Of course, he couldn't stay in Ashfeld. It was fascinating to listen to the Maidens' stories, but otherwise the town was mind-numbingly boring. Every night a bit after sunset the taverns and eateries filled with tired farmers and restless teens, but they emptied just as quickly as everyone went off to bed to prepare for the next working day.
The Maidens were just the same, so they kept to the same schedules. They were just regular people with their own jobs and responsibilities, it was more of a club than a proper order. There were only about a dozen members – mostly sisters with a couple of young brothers as well. They had no standard uniform, no symbols like necklaces or rings. They went to lengths to keep their knowledge and membership secret . . . specifically because of Xellos.
They knew a surprising amount about the Mazoku considering none of them had ever even seen him before. Apparently the Maidens occasionally traveled, learning in the wider world and gathering more information and stories to bring back to their sisters. Some past sister had come across information on Xellos and realized he was the mazoku who showed up around Ashfeld every few centuries. They didn't trust him, which was a good instinct. In some stories he helped, in others he destroyed, there was no predicting the mazoku. The Maidens were rightly worried he may just kill them all.
Zel didn't think Xellos would do that. But he might be ordered to.
In the end, stories were interesting, but they didn't reveal much actual information, only a very vague timeline and that was assuming the stories were true. Zelgadis had a sinking suspicion he would need to get any actual information from Xellos himself. As he left the tiny village behind him, the chimera consoled himself with the fact that the stories at least gave him ammunition, something to guide his future inquiries. If the damn trickster ever showed up again.
Months passed. Zelgadis fell back into his routine: research, travel, research, defeat a few bandits for money and supplies, more research. The chimera wasn't making any progress on his cure, he couldn't seem to turn up any new leads. Eventually he'd taken a break and visited Amelia, but he couldn't stand her overly-cheerful nature for more than a few days. After a couple more months he visited Lina and Gourry similarly, taking the opportunity to stock up on bandit-loot before he moved on again.
The lack of progress was starting to get to him, but the folder about Xellos provided a surprising relief. When his own search – or lack of it – became too much, this new puzzle was a good distraction. He didn't have any better luck finding anything, but the spell he'd been given was interesting to try and decipher. Mazoku magic, powerful enough he had no hope of ever casting it, but of course he didn't want to. He just wanted to understand it.
Mazoku were . . . forbidden knowledge. It wasn't information that humans generally had interest in or access to. That made it even more interesting, but also meant there was very little to be found. Far too soon, Zel ran out of information for that as well, and his search just sort of . . . stalled.
He was currently in a southern city in the mountains. A place with a grand library and absolutely nothing helpful to his cure or understanding Xellos' spell. Zel was getting frustrated again, lying in his bed in his cheap room, staring at the ceiling in anger. It had been so long since he'd had even the most paltry of leads, but there had to be other things he hadn't tried. Xellos had told him he had other avenues . . . surely he couldn't have exhausted them in only a year of searching.
It was getting quite late, well past midnight by now. But Zelgadis couldn't sleep, he couldn't stop thinking about his quest, trying to puzzle out some new path. Slowly, his mind turned to the trickster priest. He still hadn't asked the mazoku directly if he knew anything about his cure. But he also hadn't seen him since he left Ashfeld.
With a truly heartfelt groan, Zel threw an arm over his eyes, willing himself to fall into slumber. His mind refused to settle. It lingered on Xellos, then slowly turned to Ashfeld again. He found himself recalling the stories the maidens had shared with him and then suddenly, he knew his next move.
Of course, how could he have been so stupid? Maybe he had exhausted all his leads, but not all of his contacts. He'd been so distracted, overwhelmed by all the information he'd gained about Xellos. He hadn't even considered asking that group about his own spell, but that had been a stupid lapse. Finally, Zelgadis felt a smile tug at his lips. He had a direction to go for the first time in quite some time. In the morning he'd set out for Ashfeld again.
The trip took quite a while, one thing about being remote was that there were no major transports. There was no traffic around the city except the occasional convoy of harvests out or supplies in. Zelgadis wasn't fortunate enough to catch any of these, so he was forced to approach on foot. He took the time to enjoy the nature around him. The hills and forests were lovely, and the closer he got to the human settlement, the more orderly and refined it all became.
Wild fields marked the start of the village, the woods spotted with fruit trees and wild edibles cultivated in the ever-more-present open spaces. Before much longer, the outlying farms came into view, their orderly lines creating a stark contrast between the semi-wild and the man-made. Zelgadis raised his eyes a bit, craning his neck to see past the upcoming hill. He could just make out the buildings of the town, the two-story inn one of the tallest.
Suddenly the shaman's view was blocked. He stopped, yelping slightly and scrambling back as the Beast Master herself abruptly appeared standing in the path. She said nothing, just regarding the chimera for a while. Zelgadis swallowed, retreating a couple more steps and offering a nervous bow of his head. “Um . . . i-is there something I can do for you, Juouo-sama?”
The woman continued to stare at him for a minute before she spoke. “I do not want you returning here, am I clear?”
“Wh-what?” Zlegadis asked, honestly thrown off by the abrupt order.
“You got what you wanted about my priest, anything you didn't think to ask then is your loss.” She took a few steps towards him, angling to one side so he couldn't stay on the path if he wanted to retreat. Like a wolf flanking its prey, he thought with a shiver. The woman tilted her head to one side and asked, “So you'll be on your way now, yes?”
Zelgadis tensed, feeling very much like prey. “I'm not here about him this time.” He struggled to stand his ground, keeping his eyes on the mazoku as she circled.
One fine eyebrow lifted. “Your cure? You really think this hole will have information on that?” She laughed at the thought.
Zel's gaze fell slightly, trying to ignore the way her smile grew at his drop in mood. “No,” he answered. “But I didn't ask and I should have.”
Xellas slowed and finally stopped. She frowned, an almost sympathetic look settling on her face. “Very well then. But think of all your questions, because I do not want you returning again. And I expect you to only inquire about your cure.”
Zelgadis swallowed again and nodded shakily. “No more digging about Xellos.” And just like that she was gone and Zel was looking only at empty space. He glanced around nervously, inching along the path again towards town. One hand settled over his chest, trying to calm his racing heart. Not at all what he'd been expecting . . . but if he was being allowed to return, he was going to make the most of his time.
The town was just as small and dusty as Zelgadis remembered. The maidens were happy to see him and he wondered if it were just for the novelty of something new happening. It certainly seemed that way with the rest of the townsfolk, Zelgadis was earning just as much attention as usual. But the looks now were coupled with remembrance and a few people would then whisper excitedly to their friends who hadn't seen the shaman last time. They didn't fear him, he was just something different in this perpetually unchanging farming town.
Zel decided he didn't like 'eager' attention any more than he enjoyed 'suspicious' attention. And to his regret, but not really surprise, none of the maidens knew anything that could help him. That wasn't really what he'd been hoping for anyway, he wanted these people to help him search. More eyes looking for anything that could point him in the right direction. He told them about his past, about Rezo, about how he'd been changed. Then, despite his words to the Beast Master, he told them about Xellos' spell too. He even showed them the copy he'd been given, though none of them understood the powerful magic. They didn't need to, they memorized it by rote to pass on to other sisters. Someday, maybe, one of them would come across something.
Zelgadis didn't even stay the night. If it were a choice between mind-numbing town life and a peaceful night in the surrounding woods, Zel would gladly take the latter. He was in a somewhat decent mood, any progress was good and he counted this as progress. And he had a destination in mind as well. The sisters didn't have any information to give him, but they told of a library another sister had gone to. A library Zelgadis had never visited, and hopefully one with useful information.
When he finally stopped for the night, he'd put quite a few miles between him and the tiny farming village. He started up a small fire and rolled out his sleeping gear, stretching as he lay down.
“Not eating, Zel-kun?”
The shaman sat bolt upright, staring across the fire at the smiling owner of the voice. “Xellos!”
“It is good to see you too!” he said brightly before adding. “But aren't you hungry?”
Zelgadis glared slightly, “I ate in town.”
“Yes, in Ashfeld,” Xellos said slowly, his smile fading. “Juouo-sama is not to be trifled with, Zel-kun. You made her angry.”
The chimera frowned at him. “Why? What does she think I'll find, there is nothing useful back there.” No things anyway, he thought, sure to leave out the useful people.
Xellos sighed slightly and shook his head. “It's not the fact you came here, it's the fact you're looking at all. And I thought you weren't going to look in the first place?”
Zel growled slightly at him, the reminder of his recent failures only serving to annoy him. “I didn't come here for that. I have my own spell to find.”
The mazoku raised an eyebrow before asking “And you think this hole will have information on that?”
Zel blinked at him slightly, a little unnerved by hearing the exact same phrasing as the Beast Master had used. “Not really,” he admitted with a frown. “But . . .” he sighed. “I haven't had any leads in . . . a long while.” Not since the last time he'd come here.
Xellos was quiet at this before saying, “Something will turn up soon.”
Zelgadis' gaze sharpened suddenly. “Xellos, I've never asked you. Do you know anything that could help me?”
Purple eyes slit open to regard the chimera for a moment. Xellos' face was solemn as he answered, “I'm sorry, but no. There are a few spells I know of, similar to the original, but I honestly do not think they will do you any good. Rezo was of a different class entirely.”
Zel swallowed thickly. He lifted a hand to rub his eyes slightly and heaved a sigh, but said nothing.
“Zel-kun, I've never asked you either. Why is it so important to you?”
The chimera looked at him. Xellos still had his eyes open, focused intently on him, but Zelgadis just growled again. “Are you joking? Look at me!”
“I am.” Xellos stated. “And while I admit you are not conventionally handsome, you are far from hideous.”
Zel just continued to glare. “You'll have to excuse me if I don't put much stock in a mazoku's judgement on appearance.”
“A mazoku who still prefers the human aesthetic,” Xellos said as if reminding him. “I know Amelia-chan agrees and I'm sure Lina does as well. Are looks really so important to you?”
Zelgadis looked away, staring at the ground for a minute in silence. He wanted to say 'no', he really wanted to disagree. Instead he whispered, “Yes. They are.” Xellos said nothing and the chimera's head dropped a bit more. “They shouldn't be. We tell children they aren't, because that's how we want the world to be. But that isn't how it works!”
He glared at Xellos again, almost taking comfort in the familiar hatred of the beautiful mazoku. “In the real world, you're stared at, even attacked. Barred entrance from establishments, refused rooms, laughed at and taunted. I've actually been run out of towns! Mothers hide their children from seeing me!” He stopped and sighed, rubbing his face again. “I'm not sure you're capable of really understanding.”
“Perhaps not,” the mazoku admitted. “But I understand your pain.”
This earned him another glare, “Yes, I'm sure you're well aware of that.”
“Hmm. Well I actually don't enjoy it, if that makes you feel any better. Tasty as you are, I would rather see you content.”
Zelgadis sighed again, suddenly tired. “Well it doesn't look like that'll happen for some time. I need to sleep.”
“Yes, of course. Let's finish this on the lighter side then. I'd like to know why you don't simply go to be with the princess, it would make her simply die of joy.”
Zelgadis looked at him again, this time with a baffled expression. “What are you talking about, 'lighter side'? I'm not sure that's your business.”
“But it's my last question!” The trickster said brightly.
Zel's eyes suddenly widened. “Are we trading again?! I didn't agree to that!”
“Oh, I assumed it was a standing arrangement,” Xellos said, eyes shut again and face a mask of confusion. “And I answered your question first this time, such an important question too. I would think that deserves all three in compensation. Although, I have others if you insist. Like do you have any allergies?”
Zelgadis' eyes widened a bit more. He did actually have a couple of allergies and that was not information he wanted the trickster priest to have. “Amelia,” he started firmly, “is very sweet. But I can't be what she wants . . . even when I do find my cure. It just wouldn't work.”
“Poor child,” Xellos sighed with mock sympathy.
Zel huffed a bit. “Yes, that's another problem. She's maturing nicely at least.”
“Soon you'll have a proper voluptuous woman chasing after you.”
Zelgadis rolled his eyes slightly, laying back down. “I'm going to sleep,” he stated and turned his back on the mazoku and the fire.
For a few minutes there was only silence, but then Xellos' quiet voice reached his ears. “Sleep well, Zel-kun.”