As underground bunkers go, this one wasn't so bad. This was not a military facility; it was a place to hang out and relax.

     Someone had taken the liberty of raiding a few furniture stores, placing some couches around, some tables. Not only were they comfortable and decorative but they could easily be kicked over and used as cover when a gunfight broke out. And considering how the dozen men lounging around listening to bad music were armed to the teeth, a gunfight was practically expected. Maybe some time after the party, of course.

     Lina marched right through the mass of gangsters, to the central table, where a single cheap lantern lit the faces of Zoamel Gustav and another man, both chatting like old friends...

     She put a hand on the man's chair, and turned him to face her. "OI! Pal! What's the big idea, not telling us what we need--"

     Eyes locked like steel bars.

     When a lion eyes a gazelle, it doesn't matter if they know each other on a first name basis or not -- there's a mutually recognized relationship there, a predator-prey sort of thing. While the bulky, musclebound man with a blood red bandanna didn't resemble a gazelle in the slightest, he had that same look. Only for a brief moment.

     Lina felt a tug urging her to kill him, but resisted.

     "Zo, man, you didn't TELL me she was mixed up in this bleep," the man growled, in a voice that could grind stone into powder.

     (Of course, he didn't SAY bleep, but the word he said was too nasty to repeat, and thus the substitution...)

     "Does it matter, Drake?" Zoamel asked. "The bargain is with me. What I choose to do with the information is irrelevant."

     "...who is this?" Lina asked Zoamel, trying to ignore Drake, to avoid wanting to blow him to bits and take all his money. It was a weird feeling, trying to actively resist slaughtering a bandit...

     "Ah, introductions. I'm sorry, I forgot my manners," Zoamel apologized. "Lina Inverse, this is your natural enemy, Drake, God of Bandits. Original pagan lord of the thief-tribes. Savior of the thieves and highwaymen, Demiurge of Gangsters--"

     "We've met," Drake spat. "Not directly, but the bleeper has bleeped up more of my followers than you can count on fifty hands. And this deal is bullbleep. I'm out, Zo."

     Lina turned her back on the Demiurge, face red with anger. "Same here. I am NOT... repeat, NOT, repeat, NOT NOT NOT! Working for bandits!! I have not sunk so low as to associate with scum like that--"

     "We shook hands, Drake," Zoamel reminded, ignoring Lina for now. "We swore to take vengeance on the hunters together -- as brothers of the same cloth. You also swore to tell me where I can find the location of the Tooth Fairy. Did you lie to me about that?"

     "Well, of COURSE he did!" Lina yapped. "Bandits lie and cheat and steal and never keep their--"

     There was a slight scraping of furniture being rearranged, as the other dozen men in the room apparently weren't ignoring exchange... they went from casual lounging and rapping with each other to looming around the table in three seconds. Someone had even turned off the music.

     "Are you callin' me a liar, Zo?" Drake asked in a slightly louder voice.

     Penny stepped a bit closer to Lina, getting nervous. "Um, Lina, I don't like bandits very much either, but this isn't the kind of crowd you should be too picky about..."

     "Maybe I ain' hearin' you right, Zo," Drake said. "I SAID, are you callin' me a liar?"

     "That depends on if you are going to lie," Zoamel pointed out, calm as a lake in the morning.

     Ball back in his court, Drake considered the phrasing, and frowned. "No. Of course not. You cover my back against the punks from Sairaag today, you get your information. I KEEP my word. Boys, back down, we all friends here. I said BACK THE BLEEP DOWN. Be cool."

     The gang, who were hoping for a little action, grumbled and went back to pretending they weren't under siege. Penny relaxed considerably -- then positively melted when Zoamel took her hand, as he rose.

     "Then the deal is settled," Zoamel stated. "Lina, Penny and I will defend your interests against Sairaag."

     "That's right!" Penny exclaimed, with a boost of youthful confidence. "By my handcrafted weapon, I'll fight and fight to protect you, in the name of justice! I--"

     Zoamel looked up sharply. "Actually, Penny, we need to work with Drake's alchemist to secure the building and set up some particularly unpleasant traps. I will require your mechanical expertise in the matter."

     Lina blinked a few times, not quite sure when she lost control over this conversation. "Wh.. hey, whoa, Penny, you're not leaving me with--"

     "Haaaai, Zoamel-san!" Penny cheered, her eyes catching every meager light source in the room to sparkle. "Let's go get ready to face the enemy!! Yosh!"

     She practically dragged Zoamel from the room and back up the stairs, leaving Lina high and dry.

     "..." Lina retorted. She turned back to study the man who apparently was her nemesis... and caught a wiff. P-U.

     "Yeah, well, you don' smell like no bed of roses either," Drake said, reading the thought, scratching his chin. "Smell like you got dragged out of the ocean and drenched in bad coffee."

     "What's it to you, pal? I'll have you know--"

     "No," Drake said. "I'm not in the mood for the typical hero and bandit chit-chat. I'm fighting for my existence here, and I'll take whatever ally I can scrape up, you got that?. If it means you and your bunch, I'll work with it, like it or not."

     Lina sat down at the table, leveling her gaze to meet his. "I don't like it, no."

     "So you gonna back out?" Drake asked, sliding two empty cups over, and fetching a flask from his hip. "Zo thinks he can hold you to this, but I ain' dim. You give me your word yourself if you want. Otherwise, walk away. I don't need some wanna-be bandit killer on my side if she can't put away her problems and get on with the IMPORTANT bleep."

     "And what's the important bleep?" Lina asked, supplying the straight line. But admittedly, a bit curious..

     "Survival," Drake explained, pouring out a measure into each cup of a nasty, brackish coffee. "Demiurge survival. You and I and Zo out there and all the others. You know what's goin' down?"

     "Sairaag's hunting you," Lina said. "You, and me too. It's pretty obvious now, and yes, that's some pretty important... stuff. "

     "Stuff goin' down all to usher in their shining 'age of reason'," Drake said, slinging back his drink. "Out with the old, in with the new. First they stomp the Mazoku flat at the North Pole, then spook the Dragons into hiding, now it's after us small fry. Figures they can't stand the competition."

     Lina shook her head.. and took the drink, without being prompted. "There's got to be more to it than that. I don't know what yet, but... no, no. I'm getting sidetracked. One thing I don't get, though -- Sairaag's here for your head, and this is all you have left? I thought you were the 'God of Gangsters'."

     "Faith's harder to find than gold," Drake explained. "When Sairaag came calling, they bribed away the gangs. I had a good balance goin' here, nuturing these kids, gettin' them ready to go into the world and be legends and then in swoops those bastards... givin' them all these fancy guns, big money, and gettin' them to swear alliegance to Sairaag. Where's the room for some legendary G like me in that? Pay a man enough and he won't believe in anything. This group, the first I founded, they're the last ones to stay with me. We been tricky, outwittin' the bastards left and right, but it's winding down. Motherbleepers took away all the faith I had left in the world..."

     Lina's mind flashed a moment, hitting on the key notion, something that had been a nagging unknown...

     "...Demiurges can't die, can they?" she asked. "But they can be DESTROYED, if someone works hard enough at it. Knocks out their invisible means of support. After all, poison the flock..."

     "'an the shepherd doesn't have a reason to exist anymore," Drake finished. "That's part of it, alright. Sairaag knows how to wage a war on us, and they've just about won here. This is last ditch magic time, missy heroine. Hell, these few boys may not be enough -- and if the forces of science get me pinned, that's it."

     "Zoamel said you types can't be shot to death," Lina said, her mind skipping over her own bullet wound just days before.

     "They don't come after us with guns," Drake corrected. "I've seen 'em kill us before, with little gadgets, funny disk things. Take yo' ass out better than a bullet. But you gotta weaken us first, and girl, I am DAMN weak right now. I ain' fraid to admit that to you, even if you probably wanting to cap me right here and now, supposed nemesis and all that. I need any able bodied Demiurge I can get, folks at full power. Even that girl, Penny, she got spunk, she could make the difference too, for a mortal..."

     "I see," Lina said. Because now she did.

     The bandit killer downed her drink. The bandit king said nothing, his explanation out of the way. All that remained was a question neither felt like asking or answering just yet. Not until patience wore too thin.

     Drake was the first to crack. "That's the deal. The whole deal, alright? So are you gonna be helpin' us or not, Lina? I won't hold you to Zo's deal if you want out. What's your choice?"

     Lina twirled her cup, thinking. "Not having you in the world would make MY life a lot easier... but it could also weaken me, if you're right. What's Lina without bad guys to fight? But that's besides the point. I'm certainly not going to break a promise a bandit would hold true to, even if I never agreed to it. I'll stay. But we're GONE once this is over."

     "That's the plan. I got no problems with that."

     Lina cracked a smile. "Perfecto. And once I find out how the Tooth Fairy did it, I am OUT of the Demiurge business for good. I can't see how you guys live this way, if you can call it a life! Hey, do you have any munchies? I haven't had a proper meal all--"

     "So that's why you want to know," Drake said, in a voice quiet enough to be overpowered but fierce enough to cut Lina off at the pass.

     "...well, yeah," Lina said, confused. "What, didn't Zoamel explain the quest to you?"

     Drake stood, knocking his chair over in the process. Glared down at the smaller girl once, then waved her to silence. "I don' feel like talking to you right now. You get ready for the fight tomorrow and leave me alone. And like you said... you're GONE once this is over."

     "...?" Lina asked, as the man swiftly but menacingly walked away, an interesting feat in itself. He swung open a side door that led further into the underground bunker, and it swung shut behind him only a second later.

     The gang stared at Lina a bit, wondering what had set the boss off so bad, but a grumpy look from her was all it took to get them back to field stripping weapons and discussing their various sexual conquests.

     Lina looked at the door the God of Gangsters had just passed through. "What's eating him NOW?" she wondered aloud.

     But it really didn't matter. Things were clear cut here -- stick around, beat down Zel's hired army, get the information and bolt. Why should she care about another Demiurge, one of bandits for that matter, when she wasn't going to be a Demiurge for much longer anyway?

     Why should she care?

     All the world's a stage, and men and women are merely players.

     But since the players tend not to return in a new hat every time they die, they've long recognized the advantage of setting the stage up with some nice props before a third act showdown. The antechamber, the primary floor of the warehouse that connected the front gates to the hidden stairwell of the hideout, would be the stage, and plenty of trap doors and stage explosions were in place. Literally.

     The young boy stood on his rickety ladder, with a mouth full of screws, tightening a hinge on the ceiling trap. "Maffr," he mumbled, "Woff fey feef fiff af file ffafy?"

     "Of course not, lad," his master said, consulting the building blueprint. "We're working with the pattern of tiles in the ceiling. No way they'll spot the trap. That's the key to a good deathtrap, making sure that it blends naturally into the scenery, lurking like a hidden predator. Then, the prey trips the invisible wire, and boom! No more invader. It's the combination, lad. A physical mechanism based on sound scientific principles to trigger the trap, and a stored blend of chemical explosives and magical enhancers to produce the flame jets. It cannot fail!"

     The apprentice finished screwing the trap door in, and CAREFULLY placed the bundle of dry chemicals and powders on a small ledge, setting the trap. "..right, you said that before," the boy continued. "But I still think they'll spot this. That's not exactly 'invisible wire', it's just the fishing wire you stole from the Bass Lander's Guild--"

     "Appropriated, lad. We don't use the word steal. We are thaumatological scientists, those who accept that science and magic can work in varied and wonderful combinations, not ordinary brigands."

     "Uh, sir, aren't we working for ordinary--"

     "Yes, well, needs be when the devil drives," the alchemist metaphored. "After all the money we spent on the dungeon, I have no intention of living on cheap sandwiches and cheaper inn rooms. It's not proper for a man of my status. Not for Lord Noisemaker, finest alchemist in the tri-city-state area!"

     "Whatever," his apprentice grumbled. "Be nice if the finest alchemist in the tri-city-state area would climb a few of these damn ladders himself for a change--"

     And thus the master did strike the pupil with his staff, and the pupil became enlightened. Specially, he was now enlightened as to how hard the floor was.

     A throat cleared itself.

     Lord Noisemaker ignored it. "I wish you brigands would keep to yourself," he said, making another tally mark on his trap chart. "We're doing rather sensitive work here, and I don't need you barbarians setting these off before--"

     "We are here to help," Zoamel stated. He nudged the starry-eyed Penny to wake her from her little daydream. "This girl is an expert in crafting weapons and other things mechanical, and I know considerable magic. How can we assist you?"

     'Wai! He thinks I'm a weaponsmithing expert!' Penny thought to herself, missing every word after that point.

     Lord Noisemaker eyed the three. "Yes, well, you can start with the roof, where-- WHERE IN BLAZES DID YOU GET THAT TABLE?!!"

     "Huh?" Penny asked, her little fantasy popping like a cheap balloon. She glanced to the Wandering Monster Table sitting on her shoulder, and smiled proudly. "Oh, this is Table-chan. Isn't he a cute little.. piece of furniture?"

     The alchemist fumed better than one of his six chemical composition with bonded nuclei potions with optional artificial flavoring. He raised his staff with a knob on the end of it and shook it threateningly, at least, as threatening as a bearded, gnarled old man could. "That's MY blasted table! Are you the one who stole it?! Return my property immediately, or I will be forced to use force!!"

     "Oh, bloody hell," the apprentice grumbled, and dove behind the box of explosives to take cover, which was probably not a bright thing to do, but he was young and not fully enlightened.

     The table quivered in fear, and hid behind Penny's shoulder. She quickly took her pet table and cradled it protectively, like a mother hen with her chick. "Don't hurt Table-chan! I'm the one who's cared for him, and he likes me more!!"

     The alchemist's staff flared with Combustible Yellow Dye No. 5. "I don't care if you've breastfed him! That table is thirty years of my work, and little girl thief, I have NO problems destroying anything between me and my--"

     Zoamel Gustav, Demiurge of Vengeance and Bishounen Cool got between him and his table. While not the world's largest man, he had a way of seeming to blot out the sun when need be. (Regardless of a lack of sun under this roof.)

     "Er," Lord Noisemaker completed his threat with, having fallen completely in Zoamel's shadow.

     "I'm afraid your table and the girl have grown very attached," Zoamel spoke softly, while carrying a big implied stick. "It would be a tragedy to separate them, one which could lead to a rather complicated and bloody quest for vengeance, the end result of which would be worse than what you did to Billy Snortwat in third circle chemistry class."

     Lord Noisemaker paled visibly, and one hand reflexively protected the area in front of his crotch. "Not the cactus!!-- er, ah... well... yes, yes, you're quite right, then. I wouldn't want to break up a.. happy family. Yes. When you put it that way, sir."

     "I believe we can complete these traps based on your plans," Zoamel pointed out, with a pleasant smile. "Thank you for assisting Drake in this matter. You will be rewarded--"

     "Ah, now, I was hoping for payment in advance, in case he doesn't survive to foot the bill--"

     "If he does not survive, then your traps would have failed, and we would not see just cause in paying for the defective labor. Which is probably simpler than paying you now, and having to find you and extract the payment plus interest after the fact. I'm sure you can understand the reasoning in my action..?"

     Lord Noisemaker shoved the blueprints into Zoamel's waiting hand, and briskly began something between a jog and a flat sprint for the door. "Come, young apprentice! Our work here is finished!! COME!"

     "But, but, um.." the kid stammered, looking from Zoamel to his master and back. He gave a helpless shrug, and bolted at equal speed.

     Zoamel Gustav sighed, smiling. "It really is quite nice when people listen to reason, rather than resort to base violence. Now, Penn... y?"

     The young Gabriev clutched her hands under her chin, and her eyes managed to glint every weak yet available light source in the room.

     "That.. was.. SOOOO COOL!!!" she exclaimed, bouncing once or twice. The table also frolicked in joy, scampering around on the floor, doing a touchdown dance. "Wow! How'd you know about.. all that?"

     Zoamel shrugged. "It just sort of comes to me. It is my area of expertise. Now, let's get these traps set. I will handle loading the magical explosives, you begin assembling trap doors. We must hurry."

     "Right!" Penny said, brushing up a sleeve. "Let's get to work, Zoamel-chan!"

     The god winced slightly, as the young girl hurredly set up the ladder under the next trap, and started disassembling the ceiling tile. He really had little clue what to do with someone who called you '-chan'. '-sama', now, that he was familiar with, but...

     Morning was quite a few hours away, and Lina was intent on spending the time with things of the utmost importance. With firm determination, and a clear understanding of the dangers ahead, she decided she had no choice but to join a nearby poker game with the bandits and kill a few hours until nightfall.

     It helped that most of the bandits, once they heard her name, tended not to want to bluff her out, or even to win against her. Every time one of them grinned at the winning hand he was dealt, a sharp look from the legendary Bandit Killer would have him immediately discarding three cards, if not folding directly.

     The end result? Enough cash to feed Lina dinner for the next, oh, two or three days. She had trouble looking over the mammoth stack of chips, due to her short stature.

     "HAH! Check it out!" she said, spreading her cards. "Two pair!"

     One bandit looked at his full house, and quickly put his cards face down. "I lose again," he decided.

     "Muwahahaa," Lina allowed herself to chuckle in a cliched manner, gathering in fresh chips. "So.. check with me on this. Why aren't you guys just running for the hills?"

     "Snipers," the Left Hand Man of the gang replied. (Who was in fact named 'Lefty'.)

     "But Zoamel and I can generate magic defenses to deflect the shots. You could easily bolt out of the city."

     "Turf," the Right Hand Man of the gang replied. (Who was in fact named 'Dwayne'.) "This is our turf. We won't get run off it, not by any new gang."

     "Hello? This is not a gang! This is the SAIRAAG ARMY!"

     "An army's just a gang with more members," Lefty street-philosophized. "We're tight with Drake. He's gotten us out of more scrapes than I can count on six hands. He'll work things out."

     "Why do you worship that guy, anyway?" Lina asked, spreading her cards. Pair of jacks, a sure winner. "He's not human, you know. He can't die like you guys can. Odds are in a hundred years he'll be the God of Dental Floss or something, anyway."

     "We don't 'worship' Drake," Dwayne replied, anteing in. "It ain't like that. He's one of US. He's made us what we are, the best gang in the tri-city-state area--"

     "What an astounding accomplishment," Lina grumbled.

     "At least we GOT some to be proud of," Left mumbled.

     "...what was that, bandit?"

     "You heard me," Lefty said, not backing down. He anted more, and drew a queen, to complete his straight. "What accomplishment YOU got? You kill bandits and give the money to yourself. At least that Hood guy from the stories gave to others. At least we give to ourselves, to feed our families. Oh yeah, Inverse, we all know about you. Violent, selfish, blowing up your own allies when you feel like it, and always lookin' out for number one. No letter 'I'nverse in Team. Drake was right about you. You ain't nothing to look up to."

     "HEY!" Lina barked, tossing down a lot of her chips, to enter the pot. Everybody else IMMEDIATELY folded, and scooted their chairs a good three feet from the table. "What makes you say that? I've... I've saved the world, you know! That has to be charitable and selfless -- because if it wasn't for me, none of you idiots would be alive right now!"

     Lefty stared her down, showing no fear. "Oh, you save the world for a living? What do you want, a medal? I don't buy that washed up bard tale crap. Drake was around in the bandit tribes when you were active, he told us the truth. Any time YOU saved the world was just so you wouldn't get killed, 'cause you didn't have any choice. Drake ain't like that at all. He'd take a bullet for any of us, and not just 'cause he can't die, he'd do it even if he could. He cares 'bout something other than himself. Call."

     Lina opened her mouth to protest, before realizing the game was still on. She tossed down her cards. "Jacks," she said, DARING Lefty to beat it. "What do YOU have?"

     Lefty spread his cards with one hand, and scooped most of Lina's loot into his own pile. "Straight. I beat you. For a change, you lose to a bandit, Lina Inverse. What're you gonna do about it?"

     Lina kicked out her chair, to stand and loom, but her size actually made her a bit shorter. Instinctively, she thought about charging a fireball... then noticed.

     All the bandits had gone from cowering in fear of her, to standing behind Lefty, en masse. Almost daring her to blow them up.

     "Go ahead," Lefty dared her. "Blow us to hell and take the money all for yourself. It's what you do. The great legendary Lina Inverse, not some world savior or hero at heart, just another damn thief."

     No witty comebacks sprang to mind. She stared, angered and humiliated in front of the group, trying to think of some way to save face and prove that she was.. what? That she was supposed to be feared? The great and terrible Lina Inverse, enemy of all who live, the ally killer, the dragon spooker?

     Instead, she turned, and quickly left without a word. What else should she have done?

     The blueprint was straightforward, simple, and well laid out. It clearly indicated the few traps the alchemist had installed, and did so in a very efficient manner.

     Then Penny got her hands on it and it stopped being simple.

     "Okay," she explained, pointing out the various chalk marks she'd made where her additions came into play. "We've got the Death From Above fireball chemical invisible wire springtraps from before, and these great collapsing supports by the doorframe that fall out of temporal stasis when they reach the middle of the room, and the second floor of the building that'll collapse into the first floor on command AS WELL AS the rolling boomerang fireball trick door that will carve an escape route under the nearby block and out into the street, then immediately dive into the waters of the bay to flood the building. Thus, all we have to do is wait for them to walk in, then we make a clean getaway!"

     The dark god sat calmly next to Penny in the one safe area of the main antechamber, sipping some tea, and nodded along with her description. He mulled over her words, her enthusiasm, and so on.

     If there was one thing a god such as he knew, it was war. Even in some of his less violent roles of the past, he had led people into battle over one issue or another. There are realizations one makes during such a long lifetime, that a 'green' human such as Penny had not.

     Perhaps it was time for an object lesson. He studied the smiling girl, so seeking of his praise, and started to assemble the words he required. Words could be just as effective a weapon as any trap for catching someone off guard.

     "So we make a clean getaway, while they all die," he pointed out.

     "Um, yeah," Penny said, rolling up the blueprint. "Clever traps, huh? And all done with my mechanical know-how and your magic! What a combination! No army can stand up to us!"

     "Technically, I do not use magic, but that explanation will do. So, once they are all dead, then what?"

     "Then.. we win?" Penny suggested. "Sairaag's defeated and we leave to finish our quest."

     "Except, of course, that Sairaag will not truly be defeated, and will likely send replacements immediately while Drake goes into hiding," Zoamel pointed out, calm as can be. "After which, everything begins anew."

     "...yeah, but.. but we'll have stomped them!"

     "Oh, yes. The traps will work brilliantly, and many will die."

     "So we win!"

     "No, we simply kill a few hundred people. 'Winning' takes more than that. You don't seem too concerned with their deaths, Penny. Why is that?"

     Penny's grip on the blueprint tightened, as she squirmed in her seat. "Well.. because.. they're the enemy, aren't they? They want to get rid of Drake's gang and kill him and that's bad."

     "And murdering them is the right thing to do, then?"

     "Of course not!" Penny exclaimed, getting frustrated. "I didn't mean it was RIGHT--"

     "Thus, hundreds die, and for no reason, since the military will just resume, until everybody on one side or another is completely purged," Zoamel summarized. "Wars of this sort end with the conquest of one side or the other en masse. What we do here is amoral and tragic, and you will be one of the primary designers of the mass killing."

     The young girl stared, perplexed, while the god explained the situation, explained how hopeless it was. Despair started to creep in over the pride she had in a unique mechanical puzzle she had just solved. "But.. but... we can't DO anything else! Because they'll kill us if we don't kill them first!"

     "Ah," Zoamel said, smiling softly. He took Penny's hand, to try and calm the horrified girl. "And that's why we have to do it, Penny. That's the realization you need to have, to do this, to understand why. War is not right, is not good, but must be dealt with firmly. Tomorrow... people will die. It is unavoidable. All we can do is try to stay alive, and try to do what we can to minimize the loss. It is not 'right', but it is the correct way."

     Penny's fog of confusion cleared slightly. She looked across the supposedly empty room, where all the traps were set. "Because.. if we do it this way, at least nobody in Drake's gang has to die?"

     "That's correct. They will escape, momentarily without an army at their heels, and live another day. The war may go on, but the battle will be as clean as it can be. Our vengeance will not be wild and uncontrolled. I know you wanted to face the enemy with your.. blade, but that is not the way to approach this tactical situation. Too many would die in straight fighting. This is why I wanted your help on the traps. Do you understand now?"

     Penny Gabriev took a deep breath, calming herself, after that. "Yeah. Yeah, I understand. I don't like it, though, not in THAT light."

     "Nobody likes war," Zoamel stated, as it was the obvious. He rose from his seat, adjusting his clothes. "And I am sorry I had to introduce you to it this way, but there is no soft way to prepare for eventuality. We do as we must to survive. Demiurge or human. I just wanted to prepare you for this... because it may not have a happy ending. For now, you should go rest. It has been hours past, and there are fewer hours remaining than I would desire before the battle begins."

     So, Penny tucked the print under one arm, and walked off to the sleeping area the gang had laid out. She smiled, all the way. Maybe she wasn't cut out for war, but Zoamel would see her through this. He was wise beyond her years, after all, and experienced; and everything she admired...

     But her dreams were still troubled, with the faces of people dying. Faces she hopefully wouldn't see first hand, as she escaped thanks to her craftsmanship, and survived to fight another day.

     Hours had passed since the poker game. Nobody in the gang would talk to Lina, after that, and it put her in a very foul mood. She got the instinctive impulse to blast the punks for looking at her funny, but resisted each time.

     Think they were better than her, did they? Better than HER, Lina Inverse, adventuress, world savior (coincidental, but that didn't matter!) and living legend? She was a god! What were they!?

     Lina kicked over an empty pile of boxes in disgust. (It actually was piled there so people COULD kick them over in disgust, which was a terrific way of keeping stress down in the workplace.) And what was this crap Drake was telling them about her life? Of course he'd paint her in a bad light, he was a BANDIT! The bandit of bandits! Grumble grumble mutter bitch growl kick stuff over bad mood grrrrr.

     So, unable to sleep, she decided to get up and have what-for with this guy. She didn't get it; they seemed to be getting along fine, when they were planning this caper. Then he just turned on her for no reason at all! She'd GET that reason, even if it took red hot pokers to the crot--

     Lina bumped face first into Drake's massive girth.

     "Inverse," he acknowledged, stepping around her to get by in the hallway. But Lina blocked again. And again.

     "OH, no you don't, pal," she taunted. "You and I are gonna have some words."

     "Whaddya want? I've got an army to run here," Drake reminded her, backing off for now. "I don't got time for a bleeping washout like you."

     "Who you callin' a washout, you dirty little--"

     "You," Drake said. "You. Runnin' away. Fleein' scared with your tail between your legs."

     "I'm here fighting with you, aren't I?" Lina asked. "You'd think you could show some gratitude for that!"

     "That's not what I mean," Drake said. "I mean.. oh, fine. You really wanna know? C'mere."

     He put his meaty hand around her slim wrist, and half-dragged her into a stock room, away from the echoing hallway. Lina wrenched her hand free at the last second, twice as perturbed. "What's the meaning--"

     "What I MEAN," Drake explained, "Is you're runnin' away from what you are."

     "And what's that, precisely?" Lina asked, leaning casually against a shelf full of rifle ammunition.

     "You're a Demiurge," Drake said. "I don't care if you thought you was human once, you aren't now. You're a Demiurge, and believe it or not, you've got believers. If you turn tail like the Tooth Fairy did, that bleeping little piece of bleep, that all goes away, you understand?"

     "So?" Lina asked, not seeing it.

     "SO? So that means nobody believes in Lina Inverse anymore!" Drake spat. "One of us goes away.. turncoats like the fairy, gets wiped by Sairaag, whatever... that's it. Everybody who believed in you stops believin'. Why you think kids don't put teeth under their pillows anymore?"

     "Zoamel explained all this to me already."

     "Then you know that everybody who looks up to Lina Inverse, everybody who sees you as some holy rollin' force of revenge and profit and high adventure, they all lose the magic," Drake continued. "They lose that dream. You don't come for them anymore, you don't quest, you turn on them. And they get on with their lives, barely remembering what they saw in you. Nobody comes to rob the rich, nobody comes to save someone who calls your name. You LOSE YOUR FLOCK! It's hard enough to get followers, to nourish them and support them and make their lives better through your role, but to cut them loose just because.. because you're BLEEPIN' SELFISH is a bleeping insult to those of us tryin' to stay alive out here!"

     Lina did wince a little, at that. But why wince? She didn't care about any of those...


     Penny definitely believed in her. It wasn't 'worship of a god', exactly, but there was a spirit there. If not for her, maybe Penny wouldn't want to go out and be an adventuress. She'd be content to sit around at home, and count money from customers, like her mother. Lina Gabriev was everything Lina Inverse was not, and with no Lina Inverse, who would Penny have modeled her life after? If Lina became human, would Penny still take up the poorly chipped blade on a stick and go after fun and profit?

     "You seein' now?" Drake asked, watching Lina's expression play out. "It'll happen, Inverse. You go away, and something gets sucked out of the world in your passing. Maybe a little, maybe a lot, but somethin' that means somethin' to people. No Demiurge wants to do that, wants to screw over the people who believe. God don't wake up one day and tell his people, 'You're all wasting your time and I'm leaving.' Ceipheed wouldn't tell that to the few people left hoping for his salvation, or the dragons under his wing. If--"

     "Okay, okay," Lina interrupted. "No need to get all melodramatic on the monologue. I see what you mean. But what about me? I HAD a 'human' life. Maybe it wasn't MINE, but it was mine, in other ways. My friends, all of them, even Gou... it's not like you guys were human, right?"

     Drake considered that, and slowly shook his head. "Naw. Most of us raised out of the primitive tribes, before man even knew how to bleepin' write. Changin' with the times, livin' the roles. Some newbies, though..."

     "I've got a human memory," Lina said, tapping her head. "Human feelings. I want to be ME. I'm not.. I wasn't cut out for this role, and I don't know why I have it. I've got to get out or I'll go stir crazy."

     "I'll admit... that don't make sense to me," Drake said, mellowing somewhat after his tirade. "I never heard of a Demiurge based on a human, not this completely. Sometimes you get legendary people, but they's just Demiurges who grew into the role after losing a previous one, like Zoamel."

     "It's absolutely nuts, being a Demiurge who thinks she's human," Lina pointed out. "And that's why I've got to change. I can't get used to this. You promised to tell us where the Tooth Fairy is, right? You swore."

     "...yeah, I did. I don't break my word. But I still don't like what you tryin' to do. It ain't right."

     "Then I'm sorry if you don't like my reasons," Lina said, a bit sarcastic in tone, "But they're mine and you're going to help. I promised to help your rag-tag group with all the magic I can muster, too, and I'll do just--"

     "You don't use magic," Drake said, matter of factly.

     "Ah? Yes, yes I do. I'm pretty well known for it, in fact."

     "Lina Inverse was. YOU ain't. You're using your nature."

     "My what?"

     "Your nature," Drake repeated, sick of repeating things. "Demiurge nature. Your power to shape the world, fueled by belief. Demiurge also means 'creator of the world', and that's what we bleepin' do, day in day out. Maybe not raisin' mountains unless the situation calls for it but we leave ripples. What you call magic? That's just you tappin' your abilities and sayin' funny words."

     "Soooo... I'm not REALLY using black magic, based on the demon king Shaburanigdo or anything... I'm just remembering how spells work and doing them on instinct?" Lina guessed.

     "Hey, good call," Drake said, with a wide grin. "Maybe make a good Demiurge out of you yet. Probably that human memory, it knows 'Lina does magic', so bam, you LOOK like you do your bleepin' bibbity bobbity bleepin' bleep boo just like you always did."

     "Er.. what else would I do?" Lina asked, confused. (Also with her ears starting to turn red from all the cursing.)

     "Whatever people believe you can do," Drake said, with a shrug. "Ain't it obvious? You are the legendary Lina, not the human Lina Inverse. If people think you can turn mountains into molehills, you can."

     "But I could always do that."

     "Exactly. See?"

     Lina closed her eyes. If she could do whatever Lina Inverse could SUPPOSEDLY do....

     Her mind span, just for a brief moment. She didn't control it, it just happened, instinct, nature. It touched down on a very scared pastry chef somewhere on the other side of the world, where she had stomped through during her quest with Filia. He frequently had nightmares about an orange haired sorceress who could summon food from the very air and devour it to satiate her endless hunger...

     She opened her eyes, and tapped 'magic power', as she always did. Then spoke the chaos words that formed the spell.

     "CREATE FOOD!!"

     A turkey leg fell into her hand, steaming and juicy.

     Suddenly, being a god for all of eternity didn't look so bad. Her eyes glazed over in absolute bliss, as they reflected the perfection of roasted bird, spawned into being by her will alone. Lina went to take a bite...

     ...and her teeth clacked together, catching nothing.

     "...'course.. generally, your power only works FOR your flock," Drake said, with a bleep eating grin that stretched from ear to ear, as Lina's food proved less than substantial. "After all, we exist to serve them as their gods, not to make ourselves dinner. But hey, you wanna go give that to Penny, maybe she'd want it..."

     Lina sighed, and tossed the drumstick she couldn't even chew away in disgust. "I hate being a god," she decided.

     Drake glanced at his clockwork pocket watch, tracking the complex gears and tick marks. "It's bleepin' late. You tired?"

     Fatigue immediately hit Lina like the Aquatic Mongoose at full speed, right when Lina was reminded of the time. "Yeah... guess I better get some sleep--"

     "You don't gotta," Drake said, pocketing the watch. "Demiurges don't need to sleep. Just resist it."

     Lina rubbed her eyes. "Yeah? Easier said than done. How do you propose that, just whisk the sleep away?"

     "Sure. All you gotta do is realize the truth."

     "The truth?" Lina asked.

     "There is no spoon," Drake said, with utmost mystery.

     Lina stared at him with drooping eyes and a slack jaw.

     "....what the hell are you talking about?"

     "I don't know, just some bleep Zoamel came up with couple centuries back when we got drunk in a restaurant and couldn't pay the bill," Drake said. "Whatever. Go get some sleep. In the mornin'... it's war."

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