Zelgadis was chasing fairytales.
It was no exaggeration, no hyperbole, and no cynical denigration on his part. It was absolutely, one hundred percent, what he was doing. He was on the south-east edge of Kalmaart following a children's story, for it could hardly be called a lead, about a young woman who found her life transformed by a wish. She had been a poor girl, on the run from a wicked family who had left her scarred and abused, when she'd fallen in the woods and slipped into unconsciousness.
When she woke up she was in a different place in the forest, closer to the village she'd come from, and this is the part that Zelgadis was interested in. The wounds and scars on her body were healed, and her clothing was now that of royal finery. In the front of her dress was a bag, and she quickly discovered that whenever she removed a coin from the bag, it would refill. A never ending bag of gold, a miracle cure from all her ills, and a happy ending. She married a prince and never saw her family again. It was a popular story in this area of Kalmaart, a cluster of small villages south of Bezeld, and he'd overheard it a couple of times while traveling through the Duchy.
But why pay a fairytale any mind? It was simply a morality story, a rags to riches narrative that preached the virtues of patience or kindness or some other such nonsense. No doubt Amelia would love it, despite it not being from her kingdom. He sighed. It was a waste of time.
However, Saillune was actually why he was on this road anyway, so it's not as if following this 'lead' was really out of the way. This part of Kalmaart was on a back road that led to the kingdom of Saillune, and that was his destination… so why not a pit stop? He was going to Saillune for some work. Prince Philionel told him last time they'd met that he was welcome to take up his role as Amelia's bodyguard again at any time. That had been after Taforashia just a few months previously. He'd needed some time alone after that. Amelia had asked him to come back to Saillune with her, and he'd truly considered it, but… the revelations from Rezo regarding his cure had left him deeply stunned, even if he'd tried not to show it.
He needed to breathe.
And now, after breathing for a few months, he needed some money. Luckily Philionel paid well, so Saillune it was. It was an excuse, he knew deep down. Zelgadis had never had much trouble procuring tender while traveling. An odd job here or there, a group of bandits put out of commission, and his pockets were full enough to get by. Maybe, just maybe he was craving human company… at least a little bit.
Zelgadis huffed, shaking his head to dismiss the thoughts. Soon it would be sunset, and while he could continue his search in the dark, he preferred to go at it in daylight. He wasn't even sure what he was looking for. Was he supposed to find a spot that felt magical and… fall asleep there? He ran a hand through his wire hair and adjusted the rucksack on his back. This was preposterous. The entire idea was preposterous. Just go back to the village and rest for the night, you should be able to get to Saillune in a couple of days' traveling…
Stop wasting your time. You've wasted enough time already. Hell the entire past few months have been you wasting time-
"Shit!" he shouted, although it was closer to a yelp, as his foot slid into a muddy bank. He swore that it hadn't been there a moment before; as the alternative was that he had been too distracted to notice it. The latter was unlike him, but the former made no sense.
Zelgadis reached for the edge of the bank as his front foot went up in the air, but he came into contact with nothing but slick mud and continued to slide down, his other leg joining him in the air just moments after. He reached for his sword to see if he could stop himself with the blade, but his hands were too slippery and muddy to grasp it mid-movement. The bank was deeper than he thought, and he swore that he'd just heard his pants rip.
Well, at least the water at the bottom looked shallow, he reasoned as he slid the remainder of the way down, landing with a splash in the dirty brown creek.
But the hard bottom of the creek surprised him and caused him to jerk his head back involuntarily, where it made contact with a hitherto unseen boulder beneath the surface.
Zelgadis hissed in pain and he thought, how hard this rock must be, before dizziness quickly overcame him and he slipped into unconsciousness, his face half submerged in the water.
Drip, drip, drip.
A cave. Zelgadis was in a cave. He could tell before he'd even opened his eyes, by the way the sound echoed off the walls, the feel of the cold, moist rock beneath him, and the manner in which the cool air blew through.
The last thing he recalled was passing out in a creek, and now he was in a cave? He slid open his eyes, expecting darkness, but a small amount of light snuck through a crack in the ceiling. Sitting up and observing his surroundings, Zelgadis noticed a minor collection of stalactites and stalagmites, a tiny spring bubbling through the smooth rock, and his rucksack, thrown to the side of the cave but seemingly in one piece.
It was a small area, with a ceiling about five meters high and a width and breadth of not much larger. He noticed a natural tunnel, one that he thought he may be able to squeeze through, on one end. The stream trickled through it.
How in the world did he get in here? There was no way he'd fallen through into the cave. The crack up top was far too thin and if the creek were above him, it would be pouring through. Plus, even though he distinctly remembered falling unconscious (how a rock was hard enough to knock him unconscious, he did not know); his head didn't hurt at all. He was sure that much more than his head would have hurt had the cave collapsed and brought him with it.
Zelgadis tapped his chin and frowned. If he were in a fairytale, his sudden bout of unconsciousness in the middle of the forest would have resulted in having his wishes granted, but Zelgadis knew that what was going on was more likely to be either mundane or nefarious.
A cough. "What are you thinking about, Zelgadis Greywords?"
He leapt to his feet and pulled out his blade before he could even register where the voice was coming from. "You."
A laugh, gentle like a bell. "Easy now." A woman's voice, and his eyes narrowed as he met her gaze. She was on the far left side of the cave, leaning against the damp wall. Green hair curled around her, tumbling far down her back and ending at her knees. She was clad, but barely. Dewy vines made up most of her clothing, and there was an odd… light about her, as if she reflected her own glow in addition to the light seeping in from above. She was most certainly not human.
"You. You weren't here just a moment ago," Zelgadis said, cold steel in his voice. "How'd you get in here?"
"How did you get in here?" She quirked an eyebrow. "Put your sword away, Zelgadis Greywords. I mean you no harm, and it wouldn't affect me anyway."
He didn't sheath it, but he did step out of fighting stance. "You brought me here didn't you?"
"Who are you? What's your name?" Zelgadis frowned. "What do you want from me?" He furrowed his brows for just a moment and pursed his lips. "Were you the one that made me trip?"
She let out a peal of robust laughter. "Indeed, but I have a feeling that what I have to offer you will more than make up for a pair of ripped pants. And I did have the courtesy to heal that concussion, at the very least."
Zelgadis reached back and touched his rear with his free hand. Indeed, the fabric there had ripped almost entirely open, leaving his underwear the only thing between him and being bare to the world. His cheeks pinked, just a bit, before his eyes widened. "You have something to offer me?"
"Yes." She smiled and he could swear the glow around her intensified. "But Zelgadis-"
"W-wait, but how do you know my name? And again... who the hell are you?"
"You can just call me," she paused and walked closer to him, placing a hand on his blade as if challenging him to act, "your fairy godmother."
Zelgadis nearly dropped said blade to the ground, and he smacked his forehead with his free hand. "You have got to be kidding me." He snorted. "And let me guess. You know my name because you've 'always been watching over me?' Well if that's the case you've done a pretty bad job of it because-"
She held something up in front of his face to silence him. "No I know it because it was written on the inside flap of your rucksack." He blinked, realizing she was holding said sack, and grabbed it from her hands.
"Oh." He cleared his throat, looking a bit ashamed. "Of course."
"If I told you who I was, you wouldn't believe me anyway," she explained.
Zelgadis let out a harrumph and finally hilted his sword, crossing his arms after he'd done so. "Try me. I've met dragon lords and fought dark lords. There's not much I can't believe."
He swore that he heard her tut. "And despite having faced adversaries like that, you want a cure for your condition?"
Zelgadis stiffened and placed his hand on the hilt of his blade once more. "You-"
"I know at least that much about you. I pick and choose who I decide to bring here, and," her voice grew quiet, "I sensed in your wandering soul a deep sorrow, and I thought, hurt, betrayal, a desire to move on but a fear of trying." Zelgadis inhaled through his teeth, and he frowned and prepared to retort. "So you want to be human again?" He nodded fervently. "I can do it, but I have to know for sure it's what you desire."
"Of course it's what I want!" he almost shouted. "Why would that even be a question?" His grip tightened on his blade, merely because it was something to clench his first around.
"Your appearance is-"
"It's not about my appearance," he interrupted, his voice firm. He felt as if he had to make his case to her, as ridiculous as it sounded. This was probably all a huge joke anyway, but- he couldn't let even the smallest chance slip away. "Sure it would be nice not be gawked at and mistrusted, but even if that weren't the case, this form is a cruel mockery of my past." He shook his head, clenching his eyes shut. I was deceived, controlled, used as a triviality in a mad man's experiment. "I don't want my body to contain any part of him."
"But with the loss of your chimera body will come loss of speed, strength, and possibly even magical ability," she reasoned. "You do realize that, correct?"
Zelgadis shook his head. "Yes I do, and I don't care!" he responded, although in reality he hadn't thought about it much. It had always been about getting his cure, not the thereafter. He didn't dare hope that far. "This is what I want. I'm sure of it."
Her lips turned up in a light smile. "Very well then." She placed a hand on his shoulder, and he flinched. "And Zelgadis. I'm not trying to deceive you, but names have power. If I tell you mine then it will be harder to make you forget."
"Indeed. You won't remember any of this when you wake up."
A brief shock emitted from the hand on his shoulder, and Zelgadis collapsed unceremoniously onto the ground, a heap of blue and beige. He was unconscious for the second time that day.
"Oh my. It always seems to happen like that. I wish they'd fall more gracefully."
It was morning. Zelgadis could tell before he'd even cracked open his eyes by the dew beneath him on the grass and the muted, almost hollow way in which sounds echoed, that seemed to always accompany early morning in the wilderness. He had no idea where he was or why he was there. He'd just woken up from unconsciousness on the wet ground. He groaned, and a vague sense of déjà vu flitted across his mind, but he honestly could not remember anything like this happening before.
Kalmaart. He was in Kalmaart. He'd stopped around a cluster of small villages in the Duchy on his way to Saillune. And he'd gone- into the woods the previous day? But he had no idea why or what for. Perhaps just to take a walk? He certainly didn't remember going to sleep in the forest, nor did he remember… being attacked or anything of the sort. Past just going into the woods (for some inexplicable reason), he remembered nothing at all.
Zelgadis felt odd though. There was always a strangeness about the sounds of morning, but even beyond that, it was muffled, as if his head were in a bandage. He sighed and sat up, rubbing the back of his head as he did so.
He nearly passed out again.
Soft. His hair was soft. His eyes went wide, and he dared, quaking as he did so, to bring his fingers up to his face.
The tips of his fingers were pink, a pleasantly human pink. His movements still unstable, he slowly pulled off his half-fingered gloves.
And before he even realized it, before he could even touch is face, his eyes were misty. He clenched them shut; willing away the tears, but it was to no avail.
When Zelgadis touched his cheeks, soft, giving, smooth, they were wet with tears.
"I-I'm cured," Zelgadis whispered, as if saying it aloud might break the spell. "I'm human again." A little louder.
Ever so tentatively, just to make sure, he pulled his blade out of his sheath and, taking a deep breath, held the most reflective side up to his face.
It was a face he hadn't seen in years; not since he was fourteen years old and his world had been entirely different in every way.
Well, it wasn't quite the same. Same blue eyes, same slightly pale complexion, but it was older now, almost seven years older by his count. He was not a child any longer, but an adult, and he felt a pang for those years lost but brushed it off. He was not the nostalgic type, and besides even he couldn't deny that the past several years had been unforgettably eventful and at times even fun, in its own sort of way. He'd never tell Lina that though (or perhaps he already had. He couldn't be bothered to recall at the moment).
He let out a laugh, a robust booming laugh that he was so thankful no one else was around to hear, and then he just sighed, a relieved sigh as if the heaviest, weariest weight had been lifted off his chest.
His rucksack was a few steps away and he grabbed it after sheathing his blade. He had no idea what had happened, no idea how this had occurred, and he couldn't even bring himself to care about the cries of 'too good to be true' deep in his subconscious.
"Not such a great sage after all, are you Rezo?" Zelgadis smirked, as if challenging his surroundings. He adjusted his rucksack on his back, ignoring how much heavier it felt now, and wiped the remaining tears from his eyes. He had nearly given up hope.
Had he gone into the forest to hunt down a lead on his cure? He assumed as much, but he had no way of confirming as such. Had he just… stumbled upon it? Someone must have erased his memory; he had no doubt of that. It was not at all beyond the capacity of magic to do so, and he could tell that he didn't have any kind of concussion that could have done it naturally. The odd muffled feeling was because his hearing was no longer near as sensitive, he now knew.
That would take some getting used to. He'd spent almost a third of his life as a chimera. It had become… normal. He cringed at the thought. No, this is normal. This is right.
Still the idea that someone had modified his memory left him feeling… invaded and uneasy. Zelgadis spotted the village out of the corner of his eye. He had woken up at the edge of the forest, and it was only the shortest of walks to the small town. But who cares? I sure as hell don't. And besides, I'll be out of this Duchy and in Saillune within a couple of days at most…
"Heh, Amelia will sure be surprised," he said under his breath, a half-smirk crossing his lips.
The sun was over the village as he began to stride toward it, and he was almost all the way there before he noticed the massive hole in the back of his pants. The entire rear end of them was gone, and his cloak was ripped as well. Zelgadis groaned. "Well I guess something bad had to happen today…"
Morning in the tiny Kalmaartian town was like morning in every other rural village on the peninsula. A few sleepy vendors were opening their stands, men and women dotted the cobbled roads, and children circled around their ankles, behaving in a far less groggy manner than the adults supervising them. It was spectacularly normal. Unthinkingly, Zelgadis reached back to pull his hood up, but a brush of his fingers against his now soft hair reminded him…
Although he'd relaxed to the point where when he was around friends he'd usually walk around without his hood and mask, when he was alone, he felt it pertinent to consider doing so.
He bounced on one foot, very slightly, as a small smile crossed his lips.
And then remembered his pants. With a sigh and a secret hope that no one was paying attention to him (unlikely, considering that he was a clear outsider, and although he had been there the previous day, he… had looked very different then), he made a beeline to the general store diagonal and across the street.
The bell ringed as he pushed open the wooden door, and he stepped inside to the greeting of the storekeeper, a plump, middle-aged woman with a wispy bun holding hair up. It was strange to not be greeted with a raised eyebrow or a nervous glance. He nodded and said "good morning" in return before walking back to the store's small wall of clothing with purpose.
Zelgadis heard a chuckle, and he cringed.
"Run into some trouble, young man?"
He exhaled. "As a matter of fact, I did," he replied, shifting his rucksack slightly. The selection of clothing was limited, but the only extra clothes he had in his pack were his pajamas, so he didn't have much of a choice. Zelgadis pondered for a moment, tapping his chin as he did so. Someone who runs a general store is sure to have a pulse on what goes on in this town. Everyone has to come here after all. I wonder if she might have any idea what… happened out there.
Or she could think I'm crazy.
He sighed. Well it doesn't really matter what she thinks considering I'll be leaving soon, I suppose…
Flipping through the clothing, he selected a pair of dark green pants and a matching tunic with maroon accents that looked as if it would fit him. There was nothing in the way of cloaks, which disappointed him, but he brushed it off. He'd get something better in Saillune.
Turning back to the counter, he made eye contact with the shopkeeper and cleared his throat. "I'd like to purchase this, and… I have some questions."
She cocked an eyebrow and leaned over the counter. "I'll answer what I can, young man."
"R-right." He set his purchase on the counter and pulled his rucksack off his shoulders to retrieve his money pouch. He noticed, once he had it, that no coins were missing. That means I didn't pay anyone for this, so I doubt they'll be coming back for more money later on. "I was in your village yesterday, and I went into the forest…" he paused and slid the coins toward her, "but I don't know why. I woke up this morning at the edge of the forest, and I didn't remember anything. I don't remember what happened in the forest, I don't remember anything past leaving the village. Like I said, I don't even know why I left."
The woman took the coins, counted them, and gave him change, which he placed in his pouch.
"You probably think I sound crazy."
"It wouldn't be the first time I've heard of strange things happening outside this town," she said. Zelgadis perked up. "We're a peaceful town. We don't have any bandit problems and trouble seems to steer clear of us." She raised her eyes to him, and he flinched instinctively. "But there are stories, not necessarily bad stories… just stories."
"What kinds of stories?"
"When you came to this town, did you have something you were looking for, Mister…"
"Greywords," he answered. "And yes, I was looking for something, but it wasn't an object."
"A strong desire or a wish was more what I meant," she said, but then after a moment of silence from Zelgadis, she waved her hand flippantly. "It's probably nothing. Perhaps you just went for a walk and tripped? That would certainly explain your backside. I could get our doctor here to check for a concussion."
"No!" Zelgadis protested. "I didn't mention it because I thought you'd find it strange enough as is, but… I did have a 'wish', a seemingly impossible one. And when I woke up at the edge of the village, it had… been granted." He felt stupid even saying it. It sounded preposterous, like something out of a fairytale, but it was what had occurred.
She smiled. "Let me tell you a story, Mister Greywords…"
The story she told, that of a young woman who escaped from her abusive family only to have her wishes granted by a mysterious force in the forest, gave him a sense of déjà vu. He'd heard it before? Or had he? Was this the story that had sent him into the forest in the first place? He had no idea, and he supposed that he never would.
But if this (ridiculous sounding) story was related to what had happened to him, at least he didn't have to worry about someone catching up to him later on and wanting some sort of payment.
"That's the story we always tell, but there have been others who have experienced the same thing. Not commonly mind you. If it happened to you, you're one of the lucky few…" She shrugged. "I figure someone has to have one hell of a strong desire to draw this… whatever it is's attention."
Zelgadis smiled wryly. "I'll say," he paused. "I've only been after it a third of my life," he mumbled the latter part, but she heard him.
"After what?" she asked. "You don't have to tell me, but I'd have a new story to tell me if you did."
He glanced around. It was still just the two of them in the store. "When I was younger I was put under a curse, and I've been trying to remove it for years," he explained in simple terms. "It's gone now."
The shopkeeper raked her eyes across him, side to side, up and down. He twitched involuntarily, and had to stop himself for reaching for his hood once more.
"Nasty curse indeed," she said, and Zelgadis's eyes widened. "You were in the village yesterday. Saw you when I got lunch at the tavern. I recognized your clothes, but it was your voice that gave you away. Or your accent rather. Definitely not from anywhere in Kalmaart."
"No, I'm not," he replied, "but yes, that was me."
"Anyway, I'm sure you want to get out of this town and go on your way to-"
"Saillune," she paused. "If you go to the back of the store there's a heavy wooden door. You can go in that back room and change clothes. I reckon you don't want to go back outside with your rear hanging out."
Zelgadis flushed and nodded. "Right then." He snatched up the bundle of clothes and walked to the aforementioned door. He still hated the idea that his memory had been tampered with, but the shopkeeper's story, as impractical as it was, did seem to be the most likely explanation. I probably went into the forest after hearing about it in the village. It's not like going into the forest would have been much of a detour, after all. He shook his head. To be frank, he was having a hard time really caring how he'd gotten his cure. He was just glad that it had happened.
Zelgadis failed to see any downsides.
After grabbing a quick bite to eat from the local tavern, Zelgadis was ready to be on his way. He realized just a few minutes into walking that he wasn't going to be able to go the same pace as a human as he had as a chimera, but he shrugged it off. Not a big deal. I'll just be traveling at around the pace I do when I'm with Lina and Amelia and the others…
But he was anxious to get to Saillune, try as he did to deny it. He'd sent Amelia a scroll a couple of weeks before, right before he'd left to go back to the mainland, letting her know to anticipate his arrival. He had no way of knowing if his letter had actually arrived, but he wasn't too concerned. He was technically a knight of the kingdom, and that made him welcome in Saillune at any time.
Perhaps his anxiety came from, deep down, being excited to share what had just happened with someone he knew. He knew that Amelia and the others had genuinely not minded his chimera form, and that's one of the reasons he did consider them true friends. But he thought that, probably, they didn't realize the full magnitude of how much his cure meant to him. They weren't there when he was growing up with Rezo, when he dedicated himself to fighting for Rezo's cause, when he was betrayed by him. There was no way for them to understand the extent what it had been like, what it had felt like. They had respected his search nonetheless, which he genuinely appreciated. But he could tell that it also frustrated them at times. He frowned.
He had thought that perhaps, when he went back to Saillune this time, it would be a less temporary situation. He was tired, so exhausted from searching and coming up with nothing and wasting his damn life away on a thin to non-existent strand of hope. The words of Rezo's soul, captured in Hellmaster's Jar, had shaken him to his core. He had reevaluated many things while he'd been on his own since then, and though he was hardly going to give up on his cure, he supposed… perhaps it was time to slow down a bit.
Zelgadis refused to resign himself to it, but he didn't want it to rule his life any longer.
And now he'd found it. The irony hadn't escaped him at all, but he could not care less. He could breathe now. He could live the life he'd always wanted to live.
He had no idea. Before, his life had consisted of helping Rezo. After, his thoughts had consisted of finding a cure. What kind of life did he want to live now? He huffed inwardly and adjusted his rucksack, feeling odd when it didn't cause a cloak to shift on his back. He really needed to buy a new one.
Why was he even thinking about this? He had his cure, he had employment waiting for him, he had a destination, and he had… someone to meet up with.
Yes Amelia would be happy for him, he knew. It still, against his better judgment, made him terribly nervous to imagine meeting her like this. Would she not recognize him? Would she find it difficult to get used to? How effective a body guard would he even be as a human? Sure he had his magic, but Amelia was as formidable a sorceress as he was a sorcerer. It really was his body that had made him especially suited for the job.
But well, he was a knight of Saillune and it's not as if Phil would just boot him off the job. He sighed. Getting his cure didn't rid him of his cynicism, that much was for sure.
"Let's just get to Saillune."
He crouched down to the ground and pushed up.
Within moments, the road was beneath him and he smiled, relishing the feel of the sphere of wind around him. He willed it forward, toward Saillune.
But it was only a few seconds before he began to feel breathless, exhausted, and he began to lose altitude, the sphere around him flickering in and out of existence like a firefly. "Levitation!" he shouted quickly as the spell dissipated entirely.
He landed on the ground with a thunk, levitation not having taken hold.
Zelgadis was dizzy, tired, and his throat felt dry and raw. Before he'd been transformed, Zelgadis only knew the bare minimum of sorcery; simple spells like lighting. He'd been far more interested in swordsmanship. When he'd become a chimera, he'd undergone a crash course in sorcery, and within a couple of years, he was damn good at it if he did say so himself. He'd grown to love magic, even if the original reason he'd learned it was at Rezo's command. He genuinely enjoyed it, and it had become a crucial, integral part of his life.
He wasn't an idiot. He knew enough about magic to know exactly what had happened. Being a chimera had greatly increased his magical stamina, his capacity for how much magic he could channel through his body without getting exhausted.
As a human that was all gone. Raywing wasn't an easy spell, but even so, his capacity must have been pretty low for it to turn out like that.
It was possible to increase one's magical stamina, but it was a lot of work and… he had no idea how to do it. Magic had been easy for him as a chimera, but now-
He was going to have to start over. Zelgadis groaned and cursed under his breath before slapping his forehead. He was going to have to ask for help, wasn't he?
A flash of a certain blue-eyed princess crossed his mind, and he found his lips quirking up in a small smile. Well, it would be a lot less embarrassing than asking Lina, he and Amelia used many of the same spells, and he was already on his way to Saillune.
He'd be a damn awful bodyguard if he didn't even have his magic to protect her. And even more, it was a part of him that he absolutely didn't want to let go of.
Zelgadis adjusted his rucksack and glanced around him, at the tall, impenetrable forest that appeared to go on forever. He was back in his soft, fleshy human body, which was granted, great, but he was out his magic. He knew that hundreds, thousands of people traveled these roads with little to no magical skill and certainly less swordsmanship ability than he had, but it still left him feeling exposed, on edge, and extremely apprehensive. He had not felt so alone in a long time, and he couldn't even fly away if he needed to.
Saillune, as soon as possible.
Zelgadis turned back toward the village he'd come from, and after about an hour's walk, arrived. The jingle of the general store's bell brought the shopkeeper's attention back to him, and she greeted him in confusion.
"I need to buy a horse. Who in town can sell me one?"