ight descended on the Bigtop Bigtop in a big way over its top.  The lights still winked and blinked in cheerful colors, some gamblers were still making fortunes and losing nest eggs, but it was considerably more sedate than the earlier bustle.
    In the adjoining hotel, small by many standards but very luxurious, Lina was cuddled up in a nice, soft soft soft SOOOOFT bed and enjoying the best sleep she had experienced in weeks.  Comfortable lenin and fresh pillows after a warm bath will do that to you.  Occasionally her stomach growls, since all she had for dinner was a glimpse at a MRTE before quietly dumping it in the trash, but it was a small concern next to a twin-sized rectangle of liquid comfort.
    Elsewhere in the hotel...
    Elsewhere the beds are just as soft, but to one who was familiar with comfort and luxury, perhaps it wasn't as soft as a puffy white cloud or as clean as a pure ivory tower.  To Angela, the beds were simply adequate, and when Lina turned in for the night, so did she.
    Dragons aren't supposed to dream.  At the very least, they do not dream as humans do; they know their dreams mean something, visions brought on by their highly magical natures.  It's reported that Mazoku are similar, although the dirty things probably have dirty dreams, Angela theorized.  Why should she have a dream like that?
    Why should she be dreaming, that night, of what she was dreaming of?  It didn't make sense...
    She saw her world in flames.  The outposts of the Dragons, their towers and perches, collapsing like so many sandcastles, kicked over by small children just to be mean.  She saw her people fleeing in terror.  Absurd!  Dragons are noble, Dragons are good, Dragons do not run from a fight...
    She felt herself flying, her white feathered wings, so treasured for their beauty already clipped by numerous arrows, singed by spells.  A final shot, a dark flare of power strong enough to burn a hole through her left wing, sank her; plummeting, she landed in pain...
    The humans loomed over her, the destroyers.
    She was there, she was feeling the event.  Yes, the humans rose, as Angela long suspected they would, being creatures of chaos... they rose and destroyed the Mazoku that terrorized them, that ruined their lives and killed them during the wars.  And the Dragons approved of this, and aided them in crushing the Mazoku, having finally found allies enough to win the great wars...
    Task done, the humans would turn on them!  Did turn on them.  Past?  Future?
    Now they stood over her broken wings, gloating.  See how easily the Dragons fall.  See how weak the Dragons really are.  We won't be pushed around by Dragon or Mazoku any longer.  Our leader has shown us the way.
    The wingless surrounded their leader, a figure of great power and chaos.  A leader who now stood before Angela, sword in hand, as two great butterfly wings unfurled from behind their back, dark as ebony in the midnight shadows... and all was still.  Dead.
    The vision over, Angela awoke, sweating.  She willed herself not to sweat, she fixed her hair with power, she preened herself, panic reactions to the nightmare... she restored her calm.  All was well.  All was not well.
    It was the same dream she had nearly a month ago, when the Island of Ultimate Despair burned without burning.  She didn't understand it before, she researched who was involved in the incident, she got herself onto the Council that was dealing with Lina Inverse, to find out what it could mean.  Now she knew.
    Lina Inverse MUST be stopped, or she would be the death of her kind.
    She was the right Dragon for the task.  With her powers, she could... no, she would not destroy Lina Inverse.  That had as much risk as letting her go on; in addition, she was a Dragon, concerned with the preservation of life.  (Mind you, she tended to give the notion lip service more than strong devotion.)  But regardless, Lina Inverse must be STOPPED.  She would need a specialist in such things to aid her, perhaps, to make the task more assured.  Someone who likely also would share these goals...
    Ignoring her nightgown (since Angela looked ravishing no matter what she wore) she manifested her Dragon's wings, opened her window and took flight, following her nose.
    Lina dreamed as well.
    Her dream, as she had the best night's sleep in the softest bed imaginable, was to be having the best night's sleep in the softest bed imaginable.  Sleep within sleep.  Probably impossible, but her mind was more than willing to ignore that fact, and just enjoy the dream.
    The quest was going well.  She was hungry, but the quest was exceeding all expectations.  Things were coming up roses.  And all of it ending, at the moment, in this nice, soft bed she could sleep in.  If only people would stop bugging her.
    "I'm so happy to be going with you!!" Luck said, perching on her bedrest, watching Lina sleep.  "It's going to be such fun!!!  Isn't it great how all the wingless want to follow you?  The world is a cold dark place that hates me!  WAAAAAAH!!"
    "I don't think they'll be happy to see you," Myth said, hanging, for some reason, on Lina's bookshelf.  "We didn't part on the best of terms..."
    "Go away.  Sleeping," Lina reminded them, pulling the covers over her head.
    "Anoooo, Lina?" Gourry's voice said.  "You can't just hide away like this.  We can't just hole up when something bad comes along... what happened to the good 'ol Lina Inverse?"
    And then, a new voice.
    "I guess there's nothing innately wrong with living carefree," a familiar voice mused.
    Lina peeked out from her covers.  Zelgadis was squatting by the nightstand, looking concerned.
    "I'm simply worried there'll come a time when the other shoe is gonna drop, and you won't be ready for it," he continued.  "Not in the slightest."
    "Didn't we already have this conversation?" Lina groaned.  "Like, months ago?  I'm trying to SLEEEEP!!"
    "You can't just hide away," Gourry reminded, from his position on the other side of Lina's bed.
    "Things get messy, but you manage to get serious just in time, and eventually everything's fine despite it all," Zelgadis noted.  "Like you were born under a lucky star.  A lucky star.  There'll come a time when the other shoe is gonna drop..."
    "You said that already!" Lina protested.  "Shut up!  I get the point!  It doesn't matter now.  This is an easy quest.  It's been a breeze and a half, maybe even a little fun.  I've got wings, I filled a prophecy but it's not looking as bad as I thought.  Nothing is going wrong!"
    "Things CAN go wrong," her own voice said.
    Lina whirled around, to find herself with white hair lying next to her.
    "Sometimes you think things are okay when things have already gone wrong and you're just the aftermath," Lina Inversed said, a quiet voice.  "Sometimes bad things happen and you think it's all gone when really it's not.  Sometimes bad things happen and you don't know until you see what happened after the bad things.  Sometimes bad things happen and you can't do anything to stop them.  Sometimes bad things are happening right now and you'll never know until it's too late.  Sometimes you're smiling when you don't know about the bad things that are happening right now and you'll--"
    "Shut UP!" Lina demanded, covering her ears, closing her eyes.  "Everything is fine!  I'm good 'ol Lina and everything is fine!!"
    "You can't just hide away like this," Gourry reminded her, again and again.
    In frustration, Lina yanked her sheets aside, and got up to march out of the room.  She stomped along, in her pajamas, her wings manifesting again in her sheer annoyance behind her, as she opened the front door -- to the closet.
    Xelloss was inside, blinking a few times, as if confused.  "You're dreaming about a hotel room?  Strange.  Nice wings, by the way, good to see you have them at last--"
    "Just say your vague, meaningful speech and get out of my way," Lina requested coldly.
    "What, you think... ohh, okay," the priest said, smiling.  "Hark and beware and such.  There are nasty things afoot."
    "That's what the others said, too."
    "Really?  My, you must have some natural feel for things," Xelloss laughed.  Then his face snapped serious.  Eyes open.  "Lina, there are people plotting against you.  Several of them.  You need to know this, because they're all going to take action soon."
    "And I suppose when I ask who, you'll go 'That is a secret?'" Lina said, rolling her eyes.
    "This is too important to joke around about, actually.  If..." Xelloss said.. before his eyes turned distant, gazing at something far away.  "I have to go, he's about to find the gate.  Sorry.  Trust no one except Gourry.  And myself, naturally."
    The trickster priest vanished without a trace, leaving an empty closet behind where the door should have been.
    Lina turned, to face the other visions.  They weren't saying anything; watching her, just watching her.
    "Anyone else with commentary?" she asked.  The visions vanished into vapor.
    Satisfied, Lina went back to her dream bed, to sleep in it while she slept in her bed, and maybe add another layer of dream-embedding to make up for lost rest.  But before she could get there, a thunderclap rocked her room once, twice, th--
    *knock knock*
    Lina's mind jerked back to the original bed, wide awake, as someone knocked on her door.  Taking seriously the idea of ripping the head off whoever interrupted her, Lina flew (literally) to the door, wings flapping, and yanked it open--
    Damn, they got away.
    She glanced around, up, left, right, down-- ah, a note.  She opened it and read.
        'I hear you're having a cash flow problem,
         not to mention a food supply problem!
         Maybe we can work something out.  Meet
         me in the storage room behind the bar in
         ten minutes.  --CTC'
    There was no helping it; she was awake now.  But she wasn't angry enough to blindly march down into what could be a trap.  Forcing her wings to unmanifest, she pulled on some loose clothing, put on her cape, and went to go wake Gourry up.
    Outside, in the forest, a man with bad back posture was hunched over a campfire, trying to light damp wood with non-flinty rocks.
    "Soditall, soditall.." he cursed.  "Damn wood won't light.  'course I'd 'ave to be lighting the most pathetic wood in fifty miles, 'course it's the only spare wood I could find... bugger it all if this ain't a lousy day and a half..."
    A woman cleared her throat.
    Bugger spun, readying a handful of topsoil as a weapon, to face the newcomer.  "Whaddyawant?.. oh, damn.  It's YOU."
    "Mazoku," Angela recognized, her flowing nightgown and blonde hair perfect in the moonlight.  Many men would have died for beauty like that.
    The ugly one didn't care.  "I'm 'ere on fishal business," Bugger said.  "I ain't here to mess with no stinkin' Dragons.  Push off, or we're gonna do the bloody mambo, girly girl."
    "And I am here on official business as well," Angela smiled, a calming smile.  "In fact, I wouldn't doubt that we're both here on the same business..."
    "You gonna fight or just talk in Dragon riddles?"
    "Fight?  Heavens, no.  I am a gentle soul who only seeks the preservation of life.  Although..."
    "Get on with it, gel!"
    "The one called Lina Inverse," Angela said.  "Your orders are likely to destroy her, yes?"
    "Inconvenience," Bugger said, relaxing somewhat.  Somewhat.  "I don't kill.  I can kill, t'aint my specialty.  I screw people over, I ruin their lives, I make 'em sorry they was ever born.  That style of thing."
    "How ideal!" Angela said, clapping once in appreciation.
    "Ideal for what, lizard lips?"
    "Ideal for our task, of course," Angela said.  "Lina Inverse must be stopped.  I suppose I alone could do it, but it would be risky.  I suppose you along could do it, but it would be uncertain--"
    "I'll stop 'er."
    "Really?  You alone?"
    "I gots plans," Bugger grinned.
    "How about if we... share plans?" Angela suggested.
    This knocked the Mazoku of Bad Days for a loop.  "What're you implying, scaly?"
    Angela smoothly waltzed over to Bugger, turning the charm up higher.  "I want her stopped.  You to as well.  We're far into the field, away from our superiors... who's to know if a Dragon and a Mazoku ensure that their single cause is carried out?"
    "Why do I need you?" Bugger asked.
    "I see things happening one of two ways," Angela counted, on two fingers.  "One, we could try individually, and if we both fail -- it's possible, even if doubtful -- it could mean the end of everything for us.  This Lina is capable of leading her pathetic little species to toppling your thrones, you know."
    "HAH!  That'll be the day.  What--"
    "Two," Angela continued, "We could work together, crush her spirit with your skills and empower her enemies with mine, and end this silly business once and for all.  Then, upon returning to our superiors, you can claim full credit.  AND I can claim full credit.  Neither will believe the other side had a hand in accomplishing the task, and our places in line are assured.  Can you think of the promotions possible for saving your race from this new threat of the wingless?"
    Bugger swallowed that one, regurgitated it, played with it and swallowed again.  "S'got a certain appeal..." he admitted.  "Although I still think you Dragons are an uptight bunch of self righteous bastards, of course.  But we could work a bit together, a bit..."
    "And likewise, the Mazoku are filthy, depraved beasts with no manners or common sense," Angela smiled.  "But I am a woman of compromise and diplomacy.  And politics, definitely politics."
    "So what've you got in mind to do away with the little human once'n'fer'all?" the Mazoku asked, curious.
    "The wheels are already turning," the Dragon said.  "We'll just give them a bit of a nudge in the right direction..."
     Gourry was happy to be woken up, it seems.
    "I can't stand those beds," he complained.  "They're just too soft.  You don't feel like you're lying down on anything.  You know what was a great bed?  The one in my room as a kid.  My dad made it himself with straw, hay and canvas!  I guess we had to get rid of it when the bugs got too aggressive, though."
    "Who's CTC?" Lina wondered aloud, reading the note as the two walked across the relatively quiet casino floor.  The only people gambling this late at night were the truly desperate.  "Any deal that sounds too good to be true probably is, but..."
    "Don't worry, I'll protect you if it's a trap," Gourry said.
    "I can protect myself, Gourry."
    "If you can, then why am I tagging along with you like this for so long?"
    Lina stopped in her tracks.
    "What?" she asked.
    "Well, the thought just occurred to me..." Gourry mumbled, almost apologetically for interrupting.  "If you really don't NEED me around, why do you have me come along on quests and stuff?  I mean... thought just occurred to me, and..."
    Lina thought about that for all of two seconds before deciding not to think about it anymore.
    "Enough nonsense," she said.  "Stay sharp.  Who knows what we're walking into here?"
    "Good point," Gourry said, getting his sword out.  He got on one side of the door, Lina on the other.  "Ready?"
    Lina nodded, and twisted the doorknob, opening--
    "Yaaaa!!" Gourry shrieked in surprise, neatly bisecting.. the clown's hair.
    "Whooaaa, easy on the trigger, mister!" Chuckles the Clown laughed.  "This hair isn't cheap, you know.  Don't worry, I'll take it out of tonight's stakes."
    Lina looked around in surprise.  In the back room of the Bigtop Bigtop was a single gaming table, and a lantern to supply just enough light to see the game in progress.  A rack of chips, several game coins, a clown, chairs, and that was the extent of the furnishings.
    "What's this all about, clown?" Lina said, not in an insulting way.
    "A good samaritan deed!" Chuckles said.  "You're out of money.  You can't buy food.  In the interest of being a Good Neighbor, I'll allow you to put something of yours up for bid, so that you might perhaps get some money back.  A simple game of Coins will suffice.  Does this interest you?"
    Gourry was confused.  "But we already have food--"
    "Sounds good here!" Lina said, hopping into a player's chair.
    "Ne, but Lina, you're bad at this game," Gourry reminded.
    "Once.  It was a fluke," Lina said.  "But I used to kick a lot of ass at this back home.  I'm ready!"
    "Aaaaah, first an exchange," Chuckles said, gesturing.  "Say... your sword, for some starting money?"
    Lina fingered the hilt of her butterfly-design sword.  "Ah.. this is sort of mine--"
    "Exchange it, or I will help you not," Chuckles declared.  "You'll win it back anyway, besides, mmmm?"
    Gourry eyed the funny happy silly clown with suspicion.  "Lina, I don't think this is a good idea..."
    "Eh, it can't hurt, can it?" Lina said, removing her sword.  "It's just some sword I bought, anyway.  I can get another.  And I won't have to.  I'm going to WIN!"
Story copyright 1998 Stefan Gagne, characters copyright H. Kanzaka / R. Araizumi.
A Spoof Chase Production.