Songfic by Esther Nairn
(music by Sarah Maclachlan)
Click here to listen as you read,
using the Library's MidiBox!
Zelgadiss glanced up at the ornately carved wooden clock on the wall to his right, then lowered his head again so that he was staring at the floor between his knees. His elbows rested on his thighs and his shoulders were hunched in this position, making his neck sore, but he didn't care. His hands hung limply between his legs, his sleeves bunched up just enough so that he could see Ameria's starred, blue bracelet strapped to his wrist. He shifted his gaze so that he was now studying the carpet. The white and pale blue diamond pattern repeated itself exactly 527 times across the rug and 312 times along its length. The room he was in was, by his estimation, twelve and a half feet long and eight feet wide. It was just big enough to house the sofa upon which he was sitting, a coffee table carved in the same style as the clock, and two armchairs. The upholstery on the chairs and sofa matched the pale blue of the rug. It was a clean, pretty, well-coordinated sitting room, and the neatness and orderliness of it all was slowly driving him crazy.
Directly across from him was a set of double doors, each three and half feet wide. Beyond those doors was Ameria's apartment, a set of rooms including her bedchamber. He had been waiting in this sitting room for an hour and--he lifted his head and checked the clock again--forty-two minutes with nothing to do but worry or find ways to sidetrack himself from worrying. Now that he had counted, estimated, and examined everything he could twice over, nothing except taking the furniture apart would be enough to distract him from wondering what was going on inside and when someone--one of Ameria's nurses or handmaidens or Prince Phil himself--would come out and tell him just what was going on.
Finally, as if someone had read his mind, the leftmost of the double doors cracked open. Swiftly he rose and stepped around the coffee table as Prince Phil quietly stepped through the doorway, closing the door behind him gently. It was strange to see the big man move so gingerly, when he normally emphasized every movement. His face, usually alight with energy, was pinched with worry, his thick black brows drawn together and his mouth set in a frown framed by his bushy moustache. Zel faltered in his next step--he hadn't had the chance to even speak with Phil yet and he had no idea what the prince thought of his noisier-than-expected entrance. As it turned out, Phil had been only a few rooms away when Ameria collapsed, and he dashed into the room when he heard all the commotion. Zel didn't think Phil even realized who he was at the time; he simply blindly grabbed Ameria from his arms and ran for her chambers, shouting for someone to send her nurses there, leaving behind a shocked chimera and a crowd of confused royal guards. For their part, the guards must have believed Ameria when she identified him as her friend; either that, or the look on his face when she fainted was enough to convince them he wasn't some assassin, for they made no move to stop him when he dashed off to follow Phil.
"Zelgadiss," Phil said softly, and if Zel didn't already appreciate the seriousness of the situation, he would have now--Phil never said anything softly. "Come, let's talk next door where we won't disturb her." He turned and headed out of the room. Zel hastily collected his backpack from where he had carelessly tossed it onto one of the armchairs. Ignoring the intense heat radiating from its front pocket, he slung it over one shoulder and followed Phil out of the sitting room and into a room next door, which turned out to be Ameria's library. It was a generously sized room with several tall, French windows and cherry wood bookshelves lining the walls. Books were neatly organized on the shelves according to topics written on little cards on each shelf. There were several shelves of books on both white and Shamanistic magic; a great deal more of Philosophy and ethics books; a few shelves of books about negotiation, mediation and arbitration; and three whole bookcases of thick, leather-bound sets of Saillunian law books, including supplements of court cases and volumes of legal interpretation. There were two bookcases near the fire marked "Personal," and Zel could not help but smile internally; these shelves were filled with well-worn, well-read books of fairy tales and swashbuckling adventures. Framed pictures that had been drawn with a child's hand were arranged on the mantle over the fireplace--almost all of them depicted what he guessed was a young Ameria and her father on various imaginary (or perhaps not--with Ameria and Phil, one never knew) adventures. One of them, he noticed, was a child's portrait of a woman in long skirts, a wild-haired man, and two children with each person suitably labeled in crude handwriting: "Mommy, Daddy, Gracia, Me." He flinched at the sight and turned his attention to Phil, who went to a huge, carved cherry wood table in the middle of the room. In contrast to the rest of the room, the table was considerably messy. It was strewn with books and papers, some of which had been tossed aside when all relevant information had been extracted from them, but some of them, Zel could tell from countless hours of fruitless searching for his cure, had been slapped down or thrown across the table in a rage.
With a heavy sigh, Phil threw his bulky frame in a brown, leather armchair at the head of the long table and gestured for Zel to take the seat immediately to his right. Slipping his bag off his shoulder, he pulled the leather chair out and sat down, placing the bag to his right so Phil wouldn't feel the heat emanating from it, although given how distraught Phil looked, he didn't think the prince would notice if the table in front of him spontaneously burst into flames.
Rubbing his forehead with his thick fingertips, Phil looked at Zel from under his hand and said dully, "Welcome back to Saillune."
"Thank you," Zel replied uncertainly. There was an uncomfortable pause, and then Zel said haltingly, "I...uh...apologize for the...commotion."
Phil brought his hand down and the muscles of his face twitched as he smiled in spite of himself, despite his obvious worry. "Ameria could only tell me a little, but she did mention you held off twenty-five palace guards. It must have been some entrance."
Zel flushed a bit and said darkly, "It wasn't supposed to be."
Phil waved a hand dismissingly. "They need something to shake them up every once in a while. It'll be the talk of the palace for weeks. Besides," he gave Zel an almost fatherly look, "I admire that kind of spirit."
Zel didn't know how to respond to that, so there was another uncomfortable pause. Finally, after a moment, he found he was unable to contain his concern any longer. "Phil-san, what's wrong with Ameria?" he asked bluntly.
Phil's face took on a pale, haunted look that led Zel to conclude immediately that this was no short-term illness. "We don't know what's wrong with Ameria," Phil said gravely. "About four months ago, she seemed like she was coming down with a mild chill. I had her take it easy after the trade delegation left--she had been working so hard since spring that I thought it was just exhaustion." He shook his head. "It was just the beginning." He paused and resumed rubbing his forehead with his hand.
Zel leaned forward, an uneasy feeling making his stomach churn. "And then what?"
Phil brought his hand down and shrugged his broad shoulders. "The chills got progressively worse. In a way, she just got sicker and sicker, and yet she had no other sign of illness. No fever, no sore throat, no stomach cramps, nothing you'd expect. And her mood..." He trailed off and winced. "You know her, Zelgadiss. She's bright and cheerful and happy, or at least she was. Now she alternates between depressed and listless, and stubborn and mad at the world. She insists on throwing herself into her work--she writes prolifically, everything from interpretations of the most current legal questions to business plans to ensure that Saillune's economy stays healthy, and that's just when she's not able to move about. She's become quite the master negotiator since she returned, but that seems to be the only time her real character shines through. Now, we're lucky if we get a smile out of her a week."
Zel sat back, digesting this, his mind reeling. "I'm assuming she was evaluated for illness," he mused.
"We had the best doctors in the kingdom come and examine her until she refused to see any more. She doesn't think she's sick," Phil said dolefully.
"Does she have any enemies, any rivals?" Zel grimaced. "It's not like your family doesn't have a reputation for trying to do each other in," he pointed out. "And Saillune does have its enemies. Is there anyone who would have a reason to cast some sort of curse on her? Has anyone tried examining her magically for signs of a curse?"
"This is the holy capital of white magic! Of course we thought of a curse!" Phil said, bristling with some of his usual fire. His energy was short-lived though, and his weariness resurfaced as he continued, “We have also quietly investigated everyone who could possibly wish Ameria harm, both here and abroad, and came up with nothing. Everyone in our family who would bear her ill will is already dead, and everyone outside the family came up clean. Besides, the chief priest of Saillune, Francis, is also a healer and has become her treating physician, so to speak. He has tried every magical and herbal treatment to determine if this is a curse and if it is, what kind, and has had no success." Phil sighed heavily.
"Does he think it's a curse, even though he hasn't found any evidence of one?" Zel asked, nudging the bag with the book further away from his chair with his foot absently. He could feel the heat even through his shoe and it was distracting him. "I hate to say it, but some curses can't be detected, much less broken unless you go straight to the source." He scowled. "Of course, if the source isn't around anymore..."
Phil nodded grimly. "Don't think we haven't thought of all of that. Francis has performed every spell, charm, and ritual he could and discovered nothing." Phil placed his left arm on the armrest and rubbed his temple. "He has a theory that this illness is magical in nature but not a curse, per se. Either that, or it's a curse so powerful that it eludes every detection spell we know of." He sighed heavily. "But he hasn't given up yet. Once he ran out of spells and remedies to try, he contacted Milgasia of the Kataart Mountains. So far, the Golden Dragons have given us some good ideas to try, but nothing has actually worked yet."
"I'd like to talk to Francis," Zel said quickly. "I know a thing or two about curses, unfortunately, both from studying counterspells under Rezo and from researching my own curse. Not that any of it has helped me at all in my case," he added darkly, gesturing to his face, "but maybe something I've picked up somewhere could be helpful."
Phil looked at Zelgadiss forlornly, and Zel braced himself, knowing that the prince was prone to sudden, radical shifts in behavior. "Zelgadiss," he choked, his dark eyes becoming big and watery, "I just want her to be herself again." He leapt from his chair and grabbed Zel's hand, pumping it up and down as he half-sobbed, half-shouted, "You've got the right attitude! We can do this--we can save her! Thank goodness you came--maybe just by being here you'll help rekindle the flame of hope within her. You will stay for a while at least, right?"
Always uneasy with such outbursts of emotion, Zel nodded stiffly and rose from his chair, extracting his hand from Phil's iron grip. "For a while, at least. Would Francis be available now? I might as well talk to him while Ameria's sleeping."
Phil sniffed loudly and quickly dashed his tears. "Yes, yes he should be. Let's go right now." He turned and headed out of the library, so Zel picked up his backpack and followed him. They crept down the hallway past Ameria's sitting room and headed out of her suite.
As soon as they were in the main corridor leading to the stairs, a thought occurred to Phil and he glanced over his shoulder at the young man behind him. "By the way," he asked in what Zel knew he thought was a casual tone but had all the subtlety of a ton of falling bricks, "what did cause you to come back to Saillune? I thought you were scouring the world beyond the Barrier for a potential cure."
Zel felt his face get a little warmer but he shrugged and replied simply, "She asked me to."
Phil faced forward and felt his moustache twitch with a trace of a smile. "Ah," he said, "I just wondered."
The chimera didn't miss Phil's reaction to that. Shifting his backpack uncomfortably, he just kept walking as they headed out of the palace to the shrine of Cephied nearby.
* * *
The shrine of Cephied was a huge, white marble affair that was connected to the palace by some open air walkways bordered by a large courtyard. Zel did a double take when he saw the courtyard. It was huge and empty because it was typically used for large, public gatherings and speeches. Across the courtyard was an enormous set of double doors--the very same double doors from which Ameria had emerged in his dream back at the cave. He could close his eyes and see the people gathered in the courtyard, bowing to her and then, on her orders, rising up against him, carrying him off to his execution. He shuddered and opened his eyes, scolding himself for harboring that dream still. It was a delusion, something brought on in part by his own despair and the madness the cursed cave had educed in his mind. Yet it haunted him as he and Phil continued on into the shrine past the huge courtyard--he could not shake the feeling of terror that had awakened him so many months ago until he realized that Phil was saying something to him.
"...down this hallway. He's usually in here--Zelgadiss?"
The chimera shook his head slightly to clear it and turned his attention to the prince. "Sorry...mind drifted off..."
"Francis's office is this way. He's usually in there, although lately he's been spending a lot of time in the library trying to find something that will help Ameria," he repeated, wrinkling his brow as he looked over his shoulder at the chimera, who again seemed lost in his own thoughts.
The library was a familiar place to Zelgadiss. While he hadn't had the time to examine it thoroughly last time he was in town, he did manage to peruse its selection. Predictably, its collection of books about white magic was the most complete he had ever seen--greater than even Rezo's had been. It had a fairly extensive section on Shamanism and even one on black magic, presumably so that students of white magic could study curses so they would know how to counter them effectively. The section of rare books was, of course, of the most interest to him; he had long ago exhausted all possibilities for a cure that were contained within standard volumes. Nothing had jumped out at him as a good candidate, though, last time he checked. Perhaps Francis had a private library that contained better references on such things as curses. Either that or possibly he arranged to borrow books from neighboring Magic Guilds or private collectors. Regardless, Zel had figured he would come back here someday to see if there was anything he had missed. He never thought he would come to help someone beside himself.
As it turned out, Francis was indeed in his office, a spacious room on the third floor of a wing of offices and classrooms off the main shrine area. A large, blond oak desk sat near the back of the room, with matching oak bookshelves flanking the windows behind it. A giant, circular carpet was spread out over almost the entire floor; the pattern woven into it was a white, six-pointed star against a deep green background. A small oak coffee table sat in the middle of the star, with four green upholstered chairs placed around it evenly. Green accents gave the room a tasteful, serene atmosphere, something Zel would have expected from the head priest of Cephied in the holiest of holy cities.
He had met Francis once before, when Lina had been cursed by Mazenda. He had also seen the high priest in his dream at the cave. He steeled himself as Francis hurriedly ushered them inside, trying not to flinch as he shook the priest's hand. Even though the cave's power was far, far away, seeing the actual people and places that had been in that dream reminded him all too vividly how close he had come to losing everything that brought warmth to his life.
"Francis, you've met Zelgadiss Greywords, I assume?" Phil asked as they all took seats around the little coffee table. Zel slipped his backpack off his shoulder and put it down off to his left, as far away from the other men as possible so they wouldn't feel the heat coming from within it.
Francis, a short, white robed man in his fifties, nodded. A long, brown beard and huge, bushy eyebrows occupied much of his face and straight, brown hair hung to his shoulders from under his white cleric's hat, giving him a droopy appearance. His mannerisms were reserved and his voice was soft and soothing as he replied, "Yes, yes I believe we met over that terrible incident more than a year ago, correct? Her highness, the princess has always spoken very highly of you."
Zel didn't know how to respond to that--he had frankly never thought about what Ameria said about him or anyone else to the people with whom she interacted every day. He was saved from having to respond, however, as Phil got straight to business.
"Francis, we came because Ameria collapsed about two hours ago, right in Zelgadiss's arms," Phil explained. Zel's eyes widened and he flushed instantly; the way Phil said it, it implied things that...well, he couldn't think about right now. Fortunately, neither Phil nor Francis was thinking along the same lines as he was--neither of them was even looking his way.
Francis's sleepy green eyes widened considerably. "S-she did?" he said, scooting halfway out of his chair as if he was going to leap up and rush to Ameria's bedside. "Why wasn't I summoned?"
"She insisted that we not bother you," Phil said with a weary sigh. "I think she was embarrassed. She got so upset as soon as her nurses began fussing over her that we gave her that sleeping draught you left for her. Even then it took her about an hour to finally drop off--I don't think you'll get much accomplished until she wakes up. We tried to make her as comfortable as possible, but when I left, she was shivering worse than I have ever seen her. I don't know if this is a fluke occurrence, all I know is I don't even want to think about the possibility that her condition has become worse."
Francis nodded vigorously and then straightened his hat absently. "You should have sent for me anyway, your highness," he admonished Phil. "I am very worried about her, not just because she has become my patient. She has always been a sweet young lady and I could not bear the thought of anything untoward happening to her."
Phil seemed to choke up at that; he squeezed his eyes together and gave an enormous sniff. He swallowed heavily and said in a tight voice, "I know, I know--you've done so much for her and I--I am very grateful." Swallowing what was probably another bout of histrionics, he gestured toward Zelgadiss on his left and said, "This young man may be able to give us some hope. For many years now, he has been traveling the world studying curses, trying to find a counterspell or cure for his condition."
The high priest studied Zel for a moment, taking in his travel-weary appearance and the obvious concern on his partially human face. The chimera was instantly uncomfortable. "I haven't had much success in finding my own cure, but I may have come across something in my studies that will help her," he said quickly, mistakenly taking Francis's keen expression as one of doubt.
"Perhaps you can, Zelgadiss--I would appreciate another set of eyes looking at this problem. We haven't told anyone from the Magic Guilds and only Milgasia and his assistants among the Golden Dragons know. In fact, few of my own colleagues know that Ameria-hime is sick. They think it's my niece who is ill or cursed, not the princess. His highness has even lied to every envoy that has come here, saying that the princess simply caught a summer flu so they don't question her chills."
"It would be a public relations nightmare if this got out," Phil said firmly. Zel was surprised--Phil was the type of highly confident person who didn't typically take into consideration what others thought of him. "Every enemy of Saillune would take it as a sign of weakness--if we at the holy city can't heal her, they would reason, the city itself must be weak and vulnerable. Furthermore, it would just invite evil people to come and finish her off." Phil's expression hardened; no doubt he was thinking of his late wife, but he didn't continue that line of thought.
"Yes, yes--it would invite all kinds of terrible things," Francis agreed, quickly bringing them back on topic. "So as a result, few people have been able to assist me with tasks like researching new leads that I or the Golden Dragons have discovered, mixing potions, experimenting with variations of spells, and the like." The little cleric ran a hand over his face, his already heavy-eyed features looking even wearier. "We've been at this for about three months, now. We estimate that she started showing signs of this...this illness, curse, whatever you call it...as much as a month before that. I would appreciate any help, especially from one as learned as you."
Zel crossed his ankle over his knee--the book's heat had warmed his left leg until it was too hot for comfort. "Four months, hmmm?" he said absently. "I'm assuming you've tried all the standard spells--Disenchant, Dicleary, Flow Break..."
Francis nodded. "We've scanned everything she has come into contact with that has entered the palace in the last four months, looking for something that could be the source of a curse, but we found nothing. Her illness does not seem consistent with poison, and we have had all her food tested by a taster--"
"Do you trust the taster? Do you watch him closely?" Zel interrupted, resting his elbow on the armrest of the chair and stroking his chin thoughtfully.
"The taster," Phil answered wryly, "is me."
"Oh." Zel furrowed his brow. "Are you sure that's safe?"
Phil thumped his chest once. "The might of justice sustains those who practice it!" he proclaimed hardily. "Many times has my own life been threatened by those who would do evil, but I have survived because of the fire of righteousness in my heart!"
"Yes, well, there's that reason, but also the fact that there are few others we can trust who we're willing to put in harm's way," Francis pointed out mildly, sweatdropping slightly. Zel surmised, from the priest's expression, that this had been a point of some contention between the two men, and that Francis had lost out to the sheer force of Phil's impregnable willpower. "So we have ruled out poison," Francis finished. "I myself cast several powerful versions of Disenchant--some of which took days of meticulous spellcasting--but to no avail. I've grown less and less hopeful that that spell will work, since it only counters curses that have a specific duration and usually a specific effect."
"But this does have a specific effect, right?" Zel said. "She's cold all the time."
Phil looked pained. "Yes, but...it's her demeanor, too..."
"Are you sure that's because of the curse...illness...whatever it is? Sick people are usually irritable," he pointed out.
"Yes," Francis agreed, "but we believe this goes beyond mere irritability."
Zel looked from Francis to Phil and lifted an eyebrow, but did not continue that line of questioning. He wondered just how bad Ameria's "demeanor" could have gotten, but remembered sharply the Ameria in his dream, the one who commanded his own death, and suppressed a shudder. "Well...before we rule out Disenchant, have you tried the Vin Rill method?" he asked Francis.
The cleric nodded. "No effect."
"What about the Harrington variation? Or, for that matter, the Spencer variation?" he continued.
"Harrington was one of the first versions of Disenchant I thought of. I tried the Spencer variation only after the Harrington proved futile," Francis said with a sigh, "despite the additional complexity of the spell. Neither accomplished anything."
"Let's try some older ones," Zel murmured to himself, his brows drawn together thoughtfully. "The Artena series...did you try that one?" Francis's expression went from morose to inquisitive, which Zel took to mean no. "The Fortuna combination is another option--it mixes elements of Disenchant and Flow Break as well as a few other spell components. Then there's the Chahong subset of the Varan sequence, but I don’t think you would have heard of those, since both were discovered while studying Mazoku curses, which are, of course, rare to begin with. I've even come up with a few variations and combinations myself, none of which worked for me, but they may be helpful for her." He looked up, putting a hand to his chin in thought, while Francis looked at him in amazement.
"And you can cast all of these spells you have mentioned?" the high priest asked, his green eyes widened and his droopy brows lifted, making him look fully awake now.
Zel nodded absently, still running through mental lists of spells for other possibilities. "I'm sure I could think of more, but I’d need a little time. Then there's always potions, but I'd need access to a lab, some basic reference books, and some time to think."
Francis looked at Phil, his eyes still wide. "I know you've always spoken highly of this young man, but I had no idea he was this learned," he said, obviously impressed. Phil nodded and beamed in Zel's direction, an expression that would only have embarrassed the chimera if he were not lost in thought.
"If none of those work, there are variations of the Flow Break we could try, too. I'm sure you're familiar with most of them, but I've probably run into a few rare ones here and there that might be useful," Zel mused, half to himself, the wheels of his mind turning furiously until he noticed that Francis's face wasn't droopy anymore; the high priest was looking at him keenly. Phil's expression was growing more and more hopeful, his eyes growing watery at the thought of his daughter finally returning to her old self. Before he could burst into tears, bawling for joy, Zel waved a hand quickly and said, "This is nothing special--just spells I've tried on myself, all without success. If I were some awesome sorcerer, I'd have found something to cure myself by now. I can't guarantee I'll get any farther than you, but I can try."
"How did you discover these spells?" Francis said, intrigued. "If there are any libraries that you have visited that you would recommend, I would like to know."
Zel shook his head. "Most of these aren't in any library that I know of." He paused and suddenly looked very ill at ease. "I don't know if anyone told you this, Francis-san," he said, glancing at Phil, "but I'm descended from Rezo, the Red Priest. He was my grandfather...or great-grandfather...I suppose someday I should figure out which..." he trailed off, shaking his head with disgust.
Francis stared at him incredulously. "Then you studied under the great sage of our time? No wonder you are so knowledgeable for one so young!"
"He wasn't quite the altruist you heard about," Phil said, looking at Zel sympathetically. “I’m afraid he fell from the light of truth some time during his wanderings, and lost touch with his conscience.” Ameria had told him Zelgadiss's story years ago, when he had come to Sairaag to help fight Kopii Rezo and the chimera was busy planning with Gourry how to defeat the clone.
Zel nodded slightly, his expression clouded. "He searched for years for a cure to his blindness--that part I'm sure you've heard before." Francis nodded, and Zel continued, "What you haven't heard was that the reason for his blindness was that he was possessed by a piece of Shaburanigdo." The priest's expression turned to one of shock. "We fought him--Lina, Gourry, and I. That part you may have heard of too; it was victories like that that made Mazoku like Gaav and Fibrizo so interested in her. She cast the Giga Slave on Gourry's sword while she and I appealed to what little was left of Rezo's soul to help us destroy the dark lord."
"But, before that, you studied under him," Francis clarified.
"After he cursed me to look like this, yes," Zel said darkly, gesturing to his face.
Francis's eyes became impossibly wide, but then his face melted into sympathy, which made it look droopy once again. "I am so sorry to hear that," he said softly.
There was an uncomfortable silence. Zel, studying both Phil's and Francis's expressions, could easily guess what they were thinking: what if Ameria's fate was ultimately similar to his own? Would she be cursed to remain in her present state for the rest of her life, as it seemed to be for him?
"So...I learned a few forms of Disenchant, Flow Break, and other spells under Rezo," Zel continued, eager to get off the subject of his most hated relative, "but many of the more esoteric forms I picked up from years of traveling and research. I have notes, of course, but it would take years to amass the sources of the spells. I think you'd be better off just letting me try a few to see if any of them will work."
"Is there any possibility that they will somehow backfire or harm her?" Phil asked, knitting his black brows with concern.
Zel paused, running over his mental list of possibilities again and considering each one's implications. "I don't think so," he said slowly, shaking his head. "They're not like Recovery, which draws on the life force of the victim and everything around and inside her to heal, and can lead to death by sheer exhaustion or rampant infection. All of the possibilities I mentioned are therapeutic by nature, so I can't imagine any of them causing her any direct harm. But I can't say for sure because I don't fully know what we're dealing with. If this is a highly complex curse or some other kind of malady that is magical in nature, there could be some kind of built-in mechanism in the spell that makes her illness worse the more one tries to cure it. But since you haven't run into that issue so far with everything you tried, I think it's safe to say we can try what I described for you. If she has any adverse effects, we can always stop and reassess what we're doing."
"Good," Phil said, nodding his head once decisively. Turning to the priest, he said, "Francis, I'd like you to give Zelgadiss anything he needs to attempt those spells and any others he thinks are safe. Of course, please continue your own research, as well. I'd like the two of you to work together, both to figure out what has afflicted Ameria and what we can do to combat it."
Francis glanced at Zelgadiss and nodded. "Of course, your highness. Milgasia sent me another batch of books and scrolls he thought might be helpful, so this is a good time for Zelgadiss to try something new while I pore over this latest research."
"Like I said, I can't guarantee anything," Zel said, suddenly feeling the weight of their hopes on his shoulders. He couldn't realistically promise to succeed at all, especially after so many failures with his own curse.
The prince waved a hand as if to say "I understand." "Just try your best," Phil said, his mustached face drawn together with worry for his daughter. "I want her back to the way she was, and I'm willing to do anything to help her."
"I understand," Zel said, and all three men rose from their seats.
Francis, for all his sleepy appearance, now seemed full of nervous energy. "Perhaps you will find my lab to be of use to you," he said as Zel slung his backpack onto his shoulder. "As soon as you've had a chance to rest, please return here so that I may--oh my--" The little cleric, who was right on Zelgadiss's heels as he followed Phil out of the office, stopped with a gasp. "What is that heat?" he asked, holding a hand out to what seemed to be the source: Zel's backpack.
Zel's face dawned with comprehension as Phil turned and looked at him inquisitively. "Oh, that," he said, immediately flushing slightly. Now that he heard what Ameria had been facing during his absence, his own quandary seemed token in comparison. He had forgotten about it, and even if he had remembered, he didn't think he would have brought it up then, not when there was a much larger problem at hand. "It's...it's just something I found in my travels. I was going to ask someone here in Saillune about it, but it's not important now."
Francis ignored his dismissive response. "That has to be something magical in nature," he observed tenaciously. "What did you find? May I see it?"
Zel brushed off his request quickly. "It's nothing. Once we figure out what's wrong with Ameria, maybe you will have the time to take a look at it..."
"Nonsense!" Phil interjected. "It must be something regarding your curse, correct?" He didn't wait for Zel's response, taking a 'yes' answer for granted. "For all we know, if it would help you in your curse, it may help Ameria as well." Crossing the room back to the table in the middle of the large green, starred rug, he held a hand out and said, "Please, at least let Francis take a look at what you've got there, since you obviously came a long way to have your questions about it answered."
Zel paused dubiously, but eventually, his own curiosity and the expectations of the two other men forced his legs to carry him back to the center of the room. Taking his backpack off, he placed it on the chair, while Francis hovered nearby. Zel suddenly understood how such a lethargic-looking man could become the high priest of Saillune--underneath his sleepy appearance lay the curiosity and determination of a natural-born academic. The chimera flipped open the top flap of the worn, leather bag and hesitantly withdrew the ancient volume he had discovered months ago. It was emitting a soft glow in the air around it and it was hot to the touch, warming his stony hands instantly and generating waves of heat. The brown-red leather cover was cracked with age and the edges of its pages were yellowed, but, despite its obvious age, it was in excellent condition. Carefully, Zel placed it on the table in the middle of the rug and held a hand over its cover while he explained, "I discovered it in a cave far to the south--it was hidden so well and in such a harsh environment that only a sorcerer used to roughing it would be able to survive the terrain. Local legends hinted of its presence and that it is about a thousand years old, but I don’t know if I believe them. Unfortunately, the legends didn’t say what is in the book, but leads were surprisingly scarce beyond the Barrier, so I decided to follow up on it anyway. That’s why I’d really rather not spend the time looking at it when Ameria needs help more and this may be of no use to either of us whatsoever.”
“I understand,” Francis said quickly, “but at least let me have a peek at it, if nothing else to satisfy my curiosity.”
Reluctantly, Zel agreed, and Francis and Phil came closer to the table to have a better view. “When I discovered it, deep within the cave, it was glowing strongly," he said, deliberately skipping over the details of his ordeal; there was no reason for anyone but Ameria to know about that, he had decided weeks ago. "I don't know why, and I don't know why it's still glowing, albeit less strongly than it was weeks ago. I also have no idea what it says, despite the fact that I have studied every major language used in magic, including all of the important root languages," he explained, lifting the front cover gently and running a finger over the first page under a line of indecipherable characters. But what is more interesting about it,” Zel paused, gingerly flipping pages while Francis craned what little neck he had eagerly to catch a glimpse of what was on them until he reached what was, in effect, the last page of the book. “What’s more interesting is that the second half of this book is false,” he finished, lifting the page to reveal the two talismans, each held securely in its own form-fitting, hollowed-out hole in the compressed pages, "and that these are the source of the heat you felt." He looked up at the two men. Phil looked mystified, his brow wrinkled and his moustache folded into a frown. Francis, on the other hand, sucked in a breath; he realized right away what they were.
“These…these are bloodstone talismans,” the cleric said softly, passing a hand over the sanguine stones, which heated his hand so quickly he felt moisture on his palm. His eyes flicked up to Zel as he said "The talismans your friend, Lina Inverse, uses to cast the Laguna Blade are cut from the same kind of stone."
"I know," Zel said solemnly. "That's why I haven't done anything with them. I haven't even taken them out of the book yet, for fear of unknowingly doing something I shouldn't. I've rushed into things before, but..." He trailed off for a second as his face took on a haunted look. "These are too dangerous to touch before I know what the book says about them."
The three men were silent for a moment as the implications of Zel's discovery sank in. Francis blew out a heavy breath that puffed up his cheeks for a second as he held his hand up about six inches away from the two stones, marveling at the heat they generated. "A wise decision. For all we know, something could have triggered them to do something already, with they way they're creating so much heat of their own accord. That is one question we must answer quickly." He looked up at Zel seriously. "This is quite a find, Zelgadiss. Quite possibly the find of the century."
"And it's one that the Magic Guilds--and, for that matter, the rest of this shrine--will never know about," Phil said firmly. If he could do something to set things right for this young man, he had long ago resolved that he would, and not just because Zel had more than once saved Ameria's life. Zelgadiss had experienced far too much injustice in his short life, he knew, and he would only be put through more if anyone aside from him and Francis even suspected something this important had been discovered. Everyone in the room knew how greedy the Guilds could be; the people’s needs were often overshadowed by the overzealous race to achieve great gains in the study of magic before other Guilds. Besides, he definitely would not allow anything that held even a remote possibility of helping Ameria out of his direct control.
Zel was instantly grateful upon hearing Phil's words. "I would appreciate it. Part of the reason I brought them here was because I was afraid some Guildmaster would snap them up in the name of advancing human knowledge and I'd never see them again." But only part, he chided himself, glancing at the wrist to which Ameria's bracelet was firmly secured and hidden by his sleeve.
"Of course, I will not breathe a word of this to anyone," Francis said distractedly; he was now paging carefully through the latter half of the pages, his large eyebrows furrowed. "This language is very, very old...and yet...there is something vaguely familiar about it all..." He trailed off and Zel and Phil exchanged quizzical glances.
"What is it?" Phil asked, looking over Francis's head to squint at the indecipherable squiggles on the fragile pages. Zel sucked in a breath; for some reason, a sudden thrill ran up his spine, and he, too, leaned over to stare at what Francis was so preoccupied with.
The little cleric shook his head slightly and frowned deeper. "This writing style...it's very erratic, but some of it sounds like something else I've read...I just can't place it."
"But you can translate it?" Zel asked, unable to keep a hint of the eagerness he felt from reaching his voice.
"Yes, yes of course," Francis said, still distracted as he flipped a few pages back, then a few more, and then finally back to the first page. Squinting at the writing near the bottom, he brought his face closer to the book, ignoring the heat that prickled his face and his white hat, which tumbled off his head and landed on the table. Here, the script was small and shaky, but he thought he could make out a name. Zel held his breath without realizing it as Francis sounded out the words. "L-La...no, Lee? No, that can't be right...ah yes, Lei. Lei Ma...Mag..." He stopped cold and Zel's jaw dropped.
"Lei Magnus...right?" he breathed.
Francis swallowed. "Lei Magnus, unless I'm very much mistaken," he confirmed.
"What?!" Phil exclaimed incredulously. "The sage Lei Magnus? The one who had a piece of Shaburanigdo within him that started the Kouma Sensou? The War of the Resurrection of the Demon King that led to the destruction of Sui-Ryuu-oh, the Water Dragon King?? That Lei Magnus?"
Before Francis could answer, Zel said, "Every reference I found to this book: the map that led me to it, the man who sold it to me, and the people whose rumors led me to him--they all mentioned a man named Lei Magnus. But I assumed it was someone who had the same name, or someone using the sage's name to either gain notoriety or credibility, or to trick adventure-seekers or archaeologists. I didn't think anything of Lei Magnus's could possibly have survived intact until now."
"So it may not be the Lei Magnus," Phil said dubiously, looking from the priest to the chimera and back again.
"Yes, but..." Francis straightened and turned his gaze to Zel. "Oh my! Now that I read the name, I know where I've seen a writing style like this before. Zelgadiss, do you know how the Dragon Slave was passed down for so many generations?"
Blinking, the young man pondered it for a second, folding an arm across his chest and resting his elbow in his palm so he could stroke his chin. Finally, he shook his head. "I guess I never thought about it--it's not really my area of specialty. I just assumed it was out there for people to learn."
"But you do know that the spell, along with the Burst Bomb, were invented by Lei Magnus, right?" Zel and Phil nodded. Francis turned, scurried to the side of the room, and stopped before a large painting of an idyllic seashore. He muttered a few words under his breath and waved a hand over the picture, and, before Zel's and Phil's eyes, it disappeared.
"An illusion spell," Zel muttered, impressed. Not even his trained eye had picked up on the false decoration.
Embedded in the wall where the "painting" had been was a large, gray safe. Francis turned the dial on it back and forth six times, Zel noted expertly, meaning that it was a customized, not standard lock. Finally, the cleric heard a click, and he then placed a hand over the knob, obviously releasing a protection spell. When he was finished, he pulled the safe door open and reached inside. He carefully removed an old, tattered tome and returned to the table in the middle of the room after closing the safe and replacing the "painting."
"This book," he said, gingerly holding it out to the chimera, "is one of the few surviving copies of what most scholars thought was the only surviving written work of the great sage. This copy is one of the only three we know of written by Lei Magnus, himself, and not one of his assistants. It has survived this long only because of the protection spells placed over it and the fact that it has been kept out of the light in that safe or others like it for hundreds of years by previous head priests of Saillune."
Zel's eyes widened as he gently lifted the cover. Immediately, a musty scent greeted his nose as he scanned the yellowed pages. Unlike the book he had found, there seemed to be two different types of handwriting in this book: one that was large, scratchy, and irregular in its placement on the page; and another that was more even, flowing, and typical of a scholar's hand. Normally, he would assume, based on his archaeological experience, that there had been perhaps two different authors, or that this book held little more than notes hastily scribbled down, with later summaries, explanations, or reflections in the steadier hand. Now that he looked closer, he could see that the two types of handwriting were actually similar enough to be from the same person. Furthermore, the script in the book he had discovered matched the more erratic.
"I haven't opened that book for years," Francis mused. "But I studied it long ago, under the previous head priest of Saillune. 'Know your enemy,' he always said, which is why I excelled in countering curses and such spells. Those who study the Dragon Slave and Burst Bomb only study copies of translated excerpts that have been cleaned up considerably." He looked from Phil to Zel solemnly. "Make no mistake, toward the end of his life, Lei Magnus was as mad as they come, and it shows in his work. The book you're holding, Zelgadiss, is mostly insane ramblings with a few spells interspersed throughout. Only the Dragon Slave and the Burst Bomb are described to the amount of detail necessary to master them, and of course, no human is strong enough to cast the Burst Bomb. Most of the other spells are only fragments or incantations with little structure or explanation. There are a few cryptic hints that allude to another volume, but everyone thought he was taken over by the Dark Lord Shaburanigdo before he could write it." Francis ran a hand over the open book on the table, awestruck at its glow and the heat radiating from the talismans in the back. "I guess everyone was wrong."
There was a pause as they stared at the volume Zel had found, weighty in its implications. Then, Phil said, "Francis, I'd like this book translated right away, but don’t try any of the spells or any experimentation on the amulets until Zelgadiss and I have read it. Lei Magnus was possessed by a great evil. We know from Rezo's example what evil can do to twist a brilliant mind. This book may give us some means to help either Ameria or Zelgadiss, or it may be just 'insane ramblings,' as you put it, but I don't want to risk anything that could invite some kind of calamity into this city."
"Yes, Your Highness," Francis said with a small bow.
"In the meantime," Phil continued, turning to Zel, "you can try some of those spells you mentioned on Ameria. With any luck, she'll be better by the time we figure out what Lei Magnus had to say."
Everyone nodded. "Agreed," Zel said, still looking at the luminous book on the table, now with a heavy feeling in his chest. Of all the books, artifacts, and ancient ruins he had discovered, not one had held the significance of this. Whether this tome held a cure for him or not, he had a distinct feeling that this find would be big. It was strange, knowing that this time, of all times, a means to his cure might be sitting on the table before him. And yet, for all the anticipation he couldn't help but feel, there was something hollow about it. He flashed back to the time, months ago, when he had considered giving up this lead and heading northward to Saillune. The notion of foregoing on a potential cure would have been outrageous in his not-so-distant past. But now, instead of feeling utterly euphoric at the possibility of his cure, he felt...drained, and he didn't know why. Snapping back to reality as he realized Phil was speaking to him, he quickly shelved those thoughts for later consideration.
"I will have a suite prepared for you," Phil was saying. "After you've had a chance to freshen up, perhaps Ameria will be awake so we can inform her of our plans. Perhaps her faith in righteousness will be restored now that we have some fresh leads!" With this new discovery, he was acting with more of his customary energy and exuberance.
Zel nodded and he handed Lei Magnus's first volume back to Francis, his stomach doing a funny sideways turn as he gathered his backpack. Slipping his arm through both straps, he hoisted it onto his shoulder. It was strange now, not having the constant heat of the talismans at his back, but it was not an unwelcome feeling, especially in the warmth of the Saillunian summer. After thanking Francis, who looked quite eager to begin work on the translation, he followed Phil out the door. Hopefully, in an hour or so, he'd get his first chance to talk to Ameria, and maybe find out if she had received his letter. His stomach fluttering with nervousness just as it was when he first approached the city, he started mentally reviewing all the possible things he had prepared over the months, hoping that one would be the right thing to say.
This chapter really, really flowed well--there were very few times where writer's block reared its ugly head, and even when it did, I was able to overcome it quickly. It's been a joy to write, frankly, and I hope it shows. I identify most with Zelgadiss as a character--he most closely matches my personality, both his strong points and his glaring weaknesses, and that's why he's so easy for me to grasp (not like Gourry, my polar opposite, who constantly makes the New World Trilogy take longer than I would like to write ^^;;;). So when I'm just writing him and his thoughts, and maybe a few other characters talking to him, it's deliciously easy.
I'm going to repeat some of what I said for the last chapter--there are significant chunks of back story and details I completely fabricated. Those variations of spells Zel mentioned, in particular, are made up. I took what I knew of magic in the Slayers world, examples of Lina and Ameria (and probably Zel, can't remember specifically) modifying spells, and descriptions of arcane magical stuff for which Lina has searched as a basis for these creative liberties. One thing I like about Slayers is that you get the feeling that you're only seeing a small part of the magical world--there's an entire body of knowledge that people devote their lives to studying that we never really get to see. The writers only hint at it. I wanted to give that same kind of impression, to share that kind of feeling with you, dear reader, that I enjoy so much.
As usual, I'll give you some hints as to what will come next. I don’t have the next chapter completely sketched out, but I will say this much: Zel will find out next chapter what Francis and Phil were talking about when they mentioned Ameria's demeanor. I'm of two minds when it comes to how I want to write their first meeting, so I won't go into much more detail, but I could make it either really hard on Zel or slightly less hard on him. Mwahahaha...have I mentioned my sadistic tendencies when it comes to writing my favorite characters? >:) Will Zel's spells (wow that rhymes) work on Ameria? What kinds of interesting things will happen as Francis works on a translation of the further writings of Lei Magnus? What's up with those talismans, anyway, and are they the final answer to Zel's seemingly unending search? And will Zel ever work up the guts to ask Ameria about the letter he sent her so long ago? Sore wa himitsu desu! ^_~ At least some of those questions will be answered next chapter, so please check back soon for it! Thanks for reading, and, as always, feedback is appreciated!
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