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The Vale of Shadows
The three exhausted adventurers ran for their lives. Well, at least two of them did. The other one was being half dragged half led through the twisting maze of the gloomy forest. Fairy souls drifted by, uninterested in the runner's plight, but at least providing the faint but adequate enough light to see by in the dark woods.
Being a participant in a death chase wouldn't had been that big of a problem if it hadn't been the third straight day of it. Amelia could tell that Zelgadis was starting to struggle despite his impressive reserves. Amelia's body and mind were in a place beyond exhaustion, beyond hope, but her soul, her inner fire that had stood unwavering in the clutches of the Hellmaster himself kept her on her feet, kept her at a constant pace. In fact, despite her ragged breathing and dimming vision, she was actually moving faster than Zel was, but only just barely. She refused to acknowledge that they were going to be caught by that thing closing in behind them. Where would the justice be if they were? Lina needed them; the princess of Seyruun was sure of it. They couldn't be stopped before they set Lina back on the path of righteousness.
Not that she had ever walked that path before . . ..
Amelia's resolve reaffirmed itself, more or less, and her legs pumped harder than they had in over two days. Gracia's rope became taunt but the woman was still keeping up with the bee shaped golem Amelia had created to keep her sister focused. Amelia dimly wondered where her sister kept all that stamina. She hardly seemed tired at all. Perhaps the xenasphyr was responsible. Lina would probably quip in a thinly veiled envious tone that Naga's breasts held enough fatty energy to keep an army going.
The rumbling, crashing steps of many monstrous feet kept tempo with Amelia's heart, serving as a terrifying pacemaker. They still hadn't got a good glimpse of the thing yet, all they knew was that was big. Really big, and that magic doesn't seem to do squat against it; at least spells that they were capable of casting. Using Raywing to try to escape was useless, as the thing seemed to catch up with them no matter how fast they went and the thick canopy hindered their ascent. Their magical reserves soon become exhausted before the end of the first night, save the small amount needed to maintain the bee golem. The only option left was to run, hoping that the thing would grow tired or bored and leave them alone.
The forest of the Vale of Shadows was a wild and dangerous place, completely untouched by civilization. A place taken out of Amelia's vast collection of storybooks, myths and legends: an evil place the hero had to conquer before rescuing the kidnapped princess or defeating a wicked beast. Ancient and gnarled trees, thick but loose moss and large and rock-like mushrooms coming together in such a random way that only nature could make it seem even remotely beautiful. It only made it that much harder to run. Amelia thought she could see people in the trees, withered and twisted; faces skewed in utter agony and fear, a warning to any who would enter the woods. Would the three runners become like they if they were caught?
Speaking of getting caught, sharp thorns and low branches had left their clothing torn and frayed. Amelia had lost one of her amulet embedded bracelets not more than a mile back, but it was a small price to pay to be still running and not tangled up in some bush.
Zel stumbled over a tangle of black tree roots that he may or may not had seen. For an impossibly long heartbeat, Amelia's lover didn't get up, barely even moved. She screamed his name; the rumbling, beastly drum beats drawing ever nearer, shaking the ground, knocking moss loose from the trees. Zel suddenly jolted upright, harshly gasping a scream, denying his fugue and starting to run again, this time as quickly as Amelia and Naga.
But with every stumble, every slightest pause for breath brought the thing only that much closer. Growing ever to the forefront of her thoughts, Amelia knew that they couldn't keep this up forever; they needed to find some kind of a shelter or pray for some kind of divine intervention. Problem was they hadn't seen any kind of cave, animal burrow, or root tangle that would fit three people much less provide any sort of protection. She could forget about divine intervention as well for Milgasia had warned them that neither demons nor the servants of the gods could enter the Vale of Shadows.
Zel grunted something; it took Amelia a second to realize it was “cave”. Amelia's heart leapt; could this actually be the end of this ridiculous run?
The chimera slowed behind the girls; Amelia could now see the cave a short distance away, if it could really be called such a thing. It was just a jumble of boulders with an opening that might just be big enough for two people, most definitely not three. What could Zelgadis possibly be thinking?
The princess quickly found out what Zel's plan was the moment she and her sister were roughly shoved into the small opening. Amelia was too stunned to resist, she couldn't believe what was happening, what she was seeing.
As she watched Zelgadis Greywords drew his sword and tiredly adopt a defensive posture, it seemed to her, now more so than ever, that she was in a nightmare. He stole a glance her way; thru his exhausted visage she saw his smile, sad and wistful yet harden with grim resolve.
Oh, no . . .
He meant to take the thing head on. Zel had enough of the endless fleeing; he had to make his stand, Amelia realized, his pride would not allow him to die running with his back facing the enemy.
It was Amelia's fault, the princess knew. She was the one who said they should go to this hellhole. She was the one that convinced Mr. Milgasia to allow them to come here. She had to help Zel, she couldn't bear letting him face this by himself.
The woman's rubbery legs refused to obey her though. Running for so long nonstop drained her almost entirely. Now stopped, her body was done with any and all higher motor functions. She could barely even twitch her little toe. A sharp tingling all over her body was the only thing she could feel anymore. Her eyes felt like grit covered them, she could barely see through her tears and grogginess.
Still the Princess of Seyruun willed herself to put one arm in front of the other, calling upon every shred of her miniscule reserves, dragging herself out of the small cave, determined that if this indeed was their end, they would go out together. She thought of her sister, still in the cave, holding on to the bee golem with a possessiveness that bordered on ludicrous, wondering if she would die as well.
I'm so sorry daddy, but at least I will have died in way to make you proud.
The rumbling stopped, a shadow obscured her vision of the forest directly in front of her. Dread. Dread that death, physical and spiritual that were unavoidable squelched all other thoughts of regret.
It was here.
Amelia willed herself to look at what she was challenging; it was what she imagined one of the Fiends of the Apocalypse from Seyruun scripture would appear. It seemed to the horrified priestess that hundreds, no maybe even thousands of hideously charred and writhing bodies squirmed their way around the outline of a gigantic man. It had no facial features to speak of, but Amelia supposed it could see, hear and smell with the thousand pairs of sensory organs of the Shades. Yes, Shades; they were exactly as Ms. Lina described, disjointed, jerking movements, slightly insubstantial, smoky bodies and utterly terrifying.
The way that they moved, the obvious amount of pain and suffering that the rent souls were in; that was the most indescribably hellish thing of all. Now, more so than ever, did Amelia desire to save Lina's soul. If she did not she would become just like the thing standing before her. She could not imagine a more horrible fate.
But how could the shades have taken this kind of a form? It must be due to this place. The Vale is a place of chaos; these things would have more power here, the diminished and twisted souls of those who had once worshipped the Lord of Nightmares. But what cause would they have to go after them? Or is just being in the Vale itself justification enough?
Zel turned to see what was causing the rustling behind him, “Amelia! Get back into the cave!”
“You can just forget about that!” Amelia practically screeched as she cut her umbilical to Gracia with a small knife. “You know I wouldn't be able to live with myself if I just let you take this thing on by yourself!”
“Think! How would your father feel knowing that he lost his two only children?! Take Gracia and get the hell out of here!”
Amelia had already thought about this, and had come to the conclusion that there was nothing she could do to escape. While she deeply regretted the fact that she might not survive this battle and the emotional toll it would take on her beloved father; she also knew that the greatest chance for Zel, Naga and herself to survive was to face this challenge together.
“You can save the noble sacrifice bit!” Amelia practically growled, at Zel. “Everyone knows that the hero can't do that unless the situation is hopeless!” Amelia chanted a spell in the back of her throat. “And I haven't given up hope just yet!”
“Rah Tilt!” With those uttered Words of Power, a cascade of pale blue flames enveloped the beast, the magical fire ravaging the being's soul. Or, at least it should have. Amelia suddenly remembered that Lina couldn't damage shadow beings as well. Neither with magic nor with a bone dislocating shoulder tackle; it wasn't for lack of power that she could not hurt them; it was just because that the Shades existed on the plane from which all creation sprang;
The Sea of Chaos.
Another plane of existence. . .? Amelia thought. An idea popped into her mind, something even this “Crazy Girl” thought might be pushing it. But if she was right . . .
“You see!?” Zel cried. “It's useless! You don't stand a chance! At least my stone skin might offer me some protection! Run! Run while you still can! Amelia!” Zel was beyond hysterical at that point. Amelia realized that she was putting him through hell, but she had to try this. For the sake of both of their sanity because that is what Amelia believes this has truly come down to.
She took a shaky step forward, and then another, fighting sheer terror every inch of the way. It was like she was in a dream; the terrible kind where it feels like your legs are made of wet noodles slogging through a field of molasses.
“Oh, you've got to be kidding me,” Zel muttered as it became very apparent to him that Amelia had totally lost it. He started to run to her, planning to knock her out and shoving her back into that cave.
But whether it was due to fear or just plain weariness, he was not quick enough; the mass of shadows enveloped her. Zel suddenly found himself not knowing whether or not to try and avenge her or to join her. But luckily he did not have to dwell on those unhappy thoughts for long.
The Shades passed through the princess, completely leaving untouched besides the fact that she was shivering a bit. Zel ran to embrace her.
“Don't you EVER do anything like that again!” Zel admonished. “Holy crap, you're cold!” He started to briskly rub the young woman's arms, forcing blood to flow through them again.
“T-they w-were s-s-so cold-d-d . . .,” Amelia chattered, she looked more than a bit haunted by the experience as well. “B-but I s-saved us didn't I?”
“That you did,” Zel softly agreed. “That you did. But, how did you know?” Zel watched the Shade Beast lumber around the shaken pair, wondering what purpose, if any, the being was trying to accomplish.
“Remember when Lina shoulder tackled that shade she thought that had killed her sister?”
“She passed right through it,” Zel finally caught on.
“Ha ha ha,” Amelia laughed, trying very hard not to cry. She couldn't believe they got chased for so long by something that couldn't even really hurt them. It was pathetically unheroic.
Zel let out a long sigh, and rubbed the bridge of his nose. Maybe now he could make a decent cup of coffee. A massive caffeine headache was charging along at full speed along with his sheer weariness. The two of them practically collapsed onto the mossy ground, Amelia's head landing in Zel's lap. Naga came crawling out of her cave, bee still in her grasp and plopped down next to them. The Shade Beast stopped its lumbering as well and simply stood there, as if it were waiting. Zel really didn't want to think about that thing anymore.
“That was a pretty interesting adventure,” Naga quipped, digging through her pack for some food, probably.
“Yeah, no kidding . . ., WAIT A MINUTE!?” Amelia jumped to her feet, suddenly just full of energy. “Gracia! You made sense!” She wrapped her sister in a big tearful bear hug.
“Of course I did: Sense when don't I make sense? Ooohohohohoho!”
“ I wouldn't question it too much, Amelia,” suggested Zel. “It must have something to do with the power of this place. Everything seems just kind of . . .off, now that I have time to pause and take in my surroundings.” Zel glared at the mass of Shades before realizing how truly hideous the forest was now that he was inside of it and not looking in at the devious façade from many miles away.
“Meaning that we still have to destroy the Xenasphyr for it to become permanent.” Amelia reasoned, taking her mood down a notch.
“Oh, you ain't touching that!” cried Gracia, rising up to her full height.
“Oh, great,” Zel grumbled. The xenasphyr still had a hold of Amelia's sister, apparently, though it seemed to be a tenuous one. At least she was no longer trying to spike Amelia's hair with pine resin.
“But it's for your own good, Gracia!” Amelia's persuasion skills weren't very effective even on sane people. “Don't you wish to be well again?”
“I was never unwell to begin with!” Huffed the stuck up loon.
“Right, whatever you say, Gracia,” Zel intervened the argument before it could inevitably get out of hand like it all too often did when the two sisters were first reunited not that long ago. “Why don't you go get some firewood or something while I prepare some dinner?”
“Gladly!” Gracia huffed as she stalked away to do as Zel asked.
“Zelgadis!” Amelia admonished. “I was trying to get through to her!”
“You wouldn't had succeeded,” Zel was too tired to even try to be tactful. “The Xenasphyr obviously has to great a hold on her mind still; though this place has seemed to weaken it considerably.”
“Which was why I was trying to reason with her!”
“I'll say it again. You wouldn't have succeeded. The only way you'd ever get that thing off her neck would be to forcefully subdue her and I don't think you are willing to go that far.” Zel cradled the back of his head with his hands and leaned against a tree, “Listen, the only way we are going to be able to save her with as little incident as possible is to keep her out of the loop. Let's just focus on finding Lina for now, at least within earshot of your sister.”
Amelia didn't look too happy about it, but she did agree with Zel that it probably was the best course of action. She may be an emotional wreck at that moment but she wasn't about to let any chance of being rid of the Xenasphyr slip away do to her overzealousness.
After not a long while, Naga came bounding back with a surprise.
“I think we're going to be eating well tonight!” exclaimed the madly grinning woman.
“Gracia! You can't eat that! It's a little baby unicorn!” Amelia wasted no time at all becoming attached to the ridiculously cute animal looking terrified in her sister's arms.
“Well it was the only food I could find out there!” Naga protested.
“You were supposed to gather firewood.” Zel deadpanned.
“I-, well . . . I don't take orders from you! Who's the Princess now, hmm?” Naga inadvertently dropped the unicorn as she pointed at Zel in what she probably assumed to be a threatening manner.
“Oh, do yourself a favor and please be quiet.”
“Come here, girl, It'll be okay. Nobody is going to eat you.” The little filly trotted over to Amelia and accepted her gift of an apple from her side-pack.
“Hmm, well if not for food at least the beast can be put to use as a pack animal,” Zel reasoned which Amelia was all too happy to accept as Naga would've been that animal if she did what she had intended with her find.
Despite the creepy presence of the Shade Beast, the three adventurers were too exhausted to not find any sleep that night. In fact, to Amelia's dismay, they had slept nearly two whole days away, losing what she considered precious time in their search for their wayward sorceress.
The crew wearily dragged themselves out of bed, gathered their things and distributed a good deal of, but not enough to overburden, of their supplies onto the unicorn, Uni by the name Amelia gave to her new pet.
Perhaps sensing that the four were ready to go, the Shade Beast marched off in a purposeful manner but paused once it realized that Amelia and the others were not following.
“I'm seriously sick of looking at that thing,” Growled Zel as the entity turned about face to stare at them with a body posture that screamed inpatients.
“Same here, but I get the impression that it expects us to follow it,” Amelia thoughtfully replied.
“I'm not so sure I want to see where it wants to lead us,” Gracia shivered.
“For once, we are in agreement,” sad Zel. “But we really have no other leads. I'd rather be following something that seems to know where it's going than wandering around without purpose in this place.”
They went after the creature, to its apparent satisfaction and did so for days after. They didn't worry about losing it whenever they paused for a meal or rest, the beast would wait patiently for them and only move when they were ready.
It soon became obvious to the weary travelers that, while as terrifying as the Shade Beast seemed, it did not mean them any harm. In fact, it was protecting them. Several times the three heard the horrifying calls of predators and beasts they could not recognize, but the mere presence of the Shades seemed to keep them from invading wherever they decided to put up camp.
The deeper they went in the Vale, the more tangled and miserable it became to hike through. It was like trying to walk through a spider web made of thick vegetation at times, sometimes becoming stuck in the foliage for an hour at a time before they could hack their way through with sword or spell.
Uni, for her part, carried her load with not a whinny of complaint, which was more than what could be said for Gracia who seemed to become more and more agitated and defiant which each passing day. The Xenasphyr knew that something was up, Amelia supposed, but she suppressed the urge to try to explain to her sister that there was nothing to be so worked up about. As much as it pained her to keep Gracia in the dark, there was no need to let the sentient pendant inside Amelia's pack know for sure that it was in danger.
Zel never truly let go of his suspicions of the Shades, after all, it had put him and Amelia through the most terrifying ordeal of their lives, and that was saying something. He didn't complain though, not verbally, though his expression sad it all, whether intentional or not.
Amelia took each and every hurt, bug bite and setback in stride, focusing not on her present but the future. The future she hoped for at least, the one where she, her well and normal sister, Gourry, an emotionally healthy Lina and a fully human Zelgadis could all be together once again and let nothing tear them apart. They were as much her family as her father, deceased mother and sister were in every sense of the word. She could bear momentary discomforts as long as she held those thoughts in her heart.
Four days into the hiking trip from hell the Shade Beast stopped. Not for the weary three following it as they had just gotten up and got to marching not more than an hour ago. But stopped the creature was.
Zel cut through some vines and saplings and into a clearing, if you could call it that as trees and vines were still thick throughout the place, but at least now he could see the sky albeit only in patches. More importantly though was the structure that encompassed nearly the entirety of the “clearing”.
“I think we're done hiking for now,” Zel called out to Amelia and Gracia. They and Uni came through the path Zel had cleared and stared agape at the Pyramid that was now standing before them.
“Could this be . . .?” Amelia whispered, hope stealing most of her voice.
“This place is stupid,” grumbled Gracia, her eyes darting for a way to escape from this dangerous looking monolith but even she knew that there was no place to escape to. The xenasphyr was nearly powerless and could only impart a sense of paranoia to Amelia's poor sister.
“About time we got here,” Zel muttered. “The question now is whether or not we beat Lina and Gourry or if they've already come and gone.”
“We'll wait then,” called Amelia who had already climbed to the top of the strange stone building, peering into the even stranger black light that emanated from the only entrance Zel could see.
“For how long?”
“As long as we need to,” came Amelia dimmed reply as she had stuck her head a bit into the glowing darkness. “They haven't come yet, I can feel this place's power.”
“Then I guess we wait then,” Zel sighed with more than a hint of resignation. He was good at waiting. He's waited for revenge, for power, for love and for a cure his cursed body. He could wait Lina. Xellos said he would work on getting her over here though he couldn't provide a timetable.
As cynical as Zel was, he could still look at the bright side of things. They done hiking, wouldn't be want to food as the forest had plenty of it, he was with the girl he loved and nothing was trying to kill them thanks to that Shade creature that was standing ever vigilant.
He could wait at least a few months for Xellos to get his ass in gear.
After all, I'm good at waiting, Zel thought to himself as he watched the casual grace Amelia had grown to move with as she busied herself preparing a campsite, playfully trying to keep Uni from disturbing her too much, wondering were she kept her strength: Strength enough to willingly stay for an indeterminable amount of time to wait for a friend who had abandoned her for a demon. Most people would've let this Vale defeat them, just as I almost had. Amelia . . .Amelia somehow found it within herself and Zel going.
I have so much to learn from her.
Tom the Mighty's Mighty Notes.
So ends Interlude 2, bridging the gap between the points where Lina joined Valgaav and the next chapter of Slayers Knightfall which is still currently in production.
“But Tom! How did Amelia, Zel and Naga get inside the temple? Who were they fighting? Did they succeed in getting rid of the Xenasphyr?”
Patients young padawan, all will be revealed the next couple Knightfall chapters. I'm on Fall break from school so I meant just find enough time to update Knightfall before long. But no promises!