Author's Note: Well, I've done zombie invasions and haunted houses for past Halloween Slayers oneshots, so here's something a bit different. I hope you enjoy it and Happy Halloween!
"We're gonna be late! We're gonna be late!" Val insisted, jumping up and down as though his black-painted running shoes had springs in them.
"If you stay still, then I can get your costume on a lot quicker," Filia reminded him not unkindly as she snapped shut the back of the cheap cloth Val was wearing over his usual clothes.
The costume… well, Filia had several reasons to be annoyed by it and was trying not to let it show in her face. But the foremost reason it bothered her was how much of a snub it was. She would've been happy to make Val a Halloween costume. After all, she'd made him a costume last year. But no, he'd insisted that this year he wanted a "real" store-bought costume.
…Now, granted, part of the reason her kindergartener had shot down her offer probably had a lot to do with that costume she'd made him last year. Which was silly. The thing was absolutely, 100% adorable. But apparently "adorable" hadn't been what Val was going for. Xellos claimed that the bee costume she'd put him in had, quote: "embarrassed him in front of his friends." Well, now that Filia had blown her chance, it seemed like it was now Val's turn to embarrass himself.
Val made a concerted effort to still his excitement, but continued to jitter around like a shaken-up soda. She shouldn't have let him have sugar before they struck out for Seyruun, Filia knew. But she wasn't about to deny him candy on Halloween.
"Done," Filia said, straightening up. She adjusted the paper wings on her back and lifted up the wand which completed her fairy princess outfit. Wrought-iron might've been a bit of an odd choice for a wand-making material, but she was used to working with it. She hoped that spray-painting the thing pink and covering it with glitter would hide the fact that a good whack with it could easily knock a person out.
"Well," she began, checking her tiara-clad reflection in the mirror of the generously-sized room Amelia had given her for their stay in the palace, "how do you think we look?"
"We look great!" Val cheered, oblivious to how his costume might be perceived.
He reached up on tip-toe to grab his mom's hand and pull her toward the door. "C'mon! Let's go!"
"Calm down," Filia said with a smile as she let herself be dragged. "They're will be plenty of treats left for you. There's no need to rush."
Her smile disappeared as a sudden thought crossed her mind. "…Unless Miss Lina gets there first."
Val broke his grip with his mother's hand as they entered the main hall. She let out a breath as she saw Amelia hovering by Lina and Gourry who had their faces buried in the generous buffet. She hadn't been sure just what to expect when she received Amelia's invitation. Sure, she was happy to have a Halloween get-together with everyone. These days they just didn't get to see each other enough anymore and certainly not altogether. But at the same time… a party at the palace? Would it really just be them? Would countesses and dukes be involved? Should she have bought a gown? What was she supposed to wear?
She was relieved to find the hall decked out for a small, if extremely hungry group. There was a fancy chandelier over the proceedings—but it was decked out with black and orange crepe paper. The royal family hadn't busted out the fine china for this party, but instead some adorable disposable cups shaped like jack-o-lanterns. Filia wouldn't have had it any other way.
"Xellos!" Val shouted, running up to the figure hanging around on the edge of the group with an amused smile on his face. "D'you like my costume?" he asked, out of breath and letting his words run together.
"Of course," Xellos said, reaching down to hoist him up. "I'm sure your mom's a big fan of it too," he added, flashing Filia a little smile and a wave.
Filia did not return the smile. The entire costume debacle was Xellos's fault anyway. She'd sent him off to the market with Val to get one. He could've exorcised vetoing power over Val's choice. But he probably thought it was funnier this way, knowing him.
…And she was okay with it, really she was, as long as it was what Val really wanted. She just knew that other people might misunderstand.
"Val, you just saw him fifteen minutes ago," Filia chided, giving Xellos a look. "Why don't you say hi to everyone else? I'm sure they've been wanting to see you."
Val twisted around in Xellos's arms and gave everyone else a little wave. "Hi!"
"Hey Val, remember us?" Gourry asked. He looked like he'd gotten his costume from the Seyruun kitchens—an apron, a chef's hat and a ladle to complete the look. Filia wondered if he'd chosen to disguise himself as a person he admired—one of the brave souls who made his food.
"Uh-huh!" Val answered politely. He couldn't have remembered them very well. They'd visited, of course, mostly when he was a baby. But it was always brief and he was so young.
Xellos nodded to Gourry. "Shall we play pass the child?" he asked.
"Sure," Gourry said with a smile, taking Val from Xellos. That smile somewhat dipped when he was actually holding Val's full weight. "Wow…" he croaked out, wincing slightly. "You've… grown."
"Easy, Gourry," Lina said, streaking grey make-up on the brownies she was devouring. "Don't drop him."
Filia stifled a giggle. Lifting a young dragon couldn't have been a small feat for a human, but she'd known Gourry was up to it. Goodness knew he'd handled more.
"So, how was your trip?" Amelia asked, clad in a mildly embarrassing pink jumpsuit and an identity-hiding mask.
"Oh, just fine," Filia answered. "I don't think Gravos and Jillas were that fond of flying, but we made it." She looked around. "Speaking of which, where are they? I thought they'd be changed by now."
"Well, Mister Jillas was talking to Daddy about fireworks or something," Amelia answered. "I'm not sure where Mister Gravos is."
Filia resisted rolling her eyes. She'd known those leftover fireworks from summer would have to get used sometime soon. She just hoped that this time Jillas set them off outside. As for Gravos… well, he was probably just putting off the moment he had to come down in costume.
Speaking of costume…
"Hey… Filia," Lina asked, "why'd you put Val in a dress?"
Filia twitched slightly.
"I thought it was a robe, actually," Miss Amelia tried, sounding a bit concerned. "You know… like he's a wizard or something. …With a black pointed hat… and a broomstick."
"I'm a witch!" Val announced. "Abracadabra!" he added, waving his miniature broomstick in the air.
There was a pregnant pause.
"I did give him the option of being a wizard," Filia put in, establishing her alibi as early as possible. "And anyway, Xellos took him to get the costume."
"Wizards don't get broomsticks," Val argued, his lip curling slightly. "Or f'miliars."
"Familiars?" Lina repeated, mystified.
"Macy Colsen gets to be a witch, so I can too!" Val asserted, as if this settled things.
"Of course you can, Val," Filia said as kindly as she could. After which she pointed as Xellos and mouthed: "His fault."
"Hey," Val said, his minute attention-span turning him toward Lina. "Mommy said you're a real witch. Are you?"
"I didn't actually say that!" Filia said, waving her arms as Lina gave her a scowl.
"Can you do magic?" Val asked, eyes wide.
Lina rubbed ruefully at her forehead, smearing the greasy grey make-up that completed her zombie getup. "…I guess I could show you a few tricks," she said, apparently deciding to ignore the "witch" comment.
"Nothing dangerous!" Filia called after them as Lina led the Val-toting Gourry off to a more cleared off section of the room.
At that moment an attendant approached Amelia and whispered something in her ear. She brightened considerably as he left. "Excuse me," she said, "Mister Zelgadis has just arrived."
She ran off with a definite spring in her step. Her cape trailed off as she went, displaying the initials "JG." If Filia had to guess, she'd supposed it stood for "Justice Girl."
She cringed as she realized whose company she'd been left in. "So what are you supposed to be anyway?" Filia asked, looking up and down at Xellos in his black suit and high-collared cape. A red amulet was around his neck—its gem the same color as the ones he usually had on his staff and on his cloak.
"Isn't it obvious, Filia?" he asked, gesturing with a white-gloved hand—with careful stitching that his everyday gloves did not possess. "I'm a vampire."
Filia sneered. "Yes, I thought so," she said. "But I thought that choosing to go as a blood-sucking parasite was a little obvious even for you."
He raised an eyebrow at her. "It wasn't as though there were a lot of options when you sent me off with Val to find costumes. I didn't see you offering to make me one like you did for everyone else." He shrugged expansively. "So I had to make do with what I had."
"I would've given you a garbage bag to wear," Filia shot back. "That would've at least been more appropriate."
He frowned and fought for control of his fidgeting eyebrows. "Oh, so generous," he said, his words a fount of acid. "But I think I'll be fine as I am. Vampires are very popular these days, after all."
That did seem to be true. Not that Filia really got their appeal. "Why?" she asked.
Xellos grinned. "Figure it out," was all he said.
There was something just slightly more unpleasant than usual about that smile. Maybe it was his smug, knowing attitude—but that was nothing new. Maybe it was the suggestion, whatever it was, that was hiding in those words. But yet it seemed…
Suddenly it hit Filia. "Are those real fangs?" she whisper-screeched at him.
He smiled again, elongated incisors on full display. "Of course. You didn't think I was going to buy those fake rubber ones, did you? They look terrible. Not to mention, they glow in the dark for some reason. That can't be safe to put in your mouth."
She crossed her arms. "Well, you'd better stay away from my neck with those things," she warned.
She'd expected some sort of neck-based insult and had been vaguely curious if such a thing could even have been constructed. If anyone could manage a slur for something so innocuous, then Xellos could. But he didn't even try. He stuck out his lower lip slightly, his new fangs making the expression even stranger than it would've normally been. "But you're the only one here wearing an off-the-shoulder dress," he complained.
"I don't care! I don't want your filthy lips anywhere near me!" she snapped back, shuddering at the very thought.
"Uh…" a voice behind them began.
Filia turned to see Amelia and the newly arrived Zelgadis staring mutely at the two of them. She mentally cursed, or rather she pseudo-cursed, using a Temple of the Fire Dragon King pre-approved substitute swear word. Just how long had they been listening in? Not long enough to get context, surely, but long enough to be weirded out.
"Hello, Mister Zelgadis," Filia tried in the hopes of banishing any questions about monster lips from the conversation. "Did you just get here?"
"Pretty much," he answered. Filia noted that he wasn't wearing a costume. Not surprising. He didn't seem the type to get into this kind of thing.
Reminded that she was responsible not just for her own pleasantries, but for that of the rest of her family, she whipped her head around looking for her son. "Val? Could you come over here for a second? Mister Zelgadis is—"
There was a hiss and then a fwoosh as a plume of flame shot upward from the corner.
"…Whoops," came Lina's voice.
"Miss Lina!" Amelia cried, staring at the scorch mark on the ceiling in horror. "What do you think you're doing to the palace?!"
Lina stood up, rubbing the back of her neck sheepishly. "…It was supposed to be a much tinier fireball," she explained lamely, pinching her fingers together to indicate the fireball's supposed smallness.
"Do it again! Do it again!" Val cried from by her feet.
"Val?" Filia called, gesturing again.
The child gave up on his entreaties for more fireworks when Amelia came over to give Lina an earful about what her dad was going to say about this. He walked over to his mother reluctantly, scraping his toy broom against the ground as he plodded along, eyeing the chimera-man uncomfortably.
"Val, I'm not sure if you remember Mister Zelgadis," Filia said, as Val came up to her. "He stopped by last winter for tea?"
Val didn't answer. He just gripped his mother's long, bedazzled skirt and stood slightly behind her.
"…Can you say hi to him?" she asked, not wanting to look back at Zelgadis. She hadn't expected this would happen. Sure, Zelgadis's appearance could put people off at first, but she'd thought that their own family make-up was so… well, odd that Val wouldn't flinch at such a thing. If she had to guess, it was less Zelgadis's stony skin, and more the scowl on his face that was having this effect.
"…Hi," Val said in a tiny voice, hiding as much of his body as he could behind his mother.
"Hello," Zelgadis answered with a small frown. Frightening small children couldn't have been something he enjoyed.
Xellos broke the awkward moment by elbowing Filia in the fake fairy wings. "Don't look now, but Gravos has decided to show his face."
The lizard-man shuffled into the hall. He was far too large a presence to actually be inconspicuous, but he made a valiant effort. Black bands of plasticky fake fur had been wound around his arms, legs and midsection. He tried not to turn around and display the hanging black tube of fabric pinned to the lower half of his costume, but there was nothing he could do to hide the too-small headband strained across his cranium with two triangles on each side.
"My f'miliar!" Val cried gleefully—all anxiousness toward Zelgadis forgotten as he ran to embrace a "black cat" for which there was no litter box in the world big enough.
"I'm sorry about him," Filia said, biting her lower lip as Val raced toward Gravos. "I don't know… I guess he was just feeling a little shy."
"It's fine," Zelgadis said, putting his hands in his pockets. It certainly didn't look fine. "I'm used to it by now."
Before another morose comment could fall from Zelgadis's stony lips, the sound of footsteps drew their attention. One set was heavy, the other light with a strange wooden plopping sound alongside it. Prince Phil bustled onto the scene, looking over a blueprint that Jillas was showing him of the palace grounds. The much shorter foxman was hopping swiftly to keep up with the prince—one leg sticking up, flamingo-style, with his knee leaning on a wooden peg. All it had really taken was a bandana around his head and that peg leg to make up Jillas's pirate costume. After all, he already had the eye patch.
"Isn't that awfully close to the treasury to be setting those things off?" Phil asked. Filia had to say, as she rapidly looked away from him, that the prince of Seyruun didn't wear the spandexy super-hero look quite as well as his daughter.
"Yeah, but see, the wind will blow 'em in the opposite direction—toward the grounds," Jillas countered, pointing at the map. He'd considered adding a hook hand to his pirate costume, but decided hands might come in, well, handy when setting off explosives.
Phil smoothed out the tip of his moustache in thought. "Well… you sound like you know what you're talking about," he decided. He slapped Jillas so hard on the back that the foxman nearly lost his balance. "Good man! See to it," he said jovially.
"Right, Your Royal 'ighness!" Jillas cheered, rolling up his plans and heading out toward the connecting courtyard as fast as he could on one foot.
"…He's going to blow something up," Filia concluded, letting her face fall into her hand. "I just know it."
Xellos shrugged. "Then just… try to enjoy the pretty colors," he suggested, waving his gloved hand.
She turned her gaze sharply on him. "Easy for you to say—you like explosions!"
"Well, before anything actually explodes, I'd better go up and change into my costume," Zelgadis cut in.
"Oh? You brought a costume, Mister Zelgadis?" Amelia asked, having appropriately scolded Lina for her complete disregard for fire safety. "That's great!" she added with a smile. "I sort of didn't think you would. …What are you going as?"
"You'll just have to wait and see," Zelgadis answered, heading out of the room.
"Hey!" Lina shouted from across the room where she was manically trying to rub away the scorch marks she'd left with the tattered edge of her costume. "Stop eating all the candy corn, Gourry! You know that's my favorite!"
"I think there's another bag in the kitchen," Amelia put in, turning toward her. "I could go get it."
"Nah—I can get it," Gourry said, holding up his soup ladle like a badge of office. "With this costume I can get in and out of the kitchen no problem."
"If you go then there won't be any left by the time you bring the bag out!" Lina countered. "Amelia, don't let him eat it all."
"I'll do my best, Miss Lina," Amelia agreed—though trying to hold Gourry back from gluttony was a fairly impossible task. "I wanted to go get some pumpkins for us to carve anyway, and the kitchen's on the way to the garden. But I'll need a hand carrying them."
Lina grimaced slightly. "I've got nothing against jack-o-lanterns," she said, "but we should be eating those pumpkins, not carving them."
"We'll do both," Amelia suggested. "And anyway, this way we'll get pumpkin seeds."
"Oh! I love pumpkin seeds," Filia exclaimed, hugging her not-so-magic wand close to her as Amelia and Gourry headed out toward the kitchen and gardens. Suddenly her jubilant expression sharpened as she turned to Xellos. "Someone ate all my pumpkin seeds last year," she added in a pointed tone.
"I have no idea what you're talking about," Xellos answered.
"Geez," Lina said, standing up and abandoning the task of cleaning up the ashes her fireball had left as soon as Amelia was gone from the room. "Pumpkin carving? What's next—hay rides and bobbing for apples? I mean… how corny can you get? Halloween is supposed to be scary."
"Bobbing for apples can be scary, depending on the oral hygiene of whoever bobbed before you," Xellos pointed out, picking up a mini-cupcake with a frosting ghost on it from the table next to him.
"But Miss Lina, we don't want it to be too scary. Have you forgotten there's a child here?" Filia asked, nodding to Val who was hanging gleefully from Gravos's arm on the other side of the room.
"Pfft. I bet he could handle something a little scary," Lina scoffed. "I mean, at least he's dressed up as something that's supposed to be spooky. Me and Xellos are the only other people who did that," she said, gesturing to her undead attire. "The rest of you… I don't know what you're thinking."
"So… 'cross-dressing witch' is spooky?" Xellos asked, idly peeling the wrapping off his cupcake.
"I mean, you got Amelia' super hero get-up and you're," Lina paused, gesturing to Filia, "tiara fairy or whatever. And then Gourry with his stupid chef costume." She seemed particularly annoyed by that one, as though she found someone dressed as a cook who wasn't making food for her very confusing to her appetites. "I told him if he wanted to actually be something scary than he should've gone as an empty plate."
"Or a slug," Xellos suggested, taking a bite of his cupcake.
Lina shuddered visibly. "That's going too far."
"So… what kind of scary things would you have in mind for a Halloween party?" Xellos asked in a tone of such innocent curiosity that it immediately tripped Filia's suspicion alarm.
"Oh, you know, like at least a haunted house or something," Lina said, making her way over to a bowl of cider and ladling herself a generous cupful. "With moving parts and spooky sounds and some illusion spells." She took a drink and then immediately refilled it. "At least that's the kind of stuff we had when I was a kid."
"And you were okay with it at that age?" Filia asked, eyeing Val and wondering just what he could handle. "It didn't traumatize you or anything?"
"It wasn't as bad as getting locked in a pitch-black dungeon for throwing eggs at my neighbor's house, I can tell you that right now," Lina commented sourly before downing the rest of her cider and pouring another glass.
"A dungeon?" Filia asked doubtfully. "You had an actual dungeon?"
"Well… basement," Lina admitted. "But that's pretty much the same thing." She took another drink and added thoughtfully, "I think Big sis was more mad at me for wasting eggs than for what I did to that house."
"Well, I don't think that's right," Filia decided, still looking at Val. "You've got to be careful with kids that age when it comes to things that scare them."
Lina shrugged. "Fear can be character building," she said, fidgeting slightly. She was looking at her empty cup of cider as though having second-thoughts about it. She slammed the empty cup down on the table. "Be right back," she said, before power-walking toward the room's exit. She was intercepted by a few pleasantries from Phil, but managed to get away from him pretty quickly, mildly eye-twitching at his skin-tight costume.
Filia gave Xellos a sidelong glance. "Don't," was all she said.
"Don't what?" he asked, tossing his cupcake wrapper away without regard for where it landed; demons are such litterbugs.
"Just don't," she finished. "I saw you when Miss Lina was saying this party should be scarier. It was like you were taking notes or something." She crossed her arms. "I don't care what Miss Lina says—there's nothing wrong with hayrides and bobbing for apples." After a moment's thought she amended that to, "or maybe just hayrides. But I want this to be fun for Val, not something that's going to wind up terrifying him."
The shoulders of Xellos's dust-defying black suit rose up indifferently. "I didn't have anything terrifying in mind. But are you sure that's the right attitude? You can't shelter him from everything that's frightening in this world."
"No. But I can at least shield him from some things," Filia concluded, jaws set in determination.
Xellos opened him mouth to respond, but he was cut off by an explosion from outside followed by a scream. A cockney scream.
"'Elp! 'Elp!" it cried, as Jillas rushed into the hallway from outside, having lost his peg leg somewhere along the way. "Boss Gravos 'as gone crazy!"
Everyone stared at him—particularly Gravos, who looked more perplexed than crazy. "Whaddaya talkin' about, Jillas?" he demanded, the kitty-ears somewhat taking away any of the fierceness he might've usually been able to muster.
Jillas's mouth hung open as he turned to see Gravos holding Val by the window. "'ow'd you get back 'ere so quick, Boss Gravos?" he asked.
"Back? I haven't gone anywhere!" Gravos exclaimed.
"Hey, we brought the—" Amelia began as she and Gourry re-entered the room, her with a bag of candy corn and him carrying as many pumpkins as he possibly could. She paused, took in the scene. "Is something wrong?" she asked.
"What's going on?" Lina asked, wandering into the room and wiping her hands on her costume. "I thought I heard a scream."
"What happened, Jillas?" Filia asked, drawing closer to the shaken fox.
Jillas was still eyeing Gravos and wringing his hands. "Well… it was like this," he began. "Oi went out to set things up for me fireworks show later on. Oi turned around and there was Boss Gravos standing behind me, not makin' a sound. Oi asked 'im, oi did, 'What are you doing out here, Boss?' And 'e said 'is Royal 'ighness the Prince said oi 'ad to put me fireworks on the other side of the castle. Oi said Oi'd already talked to 'is 'ighness and worked it out. Plus it'd be no good to put 'em there, what with the way the wind was blowin'."
"I didn't do any of dat," Gravos cut in.
"But oi swear, oi saw you out there with me own eye!" Jillas insisted. "And then after oi wouldn't go with you, you grabbed me and tried to drag me away! Oi only got freed because one of the fireworks went off behind you and oi ran for it! Oi nearly didn't get away at all!"
"But you all saw me," Gravos put in. "I never left this room. What kinda crazy stories are you telling, Jillas?"
"But it's true! It's all true!" Jillas cried out.
At that moment, Zelgadis came back into the hallway. He'd traded his normally light cape and outfit for a brown overcoat and a matching deerstalker hat. "What's going on?" was what he asked; what he should've asked was: "What's all this then?"
"Well, it's lucky for us that Detective Zelgadis is on the case, because it appears that we have a mystery on our hands," Xellos commented, sounding a little too amused.
Zelgadis refused to make eye-contact with him. Instead he added, "Anyone going to tell me what exactly the big mystery is?"
"Jillas was attacked by someone out on the palace grounds," Filia explained, looking uncertainly from one beastman to the other. "He said it was Gravos, but…"
"I'm tellin' ya, I was here da whole time!" Gravos shouted.
"But how could that be?" Amelia asked. She turned to Jillas. "Are you sure you saw Mister Gravos out there, Mister Jillas?"
"Maybe it was one of those… what do you call them?" Gourry asked, putting down the pumpkins he was carrying on the table. "Those things in the desert where you see something that isn't there?"
"Mirage, Gourry," Lina supplied, face planted firmly in her palm. "And does this look like a desert to you?"
"Ah, but it wouldn't look like a desert if it was a mirage," Gourry concluded, holding up one finger as though he'd just made a clever point.
Lina's groan was drowned out by Prince Phil slamming his fist against the table, juddering the cutlery which nearly fell on the floor. "Confound it! Mister Maunttop, have you brought some sort of marauding evil twin to my castle?"
"That doesn't make any sense," Zelgadis countered, raising his eyebrows.
"It does in melodramas," Amelia commented quietly.
"What was that?" Zelgadis asked, turning to her.
"Nothing!" she said, holding up her hands.
"So… what could it be?" Filia mused, tapping her wand against her cheek. "How could Gravos be here, but yet…" She trailed off, her eyes had caught Xellos, decked out in his vampire duds, with those fangs to complete the look. Those fangs that hadn't been there before…
"Xellos," she began, feeling that she was on to something, "you can change how you look, right?"
Xellos gave her an odd look. "Yes, I can," he answered in a reserved sort of voice. "But why would I want to?" he asked, as though a bowl cut and dopey smile was the very pinnacle of beauty.
"Hmm… so you're saying it could be some monster just pretending to be Gravos?" Zelgadis asked.
"Well, that'd make sense," Lina decided. "I mean, what other explanation is there besides Jillas just going crazy?"
"Oi saw what oi saw!" Jillas squawked.
"But," Lina mused, rubbing at her chin thoughtfully, "it'd probably have to be a mid or high-ranking monster to do something like that. I mean, the low-level ones aren't good at copying human form, so I'd guess it would be just as hard to look like a specific beastman."
"Not necessarily," Xellos corrected, holding up his index finger. "While it's true that low-ranking demons are generally unable to, ah, blend in to crowds, despite their best of efforts," he explained in his "bless them, they try" voice, "there are some low-ranking demons that you might call… specialists."
"Specialists?" Amelia asked, turning her head ever so slightly to one side.
Xellos held out his arm expansively, casting out the black cloak he was wearing, much shorter than his usual one. "Surely you've heard the travelers' tales? Strange instances in the forest, mountains, or desert? Companions will get separated and then come across someone who they think is from their own traveling party—only to be attacked."
Lina shuffled uncomfortably. "Yeah… I know a little something about that. They look into your mind and find a person that's important to you—take their form and then pretend they're dying." She grimaced. "While your guard's down trying to help them, they attack."
Xellos paused. "Well, yes, that's one version of it."
"Miss Lina," Filia began, walking over to Val, who didn't seem to have a clue what the big people were talking about, and picking him up, "did that happen to you?"
"Yeah, pretty much," Lina answered, raking her hand irritably through her hair. "A demon pretended to be Gourry and tried to attack me. Gourry said he came across one that looked like me. Same deal."
Amelia held up a hand to her masked face. "Oh! I remember that now."
"I don't," Gourry said, looking cluelessly around. "When did this happen?"
"Aha!" Amelia cried, turning to him and pointing an accusing finger. "You were there, but yet have no memory of it? You must be the monster just pretending to be Gourry!"
"Amelia," Lina cut in wearily, "this is Gourry we're talking about. Of course he doesn't remember."
"…Oh," Amelia said, lowering her finger in mild disappointment that her moment had been cut down.
"Should we even assume that the monster is pretending to be one of us?" Zelgadis asked, raising a rocky eyeridge. "I mean, it went after Jillas outside when we were all in here."
"It must still be out on the grounds!" Phil concluded.
"To be fair," Xellos put in, directing his comments toward Zelgadis, "you, Miss Lina, Miss Amelia, and Mister Gourry had all left this room shortly before the attack. If our group had already been infiltrated before the party began, the opportunity for the attack on Jillas would've been there."
Zelgadis's eyes narrowed. "To be fairer," he countered, "you're the one who's actually a monster here, so the most suspicion would fall on you."
Xellos cracked a smile. "To be fairest, I have an alibi. Right, Filia?" he asked, turning to her.
Zelgadis didn't look like he was done. "To be f—"
"Guys!" Lina said, making her way between them with her arms outstretched. "We can argue about who's fairest later. Right now we have to figure out who this… thing is, what he's after and where he is right now."
"But how will we find that out if he's copying people's appearances?" Amelia asked.
"Yeah—and why'd he pick on me to copy?" Gravos put in.
"That's a good question, actually," Lina agreed. "I mean, he was going after Jillas, so pretending to be Gravos makes sense, I guess, since you know each other pretty well. But then… why would he go after Jillas at all? I mean, no offense," she added to the foxman, "but it's not like you're at all important."
"'ey!" Jillas objected.
"Uncle Jilly's important!" Val sulked, crossing his fat little arms in a gesture he'd learned from his mother.
"Well, yeah, to you, sure," Lina said, trying to placate the child. "But I mean, like, to the world at large," she added, waving her hand around, "…not so much."
"So… maybe it was a random attack?" Amelia asked. "It was awhile ago, so I might not be remembering right… but when we were in the forest with that monster who pretended to be Gourry… wasn't it just trying to eat anyone who wandered into its trap? Maybe it's just looking for food here."
"Unlikely," Zelgadis cut in, relying both on his position as the group's standard-bearer for logic and his detective costume to give his points authority. "We're not in the middle of the wilderness, stumbling into some monster's trap. We're at Seyruun castle—the very definition of a strategic location. It's safe to say that if there really is a monster here, then it's after something more important than a meal."
"You're saying… it could be after daddy?" Amelia asked, the pitch of her voice rising.
"That would make sense, I guess," Lina said. "If he could get rid of Phil and take his place—who knows what he could do with all of Seyruun at his command?"
"I won't be replaced by some monstrous pod creature!" Phil declared nonsensically, his moustache flaring up in fury.
"But wait… how would going after Jillas help him if he was trying to get my daddy?" Amelia asked, brow furrowed.
"It could be that it just wanted to get Jillas out of the way and take his place back in the party," Zelgadis reasoned.
"So… oi was just a way in the door?" Jillas asked, somewhat let down. Sure, being of strategic importance to a demon's evil plans wasn't a good thing, but being unimportant to "like, the world at large" wasn't great either.
"That would mean that the demon hasn't gotten in here already," Amelia said with a relieved smile. "So we don't have to worry about any of us not being who we say we are."
"I don't think we can rule that out quite yet," Lina said with a frown. "We're making a lot of assumptions here."
"Well, if we really want to know what the monsters are up to, then maybe we should actually ask one?" Zelgadis asked, turning a glare to Xellos.
"Good point," Lina said, rolling up her sleeves as she approached Xellos. "Start talking," she ordered.
"What makes you think I know what's going on?" Xellos asked.
She reached upward and grabbed him by the collar, pulling him down to her height and putting him in a headlock. "Don't answer our questions with more questions! If something's going on here than I'm more than willing to bet that you knew about it in advance so quit stringing us along and just spill it!"
"Miss Lina, stop!" Filia cried, passing the fidgeting Val over to Gravos before running over to pull Lina away from him. She played the role of Xellos's unlikely savior for all of three seconds before she put her own hands around his now free windpipe. "I swear, you loathsome piece of trash, that if you knew something dangerous was happening here tonight and you just let me bring my son anyway that I will never ever forgive you!" she declared.
"Hey, I wasn't done with him," Lina complained.
Xellos wheezed and coughed out something that sounded like it might've been: "There's plenty for everyone."
"Well?" Filia demanded, letting him go.
Xellos straightened up and smoothed out his waistcoat. "I have not been made aware of any sort of activity involving a monster taking the prince's place."
"Some help you are," Lina commented, still annoyed that her strangling had been interrupted.
"It's not like we can rely on that," Zelgadis agreed.
"However, it seems to me that one of two things is happening here," Xellos said, clearing his throat. "Either you have an intruder out on the grounds who is trying to find someone to disguise himself as to get inside, or you have an intruder already inside who's searching for the most beneficial person to replace to accomplish his goal."
"Which means it really could be one of us…" Amelia said in a hushed voice.
"So… Mister Zelgadis, Mister Gourry, Miss Amelia and Miss Lina were all out of the room when Jillas says he was attacked," Filia thought out loud.
"I was changing into my costume," Zelgadis explained.
"Yeah… but what kind of costume?" Lina asked slyly. "Your Gravos costume? Sorry Zel, but if someone's been replaced then it's probably you. You went off on your own and you were the only one who came here all by himself."
"That's not true actually," Filia said before Zelgadis could get in a reply. "Xellos didn't come with us. So he was by himself too."
"And I thought you were supposed to be my alibi, Filia," Xellos commented, endeavoring to sound mildly hurt. "Regardless, I was here with you, Gravos, Val and the Prince during the attack."
"That doesn't mean you didn't have an accomplice," Zelgadis pointed out.
"Oh, well, if accomplices are on the table than I suppose everyone's suspicious," Xellos said with an expansive shrug.
"Well, Mister Gourry and I went to the kitchens together," Amelia explained. "But I asked him to go outside and get the pumpkins because they were pretty heavy. So I guess we were both alone for a few minutes."
"I took me that long to pick up all those pumpkins," Gourry complained. "I said we should've brought a wheelbarrow."
"So, we at least know why everyone left besides Miss Lina," Filia said, leveling her gaze on the teenaged sorceress. "You never said why you were leaving."
"Well, pardon me for having to use the bathroom," Lina shot back.
"That… sounds like a pretty suspicious excuse," Amelia said critically.
"Did you see how much cider I drank?" Lina asked, gesturing to her empty cup still on the table as though it was exhibit A. "I'd say it's a pretty damn good excuse!"
"Oh! So you admit it was an excuse!" Amelia said, smiling as though Lina had just walked into her trap. "You must be the monster!"
"Nah, it's not Lina," Gourry said with certainty.
Everyone turned to look at him. "What makes you so sure?" Zelgadis asked.
"Well, you know," Gourry began, not quite sure how to put it. "It's just that if Lina wasn't Lina, then I'd know it."
This seemed to sway Amelia away from her accusation-high. "Aww, that's sweet," she said as Lina turned her face away.
"But that's not really evidence," Zelgadis countered, putting a damper on the moment.
Phil leaned against a table. "There must be some kind of test to make sure we're all human. At least," he added, catching Jillas's eye, "that all of us are human that are supposed to be human."
"You mean like some sort of blood test?" Amelia asked.
Filia saw Val recoil in Gravos's arms. She was sure he didn't understand much of what was going on, but the idea of needles couldn't have appealed to him. "Looking for what? Essence of evil?" she asked.
"We could ask questions that only the actual person would know," Lina reasoned. "That'd be a good way to sniff out an imposter."
Xellos shrugged. "That depends entirely on the methodology that the imposter would use. If he's replaced someone, we don't know how long he's been observing that person and extracting information to imitate them. Nor do we know how powerful this individual is or what he can intuit about the personality of his victim, and, more likely, that victim's emotional state."
"Plus it puts Gourry at a disadvantage," Zelgadis quipped.
"We could always use Plan X," Amelia suggested brightly.
"Plan X?" Xellos asked as Lina rolled her eyes. "What's Plan X?"
Lina let out a groan. "Xellos?" she asked.
"Life is wonderful," she told him firmly.
"That's Plan X," she explained as he slightly cringed.
"It's perfect because if one of us is really a monster in disguise, then that person will have a bad reaction to positive messages," Amelia said with a nod of her head.
"It is not perfect because pretty much anyone would have that reaction," Zelgadis disagreed, rubbing at his forehead to ease a coming headache.
"Well, I don't see anyone else coming up with a better idea," Amelia replied, sounding mildly peevish.
"I've had enough of just standing around talking!" Phil asserted, raising a fist. "You all don't even know for sure if there's an imposter among you, but yet you're still letting it play mind games with you! What we do know is that there's something out there on the palace grounds that shouldn't be—that attacked one of our own. For the sake of justice, we should be going after it—not just standing around here flapping our gums!"
"Yeah… I guess Phil's right," Lina admitted, pinching the bridge of her nose. "If there really is a monster out there then we can't just leave this to ordinary soldiers."
Gourry brightened at the chance to exchange his ladle for a sword. "And I bet if we split up we can cover a lot more ground."
He found himself on the ground when Lina slammed her elbow into his jaw and knocked him on the floor. "Jellyfish-brain!" she yelled. "If one of us really is a monster in disguise then that's the worst idea possible!" She rolled her shoulder back. "I don't know if I should take that as a sign that you're an imposter trying to lure us into a stupid trap or if this is just Gourry being Gourry."
"That's cold, Lina," Gourry said, getting to his feet and massaging some life back into his chin.
"I guess we'll have to go as a group, then," Amelia decided.
"Then let's get going already!" Phil practically roared.
It had rained earlier, but thankfully the weather had taken pity on trick-or-treaters of Seyruun and decided not to pelt them with cold, wet projectiles after the sun went down. Filia was regretting wearing open-toed shoes. She shivered and slipped on the damp lawn, laboring not to lose her balance while carrying Val.
It was cumbersome to search while carrying him, but he had a nasty tendency of wandering off if she took her eyes off him. She juggled him and the red hand-flare they'd all been given, wishing she had a pocket for it. The dress she'd chosen for her costume had been designed to be sparkly, not functional.
The flares had been Lina's idea for if one of them wound up getting ambushed by something—whether it was obviously a foe or disguised as a friend. Of course, most of them could've used magic, but since Gourry and Phil would need some kind of signaling devise anyway, the flares were the best choice.
…Not that Phil seemed in great danger of getting separated from the group. The palace guards were all around him, watching for any sign of attack. Of course, their job was made somewhat more difficult by the fact that the person they were trying to guard kept blustering ahead of them.
"I can carry him, you know," Xellos pointed out from behind her, as she regained her balance. "Or you could just let Gravos or Jillas do it."
"No," Filia said firmly. "I know that I'm who I say I am. So I'll do it."
She half wished Xellos would've just stayed back at the castle. After all, he wasn't really a member of this search party. He wasn't really helping. He was just tagging along. And if that's how he wanted it, then he might as well have just stayed where he was and eaten the rest of the cupcakes while they were busy.
"Oh? So you really think some low-ranking monster could've gotten to me?" he asked.
"Probably not," Filia was forced to admit.
"And Jillas and Gravos?" Xellos asked, gesturing to some distance off where Gravos was peeking into a bush and Jillas was behind him, poised to attack anything that was hiding. The little foxman had found his discarded wooden leg on the ground and was holding it like a bat.
"I don't think there really is an imposter in the group," Filia said after some hesitation. "But I'd still rather play it safe."
She took a step forward and nearly slipped out of her shoes. "Oh!" she moaned, biting back not a temple approved pseudo-swear, but a bona fide forbidden word. She gave up and kicked off her shoes. Walking on the wet grass wasn't any picnic, but it was better than slipping and sliding in soaked, high-heeled sandals.
Behind her, Xellos picked them up. They were really rather tacky things, with rhinestones pasted onto every available surface (except for where the rhinestones had conspicuously fallen off), but yet they were, to any seven-year-old girl or any seven-year-old at heart, slippers fit for a princess. …Except perhaps Amelia, who was actually a princess, yet seemed to favor mint-green boots.
"What makes you think that?" Xellos asked, holding the shoes awkwardly.
"Bunny!" Val pointed from Filia's arms as a rodent shot out from under a brush and nearly gave Gravos and Jillas heart attacks.
"It's just… well, I kind of agree with Miss Lina," Filia explained. "Not that Jillas isn't very important to us," she added as a qualifier, "but I don't see why any monster would go after him unless it was either a random attack or it just wanted to take the place of anyone and get in the building. If a monster was already posing as one of us, I don't see why he'd bother getting Jillas out of the way."
"Or perhaps there's no appearance-copying monster at all, and Gravos is just secretly capable of time travel," Xellos suggested, embodying the opposite of helpfulness. "I don't think the 'Gravos as Time Lord' possibility has been properly investigated."
"And besides that," Filia said sharply, ignoring his remarks entirely, "Mister Gourry was right. If one of us was an imposter, there's no way we wouldn't be able to tell."
"Mister Gourry only vouched for Miss Lina," Xellos reminded her. "And Jillas has already proven he can be fooled by someone who looks like Gravos."
"Only for a minute," Filia protested, poking her head into the gardens to see if any ghoulish figure was lurking by the pumpkins. "Then he figured out something was wrong. That's why he was able to escape."
"He only figured it out after he was attacked," Xellos replied. "And even if it only works for a minute—that might be all it needs. Look at the others," Xellos said, gesturing with Filia's silver slippers to the rest of their group.
Phil was flanked by guards and checking along the castle wall. Gravos and Jillas were off chasing the rabbit from earlier in case it proved to be a demon in disguise. Lina and Gourry were poking around some of the larger puddles left by the rain. Amelia and Zelgadis were the farthest out, searching through the trees where the castle grounds touched the forest.
"Bonds of familiarity, affection and friendship—that's what's being played upon here. And those bonds can be difficult to break. They know there could be some imposter among them. They went through all that talk about how splitting up into duos is a very bad idea. And yet, this is the way they've drifted unconsciously," he finished.
Filia shivered and blamed it on her bare feet. She and Xellos too had drifted together unconsciously. Or… perhaps quite consciously on his part. But you couldn't say their bond was based on affection or friendship. Familiarity? Certainly. But the kind that bred contempt.
"You might think you could tell the difference," Xellos commented. "That even if the face, personality and memories of a person were the same, you'd know if the soul was different. You'd just sense that something was wrong. But it's that kind of confidence that this grift requires to work even after the scheme is discovered." He smiled in the moonlight. "And even if you could tell that something wasn't right—it might be hard for you to fully strike back against an enemy who looks like someone dear to you."
Filia brushed her hair out of her eyes with the flare and held Val closer. It certainly wasn't as though he was the one that was frightened. She was sure that if he had his way that he'd be off chasing rabbits with Jillas and Gravos. But she couldn't let him out of her sight.
Filia ears pricked up as she heard squelching footsteps behind her. "What are you all doing out here?" a familiar voice asked incredulously.
They turned to see Zelgadis, looking at them as though they'd all gone crazy.
"What do you mean, what are we doing out here?" Prince Phil asked, elbowing past his entourage to where Zel was standing. "We're you paying any attention? You gotta keep sharp! There's a monster on the loose!"
"Wait… weren't you further up with Miss Amelia?" Filia asked, feeling her skin tighten into goose bumps.
Zelgadis screwed up his face at them. "Further up? I just got here."
"He must be the imposter!" an overenthusiastic guard deduced.
"Let's get him!" another one cried, as they lunged at him.
"Hold on a minute," Zelgadis said, raising his voice as he dodged them. "What imposter? Are any of you going to start making sense anytime soon?"
Lina and Gourry jogged up to the rest of the group. "Did someone say you found the imposter?" Lina asked, as she reached them. "…Zel, where'd your costume go?"
"What costume?" Zelgadis asked, annoyance near the breaking point. "I was never wearing any costume!"
"…But the other Mister Zelgadis was," Filia said in a hushed voice, her eyes meeting Prince Phil's.
"Oh no…" Miss Lina whispered.
"Amelia!" Phil shouted, breaking free of his guard and running toward the forest edge as fast as his feet could carry him. Amelia had disappeared beyond the tree-line—and so had whatever accompanied her there.
Phil, Lina, Gourry, Zelgadis and Filia, still holding Val in her arms, ran ahead of the guards through the forest. There were no screams to signal where Amelia had gotten to—no tell tale rescue flare to guide them. Phil stopped abruptly as they reached a clearing—the rest of them barely able to look up as they caught their breath and clutched stitches in their sides.
Amelia lay there fallen against the tree, her flare dropped uselessly on the ground. Her eyes were closed and her body wrapped in a cocoon of white, silky thread—like an oversized spider's snack. Standing over her was…
It wasn't quite another Amelia yet. There were her features—mostly etched in correctly, though there were places the look was definitely off, such as the ears and the chin. But it was still quite recognizable if a bit blurred. It was even wearing the super hero costume she'd chosen for that evening. Where it really didn't look right, though, was the color. There was still a tinge of grey-blue to her—of brown in her clothing. It was as though it hadn't quite finished the transformation from faux-Zelgadis to faux-Amelia.
Phil and Zelgadis didn't seem to notice the fact that they both shouted "Amelia!" at the same time. Phil rushed at the facsimile of his daughter. "What have you done to her?" he demanded.
The not-Amelia gave him a look that Amelia would never give—sharp, calculating, almost feral. It lifted up its arm and the flesh of it seemed to split, as though each finger had been ripped downward into a separate section. The strips of skin writhed in the air before stretching abruptly toward them. Gourry ducked just as it was about to strike his face—leaving a hole in the tree behind him. The not-Amelia raised its mouth to the sky and roared.
"Phil! Don't!" Lina warned as Phil raced forward, fist raised.
"Anyone who would dare to steal my beloved daughter and slander her by taking her form," Phil yelled, dodging the strikes from the sharpened rods of flesh the monster was raining down on him, "must face the Pacifist Crush!"
His fist landed its hit, but seemed to go beyond even what he intended. The unfinished face split into two parts, surrounding his hand. The skin melted away and a circle of giant teeth was revealed. The prince let out a cry as the ring of fangs tightened around his hand.
"Prince Philionel!" his guards called, having just reached the clearing.
"Stand back," Lina warned them. "This is way more than you guys can handle."
Zelgadis—the real one, that is—ran forward, his sword as red as if it had been lying in a forge. His sliced at the throat of the ersatz-Amelia, his magically-infused blade cutting easily through his foe.
Phil shook off the decapitated thing which now only barely resembled a human face. Zelgadis swept past the thing and over to the unconscious Amelia, lightly tapping at her face in the hope that it would rouse her. "Amelia? Amelia?!" he tried.
Filia had hastened to cover Val's eyes and wished she had an extra hand to cover her own. Instead she was just left to stare at the quasi-human shape in front of her. Its skin was discolored and molten, its arms shredded into unnumbered tentacles, now hanging motionless at its sides. Its head had been cut away, leaving no blood, but only a flesh colored seam at the neck. Its head was gone, but yet it still stood.
"Don't look now, guys," Lina said, bracing herself, "but I don't think that thing's dead yet!"
As if on cue, the headless neck elongated—ribbed, accordion-like. From out of it burst two half-formed faces—miniature, distorted like melted wax figures, but yet still recognizable as the faces of Gravos and Zelgadis. It seemed to have lost all focus on maintaining its disguise, as its midsection devolved into a flesh-colored puddle of jelly. The tentacles were still there though—it raised them and struck once more.
"Light come forth!" Gourry cried, leaping forward with his sword out. The magical blade buzzed and whizzed as it sliced off the tips of the tentacles before they could reach any of their targets.
"My, my. It's losing a lot of parts," Xellos commented from behind them, having only just made his presence known. "This will leave quite a mess."
Filia whipped around to give him a horrified look. His tone of benign interest was completely at odds with her desire to throw up as the sliced ends of the tentacles bled a clear and corrosive liquid into the ground that smelled like boiled puss.
"I wanna see! I wanna see!" Val shouted, trying to peek through his mother's hand.
"Trust me—you really don't!" Filia shouted back.
"Elmekia Flame!" Filia heard Lina shout. She turned around to see Lina lobbing a spell at the horrible creature. A column of white flame surrounded it. It let out a primal wail, so high pitched that Filia very nearly took her hand off of her son's eyes to cover her sensitive ears from the blast. Red-streaked tentacles billow futilely from the fire as the hot white flames ate away at its astral body.
When the flames died down, there was nothing left—just a scorch mark. Lina's second for the evening. Lina and Gourry stared at the ashen circle; Phil and Zelgadis glanced at it, but were far more absorbed trying to rouse Amelia; Filia hung her head and finally removed her hand from over her protesting son's eyes.
"Well," Xellos said, walking forward and surveying the remains. "This certainly makes clean-up a lot easier than I'd expected it would be."
"I'm so sorry everyone," Amelia lamented, back at the castle and holding the towel she'd used to wipe away the sticky silk cocoon. "I should've stayed with the group, but Mister Zelgadis… that is, the fake Mister Zelgadis said that he saw something in the trees, so I followed and before I knew it…"
"Well, that does pretty much settle it that that thing was after Phil," Lina asserted, standing beside her and nodding. "It pretended to be Zel right from the start and figured it could replace Amelia later… then it'd be easy to get Phil."
"I'm sorry you all had to go through this because of a plot against me," Phil said, putting his large hand on his daughter's shoulder.
"How come it was Zel in the first place?" Gourry asked, scratching at his chin with the handle of his soup ladle. "Did you like, fight that thing on your way here or something?" he asked Zelgadis.
"No," Zelgadis answered. "I was traveling here when I got caught in a landslide. I thought a tunnel below the road had just caved in, but now…" He glanced at Amelia. "Now I think I was delayed on purposed."
"Makes sense that it'd go after you," Lina concluded. "You're the only one traveling here alone besides Xellos. And anyway, it probably figured it could use you to get to Amelia pretty easily."
"I should've been able to tell the difference," Amelia said, picking at the woven loops on the towel ruefully. "I can't believe I let it trick me into thinking…"
"What was it… doing anyway?" Zelgadis asked, somewhat anxiously. "I mean, while it was pretending to be me."
Lina shrugged. "It just acted really grouchy and we were all completely fooled into thinking it was you."
"That's pretty much how it went," Xellos agreed cheerfully.
Admittedly Zelgadis did look rather grouchy at that remark.
"I'm just glad this whole thing is over," Filia said with a sigh of relief.
"Yes, but… this was supposed to be a fun Halloween party and now Halloween's almost over," Amelia said, looking at the ticking clock up on the wall. "We didn't even get to carve pumpkins…"
"But I wanted to carve a jack-'-lantern!" Val complained, his mouth smeared with frosting from the remnants of the cupcakes. "I was gonna do one of Xellos 'cuz his face'd be easy to drawl."
Filia sighed and refused to look at the squinty, smiling face next to her.
"Well, that would be scary," Lina said, working in a dig that Filia wished she'd thought of.
"Look on the bright side," Phil pointed out, "you all intended to stay for a few days, right? Well, it's not as though fall is suddenly over just because Halloween is. We can still carve pumpkins and go on hayrides and bob for apples tomorrow. How about that?"
"You're right, Daddy," Amelia said, looking up and brightening. "You'll all stay, right?"
"Sure," Lina said, "but pass on the bobbing for apples."
There was the sound of clomping footsteps as Gravos and Jillas pushed their way through the courtyard entrance to the hall. "Everyone! We caught the monster!" Jillas announced, holding up a rather fat and spooked looking rabbit in his gloved hands.
There was a long pause as everyone stared at him.
Finally Gravos, having taken the temperature of the room, whacked Jillas on the back of the head, causing him to lose his grip on the rabbit, which bounded away in horror. "I told ya it wasn't some stupid bunny rabbit!"
As much as the rooms in the palace were an upgrade to her regular digs, there was no doubt in Filia's mind that she would've traded them in an instant for her own room and bed. She closed the door to the guest room behind her, unable to shake the feeling of unease being suddenly alone had brought her. When there was an imposter in their midst, staying with the group meant safety. Now the imposter was gone, but that notion that vulnerability could be battled with numbers was still there.
Of course, her feeling of loneliness didn't last for very long, and once it was banished she wished it hadn't.
"Now, I thought for sure you'd have Val in with you tonight," Xellos said, his back to her as he looked out through the window. He'd opened the velvet curtains, making the moon, somehow larger tonight than Filia had ever seen it, visible. "After the scare you had earlier, why wouldn't you keep him close to you?"
"What are you doing here?" Filia demanded. He was still wearing his costume too, and all Filia wanted to do was get out of hers. Of course, she couldn't do that if he insisted on hanging around.
"Asking a question," he answered simply, without turning around.
She walked further into the room, her lips pursed as she tried to glare a hole in the back of his head. "If you must know, I offered, but he said no." She blew her bangs out of her face. "He says he's a big boy and that he's not scared."
"Well, him being scared was never the issue, was it?" Xellos said, turning his head so that she could see half of his signature smile. "You just need someone around you so that you can put up a strong front."
She didn't answer. It was strange what moonlight could do in a dark room. It seemed to catch the very edges of him—a sleek circle around his bangs, a silver outline around the tip of his nose and on his cheek. You wouldn't think starlight could be so bright until you saw it in the darkness.
He turned around in full and held up his hands in a put-upon gesture. "…I suppose you could consider me that someone."
She made a sound that she intended to turn into a pithy comeback, but unfortunately it didn't even turn into words. She just hoped her scoff got the message across.
"No?" Xellos asked, stepping closer to her. "Well, at the very least I didn't want to go to the trouble of wearing this vampire costume and not get to bite you."
"Not that again!" Filia exclaimed. "I thought I told you to keep your nasty lips away from me!"
"But aren't vampires supposed to suck the blood of virgins?" Xellos asked, strolling slowly and deliberately around her.
"So find some other virgin!" Filia retorted, turning so he couldn't get behind her. Goodness knew it shouldn't have been a difficult search in their party. …At least… Filia was pretty sure it wouldn't be. It was getting harder to say these days.
At first he said nothing. He disappeared, melting into the darkened room in a smoky haze. Filia looked around, only to feel him reappear behind her, an arm snaked around her, snug and over her ribs. "You're the only one for me," he whispered in her ear.
Filia struggled for a reply. It was hard to think with him brushing the edge of his lip across her neck. Though she could swear it wasn't just that. He was holding her so tight that he was putting pressure on her lungs. That's why she was feeling lightheaded. It wasn't for any… other reasons.
"You… you know you're not a real vampire, right?" she managed to get out, more out of exasperation than anything.
"Of course I know that," he said lightly. "Haven't you ever heard of role-playing?" And that's when she felt the fangs—not biting into her, but just sort of grazing her skin as he kissed her neck.
She opened her mouth to say something—more to protest at how tight he was holding her than the presence of his filthy monster lips on her virtuous dragon neck—but couldn't form anything coherent. She felt at a loss for air—dizzy as her vision bristled around the edges.
There was a knock at the door—a sort of brisk tap-tap-I'm-coming-in-whether-you-answer-or-not knock. The door squeaked open and a shadowed figure bounded in. "Oh Filia, you forgot your—" the figure began, but then paused, taking in the scene. "…shoes," he finished, lowering the sparkling, rhinestone sandals.
"Xe—?" Filia began in confusion, trying to turn around.
The Xellos that had been kissing her neck abruptly stopped what it was doing upon seeing the figure in the door before vanishing into the astral side without a word.
"Oooh dear," the figure in the door intoned, stepping forward in the moonlight to reveal Xellos's features. He was smiling, as per usual, but his eyebrows were drawn together.
"Xellos?" Filia repeated, doubling over as she clutched her side, breathing heavily. "Who… what… what is going on here?!"
"You know, I thought it was a bit odd that the head disappeared," Xellos mused, his smile still rather bitter as he recalled the fight from earlier. "Mister Zelgadis cut it off and Prince Philionel tossed it away, but I don't remember anyone ever finding it. If I had to guess, I'd suppose it crawled off to cause some more mischief."
"So that was…?" Filia began, the awful truth hitting her. She held her palms over each cheek, scrunching up her face and trying to will away the previous moment.
"Yes," Xellos confirmed. "And you seemed to be getting pretty friendly with it," he added, giving her a look that seemed to say "I'm not going to judge you but… oh, who am I kidding? I'm judging you. I'm judging you hard."
"Of course," Xellos went on as Filia began wishing she could sandpaper off the skin on her neck where the thing had touched her, "this does throw a bit of a wrench in the idea of Prince Philionel being this demon's target. You're hardly a good choice to incapacitate and replace if that's what he wanted."
Filia's ears pricked up, her revulsion momentarily forgotten. "Then who is he after?"
Xellos held up his forefinger. "Prince Philionel is not the only person in this party of strategic significance. Now, we know he came to this party in the form of Mister Zelgadis, but he quickly tried to ditch this disguise since he found it unsuited to his goals. First he went after Jillas—a rather odd choice considering that he could've captured and replaced any of the others who went off alone. In any case, he failed. Next he tried to take the place of Miss Amelia, which we can attribute largely to an act of desperation since he had been discovered and needed a new form with which to hide. …And then, when we thought he'd been destroyed, he attempted to knock out and replace you. So who among are party is valuable and easily accessible both to you and Jillas?"
"Oh… oh no," Filia whispered. She didn't remember deciding to move, only that before she knew it she must've pushed past Xellos and out into the hall, running as fast as she could possibly go.
She cursed herself as she ran along the passage to the room Val was staying in. How could she have been so stupid? Of course the last ancient dragon in existence was a likely target, but she'd just let the Phil thing blindside her. What would've happened if the real Xellos hadn't come along and that thing had suffocated her and taken her place? Would it have gone to Val's room and spirited him away into the night? Or would it simply have waited until morning and left with Val normally, so that none of the others would even realize he'd been kidnapped?
A jolt of terror shot down her spine when she reached his room. The door lay open and the bed had been disturbed, but there was no sign of Val until…
"Mommy, I have a twin!"
There, standing hand in hand, just below the window were two plump little boys, decked out in an ill-suited witch costume with a flash of unbrushed, aqua hair. Filia stared from one set of bright, amber eyes to the other, completely at a loss.
"She's not your Mommy, she's mine!" the one on the left complained.
"If we're twins, she's both our Mommy," the one on the right reasoned uncertainly. "…But she's more my Mommy," he decided eventually.
Filia reached down on impulse for her mace, but found nothing. All she had was her dinky not-so-magic wand. She pointed it forward anyway, trying to make it look intimidating. "Get away from my Val!" she ordered, her wand swaying back and forth between them.
"But I am Val!" they both chorused.
Filia stared from one to the other, finally honing in on the one on the left. Yes… her signals were confused but she definitely felt that… well, it was different from how it had been in the dark room when there had been no ready reference for comparison, at the end of a long day when romance didn't sound quite so insane in the full moon's light. Now… now they were side by side. Now there was a choice. And suddenly amidst the almost perfect sameness, every tiny difference felt… uncanny—the modulation in the voice, the movement of the face, the way it stood. Yes… it was nearly perfect, but nearly perfect isn't perfect.
She turned her prop wand on the one on the left. "It's you," she said coldly. "I know it's you. Show yourself!"
"What are you talking about, Mommy?" the cherubic little figure asked.
"Mommy, is something wrong?" the one on the right asked.
"Look, you're not fooling me," Filia shouted, her voice breaking. "So just hurry up and transform so I can… so I can…" It hit her. Xellos was right. She knew the little creature to her left wasn't Val. She knew it was the same slimy, loathsome beast they thought they'd destroyed in the forest. But she couldn't strike it. Not while it looked like him.
And it knew she couldn't. "Mommy, are you mad at me?" it asked meekly.
"I don't know about her, but I have to say I'm at least a little peeved," came a voice from behind them.
Filia turned to see Xellos appear in a silhouette of purple sparkles. Peeved? Yes. He'd looked that way since he'd walked in on…
"Is that the one?" Xellos asked, pointing to the figure on the left.
Filia nodded mutely.
"W-wait! I am Val!" the figure on the left asserted, eyes wide. "Don't you believe me?" it asked, addressing Xellos.
"No," he said simply. "I believe her." He snapped his fingers and the figure was engulfed in black flame.
Filia rushed over to get Val out of the way as the figure on the left roared. Its arms elongated as it flailed, losing their definition and turning into just one of many tentacles that sprung from the beast. Its roar grew higher pitched, turning into a scream as the fire ate into it. Its face shrunk into something that could never be mistaken for human, emitting a final cry before it disintegrated.
"Normally I wouldn't get involved," Xellos commented, studying his gloved fingers. "But I can't say I particularly cared for the… ah, let's call it copyright infringement."
It was well after three in the morning before Filia could actually retire back to her bedroom. It had taken awhile to explain the goings on to Val—that his new shape-shifting friend hadn't really been a friend at all. For all her complicated explanations, what it came down to with Val was simply, "So he was a bad monster?" A bad monster. Some day she'd have to explain to him that they were all bad, that there really wasn't such a thing as a good monster. It was a tough sell these days, with Xellos around.
After all that, getting Val to bed was even more of a trouble—particularly since it was interspersed with people waking up and wanting an explanation for the commotion. Eventually, though, Val had fallen fast asleep, the events of the evening were explained to the rest of their party, they'd all changed out of their ridiculous costumes, and the palace troops stuck their chests out to go on manly patrols through the grounds now that the danger was well and over.
All was taken care of now except…
"You made quite a big deal out of the fact that you could tell the difference between an imposter and the real thing," Xellos commented, appearing by the vanity in the corner of the room. "And you managed to do so with Val. So, tell me, why couldn't you do the same for me?"
Filia sighed. "I don't know… I guess it was just… dark, that's all. I wasn't expecting it either. And, you know, with Val I was looking at the real thing and the fake one at the same time."
"Dark, hmm?" Xellos hummed, rather unimpressed with this excuse. "It must've been quite adept at replicating my famous charm if it could fool you even in the dark. Not figuring out it was Mister Zelgadis is one thing, but you know me better, Filia."
"It acted smug and insinuating if that's really your definition of charm," Filia countered, but she couldn't put much bite in it. She was surprised too. Surprised that that thing had tricked her, and more surprised that the real one seemed particularly… annoyed that she'd been tricked.
She sat down on the edge of the bed and decided to give an inch on this one. "I… I suppose it might also be that… maybe I sort of… didn't really want to question it."
He surveyed her carefully, and then sat down on the edge of the bed next to her. "Sort of a… 'Xellos is kissing me and that's a little odd, but I'm not going to complain about it in case he stops' kind of thing?"
"Well… not exactly," Filia said, turning her blushing face away from him. "But… I… I just didn't want it to turn out to be that gross copy-monster kissing me," she finished lamely. "I'd rather it was you. That's at least slightly less disgusting."
Xellos turned this over in his mind. "That might be a compliment from you," he decided. "So… I guess this isn't your way of saying you'd like neck-kissing on a more regular basis in the future?"
"No!" she responded.
"Ah. So more of a special occasion sort of thing, then?" he put forth sagely.
She groaned and let her head fall into her hands.
"Cheer up, Filia," he said, clapping her on the back and grinning. "Everything turned out alright in the end; it's not as though the fact that you completely and utterly fell for my imposter's seduction attempt ended up dooming you or your family after all."
"Thanks a lot," she retorted through her hands. "That doesn't exactly make me feel better."
"You know, if anything, I'm the one who should be upset about this," Xellos asserted. "After all, this situation was the most unfair to me."
She very slowly lifted her head and stared at him, mouth hanging open and nose wrinkled. "Unfair to you?" she repeated incredulously.
"Of course," he said, tapping his fingers thoughtfully against his leg. "I suppose," he began after some thought, "that we must endeavor to make sure that something like this doesn't happen again."
"Oh, and what exactly do you suggest I do?" Filia asked, teeth clenched. "Never go to costume parties without checking first to see if shape shifting monsters were invited?"
"That would be silly," Xellos answered. "Shape shifting monsters are party-crashers. No, what you need to do is make sure you can identify the real me beyond a shadow of a doubt. For that, you'll need to get to know me better than you already do."
She winced. "I don't even like what I already know. I don't want to see more. And anyway," she added, "how am I supposed to do that when you're always keeping secrets?"
Xellos cupped his chin in his hand. "You make a good point," he allowed, "but I think we can work around that. So," he said, looking at her brightly, "we'll begin your crash course in all that is Xellos tomorrow. Are you looking forward to it?"
"I'd almost rather get kissed by that copy-monster again," Filia answered grimly.
Xellos decided to take that "almost" as a "yes." "Excellent," he said.
And what exactly would a Xellos-related study course look like? Filia couldn't help but wonder. Surely there would be some quizzing. "Which is my favorite color: lavender or lilac?" or something like that. Perhaps he'd use some illusion spells to create multiple versions of himself. Something like "One of these Xelloses is not like the others." Multiple Xelloses. It was a troubling thought.
But yet, there was a way in which she could understand his desire to be known unmistakably. She wasn't just frustrated and vaguely grossed out that she'd allowed an imposter to momentarily trick her… there was guilt there too. It was the same guilt that Amelia had felt for not being about to realize Zelgadis was the fake. It was the same guilt Filia would've felt to the extreme if she couldn't tell the different between her real son and a pretender. She and Xellos were… familiar, even if only contemptuously familiar. She should've known better. She knew she should've known better.
There was a low knock on the door and for one stomach-toppling moment Filia was afraid that a Xellos would be at the door again—that this masquerade had more layers to be revealed—but it was just Val, barely tall enough to reach up and open the door. He walked in and looked wide-eyed at the two of them, his witch costume finally shed in favor of blue and white striped pajamas.
"Are you okay, Val?" she asked, standing up. "Can't sleep?"
He shuffled up to her. "I had a bad dream," he confessed, rubbing his eyes. "Can I sleep with you tonight?"
"I'm not surprised after everything that happened," Filia said. "Of course you can."
It was a bit of a relief to have him there in the room with her. Xellos… well, the fake Xellos had been right about the fact that it helped to have someone around to make her brave. With Val, she could be brave in his place—for Xellos she could at least pretend to be brave in front of him; and that pretending tended to make her feel braver in general. For the purposes of being brave this evening… well, she was really only going to allow one of them in her bed and it wasn't going to be Xellos.
…Speaking of Xellos… as Val climbed up into the bed and pulled the covers over himself, she shot Xellos a look that tried to communicate something along the lines of: "You. Out. Now."
But he didn't seem to get the message. "Did you have a bad dream too?" Val asked Xellos.
"Oh yes," Xellos said, ignoring Filia's don't-you-dare glare. "Yes I did. But now your mother won't let me stay with her for the night."
"Aww, Mommy why?" Val asked, turning his over-large eyes on Filia who was murdering Xellos in her mind. "If he's scared, can't he stay with us?"
"He's a big boy, Val," Filia said, stabbing her eyes into Xellos's smiling face. "He can deal with it on his own."
"I suppose she's right," Xellos allowed with a thankfully fangless grin. "I'll see you tomorrow then."
Val crawled forward to the foot of the bed and wrapped his arms around Xellos's neck. "'Night," he said before heading back under the covers.
It was at moments like that where Filia thought she should have a word with Val about getting too close to Xellos. But after the events of the evening… well, she couldn't find the will to do so. Her reasons had something to do with pots and kettles and their relative levels of blackness.
"Sleep tight, Filia," he said, opening one eye in a little reverse wink before he teleported away.
Val was looking between the disappearing Xellos and his mother, his arms folded neatly over the plush comforter. "Does this mean Xellos doesn't sleep under your bed?" he asked, as though an established truth was being questioned.
"What?" Filia asked, caught off-guard. "Where would you ever get an idea like that?"
"Well… you said Xellos is a monster… an' Macy Colsen says monsters hide under beds," Val concluded.
Filia rubbed her forehead ruefully. "No… no he doesn't do that. And don't repeat that to him," she added. "I don't want him getting any ideas," she muttered.
"Anyway," she said, leaning over and kissing her son's forehead. "Let's keep the questions on hold tonight. It's way past both our bedtimes."
"'Kay," Val agreed with a yawn.
Filia climbed under the covers and reached over to dim the lamp. It had been quite a costume party in more ways than one, but she was glad they could all put it behind them now. They could still carve jack-o-lanterns the next day and take a few hayrides—maybe even jump into piles of leaves if they all remembered to check themselves for ticks afterwards. Halloween was over, but there was still autumn left to enjoy and she intended to make the most of it. Heck, maybe even the full-immersion Xellos lessons wouldn't be so bad—at least compared to everything else that had happened.
"G'night, Mommy," Val murmured as she hugged him close under the warm covers.
"Good night, Val," Filia answered.
…One thing was for sure: she was glad the time for wearing costumes was over. Without a doubt, it was better to be who they really were.