The sun is as the sun does; it shines. It shines through thin clouds, it gets blocked by thick ones, it rises in the morning and sets in the evening. Consistent and predictable, you can always rely on the sun to behave in a certain way.
Still, one could argue that maybe the sun was shining just a LITTLE brighter over Atlas City that day. Band music sounded from its streets, balloons flew over head and fireworks were being set off. The whole city seemed to be involved in a celebration.
"Boy, these guys know how to throw a welcoming party!" Lina declared proudly, bounding down the steps to the train platform two at a time. She gave a V for victory sign to the cheering masses, gathered to wait for the train's arrival, and was about to launch into a prepared speech when she noticed something... odd.
The crowd was composed entirely of children.
A seething mass of short humanity, pushing at the heavily armed guards that kept them from rushing the train en masse. Their parents could be seen somewhere in the back of the crowd, nervous little mortals who seemed to be staring into the face of unmentionable horror. Lina knew she had that affect on some people, but why would all these kids want to see her?
"I don't think they're here to see you, Lina," Penny said, echoing her unsaid statement. "They're looking over at that car hooked up behind the engine. You know, the big white and yellow one?"
"...oh," Lina said, deflated a little. (That little reality check abruptly halted her amusing voyage into being a publicly worshipped goddess.) "What's going on, then? Looks weird enough to be interesting."
"It is none of our business," Zoamel stated, ignoring the crowd. "We do have a mission here, Lina. Drake said the Tooth Fairy, or someone who knew of his location, was here in Atlas. It's a shame he couldn't have been more specific, so we will have to work long and hard to locate-- where are you going?"
"I've got a hunch," Lina said, waving the pair off. "And I know better than to ignore hunches. Wait here if you're not interested."
She couldn't get too close to the crowd -- which was for the best, considering how dangerous that thundering pack of school age kids looked. They were trying desperately to push past the guards, as the train doors were hauled open.. revealing stacks and stacks of small, foil wrapped packages. A collective high pitched cheer went up that made Lina's ears seriously consider bleeding.
An overweight, balding merchant leaned out of the train car... and froze, like he was staring down a squadron of Mazoku death commandos rather than a flock of schoolchildren. But somehow, he managed to push past the fear, and issue some orders through his megaphone.
"NOBODY gets a card pack without a claim ticket!!" he shouted. "Present your ticket to the guard ONE AT A TIME, and you'll get your preorders in plenty of time for the event! Now... uh... we're a just a teesny LITTLE bit understocked, so I'm afraid it'll have to be first come first serve, and-- no, wait, don't do that! Children, please! No!! I swear you'll get your AAAHGHHHHH!!!"
The group swarmed the car, bowling past the guards with ease after the line finally broke from pressure. The merchant vanished in a seat of school uniforms as the car was summarily looted. The guards, partially trampled, tried to establish order but seemed reluctant to act -- after all, what were they going to do, shoot children?
(And oddly, each child had only taken one shiny and new package off the train before returning to their parent's side. Because kids may be driven to some pretty weird lengths, but they would later have to deal with not enjoying dessert if they actually STOLE something...)
Within minutes, the mob scene was over just as fast as it had started, leaving only some very disgruntled guards and the disheveled merchant.
Penny was aghast. "What.. what on earth could be worth THAT? It just looked like, I don't know, big packets of chewing gum or something..."
"Who knows with kids these days?" Lina said, with a dismissive shrug. "I remember back when I was a kid, EVERYBODY had to have one of those magic pet rocks that turn colors depending on what your mood is. Mine was always black, so I threw it out. So much for my hunch. I guess you were right, Zoamel, this has nothing to do with us. We should--"
"We have to find the one responsible for this immediately."
"--find the one responsible for this immediately, right," Lina repeated before realizing exactly what she happened to be repeating. She turned to him, in surprise. "Eh?"
Both Inverse and Gabriev looked at their companion in clueless confusion, as Zoamel looks at the empty train car in fierce coldness. He clenched a fist at a memory.. then released it, and explained.
"I know of the Demiurge that Drake intended for us to meet," Zoamel Gustav stated, in absolute seriousness. "This is his work. Whatever shape he has taken this time, he is responsible for this, and will tell us what we need to know."
"Oooo... kay," Lina agreed, a little spooked. "I get this feeling from your attitude that we're dealing with very bad news. Is this guy dangerous?"
"Not precisely," Zoamel said, turning to walk to the train station revolving door. "He is.. ideologically dangerous, I suppose. You'll see. First, we have investigating to do."
And so, the noble adventuring party did set forth towards battle and glory, leaving the peaceful train station behind.
Which is a shame, because if they had stayed half a minute longer they would have seen a VERY tired Mazoku slump off the top of the dining car, secretly praying to Shaburanigdo that one day, whoever invented this bloody form of transpiration would be dangled over a pit of scorpions. While on fire.
In a back alley, two heated rivals were ready to settle things once and for all. They had agreed to the weapons for the fight. They agreed to the setting, on the hard streets of Atlas City. Today, it would be settled, once and for all, which one of them was the big fat doody head.
Both street fighters stood at barely three feet tall, as they squared off, glaring each other down and trying to look all bad and mean.
"I'm gonna smash you, Danny!" the first said, pointing dramatically.. and flicking a card into the palm of his hand. "Your skills won't be enough to beat the expert training I've been undergoing! But I'll let you have the first shot, you big booger!"
Danny's left eye twitched. He twirled, and flicked a card between his fingers... a card that glowed a bright purple, as he spoke the words of power.
"PICKLEROO, I CHOOSE YOU!"
The lightning arced from the card, striking the alley -- and where it touched, a furry, adorable little green kangaroo with boxing gloves appeared. It shadowboxed for a second, before crying out "Pickle!".
But his enemy was ready. His own card flared, and a weird little cross between a duck, a zebra and an eggbeater emerged. And the fight was on!
"Pickleroo! Electric Gerkin attack now!" the bully shouted, pointing--
A brief orange blaze engulfed Pickleroo, crisping it nicely. The 'roo coughed a few times, spitting out soot, then collapsed.
Penny quickly pulled Danny to safety, while Lina kept the other kid covered. "Hey! Are you hurt?" Penny asked, checking the kid for injuries. "You could have seriously hurt each other! Little kids shouldn't be playing with wild animals!"
Danny pulled away from Penny. "You interrupted our match! Aww, man. Now we're gonna have to start all over. Hey, Billy, maybe we should go to your house?"
"I can't, mom won't let me have matches there since we burned down the garden last time," Billy replied.
Lina looked back and forth between the two, and the disgruntled little kangaroo, which was pitching a scorched fit in silence (since it only knew one word, and it wasn't applicable at the moment). "Uh... what the heck were you two doing, then?"
"We were having a Mooki-Pokko match!" Danny exclaimed. "Boy, you people don't know anything! It's only the biggest thing in Atlas City! Where are YOU people from if you don't know that, old lady?"
Lina LOOMED LIKE THE DARK SPECTRE OF DEATH over the kids. "WHO are you calling old?!!"
Both kids grabbed each other in fear. "N-nobody, nice lady!!" the blurted simultaneously.
"Lina!" Penny chided, frowning in Moral Objection. "Don't scare them like that!"
"It gets results, doesn't it? So, kiddies!" Lina chirped, looking pleased with herself. "What's Mooki-Pokko? You'll tell the nice lady all about it, yes?"
"It-it's a game," Billy explained, quickly. He flashed his white trading card, and held it out for Lina to examine. "You collect these cards that come in these packs, and you trade them with friends to get the best Mooki-Pokko. Then you have matches to see who has the strongest ones, and they get stronger the more they fight. Gotta smash 'em all! See, I've got Eggduckza and he's got Pickleroo, and Pickleroo is weak against Fowl Play attacks, but Eggduckza is allergic to vegetables but could evolve into Scrambleplatypusantelope if he beats a Pickleroo with his special ultimate finishing technique, so it's all about the strategy of who you fight and what you trade! Oh, and it's really fun, too!"
Zoamel, who simply stood at the mouth of the alley the whole time in determined silence, spoke up. "The maker of those cards is the one we want. Children, do you know who makes these... Mooki-Pokko?"
"You can't have mine!" Danny blurted. "I saved all my money to buy Pickleroo! You should have just preordered a card pack from today's shipment."
"They might be able to trade for some at the arena," Billy suggested. "I bet there's lots of kids there waiting for the big event tomorrow!"
"Now we're getting somewhere!" Lina said, offering the kids a big 'ol smile. "And where is this arena, exactly?"
The arena could seat up to ten thousand of the little brats, and with a hefty ticket charge on each seat, that added up to riches in the bank. Good for ensuring he could enjoy an indulgent lifestyle of women, food and motorized conveniences. Good for paying his medical expenses after that scene in the train station, as well.
When the merchant Mint Endo had signed on to produce and sell these Mooki-Pokko cards, nobody had talked to him about hazard pay. As he lumped around on a makeshift crutch, trying to see the stage preparations with his good eye, he only had one thought : hurts like hell, but OH so worth it. Selling those ridiculous mood rocks around Sairaag in this day and age wasn't getting him anywhere, but this new fad in Atlas City was like a license to print money! He took Mooki-Pokko quite seriously, as seriously as he took the concepts of profit, float, margin and gross. Since they were basically the same things, from a certain point of view.
If only his underlings would get their acts together.
Mint whacked a roadie with his crutch. "No, you idiot! It's MOOKI! M- O-O-K-I, no Y! We can't bloody well hang up a huge banner tomorrow reading 'MOOKY-Pokko Grand Happy Smiling Dragon Master Championship Tournament!' It'd look silly."
"R-Right!" the roadie babbled. "I'll have the banner changed immediately!!" He scrambled behind the stage, the offending paper banner flaring out behind him and snagging on various piles of stage props.
"And get more security outside!!" Mint shouted after him. "Those stupid kids will flood in here like a tsunami if we don't keep the doors shut!"
*BOOM*. An explosion rocked the south end of the arena... rent-a-guard security officials running screaming from the sound, as the massive doors of the arena collapsed, folding better than a Mooki-Pokko card despite being comprised of foot thick granite.
Mint's jaw nearly hit the floor. Rising doctor bills were floating in his head as he scrambled for higher ground, weakly climbing one of the support posts for the arena, while kids streamed in. Fortunately, there wasn't actually anything a kid would find interesting going around, so they mostly milled around looking for Mooki-Pokko stuff and wondering why nothing was ready yet...
But three others came in with them, once the crowd had thinned a bit. Some weird guy in white, and two girls. One of which had traditional dress for a sorceress... albeit a few years out of fashion. Mint knew fashion trends quite well.
"You're going to pay to replace that door!" he shouted from fifteen feet up, clinging to a pole like a koala bear.
Penny Gabriev pointed uber-dramatically. "You who would use your powers as a Demiurge to warp small children's minds around consumerism, you are unforgivable! In the name of Lina Inverse, I'll punish you!"
"...............what?" was Mint's reply.
Lina groaned, and bopped Penny lightly over the head. "Let me handle this, okay?"
"Ehheh.. sorry, I was just all excited, with the whole taking out the doors and rushing in, and, um.. right. Right. Go ahead, Lina."
"Better. Okay, bucko, we know what you're up to," Lina told the man. "So don't bother hiding behind the 'I'm just a simple merchant' crap. Where's the Tooth Fairy?"
"Are you people insane?!" Mint shouted. "I AM just a simple merchant! And the Tooth Fairy doesn't exist! Now get the hell out of here before I call for the city guard!"
Zoamel sized up Mint.. but not just with his eyes. He considered the children, busy trading cards with each other, already bored with the unprepared arena, and definitely ignoring the poor salesman in a fix. "Lina... he is telling the truth. Feel him, he's not a Demiurge."
"I'd rather not feel any part of him," Lina said, making an 'Ick' face.
"No, I mean with your mind. With your soul. Close your eyes, it might be easier... do you know the feeling you experienced at the train holdup?"
"Eh? How did you know about--"
"Imagine that the flow of that feeling from your followers to yourself is a set of dual-connected paths," Zoamel explained. "Belief flows in two directions. Close your eyes and try to see them. But don't see ones connected to you... use the children around us. They aren't connected to this man at all."
Lina closed her eyes, willing to at least try it rather than dismiss it immediately. Of course, no mystical glowing lines popped into view, no matter how hard she tried to concentrate on them. (Not that Lina typically as a zen master of concentration.)
It was ridiculous. Ordinarily she'd have some flippant remark, but after what she'd been through today, it made an odd kind of sense. That sense of...
Her mind wandering off topic had worked. For a brief moment, she FELT rather than saw it. A flow like a river from the kids around them, possibly stronger than the people she had saved at the robbery... and it was going straight past the merchant and --
"He's coming!" Lina declared, feeling that the destination was approaching, rapidly. It ignored solid matter, making a beeline from Wherever to Here, with some sense of purpose about it... she juiced up a fireball, figuring on some monster god arriving ready to smite them all, and aimed it at the stage...
A trapdoor on the stage opened where there was no trapdoor. Six spotlights lit, from various locations around the arena... despite not having spotlights there. A drum roll echoed in the empty walls, all the children turning to face the stage, a unified motion...
And another kid rose from the trapdoor, waving friendly-like to everybody. He wore ordinary kid's clothes, save for a belt around his waist with a pouch for his Mooki-Pokko deck, and a backwards cap with the Mooki- Pokko logo emblazoned on it in the finest gold.
"Hi!" he greeted, a cheerful voice of youth. "I'm Ace Champion, and I'm the world's greatest Mooki-Pokko Master! It's great to see you all here!"
Lina's head rang as the cheers and adulation of the gathered younglings rushed past her, to the Demiurge on stage. Now that she knew it was there and knew how it felt, it was like standing in a river, a river flowing like white water rapids. Penny caught her before she could fall over, but it didn't make the pressure drop one iota.
Zoamel, however, stood his ground. He settled a glare at Ace Champion that could have sliced through diamond. (And not just cute little diamond rings, it probably could have vivisected MOUNTAINS of diamond.)
The younger Demiurge righted herself, pushed back against the flow. It was just a matter of ignoring it again; she was too tied to it before to do that, but if she shoved it in the back of her mind, forgetting about the faith was easy enough. "So, you're the one Drake sent us for?" Lina called out to him.
"Yes, I am the Demiurge of Fads," Ace announced, smiling all the time, a media figure in the spotlight despite his words. "The god of trends and desires, fans and fanatics. I see you've brought Zoamel Gustav with you. I haven't seen you in a long time, Zoamel, not since I extinguished one of your previous forms. Mint-san, please climb down now."
Mint looked at himself... he hadn't moved since Ace's arrival. "Right, boss." He slowly lowered himself to the stage itself, eyes a little glazed as he simply stood there, visions of profit obscuring his senses.
The children went quiet... still beaming smiles at the stage, still waving, but they didn't cheer and didn't shriek. Ace had a seat on the edge of the stage... as the children parted like the waters of a sea for him, he walked over to meet the newcomers. "Don't worry about them," Ace said, waving a hand dismissively at the crowd. "They're my followers. They only have to see and hear what I want them to. And right now, they see me giving them helpful lessons on how to raise and train their Mooki-Pokko!"
Penny clenched a fist. "You're CONTROLLING--"
"Easy, Penny," Lina warned, holding out an arm to stop her. "And you too, Zoamel. You've got that whole barely restrained rage thing going on, and this is NOT the time or place for a fight. Not with the kids around."
The young boy laughed. "True! I know you by heart, Lina Inverse. You may have extremely questionable morals but you'd never allow a child to come to harm like that."
"Do not trust this one, Lina," Zoamel warned, using words if he couldn't use actions. "He's responsible for more inter-Demiurge wars than almost any other one of our kind. He may appear a small child, but he is one of the oldest gods."
"Don't listen to him, he's just sore after I had one of his previous cults rendered obsolete by a new invention I promoted," Ace explained. "I took his followers. He took it personally, but it's just healthy competition, isn't it? It's not my fault that he likes to stay small. He coddles and 'respects' his worshippers, never growing very strong, never fighting the others to increase his flock--"
"Where's the Tooth Fairy?" Lina asked. "I could care less about the history between you two. I'm on a mission here. Just tell me what I want to know and I'll go away."
Ace Champion paused, not expecting that. "Really? That's it? I was expecting a fight, what with Zoamel here, and you. You're a recent Demiurge, aren't you? The Anti-Hero. The one who saves the day whether she wanted to or not. The selfish savior."
"Yes, I am," Lina said. Calmly. "But I don't plan to be that for much longer."
"It'll happen," Ace said, with a toothy, impish child's grin. "Whether you want it to or not. I can feel it in you. All you--"
Fed up, Lina grabbed the kid by the shirt and throttled him. "Where's the freaking Tooth Fairy, you brat?! You have any idea what I've been through to get through this quest?"
She found herself holding an empty shirt. Ace Champion was back on stage, back in the spotlight, where he was strongest -- and with a new shirt on, one that was basically a walking advertisement for Mooki-Pokko. "Now, that's more like it! Lina Inverse has a lot of spirit, I've heard. This is going to be fun. I'll make a deal with you!"
"No, I'LL make a deal with you," Lina said, gathering flames to her hand, rolling them tightly into a ball. "And the terms just changed! You tell me what I want to know or you become Extra Crispy Fried Moopy-Pocky! I'll give you to the count of three!"
Lina's ball extended, warped, a beam-like blast of orange power shooting from her outstretched hands. She didn't have to content herself with the standard fireball, and didn't feel like doing so -- the beam struck true... and went through Ace, leaving no marks, no burns. As if he was a ghost.
Ace Champion laughed. "You're so funny! You can't defeat me that way! Not here, in my temple. These children know the rules better than you do."
Penny snapped her fingers, making the connection. "You can only be defeated in a Mooki-Pokko fight! Just like the kids dueling back in that alley. It's stupid, since you could just sock the other guy in the nose, but it's the only way to 'win' by the rules."
"What a bright girl!" Ace cheered, clapping for Penny. "You're cute! Hmm. You know, you could make a great official Mooki-Pokko master... our market appeal to girls isn't high enough, and--"
"Stuff it, kid," Lina ordered. "I get the idea. If we enter this big tournament of yours tomorrow and beat you at your own game, you'll tell me where the Tooth Fairy is. Is that it?"
"That's it," Ace agreed. "My champion Mooki-Pokko versus your own champion. Of course, you'll have to defeat the other children to get to me... I AM the Grand Dragon Champion, after all. A good, clean competition between Demiurges!"
"This is ridiculous," Zoamel stated. "We will find the Tooth Fairy another way rather than engage in such childish games, Fad King. I have no intention of repeating--"
"I accept!" Lina announced. "Your champion Macky-Picker versus my champion! Under those terms, I accept! I'll plow through whatever fights I need to get what I want!"
Ace clapped for joy. "Great! Great! That's the spirit! I'll see you tomorrow, Lina. And... I've never been beaten at my own game. It'll be so much fun to see you try!"
Theatrics over, Ace simply vanished... and the children resumed talking, as if nothing strange had happened. Lina kept an evil grin hidden, as she worked her way through the crowd, to the door, despite her protesting friends.
"Lina, this is not going to work," Zoamel told her, voice warning in tone. "He controls this social phenomenon. Any Mooki-Pokko you try to buy and use will likely turn against you. He may say he believes in clean competition, but his idea of 'clean' would rival a Mazoku's sense of honor. We will have to simply resume our investigation from square one."
"Oh, we're not entering a Mooki-Pokko," Lina said, her voice dancing along playfully. "He didn't say we had to. He just said a 'champion'."
"Umm... I think it was implied," Penny said. "Although he didn't specifically state--"
"What are Mooki-Pokko, anyway?" Lina asked. "Weird little monster animal things. All I need is a weird monster animal thing that will obey my orders and attack other weird monster animal things. And we've got that!"
"We do?" Penny asked.
"Of course!" Lina said, grinning ear to ear. She twirled on one boot, and pointed dramatically... "Zoamel Gustav, I choose you!!"
The eldritch god of vengeance facefaulted.
While it's commonly known that Mazoku feed on the despair, sorrow, rage and trauma of man's psyche, growing ever stronger from the fuel of negative emotions hurled against them like adding fuel to a fire, it's not commonly known that they nip off to enjoy a good curry every now and then.
At least, Xelloss was the sort to appreciate the finer points of human cuisine. If you asked most Mazoku to define 'human cuisine' you'd probably get a far different nutritional overview, but it would still involve lemon sauce.
Currently, Xelloss was enjoying a two part meal, in the form of an excellent curry dish, with just the right amount of spices and just the right amount of sauce. He also was enjoying the royal chewing out the new waitress was getting in the back room, for dropping a stack of dishes -- her sadness at losing her only job, and the head chef's rage at the idiocy of children. Perhaps his tune would be different, if he knew Xelloss engineered the little accident, but that would deprive the Mazoku of his dessert!
He was JUST about to dive into the main course -- a prime roast rib, draped in barbeque sauces and fit for the finest of kings -- when his annoying little companion started raising a fuss with her yappy-yappy cawing and cooing. Xelloss took bird in hand and reminded her of the pecking order.
"I am ATTEMPTING to have a very nice dinner," he explained. "And no, I will not drop what I am doing and go beg Lina for the favor we need. It is not the right time, she doesn't have an adequate amount of rage built up to ply to our purposes. If I were to approach her or if she was to walk in right now, I can't predict how it would go--"
"Come ON, Zoamel!" Lina whined, leading him reluctantly into the restaurant. "You'll be perfect! I saw you cleaning house with Drake in your full on hardcore nine inch curved teeth and scales and tentacles costume! Just think of how easy this tournament would be with THAT on our side!"
"Ooooh, not good," Xelloss mumbled to himself. The closest exit was at least twenty feet away, and he was one of the only patrons in the restaurant... escape wasn't an option, nor was blending with the crowd. So, he took a very human solution to the problem... and dove under the table and hoped they'd go away.
"Lina, stop pestering Zoamel-sama!" Penny protested, pursing and pouting her... lips. "He said no, and I'm sure he has his reasons!"
"Indeed. I have explained to you," Zoamel spoke, remaining calm but firm as he was led through the restaurant. "I have played Ace's little games before and have no intentions of playing them again. He is... a bad seed. Him and Demiurges like him are the reason we are constantly at each other's throats, engaging in holy war after holy war. Nothing good can come of it."
"You're such a pessimist!" Lina declared, exasperated. She looked around... and spotted a table, already set with a SCRUMPTUOUS roast rib dinner that nobody seemed to be eating. With glee, she hopped over, and had a seat, taking up knife and fork. "C'mon, Zoamel, live a little."
Penny paused, perplexed at the predicament. "Uh, Lina, this looks like someone else's dinner, you know..."
"I don't see anybody eating it, and I don't feel like waiting," Lina explained. "If I can steal treasures of untold value and nosh down on fine foods, I'm willing to combine the two and steal food. It's my divine right, and I'm starving. Sit, sit."
"...so it is. However, Lina, it's not my lot in life to 'live'," Zoamel balked, as he slowly sat down at the table. "I'm a god. We don't exactly live. We--"
"Drake lived," Lina said, waving a fork at him as she cut off a slice of ribs. "I've been thinking about this stuff. You're both Demiurges... but Drake gets in with his followers, walks amoung 'em and talks to 'em and works with them. He's a people Demiurge. But you... when we found you, Zoamel, weren't you just sort of looking on from on high? We had to practically light a bomb under your ass to get you to do anything. You were just doing a few small tasks for your cult, not anything they could use to peg your existence. You didn't interact with them."
Zoamel sighed. "Yes. That is my modus. Your point, Lina?"
"My POINT is that Demiurges aren't slaves to their followers," Lina explained. "Drake wasn't. He was an equal with 'em. I don't see why you have to be so high and mighty, or why I have to be this force of nature with no consciousness like I was before. Drake LED his friends to war--"
"To war!" Zoamel barked, his cool dropping quickly, as he banged a fist on the table. (The table went 'Ow.') "I have no intentions of repeating THAT error, god of vengeance or not! Let me achieve my follower's needs from afar, so they never have to see a 'holy war' head on! I'd sooner dissolve and fade into the memory of humanity than cause more of my flock to... to..."
The table fell silent. The people around it did as well. Lina actually paused in shoveling away food, and as many can attest to, it takes quite an event to get Lina to stop eating.
Penny's lower lip trembled... as she put a hand over Zoamel's fist. "Zoamel... what do you mean? What happened? I've never seen you this angry!"
The god as ancient as time itself let out a tired sigh, and seemed to sink into his chair. His fist unclenched, folding out to take Penny's hand. "...it happened long ago. It's not of importance."
Lina waved a fork. "Something's eating at you, Zo, and I have a feeling it involves our good buddy Ace Champion back there. He said he conflicted with you before, and this is the first time I've seen you talk smack about another Demiurge. Just give us the story and let us decide if it's important. Got it?"
"Yes... yes. I will summarize. You would be bored with most of the details," Zoamel warned, trying to downplay things. But the soft tone of his voice spoke of seriousness, and not the typical firm and resolute seriousness he usually carried... "At one time, most primitive cultures in the world were working with bronze tools and weapons. There were many wars between the various tribes, but nobody had an upper hand. I myself was a snake-god over a fairly large culture, in a river valley. As you say, I got involved with them the way Drake does... as their ruler and benevolent overlord. I did my best to ensure fairness in all dealings, but I was younger then... and not as patient.
"One day, Ace Champion -- although he came in a very different form then, that of a hawk god -- arrived with an army at my people's doorstep. They held new inventions of his devising, weapons made of something called 'iron'. Iron saturated their lives, it was their reason to exist, like fanatics. He was personally leading this army, in the physical form of a great flaming hawk... and he ordered my people to stand down and surrender to the will of the iron age..."
"And you refused," Lina supplied, seeing where this was going.
"I didn't want to lose my flock," Zoamel explained. "But not because I loved them. In my mind, it was a war of gods, and whoever has the most followers in the end wins. I dismissed iron as a passing fad... and within a week they were dead, or converted. All of them. Every single one of my believers that stood by me in my blind desire to win a war were killed, and the ones that turned against me... I'm pleased that they did, in hindsight, for they lived, even if it was under the bloodthirsty, competitive tyranny of Ace. I faded out into obscurity while wailing at my own despair, realizing far too late how much they meant to me, and what my folly cost them..."
The god was nearly broken by the end of the story. His composure was firm, but not nearly as firm as it usually was. And he was holding Penny's hand quite tightly.
".....so you stayed away from your followers from then on," Lina realized. "If they never had a godhead to rally behind, and you just nudged them occasionally, you wouldn't get them all killed in a mistake."
"All of Drake's followers are gone now," Zoamel spoke. "He didn't learn what I did. If you get too close... you will hurt or be hurt. That is the cost of being a god."
"--excuse me?" Zoamel blurted, surprised.
"I don't buy it," Lina said. "Yes, you could potentially screw up and get your followers slaughtered, but LOOK at your cult, man! They're pathetic! They shuffle through rituals, recite prayers and try to get some vengeance all to please you, and don't really get a thing out of it. Maybe they don't even want vengeance, but without any revelations to guide 'em, it'll just keep going and going with the same old schtick. If *I* were a Demiurge--"
"You are a Demiurge," Zoamel reminded.
"What I MEAN is that I wouldn't just stay the hell away and not deal with real people. I say what I mean and I say it to who I'm being mean to-- I mean, I say things right to people. I don't think I could be ME and not get involved; that ghost wandering around acting like Lina for twenty years wasn't me, for certain! I'm getting involved right now, aren't I, like when I saved that train? It was a thrill, and I got free food and gifts and everybody went home happy. And YOU'RE involved directly too, on this quest for your believers! So quit playing the meek card to avoid a chance at messing up, and get involved. Help us win this tournament!"
"Yeah, yeah!" Penny cheered, being the Morale Officer for this merry bunch. "Let's do it, Zoamel! I bet you'll scare the stuffing out of all those weird little animals. It's not like going to war. Nobody gets hurt."
"Someone will," Zoamel stated, voice gloomy. "I can forsee it. But... you raise valid points, Lina. I'll have to think about them for some time before I make up my mind. In the meantime... I will help. But I won't fight."
"RIGHT!.... what?" Lina exclaimed / asked for clarification.
"Trust me," Zoamel said.. with a slight smile. "I believe I can achieve the task my own way: or rather, Penny's way."
"Oh, no need to thank me," Penny beamed, turning a deep red.
"Now, I believe the young lady requires some dinner, even if I do not, and we have talked long enough. If there are no more revelations, I suggest you order her food, given that you've miraculously consumed an entire rib dinner in between lecturing me."
Lina dabbed at her mouth daintily with a napkin, and stretched out. "Yeah, yeah, well, food wants to be in Lina's stomach and waits for no one. So if there aren't any MORE revelations--"
Her boot thumped into something that went 'Ow.'
Curious, Lina reached under the table, fished around like hunting for a bar of soap in the bath and pulled up a purple and gray haired Mazoku.
"This is a terribly embarrassing dramatic entrance," Xelloss admitted.
"...as you see, our sales are nearly four times what they were just last month," Mint Endo continued, showing pie chart after bar graph after line graph after...
Ace Champion leaned back in his chair, feet on the expensive conference table. "This is boring. I already know that the number of Mooki-Pokko fans are increasing every day. That's all that matters."
"No, no, boss, you're not seeing what I'm saying," Mint explained. "We're rapidly approaching market saturation. Soon, there just won't be any more Mooki-Pokko items left to collect, because the kids will have bought at least one of everything. Look, I know you're just a kid, if a very gifted one for gimmick design, but take it from an elder merchant -- if this keeps up people will get bored with Mooki-Pokko. The fad will die out."
Ace declined to correct the man on his age. Endo worked much better for him when he didn't know he was in the employ of a god, and his simple mind was VERY easy to flush selective thoughts from. "Yes, I know. I know better than you do. I'm sure we could get the resources from our ally if we pushed for them... but even if we had the resources to mass-produce these toys, and distribute them across the world, it wouldn't last for more than a few years. No, we need a new paradigm."
Mint paused, unsettled. (Where did the kid learn the word paradigm?) "Yes, exactly. A new fad. You have any ideas? I, ah, had this idea I've been working on for a few years... a sort of a game, with paper and pencils where you play adventurers--"
"Booooooring!" Ace declared. "People want something active! Something hyperactive! Something so energizing they completely forget their dull, stupid little lives, and sink into it like a drug whenever they feel bad. Mooki-Pokko's great for kids, but we need something that's a pleasure for all ages. And I think I have it."
Mint's mind started to think: this kid is pretty clever. Because it was easier than him thinking: something's wrong with this picture, and Ace liked things easy. "What's your idea, boss?"
Ace pulled a full-color poster out of his jacket. It didn't technically exist, but he wasn't the sort to bother with pencils and paints and papers. He unrolled it on top of the conference table, looking smug.
The poster was loaded with vibrant colors... sweet and pure pink, daisy white, sun yellow, and royal purple. It depicted a young girl, smiling with delight and innocence as she waved to the viewer, while wearing an adorably frilly dress that made her look a lot like a piece of candy. Her long blonde pigtail twirled behind her in a very picturesque way.
And the caption read "FIRST CONCERT LOVE FOR YOU DASH!".
"I give the world... the Idol Singer," Ace Champion declared, a slow and gremlinesque grin crawling across his face. "A girl who never matures, never loses innocence. Someone the teeming masses can always approve of, and wish to be like! A musical messiah! It's perfect! And all the emotions the fools pour onto her, all their unsatisfied desires and dreams, it'll all go to ME, by proxy. We'll have to get our people to work harder on musical recording processes, but once it's ready, we can sell HUNDREDS of songs. And once one idol is used up, we toss her aside and get new ones. With THIS, properly cultivated of course, we can claim the world through the power of media!"
Confusion etched into Mint Endo's face. The fog over his mind wasn't helping. "What, you mean like a bard? They'd travel town to town and sing tales of heroes and stuff for food and lodging?"
"No, you mortal idiot, not some dirty old BARD," Ace growled. "Bards are wandering, impoverished beggars. An idol is an unreachable peak of perfection. But I'm not expecting you to understand -- you just do the boring work for me. The Mooki-Pokko project is going to die out soon, and we'll need our Idol ready. Someone we can train and program to carry out the stage instructions and smile for the unwashed masses. And I know just the girl for it..."
"Who is this guy?" Penny asked, peering curiously at the newcomer that Lina had in a Reverse Tongan Death Grip Chinlock Sleeper Hold (easily comboable into an Inverted Atomic Drop or a Sidewalk Slam).
"He's a VERY annoying Mazoku who has a bad habit of making my life more complicated than it needs to be!!" Lina declared, keeping a GOOD grip on Xelloss's noggin, despite his weak attempts to shake free. "Spill it, Xel! What were you doing under my table?"
"Ah, that is a--"
"Don't forget, I can still cast Laguna Blade. Or at least something just as nasty as it."
"I've been following you for awhile now," Xelloss said quickly... while waving an olive branch with a white flag and a dove perched on it, in a quick illusion spell. "Can I please have a seat? You're starting to crush my larynx. And besides, you owe me -- I'm the one who swerved those bullets away from you in Darata, you know."
Zoamel frowned, in distaste. "As weak as the Mazoku may be now, they are still a danger. Do not trust him, Lina."
"Trust? Xelloss?" Lina asked, trying to put two words together like a square peg in a spherical hole. "Please, Zoamel, give me a little more respect than that. I trust him about as far as I can spit a rat. But he's not the sort to stick a knife in your head when you're looking away, so he's safe for now. Sit your ass down, Xel."
The gray haired Mazoku thankfully took a seat, adjusting his robes. He raised his staff, letting the raven perch on it, as it had been fluttering around in a frenzy before. "Good, good. I really wish you hadn't found me, Lina, the timing just isn't very optimal--"
"Bite me, Xel. Now what's going on?"
"I suppose now will be as good a time as any," he said, with a sigh. He made himself as presentable as possible, ready to issue the wording he'd tumbled over in his head for weeks on end. "Ahem. Lina Inverse... speaking on behalf of the Mazoku, I'd like you to destroy the Sairaag Empire for us. ...please."
Lina stared at Xelloss as if he had grown a third head and learned to play the polka using only his kneecaps. "You? You WHAT? Want me to WHAT? For WHO?"
Xelloss pouted. "Is it really hard to understand? Surely you've heard the rumors, the stories of how Sairaag put the Big Hurt on the Mazoku race. They're unfortunately quite true. If we mounted an all out assault with all surviving Mazoku on the Sairaag capital, right now, we just might achieve a stalemate. We're about as menacing as two kids and a dog right now. So, the race of demonic evil slathering beasts would really appreciate it if you could take a few days out of your journey and burn Sairaag down to its foundations. Will you? I was hoping to ask you later, after they'd caused a thousand and one problems for you, prompting you to gleefully agree, to be frank. Please don't make me say please again."
The table went quiet. Lina continued to peer closely at Xelloss -- close enough to lick him. (Not that she did. This is not that kind of tale.)
"...that was a secret, wasn't it?" Lina asked. "You just told a huge secret after only being lightly manhandled by me. I didn't even have to dangle you upside down over a pit of scorpions. Something huge MUST be up."
"Yes, it's called 'extermination of my kind', and we'd like to avoid it," Xelloss said frankly, with a little depressed sigh for emphasis. "Hence, I've had to compromise my protocol a bit. Right now, we feel you're tactically the best person for the job. You're a Demiurge -- yes, we know about that, and a very powerful one. More powerful than any we have on record. It wouldn't take too long, just a day or so ride from here to lay the ever loving smack down on--"
"Do I REALLY have to say 'please' again?"
"I'm busy, Xel," Lina said. "I have my own quest here. I'm becoming human again. You knew that already, though, didn't you? If you've really been following me this far. The LESS I antagonize Sairaag, the better. ...I'll agree with you, they're a bunch of little bastards and if they get in my way, they go down. But seek them out? No. Not interested."
Zoamel cleared his throat. "I will second that. I have my own grudge against Sairaag, for the extermination of MY kind, rather than yours. And thus, I will not act on your request. I act on the request of my followers, and see no need to participate in tandem with a demon to carry out their wishes."
Xelloss tapped the table, in irritation, and tapped his staff on the ground in time. "I could threaten to zap you folks, I suppose," he suggested. A tiny spark formed at the tip of his staff, boiling with darkness and the skimmed taint on reality... until the staff piffled out and went flaccid. Literally. "Oh, poop," he muttered, disappointed, shaking the droopy staff, trying to get it hard again.
Lina smirked, leaning on one arm. "Boy, you really ARE a magical eunuch now. How the heck did this happen?"
"Oh, they had a fight at the north pole, Lina, remember?" Penny filled in, feeling the need to be part of this conversation.
"Yeah, yeah, but the HOW is still eluding me," Lina said. "How a bunch of scrawny little humans took you guys down so low. Spill it, Xel. It might get me sympathetic to your cause."
Xelloss rubbed his chin, in thought. "Yes. Yes, it would, indeed. It's a rather large secret, but needs be when the devil drives, I suppose. And perhaps it'll show exactly how large a threat Sairaag truly is. Pardon my dramatic emphasis, it's just my little fun with storytelling... let me set the scene for you. There was snow, there was sky, and little else. But over the snow, the sky..."
The sky was the color of death.
Many people assume that black is the color of death, but this is just because they're stupid. In actuality, cultures that roamed the world more than a thousand years ago (before the great Mazoku War when the demon king of the north launched part of Shaburanigdo into battle) felt that white was the color of death. White, like the ice that started to overtake the world, the breath of Dynast, great Mazoku Lord of the Northern Wastes.
Of course, the war ended, humanity rebuilt, and Dynast was not seen again after having his metaphysical ass handed to him on a platter.
Oh, how he hoped today would change that.
The great lord hadn't been getting his exercise, and sat on a throne carried by this finest enslaved warriors of darkness -- all thirty of them, because of his tremendous fat bulk. He sat on the finest pelts made from the finest golden human hairs woven from a thousand children, and kept a human female slave under each arm for company and other services.
Long ago, someone called him 'The most stereotypically perverted evil bastard I've ever laid eyes on,' but he had long since decided to take it as a compliment.
He had a fine vantage point to overview the battle. Five hundred of his kin, his finest Mazoku, were ready to kill -- he'd left the bush leaguers back at the Underground Castle of Frozen Pain, a name he'd recently picked out to give the place a bit of cheer. Five hundred would CERTAINLY do against a mere two thousand humans.
HUMANS had challenged him. Openly challenged him! They had sent one of their strange flying contraptions all the way to the north, with one mission -- find the hidden Mazoku Lord, Dynast, and give him an invitation to war. He'd killed the messengers slowly over the course of a month after receiving the declaration, but had to thank them for amusing him. HUMANS wanted to war with him! A formal battle, one line to the left, one line to the right, and a trumpeting charge to clash in the middle. Only humans could think of something as inane as a polite, rule-abiding little war.
It amused him to such end that he agreed in full, even to the rules. Sure, he would have to come out of retirement after that whole little war debacle with the dragons an aeon ago, but this was TOO fun to pass up.
And there he was, lined up, his demonic horde slathering and flailing tentacles and so on, just waiting to devour and/or ravish and/or flay the humans who had traveled all this distance for the honor of dying by Dynast's hand.
Such a rag-tag lot, they were. Flying the colors of the city twice annihilated, Sairaag, and wearing armor unlike he'd ever seen before. War machines he'd never witnessed. Quite a spunky bunch, and if he wasn't a fully astral supported Mazoku Lord, he might have worried. Yet, his spies said they sensed no powerful magics amount them. Not a drop. It would be an absolute slaughter.
Briefly, he considered sending his army down there before they sounded the formal trumpet, but it amused him more to let them think they had a chance...
"You amuse yourself far too much, Dynast."
He didn't need to turn to look; and for that matter, he couldn't, given his immense bulk. "Do my ears deceive me, if I truly had ears through which to hear?" Dynast asked, in his high pitched prissy voice (not that anyone would say it to his face). "If it is not my good 'sister', the Beastmaster. It has been SO long, Zelas. You never write."
His slaves rotated the throne, so he could gaze on the floating figure of elegance, the ultimate predator, in all her splendor. She tapped cigarette ash off her long-stemmed smoke, her well-groomed fur shawl snarling at the fat man.
"And I see you've brought your favorite toy," he added, dismissing the 'priest' out of hand. It was strange, however, the look on his face. One of concern, and yet, some inward secret pleasure... but that was typical for Xelloss.
"So, what precisely is going on?" Zelas-Metallum asked. "My servant Xelloss suggested we drop in and watch the show. Is it true? You're pandering to the humans? I thought you vowed to be ensconced in the ice until the next time our king rises."
"Yes, well, I needed some fresh air. How fare the others? The spoiled brat?"
Dynast flinched. "Dead? Hellmaster Phibrizo dead? My word. I suppose the renegade half-breed finally got to him, then--"
"No, actually, Gaav is dead as well," Zelas sighed, knowing exactly how much this would unsettle Dynast. "Phibrizo slew Gaav shortly before the Lord of Nightmares herself annihilated the boy. You really ought to keep up on current events, Dynast, even if you do prefer to be a shut-in. It's what spies are for, yes?"
".....good riddance to rubbish," Dynast bit off. "The three remaining lords surely can see these skirmishes out to the last. Share wine, Zelas. Enjoy the show. I believe we are about to be attacked, as amusing as the concept is."
"One of these days," Zelas warned, her tone dropping from playful menace to coldness that rivaled the ice, "You will amuse yourself to death, Dynast. Come, Xelloss. I have seen enough."
"Oh, I think we should say," Xelloss piped in with, watching the bristling, anxious army. "I've been keeping an eye on this new power in Sairaag, and find it very interesting. It can't hurt, can it? Please, please, can we please please can we huh? I'll be your best friend!"
A sharp trumpet line rang out across the tundra. At the INSTANT of the sound, war cries arouse from the human army, waving swords, and starting to charge blindly through the snow.
"I missed the start!" Dynast whined. He waved his orders into effect, a flick of an oversized thumb. "I'll never forgive you for that, Zelas. Minions, forward."
The Mazoku shrieked and wailed like raging beasts, to try and intimidate the human army. But not a single one of the mortals stopped, or even slowed in the assault. So, both sides raced to clash...
And then the humans turned a sharp one eighty and ran for it.
"HA! I knew it. They run!" Dynast laughed. "Forward! I want to follow them myself! Push on, slaves!"
"Do not be hasty..." Zelas tried to warn, but the throne bearers were fast, catching up with the army, blending into the mass.
One army chased the other, like two blobs across the plains the color of death. The human mass split in half, two parties... flanking around a particularly large snow dune.
Dynast pondered it, curiously. He had examined this terrain not three days previous, and there was no dune of that size when--
The snow exploded outward, a gigantic catapult hidden under a tarp. It unfolded, snapping into full functional order, a payload of a single greyish white sphere with a purple cross embossed on it at the ready...
TWANG! And off it was. Dynast wasn't quite sure what this was about, as clearly it didn't FEEL magical, and even if it was coming straight for him the best a big lump of rock could do was--
The ball impacted hard against the throne, plowing it twenty feet into the snow. Both armies stopped dead, in surprise, the Mazoku feeling through their master's link that something was very, very wrong.
Dynast was dying.
A roaring geometric ball of black astral energy screamed out of the dunes, Dynast's true astral Mazoku form, trying to GET AWAY from the flickering lightning that was sucking him down into the ball. The sound shattered eardrums -- but the humans didn't even flinch, helmets already designed to absorb the sound they were expecting...
Zelas-Metallum stared in open-jaw horror. "What is going on!? His form is collapsing! That's impossible!"
"Oh my, how interesting," Xelloss said, quite calm. "I wonder if he's going to die soon?"
The shape of absolute darkness (yet not beyond pitch) howled a final cry... and then was sucked down into the ball, annihilated. Silence fell across the snow. Mazoku, severed from Dynast's power, started to realize something, something that none of them had taken seriously in the span of history.
Humans were about to destroy them.
"It was a slaughter, indeed," Xelloss spoke, in low, ghost-story tones. "The Mazoku were leaderless and cut off from their master, while the humans moved with absolute confidence. They carried white disks with purple crosses, which wiped out any Mazoku they touched. I managed to escape, of course, but not before one of the weapons destroyed most of Zelas-Metallum's form -- and drained some of my essence in the process. The bird you see before you is all that remains of her. And that is the end. That's how the humans crippled the Mazoku. The rest of us ran into hiding, hoping to avoid that fate, and then we started to fade, as humans stopped believing in us--"
"WAIT!" Lina shouted, waving her arms. "This is impossible. Okay. You say they used white disks with purple crosses? That's a weapon to kill a Demiurge, Xelloss, not a Mazoku! It couldn't have worked--"
"Ah, but it did," Xelloss spoke, waving a finger to silence Lina. "And the larger model successfully eradicated Dynast in full. I didn't quite understand it myself, as I pondered the outcome for weeks. But as I said, we started to fade. The story of the war spread, and people stopped believing the Mazoku were a threat. Isn't it obvious, Lina? Isn't it as clear as day? We feed on the fear and despair of mankind, in belief that tomorrow will never come. We tap our strength from Shaburanigdo, the Demon King, whether he be divided and dead or living and walking. We are extensions of the dark god, his spawn, his unholy children. Children of a GOD. You see.... Shaburangido is a Demiurge."
The silence that clenched the restaurant tightened to a painful grip.
"...that is absolutely, utterly impossible," Zoamel spoke, his voice near trembling as his world shattered. "A Demiurge is a Demiurge. We are gods over MAN! We are not like... like Shaburanigdo. We are not demons with a thirst for destruction. It makes no sense!"
"Oh?" Xelloss asked. "It makes perfect sense to me. Only your false assumptions about our 'amazing power' block you from accepting the revelation. The ultimate form of nihilism embodied is the form of Shaburanigdo. The fear of world destruction. The HUMAN faith in the horrors of death. We live off your faith of the darkness, the faith you refuse to admit you hold true. Shaburangido, the god, is simply an extremely powerful Demiurge, perhaps THE most powerful one other than Ceipheed, the Dragon King. It's true. The disks may have proven to work just as well on Dragons, but the Dragons were smart. After the fight with Dynast, they went into hiding, patient enough to try and wait for humans to forget about this new power. Silly, isn't it? Once Sairaag has dominated with this technology, the Dragons will find they have no place in the new world order. After all... who needs the gods, be they light or dark, when you have the science that rendered them obsolete?"
Lina sat rock still, looking at the tablecloth. Her head span with thoughts. Horrified thoughts, calculating thoughts, fears and hopes... and questions. Far too many questions. "Penny... you say Sairaag is one of those happy go lucky world domination types. How much so? Do you think they have a chance at running the entire world?"
It took a moment to shake Penny out of the confusion she was in. "Ah... well... actually, yes. Yes. If Xelloss-san is right, then yes. I guess.. nothing could really stop them, could it? It's gone too far now. There isn't anyone strong enough, if even Shaburanigdo can't do anything..."
"That's where you come into play, Lina Inverse," Xelloss reminded, urgently. "We think you can do it. There's something special about you, about your power and how it came about. Ever since the crash of the Mazoku I've made it my MISSION in life to study the Demiurges, how they work, what they do. If you were to attack Sairaag--"
"I can't do that," Lina spoke quietly.
"Haven't I proven they are a threat??" Xelloss blurted, actually showing annoyance. "What more do you need? We must strike, and strike hard! Penny is right; it's almost too late. Almost!"
"...it won't work, if we try," Lina said. "Listen to me, Xelloss. I'm the anti-hero. Reluctant savior. I'm not the one who goes blazing into the front gates to save the world the minute she hears it's in trouble. If I try that, I'm... well, I'm sort of Amelia, I guess. And it won't work."
Zoamel considered that, rapping his fingers on the table, in sequence. "It... makes a sort of sense, Lina. We find our strength in our roles. I can find strength against Sairaag, as I've been asked by my followers to punish our enemies, and they are the enemy. But if I had gone on some other geas from my temple, something simpler, I would have no chance."
"I can't just up and leave my quest to go blow up Sairaag," Lina said, nodding along with Zoamel. "I'd fail miserably. Here's what we're going to do, people. We're going to continue to seek out the Tooth Fairy. I'm still going to try to become human. And... if this works like EVERY other world- saving quest I've been on... it'll all work out, somehow. We get sidetracked, something comes up, I'm FORCED into a situation. And then I'll manage to pull it off, when all the cards are down and I'm pushed to a wall. That's how it works. Is it agreed?"
"This isn't like you, Lina," Xelloss warned. "You're NEVER this introspective, not to the point of questioning how you do things. Have you really changed so much, since becoming a Demiurge?"
"You know what? I have no idea," Lina said, with a weak smile. "I'm just making this up as I go along and trying not to get killed. But that's a pretty Lina thing to do, isn't it?"
Xelloss smiled, back to his happy bastard mode of facial expressions. "Yes. Yes, it is. Bravo, Lina. I will go with this plan... as long as it seems to be working, or rather, not working as the case may be. Quite a puzzle."
With a final breath of relief, Lina pushed her chair out, and got to her feet. "Let's just put this out of our heads, people. Stick to the quest at hand and let whatever power over drama I've got sort things out. If we try too hard, it might not play right. So goal number one : Defeat Ace Champion at the Mooki-Pokko tournament. Goal number two : Find the Tooth Fairy and beat an explanation out of him. Goal number three : Turn me human. But I guess goal number zero is we all get to BED. It's damn late and I'm pooped! Everybody to your rooms, and crash for at least eight hours. I get this feeling tomorrow's gonna be a little crazy."
"Agreed," Zoamel said, rising as well. "Xelloss, you may join me in my inn room. Specifically because I want to keep an eye on you. I don't trust Mazoku, even if your words make sense to me."
"Oh, thank you," Xelloss thanked. "I could use a little fear, mistrust and suspicion to keep my juices flowing. I wouldn't want it any other way. Say, Penny, would you like to join us? I'm sure Zoamel's bed has enough room!"
The young Gabriev turned a deep red. "Why.. why you--" she raised a hand, the Cute Girl Slap Effect When A Pervert Bugs Her coming into play...
Lina smashed a wooden chair over Xelloss's head instead. The Mazoku went down like a lead balloon.
"Neee, if you're going to be the spawn of MY loins, Penny, you've got to learn what tools are right for the job," she chided, tossing the wrecked chair aside. "And the right tool is always the one that's total overkill for the task at hand. Got it?"
"Got it!" Penny chirped.
The moon is as the moon does; it glows brightly in the night sky. It glows through thin clouds, it gets blocked by thick ones, it rises in the evening and sets in the morning. Consistent and predictable, you can always rely on the moon to behave in a certain way.
Still, one could argue that maybe the moonlight was just a LITTLE brighter over Atlas City that evening. Maybe it was the excitement about the next day's tournament. Maybe it was the romantic, thoughtful mood it set up, which had Penny pondering her life, and her situation, as she got ready for a good night's rest.
She had unbraided her hair, to comb it and wash it earlier, and was now carefully rebraiding while looking out at said lunar object. The process took a lot of time, since her hair was longer than Lina's or Gourry's in their heyday. So, she had plenty of time to think.
Penny didn't want to bring it up to Lina, but... she felt a bit like a fifth wheel. Or a third wheel. Or whatever count seemed appropriately inappropriate. Today had only brought that out more, with her barely saying anything, while Lina and Zoamel made all the big decisions.
What had Penny managed to do, over the course of Lina's great quest? She'd been a decent informational resource, but any travel guide could have done that. Every fight she got into she messed up. Every time she tried to deal with their enemies, she got treated like a little kid! And worst of all -- what was the POINT of wanting to be a great warrior with a neat customized pike if she never got to use it?
All her life, she'd wanted to be an adventuress. Swashbuckling, heroic, victorious. But here she was on her first huge adventure and it was nothing like she had expected; no running battles through city streets, no great clashes of skilled fighters and mages. Mostly she sat around and reacted to things the others did. Was this really how adventures went? Lina didn't seem to care that things weren't fitting into Penny's paradigm, and Lina was the expert around here, so that must just be the way REAL quests go...
So, where did that leave Penny Gabriev? A fighter who wasn't able to fight with this league of enemies. She knew no magic, either. What good was she going to be? What use was she?
A clunk sound alerted her to potential danger. She twisted in her seat, holding her comb and brush defensively, ready to give the enemy a makeover it would never forget... and then felt a bit silly for it. All that had really happened was her pack falling over, as the Wandering Monster Table had gotten free again.
"Poor fella," Penny cooed, picking up the table and stroking its stone top a bit, which always seemed to calm the thing down. "All cooped up like that. You haven't had much to do either, have you? Not since helping us define Lina as a Demiurge..."
"Human!" the table chimed, as it was in contact with Penny's body, and she was in fact quite human.
"All you can do is tell facts," she spoke aloud, continuing to comfort her little Table-chan. "Just like all I can do is tell Lina facts about this world, while she handles everything. But I guess you're not too sad about it, are you? I mean, your expression is so... stony."
"Human!" Table-chan repeated. "Bipedal primary species!"
"I want to see Lina finish her quest... but maybe I'm just getting in the way," Penny said, talking to herself for the most part. "Zoamel and Lina have everything in hand. Zoamel's so great; he can do anything!... even help Lina adjust to this world, I guess. Maybe my old sempai was right. Maybe I'm not cut out to be some kind of heroine... naybe I should just go home, Table-chan. This isn't really my quest, is it? It's Lina's."
"Capable of using tools! Opposable thumbs!"
Penny set the table on her head, it's preferred perch. The table settled in comfortably, as she continued to ponder aloud. "Mom and Dad are really worried, I bet... I don't get along with them, but I don't want to hurt them. Although they'll be mad at me, too... I don't know, Table-chan. Should I stay or should I go? What reason is there for me to keep going with Lina and Zoamel?.."
A glow near her hand drew Penny's eyes to her portable mirror... where she saw the table glow, slightly...
"New data collected. Processing: Romantic feelings for Zoamel Gustav, Demiurge!" the Table discerned.
"Wh-what?!" Penny blurted.
"Human, bipedal species, specific designation Penny Gabriev, doubting current usefulness, but has hero worship for Lina Inverse!" the Table expanded, sounding almost proud of its skills. "Romantic feelings for Zoamel Gustav! Allergic to shellfish! Emotionally vulnerable to chocolate!"
"...but how did you...?" Penny asked.
Before she could get an answer, she felt a sharp little prick in her neck, and her world went black.
Mysteriously silent figures in black -- with no identifying characteristics aside from Mooki-Pokko deck pouches at their belts -- quickly stuffed up the drugged girl into a sack, pet table and all. In less than a minute, they were gone.
A figure, just as mysterious but decidedly less black, crept about the inn scant hours after that. He was also trying to escape without notice, but carried nothing with him except for his sole posession -- a mask.
He fingered it lightly, intending to get out without any incident. but ready to use it if so needed. That's why when a light spell floated over his head, turning a room dark as pitch into daylight, he snapped the mask on, and nearly filled the room with the essence of the monstrous Zoamel Gustav.
"Cut that out, you'll wake someone up," Lina muttered, unimpressed. She leaned in the doorway of Penny's room, looking at the monster. "You're gonna do great at the tournament if you can keep your game face on, you know. That's even better than your ravenous demon act in Darata."
Zoamel downshifted, pulling off the mask and returning to his handsome human form. But he retained a dark look about his aspect, a glowering expression. "I no longer wish to participate in Ace's little game tomorrow. The situation has changed. He has--"
"Kidnapped Penny, I know," Lina said, holding up a note. "He left me one too. How he's taken her to 'increase the stakes' in our competition, and we'll only get her back if we win the tournament... although mine's also personalized to point out how useless of a Demiurge I am, and how she's not really my daughter and so on. I'm guessing yours is pushing other buttons?"
"...yes," Zoamel responded, fingering the note in his pocket. "We must rescue her immediately, Lina. Ace is not to be trusted--"
"I know, that's why we're not going to do anything," Lina said. "Your pal Ace isn't real subtle. He WANTS us to barge on in there and fight him head on over this, just like you were about to do. I thought you said you didn't want to play his little game?"
"This is different," Zoamel rationalized. "We must act, and act now--"
"Who's leading this expedition?" Lina asked, stepping into the room, to confront him. "I'll give you a hint -- she's short, has a fiery temper and a big appetite. You called the shots in Darata, and I went along with it even if I didn't like it, because I trusted you. Now you've got to trust me. I've got a hunch on this, that we have to play this scenario out. The only way out is through. We go to the tournament and beat Ace as planned."
"You would knowingly walk into a trap?" Zoamel asked.
"I like to think of it as picking my traps," Lina mused, smiling. "And tomorrow's tournament is a less dangerous trap than a midnight raid. I've had to knowingly walk right into traps before in order to win -- when Phibrizo had set up this huge chain of events for us to follow, and we knew Xelloss was leading us to a bad situation, there wasn't really any other choice. Besides... Penny's an Inverse. We don't take well to kidnapping, and if they're holding her IN that arena, at the heart of Ace's base of operations... this could be the best thing to happen to us."
Zoamel flexed his fingers, barely restrained displeasure at the situation quite clear in body language. "You are choosing to gamble a great deal on your instincts, Lina Inverse..."
"That's what I do," Lina said, poking a finger at Zoamel's chest. "You take calculated vengeance, I dive into the thick fireballs blazing and come through with amazing luck in the end. This is my quest, and it's high time I took command. Are you going to trust me?"
Zoamel considered her words. They made sense, as he was a logical Demiurge, and understood that what seems-to-be or should-become is often more important than what-really-is. But something nagged at him... an alien anger that demanded he press on anyway, against all logic. Something that wanted to blaze in, tear the arena apart and save Penny...
He pushed that down. For now.
"I trust you," he concluded. "You should resume resting. We will need all our power and focus tomorrow to defeat Ace once and for all."
"Oh, I've stopped sleeping," Lina said, matter of factly. "I don't really have to, anyway, since I'm a god. And it lets me practice my powers and read and go out shopping and so on..."
Zoamel quirked a metaphorical nonexistent eyebrow given physical form by virtue of faith and so on. "One might think you are getting used to being a Demiurge, Lina Inverse."
Lina gave pause. (She gave 1.47 pauses, to be specific.) But then shrugged it off, quite casual in appearance. "I am what I am," she stated. "For now. I'd be stupid not to take advantage of it while I've got it. Now, we have about five hours to dawn, and seven to the tournament. It's time to practice our Mappy-Pokey Grand Dragon Champion Master Whatsimajigger skills. Are you up for it, my loyal animal companion?"
The elder god allowed himself a slight smile.
Story copyright 1999 Stefan Gagne, Slayers characters copyright
H. Kanzaka / R. Araizumi.
A Spoof Chase Production hosted by Pixelscapes.