Inside the temple of Sairaag, it rained. This was because, the speed of the construction being what it was, the roof was still not complete. The priestesses had done their best with carefully placed pots and pans, so the entire chamber was filled with the unpleasant pings of raindrops hitting metal.
Zangulus sat in a chair in the hallway and tried not to think too hard about things. The priestesses had taken Martina into another room and told him to wait outside. Well, that was obviously right, wasn't it? That's how things were done. He'd just get in the way if he were there.
Still, it was nerve-wracking just waiting. Sairaag had no hospital, so he just had to trust that the priestesses knew what they were doing.
He took a drink out of a tea-cup he'd been given by one of the priestesses. He'd been told it was healthy. He'd been told there were herbs in it. Of course, it tasted awful. But it was warm and he really didn't have anything else to distract him from his thoughts.
Obviously he was worried about his wife. Would she be alright? What if something…went wrong? Also, obviously he was worried about how he'd act in his new role. Would he be a good father? What if he… messed up?
But sometimes the less obvious and more immediate problems take up a lot more headspace than you'd think. The one tolling through Zangulus's mind rang out like a bell: What if it's a girl?
Now, Zangulus didn't actually favor boys over girls or anything. A son would be a blessing. If he had a son he'd teach him swordsmanship and talk to him about girls. A daughter would be a blessing. If he had a daughter he'd beat up any boy that made her cry and… hell, he'd probably teach her swordsmanship too. He'd be happy with either if it weren't for…
Martina got so set on things. She'd picked out the names very quickly and wouldn't budge. And while Martin was a perfectly reasonable thing to name a boy (though a little egotistical if your name is Martina), Zangula was not a reasonable name for anyone. He pitied the poor child that would have to walk around with that name. But Martina had made up her mind and no amount of persuading could make her change it.
A priestess walked out of the private room. Zangulus recognized her. That was that Sylphiel girl who'd been around during that Hellmaster/end of the world thing. From what he could tell she pretty much ran the temple now. She was carrying a bundle in her arms. Zangulus almost dropped his bitter herb-infused drink before he managed to regain his cool.
Sylphiel gave him a warm, comforting smile. "Miss Martina's just fine," she said. "She's resting."
She held out the child for Zangulus to take. He backed up for a moment, then held out his arms in the wary way of all new fathers who think they're going to be the first one to drop their baby. Sylphiel gently shifted the bundle into his arms, guiding him to the correct way to hold it.
"It's a girl," she said.
Zangulus looked down in awe at the child in his arms. She was pink and slightly wrinkly and seemed to be blowing spit bubbles in her sleep. Of course, as far as Zangulus was concerned she was the most beautiful creature to ever grace the planet. She was also the most terrifying… so filled with hope and promise. He must never, ever let her down.
Oh well, Zangulus thought. She'll grow into it.
These days, the people say that the old Beld place is haunted. So quickly did they forget the charming, bear-like man who threw grand parties that everyone very much enjoyed and was a pillar of the community. This was probably because of the whole 'finding him strangled in a room with six brutally murdered women' thing. That kind of incident tends to leave a lasting impression on people's minds.
As for Lilliana, she couldn't care less what they said. She was determined to make the most out of life despite the fact that she was not technically living. She'd found her parents and they'd accepted her back into their lives (after, of course, a nasty incident in which they'd tried to shoot her in the head with a crossbow before she'd managed to properly explain matters). She'd gotten a job as a school-teacher and was very popular among the students (it's that trick where she pops out her eyes. It gets them every time). She was even stepping out on evenings with a local baker's apprentice who was, we can only assume, extremely open-minded.
To an especially stubborn mind, death hardly even warrants a sick day.
Deep under the swamps of Putter Country in a castle within an air bubble, the Marsh King and his wife passed their day browsing through a catalogue of wallpaper samples. This was a bit removed from the Marsh King's original activities which had largely included shaking a halberd and roaring at the swamp to obey its will. Given the circumstances, he'd adjusted quite well.
"RAAAGUFFAAAAH!" the crocodile-headed deity roared as he pointed at a very lovely pink and green pattern with ducks emblazoned on it.
"Oh yes, that's very cute," his wife responded thoughtfully. "But I worry it might be too cute. We don't want her thinking we're trying to infantilize her or anything." She flipped through the book. "What about something in a light blue with white stripes?"
"TREEAAAAAAANG!" the Marsh King pointed out.
"You're right, of course," his wife agreed. "We don't know when the dear thing is coming back to visit and we might as well let her choose for herself then." She closed the book with some regret, as though disappointed that the joys of interior decorating had been denied her.
The Marsh King paused. He gave his best effort, he really did. But his dental arcade hadn't been designed for higher speech. He tried nevertheless. "LAAAHAAAYLAAARRR?" he asked.
"Yes, Dylos?" Layla asked.
Dylos steeled himself for the sentence ahead, trying to achieve through sheer will what evolution failed to do with his jaws. "HEEELLGARRRRR… HAAPPPPYYY?"
Layla sighed. "I hope so," she said. "But that's really all up to her."
Somewhere closer to the hubbub of Putter Country's more cosmopolitan sections (i.e. places with floors and even the occasional roof) a young man stood waist deep in the mire and fished. He fished in the same spot his daddy had fished, and his granddaddy, and his great-granddaddy, and all the daddies before him had fished. His name was Jason. He was thirteen now and that practically made him a man.
Suddenly, the peace and quiet of the day was broken by the rapid splashing as a girl just a bit younger than him ran her way through the bog with something cupped in her hands and an expression of sheer, exuberant excitement on her face. Her splashing had probably scared away all the fish, but Jason didn't mind. It could have been because this girl was of such unsurpassed beauty that a man could overlook something like that. But it could have just been because Jason was an especially patient boy.
She opened her palms to reveal her find to him, her smile wide and her eyes shining. Jason looked at what she was holding with interest for a moment, and then looked up, flashing her a freckle-faced smile.
"That's a cricket, Helga," he said. "Crick-et!"
"Crooo," she tried uncertainly, unused to words.
"Cricket," Jason repeated. "'Cause they go crick-eet all the time!"
"Cricky!" Helga tried, ever the student.
Jason smiled. It was funny how the arrangement had worked out. But once you knew about Helga you just sort of took the way she was for granted. During the day he'd teach her to speak, and at night she'd tell him stories. Tonight he was hoping she'd tell the one about the fish-tailed princess who lived underwater. He'd always liked that one.
Some people might make a fuss about the way she looked at night, but some people'd make a fuss over anything. The way Jason could figure it: no one could help the way they were made.
Filia had only just arrived back in Achaea. It was good to be home. It was nice to be around Jillas and Gravos again, and comforting to know that no major catastrophes had occurred in her absence. It was nice to see Val resting inside his egg again. She'd whispered Amelia's greeting to him and also claimed that Zelgadis had said hello too, hopefully not starting a lifelong habit of lying to children. And she was looking forward to getting back to selling vases and maces again. It was very rewarding.
In fact, everything would've been perfectly lovely if it wasn't for…
Oh, who else?
Xellos had followed her home. He actually went and followed her home!
He hadn't been physically following her home the whole time. He'd pop into the astral plain from time to time and Filia would wonder if he'd gotten bored of her and was going to grant her a little peace for awhile until he popped back into existence.
Now he was standing in her front hall as though he had every right to be there; which he certainly didn't.
So, she'd taken the only natural course of action: she'd gotten out a broom and tried to shoo him out of her house as you might do with vermin. She considered this right and thoroughly appropriate treatment of him.
But, she thought to herself, if he doesn't leave then eventually I'll have to stop this. And then maybe… just maybe… I'll offer him some tea.
Amelia sighed and looked dramatically over the tower balcony.
She wasn't sure what she was really waiting for. Zelgadis hadn't left that long ago and there was very little chance he'd be coming back from his highly mysterious errand already. Not to mention she had a million other things she should be doing instead.
There was always a lot for a princess to do, and a lot of work had piled up while she was traveling. Not to mention there was the aftermath of the swamp witch attack to worry about. There'd been a lot of cleaning and drying out to protect the city's buildings from the damage of damp and mold. Then there'd been the giant fight she'd had to mediate between merchants over what to do with the fish the witch had rained down on the city. One group wanted to eat the fish on account of it not being wise to waste free food. One group claimed that since the fish were enchanted, eating them would no doubt do something awful to them like turning them all into pigs. The pork industry representatives had watched the argument with patient interest.
She frowned at the horizon. She was really up here because staring out dramatically over balconies is what you're supposed to do when you're pining. There wasn't any use bringing sense into it.
…But if he didn't show up soon she was going to do a lot more than stare dramatically into the distance clasping her hands to her heart. Mark it.
Zelgadis rode along the outskirts of the Desert of Fears. It was probably impolite of him, he thought, not to have stopped by Filia's on his way through Achaea, but she and Xellos had seemed oddly chummy when they'd last left and he wasn't sure he wanted to subject himself to their joint company. Plus it wasn't like they hadn't seen each other in a while or anything. Anyway, he had a mission.
He tied his horse to a rock formation outside and walked up to the door in the sheer rock-face that had started him on this whole crazy quest. He knocked.
There was a sound of thudding footsteps and then a serious: "Who goes there?"
Zelgadis was somewhat taken aback. He hadn't expected that tone. "It's Zelgadis," he said.
There was a flurry of locks unclicking and the door flew open to reveal Sangoma. With a slightly apologetic expression she said: "Sorry about that. Rhevas is out, so I can't be too careful. Please, come in."
Zelgadis walked across the threshold silently and wondered what a monster could have to be afraid of. And then he thought that the answer for a monster with limited powers, a husband, and a professed interest in humans would be: other monsters.
"I hoped I'd be seeing you again," she said with a smile. She gestured to a chair. "Please, sit down and tell me how things went. I wanted to watch myself, but Seyruun's a little iffy for me, you understand."
And so Zelgadis sat down and told her what had happened in the fight with Viola the oracle. At the point in which he told her how he finally defeated the oracle, he took out the bag he'd been carrying from Seyruun, opened it and poured its contents on the table.
"This is all that's left of her," he said.
Bones. The same ancient bones that had come from the ice. The bones of a creature long ago decayed. Sangoma eyed them with polite interest.
"Will you take them?" Zelgadis asked seriously.
"As I only recently had to explain to Xellos," Sangoma said, picking up a finger bone and inspecting it. "Dead bodies are not an appropriate gift to give to girls." She put down the bone and looked thoughtful. "Perhaps there should be some sort of public service announcement to that effect."
"I just meant that I thought you could give her a resting place," Zelgadis said testily, not considering this a joking matter. "You know, in the vaults with the others."
"I think I could manage that," Sangoma said serenely. She sat back and gave Zelgadis a critical look. "So you figured out that she was a chimera?"
"Yes," Zelgadis said. "But I still don't know how. It was more instinct that anything."
Sangoma gave a satisfied nod. "You see, hundreds of years ago, back in the dark and wild days of alchemy," well, she paused, "certainly darker and wilder than these days at least, a human girl possessing great psychic gifts was kidnapped be a rogue experimental group of alchemists. They wanted to try something that no one had ever done before."
"They fused her with the swamp," Zelgadis said bitterly. "But a swamp isn't alive," he pointed out.
"Isn't it?" Sangoma said, drawing back and looking questioningly at him. "A swamp is made up entirely of live-things which are interdependent on each other. The same could be said of humans. The swamp is an entity in itself."
"So doing this made her an oracle?" Zelgadis asked, not entirely sure he bought Sangoma's living swamp theory.
"A swamp is…" Sangoma paused looking for the right words, "it's a thing on the edge of things. It's water and land, life and decay, light and dark… a swamp is a very mystical kind of place and Viola already had great psychic powers. Plugged in to an ancient source of wisdom her powers increased. And, of course, she could live as long as the swamp could because she was the swamp."
"Are there others like her?" Zelgadis asked.
"No," Sangoma shook her head. "She was the only chimera of her kind, fused with earth and water. What the alchemist had created was an oracle, and like almost every oracle that has ever been she bemoaned her existence."
"If you knew all this," Zelgadis asked, trying to keep the irritation from his voice. "Then why didn't you send me to her in the first place? Why all these dead-end searches?"
"To give you a chance of beating Viola," Sangoma said, pointing at him. "If you couldn't figure out what Viola was you didn't have much of a chance of defeating her. I wasn't going to tell you outright, but I did give you the opportunity to figure it out yourself."
"The theme I wanted you to see," she went on, "is one of transformation. By belief a mad collection of souls manifested themselves into a dark goddess, by clinging to life even in the face of death a human girl became one of the undead, and by the curse of her parentage a girl appeared human during the day and monstrous at night." She beamed. "See? Transformation. And you were able to figure it out so that just proves that my plan went off without a hitch!"
Zelgadis privately thought that this was bunk and that Sangoma just hadn't wanted to make things easy for him, but he kept that to himself. "What did you want out of all this?" he asked. "Did you want me to free the oracle so that she could wreak havoc on the world? Did you want the oracle to kill me and Amelia? Did you want the oracle killed so no one could use her knowledge? Or," he gestured wearily at the bones on the table, "did you just want another chimera for your collection?"
Sangoma shrugged. "Any of the above would've been beneficial."
Zelgadis groaned. The monster race had a habit of planning things out so that they couldn't possibly lose.
He had another question though, one that he wished he didn't want to ask, but had nevertheless been preying upon his mind. "So, does that all mean that there really is no cure out there?" He looked down. "I mean, if Viola was a chimera and she knew a way… she'd just have gone off and done it herself."
"Not necessarily," Sangoma said carefully. "Viola didn't want to be human again. The only cure she was interested in was death."
"Cheer up," Sangoma said, after a beat in which Zelgadis both looked downcast and thoughtful. "You survived, so you win something. I saw to that. You kept your geasa so you get a blessing. Have you been blessed yet?"
"Well," Zelgadis said, looking up. "I was knighted." Put it like that it really did sound like a blessing.
"Thought your clothes looked nicer," Sangoma commented diplomatically. "Congratulations!"
"But," Zelgadis protested helplessly. "But I don't deserve it! I don't know if I even want it!"
"Tough luck," Sangoma said unsympathetically. "You never get to choose your blessings in life. They just happen. And sometimes they hurt like hell."
Zelgadis frowned. Put like that, someone could actually consider his form a blessing in itself. He'd never seen it that way, but maybe it was a matter of perspective. Maybe blessings weren't things that made you happy, but things that helped you make other people happy.
"So, what are you going to do now?" Sangoma said, asking a question of her own.
Zelgadis shifted uncomfortably. "Well to be honest there are a lot of places I've been thinking of going and a lot of things I've been thinking of doing, but…" he trailed off. "I told Amelia I'd come back."
Sangoma nodded gravely and began putting the bones back in their bag. "It's not wise to keep a lady waiting," she said. "Your choice though, obviously."
She patted the bag once she'd gotten it all packed up. "I'll treat her with respect, don't worry about it," she said and Zelgadis believed her. Sangoma might play with the living, but he guessed she supposed the dead had been through too much already and deserved some peace and quiet.
"Now go, Zelgadis," she said, though not unkindly. "You won't find what's next hanging around here."
Zelgadis left the strange house in the rock and walked over to the place he'd tethered his horse, his head full of conflicting ideas.
There were a lot of places to go and a lot of things to do. His natural inclination was to chase them. He was a knight now and many new places were probably open to him. Besides that, there were so many places he'd breezed through in his travels. Revisiting them held appeal.
But yet… Seyruun had a special call to it as well. It had gained a fixed place in his mind.
Amelia had said she had something that she wanted to tell him. Well, if he was really honest with himself – and he was trying to be honest with himself – he had something he wanted to tell her too. He really hoped they had the same thing in mind, otherwise things could be really embarrassing.
He patted his white horse gently as he untied the reigns.
"Come on, Snowflake," he said. "We're going home."
Closing Author's Note: Well, here we are. After about five months of writing (a much more planning) we've reached the end. I want to thank all the readers and reviewers whose support made this possible :) I hope you guys enjoyed the story and that you liked the ending.
If you're interested in reading more about Oracle's Wish, I'm going to be posted up a sort of commentary on the story where you can read about the references/inspiration/motivation that went into this. It'll be posted in my forum and you can find the direct link on my profile page.
AND HERE COME THE SHAMELESS PLUGS! Hey, Zelgadis/Amelia fans! I'm going to be starting a brand-spanking-new Zelgadis/Amelia (and Lina/Gourry) fic starting Wednesday, April 28th. It's called A Little Opposition, so if you're interested keep an eye out for it.
Hey, Xellos/Filia fans! If I may plug my Saturday-update fic Diplomacy...well, then I will. Also, I'm going to be writing a Xellos/Filia oneshot called Not at all Seduced which is planned to be posted next Wednesday, April 21st. So check it out if you're interested.
I think that's enough for shameless plugs. Let me say once again: Thank you all so much for reading and reviewing. I love ya'll.