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


     There's a certain pride that comes in living in a fifty mile wide sprawling city that was previously best known as being a large smoking crater. Looking at Sairaag from afar, which was really the only way to grasp the sheer scope of the city-state/empire, you'd never know it had been wiped off the map on two separate occasions.

     Instead, you'd marvel at the sheer effort it must have taken to expand it to six times its original size, much less rebuild it in the first place. Not only was it a big city, but it was a big MODERN city... full of shining metal and brass construction, towering buildings rivaled only by the urban landscapes of Darata, and elegant architectures to make Sailoon weep in jealousy.

     Ductwork and sturdy tubing connected every building, piping all manner of things to and fro -- working plumbing, electrical power, steam pressure for various machines, and endless reams of paperwork. Most of that paperwork flowed to the center of the city, to the Imperial Palace, where everything 'got done'... although there could be little doubt what the core of the city truly was, at first sight.

     The palace itself wasn't much of an affluent and aesthetic royal palace. Instead, it was a huge, sprawling lump of monolithic buildings, so connected by skywalks and tunnels and sub-buildings as to become one whole congealed structure. Despite the seemingly random construction of it, it remained airtight and secure; one of the few places in the city completely lacking in windows. Or doors.

     Nobody walks into the palace. You're either summoned, or you have no business being there. If employed there, you're assigned a hidden entrance, one of dozens available -- and if you compromise the security, you can bet that the next time you walk in, that entrance will be sealed behind you, which isn't a problem as you'll likely not be walking out again.

     And if you were a small, rag-tag band of adventurers trying to break in to rescue a cohort and send the place to the big real estate lot in the sky, the best way to proceed would be to walk up to it, turn around, walk away, leave the city and take up a peaceful life as a potato farmer instead.

     Lina Gabriev had absolutely no plans to pick up a hoe when her husband was inside that blasted place. However, she was not stupid enough to just blast a hole in it, climb in, and go looking. As much as she wanted to get this over with and run back to the comfort of her old home (as old habits die hard), she knew this was going to take careful planning. Forethought. Reconnaissance.

     She didn't trust 'Inverse' to handle that end of things. The younger Lina may be powerful as a god and as resourceful as, well, Lina Inverse, but she was NOT accustomed to this period in history, and wouldn't mix as well for a little undercover work. So, while the 'adventuring party' stayed at an inn on the fringes of Sairaag, having checked in at night and in disguise to avoid the bi-hourly announcements of their arrest warrants, Lina Gabriev was off doing a little footwork. Which also happened to involve consuming very large dinners -- once again, old habits die hard.

     "You know, information about this place is hard to come by," Lina said, engaging in conversation with a fellow trademan, while she enjoyed her bowl of Sairaag-style sweet and sour noodles. "All I heard was that they had some very fat government contracts up for hire to develop weapons. I didn't hear there was a magical ban, or I wouldn't have wasted five days getting here."

     "Ah... you may want to keep your voice down, miss," the merchant said, looking around. "While I'd like to believe myself very worldly, many here have a bit of a fear of magic--"

     "It's a justified fear, Myron," her other companion said, looking quite bitter. He was far older than the merchant, and wearing far shabbier clothing. (He owned this restaurant, and had come out to find out exactly who was eating an upwards of 17% of the kitchen in one sitting, and got sucked into the gaping maw of Lina's discussion.) "I don't mean anything personal against you, miss, but I trust something I can hold in my two hands and understand to some weird, arcane power from a time long forgotten. Especially a power stemming off those blasted Mazoku, or off some crazy shamans. Give me a good, solid gun any day over some fire spell, I say."

     "Mel, you don't know how a gun works any more than you do a fire spell," Myron the Merchant(tm) joked... but kept his voice low, so as not to be overheard. "If anything, you'd have to study for years, with hard magical training just to toss a small fireball. ANY idiot can pull a trigger. Which do you think is safer?"

     "Anyway," Lina said, wanting to get back on topic, "I'm not willing to go away empty handed. There's got to be SOME way to talk to someone in the palace about getting a weapons contract; if I can't make the stuff, I know some mechanists and blacksmiths back home. Maybe I can pick up the percentage. Do you know anyone?"

     "There was that Roy fellow who frequented the taverns I frequent, but I haven't seen him lately," Myron said, thinking back. "He worked for the military. The army and the government keep to themselves... this is your first time here, right?"

     "That's right. It's sort of a research trip too."

     "You don't need to worry about the government," the merchant said, a bit proudly. "Everything works transparently. All we have to worry about are our own affairs. They make sure the power and water keep going, and that crime is kept suppressed, and we take care of the whole living to day to day and prospering thing. It's actually quite an easy life."

     "And we deserve it, too!" Mel added. "I remember the first time the city was destroyed... the first hardship. I was lucky enough to be off getting supplies for the restaurant; I come back and I hear about how Lina Inverse destroyed the city. And something about some demon or another, but I didn't pay much attention to the local mythology. It was a very hard year, trying to rebuild the city again... and during one month when I was off giving a lecture at culinary school in Sailoon, I come back to find the Mazoku showed up and destroyed the city AGAIN. Nothing was left! Everything we'd built back up was wiped clean. I tell you, if not for Elizabeth Balderdash leading the reconstruction efforts, I'd have bee forced to leave my homeland long ago..."

     "I'll be the first to admit, she's done wonders for Sairaag," Myron conceded, again watching his volume. "The city is prosperous again, and life is easy. No small amount of work went into that, and without her organizational skills and new technologies, we'd never have recovered. But things aren't ALL well outside of the city. I don't like to really talk about this, since it goes against everything we hear in the news, but... Mina, where are you from again?"

     "Zeifelia," Lina said, recognizing her 'stage name' immediately.

     "Right. Well, the news here is talking about how we're working diplomatically to help move them under the Sairaag umbrella, and all that. But I've BEEN out and about, on trade routes, and it sounds more like a military action waiting to happen. Just like Sailoon. Mel, how'd the news put it?"

     "That Queen Amelia and some pagan wizard named Noisemacher or something had destroyed the diplomatic envoy we sent. Religious and magical zealots were ruling the city and refused to accept Sairaag's proposal of alliance. Honestly, and the magic lovers call US close minded? At least we don't worship any beastly gods who sacrifice virgins or--"

     "The way I heard it from a friend of a friend is that we were trying to take over their city with siege equipment," he continued. "Military annexation. We were the ones leaning on them, not the other way around. I know it's hundreds of miles away, and I wasn't there personally, but--"

     "That's ridiculous," Mel scoffed. "We're not a hostile country. We work, we live, we love our families, and we're not at war with anyone. There's nothing in the daily news about any wars, so why would anybody think that?"

     "I'm just saying the world SEES us as this big, growing thing that's eating up everything in its path," Myron protested. "I'm wondering if we're being told the whole story. Mina, what do you know about it? You're on the outside; whereas most of these people never leave the city. How do you see us?"

     Lina gave pause. She could either tell the truth, and risk drawing attention, or...

     "I don't know. I'm just trying to make money," Lina lied. She took one last forkful of noodles, chewed quickly, and swallowed. "I think I'd better get moving. Time is money, and I've got to find SOME way to talk to the military and see if I can make any contracts. Hey, what about the smitheries on 32nd and 6E Street? I heard they produce firearms for military use--"

     "You don't want to go there," the merchant quickly warned.

     "Huh? Why?"

     "Smells bad," Mel added. "Industrial sector. Lots of smokestacks. I really wish they'd push harder for the pollution legislation; it wasn't so bad in the first few years, but it's getting nasty now."

     Myron scratched his head, nervously. Which Lina immediately picked up on; this guy was NOT good at lying. "It smells terrible, yeah. But I just meant that those guys were on contracts for years. Nobody gets a NEW contract, and the shipments just get piped by ducts over to the palace after being filled, anyway.... it's a closed system. Everything relating to the government is a closed system. You'd be wasting your time, Mina."

     "Okay, okay, I got it. I'll look elsewhere," Lina lied again. "Mel, I'll be back for breakfast, so you'd better replenish your stocks!"

     Mel groaned, his age showing as he scribbled down a supply requisition order to replace all the food she'd just eaten, and rolled it into an empty metal tube drawn from his apron. He walked over to the nearest tube slot, stuffed it up, and with a hissing FWOOMPH, it was off to his supplier. "I should have never switched to all you can eat," Mel grumbled. "You're as bad as Lina Inverse!"

     She decided to take it as a compliment. Of all the things she hadn't been like lately, Lina Inverse was one of them. And now, here she was, sneaking around in disguise and walking that bleeding edge of danger, far from home... it was frightening. Beyond frightening to one like her. But something like fear was not going to stop her, not anymore.

     Honestly, she could understand where Mel was coming from... the comfort of an established life. Your needs taken care of, without a single cause to leave your home, to ever find out about the world outside your walls. For the last few years, Lina had LIVED that life; secluded and protected.

     But the secluded and protected had no idea what was going on around them. They didn't know why she was in town, or what powers she brought with her... and knowing how her.. companion's adventures typically ended, in a very explosive way, she started to worry. Even if they were almost guaranteed evil would be vanquished and the world would be saved, the numbers were starting to tick in her head of who would have to be sacrificed to get to that wonderful happy ending... the gods typically demanded blood, and odds are, they'd be getting it soon.

     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.

     Her reaction to the recent turns of events was thought out well in advance. She had a particular methodology to how she approached crisis situations, and it had never failed her before -- here, it was the ideal solution to the problem. It was exactly what the situation called for. So, with determination, with every fiber of her being, she proudly raised her fork high, plunged it into a pork chop and gnawed a large portion of it off.

     "WHOOO, this is GOOD stuff!!" Lina Inverse declared, holding her succulent meat cut high, in appreciation. "Man, Sairaag may be loaded with whackos who want to kill me, but the cooking is STILL some of the best you'll ever find! Hey, you gonna eat that? Not hungry?"

     Penny Gabriev looked up after a few moments, the questioning tone interrupting her train of thought. Her plate indeed was fairly full... and given she'd inherited at least some of her mother's ravenous appetite, that was cause for alarm.

     "No... I'm not hungry," Penny replied, pushing the plate a few inches away -- right into Lina's waiting fork. "Sorry, I'm just..."

     "I know, I know," Lina said, having perfected the master skill of talking while eating without grossing out your companions (much). "You're worried about Zoamel, and about your father. Hey, me too! I've traveled with both of them long enough to care about them and want to help them... but that's no reason to let a perfectly good steam pressure cooked Sairaag dinner go to waste! Hey, do you want to hit the steam heated onsen around the corner after dinner? They've got a piped in waterfall!"

     "How do you do it, Lina?" Penny asked. "We've been waiting around several days here, while who knows what is happening to them... I've been on edge the entire time. And here you are, chowing down and cracking jokes and enjoying this like a vacation!"

     "Yeah, so?" Lina asked, polishing off Penny's prime cut of pork. She left the rest, however; no need to deprive the young girl of her nutrition. "Your mother says we can't just go busting in and blowing stuff up, much to my annoyance, so we have to wait around. Why wait around in worry and despair when you can live high on the hog, so to speak, and exploit the city you're about to detonate?"

     "I guess that makes sense, but... I just can't imagine my mother acting like that," Penny said. "She's too professional to act like that. And she is you, right? I mean, some of you. Sort of. If what Xelloss told you was right..."

     "I've given it a lot of thought," Lina said. "It was the last piece of the puzzle, really. All this time I was running around thinking 'I'm Lina Inverse, I'm a human, I want my life back.' But it's not my life... it's hers. Once I've got that, the rest is easy. Let me put it this way -- in the middle of the enemy's stronghold, you see me here, eating and drinking and enjoying things, right?"


     "It's the same thing," Lina said, leaning over to smile confidently at Penny. "I'm not the sort of person to dwell on the negatives. Lina Inverse's life belongs to your mother. Once we split off, I lost all right to it... now, I'm Lina Inverse, the goddess of destruction, greed and accidental salvation. I've decided to accept that, because, hey -- what other choice do I have? This is what I AM; I'm what she was, personified. This is what the world needs. I have to work with it as best I can, and right now, the best way to do that is to have dinner. What I am is what asks for that. So, even in the face of incredible danger, I am what I am... sometimes relaxing, sometimes fighting, always me. That's what Lina Inverse is."

     "...I don't think I fully follow that, but I get the idea," Penny decided, after working it over a few times in her mind. "You know... it's funny. When we first started out this quest, I wanted to BE you. To become a legendary heroine, stomping bandits, the whole deal. It sounded so exciting and romantic and powerful..."

     "Hey hey, you're gonna make my ego swell here."

     "It's true!" Penny defended. "And for awhile, I was so blinded by how amazingly cool you were that I didn't really understand... I can't be you. We're different people, and each time I tried to be you, I messed it up. Once I stopped trying to emulate you, I think I started seeing things differently..."

     "And now you're the best Penny you can be, like I'm the best Lina I can be," Lina said. "Wow, I'm just loaded up on warm and fuzzy feelings right now just thinking about that. Of course, it's a shame to lose a Lina- fangirl, but I can cope."

     "What? No no... you don't understand," Penny said. "Once I decided to be me and let you be you... I believed in you even MORE. I could look at it from outside, or something, and REALLY appreciate what you are, not just your legend... I mean, look how far you've come in this quest! I don't think anybody else could have taken a missing persons search and ended up challenging a god for the fate of the world. You're everything your legend says you are, and I still believe in that legend just as much as I used to -- the difference is I'm willing to make my own legend now, instead of copying yours. I think you're going to win here. Beat the bad guy, save the princess and make off with the gold!"

     "Except that we don't know how to beat the bad guy, there's no princess but two princes, and based on past experiences in Sairaag I don't think anybody's gonna want to pay us for destroying the city," Lina corrected. "Don't get ahead of yourself, Penny. Sure, I think we'll win the day too, but at any time we just try to COAST on that without making an effort we're all gonna be crispy critters. It's cheating to rely too hard on luck, and fate hates a cheater. Got it? Stay focused. Gourry and Zoamel are depending on us."

     The very mention of their names put Penny back into her serious mood. "Right. I understand, Lina. I won't let it get to my head." She tugged her dinner plate back... no use wasting food, as she made up her mind to finish off what was left.

     "Speaking of letting things get to your head, I'd LOVE to know where your mother is," Lina grumbled. "She's been acting like SHE runs this little adventuring party ever since we lost our menfolk. I swear, if she doesn't get back soon from yet ANOTHER 'fact finding session' I'm just gonna blow a hole in the Palace and go get things done--"

     "Lina, we took a vote on this, and I agree with mother," Penny reminded her, pointing with the Fork of Accusation. "If you want me to play this cool, you play it cool too, okay? I don't want to do ANYTHING to needlessly risk their lives. And try to argue less with mother! We're going to blow our cover if we make a scene."

     Lina folded her arms, miffed. "It would've been a draw vote if we had Xelloss around. He's all in favor of stomping this place flat right away. Where does he get off going 'I leave things up to you' and taking off? He could be useful around here! We could send him in as a scout, use him for our all-important first assault wave, use him as a human shield, paint a big target on him and punt him into the fray to distract the army--"

     "Xelloss isn't in tip-top health, Lina. If he wants to sit it out, I say let him sit it out..." Penny said.. hefting the cloth-wrapped 'walking stick' she was carrying. "Besides, I have this. That and my faith in you are all I need."

     "Cute," Lina said, obviously without meaning it. "Hurry up and finish your meal. Sitting around relaxing and livin' large is nice, but on second thought, I'm sick of being cooped up; let's go run some errands."

     The master manipulator sat hunched over his chessboard. The pawns were in play, the knights maneuvered into position. Each piece, carefully sculpted and painted to represent a puppet in his play of fate and destiny... Lina, Lina, Penny, Zoamel, Gourry... Elizabeth, Zelgadis, Science... the great game of the gods was about to begin, as ancient as the dawn of time, as endless as the rolling sea--

     An errant wing knocked his Queen over.

     "Do you mind? I'm attempting to have a dramatic moment here," Xelloss said, quite perturbed. He picked up the chess piece and put it back. "You could have broken this. Do you know how hard it is to carve a 1/16th scale Lina? Her little stick legs break if you do it wrong. If you nicked her, I swear, no more dead rats for dinner."

     Xelloss sat back on his makeshift seat of an overturned tree trunk. He had a wonderful view of Sairaag, from this vantage point... even the monolithic Palace, smack dab in the center. It was the perfect angle for what he had planned. Most importantly, nobody would bother him here, and he could relax and enjoy the fireworks to his heart's content; if only his former master would calm down.

     The bird flapped around, deliberately getting all up in his area, to the point where Xelloss decided Enough Was Enough. His eyes actually opened.

     "No, I will NOT be aiding them," Xelloss retorted to the latest round of squawking. "You don't understand. You NEVER understood anything, Zelas- Metallum. It was always me with the brilliant ideas, it was always me pulling the strings years in advance to achieve the effect we wanted in the later decades... while you got all the credit. But I don't mind. 'tis the life of an underling. But in return, I expect you to listen to me when I tell you, this is what must be done. We will stay RIGHT here, waiting for the real prize--"

     The bird whapped its wings in the air madly, knocking over a few pawns.

     "Yes, you'll be restored to your former glory," Xelloss sighed. "I promised that. Please, have some faith! Aren't I the most loyal of your minions? Not to mention the only one still alive and walking and not sucked into the gaping maw of Sairaag's destiny? So I say we stay RIGHT here. Now make yourself comfortable. Or don't, for all I care. But leave me alone. I still have some time left to ponder the future of the Mazoku, and make the final preparations."

     The aging Mazoku studied his board... studied the city. Carefully, he selected his Queen's Bishop, Lina Gabriev, and made the move.

     Not that it actually prompted Gabriev into action in some weird magical mind control sort of way, it just made the whole exercise feel so much more entertaining to him. A good way to kill time, before the killing began.

     Finding the steelworks was just as easy as Mel had stated; Lina Gabriev simply followed her nose.

     Of course, she could have followed her eyes as well. Thick black smoke pumped out of the tall stacks in the industrial sector; the smell of molten metal was thick in the air, as the blacksmiths in this neck of the woods did a little more than just mint horseshoes. Street traffic also dropped to a nil, since nobody really came here on foot -- and nothing got shipped to or from here on carriage.

     Briefly, Lina wondered where all the raw materials and/or finished products were coming from / going to, until a sound like a suit of armor rolling down a hill alerted her. Strung between buildings were massive round pipes, ductwork, funneling who knows what to and from... mostly to, specifically, the Imperial Palace.

     An engineering marvel aside, Lina was pretty sure nobody here was going to talk to her, nor did she want to talk to anyone. Army guards had been posted at every street corner, and would cleanly spot her if she tried to do anything more than 'just pass through'. The cloak she'd picked out did a great job of concealing her features, as well as making her look like the most suspicious person in a ten mile radius.

     Making a scene was not a good idea. So, Lina Gabriev chalked this lead up as a Dud, and turned about face, to get away from this area just as quietly as she had entered.

     A plan that failed miserably when the building behind her exploded.

     The concussion wave knocked her cleanly off her feet, and into a wall. Not being the spring chicken she once was, she staggered a bit, vision blurring; that warm and runny feeling down her forehead was probably blood. She could hear just fine, though, hear the gunshots and sword clatter and other telltale signs of a battle... and a fairly large one, to boot. Who would be battling out here, anyway? Workers of the world revolting against the bourgeoisie or something?

     She didn't panic. Everything about her wanted to panic, to instinctively run for home, but she stopped listening to that little voice several days ago. She put Gourry firmly in mind, and made her decision to stand.. perfectly.. still, and let her senses recover before doing anything rash...

     A plan that failed miserably when someone grabbed her. She kicked back, hard at crotch level, getting disoriented as she then turned to face her attacker a little too quick. Too amateurish, Lina, your skills aren't as sharp as they once were, she thought -- right as someone clubbed her over the head with the handle of a rifle, and that was the end of her fun investigative jaunt.

     A nearby teletype printer sprang to life. Compressed air from one of the many ducts running into the palace translated into blocky, nasty looking letters, hammering out one after another on the paper tape. The smell of machine oil and bad printer's ink wafted up from the device as the news came in.

     Zelgadis tore the tape off the printer. He was not surprised by the word from their forces, but that failed to comfort him. He folded up the tape, so as not to have the rough paper snag on anything, and marched a quarter mile down to have a little chat with his companion.

     She was, however, too busy torturing Gourry to pay much attention.

     He folded his arms, waiting patiently for Elizabeth to get done whatever nonsense she was up to. The machine she'd placed Gourry in was silly even for her design aesthetics; some odd mismash of power conduits from the core, wiretaps and spiky bits of metal. It served no constructive purpose whatsoever.

     "This serves no constructive purpose whatsoever," he said, deciding the words needed public airing. He had to repeat them again, louder, to get her attention.

     Elizabeth took off her insulated work gloves, letting the controls rest. "On the contrary," she stated, calm as can be for someone engaging in such activities. "This research will enable us to extract information more efficiently from our prisoners in the future. True, he knows nothing we need to know, but his willpower is remarkably high--"

     "I'm fully aware of Gourry's capabilities," Zelgadis bit off, more than slightly annoyed. "This will only serve to enrage both Linas further than they already are. We should be offering him in exchange for a peace treaty with them."

     "The core has calculated a projection of Lina's fifty most likely rescue strategies, and has determined that they will all fail," Elizabeth spoke. "Her power as a god is strong, but the power from the core has reinforced our defenses sufficiently. She will pose no significant problem."

     "Perhaps if you weren't so busy running the numbers and engaging in frivolous experiments, you would be able to pay more attention to affairs of state," Zelgadis accused, holding out the tape. "There was another successful bombing campaign in the steelworks. Weapon production is going to drop ten percent for the next week. Ever since you foolishly gave them a new leader, they have been--"

     "I did NOT give them a new leader."

     "Your soft spot allowed him ample escape opportunity," Zelgadis quickly replied... and then allowed himself a frustrated sigh, a rare emotional signal. "Elizabeth, what is the matter with you? You've been distracted and unfocused. I'm going to go so far as to say you're not as sure of yourself as you have been, and don't bother disagreeing; it's the truth."

     "I have no doubts," Elizabeth said, voice dropping a few degrees. "Everything is going according to plan. I have faith in our success, in your cure, in our ushering in of the new order. I will admit... I am disappointed in my brother, and what became of him. But I will get over that. What other 'affairs of state' did you want to bring to my attention?"

     "There are reports of Lina Inverse and company already being here. They bypassed the checkpoints on the railways and roads--"

     "Yes, I know," Elizabeth said, with a smile. "Before you ask, I am doing nothing because they need to be demoralized. Let them think we know nothing. When they come, we will crush them, humiliate Lina Inverse, and possibly catch her once and for all. The same goes with the rebels; we will destroy them in one blow. What little damage they do to us is unimportant in the long run. The core systems have planned all of our moves well in advance, of course."

     "Of course," Zelgadis said, with distaste.

     "Are you doubting our technical edge, Zelgadis?" Elizabeth asked, curiously. "I've never seen you disagree so directly with me in previous efforts. Do you doubt the strategy programs of the core?"

     This gave him pause.

     "Of course not," he said, feeling it was obvious enough. "The core has proven invaluably useful. It's never let us down before... and I believe it will continue to aid me."

     "Then do you doubt me, perhaps? Haven't we been lovers long enough to understand how we handle situations?"

     The chimera smiled widely. "Of course not, Elizabeth. I trust you to the end of my life. Perhaps I am making too much of this. Sorry for bothering you."

     Elizabeth Balderdash allowed a curt nod, and then immediately returned to her work. She pushed a lever, funneling more power into Gourry's (previously) unconscious body. Zelgadis watched on, tracing the glowing conduits from the machine, back to the wall... eventually, those connections would go back to the core.

     Did he doubt the core? Of course not. Not when it held the key to his cure. His sister would indeed be proud of him, wherever she was. Soon, the research would be complete, and all the power he sought as a child would become untainted.

     The Imperial Palace of Sairaag is powered by the Core. The Core is a big cylinder full of swirly glowing blue mist. This is all humans see, and the extent of their understanding. Partly this is out of ignorance of what the Core actually IS -- partly it's an inability for human eyes to see the true contents of the Core. It wasn't designed for the convenience of mortals... or for immortals.

     Zoamel Gustav, at that moment, was feeling very inconvenienced. He had inconveniently lost all track of the passing of time, and the passing of space. Split seconds had passed since he felt the irresistable pull of the 'Eradicator' disk. Years had passed since he felt the pull. He felt the pull in the future, the past, the present. He felt himself in the disk, in the Core, walking around in his memory, any number of places...

     Overall, he felt tired. And he was getting weaker just being here. Wherever here was.

     It was impossible to keep a coherent train of thought. Every time he tried to think about why it was impossible, he lost track of what he was thinking of. Any number of potions and herbs can paralyze the human body, but to paralyze the essence of a god is another matter--


     The sound (if you could call the virtual symbol that was represented by a sound, since sound did not carry in the Core and there was nothing physical to emit the sound) shook him out of his trance.

     The trick is to focus on the others, not on the whole. Look for the parts and don't let it overwhelm you. Come on, hurry up. If you go nodding off for a few hours you might miss all the fun.

     Zoamel Gustav pulled hard, like a man hauling the moon down from the sky with a bullrope, but eventually got enough of his wits about him to stay cognizant of his surroundings. It was an etherial blue mass... a jelly so thick he could not move. But he could see others... other entities, recognizable by essence pattern if not by visuals. He could feel their shapes.

     "Focus on me," a young-feeling shape said. "Keep focused. There's only a few of us who are strong enough to resist the draining and stay awake. As much as it sickens me to say it... I need your help."

     He had a feeling, but the begrudging admittance confirmed it.

     "Ace Champion," Zoamel addressed, his thoughts linking to the other god's thoughts. "So, you were captured by your own allies. I am not surprised, as you--"

     "Skip the taunting," Ace said. "Normally I'd approve, but we have to work fast. Things are happening outside. Big things. Here, feel... feel these guys, I'll link you to them through me. Keep FOCUSED."

     A half dozen weakened gods filtered their way into Zoamel's perception. Some of the older ones were too fuzzy, too gone from prolonged power draining, but all of them were clinging to each other like a life raft in a shipwreck. There were others here... many, many others, but they drifted in sleep, unable to wake and realize they were prisoners...

     "Yo, Zo," a gruff voice echoed. "See the bleepers got you too, huh?"


     "Yeah. And those others, they's some Mazoku that got bagged a long time ago. Couple random Bard-gods, a few weather deities, Lord Dynero... just the ones that could keep their heads... thought I was dead, 'till Ace, that little bleephead, explained things. Like him or not, he's got things figured out."

     "I knew they'd make a move on me," Ace explained. "So I made sure I had an ace up the hole, so to speak... there's an innate flaw in the Eradicators that keeps ME conscious if I'm ever trapped. From there, I rallied the troops, and started resisting. I hate cooperating... but I do not lose. Ever. And I won't now. Do you feel that?"

     Ace redirected Zoamel's attention to a small, almost unnoticeable conduit in the Core. Unlike the others, which sucked power off to various tunnels and cables, this one powered a small machine built right into the core.

     "That's where Science issues orders," Ace said. "We've coopted it. It just takes a SLIGHT push to change the pulses, and it ends up displaying instructions it never meant to. We don't change the mind of a god, we just change the words his voice speaks in the physical world. A nice hack if I do say so myself..."

     "Science hasn't detected you?" Zoamel asked, suspicious.

     "Not yet. We've been careful. But if we're lucky, we won't have to worry. We've prompted it to instruct Sairaag to ignore the rebels, to torture Gourry Gabriev, that sort of thing... it may be ruthless, but this will make it easier for the rebels to attack, and to make it more dramatically correct for Lina to come and blow this place up. Once the hold Science has on us is broken, we all go free. And don't you get on my case about cooperating with my rivals; this is a one time deal only. Understand? Now, will you help us? The more we have, the easier this will be."

     It was a dangerous plan, like all of Ace's gambits... a large payoff, but an incredible amount of risk. Ace always pulled through on such chances, simply because of what he was, but in this situation, the rules would be different. He didn't believe they could keep up the ruse long... and the consequences could be harsh, if Science noticed and tried to suppress and destroy them. It only needed their energy, not their SELVES... only a fool would support such a plan without thinking it through...

     A brief flicker of memory, of Penny's face, was all Zoamel needed. Because with that memory, he felt a link -- a link outside of the Core, to strong belief, to faith and love and hope. To a weapon made in the name of love and vengeance, made in his name, to free him. To complete his quest in the name of his believers.

     If she believed in him that strongly, he would believe in her, and support her in any way he could.

     "Very well."

     For no reason she could grasp, Penny felt very, very good for a moment. Like a warm hug, or a confident hand on her shoulder, a pep talk she couldn't hear...

     Lina waving around a gun big enough to put a hole in the continent prompted her to dive for cover and completely lose track of that feeling.

     "Now, THIS is what I'm talking about!" Lina said, hefting the bizarre metal contraption up to one shoulder, peering through the stained glass sighting scope. "One of these, you could blast a ship out of the water, or torch a castle from a mile away, and they'd never sense it coming with magical defenses! WOOHOO! How much money do we have left?"

     "...five gold, six silver, a copper, a farthing, and nine pieces of eight and one of these weird red gold coins from some foreign country," Penny said, thumbing through her purse. "I was never very good at economics. I don't think I inherited it from mother..."

     "So about 8.158 gold," Lina calculated with practiced ease. "And the price tag on this iiiis.... 8,158 gold. Hmm. We're off by a few decimal places. Rats."

     "Can't you just go wave wave poof and.... beat The Bandits?" Penny asked, swapping in the Safe To Use In Public words, although the shopkeeper had ducked under his counter for safety when Lina began her hands-on window shopping a few minutes ago. (He also had his fingers in his ears, just waiting for Lina to accidentally blow up the shop while she played with the inventory.)

     "We're not talking about ordinary bandits here," Lina explained. "I've got to approach this like I'd approach any fight. When I feel totally outmatched, I go look for bigger, badder spells. And since there's a decided lack of those sorts of things around here, I've got to make do with big metal phallic things that blow stuff up real good. Odds are The Bandit Chief is stronger at this sort of thing than I am... what with all of The Hostages it has. I want an equalizer."

     "But how can you kill a... a... 'Eternal Bandit'?" Penny asked, forgetting what the code word for 'God' was. "I mean, I thought it was impossible..."

     Lina flipped the barrel of her cannon open, examining the ammo chambers. She could probably fit her whole arm into those things. "TECHNICALLY, it's impossible. Even the Hostages weren't killed. I haven't worked out those details yet, okay? First thing we do is rescue the others, then we'll worry about how to stop this whole thing. I'm figuring, though, if we can show this city just how technology can fail them, they'll lose faith in it... and what better way than to demolish the one thing that's been a constant in this city?"

     "The Palace?"

     "You catch on quick," Lina said. She spun the barrel, and put the cannon back on the wall -- too small, too small. "That, plus freeing the Hostages and whacking the ringleaders, may be enough to take this 'Bandit Chief' down a few pegs... at the very least, it'd be a good start. I'm gonna win here. I know it. I just don't know HOW yet. Until I do, it can't hurt to arm ourselves to the nines. Ooooh! What does THIS one do?"

     Penny took a few steps back, as Lina fetched a nasty looking six barreled explosive shell launching shoulder mounted mortar cannon. "Lina, watch it! You don't even know how to USE that stuff!"

     "What's so hard?" Lina asked, hefting the weapon. "You just point it and pull the little switch and stuff goes--"

     "BOOM," the building across the street said.

     "Yeah, boom," Lina agreed. "Although it might not be useful against the deity that spawned this stuff, we can at least do entertainingly large amounts of property damage, right, Penny?"

     "...speaking of which," Penny said, a big bead of sweat comedically sliding down the back of her head, as she pointed out a window, "I think this just turned into a low rent district. Take a look."

     Lina turned to see, and sure enough, one of the many weapon shops in this district was indeed on fire, with most of its inventory going BOOM POP POW BANG up into the air like so much combustible, volatile chemical based ammunition in a firearms shop on fire. The front window of their shop had been blown in a few feet by the concussion, and the shopkeep was probably running for the hills by this point... but most importantly, soldiers were flooding the street, swiftly reacting to the disturbance...

     With a swift yank to the front of her dress which threatened to make it highly inappropriate to wear in public, Lina pulled Penny to the ground, before one of the soldiers could see inside the blown glass window of their shop.

     "Lay.. low.." Lina whispered. "If they spot us, they might notice who we really are. Keep cool. ...Penny, get your pointy blade stick thing DOWN!"

     "What?" Penny asked, before realizing she was still holding up wrapped weapon, like a big 'ol waving flag for the soldiers to take note of.

     "*You there, in the shop!*" a mechanically amplified voice boomed, as soldier's boots rattled, moving into position. "*Stand and put your hands behind your head! You are wanted to help the Empire of Sairaag in information retrieval regarding this incident!*"

     "...sorry," Penny mumbled.

     "You're still pretty new at this, aren't you?" Lina rhetorically asked. "Look, it's fine. I've got a plan. Or at least an impulsive idea. Stay DOWN. Got it? Good..."

     And Lina stood up, facing the soldiers. Her cloak hood had been knocked back, and it was pretty obvious to anybody who had seen her wanted poster exactly who she was.

     "BEHOLD! I'm Lina Inverse!" she declared. "Surrender now and I might only set you on fire instead of pasting you across the landscape!!"

     The reaction was swift -- one thick hail of bullets. Lina focused, and let them pass right THROUGH her, shredding most of the display cases on the back wall. Whoever trained these guys didn't teach them real well if they were trying lead slugs on her. She did her part and laughed scary-like in the face of the supposed onslaught... it had the right affect, a few of them cringing in shock.

     But a few of them also had the RIGHT idea, and the impromptu Eradicators they were armed with (just in case they DID bump into the notorious Lina Inverse At Large) were out and incoming. She flexed her fingers, hoping the new trinkets Penny had made were going to work...

     Five discs flew straight and true, and then flew wobbly and false the moment they got close to Lina. They rebounded off the shop walls and came to an ineffectual rest, having never found their intended target.

     With slow and deliberate precision, Lina Inverse cracked her knuckles, putting on the grin she usually reserves for a helpless seven course meal trapped in her path. Knees knocked. Minimum waged army grunts began to figure out that they didn't really have anything left they could use against a raging god...

     "So, boys," she oozed with satisfaction, "Now that it's been established that you can't hurt me, who wants to play first?"

     Moments later, Lina was helping Penny to her feet, and wandering the silent and empty city street. She appraised the damage to both shops, and eyed a few choice bits of hardware, the next impulsive plan coming easily to mind.

     Penny was totally speechless, as Lina led her around. "That was... that was..."

     "A complete loss of our cover story? Brash and dangerous? Juvenile?"


     "Actually, it was, wasn't it?" Lina agreed, puffing up her unimpressive chest a bit.

     "You've got amazing style! Every time I tried to do stuff like that, though, I'd just fall on my face or run out of good taunts or they'd attack me before I could finish my introduction..."

     "Yeah, well, it helps to be bulletproof," Lina pointed out. "Don't forget that important factor. Only do crazy stunts like that if you can back it up. Now, they're gonna be back with reinforcements, and I don't feel like a running battle. I'm sick of retail pricing; let's just do some impromptu looting and get the hell out of here. Less chance of them finding our hideout that way. You check the bombed shop, I'll take the one we were just in--"

     (Hold on a second, the Inner Lina(tm) asked. Something just occurred to me. There are TWO shops here, right?

     Right, that means twice as much stuff to stea-- liberate. To liberate for the cause of love and justice!

     Okay, good, but one of them blew up, and the army ran to see what was going on. They blamed you for it, sure, but who REALLY caused that explosion?)

     Lina turned her full attention to the smoke-filled shopfront, and saw motion. Simple shifts in the flow of the smoke, but enough to indicate something... or someone... or more likely than not many ARMED someones moving around.

     She pushed past Penny, to shield her, and then whisked her hand through the air -- the gesture amplified by sheer will to reach gale-speed winds. The smoke cleared in an instant, revealing many surprised looking looters wearing gas masks in the process of hauling away the shop's stocks. They froze a second, like someone who had just been caught naked with the neighbor's cow, before quickly getting their weapons ready.

     Lina charged a fireball the size of both Naga's breasts put together, and was about to hurl it before a voice sliced through the air like an incredibly sharp thing.

     "Guys! Cut it out! Everybody lower your weapons!" the leader shouted, waving his arms quickly to signal his troops. He peered across the street at Lina, from behind the mask. "It's Lina Inverse!"

     "Wow, this whole 'scaring the opponent into surrender with your terrible reputation' thing is working wonders today," Lina said out loud. "Who're you guys?"

     "We're not your enemy," the leader replied, stepping carefully over the rubble. "Gabriev told us you were in town, but when we checked your inn, you weren't--"

     Penny stepped out from behind Lina. "Mother? What about her?"


     It's hard to stealthily approach a scene with a thousand men in full armor. Not only is it an obvious thing from any distance, but the sheer sound of all those boots clanking along just cries out 'Hi!' in a malicious sort of way. Lina's ear twitched as she heard the first clattering tones of that familiar sound.

     "We can save questions for later, Penny," Lina said. "Look, mister, this is real exciting, but it's time for us to go. Now, give me one good reason why that exit should be alongside YOU guys and not just away on our own."

     The leader pulled off his mask, revealing a (mostly) clean face behind the sooty hair and clothes.

     "Because if you've seen ANY of the wanted posters in this town," Roy Balderdash explained, "Then you know I'm just as much of an enemy of the state as you are. Screw the past grudges, there are more important things at stake here. If you come with us, maybe we'll have a chance at stopping my crackpot sister once and for all."


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