Chapter 1. The weapon of the Great Sage
At the rear table of an obscure village's small inn sat a girl, looking no older than twenty, merrily enjoying the feast in front of her. Tucking a strand of hair - so intense brown, it was almost red - away from her face, she devoured the mountain of food with amazing speed and precision, not letting the tiniest morsel go to waste or the smallest stain appear on her clothes. Her attire was decorated by intricate patterns of black and white, its monotony balanced by her fiery hair, brown boots and shoulder guards. Anyone with a little adventuring experience could tell that she was a sorceress in good social standing, someone who you are better off not to mess with.
The three muscular men approaching her however were either unaware of this, or paid it no mind. It did not take any kind of experience to know who they were just by looking at them: Their torn outfits, feral grins and the swords carried on their backs literally spelt "TROUBLE".
"Hey there, girlie!" the oldest of them, probably their leader, spoke, taking a seat next to the sorceress. "How about you share some of that food with us! It's too much for someone like you anyway!"
"Girlie…?" she repeated while chewing on a large steak, not even looking at the man "Do you have any respect for your elders? Find your own food and stop bothering me."
"Look now, someone's got an attitude," the man said with a smirk. "You don't know who I am, do you? I've got news for you, girlie: My name Tathos and I am the leader of the Scarlet Skulls. Me and my men own this town, and no one can even take a breath here without my consent."
She took a sip of her beer, looking completely unimpressed.
Rapidly losing patience, Tathos banged his fist on the table.
"And that means you are in big trouble, you flat-chested little wench!!"
The beer pitcher dropped back to the table with a loud thud. Ever so slowly, the girl turned towards the leader of the Scarlet Skulls, who could not help but to shiver as her ruby eyes met his.
"Okay, let me make sure I heard that right. You called me a 'flat-chested little wench', did you?"
"Yeah, I did!" shouted Tathos, desperately trying to fight the unexplainable sense of dread that has gotten hold of him, and as he glanced at his men, they weren't faring too well either. "What about it?!"
"Oh nothing, really," the sorceress said. She added a smile, but that smile was anything but reassuring. "Just wanted to make sure. You know, at my age this stuff with conscience really gets to you, so I didn't want to blow you up without any kind of reason."
"What are you ta--," the man started to say, but he didn't get a chance to finish.
An ear-splitting explosion shook the inn. Once the smoke cleared, the patrons, still coughing, stared slack-jawed at the large crater next to the sorceress' table, where the three thugs laid completely burnt to crisp, barely twitching.
"Innkeeper, that meat on the floor is way too well done for my taste!" she called as she turned back to her food. "Get these clowns out of my sight!"
She reached for a nice looking piece of chicken, but her hand froze when she heard a voice, a voice that she knew, from behind.
"My-my, Lina-san! I would never be opposed to some spectacular display of fireworks, but wouldn't you agree that this is quite counter-productive when we are supposed to have a meeting at this place?"
"What are you talking about...?" She waved dismissively towards the newcomer. "The building is still standing."
"Point taken," the man nodded, smiling. He appeared to be around the same age as the sorceress, but dressed far more soberly in priest's clothing and accessories, including a wooden staff ornamented with a jewel on top. That cheerful expression had been plastered across his face incessantly since he entered the tavern, giving him an outward show of serenity. He took an undamaged chair from a nearby table (as Tathos' was blown to pieces) and sat down in front of her.
"So, Xelloss… How did the chat, I mean, the report with Zellas Metallium go?" she asked, finally grabbing hold of the chicken piece, and promptly devouring it in one bite.
"Quite well I think," the priest answered as he leaned a bit to the side to look at her around the pile of food which had been blocking his view. "It seems the main reason Juu-ou-sama summoned me was to give me a new task to perform."
"Aside of the usual one with the manuscripts?" She raised one of her eyebrows curiously.
"Correct." He nodded, leaning forward as if to share a secret plan of conspiracy "And what is more, I daresay that the mission I was given is something which you might also be interested in taking part as well."
"Considering we are talking about one of the most powerful mazoku in the world – you know, with goals like global destruction and all that, I wouldn't be so sure about it." the girl threw a half-smile in his direction, before setting her sights on a huge bowl of pasta.
"Well, I am also among the most powerful mazoku, Lina-san." He matched her lopsided grin with one of his own. "And I assure you, there is no need to worry. Fulfilling this mission will be in fact highly beneficial to all the nearby towns, including this one." He gestured towards the other patrons – or at least he would have, if not for the fact that after the explosion all of them had soon departed. Even the innkeeper had disappeared somewhere into the kitchen; they were completely alone in the large room. "Oh my. It looks like they will still have difficulties accepting Lina Inverse as their savior I'm afraid."
"I've given up giving a damn about my reputation a long time ago," she grumbled, pushing the food-mountain out of the way and looking directly at the man. (It wouldn't be correct to say that she looked at him in the eye, as those appeared to be constantly closed or at least slitted.) "And, sorry, but the mazoku suddenly deciding to do something for the good of all just makes it all the more suspicious. What have you been tasked with exactly?"
"I have to destroy a powerful artifact located in an abandoned fortress of sorts just a couple of miles from here," he explained. "If you ask around town, you'll find that it has been giving the locals quite a few headaches recently."
"An artifact--?" she blinked, pushing the empty bowl away from her. "What kind of an artifact?"
Xelloss grinned and waggled his right index finger in a "tsk-tsk" manner.
"I'm afraid that is a secret!" he said, accentuating the last four words with delight. Lina slapped her forehead in frustration.
"Come on Xel, give me something to work with!" she gave a weak smile. "Don't tell me you were forbidden to tell even the most basic details!"
"No, I was not. It will simply be more fun this way I think." He opened one of his eyes, giving the impression that he was winking – his strange, catlike pupils did not reflect any light from the room. "Don't worry, you can still find out the most important things from the townsfolk. Ask around as much as you want."
The girl did not seem to be sharing his enthusiasm. While sinking her teeth into a gigantic cherry pie, she threw a flat look at the priest.
"And if I simply say no?"
Xelloss shrugged theatrically. "Well, that would leave me most dreadfully disappointed."
For a couple of seconds, Lina chewed on her pie eyeing the priest and looking positively annoyed.
"I might yield to the temptation of leaving you disappointed one day," she said finally.
Her name was Lina Inverse. She was 120 years old, but looked no more than twenty; or, considering her figure, even less. She was a legendary sorceress, a famous killer of bandits, and slayer of countless demons that no other human could touch; in short, a hero who had saved the world countless times. She also was an infamous adventurer, held responsible for the destruction of a considerable part of Saillune, Sairaag, Taforashia and many other parts of civilization, totaling up to an immeasurable amount of public and private property, not to mention that she was the worst nightmare of all-you-can-eat restaurant owners everywhere. She was someone people both respected and feared, although most of them didn't even know what she looked like: With her mixed reputation, her description varied greatly in the stories that spoke of her, ranging from the beautiful benevolent sorceress to the ruthless, ugly old hag - very few of these even got close to the truth.
Most of the time, such as in this occasion as well, Lina was grateful of this fact, which allowed her to question the locals as a simple adventurer looking for some coin without much fuss – although news of her little "accident" at the inn spread quickly, and she was met with a certain amount of distrust.
After collecting all the rumors she could find, she left the village on a sparsely travelled road leading towards the mountains. There was Xelloss, waiting for her, leaning against a huge oak tree. He was whistling a strange old tune; she found the rhythm familiar for some reason, but couldn't place it anywhere.
"What's that song, Xel?" she asked, genuinely interested.
"Twenty Swords, an old military march; it was popular a few hundred years ago in the court of Letidius." the priest answered. "Then the country ceased to exist, and the music was forgotten – by most people, anyway." He pushed himself away from the tree, and started walking beside her. "So, did you manage to find out enough information on the artifact, Lina-san?"
"Well, sorta," the sorceress said unsurely, glancing at the sky with her hands behind her head. "According to the villagers, some 'monster' is living in the abandoned tower ten miles down the road. They say it's shooting 'strange magical rays' in random directions, which incinerate everything they touch. Already much of their crops and part of this forest have been ruined." She turned to her companion. "So someone is using that artifact, I take it? And that thing is so powerful that you feel it needs to be destroyed?"
"Almost right." Xelloss smiled. "It is, indeed, powerful enough to inconvenience us, but it most certainly cannot be controlled by anyone."
"And let me guess, the reason to that is a sec-- What was that?" Lina was sure she heard the sound of a skirmish nearby. Quickening their pace, they headed down the road in the direction of the noise. The path took a sudden turn, opening at a small clearing filled with people.
It was quite an odd sight. On the surface, it seemed to be a pretty standard robbery scene, with two dozen bandits forming a circle around a group of travelers. These travelers however, were anything but standard: An older and a younger man were leading three young women, whose hands were bound by ropes – and that did not seem to be the bandits' doing.
"Please, you have to let us through!" pleaded the older man of the pair. "We must save our village! We paid the protection money just a few days ago, so why can't you--?"
One of the bandits cut him short by shoving him into the dirt.
"Tathos kept that money for himself," he said, grinning maliciously. "So, now that he's out of the picture, you'll have to pay us, too!"
Lina decided it was better to get their attention before things got out of hand.
"So you are the ever-so-famous Scarlet Skull gang, right?" she shouted.
All eyes turned her way as approached them at a leisurely pace, Xelloss close behind her. The ruffians quickly overcame their initial surprise and adjusted the circle to include the newcomers.
They are well trained, Lina thought, I have to give them that.
"And you're the one who fried our boss?" Another bandit snickered. "We really hated that guy, you know."
"Then all is well, isn't it?" Xelloss asked in a friendly tone.
"Not yet. We'd like to show you how much we appreciate what you did" He laughed at his own joke, the others quickly joining him. "And the village elder and his son too, as they were probably the ones who hired you."
The circle gradually started to shrink.
"Oh my, it would seem that we are completely surrounded, Lina-san," the mazoku said with a smirk. "What should we do now, I wonder?"
"Hmm… How about this?" Lina put her hands in front of her and started chanting in a low voice "Spirits who dwell in the Earth, as thy words of pledge, obey my will and be my power…"
„You can't cast such a spell this close! You'll blow yourself up too!" yelled the first bandit. "You're bluffing!"
"Am I?" Lina shouted, her evil grin easily putting the bandits' to shame. Magic power crackled between her fingertips for a moment. "Only one way to find out!" She slammed both of her hands to the ground, crying out, "DILL BRAND!"
The earth trembled around them, and then shot directly upwards, blasting the ruffians to the sky. There was a small circle around Lina however, which remained unaffected, leaving her companion, the two men and the young maidens unhurt.
The old man slowly stood up, staring at the sorceress incredulously.
"Young lady, thank you for helping us, but… how did you do that? I also studied magic a little when I was younger, and the Dill Brand doesn't work that way."
"Ah, it was nothing, I just tweaked it a little." she waved her hands in front of her. "I simply inverted the spell's area of effect on the fly, so it hit the bandits instead of us. Pretty basic stuff."
"She was the one who dealt with Tathos at the inn, too," the younger man said, his eyes widening. "You're not… Lina Inverse, are you?"
Xelloss opened his mouth to answer, but the sorceress was faster.
"N-No, of course not!" she laughed sheepishly. "I'm just your average adventurer who knows a thing or two about magic. Why would you think such a thing?"
"That's a shame." the old man hung his head, looking defeated. "You're a talented little lady, but only someone as powerful as her could help us now… It seems we have to go through with our original plan of sacrificing these girls to the monster after all--"
"You-- What??!" Lina yelled, her eyes growing to an unnatural size.
"We have to do it-- for the villages!" sniffed one of the girls.
"Even though we cannot even imagine what horrors will await us at the hands of that hideous monster!" cried another. "Oh, the tragedy!"
"Quite fascinating," murmured Xelloss. "I didn't know such rituals were still being performed in the lands inside the former barrier nowadays."
"That's not the point! And would the mourning choir shut up?!" Lina retrieved a pink slipper from her person (where she stored that seemed to be a mystery) and pounded the old man on the head. He slumped to the ground at her feet. The sudden silence that reigned was simply deafening.
"Are you all nuts?! You guys never saw that monster; you don't even know what it is! And you randomly decide to sacrifice people to it? From where did you get that godforsaken idea??"
"It's… written in this book." the village elder, now remaining on the ground just to be safe, handed over a small booklet, opened around the middle. The sorceress studied it skeptically for a moment, but then shrugged and started reading:
If the previous strategies were unsuccessful in dealing with the monster, there is always the possibility of negotiation. A few young maidens, presented as a sacrifice with hands bound, are often a successful way to ensure that your town will be left alone by the creature – for a limited time, at least. Of course, if you permanently wish to be rid of such a monster, you have to hire a really talented sorceress for the job, such as myself. Oohohohoho!!
"Good riddance. Why would an author write down something like that?" She gazed wide eyed at the last sentence. "And you tried the other four solutions before too? For being the village elder, you really aren't the smart one if you fell for such an obvious swindle."
"I'll have you know that we started with the fifth solution because the others were much worse!" the old man, unsurprisingly, took a bit of offense at the last comment "Of course well-off youngsters like you could not understand! I know this book is primarily about the writer advertising her services, but we don't have any options! The one who wrote this is already dead, and the person she mentions, her greatest rival, Lina Inverse, is not the kind of person to visit a place this off the map!"
"Greatest rival…? Who is this--" Lina closed the book, looking at the cover page "--guy?"
How To Deal With Hideous Monsters Threatening Your Peaceful Town
Written by Her Royal Majesty Gracia Ul Naga Saillune the White Serpent and genius sorceress,
Lina Inverse's greatest rival
Lina's mouth opened, and then slowly closed. She gazed at the cover for a while, her eyes reflecting a strange mixture of sadness and nostalgia, before handing the book back to the village elder.
"Take the girls back to their homes and leave the rest to me," she said in a low voice, turning away from the villagers, her eyes meeting her companion's – and then she glanced back, the hint of a smile reappearing on her lips. "It won't be for free of course! And I'll have you know that I was already fighting mazoku lords when you were just a little baby who couldn't even say his own name, youngster. Let's go Xelloss!"
The two quickly left the clearing without another word, disappearing from view as the road took another turn.
The village elder looked at his son, his mouth agape.
"She really is Lina Inverse!" he whispered in awe.
His full name and title was Xelloss, the Priest. Over one thousand years old, he was the best servant of Greater Beast Zellas Metallium and also the fifth most powerful mazoku in existence. His name was well known among gods and demons alike, but not to the general populace. To the casual observer, from his attire and demeanor he looked little more than a young priest of some uncommon religion with a penchant of keeping secrets, and playing tricks on those foolish enough to listen to the half-truths he did reveal.
Lina got more and more certain that they have just stumbled upon yet another thing connected to those half-truths as they drew closer to the tower. The forest itself was getting strange for awhile now: Many of the trees grew from the ground absolutely vertically, with their branches perfectly horizontal, not a single curve or flaw to break the strict symmetry. Everything was in rigid, unquestionable order.
But even more arresting was the glowing yellow stream of light that crossed the road just ahead of them, its ends vanishing into the forest. Its golden fabric was continuously in motion, twisting, pulsating as if it were alive.
"Any information you'd like to share with me, Xelloss?" She glanced suspiciously at her companion.
"To tell the truth, I am just as much at loss of what this might be as you are, Lina-san," he answered, the same indecipherable smile glued to his face as usual.
"Well, whatever it is, we might get a better view from above. RAY WING!" she exclaimed, taking to the skies. The priest followed without delay – as a demon he did not need a spell to fly, after all.
Lina rose well above the treetops to look around before dispelling the wind barrier and switching to a more easily manageable Levitation spell. Finding the tower wasn't a problem – it was an ancient, crumbling stone structure around ten stories high and about half as wide. She did not pay much attention to it however, her eyes darting across the forest below instead.
Those streams of light were everywhere. They enmeshed the forest, but not at all randomly: Together they formed an intricate, circular pattern, looking exactly like--
"A symbol of holy magic," she whispered. "And a really big one, too."
"Now this is most unfortunate." Xelloss clicked his tongue; for him, that was a sign of slight frustration.
For a short moment, Lina felt confused, before things clicked into place in her head.
"Oh, I get it. If this symbol works similarly to the white magic seal of Saillune City, then non-holy magic, including your powers will be gradually weakened as we approach the tower."
"Worse, I'm afraid," the mazoku said with a sigh. "This type of a seal was designed specifically against black magic. Once we enter it, I fear my abilities may not only become limited, but also somewhat…" he hesitated over the right word then added, "…unreliable."
"But this symbol is way smaller than Saillune's," Lina murmured, thinking as she spoke. "It seems it is not simply static, but also actively powered by some kind of outside force, probably from inside that tower."
"Exactly." the priest nodded, still smiling, but his tone remarkably serious. "And we are talking about more power than dozens of the strongest holy spells combined."
"Xelloss, I really don't like where this is going." The sorceress glared at him with her hands on her hips. "You cannot possibly expect me to just stand idly by, not to mention possibly lend a helping spell or two, while you take down something which is likely one of the most powerful artifacts in this world belonging to the gods!"
"Of course, I would never involve you in something like that." The mazoku raised his right hand in an apologetic gesture, evoking a disbelieving snort from the girl. "But I believe you will eventually realize that destroying it is the right thing to do in this situation."
"Hmph. We'll see about that!" she huffed as the wind barrier reappeared around her and she blasted off in the direction of the tower.
She didn't fly more than a few hundred feet, however, when her entire sphere of vision suddenly became filled with gold.
That thing shot something at me!
She instinctively altered her course, but quickly realized that she would not be able to avoid the beam speeding directly at her. Extending both of her arms to form an extra layer of wind shielding in front of her, she braced herself for the impact.
"That's not going to cut it, Lina-san," Xelloss' voice sounded from behind her as a hand touched her shoulder. For the briefest moment, she felt as if her body ceased to exist.
The next instant, she and the mazoku priest were floating several hundred feet away from where they were previously. Lina swallowed hard. The part of the forest where they had been hovering just moments ago was completely annihilated. There weren't even stumps left from the trees – everything was vaporized -- entirely.
"Thanks Xel," the sorceress breathed. "It looks like we aren't too welcome here - and if that blast was any indication, whoever is in that tower has got one insanely powerful artifact."
The priest put one of his hands behind his head, smiling nervously.
"You might find this odd, but I believe this wasn't intentional, and what we've just seen was nowhere near the relic's true power."
"No way!" Lina shook her head in disbelief. "What do you mean that wasn't its true power--?"
"I'll explain once we get inside the tower. I think we'll be safer there." Xelloss put his hand around the sorceress' waist, a few long moments passed-- and nothing happened.
"… Xel?" Lina blinked, her cheeks becoming the tiniest bit flushed at the prolonged intimate contact.
"I…I'm doing what I am supposed to do, Lina-san." The mazoku, for the first time today, looked unsure, confused even. "But it's simply not working."
"I can see that." She smirked, putting her own hand around Xelloss' waist, and chanting a Ray Wing spell under her breath. "Let's go the old fashioned way while you sort things out, okay?"
Lina put as much power behind her spell as she could, and they took off towards the ancient looking structure once again.
The spell blew a door-sized hole into the wall, through which Lina and Xelloss flew inside the tower somewhere around the middle – or more precisely fell, because the sorceress had to end the magic keeping them afloat just before she could cast the one which made the opening. This proved to be problematic, since they quickly noticed that there was no floor directly under them: The closest stone surface was barely visible in the gloom somewhere way below; it looked like the entire tower was hollow on the inside.
After a few seconds of violent cursing and free-fall, Lina managed to cast a Levitation spell just in time to keep them from a painful meeting with the aforementioned floor. She slumped to the ground, trying to catch her breath.
When she looked up, Xelloss was already on his feet examining their surroundings. She also took a moment to take in the view around them: The tower was mostly empty, with an enormous and steep stairway leading up to the top, where she caught a glimpse of golden light. The walls and the sides of the stairway, decorated with ancient runes and odd drawings of dragons, elves and humans, reminded her of the ones seen at the "Dragon Express" they used by accident many years ago, when they were travelling with Filia towards Flarelord's temple. In the dim light, the shadows made the figures appear strangely malevolent and ominous, as if they were greatly disapproving of their presence.
With Xelloss here, she thought, that would not be a surprise.
Extending his hand and helping the sorceress back on her feet, the priest allowed himself a blatantly insincere smile.
"Regrettably, it's even worse than I expected." He looked at his staff, as if its existence would illustrate his point. "No amount of my power seems to be suppressed, and still, sometimes when I do try to use it, it suddenly feels like it isn't there at all." He turned back to the sorceress. "I can now see why Zellas-sama requested me to personally deal with this matter; it will most certainly be harder than we initially assumed."
"We?" Lina snickered. "I could swear I heard something about 'not telling you anything because it's more fun that way'."
"Well, I will attempt to answer your questions now, if you'd like." Xelloss said cheerfully without a hint of regret in his voice, as he took the sorceress' hand and led her towards the stairs.
"Better late than never," murmured Lina. She groaned as she began to climb: The stairs were ridiculously steep - one step was almost up to the third of her height. "So… first of all… what the heck… is this place…?"
"As you might remember, in the War of the Monster's Fall, before Ruby Eye-sama's shard awakened in Lei Magnus, Hellmaster-sama had sent a giant horde of lesser demons as a diversion, in order to keep the dragons and their allies occupied while he and the other four retainers of Shabranigdu-sama attempted to weaken the Aqualord's power." The priest explained, looking unaffected by the steep stairs – of course, he was a mazoku and also considerably taller. "It was around that time when the dragons and elves formed an alliance with the humans, and they fought our army together. This structure is a reminder of that alliance, a weapon created by the three races to destroy many lower class mazoku in one devastating attack."
"That sounds… interesting…" the sorceress was now panting heavily.
"It is, indeed." Xelloss nodded. "The basic idea is simple enough: The weapon focuses the power of the shinzoku, accumulating the magic energies for an extended period of time, like a person with near infinite capacity, casting a single holy spell for several days."
"Days--?" Lina echoed breathlessly, in all meanings of the word. "The amount of power it can gather… that's incredible!"
"Naturally, creating such a powerful, complicated combination of sorcery was by no means an easy task. Only four devices were made, each by different sorcerers, the best of their fields at that time." the priest gestured around them. "The other three were destroyed during the war, but until recently, we didn't even know this one existed. These lands weren't too involved in the conflict, so maybe it wasn't ever used. And after the war it became defunct, not to mention undetectable as its power source, holy magic, could no longer be accessed." He paused to smile at Lina. "Of course, there were certain events a hundred years ago, which changed this fact."
"What took you so long… to find it then…?"
"We didn't become aware of it because it wasn't active-- until now. As for the reason, your guess is as good as mine. " Xelloss glanced up towards the golden light, which seemed to be getting brighter and brighter with their approach.
Lina on the other hand, was getting too tired to even raise her head; she slumped down on one of the stairs, exhausted.
"Next question then," she muttered. "Why on earth do you want us to climb this damned thing when we could just fly up to the top? And if you say it's more fun this way, you'll regret it!"
"I would rather not use magic without good reason this close to the artifact." Xelloss stroked his chin thoughtfully. "You see, Lina-san, as I said, these devices required days to be fully charged – but this one has been gathering energy for weeks at the very least. It could theoretically be overloaded any moment now."
Exhaustion vanished from her eyes, Lina stared at the priest alarmed.
"Which means it'll explode?"
She didn't want to even guess the scale of destruction such a large amount of magic power being unleashed all at once would cause. Unfortunately, it looked like Xelloss had already done the calculations for her.
"I'm afraid so," he said, his smile deepening in a sickening way, "And in that case, I think we can say our goodbyes to the better part of this colorful peninsula."
The priest was probably expecting some kind of a reaction to that from her - but instead, she just kept staring at him, causing his confidence to drop instantaneously.
"Let me get this straight," the sorceress said with a deep sigh, barely suppressed anger lingering in her voice, "we were waltzing around messing with bandits and idiotic villagers while this doomsday-machine was out there threatening to blow up any second??"
"Well, it's not that bad," Xelloss added quickly. "We probably would have felt something, such as an earthquake, before, if the explosion was indeed that imminent… And, ehm… I thought it would be more fun this-- Hey!" the priest suddenly found himself losing his balance and falling down the stairs into the darkness below.
"Lina-san, that wasn't niiiiiiiice--!" his yell was accompanied by several yelps and finally a painful sounding thud as he arrived back on the tower's floor.
"See you at the top, Xel!" The sorceress stuck her tongue out, and started climbing with renewed vigor.
To say that the visibility on the top of the tower was different would be quite the understatement. Lina had the shield her eyes, until they adjusted to the almost blinding light emanating from a small altar – dedicated to Ceiphied, if she had to guess from the runes – before her. After a while she could also make out the exact source; a small sphere, roughly the size of her palm, hovering a few inches above the altar's surface. She carefully edged closer; while uncomfortably bright, as she gazed into the light she still felt strangely at peace…
"The epitome of beauty in simplicity, right?" Xelloss' cheerful voice reached her ears. It did not come from anywhere in particular, or to be more precise, it came from everywhere and nowhere at once.
"How did you get up here so fast?" asked Lina, still slowly advancing towards the light; she didn't even have to pay attention, her legs moved almost by themselves. "You said that casting spells here is dangerous!"
"But I did not cast anything." The priest's voice sounded amused. "In fact, I'm actually using less magic power at the moment, having dismissed my physical form. And the best part of travelling on the Astral Plane: No gravity and therefore no need for stairs. You should really try it out once, Lina-san." He chuckled a moment, before his tone became a tad more serious, "In any case, I would advise against getting too close to the altar. Someone already tried that, it seems, and I think the results are anything but encouraging."
The sorceress was about to ask what he meant, when she noticed the vague shadow on the ground in front of her. To her shock, upon closer inspection she discovered that it wasn't a real shadow, but a blurred outline of what remained of a poor soul who had been literally burned into the stone floor.
"Gaah!" she screamed as she leaped away from the altar and the nasty image on the ground.
The light, she now realized, had a kind of a hypnotic effect on her. According to some researchers, very high concentrations of black magic energy caused all those nearby to experience feelings of restlessness, a need to act, something which she also vaguely felt on occasion when casting the Dragon Slave. Holy magic, it seemed, had the opposite effect on people.
"I didn't know I was so attracted to rest and relaxation--" she let out a small laugh, but it was drowned out by a deafening noise resembling a thunderclap.
The sphere pulsed, creating a shockwave that easily pushed Lina off her feet. For a moment, its light was magnified a hundred fold, its radiance eating its way through even her clenched eyelids – and then it was gone.
As she opened her eyes and glanced up, for a moment she could see the trail of a huge beam of golden light passing through the ceiling unobstructed. Xelloss, back in his human form, crouched above her with his staff held in a defensive posture. A smile tugged her lips.
"Don't worry Xel, we're safe for now," she said. The sphere still glowed brightly, but far less intensively than moments ago. She sat up, rubbing her head where it got introduced to the floor. "You were right, the beam from before wasn't directed at us, the relic just tried to get rid of some of the excess energy, like it did now."
"I am not worried. It is simply a fact that this beam was noticeably more powerful than the first." the priest commented, attempting to sound unconcerned but still looking to be ill at ease as he straightened and tried to dust off his clothes – not that they had any dust on them. "We better finish this quickly."
"I guess you're right." Lina moved to get up herself, when her gloved hand brushed something light on the floor. "What's this?"
She picked up a piece of paper, looking to be part of a much larger page with the rest of it burned away; probably the former possession of the man who met his gruesome fate here. The sorceress quickly recognized the writing: Spell summaries, mostly the Chaos Words belonging to them – much of the text and the diagrams were missing, but she could still easily identify all three of the incantations: The Dragon Slave, the Blast Bomb and the activation spell of the Demon's Blood Talismans.
"What could the guy want with these?" she wondered out loud. "The talismans no longer exist anyway. Xelloss, did you give them to anyone else before you sold them to me?"
"No, I most certainly did not." the priest took a quick glance at the piece of paper. "But the activation spell was present in certain old grimoires. Whoever this person was, he put quite a bit of research behind whatever he tried to do. You think this might be important?"
"My gut feeling tells me that whatever this was used for had a lot to do with the artifact suddenly becoming active." Lina eyed the text suspiciously, then winked at the mazoku "But whether that's important or not depends a lot on how good your plan of getting rid of this thing is."
"The sphere is the most vulnerable when it has just discharged an amount of its power by shooting another beam." Xelloss explained. "When the next such moment arrives, we'll gather all the black magic energy we can and release it upon the artifact."
"I don't know…" The sorceress scratched her head unsurely. "That sounds almost too simple to work."
"I assure you it won't be." the priest held up his left index finger in a gesture to summon her attention. "Remember the magic seal's effects; we'll be having a hard time focusing these energies quickly in only a few seconds time." He glanced at the altar; the emanating light was nearing the same level it was when they've arrived "Speaking of which, I think we'd better take cover."
There weren't many things they could hide behind, so they resorted to ducking to the ground, Xelloss raising his staff a little in preparation for launching a bolt of energy, and Lina making sure that both of her hands could move freely as she cast her spell.
The deafening crack shook the tower once again, echoing between the walls endlessly as the radiance reached brutal levels. Trying to shield her eyes and maintain her concentration, Lina purposely looked the other way and started chanting her spell. She had to be quick; she could only utter the Chaos Words mentally, which was hard in itself - but then the difficulty Xelloss spoke of kicked in.
When her mind reached out to channel Ruby Eye Shabranigdu, his power slipped out of its grasp again and again. Lina gritted her teeth.
That ball won't be beating me so easily!
She started the chant once more, and as she felt the artifact's light dimming, she wrestled the spell under control. She looked at Xelloss, and the two of them nodded in quiet understanding.
The crimson beam from her hands united with the pitch black mass of energy emanating from his staff, the result smashed against the altar -- and disappeared without a trace.
If Lina didn't know better, she would've thought that Xelloss looked quite upset as he ran to the altar.
"It's sealed off from the astral side!" he whispered incredulously. "But how could that stay hidden from my senses for so long--?"
"Ehm, Xel? Y-You might want to look above you," the sorceress stammered.
A face of a man, looking no older than thirty, with long black hair and dark red eyes appeared out of thin air above the altar, looking at them with a stern, if a bit amused expression.
And if that wasn't surprising enough, as the mazoku noticed the illusion, he staggered a few steps back and promptly fell to his knees.
"My… my lord--??" he managed to spit out.
A shocking realization dawned upon Lina. She matched the vision to the few illustrations she saw in ancient history books and put that together with what Xelloss just said. This man had to be no other than…
"It seems that my fears were justified. Those two-faced gods and their useless dragon servants were unable to keep you mazoku scum from reaching this place." The legendary sorcerer's raspy but still oddly gentle voice reverberated through the tower. "You'll probably find a way to break my astral shielding on the weapon sooner or later, so allow me to do that for you." His face twisted into a sardonic smile. "I should warn you though that this very same shield was keeping the holy energies from breaking loose. And before you consider fleeing, know that I activated a second shield around the tower to keep both the explosion and you contained; you won't have enough time to neutralize it. So enjoy the few moments you have left; may we meet each other again in hell."
The visage of Lei Magnus disappeared as quickly as it came. Things did not remain still for long, however; the entire tower began to shake, as the sphere now rhythmically started pulsating, becoming brighter and brighter each time. Unable to stay on her feet any longer, Lina was forced to cast a Levitation spell, hovering a few feet above the altar.
"Quite a predicament we are in, I must say." Xelloss quickly followed suit, ascending to float beside her. "But I guess we shouldn't expect anything less from the legendary bearer of Ruby Eye-sama. To think that he was on the side of the gods for a while!"
"How much time do you think we have left before it blows up?" Lina asked, avoiding a falling piece of debris; the old structure had quite a few loose stones to spare.
"The time it takes the artifact to gather enough energy to fire another blast again, I think. Unfortunately, it looks like the astral shielding is only breaking down gradually, so we still cannot neutralize it with black magic until it's too late." He threw a playful grin at the sorceress, adding, "Although I think you have something different in mind, correct?"
"There is one thing we can still try," she said with a sharp nod, staring intently at the ground below. Cracks began to appear in the altar and the stairs; it was only a matter of time before everything collapsed.
"Fusion magic," she asserted. "It can ignore a barrier like that, and can dispel the accumulated holy power- if we manage to pull it off. The human language versions of those spells are still a bit unstable, but I think I can manage to cast Flame Bless while you let loose your black bolts of doom again."
"And I also shouldn't have expected anything less from the legendary Demon Slayer!" Xelloss' grin widened. "This could work, Lina-san, but we should not take any chances. Allow me to cast the holy spell while you chant another Dragon Slave."
"You want to cast holy magic--?!" Lina stared at him, aghast.
"We cannot afford you to miscast it, and I do speak the language of the golden dragons fluently," the priest explained, eliciting and angry huff from the girl. "We have no time to argue, please prepare yourself."
Xelloss started chanting in a low voice, his posture and clear, punctual articulation actually reminding the sorceress of Filia – it was an unnatural sight, really.
„Anaku soro'mu, nazak'u sakriim… CHAOTIC DISINTEGRATE!"
A golden ring of light appeared before the priest's outstretched hands; however, it quickly became distorted, and a moment later it was sucked into the sphere below.
Xelloss' levitation magic gave away, and Lina just managed to catch him by his cloak before he plummeted down.
"Well, that was a rather excellent display of pointlessness," the mazoku said with a weak smile. "The artifact absorbs all holy energy around it; we cannot summon such power here at all."
"Just as I expected," Lina nodded, her expression grave.
"Y-You knew this would happen??" Now it was the priest's turn to stare at the sorceress.
"Let's just say I had my suspicions, but I needed to make sure--" Lina stopped in mid-sentence, noticing Xelloss' expression, which almost looked hurt. "What? It was you who wanted to cast it so badly by yourself!"
"Be as it may," the priest muttered, "the building is falling apart, the sphere is about to explode, I just made a nice big hole on my astral body for no good reason by using that spell, and it looks like we are out of ideas. I advise we concentrate our efforts on bypassing the shield around the tower, and make a quick exit before the situation becomes any more problematic."
"No, that's the one thing we can't do!" snapped the sorceress. "Remember what Lei said? That shield is the only thing keeping the relic from leveling the country! We just have to use something else as a source of holy power. Say, Xel, can you stay afloat by yourself?"
"Of course, the previous accident was just a momentary complication, that's all." Xelloss levitated out of the sorceress' grasp, still looking a bit offended. "What do you mean by 'another source'?"
"The most obvious one of course!" Lina smirked, pointing at the artifact. "You see Xel, I don't think that guy died just because he went too close to it; he actually attempted to control it with the help of the spells we saw on that piece of paper."
"An attempt which was destined to fail," muttered the priest, unsure about what to make of her words. "After all, nothing is known about the form of magic that is supposed to control this weapon."
"Are you sure?" Lina looked confidently at the mazoku. "Tell me, the composer of that old song, Twenty Swords, it was Fiorena the Gold, right?"
The priest nodded slowly, now looking entirely lost.
"The song didn't vanish completely: I now remember reading about it in one of her spell books." As she spoke, Lina descended towards the altar, now lying in several on the crumbling stone platform. "When she invented the spell Raza Clover, she noticed that she unintentionally used its rhythm as a base for the Chaos Words. And if you look at her other, less famous spells, there is something similar to all of them when it comes to pacing. Like musicians, all sorcerers have a kind of a personal style, which is present in all of their works, and I think I know the style of Lei Magnus pretty well; after all, I did rewrite his most famous spell once. I also know the basics of holy magic incantations--"
Her voice was blocked out by a great roar as the structure of the tower's interior finally gave away, and the altar, the stairs, and nearly everything else disappeared in the mixture of darkness and dust below them. All that remained was the rapidly pulsating sphere, now merely a few inches away from the sorceress' hands.
"Lina-san, are you serious?! " Xelloss tried to block her way, but a large falling boulder forced him to move back. "You want to try reconstructing the spell from scratch? You think that is actually possible??"
"I don't know," Lina said, shooting a glance back at him, her eyes glittering with excitement, "but it sure sounds fun!"
Without further discussion, Lina extended her right hand and closed her eyes. She touched the surface of the sphere.
She immediately sensed a certain impulse, a tug, for the lack of a better word, which told her that the artifact was aware of her presence and was awaiting her commands. The feeling was familiar – she recognized it as very similar to what the Demon's Blood Talismans sent her when she reached out with her mind to use them.
And if the two are alike, they probably work somewhat alike too.
She started chanting, her voice barely a whisper:
"Four lords of light in this world…"
She felt the tug strengthen, as if she had piqued the sphere's interest.
So far so good.
In the talismans' activation spell here came the part where she testified her allegiance to the powers she called on for aid, but that was far early to do here, she thought. She had to call forth and control all of the artifact's energies first by describing its owners in a lot more detail. Holy invocations sped through before her mind's eye; she searched for something Lei Magnus could possibly use.
"…holy dragons of strength…"
It was no mere tug now; she felt herself being pulled into a realm of seemingly endless light and energy – the amount of power she felt was simply intoxicating. Lina smirked in satisfaction.
Oh yes, I knew Lei would appreciate strength. Now just a little more…
"…gods of purity…"
She immediately sensed something was wrong, the link between her and the sphere suddenly felt like a spring stretched too long, threatening to snap any moment.
But why? The gods are mentioned as pure all the time!
Realization hit her just as quickly: Lei Magnus called the gods "two-faced". He might have sided with them, but not believed in their goodwill, perhaps seeing them more as--
"…protectors of order and creation!"
The link slowly recovered, and she felt that all the power in the artifact was now reacting to her will. In a certain sense, only now was she holding the sphere in her hands in its entirety.
Now or never!
"I pledge myself to the cause of the light, to see my enemies fall before me!"
She felt the relic's might flowing into her body like a river of golden flame, both ecstatic and painful at the same time.
"Let thy strength unite with mine, and together we shall pass judgment upon them all!"
She thrust her empty left hand up into the air, and even though her eyes were still clenched shut, she could almost see the energy flowing through it, taking a physical form--
"Xelloss, give me your power now!" she yelled. After a second, a gloved hand slid into hers, and the energies coming from the two fused together into one single entity.
Lina opened her eyes. Smiling tiredly, she took one last look at the weapon of the Great Sage, slammed her left hand into the sphere – and the world around her exploded into nothingness.
"Hey Lina, you should really wake up."
"Nmmh… Just five more minutes, Gourry…"
"Okay, but I can already hear the clattering of plates from the kitchen. If you're late, it's your loss."
Only the sound of clattering plates filled her head.
"Food!" Lina suddenly bolted up in bed – then hissed painfully and slowly lay back down, wincing several times along the way. It slowly occurred to her that more than half of her body was covered in bandages.
"Take it easy, Lina-san." Xelloss was sitting beside her bed, smiling widely. His staff was propped against the wall behind him; they somehow got back to the inn room she was renting at the village. "A priest healed you, but it will take at least another hour for the Resurrection spell to close all of your wounds. You really managed to push yourself to the brink of death this time."
"It's all in a day's work," chuckled the sorceress, finding out much to her chagrin that even that hurt. "It worked then, huh? Are the villages still in one piece?"
"The resulting explosion utterly destroyed most of the forest, but the nearby towns remain intact." The mazoku glanced out the window behind Lina's bed. For this village in particular, it had been quite a close call: The inn stood at its edge, unharmed, but the trees on the other side of the road were reduced to smoking, black skeletons. Xelloss let her discover this particular detail on her own though, preferably when he wasn't around – in case the sorceress decided that this was all his fault, which wasn't entirely false.
He turned away from the window and stood up, stepping closer to the bed.
"You were magnificent as always, Lina-san." The sorceress felt his hand, warm even under the gloves, touching her cheek. Ignoring the pain, she raised her own hand and put it upon his.
"Compliments like these mean you need to go, right?" she asked softly.
"I'm afraid so," Xelloss admitted, "I need to report to Juu-ou-sama that my task has been completed. I am certain she will be most pleased." He put his free hand behind his head in a familiar, nervous gesture. "Although I guess knowing that will not give you any warm fuzzy feelings."
"Nah, for once I have to agree with her; that thing was really better off destroyed. Although," the sorceress made a face, "the Sorcerer's Guild would have paid so much gold for it that I could have bought out the entire Kingdom of Saillune along with those clowns on the throne… Aw, drat."
"Some things are beyond even your ability to control, Lina-san." The priest grinned, one of his eyes open, almost daring her to say otherwise.
The sorceress matched his impish grin with one her own, and replied promptly, "Sorry to burst your bubble, Xel, but I was in full control of that sphere. I could have made it shoot its accumulated energy into the sky, and with a bit of tinkering after that it would have been as good as new."
The mazoku opened his mouth to say something smart, but no sound came out. He just stared at her, looking completely dumbstruck.
"…T-Then why didn't you do it?" he finally managed to say.
"Because neither I nor this world needs another quick way to bring forth the apocalypse should it fall into the wrong hands. The Giga Slave is enough, thank you very much."
The priest's face remained blank; it took him a few seconds to digest this information. When he looked into her eyes again, his smile went crooked and his expression was almost one of defeat.
"Quite the achievement - after all these years you still manage to surprise me," he said musingly, and leaned down, his face inches away from hers. "But don't think I cannot do the same in return…" and with that, he kissed her softly on the lips.
As she returned the kiss, Lina felt her mind slowly getting muddled, her thoughts slipping from her grasp, and it wasn't just the kiss, she realized. With the touch of their lips, Xelloss had cast a Sleeping spell on her. Instinctively, the Chaos Words of the counter-spell flashed through her mind -- then faded away. She really could use some more sleep, she was feeling so tired…
Lina slowly closed her eyes and let the world of dreams claim her.
Xelloss wanted to teleport away to Wolf Pack Island somewhere outside the inn; many people saw him coming in, so if he just disappeared it would have definitely raised some suspicions.
Certain people would not let him leave so easily, however. As he stepped out the establishment's door, he found himself surrounded by an angry mob – some looked a bit scorched, others seemed to have eaten an amount of dirt in the recent past, but the murderous intent in their eyes as they glared at the priest was all the same.
"My-my, it looks like the Scarlet Skulls are back with a vengeance!" Xelloss gave them a condescending smile, which did little to lighten their mood.
"Out of the way, priest!" growled an especially well-done looking Tathos, raising his greatsword threateningly. "We'll deal with you later, but right now we have some business with that wench!"
"I'm afraid that is not possible at the moment, as she is currently resting. You may want to check back in a little while." The mazoku addressed the men as if they were tourists trying to enter a museum before opening hours.
The bandit leader grabbed Xelloss by his cloak and lifted him a foot into the air.
"Do you really want us to kill you so badly?!" he sneered.
The priest's smile only widened.
"You are welcome to try," he said, a tiny but clearly noticeable amount of coldness creeping into his voice, "but I think I should warn you that you will find Lina-san's methods almost… gentle, compared to my own."
Tathos was never a man of patience (or wit), and one of the things he hated most was when he and his threats were completely ignored – thus, he made the same mistake again, for the second, and last time that day. Letting out an enraged roar, he dropped the priest back to the ground, and swung his sword at him with all his might.
Xelloss' eyes opened, his ominous, soulless pupils regarding the bandit leader with something akin to both amusement and cruelty for the slightest moment; then he made a small flick with his left hand.
That was the last thing Tathos saw.
No one ever heard of the Scarlet Skulls again.
Naturally, no sleeping spell in the world could keep Lina Inverse in bed for long, especially if she was hungry, and the noises of the inn's kitchen were penetrating her room and her ears.
She moved slowly and with great care (wincing ever so often), as she climbed out of bed. She found that most of her bandages could now be removed; the Resurrection spell was almost finished with its work. Getting her black and white sorceress attire back on to make herself at least somewhat presentable, she limped out of the room, only to bump right into the village elder at the door.
"Lina Inverse-sama! I am so glad you are awake!" the old man greeted her, looking ecstatic. "It was as the book said! You have saved us all!"
"Well, I don't really know about that book, but I guess I did," murmured Lina, her hands behind her head. "So, while we are on the subject, how about some nice big reward for my efforts?" she added, now sounding a lot more enthusiastic.
"The villages don't have much money, but hopefully you will still find our reward satisfying." The old man gestured towards the kitchen. "The best local cooks are making their tastiest dishes just for you! You can eat as much as you want!"
"The best dishes… as much… as I want…?" She stared at him with eyes the size of dinner plates, a little drip of saliva hanging from her mouth, before jumping into the air, injuries entirely forgotten. "Now you're talking! I'm there right this instant!" She paused in place instead of running towards the kitchen, and turned back to the village elder. "Oh, by the way, do you know where the local priest is right now?"
"The priest?" the old man echoed.
"Yeah, I ought to thank the guy for patching me up. Without him I would have missed this nice meal, and that would've been just sad," she added jokingly.
"I-I am truly sorry Lina-sama, but I don't know what you are talking about," the village elder said, looking perplexed. "This really is a backwater region. We haven't seen a priest of the gods with such healing powers for months."
Silence reigned for a few seconds. Lina blinked once, twice - and smiled as she finally understood.
"Oh, it's nothing then," she said softly, staring at the inn's wall for a while, as if trying to see something behind it, not just in a different space but a different dimension. Then she snapped out of her reverie and winked at the elder. "Alright, let's get the feast started! Eating alone makes me look like some snobbish old lady, so you and your son can tag along. Aw, heck! Bring those martyr-wannabe girls too! Just don't touch anything, because the food is mine!"
Satisfied with her show of generosity, Lina marched towards the kitchen, like the unstoppable force of hunger personified.
The old man wondered whether indeed anything existed that could stop her at all.
Lina Inverse and Xelloss.
Two strange people in an even stranger relationship. How this came to be? What will happen to them? Read on, and find out.
First of all, I'd like to give my biggest thanks to Kaeru Shisho for beta reading this chapter. If it reads even remotely as an English text, it's his fault. ;)
Additionally, perhaps a little explanation is in order about how Xelloss was able to cast the spells he cast in the story - I know this is a controversial subject in Slayers fandom, so I'll just describe the version I am going to use in this fic:
As spiritual beings, ego is very important to mazoku, and so they usually attempt to accomplish their tasks by depending on their own power alone. In fact, drawing power from someone else in an act of spellcasting is damaging to them: They cannot even finish a black magic incantation without dying. But here comes the tricky part: Non-black spells (including holy magic) can be cast by mazoku - it will still hurt them, but such an act is not fatal. Because of this, mazoku are sometimes willing to take the damage and cast such a spell should it prove absolutely necessary - as it seemed to be the case here.
Thank you for reading, any and all feedback is greatly appreciated! May we meet again in the next chapter! :)