Xellos shimmered into being in an alleyway, well out of sight of any of the people milling about in the crowded streets of the city. He had the half-formed idea that he might bide his time over a cup of tea, but was unsure as to whether he'd like to spend this break on something more productive or not.
The Dark Star summoning was off the monster race's agenda. That was the big takeaway from the meeting he'd just attended and changed much about what was to be done now. Funny, but he'd had the feeling all along that it would wind up getting shut down, even though there'd been a great deal of excitement about the idea initially.
Since Valgaav was the force pushing for the summoning, this left them with two options: persuade him to join their side or continue with their plan to simply eliminate him. Xellos was privately certain that the former would not work and that the latter would be necessary. And, despite the benefits his superiors saw to having someone as powerful as Valgaav join their side, he felt it would be better that way. Someone like Valgaav had his own set of motives and would be difficult to control even if he did side with them. They were better off without someone like that in their inner circle.
…That someone of Valgaav's ability could create some jockeying amongst the higher echelons of the monster race was an additional fact that did not escape him.
And so, it would almost certainly come down to him killing Valgaav. Which was fine, since it was the task he'd been given in the first place.
It wouldn't be much longer before the confrontation either. Lina's group was quite close to Valgaav's main base—by his own design. He'd luckily found a temple in the general area that made vague enough claims to excuse going there, so that had allowed him to prod them in the right direction.
And what thanks had he gotten for putting them on the correct path? Insults. Insults and being romantically linked with Filia of all people.
He grinned grimly as he meandered out into the main thoroughfare. Not people—dragons. That was kind of the point. Part of it, at least.
The worst of it was that he had to admit that in another time, in another mood, with another set of recent circumstances, he might've played along with the whole "temple of marriage" bit. It would obviously have been torturous for Filia, which would've added sumptuous layer of hilarity to a scenario already ripe for painful comedy.
But it wouldn't do. Oh, not now. Now it was a prickling, infuriating thought and one that had made his meeting with Lord Beastmaster to receive his orders a somewhat distracting affair.
It was perhaps the way Filia had reacted to the idea of fusing magic with him that made it impossible for him to even unseriously go along with the whole thing. Nobody could've expected her to take to the idea of fusing magic with a monster easily, but she'd felt the need to add a rather… personal touch to the whole thing. To say that even if she would've fused with a monster, it wouldn't have been him.
Charming girl. …And that… epithet she was so fond of using with him: garbage—filthy trash, waste, worthless nothing. How absurd. Nobody was expecting her to like what he'd done to her people, but someone capable of wreaking that kind of damage was at least something, if, admittedly, something she did not like. For her to treat him like dirt under her fingernails… like a nothing…
Well, she really had no idea. No idea at all.
And that's why he couldn't even shrug his shoulders and say that the temple's judgment was wrong and still go along with it. That's what made dealing with that little pronouncement in any way aside from open revolt unbearable.
But the most teeth-grating part of it was that this hadn't really come out of nowhere. If it had, it would've been stupid, but an anomalous kind of stupid. The whole fusion magic idea that had come before it held overtones of this, if only a metaphorical level. He'd have had to have been blind not to notice that symbolic level of the, ah, union between the two of them. She must've understood some of this as well, whether consciously or unconsciously, because the language of her squawking rejection was tinged with it.
All of which left the temple's little pairing selection still quite ridiculous, but not nearly ridiculous enough.
Compounding the issue was the fact that he'd been forced to admit that Filia was getting rather… interesting lately.
Oh, he supposed she'd been at least mildly amusing from the start, even if she oscillated between "entertaining" and "damnably obnoxious," but the effect was growing. The way she was beginning to fit in with Lina's group better than any golden dragon (particularly a follower of the Fire Dragon King) really should be able to; the way her rigid moralism competed with powerful vices (and the way the two often teamed up in an unlikely and highly hypocritical manner); the way she was a pressure-sealed capsule of literally every kind of emotion that was all too easy to burst in an explosion of tantalizing drama.
…Her traitorous move against the Supreme Elder had perhaps been the turning point that had elevated her from mere "social landmine" to someone to watch. She hadn't quite accepted the truth about her people yet, but it wouldn't be too long before the facts became undeniable. When that happened… well, he wanted to see the result.
She was getting to be worth more and more attention. That was perhaps why the temple prediction hit closer to home than it should've.
…Predictions. Filia was probably used to accepting predictions from temples and religious artifacts as truth, so she was likely even more shaken about this than he was. But she was a priestess, yes? If she wanted to double-check that compatibility nonsense then she could easily do her own prediction, could she not? A dragon priestess of her level should possess at least some degree of proficiency in divination. If it had only occurred to her, she could've put all niggling doubts about the matter aside by coming up with her own prophecy that counteracted the one from the temple of marriage, and prove that stating that the two of them made a compatible pair was nothing more than second-rate, psychic drivel.
He stopped in his tracks. A second opinion? Perhaps that wasn't such a bad idea.
If anything, it would be no more a waste of time than nursing a cup of tea and halfheartedly abusing the wait staff.
The door seemed to be stuck so Xellos had to push twice to get it to creak open and chime a sad, dusty bell affixed to the doorframe. This wouldn't have happened, he knew, if he'd stuck to the main street and picked one of the psychic parlors with flashy lights and advertising and customers and an absence of rats. But, the thing was, he wasn't interested in a show. That was really what you were paying for with the more successful fortune tellers. For a guarantee of genuine skill, it was necessary to strip away the veneer of showmanship and the personal intuition to tell people exactly what they wanted to hear.
All of that meant that Xellos's chances of finding a viable second-opinion in the town he'd stopped in without doing a great deal of extra searching went exponentially up on the shabbier side of town. He'd wanted to find a fortune teller with a second job—perhaps who sold shoes during the day—but he hadn't been lucky enough. He'd make do with what he'd found.
What he'd found in this out of the way little shop with the symbol of a crystal ball above it was a middle aged woman who looked like she'd happily be mistaken for a crone. She tossed stringy ginger hair out of her face and gave him a preemptive look of suspicion through glasses that looked as though they'd been warped by ocean tides.
"I'm not going to get involved in criminal activity," she warned him.
He tilted his head to the side. That was a new one. "I'm sorry," he tried, "but I'm not sure what you're talking about Miss uh…"
"Placenta," she supplied.
He stared at her as though expecting her to break out with a "…just kidding!" any minute.
"Don't look at me like that," she said sternly. "I didn't pick it."
"Well then, Miss uh… Placenta," he said, the name refusing to fall naturally into his sentence, "I don't know what sort of requests you usually get here, but I was under the impression that a person could come here to get a psychic reading."
"That's exactly what I mean," Miss Placenta replied, striding forward and giving him a more critical, close-up look. "You, sir, you got the stink of bad news about you. Like a Mafioso or a thief or a senator." She pronounced this last category as though it inspired the most revulsion of all. "Don't you know they can charge me as an accessory if any psychic information I give you gets used to commit a crime? If you want to ask where the bodies are buried, you're gonna have to pick on a different fortune teller!"
"Oh no," Xellos answered, shaking his head and holding one hand up. "I had no intention of asking anything like that. I only wanted to ask about…" He paused. It was all so appallingly common when you actually laid it out. "…About my love life," he finished.
"Oh." Miss Placenta's weathered face brightened up immensely at this more familiar subject and at the prospect of getting her hands on some legally unquestionable cash. "Well, why didn't you say so in the first place?" She shuffled over to a cabinet with multicolored plant life poking out from the shelving. "Can I interest you in a charm or a potion then?"
"None of that," Xellos said, waving off her herbs. "My request is less general. I'd like to know about a specific person."
Upon this further information, she beckoned him to an unlit corner of the room, leveling a heavy glass ball out from a shelf below the table. Xellos could see that it was cheaply made, with stilled little bubbles beneath the clear surface of the orb and the occasional superficial crack here and there. Miss Placenta blew at a little stand fixed to the table to clear out the dust and then slotted the ball into place. It didn't seem that the stand and crystal ball had come as a set because the ball seemed a little small for it, but it didn't roll off the table here, so all was well. Xellos took a seat on a stool that was slightly wobbly despite the fact that a piece of cardboard has been slid under the short leg.
Miss Placenta sat down across from him and placed her hands over the crystal ball, but didn't bother looking into it much. "So this… girl you're asking about," she began as though making a guess that she wasn't very confident in, "I'm picking up the fact that you've only known her for a relatively short time but… yes, she's made quite an impression on you already," she went on, still watching for the slightest flicker in his expression so that she could correct course if needed. "And her name starts with a…" she began, trailing off searchingly.
"Her name is Filia," Xellos cut her off abruptly. "She's a blonde, has blue eyes, is, yes, quite attractive, and I'm not completely certain of her age myself, but I wouldn't bother trying to guess it or you'll almost certainly miss the mark. The same goes for her weight." He raised his eyebrows. "I'm pressed for time and I'm honestly not that interested in watching you play a guessing game about who I'm talking about to try to impress me with information I already know, so, if you wouldn't mind, could we skip ahead a little?"
Miss Placenta shrugged shawl-wrapped shoulders. "It's your dollar, I guess," she said.
She shifted her attention from him to the crystal ball, squinting her magnified eyes at the warped surface of the orb. Raising a thin eyebrow, she reached over and lifted the ball from its stand, grasping it in both hands. She shook it by her ear and listened, as though expecting to hear something jostling around inside it. After apparently not hearing anything to answer her questions, she breathed a moist fog onto the glass and wiped at it with the corner of her shawl. When the squeaking subsided, she placed the ball back in its stand and gave the contents of the sphere another searching look.
"…I don't want to be insulting or anything," she said, not even daring to look up, "but is your Filia some kind of iguana girl or something?"
A genuine smile twitched at the corner of Xellos's mouth, fighting against the more superficial one that made up his default expression. This was cause for some cautious hope in the endeavor. Any two-bit sham artist could guess something like hair color or age with a bit of luck and skillful attention to their mark, but picking up on the fact, however clumsily, that Filia was a dragon? That wasn't something someone would say as a guess.
"Something like that," Xellos answered cheerily.
Miss Placenta opened her mouth like she was about to question this, but seemed to decide against it, muttering something about other people's kinks not being her business. Instead she rolled back her shoulders and placed her hands over the crystal ball, evidently ready to return to her work. "Alright then, let's see what's between you two…"
There was silence for a few minutes as she gazed into the glass. Occasionally she'd swivel the orb around or look at it at odd angles, her tongue poking out of the corner of her mouth in concentration.
"Well, there might be something to the two of you after all," she announced. "I mean, there is definitely a connection that I sense. She seems to think a lot about you and there's just this… swirling cloud of emotions associated with you."
"What kind of emotions?" Xellos asked carefully.
It didn't seem like a complicated question to him, but Miss Placenta bit her lip as though it was something worth hedging on. "Oh… you know," she said, "emotional ones."
"One would imagine," Xellos went on, trying to keep his tone friendly but get at the actual answer he needed. "But which specific emotions is she experiencing?"
The psychic sighed as though ready to give up the ghost (instead of conducting a séance to communicate with it as a psychic normally would). "I don't really know," she said. "I can't tell."
"…Surely there's a way to distinguish between emotions," Xellos tried. "You're clearly able to sense them. Aren't those who possess a sixth sense supposed to be able to identify emotions by the color of a person's aura?"
"Right, sure," she said, "but I've never really called what I've got going on a 'sixth sense.' Add everything up and it's more like a 5.5th sense, if that's even a thing." She tapped at the frame of her glasses. "Colorblind, you see? There's not much of a chance of me reading auras right."
It was only a great deal of self-control that kept Xellos from slumping in his seat. A monochromat medium? Of course. It had just been that kind of day.
"I suppose I'll just have to look a little bit into the near future to see if anything becomes clearer," Miss Placenta announced, perhaps knowing that her admission hadn't been very well received.
"Or more colorful," Xellos muttered.
She ignored him, instead concentrating on whatever images she could make out in her crystal ball. After a moment, she peered at him over her glasses, her expression suddenly more concerned than when she'd had to confess to colorblindness or even when she'd accused his for-all-she-knew love interest of being a lizard. "I hate to break it to you, but I think you might have a romantic rival," she said.
Xellos raised an eyebrow. "I have a what?"
"Yes," she confirmed. "I mean, she's still emotionally connected to you in this very conflicted way," she added, as though to reassure him, "but… she's got some conflicted emotions for another man too."
Xellos opened his mouth and it was a moment before he spoke. "Who?" he finally asked, shortening his initial question of: "Who could possibly?"
"Don't know," Miss Placenta answered, squinting into the glass once more. "Kinda tall, brooding guy—seems to like exposing his midriff."
"…Valgaav?" Xellos tried, almost completely mystified.
"Sounds about right," Miss Placenta decided. "She seems like she's going to be giving him a great deal of thought in the future."
"Hardly proof of any romantic intent," Xellos was quick to point out.
Valgaav was the last of the ancient dragons—a walking, ranting symbol of the measures the golden dragons had been willing to take in the name of protecting "peace." Filia would have to accept that soon and it would shatter much about the world she knew. Of course that would leave her feeling rather thoughtful and conflicted.
…That was scarcely a good enough reason for some back-alley soothsayer to start making not-at-all-educated guesses about a romantic connection between the two of them.
"Sure," Miss Placenta allowed, "but that's how it starts."
Xellos leaned forward, eyeing the crystal ball which showed his host things that he could not see. "Why not put that to the test, then?" he asked confidently. "Look farther into the future—five or so years down the line—and see if this 'start' has amounted to anything."
She grit her tea-stained teeth together. "Oh, but I'm much more of a near-future kind of psychic," she explained. "Looking too far into the future always gives me a headache. Everything goes all funhouse mirror-like and blurry. It's not easy, you know?"
"That must be a hazard in your job," Xellos said pointedly, as though reminding her of what exactly her job description was.
She let out a hefty sigh. "Fine. I'll look," she relented, flexing her fingers outward and loosening out her wrists before she drew her attention back to the crystal ball.
She swiped at the thing as though sweeping through pages. Every so often she'd mutter things like, "No…" or "Not yet…" or "What?" or "A talking jar?" before she finally seemed to be satisfied that she'd reached the correct point. She closed one eye in a look that was more about focus than coquetry.
"Nope," she finally announced, having made her analysis. "Bad news for you. She ends up with the other guy."
Xellos opened his mouth to protest. By all accounts, Valgaav wasn't even likely to be around in several years' time, let alone be a romantic interest of Filia's. "What makes you say that?" he asked.
Miss Placenta shrugged. "The signal's really clear," she said. "All those confused emotions have cleared up and unified into one. Even a colorblind person can tell that she loves him."
"Pardon me if I'm a bit skeptical of your ability to discern between emotions," Xellos answered with a slight scoff. "Surely, if you're only able to perceive the tint of the aura spectrum, there are many similarly shaded emotions that you could be mixing up with love. Perhaps pity or nostalgia or—"
"He's in her bed," Miss Placenta said bluntly.
When there was no reply after several moments, Miss Placenta looked up from her crystal ball and to her client. "You okay, buddy?" she asked, genuinely concerned as she eyed his expression.
"I'm fine," he answered, a forceful emphasis on "I'm" to indicate that someone else was the one with the problem, "but I'm afraid you must've made a mistake."
"I'm not wrong just because the future's showing something you don't like," Miss Placenta replied, a little offended.
"This isn't about what I like," Xellos answered with just a hint of sharpness in his voice. "I couldn't care less who she ends up with. But what you're suggesting is just impossible."
He leveled himself into a standing position with his staff and gave a little put-upon sigh. "I should've known this would be a waste of time, but I didn't honestly expect that you'd make the prediction at the temple of marriage look legitimate by comparison."
Miss Placenta furrowed her pale brow. "What are you talking about?"
"No matter," Xellos said, more to himself than her. "It killed time. Now I have more pressing issues to attend to."
Miss Placenta stood up. "Now, hold on just a minute," she said. "You're not going anywhere until you've paid me for—"
…But he was gone. She hadn't even seen him dash for the door. He'd just vanished.
She might've been more concerned about a client showing such supernatural ability if she didn't have other things on her mind. She ground her fist into her forehead. "I knew I should've got cash from that one up front," she derided herself.
Of all the responses he could've possibly expected to receive from his second-opinion psychic, Xellos reflected as he rematerialized beside a river not far from Mt. Coronay, that was not even one he'd considered. She could've confirmed the temple of marriage's prediction, saying that Filia was indeed meant for him, born from the misperception that that was what he wanted to hear. She could've contradicted it, saying that this whole being-paired-up-with-Filia thing was nonsense, accurately realizing that that was what he wanted to hear. But to say Filia was instead going to end up with the renegade ancient dragon currently focusing his attention on a revenge quest against all of them? That was just an off the charts kind of ridiculous.
Yes. The proposed Filia-Valgaav union was so ridiculous, that it made the idea of him, a high ranking member of the monster race, marrying a dragon priestess look reasonable by comparison. At least she had a rapport with him—a sense of familiarity, even if it was one that was so often negative. In any case, there was a certain amount of playfulness to their… would you really call it fighting? More like… jousting. A little exchange to bring something out of the other person. To see what they were capable of and how they could defend themselves. They wouldn't have bothered with it if there wasn't something about the other to discover.
And what did she have with Valgaav? They didn't really even know each other. They were just on opposite sides of this little adventure. All he could feel for her would be contempt—that she was one of the same race that had slaughtered his own. The best she could feel for him was…
Well, perhaps a growing sense of pity, and that was a little worrisome in conjunction with Miss Placenta's claims, Xellos had to admit. Perhaps her internalized guilt could get Filia to trick herself into placing more value upon him than she really should.
What's more, she properly saw Valgaav as a genuine obstacle standing against them—a force to be reckoned with—their foe. Oh, she'd gone through all that nonsense with Xellos as well about how he was the enemy of the golden dragons and killed her people and so on and so forth, but she didn't treat him like a grand and impressive foe. She didn't take him seriously. It could be argued that she took Valgaav seriously, and perhaps saw him as more important as a result of that.
And oh… she had to have had very… restrained interactions with men in the religious environment of the temple, hadn't she? It could well be that her encounter with Valgaav was the first time that Filia had seen abs quite like that.
Of course, it was all a non-issue. He'd get to see to that himself. Very soon he'd have to make the proposal that Valgaav join the monster race, which the former servant of Gaav would surely decline. Then it would be Xellos's task to destroy him. He would not be around for Filia to either transform her pity into love or form any lasting opinions about the ancient dragon's stomach muscles.
Xellos glanced at his reflection in the running river. Filia sleep with Valgaav? A borrowed word from Filia probably best described that prediction: garbage. And soon he'd get a chance to prove that when he rendered that highly questionable prophecy completely impossible.
It would be very soon.
He teleported away to the strange complex sitting on top of a cliff in the distance, sure that the others must have arrived there by this point.
It was all so easy, looking back on that moment and what had followed it, for Xellos to see the mistakes he'd made—to realize why that job had ended up so thoroughly botched. It came down to motives and pretending that he didn't have them.
Not killing Valgaav immediately when he had the upper hand? That was a big one. He'd let the fight drag on—let it become play. Such a ploy was at least unprofessional against any target, but it was especially foolish against one as desperate and as dangerous as Valgaav. He'd given the ancient dragon time. Time to mount a counterstrike with Ragudo Mezigis and seriously wound him—effectively knocking him out of contention, leaving him fit for little more than hanging limply off of Filia with little ability to reign in the madness that followed.
He'd allowed Filia to be present at the confrontation. He could've easily kept her out of it. He could've caved in the passageway she was going through to block her path. He knew she was going that way because she'd been the one to tip him off about the correct direction (even if she hadn't meant to). He'd let her see him about his business. He'd wanted her to see. To see him as something far more imposing than garbage. To develop respect for him even if she hated him.
He'd used her to casually blow up his half-hearted attempts to persuade Valgaav to his side. There was no chance that the ancient dragon was going to ally with him after witnessing Filia feel so betrayed by him. Nor would he be receptive to the slight at the golden dragons since it so clearly paralleled the monster race's dealing with Gaav.
There was error and there was ego. The latter had caused the former. But perhaps the most humiliating flaw, in retrospect, was the least harmful one. It was all because it wasn't really about what he'd done, but how he'd handled it.
Saving Filia. Well, he supposed she was a little too emotionally confused to figure out that dodging falling rocks was a good plan for survival. He'd had to act. Really, there was nothing wrong with acting. It should've been fine. It was his state of mind that was wrong—a state of mind where he felt that this was an act that he had to cover for.
And cover he did! …In an incredibly lame fashion. Dropping her and claiming that he was using her in the stupidest sneak attack in history on an already downed foe was probably not the smoothest reaction that he could've had to saving her life.
It wasn't even necessary. So he'd scooped her out of harm's way? It didn't have to mean anything suspicious. He could've easily made the argument that he thought he might need her alive in the future. Completely reasonable. He could've said that to her. Or he could've passed a comment about the poor survival skills of golden dragons (though that, of course, would've left an opening for a shot at his past history with her race—and yes, he had mapped out how that conversation would've gone if he'd gone that way). Really, he didn't have to say anything. He could've just let her wonder why. There was no reason to make excuses.
…The fact that he'd made an excuse made it obvious that there actually was a reason. If there hadn't been, then there wouldn't have been anything to be embarrassed over. And yet he'd behaved in a manner that showed he was embarrassed—that he felt he had something to hide. That might've been lost on Filia, but it was not on Lord Beastmaster and that had not been a fun conversation.
So yes, there had been mistakes. But he was far enough away—years away—from those mistakes to see that they had led them to the point he was at now. With that in mind, it was hard to lament them too much.
Filia turned over beside him, thin white sheets hanging half off of her pajama-clad form in the summer heat. She muttered something about a "stupid monster" in her sleep and then seemed to settle back down.
He smiled. It seemed to him that he made more mistakes whenever Filia was around, but they were mistakes he could live with.
…And, as he strolled down memory lane, it was gratifying to him that he hadn't been the only one making mistakes that day. That batty fortune teller with the unfortunate name had called it so wrong that it was laughable. Perhaps she'd somehow managed to mix up him and Valgaav in the distorted haze of her future sight. What with how the situation with Valgaav had turned out… Well… "romantic rival" seemed a very unlikely role for him to take nowadays.
He looked up. There had been a sound—felt-covered footsteps in the hall. The door to their room opened with a creak and a small figure bounded toward Filia's side of the bed.
"Mommy?" it tried tentatively, pulling with a little hand at the sheet that covered her.
There was a groan as Filia forced her eyes opened and elbowed herself upward into a seated position on the bed. "What is it, Val?" she asked groggily.
"I had a scary dream," the child explained. "Can I sleep with you tonight?"
Filia rubbed the sleep out of one eye with a sigh. She pulled aside the bed covering. "Climb on up," she said with a little overtired reluctance.
As the reborn ancient dragon crawled into bed and into his adoptive mother's arms, Xellos let out a laugh.
"What's so funny?" Filia asked sharply, perhaps annoyed at the thought of Xellos mocking her child's fear.
"Oh, nothing," Xellos answered lightly, his laugh lingering. "It's just that it seems a prophecy has been fulfilled tonight."