Chapter 23. Reluctant Record.

Saturday, May 12th?

?. ?.

I don't know where I am. I don't even know when I am. My pocket watch got waterlogged and stopped at 10:39 last night. …I'm even really only making an educated guess about what day it is, when it comes down to that.

But I don't care about any of that.

…I can't find them. I've combed every last inch of this beach and there's no sign of anyone washing ashore here besides me. I've flown out to sea as far as I dare to without losing sight of this island and there's no one out there in the water.

The blast… I don't know what happened after that. They could've been carried away out into the open ocean like I was and drifted off to some other place, but I don't…

?. ?.

…They're alright.

They're alright!

I don't know where they are or what's happened, but I at least know they're alive. I used a variation on the floating matchstick technique to ask the Fire Dragon King if everyone was okay. It's lucky my matches didn't get soaked or I wouldn't have been able to do it. I'd say one of their names and light the match, then set it in still water (I had to dig out a hole in the sand and fill it with sea water for that). The way it works is, if the match stays lit and floats, the person who you've named is alright. If the fire goes out, but the match still floats, the person's fate is uncertain. If it goes out and sinks…

Well, all the matches stayed lit so everyone's okay! Miss Lina, Mister Gourry, Miss Amelia, Mister Zelgadis… and Xellos.

I had to hold by breath before letting Xellos's match fall into the water for… a lot of reasons. I couldn't even be sure if the Fire Dragon King would respond to a question about the well-being of a demon, but I had to ask. He could barely move around on his own when I last left him…

He was severely injured and I was supposed to be taking care of him. I left to try to fix things with Valgaav and I failed. I failed completely. I couldn't… nothing I said or did made any difference. I couldn't stop it; I could only become a part of it. And if I left him to fend for himself and something happened then I…

…I suppose this seems like an abrupt switch after my previous entries. But so much has happened since then. That was only earlier yesterday, but if feels like years ago.

I have to promise myself, right here and now, that I'm going to record what happened. I have to promise because I don't want to. I really, really don't want to. It would be easy to say that things are too raw right now, and that I can revisit it all later, all the while using that as an excuse to never do it at all. It would be even easier to say that right now my first priority is to find everyone else, and explaining can wait… and that's not untrue, either.

But I have to say it. I have to say it all instead of letting it fall away and not daring to deal with it because it's too complicated or strange or upsetting. Because it's all important. Because it matters.

...Or it would matter, provided that the gateway is really closed and Dark Star has been stopped from coming into this world. If it hasn't and this is only a brief moment of quiet before Dark Star breaks free and destroys this world, then I suppose nothing I could do matters.

…But I think that… if that really was the case, then all the flames on the matches would've flicked out, because everyone's fate would be in flux.

Assuming I'm right about that, then my top priority needs to be to find Miss Lina and the others, so we can find out what happened together and deal with it. Because this is far from over. I can still see the pillar of light on the horizon, casting its wavering reflection on the choppy sea. We need each other for this.

But in order to find anyone, I need to figure out where I am first. It's so late, though, that even if I managed to find a village on this island, everything would be closed up and no one would be able to help me. I don't even know if I could find a town before I collapse. I want to push forward, but I've used up so much energy searching for the others, that I don't think I could make it. And, in any case, there's nothing to say that this island isn't unsettled.

I know, deep down, that right now the most productive thing I could possibly do is sleep—wake up in the morning with renewed energy and do what I need to do to get back with the others so that things will finally make sense again and I'll be able to see with my own eyes that everything's alright. But I just can't. I've been running on adrenaline so long that I just… I'm so tired. I know. I'm probably not even making much sense, but I woke up like this, you know? Water in my lungs, beaten by the waves, exhausted, but with my heart still pounding. It hasn't stopped.

I can't sleep, so I might as well at least start trying to explain what happened since I last wrote. Maybe when I wake up again, it won't make any sense and I'll have to do it all over, but this seems like all I can do to… well, I guess not go forward. This is going back. But it's all I can do to keep moving now.

So… where to begin? What can I even manage to explain in the time I can still be upright and writing before I can't do it anymore and fall asleep? I guess the shortest version, the absolute bare-minimum I could say just to explain how we ended up in the situation, is like this: We lost the Sword of Light. Valgaav summoned Dark Star. Something happened before the gateway could fully open that seemed to shut it down, but it caused an explosion that sent us all flying to goodness knows where. And that's why things are the way they are.

But if I were to just say that, then that leaves out so much. It doesn't even mention what happened with Xellos, and I'm shocked that I could leave that out of the thumbnail summary of it all because it feels so, so significant.

I'll get there soon enough, though. Probably sooner than I want to.

When I last wrote here I was—well, "consumed" might be the right way to put it—with the temple's prediction that Xellos and I were meant for each other. I don't even want to begin to grapple with that statement in context with what happened later… so let's just put a moratorium on that whole subject for now. I can only deal with so much at once and, as much as the me of yesterday morning would scoff at this notion, there are actually more important things to turn over in my mind right now.

Back then I was worried that the gods would punish me for… pretty much anything I could think. I'd say the events of the rest of the day proved that this was true, but this wasn't all about me—about my personal punishment. He wanted to punish everyone, even himself I think…

Sorry. Getting ahead of myself.

Anyway, I was waiting for Miss Lina and the others to be done at the temple and kept thinking I heard thunder. What I heard was not, as it turned out, thunder at all. Instead it was a massive barrage of debris hurtling down from the top of the mountain right on to me. What with all the questionable topics I'd been turning over in my head, I thought it was heaven's punishment and quickly prayed for forgiveness, assuming that I was about to meet my death under a pile of divinely generated rubble.

I obviously didn't die there—just wound up getting buried. When I came to my senses and started digging my way out, I saw Miss Lina, Mister Gourry, Mister Zelgadis and Miss Amelia amidst the demolished building material. I can only guess that they fell down from the mountain top with it? I never really got the whole story on that, but they were going on about the Sword of Light being missing.

I looked around and saw a hilt at my feet. Thinking I'd found it, I picked it up only to find as I pulled it out of its sheath that there was a pink-flowered stem where you'd normally expect a blade. …Which was weird. But then I saw the others searching around on the ground and there were a bunch of other "swords" scattered all over the place. Miss Lina even picked one that was bent at a ninety-degree angle and Mister Gourry got one that was a red mallet (I'm not sure how that even fit in the sheath he had with it).

Before I could ask them what had happened, who should burst out from under a pile of rocks but Jillas, shouting: "I've got it!" and holding the Sword of Light.

I suppose he must've ambushed them at some point while they were at the temple and managed to steal the Sword of Light in the confusion. It makes me wonder what happened to that tour guide in the tussle. He seemed like a nice enough person, and I'd hate to think there are more casualties in this series of events. Enough people have been hurt already.

Jillas turned back and growled, realizing that we'd seen him, and immediately made a run for it. The chase was on from there. We tromped down the mountain side after him, across rivers and over bridges (which exploded). He ended up jumping in a boat and heading down river. There was another boat waiting at the dock by the river, but… Miss Lina really should've been suspicious of it after the exploding bridge. Jillas obviously left booby-traps along the pathway to ensure he could lose us and, surprise of surprises, the boat exploded in a shower of water and timber the minute Miss Lina jumped onto it.

Since magic still wasn't working on holy ground, we had to find some other way of following Jillas. So Gourry used his mallet to detach a piece of the pier we were standing on and we were able to use it like a raft.

The resistance wasn't over just because we'd managed to get a ride on the water. Oh no. Far from it. We had to face torpedoes, rockets, near decapitation (that actually wasn't Jillas's fault. Miss Lina seemed to have forgotten that boomerangs come back around the other way), and a waterfall.

…I am still not sure how we survived the waterfall, to be honest. Jillas was obviously prepared for it as he jumped into a barrel to make his way down. We, in our makeshift raft, were perilously unprotected and had very few handholds. I actually remember, as we were tumbling off the cliff, losing my grip on the raft and floating midair for a moment before gravity slammed me back into the boards. By all normal rules we probably should've been dashed against rocks or drowned or both, but we made it through. The current pushed us onto the other side of the waterfall, where apparently there was a system of caves.

When we emerged from the water the first thing we saw was a very surprised Jillas and the first thing we heard from him was a screech. He had good reason to think we couldn't have survived that.

He raced off into a bigger cavern. I think it was at this point that Miss Lina realized we were far enough away from the temple grounds that she could use her powers again? Yes, I think it must've been then because she lit a lighting spell.

…Also because shortly after that I blacked out for a moment and…

Well, okay, what happened was that Jillas set off a bunch of charges in there… in that very, very stalactite-festooned chamber. Which meant that we wound up with a bunch of projectiles raining down on us from the ceiling. It was around then that I sort of… lost it. Apparently. I'd already been buried under rocks one day and was lucky to have avoided dying. I think the prospect of it happening again nudged me into fight or flight mode.

…I wonder how things would've turned out if that had happened to me later when I nearly got crushed yet again? I can't see it making the situation any less impossibly awful, but… it would've made things less complicated. It would've taken away an opportunity for Xellos to complicate things at least.

When I came back to myself after my… little moment, I found that my throat burned with the aftereffects of laser breath, I'd hitched my skirt up, was holding my mace in one hand, Miss Lina had me in a headlock, and the room in front of me was full of smoking debris and the decimated remains of the stalactites.

At the time, I was… well, obviously embarrassed. I'd clearly snapped and gone a little… berserk. Back then I was just grateful that Xellos wasn't around to see me in that state. I figured he'd make fun of me. Say something to make me look… barbaric or something. Thinking about it now, maybe he wouldn't have. Maybe he'd be too focused on his orders to do something as lighthearted as crack wise at my expense. Too serious.

…No. Even when he's serious that seems to be something he makes time for.

It wouldn't be long, though, before Xellos was back with us. We had to deal with Miss Lina and Mister Gourry freaking out after Jillas gave us the slip (I thought they were just going to curl up in the fetal position and stay in that cave forever. We just couldn't get them to move, they were so disappointed about losing the sword). But we were able to get back on his trail soon enough when Mister Zelgadis found a secret passage leading to the way out Jillas had taken. That knowledge perked the two of them right back up again and we resumed following him—up and out of the cave and over to the strange facility we saw sitting on a cliff once we got back out into the open air… to Valgaav's base.

I find it very difficult to describe what the interior of the base was like. I suppose it was cavernous, and parts of it were very much like the inside of a regular cave but it was… strange. The walls were blackened and slightly shiny and I couldn't shake the unsettling suspicion that there was something… organic about them. Not that they actually felt like they were… you know, alive and breathing or anything. I didn't feel like we were in the belly of a whale. Rather, the material felt… perhaps the nearest thing I can liken it to would be the interior of a sea shell—only the type of sea shell you'd find on the shores of the river of death.

The reddish orbs at various intervals and strange designs slotted into the walls heightened the alien sensation of our surroundings and made it feel like there was meaning there that we were in no position to decipher. At one end of the base there was an enormous glass window with the shape of a many pointed star in the middle of it. Some sort of device reflected a massive stream of light through it and down the middle of the entire base, illuminating the dark material that made up the structure and casting weird reflections all over the place.

"What is all this?" Miss Lina quite reasonably asked after we'd had a minute to soak in our bizarre new environment.

Mister Zelgadis knelt down to examine the interior more closely. "It doesn't seem that old," he remarked.

Amelia was paying more attention to the light than the building material. "…I can feel a strong energy flowing from that strange pillar of light up ahead," she said, shielding her eyes from the light.

I felt it too. And the phrase "pillar of light" shook me a little. We were getting close.

I might've thought more of that if I hadn't been distracted in short order.

"Oh, I see," Miss Lina said thoughtfully. "Then this must be…"

And yes, he showed up right then and there—looking deceptively cheerful and carefree as usual—to finish her thought for her.

"That's right, Lina," Xellos confirmed as he materialized next to her. "It's Valgaav's main base."

I was going to yell at him. This was an absolute certainty. But just at that moment I wasn't sure which of my many, many complaints I was going to lash out at him with. Which was why Miss Lina managed to ask him what he was doing back with us and where he'd been before I did.

He looked mildly dismayed, as though dealing with an inconvenience. "Oh dear," he said. "I had some… tedious work to do and I couldn't get away from it."

Perhaps the meeting he obviously must've had with his superiors was tedious, but knowing what I know now about Xellos's agenda that day… this is a criminal level of under-telling. Particularly since Miss Lina was the one who asked him. I still don't know how she managed to let that go but… more on that later.

Anyway, I didn't have even an inkling of what he'd been up to then, but I had reason enough to be angry at him even without knowing. "For heaven's sake!" I exclaimed, storming up to him. "You appear when we don't want you and vanish when you can be useful!"

I swear, it's like he's got some… well, aren't there kinds of fighting styles where you use an opponent's attack against them? Just wiggle out of a stranglehold and make it your own? Xellos is like that when it comes to pretty much anything you could say to him. So he came back with a casual, but pointed: "Someone who prays to the Fire Dragon King shouldn't depend on a monster like me, now should they?"

"Who says we depend on you?!" I shot back, unnerved and annoyed that this was somehow the message he'd managed to extract from my complaint.

I mean… I suppose if you wanted to purposefully misunderstand my message then it could look like that. But just because I feel like if he insists on being around he should at least take enough responsibility to be consistent and not ditch us whenever he feels like… that doesn't mean I actually count on him or anything.

…Except that… looking back on this conversation, knowing how everything went later I… Well, these earlier moments—these exchanges—just feels so… easy now. I suppose you could say this was what I expected from the way we communicate. To think now that he had this whole plan in mind to betray us right there and then, and the… the truly terrible way he was all too happy to carry things out… Maybe I did depend on things being like they were before. And Xellos was right. I can't depend on him to be like that.

He went out of his way to demonstrate that.

…And knowing that… I can't look back at this moment without wanting to both sigh and cringe. Because I acted so… unknowing. I've been like that all along. And he held a lot more cards than I did. But even he couldn't have known everything that was going to happen. He probably thought he did, though.

"Anyway," Xellos said, pivoting away from our little side-swipes at each other to matters that actually advanced his agenda, "if this really is Valgaav's base, we better hurry."

So our disagreement was cut off for the admittedly more important task of searching for Jillas and the Sword of Light. We moved forward with Xellos back and our party full, but don't think that state of affairs lasted very long. We soon reached a split in the path into three tunnels.

Miss Lina split us up into pairs: her and Mister Gourry, Miss Amelia and Mister Zelgadis—seemingly intent on spitting in the face of the Temple of Marriage's pronouncement to get the status quo back. Well, nearly. I'm sure you can guess that, whichever set of pairs she went with, it would've ended the same for me.

But it seemed particularly mean to me back then. After all, I'd just gone through a major upset about being lumped in with Xellos and I'm sure she knew I wasn't exactly keen on this partnering being repeated. In fact, I think this might've been revenge for giving her grief back and the temple and not going along with things.

I tried to protest, but Miss Lina wouldn't hear any of it. And apparently Xellos didn't think being paired up with me was worth teleporting off in a huff this time because it was at least a platonic pairing. With a mild, "Come on," he grabbed me by the wrist and pulled me, still fuming, along down the corridor Miss Lina'd assigned us.

…I'm honestly not sure how long he led my down the hallway like that. I was a little lost in being annoyed at Miss Lina for making the situation more annoying for me than she had to. Suddenly there was a moment where it hit me that he was clasping my wrist in his hand and that that was weird and probably not something I should be tolerating.

I twisted my arm away from him. "Get your hands off me!" I snapped, shaking him off.

He withdrew his hand. "It was only one," he pointed out, as though that mattered. He shrugged as though to indicate that he thought that I was overreacting, but it wasn't worth his time to take offense. "Anyway, it seemed like you needed some direction."

"I can direct myself," I returned, proving it by taking a few quick steps to get in front of him—asserting myself as the leader. I crossed my arms and threw a look at him over my shoulder. "Don't think you have the right to get all touchy with me just because of some fortune telling at a likely unaccredited temple!"

Alright, so it was probably not necessary to jump right back to the topic of the marriage prediction from that point, but you've gotta understand my logic. A wrist-clasp might not be at all romantic, but it is (quite literally) an inch away from being hand-holding which is.

His response to this was to give me a highly theatrical "I don't know what you're talking about" look, follow it up with a mimed scratch of his chin, and then an "…Ohhh," of realization. "The 'chosen combination' thing," he said, as though just figuring out what I was even talking about. "I'd nearly forgotten about that."

I stared at him in disbelief. I recorded how obviously annoyed he was when that whole thing happened, right? That's not something you just let slip your mind. "That was only this morning," I pointed out to him incredulously.

He shook his index finger at me. "I do have more important things to think about than you," he informed me, all condescension.

More important things… like the impending confrontation with Valgaav? Like the betrayal he was even then readying to make? I couldn't guess these things then, but now I can't help it.

Then I was just incredibly irritated. I didn't buy for a minute that he'd actually forgotten about the nonsense that went on at the temple of marriage. He'd been too obviously aggravating by the mere suggestion of it. It just seemed to me like he was trying to casually shrug it off—now that he'd regained the composure he'd lost earlier on—in order to make me look like I was fixated on it (and by extension, him) when I really wasn't at all.

I don't think I really formed an actual comeback. I just scoffed, turned away from him, and quickened my pace, muttering something involving the basic concept that he was the one that wasn't important. "Garbage" might've been involved. I was a little incoherent at this point and I'd come to the overall decision that, after all I'd had to deal with at the temple of marriage, I wasn't going to bother to deal with him anymore. Just because he and I were partnered up together, I decided that that didn't mean I had to interact with him.

…And I held fast to that realization for all of a few minutes. Then we reached a split in the path.

I slowed. "Oh no, the path splits again," I observed—not to him, but to myself.

He, assuming he was being spoken to and that we were still part of some collaborative process, despite my giving him the cold shoulder for the last few minutes, asked: "Which way do you think we should go?"

I winced at the sound of his voice, since I still had my heart set on ignoring his existence. I tried to continue with that despite his obnoxiously chipper tone cutting across the solitude of my mind—whipping out my mace and planting it firmly in the ground without saying a word to him.

I was going to just ask the Fire Dragon King which way to go to find the Sword of Light, but then I got an idea. It was kind of a spur of the moment thing, but I realized that perhaps there was a way I could use the situation so that I wouldn't have to go to the effort of ignoring Xellos, since he wouldn't be there. There was a way I could get him to go down the wrong path and still keep searching for the sword myself.

Yes. I was at the point where I was willing to run all by myself around an enemy base of operations that I knew little about instead of enduring Xellos's company. He tends to put me in these desperate, not very logical frames of mind.

So instead of asking the Fire Dragon King to show us the way to the Sword of Light, I knelt on the ground, held my hands over the spikes of my mace, and instead prayed that the Fire Dragon King would show us the way that the Sword of Light wasn't. I hummed to myself as I went on, trying to tap into the holy rhythms to communicate my plea.

Apparently this didn't strike Xellos as a terribly legitimate way of going about things. "Uh… do priestesses usually make decisions this way?" he asked me doubtfully.

I opened my eyes to glare at him. "Just shut up," I snapped brusquely, wanting to get the task at hand over and done with. I didn't need the peanut gallery commenting on my divination ability.

Having finished making my request, I let out a final cry and thrust my mental energy toward my weapon. In a perfect world, it would've toppled over in the direction that answered my question.

This is a far from perfect world.

I let out a groan as it didn't so much as move. "Well, maybe you should just try… knocking it over or something?" Xellos supplied (un)helpfully from over my shoulder.

Admittedly not having a better idea myself, I got up and kicked it over. The battle cry probably wasn't necessary, but it felt right. Anyway, my mace fell over and clearly pointed to the path on the right.

"The prophecy has been made!" I declared, feeling a little better after having kicked something. "The Sword of Light is that way!" I said, pointing down the path I knew full well was wrong.

"That's amazing!" Xellos replied, exuding insincerity.

"Well, anyway," I said, hoping to get him to take the bait and go the wrong way by actually being civil, "let's get moving, Mister Xellos!"

And at first it looked like he actually had fallen for it. "Okay!" he said, and dashed off down the path I'd indicated, leaving me to sneak off down the path that I knew was more likely to lead to the Sword of Light.

It didn't make any difference, though. He ended up at the other end of the path before me, so he must've seen through it.

I guess it's pointless to try subterfuge on someone like him. Even if it is perfectly justifiable to lie to a monster (they don't deserve the courtesy of honesty), it's not much use considering they're probably more experienced in deception and can see through that kind of thing.

So I guess we've come to… the scene I witnessed when I got to the other end of the tunnel. Where Xellos was confronting Valgaav.

I'm… I don't think I have the strength to deal with all that comes next right now. I didn't expect to falter so soon—to basically not get to anything of any real importance that happened, but this is where I have to stop. I made this whole thing longer than I should've. I'm probably just… trying to avoid talking about everything that comes after and that's manifesting through dwelling in the pointless details. But it's just so much… safer talking about these little disagreements. It feels much more normal than everything that followed.

I promised, though, that I'd tell everything and I will. Tomorrow I'll have to find out where I am, and try to find the others… but I'll still tell it. The whole thing. I promise.

Even though it only gets harder from this point on.