When the next morning arrived, Zel awoke to see the fire still blazing away. He turned in surprise to Amelia, who was all curled up in her robes. "I didn't realize you had gotten up to feed the fire..." he yawned at her. "Thank you."
Amelia mumbled something incomprehensible from under her blankets.
Zel crawled out from under his kit and put his boots on, and his jacket, then, grabbing his sword, he crawled out from the shelter. He stood up and looked around. The rain had stopped, but a bitterly cold fog clung to the landscape, obscuring the vision after more than a few yards. He yawned and reached into the tent to get the food bag. It would only be fair for him to make breakfast if Amelia had kept watch over the fire. He grabbed the bag and dug around, finding the frying pan, but to his puzzlement he couldn't find the kettle...
He got out again and looked around. Walking closer to the fire to warm up he found the missing gear. It was on the fire, and the water was nearing a boil. This wasn't right. Amelia might have snuck out to feed the fire, but setting up water then crawling back in bed to sleep?
He reached for his sword...
"My, my, nothing like a hot cup of tea to celebrate a meeting of old friends, is there? I hope you don't mind my borrowing the kettle to put the water on..." said a cheerful voice from the mist.
Zel gulped. Their quest was over. "Nice of you to drop by, Xellos, fancy meeting you, here." he replied, trying to sound calm as he did so.
"Oh, no accident I assure you." responded the trickster priest as he, well, coalesced, for want of a better word, out of the fog. "I had it on good authority that I was being sought, so I decided to see what this was about. I am curious that you, of all people would want to find me, Mr. Zelgadiss Greywords. And the Princess too, if I am not mistaken. So, to what do I owe this honour? Missed me, did you?"
He looked at Zel with his creepy closed eyes and big smile. "I see you seem to have changed somehow, Zel. Had a haircut perhaps?"
"I doubt you are that blind Xellos." said Zel, warily. "You owe this honour to the fact that we need help in dealing with black magic, and didn't feel we could risk going to Lina.
Xellos cocked an eye, and stared at Zelgadiss. "I'm safer that Lina Inverse? I don't know whether to be flattered, or insulted, to be so honoured." he said. "Well, well, perhaps we should cut to the chase then. I am rather busy actually, and one big reason I had for coming was to make sure you weren't here to interfere."
"With what?" asked Zel, before he could catch himself. He face palmed and said "Sorry..."
Xellos smiled again. "Well, at least you are quick on the uptake. Now, tell me how you want me to help you, and what you would be willing to pay for it?
"Zel? Who are you talking to?" asked a sleepy Amelia as she crawled out of the tent.
"Oh my! What has happened here?" asked Xellos as he bowed in greeting to the Justice Princess. "Most becoming, Your Majesty, but shouldn't you have used gems instead of granite?"
Amelia gave him a hard stare as she replied "I didn't exactly have a choice..."
"Well, the tea water is ready, what say we make a pot then you can tell me all about it. This grows more interesting with each new revelation." Xellos said, indicating the now steaming kettle.
In short order they were seated around the fire, each sipping at the cup of tea they were holding in their hands. The story was told. It had been agreed before hand that they wouldn't get help from Xellos unless they told him everything, so they did just that, though guardedly.
Xellos smiled away as they told the story. When it was done he was silent for a space of time, as if in thought. Finally he shook his head in wonder. "Let me see this marvel." he said.
Amelia gulped, the dug out the monkey's paw, and handed it over.
"I have heard of this thing, actually." he said finally as he looked at it. "It was believed to be lost to the world aeons ago. An estate sale hey? I wonder..."
He gave it one more look over then said "And what do you want me to do?"
"Can you advise us how to turn Amelia back?" asked Zel.
Xellos sighed and shook his head. "She has transferred the curse from you to herself." replied the mazoku priest. "I can no more heal her than you. Your only chance is to hope that the paw can do it."
"We realize that much." said Amelia. "The trick is doing so without calling down any more evil on ourselves. That's the point where we need help. If the price is right."
Xellos smiled again. "Ah yes, the price... Let me think." he said. For awhile he was silent as he studied the monkey's paw once more.
After a time he said "You cannot wish with this thing and not have bad come from it. The merchant was wrong, or lying, on that point. The wishing power, I sense, comes from a curse. No good can come of it. I can tell you how to use your last wish, but I cannot prevent the evil. If you can accept this then my price is as follows. I want to be invited to your wedding, though whether as Best Man or as Maid of Honour I haven't decided yet, and, after you make your last wish, I want the monkey's paw for myself, to use as I want."
Amelia cringed back and gave Zel a helpless look.
Zel spoke up and said "You have us over a barrel, but we can at least tell you which direction to turn it. It's not worth it for you to mock Amelia, so, make it Best Man."
"I wouldn't be mocked, but you must promise not to use this thing for you, or anyone else, to wish for the end of the world, or else what's the point?" added Amelia, doing her own bit of bartering.
Xellos smiled. "Well, a hard bargain. People in dire straights should be careful about what they demand of the one they come to for help, but I guess I can concede your point in this instance. Very well, no world destruction. Otherwise I can do what I want with it. But I will still decide on which roll I want." he said, smirking.
They looked at each other and realized they had the best they could get. "Done." they said, together.
Xellos smiled with an irritatingly smug look of satisfaction. "Now to business. As I warned you, you cannot get away from being cursed, but you should have learned from the wish that got you into this mess to begin with thay you can direct the type of bad luck you get. The question is one of what can you live with?" he said, getting serious, while pouring more tea for all of them.
"What are the options?" asked Zel.
Xellos got even more serious, which was scary, and replied, saying "Well, I would take it from what happened to the Princess that the Paw transfered the curse from you to her. To be frank, I find it doubtful that it can cure the curse, though you can try if you dare. But you will run the risk of getting something equally bad, or perhaps even worse, as a consequence. The most likely option is, I'm afraid, for one or the other of you to take the curse on full time until you find a cure. Or, you can split the curse somehow. Either take turns carrying it, say one by day, the other by night, or every other day, something like that." he councilled, handing the paw back to Amelia.
Amelia and Zel looked at each other, thinking fast. "Let me take it back." said Zel. "Please, Amelia, I can bear it better than you can, it was made for me."
"Absolutely not." said Amelia with a strong note of finality. "I have seen you so happy these past few days, and that means the world to me, Zel, never mind just my body. I will keep it."
A passionate, but rather hopeless argument started, and in the end they were right back where they started.
"Then, let us split it." said Zel, finally. "I can't bear the thought of you being like this all the time. Let me give you some relief at least."
Amelia gulped, then slowly nodded. "I guess that's the best option isn't it?" she said. "Or at least the lesser of several evils. But how?"
"Be whole by day when people will see you." said Zel. I won't mind it by night, and you can be in public."
"No, that's what I want for you, Mister Zelgadiss." protested Amelia. "You've been denied the right to walk around openly as a man for too long. You take the day."
Zel shook his head. "This won't do, we will have another useless argument. How about we split it every other day?" he asked.
Amelia looked defeated. "I suppose..." she sighed. She looked to Xellos and asked. "Any insights you'd care to share?"
The trickster priest smiled, as usual, and said "I take it the problem you each have the most trouble with is for the other to appear in public as a chimera? There is a way to fix that..."
It took a bit of convincing, but in the end Zel and Amelia agreed that Xellos had the most workable solution. With his guidance they oh so carefully worded the final wish, hoping they got it right. Xellos agreed to hang around to make sure it worked and even offered to let Zel have the use of the monkey's paw if things didn't work out right, so they could try again. Soon, a deep need for sleep settled over the couple and they tucked in for a short nap, realising the magic was about to work upon them. "See you after we wake up..." muttered a sleepy Amelia.
Zel was yawning too hard to reply. In another minute they were both asleep. Xellos had a good long chuckle and threw a few more sticks on the fire. This would be interesting if nothing else. He studied the paw some more, and thought about how he might best use it.
It was just as well the two sleepers couldn't see his evil grin.
Less than half an hour later they awoke. They wordlessly, and shyly, turned away from each other and checked themselves out. It had worked, perfectly.
Zel turned back and opened his shirt, revealing a normal upper body, a transition from below the ribs to the navel, and from the navel down to his pants, he was obviously a chimera. Amelia smiled and delicately lifted her own shirt just enough to show her own belly. She had the same division. Thank goodness Xellos had helped them word the wish so that neither of them ended up with the top half as the chimeric body.
"Well, I guess we are made for each other now..." she giggled.
After a minute Zelgadiss began to laugh. "Yes, we are. Let's go home, and get on with our life." he replied. Amelia nodded.
They climbed out ans showed the Mazoku Priest the results of his handiwork. He smiled. As usual.
Amelia turned to Xellos. "Thank you." she said.
The mazoku stood up and bowed. "A pleasure to be of service, Your Majesty." he said, courteously. "Now, please pardon me, but I simply must be getting back to my work. I thank you for this pleasant diversion, and I'll see you at the wedding." With that he faded from view.
"I wonder what he's got planned for that thing?" asked Amelia.
"I think we are better off not knowing." replied Zel.
Zel and Amelia sighed. They made a quick breakfast, then they packed up the camp and set off back down the road to home.
"Did we win or lose?" asked Zel.
"I think we broke even..." his companion replied. A few minutes later they broke out into laughter. There was really nothing else to do. A quick hug, a kiss, their first one with human lips to human lips (so it was justified, and don't you forget it...), a taking of hands, and they walked away.