oins glittered as they fell onto the green felt, one by one...
    Lina sat, mesmerized, waiting for the last one to finish spinning and fall over... as heads.
    "Ohhhh dear," Chuckles chuckled.  "I'm afraid under the rule modifications for odd-numbered hours, that makes that a three.  Which means you lose again.  Funny, I thought you were good at this game?"
    "Grrmgrmrrrrgg," Lina cheerfully snarled.
    "I do believe that means you're broke," Chuckles said, sweeping up the five coins into his palm, for another throw.  "Which means perhaps it's time to ante up another of your belongings, to continue and maybe win your sword back...?"
    "But Lina doesn't have anything right now other than the clothes on her back," Gourry observed.
    "Hmmm!  We could start there!" Chuckles giggled.
    Lina glared evil flaming death at Gourry.  "I am NOT going to play Strip Coins!  I'll ante Gourry up instead."
    "Whaaa?!" Gourry said.
    "Hrm.  What's his market value?" Chuckles asked.  "I don't think one slightly used swordsman would go for much on the open market..."
    "Just toss the coins, please, double or nothing," Lina said.
    The clown gave a shrug, and let the coins fly...
    Gourry snatched one out of the air before it hit the felt.
    "Now hold on a minute here," he said.  "We can talk about this reasonably.  If... heyyy, wait a minute..."
    "Ah.. I believe that's enough gambling for tonight.  Your swordsman ante is unacceptable," Chuckle said quickly.  "Thank you for playing--"
    "How come this coin has two heads?" Gourry asked, examining both sides of the coin.  "I'm not a smart man, but I'm pretty sure in games like this they're supposed to have different heads.  Otherwise, you've got no Luck at all!  Right?"
    Lina knocked the table over with Surprising Strength, sending the offending clown (and Gourry) sprawling.
    "What's the big idea?!" she demanded.  "You're trying to CON me, aren't you?"
    "Nonsense!  I... I..... heh," Chuckles started to chuckle.  "Heh, heh.  Ha ha... HA HA HA!  AHAAHHHAAAAHAHAHHAA--"
    "Oh, great," Lina groaned, smacking her forehead.  "I know that laugh.  You're a villain, aren't you, Chuckles?"
    The clown got to his feet, pointing at Lina.  "Foolish little sorceress!  We knew of you when you set foot in here.  But we planned, oh yes, we planned!  We've got your friends, Miss and Lady, and they're hostage at our base of operations... one word from me, and my minions will kill them, and we finally can take over this Casino and run it with crooked games!  No more big winners, ONLY big losers!  For we are... the CLOWNS OF DEATH!"
    Lina blinked.
    She restrained a giggle.
    Then she didn't bother restraining it.
    "HEEEHEHEHEEHEeeee!!!" Lina laughed.  "Oh, that is RICH!  That's got to be the funniest name for a bandit gang I've heard in years.  'The Clowns of Death!'  What a joke!"
    "Hey... we're some bad dudes, I'll have you know!" Chuckles said.  "I may jest about and talk in riddles and wear face makeup, but I'm a stone killer who--"
    A blast of flames, encapsulated in an orange ball, flared out of Lina's hands and blasted Chuckles the Clown through three walls before he arced gracefully through the air and into a rock.
    "I never did trust that clown," Gourry said.
    "C'mon, Gourry, let's go mop up some bandits," Lina said, tightening her gloves, retrieving her sword from the wreckage of the dealer's table.  "At least this isn't going to be a problem.  What a bunch of--"
    "I was going to say idiots," Lina coughed.
    "Clowns is funnier."
    "It's an obvious pun!"
    "That's what makes it funny," Gourry said.
    "Less joking.  More slaughter," Lina suggested.  She picked her way through the rubble, and the pair made off for the forest.
    The scene at the Almost Well Hidden Fortress of the Clowns of Death needs to be described in parts.
    From overhead, it looks like a very basic bandit camp, made with a high wooden fence, a few guard towers, dense forest for protection (and also very good at hiding attackers), and mounted next to a hill, in which you have a cave to store belongings.
    Mind you, the entire affair had been decorated in brightly colored paper streamers and paint, with cheerful balloons hanging from every fence post and there was the occasional sound of a whoopie cushion instead of manly brawling.  But it was still a bandit hideout.
    In the courtyard, dozens of heavily armed clowns are freely frolicking, celebrating the capture of the Lady who owned the Casino.  Soon, it would all be theirs, once their boss deals with that bandit hunter!  We don't care about these guys, so let's move on.
    In the cave, two women are tied up in classic damsel in distress excessive amounts of rope, seated back to back.  Myth is there, sulking because she was recently captured with depressing ease.  She was trying to be a team player, rather than a passive writer this round, but she was able to put up as much resistance to the bandits that broke into her room as a candle can put up in the face of a typhoon.  Luck, who is tied to her, is in full bipolar bear mode, wailing in lamentation at her fate; fortunately, the clowns had enough sense to put a gag on her.  Both are awaiting some kind of rescue.
    In the forest, their rescue is waiting to attack.  Lina and Gourry have found a good vantage point, hidden high in the trees, to observe the complex.  They're already planning the assault, based on the blueprints for the place, which are highly standard.  It was like a football play.  Lina would cause some random destruction around the compound with lobbed fireballs (avoiding the cave itself), and while bandits were running around in confusion, Gourry would make a beeline for the cave, slashing anything in his way.  Once there, he would free the hostages and head straight out; Lina would have invaded the compound by then, ready to provide cover fire.  Once safely away, you Dragon Slave the site from a distance, head home, have a victory dinner and go to bed.
    And definitely not to be left out is the scene on top of the large hill overlooking the compound, where a dirty little puke of a man and a graceful lady of the night were observing the entire situation.  And waiting.
    "Are you certain the charms you have placed will work?" Angela asked her companion.
    "Guaranteed 100% effective, miss," Bugger grinned.  He enjoyed his work a great deal.  "A little bad luck here and there, a little accident or two and the whole plan comes tumbling down.  How about you?"
    "I am stimulating their sense of glory," Angela said.  "None will stop fighting, ever.  For the honor of the Clowns of Death and the beauty and power of their leader, they will be twice as ruthless."
    "Not a bad combo, if I do say so myself," Bugger said, fishing a nasty dog-end of a cigarette out from the black hole behind his ear.  He took out a book of matches, constantly striking without getting a flame.  "Now we just watch the shambles, and wait for Lina to go running to the horizon, a total failure."
    The plan started...
    ...Lina selected five strike zones for the first wave of fireballs.  Two guard towers, knocking out half of their observation powers and making the other half run for cover for fear of being next.  She cast, and cast; BOOM, BOOM, wood blew apart like matchsticks, a dozen whoopie cushions exploding in noisy cacophony.
    "Now?" Gourry asked, his sword drawn.
    "Onesec," Lina bit off, quick, two more fireballs floating in, quick as time, into the heart of the crowd.  The second took out the main gates, blasting it into so much brightly colored shrapnel.  Beautiful.  And one more, she tossed it off easily--
    The fireball skewed off to the side, caught in an unfortunately timed and unusually strong wind, and exploded at the mouth of the cave, collapsing the entrance.
    "Hey!" Gourry said.  "I needed to go through there!"
    "...accident," Lina said.  "Hurry.  We have to act fast.  Improvise when you get there!  Break!"
    ...Gourry made a break for the compound's entrance, which was flaming driftwood from the explosions.  He slashed at any clowns that got in his way, moving speedily--
    "Death to the infidel!" clowns shouted.  "The holy war against the unfunny has begun!  Stop him, even if it means your deaths!"
    And the clowns were on him thick as thieves, which they technically were, in an occupational sense.  Gourry worked doubletime, trying to plow through the thick of them, struggling to make it to the cave.
    ...Lina started her invasion, expecting to step through disabled bandits left in Gourry's wake, only to find many very active bandits rushing her.
    She shot off a few Flare Arrows to deal with them, getting her new sword ready.  She was still a bit rusty with it, but it was really the best thing for close infighting.
    ...finally, having reached the cave entrance, Gourry had to figure out how to clear that much rubble out of the way.  He was a resourceful lad, though, and had the answer soon.  Unlatching the metal blade from his sword handle, he chanted the summoning.
    And the Sword of Light, the TRUE sword he carried, shone as bright as the sun.  He made a series of cuts at the rocks, slashing his way through the debris, careful not to cause more cave-in.
    Success!  He had a clear path.  Crawling into the dark cave, he spotted the two women who were overjoyed to see him, and jogged briskly over to free them--
    And stepped on, of all things, a banana peel one of the clowns had unthinkingly left out right where Gourry was going to be putting his foot down.  He flipped over backwards, his head smacking hard against a rock which was unfortunately placed right where his head was going to land.  Unconscious.
    Myth groaned.  So much for the rescue party.
    ...WHERE was Gourry?!
    Lina continued to hold the bandits at bay, but this wasn't going to last forever.  They needed to be going, so they could safely dispose of this den of bad humor from a distance.  But nothing was going right.  The clowns were suddenly zealous fanatics from beyond common sense, Gourry was taking his sweet time... what ELSE could possibly go wrong?
    The clown princes of crime eased off, for some reason.  Swords drawn, still menacing, but now.. smiling.  Why?  Some joke Lina wasn't in on?--
    "GRRORORORORLLL!!!!" an animal snarled behind her.  Lina turned to look.  Someone had let the nice kitty out of its invisible cage in the Casino, and boy was it hungry for a little sorceress snack.
    Angela watched in pure delight as everything went totally haywire.
    "Bravo, bravo!" she clapped, as one might clap for a fine opera performance.  "I simply adored that last touch."
    "I 'erd her ask The Question in her mind," Bugger grinned evilly.  "I never turns down a challenge, see that I don't."
    "Soon, they will be dead or discouraged or both, and we can be on our way," Angela smiled.  "I believe this calls for a--"
    Then the universe shook under their feet, a golden wave of power brushing past their souls--
    Recovering her balance quickly, Angela was thrown into sharp relief.  "What was that?  That was no magic I know of!"
    Staring on in disbelief, Bugger pointed slowly at the scene below them.  "It can't be... DAMMIT!  This is ruining my perfectly good ruination!!"
    "What?  What is it?"
    "It's those blasted wingless!"
    "It sure is lucky that Gourry dropped his Sword of Light right where you could reach it and cut our ropes, Myth-san!!!" Luck burbled, keeping the sword at arm's length, as she defended Myth, who was dragging a snoozy Gourry out of the cave.  "And boy, it's lucky that I know how to use a sword at masterful levels that can split insects in flight!!  TEE HEE!  Now, what do we do about all these not-nice people?"
    "We can't be lucky enough to deal with all of them," Myth said.  "Ummmm...."
    Casting out with her Talents, she sought a story, anything she could anchor onto and tug in her directions, guided by the pen...
    ...a regiment of soldiers, returning from a foreign war, only a few roads away.  They were tired and sleepy, but...
    Myth wrote furiously, propping her book on Gourry's head.
    "'The Tale of The Brave Cavalry of Section 303!'" she announced, pen scratching madly.  "'Once there was a group of proud fighting men, returning home from a victory overseas.  These were brave, stout-hearted men, who would right any wrong, and defend the innocent from harm.  Somehow, as fortune would have it--'"
    "HIYAH!" Luck shouted, slashing at two clowns that came within slaying distance.  "Don't worry 'bout me, continue!"
    "'--they happened to hear the sounds of a massive fight, drifting across the winds,'" Myth continued, sweating slightly from unnerved nerves, hurrying.  "'Despite fatigue, they had heard the call of the valiant.  They changed directions as fast as possible and ran and ran and HURRIED UP ALREADY to get to the source of the noise, and lo, they saw hundreds of bandits assaulting three beautiful women and a swordsman!  With a battle cry of--'"
    "TO ARMS, GENTLEMEN, TO ARMS!" the captain wailed, drawing his sword, as the horses--
    "'--charged into the ruined camp, swiftly crushing any resistance--'"
    The sounds of war echoed all around them, sword on sword, grunts of anger; but the clowns stood no chance.  Myth squinted to see through the fray, spotting Lina.
    "'--they also got the large tiger off of the underdeveloped sorceress, um, keeping it as a company pet from then on so they would take it with them and definitely away from here, and task done, the captain congratulated them, saying--'"
    "Well done, lads!  You're all getting bonuses when we return!"
    "'--and there was much rejoicing.'"
    "Yaaaaay," the soldiers cheered.
    "Oh, sorry," Myth apologized.  "'The End.'"
    The soldiers formed up, and marched out of the camp, leaving only the crackle of flames to mark their passing.
    Upstairs, Bugger was pissed.
    "Don't it just FIGURE?" he grumbled.  "SODITALL!  Here I was, starting to have a really good day, and it all just dumps on me.  Typical, typical... shoulda seen it coming.  Should have bloody well seen it coming!"
    Angela tapped her foot, brow furrowing.  "These wingless are more of a danger than we realized.  If they have such power--"
    "We'll crush 'em!" Bugger proclaimed, stamping his foot.  "Rip their friggin' wings off their back, if they had any!  C'mon, we gotta retreat and plan round two.  I ain't lettin' this defeat me!"
    "Nor am I," Angela.  "Not after that.  We cannot rest until Lina is stopped from gathering these... THINGS together."
    Mazoku and Dragon withdrew, into the darkness.
    A small party of tired adventurers walked out of the forest that night, shadows slumping along in the moonlight.
    "Big cat," Lina repeated, twitching occasionally.  "Big cat.  Big cat..."
    "I don't get it.  What happened?" Gourry asked.  "Was I asleep?  I hope I didn't mess everything up..."
    "My hand has cramps," Myth complained.
    "Aww, CHEER UP!!!" Luck demanded.  "It's been a nifty wifty trip so far and oh BOY OH BOY I can't wait to continue it with you nice people!  Just think of the adventures we'll get into, and all the clever traps we'll escape and the bad guys we'll overcome!! And with Luck, we'll-- what's that you have there, Leeeeeena?  Looks like a jelly--"
    With an inrush of air and a wet sucking noise, Luck was slurped into the mystic Man-Trap of Fa Chu.  Lina looked at the frozen little picture of Lady Luck, satisfied, and stuffed the jar into her pack with the others.
    "Anybody have objections to shutting her up for the duration of our trip?" she asked those assembled.
    Nobody said anything.
    "Right.  It's settled, then," Lina nodded.  "For now, back to the hotel.  And then... Myth, please tell me your next friend isn't as crazy as she was."
    "Oh, of course not!" Myth said quickly.
    "He's much worse," she added.
Story copyright 1998 Stefan Gagne, characters copyright H. Kanzaka / R. Araizumi.
A Spoof Chase Production.