by stefan gagne -- some characters copyright H. Kanzaka / R. Araizumi
Competition is underscored by victory.
All known human conflicts are hinged on their outcomes, on the end results. Who will live and who will die. Who will win and who will lose. Microcosms of the purest form of conflict exist in simulations, in reenactments under restrictions -- the valiant, the proud, the brave, they are the ones who can overcome the odds and lay claim to victory.
Brave warriors all, facing off in the arena of combat, to pit skill against skill, in the honesty of competition. A noble and glorious form of combat, an ancient game of talent and will, and the drive to succeed.
Many stories are written of these honorable rituals, of these contests of the human spirit.
This is not one of them.
"Another one?!" Penny exclaimed, disbelieving. "How can you get two royal flushes in a row?"
"Oooh, just lucky," Lina chirped, collecting the pot, the wad of paper money and coins. "Well well! I guess that means I've got, what, more than half of the funds?"
"But it's MY trust fund!"
"Was. Past tense," Lina pointed out, while palming an ace into her glove.
The chain of events leading up to this 'winning' hand went something like this :
The impromptu game of poker had broken out of an argument, which had been egged on by the generally bad situation they were walking away from and the extended delay of their transport. Spirits were running low. Zoamel had wandered off, as usual, to do whatever odd business he tended to do; and in his absence, Lina decided to assert her 'Team Leader' role, and suggest that she handle the finances for their little quest. Penny objected. Lina suggested that if the gods of chance intended for her to handle the money, they'd deliver it to her in a game of cards. And from the looks of it, she'd be stinking rich in a few hands.
"So when the heck is this Spain gonna be arriving, anyway?" Lina complained, pocketing another 15% of the cash and swapping her hidden ace for a king and a jack.
"It's a TRAIN, Lina. And it should be any second now, I mean, Sairaag Empire Rail is usually so punctual. I don't see how they could be delayed an hour. It's a very efficiently run country, and--"
"And they tried to kill us earlier," Lina grumbled.
"I know they tried to kill us, but.. that doesn't mean I don't have to like what they've done, Lina. I mean, without Sairaag we wouldn't have airships and trains and nobody would be able to communicate without a two month delay assuming your letter goes through, and we wouldn't be able to farm as fast as we can or any of the other great things we do thanks to technology!"
"You sound like a sales pitch. Call."
"Uh... two pair?" Penny tried.
"Five of a kind!" Lina declared, and snagged the rest of the booty. "Well! Good game! Don't worry, I'll spend this wisely on dinner for myself and nice, soft beds! And fresh baths and really nice clothes and maybe if I can find a magic shop along the way I can stock up on amulets, and... and.. ...what were we talking about again?"
"Sairaag," Penny reminded, sitting back in her uncomfortable train station waiting area seating and watching all her money go bye bye.
"Right, Sairaag," Lina said, pocketing the rest of the funds. "I don't buy it."
"I'd hope not! Even with my money, you can't afford a country!"
Lina just.. stared at her, for a moment, before clearing her throat to continue. "What I MEAN is I don't buy all these marvelous, world-changing advances. I was only gone for two decades! How in blazes did humanity whip up flying machines and iron horses and steam powered revolving modular whatsimajiggers in that amount of time?! It doesn't make any sense!"
"But how can you not believe in something we rode on the other day? It wasn't a dream, Lina. I mean, I guess it'd seem strange to an old person like you--"
"--but it is true. This stuff exists," Penny said, logically. "I thought we covered this when we were waiting for the airship, anyway."
Lina sat back in her seat, and rubbed her forehead. A headache was definitely en route. "Yeah, yeah, yeah. I know. It's been a long day, okay? Stuff's eating at me. For instance, WHERE IS THE DAMN TRIPE?!"
"Train," Penny corrected, again. "And I'm sure it'll be along any minute now."
Just a few miles outside of the port city of Darata, a lumbering beast of iron and metal roared down poorly constructed tracks, dragging behind it a tail of steel, boxlike cars. But a much nastier beast was lying in wait, just for the right moment to snag its prey. To make it do his bidding!
"SQUWAK!" came a muffled sound from the demon beast's napsack.
"Hush up, this takes concentration," Xelloss hissed, whirling the iron hook over his head, attached to a heavy chain. "And stay put, I don't need a wad of feathers getting ground under the wheels of that thing when we touch down. Alley-oop!"
The hook whirled through the air, sure and true...
And snagged on an outcropping on the speeding train.
"And now... the unpleasant part," Xelloss said to himself, as he was jerked from State A (a standstill on the hillside) to State B (flying through the air at fifty miles and hour) in the space of a second.
Normal humans would probably have remained on the hill, and watched as their severed arms went flying through the air. Then they would have died. Xelloss was made of stronger stuff, fortunately, even in his weakened condition. Once the acceleration wave hit him, he merely winced. Then it was all downhill, or rather, up-chain, as he quickly climbed along the length, and planted his feet on top of the car.
"That wasn't so bad, was it?!" he called to his companion, as he secured himself to the car, and settled in to enjoy the ride. The scenery would be rather lovely at this speed, he had to admit.
His eyes strayed to the road leading into Darata, which ran parallel to the train tracks, and to the rider who was practically keeping time with the train. The horse was winded, but he pushed anyway, driven like a man possessed.
"I hope he hurries," Xelloss commented to himself. "I'd hate to be him when his wife finds out he missed them by mere seconds."
The dustcloud kicked up by the horse extended for fifty feet, as it bore down with Ludicrous Speed, into the bullet-pocked city of Darata.
Two eyes locked onto the train, as the rider broke away from the tracks, and used instinct to try and navigate the city streets to the train station. Of course, the streets were crowded; but his horse was a fine mare, and managed to jump two apple carts, and skid under a low hanging bridge, before approaching the station.
(He managed to snag an apple off the cart as they jumped; his horse would probably be demanding it if he ever intended to re-mount without getting two hooves planted in his behind in equine disgust.)
He slowed the horse -- just marginally -- then JUMPED directly out of the saddle, feet breaking into a sprint when they hit the ground. Cheap, military issue boots pounded on the cobblestones, then up the marble stairs, into the station itself...
The train was starting to pull away, and he could JUST make out the orange-blonde pigtailed head in a passenger car window, back turned to him.
"PENNY!!!" he screamed, and made a lunging dive for the closing doors...
Only to get his hand caught in them.
He shrieked, and did his best to run alongside the train, pounding on the doors -- which made them let go of his poor hand, but didn't alert the girl sitting just fifteen feet away. He stumbled, tripped, and planted his face into the floor as the train finally rolled off.
Lina wasn't going to like this.
A familiar chime from his backpack told him that she DEFINITELY wasn't going to like this.
Gourry stood up, shook his head to clear it, and withdrew the two way scrying sphere he had been sent with. His wife's irritated face occupied the entire ball, warped around because she was leaning in so close.
"Well?!" she demanded.
"Ah... wouldn't you know it! Missed them by THAT much," Gourry said, making a pinch between his fingers that covered an inch. "Bad luck?"
Lina ZOTted him through the astral link. His hair stood on end.
"BAKA!" Lina barked. "I told you not to wait around in Nostrum so long! If you hadn't, you could've caught up to them by now!"
"But they couldn't get that temple fire out!" Gourry protested. "It's my duty as a protectorate of the country of Zeifelia to--"
"GET ON THE NEXT TRAIN TO ATLASS CITY, jellyfish brains!" Lina shouted, loud enough to make the scrying sphere shake.
Gourry got testy. (Could he be blamed?) "I'm doing my best here, okay? I saw her, and she's fine, and that's the important thing! We'll get her back, I promise! Okay?!"
The sphere went quiet. Gourry cursed himself; he usually didn't yell at his wife. He didn't like to, and didn't want to, and each time he got mad enough to, he never forgot it...
"...okay. Okay," Lina said, her voice calmed. "Gourry.. I'm sorry. I didn't mean to snap, it's just... I mean..."
"I know, Lina," Gourry said, stroking the sphere with his thumb, smiling a bit. This he did know; Lina was never very good at expressing her feelings, unless it was done loudly. "I'm just as worried as you are. But I promise she'll be fine. She's just got a little wanderlust, you know... kids these days. Listen, Lina, it's not too late. You could probably hop a train or a ship to Atlas City and meet me when I arrive. The next train from here won't leave for half a day, after all."
Lina got That Look.
It was one Gourry was very familiar with. A blank stare, almost like a silent rest in the middle of a song. Whenever he suggested she actively go out and do something risky, she would get like this. He knew then he couldn't convince her.
"I've got to tend to the shop, Gourry," she said, her usual excuse, in her usual even, dulled tone. But immediately after, her expression slid from empty back to soft, and caring. "Besides, you can handle this. Look.. I have faith in you. I may yell sometimes, but you know I trust you. I'm going to zap you some of the money we collected today -- someone bought Big Bertha."
"The two hundred pound magical staff?" Gourry asked, surprised. "Wow. I thought we'd never get rid of that..."
A series of golden coins emerged from the scrying sphere, each with a sharp flash of light.
"That's for your train ticket," Lina said. "And maybe enough for a meal. I'll see if I can get some more big sales to help you. Okay? I'll help you from home. I'm helping, right?"
"Hai, Lina-chan. You're helping," Gourry said, caressing the sphere again. Not that she could feel it, but... "You're helping a lot. Thanks. I'd better go buy that ticket."
"Okay. And Gourry?.. call me when you're on the train. I mean, I'll be really busy here at the shop and all, but I'm sure I could find some time to chat, if you get, you know, lonely."
"Right," Gourry agreed, knowing she didn't mean HE would be lonely. "See you then. Love you."
He did love her. No matter how much she had changed since that day.
Lina watched the trees go by and go by and go by and go by and go by and go by and go by until she felt the need to throw up. Then she just sat quietly and waited for this train ride to be over.
At least on the Aquatic Mongoose, you could content yourself with big dinners and other diversions. You weren't sitting right next to a window watching the terrain go by -- and even if you were, it was just a featureless stretch of ocean. Here, Lina could damn well tell how fast they were going, and it was.. just abnormal. Unthinkable speed, for someone unused to this age.
She wasn't afraid of this stuff. No, no, that wasn't Lina Inverse, after all. She always knew what was going down, was always cool and in control because she KNEW the world. How it worked, what spell does what, histories ancient and mysterious. What she didn't know about was whatever the hell this world was she had woken to... and adapting was harder than she thought it would be. Not that she'd admit it.
To kill time and take her mind off things, she decided to strike up a conversation. Zoamel had been sulky ever since Drake's demise, and only talked when he had to -- which had Penny chewing on her lip constantly in worry, concern and puppy-dog-eyes style nervousness. Ick. Lina, however, preferred the direct approach in all things.
"What the hell's wrong with you, Zoamel?" she asked, shocking Penny and breaking the silence in one fell swoop. "Come on, spill it. Are you depressed because of Drake?"
"Depressed?" Zoamel asked. "No. Saddened, perhaps. But now, I'm simply contemplating my mission."
"Uh... wasn't your mission a fraud?" Lina asked. "We tricked your followers into letting you out. The rest was just happy coincidence. I know you're really excited about vengeance on Sairaag, but we didn't originally--"
"Lina, quit picking on Zoamel-san!" Penny defended, moving to sit next to him instead of her living idol. "He's had a bad day."
Zoamel cleared his throat, a technique many gods, omniscient powers and holy icons use to get attention when lightning bolts or locusts fail.
"Lina... there is something you must understand," Zoamel said. "To a Demiurge, the followers are all. When you convinced my people to let me go with you, it was not just a convenient excuse. I took it to heart, as they did, to seek vengeance against our enemies. I have let them down, allowing Sairaag to claim another soul. My mission is not complete, and my faith will not be fulfilled until this extra sin has been punished. I am not depressed. I am simply contemplating what it will take to finish my holy quest."
"Oi, you sound like a bible," Lina grumbled. "And I know about the followers thing. Drake explained it all to me already, the whole song and dance."
"It's more than a song and dance," Zoamel corrected, mildly offended but far too gentlemanly to let it show. "This is our way of life. It is the whole purpose of what we consider our life. It's not enough to know the words, to understand them; you have to feel them."
"I'm planning not to need to feel them," Lina grumbled, crossing her arms. "...I don't need to be a Demiurge. The world can get along without me. Drake couldn't have been--"
She found herself going from seated on a comfortable bench to flying to the front of the train car rather fast. Lina adjusted her position in the universe quickly, and got to her feet while the other passengers scrabbled and flailed around in confusion, over the screeching grind of the train wheels, braking hard against the track...
"Why'd we stop?!" Lina barked, marching to the door at the front of the train car. She wrenched it open. "You know how bad it is on one's stomach to go really fast and then stop that sudden? This truck's got no respect for..... Penny! Get off Zoamel and come with me."
Penny's face, tomato red as she had landed on Zoamel in a Compromising Position(tm) took a few seconds to react. "Ah, hai, Lina!!" she got up fast, bowed in apology, and took off through the door between the cars.
Quietly, and with dignity, Zoamel stood and resumed his seat. He did not need to be present for what would transpire; he could smell a small miracle a mile away, after all.
The iron rails beneath the train's wheels were still smoking and hot, as the engineer was marched out of the engine at staffpoint.
The goons had set a mountain in front of the train. A mountain! If he hadn't slammed the brakes, they would have plowed right into the thing. Who on earth would.. or could.. do something like that?
The magical staff smacked behind his knees, and he fell to them, looking up at the gang of black robed sorcerers. They were a mean looking bunch, but all quite old; as if the senior citizen's rest home had emptied out a bunch of very disgruntled wizards. But he knew better than to mess with old men who had THAT kind of magic, even if the folks back in Sairaag said there was nothing to fear from the old ways and arts...
"Kneel before Dreadlord Maygus the Relatively Omnipotent, foolish Sairaag dog!" the main gray bearded goon shouted, jamming his staff into the soft dirt. "Show respect to the true rulers of this wilderness that you and your kin so callously have laid heathen iron rails through!"
"But I just drive it, I didn't lay the rails," the engineer said before realizing exactly how stupid it sounded, and before getting a sharp electrical jolt from that staff.
The other sorcerers laughed at his plight, as the leader spoke. "You who would disrupt the absolute purity of our magical land with your beastous machines must pay a fine for disturbing our peace," he stated, holding out his hand. "The ticket money will do nicely, as well as any soft serve precooked dinners you had stored to give your passengers. The kind without the tough meat, it's bad for our dentures. ONLY THEN we will remove this mountain we have wrought with our divine black magic! "
The engineer spoke faster than his brain again. "But the ticket money's stored at the station now because the trains kept getting robbed--"
The leader raised his staff again... pointing it at a guarded cargo car, hooked right behind the engine for maximum security. (Although the guards were currently paralyzed by spells.) "Then perhaps we should detonate a few cars, so that you understand the penalty and come prepared next time!!"
The working man's eyes widened. "Whoa, no, wait, not that! Anything but that! Detonate one of the passenger cars if you have to, but--"
A ball of fire engulfed the lead sorcerer. There was a bit of panicked screaming, before he cast a dispel on it, and emerged merely singed... and utterly enraged with every single one of his seventy years behind him.
His request for information was simple, but cut short.
The row of goons behind the leader ran for the hills, hobbling along on their staffs before the orange ball of magical flame ignited the grass where they stood.
Who could be doing that? the engineer thought, and turned his eyes to the figure who stood atop the train's engine itself, a hand smoking from the fire she had just hurled from her fingertips...
Lina Inverse clenched a smoking fist. "What're you doing accosting these guys, gramps? They're just trying to travel places! You should go back to sitting in rocking chairs on porches and complaining about kids these days! Because this time, you didn't just upset a cowering bunch of passengers, you upset Lina Inverse's stomach, and for that you will be terminated with extreme prejudice!!"
95% of the remaining wizards had the same reaction. "LINA INVERSE?!", they shouted at top volume, and then ran away, picking up their robes so as not to trip over them as they beat a hasty retreat. The engineer scrambled to safety next to the train and away from these idiots... but one idiot stayed behind. The chief idiot.
"I've heard all about you, Lina Inverse!" the old man shouted, twirling his staff, and starting to glow with a sickly purple magical aura, power flaring and building. "I've always wanted to test my mettle against the ultimate master of black magic! Today is the day you learn to respect your eld-- what're you doing now?!"
Lina stood back a step, framing up the old man against the magically hewn mountain. One nice clear line connecting her to the wiz-bandit to the pile of rocks...
Of course, he'd see it coming a mile away since she'd have to chant the spell, part of Lina rationalized.
But we don't HAVE to chant the spell, another part said, with no small amount of glee...
To prove it, she didn't even say the words, as she launched a red flare that boiled sanity as easily as the air it plowed through. In her mind, it was a Dragon Slave, so a Dragon Slave it was.
The ground rocked with the explosion that engulfed the immovable object, freeing the path for the irresistible force to continue on its merry way. When the smoke cleared, the mountain was gone, the rails had melted a bit but were still in serviceable condition, and the chief wizard was winging his way to Atlas City via a more direct, airborne method.
And all around her, applause burst out, a rolling wave of it. In surprise, Lina turned, to see a crowd...
The passengers had left the train to see what was happening, and had done it just in time to watch the victorious blast. The engineer, thankful that his cargo hadn't been destroyed, was cheering louder than any of them.
Lina Inverse was the subject of so many smiling faces and cheers from the people that she saved that she actually started to blush. Penny, who hadn't actually gotten to fight (much to her disgust) got to lead the cheerleading squad (much to her delight.)
"THREE CHEERS FOR LINA INVERSE!!" she shouted, jumping up and down and waving her arms. "Bandit killer supreme and all around heroic kinda girl! Yaaaaaay!"
The first wave took her entirely by surprise. It was a strange sensation, an invisible stroke to the ego, but a stroke to more than that; it was empowering, it filled her, it satisfied her more than any six person chicken dinner ever could.
It was the faith and adoration of people who believed in her, in what she represented, in the miracle she had performed to save them all. Not just an ego boost, not just fame, but something more gratifying, something wonderful for its own sake as well as her own. Some sort of invisible pact between them that had been fulfilled, mutually agreed on. Not a slave being ordered around, or a helpless mass saved by an uncaring greater power. It was faith in miracles.
In short, it felt *really good*.
"Ah.. thank you, thank you!" Lina shouted, waving her arms too. "This train may continue to Atlas City without fear! If anybody else tries to mess with you, I'll blast them into next Thursday! Yeah!"
For the rest of the ride, Lina would be given personal thanks, a few token gifts, and lots and lots of food. This was Lina Inverse, after all, whose power was rivaled only by her appetite. Somehow, something inside her thought, this Demiurge thing isn't too bad. It was like Drake said, the way people thought of her, what it meant to you at the core. Maybe being a Demiurge wasn't as horribly unfair as she thought.
Then she got food poisoning from the poor quality mass transit precooked dinners and spent the rest of the ride to Atlas City with her head over a toilet, and promptly forgot all about that moment. For the moment.
(Despite the messy ending, Zoamel actually smiled for the rest of the trip home, silent yet internally pleased.)
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Story copyright 1999 Stefan Gagne, Slayers characters copyright
H. Kanzaka / R. Araizumi.
A Spoof Chase Production hosted by Pixelscapes.