"While there's children to make sad, while there's candy to be had, while there's pockets left to pick, while there's grannies to trip down the stairs... I'll be there, I'll be waiting 'round the corner, It's a game I'm glad I'm in it, 'cause there's one born every minute! It's so easy when you're evil! This is the life you see, the Devil tips his hat to me! I do it all because I'm evil! And I do it all for free... your tears are all the pay I'll ever need." Voltaire, The Mephistopheles Waltz

Zelgadis had seen a great many strange things in his long career as a "cold-hearted mystical swordsman". He'd witnessed the deaths of three Dark Lords and a demon beast. He'd seen the Lord of Nightmares wear one of his best friends like a suit, reducing a ghost city to ash in the process. He'd even seen every single male companion he'd ever traveled with in drag including himself (a fact that caused him no few nightmares, though he'd never admit this fact to anyone). Having seen so many strange things, one would think that he'd become accustomed to impossibilities popping up in his life like spam e-mail.

Still, if someone had told him that he would one day be traveling with one of the aforementioned Dark Lords, the aforementioned Darklord's girlfriend (this being a now indisputable fact) who just so happened to be an Inverse, the Dark Lord's wounded, reformed minion, and a magic-stealing bug-woman thing who was also a superb cook, he'd have probably given them one of his unamused looks before continuing on his (dour, but still) merry way.

The Dark Lord in question bore his unconscious burden in stoic silence, his mouth compressed into a grim line. Mina walked closely to his left, her hand unconsciously placed over the pommel of her new sword, partly to assure herself that it was still there (the thing weighed absolutely nothing, and thus far she'd whapped her elbow smartly on it not once but THREE times, something she hadn't done since her father had begun her training) and partly because she was dreading the upcoming meeting with her parents. Her father, she was sure, would accept her relationship with her surly companion with his usual clueless benevolence, (He probably didn't even remember Gaav's NAME, let alone the life or death struggle he'd fought with the Dark Lord some twenty years ago) but she wasn't worried about her FATHER. It was her mother who weighed heavily on her thoughts. The two of them had not parted on the best of terms, and in the years between their last fight Mina hadn't even gone home to visit.

Not once.

The reason for this stemmed entirely from the nature of their last big argument. Mina's grip on her sword tightened as she recalled the hurtful words that had exploded between the two of them like hastily thrown spells. She wished she could take back some of the things she'd said. Unfortunately the road forward, while shrouded in darkness most of the time, is a far easier path to travel than the road back. The road back home can become so cluttered and overgrown with the brambles and thorns of anger and misunderstanding that one's inertia can make any attempts to forgive and forget impossible...

Until at last it was too late.

It was one of those arguments that always springs up sooner or later, though the stubborness and strong-willed (not to mention short-tempered) nature of both mother and daughter had worked to exacerbate the situation to catastrophic levels. Her eyes appeared to become focused on the road in front of her, when in actuality they had turned inward, toward a time not too long ago (though it seemed like an eternity, but then, life with Gaav can do that to you) when a fledgling hero was preparing to make her way into the world, though wiser heads had told her it was-


"-Idiotic! I can't believe a daughter of mine could be so dense! You aren't anywhere NEAR ready to start adventuring yet! Not until you've mastered the Ragna Blade!" Lina's strident voice carried through the Gabriev home with the force of a small hurricane. Mina turned and fixed her mother with an infuriated scowl.

"You know damn well that I'm NEVER going to master that spell! I've got the incantation down perfectly, everything I need to cast it is in place! I just don't have the power to handle it, mom!"

Lina sneered. "Listen to yourself... you sound like one of my other students." she gestured angrily, her voice ringing in a mocking, sing-song parody of the students in question. "I CAN'T learn it! It's too HARD! Just how impressed is a mazoku going to be when you start throwing excuses his way rather than spells!?"

"You aren't LISTENING to me!" Mina growled in frustration. "You NEVER listen to me! I didn't say I couldn't LEARN it! I've LEARNED it just fine, you've said so yourself. I'm telling you I just CAN'T cast it! I can cast everything else you've taught me-"

Lina crossed her arms. "I said no and that's that. Besides, you're too-"

Mina slammed her hand down on their kitchen table. Gourry (who'd been sitting miserably at the far end of the table trying not to be noticed, which was his usual position in a parent/child dispute) looked up in alarm.

Mina looked at the tabletop, trying to compose herself and failing miserably. "Don't even SAY I'm too young mother. You were younger than I am now when you started adventuring, and YOU couldn't cast the Ragna Blade either. You didn't even KNOW it. Not to mention I'm much better prepared than you were back then, since I'm ten times better with a sword than you were! You just don't think I can take care of myself!"

"You're right Mina, I don't! I've BEEN there! It's a hard life, adventuring, and I just don't think you-"

"You're just afraid I'll end up like YOU!" Mina snapped, then instantly regretted it.

"WHAT DID YOU SAY?" Lina blinked in hurt astonishment.

Gourry added his two cents worth. "I think that-"

Unfortunately it came up a little short.

"SHUT UP, Gourry!" Lina turned on her husband angrily. "You don't think, that's your problem!"

Gourry looked down, a hurt look on his face. Lina didn't notice, but then, she was currently hurting and angry herself.

"Mina, I don't want you adventuring yet. You just don't..." she stopped when she realized that Mina was no longer listening to her. Or even in the room.

Mina kicked their front door open angrily (Which was a bad thing. The Gabriev family door had quite merrily opened inward for the better part of two decades, and did not appreciate the sudden change in lifestyles) and stalked out, no longer listening to her mother's angry tirade. She'd had enough of her mother's excuses. That was all they were, excuses. She'd had enough of her mother's constant criticism and nitpicking. Of never measuring up to the famous Sorceresses' impossibly high standards. She'd-

She stopped and blinked confusedly. She had somehow walked two miles down the country road before realizing what she was doing. Now she was out here, Mom was undoubtedly through the roof, and she didn't even have a sword, any supplies, not even a change of clothing. She sighed. She was going to have to go back..

NO. She wasn't going back there. She'd think of something... she'd...

"Uh... Mina... your Mother says you have to come back home... now." Gourry sounded as though it had taken some effort to repeat her mother's demand in something resembling it's original form (actually it's real form would have required a great deal more invective than Gourry had in his vocabulary. He is, after all, a little too good-natured to use such language). Mina sighed. This was the same man who barked orders at green recruits with the best of them. It was a good thing they didn't know how her father really was at home.

A really good thing.

"I'm not going home Dad. I'm an adventurer now. You're just going to have to tell Mom I'm not-"

"Without any food? Clothes? I'm not as smart as you two... but I know you don't want to leave without all THAT stuff." Gourry frowned. "Not to mention a sword."

Mina blinked in surprise... this was her Dad? Old clueless himself? She was caught without an answer. She was further flabbergasted when a sword hit the dusty road at her feet. She turned to regard her father curiously.

He held his own blade before him, a deadly serious look on his face. "Well, Mina... I think it's time for you to show me what you've learned. 'Cause if you can't beat me..."

He widened his stance out. Mina blinked again in stunned surprise. "Then you aren't ready to leave the house."

Mina picked up the sword and drew it, then frowned in confusion when she saw that it was a real blade; not a practice one. She turned to Gourry-

-Only to clumsily parry a lightning series of blows as her father advanced grimly upon her. She jumped back avoiding a thrust and looked at him incredulously.

"You... you're really fighting me!" she exclaimed, stunned.

"Of course I am." She leapt over his sword then rolled right as he continued his relentless assault. "If you can't beat an aging warrior like me..." she parried and finally managed to get a weak attack in, which he parried so hard her sword nearly slipped out of her numbed fingers. "Then I wouldn't trust you to fight any bandits. Besides... if you think I'm facing your mother alone right now, you're crazy!" He smiled grimly and parried two more frenzied swings with practiced ease.

Mina began fighting in deadly earnest, using every bit of the skill her father had imparted into her with many a year's hard training. She limited her motions to use up the least amount of energy possible, and schooled her features to betray nothing to her "enemy". She couldn't prevent her mouth from forming a smile though... she enjoyed everything about swordplay, and her father was the best swordsman (arguably) the world had ever seen.

Unfortunately she was about to learn an age-old adage of students and masters...

Namely, that he may have taught her everything that she knew, but he had not taught her everything that HE knew.

He thrust forward at an odd angle and caught her sword beneath the guard, twisting it expertly, forcing the blade out of her grasp and high up into the air. She stared at him in dismay for less than a second, then threw herself into a backward flip. Gourry blinked momentarily (such acrobatics were not something HE'D ever taught her) then advanced on her, slashing as he did so. Mina continued flipping backward, barely avoiding his attacks each time, before reaching up just at the right moment, catching her blade before it hit the ground, and bringing it up into a desperate slash-

-finding Gourry's sword an inch from her nose-

-and her own an inch from his neck.

He blinked.

"Where did you learn that?" he frowned.

Mina was still slightly out of breath, but she grinned and lowered her weapon. "It's... something... I made up."

He grinned proudly. "Wow... You're so smart."

He lowered his own weapon and sheathed it. Then he dropped a bag in front of her stunned gaze. "This should be enough until you knock off your first group of bandits. Gimme that sword."

She blinked. "But... I need a sword.."

He took it from her and grinned. "Yeah... but this one's just a standard issue Sailoonian Guardsman's sword. I want you to have this one."

He removed a sheathed sword from behind his back and held it to her hilt first. She took it numbly and stared at him in confusion. "But that's your... why are you..."

Gourry winked at her. "I know what your mother can be like. I've been with her for..." he stopped. He looked upward, his features becoming blank in concentration. "Well... a long time. If this is what you want to do, then you are more than ready to do it."

"I... Dad..." Tears filled her eyes. "What about Mom?"

He smiled gently. "Your mother knows you're ready... she's just scared. Sometimes she has problems seeing what she's really feeling,so she sees something else that isn't really what she's feeling but IS kind of but... so she... um..." he frowned. "Uh..."

She hugged her father tightly. He was right. In his own way.


"-MINA!" She started, then looked around her confusedly. Gaav stared at her suspiciously. "Are you alright?"

"Yeah... just... kinda preoccupied." she sighed, whapping her elbow against her sword again. Dang it.

Zelgadis had been staring intently at Xellos' back for the past several minutes, an intensely speculative look on his face. He matched his stride to Mina's own and frowned.

"Mina... this whole thing stinks, and I'm pretty sure Xellos is the one behind it all."

Mina frowned. "I know that, Zelgadis... my mother hasn't left her home except to visit friends in over fifteen years... now all of the sudden her, dad, and auntie Filia are out "looking for me"?"

Zelgadis nodded shortly. "Exactly... it's obvious that Xellos has been herding us all together... what I can't figure is why he was trying to keep you and your mother apart up until now."

"We might have bigger problems, Zel... Mom and Gaav aren't exactly the best of friends... I don't think he'd just attack her... but if SHE attacks HIM..." Mina shuddered. "We don't have time for any confusion... Valgaav is in really bad shape." She cast a concerned glance back at the half-dragon in question, shuddering weakly in the iron grip of a concerned Dark Lord.

Zelgadis sighed. "I think the best thing would be for me to go ahead of the rest of this little "procession" and try to explain things to Lina before the rest of you get there... so she doesn't get the wrong idea."

Mina nodded. "I think that's-"

"A great idea!" Xellos chirped cheerfully, from about a foot away. Zelgadis and Mina jumped suddenly, then blinked and looked at Xellos as though he'd grown a second head.

"How long have YOU been here?" Mina growled.

"Mina... you really SHOULD pay more attention... I've been here the whole time!" He smiled at her. "Not to worry, though... I think Zelgadis going on ahead would be an excellent idea!"

Zelgadis narrowed his eyes. Xellos AVOIDING confusion? Xellos PREVENTING chaos? Things began to click into place for the observant chimera. When Xellos had first appeared to their group, Zelgadis had marked something out of place... something not quite RIGHT with the situation, but he hadn't been able to put his finger on it. This feeling had persisted, hence his careful observation of the irritating mazoku. Finally he was able to put all the pieces together, though the completed puzzle made no sense to him at all...

Xellos was AFRAID. This in and of itself was odd, since even when the Mazoku had been torn in two during his confrontation with the Demon Dragon King he'd been nothing more than mildly concerned. The real bombshell was, Xellos wasn't afraid for HIMSELF.

He was afraid for Valgaav.

Zelgadis smoothed his features into practiced neutrality, and cast a warning glance at Pix, who was looking at him with a question in her eyes. His face might be inscrutable to most of his small band, but Pix knew him a little better than all of them. He decided to keep his observations to himself.

For now.

"Anyway, I assume Lina is just a bit further up this road, am I correct?"

Xellos grinned. "Absolutely!"

He nodded to Mina. "I'm on my way... I'll try to smooth things over for you. Pix-" he turned to her and frowned.

She fluttered to his shoulder and landed, biting her lip. "Yes, master?"

"I want you to stay with Mina. If Valgaav dies... from what Gaav was saying, a Mazoku is going to take over his body. If that happens..." he sighed. "I want you to assist Mina in taking it down." He cast a glance at Gaav, who nodded grimly.

Pix frowned, but nodded quietly. "I hope it doesn't come to that, Master."

He nodded. "So do I, but in this case, it pays to be prepared for the worst."

He turned to regard Xellos, gazing at him in silent speculation, but if his words to Pix meant anything to the enigmatic mazoku he showed no sign of it.

He nodded shortly to Mina, then then spread his arms and formed a Raywing around himself. Taking off, he was soon a fast dwindling speck in the distance.

Xellos watched him leave, grinning outwardly...

Though his staff had several new grooves.


"Ooooohhhh... my head..."

Lina glanced irritably at the hungover dragon, her patience at its limit. "You did this to yourself, so stop complaining!!"

Amelia gave Lina a concerned look. "That isn't very fair, Lina... I mean-"

Filia growled at the sorceress. "It was either that or drown!! Would you rather I drowned?!" she winced at her own scathing tone and held her head. "Don't answer that. Owww! Does any one remember what I did last night?"

Everyone remained studiously silent. Amelia whistled, looking elsewhere.

Lina remained silent as they walked but the suddenly composed expression on her face gave Filia great cause for alarm. She suffered in silence.

Gourry patted Filia on the shoulder and smiled. "What you need is a hairy dog."

The group stopped dead in their tracks and looked at him in stunned shock.

Gourry blinked in confusion at becoming the center of attention. "My dad always used to tell me he needed a hairy dog to bite him after he got really drunk." He looked thoughtful. "I never did SEE a really hairy dog bite him... maybe he had it hidden somewhere. After he had a hairy dog bite him though, he always looked like he felt alot better. My father was great for stuff like that."

Lina slapped her forehead. "Somehow, that doesn't surprise me."

Hydra gave Langdelin a meaningful look. He sighed and shrugged.

"Great Zomelgustar, I shalt be happy only when this blasted quest is at an end. Have ye no backbones, varlets?! We hath surmounted impossible odds and numerous trials, (well, only one in particular, which wasn't EXACTLY a trial... a trial usually involves a jury of one's peers, and in order for the people of Katatoe to be the adventurers' peers, the entire group would have needed lobotomies, not to mention about three inches of topsoil) emerging victorious despite the odds! The final battle awaits us!"

He pointed his sword and grinned fiercely. "There! Yon enemy awaits! Onward!"

Hydra tapped his shoulder. "Er... Sentinel is that way..." she pointed helpfully in the opposite direction.

Zelgadis came over the rise at that exact moment.

Langdelin blinked. He looked in awe at his blade, then the fires of fanaticism burned fiercely in his eyes. "HAHAHA!!! Zomelgustar is not fooled! Look at the horrible countenance of badness that faces us using foul sorcery to attack from the rear!! DID I NOT SAY THAT EVIL WAS TRICKY?!! EXCELSIOR!!" He charged forward joyously-

-and slammed face first into Zelgadis' Raywing force-bubble. He remained there, plastered against it like a bug on a windshield. Hydra winced.

Lina waved wearily. "Hiya Zel... what're you doin' here?"

Zelgadis crossed his arms and gave Langdelin his best unamused look. "Friend of yours?"

Langdelin slid, squeaking gently, slowly down the face of the magical bubble and towards the ground . Zelgadis shook his head in wonder, then dropped to the ground and cancelled his spell. "The reason I'm here-"

"Zelgadis!!" Amelia ran forward, stars in her eyes.

"Erk.", said Langdelin, stars also in his eyes from the jarring impact to his cranium, as the happy monarch trampled over him in her exuberance.

Zelgadis caught her easily before she could throw him off balance and spun her around in a circle to get rid of her momentum before setting her down gently. "A-Amelia?! What are YOU doing here?"

"What am I doing here?" Amelia blinked. "I'm here to help Miss Lina..."

"Then..." He frowned. "Who's running Sailoon?"

Amelia blinked. "Why... my officials of course. Don't worry about Sailoon... my father used to go off on quests to end some threat to Sailoon all the time..."

He shrugged. "Oh... well in that case it's nice to see you again, Princess.. excuse me... Your Majesty."

Amelia looked deeply hurt. "Nice... to... see me again? We haven't seen each other in fifteen years and all you have to say is "nice to see you again"?"

He blinked. "Why... isn't it nice?"

Lina slapped her forehead. How the hell could such an intelligent guy be so damn clueless? "Anyway... WHAT are you doing here, Zelgadis?"

He raised an eyebrow. "I might ask the same question of you, but I think I already know the answer."

Lina frowned. "Gaav has returned, and he's kidnapped Mina. We have to save her, Zel."

Zelgadis raised one craggy eyebrow. "Indeed? Who, exactly, gave you this information?"

Lina frowned. "Well... Xellos... why?"

Zelgadis sighed. "There's a big surprise... it all starts making sense now."

Gourry frowned. "Well... I hope it makes sense to someone, because none of this has made sense to me from the beginning. I just figured Xellos was behind the whole thing."

They all looked at him. Lina growled irritably. "And HOW exactly did you come to this conclusion, jellyfish brain?"

Gourry grinned happily. "Well... because Xellos is behind everything!"

Zelgadis shrugged, closed his eyes, and smiled. "Well... in this particular case, I think Gourry is right. Xellos apparently told you Mina was kidnapped. Xellos told Mina that Gaav was a Bandit King or something. She tracked him down, blew up his bandit gang, but then she WAS kidnapped... well, more like taken hostage, but now the two of them... Well let's just say there's some things that Xellos neglected to mention."

Lina frowned. "Like what?"

"Well... like the fact that your daughter is in love with him."

The group blinked at him in stunned shock, with the exception of Langdelin (Whose enthusiastic charge had abruptly made him a temporary resident in Lala Land) and Gourry (for whom breathing had much the same effect..). Lina blinked rapidly and started to breathe again.

Gourry paled. "Mina is in love with XELLOS?!"

Lina slapped him on the back of the head without looking in his direction OR losing the flabbergasted look on her face.

"Wow.." she finally said after a long period of silence. "I think I just went insane. I thought I just heard you say my daughter was in love with a Dark Lord..."

Zelgadis sighed. "We have to talk..."


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