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Thread: Legal Matter (Slayers) - Complete

  1. #1
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    Default Legal Matter (Slayers) - Complete

    Rating: R
    Fandom: Slayers
    Genre: Romance/Comedy
    Status: Complete
    Pairing: Xellos/Filia

    Summary: Due to an unfortunate misunderstanding Xellos and Filia find themselves joined in the bonds of wedded bliss, minus the bliss. Now both the monster and dragon races are lining up to knock them off the face of the earth.

    Author's Note: I hadn't planned on starting this until I was a bit further along with Oracle's Wish, but I've been more productive lately than usual and hopefully can stay that way. Besides, Xellos and Filia won't stop bugging me until I give them their own story. Hope you enjoy it... Also posted up on my fanfiction.net account.

    *****

    “It’s a legal matter, baby,
    Marryin’s no fun.
    It’s a legal matter, baby,
    A legal matter from now on.”
    ~ “Legal Matter” by The Who


    Chapter 1. Whoops.

    “Is this all really necessary?” Filia asked, as she held her mace protectively, as one might hold a child… a child that might be used to bash skulls in at any moment.

    “I’m afraid so, ma’am,” the guard said, not at all unnerved by the sight of a young woman carrying a heavy weapon. While it was true that Gruddi Temple was open to the public all year round, the most sought after section, the rare magical books collection, only opened for visitors once every ten years. A hype that big was enough to send plenty of diverse (read: weird) people on a pilgrimage to the source of wisdom. This particular guard remembered well what it was like the last time they’d opened up their collection (he wasn’t the most upwardly mobile man in the world). What seemed at first glance to be a little old lady, but in fact turned out to be some kind of fiend from the great void, had devoured three books on necromancy before they’d caught her. He knew he’d never hear the end of it if something like that happened again. “Now, do you intend to eat any of the books on display?” he asked as casually as he could, just to be super safe.

    “For the fifth time: no!” Filia answered irritably. She looked mournfully down at the mace. Well, if this was the only way… “Here,” she said, dropping the weapon into the guard’s arms.

    He sank to the ground like an anvil onto a cartoon character and nearly cracked his chin against the cement floor, but rallied magnificently. He huffed, puffed, and cursed and was finally able to lift the surprisingly heavy bludgeoning implement into a crate with the other confiscated items (completely crushing an elderberry pie that another guard had considered too, “delicious… I mean dangerous!” to be allowed in). He handed her a ticket and assured her that she could pick it up, preferably herself, after she’d finished with the books.

    She snatched the ticket and put it in her pocket, walking briskly across the grounds, beyond the gardens filled with exotic species of plant and moldering statues from all across the continent, and for that matter, across time. She walked by the stages that would soon feature the highest orders of the somewhat eccentric, but well regarded Gruddian priests as they lectured and preformed miracles. The Gruddi temple was one part museum and one part tourist attraction and would be a great place to wander aimlessly through all day. But today she had a mission. There was a certain book she wanted to see and it was said that the Gruddian priests had one of the few surviving copies.

    She entered the building that housed the famed collection, shouldering her way passed serious looking sorcerers and jumpy looking alchemists. Books that only survived as a few tissue-thin pages were kept under glass, but most of the collection was on the shelves that lined the walls of the tower, ready to be leafed through. It was only a matter of finding the right one…

    She eased the nearest book off the shelf and opened it. She was greeted with the tell-tale aroma that indicated well-fed bookworms and read the front page. It said, “Thee Efficks of Magick vol. 9: A Compendyum of Essayes on thee Subgeckt of Nonconfensual Alkemy by Norfrum Millidy” in ancient handwriting. She shut the book carefully, as to not send of cloud of dust flying into her face, and put it back on the shelf, reflecting sadly on the terrible spelling skills of most of the ancient mages.

    It hit her just then how many books there were in this tower. It must’ve gone up four floors, and it looked like there was at least one basement. Each one of these rooms was packed to bursting with books, most of which could not be readily discerned from one another as the titles had faded off the spines hundreds of years ago. What’s more, she thought as she picked up, “1001 Ancient Uses for the Radish by Wig Spuridian” from right next to Norfrum Millidy’s book, they didn’t appear to be arranged in any particular order.

    She slumped against the shelf. How was she ever going to find the book she wanted among all of these before they closed for the evening? She wasn’t even sure of its exact title or author, only the subject matter.

    “Having trouble finding something?” asked an annoyingly familiar voice from her left.

    She tensed up. Just when you think a day can’t get worse… She turned and, of course, there was Xellos. Who else would it be? After all, fate obviously hated her and considered the best way to make her suffer was to force her into the company of her least favorite person in the world. When Filia had been younger, she’d thought of fate bring people together as something romantic, now she knew better.

    “What are you doing here?” she asked in the traditional greeting of Xellos practiced by everyone who knew him.

    “Oh, just looking for a book,” he said nonchalantly. She noticed he was without his usual staff. They’d probably taken it away before they let him in. Filia found herself bitterly hoping that they’d ask him if he was planning on eating any books as well. “In fact,” he went on, “I have a sneaking suspicion that we’re looking for the same book.”

    The temperature in the room seemed to lower by a few degrees. “No,” she said almost inaudibly.

    “Oh yes,” Xellos went on. “After all, who wouldn’t be interested in a book about ancient dragons? This temple may well contain the only surviving work on the subject,” he paused and looked thoughtful. “Of course, some might consider it an obsolete topic, but then again,” his eyes opened malevolently, “I’ve heard that there’s one ancient dragon left.”

    Filia shook her head slowly and clenched her fists at her side. “You stay away from him,” she threatened.

    Xellos eyed her with critical amusement, as a cat might view a particularly feisty rat. He’d heard that you should never get between a mother bear and her cub, but he considered this piece of advice was only for people who couldn’t handle the claws. Nevertheless…

    “All I’m interested in right now is information, I assure you.”

    “Oh, I’m really sure,” Filia snapped, about as willing to start trusting monsters as to shave her head and paint it green. “Good luck finding it,” she said, gesturing to the expanse of shelves.

    Xellos peered around at the shelves and, clearly deciding he didn’t have the time to expend on them, walked away. Filia hesitated for a moment, and then followed him. After all, she admitted bitterly to herself, Xellos was much more likely to find the book than she was.

    “Excuse me,” Xellos was saying, politely as you please, to a mustachioed man in the garb of a Gruddian priest, when she caught up with him. “I’m,” he noticed Filia a few steps behind him trying not to be noticed and corrected himself. “We are looking for the book on the ancient dragons that you’re supposed to have here.”

    “Oh, that one,” the man said, taking a book that had been left out and putting it back on the shelf. “I’m afraid it’s not here.”

    Filia’s heart sank. Nobody knew much of anything about the ancient dragons anymore, and since she was currently raising one she’d wanted to know as much as she could. This had been her last hope.

    “We can’t keep it out with the rest because it’s such a high risk for theft,” the man went on. “Awhile back some vandals destroyed every copy they could get their hands on, and because this is the last one in existence we have to make sure visitors only view it under our supervision.”

    “So where is it now?” Filia asked.

    The man scratched his chin. “I think old Warbler’s got it up in the Communal Building,” he said. “It’s just out the door, to your right and through the wind chime garden. I’d take you there myself, but it’s a mad house here.”

    They thanked the man and left the building, heading in the direction he mentioned. The garden was full of wind chimes of all sizes, giving off a wide variety of tones. They had been blessed by the priests and priestesses of the temple, and the sounds they gave off were supposed to foster inner peace. It was a breezy day and the ringing of the chimes filled the air with the light, pleasant sounds. It was certainly better than listening to…

    “So, it seems that most of the other books have been destroyed,” Xellos commented, breaking through Filia’s ingenious “pretend he isn’t there” defense.

    “Was it you?” Filia asked leadenly. She’d had a feeling.

    Xellos stopped and had the nerve to look surprised and slightly affronted. “What makes you think that?”

    “Mister Zelgadis told me about how you burned all those Claire Bible manuscripts,” she said.

    “Oh, that.” Xellos’s shoulders relaxed. Of course, Zelgadis would remember that, and probably complain to anyone who would listen too. “That was a different matter. No, Filia, if you want to know who destroyed all those books you’d be better off blaming yourself.”

    “Me? What did I do?”

    “Your race,” Xellos explained. “The golden dragons destroyed every single ancient dragon, save one. When that act was done they wanted to wipe away all knowledge that the ancient dragons every existed, as if that could make what they did go away,” he added snidely.

    Filia stared at the ground. Even after all she’d found out it was still a terrible thing to think about of those who are meant to be servants of the gods.

    “In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if they’ve sent someone to deal with the manuscript themselves,” Xellos commented airily as they reached what must have been the Communal Building. It was a small, disused looking building and when they entered it the only staff member they saw there was a little old man who looked like he could tell some great stories about the Konan wars from when he was a youngin’.

    “Eserve vert?” the old priest asked, with a smile so full of yellow teeth you’d swear their owner had to have been some kind of cheese-eating rodent.

    Xellos looked at Filia who said, “He must be from the old country.”

    “Which old country?” Xellos asked. Humans had so many that it tended to get confusing.

    Filia’s eyebrows knitted in thought. “I think the Gruddian homeland is on one of the outer islands.”

    “Fair enough,” Xellos said. “What’s he saying?”

    “I don’t have the faintest idea,” Filia said with a disdainful sniff.

    “I thought golden dragons were supposed to be good with languages,” Xellos said as insultingly as he could manage.

    “Not all dragons study languages,” Filia shot back defensively. “I studied prophecy, history, and practical geography with an elective study of macramé.”

    "Well, you’ve obviously made the best out of your education,” Xellos said nastily. “But it doesn’t exactly help us now.”

    “Maybe he’ll understand anyway,” Filia suggested hopefully. “A lot of languages have the same words for things,” she added with the optimism of one who, when confronted with a person who speaks a language other than their own, will speak loudly and slowly and consider this a substitute for finding an interpreter.

    Xellos gave her an unkind look and then turned to the little old man, who had been smiling at each of them throughout the conversation. In fact, the man’s entire face seemed to be built around that smile. His dimples had dimples.

    “Do you have the book on ancient dragons?” Xellos asked slowly and carefully.

    The man’s smile retracted for a fifth of a second as he looked thoughtfully at the two of them, and then the smile was back, brighter and rottener than ever. He held up a hand, as if to say “one moment,” and disappeared into the back room.

    “See,” Filia said. “He knew exactly what we were talking about.”

    The old man hobbled back into the room and placed a document covered in the foreign language on the desk. He pushed it slightly forward and gestured to the quills on either side of it saying, “Besin raye.”

    “…Or maybe not,” Filia said, hopes dashed.

    “No, this looks like a contract,” Xellos said. “The priest from before mentioned what a security risk the book is. We probably just have to sign to agree that we won’t harm the book or steal from it or copy it.”

    “I think you might be right,” Filia said grudgingly, since it was Xellos and all. Technically she had a rule about agreeing with monsters. “Look, he’s already got the book,” she said, pointing to a book tucked under the old man’s arm that had ancient tome written all over it.

    The man noticed her gaze and nodded saying, “Besin raye dun ie ert ip rite.” He nudged the inkwells forward as if they needed a hint.

    “Alright, alright,” Filia said, snatching up a quill and signing her name on the line. She handed the quill to Xellos and was barely able to keep herself from sticking her tongue out at him before saying, “I get to look at it first.”

    Xellos, in turn, was barely able to keep himself from rolling his eyes as he signed the form.

    When he had finished, the old priest carefully separated the document, putting the original on his desk, and rolled up the two imprints and fastened them shut, handing one to Xellos and Filia respectively. They each held their scrolls dumbly, wondering when they’d get to see the book.

    The old man fished around in his pocket for his reading glasses, and once they were perched on the bridge of his nose, he opened the worn book and began to read aloud. “Melavre melawea,” he began, looking up at an invisible audience standing behind the two. They looked around, wondering what the old man was going on about. “I rea collet raye noaw vi univive bea dozza ie ip commus de sacrist wervest.”

    “What’s he doing?” Filia asked, staring curiously at the old man, and wondering with traces of pity whether he was going senile.

    The old man got out from his desk and stood in front of them. Before either could protest, he snatched up their hands a placed them on top of one another holding his own blue-veined hand-shaped mass over them. He said, “Frey ip authos rifer ie os frey ip Gruddi, os noaw authos marus dun farus.” For some reason he had tears in his eyes.

    “This… isn’t right,” Filia said, filled with a nameless dread as the strange little man let go of their hands and allowed her to take hers back.

    The old man hummed his way back to his desk and took out the original document they had signed and gave it a thorough stamping.

    “What was that?” Filia demanded.

    “I’m… not sure,” Xellos said, as a million tiny instinctual voices in the back of his head screamed at him in warning.

    At that moment, the door to the building slid open as a younger man dressed as a clerk shuffled in carrying a sack lunch and muttering to himself about how hard it was to find Gouda in this town. He nodded absentmindedly to Xellos and Filia, dropping the lunch on the old man’s desk, before saying something in Gruddi to the old man, who responded at length.

    The clerk smiled to himself. “Ah,” he said, turning to Xellos and Filia. “I see congratulations are in order.”

    “Congratulations for what?” Xellos inquired flatly.

    The clerk’s smile transformed from cheerful to nervous, put off my Xellos’s tone. “Well, the ceremony and all?”

    “What ceremony?” Filia asked, unease rising as her nameless dread sought a name that she couldn’t bear to think.

    The clerk’s smile was very uncomfortable at that point, as he realized that a passing nicety was about to turn into a gigantic headache. But he persevered. “You know,” he said helpfully, hoping that they really did. “The marriage.”

    For a moment there was a horrible silence. Screaming would’ve been preferable to the strangling silence pouring off of Filia like the airless vacuum of space. She open and closed her mouth like a fish trying to breathe out of water, unable to bring words to the enraged thoughts crashing through her psyche, queuing up for a run at the vocal chords and occasionally pushing each other over. Xellos, in a rare moment, was struck completely dumb.

    “You mean you didn’t want to get married?” the clerk asked meekly.

    And then the screaming started.

    “Well of course we didn’t want to get married!” thundered Filia. “What possible reason could anyone have to think that I would ever ever want to marry that loathsome, disgusting—”

    “We asked for a book on ancient dragons,” Xellos interrupted her, and it was just as well because Filia liked to think of herself as the kind of person who didn’t use profanity.

    The clerk looked hopelessly at the piece of paper on the desk and said, “Then why’d you sign the marriage contract?”

    Filia rounded on Xellos. “You said it was a security contract!”

    “Need I remind you that you agreed with me?” Xellos shot back as his farsighted mind took him to a very unhappy, though likely very brief, future.

    Filia turned the mass of her anger back at the cowering clerk. “He didn’t even ask us if we wanted to get married,” she said, jutting out her arm in reference to the old priest. “He just went and got the papers.”

    “Well, miss,” the clerk paused to correct himself, “I mean, Mrs., the Gruddi Temple is sort of known for not asking questions when it comes to weddings. That’s why people get married here, if you catch my meaning.”

    At this, the old priest muttered something to himself in a huff.

    “What did he say?” Xellos asked the clerk with a somewhat threatening stare. He hadn’t liked the old man’s tone.

    The clerk gulped. He didn’t deserve any of this. “Old Warbler was saying that you two had no right to complain just because you got cold-feet,” He winced and then added, “He also asked what else he was supposed to think when a cute couple steps into his office.”

    Filia’s face once again passed anger and went into the realms of shock and appall. If she didn’t stop abusing that expression birds would start building their nests in her mouth. She clamped her mouth shut, glared at the poor clerk, and simply said, in a voice that brooked no argument, “Undo this.”

  2. #2
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    Fun Fact: This is the second story I've seen in the Shipper's Fanfic section with the same name as a song by The Who.

    ******

    “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.”
    ~Arabic Proverb


    Chapter 2. Don’t Blame Me.

    He’d done nothing to bring this on himself, the clerk thought as he searched the office of Priest Warbler for some kind of procedural document for dealing with instances like the one he’d landed in. Sure, he’d made a few mistakes, a few indiscretions. He’d forgotten his sister’s birthday last week and yesterday when he stubbed his toe on his bed frame he’d said a few things that the Gruddian bible technically classified as blasphemy. But all in all, he was a good man; kind to orphans and whatnot.

    Yet, there he was, searching through the old priests files while a blonde woman treated him to a glare so incandescent it could be used to keep wolves at bay on a cold winter’s night. What was almost worse was the purple-haired man with the drawn face, as though resigned to some dark fate.

    “I’m sure we’ll be able to deal with the matter momentarily,” he said, because he felt something was expected of him. He glanced hopelessly at old Warbler, but there was no help there. Warbler looked completely different without his signature amiable smile. It was as though his face had snapped back, and was now just hanging droopily around a disapproving frown. The old man loved weddings, and the idea of undoing one was fundamentally against his nature.

    At that moment the door swung open as Brother Aluck meandered in, followed by two austere looking bearded men in long white robes. He was sure the men must be from some other temple, but for the life of him couldn’t think of which.

    “Sorry for the inconvenience, gentlemen,” Aluck said, giving his guests an apologetic look. “But you can’t be too careful with rare documents such as this. It should be in here.”

    The first of the bearded men nodded understandingly to Brother Aluck, but the second one was studying Filia curiously.

    Filia swallowed a gasp. They obviously weren’t from her temple, as all the servants of her temple had perished in the events of the Dark Star incident, but she’d recognized the robes of golden dragons anywhere. And, she thought as her eyes met the cold blue ones of the second bearded man, they recognized her too. Dimly, in the back of her head, she realized that they must be there to destroy the book on the ancient dragons, but, at this point, that wasn’t the worst of her worries.

    She glanced nervously at Xellos who was doing his best to make himself inconspicuous as the eyes of the golden dragons shifted to him. Did they know what he was? Probably not, since they weren’t A. trying to kill him or B. running away from him. It was clear though, that both men felt that something was wrong. Likely they were put off by the unpleasant aura Xellos generally gave off.

    “So, what do we have here?” Brother Aluck asked the clerk, with a friendly look toward Xellos and Filia.

    Filia looked pleadingly at the clerk, trying manically to master telepathy in the few short seconds it would take him to answer. Her efforts were in vain.
    “A marriage,” the clerk said, having finally located the book that would get him out of this pickle. “Sort of,” he added, cracking open the book and trying to find the “So You’ve Accidentally Married Someone Against Their Will” chapter.

    To Filia’s intense relief (and in some desperate way, intense disappointment), the world did not end at this point. Brother Aluck just gave a jolly little chuckle and said, “You can’t be sort of married. That’s like being a little bit pregnant.” He laughed again and turned to his guests. “Well, I’ll get going on finding that book for you, gentleman,” and headed up the stairs to the second floor leaving the two golden dragons waiting where he’d left them.

    The clerk, who had been skimming the book in front of him with the aid of his index finger, sported a look of triumph as he found the section he’d been looking for. “Aha,” he said appropriately. “I think we can fix this now,” he said with an apologetic smile to Xellos and Filia. “We have procedures in place for this kind of thing, and if you’ll just let me get a priest besides Old Warbler,” he shot a look at Warbler as the old man sank his rotten teeth into the sandwich the clerk had gotten him for lunch, “then we can undo everything.” He had a sudden thought and went on. “I do hope you won’t take this as a bad reflection on the Gruddi Temple. Because, I assure you,” he checked the contract in front of him, “Mr. Xellos and Miss Filia, circumstances like this are quite rare.”

    Xellos and Filia weren’t the least bit mollified by that particular assurance or the good news that came stapled to it, as both sets of eyes turned almost magnetically to the would-be book destroying dragons. The negative equivalent of a light-bulb seemed to have gone off in their heads (which, I suppose, would be a black light bulb). The golden dragons may not have picked up on the fact that Xellos was a monster by his presence alone, but every golden dragon knew and hated that name. What’s more, they knew that Filia was a golden dragon as well and had been told that party A had married party B, which all added up to…

    “Treason!” the more senior of the golden dragons shouted, pointing an accusatory finger at Filia.

    “No!” Filia protested. “It’s all a mistake! I can explain!”

    “I sincerely doubt it,” the second dragon, and evidently the more cool-headed of the two, growled.

    Xellos privately doubted it too. First off, he didn’t think that Filia would be given the chance to explain. Even if she did, she wasn’t likely to be believed. If their respective races didn’t believe the truth, then he and Filia were traitors guilty of death, if the truth was believed then they were complete morons and probably guilty of death as well (or at least some really unkind sarcastic remarks).

    “What’s going on?” the clerk demanded fearfully, noting the sudden rage of his white-clad guests.

    And… yes, they were transforming, Xellos noted as white lights flashed and the two men were quickly replaced by golden scaled, winged reptiles. Typical of the dragon race to bullheadedly resort to violence to solve all their problems instead of trying to sort things out beforehand. He would’ve shared this little observation with Filia if it weren’t for the fact that they were in imminent danger.

    There was a squeak from the stairwell as Brother Aluck dropped the book he was holding and fled out the back door followed closely by the clerk and Old Warbler limping behind them with a sandwich still clenched in his decaying teeth. This is because followers of Gruddi are devoted keepers of the peace. When violence breaks out before their very eyes, they quickly cut their ties and run off to find somewhere less dangerous to keep peace. The unenlightened mistake this for cowardice.

    It was a shame for them that they left. They missed the fireworks.
    The first dragon took a deep breath and shot out a burst of laser breath destroying most of the building, leaving only charred, fiery remains. In this way, he completed his first objective: destroy the book on ancient dragons (which was currently a non-communicative pile of ash), and was on his way to completing his second objective: destroy the newlyweds (who, in his view, would soon suffer the same fate).

    Filia could barely spare a second in disappointment over the lost book, as the remains of the second floor cascaded towards her head. In times of danger all the background noise of the brain gets turned down, as it focuses on one thought. So all her indignation over her unfortunate and temporary marriage to Xellos was turned down, as was her despair of ever finding the information she sought about the ancient dragons, as her brain focused on one solitary, real, and somewhat irrational thought.

    I need to get my mace.

    She tore out of the burning building with an impressive turn of speed that didn’t mean much, since her pursuers could fly. She ran between the erratic laser blasts through the wind chime garden, which was currently filled more with the sounds of screaming people and explosions than the tinkle of chimes. She didn’t stop running until she reached the bin that held her confiscated mace. The guard had long since abandoned his post, so she was free to snatch the spiked weapon out of the case. It was as she had left it, only now it did seem to have the remains of someone’s pie on it.

    As she held it in her hand, the pink haze of panicked action dissipated from her brain. She stared up at the advancing threat from the skies and then back down at the weapon in her hand.

    “Well, what now?” Xellos asked, eerily reading her thoughts as he hefted his staff out of the next bin over.

    “I…” Filia’s voice broke off. “I don’t know.”

    “You could try fighting back,” Xellos suggested, as though Filia were a small and rather stupid child.

    Filia looked down at the mace. Of course, it was a weapon. Its very purpose was fighting back. Yet, even though she’d raced to acquire it, she had absolutely no intention of using it against the coming threat. It had been more… instinct. She felt better now that she was holding it. But she just couldn’t fight against her own people. It was… wrong.

    Still, the idea of being reduced to ashes had very little appeal.

    “Well why don’t you do something,” Filia shot back at him. “You can’t pretend you’re not involved.”

    You’re the traitor to their race,” Xellos pointed out. “They’re not trying to incinerate me.”

    At that, a roar shook the ground, as a massive golden dragon flew overhead sending a blitz of laser blasts that would’ve made for some interesting last words for Xellos if he hadn’t leisurely stepped to the side.

    “Hmm. I seem to be mistaken,” he said, scratching idly at his cheek. “How very unwise of them.”

    “See?” Filia said, waving a hand at the now burned patch of grass Xellos had been standing on moments ago. “Now you have to help.”

    Xellos eye the airborne dragons malevolently and rolled up a sleeve. “If you insist,” he said.

    A few stray neurons rapped urgently on the door of Filia’s conscious to remind her of a few very important facts to be considered.

    “Only don’t hurt them,” she warned.

    Xellos fixed her a look that clearly said, “If I don’t hurt them then what am I supposed to do to them?”

    “Alright, you can hurt them,” Filia relented, realizing she might have asked too much. “But don’t kill them.” She caught a look in Xellos’s eyes and said, “Or maim them.”

    Xellos gave a very put-upon sigh and said, “Have it your way.”

    He raised a hand into the air, and then struck it forward, as though slicing the air in two. A shock of wind nearly lifted Filia off the ground as it seemed to be having the opposite effect on the flying dragons. The gust whacked them out of the sky and sent them hurtling toward the unforgiving ground as gravity did Xellos’s dirty work, knocking the two out.

    Filia raced up to them, and gave a sigh of relief. They were unconscious, but very much alive and mostly unhurt. They’d wake up sore and with bad headaches, but it could be worse when you picked a fight with Xellos. She shivered in the sunlight, remembering Xellos’s fight with Valgaav.

    “Now that you’ve had your little fancy about keeping them alive, consider this,” Xellos said, walking up from behind her. “When they wake up, they’ll alert the rest of your race about what happened here, and then every dragon on the planet will be after you,” neglecting to add that if the golden race found out something, then soon the monster race, with their vastly superior spy network, would also be in the know.

    “I don’t care,” Filia glowered at him, kneeling by the bodies of the fallen dragons. “They’re just doing their jobs. Why, I might have done the same thing if I were them.”

    “No, you wouldn’t,” Xellos said, as though to suggest that Filia just didn’t have the guts.

    “Nevertheless,” Filia insisted.

    “Fine,” Xellos said, nudging aside an immobile tail with his staff. “But there will be more of them, and they scared off all of the Gruddians.”

    Filia looked around. It was true. The temple grounds that had been bustling with people only a short while ago were now deserted. Laser-breathing dragons tend to have that effect on places.

    “That clerk,” Filia said, looking wildly around. “We’ve got to find him. He said he knew a way to undo this.”

    “And do you have any idea where he went?” Xellos asked bluntly.

    “Well, no,” Filia admitted.

    “Then it doesn’t seem as though finding him is a viable option, now does it?”

    Filia gritted her teeth. Married life was no treating her well. “Hey, at least I’m trying,” she said.

    Xellos could see that the events of the day were taking a toll on Filia. She was upset, and very much on edge. So he did what he did best: pushed her over the edge.

    “I suppose ‘trying’ means something to the dragon race. They probably give out little medals for ‘trying’, don’t they?” he said, in a manner that suggested that he would just bet that Filia had been awarded several such medals. “I’m glad to say that the monster race is a little more, ah, results driven. We’d call what you’re doing ‘failing’.”

    In one fluid movement Filia had brought her mace an inch away from Xellos’s nose. She wanted dearly to bash that pleased smile off of his face, but mastered the impulse. She withdrew her weapon, breathed out angrily, turned on her heel and stomped in the opposite direction.

    “Where are you going?” he asked, raising one eyebrow as she took a seemingly random path, arms pumping furiously.

    “Away from you,” she answered.

    He watched her literally storm off in a huff, clomping across the ground as if it had personally offended her and occasionally whacking trees with her mace as she muttered to herself angrily.

    He frowned slightly.

    *****

    Xellos reflected bitterly as he trudged through an overgrown forest path, that while purposefully upsetting Filia was a fun and somewhat hilarious pass-time, it wasn’t exactly the most productive thing to do given the situation. The fact was, they were both in the same mess and ought to have stuck together to fix it. If only someone hadn’t immaturely stomped off just because she got her feelings hurt a little.

    He knew he probably should’ve gone after her immediately, but considered this giving her more attention than she deserved. She’d likely run out of energy and find herself hopelessly lost in the depths of the forest soon enough anyway.

    So he’d stayed behind at the temple in order to give her more time in which to become hopelessly lost. He’d searched the abandoned grounds to see if anyone had stayed behind, but found no one. He’d looked through what used to be the Communal Building to see if the book the clerk had found was still there, but if it was it was burnt beyond all recognition.

    After all of that he decided it was time to get moving again. A destroyed temple tends to attract a lot of unwanted questions. So he’d headed off down a forest path. Not, he contented himself, the forest path that Filia had only recently stomped down, but an entirely different path. Because she could get lost in the forest and die of hypothermia for all he cared. It would certainly solve his problems, though would be unlikely due to the fact that it was summer.

    Alright, to be somewhat fair, the path he was on did run somewhat adjacent to the path Filia had taken. To be perfectly fair, it was a short-cut to the same path. But obviously, if he should run into her on his way it would be mere coincidence.

    If that did happen, he thought, he probably shouldn’t mention to her what else he had done before he left the temple. Without Filia there to interfere he had done what clearly needed to be done and killed the two knocked out golden dragons. He took no pleasure in it though. You could say his heart just wasn’t in it. After all, the monster race would find out what had happened anyway. They always did.

    “I’ve found you, Xellos,” said a voice from behind him that sounded like it had gone through a meat grinder.

    Speak of the devil, Xellos thought, and turned around.

    The thing looked back at him with six red, beady eyes. It had a mouth like a bug, and clearly wasn’t used to talking. It was at least twice as tall as Xellos and had a body covered it white hair. As for its legs, let’s just say it had too many and leave it at that.

    The creature raised a claw and waved it at Xellos as thought scolding him. “They found out what you did, Xellos,” it said through its punishment of a mouth, “And everyone’s very disappointed.”

    “And so they’ve sent you to kill me?” Xellos asked. He couldn’t help but feeling somewhat insulted.

    “They said you were smart,” the beast gurgled with what might have been a smile.

    Xellos assessed the situation. No one in their right mind would believe that the insect that stood before him would have even the slightest chance against him. This seemed to suggest that someone wanted to see what he would do in the situation.

    Now, what would a traitor do? Certainly kill the monster in front of them without a second thought. That’s why Filia wasn’t a traitor. She refused to fight her own race even when they were poised to kill her. Obviously that was for stupid, sentimental reasons, but Xellos had to come out at about the same thing, though for cunning, composed reasons.

    If he killed the monster in front of him without a second thought, then he would definitely be marked as a traitor to the monster race. No amount of explanation or divorce could change that. Therefore he could not fight his own race, not because it was wrong, but because it would be suicide in the long run.

    Then again, doing nothing to stop the creature trying to kill you had a bit of a suicidal quality to it as well. But he knew exactly what he had to do.

    “Oh, Filia,” he said, making his way quickly down the path that would soon cross hers as the monstrous centipede scrambled to keep up, keening unintelligibly.

    After all, it was always better to be able to say, “The golden dragon did it”.

  3. #3
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    “It is a power stronger than will.
    Could a stone escape from the laws of gravity? Impossible.
    Impossible, for evil to form an alliance with good.”
    ~Isidore Ducasse Lautreamont

    Chapter 3. Worst Honeymoon Ever.

    Putting as much distance between her and Xellos as she possibly could had seemed like a good idea to Filia at the time. After walking straight into a spider web, falling on her face after tripping on a rock, and being assaulted by gods only knew how many trees that were growing across the path, she was starting to rethink this decision.

    The fact was, it was all very well and good to storm off dramatically, but the stormer in question isn’t usually that fussed about the direction they’ve picked to storm off in. State of mind says, it doesn’t matter where you go as long as it’s away.

    This works out fine along a straight path for a little while. But eventually Filia had run out of steam and realized that she had no idea where she was or where she was going. The thick trees of the forest obscured the sky, so she couldn’t rely on the position of the sun to guide her. Moss seemed obstinately bent on growing on all sides of tree trunks, and Filia couldn’t remember which direction moss was supposed to indicate anyway.

    Even if she’d known exactly where she was, and, therefore, approximately where everything else was, it wouldn’t have done her any good. She was on the run from her own race and now very much alone. There was nothing she could do to fix the problem she’d been saddled with and there was nowhere left for her to hide. If she went home, she knew she’d just be putting Val, Jillas, and Gravos in danger.

    Which… left her with only one possible option. An exceptionally hateable option.

    She grimaced. She could just imagine the smug look on Xellos’s face when she turned up back at the temple. Knowing him, he’d probably ask her how her tantrum was.

    But… if there was really no other option… She groaned and turned around to head back to the temple to face Xellos’s inevitable sarcasm.

    She hadn’t walked three steps before the sound of footsteps at the crossroads behind her caused her to turn around. There, almost as if he’d been waiting for her to stoop low enough to decide to come running back to him, was Xellos, apparently the bandleader of some kind of nightmare parade with a giant monstrosity of a creature tagging along behind him.

    “Hello again, Filia,” he said, seemingly untroubled by the fact that he was being chased by a creature that looked like it ate puppies for breakfast. “How was your—”

    “Tantrum?” Filia asked, determined, despite the fact that the situation was beginning to look dangerous once more, to keep him from getting the line in. “Fine. What’s that?”

    “I didn’t get his name,” said Xellos, wondering if he was becoming predictable. “He might well consider pleasantries a waste of his time, considering he’s under the impression that he’s going to kill me.”

    “I am going to kill you,” the centipede-like creature snarled, smashing the ground furiously with his tail while Xellos neatly dodged it.

    Filia gaped at him. “So why don’t you just fight him then?”

    Xellos gave a mildly pained expression as though they’d just come to the thorny bit of the issue. “Actually, I was hoping that you could take this one.”

    “Me? Why me?”

    “If I may point out, I took care of those two golden dragons for you.”

    “Oh, come on,” Filia yelled, bristling at this unfair association. “They were trying to kill you too. You can’t even compare it to this.” She crossed her arms. “Anyway, weren’t you the one who wanted to keep out of things that didn’t involve you? Why shouldn’t I do the same?”

    “Tell me, Filia,” Xellos began, only mildly distracted by having to ceaselessly dodge a creature trying its damnedest to gut him. “Do you really think he won’t go after you next?”

    It was a persuasive point, but Filia wasn’t totally satisfied. “Why can’t you just take care of him?” she asked. Filia was a golden dragon and, therefore, a force to be reckoned with, but she’d never really considered herself a fighter. She could certainly kick ten kinds of crap out of most opponents, but that just wasn’t very nice. Xellos, on the other hand, was an invitation to genocide all on his own.

    “For the same reasons that you couldn’t fight the golden dragons trying to kill you,” Xellos explained.

    “…Because you respect and cherish your kinsman and cannot bring yourself to do them harm even at the cost of your own life?” Filia asked, finding this a bit of a hard pill to swallow.

    “Alright, not exactly the same reasons,” Xellos admitted, deflecting a razor-sharp claw with his staff. “But let’s just say, we’re both on thin ice right now and more treason won’t make things better for either of us.”

    Filia understood that, and was coming to understand something else as well. With a glowing sense of triumph she realized that she had been spared the humiliation of running back to Xellos. Quite the contrary. He’d come running back to her.

    “Are you saying that if I take care of the monsters coming after you, you’ll take care of the dragons coming after me?” Filia asked, because if she was going to enter into a deal with a monster of all things (an almost unthinkable notion that the times, unfortunately, seemed to demand) she was going to make sure it was clear from the start.

    “Quick as always,” Xellos responded, careful to remove any trace of sarcasm from his voice.

    Filia could hear sarcasm even when it was dead silent and glared at him. Insincere prick or not, though, there wasn’t much else to do but ally herself with him. Especially since the rest of the world seemed bent on killing them both.

    “Deal,” she said, and got out her foe-smashing mace.

    ******

    It had been an impressive looking fight. There had been lots of shouting and growling and generally warlike sounds, most of them from Filia. She’d consistently bashed at the thing with her mace, which, because she was fighting a creature with an astral body was almost completely useless. It seemed to help her get out some of her anger though, and that’s important. Inevitably, it was laser-breath that finished the fight for the awkward monster that had almost certainly drawn the short straw when it came to this mission.

    There hadn’t been any eye-gouging, but everyday can’t be Christmas.

    “So what now?” Filia asked in the slightly out of breath way of one who has kicked some serious ***. “I don’t suppose you have a plan to get us off the most wanted list?”

    “Not yet,” Xellos admitted. “But right now you and I have more immediate problems to deal with.”

    “Which problem are you referring to?” Filia asked gloomily. There were so many problems arising at the moment that she was starting to lose track.

    “As you know, I can deal with any number of dragons,” Xellos said proudly, happy to remind Filia that he had killed thousands of her race. “But I’m afraid eventually the monster race will send opponents you can’t handle. As such, our deal is rather unbalanced.”

    “Oh no,” Filia said, recognizing this tone of voice. “I said I’d get rid of the monsters for you and that’s it. I don’t know what you’re after, but you’re not getting anything else out of me.”

    “I don’t want anything out of you,” Xellos said coldly. “I’m just bringing up the very real problem we’ll soon be facing.”

    “Well, do you have a solution?” Filia asked, oddly vexed.

    “I was thinking that we might look up Lina Inverse,” Xellos said smoothly.

    It was true, Filia had to admit, that having Miss Lina on their side right now would be a big improvement. She’s the kind of girl you want to bring in for these doomsday scenarios. She’d want paying, but then again she always did.

    “We don’t even know where she is, though,” Filia said, eager to point out any flaws in Xellos’s proposal. “And there’s not much we can do to search for her with the golden dragons and the monsters watching for any movement from us.”

    “No,” Xellos said, expecting this rebuttal. “But we do know where one of her friends is.”

    Filia mentally ran through her list. Mister Gourry and Miss Lina were joined at the hip, and Mister Zelgadis was probably at some seedy bizarre buying urine in a fancy bottle from a man who claimed to have discovered a miracle cure-all. That left Miss Amelia.

    “You think we should go to Seyruun?”

    “It makes sense,” Xellos said, giving her a sidelong glance. “Seyruun is a city of white magic. Its very layout would make it difficult for the monster race to launch an attack and the castle is a fortress. We can stay there relatively safely while we send word to Miss Lina.”

    Filia was still doubtful. “There’s a lot of ground to cover between here and Seyruun.”

    Xellos raised an eyebrow. “If you’ve got a better plan, I’d like to hear it.”

    She didn’t. So Seyruun it was.

    *****

    They were wading through tall grasses that came to shoulder height. It wasn’t the most comfortable of paths, but it was the shortest way to the main road that would eventually lead them to Seyruun. The journey was surprisingly amicable considering the two traveler’s histories. There had been absolutely no immature storming off in random directions, though there had been a few longing glances down side paths. The worst they were dealing with at the moment was a slight tickling around armpit level, but they’d be out of the prairie soon enough.

    The reason for this peace might have been that they hadn’t said a single word to each other since they’d figured out which direction they should be walking in. But they’d silently arrived at the decision that just because they were technically married didn’t mean they had to talk to each other–a decision made in a surprising amount of marriages.

    With the dragons and monsters no doubt watching the astral plane closely for any sign of activity from them, they were forced to make their way to Seyruun the old fashioned way… on foot. Filia didn’t mind so much since she was used to getting around that way, but Xellos was more accustomed to popping in and out of that plane of existence whenever he liked and wasn’t quite so well-adjusted.

    Monsters and dragons have both been seen to warp from one place to another from time to time. While they both get roughly the same results, the different species go about it in different ways. Dragons, for example, teleport sparingly. They have respect for things like the physical laws of the universe and distance itself, so if it’s not really necessary to find a quicker mode of transport they’ll merely walk or fly. When they do teleport, they perform the nifty space-time trick of making the location they are at, for a tiny period of time, right next to the location they wish to go to. They sort of fold the miles in between the two places, and then when they’ve jumped out at their desired location, flatten space back into its proper shape.

    Monsters have no respect for the physical laws of the universe or distance and therefore teleport as much as they want. They will simply rip a hole in causality, take a shortcut through the astral plane, and then punch another hole out wherever they want to exit. Time-space is resilient and will heal these breaches, but constant warping tends to destabilize the reality matrices of certain areas. Monsters fail to give anything even faintly resembling a damn about this.

    By the time they had gotten out of the grassy patch and back to a proper forest path it was already dark. Clouds choked out the faint starlight and the half moon, reducing them to sad grey glows. A summer storm was coming.

    Filia slowed and cursed the fact that she now had to break the quiet that was keeping her from wanting to murder Xellos. But it had been an extremely stressful day and she was tired.

    “Listen,” she said. “We’ve been walking for hours. We need to stop so I can get some sleep.”

    Xellos gave a long, irritated sigh. Evil never sleeps and it doesn’t see any particular reason why anyone else should get to. “If you must.”

    So she made herself as comfortable as she could against the extremely unmattresslike ground and the extremely unpillowlike trunk of a tree. It was a warm, humid night, but honestly she’d have preferred a blanket.

    He was just sitting there, staring off into the middle distance behind her. Just because two entire species were out for their blood, therefore making keeping watch a good idea, didn’t make it any less creepy.

    She turned away. There were fireflies glimmering on and off busily about the clearing. The sight would’ve normally registered as somewhat romantic, and might have even done the trick of stirring up some happy childhood memories. It didn’t work in this case. When Filia had been younger she’d accidentally caught something that definitely wasn’t a firefly, though it had as many legs. Anyway, it’s hard to indulge in dewy-eyed nostalgia about a creature you’re worried is going to start crawling on your face as soon as you go to sleep.

    Thunder rumbled in the distance, and Filia decided that rain was just what they needed to cap off the day. She would’ve cursed fate, but fate is so much better at cursing. So she resolved not to add to her misery by ignoring an opportunity for rest, closed her eyes, and drifted off to sleep, holding on to one bitter little thought all the while.

    This had to be the worst honeymoon ever.

    *****

    Of course it did rain. After a night spent on a dirt bed that weather had turned into a mud bed, Filia declared that she was going to take a bath and that Xellos could just stay put until she got back. They’d already wasted enough time on her ridiculous demands. Sleep? Basic Hygiene? What would she want next, nourishment? It was pure madness.

    So Xellos was left to wait, leaning up against a tree and feeling a bit like a husband left holding a purse in a department store. The fact that his situation actually was quite similar did not make him feel any better.

    Only a few short minutes after she’d left, a shrill, very feminine scream shot out from beyond the thicket. Xellos hesitated. He had been told, very emphatically, to stay put. After all, she had gone off to bathe, and women tend to take a very dim view of people seeing them naked without prior permission.

    Yet a scream seemed to invite some kind of action on his part, especially since he was supposed to be on dragon thrashing duty. The mere fact that someone might not have any clothes on could hardly stand in the way of that, could it? After all, this could be serious—she could be being menaced by a log that looked like a snake.

    He wandered off in the direction of the scream.

    *****

    When Xellos found Filia she was neither naked nor did she, at first blush, appear to be being menaced by anything. She did have one boot off, but that hardly seemed worth—well it wasn’t what he’d expected.

    She did, however, look fairly miserably and not entirely enraged by his presence. “Kill it!” she said in a panicked voice.

    Killing things is not exactly a tall order for a monster, but he didn’t exactly see what he was supposed to kill until… Ah.

    He drew closer. “It must’ve climbed on you in the tall grass from yesterday,” he said, examining the tick affixed to Filia’s calf.

    “I don’t care where it came from,” Filia said, with remarkable control under the circumstance. “Just get rid of it!”

    The truly bug-phobic know that when a teensy many legged creature comes a‘calling it does not matter who you run to for help. It could be your mom, your landlord, the vacuum salesman, your ***** of an ex-wife, or even your worst enemy. It doesn’t matter who they are, so long as they kill it kill it KILL IT!!

    “I’m sure they have some kind of anti-parasite formula for situations like this,” Xellos pondered aloud, clearly enjoying every bit of Filia’s discomfort.

    Filia was not so terrified of the arachnid leaching the blood out of her leg that she couldn’t recognize the jab. “You’re thinking of dogs,” she responded coldly.

    “Are you sure?” Xellos asked. “We could find one that would make your scales nice and shiny.”

    “For godsakes, Xellos, just shut up and kill it!” Filia shouted. “You’re supposed to be good at that aren’t you?”

    Xellos appeared to be thinking about it, letting the moment stretch as long as he possibly could before finally saying, “I suppose you’re right,” and raising one hand to her skirt hem, lifting it up just a bit so it was out of the way. Then with his other hand he lightly touched the parasite, letting out some kind of low-grade energy.

    The scorched tick let go of Filia’s leg and fell to the ground as a corpse. She got up and brushed herself off saying, “Finally”. It was as close as she was going to get to gratitude.

    She gave him a sharp look. “Now get out of here. I’ve still got to take my bath.”

    “It is polite,” Xellos said patiently, “To say ‘thank you’ when someone—”

    “Just go,” Filia said, not at all in the mood to listen to etiquette lessons from someone who had committed quite so many war crimes. At least not that early in the morning. “We’ve got a lot of distance to travel before we get to Seyruun, so we don’t have time to waste.”

    Xellos gave a “Hmm,” as though to suggest that it was she who wasting time, but headed back to the waiting tree. One thing was true though, it was going to be a long journey to Seyruun, and if the events of the first day were any indication, it was going to be an interesting one.

  4. #4
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    “Sometimes, if you stand on the bottom rail of a bridge
    and lean over to watch the river slipping slowly away beneath you,
    you will suddenly know everything there is to be known.”
    ~Winnie the Pooh

    Chapter 4. Bridge.

    There had been very few attacks from monsters in the last few days of traveling. On the other hand, dragons seemed to have been coming out of the woodwork for awhile. Xellos viewed this, with a trace of pride, as evidence that the monster race had better things to do than sort out a marital snafu, but the dragon race’s idea of problem solving was to throw everything at a small issue and hope it worked out. He shared this insight with Filia who completely failed to appreciate it.

    The dragon attacks had noticeably subsided just as of late, though. Perhaps they actually were plotting something now. After all, their attacks certainly hadn’t been going well for them. The few monsters that were tracking them had known an opportunity when they saw it and went for the dragons first off, leaving Xellos or Filia to fight the winner. Any dragon that did get through would win the prize of getting shot out of the sky by Xellos.

    He could get rid of them easily, but still Xellos was somewhat annoyed. Fighting with your hands tied isn’t fun, and Filia was still stuck on her “don’t hurt them!” bend. Not only that, but Xellos specialized in attacks from the astral plane, which he knew he’d be wiser not to use because of the danger that the monster race could the energy traces to track him further. It was as good as waving a flag and shouting “Here I am!”, and there was no use in giving them any extra help.

    But the important thing was getting to Seyruun. They weren’t as far along as he’d like to be due to Filia’s selfish insistence that she get to sleep and eat every so often. Xellos had been thinking that they might stop off in the city of Daellon. At first he had thought that if they had to stop, they’d better just camp out in the forest so they could be on their way more quickly. But the city did hold its advantages. A large crowd was always good for causing confusion, and might make their pursuers lose their trail. Anyway, if there was an attack there was always the undisputable fact that humans made great meat shields.

    Of course, he didn’t say that to Filia. What he’d said instead was how much she’d prefer to sleep on a bed and have a nice warm meal. Put it that way, she’d had to agree.

    First though, they had to get across Daellon Gorge. When they reached it they found that it was everything you could possibly imagine and more. Two sheer cliffs some ways apart with mighty rocks painted red and purple. Filia kicked a pebble over the edge. It clattered desolately down the rock face and then launched into a free-fall to the bottom where a churning river and jagged rocks were waiting patiently to greet it. It was a very long time before they heard the splash.

    Of course, there was a bridge. It was a bridge of last resorts. Mere frayed rope and a series of withered planks stretched from one end to the other. It seemed to say, “Is there anything really wrong with the side of the gorge you’re on now?” Sure, the civilization of Daellon City may lie somewhere beyond, but then again, the sharp and sudden embrace of death lay below.

    Filia frowned. She saw no reason for the landscape to be so needlessly dramatic.

    “And there isn’t anywhere else to cross?” she asked, knowing full well there wouldn’t be.

    “No. Are you scared?” Xellos asked tauntingly.

    Filia shot him a look. Of course she was scared. This… thing that barely qualified as a bridge and was swaying alarmingly in the mild breeze was all that stood between her and a free-fall to the afterlife. It was, by definition, scary. But she couldn’t tell him that. It didn’t matter that he obviously knew, she was still absolutely not going to say it.

    “Let’s just go,” she said firmly, still giving the depths below an uneasy look.

    So they did. They strode across thin boards that creaked ominously under the added weight and held onto the musty rope hand holds. They would have enjoyed a rare and beautiful view of the gorge from above if it wasn’t for the fact that Filia was too busy attempting to look poised and confident while making sure that she didn’t drop to her death and Xellos wasn’t the type to appreciate scenery in any case.

    “This is like the bridge we had to cross at the Shrine of the God of Marriage,” Filia said, to distract herself from the dizzying depths below. “Remember?”

    “Unfortunately,” Xellos responded.

    Filia noted bitterly to herself that Jillas’s scheme had actually yielded something like a true prophecy. It was certainly one for the record books.

    Memories. This whole trip was bringing back memories that she’d altogether prefer not to have. So much had happened during the Dark Star incident. Some of it she still wasn’t sure of. And now here she was, stuck with Xellos again. Fate, she’d decided, was no lady.

    Perhaps it was because she had been lost in thought. Perhaps it was because the bridge at Daellon Gorge was so shoddy that they might have been better off just stretching a single plank of wood across the chasm. Perhaps it was because Fate really is a *****. But at that moment Filia put her foot down on nothing but air and gravity pulled her downwards before she even had a chance to scream. She closed her eyes against the rush of wind and prayed.

    She felt herself stop falling and opened her eyes. She was over the edge of the bridge. The river hovered threateningly far below her, waiting. She looked up. Xellos was leaning over the edge, one hand holding the rope handle of the bridge and the other clasped around her wrist.

    In fear of death the brain’s sensory register goes into overdrive. Time seems to stretch so that a second seems to last forever. So you’re sure you’ll suffocate before you can take another breath. Everything stands out in sharp focus in case, by some chance, this information will be able to save your life.

    The roar of the river below slammed into her ears with all the force it could muster. She could feel the cold winds that skimmed off the water around her legs, pushing her along with the groaning bridge. The canyon walls were a bruised and bloody background of stolid sedimentary. They loomed in a way that suggested that they had stood against crushing glaciers, rising seas, quaking ground, and the carving winds of the ages, and that she would not present them with any difficulty.

    She could feel the silky fabric of Xellos’s gloved hand grasping her wrist, threatening to lose its grip and leave her to the beckoning hands of gravity. She looked into his eyes and saw something there that she recognized.

    With a fresh shock of horror she realized that he was thinking about it.

    Of course, it would be like Xellos to not just let her fall like that. He’d give her the tiny moment of hope, and then give her the time to realize that there was no hope. And then once she knew that she was going to die, he’d let her fall. You must never forget that that’s what monsters do. They extract the last drop of fear from your threadbare soul. They make sure that you know exactly what the worst that can happen to you is and then reward you with it.

    Inside Xellos’s head something akin to a committee meeting was going on. It went something like this:

    Let her drop, Instinct and Predilection suggested. Give her a moment to think about it and then let her drop.

    No, said the rest of Xellos’s brain simply.

    ...Why? Instinct asked. It hadn’t been getting much exercise lately and, as far an abstract thought concept can be, it was in a bad mood.

    Because it just doesn’t make sense to do so, the contrary abstraction answered primly. How do you think we’re going to get out of this mess without her? I mean, the monsters alone.

    We could elude them, Predilection suggested without much conviction.

    Possibly, the answering thoughts allowed. But not forever.

    We’d only have to elude them until Seyruun, Instinct pointed out, determined not to give in without a fight.

    How willing do you think Amelia Wil Tesla Seyruun, lover of all things good and just, will be to help us without Filia there? The other thoughts asked sensibly. In any case, the monster race might, just might, be able to forgive an ex-wife, but a late wife is forever.

    Is this logic or just rationalization? Instinct asked squinting at the opposing shadows of thought. Sure, it was changing the subject because it was losing, but it had an, ah, instinct for these kinds of things.

    If you have any doubts left, the other thoughts answered stiffly, consider this: Filia is a dragon. Dragons have wings.

    Instinct and Predilection tried this on for size and found it a little hard to argue with. They tried anyway. Well, look at her face. She clearly doesn’t remember that fact.

    No, the rest of Xellos’s brain confirmed. She’s never been especially smart and is a bit fear addled at the moment. But it’s a very very long drop and she’ll figure it out somewhere along the line. In this case the only thing we’d gain is looking more like an ******* than before, and to be perfectly honest we don’t need that.

    Well… alright, Instinct and Predilection relented reluctantly. But we’re still suspicious about this whole thing.

    I have my leave to be suspicious of me, The rest of Xellos’s brain said curtly.

    And then he pulled Filia back up onto the rocking bridge. The figurative internal conversation had taken less than a second.

    The air was still thick with fear, slowing only slightly now that the catastrophe had been averted. Relief was blanketing the fear, to be sure, doing the psychological equivalent of patting it on the back and kissing its boo-boos. But the fear was still there.

    Monsters like fear. Anything in the way of strife was like food to them. Fear, hatred, despair… as Amelia had once said, the so-called anti-life feelings. On the other hand, fear was a bit different from the rest when you got right down to it. Fear meant adrenaline. So did hatred, but fear was, again, different. Fear of death has the interesting side effect of informing the entire body I AM ALIVE. I might not be for much longer, it adds, but nevertheless. Untold quantities of the extremely foolish put their lives in danger on a regular basis for no other purpose than so they can feel alive. In that way, perhaps putting the fear of death into someone was the greatest praise of life you could give. It proved that life was worth something.

    She’d said something, but he hadn’t heard. His brain was still buzzing with that thought.

    “Hmmm?”

    “I said let go of me,” Filia repeated, clearly having caught her breath and adjusted herself at least a little bit to the situation.

    Xellos looked down at his hand, which was still wrapped around her wrist. “Pity you didn’t say that earlier,” he said, and loosened his grip.

    Filia took back her arm and massaged some life back into her wrist, willing her heart to slow and her mind to stop racing. She was alive. There had been nothing between her and certain death but her most hated enemy and yet somehow she was alive.

    The thing was… that look that Xellos had had just before he pulled her back up… that look that she thought she recognized… Of course, she had seen it on many faces and even felt it on her own. But if she put words to it she just couldn’t apply such a thing to Xellos. It was…

    A moral dilemma.

    The thing about moral dilemmas is that you have to have morals to have one. Which was, by all accounts, very off for a monster. Monsters are not supposed to try to do the right thing.

    Then again, dragons are always supposed to do the right thing, which they lamentably don’t. It stand to reason that if dragons try to do the work of the gods, but fail, then monsters, whose only desire is destruction, sometimes fail as well. But for a monster the flaw would have to be… something nice.

    But you couldn’t trust monsters. They were constantly trying to trick you. Occasionally they would do the right thing, but for all the wrong reasons. She couldn’t decide at the moment whether that was better or worse than the dragon race which occasionally did the wrong thing, but for all the right reasons.

    She found herself wishing, somewhat sullenly, that someone would stick to their principles. Even if those principles were horrible.

    The thought that she didn’t want to hear fought for space. He’d saved her life. Again. They’re had been that time before with the dragons…and back at Alto and Baritone… And of course there was that time when he was fighting Valgaav. Hell, you could probably even count the tick incident since they were known to carry all kinds of deadly diseases. After a certain amount of times you have to take notice. But she didn’t—she couldn’t—feel gratitude. Instead she felt angry and embarrassed and a little bit like throwing up (though the last bit might have just been residual vertigo).

    Something good in the black, murky depths of Xellos’s soul? That’s really not a line of thought you want to follow. No good can come of such thinking.

    “Well, looks like we’ve made it back to solid ground,” Xellos trilled, his out of place cheeriness back in action as they reached the other side of the gorge. “And you didn’t even try to take a swim again.”

    Filia shot him an annoyed, penetrating look. Damn it. Certainty had been edging away from her since she’d found herself back on the bridge and realized she wasn’t going to die, but she’d seen something. She didn’t know what she’d seen. The only thing she could be sure of is that something that had happened on the bridge was real and everything that was happening now was completely fake.

    She looked out across the gorge they’d just crossed and saw something that took her attention away from that discovery. Considering that her mind was wandering in unfamiliar and uncomfortable territory pretty much anything would have done that job. It could’ve been a crystal formation, or an especially nice array of wildflowers, or even the knowledge that she had been in no real danger before as she could have transformed and flown to the other side. In this case, it was two children on the other side of the gorge. They were waving their hands at her and looking worried.

    Without a thought Filia sprinted back across the death trap of the bridge, this time without almost killing herself, leaving Xellos behind, his eyes moving from her to the two children with a mystified expression.

    Xellos strained his ears to hear what she was saying to them. It was a long way across the bridge, but, being a monster, his capabilities were somewhat different from that of humans. He didn’t exactly advertise this because he didn’t want people to start whispering on his account.

    “You two aren’t thinking of crossing here are you?” Filia, the consummate mother without actually going to the trouble of giving birth, asked. “It’s way too dangerous for children!”

    “We’re scared, but we’ve got to, miss,” the boy responded, eyeing the gorge with trepidation but never the less sounding resolute. “We need to get to Daellon.”

    “I’m sure there’s nothing in Daellon that’s worth risking your lives to get,” Filia said reasonably.

    “It’s our poor old grandma, miss,” the younger girl said sadly. “She’s very sick. We’ve got to go and see her.”

    Filia hesitated. It was probably for the best that she couldn’t see Xellos smirking on the other side of the bridge.

    “Alright then, at least let me take you across,” Filia said.

    “Would you do that, miss?” the girl asked, cheering up a bit. “Thank you!”

    Of course Filia, Miss Almost Fell To Her Death Just Moments Ago, was obviously the best choice for chaperoning helpless children across a treacherously dilapidated bridge. But Xellos was a little surprised. He shouldn’t have been, he realized, but traveling alone with Filia the last few days had skewed his perception of her somewhat. Somewhere in the midst of her constantly glaring at him and insulting him and raging at him he’d somehow forgotten that where he wasn’t concerned Filia was basically a very nice person. She was thoughtful, compassionate, and even selfless when she remembered to be.

    She just… didn’t seem at her best when she didn’t look like she was holding herself back from hitting him. He couldn’t help feeling vaguely disappointed in her.

    “Now, let’s all hold hands as we cross,” Filia said, holding out a hand to each of the children.

    What happened next took both Xellos and Filia by surprise. Instead of taking her hands, the children suddenly sidestepped her as, out of the bushes, five or six men of the unkempt mercenary variety jumped out of the bushes. Several of them held Filia’s arms behind her back and her shoulders still while another one whacked her on the head with the back of his sword a good deal harder than you would a girl you didn’t know was a dragon. She fell unconscious and missed her second opportunity to scream that day. Then, with some difficulty, one of them hefted her over his shoulder and ran for it with the others. The children raced after them.

    What the…

    Xellos wasn’t entirely sure what to do at the moment besides kick himself for not suspecting anything at the poor old grandma line. That’s the oldest trick in the book.

    But humans? Dragons, yes. Monsters, okay. But humans on top of all that just didn’t seem fair.

    He thought about it for a moment until he could see a shape of an idea amidst the confusion. Yes… that would probably be about right. They think that way.

    So, I suppose you’re going after her? Predilection asked wearily.

    Of course, Logic and Rationalization answered. We have to.

    And just why do we have to? Instinct asked. It knew the answer, but wasn’t going to make things easy.

    Aforementioned reasons, Logic and Rationalization answered.

    Ah, those, Instinct and Predilection said resignedly.

    So Xellos made his way across the gorge once more. He didn’t run—no need to run—but he did walk rather briskly. Perhaps he walked a bit too briskly or perhaps he had other things on his mind, but in any case he slipped and nearly fell through a gap in the planking, only saving himself by quickly grabbing the rope railing.

    Stupid bridge.

  5. #5
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    “Take my wife, please.”
    ~Henny Youngman

    Chapter 5. Rescue Me.

    He did not know exactly where they’d taken Filia, but it was only a matter of time before he found out. In the meantime he was short on information and needed to confirm what he thought he knew.

    Which was why he was very pleased to come across them as he walked along. You’d think children with a sick old grandma would be more inclined to hurry off to her sick bed instead of reclining against a tree trunk and counting something shiny. They hurriedly hid the coins behind their back when they saw him coming. At first, Xellos thought that they’d run. Instead the older boy just stuck out his chin and scowled at him in a way that clearly said, “Yeah, yeah. Keep moving mister.”

    “How’s grandma?” he asked when he reached them.

    “I don’t know,” the boy said, matching him stare for stare. “Ain’t been to the cemetery in awhile. Likely still dead though.”

    Xellos sighed. “Is there any particular reason you tricked a,” he muttered “seemingly,” under his breath at this point, “nice lady so that a bunch of thugs could kidnap her?”

    “Yeah, it’s called five silver coins,” the boy said defiantly. “Anyway, she wasn’t a nice lady. Those men said she’s a dragon,” he said as if the two concepts were incompatible.

    Ah, so they did know she was a dragon. Let’s see… “And how did they know that?” Xellos asked.

    The boy shrugged. “Some other dragons told ‘em.”

    So that’s the shape of it then. The dragons were having trouble getting to Filia because of all the monster activity and because they were easily spotted. So they’d used humans to do their dirty work, a strategy that they’d often employed before to mixed results. When monsters and dragons are trying to kill you, who expects humans to be a problem?

    It was a well done trick, and even better using the kids. Filia’s a soft-touch for that kind of thing. It’d been easy to lure her away from Xellos and capture her before anything could be done.

    Of course, there was the fact that they hadn’t had her killed then and there. That was odd, since they’d certainly be trying like hell beforehand. Perhaps, he thought, they wanted to deal with her later themselves. Yes, that would work in their minds. No one should kill a dragon except another dragon. How very noble. In the twisted, not at all noble way of the dragons.

    We see to our own.

    “Hey, are you a monster?” the little girl asked, braiding her hair unconcernedly.

    When you put it like that it’s sort of hard to deny. “Yes,” he said, waiting for the other shoe to drop.

    “You’re not very scary,” the little girl said, unimpressed.

    Kids today. Well, he couldn’t very well go around scaring little children just because they’d dared him to. There were too many other things to be done.

    “Of course he’s not,” the boy said. “Ham and his gang said the dragons told him that that lady was in trouble for marrying a monster. Remember? You haven’t got to know a lot about monsters and dragons to know that any monster who’d marry a dragon can’t be much of a monster at all.”

    Okay, this was just starting to strike him as unfair. Now he was being insulted by a bunch of elementary school kids? This would be really funny, he thought not for the first time, if it was happening to someone else.

    “You don’t know the whole story,” he began. “It was all a—”

    “You gonna rescue her?” the little girl interrupted.

    “Well, yes,” Xellos sputtered, caught off-guard by this. He seldom had to deal with children… or at least not for very long. But, well, when you got right down to it that was the case. “But you don’t understand the—”

    “Awww, that’s sweet,” said the little girl dreamily.

    Xellos stared at her with his mouth clamped shut. It seemed crystal clear to him, in that moment, that the entire world was making fun of him. All he wanted at that moment was to get through with what needed to be done and get as far away from those horrible kids as possible.

    “Look, will you just tell me where they took her?” Xellos asked. He remembered the coins from before and held up his hands. “I’ll give you ten silver pieces.”

    “Thirty,” said the girl, who clearly had hidden depths.

    Xellos glared and reached into his wallet. Obnoxious brats.

    *****

    Filia woke up in a cage. It was not a very positive indicator for how the rest of her day was going to go. Around her, outside the cell, several men of the tattooed and eye-patch wearing variety were playing cards or sharpening their swords. They didn’t seem to be paying much attention to her.

    Let’s see. She’d been captured, but she wasn’t exactly sure why. Humans had been the least of her worries this morning. She was behind bars, so they must have some kind of purpose for her, she thought. Her head hurt from where that brute had hit her, and she was pretty sure that there would be a large lump on the back of her head. Her leg also throbbed mysteriously. She looked down at it and saw that a large blue bruise was playing across her knee. It twinged painfully when she tried to bend her knee.

    “You hurt, miss?” asked a blue-eyed guard she hadn’t noticed watching her.

    She looked at him in surprise and nodded slowly. Now, hang on, that question seemed too nice for your average, blood-thirsty kidnapper to ask. Maybe this was a… Hadn’t she read about kidnappers who did this sort of thing? They kidnapped people because they needed ransom money to sustain their country’s fragile economy but always treated their prisoners well? She could only hope that that was the case.

    “Hey, Ham!” the blue-eyed guard called out. “She’s hurt.”

    “So?” asked a giant man that could only be Ham.

    “Well, they said we wasn’t s’posed to unduly hurt her.”

    Filia noted the word “unduly” grimly.

    “What do they care?” Ham asked, getting up and walking toward the cage. “They’re just gonna kill her later.” He peered through the bars at Filia’s wound. “Anyway, it’s a good thing, right? She won’t be able to run away. We’ll probably get extra for that.”

    “But they said we wasn’t to—” the guard began virtuously.

    “Look,” Ham said, fixing the guard with a look as he massaged his sore shoulders, “I didn’t do it on purpose or anything, but she weighs like a ton. I must’ve accidentally whacked her against a rock or something on the way here. No big deal. They won’t mind.”

    “Excuse me,” Filia said with forced politeness. Just because I’m behind bars doesn’t make me a criminal, she reminded herself. So I can be nice.

    The guard and Ham turned to her as though they had just remembered that she was capable of speech.

    “Who are ‘they’?” she asked.

    Ham gave her a nasty little grin that owed nothing to dental hygiene. “The dragons, right? They’re none too pleased with what you done, ma’am.”

    Filia sighed sadly. So there it was. The dragons had hired humans to do their dirty work for them. The only reason she was still alive was probably so they could tell her what a terrible dragon she was before they killed her.

    “And don’t expect your boyfriend to come and save you,” a skinny man who’d been playing cards sneered at her.

    “Her husband,” the blue-eyed guard corrected, determined that if they were going to taunt the prisoner that they do it right. “He’s her husband, that’s why the dragons are so mad.”

    “Who cares?” growled the skinny man.

    “It’s all down to the legal sit’ation,” the blue-eyed guard continued with a gleam of smug intelligence in his eyes. “I don’t reckon they’d mind so much about the dating thing, but marriage is pushing it way too far.”

    “Oh, so now you’re an expert on the courtship laws of mythical creatures,” Ham observed sarcastically.

    “There are no courtship laws for monsters,” a man with a lip-ring pointed out testily. “They don’t worry about that kind of thing.”

    “Yeah, but, like,” the blue-eyed guard began, trying to get to grips with his argument. “It’s like… there are unwritten rules. Like business ethics.”

    “You can’t expect people to follow unwritten laws,” Ham said, brow furrowed in thought. “Hard enough to keep track of all the written ones.”

    “Well, in any case,” the skinny man said turning to Filia once more, annoyed at how his taunt had been derailed. “No one’s coming for you.”

    “Except the dragons,” the blue-eyed guard pointed out helpfully.

    The skinny man glared over his cards. “What I’m getting at is, the monster ain’t gonna show up to save her.”

    “He’ll come,” Filia said.

    They looked at her in surprise. Honestly, Filia was a bit surprised she’d said it herself. But that was the thing… she was absolutely certain that he would show up. Maybe he’d make some kind of crack about her being easily captured or about her being behind bars for the third time. Maybe the reason he’d bust her out would have nothing to do with any kind of right feeling. Maybe he would have entirely selfish reasons for doing so. But she knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that he would save her.

    It was terrible to realize that she’d come to rely on someone that she did not like in the least. But well… after the bridge she was starting to think… maybe you start out doing the right things for the wrong reasons before you can go on to doing the right things for the right reasons. Whatever the case, she thought as she tried in vain to knead the pain out of her bruise, it was nice not to have to worry about what would happen to her.

    “I’m surprised to hear you say that,” said Ham giving her a long, slow look, “after what he did to those two dragons up at that temple.”

    Filia looked up, the pain in her knee momentarily forgotten, into the piggy, suspicious eyes of Ham.

    “What?”

    *****

    At least those nasty little kids had given thorough directions, Xellos thought as he arrived at a small cottage in the midst of the forest. He’d hidden behind the trees and checked out the place. One door, one guard. The rest must be inside.

    Security looked deplorable. Clearly the dragon race had not shopped around when it came to mercenaries. They couldn’t honestly expect the six-man team to even begin to present him with a challenge. Perhaps they hadn’t expected him to be able to find her. Perhaps, he thought with a pained expression, they hadn’t expected him to even try.

    Of course, that would be the monster thing to do.

    But circumstances were different now. For his own sake, he had to get her back no matter how it looked. That was the only way the plan could work.

    He looked over the branches a little and thought, am I really going to do this?

    Rescuing young ladies is such a… such a hero thing to do. It’s just not right for a monster.

    Oh well, he thought. I have to do it. No one says I have to enjoy it though. Let’s just get this over with.

    Before anyone, least of all the unfortunate man on guard duty, could see anything, Xellos had swiftly knocked the man at the door out leaving him to crumple into a heap on the ground. It was such a shoddy way of doing things but he figured Filia would raise hell if he killed any of her kidnappers. The last thing he needed was her wanting to put band-aids on them while they should be escaping.

    He burst into the one-room shack where the five remaining guards jumped up from their various time-killing exercises and drew their swords. Some of them were trying to look fearsome, but most of them were giving him a look of pants-wetting horror. Now that’s the kind of respect a monster deserves.

    “Hold him off, men,” quavered the leader, holding up his sword. “The dragons’ll be here any moment!”

    Ah, the dragons. Better to be gone before they get here, Xellos thought as he turned his attention to Filia. He could tell by the way she moved that she’d been hurt.

    “Oh dear,” he said, looking up at the trembling guards. “I feel sorry for whichever one of you has the keys.”

    That did the trick. The guard in question fished the keys off the ring around his belt as quickly as possible and threw them on the floor at Xellos’s feet.

    “Why’d you go and do that, Dean?” the leader yelled.

    “Well you never said nothing about fighting no monsters!” Dean yelled back in a high, fear-filled voice. “Even the dragons didn’t want to do it. That’s why they hired us!”

    Xellos bent down to pick up the keys and the leader took his chance. They had not, obviously, been paid in advance for this job. He lunged at Xellos with his sword upraised.

    A sudden gust of wind knocked the man into the wall. He made a “gng” noise as he fell to the ground and dropped his sword. The rest of the guards endeavored to look as invisible as possible. Some of the less gifted students in nonchalance were actually whistling innocently.

    Xellos snatched up the keys and walked over to the cage, feeding the correct key into the lock. Filia was looking up at him with a stunned expression. Time to take advantage of the moment.

    “So, Filia,” he said. “Is this how the Gods reward good deeds like helping little children across bridges?”

    This did not have the desired response. She didn’t scowl, her eyebrows didn’t furrow together, and she didn’t tell him to shut up. She just retained that dumb look.

    The cage door swung open with a creak. He looked down at her injured leg, an ugly blue bruise visible sticking out from under a pink skirt hem.

    “It would be better if we were out of here before the dragons came,” he said.

    Finally some response came through her shocked face. She really hadn’t expected him to show up, he thought. Good.

    She nodded almost imperceptibly. He scooped her up in his arms and only then did he run.

    *****

    And boy did he run. It was all Filia could do to hold on as they moved through the forest like a blur. They weren’t doubling back to the path Daellon way, but instead taking the long way around to the road to Seyruun. Because they weren’t going back to that stupid bridge, Xellos thought. For some reason he blamed it for all his recent problems.

    When they finally reached a point that was far enough away he stopped suddenly and put her down. She was a bit unsteady and wasn’t going to be running any marathons, but she could walk and she’d heal up.

    “I think I lost my hat,” she said numbly, and indeed it wasn’t on her head.

    “Yes,” Xellos said, remembering seeing it fly off her head and hit a squirrel somewhere along the way. You had to feel a little bit sorry for that squirrel. Those green… orb things on the side of it were quite heavy. “It was an ugly hat.”

    Despite Xellos’s earlier misgivings about the whole “rescue” thing, he was feeling strangely triumphant. That was the bad part about good deeds, they’re habit-forming. But still, Filia had to be well… a little bit grateful for saving her life for the second time in one day. She’d probably respond to this by being extra angry, but all that would show would be that she was embarrassed and perhaps even a little impressed, he thought.

    Which was why he was totally unprepared for it when she slapped him across the face with all her strength. He held up a hand to his face, not out of pain but surprise.

    See, the thing is, she’d threatened to hit him on a number of occasions. She’d waved her mace hostilely in his direction and had certainly looked like she wanted to throttle him often. But she never had. Not once. Maybe she was all talk, maybe deep down she knew it wasn’t a smart thing to do, but she had never hit him before.

    Which was why he was beginning to think that it wasn’t the hat comment that had her so angry.

    You killed them,” she accused lividly.

    Oh. Well, there you have it. He should’ve known, he thought, that that would come back to bite him. There must have been a third watcher who’d seen what had happened and reported it back to the golden dragons. Then the golden dragons had told the mercenaries.

    “They told you, did they?” Xellos asked coolly.

    Filia just glowered at him, her teeth gritted.

    “Yeah,” Ham had said. “Them golden dragons said he just went and slew two dragons while they was unconscious.” He shook his head. “No class in that. But I guess you can’t expect monsters to be honorable. It’s sorta against the point.”

    It was against the point. That’s what made her feel so stupid. She was upset and angry but she knew, deep down, that she shouldn’t be surprised. That’s just how monsters behave. She should’ve known better than to expect anything other than complete and utter wickedness from him. It was worse that she had started thinking just for a moment that… well, now she knew better.

    She lurched off down the road on her sore leg as the sun swung along its downward stroke toward night.

    “Running away again?” Xellos asked.

    “No,” she said blandly. “We’ve lost a lot of time already so we should get going.”

    Xellos didn’t move, but watched her as she made her painfully slow progress forward. “So,” he began slowly, “we’re still going forward with the plan, then?”

    She stopped and turned around slowly to face him. She wasn’t angry anymore. This was much worse. She was resigned.

    “What other choice do I have?”

  6. #6
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    “Why am I always at war with myself? Why have I told,
    as if upon compulsion, what I knew all along I ought to have withheld?
    Why am I making a friend of this woman beside me,
    in spite of the whispers against her I hear in my heart?”
    ~Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens

    Chapter 6. Negative Attention.

    It was the next day and they’d been traveling in relative silence for hours. After what had happened yesterday Xellos pretty much expected that. What threw him off was the kind of silence.

    It wasn’t angry silence. Lord knows, he’d be fine with angry silence. He’d expected angry silence. At this point, hell, he’d embrace it. Anything was better than this… dead silence.

    She wasn’t talking to him. Again, this wasn’t really anything new on the surface of it. But generally people at least go so far as to say: “I hate you! I’m never talking to you again!” Then, of course, they’ll only break this sacred vow of silence if they think of something insulting to say to you or to respond to something insulting you’ve said to them. “Not talking” to someone can make quite a lot of noise, actually.

    But this time it wasn’t like that. She would say things, but they were basically things like: “which path should we take?” or “I’m thirsty. I need to stop at this spring”. Beyond that she had nothing to say to him.

    Again, not an angry silence… more like… she was done expending any kind of feeling, good or bad on this entire expedition. It wasn’t worth getting upset or angry. He wasn’t worth wasting perfectly good words on.

    Now, Xellos was completely unaware that for a very brief period of time he’d been weaseling his way into her good books, but it was perfectly clear to him now that he’d left her bad books a long time ago and the books he was now inhabiting were in a dumpster behind a library because nobody wanted them.

    It was just... against the natural order of things, that’s what it was. Filia wasn’t supposed to be aloof and unflappable. She was supposed to be a sulky parcel of unexploded rage wearing a stupid hat. At least to him. Well, now the stupid hat was gone and so was everything else apparently.

    It was starting to get on his nerves. So he decided to fix it.

    “So Filia,” he began, trying out tack number 1: Indiscriminate Insults, “I suppose this must be normal for dragons, who so readily enjoy the excesses of life, but you might consider toning it down a little. You know I nearly dropped you last night.”

    Now, calling a woman fat is basically like lighting the fuse on a bomb. Once it’s done you can’t take it back. In fact, the only option available ought to be to run away very fast because that bomb is going to go off and somebody is going to get killed—it’ll probably be you.

    “Hmm,” the back of her head said. She hadn’t bothered to turn around or slow her pace several steps in front of him.

    “Hmm” was no good. “Hmph!” would have been acceptable, but all “Hmm” said was: I heard what you said so there’s no need to repeat it, but I have no response to offer.

    Perhaps needling wouldn’t do the trick. Perhaps something a little more… unexpected was required.

    He waited awhile and then said, “How’s your leg?”

    “Hmm?” she asked, perhaps considering this her new all-purpose manner of responding to him.

    “You seemed to be in a fair amount of pain yesterday,” he said in the best imitation of concern he could muster at the moment. “Are you alright now?”

    She didn’t even have the decency to turn around a give him a suspicious look. She didn’t narrow her eyes and say, “Why do you want to know?” She didn’t look perplexed that he was asking about her health. She didn’t turn around.

    “I healed it. It’s fine,” she said without emotion.

    Alright, that’s it, he thought. If being randomly considerate doesn’t get any reaction out of her than things really are bad. And it’s all so stupid too.

    “If you didn’t expect me to kill those dragons it’s your own fault for being so naïve,” he said, deciding on the direct approach since he was out of indirect ones. “You know that I killed thousands of dragons in the War of the Monster’s Fall, so an extra two should hardly make a difference. That’s what we monsters do, Filia, in case you hadn’t noticed. You have no right to expect any different of me or to be upset by this.”

    This time Filia had turned around to listen, perhaps because Xellos was just possibly… eh, losing his cool a little. Filia, however, hadn’t lost her’s. “I know that and I’m not upset,” she said distantly.

    That was the conclusion she’d come to as well, actually. There wasn’t any point in getting angry at Xellos about this. She’d been mad at first, but mostly mad at herself for not expecting it, for thinking it could be different. There was nothing to be gained in getting emotionally invested now. The whole reason for this trip was a colossal mistake so better to just get on with it and get it fixed. Just because they were (unfortunately and mistakenly) married didn’t mean Xellos had to matter to her. She realized that, even before this whole confusing mess, she’d let him matter to her far too much. Otherwise she wouldn’t have gotten so angry at him all the time. Better to just… take herself out of it as much as possible. To do anything else would be a waste of energy and a waste of time.

    “What if I told you,” he said slowly, as though trying out the words. “That I was sorry?”

    She let her jaded shell block out any surprise, any suspicion of motive and just said, “I wouldn’t believe you.”

    “Then you’re not as stupid as you look,” Xellos shot back, a little nastier then he might normally have been, but not being told to shut up once in an entire day can make a man desperate.

    Filia gave him a look. Not a sharp look… more of an “are we done here?” look before turning back to the road and starting to walk again.

    “What if I told you I was sorry you found out?”

    Filia stopped. Oh no.

    The terrible thing, she thought grimly, is that I do believe that. And that makes a difference. Maybe it shouldn’t, but it does.

    This is really bothering him, she finally allowed herself to note. Her bitter side suggested that it was because he was so used to being able to get her angry and siphon off the negative emotions, that he was going through some kind of withdrawal. But it was overruled. He was… unhappy that she was ignoring him. And that meant something. She wasn’t sure what it meant, but it was something.

    Anyway… she had something she had to say too, and if she kept up this ice queen demeanor she’d never get a chance to say it.

    “Xellos…” she began, slowly turning to face him.

    He looked curiously at her as she took a deep breath to say her piece. Whatever it was seemed to be weighing heavily on her mind.

    “Golden dragons,” she began slowly and deliberately, “are meant to be heavier than humans. It’s both normal and healthy. Perhaps if you didn’t have such spindly arms you wouldn’t have had any trouble carrying me. Perhaps instead of me ‘toning it down a little’, maybe you should tone it up a little.”

    She smiled triumphantly. She was proud of that little bit of word play, and biting it back for all this time had been quite difficult.

    Xellos stared. He wasn’t sure what he’d expected out of her, but a comeback, and a very late one at that, wasn’t it. She didn’t appear to be done quite yet either.

    And,” she added, “My hat wasn’t ugly. It was my favorite hat and when this mess is over you’re going to replace it since it’s your fault it got lost.”

    Xellos wondered with some amusement whether he was going to get a response to every comment he’d ever made to her that she hadn’t been able to think of an immediate comeback for at the time.

    And,” she said, continuing in her laundry list of retorts, “if you’d been paying the slightest bit of attention you would’ve seen me healing my leg back at that river we passed this morning so don’t even pretend to be worried.”

    A comeback for his nice comment too? He’d hit the jackpot and he wasn’t entirely sure how.

    And,” she said, winding down toward the end of the rant, “And there’s something I’ve been wanting to say to you all day and now I’m going to say it.”

    “I’m sure you will,” he said, with a sour little smile.

    She took a deep breath once more and let it out: “Shut up, Xellos.”

    Ah.

    The natural order of things has been restored.

    *****

    Perhaps they’d gone just a little bit farther than restoring the natural order of things. The fact was, the woods echoed with their hurled insults and all in all petty bickering. They’d never fought this much in the entire trip, but it was certainly a relief compared to the silence of earlier that day. Maybe they were just making up for lost time.

    But if they kept up at the pace they were going, it was almost certain that they’d run out of substantive things to say to one another and end up making snide comments about each other’s shoes, or something equally silly. It was, therefore, lucky that they were interrupted by an impromptu dragon attack.

    They were forced to cut their current argument short as Xellos dealt with the creature. It had been an old argument anyway, but a classic well worth repeating. Filia put forth the claim that at least she didn’t mindlessly follow the orders of some fragment of a dark lord covered in ice in the mountains. This was a perfectly fair statement as she did not, in fact, do that. Xellos did. So she pretty much had him there.

    Xellos easily dispatched with the flying lizard, but this time tactfully chose not to kill it. So, apparently, some progress had been made. He looked down at the unconscious creature and back up at Filia. Half-time was over. The game begins once more.

    “Between all these attacks and that band of mercenaries it really seems as if the dragons are throwing everything they have at you,” he said, as they began walking down the road once more. He smiled and turned his head to the side. “It’s almost as if they’ve been waiting all along for you to mess up.”

    Filia scowled at him and clenched her fists.

    From a certain perspective it might have seemed that… well, that they made up or something back there. Filia did not consider this to be the case. It wasn’t that she’d gone so far as to forgive him. No. She had made a concession. But all she’d allowed herself was the luxury of hating him again instead of feeling nothing.

    It wasn’t even necessarily for him, she thought. When you get right down to it, it’s just not good for your mental health to keep your comebacks inside. That’s got to cause ulcers or something.

    “Well, I could say the same thing about you,” she shot back.

    “Hmm?”

    “Aren’t you supposed to be a really high level monster?” she asked, drawing on her limited knowledge of him. “You’d think that would make you really important to the monster race. Yet, one little mistake and they all want you dead. They don’t even want to find out if there was a misunderstanding! I guess I shouldn’t expect loyalty among monsters,” she said, crossing her arms, “but it’s obvious that you’re not exactly popular either.”

    Xellos glared at her. Somehow this game wasn’t fun anymore.

    “Do you think I’m supposed to be?” he asked coldly.

    What Filia thought was never made clear as yet another interloper forced her to settle the score of the day in a different way. It looked like a bird made of shadows. It walked upright and hissed its way through the trees clinging to the scenery and bending with the angles of the trees.

    “Not another one,” Filia groaned.

    “The last one was a dragon,” Xellos reminded. “You know, one of yours.”

    “You know what I mean,” Filia griped bad-naturedly. She sighed and took out her mace.

    The black bird screamed at her. The squawk was so sharp, so cruel, so predatory, that mice for three miles around lost control of their bowels just hearing it.

    No one wants to talk, Filia found herself thinking angrily at the thing. Not the monsters, not the dragons. Maybe if we could all just sit down and get a few things straight we could work this mess out. But it was foolish to the extreme to even think that. The only mess that dragons and monsters seemed eager to work out between them involved bloody battlefields.

    She swung her mace lightly in her hand and took a crack at the monster’s skull, quickly pulling back before the thing could attempt to crush her head in its massive, vaporous beak.

    No matter what she said to Xellos, she was quite aware that the monster race seemed to be taking their little… indiscretion less seriously than the dragons. At least at the moment. She was thankful for this, because she really didn’t think she could handle much more. It pained her to see Xellos so easily deal with her own race. It actually seemed like the hardest thing for him was avoiding killing them. She wasn’t really a fighter and she dreaded each new conflict with a monster. But they did have a deal.

    The bird lashed out with its talons and she was just barely able to keep out of its reach. Unfortunately it seemed like the thing had intended her to dodge all along as it shot a beam of black plasma out of its mouth directly at her, engulfing her entire body.

    It didn’t burn. It didn’t bruise. It didn’t cut. It just felt like her entire body was dying. It felt as though everything had stopped. Blood spun pointlessly in crowded veins, lungs filled with only stale air could not find release, and her heart didn’t beat. It felt like it would never beat again.

    And then the black energy let go of her, sending her crashing to the ground. But her heart was beating again. Slowly.

    She gritted her teeth and tried to force her brain into lifting her body. She felt like lying on the ground and whimpering for awhile. She felt like crawling off into a hole in the ground until the pain stopped. She felt like waving a little white flag, for all the good it would do.

    But she couldn’t do that. She knew that Xellos was right behind her. Far enough away to avoid the attentions of the monster assassin, who had really come to deal with him, but close enough to watch her every move. So she had to get up.

    She used her mace liked a crutch to lift her half-way off the ground. Her limbs were still half-convinced that they were paralyzed, so this took some doing. But there was no time for half-measures. The thing was leaning over her, ready to make the killing strike and move on to its real target.

    There is no way I’m going to be pecked to death, Filia decided. Her eyes shone gold as she let out one shrill blast of laser breath. It was the only shot she’d get, but it was one the monster didn’t expect from its wounded prey, and it had everything she had in it.

    It hit dead on, showering the area in a rain of shadowy monster-bird bits. Which was gross, but still victory.

    She slumped down to the ground. She knew that the astral attack’s effects would lessen shortly and then her nervous system would be back in business. But at the moment she felt pretty terrible.

    Xellos walked up to her. She looked up into his face. He was frowning.

    What?” she demanded angrily. She’d beat the thing, alright? She wasn’t in the mood to listen to any complaints or smart comments.

    “You’re going to get yourself killed that way,” he said.

    “I’m doing the best I can,” she said, in her own defense. She was still in pain, but she wasn’t going to have this conversation laid out on the ground, so she stood up shakily. “Not all of us are cut out for this kind of thing.”

    “I’m not talking about that,” Xellos said. “You could’ve beaten that thing at any time if you’d only been smart about it.”

    She gave him a black look as she fought to keep her balance. So we’re back to this, huh? “Stupid Filia. She doesn’t even know how to fight.” Well, she’d had just about enough of it.

    “If you’re not going to do anything other than make vague criticisms, then don’t say anything at all,” she snapped. “I beat it, so just leave me alone.”

    Xellos rolled his eyes in the universal sign for “I am being forced to deal with a petulant child”. What he said was: “If you’d used your laser breath from the beginning instead of wasting time with that mace, then it would’ve been over quickly and you wouldn’t be barely able to stand now.”

    Filia was aware that she was swaying slightly and did her best to correct this. “I like my mace,” she said defensively. “I’ve used it for years, and I’m good at it. There’s nothing wrong with it.”

    “If you’d just stop and think for a moment you’d realize how useless it is,” he said, realizing they weren’t going to get anywhere unless he hit her over the head with it, metaphorically speaking. “Monsters have astral bodies. You know this. You can’t hurt a monster with something like that.”

    Filia swung the hand holding the mace forward so it was waving unsteadily in front of his face. “Can’t I?” she asked.

    She knew it was a stupid gesture as soon as she’d done it. But she’d been mad and really wasn’t thinking. Now she was forced to endure that face. His eyes were swiveling to follow her vain attempts to hold the club steady. He had that smile. She hated that smile. It was the one he always had whenever she was particularly mad at him. It said: See, Filia? This is you. This is what you’re really like when you’re honest with yourself.

    “Only my feelings,” he said, like the whole thing was a great big joke.

    She lowered the mace slowly and turned her face away. “You have no feelings,” she responded.

    She hated herself for not believing it.

  7. #7
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    “I am two fools, I know, for loving, and for saying so in whining poetry.”
    ~John Donne

    Chapter 7. Very Close Now.

    The forest was filled with a rather embarrassed silence. Inevitably, both Xellos and Filia had run out of things to complain about each other. Neither one of them seemed to be able to stand the idea that they might have said all they could possibly say to the other and were bending most of their will-power on creative character assassination. After all, if they couldn’t fight anymore, then what was left but to shake hands and try to get along? Now that was a frightening notion.

    But the quality of the insults was really waning. Things were just getting petty at this point. The last argument had centered around hairstyles. Xellos was not willing to let that be the ending mark for the dialogue since, if he was honest with himself, he’d definitely lost that exchange.

    “How far away are we from Seyruun?” Filia asked when she could think of nothing else to say.

    “Not far,” Xellos said, peaking around the corner of the conversation for some kind of opportunity to annoy her. “Only a couple days if we keep moving.”

    “Well, that’s a relief,” Filia said. She felt like this whole trip was going to go on forever… like it had gone on forever.

    “I couldn’t agree more,” Xellos said, and then smiled as he hit on his opportunity, “Darling.”

    The effect was a good as Xellos could’ve hoped. Filia stopped dead and shuddered visibly. Her eye might have been twitching as well.

    “Don’t do that,” she said, with a dangerous glare. “It’s not funny.”

    “I’m not trying to be funny,” Xellos said, though he personally found it hilarious. “I just thought endearing little pet names came with the territory when you got married.”

    She grimaced. She always seemed to have a few blissful moments when she almost forgot about the… matrimony thing, and then it would come back to hit her like a grand piano with a ton of bricks inside of it. She didn’t need him reminding her.

    “I’ll stick with ‘raw garbage’ if it’s all the same to you,” she said.

    “Oh yes,” Xellos said with a smile that was more like a wince. “I always did find that charming.”

    Filia watched as his expression suddenly changed. Something had caught his attention. She had just opened her mouth to ask him what was wrong when he leaped forward, clamped a gloved hand over her mouth, and sent them both toppling into a nearby bush.

    “Mwut dwo yoff thlink yaw dwoing?!” Filia demanded in a way that would have been perfectly clear and forceful if it weren’t for the fact that Xellos had his hand over her mouth.

    “Lesser demons,” Xellos whispered, leaning over her, eyeing the clearing beside the path they’d been on through the bush where a few low-class horrors were milling about.

    “Did they see us?” Filia whispered, as Xellos took his hand away (tentatively, as though ready to shut her up again if she intended on screaming like an idiot).

    “No,” Xellos said with certainty. “And we have to make sure that they don’t.”

    Something about the urgency in Xellos’s tone injured Filia’s pride a little. She knew she wasn’t anywhere near his match when it came to well… slaying things. But she’d been doing her best with the monsters they’d come up against and none of them had beat her yet.

    “I can handle a few lesser demons,” she said defensively.

    “They’re not here to attack,” Xellos said, eyes still focused beyond Filia’s line of sight to where the lesser demons were. “They’re scouting.”

    Filia wished she could see what was going on, but she was kind of… uh… pinned. “But they’re looking for us, right?”

    “Yes. It’s very likely that they’re doing the dirty work of another monster,” he said, going through the possibilities in his mind. “If they see us they’ll run off and tell their master. If we kill them then their master will come to investigate where they disappeared. A monster using scouts is probably of a much higher class than the fodder you’ve been barely keeping at bay, so we can’t let them find us.”

    Filia noted the shot at her combat skills and was not very successful at keeping the irritation out of her voice when she said, “So what do you suggest we do then?”

    “We wait,” Xellos said, finally breaking his gaze upwards and looking down at her. “Quietly. Until they leave.”

    “Fine,” Filia said, and waited.

    The brain is a lovely tool, fitted upon life forms in order to regulate functions, solve problems, and introspect. Thought is, in general, productive, and helps the thinker in whatever situation they find themselves in.

    However, that’s not always the case. There are other thoughts, the dark twins to those constructive, self-improvement thoughts. There are… the kamikaze thoughts.

    Everyone gets them every so often. They tend to be loud, quick, and completely unstoppable. For example, maybe you’re walking downstairs at night to get a drink of water. Your brain takes moments like this to scream: “I HOPE THERE’S NOTHING SCARY DOWN THERE, LIKE A ROBBER, OR A RAPIST, OR A DEMON FROM THE HEART OF THE BLACK VOID!” If your mind is particularly self-destructive, you’ll get the follow-up: “DID YOU HEAR THAT?!”

    Basically, these thoughts are the equivalent of a foot stuck out in front of you to trip you up. What makes it worse is that it’s your own brain that’s out to get you. You might think everything’s fine, and then all of the sudden a kamikaze thought comes along and causes you discomfort or distress when discomfort and distress are not necessary.

    At that moment the thought, “MY GOODNESS, WE’RE AWFULLY CLOSE TOGETHER AREN’T WE?” blazed through Filia’s consciousness, set a collision course for her frontal lobe, and exploded on impact, sending thought shrapnel all across Filia’s brain.

    Stop yourself, she thought back firmly. But it was too late. The thing about kamikaze thoughts is: once you’ve thought it, you can’t unthink it.

    The thought had a bit of a point though. Taken out of context this scene might look a little… suggestive. He was leaning low over her, quite close to avoid being seen over the top of the bush, with one arm braced on the ground on both sides of her.

    There was nothing to look at but his face. Well… that wasn’t precisely true. She could’ve turned her head to the side and examined the leaves of the particular bush they were hiding in. But doing that would’ve said quite clearly that she was uncomfortable looking him in the eye, and such a sign of weakness was unacceptable.

    The important thing, she thought as she felt her heart-rate quicken and noted with disapproval a buzz from the more industriously rebellious areas of her psyche, is not to blush. Because he’s less than a foot away from my face and if I blush, he’ll know. And then I’ll have to either kill myself or him. Probably both.

    While Filia was trying to threaten the blood-vessels in her face into submission, Xellos was trying hard not to think that, if a poet were to describe Filia’s hair he might have used phrases like, “golden tresses” or “glimmering strands, wisping away in the gentle zephyr”. The word “gossamer” would probably have been thrown in too, for no other reason than the fact that it sounded pretty. He already hated this highly imaginary poet.

    It’s not like he hadn’t seen her hair before. It was just that it was… kind of flowing there as she lay on the ground. The sun filtered in through the domed roof of the shrub, around the leaves of the hedge making her blonde hair look faintly sparkly. No wonder he’d lost the hairstyle argument.

    Between her long, flowing hair and her usual stupid hat, Filia’s ears were rarely in view. They were though, just at the moment. Xellos noted that, like her fellow golden dragons, Filia had pointed ears like an elf. It seemed kind of stupid no matter how you looked at it. Golden dragons often take advantage of their ability to appear in human form. As far as Xellos was concerned, the point of looking like a human was to put humans at ease and to hide your true identity from them. But no, golden dragons had decided that even though they could change their appearance they’d keep the ears. Just to leave a gigantic signpost for the humans. But that’s dragons for you.

    She looked very uncomfortable. The fact that she was trying to hide this just made it more obvious. He was pretty sure that the prescribed reaction to being forced down into the hedges by someone who is technically your husband was not to glare determinedly at them. If she’d had room at all she’d have been crossing her arms.

    Not that he necessarily wanted her to follow the traditional blushing and looking away archetype. That would’ve been decidedly awkward. But he wasn’t in the mood for a staring contest either.

    He was sure that if she kept up that expression for much longer her face would stick that way. He would’ve bet money that her teeth were clenched behind her lips. She was breathing heavier than usual, her chest rising and falling with each—

    “Ahem,” Filia cleared her throat irritably.

    His eyes flicked back to her face from where they had mutinously wandered. “What?” he asked innocently.

    Thanks to a few contradictory thoughts Filia was both scowling and blushing. “Have they gone yet?” she asked, trying to keep her tone even through gritted teeth.

    Xellos lifted his head to look over the top of the foliage. “Yes,” he said.

    “In that case,” she said crossly, “would you consider getting off of me?”

    He adopted a thoughtful expression. “I’m considering it.”

    “Get off,” she practically snarled, shoving him aside and getting to her feet.

    Xellos got to his feet as well, his body-language, for just one moment, saying, “your loss” before getting back to more important matters.

    “Given the circumstances,” he said, looking around to be sure that the scouts were indeed gone, “I think it would be best if we went to Bennin now.”

    Filia frowned thoughtfully, trying to find some directional context for this. “I thought we were going to Seyruun by way of the Reeze pass. That’s a little out of the way.”

    “Exactly,” Xellos said. “If we keep going the direct route it’ll be obvious as to where we’re heading. The roads to the east meander a little bit more so anyone following us will be less assured as to our final destination. We’re getting very close to Seyruun City now and the last thing we want is for our enemies to be waiting for us when we arrive. Well,” he paused, because monsters tend to be very good at calculating worst case scenarios, “one of the last things.”

    “But we’ve come such a long way already,” Filia complained, not wanting to delay their arrival at Seyruun anymore than strictly necessary.

    “True.” Xellos narrowed his eyes at her. “And we don’t want everything to be ruined just because you’re impatient.”

    “I’m not impatient. I’m just tired of waiting!” Filia said, practically giving the dictionary definition of ‘impatient’.

    “Anyway,” Filia said, trying to hit on a better line of opposition, “If we’re going to take the back roads we could at least go farther than Bennin. That’s only a few hours away and it’s barely midday.”

    “And that’s exactly why they won’t expect us to be there,” Xellos explained. “It wouldn’t even register as a place worth checking, considering their search patterns. If we stop early we have a good chance of losing our pursuers altogether in the town.”

    “Well, why stop there?” Filia snapped in a burst of sarcasm. “Let’s just double all the way back to Dils,” she said, waving her arms about theatrically. “That’d really confuse them!”

    “That would be needlessly cautious,” Xellos said, calmly ignoring her sarcasm.

    Filia groaned. “Fine, have it your way. Let’s just keep moving.”

    *****

    He’d ditched her. They’d arrived in Bennin, got two adjoining rooms at the local inn, and then he’d made some excuse about having, “to check on something”. It seemed pretty fishy to Filia, but since she had no idea what he could possibly have to check on, her suspicions floundered fruitlessly.

    Considering that they’d wasted half a day’s travel just because he was worried about them being followed, it seemed inconsistent that he’d want them to split up. What if the dragons or the monsters found one of them when the other wasn’t around?

    He’d shrugged this off as soon as she’d asked him, saying that the chances of them being attacked here were very slim. They’d never been attacked in a town yet and this wasn’t even a likely town to check. He’d also said that clinging to a monster like a frightened child was unbecoming of a golden dragon.

    Filia, who’d been clinging to nothing, hmphed and asked, “What do you need to check on anyway?”

    Xellos put his finger to his lips in a highly characteristic gesture that would’ve normally made Filia want to throttle him. She figured she must be gaining some Xellos-annoyance-related immunity from being forced to be around him constantly. “That is a secret,” he said, and disappeared into the crowd. She rolled her eyes for all she was worth.

    There had been so little for her to do. She’d had a late lunch or an early dinner depending on your perspective. There were a few nice shops in town but she was feeling a little too high-strung for window shopping.

    So she’d killed time around the inn as best she could, reading through the town newsletter, chatting with the old woman who ran the inn, and getting beaten at checkers by a deceptively intelligent eight-year-old. She’d gone up to her room early in a state of restless boredom, figuring that she could at least get a good night’s sleep so they could make an early start of it tomorrow.

    Unfortunately, this plan was crashing around her ears. She’d been staring at the ceiling for hours and couldn’t seem to drift off. Even Xellos must’ve settled in by then as she’d heard him in the adjoining room some time ago, back from his mysterious errand, and he didn’t even need to sleep.

    Her mood had been in a downward slope all day and it seemed to be curving toward a very unpleasant place indeed. She’d started off, well, maybe not in a happy mood, but better than she felt at the moment. She’d been mad at Xellos and she’d been anxious about them being attacked again. These weren’t exactly good feelings but they were… oh, heightened ones at least.

    Her anxiety had been draining away all day. As it turned out, Xellos was right. It wasn’t likely they’d be attacked here. And without Xellos around to be… Xellos, her anger was ebbing away.

    Unfortunately, unbeknownst to her, those feelings of fear for the next attack and any and all distractions caused by Xellos being plain annoying had been buffers against other thoughts.

    Right now she was thinking of home.

    She turned over in bed and peered out the half-closed window and into the night sky. It was a cloudy night so you couldn’t see many stars, but the moon was high in the sky. One half dark, one half light. Balanced on the edge. She shivered under her woolen blanket.

    This is insane, she thought to herself. How did I get myself into this mess?

    She missed Val. She missed Jillas. She missed Gravos. She missed the shop. She’d missed them all before, but now homesickness really had time to cut into her heart.

    Dwelling on it didn’t do any good, she knew, but she couldn’t help but wonder what they thought must have happened to her. She’d been gone far longer than she said she would. She knew she must be worrying them.

    She knew running back to them would’ve just put them in danger. It’s safer for them that they don’t know what’s going on. But…, she bit her lip, how could I have abandoned my son for so long?

    She gripped her pillow and cried softly into it. At this point she wasn’t sure which she dreaded more: that Xellos might hear her or that he might not.

    *****
    Xellos did not hear her crying because he was not in the adjoining room. He’d visited it briefly to gather a pen and paper, but then headed back to the main room of the inn where the light was best.

    He took a folded piece of paper out of his cloak and smoothed it over the table’s surface. It was the marriage certificate he’d received as a result of the unfortunate misunderstanding back at the Gruddi Temple. Then he took out the manuscript he’d acquired that afternoon. It had been hard to find since Bennin was not exactly a cosmopolitan place, but he’d found it in the fourth bookstore. It was a Gruddian dictionary.

    It was a bit like shutting the barn door after the horses had got out. It was extremely unlikely that he’d ever be in a position like the one at the beginning of their misadventure again, but monsters tend to be very conscientious about not making the same mistakes twice. It’s a good survival strategy.

    So now he was busily translating the marriage contract. He didn’t hold out much hope that there would be a helpful loop-hole on it, but anything is possible. Anyway, he was somewhat curious about what the piece of gibberish actually said.

    The beginning was a legal bit and, due to the Gruddi custom of marrying anyone or anything to anyone or anything, lacked something in the way of romance. It roughly translated to:

    “We the undersigned do pledge before gods/demons/duly appointed legal authority/misc our love for one another and join our households together regardless of unforeseen circumstances that may arrive, (to whit: sickness/health, richness/poorness, youth/decrepitude, beauty/ugliness, virility/impotence, interest/boredom, happiness/sadness, possessed by an evil spirit/evil spirit free, etc., etc.) until death do you part (death statute does not apply in the case of zombies, ghosts, vampires, werewolves, and other members of the undead community as well as inanimate objects).”

    Xellos noted the use of plural pronouns to negate the he/she/it problem so common on the forms of the more open-minded variety of churches. He groaned. He and Filia had unwittingly walked into the only temple around that probably wouldn’t have cared even if they’d known they were monster and dragon.

    There were verses below the legal jargon, Xellos flipped through the dictionary and translated it. It went:

    “Who deigns to decide true love’s worth?
    Men and Kings and Gods on high weigh,
    In with stipulations to judge its birth.
    But is that not, Love, for you and I to say?

    No matter what Opposition we face,
    Or what those who talk against us do,
    If they wish, they may withhold their Grace,
    But I will still pledge myself unto you.

    Your beautiful Soul has me entranced,
    Your honest kisses, my Heart refresh.
    By Holy Union our bond enhanced,
    That those apart may become One Flesh.”


    Xellos gave a nasty look to his own signature, imprinted accusingly at the bottom of the document. A love poem. All the mawkish drivel they’d extracted from the exceedingly legal preamble had been dumped into one extra disgusting love poem.

    The bit about opposition was telling too. It was probably the Gruddian way of saying, “Hey, we may approve of marriages to teacups, but that’s just because we serve the highest power of all, which is love”. We’re not sorry because we have our lovely ideals.

    Even though he knew that the thing was at least 99% ********, he also couldn’t help but recognize how dangerous something like this was. It was like a kind of magic. It said that the world was a certain way and bent reality around itself. The young couple sees these words and says yes, that’s true. They believe it so it becomes real. Maybe the spell will only last a few years, a few months, or a few weeks in bad cases before the magic fades, but it was a cunning manipulation nevertheless. Perfectly sane people, led down a path because of a few corny rhyming words.

    The worst jolt was that it was his contract. Those words were supposed to apply to him and Filia of all people. He read over the translation again.

    And then again.

    He’d better not show this to Filia, he decided as he folded up the paper and put it back in his cloak. After all, she was so… sentimental. This kind of thing tends to effect women like her.

    Not him. He was too strong to be tricked by this kind of starry-eyed suggestion.

    He took the poem out again and read it a fourth time.

    Goddamnit.

  8. #8
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    “‘Cause you know sometimes words have two meanings,”
    ~Led Zeppelin

    Chapter 8. Terrible Idea.

    They were almost there. Xellos estimated that they could be in Seyruun as early as the next day if they covered enough ground. The exhaustion and frustration Filia had felt throughout the long trip was starting to be replaced by anxiety over how they’d deal with things once they reached Seyruun. Still, it’d be nice to stop running for awhile. Of course, reaching Seyruun would just mean they’d start hiding, but hopefully they’d be on the road to fixing the situation.

    It was afternoon and they’d stopped at a running stream so Filia could get a drink of water. It was cool and refreshing and only slightly disease-ridden. When she turned back to Xellos she found him leaning against a rock, reading a piece of paper.

    “What’s that?” she asked.

    He looked up at her in surprise, changed his expression to one of cold condescension and said, “None of your business.”

    Well. That was a little bit harsher than his usual carefree: “That is a secret”. It made her wonder even more what he’d been reading, but he didn’t look even remotely willing to share. He folded the paper up and put it back in his cloak. She couldn’t help but noticing that it looked like it had been folded and unfolded many times.

    If Filia had been an expert at reading faces and if Xellos’s face wasn’t quite so difficult to read, she might have noticed that Xellos was struggling under the weight of an emotion that plagues many people. It’s called self-loathing. But you can be sure if he was asked he’d claim he could quit reading that poem any time he wanted to.

    The distant sound of flapping wings spared Xellos any further interrogation.

    “Dragons,” Filia said. Her ears perked up and she corrected herself: “just one dragon.”

    Xellos sighed. “It’s a shame,” he said. “I’d hoped we’d lost them.”

    “At least it’s not more monsters,” Filia said. She didn’t see what right Xellos had to complain. He barely seemed to break a sweat when dragons attacked. In her mind it was the monsters that were the real trouble.

    “If the dragons can find us then so can the monsters,” Xellos said ominously.

    “Oh.”

    The dragon landed in a clear space nearby among the rocks. Trees swayed in the tornado of wind let loose from his flapping wings; the stream beside its landing site let out a glittering splash of water that, in a perfect world, would have been accompanied by a cymbal clash. The effect was pretty impressive.

    “Well,” Xellos said, forgetting his self-loathing as a familiar humor took him over. “I guess I’m off to work again, honey.”

    “I told you that’s not funny!”

    Xellos gave a small smile as he stepped toward the interloper, squaring up for the fight. Should he give the newcomer a chance to attack first? Perhaps…

    “Wait,” the dragon said in the sonorous, rumbling tones of a large creature speaking through its mind instead of its mouth. “I wish to speak to the girl.”

    So this one wants to talk? That’s new. Xellos shrugged and gave Filia a sidelong glance.

    “Do you know who I am, girl?” the dragon asked, addressing its words to Filia.

    Filia shook her head somewhat fearfully.

    “I am Eudor Dios Brines, son of the great Spiridon Stet Brines, Elder of the Wind Temple in the West,” he announced grandly.

    Xellos would’ve yawned to show his contempt, but Filia ruined the moment by gasping.

    “Who?” he asked her resignedly.

    “He’s just...,” Filia began. “Well, he’s very famous even at the other temples. He was a warrior for a number of years, but now he’s mostly active on the council and he teaches the younger ones. He’s…,” she tried to find the right word to communicate to Xellos what he might be dealing with, “…crafty.”

    Xellos smiled. “What a coincidence.”

    “You intend to fight me?” Eudor asked.

    “I’m afraid so,” Xellos said.

    “Why would a monster protect a dragon?”

    Xellos grimaced. “There are… ah… extenuating circumstances.”

    “Ah,” Eudor said, raising his white blonde eyebrows in a way that indicated to Xellos that the dragon had almost definitely misunderstood the circumstances. “Well, I hope not to have to resort to fighting. My primary goal is to give a message to the girl.”

    Filia listened, fearful of what the big-wig dragon might say to her.

    “Filia Ul Copt,” began Eudor, “You have betrayed your people and spat on tradition by throwing your lot in with this monster; yet, we know you have not gone so far as to raise a hand against us. Abandon this mad affair! The dragon race is merciful and even now you may spare yourself a most shameful death if only you turn yourself in.”

    “So, if she turns herself in, you won’t kill her?” Xellos asked incredulously because this did not jibe with the dragon race he knew.

    “I did not say that,” the dragon said, giving Xellos his best “Ew. The cockroach is talking to me,” expression. “It would just be less shameful.”

    “You don’t understand!” Filia bellowed up at the senior dragon, her voice on edge because, shame or no shame, execution is still execution. “We didn’t do this on purpose! It was all a misunderstanding!”

    “I understand that the monster must have tricked you,” Eudor said with only the smallest drop of sympathy in his voice, “But there is no excuse for your actions. You are responsible.”

    Xellos laughed without any trace of mirth. “I tricked her? Oh yes, I recall it now. I said, ‘Hey Filia, I know it’ll bring the armies of heaven and hell down on us, but, what the heck? Let’s go out and get hitched! What do you have to lose besides everything?’”

    Filia felt her blood chill slightly as she looked at the expression on the older dragon’s face. This really wasn’t the time for sarcasm.

    “I haven’t done anything wrong,” Filia declared, knowing that Eudor the Elder would never understand.

    The dragon shook his head sadly. “If you’re not even repentant, then there’s nothing I can do for you.” He took to the air and swooped toward Xellos with deadly intent.

    Xellos smiled and easily skirted the dive-bombing lizard. Even without exploiting the astral side he knew this dragon was no match for him. Filia’s fear of this dragon was laughable and he intended to show her that.

    So he dodged and weaved for awhile, letting the dragon make itself look foolish, flying around and almost knocking into things when he missed. Xellos didn’t really take into account that Eudor was, as Filia had said, crafty, but if he hadn’t been busy showing off he probably would’ve noticed the small, seemingly effectless spell Eudor had chanted partway through the fight.

    “Xellos!” Filia cried out.

    Xellos turned away from Eudor, or what he thought was Eudor, to look behind him. There was a second dragon, and it was gearing up to let out a blast of laser breath with Xellos in its sights.

    Xellos mentally cursed. A doppelganger spell was easy, but this one had been particularly convincing. He should’ve taken his opponent more seriously and not given him time to put his strategy into motion. He knew he’d have to take the hit. There was no time to dodge.

    Just when Eudor was ready to let the blast go, a second burst of light shot at him and knocked him off his trajectory. The blast meant for Xellos was sent harmlessly over a village and into a cornfield where it was heralded as a sign that the gods didn’t like corn.

    The unexpected blast slammed Eudor into the trunk of a mighty oak, snapping the ancient wood effortlessly. His doppelganger was reabsorbed into his body; pulled back as though attached by an elastic string. He clutched his side. He was bleeding.

    Both Eudor and Xellos turned their gazes to the direction of the blast where Filia stood, shaking slightly and looking shocked with herself.

    Eudor winced as he picked himself up. For a moment, Xellos braced for the fight to recommence, but it seemed like the old dragon was more interested in lecturing than ***-kicking at this point.

    “You,” he said, eyes narrowing dangerously at Filia. “I read your record and had hopes that you would at least behave with the honor befitting your race in the face of your mistake, but I can see I was wrong. A golden dragon attacking another golden dragon?” he asked incredulously. “I can think of no greater crime. And to do it all for the sake of that creature,” this word was spat in Xellos’s direction.

    “Reichbelishk!” Eudor said, to Filia who seemed to wilt even more so under the strain of that strange word. “No dragon I know of in all of history has disgraced us as much as you.” He began to flap his wings. “I will leave for now. Nothing I could ever do to you could match the evil that you’ve done to yourself. If you have even the smallest trace of dragon pride left in your blood, which I must doubt at this point, you will turn yourself over to us. If not, I will be back to kill you, but be aware that not even death can wipe out your sins now.”

    He took off and made great speed westward, apparently eager to be away from them as quickly as possible. Xellos watched him until he was out of sight and then turned to look at Filia.

    She looked like she’d been slapped. Her hands were shaking and she didn’t seem to be seeing what was in front of her.

    “Come on,” he said. “We’d better keep moving.” He turned back toward the path and walked a few steps before he noticed that she hadn’t followed.

    He walked back to her and grabbed her hand, gently pulling her along. She didn’t resist, but followed along slowly and didn’t say a word.

    *****

    It was nightfall and her demeanor hadn’t changed. As they reached another bustling town he hoped that a night’s rest would snap her out of her withdrawn state – because that expression of pained shock did not bode well.

    He guided her into the waiting room of the inn after negotiating their way through the busy streets and turned toward the old woman at the desk. “Two rooms, please.”

    “Aint got two rooms,” The landlady said, not even looking up from her newspaper. “Everywhere’s full up, what with that priest whatshisface in town. Everyone wants to be miracled. Only got one room left.”

    “Fine, one room then.” It didn’t really matter since he didn’t need to sleep and Filia was too catatonic to object to the impropriety of it all.

    The landlady looked up from her paper and gave him and the unresponsive Filia a sharp look. “What you think this is, boy? The Stardust down the street? This is a high class place and I won’t tolerate any hanky-panky.”

    Xellos rolled his eyes under their lids. “Ma’am, I assure you, hanky-panky is the last thing I have in mind at the moment.”

    She crossed her arms in matronly distrust and said, “I got my principles, boy. I aint renting a room out to no man and woman unless they been officially married.”

    Xellos beamed up at her and reached into the pocket of his cloak. “I think I can actually help you there.”

    *****

    The marriage certificate had been good enough for the landlady, who apparently was 1/8th Gruddi on her mother’s side. So Xellos had been able to get them the last room available in town. Now that they were in the room it did, in fact, look like the last room in town. But it was a room and that’s what counted.

    Filia was just standing where he’d left her, looking at her boots as though they’d traumatized her. He was starting to run out of patience and was about to say something like: “shake it off” or “just go to bed” when she finally spoke up for the first time in hours.

    “Do you know what he called me?” she asked in a strange voice.

    “I heard the word, but I don’t know what it means,” Xellos admitted.

    “It’s an old dragon word,” Filia explained slowly. “It means: traitor, one-who-laughs-while-their-kinsman-die, …*****,” her voice broke at the end and she sniffed as her eyes filled with tears.

    Oh crap, Xellos thought, watching her try not to cry.

    “I have to turn myself in,” she said, in a strangled voice. “I attacked another golden dragon. There’s no way out now… even if I die, at least I can stop running.” A tear ran down her cheek.

    So close. Just one day and they’d have been safe in Seyruun. And now it could all be ruined because he’d been stupid enough to put himself in danger and she’d been stupid enough to save him. He hadn’t even needed her to save him. Sure, he’d have gotten hit and it would’ve, maybe, pinched a little, but he would’ve been fine. She just had to go and… why’d she have to…

    Anyway, now she’s going to cry, he thought, and I have to deal with this because if she leaves then there’s no way out for me either.

    He examined his repertoire of methods for dealing with the emotional/irrational and came up with the classic, though thoroughly useless: “There, there.”

    Well, that did it for her; because when even Xellos is at least pretending to feel sorry for you, you know you’re in dire straits. She lost her restraint and burst out crying.

    Oh no, Xellos thought. This really is going to be tricky, isn’t it?

    She tried desperately to wipe away her tears with the heel of her hand, but it was like trying to stop a flood with a paper umbrella. “You wouldn’t understand,” she said thickly between the sobs. “I had a life, I had a family,” she said, thinking back to the shop, to Jillas, to Gravos, and most of all to Val. “I was happy. But now I can’t go back to any of that without putting everything I care about in danger.” She drew in a ragged breath. “I’ve got nothing. I’m alone.”

    He stepped forward pulled her closer to him so that she could cry into his shoulder. “You’re not alone,” he said, his voice one part bitter and one part soothing. “That’s the whole point, isn’t it? If we were alone we wouldn’t be in this mess.”

    Even in her teary state, Filia knew at that moment that Xellos was all she had in the world. It only made her cry harder.

    Xellos stroked her hair awkwardly as one half of his consciousness crawled away in disgust and the other half leaned in for a closer look. “Don’t turn yourself in,” he said. “There are still ways we can fix this and dying isn’t one of them. Ruin your life on your own time; I’ve still got a chance.”

    She made no response beyond a sniffle, but her sobs were calming down. That didn’t necessarily mean she was agreeing; she could’ve just tired herself out.

    He nudged her face upward to see for himself which was the case, cradling her chin between his thumb and forefinger. She wasn’t a pretty sight. Tears were still rolling down her cheeks. There are ways that women can cry that enhance their beauty, magnifying the color of their eyes and showing a softer side of themselves. Filia wasn’t crying that way. She was crying in earnest. She was being real. The hollows of her eyes were red and irritated from where she’d tried to wipe away the tears. As is always the case when real tears enter the picture, snot played its vital role.

    But when he looked at her he remembered the moment the rocks had nearly crushed her in Valgaav’s base. He remembered teaming up alongside her against Darkstar. He remembered watching her sleep the first night after their marriage. He remembered pulling her away from the jaws of gravity at the bridge. He remembered rescuing her from those mercenaries. He remembered her hitting him; her hating him. He remembered leaning over her in the bush as she tried to make up her mind whether to blush or push him off of her and ended up choosing both.

    So, because he remembered these things, and because just at the moment he couldn’t think of a compelling reason not to, he kissed her.

    It was probably the best thing he could do, he thought. It would certainly shock her enough to stop her from crying. She’d probably get mad and slap him, and, in her anger, regain her zest for life. Yes, that had been his plan all along.

    He pulled back. She had stopped crying, but she didn’t look mad. She was just gazing at him with a stupid and slightly perplexed look on her face.

    It was probably just the shock. He took the opportunity to kiss her again. This time she’d surely hit him. After all, she’d hit him when he’d killed those two dragons and, in some indefinable way, what he was doing now would probably be considered a whole lot worse.

    But still she did nothing. He paused, still close to her face, their foreheads touching and lips just slightly apart from one another. She looked at him like she couldn’t quite make up her mind.

    Third time’s the charm. He kissed her again. He ran his hand through her hair as he placed it on the back of her head, pulling her closer.

    You’re on very dangerous ground right now, you realize.

    She was raising her arms. Now, finally, she’d push him away. She’d slap him across the face. She’d rage at him. She’d kick him out of the room.

    …Or she’d wrap her arms around him, pulling him closer to her so that their bodies were pressed together.

    This is a terrible idea.

    He ran his hand down her side, feeling down the boney edge of her hip and down to her thigh. She shivered.

    “Xellos…” she breathed.

    But there’s nothing quite so beguiling as a terrible idea.

    *****

    Trillions upon trillions of miles away, in a more technologically advanced universe, a record began to play. It started slow, but there was a momentum there… an arc. As the tempo picked up a winter field came into view. With a blind, sun-seeking strength a stem thrust through the cold ground and burst into a blooming flower in an orgy of time-lapse photography. A humming bird hovered in agitated energy over the bloom.

    In another corner of this unknown world, a train went roaring through a tunnel, whistle blaring, smoke billowing out of its chimney. Fireworks sparkled across the sky over it as the sun set and night descended with a chill. In the background, gunpowder popped and cracked across the eardrums.

    Rocket ships to the moon. Spinning atoms. The dance of the sun across the sky. The changing of seasons.

    All this happened as the record played, its music drifting across the multiverse, running endlessly until it wore out and could play no more.

    It played “Stairway to Heaven” if you wanted to know.

  9. #9
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    “Resist no temptation: a guilty conscience is more honorable than regret.”
    ~Anonymous


    Chapter 9. Trial of Conscience.

    The next morning’s weather forecast featured clear skies, sunny weather, and a one-hundred percent chance of what the hell have I done?!

    Filia woke up with her head resting against Xellos’s chest and knew exactly what she’d done. The memories of the previous evening had left incandescent traces across her mind that she didn’t think would ever leave her. This did absolutely nothing to mitigate her shock. In fact, it made it worse.

    Well, apparently yesterday was a red-letter day for bringing never-ending shame upon your race, she thought grimly.

    She sat up with exaggerated slowness, barely daring to move lest she disturb— Oh s***. He’s awake. Of course he’s awake. I don’t have a good enough vocabulary of profanity to express my feelings about the situation, Filia reflected miserably; and I don’t know what to say to him!

    Look at him! Any second now he’s going to say something sickeningly smug and all you’re going to be up to is some nonsensical stammering. You’re going to look like an idiot.

    He coughed, making ready, as Filia was sure, to mock her for this forever. What he actually said was: “If we leave soon we can be in Seyruun around noon.”

    Well, that was surprisingly survivable. Filia nodded numbly.

    She cast her eyes around the room and, reaching for one of the spare sheets at the foot of the bed, wrapped it around her like a makeshift robe. She got up out of bed to locate her clothes which weren’t, it pained her to note, folded neatly in the bureau like the clothes of a good girl, but strewn around the room like the clothes of a completely different kind of girl.

    Xellos noted the emergency toga and could not forbear comment. “What’s the point?” he asked. “I’ve already seen—”

    Her back tensed up and she whipped her head around in his direction with a truly fierce glare that broke through some of the embarrassed confusion she’d been feeling and signaled that his comment was a mistake. “I’m cold,” she said. Well, at least her tone was.

    “If you say so,” he said in the careful tones of one determined not to make the situation any worse than it already was.

    *****

    Filia had held out some vain hope that once she’d gotten her clothes on she’d feel less... well… naked. No such luck.

    She realized rather quickly that trying to figure out just how the whole thing had happened was a mistake. It was an invitation to replay the events of the evening in her mind, and she honestly didn’t need an invitation. Anyway, she had problems enough figuring out what would happen now then worrying about then.

    The good news was that she really wasn’t any worse off now then she was before last night happened. The bad news was that before that she was marked as a blood-traitor unworthy of even death but lucky enough to have it bestowed upon her anyway.

    No. Last night didn’t make any difference when it came to the others dragons. In fact, she thought gloomily, they probably thought that’s what they’d been doing all along.

    But it made a rather personal difference. She knew she couldn’t outrun the armies of guilt poised on the edges of her consciousness. It was only a matter of time before the shock wore off and the self-loathing started.

    She just couldn’t believe that she’d been… carried away like that. Where was her common sense? Where was her pride? Everyone had apparently been out to lunch leaving a giggling, drunken thought in charge that said, “Hey, you’re already married to him, right?”

    And now she was facing the consequences.

    If we may return once again to the idea of the mind as a committee, because this is an excellent time to do so, it was as though all the various concepts of thought and emotion were crowded together at a batch of tables. Filia’s sex-drive joined them doing the metaphorical equivalent of preening and said, “I don’t know about you guys, but I feel a lot better now,” and as one every other thought concept plotted cerebral murder.

    The shouting’s going to start soon, isn’t it?

    What did you think you were doing? her conscience bellowed at her. You can’t stand him! He’s your worst enemy! And yet, this happens? Why? Because you were sad? Because you were lonely? You were weak.

    Filia could not respond to these claims. She knew they were true.

    Well, just tell me one thing, young lady, Conscience said, adding the last bit because in many ways the conscience is just the mom that lives in your brain. Was it worth it?



    That question wasn’t rhetorical!

    Psst. You’re supposed to say ‘no’, the teleprompter of the brain put in helpfully.

    Shut up, Filia thought at them. Shut up both of you.

    At least Xellos hadn’t said anything smug the whole time they’d been on the road. Her own mind was offering much more in the way of torment than he was. She’d really expected him to make a big deal out of this, but he hadn’t. He’d barely said anything at all, and nothing about… well… it seemed as though they’d arrived at some sort of silent accord to never speak of the incidents of the previous evening again.

    Perhaps he was just as shocked with himself as she was with herself. That was a comforting thought.

    The closest he’d come to a taunt between the inn and Seyruun City was: “I notice none of your dragons are hanging around us today. How typical of the dragon race to rush in with brute force and then run away with their tails between their legs when it’s clear they can’t win.”

    “Oh yeah?” she’d responded as the feeling of self-conscious anxiety blissfully deserted her for a few moments. “Well none of your monsters are around either. They’ve probably all run back to their masters because they don’t know how to think for themselves.”

    “Hmph.”

    And do you know what? That exchange comforted Filia more than anything else. They were at least trying to act normal, but it was almost like it was… play-acting. It was like they were both saying: “Yeah, that’s right. We’re still enemies. There hasn’t been any… unseemly co-mingling.”

    Hold onto that thought. You’re going to need it.

    *****

    They’d arrived at Seyruun and figured it would be most prudent to head over to the castle instead of taking in the various tourist sites that the metropolis offered. The guards had been ‘persuaded’ that it would be a good idea to let them into the castle if they wanted to keep their faces the way they remembered them. So they made their way to the room Amelia was working in at whatever it is that princesses do all day. Amelia was a much more gracious hostess than the guards were. She’d been trained in this regard.

    “Mister Xellos? Miss Filia? What a surprise!” Amelia said, getting up from a desk piled with papers to greet them. Indeed it did seem a surprise as she was fixing them with a puzzled, but polite expression. “I didn’t know you two were traveling together.”

    “You don’t know the half of it,” Xellos muttered very quietly. Filia stepped on his foot.

    “Unfortunately we have a… unique problem that we need your help solving,” Filia said, trying to quell the vein throbbing in her forehead. “I’m sorry about this.”

    “Umm… it’s okay,” Amelia said, still looking confused. “I’m sure I’ll do whatever I can to—”

    There was the sound of running footsteps from down the hall and a male voice asked, “What’s going on here?” Zelgadis appeared in the doorway, and stopped as he took in the room’s occupants. “Oh,” he said. “The guards said— I thought— but it’s just you two,” he trailed off.

    Looks like the gang’s all getting together, Filia thought in an almost manic upswing of misery. Why is it that everyone is so intent on making a guest appearance in my hour of humiliation?

    Xellos however was giving Zelgadis a look that was much more calculating and owed nothing to self-pity. Perhaps he noted the fact that Zelgadis wasn’t wearing his usual traveling clothes. The clothes he was wearing now were new. They were a crisp, clean white with gold edging. They were expensive looking and someone had taken the time to iron them. Given that and the fact that he was there…

    “What, do you live here now or something?” Xellos asked.

    Zelgadis’s reaction was the predictably awesome comeback of: “…! Tch. None of your business.”

    Well, that’s all settled then.

    Amelia held up her hands in a placating gesture. “Please don’t start a fight, Mister Zelgadis. They came here because they need our help.”

    “Really?” Zelgadis said with obvious suspicion. “Why can’t they solve it themselves?”

    “Hey,” Filia said, feeling that she hadn’t come all this way just to be on the receiving end of attitude. “Is a little help really so much to ask?”

    “Sorry,” Zelgadis said without sounding very sorry. “It’s not you. It’s him.”

    “I’m afraid we’re a set at the moment,” Xellos said with almost desperate cheerfulness. He turned to Filia. “Do you want to tell them or should I?”

    “I’d better do it,” Filia said grimly, and then, trying to take refuge in a little pettiness added: “You’d only mess it up.”

    “Oh, then be my guest.”

    She told them. They didn’t believe the evidence of their own ears. Filia fished out her copy of the marriage certificate. They didn’t believe the evidence of their own eyes.

    Finally she’d said: “Do you really think I’d make up something like this?”

    And then they were forced to believe her.

    *****

    Messengers had been sent to find Lina Inverse so that she could perform her vital role of standing between Xellos and Filia and the monsters and dragons trying to kill them. Hopefully she’d come. With a message like that how could she not investigate?

    Filia had also taken the opportunity to send a message to Jillas and Gravos at her shop. She’d been gone for too long and she felt they deserved a full explanation for her absence, no matter how bizarre that explanation was.

    “When do you think they’ll get there?” Filia asked Amelia as she set down a delicate teacup on the table.

    “Oh, very soon,” Amelia said, adding tooth-rotting amounts of honey to her own tea. “I told the messengers to make all possible speed. I’m sure once Miss Lina and Mister Gourry get the message they’ll be here as quick as they can.”

    It was strange. She’d been running for her life the last couple of weeks. And now she was having a tea party. The calm was almost upsetting.

    Amelia noticed her expression and patted her hand. “Don’t worry,” she said with trademark Amelia-optimism. “Once we’re all together we’ll be able to figure something out.”

    “I hope you’re right,” Filia said though she couldn’t quite manage to believe it herself. She held up a hand to her face and felt a tear. “I’m sorry,” she said wiping it away hastily. “I’m just tired.”

    Amelia looked at her, sympathy etched into every pore. “It must have been awful for you,” she said.

    Filia nodded sorrowfully. “It was terrible. We were attacked almost constantly.”

    “Actually, I was talking about being stuck with Mister Xellos all the time,” Amelia commented.

    “Oh. Yes,” Filia said distantly. “That was bad too.”

    Xellos. That was another matter. She’d been in his company almost non-stop for weeks. They’d gotten… well… closer than she’d ever possibly imagined. But ever since they’d gotten the messages out she hadn’t seen him. It was almost as if he was avoiding her.

    Well, that made sense, right? He’s a monster. You can’t expect any more out of him. Better to just… let it be. Get a divorce and hope you can somehow convince the dragon elders that your treason was entirely accidental. Then you’ll never have to think of him again.

    She stared into her tea as though it held all the answers in the world. It didn’t, which was disappointing.

    *****

    It was nighttime. Filia stared out the window of the room she’d been given to stay in. The moon was bright, so even in her dark room she could still see fairly clearly. She knew she wouldn’t sleep. She was beginning to think she’d never sleep again.

    It wasn’t that she was dwelling on it. It wasn’t like she was thinking about how he’d disappeared somewhere in the castle all day. It wasn’t that she hadn’t been able to find him even though she’d strolled nonchalantly through the castle (Not looking for him, of course. Just… exploring.) until she was too tired to go on and hadn’t seen a trace of him.

    Well, perhaps she was dwelling on it. But only a little.

    It wasn’t that she expected anything of him. But to avoid her like this was just… just b***s***. Is that the way a mature person acts? Certainly not.

    She hadn’t realized how used to him she’d gotten.

    She slumped in her chair. “I am pathetic,” she told the night air.

    The representatives of her psyche had, by this point, gotten over the scolding parts of their various monologues. Now they were doing their damnedest to buck her up.

    It’s alright, she tried to think to herself. He’s a monster. He’s tricked people much smarter than you. It’s not your fault.

    So what if what happened last night didn’t mean anything to him? You can put it behind you too. It was a mistake. You know it was a mistake. He knows it was a mistake. So let’s just… forget it ever happened.

    She let her head sink into her hands. The distant sound of a bird of prey echoed through the quiet night.

    And then she heard the knock at her door.

    She sat bolt upright and twisted around to face the door. It was such a soft knock she’d almost thought it was just her imagination. But no… someone was there. Someone had to be there.

    Better to just sit still… the lights are off so just pretend you’re asleep. It’s too late. You’ve learned too much today to open that door.

    …Except that she’d already walked over to the door and was turning the knob.

    She pulled the door open and there was Xellos. Even as her brain feverishly composed all the reasons why he shouldn’t be there she knew that she wouldn’t have been able to bear it if there had been no one there.

    He didn’t look contrite, nor did he look especially conceited. He was just there.

    “Can I come in?” he asked almost flatly.

    Hey, Filia. This is your conscience. I know you don’t want to hear from me anymore, said an especially peevish voice in the back of her head, but I just thought I’d let you know for your own benefit that this is a SIN.

    She took a breath. “Do you think that’s a good idea?” she asked carefully.

    “No,” he said firmly. “Can I come in?”

    It won’t work. Last time you were sad, lonely, and vulnerable. But now you’re tearless and among friends. You’re safe. You won’t fall for him this time.

    …Will you?

    She stared into the vacuum of his eyes. She nodded.

  10. #10
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    “I have yet to see any problem, however complicated, which,
    when you looked at it the right way, did not become still more complicated.”
    ~Poul Anderson

    Chapter 10. Complicated.

    Sometimes words are not enough.

    They both knew what he meant by going to her and what she meant by allowing it. There wasn’t any pretense for them being together; there was no lie. Nothing was defined or confessed or decided.

    Someday we’re going to have to talk about this.

    …But not tonight. Tonight I’d only say all the wrong things.

    *****

    The moon had passed Filia’s window by. It was hovering somewhere above the trees on the other side of the castle and giving some serious thought as to finding out what the other hemisphere was up to.

    Xellos dressed in silence. Dawn hadn’t yet made its lazy was into the sky, so it was still quite dark. There was the barest hint, however, that daylight might lie somewhere beyond the blackness. He picked up his cloak beside him on the bed and began to walk away.

    …Or at least he tried to.

    He turned around. Filia was sitting up on the bed. Her hand was outstretched and holding on to the other end of the cloak. Her expression was apologetic and defiant at the same time.

    Filia, Filia.

    “You know you don’t want them to find me here,” he said.

    Filia looked as if she was struggling to find the right words to express what she wanted to say. Finally she said: “If you go then it’ll all get complicated again.”

    Xellos let out a little laugh. “You mean to say this isn’t complicated?”

    Filia looked down thoughtfully for a moment, and then got out of the bed. She walked over to him, not loosening her grasp on the cloak for a moment. Xellos watched her with interest. The newly fading stars cast their meager light on her as she reached him. File the way her nightgown hung off of her under the category of ‘intriguing’.

    “Not now,” she said, and kissed him in a rather enthusiastic way.

    Well… there was still a little bit of time.

    *****

    He’d just barely been able to escape. That woman had a remarkably strong grip. He’d only managed to disentangle himself from her arms minutes ago when she’d fallen asleep. Dawn had awoken the castle and he was taking pains to avoid meeting anyone on the way back from her room.

    It’s funny how things change, isn’t it? Xellos thought with a small smile. His smile turned into a frown. And then change back.

    That’s right. Soon Lina would arrive and, without having to worry about being ambushed by enemies all the time, they’d finally be able to concentrate on actually fixing the situation. Everything would be sorted out then. It was almost a shame; things had just been getting good.

    They’d get a divorce. Rules would have to be looked up and ministers would have to be summoned, but it would be done. He would return to the monster race, waving his hands in earnest and explaining how this marriage thing had all been a big hilarious mistake and how they would ‘laugh, honestly’ when they heard about it. No trouble though. It would all be done and dusted.

    And it would probably work for him too. The powerful are able to get away with a lot more than the weak. As long as he reversed the situation, the higher-ups would have to be stubborn and foolish to the extreme to continue their campaign against him. They were neither, he knew. If they really left him with no way out and forced him to fight, he would lose eventually. Xellos was well aware of his own strength, but didn’t quite like his odds against the entire monster race. He’d take significant numbers down though. They wouldn’t take that loss over a mistaken marriage that had already ended.

    They’d probably shake their fingers at him and tell him not to do it again, but he’d come out of this alright. He always did.

    …But what would happen to Filia?

    Well, she was basically doomed. He doubted very much that a divorce would make a significant amount of difference to the dragons. She’d attacked Eudor. She’d betrayed her race, and worse yet, she’d done it for him. They would never stop chasing her, and she’d never be able to stop running from them. She would lose her friends, her shop, her son, and any hope for the future: all because of a decision she probably didn’t even think about before making.

    It was going to happen. There was nothing he could do to stop it. If he made any move at all to assist her then it’d be like stabbing himself in the back. He couldn’t very well say, “Whoops! Sorry about the marriage thing. Total accident. Don’t worry, of course I still hate dragons!” and then shelter her. The monster race was, above all things, not stupid. If he stepped across that line again, he’d be right back on the most wanted list.

    And no, it was not his fault that she was in this mess in the first place. She’d gone ahead and made that choice all on her own. He wouldn’t even have considered blaming himself if they hadn’t…

    Well, anyway, he would have to go out on a limb to even have a chance of helping her. And it wouldn’t even do either of them any good! Filia would be in just as much danger. The only difference would be that they’d be back in danger together.

    He stopped and leaned against one of the palace walls, out of sight as a guard passed. He wasn’t used to guilt and he already hated it; but if he thought that was bad then he wasn’t at all prepared for the thought that dropped into his head like an ice cube down the back of a swimsuit.

    If your story is really true then you won’t mind killing the dragon woman just to set our minds at ease. Then we will call off our treason claims. It should be easy for you, shouldn’t it? After all, she doesn’t mean anything to you.

    He smiled a pained smile. That would be very like them.

    Well, well. That presents a completely different set of circumstances now doesn’t it?

    He scratched his cheek thoughtfully. There was a definite need for some contingency plans here. The problem is that when your plan A is abysmal, it’s hard to count on plans B and C being any better. It would help if he had some idea what Filia was thinking. She probably didn’t know either though. Complicated she’d said…

    But he was starting to believe that he’d been looking at this whole thing the wrong way from the beginning. Well… we’ll see what happens. And, if the time comes for action, we’ll just roll the dice and hope like hell for sixes.

    *****

    Breakfast was served at six a.m. on the dot. Some aristocrats like to take advantage of their rank to sleep in, but not Prince Phil. He believed in clean, healthy living; which basically meant getting up early and spending a lot of time outside. May he be forgiven for this attitude.

    Knowing that they had guests, the cooks had made some extra pains to craft a splendid meal. These days, Seyruun’s residents did their best to leave good impressions on everyone that passed through. The city got a lot of revenue out of tourism. Their efforts were wasted though, Amelia noted as she watched her guests. Xellos definitely looked somewhat agitated, his usual composure showing cracks around the edges. Filia was picking at her food in a groggy and discontented way. Amelia didn’t know that these were sure signs that things were, once again, complicated, so she tried to cheer them up.

    “Don’t worry you guys,” she said. “I’m sure Miss Lina will be along in a day or two. In the meantime, I’ve got some assistants looking in the library for books on Gruddi customs, so we can get this fixed as quickly as possible.”
    The glum cloud hanging around the room completely failed to dissipate, but Amelia was used to talking to Zelgadis so she was untroubled by this fact.
    “And if any monsters or dragons try to attack before Miss Lina gets here,” she put on a fierce expression, “I’m sure we can hold them off!”

    Because Amelia had unintentionally invoked the inexorable law of poorly judged statements, it was at that exact moment that the east wall of the banquet hall blew up in a heavy shower of mortar dust and brick fragments. Out of the gaping hole in the architecture scores of lower-class monsters poured in, over their heads half a dozen dragons flew in, air currents billowing as they flapped their wings.

    “Well, look who’s decided to cooperate,” Xellos commented impassively as the horde made their way through the wreckage. Screaming diners ran around flailing their hands in the air, this being the prescribed course of action for the situation at hand.

    “What?” Filia said, scrambling out of her chair and getting out her mace.

    “Before, they were having some trouble getting to us because they were fighting amongst themselves. It appears that at least for the moment they’ve put their differences aside to perform the shared goal of killing us.” Xellos gave a bitter little smile. “It’s almost inspiring, don’t you think?”

    What Filia answered back was overpowered by Amelia’s shouts at the retreating diners. She’d gotten out a speaking trumpet that she might have made herself as it was poorly constructed out of papier-mâché. But with her naturally loud voice and the slight assistance from the megaphone she was getting the job of directing innocent bystanders out of the danger zone done.

    Prince Phil stood up at his seat and slammed his mighty fists against the table, sending cutlery flying in various directions. “Invade my own castle?! I’m sorry, but even a man as devoted to peace as I am must defend his home and people when such an atrocity has been committed!”

    Phil barreled his way into the melee, winding up his mighty villain-punching fist and roaring as he went. Zelgadis threw the first spell, an Elmekia Lance, at the demon at the head of the pack. Amelia was climbing up a column that had been damaged in the blast, so they’d probably end up hearing from her before too long. The battle had begun.

    Xellos turned to Filia and said, “Leave the dragons to me,” before abruptly disappearing.

    That’s right, Filia thought. They’ve obviously found us now and we’re not planning on leaving, so there’s no need for him not to use the astral side now. She braced herself. She and the others would have to take care of the monsters. She was glad not to be fighting alone.

    Phil was punching out monsters left and right. As a normal human with no magic behind his attacks, he really shouldn’t have been having any effect. But even still, the demons were edging away from him. It probably had something to do with the power of optimism. Zelgadis was keeping the monsters at bay with his magically-infused broadsword.

    It was time she did her part too. She focused on a large group of demons heading her way. She chanted: “Anaku, Sarumu, Nataku, Sakumu,” a weak flare arrow disintegrated against the spell shield, “Chaotic Disintegrate!

    Fwoom. A blue explosion of energy shot out from the center of the group and out.

    Now that’s how we do it.

    The demons were scattered and obviously frustrated. Their true target was up in the air fighting dragons and therefore out of reach. The initial strategy employed here, as often was the case with the monster race, was to overwhelm with lesser opponents in large numbers and then send out the stronger foes when the marks get tired. The pawns made ready to fire a barrage of flare arrows…

    …But had to stop because the girl had reached the top of the column and was pointing at them with her cape billowing in the wind in a posture reminiscent of a hero about to make a speech. There were certain guidelines that had to be followed after all.

    “The dragons may serve the gods and the monsters may serve the dark lord,” Amelia boomed, hopefully intending to go somewhere with this. “But today all I can see is that you’re both on the side of evil! For what could possibly be more evil than interfering with the love between two people?”

    Even from this distance Filia could see that Xellos was twitching madly. She simultaneously gritted her teeth and blushed. “Miss Amelia,” she said sharply. “We are not—”

    “I know,” Amelia said, somewhat wistfully from her podium. “But it counts because for all they know you—”

    A dragon sent a rebuking laser blast at her almost lazily, crumpling the column out from under her. Amelia screamed as she plummeted downward.
    Filia heard Zelgadis say: “Goddamnit, not again,” as he raced to outrun gravity. He had to dive, but he caught her.

    “Are you alright, Amelia?” Phil shouted with an unfortunate imp in a full-nelson.

    “I’m fine, daddy!” Amelia shouted back as Zelgadis helped her to her feet. She looked up at the dragons flying overhead and shook her fist. “Is that any way for the supposedly holy to behave?”

    “Leave them to Xellos,” Filia said before Amelia could launch a reprisal attack. She was worried. Sure, there were a lot of dragons outside, but there were certainly less of them than the monsters. Just by dint of size, only a certain amount of dragons could fit in the hall at one time. But the monsters didn’t have that problem. They seemed to be replenishing their numbers with much more speed than she, Amelia, Zelgadis, and Phil could hack them down.

    Amelia shot one more unpleasant look upward but nodded, beginning to chant another spell. “Elmekia Lance!” she shouted.

    Filia groaned. They’d never beat all these monsters if they kept taking them on on a one-to-one level.

    Break!” Amelia finished, sending the lance splintering off toward multiple foes.

    Yes. But Filia’s celebration was short lived. The numbers kept pouring into the building. Sure, they were mostly lesser demons, or at least pretty darn low class, but they would eventually be able to overwhelm them by exhausting magical reserves alone. They needed something big to make a definitive strike…

    Perhaps it was because Filia was concentrating so hard on the encroaching horde of demons that she failed to notice the dragon that had broken off of the pack focused on Xellos until the gust of its flapping wings nearly knocked her off her feet. She turned around. It was a very familiar dragon.

    “I’m surprised to see you down here fighting the monsters,” Eudor rumbled. “Aren’t they your new friends now?”

    Filia was quaking in fear, but there was something lurking beyond the fear, rising above it and overpowering it. It was rage – and it was growing.
    “You don’t know anything!” she shouted back. “If you’d just listened to me, if you’d made the slightest effort to understand what was going on, then we could’ve avoided all this bloodshed!” She glared at him, gripping her mace shakily. Blaming Eudor certainly had its perks.

    Eudor surveyed her state with a condescending and thoroughly disgusted eye. “The only thing I don’t understand is why you’re not joining your lover in his murdering of our race. It’s so clearly all you’re cut out for, …Reichbelishk.” He twisted the word in like a knife.

    Before Filia could even open her mouth to respond, Xellos materialized into the air just a foot away from the dragon.

    “You?!” the dragon shouted, backtracking automatically.

    “You know,” Xellos said, almost obscenely cheerfully, “technically, that is my wife you’re talking about.”

    And that’s when Eudor was impaled by a black spike, rocketing out from the astral plane. He didn’t even have a chance to scream before he was gone. He fell to the ground with a thud that lifted clouds of dust into the air all around him.

    Xellos watched Filia unfeelingly through the chalky haze. “If you feel the need to cry for him then you really are a little fool.”

    “I’m not crying for him,” Filia growled back as she wiped a tear.

    “Because you should know by this point that this is not a game,” Xellos went on, not quite believing her.

    “I know,” she shot back. And she did now. She really did. “So stop wasting time down here with me.”

    Xellos watched her for a moment. Then, apparently satisfied, nodded curtly to her and vanished once more – back to fight the rest of the dragons.

    Filia allowed herself a brief moment to look at the corpse of Eudor the Elder as Zelgadis and Amelia dazzled the demons with spells and Phil knocked heads together causing amusing coconut-based sound-effects. She hadn’t lied to Xellos. She hadn’t cried for Eudor. She wasn’t sure when she’d realized that this wasn’t… that it wasn’t a situation that she could act only on her ideals. Xellos was right. It wasn’t a game; it was war. And if, gods forbid, she had to run from her own people forever, the sooner she realized that the better.

    She cried because it was horrible, but more because it was so unnecessary. There was an anger and a frustration behind that sadness that begged to be put to use. The dragons and the monsters. If only they hadn’t been so… so… stubborn about this whole thing then none of this would’ve had to happen. If they’d only asked for an explanation in the beginning instead of barreling in with no plans but to kill, then it could’ve all been different. She wouldn’t have been marked a traitor; she wouldn’t have had to run; she wouldn’t have started wishfully seeing things in Xellos that either weren’t there or shouldn’t be there; she wouldn’t have attacked her own; she wouldn’t have slept with Xellos; she wouldn’t be struggling with the notion of life without him; Eudor wouldn’t be dead.

    She thumped a lesser demon that had been sneaking up on her on the head with her mace sending him sprawling to the ground. She felt a powerful urge to curse the monsters and the dragons. In a rare moment of insight she thought savagely that they deserved one another.

    Well, I’m not going to run, she decided fiercely as the lesser demons closed in. I don’t know what I’m going to do, she thought as Zelgadis shouted something about them figuring out an escape plan, but something’s going to come along. Something’s got to.

    “Rune Flare!” someone shouted from behind her.

    Fireworks whistled through the air in all directions, wounding the lesser-demons where they hit and scattering the few dragons left. The dramatic effect of the spell was greater than the actual firepower. It made a statement.

    Filia turned around. There, silhouetted against the daylight of the west door was Lina Inverse, striking a spellcasting pose, Gourry at her side with a sword (a lesser sword than the sword of light, but still a sword) swung over his shoulder.

    “All you dragons and monsters have thirty seconds to get out of here,” she announced, pure confidence. “Or I will Dragon Slave this entire castle.”

  11. #11
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    “I know you ate the last cookie. I want a divorce.”
    ~Important Things With Demetri Martin


    Chapter 11. A Plan.

    “You were just bluffing, right Miss Lina?” Amelia asked in a somewhat worried tone of voice. “You wouldn’t really have blown up the castle, would you?”

    Lina’s gambit had worked. The troops had been largely without command and figured there wasn’t much point in getting exploded unnecessarily. So they’d beat a hasty retreat to get a change of tactics from their superiors. It had helped that Lina had counted threateningly at them when she saw that they weren’t moving. It had helped even more when she’d hurled fireballs after them as they left.

    There was a guilty pause from Lina before she finally said, “Oh come on! Of course I was bluffing! When have I ever blown up an entire castle?”

    “Zoana,” Amelia said bluntly.

    Lina knew she couldn’t dodge that one so she decided to take refuge in semantics. “I said when not where.”

    Before Amelia could open her mouth to respond to this essentially weak argument, Zelgadis interrupted her. “How did you two get here so fast?”

    “We were actually in Halrune City when your messengers found us,” Lina said, and suddenly turned to Xellos and Filia with a mischievous grin. “And what a message it was!”

    Xellos sighed. This was the price they were going to have to pay for asking for help. But an extra dollop of humiliation was better than getting fried, right? After all, there’d been so much humiliation lately that he’d almost gotten used to it.

    Anyway, it was lucky Lina had been that close because facing another attack without her was very iffy. Currently some servants were putting a canvas cover over the gaping hole in the wall. This would provide a good defense against any birds that might accidentally fly into the room, but a crappy defense against armies of monsters and dragons.

    Lina was grinning and elbowing Gourry. “Sorry we didn’t have time to pick up a bridal present for you two. Right, Gourry?”

    Gourry gave her a dumbfounded and slightly apprehensive look. “Were we supposed to?”

    Lina rubbed her forehead irritably, all her joy in the situation abruptly vanishing. “Why do I even bother involving you in my jokes?”

    Gourry just shrugged.

    “So is it true?” Lina asked, turning back to Xellos and Filia. “Are you really newlyweds?”

    “I’m afraid so,” Xellos said sourly.

    “And you did this by accident?” Lina asked incredulously. “How stupid are you two?”

    “It was a very misleading set of circumstances!” Xellos said defensively.

    “So… how exactly did that happen?” Lina asked, scratching her chin and trying to get her mind around the issue. “I can’t imagine how you could possibly claim to have kissed by accident, and I don’t think these things count unless you kiss.” She knew this well. She’d lost five thousand gold coins and a carriage on that fact.

    “The Gruddians don’t require kissing,” Xellos explained wearily. “Or exchanging rings, or, in fact, a pulse. They’re what you would call an ‘inclusive’ bunch. What happened was: we signed a contract that we thought was for something else.”

    “If you say so,” Lina said infuriatingly. “What exactly did you want me to do about this anyway?”

    “Please, Miss Lina,” Filia said. “We need you to hold off the monsters and the dragons and help us get this mess fixed.”

    Lina gave it some thought. You could see the direction her thoughts were going in written all across her face. And… yes, here it comes: “Would I get a reward?”

    Filia exchanged a helpless look with Xellos who merely shrugged. She turned back to Lina and offered meagerly: “I can give you store credit.”

    Lina looked less than impressed with this incentive; which was really ungrateful because Filia didn’t extend credit to just anyone. And with Lina’s poor credit history she should be thrilled to get an offer like that!

    “How about we say this,” Lina began slowly and deliberately. “If I do this then you both owe me a big favor.”

    Filia gulped. That was almost worse than a money reward. She looked at Xellos who nodded slowly; Filia followed suit.

    Lina rubbed her hands together enthusiastically. “Alright then! We have a deal.”

    “Now, are we ready to get down to business or did you want to make fun of us some more?” Xellos asked with a vein twitching in his forehead.

    “Come on, Xellos, you’ve got to admit this is funny,” Lina said, trying to inject some fairness into her position. “I mean you marrying Filia?”

    “It’s certainly bitterly ironic,” Zelgadis commented.

    “You two have got to be the last people in the world that should be married to each other,” Lina said, not quite able to keep the laughter out of her voice.

    Filia was starting to get irritated by the teasing. She was extra irritated because it was starting to hurt her feelings a little. “Look, you don’t have to go that f—”

    “I guess Jillas was right about you two, back at the shrine of marriage,” Lina said over her, shaking with laughter. She pointed at them dramatically. “Behold the gods’ chosen couple!” she said, before collapsing against Gourry in a fit of the chuckles.

    “Oh, is that right?” Filia said angrily. “Then you and Mister Zelgadis will be tying the knot any day now!”

    You could’ve heard a pin drop. Amelia fixed Filia with the serious look you give someone when you know they have no idea of the metaphorical wasp nests they’ve just stomped on. “Miss Filia, you shouldn’t even joke about that.”

    “In any case,” Xellos cut through the conversation in order to avoid the big stupid teenagery argument he saw looming around the corner. “Shouldn’t we figure out what we’re going to do before they come back?”

    Lina reluctantly relinquished her grip on the conversation’s previous digressions. “You’re probably right. It looked like both the dragons and monsters have small encampments nearby.”

    Worth knowing, but not good news.

    “So, what,” Lina said, scratching her head in an agitated fashion. “Did you guys want to get a divorce or something?”

    Xellos looked at Filia, but she was looking away. “Or something,” he said.

    “Let’s go to the library,” Amelia suggested. “I’m sure the researchers have found a book on Gruddi customs by now.”

    *****

    They had. Before long they’d shooed the librarians out of the room and were seated at a table while Amelia looked through the relatively new looking book that had been donated to the library by the Gruddian outreach team.

    “So, would they really stop attacking you if you got a divorce?” Lina asked while they waited.

    Xellos shrugged. “Possibly they would stop attacking me. Filia would not be so lucky.”

    “I attacked a dragon,” Filia explained miserably.

    “Bad move,” Lina said, not inquiring further into the circumstances of the incident. “What are we gonna do about that?”

    “I’m not sure yet,” Filia said. It didn’t seem like she had a lot of options to work with.

    “Got it!” Amelia said, pointing down at a page in the book. “They actually have a procedure in place for mistakes like this.”

    Everyone leaned in closer.

    “They’ve got this provision so it’s like, legally, the marriage never even happened,” Amelia explained. “It’s called an annulment, and it’s easy to get as long as the marriage hasn’t been consummated.”

    Xellos and Filia suddenly found themselves completely engrossed in looking at opposite areas of the room’s carpeting. Noting their silence and somewhat guilty expressions, Zelgadis surveyed them in horror. “No…” he said disbelievingly.

    “Oh my god, you didn’t,” Lina said, arriving at the same conclusion.

    Their silence provided all the answers necessary.

    “Good grief!” Lina said, freaking out just a little along the way. “You know, I’m not even sure which one of you I’m more disappointed in!”

    “Filia,” Amelia said weakly over the open book.

    “You’re right,” Lina agreed. “Definitely Filia.”

    Filia continued to stare at a carpet square and wished half-heartedly for death. It would certainly be better than having to see the look that she was sure Zelgadis was giving her.

    “What is wrong with you?” Lina demanded.

    Filia felt she needed to defend herself in some way, but didn’t have much to work with. She decided on: “What I do with my husband is none of your business.”

    Oh, Xellos thought to himself, raising an eyebrow slightly.

    “Hey, Lina,” Gourry began, tapping her on the shoulder.

    “What?!” Lina asked, on edge.

    “What does con-su-mate mean?” he asked innocently.

    Lina broke a chair over his head. She felt a little better for doing it, but not much.

    Xellos coughed. “Well, anyway, it seems like that won’t work,” he said with abrasive conviviality. “What are our other options?”

    Amelia took a few minutes to tear her expression of shocked suspicion away from the two of them and back to the book. Lina was shaking her head and Zelgadis was fixing Filia with an expression of betrayed revulsion. Amelia flipped a few pages.

    “There’s always divorce, then,” she said a little uneasily. “We’d have to summon a priest and fill out some paperwork, but they’ve got an option available for it.”

    “Divorce is against the dragon race’s laws,” Filia said quickly. She almost put her hand over her mouth. She wasn’t sure what had made her say it except that… well, now the idea just didn’t feel right. Anyway, she’d already been degraded today, a little more couldn’t hurt.

    Lina looked at her with her mouth agape. “…So is marrying a monster,” she said finally.

    “Actually, I don’t think that’s in there,” Amelia said fairly. She was a princess and was therefore acquainted with many of the laws of different countries and peoples.

    “Well, it’s like one of those unwritten laws then,” Lina said, feeling very harried at this point. “They probably thought it was too obvious!”

    “Two wrongs don’t make a right,” Filia said haughtily, intent on sticking to her argument through thick and thin.

    “Try three, Filia,” Zelgadis said with unconcealed disgust.

    Filia, who wasn’t about to correct his count, said firmly, “I still don’t think it’s a good idea.” There was a violet blur on the edge of her vision. She could feel Xellos’s eyes on her, but she wasn’t about to turn and look.

    “Fine,” Lina said, turning her glare away from Filia. “What about you, Xellos?”

    Of course he was going to say that it was going to happen whether Filia liked it or not; that just because she was marked for dead didn’t mean he had to join her; that he hadn’t wanted to marry her in the first place and couldn’t wait to be rid of her.

    He gave a nonchalant shrug of the shoulders. “I’m not sure it would do any good,” he said. “It wouldn’t change what’s been done.”

    Filia’s heart jumped into her throat.

    Lina’s mouth was permanently agape at this point. “I don’t believe the both of you! Are you saying you actually want to stay married?”

    “I’m saying,” Xellos said severely, “that we need a better plan.”

    Lina’s eyes flicked between the two of them suspiciously. “Are you sure you two got married accidentally?”

    “Yeah,” Amelia agreed. “This is starting to sound pretty fishy.”

    “Oh, absolutely,” Xellos said, turning to Filia with an almost playful expression. “We hate each other. Right, Filia?”

    Filia nodded emphatically, off rhythm of her jackhammer heart-beat. “Definitely,” she backed him up immediately. “Can’t stand one another.”

    Amelia frowned. “Then how do you explain—”

    “We don’t want to know,” Zelgadis cut across her firmly.

    Amelia thought about it for a moment and then agreed. “You’re right. We really don’t want to know.”

    “So, let me get this straight,” Lina said, fighting off a tension headache. “You two got married purely by accident and totally hate each other; yet you… consummated the marriage for some reason that we’ve all decided that we really don’t want to know and now you’re refusing to get a divorce?”

    “Basically,” Xellos said brightly.

    “I should strangle both of you!” Lina said, finally losing it. She might have actually strangled them if it weren’t for the fact that the door opened and footsteps were sounding nearer to them. Everyone turned to look and Gourry and Zelgadis grasped their swords, ready for a fight.

    Coming into their midst from behind the bookshelf was not a ravening demon horde, or even a ravening dragon horde; it was a kid. It looked like it was in the toddler age-bracket and it had cyan hair.

    “Val!” Filia said, standing up suddenly and getting ready to go into full-on mom-mode. “What are you doing here?”

    But Val wasn’t paying a lot of attention to her. He was focused on looking for something among the chairs. He zeroed in on Xellos and his bright, childish face lit up.

    “Daddy!” he said, and launched himself at him with his arms outstretched.

    In tougher times for years to come, Lina would look back on the expression of pure and unadulterated terror on Xellos’s face as the child hugged him and still get a cheap laugh out of it.

    “From the mouths of babes,” Zelgadis commented dryly because he liked to say things like that.

    “Now then, young boss,” Jillas said, appearing from behind the shelves. “I told you already. ‘e’s not your father.”

    The child was still hugging Xellos, oblivious to everything else. Xellos took a kernel of hope in that statement.

    “‘e’s your step-father,” Jillas finished.

    Xellos craned his neck very slowly toward Filia. “Just what did you put in that letter of yours?”

    “Jillas, what have you been telling him?” Filia demanded. “I wrote to you that it was a mistake.”

    “Oh no,” Lina said, having finally found the shellfish of self-satisfaction in this gumbo of madness. “You guys don’t want to get a divorce, right? That means Xellos is his step-father.” She threw up her hands and said sarcastically: “What a happy little family unit you’ve got there, Filia!”

    Filia spared a glare at Lina before turning back to Jillas. “I don’t understand what you’re doing here; and with Val too! It’s dangerous here!”

    “Well,” Jillas said, fingering his hat awkwardly. “We was worried about you, boss. We couldn’t just stay ‘ome and not ‘elp. Don’t worry though, I left boss-Gravos watching the shop.”

    “You should’ve left him watching Val!” Filia said. “And yourself for that matter!”

    “Didn’t you miss me, mommy?” Val said, still hugging Xellos.

    Filia wilted. Why are children so good at guilt? “Of course I did, Val. More than anything. But right now it’s too dangerous where I am.”

    “It will be dangerous if we can’t find a solution quickly,” Xellos said, trying to come to grips with the fact that he might have to go through life with a child permanently affixed to him.

    “Well, the book’s not telling me anything else,” Amelia said, holding up her hands in a gesture of helplessness. “I don’t know what else you expect us to do.”

    “I think,” Lina said in a posture of deep thought, “that I might have an idea. But first,” she said, fixing Xellos and Filia with a very serious look. “I need to know for sure: do you two really want to stay married to each other?”

    “It’s not that,” Xellos said. “It’s just doubtful that a divorce will do any good.”

    You were the one that said it was possible that it would,” Lina pointed out.

    “Possible,” Xellos said, “not certain.”

    “And what about you, Filia?” Lina asked in a jaded voice. “Are you still sticking to your dragon law story?”

    “It’s not a story,” Filia snapped. “It’s the truth.”

    “Right,” Lina said. “Do you want to know what I think?”

    “What?” both Xellos and Filia asked with disturbing synchronicity.

    “I think you’re both full of crap!”

  12. #12
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    “Damn to the depths whatever man what thought of ‘Parley’.”
    ~Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl

    Chapter 12. Home.

    After completely refusing to explain her plan in case it didn’t work, Lina and Gourry were making their way across the grassy meadows outside Seyruun City proper. They were looking for the dragon encampment. Lina didn’t think it would be very hard to find. In fact, she had a sneaking suspicion that it was located about in the spot where a bunch of giant, yellow creatures were wandering in the distance.

    “You sure this’ll be okay?” Gourry asked.

    Lina shrugged. “Who knows? Just let me do the talking though, alright? If things get bad we can always fight our way out.”

    “I guess,” Gourry said, looking doubtfully at the sword strapped to his belt.

    Lina noted this with some small irritation. “Hey, I took forever on those enchantments! It’ll do just fine.”

    “It’s not the same,” Gourry said succinctly.

    Lina’s irritation softened. She patted him on the arm. “Don’t worry,” she said. “It’s only temporary. We’ll find you a replacement.”

    “Yeah,” Gourry said.

    Eager to change the subject, Lina said: “So what do you think of this Xellos and Filia thing? Crazy, right?”

    Gourry adopted an expression of careful contemplation. “I guess… it kinda seemed weird when we were just reading about it in a message… but, I don’t know, now that we’re here… it just seems… less weird, I guess.”

    Lina nodded slowly. “I think I know what you mean.”

    A couple of dragon guards were approaching them. They had that worrying look of those trying to figure out whether they’re supposed to kill you or just wound you.

    “Parley,” Lina said in a firm, clear voice.

    The dragons were taken aback. They hadn’t expected this tact. “What?” one of them replied.

    “Yeah, Lina,” Gourry said, giving her a mystified look. “What about parsley?”

    She punched him on the arm, never breaking eye-contact with the dragon guard. “Parley. You know? It’s like a little chatting – a little negotiation. You guys agree not to shoot lasers at me, and I agree not to dragon slave you all into oblivion.”

    The dragon breathed testily out of its elongated snout, but there was a certain amount of worry there. “We were warned that Lina Inverse was around.”

    “Really?” Lina said, taking a certain amount of pride in this. “Well then, I’m sure you’ve probably figured out that the best thing you could do right now, is take me to your superior officer and let them sort this out.”

    You could generally bank on guards’ dislike of taking responsibility for decisions, and this case was no different. Lina and Gourry were ushered further into the encampment and led into the presence of three grizzled old dragons evidently in charge of the operation.

    The first of them apparently identified her on site. “What is it you want with us, Lina Inverse?”

    “Basically?” Lina asked. “I want you to stop trying to kill Filia. That’s all.”

    The second dragon looked down on her dully. “Filia Ul Copt is accused of the highest level of treason against the dragon race. We will only stop trying to kill her when she is dead.”

    “Is that so?” Lina asked, picking some imaginary lint off of her mantle. “The way I heard it: you guys don’t actually have a law about a dragon marrying a monster.”

    The second dragon glared down at her. “Only because it’s such an unthinkable act of degradation that it was assumed that no dragon would ever do such a thing. Despite that, it still falls under the category of betraying the dragon race to the monsters. Not only that, she attacked a member of her own race in the execution of his duty,” he said with crisp, clerical harshness.

    “Point one,” Lina said, holding up a finger. “She didn’t marry him on purpose. Apparently it was all the fault of a foreign priest who misunderstood them. It could’ve happened to anyone.”

    The first dragon seemed less than convinced. “I hardly think that—”

    “Point two,” Lina pressed on, regardless. “You guys sent dragons to attack her. How could you not expect her to fight back?”

    The second dragon sniffed huffily. “The honorable thing to do would’ve been to surrender herself.”

    “You mean the idiot thing,” Lina shot back.

    “Peace,” said the first dragon, holding up a clawed hand. “I find it very difficult to believe that this entire calamity occurred by accident, but even if I believe you it doesn’t change how we must deal with the situation. An act of war has been committed and we must respond with force. It reflects badly on the entire race if we let such a thing be.”

    Lina held up her hands in mock defeat. “Understood,” she said, turning around as if to leave. “I just thought that, you know, this being a once in a lifetime opportunity, you might want to actually take advantage of it. But if you want to just have a bunch of your own soldiers killed off, then that’s fine too.”

    “Wait,” the third dragon finally spoke up. “What do you mean by that, Lina Inverse?”

    Jackpot, Lina thought as the two other dragons turned to glare at the third.

    “You can’t honestly be thinking of listening to this girl?” the second dragon asked with contempt. “The crime that’s been committed is clear. No amount of pleading or explaining can lessen its severity. Filia Ul Copt must die.”

    “That’s easy for you to say,” the third dragon responded, his brows heavily wrinkled. “But do you appreciate the cost of what you’re asking? She has that monster fighting on her behalf. You know your history as well as I do, and if he continues to fight for her then we can’t win. We’ve lost too much already on this… this… this… domestic dispute of all things!”

    “Don’t make light of her crime,” the first dragon said in a high-minded voice. “I know many have already died, but how could we not respond with all the force we can muster to the heaviest crimes one of our own has perpetrated against us?”

    “Then we make her crime greater!” the third dragon stamped his foot, seriously frightening a den of bunnies a couple of feet underground. “I don’t see any harm in at least listening to what this girl has to say, do you?”

    The two dragons murmured discontentedly, but at least seemed willing to allow this.

    Lina smiled a toothy smile. “Have you ever thought that you could…”

    *****

    Back at the ranch, Filia was pacing around the library occasionally announcing to the room at large that she didn’t know what, “Miss Lina was thinking,” and that she could’ve, “at least told us what she had in mind!”. She wasn’t getting any answers this way.

    Meanwhile, Val had climbed into Xellos’s lap and was attempting to bond with him. Because Val was a child and had no idea of the enormity of the task he was facing, he had a much better chance of succeeding then most.

    “And then I dwew the mailbox out front,” Val explained animatedly, gesturing to a crumpled up paper he’d taken out of his pocket. “It’s weally bwack, but I colored in gween because it’s my fabrit.”

    “Really?” Xellos asked, adding to his mental notes on children that they were neither good artists nor good conversationalists. Also, some of them seemed to have trouble pronouncing R’s and L’s.

    “And that’s where we wive!” Val summed up. “You’re going to come wive there too, wight?”

    Filia stopped her pacing. This was bad. Xellos wasn’t generally what you thought of as good parent material. But Val got so attached to ideas.

    She snatched the child up into her arms and said, “Of course not, Val! I don’t know what Jillas,” insert violent fiery glare of death at Jillas here, “has been telling you, but Xellos is not coming to live with us.”

    Val’s eyes filled with tears.

    Xellos gave a mock-shrug. “Well, who would want to live in a house with a woman who won’t even paint her mailbox gween – I mean green – even though it’s her son’s favorite color?”

    Val’s tears turned to laughter. He clapped. He probably thought he was getting a green mailbox out of this deal. Filia was less than amused. “Stay out of this, you filthy monster.”

    Xellos muttered something that sounded suspiciously like: “That’s not what you said last night”, but Filia either did not hear him or chose to ignore him.

    *****

    “Do you think they bought it?” Gourry asked.

    Lina gave it some thought. “That one dragon was definitely on board with the idea, but the other two didn’t seem as convinced. We’ll just have to hope for the best.”

    “And what about those other guys?” Gourry asked, referring to the monster race. “You think they’ll go for it?”

    “Hard to say,” Lina said. “We’ll just have to try it and see what happens.” Theoretically, the conversation with the monsters should be easier, since what she was going to suggest was much more suited to their nature then it was to the dragons. But still…

    Some monsters had spotted them and were heading their way.

    “Parley?” she said uncertainly.

    Absolute incomprehension greeted her. She gave up. Time to take out the big stick. “Look, either you take me to whoever’s in charge here or I’ll just start blowing you all up and promote the last one left to captain. I’m Lina Inverse: I can do this.”

    That tactic worked a lot better than the nice, diplomatic approach. It’s all about knowing your audience. Lina and Gourry shortly found themselves in the presence of the captain on the demon squad. He was trying to appear human and would’ve pulled it off excellently if it weren’t for the fact that 1. His skin was green 2. He had no irises in his eyes, and 3. He had an ear on his chin.

    “What do you want, Lina Inverse?” the captain asked suspiciously.

    Woo. Déjà vu. “Drop your treason claim on Xellos,” she said bluntly.

    The creature paused. “Why doesn’t he come himself?”

    Lina rolled her eyes. “Because you’re trying to kill him, duh.” Lina didn’t see anything wrong with saying duh to a monster. “He’s not stupid. I thought you guys knew him.”

    She gave this some thought. “Actually, it doesn’t seem like you do. Otherwise you’d never believe that he’s gone off in some lovey-dovey trance after a dragon girl. This is Xellos we’re talking about here.”

    The monster captain fumbled a bit before finally saying, “Our information indicates—”

    Lina waved a dismissive hand at him. “Yeah, they are technically married. But it was all a misunderstanding. It’s like… it’s like…” she struggled for the right comparison.

    “Like when I ordered chicken at that restaurant in Halrune but got turkey instead!” Gourry piped up.

    Lina was shocked. Against all odds Gourry had found the metaphor she was looking for. “That’s right!” she said as the monster looked on doubtfully. “It’s just like that. And what did you do when you got the turkey?”

    Gourry shrugged. “I ate it. I was hungry.”

    “And how was it?” Lina pressed.

    “Best turkey I ever had,” Gourry said almost longingly. “Hey Lina, do you think we could go back to that place s—”

    “The point I’m trying to make here,” Lina said to the monster, abruptly switching Gourry off, “is that a mistake happened and it’s not anyone’s fault. But just like Gourry and his turkey, you guys can make the best of a bad situation and actually get some benefit out of this mess instead of just thinning your ranks.”

    The monster gave her a bewildered look. Lina could only hope he’d been beguiled by their tale of dining discovery. “I’m listening, human,” it said.

    *****

    Amelia had felt bad about Xellos’s continual use of Val as a pawn in the greater game of annoying Filia. So she’d scared up a coloring book and some crayons, leaving him to creative contentment in the corner while everyone else waited. That’s why it was pretty much silent when Lina and Gourry once again returned to the library.

    “How’d it go?” Xellos asked.

    “I think okay,” Lina said, a little uncertainly. “Only time will tell.”

    “What did you do?” Filia asked.

    “Well, I just told them that—” Lina was abruptly cut off by two figures walking into the room.

    Ear-man was one of them. The other one was a golden dragon, probably one of the three she’d met before, but she couldn’t tell which one because it was in its human form. There was as much space as possible between the two of them and they were trying, with non-subtle visual cues, to indicate that they weren’t with one another.

    “I,” they both began. They both glared at one another. Then the golden dragon coughed and said, “We wish to call a—”

    “Parley?” Lina offered. She’d been getting to use that word a lot today and ever since Gourry had mistaken it for parsley it had been making her hungry.

    The dragon nodded curtly. “Quite.”

    “I wish to speak with the accused on a private basis,” the ear-man said.

    “I as well,” said the dragon.

    Well, here’s progress. They were the accused, which was better than the convicted or the condemned. Xellos and Filia gave Lina a brief look which she returned with a nod.

    *****

    Xellos and Filia were shepherded into separate rooms by the irate looking members of their races handling the cases. They were asked a series of rather similar questions. The captains wanted to know whether the marriage thing was really a mistake or not.

    So Xellos and Filia launched into individual explanations on how they’d only wanted to get a look at a book, but had accidentally signed themselves into matrimony all because of a Gruddi priest who got off on that kind of thing. They explained how the Gruddians had fled when the dragons attacked, leaving them with no way to fix the situation and thus forcing them to form a temporary alliance in order to escape the threat they faced.

    Both captains responded to this explanation with a disbelieving “Huh”, but decided to move on from that point.

    “Eudor reported that you attacked him,” the dragon captain said accusingly to Filia. “Now he’s dead.”

    “I didn’t kill him,” Filia shot back defensively. “I’ll admit I sent a laser blast his way when he attacked us, but that’s it. Xellos was the one that killed him. I did my best to minimize the damage to the dragons that attacked us, but it’s not like I can control him.”

    Another “Huh” was all she received.

    In the room in which Xellos was being interrogated, the monster captain said, “We… may be able to make a deal, but first I need to know the answer to one question concerning the girl.” The monster looked decidedly uncomfortable. Xellos was only uncomfortable because it is a bit difficult to talk to someone with an ear on their chin. It’s very distracting! He kept wanting to ask him if he knew that that wasn’t where humans had ears.

    “What is it?” Xellos asked.

    “Do you,” the ear-monster began with great difficult. “You know…”

    Xellos didn’t know, so he waited for further information.

    “You know,” the captain said again. “That thing that humans do?”

    Xellos was not at all sure what the captain was getting at, so he tried to think of things that humans did. “…Metabolism?” he hazarded.

    “No,” the monster captain said, shaking his head. He was visibly sweating at this point. “Like, you know when you destroy something?”

    Xellos nodded. He knew well.

    “Well, it’s like the opposite of that,” the monster captain clued helplessly.

    Xellos gave him a look of polite incomprehension.

    The monster captain sighed. “Fine,” he said. “You’re making me say it. Do you…” he took a deep breath, “love her?”

    The polite look had been instantly wiped away and was replaced with a glare as sharp and ancient as a T-Rex’s claw. It was the kind of glare that said, “What’s your blood type? No. Don’t tell me. I’ll check for myself.”

    “Well, I had to ask,” the monster said in self-justification. “You think I wanted to ask? No.” He shuddered.

    “With that, uh, matter addressed,” the monster captain said, doing the psychological equivalent of shuffling papers, “We can make you an offer of amnesty and have you keep your status as being married to that… dragon, as long as you agree to one thing: use her to spy on the dragon race.”

    In another room, the dragon captain had just made a corresponding offer to Filia.

    “Absolutely,” Xellos said from where he sat.

    “Absolutely not,” Filia said from where she sat.

    *****

    Why didn’t you say ‘yes’?” Lina whined at Filia after the dragon captain left in a huff and the monster captain left in a huff-free fashion. “That was your only way out! Why didn’t you stick to the plan?!”

    You didn’t tell me the plan, Miss Lina,” Filia reminded her tartly. “And anyway, I wouldn’t have agreed even if I’d known. ‘Information gathering’,” she spat out the words like they were poisonous. “They didn’t even have the guts to say ‘spying’! And I’m the disgrace to dragons?”

    “You could’ve just lied to them and said you would,” Zelgadis pointed out.

    “I still have my principles,” Filia said crossing her arms.

    “I’m not sure you do,” Zelgadis said darkly.

    Lina groaned and rubbed her forehead. “Well, I assume you’re in the clear, Xellos.”

    “Correct,” Xellos said.

    “Because he has no principles,” Amelia said resignedly.

    Lina put a hand on Filia’s shoulder. “Look,” she said. “I’m sorry, but the spying thing was my only idea. If even getting a divorce won’t help you then I don’t know what else to say except that you’re better off not staying in one place for too long.”

    Lina patted her shoulder as Filia gave the opposite wall a faraway look. “Jillas and Val can head back to your shop. I don’t think the dragons will bother with them. Me and Gourry travel a lot,” Lina added generously. “So you could always stick with us for awhile.”

    Filia stared around the room and then caught sight of Val in Jillas’s arms. Her expression toughened. “No,” she said firmly. She took Val from Jillas and turned to Lina with her eyes blazing. “I said I wasn’t going to run and I’m not going to. I’ve had enough of this situation and I’m going to fix it right now.”

    Lina was nonplussed but had to admire the attitude. “How?” she asked.

    “Take me to the dragon camp,” Filia said.

    “But that’s too—” Lina protested.

    “Now,” Filia said.

    “At least leave—” Amelia began.

    Now,” Filia said.

    *****

    So that’s how Filia, the dragon race’s homegrown public enemy number one, ended up in the midst of the dragon military encampment set on her destruction: with a monster, four humans, a beastman, and a child in her arms. Inadvisable circumstances stand no chance against pure adrenaline.

    “Parley!” Lina shouted once again as the dragons made aggressive moves toward them. “Parley or I’ll blow you all up!” If they got through this mess alive she swore she’d never use that stupid word again.

    The dragon captain in his proper form glared at her, as though sick of restraining himself at her whim. He turned his unpleasant expression on Filia.

    “Have you come to turn yourself in after shunning our extremely generous offer for rehabilitation?” he asked gruffly.

    “Rehabilitation?” Filia repeated angrily. “Was that the part where you wanted me to spy? The dragon race has indeed fallen far, but not because of me.”

    The dragon captain was eyeing Xellos with a look that clearly said: ixnay on the yingspay.

    Xellos chuckled. “Oh, you know how hard it is for couples to keep secrets from each other.”

    “Shut up,” Filia commanded.

    “Yes, dear,” Xellos said because he still seemed to think he was funny.

    Filia pointed an accusatory finger at the dragon leader. “You’ve been hunting me down like a common animal and sending your own people to the slaughter. You’ve declared me the most disgraceful dragon to ever have existed! You’d think I must have done something like going on a murdering spree in a nursery! No. All I did, when you get right down to it, was get married to someone you didn’t want me to.”

    “You betrayed—” the dragon began.

    “I betrayed nothing,” Filia said, visibly shaking with anger. “You misinterpreted the circumstances and tried to kill me, not even allowing me the fairness of a trial. The fact that I remained loyal to our race so long is staggering in the face of that. You betrayed me.”

    “You are subject to the laws that gov—” the dragon began again, but Filia was determined not to give him a word in edgewise.

    “Why?” she asked. “Why should I be subject to your laws? I’m not a priestess anymore! I don’t live among you! Heck, I pay taxes to the human government in the town I work in. I’m more subject to their laws than I am to yours. You say that I’m not worthy of being a golden dragon? Well, I don’t know if I even want to be one anymore.”

    A collective gasp shot up through the encampment.

    “Now, listen to me and listen well,” Filia said in a dangerous voice. “Nobody asked me if I wanted to marry Xellos, and if they had I would’ve said no. I didn’t get to make that decision, but I’m making the decision to stay married to him. It doesn’t change anything about how I’ve decided to live my life; it’s just a thing that happened. I know you think that makes me a traitor, but I don’t have any intentions against you, despite all that’s happened. I don’t care if you want to banish me or curse me or whatever. All I want now, all I’m going to do now, is go home.”

    “And know this,” she continued. “If you do go after me, I won’t hesitate to fight back this time. And do you know what else? I’ll win. Because I have things worth protecting.”

    As one everyone in the camp remembered what happens to anyone who gets between a mother bear and her cubs.

    “Come on, Jillas,” Filia said, readjusting Val in her arms. “We’re going home.”

    Jillas followed her with a deeply worried expression as she strode away like the Queen of Righteous Fury. She stopped when she came to Xellos, passed the child to Jillas, and kissed him very quickly.

    “Goodbye, Xellos,” she said without a trace of tenderness in her voice. And then she’d turned around, on her way once again.

    Even as it happened, Xellos knew that the kiss wasn’t for his benefit. It was just a big ‘**** you’ to the dragons assembled. It was a kiss for burning bridges. It was a take that kiss. It worked too. The dragons were utterly mortified. The humans were fairly mortified too.

    He watched her as she advanced through the meadow like an unstoppable battleship as Jillas struggled to keep up while carrying Val. You could tell by the way she was swinging her arms that she had absolutely no intention of turning around until she was home. He tightened his grip on his staff and put on his best smile.

    “Well. It looks like that’s settled then!”

    Epilogue.

    The sun was just starting to set. Val, Jillas, and Gravos had set up a fort in the storeroom and were having a lot of fun, but hopefully not breaking any merchandise. Filia had been preparing for the night’s dinner when she felt it – that unmistakable presence.

    “Xellos,” she said, and turned around. There he was, leaning against her kitchen wall as nonchalantly as you please.

    “Filia,” he said, with a nod in return.

    It had been two weeks. It was almost as though they were intruders in each other’s lives again.

    “I heard that you’d been declared an anathema,” Xellos said conversationally.

    Ah yes. They’d even sent her a formal letter declaring it, which was almost classy. In her darker moments when she’d added a little too much gin to her tea, she thought about having it framed.

    They’d summarily thrown her out of the dragon race. The letter was the “son? I have no son,” of crime and punishment, and was unprecedented in use. She was dead to them. Only a month ago that would have devastated her, but her needs were simpler now. At least no one tries to kill the dead.

    She imagined it was the best way they had found available to deal with her. They didn’t want to lose anymore dragons on this venture, but had to deal with her in some way. When she vowed to oppose their efforts tooth and nail, well… they’d probably been glad that some low-level clerk dug up an unused legal procedure from a thousand years ago.

    But it was fine. She had her life back and her family.

    “Your information is pretty good,” she sniffed. “I don’t think you would’ve learned much from spying on me.”

    Xellos shrugged. “Perhaps something about ceramics?” he said, eyeing the shelves laden with delicately painted vases.

    “Speaking of spying,” Filia said, because she was determined not to speak of ceramics. “What bearing does me being thrown out of the dragon race have on your spying deal? I’m hardly privy to the secrets of the dragons now.”

    “One piece of paper says that we’re married,” Xellos said, holding up a finger. “And another says that you can no longer call yourself a dragon: that you’re not a real dragon. You can either choose to believe the magic of official documents or not. Either way, my treason is averted; at least in a highly technical way. I think they just want to make this go away. There have been too many losses at this point.”

    Filia nodded. Either she was his wife and in a sort of legal species-limbo or she was a golden dragon that he was unattached to. It was amnesty by legal paradox.

    She stared at him for a long time before he would say anything else. She wasn’t sure exactly why he was there, but she had two conflicting suspicions. He was either going to stay with her, at least for a little while, or say that what happened two weeks ago was… over. That she wouldn’t see him again. She wasn’t sure which she wanted. She’d finally attained some peace after the nightmare that started at the Gruddi temple. Xellos represented an end to that peace.

    Xellos peered beyond her to the sink and kitchen counter. “So… what are we having for dinner?”

    She turned around to the sink where she’d been running water through a colander so he wouldn’t see the tears in her eyes. “Fruit salad,” she said weakly.

    “I don’t want fruit salad,” he said automatically.

    She turned back around to face him, all signs of tears gone, with an expression of pure irritation. “Well, how was I to know you’d be here? If you had another suggestion you should’ve told me earlier when I was shopping!”

    “I only assumed you fed your family real food,” Xellos said in a manner that suggested he should never have assumed something so simple of her.

    Filia glared at him with her hands on her hips. “I like fruit salad. It’s full of vitamins and we have so many wonderful garden markets around here that it’s a shame not to take advantage of them.”

    “Rabbit food,” Xellos declared, reaching across her and stealing the colander full of fruit from the sink. She made a grab for it, but he held it up out of her reach. “Let’s have something else.”

    “Come on!” Filia said, jumping up and trying to snatch the bowl. “Why should I change it just for you? You don’t even have to eat! And if we don’t eat that tonight it’ll go bad. That’s wasteful!”

    “If you don’t want to waste money and food then you shouldn’t buy things that no one wants to eat,” Xellos pointed out slyly.

    “Oh, come on,” Filia snapped. “It doesn’t even make a difference that it’s fruit salad. You’re just trying to stir up trouble!”

    “It’s a good thing you’ve already been excommunicated, Filia, because if you weren’t your carnivorous dragon friends would’ve chucked you out for being a dietary disappointment as well,” he said.

    Filia hmphed, signaling that the portion of this argument that was going to involve rational discussion was over. “Give it back!” she shouted, jumping up once more.

    He held it up higher out of her reach. “Make me,” he said, none too mature.

    Unnoticed by them, Val had toddled into the kitchen, weary from his fort-based merrymaking. He climbed up on one of the chairs and retrieved his sippy-cup full of juice. He took a drink from the cup, seemingly undisturbed by the argument going on right in his presence. He smiled.

    He had parents. For all he knew, everything was exactly the way it was supposed to be.

    T H E E N D .

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