She was dead.

     She had to be dead. She couldn't feel anything, and everything was black. She was almost dead once and this felt just like it -- and the same fear set in. What if this is all there is? No paradise, no hell, just a nothing that lasts forever and--

     When Zoamel found her under a large piece of debris, she was curled up in to the fetal position, and crying. But she stopped that fast. Don't let them see...

     "What happened?" Amelia asked, regaining that composure, and looking around...

     The hall was a mess. The entire windowed wall had exploded, debris everywhere. The ground continually shook, as if there was some kind of earthquake... and in the distance, directly across the view to the edge of the city... one of the cannons from Sairaag was calmly pumping shell after shell into the air, explosive clouds forming from the huge muzzle of the cannon.

     "We're being shot at!" Penny summarized.

     "N-noo!" Amelia blurted. "The circles! They stop the shells! It's impossible for them to be able to shoot THROUGH--"

     The next blast tore half of the room away. Zoamel spirited both the queen and the adventuress away, landing on an adjacent building roof in less than a second.

     From out here the damage was incredible. Huge chunks of the royal palace had been torn away from the building, debris flooding the street below. New parts exploded, raining dust and rock everywhere, barrage unending, until the cannon's roar made Amelia want to scream, scream in terror...

     And that was it. Nothing else blew up, and the gun went quiet.

     A voice replaced it. A voice that had been amplified in the peculiarly tinny way that Sairaag managed to project voices. It echoed across the city, the city shook into silence by the attack...

     "*People of Sailoon, your attention please,*" the even tones of Commander Greyweirs spoke. "*As you can see, your magical circles have been rendered obsolete by the superior scientific craft of Sairaag. This demonstration on your useless Royal Palace was simply to awaken you to the reality -- the reality that you are no longer living in an age of magic. I beseech the Council to participate in developing terms of surrender, so that we do not have to destroy your homes. Sailoon is a proud country, and Sairaag salutes your heritage... but this is the new age. You can either join in the celebration of the Age of Science, or be cleared to make room for it. The choice is yours. Let us end this siege. Council, I will await your answer tomorrow morning. I am sure the people trust you to make the right decision. That is all.*"

     A thick, terrified silence fluttered around Sailoon. It was quickly replaced by commotion. The circles had failed, they had failed completely...

     "..z.. zelgadis..." Amelia said, eyes wide in shock. "That was..."

     "Those BULLYING little bastards!" Penny shouted, shaking a fist at the cannon. "They think they can push us around? Blah! If even HALF the stories Lina's told me about this place are true, there's no way in hell that Sailoon will give up its ideals so soon--"

     'it's over,' Amelia spoke. The words were soft, but they still halted Penny in her tracks.


     "It's over," the queen repeated. A weak, frightened smile spread across her face. "Sailoon lost its idealism long ago. Don't you see? It's over. They didn't need me anymore. And now they won't need Sailoon; any country will do. Maybe.. maybe Zelgadis is right... he..."

     The frail woman faded, eyes fluttering shut. Her body, strained beyond strain emotionally, just gave up and sank into unconsciousness. Zoamel supported her very carefully in his arms, before easing her to the rooftop, for now. He stood... frowning, in the way that meant he meant business, and someone was going to lose an appendage.

     "This will not stand," he spoke. His hand slowly curled into a fist, as the words poured from him. "This is what Sairaag desires. They destroy you from inside, kill your faith, as they have done here, destroying faith in these people's homeland..."

     "First thing's first, Zoamel," Penny said, trying to cool the god down. "She needs some medical attention. Let's get her to a hospital. I know, and I agree with you. You and I, we'll find a way to stop them. But first she needs help."

     "...yes," Zoamel agreed, letting his hand go slack. "First things first."

     If a building code existed for proper evil castles on twisted rocky spires of foreboding doom, this place would serve as the floor model real estate agents would take young couples on tours of.

     What else could one expect from 'Black Widow's Peak'? There was a 'Valley of Despair' all around it, and a 'Mountain of Insanity', and the 'Long Jagged Path Of Irritating Little Pebbles That Get In Your Boot And Give You Horrible Blisters'. (Lina knew this because it had been pointed out in a helpful sign, near a pleasant shubbery arrangement.)

     She just wasn't expecting a 'Doorbell', and a sign reading 'Deliveries in the Rear'.

     "Okay, here's the plan," Lina said. "I've gone through enough of these sorts of evil lairs to know how they work. Xelloss, you go in first and spring all the horribly mangling man-traps that have been set in the maze leading to the black cloaked guy's tower. I'll walk along behind you and try not to step in any puddles of your blood. With me so far?"

     "No," Xelloss said, quite horrified.

     "Good. Then, when we get there, I'll use you as an inhuman shield to absorb all her biggest spells, and then I'll pound her into submission and MAKE her help us defeat Sairaag with his incredible magic powers. It's foolproof! Come on, I've got to use you as a raft so we can float in the moat of acid and find a secret sewer entrance."

     "Here's a silly idea. Why don't we RING THE DOORBELL?" Xelloss offered. "I'm sorry, but it just seems like a considerably easier way to gain access. It also involves a lot less gratuitous bodily harm to my person. Please? Pretty please? I'll be your best friend!"

     "They'd be EXPECTING that approach, man! Jeez, Xelloss, you can be SO dense--"

     *ding dong*

     "Sorry, my finger slipped," Xelloss apologized. "Won't happen again."

     Lina smacked her forehead. "I swear, I can't take you ANYWHERE..."

     "Well, excuse me for not wanting to be a pincushion," Xelloss chirped, hands on hips in cute defiance. "I'm not getting any younger, you know, and being a Mazoku doesn't exactly have the same stock value it used to. I'd prefer a nice, quiet, safe entrance--"

     The 'GO AWAY' unwelcoming mat under his feet swung away, dropping him into a pit of spikes. There was an unpleasant little crunching sound.

     Wincing, Lina peeked into the dark pit, trying not to see if he was okay. "Xelloss? Yoo hoo?"

     "...oh, I'm just dandy..." Xelloss weakly replied, voice floating up from the bottom of the trap. "Going to take a little while to get, ah, unimpaled. Better move on without me for now. Have fun storming the castle!"

     "I'll never forget your noble sacrifice, Xelloss!" Lina pledged, pounding a fist against her chest. "Yosh! I'm off! By the Mighty Iron Fists of Justice, this will not stand!"

     "Hammer," Xelloss corrected, from the depths of despair.


     "It's HAMMER of Justice. If you're going to rip off Amelia's catch phrases, DO try to at least get them right, Lina-chan... oh, dear, there's venomous cobras in here tooghgjkkhghkkk..."

     "Hammer. Noted. Okay! I'm off!"

     She kicked the doors open with her Mighty Boot, and strode brazenly into the gaping maw of death. Or at least into the tastefully furnished foyer of death.

     Whoever owned this place clearly was rich. Great winding twin staircases lead up the sides of the tower, while enormous chandeliers hung from the ceiling. A full red carpet with finely woven magical symbols covered the base of the tower, and a few stray tables had vases with black roses in them... but Lina wasn't here to evaluate the place for aesthetic purposes, she was here to kick ass and chew beef jerky, and she was all out of jerky.

     "I seek the owner of this keep!" Lina announced. "I have traveled far and wide for at least the last hour to get here, and demand an audience! And I'm not above lowering the property values to get one!"

     All the chandeliers dimmed, the candles magically snuffing out one by one. A rising dramatic dirge floated up from an unseen organ, as spotlights snapped on, highlighting the landing at the top of the stairs... Lina looked up, a little irritated by the theatrics, and wondering exactly who was...

     Well, the figure DID have on that black cloak from her dream, but she wasn't exactly formidable. A fourteen year old girl with raven-black hair did not an allpowerful dreamwalking mage make.

     "What, that's it?" Lina asked. "You're the one?"

     "OHOHO! Arrogant little girl!" the arrogant little girl laughed, mocking Lina. "I mock you! Mock mock MOCK! I will be a suitable opponent to eject bandit trash such as you from my home! PREPARE YOURSELF! TOOOOOH!!"

     The sorceress charged a massive fireball, leaping from the staircase. Lina took five steps to the left to avoid the fireball, and tried not to look when the young girl crashed face first into the smoldering remains of the nice rug.

     "...ow..." she groaned.

     "Nobody's that clumsy or that stupid without being related to Amelia," Lina decided.

     "OOOOOOOHOHOHOOHHOOOO! You're so naive, Lina Inverse!!"

     The TRUE owner of this gloom keep had showed her face. Wearing a fine black cloak with the Sailoon royal crest in gold thread, she descended from the stairs using a Levitation spell, rather than a swan dive, but touched down with the grace and dignity of a swan...

     Lina fell over with considerably less grace and dignity when she got a good look at the face.

     "N-N-N-N... NAGA?!!!"

     "I see that time has not improved your bust size," Naga joked.

     Penny Gabriev picked up a bomb fragment. Normally, red hot jagged metal would not be a wise thing to pick up with your hands, but Penny had A) dumped a bucket of cold water over it and B) donned a heavy pair of gloves. She knew a few things about safety around some of the riskier elements of 'the new age'.

     Finding the fragment amidst the rubble hadn't been easy. There was a considerable amount of blasted concrete, stone, and furniture lying in the courtyard in front of the main palace building, the side that was pounded on by cannon fire. The palace guards were too busy digging out survivors to help -- fortunately, the body count had only tallied up minor injuries, as there were few palace staffmembers around anymore. Small miracles often were the best ones.

     She started dropping the tiny fragments into the cold water bucket, so busy that she didn't notice Zoamel's approach.

     "Amelia is resting," Zoamel said, announcing his presence. "The family doctor is seeing to her at the city hospital. The strain from her nightmares and today's events was just too much for her."

     "Zoamel, look around and tell me if you see anything that doesn't quite make sense," Penny said, still collecting fragments.

     "I see the results of the cannon attack. It's to be expected, given the sort of guns we saw they had outside. If anything, this damage is probably minor compared to what they are capable--"

     "All the debris is OUT HERE," Penny explained, with a sweeping arm gesture. "There's almost nothing in there, aside from a few collapsed ceilings. Everything blew outward, not inward. If they were shelling the building from that distance, wouldn't it punch holes INTO the structure and knock things inward? Some would get blasted out, but not THIS much. There's even some blast damage BEHIND the building, where they weren't shooting, and it's not from exit wounds. This is more like--"

     "Bombs placed inside the building to begin with, rather than shells launched at the building," Zoamel finished. "I've been entertaining the notion as well. As far as I could tell, those magic circles around the city did not shut down, were not punctured and remained undisturbed during the attack... I've kept a feeler on them ever since Lina took that amulet. But even if this is logical, it's not conclusive proof."

     "That's what I'm getting now," Penny said, dropping the last bit of metal into her bucket. "I had a few classes in metallurgy and chemistry before I decided to be a full time adventuress. We can figure out what sort of explosives these were based on the chemical residue, but I don't know enough to tell for sure myself... I'm going to head down to the Alchemist's Guild, see what experts I can dig up on short notice."

     "If we can expose this as a scheme, perhaps we can convince the Council not to surrender," Zoamel said. "I got an earful of public opinion. Ever since the.. demonstration this morning, people have lost faith in the circles protecting them.... hrhmmm."

     "Hrhmmm? Whyfor hrhmmm?"

     "While you're checking out the bomb shell, I believe I have a lead of my own," Zoamel decided. "Let's meet back here in two hours. Amelia may be awake by then. I wish Lina hadn't left, we could use someone to stay with the queen while we work..."

     Penny smiled, hefting the heavy bucket up a bit, as her shoulders grew tired. "We really do work great together, don't we, Zoamel?"

     "Ah... I suppose so," Zoamel said. "We have skills in differing areas that compliment well."

     "Huh? Yeah, there's that. I meant, though... umm..."

     "Yes, Penny?"

     "Let's get to work," Penny quickly said. "Amelia's counting on us. I'd LOVE to come back to her with good news for a change. She deserves it, after what she's been through. I hope Lina appreciates the hard work we're doing here while she gets the easy stuff!"

     Lina wished she could die.

     One Naga was bad. One Naga was enough to put her off her lunch and find the nearest exit. One Naga was MORE than enough to convince her, after a year or two of questing with her, to go solo. (Then she met Gourry, and the rest takes too long to cover...)

     THREE NAGAS was enough to drive a headache six feet into her skull, even if she was a god and shouldn't be getting headaches, dammit. She countered the headache by chugging the apple juice offered to her as a 'relatively honored houseguest'. The sugar took some edge off the pain.

     Even Xelloss seemed to be frightened, but it could have just been the after effects of his recent encounter with the hospitality of Black Widow's Peak. He'd managed to close up most of the embarrassing puncture wounds after being pried out of there with a large lever, but he'd still seen considerably better days... he managed to ignore the evil looks from the teenaged Naga sitting across from him, fortunately.

     Said teenaged Naga was sulking. She'd gotten a sticky bandage or two on her face after her failed attempt to annihilate Lina, and didn't like it one bit. "Mommy, I could have taken them! I've studied my black magic like you told me to, and I can do three spells in a row before I get tired!"

     Naga the Matriarch White Serpent bounced the adorable little four month old Mini-Naga on her knee, while spooning it baby food. "Now now, Gabby, I told you that I'm to greet all houseguests, gatecrashers, inlaws and assorted scum who visit the castle. You should have been cleaning your room, anyway! It looks like someone cast Diem Wing in there!"

     "Goo fis fee sees!" the baby warbled, waving her cute little arms.

     "Ah... mummy told you not to say that, little Olga. But you're so cute, I will forgive you! Whoosalittlepoosypoo? Yes you are! Yes you are!"

     "Goooeeooo!" Olga cheered, spitting up applesauce.

     "Oh, but I'm ignoring my guest!" Naga realized. "It is SO good to see you after all these years, Lina. I'd love to know what spell you found to stay eternally young... not that I've aged badly. I'm still five times larger than you are where it counts! OOHOHOHOOOOHOOO!"

     "Kill me," Lina whispered to Xelloss. "Just kill me now."

     "But I AM curious," Naga continued, "As to the reason for your little visit. We don't get many visitors to the castle aside from the occasional person selling magazine subscriptions, and they usually entertain the moat beast before leaving. Are you here to catch up on old times?"

     Lina couldn't take it anymore. "WHO did you trick into helping you spawn these.. various incarnations of you, Naga?!"

     "Oh, you mean Earl, my good husband," Naga said. "Earl? Burt? Gabby dear, what's his name again?'

     "It's Peter, mum."

     "Yes, Peter. Good man. Does the dishes and makes sure the cat stays fed. I met him shortly before we had little Gabby-chan there, he's been quite an obedient husband. Although he DID throw his back out while we were conceiving Little Olga and is resting up at my inlaws right now, or I'd introduce you to him."

     Lina muttered a quiet prayer for Peter, wherever he was, and rolled right along. "Naga... I know you've been doing some funky dream magic up here. You walked INTO my nightmare last night, for starters! What are you up to?"

     "Oh, that was you?" Naga asked. "I thought I got sidetracked into one of the palace servants--"

     "What were you doing there in the first place?!"

     "It's quite simple, really. Gabby-chan wets the bed some nights--"


     "--and I've taken to dreamwalking while I sleep using an ancient family technique in order to help quell her bad dreams before she ruins another mattress," Naga continued.

     "That doesn't explain how you ended up in my dream."

     "Oh, that. Well, I tend to wander," Naga explained. "You know, here and there. To Sailoon, mostly. I don't go into the city itself in person, but it helps to stay abreast of current events."

     "There's certainly a lot of breast to keep current," Xelloss quipped, before getting a chair to the head courtesy of Gabby.

     "Manners, Gabby, manners," Naga reminded.

     "You've been helping Amelia out, haven't you?" Lina asked, leaning in closer, moving for the kill. "I recognize the crest on your cloak now. It's a ROYAL crest. And your daughter there did a patented Amelia nose dive of justice... I'd suspected it for awhile, when we were travelling, but.. YOU are Princess Gracia ul Naga Sailoon, aren't you?!"

     "No," Naga said, voice dropping sixty degrees in temperature. "My name is Naga the White Serpent. I've renounced ANY claim to the throne or my family lineage. I have nothing to do with the palace anymore."

     "You're still helping Amelia."

     "And why not?" Naga asked. "I helped you, didn't I? I help out where I can. It's in my power, and I feel like it, so I do. It goes no farther than that. Lina... my family is insane."

     "Yes, I know. I traveled with you for a year, remember? And Amelia for years after that--"

     "I'm serious here! They are quite barking mad," Naga insulted.. but never getting angry enough to disturb Olga. "Did you know that of all the neighboring kingdoms, Sailoon's throne has the highest turnover rate? Regicide is practically a cash crop! Princes feuding for the throne, princesses competing with each other for good husbands that can lead them to power... and if you know who I am, then you know what happened to my mother."

     Lina thought back. Amelia had told her, once, but... no, there it was. She had no problems remembering when she remembered her brain was more the idea of a brain given wings of faith rather than a lump of gray matter. "She was assassinated..."

     "Just as father has been," Naga added... then paused. She shook it off, and continued. "I have no interest in a throne that has been contested in blood time and time again. The Council's no better, with the same amount of political backstabbing. When you get down to it, father's ideals of justice were... ridiculous. Nobody believed in them except a few hopeless fools in the population. The night after mother's death... I took her costume, and left to find my OWN fortune. Not one handed to me. So no, I have nothing more to do with the family, not even Amelia. What you saw was.. a lucky coincidence, I suppose. Now. Is that all you came to learn, Lina Inverse?"

     "The nightmares are being caused by the siege party," Lina said, dropping all cards on the table and hoping this would work. "It's linked somehow to the shields around Sailoon. Sairaag is driving your sister to the brink of mental collapse, Naga. I saw you defeat my nightmare, likely generated the same way, with ridiculous ease. I was HOPING that I could convince you to fight with us against them, to break the hold they have on the ones supporting the circles. That you'd help us save your sister. But I guess you don't care about that now, since you were expecting her to die anyway. C'mon, Xelloss, no reason to stay any longer. She's made up her mind to support Sairaag."

     "Oh, good," Xelloss said, weakly pulling himself up off the floor. "I could use a nice cold shower and some warm tea, myself..."

     "EXCUSE me, Lina," Naga spoke, setting Olga back in her nearby crib. "But I don't recall ever saying I supported those ridiculous people from Sairaag--"

     "But you do," Lina broke in with. "Because you know what's going to happen? Your sister will crack eventually, and the circles will stop working. Then they'll take over. And you better believe they won't want any royal bloodline interfering in their 'new age' -- they prefer indecisive political Councils to a strong single leader. So that not only means they'll have to subvert or eliminate Amelia, but they'll have to do the same to you... and your whole family. You're all the same bloodline whether you admit it or not. Maybe you don't approve of what your family's done in the past, but I can't believe you'd be willing to drop your sister, yourself and your children into that particular situation..."

     Naga narrowed her eyes like a coiled serpent observing her prey, or a mother eagle protecting her hatchlings, or a Naga that thinks it's being played as a fool. "You're trying to play me as a fool, Lina. Speculating and making speeches in hopes of me aiding you--"

     "Trying to convince you, sure, I'll freely admit that," Lina said. "You can't argue with logic, Naga. Sitting back and saying it's not your problem is not how change happens, not change for the better. ...listen. You're wondering why I'm so young, aren't you?"

     "The thought had crossed my mind a few times, yes...."

     Lina settled in. This would take time. "Then I'll tell you. It'll be a tale crazier than any quest we went on together, but you know I only lie to knock down shopkeeper prices or hassle the bad guys. It's a story about gods and monsters and the biggest monster squatting right now in Sairaag... but most importantly, it's also about the OTHER Lina Inverse... the one who's thinking the same way you are now. Then maybe you'll understand..."

     The country of Sailoon has a capital city (also called Sailoon; not very imaginative, admittedly) and that city is inscribed in a series of magical circles. In the center of those circles is the main palace, but in the center of the palace is a simple dome, a building that rests at the very core of Sailoon itself. It's easy to find, if you know a little geometry and are good with a compass, and Zoamel had no problems finding it. Because he wasn't just following a hunch.

     He was following a scent. It was a familiar power, although in a blend he wasn't wholly familiar with. It connected the circles to this place, but connected other things as well...

     But speculation could wait. Answers were more important than conjecture. So, while Penny did her scientific research, Zoamel Gustav did a little magical research.

     Inside the dome, he found what he was expecting; a large statue at the very center of Sailoon. It was a fairly stylized marble symbol meant to represent the Dragon King Ceipheed, heart of white magic, bitter enemy of the Dark Lord Shaburanigdo. In truth, they got the nose wrong, but Zoamel wasn't here to be an art critic.

     Twelve sorceresses of the white variety stood at clock-points around the statue, clearly feeding it white magic energies with baubles similar to the one Amelia gave to Lina. Zoamel didn't wish to interrupt their prayer, so instead, he felt for those connections he was sensing...


     All twelve were connected by lines to the statue, but they ended INSIDE the statue itself. Zoamel probed the stonework, past the Ceipheed-disguise this being wore, and found what he truly sought.

     'Hello,' he spoke, on a level only the gods can understand.

     The magic circles surrounding Sailoon quivered slightly. The white magic guild looked up in alarm, but Zoamel soothed the circles quickly, assuring them he meant no harm at all and just wanted to talk, which was a simple thought-gesture for one who was used to communicating by imagination itself...

     The circles didn't speak human language, so translation was spotty at best, but the dialogue went as thus. % 'I didn't mean to scare you. Terribly sorry. I am like you... I am Demiurge as well,' Zoamel said. 'I felt your links... to these twelve who support you, from your Queen and a friend of mine, and even from the population itself. The links of faith that keep you strong. I followed them here.'

     [faith weak circumstances unknown blind information rectify], the walls spoke, from the central focus inside the statue.

     'There was an attack,' Zoamel explained. 'Humans tricked your believers into thinking you had failed them. They are losing faith in you, aren't they?'

     [hurting tired no faith no warmth need help want protect faithful want save want keep out enemy please help sworn protect Sailoon bloodline hundred generations help hurting please rectify]

     'I understand, I understand. My friends and I will aid you. We are working to restore the faith your believers held. Is there anything.. more immediate I can do for you, until we succeed?'

     [stop dreams wall filter not good stop Sailoon bloodline hurting stop find lost bloodline lost one help bloodline many time help again comprehend]

     Zoamel took a step back. 'Lost one...?' He thought in terms of geography, in terms of things this unusual Demiurge would understand. 'The one in the mountain five miles from westward wall gateway?'


     The elder god allowed a smile. 'It seems Lina's impulsive behavior will help after all, rather than waste time. Do not fear. My companion has departed this very morning to seek the one you talk about. The lost one will join your cause.' Or likely suffer a few broken bones until he or she submits to Lina's will, he didn't add.

     Still, the situation sparked a bit of pleasure at the irony of it all. It was exactly as Xelloss explained; Lina's brash action got them entrance to the city and a place of honor with the city guard. It wasn't her intention, and her methods were questionable, but they worked all the same. Now she had run off on some side quest Zoamel had thought to be a childish waste of time... and which would end up bringing exactly the right tool to the job at hand. That was Lina Inverse, distilled to the most mystical core she possessed in mortal life; the ability to get shoved to the wall, with almost no planning and resources, and still come out on top through phenomenal luck and gut reactions. It was philosophically intriguing, but Zoamel wasn't going to rely on luck alone. The way he saw it: the moment you ease back, relying wholly on your good fortune and taking a callous attitude towards risk, your luck WILL fail on you. No -- he would continue as planned, just as Penny was, and eventually all points would converge on a solution... or possibly a situation even worse than the current situation. But that would be dealt with in time. The here and now was more important.

     Zoamel allowed a small amount of his own faith to flow from his godself to the walls. A show of support, a tiny dose of strength. It wasn't much; he didn't command thousands of believers anymore, and knew he would have to conserve... especially if things were about to get quite hot in Sailoon.

     'Rest assured,' he spoke, soothing. 'The ones who have done this will pay. We will see to it. Or die trying. I am bound by my faithful, and the enemy of my enemy is now my ally. We work together.'


     Penny Gabriev walked the street of Sailoon, expecting some tension and unrest. The city WAS technically under siege by a few hulking monstrosities outside, after all. But she wasn't expecting this level of tension.

     The whole city seemed near the verge of spiritual collapse. No conversation was held outside of a hushed tone, and groups convened in small clusters... under pretenses of carrying on regular activity, like buying apples or negotiating the repairs to a wagon or getting a dinner order. But only one topic was open for discussion -- surrender.

     The Council had convened immediately on hearing the declaration this morning. Rumor had it they were favoring giving up; clearly the magical shields had failed miserably, and that meant they had no force left to resist. There were no rallying cries to the noble banner of Sailoon, no 'when I was your age, we didn't surrender to every namby pamby army that pushed us around'. The population, already weak from the siege, was ready to fold and either deal with the new regime or resettle elsewhere. There were even more hushed talks about nightmares people had been having, but these were silenced quickly... as if nobody wanted to acknowledge they could be weakening that much.

     Penny held her silence. She wasn't going to go spreading rumors about the evidence she'd found. Rumors were what was feeding this crowd now, whipping them up into a paranoid frenzy, and adding a rumor that there may be hope into the mix would make it lose credibility. The better strategy would be to find hard evidence, locate the perp punk who did this, and bust them publicly...

     She almost stumbled two steps after that thought, but recovered. She was doing strategic planning, wasn't she?

     It was enough to give her a smile in this atmosphere of pressure and despair. Maybe she'd be forced into a silly dress and almost brainwashed, but she'd realized one very important thing out of her run-in with Ace Champion: she actually COULD think for herself. This wasn't Lina's plan, or even Zoamel's. It was hers and hers alone. Admittedly, the others were HELPING... which kind of made her the leader of the team, didn't it?

     She didn't realize she was whistling cheerfully while skipping down the street like a little girl until some of the hopeless, exhausted eyes of the population started to stare at her. She quickly cut that act out and got on with business, embarrassed.

     Finding an alchemist hadn't been hard. Her little group (HER group, maybe?) had an enormous amount of respect with the city guard after the stunt Lina pulled the other day. Hence, the captain was quite helpful in pointing out the address of a travelling alchemist who was staying in town; one who had set up shop under Council contract specifically to help find a way to defeat the siege machines. TECHNICALLY she was supposed to go get the Council's approval before she diverted him from his work, but TECHNICALLY she had Amelia's royal support and Amelia still was above the council in name if not fact and TECHNICALLY she didn't actually give a flying.. a flying... well, something very nasty, indeed.

     Penny walked up to the small government issue cottage, which had already seen some fire damage from the day's first alchemiac experimentation, and knocked on the door. It crumbled into a small pile of ash from the impact, which she took as an open invitation to make herself at home.

     "Hello??" she asked, leaning in and looking around. "Is anybody here?"

     "...daft idiot!" the alchemist shouted, before whapping his pupil over the head with the Staff of Educational Enlightenment. "How many times do I have to tell you about mixing the elementals? You always put the bottled lightning magic into the diffuser BEFORE dropping it in the pot with the sulphurous dioxide! A child of five would understand that!!"

     "Ow," the student replied in absolute respect for his teacher and humility.

     Penny approached, looking at the paper in her hand -- this WAS the right address, she hoped. "Excuse me-- YOU!?"

     "YOU?!" Lord Noisemaker the Alchemist exclaimed.

     "ME!!?!" Penny shouted. Paused. "Ah, I mean, yes. Me. Hi! Uh... before you ask, I left Table-chan with Amelia and no, you can't have him back--"

     "I've got more pressing problems to worry about than that," the old man grumbled, sitting his tired bones down in a government issue entirely too uncomfortable chair. "Speak your peace and leave, miss. I've got a fat scientific grant I'm not going to get if I can't save this blasted city by dawn and I need time to work on my superexplosive compound. What I wouldn't give for a standard issue Deathtrap Construction Kit With Retractable Springloaded Orthagonally Launched Magical Warheads, but NO, they won't spring for something as basic as--"

     "I've got what you need to save the city," Penny said simply, to cut through the man's tirade. She fished around in her bag, looking for her evidence.

     "Oh, you do? Pull the other one, it's got bells on."

     Penny turned red. "What?!"

     "It's not what you think," the younger assistant said, already too familiar with his master's little social problems.

     "Lass, miracle fixes to life's problems don't just miraculously wander in through the door in the final hour while being presented by your old enemies," Lord Noisemaker said, removing his spectacles and cleaning them on his soot-and-grease covered apron. "So permit me to be a little skeptical about your claim. If you've got some miracle in that sack of yours, I'll eat my beard."

     Penny presented him with the bomb fragments.

     "Salt, master?" the apprentice asked, holding up a shaker.

     "...and that's the whole story," Lina finished with a croak. She dove for the pitcher of lemonade, snatching it away from the marched Mazoku before he could have a glass, and chugged it. Explaining your life's history tended to dry out one's throat.

     Naga was speechless. An expert in reading faces, such as a master poker player, would be able to hear her reaction loud as a bell : a contemporary blend of doubt jazzed up with a little common-knowledge of Lina's typical modus operandi and a zesty splash of knowledge pertaining to magical and religious legends. The whole rockin' affair went into a guitar solo of understanding and finished with an encore of rock solid comprehension.

     "Interesting," she said in actual words.

     "It's all true, swear to Myself," Lina declared.

     "So the Lina I know of... is in her hometown pushing spells on buyers," Naga stated. "I always knew you... she had a good sense for business. Although I of course was ALWAYS the superior Achiever of Bargains!"

     "AND she's not lifting a finger," Lina continued, getting to the point. "She's sitting back and ignoring things. Just like you are. And look at me; I could have just... sunk back into that weird sleep, and not taken an active role in my life. Nobody would even have noticed, but that's not ME. I don't do that, and I know you don't either! Come ON, Naga! Even putting aside the long-term problem this causes for your.. scarily identical children, you WON'T sit back while Amelia's suffering and your home town is gonna get plowed into the dirt. You believe in actions, not words!.... okay, words too, and those awful laughs, but actions above all! I've SEEN you act without the slightest thought before!"

     "Thank you," Naga spoke, with added Ice and Nastiness.

     "You've been helping Amelia," Lina pointed out. "Don't you think at least a PART of you wants to save her from this? Just let go of your dislike of your family. Amelia's all the family you have left outside of this castle! You have to make a stand! You have to do what's right! In the name of justice, you must punish the bad guys and SAVE THE DAY!....."

     Then Lina realized she was standing on the table and posing dramatically. Xelloss had already unfolded a cheap paper backdrop of the glorious rising sun behind her.

     Naga's eyelid twitched. "...that is frighteningly familiar," she admitted. Her voice was softer than the harsh tones she used to condemn her family, and slightly rattled from the display. "And it does take me back. Little sister... she was always the idealistic one. But she truly BELIEVED in what she espoused, I will give her that..."

     Lina hopped off the table, but not before frying Xelloss's stage props with a tiny fireball. "So what do you say, Naga?"

     "Don't be a wuss, mom!" Gabby interjected.

     Naga snapped. "Gabby! What did I tell you about insulting people?!"

     "...I'm sorry, mum," Gabby said, meekly. "I meant, 'Don't be a yellow bellied sand crawling cowardly little dog unworthy of licking the dirt off my knee high leather boots, you sad little spineless being.'"

     "That's better!" Naga approved, wholeheartedly. She stood, rising to her feet, adding a bit of Looming to the equation for good measure as she placed one self-assured hand on her hip. "Always assert your superiority in creative ways! That is what the royal family of Sailoon is about; never surrendering our inferior enemies! Amelia has faltered, and I, Gra-- Naga must save the tradition. Yes, Lina, I will take you up on this offer. I will link my dreamwalking spell to you and your friend here whose hair is on fire, and tonight, we will CRUSH the Sairaag nightmare-machines like so many insignificant little ants!!! OOOOOHOHOHOHOHHOOHOOO!!"

     Gabby got to her feet, striking an identical pose, laughing into the back of her hand. "OOOOHOOHOHHOOHHOOHOOO!! Nobody defeats the White Serpent Clan of Sailoon!"

     "oohohoohoohoho," a little voice gurgled from the crib.

     OOMPH, went Lina's face on the floor.

     "Oh my," Xelloss added.

     The Instrument, as Lord Noisemaker had dubbed it, was some bizarre combination of mechanically rotated lenses, a small steam driven engine and luminescent gas lamp for lighting (with a magical fuel source to provide the heat) and a series of browned filters designed to produce coffee on the fly.

     "Alchemy's sort of a twenty four hour a day thing," the young assistant was explaining to Penny, while the master did his work. He drew two more cards from the deck. "Call."

     "Four of a kind," Penny announced, spreading her hand.

     "Damn. Anyway, we've been at this just for a few days... basically since we left Darata. Master says the contract is good exposition."

     Bonk. "EXPOSURE, you nitwit! Get the big words right."

     "Does him hitting you like that really help you become more enlightened?" Penny asked, curious.

     The young sir rubbed his sore head. "No--" Bonk. "Yes. Yes, it does, I mean. Anyway, Lord Noisemaker here is trying to promote the idea of thaumatological science, a sort of 'scientific study of magic', and if we can get this contract money it'll help spread. Right, master?"

     "For once in your miserable life... yes," the master replied, eyes not leaving the scopes of his Instrument. He rotated a few more lenses in and sipped his coffee. "If it weren't for the mechanical purists of Sairaag or some of the magical purists in Zeifelia, we'd be making better progress. understand, young lady, what with the fees and expenses involved in this chemical analysis, I'm afraid we can't impart any of our contract money to you as a reward--"

     "We're not in it for the money," Penny explained, smiling. "We just want to see justice done and stuff."

     "I'm not finding anything unusual about this fragment, child," the Master said, frowning. "This could have been from a hand-held bomb, or it could have been from the cannons. The metal grade is the same cheap material Sairaag usually employs for munitions. Bah! Pure burning powder will never defeat the enemy the same way as a black magic-charged nitrous compound--"

     "Shouldn't we be applying our science to peacetime efforts, Master? You're always raving about deathtrap this and explosive that and--"


     This time, the student ducked and the Staff of Enlightenment missed him completely. It went WHOOSH right over his head, before striking against the floor stones with a satisfying clacking sound.

     And a HUGE GRIN burst out across Lord Noisemaker's face.

     "Lad... you are now officially enlightened!" he said. "Oh, how I've waited for this day! Whole bloody point of the Staff of Enlightenment is to figure out that the SMART thing to do is not to get hit by it! I always knew you were slow, but you'd catch on eventually. Perhaps NOW you're worthy of the higher learnings!"

     "..." was the boy's reply. His face lit up like the halogen bulb in the Instrument. "Golly!"

     Penny made a mental note to just teach HERSELF thaumatological science one day and continued. "Maybe you can't tell from the type of metal, but are there any residues? Anything trace? Fingerprints, or something...?"

     "There's an unusually high level of calcium," Lord Noisemaker explained, ignoring his radiantly gleeful subordinate for now. "I'll admit, that's a little odd, but I figured it for a chemical transformation after the fact. ...although there's also some specks of flour burned into the metal itself. And bread crumbs."

     "...didn't you just say you didn't find anything unusual?" Penny asked, incredulous.

     "Ah... well, I was eating breakfast near the Instrument this morning," Lord Noisemaker admitted. "That might've tainted the sample. But I don't recall having toast, or any bread for that matter... I'm a backbacon man, myself. Science takes a hearty load of protein to work properly, you know."

     "Sunny side up, please," the pupil warbled, still a bit dazed with glee.

     Penny snatched the bomb fragment out of the Instrument's tray, and stuffed it back in the bag. "I think I have it," she said. "But I need to do a little more investigation. Sir, I'll let you know when I've got definitive proof... or if my hunch is right, a suspect! Thanks for all your help!"

     "A suspect? But we've hardly discovered anything!"

     "I know enough now," Penny said, smiling. "More than enough."

     Amelia huddled in the corner of the room. Her bed was pushed up against the wall, away from the light of the setting sun, but she didn't lie down; she didn't want to lie down, she didn't want to risk falling asleep. The nightmares were bad enough, even after fainting from the shock of Zelgadis's announcement... no more. She couldn't face them again.

     She was kept in a private room, on a guarded private ward... a holdover from the days when the throne was routinely tested by the sword. But nobody was bothering to worry about her. They were too worried about the dawn, about what it might bring. Amelia knew what it would bring -- surrender.

     The Council would surrender. It listened to the people, and the people had long since lost any idealism they had about Sailoon... just as she had. But it still hurt. Her home, her birthplace, the nation once so proud would be no more than a Sairaag puppet tomorrow. Assuming she wasn't put to death to 'make way for the new age'...

     Zelgadis walked into the room, seemingly stepping out of thin shadow.

     She immediately screamed for help, the surprise and shock making her fear snap into full blown terror.

     "Please, Amelia, you don't have to yell," Zelgadis spoke, putting his hands in the pockets of his military issue uniform. "It won't do any good, anyway. We've silenced the room."

     The young queen pressed herself deeper into the corner of the room, sweat running down her neck. She couldn't FEEL any shielding magics against sound. "S-Silenced? But that's impossible!"

     "I think you'll find -- as I have -- that technology makes the impossible possible. It's a miracle, a man-made miracle. But don't be afraid. I simply want to talk," Zelgadis said. "Besides, I'm not really here. This is a projection of light, being shot through your window. The technology for communication Sairaag has developed is quite revolutionary. If you don't believe me..."

     Zelgadis two a few steps forward, and waved his arm... through a nearby chair. The image blurred and shadowed out when it reached an area blocked from the setting sunlight.

     Being addressed by a specter was no less frightening. "What did you w- want to talk about?"

     "About us, of course," Zelgadis said softly. "We know each other, Amelia. It has been some time, but I'm still the same man you knew. I stand for what's right and just, and I don't wish to harm you or anyone in this city. But I'm also a man of duty, as you know. I came to plead with you, actually. To plead with you for your life."

     "..." Amelia said, softening slightly. The exhaustion was setting in, now that the initial adrenaline rush had left. " life?"

     "Your Council has already approached us for surrender," Zelgadis said. "I finished coming to terms with them not ten minutes ago. Your people are ready to end this pointless siege, and enter the world civilization. But you still have some small measure of final say in such circumstances, it seems. Until you sign the papers, we can't make it official. I know you treasure your country... and it's a wonderful country, I agree. But you have to listen to REASON, Amelia. This is the only way to ensure Sailoon continues to exist and thrive in the new age of man."

     Amelia fell silent. She knew it was an eventuality. She knew she'd sign it, no matter how many tears she had to choke back. But SAYING the words, saying them even to an old friend... the tone of voice, the soothing one he used when he occasionally let slip how he really felt...

     "We've got some final changes to make to the papers," Zelgadis explained. "They will be ready at dawn for your signature. I want you by my side, Amelia. By the side of Sairaag. It's for the best. There may need to be some small changes in how Sailoon works, to integrate better into the future of society, but you don't have to worry about that. Let your Council worry for you. That's why you set it up, didn't you? To take the pressure off your throne?"

     "'s for the people," Amelia squeaked, a company line.

     "Yes, for them, too. But I understand perfectly. I know about what happened to you, the day before you signed the Council's existence into law. It will never happen again. Sairaag will be your ally, and you'll wear the finest regal wear, and be able to support your people as a figurehead and never need to lose your smile again. Trust me. I know what's best for you. You do trust me, don't you? I'm your 'Zelgadis-sama', after all..."

     She didn't nod. She wanted to, to agree and sigh in relief and go to sleep, to know it'd all be better and she wasn't in danger, and she wouldn't have to make mistakes and wouldn't have to be hurt but...

     Something stopped her. It rose to her lips unbidden.

     "...I love my home," she said. "I don't want to lose it..."

     "It's time you grew up, Amelia," Zelgadis said, his voice tone dropping into a more hostile area. "Everybody leaves home eventually. You'd better decide what means more to you; your life and the lives of everybody you know or some sort of archaic patriotic pride that YOUR regime has all but destroyed in your country. I will see you at dawn. I trust you to do what's right. If not... you know I am a man of duty. I will carry my duty out to the fullest."

     The image faded. And so did the tiny flicker of a flame that had started to grow in Amelia's heart. She tucked her head between her knees, and rocked slowly, waiting for this nightmare to be over. Waiting to sleep forever...

     All things considered, it had been going quite well.

     Naga had agreed to help, which is what Lina came here for in the first place. They'd go into dreams, knock out whatever was causing the nightmares that were destabilizing the circle-support mages, and then give Sairaag the 'ol one finger salute for a job well done!

     Lina had rolled on a wave all the way to this, a guest bedroom at Black Widow's Peak. A wave of acting without thinking too hard about it. She knew that's how she worked best... but now there was no acting to be done, in the hours before the attack. Just time to rest, get prepared mentally, and go to sleep to face the battle.

     And she couldn't sleep. She knew the deadline, nine o'clock, was when Naga would start off with or without her. She knew she wasn't human and could do anything she wanted, and could sleep on and off like a light switch. And she still couldn't sleep.

     Lina rolled over in bed, hoping that maybe her left side would work better than her right, and came face to face with the smiling Mazoku under her covers.

     "Hello, dear!" Xelloss chimed before Lina punched him in the eye and punted him into a wall.

     "Get out of my bed, you freak!!" Lina shouted, a little vein bulging in her forehead.

     "...I was just wondering where you were," Xelloss said, upside down and slowly peeling off the wall. He flopped to the floor, rolled, and got right back to his feet. Smiling all the way. "Naga's asleep. She asked me to get you. Do you want a glass of warm milk? Shall I sing you a lullaby?"

     "Oh, good, a Mazoku lullaby," Lina grumbled. "Probably involves disembowlments and decapitations and defenstrations..."

     "You know it already?" Xelloss asked, impressed.

     "I'll be asleep in a minute, okay? It's not like I can switch off like one of those gas-lights," Lina said, pointing to the fancy Sairaag-designed table lamp. "I'll join you when I'm good and ready!"

     The Mazoku scratched his chin, pouting a little as he thought it over... then snapped his fingers. "Of course! How could I be so blind? I must be losing it in my old age. You're scared, aren't you?"


     "I can smell it," Xelloss said, smiling wider. "Mazoku are just sort of in tune with this sort of thing. You've still got doubts. Whenever you're alone, and not leading the wacky, eclectic group of adventurers onward towards victory, the doubt creeps in. Are you doing well enough? Are you true to yourself? Are you even sure of who 'yourself' is? Or are you just walking a path directly towards destruction--"

     Lina chucked the lamp at Xelloss. He ducked it, not wanting to pry glass out of his face.

     "I am not 'scared', thank you very much!!" Lina protested.

     "It's no use lying, Lina. I know. But it's okay! If there's any one human emotion I understand, it's fear," he said, less jovially mocking and more serious. "Allow me to explain. Fear has many interpretations, but I've developed my own -- which, of course, is absolutely correct in all respects. Follow the steps. Shaburanigdo is a Demiurge, yes? And we Mazoku feed on negative emotions. Fear. Anger. Despair. We feed on faith from you humans."

     "I've never worshipped Shaburanigdo," Lina said, coldly.

     "Ah, but you have. Every dark thought you have. Every doubt, every uncertainty, every fantasy about how things can go wrong... that's faith, Lina. Faith in your worst nightmares coming to life. Faith that nothing will be good and everything right will be wrong again. That faith powers us. Right now, I feel a small trickle from you, and I'll admit that it satisfies me on some small level. Are you still going to deny it now, Lina Inverse?"

     Lina dryswallowed. She wanted to smack the guy around, beat him up, maybe blow him up... but it was unnerving. He read her like a book. To show that vulnerability to him was UNTHINKABLE... but right now...

     "...okay, maybe I am," Lina said. "Fine. And yes, I don't want to go to sleep. Not after the wham-bang of a nightmare I had recently. So what's your proposal, Mister Evil Genius? You got an actual plan here or did you just come to talk smack and make fun of me? Because if you DID, I'm gonna--"

     "Please, please, let's be nice-nice with each other," Xelloss begged. "I'm in NO shape to go toe to toe with you right now. I am here to HELP you, Lina. Do you want to know the trick for going to sleep? For 'overcoming' your fear?"

     "If it's the last thing you say before you walk out that door, sure."

     "It's quite simple," Xelloss said. "Essentially... don't bother trying to defeat your fear. Oh, sure, it's all sweet and wonderful in the storybooks when the hero overcomes that stumbling block right when he needs to and walks off into the sunset fearless and proud, but that's not reality. In reality, it's never that convenient, and fear takes a LONG time to fully purge from your system."

     "That doesn't sound like a solution, Xelloss."

     "Ah, but you misunderstand! If you cannot simply destroy your fear right now and go to sleep, what you need to do in the meantime... is act anyway. Act despite fear. Be afraid, be very afraid, but never let fear stop you cold. Humans live in linear time; they don't see the future, but they run at full speed into it anyway, despite fear of the unknown. THAT is how you deal with fear. So go to sleep, even if you have a nightmare, and let's finish this side quest. Mmm?"

     Lina perked an eyebrow. "'Act despite fear'? That's it?"

     "The results speak for themselves," Xelloss said, with a wry grin (but which grins of his weren't wry?). "Just go to sleep. Straightforward, simple, effective. Right now. Just go to sleep right now. You're a Demiurge, you CAN turn it off like a gas light. I know more about Demiurges... and you... than you'd ever imagine."

     "...such as?"

     "Ah! That is a--"

     Lina went to sleep so she wouldn't have to hear the rest of that.


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