They paused, just before cresting a verdant hill. Tall grasses rustled in the errant breeze, adding to the hum of various insects lurking out of sight. Lina squinted at the sun while absently swatting at tiny flies that seemed to love buzzing around her head. Although they had been walking for several hours, the sun was just barely past its zenith. "What do you say we make an early camp," she suggested, as she trampled down some grass and sat. "Go in tomorrow, first thing."
Gourry considered as he pushed his hair out of his face. "What? Lina Inverse hesitating about attacking a bunch of bandits?" he teased. "What about your reputation?"
Lina hurled a water skin at him, aiming for his gut. "This has nothing to do with the bandits," she bit out vituperatively. "And you know it!"
The teasing light faded from his eyes as he easily snagged the water skin out of the air. He took a few swallows and then dropped the skin next to her. Without saying a word, he walked the few remaining steps to the crest of the hill and stared into the valley on the other side. "I want them out of there," he said angrily, his hands curling into fists. "You know that. We've been planning this for days."
Oh yes. She knew. And she understood too. Finding out about the bandits had initially seemed like a bonus to the plan she had been quietly hatching ever since they had left Sairaag. For once, she could raid bandits and Gourry would probably cheer her on instead of being dragged into the thick of things. But the more she thought about it, the closer they came to execution, the more it left a bad taste in her mouth.
And there was no real reason that it should.
Exhaling a silent sigh, she pillowed her chin on her knees, wrapping her arms around her legs, and watched Gourry. He stood with his back to her, radiating agitation and impatience. "Okay," she capitulated. "We'll do it today. But I need a minute or two." And he did, as well.
"I can wait a minute," he said as he turned back towards her. "Or two. But not more." He pulled his sword free from its sheath and began to move through his warm-up routine.
Lina watched him, admiring his grace and quiet strength. Her eyes traced the red and gold patterns etched into his arms and then lingered on his hands. It had not been easy, nor had it been quick, but he had ten fingers again. Every time Lina saw Gourry wield his sword with confidence, instead of wincing against the weakness of his grip, she knew that time and effort had been well worth it.
It had been easy to convince Gourry to go to Sairaag. The day after she had finally recovered her magical ability, Deremar had given her a box containing the "personal" items from Erik's room. The only thing out of the entire collection that seemed to have belonged to Erik was a small ledger book bound in brown leather. It had taken her days to nerve herself up to read the thing. Even now, she half-wished that she had left well enough alone, as the book detailed almost all of her movements since she had left home, with information categorized as rumor or confirmed and complete records of his sources. Naga's name had cropped up quite a few times, much to Lina's annoyance, although she had to admire the prices Naga had managed to extort for her information. There were other familiar names as well, including the noble Hallas she had agreed to fake-marry, and the twin sisters Mimi and Nene. Many of the names meant little to her: a varied assortment of innkeepers, waitresses, and mayors of towns she had helped to save, as well as a couple she had helped destroy—only from collateral damage, of course.
It bothered her that most of it was so accurate. Erik had tracked her for years, and the knowledge that she had been so consistently scrutinized made her feel strangely vulnerable.
The book also contained several scenarios for separating her from her companions, as well as plans for dealing with any male who crossed her path: primarily Ryan and Gourry, but surprisingly they also included Xellos. Apparently, a certain princess from Zoana had blabbed about Xellos kissing her once. Lina wished Erik had tried some of his plans on Xellos. She doubted he would have had much success with the trickster priest. On the other hand . . . maybe it was better that Xellos and Erik had never met. With her luck, Xellos would have decided to help Erik . . .
To her relief, the box had also contained her cloak, talismans, and the dagger she had started carrying about a year after she and Gourry had been together. For the most part, she focused on the relief she felt that her cloak and talismans had escaped the wrath of Deremar's servants, while trying to ignore the fact that Erik had confiscated everything of hers that had any meaning. It just served to underscore how much he had known about her, and that was really disturbing.
The remaining items included the tapestry Gourry had stolen, a small book bound in black leather that Lina remembered finding in the bedside table in Gisella's room, and a red gem with a very distinctive angular cut.
Suddenly, several pieces of the puzzle had neatly slotted together. Lina had no idea why Gisella would have kept the gem—she was guessing that it was one of Eris's mind-control gems, although she was not completely sure. If Gisella had been a copy, it would certainly explain a lot. But before she was going to offer such an explanation to Gourry, she wanted something more definite than a mind-control gem and a dagger bearing an emblem that blended elements of the Gabriev device with that of Rezo the Red Priest.
All she had to do was tell Gourry she wanted to go to Sairaag because she thought there were answers about Gisella there, and he was ready to pack and start out on the road. He never really said anything about it, but she knew that his encounter with Gisella had shaken him to the core. She had known that ever since he had shown her the dagger they had planned to bury with Gisella, pointing to the part that resembled the Gabriev insignia. Gourry needed answers, but since he had no clue how to find them, he was asking her to do it for him.
The fact that there were potential answers in Sairaag had made it so much easier. She had fully intended to seek out Sylphiel to see if the shrine maiden could regenerate Gourry's missing fingers. Theoretically, such a healing should be possible. After all, Siebert seemed to think it could work, and if Sylphiel had been able to restore Flagoon after the great tree had been destroyed by the Copy Rezo's spell, Gourry's fingers should be child's play in comparison. Still, like half-formed guesses about Gourry's mother, Lina wanted to be certain before she suggested it. The thought of offering Gourry a hope that might turn out to be false . . . She was pretty sure Gourry could handle the disappointment, but she doubted her own pride would survive as well.
Their journey to Sairaag had been largely uneventful. The imperial government of Lyzeille had rebuilt much of the city, and it boasted wide boulevards and many of the latest amenities , including a large park that marked the site where Flagoon—and coincidentally Hellmaster's fortress—had stood, a covered amphitheater, and a hippodrome for horse racing.
Sylphiel had greeted them warmly, insisting that they stay with her. Lina had protested, thinking it would be quite awkward to explain that she and Gourry were together now, but Sylphiel had played dirty, appealing to Gourry's love of her home cooking, and Lina's skinflint nature. Lina was not sure if she was miffed or relieved that no explanations had been necessary. It had been a bit strange watching Gourry and Sylphiel interact. It was as if nothing had changed between them, and after Lina thought about it, she realized that nothing had changed between them. At any rate, Lina had never really felt threatened by the other woman's open affection for Gourry. She still remembered that Sylphiel had saved her from the Copy Rezo, as well as her kindness and support when they had faced Hellmaster.
In the end, regenerating Gourry's fingers had been long and torturous, mainly because they had already healed naturally from the amputation. It hurt that there was so little she could do for him throughout the painful process. Instead, she put most of her energy into ransacking Rezo's labs just outside Old Sairaag. At least that was something she could do to help.
Rezo's labs were in surprisingly good shape, considering that she, Gourry, Amelia, Zelgadis, and Sylphiel had busted through most of its defenses. She supposed the depths of the labs might have been a sufficient deterrent to common thieves.
Rezo and his various assistants had been rather meticulous about recording details, and Lina found answers to several questions. According to Rezo's personal journal, he had personally led the assault on Gabriev Keep. Although his motive had been to acquire the Sword of Light, the official version of the story was that he was purging a great evil from the Keep. The fact that there were no known survivors, meant there was no one to contradict his version of events.
The snatches she had heard from Gourry had been inadequate to prepare her for what she read in Rezo's records about Gabriev Keep, and it was quite clear that the Great Sage and virtuous priest had already adopted an "ends justify the means" mentality that he used to excuse his methods. From Lina's perspective, those who died in the initial assault were the lucky ones. The rest had been imaginatively brutalized in the presence of the Lord and Lady of the Keep to induce them to talk. Gourry's mother had been forced to watch the torture, maiming, and eventual deaths of her husband and son because it had been revealed that she had been the one to send a servant to deliver the Sword of Light to Gourry. The horrors that Lady Gabriev had endured were enough to give Lina nightmares, and she swore to herself she would never tell Gourry the full story of how his mother had been tortured to death. Rezo had broken her body and her mind, but in spite of everything, Lisielle's will had held, and she took her knowledge of the Sword of Light's whereabouts to the grave.
Rezo had thought it was a stroke of pure fortune when they discovered samples of hair within the main-gauche. From earlier experiments with chimeras and copies, Rezo and Eris knew they could create a full copy—one that carried both the skills and the memories of the original. The only drawback to a full copy was that they tended to be mentally unstable. Gisella had been an intense disappointment. She shared Lisielle's memories up to the point when the hair sample had been taken several years earlier. In his paranoia and desperation, Rezo had Lisielle's copy tortured just to make sure she was being honest about her memories. The last record Lina could find regarding Gisella was a short note that her sanity had shattered more quickly than expected.
She was able to confirm Deremar's suspicion that Rezo and the Gabrievs were related, although the relationship went back so many generations to be nearly meaningless. Lina was looking forward to the next time they met up with Zelgadis. Gourry had been thrilled to find out that he still had living relations, no matter how distant. She could already picture Zel choking on his coffee when Gourry called him "cousin."
She had also learned exactly why her capacity for magic had so dramatically increased. It was a bit sobering to realize that she probably could cast the Blast Bomb now, even without the Demon's Blood Talismans, a feat that had only been accomplished by Lei Magnus, the legendary sage who had harbored a fragment of Shabranigdu within him. Deremar and his library offered an incomplete explanation as to why she had been unable to reclaim her full magical ability, as well as the solution. Thanks to Eris's work with chimeras and copies, the records in Rezo's lab provided full theoretical underpinnings, based on extensive research.
For most people, magical ability was tied to puberty. Hers had been awoken much too early before she had the strength and maturity to fully control it. Luna and her mother had taught her the discipline, but knowingly or not, they had also trained her so that she could not tap into her full strength. Her pre-pubescent body had lacked the proper channels to align with the magical power, which was the main reason she had spontaneously burst into flame. The magic did not know where to go, so to speak. Luna and her mother had helped her form channels, but they were artificial, rather than natural. The best analogy was to compare a canal with a river. Water could run very swiftly through a canal, but it would never have the same wild force as a river flowing through a natural bed.
Even after puberty, Lina had continued to use the artificial pathways to channel her magic, not really knowing any differently. However, for whatever reason, becoming sexually active had weakened the canals, and the magic had started to move towards her natural pathways. That explained why some of her magic had felt different. She had first noticed it when she cast recovery on Gourry after escaping from the botched lynching attempt. It also explained why suddenly she was able to use her magic much more creatively. She had always been interested in developing alternative versions of common spells—her breaking and rebounding fireballs were two variants of which she was particularly proud—but it had always taken a lot of effort, a lot of trial and error, and a lot of frustration before she had achieved workable results.
The fact that her magic was transitioning from artificial toward natural channels also explained why Erik had been unable to seal her completely. Instead of using magic the way she was accustomed, she had unknowingly been forcing new pathways. Multiple little pathways, in fact. When she had broken Erik's seal, the magic had flooded through her, nearly burning her out in the process. With too many channels, her body had not known where to focus its energy for rebuilding, which explained her long recovery process.
As she had tried to explain to Gourry, she needed to discover the exact location of her natural channels, which was best accomplished by aligning herself with the natural ley lines of the earth. The next step had been to strengthen those natural paths, which required the amplification of a magic circle.
About the only thing she had not managed to discover in Sairaag was why Gisella blamed her for the destruction of Gabriev Keep.
Lina knew there was no basis in Gisella's accusations. She knew it was stupid to be so concerned about what an insane—not to mention dead—woman thought. And yet she still could hear the venomous hatred in Gisella's voice as she claimed vengeance and retribution. She could still see her triumphant expression as she plunged her dagger into Lina's chest. She could still feel the pain—the physical sensation of multiple lacerations was nothing compared to the knowledge that the mother of the man she loved was trying to kill her.
She hated the thought of attacking Gabriev Keep, even to clear it of bandits, because it made her remember that feeling of complete rejection. She still remembered wondering how she could possibly tell Gourry that his mother died trying to kill her.
Gourry finished his warm-up routine and took a deep cleansing breath, and then he walked over to her, holding out a hand to help her up. "I never believed Gisella's accusations," he reminded her softly.
It still surprised her on occasion how accurately he could read her.
Lina studied him even as she allowed him to pull her up. Impatience and agitation were gone, and he was once again the calm imperturbable swordsman. "I know," she answered, squashing her misgivings. "C'mon. There are bandits down there that need to taste the Inverse brand of justice!"
They crested the hill together, and Lina had her first glimpse of the ruined hulk of Gourry's ancestral home that now served as the base of a nasty group of bandits who had been terrorizing the countryside. According to the rumors, the Emperor of Elmekia had placed quite a tidy bounty on this gang, enough to entice several bounty hunters and justice freaks. So far, the bandits had proved undefeatable. That was about to change. Lina dismissed all thoughts of Gisella's accusations and the uncomfortable knowledge that she was about to give truth to what had before been a lie. She only allowed herself to think of the bandits, and the sweet taste of victory that would soon be hers, not to mention all their loot plus the rumored reward. After all, she was fighting bandits, not destroying and torturing a family.
"Fireball!" she shouted, issuing her challenge and sending out the opening volley.
Bandits swarmed out of innumerable hiding places, each of them armed to the teeth and ready to fight. They laughed when they saw that they were attacked only by a small girl and a swordsman, and like any group of over-confident men, they zeroed in on Gourry first, thinking him the greater threat. Lina wasted little time disabusing them of that particular notion.
All in all, the bandits provided so little challenge, Lina half wondered if the rumors about a reward were just that. They certainly did not seem to rate the attention of the Emperor of Elmekia. With her luck, the bandits themselves were the source of the rumor—probably some lame attempt to increase their reputation or something. Their only advantage seemed to be their numbers, but the way they streamed out of various parts of the keep like lemmings made them ridiculously easy pickings.
Lina felt almost cheated as she shot off a couple weak fireballs to chase down the few who demonstrated some modicum of intelligence and decided to flee. All that angsting, and they could not even provide a decent challenge. She nudged the body of one of the leaders with her foot, looking in vain for anything of value while Gourry wiped his sword on the tunic of one of the less crisped bandits. At least they were good for something.
Turning in a slow circle, she assessed the layout of the keep and bailey, locating the most likely places for loot stockpiles. She could see why the bandits made this place their base of operations. It was sizeable enough to house a large band, and it also provided some measure of defense, ruined though it was. Had the bandits been smarter, they would have holed up in the keep, rather than rushing out, confident that their superior numbers would give them an advantage. Not that the keep would have saved them indefinitely. At best, it would have bought them a little more time. Still, Lina was glad there had been no need to target the keep specifically.
Two competing desires warred within her. Standard operating procedure dictated that the first order of business was to hunt for stragglers and locate the treasure pile. Given the size of the place, Lina was seized by the paranoid fear that someone would sneak up behind her and make off with the best stuff. Unfortunately, this was not just any bandit camp. This was also Gourry's childhood home. It was a place filled with powerful and excruciatingly painful memories.
When they had heard the rumor that Gabriev Keep was serving as a base of operations for a bandit gang, Gourry had been so quiet that at first Lina had wondered if he had actually heard anything that had been said. She had been on the verge of elbowing him hard to get him to pay attention, when he had casually asked her how she felt about taking a trip to Elmekia. He had seemed calm enough, but Lina had caught the tight clench of his jaw and the fire burning in his eyes. She had agreed, grateful for the excuse, as she had been wracking her brains, trying to come up with a legitimate reason to get them to Gabriev Keep without raising his suspicions. Intuitively, she understood that Gourry would never be able to put his encounter with Gisella behind him until he returned to his childhood home. As much as he seemed to have a brain with the retention powers of a sieve, she knew this was not something easily forgotten, even if he never talked about it, aside from that one day when he walked in on her trying on Lucilla's dresses.
Find the treasure? Or stand by Gourry as he faced all those memories? Well, there was an easy way to do both.
Gourry stood in the center of the bailey, staring at what was left of the keep. Lina closed the distance between them and slipped her arm through his. He smiled down at her absently, but clearly he was not completely distracted as he reached over with his free hand to wipe a bit of soot off her cheek. "I thought you'd be hunting out their treasure stash by now," he said quietly.
She shrugged noncommittally. "I will. I was kind of hoping you'd show me around first, though."
"Really?" he asked, sounding genuinely surprised.
"What's wrong with that?" she shot back, feeling rather miffed that he thought she would choose treasure over him. Especially when she could have both. "Is it so surprising that I want to see the place where you grew up?"
Gourry turned to face her, giving her a very piercing look, the one that made her want to squirm. "Why?" he finally asked.
"Do I have to have a reason?" she retorted, putting on her best expression of injured innocence. "I just wanted a simple little tour. You don't have to make it seem so complicated."
"Lina," he said in a no-nonsense tone, "nothing you do is ever 'simple.'" He paused, considering. "And I can't believe you just accused me of complicating things."
"Alright, fine," she said with a pout. "I'll tell you why after I get my tour."
"Aha!" he exclaimed triumphantly. "So you do have a reason."
"Fine, okay?" she responded impatiently. "You're very clever. And if you want an explanation—"
"Oh, I don't know," he interrupted, waving his hand self-deprecatingly. "I've never been the curious one. And some explanation that's likely to go right over my head doesn't sound like something—Ow!"
The last was in response to her pounding her fists against his chest. She glared up at him when he captured her hands in his, but it faded quickly when she saw the bittersweet smile on his lips.
"I just wish you could've seen it before . . ." He trailed off, his eyes going once again to the ruined keep.
The tour he gave her was a macabre mixture of endearing childhood memories and the horror that he had found the last time he had been here. He showed her the small gurgling creek beyond the bailey where he, his brother, and the other children of the keep had sailed toy boats, and told her about how when they were bored they would make balls out of the muddy clay and hurl them at each other, and how that always got them into trouble with the grown-ups.
He showed her the place where he had found his father's and brother's hands and heads mounted, and told her that they had been so ravaged by the carrion-eaters that the only way he could identify them was by the long blond hair on the ground beneath them.
She saw the kitchens, and he started describing how he would sneak down to snitch food. All the while, she tried to avoid looking at the long central table and the large grease stains that looked eerily human in shape. Gourry broke off his story and glanced over at the tables. His jaw tightened and he swallowed hard before he took her by the hand and led her up a back flight of stairs and into what was obviously a bedroom, although the only things that remained were the frame of a large bed and small assorted bric-a-brac. Lina picked up a small wooden sword that had been tossed carelessly by the fireplace and swung it experimentally. She had thought it to be a toy, but upon closer inspection, she realized that it was more in the nature of a practice weapon made for a child.
"Yours?" she asked, as she balanced it on her finger, seeking the point of equilibrium.
"Yeah," he responded, taking the sword from her. "I used to sleep with it," he said with a smile as his fingers ran over the smooth wood edges. "Drove my mother crazy when I came down with the imprint of the hilt in my cheek."
"You slept with a wooden sword?" Lina demanded, and then she sighed. "Why does that not surprise me?"
"Well, yeah," he replied. "A swordsman should always have a weapon at hand, right?" He laughed as he ran a hand through his hair. "At least, that's what I heard the guards saying! What did you sleep with?"
Lina blushed, remembering the rag doll Luna had made for her. Not only had she slept with it, she had also dragged it everywhere she went. "Just a doll," Lina said defensively.
"Huh," Gourry responded in surprise. "That's so . . . normal. I'd have thought you'd slept with wild animals, the way you thrash around—"
"Normal?" Lina interjected indignantly. "I was normal! Until—" She broke off abruptly, biting her lower lip.
"Until Erik," Gourry said with soft malevolence, instinctively tightening his grip on the wooden sword.
"Until Erik," Lina repeated with a sigh. She leaned against the bed frame for support. "It hurts," she said simply. "Remembering hurts. But," she held up a finger to stop Gourry from interrupting, "it's a part of who I am. And that I can't regret," she said with firm conviction.
"A part of who you are?" he echoed, looking confused.
"Can you imagine me married with kids, tending to a store?" she asked.
Gourry snorted in response.
"But that's exactly what I'd be doing right now if things had been different," she continued evenly. "That's not who I am any more. But I could have been."
His brow furrowed, and she could see him trying to process what she had just said. She was so tempted to make a clever comment about his lack of mental prowess, but she restrained herself with difficulty.
"'Could have,'" she said softly, hoping he would understand. "'Should have.' 'Would have.' Those are words of regret, spoken about a past that can't be changed. If you spend all your time focusing on what can't be changed, you become obsessed, and it makes you less. Like the Copy Rezo who destroyed Sairaag in his quest to change the reality that he was a copy. Like Erik." She shook her head. "I won't live like that."
"Is that why you wanted a tour?" he asked.
"Part of it," she said seriously. "A lot of who you are is tied up in this place," she made a wide gesture meant to take in the entire keep.
Gourry grimaced. "I knew it would be an explanation that mostly went over my head," he said wryly.
"Well, 'mostly' is better than 'entirely,' I suppose," Lina muttered in annoyance.
"C'mon," he held out his hand to her. "There's still more to see."
The sun was low on the horizon when he led her into a half-ruined room that looked like a small chapel, for all that it lacked a central altar or obvious devotional space. Heavy granite benches were scattered about in no obvious pattern. Some had clearly been knocked over.
"What is this place?" Lina whispered reverently. For all that it was small and ruined, it reminded her a bit of the large temple she had visited that night in Levahn. Maybe it was the pointed arches and the alcoves.
"It's the ceremony room," Gourry said absently as he disappeared into one of the alcoves. A moment later, Lina heard the grinding sound of moving stone from the northern side of the room.
"A secret passage?" she asked excitedly, forgetting all feelings of reverence as her thoughts whirled at the prospect of hidden treasure. She hurried over to watch one of the flagstones lower and recede under its neighbors, exposing a stairway leading down.
Gourry gave her an odd look. "It leads to the crypt," he said finally. "And, Lina?" he asked over his shoulder as he started down the stairs. "No looting."
Lina stuck her tongue out at his receding back and then followed him down, casting a light spell to illuminate the way before them.
The passageway was smooth on either side, lined with large slabs of tightly fitted marble. She could just barely detect the faint scent of decay one associated with crypts as they followed the spiral passage deeper into the earth. After a few moments, they came to a seemingly impenetrable wall blocking the end of the stairway. As Gourry stepped off the final stair, Lina heard twin grinding noises—one from the movement of the wall in front of them, the other from far above. As the passageway opened, the faint odor of decay became overwhelming. Lina increased the intensity of her light spell and nudged it forward so she could get a better view.
Beyond the foot of the stairs was small circular room. Dark paths led off from the room at regular intervals, giving Lina the impression that she was at the hub of a wheel, each path a spoke. However, most of her attention was focused on the dead body that had suddenly toppled into their path when the passageway had opened. Well, that explained the smell.
Gourry gave the body a cursory glance before swearing softly under his breath.
"What?" Lina asked, giving the body a closer look. It was rather bloated and she figured that whoever it was had been dead for about a week or so. "Looks like a bandit," she finally offered.
"Probably," Gourry said shortly. "I guess it was too much to hope that no one had found this place." Lina heard both disgust and impotent fury in his tone.
"What'd you expect?" Lina asked as she considered the best way to get rid of the corpse. "An ancient ruined keep like this is any treasure hunter's dream, and it has been a bandit base for who knows how long?" She finally decided that a localized variant of blast ash would be most efficient.
"Is it too much to hope that the dead will be left in peace?" Gourry shot back.
Lina finished her spell and turned to look closely at Gourry. "They're dead, Gourry. What do they care?"
"The dead are people, too." He set his jaw stubbornly.
Lina ground her teeth in frustration. She had no desire to get embroiled in an argument about the ethical treatment of the dead, so she changed the subject. "I wonder how he died," she said as she nudged her toe at the gritty grey ash that was all that remained of the corpse.
"Stuck, I'd guess," Gourry replied, sounding quite satisfied.
"Stuck? How?" Lina suddenly remembered that she had heard the faint sound of moving rock above them.
"It's the way the crypt is built," he explained. "The entrance in the ceremony room closes when the door to the crypt itself is opened."
"Okay," Lina said slowly. "So how do you get out of here, then?"
"Well, normally you'd just have someone flip the switch in the alcove, same way I opened it before."
"How do we get out of here, Jellyfish?" Lina demanded with some ire. "Who's going to flip the switch for us?"
"The other way," Gourry continued as if Lina had not interrupted, "is to use one of three things: the Gabriev signet, the hilt of the main-gauche, or the hilt of the Sword of Light." He paused and gave Lina a very penetrating look. "You are wearing the signet, right?"
"Of course I am!" she retorted, her hand automatically tracing the line of the gold chain Gourry had bought to replace the thong.
"Then we have nothing to worry about, do we?" He gave her that easy-going grin that somehow managed to be encouraging and infuriating at the same time. Then his smile faded. "C'mon," he said, holding out his hand.
He led her across central room and into the passageway opposite the stairs. Now that she was less distracted by the dead body, she could see that about half of what she had taken for passages were actually deep niches carved into stone, alternating with passages. Along the passage Gourry led her, there were more niches, spaced at regular intervals. Most were occupied by a large block of granite supporting a carved sarcophagus. She lost count of how many they had passed when Gourry finally stopped. He paused for a moment, and then entered one of the niches. She waited in the corridor. From her position, she could see the heavy granite block, but there was no sarcophagus. Instead, the block was covered with a large faded tapestry that was awkwardly bundled.
The silence stretched out.
Finally, Gourry let out a long sigh. "I don't remember much," he said slowly. "I'm not really sure I was sane. I had planned to bury them last. I have a vague memory of apologizing to them about not having proper tombs. By rights they should each have their own alcove . . ."
Lina studied the tapestry that served as a communal tomb for Gourry's father, mother, and brother. She could easily picture him, exhausted and heartbroken, smeared with grime and sweat from his effort to bury the dead in the tamped earth of the bailey, bundling the mutilated corpses of his family and carrying them down here. It was no surprise that he remembered little. Lina loved her family very much. But with Gourry, it was different. It was more. She absently fingered the gold line that wrapped up her arm. For Gourry, the bond had to be deeper. It had to be more, whether it was the bond between lovers or the bond among family. Which explained why he had brought her down here. It was as close as he could come to introducing her to his family.
As if he had heard her thought, Gourry began to speak. "This is Lina Inverse," he said. "She's bossy, greedy, easily irritated, violent and stubborn."
"Hey!" Lina objected, stiffening automatically.
"She also eats like a horse and gets into more trouble than you could possibly imagine," Gourry continued affectionately, ignoring her protest.
"You forgot, 'Beautiful Sorcery Genius,'" Lina prompted with a growl.
"And she's definitely not modest," Gourry added with a grin, deliberately ignoring the daggered look she shot at him. "She's called 'Dra-Mata,' 'Dragon-Spooker,' and 'Enemy-of-all-Who-Live.' But in spite of all that, I think you'd all like her."
"What kind of introduction is that?" Lina demanded.
"An honest one?" he asked in return as he placed his arm around her and pulled her close.
Lina struggled half-heartedly against him, but she subsided at his next words.
"I've promised to stay with her forever," he said as he gave her shoulder a quick squeeze and held her tighter. "She's the woman I love."
In spite of all her faults. Which he had just so accurately listed. Part of her wanted to kick some sense into him for such an unflattering introduction. But she understood. It was a part of that deeper bond. There were no lies, no hidden agendas between Gourry and his family. And suddenly, she had just a glimmer of insight into why he had seemed so mentally battered and bruised after spending so much time with Gisella, and why he never seemed to mourn her death. She also understood why she had instinctively thought that Gourry should return to his home. Still, she was personally quite relieved that there were no living relatives to impress, particularly since she would have started at such a distinct disadvantage. Gourry may love her in spite of—or maybe even because of—her nature, but that did not necessarily translate to the in-laws. She had to wonder how her family would react if she introduced Gourry as a Yogurt-for-Brains Jellyfish. She shook her head slightly and grimaced. Luna would most likely lecture her for poor manners. It may be an accurate description of his mental prowess—or lack thereof—but she wanted her family to be impressed with her mate, not questioning her sanity.
Finally, Gourry finished his conversation with his family, and they walked back in silence toward the stairs. Lina understood that the tour was over, and it was time to put her plan into motion. If anything, seeing the wrecked remnants of Gourry's childhood home strengthened her resolve.
They were in the middle of the circular room Lina had dubbed "the hub" in her mind when Gourry suddenly stopped dead in his tracks, startling her out of her thoughts.
"What?" she asked automatically as she followed his gaze to a passageway just to the right of the stairs. It was nearly overflowing with objects, many of which sparkled and glinted enticingly in the light of her spell. "Ah!" she exclaimed as she drifted over. "So that's where it is!"
Gourry grabbed her elbow. "What do you mean, 'that's where it is'?" he demanded.
"Oh, c'mon, Gourry," she said as she twisted her arm free of his grip. "We haven't seen anything all afternoon. The bandits had to be storing their loot somewhere!" She skipped over to examine the pile, picking up a silver serving tray.
"Hey!" Gourry exclaimed as he snatched the tray out of her hand. "That's not bandit loot! It belongs to my family!" He tried to interpose himself between her and the pile, spreading his arms out as if to guard it from her.
Lina easily dodged him and scooped up another object. "It can't all be yours," she protested, holding up a silver cup shaped like a skull with rubies in the eye-sockets. "I really can't see something like this sitting on the Gabriev dining table."
"Okay, maybe it's not all my family's," Gourry conceded, "but most of it is." He pointed at a pile of heavy blue velvet. "Those used to be on the bed in my room."
"Gourry," Lina pointed out reasonably, "I don't think your family really needs it any more. Besides, according to principles of the transfer of property ownership, it technically moved into the possession of the bandit gang, and since we just defeated them, their property is now ours. So what's the harm of us going through it for the most valuable stuff?"
"Lina," Gourry growled, "I'm not going to sit here and watch you loot my family's possessions."
Lina shrugged, a deliberately casual move that was orchestrated to goad him exactly where she wanted him. "Okay, so assuming you can stop me, how do you plan to stop the next group of bandits who decide to take up residence here?"
She watched him process that question. His brow furrowed and he slowly lowered his arms to his side.
"The way I see it," she said finally, "there are three options." She held up three fingers and started ticking them off. "First, you can let me take whatever's valuable, or accept that someone else will come behind us and do it. Second, I could destroy the entire place with a Dragon Slave. That way no one gets anything."
"And the third?" he asked tightly.
"We could rebuild," she said simply.
His face brightened momentarily, and then it fell. "No."
"Why not?" Lina asked, marshalling all her arguments. She was pretty sure it would be easy to make him see things her way.
"Two reasons," he said shortly. "Too expensive, and I've seen your idea of 'rebuilding.' No way I want my family's keep turned into some crazy looking wacko place."
"Pfft," Lina waved her hand dismissively, although she felt a bit miffed. "That stuffy temple needed some character. Besides, those dragons at the Fire Dragon Temple got what they deserved, making us rebuild when it wasn't even our fault." She unfastened her cloak and lay it out on the floor. "First of all, money isn't an issue." She pulled assorted small items from various pockets, organizing them carefully, remembering Xellos's shocked expression when she had produced the equivalent of five and a half million with a bundle of crowley roots, two meltian potions, a radilin ring, a remtite gem, and a crufer pill. If she was going to carry her wealth with her—and given her peripatetic lifestyle, that was pretty much the only option—it had better be small, portable, and incredibly valuable. "I won't bore you with all the names," she said, glancing up at Gourry, "but suffice to say that I've got enough here to buy half the city of Seyruun if I wanted. I think it should be more than enough to get Gabriev Keep back into operational status. We should even have enough to hire an initial staff."
Gourry stared at her, his mouth opening and closing silently several times. Finally, he found his voice. "Who are you, and what have you done with my Lina?" he asked weakly.
"What's that supposed to mean?" Lina demanded.
"After all those times you've made me pay for everything, you're offering to pay millions to fix something that isn't even yours?" he shot back.
Her eyes glinted dangerously. She ripped off one of her gloves and shoved her sleeve up, exposing the deep red line that twined across her fingers and up her arm. "Do you remember what I said?" she asked softly but intently.
Understanding dawned slowly in his eyes.
"'Everything that I am, I give to you.'" Lina gestured down at the items arranged on her cloak. "'All that you are, I claim for myself.'" She gestured at the room around them. "I told you earlier, this place is a part of who you are," she said angrily. "If you reject my claim to this place, you reject the bond between us."
Gourry reached down and took her hand, arranging his grip to align the pattern that marked them both. "I remember what you said," he said slowly. "And I remember what I said," he continued, tightening his grip until it was nearly painful.
As quickly as it had blossomed, her anger faded. "'You'll never be free of me. Ever.'" She quoted his words back to him.
Gourry nodded, and the strength of his grip eased. "Why?" he asked.
Lina pulled her arm gently from his grip and turned in a slow circle, her arms spread out. "I want some stability," she finally said. "Don't get me wrong, I'm not talking about settling down," she said with a small laugh. "I just want . . . a home."
"And?" Gourry pressed.
"I know you," she said simply. "You were willing to walk away without a backward glance however many years ago it was, when you thought that all that was left was you and a sword." She caught his eyes with her own. "How long had you planned before those were gone, too?"
Gourry flinched, confirmation enough that her guess was not far from the mark.
"I know you," she repeated. "You're not really a possessive person, not like me," she said self-deprecatingly. "But the things that belonged to your family are different." She ticked items off on her fingers. "The Sword of Light. The tapestry. The main-gauche." She paused. "This keep." She paused again. "Can you really walk away from here, knowing that some other bandit gang will move in, probably before we're even over the horizon?"
"No," he answered honestly. "But . . ." He trailed off, looking from her to the walls around them. "As long as I thought it was just me, I never looked back. I never thought of coming back. I never even thought it would be possible," he finally said, before another lengthy pause. "I don't even know what to think, now," he confessed.
"I want this," she said intently. "For selfish reasons: I want the castle and the servants."
"Figures," Gourry replied with a snort.
"And for unselfish reasons, too," she continued, glaring at him for his interruption.
"How long have you been planning this?" he asked, ignoring her glare.
Lina pulled a folded piece of parchment out of a pocket in her cloak and handed it to him. "Ever since I realized what this was."
Gourry slowly unfolded the parchment Lina had found hidden beneath the flyleaf of a book back in Gisella Gabriev's room. His finger traced over the drawing of the central hub and its radial lines. "Where'd you get this?" he demanded.
"You'll never guess!" she said with a laugh.
"Do you realize this is the original plan for the Keep?" he asked incredulously. "It's been missing—"
"For a hundred years?" Lina interrupted innocently.
Gourry gaped at her.
"C'mon," she said, tossing her hair over her shoulder. "Finding information like that is child's play for a Sorcery Genius like Lina Inverse!"
"Lina . . ." he growled.
"Okay, okay," she capitulated. "I found it in that smut book you were reading in Gisella's room. Remember?"
"The script in the book looked about a hundred years old," she interrupted again. "It was an easy guess that the plans had been hidden that long."
"Well," Gourry said slowly, staring at the plans, "as long as we have something to follow that doesn't depend on your warped sense of architectural construction . . . and you're willing to pay . . ."
"I knew you'd see things my way, Gourry!" she exclaimed gleefully. She scooped up the items on her cloak and stuffed them into a pocket before rushing toward the stairs. "C'mon," she called over her shoulder, "we've got a ton of work to do!"
She stopped when she noticed that Gourry was not following her. Ever so faintly, she heard him say, "I told you that you'd like her."
AN: Thanks to everyone who has stuck with the story over the past four years. It's hard for me to believe that this story has consumed so much of my life, and that a simple little plot bunny about breathing would turn into something so huge (239 pages on my hard-drive) with so many discrete plot threads.
Special thanks go to Filing Sloth, who has persevered as my beta-reader for three out of the four years this story has been in progress. He's encouraged me when I haven't felt like writing, brought a critical eye to characterization, and pushed me to develop ideas that I might have let fall by the wayside. He's been a sounding board, and given much-needed advice to help me whenever I've had that sinking feeling that I'd written myself into a corner from which there was no return. Most of all, he's become a good friend, and for that I am truly grateful. So thanks, 'Sloth!