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


     These days, the gas lamps built into the walls of Sairaag's power core were dusty from disuse. Normally this would plunge the room into absolute darkness, as it was sealed off from the outside world. The platform that comprised the 'floor' of the core room wasn't very big, and a clumsy man could stumble over a railing and plunge four stories to a nasty death in the dark. However, the massive core itself provided more than enough illumination to avoid that.

     It was a cylindrical pillar of glass extending four stories high and four stories into the ground. Metal panels lined the walls of the tube around the cylinder, useful tapping the arcs of black and purple energy that the core crackled near randomly... but all of that happened above the heads of those in the 'room' of the core. The room consisted of the platform, of course, and a huge brass machine wrapped around the middle of the core designed for one purpose only; draining Eradicator disks. After each draining, the purple glow inside the core would grew stronger, and brighter...

     Zelgadis watched the ebb and flow, the near random throbbing of light inside the core. The eddies in the currents of energy, seeming to push at the walls, wanting to get out... only to generate the residual sparks that jumped from tube to wall, powering the fortress of Sairaag. The flawless perfection of the machine was clear to him; only a fool could call this event random and chaotic. After observing it for as many days as he had, the patterns were easy to spot... mathematics above the grasp of most, who had not studied as much science as Zelgadis had.

     Aside from the dull hum the apparatus gave off, the room was mostly silent. There were snores from the usual guard on duty was asleep (as usual), and clacks of disks being taken out of a small cart. Elizabeth was seeing to the storage process.

     "The B-teams have been doing rather well with the small fry," she commented, inspecting one disk. "Hmm. Lord Dynero of the Holy Battle for Profit. Actually, you had a hand in that one, didn't you?'

     "I sponsored a communist movement in that country, I believe," Zelgadis said. "It wasn't very difficult."

     "That is why I send you after the larger-scale Demiurges, Zelgadis," Elizabeth said, with no small amount of pride. She slotted the disk into the core, and when the spark-shower stopped, removed it and tossed it in a bin. "You see beyond the simple art of fighting and war. You can find creative ways to solving the problem of theology. I would not trust the B-Team or the C-Team to coordinate such a subtle ploy as an insurrection. It's commendable."

     "I don't see anything commendable about my methods," Zelgadis said, crossing his arms nonchalantly. "I simply do what is required to capture the target. And I too can make mistakes... such as underestimating the situation in Sailoon."

     "Yes, you are partially to blame," Elizabeth responded, slotting the last disk. "But Lina Inverse was the primary complication in that mission. We have let her run free too long, since discovering that such a god existed... but don't worry. I have observation units installed at all points of interest within a five hundred mile span of Sailoon. She will not evade us again."

     Zelgadis wheeled the bin of used disks off to the side, as the task was complete. "She does represent the last major threat. The one, Zoamel, is minor and can be easily captured, but she will not go down easily. Once we have her, unless Ceipheed or Shaburanigdo suddenly come back to life, there will only be scraps and remainders in the world. Nothing worth note, nothing that would give the core a significant boost."

     "Indeed! The project is going quite well. Soon, it will be complete--"

     "The project to cure my condition, you mean?" Zelgadis asked, a hint of questioning, a hint of suspicion in his voice. "My sister's research finally realized?"

     Elizabeth smoothly changed topics. "Of course. Don't worry, Zelgadis. As you know, this core is the key to your cure. Although your sister's original process was not powerful enough to fully cure you, once this is filled, there will be nothing we can't accomplish using the purity of science. One more major catch to reach the threshhold, such as Lina Inverse, and your future is assured."

     Being the sort who firmly believed in multitasking, Elizabeth spoke while writing the day's collection notes up on her clipboard. As a result, she completely missed Zelgadis's wide smile; a rare event indeed...

     "Yes," Zelgadis agreed. "My future is assured. Believe in that steadfast. ...I also believe it will be comforting, to have a true human form again. Perhaps then, spending intimate time in my company will be more... comfortable for you."

     "I suppose," Elizabeth said, finishing her notes, as ordinarily as she would order a new supply of steel ore for the foundry. "Please wheel the bin back to the armory. We will put all operations for the project on hold until we find word of Lina Inverse... no sense wasting resources on little fish, when we can catch the prize itself."

     She ignored Zelgadis's kiss on the cheek, as she sifted through the clipboard. She also ignored his footsteps leaving the room. Everything was in order. The project was going very well indeed, and Zelgadis was better than she ever could ever have hoped for at collecting the gods...

     It was a shame she had no intent of curing him, but if all went well, she wouldn't need him for anything anymore. She would be beyond this simple existence, beyond intimacy, beyond any need except for...

     The sensation flooded her mind like heavy water into a perfect cube of glass. The absolute symmetry of the feeling was unbearably RIGHT, unbearably perfect... her knees weakened, as she slid against the metal housing of the core, sitting on the floor. Breaths came fast and quick, as the cube rotated in her mind, filling her with such incredible satisfaction...

     She opened herself to it, and her mind unfolded, the presence probing at her memory. It was learning of current events, of the progress of various plans, of how Elizabeth's chemical reactions determined her actions... and a few sticking points held. Words injected themselves into her memory, so that she experienced them as they happened, even if they never were spoken. your brother unit attempted to cause failure at location sailoon in capturing demiurge sailoon.

     "Y-Yes," Elizabeth spoke... to no visible person. The sleeping guard slept through it, naturally. "A little backtalk to Zelgadis. He is still learning. He will need further training and-- chance of roy balderdash following orders is falling at an exponential rate. his decision process is starting to complete itself in directions contrary to the experiment. to avoid future difficulty, action taken to resolve the problem is termination.

     Elizabeth shook her head... each motion sending her vision into a blur, as the power gripped her. Black and purple lines meshed around her, in a crackling power grid... a strange embrace. "He's nothing. Less than nothing, much less a threat to your omnipotence. I'll simply demote him to a less risky position, such as janitor. He's my brother, as thick headed as he is, and I would prefer to see his life con-- UNNEGOTIABLE. terminate roy balderdash. capture lina inverse demiurge. capture zoamel gustav demiurge. eliminate penny gabriev human. imperative high priority commands. obey your commands or you will be removed from the project.

     "NO! ... no. I will carry out the commands," Elizabeth agreed. "The project must continue. ...Roy is not important enough to live. I know this. Your coming must be prepared above all other concerns." correct.

     She wetted her lips. "If it's not too much to ask... perhaps my lack of focus comes from the duration of time since my last blessing. I've been getting the bleakness sooner and sooner, as of late. If you could..." very well.

     It was just as wonderful as her first blessing, so many years ago... a lonely night in a lab, trying to justify her thirst for scientific knowledge in a city of mages who made her a laughing stock. When it came to her that first night, it was like a crystal bullet to the forehead, perfection itself unfolding in infinite planes, mathematics so complicated and intertwined as to feel like crystal lattices of pleasure in her mind... the touch of the only god she had ever desired. Her body shivered in delight...

     For that, she would do anything, climb any mountain, kill any legend, and destroy any race. In the name of the untapped power of science, just waiting to take the entire world into its grasp, and remake civilization in the dawn of a technological age...

     And soon, very soon, it would be His time. And her time as well.

     Just a few days ago, Lina learned that a god hell-bent on the extermination of gods just like her was plotting to taking over the world and was nearly unstoppable.

     That's not something you can wrap your mind around properly. You can try, but once you start considering all the implications and risks and dangers and possibilities of horrible, mangling death and failure involved you usually need a nice lie down somewhere and some warm milk.

     No, Lina Inverse had a very special technique for approaching the unapproachably vast and nasty : she did something else instead. In this case, it was forcibly de-boarding the hijackers just before her boat got to port. Why wait around to dump them on dry land when there was a perfectly serviceable ocean nearby, after all?

     "Let THAT be a lesson to you!" she shouted, knocking the whole gang into the sea with a well placed tornado. The crew applauded, the captain thanked her and she was immediately offered a refund for her ticket. Belief and food and money in exchange for feats of derring-do, and Lo, it was Good.

     (Lina had tried a Diem Wind to deport the bandits, but it wasn't working... she'd come too far to resort to the silly spells she used to use. Now she just thought of what she wanted to happen, and boom, it happened! Well, usually boom, given the sort of things she tended to want to happen on the average day. She had also long since stopped seeing her lack of real magic as 'unnerving' and more as 'extraordinarily convenient'.)

     "Maaa, that's the fifth attack since we left Sailoon," Xelloss pouted. "One road bandit gang, two boatloads of pirates, one crew of black mages on an airship and now this. Don't you humans have police or guards or executioners or anything? Gets to be that a Mazoku can't enjoy a pleasant vacation without being assaulted left and right..."

     "Quit complaining, or I'll throw you in the sea too!" Lina responded, pointing dramatically at Xelloss. "I'd like to look at it as 'being on a roll'. This is JUST the kind of pick-me-up I needed to get me ready for the end of this quest. Now let's go get Penny and Zoey-kun, we're almost ready to hit beautiful, sunny Bimini Island!"

     "I've been here before, terrible place," Xelloss said. "It's covered with cherry blossoms and flowers, and the sun always shines and the grass is just TOO green, and even the indentured plantation servants are happy because their masters give them paid vacations and free hay rides. It's disgustingly happy there."

     "I can't think of a finer locale to end a quest," Lina replied, covering her eyes to cut the glare as they approached a veritable Garden of Bountiful Delights. "I mean, usually they end in the Crack of Despair beneath the Mountain of Eternal Agony fighting some Mazoku Lord. Hey, where's your bird?"

     Beastmaster Zelas-Metallum flapped over from the second deck, a diseased, stinking rat still in her beak. She tossed it into the air, swallowed it whole in defiance of all conservation of mass laws, and settled on her familiar perch of Xelloss's staff.

     "...right," Lina acknowledged, shaking off THAT nasty image. "Looks like we're here. Go get the others."

     "I hope I won't have to pry Zoamel and Penny out of some icky liplock," Xelloss grimaced, just imagining the cooties.

     Lina glared. "They're not like that, okay? Sure, they like each other, but... they're not all touchy-feely. I mean, not a lot. Just... go get them or I'll zap you!"

     "Yes ma'am!" Xelloss saluted. "I would gladly walk into the jaws of death for you! Into the Fire Valleys of--"

     The young god waved him off. It was kind of unsettling, she thought, the way those two carried on. Laughing and talking and staying near each other all day during these boat journeys... initially, at the start of this whole quest, Zoamel would always wander off whenever he pleased, and the most Penny would do was bat innocent little girl crush-induced eyes, but now...

     Now they were positively COMFORTABLE with each other. Partners in crime, so to speak, amongst other things...

     Lina wasn't scared or disgusted, though. If Penny found a great guy to be with, well, more power to her, you go girl, &tc. Something else was tugging at Lina. Something missing. Something similar...

     Human. Once she was human, everything would be perfect, and that was all it would take to make things RIGHT. It would be just like the way it was, before she drifted to sleep... she convinced herself of that, wiping any trace of worry off her face when the others arrived, and presented her best Lina "Confidence" Inverse Smile.

     In all her days of questing, there were a few constants. The missing person would not roll over your doorstep the next day and say 'Oh, you were looking for me?'. That's why when Lina saw a tall, spooky looking man in dark glasses holding up a sign at the seaport reading INVERSE, she immediately blasted him with a fireball.

     After putting out the blaze, he explained that he wasn't some sort of psycho stalker or bandit, but he was a chauffeur here to take them to the home of the person they sought. They were honored, invited guests.

     Never before had Lina been.. CHAUFFEURED to her final destination. Here she was figuring (nay, counting on) a backbreaking search of every wretched hive of scum and villainy in Bimini, and instead she'd be whisked away to the end of the quest in five minutes. Something about that just did NOT sit well with her. It felt too easy.

     Xelloss agreed, but didn't see that as a bad thing. So, while Penny and Zoamel chattered away on one side of the steam-powered coach car, she argued the point with the Mazoku.

     "Isn't it SUCH a pleasant relief?" Xelloss asked, giddy as a schoolgirl. "You can find out your little thingy you want to find out, then we can all go and turn Sairaag into a large smoking / glowing crater in the middle of a hundred miles of scorched earth. A perfectly ducky way to cap off a day!"

     "I told you before, the time isn't right to go do that yet," Lina replied, tired of having to say it over and over. "It doesn't FEEL right. I'll let you know when it does."

     Xelloss pouted. Not his usual bemused pout, but a genuinely irritated one. "Yes, that's fine and good. You can give that little line lip service as much as you want, but how WILL you know? Hmm? You're not exactly an old hat at being a god, Lina Inverse, and there's too much at stake to rely on your funny little gut reactions to things--"

     "Stuff it, Xel. Have a little faith, okay?"

     "I thought the whole POINT of your quest was to make it so nobody had faith in you anymore," Xelloss retorted. "That you'd be a simple mortal again, when all was said and done. Isn't that contradictory? You've used your godhead this entire time, freely taking of the abilities and powers it gives you. Who are you to cast it off when the world needs you, Lina? Who are you to know the will of the chaos of the Lord of Nightmares and your true role in this world?"

     "I didn't say I knew anything like that!!" she barked back... before an awkward pause. It was hard to admit, especially to the self-assured Mazoku, but there was no way around it. "...I don't know what I'll do when I find out how to become mortal. You happy now? Yes, it's true, the amazing Lina Inverse has no clue what she wants or needs."

     "This is an amazingly bad time to have a crisis of faith, Lina."

     "Tell me something I don't know. Look, Xel.. at first... I just wanted to avoid having to serve my believers. I had just gotten out of a deep sleep, and didn't WANT to go back.. and I thought the only way to do that was to ditch the job. But maybe I've been looking at this all wrong; I've had plenty of time to think about it lately, and I realized something. You see, if people like me didn't exist, then Shaburanigdo would have been resurrected, Phibrizo and Gaav would still be breathing, and all sorts of other... don't look at me like that, you Mazoku gimp, those are BAD things!"

     "Maybe to your species, but not mine," Xelloss spoke, with a wide smile. "For purposes of argument, however, I will concede that yes, you've done a swell job for your race. Rather a lot like the immune system of the world, with my kind as the infection you fight. I actually respect that power you have inside, you know. But what WILL you do? It's coming. I can smell it around the corner... the forking point of history. What card will you play, Lina Inverse? Choose wisely, lest--"

     "Cut the theatrics," Lina barked. "I know what's going on. As for what I'll do... all I'm saying is that I play cards I have in my hand, and that's all I play. That's what I AM. I'll burn that bridge when we come to it, and no sooner. That better be enough of an answer for you, Xel, because it's all you'll get."

     "Meanie," Xelloss pouted. The amused pout, this time. He settled back into his seat next to Lina, facing towards the front of the cab; he got so easily motion sick, these days. "At least you're almost at the end of your quest. Then maybe you'll be free to do what I need you to do. It's quite a nice touch, a carriage ride to drive you on rather than a mob with pitchforks and torches."

     "Unless it's an ambush," Lina said casually.

     "...an ambush?"

     "Well, if *I* had a beef with me, I'd probably goad myself into a false sense of security by pampering myself with expensive looking coaches and posh handling, and then when I was the least suspecting, launch an attack and crush myself utterly. Right now, we're riding along a road with trees and bushes on either side, perfect for someone to jump out and attack me from while I gloat off in the distance at my own misfortune..."

     Xelloss felt that uneasy sinking feeling, and it wasn't from Lina's spontaneous bout of split personality syndrome. "If it's an ambush... WHY did you walk right into it, Lina?"

     "Hmm? Oh, it's the Phibrizo paradox again, of course. I usually like to spring traps so I know what kinds of traps they are rather than run around paranoid all the time," Lina said, glancing out the window. "So I'm guessing we'll know what's what in about... now."

     The coach developed a split personality syndrome as well.

     The whole encounter took less than half of a minute, leaving everybody fairly confused, but the process was a bit like this :

     First, In a flash of blue and white light, the four wheeled horsedrawn carriage turned into a two wheeled horsedrawn carriage and a powerless caboose rolling along on inertia. Penny, too engrossed in deep thoughtful conversation with her favorite god, didn't notice until it was too late, and the half containing Lina and Xelloss had screeched to a halt and tipped over.

     Second, because Penny was human and prone to stupid impulses, she also did exactly the wrong thing. Instead of jumping out, she just looked around in alarm, and asked something along the lines of "What's going on?", which gave the 1/2 coach enough time to drive directly into a magical portal, which sealed up perfectly behind it, transporting her and Zoamel hundreds of miles away, never to be seen by Lina again. Except for what happened third.

     Third, since Lina wasn't human and even when she was she wasn't as prone to stupid impulses, and she threw out her willpower and locked the portal just an inch from closing, negating most of what happened second. The magic that summoned the portal applied serious pressure to slam it shut, but Lina recognized the spell -- a simple enough one she used in her youth, staff based, and easy to catch if you were fast enough. Which, of course, she was.

     "Gotcha!" Lina declared, throwing her arms open wide, and stretching the portal back open. She could see Zoamel on the other side accosting a figure in a cloak with a staff; likely the sorcerer who tried this stunt. Which meant that she could pay more attention to--

     "Ow," Xelloss whined, when his arm fell off. "Lina, there's a guy with a shiny sword attacking me. Make him stop."

     That guy. Lina readied a fireball, charging it up with heat powerful enough to bake bread from twenty feet away and cause extremely bad breath to ignite on contact, squared off against the one who bisected her pleasant road trip, ready to...

     Ready to notice something VERY important before she blasted this guy to hell, and thus restraining herself from doing just that. The sword he was carrying was of the blue, shiny, light-giving variety, and his hair was of the yellow, blonde, fluffy and long variety.

     "G-GOURRY?!" Lina exclaimed, her unshakable run of two fisted action heroine cool wobbling to a crashing, painful halt. The fireball blinked out of existence at the speed of confusion.

     It didn't help matters that promptly Zoamel and Penny emerged from the portal, carrying the sorcerer by the scruff of his neck. Or her neck, as the case happened to be.

     "Let go of me, you freak!" Lina Gabriev shouted, whacking Zoamel squarely in the testicles with her staff. Zoamel winced, a reflexive reaction from manifesting in a human shape, and let her go. She tried to grab the dazed Penny Gabriev's arm and make a dash back for the portal, but it had since completely collapsed.

     And now, a moment of dazed silence, before the real chaos begins.


     "Excuse me, could someone please pass me my arm?" Xelloss asked, but was immediately ignored as his words broke the silence, letting the angry words out like a bag of water when you take the bag away.

     "What are YOU doing here?!"

     "I could ask the same question! And why did you kidnap my daughter?!"

     "Mom, I wasn't kidnapped, I came on my own! I wanted to go on a quest!"

     "See, Lina? I told you she just wanted to go off and see the world. But Penny, you could have asked us first. I mean, it's dangerous to just run off and--"

     "BUTT OUT, Gourry! You're coming home this instant, young lady! Or at least a few hours from now when my teleportation staff charges, thanks to this freaky guy dragging me through my own portal! We're going to lose half a day's profits from me being away from the shop, I swear--"

     "ExCUSE me, but the gi.. young lady has a right to pick her own journeys, you pathetic excuse for a me! And you've got no right to up and kidnap her from her non-kidnappers like that!"

     "Look, it's really no bother, but that WAS my favorite arm, and if you could just please--"

     "Mother, I'll never forgive you for this! You could have seriously hurt Zoamel in that ridiculous attack!"

     "That's another thing! Who's this guy? I don't like the looks of... Zoamel? As in ZOAMEL GUSTAV?!"

     "Ah, hello, madam--"

     "Don't you 'hello madam' me, I don't want my daughter hanging out with any weird pagan imaginary gods or people who THINK they're weird pagan imaginary gods!"

     "Oi, oi, Lina, let's just calm down and sort this out, okay? I'm sure everybody will listen to reason if we just can--"

     "How did you guys FIND us, anyway?!" Lina Inverse shouted, trying to done out the argument. "Kind of an elaborate trap, setting up a ride just to lure us out here! What the heck is going on?"

     "Oh, this nice guy on a plantation up the road loaned it to us if we could get you off his back before you asked about teeth or something," Gourry blabbed, since Gourry was still a bit Gourryesque, regardless of age and maturity. And his wife did bap him one with her staff for his loose lips, since she was still Lina, regardless of age and change.

     Lina Inverse growled, kicking up her own version of a flight spell. "So, the Tooth Fairy set a trap? Bleah! I've bested gods before, a mortal shouldn't be any problem. You guys aren't going anywhere until this carbon copy's staff recharges; we'll sort this mess out later, but no funny stuff! Now, I've got a fairy to hunt, and he's getting away!!"

     With a comically large amount of dust kicked up in her wake, the young Lina zipped along the road, heading in the direction Gourry indicated.

     "Great, she's gone," Lina Gabriev nodded in satisfaction. She grabbed Penny by the ear, leading her off into the trees. "Young lady, you have some SERIOUS explaining to do!"

     "Lina, go easy on her!" Gourry paternally requested, following them.

     An eerie silence fell over the area that had been soaked up in so much screaming. Only the dull scraping sound of Zelas the Raven nibbling on Xelloss's stray arm could be heard.

     "..." Zomael spoke, having discovered the one force in the world even a god must kowtow in silence before... in-laws.

     "Seems we're left holding the bag," Xelloss said, shooing his former master away and gathering up his appendage. "At least, until they get back. So... do you like parcheesi?"

     There's very little of interest on Bimini island. There's no tourist trade; it's strictly a port for ships to stop, trade, restock, and split. A few plantations producing a small variety of cash crops fuel the economy. Sure, the weather is nice and the coconuts are to die for, but that's all there really is. Nobody would take an interest in the island.

     Except, of course, for the empire that makes it their business to take an interest in your business, and hopefully to gobble it up later.

     The Sairaag trading ship had left port a few hours previous, but not before depositing a crate in a shipping warehouse, on Elizabeth Balderdash's specific orders. All ports of call and cities were to be tagged and monitored. The Bimini Chamber of Commerce would object, if they ever found out, but this sort of spy didn't need to worry about that...

     The crate fell apart, in the dusty darkness, and nothing seemed to rise out of it. That particular nothing didn't adjust its lenses, didn't scan its memory banks to not load the Demiurge patterns of Lina Inverse and Zoamel Gustav it hadn't been instructed to find, and didn't zoom off under a completely impossible scientifically developed invisibility field, to begin a slow search of the city.

     Which would have been a tremendous unrelief for Lina to know, if she wasn't busy hunting the Tooth Fairy.

     It made perfect sense to her that the Tooth Fairy would run a sugar plantation. She soared over field after field of sugar cane, being gathered by teams of island locals, who looked up in alarm at the young girl flying over their heads. Lina didn't mind raising a few alarms; if this guy knew they were coming to the island, and didn't want to bump into her, he'd probably know the ambush failed already... and started running.

     The question was, running where? She tried to use her Lina Senses(tm) to find him, but the only other Demiurge in the area she seemed to feel was Zoamel. Perhaps because he was mortal...?

     There were so many unknowns. Who the man was, how he became who he was, what he was now... she came far to learn the answers. From a day in Zeifelia deciding what she wanted to do with herself, through coming to understand her nature, to this point... she meant it when she told Xelloss she didn't know where she'd go from here. But she had to KNOW. It was the crux of her quest, even if she wouldn't act on that information yet...

     To know, she had to find him. She closed her eyes, and focused. Belief was her power. She felt her believers worldwide, like a tingle in the back of her mind she could never forget but could look away from occasionally. They knew what Lina Inverse was; bandit-stomping, food-eating, money-getting, world-saving, quest-finishing. The faith in her amazing adventuring skills would pull her through. She'd find this guy.

     She darted in a quasi-random direction, trying not to THINK about it, just to FEEL it. To feel that irresistible pull of the quest, the absolute affirmation of her goals and her desire to achieve them... they would lead her to what she sought. She rode on a wave of confidence and faith, until...

     Until she opened her eyes and found herself standing near a small, run- down pub in the dock area of the Port Bimini. The feeling ended there. She didn't pay much attention to how she got from the plantation to here, and simply pushed through the doors of the pub, and into destiny...

     Destiny being a sad, pathetic sack of a man sitting at the bar, wearing clothing that was once tasteful and trendy but now was hopelessly out of fashion. He looked up from his beer, knowing exactly who had entered, and what she wanted.

     "I knew you'd make it," the Tooth Fairy said, in a voice of unswerving knowledge and despairing futility. "No matter what roadblock I tried to put up, no matter how much I tried to hide from you. It was out of my influence on the world completely. You're going to drag the secret out of me even if I say no, aren't you?"

     "That's how it works," Lina said, bravado dropping. It was like this guy had an aura about him of soul-crushing depression, cutting through her holy-rolling heroine attitude like a knife.

     "Then have a beer, and I'll explain," the man said, tapping the bar. "You're paying, though. For you and me. Least I should get out of this mess is a free drink."

     Originally, the Gabrievs hold family meetings around the dinner table. A few fork related injuries later, they decided to move the discussion point to the living room, where the worst that could happen was a few thrown couch pillows.

     They'd never had to have one on the road before, because while Gourry was usually on the road defending his country as a civil servant, Lina was usually at home. So, this small clearing in the trees would have to do. Gourry checked for loose, heavy objects, and finding none, opened up matters for a sensible, rational debate.

     "Ahem," he spoke, clearing his throat. "I just thought I should say--"

     "You've got NO right messing in my life like this!" Penny barked, ignoring her father. "Every time I try to go out and seek my fortune, you try to ground me. Don't you realize it just makes me want to go out even more?! I'm not going to be a scholar, mom, my mind is made up!"

     "All you're going to do is get yourself killed, or worse!" Lina retorted. "Look at who you're going around with! Some nutcase who thinks she's me, and XELLOSS, of all people! He's a Mazoku, don't you realize that?! He'll stab you in the back sooner than you can think that he might stab you in the back! And that's to say nothing of whoever this guy is who thinks he's Zoamel Gustav--"

     "Don't you talk badly of Zoamel, mother! You don't know anything about him!"

     "Oh, I can TELL you a think or two about Martina and her freaked out--"

     "--if you'd just LISTEN to me you'd know he's a very sweet and--"

     "--should have never pushed you out, I swear--"

     "**AHEM**", Gourry spoke at a much greater volume, without the pretense of clearing his throat. He got between the two bickering persons of the feminine persuasion, blocking them from even seeing each other. "Look, this isn't getting us anywhere. I've had a long time to think about this, and here's how we're going to do it--"


     "Just listen, please, Lina," Gourry half-pleaded. "Let Penny tell us what's been going on. The whole story. I want to know what's so important that she'd run away from home without even telling us she was going. THEN we'll decide what to do about it. Clearly she doesn't want to go home and forcing her to go without hearing her out isn't going to make her any happier. But I want FULL detail, Penny, okay? Lina, this okay with you?"

     "We should go home," Lina replied, almost not listening to him. "I swear, the shop's wide open, I've got to get back there--"

     "Lina... please," Gourry said again, not pleading at all, but taking his wife by the shoulders and addressing her directly. "I know you're worried. I'm JUST as worried as you, with Xelloss, and whoever this Gargamel Zestful guy is. But I'm sure there's more going on here than you think... I can't see any other reason why Penny would leave home and go this far with these people."

     "Exactly!" Penny chirped. "Very important reasons!"

     "And if I'm not satisfied with her reasons, she's grounded until she's twenty four," Gourry said, with a smile. "Deal, Lina?"

     "I like that," Lina responded. "Okay... fine. I can't think of anything that justifies this mess, but I'm game. Let's hear it, Penny. What's the story?"

     "..." Penny said, a little stunned. Sure, her father was the nice one, but he was still her FATHER... full detail. Right. She swallowed, and began.

     "It all started when I was off hunting bandits, but I'll say now I realize that was a bit silly to do because it's not really something that's my calling, but if I hadn't I would have met Lina," Penny said quickly, storytelling as best she could, "And then I wouldn't have learned about her problem with being a god and her quest, and I thought the best way to learn what I wanted to be and how to be it would be to go on an actual adventure with my role model, and..."

     Nasty-smelling, cheap swill flowed from tap to glass, as the bartender slid the mug down to the Tooth Fairy... although Lina could barely believe what his real name was.

     "'Issac Yankem'?" she asked, incredulous.

     "I was never very imaginative, okay?" Issac said, scowling. "You're the one imposing on me, you know. Ever since you started this damn quest I could feel you were coming here. I've led a good, quiet life, what have I ever done to you to merit this?"

     "Hey, buddy, it's nothing personal, okay?" Lina protested. "You just have information I want--"

     "Do you REALLY want it?" Yankem asked, turning on his stool to give her a sharp glare. "You're just like the bastards from Sairaag, they want to know how everything works, but once you KNOW you can't un-know... yes, of course I'll tell you. Anything to get you off my back. But it's not for the ears of anyone else... Earl?"

     The bartender looked up, quickly. "Yes, Mr. Yankem, sir?"

     "Clear this place out," Yankem ordered. "Put it on my tab if you have to. I want to be alone. It's gonna be one of those days."

     "But sir--"

     The bartender grabbed at his jaw, wincing... an action repeated all around the room, as various sailors and tradesmen suddenly came down with toothaches. Without a hand wave, a look, or any motion other than chugging back a measure of beer, Issac stopped the effect, and the bar quietly emptied. Folks here understood what the score was.

     But Lina didn't even comprehend. "What.. how did you DO that? I thought you were human now!"

     "Who ever told you I was human?" Issac asked, grinning a little 'I know something you don't' grin. "I'm mortal, girl. Not human. I never was human, and neither were you, no matter what delusion you have to that effect. And neither of us will ever BE human. But there are... exchanges, you can make. I'm free from needing believers, I'm free from fading away, I'm snipped from the ties of faith that hold me down to climbing in every brat's window and buying their damn teeth."

     "So... you're still a god, but you're not anybody's god in particular?" Lina asked.

     "I'm my own god now," the Tooth Fairly replied. "And right now, if I wanted to, I could render every person in a fifty mile radius completely toothless. That's not a feat I could do as a weak little Demiurge who had to carry a stepladder around to sneak in second story windows. Before, I was bush league; now I am my own league. If I knew this sort of thing would happen I would never have done it in the first place, in some pathetic attempt to escape my believers and be something other than a children's myth..."

     "That's why you don't want me to know," Lina realized. "I hadn't even thought of that. I thought that without faith, I'd just become a normal human again... but any Demiurge who does this could get stronger, or something?"

     Issac allowed himself a weak chuckle. "That's putting it lightly, girl. It's a secret I've kept for a long time, hiding out and laying low so the other Demiurges think I wussed out, that I'm nothing special anymore. But right now, I'm probably on par with Shaburanigdo... when it comes to teeth, at least. I haven't learned how to get out of that particular dental rut, nor do I want to even try. Fancy that though, me, demon lord of gum disease and gingivitis..."

     It was a metaphor that rocked Lina's world. "Shaburanigdo...?"

     "Think about it, Lina. When you have no more need for faith and believers," Issac explained, refilling his beer glass straight from the tap, "Why do you need to be limited to what they think you are? It's a two-way street, faith; it shapes us, it shapes them. Without it a Demiurge can REALLY be God.. to an extent, for technical reasons. But it's still a very bad extent. I don't want to be anything more than a simple man, I'm not that ambitious, I want people to leave me alone. Any other Demiurges who do what I did, however, could become very bad news. As far as I know, I'm the only person who knows how to do it and I figured THAT out on a sheer fluke. When I die, it goes with me... unless you learn it. You sure you don't want to drop this quest, Lina Inverse?"

     "...I have to know," Lina decided. "I won't be able to put this to rest, even if it's dangerous to know. There's no way I can let it go. I've come too far, it's too much of what I am. Sorry about that..."

     "Yeah, I figured as much," Issac said, sighing. "Enjoy your drink. You're going to want to be nicely sloshed, I'd suspect."

     It was a short trip up the road to the plantation; certainly within walking distance for a god and a Mazoku. It stood to reason that after failing to assassinate them, the Tooth Fairy's home would be more than courteous, seeing as how they would likely flatten the place in a burst of rage now that they were still breathing. With Xelloss was very insistent on getting some refreshments, after a long hard day of travel and dismemberment, there really was no other place to go, either.

     That didn't stop Zoamel from constantly looking over his shoulder, at the carriage wreck they were walking away from. Naturally, this seemed almost like an open invitation to a heckler like Xelloss.

     "Worried about the deposit on that thing?" Xelloss asked, with that piping little voice of massive, annoying delight (#37). "I'm sure they won't make us pay for it. It was their hired gun that turned it into a compact cab."

     Zoamel locked his eyes on the road ahead quickly, knowing he was caught. "I suppose it would be ethical for us to pay for it..."

     "Really? How so, Zoamel-kun?"


     The Mazoku leaned over, to peer at Zoamel's eyes as he walked. "You know, you're practically blushing. All the signs of it aside from the red smear across the skin, of course. I guess a lack of blood vessels helps, there. And you're really slipping if I can catch you on that little quip. It's her, isn't it?"

     "Her?" Zoamel supplied, before realizing that would only goad the man on further. He truly WAS slipping, wasn't he...?

     "And falling for straight lines, too. Amazing. A god brought low by a simple mortal woman--"

     "I would hardly call Penny Gabriev simple," Zoamel said. "Perhaps... at first it seemed that way, as she fawned after me much as Martina does. Like shiny diamond of an idea, all sparkle and no depth. But she has grown considerably during the course of this quest, and you do her a great disservice to still think of her in such pandering terms. I do not appreciate that disservice, either -- watch your tongue, Mazoku."

     "Leaping to her aid, AND threats of violence!" Xelloss chimed, clapping his hands in delight. "All the earmarks. You, my fine holy friend, are in L-U-V, looooove!"

     Zoamel said nothing, marching along. An intelligent, rational man would simply ignore the jibes, after all. Even if some part of his less prominent 'vengeful' side wanted to put his fist a foot into Xelloss's face.

     "Oh, I sympathize, I sympathize," Xelloss said, tone dropping to a 'poor you' echo. "She's a mortal, you're immortal. She's human, you're a god. It would simply NEVER work out. Best to avoid the issue altogether, not make the moves, not try to get to the bases. But you're not doing that, are you? An intelligent, rational man would distance himself, keep cold, so that she doesn't get attached. Whereas you two have been joined at the hip for the latter part of this strange long trip."

     "...I will admit, I have perhaps been... quite friendly with her," Zoamel admitted.

     "You're not usually like that, are you?" Xelloss asked. "Holed up in hiding in your cult, not even showing yourself to your followers. A poor, hurt god, so afraid of losing his followers after a mistake in the past that he can never get close to anyone, ever again--"

     "Your tirade is becoming less amusing," Zoamel warned.

     "It's too late, it's too late, too late," Xelloss warned as well, but in his jovial sort of way. "You have an attachment now. Call it fate, call it love, call it karma... I believe that everything happens for a reason. She's brought out the best in you. Take it from someone who knows the worst in you and can draw the polar opposite with ease. But now what will you do? The quest is ending. Unless... she goes on to Sairaag, with Lina. You know Lina is going, yes?"

     "I know," Zoamel agreed, gritting his teeth. "It is her path. When the time is right, she will follow it... and Penny will seek to go with her. If you wish to play this game, fine. I will also admit I do not relish Penny being in that horrible city. Lina may be unkillable, but Penny..."

     Xelloss pouted. "Penny might get killed. It's true. But she'll die eventually, won't she? Leaving you as a lonely old god--"

     "Are you going somewhere with this, or do we stop now?" Zoamel asked, glaring evil flaming horrible painful mangling death on the demon.

     Xelloss spoke quickly. "What if I told you I knew a way for her to live on forever, exactly as you do?"

     That stopped the god's tracks. He stared in open incomprehension, at the smiling salesman.

     For a change, Xelloss's eyes were open. His smile was as wide as ever, but adding the dark look of delight on top of it would have frightened lesser ones than Zoamel.

     "It's simple enough," Xelloss spoke, in a soft voice, telling a secret, one he wanted to tell. "I did extensive research on your kind, years ago. The Mazoku libraries have stiff penalties for overdue books, but the selection can't be beat, if you know what to look for. I can make her yours, forever. I, Xelloss, angel of love and mercy, will give you the easy life..."

     "You have a price," Zoamel stated, digging at the obvious.

     "The Mazoku are weak right now, aren't they?" Xelloss asked. "But you, you have a bloodlust in you that you've suppressed for years. Once all is said and done and Sairaag is burnt to cinders, work for me. We will return to power, I guarantee it. Then, you'll have happy employment in the caring arms of--"

     Zoamel resumed his walk, almost smiling. "You grow typical, demon. The answer is, and always will be, no. Surely you realize that?"

     "Oh, I do, I do," Xelloss said, falling right into step beside him. "I had to try. It was obligatory, I'm sure you understand that. But ask yourself this... how do you believe you'll be able to maintain a relationship with this mortal woman? How will it be possible?"

     Zoamel allowed a wider smile. "A wise man once said, 'Love will find a way. Love breaks all doors, smashes all barricades. True love exists beyond life and death. Put your faith in that, and whatever will be will be, but love will never truly die.'"

     "How poetic. Some bard in green tights and a pointy hat and a harp spew that adorably fluffy and pointless nonsense?"

     "No, I did," Zoamel said. "In a previous incarnation. What we are matters not, Mazoku. Your kind have never understood the heart, the core of humanity's beauty. I may not be human, but I am closer to them than you will ever be, and long life or not, it will come to be."

     "You're more boring than I had previously imagined," Xelloss said, with a pained sigh. "Oh well. At least I'm not the one who has to live with Lina as a mother in law."

     "...and after Lina told us about the Demiurge in Sairaag, well, we sort of put the spurs to the horse and got here as fast as we could because Lina wanted to finish the quest as quick as possible, but the boat was really slow and took a few days which I guess is how you guys got here so fast but when we got here, Lina was feeling good and I was really having fun talking with Zoamel all that time we were at sea so spirits were high but then you attacked the carriage and nearly hurt Zoamel, and you know how I feel about him so I'm a bit upset about that but a LOT more upset that you want to take me home when we're so close to the end, and look, you know I've always idolized the legend of Lina Inverse, and travelling with her I've learned so much and there's still so much more to learn, I'm really finally starting to get a direction in my life other than beating up bandits but if I stop here and go home, well, I won't have finished and I want to be there to help Lina out and see it through because dad, you always tell me personal integrity is the best and even though I didn't formally promise anything I feel honor bound and I hope you can understand that and I think Zoamel would be kind of sad if I left, so that's my story. Can I go with them now?"

     Lina Gabriev stood, jaw hanging open as it had for the past ten minutes. Some small part of her brain begged the question of how Penny managed to tell her entire story without supplying a single period or stopping to take a breath of air.

     "Hmmmmmmmm," Gourry Gabriev hmmmed, rubbing his chin.

     "...that is the craziest, weirdest..." Lina started, still in a vague daze. "I mean.... damn. That tops even my most contrived adventures. That's just completely nuts. You SWEAR on your grandfather's grave that it was all the truth, right?"

     "Cross my heart and hope to stick a needle in my eye," Penny swore.

     Lina frowned. "In that case, what you're up to is SIX TIMES AS DANGEROUS as what I had envisioned in my worst nightmares! Of course you can't go with them now! You're coming back with us, young--"

     "Excuse me, Lina," Gourry interrupted. "But I promised her I'd give my opinion on it as well, once I finished hearing her out."

     "Gourry? I've known you for how many years, exactly?"

     "Uh..." Gourry said, his brain getting a bit befuddled. "Well, okay... Penny's almost eighteen now, and we stopped questing, like, three years before that, and... um... how long did it take us to go fight that Hecklord Freeza guy again?--"

     "My point is... I KNOW you, Gourry," Lina said, less fierce than before. "And I know that a story any more complicated than See Spot Run went in one ear and right out the other. Correct?"

     "Yup!" Gourry admitted, with a smile. "Heck, I can barely remember what that Zackov Garglenator guy's name was!"

     "SO," Lina concluded, "You're not exactly in any position to--"

     "But I heard her VOICE," Gourry said, his voice growing more serious. "Couldn't you hear, Lina? She's so determined and focused. This isn't the same Penny that we saw last, she's grown up. She believes in this quest and her new friends with all her heart. Maybe my memory is spotty, but I could tell in her voice how she feels. And that's more important than the pesky details."

     Penny bounced up and down, feeling she'd just scored a point in the game of Parental No Holds Barred Decision Making. "Yes! Yes, exactly, dad!"

     "...okay, you're right," Lina said, forced to concede the point. "I could tell, too. And it's not her usual perky 'I'm gonna go on a quest!' nonsense.... Penny, quit jumping up and down, you'll sprain an ankle!"

     "Sorry," Penny apologized quickly, standing still.

     "You know... she reminds me a lot of you, at that age," Gourry said, eyes distant. "Always looking up, always looking forward, determined to succeed, to go anywhere you wanted to... yeah. Just like you, before that night."

     "What night?" Lina asked, confused.

     "I'll make you guys a deal," Gourry said, bargaining. "Lina, I know you don't want to go on quests anymore. That's okay; once the staff recharges, you can head home. And I'll go with Penny wherever she has to go, and keep her safe until this quest is over. Is it a deal? I don't want her getting hurt, but I don't feel right ordering her around like a kid. She's not a kid anymore."

     "Well... no, she's not a kid. And I don't like the idea of her questing at all, but... I trust you, Gourry. I know you'll keep her safe. Now, WHAT night, Gourry?"

     "YAY! I can keep going!" Penny cheered, bouncing again until her ankle started to hurt so she stopped. She ran over to her parents, scooping them up into the first full-on sincere group hug in months. "Thank you thank you thank you thank you! I've gotta go tell the guys the good news! Thank you! BYEEE!!!!"

     A very Inverse-esque dustcloud kicked up behind her, as she ran up the road, towards the plantation.

     "Bye!" Gourry cheered, waving at the departing daughter. He kept waving until he heard the irritated tap tap tap of a soft soled boot on the dirt, and looked over at his annoyed wife, her arms crossed and a frown on her face. "...oh. Um..."

     "You're talking about THAT night, aren't you?" Lina asked. "The night I woke up crying, and couldn't stop?"

     "Lina.. you WERE in a near catatonic state for two days," Gourry said. "I know we never found out what happened, but--"

     "It was a momentary weakness, that's all," Lina said, blowing it off. "A fluke. Who knows? People do crazy things, but that doesn't make them crazy. It hasn't happened again since. I'm fine. And just because I didn't want to go out on crazy adventures again doesn't mean anything is WRONG with me. Got it?!"

     Gourry sighed. It always ended like this... a thing she wanted to avoid talking about, at all costs. And he loved her too much to push her, to hurt her...

     "Got it," he agreed.

     It didn't make him love her any less. Nothing could do that, nothing in the world. But it also didn't satisfy his wish to know what happened. What had hurt his wife so much... what had happened. He swallowed it, for now, and took her hand, to walk to the plantation.

     "I love you, Lina," Gourry said, wanting that assurance.

     And it came. Lina smiled, and kissed his cheek. "I love you too. And I'm STARVING. Let's go see if our host is providing dinner! And if he's not, well, he will be when I get through with him!"

     Gourry smiled, happy. Still the woman he loved, deep inside.

     Issac wobbled a bit on his stool. He already had four beers in him, and was quite steadfast in getting the fifth to join its brethren.

     "The trick," he tried to explain, through a tipsy haze. "The trick. It was so.. so simple. I figured it out on a fluke. Wasn't in any book, thank god, it's just this thing you gotta FIGURE OUT. I wish I'd never figured it out. Maybe then I'd have a purpose in life. I thought, yahoo, I'm free, I'll go run a sugar farm and make the little bastards pay for enslaving me, but noooo, it didn't satisfy me. Nothing satisifies you like faith, I so miss--"

     "The trick," Lina Inverse reiterated. She'd had to get the guy back on track several times already.

     "Yeah, the trick," Issac continued. "Okay. You know how right now, gods are strong in faith if their followers are strong in faith? The more of 'em the better, and we're always in competition to see who's stronger, and all that rot?"

     "Tell me about it," Lina muttered. "We ran into Ace Champion."

     Issac laughed. "I almost WANT him to learn this trick. It'd be a trap. He lives for the competition, the gotta-catch-'em-all attitude towards religion... but anyway. The trick. You have to change your nature. Become your own god. To do that... first..... first........"

     "First??" Lina added, getting annoyed at feeding him prompts.

     "First, you find your greatest believer," Issac finished. "Or maybe next-greatest. I dunno. ONE of your greatest. The more faith you pour into the mix when it happens, the better, the more you get multiplied by. Internal fuel source. Someone who believes in you so much, so completely, that they're willing to do anything for you. Even die for you. Then... you take their mortal life."

     "What?" Lina asked, sharply. "You have to kill--"

     "Did I say kill? Did I?" Issac said, frowning. Some of the beer slopped out of his glass. "No. You TAKE THEIR LIFE. You... merge. Become one with the believer. A mortal god, an immortal human. Then, you can believe in yourself, using the strength of faith in the person you merged with, and that's the whole trick. I wasn't always male, you know. I found.. this young boy, not really right in the head, liked to pull out his teeth because he loved the Tooth Fairy, and... and I got him to agree to--"

     Lina grabbed him by his grubby shirt. "You stole a kid's life just to escape being a god?!"

     "I never said I was a role model!" the Tooth Fairy protested, pulling himself away. "Okay? I hate it! I regret it. I can make people's teeth fall out, I'm power incarnate over your mouth, I don't have to do anything anymore for anybody and I hate it! What good is this power when you're like me? You... you could use it. You're a solo person, always have been, right? Once free, you'd probably have leagues more fun than me. Maybe rule a kingdom with your power. Lina the Terrible, the God Made Flesh--"

     "Shut up," Lina barked. "I'm not LIKE that. I wouldn't... I would never do that, just for myself. I'm selfish, I like money, I like food, I look out for myself... but I'm not THAT bad."

     "Well, then I guess you're really up the creek, aren't you?" Issac Yankem laughed, shoving his glass over the bar, letting it shatter on the floor. "Came all this way just to find out you didn't want to do what you came to learn. Serves you right for bothering me. I just want to die in peace... but I CAN'T! I don't know how to age! I can reshape my appearance, my 'age', but I'll never die old age. Even those Eradictaors Sairaag boasts won't work; I bought one on the black market and checked. Sure, I could stab myself in the face or something, and the body I'm riding will die... the body knows how to be injured. But I'm too much of a coward even to do that. I'm so hopeless..."

     "I'll agree with that," Lina said, frowning visibly.

     Issac turned to her, grabbing her shoulders. His foul breath stunned Lina for 1d6 rounds. "But YOU... you could do something with it. I know you, I know your shape, I've felt it from afar; you're so much more powerful than me. So focused on the SELF, unlike the other gods, who are as reshapable as putty! You're the kind who could maybe make up for my mistake. Do you know what I think? We've got Ceipheed and Shaburanigdo, and they're powerful, but... the Lord of Nightmares is powerful over all. Maybe the Lord did this. The Lord is a god made flesh, so infinitely powerful that she made this world. EVERYTHING is Demiurge! There are gods, and people, and they feed on each other, but only something that could step OUTSIDE that system could set it all in motion! You could be like that! You're unlike any other Demiurge I've EVER met. You could do anything you want. Destroy this world, destroy me, make something better, you could--"

     The young god shoved the older god to the floor, knocking him off his stool. "You're insane, you know that, right?" Lina asked. "You're right. This is a secret better off unknown. ...I've never claimed to be the Lord of Nightmares, even if I've shared a body with her once... and I'm not going to do this!"

     "...I knew it," Issac said, with a weak laugh. "I knew you'd refuse. I'm sorry... I'm old, I'm tired, I don't know what my mouth is saying half the time. I'm sorry. Look... you can stay at the plantation overnight, if you want. Your quest's done, you could probably use the rest. Okay?"

     Lina straightened her cloak, getting to her feet. "Fine, fine. And I want a six course dinner!"

     "I'm rich. I can afford that," Issac stated. "Okay. Whatever you want. Sorry you had to come all this way to be so disappointed. And now you've got to go back to your worshippers, and do their errands--"

     The younger god cast him a dark look.

     "I don't see it your way," Lina said, voice strong. "Maybe once I did... that I was nothing more than a slave to this. But I've learned better; I've done a lot of good for people, and they've rewarded me. I'm a mercenary at heart, aren't I? I can still be myself AND be a god. I can't be a true Lina Inverse if I'm not myself. So no, I don't think I need to be mortal... especially at that cost. By the way, you're paying for your own drinks. Now let's get going."

     "Bah. Flat chested little--"

     A fireball whizzed by his head.

     "--well mannered young girl," Issac corrected.

     "Close enough. Let's roll."

     The ancient god, Zoamel Gustav, sat on the porch swing of the massive plantation mansion, and rocked. The space next to him on the bench felt strangely empty, as he watched the setting sun.

     Xelloss had left, seeking the kitchen, for cheese and dead rats (he didn't specify which was for his bird-master and which was for himself). The Mazoku wasn't fine company, anyway. But now... he DID feel alone.

     Him, Zoamel Gustav, the lone wolf god. The god that sits in the dark rafters of his cult's temples, watching everything from afar, smiling down on them and helping their causes but always staying AWAY. Only gods who foolishly got involved with their believers, like Drake, would actually enjoy that sort of thing. Not Zoamel. Before, he could spent months just floating in silence and obfuscation in a second story window, watching the sun rise and set, enjoying the movement of the clouds... never with human contact, never with a word spoken. And now he wanted to speak words, so clearly wanted it... but not with just anybody. With Penny.

     The demon's words were true. It would be difficult, for them. A human and a god? He even had trouble admitting how he felt to her... as she did to him. He could feel the love and faith there, as a god (which felt oddly like cheating, now that he felt the same in return) but the words hadn't come out yet...

     The melancholy on his soul, if he had a soul, was thick. And yet, it all lifted when he saw Penny running down the lane, waving to him. He smiled on reflex, despite his normal stoic face, and calmly rushed to greet her.

     "I can stay! I can still quest!!" Penny shouted, as she ran up to him. "Father gave his permission, and even MOM did! Maybe they're finally seeing me as an adult!"

     "That's wonderful news," Zoamel replied. "I'm quite glad to hear you'll be continuing along with me. With us."

     The slip was enough to disjoint conversation for a moment. But Penny was too happy to get defocused. She smiled, and started to walk to the house. "I hope this quest lasts longer," she said. "It'd look really silly if I did all that work to convince my folks, and it was just over like that."

     "I would not worry," Zoamel said, following. "Around Lina, if tales are true, things have a habit of just popping up when you least expect them to."

     The observer unit from Sairaag, which had been silently scanning the island ever since it arrived, popped up from behind a woodpile right when they least expected something to pop up.

     Zoamel quickly put an arm in front of Penny, to stop her. But it was too late; it had sensed the motion, and decloaked. The spheroid hovered, just a split second... before its programming kicked in. Target found. Send alert. Neutralize. Wait for reinforcements to complete capture...

     Time slowed, as the god moved, to stop the machine. Romance could wait, he decided, knowing the threat it posed. He'd seen a machine similar to this one stalking other gods, like the Melody, Goddess of Bards and Musicians, back in his home town... while he sat in his window and did nothing, not wanting to get involved in the lives of the humans...

     A bullet fired from the machine's primary weapon. Zoamel raised a hand to catch it... and Demiurges clashed. The will of Science fought his will, the two struggling briefly... before his will was crushed utterly. For a brief period, he saw the terrible power of Science, the Demiurge that had remained hidden so long before being unmasked by Lina, and the surprise of it shattered his power so easily...

     The bullet slammed through the palm of his hand, and struck the figure behind him. The sharp scream from Penny was all he needed.

     His will amplified by a factor of nine. A stream of bullets, fired from a chain gun, rained down on him -- and all of them stopped in mid-air. The God of Vengeance was in firm control of his power now, and knew what he wanted... Vengeance for the harm dealt to the one so special to him...

     The bullets crumpled into tiny wads. The machine warped and bent, metal twisting and shrieking under the pressure, until the Observer Unit was little more than a fist-sized chunk of white hot molten steel. He let it drop to the ground, and quickly turned to Penny...

     Who sat on the ground in stunned amazement, clutching the simple flesh wound in her shoulder. "...WHOA," she said, in all capital letters. "Zoamel, you.. you really wasted that thing! Hot damn!"

     "...it angered me," Zoamel admitted, studying the wound. "I know what that machine was; we must hurry. I cannot close this with my power, being a vengeance god and not a healing god. But the bullet passed through, and it will heal with some pressure and time... here."

     Zoamel quickly tore a strip off his white tunic, tore a strip off his Self, and tied it neatly around the wound. The cloth, being a part of him, didn't stain, and it fit snugly and perfectly to help ease Penny's pain.

     The adventuress in training looked at the bandage, perplexed.. then back to the god, twice as perplexed. "I don't think I've seen you that angry before," she said, quietly. "Even when you were fighting with Drake. What happened now?"

     "Someone special to me was hurt," Zoamel said, the words coming easily. "Someone I genuinely care for. I couldn't let that pass..."

     Then the words failed. Penny blushed quite actively; Zoamel didn't, not having the right skin for it, but he did seem a bit nervous.

     "Zoamel..." Penny spoke, a gentle whisper, as she leaned in closer.

     Zoamel did the same.. he felt that draw to her, stronger than any simple belief or faithholder in his existence. "...yes, Penny?..."

     The eyes made contact first. Soft looks, unusual on both faces, as they looked deep inside each other... then hands made contact, linking together. They leaned ever closer, the inevitable drawing better than gravity, better than any force in the universe... and...

     Didn't kiss, because that's when Lina showed up, Tooth Fairy in tow.

     Zoamel briefly flirted with the idea of smiting Lina, but thought the better of it.

     "Hey, guys! Quest's over," Lina declared, waving to them as she faded into view (having cut out that middleman of 'walking places'). "I got what I needed to know."

     Penny blinked a whole bunch of times, as the situation changed, like a romantic moonlit horsedrawn carriage ride for two crashing into a cargo plane full of clowns. "What? Huh? What? Lina?"

     "I guess you won't have to worry about convincing your parents now," Lina said, rubbing the back of her head. "Quest's done. Sorry if I'm not being dramatic enough about announcing it, but--"

     "You are being dramatic enough," Zoamel spoke, gritting his teeth slightly. "Trust me."

     "Over?" Penny repeated, still getting her bearings. "Over? But.. but we just started to..."

     Inhaling, the elder god focused. He picked up the smoking hot lump of Sairaag steel, presenting it to Lina. "Turning attentions to the present... I'm afraid my quest is not over. I swore vengeance against my enemies, and I cannot return until they have been destroyed. Lina... this is the remains of an Observer Unit under the employ of Sairaag. I destroyed it, but I doubt I got it before it sent word back to its master... especially if this impossible technology is merely a manifestation of a Demiurge of science. They know where we are now."

     "Damn," Lina groaned. "I swear, those guys are just getting all up in my area lately! Can't swing a dead Lesser Demon without hitting the evil omnipresent Sairaag forces... okay, fine. So we leave the island tonight, split up and go home. It's not like they can get here sooner than that, Sairaag's got to be hundreds of miles away or something."

     Glowing blue portals that connected the sugar cane fields to a fortress hundreds of miles away in Sairaag quietly began to open, in the distance.

     That alone would be worrying, but what started to march out of them was even moreso... a few soldiers, then dozens, then over a hundred, armed with magic absorption poles and Eradicator disks, as well as highly serviceable rifles. And, despite being a speck from this distance, Lina could clearly make out a familiar figure in white and gray, toting a gunblade, and leading the slow march of doom.

     "..." was her intelligent, rational response to this sight.

     The Tooth Fairy had more coherent words, despite being slightly drunk. "Great. Just great. Here I was hoping to stay out of the Sairaag mess, keep that bastard off my doorstep, and you led them right to me. You know, Lina, for being the immortal incarnation of luck and destiny, people AROUND you really get the shaft, don't they?"

     "Penny, where are your parents?" Zoamel asked, maintaining calm.

     "Uh... uh... they're in the plantation manor house, why?"

     "I believe a retreat is in order," Zoamel suggested. "Immediately, before they see us here--"

     The army changed from a slow march to a flat out run, waving weapons and yelling and looking every bit the armed, fanatical death force they were famous for across the world.

     "--immediately, if not sooner," Zoamel added.

     "Got it," Lina said, snapping her fingers -- and moving the entire group into the kitchen immediately, if not a minute or two sooner. The trick, she didn't think, was in not thinking too hard about if she COULD do do the trick. She WAS Lina Inverse, after all.

     "You see," Xelloss continued to explain while dusting off his 'Kiss the Evil Cook' apron, "The chili powder acts as catalyst. While the peanut butter adds a sugar boost, combined with the liberal use of the jelly, both are counteracted by the chili powder and arsenic. After spraying all three slices of wheat bread with lemon juice and dried garlic powder, you bake it over an open flame for EXACTLY six seconds, the number of the beast, compress it into a flat wedge, and then you've got the PERFECT sandwich!"

     Lina Gabriev remained unimpressed, studying the old Mazoku. "Except for the fact that, like all Mazoku cooking, it's completely inedible."

     "Oh, it's not for me," Xelloss said, understanding the mixup. He tossed the sandwich into a corner -- where a nearby rat took a single nibble, had a massive stroke, and died. Bird Master Zelas-Metallum swooped in to feast.

     "That's gross," Gourry stated as obvious.

     "Good to see some people haven't changed at all these last years," Lina spoke, a bit perturbed... either by the fine haute ratte cuisine, or by something else entirely. "Gourry, keep an eye on this guy if you're serious about questing with Penny. Understand? I don't want his creepy Mazoku hands on her."

     "I don't think that'll be a problem, as your husband is quite adept at dismembering me at the drop of a hat," Xelloss half-joked. "Nice replacement light-sword, by the way, Gourry."

     "Lina bartered it off a passing crazy old man with one eye and a monkey's paw," Gourry said proudly, resting a hand on the sword hilt. "It's not as good as the real Sword of Light, but it's more than enough for a city guardsman--"

     Lina and company arrived a few seconds back in time, cutting off Gourry's lengthy, boring explanation, a fact Xelloss would have been thankful for if he knew it was going to happen in the first place, which it did not, in fact, do. Or something.

     "Problem," Lina announced. "We've got a few hundred Sairaag soldiers coming towards the house at low speed. I think I cut them off from actually seeing us, so we've got a minute before they get here... other Me, now would be a GREAT time to use that staff and get us the hell out of here."

     "Soldiers?!" Lina gagged. (Not the god Lina, the mortal Lina. The taller one. Lina repeating herself would have just been strange.) "I knew it! I knew you were a disaster waiting to happen. My staff isn't charged yet, it still needs a few more minutes! I KNEW I shouldn't have sold Big Bertha..."

     Xelloss brightened. "Aha! They've got you pushed against a wall now, Lina! It's like you said, Lina, so you've got no choice but to get out there and kick some holy butt in the name of the Mazoku! And humanity too, of course--"

     The Tooth Fairy cleared his throat. Teeth rattled.

     "You guys need a few more minutes?" he asked, quietly.

     Everybody nodded simultaneously.

     "Okay. Fine. Whatever," Issac said. "I've gotten this tangled in it, I might as well see it through. Maybe give my life a bit of meaning. Lina, you know the bar you found me in? I didn't mystically appear there; there's an underground passage that runs to all the bars in town from this house. It's catacombic maze, so odds are against you finding your way OUT, but should keep you hidden long enough to teleport away."

     "There! Not against a wall now, are we?" Lina decided. "Okay, Yankem, lead the way--"

     "Someone's gotta stay and misdirect them," Issac said. "It might buy you a few extra minutes."

     "Xelloss volunteers!" Lina said, picking up the Mazoku and moving him to the forefront. He blinkblinked cutely, pouting.

     "I'm the only expendable one here," Issac stated. "And don't give me some heroic speech, Lina. They'll tear up my plantation anyway, and I've got nothing left in this life. Maybe I can weasel out of actually getting whacked, but either way, the least I can do is help out someone who can make something of what I know... you're going to save the world, you know that, right? I've got a little precognition, but it should be completely obvious by now. If you play the cards you got dealt as a god right, it'll happen, just like it always has for you before. But without you, the immortal spirit of Lina the Anti-Hero, well... we're all screwed. I don't hate humanity enough to want that on the lot. So get moving -- no arguments."

     Issac snatched a shotglass from a nearby cupboard, depressing a switch in the process. Six nondescript kitchen tiles swung away, revealing a ladder into an underground passage.

     Lina stared at the mortal god, not quite sure what to say. He didn't seem to want to talk, either... so, she just gave him a thankful look, and climbed on down. The others followed in suit.

     Issac replaced the glass, locking the door shut. He straightened his tunic. Time to go welcome the guests.

     Zelgadis slowly approached the house. He couldn't help shake the nagging feeling that he saw the quarry... but he wouldn't act on a nagging feeling. It was irrational.

     Of course, so was the idea of 'sneaking' an army this large up on the target, but that didn't matter. Sairaag recon data of this island was QUITE thick, as the risk calculating machinery back at the fortress had labeled it of as high value... having no Roy Balderdash to worry about helped as well. His soldiers would obey his orders directly, with no confusion.

     A slightly grubby man stood on the porch, taking a pull from a whiskey flask, before tossing it aside. Zelgadis raised the proverbial eyebrow, before holding an arm up, to call his men to halt.

     Issac grinned to the group, sticking his hands in his pockets. Very unassuming. "Hey, you guys looking for a short, flatchested girl in a sorceress's cloak?"

     "Yes," Zelgadis said. It was the truth.

     "She saw some weird machine, and took off running," Issac lied, pointing. "To the docks. Probably hoping to jump a ship out of town. You're going to want to--"

     "Your name is Issac Yankem, and you are a mortal Demiurge," Zelgadis stated, cutting the man off. "And odds strong that you are aiding them. You are not unknown to Sairaag."

     Issac froze. That was impossible. There was no WAY that squatting excuse for a tin god in Sairaag could know about his secret... but clearly, it did, and his cover was blown.

     If you're going to go, go with a bang.

     "You think I'm a wuss just because I'm mortal?" Issac asked. He didn't change posture, didn't move a muscle. "I may be a coward and a cripple, but one thing I am not is a pushover... and this is too important to buckle on. So, take THIS message back to your precious Sairaag..."

     Screams rose from the army, as every single one of their teeth dropped away. Hands flew to mouths, to catch them, to catch the blood--

     A firearm shot rang through the air. Issac blinked a few times, wondering what that was... until he was looking sideways at the sky. Up at Zelgadis, who lowered a smoking gunblade.

     "Idiot," he said. "Chimeras and other monsters never believed in the Tooth Fairy in the first place. Your powers don't affect this body."

     Oh, right.

     Issac's mind drifted a bit. It was kind of ironic; he'd be the first god to really know what happens when you die. It made him feel oddly special, as a peaceful haze settled, the soldiers marching past him, into the house. But how could Sairaag have known about his secret, unless... unless... if that was true, he had to warn Lina, but...

     It's funny, he thought, the previous train of thought slowing to a halt. Dying wasn't nearly as unpleasant as he was figuring it would be. Shame he couldn't tell anyone. And then he was gone, and actually quite happy for a change.

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