Nobody slept at the small Sairaag camp, after the sun had set. They weren't afraid; they were just on orders not to, in case anything came up. But it was dead boring, and Roy had blown through three cups of coffee already just trying to stay awake.
Why was he here? These soldiers didn't need a leader, and he was no army commander. They went about their business with or without him. Elizabeth (whose grave Roy would spit on if she were dead and not family) had to be punishing him... blackmailing him into menial labor, forcing him to heel to her. That was always the way; if you weren't with her, you were gonna be with her eventually. This was how she showed people that. No surprise she was hell bent on world domination, it was the only viable occupation for a person like that.
He'd sat by like a good little soldier while Zelgadis negotiated with the two Council members who left the protection of the circles. He'd listened to their heated discussions... how they caved to every one of Zelgadis's demands, whenever a little sweetener was tossed into the mix. Some extra funds for the Sailoon government there, a tax hike here, a mansion on the Sairaag coast there... and the deal was done. Now they just had to wait until dawn for final approval from Elizabeth.
Zelgadis sat on the grass, sharpening/loading his gunblade, and watching the city. Almost thoughtful. Damned if HE should be allowed to be thoughtful and moody in silence while Roy was freaking bored, so Roy Balderdash interrupted the silence.
"Think sister 'o mine will approve?" he asked.
"The terms are agreeable," Zelgadis said, dragging the stone across his blade's edge. "We honestly weren't expecting such an easy takeover to get what we want. I was counting on Amelia being as clueless and thickheaded as ever. She was always the dense one, when we traveled... steadfast in her resolve, but to the point of stubbornness. But she buckled like a belt, and now it is over."
"Beats trashing the city," Roy said, with some small relief. "Land is no good for Sairaag to resettle when it's got huge glowing craters all over the place."
"We're not resettling," Zelgadis said. "We have no interest in Sailoon, truthfully. Perhaps we can find a use for it now that it has been so easily delivered into our hands, but the only goal was to get inside the circles, and take the prize."
"...you were gonna kidnap the Queen?"
"No, you idiot," Zelgadis barked. "You bandits always think in small terms. Money or ransom to lead to money. Getting fat and rich and stupid on your tiny conquests when you can't possibly fathom the greater prizes--"
"Get to the point, Zel."
Zelgadis glared at him. "I am your superior officer. Do not take that tone of voice with me."
"What're you gonna do, fire me?" Roy asked, grinning. "Go ahead. Do me the favor."
"...if you MUST know," Zelgadis continued, quite irritated, "We want the Demiurge. It rests, hidden, inside a statue of Ceipheed in the center of the city. We can't simply stick a disk on the wall and get a drain; it has to be at the core. Once the city is weakened, it will be ours."
"Oh, one of those things again," Roy said. He never understood this weird mythological fixation of theirs, but it wasn't his place to understand. "At least we can take it and go without wiping the place off the face of the world. Bloody hell, you should have just asked to enter or snuck in as a merchant and taken it! Beats squatting around here all day next to these blasted guns with nothing to do."
Idiot. If we did that, Zelgadis thought silently, then we wouldn't achieve the other, lesser goal... and that was to eradicate a backwards nation that would eventually try to rise against Sairaag, no matter how demoralized they were now. History had shown that Sailoon's bloodline ran unusually strong, and had to be cut off to truly kill the threat they posed. Specifically, cut off at the neck.
But no need to tell Roy Balderdash that. He was just a grunt. Zelgadis dragged the stone over his blade slowly, again and again, waiting for the sun.
"Here's to our new allies, Sairaag!! May they live forever, with the RIGHT thinking sorts from Sailoon as their proud and noble companions!" the master belted out, already having a drink or two in him. (Fortunately, he was in the kitchen, and the customers couldn't see him getting tipsy.) He raised his wine glass in toast with his fellow workers, and downed it.
The day couldn't have gone better. The bombs were so easy to get into the palace that he almost felt ashamed of his country -- and in fact did feel quite ashamed that they hadn't given up this ridiculous siege and joined under the Sairaag banner sooner. Soon, he'd move his place of business to the glorious capital of technology... steam pressure cookers... automatic coffee machines... powered bread slicers! He'd be living the EASY life!
"Master!" one of the waiters shouted, running into the kitchen.
"Yes, what is it, Harold?"
"It's Howard," the breathless waiter replied. "Ah... we have a customer who wishes to speak with you!"
"With me?" the head chef asked, curious. "Why is that? No doubt a fan of my fine work in the culinary arts. By all means, let them in, let them in! Welcome, welcome to the Golden Roast Side of Meat!"
"Thank you," the unassuming looking girl said, smiling. "I've heard a lot about your business. You're on contract with the royal palace, aren't you?"
"...yes, we are," the head chef said, puzzled as to the question. "Why, do you wish to contract us for a catering event? We may be changing locales soon, you see, and can't take up any new jobs--"
"Actually," Penny said, "I specifically heard that you provided the breakfast that Amelia served to her guests today. Your entire team brought it down on carts, right?"
"What are you getting at, young lady?"
Penny held up the bomb fragment. "It's simple. You hid bombs in the food. Then, after serving most of it, you dumped the carts at points in the empty, unguarded palace and left... since you had already gotten them past the front gate guards, being well known as caterers to the cash-strapped palace kitchen. I'll give you one chance to fess up."
The air in the room grew so tense that you could cut it with a knife. Fortunately, many knives were present, such as the one that had slipped into the master chef's hand.
"An interesting story," he said. "And entirely speculative, little girl. Let me add some to that. What if, hypothetically, a young little tart by the name of Lina happened to completely wipe me out recently, and being strapped for cash, I took a payment from Sairaag to handle the bombing that would make it look like they'd beaten the circles?"
"It'd make sense," Penny said, folding her hands behind her back, and rocking on her feet, quite happy. "That's the part I hadn't figured out yet. So, are you coming quietly or do I have to get rough?"
Snickers and chuckles rolled around the kitchen. The chef raised his knife. "And who are you, exactly, to get rough with a master of the Culinary Martial Arts Nine Blades Rolling Cucumber Technique?"
"I'm an adventuress, of course!" Penny said, smiling to him. "I seek fame and glory and adventure and stuff like that."
"And where is your sword, adventuress? Where is your armor? A sorceress's cloak, perhaps? I just see some foolish girl in a pretty skirt."
"I left that stuff behind. I didn't need it anymore," Penny said. "Not with an intellect as sharp as mine. And not with a nine foot tall walking demon god with teeth longer than that knife looming up directly behind you with intent of having a good meal at your restaurant."
"Oh, PLEASE," the chef laughed, turning to look into the eyes of a nine foot tall walking demon god with teeth longer than his knife looming up directly behind him with intent of having a good meal at his restaurant.
The customers in the main dining hall ran away after hearing what sounded like a herd of wild lions tearing the kitchen apart.
Lina knew she was dreaming. She KNEW she was dreaming. She fell asleep so she could dream, so she could go off on this.. particularly unusual sort of fight. But that didn't make it any more comfortable.
All around her, a thundering wave of her believers called out to her, asked her to do things, each pulling on her with a rope. She instinctively pulled back, not wanting to be yanked this way and that, but the harder she resisted the worse it got. Panic kept her rooted in one spot, fear of losing herself again, while pride and a sense of duty kept telling her: let go, let go, this is what you are... what you're feeling is just a fear of the unknown. You don't really understand yet. Let go, and you'll find out...
It's a strange feeling, to recognize something as blatantly digging on your fears, and still fear it. In a dreamlike state, despite all your best intentions, the simple is the horrible and the obvious is the unnerving--
The dream split into two, sliding apart before shattering like a funhouse mirror.
"If you're QUITE done, we have to be getting on," Naga warned, temporarily flashing to the White Serpent avatar she wore from the last encounter Lina had with her here. "I'll have to feed Helga in a few hours, and I'd like to be home before she gets too upset. Let's begin. Unless you'd like to stay behind? You and your little purple haired friend are not familiar with dreamwalking, whereas I've had years of experience practicing the magic."
"Oh, I've done a little dabbling," Xelloss probably understated. "Don't you worry about me, miss."
"...I'm coming," Lina said. "You might need backup. Otherwise, you'd have taken this thing out already, wouldn't you?"
"HAH! The great Naga the White Serpent requires no backup. ...but generally, I have found the source of the waves to be unapproachable, yes," she admitted. "But before we continue, I must teach you the basics. Everything has meaning and nothing is real. Once you accept that, no matter how strong a fear reaction you experience, you can still fight. You must cut through the dream with a firm belief that what you see is not what exists."
"...act despite fear, then?" Lina summarized, finding the resonance strange, as she glanced at Xelloss. "And fight with the truth?"
"Essentially," Naga agreed. "But there's a lot more subtlety, technique, and training you lack. Let me lead the charge; clean up anything I miss, and if you spot something ahead, tell me. We're going to be plowing through Sailoon, along the shield wall, towards the source that is using the circles to resonate nightmares. It will get worse and worse as we continue inward, so stay back if you lose your resolve. Understood?"
"Let's kick some," Lina said, smacking a fist in her palm. "No stupid little spookshow is gonna knock Lina Inverse out of whack. Bring it on."
Xelloss remained amused. But that was normal.
The situation couldn't be better! Zoamel had... 'encouraged' a confession out of the chef responsible for the bombing. Of course, that meant nothing if they couldn't put it to good use... and Penny knew exactly how to do that.
If the Council was dead set on surrender and likely to debate for hours before agreeing to change that, then there was only one person who could carry this revelation to the people. Assuming Penny could convince her to do it. It FELT dramatically right, like the sort of thing an Inverse would set up, but--
But the sound of shattering glass from Amelia's room wasn't encouraging. Penny picked up the pace, shoving by the guards posted at her door (who knew her, and allowed it), to enter the darkened hospital room...
Light glinted off the broken mirror shard Amelia held up, as she whirled to face Penny. A tiny dot of red appeared on her neck, as she accidentally scratched herself in the process.
"St-stay back!!" she shouted. "Don't think I won't use this!"
Penny stood her ground, but put up her arms defensively -- a peace gesture. "Amelia... put it down, okay? Please? You don't have to do this!"
"I have to!" she said. "It doesn't matter! Don't you see? We lost! The city is dead! I'm dead! Nobody cares anymore and nobody ever cared, and.. and I can't face that! No more nightmares, no more failures, no more disasters... they don't need me. I set it up so they don't need me; they have a democracy now and I'm out of the loop. So it won't matter if I do this!"
"Your father cared," Penny said, risking the reminder. She didn't want to unsettle Amelia, but if she didn't talk her down fast...
It worked. The hand holding the shard shook a little. "...he cared.. and he was a fool! He was killed because he cared! Don't you get it? ...years ago... I took the throne. I thought I could carry on in his name, do him proud. I announced to the people that this would be the era of justice and fairness, and Sailoon would embark on a new golden age, and, and ... nobody cared! There were cheers, empty cheers and everybody left without having actually LISTENED to me! Father just didn't realize how little the people cared about his ideals... I failed. I failed my people."
"Is.. that why you made the Council?" Penny asked, keeping her talking.
Amelia slumped backwards, sitting on the edge of her bed, the weapon nearly forgotten. "No. No... that was when... when I realized what the throne was. It was a prize, nothing more. ...it's a long story..."
"I think we have time," Penny said, carefully walking over and sitting next to her. She slipped the glass shard from Amelia's unresisting hand. "And I want to know. It's important, Amelia-san."
The queen let a ragged exhale out. "Very well. One day, I was travelling with the white mages to review prospective candidates for entrance into the guild. While on horseback, travelling the roads... I was shot in the chest with an arrow, and killed. Just like that; the whole thing took seconds. But one of my companions was strong enough to cast Resurrect, and heal me... heal me so I could hold a trial and bring the would-be assassin to justice. I still believed in justice, until then."
"What changed your mind?"
Amelia looked Penny, square in the eyes. "...I put a man to death because he shot an arrow at me. The assassin was a paid professional. But even though I knew WHICH Duke was responsible for it, one who was trying to climb his way up to my throne on top of bodies, I could never PROVE it was him. I can't condemn a man in the spirit of justice without proof... but the wrong man went to the gallows, in the end. He may have pulled the trigger, which was enough for the written law, but he wasn't the evildoer. Evil got away with it. After that... I understood how unfair and unjust the throne was. It only led to chaos and bloodshed, so... I signed the Council into being shortly after. To take the focus away from it, and away from me, and how I failed, to give the people something they NEEDED..."
"...and it didn't work," Penny filled in. "Because, and I doubt I'm off the mark here, the Council is just as filled with political infighting and indecision, and nothing actually gets done. It just fails to get done with less violence than before."
The queen nodded, mutely. It pained her even to acknowledge it.
"Okay... you've told your story," Penny said. "Now I want to tell you one of mine. Is that fine?"
Amelia seemed confused, but nodded slowly. "...I suppose."
"Ever since I was young, I wanted to be an adventuress," Penny started. "Just like my mother was, before my mother got boring. Sword, cape, dashing heroics, lots of money, the whole thing. I patterned everything I did after that idea I had, of the bandit-stomping power that was Lina Inverse. My boyfriend mocked me, the local thugs always beat me, but I kept going despite all signs saying I was doing it the wrong way... and I didn't realize how completely wrong that way was."
Penny smiled weakly. "It wasn't until I met the REAL Lina Inverse, the one from my fantasies, that I figured it out. I wasn't like her. She's a lot more cynical, and a lot crazier, and larger than life than I ever could be or want to be. I admired her, and I still do. I have so much faith in her... but *I* can't BE her! Everything she did overshadowed me; every plan I took part in was hers, and I was always the wanna-be copy of her. Sure, I was adventuring, but only by shuffling from problem to problem under her guidance. I didn't know how to do anything by myself and do it well. It's a lot like your problem... your dream proved to be less than pleasant when it was reality, and you were afraid of failure... I was afraid I had failed. That I picked the wrong goals in life, that my boyfriend and others were right and my life was over... you got killed, and it cemented your view that it was hopeless... but I got kidnapped and it cemented my view that there was hope."
"I escaped," Penny quickly said. "And I escaped on my OWN. I put together a plan, I commanded the troops, I got it done. I could have waited for Lina to rescue me, and she probably would have, but I'd forever be in Lina's shadow if I did that... just like you're in the shadow of Sailoon's problems. Amelia... if you want to just sit by and let things go out of control, I won't stop you. But if you want to take hold of this country, and right those wrongs you've seen and done... I think I can help."
Amelia seemed skeptical... she still clung to despair like a starving man in the desert. "...it's beyond help. The people have no faith in me or their city. Sairaag's cannons just... sealed the coffin that had been built for so--"
"They didn't actually breach the circles."
"Get ready for this," Penny said, bracing her. "It was all a trick. A local chef delivered bombs to the castle with your breakfast, and they went off while Sairaag fired blanks. It LOOKED like they broke the circles, but they never did. They're just as locked out now as they were yesterday. It's a scam, Amelia! And my friend Zoamel HAS the proof you want, the proof you need to see justice be done! The Council won't act on this... but YOU can."
A tiny flicker sparked in Amelia's eyes. "...a scam?" she repeated, as it slowly sunk in. "Sairaag deceived us...?"
"All to demoralize your city. To seal the coffin, as you said. If you go public with--"
"It I tell my people what happened, they'll know they've been tricked," Amelia said, not needing to be fed the lines anymore. "They'll demand justice. They'll realize Sailoon is STILL strong, and we can still hold our own against our enemies! ...but will they rally behind me? I'm... I'm only a figurehead. A failure..."
"It's time to turn the city around," Penny said, standing. "If it's Sailoon's darkest hour, maybe it can build back up from this low. But you won't know until you try. We'll go to the belltower at the north end of the palace, and bring a megaphone. State of the city address. Are you willing, Queen Amelia? I can try to do it myself, if you're still afraid, but I think it'd be better coming from you..."
Amelia stood up.
"I'm afraid, but I must do this," she said. "It's the only chance I have left. The only chance Sailoon has. Let's go."
"You remember that time when we were captured by those trolls and stuffed into a cookpot with six week old cheese, various nine week old rat corpses, and parsley?"
"I had successfully forgotten that, Lina. Thank you SO much. Why do you bring it up?"
"...because THIS IS WORSE!" Lina shouted, hanging upside down over a pit of scorpions the size of rotweilers on anabolic steroids. She jerked to the left, shaking one off her dangling cape. "Haven't you found the lever or the switch or the whatever yet?!"
"That's LEVERAGE! And I'm looking right now," Naga said, concentrating. "Every nightmare has a certain breaking point. You just have to find it and apply pressure of will... the more obvious ones are easier to shatter--"
"These scorpions are starting to tickle inside my pants," Xelloss groaned from the bottom of the pit. "Can we please move on?"
"Almost... THERE!" Naga shouted. She pulled free of the chains designed to hold a stampeding elephant, and flicked her arm in a single glowing arc; the nightmare shattered, split at its weakest point, and fell away into the dreaming void.
Xelloss fished a stray scorpion out of his underwear and tossed it away. It faded to nothingness. "At least few people are asleep in Sailoon. It's been a cakewalk so far. Except for that time Lina imagined a huge cream- filled pastry trying to kill us..."
"Hey, can I help it if I have stray thoughts?" Lina asked. "I'm new at this. And NO, I'm not going to wake up! Let's just get on with it. Where to now?"
Naga felt around in the non-air before her. "The trail is getting colder. I had always suspected there was some masking to the machine generating the nightmares... the closer you get, the harder it is to find. This could take awhile."
"We will finish before daybreak, right?" Lina asked.
"That depends, Lina! This is not easy work. It might take a few nights of travel to finally pinpoint the source--"
"We don't have that long," Lina said. "No... I don't know how I know, I just do, and I'm not going to question that. We've got to get this done TONIGHT. Let me help. How do you look for this thing?"
Naga formed a complicated chalk drawing with the flick of her mind. "First, you parse the pulses of fear in the back of your mind and count the number of seconds between waves. Then you move to three random points and take new samples of the--"
"Never mind," Lina said. She focused her mind... and for someone unused to really focusing on much of anything except whatever's trying to kill you with a sharp object or how to maximize your dinner potential, that was no small feat.
Didn't help, either.
So, she thought about something else. She thought about that nightmare she'd hit when she got here, with all her believers. How she felt so connected to them, exhilarating and terrifying at the same time. She was trying to cut those bonds, wasn't she? But there was a flip side to that coin, something intriguing that she didn't think was frightening at all, and before she could see it Naga had...
Just like the time she tried to feel for Ace Champion's connections, wandering her mind around had gotten here just where she needed to be. There was a tug... there was a link to the free-floating dreams all around them, in Sailoon, and it came from a VERY definite direction. No triangulation needed. She could say where it was just as sure as one could say the moon was in the sky...
"This way," Lina said, with a nod of her head. "And please, just don't ask why. It's this way. But you're right; the waves are getting stronger closer to it, and likely harder to break. Try to keep your minds blank so we can avoid any more encounters. Thought is REAL here if you make it real, right, Naga?"
A glossy magazine unfolded in the air, with a full centerfold nudie spread of Lina wearing bunny ears and a tail.
"Sorry, my bad," Xelloss admitted, waving it away with a thought before Lina slugged him.
Lina wasn't the only Inverse applying lessons learned from Ace Champion's little run-in. Elsewhere, in the waking world, Penny was juggling her first stint as a media producer and spectacle promoter, in a public event that would make the Mooki-Pokko spotlight hogger proud.
They're gotten all of Sailoon's attention easily; a few white mages to kick up some light spells, pointing an arrow to the tower, did that. A large crowd, most of the sleepless population of the city had formed. The bell chimed, and everything was ready to go. Lord Noisemaker was ready with a few colorful bar charts he'd prepared about the bomb fragment's makeup to convince the Council he was spending their money well. Zoamel had their confessed suspect by the jugular (literally), the megaphone had been prepared, and now it was time for Amelia to blow the doors off this scandal in front of the teeming masses...
And Amelia had stage fright.
"I can't do it," she said. "I thought I could but I can't. I'm afraid. I'll admit it. I'm scared to death. They won't accept me. Not after all I've done to them. They won't believe it, and it won't work, and--"
"Amelia?" Penny interrupted. "Listen, I'm sympathetic, and I want to help you work this all out, but we really don't have time for another inspirational speech here. I'm sorry. It has to be NOW, before people leave. You've even got the Council down there ready to listen -- bunch of guys in brown robes and wigs, right?"
"...they're here?" Amelia asked, surprised. "But.. they almost never leave the Council mansion, except when campaigning..."
Penny leaned over the ledge, to verify. "Yep, they're here. I know you're afraid... but just do what comes naturally. Like you would have done years ago, or like you remember your dad. Okay? And TRUST that it'll work."
"Like father..." Amelia repeated. She drew in a deep breath. "I'm not sure they paid attention to father, Penny. He was loved by the people, but respected as a leader... no. I'll do it how I'll do it. That will have to be enough."
She curled her fingers around the megaphone handle, and began.
The queen may have started her speech shaky, almost begging for attention, but when she found she DID have their attention, the rest was almost a matter of routine. Almost.
Amelia explained the deception, but not the way Penny did -- she enriched it with emotion. Her fear, her loathing of the Sairaag army worked into her words, into the way she SAID the words... by the time Zoamel had prodded the master chef up to the ledge to say his piece, passing off to Noisemaker's brief presentation, the crowd was sold. Completely sold.
Except for a few.
Someone had slipped a mechanical voice amplifier (likely donated by Sairaag) to the Head of the Council, an old man with a graying beard. "This is preposterous!" he declared. "I tell you, I have been to the camp of the Sairaag party, and I have seen their weapons. They breached our circle! Your highness, I mean no disrespect to the throne, but how do we know you didn't just hire an actor to play your saboteur, and convince the alchemist to doctor evidence so he would be paid his over inflated grant?!"
"The nerve!" Lord Noisemaker bellowed. "By the honor of my chosen profession, I ought to take this Staff of Enlightenment and shove it up that loudmouth's--"
"Head Councilman," Amelia said, quickly cutting off the alchemist. Penny could see her shaking, a subtle touch the crowd would miss, as her words came sure and clean despite the terror the confrontation prompted in her. "Perhaps you mean no disrespect to the throne, but you are giving it in large amounts."
"My queen, I hardly think--"
"Yes, that is true. Need I remind you MY signature must go on your presumed surrender papers? Listen to me... I know I have been reduced to a figurehead. I did this by my choice, and I thought I chose well... but all I did was take the possibility of having a strong leader and exchange it for an absolute of bureaucracy. There is less risk now, but that is because nothing can get done! Perhaps my reputation has fallen... but I am of Sailoon blood. My father dedicated his very life and death to this country, as his father before him and onward. I beseech the Council. Support me in this, and do not quibble in it. I want what is best for the country. For us to carry on the name Sailoon, and not the name Sairaag. That is ALL I want."
Steam practically rose from the Head Councilman's ears. "It seems disrespect goes around quite easily, MISS Amelia. People of Sailoon, listen to me! We CANNOT stand against Sairaag. We must adapt! You have seen the damage to the palace, how can you comprehend this ridiculous..."
A gas light went off in Penny's head, as the man ranted. She quickly slipped up next to Amelia, staying hidden by the ledge, and motioned for her. She whispered the plan... and the queen's eyes widened. This it was not a gesture of fear, simply surprise... she interrupted the politician once more.
"If this proof is not enough, I will give you more proof," the queen said. Then... she turned, to face the large cannon that was aimed directly at the building, from across the city. "ZELGADIS! I know you can hear me out there. You wouldn't be a good soldier not to monitor us in these last few hours. I tell you now, we WILL resist you! If you are a truly are a man of duty above being my friend... then fire your guns and destroy the tower I stand on!"
A wave of panic shot through the crowd. The Councilman tried to shout a protest, but his megaphone died out, the machinery blown from overuse. Frightened voices mixed together, blended as everybody waited...
Waited for nothing to happen.
"What's the problem, Zelgadis-san?" Amelia called. "Fire your guns! I'm saying we will resist you to the last. I won't run anymore! This is your only alternative. Or do you not want to show that you never really could penetrate the walls of this city?! I'm calling your bluff, on the behalf of Sailoon, and its millennia-long history of pride, and I will show you the error of your ways with the HAMMER OF JUSTICE!!"
The queen posed, one leg up on the ledge, one hand pointing to the cannon. Heroic. Defiant. Melodramatic. The crowd ate it up like taffy.
Fears turned to jeers, as they realized how embarrassing this had to be for Sairaag. More taunting came from the population, and laughs... some of it directed at the Council for being proven wrong in such a bold way. The day was won -- even if they were still under siege, faith in the city's strength had been renewed.
Belief flowed into the circles of Sailoon like a dammed river with the dam blasted to harmless pebbles. Zoamel breathed a sigh of relief, feeling that energy sweep from the crowd to the tiny Demiurge hiding in the statue of Ceipheed, and could faintly hear it's poorly worded thanks.
"It seems to be over," he said aloud. And immediately wished he hadn't.
"So much for that idea," Roy Balderdash said, with a shrug. "They wised up. Do we get to go home now, FINALLY, Commander Greyweirs?"
Zelgadis stood rock still. Which was very appropriate, considering he was covered in rock. Roy peered at the boy oddly. Did his brain snap? There was that shocked look on his face, like he never expected Sailoon to have half a brain and see through the ridiculous plan...
No, there was motion. A fist, slowly curling.
"...turn the machine up to five hundred percent strength," he spoke. "Once enough of them are destroyed, there will be nobody left to feed the circles, and they will collapse. Then, the Demiurge will be ours. Those are the orders Elizabeth gave to me in case something like this were to happen."
"What? Whoa, whoa!" Roy protested. "The dream machine? First of all, if your techie boys are right, it was never designed to go over two fifty. Second, if you do that, you'll probably burn out half the people in the city, awake or asleep! What's the point? They WON, you daft twit, they called our bluff! Bagging some mystical fairy is not worth geno--"
The former bandit king found himself pinned up against the huge power generator for the cannons, raised a full two feet into the air in a grip of stone. His breath started to stop.
"You DO NOT UNDERSTAND," Zelgadis hissed. "You never bothered to understand what this project means. Your sister gave you a chance to see and you've dug your heels in, refused to look into the light every time. This project is worth more than a thousand lives, more than a million! It will revolutionize the world, bring it under one banner, one church, with no more war, no more fear... it's also everything I've ever wanted and dreamed of through years and years of failure and despair, a price spent in family blood, and I WILL NOT LET IT GO. If I have to destroy Sailoon to get what I want, I will. If I have to kill Amelia, I will! All of you are obsolete, all of you have NO place my future!! BEGONE!"
Zelgadis hurled Roy Balderdash across the camp, into a stack of drinking water barrels. The bandit cracked his head on one, too dizzy to stand, to resist... but not too dizzy to watch the chimera scowl in absolute contempt for him. But Zelgadis wasn't the sort to stay mad and carry on the fight... not anymore. He had a job to do. So, he wiped all emotion from his face, walked calmly to the Nightmare Maker, and cranked the knob so hard into the red that it clacked against the stopper. Then the stopper broke in half.
"Goodbye, Ameila," he spoke. But it was hard to tell why he said it, and Roy couldn't focus his thoughts any more. He fell into blackness, with one final thought: a small, half-hearted prayer that Lina Inverse, if she really was mixed up in this mess, would save the day.
After all, just because he was a bandit didn't mean he was an idiot.
Lina Inverse felt a funny little twinge. Some sort of pull that--
Not that she could feel it after the WAVE hit. It blasted her a million miles away into her mind, into the darkest corners that she didn't even know existed, a thundering roar that she couldn't cover her ears to avoid, like an infinite number of mouths open to one combined scream...
Naga plowed through the holocaust, fighting it, swiping at every breaking point she could find. She yelled something at Lina, but Lina could barely understand until they were standing side by side.
"...wrong!" Naga shouted. "It's gotten more intense -- far more intense than it should. The machine must have been turned up, or something. We have to retreat!"
"Whoa, no, no way!" Lina shouted right back. "If anything, we'd better hurry up and whack this thing! We have to, I can feel it. Don't ask me how I know--"
"--you just know," Xelloss finished, appearing at their side. "Unfortunately, this does seem to be rather a lot of power, doesn't it? I'm afraid even an expert such as Naga will be unable to withstand another few minutes of this, and we won't be able to run away from it fast enough to survive. This seems to be the end. This is another fine mess you've gotten us into, Lina."
"Impossible!!" Naga growled, shattering every wave that approached. "Naga the White Serpent never admits defeat! If I go down, I will go down fighting!!"
But even Lina could see it wasn't going to work. Every wave that hit Naga got just a LITTLE closer, a little hairier. She was struggling to keep up, and once one of them got past her, they'd be lucky to remember who they were, lost in a maze of paralyzing fear, much less remember how to wake up from it...
"Such a shame, such a shame," Xelloss spoke, totally unafraid. "There's so much I wanted you to DO, Lina. So many plans I had for you. You don't know how unhappy this makes me, that my careful timing, my years of preparation are all going to naught. I suppose you'll never know your purpose now..."
Lina turned to face him. "What are you TALKING about?!"
"Ah," Xelloss said, with a smile. "That is a--"
Naga failed to break a wave.
The effects were less pronounced in the waking world, but still quite staggering.
All at once, a black aura started to spread over the dome that rose from the circles. It corrupted, it tarnished, it made the invisible walls visible in the ugliest possible way. The taunting and laughter in the crowd slipped right back to fear, as it slurped its way along their protection, the bubble wobbling under the pressure...
Zoamel could hear Sailoon's protectorate god wailing in agony, and came to the immediate conclusion. "Zelgadis is amplifying the nightmares," he said. "I am unaffected, but everybody in the city..."
Amelia held her head, staggering. She leaned hard against a wall, her breath coming in ragged bursts. "..hurts.." she groaned. "I'm.. I'm linked to the circles. It's awful! Screaming and screaming and..."
"In minutes, it's going to start reaching the rest of the population," Zoamel said quickly. "Something must be done. If Lina hadn't run off, I would-- wait. Was Lina successful? Did--"
Zoamel turned to the voice... the queen's eyes flew open, her mouth a frozen O of shock. "Gracia! I heard her scream... she's in there! Her, and Lina, and Xelloss! They're trying to fight it and they're failing...... Penny!"
"What? What, yes?" Penny babbled, spooked enough to lose her cool.
"I need you to knock me out!" Amelia said, bearing her jaw. "I have to go to sleep. I have... I have to face the dreams and help them. Oh, Ceipheed, I'm so scared, but... they need help, they need it and... hurry and do it before I lose my nerve!!"
"Uh.. uh..." Penny stammered, looking at her hand, unsure. "You want me to hit you? But, I mean, I couldn't--"
The queen fell like a puppet with cut strings.
"...a simple enough task," Zoamel said, lowering his hand. "Sleep enchantment. Of sorts. I hope it will be enough. Penny... if you want to leave here, to escape this, I can provide you with assistance..."
"No," Penny quickly said. "I said I'd support her and I meant it. I just..." A full-body tremble took her, her knees starting to go weak. "Oh, jeez... I can feel it. Just like she said. It's getting to me now too... Lina HAD to have succeeded. It's up to them now..."
While the god wasn't afraid, since he could feel nothing, he was perplexed. Perplexed, because he found himself holding the young girl, trying to comfort her. He didn't second guess the action, going with it. It felt... right. It felt perfect.
"Lina will succeed," Zoamel said, stroking Penny's hair, hoping it would soothe her through the next few minutes. "You must have faith. ...and failing that, I will do what I can. You will come to no harm, Penny. I swear it."
A million zealots swore to follow Lina to the ends of the world.
A million fanatics burned her at the stake, flames licking her cheeks, as she was called a freak and an abomination.
A million victims of violence looked up to the sky and wished upon her to justify what had happened to them, to have it make sense.
A million hearts opened to her in flaming fury, emotions sweeping like a tsunami, as she drank it in and grew powerful.
Over and over she felt she hated herself, she loved herself, she couldn't stand herself, she just wanted to accept herself, to be herself, to shine and be true but it was like a white-hot rod she feared to grasp, in case it burned her to ash--
A comet shot past Lina's shoulder, in between the waves. It was enough of an outside element for her to return to 'consciousness', for a moment. She focused. The dreaming. Who she was, where she was, what was going on... if she lost grip on it again, there was no guarantee she'd return.
It had the same effect on the others, with Naga and Xelloss temporarily coming to their senses. And what they saw...
A young girl, barely fourteen, in a pink and white adventuring costume. She wore bright blue talismans on each wrist, and had struck a dramatic pose.
"Sister! I have come to join you in battle!" Amelia declared. "Sailoon's darkest hour is on us. Join me, and we will show the Sairaag aggressors that our family will never fall!"
"...Amelia?" Naga asked, as her mind cleared. "How did you... Amelia, I can't... we can't fight it! I can't find the points anymore, there's just too much--"
"Don't fight it," Amelia said. "You can't conquer unlimited fear. But I understand what can be done. Night after night, I've experienced what this machine does, and it pushed me and pushed me... now I understand. Take my hand..."
The sisters joined hands, as the next wave came on, stronger than ever...
Xelloss dove in front of Lina, twirling his staff into a radiant black circle, extending into a cone shape. The wave sucked itself into the ultimate darkness of the Mazoku self, harmlessly passing Lina. But that didn't surprise Lina... what surprised her was that the wave did nothing to Amelia and Naga, either.
"...don't try to fight it," Amelia spoke. "Just let it go through you, acknowledge it. It's okay to be afraid if you don't let it stop you. Now, which way to the machine?"
"It's.. that way," Lina said, feeling for the invisible links that told her the way to go. "Sic 'em."
The two sisters blurred, punching forward, simply passing through each oncoming wave as if it never was there.
"It's funny, the synchronicity of enlightenment," Xelloss admitted. "But then again, I suppose all actions and reactions are interrelated like that..."
Lina put him in a chokehold submission grip. "WHY didn't you do something before if you could block the nightmares, you Mazoku bastard!?"
"..ghh..." Xelloss gagged. "...it would've been too easy that way?"
The frustrated god let go. "Fine! Whatever. C'mon, let's go help them--"
"Oh, we can't do that," Xelloss said. "It's not our fight, see. You got them this far, Lina. You got Naga into action, while your 'daughter' got Amelia going, and this is where the two meet and save the day. Bravo! Fine work all around. However, your part in the play is done now, so you may go backstage and wait for the finale."
"Nobody said life was anything but," Xelloss quipped. "Now stay put, please. Just because you're a heroine doesn't mean you're always the savior."
Lina stayed put. What else could she do? Xelloss was the only shield she had against the waves right now. But she didn't like it, not one bit. It didn't FEEL right for her to stay on the sideline, without contributing... no, she had contributed, but...
She looked on, into the distance. The machine was almost visible, a tiny cube of silvery metal against the field of black. It zigged, it zagged, it tried to evade -- Amelia and Naga were there, doing their best to destroy it.
Lina was fed up with pseudo psychological symbolic dream imagery. Why didn't the thing look like some funky machine with a crank and a dial and whirly bits that light up and so on? That's what it SHOULD look like. If she could look at it and see what it really was--
It saw her, and in absolute surprise, went deep into hiding again. Not that it did any good; far, far too late. Lina had seen what she wasn't supposed to see, what nobody was supposed to see.
It was like watching a fabulous stage play, with elaborate costuming and props and sets, where you were so into the drama that you didn't realize it was a drama... and then some idiot tosses the wrong lever and the curtain falls, and you can see the backstage area where people are eating doughnuts and reading the paper. You can see the stone wall and the unused sets and props and the stagehands and ALL the hard, unyielding reality behind the fantasy. You can see the soul behind the machine...
No wonder Lina was able to trace the connections so easily...
But before she could think any farther on that subject, the machine went 'boom', and it was all over.
The explosion ROCKED the Sairaag compound. The nightmare machine, already overloading, received a massive blast of psychic feedback and gave up the ghost. It exploded in a very aesthetically pleasing blue fireball... and, unfortunately, was large enough to engulf the power generator as well.
That went up in an explosion that made the first one look like a kid's firecracker. Boom. Boom. Dull concussions that shook the ground, that knocked Zelgadis flat on his back. The first cannon overloaded, the connections to the power plant proving to be a fatal lifeline -- and then the next gun, and the one after that, and the one after that... dominoes going down in a chain.
Two full minutes of blasts later, the landscape around Sailoon was a smoking wasteland, and Zelgadis's group was quite battered, but alive to see the aftermath.
Sailoon itself was quite fine and dandy. The circles had held true.
Not even Zelgadis could deny the facts of the situation. They were defenseless, the siege equipment was gone, and Sailoon would wise up to that fact in very short time.
With much disgust, he ordered the retreat. Elizabeth would not be happy, but there would be other gods to capture, other chances. The project would not halt, the future would be assured... and his cure would be found.
Using a portable portal generator, he and his crew dragged the unconscious Roy Balderdash with them across miles and miles, back to Sairaag. It was a physically impossible feat, of course, since you can't exactly go that far in an instant, but Zelgadis trusted his little gadget.
"HEY! Hands off the eggs, I already called dibs on them!"
"OOHOHOHHOO! Quite like your mother, it seems. I will not let my eggs go without a figh-- GABBY!!"
"What? You two were too busy fighting to eat them. And it's not like Helga would eat them, she doesn't got her teeth in yet."
"Although no doubt little Helga receives a bountiful meal from her mother's rather impressive teats whenever she desires!"
"What? It's true, isn't it? Ano, ano, put down the chair, ha ha, I was just jo-- ow."
"...tactless, as usual. But I have come to expect this from a Mazoku. Lina, are you sure you do not want any of this royal breakfast?"
Lina pushed her chair out. "I'm sorry... I'm not hungry," she apologized. With that excuse, she left the room, as silent as she had entered earlier in the morning.
Naga paused, ignoring the battered Mazoku whose neck she was squeezing the unlife out of. "...excuse me, but did I hear that accurately? Lina Inverse... has no appetite?"
"She technically doesn't have to eat, being a god. Still, I have yet to see her turn down free food," Zoamel said. "Something is amiss. I will go talk to--"
"I'm coming too," Penny said, sliding her chair out as well.
Lina stood on the royal balcony, overlooking the city. It was a day of celebration, after all -- the first day they could safely lower the shields, the first time in a long time that it was okay to be proud of Sailoon... merchants were selling things at half price, the scents of dozens of fine foods wafted up from the streets, and laughter and song were found a plenty.
Not that she felt like shopping or eating, despite the temptation. None of them knew. None of them knew what she knew...
"Okay, spill it."
She didn't turn. "Hey, Penny, Zoey. What's up?"
"Don't play coy, we know something's wrong," Penny said. "So you might as well tell us, otherwise, we'll have to dog you about it from here to Bimini Island and back--"
"It's okay, I was planning to tell you two," Lina said, almost thoughtful. "It affects all of us. It's about our enemy, after all."
"It seems we dealt the enemy a rather humiliating defeat," Zoamel spoke. "I'm quite pleased with the outcome of this simple 'side quest'. Vengeance has--"
"Not been served," Lina said, turning to face them. She leaned against the railing, for support. "Because the real enemy's still out there. I saw it, guys. When in the dream, I was able to track that thing, and I tracked it by lines... connection lines, like I used to spot Ace Champion's followers."
"...I don't quite follow," Zoamel admitted.
"Think about it. Sairaag's growth is phenomenal! They've got air travel, train travel, mass communication media, all sorts of wondrous and miraculous devices and gadgets and widgets. Penny... I've told you a couple times how much I doubt all this stuff, right?"
"But Lina, it EXISTS. What's to doubt?"
"I doubt how it exists," Lina said. "It's too convenient. Too easily won. No human scientist could make those incredible leaps of development this soon. Not without... invisible means of support. Not without a force that wanted it developed and developed fast, so it could be used, used to spread influence over the whole world..."
Zoamel may not have had a stomach, but if he did, there would have been a sinking feeling. "Surely you can't be saying--"
"Sairaag has one true god," Lina stated in a voice serious enough to cut diamond, "And its name is Science. A Demiurge of Science. A Demiurge with a thirst for the power and faith other Demiurges have, and the means to get it. Every day it's getting stronger, and getting a tighter hold on the world by eating up all the competition. That's the enemy you've sworn vengeance on, Zoamel, not some city or some simple social movement. It's been a god all this time, hiding in wait."
Penny remained speechless until she was not. "...waiting for what?"
"I haven't figured that out yet," Lina said. "Or what I can do about it. Because now, I HAVE to do something about it. I can feel the pull, the call to save the world. This time, I want to follow that pull. Everything in me feels RIGHT about doing this, no matter how much I protest being a god, it's something I want in my soul. I can't tell where it's going to take me, or what I'll have to do when I get there, but it's going to happen. I hope someone out there is praying for me to pull through, because I think the odds are actually against me on this one..."
She turned back, to look over the city. All those people had no idea what was going on in the celestial temples, that the gods they prayed to, the superstitions they held could be REAL... and be a real threat. None of them knew, none of them knew what could be done even if they knew, but Lina knew one thing.
"We're carrying on with the quest," she decided. "We're going to Bimini Island, I'm going to find out how to become human. We'll blow stuff up and make money and have some laughs and fight some serious battles as we always do. It's the only thing we CAN do right now. Xelloss's grand idea about a mad rush to blow up Sairaag isn't going to work right now, I'm absolutely positive about that. We'll have to figure out what WILL work when the time comes. Until then..."
"Until then... business as usual," Zoamel said, his voice unusually quiet.
"If either of you want to back out, hey, I can understand," Lina said. "I came into this life out of my haze of two decades by myself, and I can finish this myself. But you two could get hurt. I can't abide by that--"
"No way," Penny interrupted. "We're not ditching you. I can't speak for Zoamel but I've got this feeling he'll agree with me. If you started that way, we started this WITH you, and we'll end it with you. The plucky band of mismatched heroes facing the end of the world... it works out perfectly, right? It always works out perfectly..."
The other two remained silent.
Mid day, they packed their backs, and set off to the coast. From there, it would be a boat ride, and on to Bimini, and whatever was waiting for them there.
Story copyright 1999 Stefan Gagne, Slayers characters copyright
H. Kanzaka / R. Araizumi.
A Spoof Chase Production hosted by Pixelscapes.