It had started. The players took their places. The chess pieces were arranged on the board of black and white, the good and evil. The actors knew their lines, the horses were at the gate, the cheese had been spread on the hamburgers, the first nail had been driven into the coffin, the bear had urinated in the woods.
But the fat lady was still busy warming up backstage and putting on a brassiere that resembled a pair of trash can lids, so it was far from over.
Various forces were just getting going on their respective journeys, usually unaware of the others...
Lina and her newly acquired not exactly her daughter partner, Penny Gabriev (and a small table that kept following them no matter how often Lina shot fireballs at it), marched along the maze of twisty little roads, all alike, towards the town of Nostrum. There, according to Penny, who was proving to be a wealth of half informed trivia and almost on the money facts, was more than a little bit of a lot sure that the Unholy Cult of Zoamel Gustav would be located there.
"But you understand," Penny continued, picking up the Wandering Monster Table and putting it on her shoulder for now, "It's fourth hand information, so I don't really KNOW--"
"Yes yes, you said that, no need to repeat," Lina said, a little irritated. "And could you just stuff that blasted thing in a sack or something? It's creeping me out!"
"I think he's cute," Penny smiled, playing with the adorable little animatronic stone table with the end of her staff. "And he likes you, Lina! Probably thinks you're his mother."
"Oh, great, I look like some huge block of unchiseled marble. I can't tell if that's an insult or not. Anyway. Way I see it, if we find the cult in Nostrum, we find it. If not... well, I'm sure we'll find SOME crazy encounter. Trust me, I'm a seasoned veteran at this. So I want you to be up and ready, game face on, prepared to deal with ANYTHING that gets in your way. That's Lina's Rule #3 : Expect what's to be expected! Got that?!"
"Hang on, let me write it--"
"Yes ma'am!!" Penny blurted. "Expect the expected. Um. What are we expecting, exactly?"
Lina considered. She took off a glove, licked one finger, tested the wind. Cupped an ear to the sounds of nature. Counted from five to one. "Well, given the current conditions, I think it would be entirely safe to assume that we're about to be jumped by nine well armed soldiers of profit."
"Ah, okay!" Penny said, smiling. "Boy, Lina, you really know best! ....what?!"
Nine armed goons stepped out of the thick trees, surrounding the pair. The Table panicked, and scampered off into the bushes where it would be safe.
"You know, those guys," Lina said, pointing, as her stroll rolled to a halt. "Don't worry, they'll explain things first before attacking."
Penny waved her arms in a panic. "Butbut--"
"You two little witches are going DOWN!" the lead goon spat. "You froze that fat pig before he could pay us, and now we're out two days of work! We're gonna take it out of your AAHH AHH OH IT BURNS IT BURNS HELP ME HELP ME!!!!"
"Lina's Rule #3," Lina said, lowering her smoking hand, "Always punk them out while they're taunting you. It saves you work in the long run. Now, let's fight."
Penny paused, brain locked on a bit of confusion, rather than the immediacy of the moment. "But wasn't Lina's Rule #3 that I should expect--"
The girl turned, and found a really big sword coming for her head. In a panic, she raised her staff, and blocked the strike -- the cheap wood taking a large nick in the process. She tried to push back, but didn't get very far, as she was knocked to the ground, the goon twirling his sword and bringing it down to stab her in the chest--
Lightning crackled through the air, as Lina twirled one wrist, a ball of blue-green flame flaring with a raging internal thunderstorm. Goons were trapped in the path of the sparking, jagged lines of electric death, and eight goons that were standing were then replaced by eight goons rolling around on the ground putting out small fires on their skin.
Lina exhaled, a little disappointed. "Penny, look, when you BLAST them, they tend to DO something about it. So you can't let your guard down like that. Don't think, DO."
"S-Sorry," Penny said, getting back up, still a little shaken. "I'm new at this, you know, and--"
"Why didn't you just blast them into next Wednesday with a Flare Arrow or something, anyway?" Lina asked. "It's a lot faster than manually beating them around with that cruddy blade."
"...s'not cruddy..." Penny mumbled, before answering. "I don't do magic. That's MOM'S area. I'm a weapons expert!"
"Right, right," Lina said, stepping over a smoldering bandit, and leading Penny away from the unpleasant scene. "You're a lot like Amelia.. was. Too much faith in something, not enough practical sense. Being idealistic is very good IF you can back it up, but until then, maybe you should learn some spells. They're faster to get off, stronger, and are really the only way to fi--"
A sharp, stabbing pain pierced Lina's shoulder. She stopped in mid word, looking at it... and seeing blood. And THEN feeling the full impact of it, as she stumbled, grasping at the shoulder...
"Lina!" Penny shouted, to rush and help.. but heard a click. A familiar click from behind her.
She twisted on one heel, getting her weapon up and ready, eyeing the bandit who was still on the ground, but still a threat -- another sharp bang rang out, Penny's weapon jerked, deflecting the shot. She wasted no time, running in with a sliding kick, propelled by her naginata like a low ground heat seeking pole vault.
The bandit's head made a nice THUMP against her boot. Penny kicked him over, then glared at the other bandits, who were just getting up.
"Beat it!" she shouted, trying to sound as authoritative as possible. The bandits, having enough physical pain and third degree burns for one day, did just that.
Lina staggered back, rigorously applying a healing spell to her shoulder, but the pain wouldn't fade. "What.. what the heck was that thing?!"
"This," Penny said, picking the scorched wooden pipelike object off the bandit. "A gun. He shot you."
"A GUN?! Why, that cowardly little so-and-so! Just like they did yesterday... I should've known, dammit. Since when do two-bit bandits like these on OUR continent tote around things like that?! I'll--"
"Lina, most bandits use guns," Penny said, dropping the fried firearm. She walked over to the quivering bush, and tried to coax the Wandering Monster Table out, while explaining. "Maybe twenty years ago they were hard to find, but nowadays, just about everybody does. Maybe not so many in Zeifelia, where it's more traditional, but definitely elsewhere in the world-- what are you doing?"
"Trying to heal this wound. It's still smarting like--"
"Whoa, whoa, stop!" Penny shouted, waving her arms. "The bullet's still in your shoulder! You're just sealing it in!"
Lina stopped quickly, going pale. "Uh. I hadn't remembered..."
"I've got a lot to learn about adventuring, but YOU have a lot to learn about this day and age," Penny explained, setting her weapon down... and getting out a knife. "Dad taught me this stuff one day. He has to deal with it all the time as a city guardsman. How's that for practical knowledge? Lie down, I'll get that out of you."
"Uh, how?" Lina asked. But knew exactly how. And didn't LIKE it.
It was enough to make one wish for the good 'ol days of ordinary hack and slash butchery.
It was enough to make one wish for the good 'ol days of ordinary hack and slash butchery.
Roy Balderdash examined the vacuum sealed glass display case. A personal shrine to science, a museum of technology; from the first primitive work at steam driven engines, two decades ago, to the here and now. Vehicles, personal conveniences, food preparation and storage units, weapons.
Plenty of weapons. Guns of all shapes and sizes, each using some flint or powder thing Roy had never quite gotten a grasp on. Even huge ones, meant for mounting on a carriage, which could be cranked to fire four large rounds of steel ammo a second.
'Just some of the many accomplishments of Sairaag Technology and workers just like these,' the huge sign behind glass read, along with a yellowing, fuzzy image of a group of swarthy men in hard hats. Presumably behind the glass so nobody could reach out and touch these things, mess them up from the perfect display they were in.
This wasn't his day and age. Roy was old school all the way, a bandit to the core, relying on muscle, wit and a sharp tongue. He'd resorted to the new tricks sometimes, when it was needed -- usually when the opposition was packing firearms as well, making them unapproachable... but he'd never liked the stuff.
And here he was, half a world away, in the core of the palace at Sairaag. Being watched by a chimera.
A strange boy. He couldn't be more than nineteen, with stone skin, craggy and blue-gray. The boy was content to just stand there, looking impressive in his military issue armor and fatigues, arms crossed. Waiting. Of course he hadn't explained what they were waiting FOR. But Roy had a pretty good idea.
The double doors hissed once, steam pressure building, then slid apart.
Roy stopped picking his nose and looked up.
"You," he stated.
"And you," the woman said, walking in, heels clicking on the metal floor. "The bandit."
"You hit like a girl."
"You hit anything that looks at you funny."
A long pause.
"Mother says hello, by the way," Roy added somewhat after the fact.
"I'm not on speaking terms with mother," the woman said, walking around to sit on a conveniently placed office chair. She withdrew a pen from her white lab coat, and clicked it into place, twirling a clipboard at the ready. "Now for the purpose in bringing you here, Roy. As much as I see you as an obsolete component of the old age, I have use of your skills for the time being."
"Well, that's a fine how do you do," Roy grumbled, kicking a wall. "Elizabeth, I haven't seen you in YEARS since you ran off to revolutionize the world, and this is your greeting? 'Hi, Roy, serve me'? You know better than to think I'm at your beck and call. Even if I gave a damn about your empire of nerds and losers, I've got a large rivalry cooking at home and--"
"If you work for me, I'll absolve your gambling debts," Elizabeth Balderdash explained in simple words. "If not, I inform Gino the Leg Breaking Man Of Ill Disposition of where you can be found, where you will be chained to the heaviest rock in Zeifelia with a sign around your neck reading 'Come and get it'."
Roy Balderdash stopped talking.
The scientist tapped her pen on her clipboard, impatiently awaiting.
"I thought you didn't believe in taunting, sis," Roy said quietly. "I thought you were a 'rational' minded woman now."
"I wanted to ensure your comfort with the situation," she said cooly. "I know how your mind works and what reactions would be achieved with the right prompting. So, I selected optimal words for an optimal response."
"I'm not above killing family," Roy said.
"You're surrounded by thousands of my soldiers and the entire population of Sairaag, to whom I am savior," Elizabeth countered. "I was there when this city was decimated by Rezo. I was there when this city was annihilated by Phibrizo. But most importantly, I started the reconstruction when nobody else had any hope of recovery. The people trust me. In smaller words, it would be an easy suicide if you chose that option."
"What do you WANT from me, Liz?! Spit it out! I hate your damn head games."
"Zelgadis, my second in command and leader of Special Forces, requires an assistant," she said, without missing a beat, gesturing to the chimera. Zelgadis simply nodded in acknowledgement. "The last one was killed. You will replace him. It's simple enough, you obey his commands. You'll be asked to perform military style tasks, which I assume you are capable of? I wouldn't ask anything above your level of intellect."
"Yeah, I can be a grunt," Roy said, still completely disgusted with the situation. "What's the matter, your freak can't handle your errands himself?"
Roy turned his head and found that the freak had a sword to his neck before he could even notice he had a sword to his neck.
"Zelgadis is an expert modeled in the new age," Elizabeth said, again without pause, without inflection. She pulled a map off her clipboard, complete with machine printed instructional papers. "A student of pure science, with us from nearly the very beginning. He is not expendable. You are. You will proceed to this location with him and a small force, and complete the mission. There will be other missions, of course..."
Balderdash CAREFULLY nudged the sword away from his neck; Zelgadis didn't resist, as the point had been made, so to speak. He snatched the papers away, studying them. "And the mission?"
If Roy had looked up, he'd have seen a tiny, tiny perk to the corners of Elizabeth Balderdash's mouth. A puffy cloud of gray over the sea of absolute sanity she sailed in.
"Genocide," she stated.
A hooded figure -- as hoods were all the rage this season for those seeking to conceal their identity -- picked his way along the mountainous trail, through the rocks and debris from some age old crumbled kingdom. Of course, he knew exactly which kingdom and to a degree where each misshapen rock once went in its greatest palace, but that didn't do him much good when he just wanted a nice quiet rest and some shade.
The bird perched on his staff screeched in irritation, but it's hard to screech in any other expression.
"Yes yes, I know, must hurry up," the man replied. "Always nagging. Caw caw this, caw caw that. This is a shortcut to where we need to be, isn't it? Don't you trust me anymore? We'll catch up to Lina and her little friend. Even she can't get into too much trouble before nightfall... oh, glory of glories, a rest area!"
He wandered along the path, trying not to stumble on the little pebbles, and sat on the rock under the craggy outcropping. Sat, and sighed.
"I'm not getting any younger, you know," he told the bird. "None of us are. We wouldn't be in this state if I was running things..."
"Caw caw caw all you want, but it's true. And now look. Terrors of the world, reduced to wanting quiet naps and milk. How silly. Okay, perhaps it's not THAT bad, but I wouldn't have to feed every other day to stay fit and active if not for this whole mess... are you even listening to me?"
The jet black raven's beak poked up from the nearby entrails of some poor baby mountain goat. "Caw?"
"Oh. Terribly sorry to interrupt lunch. Carrion," Xelloss joked.
The Mazoku prankster leaned back against the cool rock wall, and pondered fate. Actually, no, he didn't have to ponder fate; he'd known about fate for a long time now, and made it a business to avoid not knowing fate very well. But he did ponder the fate he had known about all along. There was hope, and that was a good thing. (Even though Xelloss was considered evil by most who truly knew him, he wasn't daft enough to kick a good thing in the mouth.) All would be well, assuming everything fell into place properly -- which it would, if he had anything to say about it. He was a little disappointed that he had to prompt Lina onto the next step, but--
A sound like pebbles falling down a cliff alerted him to pebbles falling down a cliff, as a rope was tossed over the outcropping, and a young man in flashy clothes and sunglasses swung down in front of him, planting a spiked boot into the rough rock.
"Whoa, dude! This is EXTREME!" he exclaimed. "Hey, old guy! You scalin' this rock too, dude?"
"There are some who say those who would employ the word 'dude' twice in the span of twenty seconds... well, nobody says anything about them, but I'd say something fairly negative if I felt like it," Xelloss rambled. "Which I don't, so begone, foul youth. Go corrupt further generations on your own time rather than mine."
"...huh. Whatever, dude," the mountain climber said, squeezing some water into his mouth from a waterskin in an especially cool way. "Let me guess, you're stuck up here 'cause you're too weak to get down, huh? Bummer. Heh."
Xelloss started to think of a suitable retort (frankly, anything would be sufficient, against this) but had a better idea. He focused his mind briefly, very briefly, touching the young boy's psyche...
"Say, you don't like spiders very much, do you?" he asked.
"Wha? How did you kno-- AAH! GET THEM OFF ME! GET THEM OFF ME!!" the mountaineer screamed, running around the narrow clifftop, clawing at his skin. The rest was just incoherent yelling, foaming at the mouth and wails of absolute terror, but they were delivered while falling at nine point eight meters per second per second towards the ground.
Xelloss stood up, stretched out, and felt quite refreshed.
"A little intense burst of human fear always perks up the old body," he said, smiling in the face of the setting sun. He nudged the goat a little, to stir his companion. "What are we standing around for? Fate waits for no man, woman or demonic stereotype. Onward!"
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Story copyright 1999 Stefan Gagne, Slayers characters copyright
H. Kanzaka / R. Araizumi.
A Spoof Chase Production hosted by Pixelscapes.