a Slayers fanfic
by Beedoo!Chapter 32: Tracking, and Backtracking
*Don't worry, Mother. I'll protect you.*
*No! I won't see my son die before I do!*
*Oh, Mother, I can handle her...*
*Hahahaha...handle me, can you? Come on, and we'll see how far you get!*
"Huhh!" The priest sat up in the dawning light. He was alone, the others still asleep. His chest heaved in and out. The dream was already fading back into his subconscious, though he tried to hold on to it. It was as effective as holding water between his fingers. Every morning, they came a little bit closer, but the figures were never clear; he could never recall them once he woke. "Why can't I remember?" he grumbled to himself. With no answer forthcoming, her turned over and tried to get another hour of sleep. The Temple of Dreams was only two days' travel from where they were now... and then he could...
No. His first obligation was to find the route that would lead them to the Darisalito Mountains. He owed that to Mayaki and Zelgaddis both.
He had to trust that his memory would return on its own. He wondered if Zel felt the same way about his cure, perceiving it just beyond the horizon, just on the other side of the next hill...
He thought again about the dream. "Mother," he said aloud, softly. He tried to remember her.
He wished he could see her. He couldn't remember her face; only an echo of her voice. He couldn't recall the time he'd lived in, though he knew it had been roughly thirteen-hundred years since... Three hundred years before the war of the Monster's Fall, the War of Gods and Monsters. He didn't remember his birthday. He didn't remember how old he was when Zelas had taken him. He couldn't remember if his name had always been Xellos, or if the Greater Beast had renamed him after herself.
He remembered very little of the things he had done, and for that he was glad... mostly. The dark confusion of not precisely knowing haunted him.
* * * * *
The first storm of the rainy season caught up to them the night before reaching the city. The cool rain collected in droplets on the outsides of their tents, then slowly seeped through, eventually making the inside temperature the same as the outside.
The girls huddled together like a bundle of kittens, under a conglomeration of blankets, occasionally jostling one another into partial wakefulness. The awakened would groan or mutter, reposition herself, and make sure no cold, damp air was entering their little envelope of warmth.
Zelgaddis generally wasn't affected by the damp, though he occasionally broke out in a bad case of moss or lichen, which he scraped off in disgust. He had stood guard most of the night, continually stoking the fire, which threatened to die and leave them heatless.
The other two, not as resistant to the elements or as comfortable with each other's bed-company as the girls, slept sitting up, leaning back to back, with blankets and bedrolls wrapped around and over them. Zel looked in on them once and found a small, fitfully-snoring mountain. They both complained in the morning of not sleeping well.
"Hey, Xellos, how come you kept shifting around last night?" the tall mercenary asked as he stretched out his legs and back.
"Gourry, you're nearly twice my size. Trying to lean against you and sleep is like fighting a losing battle with a toppling bookshelf," Xellos countered crankily. At least it had chased the dreams off for the night.
"Oh... heh, sorry," the swordsman grinned and went on with his routine stretching.
Xellos regarded him with some measure of jealousy. *No wonder Gourry's always so laid back... he can fall asleep practically on command, anywhere! No one who gets that much sleep could ever be crabby!* Then he glanced at Lina. *On the other hand...*
* * * * *
Lina stood high on a hill, looking down the shard-littered slope their latest shortcut had led them to. "Well, here we are back in Telgen City. Again. To get some answers from the Temple of Dreams. Again."
"No need to be sarcastic about it, Lina," Mayaki chided,
The sorceress rolled her eyes. "I know, I know... but it just seems like we've been going in circles this whole time!"
"Well, with any luck, Mister Xellos's dream will tell us where Mister Elric is, and we can head straight there, right Ze-I mean, Mister Zelgaddis?"
The chimaera looked down, meeting the little justice crusader's eyes. She couldn't tell if he was smiling beneath the linen of his mask, but his eyes sparkled secretly, telling her that he'd noticed her slip. With a somewhat uncertain sigh, he peered out over the sprawl of the city, noting the high cylinder of the temple as it gleamed in the noonday sun. Though he knew Amelia expected an answer, he said nothing. He didn't want to get her hopes up; he was too used to disappointment himself. His gaze remained locked on the white cylinder.
Xellos took a step forward, into Zel's peripheral vision. His boots crunched on the gravel with the movement. He too stared out over the city. "Zel," he began, " I know you don't trust me." Silence ensued as both refused to look at each other. "I haven't given you any reason to," the priest went on. "But I want you to know I won't disappoint you."
More silence followed. Zelgaddis swore he could hear that familiar mischievous smile creeping into Xellos's smile. Somehow it managed to be reliving and disturbing at the same time. He wondered how much time the priest-general had spent just perfecting that annoyingly innocent smile and the tone that matched it.
Nevertheless, it was Xellos he had to rely on this time. So he didn't look at the former Mazoku. "Don't ask for our cure. That was my mistake. And don't ask to know the location of Elric or the mountains. Ask for-"
"-a visual map to Elric's location, with landmarks that can be easily found and followed."
Zel turned his head to stare at the priest.
Xellos didn't make eye contact either, but smiled. "I've been thinking about it ...rather a lot. It seems that the Vessel of Dreams is very particular in whit it shows, largely dependent on the words of the wishes made to it."
A song lark began twittering in a tree behind them.
"Oh, for crying out loud, let's just go already!" Mayaki complained. "I have to find an over to borrow!"
"Great! Food!" Lina brayed, stampeding down the hill.
"I'm not cooking for you!" Mayaki shouted after her. "It's for the DREAMLORDS!"
"So what?" the answer floated back. "Make extra for us!"
Mayaki huffed. "Lina! That's not the point!" She followed the petite firebrand down the embankment, taking a small avalanche of gravel down with her. Gourry and Amelia excitedly did likewise, leaving the two somber men behind on the hill.
Zelgaddis waited for the priest to leave. When the other didn't move, he crossed his arms and cocked an eye at him. "Something else on your mind, Xellos?"
"Something on yours? Better spit it out, they're getting ahead of us."
The chimaera sighed indifferently. "Do you do that just to mess with people's heads, or are you really not aware of it?"
"What? Oh, reading your mind?" Zel glowered at him. "My, my, Zel, haven't you figured that out? Humans-er, and present chimaeric company-are very predictable. With a little practice, you learn how to manipulate people's reactions. For instance..." He took a quick leap forward, getting up in Zelgaddis's face as the chimaera leaned backward to avoid him. "I can tell that this really annoys you, because your personal space boundaries have been affected by your self-perception. Close scrutiny distresses you more than anything, so you've thrown up a wall to keep people away. But, of course, those walls seem to break down a bit when you're around a certain Seyruunian princess..."
Zel was on the point of taking a step back to get away when Xellos finally backed off. He blushed furiously at the mention of Amelia. "And you use this knowledge against people."
"Yeah," Xellos said brightly.
"So why don't you just outright tell me what I'm thinking?"
The priest held up a finger and closed one eye. "Because. I want to see if I'm right."
Zelgaddis tried to keep his eye from twitching. He could see there was no way to continue this conversation without Xellos declaring, "That's what I thought you would say." Of course, there was no getting around the trickster priest's trap: Xellos could claim that he had predicted anything Zel said, no matter what it was, no matter what he did. And likely, he had a perfectly logical explanation for such predictions. So he cut straight to the quick of the matter. "You don't have to do this."
Xellos blinked. "What? What's this? The heartless chimaera passing on a potential cure?"
"It's your wish. We had our chance to use ours wisely, and instead, we barreled into things without checking them out first. You only get one wish... why should we force you into wasting it on us?"
"No one's forcing me. I owe Mayaki, and I owe you."
"But you want your memories to return."
The priest shook his head. "That doesn't matter."
"You can't know where you're going until you know where you've been."
"I'm beginning to wonder if you want to find this cure or not." The chimaera glared at him. "You're not acting like yourself, Zel. Does the thought of your cure frighten you?"
The chimaera continued to stare at him. After a moment, he decided, "No. I've grown used to being a chimaera, I suppose. A man can get used to just about anything. I'll just have to get used to be human again."
The priest nodded. "It's... not an easy transition."
"No," he agreed.
"Or perhaps your stubborn pride is getting the better of you."
Xellos shrugged nonchalantly. "It is your quest. You want to do everything by yourself, for yourself. And," he added teasingly, "you don't want to have anyone to thank for their help. You're afraid your obligation to them would tie you to them forever, because that's a debt you have no way of repaying."
Zelgaddis simply stared at him, puzzled by how the other man could decipher his thoughts so clearly...thoughts he hadn't even consciously realized.
"Like you said," the priest continued, "it is my wish, and I should use it as I please."
Zel's heart sank. He nodded numbly.
"And, at present, it pleases me to find Elric and the Darisalito Mountains."
"I..." Zel started, then words failed him. He tried again. "Thank you."
Xellos's eyes focussed on the white cylinder of the temple again. He snorted ruefully. "you can thank me when you're human again."
The two men regarded each other silently. After a moment, Xellos waved a hand at the chimaera. "See you at the bottom." With a couple of running steps, he began his sliding decent down the gravelly slope.
"Hmph," Zel snorted. "We'll see who sees who at the bottom!" He used his demon speed to propel himself down the hill. Xellos would find his pride slightly damaged when he reached the hill's bottom.
* * * * *
Mayaki managed to commandeer a kitchen relatively near the temple, and spent four hours preparing her offering, as both a thanksgiving and an exchange. "Why take chances?" she said. "Gods are always more helpful if you give them something they like, right?"
The rest grudgingly agreed and helped her carry her exquisitely-prepared dishes to the Temple of Dreams. People around them inhaled and sighed at the pervading aromas of herbs and sauces that mingled into a boquet of scent that would rival all the incense burned in the Temple for the past three years. Eight trays in all were set before the altars of the Dreamlords. Roast suckling pig with a clove-spiced golden apple in its mouth and chunks of pineapple and sweet peppers in the body cavity, a plate of fish rolls, another of vegetable puffs that promised a certain pique of the tastebuds, fresh rolls soft as clouds, putting off the scents of warm yeast, garlic, melted butter and oregano. There were fried doves and rabbits, served on an enormous platter, piled so full that the birds and bunnies seemed to be oversized hors d'oeuvres. To round the enormous meal off, our wyvern chef concocted two heaping plates of confections: chocolate, butterscotch, maple, cherry, coffee. And dessert, of course: blueberry turnovers, piled sky-high, and latesquash pie with whipped sugared cream.
It was all Mayaki could do to keep Lina and Gourry from devouring her sacrifice to the gods before reaching the steps of the temple, despite promising that she had made plenty extra for them. She had to chide them several times as they traversed the block and a half from the kindly borrowed kitchen.
The offerings set down, the wyvern chef knelt and prayed while Xellos made the presentation of his single wish to the Vessel of Dreams, then staggered weakly up the long staircase to the sleeping quarters.
Rising, the girl rejoined her friends. "I hope this works," she breathed, looking up to meet Zelgaddis's eyes. She couldn't tell if it was hope or hatred she was reading in them.
"The Dreamlords ought to be praying to you for all the great food you just left them!" Lina half-complained. "Well, let's head back before those spinach puffs cool off! We won't see Xellos until tomorrow afternoon anyway."
"Right!" Gourry seconded, following the sorceress's lead."
"Oooo! I can't wait!" Mayaki heard her squeal as the pair bounded down the temple steps back the way they'd come.
"Wait for me! I want some too!" Amelia called, trailing after them.
Zelgaddis sighed through his mask and began heading after them, but turned when he noticed Mayaki, thoughtfully planted on the steps with her chin in her hand. "Coming?" he asked gently.
She paused with her mouth agape before answering. "I think I'll make a side trip to Kaimer..." she said eventually. "I should see how Ari's doing."
His eyes narrowed sarcastically at her. "You sure you want to go alone? There are dangerous criminals on the roads, you know."
She giggled, hiding her mouth with one hand. "Don't worry, I can take care of myself," she mocked back, drawing her wolf-headed bodice dagger and brandishing it playfully at him. "Besides, I'll take a little short-cut through the Astral Plane."
"Back this evening?"
"Yes. Late, probably. Don't wait up for me."
"Tell Ari hello from all of us."
The girl nodded. "I will. See you later!" The two waved at each other and parted company.
She walked through Telgen's streets, mind full of memories... had it been six months already? Ari would be so glad to see her! They'd have so many stories to tell one another-she wondered if she really would be back in the evening and not the middle of the night.
Maybe she would be lucky and no one would recognize her. Her enthusiasm dwindled. It had been great traveling with Lina and Zel and the rest of the group, not having to worry about taunts or assaults. For the most part, anyway. But back in Kaimer...
*I should have asked Zel if I could borrow his mask,* she thought darkly. *Not that he would part with it for a minute...*
She'd had to stop and ask directions twice; it was always easy to get lost in an unfamiliar city; worse when the roads tended to loop back on themselves as they did here. At least the people here weren't wary of her. She was just a regular girl here.
When she reached the edge of the forest, she carefully sneaked behind some thick brush, looked around for any observers, and seeing none, transformed herself. With another quick glance around, she slipped soundlessly into the Astral Plane.
* * * * *
Alemo found himself pitched onto the beach as Dolphin's bubble popped. Clearing sand from his mouth and nostrils, he sat up and looked around. Tracking his sister would be all but impossible, as much of a lead as she had on him now. Still, he had to find her-she was his only link to finding Elric. Besides which, if they had found the way to the mountains already (which he doubted), it would be easier to follow them rather than search for his own way there. Let them do all the work; let them lead him to Elric.
But, of course, there was the problem of catching up to them. They had a three day lead on him; they could be anywhere by now, especially with that teleportational trick of his sister's.
"No use in just standing here though," he sighed, choosing a random direction and following it in the widely-spaced towering conifers.
A town. He needed to find a town, see if six visitors fitting the description of Mayaki and her friends had passed through recently. If they hadn't been there, he would try the next, and the next, tracing his way down the beach. He couldn't waste time. He would have to-
The hairs on the back of his neck stood on end. He felt that he was being watched. Although he looked and saw nothing, as an assassin, he knew better than to ignore his instincts. His hand curled cautiously around the grip of his sword as he continued to scan the forest for movement. "Who's there?" he called, sounding calmer than he felt.
A resounding feminine cackle answered him. He unsheathed his sword, holding it ready as he dropped into a defensive stance. The woods suddenly seemed to be cloyingly full of pressing water vapor. Ghostly movements startled him several times. "Who's there?" he repeated, louder this time.
"So, you're what Mistress has been so interested in," the voice sounded again, directly behind him. Instantly, he whirled, catching sight of the woman a fraction of a second before his sword passed through her midsection. Alemo gasped, thinking he had killed her. He had expected the spurt of blood that usually came with such a slash. He also expected the fleshy catch of metal on muscle, bone, or soft tissue as his sword cleaved through them, but there was none.
The woman, unfazed at having a broadsword pass through her form, laughed at him viciously. "Oh, I can see where you would be terribly amusing to her." Alemo blinked at her, stunned. He had seen the blade pass through her; he knew he hadn't missed. He never missed. It was as if her body and the sword existed in two different dimensions. She laughed at him again, soft, seductive, mocking. "Surprised?" The mists, previously part of the forest, seemed to condense into her body.
"Who are you?" he demanded.
Her long greenish-teal hair flapped in the light breeze, reminding Alemo of seaweed. A green dress of layered sequins slid across her sensual form as she slowly circled the apprehensive assassin. She seemed to flow-almost splash-as she took another step toward him. Her eyes, though think and catlike ellipses, contained a deep, liquid quality. "Mistress Dolphin thought you might require a little aid."
"Dolphin-Rah, you mean?" he growled cynically back. The mazoku rolled her cyan eyes.
"Poor Mistress... For a while there, we thought she might actually snap out of it and send us on a mission to conquer the world... I miss those days." She sighed. "Ah, pardon me. My name is Naia. Deep Sea Dolphin sent my associate and I to look after you, though why, I really don't know, other than the fact that you're out to destroy that little wretch, Xellos."
"D'Saani. We'll meet up with him before long. He's off tracking your foes, you know."
Alemo looked perplexed. "Is he?" *Deep-Sea, you're a doll,* he thought, following Naia as she began a seductive saunter through the trees.
Disclaimer in short: Slayers and related characters aren't mine. Mayaki and various other incidental characters are.
Thanks for reading! Please leave me some feedback; I live and thrive on criticism! (not to mention, I'm a perfectionist. ;)