Songfic by Esther Nairn
(music by Sarah Maclachlan)
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The winter here's cold, and bitter
It's chilled us to the bone
We haven't seen the sun for weeks
Too long, too far from home
It wasnít the whistling of the polar breeze that woke Zelgadiss Greywords within his sealskin tent. It wasnít even the harsh, bitter cold, which his fur-lined sleeping bag barely kept at bay. No, what woke him was the screech of his tori-uma, a seven-foot-tall ostrich-like bird of the species used for pack animals in the far southern tip of the continent. It squawked loudly from its lean-to, which Zel had hastily constructed the night before just before setting up his own tent a yard or so away. For a moment, the groggy chimera was afraid that the animal had broken loose and was running away, leaving him stranded on the tundra. That thought evicted him from his bedroll quickly, and he scrambled to throw his heavy winter gear over his rumpled tan clothes. A minute later, he pulled open the flap of his tent and peered in the direction of the lean-to through the light snow that was just beginning to sprinkle the frozen tundra. He saw the tori-uma huddled against the wall of the lean-to, its harness still tied to a stake in the ground and its head nestled against the thick fur that covered its abdomen, and sighed with relief.
As soon as the tori-uma saw him, it quickly, if somewhat awkwardly, rose to its feet, shook the snow off itself, and squawked a greeting. Zel crossed the distance to the animal, feeling around in his coat pockets for food. "Good morning," he said quietly as he reached up to pet the birdís fuzzy head. It squawked again and bounced excitedly from foot to foot, flapping its short wings, obviously hungry. Zel quickly produced a palm-sized hard biscuit and held it out. Within seconds, the biscuit disappeared into its mouth, making a visible lump as it slid down its two-foot-long gullet. "Good girl," he murmured soothingly. It honked out its appreciation and nestled its head against Zelís gloved hand, making the chimera smile slightly--usually a rare gesture for him, but he had grown to like the affectionate animal over the course of his journey. In the three weeks he had been traveling through the southern tundra, he hadnít seen a single other living thing, and he had truthfully begun to get a little lonely. Talking to the tori-uma was about the only thing he could do while traversing the frozen wasteland to break up the monotony.
Zel petted the tori-umaís head, then trudged through the snow back over to his tent. The bird hesitatingly stepped toward the tent, warbling softly to itself, waiting for him to return. Once inside, Zel searched through one of his packs until he found more tori-uma food. He put it in a small pan, exited the tent, and set the pan outside by the lean-to for the animal to munch on while he broke camp.
By the time a half hour of packing had passed, the cold had seeped through his thick, woolen coat, and snow had gotten into his fur-lined gloves, where it had melted. Zel brushed the long fur that lined the hood of his coat out of his face and swore. Due to his stone skin, once he was cold, it took a while to warm back up again. He sighed and resignedly finished folding his tent into its bag. Cursing his cold fingers, he began securing his bags against the tori-umaís sides, making sure to feed the animal treats from time to time. Once that was done, he took a final cursory look around the campground and pulled out his compass and map from his inner coat pocket. After studying them for a few minutes, he pulled up the stake that held the tori-umaís harness, mounted the bird, and nudged it into motion.
While the tori-uma obediently trotted onward in the direction he indicated with the reins, Zelgadissís mind flashed back to a month and a half before, when he had found the map he now held in his hands perfectly preserved deep within a hidden desert ruins. He wished he could be back in the desert now. While the heat there had been nearly unbearable, and could have been lethal for anyone without his endurance, it was certainly better than the cold.
He had taken the map from town to town, looking for someone who could read the ancient script scrawled on it in places. It was roughly sketched, and it didnít contain any landmarks with which Zel was familiar. Finally, five weeks ago, he had found an old scholar in a seaside town who told him what the map said. Apparently, local legend had told of a hidden cave containing some ancient knowledge in the southern tundra, but most of the people who tried to find the cave never returned because they didnít have the "supernatural powers" (which Zel took to mean sorcery) the legends said they would need. Those who did survive returned with terrible tales of walls that moved and a powerful curse. One of the scholarís neighbors had been the most recent one to search for the cave; he had left against his familyís protests a little more than five years before, and never returned. Local folklore held that the cave had been created by a man named Lei Magnus more than a thousand years ago. Zel didnít really believe it had belonged to the ancient sage, but he decided to go to this place, anyway. He had heard too many legends about Lei Magnus in this part of the world that he had never heard before back home to risk missing a chance to get cured.
After writing a letter to Ameria and rustling up some bandit gangs for money (Lina would have been proud), he had traveled to the southernmost town on the continent, where he bought the supplies he knew he would need to brave the cold. He had enough food for two months if he rationed it carefully, as well as warm winter gear and the sturdiest tori-uma he could find. Three weeks ago, he had finally set out on the long journey through the frozen southern tundra toward the cave.
A few days before, he had begun to see in the distance the small hills that, according to the map, hid the entrance to the cave. He couldnít have found them sooner--it meant he only had a few more days before he reached his destination, and possibly, his cure. For three weeks, he had seen nothing but white snow and permafrost in every direction. It had become almost too much for even a loner like he--he finally resorted to having conversations with the tori-uma in order to keep his sanity.
"Weíre getting closer, girl," he murmured, and listened as the bird warbled back to him. "Two more days, maybe, and weíll be there." While the tori-uma continued its steady gait, Zel put away his map and pulled some palm-sized stones out of one of his bags. He quickly cast a low-level fire spell on each until they were hot to the touch, and then slipped them into his gloves and into pockets he had sewn along the inside of his shirt. They made a scraping sound as they slid into place, occasionally clacking against his hard skin whenever the tori-uma took an uneven step. Finally, satisfied that his body was slowly beginning to warm up, Zel pulled some dried beef jerky out of one of his bags and tore off a bite with his teeth. He checked his compass from time to time as he ate, making sure the tori-uma kept heading south.
Not long after he finished eating, his mind began to wander, easily bored with the monotony of the pure white snow illuminated by the distant, hazy sun, which hung in the sky not far above the horizon. As he took the stones out of his gloves to warm them again, Zel started talking to his ride about the issue that he had been preoccupied with for weeks.
"I wonder when--if--she got my letter," he began slowly, counting and recounting the number of weeks since he had written it. "Itís been five weeks since I gave it to that captain." He paused. "Feh, with my luck he probably got lost at sea, and itís now sitting on the bottom of the ocean." The tori-uma, sensing the scorn in his voice, squawked sharply in response. "All right, all right, I wonít think about that right now," Zel said resignedly. "Whether Ameria got the letter or not, Iím going back to Saillune after this, cure or no cure. If she didnít get it, then Iíll..." he gulped, "Iíll just have to tell her what I said in it face-to-face." The tori-uma chirped and clucked, and Zel reconsidered what he had just said. "Well, maybe Iíll tell her face-to-face. I could just write another letter, even if Iím in Saillune at the time." Another chirp, followed by a squawk. Zel sighed. "I know, it wouldnít be the most courageous way of doing it...but at least it would get done," he rationalized.
Shaking his head, Zel gave a short, bitter laugh, and said, "If anyone were around, theyíd say I finally lost it. Iíve been talking to a bird for three weeks." The tori-uma squawked again, and Zel petted its head as gently as he could with the rock still in his glove. "Good girl," he murmured reassuringly. It continued in its southwesterly path, warbling softly to itself while Zel retreated into his own mind.
It wasnít whether or not Ameria had received the letter that worried Zel. He was fairly confident that it would get to her--he had certainly paid the captain enough to make sure it would be delivered to a courier once he reached port. And while couriers couldnít always be trusted, they were generally pretty good about making sure what was entrusted to them reached its destination.
No, what Zel was worried about was Ameriaís response to it. What would she say about his admissions? Did she feel the same way as he did, or was he just imagining all the times she had subtly let on that she cared for him? Would she be repulsed by what he had written? Would she be repulsed by him if he didnít find a cure in this cave? Furthermore, what would she do and what would she say when he reached Saillune at last? For all he knew, she could have been pulled into yet another adventure with Lina and Gourry, who promised her they would stop at Saillune to see her as soon as their wandering brought them in the area. Or maybe she could have by now been forced to marry some prince for the sake of carrying on the royal bloodline. Maybe she had even fallen for someone else, someone who was there in Saillune, as opposed to he, who was stuck in the frozen wastelands more than two thousand miles to the south. A lot could happen in the time since he had seen her last, Zel thought with a twinge of panic gripping his stomach. He quickly checked his compass again and nudged the tori-uma into a faster gait, determined that he should find that cave, get what he came for, and leave as soon as possible.
Fifty miles away, situated between two rolling hills, a patch of ice suddenly began to glow with a soft light. Slowly, the ice began to melt and moisture began to drip into the cave below it, forming icicles all around its opening. Throughout the cave, rocks slowly began to shift into new positions, forming new walls and ceilings, dips and turns. They settled into place, nestling into the permafrost or between other rocks, allowing trickles of water to form ice between their craggy surfaces.
Deeper within the cave, an underground lake woke from its five-year slumber. With a low groan, the solid ice that filled its basin began to crack and chip, and water trickled, then rushed to fill the gaps the fissures in the ice had created. Finally, the ice melted away enough to release the human skull that had been trapped within it for the past five years. It sank to the bottom of the rapidly-forming lake, pulled down by a strong undercurrent that had already formed in the roiling ice-water. All the while, beyond the lake, a thick, leather-bound book lay undisturbed on a stone pedestal, glowing faintly in the darkness of the cursed cave.
* * *
To Zelgadissís dismay, it was nearly three days before he finally found the opening to the cave. As soon as he had reached the gently rolling hills, his compass had started to spin counterclockwise, and nothing he did to fix it worked. He eventually gave up, assuming that he was so close to the South Pole that the stronger magnetic pull there had rendered the instrument useless. Having lost his bearings, he had been forced to wander the frozen hills in search of the opening unaided, only stopping to give his tori-uma a breather and to take short naps to conserve his strength.
Finally, he spotted a three-foot-wide hole in the ground that he was sure he had passed before, but failed to recognize as the entrance to the cave. He halted his mount and climbed off, and approached the hole cautiously. "Funny, it seemed a lot smaller yesterday," he muttered as his aqua-green eyes examined the slick ice around its edge. He lowered himself into the opening with a Levitation spell, and, after a cursory exploration, he decided that the cave was probably relatively deep and would require a few days of spelunking.
The tori-uma warbled in relief as he levitated himself out of the hole, making the chimera chuckle. "Donít worry, I wonít leave you stranded out here without any food," he assured it. He petted its head and talked to it for a moment while feeding it some hard biscuits. It clucked appreciatively and stooped down so that he could easily reach the luggage that was secured across its fuzzy back.
From within his bags, Zel brought out his canteen and removed Ameriaís bracelet from its neck. He turned the little blue bauble over and over in his hand, all the while trying to suppress the feeling of dread he got whenever he thought about her. He had to get into that cave, and soon. With every passing moment, the whispering wind called to him as it swept the frost-covered hills around him, demanding that he abandon his supplies and leave his tori-uma far behind and delve into the depths of the cavern--now. "Thatís crazy," he murmured to himself, shaking his head as he wistfully slipped the bracelet onto his own wrist and pulled his glove over it to protect it. Deliberately ignoring the sound of the wind and dismissing the fact that the hole in the ground almost seemed to glow before his eyes as merely a product of fatigue, he filled the canteen with clean snow and set it between some warmed stones to make drinking water. After that, he pitched his tent and took another nap.
Two hours later, he awoke and began to pack his backpack. He coiled a length of rope and stuffed it in the heavy canvas bag, followed by some tools and a few stakes in case he had to secure the rope to something. Then, he packed the remaining space with food and, lastly, his canteen. He led his tori-uma into the tent and tied it securely to the stake he had driven into the permafrost floor, leaving a pan full of enough food to last several days so it wouldnít starve. He bid goodbye to the bird, which, sensing that it would be left alone, began clucking and warbling mournfully. Zel paused at the entrance to the tent, and turned with an amused expression. "Iíll be back," he promised. It screeched in response, and he tossed it a cookie he found in one of the pockets of his backpack. It caught it and flapped its wings in appreciation. Zel took one last look at the bird as it devoured its treat, then closed the flap of the tent and tied it shut. Once outside, he double-checked his supplies. Then, he walked to the edge of the cave opening and jumped inside.
"Lightning," he whispered, and a ball of magic flared into existence in his palm, its light reflecting off the ice-covered rocks all around him. The floor was uneven and ice-coated, making Zel glad he had thought to buy boots with cleats in their soles. The walls were narrow, but passable--a fact which he was grateful for. He had crawled through enough caves to know that it was not only difficult but dangerous to try to widen a path through a cavern like this using magic. There was a good six inchesí clearance between his head and the ceiling, although Zel had no doubt that that space would lessen as he went deeper into the belly of the cave.
As he gazed around him, the bright orb of his Lightning spell hovering over his outstretched, gloved hand, he felt as if he had stepped into another world. The timelessness of the place was disconcerting; he could probably spend days down here and never even realize it. Silence permeated the air, broken only his slight movements and the sound of his breath as it crystallized in front of him. Zel wouldnít have believed it possible, given the subzero temperature back at his tent, but it was much colder in here than it was outside. He shivered, and decided that the only way to keep warm would be to keep moving. With a flick of his wrist, he sent the Lightning spell into the air just in front of him, where it floated as he started walking through the dark passageway that stretched in front of him.
After almost an hour of walking, Zelgadiss was beginning to get a little suspicious. Instead of twisting and turning unevenly, the path through the cave had thusfar remained unnervingly ruler-straight, while its walls stayed surprisingly wide enough for him to walk through without trouble. The ceiling was still high enough to admit his full height, while the floor had sloped downward slightly. This is far too easy, he kept repeating to himself. There has to be a catch. If it was possible to just waltz in, take whatever was hidden here, and leave, someone would have done it a long time ago. "Feh, maybe someone already has," he muttered to himself, his words echoing off the ice-coated stone walls, the sound carrying far down the dark tunnel. His mind ran through several possibilities: perhaps someone had found the treasure successfully, but simply never returned home; or perhaps someone had found the treasure only to die somewhere on the frozen tundra outside; or perhaps there was no treasure in the first place. Zelís stomach turned with each thought. This whole trip could have been for nothing. Three weeksí travel through the freezing wasteland that was the southernmost tip of the continent, when he could have been on his way to Saillune instead--and for what? The opportunity to worry about what Ameria would think when she read his letter, which he was now beginning to regret that he ever sent in the first place.
He was so absorbed in his thoughts that he didnít hear a slight scraping sound behind him or feel the small tremor in the ground caused by movement. The ice that coated the walls behind him quickly melted, sending water cascading silently down the rocks to the floor. Small stones at first, followed by larger stones, quietly detached themselves away from other rocks and flew noiselessly through the frigid air, piling themselves up to make a two-foot-thick wall that completely blocked the passageway out of the cave.
"This is ridiculous!" Zelgadiss exclaimed angrily, his frustration mounting. "Why did I even come here in the first place?" He took another couple of steps forward, stomping his cleated soles hard against the ice that coated the ground. Just then, a small rock pulled away from the wall by him and lodged itself right under his boot. Zel felt his foot slip out from under him so fast he couldnít catch his balance, and he crashed to the ground with a yell and a loud thump.
Growling low in his throat in irritation, Zel lay back against his backpack, which was trapped between his body and the floor of the cave. He squeezed his eyes shut and let his head fall back, absently hoping that his wiry hair wouldnít puncture the sealskin bag as his hood slipped off. "I should just...head...back," he murmured to himself slowly, emphasizing the words. "Whatever was here is most likely long gone, and Iíve got better things to do than wander around a cave someone obviously tunneled through years ago." With that, he opened his eyes and looked down the passageway that led back to the caveís entrance.
Or tried to, anyway. Zel furrowed his brow. Odd--I didnít think there was a wall there, he thought. His Lightning spell still hovered over him, its glow diminished now that he wasnít paying attention to it. He moved a gloved hand, causing the ball of light to brighten and float toward the newly-formed wall, and shook his head. He must have fallen at an odd angle, and was looking at one of the walls that formed the long hallway through the cave. He lifted his head and looked toward his feet, noting the dark corridor that stretched in front of him. Wait...if the cave continues down that way...then the entrance must be right behind me... He let his thoughts trail off and his head drop again, eyeing the wall directly behind him with a growing sense of alarm. "Waaaaait," he murmured, his breath coming a little faster as adrenaline galvanized his limbs into action. He scrambled to his feet and pulled his hood over his head, his sea-green eyes quickly scanning the rock walls around him, trying to find the passageway out of the cave. "What the...hell?" he murmured. He glanced behind him at the corridor that stretched further down into the cave, then turned to stare at the wall he was sure hadnít been there just a few minutes ago. He stepped closer, bringing his light spell down to eye level so he could get a closer look at the rock in front of him.
Shock flashed through him like a bolt of lightning. Before his widened eyes, the rocks nestled into place, each moving of its own accord, while water silently snaked up the wall from where it had collected on the floor, filling in cracks with ice and cementing the rocks together. Speechless, he raised a hand and touched one of the rapidly filling cracks with a finger. Water clung to the rock around his fingertip, freezing into place regardless of the warmth of his hand. He pulled away and watched as the hole his finger had made quickly iced over.
Zel took a step back, quickly appraising his situation. "Feh," he huffed smugly as he recovered, "it takes more than that to keep me in here." He lifted his hands and chanted under his breath, and his hands began to glow with power that coated the inside of the cave with reddish light. He threw his hands forward, yelling, "Befis Bring!"
His self-assured expression melted into one of dread as he watched the ice along the newly-formed wall flash brightly, repelling the power of his spell. The light died away, leaving only his Lightning spell to illuminate the cavern walls. "What?!" Zel exclaimed, and stumbled toward the barrier. He reached out a hand and brushed his fingertips against the ice, which hadnít even been scraped in his attack. "What the hell is going on, here?!" he yelled furiously, pounding a fist against the wall.
Suddenly, he heard a noise behind him, and whirled around, his sword already half out of its scabbard. His eyes widened and his jaw dropped in shock as he watched stones from the wall to his left fly toward the passageway that had previously stretched straight in front of him. "No!" he cried as he ran forward, and tried to shove the rocks out of the way. As soon as he moved one, however, others shifted to fill in the gap, and ice quickly froze over them, rendering them immovable even to his chimeric strength. Zel clawed uselessly at the stones, which, by the time he realized what they were doing, had already almost finished walling off the passageway. Cursing loudly, he yelled, "Astral Vine!" and tried to hack against the ice with his enchanted sword. Even that, however, was useless.
Finally, after what seemed like untold moments of panic, but was probably no more than a minute, Zel stepped back from the new wall, huffing with exertion, and dropped his sword. "Greeeeat," he moaned, dropping to the ground on his knees after his sword and rubbing his head with one hand. "Is this why no one seems to have made it back home from this place? The old man who translated that map mentioned something about moving walls..." He glanced to his left, where the stones that now blocked his passage deeper into the cave had come from. As if to answer his question, a thin layer of rock collapsed to the ground, revealing what looked like another passageway in the dim light of his Lightning spell. Zel blinked, then slowly stood, picked up his sword, and replaced it in its scabbard. He made his light spell brighter, and sent it down the newly-revealed passageway, eyeing its walls suspiciously, the silence broken only by his breathing. After a minute or so, he called the spell back, and took a deep breath. He glanced at the two new walls that had formed while his back was turned and grimaced. "Thatís the last time I assume, based on appearances, that something is too easy," he muttered to himself.
As he started down the new passageway, which quickly revealed itself to be just as straight and tall as the last one had been, he shook his head and sighed heavily. "Well, at least that means that maybe there is something of importance around here, after all," he said out loud. With another sigh, he shifted his backpack straps on his shoulders, and reluctantly continued down the ice-coated tunnel.
Once Zelgadiss was several minutesí walk away from the site of his unfortunate discovery, the walls that had formed practically before his eyes began to glow again. As if to mock him, the two newest barricades quickly disintegrated into their composite rocks, which then flew silently through the air to pile up in the new tunnel through which Zel had just walked. Once formed, the new wall glowed for a minute as ice cemented it in place. Then, its light died away, almost as if the stones that made it up had never moved in the first place.
* * *
Two hours later, Zelgadiss was just about fed up with the cave. It seemed that every time he turned around, an ice-covered, stone wall suddenly appeared where one hadnít been moments before, and a new passageway was revealed. He quickly realized that he was essentially at the mercy of the enchanted cave; it almost appeared to have a will of its own, the way the walls seemed to strategically appear just as he was beginning to think the path was getting too easy. Zelgadiss tried every spell he knew that would possibly be effective against ice and earth, and even tried ramming through some of the stubborn barricades with his shoulder, but the walls wouldnít budge. Step after step, passageway after passageway, he grew more and more angry and frustrated until finally he slipped off his backpack and plopped down on the ground. He rummaged around in it for a section of dried beef, which he tore into viciously, glowering at the walls around him silently as he chewed, his Lightning spell hovering over his head.
As his jaw worked furiously, Zelís mind did as well. He turned over his situation in his head over and over, wondering why and how the cave had come to be cursed like it was. Obviously someone powerful had created it, but why would someone enchant a cavern in the frozen wastelands that made up the southern tip of the continent? And what could be so important that someone would want to hide it here, of all places? Was Lei Magnus truly involved, or was the person who enchanted this cave simply posing as the great sage? If Lei Magnus was indeed the one who had cursed the cave, anything he would have wanted to be kept hidden could be quite valuable. His skill with magic was legendary; if he had created the Dragon Slave, who was to say that he couldn't have created a transformation spell, or something like that, that Zel could use?
That was, of course, if whatever was supposed to be hidden within the cave was still there. It was worth it to find out, though, he reasoned. As unnerving as the moving walls were, Zel had faced much more imminent threats to his safety before. He figured he was just letting the silence of the place get to him if the fact that he was at the cave's mercy seemed ominous. And there really was no reason why he should distrust the path through which he was led--after all, he hadn't run into any trouble so far whatsoever, had he? Maybe there was some kind of test at the end, but he was confident he could handle anything that was thrown at him.
His anxiety about the cave having abated, Zelís thoughts turned to Ameria. He'd be heading for Saillune when he left the cave, cure or no cure, he thought. That had been the plan all along, ever since he wrote Ameria that letter. He had even pondered, one night while passing through a seaside town, turning around and heading straight for Saillune instead of exploring the cave. Zel idly studied the wall across from him in the low light, wondering how he could ever have considered going to the holy kingdom before he'd fully explored this place. He had to press onward, had to see what was at the end of the line, had to see where the enchanted stones would lead him, and to what. After all, he had been searching for a cure for years, and, now that the barrier was gone, a whole new world of possibility was opened to him. How could he have considered leaving any clues like this one behind to return to a kingdom far to the north and a princess who might not even feel the same way about him as he thought he did toward her?
Zel blinked, a little surprised at his sudden turn of thought. Turning to his bag, he slipped his hand in and felt around until he found another slice of jerky. He tore off half the slice in one bite and chewed voraciously. He had been somewhat convinced, relatively sure, when he decided to write to Ameria, that there was something...well, there. Something in her eyes, or her smile, or the way she acted toward him, especially when they parted ways the last time--he wasnít sure what it was that had had him convinced, but he had to have seen something to make him think she cared for him. Gourry had even said something to him about it. So why was he starting to feel a little doubtful now?
Groaning, Zel put his hands to his head and exhaled heavily. He watched between his fingers as the condensation dissipated, realizing all over again how silent the cave was. In fact, now that he was more aware of his surroundings, he was feeling pretty cold. Furthermore, while he was eating, his Lightning spell had dimmed to the point of being almost miniscule. He tore his hands from his face and turned back to his bag, refreshing the light spell so he could find the little stones he used for keeping himself warm. He repeated the same small fire spell on each one, still pondering Ameria and the enchanted cave. Finally, once he was warmer, he clipped his backpack closed and rose to his feet, shouldering the pack. He felt much more prepared to face whatever the magic cavern threw at him. And besides, he reasoned, the more he explored it, the longer he could delay returning to Saillune to witness Ameriaís reaction to his letter. Without a backward glance, he continued down the icy corridor. "For all I know, I could have been completely wrong about her. Maybe sheíll hate me for what I wrote..."
His words echoed off the cave walls, and, as he walked away, the walls near the place had had been sitting started to glow softly. Without noise, rocks detached themselves from the melting ice around them and formed a barrier blocking the passageway. They solidified into position almost as if to dare Zelgadiss to try to turn back. But Zel didnít notice; he merely kept walking away.
* * *
Untold hours later, Zelgadiss stopped once again to take a break. He rarely got headaches--usually only when Lina did something particularly thoughtless--but he was starting to feel an ache above his eyes and in his temples. To add to that, his feet just didnít seem to want to move as quickly as they should, which Zel blamed on fatigue, rather than the heavy feeling that had begun to curdle in his heart since the last time he stopped to rest. Deciding that a nap might help, he reheated all the stones he had, piled them under him inside his coat, and curled up in the middle of the corridor using his backpack as a pillow. The air was still cold despite the stones, but he tried his best to ignore it as sleep claimed him. Almost as soon as he closed his eyes, it seemed, his vision was filled with the gates to the palace in Saillune and he could feel his legs carrying him toward them.
As soon as he stepped through the pristine, white gates, he could see hundreds of people gathered on the lawns in front of the palace to either side of him. Oddly enough, they were all completely silent. Some were priests and priestesses in white robes, the kind that studied and worshipped at the great temple in Saillune. Others were obviously court nobility; their fine robes and bejeweled hands belied their status. Still others were people who lived and served in the palace: handmaidens and menservants, scullery maids and stable boys, scribes, advisors, pages, squires, and knights. All of them, Zel realized once he took in the scene, were staring at him, and to his horror, their faces were filled with disgust.
Zel stared back for heartbeat until he couldnít stand it any longer. He broke into a run, expecting his chimeric speed to take him to the palace doors faster than their scorn-filled eyes could follow him. But something was wrong, he realized after a few paces--for some reason, he couldnít get his legs to move as quickly as they should have. Compared to his usual speed, he could only move at a crawl. Panicked, he put a hand to his face to shield his vision from the silent, staring mob of people before him. Soft flesh touched his brow, and he skidded to a halt so quickly he stumbled into a shocked stable boy, who pushed himself away from Zel and stepped back in revulsion. Wide-eyed, ignoring the boy, Zel brought his hand down to eye level and gasped sharply.
Instead of its usual blue, his skin was a perfectly normal peach hue.
He didnít have time to ponder it. Just as his initial shock melted away, there was a sudden bang of the palace doors being thrown open, followed by a commanding, feminine voice. "Zelgadiss Greywords!" the voice called sharply, and Zel looked toward its source instinctively.
All around him, the people who had been staring at him were now lying prone on the grass, apparently in homage to the woman who stood in front of the palace. She stood tall and proud, with her hands on her hips and her head held high. Her beige cloak rippled in the cool breeze and her pink-trimmed pants and tunic clung to her frame as if they were slightly too small for her. She was taller and shapelier than he remembered, but there was no mistaking it--the young woman was a slightly older, more mature version of the Ameria he had said good bye to at a fishing town festival weeks before.
Zel stared in disbelief. Here he was, cured, and the one person with whom he wanted to share that more than anything else was standing right across the lawn! He started forward toward her, stepping and jumping over people lying in his path, until he stopped, breathless, in front of her.
"Ameria!" he gasped, and held out a hand toward her to show her it wasnít blue anymore. "I--Iím cured!"
Ameria looked at him wordlessly for a moment. Then, her normally wide, innocent blue eyes narrowed and she jutted out her chin jeeringly. "And what do you think thatís supposed to mean to me, Zelgadiss Greywords?" she demanded angrily. "You know I donít care about that stupid cure of yours. I never have."
Zel felt as if all of his insides had just fallen into his feet. "Y-you...what?" he said weakly. "Ameria, I thought--"
"Donít you ĎAmeria, I thoughtí me," Ameria interrupted, tossing her head indignantly and pointing at her chest. "Since when have you really thought of my opinion? Hmm? Since when?"
"Donít answer. Just donít. Because..." she trailed off momentarily, and stepped down the half staircase that led out to the lawn. She walked right up to him, her beautiful face pinched in anger, and stared Zel straight in the eye, intimidating because she was so tall. Raising her voice so everyone still lying on the lawn could hear, she said coldly, "Because you disgust me. Youíre repulsive. Wretched. Hideous. Get my drift?"
Zelís jaw dropped along with his heart and all hope within it, and instantly, to his further embarrassment, he could feel the pinprick of tears behind his eyes. He edged backward, away from her, almost tripping over the high priest of Saillune who lay on the ground right behind him. His chest felt like it had just been stepped on by an ogre--the only word he could manage to whisper was: "Why?"
Ameria threw up her arms in exasperation, and with that, everyone on the lawn began to rise. "He wants to know why!" she shouted, and immediately, the lawn was filled with snickering. "He wants to know why!" she repeated. Throwing her arms down, she stomped toward him. He tried to take another step away, but the high priest behind him held him in place so that Ameria could bring herself nose to nose with him. "The letter," she said softly, her voice as sharp as steel. "The letter. Thatís why."
"The...letter?" Zel repeated dumbly.
Stepping away from him, Ameria gazed around at the people assembled behind Zel and said, "You all read the letter! Didnít you!" It wasnít a question. Zel gasped, mortified that she had shared something so private with so many people, but found he could say nothing. He felt his cheeks, which had gone white and cold as soon as Ameria had spoken to him, flare red and hot. "How dare he think I would deem him worthy of me. How dare he!!" she roared, her blue eyes flashing with regal indignation.
With that, the people behind Zel began yelling, incoherently at first, until their furious shouts melted into one phrase: "Execute him!"
When she heard that, Ameriaís usually beautiful face turned down right ugly. She grinned with sadistic pleasure and pointed at him dramatically. "Thatís right, execute him! By my order!" There was a cheer, and Zel felt himself being lifted up by what felt like hundreds of palms. As he was carried off, flailing and screaming for help, for Ameria, for somebody, he could see Ameria throw her head back and laugh, her high-pitched squeal carrying over the murderous cries of the people below him.
Then, the world went black, and all Zelgadiss could hear was the sound of his own scream.
He awoke screaming hoarsely, feeling the now cold stones he had piled beneath him shifting as he flailed his limbs in the pitch darkness. Disoriented, he threw himself up into a sitting position violently, desperate to get away from the feeling of hands under his body bringing him closer to his death. A bolt of pain lanced through his head from the sudden change of position, and he cried out, throwing a hand to his head reflexively. The sharp crack of his stony palm striking the hard flesh of his forehead shocked him out of his panic, and he sat on the floor of the cave, heaving deep breaths, his body trembling with fear.
After what felt like an eternity, Zel peeled his palm from his face and cast a Lightning spell. The resulting ball of light revealed the pile of stones that had slipped out of his coat to his left. Zel placed a hand over the pile--in his sleep, he must have mistaken the texture of the stones for hands. "It was just a bad dream," he repeated to himself several times softly, hoping that the sound of his own voice would reassure him a little.
After a few minutes had passed, however, the last thing Zelgadiss felt was reassured. With every breath crystallized in the freezing air before him, his chest constricted and waves of dread crashed over his heart. How could he have been so blind? How could he have been so utterly naive to think that Ameria would ever care about him or his cure? Even when they were traveling together, it was clear that none of his friends cared about seeing the curse that had plagued him for years lifted. Ameria herself had even made fun of him for it once, saying that she thought he looked fine the way he was. They just tolerated him and his endless quest, and that was all. But instead of making him angry, that thought only saddened Zel further. Why should he care about being cured if the people he called friends obviously didn't? Just what had he been doing these past few years of mindless searching?
Wasting his time, that was what he had been doing. Wasting his time searching for something no one cared about because no one cared about him. He had been blind--blinder than Rezo ever had been.
The letter. Suddenly, he thought of the letter he had sent Ameria. Groaning, he smacked himself in the forehead again and let himself fall backward onto the stone floor. Sprawled out, he felt the cold seep into his coat and shivered. He lurched onto his side and brought his arms and legs in, huddling in a tight little ball in the cold. He had been right to be nervous about what Ameria would say to his letter and the admissions it contained. He was now fairly certain that the reception he'd receive once he arrived in Saillune would be something similar to what happened in his dream. Why did he ever think she would even consider him? She was the princess of a holy and influential kingdom--her blood was a blue as his skin. How could he have been so foolish to believe that she could ever care about someone like him?
Zel slowly uncurled himself and sat up gain, feeling empty and hollow inside. He absently began gathering his warming stones and packing them in his bag, his mind as numb as his fingers were despite his gloves. Taking a deep breath, he rose and shouldered his backpack. Why he kept moving, he didnít know. He had begun to question his dedication to finding his cure back when he sent Ameria that letter, but now his feeling of doubt was growing steadily. Nevertheless, his feet kept moving, and, after ten minutes of dazed walking, he turned down a passageway that revealed itself before his eyes without even giving it a second thought.
Deeper within the cave, a leather-bound book on a pedestal began to glow stronger than before, its light reflecting off the choppy ice water of the underground lake before it. Slowly and without a sound, the rough surface of the lake began to flatten as the strong undercurrents deep within it ground to a halt. Eventually, the surface became as smooth as glass. The water glowed slightly, mirroring the glow of the book, until it solidified into a solid sheet of ice that stretched from one edge of the lake to the other. Once the light from the water died, the glow of the leather-bound book suddenly disappeared, as well. Silently, both book and lake seemed to be waiting patiently in the dark for the arrival of their next victim, who was plodding ever closer, his heart feeling heavier with each passing step.
I feel just like I'm sinking
And I claw for solid ground
I'm pulled down by the undertow
I never thought I could feel so low
Oh darkness I feel like letting go
Zelgadiss had no idea how long he had been walking when he dimly realized that the floor of the cave was sloping downward at a faster rate than before. He wasn't even aware of the fact that the walls were changing faster and faster; with every ten feet or so a new passageway replaced the old one. As he walked, stones were flying through the air constantly, yet he barely even saw them. His feet carried him mechanically, step after step after step, his mind as numb as his cold-nipped hands. The temperature had dropped impossibly lower, and Zel's shoulders were beginning to tremble slightly with shivers. He barely even noticed this, though--he just kept walking on and on.
He had become so unaware of his surroundings that he actually jumped in surprise when the rhythmic clomp, clomp of his cleated boots breaking the permafrost floor suddenly changed to a cracking sound. Zel stopped, shook his head slightly to clear it, and looked down. There, under his foot, was a patch of ice. He looked up, and, to his amazement, realized that he was standing in an underground room.
The stone walls that had formed the sides of the corridor through which he just came branched to either side to form an oblong-shaped space about twenty yards across at its widest. Ice coated the floor of the room, and the ceiling dipped low in the middle, almost low enough to make the place shaped like the inside of a doughnut. Zel sent his Lightning spell a little deeper into the room and stepped to the side so he could see around the depression in the ceiling, and gasped at what his light revealed.
There, directly across from him, about twenty yards away, was a little, white stone pedestal, and sitting atop the pedestal was a large, leather-bound book.
Regardless of what he had been thinking about his cure, years of habitual searching and the excitement of discovery overtook him. The book was practically calling out to him, telling him to come pick it up now. And so, glassy-eyed, he mindlessly obeyed, planting one foot in front of the other solidly, letting his cleats prevent him from slipping on the ice underneath him.
Taking long strides, he reached the dip in the ceiling quickly, turning right slightly to circumvent it. The book almost seemed to hum alluringly, and Zel thought he could see a faint glow all around it. So close--he was so close. Who cares what anyone thinks? As long as he had that book, as long as he could get to it and open it up and see what it said within its pages, nothing else mattered. Right? Right?
Zelgadiss jerked to a halt. That wasn't right. How could he care what the book said? Whether he was cured or not, the outcome would be the same--his friends wouldn't care, and Ameria would just reject him. Just like in his dream, she would reject him. How she must hate me, Zel thought, his thoughts descending into despair as the book before him glowed faintly. Hate me for thinking for even one minute that I would mean anything to her. Whether I'm human or chimera...I'm still a monster to her.
It was then that a sharp crack, as loud as a cannon going off, startled him into looking down. For a split-second, Zel could see the ice under his feet literally shatter, but before he could do anything, he plunged down, down, down into the freezing water hidden just beneath the ice.
If all of the strength and all of the courage
Come and lift me from this place
I know I can love you much better than this
Full of grace
Full of grace
Immediately, every muscle in Zel's body clenched up tightly, squeezing his ribcage and the air still left in his lungs. The water was so cold it hurt; the coat that had kept him warm enough so far was instantly soaked, and therefore provided no insulation against the cold. As his body was wracked with shivering, he felt himself being pulled lower by the fierce undercurrent that churned around his legs. Desperately, he threw out his hands, but, finding nothing, he quickly stopped flailing and drew his arms back around his body instinctively.
The frigid water and the convulsions seizing his body were not the focus of his thoughts, though. In fact, his brain barely registered what was happening to him. His inner voice--normally so cool, so logical--was overrun with emotion. She hates you. Why couldn't you see this before? She hates you. You're disgusting. Wretched. Repulsive. Hideous. She even said so herself! She said it, she said it, she said it when you went back to Saillune! Over and over, that voice shouted the same things as despair wracked him worse than the shivering that had overtaken him. She hates you. She hates you. She said it, she said it herself. You heard her, when you went to Saillune. You heard her say it--you disgust her. You're wretched, repulsive, hideous, wretched, repulsive, hideous, wretched, repulsive, hideous, wretched, repulsive, hideous...
His body jerked violently--which way was up, again? He couldn't tell. His eyes were open, but he could see nothing but black, inky water, although he wasn't really processing what he was seeing. Maybe he wasn't even in the water at all. Maybe he had fallen asleep again in one of the corridors of the cave, and he was just really cold. That must be it. I must be in one of the corridors.
Wretched!! Repulsive!! his inner voice screamed like a banshee, dragging his thoughts away from his location. She thinks you're hideous! Got that? Hi-de-ous!! the voice shouted, emphasizing each syllable in his mind.
No, came another voice, just barely a whisper, so soft he couldn't hear it at all over the clatter of his inner turmoil. Which way was up again? And why was it so cold?
Whatever made you think she would ever care about you?! the voice screeched, bringing his attention back to Ameria. Just who do you think you are, thinking you had the attentions of the princess of Saillune?! the voice demanded. You, the lowliest, most disgusting creature ever to roam the face of this world. You're not even human!! You aren't even human--how could you ever think you could care about her?!
I could try. The whisper-voice was drowned out by the screaming in Zel's head. I could try.
You don't even understand your own feelings. You can't feel anything right, you're such a monster. There you are, acting all cool and aloof, like no one in the world can touch you. Then you suddenly decide to send her some fool letter, with the hopes that, what, she'd fall hopelessly in love with you? That she'd even consider waiting around for you? Zel's practical nature joined his inner voice, strengthening it, its logic further weighing down on his mind. She's a princess. Of a holy kingdom. She's beautiful. Graceful. The exact antithesis of you. You're not only a jerk, an arrogant, self-centered jerk, but you're a monster, too. A monster created by a man possessed by the darkest dark lord in the world. She's good. Holy, even. And you're a demon spawned by a demon. Demons can't care about people!!
I could try to, the whisper-voice breathed.
You were there, in Saillune, his inner voice continued, shoving practicality aside. You were there when she denounced you. Hated you for that letter. Hated you. She hates you, hates you, hates you. Zel closed his eyes shut tightly, his lower jaw trembling from the cold. Around his legs, icy water churned, the undertow keeping him hovering very near the bottom of the lake, his feet hovering just above the skull of the lake's last victim from five years before.
She hates me, Zelgadiss agreed with his inner voice.
So it's better this way, I said
Having seen this place before
Where everything we say and do
Hurts us all the more
You know, that nagging inner voice continued almost conversationally, it's not just Ameria who hates you. Why do you think you got into this mess in the first place? A picture of Rezo's placid, blind face flashed before Zel's eyes, until Rezo's mouth twisted into a snarl and his eyes opened, glowing an angry red. He hated you, too. Your own grandfather. Hated you from the start, ever since you came to live with him. Why do you think he turned you into what you are?
The voice said, just a little quieter this time, It's because you deserved it.
You deserved it. You deserved what you got. He turned you into a monster because you were one already. You were arrogant, lazy, full of yourself, just wretched, wretched, wretched. He turned you into a monster to warn people. To show them just how ugly you were. Maybe he'd spare a few hearts and save people from taking the time to associate with a monster like you if he revealed the truth to them on sight.
Zel's body convulsed with a wave of shivers, even stronger than before. He heard nothing while his lungs desperately clung to the air still remaining in them and his limbs quaked violently. The voice came back, even louder this time, however, when slowly, like molasses, the earthquakes in his body calmed and the shivering ground to a halt.
Which way was up? Did it even matter anymore? Zel moved his arms just a little--well, he couldn't feel them move, but his brain told him they were moving, and that was enough. The strong undercurrent held him close to the bottom of the lake, though, despite his feeble attempt to kick free. That didn't bother him too much; after all, he was just taking a nap, sleeping on the floor somewhere in the cave. The water was just in his head--he was just imagining things. It didn't even feel so cold anymore. Now if he could only stop the burning feeling that was slowly building in his chest.
You know, the inner voice returned, in the same conversational tone as before, everything you feared when you were turned into the monster you are has come true. Every single one.
That's not true, the whisper-voice countered, but Zel ignored it.
His inner voice ignored it, as well. Women screamed as they saw you walking down the street with your metal hair and freakishly blue skin. Children cried--cried for their mothers to take them away from the monster, the terrible, ugly monster. Men looked upon you with disgust; for all you could fight and cast spells with the best of them, you still got no respect from the normal people around you. You know this, don't you? Images of fearful townspeople and panicked farmers chasing him out of places with knives and pitchforks--not that those weapons would be of any use, but they didn't know that--flashed across his mind, wavy and distorted, but discernable nonetheless. Those two "friends" of yours, the voice continued mockingly, were they really friends? Zel could see Zolf's face, his dark hair falling into his eyes, the same eyes that looked upon him with such pity and loathing that he wanted to just crawl into a hole and die. And Rodimus--Rodimus had always felt some responsibility for him, since he was older. He could see it in Rodimus's eyes, the sense of duty that kept him from abandoning Zelgadiss, but he could also see the loathing for what he had become. The frustration that Zel hadn't been smart enough to see through Rezo's deception. Then again, it wasn't really deception if Rezo turned you into what you should be. You have no friends. No loved ones. No one to care about you, since we've already established that Ameria certainly doesn't. And shouldn't.
But what about-- he began to ask himself.
Lina and Gourry? his inner voice finished mockingly. Have they ever really cared about you? Zel could feel Lina's fear as he chased her through the forest, so many years ago. He could see Lina's reaction the first time she saw him unmasked--the shock and revulsion in her fiery eyes. She merely put up with you, that's all. He could see her glance at him on board a rickety boat, obviously hoping he would opt not to come with them to the lands beyond the barrier; who wanted to travel with a jerk like him? He could see that same hope in Gourry's eyes. Blithe, easygoing Gourry, who could seem so dim and yet so observant--obviously he knew what a monster Zel was, and that was telling. He could hear the swordsman chastising him for being insensitive to Ameria about her family when she thought her father was dead--you were insensitive, like you always are--the disapproval, the lack of respect apparent on his face. He just put up with you too. And that takes care of it--everyone who could possibly ever be considered a friend is obviously, quite obviously not.
You know, the inner voice said with that casual tone again, only this time it seemed to have more of an edge, it's really better this way.
What is? Zel asked the voice.
You being here. Alone. About to die. It's better this way.
Zel shuddered again suddenly, and the burning sensation in his lungs increased just a little. He struggled to open his eyes, but struggled in vain; he could barely crack even one of them open anymore.
Itís just that we stayed, too long
In the same old sickly skin
I'm pulled down by the undertow
I never thought I could feel so low
Oh darkness I feel like letting go
Ameria's smile filled Zel's vision, her perfect face shining up at him with happiness and radiance. She reached out her hand, grabbing his quickly, and tugged him along behind her, running, running toward some store, where something sparkly had caught her eye...
Until she skidded to a halt and whirled around, her blue eyes wide with shock. She ripped her hand away from his as her expression turned ugly. Jumping back, she pointed at him and yelled "I hate you! I hate you so much--I just want you to die so I never have to see you again!!"
If she was ever friendly toward you before, Zel's inner voice commentated, it's just because it's her nature. It's just like her to be nice to a repulsive thing like you--she's too good for you. She doesn't care about you. She just acts nice sometimes because it's her nature. She's too good for you.
Aren't you tired of thinking that? the whisper-voice said softly, but a little stronger this time. Haven't you thought that long enough?
...what? he said, for the first time realizing that there was not one, but two voices speaking in his head.
Why would you ever want your cure? his inner voice, the louder one, interrupted mockingly. This is what you were meant to be--a monster, just a monster. The image of Ameria seated across from him at a table, not long after they met up again after the fight against Kopii Rezo, was suddenly there, in painfully crisp detail. I think you look cool! I think you look cool! the voice repeated several times, each time more mockingly than the last. I think you look cool--NOT!!
Suddenly, the table faded away, and he was standing before Kopii Rezo again, with Ameria behind him. He's so creepy and suspicious-looking!! Creepy, creepy, creepy! Lina and Gourry simply stood behind her, nodding their heads in agreement. Ameria stomped up to him, ignoring the imposing, red-robed clone in front of them, grabbed his shoulder, and whipped him around. She was deceptively strong--and amazingly tall. She had grown six inches so that she was almost at eye-level with him. Her clothes seemed too small on her as well, as if she had matured several years within a few seconds. You're so creepy and suspicious-looking--and disgusting, and wretched, and repulsive, and hideous! Just like I've always told you, you freak!
That's not the way it went, the whisper-voice pointed out quietly.
Yes it is, his inner voice snapped, for the first time acknowledging the whisper-voice.
Why would she save you against Kopii Rezo and Zanaffar if she really thought that? the whisper-voice said, getting a little louder.
Zel's eyes squeezed shut just a little more. He convulsed again fiercely, this time the shivers overtaking him so that every thought was squeezed out of him, like his muscles were squeezing against themselves in a last-ditch attempt to keep him warm in the bitter cold. The burning in his lungs was getting more and more urgent. Why was he holding his breath if he was just laying down for a nap in one of the corridors?
No, don't breathe, the whisper-voice instructed him.
Why should he listen to you? his inner voice retorted. You're the one trying to distort reality, here. And then, as the fire in his chest slowly grew, he was back in the little port town the last night he had seen Ameria. Lina and Gourry were walking ahead--that's because they don't even want to be seen with you, his inner voice so helpfully supplied. Ameria was plodding along behind him, looking saddened and upset. The movie playing in his mind's eye fast-forwarded to the time when Ameria had offered him her bracelet. "Take it and go, I never want to see you again!!" Ameria shouted, throwing the bracelet at him. She whirled around and ran in the opposite direction as fast as her legs could carry her.
The bracelet. What about the bracelet?
"Come back to Saillune with me..." the whisper-voice quoted. She invited you back to her home. She wouldn't do that unless...
Shut up, his inner voice ordered. The fire in Zel's chest was palpable, so much so that he could no longer feel the cold in his body. He was burning up, burning, burning...and everything seemed like it was slowly slipping away.
His eye muscles twitched and a fog swiftly rolled in, obscuring the voices. The fog hovered, then lifted somewhat, but hung over him oppressively, though he didn't know why. For how long had that fog been there? He felt like he had just awoken from a deep slumber.
You know, the conversational inner voice was back, the edge to it becoming blatantly cruel, yet Zel still couldn't realize it, you're so insecure. You've relied on this pipe dream of a cure for so long to get you through...you couldn't just accept things the way they are, that you're an unloved freak.
Yeah, you're insecure. But maybe you just couldn't see beyond those insecurities, and assumed no one else would, either, the whisper-voice returned, more sharply than before.
...what? Zel thought groggily.
You should just let go, the inner voice said in a mock-reassuring tone. Let go. You deserve this. It's better this way, if you die. No one will miss you--no one will care. Because no one loves you, no one likes you. Let the darkness and the water take you. All you need to do is get rid of that fire--just take a breath, the cold will put it out.
No one will care? the whisper-voice demanded sharply. Zel would have growled if he could. That voice was becoming so sharp, and all he wanted to do was just close his eyes and sleep. In fact...darkness deeper than the blackest night surrounded him, pulling him in, sucking him down into its undertow, and the fog was falling over him again.
WAIT!! the whisper-voice screeched, awakening him. If no one cares whether you live or die, then why did this happen?! A very small image of Ameria jumping in front of Kopii Rezo's blast, risking her life to create a shield to save his.
Zel tried to swat the image away. Just leave me alone!!
The whisper-voice was persistent, though. It showed him another image, one of him wandering the world alone, lonely and miserable, frustrated after searching for a cure and finding nothing. This is what you were, Zelgadiss, it hissed. Before you met them. Before you met Lina and Gourry and Ameria. Let go, let go of that. You were sick then--sick with despair. But it doesn't have to be that way now. Let go, please let go--
SHUT UP!! Zel's inner voice commanded with a roar.
Zel blew out some spent air slowly, but it did nothing to calm the fires scorching his lungs. His body yearned for oxygen desperately, so desperately. He needed it, craved it, and where was he again? Somewhere dark, he concluded. Surely it would be all right to breathe right now, just this once, just a little bit?
With a little hiccough, Zel opened his mouth just slightly and sucked in. Something heavy and glorious filled him, rushing into him and, relieved, he let the darkness fall over him. It didn't last long, however. He was almost instantly filled with a new kind of burning, a painful burning, one that wracked his body with a need for--what? He didn't even know where he was anymore. How could he know what he wanted? Why did he feel this way--so numb with cold and yet so much on fire? And why was his heart pounding in his head like the low, slow sound of a gong?
More air, that was it. He just needed a little air. Zelgadiss was so severely weakened, he could barely move his ribcage to try to expel the water from his lungs, so he sucked in just a little more, expecting relief.
Let go, his inner voice commanded. You should just let go. And, right now as his lungs began to feel smaller and smaller in his chest, he was beginning to agree.
If all of the strength
And all of the courage
Come and lift me from this place
Let go, let go, let go, let go, let go, let go, let go, let go, let go, let go, let go, let go, let go, let go, let go, let go, let go, let go, let go, let go, let go...
No! You have to stay alive. You have to stay alive for her, for her, for her, for her, for her, for her, for her, for her, for her, for her, for her, for her, for her!
There was a sudden burst of thought, as memories of Ameria, both distorted and true, flashed in front of his eyes at a dizzying pace. Her smiles, her frowns, the times they cast the Ra Tilt together, the times she looked away from him out of revulsion. One second she was holding a ball in her hands, frowning, the next, she was happily skipping alongside Gourry, arm-in-arm, while he and--who was it he was walking with? Red hair...red hair...Lina. She looked vaguely disgusted to be near him. Ameria was looking at him, hurt and angry, angry at him and the black-haired girl near him. One minute he was holding Ameria cradled in his arms--she was smiling up at him while the zombies around them clamored to tear them to pieces--then she was shoving away from him, desperate to get out of his arms, full of revulsion. She was with him in a library, bored by his endless searching. She was uncertain, hesitant, handing him a little blue ball attached to a pink ribbon. Ameria was next to him, holding up some stone thing--Madouki, his memory supplied--and shouting about the power of their love...love? The words were becoming garbled. She was riding right behind him on something yellow, her cape whipping around her in the wind, her face worried but brave.
Brave. And then she was in his arms, her face gray and contorted, clinging to him desperately, fighting with every last ounce of her strength while a child's cruel laughter echoed around him...
She was dying in his arms.
She was so strong, he thought numbly, distractedly, as if his mind was far away and he was a mere observer to his own thoughts. So strong. Whether she hated me or not, she was so strong...
She wouldn't let go of you, the whisper-voice pointed out, sounding weak and distant. That's how much she needed you.
Just...let go... his inner voice repeated. It, too, sounded distant, feeble.
She was still clinging to him, clinging in death. Dying like he was. Dying.
But he was okay with that. The darkness wasn't so bad. And now that his lungs were feeling smaller, like someone had bricked up half his abdomen on the inside, the burning wasn't so bad. If he didn't think about it too much, this wasn't so bad.
In the end, she had to let go, Zel's inner voice said softly, having long ago lost the power to shout.
And if you let go, you'll never cling to her again, the whisper-voice whispered, just a little sound that he almost thought he imagined.
Cling to her...but she hates me...she--
I know I could love you much better than this
Another deluge, as powerful as a tsunami crashing over him. A tidal wave of sound, the last gasp of effort from the whisper-voice, its final attempt to win him over to its side. Sound after sound filled his ears, the sound of her voice, clear and confident, soft and uncertain, gentle and caring, overlapping and spilling out on top of each other.
Come with me back to Saillune...come with me...With the power of our love! Power...love! Come with me...I...I want you to...to have this...power of our love...come with me...so you remember you're always welcome in Saillune...always welcome, always...always...always...I want you to have this...have this...have this...welcome, you're welcome in Saillune...have this...
Through the haze that had fallen over his mind and the numbness that had overtaken his body, somehow Zelgadiss could at that moment feel only one thing: the little circlet strapped around his wrist, kept protected by his glove over it.
The bracelet. She had given him her bracelet. Not because she hated him, not because she didn't care about him. Not because she thought he was repulsive. He was welcome, she had said. Welcome back in Saillune. Why would she give him a bracelet and then hate him for taking her up on her invitation? Had everything, including his return to Saillune and Ameria's rejection, really happened the way he remembered it, or was something distorted? Wrong?
Let go, Zel's inner voice said one final time.
But he couldn't, not now, now that he realized something. That bracelet meant everything. Her invitation, her warmth. Her strength and her confidence. Slowly, feeling like his body was full of concrete, Zel's muscles in his arm contracted. Slowly, so slowly, his chest feeling like it had been crushed by a boulder, he moved his arm. Just a little farther. A little farther.
His mind beginning to fog up again, Zel momentarily forgot what he was trying to do. No! he commanded himself, and focused again on his arm. Another inch, another half inch...the world faded into darkness, then back in again, then out, then in. You can't sleep now--she died clinging to you! So you can't until you're clinging to her!! In the back of Zel's mind, his inner voice whispered that that didn't make sense, but he didn't hear it. He was so close to his other hand, and the darkness was so close as well...
His finger brushed aside the sealskin material of his glove, and he knew, even if he couldn't feel it, that somehow, he had managed to touch the little blue ball on his other wrist. And, at the same time, he knew without feeling it that his mouth had curled upward into a weak, but heartfelt smile.
Full of grace
At that same instant, Zelgadiss felt the fog that had fallen over his mind lift and warmth shoot through his body so shockingly fast he screamed.
That was when he fully realized that his mouth was full of water. Galvanized into motion, Zel released Ameria's bracelet. How long had he been under water? Survival instincts dulled by the fog of suffocation kicked in once again.
I have to get out of here!!
Full of grace
Zel didn't know how he managed to overcome the strong undercurrent that roiled under his legs, keeping him down under the surface of the frigid water. Spots dancing before his eyes, he could see a faint glow in one direction--but which way was up? He had no idea anymore.
At the same time, he could feel his lungs giving up their desperate need for dry oxygen, each bronchiole slowly closing forever, one by one. Death seeped through his chest toward his heart, its slow beat slowing even further to a crawl. Pain shot through his veins instead of blood, crippling them, making it almost impossible to move.
I can't give up now! For her--I can't give up now!!
But the honey-slow feeling of his tired, deprived body shutting down argued otherwise. His mind wasn't ready to give up--but the rest of him was.
NO!! He was reaching one final, desperate, last-ditch reach...he didn't even know how his hand was moving, but it was, he could almost see it now between the huge blotches that danced before his eyes...it was reaching, reaching, reaching...
Ameria's smiling face filled his vision, almost as if she was there, telling him it would be all right, if he just reached a little farther. Come back to Saillune...
Zelgadiss's fingers touched the light hovering over the lake. The next thing he knew, he felt himself being lifted up and he distantly heard the crashing sound of water around him. Was this what it was like to die? The warm feeling lifting him up and away from the freezing cold ice water that had tried so hard to claim him?
Zelgadiss didn't know anymore. Ameria's face still pictured clearly in his mind, he closed his eyes to the light, and finally, finally let go.
* * *
For how long he stayed unconscious, Zel had no idea. All he knew was that he was laying on something flat and slightly sloped, but more importantly, he was warm. He kept his eyes closed for untold minutes, his breathing very shallow. His heart was still beating slowly, and his blood felt like honey in his veins, replacing the pain he had felt before, when...
Zel's eyes flew open, his body jerked, and instinctively his hands pushed forward against the ground, lifting him up so his knees could support him. All of a sudden, his chest heaved and both his lungs constricted at the same time, as if a vice had squeezed his ribs together. He felt as if his lungs were trying to come up through his throat and out of him, and he opened his mouth to shout in pain. Instead of sound, water spewed from his mouth so forcefully he bowled over, clutching his ribs with one arm, his other forearm pressed against the ground to keep him from falling flat on his face.
Wracked with heaving coughs, Zel's lungs burned and he choked; still, the coughing fit continued until it felt like the last drop of water had been squeezed out of his entire body. Wearily, he rolled onto his side next to the puddle he had created and lay back. He sat up immediately, however, when another coughing fit overcame him. After a moment, the fit subsided and Zel put one hand to his face--the hand to which Ameria's bracelet was attached. He peeled his hand away quickly and looked at the bracelet. A feeling of awe slowly spilled over him like sunlight spilling out from behind a cloud. He felt the burning sensation from the strain of coughing in every part of his lungs down to the tiny alveoli lessen to the point where he barely felt any pain.
He stared at the bracelet for a long time, taking deep breaths, feeling like he would never take the ability to breathe for granted ever again. He looked up from the bracelet and saw the underground lake, half frozen over, although he could see that the water was still bubbling and churning underneath. His eyes traced the unnaturally perfectly smooth surface of the ice until he saw the place where he had fallen in. It was illuminated by a soft glow coming from someplace behind him. Zel turned, and a few feet behind him was the base of a white pedestal. His eyes followed it upward, confused. There was a book on top of the pedestal, an old-looking, leather-bound volume that was emitting a gentle, but penetrating, glowing light accompanied by life-saving warmth. He reached out one hand toward it, but jumped, startled, when a booming crack made him whip his head around.
The ice that coated half of the lake had exploded upward, and water was now splashing against the ceiling of the cave. Zel squinted into it--was that a skull he just saw? He shuddered; it was probably the only remains of the last man to have come to this place, he realized. The water splashed down against itself, washing up onto the permafrost at Zel's feet, washing away the water he had coughed up from his lungs. It receded into the lake as the glow coming from the book began to shine brighter and brighter.
All at once, Zel understood. This book...that's what pulled me out of the water. The light from the book intensified until it touched every inch of the underground lake. Almost immediately, even as Zel felt comfortably warm under the book's light, the lake began to solidify, starting from the edges and working toward the middle. The water seemed to groan in protest as its composite molecules ground to a near-standstill, but the light was merciless. A few instants later, the lake was completely frozen into a solid basin of ice.
Zel eyed the ice warily for a few moments, turning over what had happened in his mind. The book is the center of all this, he reasoned. Then this cave is not cursed, after all. Everything was the book's doing. Everything from that calling I felt as I approached the entrance to the cave-- He shuddered again and fingered Ameria's bracelet on his wrist. The dream, and the despair--those were because of the book. The despair kept me from realizing the lake wasn't really frozen through until it was too late... He tore his hand away from the little blue ball and clenched it into a fist. What a sneaky, underhanded curse! It was so subtle, the way that book had changed his thoughts, shielding the truth from his eyes! It had even seen into his dreams, taking his nightmare and making him believe it had really happened as he was meanwhile dying of hypothermia!
But, his nagging inner voice quietly pointed out, it wouldn't have happened if you hadn't had all those doubts in the first place.
Zel slowly, shakily rose to his feet, shoving that thought aside to ponder later. His legs buckled under him, and he lurched toward the pedestal, supporting his weight against it with his arms while his knees regained their strength. When he could stand without support, he studied the book with suspicious, aqua eyes. If he took it from the pedestal, perhaps he would be tripping a final, fatal trap. Then again, he reasoned, the book saved his life once he broke through the curse that had twisted and warped his thoughts. Somehow, he doubted there was any bite left to the book's curse, since he had survived what was obviously meant to destroy anyone who came to the cave. Carefully, Zelgadiss wrapped his palms around the book's edges and lifted it off the pedestal. The warmth intensified, and one thought echoed through his mind. You're worthy of me, the book whispered. The only one worthy of me to come here in all my thousand years.
Wordlessly, Zelgadiss shifted the book so he was holding it to his chest with one arm. Its glow made it so he didn't need a Lightning spell, but he tried one anyway with his free hand, just to see if he had the energy to work magic. Amazingly, despite his ordeal, the spell flared to life easily, so Zel doused it quickly and cast a Ray Wing. He hovered above the permafrost shore for a moment, looking down at the water that had almost claimed his life, not daring to recall the things that he had thought while he was in there. How much of that was from the book's curse and how much of that had come from his own mind?
Finally, Zel directed his Ray Wing bubble forward, quickly crossing the lake. Without a backward glance, he left the little underground room through the same passageway through which he had entered.
The cave looked completely different as he tried to retrace his steps toward the exit. New dips and turns abounded, as well as new corridors. But the rocks that had flown around him to create new passageways and seal up old ones before his eyes remained completely still. Coated with ice, they didn't even so much as quiver as he zipped past them, his spell taking him relentlessly forward at a dangerous speed. He knew he should slow down, but with the book in his arms, he somehow managed never to come close to crashing.
Finally, he saw natural light at the end of a long, straight hallway. He raced toward it, eager to reach the outside, and finally burst through the entrance to the cave. As soon as he saw his tent, he cancelled the spell and dropped to the permafrost running. Ripping open the tent's seal, he stepped into it and dropped the book to the ground. It was still just as warm as it had been inside the cave. Barely acknowledging his tori-uma's enthusiastic squawking and its attempt to nip affectionately at his face and hands, Zel pulled Ameria's bracelet off his wrist and stared down at it in the book's glow. After a moment's contemplation, he followed the book to the ground without bothering to pull open his sleeping bag, and promptly fell into relieved slumber.
Zel had no way of knowing how long he slept, but judging how rested he felt, he assumed it had to have been six hours at least. Good. He could get a good start away from this place on six hours of sleep. The tori-uma had fallen asleep, and Zel decided not to disturb it while he packed. Carefully avoiding the tome that still lay haphazardly on the permafrost, he swiftly gathered all the items that he had left out in the tent for the tori-uma and placed them inside his packs, making sure Ameria's bracelet was secured to his wrist once again. He quickly took down his tent around the sleeping bird, fitting it inside its bag and placing it by his other luggage.
Finally, that left the book. Zelgadiss stooped down and picked up the heavy volume in his hands. Its warmth had kept him comfortable as he slept, so Zel decided to keep it in his backpack. He wouldn't need heated stones if it stayed as warm throughout the rest of his journey as it was now.
That decided, Zel brought the book over to where his backpack sat with its flap open near the tori-uma. He was truthfully a little afraid to open it while he was still so close to the cave, just in case the curse had something strange in store for anyone foolish enough to lift up its cover. At the same time, the familiar old thrill of discovery that he felt each time he explored a promising lead to his cure began to grow within him. Sighing in resignation, Zel gently placed the book on the ground and lifted the front cover with a finger.
The handwriting on the first page was large, fancy, and utterly unintelligible. It wasn't like any language he had ever studied, he ascertained quickly. He shook his head. He would have to take this somewhere to get it translated. And what better place than the capital of holy magic, hmmm? his inner voice suggested, now back to its calm, logical state, thankfully.
What better place, indeed? Zel slowly flipped through the book, searching for a change in language, in handwriting, in style, but found none. Halfway through, however, he stopped cold, his eyes widened in shock.
The second half of the book was false. There, carved into what looked like highly compressed, blank pages, were two holes, each about the size of his fist. Resting within each hole was a silver metal circle, and affixed to each circle was a large, round, polished red stone. The stones were obviously the source of the glow; they shone up at him powerfully. He brushed one of the stones with his finger--it was almost uncomfortably warm to the touch.
After a few moments, Zel closed the book and placed it in his backpack. He shouldered the load, his mind racing with possibilities, and went to go wake up his mount.
It didn't take long to ready the tori-uma for the long journey back to the town from which he had bought it. Zel finally climbed up onto its back, petting it and feeding it treats. He felt bad that it had been left alone for what he figured was possibly two whole days in the cold, by itself, so he talked to it reassuringly as he nudged it into a trot heading away from the entrance to the cave. He pulled the animal to a stop, however, once they reached a high point in the hills that surrounded the cavern. There, he turned it around so he could see the black hole that had almost been his tomb.
As he watched, the tori-uma squawked uncertainly, shifting its weight from one leg to the other and back again. It felt the rumbling of the ground before Zelgadiss did. Zel heard the clatter of stones collapsing in on themselves as well as the bird did, though. Before his eyes, the land around the cave's entrance began to fall away, creating a sinkhole in the ground that was growing steadily in size.
But Zel didn't wait around to witness the destruction of the cave. He had almost died there; right now, he was anxious to return to the civilized world, the world of the living. The roaring sound of the collapsing ground didn't fade away until he had been riding for a half an hour. When he glanced over his shoulder at the source of the sound, all he could see was flat land. The hills that had originally marked the general area of the cave's entrance had been utterly destroyed.
Zel turned around in his seat. He reached across his lap with one hand until he found his other wrist. Pushing his glove aside, he fingered the bracelet and clasped the blue ball in his hand tightly. He took a deep breath, collecting his thoughts. And then, he started talking, recounting for the tori-uma his thoughts while submerged in the frigid water of the cavern's underground lake, shivering despite the warmth of the book and the amulets inside it against his back.
Behind him, the rubble of the cave glowed weakly, defeated, as frigid water seeped up between the cracks in the earth and stones that had collapsed against each other. Then, the glow faded and died altogether, and the water solidified into ice, never to melt again.
Enough angst for you? ^_^ I haven't written anything quite like this before, so I felt like I was going out on a limb a little. As crazy as this fic got, it was actually one of the most fun fics I've ever written. ::grins a Mazoku grin:: Maybe it's something about Zel's character, or making him suffer, I dunno. I'm really interested in feedback on this one, so if you're so inclined to drop me a line, I'd love to know what you think. Thanks to Xanthix and Jesse for some early prereading!
Zel's experiences drowning came from both my own experiences with severe asthma and from several web sources describing hypothermia. During an asthma attack, you're basically drowning on your own air, since you can't get air in or out. Fortunately, it's been awhile since I had a really bad attack, so it was a little hard to remember what it feels like. I think I got the description down pretty well--I had to stop sometimes because I felt like I was actually writing myself into an attack. ^^;;;
What comes next? Zel's trip back to Saillune will be pretty uneventful, although it'll take him a little while to work his way up the continent. Part of the time he spends pondering the strange book and its contents. Were they really created by Lei Magnus? What does the writing in the book mean? And what are the amulets inside it for? The rest he spends pondering Ameria and what he'll say to her when he returns. Meanwhile, in Saillune, Ameria is starting to lose hope again--it's been quite some time since she received Zel's letter, and she's beginning to think he's forgotten about her in favor of his cure. What will all this amount to? Tune in next time, same Slayers place, same Slayers channel, for the conclusion of this story arc!
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