavor), scratch-proof canteens, specially made boots to keep traction on the sinking sand, and pikes to drive into the ground and keep your footing even in high winds.

    “Where’re you kids headin’ off to with all this?” asked the eye-patch wearing man at the counter as he rung them up.

    “The Desert of Fears,” Amelia said, not being one to use the stock phrase “mind your own business”.

    Zelgadis sighed. “We don’t really need to be telling people that.”

    The one-eyed man looked from one to the other, flabbergasted. “The Desert of Fears! Are you crazy?” he sat back and shook his head at them. “Kids, I hate to be the one to tell you this, but that ‘taint no date spot yer goin’ to.”

    Zelgadis scowled at him.

    “You can give me that look all you want, young man,” the shopkeeper reprimanded, “but I wouldn’t feel right if I let you kids leave without warnin’ you. There’s dark powers at work in that place. I heard tell that there’s ghosts in that place. They whisper things to you and can drive a man mad.” His one eye widened crazily as though to illustrate his point.

    “Last month, a group of hunters headed off to the dread desert after some lions.” The man shook his head. “Of course, we told them there was nothin’ in that desert to hunt… nothin’ that could be killed, leastways, but they don’t listen. Well, only one of them came back, their old huntin’ dog.”

    “Well, at least the dog was alri—” Amelia began, her creep factor elevated, but still eager to look on the bright side.

    “With a severed hand in his mouth,” the man said, clearly saving this detail for last.

    “Oh.”

    “Thanks for the warning,” Zelgadis said briskly as he gathered up their purchases. “But we have business in that desert. Right, Amelia?”

    “Hmm?” Amelia said, clearly lost in her horror-filled reverie. “Oh, right.”

    The man shook his head as the two exited. “They never listen, do they, Sparky?”

    There was a muffled bark from behind the counter.

    “Awww, Sparky!” the man said, looking at the barker in disgust. “I told ya to bury that! It puts off the customers.” He shook his head, and look down at the canine and its possession. “Ewww, the nails have all rotted off…”

    ******

    “You look like you’re going to sink into the sand with all that stuff,” Filia commented.

    Zelgadis grit his teeth. It was true, he and Amelia were now laden with a great deal of baggage, but he was sure it would come in handy when they were traversing through the dreaded desert. It was, admittedly, a bit of a bother as they were making their way through a mountain pass, but they’d be entering the desert all too soon, and who knew what they’d find there?

    Zelgadis wasn’t too keen on talking to Filia anyway since she’d forcibly added herself to their party without asking anyone about it. They’d just come back from their shopping expedition and she’d said, “I’m going along with you” and wouldn’t hear anything to the contrary.

    At the time, Zelgadis had held out the shameful hope that Amelia would be against Filia joining their group. After all, they’d both been very mad at each other only a short while before. However, since Filia was no longer standing in the way of their journey Amelia quickly forgave her, and since Filia still did not cop to understanding exactly what Amelia had been implying, Amelia too, was forgiven. Now they were getting along just swimmingly, which was more than Zelgadis could say for the rest of the group.

    Traveling with Xellos was a pain. Traveling with Filia was a pain. Put the two together and Zelgadis was pretty sure they could be classified as some kind of natural disaster. Even when he didn’t have to listen to the two of them actually arguing, the air was teaming with hostility.

    His train of thought was suddenly interrupted, as the cliffs parted, leaving them with a view of… mostly sand. Sand on the ground, shifting like water, sand on the skyline in the form of giant structures that the wind must destroy and recreate on a regular basis, and sand in the wind. Wind you can see is always a bad sign.

    Searing winds blew into their faces, carrying with them decaying odors and the howling of the wind. At least, they all hoped it was the wind that was howling.

    Somewhere, deep in this death trap, Zelgadis thought to himself, is someone who might finally have the answers I’ve been searching for. He looked to Amelia. She gave him a determined nod, which he returned.

    “Lead on, Xellos.”

    And so they followed him into wasteland. Dust devils spun in their billowing sandy gowns to greet them as the desert wind laughed. They braced themselves for the long and arduous trek through the Desert of Fears.

    *****

    Five minutes later Xellos said, “Well, this is it,” as they stopped in front of a sheer rock-face that even the mighty desert wind couldn’t begin to topple.

    A rock-face with a door on it.

    “What do you mean ‘this is it’?!” Zelgadis said angrily, throwing his heavy pack to the desert floor where the sand began its merry work of sucking it underground.

    “This is where she lives,” Xellos said, gesturing to the door.

    “Hang on a minute,” Zelgadis said, angrily catching his breath. “You mean to say that Amelia and I have been carting around all this heavy, not to mention expensive equipment, all to take a five minute stroll through the desert?!”

    Xellos gave it some thought. “Basically.”

    Amelia sighed and took off her pack, massaging her aching shoulders while Zelgadis eased his pains by shouting a lot.

    “Well why didn’t you tell us she lived on the outskirts of the desert?!”

    Xellos shrugged. “You didn’t ask.”

    Zelgadis stewed in his anger, but Xellos went on.

    “I thought everyone knew that nothing could live in the center of this desert. It should’ve been obvious that the person we’re meeting couldn’t live very far in, if you’d thought about it at all.”

    “Why you—!!”

    “Calm down, Mister Zelgadis,” Amelia said soothingly. “After all, we’re here earlier than we expected. That’s a good thing, right?”

    Zelgadis simmered down and resisted the urge to strangle Xellos. “You’re right,” he said, kicking his rapidly sinking bag instead.

    “Can we just go in, already?” Filia asked short-temperedly. “I’m never going to be able to get all this sand out of my hat.”

  6. #6
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    Chapter 6. Ask the Expert.

    “So, who is this woman we’re supposed to be meeting anyway?” Filia asked bad-naturedly while Zelgadis got a closer look at the entirely normal looking door set against what looked like sheer rock. “Another monster?”

    “Yes,” Xellos said. “She is a monster.”

    “Is she dangerous?” Amelia asked, giving the doorway an uncertain look, as though the mail-slot might suddenly sprout razor sharp teeth.

    Xellos gave her a look that clearly said, “see my last sentence”, but in the face of Amelia’s continued bewilderment he finally said, “She’s not liable to attack you, if that’s what you mean. It’s not really her job.”

    “What is her job then?” Zelgadis asked.

    Xellos looked thoughtful as he searched for the right way to explain. “I suppose you could say she’s the monster race’s expert on humans.”

    Amelia’s brow furrowed. “But why would you guys want to know about humans?”

    Xellos answered with his most unpleasant smile of the day. Amelia cringed and unconsciously backed away slightly.

    Zelgadis, weary of the conversation, just shook his head. “Fine. Let’s just get on with it.”

    Xellos walked over to the door, and unknowingly stood upon a welcome mat that lay under 300 yards of sand. He grasped the rather plain silver doorknocker and knocked.

    They heard a scrambling of footsteps from behind the door. A muffled male voice said, “Who is it?” but it didn’t appear to be asking them.

    A female voice, right on the other side of the door could clearly be heard to say, “Oh crap. It’s Xellos,” as its owner looked through the peephole.

    Zelgadis, Amelia, and Filia gave Xellos a sidelong glance, but he appeared unaffected.

    “Does he look like he’s here to start any trouble?” the man asked.

    “How should I know?” the woman asked. “He’s only got that one stupid expression.”

    “Sangoma, I can hear you,” Xellos commented at this.

    There was a pregnant pause, and then the woman seemed to decide that the best way to deal with faux pas was to simply ignore them. “Hey there, Xellos,” she started again, voice charged with friendliness. “How are things?”

    “Fine, Sangoma,” Xellos said, dismissing her pleasantries as another man might turn down second helpings of steamed broccoli. “Can we come in?”

    “Sure, sure,” she said with deliberate nonchalance.

    What followed was the sound of several deadbolts being clicked out of position, keys turning in locks, chains being unchained, and even what sounded like some counter spells, before the door finally opened to reveal a woman and a man. Or at least, woman and man shaped things.

    The man wore expensive looking armor and a notched sword on his belt. Unlike his armor, which seemed shiny and new, the sword looked distinctly old, but gave the direct impression of having cut through a wide variety of creatures in its long and storied career. His blue-black hair was in the long style, meant to get girls by seeming rugged and attractive. By and large, this only really works on girls who want to style their boyfriend’s hair.

    The woman had short brown hair and was dressed in the best of desert chic, with an airy white tunic, tan tapered shorts, and a pair of sandals; not the clunky kind that’s really comfortable, but the delicate Grecian goddess kind which is less so. This probably meant she wasn’t well-dressed if she wanted to survive in the actual desert. But monsters seldom have to worry about little things like dying of exposure.

    The woman, Sangoma, gave each of the travelers standing behind Xellos a quick, calculating look before saying, “Well, don’t just stand out there. The wind is picking up and I don’t want to have to be sweeping sand out of the front hall all afternoon again.”

    They briskly passed through the doorway, trying their best not to track any sand onto the carpet, as Sangoma labored to close the door against the wind before being assisted by the man at her side.

    When the howling of the wind from the desert outside was blocked out, the travelers took a look around. This certainly didn’t look like the inside of a rock ought to look. In fact, it looked like the inside of any other house. Cloudy blue skies that certainly didn’t hang over the stormy desert that they were just in hung outside the windows letting a cheerful light into the room. If they had watched the windows for a long period of time, they might’ve noticed that the cloud patterns never changed.

    “Well,” Sangoma said, turning to her visitors and clapping her hands together. “It’s been quite awhile since I had any visitors.” She turned to the man in armor. “Rhevas, would you mind getting our guests some tea or something?”

    The man called Rhevas left the room, muttering something about not being her house slave, but without any real rancor. Sangoma smiled briefly before turning a polite but somewhat puzzled expression to Xellos.

    “So uh… who are…” she began, trailing off and making questioning little hand gestures in reference to Zelgadis, Amelia, and Filia.

    “This is Mister Zelgadis Greywords,” Xellos said, nodding toward Zelgadis.

    Sangoma gave him a curious look, and then plucked a strand of hair off the top of his head as if this was a perfectly normal way of greeting someone.

    “Ow,” Zelgadis said, rubbing his head painfully while giving Sangoma a wary look.

    “Chimera, eh?” she said, examining the wiry, steel-like strand of hair.

    “How could you tell?” Zelgadis asked sarcastically.

    “This is Miss Amelia, a princess of Seyruun,” Xellos continued his introductions.

    Amelia flashed Sangoma a slightly nervous smile, as though worried that she’d start pulling out her hair as well. But Sangoma merely gave a nod of recognition, apparently uninterested in non-chimera hair.

    “And Filia,” Xellos concluded, trying as best he could to give the impression that Filia was the “and the rest” of their little group. “A dragon priestess.” Sangoma gave Filia a polite and friendly smile, but her efforts were returned with a scowl.

    “Retired,” Filia insisted.

    “Oh, yes, that’s right,” Xellos commented thoughtfully. “Now you sell cooking containers or something like that.” Making it sound like Filia merely hawked Tupperware on the weekends.

    “I sell vases and maces and you know it,” Filia shot back angrily, as the man named Rhevas entered the room with a tray of drinks. “My shop is very successful, so you can just stop maligning it all the time.”

    “That shop up in Achaea?” Rhevas asked, as he passed out the drinks. At Filia’s nod he said, “I’ve ordered maces from their in the past for the soldiers. Very high quality merchandise. It’s the only place I order from now.”

    Filia was torn between being extremely pleased in receiving a compliment, and hating the complimenter on the basis of monsterdom.

    “I suppose you’d know, wouldn’t you, General Rhevas,” Xellos said, hefting the title nastily.

    Rhevas frowned, and seemed about to say something before Sangoma interrupted.

    “It’s nice to meet you all,” she said flashing her bright green eyes at them. “My name is Sangoma, and this is my husband Rhevas.”

    This simple introduction had the effect of tossing a match into a swimming pool full of kerosene.

    “What?!” Amelia exclaimed, nearly dropping her weak, lukewarm tea in surprise as Filia did drop hers.

    “Monsters don’t get married,” Filia insisted, giving Xellos a disgusted glance before turning her indignation back on her hosts. “They roam the world, alone and unloveable as befits their status as the most hateful, evil, and loathsome creatures on the planet!”

    Sangoma grinned, clearly not at all put off by the hateful, evil, loathsome comment. “That is broadly true,” she explained with a sidelong glance at Rhevas, who seemed to be enjoying the conversation far less than his wife. “But there are rare exceptions.”

    “Wow,” Amelia said, sipping her cheap tea. “I had no idea!”

    “I don’t see what’s so surprising about it,” Sangoma commented in the face of Amelia’s astonishment, Zelgadis’s indifference, and Xellos and Filia’s mutual, undisguised revulsion. “Human fairy tales are full of stories about monsters, well, generally not marrying humans, but having certain,” she paused and tried to find the right words in the presence of the puritanical aura Filia was projecting like nobody’s business, “romantic interludes. And if that’s the case then it follows that monsters can marry other monsters.”

    “Most of those stories are entirely fictional,” Xellos commented with a grimace. “And in any case it’s frowned upon to say the least.”

    “Well, that is true,” Sangoma allowed. “Most of those stories are the result of ghastly nightmares, absent fathers, and surprisingly ugly babies. But according to my sources a few of the stories are actually based on truth.”

    “I guess that explains Xellos and Filia,” Amelia said, apparently having not entirely forgiven Filia’s erstwhile questioning of her devotion to justice.

    “It explains what now?” Xellos asked with no trace of his usual smile as Filia dropped the second cup of tea Rhevas had poured for her and practically vibrated with indignant rage.

    Sangoma, for her part, laughed so hard that tea came out her nose. Rhevas tried valiantly to keep a straight face, but wound up laughing just as hard. Xellos and Filia glared at them, apparently not finding the situation nearly as comical as their hosts.

    “I can’t believe you would say something so… so… sick,” Filia shot at Amelia.

    “Relax. It was just a joke.”

    “Well it wasn’t very funny!” Filia declared, as Sangoma grabbed a napkin and attempted to clean the tea off of herself while still being shaken by fits of the chuckles.

    “No, no,” Sangoma said. “I like it. A monster and a dragon, eh? Very folkloric. It’s a wonder there isn’t some kind of story about it already.”

    Xellos and Filia each gave her a look that could’ve boiled steam. Apparently they didn’t consider a good plot to be worth such comments.

    “That’s interesting and all,” Zelgadis cut-in, not caring at all about the social habits of monsters. “But it’s not why we came here.”

    Sangoma recovered from her giggles and turned her polite smile on her interrupter. “Well, why are you here, Zelgadis?”

    “Mister Zelgadis is on a quest to find a way to regain his human form,” Xellos explained, glad that the subject had been changed. “I thought you might be the person to talk to on this.”

    Sangoma’s expression sharpened suspiciously in Xellos’s direction. “And you brought him here… why? I’m sure it wasn’t out of the goodness of your heart.”

    Xellos merely shrugged, as though to indicate that he had a secret, insidious reason for helping them that did not include anything quite so lame as avoiding the optimism instilled speeches of a teenage girl.

    “Fine,” Sangoma said, knowing better than to fight a losing battle. “So you thought I might have a few ideas on the subject?”

    “Do you?” Zelgadis asked, with little hope for the answers he was looking for.

    “Off the top of my head,” Sangoma began, “I can think of three.” Zelgadis’s hopes soared for a moment as he looked at her in shock. “But,” she began again, hurling the dart of despair at the balloon of Zelgadis’s hopes, “If you have any sense at all you won’t try any of them.”

    Zelgadis sighed. “Let’s hear them.”

    “First off,” she said raising a finger, “We could spin you around in a centrifuge,” she rotated aforementioned finger in the air vaguely, “thus forcibly separating the chimerical components of your body from the human bits.”

    Zelgadis gave her a long stare before saying, “Wouldn’t that kill me?”

    “It would liquefy you!” Sangoma responded cheerfully.

    “Option number #2?” Zelgadis asked wisely.

    “You could find some kind of poison,” Sangoma began as Zelgadis cringed at this less than promising start. “A poison that would destroy the chimerical components of your body and leave the human bits healthy. Though,” she laughed, “Trial and error is not a fun game to play when it comes to poison.”

    Zelgadis was getting frustrated at this point. “So that would just kill me too?”

    Just kill you?” Sangoma asked, “Only if you’re very lucky.”

    “And the last one?”

    “Well,” Sangoma began, surveying Zelgadis with an appraising, and mildly concerned expression. “You could always make a pact with a monster. Though I hasten to add that you wouldn’t really be returned to your human form. You’d just project the illusion of a human form. It’s not a huge distinction, but there it is. Of course,” she paused, as though trying to emphasize the next bit, “I should warn you that those humans who make pacts with monsters always come to sticky ends.”

    Zelgadis sat back, with a thoughtful expression. Amelia looked over at him fearfully, until he finally said, “Pass.” She gave a relieved sigh.

    “Smart boy,” Sangoma said, with a pleased expression.

    Zelgadis sighed numbly. “So I guess that’s it. Another dead end.”

    “Oh no,” Amelia said, forgetting her relief in favor of more concern as she turned beseechingly to Sangoma. “There must be something you can do to help Mister Zelgadis. Please!”

    “Amelia,” Zelgadis chided, choking back embarrassment like a horrible meal prepared by a beloved family member. “Don’t bother.”

    Sangoma grinned from Zelgadis to Amelia, and then nudged her husband in the ribs and said, “It’s so obvious when guys try to play it cool, isn’t it?”

    “I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Rhevas maintained with a slight smile playing at the corner of his lips nonetheless as Zelgadis froze.

    “Now, now,” Sangoma said, turning her attention back to her guests. “Those ideas were just what came to be at the moment. I may yet have something that could help you in my collections.”

    “Really?” Amelia asked hopefully, eyes bright.

    “Really,” Sangoma answered the girl. “Besides, there are some things I have down there that I think you should see, Zelgadis.” She grimaced slightly and then turned to her husband.

    “Well, I can’t very well let Xellos into the vaults since he won’t tell me why he’s here. And it’s more than my life’s worth to let a dragon priestess in there,” she noted Filia opening her mouth to say something and added, “retired or not,” to shut her up. “So would you be a dear and entertain our more objectionable guests?”

    “Objectionable?!” repeated Filia taking offense.

    “Gladly,” Rhevas answered, toasting her with his mug of cheap tea.

    Sangoma nodded to him in gratitude and kicked a carpet out of the way, revealing a trap door in the floor. She hoisted the door open, revealing a narrow staircase that led into a musty basement.

    “Follow me.”

  7. #7
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    Chapter 7. Under the Geis.

    Zelgadis and Amelia followed Sangoma down into the cellar as the door creaked shut behind them. Amelia looked around in a panic at the closing door. It had probably been shut by Sangoma’s husband but… it was hard to shake the creepy aura she felt as they descended the steps.

    When they reached the chamber beyond the stairs it wasn’t exactly what she’d expected. First of all, the room was large – far larger than the house above it. She had a sneaking suspicion that the room they were in was nestled happily in one of the more spatially permissive dimensions.

    It was filled with shelves as far as the eye could see and probably farther. The shelves, in turn, were filled with books, loose papers, and a few rather complicated and sinister looking instruments. The damp scent in the air was the only overture to the catacomb library structure. It was a warm, well-lit space with a definite absence of dust and cobwebs. Comfortable chairs with desk attachments were scattered throughout the room, many of which had books left open to certain pages and a series of carefully taken notes beside them. “The vaults” were clearly a place in which Sangoma spent much of her time.

    “Are all these books about humans?” Amelia asked.

    “Yes,” Sangoma said, casting Amelia a mildly impressed look before saying, “Of course, Xellos must have told you it’s my area of expertise. Indeed, folklore, art, history, civics, philosophy, religion, magic, language, culture, and both the ancient art of alchemy and its burgeoning revival,” she said, as she gestured to the upright domino shelves. “And that’s just scratching the surface. It’s a rather broad subject.” She smiled. “You’re a rather broad subject, I should say.”

    “And all this somehow helps the monster race?”

    Sangoma’s smile turned bitterly ironic. “Of course. Monsters know how other monsters think, and dragons are depressingly easy to understand, but humans are a little tricky sometimes. Just when you think you’ve got them pegged, they go the other way, sometimes just to spite you. Humans don’t even understand themselves, seeing as they spend their whole lives asking themselves who they are and what their purpose is.” She snorted. “Monsters and dragons don’t have to ask, they know. And they know that you can only plan for things that you understand.”

    “You said there was something you wanted to show me?” Zelgadis prompted, ever impatient to get to the point.

    “Alright, have it your way,” Sangoma said, waving a hand at him and leading the two along the aisles. It seemed like they had walked a long way before they were out of the thatch of shelving and into an open space that contained…

    “Wha-?” Zelgadis began, unable to get the full word out.

    “Oh!” Amelia said in surprise.

    And then the smell hit them.

    It was an unpleasantly chemical smell. It stank like a combination of a cotton ball that had been inside a smoker’s mouth and an especially vile preservative. They covered their noses.

    “Sorry about the smell,” Sangoma said, clearly not bothered by it herself. What she should’ve apologized for was the sight.

    Jars of various sizes were stacked, one on top of another. Some contained hands or feet suspended in a watery, brownish liquid, some were big enough to hold entire bodies. A cheerful looking skeleton was posed in a giddy wave, as though to welcome them to the tea party of the dismembered.

    The skeleton had two heads.

    A closer look at the jars, and a closer look was not necessarily desired, revealed that the jars occupants contained similar quirks. A floating foot was covered in sharp black hooks, like the hairs of a giant spider. A hand featured a large spike protruding from the palm, transforming it into a deadly weapon and no doubt adding a whole new layer of horror to patty-cake. The other jars told the same story: animalistic, distorted, and deformed creatures that must have once been men.

    The jars were each marked with labels that said things like, “John Doe”, “The Beast of Balcove”, “Rodney” and similar.

    “So,” Zelgadis said in a deceptively calm voice as he gulped down a lungful of the noxious fumes and tried to decide whether to run or not. “You collect chimeras, do you?”

    Sangoma gave a smile as though to indicate that their discomfort was delicious and let that question hang for just a little longer than was necessary. Then she said, “Oh, they’re not first-hand collections. At least not most of them. I just gave them a home.”

    “You see,” she went on. “Back in the day it used to be extremely fashionable for royalty to collect…” The word freaks was carefully omitted from the conversation. “Well, chimeras and those malformed at birth. Because when you’re rich, powerful, and completely insane, you can’t just go around collecting bottle caps like the rest of us.”

    Amelia gave a thin laugh, but it was mostly out of nervousness.

    “Now, this being the age of enlightenment and all,” Sangoma continued. “There’s a general feeling that it might be wrong to gut someone and suspend their body in formaldehyde just because they’re interesting looking. So such collections have generally fallen out of favor. But I thought, well, maybe they still have something left to teach us,” she rapped gently on a jar containing a torso with an externally exposed heart bearing the name “Davy” and a gentle ding issued from it. “So I picked up the pieces.”

    “Huh.” Zelgadis said cautiously.

    “You have nothing to worry about, Zelgadis,” Sangoma said with a laugh. “I have no intention of adding you to my collection.”

    “Well, good.”

    “At least not at the moment.”

    Zelgadis let out a choked sound.

    “Anyway,” Sangoma said, jumping off from that uncomfortable beat. “Seeing you reminded me a lot of one of these guys, so I thought I’d show you him. Let’s see,” she began shifting through the wall of specimen jars. “I think he’s somewhere in the back.”

    Amelia seemed to have, at that point, fought through her initial feelings of fear and revulsion and now was just curious. She looked at a few of the larger containers that Sangoma had heaved out of the way.

    “This one looks normal,” she commented.

    “Which one is it?” Sangoma huffed as she moved a human-sized tube out of her path.

    Amelia checked the label. “It says, ‘Sulky Richard’.”

    “Ah, well that’s just because you’re not looking at his gentiles.” Sangoma said simply.

    “Oh.” Amelia said in a slightly strangled voice as she deliberately backed away from the jars.

    “Here he is,” Sangoma said triumphantly, pulling another one of the human-sized tubes into clear view. “Rembros Banksher.”

    Rembros Banksher appeared fairly normal for an elderly corpse in a chemical stew. The major thing, of course, that Amelia and Zelgadis noted as they looked at the pale, only slightly decayed form, was his nose. Actually, it was the area to the left and right of his nose. Poking out of each sinus was a bright red crab’s claw. The pinchers swayed peacefully in the briny sea of the jar.

    They all stared at the figure for a moment. Amelia could’ve sworn she saw it wink, but told no one of this.

    “Umm,” Zelgadis began. “Why…?” There were just a whole lot of questions there.

    “I know,” Sangoma said, apparently choosing his question for him. “Why the nose claws? It’s not exactly useful, unless you want to pinch someone who gets real close to your face. Most chimeras are designed to give them the edge in battle, but I think this one was a case of a couple of bored sorcerers who were drunk with power and just wanted to graft things onto other things.” She shrugged.

    “Why did I remind you of him?” Zelgadis asked.

    “Well, see,” Sangoma started. “I actually met Rembros, y’know, while he was alive and all. I was doing a little chimera research so I was interviewing him. Apparently, he’d been kidnapped and changed into a Chimera when he was twelve years old. He lived in an alley-way begging for two years before embarking on a journey to change himself back to his proper form.”

    Zelgadis looked up at the man. “I’m guessing that didn’t work out so well.”

    “No,” Sangoma said, shaking her head. “He tried all kinds of magical rituals. In the end, when he was truly desperate he tried cutting them off.” Amelia winced. “But that didn’t work either, they just grew back.”

    “What happened to him?” Amelia asked.

    “Eventually, he told me, he gave in. He decided that all he really wanted was to live a normal life as best he could. So he traveled to this small town called Dayton, which is where he lived for the rest of his life. He started off as a day laborer on one of the ranches in the area. Folks were initially somewhat suspicious of him, but he worked hard and generally impressed the townspeople with his good character and was consistently promoted.”

    “He married the daughter of the ranch owner and became quite a wealthy man, and very important in the community. After a time, people more or less forgot that they’d considered him strange at any time. Visitors would come into town and ask about him, and the townsfolk would scratch their heads and say, ‘Oh yeah. That’s Rembros. Don’t mind the claws, he’s alright.’ He was eventually elected the mayor of the town and was the most well-liked and respected citizen the town had ever known. He died in his bed of old age surrounded by his four full-grown children and twelve grandchildren. Dayton still has a statue of him up in the town square, crab claws and all.”

    Zelgadis’s initially anxiety had melted away into annoyance as he noted the didactic bend of Sangoma’s story. “Am I supposed to learn some kind of lesson from this?”

    Sangoma shrugged. “You don’t have to if you don’t want to.”

    Zelgadis scowled. “If that’s all you wanted to show me then we’d better be leaving.” He made like he was going to leave.

    “Hold up there, young man,” Sangoma said, leaning against Rembros Banksher’s preserved remains. “Now, I personally have my doubts about your little quest, but I’m sure this collection has something that can help you out. After all, it’s never let me down before. So, before you leave all offended like, ask yourself: Do you really think Xellos knows someone else with this much viable information at their disposal. Does he seem that popular to you?”

    Zelgadis ceased his retreat. She had him there. He turned around, questioningly. “What’ve you got?”

    She gave him another calculating look and said, “I think I’ve got something in mind from the little I know about you. Just let me drag a few things off the shelf and we’ll see.”

    *****

    “So,” Xellos began, aware that some polite conversation might be preferable to waiting in silence for Sangoma to come back. “How are things at the front?”

    “Fine,” Rhevas answered.

    “Only I heard that things weren’t going so well in Dils.”

    “I think you’ll find,” Rhevas answered in a level tone. “That things are turning around.”

    “I see.”

    Filia glowered into her third and, barring any unforeseen fits of fury, last cup of tea. Monsters. She was in a monster house, sitting at a monster table, sipping monster tea and eating monster crackers while being forced to listen to monster small-talk.

    “So,” Rhevas began, taking up the reigns of the conversation. “How is…” he glanced at Filia and seemed to decide to change his word choice, “Work?”

    “Fine.”

    Rhevas stared ahead for a moment and seemed to decide that coded small-talk with Xellos just wasn’t worth the effort. He refocused onto Filia.

    “I’ve actually been meaning to put a large order in at your shop,” He said. “Any chance of a discount?” Insert hopeful, winning smile here.

    “No,” Filia said in icy tones. “In fact, now that I know you’re a monster I don’t think I can accept any more orders from you knowing you might be putting people to harm.”

    Rhevas stared blankly at her. “You sell maces.”

    “Well, yes,” Filia allowed. “But, you know, just for self-defense.”

    “So you ask all your customers if they’ll be using them for self-defense or not?”

    “Well… no.”

    “Sounds like a discriminatory selling policy,” Xellos tutted. “At least the monster race treats people with equality.”

    Equal rights to get vaporized in a black haze of pain and misery, of course.

    “It’s fine,” Rhevas said. “I know the shop owner down in Mons. I can get my maces there.”

    “Mertie’s Maces?” Filia snorted. “You do realize they’ll be falling apart within a few months, don’t you?”

    “Oh, I don’t know,” Rhevas said vaguely. “Mertie has some very competitive prices.”

    “That’s because she sells inferior merchandise!”

    “Well,” Rhevas said helplessly, “I guess I’ll have to find out for myself, won’t I? Anyway, I know Mertie, and she says she’ll give me a 5% discount. After all, not a lot of shop owners would turn down an order of 10,000 maces.”

    Filia’s ears went pink as an inner demon of greed stirred and sniffed the air. Wasn’t it, when you got right down to it, wrong to not sell something to a customer based entirely on what species they were? And hey, couldn’t she do a lot with that kind of money? A person that made that kind of sale could really… y’know, improve the community. Yeah, that’s it. She’d improve the community.

    “I can give you a 10% discount.”

    Rhevas nodded. “We have a deal.”

    At that almost historic moment in monster-dragon relations the cellar trap-door creaked open and Rhevas made a mental note to oil the hinges. A mildly confused looking Zelgadis and Amelia ascended into the light, and held the door open for Sangoma whose hands were full of various books, maps, and loose sets of notes.

    “Did you find what you needed?” Rhevas asked.

    “Possibly,” Sangoma answered, setting the pile of papers down onto the table. “You see,” she said, now addressing Zelgadis, “The chimera deal is a bit tricky. It’s not exactly a curse, so curse-breakers won’t work. I know of a lot of legendary magical places, but none for this kind of thing. If you came to me asking for immortality for example, I could probably find you a lot of legends, but there doesn’t seem to be a quick and easy answer for this one.”

    “So, what did you find?” Zelgadis asked.

    “I remembered a series of old legends that have been told in many different forms across the continent,” she said, rifling through her notes. “I’ve been studying them for awhile, and I believe that they are all based on one original true story. The common denominators come down to this: there is a swamp with a girl in it and she… knows.”

    “Knows what?” Amelia asked.

    “Theoretically everything,” Sangoma said. “It depends on the tale. She appears to be some kind of oracle.”

    “An oracle, huh?” Zelgadis said, rubbing his chin thoughtfully as he sat down.

    “You can see where I’m going with this, can’t you?”

    “If there really is an oracle, then if there was a way to transform me back to my human form, she’d know what it was.”

    “Precisely,” Sangoma said.

    “So, do you know where this oracle is?”

    “I have a few ideas,” Sangoma replied, ever aloof.

    “Well, what are they?”

    Sangoma sighed. “This is the part that you’re probably not going to understand,” she said, flipping through an ancient book that looked like it was a stray breath away from disintegrating, “But see, I can’t just hand you the location. Various tales describe the oracle as being anything from a goddess to a ghost. It’ll be a very dangerous mission.”

    Zelgadis stood up and drew himself up to full height. “I don’t think it’s any of your business if I put myself in danger.”

    “Just sit down and hear her out,” Rhevas said, without even looking up from his tea.

    Zelgadis hesitated for a minute, and then sat back down.

    “There is a right way and a wrong way to do this,” Sangoma continued, as if there had been no interruption. “And from what I’ve seen of you, you’d almost definitely do it the wrong way.”

    Zelgadis took offense, but decided not to interrupt again.

    “So I’m afraid I can’t give you the information you need unless you agree to be put under a geis.”

    Xellos said, “Ah,” and nodded approvingly.

    “What’s a geis?” Zelgadis asked.

    Sangoma’s brow furrowed as she tried to find the words to describe it. “It’s like… well, it’s like rules. It’s a kind of ancient magic. Heroes get put under geasa when they start off on a quest. If they follow the geis, they will be rewarded. If not, they will be punished.”

    “So it’s like a curse?”

    “In some ways,” Sangoma allowed, “But it doesn’t necessarily have to be.”

    “What would these rules be anyway?” Zelgadis asked, figuring that he might as well hear them before denying them straight off.

    Sangoma held up four fingers. “First off, you must find the oracle.” Zelgadis nodded, he had to agree that that did seem somewhat essential to the success of the quest. “Second, you must not go to the oracle alone,” Zelgadis grimaced, but let her continue. “Third, you must bring a gift to the oracle.” That seemed reasonable. “And Fourth, you must do everything that the oracle tells you to.”

    And that’s basically what it came down to… absolute uncertainty. The first three rules were alright, but the last one was not anywhere close to alright. It looked like a trap, but oddly enough it didn’t feel like one.

    Zelgadis looked around. There was no help to be found. Filia might have normally objected, but she seemed engrossed in wondering whether or not she’d have enough money to expand her shop if her sale with Rhevas went through to pay too close attention to the conversation. Amelia looked concerned, but the thing was, she was looking to him for an answer. She’d go along no matter what he chose.

    “You don’t have to say yes,” Sangoma said kindly. “You could take my dear friend Rembros’s example and try to make the best of a bad situation. Of course,” she said in a gentle, thoughtful voice that nevertheless seemed designed to leave scratch marks across the souls of men, “That might ultimately leave you in my basement suspended in formaldehyde.”

    Zelgadis stared at her and weighed his options before finally breaking eye contact. “I’ll take the geis,” he said in a quiet voice.

    Sangoma looked pleased. “Now we’re getting somewhere.” She bent over a map and began writing on it with a large, black marker.

    “So, what kind of spell do you need to cast for this geis?” Zelgadis asked.

    “Oh?” Sangoma said, looking up in surprise. “The geis is already done.”

    “Really?”

    “Yep. You’re under the geis just by agreeing to the rules.”

    “That’s all there is to it?” Zelgadis asked, feeling in some strange way that he’d been ripped off.

    “Would you feel more comfortable if I lit some candles and drew some magic symbols?” Sangoma asked, ever the facilitator.

    “I guess not,” Zelgadis said.

    “Okay then,” Sangoma said cheerily. “Then here’s my side of the bargain.” She presented him with the annotated map and a sheaf of papers.

    “That’s all of my notes on the swamp oracle,” she explained. “From what I’ve found, there are basically four main tales. The first one involves a swamp goddess. I’ve traced that story back to Sairaag,” she pointed to the city circled on the map. “The second one involves a girl who was drowned in a marsh in Fletcher’s Green. The third involves a woman who calls herself the Marsh King’s daughter, which I think comes from somewhere in Putter country. And the fourth mentions a swamp witch whose home is said to be way up in the flats of Vye.” She indicated a circled region in the far north of the map.

    “Now, I don’t know which one of these is the honest to goodness swamp oracle,” she cautioned. “These four are the ones I consider to be the best leads.”

    Zelgadis nodded. His life was once again at stake and he should’ve been feeling worried, but with a task in front of him he just felt… relieved.

    “I wish you the best of luck,” Sangoma said, patting his shoulder. She seemed sincere, but then again, monsters have a great deal of free time in which to learn to fake these things.

    There wasn’t much more to say. They packed up their things, snapped Filia out of her expansion based musings, and, after Rhevas had assured Filia that his people would call her people, they left.

    “So,” Rhevas said, as the front door closed and their visitors re-entered the desert. “What’s going to happen to them?”

    Sangoma fished around in her pockets withdrawing two items. One was a stone with a hole in the center of it and one was the hair she’d plucked off Zelgadis’s head upon their introduction. She tied the hair around the stone and gave it a reflective look before she placed it back in her pocket.

    “We’ll just have to wait and see.”

  8. #8
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    Chapter 8. Under Construction.

    “What have I gotten myself into?” Zelgadis said morosely, as they exited the baking heat of the desert in favor of the cool of the forest.

    “A lot of trouble,” Filia chided. As soon as she was able to shake the dollar signs out of her eyes she’d informed Zelgadis that he’d made a huge mistake.

    "You’re probably right,” Zelgadis observed gloomily. But focusing on all the terrible things that might happen to him as a result of the current set-up just wasn’t productive. The best thing to do, he thought, would be to deal with it. “Hey Xellos,” he said. “What kind of magic is this geis anyway?”

    “Yeah,” Amelia said, turning her attention to Xellos. “I’ve never heard of it before.”

    Xellos appeared to think for a moment before saying, “It’s very old magic. So old and so basic that it’s almost not magic at all. From what I understand, Sangoma is actually has an odd fondness for that variety of hedge witchery. Geasa used to be put upon those undertaking a quest quite often, though I haven’t heard of any recent occurrences. So, while it’s not exactly current it is fairly appropriate given the situation.”

    “She said it was like rules,” Amelia said, brow furrowed. “But it sounded more like a curse to me.”

    “It can be,” Xellos said, echoing Sangoma’s earlier sentiment. “But it can also be a blessing. It’s most like a promise. If the geis is followed, blessings follow, but if it is broken there will be punishment.”

    “What kind of punishment?” Zelgadis said, asking the relevant question.

    Xellos shrugged. “Usually death.”

    Zelgadis was none too pleased with this answer, but couldn’t say he was surprised.

    “I know of one circumstance where a man was put under a geis to never drink wine, and another geis to never deny the request of royalty,” Xellos said, because monsters are great appreciators of irony, at least when it’s not them on the chopping block. “Of course, his fate was sealed when a King asked him to drink to his health. There was nothing he could do without breaking one of his geasa. So he died.”

    Zelgadis stopped dead (though not literally). “You don’t think that’s what’s going on here, do you?”

    Xellos shrugged again. “Sangoma asked you to stop by again if you could complete your request before we left, didn’t she? She must think you at least have a chance.”

    “Hmm,” Zelgadis said, and started walking again, not entirely comforted by this.

    “So how does the geis thing work?” Amelia asked interestedly. “You said it was basic, so does that mean anyone could cast it?”

    “Someone you wanted to boss around?” Zelgadis asked mildly.

    “No,” Amelia said defensively. “I’m just curious. That’s all.”

    “A geis is basically a promise before a higher power. It says, if I break my promise may the gods or monsters strike me down, and if I keep it may I be blessed. Geasa are always put on men by women,” Xellos added, as though he found that little fact significant and somewhat typical. “The caster must have some kind of connection with the gods or the monsters to make the geis work. Goddesses, royalty, priestesses,” he rattled them off. “People like that.”

    “So could a princess like Amelia or a priestess like Filia do it?” Zelgadis asked with mounting horror.

    “I’m not a priestess anymore,” Filia said automatically. But she’d been quietly listening with keen interest to Xellos’s little lecture despite herself.

    “I don’t think so,” Xellos said loftily, ignoring her. “Only a very important, high-ranking priestess should be able to pull something like that off and I doubt Filia ever qualified.” A ‘Hmmph!’ was heard from the ‘not-a-priestess-anymore’. “As for royalty, that only works in kingdoms built around rulers that are descended from the divine or said to be divine themselves. A God-Queen or princess could do the trick, but it’s unlikely your average princess could do it.”

    “Oh,” your average princess said, trying not to sound disappointed.

    “And what about this gift thing she mentioned?” Zelgadis asked abruptly, as he’d been mentally running over the restrictions he was under to see if he could find an obvious contradiction. “What am I supposed to get for some kind of oracle?”

    “Hmmm,” Amelia said, giving the matter due consideration. “It’s probably supposed to be some powerful magical object. Y’know, like a unicorn’s horn or a dragon heart or something.”

    “Amelia,” Filia said slowly and deliberately.

    “What?”

    I’m a dragon,” she said through gritted teeth.

    “Oh. Sorry,” Amelia said.

    “I’ll hold her down and you can cut her heart out,” Xellos commented dryly.

    Filia rounded on him. “If you knew anything about these ethereal types at all, you’d know that they don’t go in for that kind of stuff.” Filia was basing her disdainfully in-the-know position entirely on a book she’d read as a child. “They always want things like the color of your eyes or the memory of your first summer day. That kind of thing.”

    “Well, your ‘ethereal types’ are hardly my business,” Xellos shot back. “Or perhaps you’d forgotten, Filia?”

    “Shut up,” Zelgadis said, before they could get a really good argument going. “We’ll figure it out on the way.” He had a sudden thought and narrowed his eyes at Xellos. “What are you still doing here anyway?”

    “…You told my other traveling companions I was a monster,” Xellos said, as though Zelgadis suffered from memory-loss.

    “That’s no excuse. You led us to Sangoma so now we don’t need you anymore,” Zelgadis said, neglecting to add “Go on, get!”. “If you’re bored then just go and bother Lina.”

    “Ah,” Xellos said, as though they’d come at last to a very interesting point. “I don’t think Miss Lina would appreciate my interference. Last I heard, she and Gourry were headed off to Zephillia to visit her parents.”

    Zelgadis was unimpressed with this reasoning, but Amelia looked like she was about ready to have a cow over it.

    “She’s taking Mister Gourry to meet her parents?!” she practically squealed. “That’s such an important step!”

    “I don’t see what the big deal is,” Zelgadis said, marveling at Amelia’s out-of-nowhere exuberance. “I mean, I’ve met your dad.” He thought for a minute. “Oh.”

    There was an uncomfortable silence that Zelgadis filled by rustling through the papers Sangoma had given him until he had found the map. “So it looks like the closest place she’s got marked off is Sairaag. So we should be taking that pass,” he said, pointing to his left.

    “Do you think we’ll see Miss Sylphiel while we’re there?” Amelia asked as they shifted onto the new path.

    “I’m just hoping Sairaag doesn’t somehow get destroyed again while we’re there,” Zelgadis said wearily. “It seems like we’re bad luck for that place.”

    ******

    The first time they’d passed through Sairaag the city was destroyed by a berserk clone. The second time a monster had raised the entire city from the dead as a ghost town that was later double-destroyed in the aftermath of the world nearly ending. They weren’t really sure what they’d find at Sairaag this time around, and were slightly worried that whatever inhabitants left might chase them away as soon as they arrived. Neither of those incidents was really their fault, but still…

    When they arrived they realized that what currently existed wasn’t really so much a city, but a city in the making. In the time since they’d been there the few survivors of Sairaag’s disasters and those that had arrived at the troubled town after the fact had been hard at work rebuilding. But rebuilding a city as grand as Sairaag had once been was no small feat.

    There were a few crudely built houses and the roads were ranged with tents, but most of the architecture was work-in-progress. Hammers pounded rhythmically, saws roared through timber, and serious looking men holding large pieces of paper yelled at men on scaffoldings.

    The buzz of industry and the din of construction said in no uncertain terms that it would take a little more than masters of death or clones of priests to put the great city of Sairaag down for good.

    “Wow, they’ve really done a lot of work,” Amelia observed as they were nearly run over by a man carrying a front door over his head.

    “I suppose we should just start asking if anyone knows about…” Zelgadis trailed off as he glanced at the piece of paper in his hands. “‘Some kind of swamp goddess’.”

    “But they all look so busy,” Filia said, looking in wonder at the semi-controlled chaos around them.

    Amelia shaded her eyes, looking for a goldbricker among all the diligent laborers, but saw something much more interesting. “Hey, isn’t that someone we know?” she asked, pointing down the main street.

    “Is it Sylphiel?” Zelgadis asked, looking around.

    “No,” Amelia said. “I think… I think it’s Mister Zangulus! I almost didn’t recognize him without his hat.”

    The figure, who had been rather inexpertly nailing planks to the side of a half finished building, noticed them pointing at him and curiously walked over to them. Indeed it was Zangulus, sans his usual hat. He squinted at them in the bright sunlight.

    “Hey, aren’t you Gourry’s friends?” he half asked, half accused, eyeing them critically.

    Zelgadis sighed. Zangulus had always been rather focused on the idea of beating Gourry and probably hadn’t taken much notice of anyone in the periphery. “Yes.”

    “Huh,” he said, reaching into his cloak and pulling out his signature hat. He used it to wipe the sweat from his brow and then placed it carefully on his head. “So you’re my Martina’s friends then too?”

    Zelgadis frowned. That was a harder one. Amelia, however, had been brought up better.

    “Yes. And how is she?” she asked.

    Zangulus’s face broke into a rather dopey, lovesick smile that didn’t look like it belonged on his face. “As well as ever.”

    Zelgadis took this to mean that Martina continued to be a paranoid delusional harpy with a bitter streak a mile wide. “What are you doing out here anyway?” he asked, figuring that if he had to be part of this conversation he might as well get some information out.

    For the first time, Zangulus looked somewhat embarrassed. He looked off to the side and said, “I’m… picking up a little money for some construction work. They’re paying really well here since there’s so much to be done.”

    He glared at them as though they’d made some kind of insulting crack about his current job and kicked a dirt-clod that had done absolutely nothing to deserve such treatment. “It’s just temporary. After all, as you know I’m the best hired sword money can buy. One of the best anyway,” he added darkly. “It’s just that we could use a little extra money right now with the…” He trailed off.

    “Anyway,” he said, seeming to have found new resolve. “You all have to come to dinner at our house tonight.”

    Zelgadis gawped as Zangulus made an invitation sound like a threat. “We’ve actually got business here,” he said sharply. “We don’t have time for—”

    “Listen,” Zangulus said, fixing Zelgadis with a sober stare. “If Martina finds out that her friends came to town and didn’t bother to visit her, she’d be very upset. And then everyone would suffer.” He nodded to them and walked away.

    Zelgadis reflected to himself that though Zangulus was, as he so claimed, a top-notch swordsman, mercenary, and practicing bad-***, Martina was a curse-happy, mood-swinging psychopath with light blue curly hair. So much for thinking marriage might have simmered her down.

    “It would appear that we have a dinner invitation,” Xellos commented as a foreman yelled at Zangulus to take his hat off and try not to look like such a “ragamuffin”.

    “So it would seem,” Zelgadis said through gritted teeth.

    *****

    Despite the fact that no one was looking forward to Zangulus’s dinner invitation, the entire rest of the day became focused on waiting for Zangulus to get off work so they could get their obligatory visit over with. After all, they were making absolutely zero headway with their inquiries. This is because men in bib overalls with tool belts have much better things to do with their time then to answer a bunch of silly questions about goddesses.

    When nightfall came they followed Zangulus away from the quieting construction site as the cool night air provided a welcome relief from the heat of the day.

    “Mister Zelgadis?” Amelia whispered as they walked along. “Do you think Miss Martina might have a problem with us bringing Mister Xellos with us?”

    “Damn,” Zelgadis said, glaring over at Xellos and shaking his head. “I hadn’t thought of that. The last thing we want is for her to start throwing plates at us.”

    “Oh, that was more than a year ago. I’m sure Miss Martina has matured enough not to hold a grudge,” Xellos said cheerfully.

    Zelgadis and Amelia stared at him in horror. Believing that Martina wouldn’t hold a grudge was a little too much even for the most committed of optimists.

    “What would she hold a grudge about?” Filia asked. She had been out of the loop all day and was starting to get annoyed by it.

    Amelia looked uncomfortable. “Well, you see… Miss Martina traveled with us awhile and she kinda had this… thing for Mister Xellos.”

    “What kind of thing?” Filia asked with a stoney expression.

    “A crush kind of thing,” Amelia admitted wretchedly.

    Filia looked forward with an expression of rigid disapproval, then at Xellos, and then back at Zelgadis and Amelia. “So she’s crazy?” she asked.

    “Very,” Zelgadis assured her.

    “Yes,” Amelia agreed sadly. “But when she found out Mister Xellos was a monster she was very upset.”

    Filia accounted for this new information. “So she’s not completely crazy?”

    “We’re home,” Zangulus cut in as they arrived at a hastily put together looking shack. But it had four walls and a roof, so theoretically it could be home. Adding to the shabbiness of the house was the fact that someone had placed a painstakingly illustrated backdrop of the kingdom of Zoana (before the Dragon Slave wrecked all the property values), that Zelgadis and Amelia recognized from Martina’s wedding, behind it. Zangulus opened the door and was practically stampeded by his wife.

    “Darling, you’re home!” she said, seizing him by the shoulders and giving him a welcome home kiss.

    Zangulus blushed furiously and said, “Look who I ran into in town today?”

    Martina looked over her husband’s shoulder at Zelgadis, Amelia, and Filia standing uncertainly in the doorway and broke into a grin.

    “Oh, it’s been too long since the good old days when we were traveling together. It’s so nice to see you again!”

    Zelgadis marveled at Martina’s ability to rewrite history to suggest that she had been traveling along with them in the spirit of camaraderie and not, as he remembered it, lagging behind them and frequently trying to kill Lina.

    “She’s pregnant,” Filia informed them, either by the use of mysterious dragon powers or by simply taking in the shape of the woman after she’d stopped trying to suffocate her husband with hugs.

    “Isn’t it great?” Martina asked, radiating motherly joy with a side order of “who is this person and what are they doing in my house?”.

    “This is Filia,” Zelgadis said, noting Martina’s confusion. And since he might as well get the ensuing freak-out over with, “And you remember Xel- He’s gone.”

    They all turned around and indeed Xellos was gone. The fact that this hadn’t happened already was a surprise in itself, but because Zelgadis was in a bad mood anyway he scowled at Filia and said, “You were supposed to be watching him.”

    Filia opened her mouth to protest but was cut off by Martina saying, “Xellos? Xellos? Don’t tell me you’re still traveling around with that monster?”

    “Only when we can’t avoid it,” Zelgadis answered. This was more of the Martina he was familiar with.

    Martina lunged forward and took Filia’s hands in her own, eyes brimming with tears and said, “Don’t make the same mistake I did! That man toyed with my affections and broke my heart! Trust me, you’ll only end up crying!”

    Filia disentangled her hands from Martina’s and was struggling between the urge to comfort the girl and the urge to express revulsion. Fortunately, she was spared the decision as Amelia brought them back to a happier topic.

    “I can’t believe you’re going to be a mom, Miss Martina! Congratulations!”

    “Thanks,” Martina said, swinging back to a happier mood as she dried her eyes.

    “What are you going to name it?”

    Martina, place a hand lovingly on her slightly bulging stomach. “If it’s a boy, Martin. If it’s a girl, Zangula.”

    Zangulus couldn’t suppress a groan. It had all happened so fast. Not too long ago he was making his living with his sword, going where he pleased and doing what he wanted. Then, when he’d reached top form he went out looking for a rematch with Gourry and met this… fascinating girl instead. When the world almost ended, but didn’t, it seemed only logical to marry her. Then he’d been informed that, technically, that made him the King of Zoana. He wasn’t really sure what kings did and was a little bit nervous about the prospect until he was told that, due to some unfortunate circumstances, he was king of no kingdom at all. Now he was forced to take a blue-collar job to support his new family. Still, after all this, he apparently had no say in what his first born child was named.

    “What was that, Zangulus dear?” Martina asked, noting the groan.

    “Nothing, Martina,” he responded dutifully.

    “You’re not still upset about the names are you?” she asked. “Because we discussed it and I thought I’d explained.”

    “You did, Martina,” he said gloomily. “You’re right.”

    Nobody said, “whipped”, but someone should have.

    “Is dinner almost ready?” he asked, trying to shrug off his humiliation as he crossed over to a jar sitting on the hearth and dropped a few coins into it.

    “Almost,” Martina said, glancing at her new dinner guests. “But since we’ve got company I’d better go put another potato in the stew.” She hurried off to the small kitchen.

    Amelia let her curiosity take her around the room that clearly doubled as their living room and dining area. She looked at the jar that held only a small amount of money by the fireplace and noticed there was something written on it.

    “‘Zoana Restoration Fund’,” she read. “Oh, so you’re saving up to rebuild Martina’s,” she paused to correct herself, “Your kingdom?”

    “Is this all you’ve got after more than a year?” Zelgadis asked tactlessly, noting the small amount.

    “No,” Zangulus said defensively. “We had a lot more, it’s just that… we had to replace the roof last spring, and now we’ve got the baby to think of… expenses just tend to crop up.” He looked helplessly at the scant amount in the glass jar. “Look, we will rebuild Zoana,” he said with certainty. “Just not now,” the certainty seemed to drain out of his voice.

    Zelgadis reflected that family life no doubt came with a great many responsibilities, and was quite thankful, at the moment, that those responsibilities were Zangulus’s and not his.

    When Martina had announced that the stew was ready, the five of them gathered around a table that was meant for a maximum of four people. An extra chair had been located for Amelia, and Filia had taken a stool from the kitchen. This unfortunately left Zelgadis with a crate for a seat and brought him about eye-level with the edge of the table. He scowled at the girls on their more appropriate places with which to sit. Chivalry sucks.

    “So,” he asked from his lower perch, “Do either of you know anything about some swamp goddess that’s supposed to be around here?”

    “Like with that secret society?” Martina asked, eyes glittering at the prospect.

    “You mean that cult,” Zangulus correct her sharply.

    “Oh, I don’t know,” Martina said, lifting her spoon up dreamily. “I think it’s kind of romantic.”

    “They’re just a bunch of idiots running around in black cloaks with secret handshakes,” Zangulus insisted. “It’s about as romantic as a bunch of kids with a tree house club and a sign that says, ‘No girls allowed’.”

    “And these people have something to do with a goddess?” Zelgadis asked.

    “I don’t know much about it,” Zangulus admitted. “But there’s talk about this cult,” he received a look from his wife. “Alright, a ‘secret society’, that’s not very good at keeping themselves secret,” he added, just to prove he wasn’t completely beat, “that worships this goddess. They’re convinced she’ll bring prosperity back to Sairaag. It’s all just stupid superstition.”

    “Where could we find this society?”

    Zangulus shrugged. “I don’t know. You might try asking over at the temple. The priestesses are really ****** off about the whole thing.”

    “Zangulus. Remember the baby,” Martina chided, being one of those people who believe that children can be scarred for life in utero.

    “Sorry,” Zangulus said, with a hunted expression. “They’re mad. The priestesses are mad.”

    An especially stern variety of English teacher might have pointed out that Zangulus was technically wrong on that count. Dogs get mad, people get angry. And the priestesses were, indeed, very very angry.

  9. #9
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    Chapter 9. The Cult of the Lady of Sairaag.

    After a night spent under their own propped up cloaks due to Sairaag’s current, unfortunate lack of lodging facilities, the trio trawled through the up-and-coming town in search of the temple. It wasn’t hard to spot.

    The temple of Sairaag was easily the farthest along structure in town, construction-wise, which said something about the priorities of the city. Sure, it might have been more practical to build an inn to make some outside money through tourism. Sure, it might have given the town a stronger sense of civic pride and unity to build some kind of city hall. Sure, it might have encouraged new families to move to the town if they built a school. Sure, it might have propped up the fragile economy to build a working marketplace. But you can’t very well go and piss off the gods.

    The temple had clearly absorbed quite a large cut of the Sairaag rebuilding project’s budget and planned on taking some more. Columns rose majestically from the stone floor carved with significant religious patterns. Statues of divine young women in the throes of some kind of spiritual ecstasy had been commissioned, altars had been arranged and candles lined the perimeter. Stone doves looked down at the visitors with expressions of the deep serenity that can only come from the attainment of pure peace.

    Unfortunately, real doves also looked down on them with expressions of the deep serenity that can only come from an especially satisfying bowel movement. The evidence of this was all over the floors, and was probably due to the fact that the architect hadn’t gotten around to building a ceiling yet. Grass grew from between the tiles, and a few moth-eaten tapestries had been hung up in a poor attempt to conceal the fact that most of the walls were missing.

    All in all, Zelgadis, Amelia, and Filia were less than impressed with their surroundings. Xellos hadn’t shown up again since he’d disappeared the previous night, but he wasn’t sorely missed. Besides, they all figured he’d show up again when he a. become bored or b. decided to stab them in the back for like the third time. Perhaps a and b.

    “Can I help you?” asked a sharp and unpleasant female voice that suggested what it would like most to help them with was finding the exit. It belonged to a woman in priestess garb who was far too young to have such a bitter tone of voice.

    “Yes,” Zelgadis said. “We were looking for information on a cult that’s supposed to be in this town. We were told we could find out more here.”
    The woman gave them a sour frown and said, “I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but we’re quite busy at the moment. We don’t have time to bother with that stupid fraternity, and, if I may be so blunt, neither should you.”

    Zelgadis glanced around. Indeed, everyone in the temple seemed to be very busy going about their chores. It suddenly hit him as he watched them lighting incense and saying prayers and doing all the other things so essential to the running of a temple that there were no priests in the place, only priestesses. The scent of lavender hung in the air like a threat.

    “Well, is Sylphiel here then?” Zelgadis asked, hoping that name dropping might do some good. “We’re friends of hers.”

    The woman’s expression changed rapidly. Apparently she had all the time in the world for them now. “Oh. You’re friends of Miss Sylphiel? Well, she’s very busy these days, of course, but I’m sure she can spare some time for old friends. I’ll take you to her office.”

    “Office?” Amelia repeated as they followed after the retreating figure.

    Zelgadis shrugged in response. A lot had changed in Sairaag since they’d left.

    *****

    When they reached Sylphiel’s office it was immediately apparent that she was an important person in the temple. The absence of incontinent birds was the largest tip off.

    The girl who led them into the office bowed low as soon as they entered. “Some people to see you, Miss Sylphiel,” she said.

    “Thank you, Undrea,” Sylphiel said, for a moment not looking up from the paperwork that practically covered the entire desk as the girl took her leave. When she looked up her expression changed from one of harried contemplation to surprised delight. “Oh! Mister Zelgadis, Miss Amelia. It’s been so long since I’ve seen you two,” she said. She craned her neck to look behind them. “Are Miss Lina and dear Gourry not with you?”

    Zelgadis shrugged as though to indicate that he wasn’t either of their keepers, but Amelia seemed inclined to say more.

    “Miss Lina and Mister Gourry have gone to meet Miss Lina’s parents,” she said gently, but meaningfully.

    “Oh,” Sylphiel said, looking downwards in an expression of dismay. She sighed and then seemed to find her resolve again. “It’s probably for the best anyway.”

    She shuffled some papers to cover for her emotional moment and as Zelgadis glanced away he took in several aspects of the office that he hadn’t noticed before. The entire room was draped with white cloth embellished with light blue and gold designs that bespoke high thread count and high cash value. A prayer altar covered in velvet stood behind the desk with a silver dragon statue perched above it. All of that seemed to suggest…

    “You’re not,” he began in a certain amount of disbelief. “You’re not the high priestess are you?”

    “Oh no,” Sylphiel said, holding up her hands in protest. “Well, kind of,” she admitted. “I mean, it’s only temporary. What with what happened before and all…” she paused and got herself under control. She must have been thinking of what had happened to her father. “Anyway, they’re a little short handed right now, so I’m helping out.”

    Zelgadis looked at her critically. Sylphiel wasn’t exactly leader material. She was a little wishy-washy for that, and not much good at bossing people around. On the other hand, she was the daughter of the former high priest of Sairaag and knew the city and loved it more than anything. She was a top-notch priestess as well. Shame about the flare arrows.

    “Was there something you wanted to ask me about?” Sylphiel asked.

    “Yes,” Zelgadis said, thanking whatever god might be listening that they’d gotten to the point. “We were wondering if you knew anything about that goddess worshipping cult that’s supposed to be in the area.”

    Sylphiel frowned. “Oh, them. I’m afraid they’re nothing but trouble.”

    “The priestess we met before seemed to think they weren’t worth worrying about,” Amelia observed.

    “I’d love to say that were true,” Sylphiel said, sitting down behind her desk with the burden of responsibility clouding her eyes. “But we just don’t want to worry people. If news of the cult got out it could keep people from coming back to Sairaag after all the hard work everyone’s done.”

    “So it’s not just some silly fraternity then?” Zelgadis asked.

    “I’m afraid not,” Sylphiel said. “We had hoped that when they started off it was just a club with robes and secret handshakes… and that’s what most people in the town consider them, but I’m afraid there’s something much worse going on. Strange things have been happening lately. Things have been stolen from the temple and we’ve had a lot of problems with vandalism. Worst of all, a baby was kidnapped from its crib last week. It was returned the next day, but nevertheless I believe that the cult is involved in these incidences.”

    “If they’re that bad, then why don’t you do something about it?” Zelgadis asked.

    “Yeah,” Amelia agreed. “Without a governing force the people must turn to the temple to deal with these things.”

    “I wish I could,” Sylphiel said. “But at the moment I don’t have any proof that the cult is responsible."

    Amelia thought for a minute. “Well, you could go to one of the meetings in secret and find out.”

    Sylphiel shook her head. “The security at the meetings is too tight. And in any case, they don’t allow women there.”

    “So, what’s the connection with the goddess?” Zelgadis asked, not losing sight of his goal.

    “They worship a goddess called the Lady of Sairaag,” Sylphiel said. She laced her fingertips together. “There’s an apocryphal story about a goddess who came out of the marshes of Sairaag before there was a city here. She pushed back the waters and created land for the city to be built on before descending back into the swamp. Supposedly, she is called back when Sairaag has fallen under hard times to restore prosperity to the city.” She shook her head. “The account has never been accepted by the temple. A fringe group of believers passed down the story, but I’ve never seen this many followers.” She looked at them beseechingly. “I’ve got a feeling something bad is going to happen.”

    Zelgadis nodded. Priestesses and shrine-maidens had a good sense for these things. You just had to trust them.

    “They might know about something that I want to find,” Zelgadis said. “So if you can tell us anything about where they might be meeting, we’ll check them out.”

    Sylphiel’s expression turned to one of relief as she opened a drawer of her desk and took out a map of the city.

    ******

    “So, what now?” Filia asked as they left the temple and headed down the street toward the more bustling section of the proto-town. “I mean, obviously we have to do something about the cult. But if you want to check out their meeting grounds you’re going the wrong way.”

    “I think we’d be safer not spying on the meeting,” Zelgadis said. “At least not from the outside. But it’s a secret society, right? No one knows who’s in it. We can probably get more information if we pretend to be cult members.”

    “If we disguise ourselves as the evil doers, they’ll spill all they’re secrets and then we will be able to thwart whatever schemes they’re hatching,” Amelia declared. That girl could smell a caper a mile off.

    “Yeah, sure,” Zelgadis said dismissively, wondering if she’d already forgotten why they were here, but he supposed smiting evil cult members was more of Amelia’s idea of a good time than playing a game of twenty-questions with a marsh deity.

    “I just hope we won’t be caught,” Filia said, looking concerned. “There’s no telling what a group that kidnaps children would do to intruders.”

    “We’ll just have to make sure we’re properly disguised,” Zelgadis said, hoping they could find a merchant passing through town that would have what they needed.

    “I suppose you’re right,” Filia said, still fretting a little.

    “You’ll have to cut your hair,” an annoying voice commented from behind her.

    Zelgadis mentally cursed. “I see you’ve decided to rejoin us, Xellos,” he said. He wasn’t going to ask where Xellos had gone because he knew he wouldn’t receive any useful sort of answer and, in any case, didn’t care.

    “What do you mean?” Filia asked. The irritated tone with which she normally addressed Xellos was somewhat tempered by a note of panic in her voice. She considered herself to be a person of few vanities, and most of them were vase related, which now technically fell under the purview of business, but well… her hair was another matter. She took very good care of it after all.

    “They only let men into this society, right?” Xellos taunted. “Don’t you think your hair would be a dead giveaway?” He grinned broadly at Filia’s distressed expression. “I guess you care more about your hair then the mission you’re supposed to be helping with. What a surprise.”

    Zelgadis glared. “Will you leave her alone for just two minutes, Xellos?” he asked. “It’s a cult. You know very well we’ll be in black cloaks. All Filia and Amelia will have to disguise is their voices.”

    “I haven’t said anything to her all day,” Xellos responded in his own defense as Filia murdered him in her mind.

    “I don’t think that counts since you were gone all day,” Amelia pointed out.

    ******

    They were dressed to kill, or at least commit mass suicide with sugary water-colored beverages, in stylish floor length black robes complete with sinister hoods to hide their identities. Actually, stylish probably wasn’t the right word for what they were wearing. They seemed to be made of potato sacks that had been dyed black. They certainly itched like it. According to the clothing merchant (who, interestingly enough had only recently changed careers from selling potatoes) it was a surprisingly popular ensemble in town these days.

    They were nearly at the swamp on the outskirts of old Sairaag where Sylphiel believed the cult would be holding its meeting. There was a certain amount of trepidation as they approached it, not knowing what evil they would soon face as the four of them made their way there, occasionally tripping on their overly long robes.

    Zelgadis had done his best. He really had. He’d had Amelia and Filia practice their disguised voices and, after about the twentieth try, had advised them to do their best not to talk during the meeting. He’d also taken Amelia aside and explained to her that since they’d be completely surrounded by enemies, it would probably be a bad idea to make a speech about justice during the meeting and then try to blow everyone up, no matter how mad she got. She grudgingly agreed.

    But now there was nothing more he could do. They’d reached the edge of the clearing and a heavy-set man in a black cloak carrying a battle-axe stood stolidly in their path.

    What would it be? Zelgadis wondered as he surveyed the gatekeeper from under his hood. A secret handshake? A secret password? Perhaps, he thought as he glanced at the battle-axe, some kind of entry by combat? He’d know soon enough…

    “A virulent platypus,” the man began significantly in a low, raspy voice, “cannot feed its young on illusions.”

    Ah, Zelgadis thought to himself: code phrases. He was supposed to now respond with another seemingly nonsensical phrase to show that he was a cult member. Unfortunately, he had no idea what the correct code phrase was. Since saying “Whoops, wrong secret society” and running away was a fairly lame option he decided to just go for it, and hope confidence would be their ticket inside in lieu of accuracy. Otherwise, they’d probably have to fight their way out of this.

    “Yes, but a tomato of truth, cannot grow in the soil of deceit,” Zelgadis answered back, impressed by his own mystic gibberish.

    The guard stared at them from under his hood. His hands gripped the axe handle tightly, and just as Zelgadis and company were ready to retreat, he scratched his ear and said, “It can’t?”

    “No. It definitely can’t,” Zelgadis answered, in too deep now to get out. “Count on it.”

    “Huh,” the guard said thoughtfully. “Cool. That’s a new one. Go on in then.” He stood aside to let them pass.

    Once they’d gotten out of earshot of the guard and their heart-rates had returned to normal, Amelia turned to Zelgadis and asked in admiration, “How did you know what to say?”

    “I,” Zelgadis was about to say, “made it up and hoped it would work,” but switched abruptly to, “know a thing or two about how these societies work. It’s basically the same fill-in-the-blank code phrases wherever you go.”

    “That’s amazing,” she gushed. “You sure know a lot about this kind of thing.”

    “Well…” Zelgadis said, blushing slightly under his cloak. He got a hold of himself and remembered where he was. “We’d better stay quiet and try to stick to the back of the crowd,” he advised.

    “You two are the only ones talking,” Xellos observed.

    Zelgadis was spared the effort of thinking up a comeback to Xellos’s comment (which probably would’ve been “Shut up, Xellos” anyway, so nothing much missed there) by the call for silence by a cloaked man in front of the sludgy green shore of the swamp. He looked like any other cloaked figure, except apparently he was the leader.

    “Brothers,” he began, arms outstretched to the assembled crowd. “For far too long we have suffered while the priest and priestesses of Sairaag take all the power and tribute for themselves. Power and wealth should only belong to the deserving, and none are more deserving than us! Soon, my brothers, the Lady of Sairaag will rise again and overcome our enemies, and deliver us to our rightful stations!”

    The crowd cheered and Zelgadis relaxed slightly. He’d been a bit worried about how easy the guard had let them in and had wondered if the cult was run by idiots instead of evil-doers. But guards are usually a little bit slow, and anyway, this was a grade-A crazy cult rant.

    “Hey,” a voice asked from the crowd. “How come you get to be the leader anyway, Mercer?”

    Insomuch as a face completely covered by a hood can scowl, the leader scowled. “Because I’m the one who found the swamp, genius,” he retorted testily. “And anyway, you’re not supposed to say my name ‘cause we’re, what’cha call it? An omni-bus.”

    And just like that Zelgadis was nervous again.

    “Could you possibly mean anonymous?” asked a cloak figure who Zelgadis would later find himself referring to as the intellectual of the group.

    “Yeah, right, that,” the leader said a bit uneasily. “Anyway,” he said, trying to regain authority over the conversation, “The Lady will be reborn tonight! Let the sacrificial ceremony begin!”

    Zelgadis, Amelia, and Filia tensed up. They didn’t like where this was heading. Xellos checked his fingernails and looked bored.

    Apparently, some of their feelings were shared by the crowd and a few black garbed men shuffled restlessly.

    “About that,” the intellectual began. “Is it really necessary to actually kill someone?”

    “Look, Mick,” the leader responded in frustration. “You were all for this goddess thing until you found out you had to get your hands dirty. It only stands to reason that there’s got to be a sacrifice for a goddess to be reborn. Though I wouldn’t expect a pencil pushing wuss like you to understand the compl’cated aspects of ancient rituals.”

    Mick sniffed injuredly. “Well, you don’t have to put it like that.”

    “Are we still doing it with a baby?” a man asked from the other side of the assemblage. “Only I don’t feel comfortable killing a baby, even if it is for the Lady and all.”

    “Nah, Briant messed it up,” another voice said, s******ing unkindly.

    “It wasn’t my fault,” a man, who must have been Briant responded indignantly. “How was I supposed to know it was a boy?”

    “There are ways to check, Bri.”

    “I put it back,” Briant said sulkily. “I don’t see what the big deal is.”

    “The big deal is the priestesses know we did it. They don’t miss anything.”

    “Huh,” another voice snorted. “Well, we’ll show them. Thinkin’ they’re better than us.”

    “So who’re we sacrificing?”

    “I’m glad you asked,” the leader said, hoping to regain the sense of occasion he’d started the meeting with. “The ancient legends say that in the place of a child, a maiden will do the trick.”

    “Are you sure you can find one around here?” another voice asked. “Maiden isn’t just an age range, if you know what I mean.”

    The men around him guffawed at the joke in an unpleasantly male way. Even the leader gave a slight chuckle. “I’ve found the right girl,” he said. “A pure maiden, and one who will send a message to those uppity priestesses about who rules who.”

    “It’s us, right?” a voice asked from the crowd. “We rules?”

    “Yes, Jermaine,” Mick responded in a withering voice. “‘We rules’. Now could you just get on with it and bring the sacrifice out, Mercer? Its frickin’ damp out here.”

    “Fine,” Mercer said, clearly feeling that he was the only one in the group with a sense of drama. “Bring her out.”

    Zelgadis and Amelia did their best to work their way through the crowd as a young woman with a sack over her head and her hands bound was pushed into center stage, but their progress was hampered as everyone there tried to get a better look at their sacrifice.

    “The Lady of Sairaag will be reborn in the form of one of the very priestesses who deny her existence,” the leader declared dramatically as he whipped the sack off of her head.

    Zelgadis and Amelia gasped. They actually recognized that face as it cried out for help. It was the girl they had met at the temple earlier that day. Sylphiel had called her Undrea.

    Zelgadis and Amelia elbowed and kicked their way through the crowd, all the while chanting to themselves as rapidly as they could. But they were too late.

    “Take form, Lady of Sairaag!” the leader shrieked, as he took a stone knife in his hand, and, as though he were afraid he’d lose his nerve if he didn’t act quickly, slit her throat then and there.

    A scream shot up through the clearing, as blood drained out of the girl’s neck. Filia gasped along with her as she tried to navigate her way through the press of bodies to see if she could help the poor thing. Xellos shook his head and grabbed her by the shoulder, pulling her out of the crowd.

    “It’s too late,” he said flatly.

    “No,” Filia said, more to herself than to him. But he was right. She looked up as even Zelgadis and Amelia ceased their feverish dash to the front of the crowd. The girl fell to the ground, she wasn’t screaming anymore, her bound hands hung limply as her eyes shut in that definitive way that leaves no possibility of once again opening.

    Zelgadis found himself filled with a righteous fury that he usually considered to be more Amelia’s style. A bunch of stupid, bored peasants had just killed an innocent girl over some ancient legend that wasn’t even true. All because of what? The vague idea that they deserved more than they had? God help him, he was going to make them regret it.

    “Look,” Amelia shouted, pointing at the fallen girl.

    Every head turned to the corpse of the girl. She couldn’t be alive after all that, they thought. But… yes… there was some sense of stirring from the body. It was slight, like a spider crawling slowly under silk. He pale form had bled out, but yet there was a flicker of movement at the heart, off the beaten rhythm.

    Zelgadis and Amelia drew closer, this time receiving no opposition from the crowd which was fearfully eager to part. They looked into Undrea’s face, frozen in the rictus of sudden death, with not even the shadow of life in her cheeks.

    And then something opened Undrea’s eyes for her.

  10. #10
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    Chapter 10. Say Goddess Again.

    Undrea… no, whatever was in Undrea’s body at the moment, stood up like a fallen marionette. Blood spurted half-heartedly out of the gash in her neck, propelled by gravity, not a heartbeat. It looked down at its inherited form and flexed its pink fingers experimentally.

    “A-a,” the leader choked as he looked up at her in fearful awe. He fell to his knees before her and said, “All hail the Lady of Sairaag!”

    The Lady, if that was indeed her, flicked her eyes toward the man curiously with an unpleasant plip noise. She strode over to him in the jerky way of the zombified. He looked up into her dead blue eyes as she lifted his chin to meet her gaze.

    Amelia gasped and stepped back as coils of dirty black smoke seemed to rise from her fingertips. The coils wound around the man’s neck before he could scream as all sound was rapidly choked away. He twitched wildly, eyes pleading for mercy, and then fell to the ground.

    “So hailed,” she said, almost boredly.

    At this, all the other cult members seemed to remember important engagements that they needed to attend. The thing in Undrea’s body frowned and said, “You can’t be thinking of leaving so soon. After all, you called me here. Be polite and stay.” At that, the retreating masses halted, frozen to the spot.

    “I don’t suppose,” Zelgadis began, casting off his cult member disguise, “that you’re some kind of oracle, are you?”

    For the first time, the thing looked surprised. “Whatever gave you that idea?”

    “Oh, just a monster librarian living under a desert,” he answered bitterly. He hadn’t really expected it anyway.

    “I am,” she began, “as these lack-wits might have informed you, the goddess known as the Lady of Sairaag.”

    “Then why are you hurting them?” Amelia asked, casting off her disguise as well. “Aren’t they your followers?” Amelia had been in favor of smashing the evil cult members only moments before, but their terrified faces and the calm, cruel expression of the Lady of Sairaag were leaving her somewhat undecided about who to smash.

    “I’m afraid it’s more complicated than that, little girl,” the Lady said, twisting her index finger idly as a jolt of pain shot through the frozen cult members. “They are my followers, but they, and so many like them, are also my murderers.”

    “You see,” she went on, “I wasn’t always a goddess. The rumors of a goddess who created Sairaag from the swampland it once supposedly sat on are completely unfounded. Of course, that didn’t stop the weak and the stupid from believing in me. They thought they could use the power of a goddess that didn’t exist to make their miserable lives better, and in doing so, gave birth to me.” She waved a hand expansively at her new form.

    “Every generation or so the story of the Lady of Sairaag crops up once again, and every time that happens another girl is killed,” her eyes flashed malevolently. “And I was all of them… the first born of the royal line, the infant kept in seclusion, the daughter of nobles, spoiled the first five years of her life and then sent to slaughter, and, of course, more priestesses than I’d care to count. Virgins,” she said unpleasantly. “I did not exist before the sacrifices started, but they made me.”

    “But that’s not how it works,” Filia said, from some ways off. “People can’t make gods. They just are.”

    “Generally,” Xellos said from next to her. “But something like this could’ve been created from the souls of the sacrificed girls. The mob believed in her and invested their power into her. Sacrifice after sacrifice, their goddess was born.”

    “But that’s not a goddess,” Filia insisted.

    “Really?” Xellos asked. “She’s a supernatural being of power complete with devoted worshippers and legends to match. Trust me, she is not a monster. So what would you call her?”

    Filia had no answer for that.

    “Would you be more comfortable with demiurge?” Xellos asked.

    “Yes,” Filia agreed.

    “Goddess it is,” Xellos decided.

    “So you want revenge on the people that killed you,” Zelgadis said, looking from the Lady to her cowering followers. “I can understand that.” A black-cloaked man approximately the size of a tree whimpered. “But what else are you planning to do now that you have a body?”

    “Why, destroy Sairaag, of course,” the Lady responded, as though there was nothing else anyone could possibly want to do, “So that this will never happen again.”

    Zelgadis groaned. Why was it that all the ridiculously powerful beings wanted to destroy things?

    Amelia frowned like she was trying to work something out. “Wait,” she said. “You want to destroy Sairaag to save other girls from being killed?”

    “Yes,” the Lady went on, clearly not seeing any problem with this.

    “You want to kill everyone in town so that, in the future, a few girls from the town won’t be killed?” Amelia repeated, trying to drive the point home.

    “One purge and it will be all over,” the Lady said serenely.

    Amelia slumped, but Zelgadis wasn’t surprised. Logic has a tendency to fail when it comes to the crazy and powerful.

    “In any case, we can’t let you do that,” Zelgadis said with grim determination.

    “Yeah,” Amelia said, readying for a fight. “As long as we defenders of justice stand against you, Sairaag cannot fall!”

    Because that had worked out so well the last two times Sairaag had been destroyed.

    “The defenders of Sairaag?” the Lady said, with an amused smile playing at her bloodless lips. “You know, I was supposed to be one of those. But I’m afraid the best thing for Sairaag is to sink back into the swamp.” She sent a bolt of pure energy straight toward Amelia, who, believing that the trash-talking portion of the pre-fight would last longer than that, was too surprised to dodge.

    “Amelia!” Zelgadis shouted as she smacked into a small tree.

    “I’m alright,” she said, picking herself up, although Zelgadis noticed she was standing very unsteadily. She began to chant a spell.

    Xellos and Filia were having a theological argument some ways off and were therefore much too busy to do anything more than watch the unfolding fight.

    “See?” Filia said, gesturing to the Lady. “That wasn’t holy magic, so she’s not a goddess.”

    “Yes,” Xellos said, observing the fight closely. “But it’s not black magic either. The goddess is drawing her power directly from the natural force of the swamp, using it like an amplifier. Very unusual.”

    And the theological discussion ended in very much the same spirit that most theological discussions end.

    “If you say ‘goddess’ one more time,” Filia said, anger rising, “I’m going to hit you.”

    “Goddess.”

    “Fireball!” Amelia shouted, lobbing the ball of fire straight at the thing that may or may not have been a goddess.

    Zelgadis shook his head. Even if the thing hit its target, it was almost laughable to think that you could kill a goddess with a fireball.

    The Lady appeared to be unused to her new body, constrained as it was, by the physical laws of the universe. As such she was unable to dodge in time and the ball of flame hit her dead on. Even Amelia gasped at the result and she was the one that had thrown the spell in the first place. There was a crackling of flame against flesh, and a sizzle of smoke as hair disintegrated and flesh bubbled.

    “What the,” Zelgadis began in shock at the sight of the inferno in front of him. Amelia’s fireballs were top-notch and she’d clearly turned the power all the way up on this one, but hadn’t expected it to do quite that much.

    The Lady seemed very calm, especially considering that she was a hellish plume of flame. She laughed quietly to herself, which is never a good sign, and took one step backwards into the swamp. There was a hiss as the thick, black waters choked away the fire and her head disappeared under the water.

    After the hiss of the flame had died away, there was no sound. Even the crickets had ceased their incessant chirp. The ripples from where the Lady had descended were dying away, growing ever fainter. She’d been down there for a long time. Zelgadis took a hesitant step forward.

    The Lady shot out into the air in a rain of murky swamp water like every pool cleaner’s nightmare, sending a coiling rope of dull grey magic around Zelgadis’s throat, hoisting him into the air with it like a lasso and then slamming him into the ground. Because when you’re both something like a goddess and technically dead, you don’t need to worry about how long you can hold your breath.

    “A,” Zelgadis choked, clasping his sword, “Astral Vine!” the magically infused sword cut through the choking strand of energy. He massaged his neck and tried to pull back as the Lady advanced, black burns across her body and most of her hair burned away.

    “Very clever,” The Lady said, shooting Amelia a look. “Though I am a being of energy far beyond your imagination, I am still bound to a human body, and therefore your elemental spells effect me as they would any human. But is your magic strong enough to melt bones? Because as long as something remains of this girl, I will have her,” she said, smacking a hand expressively over Undrea’s dead heart.

    Amelia backed away from the advancing woman, but stumbled as her left leg throbbed in pain. Zelgadis suspected it had been broken when she’d been slammed into the tree. She wouldn’t be able to get away in time.

    Earth below me, submit to my will,” Zelgadis chanted as he placed a hand to the ground. “Dug Haut!”

    Spiky slabs of stone rose out of the ground with a roar as choking clouds of dirt were turned up by the disturbed ground. Blinded by the impromptu dust bowl and having to negotiate her way through the falling rocks, the Lady of Sairaag lost sight of her quarry.

    That’s when Zelgadis ran, dodging the falling rocks and jutting cliffs from his own attack and racing to Amelia’s side while the Lady’s disorientation lasted. He lifted her bodily and carried her away from the maze of rocks that the Lady would soon find her way out of.

    He told himself, as he sprinted away from the fray towards the relatively clear area in which Xellos and Filia had been playing spectators, that he was noticing little things like how warm Amelia felt in his arms and the way her fingers were curled around his arm as she held onto him and how very long her eyelashes were, because in times of danger the brain will grab onto anything to keep from thinking about what might happen to it.

    Still, he had much more important things to focus on at the time. It was… It was downright inconsiderate of his sensory register to put him through that at the moment.

    He let her down gingerly next to Xellos and Filia, and she limped to her feet. He clutched a stitch in his side and glared from Xellos to Filia. “Thanks a lot for all the help, guys.”

    Filia opened her mouth to protest, but Xellos appeared unabashed. He merely said, “Do you really have time to complain? The goddess,” he said with a deliberate look at Filia, “is going to get out of there very soon.”

    “She’s not a goddess!” Filia declared angrily. She was even madder now that she realized she wasn’t actually going to hit him.

    “She says she is,” Zelgadis said, eyeing the settling dust clouds in the distance. “How’s that leg, Amelia?”

    “It’s fine,” she said, though clearly favoring her right leg. “Just a sprain.”

    “Sprain”, my ***, Zelgadis thought, giving her a disbelieving look. It’s broken. You know it, I know it, and the scared-out-of-their-minds cult members know it.

    There was a shriek from the maze of rocks as a figure immerged into the open. Undrea had been quite a beautiful girl in life, and would’ve been mortified at the punishment her body was going through in death. Her pale skin was blotched with black, crisp burns and almost half of her light blonde hair was gone. Her dress was torn and stained with algae. She was drenched in the dirty water of the swamp and covered in extremely disappointed leaches. The falling debris from the Dug Haut had stuck to the algae that covered her, giving her a camouflaged look. It was as though the swamp had come to life.

    “Can you exorcise her?” Zelgadis asked Amelia quickly as the woman drew closer.

    “I don’t think so,” Amelia said. “She’s much more powerful than a regular ghost. She’s like an amalgam of ghosts, and she’s probably got some of Undrea’s spirit mixed in there too. You can’t exorcise a spirit that belongs in a body.”

    “So, she’s just got a very large astral body then,” Zelgadis said, feeling around the edges of a plan. He exchanged a significant glance with Amelia, who nodded in response.

    Source of all souls that dwells in the eternal and the infinite, everlasting flame of blue,” Amelia began, knowing her part well.

    All power hidden deep within be called forth here and now,” Zelgadis finished his part of the chant as the Lady came into striking distance.

    “Die!” The Lady cried madly, gathering a ghastly pillar of energy in her hands. She was so maddened that she seemed to have lost focus on keeping the cult members frozen, who quickly took advantage of this by fleeing. “Die with Sairaag!”

    Ra Tilt!” both Amelia and Zelgadis shouted, as they pushed forth the flashing blue flames of the most powerful attack in shamanist magic.

    The tower of energy engulfed the Lady, who screamed as a collection of souls was ripped away from the body it had just acquired. “I’ll be back,” she cried despairingly as the astral winds destroyed her spiritual form. “You’ll see. They always bring me back!”

    When the flames died away, all that was left was the swamp and the dead body of the priestess.

    ******

    Night had ended and morning was dawning. It had been a tough couple of hours. Both Zelgadis and Amelia were injured, Amelia worst of all. But it had seemed necessary to recover the body as quickly as possible. So they’d staggered their way back to Sairaag proper with the tattered corpse of Undrea and delivered her to her sisters at the temple. Sylphiel had listened quietly while they explained what had happened and promised to give the girl a decent burial and inform her parents. Zelgadis didn’t envy her that job.

    When Zelgadis asked her what she planned to do about the cult members that had left, she’d just looked away sadly and said, “I’d like to think they’ve learned their lesson.” Normally Zelgadis would consider this being too soft, especially considering what they’d done, but he’d seen the fear in their eyes that night. Anyway, they weren’t evil, really. They weren’t smart enough to be.

    Everyone was glad when they were shot of the temple. An air of mourning had shrouded the place which almost threatened to suffocate them. They were fully healed and, their business in Sairaag complete, heading down the road out of town.

    Zelgadis still wasn’t sure if what they’d fought was a goddess. Normally, he’d grudgingly admit that Xellos knew most in this matter, and he’d said she was a goddess. But he couldn’t help feeling that he was only in it for the Filia torture.

    Filia insisted that the Lady was just a delusional collection of spirits that each believed, after they’d been sacrificed, that they’d become a goddess. It sounded more logical and, anyway, would explain how they’d gotten away with their lives that night.

    Whatever they had fought had been extremely powerful, but, luckily, unaccustomed to physical form. It had fought somewhat awkwardly and hadn’t used its vast store of magic to its potential until it was too late. Zelgadis supposed that if he was a collection of the souls of a bunch of girls under the age of fifteen, he’d be unused to fighting too.

    It was a shame, especially as the early morning construction sounds of the new Sairaag faded down the road, that so many of Sairaag’s residents had clung so tightly to a past that never existed that they lost sight of the difference between right and wrong. But then again, maybe Sylphiel was right, maybe they had learned something. If Sairaag was to have any kind of future, they had to have.

    The oracle thing had been a bust too, but Zelgadis knew his luck and wasn’t at all surprised that the first strike had yielding nothing. There were still places to go, and he still had leads to follow. That was comforting, at least.

    “So, where to now, Mister Zelgadis?” Amelia asked, stepping lively on her newly healed up leg.

    “Fletcher’s Green,” Zelgadis said, automatically, having just checked his map.

    Dawn was rising majestically above the trees as they headed onward. Maybe this time… this would be the one…

  11. #11
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    Chapter 11. Money, Money, Money.

    They arrived at Fletcher’s Green after a productive three days. There had been some… unpleasantness involving a bill in a restaurant in Kevstock. Their dish-pan hands helped to convince them that it was time to replenish the old coffers. So Zelgadis and Amelia had taken a few minor body-guarding jobs. They didn’t ask what Xellos and Filia did while they were off making money, but Zelgadis liked to think it involved girly slapping fights. In any case, they were lucky enough to get good pay for their work and as a result were in a somewhat better financial state than they’d been before.

    This was very fortunate for them because, as they found out when they entered through the ornate town gates, Fletcher’s Green was one of the most expensive places to live on the entire continent.

    It wasn’t that it was glitzy. No, Fletcher’s Green had a quaint, homey look about it. But if you looked closer you realized that it was an artificially created quaint, homey look. It was probably the kind of town that lived in the childhood memories of rich men before they’d gained their fortune. So, when the time had come to build their summer houses, they’d put together a town to make real these fantasies. Cracks were artfully chiseled into the plaster at carefully chosen junctures. There was dirt on the buildings, but it looked like it had been painted delicately on with a very thin paintbrush. It sparkled faintly in the sunlight.

    The travelers looked up from the town square, well-maintained cobbles under their feet. There was a glittering fountain in front of them featuring two adorable little stone children pouring water out of a kettle. Their carved faces were illuminated oddly as the sun reflected off the heavy layer of gold coins that had been thrown in. Zelgadis frowned and wondered if you got better wishes for gold than for bronze. That could explain some things.

    On the emerald hills around the town square stood mansion after mansion. Each was obviously designed to be in keeping with the town’s rustic atmosphere, but it didn’t make them any less grand. Zelgadis thought he’d seen what was merely a large house, and not a mansion, but Amelia had pointed out that since it backed up against what practically qualified as a castle it was probably servant’s quarters.

    I guess the rich are different from you and me, Zelgadis thought. Or at least me, he added, giving Amelia a suspicious and class-weary look. For one thing, the rich were trying to sell him pretzels… for ten dollars. Sure, they looked like good pretzels and all, but for some reason he didn’t think it was worth his hard-earned money.

    “No thanks,” Zelgadis said dismissively to the pretzel vendor. He couldn’t help gaping. The man was selling pretzels for a living and he looked better off than Zelgadis was. The vendor had expensive suede boots, a smart looking jacket, and golden cuff-links set with sapphires. The hired tough business offered none of these wardrobe-based benefits. Perhaps, Zelgadis thought to himself, I’m in the wrong business. But then, he reflected sadly, he really didn’t have the face for customer service.

    Which brought him back to the point.

    “Do you know about any swamps around here?” Zelgadis asked, before the man could take his salty, buttery wares to a more receptive mark.

    “Swamps?” The man repeated, scratching his scalp thoughtfully. “Not many of those around here. Swamps aren’t exactly picturesque, if you get my meaning. Too many mosquitoes and too much slime.”

    Zelgadis wasn’t sure what they’d do if the swamp they were looking for turned out to have been drained and plowed over to make Fletcher’s Green more picturesque than it already was. “We’re researching a story about a girl who was supposed to have drowned in a swamp here,” Zelgadis lied.

    That was all Sangoma’s notes had really told them though. Zelgadis had poured through them and found them to be full of vague fragments. Since Sangoma had seemed a bit more detail oriented than that, Zelgadis had his suspicions that he was being jerked around.

    “Hold on,” the vendor said. “That does sound kind of familiar…”

    The man suddenly had Zelgadis’s full attention. “Yes?”

    “There was this old song about a girl drowning, I think.” the man said, dredging up memories. “Polly something.”

    Zelgadis logged the name away for later. “She drowned in a swamp?”

    The man thought for a minute, and then shook his head. “Nope, nope. I’m wrong. She was actually shot. Sorry, I get my ballads confused.”

    Zelgadis very nearly fell over. “How could you confuse being drowned and being shot?”

    “Well, there was a lake in the song,” the man said, a bit reproachfully.

    “A lake?” Zelgadis repeated.

    “Yessir.”

    “Not a swamp?” Zelgadis prodded.

    “Nossir.”

    “Then what does that have to do with a girl being drowned in a swamp?” Zelgadis demanded.

    The man thought again and said, “Well, there was a girl.”

    Zelgadis basically checked out at that point, withdrawing into a world of angry disappointment. Amelia was still curious though. “Who shot her?”

    “Ah see,” the man said with a glint in his eye. “That’s the ironic bit. It was her fiancé that shot her.”

    “Why would he do that?” Filia took up the thread of the conversation, revolted.

    “Well,” the man struggled at this point to remember once more. “He was hunting and uh… She’d her apron wrapped about her so he took her for a swan.”

    “A swan?” Filia repeated in a deadpan.

    “Yeah,” the man said, looking a bit uncomfortable with this himself.

    “Apron aside,” Filia said, determined to tug on this thread until something came undone, “Women and swans are very different.”

    “Oh, I don’t know,” Xellos said pensively. “There are certainly parallels in temperament.”

    “Hey!” Amelia and Filia responded, with almost rehearsed offense. Zelgadis privately agreed. He’d once been attacked by a swan while eating his lunch. It stole his sandwich and nearly took half of his fingers off. He’d never told anyone about this because being attacked by a swan isn’t something you brag about. But he’d seen Amelia, Filia, and Lina on rampages and it oddly matched the event.

    “Anyway,” Filia said through gritted teeth as she turned back to the vendor. “I don’t see how anyone could mistake his girlfriend for a swan.”

    The man searched his head wretchedly for some rationale. “Well… uhh… it was sunset. Kinda dark, you know.”

    “Unless it was practically pitch black outside it still doesn’t make any sense,” Filia insisted.

    “Well, that’s the thing then, miss,” the vendor said. “You can’t go looking for sense in ballads. That’s just foolish.”

    “How insightful,” Zelgadis said dully. “I’m sure you have a lot to do today so we’ll let you get to it. Thanks for,” he mentally crossed out ‘nothing’ and went instead for, “the information.” He turned around and looked around the square for someone who looked less likely to go on about swans.

    “Hang on,” the man said.

    “What?” Zelgadis said, turning back and praying that the man hadn’t thought of a rebuttal to Filia’s ‘women are different from swans,’ argument.

    “I was just thinking that you might want to check on Mister Beld,” the man said. “His estate is on the low ground so if anyone’s got a swamp on their property it’d be him.”

    Now that was information that you could thank someone for in a non-sarcastic way.

    “Where does he live?” Zelgadis asked.

    “Over there,” the man said, pointing at a mansion big enough that a person could sleep in a different room each night of the year. “But Mister Beld is a very important man. You might have some trouble getting in to see him.”

    Hmm… That was a problem. Rich people always seemed to want you to get appointments for seeing them. And it didn’t seem likely that you could get an appointment unless you had something they wanted. Exploring private property without permission was probably a bad idea as well. Those types of people tend to employ guard dogs.

    “He’s throwing a party tomorrow night,” the man added helpfully. “I don’t know if you could get an invite though. I know I’m not invited.” He sniffed indignantly. Apparently pretzel vendors, even impeccably dressed pretzel vendors, don’t get invited to fancy dinner parties. The world is cruel.

    “Do you think you could get us in?” Zelgadis asked Amelia after the pretzel vendor had left to hock his wares elsewhere. He wasn’t at all comfortable with going to some fancy pants dance, but damn it, they had a lead to follow.

    “I could try,” Amelia said, hoping her influence could get them in the gate.

    “If we can get an invitation then we’ll be able to search the ground without arousing suspicion,” Zelgadis said, planning ahead.

    “And ask that Mister Beld if he knows anything about a girl drowning on his property,” Xellos added. “He will likely be more at ease in a social setting.”

    “Right,” Zelgadis said. He wondered what this whole thing meant. A girl drowning in a swamp seemed like a tragedy, but not the beginning to a story about an oracle. Filia had posited that perhaps the oracle was another ghost, since she was still stuck on that one. Amelia had suggested, a little bit too excitedly, that it might be a zombie. Whatever it was, they would have to do some detective work to find out.

    “No, I would not like to buy a souvenir mug,” Zelgadis snapped irritably at the latest salesman to sneak up on him.

    *****

    Dear Mr. Beld,

    My companions and I are visitors passing through your town, wishing to experience its unique charm. We understand that you are one of the most well-regarded citizens and had hoped to be able to meet up with you. Through our inquiries we found that you are holding a soiree tomorrow evening and would be delighted if we could attend.

    Sincerely,
    Amelia Wil Tesla Seyruun
    Princess of Seyruun


    “How’s that?” Amelia asked, showing the letter to Zelgadis later.

    Zelgadis looked over it, rubbing his chin as he read.

    “Something wrong?” Amelia asked with some concern as she read his expression.

    “Nothing’s wrong,” Zelgadis said carefully. “It just could be a bit more… direct. We really need to get this invite so we need him to take notice.”

    He picked up a pen. “May I?” Amelia nodded and he began to write on a fresh sheet of paper.

    Dear Mr. Beld,

    I was passing through town on important business for my father, Crown-Prince Philionel of Seyruun when I heard that your estate would be hosting a gala tomorrow evening. My attendance would present a wonderful opportunity to strengthen world community relations that would bring benefit to both kingdoms. If I, or my companions, were to be passed over for this event it would send a very unfriendly message to the land of Seyruun and certainly upset my father. My father is not a man you would like to upset.

    You may send the invitation to my room at the Royal Fletcher Inn.

    Regards,
    Amelia Wil Tesla Seyruun
    Princess of Seyruun and Duchess of Lionzel


    Amelia finished reading this improved draft with her brow furrowed. “Doesn’t it seem a bit like I’m threatening him?”

    Zelgadis nodded vigorously. “First the bribe, then the threat. That’s how you get people on your side.” The threat was his favorite part.

    “But,” Amelia began, biting her lip. “It just seems kind of… rude. And you know daddy wouldn’t take any kind of action against someone just because they didn’t invite me to a private party. And I’m not a duchess.”

    I know that,” Zelgadis explained calmly, “but he doesn’t. Look Amelia, this is how you’ve got to talk to these kinds of people. Otherwise they don’t respect you.” He held up the pen and looked imploringly at her.

    “Well…” Amelia began unsurely. “Alright,” she finally said, and signed the letter with a flourishing, royal signature.

    Zelgadis clapped her on the shoulder. “You’re a life saver, Amelia,” he said, and got up and left to mail the letter.

    Amelia watched after he left, closing the door to her room behind him. She had a bad feeling about this whole thing. “I hope so,” she said.

    *****

    The next morning the innkeeper dropped an envelope on Amelia’s plate. It was gold-edged and contained the words ‘cordially’ and ‘invited’. Zelgadis couldn’t help but smile over his oatmeal. The carrot and stick routine always works.

    “I guess we’d better get some shopping done then,” Amelia said, folding up the letter.

    “There was that cute little shop we saw on the way in,” Filia pointed out. “The one with the precious little ruby gown in the window?”

    “Ooh!” Amelia practically squeaked in excitement. “Let’s go there first!”

    First? Zelgadis didn’t like the sound of that. Somehow shopping hadn’t figured into his plans for the day. But he had to admit, they could hardly go in the clothes off their backs. Oh well, they’d gotten invited so everything was on track. He could just let Amelia and Filia steer the shopping part and wait until it was over. Then he might finally get some answers out of this tourist trap.

    *****

    Were they completely insane? Did they not realize that even the lowliest of rags cost an arm and a leg in this town? That everything everything on sale was conspiring to bankrupt them? Apparently not, Zelgadis decided, considering that Amelia and Filia had been examining silky, shimmering fabrics with possessive looks while pointing at different styles and giving instructions to salesmen all day.

    Zelgadis had the distinct feeling that, though they’d come to Fletcher’s Green in pretty good financial status, they’d be leaving it in rags. In with gold and out with dust. And there wasn’t even a pawn shop anywhere in this snobby neighborhood. Of course there wouldn’t be. What were they supposed to do with these stupid outfits once the party was over?

    And then a dumpy woman had appeared to attack him and Xellos with measuring tape and stick pins into them. This fancy attire shopping was more harrowing than he’d anticipated.

    “Stop squirming,” the woman said around the pins clenched between her teeth.

    “I’m not,” Zelgadis said, squirming all the while. He was craning his neck towards the dressing rooms. Amelia and Filia had disappeared back there about five minutes ago. He had a very expensive feeling about this.

    The fitting woman was annoyed. Normally those who squirm pay for it by getting pricked with pins. This customer just didn’t have the skin for that. Not that she’d make unkind comments. Anyone with money to purchase the store’s merchandise was okay in her book. She just wished he’d stand still.

    “What do you think?” Amelia asked, bursting out of the dressing room along with Filia.

    If Zelgadis’s skin hadn’t been so armored he would have seriously stabbed himself with a pin as he turned abruptly to see the two girls.

    Filia was dressed in a light, white fabric in a nice summery cut. Clearly she had completely ignored Zelgadis’s idea to buy stain-hiding material, keep the tags on, and then return the dress the next day.

    Amelia… Well, Amelia looked like a princess. Which she was, Zelgadis reminded himself. But… well… in the rose petal colored gown embellished with pearls he couldn’t help but feeling that the words ‘sparkly pink princess’ now truly applied to her.

    The fitting lady took advantage of Zelgadis being shocked still to get some serious measuring done. Xellos had that look like he was trying to think of something smart-assed to say, but it was taking him longer than usual.

    “What do you think?” Amelia repeated slightly louder.

    Zelgadis snapped out of it. “Uhh, it’s very… nice,” he said lamely.

    This appeared to be enough for Amelia, who beamed back at him. Filia gave Xellos a dirty look. She couldn’t have been waiting for a compliment, so it seemed clear that she just wanted to get whatever crack he was going to make over with.

    She was disappointed. Either Xellos had decided that Filia’s angry apprehension was better than any taunt he could come up with or he hadn’t been able to think of anything nasty enough to say. Whichever it was he was studying the material that the seamstresses would be making his suit out of with apparent interest. So Filia stormed off to study stylish clutches with just as much deliberate interest.

    Let the ignore-off begin, Zelgadis thought bitterly as he turned to watch Amelia browse through jewelry. It really was a beautiful dress on her.

    Zelgadis didn’t think about money again until the shop owner brought him the bill. Then he thought about a lot of money… moving from his pocket to the cash register… never to be seen again.

  12. #12
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    Chapter 12. Blue Waltz.

    Fletcher’s Green, as has already been indicated, did its best to present the world with a homey, but well-scrubbed look. It was where the very rich went when they thought they wanted “the simple life”. But when the residents of Fletcher’s Green decide it’s time to party, it’s like a peacock’s gotten into the sequins and glitter glue.

    Everybody sparkled. In fact, Zelgadis was nearly blinded when a woman turned her head abruptly and a mirrored earring refracting the glow of the hanging lights straight into his eyes like a flashbulb. Silk trains dusted the walkway, ancient jewels were around necks, rings were on fingers, and feathers were in caps.

    Suddenly all the finery they’d spent a fortune on for this shindig didn’t seem nearly fine enough. But they weren’t here to impress people, Zelgadis told himself. They were here to find some drowned girl. For whatever sense that made.

    As they followed the queue into the massive mansion they could see a bear-like figure standing in the doorway shaking hands with the guests as they came in. If that was their host, the mysterious Mister Beld, then it reflected well on him that he greeted his guests individually, Zelgadis thought. Especially considering that there were at least fifty people behind them and others were still arriving.

    When they got up to the doorway the man gave them a questioning look, as if he couldn’t quite place them. Then comprehension dawned and he flashed a friendly smile. In fact, it practically qualified as a roguish grin, and those are sometimes difficult for men roughly the size to successfully wrestle a grizzly to pull off.

    He was an odd looking man. He loomed, but gave the impression of being quite quick. His fingers were covered in rings and a gold watch hung on a chain from his pocket. He had a lean face with salt and pepper hair long enough to just about threaten unruliness in the near future. His eyes were green and alive. But the thing that drew your attention was his beard. It was sleek, and just about the right length for stroking in deep thought. It curled around the end and appeared to have been dipped into some kind of scent that left it tinted slightly blue and smelling of musk.

    “Ah,” barked almost certainly Mister Beld cheerfully, looking directly at Amelia. “You must be the little princess who threatened to sic her daddy on me if I didn’t let her into my party!”

    Amelia figuratively shrank away in embarrassment. It was good that she only did so figuratively, because her dress hung in a way that, if she had literally shrank, she would’ve ended up wearing it around her ankles. Since explanation wouldn’t work, she just stuck with a sincere, “I am so sorry about that.”

    “Don’t apologize, my dear,” the big man said, engulfing her hand in his much larger one. “It’s been awhile since I’ve seen such moxie.” He kissed her hand chivalrously and bowed slightly.

    To Amelia’s credit she neither blushed nor giggled in response to this. She just gave a friendly, if somewhat bewildered smile. Zelgadis didn’t really notice this as his brain was shouting out things like: What a phoney! and He’s old enough to be your dad, y’know!

    Mister Beld seemed to have noticed this response as he looked from Amelia to Zelgadis and asked, “Your date?”

    Amelia seemed a bit unclear on this so Zelgadis fielded the question, “For want of a better word.”

    “Ah, and I see you’re a chimera too,” Mister Beld responded, showing that he had keen powers of deduction in addition to a stylish beard. “Well done!” He added, clapping Zelgadis on the back with a heavy hand.

    Zelgadis wasn’t sure if he was being congratulated for being a chimera in and of itself, or for being a chimera who was… well, more or less, on a date with a princess. …Alright, date-ish thing. Not a date at all really. No.

    Zelgadis wasn’t allowed much time to wonder about this as Mister Beld turned abruptly to Xellos and Filia who were standing behind them. “Friends of yours?” he asked.

    Amelia nodded.

    “Well, enjoy the party then,” Mister Beld said, treating them to a toothy smile as he gestured into the ballroom that lay beyond. For some reason Zelgadis expected a gold tooth, but was disappointed.

    “Actually we were wondering if we could have a chance to talk with you about something,” Zelgadis said, all business. After all, Beld owned the property and would likely know about any legend about a drowning girl.

    Beld gave him an apologetic smile. “Wish I could, Mister…?”

    “Zelgadis.”

    “Right. Wish I could, Mister Zelgadis, but as you can see I’ve got plenty of guests left to greet and I mustn’t keep them waiting. And then, of course, there are all the little things to organize in a party of this magnitude. You know how it is. Perhaps later,” he added.

    Zelgadis did not know how it was, but got the message that they were being switched off and so headed into the ornate ballroom and the party within.

    The ballroom was huge. It was the kind of place young boys would want to play soccer in on rainy days, but if they did they’d almost certainly destroy something priceless. The ceilings were a lush display of gods and goddesses, velvet tapestries lined with gold clung to the walls, and a chandelier impressive enough to bring down any opera house in the center of it all. The decorations largely featured cherubs, but a person with bad enough taste to go around with a blue beard is capable of anything.

    Buffet tables took up the perimeter, populated (if such a world can be used to describe the roasted and marinated) with every animal you could possibly imagine wanting to cook and several that would have never occurred to you. Men and women clinked glasses and chatted animatedly about whatever the upper class found time to jaw about while eating little cheese cubes on sticks. And, in the middle of it all, couples swirled under the chandelier as a hundred violins cried from the stage.

    “Wow,” said Amelia. It was pretty much the general response.

    Zelgadis reviewed his… troops with a wary eye. Amelia and Filia were looking around the room with awed expressions and had probably forgotten why they’d come in the first place. As for Xellos, the fact that he was still tagging along indicated that something unpleasant was going to happen to someone during the evening. He really hoped it wasn’t him.

    There was work to be done.

    “Amelia,” he said, as she returned his gaze with resolute eyes. “You and I will see if we can get to the grounds from here and look for that swamp. Xellos, Filia,” he turned to them as Filia shot him a “don’t you dare” look which he summarily ignored. “You two keep an eye on Mister Beld. See if he knows anything about the legend.”

    Filia glared at him, betrayed. It wasn’t that Zelgadis really wanted Filia to suffer. It was only that… well, it made sense to split up in this case. He was the leader, so he could choose not to get stuck with the headache known as Xellos. And… well, he could have teamed up with Filia himself, but that would leave Amelia with Xellos. For reasons that weren’t precisely clear to him, he wasn’t altogether comfortable with that. So that left Filia. Hey, at least if Xellos stabbed them in the back this time she could say she’d seen it coming.

    Before she could open her mouth to argue, he and Amelia took off into the press of people to rattle the doors and check the windows, no doubt.

    “Well,” Xellos commented mildly. “That appears to be that, then.”

    Filia gave him a disgusted look, and then swiveled her eyes toward the convivial Mister Beld. He seemed like he’d be shaking hands for a good long time.

    The fact was Filia had half expected this to happen. Whether it was her gift of prophecy, common sense based on past experience, or just a general sense of doom, she’d had a feeling that she’d get stuck with Xellos. She’d also decided that she was absolutely not going to allow it.

    They’d been traveling hard for the past few days. She didn’t deserve to get saddled with Xellos. It was a party for goodness sake, and she was going to enjoy herself, damn it.

    “He’s not going anywhere. You watch him,” Filia said flatly before hotfooting it into the crowd and hoping like hell that Xellos wouldn’t follow.

    *****

    After an extensive search it became clear to Zelgadis and Amelia that the doors and windows were a bust. As a rather understanding guard pointed out to them when he noticed them trying doorknobs at random, Mister Beld had every right to take preventive measures against his guests trespassing around his rather extensive property. The party took place in the ballroom. If you wanted to use the bathroom, then that was another story, but the rest of the house and land was off limits.

    So Zelgadis and Amelia had been reduced to mooching sandwiches from the buffet and looking around at the expensive, yet tacky ornaments that filled the room while they waited to run into Beld again. He’d left his greeting door and neither Xellos nor Filia appeared to be around at the moment.

    Zelgadis had been nervous about going out among so many people without his hood. He knew he’d be treated like a freak. In a way, he was right, but not quite as he expected. Under normal circumstances, he might be on the receiving end of quite a few cruel laughs and maybe even a scream. But these people were apparently too well-bred for that kind of thing. They assumed that because he was on the guest list he’d somehow earned their company. There was a lot of staring and much pointing behind drinks. But, in this crowd it seemed, he wasn’t some kind of monster, just a… curiosity.

    Point of fact, several ladies in puffy gowns with bustles so dangerously padded that, for safety’s sake, they should’ve beeped as they backed up, had asked him if he wanted to dance. This was a new experience for Zelgadis and he didn’t really have the framework in place to deal with it. He would’ve been utterly lost without following Amelia’s example.

    Because Amelia, looking like she did, had of course been getting similar offers long before him. The first time it happened Zelgadis had contented himself to finding a bit of wall to lean against and a drink until she was done. After all, they were just killing time at this point and Amelia was too polite to flat-out refuse.

    But then she’d just smiled and said, “I’m sorry. I’m with someone.”

    Sorry. I’m with someone.

    Well, why hadn’t he thought of that?

    *****

    Filia had been determined that she was going to have a good time that night. That’s why it was such a shame that she was so very miserable.

    Fletcher’s Green was a community. Everyone there seemed to know one another, but she didn’t know anyone. With no one to chat with, she was running out of options for the long evening. After all, a person can only eat so many things on toothpicks before they become sick of them. And it wasn’t as though this was the sort of party where you might find an air hockey table in the basement or something.

    So she’d ended up in the only place a lonely outcast is always welcomed… the open bar. She’d been spending a great deal of time there actually, occasionally looking out at the hustle of the party with an annoyed and jealous expression.

    She’d held out hope that someone would ask her to dance. She looked at herself in the mirror before they’d left and felt modestly that it wasn’t a completely unlikely scenario. And indeed, there had been a few occasions when she was certain someone would. But something always seemed to happen before anyone had quite approached her. One man had been run over by a champagne girl and had to hurry off to clean his suit and another had tripped over his suddenly untied laces.

    It was a mystery that certainly wasn’t looking any clearer through the bottom of a glass. But Filia just took it as more evidence that she was in some way cursed.

    The bartender was worried. He’d seen his share of drinkers in his time, but this lady took the cake. She’d been there practically since the start of the party. It had been hours since and she was only just showing signs of being ever so slightly sloshed. It wasn’t that she’d been drinking steadily, exactly, it’s just that she’d been drinking like she never intended to stop. She drank like a pro with a death wish.

    He might have been comforted if he’d known that Filia was a golden dragon. It’s not wise to judge by appearances, and just because Filia appeared to be a slight young woman didn’t mean that her body forgot that it was actually a four ton giant lizard. This meant that, among other things, Filia could drink any man in the premises under the table and still be fresh as a daisy in the morning.

    A no matter what it seemed, Filia was no professional drinker with a death wish. She just wanted to drown her sorrows for a bit. And with her, well, actual size, her sorrows took a lot more to drown them than the average creature.

    “Reveling in our own misery, are we?” Xellos asked, taking the seat next to her.

    “Get lost,” she said, indistinctly without even looking up.

    “Is crying drunkenly in a corner normal behavior for a dragon priestess at a party?” he asked, taking the proffered drink from the counter.

    To be fair, Filia was no longer a priestess and was merely sniffling in a somewhat soused fashion. She turned toward him angrily for the first time. One Xellos was bad, but three was unbearable. She fixed a glare on the image she thought must be real, which meant from Xellos’s perspective, she was glaring directly to his left.

    This whole trip had been a mistake. Why had she bothered to come along in the first place? Oh yes…

    “What’re you up to, Xellos?” she slurred suspiciously as the bartender cautiously refilled her glass. She’d been drinking out of very small glasses all evening and the contents of her stomach would take the paint off an entire house. Some slight slurring was a blessing. She shouldn’t, the bartender thought, be able to make sentences or even blink.

    Xellos gave his drink a sneaky smile and took a gulp. Monsters have no use for inebriation and therefore simply decide to stay sober. It works for them because they’re monsters. Still… drinking had its uses. For example, the more you drink the more whoever you’re with will drink.

    “As I told you before Filia, I’m not up to anything,” he said, as he passed the glass toward the bartender who looked worried that he might have another crazy on his hands. “At least nothing that involves your friends.”

    “Ha!” Filia said, and because she liked the effect so much she went for it again. “Ha! Thass wha’ you’d like me to think. But I’m on tuh you!”

    “It might be worth considering, Filia,” Xellos said, giving her an appraising look. “That I don’t have the market cornered on evil plans.”

    Filia’s brain was not in a current state to deal with indirect answers. “Wait. Wha’?”

    Xellos gave a little smile that signaled the end of this portion of the interview. He turned toward the mass waltzing in the center of the room.

    “I’m surprised to see you here, actually,” he said. “It’s hard to believe that you would go to the trouble of buying that pretty dress,” his eyes flicked for just a moment to the breathable white fabric of the dress and the blue ribbons that decorated its neckline, “just to sit on a barstool while everyone else spends their evening dancing.”

    That struck a nerve, but she tried to pretend like it didn’t.

    “Who cares about tha’?” she said, turning back from the wistful glance at the dance floor she’d been unable to stop herself from taking.

    “I guess it’s for the best,” Xellos said, laughing unkindly. “Who wants a dragon on the dance floor?”

    Filia glowered into her glass. Why was it still empty?

    “You probably have four left feet,” he added, not willing to quit while he was ahead.

    *****

    After an exciting night of eating hors d’oeuvres and occasionally refusing dances, Amelia and Zelgadis finally ran into Mister Beld once more.

    “Do my eyes deceive me or are you two not enjoying my party?” He said in mock hurt tones as he approached them.

    “Oh no,” Amelia said dutifully. “It’s lovely.”

    “We had something we wanted to discuss with you,” Zelgadis said firmly. He was tired of finger sandwiches and wealthy people talking about him behind his back.

    “Ah, yes. You said,” Beld said, as he recalled their prior conversation. “What can I do for you, young man?”

    “Do you know anything about a legend concerning a girl drowning in a swamp on your property?” Zelgadis asked, figuring he might as well be direct.

    Beld looked surprised. “Odd that you should know that,” he said. “It’s not even a very well known local legend.”

    “Then it’s true?”

    “We-ell,” Beld began, stroking his curled beard as he thought. “It kind of came with the property, you know? Supposedly a nobleman who lived here long ago took a bride of a peasant girl and then drowned her in the swamp out back. Now they say it’s cursed. Bit of an interesting local legend I thought, so I kept the swamp. The city council wanted to pave over it on account of the mosquitoes, but I thought was interesting, so I kept it.”

    “So it’s really here?” Zelgadis breathed.

    “Why would he kill his wife?” Amelia asked, in tones of concern. After that thing with the ballad last time she was starting to have serious worries about marrying men in general.

    Beld shrugged expansively. “Who knows? What’s that saying… You always kill the ones you love?”

    “I believe that’s ‘hurt’,” Amelia said worriedly. “You always hurt the ones you love.”

    Beld shrugged again, as if to say, “you say tomato, I say tomato”.

    “Could we see it?” Zelgadis asked, not one to lose sight of the point.

    Beld shook a finger at him good-naturedly. “Mister Zelgadis, you’ve come to my party with your beautiful young friend and haven’t so much as danced once!”

    “What’s your point?” Zelgadis asked leadenly.

    “My point, young man, is that you can’t very well monopolize such a pretty girl all evening and then refuse to dance with her,” He said with an impish grin. “Come now, there’s only one dance left in the evening. Your friends seem to be enjoying themselves.”

    Zelgadis and Amelia’s heads shot toward the dance floor with an impressive turn of speed. Amelia dropped the kebob she’d been picking at.

    It was… a horrible sight. You really didn’t know whether to laugh, cry, or edge away. But out there on the dance floor were, indeed, Xellos and Filia.

    And they were dancing.

    In, of course, the loosest sense of the word. They were, in fact, as far apart as it is possible to be and still waltz. But it was a waltz none the less.

    It would be true to say that the air between them scorched with such white-hot intensity that if you’d stuck a hand in front of both sets of eyes it’d probably burn. This was, however, the result of some extremely severe scowling. Filia especially looked like she was trying to settle some kind of score. If she’d had her teeth clenched any harder, she would’ve shattered them.

    It would be true to say that they were holding hands, but the simple fact was that seemed to be more locked in a concentrated effort in knocking the other one down instead of dancing. There was the suggestion that they were putting a lot of effort into breaking each other’s fingers.

    It would be true to say that they appeared to be in some other world where only the music and the two of them existed. However, this music certainly wasn’t the lovely string piece that was playing at the moment that seemed to be inspired by the new springtime. You couldn’t help but feeling that whatever song was playing in the orchestra pit of their minds had war drums punctuated by the soprano strains of the screaming and bleeding.

    Zelgadis and Amelia exchanged horrified looks. Beld just chuckled to himself and said, “Young love.”

    Beld remembered himself and turned back to Zelgadis. “Now look, lad,” he said with a twinkle in his eye. “I’ll make you a deal. There’s only one dance left and then the orchestra’ll be leaving and the party will clear out. Either you dance with the lovely girl or I will. Once things are over we can worry about swamps and such things.”

    Zelgadis tried to shake the deeply disturbing image of Xellos and Filia dancing out of his mind. That one, he thought, might take some therapy. But he had more important things to worry about now. He looked uncertainly at Amelia who looked even more uncertainly back at him. It was clear that she didn’t like the idea of dancing with the forward man with the blue beard.

    It was… simple. They’d dance one dance and then the old man would let them see the swamp. Then it’d be all sorted out. Yes. Just… a dance.

    He looked over at the other dancers as though memorizing their movements. Well, it didn’t look so hard. And if people so obviously out of their minds as Xellos and Filia could manage it, then so could he.

    “Let’s go then,” Zelgadis said, grabbing Amelia by the hand and leading her onto the dance floor before he could think better of it.

    Amelia sighed inwardly. It wasn’t, “may I have this dance?” but it wasn’t nothing either.

    Zelgadis held one of her hands and placed an arm around her waist. He did it in the unsure way of a man who has seen that this is how it’s done, but still somewhat expects to have his hand slapped away. And then… the music.

    They moved around the dance floor—not in the traditional, prescribed steps of a waltz, but close enough that no one commented. Anyway, it’s a dance not a military dictatorship. You do your best and try to have fun. That’s the ticket.

    Zelgadis thought he was kind of getting the hang of it, and it wasn’t so bad. Amelia had a bit more confidence on the dance floor than he did and was helping with the steering. But he felt he was doing alright. And with the music and the… well, it was actually kind of nice.

    On the other side of the ballroom, Filia was losing the glaring contest. Her alcoholic misadventures of the evening were starting to catch up with her. Everything was getting hazy and she was feeling oh so very sleepy.

    When she finally did pass out, Xellos took the opportunity to turn it into a rather daring dip as the last note of the song was struck. The others guests applauded.

    “We can’t take you anywhere, can we?” he asked quietly.

  13. #13
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    Chapter 13. Waiting for Sunrise.

    Filia woke up with a massive headache perched lazily on her forehead, retribution for just a little celebration. She appeared to be in a warm bed with the covers pulled up to her chin. She didn’t want to open her eyes because of a little thing called uncertainty, and another little thing called hangover-related light sensitivity.

    But since she knew she had to eventually, she let her eyes flutter open. The first thing she saw when she looked to her left was Xellos. This was not particularly good for her considering that she could not remember what happened last night.

    “Good morning,” he said cheerily.

    After she had cheated the odds by surviving a heart attack, her brain helpfully pointed out that Xellos was sitting on a chair next to the bed. Panic could wait until later. There’d be plenty use for it then.

    “Where am I?” she asked, squinting in the warm lamp light. It may not have been an original question, but it was a pragmatic one.

    “In one of the many rooms of the Beld Mansion,” he said; his smile fractionally smugger than usual. “After you passed out, Mr. Beld offered one of his rooms for you to recover in.”

    Filia sat up in the bed and rubbed her forehead ruefully. No more human alcohol, she decided. It’s so weak that it’s easy to go too far.

    “Where are Mister Zelgadis and Miss Amelia?” she asked. At best she was hazy about what had happened at the party and at worst there was a big black hole in her memory. She’d rather ask them about what had happen than… Xellos.

    “They’ve gone off to investigate the swamp,” Xellos explained. “You’ve only been out for a few hours. It’s not even dawn yet.”

    “Will they be back soon?” Filia asked hesitantly.

    Xellos shrugged. “From what I understand our host’s property is quite expansive.”

    Filia sighed despairingly. There was nothing for it. She had to ask: “Did I… ummm… Did anything odd happen at the party?”

    Xellos gave it some thought. “No…” he said after awhile. “Not that I can think of.”

    Filia let out a tremendous sigh of relief. Maybe this whole nasty incident could pass without paralyzing embarrassment. She was really lucky that—

    “Well,” Xellos cut into her thoughts. “I suppose we did dance.”

    “What?!” Filia exclaimed as her brain informed her heart that any further cardiac arrest attempts for the morning would be frowned upon.

    “Oh yes,” Xellos said, smug smile definitely flourishing. “I didn’t think it was a good idea, but I’m afraid you insisted.”

    “You’re lying,” Filia struck out hopefully, but with dismay she vaguely remembered the faraway strains of music and the sensation of the dance floor under her feet and the feeling of deep, concentrated hatred.

    “No such luck, Filia,” Xellos said. “You were feeling sorry for yourself because no one at the entire party wanted to dance with you. I expressed doubt as to whether dragons could dance at all. I’m sorry to say you took offense,” he said, as though this was an unplanned and unfortunate occurrence, “and told me that you could. That you would, in your own words ‘show’ me.”

    Filia felt the urge to crawl under the covers and never come out again. It wasn’t what you’d call a very good long-term strategy, though, so she fought it. We can come back from this, her brain coaxed. It’s really not the worst thing that could’ve happened. Sure, it’s almost ridiculously embarrassing but at least that was it…

    Wait a minute. Filia examined the first half of their conversation and held it up to the second half with a magnifying glass. Surely not…

    “You said I passed out, right? Where did I pass out?” Filia demanded, trying and failing to keep the alarm out of her voice.

    Xellos smiled as though he’d hoped they’d get to this. “Oh, on the dance floor.”

    “While we were dancing?”

    Xellos nodded with a horribly knowing look.

    The image of herself collapsing into Xellos’s arms rose unbidden in her mind. She groaned and put her head in her hands. “Oh my god. What must people have thought?!”

    “Oh, I wouldn’t worry about that,” Xellos said, neglecting to mention the dip.

    “Really?” Filia looked up, trying in vain to find some kind of silver lining in this raincloud of an evening.

    “They probably just thought we were lovers.”

    *****

    As soon as Filia was done screaming and generally freaking out she demanded to know exactly what had happened after she’d passed out. It went something like this:

    The orchestra had done it’s time and was gradually getting its equipment together and filing out, as were the guests, who were far too upper crust to overstay their welcome. Maids were clearing away the remains of the catering with the focus of mind that signified that once the task was completed they would be heading home to put their feet up and enjoy the simple things; like not cleaning up after rich people.

    “What happened to her?” Zelgadis asked of the unconscious Filia supported by Xellos, as the crowd swarmed around them toward the exit.

    “I believe she spent some quality time at the open bar,” Xellos explained in a tone that, at first glance, claimed that this was “regrettable” but upon further examination would change its tune to “hilarious”.

    Zelgadis groaned inwardly. At least this explained the dancing thing, but on the other hand: did anyone follow his directions? “And you didn’t think to do anything about that?”

    Xellos thought for a minute. “Well, I watched,” he said fairly.

    Zelgadis was spared the futile act of rebuking Xellos for not being helpful as Mister Beld stomped his way into their group giving Filia a look of utmost concern.

    “Young lady not feeling well?” he asked. “Now, now. We can’t have that.”

    “It’s her own fault,” Zelgadis said. He wasn’t feeling particularly charitable this evening.

    “Oh, I’m sure that’s not the case,” Beld said, waving away the comment. He was the kind that liked to assume the best about people, at least female people. “I’ll have to have a word with the bartender about over-serving our guests.”

    At this there was a slam of a case from behind them, as the bartender packed up his stuff and stormed out, very nearly in tears. It had been a stressful day for him.

    “I must insist that the young lady rest in one of my rooms until she is feeling better,” Mister Beld continued as if the interruption hadn’t occurred.

    “That’s not necessary,” Zelgadis said. He was rarely on the receiving end of acts of altruism and therefore deeply distrusted them. “We have lodgings in town.”

    “Oh, but I have plenty of room,” Mister Beld coaxed. “She can wait while you go off to look at the swamp or whatever it is you wanted. After all, it’s my party. I feel somewhat responsible.”

    “Well…” Zelgadis trailed off. He did need to go to the swamp, and it’d be easier this way. On the other hand he did not trust Mister Beld’s apparent… eh… zeal for female companionship. “Amelia, Xellos, you stay with Filia. I’ll check out the swamp,” he decided finally.

    “But Mister Zelgadis,” Amelia piped up. “What about your geis?”

    Second, you must not go to the oracle alone.

    Oh damn it. How could he have forgotten?!

    “After geese, eh?” Beld barked enthusiastically. “Fine ambition, fine ambition,” he said approvingly. “You’d want the lake for that though. I could lend you a crossbow if you haven’t—”

    “It’s not exactly like that,” Zelgadis said loudly, in an effort to cut the man off. He ran a hand through his wiry hair. “Fine. Xellos, you stay with Filia. Amelia and I will check out the swamp.”

    Amelia nodded vigorously. Xellos just shrugged and looked at Filia who was drooling slightly and generally not being the lady that she could’ve been.

    “And Xellos?” Zelgadis added.

    “Yes?”

    “This time if something bad happens to her, actually do something about it!

    *****

    So Zelgadis and Amelia made their way to the mysterious swamp which, Mister Beld had insisted, really wasn’t all that much to look at. It certainly was taking them awhile to get there. No one, Zelgadis thought, should own this much land. If he’d known it’d take this long to get to the swamp he’d have suggested they use magic.

    But it wasn’t really all bad. There was a nice path along the way lined with roses and decorative vines and impressive topiary displays. Crystal lakes shimmered in the distance, illuminated by the few stars twinkling dimly in the early morning sky. It was pleasantly cool as the night breezes calmed themselves and made way for morning. Dawn had not yet arrived, but a certain lightening of the sky beyond the panorama of trees hinted that it was a definite possibility.

    When they finally arrived at their destination it was clear that Beld had not been displaying modesty when he downplayed the swamp’s wow factor. It was covered in a thick blanket of sickly green algae and pierced by renegade saplings. Clearly, whatever army of gardeners was responsible for the beautiful landscape they’d passed on their way had nothing to do with this sinkhole of slime.

    It seemed so… small. And it was hard to tell in the murky light of the not-quite-day, but it didn’t seem very deep either. It hardly had drowning hazard written all over it. But then again, a person could drown in a puddle if they were held under.

    The shrill song of mosquitoes whistled in their eardrums and a frog dove from its perch on the bank into the safe, cloudy depths below with a small splash. The swamp seemed remarkably oracle-less.

    “Any oracles in there?” Zelgadis asked, just to be on the safe side. No answer was forthcoming, but he hadn’t really expected one. He groaned nevertheless.

    “Maybe we should wait a bit,” Amelia suggested, hopeful the something would happen to shake Zelgadis out of his disappointment. “I mean, it’s almost dawn. Maybe something will happen then.”

    Zelgadis nodded. They’d come all this way so they might as well wait. He looked around, and indeed, there was a bench for whoever thought hanging around a mosquito breeding ground was a fun time. It was carved out of stone and two swans made up the back of it. The swans were kissing. Their necks formed a heart.

    Zelgadis sat on it anyway and Amelia took the seat next to him. He yawned and stretched. It had been a long night and it wasn’t done yet. An ancient human instinct that owed nothing to conscious thought told him to nonchalantly put his arm around Amelia, but he ignored it. They watched the buzzing, dirty mass of water that was the swamp for some time. It lacked something in the way of entertainment.

    “So, that Beld guy seemed pretty friendly,” Zelgadis began casually.

    Amelia nodded somewhat uncertainly. “He seemed nice and all… but…”

    “He certainly liked you,” Zelgadis went on.

    “Maybe,” Amelia said. Then, eager to change the subject she said, “Miss Filia will be so embarrassed when she comes around.”

    “She deserves it,” Zelgadis said firmly.

    “I guess,” Amelia said, with some doubt. “But we probably shouldn’t have left her with Xellos. You know they don’t get along. I think she just wanted to have some fun at the party, since we were there anyway. And that’s why it all happened.”

    “Well, she still should’ve known better,” Zelgadis mumbled without much rancor. Amelia had a nasty habit of making him feel guilty about things. He wondered if she did it on purpose.

    It was his turn to steer the conversation away from bumps in the road so he said, shuffling his feet slightly in an absent-minded sort of way, “I’ve never danced before.”

    Amelia handled this pitch with applaudable sensitivity. She passed over “I could tell,” and “Well, don’t worry. You did just fine,” and went straight for: “Really? I thought you were great!”

    Zelgadis felt his self-esteem buoyed. “Well,” he said modestly, turning slightly away. “It didn’t look very hard. I thought I did alright.”

    “You did,” Amelia agreed emphatically. “I never would’ve guessed you hadn’t danced before.”

    “And you’ve been to a lot of dances, haven’t you?” Zelgadis asked. He was beginning to feel that this evening was, perhaps, not a complete waste.

    “Just a few,” Amelia said. “Daddy’s not much for dances. He prefers organizing tournaments.”

    “That sounds like him,” Zelgadis said.

    “I think they’re nice, though,” Amelia went on, somewhat self-consciously. “Dances, I mean. Tournaments are nice too, but well…”

    “If I’d known earlier that dancing was that easy I might not have minded dancing a few more times,” Zelgadis commented, encouraged by his triumph of the evening and lovely, lovely hindsight. “I mean, we were just killing time anyway.”

    Amelia stared into the green muck of the swamp, a faraway look on her face before saying thoughtfully, but somewhat timidly, “Maybe we’ll dance again sometime.”

    Zelgadis looked at her for a moment, but automatically turned back to the swamp when she looked back. Crickets started chirping as gray light peaked over the horizon.

    “Maybe.”

    *****

    There was a knock at the door of the room Filia and Xellos were in, interrupting Filia’s attempts to rebuild her shattered psyche. At the moment her thoughts were along the lines of: I am a strong, vibrant woman of the… whatever century it is right now (Dragons often don’t keep track. They come and go so often, what’s the point?). I can put this behind me and move on to a brighter tomorrow.

    “Come in,” Xellos said, when it became clear that Filia was concentrated too hard on a brighter tomorrow to say anything.

    Mister Beld pushed open the door with the tray held out in front of his expansive belly. On the tray were two mugs filled with steaming hot coffee.

    “Thought this might be just the thing to make you feel better, young lady,” Beld said with a wink as he passed a cup to Filia and left the tray for Xellos to help himself. “I’m afraid the cooks have gone home after a night’s hard work, so if it’s muck you only have me to blame.”

    “Thank you,” Filia said, accepting the cup and taking a sip. “I’m so sorry to be imposing on you like this. I’m afraid I haven’t been behaving—”

    “Nonsense,” Beld said. “No apologies necessary, my dear. In fact, I do believe it is me who should be apologizing. Rest assured I have every intention of firing that bartender for his misconduct.”

    “Are you sure he hasn’t quit?” Xellos asked, as he took a sip from his own mug. “He was crying when he left.”

    “Oh, no. It wasn’t his fault,” Filia said wretchedly. “You don’t have to—”

    “Don’t worry about it, my dear,” Beld said, patting her comfortingly on the hand. “I’ll sort it out.”

    He straightened up and said to both of them: “Well, I’m afraid I have business I must attend to. New day’s starting and already the time for fun is over, eh?” He shook his head, still grinning. “What a shame.”

    “Anyway, I’m not sure how long your young friends are going to be with their swamp watching or geese-shooting or whatever it was they wanted to do. But my home is your home, so go ahead and make yourselves comfortable. Like I said, the kitchen staff has left, but there are plenty of leftovers in the kitchen and you can go ahead and help yourself.”

    He turned to leave and had almost shut the door behind him before he turned back into the room. “There is just one thing,” he said, tugging at his tinted beard. “Almost forgot. Go anywhere you want, but don’t go in the room with the black door on the third floor.” He chuckled to himself. “I’m afraid it’s a mess at the moment. A bit embarrassing.”

    Beld turned and with a click of the door he was off to whatever business awaited him so early in the morning.

    Filia drained her cup of coffee. Of course, coffee was the traditional drink for hangovers. It didn’t really work, but it certainly made you more alert. She wished that it was tea though, not just because she preferred tea, but at the moment she could really use the tea leaves.

    *****

    Meanwhile, by the swamp, dawn had just arrived. The orange light over the trees looked odd against the green water. White rays of light blotted out the few stars left. A new day was born.

    And absolutely nothing happened in the swamp. No chorus signaled the arrival of an oracle on a clam-shell as the waves of water misted and sparkled in the new sunlight. It seemed a lot to expect of a little swamp just because the sun had come up.

    Zelgadis sighed. “Here we go again,” he said. Maybe a girl had drowned here once, maybe she hadn’t. But it was just an old legend. It had nothing to do with the mysterious swamp oracle.

    “We’ve still got leads left,” Amelia reminded him, in an effort to cheer him up. “At least we know that this isn’t the one.”

    There’s that Edisonian optimism again. Despite his disappointment, Zelgadis smiled slightly. “Yeah, I was just hoping that this would be the—”

    Zelgadis’s half-hearted moping was cut off abruptly as a giant splash was heard from the swamp. It was too large to be any frog… unless it was a frog that ate house-cat sized flies. Whatever it was, it was big. At least… big for such a small swamp.

    In the best tradition of femininity Amelia screamed and grabbed Zelgadis’s arm. In the best traditions of Amelia-ness what she screamed was: “Fireball!”

    The fireball hissed and turned abruptly to steam on contact with the water, only sprouting weak fire on the drier bits of algae. Through the curtain of steam a person-sized shadow rose out of the water in an odd, hunched shape. Just visible through the water vapor were two fist-sized yellow eyes. A low, gurgling noise accompanied its appearance.

    “Where is my body?” it asked in an abundantly female voice not generally associated with that shape.

  14. #14
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    Chapter 14. The Ungrateful Dead.

    The third floor seemed to be fairly disused. It was… clean, but it had none of the lived-in touches of the lower floors. After all, even a very rich man can only use so much space all on his own. It was dark, which was surely a savings in candles.

    Filia crept up the stairs, careful to make as little noise as possible. An orb of light floated in front of her, lighting her way.

    “So remind me again why we’re ignoring the only request of our gracious host?” Xellos asked, not bothering to keep his voice down as he followed her up the stairs.

    She glared at him and hoped he’d get the message to keep quiet. “Because,” she whispered, “It’s just too suspicious. I don’t buy that he doesn’t want us up there because the place is a mess. There’s something wrong around here… something he’s hiding from us.”

    “Oh, I agree,” Xellos said as they reached the top of the stairs and walked through the darkened hallway. “Mentioning that we shouldn’t go to a room that we never would have thought of going to in the first place is very suspicious.”

    Filia was only half listening. She’d spotted it, at the end of the hall. The room with the black door. Unlike the rest of the floor, this room gave the impression that the maids had never even been near it. Cobwebs crowded the doorframe and the smell of mold hit the sinuses like a hammer.

    She hadn’t picked up on it earlier because well… she’d been somewhat distracted by other things, but there was definitely something off about this place. She could sense it, and whatever it was it was behind that door. She reached out and grasped the silver handle and turned.

    “Of course, the way he said it… it’s almost as if he wanted you to come here,” Xellos said at the point in which Filia could no longer stop herself from opening the door.

    It creaked open.

    *****

    The shroud of steam was washed away by a gust of wind, revealing the creature that had splashed its way into view. Zelgadis and Amelia instantly felt… well… stupid, as the high of apprehension and fear was replaced by the low of…

    “A fish-person?” Zelgadis exclaimed in disbelief. The events of the day were really starting to let him down. “You’re telling me that the legendary swamp oracle is a fish-person?!”

    “Who said anything about an oracle?” the fish asked in the voice of a beautiful woman that seemed somewhat at odds with her water-vertebrate form.

    “Just forget it,” Zelgadis said, heaving a sigh.

    “What do you mean ‘where is my body?’” Amelia asked, looking directly into the tennis ball eyes. “You’ve got one.”

    “Yes,” the fish-person said, looking at her pruney hands, revolted. “But it’s not mine. Mine was taken from me by force.”

    “Hang on,” Zelgadis said. He had a niggling suspicion about what was going on here. “You weren’t… were you drowned here?”

    The fish looked surprised. “Your powers of deduction are far greater than I’d expect from a golem.”

    “I’m not a—”

    “Yes,” the fish went on dramatically, ignoring him. “I once had a proper form. I was young, I was beautiful. And, when I reached marrying age, a wealthy nobleman was so taken with my beauty that he proposed. I thought I’d found the high life… finally, I thought, I’d be moving up in the world. But I was deceived. On my wedding night my new husband brought me down here and held my head under the water until I ceased struggling.”

    “That’s horrifying!” Amelia, the empathetic one, said. “Why would anyone do something like that?”

    “Who can say?” the fish said sadly. “There are horrible people in this world.”

    Zelgadis scratched his head and thought about the situation. “So… Miss… uh…”

    “Lilliana,” the fish said, promptly, pleased at the sound of her own name.

    “Lilliana, after you… well, died. How did you end up in that eh…” He was trying to be tactful. It wasn’t necessarily his strong suit.

    “I no longer had a body,” Lilliana said sadly. “I was nothing but a ghost. So I took the nearest body available.”

    “You possessed the fish-person,” Amelia said weakly. The living generally frown upon the dead doing this.

    “Oh, but it was the best body available here. It’s been awful all these years living like a fish,” she said wretchedly as she scooped up a many legged swimming thing and tossed it down her throat. “And I couldn’t even go far from the water. But now that you two are here, I’m sure that I can get my body back.”

    “But you’re dead,” Amelia said gently as though she didn’t want the news to be too hard on her. “It really won’t do you much good to—”

    “Nevertheless,” Lilliana said, holding up her rubbery pink hands. “I can’t rest in peace until I’ve recovered it.”

    “Do you even know where it is?” Zelgadis asked. He could feel himself being pulled into something and he didn’t like it one bit.

    “I assume the nobleman took it back to his house,” Lilliana said with a look of obvious disgust.

    “Would it still be there after all this time?”

    “Corpses don’t often get up and walk away,” Lilliana observed drily, a difficult trick for a creature who’s scales are coated in a moist layer of mucus.

    Zelgadis and Amelia exchanged glances. Zelgadis’s said, it’s not our problem and we don’t have to get involved. Amelia’s said, it’s to help a lost soul and we’re here anyway. We’ve already wasted time so we might as well waste a little bit more.

    “Oh please help me!” Lilliana pleaded. “If you don’t I’ll lay eggs in your stomachs,” she muttered very quietly.

    “What was that?” Zelgadis asked sharply.

    “Nothing.”

    *****

    The fetid air hit them in a cold, sharp burst. It was like opening the doors of an abandoned meat-packing warehouse. Filia jammed her fist in her mouth to keep herself from screaming.

    “Well,” Xellos said, calm as you please. “It seems our Mister Beld has a hobby.”

    The white light of the room reflected oddly off of the heaps of melting ice that lined the walls and onto the pale, rotting forms in the center. There were seven of them. All of them were women and all of them were extremely dead.

    In times such as this a male shoulder to cry on can be a great comfort. Unfortunately for Filia, the only male shoulders in the vicinity were attached to Xellos, so she had to make do without comfort.

    She tried to say something, but all that came out was, “What the—how could—?”

    “You said you thought he was hiding something,” Xellos said. “This seems to fit the bill.”

    “Well, yes,” Filia said, her voice going shrill with panic. “But I didn’t expect anything like this! He didn’t seem like… like a murderer!”

    “I’m sure that’s what he wanted you to think,” Xellos said significantly.

    Filia caught the tone, but was already in too much of a state to pursue it. She cast her eyes around the room, trying to avoid the dead glances of the specters in the center. Ice all over the place. Someone wanted to keep these bodies as preserved as possible. That was just… just sick.

    “Different cause of death for each, I notice,” Xellos said, walking up to the corpses and eyeing them speculatively.

    “What?” Filia said, hardly daring to move further into the room.

    “Let’s see,” Xellos said, looking at the first in the ring of bodies and walking down the line. “Drowning, definitely. This one looks fairly undamaged, so it’s hard to say, but I’ll guess smothering. Ha, beheading, but that’s a little bit of an obvious one, wouldn’t you say?” He strode past the headless girl and over to a body completely naked and covered in patches of swollen, black skin. “I’m going to say exposure on this one. Starvation,” he said, as he passed a withered corpse. “Probably hit with a blunt object,” he said, as he reached one with a head you would not like to see. “And, oh,” he paused as he reached the last one. “I would say pushed off the tallest tower.”

    Filia’s mouth was dry and the cold was getting to her. She kept getting caught in those dead eyes.

    “I wonder what he had planned for you?” Xellos asked, striding back to where she stood.

    “What?” Filia croaked.

    “Well isn’t it obvious, Filia? You’re his next intended victim. That’s why he was so eager to have you stay here and that’s why he told you not to come up here. He knew if he told you not to, you would. It’s called ‘feminine curiosity’ and it’s extremely easy to manipulate.”

    Filia was in no state to argue that curiosity is not strictly confined to the female gender or that men are just as easy to manipulate as women. She was too busy staring at the circle, and noticing that there was plenty of room for someone else to take a seat.

    “Perhaps it will be poisoning,” Xellos said, voice filled with innocent interest. “After all, you drank that coffee he gave you.”

    Filia wanted to choke or throw up, but her throat was paralyzed.

    “There’s always a large oven in places like this. Perhaps he planned on having you immolated,” Xellos went on eagerly. “He does seem like the dramatic type.”

    Filia tried to speak, but she couldn’t get any sound to come out. She kept thinking she could hear footsteps just on the edge of her hearing.

    “Or perhaps he just planned on wrapping his hands around your neck until you stopped breathing,” Xellos said in a whisper.

    “Stop it,” Filia finally managed to say. A shudder was running down here spine.

    “Actually, I was thinking a good old-fashioned stabbing might be in order,” a boisterous voice said from the doorway as the lock clicked shut.

    Filia lurched backwards in horror, nearly bumping into the lifeless women in the center as she turned to see Beld, standing there in the doorway. The light of the spell reflected off the ice gave his entire form a blue tint, like his beard. He was holding a knife.

    It would be better to say that his friendly, open expression had been replaced with one of cruel and murderous intent. It would be better to say that the good-natured outdoorsman had been replaced with a demon in human form. But none of this was true. He stood there, as jovial as if he was standing in the middle of his party surrounded by friends and admirers instead of seven frozen corpses, one terrified dragon, and a monster.

    A smile all comes down to context, and the smile on the face of someone holding a knife can be more terrifying than any fiendish night creature.

    “Oh, well, now that you mention that, it seems so obvious,” Xellos said, unperturbed.

    “Why are you doing this?” Filia shrieked as she backed further away.

    Beld smiled as a frosty sweat formed on his face. “My dear lady,” Beld said, holding his arms out in an open gesture. “All I want is to get to know you better. And I find that you never really know someone until you’ve killed them.” Then he lunged.

    Filia ran frantically out of the reach of his knife. “Xellos!”

    “Yes?” he asked serenely. He hadn’t moved an inch.

    “You could help or something!” she shouted. She was being chased around a very small room filled with dead people by a knife-wielding psychopath. She really didn’t want to add “arguing with a smartass” onto her list of troubles.

    “Don’t you have your mace?” he asked.

    “No!” Filia shouted, as she nearly slipped on melted ice in her flight from the blade. “I left it at the inn! It wouldn’t fit under the dress!”

    “Then you should’ve bought a bigger dress,” Xellos suggested helpfully.

    “Xellos!” she shouted back somewhere between frustration and desperation. She grasped the orb of light in her hands and threw it directly in Beld’s face. She hurriedly shielded her eyes. The glow grew out of control and filled the whole room with a blinding white light. It might have even reached the outside past the bordered-up windows.

    Beld screamed and rubbed at his eyes in the vain hope that the pain would go away.

    Filia backed away from him, trying to slow her shaky, ragged breaths. She just happened to stop behind Xellos. She was not hiding behind him. It was a mere coincidence.

    “Is he a monster?” she breathed.

    “Only in the metaphorical sense,” Xellos said with a raised eyebrow. “Monsters don’t generally use knives.”

    “So he’s just a psycho?”

    “Basically,” Xellos said cheerfully.

    Filia scowled. “You could try to actually do something. He’s going to try to kill you too.”

    “But he won’t succeed,” Xellos said, unmoved.

    “You’re wrong on that, laddie,” Beld said having recovered his vision. He straightened himself up and winced only slightly. “Of course, I’ll have to bury you in the yard. Can’t have eight wimmin in here and one man. Imagine how that’d look?”

    “Oh, I understand completely,” Xellos said with every sign of amusement.

    *****

    The sun was rising steadily above the trees. Worms were saved as early birds were forced to clear the skies for the three forms shooting through the air.

    Lilliana couldn’t be away from water too long in her current form, so to get her to the mansion as quick as possible they’d decided to Ray Wing their way there. Lilliana assured them that, if they flew her there, her mucous reserves would last until they found her body. They were mildly disgusted by this bit of information.

    Amelia was carrying her as they flew along, which had been a tough sell. Amelia liked fish-people. They were generally a kind and industrious bunch. Fish-people had saved her life last year. But she wasn’t too keen on touching them. Still, it was better than having eggs laid in your stomach.

    “Did you see that?” Zelgadis said, pointing toward the mansion.

    “A flash of light shooting out of the third-story window?” Amelia said. She’d caught it too.

    “Do you think it might be Filia or Xellos?” Zelgadis asked as they both increased speed.

    “It looked like a lighting spell,” Amelia said.

    “I think we should check it out,” Zelgadis said. “And I think we should take a short-cut.”

    Amelia nodded. Traveling with Lina Inverse for an extended period of time tended to rub off on her party members in the form of being very easy-going about property damage.

    “Blam Blazer!” Amelia shouted, shooting off the spell as soon as they were close enough.

    *****

    Beld was pretty shocked when the wall of his secret corpse room exploded. He was more surprised when a man, woman, and fish whooshed through the newly created hole.

    When Zelgadis and Amelia landed they took in the knife-wielding Beld and the dead bodies and asked the appropriate question. “What the hell is going on?” Zelgadis asked as he drew his sword and held it out defensively in front of him. Lilliana meandered her way toward the corpses in the center.

    “He’s been killing people!” Filia declared in a panic-stricken voice as she pointed at Beld. It actually seemed pretty obvious when she put it that way.

    Zelgadis leaped to a conclusion. He was good at that. “You’re the one that killed Lilliana?” he asked, pointing his sword at Beld. “I thought you said that legend was ancient?”

    “Try thirty-years, my boy,” Beld said, grinning and throwing the knife from one hand to another. “I am the legend.”

    “But I’m surprised to hear you mention Lilliana. She was my first,” he looked off dreamily into the distance. You never forget your first kill, apparently. He sighed. “Well, now. What am I to do? A lot of corpses to dispose of, I guess. And a wall to rebuild. Though,” he winked roguishly at Amelia who recoiled in horror, “I am glad you came back, my dear.”

    “That’s not going to happen,” Zelgadis said, raising his sword. He didn’t take too kindly to being considered a walking corpse.

    “That won’t be necessary,” said the voice of Lilliana, but it wasn’t coming from the fish anymore. The fish was looking around in bewilderment, but you could hardly pay much attention to the fish when a drowned carcass was rising all on its own.

    Beld dropped his knife in shock. Murderers don’t like it when their victims get back up, especially after thirty years. Lilliana lurched at him with zombie slowness, wrapped her waterlogged hands around his neck, and brought them together with all her strength. The strength of the dead is not the strength of muscle, but of will. Beld choked and twitched and then stopped altogether.

    There was a pause as Lilliana let him fall to the ground.

    “What the hell?!” Zelgadis said. It had been that kind of day.

    Lilliana stood up, in all her corpsey splendor and bowed to them. “I’m sorry I deceived you about my true intentions for getting my body back. It’s just that there are certain… prejudices against zombies and I didn’t think you’d help if I told you the truth.”

    “Prejudices,” Zelgadis repeated weakly.

    Lilliana nodded. “You’ll notice I didn’t eat his brain or anything.”

    “And we appreciate that, Lilliana.” Zelgadis let his head fall into his hands. He needed sleep badly.

    “So you really wanted revenge?” Amelia asked.

    “Revenge was a nice bonus,” Lilliana said with a glare toward the body of her former husband. “But I really just wanted my body back. Despite what’s happened, I want to get on with my life.”

    “Death,” Zelgadis corrected.

    “Whatever,” Lilliana said. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to find mom and dad and tell them I’m back.” She lurched out of the room slowly, bursting through the locked door with undead fury. Zelgadis was sure that she was going to lose a foot down that flight of stairs.

    Mom and dad were in for a surprise.

    “The undead are weird,” Filia said succinctly.

    “I still can’t believe it about him,” Amelia said, looking over at the body of Beld. “It didn’t seem like there was a bad thought in his head. Sure he was… strange… but…”

    “I’ve read about killers like him,” Zelgadis said knowledgeably. “Violent and completely merciless, but on the outside they seem like normal people. They get along with others. They’re friendly and superficially charming, but deep down they’re… evil.”

    “That’s funny, I’m sure we’ve never met anyone like that,” Filia said, glaring at Xellos as sarcasm clanged off of every syllable.

    “Well, thank you, Filia,” Xellos said. “I didn’t know you thought I was charming.”

    There was a groan as Filia kicked at some melted ice in frustration and got nothing for her troubles but cold toes.

  15. #15
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    Chapter 15. Harsh Land.

    They’d left behind Fletcher’s Green and its fancy dress parties and serial killers. It probably had a few other charms, but they weren’t sticking around to figure out what they were considering that the upscale town was minus an oracle. Instead they’d set their sights on the wetlands of Putter Country, slightly north of the exquisitely manicured lawns of Fletcher’s Green.

    In Putter Country the land was like gruel. They didn’t have to worry about finding swamps because it was very likely that as soon as you entered Putter Country you were standing ankle deep in one. The problem was finding the right one.

    Putter Country was not, in fact, a real “country”. It was simply the common name for an area of land in Ralteague that stretched to the north into the flats of Vye. It got its name from its inhabitants: a religious group that called themselves the Putters. They were fishers by trade, which was a good thing because there was barely an inch of land in the area that wasn’t at least somewhat moist.

    It was really hard to get excited about such a dank looking place. It might, Zelgadis thought, hold the key to finding my cure, but that’s what he thought about Sairaag and Fletcher’s Green and those had both turned up with nothing. He just hoped nothing dead would pop its head out of the next bog they came to.

    Xellos had slipped away somewhere en route to the squishy, dreary countryside; not that it even made a difference with…

    “I just think you’re not taking this seriously enough,” Filia nagged, driving a nail into Zelgadis’s brain for the fifth time that afternoon. “We don’t know where he is or what he’s doing.”

    “Exactly,” Amelia said gravely, sparing Zelgadis the arduous task of fielding her paranoia. “We don’t know, so there’s nothing we can do about it.”

    “Yes, but we know he’s up to no good,” Filia said, raising a finger as if this was some important discovery. “He’s probably off talking with his bosses and setting up some horrible trap for us ahead.”

    “So?” Zelgadis asked sourly.

    Filia was taken aback, and then she was upset that her concerns weren’t being taken to heart. “Well if he’s planning something then we could all be in danger! I can’t believe you don’t think this is worth acting on!”

    “Acting on how, Filia?” Zelgadis asked. “Like Amelia said, there’s nothing we can do. If you have a productive suggestion beyond complaining then I’d love to hear it.”

    Filia’s mouth was set in a definite line. “This attitude is why I had to come along in the first place. You two just let Xellos do whatever he wants.”

    Zelgadis had had enough; he threw up his hands. “Well, you’d barely know he’s gone what with you bringing him up every hour on the hour. Didn’t he tell you his entire evil plan when you two were getting cozy at the dance?”

    Filia gasped. That was a low-blow.

    “Of course not, Mister Zelgadis,” Amelia chided. “How could you say something like that?”

    Filia turned to Amelia with hopeful and somewhat teary eyes. She’d been starting to feel completely undefended.

    “If he did, then she was probably way too drunk to remember anyway,” Amelia finished.

    “Good point,” Zelgadis said.

    Filia slumped. There was just no talking to some people.

    But she took the message. She didn’t mention Xellos on that trip again.

    …For a whole two hours.

    *****

    Deep in the waterlogged and algae-ridden countryside, hope was beginning to flash a fin. After splashing through dirty water all day, the three of them had been very happy to see the flickering candle lights of a small village.

    It wasn’t exactly cosmopolitan. In fact it had dull as dishwater written all over it and was coincidentally about the same color. But it had an inn, and a fireplace and a chance to get out of their wet socks was like a distant paradise.

    “Marsh King’s daughter?” the old innkeeper said around a long pipe. “She’s not a legend, my lad. She’s as real as you and me.”

    “Have you seen her?” asked Zelgadis who knew how real he was, but was starting to doubt the reality of strangers due to his collection of odd experiences.

    “Nah, haven’t had the occasion,” the man said, blowing smoke out of his nostrils. “But my son Corey went down to see her after that Zeke cheated him out of 40 brass pieces for his catch.”

    “She solves disputes?” Filia asked with interest.

    “That’s right, miss,” the man said with a smile. “She knows it all. She can always tell if someone’s cheated or lied. Always knows the truth, that one.”

    “Does she answer questions?” Zelgadis asked, feeling their might be a reason to hope even in this unpleasant land.

    “Sure,” the man said with a shrug, replacing his pipe back between his lips. “She knows it all. Must come from hanging out in a swamp all the time. You know… communin’ with nature. We’re real proud of her, that Marsh King’s daughter.”

    “Wouldn’t she be a Marsh Princess?” Amelia asked. This had been bothering her for awhile.

    The innkeeper fixed her with the slow, careful look that he reserved for people he put in the category of “city-folk”. He finally said, “We call her the Marsh King’s daughter.”

    “Okay,” Amelia said in a small voice.

    “Do you know about where she is?” Zelgadis asked, trying to keep himself from getting too optimistic.

    “Nope,” the man said simply.

    “Oh,” Zelgadis said, feeling his hopes sinking slightly. Oh well, there were only about seventy major swamps along the strip. They could always check them all. It’d take some time, but still…

    “I know exactly where she is,” the man said with a triumphant gleam in his eye.

    *****

    They stayed the night at the inn with great hopes for the next morning. Even the dilapidated rooms that smelled strongly of mold couldn’t dampen Zelgadis’s spirits. It sounded like this Marsh King’s daughter was exactly what they were looking for. Someone who can tell the truth just by looking into your eyes? That had to be an oracle.

    They ate their breakfast in a hurry (It was fish. Apparently in Putter Country it’s always fish) and headed out for the boundless bayou. They’d been able to purchase some heavy-duty boots from a bait-and-tackle shop in the area and were making their way through the swamp in much less discomfort, though there was a lot more squelching and squeaking of rubber.

    Despite the boots, though, it wasn’t a nice trip. The bog of the Marsh King’s daughter was a significant distance away, and before they’d covered even half the ground to get there they were soaked, cold, and in very poor spirits.

    Zelgadis, for his part, was covered in mud and shivering against the icy wind. He didn’t know how the Putters handled working in this environment all the time. Not only did it look depressing, it was depressing. If he had to live here he wouldn’t smoke a pipe and use quaint little phrases like “as sure as God made little green apples”, he’d run screaming out of the swamps and wouldn’t stop until he reached the desert.

    Even so, he knew he didn’t have the worst of it. Filia was just as cold and drenched and, besides that, had been scratched up by brambles pretty badly. She had her arms folded close around her, her teeth chattering as she muttered crossly to herself. Despite her protests, Zelgadis was pretty sure she would feel better if Xellos was there. At least then she’d have someone to hit.

    Amelia had made the unfortunate discovery that the swamps were infested with leeches. She discovered this when she found one sipping the blood out of her arm after a nasty fall into the water. The battle calm that he’d always admired in her completely deserted her when she found the slimy thing clamped onto her arm. The ensuing freak-out only ended when Zelgadis had flicked the thing off of her with his fingernail. Even now she was looking at the murky water with a distrustful and mildly revolted expression.

    Zelgadis couldn’t really blame her. He was trying very hard to forget about the tiny creatures he’d read about that burrowed in through the skin and attached themselves to the stomach walls. Sometimes they’d take a wrong turn and end up in the brain. They did tend to be found in still water… He shuddered. It bothered him and he was pretty sure his skin would be able to repel any parasite. For just the moment he didn’t envy Amelia or Filia their softer skin.

    And this whole thing wasn’t even for them. Amelia was just tagging along because… well, because Amelia’s a good person and likes helping people. Filia was just nosey and wanted to one-up Xellos. Zelgadis was barely resisting complaining and he was the whole reason they were knee-deep in parasite-filled waters.

    A snail looked judgingly at him from a rock. He sighed and gave his fellow travelers a sideways glance. Amelia was trudging along purposefully, taking as wide steps as she could across the vegetation-filled water. Filia was lagging some ways behind and continuing her mad mumbling. Zelgadis caught the words, “swamp”, “Xellos”, and “ficus”.

    “Hey,” Zelgadis said quietly.

    “Hmm?” Amelia said, navigating around an underwater fern.

    “I know this isn’t exactly what you had in mind when you decided to come with me,” he said contritely. “But you know, I guess I kind of wanted you to know that I…”

    The splashing stopped. She wasn’t moving forward anymore. She was just looking at him. He abruptly looked away.

    “Anyway,” he said, quickly and slightly higher than usual as he trudged forward with sudden energy, “Sorry about the leech.”

    He looked determinedly at the horizon as he turned all his attention to making his way through the swamp as quick as possible. Never try to have a moment.

    “It’s alright,” Amelia said, running to catch up with him.

    Zelgadis made a noncommittal noise as a response.

    “I guess this isn’t what I expected,” Amelia said honestly, looking around the landscape because eye contact with Zelgadis clearly wasn’t going to happen, “Because I didn’t really have any expectations.”

    She stretched idly and put her hands behind her head. “I thought it would be better to be ready for anything,” she said with a little laugh.

    Zelgadis chanced a glance at her and swore mentally. How does she always catch the sun like that?

    Insects buzzed and chirped, frogs croaked from the sketchy perimeters of the bogs, and water splashed as they walked along. But there was a silence between Zelgadis and Amelia. It was one of those special silences—the kind that can take you out of yourself, out of the circumstances… out of this world. You only get so many of those silences in a lifetime.

    “What’s the rush?” Filia shouted breathlessly after them as she sprinted through the water to catch up with them.

    They turned away and the spell was broken.

    *****

    They reached the bog that the innkeeper had indicated to them as the dwelling place of the Marsh King’s daughter, impartial judge of all Putter Country. The one who just knows. It didn’t look any different from the other swamps they’d crossed on the way there, except for a tall white tree growing out of the center.

    Against the tree was a little girl. She was about ten by the looks of it and was covered in the dirt and grime of the swamp. She was wearing a brown dress that looked more like a repurposed burlap sack. Her face was beautiful and her black hair sleek and shiny, but the rest of her appearance ill-suited her status as royalty—even wetland royalty. …If, indeed, the girl was the one they were seeking.

    “Are you the Marsh King’s daughter?” Zelgadis asked.

    The girl fixed him with her full attention. Her upper lip pulled back to reveal her top row of teeth and she let out something like a growl before stalking towards him on hands and feet. She lunged at him with an animalistic scream.

    Zelgadis leapt backwards and let out a grunt of pain.

    “What happened?” Amelia asked, trading looks of concern between the growling girl and Zelgadis, who was clutching his arm and looking shocked and furious.

    “She bit me!” Zelgadis shouted, watching the ten-year-old moan as she clutched her mouth. “She just went and bit me!”

    Filia watched the wild girl with solemn alarm. She couldn’t help but thinking rebelliously, I’ll bet she’s sorry she tried that, but mostly she was worried. This was no way for a human child to act.

    “It’s alright,” Amelia said in a placatory voice, keeping eye contact with the girl. “We’re not here to hurt you.”

    “Out!” the girl screeched in a way that implied she was on shaky ground in the world of words. “OUT!” She raced around in the swamp—kicking, splashing, and generally making as much havoc as possible. Two storks abandoned their nests and flew off, keen to avoid her raging.

    In the face of her unstoppable, violent tantrum, Zelgadis, Amelia, and Filia were forced to turn back the long way they’d come from. Clearly this wasn’t the wise woman of the swamp they’d heard so much about.

    *****

    Afternoon was beginning to wind down as they finally made their miserable way back to the village they’d come from. They were cold, they were tired, and they’d only had soggy sandwiches to eat all day. They were ready to change into dry clothes, wolf down dinner, and get some well-deserved rest, but something else needed to be done first…

    “You said the Marsh King’s daughter was at that swamp,” Zelgadis said grouchily to the innkeeper as he rung grimy water out of his cape. A tadpole seemed to have gotten caught in the hem of it and was now flopping sadly on the floor. “There was nothing there but a crazy little girl.”

    “You saw the wild girl?” the innkeeper asked unconcernedly.

    “Yeah, I guess,” Zelgadis said. “It didn’t even seem like she knew how to talk. Only one or two words. Hardly a great judge.”

    “Well, your problem is just that you went in the day,” the man said simply. “There’s only the wild girl there during the day. The Marsh King’s daughter comes out at night.”

    Zelgadis felt a violent twitch in his face. They’d gone all that way for… “Why didn’t you tell us that before?”

    “You didn’t ask.”

    Zelgadis felt his shoulders slump. “Fine,” he finally said. “We’ll go back there at night.”

    “If you leave now, you should be there before sun-up,” the man suggested cheerfully.

    They greeted this suggestion with chilly silence. They were bone tired, but… well… they’d have to go back anyway.

    “Can we at least change into dry clothes first?” Amelia asked plaintively.

    The innkeeper scratched at his scalp with a nicotine and dirt stained fingernail. “You could,” he allowed, “But I don’t see much point. They won’t be dry for long.

    The sound of water being pumped drew their attention. They looked up to see Filia filling a glass with mucky water from the sink. She picked up the discarded tadpole from the floor and dropped it gently into the glass where it swam gratefully. She watched it swim for a moment and then passed it to the innkeeper.

    “Put it back in the swamp,” she commanded in a voice that brooked no argument.

    The man stared at her, mouth agape and finally took the glass and nodded. Zelgadis and Amelia were giving her similar looks. Filia was wearing an expression that could cut diamonds.

    “Filia—” Zelgadis began.

    “Change into dry clothes and get something to eat,” she said in a determined voice, as she marched toward the staircase. “Meet me back down here in an hour.”

    “But what are we going to—” Amelia began.

    “And heal up your wounds,” Filia interrupted in a surge of almost motherly power-tripping. “Or you’ll get an infection.”

    “Listen,” Zelgadis began, trying to regain authority in the group. “If we’re going to walk all the way back there, we’re not going to have time to—”

    “We’re not going to walk,” Filia said, turning away to climb the stairs. “We’re going to fly.”

  16. #16
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    Chapter 16. The Marsh King’s Daughter.

    Well, of course, flying seemed obvious on the face of it. That’s why Zelgadis had considered it before the trip. It would definitely have been quicker and less of a pain than walking, but the thing is: you can’t just Ray Wing your way everywhere. Those long distances take a lot of energy, and, after the reception they’d got in Sairaag, Zelgadis didn’t think it was such a good idea to meet a mysterious swamp dweller when they were low on power.

    They hadn’t even thought of asking Filia, but that was habit. They’d quickly learned when they’d initially traveled with her not to ask: “Hey Filia, can you fly us somewhere?” because her immediate response would always be: “I’m not a horse! It won’t kill you to walk.”

    Just walking was usually the smarter thing to do anyway. When you get around on the back of a dragon there’s always the problem of the bystanders. When people see a dragon swooping overhead they do not automatically say: “What a nice dragon that is, giving her friends a ride like that.” They tend to say: “OH MY GOD! WE’RE UNDER ATTACK! Honey— Honey!! Get my crossbow!”

    Zelgadis also assumed that the long flights were somewhat physically draining for her. But this time she’d actually volunteered. He supposed that she had decided that if she was going to be tired, she might as well be dry and tired.

    So they’d been able to enjoy a fishy dinner and dry off. There had been horrible screams from Amelia and Filia’s room which indicated that a few leeches had hitched a ride on them. But now everyone was dry, healed, parasite-free, and ready to head back out into the swamp; or at least the air above the swamp.

    Well, the air was a bit damp so high up and it was cold, but that was nothing to the icy waters below. They were making good time. It seemed like Filia had officially had enough of the swamp and was intent on dealing with what they had to deal with as quick as possible.

    The stripped white tree of the Marsh King’s daughter’s bog was visible from above as they descended to the smushy ground. Zelgadis jumped down into the mud, helping Amelia down after he’d landed. Filia transformed back to her human form clutching her side, obviously winded from the trip.

    “Are you alright, Miss Filia?” Amelia asked concernedly.

    Filia waved a hand dismissively, still trying to catch her breath. “I’m fine. The sooner we get done here, the sooner we can get out of this place.”

    “But where’s the Marsh King’s daughter?” Amelia asked, looking around.

    Zelgadis scanned the bog as well. It was dark and it was hard to make out shapes. He could see the white tree and a half dozen storks clustered around the edges in their nests, necks folded oddly in sleep.

    Lighting,” Amelia intoned helpfully, conjuring an orb of light into her hands. She held it in front of her and used it as a search light, moving it slowly across the scenery for any sign of…

    There was a sound like a kitten being swallowed by a frog.

    Amelia snapped her attention to the source of the sound, casting her light at the base of the tree where something sat limply on the hill among the reeds.

    It was child-sized and roughly the same proportions, but the word ‘human’ completely failed to appear in the mind when looking at it. It was grey. Its skin was decidedly amphibian and was bunched together in waterlogged wrinkles across the body. Its hands and feet were webbed. Its head was overly large compared to the rest of its body. Around its forehead was a silver circlet that only seemed more beautiful on such an ugly perch. Its eyes were large and deep – pools of the same dirty green it sat in. They were sad, solemn eyes, and gave the impression that the creature that possessed them had seen countless ages. They were eyes that could bore straight into your own and out the back of your head; and that was exactly what the creature was doing at the moment.

    “I’m only sorry to be a disappointment,” it said with an unpleasant gurgle right behind its words.

    “Are you,” Zelgadis began, because this wasn’t what he expected, “are you the Marsh King’s daughter?”

    “I am. And you are Zelgadis Greywords,” she said with a plip as she blinked through extra eyelids.

    “How do you know my name?” Zelgadis asked, caught off-guard. But then, despite her odd appearance, this was probably to be expected from the wise woman the villagers relied on as a judge in all their affairs.

    “There have been… rumors,” she said, hoisting herself into a slightly more alert position. “You’d be surprised what you can hear on the waters. I understand that you are on a mission to locate Viola of the north… the swamp witch.”

    “I don’t know about that,” Zelgadis said, shuffling uncertainly. The name was new to him. “We’re looking for a swamp oracle.”

    “Correct,” the Marsh King’s daughter gurgled, nodding. “I regret to say that I am not her. But don’t lose heart; she exists. She waits northward in the Flats of Vye.”

    Disappointment was quelled by that confirmation. He’d been beginning to worry that Sangoma had just been jerking him around with these leads. Monsters are not averse to getting their entertainment that way.

    “You’re sure?” he couldn’t help but asking.

    Her deep hazel eyes contained nothing but the truth. She nodded. “Absolutely sure.”

    “That’s great, Mister Zelgadis!” Amelia cheered from next to him, matching his own rising hopes.

    “Have you yet prepared a gift for her?” the Marsh King’s daughter asked, cutting through the celebration.

    Zelgadis ceased his breakneck planning. He’d been thinking of rashly making the journey to Vye immediately. He paused and let her words sink in.

    “Oh! The geis! How do we keep forgetting that?” Zelgadis kicked himself mentally. It was lucky that this wasn’t the oracle or else he’d be out of luck for breaking his geis. This was too seriously to let slide.

    “You’re under a geis?” the creature asked with a long, slow blink.

    “Yeah,” Zelgadis said, trying to think again of what you get for an oracle. “Didn’t you know?” She seemed to know everything else after all.

    The Marsh King’s daughter shook her head almost imperceptibly. “You must not think that my knowledge is based on some kind of occult sensibility due only to my appearance. That’s what the villagers think. No, the answer is much simpler than that. I sent the storks to do some checking on you after we met this afternoon.”

    Well, that made more sense. She’d have to be well-informed to judge the matters of various villages she’d never even been to. That explained just about— wait a minute…

    “This afternoon?” he repeated.

    “Yes,” she said. “I apologize for biting you, but I’m afraid I wasn’t myself.”

    Zelgadis stared. It seemed impossible that the beautiful wild girl and the almost eerily calm frog creature before him could be one in the same.

    “How...” he began, trailing off as he sought the best way to frame the question.

    “I’m afraid it’s rather complicated,” she said, closing her eyes mournfully as though eager to change the subject. “I knew nothing of your geis, but it is customary to bring the oracle some kind of gift. Am I to take this to mean that you haven’t acquired the gift yet?”

    “Well, no,” Zelgadis said, scratching his head and wondering for the millionth time during the trip whether Sangoma had designed his geasa to make things harder for him or to protect him. “I guess we just hoped that something would turn up along the way.”

    The Marsh King’s daughter turned her x-ray eyes away from him for a moment, swirling a webbed hand in the murky water of the bog. “You must understand that the swamp witch is… someone special. Some mere token like a sword won’t mean anything to her. What you get her must be rare and valuable.”

    Great, Zelgadis thought. Why does it seem like every time I’m getting close to an answer, more set-backs pop up?

    “Where am I going to get something like that?” he asked.

    She continued her inspection of the water, as though it contained untold fascinating things. “I think you and I can help each other,” she finally said.

    She turned her eyes back to him and the feeling that he was being slowly dissected returned. “I will give you this,” she said, gingerly taking the beautiful circlet from her forehead, “The diadem of the Marsh King’s daughter, a rare and valuable treasure to be sure, if you can rescue my mother.”

    The diadem certainly fit the bill for what he was looking for. There was barely a sliver of moonlight, but the circlet seemed to glow from somewhere within.

    “Rescue her from where?”

    “Ah,” she said, scanning Zelgadis and his companions. “I see you haven’t been told the story of my existence.”

    She crossed her grotesque legs. “Find a comparatively dry place to sit. I think it’s best that you here the whole story. I’m not as gifted a teller of tales as the storks, but I will do my best.”

    *****

    “My mother was a princess of one of the smaller kingdoms of this land,” the Marsh King’s daughter began. “She was an expert on healing and often searched for herbs in far off places to help cure the maladies of her people. One day fifteen years ago she took her handmaidens out here to investigate a swamp root that she believed could calm fevers. But on that day a horrible storm broke out while they were in the midst of exploring. She got lost from her attendants in the rain and found herself here.

    These waters may seem relatively shallow – waist height at the deepest, perhaps, but the truth proves otherwise. The many bogs that make up this area are all connected. Underground they form one giant swamp… the realm of the Marsh King.” Her wide eyes clouded briefly. “There are channels that lead straight into his domain, and my mother unwittingly found herself over one. She was pulled downward in the storm as the waters swallowed her up. She became the prisoner of the Marsh King, the guardian of the great underground swamp.

    That’s what the storks know, at least. They saw it happen.

    Some years later, a cradle of lily-pads floated to the surface carrying an infant. The storks found it and saw that the girl within resembled the princess who had been lost in the bogs years previous. Surely, they thought, she has smuggled her daughter away from the dark and cold realm even while she is unable to escape. So they vowed to care for it and to raise it in her place.

    The baby fussed all day and kicked in a terrible temper. The storks did their best to care for her, keeping her warm and safe in their nests, but the child refused to settle. They pitied her since she was separated from her mother.

    When night fell, the baby finally quieted, but when the storks examined her they found that she had lost the fair form of the princess in miniature, but instead took on the ghastly appearance you see before you today.”

    “I thought storks ate frogs,” Amelia said absently, then, aware that she’d spoken this out loud, gasped and clamped her hands over her mouth. “Sorry!”

    The Marsh King’s daughter nodded. “No need. I know what I look like. If I may continue…

    Day and night the child continued to change even as it grew. By day she was a beautiful, wild brute, barely capable of speech and with little interest beyond violence. By night she was an ugly throwaway of evolution, but peaceful and sagacious.

    It came to the storks that the girl had inherited a vile curse from her parentage. By day she had an appearance befitting her mother’s child, yet the personality of a low beast. By night she had the appearance of a hideous creature of the swamp kingdom, yet the serenity and insight that the princess was renowned for.

    She was her mother’s child, but her father’s as well. The Marsh King’s daughter.

    So I have stayed in this bog all my days, trapped between the world of beasts and the world of humans… governing the line between the kingdoms of land and of water. I could go nowhere else in either state. I gained the respect of the villagers by advising them and acting as a mediator in their disputes. The storks kept me informed on the happenings in the area and I was well equipped to handle this task.

    Now,” she said looking at the crescent moon’s reflection in the waters, “I only wish to liberate my mother from the underwater prison my father has locked her in. I am too weak to do so myself and cannot stand against him, but perhaps you, Zelgadis, can set her free.”

    Her orb-like eyes gazed into his in an expression to set pity into the hearts of even the cruelest of individuals. “Rescue her, Zelgadis, and you will have my diadem and leave to find your oracle and have all your questions answered.”

    Zelgadis faltered. “Do you really think I stand a chance against the swamp guardian?”

    The Marsh King’s daughter gave it some thought. “You are strong; I’ve heard that much. You defeated Lejaura, the mad lady of Sairaag.”

    “Lejaura?” Amelia repeated.

    “That is what she is often called,” the Marsh King’s daughter said solemnly. “For she was made of many.”

    “That was close though,” Zelgadis said cautiously. “If she’d used her full power we might have lost. And anyway,” he shuffled a little bit uncomfortably, “I had help.”

    “I do not ask you to fight the Marsh King,” the froglike girl said consolingly. “Only that you bring my mother back up to the surface where she belongs. I think that you can do this.”

    “How about it, Mister Zelgadis?” Amelia chirped, the familiar cheer of helping those in need shining through. “It sounds like a worthy cause to me and we’ll get a gift for the oracle out of it.”

    “Ye-es,” Zelgadis said slowly, thinking it over.

    “Alright!” Amelia cheered. “Then off we go!”

    “Hold it,” Zelgadis said, raining on her saving people parade. “We’re not going anywhere. You and Filia are going to wait here while I go underwater.”

    Amelia looked positively gobsmacked. “But why?”

    “Look,” Zelgadis said, “depending on how things go down there we might have to make a quick break for it. Filia’s exhausted and needs time to rest just in case she has to fly us away.”

    Filia nodded gratefully.

    “Well, I don’t see why I can’t go,” Amelia said, feeling persecuted all of the sudden.

    “It’ll be under water,” Zelgadis tried to explain. “Things will be dangerous enough with one person, let alone two.”

    Amelia gave him an insulted look as though she was seconds away from holding her breath childishly. “Oh come on! I could help! When have I ever gotten in your way?”

    Zelgadis could’ve pointed out the times in which she had, but fairly took her point that she was helpful more times than she was a nuisance. “Listen, it’s not that,” he said. “It’s just that… we don’t really know how powerful the Marsh King is. The last thing I want is for him to collect another princess.”

    Amelia’s indignation deflated as soon as she realized that Zelgadis’s intentions were to keep her out of harm’s way and not just out of his hair. “Well, I wouldn’t let myself get caught or anything,” she said in a much more subdued voice.

    “Either we can sit here and argue about this until the sun comes up and the King’s daughter starts biting people again,” Zelgadis began.

    “Oh, that’s tactful,” the daughter interrupted.

    “Or you can let me go rescue the princess and stay with Filia until I come back,” Zelgadis finished as if the interruption hadn’t occurred. “Because I’m the only one going.”

    Amelia knew she’d lost the fight. She would’ve been really irritated about it if he didn’t seem so keen to keep her safe. She didn’t think it was necessary, but it was clear that he wasn’t going to budge on this.

    “Alright,” she said with only a trace of sulkiness in her voice.

    Zelgadis nodded approvingly at her and turned back to the Marsh King’s daughter. “Well, where is one of those channels to the underwater swamp you mentioned?”

    The King’s daughter stepped away from the tree, croaking sounds issuing from her throat with every step. “Right behind the tree.”

    Zelgadis stepped over to the spot she’d indicated. Indeed the water there did seem… murkier, blacker that the other areas. He steeled himself for the task ahead and chanted a wind spell, surrounding himself in a bubble of air.

    Then, without a look back, he stepped into the whirlpool that led to the watery locker of the Marsh King.

  17. #17
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    Chapter 17. Acceptance.

    He couldn’t see anything. …Well, he could see a sort of green shade of darkness and there was definitely a lot of dirt in the water, but that was it. Considering he was wandering blindly deep underwater in what was basically a soap bubble, he was somewhat worried. A lighting spell would’ve really helped matters, but he was tied up on the wind barrier bubble.

    …Of course, if he’d brought Amelia along, like she’d asked him, she could’ve cast one. But he just couldn’t. There was no compelling reason why anyone other than him should be put in danger on this one. He was becoming too acutely aware of how she threw herself into other people’s problems without a single thought for her own benefit and well-being. It was starting to make him feel selfish. Generally, there’s nothing wrong with feeling a little selfish, but she was actually managing to make him feel bad about it.

    …But considering she was probably up on the surface worrying over him, it wasn’t a smart idea to get all distracted over her and end up piloting the fragile bubble he was in into sharp rocks. Drowning would seem somewhat ungrateful, though it might give him another chance at CPR…

    See, this is what I’m talking about, he thought sharply at himself. What you’re thinking about right now is very distracting.

    Right. Focus on rescuing the princess. No thinking of life-saving techniques that involve… lip contact…

    Anyway, the underground swamp was pretty massive. He wasn’t even sure how the princess was supposed to have survived down here all these years. She’d managed to give birth, though, so she must have found some way.

    And then, suddenly, Zelgadis saw lights ahead. The green glow in the distance didn’t really improve visibility as it only served to illuminate the detritus floating in the water, but it did give him something to aim at.

    As he drew closer he realized that the lights were coming from, not one, but two underwater castles. The castles seemed to waver and warp in the distorted underwater view of the world. It might have seemed like Zelgadis would’ve had some trouble deciding which castle to check first, but this was not the case. He knew immediately which one held the princess.

    It might have been instinct. It might have been premonition. Or it might have been the giant air bubble surrounding the castle on the left.

    *****

    A bog is not the best place to have to sit for extended periods of time, or even short periods of time. But Filia tried to make the best of the situation by striking up a conversation with Amelia, who kept giving the water preoccupied looks.

    “So that oracle’s at the Flats of Vye, then,” she said. “It only figures that that monster woman made us go through a bunch of unnecessary leads and saved the real one for last. I bet Xellos knew all along.” Her eyes narrowed. “That snake! Where could he be hiding?”

    Amelia was not going to have another conversation with Filia about Xellos. “I can’t believe you’re still talking about him when Mister Zelgadis is in danger!”

    Filia might have snapped back, but she recognized that Amelia was very worried. Amelia wasn’t the type of girl who liked to wait around in the dark. She liked to be involved. Otherwise she couldn’t do anything to help. “I’m sure he’ll be alright,” Filia said consolingly. “The Marsh King’s daughter thought so too.”

    Amelia sniffed. “I suppose you’re right,” she said, glancing just for a moment at the strange looking creature in the tiara, whispering something to a stork before letting it fly off.

    Filia hesitated for a moment, but then thought that this was as good a time as any, and asked: “Have you told him yet?”

    “What?” Amelia asked.

    “You know,” Filia pressed.

    Amelia blushed. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

    “Oh come on,” Filia said. “I saw you two making goo-goo eyes at each other earlier. And a swamp’s not even a very romantic place to begin with!”

    Amelia didn’t say anything; but she didn’t deny anything either.

    Filia took this as confirmation. “So have you told him how you feel?”

    Amelia looked like she was having an internal wrestling match. She hugged her knees up close to her and finally said, “No.”

    There was a beat of silence. Then Filia asked in her most understanding voice: “are you scared that he won’t feel the same—”

    “No,” Amelia said firmly. “I don’t know how he feels, but I wouldn’t let being scared stop me.”

    Well, that is the Seyruun way, Filia thought: bravery to the end. “So why don’t you just tell him then?”

    Amelia sighed. “I just don’t think it’s a good idea to tell him until he’s sorted out… you know… the chimera thing.”

    Filia was surprised. She’d never thought that Amelia had any hang-ups over Zelgadis’s… unique appearance. “Does that really matter?” she asked.

    “You don’t understand,” Amelia said. “It really doesn’t matter to me if he changes back or not. I mean, I want him to, but only because he wants to.” She looked up into the night sky. “You see, by the time we’d met, he was already like that. So, to me, it’s normal. That’s how Mister Zelgadis is supposed to look.” She sighed again. “But no matter what, I know I won’t be able to convince him of that.”

    “Well, if there’s no problem with that, then why wait?” Filia asked. Her romantic streak didn’t often get indulging, and she was feeling less tense without Xellos around.

    Amelia clenched her fists. “Do you really think I could compete?” she asked quietly.

    “With what?” Filia asked, surprised.

    “His goal,” Amelia said. “Right now he’s only focused on finding his cure. There won’t be room for anything else in his life until he can make peace with himself.”

    The cold wind blew through the marsh, bringing the dank aroma of algae with it.

    “That’s why, for now, I’ll just have to wait,” Amelia said, managing a small smile.

    Filia had never realized that Amelia had thought that much about it. It made sense though. She was an empathetic person. And goodness knows, she watched Zelgadis more closely than the rest of them. It must be tough waiting around for a man to just grow up and admit they love you back.

    She could never imagine doing that.

    “I have relevant information about the one you call Xellos,” the Marsh King’s daughter croaked suddenly, a stork perched on her shoulder.

    Filia’s head whipped around. “What kind of information?” she demanded. “What do you know?!”

    If the Marsh King’s daughter was troubled by Filia’s almost psychotic demand for information, she did not show it. “According to the storks, someone called Xellos was spotted recently in the Flats of Vye; though he is not there now.”

    *****

    Zelgadis had entered the larger bubble surrounding the castle and levitated into the first room he saw. A woman looked up at him from a desk with various dried herbs laid out on it. Well, she was the right age, and the Marsh King’s daughter had said something about herbs. Not only that, but she looked just like an older version of the ‘wild girl’ side of the Marsh King’s daughter that he’d seen in the swamp earlier. He couldn’t believe that he’d actually gotten lucky this time around.

    “Are you the Marsh King’s daughter’s… mother?” he finished lamely. He really should’ve asked for names.

    The woman stood up and looked at him curiously. “I am,” she said, putting her hands on her hips. “And who are you, young man, who waltzes so boldly into a lady’s room?”

    Zelgadis cursed the fact that he was one of nature’s blushers. “I’m here to rescue you,” he said.

    The princess clucked her tongue. “Is that so? A regular knight in shining armor, are you?”

    Zelgadis wasn’t interested in witty repartee. “We’ve got to get out of here now,” he said, unwilling to run into the mysterious Marsh King if he could avoid it.

    “Now, hold on one minute there,” the princess said, pulling back as he reached out to grab her arm. “I’m not going anywhere with some stranger.”

    Zelgadis rolled his eyes. “Fine. I’m Zelgadis. Can we go now?”

    She wagged a finger at him. “No. Now you’re just a stranger named Zelgadis.”

    Zelgadis groaned. “Look, your daughter is up on the surface waiting for me to bring you to her.”

    “Oh?” the princess said, her eyes suddenly lighting up. “Helga wants to see me?”

    “Umm… yeah,” Zelgadis said, feeling somewhat bad about not asking the Marsh King’s daughter what her real name was.

    The princess put an exquisitely manicured fingernail to her chin and looked thoughtful. “Well, I suppose a visit would be nice. Just let me get my overnight bag,” she said, making a move for the closet.

    “No!” Zelgadis said impatiently. It was clear to him that this woman had no idea how to be rescued. “We haven’t got time. This is important!”

    “Oh,” the princess said. “Well, you should’ve just said so.” She daintily offered him her arm.

    *****

    The bubble burst through the surface of the swamp at great speed with Zelgadis and the princess inside. Zelgadis might have gone more slowly, but he hadn’t been able to shake the feeling that, beyond the cloud of murk behind them, shadows lurked.

    “Mister Zelgadis!” Amelia shouted. “Are you alright?”

    “I’m fine,” Zelgadis said, a bit irritably, as the princess steadied herself on his arm and they waded forward.

    “Helga, darling, is that you?” the princess said as she strode forward. She got a closer look at her daughter in the moonlight and said, “Oh, poor dear. You’ve got your father’s complexion.”

    “Mother!” Helga said, standing up on her webbed feet. “I’m sorry it took me so long to free you from the—”

    A splash sounded from the very section of water that Zelgadis and the princess had just emerged from. A creature appeared in the shower of water, breathing heavily as thought it had been giving chase.

    A new phrase would need to be coined to succinctly describe the creature that appeared. It was a… amphibitile… man. Oh, he was mostly man-shaped; everything below his neck at least. His skin was the same grey, mucous-coated, froglike skin of his daughter (but, it had to be said: impressive pectorals). He wore only white linen fabric draped around his waist in what might have been called a skirt on someone with a less manly chest. His most arresting feature was the head which was, in fact, a crocodile head.

    He roared at them and lunged toward the liberated princess, only to be stopped by Amelia who was intent on finally doing her part. He bounced back from the shield and landed in the shallow water. Amelia was standing in front of the princess with her arms stretched wide and had that look that Zelgadis knew could only mean…

    “Villain!” she began. “How could you do something so vile as to keep this poor woman captive all these years? My righteous blood burns when I think of the mistreatments she has suffered at your hands!” Here comes the pointing. “I don’t care if you are a king! You won’t be forgiven for your crime!”

    “Oh no, dear,” the princess said, putting a hand on her shoulder. “I’m afraid there’s been a terrible misunderstanding.” She walked around the dumbfounded Amelia to the Marsh King. “Are you alright, Dylos?” She gave him a hand up.

    The Marsh King made some insensible noises that sounded like a combination of hisses and roars, and opened one webbed hand to the princess. He was holding a lily.

    “Aren’t you just the sweetest!” the princess squeaked in a way that no forty-something-year-old woman should squeak. She placed the flower in her hair and turned around to the others. “Isn’t he just the sweetest?”

    Zelgadis, Amelia, Filia, and Helga stared at her in utter shock. ‘The sweetest’ was not a term that they’d ascribe to anything with a crocodile head… up to and including a crocodile!

    “But mother!” Helga began. “He kidnapped you!”

    Her mother blinked. “Who told you that?” She narrowed her eyes at the edges of the swamp. “Was it those gossipy storks?” The storks took wing away from her at this cue.

    Helga looked utterly bewildered. “They said that he pulled you into his underwater realm and wouldn’t let you leave.”

    “Well, he did pull me in,” her mother allowed. “But I wasn’t a prisoner. He was saving me! My younger brother had sent assassins after me in order to have a shot at the throne.”

    “HAAEEERREAACK!” The Marsh King roared.

    “That’s right, dear,” the princess said, patting him on the arm. “You did hear them stamping around your swamps all day looking for me.”

    She turned back to the awestruck assemblage. “I figured it was best to lay low until the assassinations died down, and Dylos was nice enough to grant me a safe stay in his kingdom. He was so kind! He created an air bubble around me so I could breathe comfortably, and gave me anything I could ever want as I waited,” she glowed with remembrance. “I discovered so many interesting underwater plants that no other human has ever seen and was able to advance much of my research. Dylos was always such a help.”

    She turned specifically to Helga. “We never meant it to be permanent, but, well… your father was such a sweet man once I got to know him that the two of us eventually fell in love, and I decided to stay with him. Nobody kidnapped anyone.”

    Zelgadis, Filia, and Amelia looked frantically from the beautiful princess to the crocodile headed swamp guardian. The power of love is… immense.

    “SSSSEEECHEAAAKKK!” the Marsh King roared once more.

    “I’m glad to see her again too,” the princess said. She beamed at the others. “I taught him how to speak, you know. You wouldn’t believe how hard he was to understand when we first met.”

    Zelgadis was pretty sure he could believe it. It probably wasn’t the Marsh King’s fault, though. His mouth wasn’t the right shape for discourse.

    “If that’s true,” Helga said slowly. “Then why did you send me away?”

    “Oh sweetheart,” the princess said, her brows knitting in sympathy. “That wasn’t an easy decision. But your father and I talked it over and we thought that you’d be happier up on the surface. I mean, your father is practically part of the swamp and I have my underwater plants, but it’s no place for a little girl to grow up.” She looked around with her arms crossed. “I didn’t think you’d stick around in this dead-end place. There are villages all over! You could’ve been having fun all these years!”

    Helga was completely taken aback. “But mother, I can’t go to the villagers looking like this. And even in the days when I look human, my wild behavior would drive everyone away.”

    Her mother seemed unmoved by this argument. “Oh, looks don’t really count for much. And wild behavior can be tamed. I mean, look at your father. Before we met he was practically an animal, but now he’s the very picture of civility.”

    Dylos the Marsh King blew his wife a kiss, which is very difficult to do with crocodile lips.

    “You shouldn’t let the little things get in the way of living your life,” her mother said with a wide grin.

    Helga didn’t look like she could manage to think of those things as little. “But the villagers would never accept me,” she protested.

    “Why not?” Filia asked. “When we asked about you, everyone in town seemed really proud to have you around.”

    Helga looked lost for a moment, but then said: “They appreciate my mediations, but they wouldn’t accept me as one of their own.”

    “I wouldn’t be so sure,” her mother said. “And anyway, my darling, you’re going to have to learn that not everyone is going to accept you or the decisions you make. It doesn’t matter if you’re beautiful or …less than aesthetically pleasing. It doesn’t matter if you’re wild or wise. Some people just aren’t going to like you, honey. That doesn’t mean you should just withdraw from it all. There are new experiences out there to be had! There are interesting people to meet and things to learn! You can’t do that if you just sit here in the shallows.”

    Helga stared into the distance where, faraway, a village lay. She barely dared to let longing enter her eyes.

    “Now, dear, I’m not going to make you do anything,” her mother said kindly. “You can stay here if you want, with only those pesky cranes for company. Or you can come back home to your father and I, who love you very much. Or you can venture out into the unknown, and enjoy all that the surface world has to offer.”

    Uncertainty wavered in Helga’s eyes, but then a flame seemed to light up. “I’ll do it,” she said. She turned back to her mother and threw her amphibian arms around her. “I’m going to go out there, mother!”

    Helga’s mother hugged her back. “You do that, sweetheart. Good luck to you! And remember: if you ever want to come back to visit me and your dad, we’ll always be here.”

    “I will!” Helga said, her eyes shining with tears.

    Helga walked over to Zelgadis. She reverently took her circlet off and handed it to him. “This belongs to you now. Thank you… so very much.”

    Zelgadis turned away, embarrassed, and muttered, “You’re welcome.”

    And with that, Helga took off toward the misty villages of Putter Country with hope for the future and a spirit of discovery in her heart.

    “Is this really such a good idea?” Zelgadis asked as he watched her go. “Some people are… cruel.”

    “Yes,” Amelia said from beside him. “But some people are kind.”

    It was that kind of optimism that got people hurt, he knew, but Zelgadis couldn’t help but thinking as he watched Helga, the Marsh King’s daughter, leave, that she might have a chance after all. Her father seemed to have reformed his wild behavior, so maybe, given the opportunity, Helga’s wild girl side would too. And even though the Marsh King himself didn’t seem to have mastered much in the way of language, maybe the wild girl could pick a few more words up besides “out” in the village. As for her nightly appearance… well, her father had found someone who loved her anyway, so maybe there was hope for her yet.

    It almost made you think that… no.

    Zelgadis clenched the circlet in his hands and faced north. A cold wind was coming… and it was coming from Vye.

  18. #18
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    Chapter 18. Foggy Memory.

    On their journey to the Flats of Vye, Zelgadis, Amelia, and Filia met someone that they were unpleasantly sure that they’d be seeing again.

    “How’s the swamp witch doing, Xellos?” Zelgadis asked, taking some pleasure in his foreknowledge.

    Xellos looked somewhat perplexed. Perhaps he’d been expecting the usual, and less specific ‘where have you been, Xellos?’. “I’m afraid I have no idea,” he said reticently.

    “You liar!” Filia exploded, angered by his nonchalant pretense of innocence. “We know for a fact that you’ve been to the Flats of Vye already. So explain that!”

    Xellos gave her a blank look and asked, “And how would you know that?”

    “Let’s just say a little birdie told us,” Zelgadis said, remembering the Marsh King’s daughter’s stork brigade.

    Xellos digested this information for a moment before finally saying, “Well, your birdie is very well informed. Yes, I did just come back from the Flats of Vye. But only to gather information that we might need later, I assure you.”

    “Oh, I’m so sure,” Zelgadis said, not buying Xellos’s B.S. for a minute.

    “However,” Xellos said deliberately, cutting off Filia’s ‘told you he was a liar’ moment. “I haven’t actually been to the famed Swamp Witch’s dwelling, so I have nothing to say about her.”

    “Why’s that?” Amelia asked.

    “In the course of my information gathering,” Xellos explained. “I heard several mentions of the witch’s swamp being off-limits to non-humans.” He shrugged. “It could be a spell, or have something to do with a confluence of energy types, or it could just be a legend with no basis in fact. It didn’t seem especially beneficial to me to find out.”

    “Only humans can go there?” Zelgadis pondered, cupping his chin in thought. “I wonder why that would be.”

    “Who can say?” Xellos answered. “But it would explain why Sangoma hasn’t bothered to check on this place herself.”

    Zelgadis thought about this for a moment. It made sense… but it also made him wonder if… “So are you saying she’s just using me as a guinea pig since she can’t go herself?”

    Xellos gave this some careful thought. “It wouldn’t be unlike her,” he finally said. “But you’ll never know unless you try.”

    Zelgadis’s shoulders slumped. Great. They might be walking into a fairly obvious death trap then. Of course, he had no choice about going on. Even if he was the sort of person who’d give up on something like this, he wouldn’t have been able to. Ever since the near miss at the swamp of the Marsh King’s daughter, he’d been going over his geasa in his head. First and foremost, he was under an obligation to find the oracle. Giving up would mean certain death. Going on simply meant uncertain death.

    Oh well. Not like that’s anything new.

    *****

    They had crossed over into the Flats of Vye a few hours later. Any first-grader could probably guess based on the title that Vye was flat, but the main difference between it and Putter Country was that, in addition to extremely depressing marshland, there was also extremely depressing fog. A person could barely see a few feet in front of them it was so bad. Forget the swamps; you’d be drenched to the skin even if you were hovering in the air.

    Mosquitoes were a charm of the area that Zelgadis was glad he wasn’t experiencing. One had made a very brave attempt to extract blood from him and had flown off with a proboscis like an accordion and an empty stomach. The mosquitoes didn’t even bother trying with Xellos. Filia might have used this opportunity to make a comment about him being a ‘repulsive, bloodless demon’, but she had her own problems to deal with. There were swarms of the insects around and they were all trying to feed on her and Amelia. Maces may have their uses, but they are not the most efficient bug-smashers.

    “Can’t we do anything about this?” Filia asked, swatting at yet another blood-sucker. “A barrier of some kind?”

    “It’s kind of a waste for just bugs,” Amelia pointed out miserably. “Besides, they’re all over the place. There’s no way we could cast a barrier without trapping a bunch of them inside.”

    Filia groaned and took her glove off to scratch at her arm vigorously.

    “You’re just going to make it worse,” Xellos observed.

    Filia scowled, ready to unleash the entirety of her itchy rage on him. “What would you know about it you repulsive, bloodless demon?”

    Oh good. The opportunity hadn’t been wasted.

    Xellos made a face as though he didn’t see why she felt the need to bring blood into this. Despite this turn, he adopted an expression of mock concern and asked: “By the way Filia, are you feeling alright?”

    She stopped dead in her tracks and twisted her neck to look at him. “Why are you asking?”

    Xellos shrugged. “Oh, no reason,” he said casually. Then he stated the reason: “It’s just that there are a great many terrible diseases that you can get from mosquito bites. I was simply worried that you might have one.”

    “Substitute ‘worried’ with ‘hoping’,” Zelgadis commented dryly as he stepped on something that went squuuuiiiiiiiissssssshhhhhh.

    Xellos ignored this comment and instead went on: “So, Filia, are you experiencing any symptoms? Hmm?” He smiled. “Are you tired? Feeling nauseous?”

    “Only around you,” Filia answered back.

    Xellos should’ve really seen that coming, but went on unperturbed. “No headache? No sudden chills? You’re not feeling unusually hot are you?”

    Filia nearly exploded at him. “I do not have Malaria!”

    “None of us have Malaria,” Amelia said, holding up her hands and trying to bring calm back to the group.

    “Yellow Fever, then?” Xellos tried, moving towards her. “Let me see your eyes.”

    “You stay away from me!” Filia yell, holding her mace in front of her.

    Zelgadis tuned them out. To paraphrase an old saying: he had bigger culicidae to fry. The strange fact that the Xellos-Filia dynamic had taken on the new addition of mosquito-borne disease-based verbal sexual-harassment meant nothing to him. His destiny awaited him in Vye, he just knew it.

    “Shouldn’t we… do something about this?” Amelia asked him, watching with growing concern as Filia sprinted away from Xellos who was following her quite calmly.

    “Not a thing,” Zelgadis answered disinterestedly.
    Moments later there was a distant screech and they heard Xellos declare that: "You know, I think they might be a little jaundiced."

    "Get out of my face!" Filia shrieked.

    Amelia turned to Zelgadis and opened her mouth to say something.

    "Just ignore them," Zelgadis said grimly.

    *****

    The appropriately named Vapor Hotel was where they stopped. It wasn’t even midday, but considering the lack of area lodgings it seemed best not to miss out on the opportunity. The Vapor Hotel wouldn’t have even existed if it weren’t for the fact that some rich guys (probably of the Fletcher’s Green variety with a fetish for rusticism) liked to take fishing trips up in the area. It’s one thing to spend your day trudging through waist-deep water, it’s quite another not to have a comfortable bed to go back to.

    The Vapor Hotel held other charms though. According to the information Xellos had acquired and the rumors they’d heard from the residents, it was very near to the legendary Swamp Witch’s lair. It was the perfect place to stop at considering that their party needed some adjustment.

    Filia collapsed petulantly into a chair in the dining area. “I can’t believe you’re leaving me here with that,” she said, gesturing irritably.

    That sat down opposite her and made no comment.

    “Humans only, that’s what he said,” Zelgadis said. “I mean, if you don’t want to wait here, you don’t have to. If you’ll recall, it’s not as though I invited you on this trip in the first place. You insisted on coming along because no one else would keep an eye on,” Zelgadis paused and then decided to keep the gag running, “that.”

    That frowned. He wondered if he’d ever be known by his proper name again.

    “Yet, all you’ve done whenever you’re around him is complain,” Zelgadis said in frustration.

    “There’s not much point in it, is there?” Amelia asked. “I mean, how is Mister Xellos supposed to enact some sort of evil plan while he’s here and we’re off with the Swamp Witch?”

    Xellos smiled. At least Amelia could be counted on to use people’s proper names.

    Filia gave Xellos a disdainful glance. “I wouldn’t put anything past him.”

    “It doesn’t matter anyway,” Zelgadis said, eager to be done with this and get on his way. “Amelia and I are going to the Swamp Witch. Stay here, or go off on your own if you like.”

    Filia’s expression lost its sharpness. “No,” she said quietly. “I want to see how this turns out. I do hope you find your oracle.”

    “Well, alright then,” Zelgadis mumbled. He turned to Amelia. “Come on. Let’s go.”

    “Right!” Amelia said, full of determination as usual. “Bye Miss Filia! Bye Mister Xellos!” she said, as they swept out of the room and into the mist outside.

    As soon as they were gone, Filia’s glare returned. She gave Xellos a warning look. “Just because I’m stuck here with you doesn’t mean I have to talk to you.”

    Xellos held up his hands and shrugged. “That’s certainly true.”

    “I mean it,” Filia said through gritted teeth. “Don’t think you can start an argument with me, because it won’t work. I’m just going to order some tea and pass the time as best I can until they get back.”

    “You do that, Filia,” Xellos said quietly, fixing his gaze somewhere beyond her. “You do that.”

    *****

    The mist gave the whole landscape an eerie feeling – as though only what could be seen was real. Shrouded by the mist, the unreal lurked all around. Zelgadis shivered. By process of elimination, his moment of triumph should’ve been fast approaching. He didn’t feel triumphant. Maybe it was the grey of the land and sky that seemed to suck every last drop of hope from his bones. There was something stirring from within, but it wasn’t hope… not exactly. It was hope’s dark and socially maladjusted twin; it was foreboding.

    “We’re almost there, Mister Zelgadis,” Amelia declared, because she had hope enough for both of them. “Aren’t you excited?”

    “Don’t celebrate too early,” Zelgadis warned, feeling the chill in the air. “We’ve been disappointed before.”

    “But Miss Helga said—,” Amelia began.

    “I know,” Zelgadis said stopping in his tracks for reasons that weren’t entirely clear even to him. “I just—,” he couldn’t finish the sentence. He couldn’t put a definite name to his worries.

    Amelia surveyed him with a look of concern. Then understanding suffused her face like the rays of dawn. She patted him gently on the shoulder. “It’s okay,” she said. “I know you’ve been waiting for this for a long time, so it’s hard to believe that we’re this close.”

    “I guess…” Zelgadis shrugged off her hand, though not unkindly as he tried to distance himself from his moment of anxiety. This wasn’t a time for looking back. It was a time for focus. He reached deep within himself and found that single-mindedness that had gotten him to this point. He turned to Amelia, all determined strength once again. “Have we got everything we need?” he asked.

    “I think so,” Amelia said, looking pleased that he was back to normal.

    “Every geis in its place?” Zelgadis asked.

    “Should be,” Amelia said.

    “Well, let’s go through them to be sure,” Zelgadis said. He concentrated his memory on that house in the rock. “First, I have to find the oracle.”

    “We’re on our way to do that,” Amelia responded.

    “Second, I must not go to the oracle alone,” Zelgadis said.

    “Check!” Amelia said, pumping her fist.

    “Third, I must bring the oracle a gift,” Zelgadis said. He took the circlet of the Marsh King’s daughter out of his cloak. “Check,” he said, watching it glow even in the sunless sky.

    “And fourth and finally,” Zelgadis said, winding down his list. “I must do everything that the oracle tells me to do.”

    “Well, that’s up to you,” Amelia said.

    “On pain of death,” Zelgadis said bitterly.

    “It’s good that you remembered it then!” Amelia said with nervous cheerfulness.

    “Yeah,” Zelgadis said drearily.

    Somewhere in the unreality of the fog there was a swamp. In that swamp was a witch who was said to… know things. An oracle of great renown that dwelt on the borderline between land and water…

    *****

    “What do you mean you don’t have tea?” Filia asked the waitress incredulously. “What kind of café doesn’t have tea?”

    “We’re more of a diner, actually,” the waitress pointed out in a vague, high pitched voice.

    “I don’t see what difference that makes,” Filia said. She was feeling cranky and all she wanted was a cup of tea. Is that so much to ask?

    “We have iced tea,” the waitress offered as if that helped.

    Filia stared into the waitress’s dopey, painted face for a full minute before saying. “You have iced tea… but you don’t have regular tea?”

    “Yeah-huh!” the waitress affirmed oddly.

    Filia was trying not to let an edge enter her voice, but was being sorely tested. “Couldn’t you just… not ice it?”

    The waitress gave her a bewildered look. “Wha?”

    “You know,” Filia said with brittle politeness. “Just leave it as regular tea.”

    The waitress appeared to be trying this on for mental size. “You mean, like, some sort of non-iced iced tea?” she asked.

    “Yes,” Filia said, nodding hopefully.

    The waitress flipped through the folded booklet in her hand and said, “That’s not on the menu.”

    Filia slumped face down onto the table. She picked herself up slowly and it took all her strength to continue the difficult conversation. But it was all in the name of a sustaining, hot beverage. “Haven’t you ever heard of the phrase ‘the customer is always right’?” she asked.

    The waitress put a finger to her chin and screwed her eyes up into her head. “Hmmm,” she said loudly. “I actually don’t think that’s true.”

    Filia groaned and slammed her head against the tabletop again. Picking herself up didn’t seem to be worth the effort this time so long as the world consisted of idiot waitresses and a complete lack of tea.

    “We’ll have two iced teas, please,” Xellos said genially.

    “‘Kay!” the girl said, writing this down on her notepad. “They’ll be out in a minute!” and with that she scampered off to the kitchen.

    Filia used her elbow to lever herself into an upright position. The future apparently contained no hot tea, but on the plus side, that dratted girl was gone. Filia was tired and she did have a horrible headache, but she was pretty sure that it was the stress and not Malaria that was doing this to her. 97% sure at least.

    The girl walked back into the dining hall carrying two glasses on a brown tray. She set them down in front of Filia and Xellos along with two straws in paper casings. She hugged the tray close to herself and then retreated once more to the kitchen.

    Filia gave her drink a dull look before unwrapping her straw and stabbing it into the icy liquid. It wasn’t what she wanted. It was cold and someone had submerged half a lemon in it. But it was drinkable and damn it, she was going to drink it.

    “It’s not half bad,” Xellos commented from his own side of the table.

    Filia looked up to scowl at him and perhaps form some sort of appropriately argumentative statement in response to this, but stopped before she could find the words. She stared at him. Something about this moment… well, it sparked something in her brain. Suddenly a dim and smudgy memory was brought into clearer focus – a memory of another time she and Xellos had been drinking together; of the party in Fletcher’s Green before the serial killer had ruined the evening.

    “Xellos?” she said uncertainly.

    “What?” Xellos said, stirring the lemon-wedge in his own drink idly. “It’s not really that bad, is it?”

    “It’s not that,” Filia said quietly.

    Xellos noted her tone and ceased stirring his drink. The tinkling of ice against glass quieted as the contents settled. “What is it?” he asked.

    “If,” Filia began, brow furrowed as she tried to recall with greater clarity. “If you don’t have the market cornered on evil plans…” she paused. “Then who else has an evil plan right now?”

    Xellos smiled vaguely and shook his head, making eye contact only with the peeling tabletop. “You know,” he said. “I really didn’t think you’d remember that.”

  19. #19
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    Chapter 19. Priorities.

    All it took was one step into the Swamp Witch’s domain to tell Zelgadis and Amelia that they’d found the place. The air was dense with energy, crackling and billowing like a live thing all around them. In a place like this, a person could almost believe they’d choke to death if they breathed in too deep.

    The atmosphere wasn’t the only thing that gave the Witch’s swamp away. The water was black and hungry looking, and the vegetation that grew in it was strangely colorless. There were none of the familiar swamp sounds of frogs, birds, and insects. The scene was one of quiet – of suffocation.

    The swamp itself was large, and looked like it ran considerably deeper than its surrounding cousins. In the center of the menacingly sloshing waters was a small island. On that island was a small ivory platform. There were carvings in it, but Zelgadis couldn’t make them out from where he stood.

    Zelgadis looked from the platform to the circlet of the Marsh King’s daughter in his hand. “It seems like that’s where we’re supposed to put the offering,” he said.

    “Yeah,” Amelia said, and Zelgadis noticed that even her usual optimism was being crowded out by the forbidding character of the landscape.

    Levitation!” they both said at once. Approximately nothing happened.

    “Why won’t it work?” Amelia asked, peering at the ground as though wondering why it was still so close.

    “I don’t know,” Zelgadis said warily. “But it probably has something to do with this strange energy. Maybe it’s somehow related to why non-humans can’t come here. This place is… doing something to the magic.”

    Amelia nodded. “It’s like the aura is smothering it,” she said pensively, reaching out a hand as though she could mold the heavy air.

    Zelgadis glanced apprehensively at the waters of the swamp. For some dark reason he’d expected this all along. “I suppose we’ll have to swim,” he said.

    Amelia turned an uneasy eye to the churning black waters. “You don’t think there’s anything… in there, do you?”

    Zelgadis stepped over to the water’s edge and took one step in. The water was bone-chillingly cold as expected. He took in the pale plants on the banks and was pleased to see the shoot-like plant he was looking for.

    “If there is, I’ll see it before you,” Zelgadis said. “I have a tendency to… sink to the bottom.”

    “Oh!” Amelia gasped, putting a hand to her cheek. “I didn’t even think of that! How are you going to breath?”

    Zelgadis wrenched the bamboo-like plant from the muddy soil. It released it with a reluctant sucking noise. “With this,” he said.

    Amelia looked doubtfully at the homegrown breathing apparatus. “Are you sure?” she asked.

    “I didn’t come all this way just to turn around,” he said indomitably.

    *****

    “What kind of danger has that demon woman put Mister Zelgadis and Miss Amelia in?” Filia demanded, her iced tea completely forgotten.

    “Oh, who can say?” Xellos said casually, playing with the discarded wrapper from his straw. “The reason I led them to Miss Sangoma when they came to me was that I had no particular use for them at the time. I assumed she’d find one.”

    She shot a prickly look in his direction. “And you have no idea what kind of purpose she had in mind for them?” she asked.

    Xellos shrugged. “She didn’t see the need to tell me.”

    Filia stared into her iced-tea, trying to come to grips with what she knew and what she suspected. If something was going on then… well, she probably should’ve been suspicious of Sangoma’s intentions all along, but… she just hadn’t paid as much attention to her as she should’ve. Sure, she’d been on edge because of the basic fact that Sangoma was a monster, but she hadn’t sensed an overtly negative aura from her. She’d dared to think that they could take the information and not worry about the motive of the informer because Sangoma was… well… she was different from say, Xellos. When she smiled she’d actually been capable of projecting warmth unlike the cold rictus Xellos probably thought of as charming. She seemed to have had at least some genuine concern for Zelgadis’s predicament.

    “So you don’t know for sure that there’s really a plot going on?” Filia asked. “The information could be completely legitimate, right?”

    “Oh, I’m sure it’s legitimate,” Xellos said. “Or at least mostly legitimate. But you can be absolutely assured that there’s a plot going on.”

    “What’s the matter?” Xellos asked, flashing her a sharp and horrible smile. “Did you think she was a soft-touch just because she had a nice home and a husband?”

    Filia cursed her lack of vigilance. Of course monsters can fake sincerity. When they seem sincere, that’s the time you should be watching for the talons.

    She stood up. “I’ve got to warn them,” she said.

    “I’m afraid you can’t do that, Filia,” Xellos said calmly without so much as moving a muscle.

    Filia took a deep breath. “I’m going and there’s nothing you can do to stop me,” she said, but she was unable to keep the tremor out of her voice. She knew full well that if Xellos tried to stop her then she wasn’t going anywhere.

    “Oh, Filia,” he said, amused in the face of her show of standing up for herself. “I don’t have to do anything to stop you.” He raised one eyebrow. “Humans only, remember? They’re out of your reach.”

    *****

    Zelgadis gasped and coughed as his head broke the water’s surface in the shallower regions close to the island. That underwater stroll would live in his nightmares forever. Plus he’d definitely swallowed more of that black water than he’d have liked to.

    “Are you alright, Mister Zelgadis?” Amelia asked, treading water slightly ahead of him.

    “Yeah,” Zelgadis choked out.

    “Did you see anything down there?” Amelia asked with wide eyes.

    “No,” Zelgadis said, getting his normal breathing pattern back. “It’s pitch black down there. I couldn’t see a thing. I just kept walking and concentrated on breathing.” He levered his breathing tube to the side as he walked forward onto the meager land of the island.

    He looked at the ivory platform. If there had been any sun in the sky, a single beam would’ve illuminated it. It was that kind of dramatic looking pedestal. Carved in the sides of it were elaborate, but abstract designs. It seemed to be waiting for him. He took out the circlet from his cloak.

    “This is it, Mister Zelgadis!” Amelia said excitedly, wringing some water out of her cape.

    “Yeah,” Zelgadis said. He handled the silver tiara nervously. Here they were. No time for second thoughts. “Here goes nothing,” he said, and placed the crown reverently on the ivory slab.

    If he’d been expecting a chorus of angels or a dramatic sting he would’ve been disappointed. Even a splash and a cackle from the elusive witch would’ve been welcomed. Instead there was… nothing. Their gift was completely ignored.

    “Well, that’s anticlimactic,” Zelgadis said dimly.

    “Hello?” Amelia called into the swamp. “Is anyone there? We brought you a present!”

    It was at that moment that Zelgadis felt pressure against his ankle. He looked down as Amelia did the same. Two long white arms drifted up from the murk of the swamp, attached to the hands wrapped around each of their ankles. Amelia screamed and, with the strength of titans that those deadened, delicate fingers could not possibly possess, they were pulled under the ravenous current.

    *****

    At that exact moment miles and miles away, in a much drier part of the world and deep underground, Sangoma looked up from her reading. She’d been sure that she’d heard a plop.

    She closed her book slowly and strode over to a table she’d set up. On the table was a shallow ceramic pot of water. At the bottom of the pot was a circular stone with a silver hair tied through it.

    She took a measured breath, but said nothing. She reached in and rescued the stone from the depths. She looked at it for a moment and then placed it on the table next to the pot.

    She turned around very slowly and heard a splash. She turned back. The stone was back at the bottom of the pot.

    “It’s about time too,” she said. “I thought they’d never get there.”

    She pulled a chair over to the table and sat with her hands cradling her chin. She looked at the stone under the water as though it presented a rather difficult conundrum.

    I’m curious, she thought. I’d really like to see how this turns out, but… But Rhevas was gone. He was off leading humans to kill other humans or whatever malarkey he got up to when he left. Ditching the vaults was out of the question. There had to be someone there to keep watch. She couldn’t leave just because she wanted to see the show.

    So that was it then. She’d just have to stay.

    She took up the book she’d been leafing through and turned her attention back to the page she’d been on. She’d read the same sentence five times before she came to a conclusion.

    Screw this, she thought, throwing the book to the side.

    She looked around the room wildly, but didn’t appear to be seeing it. She ran her fingers through her short hair in thought. Suddenly she snapped her fingers.

    Well, hell, she had at least some rank, right? There were privileges she could take advantage of.

    She ease off the power break and thought a few words in an ancient, foreign language. In the corner of the room a dark void began to open. She continued her mental chanting until it opened to its full. Out of the void came a small creature of the bald and reptilian persuasion.

    Success!

    There was a hierarchy for a reason, and though Sangoma wasn’t far up it at all, she did get certain perks. Passing off menial tasks on those of a lower class than you is one of those perks. She’d never used it before, but there was a first time for everything.

    The imp peered around into his new environment. “Why have I been summoned?”

    “Got a job for you, Jack,” Sangoma offered.

    The imp gave her a befuddled look. “Who are you?”

    Sangoma’s chest swelled with pride. “I am Sangoma of the Desert of Fears. Where once was a vast sea, now only salt and sand remains. I am a servant; the last vestige of that realm; charged with protecting and gathering knowledge as a stranger in a strange land.” It was a good introduction and she didn’t often get to use it.

    The imp squinted at her curiously. Then, suddenly, recollection seemed to dawn on him. “Oooh,” he said. “You’re that Rhevas’s girl, right?”

    Sangoma visibly deflated. Unbelievable! There really was no respect these days. None at all.

    “Yeah, that’s right,” she said brusquely. “And what’s your name, Jack?”

    “I am called Zaxev,” the imp replied.

    Sangoma nodded seriously. “A good name,” she said. “A monster could go far with a name like that.”

    It is a commonly recognized fact that the darker creatures of the world favor names featuring the stragglers of the alphabet. We should question the company that v, x, and z keep. Sangoma always despaired that her name didn’t sound villainous enough. Rhevas once tried to comfort her by saying that he’d always thought her name sounded like the name of some kind of evil insect-queen. She had been less than thrilled by this comparison.

    “Thank you,” Zaxev said, and, because he felt at this point that something more was expected of him added, “My Lady.”

    “I’m nobody’s lady,” Sangoma with a great deal of dramatic flair. It was less out of accuracy and more out of the fact that she’d always wanted to say that but no one had ever given her the opportunity.

    “Oh. Okay then.” Zaxev said and seemed unsure of what to do next.

    “Listen, Zaxev,” Sangoma said, getting back to her purpose. “I’ve gotta go out for awhile and I need you to watch the place while I’m gone. Nobody’s gonna come and the door’s locked anyway, but someone’s got to be here for the look of the thing. You’ll do fine.”

    “Uh… alright,” said the newbie demon, looking around apprehensively.

    Sangoma turned her thoughts toward a destination. She shivered. She really hated this mode of transport, but it was quick and that’s what mattered. Now… it wouldn’t do to pop up just there. No use in getting involved in it. All she wanted was to watch.

    Ah. That’s it. He’d probably have found a safe place to watch the proceedings. Just gotta find him.

    She concentrated on her destination and began to fade out. Before she’d completely disappeared she couldn’t resist calling out to the imp: “Don’t worry, Zaxev. If you accidentally break something, I can probably persuade Rhevas not to twist both your arms off.” And then she disappeared.

    *****

    All was cold and dark chaos. Zelgadis’s ears ached and clang with the howl of the water. He could already feel the hasty breath of air he’d taken before their surprise trip underwater going stale in his mouth. He opened his eyes against the numbing chill of the water expecting to see only the blackness of the semi-abyssal plain, but there was a light – a horrible light.

    The light came from the creature that had pulled him and Amelia under the water. Its almost translucent skin glowed eerily in the darkness of the water, reflecting off the albino plant life. It was a woman. She seemed to be clothed in the organic filth of the swamp itself. It was impossible to tell her hair color under the muck. She looked no better than a drowned corpse, but her eyes were bright and intelligent. They sparkled green in her own pale aura, with muddy tracks splattered across them. Her expression was unreadable.

    Swamp Witch – Oracle, Zelgadis thought. But the thought did not give him any joy.

    What are the most important things, Zelgadis Greywords? a soundless voice asked, painfully scything its way directly into his brain without giving his ears a second thought.

    Amelia was struggling against the hand around her ankle slightly above him. With a shock of terror Zelgadis realized that she hadn’t had a chance to take a breath before they were pulled under. Water was flooding her lungs as she kicked futilely against the swamp witch’s grip.

    How much are you willing to sacrifice at the pedestal of your most important thing? The Oracle asked in almost disinterested telepathy. Baubles are such worthless gifts in the long run. In this life you must be willing to bet all or walk away with nothing. There are… choices to make. There must be priorities.

    As he watched Amelia stop fighting and float limply in the water he felt a jolt of pain surge from his heart down to his stomach. It was the same way he’d felt when Hellmaster had crushed the golden marble that held her life-force. He never wanted to feel that way again. And this time it was all him. He’d led her into this deathtrap and if anything happened to her then he was responsible alone.

    All that’s left is to make a decision, the witch thought at him. It doesn’t even have to be the right one.

    He fought and kicked against the presence holding him back with all his will. The hand held fast. His vision was clouding with black, short-circuiting patches. But then the grip… weakened. He swam his way toward Amelia desperately, knowing that even if he reached her, he’d never in a million years have the strength to get them to the surface before he blacked out.

    He reached out as far as he could. His fingers just barely brushed her motionless hand as gravity pulled him back. His brain was already fizzling and cracking in oxygen-deprived agony. He knew it was too late.

    But the waters were changing…

    The Swamp Witch hitched up her muddy dress and turned. As she turned the entire swamp seemed to turn around her in a fetid whirlpool. The waters surged and then appeared to join her. It was as though she was wearing the entire swamp in her gown.

    The waters were pulled into their host, leaving the banks dry. Zelgadis and Amelia lay on the muddy floor of the swamp. Amelia still wasn’t moving. Zelgadis gasped and coughed and crawled through the mud to her side, for all the good he could do her. Fight-or-flight instincts only told him that time was of the essence.

    “And while you’re at it,” the Oracle said, finally letting mere sound carry her words. “Tell me what you would do if you did get your body back.”

  20. #20
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    Chapter 20. Excuses.

    Zelgadis had forced his way through his own oxygen-starved pain and disorientation to the side of the unconscious Amelia. The Swamp Witch watched him impassively. She’d nearly succeeding in drowning them only a few moments ago, but Zelgadis wasn’t thinking about her. His blood chilled as all thoughts faded away save one: She wasn’t breathing. Amelia wasn’t breathing.

    Suddenly artificial respiration didn’t seem like a cheap and hilarious way to get to first-base. Suddenly it seemed like a vital life-saving technique that he wished he knew.

    Desperately, his hand reached for her lips. It was something like… he swept the water choking her mouth away with his forefinger. She coughed. She breathed.

    “So,” the Oracle began. “You really wouldn’t sacrifice her to get your body back?”

    Zelgadis twisted his head to look at her sharply, all relief over Amelia’s survival wiped out in one black moment of anger. “Of course I wouldn’t! What kind of person do you think I am?”

    The Oracle blinked blankly. Mud hung from her lashes like dirty, poorly applied mascara. “So she is more important to you than your cure? But you haven’t been treating her that way, have you? I have been inside your mind, Zelgadis Greywords, and I know this for a fact.” Her green and brown eyes flashed.

    Zelgadis could do nothing more than stare at her and grit his teeth. What kind of creature was the oracle? Only humans allowed… but she couldn’t be human, could she?

    “Then again, I don’t think you’ve been paying much attention to priority assessment these days,” she said, striding toward him to the jangle of steel as she left a watery trail in her wake. She reached down with her long, white arm and turned his face toward her. “Single-mindedness can be a gift, Zelgadis. But it also can be a blinder that stops the mind from seeing things logically.”

    Zelgadis wrenched his face out of her grip. “What do you mean?” he asked in a low, threatening voice.

    “I’m going to ask you one more time, and this time you’re going to answer or may your geis strike you down,” the Oracle said. “What would you do if you got your body back?”

    Well he’d… he’d… he hadn’t really listened to that question the first time around. It seemed strangely unfair and out of nowhere. Of course, his form was the thing that was stopping him from enjoying his life, but… just at the moment it was a little hard to think of the things he’d want to enjoy if the matter was fixed. But he really couldn’t be blamed, could he? It was so much trouble just trying to get his form back, he didn’t have time to plan beyond that! Once he had a little time he was sure he’d think of a lot of things he could do… right?

    “Well?” the Oracle asked, tapping her fingers against her arm impatiently.

    “I don’t know,” Zelgadis admitted sullenly.

    “Really?” the Oracle asked. “Before we get down to business, let me tell you what an outside observer who has entered your mind thinks. I tell you now that if you did get your form back, nothing would change at all. You’d discover some new impossible thing that you wanted – anything, it doesn’t really matter what – and you would search for it until you found it or died trying. Because, Zelgadis, it’s not about the cure or even the quest; it’s about an excuse. You’re running away.”

    He certainly didn’t have to take a psychology lesson from a psychotic swamp hermit who had nearly just drowned him and Amelia. She didn’t know what it was like to be treated like a freak! …Okay, bad example. But there was nothing wrong with him wanting to look the way he used to. It wasn’t so much to ask to feel human again!

    But… he couldn’t help but remembering…

    Zangulus and Martina had moved on from their past ways, given up a nomadic life to raise a family together. They had to worry about things like paying the bills and making sure there was enough to eat to go around. They didn’t even have enough chairs to properly entertain guests. But they worked for what they had every day and didn’t think they’d given anything up.

    Sylphiel had taken the responsibilities of a high priestess on without enjoying any of the benefits of title. She’d just been a flighty girl when they’d first met, but now she was leading an entire temple and guiding the people of Sairaag as they rebuilt their way of life. She saw the need and she pledged herself to help.

    Even Gourry and Lina were off meeting Lina’s parents. It seemed even the couple most content to roam around the world in blissful disregard for responsibilities thought that they might have a future worth cultivating.

    Lilliana, well, she gotten her revenge but hadn’t cared much about it. It had simply been a task that needed carrying out. Her real goal was to rejoin her family and live a normal life, despite the fact that she was very dead. She didn’t entertain hopeless fantasies of revival.

    He’d never be able to forget Helga, the Marsh King’s daughter… dumb and untamable during her beautiful days, and wise and calm during her ugly nights. He knew that she was worse off than him by a long shot. Yet, she’d had the courage to go to the village and carve out a new life for herself.

    They’d… gotten on with things. No one he met for a second time was the same as when he’d first met them. They’d… grown up.

    Had he?

    No. He hadn’t changed at all.

    Did he refuse to even entertain the notion of abandoning his quest because he… because he just didn’t know what to do next? Because admitting that he couldn’t solve this would mean admitting that he had to face life’s problems unequally? It meant that he couldn’t always win. It meant that he had to sometimes just move past things. It meant that he had to hold others above himself and his own needs.

    He felt a gentle tug on his cloak. “Mister Zelgadis?” a slightly choked voice asked. “Are you alright?”

    He turned around. Amelia was awake and looking at him with wide, worried eyes. “You’re the one who was unconscious,” he said softly.

    How could he not have noticed it before? He knew it, but he just didn’t accept that everyone… everyone wanted things. But there’s a difference between what you want and what you need. Recognizing this is to take the road to maturity. How could he have let himself get so caught up that he missed it?

    He reached down and slipped his hand into her limp one. If his body hadn’t been nearly ready to collapse he would’ve felt anxiety about the action. There’s something about nearly dying that gives the mind a bit of perspective.

    “I’m fine,” he said. “Everything’s going to be just fine.”

    Because he was going to make things right. He was going to catch up. There was a lot to do to yet, but he still contented himself that he was more mature than Xellos and Filia.

    *****

    Filia felt helpless. She wanted to warn Zelgadis and Amelia about Sangoma’s intentions, but they were completely inaccessible to her. Even if she could get to them, she had no idea what Sangoma was up to. She bit her lip, a feeling of guilt overcoming her. She’d known something was wrong from the start and it had been her job to keep her friends from danger. If they died it would be her fault for not keeping a closer watch like she’d vowed to.

    “Will they be killed?” she asked numbly, staring at the table-top.

    “Hmm?” Xellos asked from across the table.

    She glared fiercely up at him. *******. There was nothing wrong with his hearing. He just wanted to make her repeat it. “You heard me!”

    Xellos waved a dismissive hand at her as though she was making a big scene over nothing. “Don’t you think you’re overreacting a little? Mister Zelgadis and Miss Amelia have been in danger on many occasions and have managed to survive without the benefit of your assistance.”

    Oh no! That wasn’t going to work! There was some sick scheme at work here and she wasn’t about to let him downplay it.

    “You might try your tea again,” Xellos said, deliberately changing the subject. “You’ve left it so long that all the ice has melted.”

    “Are they going to be killed?” she repeated again firmly, glaring at him willfully and not even taking the time to acknowledge his change of subject.

    Xellos slowly and carefully placed his empty glass on the edge of the table where their scatterbrained waitress could pick it up later. He looked almost put-out.

    “I’m afraid this isn’t how I imagined things,” he muttered.

    “This isn’t how you what?!” Filia asked in pure befuddlement.

    “Oh, nothing,” Xellos said lightly, returning to his normal plastered-on smile. “Anyway, to answer your question: They’re likely in mortal danger even as we speak, but they probably have a decent chance of survival.”

    “How so?” Filia asked warily, still wondering just what exactly Xellos ‘imagined’.

    “Sangoma is…,” Xellos struggled to find the right way of describing it and came up with: “a game player.”

    “Just like all you monsters,” Filia said scathingly. There seemed to be no end to their joy in messing up people’s lives and toying with their emotions.

    “Maybe,” Xellos fairly allowed. “But Sangoma likes fair games. She believes in giving chances.”

    He shrugged. “She works with humans on a regular basis and some monsters think she’s gone native. Her little ‘alliance’ with Rhevas doesn’t do much to dissuade them from this. She is a monster, though, and she likes to play games with the fates of men.”

    Can’t monsters just play Chutes and Ladders or something less demonstrably vile?

    “I’ll tell you one thing though,” Xellos said, leaning in and opening one eye to her. “She can’t stand winning.”

    “Why?” Filia asked, leaning in as well, interested despite herself.

    “Sometimes,” he said, not breaking eye-contact with her for a moment. “It’s better to forsake one victory to prevent a hundred defeats.”

    Filia was 97% sure that this was gibberish, but it was good sounding gibberish. For some reason she couldn’t manage to look away or sit back in her chair. It was as though she’d been caught in something new and strange and she was paralyzed – unable to stop it. She wasn’t sure why they were engaged in a staring contest, but it was getting downright awkward and she didn’t know what would’ve happened if it hadn’t been for—

    A figured stepped out of a smoky grey crack in the air in front of them and shuddered. “That’s no way to travel,” she said.

    Xellos and Filia abruptly turned in her direction, breaking the connection between them and leaving doubt in the air as to whether it had ever even happened at all.

    “Couldn’t resist checking on things, could you?” Xellos asked. “I assume you’ve left your husband in charge of the vaults?”

    “Yeah, yeah. I’ve got it sorted out,” Sangoma said. She peered around her surroundings eagerly. “I thought you’d be watching to see what happens.” Her eyes fell on Filia. “What’s she doing here?” she asked curiously. “I thought she’d be with the others.”

    “But there are no non-humans allowed at the swamp,” Filia blurted out.

    Sangoma looked perplexed. “That’s not right. Who told you that?”

    Filia looked dumbfounded at the woman for a moment. Then her neck swung as if by hydraulics sharply in Xellos’s direction. She stood up abruptly and yelled, “Xellos!”

    Sangoma turned her perplexed expression from Filia’s shaky rage back to Xellos. “Why would you tell her that?”

    “I merely thought she might get in the way,” Xellos said smoothly.

    “Well, I don’t really see how,” Sangoma said slowly, her brows knitting in confusion. Suddenly her brow smoothed. She gave Xellos a searching look, and then glanced at Filia, then suspiciously at Xellos, then back at Filia. This time she treated Filia to an entire head-to-toe x-ray stare.

    She turned back to Xellos. “She’s out of your league,” she said bluntly.

    Filia nearly fell over this remark caught her so thoroughly off-guard. Xellos apparently wasn’t pleased with it either as his response was: “I have no idea what you’re talking about, and neither do you.”

    “Oh, don’t I?” Sangoma asked with raised eyebrows.

    Enough,” Filia said angrily, because she’d caught this implication and wasn’t about to let it go unchecked. “I am so sick of everyone laughing at me! It’s not funny! I don’t see how anyone can be so tasteless as to even joke about me and that— that—” She threw an upset look at Xellos and couldn’t even finish the awful sentence.

    “Eh, it’s probably for the best,” Sangoma said, shrugging off Filia’s intense embarrassment and distress. “As you can probably guess, monsters aren’t very good at courting,” she confided. “Trust me. I know.”

    “But hey,” she said chipper as can be, turning back to Xellos. “Just some advice in case you happen to change your mind: girls don’t like dead bodies. They just don’t!”

    “I’ll log that away,” Xellos said with as much contempt as he could muster (which is a lot of contempt).

    “Nope,” Sangoma continued, shaking her head. “Corpses are not a remotely appropriate anniversary present, even when gift-wrapped.”

    She shook herself from her reverie and clapped her hands. “Well, I actually came to see how things are going with our Zelgadis. So, I’ll just get out of your way. I’m sure you crazy kids have other plans.”

    An alarming twitched crossed Xellos’s face and then another crossed Filia’s. Perhaps it was the same twitch and it just jumped from him to her. Oooooh.

    “So, I’ll just be going then,” Sangoma said, pointing to the door and beginning to shuffle backwards towards it.

    “If it’s what I think it is,” Xellos said seriously, recovering from his shudder-twitch-spasm long before Filia. “It’s better not to get too close to it.”

    “Thanks mom,” Sangoma said, turning and walking out and into the fog of the coming night.

    Xellos frowned after her. Filia pushed her chair in violently and walked after her.

    “Where are you going?” he asked.

    “To help Mister Zelgadis and Miss Amelia,” she said resolutely. She turned her head to the side to glare back at him. “Unless you have some other lie you’d like to tell to keep me away from them.”

    Xellos tapped his finger against his cheek and thought for a minute. “Would you believe there’s an early curfew for golden dragons in Vye?”

    “I’m leaving!” she declared, and stormed out of the building.

    For the next few minutes Xellos tapped his fingers against the table. Occasionally he would look up at the door and then deliberately back at the table.

    The young waitress edged into view and asked in her high-pitched voice, “Can I get you another iced tea, sir?”

    Xellos ceased his tapping on the table and gave an almost inaudible sigh. “No, I think we’re done here.”

    He stood up, dropped a few coppers on the table, and walked out the door of the Vapor Hotel and into the mist.

  21. #21
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    Chapter 21. Homeward Bound (I Wish I Was)

    Night was falling fast and early in Vye. The air practically buzzed with the current of a coming storm. If Filia thought that the fog level had been high earlier that day, it was a pittance to the peasouper she was currently in the midst of.

    It was so bad that she couldn’t even see her own feet. She ambled forward through the squelching of mud and prayed she wouldn’t step on a frog. Her hands were reached out in front of her like a blind person.

    She was somewhat lost. She hadn’t been able to follow Sangoma. She’d disappeared somewhere into the swirly white vapors. But it probably wouldn’t have been worth it to follow her anyway. It sounded like she wasn’t headed for the swamp witch’s domain directly. She just wanted a nice seat to watch the drama unfold. Just like a monster.

    Speaking of monsters…

    No, Filia thought firmly. I don’t want to speak of monsters.

    But she had to admit it was really… peculiar what had happened. Not the weird moment when he’d looked into her eyes and she’d looked back into his one open eye as if transfixed. Not that that wasn’t peculiar or anything. It was extremely peculiar. But she preferred to tuck that as far away into the back of her mind as possible because it was, well… let’s say ‘unpleasantly intense’, and she just didn’t want to think about it at the moment.

    The peculiar thing was that Xellos had purposely kept her from going with Zelgadis and Amelia. If he’d wanted to just excuse himself from joining them he could’ve said it was some kind of holy ground that he wasn’t particularly willing to lower himself to tread upon. Or he could’ve just ditched them without a word again. That wasn’t a problem. No, he’d kept her out of it deliberately.

    Of course, he said that he just didn’t want her to get in the way of Sangoma’s plan. But Sangoma didn’t seem to buy this as viable. And, anyway, it would’ve been odd for him to just assume she’d get in the way. If Sangoma’s plan really hinged on Filia not being there, she would’ve done something about it herself. Monsters are detail-oriented like that.

    This implied that he had some ulterior reason independent of the instigator of this scheme, Sangoma. He himself had some reason for keeping her from the swamp.

    Or, she thought as a sudden shiver shook her, he had some reason for keeping me with him.

    No, she thought and tried to force a harsh laugh. That was just Sangoma’s joke. Just Sangoma’s thoughtless and utterly crass joke! No one could honestly believe that he…

    Well, the fact remains, Filia thought as her last thought fragment was allowed to fizzle out in disbelieving panic before it could become complete, Mister Zelgadis and Miss Amelia are in danger because of whatever is at that swamp. If I’d gone with them, I’d be in that same danger.

    Applying a little logic to that fact would imply that he’d lied to Filia to keep her out of danger; which seems downright nice until you remember that Xellos is a monster. Now, monsters sometimes save people, but it’s not because they’re nice; it’s because they’re coldly pragmatic. Ask a monster why they saved you and, if they were honest at all (which they aren’t), they’d answer: “for later”.

    He’d saved her life back in Valgaav’s old base, hadn’t he? Probably he’d only done that because he thought she might be useful later on since he needed a dragon if he ever wanted to fuse magic.

    But this time was different. What did he expect of her… what was he planning for her?

    She didn’t want to know. But as a stormy gale nearly lifted her off her feet, the memory she’d so carefully tucked away was pried free. That look he’d given her back at the diner as he tried to wrest control of the conversation back away from the track Filia had been determined not to give up on. It wasn’t a nice look. It was aloof and calculating and strangely… proprietary.

    No, she thought. That’s impossible.

    She turned around abruptly. She could’ve sworn she’d felt that unforgettable aura close by. The mist revealed nothing. She hoped it was just her imagination getting carried away.

    But no. There was a shadow there. It was practically blotted out by the haze and by the darkness, but it was there. It didn’t move, but it watched her. He knew she knew he was there.

    “Xellos!” she yelled out into the fog. “Where are they? I know you know!”

    The dark patch of fog made no response. She’d expected as much. He’d gone to the trouble of keeping her away from there already and he wasn’t about to undo all that at the end.

    “Sangoma didn’t tell you what was in the swamp that was so dangerous, but you figured it out anyway, didn’t you?” Filia interrogated onward as if the snub hadn’t occurred. “What’s in there?”

    The shadow made no answer. It didn’t even move.

    “Why?” Filia began desperately, knowing she would have to ask what she knew was unwise to ask. “Why didn’t you want me to go with the others?” She knew he was no more likely to answer this question than any of her others, but she couldn’t stop herself from asking. The question was like a fiery coil around her mind.

    She couldn’t see his face, but in her mind’s eye he was smirking. Xellos had a natural talent for smirking. He was always smirking smirkily at people, the smirker. She thought he wouldn’t answer. She thought he’d just let her questions flap in the breeze and say nothing. This would leave her with only two choices. She could turn around and continue her blind trek through the swamp, doing her best to ignore him and trying to find the others. Or she could stay there and continue interrogating him, which was a bit like punching fog.

    On the other hand, literally punching fog might be an acceptable third option in this situation.

    Just as Filia contemplated whether violence might actually be the answer in this case, the black silhouette in this mist stepped forward just once. She stared.

    “Go home, Filia,” was all it said and then it vanished.

    *****

    Somewhere else in the sprawling dreamscape of Vye’s marshland there was a tree. It was dead, and had been dead, for many years, but it was currently upright – currently being the operative word. Its bark was thicker than paper, but just barely so. Its insides had been devoured by parasites long ago. Every breeze that passed its way caused it to creak as its ancient root system nearly snapped. A crane would not land on it. It was too unstable to take the weight.

    Yet, balancing on one of the branches was a woman. She might have been on the petite side, but certainly not petite enough to keep the branch from breaking under her weight. But it did not break. The tree did not fall.

    The woman stared into the blinding mist with wide green eyes. Her eyes saw far.

    They saw…

    *****

    “Can you stand?” Zelgadis asked Amelia.

    Amelia was somewhat distracted by her hand in his, but she looked up abruptly and nodded. “I think so.”

    He helped her to her feet. He was still holding her hand, but at this point Amelia was beginning to suspect that he wasn’t entirely aware of that fact.

    He looked from Amelia to the oracle, who quietly watched them with cold eyes. He turned back to Amelia deliberately. “Let’s get out of here,” he said.

    “But Mister Zelgadis!” Amelia protested, not quite believing what she was hearing. “What about the cure for your body? You came all this way just to ask her, didn’t you?”

    “I know,” Zelgadis said, glancing backwards at the swamp witch. “But she wouldn’t tell me even if I asked. Would you?”

    The oracle shook her head.

    “Anyway,” Zelgadis said, as though this was a minor disappointment and not a world-crushing, anger-inducing failure. “I’m starting to think it’s time to move on. Maybe I can… live with this.”

    Amelia goggled at him. She finally managed to get the words: “Well, yeah! Sure you can!” out. “But this just doesn’t… sound like you.”

    Zelgadis nodded. “I’ve… done some thinking.”

    Amelia stared at him curiously. “What happened while we were underwater?” she finally asked.

    Zelgadis looked pensive. “Oh, it doesn’t really matter now,” he said dismissively. “Let’s just go home.”

    Home. Amelia didn’t think she’d ever heard him say that. She said it all the time. It’s good to be home. That’s what we used to do at home. It’s at times like this I miss home. There’s no place quite like home. She loved to travel, but what made traveling even better was knowing she had a special, welcoming place to go back to. Zelgadis didn’t have that, so he never said it… until now. Something had happened when they’d nearly drowned. Whatever it was, Zelgadis now felt he had a place that he could call home. What touched Amelia’s heart was that it was the same place that she called home.

    “Yeah,” Amelia said cheerfully. “I’m sure Daddy will be happy to see us back.”

    “Just don’t mention the part where you nearly drowned,” Zelgadis warned, remembering Phil’s little heart-to-heart with him before they’d left. “I get the feeling that wouldn’t go over well.”

    “Not so fast,” a voice they’d nearly forgotten about said from behind them.

    Zelgadis winced and turned back to the oracle. He had a bad feeling about this.

    “What?”

    “If I’m not mistaken,” the oracle said in a voice that indicated that she knew she was not. “You are under an obligation to do whatever I ask of you on pain of death.”

    Zelgadis grimaced. Damn Sangoma. He had no intention of being the errand boy for a crazy swamp woman for the rest of his life.

    “I will only ask two things of you,” she said. “And once you’ve accomplished these two things, you will have completed your obligations and I will free you of your geasa.”

    Zelgadis nodded slowly and tried to prepare himself for the worst. “What are they?”

    “First, free me from my ties,” the oracle said, hitching up her watery skirts slightly and revealing a shackle around her ankle. It was attached to a chain coiled behind her and seemed to come out of the ground itself. Zelgadis recalled that he’d heard the jangle of mental, but hadn’t seen the chain before.

    “I cannot break it myself with any amount of strength,” the oracle explained. “It is a kind of curse placed on me. But you should be able to break it easily.”

    Zelgadis released his hand from Amelia’s and drew his sword slowly. He knew all about how unwise it is to free a cursed and extremely powerful creature from its bonds. That was all part of the story where the ancient evil must be recaptured and sealed away once more or finally defeated. But he had no choice. If he didn’t do this then he’d be struck down.

    He slashed at the rings of the chain, which shattered cheaply on impact. It seemed odd that a creature in control of all the raw energy of the swamp could not break something he could with ease. Such is the nature of curses.

    “What else?” he asked, eager to move on.

    The swamp witch wasn’t listening to him. She stretched out her one captive foot in the air in front of her like a dancer. She flexed the ankle and smiled as she brought the foot back down to the ground. “I wanted to be free before I died,” she said mostly to herself.

    “Before you what?” Zelgadis repeated.

    “Ah, yes,” she said, closing her eyes slowly. “That’s the other thing. You must kill me, Zelgadis Greywords. That’s the last thing.”

    “What?!”

    “But why would you want Mister Zelgadis to kill you?!” Amelia asked, horrified.

    The swamp witch turned a sad eye on Amelia. “Because no one has been able to for over three-hundred years.” Her voice strengthened in bitterness. “Three-hundred years. That’s more than my life stolen away from me. Three-hundred years of knowing things no one was meant to know. Three-hundred years living among muck and grime. I may be free of this place now, but I’ll never escape the swamp no matter where I go; I am the swamp. I am the muck; I am the grime; I am the rot. I am a creature of constant sorrow, whose torturous life should’ve ended once the natural span ran out. But it didn’t. And it never will unless someone ends it for me. I am a made thing. I cannot end myself.”

    “But can’t you just—,” Zelgadis began. “It’s not my responsibility to kill you just because you’re unhappy!” Sure, he’d killed people before. But them asking just gives the whole thing an aura of pure wrongness.

    “Unhappy?” the oracle repeated. “Would you like to see what I see all the time, Zelgadis? Would you like to know it all? Would you like to see every mind?”

    Zelgadis gritted his teeth. Even earlier today he would’ve said yes, but he was starting to believe that oracular knowledge had some pretty steep costs.

    “Kill me, Zelgadis,” she said. “You know you must. If you don’t then you will die and leave your friend in a great deal of danger. Yes… if you don’t send me to peace then I will hurt her. Know that I will.”

    Zelgadis didn’t doubt this for a minute. She’d nearly drowned them both just to make a point about priorities, and clearly this was her main purpose for them all along. She wouldn’t hesitate to use force to get what she wanted, and she had them at a severe disadvantage.

    The swamp witch gripped her watery dress which contained all the raw, vegetable force of the swamp. She would use it if he hesitated even a second longer.

    “Damn!” he said, and thrust his broadsword straight through her stomach.

    When he looked up, his sword was thrust all the way through her midsection. She was looking down at the sword herself and met his gaze. She blinked boredly. There was no blood.

    Almost on cue it started to rain.

    He pulled his sword out of her. She completely failed to scream, gush blood, crumple to the ground dead or adhere to any of the other prescribed courses of action to follow when stabbed with a sword.

    “What are you?” he asked in awe.

    “I’d prefer not to go into that,” the swamp witch said in jaded tones. “The sword is not enough. You can’t stab the swamp to death.” She thought for a moment. “But you can use magic, can’t you?” she suggested.

    “Not here,” Zelgadis said, shaking his head.

    “Yes, that would be the handiwork of those execrable sages and their damned magic circles,” the swamp witch said, massaging her temple as though she was fighting off a headache. “I can see we’re going to need a change of venue.” She looked up at the bone-weary form of Zelgadis. Nearly drowning really tends to take it out of a person. He was still occasionally coughing.

    “And perhaps you would not be able to do it now anyway,” she said calmly, and then turned her gaze to Amelia. “And perhaps not alone at all.”

    “What are you—” Zelgadis began.

    “Yes,” the oracle cut him off, seemingly having arrived at a decision. “I will go somewhere else to finish the job. But you will need ample strength to defeat this form. I am afraid that the motivation of being my angel of mercy will not suffice to draw out this strength. So I will have to take measures.”

    Zelgadis didn’t like the sound of that. This oracle made dangerous decisions far too easily.

    “There is a place,” the oracle began, “that is important in both your minds. Though, Zelgadis, it’s only important in your’s because it is important in her’s. So I will go to Seyruun, where your magic can reach me. And until you can muster the strength to destroy me, I will destroy Seyruun.”

    “What?!” Zelgadis shouted, dumbstruck.

    “You can’t!” Amelia yelled helplessly.

    “I will,” the swamp witch affirmed, “if you do not do your duty. Remember Zelgadis Greywords, it’s more than your life on the line now.”

    With that she turned to the southeast and… and… cascaded is the only word for it. She resembled the black swamp much more in her movements. She spewed like a flood across the land, making great speed toward Seyruun City.

    Amelia turned to Zelgadis, her fists balled in acute worry. “We’ve got to do something, Mister Zelgadis!”

    “We’ll never overtake her,” Zelgadis said almost numbly as he watched the swamp witch move toward her destination with a mighty current all her own. Thunder rumbled.

    Before they even had a moment to think further about what to do, there was a rustling from the bushes behind them. They turned around just in time to see a muddied and thorn-scratched Filia burst out from the overgrowth shouting, “It’s a—” she took in the half-drowned Zelgadis and Amelia standing in the middle of the parched land where the sentient swamp once lay. “…trap,” she finished lamely. “What happened?”

    “Never mind that,” Zelgadis said abruptly. “We need to get to Seyruun fast! Can you get us there?”

    Filia nodded firmly and resolutely. Then she had a sudden thought and her resolution diminished slightly. “…Can I just go behind one of these bushes to transform?” she asked shyly.

    “ONLY IF YOU HURRY!”

  22. #22
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    Chapter 22. Strategy.

    Zelgadis woke up with cool winds of the evening rushing over him in violent gales. It wasn’t raining anymore – they must have flown out of the storm. He sat up and tried to force himself into alertness. He couldn’t believe he’d fallen asleep! The back of a fast flying dragon more than a thousand feet up in the air was not the safest place to take a nap. But he’d just been so exhausted…

    He turned and looked next to him to Amelia. She was leaning forward, but was gazing at him. When she saw him turn to look at her she said, “Don’t worry, Mister Zelgadis. I was watching to make sure you didn’t fall off.”

    Zelgadis ran a hand through his wiry hair ruefully. “I don’t even remember falling asleep,” he said.

    “You were tired,” Amelia said. “You needed some rest.”

    Zelgadis hunkered down and looked ahead at the panorama of the night skies. “I could’ve done without,” he said. “Like I said before: you’re the one who nearly drowned.”

    “Yes,” Amelia said with a small smile. “But you saved me.”

    “I was lucky,” Zelgadis said automatically, and then thought about it. “I was very lucky,” he repeated softly.

    Nothing he could’ve done would’ve saved her without luck. It had been one of those horrible moments where he realized the situation was completely beyond his control. It had been just like back at Hellmaster’s domain. But that shock had left him eventually. This one shouldn’t. He was determined to keep a piece of it because it was an important lesson to remember. He knew he couldn’t take Amelia for granted anymore because the idea of her being taken away was too painful to bear. He was lucky to have her around.

    Don’t you dare forget that, he thought warningly at himself.

    “Where are we?” he said, shaking himself from his thoughts.

    “We passed over the Tirogue Kingdom about an hour ago,” Filia’s voice came from ahead of them in her dragon form.

    Zelgadis nodded. She must have really been booking it to get them this far this fast. He knew he couldn’t have been asleep for more than a few hours by the position of the North Star. But they still had more than half of Ralteague to get through before they even entered Seyruun country. The city was farther off. Who knew when the oracle would reach it? What’s the speed of swamp anyway?

    Zelgadis gave Amelia a serious look. “We have to figure out how we’re going to fight the oracle when we get there,” he said.

    “Ooh,” Amelia said wretchedly. “It’s just so awful! That she’s willing to go to these lengths just to end her own life. Why would anyone do something like that?”

    Zelgadis privately thought that if he had to spend eternity in a swamp he might contemplate suicide too. He’d tramped through a couple on their trip already and they all had a certain mushy, smelly, vermin-ridden quality about them. He chose not to mention this to Amelia though as she’d probably take it seriously.

    “I suppose there’s a price to being an oracle,” Zelgadis said thoughtfully. “The cost of knowing everything is… well, knowing everything. Think about it. It must be painful for her.”

    “I guess so,” Amelia said. “But it’s just so sad.”

    Zelgadis knew they had to get back to the point and start strategizing, and in another circumstance he might have snapped at her to focus. But at the moment he was somewhat awash with good feelings toward her and a newfound sense of what she meant in his life. So he patted her on the shoulder and said, “I know.”

    “We haven’t got a choice though,” Zelgadis went on. “If we don’t fight her, then I’ll die and she’ll be free to destroy Seyruun. She’s strong, and if we want to stop her then we’re going to have to think very carefully about how to go about defeating her.”

    Amelia nodded. A slight blush was on her face, but Zelgadis had decided to ignore that for the moment. There’d be plenty of time for noticing things like that later!

    “How are we supposed to fight... a swamp?” Amelia said, asking the obvious question.

    “That’s the part I don’t understand,” Zelgadis said, taking back the hand that was on her shoulder to cup his own chin in his hand. “She wasn’t just using the swamp’s energy like the Lady of Sairaag did, she was the swamp. That’s not something a human should be able to do.”

    “But she has to be human,” Amelia pointed out. “Mister Xellos said only humans could be in the Swamp Witch’s domain.”

    There was a “Hmph!” from ahead of them. Filia turned her head slightly to look at them while keeping one eye on her flight pattern ahead. “Forget that,” she said angrily. “Xellos lied to us. Not that we should be surprised at all.”

    “That sneak!” Zelgadis said on general principles. “No wonder you were able to get that close to where the swamp was.” Zelgadis berated himself for not figuring this out earlier. Trusting Xellos not to manipulate people was like trusting a cat not to puke in your shoes.

    “But why would he do that?” Amelia asked in a perplexed tone of voice. She as also unsurprised to hear that Xellos had been deceptive. That was normal. But deception usually had some kind of visible point and she wasn’t clear on his rationale for this one.

    Filia rapidly turned her head straight ahead and back to her flight path. She scoffed and said in an unusually high, would-be casual voice: “Who knows why Xellos does anything!”

    “So,” Zelgadis said, giving Filia a moment to collect herself. “That means that the swamp witch could be a monster after all.”

    “It would make sense,” Amelia pointed out. “That would explain how she was able to make herself part of the swamp and why she lived so long and why she knows all that stuff.”

    “I guess,” Zelgadis said uncertainly. Like Amelia said, it did make a certain amount of sense. But how many monsters would beg you to kill them? How many monsters would take the time to show you that you’ve been ignoring a person who could be the best thing that’s ever happened to you?

    “Well, we won’t know until we try some spells on her,” Amelia said, oblivious to the train of thought Zelgadis’s mind had jumped on.

    “Yeah,” Zelgadis said vaguely.

    Amelia made a determined fist and said: “No matter what she is, we’ll defeat her! No one can stop us from protecting Seyruun and winning the day for the righteous of heart!”

    Another day Zelgadis might have said ‘that’s easy to say’ or ‘what good does saying that do?’. He might well say it tomorrow or the day after that, but he wasn’t going to say it on that day. “You’re right,” he said simply.

    Amelia turned to him with an expression of surprise – caught off-balance by him not disagreeing with her. She gave him a curious, searching look, hesitated for a moment and then said: “What uh… what do you think’s going to happen after that?”

    “Huh?”

    “Well,” Amelia said, shifting her weight awkwardly and avoiding his eyes. “Since we weren’t able to find your cure… and you said you were thinking you might not go looking for one anymore… I was wondering what you were planning to do after we beat the oracle?”

    It was the same question that the oracle herself had asked him. Whatever you could say about the judgment of a suicidal swamp woman off to destroy Seyruun, she’d been right about one thing: his quest had been much more of a security blanket than he’d been willing to admit. It wasn’t just that it gave him a hope for a return to his human form; it gave him a roadmap to his life. Giving that up had been the hardest of all. Now he was free of it which was good, and of course terrifying.

    The future was a great big blank now. Where he once had a never-ending stream of objectives to follow and a prescribed attitude to bring to every situation there was… nothing. He wasn’t really sure what he wanted out of life from now on. But he had an idea of where, and more than that he had an idea of who he wanted along with him.

    “Not sure,” he said indefinitely. “But I thought might stay in Seyruun for awhile.” He turned and gave Amelia an ironic half-smile. “If that’s okay with you, that is.”

    Amelia returned his half smile with a big smile of her own. Put them together and you had one and a half smiles. “Of course it is!” she exclaimed.

    “Good,” Zelgadis said. “Then we’ll have to make sure it doesn’t get destroyed, won’t we?”

    *****

    As Zelgadis himself would have said if he was in one of his gloomier moods: easier said than done.

    When they arrived at Seyruun it was clear that the Swamp Witch had already arrived. It was the amount of algae that covered all the buildings that gave them a clue. Luckily for them, the witch seemed to merely have been biding her time until they got there. The buildings were waterlogged, yes – Zelgadis hoped that they had flood insurance – but something with the strength of water can do a lot more damage than that; it can punch a hole in a brick wall for one thing.

    People were running through the streets in fear. The oracle was high above them, supported by a plume of black water. Her arms were up in the air as though she was offering up a prayer to the deity of the drowned. Fish were raining down into the streets.

    Filia landed and allowed Zelgadis and Amelia to disembark. She transformed into her human form and staggered to her feet. She grabbed her mace from her garter belt and looked up into the cold dark eyes of the swamp witch as she descended from her column of water. She was breathing heavily and sweating, but she was ready to do her part in defeating this threat.

    Zelgadis held up a hand. “You just flew across an entire country,” he said firmly. “Take five.”

    Filia frowned, but appeared to decide that this was, on the whole, good advice and scuttled off to take cover with the other retreating townsfolk, careful not to slip on any of the fish that were flopping all over the ground.

    “Are you ready, Zelgadis?” the oracle asked, having finally ridden her water elevator to a less lofty level. “Are you truly ready to kill me?”

    “That depends,” Zelgadis said evenly. “You’re the one who’s calling the shots now.”

    “You could still stop this whole thing by telling him not to kill you,” Amelia pointed out, always being one to believe in second chances. “Then no one has to be put in danger.”

    The oracle closed her eyes and shook her head. “That’s not the way this story ends, little girl.”

    “Have it your way then,” Zelgadis said. “Amelia!” he shouted, turning.

    “Right!” Amelia said, and they scattered.

    The witch watched them unmovingly. An enemy set on its own defeat isn’t likely to dodge.

    Zelgadis put some distance between the witch and himself, hoping that she’d give them a chance to attack before she fought back on the basis of ‘drawing out their powers’. He was in a bind. The strategy he’d developed had come about from something of a smartass comment he’d made to himself and it had some serious drawbacks.

    The question was: how do you kill a swamp? Well, people have been killing swamps for ages. On the basis that swampland can usually be converted into fertile cropland (not to mention the fact that swamps are smelly and extremely depressing), swamps were being destroyed all across the agriculturally humming continent. A group of preservationists tended to go on about the loss of habitats and something about the water table, but were more or less ignored. Swamps were certainly easy to destroy through drainage or by filling them with earth.

    And that’s where his idea had come from: earth. Well, if it worked on non-sentient swamps, why shouldn’t it work on vindictive, walking, talking swamps too? Shamanism had a large portion of earth-based spells that might have a chance of neutralizing the oracle’s powers.

    The problem was… most of those spells tended to entail a great deal of damage to the surrounding area. They weren’t exactly single target spells. They were very large scale, impressive displays with spikes of earth shooting up in the wake of earthquakes and pools of lava and suchlike. Normally this would be fine, and would just mean that he and Amelia would both have to be careful not to get embroiled in their own spells, but that wouldn’t be enough this time. The whole point of this was to keep Seyruun as rock steady as possible. Causing a massive earthquake right in the city’s center and tearing up the ground would defeat the purpose of the whole thing.

    He gritted his teeth and drew his sword, holding it out in front of him and focusing on the oracle who watched him like a cat. His blade had already proved its uselessness against her once, but perhaps this time…

    Blade Haut!” he shouted, and slammed his sword against the ground. A shockwave shot out from the point of impact and road its way along the cobbles, cracking them as it went as it traveled towards the oracle.

    Alright, so the road would need to be repaved, but he was being as conscientious as he could under the circumstances. This was a battle! There was likely going to be some damage and at least he was doing his best to keep it at a minimum. It would all be worth it if…

    The shockwave reached the oracle, who hadn’t moved a muscle at its approach. There was a loud crack as the earth shot up towards her, making a direct hit with a rocky slab rising up from the ground. Dust colored the air and shrouded the oracle for a moment. When she appeared, the spike had run straight through her watery gown and she…

    She just seemed to flow around it!

    She shook her head and fazed out of the spike’s way, as insubstantial as water – exactly as insubstantial as water. “It’s no good, Zelgadis,” she said. “The swamp is a meeting place between water and earth. Your earth spells can do nothing to defeat the swamp. It’s time you learned to respect the power you are charged with defeating.”

    With that she waved a hand and the dirty water she was made of cannoned at him and hit him directly in the chest, sending him sprawling against the stone road. The water just kept coming in unending quantity, choking him. He felt purple spots cloud his vision. Another day, another near-drowning.

    But, and he reminded himself that he was lucky at this, he wasn’t alone.

    Elmekia Lance!” Amelia shouted from the swamp witch’s other side, hitting her dead-on.

    The witch twitched and shuddered stopping her onslaught. Amelia ran up to Zelgadis’s side and helped him up to his feet again. Something had actually affected the witch, finally. Given that it was an astral spell the theory that the oracle was a monster was starting to look more credible. Then again, unfortunately for them, it seemed like the spell had only hurt her momentarily and not done any real damage. It was distracting, not lethal.

    “I can see we’re not really trying hard enough,” the oracle said as she recovered herself. “If that’s really your idea of a serious effort then I can see I’m going to need to help you along.” She cast her eyes around the grand, if now somewhat damp city and sighed. “More’s the pity.”

    “Wait!” Amelia shouted, rushing forward to try to stop her.

    It was too late. The oracle shot a spear of water with enough force behind it to shatter flint straight into the castle walls. They buckled under the unstoppable wave of water sending mortar dust high into the sky.

    But as the rubble cleared, a gruff voice shouted, “Go to it! Now!”

    A roar shot up as scores of guards charged through the gaping hole in the bricks. Seyruun’s best and… well, certainly Seyruun’s best advanced toward the tidal wave in a dress known as the Swamp Witch and chucked spears at her. She watched them with a quizzical smile as their spears sank pointlessly into her watery garb without apparently hurting her.

    This didn’t seem to dishearten the soldiers. They were shouting something. As far as Zelgadis could make out, it was: “Coming-Together-For-The-Good-Of-The-Community-And-Sharing-Our-Resources-Of-Prosperity-And-Peace-Assault-Pattern-Delta!”

    Zelgadis groaned. It didn’t take a genius to figure out who was behind that little gem. And sure enough as he turned to look, the troops were being lead by the mustachioed, always ready to fight for justice, crown-prince of Seyruun himself: Phil.

    “That’s right!” Phil shouted at his troops. “Show this invader what happens to geological features that threaten our fair city!”

    Phil was going to fight the swamp. With spears. And he really thought he was going to win.

    “Daddy?” Amelia said uncertainly upon seeing him.

    “Amelia?” Phil said, locating her and waving at her from afar. “I’m afraid you’ve come back home at a rather hectic time!”

    “Daddy, you can’t beat her with spears!” Amelia shouted urgently.

    “Nonsense! We’re making headway already!” Phil said, as the oracle washed away his troops with newly created rivers in a distracted sort of way.

    “Physical attacks aren’t going to work,” Zelgadis shouted. “It’s pointless!”

    “Pointless?” Phil drew himself up to his full impressive height. “How can it be pointless when we’re fighting for our home! We can’t just let some water spirit come here and make our city all soggy!”

    “That’s not what I meant,” Zelgadis said through gritted teeth.

    Before he could respond further Amelia tapped him on the shoulder and said, “We haven’t tried that yet.”

    Zelgadis nodded. It was about time. Before it had just been property at stake, but now with Phil and his soldiers in the midst of it all they had to finish this quickly. “You cast it. I’ll cover you,” he said.

    Source of all souls that dwells in the eternal and the infinite, everlasting flame of blue,” Amelia began, her hands out in front of her as though a conduit for the power to pass through.

    The oracle sent a flying wad of mud at them that would’ve suffocated a camel. Zelgadis managed to block it with a wind barrier.

    All power hidden deep within be called forth here and now,” Amelia went on.

    For a moment, Amelia paused, letting the power writhe futilely until the moment that Zelgadis was afraid the energy would die out before it was cast. She turned to him, eyes charged with the same electric blue of the spell.

    “When this is over,” she said, “there’s something I have to tell you.”

    Before he could react she’d turned back to her quarry with an expression beaming with the focus of that famous Seyruun family stubbornness.

    Ra Tilt!” she shouted.

  23. #23
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    Chapter 23. New Roads.

    A column of swirling blue lights surrounded the swamp witch. Zelgadis and Amelia squinted in the bright flash that followed. Glowing tendrils snaked their way around the form until the swamp woman was lost in the cosmic hubbub. There should have been a scream.

    There wasn’t.

    The spell-lights faded and then vanished altogether, leaving the oracle entirely intact and somewhat disappointed looking. She sighed and shook her head. “You still don’t get it,” she said.

    No, Zelgadis thought numbly to himself as he watched her. Even a strong monster ought to have been… inconvenienced by an Amelia Ra Tilt. Could the swamp witch actually be so strong that the Ra Tilt had no effect whatsoever?

    He backed up unconsciously. If that was the case, he wasn’t entirely sure how he was supposed to defeat her.

    “What are you doing?” Phil demanded, waving around a mace that would’ve certainly made Filia proud. In Zelgadis’s brain’s desperate attempt to distract himself from possible imminent death he wondered if Phil was one of Filia’s customers. “You can’t just let a bog walk all over you!”

    That was easy for him to say, Zelgadis thought grimly. He’d learned in his journey not to underestimate wetlands. They’d fueled the mad Lady of Sairaag, they’d been the death and rebirth of Lilliana, and they’d housed the most dysfunctional royal family since… since Seyruun! Water might just be water, but it doesn’t need to be anything else. Water is powerful.

    A few thoughts were trying to attract his attention, but they were having a bit of trouble what with his attention being solely focused on the look on the oracle’s face. It was a tired, thoughtful look. The look seemed to say: Are you really going to make me start hurting your loved ones again? I thought we were past this.

    What are you? he thought in a desperate haze.

    Water is just water…

    Well, he might as well give it a try. It’s not like he had any other bright ideas. He put his hands together and began to chant.

    *****

    Filia had gotten to a safe place far down the road from where the battle was taking place. Only by now the flooding had gotten bad enough that ‘down the road’ practically became downstream. Several soldiers had washed down the newly created river and were squeezing the water out of their hats. Filia was too far away to see what was going on with the battle, but she didn’t consider half-drowned soldiers a good sign.

    She’d made herself useful by handing out bandages and applying some basic first aid. Since then a whole lot more of the newly washed-up soldiers had lain still on the ground, apparently in need of the kiss of life. Fakers were easy to spot though on account of them breathing and all, so she’d just kick them in the ribs until they gave up the ghost.

    “You really can’t follow directions can you?” came a voice from behind her.

    Filia turned around abruptly, sparing the eighth soldier who’d had the bright idea that pretending to be unconscious might get him a lip-lock from the pretty blonde woman a good kicking.

    You,” she said disdainfully. It had been a long day (actually a long day, a long night, and a long morning) and she was a little too tired to pull off being angry. She could still manage extremely displeased though. “I thought you ran off.”

    “I had decided to leave,” Xellos said, narrowing his eyes slightly at the suggestion that he’d run away. “But then I thought: why miss all the fun?”

    Filia glowered and passed a bandage to an injured young soldier. He hadn’t injured himself in combat, he’d just slipped on the wet cobblestones and skinned his knee. “Was that the whole point of this for you? Fun?” she asked harshly.

    “Of course!” Xellos said cheerfully. “In fact, I think I probably owe you a thank you.”

    “Why?”

    “Well, I just don’t think this trip would’ve been nearly as fun without you along,” he said. “I’m very pleased that you tricked yourself into coming along after all.”

    She glared. She’d come along to thwart his intentions at every step, not to… to entertain him!

    “So is that why you didn’t want me to go to the witch’s domain?” she asked, throwing her hands up in frustration. “Because if I got myself killed then things might not be as fun for your anymore?!”

    Xellos paused as though trying to find the right words to respond with. Finally he decided on simply: “Yes.”

    Filia, who generally cherished honesty, found herself wishing that he’d lied. Hearing a sadistic psychopath tell you that your life had been spared because you were more fun alive than dead wasn’t in the least bit comforting no matter how affable he could act. Still, she couldn’t help but thinking, considering he’s over here bothering me and not watching the fight where there is a 100% chance that someone will be killed over there would indicate that he finds me very entertaining indeed.

    That’s… interesting. Just… interesting. Nothing more.

    She sniffed. “Well, I hope you’re happy,” she said in a tone that suggested that she hoped quite the opposite. “Mister Zelgadis and Miss Amelia are in a death-match with that thing right now.”

    Xellos flashed her a brief ‘You’re trying to guilt me. Really?’ smile and said, “I wouldn’t worry too much about it. If he’s been paying even the slightest bit of attention than Mister Zelgadis should have figured out how to defeat her by now.”

    *****

    You who crosses between sky and earth, gently flowing water,” Zelgadis began knowing full well that this would be a pointless endeavor if the oracle really was a high-level monster. He couldn’t believe that she was though. Somehow he was sure… that she must be human. He wasn’t sure how she could be, but yet…

    She was watching him expectantly as the waves she’d absentmindedly tossed into the town square flattened a few houses.

    Gather in my hand and give me power: Demona Crystal!” Zelgadis finished with a shout.

    Water is water…

    The oracle’s puzzled look turned into a small smile as the ice crystals took hold of her, encasing her watery form in a crystal of ice. The sun shone across her frozen tomb, shimmering and sending icy ghost reflections across the landscape. Within lay the oracle, suspended in the chamber of ice, a frozen smile on her face… a peaceful smile. For once her expression didn’t look clouded. She looked free – beautiful.

    Zelgadis hesitated. “I wish there was another way to do this,” he said to the imprisoned oracle. “But this is what you wished for.” Odd, he’d gone to her to ask for his own wish to be granted, but now…

    He hefted up his sword which had proved itself useless twice over during his conflict with the oracle. But you know what they say: third time’s the charm. He hurled it hilt first at the ice with all the considerable strength that his chimera form afforded him. It hit the ice and shattered it into thousands of pieces.

    The ice shattered. The oracle shattered.

    Zelgadis stepped forward with Amelia following uncertainly behind him. He looked at the shattered shards of ice, even now melting in the sunlight.

    A monster would’ve been able to survive that and regenerate, but the oracle wouldn’t. She was human, and Zelgadis thought he’d begun to figure out how that was so.

    And, he found himself remembering solemnly, her name was Viola.

    *****

    The day had passed in a blur. As far as the people of Seyruun were concerned, he was the hero. He’d tried to explain that really it was because of him that Viola the swamp witch had shown up in Seyruun in the first place. He’d tried to explain that he’d had no other choice but to defeat her or else he himself would’ve died because of his geis. It didn’t do any good.

    He certainly hadn’t felt like a hero when they found the bones. When the shards of ice had melted all that remained of Viola was a skeleton made up of bones that looked… ancient; certainly far too old to have belonged to a creature killed just that day.

    300 years beyond her natural life-span. A made thing. A thing that should’ve died long ago. That’s what she had said…

    He felt in his gut that something would have to be done about this eventually, but he could think about that after… after the ceremony was over.

    He peeked in the doorway to the great hall. Phil was giving some speech that largely painted Zelgadis as a selfless hero who’d arrived just in the nick of time to save their fair city at great personal risk instead of a half-drowned, sleep-deprived man on a quest for entirely selfish reasons that was the sole cause of the swamp-creature’s presence in their city. Every story needs a hero.

    He thought about running, he really did. He was decently ashamed of himself for it though.

    But I don’t even know if I want to be a knight! he thought wretchedly.

    He was sure that this was all Amelia’s idea, and he was just as sure that if he asked her she’d deny it outright. It was the sort of thing that happened though, after a city gets saved.

    “But Lina’s saved Seyruun before and no one ever talked about knighting her,” Zelgadis had pointed out with ragged nerves earlier that day after Amelia had informed him of his appointment and the awed shock had relented enough to give him the power of speech.

    “Yeah,” Amelia said, and for just a moment the happy glow of her announcement dimmed slightly in mild irritation. “Some of the council members have a bit of a… thing about female knights.” She brightened again. “But this is a real honor, you know! And you’ve earned it!”

    He didn’t feel like he’d earned it.

    On the other hand, he told himself, he was probably being silly. After all, it wasn’t a death sentence or anything. The appointment came with a title, a horse, some shiny new armor, and a place in the palace whenever he wanted it. It wasn’t like he had to stay in the palace. It wasn’t like he was trapped or anything. He could leave whenever he wanted to. And hadn’t he wanted to stay in Seyruun for awhile anyway? Hadn’t he told Amelia that?

    He looked down at the clothing he’d been given to wear. It was the garb of the White Knights of Seyruun. The fabric was white and expensive looking with gold edging. The Seyruun crest was on the sleeve.

    Ever since he’d decided not to pursue a cure for his body anymore he’d felt like… like he’d lost his roadmap to life. Now unexpected things were happening quickly and he didn’t feel as in control as he had in the past.

    Zelgadis heard his name called as the large double doors opened up to let him through.

    But perhaps, he thought as he walked forward and into the royal blue carpeted aisle, flanked on each side by crowds of Seyruun’s finest, the change is worth it.

    He walked across the carpet and toward the stage ahead with as much purpose as he could muster. People were applauding! There was still a bunch of algae and flooded areas in their city and they were applauding him. Generally he felt ill at ease in large crowds as the center of attention, but something was different now.

    Maybe it was because… this was his city now. He was a part of it. He belonged there as much as any of them did.

    He looked up at the stage to see Amelia smiling at him. He resisted the urge to blush and look at his feet. He was practically a knight now and knew he should show more grit than that so he returned her gaze. She was wearing her princess gear which included a pink gown and a matching tiara. In her hands she held a ceremonial sword, duller than a butter knife but glittering with jewels in its hilt. Phil stood off to her side over at his podium.

    Zelgadis reached the stage. Amelia smiled encouragingly at him. He knelt in front of her and she touched each of his shoulders lightly with the sword.

    “Rise, Knight of Seyruun,” Amelia said softly.

    Zelgadis hid a wry smile as he got to his feet. Knighting. Amelia was probably enjoying this. She liked things like that.

    Amelia took a step closer to him, taller in her high heels, and planted a kiss on each cheek. Zelgadis blushed even though he’d been prepared for it. It was traditional and very much part of the ceremony. The third kiss, however, the one she placed on his lips, he was pretty sure was not.

    Amelia stepped back looking triumphant and blushing only slight. Zelgadis risked a sidelong glance toward Phil. Phil gave them a quick nod and a small smile.

    Zelgadis turned around to face the crowd. He didn’t know most of the people there but yet there seemed to be so many of them. He did, however, notice Xellos and Filia sitting somewhere near the front. For once they weren’t bickering or trying to scoot as far away from each other as possible. Perhaps they were just trying it out for the novelty of the thing.

    “I present Sir Zelgadis Greywords of the Seyruun White Knights!” Amelia said loudly with every trace of pride in her voice.

    The crowd broke into applause and got to their feet.

    *****

    The ceremony had ended and the crowd had broken up. No doubt they were all off to sweep up the remaining algae and dispose of the rain of fish before the whole city started to stink to high heaven. Zelgadis was glad they’d gone. He’d spent a half-an-hour shaking hands with a bunch of people he didn’t know, but of course Amelia and Phil were acquainted with.

    He and Amelia had gone down to the stables to see Zelgadis’s new horse. It was an impressive looking white charger. Amelia had informed him that she’d always called him ‘Snowflake’ but that Zelgadis was free to change the name since it was his horse now. He made a mental note to do so because… honestly, Amelia, Snowflake?

    For some reason Xellos and Filia had followed them to the stables. Is it too much to ask to have some time alone?

    “Well, I’d better be going,” Filia said. “I’ve been away from home long enough.”

    Oh. She was leaving. That probably explained it.

    “I’m glad things worked out for you in the end,” Filia said with a smile. “And congratulations again.”

    “Thanks,” Zelgadis said vaguely. Things… had all worked out, hadn’t they? Was this a happy ending? It probably was… it just wasn’t the one he’d been going for in the first place.

    “Bye Miss Filia!” Amelia said, waving wildly. “Make sure to say hi to Mister Jillas, Mister Gravos, and Little Val for me!”

    “He’s in an egg,” Zelgadis said critically. “He won’t be able to hear her.”

    “I want her to say it anyway,” Amelia said, sticking to her guns.

    Filia walked out of the stables with Xellos drifting along behind her. She gave him a sharp look as they walked along. “You’re not going to follow me home are you?” she asked irritably.

    “Oh, I’m sure I’m far too busy to waste any more time with you,” Xellos answered in a carefree tone, catching her up. “I can think of a million things I’d rather do than spend time with a selfish dragon like you.”

    “Hmph!” Filia responded in general offense, but also to say that given recent events she was inclined to doubt that.

    There was silence for a moment and then Xellos said in the mocking tones he usually used to address her, “But if you’re really that desperate for companionship, maybe I could spare a little more time for you.”

    “Don’t do me any favors,” Filia muttered grumpily.

    And the two of them walked shoulder-to-shoulder until they were gone into the distance.

    After they’d left a young page entered the stable carrying a brown sack. “I got what you asked for, Sir Greywords,” he said, holding up the bag.

    “Yeah, thanks,” Zelgadis said brusquely, snatching up the sack. He was never going to get used to all this ‘Sir’ business. Not only that, but he could actually get people to do his gofer work for him. He’d only been a gentleman for a few hours and he was already worried that he was a class-traitor.

    “What’s that?” Amelia asked, peering curiously at the laden sacking.

    “Oh, it’s just…” Zelgadis felt his stomach twist. He’d hoped that he could avoid this until later, but it would have to happen so he might as well get it over with. He just hadn’t wanted to spoil her good mood. “Luggage.”

    “Luggage?” Amelia repeated. She blinked and then a crestfallen look crossed her face. “You’re leaving?”

    Zelgadis fought the urge to apologize. “Yeah,” he said simply. “Soon.”

    “But,” Amelia began her earlier cheerfulness inverted to bewildered disappointment. “But I thought you were going to stay at least for awhile. That’s what you said.”

    “I want to stay,” Zelgadis said and was surprised to find that a large portion of him really meant it. “And I’m not going forever or anything. It’s just…” he struggled to explain himself, “there’s something I have to take care of first. I know I won’t be able to stay for good until I take care of it. I guess you could say it’s something I owe.”

    “You’re not wandering off on another journey are you?” Amelia asked.

    “No,” Zelgadis said quickly. “No. I’ve just got to do something and then I’ll be back.”

    “Because if you were,” she took a step closer and looked up into his eyes with her large slightly wavering blue ones, “you could take me with you, couldn’t you?”

    “I know,” Zelgadis said, and he surprised himself by putting a hand on her shoulder. “But I want you to stay here because as long as you’re here, I’ll come back.”

    The moment stretched out far too long. He had his hand on her shoulder, she was looking up at him and he was looking down at her. It was awkward and neither of them seemed to know what to say or do next, but for some unfathomable reason that didn’t seem to matter.

    A recollection buzzed up against Zelgadis’s brain and he asked, because he couldn’t stop himself: “What was it you said you wanted to tell me before?”

    Amelia broke eye-contact with him, looking down at her own hands for a moment uncertainly. Then she locked gazes with him once again. Her voice quavered with nervousness, but there was that hard Amelia-courage underneath.

    “I’ll tell you,” she said. “When you come back for good.”

  24. #24
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    Epilogue.

    Inside the temple of Sairaag, it rained. This was because, the speed of the construction being what it was, the roof was still not complete. The priestesses had done their best with carefully placed pots and pans, so the entire chamber was filled with the unpleasant pings of raindrops hitting metal.

    Zangulus sat in a chair in the hallway and tried not to think too hard about things. The priestesses had taken Martina into another room and told him to wait outside. Well, that was obviously right, wasn’t it? That’s how things were done. He’d just get in the way if he were there.

    Still, it was nerve-wracking just waiting. Sairaag had no hospital, so he just had to trust that the priestesses knew what they were doing.

    He took a drink out of a tea-cup he’d been given by one of the priestesses. He’d been told it was healthy. He’d been told there were herbs in it. Of course, it tasted awful. But it was warm and he really didn’t have anything else to distract him from his thoughts.

    Obviously he was worried about his wife. Would she be alright? What if something…went wrong? Also, obviously he was worried about how he’d act in his new role. Would he be a good father? What if he… messed up?

    But sometimes the less obvious and more immediate problems take up a lot more headspace than you’d think. The one tolling through Zangulus’s mind rang out like a bell: What if it’s a girl?

    Now, Zangulus didn’t actually favor boys over girls or anything. A son would be a blessing. If he had a son he’d teach him swordsmanship and talk to him about girls. A daughter would be a blessing. If he had a daughter he’d beat up any boy that made her cry and… hell, he’d probably teach her swordsmanship too. He’d be happy with either if it weren’t for…

    Martina got so set on things. She’d picked out the names very quickly and wouldn’t budge. And while Martin was a perfectly reasonable thing to name a boy (though a little egotistical if your name is Martina), Zangula was not a reasonable name for anyone. He pitied the poor child that would have to walk around with that name. But Martina had made up her mind and no amount of persuading could make her change it.

    A priestess walked out of the private room. Zangulus recognized her. That was that Sylphiel girl who’d been around during that Hellmaster/end of the world thing. From what he could tell she pretty much ran the temple now. She was carrying a bundle in her arms. Zangulus almost dropped his bitter herb-infused drink before he managed to regain his cool.

    Sylphiel gave him a warm, comforting smile. “Miss Martina’s just fine,” she said. “She’s resting.”

    She held out the child for Zangulus to take. He backed up for a moment, then held out his arms in the wary way of all new fathers who think they’re going to be the first one to drop their baby. Sylphiel gently shifted the bundle into his arms, guiding him to the correct way to hold it.

    “It’s a girl,” she said.

    Zangulus looked down in awe at the child in his arms. She was pink and slightly wrinkly and seemed to be blowing spit bubbles in her sleep. Of course, as far as Zangulus was concerned she was the most beautiful creature to ever grace the planet. She was also the most terrifying… so filled with hope and promise. He must never, ever let her down.

    Zangula…

    Oh well, Zangulus thought. She’ll grow into it.

    *****

    These days, the people say that the old Beld place is haunted. So quickly did they forget the charming, bear-like man who threw grand parties that everyone very much enjoyed and was a pillar of the community. This was probably because of the whole ‘finding him strangled in a room with six brutally murdered women’ thing. That kind of incident tends to leave a lasting impression on people’s minds.

    As for Lilliana, she couldn’t care less what they said. She was determined to make the most out of life despite the fact that she was not technically living. She’d found her parents and they’d accepted her back into their lives (after, of course, a nasty incident in which they’d tried to shoot her in the head with a crossbow before she’d managed to properly explain matters). She’d gotten a job as a school-teacher and was very popular among the students (it’s that trick where she pops out her eyes. It gets them every time). She was even stepping out on evenings with a local baker’s apprentice who was, we can only assume, extremely open-minded.

    To an especially stubborn mind, death hardly even warrants a sick day.

    *****

    Deep under the swamps of Putter Country in a castle within an air bubble, the Marsh King and his wife passed their day browsing through a catalogue of wallpaper samples. This was a bit removed from the Marsh King’s original activities which had largely included shaking a halberd and roaring at the swamp to obey its will. Given the circumstances, he’d adjusted quite well.

    “RAAAGUFFAAAAH!” the crocodile-headed deity roared as he pointed at a very lovely pink and green pattern with ducks emblazoned on it.

    “Oh yes, that’s very cute,” his wife responded thoughtfully. “But I worry it might be too cute. We don’t want her thinking we’re trying to infantilize her or anything.” She flipped through the book. “What about something in a light blue with white stripes?”

    “TREEAAAAAAANG!” the Marsh King pointed out.

    “You’re right, of course,” his wife agreed. “We don’t know when the dear thing is coming back to visit and we might as well let her choose for herself then.” She closed the book with some regret, as though disappointed that the joys of interior decorating had been denied her.

    The Marsh King paused. He gave his best effort, he really did. But his dental arcade hadn’t been designed for higher speech. He tried nevertheless. “LAAAHAAAYLAAARRR?” he asked.

    “Yes, Dylos?” Layla asked.

    Dylos steeled himself for the sentence ahead, trying to achieve through sheer will what evolution failed to do with his jaws. “HEEELLGARRRRR… HAAPPPPYYY?”

    Layla sighed. “I hope so,” she said. “But that’s really all up to her.”

    *****

    Somewhere closer to the hubbub of Putter Country’s more cosmopolitan sections (i.e. places with floors and even the occasional roof) a young man stood waist deep in the mire and fished. He fished in the same spot his daddy had fished, and his granddaddy, and his great-granddaddy, and all the daddies before him had fished. His name was Jason. He was thirteen now and that practically made him a man.

    Suddenly, the peace and quiet of the day was broken by the rapid splashing as a girl just a bit younger than him ran her way through the bog with something cupped in her hands and an expression of sheer, exuberant excitement on her face. Her splashing had probably scared away all the fish, but Jason didn’t mind. It could have been because this girl was of such unsurpassed beauty that a man could overlook something like that. But it could have just been because Jason was an especially patient boy.

    She opened her palms to reveal her find to him, her smile wide and her eyes shining. Jason looked at what she was holding with interest for a moment, and then looked up, flashing her a freckle-faced smile.

    “That’s a cricket, Helga,” he said. “Crick-et!”

    “Crooo,” she tried uncertainly, unused to words.

    “Cricket,” Jason repeated. “‘Cause they go crick-eet all the time!”

    “Cricky!” Helga tried, ever the student.

    Jason smiled. It was funny how the arrangement had worked out. But once you knew about Helga you just sort of took the way she was for granted. During the day he’d teach her to speak, and at night she’d tell him stories. Tonight he was hoping she’d tell the one about the fish-tailed princess who lived underwater. He’d always liked that one.

    Some people might make a fuss about the way she looked at night, but some people’d make a fuss over anything. The way Jason could figure it: no one could help the way they were made.

    *****

    Filia had only just arrived back in Achaea. It was good to be home. It was nice to be around Jillas and Gravos again, and comforting to know that no major catastrophes had occurred in her absence. It was nice to see Val resting inside his egg again. She’d whispered Amelia’s greeting to him and also claimed that Zelgadis had said hello too, hopefully not starting a lifelong habit of lying to children. And she was looking forward to getting back to selling vases and maces again. It was very rewarding.

    In fact, everything would’ve been perfectly lovely if it wasn’t for…

    Oh, who else?

    Xellos had followed her home. He actually went and followed her home!

    He hadn’t been physically following her home the whole time. He’d pop into the astral plain from time to time and Filia would wonder if he’d gotten bored of her and was going to grant her a little peace for awhile until he popped back into existence.

    Now he was standing in her front hall as though he had every right to be there; which he certainly didn’t.

    So, she’d taken the only natural course of action: she’d gotten out a broom and tried to shoo him out of her house as you might do with vermin. She considered this right and thoroughly appropriate treatment of him.

    But, she thought to herself, if he doesn’t leave then eventually I’ll have to stop this. And then maybe… just maybe… I’ll offer him some tea.

    *****

    Amelia sighed and looked dramatically over the tower balcony.

    She wasn’t sure what she was really waiting for. Zelgadis hadn’t left that long ago and there was very little chance he’d be coming back from his highly mysterious errand already. Not to mention she had a million other things she should be doing instead.

    There was always a lot for a princess to do, and a lot of work had piled up while she was traveling. Not to mention there was the aftermath of the swamp witch attack to worry about. There’d been a lot of cleaning and drying out to protect the city’s buildings from the damage of damp and mold. Then there’d been the giant fight she’d had to mediate between merchants over what to do with the fish the witch had rained down on the city. One group wanted to eat the fish on account of it not being wise to waste free food. One group claimed that since the fish were enchanted, eating them would no doubt do something awful to them like turning them all into pigs. The pork industry representatives had watched the argument with patient interest.

    She frowned at the horizon. She was really up here because staring out dramatically over balconies is what you’re supposed to do when you’re pining. There wasn’t any use bringing sense into it.

    …But if he didn’t show up soon she was going to do a lot more than stare dramatically into the distance clasping her hands to her heart. Mark it.

    *****

    Zelgadis rode along the outskirts of the Desert of Fears. It was probably impolite of him, he thought, not to have stopped by Filia’s on his way through Achaea, but she and Xellos had seemed oddly chummy when they’d last left and he wasn’t sure he wanted to subject himself to their joint company. Plus it wasn’t like they hadn’t seen each other in a while or anything. Anyway, he had a mission.

    He tied his horse to a rock formation outside and walked up to the door in the sheer rock-face that had started him on this whole crazy quest. He knocked.

    There was a sound of thudding footsteps and then a serious: “Who goes there?”

    Zelgadis was somewhat taken aback. He hadn’t expected that tone. “It’s Zelgadis,” he said.

    There was a flurry of locks unclicking and the door flew open to reveal Sangoma. With a slightly apologetic expression she said: “Sorry about that. Rhevas is out, so I can’t be too careful. Please, come in.”

    Zelgadis walked across the threshold silently and wondered what a monster could have to be afraid of. And then he thought that the answer for a monster with limited powers, a husband, and a professed interest in humans would be: other monsters.

    “I hoped I’d be seeing you again,” she said with a smile. She gestured to a chair. “Please, sit down and tell me how things went. I wanted to watch myself, but Seyruun’s a little iffy for me, you understand.”

    And so Zelgadis sat down and told her what had happened in the fight with Viola the oracle. At the point in which he told her how he finally defeated the oracle, he took out the bag he’d been carrying from Seyruun, opened it and poured its contents on the table.

    “This is all that’s left of her,” he said.

    Bones. The same ancient bones that had come from the ice. The bones of a creature long ago decayed. Sangoma eyed them with polite interest.

    “Will you take them?” Zelgadis asked seriously.

    “As I only recently had to explain to Xellos,” Sangoma said, picking up a finger bone and inspecting it. “Dead bodies are not an appropriate gift to give to girls.” She put down the bone and looked thoughtful. “Perhaps there should be some sort of public service announcement to that effect.”

    “I just meant that I thought you could give her a resting place,” Zelgadis said testily, not considering this a joking matter. “You know, in the vaults with the others.”

    “I think I could manage that,” Sangoma said serenely. She sat back and gave Zelgadis a critical look. “So you figured out that she was a chimera?”

    “Yes,” Zelgadis said. “But I still don’t know how. It was more instinct that anything.”

    Sangoma gave a satisfied nod. “You see, hundreds of years ago, back in the dark and wild days of alchemy,” well, she paused, “certainly darker and wilder than these days at least, a human girl possessing great psychic gifts was kidnapped be a rogue experimental group of alchemists. They wanted to try something that no one had ever done before.”

    “They fused her with the swamp,” Zelgadis said bitterly. “But a swamp isn’t alive,” he pointed out.

    “Isn’t it?” Sangoma said, drawing back and looking questioningly at him. “A swamp is made up entirely of live-things which are interdependent on each other. The same could be said of humans. The swamp is an entity in itself.”

    “So doing this made her an oracle?” Zelgadis asked, not entirely sure he bought Sangoma’s living swamp theory.

    “A swamp is…” Sangoma paused looking for the right words, “it’s a thing on the edge of things. It’s water and land, life and decay, light and dark… a swamp is a very mystical kind of place and Viola already had great psychic powers. Plugged in to an ancient source of wisdom her powers increased. And, of course, she could live as long as the swamp could because she was the swamp.”

    “Are there others like her?” Zelgadis asked.

    “No,” Sangoma shook her head. “She was the only chimera of her kind, fused with earth and water. What the alchemist had created was an oracle, and like almost every oracle that has ever been she bemoaned her existence.”

    “If you knew all this,” Zelgadis asked, trying to keep the irritation from his voice. “Then why didn’t you send me to her in the first place? Why all these dead-end searches?”

    “To give you a chance of beating Viola,” Sangoma said, pointing at him. “If you couldn’t figure out what Viola was you didn’t have much of a chance of defeating her. I wasn’t going to tell you outright, but I did give you the opportunity to figure it out yourself.”

    “The theme I wanted you to see,” she went on, “is one of transformation. By belief a mad collection of souls manifested themselves into a dark goddess, by clinging to life even in the face of death a human girl became one of the undead, and by the curse of her parentage a girl appeared human during the day and monstrous at night.” She beamed. “See? Transformation. And you were able to figure it out so that just proves that my plan went off without a hitch!”

    Zelgadis privately thought that this was bunk and that Sangoma just hadn’t wanted to make things easy for him, but he kept that to himself. “What did you want out of all this?” he asked. “Did you want me to free the oracle so that she could wreak havoc on the world? Did you want the oracle to kill me and Amelia? Did you want the oracle killed so no one could use her knowledge? Or,” he gestured wearily at the bones on the table, “did you just want another chimera for your collection?”

    Sangoma shrugged. “Any of the above would’ve been beneficial.”

    Zelgadis groaned. The monster race had a habit of planning things out so that they couldn’t possibly lose.

    He had another question though, one that he wished he didn’t want to ask, but had nevertheless been preying upon his mind. “So, does that all mean that there really is no cure out there?” He looked down. “I mean, if Viola was a chimera and she knew a way… she’d just have gone off and done it herself.”

    “Not necessarily,” Sangoma said carefully. “Viola didn’t want to be human again. The only cure she was interested in was death.”

    “Cheer up,” Sangoma said, after a beat in which Zelgadis both looked downcast and thoughtful. “You survived, so you win something. I saw to that. You kept your geasa so you get a blessing. Have you been blessed yet?”

    “Well,” Zelgadis said, looking up. “I was knighted.” Put it like that it really did sound like a blessing.

    “Thought your clothes looked nicer,” Sangoma commented diplomatically. “Congratulations!”

    “But,” Zelgadis protested helplessly. “But I don’t deserve it! I don’t know if I even want it!”

    “Tough luck,” Sangoma said unsympathetically. “You never get to choose your blessings in life. They just happen. And sometimes they hurt like hell.”

    Zelgadis frowned. Put like that, someone could actually consider his form a blessing in itself. He’d never seen it that way, but maybe it was a matter of perspective. Maybe blessings weren’t things that made you happy, but things that helped you make other people happy.

    “So, what are you going to do now?” Sangoma said, asking a question of her own.

    Zelgadis shifted uncomfortably. “Well to be honest there are a lot of places I’ve been thinking of going and a lot of things I’ve been thinking of doing, but…” he trailed off. “I told Amelia I’d come back.”

    Sangoma nodded gravely and began putting the bones back in their bag. “It’s not wise to keep a lady waiting,” she said wisely. “Your choice though, obviously.”

    She patted the bag once she’d gotten it all packed up. “I’ll treat her with respect, don’t worry about it,” she said and Zelgadis believed her. Sangoma might play with the living, but he guessed she supposed the dead had been through too much already and deserved some peace and quiet.

    “Now go, Zelgadis,” she said, though not unkindly. “You won’t find what’s next hanging around here.”

    *****

    Zelgadis left the strange house in the rock and walked over to the place he’d tethered his horse, his head full of conflicting ideas.

    There were a lot of places to go and a lot of things to do. His natural inclination was to chase them. He was a knight now and many new places were probably open to him. Besides that, there were so many places he’d breezed through in his travels. Revisiting them held appeal.

    But yet… Seyruun had a special call to it as well. It had gained a fixed place in his mind.

    Amelia had said she had something that she wanted to tell him. Well, if he was really honest with himself – and he was trying to be honest with himself – he had something he wanted to tell her too. He really hoped they had the same thing in mind, otherwise things could be really embarrassing.

    He patted his white horse gently as he untied the reigns.

    “Come on, Snowflake,” he said. “We’re going home.”

    THE END.

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