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 Nine
The wind had picked up since daybreak, whipping snow and frigid air across the countryside. They had very little shelter, even within copses of trees. The wind blew between their trunks unimpeded, buffeting them mercilessly. Zelgadis could only hope it wasn't a prelude to another storm, but given that it was still snowing, he doubted they were that lucky.
It hadn't been easy for Zelgadis to get moving at the crack of dawn like he had, forcing himself to lead the way toward distant Atlass. His body wanted him to sleep, to shut down for a while so it could heal. He tried to ignore the aches, but it was becoming more difficult as the day wore on. His vision started going hazy on occasion only an hour into the morning trek, disorienting him and exhausting him further.
They couldn't afford any more delays. He'd known that he was in danger, and that by following him so were Lina, Amelia, and Gourry. He hadn't expected that Xellos might also be at risk from the sorcerers. Or that he would betray his own race and put himself in further jeopardy to help Zelgadis. He knew full well that Zelas would kill Xellos herself if she figured out what he had done.
Zelgadis was too exhausted to make sense of Xellos' actions. He now knew the reason for the assault in Seyruun; it wasn't a defensible reason but at least it wasn't what he had originally thought. But he couldn't figure out why Xellos seemed so concerned for his life. He wasn't sure he wanted to know, anyway.
What he did know was that he owed Xellos, whether he liked it or not. He knew that he had to push through, that they had to destroy the sorcerers before it was too late for all of them.
The problem was that despite the urgency of the situation, he couldn't make his body cooperate. Already Lina and the others had silently slowed their pace for him several times. Amelia kept looking at him in concern. He didn't have another wind to rely on; he had no energy left. The blurs on the edges of his vision no longer disappeared when he tried blinking them away.
He was fading, and fast.
"He still hasn't recovered from the attack in Seyruun," he heard Amelia whisper to Lina.
Xellos appeared nearby, startling Zel. "And the attack last night took what energy he had." The Mazoku wasn't trying to keep his voice down.
Zelgadis glared at him. He was well aware that hadn't allowed enough time after the attack in Seyruun; he had started off too early, had pushed himself too hard. Admitting it and rectifying the problem was a luxury they didn't have time for.
"I'll recover as we move," he muttered, though he knew it was a lie.
Xellos seemed to know that, too. He only glanced at him with a little frown before turning to Lina. "Though it would be better to move faster, at this rate you will not be far enough north to miss the coming storm."
"Damn! Another storm?" Lina scowled when Xellos nodded. "How long until it hits?"
"A day at most. It may be best if you stay at the next town."
Zelgadis managed to catch up to them. "We don't have time for that."
"Zelgadis-san, we don't have a choice," Amelia said softly. "At least you'll have time to rest."
He shook his head, stubborn; they really didn't have the time. Every day that passed put them all in more danger. The sorcerers might have human limitations, granting them a bit of a reprieve in the storm, but Mazoku had no such limitations. A delay would give them time to uncover the danger he was to them, and Xellos' betrayal.
"If we use Raywing—" he started, but Lina cut him off.
"You don't have enough energy to even Raywing to the next town, Zel," the sorceress said with her usual bluntness. "From the look of it, you'll be lucky not to collapse before we get there anyway."
"We can't afford the delay." Zelgadis glared at her, refusing to yield even though he knew that she was right.
Lina scowled right back. "What we can't afford is for you to be in this condition if we have to fight."
Zelgadis was considering a response when his vision went white momentarily and he stumbled into Gourry. The swordsman steadied him without comment.
"See?" When his vision cleared she was grinning at him smugly, but he could tell she was also concerned. "Like it or not, we're stopping in the next town to wait out the storm. And we both know that even if you wanted to ignore me and run off on your own, you're in no state to even try it."
Trying to argue was pointless, and he couldn't think of a witty rejoinder anyway. Instead he pressed on toward town without comment. He made it another half-mile before he stumbled again, and Xellos silently pressed a walking staff into his hand. His muddled mind realized that it was the one he'd left behind somewhere. He took it, almost grateful for the help. Even if it was from Xellos.
The town was in sight, only another few miles ahead, when the aches in his limbs started to fade into numbness. Zelgadis struggled another ten minutes or so on pure desperation before his vision dimmed. He lost his grip on the staff and fell face-first into the snow.
Someone turned him over. He opened his eyes, but all he could see was blurs of colors surrounded by a white so vivid that it burned. Zel blinked a few times, trying to clear his vision, but could only barely make out hazy figures. Pale skin, he could tell, crowned with blobs of purple and black—Xellos and Amelia.
Amelia reached forward, putting her hand on his forehead. Her spell forced him to give in to his exhaustion.
It was almost a relief to let the spell drag him into oblivion.
Lina had kept her suspicions to herself, though they had niggled at her all night and especially today. It was Xellos who had carried Zelgadis to town, in the same way he'd carried him to shelter the night before, like Zel was something precious to him. The Mazoku hadn't even made them ask; immediately after Amelia's spell had taken effect, he'd lifted Zel into his arms and started moving without a word to any of them.
Amelia had insisted that Xellos and Gourry change Zel into the pajamas provided by the inn, and had dragged Lina along to the local tailor. If they dropped his torn and bloody clothing off before the storm hit, the princess reasoned, surely they would be mended and cleaned by the time the weather had cleared enough for them to travel.
Lina was of the opinion that this particular tailor would likely use the weather as an excuse to drink, that they would likely see him at the inn at various points during the storm, and that whatever mending and cleaning he did manage would be haphazard and last-minute, but she didn't bother to argue. They didn't exactly have many options in such a small village.
When they got back, she had an early lunch with Amelia and Gourry, finally replenishing the energy she'd lost in the battle the day before. Then she left them to their own devices and went upstairs to have a little chat with Xellos. Like it or not, she had to find out of her suspicions were correct.
She only wished she knew what to do if they were.
Xellos was seated on the bed, one hand touching Zel's forehead, when she came in. He didn't bother moving, and he'd surely felt her headed up here with the confused emotions she was feeling. Instead he was focused entirely on Zelgadis, his face unreadable. For a long moment, Lina could only watch as Xellos ran his thumb across the chimera's brow in slow circular motions. Then she shook herself and closed the door behind her.
"He's having nightmares," Xellos murmured, not even looking up. "He seems to have them rather frequently."
It took a moment for that to register, and then the realization nearly floored her. He was soothing Zel, and that alone pretty much confirmed her suspicions. But if Zel was having nightmares…
Lina glared at him. "Under the circumstances, you can hardly blame him. He wouldn't be having them if you hadn't taken the Sleeping spell off of him."
Xellos finally looked up, frowning. "He would not appreciate it if he were to wake up in captivity. 'Under the circumstances,' Lina-san, he needs to be able to defend himself." The Mazoku removed his hand. Zel's brow immediately furrowed, and he replaced it with a sigh. "Even with the nightmares, it's unlikely that he'll need the spell. He's completely exhausted."
He was right, of course, but Lina didn't have to like it. She was also a little worried about the way Zel was reacting to his touch. Soothing or not, he had moved into it, curled closer to Xellos in his sleep. And she didn't exactly trust Xellos not to take advantage of that.
"If you take advantage of him…"
She stopped, not sure whether she was phrasing it right, and not sure if she really could threaten him. She didn't think L-sama would let her kill Xellos even if she wanted to, if he was right about the new roles that had been foisted upon them.
"He doesn't need any more shit to deal with," she finished.
"I don't intend to hurt him, Lina-san."
His voice was soft, and he was looking at Zel again, with an expression on his face that she could only describe as wistful, like he knew he already had hurt him. Lina had to force herself to press on.
"And if he doesn't want you?" Blunt, maybe, but necessary.
Xellos bowed his head so that his face was shadowed, but she caught his expression before he did: pain. If she'd needed any more evidence, that was it. He didn't answer for a moment.
"I can do nothing to change that," he whispered. His hand strayed into Zel's hair, brushing at it gently in almost a strumming motion. "It's rather likely that he hates me, after what I've done."
Lina wasn't quite sure what to say to that. Xellos looked up finally, with a smile that seemed crooked, as though he couldn't even fake it.
"All I can do is protect him, Lina-san. And I'm afraid I haven't done a very good job of that."
Lina didn't know what she'd been expecting—maybe an attempt to deny it without actually denying it, some sort of wordplay, or even just plain anger—but she hadn't expected this... seeming honesty. He wasn't even trying to pretend.
She'd never really seen him as a person, just an irritation who was sometimes useful, sometimes dangerous. But now she didn't think she'd ever be able to unsee this melancholic version of Xellos. All she could see now was a person who wanted nothing more than to protect someone he cared about, but knew he was failing.
While she watched, speechless, Xellos took his hand from Zel's forehead again. The chimera didn't stir, and he looked at her.
"I can't stay, Lina-san."
"Where are you going?"
He sighed softly. "I may be able to… mislead Zelas. To buy time."
Lina bit her lip; she was afraid to ask what would happen if he failed, but he answered her unspoken question anyway.
"If I don't return, assume the worst. She'll come after Zelgadis-san, and I'm sure Dynast and Dolphin won't be far behind."
"I can't fight all of them," she whispered.
Lina wanted to believe she could—after all, she'd taken down a bunch of tough players over the years—but she knew she'd be no match for three Mazoku Lords. The only way she'd be able to fight them was if they attacked one at a time, and even then only if the Golden Lord threw Her weight behind her. And she knew well enough that she couldn't necessarily count on either.
Xellos nodded. "That is one reason he wanted you to leave."
She shook her head. "I'm sticking around, no matter what happens. And if I destroy the world trying to protect him, so be it."
"You would use that power?" He looked surprised when she nodded. "That may not be wise…"
"Maybe not." Lina frowned at him. "But whatever these sorcerers are doing is dangerous. We don't know what their goals are, but I'm betting it isn't something any of us are going to like much."
"There is no guarantee that She will Allow you to use it."
"I didn't exactly use it the first time. She used me as a vessel for it." Lina would've loved to say she'd been the one to control it, but she knew she hadn't. "You said She's already interfered, so maybe She will again."
Xellos didn't reply, but she could remember him once telling her that the Golden Lord was capricious. She didn't need him to tell her that this might be one of those times—that whatever fancy may have led Her to save Zel might not be around next time.
There was nothing she hated more than not being in charge of her own destiny. She wasn't exactly comfortable in her new position as Her General, if that was even the case, and she doubted he was with his, either. They didn't know what She wanted. It could easily be something just as bad as whatever the sorcerers had planned.
And whatever happened was going to, more likely than not, impact Zel directly.
He was still asleep, undisturbed by their conversation. She'd watched him sleep before, and it always surprised her how different he looked without the worry lines that seemed to be almost etched into his face when he was conscious. In sleep, his brow was smoothed and untroubled unless he dreamed.
"We don't even know why they want Zel back," she said softly.
"Or how they keep finding him," Xellos added thoughtfully. "They may have guessed that he would be in Seyruun, but in the library? Those mercenaries also found us rather quickly."
She knew what he was getting at. "Gourry'll be staying in here with him. We'll make sure he's never alone, just in case."
Xellos nodded and, she noticed, looked one last time at Zel before he stood.
"Good luck," Lina whispered, and he nodded before he disappeared.
Xellos had to take some time to steel himself before going to Zelas. He had never even considered misleading her—couldn't consider it, such an alien idea! But here he was, preparing to do just that.
Even after he retreated to the Astral plane, he kept his senses focused on Zelgadis. On the chimera's peaceful, even breaths, his relaxed muscles, the slight movement of his eyes behind closed lids, his heartbeat.
If he failed to mislead Zelas, that breath, the heartbeat, all movement, all life, would cease. She would not suffer him to live—would, in fact, gladly kill him, using the convenient excuse to eradicate the human she held responsible for the loss of her priest.
The very idea of the shaman's body cold and lifeless chilled him. Xellos had managed to keep him alive only through a combination of sheer stubborn determination and dumb luck. Remembering him so near death in Seyruun, watching him sleep now after carrying his exhausted body to the inn… It steeled his nerves for what he had to do.
He had to protect Zelgadis.
Xellos kept the image of the chimera's bloody, singed, near-lifeless body laying in the rubble in his mind when he reached out to Zelas. He found her waiting—and anxious.
She didn't bother to hide it when he appeared before her. He was relieved that she wasn't angry or suspicious; her current state of mind could make it easier to mislead her.
"Xiuh is destroyed," she said. It wasn't a question, and Xellos acknowledged it as the truth with a short nod. "How?"
He shook his head. "Same as before. Sorcerers blending magicks. It destroyed him in the same way as Nyx."
Xellos was surprised at Zelas' dejection, but he supposed it was to be expected. She had, after all, lost her two remaining high-level servants, which diminished her power even further. Even if Nyx and Xiuh had been nowhere near the level of priest and general, they had represented much of her remaining force after losing him.
He almost pitied her—and would have, had Zelgadis' life not been hanging in the balance.
Xellos chose his words carefully. "It is… concerning that the sorcerers were able to control Mazoku as powerful as them. Previously, it seemed to be mostly low-level monsters."
Zelas turned her lupine gaze on him, and he pressed on.
"I am still looking into the matter, but it is possible that something non-human is behind this…"
"Dragons? But they are nearly extinct. They have stayed ensconced at Dragon's Peak for centuries," Zelas mused.
Xellos hadn't expected this direction, but it would give him another way to distract her.
"Possibly, but you are the one who has lost servants. It could be that they are being used as a weapon." He paused, pleased when she seemed to catch on. "It is possible that the dragons are responsible. It is equally possible that your remaining siblings hope to destroy us during a perceived moment of vulnerability."
To his relief, her smile—cruel and anticipatory—seemed genuine. "They do not yet realize that we can ally against them," she mused.
The implication, her trust in him as her former servant, troubled him. "I do not yet know for certain…" he murmured.
"Do you believe it is true?" Zelas asked.
Had Xellos had breath, it would have caught. It was a question that required a direct answer—a simple yes or no that he would have easily given in the past. But now, the truth would result in Zelgadis' death.
It was out of his mouth before he could stop it. A bald-faced lie. The first in his existence.
He felt ill, even as Zelas took his answer for truth—she had no reason to doubt him, or so she thought. Zelgadis was safe, for the moment.
But at the cost of this… It was almost physically painful to have lied, even to protect him.
Mazoku were not supposed to be able to lie directly. Mislead, certainly. But lies were a sign of weakness that ate at the pride that supported their power and kept them in existence.
And yet he had done it, and not even to save himself. Admitting the truth would have enabled him to walk away now. But he had lied to save Zelgadis.
He was glad that, over the centuries, he had learned to shield his own emotions from perception. Only that allowed him to keep up appearances with his former master, to assure her that he was looking into it and would keep her informed—so close to another lie it too was painful.
He left the moment it would not appear suspicious, but he couldn't will himself onto the mortal plane. Not yet.
Xellos drifted in the Astral plane, searching within himself for he knew not what. He had no idea what he had just done, but he suspected it was more appropriate to ask a far more concerning question:
What had he become?
Been a while. Sorry for the delay. Hopefully I'll be able to devote more time to this since I'm done with my Masters.