Chapter 15. Schmoozing and Choosing.

Temple of the Fire Dragon King. Bedroom. 10:31 pm.

This is weird.

After all those nights of sleeping on the cold, hard ground or in strange beds at inns or, in one case, on a seagull-excrement covered rock in the middle of the ocean… I'm finally back in my own bed.

And I still feel utterly, utterly uncomfortable with my surroundings.

But I suppose that's reasonable under the circumstances. I already wasn't feeling at home, what with the uncertainty of the elders accepting Miss Lina and the others. And then there was that whole thing with Almayce and the Sword of Light and what Valgaav said.

…I don't even know if I want to think about what Valgaav said right now. I mean… there's no possible way I could conceive of it being true. Nothing in the philosophy or attitudes of the people I've lived with all my life could possibly be reconciled with such an act. But the way the Supreme Elder behaved… and how he acted toward Almayce…

What is going on here?

You know, I should just… stop, just right there. An important thing to realize in this situation is that Valgaav is our enemy. He's already tried to kill Miss Lina and take the Sword of Light. Nothing about that says he's trustworthy—in fact, it says the opposite. I can't take what he said at face value.

…Even though it didn't seem like he was lying. Or, rather, it certainly didn't seem like he thought he was lying.

Hmm.

10:45 pm.

I almost feel like going down to the spare dormitory where Miss Lina and the others are staying for the night—like some of this unease would go away if we were all together. But I shouldn't. I mean, we'll be back on the road tomorrow and if I don't take this opportunity to stay in my own room now, then I'll be kicking myself for it later.

It says something that Miss Lina and the others were reticent about staying at the temple at all. By the time the madness from earlier in the day concluded, it was already getting dark, so it makes the most sense to stay here. After all, it's not like there are any really close towns (that weren't destroyed by the runaway ruin, that is) and we can stay for free here.

But still, it seemed like they were giving some thought to striking out even though it was late, so they wouldn't have to stay here a minute longer. And I understand why. They know they're not wanted here, and, for the chosen saviors of the world to feel that way about the very people who asked them to save the world—that's not right.

It's a difficult position for me to be in because I'm stuck between these two groups. On the one hand, I understand the council of elders being unsure about Miss Lina after the entrance we made (and because of her attitude in general), and I know they want to make sure they pick the right people for this important task.

On the other hand, there are many things I absolutely don't understand about how they're acting. It's been so back and forth—one minute it seems like there's progress, like they're coming to see why Miss Lina is a good choice, and the next minute they're walking that back. No wonder the others are frustrated. It took so long just to get a clear answer on where we stood and that was before everything with Almayce and Valgaav.

I guess I should've written about my first meeting with the elders earlier, but I was too busy raging about the ruins incident. …Which I can't even manage to get upset about anymore. With all that's happened, I don't think I have the brain-space left to be angry about it. And anyway, it's not like Miss Lina and the others meant for it to happen.

…Oh good heavens, I can't believe I'm actually excusing them for that.

Anyway, the trust problems were extremely evident at my first meeting with the elders (and even before the meeting started), but the problems were at least one-sided. The others were diving into the banquet that my people had provided for them, and therefore probably considered the Supreme Elder their new best friend. That effect would later be shattered but… one thing at a time.

In private, on the way to the meeting, the Supreme Elder asked me if Miss Lina and the others were really the ones I'd selected. I think he was trying to give me an out. It was more like, "are you sure you really want to bank on the people who just smashed into our temple?" Maybe he wanted me to whimper a "no" and say I'd try again, but I had to answer how I really felt.

He said that he trusted my judgment, but… that wasn't the last time he asked me that question. In fact, he asked me just a few minutes later at the meeting with the elders. To be fair, though, that was probably for the benefit of the rest of the people in the room.

My response of, "Yes …I think so," probably could've been more forceful and decisive.

"Well, we certainly can't depend on that," Elder Danus complained.

This attitude didn't really surprise me, though it did make me wish I could shrink into my chair. The other elders hadn't seemed too keen on the idea of putting me in charge of this decision in the first place. It had only been the Supreme Elder who thought it was a good idea—who felt he could depend on my judgment.

They wanted to know about Miss Luna and why she hadn't been chosen. I decided it was probably better not to mention her complaints about our employment package and the lack of dental insurance and just leave it at the fact that she refused.

They weren't at all pleased and didn't seem to think the fact that choice number one fell through should be reason enough to, quote: "entrust saving the world to a bunch of people who have already wrecked part of our temple."

Hard words to argue with and the whole thing looked grim. But the Supreme Elder gave me a chance to state my case—to confirm for the third time that I believe Miss Lina and the others are the ones we've been looking for, and more importantly to say why.

And I think my words sunk in… at least, I certainly thought that at the time. It comes down to the fact that Miss Lina and the others… I guess you could say they have luck on their side. Not good luck, mind you, but luck. They will, without fail, get into bad situations where everything that can go wrong does go wrong—and yet somehow they'll still make it through in one piece. That's why the ruin event happened, but it's also why we survived and why the damage wasn't as catastrophic as it could've been. These are strong, talented and charismatic people, but they have a quality about them beyond their skills that allow them to succeed.

The Supreme Elder in particular seemed to latch onto this idea. "Something that lets them succeed beyond mere skill, you say?" he repeated.

"They were able to destroy both Hellmaster Phibrizzo and Gaav the Demon Dragon King," Elder Balius put forth.

"With all due respect, elders," I said as forcefully yet politely as I could, "that is something we could never do."

"There is a great difference between those who can accomplish something and those who cannot," the Supreme Elder replied thoughtfully.

"Besides," I went on, hoping to deliver the final, decisive stroke in my argument, "the Knight of Ceifeed said something to me from the start. The power between light and darkness mentioned in the prophecy didn't refer to the power of Ceifeed that she controls. That's why she sent me to Miss Lina."

"The power between light and darkness. Something that lets you succeed beyond mere skill…" the Supreme Elder mused.

"The recommendation of the Knight of Ceifeed is one that we should take very seriously," Elder Numquam said, leaning forward and lacing his fingers together.

"But she recommended her own sister," the elder next to him replied doubtfully. "You always have to consider nepotism in cases like this." For some reason he gave me a sharp look when he said that.

"Whether they are or are not the ones the prophecy spoke of, they still must answer for the crime they committed against our temple," Elder Ignitus cut in smoothly.

"Yes, I want them to be held responsible!" Elder Lentulus agreed, pounding a fist on the table.

"The welfare of our temple pales in comparison to the importance of the task of saving the world from destruction," the Supreme Elder corrected them in steady tones. "…But I do agree that something must be done about this before we are able to move forward with our decision."

He nodded at me, and for a moment there was a trace of a concerned smile. At least, I think there was. "Filia, you must be tired from your journey. You may take lunch in the kitchens while we discuss this matter further."

I almost didn't want to go. I was going to say that I cared more about resolving this than filling my belly. But I knew this was more a polite way to dismiss me than it was about my own actual hunger. So I stood up and left the problem to them.

And just how exactly did they decide to deal with the problem? Why, have Miss Lina and the others fix what they broke, of course.

I must admit that I had mixed feelings about this idea from the get go. I mean, it was certainly the most direct way that they could take responsibility for the damage they'd done. And I was hopeful that if they fixed it that we could finally put this temple-destroying mess behind us and really start talking about what to do about the prophecy.

At the same time… Miss Lina and the others were pretty annoyed by it. I suppose they didn't have much of a right to be since, like the Supreme Elder said, those who cause trouble must take responsibility for it. But… well, forced labor directly following a lovely banquet certainly feels like a bait-and-switch.

And, I'm not about to question the wisdom of my elders, but I would not have given Miss Lina a pickaxe considering the mood she was in. It's just… dangerous. Mister Gourry seemed to be having fun, though.

They were left completely unsupervised too, which worried me. The Supreme Elder told me at tea that this was purposeful. He wanted to see how they would handle the problem without him or one of the elders looking over their shoulders to make sure they did it right—to see if they slacked off or outright refused or cut corners… or if they actually took responsibility.

Ugh. Responsibility. Miss Lina gave me an earful about that. She seemed to think it was my responsibility to help rebuild the part of the temple with them—and of course I would've, but I had other duties to attend to. Granted, if I told her that those duties were taking tea with the Supreme Elder and senior priestess Mother Ulpia, she probably wouldn't consider those very worthwhile duties. But she'd be wrong! Schmoozing is an important duty, especially right now. Mother Ulpia's study was in the part of the temple they destroyed, so she's not a huge fan of them to say the least (she probably wouldn't have been anyway, to be honest), so I had to be there to counter her complaints to the Supreme Elder and try to change her mind about them.

…Though, admittedly, my arguments didn't make the slightest bit of difference to her. She hasn't been too fond of me ever since I made a few personal changes to my official priestess robes. You know… I thought they were such small things at the time… wearing a pink dress under my robes instead of a white one, cutting off the hood and turning it into a hat. I mean, my head is still covered, I just don't have to deal with shoving all of my hair inside of that hood anymore. Practical, right? Mother Ulpia and the other older priestesses didn't think so.

But she wasn't really the point. The point was to make sure the Supreme Elder wasn't poisoned against my chosen ones.

From the Supreme Elder's office, we could clearly see them constructing the new building where the other part had fallen. It was a bit chilling to think that if the ruin had gone just a little bit further, it would've destroyed his office. Then we would've been in even worse trouble then we already were.

But despite that worrying what-if… signs were actually pretty good as construction began. Miss Lina was clearly thinking on her feet—getting tasks done quickly by using magic to clear away the debris and to cut material for the new building. She was even actually getting the other dragons to listen to her and help out. I never would've expected them to do that for an outsider, let alone a human girl. I mean, they were calling her "ma'am" for goodness sakes! She's several hundred years younger than them!

What's more they seemed to be having… dare I say it? A little bit of fun?

I mean… everyone seemed kind of happily active—hopping around in time to Miss Amelia's whistle and in general just showing off a little for their human visitors. I don't know when the last time I saw them engaged in such… unscheduled business, I guess you could say.

And the result of all this exuberant effort? Well… let me describe it to you:

Where once towers of polished white marble stood, there is now a sort of molten, waxy mess—mostly orange, but speckled with yellows, greens, blues and reds. It has the sort of look you might get if you left several crayons out in the sun to melt. Strange tentacle-arms, which I think are supposed to be towers, jut out on it from all sides. It is decked out with oversized, gaudy statues—one a flower, one a snake, and one a smiling sun (which I think is supposed to be some kind of warped tribute to the Fire Dragon King). Multicolored swirls top it like frosting on a cake baked by a madman. The way it's constructed, hallways winnow out into nothing, doors lead to nowhere or simply open up to the outside of the building, several stories up.

It is an appalling, candy-coated abomination from a place of architectural lunacy.

And I can never tell anyone at the temple that my first response to seeing it was to choke back a laugh.

Although, I don't know, maybe I can? When the Supreme Elder looked at the finished product through his window. I couldn't see his face since he was turned away from me… but I like to think that there was the ghost of an amused smile on his face when he saw it. Wishful thinking? Maybe. But he did say this:

"I see what you mean. They're as lively a bunch as you claimed they were."

"Yes, sir," I responded, in a little better spirits after the display I'd just seen. "They're quite unique."

"It's been a long time since our people had such wild spirits," he observed, which is something I can attest to as well.

"Well, humans live much shorter lives than our kind," I mused. "Perhaps they feel they are forced to make up for that by living their lives much more fully."

I must admit… there's something to that philosophy. There really is. It's the kind of thing you don't really see when you're living inside the temple, because you don't properly realize there's any other way of life.

"And they change the minds of everyone here," the Supreme Elder commented, almost to himself. "Filia," he said, "I understand your reasoning in selecting these people. Good work."

I'm sure I beamed. It sounded like such a ringing endorsement then. He wasn't just taking my word on it anymore—he understood.

My celebration was a little premature, however. I thought, with that statement, we'd decided. We were done with these problems of trust between our two groups. But I was wrong.

The cold silence as I entered the cathedral should've tipped me off that the rest of the elders hadn't found Miss Lina's building project as cute or as heartwarming as I'd hoped. They didn't seem mad… but they were very serious. I told myself that it was just because, well, there was a serious mission at hand, and that it wasn't because they still had doubts.

Miss Lina had to actually be dragged into the meeting. For some reason she thought she wasn't done with the new temple piece. I shudder to think what she intended on adding next. Perhaps tacky lawn decorations?

When she and the others were brought into the room, they seemed pretty impressed with the cathedral—as well they should. It's a beautiful domed building with gold carvings all around—and of course the masterpiece statue of the Fire Dragon King as a centerpiece.

"Quite an enormous room, isn't it?" Mister Zelgadis commented, looking up into the dome—the biggest one on the continent.

"This is the Great Cathedral of the Dragon Race," I explained.

"Could you have made the thing any bigger?" Miss Lina asked. I think she'd pretty much forgotten that we were all in our human forms largely for their benefit. Most of the time we need more space.

After that bit of chitchat ended, the meeting began in earnest. The first sign was good—too bad it wasn't an omen for how the rest would go.

"You've done well," the Supreme Elder addressed them, standing in front of his seat.

"We have?" Miss Lina asked, her voice filled with disbelief. That sentiment might have been echoed amongst the rest of the council. Most of them kept their faces straight, but I did see one elder roll his eyes.

"We were testing you to see if you were the ones spoken of in the prophecy of destruction," the Supreme Elder explained.

…It almost sounds a bit silly to put it that way. Like the prophecy mentioned something about construction expertise. But I suppose it was just another way of finding out what kind of people they are.

Miss Lina crossed her arms. "So were we?" she asked, without any sort of inhibition.

The Supreme Elder didn't seem keen on answering the question straight off. "…Well," he began, sitting down and therefore signaling to the rest of the elders that they too could sit, "let's just say… you've completed the task."

"That's your answer?" Miss Lina asked, sounding thoroughly unimpressed.

"Miss Lina, please!" I chided in a hushed voice, waving my hands to try to settle her down. After all the effort to get the elders to see why I chose Miss Lina's group in the first place, I didn't need her to ruin the whole thing by mouthing off.

But if Miss Lina's sass didn't get the message across that they weren't exactly pleased with how they'd been treated at the temple, Mister Zelgadis snarling at them probably did. "I'm sick of this!" he exclaimed. "I understand that you might not know what the prophecy of destruction means, but do you have to be so evasive? And why not take care of this yourselves?"

"Hey, that's a good point," Miss Amelia said, cupping her chin in her hands. "I wonder why the dragon race doesn't just take care of this prophecy of destruction itself?"

"Why don't you just ask the Fire Dragon King you worship to handle it?" Mister Zelgadis finished, still sounding a little heated, but having wound down from his original outburst.

It's kind of the response you expect from the type of person who thinks you can treat divinity like a vending machine, where praying is like popping a coin in to get whatever you want. But it doesn't work like that. If the Fire Dragon King intended on handling this destructive force himself, then he wouldn't have given us the prophecy. We have the prophecy, which means the only way to deal with this situation is to work with it—not try to find a way to work around it.

"To do that would go against the prophecy," the Supreme Elder stated.

"…And of course there's the simple reason that we cannot do it," Elder Danus added, sounding somewhat bitter.

"What's that?" Miss Lina asked—pretty much echoing my thoughts. I'd never heard of this 'simple' reason before. If they'd discussed it, then they didn't bother to share it with me.

"Yes!" Elder Balius exclaimed. "We must keep this from the monster race's watchmen, who lurk in the darkness!"

"The monster race's watchmen?" Mister Zelgadis repeated.

That moment was like an anchor dropping into my stomach. I remember looking around the room for the shadow cast by some column, half expecting to see Xellos sitting crisscross with a cup of tea—not necessarily lurking, but certainly not announcing his presence. He wasn't there, but it still would've been like him.

"Thanks to you destroying both Gaav and Phibrizzo, the monster race has grown impatient," the Supreme Elder explained. His voice sounded far away through the veil of my Xellos-induced dread.

"The truth is, their power is greatly diminished. The danger is, they'll be on guard for any chance to diminish the powers of the gods," Elder Balius elaborated.

"For that reason, neither the Fire Dragon King nor we who serve him can risk using our power," Elder Danus finished. It sounds like they'd spent a lot of time thinking about this, but…

"Sounds like a pretty poor reason to me," Miss Lina commented succinctly.

…Particularly since Xellos already knows about the prophecy. Which isn't my fault—Miss Lina was the one that told him.

The elders didn't have anything more to say in response to Miss Lina's complaint… which was good, because I really needed us to get off this 'monster race's watchmen' topic. I did not want to mention Xellos to the elders and this conversational line had me sweating so much that I was sure someone would ask me what was wrong if it kept going. I'd already almost mentioned Xellos to the Supreme Elder by accident when he asked me during tea to describe all of my traveling companions to him. "And then there's Xel—" was as far as I got before I bit my tongue. Good thing I could cover by moving on to talk about Zelgadis. I don't know how I would've gotten out of that otherwise.

Not that trying to cover up for Xellos's involvement in this worked in anyway. Guh…

"And the prophecy arrived with the appearance of that disturbing light," the Supreme Elder said, moving on. "It lies too far away for even we who possess wings. And the prophecy indicates something is behind its appearance. For that reason we must be very careful when selecting who goes there."

"…Right, gotcha," Miss Lina said, nodding. "So… after getting all of us all the way out here, what have you decided?"

"To be honest, I still don't know if we should be entrusting the fate of the world to you people. After all, we've seen your handiwork," the Supreme Elder answered.

Miss Lina nearly fell over at that. I didn't move, but my heart certainly sank. I'd hoped we'd convinced them, but all we'd managed was to make them a little less doubtful.

"However, there's no clear evidence that you shouldn't do it," the Supreme Elder continued. "For that reason, we've decided to gamble on you."

Miss Lina scrambled to find her balance after her near collapse, placing her hands on her hips. "Gee, thanks for the vote of confidence," she commented, voice dripping with sarcasm.

"You disapprove?" the Supreme Elder asked.

"Well, we really don't know exactly what you dragons are up to. And you haven't even given us a reason to go along with this," Miss Lina reasoned.

"Lina does have a very good point," Mister Zelgadis agreed sharply.

…At that time, it hurt me to think that Miss Lina might suspect my people of having ulterior motives for what they were asking. And it hurts me even more now to think about it because… I'm not sure they've told me everything. I can't believe they'd have something harmful in mind, but I still can't shake the feeling that I'm in the dark.

But Miss Lina was definitely wrong about one thing. There is a very good reason for them to go along with this, and Miss Amelia picked up on it.

"But! But!" she interrupted, fists clenched desperately. "If nobody does anything about this, there's no telling what might happen!"

Miss Lina ran a hand through her bangs, tiredly. "Yeah, that's a good point too," she admitted.

"Miss Lina please!" I tried, hoping that after all this trouble to get the go-ahead from the elders (which we did get, however shaky and hesitant) that Miss Lina wouldn't lose her will to take on the quest. "You've come this far! You simply must—"

But I was cut off by an intruder who somehow managed to teleport right into the holiest of holy places in the temple. No, it wasn't Xellos. I'm sad to say he does show up later. But to be honest, he probably ranked number four behind, sadly and strangely enough, the Supreme Elder in terms of people we needed to worry about.

No, the person who materialized in the cathedral, in a haze of purple and black energy that crackled all around him… was Almayce.