A short distance away, time ticked by at regular rates, via the old wooden clock over the door. Dust settled as it always did on rows of books, wands, staves, staffs and sticks with knobs on the end of them.
Lina Gabriev turned to the next page in her book, right on the tick of the minute.
At exactly one minute and seventeen seconds, not a very round number at all, the door chimed to signal the entrance of a customer. A customer in long robes, with a walking staff that probably once held a large gem at the top, but now only had a jet black raven perching there.
"Welcome to Lina Gabriev's Magical Goods and Arcane Artifacts, let me know if I can help you," she said, not looking up.
"Help me?" the patron asked, from inside a typical hooded cloak to hide one's identity, which obviously meant he was someone important. The raven ruffled its feathers, an annoyed gesture. "No no, I'm afraid you can't help me. But you could help me find someone who can help me. Did a young girl pass through here recently? Orange hair, bad temper, gaudy clothing?"
Lina Gabriev still refused to look up or take an interest in the Mysterious Stranger. "Some kid came through here who thought she was someone she wasn't. Looked like that. Don't know where she went, don't care."
"No, I suspect you wouldn't. Thanks for your time anyway, madam," the patron said. "A few coins for your trouble..."
Lina snatched them off the counter before they had clattered once with practiced ease and dropped them in the mechanical register. She was still adept at the art of making money disappear. Then she resumed reading.
A lack of door chimes told that the patron hadn't left yet.
"Aren't you going to ask why?"
"Nope," Lina Gabriev stated.
"Oh, please. Please do. It's just not the SAME unless someone asks me why. It's like my day isn't satisfying and complete unless someone asks."
Irritated, the elder Gabriev set her book down, and turned to ask. "Fine, fine. WHY do you want to..."
The glimpse under the cloak surprised her. The patron waved one finger, in a 'naughty naughty' gesture.
"Ah," he replied. "That is a secret. Good day, Mrs. Gabriev."
And then he was gone.
The raven fluttered in midair a moment, before cawing fiercely at Lina, and flapping out through the closing door.
Lina Gabriev quickly got her breath back. Controlled herself. Forced herself to calm, to relax. Whatever it was, it didn't apply to her. He'd said so himself. So... she had nothing to worry about.
The impulse never founded itself to go after him. That would probably lead to a chase, which could lead to a fight, and then she'd make an enemy and be dragged halfway around the world on some damn fool errand...
She didn't do that anymore, she reminded herself, in absolute certainty, in the same way she knew her name. Not since then.
So, Lina Gabriev opened her book, and thought nothing more of it -- falling fuzzily back into the day to day routine, the events of her life, as they normally progressed. Not questioning things in the slightest.
"...really, it's not so much that I don't like my parents," Penny explained, hoping Lina was listening while she tore through a steak dinner like a ravenous wildebeest. "It's just.. well, supposedly Mom did all this adventuring as Lina Inverse. I hear about it all the time in legends and stuff, and it's really exciting and it inspired me to learn more about it, you know?"
"Mh," Lina replied, with a mouthful of beef.
"I thought, 'Penny, you don't have to sit around all day reading history books, you can BE history! Or at least something other than a merchant like mum wants.' I mean, I didn't think those words exactly, but something like that. Dad's the Captain of the City Guard after all, and he got to do exciting things even though he denied it and kept saying he was just doing what needed done, that's really very noble of him, did you know I patterned my armor after his?"
"Mfffmpmf," Lina agreed, slugging back a large glass of fruit juice.
"Well, at any rate, I decided to research weaponsmithing and fighting and so on, of course when mum wasn't looking so I wouldn't get in trouble because she really doesn't go for that sort of thing anymore and likes to discourage me, and I snuck out of the house for a few quests but I really haven't had much luck. So I figure I need to apprentice to someone who's really experienced, then I can go home and show them I'm very good at this and they don't have to worry and I don't have to sit behind the cash register for the rest of my life. Don't you agree?"
This time Lina didn't reply at all, trying to tear a particularly tough bit of meat off a chicken leg.
"But the problem is all the good schools for warriors, mercenaries, goons or heroes cost so much money, so I figured I'd go after some bounties and then I'd be able to afford it, except that to get a bounty I need training so I'm good at this but to get good at this I need to get money for the school from bounties. So it's not working out very well. Hey, are you going to eat that?"
Her hand went for the last drumstick.
With a flash, Lina's fork was embedded half an inch in the oak restaurant table, blocking the path. Her other hand was in with the knife, neatly spearing the side of the leg and flicking it into the air -- she ditched the knife and caught the leg perfectly in the same hand before taking a big bite.
"Yff," Lina said after the fact.
Penny's stomach growled, but she tried to put on a very cheerful, hopeful face. "So! How about if I apprentice to you, Miss Inverse?"
The meat got stuck in Lina's throat in surprise, and she started running the gamut of colors from blue to purple, which was a short gamut indeed.
"..is that a no?" Penny asked, a bit embarrassed.
Using her Lina Powers Over The Common Dinner, Lina forcibly coughed up then swallowed the chunk of dinner that was trying to escape in one motion. She breathed hard, pounding on her chest... then let loose.
"Apprentice?!" Lina asked. "Look... Penny? But I'm not exactly the sensei type, okay? And, I mean.. thanks for helping me out earlier in that fight, but you don't even KNOW anything about me!"
"Sure I do!" Penny said. "I'm a history buff! Lina Inverse. Rumored to have defeated Shaburanigdo, if he exists, along with a bunch of other Mazoku lords and you found the Claire Bible and apparently beat off some other dark god, but the details are fuzzier on that."
"Ah... okay, yes, that's me," Lina said. "Sort of. Look, I'm not even sure who 'me' is right now aside from 'Lina Inverse', so... the timing's not right, okay? Here I am, about to go on a big quest to sort out exactly where the last twenty years went and why your mom--"
"I always knew mom wasn't really Lina Inverse," Penny agreed without having anything to agree to. "She's not the right type. But you are! The way you dispatched those bandits, I mean.. wow! Wow!"
"Just go home, okay?" Lina said. "I'm about to set off on a course towards danger and death and large monsters, knowing my history--"
"--which will probably mean crossing the whole world--"
"I always wanted to see the world."
"--and you're NOT coming!" Lina finalized. "No way, no how. You're too--"
"Oi, stop interrupting me," Lina warned, waving a finger. "And... no, you're not too young, I was actually adventuring when I was younger than you. It's just that I work al.. well, no, I worked with Naga and then Gourry and the others and... it's just... I, uh..."
Penny smiled. A bit smug, knowing Lina had run out of reasons. "So it's okay, then."
Lina hung her head. "You're gonna get me in trouble with your mom..."
"I don't care," Penny said. "She's holding me back. This is what I want to DO with my life. I want to be the blade swinging hero who charges into the thick, beats back the army, and rescues the princess!"
...Lina just stared very oddly at the young girl.
"Ah, I mean, in a sense," Penny said. "There aren't many female warriors to base my life on, so I had to adapt and sort of roll with it and that's why I've got my dad's armor because finding armor for girls isn't too easy since they always make LESS of it, okay? I mean, there's you for a role model and I guess I've used you as one a bit but I don't like magic so it's not quite the same if you know what I mean."
"You're going to follow me if I say no or not, aren't you?" Lina concluded, after letting the Mistress of the Run-on Sentence finish.
"Jeez, of all the..." Lina started and stopped.
It did make sense. This was a country where half the population went on adventures, and the other half supplied those who went on adventures. It was the same dream Lina had, even before her age. Who was she to stomp on it? And having an angry Lina Gabriev running after her ... if the woman WOULD run after them. If she was apathetic enough to ignore a copy or a clone or an imitator of her running around, would she go after her wayward daughter?
But there was a spark there, in the young girl. Her father's clueless curiosity, her mother's ambition. Her father's eyes.. Lina turned away a moment, trying to put aside her friends, who had grown up and gone away while she.. somehow went on.
"I'd better explain something," Lina decided, while thinking about it. "About what's going on, and what I'm questing for. Then you'll know what you're getting into, and can decide then. Deal? Because I don't think I'm exactly the hero you're all fanboy.. fangirlish over."
"Huh?" Penny asked. (A single syllable, true, but it packed oh so much confusing and curiosity in a tight package.)
And Lina laid it down. She kept her voice low, since there WERE other patrons at this restaurant, who'd probably be a little spooked. (She was spooked herself, but could handle it better than the common man.)
How somehow, there'd been a gap in her life -- a gap where apparently she did all the things she usually did, but by herself, moving around in time and space, like she was asleep. How she hadn't even noticed the sleep until today, when she woke in the bandit camp. The revelations from her mother, the aftermath, even why she wasn't fighting back at the restaurant.
"Not until you called for me," Lina explained. "Then I snapped out of it. I felt like I had to do something, right there and then, and knew exactly what. And when I decided to quest, it's like I became fully aware... and in control. I haven't felt that weird pull since. I guess because I'm too 'busy' to respond to it. So that's what I'm doing... I'm trying to figure out what I am, and why."
Penny tried to parse it. She tried very hard; competing genes were telling her to take it in stride and order another meal OR to scratch her head and not comprehend. The hustle and bustle and noise of the restaurant didn't help her concentration much.
"So....... are you Lina?" she asked.
"I'm more Lina than SHE is," Lina scoffed to herself. She turned back to Penny, and leaned back in her chair. "I'm going to work with that assumption for now. I feel like Lina Inverse. It's a little hard to keep the weird factor under control, but Lina's good at that, so I'm handling it. But I've got no clue where to start looking or--"
Her casual, nonchalant posture in her chair proved to be an Achilles Heel, as a passing patron accidentally knocked the chair out from under her.
Lina went sprawling, knocking her bag of stuff open and aside. The patron skipped twice before regaining his balance.
"Terribly, terribly sorry," he apologized quickly, and walked off, a black bird following him.
"...sheesh, some people," Lina grumbled, setting her chair back up again, and starting to pack her loot. "If I wasn't in such a mellow mood I'd fireball that guy. As I was saying, it could take a long time to do this, since I've got no starting..."
She trailed off, studying the heavy object in her hand.
"Point?" Penny guessed, attempting to play Complete the Sentence. "Err, square? Square one? Line? Place?"
"Hel-lo.. I forgot I had this," Lina said, placing the item on the table. "I lifted it out of some deathtrap dungeon earlier today! Good timing. This, now this might make a good starting place..."
It was a table on the table. To be specific, a small stone replica of a four legged circular table, the kind you'd probably expect to see at a meeting of druids inside a stone circle. (But not the 'sacrificial altar' kind of table.) All around the edges, chiseled in fine lettering, were the words 'Tabella Errante Del Monster'. The item glowed with a dull silvery power, which faded in proper lighting, but was visible as the sun had started to go down outside.
"Whoa... what's that?" Penny asked, reaching over to touch it. Lina batted her hand away.
"Careful! I haven't tried it yet," Lina said. "If you're going to learn from me, here's Lina's Rule #1 : Magical items can probably kill you if you even look at them funny! You got that?"
"Right. But I think it's some kind of codex. A guide to creatures in the world, made by an alchemist. Don't ask me how I know, I just do..."
"So.. you can use this to find out what you are?" Penny asked, hopeful.
"That's the idea!" Lina said.. carefully lifting it. "Man, this could be a short quest for a change that doesn't end in the near destruction of the world! I wouldn't be complaining, if so. Now how do turn this damn thing on? I don't see a button or a metaphysical trigger spell or anything..."
"Maybe you put it on your head?" Penny suggested, out of the yellow and/or blue.
"Don't be silly, you don't put tables on people's heads," Lina said. She placed the four legged item on her head to prove it. "See? Nothing."
The table's glow increased, flaring in a single moment -- activated. It stretched its legs, near impossible for a piece of carved rock to do, then spoke...
'Demiurge,' the table said, in a voice that could only be called stony. 'Unknown entity, religious significance. No extra data found, please install plug-in spell.'
"Wow! I knew it!" Penny cheered for herself. "I'm good with machines and stuff, you know, I made this weapon with an automated stone cutter from the local smith's shop and even though I didn't quite get it very sharp I..."
Lina blinked a few times, not following Penny's spiel. She lifted the table, studied it, then put it on her head again.
'Demiurge,' the table repeated.
She set the table down on the table. It was definitely alive and moving now, as it ... cutely scampered around, poking at empty dishes, and trying to get attention. A lot like a little lost puppy.
"What a weird little thing," Lina decided. "Kind of.. a wandering table of monsters. Um. I don't think it's got any info on... what's a Demiurge, Penny?"
"...and then I started it up, and my teacher was very impressed, until it exploded and covered the entire cafeteria in lava, and that's the last time I was invited to the science fair, but--"
"Aaah! Lina?" Penny replied. "Hello, yes? What?"
Lina eyed the mobile table nervously. "Um... pick that up and carry it around. I don't want it in my pack. Now, we're going! Quests wait for no one, after all!"
Not nearly as nervous, Penny scooped up the mechanical/magical table, and got up. She took up her naginata. "So, where are we going? What's the first step?"
"A temple, I guess," Lina said, hoisting up her bag. "Maybe I can find a priest or a white mage to explain this. We've only got a noun and an adjective to work with, and they'll have to do. So! Onward towards... wherever it is we're going!"
The two crossed outside, to the town square. Busy, burly, and/or magical types got about doing whatever they were doing -- the night was going up and the sun had gone down, meaning an entire different breed of consumer/worker was ready and waiting. Lina paused at a streetlight, to consult a local map thoughtfully posted up near the bounties, help wanted ads, and carefully notarized death threats.
Penny leaned against the wall, watching her in confusion. "I don't get it. You want to go to a temple?"
"Is there an echo in here? Yes, a temple. If I remember this city right, there's two to Ceipheed, and a hidden one to Shaburanigdo on the other side of the--"
"I think they burned down," Penny said.
"Burned down. No, wait... okay. The Mazoku temple burned down and one of the Ceipheed ones collapsed from disrepair, I think that was, um, seven years ago, and the third one just sort of closed up and left when nobody was bothering to go anymore and they couldn't afford to stay open. Yeah, that's right. I mean, everybody knows THAT."
"But.. they'd been open for CENTURIES!" Lina said. "Big sis used to work at the Temple of the Holy White Order of Ceipheed Flare Dragon as a janitor in between waitressing shifts..."
"What, the cults? Nobody believes in that stuff anymore," Penny said, with a shrug. Commonplace to her. "I mean, it's all just legends. There aren't any Mazoku or Dragons. Well, there's big lizards, but not the legendary god dragons or anything, and the elves were just a vertically challenged magically gifted race of humans, scientists have proven that through testing and--"
"Well, fine! We'll go a few towns over, there's a--"
"That one's gone too."
"Surely there's SOME organized religion within a fifty mile radius?!" Lina shouted, a little peeved.
"Y-Yes!" Penny said, backing down. "I mean... I think I know of one, it's kind of far away and my best friend's brother's cousin goes there but I don't think you'll like it--"
"It'll have to do, whatever it is. Let's get going. What's the name of the place?"
"...the Unholy Cult of Zoamel Gustav."
Lina nodded, and walked about six steps before wobbling to a premature halt and twisting to face her.
"The cult of WHAT?!"
"It's sort of a religion," Penny said, sheepishly.
"...fine. Whatever!" Lina said. "Who am I to argue with bad luck? C'mon, let's hurry. A quest is a quest. That's Lina's Rule #2! When you're on a quest, that's all that you do, you quest with all the dedication and energy you can muster! Unless you get hungry and want to stop. Got that?"
"Got it!" Penny cheered, scribbling it down in a pocket notebook with a ballpoint pen, before giving an enthusiastic pose. "Let's go! It's that-a-way, to the west, two towns over."
The Wandering Monster Table perched on her shoulder mimicked it cutely in a way that made Lina want to pulverize the thing.
Lina rolled her eyes. Okay, maybe it wasn't the best questing team she could come up with, but it'd do. And the kid had spunk...
Overall, she could ask for worse. But enough talking. Lina had a mission to handle, a quest to do, and a large question to get answered by any means necessary.
She turned towards the west, and started to walk.
Across town, the janitor at a fairly trashed restaurant was busy putting up the unbroken chairs on the unbroken tables, and mopping up the water from a rapidly melting ice cube with a bandit in it. Janitors exist specifically to do this sort of work without getting all antsy about how it happened, so the circumstances didn't throw him.
Neither did the ominous stranger who had walked in, complete with hooded robe, and evil stare. But evil stares are usually signals for the hired help to beat it, so he fetched his mop and amscrayed.
The figure stepped up to the frozen Bandit. Sighed, in vague annoyance, and raised a hand -- a bluish gray hand of stone.
"Flare Arrow," he spoke quietly, using a lower level of the spell than he was capable of. The ice melted in an instant.
"...GEEHH," Roy Balderdash inhaled sharply. "It's HARD to hold your breath that long. Brrr. Thanks, Mister...?"
The chimera under the hood regarded him with an uncaring look.
"You are required," he said, "To take up a new career."
"Hey, I'm not THAT thankful," Roy said, rubbing his arms to try and get some feeling back into them. "I'm busy, anyway. A little vendetta to settle with one Lina Inverse."
"Lina Inverse...?" the young robed boy asked. Sounding almost curious... but dismissed it, quickly after. "I'm afraid this is an offer you can't refuse. Come with me."
"Aaand you are?" Roy asked.
"Commander of the Imperial Forces of Sairaag," he responded. "Zelgadis Greywers. And we were just leaving."
Before Roy could protest, a portal had been opened and skimmed through both of their bodies, and they no longer existed in the restaurant.
The janitor quietly resumed mopping. There was a lot more water around now, after all.
Story copyright 1999 Stefan Gagne, Slayers characters copyright
H. Kanzaka / R. Araizumi.
A Spoof Chase Production hosted by Pixelscapes.