by stefan gagne -- some characters copyright H. Kanzaka / R. Araizumi


     When a bard sits down to tell a story, a story of heroes and legend, there's an assumed convention in place known as time compression.

      The rule works like this : Nobody wants to hear three hours of prose poetry to a lightly strummed lute that can be summarized as 'And then they rode from City A to City B, and the trip took three weeks'. In general, an audience wants to get to the good bits, like the bloody swordfight that happens in City A and the damsel in distress who was wooed into questionable activities in City B, before being dumped so the hero could sneak off to City C.

      But what this convention denies is the quiet times in between City A and City B. A time when everybody can unwind, enjoy a nice repetitive / dull as six year old nails trip, and be nice and rested for the incredible battle they have to survive in City B. If heroes really had to bop from place to place at rapid fire and do heroic deeds in both, we'd have fewer heroes, or more heroes with post traumatic stress disorder, neither of which makes for good stories.

      Besides, a lot of interesting things can happen en route to certain death, so it's good to enjoy it while it lasts...

     Lina kicked a nearby rock and grumbled several curses in multiple languages. "This is BORING!" she shouted (as she was prone to do). Then she resumed pacing in the tight oval which had already begun to wear into the cheap rug.

     "Oh, I don't know, it could be worse," Penny said, enjoying a complimentary pulp book of rumors about famous people that had been provided in the waiting area. She fed another complementary peanut to the non-complementary Wandering Monster Table. (How the table ate was a mystery. Usually, one moment you'd be looking, next you wouldn't, next thing you know the food was gone. If you tried to just watch, it'd be too shy to enjoy dinner.)

     "I still say we should just buy some horses to get to Darata. Horses move nice and fast, faster than walking, and you don't have to sit around for five hours waiting for them!" Lina protested. "What's so great about this boat you've got us passage on, anyway?"

     "It's a Hydroplane!" Penny proclaimed, putting down the pulp paper. "Not a BOAT. Really, Lina, live in the now!"

     "This isn't one of those magical flying vehicles you were raving about before, is it?" Lina asked suspiciously. "Where you push levers and zoom around the sky?"

     "Oh, of course not. I mean, a vehicle that flies from place to place is silly," Penny laughed.

     "Good, good--"

     "It sort of hops over very long distances," Penny said. "You can't go really really fast in the water but you can't stay in the air very long without coming back down, so it sails like a ship while building steam for a short, fast machine powered flight and keeps alternating. Doesn't that sound FUN?"

      Lina turned green. "No, it doesn't sound fun!" she complained. "All that lurching around, waiting to crash back into the ocean at high speed! Least pleasant and most dangerous transportation I've ever heard of!"

     "It's not all THAT bad. We took one out to Amusement Reef summer before last, and had a lot of fun. They've got rooms you can sleep in on the way, and there's dancing, and food--"

     "Food?" Lina asked, hearing the magic word. Her stomach rumbled in agreement with her brain.

     "GOURMET food," Penny added, clueing in fast to Lina's goals in life.

     "Hydroplane! I'm all for it! Sounds fun!" Lina decided. "I hope it gets here soon. VERY soon. I'm starving. Where's Zoey Bananas, anyway?"

     "That's Zoamel Gustav!"

     "Whatever. Haven't seen him in an hour. Where'd old tall, pale and smashing go?"

      Usually, when one thinks of a port town, they would think of

      A) Salty dogs and/or Swarthy sailors and/or Hardy lads
      B) Seagulls
      C) Wooden crates
      D) Prostitutes
      E) Gambling, looting, thievery, murder, arson, that sort of thing.

      While it's true that Zeifelia was still a very traditional country, very much liking the salty dogs who move wooden crates and consort with prostitutes while gambling and looting, they also liked profit. Profit came from shipping, yes, but it also came from the booming personal transportation trade -- getting people around the world in whatever crazy vehicle had just been invented. The newer the concept, the more popular.

      Thus, if the half of the port Lina and company had visited was on the west, they would probably be tangling with mean lookin' sailors on dirty docks with bad pollution. As is, they were in the 'nice' half where tourists unloaded matching luggage, enjoyed cocktails, and listened to piano in port bars. Which is why Zoamel was playing music and not fighting off twenty men at once.

      Zoamel ignored the half-empty drink he had placed on a coaster on the grand piano, and continued to play. Playing to a nearly-packed house, sweet melodies of a classical symphony delighting young and old alike... but mostly female.

      Lina stomped her way over to the enclosed bar area and had to wedge herself through the throng of women who had gathered to listen to Zoamel's music, swoon, and whisper to each other how handsome this new piano player was. (Getting through THAT kind of crowd was actually harder than plowing through a gang of sword toting sailors.)

      Before she could shout at him for wasting time and drawing undue attention to them, three of the girls clamped a hand over her mouth, and three on one is definitely bad odds.

     "Shhh!" they hissed in unison. "He's almost done!"

      Indeed, Zoamel's music was coming to a pleasant, low-key crescendo. His eyelids remained closed the whole time, reading the notes off the back of his mind, playing them out with such gentle precision and emotion to make a swarthy... okay, maybe not a swarthy man weep, but at least tear up a little. The current crowd was already about to bawl.

      Then he hit the last five closing notes, each one slower and softer than the other, and the song was over. A respectable silence echoed, before the applause, and tips dropped into his drink glass, liquid or no. Soon he had more spare change than he had bourbon.

      Zoamel stood, and bowed once, a sweeping gesture, but stepped away from the piano before any groupies hounded him, pulling Lina along with him.

     "...since WHEN are you a musician??" Lina protested, keeping her voice down, not to alarm anybody admiring Zoamel from afar.

     "Since approximately four hundred and fifty years ago," Zoamel said calmly, sitting and starting to fish money out of his drink. "I was not always Zoamel Gustav, you realize. I have had a rather successful tenure as four different shapes in my lifetime as a Demiurge. One fading after the other, but I never forget."

     "The more you tell me about this, the less I want to BE one," Lina reminded him, turning her chair around to straddle it and make herself comfortable. "I am me. Me I am, Lina I be, that's how it is. I'd rather not blur off into the sunset when people forget me and then pop up as, like, Znordar, God of Nasal Blockages!"

     "I said I would aid you," Zoamel reminded, sipping his rich beverage. "Mmm. And I will."

     "Right, right. Now, the question is, HOW? Who exactly are we going to see in Darata? You mentioned a Demiurge that 'got out'...?"

     "I'm afraid I no longer know where he is. But I have.. an old associate, who works out of Darata at this time," Zoamel explained. "He will be able to provide us with a lead, and perhaps even the location of the Tooth Fairy."

      Lina let her mouth hang open in shock for a bit. It's easier than resisting the muscles that want it to sag there. Zoamel paid no attention, finishing his drink, and nudging it aside carefully.

      Finally, Lina snapped her fingers. "OI! Drink! Anything!" she ordered. A waitress swooped in, with a glass, which Lina took, paying for with some of the loose change on the table.

      Then she tossed the drink in Zoamel's face.

     "...is something vexing you?" Zoamel asked, not flinching in the slightest from the splash. But he did fish a handkerchief out of his shirt pocket.

     "I said I wanted a SOLUTION to my little condition, not a fairy tale!" Lina complained. "You mean to tell me the WHOLE POINT of this quest is to go find the Tooth Fairy?"

     "That is what I implied, yes."

     "The magical woman with sparkly wings who swaps your kiddie teeth for cash when you're asleep?"

     "The same."

     "Zoamel... the Tooth Fairy doesn't EXIST, okay? Nobody believes in her, not even kids. They know it's just their parents playing a joke. Hell, a kid down the block plucked out most of his teeth and his parents, so worried about shattering his frail childhood innocence, made him independently wealthy! He was laughing all the way to the bank--"

     "Why do you think nobody truly believes in the Tooth Fairy anymore?" Zoamel asked, like dropping a baited hook into a lake in front of a large mouthed bass.

     "Well, duh! Because the Tooth Fairy doesn't exist!!"

     "Not anymore, no."

     "Right. ---what?"

     "Not anymore," Zoamel said. "The Tooth Fairy managed to stop being a Demiurge. When that happened, belief in her faded away, to little more than a joke. Just as people shape us with belief, we shape belief, in certain situations. We are going to find where she has retired, and find out how it was done. I'm afraid I don't know how she managed to do this, myself, since I never considered being something I am not."

      Lina scratched her chin.. and smiled. As if she was always in on the joke and found it real clever, rather than taking it hook like and sinker. "Right! Well, that makes perfect sense! So your contact in Darata can find the Ex-Fairy. Terrific! Look, we'd better get out there, the Hydrowhatsit's gonna be here soon. Don't want to miss the half-boat."

     "Very well," Zoamel said, pocketing the rest of his tips. "Although I do miss the music. There is very little opportunity for music and song in Martina's cult, as much as I appreciate their worship. But sometimes, I would miracle a stray rat to nudge open the window of the temple, and listen to the music from across the street..."

     "Yeah, that's nice. We should--"

     "Unfortunately, Melody is no more," Zoamel said, with a dark tone to his voice, rather than the pleasant nostalgia of only a moment before. "That song I played is all that truly remains. But you knew that already. We all saw the aftermath."

      Lina paused. Her memory flickered, putting things together.. as she stared at Zoamel. "Wait, you mean...? The fire from last night..."

     "I'm afraid she is no more," Zoamel said, pushing his chair aside. "Her followers, her temple, and then her. Perhaps it's best for you to leave the fold, Lina. The Demiurges are quickly becoming an endangered species. The age of reason has made us obsolete... or rather, is making us obsolete quite aggressively."

      Clenching sheets, tossing and turning, the sweat oozing through cracks in his skin like a volcano ready to burst...

      The dream never changes. Not the order of events, not the cut off times, nothing.

      I'm home, he thinks, as he gazes over the sleepy forest town. Adjusts his mask, so he won't alarm anyone who knew him--

      I think there is a way, she had said, thumbing through book after book, from a poorly made shelf. A sad, but beloved little library. My studies may TECHNICALLY be banned, but I can't turn you away. We're family!

      You don't have to, his voice spoke as she moved around the dusty mill. I'm used to disappointment. I've tried everything there is.

     "You're used to the old way of doing things. I can reverse Grandfather's sin, Zel-kun. I've studied it, studied it with the scientific method, I think I can put this right--"

      --the night, night so silent, usually there's a thunderstorm, there ought to be a thunderstorm. But just silence, unrelenting calm. Tension. Unrelenting tension.

      The first pains, as the device funnels its power into him. On the edge of hearing, an overjoyed shout, it's working, it's working. Look down. See the circle. A circle of pure, perfect skin, human flesh, spreading outward, genetics rewritten, a spread like an inverted virus--

      Screams, screams as the shadows flicker, as she's cut down like wheat before a thresher. The high priest declaring this experiment illegal under some absurd law, some anti-technology fright that had gripped the backwater town, irrationality, fear and loathing, ever since hearing about the Mazoku at the North Pole and--

      The circle dying, reverting to stone. Silent. Someone suggests disposing of the 'freak', just as they had the madwoman.

      And then blood. Relentless blood. And in the end, Zelgadis stood over his enemies, the ones responsible, over her body as well, his own stone shell heaving with exhaustion, with emotional strain, as he turned the blade around and found he couldn't carve a rock of ages with simple steel--

      Zelgadis awoke. He didn't scream when he woke; that wasn't his nature. But the nightmare shattered what little rest he was getting, making him sit bolt upright, the metal frame of his bed creaking from the shock of the motion.

      What had woken him? His dream usually lasted longer than that.

      The bell, of course. The steam whistle bell on his quarters. He pulled a shirt on over his craggy body, buttoning it across the perfectly smooth circle of unusually light gray stone, and answered the call.

      The doors slid apart with a sharp HISS. Everything around here had that hiss, the pneumatic hiss, the great steam conduits that powered all machines in the Imperial Palace of Sairaag.

     "It's morning, Zelgadis," she said, walking in, her heels clicking as they always did on the metal. She sat at his work desk, pulling some maps and mission briefing papers from her clipboard. "I think we stand a good chance of removing the one in Darata next. The seeds of revolt we organized are taking hold. It was a good plan, I have to commend you."

     "It only stands to reason," Zelgadis stated, walking over, to stand behind Elizabeth, the unofficial Empress of Sairaag. "They're like children. Fear drives them, rumors control them, chaos takes them. Are they ready to be led, however?"

     "Weapon shipments are almost ready at the portal room. You and Roy will deliver, lead them into battle, they'll handle the rest. I trust you were successful last night?"

      Zelgadis fished an object from his pack, hanging by the bedside -- a palm sized white disc, with a glowing purple and gray cross. Screws held the object shut, a material not like stone, not like metal...

      He tossed the device to Elizabeth, who caught it neatly, and stored it in her lab coat's many pockets.

     "No resistance to speak of. The cultists were not warriors, and the Eradicator did its job. Roy was too drunk to work, but it didn't matter," Zelgadis said... starting to rub Elizabeth's shoulders through the lab coat, carefully, so as not to hurt her. "I don't see what you see in your brother. He's next to worthless. I'm not just saying that because I accidentally resorted to magic to free him, I genuinely dislike the man. Besides, you know I'm capable of handling the campaign without his bravado and unpredictable emotional issues."

      Elizabeth turned, in the hard metal chair. "I would rather he die than you," she said, simply. "You are too important to me. And yes, your emotions are under better control... unless you don't want them to be. I know you. Ever since you first came to Sairaag, hoping to continue the research, and I wasn't afraid of your skin..."

      She stood. The two shared a kiss. It wasn't a very passionate one, but as a gesture, it was effective enough to suit the purposes. Zelgadis stepped over to his bedside, hauling his modified Sairaag-issued gunblade up on its strap, and turning to go.

     "I won't be long," he said. "This poses no significant problem."

     "I'll be waiting for your return," Elizabeth said, regaining the 3% of composure she had lost. "Soon, Zelgadis. Soon we will complete her research. She will not have died in vain."

      To say the Aquatic Mongoose looked a little strange is to say that the waters it sailed on were a little damp and the sky it flew through was partially composed of oxygen. It was a very, very odd craft, unlike anything Lina had seen to date.

      Granted, she was familiar with really huge nasty machines. There was Martina's original Zoamel v. 0.9b, which managed to level most of a city before exploding and taking out the rest. There was that huge yellow orihalcon tank built by the elves that managed to destroy most of a city before Lina knocked it into a mountain, doing less damage than Martina's...

      Given that the only machines Lina had any working knowledge of were psychotic death machines that lowered property values, she was a little hesitant to set foot in another large one. Especially not the Mongoose.

      It was like someone couldn't decide if they wanted a watercraft with cool fins and spoilers and large propellers and a few sails just in case, or an aircraft with larger propellers, huge metal wings that flapped awkwardly in the air or funny looking propellant exhaust pipes that you could stuff three fourths of an army in and not plug completely.

     "You're CERTAIN this thing is safe?" Lina asked. Although her stomach had already made up its mind and was tugging her along up the entrance ramp, all the same.

     "Positively positive," Penny answered, walking ahead without much worry, carrying the Table so it wouldn't slip off the ramp and fall to a watery grave much to Lina's disappointment. "They're a lot of fun. It's like being in a huge flying house, and waking up the next day where you want to be!"

      The porter offered to carry bags, despite a lack of them, and refused to leave until Zoamel tipped him with half of his pocket money.

      The interior hallways were trimmed to the nines with expensive rugs, tapestries, fragile looking chandeliers that you don't want to stand under, and so on. Lina tapped a strip of wall decorations -- pure gold. She could sense gold by touch, after years of exposure to it.

     "Expensive," she commented aloud.

     "Don't worry, I took my trust fund out from the place mom had hidden it," Penny said casually.

     "You WHAT?"

     "Well, I didn't want to go on to business school, since I was going to adventure for a living, and that meant the money was going to waste, sooo..."

     "Oi, oi. Your mom's gonna kill us," Lina grumbled.

     "Relax! She won't care. She doesn't care about anything," Penny said, going from jovial to moody in the span of three sentences. She checked the cabin number they had stepped up to, matching it on the ticket, and opened the door...

      Right into the heart of luxury. Even the bed sheets sparkled.

     "So! Here we are," Penny said. "We--"

      Lina blew past her like an orange and purple comet, pouncing on the bed, plucking a tiny foil wrapped square up as the spoils of victory.

     "Complementary mints!!" she declared, unwrapping and popping it into her mouth. "Phew. I needed the sugar."

      Zoamel walked in calmly, after the rush had passed. Appraised the surroundings, gave a cursory nod. "This is nice," he understated, and turned to go. "Don't worry, I do not sleep, so I won't interrupt your privacy on the trip. I'll just be exploring this curious vessel for awhile."

     "Yeah, yeah, knock yourself out," Lina said, too enrapt in the glories of freshly pressed sheets and fluffy pillows to pay much attention to the reality around her. "I could get used to the future. Ahhhhhh. Sleep like a dream of a feather on the softest cloud at the highest mountain and then some!"

      A stone table landed on her head most uncomfortably.

     "Demiurge!" it chirped.

      Penny looked up in time to see the table rebound off the ceiling and land on her own bed, all four legs waggling around in the air as it landed on its back. Or top. However one could possibly describe the anatomy of a Wandering Monster Table.

     "Hey!" she protested, scooping it up and cuddling it as well as one can cuddle morphic stone. "Don't hurt poor Table-chan! He's just trying to play."

     "'Table-chan'?? Let him go play on the plank!" Lina barked. "Honestly, Penny, that thing's already SERVED its purpose. It identified me, yahoo. I don't think we're going to hit any other instances of monster identification! Why didn't we sell him when we got to port like I suggested?"

     "Well, he's.... he's cute," Penny defended, stroking the table along its surface. It cooed in a very joineryesque way. "And he doesn't mean any harm, and I don't see why you have to be so mean to him. I thought Lina Inverse was only antisocial towards criminals?"

     "Hey, I am NOT antisocial!!" Lina barked. "Now go away. I've got lots of luxury to enjoy and room service to order and questing to plan or something."

     "...I don't think you want to order room service," Penny said, picking up a pamphlet from her bedside.

     "I have the hunger of ten men right now! Aside from that skimpy breakfast, I haven't had a meal of proper size in--"

     "There's a full ten course banquet tonight in the main ballroom," Penny explained, pointing to the flyer.

     "Of course, I can always wait a little longer!" Lina decided, on her feet and snatching the paper away in a nanosecond. "Yahoo! Now, THIS is the only way to travel. Who needs horses?! Let's see, drinks, music, dancing, foooood... and.......... FORMAL WEAR?!"

      Of all the complaints leveled against magic by various scienticians, technocrats and savants, one in particular is hard to disagree with : It's not very practical.

      Sorcerers can bend the world. They can destroy things in a large variety of ways, heal people, knock things over, heal people, blow stuff up, set traps that blow people up or curse people and make them explode when they're least expecting it. Fireball, Flare Arrow, Dragon Slave, Restore, Curse, Resurrect, maybe a few cool effects like Reverse Time... and that's basically it in terms of variety. At least, that's all the magic people bother to learn, under the assumption that it's all you need to know.

     "But," philosophers state, "Can magic produce a single apple? Can it be as glorious as the work of the Lord?" Then some irate sorcerer sets them on fire, but that's besides the point. Magic has yet to develop spells people REALLY need... such as Purge Door to Door Solicitor, Speed Checkout Counter Efficiency, Silence Small Yapping Dogs, or in this case, Summon Formal Wear.

      For the sorcerer on the go, wardrobe runs light and tends to have little range. Lina, in particular, usually kept some spare capes and a second, identical outfit around -- and that was it.

      Much to Lina's disgust, Penny had actually thought ahead and had some formal clothes with her. Along with casual clothes, winter clothes, toiletries, personal knick knacks, a diary, some spare weapon parts, oil for blades, an illustrated atlas of the world and a teddy bear. Carrying the pack she held it all in was a good way to develop strong abs.

      Unfortunately, when she opened her pack, it exploded.

     "It's sewing it all back together that's hard to do when all you wanted was a toothbrush or something," she pointed out, unfolding the dress / passport to a nice dinner, while Lina stewed in frustration.

      Of course, given that all that stood between her and a feast of the ages was a dress, Lina was not going to give up easily. She'd simply approach the situation in a very Lina Inverse way, relying on cunning, strategy and careful application of the fine art of magic.

      She blew the hinges off a cabin door and stole a dress from another passenger who was her size.

      As a result, the dress almost but didn't quite not nearly fit properly, and was exactly the color she didn't want it to be, bright pink. (There's an old, amusing story Lina prefers not to tell because she doesn't find it amusing at all. Famed sorcerers are usually given colors, such as Rezo the Red Priest. Lina wanted a color. The high guild, in infinite wisdom, named her Lina the Pink, since it was a proper color for a young girl. She left the guildhouse a glowing, red hot crater, but the color was unfortunately by that point official. This has been another obscure Lina Fact(tm).)

      Penny's dress wasn't that much better; it fit her, granted, but it was plain and quite dull gray. It was a dress designed by a town more used to making armor than dresses. Still, the goal was not to win a beauty contest, the goal was to obtain dinner. Which was a smashing success.

     "Keep it coming!!" Lina shouted at the harried waiter, who had already brought out four more plates for her to put away and was starting to wear down from exhaustion. She carved at the finest meats and cheeses with her knife, shoveling away, giving nary a thought to table manners or the odd looks she got from more refined, dignified and above all rich travelers.

      The whole affair wasn't her scene, other than the dinner table. Fancy chandeliers hung from the ceiling (and creaked ominously each time the Aquatic Mongoose bounced off the waves and regained airtime), two fireplaces crackled, and a six piece band played waltz after waltz after waltz. Lina pretty much ignored everything except the four foot by four foot space filled with food in front of her.

     "Isn't this great?" Penny said, smiling.. taking it all in, as she had already finished a small salad, which was enough for her, against all genetics. "It's so beautiful. It's a lot like this ball Dad was guarding one time in town for the local duchy that he brought me to, where everybody was dancing and exchanging these really formal jokes that weren't very funny but if you didn't laugh you could probably get your head cut off, which wasn't a good thing but the clothes were really quite nice..."

     "Mmhmm," Lina agreed without listening too closely.

     "I bet you've attended a lot of events like this, with you being a world famous sorceress and world-saving heroine, right?"

     "Mmhmm. Um, what? No, no, not really," Lina said, after swallowing. "Usually I just chow down at inns and taverns. Nobody invites me to anything like this."

     "Huh? Why? You're an important person!"

     "It's like you said before, isn't it?" Lina asked, waving a drumstick. "I do such a GREAT job at saving the world that nobody notices. Ungrateful, I say. I could do with some large donations from various nations in thanks for keeping the world from falling apart. Instead, what do I get? Usually some crummy inn where the beds aren't very soft and the food is overcooked... Penny? Hey, are you listening?"

      No, Penny was not listening. She was in fact staring across the room with a very wistful glaze to her eyes, and a slight blush. Lina snapped her fingers in front of Penny's eyes a few times, then dared to see what she was looking at...

     "Oh, it's just Zoamel," Lina said. "Who's that he's dancing with? Or rather, who's in that group he's dancing with?"

     "*sigh*," Penny sighed. "I wish he'd ask me to dance instead..."

      Lina eyed her funny. "You've been going all gushy over that guy.. correction.. that god entity ever since we met him. What's the big deal? It's creeping the hell out of me. Like you ignore everything else when he's around!"

     "...he just reminds me of someone, is all," Penny said, tearing her eyes away. "And.. well, he IS handsome."


     "He is! He has good cheekbones. And he's smart, and wise beyond his years, and very sensitive. He cares about people, like that poor Demiurge from across his street! He's not nearly as loud and boastful as most boys back home, either. Why're you so grumpy, anyway?"

     "Well, for starters, we're on a quest, okay? Not a boy hunt!" Lina complained. "You have to stay FOCUSED. Besides, he's hundreds of years older than you are and is the physical manifestation of belief consensus, not some nice kid from down the street! You should be paying attention to the bigger goals here instead of fogging your brain over like this whenever he's around. It's not becoming of a tough as nails bandit killing legendary heroine!"

     "Who says the heroine can't find romance on the way?" Penny protested. "I don't have to be tough as nails. The prince always gets the girl by the end of the book, I don't see why it can't be the other way around, too."

     "You read too many stories! That's not how it works," Lina said. "I've been on more adventures than you've read about, young lady! It's about profit, first and foremost, heroism second at select times when profit isn't available, and anything else third. You take risks and get into danger and can't get attached to anything except your sword and your cape!"

     "I don't have a cape!"

     "I know! Instead you run around in armor that leaves your bellybutton exposed, just as bad as Naga. Probably trying to attract those boys you seem all ga-ga over, instead of avoiding being chopped in two! I swear, kids today, it's an outrage..."

      (Little did Lina realize, but it had slipped into one of Those Generation Gap Arguments. They had momentum, once the ball got rolling, and someone would get crushed under a ton of speeding discontent by the time it was over...)

     "Well, at least MY costume doesn't look like it was designed for Halloween by a color blind epileptic!" Penny fought back with, using instinctive Inverse verbal sparring abilities. "Sorceress costumes always look weird... and my boyfriend thought my adventuring costume looked just FINE, thank you!"

     "Oh, is THAT the 'old sempai' you babbled about?" Lina asked. "And is THAT why I was the only one who was glowing when those cultists cast that stupid Detect Virgin spell?"

      Various passengers/diners caaaarefully moved their chairs away from the two by this point. The orchestra played just a little bit louder, to compensate...

      Penny turned beet red. "Th-that's none of your business!"

     "When *I* was your age, I wasn't all boy crazy, letting that cloud my judgement," Lina speeched, getting up from her chair, sliding it backwards. "I was SERIOUS about this, about what I wanted to make of myself. I actually listened to my elders and got experience at adventuring, instead of relying on stories and drama and shouting 'Forsooth!' all the time!"

     "Maybe if you were a little less SERIOUS about this, Dad wouldn't have had to wait so long to ask you to marry him!" Penny fought back with. "And if you were a little MORE boy crazy, he wouldn't be so depressed NOW about how to keep pushing him away!"

     "H-HEY! I am not your mother!" Lina protested, alarmed at the words coming from her mouth..

     "No, you aren't!" Penny shouted. "So you've got no say in the clothes I wear or the things I like or how I run my life. Leave me alone, mom!"

     "Fine!" Lina said, tossing her hands up in surrender. "Go and date Zoamel or whoever and ignore everything else. *I* have a quest to handle, and a curse to get rid of! I'm a professional!"



      The two girls turned sharply, and walked right away from each other. Lina went to the buffet and started to load up a bowl with twenty of everything. Penny, on the other hand, marched right out of the ballroom, to the main deck.

     "And GET A HAIRCUT!" Lina shouted after her, although she wasn't sure why.

      The situation over, diners and dancers immediately whispered in little chats asking what that was all about.

      One figure, in a small throng of admirers, ignored all the chattering; he focused on the young girl who had just run out the door.

     "Excuse me, ladies," Zoamel said, stepping away from the crowd. "I fear I must attend to something. Please forgive my departure."

      They were too busy swooning to protest, as he walked calmly out of the ballroom.

      The Aquatic Mongoose was at the peak of one of the many flight arcs. It soared like a majestic megaton metal eagle, over choppy seas, through the brilliantly moonlit night. A sight from its observation decks was a sight to behold, a sight impossible to find in the days before mass transit.

      Penny didn't care. She wasn't paying attention to the scenery, she was leaning over the railing and feeling miserable. She didn't WANT to get into some huge argument, not with Lina Inverse, not with her ideal... it just had happened.

      If he was here, he'd know what to say about it. All Penny could think was: Stupid, stupid, stupid--

     "Excuse me, Miss Gabriev?"

      Penny whirled in place, leaning hard against the railing.. her heart skipping exactly one and a half beats.

      Zoamel stepped forward. "I hope I'm not intruding, but you DID leave in a rather awkward and swift fashion--"

      The old god had conquered armies, led individuals on vengeance quests aplenty, and had a brief stint inspiring men to compose the most beautiful music imaginable. But he had yet to learn how to deal with someone who had just thrown themselves into your arms to cry on your shoulder. Which is precisely what Penny did.

      She didn't say anything, or perhaps didn't want to say anything, but just to stand there and let whatever it was out. Zoamel didn't mind, even if he was perplexed, and put his arms around her for comfort all the same. And stayed put, taking it.

      Minutes passed, until Penny had vented enough to speak, and to want to speak.

     "...I wanted this to go so well," she said quietly.

     "Excuse me?" Zoamel asked, surprised as the silence was broken.

     "The quest," Penny said. "My quest. Lina. My future. Everything. ...maybe my old sempai was right."

      Ah, now Zoamel understood. He had seen a 'psychologist' in action through one of his worshippers, notably when a refund was directly extracted, and tried a tactic: keep asking questions. "Right about what?"

     "And this. About me. About.. adventuring." Penny stepped away, to lean against the railing again, this time to look at the moon, soak it in. "He thought it was amusing, at first. The costume, the initial attempts at being heroic. Joked about being my sidekick. But then, when he went on to the university in Sairaag, instead of the community school like he said he would... he said how he really felt."

      This felt more familiar. "You were.. involved with him, then?"

     "Oh, no. I mean, not that much. Not seriously. He didn't think it was serious," Penny said, correcting herself each time. "We had so much in common. We both liked science classes, I mean, even if he was a year ahead of me. We spent time together talking, and sharing our thoughts... we talked about all the cool stuff going on in the world that our parents were afraid of. The age of reason, what was possible..."

     "But there was a split in views at one point," Zoamel noted, knowing where this was going.

     "...yes. There was. See, I liked the traditional job of adventuress, and he wanted to be an engineer... but he thought I was kidding, Zoamel. He laughed when I explained finally what I wanted to BE, how serious I was about it; but he only said how SILLY being a heroine sounded. How.. 'last century' it sounded. And then he left, for college, without even realizing how much that hurt. And that was that..."

      Zoamel produced a handkerchief, since as a gentleman, he always had one handy. She fetched it right as she started to tear up again, and dabbed.

     "But I don't miss him," Penny lied. "He went his way, I went mine. He didn't seem to mind leaving so I shouldn't either. I guess there wasn't much there, and, you know, I've got all this.. adventuring to get on with, with Lina, although I don't know if she'll want to speak with me again after what I said, and.... you know.... ...maybe he was right. Maybe I made a mistake. Becoming a heroine, or trying to, at least, I haven't had any success at all, and even Lina thinks I'm not doing it right and... and..."

      The old god gave Penny a sympathy hug, without warning. She blinked a few times, and blushed, although he couldn't see it...

     "I know," he explained. "It's perfectly understandable, Miss Gabriev. A vengeance god understands the ways of the heart, or more specifically, the ways in which it can break. It sounds to me as if it was doomed from the start, however... a difference in attitudes."

     "Doomed..." Penny repeated. It beared repeating. Zoamel let her go, stepped back, to look her in the eyes.

     "But that doesn't mean your life is over," he noted. "There is a kind of vengeance in this situation which you can use to grow, to heal. Don't doubt yourself from his words. Believe in yourself. Work to be the finest heroine you can imagine. One worthy of Lina's legend itself. Then, you will have proven him wrong, and survived beyond him. In some ways, vengeance can be the most constructive, positive thing imaginable."

      Penny looked at the man with awe. It was wisdom; a very simple, plain answer to her problem, one so simple and plain she hadn't been able to see it in a haze of confusion...

     "You realize, I charge three prayers and a 'Hail Zoamel' for each nugget of advice," Zoamel probably joked.

      A laugh out loud, from Penny, as she smiled at it. "Hail Zoamel, Hail Zoamel. Seriously... thanks. I mean.. thank you. I'll try it. Try to become the best adventuress I can, I mean. Just you wait and see! But... what about Lina? I mean..."

     "As for Miss Inverse, she is.. a rather firey tempered woman," Zoamel explained. "I know of her legend. And I wouldn't worry about any arguments. The best thing you can do, as I see it, is to apologize, even if you don't need to. It placates her ego and helps her confidence, as well as ensuring smooth relations."

     "...that's bizarre," Penny said, a little puzzled (and amused).

     "Yes, well, Lina is not like others, you see," Zoamel smiled. "Trust me. Show at her door tomorrow with a full breakfast on a tray, apologize for the disagreement, and you will be in her good graces. And as for the actual disagreement, don't worry about it. I don't know what it was over, but people can say silly things in anger in general, and I doubt it's important."

      In the distance, an island exploded.

      This is because in a fit of frustration only seconds earlier, Lina had opened the window in her cabin, aimed at the nearest desert island, and invoked the power word.


      The island had melted in a white-hot blur of magical energy, boiling away in a split second.

      Now she felt a bit better.

      Lina stalked around the empty cabin better than celery. It really ate at her. Not only Penny, but how she REACTED to Penny. She reacted like an old woman. Like an ADULT. Like her MOTHER.

     "This sucks, this sucks, this SUCKS!" Lina growled, pulling at her hair. "Jeez, you'd think being ME would be the easiest thing to be, but I can't tell what 'ME' is supposed to be other than what I know Me is supposed to do!"

      The Wandering Monster Table nodded along, although whether or not it understood anything was open for debate.

     "Is it too much to ask? Tell me that, tell me," Lina continued to rant, trying not to think about the absurdity of ranting to a piece of animated furniture. "All I wanted in life was four square meals a day, a soft bed, and the ability to stomp anything into the dirt I wanted to, specifically to get meals and a nice bed. To seek adventure and excitement and really wild things, but not THIS wild! Not 'Oh, hello, Lina, you missed the last twenty years and your friends all grew up and you're a god now and hey, here's your daughter' wild!"

      She sat down on the bed hard enough to make the springs creak in protest.

     "And here I am acting like some old fuddy duddy," she continued. "I mean, not that I actually approve of chasing everything male like Martina does... did. Does still, I think. But really! Honestly. I mean.. you know. It sucks."

      The table cheerfully tried a few cartwheels to cheer her up. It didn't work.

     "Here I am, bemoaning my fate to a table," Lina grumbled. "This isn't good. I've got to find a way to get human again. And then I'll be the ONLY true Lina Inverse, since I don't even COUNT whatsername, that apathetic loon. ...poor Gourry."

      Before she could get any farther on that thought, her mind changed gears.

     "Now I've got to do something about Penny," she decided, getting back on her feet. "I've got nothing to apologize for, of course, I mean, of course not. But I should sit down with her, and explain, 'No, I'm NOT your mother.' And so on. I mean, I AM her age! I feel like I'm her age. She's taller than me, for crying out loud! There shouldn't BE some huge gap between us. Right. So we'll talk.. girl stuff...."

      No girl stuff sprang to mind.

      Lina had never enjoyed talking girl stuff, even when she was a girl -- because technically she stopped considering herself a child long, long ago. Around age ten, when she left home...

      Meaning she WAS an adult, at heart. And hadn't really thought about that properly until now. Now, when she was an adult at heart, mind, temporal dislocation, and all other factors except matured physique.

      Sure, she could ACT immature (as many people enjoyed pointing out to her before meeting a variety of nasty ends), but she never really had Amelia's youthful spirit, or even Naga's somewhat odd innocence... she was Lina. Lina, dead serious when she has to be, bitter and jaded to a world she knew inside and out, playing the system constantly and acting like any mature opportunist would. Making a CAREER and a living instead of actively slacking and having fun like other girls her age...

     "No wonder I acted like that," Lina thought out loud. The weight of it felt like a century of compressed ignorance. "Good L-sama. I really AM old..."

      The Wandering Monster Table perched on her shoulder encouragingly, and she swatted it off, irritated.

      No, this sort of realization wasn't going to be solved by an adorable mascot character's silly antics. The moment you realize you're an adult in all senses, particularly legally, there's one event that must transpire.

      She opened the cabin door, stepped out into the hall, and set off to get blisteringly drunk. And if the bartender laughed at her little girl's body she'd slug him one and fetch the bottle herself.

      Penny had meant to return to her cabin for awhile, but never got around to it. It wasn't that she'd have to face Lina again (because she wasn't as worried about that now, thanks to Zoamel-san) but it was because she was having too much fun.

      After he'd helped her with her self-doubt, and they wondered exactly why that island went boom, the topic had changed to other things going boom Zoamel had seen. He had a million and one stories, stories of wars and battles and even schoolyard fights where a god of vengeance would naturally belong, and how he helped things work out.

      And then Penny brought up some of her schoolyard stories as well, how she broke the bully's nose who took her lunch money the first day she was in school, how her mother hated that, how she got instant fame with every other kid in town. Some early exploits into learning weaponsmithing by watching the local smith after school, her dreams of being a heroine, and so on.

      And they talked and they talked and they talked...

      And they found a piano in the long empty ballroom, and Zoamel played some songs, and Penny would listen, and they'd talk and they'd laugh and just feel so GOOD about life, quest or not, problems or not. All this, and more, until the sun was coming up, and today had become tomorrow.

     "It's funny," Penny said, walking towards the cabin, leaning a little on Zoamel because of her seeping exhaustion. "I don't feel tired at all. Hee hee. You know, you're REALLY an interesting person, Zoamel-san."

     "Everybody's interesting, really, some just are better at telling how interesting they are in ways that sound interesting," Zoamel said. "I learned my technique from a muse of bards. She had a voice like silk that men would hang on for hours and hours, without touching their drinks, no matter how dry their throats might become..."

     "...a muse?" Penny asked. "A woman?"

     "A face that would launch a thousand ships. Well, that was one of her lines about some other woman, but I suppose it could apply. She really was far more poetic than myself, but I make do when I have to..."

      Jealousy boiled over quietly.

     "Ah, you seem to be home, or at least in a cabin currently representative thereof, Miss Gabriev," Zoamel stated, as they approached the door. "I bid you adieu. We will be landing in Darata shortly, and I must fetch my things from my room. Until then, as short as it may be."

      Jealousy went away when he kissed the back of her hand. She pulled it back after and swore never to wash it again unless she got some kind of flesheating disease. "Ah.. you can call me Penny, really," she corrected. "And I'll just wake Lina up and we can--"

     "OOOOOOOH a wizard's staff as a knob on the end of it, knob on the end of it, knob on the end of it...."

      The horror that slumped its way along the hallway towards them would have been mistaken for a goblin, easily. But goblins don't usually have orange hair, no matter how messy it was.

      Lina looked up at the pair, one eye trying to focus on each different person, both failing. "Oh, hello," she said, swinging a bottle. "Don't mind me, I am... I decided to try being an adult for real. For a change. I don't know when four of you got here but hello. How are you?"

     "Err.. Lina?" Penny asked. "You've been drinking?"

     "Why not? I'm legally allowed to, being forty seven years old and all. It's a new and interesting experience that a mature and responsible person is due in time," Lina said. Thought it over. Tossed her bottle aside. "And I think I am going to sick up really badly in a second."

      Zoamel handed her a portable trash can and after a minute and a half of painful retching sounds, Lina was ready to speak again.

     "...being old sucks. I think I'll try to be at least a little younger, until I get a grip on things," Lina decided. "You understand?"

     "No," Penny replied, bewildered. Being half-dead on her feet herself, with exhaustion rather than alcohol, wasn't helping matters any.

     "Good. Are we there yet?"

      A voice crackled over the primitive brass megaphones, mounted conveniently in every hallway. Lina cupped her ears in hangover induced agony.

     "*Your attention please, your attention please,*" the voice intoned. "*Due to civil unrest in the city-state of Darata, we will be unable to land at port. Instead, we will be landing at Atlass City, fifty miles due north. Aquatic Mongoose Airshiplines apologizes, and will be offering refunds, and the delay will only be one more day...*"

      The entire ship lurched, skipping off the water as it rotated. A nice, slow rotation that would end up in a LONG roundabout trip to the place they didn't want to go...

      Penny and Lina considered the situation.

     "I'm going to bed," they both decided simultaneously, momentarily fumbling for the cabin doorknob at the same time.

     "We really do have to get to Darata," Zoamel reminded. Concern mounted in his voice, as she looked at the distant city, through the bay window in the hallway. "If there's unrest, we should get there as soon as possible... otherwise, we might not FIND the one we need alive..."

     "He can take a raincheck. I'm too sick to quest today," Lina mumbled, eyes drooping.

     "I must remind you, Miss Inverse, that this is the only contact I have who would know where the Tooth Fairy is, and if we lose him--"

     "Zzzzz," Lina replied, already asleep on her feet and leaning against one wall, next to the open door. As was Penny, on the other side of the door.

      Zoamel sighed. They didn't understand, of course. But they soon would.

      Calmly, but with speed, he scooped up the bags left in the cabin, packing the Wandering Monster Table up much to its protest. Secured the bags over one shoulder, along with Penny's prized naginata. Locked up the cabin, nice and neat. He was a tidy god, after all.

      With a flick of the wrist, he undid the safety lock on the huge windows overlooking the water, and pushed them open.

      Then he scooped up the two smaller girls, one under each arm, before they could get their sleepy selves together well enough to protest.

     "I rather hope you'll forgive me," he said, before jumping out the window.

      The Aquatic Mongoose sped on towards the horizon, short three passengers.


Story copyright 1999 Stefan Gagne, Slayers characters copyright H. Kanzaka / R. Araizumi.
A Spoof Chase Production hosted by Pixelscapes.