Results 1 to 12 of 12

Thread: Legal Matter: From Now On (Slayers) - Complete

  1. #1
    Join Date
    Jan 2009
    Location
    IL
    Posts
    3,130

    Default Legal Matter: From Now On (Slayers) - Complete

    Title: Legal Matter: From Now On
    Fandom: Slayers
    Pairing: Xellos/Filia
    Genre: Romance/Comedy/Drama
    Status: Complete
    Rated: R
    Summary: Married life may be full of discord for Xellos and Filia, but even the discord has become strangely... comfortable. But can it go on that way forever? Will changing circumstance pull them apart or bring them together? Sequel to Legal Matter.

    Author's Note: This probably will make much more sense if you've read Legal Matter. This story is also posted up on my fanfiction.net account.

    *****





    Legal Matter: From Now On

    “You think I’m crazy, I can see,
    It’s you for you and me for me.
    That’s the way it’s got to be,
    From now on.”
    ~“From Now On” by Supertramp

    Chapter 1. Morally Reprehensible Bedding.

    …And they said it wouldn’t last.

    Well, actually they said it shouldn’t last. But more often than not, they just wanted to know how the hell it had all happened in the first place.

    There was talk of unholy seductions by night. There was talk of two beings trapped in the middle of a war that was bigger than both of them. There was talk of eyes meeting across a crowded room on some enchanted evening. There was talk of irony. There was talk of karma. But what it all really came down to was a mistaken minister and a language barrier.

    Yes, a mutual desire to see a certain magic book was all it took to join Filia, former dragon priestess, and Xellos, monster and all-around bad dude, in the bonds of wedded bliss (minus the bliss). Well, it didn’t take long for the dragons to find out and they were righteously enraged. After all, a dragon can’t go around marrying the creature whose claim to fame is dragon slaying. Not if they’re a good dragon… or a sane dragon for that matter. So, they noisily, with a great deal of fuss and indignation, ordered that Filia be killed for her crime. The monsters weren’t far behind. After all… …Xellos did what? Seriously, that Xellos? …Okay, if you say so. So they quietly, with some confusion but a resolution to follow orders, set forth to eh… kill Xellos.

    Naturally, since Xellos and Filia still harbored ambitions to extricate themselves from their mistaken vows, the unfortunate newlyweds were forced to stick together; battling against their assassins side by side as they tried to fix their situation and to not get in any more trouble than they were already in. That plan went up like a lead balloon when, through a series of circumstances that Filia would blusteringly describe as ‘extenuating’ but refuse to go into further detail about, they consummated the marriage.

    Deals were struck, deals were struck down; intense battles were fought and much of Seyruun’s great hall had been left in disrepair. Xellos and Filia consummated their marriage for a second time, perhaps just in case the first one didn’t take. Their allies found out about them and debilitating embarrassment followed. In the end, they parted from the great adventure with their matrimony intact and the prices on their heads lifted. Filia was excommunicated from her entire species after the dragons realized that they weren’t going to get the blood justice that they felt they so richly deserved. Xellos escaped more or less unscathed by agreeing to spy on Filia, though his subsequent reports on the subject mostly involved pottery.

    And maybe it would’ve all gone back to approaching-normal if Xellos hadn’t come back; if he hadn’t kept coming back.

    Filia sat on the swing on her front porch watching as the last throes of sunlight colored the horizon orange and pink. The thaw had long since passed, but there were still enough traces of winter in the air that proclaimed ‘I’ll be back’ to keep Filia’s hands wrapped around her mug of tea.

    The thing about Xellos was that he was… unexpected. He might show up for a few weeks or a few days or three minutes, and the same could be said about his absences. And he didn’t use the front door. Why would he? He could just pop into existence whenever and wherever he wanted to, usually when Filia was carrying something heavy and breakable. Given that, it seemed pretty unlikely that he’d be walking down the street the next time he showed up. So in that case there was no way that Filia could be waiting for him.

    And anyway, why would she wait for him? Whenever he was around he caused problems! ‘Shenanigans’ if you wanted to be light-hearted about it and ‘calamities’ if you wanted to be honest about it. Although, perhaps she was being unfair. After all, it could be worse; at least her house hadn’t blown up yet.

    …It had, however, been filled with toxic fumes and had to be evacuated and aired out. She didn’t know how he’d managed to create a miasma from the innocent ingredients in her cupboard, but dammit: he found a way. It was probably her fault for thinking he could boil water without causing a catastrophe.

    And while working in her shop with him around didn’t involve quite as much broken pottery as she’d expected, she still had to contend with his long-running agenda to goad her into looking like a psychopath in front of her neighbors. Oddly enough, this never caused her to lose customers. In fact, there were always people milling around in her shop waiting for a free show. In a town with no stage productions or public hangings, watching Filia half-transform and chase her husband around with a mace was as near to theatre as most of them were going to get. While they waited, they figured they might as well pick up that nice looking vase. It would be a lovely gift for mom. As for moving the maces, well… her customers actually got to see their use demonstrated.

    What was really unfair was that in the relatively short time since they’d been married it seemed like everyone in town liked him better and would always take his side. Oh, that poor Xellos has to contend with Filia’s nasty temper.

    Xellos had once told her, cheerfully as you please, of a time when she’d been busy getting Val out of a jar he’d gotten stuck in (that was another story that was Xellos fault, but one thing at a time…). Filia had, of course, been out of her mind with worry trying to get Val out… and save the jar if at all possible. Gravos had been helping her and Jillas was left to man (eh… fox) the cash register. Xellos just watched the whole thing with that smile like he was watching something mildly enjoyable. Of course, he’d been the one to suggest to Val that the jar in question ‘might be a really good hiding place’ so he should’ve been the one getting him out, but, surprise of surprises, that didn’t seem like it was going to happen.

    Old Mrs. Pripps was browsing the shelves that day for a vase to keep her teeth in at night, when she approached Xellos and tapped him on the shoulder. “Psst,” she’d said.

    “I don’t mean to make trouble or pry where I’m not wanted,” the town’s second biggest gossip had begun, “but… have you noticed that your… son there… doesn’t really bare much resemblance to you?”

    “Oh, uh…” Xellos had responded, too surprised for any of his usual comebacks. “I suppose now that you mention it, he—”

    “Completely different hair color,” Mrs. Pripps said in a vindicated tone as she nodded. “First thing I noticed. Something’s amiss there, I said.” She’d patted him on the hand. “Poor thing.”

    Xellos had smirked when he’d told Filia about this. Smirked. So according to the townsfolk, she was the rampaging adulteress with a hair-trigger temper while he was the saintly, patient husband raising another man’s son? How was that even remotely fair? He was the monster in this equation! Just because Mrs. Pripps couldn’t understand the concept of a blended family was no reason for her reputation to be tarnished!

    Miss that? Ha! He’s trouble incarnate and barely does any work when he’s around. And now he’s been gone for nearly two months without so much as a word. That’s hardly a husband at all!

    …Except that… he was. It was still awkward to think it because their marriage had come about in such a strange way. Neither of them had decided from the beginning; neither of them had asked. In fact, if one of them had asked, the answer probably would’ve been: ‘Have you completely lost your mind?!’ They hadn’t picked marriage… they’d just sort of fallen into it. But they were married. Husband and wife legitimately. Filia still had her copy of the marriage certificate in the bottom drawer along with the letter from the temple declaring her an anathema. She was pretty sure Xellos had kept his too. It wouldn’t surprise her if he’d even gotten the thing translated. He was disgusting detail-oriented that way. And they… did things that married people do…

    And that was another thing that got whispered about by anyone who lived through the scandal. The dragon elders had been absolutely shocked that such a thing could’ve happened. There weren’t even real laws against it. It was something so terrible that no one thought they’d needed a law. So the council of elders reacted to the incident in the only way they knew how.

    They made a new law.

    Oh, and that wasn’t all. Since they were convinced, as elders often are, that this was all the result of a corrupt youth, they launched massive educational programs into temple training. Yes, hundreds of young dragons would now be lectured on why they shouldn’t make the same mistakes that that awful Filia Ul Copt had made. ‘She was once a priestess. Yes, this abomination was once part of the sacred clergy that you now seek to join. Do not stray as she strayed! Do not fall to the depraved temptations of the darkness and sinful sheets!’

    Of course, the problem straight away was that it was likely that none of these young dragons would have even considered the possibility of falling to depraved temptations/sinful sheets if they hadn’t been told straight out not to. Bedding up with a monster is not at the top of a priestess-in-training’s list of secret desires; in fact, it’s not even on the list. But forbidding things is dangerous….

    And, personally, Filia thought the whole ‘sinful sheets’ thing was very melodramatic. It was true, however, that horrible noises could be heard from their bedroom occasionally. But according to Jillas, whose job it was to light the candles in the halls every night, the horrible noises usually went something like this:

    “When did you get these pillows?”

    “Last week. Why? Don’t you like them?”

    “…They have kittens on them, Filia.”

    “What’s wrong with kittens?”

    “If you think adorability excuses arrogance, then there’s nothing wrong with kittens. But why must everything you buy have kittens on it?”

    “I like kittens.”

    “Yes, but the decorative plates, handkerchiefs, and more tea cups then we probably need—”

    “That’s only three things.”

    “But we don’t even have a kitten.”

    “Maybe we will when Val gets a little older!”

    “What I’m saying is that there should be a limit.”

    “Well, if it bothers you so much then maybe you should try to be home more often so you can be part of bedding purchasing decisions!”

    “You should’ve waited and consulted me first. After all, Filia: I am the man of the house.”

    Snort. “Oh please. In terms of actual helpfulness and contributing to the household, Gravos is more the man of the house than you.”

    “…We shall see.”

    But at this point, Jillas would always stuff his ears with wax, hum very loudly, and run as fast as his feet would carry him—not stopping until he reached the other side of the house, leaving the question of the sinful sheets more or less unanswered.

    But no matter how much minor mischief he caused when he was around, or what the townsfolk thought of her, or the freak-outs from the Golden Dragons, or the moral quality of their sheets, Filia couldn’t help but admit that it all… more or less worked. Her life had plenty of discord but… it had almost become play. It was alright… it was mostly alright. It was probably more alright than her situation had any right to be.

    She had her health and… a family of sorts. Xellos had worked his way into it as though he belonged there. Val was in awe of him of course. And though the little ancient dragon had more or less accepted that Xellos wasn’t really his father (Thank you, Mrs. Pripps), he still seemed to, well… benefit from having a father-figure. Even if that father figure had to be Xellos.

    As for Filia herself, well, that worked too, strangely enough. Sure, the two of them had the kind of dysfunction that in another time and another place would’ve had them in front of a studio audience throwing chairs at each other; sure, she never would’ve expected Xellos of all people to be her companion, but well… he was.

    And it was only at times like this when he was gone for so long that Filia realized just how fragile their domestic situation was; that something that at times started to feel normal (at least for her) was only the result of bizarre circumstance, a great deal of diplomatic balance, and the elegant art of leaving things unsaid.

    Forget an ‘I love you’, neither of them had ever even admitted that they wanted to stay married to each other. Filia had made the rather questionable claim that, while she was ready to bypass the ‘so forbidden we didn’t even think we had to forbid it’ marrying a monster thing, she was dead against breaking the ‘no divorce’ rule. Xellos had shrugged and said that a divorce wouldn’t change the past.

    Who knew? Maybe one day he just wouldn’t come back. Perhaps eventually the novelty would just wear off for him, or maybe the tide of the monster race’s politics would change. More than their union could be put in danger if the latter was the case.

    It all just made her very uneasy…

    “Lovely night, isn’t it?”

    After getting snuck up on repeatedly, Filia was learning to modulate her reactions. For example, she no longer screamed, jumped three feet into the air with her tail sticking out, and dropped what she was holding whenever Xellos made one of his surprise visits. The thin china of her teacup chimed against its saucer as her hand shook.

    She knew he’d be there next to her, but she didn’t turn to look yet. “It’s still a bit too cold if you ask me,” she said evenly, once she’d regained internal balance.

    “Really?” Xellos said with a frown. He reclined back against the cushion (which didn’t have any kittens emblazoned on it, since you asked). “Then I have to wonder why you’d be out here, gazing over the horizon as though hoping someone would gallantly appear over it.”

    Filia bit her lip and cursed mentally. “It’s a pretty sunset, that’s all,” she said with a determined swig of her tea, which had gone disappointingly cold.

    “It is,” Xellos agreed. “One you could easily see from your window.”

    Filia glowered over at him, resting on the other side of her porch swing looking utterly at home. Well, she wasn’t going to let him win a coded argument. He couldn’t win logically if he actually spelled out what he was thinking. She shouldn’t let him get away with this kind of thing. “If you think I’m not telling the truth, then what nefarious motive do you think I have for sitting on my front porch in slightly chilly weather?” she demanded.

    “Hardly nefarious,” Xellos said dismissively, and this was someone who knew nefarious. “I merely thought you might be waiting for me.”

    “You?” Filia asked, in a way that she hoped made the very idea sound ludicrous. “Not likely. And even if I was,” she went on, moving towards her logical out, “why would I wait out here for you? You just pop up wherever you want to. Case in point!” she finished, gesturing to him on the porch.

    “True,” Xellos admitted, wagging a finger at her, “but you’ve always had a rather ridiculous romantic streak.”

    Filia had no real counterargument for this. So she just crossed her arms and fixed him with the most piercing look she could concoct. “Where have you been all this time?” she asked.

    Xellos shrugged. “Do you really want to know?”

    Filia froze for a moment. Put it that way, she probably didn’t, but he’d never before even hinted at the possibility of giving her a straight answer. “…Would you tell me if I said yes?” she asked carefully.

    “No.”

    “Then just forget it.”

    They sat in silence for awhile. The pinkish hues of the sun were fading to darkness, and already Filia could make out a few twilight stars in the gloom. She knew all their names; she’d been taught when she was training up as a priestess. She had to wonder if nowadays the astronomy program had been cut to allocate funds for the ‘For the love of all that is holy don’t marry a demon’ seminar.

    “Are you just popping in?” she finally asked. “Or will you be sticking around for awhile?”

    “Why?”

    Filia grimaced. Xellos should’ve understood better than anyone the uncertain nature of their relationship and the fact that if the status quo was disturbed that they might not have a relationship to be uncertain about anymore. Apparently feeding his ego took a higher priority.

    “Val will be really disappointed if he finds out you were here and didn’t stay to see him.”

    Xellos leaned forward and rested his chin against one hand as though giving the matter some thought. “Unless something major happens, I should be mostly here until the end of the month.”

    Ah, ‘mostly here’. That was a state she often found Xellos in. Even when he stayed with her for weeks at a time, he’d still occasionally disappear for hours on some dark and unspecified errand. Filia happened to know that most wives wouldn’t tolerate such behavior, so how did she manage to get a reputation as a shrew? It was probably the ‘trying to crush his skull’ thing.

    “I see,” she said noncommittally.

    The porch swing let out a creak as the once balanced weight on the seat was redistributed to one side.

    “So how about it, Filia?” Xellos asked, leaning over her. “Did you miss me?”

    To his intense delight, she blushed. After all this time she still blushed. Maybe this whole thing would get old the minute she stopped blushing. Though… put it another way… that might be when things got more interesting than ever…

    She set down her tea cup and did not look him in the eyes. He wasn’t going to abandon this line of questioning, she knew. “Sort of,” she decided on.

    Xellos raised an eyebrow. “Sort of?” he repeated.

    “I think I missed you, but then again, I always think I miss you,” she clarified. “But then after you’re here for awhile I realize that you’re nothing but trouble and I never missed you and I can’t wait for you to leave.”

    “Then… I should leave?” Xellos asked, eyeing her with the same perplexed expression.

    Filia opened her mouth to say something, then closed it. She looked away and said, “…But then I’d think I miss you again.”

    “Hmmm,” Xellos hummed thoughtfully. “Then I suppose I will have to stay awhile, if only to keep you from deluding yourself.”

    “Yes,” Filia breathed.

    He leaned in closer until his lips were almost touching hers, but then pulled back. “Aren’t you going to ask whether or not I missed you?” he asked, sounding would-be wounded.

    “No,” Filia said firmly.

    “But why?”

    “Because the only reason you want me to ask is so you can try to hurt my feelings by saying you didn’t,” Filia said guardedly.

    Xellos looked taken aback. “You really think so?” he asked. “You never know, you might be surprised.”

    She kissed him almost exasperatedly. “I don’t want any more surprises.”

    …Because I already depend on things I shouldn’t depend on…

  2. #2
    Join Date
    Jan 2009
    Location
    IL
    Posts
    3,130

    Default

    “I hate and love. And if you should ask how I can do both,
    I couldn’t say; but I feel it, and it shivers me.”
    ~Catullus

    Chapter 2. Impossible.

    There were many things that Filia couldn’t depend on in Xellos, their relationship was full of uncertainties and, no matter what she wished, surprises probably waited just around the bend. But there was one thing, she thought as she lay next to him in the cozy darkness of her bed, that, strangely enough, she could count on from him.

    She always knew that whenever she went to bed with him that he’d be there when she woke up. Maybe he’d leave shortly after that—probably without telling her that he was going or when he’d get back—but he’d be there just as he was before she fell asleep.

    It was a bizarre thing for him to make a stand about in their marriage, and he’d certainly never promised to do such a thing. He rarely promised her anything. But nevertheless, that was the way things were. She never woke up to find that he’d gone away on some demonic mission, or even that he’d gone downstairs to scramble some eggs (this was a good thing because she was tired of her house smelling like noxious smoke). He’d always be there with her.

    It wasn’t something she’d ever have expected of him. The fact that he didn’t have to sleep would make it almost… acceptable if he teleported away after she’d gone to sleep to conduct some business. But he didn’t. She’d woken up in the middle of the night many times, only to find that she was reassuringly still in his arms. She would’ve asked him about this, but she was afraid he’d stop if she pointed it out.

    Come to think of it… she wasn’t sure if he slept or not. Maybe he couldn’t sleep and just pretended to while she slept, or maybe he didn’t have to sleep but slept beside her anyway. Either way it meant something.

    It all meant something. There were so many things that she’d never experienced in her married life that she thought a married person should. She’d never been proposed to; she’d never been told ‘I love you’; she’d never gotten a ring; she’d never had a ceremony or bridesmaids; she’d never been carried across the threshold. Though that last one was probably a good thing considering that Xellos would’ve likely accidentally-on-purpose knocked her head into the doorframe. Despite the things that she and Xellos didn’t have, she and he still had meaning together. She knew that they did.

    But… even though it meant something now… she knew it couldn’t last. It was amazing that it had lasted for as long as it did. But in their circumstance… well, sooner or later he would say something or she would say something that would make them unable to continue. Maybe the war would start up again, maybe a power shift in the dragon race would mean than she was in danger once more, maybe he would just leave and not come back this time. Summer would be here before she knew it, and so would their… anniversary. The anniversary of a mistake they’d just decided to stick with. Would they last until then? If they did, what would happen?

    She sighed. She’d asked all these questions the last time that he came back too. In some ways it was a mercy that this horrible uncertainty always left her. That in the rigmarole of ‘life with Xellos’ she’d somehow forget all those questions—almost feel that such questions had no place in her life. And she’d just go from moment to moment feeling angry and frustrated and happy and busy. Then he’d leave and all the uncertainty would come crashing down on her once again.

    She reached over him in the night and took his hand. Will I really be foolish enough to take all this for granted again? she couldn’t help but ask herself.

    “Filia,” Xellos murmured from next to her, “go to sleep. You’re thinking too hard.”

    Maybe he was right. Maybe it would all end someday, but she certainly wasn’t coming to any useful conclusions with this line of thought.

    “Not that that’s an ailment you usually suffer from,” he felt the need to add.

    She let go of his hand and elbowed him as sharply as she could in the stomach before turning over and shutting her eyes.

    *****

    …Will I really be foolish enough to take all this for granted again?

    Of course she was, of course she was. Maybe this had something to do with Xellos repeatedly making comments of the kind he’d made that night. Maybe it had something to do with him suggesting to Val five minutes before dinner that one could conceivably reach the forbidden cookie jar on the top shelf by pulling over a kitchen chair. Or maybe it had something to with the fact that he’d insulted her taste in clothing when they’d gone shopping together—and then, when asked what he thought would look better, proceeded to prove that his taste was worse than hers… or at least more tasteless. Maybe it had to do with the fact that he felt the need to play devil’s advocate with her every thought, command, feeling or opinion. Maybe it was all the chaos he caused on a daily basis in both her shop and household. Maybe it was because he had ruined her attempt to start a women’s book club.

    She had so much to do and she couldn’t get any of it done with him around, so before long she couldn’t wait until he’d leave her alone again so that she could…

    …not do any of it.

    She leaned over her vanity in tortured spirits. There were always things to do… supplies to be ordered, forms to fill out, bills to pay, pottery splinters to extricate… and that was just in the shop, not to mention all the things she needed to do to keep her household running. But there never seemed to be time set aside for brooding. Well, time or not, she would brood now. She didn’t feel like she had much choice in the matter.

    He’d left again the previous week and she’d been slowing down ever since then. It always went like that when she… when she thought she missed him, but this time was worse. Today she’d been sleepwalking through her vital chores, and was now putting off quite a few other ones. The rest of her household was busy. Jillas was handling the laundry and Gravos was helping Val construct a pinewood derby car. She was the only one twiddling her thumbs and she had the most responsibility.

    She gritted her teeth and glared at her reflection in the mirror. It wasn’t that she was too… crippled by loneliness or anything. She wouldn’t say that she was pathetic enough to need him to get through her daily life without tearing up. She’d been holding the household together both with and without him. She didn’t need him for that.

    It wasn’t even that when he was gone she had… oh, call it nostalgia. Things weren’t really better when he was around. In fact, if her average exasperation level around him was any indication then things were worse. But things were more… eventful; eventful, of course, meaning dangerous and unpredictable. But it’s easy to sort of… miss that when your days are so packed with uneventfulness that you’re struggling to remember what you had for dinner last Wednesday.

    Things were admittedly livelier when he was around, and her life felt more… complete. And yes, she did miss that. She truly did.

    But whether she missed him or not she ought to be able to get by. She shouldn’t have been sitting moodily in her room over that. She should’ve been keeping busy. It was just that…

    It was ironic, really. So much of the worrying that hounded her concerning Xellos had been about uncertainty. What will we do? How long will he be around this time? What’s he thinking? When will this all end for us? But now there was a certainty that plagued her just as much, because now she knew.

    She knew.

    Forget her situation. Forget his. Forget the utter madness of her life at the moment and all it meant and might mean. She knew.

    It wasn’t as though it came as a surprise or anything. For goodness sakes! The two of them had been wrapping their lives around each other from the very start, even back in the good old days when she’d hated him, or at least just hated him.

    It was comforting, in all this turmoil, to at least know that she still hated him. But that wasn’t all that she felt. And now she knew.

    She could’ve known earlier, goodness knew she’d had her worries, but she’d always pushed it away, ignored it. She didn’t want to think it. Even after all they’d been through together she still didn’t want to think it.

    Would it really be better if you just wanted him instead of loving him? she asked herself. If all that kept you with him was a sort of… fascinated attraction and not something deeper?

    Yes, she answered herself. Yes. She ran an index finger under each eye, willing herself not to cry. She knew she probably would cry eventually, but she was determined to keep it under wraps for as long as she could. It’d probably make me a worse person… but I’d be better off.

    Because knowing forced her into a horrible confrontation. She absolutely had to tell him eventually. If she put it off forever she’d be nothing but a coward, lying with her silence day by day for fear of losing what she had. She knew she couldn’t stand to be that person. She couldn’t stay with him if she had to be that person. But if she told him…

    That would spell an end for them too. Maybe he’d just leave. Maybe the idea of her attaching an emotion that… positive to him would be almost intolerable. Maybe he’d see it as an end to feasting off her negativity.

    Or maybe he would just laugh at her. Maybe that would be his idea of a complete triumph over her. Maybe he’d say that that was very “sweet of her” but that obviously it would be “impossible” for him to return such a feeling.

    A twisted, pained smile crossed Filia’s lips. Impossible. Oh, she dearly hoped he’d say impossible if it came to that. It seemed to her that impossible was consistently being revised.

    But if she confessed to him and he flaunted his lack of love for her there was no way she could let things be as they were. Her need for him did not outweigh her self-respect. How could she possibly stay with someone who would brag about not loving her?

    So it seemed like everything was all steering toward the same point now. If she didn’t tell him then she’d have to slink away and end it with him to avoid living a lie. If she told him then either he would end it or she would.

    And why should that be a surprise? Hadn’t they been thusly doomed from the beginning? Maybe after this whole thing blew over she could guest speak at one of the dragon race’s don’t-marry-a-monster seminars. Goodness knew she could give a firsthand account of why it was a terrible idea. It would’ve been a fabulous career move if not for the fact that they’d sooner stone her to death.

    And even if she managed to sort out this whole… feelings thing… there was still the other thing. The thing that had started this entire…

    She ground her fist against her forehead. She didn’t know what to do. Nothing in her experience told her what to do. She needed help, but unfortunately the person she needed help from was… well, not only did she not know what to say to him, but he wasn’t even there for her to say it!

    And she had no idea when he’d be back. He’d never gotten the hang of being accountable to her for anything. Maybe if he stays away long enough, she thought bitterly, I won’t even have to tell him.

    She looked around self-consciously. She’d often wondered… if even when he was away he kept one sinister purple eye on her. How else could she explain his penchant for popping in at exactly the worst times, i.e.: when she was carrying something one-of-a-kind and breakable, when she had a lot of work to do and only a little time to do it, or whenever she accidentally said anything nice about him.

    It was kind of a… nice thought. Like maybe he cared enough about his life with her to look after it. But it was just a thought.

    “…Xellos?” she whispered. Nothing happened. “Xellos?” she tried louder. Nothing.

    Well, that was it then. He had more important matters to attend to. He couldn’t be bothered with whatever petty irritant was troubling her. He didn’t care, he didn’t even know.

    Eventually came and she folded her arms in front of her and let herself cry.

    “Harboring delusions of missing me already, are we?”

    “You!” She whipped around and glared at Xellos, who had appeared in one of her frillier chairs as if he’d been there all along. That stupid, stupid bastard! He’d known she was calling for him! But Xellos doesn’t come when he’s called, now does he? He just had to wait until she’d completely broken down before deigning to make his presence known! That weasely little

    He tilted his head to the side. “‘You’? Who were you calling for if not me?”

    “Well, you certainly took your time!” she snapped. As far as snaps go, it wasn’t a very good snap, but she was trying to wipe away her tears and sternly instruct her tear ducts that their attentions were not appreciated.

    He wagged a finger at her. “You know I have other duties to attend to. Your problems may be the center of your world, but it’s a bit selfish to assume that they’re the center of everyone else’s.” He leaned forward a bit, resting his chin in his hand. “That said, I do hope that this goes somewhat beyond pining as I’m a bit too busy to be giving out hugs to needy dragons.”

    Oh how she longed at that moment to just blurt it out. It would certainly have slapped that smirk off his face. In fact, she was pretty sure it would strike him dumb if only for a moment (you couldn’t ask for more than the occasional snark-free minute from Xellos). But she couldn’t… she just couldn’t. It needed to be said, and she wasn’t sure how yet, but it was definitely something that she needed to build toward.

    She turned around again, not facing him but still able to see him reflected in her mirror. “I’ve just…” she began, not sure at all where she was going, “I’ve been thinking about… you know, taking a break from running the shop for a little while. Gravos and Jillas can handle it, and it wouldn’t be right away or forever… just a couple of months maybe.”

    He lounged back in the chair. He was a first class lounger. “So does this mean you’ve finally gotten bored with selling chintzy pottery to tourists?”

    Filia glowered. Nothing she sold was chintzy. “No,” she said patiently. “I was thinking it might be necessary for… for my health.”

    Xellos raised an eyebrow. “What do you mean ‘your health’? You’re not going to tell me that stocking shelves and dealing with customer complaints has gotten to be too taxing for you. You’re a dragon, you’re not quite that fragile.”

    “No,” Filia said in much the same tone that she had before. “But I will be soon.”

    “Soon?”

    “Yes,” Filia said, watching him through the mirror. “I’ll have to start taking better care of myself, watching what I eat and so on. And I’ll need plenty of help around the house. At least I can count on Gravos and Jillas for that,” she spat, just to remind him how almost entirely useless he was. “And I’ll have to find a physician…” she ran a hand wearily through her hair, “but I’m damned if I can think of anyone who’d be suitable.”

    Xellos actually did her the courtesy of sitting up and at least looking like he was paying attention. “Filia, what are you talking about?”

    She turned around and gave him a hard look.

    That tactic must have worked because after a moment he responded with: “You’re not serious.”

    Filia had been prepared for that one. She threw her hands up. “You’re right!” she shouted with a sour kind of vigor. “This is all just some hilarious joke I made up! Can’t you just feel your sides aching from laughing so hard?”

    The vast tidal wave of sarcasm did not crash over Xellos’s head unnoticed. He stared at her for a moment with his mouth slightly open. “Filia… that’s impossible.”

    And that really did it. Before she’d even thought about it she reached over to her vanity and gripped her jewelry box. She’d bought it because it was a pretty thing, but she’d never managed to fill it or find much used for it. It would have a use now. She hurled it at him with all her might. “Impossible?! Impossible! Well, I feel much better now! Since Xellos says it’s impossible then none of this is actually happening! Morning sickness? What morning sickness?!”

    Impossibility aside he must’ve really been thrown for a loop, because he didn’t even dodge when the wooden box smacked straight into his face. It fell to the floor and it was almost like he didn’t even notice he’d been hit.

    The moment the jewelry box hit the ground, Filia suddenly felt very tired. She sank back into her chair and said: “…What are we going to do?”

    She worried, the moment that the question had left her mouth that the retort would be that it was not about what ‘we’ were going to do, but what she was going to do. But he opened his mouth and eventually formed the words: “I’m… not sure.”

    ‘I’m not sure.’ It seemed a little more in control than ‘I don’t know’. ‘I’m not sure’ seems to imply that there are many possibilities but that the person in question just hasn’t decided on which one they’re going to choose yet. ‘I don’t know’ just means ‘I’m utterly lost’.

    But Filia knew that he didn’t know. He didn’t have any more of a clue than she did.

  3. #3
    Join Date
    Jan 2009
    Location
    IL
    Posts
    3,130

    Default

    “When action grows unprofitable, gather information; when information grows unprofitable, sleep.”
    ~Ursula K. LeGuin


    Chapter 3. The Search for Answers.

    Xellos was knocked very sharply around the ear after making the (innocent, he thought) inquiry as to whether Filia had been sleeping with any other men. He knew there wasn’t much of a chance, but he had to ask. The fact was that the matter before him was something completely outside of his experience. Now, he’d been living for a long time (or, as Filia put it when she got an instinct for cruelty: a very, very, very, very, very long time), and there were precious few things that fell completely outside his experience. And most of them, for some strange reason, involved Filia.

    They sat quietly for a long time after that, neither at all sure what to do. When Xellos wasn’t shocked into silence by the entire event, his head spun with questions. He was used to analyzing situations in this way, finding the hidden snags, thinking of ways to address these snags, and searching out the benefits. This situation seemed to be entirely snags. Horrifying snags. Filia had had time to dread them, but for Xellos they were fresh.

    “What we need,” Xellos finally murmured, “is information.”

    “Oh right,” Filia started. “I’m sure there’s a book on demon-dragon child-birth. We’ll have to remember to pick that up next time we’re at the library.”

    Filia could be very sarcastic when roused. Xellos was sure that this was a Filia-thing and not a dragon-thing. He stood up.

    Filia looked up at him sharply. “Where are you going?” she asked in a voice that tried to cover up its fear of being abandoned with reproach.

    “To pick up that book you wanted,” he said lightly.

    Filia scowled. “You know full well that there’s no such book!”

    “Then maybe you should write one,” he answered, his mouth more or less operating on auto-pilot while his mind sought out possible courses of action.

    Filia gave him a sour look. “I’d like to think that it’s not something anyone else would need to know about.” Otherwise the dragons were wasting a lot of time and resources on those lectures.

    “I would as well,” Xellos replied. “And since there is no book of answers, we must search out information ourselves. I doubt complete information even exists, but some is better than none.”

    Filia’s expression was half-fearful and half-incredulous. “Tell me you’re not going to shake down some dragons for information.”

    Xellos waved a dismissing hand. “No. They likely wouldn’t know any more than we do, and I’d prefer to put off their finding out for as long as possible.”

    Filia got up from her perch on the bed and moved close to him. “Do you think they’ll attack again… when they do find out?” she asked.

    “That was resolved last year when they realized that they couldn’t win. This… development doesn’t make their chances of victory any greater, so they’ll stay in their place,” Xellos said, but somewhat doubtfully. “Hopefully.”

    “Hopefully?” Filia repeated. “That’s not exactly comforting!”

    Xellos wasn’t very good at comforting people. That was a species thing.

    “Perhaps when I’ve had a chance to gather some information you’ll be more comforted,” Xellos said smoothly. “…Or not.”

    “There you go again!” Filia shouted, pointing at him.

    “Filia,” Xellos said, ignoring her outburst. “Have you told me everything that you know?”

    The seriousness of his inquiry threw her off guard for a minute, but she shook that off after a few seconds. “Of course I have! Why would I lie?”

    “It’s just important that I know everything.”

    She gave him a suspicious look. “Who are you going to ask about this anyway if not the dragons?”

    “Various sources,” he said briskly, which was the same as not answering at all. But it was better than saying it was a secret. He’d already been hit once that day, better not to try for two. “Why? Did you have some idea?”

    Filia frowned. “I was thinking I’d talk to some of the ladies at my failed book club,” she said in a tone that implied that she hadn’t forgotten who caused it to fail. “Most of them have kids, so they might be able to give some advice.”

    “I’m sure they’ll give you plenty advice… pertaining to humans,” Xellos pointed out.

    Filia shrugged. “Didn’t you say that some information is better than none?”

    Xellos nodded. It probably wouldn’t hurt and given the complexity of their situation it might actually help. But other ideas were spinning now. No matter what he’d said to Filia, he had private doubts as to whether the dragons would sit on their haunches after finding out about this impending bundle of joy/wanton destruction. It might be more than they could bear. And they might decide to strike even if they feared retribution. And the best time to strike would be before the creature was born…

    “Fine,” he said. “But put off asking until I get back. In fact, don’t tell anyone at all until I get back.”

    She gave him a searching look and nodded slowly.

    He turned to leave, but before he’d gotten out the door, she said: “Wait.”

    He looked around at her determined expression. “I know you’re not just going out there for information,” she said forcefully. “You’re… telling.”

    Xellos sighed. Filia made reporting relevant news to his master sound like tattle-tailing.

    “Do you think there’s any way we can keep this a secret in the long term?” he asked.

    She looked off to the side, still a little sulky. “I suppose not.”

    “If it’s any consolation, Filia,” he said, looking upwards slowly. “…I’m not looking forward to that either.”

    *****

    There was absolutely no way to get around reporting this little incident to Lord Beastmaster. But Xellos didn’t plan on doing that just yet. There were too many questions that needed answering first. If he could get a better idea of what was going on, then the chances of getting through this unscathed could go up dramatically.

    Because this wasn’t just a case of: how could this have possibly happened? That was a relevant question, especially considering that he thought that something like this ought to have been impossible. Monsters are not born as such. They are forged from darkness, to put it dramatically. As for dragons… they come from eggs. Combine the two, and who could say what would happen?

    And then there was the fact that both of them were using human shapes. Would that affect the nature of Filia’s pregnancy or the form of the child?

    Was it even safe for Filia to be carrying something like that? What about the birth? Who on earth do you get to deliver a child like that? Dragons were automatically out. The dragons would find out about this whole thing sooner or later, but given their penchant for killing things before they get out of hand, they weren’t the best choice as physicians. Sure, they could be threatened into compliance, but they might take their chances to ensure that the child would not survive. No doubt they’d consider it an abomination. They seemed to consider so many things abominations these days.

    As for a monster, that was out the window too. It wasn’t exactly within the monster skill set. For an immortal creature with rigid hierarchies the idea of reproduction in that sense was a very uneasy one. It’s not like with humans or dragons. They’re raising their legacy. If a monster were to operate that way then they’d be raising their competition. Xellos had to admit that he didn’t like the idea either.

    That pretty much left them with no one who could assist them in any way. Even information would be extremely hard to come by. The logical thing might’ve been to find the monster race’s expert on dragons for questioning. But, unfortunately, things being what they were… that was Xellos.

    So that’s why Xellos decided to consult with Sangoma. Her situation was far away from his, but comparatively close when considering his other options. And Sangoma knew what a secret was and moreover how to keep it.

    Sangoma was one of Lord Deep Sea Dolphin’s very few land-based servants. When the sea bed had dried up to form the Desert of Fears, Sangoma had stayed and took on new duties. She was a collector of… well, humanities basically. She was an expert on humans and her information proved invaluable for the many schemes the Monster race enacted that involved humans. Despite the fact that neither he nor Filia were human, Sangoma’s expertise might still come in handy as she was an expert on both forms and legend. And Xellos had a feeling that whatever was happening was downright legendary.

    And then there was that other thing…

    Technically speaking, when Xellos had accidentally married Filia the year before he was not the first monster to enter into matrimony. He just got in trouble because he’d married a dragon. Sangoma had married another monster, one named Rhevas. It was strange, but it was judged to do no harm.

    Rhevas was a demon and a general but not a demon general. He was one of Gaav’s residual servants that had survived the rebellion and since then had been under Lord Dynast’s employ. He took command of human militaries to control the tide of war in the land. Sometimes he even managed to be the general of two opposing armies to keep the conflict going until there was no one left. Even Xellos had to admit that was a good trick.

    The thing was, both Sangoma and Rhevas’s jobs entailed frequent contact with human and there were worries that they’d gone a bit native. Then there was the fact that almost all Lord Deep Sea Dolphin’s servants fell somewhere on a spectrum between merely eccentric and batshit insane. Still, they said they were married, but most of the Monster race simple viewed this as an alliance under a different name. It was certainly a sneaky way for Lord Dynast to get information and for Lord Deep Sea Dolphin to get an in on military campaigns.

    Xellos had always considered it an alliance as well, but he was starting to think that he’d just preferred to consider it thus. After all, the same monsters that referred to Sangoma and Rhevas as a military alliance and not matrimony referred to Filia as ‘Xellos’s pet dragon’. We give new names to things which make us uncomfortable.

    With Sangoma’s own situation, she’d be much more likely to dispense advice seriously on the matter instead of sounding the alarm. And Xellos knew he needed to look at this from every angle before he acted. So with that decided, he phased away and into the subterranean library in the Desert of Fears.

    He reappeared in a dusty cellar with shelves and shelves lined with books. Sangoma, in her rather boyish human form, looked up from a map she’d been poring over at his arrival.

    “Ah, Miss Sangoma,” Xellos began finding putting on his cheery-voice somewhat more of an effort than it usually was. “I was wondering if you could—”

    She held up a hand to quiet him which was fairly impudent for a middle-ranking demon. She tilted her head upwards toward the ground floor.

    “Rhevas!” she called. “There’s a strange man in the vaults!”

    There was the sound of armor clanking against armor and hurried footsteps from upstairs. Xellos watched the cellar door open with somewhat mystified amusement. Rhevas barreled down the steps, his much notched sword drawn. He stopped as soon as he saw Xellos.

    He thrust his sword back into its scabbard and gave Sangoma a dirty look. “Damn it, woman! Are you trying to get me killed?” he demanded.

    “Only a little,” Sangoma said, glancing back at her map as though that diversion hadn’t been quite as diverting as she had hoped it would be. “What can we do for you, Xellos?”

    Xellos eyed the two of them speculatively. Rhevas was leaning against Sangoma’s desk now with his arms crossed and in somewhat bad spirits. On his finger was an iron band. An identical one was on Sangoma’s finger. They were plain, terribly ugly rings with no decoration and had seen a lot of wear. But they were still… symbolic.

    Xellos had often thought to suggest to Filia that she wear a ring. If he got her one then she’d be suspicious, delighted, and terrified all at the same time. Always an interesting combination. She should, he instinctively felt, wear a ring. Going around being married and not wearing a ring so that strangers who don’t know any better would think she was available was just… well, it was an itchy thought and he didn’t much care for it. What kept him from actually suggesting it was the fact that she’d likely want him to wear one too and he didn’t much care for that idea. Perhaps it was lost on him that he was taking a romantic gesture of unity and devotion and bringing it down to the level of a dog urinating on its favorite tree.

    He tapped his staff on the earthen floor. “I’m afraid it’s rather complicated,” he said.

    “I would suppose so, otherwise you wouldn’t be here,” Sangoma reasoned. “Am I to assume that this has something to do with your lovely and, I’m going to go ahead and guess, patient wife?”

    “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” Xellos answered, though privately he’d have a problem with any beholder who didn’t think Filia fell into that classification, “and she’s not patient by any definition.”

    “But it does have to do with her, right?” Sangoma asked as Rhevas began to look upon the conversation with more interest. “The dragon girl?”

    “Very much so,” Xellos admitted.

    Sangoma nodded. “Then please,” she said, “go on.”

  4. #4
    Join Date
    Jan 2009
    Location
    IL
    Posts
    3,130

    Default

    “I believe children are our future.
    Teach them well and let them lead the way.”
    ~“Greatest Love of All” by Whitney Houston


    Chapter 4. Form and Function.

    So Xellos told them. It wasn’t, Sangoma might have pointed out, as complicated to understand as Xellos had made it out to be. But simple statements can contain a lot of intricacy.

    “Well, congratulations!” Sangoma gushed in a way that must’ve been designed to set Xellos’s teeth on edge. “Rhevas! Rhevas, break out the cigars!”

    “We don’t have cigars,” Rhevas said, breaking away from the puzzled look he was giving Xellos to look at his wife. “Why would we have cigars?”

    “Why, for just such celebrations as this,” Sangoma chided.

    “I hardly think this is something to celebrate,” Xellos said gravely, not at all in the mood for the kind of shenanigans he would’ve pulled had this happened to someone else.

    “That doesn’t strike me as a very good attitude,” Sangoma commented. “I suppose you’re not just here ‘telling people’ are you?”

    “No,” Xellos said, thinking that his attitude might not have been good but that it was nevertheless appropriate. “I’m here for answers.”

    “Answers to what?” Sangoma asked, as though the whole matter of demon-dragon babies was completely normal.

    “How could this have happened for starters,” Rhevas supplied as Xellos sought to find just where to begin in the mountains and mountains of unanswered questions.

    “Well, I assume he was there for that part,” Sangoma said back. Xellos gave her a look. “Alright, alright,” she said, standing up. “Come with me.”

    Xellos didn’t move. “Last time you showed me something in these vaults it was a shrunken head.”

    Sangoma smiled as though shrunken heads were rather darling things. “It’s a book,” she said.

    The musty shelves she and her husband walked down as Xellos trailed after them were full of books in various stages of decay. Somewhere beyond the books and scrolls, the scent of formaldehyde wafted in nose-hair dissolving pungency. She took a book off one of the shelves. “Sorca’s Daemorum,” she said by way of explanation.

    Xellos nodded. “I didn’t think it was a series,” he said, nodding to the four identical books on the shelf where it had previously rested.

    “Oh, these are all just copies,” Sangoma explained, leafing through the dusty pages to find what she was looking for. “It was just one of the quarantined books that I was to take out of circulation.”

    Having done his own share of information destroying, Xellos was familiar with the concept, but… “That doesn’t explain why you’d need to keep all five. Why didn’t you just burn the spares?”

    Sangoma gave him a scandalized look as though she couldn’t quite think of a word bad enough for someone who would burn books.

    “Never mind,” Xellos said, reading this look. “What does it say?”

    “Sorca collected oral legends about monsters,” Sangoma explained. “I doubt anyone’s ever heard of a monster and dragon having a child, but there are many legends about monsters and humans having children.”

    Xellos wrinkled his nose. If this was all she had then he was starting to think this was a waste of time. “I’m familiar with such stories,” he said. “Nonsense concocted by unmarried women to explain away their situation or those who prey off of paranoia and salaciousness.”

    “Largely,” Sangoma admitted. “But a few of them have the ring of truth. And it’s not such an impossible situation when you really think about it. Form fakery is a tricky thing. Get too good at it and… well, in your case, how can you expect her body to appreciate the difference?”

    Xellos was silent and contemplative. Rhevas read over Sangoma’s shoulder. “‘The Halflings brought despair wherever they went,’” he read. “Violence, instability, and deceitfulness,” he said, eyes skimming the page. “That is what Sorca perceived of the children of demonic parentage.”

    “Maybe that was just because they had absent fathers,” Sangoma mused carelessly.

    “Does it say anything useful?” Xellos asked, growing impatient.

    Sangoma snapped the book shut. “Not really,” she admitted. “It’s just the closest thing to a precedent we have to show that your case is not entirely unique. Don’t you feel comforted?”

    “Not especially,” Xellos answered sourly. He rubbed the heel of his hand against his closed eyes and tried to get things moving in a productive direction once again. “Fine. It’s happened, so that clearly throws the whole ‘impossible’ notion out the window. The important thing now is dealing with it.”

    “Dealing with it how?” Sangoma asked, raising her eyebrows and exchanging a look with Rhevas.

    “First of all,” Xellos, who had now had time to think this over a bit more, said, “I need to know if Filia herself in any danger by carrying the child.”

    “I don’t know,” Sangoma said, scratching at her hair. “Probably,” she added somewhat insensitively. Then, after thinking for a minute added: “Though I guess she’s a dragon and all. After she drops the egg she should be out of trouble. …Or eggs, I guess. Gosh, you could end up with a whole brood on your hands!”

    Rhevas looked like he distinctly did not like the idea of a veritable army of mini-Xelloses.

    “Most dragons,” Xellos stated coldly, “do have large litters. But Golden Dragons opt for a more focused reproductive strategy. It takes a lot of resources to raise a hatchling to maturity and most females will only have one child at a time. More than that is exceptionally rare.”

    “Well, geez,” Sangoma said, not in the mood for a lecture, “I never claimed to be an expert on dragons. That’s you, right?”

    “In any case, I’m not even sure if an egg will be involved,” Xellos said, voicing his own doubts. “She’s in her human form.”

    “Hmmm,” Sangoma murmured, cupping her chin in her hand in serious thought. “Form denotes function,” she said with a shrug. “If we didn’t know that already then it’s really hit home today. For some of us more than others,” she said, casting Xellos a look. “A sort of… increased hardiness is obviously passed on. Strength is strength no matter what the form. But if she’s in human shape then her reproductive system should be human-shaped as well. Not,” she added, “that I’m the one who’s an expert on dragon reproductive systems.”

    Rhevas knew that Sangoma was trying to make him laugh. He quietly resented it.

    Sangoma turned to her husband. “What do you think, Ducky?”

    He quietly resented that even more. “Why ask me?” he asked irritably.

    “I would defer to your highly scientific mind,” Sangoma said with a mock bow.

    While Rhevas exercised his highly scientific mind, Xellos reflected on the fact that the only affectionate nickname that he ever got was ‘Raw Garbage.’ It seemed profoundly unfair. Though he might’ve taken heart if he knew that ‘Ducky’ was only Rhevas’s nickname when Sangoma found a reason to be displeased with him.

    “In that case,” Rhevas pressed on, “I’d wonder what would happen if she transformed, causing the reproductive system to suddenly switch.”

    “That is a grotesquely interesting question you’ve just asked,” Sangoma said, sounding genuinely impressed. “Though if we’re trying to preserve the safety of both the dragon and the child, I suggest it’s not one we find an answer to—no matter how driven we are by the spirit of inquiry.” She turned back to Xellos. “Does Filia swap forms often?”

    “Not really,” Xellos answered. “She used to change at the County Fair to give the local kids rides, but she quit years ago when she found gum in her hair afterwards. Other than that, she doesn’t bother much. Though her tail pops up when she’s upset.”

    “Huh,” from Sangoma. “Well, it goes without saying that she shouldn’t be transforming. The tail thing probably isn’t a danger, but to be on the safe side, I suggest you don’t upset her.” She seemed to have little appreciation for the fact that she was asking Xellos to give up his favorite hobby.

    “I have to wonder,” Rhevas began, “what form will it take?”

    “Hmm. Rather hard to say,” Sangoma hedged. “It should be able to have variability in its form, but it might have to learn control of it. I suppose it all depends on the nature of the genetic material Xellos produced for, I’m guessing, largely aesthetic reasons.”

    Hey,” Xellos said.

    “But it should maintain a human form in the womb,” Sangoma decided, ignoring Xellos’s objection to her bad taste. “It’s relying on its mother’s morphological field while it’s growing, and should take its cues from her. Once that connection is severed…” She shrugged. “I don’t know.”

    “Could be that it remains in that form until prodded to change,” Rhevas suggested. “After all, it’s easier to remain the same.”

    “Like some kind of morphological inertia,” said Sangoma, who was just making up terms at this point. But if ever there was a time for making up new terms, this was it. “Might be.”

    “The form it takes after it’s born is a secondary consideration,” Xellos reminded them. “If we’re correct and the birth will be a live one, then the matter of delivery comes before that.”

    “I don’t see that it’s much of a problem,” Sangoma said, screwing up her face. “Babies are born all the time without much fuss.

    But not, Xellos might have pointed out, demon-dragon babies. “I don’t know of a single monster who could do this, and the dragons would sooner kill it than deliver it. Options are limited.”

    “So? That just makes it obvious, right? Get a human to do it,” Sangoma, who knew how process of elimination worked, said.

    Xellos raised an eyebrow. “What human could possibly handle something like this?”

    “Well,” Sangoma said with a shrug, “you aren’t going to find anyone who has experience doing something exactly like this, but human midwives see a lot of weird stuff. There’s a coven of witches up in the Avoch highlands in the Outer World. Unusual circumstances are their stock and trade.”

    “There are no witches in the Outer World,” Xellos said.

    Sangoma waved a hand. “These aren’t the magic kind of witches.”

    “…there’s another kind?” Xellos asked.

    “They’re more of the black, pointed hat, warts, and evil eye kind of witches,” Sangoma explained.

    “Oh, you mean hags with overactive imaginations?” Xellos asked. “And you think they’d help?”

    Sangoma had winced at the ‘hags with overactive imaginations’ line and was starting to look rather uncomfortable. “They’ll help Filia. They’ll probably be quite displeased that that would mean helping you, but they’ll do it anyway.” She laced her fingers together and twisted them in a somewhat nervous gesture. “I’ve done research on this coven before; they’re a hard bunch.”

    Xellos eyed her incredulously. “You’re not… actually afraid of a group of old women that can’t even use magic, are you?”

    “Not afraid, as such,” Sangoma said rather wretchedly. “They’re just… they’re not as… Well, be careful what you say to them, is all. And don’t be fooled by them. And if they say ‘lawks’: run.”

    “You can’t be serious,” Xellos said.

    Sangoma held up her hands. “Don’t say I didn’t warn you.”

    “Well,” Rhevas said, shifting his stance in a clank of chain mail, “if that’s settled then I ought to get back to patrolling. Unless of course,” he said, giving his wife a sharp look, “you’d like to raise any more false alarms.”

    “Not right now,” Sangoma said brightly. “Maybe later.”

    With that, Rhevas made his noisy way out of the vaults, Sangoma’s eyes following him all the way. When Rhevas had gone, she turned back to Xellos.

    “Was there something else you wanted to ask? I’m sorry, but I really can’t be expected to produce a guide book on monster-dragon pregnancies and a glowing recommendation for a monster-dragon specializing obstetrician. Certainly not on such short notice.”

    “No,” Xellos said, tilting his head to the side of the book shelves that Rhevas had so recently walked through. “I just wondered if you’d mind me asking… you and Rhevas have a rather… unique situation.”

    Sangoma smiled and stuck out her hand. “Hello, I’m Kettle and you must be Pot. I don’t think we’ve been introduced.”

    Xellos ignored this. He needed to know, because this was about more than just Sangoma and Rhevas. “Most of us think that you’ve just used this marriage as a political game. Is it just an alliance or do you two…”

    “…love each other?” Sangoma supplied, because she wasn’t sure that Xellos could. She closed her eyes, looked understanding, and then nodded. “We decided that we do.”

    Xellos was taken aback. “Decided that you’re in love?”

    “Yes,” Sangoma answered.

    Xellos gave her an incredulous look. “That’s not really how it’s supposed to work isn’t it? It’s a feeling, not a decision.”

    Sangoma shrugged. “Look, I can’t attest to how other people do it, but Rhevas and I chose.”

    Xellos quieted in contemplation. How could a person choose to fall in love? As though it was a rational decision and not an irrational feeling. As though it could be maintained logically… or at least with conviction; a promise and not a wellspring of emotion. He shook his head. It probably wasn’t something he should even be considering anyway.

    “Fine,” Xellos said. “Thank you for your input, Miss Sangoma,” and vanished.

    After he was gone, Sangoma took the Daemorum back with her to her desk and read it cover to cover, her maps quite forgotten.

    *****

    He knelt in the cave that made up their current base of operations, with Lord Beastmaster sitting on a raised platform before him. He wasn’t really sweating, but he was doing the astral equivalent. This was nearly as bad as when he’d first reported after his marriage to Filia and their traitorous flight from the forces pursuing them. In some ways it was even worse.

    He remembered that time. He’d already struck a deal with his pursuers; he’d spy on Filia and they’d let bygones be bygones. But he knew he wasn’t out of the woods. He still had to report to Lord Beastmaster herself after the whole debacle was over. It had been a near run thing. He’d fled instead of reporting to her, and that was utterly unacceptable. She said that if he’d only done so that they could’ve worked things out and decided on a viable course of action. On the other hand, he’d pointed out that if he had reported, the viable course of action would’ve been to gut him alive. She countered that if the action decided on was to gut him alive, then he should’ve reported to be gutted alive. He pointed out that, ultimately, because he’d waited, things had been resolved so that no gutting was required and he was free to serve his Lord and master. She’d smiled, which was either a good sign or a terrible sign. But he’d been let off. He’d been lucky that time.

    Around Lord Beastmaster, the phrase ‘I brought you into this world and I can take you out of it’ was completely appropriate.

    “Interesting,” Lord Beastmaster said after he had finished his torturous explanation. “Depending on how events unfold, this could be quite valuable. I must say this brings up a new method of adding to the Monster race’s ranks. …Though it would be difficult to implement.”

    “Yes, Lord Beastmaster,” he said. He was well aware that this would be difficult to predict. The child could be as much a curse to the Monster race as a boon. It depended so much on what it grew up to be. He was also well aware that at the very least its birth would disturb the hierarchy in ways that could be difficult to mend. And he was aware that, yes, should the child be powerful, cunning, of his own predilection and with his loyalties that this could mean an unheard of addition of strength for their side. But he wasn’t thinking that. What he was thinking was ‘Filia will kill me’.

    Which was… a wrong thought. Filia would not kill him. She would be devastated and righteously furious if their child were to fall into what she would probably call ‘his element.’ But she would not kill him. She did not have the power to really harm him.

    …And things must be getting really bad, because he knew that wasn’t true anymore.

    “So,” Lord Beastmaster said, with a generous gulp of some corrosive substance, “in addition to my status as mother-in-law, I am now to be a grandmother?”

    Xellos did not have a readymade response so he let her muse over it. “Aren’t mothers-in-law supposed to be intrusive and pushy?” she asked after a while.

    He took a stalling breath. “That is the stereotype, Lord Beastmaster,” he answered.

    “I see,” she responded. Then, satisfied with that diversion, she decided to change gears. “What about the dragons? Have they lost their tempers yet?”

    “I do not believe they’ve found out about it yet,” Xellos said. “When they do find out I don’t think they’ll be satisfied with inaction or with bureaucratic rebuke. Not this time. They’ll strike if they think they have the chance. However, I do not think they would dare to strike against Filia while I am there.” He paused before daring to plunge in with this: “That is why I think it’s best that I stay with her, at least until the child is born and further assessments can be made.”

    “You’re asking for paternity leave?” she asked in an irony-laced tone.

    “I think it is a necessary sacrifice if we want to protect our investment,” Xellos answered in an even tone.

    Beastmaster Zelas sat back, looking up into the cave ceiling as though reading something more into it than a series of stalactites. “Very well,” she said. “But I would hope that this really is worth investing in.”

  5. #5
    Join Date
    Jan 2009
    Location
    IL
    Posts
    3,130

    Default

    “Call it a clan, call it a network, call it a tribe, call it a family:
    whatever you call it, whoever you are, you need one.”
    ~Jane Howard


    Chapter 5. Unusual Family Unit.

    Xellos’s hands were tied.

    What they were tied with was loops of yarn in what Filia had judged to be a fairly gender-neutral shade of yellow. She was holding one end of it which she gathered up into a ball of yarn. She waved her arms in a slow circle around his, drawing out another length of yarn to wrap with the rest. Xellos played the part of the sentient loom quietly, wondering about inconsequential things like the meaning of his existence and whether or not Filia could actually knit.

    She probably more or less just assumed that she could, as though her ovaries going active would automatically instill her with all the legendary mom skills (including the ability to kiss away booboos and pack luggage for maximum efficiency). Knitting booties was just something expectant mothers did. So she decided she would too.

    He’d pointed out to her that, considering that they couldn’t be very sure of what form the thing currently growing inside her would take, booties might be a little premature. She’d responded by jabbing a knitting needle at him and telling him not to talk about it like that.

    Yes, Filia seemed to take great offense to references to the child growing in her womb as being some kind of destroyer of worlds. But from the monster race’s perspective, well… that’s a child to be proud of.

    But honestly—and this was a rather treasonous thought considering how much a powerful new ally could turn the tide for them—Xellos did not want the child to take after him. There was just too much that could go wrong. Its parentage would always bring its loyalty into question and its very existence upset the natural order of things. He knew he could find himself usurped by his own heir and it troubled him.

    And then there was always the fact that if that happened he would lose Filia. She would never ever forgive him.

    No, better for the child to end up with enough of Filia in it to hide away from all that; to have some semblance of normality—impossible as it seemed—just enough to keep it away from the attentions of both their races.

    But maybe it wasn’t so impossible, Xellos mused. Look at Val. After all, he’d once been a revenge-crazed dynamo, willing to martyr himself to any cause to erase the things that had harmed him. And now…? He liked to draw ponies and eat cookies as loudly and as messily as possible and was so overflowing with childlike goodness that it was a little sickening. When picking Val up from his peewee soccer team Xellos was occasionally struck by the fact that the happily chattering child before him was the same tortured being who’d come uncomfortably close to destroying him.

    If that could happen then suddenly genetics didn’t seem quite so impassable a force. Maybe under Filia’s relentless mothering the child would be able to outrun its legacy—not forever, of course. None of us outrun it forever. But for long enough.

    He scrutinized Filia, going about her busy work. Did she fear that the baby she was carrying would become her enemy? Or did she believe in her own ability to raise a child as good as she’d always hoped to be? She’d certainly had more practice than most first-time moms could claim.

    If anxiety was eating her up inside, then she didn’t show it. He neither saw, nor perceived her crying in all the time since he’d been back. He believed that she’d cried as much as she was willing to while he’d been gone. Now she was like iron. No one in her delicate condition had a right to look the way she did—her whole body seemed to glow with a determined power, her will proclaimed to the world that this would indeed be alright and if it wasn’t, there would be hell to pay.

    When he’d come back, she’d asked him if how long he’d be staying with her and if he’d be with her for the delivery. He’d answered: “I will be here… for the duration.”

    “The duration?” she’d repeated, surprised.

    “Yes,” he’d said simply.

    “But if you’re right and it’ll be like a human pregnancy then that’s nine whole months!” she responded. He’d never stayed with her for that long completely uninterrupted. Even when he stayed for a few months he’d disappear every so often.

    “I’m pleased you’re up on your biology,” he’d answered smoothly, not wanting to get into the necessity of keeping homicidal dragons in religious fervors at bay or the notion that he was protecting an investment.

    She gave him an annoyed, suspicious look. “I looked it up while you were gone, but look, that doesn’t even—”

    “Isn’t it my duty to be here?” he’d asked with a shrug of his shoulders.

    She’d stared at him. “Well, it is,” she finally said, “I just wouldn’t expect you to actually do it.”

    Xellos resented that. He was quite dutiful. But he knew Filia. She needed someone to offer her help so that she could refuse it. That was the clearest way to make her take charge. And sure enough, she’d greeted every effort on his part to help her out with a snippy and defensive disposition. With him there, she couldn’t bring herself to mope.

    “Have you contacted that coven of yours yet?” Filia asked, as the ball of yarn grew fractionally.

    “Not yet,” Xellos admitted. “I have to make some arrangements first.”

    He wasn’t willing to leave Filia alone for the time it would take to consult the witches. Now that the secret was out at home, there was a chance that the dragons could find out too. As such, any time she strayed from his protection could be the last. This was something Filia found extremely annoying when she tried to go grocery shopping and he insisted on accompanying her with the excuse of “you don’t know how to pick out good produce.”

    “Hmm,” was all Filia said in response.

    When he’d come back and told her of the plan to have the child delivered by the Outer World coven that Sangoma had mentioned, she’d been argumentative.

    “I don’t see why we can’t just have Mrs. Olbenny deliver it. She’s been a midwife for forty years and has seven children of her own—and anyway, she’s closer,” Filia’d said crossly.

    “With all due respect to Mrs. Olbenny’s gynecological acumen,” Xellos had answered in an equal tone, “I don’t think she’s seen anything like this in her forty years of delivering babies.”

    “Oh? And this bunch of witches has?” Filia had countered. “I don’t like it. I’ve never even heard of them.”

    “I’m sure they’ve never heard of Mrs. Olbenny,” Xellos had retorted. “They’ve handled all kinds of bizarre cases from what I’ve been led to understand. This is the Avoch Highlands, where ‘it’s raining cats and dogs’ isn’t just an expression. They don’t even blink at weird.”

    Filia did not seem to relish being labeled ‘weird’, but eventually accepted Xellos’s plan so long as he ‘handled it’.

    “I’m sure Jillas and Gravos can take care of Val and watch the shop while we’re gone,” Xellos said, parting his arms slightly to keep the yarn taut. “They’ve been taking charge for the most part already.”

    Filia frowned. She hadn’t intended on losing her involvement in the shop quite so quickly. She’d wanted to stay on for as long as possible until the job became too much of a strain on her body to continue. But it wasn’t fatigue that drove her out, it was fragrance.

    The smell of paints and resins that permeated the workshop usually made her smile and feel eager to get the job done. Now they were just another entry on the growing list of smells that turned her stomach.

    She stopped her yarn work for a moment to rub her back with a grimace. Xellos knew that she was growing more and more uncomfortable, but hadn’t heard a word beyond that. She wouldn’t complain to him; she probably thought he’d call her a wimp. But even though she said nothing, he was watching every sign of her changing body.

    She certainly spent a lot of time kneeling in front of the toilet as though it was some kind of altar. Val had taken to showing up at her side and making gagging noises along with her. When asked what he was doing, he would cheerfully reply: “I’m helping you, Mommy!”

    Ah yes, Val was very eager to help. Xellos had been the one delegated to tell him about the impending addition to their unusual family unit. He’d rather hopefully suggested that this meant that Val wasn’t “going to be the baby of the family anymore” and that perhaps they “won’t pay as much attention” to him anymore, but the boy didn’t take Xellos’s bait. He was absolutely overjoyed at the idea of having a baby brother or sister, and was already planning games for them to play together and talking to Filia’s not-too-noticeably expanded belly.

    Filia confided in Xellos that she was worried now that it was only a matter of time before Val asked the big question. Xellos had been looking forward to watching Filia handle the ‘where do babies come from?’ question since long before their actual marriage. It was a situation that pretty much guaranteed hilarity and probably giant, convoluted lies. But he wasn’t looking forward to it as much anymore.

    Perhaps he was still a little shaken by a conversation he’d had with Val earlier that week. Normally talks with Val included word of whatever secret club he and his schoolmates had formed that week from Val and advice on subverting the rules of the household from Xellos. But Val had approached Xellos with an unusually serious expression.

    “Xellos,” Val began with his brow furrowed in thought. His speech had sharpened up since Filia had sent him to school this year, which meant that Xellos had unfortunately left behind the moniker ‘Xewwos’. “Do you think I’m strong?”

    Xellos wasn’t quite sure how to answer that one. On the one hand, Val was the last of the Ancient Dragons, a truly formidable race. Even just one left must fill the Golden Dragons up in their temples with dread at what he might do with his power. On the other hand, Val liked to blow bubbles with his spit and was terrified of the wallpaper in the dining room (he insisted that one of the flowers looked like a face).

    “I don’t know, Val. What do you think?” Xellos had reflected back. Filia would’ve said something more affirming, but they had different parenting styles.

    Val pulled out a kitchen chair and climbed into it. He looked down at his slightly dirty, band-aid capped knees. “I don’ know,” he said.

    “What’s so important about being strong?” Xellos pried.

    Val looked up at Xellos with wide eyes. “I gotta be strong, Xellos!” he insisted. “I’m gonna be a big brother and Danny Rowbury said a big brother’s gotta always be strong for his little sister or brother!”

    “There are all kinds of big brothers,” Xellos said dismissively, wanting Val to keep his options open. “Sometimes they beat up on or tease their younger sibling, which, of course, is character building. Sometimes they borrow money and don’t pay it back, which teaches fiscal responsibility. Sometimes they break into their younger sibling’s room, steal their diary, and read it aloud at school the next day, which of course teaches them to be more careful with their possessions. All of these are perfectly valid ways of being a big brother. You don’t have to decide right now which one you want, but if you’re taking suggestions, then I’d go with the teasing one, as it—”

    Val had been shaking his head so hard during Xellos’s entire monologue that he nearly propelled himself off his chair. “Nuh-uh! A good big brother doesn’t do that. A good big brother’s gotta be strong to protect the baby!”

    “Oh,” Xellos said with some disappointment, “you want to be a good big brother.”

    “I gotta protect ‘im,” Val said with a determined nod. “Just like you protect Mommy.”

    It was Xellos’s turn to nearly fall out of his chair. Children, he decided, should not be allowed to say such cruelly sweet things.

    Filia undid the last stand, setting Xellos’s arms free as she completed her roll of yarn. He put his freed hands down as she gave him a look as though he presented a problem. She looked to the left and then looked to the right as though checking to make sure no one was about to come into the room, and then kissed him on the side of the nose, because she didn’t like to actually thank Xellos for anything if she could avoid it.

    She held the ball of yarn close to her and turned to the knitting needles she’d brandished at Xellos threateningly earlier in the evening. She sighed and made a decision. She put down the yarn next to the needles on the end table. She got up and stretched.

    “I’m going to bed,” she announced. “The booties can wait until tomorrow.”

    “Who knows?” Xellos said, getting up as well. “You may even dream how to knit.”

    She turned back and gave him a sour look as they headed down the hall. “I know I can knit better than you,” she replied.

    “Oh really?” Xellos said, raising an eyebrow and weighing over the possibility of a knitting contest. “I think that sounds like a challenge.”

    “You’re on,” Filia replied fiercely, with her shop running smoothly without her and Jillas ready to swoop in with any housework she wanted to do as though she was made of glass or something, she was desperate for diversion. A sudden thought crossed her mind. “But no cheating using astral powers,” she warned, with a scolding finger.

    Xellos tilted his head and gave her an odd look. It had not hitherto crossed his mind that astral powers could be applied to textile arts. “How would I possibly do that?”

    “I don’t know,” Filia said, one hand on her hip. “But I wouldn’t put anything past you. You’re sneaky.”

    “That I am,” Xellos cheerfully admitted.

    *****

    “They’ve definitely gotten bigger.”

    Filia slapped his hands away from her breasts and smoothed out her nightgown. “The way I’m feeling right now, not even you could interest me in sex,” she told him sternly, her face turned away from him but nevertheless blushing.

    She pulled the covers up to her neck and tried to settle her aching body into a comfortable position. But if trends continued as they had been, she wouldn’t get more than a few hours rest before running to the bathroom for one reason or the other.

    Xellos, sitting up in bed beside her, endeavored to look innocent. “Now, I wasn’t making that kind of overture. It was simply an observation, if a rather,” his fingers twitched, “tactile one.”

    “Hmph,” Filia responded, fluffing up her pillow.

    “Though I have to admit,” he said, leaning closer to her, “I do like that ‘not even you’ part. Feel free to keep saying nice things about me.”

    She deliberately turned her eyes away from his. “Just go to sleep, stupid monster,” she muttered sleepily. “I’m not here just to fill your self-esteem bucket.”

    He didn’t move from his position looking over her.

    She groaned. “Fine,” she said. She rolled her eyes as she added: “You’re so sexy with your stupid purple hair and everything. Now can I go to sleep?”

    He gave her a radiant smile. “Was that so hard to say?”

    She turned to the side. “I’m still going to beat the pants off of you at knitting.”

    “I look forward to that.”

    “Shut up. That’s what got us into this in the first place.”

  6. #6
    Join Date
    Jan 2009
    Location
    IL
    Posts
    3,130

    Default

    “God save me from my friends—I can protect myself from my enemies.”
    ~Proverb


    Chapter 6. The Visitors.

    Filia eased her way past the storm door with a pitcher of iced tea and sought to control her balance against the nagging feeling that she was going to tip over. Balance woes were fresh and continuous aches were still very much around, but nevertheless Filia was starting to feel… better. Certainly more energetic. And she was spending less time throwing up, which is always nice.

    The weather seemed to be improving along with her. After a turbulent season of too much rain turning to too much snow (which is any amount of snow after the majority decide that winter has worn out its welcome) things finally were looking sunnier. Today was, as far as Filia was concerned, the first proper day of spring. Oh, weather sorcerers may have claimed that spring started a few weeks back, but Filia knew better.

    But spring is moody, and it’s hard to say when the next storm will come, so Filia was determined to pair her renewed energy with the improved weather and just… enjoy the outdoors.

    She set down the pitcher on the table and began pouring the iced tea into the glasses she’d already set out. She handed a glass to the person across from her.

    “Do you have any cookies to go with this?” the person asked, eyeing the beverage speculatively.

    Filia sighed. “Miss Lina, you ate all my cookies yesterday afternoon,” she explained.

    “That was all the cookies you had?” Lina exclaimed disbelievingly, choking on her drink. How could a person live with only three bulk bags of cookies?

    “If you’d let me know you were coming then I could’ve stocked up,” Filia pointed out.

    “Yeah, well…” Lina mumbled like a scolded child. “Gourry was the one that ate most of them.”

    Filia looked over at the yard beyond the deck where Val and Jillas had teamed up against Gourry and Gravos in a soccer game. Gravos knew what kind of beating they were in for, but Gourry seemed to think that the odds were unfairly in his team’s advantage.

    It had just been a day since Xellos had gone off to talk with the coven about her delivery and already Filia was suffering from the delusion that she missed him. And really… it was reasonable. Things were just so… boring without him. The aroma of paint had driven her from her own shop, and even when it came to housework there was little she could do. Jillas, who had taken to looking at her like she could faint, go into labor, or explode at any minute, had taken it upon himself to do any chore he could find whether she wanted to do it or not. So she was left to sit around the house feeling like a useless, pregnant lump.

    But with Xellos around there was always something to do.

    She winced slightly and reflected that with Xellos gone she also had to make up her own double entendres to antagonize herself with. It was a full-time job.

    But seriously, life seemed to be full of projects whenever he was around. Even the most mundane things could become interesting like…

    “Miss Lina, please use a coaster,” Filia begged. “They’re in that little box there,” she said, nodding to a cedar box on the end of the table.

    Lina reached for it and looked inside. “…What’s this burnt looking thing?” she asked incredulously.

    Filia snatched the blackened knitted thing away and said: “Never mind, I’ll take this one. There’s another one in there.”

    Lina shrugged and took out a yellow, poorly knitted rag and set her drink on top of it. Filia fingered the slightly crispy fabric of the coaster she’d chosen. It was the sad result of the knitting contest she and Xellos had challenged each other to. She’d won in the end, but the fact was that neither of them had any real knitting skills to speak of and the material they’d come up with probably wasn’t even worth saving for rags—certainly not Xellos’s effort. She’d told him not to cheat and use magic, but he’d considered that tantamount to daring him to do it. Apparently black magic is not very helpful in a knitting environment and his piece had come off rather… charred.

    She set her drink on top of the scorched scrap of yarn. Of course, even if Xellos was gone she wasn’t as bored as she could have been. After all, having Lina and Gourry as house guests required marathon cooking skills to keep her busy and they were good company. They’d shown up right after Xellos left ‘just to visit’. If Xellos expected her to believe that this was a coincidence then he had another thing coming.

    …Knowing him, he probably had another thing coming. Did he think she didn’t pay attention to anything at all?

    “What is that, anyway?” Lina asked, gesturing to the burnt coaster.

    “Oh, just evidence that I am the best knitter in this household and that Xellos is certainly not,” Filia said with more pride than the achievement probably deserved.

    “Yeesh,” Lina said, drawing back from it. “That’s not even bad knitting that’s… I don’t even know what that is. How do you set something on fire just by knitting?”

    “He found a way,” Filia said glumly.

    “Why don’t you just throw it out?”

    Filia stopped for a moment with her drink halfway to her lips, then she set the drink down again and looked off to the side imperiously. “I’m… not going to just waste material like that. It costs money, you know. Maybe you can just steal from a gang of bandits whenever you run out of money, but I have to work for a living.”

    “Stealing from bandits is work,” Lina insisted, but wasn’t about to fill out an income tax form for it either (or pay taxes at all). She sank back into her chair with her arms crossed. Suddenly a thought seemed to strike her and she tried to look extra casual. “So uh… speaking of which, where is Xellos anyway?”

    Filia gave her a searching look. “He’s over in the Avoch Highlands asking about some coven of witches that are supposed to be good midwives,” she explained. “Then again… you already know that, don’t you, Miss Lina?”

    Lina tried to look surprised. “What? Why would I know that?” she asked, her I-don’t-know-what-you’re-talking-about-it-must-have-been-some-other-Lina-Inverse-who-blew-up-your-resturant look firmly in place.

    “Because he asked you and Mister Gourry to come here,” Filia said firmly. “Don’t even try to deny it. I know it’s true!”

    Lina gave up the ghost pretty easily. “Yeah, you’re right,” she said with a shrug. “He didn’t seem to want us to mention it though. I mean, he didn’t even really ‘ask’ us so much as suggest that it ‘might be a good idea’ if we did.”

    “Why?” Filia asked flatly.

    “To help you out with housework,” Lina said with a straight face.

    Filia snorted.

    “That’s what he said,” Lina said, rolling her eyes. “But I’m pretty sure it’s not what he really had in mind.”

    “I doubt it,” Filia said. Even if she’d actually needed help around the house and even if Xellos had been considerate enough to care if she did, Lina and Gourry would be the last people she’d ask for help cleaning up. They were the cause of mess, not the cure for it. “What do you think he had in mind?”

    Lina leaned back in her chair with the back of her head resting against her hands. “Oh, I think it probably has something to do with the mobs of dragons up in their temples muttering about how something should be done about this new atrocity.”

    Filia paled slightly. “So they found out? I thought they might have by now… but it’s not advisable for me to have any kind of communication with other dragons these days, so I couldn’t be sure.”

    “Yeah, they’re really pissed off about it from what I hear,” Lina confided. “But I don’t think they know what to do about it—and maybe there’s nothing they can do. With Xellos around they can’t even say boo, but if he were to leave for awhile… well, they might see some other options opening up. I think that’s where me and Gourry come in.”

    Filia put a hand against her stomach which had only lately grown to the point where her pregnancy was noticeable to people who weren’t in the know. So, he’s circling the wagons… she thought. That explained why he’d been hanging so close to her all this time and why he wasn’t popping in and out of her life this time. But what would happen after the baby was born? Would the dragons give up their attempt to ‘address’ the problem or would they keep going? Surely Xellos couldn’t leave off his own work forever to keep the other dragons at bay.

    Lina sat up and tried to bring Filia out of her gloomy reverie. “I said yes because well… as far as favors Xellos could ask me go… this seemed like a pretty good one,” she said with a smile.

    Filia smiled back, though only slightly. “I just wish they’d leave us alone,” she said, adjusting herself to a more comfortable position. “They’ve already thrown me out of the dragon race, so this baby is none of their business.”

    They think it is,” Lina said. “Some dragon mystics have even made some prophecies about it.”

    “Really?” Filia asked apprehensively, leaning forward. Dragons had more direct lines to the gods than humans did, so their fortune telling was usually much more accurate. She’d been considering trying some divination too but… if she was honest with herself, she didn’t want to look.

    “Yeah, they all go like ‘Woe befall the world as the prince of darkness is conceived of the accursed merger of etcetera, etcetera, blah, blah, blah,” Lina said. “I know there was something about a mark with numbers and a lake of fire, but I haven’t really heard much else.”

    Filia sucked in a breath of air. “They really said all that?”

    “Yeah, but here’s the thing,” Lina said, putting down her iced tea and letting the ice settle noisily, “they made those prophecies public like a week ago.”

    Filia let out the breath. “That doesn’t sound very prophetic!” she exclaimed. Lord knew it had been ‘conceived’ long before that.

    Lina’s face scrunched into a sour expression. “They’re all saying stuff like ‘Yeah, I wrote this prophecy a year ago’ and ‘I left it in my other robe and forgot about it’, but to be honest, I think they’re just trying to trade in on all the panic since everyone’s found out. They’re making it up.”

    Filia settled down a little bit, but still looked put out. “They shouldn’t spread lies like that,” she said firmly.

    “I guess you can’t completely blame them for being uncomfortable with the whole thing,” Lina said. “I mean, I know Xellos and even I don’t know if I want to live in a world where he’s allowed to reproduce.” She suddenly seemed to remember who she was talking to, so she added: “No offense.”

    “That’s because you know Xellos,” Filia said tartly, but she couldn’t help thinking back to yesterday when Lina and Gourry showed up on her doorstep after her farewell to Xellos. She’d written to them—and to Amelia and Zelgadis—awhile back to announce that she and Xellos were expecting (with a note for them to please not freak out), so it wasn’t like her pregnancy was news to them, but this was the first time she’d seen them since she found out. “Congratulations!” was the first thing that Gourry had said to her, all eager and happy like all the people in town who’d found out she was pregnant. And then Lina had added her “Congratulations…” and Filia saw the difference. Lina knew what she knew: that this situation was entirely composed of complications and that something must go wrong. It was just hard to say what it would be at this point.

    “Everything will be fine I’m sure,” Filia said, in a statement that was more performative than an honest prediction.

    “Are you doing okay with it?” Lina asked, looking at her drained glass like she was considering eating the ice cubes.

    Filia nodded. “Yes,” she said. “But I do want it to be over and done. All this waiting and speculating isn’t doing me any good. What happens will happen.”

    “And Xellos?” Lina asked. “He must have been shocked.”

    “Completely,” Filia said, a trifle smugly. Xellos was so rarely shocked that it was worth treasuring up all the moments in which he’d been seriously caught off guard, and this one was probably the best example of the bunch.

    “But you know,” Filia said thoughtfully, staring out into the yard where Val had taken possession of a much abused soccer ball and was kicking it down the field, “I think he’s been so busy running around worrying over dragons trying to kill me and where I can have the baby and how we can get through this that… when the baby is actually born and he realizes that it’s its own person with its own likes and dislikes and that it’s real… I think that’s when he’ll be the most shocked of all.”

    She watched as Gourry tried to intercept the tiny ancient dragon with the ball and make a steal, but he was making the rookie mistake of trying to do so gently so he didn’t accidentally hurt the boy. Now this shouldn’t be such a hard transition, should it? She’d already been a mom for awhile. Adopted, but she was still very much Val’s mother. And Xellos had taken the position of a father in much the same way as her… still, she thought Xellos would have a much harder time being a dad than she would being a mom again. She had always gotten the impression that Xellos considered himself more of a cool step-dad to Val… the kind of parental figure that is free to rain unhealthy treats and an attitude toward rule flouting on his adopted progeny. But now… he’d be a father in the truest sense of the word. It was a daunting task, but hopefully not too daunting for Xellos.

    There was a loud thwack and Filia winced. “He’s going to take someone’s head off one of these days,” she said worriedly.

    “Nah, don’t worry about it,” Lina said dismissively. “Gourry’s pretty durable.”

    The ever durable Gourry Gabriev was rubbing her soccer ball-imprinted face ruefully and waving off Val’s apologies with a weak smile. He left Val to practice passing with Jillas and Gravos and began stumbling painfully toward the deck.

    “Miss Lina,” Filia said quickly, as Gourry began walking toward them. “You can talk to Mister Gourry about this later, but… I was thinking… would you two be the baby’s godparents?”

    The ice cube Lina had been trying to furtively fish out of her glass plopped back down. “W… yeah… I guess we could,” she said, a little startled. “I mean, I’ll ask Gourry about it, but yeah… I think so.”

    “Whoa!” Gourry said as he climbed onto the deck wiping sweat and possibly blood from his forehead. “Val sure is strong for such a small kid!”

    “He’s a dragon,” Filia said proudly. “He’s tougher than he looks.”

    “Man, I’m exhausted,” Gourry said, slumping down into a chair next to Lina. He lifted up the pitcher of iced tea and took a giant gulp.

    “Hey, jellyfish brain!” Lina yelled. “That’s supposed to be for everyone!”

    Gourry swallowed some iced tea and looked only mildly sheepish. “I thought it was my glass. Sorry!”

    “It’s the pitcher, for crying out loud!” Lina shouted.

    “Well, I just thought it was bigger because I’d be extra thirsty,” Gourry explained.

    At this point Lina let her forehead fall onto the table in a groan of rage.

    “It’s okay,” Filia said, giving Gourry a small smile. “I didn’t want any more anyway.”

    “I did!” came the muffled cry from Lina with her face buried in the table.

    Gourry offered the mostly empty pitcher to her. “There’s still some left. I don’t have too many germs.”

    Lina rolled her eyes, but snatched the pitcher from him nevertheless and took a greedy drink. “Not too many, huh?”

    “Well, not any really bad ones,” Gourry went on.

    “Ha!” from Lina.

    “So,” Gourry said, turning to Filia, “how’s the baby? Felt any kicks yet?”

    “Not yet,” Filia said, reflecting that it was pleasant to talk about her baby with someone who didn’t behave like some kind of tentacled monstrosity was growing in her womb. “But I think it’ll be soon.”

    “Boy or a girl?” Gourry asked.

    Filia shrugged. “I could probably make a prophecy to find out but… I think it’s more fun not to know.”

    “Yeah, but what do you want it to be?” Gourry asked.

    Corporeal for starters, Filia thought sourly. She hated the fact that she’d let Xellos’s talk of the baby possibly not being able to control its form get to her. It’s hard enough being pregnant without thinking that anything could be in there. “Either’s fine with me,” she said.

    “But if you know what it is then you can start thinking of names,” Gourry pressed. “Like if it’s a boy you could name it… Tim or something. And if it’s a girl you could name it Teriyaki.”

    Lina spat out some of her iced tea, adding her own backwash into the mix along with Gourry’s. “What kind of name is Teriyaki?” she demanded.

    “I think it’s pretty,” Gourry said resolutely.

    “It’s not!”

    “I hadn’t really thought about a name yet,” Filia said honestly. It seemed like there was so much trouble ahead just getting through the pregnancy and birthing and all that a simple and easy-to-solve problem like a name almost seemed unreal. “When I was younger I always thought I’d name my first child after my grandmother Sotria but…” She shook her head. “I’m pretty sure she’d turn over in her grave if she knew the circumstances.”

    “How about Pimento?” Gourry pitched. “Brisket? Margarine? Steak Sauce?”

    Filia rested her head against her cheek, lost in thought and not really listening. “Yes… I’ll have to think about this.”

    “Jellyfish brain!” Lina said, whacking him with the pitcher. “Stop suggesting names when you’re hungry!”

  7. #7
    Join Date
    Jan 2009
    Location
    IL
    Posts
    3,130

    Default

    “The Weird Sisters, hand in hand,
    Posters of the sea and land,
    Thus do go about, about,
    Thrice to thine, and thrice to mine,
    And thrice again to make up nine.
    Peace! The charm’s wound up!”
    ~Macbeth


    Chapter 7. Conversations with the Coven.

    Xellos’s first impression of the Avoch Highlands was a strong smell of goat. This was no surprise considering that the first thing he saw when he teleported there was a pen of several goats all busily chewing up the grass, the fence, each other’s ears, and anything else that came in reach of their mouths. For a moment, they all looked up at him, scanning him with their rectangular pupils. Then, mere seconds later, they turned their attention back to the grass, as though it was more interesting than he could ever hope to be.

    Well, he’d gotten Filia her temporary guards so she should be safe for the time being. Lina and Gourry would probably eat her out of house and home (and he was slightly disappointed that he had to miss that fun), but they should be able to deal with a dragon attack—or at least, if a lot of dragons were sent to get the job done, they should be able to hold off the onslaught until Filia, much less mobile since she had to stick to her human form, could escape. That matter was taken care of. As for his current chore…

    Time to find some black and midnight hags.

    He looked around carefully, but the landscape seemed devoid of pointy hats, warts, and crooked noses. There were ample beards, which you could sometimes get in ladies of that age bracket, but unfortunately they belonged to the goats.

    “Excuse me, Miss,” he said politely to a woman approaching the pen with a bucket of water. “Do you know where the witches are around here?”

    She stopped in her tracks, and gave him the once-over. Her expression was very much like that of the goats; he could practically see her mentally dropping him into the negligible ‘city folk’ category.

    “Mrs. Duffy and her ‘prentice are o’er by the shed,” she said, nodding down the road. “But she don’t do fortunes anymore.”

    “Thank you, I’ll keep that in mind,” Xellos said brightly, turning down the road she’d indicated. Being mindful of the livestock to human ratio, he watched where he stepped.

    *****

    Down the road a piece and by a peeling old shed there was indeed an old woman. She had no warts on her rather bulbous features, and her noise wasn’t the least bit crooked, but Xellos was pleased at least to see a pointed hat set up against the fence post. It might even have been black when it was new.

    She and a girl around thirteen years old were busy bottle-feeding an injured goat a concoction that it did not want to drink. Whatever was in that bottle must have been rancid to the extreme. Xellos was not entirely sure what standards goats used to decide what to ingest, but he knew that they weren’t exactly vigorous. ‘Things for eating’ did not even necessarily have to be ‘food’ as far as they were concerned.

    “Good day, Mrs. Duffy,” Xellos called cheerily.

    The plump woman turned her attention away from the goat, leaving the girl to struggle with administrating the medicine. She didn’t get up, but gave him a faint, polite smile.

    “Good day, stranger,” she replied. She looked him over critically. “There isn’t even the slightest chance that you’re from Tunsten, are you?” she asked, naming the closest thing that qualified for a ‘city’ out in the boonies.

    “No,” he answered.

    “Or Llyddenhall? St. Halroog? Etellia?”

    “I’m afraid not,” he said. “My name is Xellos, and I’m from Achaea.”

    “But not originally,” she said under her breath. In a louder voice she added, “Well, Mister Xellos, that’s quite a pretty trip from here. What brings you to Avoch?”

    “I have it on the best authority that the coven of Avoch contains the very best midwives in the world, Mrs. Duffy,” he answered.

    Mrs. Duffy appeared to give it some thought. “I can’t say as we’re the best in the whole world,” she said slowly. “Even the most well-traveled of our lot haven’t gotten any farther than Etellia,” she said, referring to a town less than five miles away. “But I can tell you that I’ve delivered babies frontwards and backwards and sideways and upside down. I’ve delivered ones and twos and threes and fours and fives and sixes and sevens and eights. I’ve delivered ‘em pink and brown and blue and scaly and furry.” She leveled her eyes at his. “And some of ‘em died because some of them must, but on my honor I’ve dragged many a mother and child away from the scythe as were already marked for that place beyond.”

    “Then I will need your help, Mrs. Duffy,” he said with a nod.

    “Then we can discuss things in private,” Mrs. Duffy decided. “Marzipan, you finish up here,” she ordered the girl.

    Marzipan nodded grimly and tried to keep the goat from eating her hair.

    “I’m afraid you misunderstand,” Xellos said calmly. “I was hoping that I could ask the services of your entire coven in this matter.”

    Mrs. Duffy straightened up and gave him an odd look. “Just how many girls did you get in trouble?” she asked.

    “Only one,” said Xellos. “But it’s a rather complicated situation.”

    “It would have to be.”

    *****

    It took awhile to gather up all the witches, and there was a lot of waiting while they finished tending to the sick and old, performing check-ups on livestock, laying out the dead, gossiping, complaining about today’s youth, and the other activities taken up by working witches. But finally they were all together in someone’s grandson’s sitting room and ready to discuss the case that Xellos had brought them.

    There were less than a dozen, but they seemed more numerous than they were. They formed a wall of sharp-eyed, no-nonsense, pointy-hat-wearing crones. Xellos had questioned how Sangoma could’ve been leery of the crowd. Surely a gaggle of octogenarians who couldn’t even use magic were no threat to someone of his stature. However… he wasn’t sure that they knew that.

    He cleared his throat. “I suppose to begin with,” he started, “I should reveal that I’m a monster.”

    Xellos had been expecting panicked whispers, maybe even shouts. He’d at least hoped they’d have a better idea of where they stood. No such luck. Those that had been smiling politely at him continued to smile politely, and those who had been scowling disapprovingly at him continued in their disapproval.

    “Well then you should stop slouching, for goodness sakes, young man,” a toothless woman doing some kind of reverse pucker scolded him. “It’s a sorry world if even the demons can’t stand up straight.” She turned to the woman next to her. “Gladys, have you ever seen such a sloucher in your life?”

    Gladys confessed that she had not.

    “Tommy Watson’s boy up by Spruce’s pond had a worse slouch,” one put in. “Practically a lounge the way he did it. Offensive to all hard working folks.”

    “Yes, but this one’s a lounger too, you can tell,” the toothless witch said scornfully. “I don’t know what it’s come to when even demons don’t take pride in themselves.”

    “In any case,” Mrs. Duffy said, , “I think we were all well aware of that fact, Mister Xellos. Is there anything else?”

    Xellos was a little annoyed. He did take pride in his human disguise. For a bunch of non-magic-users to pick up on it wasn’t exactly a point in his favor. He was also annoyed because he appeared to be standing up straighter without having instructed his body to do so.

    “I thought you said he wanted a baby delivered, Meredith?” a witch with a chinstrap on her hat asked.

    “That’s why he came here, Delores,” Mrs. Duffy responded with strained patience.

    “What? His?” the chinstrap witch asked incredulously.

    “I can only assume so,” Mrs. Duffy answered passively.

    Delores shook her head. “It doesn’t go,” she said. “Everyone knows demons don’t breed.”

    “They do!” a thin witch replied. “Just last summer I delivered Peggie Severance’s baby, you know, the one with the laugh, down Skunk Lane? Well, she swore to me that she’d been taken advantage of by some dark and eldritch creature of the night. The baby even had an extra toe. Not quite human, you see?”

    A few of the old women muttered things like: “Scandalous!”, “Ghastly!”, and “Demons never pay for child support!”

    “Yes, well if the child’s looks are any indication than I can only assume by resemblance that the dark and eldritch creature of the night is none other than Russ Mason, the smith’s son, who she was seen stepping out with at the Honey Harvest Festival,” another witch answered smugly.

    “I don’t think any demon would go around with as runny a nose as that boy,” Gladys commented cuttingly.

    “See? It just doesn’t happen,” Delores said with conviction.

    “It happened,” Xellos said dully.

    Delores eyed him suspiciously. “You know what happens to liars, doncha, sonny-boy?” she asked.

    Xellos assumed that they were sent to bed without supper, but didn’t really trust this crowd to dole out punishments that were less than cruel and unusual. He objected to the fact that creatures less than ten times his age were treating him like a child. He objected even more to the fact that it was working. He felt strangely small and insignificant—like he could be made to stand in the corner any minute. Or worse…

    “Perhaps it would be most helpful if I started at the beginning, ma’am,” Xellos tried, layering another veneer of cheerfulness onto his voice. He was horrified to find that he was shifting so much into talking-to-Lord-Beastmaster mode for these supposedly harmless hags.

    “Helpful, yes. But it’s more interesting if you start in the middle and work your way to the beginning through flashback,” a bookish looking witch commented.

    Xellos stared at her for a minute, then turned back to the rest of the crowd. “When it all began, Filia and I—Filia being a Golden Dragon and retired priestess—through a series of scenarios too complicated,” and too embarrassing, “to relate, got married by accident.”

    A bony old witch slapped her knee and let out a cruel laugh. “I like that,” she said in a hoarse voice. “Demons and Dragons fight like cats and other cats.”

    There was general agreement from the crowd. They all seemed to take a malicious pleasure in the difficulty of the situation.

    “Obviously,” Xellos said, talking over the chatter, “we wanted to undo it. So we resolved to travel together to Seyruun, hoping there that we could—” He was cut off by a wet crunch.

    Xellos gaped at the source of the sound. A blue-veined old crone was sitting there with an open jar of pickles. She was just reaching her bare hand into the brine and eating them like crackers. Who does that?!

    She noted his gaze and gestured at him impatiently with half a pickle. “Go on, young man,” she said. “We haven’t got all day.”

    Xellos decided to cut his tale short. “Anyway, the point is that we decided to stay married. And now she’s going to have a baby.”

    “Don’t dragons just lay eggs?” the pickle witch commented thickly as she reached into her mouth to dislodge a bit of pickle that was stuck between her molars.

    “She’s been taking human form for awhile,” Xellos said hurriedly. “It’s looking doubtful that she’ll go the egg-route.”

    “Well, well, well,” Mrs. Duffy mused, “a demon daddy then. And you want us to deliver it?”

    “I want experts,” Xellos said. “Or as close as I can get.”

    “And how do we know what you’ll do with the babe?” Delores shot at him. “Kill it or rear it up to be some kind of beast, I suppose!”

    “Perhaps I should be the one questioning the wisdom of letting witches deliver it,” Xellos countered. “After all, you’re apt to sacrifice it to some goat god while dancing around naked at the full moon.”

    There was a very dangerous silence.

    “There are stereotypes about witches as well as demons,” Xellos explained. “That doesn’t mean they’re true.”

    The oppressive silence continued, but was eventually broken by Mrs. Duffy. “You make a fine point, Mister Xellos,” she admitted irritably, “but excuse me if I’m still a mite suspicious of your intent.”

    “It’s a little early for me to begin plotting,” Xellos answered her dryly. “I don’t even know what it’ll turn out to be. So I couldn’t say what use it’ll be put to.”

    “That’s not a very satisfying answer, Mister Xellos,” Mrs. Duffy chided.

    “The father hardly matters,” another witch cut in dismissively. “There’s a mother-to-be what needs assistance, and we can give it.”

    “I’m forced to agree,” Mrs. Duffy admitted reluctantly. “Though if you’ll allow me to say so, Mister Xellos, you have more the air of many a man who has come to me with a wife or a mistress or a girl what’s gotten with child who asked me to ‘fix it.’ But they weren’t asking for a birthing if you get my meaning.”

    Xellos got her meaning instantly. “But I am asking for a birthing,” he answered.

    Mrs. Duffy appeared to accept this. She sniffed. “Very well then.” She pointed a callused finger at him. “You’ll bring her to us when the time comes and we’ll take care of her as we see fit,” she ordered. “Now tell me, how do you intend on getting your lady love from Achaea to Avoch?”

    “It’s no problem for someone like me to faze her here when her time comes,” Xellos answered.

    Mrs. Duffy clucked her tongue. “A woman in her condition traveling on the other side?” She shook her head. “I don’t like it. Who knows what that kind of distortion could do to the little one? No. Birthing complications are bad enough on this plane, let’s not bring in the other one to all this.”

    “Then what do you suggest I do?” Xellos asked, a mite testily. “Avoch isn’t exactly convenient.”

    Mrs. Duffy weighed the issue. “Bring her along when she’s a bit further along. But don’t cut it too close,” she added sharply. “We’ll make room for her to rest here so’s we’ll be ready when the time comes. Anyway,” she added loftily, “Avoch’s the perfect place for a young mother and newborn to rest and recover. The fresh air will do wonders to keep them healthy.”

    As far as Xellos was concerned, farmland air was nothing but fresh. The only other things Avoch seemed prepared to offer his family were dirt and the strains from banjos. But if he couldn’t teleport Filia to Avoch, he didn’t seem to have any other options available.

    “Very well,” he agreed. “I only hope that your coven is worth its reputation.”

    “Oh, we’re worth our reputation, boy,” the chinstrap witch said, looking down her nose at him. “You just better not be worth yours.”

    “Something’s troubling me,” the bookish witch cut in. “Why would a demon want to have a child?”

    “Are you demons trying to increase your numbers to cause more mischief?” the toothless witch demanded. For some reason the way she said it mere ‘mischief’ seemed to be on the level of murder.

    Xellos tapped his staff on the floor and tried to look away from the old ladies’ eyes. “To be perfectly honest, that was an accident,” he blustered.

    “Another accident, eh?” another witch asked. “You seem to have quite a few. How like a man to be so careless.”

    “Yes, and that marriage thing seems rather suspicious too,” the bookish witch said warily, scratching noisily at her chin. “Why would a dragon and a demon want to stay married?”

    Xellos really didn’t want to go there. “Well, I suppose you could say one thing just led to another.”

    “One thing often does,” Mrs. Duffy said knowingly. “One thing always seems to know where another is.”

    Xellos distinctly did not like the giggling he heard from a few of the crones. “Were there any other questions?” he asked, eager to escape.

    Mrs. Duffy looked around the group to see if anyone had anything more to say and finally said, “No. I suppose not. Bring her by as soon as you feel it right and we’ll take care of her.”

    “I will,” Xellos said, standing up and turning to leave.

    Before he’d quite left the room he turned around with his index finger extended in a characteristic gesture. “There’s just one more thing,” he said.

    “Yes?” Mrs. Duffy asked as the rest of the assemblage looked at him expectantly.

    “…Could I ask one of you to direct me to the nearest jeweler?” he asked.

  8. #8
    Join Date
    Jan 2009
    Location
    IL
    Posts
    3,130

    Default

    “So I have gained much by my intended expostulation.
    Yet with what a charming air she contradicts
    everything I say—and how pleasingly she shows
    her contempt for my authority. Well, although I can’t
    make her love me, there is a great satisfaction in quarreling with her.
    And I think she never appears to such an advantage as when
    she is doing everything in her power to plague me.”
    ~ “School for Scandal” by Richard Brinsley Sheridan


    Chapter 8. The Rhythm.

    The first thing that Xellos perceived when he fazed into Filia’s dimly lit kitchen was the sound of vigorous scrubbing. Filia looked up at him from the sink where she was doing the dishes. “Oh, so you’re back,” she said sourly. Xellos chose to translate this as Filia’s shorthand for ‘Welcome home!’ and a big kiss.

    “Indeed I am,” he answered, noticing the line of dirty dishes piled high for her attentions. It looked like approximately all the dishes, glasses, and silverware that she owned had been dirtied. This was a natural result of inviting Lina Inverse and Gourry Gabriev as guests. ‘Doing the dishes’ became a never-ending process.

    He nodded to the dishes. “I see Miss Lina and Miss Gourry have been enjoying your hospitality. Are they still here?”

    “They went to bed about an hour ago—and took my last loaf of bread with them,” she answered crossly. “So tomorrow I have to go grocery shopping and clean crumbs out of the guest bed.” She pointed a scrubbing brush at him threateningly. “So thank you so much for that!”

    Xellos shrugged. “The burden of being a hostess will soon be off your shoulders. I’m sure they’ll be ready to set out again by tomorrow.”

    “Yes,” Filia said, shaking the suds off of her hands. “After all, their job is done now that you’re back,” she added knowingly.

    Xellos did not rise to this. In that silence Filia sighed, wiped her hands on her apron, and turned to face him, leaning her hip against the counter. “How did it go with that coven?”

    “Well enough,” Xellos said, choosing not to mention the disarming conduct of the old ladies. “They’ve agreed to deliver it, though there is one slight wrinkle.”

    Filia narrowed her eyes at him. “What kind of wrinkle?

    “Oh,” Xellos said, turning his head to the side and letting out a small laugh. “It’s only that for some reason they find the idea inter-dimensional travel somewhat unsafe for the unborn and think it would be best if we arrived in Avoch in a more conventional manner.”

    This took a moment to sink in. “You’re telling me,” Filia said in a slow, dangerous voice, “that you’re going to drag me, your pregnant wife, across the entire continent on the back of some… some donkey or something?!”

    “Oh no,” Xellos said, shaking his head. “I assumed we’d at least rent a carriage or something.” He ducked to avoid the sponge that went flying in his direction.

    “Remind me again why we can’t just go to a local midwife? Why this coven?” Filia asked in frustration.

    Xellos held up his index finger. “Because this is the coven that successfully delivered the three-headed goat child of Abruu, who, I might add, came out horns first.”

    Filia paused. Admittedly those were good credentials. “Well… alright,” she allowed, touching her stomach speculatively. “You don’t think ours will have…?”

    Xellos shrugged. “Who can say?” After a moment of watching Filia’s somewhat downcast expression he added: “But that’s still some time off. In any case, I’ve brought you something.”

    “Oh really?” Filia asked distrustfully.

    Xellos held up a small, white box and slid it across the counter toward her. She looked at him questioningly before picking it up. Presents from Xellos were always cause for the deepest suspicion. Once, for example, he’d offered her a jar of peanut brittle and upon opening it she found no peanut brittle, but instead snakes—not even fake snakes on springs either! These were real snakes. That monster had a sick sense of humor.

    She opened it and let out a slow breath. There weren’t snakes inside, but instead a thin gold ring with a brilliant sapphire set in it. She looked back up at him, half bemused, half in wonder.

    “Surprised?” he asked.

    “Well… well, yes,” she said, realizing that there was no point in trying to hide that fact. “I mean, I suppose I always thought if you were going to buy a ring it would be gaudier and purple,” she added, flinging a barb as soon as one occurred to her.

    “Unfortunately they were all out of ostentatious, amethyst rings,” Xellos answered dryly.

    She picked the ring off of its cushion, looked curiously at it, and finally placed it on her finger.

    A small smile was on Xellos’s face. “I was starting to think this would be best,” he explained. “After all, we wouldn’t want anyone to assume you to be some kind of woman of bad character, would we?”

    You mean like the kind that would marry a monster? she thought quietly. But what was more on her mind was… this. All this. She knew what was going on here because she’d seen it between them so many times before. Here was Xellos, doing something as tender and sweet as getting her a wedding ring while doing so in as casual and insulting a manner as he could manage. And here she was, genuinely touched by this gesture, but what were the first words waiting to come out of her mouth almost on automatic? ‘It’s about time’ or ‘Knowing you it’ll probably turn my finger green’ or something equally rude. And that was because… that’s how they worked. They fought so naturally that it had become a pattern, laying over even the moments in which she felt the strongest for him and she thought he felt the strongest for her. It was… safe and it was familiar. And it meant neither one of them had to be vulnerable.

    “Thank you,” she said, touching the ring with her other hand, “for this.” By that reverse logic she knew that those were the words that would disarm him the most.

    “Well, how very like a dragon to be so ungr—” He began to sneer, but cut himself off. He paused, took a moment to reprocess her words, looked vaguely concerned before finally blustering: “Well, well, well… who would’ve known a dragon could actually be gracious? Perhaps I should buy you jewelry more often.”

    Filia closed her eyes and turned away with a light little smile. “I’d prefer a new pottery wheel if you’re taking requests,” she answered high-handedly.

    “So it’s true what they say,” Xellos observed mockingly. “Arts and crafts mechanisms are a girl’s best friend.”

    “That’s right,” Filia said proudly, in answer to his cheek.

    A silence fell between them that was only broken by the sound of water draining from the sink. He watched her patiently, as if waiting for something. She stared him back down as though ready to take whatever he might say next.

    “So…” Xellos began, leading toward nothing.

    “So?” Filia asked when it was clear he wasn’t going to follow up on his thought without prompting.

    “So… wasn’t there anything else you have to say about the ring?” Xellos hinted.

    Filia made an exasperated sound and bunched her hands into fists, setting them defiantly against her waist. “For heaven’s sake! I already said thank you. What more are you after? Are you just digging for more praise, you egomaniac?!”

    “It’s not that,” Xellos said, waving his hand dismissively. “It’s just that…”

    “Just that what?” Filia demanded as he petered off again.

    “Well,” he said, as though Filia had disappointed him, “I just assumed you’d want me to wear one too.”

    Filia raised a skeptical eyebrow. “Why would you want to wear a ring?” she asked warily.

    “I don’t,” Xellos said quickly. “It’s only that you’d want me to.”

    Filia gave him an odd look as she crossed her arms. “Fine then. Why would I want you to wear a ring.”

    “For the obvious reason,” Xellos answered.

    “That are?”

    “Well, so that everyone will know that I’m your husband,” he said acidly. “A symbol of our union as it were. Aren’t you supposed to enjoy that kind of thing?”

    “But you wear gloves all the time,” Filia pointed out. “Even if you wore a ring, no one would know.”

    “Ah,” Xellos said triumphantly, “but you’d know.”

    Filia rolled her eyes at him. “Xellos, if you want to wear a ring, just go ahead and do it.”

    “I don’t,” Xellos said again, sticking to his story. “But I’d be willing to make that tremendous sacrifice if you really wanted me to.”

    She snorted. “And aren’t you Mister Giving all of the sudden?”

    “I’ve always been this magnanimous,” Xellos maintained. “You’ve just been too thankless to notice.”

    “I doubt that,” Filia answered, but she was smiling and fingering the sapphire of her ring. “Xellos,” she said after a moment, “it’s getting late. Won’t you come to bed with me?”

    Xellos could not have missed that tone, though it bore none of the usual blushing traces that question normally brought. Perhaps it was the ring, perhaps it was the baby, but it was as though this play-marriage that they’d stumbled into got more and more real every day. Perhaps that was what calmed her embarrassment that night.

    Intimate concerns had been rather… limited these last few months. Filia had not been enjoying the miracle of pregnancy and was not shy about broadcasting her disinterest in the subject. “We can still cuddle,” she’d allowed as the limit. “In that case,” he’d answered, “I will cuddle your brains out.” It had sounded cooler in his head.

    “I thought you weren’t feeling well?” he asked.

    Filia let out an eminently pleased sigh. The dishes were piled high, but they would keep; her guests would be leaving tomorrow, a relief as much as a sorrow; her husband, whatever kind of husband he was, was home and she could feel the cold metal of the ring on her finger and a warmth in her heart. She answered: “I feel very well tonight.”

    *****

    The moon was too high in the sky to see from beyond the knickknack laden windowsill in Filia’s bedroom. But there were still stars. Xellos was sitting up in her bed, looking out at them with an expression on his face as though he was trying to put together a puzzle.

    That’s how Filia saw him when she stirred from her sleep. She rubbed her eyes and adjusted the mountain of cushions behind her. He looked back at her as she turned from her side to sit up.

    “There’s hours until morning, Filia,” he said. “Go back to sleep.”

    She stretched and yawned. “I can’t seem to sleep through the night anymore,” she complained.

    He responded with no words of comfort. She would’ve been somewhat concerned if he had. Already she was concerned enough by him—by those quiet moments when he thought she wasn’t watching him. She was the one carrying around a child inside her that everyone from the demons to the dragons said shouldn’t exist, a child that was hers and his, but who knew what mark of ownership the future would set onto it? This was her endeavor, so why did she feel like he was the one that needed someone to hold his hand to get him through this? Already her arms twitched to wrap around him or just place a hand on his shoulder. She covered for this by hugging her knee to her chest.

    “Xellos,” she tried tentatively. “Are you… okay?”

    He looked at her in surprise. “I’m always okay, Filia,” he answered. He furrowed his signature purple eyebrows at her and asked: “In any case, since when are you so concerned about my well-being? I think the hormones might have gone to your head.”

    Filia really wanted to kick him for the ‘hormones’ comment. He’d completely deserve it. But she knew he was just trying to derail her. “I’m serious,” she said. “You created a life. Are you really okay with that?”

    There were times when Filia knew that she’d gotten to Xellos. They were all too brief moments of certainty and he’d quickly try to pass it off as if they didn’t happen. One such moment happened this time, but she’d barely processed it before he was laughing a bitter little laugh at her.

    Filia, Xellos thought, shaking his head to himself. No matter how much she’d been through she was still so dyed-in-the-wool holy about everything. And she would be, he was sure, for as long as she lived. Oh sure, she had her flaws, but in some way they just made her strangely and insidiously incorruptible.

    It would’ve been so convenient if she could’ve just followed the standard. Mothers are life-givers, any other eh… contribution is generally written off as circumstantial. “My part was minor,” he answered her.

    She looked at him hard for a minute, then inclined her head to the side before saying, somewhat haughtily: “Not many men would admit that, you know.”

    He stared at her, somewhat confused for a few moments before apprehension finally dawned. Then he gave her a look that was appraising, suspicious, and mostly admiring. “…Did you just make a dirty joke?” he asked.

    “I may have,” Filia said loftily, an almost smug smile on her lips.

    For some reason, that cheered Xellos up immensely. He tapped his fist lightly against the blankets. “I married the right dragon,” he said.

    “You mean the only one that would have you,” Filia observed.

    “That too.”

    *****

    Weeks were frittered away. Filia’s stomach grew and grew allowing Xellos to tap into his massive store of weight-related insults to try on her. She didn’t respond by wailing ‘you’re the one that did this to me!’ or anything like that, so for all he taunted her, the hormones couldn’t have been driving her that much. She would just step on his foot and then go about her business. If he tried a follow-up insult about her crushing his foot with her girth, she’d usually elbow him in the stomach and fling a comeback at him. It should come as no surprise that Xellos always went for the follow-up insult.

    What was probably more hurtful than any playful taunt he could throw her way were the well-meaning people she’d meet on the street who’d say things like ‘My goodness, you’re enormous!’ and ‘You look like you’re about to pop!’ …Because that’s what every woman wants to hear.

    She was coming to need him more and more too… at least, if she didn’t want to spend the rest of her life trapped in deep armchairs. He’d always help her up… eventually.

    The nicest thing, as far as he was concerned, was that they hadn’t lost their old rhythm. It remained with them, no matter how many times he feared that the pattern was broken and they’d never be able to get it back. But he had to wonder if the friendly struggle he didn’t want to part with would survive the end result of this proceeding.

    …As much as he didn’t want that to happen, he was starting to see that there were slight consolations. He had to admit as he watched her that there was something very… satisfying about seeing her ringed hand gently caress her stomach.

    Her hand stopped its motion abruptly and she held still for a moment in concentration. “It’s kicking,” she informed him.

    Given the fact that the child nestled in her womb was the heir to a species of world-destroyers, Xellos was sure that the statement ‘it’s kicking’ should’ve been treating with more foreboding—perhaps followed by a gasp or a scream—maybe even a hearty ‘Gods help us all.’ Instead Filia announced it in warm, excited tones, a sense of pride rippling through them. She took his hand and placed it on her belly.

    He could feel the movement. Perhaps the child was stretching, flexing its growing muscles, or exploring the place of its confinement as best it could. It was one thing to know that there was a living thing there, but another matter entirely to feel it firsthand.

    “Filia,” he said, mouth slightly dry, “It’s going to be time soon.”

    “I know,” she answered, her voice unwavering.

  9. #9
    Join Date
    Jan 2009
    Location
    IL
    Posts
    3,130

    Default

    “I don’t like nostalgia unless it’s mine.”
    ~Lou Reed


    Chapter 9. On the Road Again.

    As much as Filia was loath to leave her home, especially in the condition that she was in, she knew there could be no more putting-off of her trip across the continent to the coven in Avoch. In fact, if anyone had been putting it off, it was Xellos. She thought they’d be cutting it awfully close, but he insisted that they had plenty of time. She told him that the baby was going to come whenever it wanted to and his procrastination couldn’t change that. Finally he’d agreed and they’d arranged to leave.

    “You sure you’ll be alright?” Filia asked Jillas and Gravos, casting a nervous glance over their heads at her house and shop.

    “No problem, boss,” Gravos said. “We got it all taken care of.”

    “You be careful out there, you ‘ear?” Jillas said, full of concern.

    “We’ll be fine,” Filia said warmly, but surely.

    Filia watched as Val stepped away from Jillas and Gravos’s sides and hugged Xellos’s leg. “Bye Xellos,” he said. “I’ll miss you.”

    Xellos, as he usually did in those situations, looked surprised, but not unpleasantly so. He reached a hand down and casually tousled the boy’s hair. “Now don’t cause too much mischief while we’re gone, Val,” he said.

    Filia’s heart was on standby to melt.

    “After all, you want to save that all up for Mommy,” he finished.

    Filia’s heart ceased its melting. She scowled at Xellos and crouched down, with some difficulty, to surround Val in a hug. “Don’t listen to Xellos’s nonsense,” she said. “You’re going to be a good boy, right? I’m going to need your help with the new baby.”

    Val’s face glowed. “I’m gonna help a lot!”

    “Good,” Filia said, returning his smile. “Xellos is obviously going to be changing all the diapers, but I’m sure we can find something for you to do to help out.”

    “Excuse me, I’m going to what?

    Filia kissed Val’s forehead and absentmindedly smudged some dirt on the side of his nose away. “Mommy will be back soon,” she said.

    “Bye, Mommy! Love you!” he returned, hugging her back.

    “I love you too, Val,” Filia said.

    “We’ll take care of everything, boss. Don’ you worry about it,” Gravos said encouragingly.

    “And oi promise only to experiment with gunpowder outside,” Jillas vowed.

    “That’s good,” Filia said, accepting Xellos’s hand to pull herself laboriously into a standing position. “Well,” she said, putting on a fresh smile, “I suppose we should be going. See you soon then!”

    The good-byes ping-ponged back and forth between them. Filia said good-bye, Gravos said good-bye, Jillas said good-bye, Val said good-bye, Xellos said good-bye, and then Filia said good-bye again, just because it seemed like the thing to do. It was a Walton family style farewell. Eventually, they were out of earshot and down the parkway where Xellos had hopefully parked the carriage that he had hopefully rented.

    “You did rent a carriage, right?” Filia asked, because hope wasn’t enough.

    “Nope,” Xellos said proudly. “I bought one. The price was right. And Mister Gravos already packed it with all of your luggage, so your spirited attempt to cram all your possessions into as few bags as possible hasn’t gone to waste.”

    Filia grimaced but only slightly—after all, she hadn’t shelled out any cash on this endeavor. “I’m not sure we really have room for one. And knock it off,” she added. “It’s a long trip and I’d like to be prepared, thank you very much.”

    “We’ll find room,” Xellos said confidently, “and it’ll be useful.”

    Admittedly a carriage could be useful. It would mean she wouldn’t have to rely on coaches (whose drivers did not understand the term ‘fragile’) when she bought vases. But it would be more trouble than it was worth in the long run. Especially since it meant dealing with horses.

    A troubling thought occurred to her. “You did rent the horses though, didn’t you?” she asked, anxiety rising.

    “No,” Xellos said simply, like it wasn’t a big deal.

    She stopped dead in her tracks, the fabric of her floral-patterned maternity dress fluttering in the wind. “What do you mean ‘no’?” She demanded. “We cannot afford to keep a horse! I don’t care how many times Val’s begged for a pony, we simply don’t have the space or the—”

    She cut herself off when Xellos dragged her around the corner to see the carriage parked ahead of them. It was a fairly simple carriage, but the wood was handsomely stained and it looked very sturdy. It was open-air, but it looked like a small top could be raised over it in case it rained. It was packed with the many bags of things that Filia had considered necessaries for their trip. What it didn’t have were horses.

    “Where are the horses?” Filia demanded.

    “What horses?” Xellos asked innocently.

    “The horses to pull the carriage!”

    Xellos looked thoughtful for a minute and then came out with: “Oh, those horses.”

    “Yes, ‘those horses!’” Filia said, rounding on him. “Where are they?”

    “We don’t need them,” Xellos said.

    “What do you mean we don’t need them?” Filia asked. “Is the cart just supposed to pull itself?”

    Xellos gave her a small smile. “Just hop on board Filia and let me take care of it.”

    Filia was suspicious, but allowed herself to be helped onto the cushioned seat of the carriage. She almost hoped that Xellos would have to drag the damn thing himself. That would’ve at least provided her some entertainment.

    Instead Xellos climbed onto the driver’s seat where he would have to, Filia assumed, marshal invisible and non-existent horses into action. Instead he concentrated for a moment, magic rippling from his hands. …And then the carriage began to move.

    Filia looked around the carriage and beyond him for the trick. “You’re using wind magic to propel it,” she finally said.

    “That’s exactly right,” he said in his quiz-show-host voice. “Miss Lina has been using this trick for years as a means of escape, but unlike her it costs me almost nothing to maintain this over long distances. The witches said we couldn’t teleport—they never said we couldn’t use magic.”

    In some bizarre way, Filia wanted to say ‘that’s cheating.’ On the other hand, it benefitted her. So it was more like ‘that’s cheating. …Thanks.’

    “I could make it go much faster,” he bragged. “But I wouldn’t want you throwing up on my new carriage.”

    “I appreciate your concern,” she returned with scorn. “For the carriage.”


    *****

    The trip was passing with relative ease. They were making great time with the wind literally always at their backs. Now at least Filia knew why Xellos had put off the trip so long—they would be in Avoch in plenty of time before the baby arrived. She just wished he’d told her all this from the start. He enjoyed the element of surprise too much—at least when he was doing the surprising.

    All Filia needed to pass the time was a loop of string. Occasionally she’d prodded Xellos to say: “Look, a magic loop,” or “Look, a butterfly,” or “Look, a broom.” He was not nearly as impressed as he should’ve been.

    But Filia had set her string aside for now and was just enjoying the view. She tucked her hair, whipping wildly at the speed they were traveling, behind her ear. Even though their circumstances were different… she couldn’t help but remember that other time she’d set out on a journey with Xellos.

    “Do you remember before?” she said. “When we were traveling to Seyruun?”

    “It wasn’t that long ago, Filia,” he said, eyes not leaving the road.

    “I was just thinking about it,” she said.

    “Bad memories?” Xellos asked.

    “Not really,” Filia answered. “Obviously it was… difficult at the time, but… it’s in the past.”

    “And worth feeling nostalgic over?”

    “I think so, don’t you?” Filia asked. “It was an important journey.”

    “It was, indeed,” Xellos agreed.

    The scenery rushed by them as they threaded along the road. If the wheels gave out, that wouldn’t be a problem for them. They could float.

    “As I recall,” Xellos said, “you spent a great deal of your time on that trip insulting my hair.”

    “It deserves to be insulted,” Filia said with sweet calm. “It’s stupid.”

    Xellos turned around to wag a finger at her. “You and I both know, Filia, that if I were to change it you’d be more upset than anyone.”

    Filia didn’t want to let that one lie, but didn’t want to give him any ideas either. She tilted her gaze imperiously away from him. “The stupid look suits you,” she said.

    “Does it, now?” Xellos mused. He was silent for a moment. “And then there was… that incident with the tick…”

    Filia made a face. “Don’t remind me.”

    “At least you won’t have to contend with any blood-sucking parasites on this trip,” Xellos said.

    “Yeah, just you,” Filia said dully.

    Xellos seemed to ignore that. “I remember it well. You went off to take a bath and then shrieked for someone to save you. I was mildly disappointed that I didn’t get to see you naked.” He smirked. “If only I could’ve known what was going to unfold.”

    Filia wanted to be upset with him but couldn’t quite manage it. She folded her hands in her lap and looked at them. “Yes… there was that night too.”

    “And here we are now,” Xellos said heavily. “And to think, if an old dragon hadn’t called you a name and hurt your feelings, we might not be.”

    Filia scowled. “We’re not together because of that and you know it. It was going to happen anyway.”

    “Was it?” Xellos asked. Then a thought seemed to strike him. “Of course,” he said, “dragons are groomed from birth to be big believers in fate. It’s a prophecy thing.”

    Filia was a big believer in fate, but for some reason didn’t appreciate it being used as an excuse in this regard. “If there really was some sort of prophecy about me ending up with a monster, they probably never would’ve let me outside,” she said sourly. “No. I think it has more to do with… just who we are.”

    A silence passed between them and it was a very good thing that their path was straight with no oncoming traffic because Xellos was looking at Filia and not steering. Filia still had to tell him—she’d vowed to tell him that she loved him. She’d put it off for so long. And maybe this moment, at a junction of their past together and their future, was the right time.

    But that was the thing… the right time was never right for them. They’d married when they couldn’t stand one another and conceived when they didn’t know it was possible. They never seemed to do anything the right way around. That’s why Filia had promised herself that she would tell him—she would—at the wrong time. In a bizarre way, for them the wrong time was right.

    So instead she just flexed her fingertips and smiled up at him, changing the subject. “Maybe it would be nice to retrace our journey someday,” she said. “You know, take a trip to Seyruun. Maybe we could take the kids along, you know, when they’re older. I’m sure Miss Amelia would like a visit.”

    Xellos mumbled something in the affirmative, but wasn’t entirely there. The phrase ‘the kids’ had thrown him. It was like barging into someone’s life and finding out it’s yours.

    Filia cozied up against the cushion, resting her head and closing her eyes as though preparing for a nap. “Yes, teleporting and flying are convenient… but sometimes it’s nice to walk…” she murmured. “Though this carriage is almost the best of both worlds. It was a good idea… even if it was yours.”

    *****

    There’s nothing that spices up a magically enhanced carriage ride on the way to have your demon-dragon baby delivered by a bunch of witches more than a picnic. Filia knew that it would be inn food for most of the trip, so she’d packed a few sandwiches and potato salad and other picnic fixings. She’d even brought a red and white checkered blanket which they were sitting on as they finished their lunch and consigned the leftovers to the ants.

    Filia leaned her back against a tree trunk and winced at the acrobatics going on in her stomach. “I think the baby already takes after you,” she said with a grimace.

    Xellos furrowed his brows. “What makes you say that?” he asked uncertainly.

    “You both seem to think my body is some kind of playground,” Filia said with a sniff.

    Xellos scowled, more irritated that she’d concerned him for no reason than with the actual jibe. “If it’s prone to temper tantrums then I’d bank on your influence more so than mine,” he returned.

    “I think it’s just—” Filia flinched. “—stretching. There’s just not much room to do it in.” She sighed. “At least it’s better than when it had hiccups yesterday. That went on for over an hour.”

    “So… you’ve had none of that supposed miraculous motherly glow?” Xellos inquired. “No communing with the child-to-be, closer together than you will ever be again?”

    “Oh, there’s plenty of that,” Filia said. “It just comes with aches, pains, severe fatigue, a bladder capacity that can’t even last you—”

    “I get the idea,” Xellos cut her off.

    “You don’t really,” Filia responded rather peevishly. But she looked down at her bulging stomach and her sense of irritation diminished. “I do talk to it though.”

    “What do you say?” Xellos asked. “‘Sorry I keep slamming doors against you?’”

    “Ha ha,” Filia deadpanned, but didn’t let his comment drive her far off track. “I just… wonder about it out loud. Tell it that I love it, you know, and that I can’t wait to meet it.”

    A blast of wind, much stronger than the gentle ones that had only recently slid through the meadow, flapped violently at the picnic blanket before subsiding into nothing.

    “I don’t suppose,” Filia began uncertainly, “that you’d like to say something to—”

    “Filia,” Xellos said gravely, looking around the clearing.

    “What?” Filia asked, looking up, disarmed.

    “Our picnic is about to be ruined by some scaly intruders,” he said.

    Filia cursed mentally and tried to stand up as quickly as a heavily pregnant woman could, leaning on Xellos to do so. She wasn’t quite standing before the men in white robes entered the clearing. They weren’t scaly at the moment, but scaly was definitely an option for these two.

    As they approached they held their hands open wide, particularly making this gesture toward Xellos, the ingratiating language clearly saying: look, we’re unarmed. Please don’t reduce us to flesh colored ash.

    “Well, well,” Xellos said, rising up next to Filia, peering at the visitors with his sharp eyes. “And we were only just talking about nostalgia, weren’t we, Filia? Though I had assumed you dragons would have at least learned something from the last time you tried this gambit.”

    “We are not here to fight you,” the eldest of the duo said slowly and clearly. “We only wish to speak privately with Miss Ul Copt.”

    “Oh would you?” Xellos laughed because it was funny. “I really don’t think that’s going to happen.”

    “Observe, Miss Ul Copt,” the younger dragon said, “how he guards your movements. Is this not imprisonment?”

    Filia stared down the two men, somewhat nonplussed because the whole ‘Miss Ul Copt’ routine was a far cry from ‘the monster’s *****’ and certainly a lot more polite. “Considering the long-running officially sanctioned attempts to kill me, I’d say it’s just not stupid,” she responded, sticking out her chin determinedly. “Leave. I would’ve listened to whatever you had to say if it was just about me, but if you’re here to hurt my child,” she said, her voice lowering, “then neither heaven nor I can spare any mercy on you.”

    Xellos was impressed; the dragons were placatory. “We have not come to destroy the child—we are unsure if it even can be destroyed by us,” the older of the two said. “We came to offer you sanctuary.”

    “Sanctuary,” Filia repeated. It wasn’t even a question.

    “Yes,” the dragon continued, clearing his throat. “For you, your child, and your adopted son. The council of elders has spoken concerning the matter and they feel that, even in light of your terrible crimes against us, the best course of action is to hide you away from the preying intentions of the monsters. We can keep you safe.”

    “If we can get you away from your jailer,” the younger one added sullenly.

    “Oh, what a very generous offer!” Xellos gushed sarcastically, ignoring the imprisonment motif the younger dragon was so set on establishing. “You propose to take into your custody and control, not one, but both the young powerhouses that could change the balance of power in this world. You know—the children that everyone is watching very, very carefully. What a truly selfless race.”

    “It is only to stop the monster race from doing the same thing!” the younger one returned. “Miss Ul Copt, can’t you see the plan at work here? Through Xellos, the monster race will have absolute control over both the last ancient dragon and this new… dragon-demon hybrid. He will bring them to his side and the war will be over before it begins! As a golden dragon, shouldn’t you ally with us? Why do you choose to be exploited?”

    Filia crossed her arms, resting them against the bulge of her stomach. “He is their father. He has a right to be here. And appealing to me as a dragon won’t work. Your council was the one that decided I’m not one.”

    “This is quite a switch for you golden dragons,” Xellos mused. “I see you’ve taken a page out of the monster handbook and become optimists.”

    “Monsters are not optimists,” Filia couldn’t help but point out despite the fact that they were, for the moment, on the same side.

    “On the contrary, Filia,” Xellos went on, “monsters are by and large a glass half-full crowd, whereas dragons take the opposite tack. When dragons encounter something problematic, they usually try to destroy it before it can threaten them. The monster attitude toward something like that is to turn it into an opportunity. And it looks like that’s what our visitors have decided to do—though perhaps just because they cannot destroy it, and would rather have it then let anyone else have it.”

    “That’s just another way of saying you’re all manipulative,” Filia said with a scowl.

    “Exactly so,” one of the dragons agreed with a nod. “The monster race would use your children for their own dark ends. Let us protect you from them. Who knows? Perhaps one of your children will be able to distinguish himself in the fight to preserve the peace of this world.”

    Filia gave him a harsh look. “Wasn’t there some prophecy about my child destroying the world?” she asked.

    The dragons looked mildly embarrassed. “There is… uh…” one tried, “no official prophecy on the matter. Certain individuals have made their own predictions, but as for diviners recognized by the council of elders… well, the gods have been strangely silent on the issue.”

    “Have they really?” Xellos commented, mildly interested.

    “Which is why, Miss Ul Copt, you must turn to us before it is too late. It is your choice whether your children become champions of peace or destroyers of life. You must—”

    “That’s enough,” Filia cut him off, teeth gritted as she pointed at the dragons. “What you’re asking is no different than what you’ve been accusing Xellos of. You would’ve destroyed us for the sake of your own peace of mind if you could, but now that you can’t you’re trying to capitalize on us! Neither I, nor my children, will agree to become your prisoners or your weapons!”

    “And as for your other assertions,” Filia said, quieting dangerously, “let me put your fears to rest. My children will never join the monsters race’s side so long as I still draw breath.”

    Xellos sucked in a breath himself. He knew she meant it. The dragons weren’t quite as impressed with the declaration.

    “How long, Miss Ul Copt,” one of them said, “do you think you will continue drawing breath after what he wants is in his sight?”

    Filia looked straight at him. Her eyes didn’t pierce like Xellos’s, but they blazed. “You will just have to wait and see—from a distance.”

  10. #10
    Join Date
    Jan 2009
    Location
    IL
    Posts
    3,130

    Default

    “Hope for the best. Expect the worst. Life is a play. We’re unrehearsed.”
    ~Mel Brooks


    Chapter 10. Be Our Guest.

    Avoch would have normally taken two weeks of heavy traveling to reach from Achaea. But a mere four days of light travel later, Xellos and Filia were very nearly in the highlands. Xellos’s wind-powered carriage had certainly saved them a lot of time, and all in all it should’ve been a nice, leisurely trip, but the appearance of the dragons had sapped all of the picturesque, picnic feel from the expedition.

    Filia watched the trail behind them flee. Xellos was sitting on the driver’s platform and she was sitting with her back to him. “You don’t think…” Filia began, “that they’ll show up again.”

    “Hmmm,” Xellos hummed thoughtfully. “I don’t think it’s very likely. For the time being at least our reptilian friends have decided that assassination is not their best option. It would be impossible for them to kill you or spirit you away as long as I’m around. They’ve made their offer which they could’ve only hoped to use to plant a seed in your mind at best… I don’t think they’ll make another move for a long while. Their options are limited and the best they can do at this point is wait and see.”

    “Are you saying that because that’s the strategy you monsters are using?” Filia asked harshly.

    Xellos said nothing for a minute and then said: “I think waiting is all that any of us can do.”

    That was, unfortunately, the truth. Filia slumped against the side of the carriage and stared over the edge as the trail flew by.

    “Look at it this way though,” Xellos continued. “Our situation hasn’t really changed when you think about it. We have the same problem to deal with concerning… this child as we already had with Val. Everyone has their eye on him… but they’re willing to wait before they act.”

    Filia was glad, at least, to hear that ‘we’ had the problem and not simply ‘you,’ but his comment soured her already depressed mood. It was sometimes so easy to forget that Val was one of the most powerful creatures in this world… and of course garnered the attentions of both the dragons (who had had and royally messed up their chance) and the monsters (who shouldn’t be given chances in the first place). He was just a kid… she wanted him to be able to opt out of that world, but would he be allowed to? Would the baby be allowed to?

    She looked away from the road, gritted her teeth and crossed her arms. “I said it before and I’ll say it again,” she said firmly. “My children will never join you monsters or the dragons. I won’t let them be drawn into that!”

    Xellos sighed. “Hope for that, Filia. Hope as hard as you dare.”

    Filia turned around, but his back was to her as he watched the road. “What do you hope for?” she challenged.

    “Me?” Xellos returned. “Well, I’m sorry to say that is—”

    “If you say ‘that is a secret,’” Filia said dangerously, “I’m going to throw your staff in the next river I see.”

    There was a silence as Xellos considered the fact that he’d left his staff in the body of the carriage with the rest of the luggage and contemplated Filia’s excellent arm.

    “I hope for the best,” Xellos he finally said.

    Filia scowled. She’d had it with his hidden motives and vague answers. “And what exactly is ‘the best?’” she asked.

    Xellos didn’t turn around, but he did lift his hand, index finger pointing upwards in lecture-mode. “That is the million dollar question.”

    Filia frowned. “…What’s that supposed to—”

    The carriage slowed for a few feet and then lurched to a stop. What had been rough woodland only a short distance ago had been transformed into… well, rough woodland to be honest, but rough woodland with a few houses.

    “We’re here,” was all Xellos would say in answer.

    *****

    Once in Avoch, Filia was a bit uneasy. She wasn’t down on small towns or the countryside in any way; she liked the countryside, but at first glance there didn’t seem to be a room in sight that she’d want to give birth in. She prayed that the witches understood what ‘sanitary’ meant… particularly in the surgical sense.

    She was also profoundly displeased with Xellos, but that was nothing new. As far as she was concerned he should’ve had a room booked, directions to the inn, the room key in hand, and a list of area restaurants. He had none of those things and had the nerve to be completely blasé about it. He told her that the witches would take care of everything.

    Well, first they had to find the witches and that took a lot of ambling around the downtown (or what passed for downtown) and asking around. The locals were far more interested in what they called the ‘self-moving carriage’ then in giving them directions. But finally they stumbled on one of the witches.

    “Glad to see you made it,” a short woman in dusky black observed, approaching them with a ten-year-old girl trailing uncertainly behind her. She didn’t give Xellos’s magic carriage a second look, in fact she didn’t seem much inclined to look at Xellos at all. Instead she gave Filia a kind smile and extended a hand for her to shake. “You must be Miss Filia? How are you, dear? I’m Mrs. Duffy. The m—that is, your husband spoke to me when he arranged matters here.”

    “Nice to meet you,” Filia said, with her own private doubts over how much Xellos had arranged.

    “Well,” Mrs. Duffy said brightly, “I’ve gotten one of our coven to lodge you. I’d do it myself, you understand, but, with Marzipan already ‘pprenticing, I haven’t the space.”

    “Isn’t there an inn?” Xellos asked, eyebrows furrowing. He hadn’t expected this annoyance.

    “Certainly,” Mrs. Duffy said. She pointed down the road. “About three hundred miles that way. You’re welcome to it. But if you’d prefer something a little more convenient then you may follow me.” She turned and walked down the path she’d come from.

    Filia gave Xellos a very pointed look behind the witch’s back. He merely shrugged. They followed her. She’d never doubted that they would.

    “I don’t mind telling you that I had a dickens of a time trying to find someone to lodge you,” Mrs. Duffy commented as they walked. “Oh, not because of you, dear,” she said with somewhat more warmth in Filia’s direction. “But you understand that most of our number aren’t particularly happy with the idea of a monster in their household.”

    “Oh, I do understand,” Filia returned because Xellos definitely deserved some ribbing.

    “I’d think pregnant dragons would be much more of a nuisance,” Xellos said lightly. “But perhaps you don’t mind replacing chairs.”

    “It was quite aggravating,” Mrs. Duffy cut across them as steamed rose from the top of Filia’s head. “Mabel Ansom volunteered, but of course Delores wouldn’t have that, which caused another fight. And it was clear that, no matter how much she had to say on the subject, Delores wasn’t about to lodge you herself. The Pensey twins said they’d be willing and had quite a lot of space but they really have too many cats. ‘Twouldn’t be safe with you in your condition, dear. So finally Mother Hazel agreed—though I must admit she wasn’t particularly pleased about it.”

    Mrs. Duffy turned slightly and said: “You’ve already met her, Mister Xellos, at the meeting you called.”

    It was certainly possible, Xellos admitted. He’d seen quite a few witches but hadn’t gotten very many names. He would’ve hoped that Mother Hazel didn’t turn out to be one of the more unpleasant witches, but to do that he’d have to rank them in terms of unpleasantness and that was an impossible task.

    “Which one was she?” Xellos asked.

    “Mother Hazel is getting a bit on in years and wears a pointed black hat,” Mrs. Duffy said, her stunning descriptions doing almost nothing at all to narrow things down. But Xellos let it pass.

    “Anything you want to warn us about?” Xellos asked, causing Filia to give him a rather worried look.

    “I don’t have the faintest idea what you’re going on about, Mister Xellos,” Mrs. Duffy said loftily, her tone not hiding that fact that her idea was rather clearer than she’d indicated.

    “Hmm,” Xellos mulled. “And what do you say, Miss Marzipan?” he asked, startling the girl with his direct address. “What do you think of Mother Hazel?”

    Marzipan took a minute, her eyes flicking back and forth between the demon she’d been warned to be wary of and the hawk-like look that Mrs. Duffy was giving her. “I…” she began. “I wouldn’t say a word against Mother Hazel,” she came out with.

    Certainly not within earshot, Xellos decided.

    *****

    When they first came to the witch’s house, Xellos couldn’t place Mother Hazel from their prior meeting. She was of the same hunched over, wrinkled, wart-speckled mould that most of the witches in Avoch came from. But the moment she opened her mouth and Xellos got a look at her browning dental arcade he had no doubt who she was.

    It was the pickle witch! Or rather, it was the witch who’d interrupted him by snacking from an open jar of pickles as though that was the acceptable serving size. In fact, it looked like the evidence of that snack was still lodged between her teeth. Oh, Xellos supposed the residue could’ve been from a more recent pickle munch-fest, but he wasn’t feeling very generous toward witches at the moment.

    “So you’re the one, eh?” Mother Hazel said, squinting at Filia in a nearsighted way. She looked her over. “I’d prefer it if you had put a little more weight on, but you look healthy enough.”

    Filia wasn’t entirely sure how to respond to that and Xellos would’ve made a comment about the difficulty of judging a dragon’s actual weight from their human appearance, so it was fortunate that Mrs. Duffy was the one to speak.

    She put a hand lightly on Filia’s shoulder. “Mother Hazel is an excellent mid-wife and she’ll take good care of you. Me and the rest of the ladies will be along periodically to see how you’re doing so don’t worry yourself over anything.” She nodded to Mother Hazel as she and Marzipan drifted toward the end of the porch. “Billy will be along with their luggage shortly. And I’ll be by tomorrow, June.”

    With Mrs. Duffy gone Mother Hazel focused her sharp little attention on Filia. “I suppose you’ll be wanting to rest after your journey, m’dear. I’ll show you to your room.”

    Filia followed Mother Hazel up the stairs and Xellos, even though he hadn’t been explicitly invited, trailed after her.

    “Here it is,” Mother Hazel said, turning an old brass door handle and walking into a sunlit room. “This used to be my Leanne’s room and it should fit your needs.”

    Filia walked over the loved-to-death throw rug and into a room which would certainly fit her needs, though not necessarily her wants. There were three items of furniture in the room: a crusty-looking easy chair, a wooden bedside table, and the bed itself which was quilt-strewn, smelled like cough syrup and was impossibly narrow.

    Xellos noticed Filia trying to blink her frantic disapproval to him in Morse code, expecting him to be the one to lodge a complaint and earn Mother Hazel’s disdain. He might’ve bowed out if it weren’t for the fact that it was obvious that the witches already didn’t like him but had no such bias built up toward Filia.

    “I don’t suppose this is your only guest room, is it?” Xellos asked delicately.

    Mother Hazel glared at him with such intensity that her eyes nearly disappeared under a tidal wave of angry eyebrows. “‘Course it is.” She folded her arms over her chest and stuck out her jaw. “I aint about to waste my time providing bread or bed to a creature that doesn’t need either. I’d keep that in mind if I was you.”

    Xellos was a forced to be reckoned with, but not an unstoppable force. He recognized Mother Hazel for the immovable object that she was and instantly figured out his chances.

    “Duly noted,” he said.

    Mother Hazel turned to Filia and it was like the storm clouds vanished. “I’ll send Billy up with your things when he gets here, but you can take it easy for now. Supper is at six.” She turned her hook-like nose toward Xellos and summoned the terrifying cumulonimbus once more. “For those that need to eat that is,” she finished, and stepped out into the hall closing the door behind them.

    Xellos sank onto the bed. The mattress was as hard as he’d expected. He lifted his gaze up toward Filia who was looking out the window with an uneasy expression.

    “So…” he began, “…where are you going to sleep?”

    She brained him with a pillow.

    *****

    The second floor was hot. Filia had known it would be and had conscientiously left the window open before she settled down to go to sleep. It was only ten minutes later when she threw the covers onto the floor. After all, she didn’t need them and the bed was so narrow that they were just taking up unnecessary space.

    …And she really couldn’t sleep. She was tired from their journey and was glad that they could rest awhile, but she just couldn’t sleep. It might have been the summer night, it might have been the hard mattress, it might have been the limited space and the fear that she’d roll over and fall out of bed, it might have even been the simple fact that she was in a guest room and guest rooms always smell like unfamiliar people…

    …Though if she was honest, it probably wasn’t any of those things.

    She sighed. It wasn’t as though she hadn’t been used to sleeping apart from Xellos at a certain point. He’d been away for long stretches of time pretty much since their marriage began. But… well, basically ever since they’d found out she was pregnant, minus a few trips to consult with experts and set things up, he’d been there the whole time. It was just… odd now. Even more odd because he wasn’t gone. He was in that very room, sitting on the crusty, old easy chair. He was probably watching her with those eyes to which darkness meant nothing.

    She opened her own eyes to let them get accustomed to the shadows. She listened for sounds but only heard a cicada humming outside the window. She rose from the bed and moved hesitantly outward and into the room to a patch of more solid darkness where the chair sat. She stared at it for a moment at the place where she knew Xellos’s eyes were—looking up at her curiously, expectantly.

    She eased herself onto his lap. He curled a stabilizing arm around her back and laid his other hand on her knees. He thought about making some sort of comment; perhaps something along the lines of her crushing him? But no. He’d been using a lot of weight-related insults lately. Better not to get repetitive. He said nothing instead.

    She exhaled, slowly and contentedly, and rested her head in the crook between his shoulder and neck. She closed her eyes and waited for sleep.

    *****

    “Excuse me?” Xellos said the next morning. Though his words might suggest that he wanted the last statement someone made repeated to him, his tone made it clear that he’d prefer if the speaker rethought their proposal altogether.

    “I said for you to tend to the goats out back,” Mother Hazel repeated, undeterred.

    Xellos grimaced. His morning hadn’t been off to a great start and there was an obvious downward slope to events. “But Mothe—” He caught the dangerous gleam in Mother Hazel’s eyes and abruptly changed that to: “Mrs. Hazel, I was made to assume that we were guests in your home. I don’t see why we should—”

    “Well, I don’t see why you shouldn’t,” Mother Hazel returned, her fists balled on either side of her black dress. “Here I am, taking you in out of the goodness of my heart—an old woman too—and you aren’t even willing to lend a hand when it’s needed?”

    Xellos adopted a light-hearted, polite tone and began with: “I’m very sorry there’s been some sort of misapprehension, Mrs. Hazel, but you see…” He paused. Mother Hazel wasn’t the only one who knew how to exploit a dangerous eye-gleam. “…I never agreed to take orders from you.

    There was a pause that should’ve contained a foreboding musical cue. Mother Hazel didn’t seem to be feeling the threatening atmosphere because her expression didn’t change. “Well, you ought to, you ungrateful whelp,” she returned, effectively *****-slapping his aura of menace. “I’m already providing you with free room and board.”

    That was too much. Not only were Xellos’s tried and true methods of polite intimidation simply bouncing off the dumpy old woman, she had the nerve to claim— “What room and board?” Xellos asked. “You won’t give me so much as a cup of tea and last night you felt the need to yell at me for walking on the floors.”

    Mother Hazel gave Xellos a very, very steady look. “I’ve already shown you your room, young man. ...Would you like to see the board?”

    This time Xellos could swear that he actually did hear a foreboding musical cue. The hag had a better aura of menace than he did.

    “Oblige Mother Hazel and help out a bit,” Mrs. Duffy lilted as though Xellos was being completely unreasonable. She and several other witches had shown up that morning ostensibly to check on Filia. “You know we just don’t want you underfoot while we speak with your wife. Never mind making a fuss over such a small task.”

    Xellos looked to Filia, but there was absolutely no help there.

    “The shovel’s in the garden shed,” Mother Hazel prompted smugly.

    “But wait… is this really such a good idea?” one of the younger witches put in. “I mean… animals are so much more in tune to the true nature of people’s spirits. They’d probably run out of control if a demon came near.”

    “Is that the case, Mister Xellos?” Mother Hazel asked. “Does your presence spook animals?”

    Xellos recognized a life-line when it was being tossed to him. “Why, yes. In fact that has been known to—”

    “He’s lying,” Filia interrupted traitorously. “He gets along fine with animals. In fact, there’s a squirrel in the neighborhood that attacks everyone else, but will take food from Xellos’s hand.” She paused for a minute to think about this. “…Although it might be that it attacks everyone because Xellos has been feeding it,” she added.

    “Well, there you are!” Mrs. Duffy said brightly. “Off you go then, Mister Xellos,” she said, waving a hand dismissively. “I’m sure honest work will do you no harm.”

    Xellos was not assured that this was actually true. What’s worse it seemed that the witches considered it a done deal. He knew he could just… wander off and not actually do what he’d been assigned but… there wasn’t much else for him to do. He had to stick close to the house to see that Filia was well protected anyway… What was worse, he wasn’t sure what Mother Hazel would do if she found out he hadn’t tended to the goats. Probably make him stand in the corner or eat steamed broccoli or rip out his intestines or something.

    He wandered off to find the shovel, but not without feeling a certain amount of shame and resolving to do the job poorly.

    “I thought we’d never get rid of him,” Mother Hazel said when he was almost out of earshot.

    “I can hardly ever get him to do chores,” Filia said, brows furrowed. “And when he does do them I always end up having to clean up broken glass afterward.”

    “Goats are pretty durable,” Mother Hazel said, unconcerned.

    “I must say, he’s a bit of an odd duck,” Mrs. Duffy commented. “Not what I expect of a demon.”

    “You don’t know the half of it,” Mother Hazel returned in full-on gossip mode. “I came into the guest room this morning to set down some clean sheets and what do I see?” She pointed to Filia. “Them two on my grandmother’s easy chair, all cuddlin’ up together.”

    “Demons oughtn’t to be cuddly,” the witch known as Gladys said gravely.

    “Oh, but he gave me such a glare when I came in,” Mother Hazel continued. “Haven’t seen a look that nasty on anyone since Mother Midnight wasn’t invited to the princess’s christening.”

    The other witches chattered appreciatively. That had been a difficult mess to sort out. Avoch was still short on spinning wheels.

    “And I could tell full well he expected me to back off while whimpering an apology,” Mother Hazel scoffed. “The cheek!”

    “He thought he could out-glare a witch?” Miss Pierce asked incredulously.

    “I’m sure you embarrassed him,” Filia said, feeling rather embarrassed herself. “He’s been embarrassed a lot lately and he’s not really used to it.”

    Mrs. Duffy gave her a speculative look. “If you don’t mind my asking, Miss Filia, why are you two actually together? Oh, Mister Xellos made it clear to us that it began as some kind of accident, but he wouldn’t enlighten us any farther than to say the obvious, that one thing led to another. Would you care to be a little more specific as to why you’re with him?”

    Filia stared at the wood-grain. “Well…” she trailed off. “I suppose it’s difficult to explain,” she finished. How could she possibly explain her and Xellos to a bunch of women with their emotional dials stuck permanently on disapproval?

    Mrs. Duffy watched her for a moment. “You love him, don’t you?”

    Filia sighed and nodded.

    “Well, that’s not hard to explain,” Mrs. Duffy responded. “It’s just hard to say. Does he know?”

    Filia took a sip of her tea. “I’m sure he knows, but I haven’t told him. And telling makes the difference. As for him,” she went on, as Mrs. Duffy opened her mouth to ask the next logical question, “who even knows?”

    “If you’re in doubt about his love for you then surely that raises questions about his intentions toward the child,” Gladys sniped. “Perhaps his intent is merely to stay close to you so that he can deliver the child to the demons.”

    “That’s what the dragons have been saying,” Filia nodded miserably. “And honestly, they probably have a point, but…”

    “But he’s the daddy and the fact that you’re in doubt isn’t necessarily a negative. Usually with demons you know where you stand and it’s nowhere good,” Mrs. Duffy mused.

    “Xellos is good at making people unsure,” Filia said bitterly.

    “And what do you think he’ll do, m’dear?” Mother Hazel asked.

    “I don’t think he knows,” Filia said honestly. She ran a hand along her stomach. “The thing is… it’s all abstract to him right now. How can he think of the child as anything more than a chess piece when he can even think of it as a person? I just hope that when it’s actually born he’ll… Well, look,” she said, “Back when I was training to be a priestess I worked for a little while in the nursery at the temple and I remember it even now. When I held those hatchlings it was like… like the world was suddenly made up of only them, and like I had to make myself a better person for them. And they weren’t even mine.

    “And you hope that when the child is born and it’s a real thing in his arms that everything will change and suddenly the idea of trading his own babe to the rest of the monsters will be unthinkable?” Mrs. Duffy asked.

    Filia’s face fell. “I suppose it’s a lot to expect of him.”

    “Doesn’t even always happen with humans, to be perfectly honest,” Mother Hazel said grimly. “Bonding, I mean.”

    Filia twirled her fingertip around her tea cup. It all came down to uncertainty yet again. And even if her probably-too-high expectations of him came to pass, they’d always have stronger pressures weighing down on their decisions. In the end Xellos caring could just make what he had to do harder on him. But still… she didn’t want to give up on him.

    “I still have hope,” Filia said, a fond smile on her lips. “After all, he can be rather cuddly for a demon.”

  11. #11
    Join Date
    Jan 2009
    Location
    IL
    Posts
    3,130

    Default

    “You must have chaos within you to give birth to a dancing star.”
    ~Friedrich Nietzsche


    Chapter 11. It’s Time.

    In the relatively short time that Xellos and Filia had been in Avoch waiting for nature to take its course, Xellos had learned the finer points of stall mucking, latrine digging, and getting yelled at by an elderly woman with bad breath. He got the most practice in with the latter. It’s always important to continuously improve one’s skill set.

    Still, Mother Hazel was at least in the mood to give him a bit of time off for the morning. Perhaps it was because she was busy entertaining several of the other ladies from the coven or perhaps she’d run out of tiring and humiliating chores to assign. In either case Xellos was glad of the breathing room.

    He and Filia were sitting by an open window enjoying the sunshine—she in a lounging chair and he on the floor because, as he’d been told, ‘chairs are for people.’ In the connecting dining room Mother Hazel, Mrs. Duffy, and Delores Ipston (a witch Xellos very unfortunately recognized from his first meeting in Avoch) were all having tea served to them by young Marzipan. Perhaps, Xellos mused, the witches always had a chore slave.

    Being across the room from the party was about as much privacy as Xellos and Filia had gotten since they’d arrived. Oh, they could’ve gone up to their room, but there wasn’t much space there ever since they’d moved the comforter and pillows onto the floor in a makeshift bed. Mother Hazel had raised her eyebrows at that one, but said nothing. And that was the other thing. Mother Hazel waltzed into their room whenever she felt like it without even having the common decency to knock. As far as she was concerned, it was her house and she could go wherever she liked.

    “It’s pretty here,” Filia commented, looking out the window. She breathed in deeply. “And the air is so fresh and clear. You don’t get air like this in the city.”

    “I believe that’s goat manure that you’re smelling,” Xellos commented diplomatically. He knew of what he spoke.

    Filia narrowed an eye at him only slightly. “Still, it’s nice here,” she said. She cast around for a word to describe it. “Picturesque.”

    She shifted slightly in her chair to find a more comfortable position. “Were you planning on us staying here for a little while after the birthing? So I can recover?”

    “We could,” Xellos said in a tone that wasn’t the least bit affirmative. “I’m sure we won’t go immediately. But wouldn’t you be more comfortable at home?”

    “Well, of course,” Filia admitted. Sleeping in her own bed was something to look forward to. “But it’s nice to have help,” she said, nodding to the elderly witches.

    “You’d have Mister Gravos and Mister Jillas to help you at home,” Xellos pointed out, eager to cut the time he’d have to spend in the company of Avoch’s witchiest as much as possible. “In any case,” he added, in a hushed tone. “You know how to take care of a baby. And if you stay here then they won’t let you do it your way.”

    Filia grimaced. “I hadn’t thought of that,” she admitted. Witches didn’t know how to be bossed.

    “I would imagine that staying here with a baby would be akin to having a dozen mothers-in-law who never, ever leave,” Xellos mused.

    “I’ve heard that one is more than enough,” Filia said. “Then again,” she added in a deceptively light tone, “I wouldn’t know about that.”

    Xellos stared up at her. Worry was accelerating onto his features. “Are you… saying you’d like to?” he asked disbelievingly.

    Filia sighed. “No. I’m sure it would be a complete disaster,” she said heavily. “Still,” she said, tapping her fingers on the arms of the chair, “we’re… family.”

    “Funny how that works out,” said Xellos, who didn’t find it funny at all. He wasn’t sure what would happen if Lord Beastmaster and Filia met. He wasn’t comfortable with that lack of certainty.

    “I don’t suppose the Beastmaster knows how to be a good grandmother?” she asked with little hope of a positive answer.

    Xellos shrugged. “Define ‘good’ grandmother.”

    “Oh, you know,” Filia said. “Knitting sweaters for her grandkids, pinching cheeks, telling stories and whatnot…”

    “Is that what your grandmother did?” Xellos asked with little reason to expect that Lord Beastmaster was any better at knitting than he.

    Filia looked momentarily caught off guard and then turned to look back out the window. “No,” she said. “My grandmother gave me a doll though.”

    “A doll?” Xellos repeated.

    “Yes,” Filia said reflectively. “I named her Eleanor Jasmine Cleo III.”

    “The third?” Xellos said, his tone now moving toward insufferable amusement.

    Filia gave him a nasty look. “You can laugh all you want, but I loved that doll.”

    Xellos peered up at her with a not-at-all suppressed smiled. “So… whatever happened to dear Eleanor Jasmine Cleo III?”

    Filia frowned. “I got really sick as a child and well… I’d never let go of the doll, so…”

    “So Miss Eleanor suffered for your sickness?” Xellos surmised.

    “They never could clean it out totally,” Filia admitted, somewhat embarrassed. “My parents threw it out, but they told me it was lost.”

    “How traumatizing,” Xellos observed insincerely.

    “Well it is when you’re just a child!” Filia returned. She looked to the window and continued, her tone getting softer. “I had a lot of great times with that doll,” she said. “I’d get it out and go over to grandmother’s and she’d set up a little tea party for the three of us. …When you’re just a little girl that kind of thing makes you feel… I don’t know… important, I guess. She even got out these fine tea cups that she’d traded from all the way in Sairaag. They were painted in beautiful colors and as thin as paper. She usually kept them locked up in a glass cupboard, but she’d take them out for me.”

    Filia tilted her head downward so that it nearly touched her chest. “One time… I accidentally knocked one of them off the table and it shattered. I… I burst into tears immediately. But my grandmother didn’t yell. She just walked over to the cupboard and got me another one. She told me that I hadn’t meant to do it, and she wasn’t angry—that I shouldn’t cry over it.”

    She leveled her gaze at Xellos. “It probably means nothing to you. But I think that was the first time I saw what forgiveness looks like.”

    Xellos was quiet for a moment. Then he reached up and scratched at his cheek somewhat uncomfortably. “If anyone broke Lord Beastmaster’s brandy snifter,” he said after awhile, “there would be… problems.”

    Filia let out a slight snort. Xellos wasn’t sure if it was a sound based on indignation or laughter.

    “Now what about… your parents,” Xellos asked, testing the waters to see how far he could go. “What kind of grandparents would they have been?”

    Filia looked surprised, though not necessarily angry that Xellos would’ve gone there. “Oh,” she said with another sigh as she touched the curve of her stomach. “I suppose I’d like to say that they’d be the kind who’d take my children out for picnics in the park and always have a piece of candy and a smile on hand, but… if I’m honest with myself then I would say that there are things about my life that they could probably never get past,” she finished heavily.

    Xellos was well aware that he was unacceptable item #1; unacceptable item #2 was in Filia womb, biding its time, waiting for the perfect moment to escape its imprisonment.

    “But still,” Filia said, “I wish that they’d gotten a chance to prove me wrong—for Val… and for this little one.”

    ‘This little one.’ Filia had been repeating that calm and loving little term ever since she’d picked it up from Mrs. Duffy and found it to be just right. She didn’t like referring to her baby as an ‘it’ and refused to compromise on the matter of discovering its gender. ‘I want to be surprised,’ she’d said. Then she’d paused and added ‘…though not too surprised.’

    It was just… interesting. When she referred it as ‘this little one’ it just seemed… different, though he wasn’t sure how. He supposed it made things a little less vague… a little more personal than just ‘it,’ ‘the baby,’ or ‘the child.’ This little one—set apart from all the other little ones.

    And it made him wonder something that seemed very obvious now that it came to him, but hadn’t crossed his mind before. “Have you decided what to name it yet?” he asked, nodding to her belly.

    “Well…” Filia trailed off slowly, seemingly reluctant to go further. “I was thinking about—”

    Xellos sensed it before the witches did—before Filia did. He could feel the call of pain from her soon to arrive, like an echo in reverse. He was on his feet before Filia felt the slightest twinge.

    “It’s time,” he said significantly to the witches as Filia winced.

    The witches peered at him for just a moment and then turned back to their tea.

    The witches ignoring him wasn’t really anything new, but he wasn’t about to tolerate it this time. “I said ‘it’s time,’” he said, slightly louder.

    “We heard you, demon,” Delores said sharply. “Just ‘cause we’re old doesn’t mean we’re also deaf.”

    “June, what’s the time?” Mrs. Duffy asked lightly. “I can’t see the clock from here.”

    Mother Hazel shrugged. “The clock hasn’t worked in years.”

    “Then why keep it in the first place?” Delores asked.

    “Decoration,” Mother Hazel answered.

    “Fine, then,” Mrs. Duffy said. “We’ll make do.” She turned to her apprentice. “Marzipan, let Mrs. Adder know that we won’t be able to go on the rounds—she’ll cover for us.”

    “Yes, m’m,” Marzipan answered, trotting toward the door.

    “And come right back when you’re done,” Mrs. Duffy added. “This too, is part of your training.”

    “Now,” Mrs. Duffy continued pleasantly, turning toward her fellow witches. “Delores, will you favor us with a song? I’m thinking something with a lot of verses and you’re the best singer between the three of us.”

    Delores preened under the attention. “‘Twas in the merry month May,” she began in a steady, not unpleasant lilt.

    “Excuse me,” Xellos interrupted, his eyebrows crashing into each other. “This is hardly the time for a sing-a-long. In case you haven’t noticed, Filia is—”

    “Sit down, Mister Xellos,” Mrs. Duffy ordered in a tone that suggested that she was only just willing to tolerate his silliness. “There’s no need to be in such a rush. Now listen to the song. I’ll wager we have a long wait ahead of us.”

    *****

    They did have a lot wait ahead of them. It was nearly night and they’d hardly moved from their original places. Oh, Marzipan had come back from playing messenger to take her turn step-and-fetching every pillow in the house—none of which seemed to be enough, by the way, to quell Filia’s discomfort. Mrs. Duffy had scooched her chair over to Filia’s side, to provide vague moral support and to give commands to Marzipan.

    Xellos sat at the floor by Filia’s side, but conversation between them was minimal. With Mrs. Duffy there, conversations about grandmothers and names weren’t likely to continue. And he was… watching her. She was taking her intervals of pain very stoically. The witches didn’t seem to be much bothered at all—but, of course, they’d seen this many times before.

    Xellos usually found that he was the calmest person in any given room. It disturbed him to find that he wasn’t in this case. Not even close. So he’d tried to rectify it.

    The moment he’d known it was starting he’d felt… tense—like he needed to be ready to act. But he counseled himself that this was pointless. He certainly had no part in this affair (despite being the origin of it). He’d entrusted these fearsome ladies to handle it and it was for them to act, not him.

    But still, he watched Filia. In the beginning it had seemed such a little thing—a flicker of pain across her eyes and shuddering through her body. It was accelerating, he knew that much. He knew Mrs. Duffy was watching her too. Every time a contraction hit, she’d nod to Delores, who’d stop her song and begin another. …The songs… were getting shorter.

    The Third verse of ‘As I Went A’Walking’ was punctuated by a muffled groan from Filia. Mrs. Duffy closed her book. “Yes… I think that will about do,” she’d said. She gave Filia a gentle look: “Would you like to lay down upstairs, dear?” she asked.

    Filia nodded. The pressure of the pain hadn’t quite left her.

    Mrs. Duffy turned to Mother Hazel who was playing solitaire at the kitchen table. “What do you think, June? Should we take her up now?”

    “Better,” Mother Hazel said, laying a card down. “I’d never get the stains out of that chair.”

    Mother Hazel and Delores slid out of their chairs and made their way toward Filia, who was helped up by Mrs. Duffy. Marzipan hastily scooped up the pillows she’d appropriated from various places around the house. Xellos stood up too, but wasn’t sure of his place in this entourage and hoped he didn’t have one.

    He was thrown a bone by the most unlikely of allies—though Delores probably didn’t think she was doing him any favors. “No men in the delivery room,” she said pointedly in his direction. “Or men-shaped things, for that matter.”

    Xellos wasn’t about to argue. While opinions might differ on the presence of men in the delivery room, he was certain at least that monsters didn’t belong there. Not only did he have no use there, but—curious or not—he had a certain apprehension that he didn’t want to be present at an event like this. And then there was the fact that he was well aware there would be… a great amount of pain involved… from Filia. No matter what predilections he may have been accused of having, he had absolutely no desire to sample that pain.

    Xellos had been about to say ‘fine by me’ when Filia said: “No!” She stopped, held up by Mrs. Duffy, her face already shiny with sweat. “No,” she said again. “I… want him to be there.”

    Delores opened her mouth to argue, but Mrs. Duffy beat her to the punch. “What the mother says goes,” she said firmly.

    And with that, Xellos’s life preserver was withdrawn. He frowned. “I’m not going to hold your hand you know,” he said peevishly, annoyed that his easy-escape had been denied him.

    “Oh, so now he’s stingy with physical contact,” Mother Hazel returned bitingly. “A little late, don’t you think?”

    Xellos had no comeback to that, so instead filed glumly behind the three old witches and the young apprentice as they helped his wife up the stairs.

    *****

    Xellos did end up holding her hand. It was all he was qualified to do. And even if he hadn’t been able to feel the emotions flowing out of her, he’d have been able to track every pang of suffering by the pressure she kept on that hand. It was near constant now.

    Miracle of birth? What was that? As far as Xellos could see it mostly involved a lot of pain, heavy breathing, and sweat with other bodily fluids surely on the way. Filia barely spoke now. She barely responded to anyone except to follow a command to hold steady or push from the witches who were puttering around the other end of the bed with their sleeves pushed up to their shoulders and their hands and arms rubbed so clean that they were red. She was concentrating too hard to speak most of the time.

    When Mrs. Duffy said she could see the head, Xellos had nearly let go of Filia’s hand. It was all happening and it was happening now.

    And he told himself, as the moment they’d been waiting for approached, that he’d done everything in his power to handle this situation; that perhaps that planning really could pay off. All was going well so far—at least from what he could tell through the witches’ constant reassurances. This situation that had seemed so impossibly dangerous… maybe they really could come out of this unscathed.

    And it wasn’t just Filia’s health. That was the big worry, obviously. That was why they were in Avoch, having the delivery done by the best of the best. That had been his first priority and a fight that he wasn’t willing to lose but…

    …Back then he’d never assumed that they could make it through this ordeal undamaged. Something as major as this child’s birth… maybe she’d live… maybe the child would live… but what he and she were together would be changed forever. He liked the way they were.

    But now that the moment was near, he allowed himself some optimism when he peered over the horizon. They could stay the same if they tried. The child would be born, the two of them would go home and all their carefully crafted patterns would reassert themselves. He’d taunt her, she’d taunt him, and they’d dance the same dance they’d started the day they met. It was a good dance. As far as he was concerned, there was none better.

    Of course, there would be the child to contend with… and there would be problems down the line. But in the end, they weren’t any different from the problems that they’d face with Val, were they? There was no reason to deviate from the pattern—to change the dance now.

    “Xel…” Filia tried amid grunts and the gentle commands from the witches.

    We’ll go back to the way we’ve always been, Xellos decided. I can keep this. I can keep this. It’s under control.

    “Xellos…” Filia tried again, squeezing his hand with all her might.

    I can keep us together—just as we should be, he thought again. The thought was a calm core against the franticness outside him. Just as long as neither of us says or does anything stupid.

    “Xellos!” Filia cried, her pain hitting a crescendo. Her face was scrunched up in agony, her head was pressed against her shoulder and her teeth gritted together in the effort of her pushing. But she managed to say, in the midst of all that: “I love you!”

    Xellos gaped at her as the sound of newborn wailing filled the air.

  12. #12
    Join Date
    Jan 2009
    Location
    IL
    Posts
    3,130

    Default

    “If I loved you, time and again I would try to say all I’d want you to know.
    If I loved you, words wouldn’t come in an easy way—round in circles they’d go.
    Longing to tell you, but afraid and shy—I’d let my golden chances pass me by.
    Soon you’d leave me—off you would go in the mist of day, never, never to know
    how I loved you—if I loved you.”
    ~Carousel


    Chapter 12. Putting a Name to It.

    The clamor in the room was muffled, his peripheral vision an inconsequential blur of business with the only clear point being Filia herself, everything in the world quieted to give prominence to the one thought that filled Xellos’s world: Why?

    Why when they were so close—so close to getting past this monumental event with everything that they were to each other intact did she feel the need to say that of all things? She knew how they… how they worked as well as he did. Why would she sacrifice all that just to say something that they both already knew?

    A last, shuddering jolt took Filia. She clung to his hand and then the pain subsided. She lay back in bed breathing heavily. Marzipan appeared by her side with a cloth to wipe her forehead.

    For goodness sakes, Xellos thought, she was in labor. Couldn’t she have gone for the old stand-bys? What about ‘you’re the one that did this to me! Stay away! Never touch me again!’? Why did it have to be an ‘I lo…’

    …Well, what could she possibly expect him to have to say in answer to that? This was Filia. She wouldn’t just say it and be satisfied by a flippant response—no ‘I know.’ She wouldn’t say it unless…

    …There was crying. He hadn’t heard it before, though he felt it had been going on for awhile, but he heard it now.

    Filia, who only a moment ago had looked like she hadn’t the energy to blink, sat bolt upright in bed. “Is—?” she demanded fearfully. She only needed one word to make her case clear.

    “She’s fine,” the voice of Mrs. Duffy broke through the haze. She was turned around with the other witches, wrapping a towel around… something.

    “She?” Xellos heard himself say.

    “Yes,” Mrs. Duffy said, turning around with a bundle in her arm. The towel that made up the wrappings was blue because witches don’t color-code gender. “She.”

    And without any ceremony whatsoever, Mrs. Duffy walked over to Xellos and gently but firmly placed the baby in his arms.

    There was a panicked moment as Xellos hastened to more securely hold the delicate creature in his arms. Mrs. Duffy adjusted his arms to cradle the head. The crying dampened slightly. It ceased to be bawling, but didn’t quite fade altogether. Xellos didn’t look down at the bundle, turning all his helpless perplexion on Mrs. Duffy, but he could feel the warmth of the little living thing that had been unexpectedly dropped into his arms.

    “Now,” Mrs. Duffy said in a steely tone that seemed to suggest that she was waiting to finally see what he was made of. “Name her.”

    Xellos was too gobsmacked to speak for a moment. If the baby being passed over to him had seriously upset his balance then this request—this order knocked his mental state flat on the floor. “What?” he finally managed to say.

    “Name her,” Mrs. Duffy ordered again.

    Xellos stared at her, then revolved, very slowly as people tend to move when they’re holding something one-of-a-kind and fragile, to face Filia. He didn’t say anything, but looked at her for… for something—for an answer.

    Her face was flushed and she was still breathing heavily. She did not look back at him either. She wasn’t avoiding his eye, she was simply focused in an inextricable way on the child in his arms. She looked at her daughter. What was in the watering of Filia’s eyes? In the breath rushing in a frantic rhythm past her bottom lip? In the indentations on her forehead as her brows curved? Was it fear or longing? Despair or love?

    She nodded—just once.

    And Xellos knew then that this moment was no coincidence—it was rigged. It didn’t matter if it had been the witches’ plan or Filia’s. It had been their intention from the start to do things this way. No interruption, no distance—an immediate and permanent connection between him and the child. What better way was there to say: this is your child, your little girl, your trap. He saw that moment for what it was and yet…

    He tilted his head, resting his chin on his shoulder so he was looking directly at… that face. It was the only thing visible in the tightly wound cocoon of the towel. The form was human in appearance, as Sangoma had predicted. If Xellos had been thinking of it, he would’ve noted her energy type, and more importantly her level of power—he would’ve been able to look beyond the blameless, helpless, immediate creature in his arms to the rising star of war hawks of both the dragons and the monsters that had been spoken of many a times lo these past nine months. But he couldn’t. He was stuck.

    The face was reddened and shiny, crumpled together in one lip-puckering expression of infantile displeasure. She let out one more half-hearted little cry and then quieted—seemingly content at least that she would no longer be pushed through any more small tunnels. But she still held her eyes scrunched shut—discontent with this world so different from the warm, quiet chamber she had known all her life. The outside world was too bright, too noisy, and yet desolate without the constant reassurance of a heartbeat close to her.

    She smacked her lips together as she tuckered herself out into a relative calm. She lolled her head around in the cradle of Xellos’s arm and managed to work herself just free enough from her tight wrappings to curl the teensiest, tiniest fingers Xellos had ever seen around the edge of the towel.

    And as Xellos looked down at her, for the first time in his long and varied existence, he felt completely and utterly beaten.

    When he spoke next it was as though his voice came from far away. “…Filia,” he said. It was the only thing he could think to say.

    *****

    Filia… the little one, that is, was much more satisfied some time later after she’d been fed, washed and put to rest in her crib. She didn’t seem much bothered by the fact that the crib in question was nothing more than a wicker basket previously intended for displaying fruit with the addition of a cushion and a blanket. She was blinking sleepily, but Xellos could tell, as he watched her, that part of her wanted to stay awake. She reached out to grasp any hand that meandered toward her reach. Xellos had been unaware up until this point that babies had kung-fu grip. She was also cycling her almost brutally adorable little baby-feet in the air—enjoying the freedom of space that the world outside the womb provided. Her activity slowed though as the events of the day took their toll. She blinked like a drunken kitten and then seemed to fall asleep.

    Her eyes… well, Filia… the big one, that is, said that the baby had his eyes. He wasn’t about to argue. She mostly looked like her namesake from what he could see. There was that familiar bone-structure, the elfin ears, and even a few thin wisps of blonde air. But there were traces of him there. Certainly in the eyes, the nose, and maybe a little in the brows. Form… what a funny thing it was. Here was a child who seemed to be everything but human, appearing in a human form simply because she had been born to someone taking a human form—because human form was an option for her and a fairly simple and useful one at that. She’d have a dragon form, obviously, and surely something beyond that, but for now… change would require effort. It always did.

    “Filia,” Xellos said softly so as not to wake the sleeping baby, “how are you feeling?”

    Filia, the one that was somewhat larger than the nineteen inches of no-holds-barred cuteness one, sat up in the bed she’d been resting in. “Which one are you talking to?” she asked.

    Xellos broke his gaze away from the child and back to his wife. “You,” he said.

    Filia didn’t answer his question. She was frowning, not in displeasure but in thought. “This could get confusing,” she said, crawling across the bed to get a better look at her child, asleep in the basket at the foot of the bed. “I never thought of myself as the kind of person who’d name their child after themself,” she said thoughtfully. She inevitably leveled her gaze back up to Xellos, confusion creasing her forehead.

    “Why did you…?”

    “It was the only thing I could think of,” answered Xellos, who’d been expecting this question and knew he wouldn’t have a satisfactory response when it was asked.

    Filia looked at him quietly for a moment. She wasn’t about to fault him for not being able to think of anything but her. She turned back to her daughter, adjusting her blanket so it better covered her. “Why don’t we call her Lia for short,” she suggested gently.

    Xellos looked at the little girl in the crib who was now and forever ‘Lia.’ He nodded.

    Xellos sat on the edge of the bed, keeping one eye over his shoulder where Lia slept. “Her energy… you recognize it don’t you?” he asked.

    Filia nodded. “I suppose it makes sense.”

    Fusion magic… it did make sense. In a strange way, Lia herself was fusion magic.

    “It’s a very unstable sort of power,” Xellos commented. “Who can say what sort of use she’ll put it to?”

    “It’s kind of…” Filia began, trying to describe the way she’d always thought of the power, “a neutralizing force.”

    Xellos smiled wryly. “It’s certainly an argument ender.”

    “Then let’s hope she ends arguments instead of adding to them,” Filia answered firmly.

    “Someone to keep both the peacekeepers and the warkeepers at bay?” Xellos asked. “I’m afraid that’s easier said than done.”

    Filia shrugged. “Most things are. That doesn’t mean it’s not worth reaching for.”

    Xellos couldn’t argue that. “I suppose you’re right…” He remembered the moment he’d held Filia’s hand… that moment just before Lia was born… what she’d said to him. “Most things are,” he repeated to himself. “But some things,” he said more loudly, “are much easier done than said.”

    Filia looked up at him and fell back into the exact same moment. “I think I know what you mean,” she said.

    “Personally,” Xellos said in a high-minded voice, “I think some things are better left unsaid.”

    All traces of empathy were wiped off Filia’s face by the downward sweep of angry eyebrows. “That’s just an excuse,” she retorted.

    “Oh, but Filia, haven’t you heard?” Xellos asked innocently. “‘Actions speak louder than words.’”

    Filia simmered slightly. “That is true. However,” she added, crossing her arms, “I don’t think it’s too much to ask to have both.”

    “Don’t you?” Xellos asked. “It seems to me that you’re asking for quite a lot.”

    Filia could see that Xellos wanted to negotiate and she was having none of it. “That’s the only way I’m going to get a lot,” she answered.

    “Or nothing at all,” Xellos reminded her. “Are you really willing to gamble what we already have on what’s really nothing more than a formality? Aren’t you satisfied with what we have?”

    “Satisfied?” Filia exclaimed incredulously, remembering only at the last minute to keep her voice down in the presence of her sleeping daughter. He just… he couldn’t honestly believe that something as significant as confessing one’s feelings was just a formality! “Look,” she said, lowering her voice dangerously, “I meant what I said to you before and I really meant it. You know that. I don’t see why you’re acting like if we look too hard at what we have together it’ll all fall apart. I think we can be better than that.”

    “How very like a dragon to demand everything she wants,” Xellos commented, but his heart really wasn’t in it.

    Filia wasn’t about to fall for such an obvious deflection. “That’s weak and you know it,” she told him.

    “I do know it,” Xellos was forced to admit with a grimace. “But you must understand, Filia, that even I have limitations.”

    “I know that,” Filia came back. “And I’m not asking you to do anything outside your limitations. I’m just asking you to lay all your cards on the table for once.”

    “Oh, and are you sure you really want me to, Filia?” Xellos asked with a grim and threatening smile. “What if you find out that I’ve been bluffing this whole time?”

    Filia sucked in a breath. “At least I’d know.”

    “Would you?” Xellos challenged. “I thought even a failed dragon priestess would know better than to trust a monster’s word. Come now, Filia, you’d always have doubts no matter what I said.”

    There were tears welling up in Filia’s eyes, but the chances of her crumpling into a sobbing fit were significantly lower than the chances of her getting physically violent. “You know what, Xellos? You’re the one who thinks he can demand everything he wants! You want me to stay with you, you even want me to love you, but you don’t want to admit it or even hear me admit it! And why? Because you’re not supposed to? That’s a lie and you know it. We wouldn’t be here today if you couldn’t get away with something like that.” She pointed a shaky finger at him, though he was looking away from her. “You think you can just shrug all this off and pull your ‘that is a secret’ line—that stupid mystique you think you have, but it’s just your excuse for opting out whenever things get difficult just like you always do, you miserable, miserable coward!

    A shriek made up the exclamation point of Filia’s tirade, but it wasn’t from her. The volume of the exchange had gotten too loud for Lia and she made her dissatisfaction at being woken up known. Filia drew in furious, gasping breaths while Xellos looked off in another direction and quietly gnashed his teeth.

    “For heaven’s sake, Xellos,” Filia said when she caught her breath. “You have a daughter now. Are you telling me that you’re honestly going to refuse to even tell your little girl that her daddy loves her?”

    For just a moment Filia felt almost sorry that she’d gone there. It was a knife-point that had driven deeper than she’d thought it would and she could see that in the way his face froze. But that moment passed.

    “Xellos,” she breathed with a note of finality in her voice, “do you love us?”

    Xellos cupped his hand around his jaw and dragged it down the length of his chin. With his other hand he reached out for the basket and gripped the edge of it, rocking it back and forth until Lia’s sobbing calmed. He opened his eyes and looked at Filia. With his hand still covering his mouth he bobbed his head at her once.

    He lowered his hand and lowered his eyes. “Yes.”

    *****

    It became clear after a few days’ time that the witches were as anxious to relieve themselves of their guests as Xellos and Filia were to leave. They’d done their job and they’d done it well—but it was finished and they were no longer as willing to oblige themselves to a demon (not that they’d ever been that obliging to begin with). Filia wanted to get Lia home too—she knew Val, Jillas, and Gravos would be worried about them, and would, besides that, want to see the latest addition to their family. Xellos too was eager to leave this site of miracles and humiliation. Filia joked that they should vacation in Avoch next summer. Xellos didn’t find that one particularly funny.

    The only problem with leaving right away was their carriage. They’d taken it on the way there to avoid any mishaps the astral side could wreak on a multi-form creature in utero. Now that Lia was born and there was no danger of Filia’s entire reproductive system changing over and upsetting things, the carriage was not only now unnecessary, but not the best mode of travel for a newborn. Filia didn’t like the idea of taking Lia on that long and bumpy trip while she was so young, but she didn’t want to leave her new carriage or luggage there either. In the end, Xellos teleported the carriage home before them, popping back after that task was done in order to take himself, Lia, and Filia more directly into the house (the idea of teleporting the carriage with them into the middle of Filia’s living room had occurred to him, but he resisted on the grounds that he’d be the one who’d have to clean up the mess).

    The closest they got to a good-bye from their witchy hosts was to hear Mother Hazel mutter something about what an ‘unnatural’ way to travel they were using right before they disappeared. When Xellos let go of Filia as they reappeared in their bedroom he noticed that Lia, suspended in Filia’s arms, didn’t seem the least bit impressed by her first trip through the astral side. It wasn’t that surprising. She probably had the power to teleport them home herself—though he’d hate to see where they’d end up if he gave the infant the reigns.

    Filia let out a contented sigh and meandered toward the door. “Val!” she called. “We’re home!”

    “They don’t seem to be here,” Xellos commented, looking around.

    Filia peaked through the shutters of the window. “Oh, looks like they’re just out in the field playing soccer.” She looked down at the baby in her arms and gave her a smile. “We’ll just have to go get them then, won’t we?” she cooed.

    She was about to go out and do so when she stopped. “Wait,” she said thoughtfully. She turned around and gave Xellos a careful look. “Why don’t you hold her while I go get them,” she said, holding Lia out.

    Xellos took the child gingerly, looking down at her as Filia turned to leave. He hadn’t had a lot of experience holding babies—they’re not usually the sort of things given to monsters. In an odd way he’d never even expected to hold his own that much. Filia was making a point, he knew—one that she trusted him. No, not that she trusted him, but that she was entrusting him. The message went like: I have no choice but to trust you, so be trustworthy.

    Still, he had to admit that holding Lia made him feel uncomfortably mortal.

    “Well, well,” Xellos said quietly, sitting down on the foot of the bed. “I suppose it’s time for you to meet your family.”

    Lia gave him a wide-eyed look.

    “Oh, don’t be anxious,” Xellos said. “They’ll like you. Certainly they will.”

    Xellos looked back at his daughter. It had been… an eventful time. Much had happened that had fallen outside of his predictions—some of which he hoped never came up again. He preferred to think of it this way: formalities had been filed. Thinking about it any other way was rather wounding, which he supposed was Filia’s point. Vulnerabilities. My, but he’d acquired some. He would have to make sure that they didn’t prove fatal.

    “Well now, little Lia,” Xellos commented, “do you know that everyone who knows of you or has even heard rumor of you wants to know what you’ll be when you grow up? Hmm?”

    He looked to the left in thought. “Now Filia—your mother that is—will probably want you to squander your magical power doing something hopelessly ordinary like… oh, I don’t know… birdhouse-making or something like that. Something disappointingly safe.”

    “Of course,” Xellos added, “if arts and crafts don’t appeal to you then I know for a fact that the dragons are desperately hoping you’ll join their ranks.”

    Lia yawned massively.

    “Oh, I quite agree,” Xellos answered with a smile. “I can’t really see you finding much reason to join up with them. They’re not a very inclusive bunch and such an alliance would be very uneasy. The only way I could possibly see you making such a choice is if you were doing so particularly to upset your mother and me. …But… you wouldn’t be that willfully disobedient, would you?”

    Lia gave him a cross-eyed look on incomprehension. The resemblance in their eyes made it all the odder looking.

    “…And then there’s the monsters,” Xellos went on. “I must tell you that if you don’t join up with them I will probably be in a great deal of trouble. But,” he added reluctantly, “if you do join up with them then I will definitely be in trouble with your mother.”

    There was a thoughtful pause. “…Perhaps birdhouse-making could be an interesting career after all,” Xellos said finally.

    “There she is!” Val cried, bursting into the room and launching himself toward the bed with Filia and Gravos following close behind him. “What’s her name? What’s her name?” Val demanded, jumping up and down excitedly.

    “Her name is Filia,” Filia said, smiling, “but we’re calling her Lia for short.”

    “Hi Lia,” Val said, looking wide-eyed and joyfully at his new baby sister, “I’m your big brother—Val.”

    Lia violet eyes went plipping back and forth between the newcomers in the room. She giggled slightly.

    “She’s so little,” Gravos said, peering down at her.

    “Another boss Filia,” Jillas said almost rapturously. “There’s the boss, Boss-Gravos, Lord Val, and now Lady Lia!”

    Xellos noticed that he appeared nowhere in this list of worshipped authority figures. “And?” he prompted helpfully.

    Jillas looked at Xellos the way he always looked at Xellos, like he was carefully trying to erase him from his reality. “That’s all,” he said simply.

    “Am I to have no authority, even in my own family?” Xellos asked.

    “Absolutely not,” Filia answered him, leaning over and giving him a little peck on the cheek as she smoothed down the little hair Lia had. “But isn’t it worth it just to have a family?”

    Xellos tutted, wagging a finger in her face. “That is a secret,” he answered giving her his best ‘you wouldn’t hit a man with a baby, would you?’ smile.

    “And I don’t mind that,” Filia replied, taking a seat beside him and tickling Lia’s tummy, much to the child’s delight, “because this time I’m in on it.”

    *****

    Epilogue.

    Xellos, Lord Beastmaster realized, was chattering. He was ostensibly giving a report on his daughter—and it had started out that way. He’d let loose the interesting fact that the child had ample quantities of both black and holy magic, and not separately either; the magics were fused. He’d shared some of his suspicions over the forms that the child could take, but it was around that point that he seemed to have derailed himself in describing the girl.

    Lord Beastmaster couldn’t help but imagine him on a job now. He’d stare down his prey, ready to make the final strike, then he’d say ‘Before I kill you…’, reach into his pocket, take out a wallet and finish with: ‘would you like to look at a picture of my kid?’

    And then they were pretty much off to the races. Xellos had shared the surely irrelevant tale of their trip to the market place to buy some clothes for the baby, a treatise on the disadvantages of cloth diapers, and a gloating account over the civil war he and Filia had been engaged in to buy the baby’s favorite toy. Apparently he was winning that last one.

    Lord Beastmaster held up a hand before he could babble any further. “Has the child actually been using any of her powers?” she asked.

    “Well…” Xellos tried, endeavoring to get back to the point, “when she doesn’t get what she wants things occasionally do blow up.”

    Lord Beastmaster leaned forward. This could be promising. “A flare for destruction already?” she asked. “That is good news.” She thought for a moment and smirked. “I’m sure your dragon must be horrified by that.”

    “Not really, Lord Beastmaster,” Xellos answered. “According to Filia, Val used to set his crib on fire fairly routinely at that age. Mostly what Lia does when she’s upset is cry and let her tail pop out. She’s only blown up her mobile and a few unimportant knickknacks. Speaking completely relatively, she’s fairly well behaved.”

    Xellos and his dragon wife’s questionable concept of ‘well behaved’ aside, Lord Beastmaster was intrigued. “The child’s name is Lia?” she asked.

    “Um… yes,” Xellos admitted somewhat uncertainly. “It’s short for Filia, Lord Beastmaster.”

    Lord Beastmaster was dangerously quiet for a moment. When she spoke next is was in a deceptively light tone: “Filia, hmm? I suppose that’s a good enough name. Though,” she added, “I’m sure some people might like Zelas better.”

    “That’s her middle name,” Xellos answered, recovering as quickly as he could.

    “Is it, now?”

    “Oh yes,” Xellos said, nodding vigorously. …As of five seconds ago, at least. Filia will not be pleased about this…

    “Well, now,” Lord Beastmaster said contemplatively, “Filia Zelas Metallium. An appropriately contradictory name for such a contradictory creature.”

    “I think Filia was considering having her hyphenate,” Xellos put in.

    Lord Beastmaster waved a hand. “Even more so.” She took a drag from her pipe. “Hmm… I think it only right that I find some time to meet my granddaughter before too long.”

    Xellos scratched his cheek. The notion seemed especially precarious to him, but there didn’t seem to be much chance of stopping it. “Filia actually thought you might say that,” he admitted.

    “Oh really?” Lord Beastmaster asked, amused. “And what exactly did she have to say about that?”

    “She…” Xellos began, putting his hand behind his head and giving a would-be casual little laugh, “she told me to tell you that ours is a non-smoking household.”

    Lord Beastmaster grinned. Her canines dug into the stem of her pipe. “It’s cute that she thinks that,” she answered.

    “Now,” Lord Beastmaster changed gears, blowing a smoke infinity symbol with careless grace, “I suppose the question is… are you back to work? Or have you come to request more paternity leave to keep the dragons at bay?”

    “I do not think that the dragons intend to attack,” Xellos replied. “They’re too afraid.”

    “Yes, but if you’re not there to threaten them then perhaps that fear would vanish.”

    “They’re not just afraid of me, Lord Beastmaster” Xellos clarified. “They’re afraid of Lia. They don’t know what she’s capable of and they’re quite right in worrying that they wouldn’t be able to control her. At her current state of development she’s not much use to them, but yet not in their power to destroy. I think they will wait and see what happens before they act. I think they will try persuasion before violence.”

    Beastmaster smiled. “And they’re so very terrible at persuasion.”

    “True,” Xellos admitted. “But they are getting better.”

    “So,” Beastmaster summed up, “if the dragons aren’t poised to attack or kidnap then you are prepared to take the full share of your duties once more?”

    A pained expression crossed Xellos’s face. “I… would be, however…”

    “However?”

    “Well, if I’m not around on a very regular basis to perform my role as a father then I can’t have very much influence over Lia. That would solely be left to Filia.”

    “And that does not bode well for us,” Beastmaster mused, mildly annoyed, but not in the least surprised. “Someone like that would probably set the girl to something frivolous like… basket-weaving or some such nonsense.”

    “I thought birdhouse-making,” Xellos piped up, “but basket-weaving works too.”

    “So…” Beastmaster said, giving Xellos a knowing sort of look, “part-time then?”

    “I thought that would be the best option,” Xellos answered, oozing professionalism.

    Lord Beastmaster tapped her fingernails against her throne. “I don’t suppose it’s that different from your activities when following Lina Inverse’s group. You’ve never had a problem multi-tasking.” She appeared to reach a decision. “Very well then. You may go—and continue your reports to me on the subject on a regular basis.”

    “I shall, Lord Beastmaster,” Xellos said with a bow.

    He was just about to leave when Lord Beastmaster added: “Oh yes, and there’s just one more thing.”

    Xellos stopped. “Yes, Lord Beastmaster?”

    “For just how long,” Lord Beastmaster began, pointing idly at him, “have you been wearing that ring?”

    Xellos looked at the almost indentation of a ring on his finger, almost completely hidden by his glove, as though he’d never seen it before. “Oh, you mean this?” he asked as though it was the most inconsequential of things. “It seemed like such a small thing that I thought I’d indulge Filia’s whims.”

    “How very obliging of you,” Lord Beastmaster answered with an ironic smile.

    The End.

Posting Permissions

  • You may not post new threads
  • You may not post replies
  • You may not post attachments
  • You may not edit your posts
  •