Catacombs are a funny thing, because they come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. You have your basic angular maze, made of forbidding stonework and impossibly logical geometry -- those, you play the 'follow wall right' game and you get out eventually. ('eventually' defined as anytime from now to sixty years from now.) You also have your basic maze of twisty little passages, all alike, sometimes lined with a wide variety of imaginative deathtraps, and the ever popular non-Euclidean space consisting of nothing but stairwells and doorways.

     Issac's catacombs were just dank, smelly, and dark. They didn't even twist very much and didn't look alike, and nothing was actively trying to kill Lina's little party gang. No monsters, either, to be slain for battle experience and gold. It was the most boring dungeon she'd ever had to crawl through.

     Still, true to his prediction, they hadn't found a way out. Fortunately, they wouldn't have to.

     "Is the staff charged yet?" Zoamel asked, leading the way, as Lina's light spell bobbled and weaved around in front of him.

     "No, it's still at 95%," Lina Gabriev responded, reading the glowing crystals embedded in the base of the staff.

     "But that's what it was a moment ago!" Lina Inverse shouted. "Why isn't it charging up any faster? We've gotta go go go!"

     "Hey, keep your shirt on, it'll charge when it charges!"

     "Since when did you rely on gimmick magic, anyway?" Lina Inverse asked, stopping her march. "Come on, just whip up a digging spell and let's get through! Sure, it's sheet bedrock around, but--"

     "But that would attract the attention of the army, you overzealous powermonger," Lina Gabriev scowled. "We need to play this CONSERVATIVELY if we're going to survive, and... and...... and my staff isn't charging. It's STILL at 95%..."

     The entire group stopped. This was not good news.

     Penny swallowed. "Um, mom, is that the teleport staff with the redwood shaft or the pinewood shaft?"

     "Pinewood. Why?"

     "Ah, I negotiated the sale on that one when you were away one day and put it in the box with the other one. But I think that one's solar powered. Um. Sorry. If it helps, I didn't pay him very much for it."

     "'re grounded until your twenty seventh birthday," Lina Gabriev decided. She turned to face her younger counterpart. "We just lost our exit strategy. You're a god, aren't you? Can't you just miracle us out of here?"

     Lina Inverse shook her head. "No... I tried, when we first got in here. It won't work. When it's just a shortcut, or something for myself personally, I can do it because I'm very impatient and selfish in nature... but I can't cheat the drama of being stuck somewhere. That's not how a heroine escapes a situation."

     "What kind of a god are you?" Lina Gabriev asked, incredulous. "And what do you mean, impatient and selfish?! I happen to take that very personally, you know--"

     "Hey, what can I say? This is what I am now! I've learned to adapt to it rather than whine and bawl all the time, unlike some old ladies I know!"

     "Old lady?!" Gabriev asked, practically rolling up a sleeve. "I'm your elder in more ways than five! Here's what we'll do. We're going to wait right here, where they can't find us, and in the morning when they've all given up, we'll find our way out, charge the staff and leave!"

     "That has got to be the most RIDICULOUS, cowardly--"

     Zoamel interrupted, holding up a hand; someone with his aura of quiet calm didn't need to actually raise his voice to stop a debate. "I am afraid Lina Inverse is right," he spoke. "There is an important fact that you are not aware of, Mrs. Gabriev. We have clashed with Sairaag before, and they have let us walk away because we seemed to pose no passing threat. This is the first time they have come after us seriously; the tide has shifted. They will hunt us relentlessly, with near limitless expendable human resources. We cannot survive by a straight confrontation, especially not in these catacombs. But we cannot stay hidden. Escape is the best option, and if the staff will not work, we must find alternate means. I myself have no particular powers that would help all of us... perhaps Penny... but that would be all."

     "Ah... Zoamel has a point," Penny said, stumbling a bit over the latter admission, trying not to look right at Zoamel. "So, if he can't do it, and mom can't do it, and Lina can't do it, and Gourry--"

     "A-ha! I know! I can dig our path to freedom with my sword!" Gourry said. He jammed it in the ceiling, twisted, and promptly was buried under fifty pounds of dirt and rock.

     "...and dad can't do it," Penny continued, "And *I* don't have any powers to speak of other than a keen intellect and medium grade buttkicking skills, that only leaves--"

     The Wandering Monster Table popped out of Penny's backpack, perching on her head and flexing its legs dramatically, in what could only be called a heroic, confident manner!

     Both Linas promptly fell over.

     "..." Penny said. She plucked Table-chan off her head, gave it a loving hug, and continued again. "...not you, Table-chan. I was actually thinking of Xelloss."

     All eyes slowly turned on Xelloss, who was busy cleaning out his ear with his pinky finger. He blinked a few times, genuinely surprised.

     "What, me?" he asked.

     "You still have Mazoku powers, right?" Penny asked. "They're a bit toned down after your run-in with Sairaag, but between you and the bird, surely you've got something you can do. I mean, from what mom told me about her past exploits, you were always popping in and out without warning at the least helpful times!"

     "I will admit a certain knack for making an entrance..." Xelloss spoke, with no small amount of pride. "But I'm afraid my little trick, well, it's sort of a secr--"

     Both Linas popped up right in front of him, four nasty angry evil glaring make-hole-in-rock eyes locked in a stare of absolute doom and annihilation on the crippled old Mazoku.

     "--it's actually quite easy," Xelloss said, downshifting from third gear to first. "I can make a portal to.. certain real estate holdings. There would be no way for Sairaag to follow us there. However, given my current health, it will take a few minutes to prepare. Although if one of you wants to volunteer to be terrorized a bit, I could recharge my dark energy reserves--"

     "I think we can get this done in a few minutes safely," Penny said, mind breaking down the situation. She looked left, looked right, hugged her Table, turned things over and over in her head, and was ready with an answer seven seconds later. "Okay... this small chamber would be a good place for Xelloss to get to work. Lina, you stay with him and keep an eye on him so he doesn't bolt without us. If the army comes down here, we can hold them off just long enough due to the small size of the tunnel, but we'll need people at both sides of this tunnel. Mom, dad, you two take the left. Zoamel and I will take the right. If you hear them coming, signal, then stall them, then fall back to here and go for the portal. Everybody hold your ground until Lina Inverse gives a signal that the way out is ready. It's risky, but it's better than all of us staying here."

     Gourry crossed his arms and nodded in official military approval (while shaking dirt loose from his armor). "That's a good plan, Penny. Excellent strategy."

     "Really? Gosh, thanks, Daddy!" Penny chirped, breaking the 'serious war council' tone momentarily.

     Lina Gabriev peered a bit at her daughter, in quiet incomprehension. This was Penny? This was the girl whose big plan in life was to run out and challenge random bandit gangs to fights? Who frequently forgot her lunch on the way to school, who got bored reading textbooks, who... who had just come up with a plan even she had to admit wasn't too bad. NOW, now Lina could believe that her daughter had grown up a bit since leaving home...

     And now Penny was a lot like Lina was, so long ago. Standing here, face to face with that striking difference / similarity, was more sobering than looking at her immortal counterpart. This was a human example, from her own family, within the grasp of the plausible... and it was positively eerie. Eerie, how much she really had changed, if you made and effort to THINK about it...


     She looked over quickly to her husband. "Yes?"

     "I said we should get going now," Gourry said. "That tunnel's not going to guard itself. Uh... unless you want to stay here, I mean. I can guard it. I understand if you don't want to go--"

     "No! No, I mean... let's go," Lina said, clumsily covering her tracks. "Tunnel's not going to guard itself. Let's go, Gourry."

     Coaxing a toothless army to obey orders took effort. Strong leadership. Long speeches, comforting of those who had to face their loss, and cautious steps to return to previous peak efficiency.

     Instead, Zelgadis shot the first officer to complain, and the rest fell in line. He didn't have time for niceties.

     The data on Issac Yankem's mansion was extensive. This whole island had been closely detailed in Sairaag's files, for reasons never made clear to him, but he wasn't one to question the usefulness of the information. Said files told him there was a secret tunnel under the house, originating from the kitchen, but the neglected to mention how to get in.

     Normally, he would use explosives to open the floor, but that would either alert his foes, or bury them, or both. His orders were clear; capture the Demiurges.

     As for what to do with Penny... it wasn't stated in his orders, but the assumption was that she was to be killed if she interfered in the capture process. It was a shame, but the project was so close to completion, so critical in this phase, that it would have to take precedence over his relations with the Gabrievs back in Zeifelia. Nothing would stop Sairaag's rise to the lead of the new world order.

     Except a kitchen floor.

     He had his men tearing the kitchen apart, looking for switches, levers, anything that could open the hidden door. It was only a matter of time.

     Besides, half his forces were entering from the other end, at a local pub. There would be no escape for the gods. The time for playing games had ended.

     Gourry stood his ground with practiced ease. He had a stance which spoke of military discipline, looming presence... a guard of a gateway, in this case, of a tunnel. Rock still, upright, but with no doubt in the eyes of the observer that he could have his sword drawn and ready to gut you in the blink of an eye. (It had taken him years in the city guard to properly develop that stance; previously, his training captain called him to task about his puppy-dog innocent facial expression, which just screamed out, 'Hi! I don't know what I'm doing out here! Please rob/assassinate my protectorate at will!'.)

     Lina, however, had to fight the urge to run. It couldn't be a worse situation; ahead of her, darkness and the unknown, with the potential to be flooded with people who wanted her dead at a moment's notice. Behind her, safety, light, people she knew, a way OUT...

     "It's okay," Gourry said, breaking his stony silence.

     "What? What's okay?" Lina said quickly, jumping slightly at the sudden sound.

     "It's okay to be scared," Gourry said. "I'll admit I'm a little scared, too. I haven't faced a real army in a long time. I hope my skills aren't rusty from busting simple crooks for years."

     Briefly, Lina entertained the idea of insisting she wasn't scared... but her husband knew her too well to be fooled by that. She broke her tense stance, groaning a bit at the irony of it all. "Gourry... you think I'm a coward, don't you?"

     "Eh? What?" Gourry asked, reverting to his world renown puppy-dog innocent facial expression. "What makes you say that?"

     "Because it's true," Lina said, turning to face him. "I don't like to even think about it, or acknowledge it... and more than half the time I don't even notice it. Maybe because I've learned to ignore it, but... I'm getting off track here. I noticed it just now, back there with Pen-chan -- exactly how much I've grown weak since.. my adventuring days. Since I was out and about. So much so that here I am, jumping at my own shadow, and twitching even when my husband says a word... wanting to run home, to hide in my shop, and never have to come out to a situation like THIS again. Like a coward."


     "It's true!" Lina said, raising her voice before remembering they were trying to stay quiet. "...I'm nothing like Penny is now. And especially nothing like that other me... she's more like me than I am. I wouldn't admit that to ANYBODY but you... but you know already, don't you?"

     "You're.. very different, yes," Gourry said, not wanting to say more than that.

     "...I wouldn't be surprised if you loved her more than me," Lina said, looking away a little. "She's more like the woman you fell in love with, isn't she?"

     The resounding laugh that came from Gourry's belly was not the reaction Lina was expecting. She turned sharply, confused, as she saw him smiling and looking at her, with his soft, understanding eyes...

     "You really think that?" Gourry asked. "Lina, Lina... you know me. And I know you. And you know I love YOU. Nobody else... just you. You're not weak, Lina, you've never been weak -- you're one of the strongest people I've ever met! Who else could wrangle a six gold price for a sixty spell loaded double barreled firestaff? Who else could have fought tooth and nail to be the most successful merchant in Zeifelia, raised a daughter, and kept everything balanced and running so smooth?"

     "That's not what I'm talking about!" Lina protested. "I'm talking about my fear! My fear of the unknown, of going out and diving headfirst into adventures like I used to! You keep telling me I've changed, since that time that I... that I woke up, and I just couldn't..."

     "Lina..." Gourry said, filling in for her. "I know this worries you. You don't like to admit it, but it does; and it worries me too, since it WAS a very strange, nearly overnight change... but we all change eventually, no matter how. I'VE changed too, you know. I don't go out and about on quests either, I'm too busy keeping our city and country safe. Perhaps you're not EXACTLY the same woman I fell in love with so long ago, it's true, but I'm not the exact same man, either, and I don't love you any less for who you are now. I will always love you, no matter who you are. Have faith in that, and you'll never have to be afraid of anything..."

     "Cripes, Gourry, of all the cheesy, over romanticized--"

     Gourry swept her up into a full kiss, cutting off her protests in mid rant. No further proof was needed, after that.

     It's a good thing he did pull her away for the kiss, because it kept her from being shot. The bullet whizzed by the space Lina occupied, ptang!ing off a nearby rock.

     With practiced ease, Gourry turned the kiss into a full spin, to plant Lina behind him for safety, while his other hand drew his sword. He held it in a defensive stance, facing the darkness, less than seconds having passed from safety to danger... his training easily accommodating the change.

     What he couldn't accommodate was the figure that stepped from the darkness, gunblade held high.

     "...Zelgadis?" Gourry asked, confused. But his blade did not waver.

     "Gabriev," Zelgadis acknowledged, likewise remaining cautious and ready for the attack. He held a hand back, to stop the fifteen troops that had entered behind him, as he engaged in a staredown with his former friend. "I see you have thrown your lot in with the gods. I apologize for shooting at your wife; in the poor lighting, she resembled my target. However, I will only ask you once to stand down, and let us pass. I have orders."

     "Penny's told us all about your orders," Gourry said, keeping Lina behind him, keeping a hand on her; his wife had gone very quiet, and he needed to make sure she was still there. "And I don't take kindly to you shooting at Lina, light or no light. If our friendship means anything to you, you'll stand down instead."

     "Then there is no longer any friendship to speak of," Zelgadis said, voice not like ice, but like... absolutely nothing. He blanked out his relations with the Gabrievs, easily detaching from them. The march of science would not be stopped. Not when he had come this far already... he put his faith in that, and advanced.

     Slowly, the two approached each other... until they stopped being slow, and went full tilt, blade to blade.

     "Did you hear something?" Penny asked, trying to strain an ear to hear anything in the murky echoes of the tunnels.

     "We must not leave our position until Lina gives the all clear," Zoamel reminded. "That was your plan, don't forget."

     "I know, I know," Penny said. "And for good reason. But... damn, if I didn't wish I had a weapon with me. I haven't had to really get into a fight since Zeifelia, and there, I had my naginata..."

     "Penny, that weapon was unsuitable for spreading butter on toast, much less slicing out the stillbeating heart of your enemy."

     The young girl burst out laughing. "Zoamel! You told a joke! See? I keep TELLING you, you do have a sense of humor under all that businesslike exterior... HA! And now you're blushing!"

     "Am not," Zoamel lied. Although he was thankful for a lack of reflecting surfaces.

     "Riiiight," Penny teased. "Anyway... it may have been a terrible weapon, but I can't exactly go ten rounds bareknuckle boxing, either. I didn't even THINK of what I'd do to guard this tunnel. What am I going to use, harsh language?"

     "You don't need to be concerned," Zoamel said, unintentionally letting a little masculine pride slip into his tone of voice. "I'll protect you from harm at the hands of the army."

     The tone shifted from light to dark in a heartbeat, as a sudden realization struck Penny between the eyes. " that what your believers want you to do, Zoamel?"

     "What?" he asked, puzzled.

     "I just thought... I mean, the only reason you're on this quest is because we tricked your believers into sending you on it," she explained. "I just remembered. But looking out for me isn't the same as getting vengeance on your enemies. You didn't say 'I'll defeat the army to punish them', you said 'I'll protect you from harm'. That's not what your followers wish you to do."

     Zoamel stood still, locked in thought... but it didn't take him long to reach a conclusion. It was the same conclusion he'd come to earlier this day, and perhaps even earlier than that, on some level.

     "Perhaps it's something I myself wish to do," Zoamel said, quite calmly. "I am a sentient being. I am an individual, and even the gods can have their right to exist in that manner. Besides, if you want to be technical over the legal contract of belief, I could have a loophole... you believe in me, and you desire my aid. That makes you a faithful one, seeking a miracle from one you believe in. Is that not the same?"

     "What if I told you not to help me?" Penny asked, testing.

     Zoamel smiled at her, quite amused, in an affectionate little way. "Would you really request that, Penny?"

     It was her turn to blush now. " I wouldn't ask you to leave me. I don't think I'd ever ask you to do that..."

     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 the army showed up.

     "Surrender in the name of Sairaag!" a captain shouted.

     Penny, whose first real kiss with Zoamel had been interrupted once already today, cast a look at the captain that would have sliced hundred mile long mountain chains in half.

     The soldier actually felt a bit weak in the knees for a moment, before he recovered, and ordered the charge -- right into a wall of monstrous, demonic flesh that Zoamel had thrown up to block their path.

     "Go!" he ordered, his arms outstretched and extended, to provide a living barricade to their progress. "Alert Lina!"

     "But.. but I'm supposed to stay--"

     "I will hold them!" Zoamel shouted. "There are too many, and you yourself said you were weaponless, yes? You can help by getting Lina! GO! I'll join you soon, I promise!"

     Penny turned quickly, scrabbling in the pebbly dirt, and made a beeline down the tunnel.

     Two experts in the blade arts locked horns, using the limited space of the tunnel, carefully deflecting each other's attacks. Counter attack, parry, dodge, twist, move after move, experts unwilling to give the slightest advantage to the each other...

     "Is this what you've become, Zelgadis?!" Gourry grunted, locking up the blades, trying to immobilize him. "A puppet of Sairaag, sinking yourself to threatening my family?"

     "They, and you, are in my way," Zelgadis spoke, voice dripping with icicles. "You have no concept of what is at stake here. You have no idea what I have been through, and what I am still willing to go through to get what I want."

     "You'll have to go through me first!"

     "As you see, my skill with the blade has raised considerably since we last met! Are you certain you want to continue this??"

     "You will see the warrior's spirit still burns--"

     "Oh, would you two get ON with it without the macho chest beating and posturing?!" Lina barked, getting very annoyed. "It's making me violently ill, and I'll zot both of you if you keep this childishness up!"

     " are quite right, Lina," Zelgadis said. He braces his feet, SHOVING hard against Gourry. Gourry stumbled back, always keeping the blade in front of him, ready to parry the coming attack--

     But wasn't able to parry a bullet.

     Gourry's armor split neatly, the specially coated Sairaag ammunition piercing his government issue chestplate. He didn't scream in pain, but he clutched at the wound, sinking to his knees, face going very faint...


     Lina rushed at him, fear coursing through her body like blood, as she saw him collapse, as she saw him dying... she didn't think about the army, didn't think about her own fear, thought about nothing except getting to him and helping him--

     Which is why she was grabbed so easily. Zelgadis wrenched her arm behind her back, locking a metal bangle around it, sealing her magic.

     "I need a shield," he explained, as he muscled her away from her husband, and continued his march down the tunnel, rock-like muscles easily restraining the woman used to sitting behind a sales counter.

     "LINA!" Penny shouted, running into the main chamber -- and hitting the brakes hard, to avoid skidding right into the pulsing orb of darkness in the center of the chamber. Xelloss frowned at her briefly for interrupting his concentration, then resumed post haste. His raven fluttered around the orb, adding its own miniscule power to the effort, laying trails and tracks of shadow to the wad of power...

     Lina looked up from the task, noting Penny's high velocity entrance. "Army's coming, I take it? No; I can tell from your look. Xelloss? You see that? Any minute now, men with big guns and Eradicators are going to come here and make us all dead. GET A MOVE ON!"

     "I'm not the spring chicken I once was, okay?" Xelloss complained. "Making a portal like this is not an easy task, either. But don't get your panties in a proverbial bunch; we're almost there... I just need one more minute, then I have it."

     "Good. Maybe they'll be--"

     "Lina!!" Lina Gabriev shouted, struggling to get away from her captor. "Lina, look out!"

     All present turned to face the army... more specifically, to face Zelgadis, who had Lina Gabriev at gunpoint.

     "I'll execute her if I must," Zelgadis warned. "But I will let her and her family leave if you, the Mazoku, and Zoamel surrender yourselves to us. Do not be heroic. You can't afford it."

     Lina Inverse twisted her hands in front of herself, forming a red flare of burning light... which flattened out, narrowed, and became the world's thinnest, smallest Dragon Slave. It hovered between her hands, twisted into her preferred weapon in less than a second. "You'd be surprised the kinds of gambles I'll take, Zelgadis," she said quickly. "That's what I do for a living. That's what I AM. Who do you think will drop first, her, or you when this embeds in your rocky thick head? I--"

     Then she got distracted.

     Zoamel had run up behind her group, intending to run to their aid, with the army hot on his heels. The sound of it was enough to make Lina flinch and look...

     Everything slowed.

     Zelgadis used the arm he was holding Lina Gabriev back with, and shoved her forward with incredible force... enough to knock Penny sprawling to the ground. With his other arm, he flicked an Eradicator disk from sleeve to palm, and flung it out...

     Xelloss's portal shrank to a pinprick, while the disk flew past where it was, before exploding outward into a fully fledged exit wrought from blackest shadow, ready for use.

     But the disk continued on. It absorbed the modified Dragon Slave like a sponge into water. Lina Inverse was able to twist her body, to avoid contact, as it flew right by her...

     Impacting soundly onto Zoamel Gustav's chest.

     Both armies halted, the resulting light show stunning them, as the black lightning arced all around Zoamel's body. He sank to his knees, a silent scream forming, trying to fight it, while everybody got their bearings back...

     "..Zoa.. NO!" Penny shouted, diving to help him. She reached out, to grasp his hand... and her hand went right through it, as he went from opaque to transparent to not there at all. The disk clattered to the ground, purple cross glowing, task complete.

     "Kill them all," Zelgadis ordered, quietly.

     "Time to go!" Xelloss decided, grabbing the stunned Lina Gabriev and shoving her into the portal.

     Lina Inverse bit her lip... and knew they had to leave. If they stayed, they WOULD all die. She couldn't fight them all, not if they were armed and ready to deal with gods, and if she did she might accidentally hurt Penny and the others... it was a split second decision, but she let her gut dictate it. It had never failed her before. "PENNY! We have to leave, NOW!"

     "NO!" Penny shouted, scrabbling on the ground for the fallen disk, trying to grab it -- only to have her hand stepped on by a soldier. She screamed out in pain, as Lina Inverse knocked the man backwards with a sharp blow to the mind... and grabbed Penny's wrist, pulling her along.

     Zelgadis readied the disk up his other sleeve, and threw with pinpoint accuracy; but it was too late. The disk flew into the portal, without hitting anything, and then the hole in reality collapsed onto itself in a splitsecond. The chamber was officially empty; Penny, both Linas, and Xelloss had made their retreat.

     He allowed himself a frown. They had failed... partially. He walked over, and collected the fallen Eradicator, pocketing it. At least they had the minor god of vengeance, even if it was not the biggest fish they could have caught. This, as well as...

     "Captain, is the Gabriev man dead?" Zelgadis asked. Because if not, he would make an excellent hostage.

     There are many advantages to having an address just beyond the reach of mortal reality. For starters, you receive considerably less junk mail, but the real bonus is that when you run home, you don't have to worry about being followed. A nice, quiet pocket dimension where you could put your feet up, relax, and read the morning paper...

     If you didn't mind reading the paper in an underground cavern that seemed to be made up of brimstone, ash, and porous rocks glowing an unholy red. But at least it was quiet.

     When the orb of darkness expanded to full size at the other end of its dimensional tunnel, a discarded Eradicator, some stray cave-dirt, and four travelers with adrenaline pumps running on overdrive, that quiet was instantly shattered.

     Penny whipped around Lina, trying to break herself free of the hold on her wrist. "Let me go! I've got to go back!! He's going to be--"

     The portal shrank to nothingness, spell giving way under the strain. Penny broke free just in time to run through the air, and crash face first into the opposite wall.

     Meanwhile, Lina Gabriev had snapped out of her funk, and was doing her best to torque Xelloss's head off. "Open the portal! OPEN IT! Gourry's hurt and he's still back there with them! We've got to return and--"

     "And what?" Lina Inverse asked, cutting in. "Guys, GUYS! Everybody shut up and think. I'm just as pissed as you are, people, but if we go back there we'll all get killed or captured. Everybody be COOL. If the direct assault isn't gonna work, we'll think of something else. We'll work this out. It's not over!"

     "But GOURRY--"

     "Odds are they'll take Gourry with them... clearly they're not above using hostages if they'd grab you, Lina," Lina Inverse explained. "And Penny, calm down! Zoamel is still alive! He's just stored in that disk, don't you see? It's like the Mooki-Pokko cards, I explained it before. They've been kidnapping Demiurges, not killing them. We can still get them both back!"

     Penny clenched a fist, still refusing to let go of that anger, despite Lina's pleading tone. "How exactly do we get them back...? Do we go to Sairaag? Didn't you say we'd go when the time was right?"

     Lina Inverse paused, not sure how to answer that. "Ah... well, that'd be the best option. That's where they're heading next, and if they could portal over to the island, they could even be back by now, but it still feels a bit premature to run off--"

     "Again with the timing!" Xelloss complained, bitterly angry. "How many times do I have to ask you to go wipe Sairaag off the map, Lina? Isn't it time yet? Honestly, I'm beginning to wonder if this plan was worth all the delicate craftsmanship I put into it. I had set things up so well for both of you Lina-chans. I guess I underestimated the Demiurge of Science when I began all this, however... I had believed you'd be the most effective solution, Lina. Perhaps I my belief was ill-placed."

     "Give me a break, Xel, I'm doing the best I......"

     Something clicked into place in her mind. Lina Inverse went from protesting to open staring over the span of a few seconds... unsettling even the old Mazoku, and her companions, with the silence.

     "Something amiss?" Xelloss asked, goading her on.

     "...what do you mean, 'You underestimated the Demiurge of Science when you began all this'?" Lina asked. "Xelloss... we didn't KNOW there was any such thing as a Demiurge of Science until just a few days ago."

     "A.. slip of the tongue, is all," Xelloss hastily covered. "You know what I meant, ladies... ah..."

     Lina Gabriev frowned. "Xelloss, you don't slip the tongue. I should know, all those times you smooched me just to piss me off. I'd like to know what you meant as well... since you said BOTH Linas."

     "Precisely. No, Xelloss, I do NOT know what you meant," Lina Inverse said, anger rising like a rock dropped in reverse gravity, as she stomped over to confront him. "Because if you meant what I think you meant, do you know what I think you meant you meant to say?"

     "Liina.. you're confusing your old friend Xelloss," Xelloss laughed nervously, raising his hands in protest -- shortly before he was raised up against the wall by invisible forces, pressed hard enough to squish a watermelon.

     Lina's eyes flared red with anger, her power getting a wee bit out of control. "It MEANTS that you were holding out on us all along, you little pile of cow turds!! You've gotten me AND Lina Gabriev over there caught up in something, you knew exactly what we were facing, and you didn't bother to tell us. What're you playing at? What's your crazy secret little plan this time, Xelloss?!"

     "Hey, hey, you're wrinkling the cloak--"

     She snapped her fingers, cutting the hold, and letting Xelloss drop the floor. Counting from five to one backwards, she got her bearings, and then tried this from a different direction.

     "Xel? You know me, right? You know that when I've got enemies all around me, there's no hope in sight, and I can't even turn to my friends for help... that I can be VERY, very dangerous to my enemies. That's what this 'timing' is I'm always telling you about, that feeling of getting shoved to the wall, and that being the moment I really shine. I said it was premature to go to Sairaag... I didn't say by how long. And unless I know you're NOT an enemy, I can't guarantee you'll be breathing in a few minute. I'd suggest you convince me, FAST, that you're actually on our side."

     Xelloss sighed, dusting off his cloak. He really did loathe being shown up like that, but wasn't stupid enough to let it trigger some reaction of bravado. "You're always such a stubborn one, Lina Inverse... but that's what I like about you. Very well. I suppose it can't hurt, not this late in the game, to discover what path you've TRULY walked on. Mistress Gabriev, you'll want to join us... but this is not for the child. Come with me."

     "What?" Penny asked. "But--"

     Her mother spoke. "Penny, stay put. We'll be back soon."

     "But MOOOOM--"

     "Stay," she reiterated. "Listen... we'll come up with a plan to save both your father and Zoamel. But personally, I'm not doing a single thing until I find out exactly what I've gotten involved in. So, it can wait. For now, stay here. I'll join you soon, I promise."

     The three walked off, down a passageway in the underground complex. All that Penny could think of, however, were how those were the exact same words Zoamel said to her. The last words he said to her.

     She glanced over at the debris that had come with them... including the empty Eradicator disk that had come through with them. It was a good target for her pent up frustration. She swung her leg back, and with an angry scream, gave it a kick that would have pegged it perfectly through the goalposts of reality.

     It shot at a wall, straight and true... before warping its flight path, curving away from it, and coming to a rest on the floor off to her left.

     Penny Gabriev raised an eyebrow. Gears started to turn in her mind, her analytical heroine smarts tagging what she just saw as 'Very Interesting Indeed'...

     The sense of deja vu was overwhelming. Whereas before they were in a shabby, damp-smelling brown catacomb, now they were in a shabby, scorched- smelling red catacomb. Xelloss led them past rows and rows of doors, the silence in the hallway deafening as they progressed -- he clearly knew where he was going.

     "Xelloss? Where the hell are we, exactly?" Lina Inverse asked. "In all the craziness, I totally forgot to ask."

     "Hell, exactly," Xelloss said, allowing a little smirk despite the precarious nature of his situation. "We're in Hell. Hellmaster Phibrizo's old stomping grounds.'s a bit empty, since he got killed by you so long ago. Empty cells, no mortal souls to torture... the Mazoku are here, of course, but hiding. Avoiding Sairaag. It's a bit like an evacuation shelter now."

     Lina Gabriev muttered darkly, rubbing at her wrists; although her counterpart had easily snapped the magic sealer bangle that was locked there in half, the cold numbness wasn't going away fast enough for her tastes. "Terrific. I could be at home reading the newspaper right now if I hadn't got caught up in this..."

     "Which is exactly where you SHOULD be," Xelloss noted. "I hadn't anticipated you would become involved in this fight at this stage in the game, my fair lady Gabriev. Many apologies."

     "Now, my second big question," Lina Inverse forewarned. "Where exactly are you taking us, Xelloss? Why can't you just tell us what you've been doing?"

     "I think it would be better to show you," Xelloss said, trying to pick a door from the near endless series of identical steel portals. He closed his eyes, trying to remember back that far.. and selected the right one. He grasped the door handle tightly. "It would take far too long to explain without visual aids. Now, Lina, give me a hand at getting this thing open; it's SO taxing on the muscles... the walls are quite special, you see, to help seal the doors and keep people IN. But I think you'll agree it's worth the effort. A picture is worth a thousand words... and mature-yet-still- quite-adorable Lina Gabriev here may catch on better this way. After all, this is a very personal subject for her..."

     "Whatever," Lina Inverse agreed, gripping the handle. "Here goes nothing..."

     "What?" Lina Gabriev asked, as the two swung the metal door open wide...

     And her eyes widened hard, stretching the muscles of her face, as she stared inside the prison cell, mind locking in absolute horror from her worst nightmare...

     Discerning between different shades of red was not an easy task in the poor lighting of Hell, but once she had some actual evidence, it became obvious to Penny. The walls of this place were a slightly lighter red than the floor. They were different kinds of stone -- and the stone in the walls was repelling the Eradicator disks. Every time she threw one at the wall, no matter how hard the throw, it'd skew off and land on the floor without touching the wall.

     Doubly weird, whenever she got close to the wall to pick up the stray disk, her backpack would get pulled to the wall, and she'd have to tug quite hard to yank it free.

     At first, she thought this might be some strange kind of magic. But she didn't know anything about magic, and that solution didn't satisfy her. She tried emptying her backpack, dumping her hair brushes, maps, knick-knacks bought at various souvenir shops and other odds and ends (including a very irate Table-chan, which disliked backpack travel), and testing each item in turn.

     It was the metal objects that were sticking to the walls.


     She'd studied the phenomenon extensively in class; it was a very marketable science, after all, what with the compass and navigation industry. Her mother liked marketable skills. The walls here were magnetic, and they attracted metal, but repelled the disks. Something inside the disk (which was clearly a superhard ceramic, rather than a metal) was also magnetic, but by the same polar direction -- so they repelled each other.

     Well, that was nice. Now what could she DO with this? She pondered the question, but didn't have to ponder for very long. Approaching a stalagmite near a cavern wall, she pulled, trying to break off a chunk of the rock... but even though she was stronger than the average grrl, it wasn't happening. She needed assistance. And assistant, perhaps.

     "Table-chan?" Penny asked, kneeling down to address the sulky table. "I need your help..."

     Her beloved Table-chan skittered back a few steps. Penny sighed, and scooped it up into a hug.

     "I know, I know... I haven't had a chance to play with you lately," she said, apologetic. "It's.. it's been hard for me, lately. And now with Zoamel gone, I just... .. nevermind. Table-chan, I need your help. Only you can help me help Lina help me save Zoamel, or something. You're a very good little table, yes you are, yes you are! And I just KNOW you'll be an invaluable companion!"

     The Table perked up a bit, waggling its 'front' legs a bit playfully. It tried to look strong and big, stretching out a bit, as Penny set him down.

     She pointed dramatically to the stalagmite. "Okay! Table-chan, ikuze! Tackle attack now!"

     With a skittering sound of rock on rock, the Wandering Monster Table ramped up to impossible speeds, before kicking itself into the air, hurling flat side first -- and smacking into the rock formation. The impact shattered the rock, knocking it into many pieces.

     "Victory!" Penny cheered, posing.

     Elsewhere, Lina Gabriev was feeling anything but victorious. She felt very small. Small, cold, and afraid...

     It was just a table. A simple stone table, with straps suitable for locking down a human-sized subject's wrists, ankles, and neck. She hadn't seen it before in her life, but the sight of it paralyzed her with fear, eyes unable to tear away from it...

     "As you see, this is one of the many interrogation rooms in Hell," Xelloss explained to Lina Inverse, ignoring the older Gabriev's plight. "Mortals whose souls the Mazoku claim, or living prisoners who have information we need were usually tortured here by the Mazoku Lords. Hell was Phibrizo's home, but all the lords had free run of the facilities."

     "How nice," Lina Inverse said dryly.

     "But this specific cell was the one I brought Lina Inverse to, one night, twenty years ago," Xelloss said.. with a slight twist of a smile. "That's why you remember it, isn't it, Missus Gabriev? You were here, once, even if you've completely blocked out the memory of it."

     Lina Gabriev shakily got to her feet, trying to control her reaction. She looked away from the table -- that helped, as she glared at the Mazoku, hatred deep-set in her eyes. "What did.. what did you DO to me!?"

     "Excuse me, but that's a very nasty tone to take with the man who's helped save the world," Xelloss said. "It's quite simple. Beastmaster Zelas-Metallum decided that you were too dangerous to leave alive. Until then, you had been a very interesting toy, and a good pawn in the Mazoku power play. But after the incident with Phibrizo, and Filia's quest in the new world, she started having second thoughts. So, one night, she told me to sneak into your inn room where you and Gourry were staying on yet another in a long string of adventures, and kill you. No challenges, no speeches, just a simple murder."

     "And obviously, you didn't do that," Lina Inverse said, wanting to get on with this.

     "Of course not!" Xelloss said, appalled. "Why, Lina, you're FAR too wonderful a person to allow to go in such an unexciting way. And besides... I had begun to feel the flow of things change, long before then. There was a reconstruction movement in Sairaag, which was progressing far faster than humanity had ever managed before. Being thousands of years old, I could see the pattern shift easier than most. I tried to bring it to my mistress's attention, but she could have cared less... so I did the research myself. A pet project. That's when I discovered the true power behind Sairaag, and learned of the Demiurges, and theorized their link to Shaburanigdo and the other gods..."

     "So you DID know," Lina Inverse said. "You knew all along what was going on. You knew TWENTY YEARS AGO what was going on."

     "You are correct, ma'am!" Xelloss said proudly. "And I knew that the Mazoku were FAR too linear in their thinking to ever stand up to a threat like this. The Demiurge of Science had just would eventually grow too powerful for us to handle. No, a threat like that... there was only one force on this world which I felt had the potential to solve our little problem. And that was you, Lina Inverse--"

     A fist smashed across his jaw, knocking the Mazoku down. Lina Gabriev stood over him, quivering with rage, barely restrained from doing worse than a single haymaker.

     "WHAT DID YOU DO TO ME?!" she screamed. "Twenty years ago, my mind broke! I went catatonic, and I lost everything... I..."

     " were taken here," Xelloss quickly said, rubbing his jaw. "I convinced Zelas-Metallum that we didn't HAVE to kill you... we simply had to remove your will to fight. Your sense of adventure, of ambition to get involved in things risky to the Mazoku. So, I took you here, and in the span of two simple hours, carved a part of your self away from you."

     Lina Gabriev paled. "You... you did what?!"

     "That's where I come from," Lina Inverse said, in a flash of realization. "Xelloss took your legendary aspects away from you, so you wouldn't save the world anymore. And when that happened, the world reacted..."

     "...and lo, a new Demiurge was born!" Xelloss said, with a flourish, as he levitated back to his feet. "One who would naturally slide right into a quest to save the world from the Demiurge of Science. A calculated risk, but I had done my research. Set a Demiurge to catch a Demiurge, yes? Lina Inverse, the human Lina Inverse, settled down with Gourry, no longer seeking a life on the road. Soon after, the LEGEND of Lina Inverse filtered through the collective conscious of humanity... with a little publicity campaign by yours truly, of course, to increase awareness of her. Twenty years later... here you are. The purified, distilled savior of the world. And here YOU are, the meat that was left behind in the process."

     Lina Gabriev physically flinched.

     "And that, friends, is my total secret plan," Xelloss finished. "I've been using you all along, I'm afraid, to destroy Sairaag for the Mazoku cause. Unfortunately, YOU are not proving to be a very cooperating god, Lina Inverse. Every time I asked you to go, you kept saying it wasn't time. Fooey on that. Do you want to save the world or not? It is your destiny. So what if it's a cause sponsored by the Mazoku? The humans want to live just as much as we do, and I guarantee you a future controlled by Science will NOT be a fun place to live for anyone."

     Lina Inverse stood still as a calm lake. Her hair shadowed her eyes, as this realization filtered through her... and her own unconscious mind confirmed it. It was PURPOSE, a rush of feeling after her recently completed quest had left her. This was her destiny. The Mazoku was right...

     "I am rather sorry to get you involved in this, Human-Lina," Xelloss said. "I had hoped I had bought you a little peace of mind and quiet life away from the Mazoku's problems. I had the best of intentions, you realize, simply the BEST of intent--"

     "You took me away from me," Lina Gabriev said, voice soft but strong enough to cut Xelloss off instantly. "I cried for days. I didn't understand what had happened, and after that... I lost my will to live. Only because Gourry was there did I ever come out of that haze... only because he called me back. His love saved me. We got married, I put my life back together, we had our daughter, and I've recovered from this violation. But YOU... you're the one who did this. You raped my mind. I'm never... ever... going to forgive you, Xelloss."

     "I never said I was a good man," Xelloss said quietly, feeling slightly ashamed. "I simply do what needs to be done."

     "But you're wrong about one thing," Lina Gabriev said, reaching out to raise Xelloss's chin, to make him face her. "You haven't stripped all my adventurous side out. It's had time to grow back... and now, I'm up against a wall, aren't I? My husband is gone. My daughter is in tears over her loss. I'm not going back to my shop, I'm not going to hole up. I'm proud of what I've become -- I'm a damn good businesswoman, and I've carved myself a NEW niche in this world after you changed me, but nothing's keeping me from staying in that niche. This is what makes me dangerous, when I'm forced to act, even if every instinct is telling me to go home and wait it out. But I wouldn't go back, not now. I won't let this slide. I'm going to Sairaag, and I'm going to get my family back together."

     "...that's very admirable, Lina," Xelloss admitted. "And I'm glad to hear you haven't totally lost your fire. But you don't understand. No single mortal, not even the great Lina Inverse, is capable of pulling down the god of technology. It's grown too strong, too out of control. That's why I had to nurture the world's belief in Lina Inverse, the anti-hero, the legend, the myth. You alone, a simple human, can't accomplish that task--"

     "With me, she can."

     Both turned to face Lina Inverse, whose head had started to rise from her pause of thought. There was something around her... not a glow, nothing that could be seen. But something FELT larger than life about her, more glorious than any king, more righteous than any holy crusader. She was a champion, a victor, ready to mount her final attack. A true god, standing before them, ready to declare her will be done.

     "I can't agree with your methods, Xelloss, but you're right," Lina Inverse said, in a voice more real than the rocks around them. "Maybe as a human, I could have been in over my head. But I'm not human now. I'm a force of nature. I am the world's immune system. I carve away the sickness that plagues humanity... I never set out to do that, I'm never that selfless, but it always seems to happen anyway. I'm everything Lina Inverse used to be, carrying on past death, past humanity's possibility. Where monsters rampage, I'm there to take them down. Where treasure glitters, I'm there to claim it. Where an enemy rises to face me, victory will be mine! I am LINA INVERSE. It's high time I quit whining and accepted what I am; a god, a Demiurge, a savior. The time is now. My back's to the wall, and I'm going to go to Sairaag, and put an end to this once and for all."

     Relief washed over Xelloss like a tidal wave. "Oh, thank Lina! You have no idea how long I've waited for this moment. Three cheers for Lina Inverse! Hip hip--"

     "And if you whip out the pom-poms and start cheering again," Lina warned, "I'm gonna stuff a Laguna Blade up your ass. For land's sakes, Xel, SHAVE YOUR LEGS if you ever want to wear a skirt again."

     "Yes m'm," Xelloss said meekly.

     "........what?" Lina Gabriev asked, having lost complete track of this conversation moments ago.

     "Trust me, other me. You really, really don't want to know," Lina Inverse warned.

     Both Lina walked into the chamber they had originally entered, discussing strategy about how best to make the assault, when an Eradicator disk flew just past their noses.

     "GAAH!" Lina Inverse gagged, quickly stepping away. "PENNY! Watch it with that thing, it's not a toy!!"

     "Aa! Gomen, Lina-san!" Penny Gabriev apologized, quickly running over to reclaim the disk. "But I've made the most astounding discovery! Lina, the rocks here can REPEL the Eradicators!"

     "Eh?" Lina Gabriev asked, not getting it. "What, are they some funny kind of magic rocks?"

     "No, the disk would gobble up any magic," Penny said, smiling as she held the disk up. "It's basic universal physics of magnetism. Scientific principles and sound thinking in action to defeat the enemy's one upper hand they have on you! Give me a good forge, and I bet I could fashion the PERFECT anti-Eradicator set of armor for you, Lina!"

     "See?" Lina Inverse said, with a smirk. "The time is right. Everything's clicking into place. Penny, something tells me we can find enough heat in this place to melt rocks. Xelloss, get on it."

     "Aye aye, sir!" Xelloss saluted.

     "This is gonna be a cakewalk," Lina decided. "All we had to do was wait for the right moment, and the universe sort of works itself out. Never fails. I can't see us losing to Science now!"

     "Except that nobody's completely guaranteed to survive the encounter except you," Lina Gabriev warned. "Not to mention that saviors sometimes make the best martyrs."

     "....right. Well. We'll burn that bridge when we come to it."

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