The sun is as the sun does; it shines. It shines through thin clouds, it gets blocked by thick ones...

     But the sun technically had absolutely nothing to do with the situation at hand, and mentioning it doesn't actually add significance to Penny's plight. Repeating it over and over does not technically add some deep meaning to the weather patterns over Atlas City.

     It's just worth noting that the sun did slip in between the cracks in the shuttered windows, and that was the first thing she saw on waking. A nice, pleasant morning.

     The second thing she saw was that someone had tied her wrists to a light fixture over her head, and that wasn't very pleasant at all.

     The third thing she saw was that someone had re-braided her hair into adorable twin pigtails full of ribbons and bows, a laughable parody of the braid she had worn since childhood...

     But most importantly, the fourth thing she saw was that someone had stuck her in an exceedingly pink dress with more frills and lace than an entire old ladies' knitting circle, and in order to do that they must have seen her naked at one point or another, and THAT was absolutely pissing her off.

     "HEY!" she shouted, trying to get some attention, as she had been tossed in the back corner of some store room. She thumped her feet on the floor a few times, raising noise a-plenty. "Whoever did this is gonna be... they'll end up... well, I'm going to hurt them very much, I'll have you know!! HEY! HEEEEY!!"

     Mazoku teleport by blurring through shadow, elongating the eldritch darkness which man's light has not reached. Ace Champion decided to appear in a burst of adorable puffystuff and sparklies and whizzers instead.

     He was all smiles, hands in the pockets of his jacket as he surveyed Penny's costume. "It looks great, doesn't it? I just knew you'd be perfect for my next project the moment I saw you."

     "I swear, when I get my hands on..." Penny started. And stopped.

     While she did have a bit of the naive girl left in her from childhood, and tended not to be as observant as she should be, and was fairly clumsy... she was still an Inverse. Some Drama Gene was waving its little chromosomes at her, shouting, 'Hey, the bad guy wants to tell you all about his evil plan! If you listen to it, you'll definitely escape when he's not looking!'.

     "What project?" she asked, starting again.

     "My Idol Project, of course," Ace replied. "Mooki-Pokko is fading. But this, this can stay for years and years. I'm going to turn you into a beloved singer, world renown, adored by millions. The costume is just step one... a symbol of purity and childish innocence. Although you're not exactly pure as the driven snow, are you, Penny Gabriev?"

     Penny turned red. "How do you--?!"

     Ace laughed. "I can just tell. Don't worry, I can probably fix that once we get the ball rolling. I wish I could tell you more, but I've got a tournament to win, and have to keep my sales pitch short."

     "It's obviously not going to work," Penny scowled, channeling her anger. "I can't sing, I don't want to be a pawn in your fads and I'm not going to go back to being... a child. So you can take that little project of yours, shine it up real good, turn it sideways and stick it up your--"

     "Naughty words!" Ace gasped. "We can't have that out of our idol. But Penny, doesn't a small part of you want this? To be useful? You're a terrible, terrible adventuress. You know it. You can't fight, you can't cast magic, you can't do anything."

     Penny resisted looking surprised. Somehow, this kid had gotten into her head... drudging up her weaknesses...

     "Oh, I know what you're thinking," Ace spoke, a little music in his tone. "I'm an ancient and powerful god, Penny, even if I look like a child. I know you. I know you want to go home, I know you feel weak and useless, and that you have to find your direction in life. That's what I'm offering you!"

     "You've got a funny way of offering it," Penny goaded.

     "Granted, maybe the introduction had to be a bit harsh... since clearly your possessive little adoptive mother would never let you go, she's really unhealthy for your development, you know... but now we can carry on. Join me, Penny. I can make you loved. I can make you useful. EVERYBODY will want you. Everything you do will be magic, everything you touch will turn to gold."

     Penny weakened. He was right, in some respects. How she felt, what she wanted... but was this the way? Did she even know what the way was, wasn't that why she was so confused and despairing last night?

     "You don't have to despair, Penny. I can help you. All I ask is that you believe in yourself, and in me, and let me guide you, shape you and remake you. Become mine. You and I can RULE this world. Sairaag itself may think it will take over, that it has me in under watchful eye, but I have the upper hand. We can topple Sairaag, lead the people against it with the power of your song. You want that too, don't you? To stop the evil? Be a heroine? A heroine idol?"

     Penny looked down. "I don't, I just... I want to be a heroine. Like my mother was, like Lina is, but.. I'm no good at doing it like they did..."

     "Of course you aren't. You're not like them, and you don't need them. You don't need your mother," Ace soothed, stepping closer. "You don't need Lina. You don't need your father. You don't need Zoamel. You just need ME..."


     Penny's eyes flashed, her anger rising again. And she kicked a god squarely in the nuts, using the bindings to the light for leverage to make it a really nasty zen master martial arts ballshot.

     Ace flew back into a wall, his physical form propelled by the blow. He bounced off the stone, and came up... frowning.

     "I should have expected a dirty trick from a dirty girl," he poured on her like venom. "Make no mistake, Penny Gabriev. I'll scrub you clean and start with an empty mind if I have to! I WILL get what I want. I was hoping you'd cooperate, but maybe it's better this way. Once I finish with Lina, Idol Project begins."

     Before she could tell the little bastard off and swear violence against his person, the young Gabriev's drama gene perked up again.

     Assuming her best impersonation of the Helpless Maiden, Penny twisted her hands a bit, to show Ace how she was effectively restrained. "Just you wait!" she declared. "Lina Inverse will rescue me!"

     "I'm not sure about that, since she didn't feel like rescuing you last night," Ace responded, marching to the door. "Shame, I had my Mooki-Pokko Kabuki Ninja ready to jump them on arrival. Honestly, nobody EVER lets me have any fun with my games... now you wait here like a good little girl and I'll be back!"

     Ace slammed the door so hard that the contents of a nearby storage shelf spilled onto the ground.

     Which is exactly what Penny wanted. A box filled with scissors, knives, and other sharp objects spilled to the ground.

     Unfortunately, it was several feet away, and she was actually quite effectively restrained. But it was a start.

     No true to the blood heroine would take something like this lying down, after all. Or standing up, as the case may be.

     The arena ROCKED with the cheers of thousands upon thousands of children.

     Fireworks and balloons signalled the start of the tournament, as a stage show of various Mooki-Pokko doing a dance routine entertained the crowd. Music flooded the air, and tasty childhood delights of all kinds were being sold by vendors moving swiftly through the stands. If the situation were any different, Lina would almost feel happy here, like a kid again.

     As is, she remained as focused as an arrow on a target. Vigilant, and ready to do battle, to lock horns and prove her mettle. Ready to cut a swift path to victory.

     After enjoying a hot meat pie, some cotton candy, popcorn and a box of chocolate covered macadamia nuts.

     "Would you relax? We're not up until the second fight," Lina said, trying to calm her companion down (in between stuffing her face a fistful of snacks at a time). "Jeez, Zoamel, you take everything so seriously. Even your FUN is serious!"

     "I see no reason to make light of this situation," Zoamel replied, cold as ice.

     "This is how I deal with stress," Lina philosophized. "You give me a good meal and a refreshing beverage and I can topple the world with ease. Now sit down and wait for the fight. Who's up first, anyway?"

     "*THE OPENING MATCH NOW WILL BEGIN!*" the announcer blared through a magical amplification system, loud enough to make Lina drop one of her boxes of popcorn. (She had to resist the temptation to pump a Flare Arrow into the broadcast booth to avenge her food.) "*The rules are as follows! Each Mooki-Pokko trainer may use ONE Mooki-Pokko! The first Mooki-Pokko knocked unconscious or out the ring is the loser!*"

     "Perfect!" Lina cheered, waving a V for victory. "This is gonna be a snap!"

     "*ROUND ONE... RYO vs. XELLOSS!*"

     The other popcorn box joined its brother on the grass. "What?!!" Lina gaped. "Xelloss entered the tournament!?"

     Sure enough, climbing into the ring was everybody's favorite secretive little bastard, smiling and waving to the kiddies. His opponent, a young boy dressed similarly to Ace (his hero!), seemed a little confused.

     "Wow, you're old!" Ryo declared.

     "More than you can imagine," Xelloss teased. He pointed dramatically. "Now! Zelas-Metallum! I choose you!"

     ...and a small black bird reluctantly took off from its perch on his staff, to land in the center of the ring. It looked back at him, as if to ask 'MUST I do this?' but a stern look from Xelloss set the avian straight.

     Ryo flipped a Mooki-Pokko card out from his sleeve, holding it up for all to see. He twirled it once, before striking out. "Lionation! I choose you!"

     Black lightning sparked from the card momentarily, depositing a... six foot tall snarling teeth like daggers hungry as hell cat with blood red stripes in the ring.

     "I almost feel sorry for that Mazoku," Zoamel mused, allowing himself a smile despite his fierce concern for the day's events. "Lina, do you suppose Xelloss is deliberately abusing his former master..? Lina?"

     "Huh?" Lina asked, snapping out of her distraction. "Oh, right. Heh. I can see it. Wage slave finally getting it out on his old boss... sorry, I was just looking at that kid's card. It's pretty funny, I hadn't really paid much attention to the Mucky-Socky cards before..."

     Zelas cawed madly, hopping back and forth as Lionation swiped at her with razor claws. It was almost comedic, the way the bird frantically tried to avoid becoming several smaller subdivided birds.

     Lina dug through her pack, searching. "I bought a pack of the cards off some kid, so we'd have a dummy card to make it look like you were a real Mippy-Mappy..." She took the pack, and ripped it open, to study a card in greater detail. "Something about the light show these things use reminded me of... of... uh. Zoamel?"

     "That is one plucky little raven, I must say... yes, what?"

     He turned, to look at the card Lina was tapping... or rather, the faintly embossed purple cross in the center of it. A faded purple on a pure white surface.

     "Where have we seen this design before?" Lina asked.

     "...the Eradicator disks?" Zoamel wondered. "But how could they be related? This is a child's toy--"

     In visually illustrated children's stories, loud background noises are usually depicted by huge letters (mostly vowels) in big red letters behind the characters. In this case, Lina practically was tossed head over heels by a long string of 'O's and 'A's.

     When she snapped to attention and turned her eyes to the fighting ring... Lionation was soaring through the air at incredible speed, towards the stands. The kids scrambled to get out of the way as the huge Mooki-Pokko crashed into a row of bleachers, shattering wood and kicking up splinters into the air.

     On the whole, the tiny, unassuming black bird who was still standing in the ring looked rather pleased with itself. With the crowd in stunned silence, Zelas-Metallum flapped back over to her 'master', perching on Xelloss's staff. He fed her a cracker in reward.

     "*THE WINNER... XELLOSS!*" the announcer announced, and the crowd busted out into applause, because everybody enjoys a good, clean afternoon involving the gratuitous abuse of imaginary animals.

     Xelloss strolled away from the ring, towards Lina. He blew her a little kiss. "I'll see you at the semi-finals, Lina!" he greeted, before disappearing into the shadows of the backstage tunnel. The red eyes of the raven tracked Lina before they too vanished.

     "..." was Lina's carefully worded response. Feeling that didn't sum up her thoughts precisely enough, she added to it. " me crazy, Zoamel, but.. I get this feeling that Birdie there wasn't hopping around and dodging because she was outmatched, but... so she could toy with that kitty a little longer before ripping it a new one."

     "I have never believed in the existence of tame Mazoku," Zoamel spoke, unsurprised.

     Lina rubbed her forehead, feeling those waves of a headache coming on. "I think this tournament just got a little more risky. If we're going to get to Penny and the Tooth Fairy, we're gonna have to find some way to beat that Mazoku, tame or not..."

     Penny had cramps, and it wasn't that time of the month.

     At first, she figured she could stretch a leg over to reach one of the many sharp metal objects that held the key to her freedom. After all, she was in pretty good shape for a girl her age, and it was just a matter of strength and flexibility! For a trained fighter such as herself, capable of dealing punishing blows to bandit after bandit, all she had to do was...

     Be in the worst agony she'd ever experienced. The scissors and knives and whatnot were JUST out of reach of her feet, no matter how hard the pulled on her wrists or tried to bend. Kicking her adorable little pink Idol costume shoes off didn't help -- a few times she managed to nudge them with her toe, only the nudging put them FARTHER away.

     Maybe she WOULD have to wait for Lina to rescue her... a lot like the typical damsel in distress. At least she was dressed for the part...

     No way.

     If she folded now and just waited, she'd forever be someone's lackey, Lina's or Ace's. It was a philosophical challenge! A massive ideological obstacle to overcome! It was.... not going to work if she kept trying to reach the scissors this way. By herself, like this, there was no way to get free. So she'd just have to think of another way.

     Her Inventory Bag had been knocked down from the shelf as well, but was clearly too far away. She'd dismissed it from her escape plan because of that, but something was nagging at her. Some way to use it to get help...

     "Of course!" Penny shouted. Then toned her voice down, in case any guards heard that. "...Table? Table-chan, are you hiding in there?"

     The bag didn't stir.

     "It's okay, it's okay," Penny soothed, trying to sound reassuring, using tones she knew calmed the table down. "The bad man went away. You don't have to hide anymore. It's okay, come on out. ...please? I need your help."

     A little ruffle in her bag smoothed out... an object inside it moving around. Table-chan was in there! But he was having some trouble with the drawstrings on her bag. Penny might not have been able to move, but she could talk, and lead the table to its own freedom.

     "No, no... Table-chan? It's okay, calm down. I'll help you out of there. First, you see the tiny opening in the bag? Work one of your legs into the opening, and wiggle it around... yes, yes, like that! Good! Now another leg, and try to shake the bag open... it's okay, you can do it! Push harder! Great! Great!"

     The table toppled out of Penny's bag, and did a little victory dance, happy to be out of that dark, confined space.

     Penny smiled to it. "Okay! Now get that knife, and bring it over here!"

     The table scuttled around the pile of objects, nudging the knife along with the edge of its... table. Penny internally cheered, having found the solution she needed, and having done it only with her mind, not her weapons! Success! It was perfect!

     Then the table stopped nudging, putting the knife at Penny's feet. Because it didn't have prehensile limbs and couldn't actually pick it up, much less climb up and cut her free.

     Okay, maybe a little less than perfect. But it was a start. Carefully, VERY carefully, she tried to pick it up with her toes.

     Zoamel arched his demonic back, rippling with horns, spines and unnecessary clawed limbs, emitting a low growl that shook his opponent to the very core of fear itself and back to the limits of psychological tolerance. Inset eyes the color of brimstone flared and smoked, tendrils of the infernal soot dripping from his eye sockets...

     And the sixth Mooki-Pokko of the day ran away in fear, leaving the ring and giving Lina the win.

     "*THE WINNER... MINA REVERSE!*" the announcer announced. (An assumed name. Never put your real name on something you'd be embarrassed by later, and Lina Inverse damn well didn't want to be worshipped as a Mooki-Pokko Grand Dragon.)

     Lina looked up from her fresh box of popcorn, holding up the empty Mooki-Pokko dummy card. "Oh, over already? Good work, Zoamel! Return."

     Zoamel warped an illusion around himself, pretending to get sucked back into the card, and reappeared back on the bench in human form to join the returning Lina, while stagehands tried to coax the Mooki-Pokko he'd just scared off out of the rafters.

     "I hope we're not scaring the children as well," Zoamel spoke, concerned. "This plan is allowing us to win without having to harm anyone, but--"

     "Relax, Zoamel! The kids love you!" Lina said. "You're a bit out of touch with humanity, you know. Kids love huge gross scary nasty things. I did. And little boys do, too. Not that I'm a little boy, so no cracks about that, got it?!"

     "Of course, of course," Zoamel said, quickly begging off. He glanced at the tournament standings. "We are undefeated, it seems, but so is Xelloss and so is Ace Champion. In a few minutes, we'll be facing the Mazoku to see who takes on Ace, won't we? Have you devices a strategy yet?"

     "What answer would make you happier?"

     "That you have a strategy."

     "I've got a strategy, then," Lina said, grinning. "Don't worry. I'll play it by ear and we'll win. If I know Xelloss, he'd see through any intricate plan, anyway. I bet he's only in this tournament to discourage my quest and get me to go attack Sairaag for him early. Pfeh. What a jerk."

     "I hope your thinking on your feet pans out, Lina Inverse. ...I will admit, now that we are here and committed, I find myself wanting to face Ace Champion again," Zoamel admitted, quietly. "Perhaps I can exact a small measure of revenge from him, a token to prove he is not the winner in all games. That would please me greatly."

     "Zoamel! I'm surprised!" Lina laughed, teasing the god. "I thought you were all 'Oh, I have no wants save to support my believers' and so on! You keep this up we'll have you eating huge dinners and mugging bandits in no time!"

     Zoamel coughed, uncomfortable. "Of course, you could say it's simply in the wishes of the believers I lost to him, after all, ah, that's still a debt long withstanding and so forth--"

     "You think too much, Zoey. Just be cool with this whole god thing, like me. It's not a bad thing to enjoy your life, even if you don't think you ever had one in the first place. Come on, we're up against Xel now. Time to flip the bird!"

     A complex set of mirrors and refraction devices piped a live picture of the tournament to the backstage area. Three figures stood, watching as Lina and Xelloss took their places in the Mooki-Pokko ring. One smiled, one didn't, one was too fuzzy in the head to comment.

     "I'm glad the demon entered," Ace Champion said, sipping a fresh lemonade, while fingering the card he intended to use. "Old friends and enemies against each other! It's perfect drama. It's a shame the audience doesn't know the history these two have--"

     "We are in position, and ready," the stony figure in shadow spoke. "Although it would be easier to take action now, when all four are in the same area."

     "You're not going back on your word, are you?" Ace asked. "I thought we had today's fun mapped out. I want to look into that weak so-called god Zoamel's eyes one last time and compete with him. It'll be fun, an encore presentation of the last time I proved my superiority. Don't you agree, Mint?"

     Mint Endo blinked through the fog in his mind. "Yes, boss," he replied automatically.

     "We have a deal," Ace continued. "And if you want to stay on good relations with your savior, mortal, you'll stick to the terms. Understood?"

     "Yes," the Mystery Man said. Although the tone suggested he was just speaking a syllable, putting letters together, rather than accepting the meaning behind his word.

     Lina and Xelloss stood on opposite sides of the garishly painted ring of combat. They both knew what was at stake, and were quite serious, although Xelloss held the same smile he'd keep even if he was describing war atrocities. (Actually, it would be a little wider, in that situation.)

     "Xelloss, you're not gonna dissuade me from this quest," Lina warned. "I don't care if your boss does beat Zoamel, I'm carrying on."

     "Oh, I know, I know," Xelloss explained, waving a finger. "But what fun would it be if I didn't make life a little more exciting for you? Remember the time I switched your racket with a fake one the last time you took part in a tournament? Oh, what a grand day that was!"

     Lina curled her hand into a fist. "Yes, in fact, I remember beating the tar out of you after I found out. So don't think I'll mind if, say, Zoamel chews a bit on your head after he finishes plucking your bird's feathers. Nothing personal."

     "I wouldn't have it any other way," Xelloss chuckled, raising his staff. "Zelas-Metallum! I choose you!"

     Lina flipped her empty card, tugging it with both hands to 'release' her 'Mooki-Pokko'. "Zoamel Gustav, I choose you!!"

     Neither bothered with pre-match taunting, and engaged in one of the nastiest, high powered knock down drag out good old fashioned barn burning slobberknockers the Mooki-Pokko world had ever seen.

     Whirling black shapes snarled and tore around the ring, keeping it nicely contained so as not to disqualify themselves, but it was enough of a maelstrom of energy that Lina felt the need to dive for cover. Zelas never changed from being a tiny black bird, but the aura of evil and power from her was strong enough for a minor Mazoku -- and Zoamel, not wanting to accidentally hurt any of the kids in the stands, had to hold back. The two were evenly matched.

     And 'evenly matched' meant 'possibility of losing' which meant 'no freaking way' in Lina's 'dictionary'. Now that she was against the wall, though, she could actually think a bit more clearly about how to win one for the good guys.

     Crawling around the edge of the ring, she crept up behind Xelloss. The Mazoku was, of course, enjoying soaking up the fear and adrenaline of the crowd, and even some of the anger in Zoamel's controlled outburst... while Lina kept her mind clear, nice and empty, only thinking about what she planned to do at the last second...

     She gripped the elastic bottom rope of the ring, and HAULED it down, to snap herself into the air like a slingshot. Xelloss would be expecting magic.

     "XELLOSS, RETURN!" she shouted.. and slapped the card on his back.

     "Wh--" Xelloss managed, before the black lightning enveloped him. He tried to break away, quickly, even turning into the black cone of power that was his true Mazoku form for a split second, but the card behaived as intended... and Xelloss was sealed into the Mooki-Pokko card, the purple cross glowing brightly.

     "Wow," Lina said, waggling the card around, as it fought to bust itself apart. "I honestly didn't know if that would work. Go figure! I--"


     Lina quickly hit the dirt, expecting retalliation... the Mazoku blackbird of death swooped over her head, just barely missing getting a clawful of her skull... and thus, out of the ring.

     "*THE WINNER BY RING OUT... MINA REVERSE!!!!*" the announcer shouted, and the crowd went wild, yaaay.

     The paper card in Lina's hands burst apart, fibers scattering as Xelloss was flung from it, tumbling end over end until he crashed in a hot dog vendor's cart. His head came up with a little mustard and relish, which his bird started to peck at, having a few birdlike instincts remaining.

     "Mouuu, that was dirty, Lina!" Xelloss whined, rubbing his sore back.

     "Hey, you'd have done the same thing if you'd thought of it first," Lina pointed out, with a little smile.

     Xelloss tapped a finger on his knee, in thought. "It's true," he admitted, and got up, dusting himself up. "Well fought! Looks like you're on to the final round."

     Walking over in human form, Zoamel seemed quite concerned. "Lina, what did you do?" he asked. "I wasn't paying attention, but... it seemed like you managed to trap Xelloss in one of those cards?"

     "They're like the Eradicators," Lina said. "But it stores AND ejects the Morris-Phillips, which are just extensions of Ace's Demiurge self, right?"

     "But the Eradicators kill Demiurges," Zoamel said, in slight confusion. "How can these cards be similar? The discs pull your self from you and wipe you out utterly..."

     A cheer went up from the crowd, as the tournament board updated itself, steam powered wooden slats showing the final round matchup. "*FINAL ROUND! MINA REVERSE VERSUS.... ACE! CHAMPION!! MOOKI-POKKO GRAND DRAGON ULTIMATE CHAMPION AND HERO TO ALL CHILDREN!"

     "Hold that thought," Lina suggested. "It's game time. Remember, this is for Penny. Don't hold back this time."

     Xelloss waved a huge foam We're Number #1 hand. "Good luck! Break a neck! Don't do anything I wouldn't do!"

     "What WOULDN'T you do?" Lina asked, curiously.

     The hand waving stopped. "Oh. Well. Not much, I suppose. So just break a neck and have good luck and skip the doing part."

     Sweat stood out on her brow. This... took.. very.. careful balance...

     The plan, as she had laid out, was to make a Table-chan friendly ladder. Get him and the knife up high enough that she could grab it and cut herself free. The mechanics of it were a little more daunting than the concept.

     Progress had been slow, but sure. Table-chan lent a han.. a table, nudging over a chair to step up on, and a tall table next to it. She'd picked up Table-chan with her foot, setting him on the larger table (which probably resembled its mother). Almost everything was ready, with one or two more details...

     She perched on one foot, the knife CAREFULLY held with the other foot. Step up onto the chair, not too hard. Get her leg up to drop the knife on the table, that was easy, but then she had to... carefully... tilt the table, without knocking it over... so the knife would slowly slide down, towards Table-chan, who was lying on his side and ready... stopping when it hit him.

     Thunk. Perfect.

     "Okay, we're almost there," Penny said. "Table-chan, nudge it up and onto you, then stand up... so it's resting on top of you. Got it?"

     The table chirped in response, and slowly waggled its legs... uprighting itself, with the knife lying just as Penny was hoping. She eased the taller table back to be parallel with the floor again.

     "Now, here's the hard part," she admitted. "You couldn't jump up there from the floor, but from here... you can jump up to that empty shelf, with the knife, and then pass it to my hand. Okay? I know you can do it!"

     The table trembled a bit, afraid it'd hurt her in the process, but she gave it her best reassuring smile... and in a quick leap, before it could worry anymore, the table SPRANG into the air, land--

     The knife skittered off and onto the shelf, but only three of the table's legs made it up. It wobbled and rattled madly, trying not to slip off... and was nudged up when Penny strained to reach over, and prod it with her fingertips. A close call.

     Penny breathed a sigh of relief. She held her hand out, and caught the knife perfectly by the handle when Table-chan nudged it over, and started cutting at the ropes. The hard part was over; it wouldn't be long now.

     Not too bad for a girl Ace thought was essentially helpless.

     Ace Champion sized up Zoamel Gustav, just smiling away at all the tentacles, snarling teeth and slimy eyeballs presented to him. It was fun to see his old rival trying so hard, even if Ace personally didn't feel the slightest bit of fear. If it made Zoamel happy, and was essentially useless, what was the harm?

     "You know the deal, Ace," Lina reminded. "We defeat your Mooki-Pokko, you hand over Penny and the location of the Fairy. We lose to your Mooki- Pokko... we'll walk out of here without a second glance."

     "You're lying," Ace decided. "Lina Inverse wouldn't do that. But that's okay. Because if I beat you once, it shows to all my followers that you're less than me. You'd be hard pressed to defeat me once I've buried your image in this town..."

     The boy held up a single card. The crowd cheered -- they knew something Lina didn't.

     "Behold, the most powerful Mooki-Pokko in all existence!" Ace declared. "The legendary psychic cat... NI-KO! I CHOOSE YOU!!"

     The card flared, ejecting... a bright white ball, a sphere of energy that contained a white and purple catlike figure. (Catlike, with a bit of mouse and dog and sewing machine and rhino and street sign built in, but hey, Mooki-Pokko ARE funny looking.) The ball hovered towards Zoamel, utterly unafraid, smooth as silk.

     "He won't be scared off like the others, because he's blind," Ace announced. "But even without sight, he hasn't lost a single Mooki-Pokko match since I started this trend. I've poured a lot of my essence into his form, and transfer the rest in when he's in combat. You're against me now, Zoamel, me in the shell of the children's hero embodied, me in my shrine. How can you possibly hope to defeat that, so far from your temples?"

     The monstrous Zoamel Gustav growled/slathered/chittered something that probably meant 'Shut up and fight'.

     The battle made the previous one seem like a cheap stage play with halfhearted smoke bombs and flat, unbelievable sets. A PILLAR of raw lightning sprouted from the ring, encased in the ropes and extending a hundred feet in the air, as the two tangled and twisted, trying to knock each other out of the boundaries. Both got in good licks, evenly paced...

     Lina hopped out of the ring quickly, as did Ace, to let her competitor go ballistic without worrying about hurting her. "C'mon, Zoamel!!" she cheered on, waving her hands. "Beat that Demiurge! Spank that kitty! Fight fight fight!"

     "It won't work," Ace said, a voice right to Lina's mind. "He has no true believers here. He has no leverage. He never fully used the power of his flock, never milked them for every drop of what they had. Can't you feel the children, giving everything to see Ni-ko triumph?"

     "Shaddup," Lina barked... but she could feel it. Just like she had the other day, the lines, the wind from the children into the tiny sphere surrounding Ni-ko was there. What did Zoamel have? Her own belief that Zoamel could kick ass and take names didn't count; she wasn't human, she wasn't one of his faithful. And Zoamel was failing.

     But it wasn't because Zoamel was weaker. Ace was so small compared to the great Zoamel, a tiny pinpoint of incredible power, with Zoamel's more dispersed and subtle power. But Zoamel wasn't getting any leverage, he didn't have any break out moments, while Ace could goad his followers on. Lina fingered through her pack, hoping she had more empty cards, but came up... well, empty.

     It would take a miracle.

     It would take ONE person with enough faith to tip the scales, even if just for a second. Someone who believed in Zoamel with utter devotion...

     THERE. A stream, small but with incredible force, from somewhere backstage, getting closer...

     And Zoamel gripped Ni-ko through the ball of energy, and SLAMMED the catthingy into the surface of the ring, embedding the Mooki-Pokko halfway through the canvas. It was only one attack out of the many failed attacks, but the impact on the pace of the fight was immediate.

     A collective gasp went up from the kids. Their hero had been struck! The whirlwind of power faded, as Zoamel stood perched in the ring before his enemy, howling in rage. The cat's legs flailed around uselessly, as the humiliation of the WAY he had been attacked worked its way into the minds of the faithful... while Zoamel moved for the kill.

     The human-shaped extension of Ace Champion balled his fists, sweating. "No," he whispered. "No. I can't lose, I never lose my games. I'm ACE CHAMPION! I will not LOSE!!" He twirled, facing the broadcast booth high above and the figures within... then whistled, sharply. A signal.

     A tiny object glinted off the sun, whirling down from the booth, and impacted in the ring -- right underneath Zoamel Gustav. A tiny white disc with a purple cross.

     Ni-ko pried itself up from the ring and BOLTED for the far corner, to avoid the effects of the Eradicator, but the black lightning reached up from the disk, trying to snare around Zoamel. Zoamel pulled and tugged, but the device was made to render resistance futile...

     "How do you like it, Zoamel?!" Ace taunted, laughing at the god's plight. "How fitting that your existence should end, drained away into an invention of MY DESIGN! Say hello to Sairaag when you arrive!!"

     Lina moved quickly, climbing into the ring -- but froze. If SHE touched that thing, she'd suffer the same fate.

     It was a no win situation. No win for anybody except Ace, who was in the corner with Ni-ko, laughing away. He NEVER lost...

     Like a javelin from the heavens (or more specifically, the backstage entrance) a poorly made custom naginata arced through the air, and SPEARED directly through the center of the Eradicator. The blade was blunt and cheap, but that served all the better to shatter the disc into several pieces, breaking its hold on Zoamel in an instant.

     All eyes in the arena turned to the figure at the entrance, who stood with fury in her eyes, and an adorably fluffy pink dress that didn't quite go with her anger.

     "How DARE you hurt my dear Zoamel!" Penny shouted, pointing at the unbelieving Ace Champion. "You wanted a Mooki-Pokko fight? I'll give you a Mooki-Pokko fight! And when I win, you're going to tell Lina what she wants to know, and we're ALL going to leave your crazy city! You're going DOWN, Ace!"

     Lina clapped and hooted and whistled. "That's my girl!! Kick his scrawny little ass, Penny!" Then she QUICKLY dragged Zoamel's drained, unconscious human form out of the ring and got to maximum safe distance, just in case.

     Ace didn't stop looking shocked. His world had been rocked, and it showed; the children now weren't watching to see their savior win, they were watching to see what would happen next, who would come on top. "You challenge ME?! The failed heroine, the broken girl? Fine! I'll show you what it means to pick a fight with one who has been around since man first had desires! Bring it on! NI-KO, I CHOOSE YOU! AGAIN!"

     Penny vaulted into the ring, over the top rope and landing on her bare feet. She reached into her knapscak, and hurled out...


     The table did its best to pose dramatically and heroically.

     Ni-Ko fell on its face in surprise.

     "Oh, no, geez, PENNY!" Lina shouted, clawing at her hair. "It's just a freaking TABLE! I know you're fond of the stupid little thing, but how the hell do you expect it to beat that guy?!"

     A mad glint of delight flashed in Penny's eye, as she issued the command.

     "Table-chan, Dirty Little Secret Attack NOW!"

     The table SPRANG into the air, running on whatever rocklike equivalent it had for adrenaline (magma?), arcing towards Ni-ko. Ash and Ni-ko looked at it fly, not quite sure what it was trying to do, since the worst it could manage was to give Ni-ko a little bump on the noggin...

     Table-chan landed squarely on Ni-ko's head, all four legs locked into position. It glowed briefly, filling up on data, stocking its internal information...

     "Ni-ko!" the table chanted. "Demiurge extension, fragment of Ace Champion! Psychic Cat-type Mooki-Pokko! Allergic to mice! Wets its card whenever scared!"

     The mighty Ni-ko trembled.. and started to turn red. Ace tried to order it to relax, to obey him, but he HAD breathed Mooki-Pokko nature into this extension of himself, and Mooki-Pokko were, by definition, silly and wacky creatures...

     "Secretly believes itself superior to all children due to phenominal psychic attack power!" the Table continued... as the children started to BOO the Mooki-Pokko, and throw empty popcorn boxes at it. "Related to owner, Ace Champion! Ace Champion hates all children as well and only wants their money and devotion! Ace Champion, Demiurge, cheats to win because he feels justified in the outcome! Ni-ko, Mooki-Pokko, secretly likes to wear women's clothing and cries during sad stories!"

     Task complete, Table-chan jumped off Ni-Ko's head, and scrabbled back to hide behind Penny.

     "Stop that!!" Ace shouted to the crowd, dodging thrown garbage. "I love you guys! I'm your hero! STOP that! Ni-Ko, no, wait, don't leave the--"

     The embarrassed Mooki-Pokko fled the ring, crying its blind little eyes out, until it hit a wall of the arena and was knocked unconscious.

     The shock of the loss delayed the announcement, but it was inevitable.


     The god of fads knew for the first time what losing truly felt like. And he hated it. The sooner this was over, the better. Ace sank to his knees in disbelief, as Penny towered over him, flashing a V sign.

     "Victory! Okay, Ace, fess up. Where's the Tooth Fairy?" she asked, hands on hips.

     ".... Bimini Island," he spoke, quietly. "He's at Bimini Island. Now go. Go away. Leave me alone."

     Triumphant, Penny waved to the crowd, blew kisses, then marched out of the ring with the table on her head. Her friends joined her, and off they went, the cheers and adoration of the children ringing in their ears on departure. The tournament was over.

     (Penny Gabriev left her naginata stuck in the canvas of the mat. She didn't need it anymore.)

     But when they got back to the inn, they set a new world record for speed of bag-packing, and sprinted for the gates of Atlas City at a flat dash.

     "We just crushed their hero, that's why!!" Lina shouted, in response. "Take it from someone used to dealing with angry crowds! Once the rush wears off, they'll be after us with pitchforks and torches. I intend to get at least twenty miles between us and this place before sundown!"

     "Couldn't I even have taken this stupid dress off?" Penny complained, jogging along with the table on her head and her frilly skirt bouncing along. "It's humiliating!"

     "Oh, I don't know, I think it shows off your cute little butt well!" Xelloss musically chimed in with, earning a Roaring Elbow to the face from Penny.

     "I doubt Ace will come after us," Zoamel said, not bothering to run, simply to float along with them. "For the first time in history, he has been utterly broken by a simple mortal. I believe you have achieved the vengeance I sought over him better than I could have, Penny. Very good work. ...and I think it's a rather attractive dress, myself. If you don't mind me saying so."

     "..." Penny replied, turning red.

     "So where the heck is Bimini Island?" Lina asked, yanking a map out of her pack without losing any steam in her brisk jog.

     "It's off the coast of Sailoon," Zoamel stated. "This road runs right through the capital city, and to the docks, where we can catch a boat."

     "Just what I needed, another boat," Lina grumbled. "Well, whatever! I'm just glad to be gone from there. But... who threw that disk down there? One of Ace's guys? I thought I heard him say something about him the disk, but it was too loud for me to hear clearly..."

     "He said he invented it," Zoamel spoke, voice going cold compared to the previous praise he as issuing. "The cards and the disks must be related. Ace has backstabbed his entire race in making a weapon that traps us. They are not 'eradicators' at all, but prisons."

     Lina ran in silence... turning that over and over in her mind. The million gold piece question burned through the haze.

     "Why on earth would THEY want to trap a Demiurge?" she asked.

     Ace Champion punched a locker hard enough to dent it.

     "I HAD him!!" he snarled. "I had that bastard, and ONE believer gave him the advantage. One believer! It's impossible that a single sheep could empower the shepherd so much. No human believes that strongly in their god!"

     "It seems you were mistaken about a great deal of things," the man said, leaning on the locker bank, ignoring Ace's rage. "You have failed, Ace. We wanted them in the open, and easily taken. We could have had Lina and Zoamel before they became a larger problem for us."

     "I can get them again!" Ace declared. "Chase them! Hunt them! I can make hunting a fad. I can turn this entire CITY into my army, devoted to me, to crush--"

     "No," the man said, stepping closer. "Sairaag isn't interested in failures. We've allowed you to continue to operate in exchange for your work on our primary goal, but your usefulness is at an end. You can do nothing further for us, and your desire to conquer the world with your gimmicks and tricks is contrary to our designs for civilization. It's time to join your kin in the core, Champion."

     Ace's eyes widened.. and he stepped back, human instincts in his human shell to get away. "No, wait! How can you say that? We've been working together for years now, and I'm still useful! I DESIGNED those things, I can make more wonders for your technocracy! Put it down! Zelgadis, please, DON'T--"

     Seconds later, a white disk fell to the floor, glowing with stored power. Zelgadis picked it up, pocketed it without a second thought, and walked out of the room.

     Mint Endo oversaw the deconstruction of the stage the next morning with a massive headache rocking his brain. Partially it was a hangover from having a good round of stiff drinks the previous night, but mostly it was from his confusion over recent events.

     It didn't make any sense. The tournament had a SPECTACULAR turnout and an amazing finish. The kids should be buying more Mooki-Pokko merchandise...

     But they weren't. All the cards had stopped working. Atlas City was waking up from its fascination with Mooki-Pokko, and moving on with other things. Enthusiasm for the fad had died almost overnight.

     Win some, lose some, Mint thought. He'd gone through this before with the blasted mood rocks. Mooki-Pokko's era was gone, and he'd just move on to something else. Maybe something with a bit more staying power, not designed to appeal to the masses, burn hard, and die out in a year.

     There was that long standing idea he'd had for a sort of game about adventuring, but the elements never came together. But ever since the tournament, he'd been thinking of new things... about a good heroine character with a nice dress and a naginata who could be the title character, and a new rule about rolling dice on a table of numbers to see what wandering monsters you bumped into...

     The rest didn't feel as hard to think up, now. Tonight he'd start on the first edition of the rulebook, and maybe slowly leak it to folks hoping for a bit more of a mental challenge than Mooki-Pokko offered. They could be heroes and heroines using only the power of their minds... and a few random numbers, of course.

     Maybe he'd call it Demons and Dungeons, or something. But first things first.

     Mint took the last pile of wooden stage props, lit a match, and let it burn. It was easier than hauling it out to the town dump. He marched off, visions of adventures and glory in his head as the legacy of Ace Champion boiled away into the sky. The sun was a bit murky that day, but things were certainly looking up now.




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