Xellos's body was spread out on an enormous stone table, his black astral essence leaking from a painful-looking wound in his stomach. Zellas bent over him, whispering something reassuring, then put her hands over the wound and started to enchant.
As she was reuniting the elements of his inner structure, images and emotions he had experienced flashed through her mind. She was used to it and didn't pay much attention until...
Suddenly she froze in mid-chant and straightened her statue.
"Xellos!" she barked in a surprised and resentful voice, forcing him to come to his senses at once. He opened his eyes weakly and stared at her as if blind.
"Are you really in love with that human wench?!" hissed his mistress.
"Yes, Zellas-sama," managed Xellos resigningly.
"Then go croak on her lap, you walking disgrace to my creations!" roared Zellas, and Xellos felt himself being teleported away with enormous speed.
Lina was deeply engrossed in a book they've extracted from a weird underground temple the day before. The book turned out to be a prior's diary and contained all kinds of exciting things -- from kitchen spells to battle tricks. Everything the odd man heard, read or figured out and decided worth writing down. Currently Lina was learning a summoning charm that brought you things from not far away -- very useful when you are too lazy or too busy to stand up and go fetch it.
And then all of a sudden she felt the air around her shuddering, and there was Xellos falling out of an astral slit, like a log. He collapsed with a low thump and a groan, dark vapour streaming from his stomach in every direction.
"Xellos! What the hell happened to you?!" she cried jumping up.
"Sorry Lina..." he barely whispered. "I didn't mean... to end up here..."
He clutched at the wound and curled up defensively. Lina knelt beside him.
"Who did this to you anyway? Not Gaav-reborn, I hope?"
"No... Say hi to Filia for me though..." the mazoku attempted a wry smile, but that didn't look convincing. He winced and groand again, somewhat desperately.
"Hey, Xellos... Can't you go to the Astral Plane and heal there? Or can't your master help you out?.."
Xellos just shook his head weakly. By that time the whole Slayers gang, including Sylphiel, surrounded him. Lina's mind was racing.
"But there must be some way to get you to normal... Maybe some other mazoku-lord?.."
"Nah, Lina, I won't make it, sorry to bother you..." Xellos's words were barely audible. Lina's eyes widened:
"Holla! You're not dying on me!"
Instead of an answer the mazoku closed his clouded eyes. Lina clenched her fists. It was time for action.
"Oi, Xellos! Just make sure you're alive for another minute, OK? I'll just check something out!"
With that she jumped back to her place near the fire and grabbed the book. Where was it? After the noodles-making spell, but before the dragon anatomy chart... Ah, here!
She quickly re-read a page, recalling the words and moves. Then rushed back to where Xellos lay still and silent, as if already dead. But she knew he wasn't because mazoku vanish when they die...
Lina turned her unfortunate comrade face-up and pulled the glove off her left hand. Then she pressed her hand with spread-out fingers right into his wound. Xellos jerked and opened his eyes once more:
"Lina! J-just leave me alone!"
"I know better than to do that", she smirked evilly and proceded following the prior's instructions. There -- she felt the pulsing orb at the very center of Xellos's body. That was supposed to be his core, the essence of his being. She cupped her hand around it gently and took in a deep breath before starting her chant.
"Lina! Don't do it!" Xellos moaned desperately.
"Sorry. You're not in the position to order me around", she smirked.
Lina opened her eyes to see the first sunrays penetrate the thickly interwoven branches above her head. She slowly sat up feeling weak and agitated. To her right Xellos was lying motionless, but his form was solid and his energy was not spilling into entropy anymore. To her left Zelgadiss jerked his head up, an expression of relief plastered uncharacteristically across his face.
"Lina! Are you all right?"
"Sure! Just a little funny... and VERY hungry!"
"Good," Zel nodded. "There's a town a couple miles away, we can have breakfast there. Just wake that sodding mazoku up, no one would want to carry him, you know..."
Not willing to stand up yet, Lina crawled to Xellos's side and shook his shoulder.
"Oi! Time for breakfast, you sleepyhead!"
The demon started and abruptly sat up. He eyed Lina with something vaguely reminding of concern.
"Are you all right?" he asked predictably.
"Sure, why shouldn't I be?" Lina giggled nervously, thinking that, perhaps, she really did something at the top of her abilities. She even checked if her hair was still red...
"That was kind of presumptuous of you to think you could heal me... I am a high level demon after all, and with the injury to the core... It took all of your power to make up for my damage. And why on Earth would you even want to do it?"
Lina raised an eyebrow.
"Presumptuous or not, I did succeed. And now you're in a life debt to me, aren't you?" she smirked at the obviously dumbfounded monster.
"Just who is the monster here?" whispered Zel to himself.
Lina finally stood up slightly swooning and waved at the approaching Gourry, Amelia and Sylphiel who brought water and some herbs.
"Hi guys! Drop that stuff, we're having a decent breakfast in the next town!" shouted Lina a little less cheerfully than she would have liked. Xellos, who was still eyeing her thoroughly, stood up at her side.
"I'm teleporting you there", he said curtly. And the next thing they knew -- they were all standing in a narrow deserted street just a block away from a cute little inn. Lina almost fell over at the teleportation and was now cursing loudly:
"What the hell made you do that, Xellos!? I can't recall you acting so cooperatively anytime before!"
"You wouldn't have made those two miles in your current state, Lina", he answered coldly, slightly scoffing (which looked kind of weird with his eyes closed). "You need to eat immediately if you don't want to collapse. Your Astral Body is barely visible..." he finished angrily and strolled off towards the inn. Lina caught him by the elbow and hung onto him, her legs stumbling at every next stride.
"I warned you not to do it," said Xellos grudgingly, turning to Lina just to meet her astonished gaze.
"Xellos... Is this really you?"
The mazoku sighed, then pulled what was left of himself together and finally managed a Typical Xellos Smile.
"Of course it is, Lina-chan."
Thus they entered the inn.
The Slayers gang ate in relative silence -- Lina was too weak to battle over food today, and anyway felt bad about stealing from her plate when she could barely stand. Xellos sat straight and stared at the table in front of him looking pretty pathetic. As Lina finished the last bit of her order, she decided it was time for him to come clean.
"So, Xellos, talk to me. What on Earth happened to you yesterday?"
Xellos waved his hand dismissively and -- to common astonishment -- actually answered.
"The Golden Dragons of the Earth King's Temple have found some powerful artifact... I was supposed to go see what they were up to, but they spotted me. A battle started -- and as it took place on the holy grounds of the Temple, my powers were limited... So I got injured before I could get away."
"So how come Zellas couldn't repair you if I could?" wondered Lina feeling uneasy at Xellos's abnormal behavior.
"It's not that she tried and failed... She decided I didn't deserve to be saved."
"HUH!?" roared the whole gang, even Zel, who was normally more reserved than others. But to think that the trickster-priest was so easily let down by his Lord... As much as the Chimera hated the guy, he had to admit that Xellos was extremely good at his job and never once failed his mistress... And all those Dragons and minor demons fearing to so much as pronounce his name... Surely, that Lord was making a huge mistake sacking such a servant like that.
"Pretty humiliating, isn't it?" Xellos said in a slightly raised voice. "And others are going to know soon, too."
"Is she really THAT kind of a fool?" cried Lina who had obviously been thinking along the same lines with Zel. Xellos shuddered and pursed his lips.
"She... had good reason to be angry, actually. But that is none of your concern," he opened his eyes and gave Lina a pointed look.
"Oh." the sorceress said simply. She fell silent for a bit and then changed the topic: "So, Xellos... You are somehow enormously talkative today... Does the life debt thing work differently with mazoku or something?"
Xellos raised his eyebrows in calm contemplation.
"No, it's the same as with every other race. I'm talkative because I don't need to be loyal to my mistress anymore... And you can actually say that I'm too distressed for games."
Lina frowned. During the time she was acquainted with Xellos she often wished that he'd drop his playful attitude and be serious for a bit at least. Yet now when he did she somehow wished he was back to his jolly self. It made her feel really uneasy to watch him lay his forehead on his crossed wrists at the edge of the dining table. She got up and went to the bar to make another order, not willing to be overheard.
"A huge bowl of hot chocolate please. With ice-cream and cream and almond and marshmallow and maybe even strawberries, just anything. And make it as sweet as possible." If there was something about Xellos that Lina was sure of -- it was him having a gigantic sweet tooth.
As the order arrived, Lina pushed the bowl in front of Xellos and tapped a finger at the back of his head to make him notice the treat. At that Zel seemed to have choked on his coffee and Amelia got the whole Milky-Way of stars in her eyes seeing Lina actually taking care of someone else. She and Sylphiel immediately exchanged glances and started discussing something in undertone. Gourry put his hand to the back of his head and smiled approvingly: "Yeah, Grandma always said chocolate helps when you're down."
Meanwhile Xellos was unsure of what was going on, so he stared searchingly at Lina.
"Empty this," said Lina coldly, her lips a thin straight line, trying hard to ruin her own friendly-like gesture.
"Th-tha-anks," Xellos blinked and tried a strawberry resting on top of the cream-iceberg. He then proceeded with the dish, looking a little less awkward. Lina inwardly sighed in relief -- eating was at least something to keep the mazoku from imitating a worn-out rag-doll.
"So Lina," he said suddenly, "Your sole concern when saving my life was to get me in this debt, wasn't it?"
"Yeah!" said Lina cheerfully before anyone could even think of any other reason. "You see, ever since I got hold of that spell and knew how to convey the ritual, I was kinda looking forward to finding a mazoku in need... I mean, I thought it would be lovely to have a demon all to myself, wouldn't it?"
"Oh." Xellos seemed surprised unpleasantly. "It would certainly have some benefit. Did you consider the negative consequences though?"
"Eh? What negative consequences?" Lina asked, clueless as Gourry.
"I see," Xellos said in a weird tone that made Zel tense. "I'd better enlighten you then. Once you have claimed that a certain mazoku is `all to yourself' you automatically become responsible for his actions."
Zellas was biting her lip. Perhaps she really wasn't thinking straight in her rage. After all, she was the one who created Xellos, and in a way it was her who let this happen to him. Fall in love, that is. It was the way she created him, although she expected her sole minion to fall in love with his mistress and soon, as she was the only woman on the island and so powerful and beautiful... Zellas spent a good half an hour musing on her own advantages.
Yet then she thought that she had miscalculated something or another, and her Priest was incapable of love. Cold and strategic, so yummy-cruel... He was surprisingly loyal to her -- while with such powers and wit one would expect him to turn tables. Deep in her core Zellas knew that she herself could easily become a marionette in her servant's hands. A few times it seemed to her that that has already happened. Yet, day after day, Xellos was politely kneeling before her throne and complementing her and obeying her every whim. Although she knew better than to order against his advice as she often failed to observe all the circumstances and reasons that were obvious to him.
So now that he was gone, she was at a loss. Just this morning she found that she didn't really know how many mazoku there were on the island and if there were any of her Pack on the continent running an errand for Xellos. She didn't know which of her servants were trustworthy. She didn't remember all of the magical artifacts kept in the castle... Damnit, she didn't even know if there was enough wine stored in the basement to last until the next fruit season! Really, some sappy love affair her Priest was having with that little witch was nothing compared to this disaster, arghhhh!
Lina was walking down a dirt road, a wistful expression on her face, hands folded at the back of her neck, elbows pointing skywards. Gourry was by her side, whistling. Zel walked behind them trying to read some ancient book on foot which made him sick and angry. The girls followed, giggling. Xellos was dragging behind, hating every single bit of his surroundings. He didn't have his staff, as it remained in Juu-ou's domain, and anyways he had no right or reason to dress up as a priest. As depressed as he was, he didn't even bother creating a new illusional set of clothes, instead he simply bought a couple of items at the town's market. He was now wearing a white tunic with bluish-lilac embroidery and navy-coloured bell-bottomed pants. And sandals.
His morning talk with Lina didn't bring any answers to his questions. The sorceress just battered her hypnotizing eyes and cooed something like "But you won't do anything I won't approve of, will you?" and then she just slammed her palm into his back, smiling cheerfully and told the rest of the group to get on the road.
He didn't know what to make of it, really. On one hand Lina wasn't stupid to simply trust in him. On the other hand he knew he wasn't going to do anything she wouldn't like, and not just because he loved her. Being pushed out of the mazoku hierarchy made him sick to the core. He desperately needed someone above him, someone to decide for him, to depend on, to seek approval with... It was the only way for him to maintain his identity -- to have someone else responsible. And now there was no such person. That was why he was so eager to inform Lina of the effect of her claim. Of course, Lina Inverse was just a seventeen-year-old girl, lucky and mighty, but hardly the mistress type. He could see that even despite his passion. Then, again, it was still a question, what the other mazoku would find more humiliating -- being a stray dog or being a domesticated dog in a human's service. Somehow those seemed equally low ranks.
For Xellos, though, there was one hell of a difference. As long as Lina was going to tolerate him, he'd do anything for her. Especially since she would hardly really take any responsibility once he'd done something wrong.
So there was this question -- just how much did Lina know of his motives? Has she figured it out that he needed her for guidance? Does she already know how he feels about her? Was he really doing a good job concealing his feelings? Especially yesterday, when he was half-dead. He didn't really remember what nonsense he spoke then. He only recalled being afraid that Lina might die trying to heal him. That would have been...
...Well, in a way that would have been splendid. Oh yes, he was selfish enough to contemplate such a possibility with a smile, especially since in that case he wouldn't have lived to see the world without her.
Ever since he first saw the sunlight, he was wondering what was that blind spot inside his core. It seemed to contain nothing and to take part in no processes such as feeling, thinking or feeding. It had nothing to do with his mistress and his powers. It never changed in any way, it just was there, like a pea under the twenty mattresses.
And then he met Lina and he knew at once that the purpose of this spot was to contain all of his memories of her, so that they wouldn't mix with others and be forgotten. There they were now, all sorted and polished with care.
Lina laughing and happy -- and for some reason her emotions didn't displease him.
Lina annoyed and angry -- and that was a royal feast, though for some reason he could never exhaust her, no matter how much he took.
Lina beaten and bleeding -- and still even more appealing. So alluring, in fact, that he would hurt her himself just to see how she would stand up each time, determined, bloodstained but undefeated...
Now, that was a dangerous chain of thought. There was no way he would allow himself to hurt her, no matter how tasty that sounded. He was to stay by her side as an ally. As a faithful servant, if that was what she wanted. He was realistic enough to see that she would never view him as a mate. Not with his past. Not with her reluctance to deal with his kind. Especially not now, with the whole world hating him and prying on his disgrace.
Meanwhile the object of his passion jumped down from the body of the road and waved for others to follow.
"There's a stream and I'd do with some refreshing!"
Xellos followed the others, maintaining a stupid grin on his face. Should he wash his face too and soak his bangs, like humans do? Would she notice? Or maybe it's better for her not to notice and to let the images of him acting like a human penetrate her unconsciousness and stay there? What good will it do, anyway, if, perhaps, she doesn't even consider him a living creature since he never was born and never was going to die?
As he raised his head from the waters, though, his thoughts were interrupted by a sudden appearance.
"Xellos-sama!" exclaimed a tall snow-white-haired mazoku with white and blue stripes decorating his face.
"Lantz? Why are you here?"
"Who's he?" Lina demanded, instantly adopting a fighting position.
"He's one of Juu-ou's Pack, used to be under my commandment," Xellos answered. Then turned to the newcomer expecting his answer.
"I was nearby on duty and spotted your aura," Lantz said brightly. "Came to check it out, since we were told you were dead..."
"I am, to you," said Xellos gloomily.
"Oh, Zellas-sama was quite explicit about you not belonging to her Pack anymore, but..." the mazoku looked pretty sad. "It's still good that you're alive somewhere..."
"Ah," Lina seemingly relaxed. "That's OK. I've been taking good care of him, ya see!"
Lantz cast a curious glance towards the weird red-head, but decided not to meddle in his former commander's business.
"Anyway, sir... even with the official ban, there's still quite a team of us who would be glad to serve you, as long as it doesn't contradict the mistress's orders too obviously," the mazoku laughed nervously.
"Oh, rest assured, I won't ask any sacrifices of you," Xellos chuckled, however he looked quite pleased. "Yet I would be grateful if you manage to retrieve my belongings from the castle, as I can't cross the borders now..."
The younger mazoku beamed with delight (which left the girls really puzzled about the emotional specter of this race).
"Oh that's no problem, sir! Shall I bring it here?"
"Hmm, no, better store it in that hut I used when spying on Sherra. You're the only one who knows the place exists."
"Of course, sir," the mazoku gave Xellos something between a nod and a bow. "I'll do it right away. And you can call on me or others (you know who I mean) anytime. We all hope this clumsy situation is going to be resolved before long."
Xellos nodded his thanks, and Lantz was gone.
"What was that?" asked Zel in deep shock. "He's loyal to you despite Zellas's orders? Just what did you do for that?"
Xellos looked at him rather gleefully.
"Perhaps there is no way you would know it, Zelgadiss, but sometimes people seek each other's company without being forced to do so, but just because they enjoy it!"
He would have continued his angry speech if not for Lina's fist that crushed right into his temple.
"You know, Xellos, everyone has already noticed you're not in the best mood nowadays, and I'm not saying you have no reason for it, but that doesn't allow you to insinuate about others! Zel, for the matter, watched two of his comrades die for him even though Rezo's orders were that they kill him!"
"There's no reason to bring my personal history into this, Lina!" growled Zelgadiss. "Since when are you acting like a good guy with a knowledge of friendship, though, Xellos? Sacked once, afraid to be sacked for the second time, eh?"
"Shut up, Zel!!" roared Lina, throwing something at the enraged Chimera, who easily dodged whatever it was. He snorted and turned towards the road, stalking off.
Lina groaned, grabbed Xellos by the collar and followed her rocky friend, cursing under her breath.
Xellos was quite aware he wasn't thinking straight. Not that the realization made him feel any better. Why on Earth did he talk to Zelgadiss in that way? He was so glad about Lantz's loyalty, and here all his good mood was completely ruined...
And now Lina was mad at him. Not that that was unheard of -- Lina was mad at someone or another almost at all times, and Xellos was at the top of her list of targets, right after Gourry. He used to enjoy angering her a lot. On the other hand, Zellas's rage with him always made him feel miserable, just like now. Did that mean he was already thinking of Lina as of his new mistress? Xellos chuckled silently at the pun. Human language was pretty disturbing, mixing those notions.
But seriously, if his subconsciousness already put Lina's image into the gaping hole which was the Master's place in his core, he wouldn't be feeling so lost and unsure. And that, he realized, was the cause of his quarrel with Zelgadiss. The moment at least a tiny bit of his self-confidence was returned to him, he was too eager to prove his own worthiness. Funny, how long it took him to figure that out. He used to notice this particular disgraceful feature in others instantly. Recalling the images of people who possessed this flaw, he became utterly ashamed of himself. Oh no, he'd rather die than turn into a squabbly human teenager! Even though his beloved was one.