Note to Readers: To all my reviewers and all the support, I want to say a huge "THANK YOU!" for everything! If it wasn't for you, this 'fic might not have ever been finished. Now because of you, the two sequels will also see completion, lest I be flayed with wet noodles for leaving y'all hanging. ^_~ It's been great, guys.
~ Zanne

The Illusion of Truth
Chapter Twenty Two

The humans had a saying. Give someone enough rope, and they'd hang themselves with it.

Taking in the situation from the astral plane, it seemed that Valgaav had managed to tie a very nice noose around his own neck.

His patience had paid off.

All that was left to do was pull the trapdoor to the gallows, and the game would be won.

Xellos smiled.

With several dishes planned out, Filia worked frantically to get them done as soon as possible. Part of it was, she wanted to be finished before anyone realized what she was cooking -- Jillas and Gravos in particular --and the rest of it was that as long as she was completely occupied with what she was doing, she didn't have time to feel guilty.

It all started when a customer who had ordered a tea set had been unable to pay when the rains beat her husband to the harvest. Missus Varsha had insisted on finding a away to pay somehow, since Filia had told her to go ahead and take the set and pay when she could. She had brought over two attractive patchwork quilts, and a brilliantly decorated crazy quilt in exchange for the tea set. The woman had cautioned the winters there grew cold, and gave Filia the patchwork quilts, stating they were for their two servants, then presented her with the crazy quilt as being for 'her husband and herself'.

Filia still found herself blushing at the memory. Ever since that night after the near accident with the horses a week ago... well, lovemaking had become quite... commonplace. Valgaav had moved into the bedroom after then, and no matter how much Filia worried about someone hearing them, it never took long for her to no longer care whether or not they did.

She hadn't been able to go to breakfast a single time in the last week without blushing so vividly, Filia was certain sooner or later her face would take that on as a permanent color.

After Missus Varsha had left that morning, Filia took the quilts up to Jillas and Gravos' bedroom in the attic. It was then that she noticed a few old rags shoved in the wood, and a few beat-up pots in specific places on the floor, and realized the walls were drafty, and the roof leaked. How long it had been like that, neither of them would admit. For all Filia knew, it was in the same condition it was when the house was purchased. When she pressed them for answers, Jillas and Gravos admitted they didn't want to say anything, because she had been so worried about money and getting through the winter.

Filia had removed a hefty sum of coins from the safe and ordered the two out of the house, and not to come back until they bought sufficient supplies to fix the attic. Now they were gone, and she was left to a mad cooking spree of some of their favorite foods to try to assuage some of the guilt.

The only problem lay in the fact that one of Jillas' favorite treats of all time was a cake she had made only once before; a rather exotic dish of chocolate and caramel, with nuts. Scraping up her supplies, she discovered she did have enough to make one. The catch was, it required three eggs. Although Valgaav had apologized, although she didn't blame him in the slightest, Filia was still scared of breaking eggs whenever he was home.

But she really wanted that cake to be ready for supper that night.

Tiptoeing to the door, Filia carefully peeked out into the backyard, and was distracted briefly as she watched Valgaav chopping firewood. He seemed sufficiently occupied, and it was only three. She could chance it. They'd be broken, the shells discarded, and the yolks blended in before he knew it.

Holding two eggs, one in each hand, Filia cracked them both against the counter, then expertly used her fingers to pry both eggs open at once. Quickly, she tossed them into the compost container to take outside later, and reached for the third.

Suddenly her breath congealed in her lungs as she noticed a second shadow being cast on the wall before her.

"Do you think we spent too much?" Jillas asked worriedly.

"Well..." Gravos hesitated. "I've never been too good at that sort of figuring, so I don't know. Did we get anything we don't need to fix things up?"

"No, but..." Jillas' ears drooped. "Oneesan's worried about having money since we'll have to buy a lot of supplies over this winter. Next year will be better, since we'll build a garden and maybe get some animals, but..."

"We'll make do," Gravos assured him, releasing one hand off the load of timber he had balanced on his shoulder to pat Jillas' head as they reached the house, walking around to the back. "Go on inside. I'll take care of this."

Jillas opened the kitchen door, then froze, his hackles immediately rising as his ears went back, teeth bared in a vicious snarl. "BOSS!" he shouted, growling as he cautiously entered. Behind him was a loud clatter of wood as Gravos dropped the lumber and ran up behind him.

"Don't just stand there making noise," the Trickster snapped at them, kneeling open-eyed by Filia among the wreckage in the kitchen. "Do either of you know of any healers locally?"

"Oneesan!" Jillas shouted, staring at Filia. She was clearly unconscious, and while injuries weren't his forte, he didn't like the blood down the side of her face or the obvious bruises. "What did you do to her,"

Xellos cut him off. "Do you think I would send for a healer if I had done this?" he retorted.

"Lord Valgaav!" Gravos brushed past Jillas, running to crouch at his master's side. "Did you kill him?" he demanded.

"Not yet!" Xellos all but growled. Jillas felt a chill at the look of pure malice in the Mazoku's open amethyst eyes as he glared at Valgaav's still form for a moment. "Will either of you find a healer, or do I have to take her elsewhere?!"

"You're not going anywhere with Oneesan!" Jillas shouted and lunged at him. Xellos brushed him aside easily.

Jillas collided with the wall and sat up, giving his head a little shake to try to clear the ringing sound, and growled again, stopping only when he saw Filia stir.

"What happened?" Gravos demanded.

"What does it look like?" Xellos retorted. "Hmm, she seems to be coming around. Perhaps we have no need of a healer yet." Picking Filia up carefully, Jillas watched as Xellos walked to the living room, pausing only to glower down at Gravos. "And if you value that pathetic crossbreed, you'll keep him away from Miss Filia. Foxman, make yourself useful. Get some water and a cloth, immediately!"

Jillas watched Xellos walk into the living room, laying Filia on the couch, then turned to stare at Gravos in open-mouthed shock. Then, they both glanced down to Valgaav as he groaned, stirring a bit, reaching up to hold his head.

"Lord Valgaav, take it easy," Gravos said, helping him sit up while Jillas fetched a bowl of water and a towel.

"What hap..." Valgaav trailed off as he opened his eyes, taking in the mess in the kitchen. "Filia!"

"Whoa, not so fast," Gravos said, the big ogre easily restraining him. "Filia will be fine."

Jillas' ears drooped, not liking the way things were looking, and hurried into the living room. "Here," he said, placing the items on the table.

"Glad to see you finally decided to grace us with your presence." The annoying voice and smile was back, along with the perpetually closed eyes. With a brisk, cheerful detachment, Xellos began gently cleaning off Filia's face, causing her to groan at the touch and try to pull away, her eyelids fluttering. "Now, Miss Filia, as much as I'm sure you're not looking forward to seeing me, I'm afraid I really must insist that you open your eyes. It would seem that you have sustained quite a lovely knock to the head."

"Did...did Lord Valgaav do this?" Jillas asked, almost inaudibly. His ears drooped almost flat against his head as he twisted his paws, hoping to hear otherwise.

"You already know the answer, I trust," Xellos said evenly, opening one eye to look at Jillas.

The foxman whimpered, sinking down to sit on the table, looking at Filia. "He didn't mean to..."

"That is of no concern of mine," Xellos said flatly. "The fact remains... well, I have no intention of allowing someone so obviously dangerous remain around Miss Filia."

"You're not killing him!" Jillas cried, getting to his feet. The one-eyed stare returned.

"Perhaps, if he is gone before I finish tending to Miss Filia's injures, I'll have other things to worry about." Filia suddenly stiffened, a muffled screech escaping her lips as she stared up at Xellos, her eyes wide but still dazed. Xellos closed his eye and looked down to her, easily preventing Filia from sitting up, smiling cheerfully all the while. "There, there, Miss Filia. You really mustn't exert yourself so. That was quite a nasty hit -- or twenty -- you took."

"Get away from me!" she protested weakly, trying to push his hand away from her head. "Valgaav!"

"It wouldn't be good for you to see one another," Xellos replied. "He is very lucky he is still alive, and you are likewise fortunate that I arrived when I did."

"What happened?"

"Miss Filia, whatever were you thinking?" Xellos chided. "Once a violent, dangerous dragon, always a violent, dangerous dragon. Just because someone has a brush with near-death doesn't mean he will change his spots, or wings and scales, as the case may be. It doesn't change the fact that he is an Ancient, and you are a Golden, and that is that."

Jillas had to look away, unable to take the sight of the devastated look on Filia's face.

"You're lying," he heard Filia whimper softly.

There was silence, and then Xellos' voice chilled his blood.

"I do not lie, Miss Filia." There was a dangerous edge to it that promised dark things to anyone who would care to challenge that statement. "When have I ever?"

"I want to see him..."

"No. That would definitely not be wise." The cheerfully annoying tone was back, but it had a layer hidden somewhere within that made Jillas feel Xellos was far more angry than he let on.

When he heard Filia starting to weep softly, Jillas couldn't remain there for another moment longer. Quietly standing, he slipped back to the kitchen.

Everything he was seeing was adding up, but Valgaav was trying desperately not to think of the sum. He couldn't have, could he?

"Boss?" Gravos asked, "what happened?"

Valgaav shook his head slowly, and started to get to his feet. Gravos at first tried to stop him, but a look from Valgaav had him abandoning that route quickly enough. Helped to his feet by the big ogre man, Valgaav leaned dizzily on the counter, and picked up a smashed bit of pottery.

"You two were gone," Valgaav said slowly, frowning in thought as he slowly turned the pottery over in his hands. "Filia was in the house, cooking. I was getting more firewood..."

"And?" Gravos prodded.

Valgaav stared blankly at the wall, then closed his eyes, trying to retrace his actions. "I put the axe down, I remember that..." His voice lowered. "Barely."

"Anything else?" Gravos' expression was worried.

Try as he might, everything was black, and anything else that he did recall was like an imaginary ghost one might see when the eyes played tricks, a vague, quick flicker out of the corner of the eye that would disappear when one might look directly upon it. Slowly, he shook his head. "Filia?" His voice was hoarse even to his own ears. "Where is she?"

Gravos hesitated. "The living room, I think. Jillas is wi--"

He was cut off by a scared shriek from the living room, Filia's voice. Reflexively, Valgaav stood upright, pushing away from the counter, trying to ignore the fact that even though he stopped turning around, the room did not. Gravos grabbed his shoulders, both steadying him and stopping his advance.

"What happened to her?"

"She...we came back. The kitchen was like this, and she..." He hesitated. "She was knocked out."

Gravos was leaving out details, Valgaav was sure of it. He could smell blood, and knew it wasn't his own. "You stopped me?" he whispered under his breath.

The servant didn't answer immediately. "No. Xellos did."

Valgaav's gaze immediately snapped to Gravos' lone remaining eye. "What?" he demanded, snarling. "That damned Mazoku is here?"

Gravos' next words hit him like a Giga Slave. "He's treating her injuries."

"How bad off is she?" he whispered, his voice dropping again.

He hated the pause from Gravos. "I don't know."

Valgaav rested his head in his hands, leaning on his elbows on the counter, trying to fight off the sick sensation inside. It was unthinkable, the idea that he would have injured Filia in such a manner, but...however unthinkable it might be, it didn't change the reality of the kitchen, or the fact that he had done as much in the past, or would have if Gravos hadn't stopped him.

"Lord Valgaav?"

He looked up then at Jillas' tentative query, seeing the foxman in the doorway, ears drooped, wringing his hands in agitation. "Yes, Jillas?" he softly inquired, feeling every second his true linear age.

Jillas stammered for a few moments, but Valgaav heard the unfinished questions nevertheless. How could you do this? Why did you do this? What happened? Finally, he settled on one. "Are you all right?"

Am I all right...? Valgaav couldn't help but chuckle humorlessly over how absurd the question sounded in his ears. Jillas and Gravos exchanged worried looks.

"Boss?" Gravos asked.

Valgaav waved them off. "Filia?" he asked.

"She's awake. She doesn't seem to be hurt too badly."

"Thank L-sama," he breathed, leaning heavily on the countertop again.

"But maybe you'd better go."

Valgaav's gaze snapped back to Jillas, his eyes widening in disbelief. "What did you say?"

"Jillas?" Gravos sounded likewise incredulous.

The foxman cringed even more, his tail tucked between his legs, his entire body language meek and submissive. "I...Lord Valgaav, it's Xellos. He's tending to her now, but said if you're still here when he finishes, he'll kill you..."

Gravos frowned worriedly.

"The hell I'm leaving her alone with that shitbag of a Mazoku!" Valgaav snapped.

All three of them jumped when Xellos suddenly appeared in the kitchen, glaring at Valgaav with open eyes. Reflexively, he growled and clenched his fists.

"And what might you suggest?" Xellos asked, sneering at him. "Might you suggest that I leave her alone with a violent, unpredictable halfbreed who carries such a deep and abiding hatred for Miss Filia's entire race that you would bring harm to her for no other reason that what she is?"

"Like you wouldn't kill her!" Valgaav shouted.

"On the contrary, if I wished her dead, we wouldn't even be having this conversation." Xellos' entire face was alight in unholy glee.

Valgaav wasn't ready to back down just yet. "If all this is true," he growled, "why am I still alive?"

"You wish for me to rectify that?" Xellos asked, starting to raise his staff. "Then by all means..."

"No!" both Gravos and Jillas shouted in unison, moving in front of Valgaav protectively.

The gesture, however noble, was also futile, and both Xellos and Valgaav knew it.

"If you wish to die for your pathetic master, then so be it," Xellos sneered, stretching out his hand toward them.

No one expected a delicate, trembling hand to appear from behind him and wrap over his gloved one. Xellos stumbled briefly, off-guard by the weight, and caught Filia in his arms.

Valgaav leaned back against the wall dizzily, trying to shut his eyes against the sight of Filia, her blue frock stained in various foodstuff and blood, her lovely face marred with swollen, darkening bruises. One of her eyes remained closed, the pale skin surrounding it a violent blackish red.

"Miss Filia," Xellos chided. "You know you shouldn't be up and about just yet, and certainly not putting any weight on that ankle."

"Spare them," she murmured.

The room was quiet as they all looked to Filia.

"What?" Xellos asked, clearly annoyed.

"Please, let him go. He didn't mean to..."

The final factor in the equation. Valgaav struggled to keep himself under control as he opened his eyes, and walked to the door.

"Lord Valgaav!" Jillas ran after him.

"Stay," Valgaav said quietly, not turning around. "You two belong with Filia now. Help her. She needs you more than I do."

Jillas whined softly, but said nothing more.

At the doorway, he paused only once, looking back over his shoulder. Xellos stood across the kitchen, holding Filia, a triumphant smirk of evil jollity on his face. Tears ran unchecked down Filia's cheeks, and her lower lip trembled from the strain of holding in a sob as she watched him.

Drawing in a deep breath, Valgaav managed to will his voice to remain steady for one more statement, even if the timbre was a hushed whisper. "I'm so sorry, Filia." She choked on the sob she was trying to hold back then, pressing her hands to her mouth. Closing his eyes, Valgaav turned away. "Ai shiteru."

He tried not to hear her crying as he walked away. Apparently, all the while, he had been protecting her from the wrong threat. Time to change that.

"Well, if you two are remaining behind to aid Miss Filia, you can start by taking her to her room, and seeing that her needs are met," Xellos said cheerfully, thoroughly reveling in the banquet of emotions being provided.

They both stared at him for a long moment, disgust mingling into the other emotions plainly visible on their faces, then the ogre moved closer, holding his arms out.

With much less care than it would appear, Xellos deposited Filia in Gravos' arms. "And once Miss Filia is comfortable, do see about doing something to this kitchen. I simply can't abide such an untidy appearance."

Smirking cheerfully as the two servants left with his dragon, Xellos teleported up to the roof, watching as Valgaav walked away. Should he kill him? Xellos recalled the utter torment in the onetime Mazoku's eyes, and beamed. Of course not. Death was a release, and this was just too much fun. Besides, he really didn't matter anymore. Miss Filia was his now.

His queen.

"Checkmate," Xellos said quietly, grinning.

The end.

...Or is it?

Keep a lookout for the next book to the saga,
"All Through the Night"