aking up every hour put Lina into a surreal state of consciousness.  Dreaming awake, awake while dreaming, mixed between the two in ways that Nightmare was trying to pull her out of, and Gourry was trying to tug her into.  Like one thick layer of butter spread on a slice of bread, Lina dreamed of horrors and terrors, of Gourry poking her awake, of her bed and her feet and running and flying and running to Gourry and away from Nightmare...
    She could feel, on at least one level, that it was working.  Nightmare had to move slow, as dreams needed buildup, and each time he got close to her, Gourry was there to stop the music.  And this made the king of dreams howl in rage, that something so simple should be pulling his treasure out of his reach...
    Finally, Lina woke up in the morning, and woke up for good.  She wasn't very refreshed, but at least she didn't wake up in a flight of fear.  Instead, she simply yawned, stretched, and carried on like any other morning.
    "Did it work?" Gourry asked.  He had baggy circles under his eyes, clearly from not sleeping a wink, but kept up a genuine smile.
    "You know, I think it did," Lina said.  "He didn't figure out a way around it.  I think we got him licked, Gourry."
    "Glad I could help," Gourry smiled.  "We're going to raid Paradox's place today, right?"
    "Not you," Lina told him.  "You need some sleep.  You're a mess, Gourry."
    "But I have to come with you," Gourry said.  "Don't you need my help?"
    "No," Lina said.  "Now, get that hurt look off your face.  Paradox is not the kind of guy you can wave a sword at, and if you do, he probably could do a lot of damage to you in return.  There isn't much you can do against him, and I need you rested and ready for tonight.  Reason and Myth are coming, and maybe Amelia if she isn't still stomping around in a lover's quarrel.  I'll be fine."
    "No buts," Lina said, putting a finger to Gourry's lips.  "Trust me.  Okay?  Just trust me on this one."
    Gourry looked doubtful, but decided to put some faith on the table.  "I trust you," he said.  "I'll get some rest.  Night night!"
    His head sank and his eyes closed and he was instantly asleep, still sitting in his chair.
    Lina groaned.  The big oaf wasn't gonna get any rest THAT way, in a wooden chair.  She nudged the chair and its surprisingly heavy occupant (must be the armor) over to her bed, then stepped back, and rushed the chair, slamming into it from behind--
    WHUMF.  Gourry tipped forward out of the chair and onto Lina's bed, face first.  Maybe it wasn't the most comfy of sleeping postures, but it was better than nothing.  Task done, Lina got dressed and ambled downstairs.
    In the Great Hall of Sailoon Palace, the war party was assembled.
    Reason had a large stack of notes on thaumatology with her.  On it were inscribed numbers and syllables of chant, as well as power flux dampening sluice gates for magical energies and patterning formulas.  She had put on a cleaner lab coat, but other than that, made no extra preparations.
    Amelia, however, had decided the best way to go on this journey was in her costume... her NEW costume.  Lina winced, remembering her last encounter with 'Sailor Justice', and quietly hoped that she would not be making any longwinded speeches.  It was probably a slim hope.
    Dayvid was another matter.  He was grinning stupidly for some reason, tagging along after Amelia like someone had dumped a layer of gauze on his brain.  His shirt was also on backwards, but Lina didn't point it out.
    "So!" Lina said, reviewing the troops.  "Are we ready to go kick some wingless behind?"
    "YEAH!" Amelia cheered.
    "All set to go traipsing across the known realities and bust down the doors of Paradox?"
    "Suure," Dayvid smiled.
    "Are locked and loaded, primed and pumped, and ready to GET IT ON?!" Lina asked, pep running high.
    "Affirmative," Reason said simply.
    "RIGHT!" Lina exclaimed, holding a fist to the sky!  "Then let's HAVE SOME BREAKFAST!"
    "We don't have time," Reason said.  "We should start off immediately.  The longer we wait, the more chance he has to prepare."
    "I don't fight overpowered antagonists on an empty stomach," Lina indicated.  "It's a major ruling guideline in my life."
    Reason sighed.  The one thing she couldn't handle were irrational people.  She pulled a small pill from her pocket, and passed it to Lina.  "There you go."
    Lina peered at it.  "Little.  Yellow.  Different.  What's this thing?"
    "Breakfast," Reason said.  "It's my own magically compressed full course meal.  Easy to digest, and rich in nutritional value.  Very efficient means of obtaining daily vitamins and minerals."
    "What fun is that?" Lina asked, holding the pill up to study it in distaste.
    "It's not supposed to be fun.  It's supposed to facilitate mealtimes."
    "Bleah," Lina said.  "Oh, fine.  The sacrifices I make for god's little quests, honestly..."
    She swallowed the pill.  It tasted like chalk.
    "Sorry, my mistake," Reason said, passing Lina a white pill.  "That was my chalk."
    The second one actually tasted worse.
    Reason passed the stack of paper to the dazed Dayvid.  "Here you go.  You may start casting the spell."
    "Huh?" Dayvid said, looking away from Amelia, to read the papers.  "Oh, right.  Spell."
    "You seem to be experiencing an emotional backwash," Reason said.  "Are you fully capable of spellcasting, or should we wait and do this tomorrow?"
    "Today," Lina said quickly.  "We do it today.  Get to work, Dayvid."
    Every universe has a number of pockets.  Places where will has burned hard enough to melt a hole in reality, pushing a bubble into the fabric of space and time.  In those pockets, the laws of physics tend not to apply in full... as if one had shredded the law book that ensures the smooth operation of the world and spread out the pages in a decorative pattern.
    Paradox hated it when humans made places like that.  They ruined the flawless mechanics of the universe, the ticking clock that he felt responsible for inventing.  Was he not the one who theorized Hours?  And Days, Days were a good touch, including a Sun to guide them by and divide them into light and dark.  It was so elegant.  And they DARED to mess with his creations?  (He refused to acknowledge that absurd notion that the Lord of Nightmares was the real creator of such things.)
    Of course, this anger at those who would violate the machine didn't stop Paradox from ignoring his own laws when he felt like it.  Which is how his home was made, a mushy blob on reality's fabric, assembled of hypocrisy, tended to with loving care.  It was guarded by levels of hard reality, where existence of humans was impossible.  Nothing could get in or out without his permission.  He was lord and king.
    So he believed.  Reason felt otherwise, as the spell she and the young protégé Dayvid had assembled wormed its way past every single defense Paradox implemented, slithering through known and unknown angles until it opened a simple doorway from Point A in Sailoon to Point B in Somewhere Else Entirely.
    Lina stepped into the new world, feeling the old one tug at her like a sticky substance she was breaking free of.
    The landscape was dominated by fractal trees, with melting clocks keeping perfect time as they dripped off the nearly wooden branches.  It was bleak and featureless, everything ticking along in sync, like a low, second-counted rumble across the land.
    "Cute," Lina said.  She finished examining the land, and turned to her partners.  "Okay.  Reason, have you ever been here before?  What sort of resistance can we expect?"
    "I don't know, I never bothered to come here," Reason said.  "We don't get along.  I think it's perfectly reasonable to be able to do a lot of things he thinks should be patently impossible."
    "You've never bothered to...?  But you made that spell!"
    "So you could use it," Reason said.  "Necessity is the aunt of invention.  Beyond this, it's up to you and Dayvid to free Xelloss and capture Paradox.  That's not my job.  I do have one recommendation, however..."
    "Don't bother trying to fight him with magic," Reason said.  "This is his world and it's reasonable to expect him to prevent you from using its magical powers against him.  Good luck.  I'll be waiting back in Sailoon.  Dayvid will open a doorway back for you.  Goodbye."
    "Hey, WAIT!" Lina demanded.  "What do you--"
    Reason stepped through the doorway, which promptly twisted itself shut after her.
    "Oooh, you LITTLE.... rgh!" Lina growled.  "Fat lot of help you are.  Hmph... Amelia?  Where'd you run off to?"
    Amelia popped up from behind one of the melting clocks, followed by a still dazed Dayvid.  "Hai, Lina-san?" Amelia asked.
    "We've been abandoned," Lina said.  "C'mon, we've got to find Paradox and get out of here."
    "Right!  Sailor Justice is on the case!!" Amelia said, posing.  She paused, and turned to Dayvid.  "Hey, would you like to wear a tuxedo?"
    "Suure," Dayvid smiled.  Then his senses snapped into sharp relieved.  "Wha?  Huh?  No!  I like my clothes just fine the way they are!"
    "Ah, poo," Sailor Justice pouted.  "Ne, Lina-san, where is this Paradox guy?"
    "He lives somewhere around here," Lina figured.  "So if we split up and look for--"
    --twisting around her, the ground itself bending through optical tweaks, grabbing the three of them and shifting them through solid objects and on and on stretching beyond conceivable possibility and landing in
    A glass sphere.
    Lina's brain oriented itself to this weird place again, having been dragged to a new location.  She saw clocks -- countless numbers of them, not hanging on anything except the air, in a limitless void of a room... She was inside a sphere, with identical spheres nearby containing unconscious forms of Dayvid and Amelia, as well as--
    "Xelloss??!" Lina gasped.
    The trickster priest looked up at Lina weakly, through his good eye; the other was terribly bruised.  In fact, the guy was a total mess, with signs of a serious beating, a few floggings and worse -- all without his priests robes being removed.  He slumped against the floor of his sphere, and tried to focus on her.
    "Oh dear..." he said, after coughing.  "He got you.  I'm terribly sorry, Lina..."
    A man wearing a cloak of stars and moons stormed over to the glass prisons.  He glared at Lina angrily.
    "Here I was expecting some big challenge from you, the one who's filling that damn prophecy," Paradox said.  "And you get snagged so easily when I change the universe to relocate you here.  How did you worm your way by Loathing and the others if you're this sloppy?  It must not have been your companions; they didn't put up much of a fight when I told their bodies they were asleep."
    Lina chewed on her lip.  This wasn't the best way to start things, was it?
    "Simple," Lina explained, tossing some who-cares attitude into her voice.  "I let myself get captured.  It was certainly faster than trying to track you down, since you could easily have hidden yourself."
    Paradox flinched.  "Oh?  Trying some of that inverted psychiatry on me?"
    Xelloss pulled himself up to standing, weakly.  "It's 'reverse psychology', Paradox-kun," Xelloss taunted.  He was still smiling, despite being in clear pain.  "Perhaps if you would read a book now and then other than Billy Bunny Bumps His Nose, you'd know that.  Although your lips would move while you read it--"
    "That's enough out of you!" Paradox shouted, knocking on Xelloss's glass.  "You're trapped, you stupid little ex-Mazoku!  When will you get it through your head that I WON?!"
    "I'm sure I'll get a Get Out Of Jail Free Card any minute now," Xelloss said, giving Lina a wink.
    A wink... meaning... Lina tried to figure it out, fast.  Clearly the trickster was trying to give her a signal.  Paradox was red in the face and flaming angry from being teased.  Was that the way to get out of here?  Power wouldn't cut it, Reason said.  Lina decided to make a try.
    "You know, for someone with command of any physics he cares to invent, you're really unimaginative," Lina said, refusing to show any nervousness, keeping cooler than the hotheaded wingless.
    "Is that so?" Paradox said, stalking over to face Lina, outside her prison sphere.  "Strong talk from someone who's already lost."
    "Lost what?" Lina asked.  "I don't recall playing any game.  Did you, Xelloss?"
    "The very slightest thought of the possible coincidence of perhaps engaging in some kind of competitive activity never crossed my senses," Xelloss responded, playing along.
    "And what sort of game did you WANT to play, then?" Paradox said, crossing his arms.  "Poker?  Go fish?  Bonkers?"
    "It'd be a start," Lina shrugged.  "Unless you want to just keep me in this silly thing without REALLY testing me.  You think you can beat me?  I don't think you have the balls.  Other than your glass ones, of course--"
    Lightning stabbed through Lina's spine, Paradox losing his cool completely and deciding to strike out.  "You talkin' to me?  Are YOU talkin' to me, Lina Inverse?!  Let's go!  Right here, right now!"  He cut off the electricity with a sharp snap.
    Lina willed herself not to show any signs of agony, and glared up at Paradox.  "A game, then," she said.  "I win, you're mine.  You win, I'm yours.  Simple enough even for you to understand."
    "I'll pick the game," Paradox said.  "Objections?"
    Of course Lina had objections.  Very big ones.  But if she backed down now, Paradox might lose interest in this single chance for her escape...
    "None whatsoever," she declared.
    "FINE!" Paradox shouted, throwing his hands up, forming a bubble of reality.  Inside, Lina vaguely saw rain... "A game of you, then!  Find your way back to who you are, and win.  Sink inescapably into the mind of the other and you belong to my partner, Nightmare, to do with as he plans!  Are you ready, Lina Inverse?"
    Xelloss's eyes opened wide in concern, his usual smiling eyes deadly serious.  He quickly pressed himself to the glass, whispering half audibly and half telepathically.  "Remember what you most want to return to," he said.  "That's the path.  I've played this--"
    Fire flooded Xelloss's sphere briefly, scorching him.
    "NO SPOILERS!" Paradox yelled.  "Game's on, Lina!"
    And she fell, and fell sideways into the bubble world in Paradox's hands--
Story copyright 1998 Stefan Gagne, characters copyright H. Kanzaka / R. Araizumi.
A Spoof Chase Production.