Slayers Fan Fiction ❯ Detour ❯ Chapter Twenty Six ( Chapter 26 )

[ T - Teen: Not suitable for readers under 13 ]

by Rose Thorne
Disclaimer: Slayers is owned by a bunch of folks who aren't me. I'm borrowing them for my perverse pleasure, much as Xellos borrows emotions for his.
Chapter Twenty Six
It was midday by the time Lina realized that Xellos was giving Zel a wide berth. So far, he'd irritated her into Fireballing down a glade of trees, sent Amelia into Justice Rant Mode three times, and confused Gourry so thoroughly—over what, Lina didn't want to know—that he still looked slightly cross-eyed.
But he hadn't so much as spoken to Zel, and normally he would be taking full advantage of the chimera's grumpiness. That was actually kind of relieving, considering. After all, Zel could basically be a seven-course meal for Xellos with his angst, and with everything that'd happened lately he needed to be left alone. Zel, for his part, was pretending all of them didn't exist.
The situation was more than a little concerning. She'd expected Zel to try to go off on his own. He was stubborn like that. What she hadn't expected was for Xellos to give obvious hints so they could intercept him. Sure, it had basically been last-minute, but she'd been expecting to hunt Zel down after he left and beat some sense into him.
Whatever was going on, it was serious if Xellos would go out of his way to make sure she was involved. The number of times a Mazoku had done that was getting to be alarmingly high, and each time it had happened, bad shit had gone down.
Added to the stuff Zel was dealing with and Xellos' claim that she was L-sama's General—not to mention the awful hunch this information had given her that she didn't dare even think about—this had Lina's Oh-Shit-I'm-Screwed meter off the charts.
They had some supplies; the benefit of Amelia being a princess of Seyruun mean that when she had to leave suddenly the palace very quickly gathered some necessary provisions for the trip. So even though Xellos only hinted at the last minute, Seyruun's organization despite the Armory catastrophe had enabled them to be ready to get going on at least a short-term basis within fifteen minutes.
What she hadn't figured on was Zel setting a ridiculous pace through rural Ralteague. It was easy hiking: flat countryside with snow-covered farmland broken only by the occasional gathering of trees and farms, but going on nine hours without even stopping for lunch was excruciating. Eating a few apples while walking hadn't helped much, either; they needed an actual meal.
Now that Lina thought about it, those random glades of trees—including the one she'd, er, inadvertently set on fire—were probably orchards. Whoops.
It was pretty clear that Zel was ignoring their not-so-subtle hints, so she picked up her pace to walk beside him. Gourry and Amelia were lagging behind, and Xellos was making comments about food to irritate them. It was like he was being extra obnoxious to make up for being marginally tolerable lately, but at least they were distracted.
“We need to eat. There are little villages all around here, so let's stop at a restaurant somewhere. You know, save our supplies for when we really need them.”
Zel didn't answer for a moment, but when he did she had to resist the urge to hit him. “I'm not hungry. Feel free to find a town if you want, but I'm not stopping.”
Yeah, like she was going to let him disappear on them. Lina took a deep breath and made an effort to calm down. “We're not letting you go off on your own, Zel.”
The chimera stopped walking so abruptly that Lina didn't realize at first and had to turn around. He didn't look at her. “Lina, I don't want any of you involved in this. It's too dangerous.”
“Yeah, and so was fighting Shabranigdu, and Gaav, and Phibrizzo, and Valgaav,” she countered. “You didn't make me deal with them on my own, and I'm not the kind of person who's going to leave you to handle this alone.”
“I chose to help you then.”
“And we're choosing to help you now, you jerk. Besides, it's not like I trust Xellos to actually help you. His `help' comes with a price tag. You know that.” She grinned. “So let's go find a town and get something to eat so Gourry and Amelia stop whining, ne?”
“Yare yare. You were quite loud yourself, Lina-san.”
Xellos' voice surprised her and she looked up to find him floating above them. Amelia and Gourry had caught up, and she wasn't sure how much of that they'd heard. From the slightly-dangerous edge to Xellos' smile and Amelia's pout, she guessed it was more than what he was commenting on.
A dark look passed over Zel's face. “Piss off, Xellos.” The words were growled so low that they were almost inaudible.
Amelia gasped. “Zelgadis-san!” He didn't look at her, instead glaring up at Xellos.
The Mazoku stared back for a moment, looking a bit taken aback, but then disappeared without another word.
Lina herself was shocked into silence for a moment. Zel rarely talked like that; it was usually almost painfully clear from the way he spoke that he was very educated and from a well-to-do family. And since when did Xellos listen to any of them? She glanced at Amelia and Gourry, who looked equally bewildered.
“So, a town. There's got to be some decent inns around here,” she said when she recovered.
“An inn?” Gourry asked. “Like, with a restaurant?” Lina elbowed him hard and he shut up.
Zel frowned at her. “I need to avoid towns, Lina. After the Armory…”
“Okay, so we'll just stop there for dinner. But we need to find a town, unless you want to cook for me.” Lina smiled when he blanched. She liked big meals, so that was a pretty good threat. “But we are coming with you, whether you like it or not.”
He sighed, and she knew she'd won.
Now all they needed to do was actually find a town.
Zelgadis was well past twenty-four hours with no sleep, and all the rich meal at the inn had done was bring that fact to his full attention. Had he stuck to coffee and protein, he would have been fine, but this particular inn's “specialty” had been pasta. As in, they didn't serve anything else. Combined with his lack of sleep, still recovering from nearly dying, Xellos' assault on him, and eighteen straight hours of hiking, the carb-heavy food made him feel as though his stone skin had turned to lead.
Zelgadis had already left the restaurant, but Lina, Gourry, and Amelia were still eating, and looked as though they might be at it for a while. He didn't want to be convinced by his own exhaustion to stay and endanger the town, and the easiest way to avoid that was to wait outside. Lina hadn't liked that idea much, but he'd promised not to leave. And however tempted he was to break that promise, he knew they'd just come after him, and probably put themselves in danger trying to find him.
It had been a mistake not to stay with them at the restaurant anyway, he realized as a familiar voice spoke directly behind him.
“Zelgadis-san, it's hardly wise to go off on your own.”
Zelgadis refused to let himself feel fear, but his automatic reaction was to pull his sword and swing it in the direction of Xellos' voice. The Mazoku caught the blade between his forefinger and thumb, stopping it without effort.
“You are, after all, being targeted,” Xellos continued blandly, not releasing the blade when Zelgadis tried to pull it from his grip. Even though he was only holding it between two fingers, pulling the sword away was impossible.
“Apparently by you.”
Zelgadis let go of the sword, and it slipped from Xellos' fingers to fall into the snow between them. He left it there; it wasn't as though it would injure Xellos, even if he managed to hit him. That would take some serious magic, far beyond what Zelgadis had. He took a deep breath and focused on his anger, pushing away the fear and vulnerability that thought had inspired.
“You know perfectly well that I am not targeting you, Zelgadis-san. Were I, you wouldn't have had time to even consider reaching for a weapon.” He picked up the sword and held it out hilt-first.
Zelgadis snatched it from him and glared. “Just leave me alone.”
“I haven't bothered you all day.”
“And it couldn't stay that way?”
Xellos sighed. “Zelgadis-san, do you have any idea where you are going? Where do you intend to start this search?”
That was something he didn't know. Zelgadis didn't have a strategy, or really any idea of where to start, not that he planned on admitting it. “Where you found me, I guess,” he finally answered, shrugging.
“You know I destroyed that laboratory, and it's likely buried in snow. Any evidence is long gone from there by now.”
His voice was so soft it was almost gentle, as though he was talking to someone especially stupid or unbalanced, and it irritated the hell out of Zelgadis. He contemplated taking a swing at the Mazoku again, decided it'd be pointless, and scowled.
“Well, if I wander around long enough, they're bound to try to capture me again. Maybe I should just let them.”
The nonplussed look that crossed Xellos' face at that was vaguely satisfying. “Zelgadis-san…”
“Look, if you have a suggestion, just say it.” He sheathed his sword and rubbed his head wearily. “You're going to manipulate me into going wherever, anyway, and I just don't care anymore.”
Xellos looked away, off toward the west where the sun was setting. “Atlass,” he said after a moment. “I found that stone in an abandoned laboratory near there. I did not have the opportunity to investigate further.”
“Fine. Manipulation accomplished. We'll go to Atlass.”
Zelgadis turned away as he heard Amelia's voice calling his name in the distance. The three were headed toward them, down the road leading from town, with Lina still munching on something.
“When this is over, I'm through,” Zelgadis whispered, turning back to the Mazoku. “I don't want to see you again, no matter what the reason. I'm not playing any more of your games.”
Xellos cocked his head. “Oh? And if I ignore that request?”
Zelgadis' jaw clenched. “Then I will spend the rest of my life searching for a way to kill you. It's not as though I have anything else to do with it.” The Mazoku's eyebrows rose. “You might not see me as a threat now, but don't make me become one.”
“We'll see, Zelgadis-san. We'll see.” His smile sent a shiver down Zel's spine, and he disappeared in a shimmer of purple.
He closed his eyes and took a deep breath, calming himself and gathering his thoughts before facing his companions.
Mazoku never reacted well to threats; they simply were not tolerated. So even though Zelgadis' had been laughable—even researching the rest of his life, he was unlikely to become anything beyond a nuisance at best—Xellos had felt compelled to respond in kind. But he felt strangely troubled, and he wasn't entirely certain why.
Things were not going well.
That much was obvious. This excursion, the continued protection, would have been unnecessary had he killed Zelgadis. He should have been happy to do so, even if the chimera's existence wasn't such a danger. As it was, it was almost obligatory to destroy him, and yet Xellos could not do it.
If he had let Zelgadis die in the first place—in the laboratory, of hypothermia, twice after Amelia's Ra Tilt, of exposure on the balcony, in the Armory; there had been so many opportunities that he had not taken advantage of—none of these complications would exist. He would still be Zelas' priest, lacking the free will that was plaguing him now.
He hadn't even thought to let him die in the Armory, though it would have been the sensible thing to do. Saving him should not have been his first inclination. With Zelgadis dead, it would have been easy to hunt down the offending sorcerers alone and kill them. Or he could have manipulated Lina and simply observed as she took care of them for him.
`What if's were almost solely a human way of thinking. They implied regret, which wasn't Mazoku at all. Which begged the question: what had he become?
The direction his thoughts were taking made him restless, and he checked the group to find that they had set up camp for the night. From the look of things, they had already fallen asleep. Xellos was momentarily concerned that this meant that he had been trapped in his reflections for longer than he had first thought, but quickly realized that they were just exhausted and had stopped not too far from town.
He hesitated, floating above them, before the restlessness became too much. He had to do something.
So leaving a thread of awareness behind in case they were attacked by Xiuh, he headed for the remains of the laboratory where he had found Zelgadis. While, as he had told Zelgadis, there likely wasn't anything remaining, it was best to make sure. He was fairly certain that everything had been destroyed, but it was possible he had missed something in his haste to help the chimera. Xellos could check far more easily than the others. If he could uncover some direction, this ordeal would end sooner.
The snow, while deep, had not penetrated the inner parts of the laboratory, which unfortunately meant that he had been remiss. But this mistake could easily be a boon now, so he sifted through the remains, looking for any hints that might help.
Xellos nearly missed it, but managed to detect a sliver of that hybrid magic that had destroyed Nyx and permeated the laboratory in Atlass. It was weak, just a hint coming from below the stone, and he extended his senses to discover that there was a very small room beneath the laboratory that he had somehow missed.
He certainly had been sloppy in carrying out his mission. Even if it was small, he should have caught it. But he had seen Zelgadis in that tank before he could do his duty properly. That had changed everything.
Below he found the remains of several brow demons, fairly saturated with the strange magic. Before, Xellos may have written it off as attempts to repeat Akahoushi Rezzo's chimera experiment, but now he wasn't so sure. Nyx had been controlled by an outside source, and this magic had destroyed her after he had captured her. It was possible that these were the remains of early experiments for that purpose.
The fact that they were brow demons was not lost on Xellos. He had observed with interest Rezzo's control over Zelgadis, his crucial delay of Lina Inverse. It had, of course, snapped easily because of the youth's human will—though the fact that the Red Priest had managed any sort of control in the first place had been a testament to his power. It had been a clear manipulation of the golem, and had caused his human third to fall into a trance-like state as he was being controlled.
Whether the sorcerers had somehow heard of that incident or had uncovered it accidentally while Zelgadis was being used as a research subject, Xellos didn't know. What was clear was that they had discovered a way to control the brow demon, and were applying that discovery to higher Mazoku. Their experiments on Zelgadis had enabled this, and it was likely that they wanted to recapture him to perfect it. Already they had managed to control Mazoku as powerful as Nyx and Xiuh, and while it was an imperfect control the fact that it could be done was concerning on its own.
If Zelgadis were captured again and this technology was perfected, the Mazoku Lords would be at risk. He would be at risk. Even with this information, Xellos knew he would not be able to kill the chimera as he should.
No, things were not going well at all.
His search uncovered nothing else, and movement from the camp stilled his troubled thoughts. While his senses did not detect danger, he welcomed distraction. After completing the destruction from weeks before, he left the ruins and headed back to Ralteague.
He found Lina sitting by the fire, maintaining a barrier to keep out a freezing rain and muttering to herself. Amelia was curled up against her, sharing her cloak, sound asleep. Gourry was near her other side, close to the fire. Zelgadis was sitting against a tree, cradling his sword as he slept like a proper swordsman; he hadn't moved since Xellos had left. All of them were fairly wet.
“Oh, my. The weather turned nasty quickly, didn't it?” He appeared across the fire from Lina, who glared at him without surprise.
“I hadn't noticed,” she muttered. “I mean, it only soaked our blankets and clothes.”
“They're easily dried, Lina-san. With your magical capacity, you shouldn't have a problem.” Xellos grinned. “Although you do tend to overdo things with magic, so perhaps it was more prudent not to accidentally burn everything.”
“Haha. Want me to Fireball you? Or would the Lord of Nightmares have an issue with Her General attacking Her Priest?”
That surprised him and he knew he had been unsuccessful at hiding it when she laughed softly.
“Oh, please. As if it's not obvious.” She shrugged as best she could without dislodging Amelia. “Well, at least to me. I've had plenty of time to think about it, you know.”
“I suppose I did drop hints,” Xellos murmured. He really should have known that she would figure it out on her own. After all, he had told her that she was the Golden Lord's General, and the only way he could know that was if he was associated with Her as well.
Lina poked the fire with a stick for a while, sending sparks into the damp air. “What does She Want, Xellos? And why me? Hell, why you?”
“Yare yare. Should I be insulted?” She scowled at him, and he sighed. “I'm afraid I haven't figured out the answers to any of those questions yet, Lina-san.”
“Great. So we're wandering around blind. That just figures.”
“It appears we'll be working together for a while,” Xellos commented brightly. “Though I've found that `a while' and mortal lifespans aren't really synonymous.”
“Stuck working with you for the rest of my life? Man, I must have some awful karma.” He didn't reply, and she poked at the fire more viciously. “So does She have something to do with what's going on now? With Zel?”
“Those are two different questions, Lina-san.”
Lina closed her eyes. “So She's Involved with one of them, but not the other. Which?”
Xellos winced inwardly. She was getting far too adept at figuring out what he was saying. “She Intervened and Allowed Zelgadis-san to live,” he said after a moment. “Without Her Intervention, I would not have been able to repair his soul.”
She stared at him, open-mouthed. “So Zel's important to Her?”
He smiled weakly. “I think She was just Amused that I wanted to save him, actually.”
“You wanted—” Lina shook her head. “No, I can't have this conversation. I'm too freaking tired to handle this.” She tossed the stick into the fire. “Can you do the barrier? If we don't get sleep, we're not going to be functional tomorrow.”
Xellos only nodded, though obeying felt strange. Giving Lina that much information also grated on him; he was used to feeding her half-truths and watching her scramble around to make sense of them. Sharing like this probably wasn't wise, but she was entitled to it. They were both, after all, now serving the Mother of All, and doing anything less would be to go against Her.
He pulled several blankets from the Astral plane, where they had been since Zelgadis' brush with death at the lake, and handed them to her. “I doubt getting sick would help, either.”
She gave him a slightly suspicious look before taking them, then jostled Amelia gently. The princess stirred and mumbled something unintelligible against Lina's shoulder. “Yeah, I know. Xellos brought blankets, though.”
Amelia sat up slightly and Lina handed her a blanket, then poked Gourry with her toe hard enough to make him stir and tossed one at him. The sorceress glanced in Zelgadis' direction and frowned.
“The rain didn't wake him up. Do you think he needs one?”
Xellos `hmm'ed thoughtfully. “It would probably be best.”
Lina aborted her move to get up as Amelia slumped back against her shoulder, clutching the blanket like a stuffed animal and snoring softly.
“It doesn't look as though she's going to let you move,” he said lightly, before rising and pulling out another blanket. The chimera was fairly covered by his cloak and hood, the fur lining keeping him warm, but it was better safe than sorry. Xellos draped the heavy blanket around Zelgadis' shoulders, using another for his legs.
By the time he was satisfied that Zelgadis was sufficiently covered, Lina was already curled under a blanket with Amelia, who she had apparently decided was too much trouble to dislodge. Her magical control over the barrier wavered as she fell asleep, and Xellos took over.
He settled near the fire again for a long night with nothing to do but think.
Long chapter is long. This took a while to write. Characters weren't cooperating. Of course, it doesn't help that my muse (damn you, Xellos) is urging me to write smut.
I never expected this fic to be as long as it's become, and I'm not entirely sure how much longer it's going to be. I know where it's going, but the getting there is the issue.
Right now I need to concentrate on other things, so it might be a while before I can write the next part. I'm finally feeling better, so it's time to catch up on my work instead of goofing off.
Fawx deserves a huge thank you for catching a glaring logical issue in this chapter that I had totally missed and urging me to fix it. Chrissy and Chrislea were also a great help beta reading.
Edited 8/24/09: Discovered an inconsistency and fixed it.