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



     Another in a long string of similar nights. She tosses in her queen sized bed, pulling at the sheets without realizing she's doing so. In her mind, everything is wrong. Everything is terrible. And it horrifies her.

     Sometimes, she'll wake, but she has to sleep -- if she didn't get her rest, if she couldn't perform the same tasks she's had to perform every day, everything WILL go wrong. She'd find whatever strength is needed to get back to sleep. And then it all begins again.

     How long could that strength last, though, when she had doubted herself for so many years? Just thinking about how many more days she could take stripped another day off the end tally...

     Don't think about it. Don't face it. Maintain. She goes back to sleep. Hours later, she pulls at the sheets without realizing she's doing so...


     This was starting to get repetitive. A lesser man would start to lose hope, but Gourry Gabriev was not a lesser man, thankfully. Instead, he woke up three mornings in a row in Atlas City trying to find out where his daughter was.

     The trail had gone cold here. Wherever the group went, it had left in a hurry, and apparently everybody in town was at some public event and didn't see what direction they left in. There were some VERY confusing stories about what Penny was up to that Gourry felt no driving need to report to Lina... he didn't want to worry her.

     Lina, who did what she always did, selling and buying and making deals to help support the family. Even when her daughter had run off and her husband was abroad it was business as usual for Lina. Gourry tried not to worry about her (why worry, when she was 'perfectly fine'?) but knew if this kept up, even Lina wouldn't be able to maintain...

     Maybe that would be a good thing. This had shaken the family out of a loop, a daily grind. He wished Penny didn't have to be at risk to do so, but some dark part of him he never let surface was thrilled to be out and about and in the fray, and to have his wife be forced to face reality.

     But none of that would matter if he never saw Penny again. So, he walked along Atlas City's streets on that third morning looking for signs of Penny, and just before he was going to turn in and get breakfast he saw a sign of Penny. Literally.

     The likeness was off, but the warrior-princess figure (in a dress that really wasn't suitable for combat) fighting a huge dragon was DEFINITELY Penny. Next to the lovely painting was a large title -- 'WE HAVE DEMONS & DUNGEONS 1st ED!! ALL ACCESSORIES 25% OFF!'.

     Inside, a bright-faced merchant with new purpose in life who went by the name of Mint Endo had exactly the information Gourry wanted. He was set back a few days by this, but surely he could catch up, even on the bargain basement horse he had rented.

     It was only a matter of time. How long could he maintain this hunt before Lina's legendary ability to stay out of it cracked, though...?



     Not that Roy Balderdash needed a lunchbreak. His entire existence these last few days had been a lunchbreak, constant and unending, since he was assigned this post. This ridiculous post, where he had no real orders to give and no actions to take -- likely his 'dear sister' just storing him somewhere until he was useful again.

     True, he had a dozen soldiers to look after, but they were egghead types. ('Eggheads' being defined by Roy as 'anybody who knew more about these crazy machines than he did' which lately was 'everybody'.) These weren't hack and slash, up on the front lines, death by day and seventy dollars a month fighters. This was a siege, but it wasn't the normal kind with a huge wall and boiling tar and tense moments where one side tested the other.

     The last testing THIS city had done ended with a greasy patch in the grass where soldiers once stood. After all, Sairaag had the War Machine on its side. Literally. A dozen of the cannons and energy stream throwers stood at the ready on all four sides of the city to mow down anything that dared to leave. Who needed a thousand hardy men surrounding the place when you could independently target anything by remote? Who needed men like Roy Balderdash?

     Clearly not Elizabeth. He considered a few times... just how far was her all-seeing eye? Where did she GET this sort of power over the world in the first place? It didn't make any sense to him, but he was always a straightforward sort of bandit king, comfortable in a shortsighted fog.

     He considered running away a few times, if he felt he COULD escape his sister's zealot technocracy, but what if she was right? What if Sairaag DID take over the world, and he was so obsolete that he didn't even have the limited value he held now? The safest place was here, in Sairaag's ranks. Which hopefully someone would crush soon so he could get about banditing in the traditional sense.

     Maybe even Lina Inverse would crush them. Some tiny, quiet part of Roy secretly hoped that would be the case. Then maybe he could settle down into a nice, pleasant feud with her like the old days...

     Finally, something interesting happened. One of those fancy portals the machines can open twisted itself in the air nearby... and unfortunately deposited Commander Greyweirs.

     "What is your status?" Zelgadis asked, no Hi, How are you, How's it been, Is your job satisfaction at optimal levels, valued employee?

     "No change," Roy stated. He'd gotten used to Zelgadis popping out of thick air lately. "They haven't made any further runs. There are a few weak points of coverage folks have been sneaking through, but as per your damn weird orders, we're leaving them alone. Are you here to relieve me? That would be a relief."

     Zelgadis tugged a machine-printed scroll from his sleeve. "New orders. Lina Inverse is headed this way. You are not to stop her; we will take them all in one stroke once the circles break. We are to step up the siege on both fronts. Plans are already in motion on the inner front. As for the outer, you are authorized to increase the setting on the machine to 125%."

     Roy wasn't the sort to shiver at an unpleasant thought, which made the fact that he shivered all the more unpleasant. When he first got here, one of the techies explained what the tiny, unimpressive little machine was for, and he hadn't liked it one bit...

     If Lina Inverse really was coming, he hoped she'd quit taking her damn sweet time doing it.

     Lina was not a master of stealth. Or a mistress of stealth, for that matter. But she knew the value of How Not to Be Seen, and was doing just that.

     They had seen the dull shine in the air over the capital city of Sailoon from miles away. Lina, of course, knew exactly what it was from her past experiences here -- someone had raised a white magic shield through the inscribed magic circles that surrounded the city. It served well as a haven in dark times, since nothing known to man (except maybe Shaburanigdo himself) could get through those things.

     Not that she had ever seen them raised. But Amelia had described them a bit to her last time she was here, how they'd only been used twice in the history of her extensive royal family... something pretty spooky had to be brewing to justify this.

     She crouched in the bushes, nudging branches of nearby trees down so she could get a better vantage point, taking care not to snap the wood. No sounds. Nothing to give away position. % (Her armor and boots were designed not to make any noise, and fortunately her friends were similarly dressed; even Penny, who had left her armor behind in the mad run from Atlass City and was taking to wearing a fairly simple green tunic and skirt she bought en route. The idol dress went into her pack; Lina asked who she'd want to wear THAT getup around again, but didn't press further to avoid Penny's panicked blush.)

     Why all the attention to stealth? Because that machine looked FREAKY.

     Someone had parked a giant cannon gun blaster zapper thingy in a clearing outside the city. It stood about twenty feet tall, but was totally unmanned... and somehow, Lina suspected that didn't make it any less dangerous. The business end of the thing was aimed -- where else? -- directly at Sailoon.

     And naturally, the machine had the imperial crest of Sairaag on it.

     "Looks like Sailoon's got company," Lina said. "I don't think we're gonna be able to get in there, guys. Let's just move on. The dock town linking to Bimini Island is only a few day's stroll from here."

     "What?" Penny asked, confused. "But you were going on and on about how great it would be to see Amelia again. I told you she's the Queen of Sailoon. You're just going to leave her like this?"

     Xelloss pouted in his effeminate little way which suggested he was not in fact a dark demon slaking his unquenchable thirst on the sin of man. "Oh, poop. And here I had myself so excited about Lina finally getting her act together and squishing Sairaag. Maybe I should have gone with your counterpart, as inactive and unadventurous as she may be..."

     "Look, just because I'm willing to toss myself into the fray now and then doesn't mean I pick EVERY fight I come along!" Lina hissed, keeping her voice low but nasty. "This is NOT a good time to put a chip on our collective shoulders marked 'Sairaag'! We've still got no idea why they're scooping up Demiurges like... like... dammit, what's something that's always getting scooped?"

     "Err, ice cream?" Penny suggested. "Doggie doughnuts? News exclusives?"

     "Oh my, Lina Inverse is scared," Xelloss teased. "She's got a yellow tail and-- really, Lina, you don't have to set me on fire, a simple 'Shut up, Xelloss' would have sufficed. Zoamel, may I borrow your canteen?"

     "No," Zoamel stated flatly.

     "Honestly, some gods simply have no manners whatsoever," Xelloss sighed, trying to pat out the fires in his clothes manually.

     "I am NOTHING like that other Lina! No offense of course Penny, but I just feel like this is NOT the time to... I mean that if I go and... oh, fine! If you want me to attack that thing, I will!" Lina decided, snapping the branches out of the way and marching directly to the clearing, brushing up an imaginary sleeve. "Let's take the direct approach! Seems like what you all want!!"

     The gun IMMEDIATELY snapped around one hundred and eighty degrees, sensing the motion. Sixty four tiny red sighting dots lit up on Lina's person. Everybody except the plucky little deified sorceress hit the deck.

     "Behold, I am a heroine and in the name of whoever, I punish you!" Lina declared, charging the Mother Of All Fireballs. She flicked her wrist, casually lobbing the superpowered flaming wad of blazing doom at the machine and waited for the explosion...

     Which didn't come, as a bunch of magical lightning rods had been planted in a tight circle around the siege equipment, sucking up the energy and grounding it harmlessly.

     "What'd I say?!" Lina said, turning to her panicked group. "Picking fights pointlessly is stupid! If we're going to do this, we've got to do it MY way, and that's by--"

     "BEHIND YOU!" they shouted in unison.

     Lina sighed, and waited for the volley of red hot electrified death to whiz past her immortal badass self and mow down an acre of forest. Zoamel quickly protected Penny -- Xelloss just felt annoyed that he was on fire again.

     "...as I was saying," she said, while the gun charged a second jolt, "If we're GOING to infiltrate Sailoon and help Amelia win the day, we're going to do it MY way. Trashing one of these things would be easy enough, but who knows if they've got Eradicators or techno whatsitmajiggers and so on? Instead of just blindly attacking these guys, we get in, figure out how to help, get the job done and hurry along to where we're going. Nice and subtle. But THIS thing almost SINGED MY CAPE!"

     The young girl turned, marched over to the machine, and gave it a royal PUNT. A huge crack ran down the center of the machine, and various kinetrope dot matrix displays repeated ERROR ERROR ERROR before the whole thing emitted a final death wail and shut down.

     Penny... blinked. And blinked. (There's some strange human reaction to surprise that demands you blink many times to clear your eyes and assure your brain that Yes, you did just see the impossible. It also gives you something to do other than hold rock still, which is dramatically uninteresting.) "Lina... you... I mean.. WOW! That was amazing! But it wasn't very subtle, I don't think..."

     "I've got my own definition of subtle," Lina explained. She turned to the shimmering bubble over the city, peering through the light fog to spot buildings and people... yes, people. Staring in awe. She then waved to them wildly. "HEY! YOO HOO! LET US IN ALREADY! I don't have all day, you know!"

     "Definitely not subtle," Xelloss bemused, having grown his hair back for now. He kept his voice down, lest he raise the Ire of Inverse once more. "But that's Lina for you, boys and girls. Once pushed too far, on impulse and bravado alone... she blows up one of the machines, making enough of a scene to convince a paranoid city to let her inside as a new hero. I bet she doesn't even realize how clever that was. Ah, it feels like the old days! Look at me, I'm all weepy and waxing nostalgic..."

     "The hell do you mean, you can't let me in?" Lina argued with the city guard on the other side. "I told you, I'm a close personal friend of your QUEEN. You know, Amelia Wil Tesla Sailoon? Short and idealistic?.. okay, probably not short anymore, but I have this feeling you should damn well know what she looks like without my help!!"

     The guard pressed a small crystal to his ear, listening to the magically transmitted instructions. "All entrances during a Citywide Emergency Defense Alert State must be approved by The Council," he stated, although with some fear after that wonderful little display of power. "Err. They say they might be able to vote on the issue tomorrow after teatime. Maybe if you came back then?"

     "I don't think it's working right, Xelloss," Penny decided. She cautiously got to her feet, to walk over and join Lina.

     "Vote? Issue?" Lina asked, incredulous. "Look, bub, any minute now those guys from Sairaag are gonna come investigate, fully armed. If they do, I'll have to throw down with them, and this is going to be more trouble than it's worth and I'm going to go on my merry way as I had originally planned. Got it? So open up or I'll take my cute little famous world-saving holy butt somewhere else."

     "Err... kind of getting into this god thing, aren't you, Lina?" Penny asked, a little nervous.

     "You'd think something like that would be enough to merit a backstage pass," Lina muttered. "Membership ought to have its privileges..."

     Penny took control. "Listen, mister... Captain Davin, is it?" she asked, reading his badge. She adjusted her voice, to be a bit more plaintive, rather than Lina's bull in a pottery shop attitude. "We're really in a fix out here. Now, we're old friends of Amelia's, and willing to help you guys with your problem, but if we can't get in then we're going to get attacked. Do you know who this is? This is LINA INVERSE. You saw what she did to that machine. She could do it again. Captain, have your troops had as much success as that against Sairaag's forces?"

     The guard hesitated. Some memory clouded over his face, darkening it. "No, we haven't," he spoke, fear of Lina replaced by anger over something else. "...I could try contacting the Royal Palace directly. I'm not authorized to go over the heads of The Council, but..."

     "It would REALLY help, sir," Penny added. Along with a little batting of the eyelashes. "Please?"

     That did it. The guard swallowed, and adjusted the collar on his armor. "I'll see what I can do, miss," he replied, stepping away from the shields and whispering quietly into his communication crystal.

     Lina turned to look at Penny, curious. "That... was pretty good, Penny. When'd you learn how to win friends and influence people like that? I thought you were the attack first with shouts of justice and ask questions later type..."

     "Oh... well, you know, just been thinking recently," Penny tossed off, with a shrug.

     The shield split... just a tiny aperture, tall enough for them to enter while crouched, wide enough to squeeze through. Utterly unimpressive. But the guard on the other side was saluting their entrance.

     "Her Royal Highness Queen Amelia Wil Tesla Sailoon welcomes her friends with open arms, and wishes to express her thanks for your assistance!" the guard announced.

     "Now THAT'S service!" Lina grinned, clapping once. "Let's go! The war can wait; posh palace quarters and four course meals, here I come!"

     Plaster crumbled. But the sound of falling plaster had long since ceased to be a major event in the palace of Sailoon.

     If anything, the stony crackle was a welcome thing, good for breaking the silence of the throne room. She was quite looking forward to a further lack of silence, if her guards were right. Things rarely were QUIET when Lina Inverse was around...

     Her stomach rumbled.

     Okay, there was that sound. But that was one thing the queen would have preferred quiet. Briefly her mind entertained the nightmarish prospect of Lina refusing to help because there wasn't enough food -- no, put that aside. Lina wasn't that shallow. At least, not often. Not when it counted. Hopefully not now. The suspense was killing her.

     The door creaked open.

     "Hey, what's going on?" Lina Inverse asked, looking around the empty throne room. "Shouldn't there be trumpeters to announce my presence or a parade through the streets or something? ANYBODY HERE??!"

     A 35 year old woman attached herself to Lina like an energetic little child.

     "Lina-saaaaan!" Queen Amelia Wil Tesla Sailoon of Sailoon cheered, voice not having changed much despite the ravages of years. She squeezed, almost smothering the young god. "I'm SO HAPPY you're here! Thank you thank you thank you..."

     "ghh," Lina replied.

     Thankfully, Amelia let go... and seemed confused. "Ara? Lina? You shrank! Last time I saw you--"

     "It's a long story," Lina offered, trying to decompress her rib cage through sheer air pressure, wheezing. She weakly gestured to her companions. "Penny Gabriev, Zoamel Gustav, and you know Xelloss. Guys, this is Amelia. Amelia, guys."

     "Hi! Mother's told me so much about you!" Penny said, taking Amelia's hand and bowing, not quite up on proper male and female methods of paying respect to royalty. "You've been kind of a hero to me, with your optimism and leadership! How do you do?"

     "Things could be better," Amelia weakly said, with a weaker smile. "Come, come! Let's.... er. There's no real chairs here, so.. let's all stand around! Lina, have you come to save Sailoon?"

     "Yeah, whatever," Lina offered, getting back to full upright position. "Piece of cake. Just a bunch of machines out there. I'll fill up on a huge dinner, get a good night's sleep, go out there and pound them into the dirt!"

     Zoamel stood, arms crossed, off to the side. "That did not work, if you recall," he reminded.

     "Hai, hai, they've got these stick things that absorb magic," Amelia said, with a sigh. "We've made several attempts at them... magically they're nearly invulnerable. Every spell we use is eaten up by their defenses. Physically... we've lost several battalions trying to attack directly, sneak up unawares... everything. If we didn't have the magic circles, those guns would have this city easily. The situation could be better..."

     "Ehh, they haven't MADE an enemy Lina Inverse can't handle!" Lina boasted. "Don't you worry a bit, Amelia. Everybody's got a weak spot, and I'll find one! We've.. come VERY close to besting Sairaag at every turn in our quest, and we'll best them here! You have my word."

     "Oh, thank the gods," Amelia sighed, in relief. She trembled slightly, exhaustion clearly showing through her royal visage. "Now that Lina's here, everything will be better. Thank the gods..."

     "I thought you didn't believe this was your fight, Lina?" Zoamel asked, making a VERY handsome Shaburanigdo's Advocate, as it were. "That this was not the time for it, and it was not your style of action?"

     "You guys wanted to stop here and save the day," Lina said, almost growling it out. "And Amelia's like family! So, I'll kick butt and kick butt and when I'm done kicking butt, that's when the REAL buttkicking will commence! Right, Xel? You think I'm the one fated to blast Sairaag back into the Bronze Age, what do you have to say about my chances of winning?"

     Xelloss, bored with the heroic rhetoric, poked a nearby wall -- his finger going right through the cracked and dusty plaster. "My my, Sailoon certainly has seen better days, hasn't it, Amelia-chan?"

     Dust settled on the group from the ceiling, as a CRACK signaled yet another difficulty in the building's integrity. Lina shook her head, to get the stuff out of her hair. "Yeah, I mean, don't you guys have a maid service? Or some carpenters? Phil didn't keep this place looking like ancient ruins--"

     "Father's not with us anymore," Amelia said quietly. Informatively.

     Lina paused. Death had a funny way of derailing your bouncy little train of thought. "...ah. Well. I'm sorry to hear that, Amelia."

     "Oh.. it's okay," Amelia said, smiling absently. "He managed to take his assassin with him... my Uncle Jeffrey. But then grandfather died. And so did my aunt. And since Gracia's gone... I got the throne by default. But it's okay! I've been a good ruler. Everything's been great, except for Sairaag, I mean..."

     "Speaking of ruling, what's up with this 'Council'?" Lina asked. "Since when has Sailoon been a democracy? I don't trust democracies, you don't get the good, honest ruthlessness of a monarch and have to deal with all that 'politics' stuff..."

     Amelia kept her smile on like a mask. (It was getting obvious, even to Lina, who didn't normally pay much attention to how people felt.) "Oh, them... ah... well, they're the real power in Sailoon. I thought it was time for a change, is all. I've cut the budget a bit here in the palace and put it into the Council so the city can survive, even in the siege... it's better than a monarchy, nobody has to fight over a single throne of power. Although they haven't exactly come to a solution to the situation with Sairaag... but you're here, Lina! Lina Inverse! You always know what to do. You always win! You've beaten Mazoku Lords and Shaburanigdo himself, surely you can handle a small army, even if they have machines capable of.. of tearing apart six men in a single shot and... and..... and you're Lina! So I feel safe. Everything's good now. Good. Right?"

     An awkward silence didn't bother to hang over the group; it freely mixed on a social basis and chatted up Lina unsuccessfully. She cleared her throat (partially because of the dust in the air), and smiled to Amelia. "Right. Everything's good. Don't you worry about a thing."

     "Good," Amelia echoed. "Very good. It's getting late.. I'm afraid we don't have an in-palace kitchen staff anymore, but feel free to fix yourself something from the pantry. We.. you'll start tomorrow, and soon, we'll be free from this horrible siege! Oh, oh... wait, let me give you something..."

     The queen fumbled in her robes a bit, and produced a simple charm bracelet. It was a pink ribbon of silk, with a blue gemstone attached by magical power -- a sphere with an embossed six pointed star. A copy of the magical circles.

     "I've got one, and so does everybody else in Sailoon's local White Mage's Guild," Amelia explained. "The magic circles have taken a heavy beating, so we use these to supplant them with our own power while we sleep or go about our daily work. Together, we can't fail! There's safety in numbers, you know."

     Lina fingered it a bit. She could FEEL some sort of link from it, something familiar, but she wasn't all that well versed in white magic and couldn't understand exactly how it worked. Would it even work on a Demiurge, rather than a human who taps genuine magic? With a shrug, figuring it couldn't hurt, she strapped the bauble on.

     "I'll.. I'll give you special clearance!" Amelia decided, taking mental notes in a hurry. "Omega alpha red! Full security to move freely in and out of the circles! You can have any part of the army you need and any supplies you want! Total executive power. I can do that in the event of an emergency, even without the council."

     "Then why haven't you done something already?" Xelloss asked, curious.

     "Not to worry!" Lina said, interrupting quickly. "Come, friends! Off to the ... kitchen to make sandwiches, and then to rest before our day of glory!"

     "I KNOW you can do it, Lina-san!" Amelia smiled, putting all her hope and faith in the young sorceress.

     "I don't know how we're going to do this," Penny said, before stuffing another peanut butter and jelly sandwich in her mouth, chewing thoughtfully.

     "The situation does seem grim," Zoamel spoke, sizing up the logistics. "Amelia's clearly feeling strain over this, and seems to have divulged all her hope in you. Despite her edict, likely we will have conflict with the Council if we try to actually USE the resources of Sailoon. On top of that, the machines are protected from magic, and likely have Eradicators just in case a situation like you arises."

     "Now now, let's not be naysayers!" Xelloss interjected, while feeding a rat to his former Mazoku Lord. "I'm sure Lina will do very well tomorrow. She IS the one to defeat Sairaag. I believe in it right down to my cold black shriveled up little heart!"

     Lina sat on the counter, swinging her ankles and remaining jovial. "Exactly! I actually agree with this little bastard."

     "Why, thank you, Lina!"

     "I'm a god, aren't I?" Lina asked. "A god of destruction, of profit, of a bunch of things. I blow stuff up, it's my reason to be. So I'll do a little property damage tomorrow. Maybe I don't know EXACTLY how to smack these guys back to Sairaag, but something will come up. Always does. I should be taking advantage of my immortality, invulnerability and general asskicking power. Amelia's backed to a wall here, at the end of her rope, close to the edge and a bunch of other metaphors, so it's time for me to step into the ring for her."

     "She's the leader of her people," Penny spoke, with a hint of warning. "She hasn't done anything about this except shuffle the task off to other people. First a Council, and now you. I thought you.. I thought mom told me that Amelia was strong willed and idealistic? A natural leader, if a bit of a clumsy and silly one?"

     "Amelia's had a rough time, okay? We'll leave it at that," Lina decided. "There's no reason to drop her into the fray on this one when she's that frayed to begin with. We don't need her. I mean, in this kitchen, we not only have the second finest meats and cheeses, but we've got two gods, a Mazoku, and an adventuress in training! That's GOT to be enough to handle any situation. If anything, a cast of wacky yet powerful characters with different skills lumped together against impossible odds ALWAYS works! I know these things."

     "I will go along with this. It is part of my vengeance on Sairaag," Zoamel agreed. "But I will express doubts now. We must not be headstrong. Outthinking an enemy in a superior position is the key to victory--"

     Lina jumped off the counter, adjusting her cape. "I don't think," Lina said flatly. "In general, I don't bother to think things through. It's true, I'll admit it. But I'm a girl of action, that's just how I approach situations. If I'm really going to play this god card to hilt, I've got to have faith in MYSELF to roll with it and come out clean in the end. So, I'm going to go to bed, catch a little sleep so I can help out the magic circles, and tomorrow after a hearty breakfast we'll make our move."

     "Three cheers for Lina Inverse!" Xelloss shouted, hopping up and down in a purple and black cheerleader's costume and waving pom poms. "Give me an L! Give me an I! Give me an N! Give me an A! Lina! Lina! If she can't do it, no one can! GOOOOOO TEAM!! YAAAAY!"

     ....and everybody just STARED.

     "What?" Xelloss asked, pursing his lips cutely.

     "I don't know if I'll be ABLE to sleep tonight after that," Lina grumbled. "Gonna give me nightmares."

     All the lights focused on as single pinpoint, a single person on the stage. Hard wooden flats were under her bare feet, as she stood in front of millions of people, faces unseen but eyes on her harder than a hammer to anvil. Words seized in her throat, failing to come out. The script was in her hands, but the every sentence jumped for attention, blocking and mixing and scrambling before her eyes...

     "Everybody's expecting you to act," Xelloss warned, sitting in the director's chair, off to the side. He shouted orders through a megaphone made with the skin of Shaburanigdo. "Come come, get into character. Know your role. Give me an L!"

     "What's my motivation?" Lina asked.

     Sentences jumped off the script and whirled around her head, like puppies in a pet shop window, each begging for love and faith. You want to be human! You want to be a god! You want your old life back! You want your true love! You want to eat good food! You want to save the world! You want to be rich! You want to be happy! You want to be purged from the world! You don't want to exist as what you are! You want to find out what you are! You aren't you!

     "This a nightmare, isn't it?" Lina asked, turning to the audience. Her voice remained distant, a voice not her own, but she tried hard to focus. "I'm not stupid. I can tell these things."

     "Are you sure it is?" Lina asked, sitting in the front row. She got to her feet, shaking her playbill angrily. "You're the worst Lina Inverse I've ever seen! You stumble around blindly, you don't remember your lines, and you've made terrible mistakes! You're just a character based on me, you don't exist and you never did!"

     "No talking from the peanut gallery!!" Xelloss ordered, barking at the audience. "Let Lina play her part and save the world! She was born for it. She was MADE to do it. She doesn't have to like it, understand it, or even be conscious of it. If you idiots hadn't woken her up, it would have happened naturally!"

     Pinches ran up and down her arm, but she didn't wake up. "Okay, okay, I'm getting sick of this now. Is it morning yet?"

     Zelgadis tossed a small white disc up and down in his hand. "You won't wake up, Lina. You're in our grip. You always were. You're misguided, misunderstanding and you'll never be what you actually are, so you'll never defeat us. You'll never win the game."

     "Shaddup!" Lina barked. "I don't care if you're a figment, I'm going to win! I'll beat Sairaag one day, when the time is right!"

     Ace Champion sat behind him, wrapped in chains and straightjackets. He had a mad grin, and a pale complexion, drained of all life. Black lightning pulsed around his body as she spoke in a voice dry as paper. "But it's true, Lina. I lost my game. You'll lose it too, because the time will never BE right. All it takes is one tiny toy... then you'll know what hell actually is. It's knowing exactly what you are and what you were meant to do, but knowing you failed to do it..."

     A popcorn box bounced off her head. For some reason, the lightweight box of snacks knocked her head over heels as if someone had shot her with a cannon. Blood pulsed in her head -- did she have blood anymore? Did she have a head? Her body started to break down, faith fading, faith in what, in what was she what did it mean to have faith in Lina, was she Lina? It hurt it hurt she was going away--

     "Get off the stage, impostor!" Lina in the audience screamed. "You're not Lina the Human, you're not Lina the God, you're just a mistake! An errand girl sent by arrogant taskmasters! You can't help Amelia by being Amelia and you know it! Run away, go away, go into that waking sleep again so you never have to face yourself and what you'll have to eventually accept and become--"

     The nightmare snapped in half.

     A figure dropped from the lighting rig, a shadow wrapped in a hooded black cloak. Lina stared, knowing this wasn't part of the show, as the nightmare slid apart, cut diagonally by the mental sword of this knight...

     The black knight, with a full crest of Sailoon in gold thread on his cloak, spread his arms as the nightmare collapsed and faded away. In a snap gesture, the pale figure turned to look at Lina, with a serpentine hiss, before the dream ended and the sun smacked Lina right in the eyes. The show was over. Time to go to work.

     Lina hated it when her own imagined demons romping in the landscape of her unconscious mind had a good point.

     Where was she going? What was she doing? Ostensibly she was looking for the Tooth Fairy so she could become a human. But she wasn't a human, she was a god, and if she tried to pretend she was anything else she'd probably be dead a few times over so far during this quest. There was an end goal, sure, but WHY was she going for it?

     Initially, she just wanted to get this crazy weirdness shoved aside so she could live a normal human life. It was an attractive, simple option. To whisk away all the mad events she'd been wrapped up in, to be Lina Inverse, enemy of all who live and spunky sorceress gal... but the image of herself, her older self, in the audience kept coming back. This world HAD a Lina Inverse. True, she had a low opinion of that Lina, but what was she if she wasn't who she...

     She needed a distraction to keep her from thinking about this, and one was provided. As she lurched in a zombie-like sleep deprived trance, the delicate scent of butter slipped past her nostrils. She floated along (literally, spooking the few maids left in the palace) towards the source... and landed in a chair at the breakfast table.

     "Lina! Did you sleep well?" Amelia asked.

     "No, I made a few mistakes," Lina replied absently, taking up knife and fork. The spread was... *magnificent*. Baked goods of all kinds, finely prepared meats, pancakes and waffles in glorious golden towers of the gods... this was the breakfast of champions.

     Naturally, Zoamel and Xelloss weren't having any of it, so that left all the more for Lina and Penny to devour -- and Penny, having those Inverse genetics, was already putting severe damage into the meal. Lina fought to keep up, figuring she could chat later, when there was less food to compete over...

     Ten minutes later, most of the chow was gone, and both Inverses sat back with contented little sighs and slightly bulging bellies. Penny dabbed at her cheeks with a napkin, having a bit more table manners than the last generation. "That was amazing, Amelia-sama! Truly a meal fit for a king. Err, queen."

     "I had it SPECIALLY ordered!" Amelia said, with a smile.. her own plate having only a few pieces of toast, which she hadn't finished eating. "I know how much Lina likes food, and since we didn't have an in-palace staff, I got one of the local restaurants to deliver this. I order out any time we have guests... it's a dent in the budget, but it's worth it. So, Lina-sama, do you have a plan of attack now?"

     "To tell the truth... no," Lina admitted. "I didn't sleep real well and haven't had time to think about it... crazy nightmares and stuff. You know, the kind where six eyed penguins toss hair curlers on you and six copies of your sister laugh at you?"

     "...uh... no, I don't know that kind," Amelia said.

     "Guess I'm better at handling dreams in this form than I thought, though," Lina said, laughing. "Some knight in shining... well, in a big 'ol black cloak saved my ass right before I woke up. I don't think Gourry wears that kind of stuff, right, Penn--"

     Amelia's fork clattered to the floor. While it was only a small utensil and a very big floor, the noise made when her dish and glass of orange juice followed it was enough to attract a few funny looks.

     She clutched the tablecloth in a knuckle-white grip, having accidentally yanked her breakfast off the table. Cheeks pale, and eyes trembling, she tried to regain royal composure, and settle in. "Ah... ha ha... nothing. Well, I'm sure you'll do very well against Sairaag today, Lina! And if you need ANYTHING, just let me know!!"

     "...I think I need to know why you just freaked out, actually," Lina said. "Amelia, you're twitchier than a long tailed cat in a china shop learning new tricks or something. What'd I say?"

     "Nothing!" Amelia replied. "It's nothing at all! I haven't been having ANY problems sleeping tonight. The entire city is counting on.. on the Council, but I'm supporting the circles and I'm just fine! You have nothing to fear..."

     Lina leaned closer to the queen. "You've NEVER been a very good liar, you know. Spill it. ...we won't think any lesser of you, okay? I know I couldn't pull royal rank half as well as you can, so it's no big deal to admit a problem. We're friends here, right?"

     The young queen's throat seized, momentarily. "...yes..." she managed, weakly. She slumped back into her chair, tension not going away, but untensing for long enough to speak better. "...I was just.. you said someone in a black cloak stopped your nightmare, right?"

     "Gosh, I always thought you assumed the guys in the black hats were the bad guys, Amelia-chan," Xelloss quipped, feeling like there wasn't enough comic relief in the room. Zoamel gave him a nasty glare in thanks.

     "N-no! Not this time!" Amelia replied, quickly. "Whenever I'm having a.. bad dream, this person in a Sailoon royal crested cloak saves me. But.. but I just thought it was the stress getting to me. Getting to all of us."

     The sinking feeling started right about now.

     "'All of us'?" Lina prompted.

     "The Circle Keepers," Amelia replied. "The white mages who have dedicated themselves to maintaining the city's safety. The ones who lend their power to the circles. We've all feeling stress because of constantly keeping the circles going, but the doctors said that was normal. Even the bad dreams are normal. And I figured, I was just imagining someone in a cloak who hissed like a serpent to.. you know..."

     "Okay, that's enough, thanks Amelia," Lina said, taking charge. "I know what's going on."

     "Oooh, Lina's going to unmask the bad guy now!" Xelloss cheered, clapping lightly. "I bet it's Old Man Withers who runs the haunted amusement park!"

     "Xel, don't make me hurt you," Lina scowled. She held up her wrist... specifically, held up the blue gem she was given the other day. "Stop me if you've heard this one. Whole group of people wears these things, linking themselves up to the circles Sairaag's battering at. ALL of them start experiencing nightmares. Amelia, in the past, are there any records saying that putting up the shields caused bad dreams?"

     "Well... no," Amelia said, trying to remember. "No. Not as such."

     "And I know I'VE been having no problems until I got here," Lina said. "Penny, you having any bad dreams?"

     "Not a one," Penny said, feeding the wandering monster table some of the cutlery.

     "So somehow, nightmares are coming over this link," Lina finalized. "Think about it, it's perfect drama. Sairaag must have some crazy machine pumping bad vibes into the circles, and thus into you guys. Undermine the city from within, crack the people in charge, and bust the place up when those circles finally give."

     Zoamel ingested Lina's theory, and found himself nodding. "It does assume a great deal, but I would not be surprised if a similar tactic was being used by Sairaag. It is their style to take over by subtle use of technology and subterfuge. They knock your invisible means of support out from under you, and then claim the easy kill. But you have no proof, Lina."

     "A mysterious figure in a black cloak," Lina stated. "Common in my dream and Amelia's. These bracelets. The others having nightmares when no one else is! It's all too coincidental to be coincidence! Nine times out of ten stuff like this is a mysterious dark plot sneaking up behind you to pull your underwear up over your head in a metaphysical sense!"

     "Metaphorical," Zoamel corrected.

     "What EVER. So, we find this guy Amelia and I saw, and we either find the SOURCE of the problem, or an ally AGAINST the problem -- he did knock my dream silly in two seconds flat, and he's been bailing Amelia out as well. He'd be perfect to stop Sairaag! Hah! How do you like THAT tactical planning, Zoamel? Do you doubt my mad skills now?"

     "Yes, actually, I do," Zoamel spoke, calm and restrained as ever. "This is an interesting diversion, but the hard reality of the situation are the many guns pointed at this city. Running around chasing shadows will not stop the immediate threat. Although I am curious as to how these circles work... they are landmarks, yes? Why do they need additional supports?"

     "We can worry about the wiz-biz of local mages later, okay, Zoey?" Lina said, dismissing him. Zoamel's metaphy-- metaphorical feathers bristled ever so slightly. "Amelia, what can you tell me about the guy in the cloak? Presumably he's somewhere nearby, maybe in the city, if he can walk in our dreams with magic."

     "There's been sightings of a sorceress at Black Widow's Peak who wears a cloak like that," Amelia said.

     "...well, that was easy," Lina spoke after a bit of a pause, surprised. "Uh, how long have you known about this connection?"

     "Awhile now. Why?"

     "Why didn't you DO something about it? Go pay a house call or something! I mean, maybe this guy.. this whoever could have helped! Jeez, Amelia, it's simple logic here, you know?"

     The queen shirked back into her less than regal kitchen chair throne. "I've.. I've been busy with affairs of state. Busy. And it's a dangerous peak, I mean, I DID send two men, but they got chased off by a powerful sorceress so I didn't want to risk anybody getting hurt and--"

     "Okay, okay," Lina interrupted. "Everybody, you're coming with me. We can get out of the shields with no problem, they're only one-way. We'll go handle whoever this is and see if we can win them over to our side. Maybe with enough money it can be done..."

     "I am not interested in a day trip jaunt to find a mystery man," Zoamel stated. "It would take us away from the city, and give Sairaag a good opportunity to press the attack, possibly keeping us from returning."

     Lina gritted her teeth. Zoamel was always a bit of a stick in the mud, wasn't he? "Fine, fine. You can stay here and chat it up with the local mages. Penny, you and--"

     "I think Zoamel's right," Penny chimed.

     "You ALWAYS have to take his side, don't you?"

     "What's that supposed to mean..?" Penny asked, a bit of hostility growing there.

     "I thought I was the heroine here?" Lina asked, standing up. "When we started out, you were all thrilled to be going around with me and learning from me how to be an adventuress -- and apprenticeship takes dedication and loyalty! What gives?"

     "Lina, jeez! I'm not saying I don't want to be a part of the quest or to help you or anything! I'm just not sure this is the way to do it, is all..."

     "Who's the experienced veteran here?" Lina asked. "Who saved you from bandit thugs back in Zeifelia and generally saved the day each time we--"

     "Penny was responsible for the defeat of Ace Champion," Zoamel interjected.

     "That's right!" Penny replied, nodding, the table sitting on her head bobbing along in agreement as well. "I mean, I'm only now starting to really contribute to this group, and I think I should have a say here. If you want to check this lead, it'd be better if we split up and have some people stay here, to cover our bases--"

     "Fine! Stay!" Lina shouted, tossing her hands up. "Xelloss!! Any objections?!"

     The Mazoku visibly sweatdropped, smile turning nervous when the Evil Red Eyes of Inverse turned to stare at a point six inches inside his skull. "No ma'am. Sounds like an excessively nifty plan. Please don't hurt me."

     Lina put a grip on his shoulder that could have compressed coal into diamond. "Okay! We'll be off. And we'll be back in no time with a powerful ally! Don't bother showing us out, the window is fine. RAYWING!"

     She unlatched one of the main windows to the dining hall, shoved it open, and dragged a giggly Mazoku with her off into the sky. In moments, she had reached the shield, and was out.

     "...perhaps we did push her too hard the other day," Zoamel admitted, watching the young god leave. "But she is acting a bit rashly. Much like a young Demiurge would, given no training or guidance -- believing herself unstoppable and divinely right. The power goes to your head."

     "I know how that is," Amelia spoke quietly, breaking her silence. "I was just like that long ago. You think you can really change the world, that you can defeat any enemy because you're in the right... and... but hey, hey, it's okay!" Her voice dove into an upswing. "Everything's good. After all, Lina Inverse never loses! She's so much better at this sort of thing. She's beaten the Demon King, she's stopped the destruction of the world... I just know she'll do very well, and save us all! She's going to save me. This is SUCH a relief..."

     Penny peered a bit at Amelia. "Um... Amelia-san, Lina's blown up cities in the process of saving them sometimes. I agree that she's pretty incredible, and definitely a hero, but don't you think blind optimism here is kind of... risky?"

     "But what could go wrong?" Amelia asked.

     The room exploded.


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Story copyright 1999 Stefan Gagne, Slayers characters copyright H. Kanzaka / R. Araizumi.
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