Episode Sixty-Five: Hostages and Bargaining Chips
Filia and Xellos were trapped in an unstable area of astral space and knew that escaping would not be an easy task. "Constricting astral space is difficult to break through," Xellos stated. This was a death trap; it was all arranged so that Narcissus' destroyer would fall along with him if it came to that. Regardless of if the others became aware of their predicament, there was little they could do to get them out. Even for a monster, it would be extremely difficult to escape such a situation, but for a very strong monster, it wouldn't be impossible. Xellos still had the card Filia gave him, the card that would make her an official golden dragon and set her up to fulfill all the annoying technicalities of his curse. "I can get us out of this," there was no room for doubt anymore, he gave her the card.
Filia stared at the card for a split second before the realization hit her. This was the only thing that could save them. If Xellos regained his original monster powers, he would be strong enough to break out of the unstable astral space. She didn't have a pen and she didn't think Xellos was carrying one either, but something as simple as that would not be their doom. She ripped off her right glove and bit her finger, letting her partially transformed fang pierce her skin just enough to draw blood. She pressed her injured finger against the card. Though magical contracts could be signed with ink, they were originally signed in blood in the past. The red liquid was absorbed by the magically infused card, the name of 'Filia Ul Copt' appearing on it as if written in red ink. Then she kissed Xellos.
They waited, but no surge of power came to him. They parted momentarily and tried again, yet there was nothing. Disappointment invaded his features along with an air of frustration. Then he forced his face to take on his usual overly cheerful squinting eyes look, his mask. "It looks like I couldn't give you enough after all. It shouldn't come as a surprise, who could love such a stupid dragon?"
Filia wasn't sure what to say at first, a million thoughts ran through her head, then finally she smiled warmly. It was something that Xellos didn't expect. "Only a piece of raw garbage," she answered his question, fueling his confusion. "Haven't you changed your interpretation of your cure enough to conclude that it's very tricky? I don't think the problem is you, we're just missing some other technicality, I'm certain of it!"
"What more is there? How else can the 'willing kiss of a golden dragon' be interpreted?" It was all too much to deal with. Just when he thought he understood, it turned out that he didn't. Just when he thought he loved Filia enough, it wasn't enough. Maybe it was enough for her, but not enough for the curse, not enough to save his life... it was not enough to save her life.
"Say it," Filia voiced, almost like an order. She had stopped doubting Xellos and she wished he would stop doubting himself. That he would stop thinking that truth she saw was an impossibility.
"What?" He gave her a confused look, she was always such a moody puzzle.
Feeling the pressure of the electrifying astral walls crushing her; Filia gritted her teeth and forced the words out for one last request. "Just say it!"
Then he realized what she wanted. According to the curse it was a lie, but he could humor her with this much before they died. "I..." why was he pausing, the pain of being crushed alive was immense, but that wasn't what was holding him back. "I love you," strangely the words felt much heavier when he wasn't saying it as a joke.
"I believe you," Filia assured, "and I love you too." She had decided to trust him and she would trust him more than some curse. She kissed him again as if it was the last time, and it looked as if it would be.
xoxox xox xoxox
"Why aren't Filia and Xellos coming back?" Gourry inquired in his eternal confusion. There was always something around him that puzzled him. He was used to the feeling, but sometimes, especially when it concerned someone's safety, he simply couldn't overlook it.
The air around them was normal and there were no freaky monster plants leaping out to attack them. "I don't know," Lina admitted as she approached the dried up tree. "The tree looks dead." She peeked inside the hole in the bark, to see that it was hollow. She casted a light spell. "There's something here!"
Gourry, Zelgadis and Amelia hurried after Lina, joining her inside the massive hollow tree trunk. "What is that?" Amelia looked at the glowing sphere of swirling colors that seemed to be getting smaller.
"It might be some kind of pocket of astral space," Zelgadis theorized.
"Then that means that Miss Filia and Mr. Xellos might be in there!" Amelia concluded.
Lina tentatively reached over to the orb, retreating her hand when she got a shock of electricity. "I don't like the way that ball of astral space is shrinking. It's so unstable that attacking it might make things worse." She was at a loss for what to do to free Xellos and Filia. "At times like this having a monster on the team would be useful. If they're good for anything that's hopping in and out of astral space."
"I'm really worried!" Amelia frowned, her eyes showing vast concerned.
"It looks like the situation is hopeless," a voice from behind the gathered group was heard.
"It can't be!" Amelia cried out before realizing that though the voice was female, it wasn't Lina or Filia's voice.
The group turned around to find a woman standing behind them. She was wearing a dress in a similar style to what Xellos wore as Miss Xexe, though it was white, which accentuated her bronze skin. "We'll see," the woman approached the sphere of astral space and pushed her golden bangles up to her elbow, the ornaments making multiple cling-clang sounds as they bumped into each other. She then reached her hand into the sphere, phasing through it. Sparks of electricity flew from the unstable astral area, but she seemed unaffected by it.
One second, Xellos was reflecting on how short his life felt even though he had lived for so long and regretting he had to drag Filia to death with him. The next, he was distracted by a sharp pain to his ear and found himself worrying that it would be ripped off. "Ow, ow, ow!" The pain ceased and Xellos instinctively rubbed the affected area, though he shouldn't have enough space inside the shrinking astral space to move his arm so freely. Then he realized he was no longer being crushed to death by electrifying astral walls, though his entire body still ached profusely from the near death experience.
Filia, who had been tightly embracing Xellos, was pulled out along with him, wondering how they managed to make it out of there. His hair was still white; he didn't have his monster powers back. Everyone's gazes were focused on them for a few seconds before they turned to look in a different nearby angle. Filia and Xellos followed the looks to... "Lord Beast Master?" The golden dragon stuttered in disbelief.
"It looks like you ran into some trouble with this fight. The Green Alchemist turned out to present quite a challenge, it would seem," Zelas chuckled in a tone much more mocking and superior than even Xellos' best attempt. She gave Xellos a critical look, "I see you're still cursed, what a pity, your time has run out."
"Wait a minute!" Lina protested, "I thought he had a year! It hasn't been a year yet!"
"A year was the duration of your bodyguard contract as offered by Celo," Zelas reminded. "That does not concern me. The fact of the matter is that I have grown impatient. It is time..." Zelas wore a golden chain around her neck, at the end of which there was a black cone-shaped gem that glowed in a shadowy light. "Xellos, will you face your end with even a shred of dignity?"
It was over, he was about to die anyway and Lord Beast Master saved him only so she could finish him off herself. He wasn't going to beg for his life, it was useless anyway. "Yes, Lord Beast Master." Xellos pushed Filia away, giving her a silent warning with his eyes not to say anything. At least this way she would be left alive, or so he hoped. He stepped forward, vowing before the monster lord from whom he originated.
The entire group was paralyzed in shock. They knew they were in no conditions to get into another fight when they barely made it out of that last one. Filia was almost dead on her feet and they were all terribly tired. Lina knew that if she kept on fighting, her hair turning white would be the least of her worries. She would probably breathe her last breath before that even happened.
"This... this is..." Amelia choked out a few syllables before Zelgadis wrapped his arms around her and pulled her close to him.
"Shh... I know it's not fair, but there's nothing we can do," the chimera tried to console his love. Zelgadis never liked Xellos, but for a short moment he could almost feel identified. He could see it, despite the circumstances of being a monster, Xellos respected Zelas, not only because he had to, but because he looked up to her. Being sacrificed by someone he admired, that was something that Zelgadis had experienced.
Zelas held her hand over Xellos' lowered head. The black glow in her palm matched the rhythm of the glow of the black cone shaped jewel on her necklace. "Goodbye Xellos..." An expression of inevitable pain edged itself across Xellos' face as he faded away, becoming an orb of black light that was absorbed into the black jewel. Zelas grinned evilly, waiting for some sort of reaction from the group that appeared to be too surprise at the twist of events to even form a full sentence.
"Bring him back..." Filia's voice was so low that it was inaudible at first, "bring him back..." The second whisper was just barely heard. "Please Lord Beast Master, bring him back!" Filia cried loudly as she fell to her knees with abundant tears rolling down her face like a river. "I beg of you, bring Xellos back. I'll try harder to cure him of his curse, I'll somehow guide him to being able to achieve his cure. Please give us more time!"
"Xellos' curse... the curse that made him human," Zelas paused with suspense. She quoted a certain key part of the incantation, "this curse shall only be broken by..." she paused and emphasized each word slowly, "the willing kiss of a golden dragon." Another moment of silence paused as the whole group mused over Zelas words. They knew that Filia and Xellos had done plenty of kissing and she was certainly willing. "Strangely, the cure doesn't seem to be working. Of course, I'm not expecting a stupid dragon to know why. A brain is necessary to figure out this puzzle. There are times when deception is all around and nothing is what it appears to be."
Zelas' words hit Filia hard. The fact that the cure wasn't working wasn't Xellos' fault. He loved her, she knew it and maybe in the end he knew it too. The problem had to be something else, something that they had not figured out. Yet no matter how hard Filia thought about the cure, phrased exactly as Zelas spoke it, she couldn't see beyond the obvious. What was the answer to the puzzle? Maybe there was a secret place and time where the cure had to be set in motion. Maybe there was a hidden metaphor. Filia didn't know, but for it to matter Xellos had to be brought back anyway. Then she realized something else, Zelas sounded well informed. "You know the answer," Filia realized.
"Indeed," Zelas confirmed. "However, it is of vital importance that Xellos should find that answer on his own. I have given him far too much help already."
"Then it was you!" Lina realized. "The reason why there have been few monsters attacking Xellos in the name of other monster lords. The reason why a lot of monsters attacked us when Xellos wasn't with us in the mountains. You were reducing the amount of danger he was exposed to down to a level that he, we, could handle. You allowed this, you tricked the Green Alchemist and his followers into thinking they could replace Xellos. Was this some kind of test for him?"
"The Green Alchemist is a hater of monsters who thinks he's deceiving the deceiver. Nonetheless, he represents a danger to the people of this world." Zelas changed the subject, as if it was far too early in her opinion to reveal much else beyond that. "Lina Inverse, you always held a prominent spot in Xellos reports and with a good reason, I'm sure. Allow me to offer you a place in my ranks. Would you agree to a pact in exchange for Xellos life? If not, I could always sacrifice his essence to make myself a new minion. It would be someone entirely different who will have Xellos' power but will not be Xellos; a replacement that will completely erase him."
"Using your own monster as a hostage against the enemy?" Lina chuckled, getting back some of her edge. "Do you really think that's going to work?" It at least made her a little confident to know that Zelas wanted her as a pawn; she wasn't completely dispensable in the monster lord's eyes.
"I'll do it," Filia offered without thinking.
"I'm not talking to you, dragon," Zelas waved her hand dismissively at Filia and once again turned her attention towards Lina. "There is the option of simply killing you, but to answer your question, no, I didn't really think it would work."
"That would be a waste," Lina pointed out almost challengingly. She paused as an idea sparked in her mind. Her brain had been working as fast as it could to come up with something before she found herself unable to stretch her conversation with Zelas any further. "I can offer you something else."
Zelas raised an eyebrow, curious about the source of Lina's confidence. "If not your allegiance or your life, what could you possibly offer me?" Xellos was right; Lina Inverse was a peculiar being.
"Join us," Lina stated simply.
While the group gasped at the audacity of their leader, Zelas chuckled in amusement. "Why would I join you?" She played along.
"Because it's worth it," Lina assured in her confident leader voice. "Travel with us for a while and you'll see exactly what I mean. I guarantee that the true meaning of my offer will shine through clearly before your patience runs out."
"I'm a little short on patience," Zelas warned.
"Lies," Lina boldly declared. "You're a good strategist, you think ahead, you plot and plan, you make sure to stay well informed. Someone who can do all that has a fair amount of patience. Someone of that level of cunning and intellect will see the benefits of my negotiations. When we renegotiate once you've had enough of traveling with us, I will present a suggestion, but when I do, it will be something that you would have already decided for yourself. You have my word on that."
"Such confidence," Zelas chuckled. "Very well, Lina Inverse, you've caught my curiosity. I perceive that you're not desperately buying time; you have a real strategy going on here. You truly believe that your word will be fulfilled. I should still warn you that I am no easy opponent to face in battle, but I'm sure the warning is unnecessary."
"That's right," Lina agreed, "I can keep my word, no use of force will be needed." Taking a deep breath, she tried to get things moving along again. "Alright everyone, we're going to continue with our business as planned. We'll search this land for any remnant allies of the Green Alchemist until there are none left."
"You can skip that step, I assure you, there's no one else left to find in this area who is an ally of the Green Alchemist," Zelas informed.
"Very well, then our job here is done," Lina conceded, though the others were giving her unsure looks as if she shouldn't take Zelas' word for it. However, the leader's choice had been made. "The locals can take care of restoring the town with the help of Seyruun. I'm sure the supplies must have been gathered and prepared. The Seyruun transports should be well on their way by now. On that note, we'll send a report about all that's happened to Phil via courier bird. As for our next move, we're going to keep traveling, but not only to face the Green Alchemist. It's been a while since I've done some good old treasure hunting. For the time being, let's head to town and rest at the inn. We have a long way to travel." Lina wasn't planning to ask for any clue from Zelas or any traveling assistance. If this was going to work, she had to prove that her band of adventurers were capable on their own.
xoxox xox xoxox
Though they still exchanged unsure glances now and then, the group followed Lina back to town along with Zelas. They rested for a while and later set out on their quest once again. Aside from the occasional mockingly sarcastic comments from Zelas, the travels were passing by relatively well, albeit unusually quiet in terms of casual conversation. "Do you mind?" Zelas broke the silence.
"Me?" Filia questioned, trying to keep her voice even. She knew it was a bad idea to anger Zelas. "I thought you didn't want to grant me the undo honor of addressing me directly."
Though Filia was sarcastic without noticing it herself, Zelas certainly did. "Funny, Xellos always said that you were direct and temperamental, but you seem to have a fair amount of sarcasm in you."
Pouting despite her better judgment, Filia truthfully replied, "I picked it up from him."
"And he picked it up from me," Zelas grinned annoyingly.
Filia gritted her teeth and swallowed an insulting reply. She did not want to be compared to Zelas. She didn't really want to compare Xellos to Zelas either, but that much was inevitable. It was impossible to ignore the obvious link between them. "What was it that you wanted?" Hoping to return to the previous silence as soon as possible, Filia steered the conversation back to Zelas' initiative.
"I was going to ask if it was possible for you to stop staring at my necklace." Zelas casually stated, with the same tone one would use to inquire the time from a random person. "It gives the impression that you want to steal it," she commented as an after thought.
"Fine," Filia looked away, yet she couldn't help it but to give the gem imprisoning Xellos a few quick sideway glances every now and then.
To be Continued
Disclaimer, I don't own Slayers. What could Lina's plan be? Keep reading to find out.