Most buildings in the condensed industrial and commercial sectors of Sairaag have one entrance. The entrance also serves as the exit. There are no other ways into the building; windows abound, certainly, but they're meant for looking at the shiny happy sun and getting air into the room and lighting up things.

     When the Sairaag army saw the rebels dive back into the ruined store, they assembled in a cluster in front of the building, rifle barrels bristling like a next porcupine quills, issued a few demands, and simply waited for the rebels to come out. They were cornered in the building, after all, and it was like shooting fish in a barrel.

     But apparently, the barrel had a hidden bottom, because they were gone. The army moved on to hassle and interrogate a few passers-by just so they could justify their paychecks, then went home, never catching on to how those escape artists kept doing this time and time again...

     Lina wished she hadn't found out. There was nothing more unpleasant or uncomfortable than being stuffed into a large tube and shot at hypervelocity through the Sairaag ductwork system. This was meant for non-fragile shipping cargo, not very fragile and delicate beauties such as herself... but it was the only solid escape route, and apparently a time proven one, from the limited information Roy gave her before departure.

     Ten intensely bruising minutes later, and her capsule finally shuddered to a halt in parts unknown. The latch popped, and she emerged...

     It wasn't a very impressive underground resistance hideout. No dilapidated walls, barely-lit rooms full of hushed men discussing war plans while pushing little die cast figures around on a map, no swarthy dogs smoking and telling dirty jokes while cleaning weapons... a few-dozen late teen and twentysomething boys sitting around chatting didn't count, no matter how much green they wore.

     Given the young age of the resistance force, the rebels present almost made it look like a school dormitory, except for the decided lack of underwear and takeout food boxes decorating the scenery. It had to be the tidiest little rebellion Lina had ever seen. Not that she had seen many rebellions in her time, of course.

     Roy had gone ahead, and was already 'unpacked' and lounging in a wooden chair. He wasn't pushing die cast figures around a map, but he was frowning at a blueprint, which instantly made him the most authoritative figure in the room.

     Penny's shipping container slid into the duct-dock next, shuddering to a halt. She emerged dazed, but in otherwise good shape -- until her mother started patting her down to check for injuries.

     "You okay?" Lina Gabriev asked. "They didn't hurt you, right?"

     "Uh... I'm fine, mom," Penny said, confusion rising like the almighty tides of the ocean. "Err. Hi. How are you?"

     "Fine, except for a headache," the elder Lina said. "One of these kids knocked me out before dragged me here. Fine method of invitation!"

     "You were a civvy in the middle of a battle," Roy gruffly replied. "We didn't know it was YOU until after the fact. The Balderdash Resistance Front isn't exactly a crack team of professional soldiers -- be glad you didn't get accidentally shot."

     "Be glad I didn't accidentally Dragon Slave you," Lina Gabriev growled lightly. "No good bandit trash..."

     "Ah... excuse me, can someone explain why we're here?" Penny asked. "I've gotten a little lost, things are going so fast..."

     Lina Inverse surveyed the scene. "Isn't it obvious, Penny? These guys want us to help them stop the Sairaag Empire. That's how this sort of thing happens, I mean; wandering hero gets sucked into political conflict and ends up saving the day with the help of plucky locals. But I was planning on taking care of the situation myself, and given that most of these guys wouldn't pass the 'you must be this tall to ride this ride' limit, I think I should stick to my original plan."

     "Zeifelian true to the core," Roy said, with a slight smirk. He rolled up the blueprint for now. "Always with the quippy speeches and remarks. We may have had our differences, but I trust a homelander more than anybody else at this point. They're good boys, but you I know will be a stand-up person when it comes down to--"

     "Excuse me; back up a bit, Roy. Haven't you been trying to kill us lately? Not to mention jumping me and Penny back when you were a two bit bandit thug."

     "Water under a burned bridge," Roy quickly said. "I've realized just what a yutz I am. You can consider this my personal twelve step program towards being less of a yutz... my campaign to do something that's actually going to make a difference, namely, get my sister's plans derailed. And yes, you're right, we do want you to help... we know what you are; you're a god. It takes a god to fight a god. We've been able to disturb the normal flow of business, try to slow the growth in Sairaag..."

     "Bombings and guerrilla tactics, I know," Lina said. "Basic stuff."

     "Trying to sway popular faith to a new tune," Roy said. "Elizabeth had way too much of this explained to me. I know about killing gods. You knock out the support, the rest comes tumbling down. If we can ingrain the idea that machinery fails when you least want it to, through careful sabotage, we'll have a good start. But it's not enough. That's where you come in."

     "Humor me. What do you want, exactly?"

     "We want, exactly, for you to break the one machine everybody in this town has utter and unswerving faith in," Roy said, getting to his feet. "The Imperial Palace. It's the heart of the city, and without it, nothing would work. The shipping ducts, the broadcast facilities, power and water services... it would be a disaster. But it would also spell the end of the chokehold they have on us, if enough people lost their faith."

     Lina Inverse turned to her counterpart, with a big grin. "See? See? Didn't I tell you we should just show up and immediately kick some ass instead of sitting around all day planning? I was right! OKAY! Let's go blow stuff up!!"

     "You're forgetting something," Gabriev said dryly. "Two things that go boom if that building goes boom."

     "...oh, right," Inverse said. "Ah, Roy? We'll do your dirty work, but we gotta get Gourry Gabriev and Zoamel Gustav out of the building first. Think you can manage that? I'll wait here while you're busy. You got any food around--"

     "Impossible," Roy said, spreading out his blueprint again. "After they got ME out, Zelgadis ordered more security lockdowns. They don't know we use the ductwork to get around, but there's so many armed guards in the place now that we'd get no more than six steps inside before being killed. That's also why we can't just torch the place ourselves."

     "Aren't you forgetting? I'm a god," Lina said. "I don't die. It's one of the signing bonuses."

     "It won't do you any good," Roy said. "The Eradicators--"

     "Penny cooked up a nice countermeasure to them."

     Roy eyed Lina oddly, reluctant to believe that. "Okay... fine. Assuming you're right, it still won't do you any good. The force the god in there puts out is overwhelming to Demiurges. Your powers weaken, and you lose touch with your followers who think you're the cat's meow and can walk on water and be totally immune to bullets. Maybe you won't DIE, but they'll capture you easily enough if you're not careful."

     "Sheesh, look at Mr. Negativity!" Lina complained. "You seem to know a hell of a lot about this for someone who I knew as a simple bandit. On WHOSE authority exactly do you know that I'd be walking into that kind of hostile environment?"

     "On the authority of Sylpheel," Roy said quietly, sitting back. "'cause she tried it the day we heard about Gourry's capture, and we almost lost her in the process."

     "..." was Lina's witty quip retort comeback catchphrase snappy reply.

     Lina Gabriev stepped in to take up the helm of conversation. "That's impossible," she said. "Sylpheel is here?"

     "Yeah, in the other room," Roy said, plain as can be.

     "So you went and dug up her corpse, is that it? Inverse, quit looking confused. Sylpheel's been dead for over three years now. Official news that I heard coming out of Sairaag was that she came down with an incurable disease, but I'd hazard she just disagreed with Elizabeth's tactics."

     "You'd hazard right," Roy agreed. "But she's in the next room, if you want to talk to her, either way. And yes, she'll talk back. She's like Lina is, now. Ever since I found out they exist, I swear, I can't swing a dead cat nowadays without hitting a--"

     Lina Inverse looked up, promptly. "Of course I want to talk to her! If she's been in the palace and knows this much... definitely! Take me to her! Gabriev, Penny, you two wait here. I've got immortal matters to discuss."

     "ExCUSE me, but when did you get to be leader of this group?" Lina Gabriev asked. "You need to learn to respect your elders, young lady. I don't think we should be rushing into all this -- we barely know these people, and they're claiming they have--"

     "Yeah yeah, we're being impulsive and taking risks, I've heard it before," the young god yadda-yadda'd. "C'mon, Roy."

     Mrs. Gabriev stood indignant, as the two made an open and shut door out of the matter, leaving her with the decidedly non-rag-tag rebels, and her puzzled daughter. The fuming frustration fumed away before she waved the fumes away, and became determined... to do something else than fume about it.

     "I need fresh air," Lina Gabriev announce. "There's a rooftop balcony upstairs, if I recall. Come along, Penny."

     "What? Uh, okay. Sure. Um, mom..."


     "I don't think you're giving her enough credit," Penny said quietly, unsure of second guessing her mother. "She may act a bit crazy sometimes, but she knows what she's doing, right?"

     "Oh, I know her. I WAS her. And where'd it get me?"

     "It got you through a few battles with Mazoku Lords and a lot of adventures," Penny supplied automatically. "And it got you a family, in the long run, right?"

     Lina froze. Not long enough to look like she hadn't lost her cool; but just long enough to have the following chain of thoughts ---

     Penny didn't know about what Xelloss did to her; she didn't know the only reason Penny existed was because Xelloss forced her to 'settle down'. But if she hadn't been the free, almost random spirit she once was, would she have been enough of a threat to merit that action? Would her future have ended up the same?

     She'd always assumed her past was a childhood she had tossed aside in favor of more realistic goals. She didn't know it was a stepping block that lead her straight into that second phase, that one triggered the other. Chaos theory in action... without being the crazy type Lina Inverse now was, would her family ever have existed? It got her a family, in the long run, right?

     They'd had problems in the past. Relationship issues, family fights. But now she had a chance to make that all better. If asked previously, she'd say her only regret was being a spoiled brat in her past. Now she knew a different regret; that she hadn't really been mature at all, and frittered away this chance at a different life in her apathy. That changed now. That had changed the moment she knew the truth.

     --- so, when she unfroze, she turned a smile on her daughter.

     "I guess it did," she agreed. "You're right. Okay... fine. I'll give your new friend some leeway. But the stakes are high here, Penny, not just for her but for all of us. One mistake..."

     "She won't make a mistake," Penny said, firmly. "I have faith in her."

     This room looked just like the previous one -- tidy, with fresh paint on the walls and not a hint of the seedy underbelly of a desperate resistance force, blah blah blah. But simultaneously existing on that level... it was also holy.

     Maybe it was just the way the light came in through the windows, perfect beams slanting to illuminate the room. The few candles kept around for nighttime visits, drippy and currently unlit, as well as the various chairs arranged in rows. This was a shrine, a small church... and at the 'altar' stood a single figure.

     A figure in stone.

     Lina cocked her head, examining the statue. It had been uprooted from some public structure, obviously; broken, jagged stone still formed its base. A makeshift idol to worship, a flawlessly smooth marble representation of a woman Lina hadn't seen in years.

     Sylpheel stood, not in the dignified and regal stance of royalty, or even as an authority in white magic, but as a compassionate human... arms wide to whoever would approach her, eyes soft and expression simple. Whoever carved it might have intended it as a family decoration, but it had to have struck a nerve -- Lina could FEEL the faith from the young soldiers outside. That was what had drawn them together, to resist the new order. Sylpheel had officially become a martyr.

     (Not in the sense you believe,) her voice echoed.

     "What...?" Lina said, pushed out of her study of the statue by the sound.

     Roy scratched behind his ear, not reacting. "She doesn't talk to me. I'm not one of her believers; I just do the directing, they do the believing. Before they busted me out of jail, they didn't have much organization... this Sylpheel person may be a good leader, but she's not a military commander."

     "She never was a violent person," Lina said quietly, a bit detached.

     "I'll leave you two alone to rap the light fantastic or whatever," Roy decided, adjusting his belt. "We've got a lot of planning to do if you seriously want to invade that place before torching it. I'll be going over the blueprints in the main room if needed."

     Lina didn't pay attention to his leave. She was too busy feeling this new force, trying to identify it. Something was odd. It felt so old...

     (Older than you imagine,) Sylpheel said. (I have been protecting this city since the first humans took shelter in my land. I have had many forms, constantly shifting and adjusting with the times. I am not the woman you knew named Sylpheel... this is simply the shape that they have believed me in.)

     "You don't feel like her," Lina responded, looking the statue eye to eye, as equals. "But Roy said you tried to invade the Palace when you found out about Gourry..."

     (Part of my shape is my love for Gourry Gabriev,) Sylpheel explained. (...I feel a great deal of sorrow over these events. I acted foolishly. Now, I cannot even manifest as a moving figure. I'm too weak. The Demiurge of Science punished me for my transgression. He has let me live, for now, since I seem to pose no major threat... for whatever reason, they have not taken strong action against my followers. Yet.)

     "Stupid move on their part," Lina said, with a little smile. "I've decided I'm going to help you. But first, I've got to invade that place and bust out Gourry, and Penny's boyfriend--"

     (You mustn't,) Sylpheel warned. (Science is too strong. It has become... unnatural. An abomination.)

     "Yeah, a real bad mofo, I know. Gods fight all the time, right?"

     (Not like this. Not like this,) Sylpheel warned, genuine fear in the sound of her voice. (You don't understand. Lina... you are a young god. I can feel it in you. A powerful god, but inexperienced. I have existed since before the demon wars, and have survived and engaged in many jihads... holy wars. We struggle daily for our believers, and they struggle for our glory. We clash. That is the way of things.)

     "Right, right. I learned a lot about that stuff off Drake and Ace."

     (But this is not a normal holy war, Lina. Science... has cheated. He is co-opting his enemies, turning their power into its strength,) Sylpheel explained. (All Demiurges, at one level or another, seek to be the strongest god in the world, the most powerful, the most popular. But no matter how much they wish to humiliate or crush their rivals, none to date have... have annihilated them. Lina, if one god devours all others, what happens to the world?)

     "I'd guess... that the whole world would only have one god," Lina theorized. "If they could really gobble up all the Demiurges, and the huge Demiurges like Ceipheed and Shaburanigdo, there'd be nothing left. Except maybe atheism."

     (Atheism is actually a very nice person. I used to play games with him from time to time. A little nihilistic, since he doesn't believe he exists, but he has very strong followers.)

     "Really? Go figure."

     (What Science seeks is not competition. It is not jihad. It is... total control over the belief of man. Its plan is simple, it wishes to be 'the only game in town', a complete theological monopoly. Once it has that... there will be no chance for rivals to pull it down. The balance of the gods leads to no one god dominating for very long. The people always have a CHOICE of what they believe in. But a future with no choice...)

     "Bleak as hell," Lina said, grimly. "Humans might end up little more than mindless drones... since there's nothing else to believe in?"

     (Yes. At the core... this is not an issue of science versus magic, or tradition versus the present, or something as trivial as that. Any god could have orchestrated this... violation, Science simply was the first to find a way to cheat. This is not just a fight for the safety of you and your friends, Lina. It is a fight to stop a thing that must not be. Something against the laws of nature and the chaos that is order that is the Lord of Nightmares... something that... something unholy...)



     "You're babbling."

     If it was possible, the statue would have blushed.

     (I am sorry. I have grown weak, and I barely realize what I am saying sometimes...)

     "Hey, hey, everybody has an off day," Lina laughed. "It's okay. You can relax now. Lina Inverse is on the task. You know what I am, and what I do. I'll take care of things, and then you can get back to work helping your people recover from what Science did to them."

     (Do not take this lightly, Lina Inverse. I have seen into your future.)

     "....hey, whoa," Lina warned, backing up. "Don't jinx it. I don't want to know my future."

     (I also have seen that I will tell you, regardless of your protest. I am sorry. You will win the day -- that is obvious. It is what you are. But to do it, a great sacrifice must be done in your name. One to make even a god weep...)

     "I don't want to know!" Lina demanded. "Okay? I act in the NOW. I deal with what's in front of me, I handle the situation, I get the job done. I don't think too hard on it. If I think too hard, I could doubt myself, and if I doubt myself--"

     (You fail.)


     (I understand. Pardon my acts. Please... I must rest. I have said too much, I fear.)

     "It's fine, it's fine," Lina soothed. She turned to leave, shaking off her doubts, focusing. "Just leave this to me."

     (...and Lina?)


     (Please tell Gourry-sama how proud I am of him.)

     The small stairwell up to the roof wasn't as well kept as the rest of the building. Lina had to push at the door to get it unstuck, as someone had slapped a fresh layer of paint over it, which made the door a size too big for its frame. But once there, she was relieved to see the light of day, fresh air... but not to see other people. She was hoping for a quiet moment to think and chat with her daughter.

     Someone had gone and built some giant machine on the rooftop. Most of it was covered in a tarp, to prevent prying eyes elsewhere in the city from seeing it, but three people were busy working with it, adjusting controls, tightening screws and so on and so forth...

     She paused, something not quite clicking. Or rather, clicking with absolute familiarity. The same thing happened to Penny.

     "You again?" Lina Gabriev addressed to Myron, the merchant she had met earlier.

     "You AGAIN?" Penny blurted out, on seeing Lord Noisemaker.

     "Err, hello," Myron greeted, nervously. "Ah... sorry I hit you back at our raid on the steelworks, but I DID warn you not to go there--"

     "Penny Gabriev?" Lord Noisemaker spoke, in surprise. "How is it you and your companions keep meeting up with me?"

     "WAIT! Wait," Lina Gabriev shouted, waving her hands. "I've had far too many confusing things happen to me today to chalk up another one to a massive surprise run-in. Penny, this is Myron, someone I met earlier who apparently was working with the rebels. As for the others, I demand a capsule summary immediately."

     "Uh... uh...." Penny babbled, getting her bearings. "Well, that's Lord Noisemaker the alchemist and his Apprentice--"

     "I'm a Journeyman now, actually," the Journeyman said with pride.

     "--and Lina bumped into them a long time ago when I got my Table-chan and apparently they were around in Darata too working on traps and we met them again in Sailoon where they were trying to find a way to stop the Sairaag army and I helped investigate a suspicious bombing and they used the evidence to convince the people Sairaag was cheating and I don't think we've seen them since but I could be mistaken and I think he said he's some member of a group that blends magic and technology but then again I could be mistaken there as well and hey, it's good to see you guys again, what's under the tarp?"

     "That didn't exactly help ease my confusion, but I get the idea," Lina Gabriev decided. "Now. What are you all doing HERE? Not you, Myron, I've figured that much out already."

     "Ah... miss Gabriev, I presume?" Lord Noisemaker said, still working at orienting himself to the discussion.

     "That's MISSUS!"

     "Yes, yes. Well... it's quite simple, really," he explained. "After Penny's invaluable assistance which we, ah, took the lion's share of credit for in order to obtain a governmental grant, word of our singlehandedly staving off the Sairaag army got back to the rebel movement here... ah. You're not going to attack us, are you, young Penny?"

     "Oh, no, you can keep the glory on that one," Penny said with a smile. "But if I were you, I wouldn't tell Lina Inverse. She might get mad."

     Lord Noisemaker paled briefly, considering what a mad Lina Inverse would be capable of. "Yes, well... we won't be requiring your assistance this time, regardless. Sir Balderdash has his doubts, but I believe that superior planning and development of our weapon will rule the day! Things are very much in hand, and our plan for destroying yonder Imperial Palace goes according to schedule."

     Lina looked across the city of Sairaag. The headquarters of the rebels were indeed embedded in the suburbs of the city (if any part of the city could be considered 'suburban', given the thick technololgical landscape). The Palace was visible in the distance... with the covered machine 'pointed' right at it.

     "You can't blow it up yet, they have hostages," she pointed out, with a sharp tone of 'And if you disagree with me, you will taste my Fist of Death'.

     "...ah... as you say," Lord Noisemaker said. "But when the time DOES come, we will be ready."

     "So what is this bloody thing, anyway?" Lina asked, walking over and giving the hunk of machinery a nice kick.

     "Aaah!" the Journeyman shouted, pulling at his hair. "Careful! We just spent all day tuning the thing! If the Dragon Slave Amplification Cannon doesn't fire right on the first try, we won't GET a second shot!"

     Lina's ears perked up. The very words sent memories shooting across her forebrain, as she turned to face the young boy.

     "'Dragon Slave Amplification Cannon'?" she pointedly asked, in such a way that needed no further instructions. Information was demanded.

     "Um, um, um..." the Journeyman stammered, for even if he had progressed beyond Apprenticehood, something about Lina invoked an Angry Mother response. "It... takes an ordinary Dragon Slave, and not only focuses the energy into a controlled blast capable of targeting the Palace alone, but it multiplies the strength by a factor of four."

     Lord Noisemaker pulled out his be-robe'd chest in swelling joy. "Simply superior thinking in practice, my good woman! A union of the technological and the thaumatological. These Sairaag simpletons would never understand the perfection of design and fuction--"

     "So who's casting the Dragon Slave?" Lina asked. "And if you call me 'my good woman' one more time, I'll... I... well, you'll damn well wish you hadn't, that's for sure."

     Myron the Somewhat Unintimidating Rebel Warrior cleared his throat in a penitent manner. "Erm, excuse me, Mrs. Gabriev... I've volunteered for the duty. I've been practicing magic in secret for a few years now, and I started studying the spell last month so we could-- excuse me, what are you doing?"

     Lina stood on her tip toes, studying Myron through a complicated looking scrying lens. She took an attachment out of a pocket in her robe, and latched it on -- it glowed briefly, lighting up two dots, then chimed.

     "You're kidding yourself if you think you've got the magical power to do any real damage," she said. "You barely rate at a two on Harnum's Scale. Assuming you can even CAST the spell, a Dragon Slave from YOU through that thing would barely scratch the Palace. I've done my research. It's made of magic-resistant materials, and it'll take a phenomenal amount of power to cut the armor."

     "Ah... I'm afraid there's nothing we can do about that," he pointed out. "Magic is hard to come by here, and since this is the best we have available for the--"

     Lina turned the lens around, facing her. Fifteen dots lit up immediately, glowing brightly enough to hurt Myron's eyes, before the chime sounded.

     "You guys," she decided, "Are VERY lucky that I happen to be here. Never send a man to do an Lina's job."

     A war council was promptly called.

     Lina Inverse was a plan by the seat of your pants, fly off the handle and burn the bridge when you come to it sort of girl... but she DID understand the value of actually sitting down and thinking something out. Sometimes. She'd done this before they all went to face Shaburanigdo. She'd done it numerous times in the past to encourage her teammates, and decide what actions would be taken first. It was a staple of her existence.

     All the players were present. Roy Balderdash, makeshift leader of the good guys, took the head seat; both Linas flanked him. There was Penny Gabriev the heroine in training, Lord Noisemaker the innovator of violence, his Journeyman, Myron the weak mage, and the entire assembly of hardy young lads. Table-chan was busy ignoring the serious tone and cavorting around, trying to get attention. They'd even dragged Sylpheel's statue out to observe the preceedings. Everything was in place for decisions to be made which would determine success or failure in the battle to come.

     However, this war council was flawed in one vitally important way, which would doom them all to failure.

     "What do you mean, there's no food?!" Lina Inverse protested. "I can't kick ass if my nutritional needs aren't satisfied!"

     "I'm not going to be launching ANY sort of attack until nightfall," Balderdash replied, rolling his eyes a justifiable amount. "You'll have plenty of time to pig out between now and then, okay? If anything, the sooner we can come to a consensus, the sooner you eat, yeah?"

     "Let us decide these matters most serious in a rational and swift manner," Lina spoke, words grave and dire in tone.

     "...right. Okay. Now, we've got the ability to pipe up to ten people into the secondary supply docking station of the palace," Balderdash explained, pointing it out on the blueprint. "The primary station is too guarded after we used it to bust me out. It means a pretty long running battle to get to the Core and the Experiment Room, where intelligence says your pals are being held."

     "And Sylpheel says the longer I say in there, the more chance of being too weak to fight," Lina Inverse added. "So, here's my plan. We rush in there and kick some ass like a flash of lightning and save the day!"

     "THAT'S your plan?!" Lina Gabriev shouted.

     "It's worked for me before," Inverse explained. "If I think too hard on it it'll all fall apart. There's no other safe way into the building, right? So we've got no choice. It'll be a knock out drag down high speed brawl, but if I concentrate more on blazing through than cleaning the place out, we can be in and out faster than a butter churn. Roy, can you assure me we'll have an exit?"

     "No, not really."

     "Works for me," Lina decided. "I'll go in alone, and come out with Gourry and Zomael."

     "I'm coming with you," Penny spoke, her first words since sitting down.


     "You can spare all the reasons I shouldn't be going, I'd probably agree with all of them," Penny said. "Except this is what I WANT to do. Zoamel's in there, and I'm holding his weapon. I'm going to take the bounty he's set on Sairaag's head in his name and complete his quest. If you just bring them both out and we do get rid of the Palace, he'll never get vengeance by his own hand."

     "Pointy stick thing, you mean."

     "Pointy stick thing, yes. But it's the same thing. YES, I know I'm mortal and MOM, don't give me that look, I know you don't want me getting hurt, but NO, I'm not going to take no for an answer so you both can give up trying to protest it, so it'll be me and Lina Inverse and that's it invading the building itself, okay?"

     "Erm... excuse me, Miss Inverse," Myron interrupted, in his humble way. "But... I've been talking with the others, and we want to accompany you."

     "You'd only get in the way," Lina Inverse said flatly.

     "We're well armed and reasonably trained," Myron added. "We could cover while you lead the attack. This way, we'd also present the soldiers inside with so many targets that it would draw fire away from you. That's a bit morbid, but... we have to do this in the name of Sylpheel. It's already been decided."

     Lina Inverse opened her mouth to protest, but then did not. Something flashed back to her; Sylpheel's words, describing the holy war as a natural order of things. People fighting for what they BELIEVED in, rather than being co-opted as Science had done... here, she could feel that belief radiating off Myron. Not mindless sheep with a god directing the slaughter, but someone who felt that faith so strongly that he genuinely wanted this, beyond danger and risk... so he could stand up for his beliefs.

     "Okay," Lina agreed. "I'll take five of you guys with me. Make sure they're the fastest runners and brawlers you have, I don't want any slow slugfests. HEAVY armor, as heavy as you can use and still run effectively; we'll be fleeing more than shooting in this fight. Put whatever mages you have available into the mix as well, I doubt they're prepared for magic INSIDE the walls of the fortress."

     "...and THAT about covers the first half of our program, but make that four of the guys here. I'm coming with you people as man number five," Balderdash ordered. "I know the innards of that place better than anyone... but Lina, if we're not out after the ten minute mark, I'm leaving instructions to blow the place up anyway. Hell, I already almost died once recently, what do I have to lose? Because if we do stay any longer, they might be able to throw up extra defenses, and the second half won't be possible."

     "Acceptable," Lina said. "Knowing me, we'll be out at the nine minute fifty nine second mark, but hey, that's good enough."

     "The second half of the plan concerns torching the compound itself," Roy explained. "Noisemaker here has finished tuning the Dragon Slave Amplification Cannon... and apparently Mrs. Gabriev is volunteering to provide the bang for our buck."

     "I'm not the sort of person to dive headfirst into a firefight," Lina Gabriev said. "Not anymore. I'm too old for that kind of activity, but that doesn't mean I can't help lead us to victory. While my juvenile counterpart here and my daughter who I think is risking way too much over a boy are off doing their thing, I'll be waiting here... and on signal, I'll pump enough raw black magic at that thing to melt it into slag. Plus, I'll focus the beam so it does NOT destroy Sairaag this time. I've wiped this city off the map more times than I should have, even for good causes."

     "Once THAT is done," Roy concluded, "The palace will be annihilated, all the mechanical services this city has become dependent on will fail, the trapped gods should hopefully be freed, and the Demiurge of Science will lose belief by the cartload and be forced to flee. We may have mop-up work to do, but the blow will be crippling enough to make this battle winnable by mortals again. ...good lord. And to think weeks ago the most thought I had to put in on a daily basis was which wallet to lift."

     "Everybody's changed," Lina Gabriev said, voice serious. "We've all progressed farther than we expected to when we got sucked into this thing. Maybe it's fate, maybe it's luck, or just drama in action, but... I don't think any one of us will ever be the same again."

     "Except Table-chan!" Penny cheered, holding up the Wandering Monster Table. It posed dramatically.

     Nobody quite knew how to respond to that.

     " of these days, Noisemaker," Lina Inverse quietly said, "I'm going to hurt you for making that thing which has gotten on my nerves at a constant rate. If you'll excuse me, I'm going to get dinner."

     She'd shrugged off offers for group dinning with Penny, with Lina Gabriev, with anyone else. Her excuse was simply that she didn't feel like footing the bill for anybody else's appetites, and she needed to focus on consuming enough protein to power her up for tonight's raid.

     The real reason (since Lina usually had two reasons for every action) was more vague. She had a nagging feeling. Nagging feelings were very, very bad in her line of work; it meant something was not right, and if you couldn't figure out what that something was, it would jump up and bite you on the ass at precisely the worst moment.

     Lina Inverse sat in a small sidewalk bistro, taking in the rays of the setting sun as she worked on her fourth steak. Her cloak was up, and identity concealed... she simply didn't will anyone around her to pay attention to her. A simple enough trick, once she decided she could do it. It let her have a nice, quiet dinner, even if getting the food was difficult.

     It didn't, however, prevent all untimely interruptions.

     Lina didn't bother to acknowledge his presence immediately. She chewed, swallowed, and chased her beef down with a bit of fruit punch, before finally meeting him eye to eye.

     "This really is all your fault, isn't it?" she asked.

     The half-visible form of Xelloss sitting across from her pouted. "You say that as if it were a bad thing, Lina. One day, you'll look back on this day, and you'll thank me. You'll say, 'Xelloss, what a guy, there's someone who really knows where it's at and what's going on. What a great guy! Why didn't I have more sex with him when I was a mortal, anyway?'"

     "Get over yourself," Lina grumbled, cutting her next bite away from the steak. "What's with the gloomy specter gimmick, anyway?"

     "Oh, I can't leave my assigned position, not yet. Sorry. Very secret reasons and all that. But I couldn't let you march off to war without a little last minute encouragement, could I?"

     "If you've got a specific place to be, then you STILL know more than you're letting on," Lina decided. "Xelloss, you know, I really hate your guts. I don't care if you're supposedly doing it for 'the right reasons', you've caused me and my other self a lot of pain--"

     "Yes, yes, I've heard this sob story before," Xelloss yawned. "I'm surprised you haven't learned more humility after similar traumatic experiences have yielded world-saving results. This is your JOB, Lina Inverse."

     "I KNOW it's my job. I've accepted that. But there are times when I don't have to like it. What's going to happen here, Xelloss? I can't put my finger on it, but something is going to go wrong. It's too cut and dry, too clean a finish for something NOT to go wrong. Sylpheel told me a blood sacrifice would be made in my name."

     "Oh, I'm not privy to the future," Xelloss protested. "I just know little things I designed and put into motion. Anything else, I leave to the mother of all things."

     "Someone's going to die," Lina said, trying to prompt him. "Maybe Lina Gabriev. Maybe Gourry. Maybe Penny, maybe Balderdash, maybe everybody in the entire damn city. It's happened before. Every time we go up against something like this there's a price to be paid. What's going to happen?"

     "I honestly have no idea, Lina--"

     "Then what good are you?" Lina asked. "What good am I, for that matter?? I'm not going to accept this, you understand. I don't care what prophecy or dramatic convention demand of me. I've never kowtowed to the rules before and I don't intend to start now. If I'm a god, and I'm in charge of keeping the world safe and orderly, I'm going to INSIST on a happy ending. Nothing else will be acceptable."

     "If anybody can perform such a feat, it would be you," Xelloss noted. "Sometimes, things are out of our hands, however. Perhaps the outcome I seek won't come to be, perhaps it will. Fight with all of your will, with all of your unlimited desire, Lina Inverse. Perhaps then you will win the right to reshape the story more to your liking. Until then... I salute your spirit, Lina Inverse, and bid you farewell."

     "What outcome are YOU seeking out of this?" Lina asked, suspiciously.

     "Ah," Xelloss smiled, as he began to fade away. "That is a secret."

     Lina hmphed, when he was gone. Typical. But she remained resolute, as she finished off her steak, paid the check, and made her way back to the safehouse. She was going to play this in Inverse fashion, Inverse style, and wasn't going to 'trust' that the outcome be to her liking. She would MAKE it to her liking.

     And woe be to anybody who tried to stop her.


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