The Imperial Palace had many store rooms... places where massive cylinders arrived from the pneumatic networks, loaded with weapons, supplies, food, or other materials required for day to day living. They went, for the most part, unscreened. There wasn't very much to worry about, not since the guards posted at each store room were jacked up a notch. Explosives could be detected instantly; people less than instantly, but anybody who popped up out of one of those things would be greeted by a hail of bullets before they could do anything.

     A large cylinder slammed into the net at the end of the tube. Guards checked the label on the side, which declared it contained volatile materials, and opened it very carefully before it exploded.

     Fires that were not true flames roared through the supply room. They were hot enough to melt the steel walls into deformed slabs of putty. The guards didn't see it coming... but truthfully, that was probably for the best.

     Seconds after the room went from still and quiet to blazing inferno it went to still and quiet again, as Lina Inverse walked out of the flames. She quickly applied an ice spell (or her equivalent of an ice spell), to prevent the delivery track from being unusable, and to make the room hospitable for regular humans...

     The next few tubes arrived a little too fast and ended up crashing into each other. Penny Gabriev flopped out of her tube with a ringing headache; Roy and his companions were used to this sort of thing and were merely annoyed.

     "You could have been a little quieter about our arrival," Roy chided, examining the warped remains of the store room.

     "We had no chance of sneaking in, so why not announce immediately and get the element of surprise?" Lina asked. "Ten minutes, right?"

     "Ten minutes," Roy replied, drawing his new, rebel-issue gunblade from his back, while pulling out the map. (He made sure it was an extra five inches longer than the one Zelgadis carried. Perhaps he'd turned over a new leaf from his bandit days, but to the male ego, bigger was always better.) "I'll stay in the middle and direct the group around the halls. Lina, you and Penny take front and try to clear the path. My boys will keep us covered from behind. Move fast, no mop-up, just blaze through--"

     "I remember the plan," Lina said, walking right through the open doorway-- and casting twin fireballs to her left and right, on pure instinct. Screams resounded in fine stereo. "Let's go."

     Alarms echoed through the metal hallways of the palace. Feet were running, voices were shouting, orderes were being issued. They irritated Elizabeth Balderdash to no end.

     She tapped her pen against the clipboard, studying the medical data. Gourry's tests had proven quite useful; the interface she had planned would actually be feasible with these new parameters. Perhaps a few tweaks, and the new weapons would be--

     Her door flew open, the military commander of Sairaag feeling no need to announce his entrance. Elizabeth felt quite irritated about this as well.

     "Rebels are inside the palace," Zelgadis reported. "Lina Inverse is with them. Every time I get a report about their location, a new one comes in moments later reporting them as farther along in the building. Eradicators seem to be having no effect on Inverse. They came in through the secondary docking station I thought was supposed to be intrusion-proof--"

     "Yes, I know," Elizabeth said. "It would be the most likely entrance point. I suppose they want Gourry and Zoamel back..."

     "I told you taking the Gabriev man was a mistake."

     "Zelgadis, please," she chided. "Spare me your I Told You Sos. There was no mistake made. We are fully prepared for an armed invasion force. Perhaps a few dozen men will die, but they will never take back what they hope to retrieve. They can do no lasting damage to us this way. Don't you remember the young goddess who came through here recently?"

     "With ALL due respect," Zelgadis spoke, almost meaning it, "This is a bit different, Elizabeth. This is Lina Inverse--"

     "An outmoded example of a system given to collapse!" Elizabeth replied, banging her palm on the table. "Do not bother me with these trivialities! She is not the future, and never will be -- WE are the future. We are powerful. We are more powerful than any god on the planet, as science protects us, empowers us! Any gestures by those piddling rebels are unimportant. They have walked right into a hopeless situation. They just don't know it yet."

     "And when, Elizabeth, will they know it? When they've waltzed past our inferior internal defenses?"

     "You don't understand, Zelgadis," she sighed. Elizabeth gathered up her medical notes... the precious data. Exactly what the situation called for. "You never truly believed; you're too practical, too straightforward. But that's okay... it's what endears you most to me. You WILL see what I mean... come with me. We are going--"

     "--to the Core," Zelgadis added.

     "...yes, to the Core," Elizabeth chimed, stepping out of her chamber door. "Come along."

     "Perhaps I'm not as straightforward as you think," Zelgadis spoke behind her back.

     Minutes went by. The paths through the palace were not designed for ease of travel; they were designed to accommodate the near endless series of rooms required to support the bureaucracy. Lina had stopped paying attention to where she was, concentrating only on targets, and on Roy's voice as he guided the group in a madcap rush towards Gourry's holding cell.

     "We've lost two of the guys," Roy announced, never taking his eyes from his map.

     That was a surprise. Lina lobbed a gravity charge ahead of her, knocking soldiers back into the barracks they were flowing from, before looking back... and indeed, where four men were covering their exit with a steady hail of bullets, there were only two.

     "Don't give me that look, you know we came prepared for this," Roy shouted back, keeping his tone even despite the raised volume. "Left ahead."

     So far, Lina hadn't felt any 'power drain' whatsoever. She could feel something.. HUGE, nearby. Likely the Demiurge of Science. But there wasn't any crippling, halting voice like Sylpheel had described, and for the time being Lina wasn't going to kick a gift horse in the mouth by waiting around to get weak. The plan had been crafted with her gradually sliding power in mind, but if she had it, she was gonna USE it...

     The group wheeled around a corner -- into a wall of soldiers.

     Lina prepared another shot of that old black magic, but Penny stepped up to the plate first.

     "KYAA!" she shouted, swing the purest ivory naginata in a wide, flat arc, swinging from the hip... it left a glowing trail of incandescent light. And it missed the soldiers completely.

     Then their pants fell down.

     Penny twirled the naginata into a new attack stance, this one that would aim a little higher than waist level. "Beat it!" she ordered, and lo, they did.

     " definitely take after your father," Lina commented.

     "Gosh, thanks!" Penny replied, smiling. "I figured the less folks we have to kill, the better--"

     "We're going to melt the building down into a puddle of molten steel in a few minutes, Penny," Lina reminded. "Even if they started running now they probably wouldn't make it out in time. Don't forget that. This is a war."

     ...a war, Penny thought. Just as Zoamel had explained to her, so long ago, in Darata. Where things would have to go wrong to make a right...

     She dropped her childish impulses, realizing the seriousness. If she wanted to rescue Zoamel, she had to become like him -- do what needs to be done, pay the prices charged...

     "But regardless of that, you're right. This isn't as efficient as I'd like," Lina said. "The less we have to do, the better, just to make sure we can get it all done in time. Roy! Where's Gourry?"

     "One turn, two flights of stairs up, a turn, we're there," Roy reported, tracing the path with his eyes on the map.

     "And where's Zoamel?"

     "In the Core. It's one flight of stairs down from here; we're gonna have to backtrack once we've got him. Why?"

     Lina stopped her run. "I'm saving us some time," she decided, starting to glow red with a flaming shell of her willpower. "I don't know what Sylpheel was going on about, I've got more than enough strength to take care of things MY way. You guys head to the Core on your own. Penny can take care of things. She's an Inverse, after all. I'll meet you there."

     In a blaze, Lina shot through the ceiling above... ignoring all those silly conventional theories about using hallways and stairs and things to get from point A to point B. Roy moved out of the way to avoid dripping hot metal from falling on him.

     "...leave to Inverse not to stick to the plan," Roy grumbled. He turned to face Penny. "Well, kid? Can you get us there reasonably unscratched?"

     "I can do it," Penny said, with resolve. "I'll remove all obstacles."

     Her naginata glowed briefly with spirit, as she spoke the words.

     The last thing he remembered...

     No. The last thing he CLEARLY remembered was fighting with Zelgadis, in the tunnels under Bimini island. It was a good fight; Zel was just as good as he had remembered. But then his wife said something, and there was a bang, and he THOUGHT he got shot, but everything went black...

     He remembered hurting a lot. Someone was doing something to him that hurt like hell, so he deliberately didn't pay much attention to it. Still, he couldn't ignore the exhaustion, the half-delirious state he was in. He'd rest here awhile... just until he could see straight, and walk straight. Then he'd get out of here. Being the captain of the guard had its advantages in knowing security risks of holding rooms, and there would be at least one he could capitalize on.

     But not yet. First, sleep. He hoped his wife wasn't upset. Lina... she was so fragile. Tough as nails, but she had a soft spot for her family that she'd never had as a brash young kid. She'd be very worried...

     There was a bright light from... somewhere. Gourry rolled on his side on the metal floor of his holding room, to see part of the floor going away, very bright. Like a fire, but it didn't burn him. Somehow, he could tell it was trying not to burn him.

     Then the angel floated from the floor. Graceful and beautiful... Gourry smiled weakly, despite his jaw hurting. It was his wife. The color and the shape were right.

     "Lina..." he called, as loud as he could (which wasn't very loud at all.)

     "Shhh," Lina soothed, picking him up. Somehow, she was able to hold his weight in two arms. "Don't move, okay? You're really torn up here. I gotta get you back so you can be healed by--"

     He silenced her with a kiss.

     'Silence' was exactly the right word to describe things after the kiss.

     "I missed you..." Gourry said, vision blurred as he tried to make out his wife's expression.

     "I... I missed you too, Gourry," Lina said quietly. "...we have to go now."

     Everything blinked white, and confident that things would now be just fine, Gourry decided to take that nap. He never doubted for a moment that Lina would save him, somehow.

     The sky was quickly turning to night. Figuring it was safe to uncover now in the mask of darkness, Lord Noisemaker had whipped the tarp off of the Dragon Slave Amplification Cannon.

     Lina Gabriev felt a momentary twinge of greed on seeing it. She'd always reveled in the discovery of new magic... new techniques, new spells, new summoning rituals. Once she took up a business, she'd made a habit of extending that love into magical relics, staves, scrolls, spellbooks -- things that not only were great to study academically but fetched a pretty penny. (Not her daughter.)

     So, the first thing she thought on seeing the machine unveiled was 'I wonder how much I could charge for that thing?'.

     The second thought was 'Maybe he'll sell it to me when we're done.'

     The third was 'Maybe I'll take it anyway.'

     "Mrs. Gabriev?"

     "Sold! I mean, yes?"

     "We're warming up the cannon now," the Journeyman explained... trying to block Lina's view of Lord Noisemaker giving the cannon a delicate technical adjustment by cursing at it and whapping it with his staff. "Just a few minor glitches to get out of the way before--"

     In a sharp flash of white, Lina Inverse appeared, holding an injured Gourry.

     "...take care of him," she said, laying him down. "I've got to get back to work."

     In a sharp flash of white, Lina Inverse went bye bye.

     "...I didn't know she could do that," the Journeyman said, stunned.

     "Neither did I, and likely, neither did she," Lina Gabriev spoke quickly, before running to Gourry's side. She pushed back all her fear, her terror at seeing him in this... very unpleasant state. Fumbling through her cape, she flicked her thumb from pocket to pocket, looking for the item she wanted... there.

     Whipping out the scroll, Lina Gabriev started to feed a trickle of power into it, tracing the iconoglyphs with her fingers. She pressed the paper to Gourry's chest, mumbling ancient words... and as the paper faded away, so did his injuries. In short order, Gourry was back in top condition, if completely exhausted and unlikely to wake up before the big show was over.

     "BLAST it all!" Noisemaker shouted, giving the cannon another solid kick. "JOURNEYMAN! You bungling dolt, you forgot to install the Wave Bender Disc! No wonder these calibrations are completely off the mark. We've only got a few minutes here, hurry up and fetch it!"

     "The... Wave Bender?" the Journeyman asked, feeling his stomach sink down to his ankles. "Ah. Well. You know, it's a really funny story, see, I was going through the bags in Darata for things to pawn when we were hard up for money, and I thought we had a spare somewhere but it turns out that--"

     Lord Noisemaker gave the Journeyman a fierce whap upside the head. "You're officially demoted to Apprentice, you oaf! There's no way we can use the cannon now without taking out half the city with it!! The beam will be totally unfocused!"

     "I'm sorry, sir!" the Apprentice whined.

     "ExCUSE me!!" Lina interrupted, waving her arms. "What do you mean, blow up half the city!? That's totally unacceptable! If the cannon doesn't work, we're just going to have to pull back and think of another plan--"

     "There's no other weapon powerful enough to destroy the palace," Lord Noisemaker warned. "We've researched this extensively. Unless you happen to have the Giga Slave or something ridiculous like that available, we'll have to go with this and hope that the--"

     "No. NO GIGA SLAVE, no loose cannon!" Lina shouted, putting both men in their place. "Now quit dreaming up worst case scenarios. Let's work the problem. What, exactly, is a Wave Bending Whatsamacallit?"

     "It's a circular disk of orihalcon," the Apprentice explained. "We use it to take the spell and warp it at high speed around the orihalcon's null- magic field, like a spoiler on the back of a hydroplane. It has four extendable stubs to latch it into place in the barrel of the cannon, and the energy swirls through the gap, focusing the beam."

     "So... you're saying that in order to get this thing to work and save the day, we need a circle of orihalcon with four appendages," Lina repeated.

     Lord Noisemaker groaned, and has a seat on work bench. "If only that Inverse hadn't gone and stolen my........."

     ...all eyes turned on the Wandering Monster Table, which was content to play hopscotch over near Penny's discarded backpack.

     The doors to the Core chamber slammed open... falling inward and crashing to the ground. Normally it took a complicated eight hexcode password to engage the hydraulics that opened the door, but Penny found that a good slice from a blade forged from a god worked just as well.

     The two remaining soldiers went in first, taking up flanking positions before Roy and Penny advanced. But there wasn't much in the Core chamber worth noting. The guard who was usually sleeping on duty had been called off to deal with the invaders; only one person remained.

     Standing across the way, on the other side of the wide metal catwalk, right in front of the towering Core itself was Zelgadis, commander of the Sairaag army. He didn't seem very worried, as he watched them enter, arms folded neatly; his gunblade remained holstered at his side.

     "Hey, Zelgadis, great timing!" Roy called, waving. "You can help us open that bloody ghost trap up and let everybody go that you've enslaved. I'd say the gig is up, but that'd be very cliche of me, so be a dear and give us a hand, okay?"

     "...Zeifelian to the last," Zelgadis spoke, the words toned like a deadly insult. "Always with the sarcastic remark, always underestimating the seriousness of your situation. You never understood, Roy. I knew you never would, even if her weak heart thought you could come around to understanding. If only you knew the POWER our new order will bring to the world--"

     Penny, who had learned the value of pouncing the bad guy in the middle of his speech during her travels, issued a simple command. "Shoot him!"

     Both soldiers pulled their triggers, having already targeted Zelgadis. Bullets sharpened specifically to cut chimeric flesh flew straight and true--

     And were fried by a bolt of blue lightning, stopping well short of their intended target.

     "Look out, the Core's armed!" Roy announced, seeking covering position behind the guard's desk.

     "...that wasn't from the core!" Penny shouted. "It was from abov-- LOOK OUT!"

     Quickly, she rolled out of the way, which did a terrific job of saving her life from the beam of pure blue lightning that slashed right through the group. The two soldiers weren't as lucky; in the blink of an eye, they turned into whiffs of ozone and carbon, and the suspended platform that comprised the 'room' twisted and buckled under the cutting force...

     This effectively left Penny and Roy trapped on the platform, with a distance neither of them could long-jump to get back to the door. Easy pickings for the large mecha that had just made its presence known.

     Latched magnetically to the core walls, the metal machine seemed cramped in the Core's hollow central spire. It was vaguely human in shape, one hand holding a plasma rifle that had done a great job of wiping out their back and only means of escape; the other locked hard onto the wall, to support its weight.

     "What the hell is that thing?!" Roy shouted, over the din of the machine's internal gears grinding away.

     "Just a weapon we didn't inform you of during your tenure," Zelgaids spoke. He hadn't moved an inch since they had first arrived. "A machine, powered and directed by the human inside. As you see, your entire quest was for nothing. Elizabeth, kill them."

     The mecha targeted the group. Penny briefly thought about running away, but there was nowhere to run TO... which meant only one option left.

     She stepped out from around her cover, daring to stare the mecha right where she hoped Elizabeth's eyes were looking through.

     "Penny, are you nuts?!" Roy shouted.

     "I'm not going out without a fight!" Penny yelled back, twirling her staffblade into the ready position. "For ZOAMEL!!"

     She SPRINTED forward -- barely avoiding the beam gun piercing the platform where she stood. Zelgadis actually took a step back, not expecting such an incredibly suicidal maneuver... Penny didn't put any tactics into it, no foreplanning, she just bum-rushed the guy intent on fighting him until someone was dead.

     But internally, she knew this was probably not going to work. She had to hope for a miracle. Or rather, pray for one. She only knew two gods, and one of them wasn't going to be able to help... but the other SPECIALIZED in last minute heroic rescues. She put all of her belief into that god she knew and trusted with her life, and pushed HARD, as she simultaneously slashed out at Zelgadis, blade tracing a perfect arc...

     The bad news was that Zelgadis avoided the attack, cross-blocking his (now drawn) gunblade against the blade of the staff. Both were stuck momentarily in deadlock.

     The good news was that Lina Inverse made her traditional last moment appearance, bursting through the center of the mecha in an electric blaze of glory.

     The machine buckled like a belt. Lina blink-teleporting right inside it and exiting via the nearest available weak point, a one million to one chance, had done the job. The legs of the machine dropped, plunging hundreds of feet into the inky blackness below; the torso clung desperately to the walls, prying a bulkhead away in the process and exposing the internal rooms of the palace.

     Lina dusted herself off, and studied the trashed machine. "You know, traditionally," she commented, "When you BUILD a mega ultimate super death weapon to use in the last act of the drama, it's not supposed to go splat this soon. Kind of a let down for everybody involved. But, in your case, I'm willing to make an exception!"

     "Thank Lina it's Lina!!" Roy groaned. "Let's get your pal out of there and book, we've only got a few minutes!"

     "No problem!" Lina said, giving a thumbs up. She turned to face the Core, bathed in its glowing light of a thousand enslaved gods. "I...."

     Then she FELT the power of a thousand enslaved gods. Everything about her stopped moving; her cape didn't even finish its flourish she had begun on turning to face the enemy. She was frozen in every sense of the word.

     Somehow, though, she could FEEL the battle below. Penny starting to fight Zelgadis, who clearly had the advantage of time and training. Roy, trying to aim a clean shot to pick off Zel, without succeeding. But all of that felt distant, secondary. There was something much more dangerous, much more frightening, and it had a hold on her very essence... you know what i am.

     Yes, I do, she thought. awareness that cause is futile. i allowed your path of success / at any time stoppable. situation: seeking absolute comprehension of your future procedural task. installation of lina inverse in core power unit now in progress.

     The trinkets Penny had made for her, the ones with the magnetic metal that dispelled the Eradicators, shattered. The piercing stone scraped her, hurt her like a burn that dug itself hard into your body and mind. Agony flooded Lina Inverse's soul as she watched, helpless, as robotic arms extended from the core... an Eradicator held high and coming down hard. you have failed. your actions were predictable. fear is not suggested procedural action; unit lina inverse was never adequate at demiurge role, and resistant continually. exchange offered: eternal peace and rest blended into my reality, if unit lina inverse does not resist assimilation.

     NO. invalid option. preparations complete.

     The Eradicator came closer... and then shattered, powdery fragments scattering to the winds as a bullet pierced it through the heart.

     Roy Balderdash lowered his gunblade, grinning. No time for a smirk or comment, however; the cutting blue beam was back, and nearly took his legs off.

     Lina quickly assessed things, while she had this momentary control over her own body. Her power WAS down; she was in the presence of a force beyond her comprehension, empowered by the stolen faith of millions of people, embodied in the Demiurges that had been trapped by Science. Penny was pressed up against a guardrail, Zelgadis clearly with the advantage. The mecha wasn't damaged enough, and Elizabeth was still able to target Roy with her beam rifle.

     This was not going to work. They'd walked right into a situation custom tailored for failure, and now they were all going to die. At least she could have the satisfaction that this palace would be going up with them. She could feel the icy grip of Science resume its hold on her... now, far too weak to resist--

     The grip slowed, and halted. A single voice spoke to her, pushing past Science's cold and mathematical speech patterns. A familiar voice, but barely above a whisper, from exhaustion.

     'Save Penny,' Zoamel pleaded.

     Lina shook out of the grasp and got full control over herself.

     "RETREAT!" she screamed, and was in two places simultaneously -- one of her getting a good grip on the back of Penny's shirt, the other snatching up Roy Balderdash by the belt just as he was about to fall off the platform. And then all fou... all three of them were gone.

     Zelgadis frowned, shifting from attack stance to normal stance, having nothing to fight. He looked up at Elizabeth, who was just now climbing out of the cockpit of the mecha.

     "Something's wrong," Zelgadis decided. "What are they planning now?"

     "I assure you, they fled knowing they could not win," Elizabeth replied, floating down to join him, using her personal antigravity belt she'd just invented that morning. "There's nothing left they can do. It's over."

     Penny shook free of Lina's grip, as the three arrived on the roof of the tidiest den of rebellion ever known. She turned to face Lina, fire in her eyes -- and met Lina's gaze, which was just as fierce.

     "I KNOW you didn't want to leave him behind, but this was his request," Lina informed her. "There's no way in hell we could have busted him out. We're going to have to hope the second half of the plan works, and he escapes after the Core's scrap metal."

     Roy tossed his gunblade aside; there'd be no more close infighting now. "Is the cannon ready or not?" he demanded to know. "If we're LUCKY they won't have their defenses up by the time--"

     "Primed and ready," Lina Gabriev announced, standing on the caster's platform. The magic circle hastily inscribed at her feet was already glowing with black power, dripping upwards along her body, and to her hands... the Dragon Slave Amplifier getting warmed up.

     The Wandering Monster Table, embedded a few inches into the cannon's nozzle, trembled a bit until a harsh 'hold still' gaze from Lina Gabriev got the thing rock solid.

     "Hey, whoa! Why is my poor Table-chan in that thing?! He--"

     "Can't talk, busy saving world," Lina Gabriev quickly spouted. "Darkness from twilight, crimson from blood that flows..."

     "I would suggest that everybody get DOWN, now," Roy said, tossing himself flat. "Pull your cape or your shirt over your head or something too, don't worry Lina, we know you've got nothing to show under your shirt..."

     "I'll smack you later," Lina warned, before flopping down, taking Penny with her.

     "...buried in the flow of time; in Thy great name, I pledge myself to darkness..."

     "Boy, this is really exciting," the Apprentice said, drunk on adrenaline rush and pure thrill. "Sir, I'm really proud to be here at this historic--"

     Lord Noisemaker knocked him on the back of the head, to get the boy to lie down.

     Red light mixed in with the black darkness, forming a spiraling swirl around Lina Gabriev. Age hadn't unsharpened the knife of black magic she toted like a diner's club card; it had only matured it, like fine wine. The ball of swirling, nightmarish energy formed between her hands, ready to let loose...

     "...those who oppose us shall be destroyed by the power you and I possess!" she completed. She closed her eyes, trusting the cannon to handle the aiming; otherwise, she could go blind at this close range...


     Energy poured out of Lina's hands, a constant stream; this was not a single shot, this was a conduit from the gates of hell, flowing around the Table (which had passed out from shock), focusing, shunting down the amplifying barrel, and coming out the other end as a tight beam of ABSOLUTE WHOOPASS.

     People all over Sairaag looked up, as the beam tore through the sky; a shaft of pure red light, not wobbling, not wavering, flying straight for its intended target...

     Energy shields slapped up around the palace, but they collapsed like a burst soap bubble the instant the Dragon Slave touched them. The entire compound glowed white-hot, for the barest instant, as the spell knew what area it was going to take out, and got to work at doing just that...

     The world went kinda photo-negativey. Sound canceled itself out. Time and space met, shook hands, and then promptly exploded. The Lord of Nightmares looked up and wondered what in the hell was going on up there.

     There was no smoke to clear; the smoke had burned itself up. When the LIGHT cleared, however, the palace was gone.

     Lina Gabriev smirked, tossed back her hair, and flashed a V sign.

     "Victory!" she proclaimed.

     Then she noticed that not ALL of the palace was gone.

     "...shit," she added.

     Zelgadis uncovered his eyes.

     He had NO idea what had just happened. It was like his entire world had just exploded, reformed, exploded, and reformed again. He got the sneaking suspicion that reality was lying to him. Time was being quite annoying as well. Then... it all stopped. Everything was right as rain.

     Except, of course, that 95% of the Imperial Palace was missing. Everything except for the barest fragment of the platform, and the Core itself, standing tall and true, glowing its blue light into the night sky of Sairaag.

     There was panic in the streets, of course. This town knew a cosmic battle when they saw one, and had some in-born primal instinct to get as far away as possible in situations like these.

     Elizabeth Balderdash shook her head, trying to clear it... before gaping in horror at a scene that Zelgadis regarded with quiet disdain.

     "No.. no! They're abandoning us!" Elizabeth shouted, clutching the twisted metal of the guardrail. "They're abandoning their faith in us! This cannot be!"

     "There's no use denying it," Zelgadis spoke. "They've destroyed us. Without the mechanisms of the Palace, this city will not run. Without the fear and comfort the empire provides, the people will not follow us. We may be alive, but it's over."

     Elizabeth stared, eyes wide, expression crazed. Her cool and calculated composure had gone away forever; all that was left was her inner madness. "Then... then we'll have to continue without them! We don't need them! We've collected enough of these pathetic GODS to continue!"

     "What are you proposing...?" Zelgadis asked.

     She turned to the core, arms wide... speaking to the monstrous machine. "Your power is sufficient! The time is NOW! It's earlier than your projections had theorized, but it can be done! Take me! Take me into your being now, merge with me! Through me, through your stolen faith, you can RULE this world as the most powerful god in existence, beyond hope, beyond faith, beyond the Lord of Nightmares!!"

     A single voice echoed in the minds of Elizabeth and Zelgadis, a single word. Accepted.

     The metal door swung open, exposing the core's brilliant blue mists, the energies. They were trapped and contained, a one way entrance only, but suitable for a man-sized object to walk into that maelstrom.

     "Goodbye, Zelgadis," Elizabeth said, taking her first steps toward immortality. "This was always my destiny, from the first day he spoke to me. I have been waiting so long for this. It has been fun--"

     She heard the sound before she felt the pain. She saw the blade before she acknowledged it was cleanly run through her, back to front.

     " always underestimated me, Elizabeth," Zelgadis spoke, lips so close to her ear. "You never planned to cure me. You stole my sister's techniques and Ace's technologies for your own god complex. But I was the one Science TRULY chose. You were just baited by his machinations into being our tool. You've just outlived your usefulness to us."

     He pulled his gunblade out of Elizabeth's back, shoving her to the floor. Without a second look at her, as unimportant to him as yesterday's trash, he stepped forward into the soul-light of Science.

     Elizabeth's world began to fade to black. She cursed herself, called herself the fool, the used, the led... the same words her brother had used against her. She thought he simply did not understand... now she knew he understood more than she ever had.

     Forgive me, brother, she thought, before closing her eyes.

     "...okay, so, the Core's remaining," Lina Inverse summarized. "No big deal. We just took out Science's entire power base. The city's EMPTY now, he's got no more followers! He won't be nearly as strong as he was. We'll go in there, crack the glass, set them free and that's the end of it."

     Penny gripped her staff for support... trying to feel Zoamel through it. There was nothing. The ivory had gone cold, the blade not.. SEEMING nearly as sharp as it once was. "Lina, something's wrong here... it doesn't feel like it's over. You remember how you said they shouldn't have shown their ultimate mega final whatever weapon like that, and how you took it out easily?"

     "Yeah, so?"

     "What if THAT wasn't their ultimate mega final weapon...?"

     "You worry too much, Penny!" Lina laughed. She rolled up one sleeve, posing with a leg up on the roof's guardwall. "I'll fly over there, kick some ass, bring back the hostages and have PLENTY of time for a late second dinner!"


     Absolute, flawless perfection. Zelgadis hadn't spoken to Science many times... he didn't need the constant ego-stroking Elizabeth did. Once he heard the bargain, he had been sold immediately, and required no further goading. That simple deal had led him to this point.

     He stood inside the swirling power, feeling all the gods that were in here with him, but most importantly feeling the touch of Science's intensely REAL power, capable of anything, leader of men, maker of tools, organizer of society, the New Order incarnate...

     "I pledge my life to you!" he called out, knowing the words Science wanted to hear. "Become one with me, so that your power can surpass all! And in return... I take back my humanity!" accepted.

     Zelgadis screamed, feeling the power dig into him... the old familiar feel, just like on his sister's table... where the Demiurge of Science secretly directed her hand, to show Zelgadis what it was capable of. The procedure was bunk, but his sister's faith in science made him a believer. A believer in miracles...

     The skin emerged first on his chest. The circle that had formed there during the original experiment, which reverted to smooth grey stone unlike the rocky stone of his body, was now soft and pink and very fragile. But the rest of his body tensed and flexed, stone shattering, flesh-muscles bulging beneath his cast off shell. Wire-hairs fell out, true hair grew back in...

     In moments, he was human. Just a normal human, before his two plus decade quest had nearly ruined his life. He felt at peace... he no longer had to drive, to push to any limit conceivable for the ONE THING he'd always wanted. He'd achieved his dream. Now, he could just be Zelgadis Greyweirs again.

     "...thank you," he breathed, through moist lips.

     Then he felt the caress of the wire against his new skin. you are welcome.

     His voice screamed out loud, as the wires and cables of Science dug into his flesh, turning him into a permanent fixture of the Core. He was mortal. He was human. But now, he was the vessel of a god, and that god decided to leave out one important detail: in pledging his life, he had truly pledged his life.

     ...the ground shook.

     That's an understatement. Usually, earthquakes are simple waves rolling through the surface of the world, spreading from a focal point. This was different. This was the ground itself actually shaking, as a whole, not as a reaction to some other force.

     Lina Inverse wobbled a bit, before jumping back, to land on the roof. Her eyes widened at the sight...

     The Core was glowing brighter than the sun, but that wasn't the problem. The problem was that the entire city of Sairaag was bending and warping around the Core, buildings, steel, concrete, metal structures and ductwork and all the machines that made Sairaag so interconnected pulling together. The solid materials defied reality, they flew in the face of all conventional thinking... as they began to take shape.

     The others were shouting typical things, like 'what the hell is that' and 'what's going on' and so on. Lina was transfixed. She FELT what was going on. Science had done the thing she dared not do... it had become mortal. And in being mortal, it no longer had to bother itself with petty things like faith. It was a force of nature, a thing onto itself, and it wanted a new body to get up and walk around with...

     Sairaag made for a great body. It had been customed designed for this purpose, the entire city automated and designed around the central palace, just for this day. The great machine in the center of the city flexed its arms, looking very much like a HUGE copy of the simple mecha Lina had to fight not minutes ago. This time, however, it had eyes... two eyes of perfect circles, of the most brilliantly awful red light. Those eyes turned on her.

     And she knew that nothing could be done now.

     "...guys! SHUT UP!" Lina shouted, willing her voice to overpower them. "I can explain. Science just... MERGED with someone. That means it's infinitely more powerful than it was. Lina! You remember Shaburanigdo?"


     "It's considerably worse than Shabby-kun," Lina Inverse said, with no small amount of dread. "The good news is that it's mortal now. We can KILL it, not just knock away its support like we did before. The bad news is that... I don't think we're capable of killing it. It's the strongest thing in the world right now and it KNOWS it. That's why it hasn't bothered to do anything to us! LOOK!"

     Science continued to rise from the wreckage of Sairaag, body forming as each new building was crunched down and reprocessed into his mechanized whole. The god now stood over a thousand feet high.. and kept looking down at them. If it was possible for a machine to be smug, it would be.

     "...okay, my brain has just locked up," Roy announced. "I did my part. I am going to go downstairs, and drink myself stupid. I leave the rest to you guys."

     Science, now a fully mobile walking giant, gave the group a tiny nod... before turning around, each footfall enough to crack the building's foundations, and starting to walk away. Every footfall warped and distorted the ground... cables and tubes springing up, metal sheets covering the grass. The world around it was changing, all by its willpower, by its unleashed ability to institute the new order...

     "What can we do?" Penny asked... her voice small, and afraid. She couldn't tear her eyes off the tin god, knowing that Zoamel was in there, and now there might be no way to get him back...

     "...I've got the Giga Slave," Lina Gabriev suggested. "Sure, it'd probably destroy the world if I tried to use it right now, but ... um... I... argh. LINA! This is your job, isn't it?!"


     "You're the world savior!" Lina Gabriev shouted at her counterpart. "Not me. I'm not the one who's going to save the day. I'm with Roy on this; I've played my part. I helped damage the thing, and Gourry's safe, but I'm not the one who can beat that thing. YOU are. So go destroy it! The whole world is counting on you!"

     "It's not that SIMPLE!" Inverse shouted, pointing at the god. "I'm like a flea to that thing! The only way I could possibly get enough power to go toe to toe with a merged Demiurge is........ is..."

     Oh, no.

     Not that.

     She'd SWORN not to do that. Lina Inverse had come to grips with being a god, and on hearing that the answer she'd sought after was an atrocity waiting to happen, she'd sworn never to...

     Lina scanned the horizon. She KNEW Xelloss was out there. He knew this was coming, somehow. Sylpheel knew it was coming; a warning was issued, that a blood sacrifice would have to be made in her name. There was no other way.

     She turned to her group, and got ready to break the news.

     "The only way I could face Science now... is if I do what he did," Lina announced. "I have to merge with a human. I have to use their faith, use it to unchain myself from my believers and become a rouge god--"

     "What, is that all?" Gabriev asked, wanting to get on with it. "Fine! I've done weirder things on my off weekends, and you know it! Get the spell or the ritual or whatever fired up and we'll--"

     "You don't understand! I'd have to take your LIFE to do it," Inverse finished. "It's a sacrifice... but that doesn't matter, it wouldn't work with you. You've got no faith in me whatsoever. Don't try to lie; I know it. You KNOW I'm a god, you know all these things as facts, but you believe in yourself now more than you could ever believe in me. I'm glad for you, frankly, but that doesn't help us. The only person here who's stuck by my side through this whole quest, who understands me and believes in my power is..."

     The Wandering Monster Table hopped onto her head. "Demiurge!"

     "No, not YOU! You're ruining the moment!" Lina shouted, yanking the thing off her head. She was ready to drop kick it one for all the irritation it had caused her over the last few weeks, but--

     Penny rested a hand on Lina's shoulder, stopping her.

     "Let's go," she said simply. "I'm ready."

     Lina Gabriev exploded. "PENNY!!"

     "If I do this," Inverse warned, "You're going to cease to be. After a short amount of time I'll have completely taken over your life. You'll never be with Zoamel again. I don't WANT to do this, Penny! I'm supposed to be the savior, the winner, and I don't want an ending like this! Not when you've come into your own, you've discovered what kind of a person you REALLY want to be! I'd be robbing you of everything you've achieved at my side!"

     "Yes! Exactly! Penny, think this through!!" Lina Gabriev shouted, trying to get between the two... and finding her own daughter raising a hand, to block her.

     "I know what's involved," Penny said, with a sad smile as she listened to her mother's protests. "But what other choice do I have, if I want Zoamel to be free, and the world I've gotten so fond of to continue to exist?"

     Lina Inverse chewed her lip, unsure. "Penny..."

     "I've always believed in you, even when I was a little girl," Penny spoke. "I may not be able to BE you, but I can help you save the day. I want to do it. Let's do it."

     The two floated away from the building, standing on an invisible floor, as Lina Inverse prepared herself. Penny swallowed her fears, let her devotion to Zoamel and her belief in Lina bubble to the surface, and the pair began to glow...

     "You get back here THIS INSTANT, young lady!!" Lina Gabriev screamed, waving her hands, feeling so helpless. "You're grounded! For the rest of your life! You're not going to do this! Don't! Don't leave me! Please, Penny, I love you, don't--"

     A comforting hand fell on Lina Gabriev's shoulder. She turned quickly to see...

     "It's her choice," Gourry said softly. Tears ran down his cheeks, but he spoke with confidence, with decision. "We raised her to think for herself, and she's made up her mind. There's nothing we can do. I've never been prouder of her to this very day. And I've never been prouder of you."


     The couple embraced, and kept their eyes away from the scene. It was too hard to bear.

     Science swept like a wave of reformation and organization across the world. Everything it had programmed, everything it had planned, had now come to fruition. With the human in its heart, and the invulnerable force of its will and technology, nothing would be capable of stopping it.

     All variables had been factored, cofactored, studied, analyzed, checked and rechecked. The task was complete. The god took another step towards its destiny.

     And found itself blocked.

     The figure was tiny. A simple girl, with flowing braided hair, and a bladed staff sharp enough to cut the sky. She glowed with some internal force, a golden light that obscured her face... but Science could feel what this newcomer was.

     They were kin. They were the same. Gods beyond reproach, shapers and makers of the universe, tied to no one.

     "I am Penny Inverse," the small god declared, shifting her staff into an attack posture. "And I'm going to kill you."

     The battle began.

     It was not a battle of blades or weapons. No fancy laser beams, no spells, no physical feats to amaze and please the eye. This was a battle of will; the willpower of Science versus the willpower of Inverse. Both wanted differing destinies for the world, and the clash occurred on a higher level than simple reality.

     Time splintered in two directions, shattering in wake of the forces that were bending it.

     In one timeline, the world was an urban industrial zone, home to automobiles and airplanes and computers, telecommunications to distance its people, flourishing crime with unbeatable weapons, armies with the ability to kill millions in a single shot, and magic as little more than a child's fantasy. A world with one true god.

     In the other timeline... everything was the way Inverse wished it. Specifically, back to normal. No sweeping changes, no massive upheaval, just a return to what the world had known and loved and never wanted to let go of. A world of magic, myth, treasure, and people who worshipped any god they pleased...

     But that timeline was losing.

     Inverse was strong. She could feel herself floating free from the world, an outside agitator, a force onto herself -- but Science had the advantage. It had the combined power of all the gods of the world on its side, enslaved to its yoke, and THAT was the power which became amplified. The battle was just as unbalanced as it was before the merge. Lina had failed...

     No, wait, Penny thought. You're thinking too bluntly. We can't just pulverize this thing flat, crush its will. But what we can do is FOCUS our will on the one part that Science cannot do without... and strike there. Every machine has a weak spot, a malfunction waiting to happen.

     I wouldn't have thought of that, Lina mused.

     The small god twirled her staff, and pointed it straight ahead. She turned the plane of her will from a push-of-war with Science, and twisted it around her staff, before shooting forward. Focused in purpose.

     Zelgadis could feel the god of Science taking over his body. He was weak, too weak to resist. He wanted to be strong. He'd asked Rezo to make him strong, and... he became a monster in the process. Now he was weak again, and would die, and there was nothing that could be done...

     In his mind, his sister scolded him with the truth he already knew. He'd done the one thing he planned on avoiding... he had become Rezo. He'd sold his soul to a demon just to cure what should have been a trivial ailment. He decided not to live with what he was, and obsessed with it, driving him to burn bridges and forge new pacts with darkness. And now, like Rezo, he was to be destroyed for his sins.

     There was an odd kind of peace to it. The whole affair was over now, wasn't it? Did Rezo feel like this, when he was consumed by Shaburanigdo? All his sins washed away in one ultimate sacrifice, losing his life and his soul, but regaining his conscience in the process? There was no way to know.

     Zelgadis's vision was fading...

     But not so far as to not see the light of day, as Penny Inverse carved a huge chunk out of Science's machine chest. Gears sprung, tubes spurted hydraulic fluid, as she sliced her way to the core... to where Zelgadis hung, his frail body in a network of wires and cables.

     Now he understood. He'd signed over his life... which meant if he was to die, Science would die with him. He laughed weakly, and smiled... come, come, he urged in what he hoped was his voice.

     Penny Inverse rocketed into the Core chamber, the heart of Science, and swung down hard with the blade --

     Only to be stopped. Science had caught on to the plan, and wasn't going to allow it. The blade was a simple thing to halt...

     "," Zelgadis said. And PUSHED...

     Hundreds of gods pushed right along with Zelgadis. Individually they had no hope of resisting, but through Zelgadis, the crack in the armor, they could hold back the tide for one critical moment.

     The invisible hand of Science was stayed. The hostages inside the god's heart, mortal and immortals, had given the beast a new struggle to handle. It wouldn't last; but it would last just long enough.

     The naginata freed itself, as Zelgadis watched it.

     "...the chest," he explained. "The circle there. It's my weakest point. Strike there."

     The blade of the staff flared, as a shape in the mists of the Core flared. Zoamel was about to take his vengeance, at long last. Penny was about to save the one she loved. Lina was about to save the world. Zelgadis was about to be redeemed. And the god that called itself Science was about to die. History had narrowed down to this point...

     The bladepoint sank true, and all those 'about to's came into being.

     "Damn, I checkmated myself again," Xelloss grumbled. "Honestly, I'm just too good to challenge myself..."

     He heard the first metallic crack echoing across the plains of Sairaag, and looked up. It was about time, too. For a few moments, he was wondering if Lina would really be able to pull it off after their big zappy spell didn't do the job. He shoved the chess set aside, smiling as he rose to his feet.

     The blackbird Zelas-Metallum flapped over, and perched on his staff. Beady eyes were transfixed on the tin god... watching, as it collapsed to its knees, and keeled over. It was crumbling away like a sand castle, machinery and masonry coming unjoined, the spiritual force that had held them tight being present no longer.

     Most importantly... the core was exposing itself to the air, and the glass had shattered. The heart of a Demiurge was now simply another machine that shouldn't have been possible in the first place, and the blue mists that were trapped in it now broke loose, winging towards freedom...

     "And that, my dear Zelas," Xelloss said, breathing a sigh of relief, "Is death's bell tolling for the god who thought he could become the Lord of Nightmares. And rightfully so. I do hope Lina survived her little fight, however..."

     She cracked open an eye. There was no light, no scene, no gravity. A sense of floating inside herself prevaded; the only sound that reached what she presumed to be her ears was a human heartbeat. The pulsing tone echoed like a soothing earthquake or a quiet riot, calming but demanding of attention. The beat was fading.

     I didn't want this to happen, Lina Inverse thought. Issac warned me, and I heeded the warnings, but it happened anyway. And now, Penny has to suffer because I wasn't strong enough...

     "It's okay," Penny said. She was here too, with Lina Inverse, since they were technically one person now... but her voice was fading along with that heartbeat. "I had to save the world, didn't I? I'm proud I did this. I wasn't imitating you, I was following my own goals. I finally became my own heroine. No regrets.."

     "Don't lie," Lina accused, face to face with her other half. "You've got a regret. Zoamel may be free now, but you're never going to see him again. It might have been the right thing to do, but now..."

     "...there wasn't any other way..."

     "I know. And that's the problem," Lina said. She stood up... she felt her body stand, at any rate. Her stolen heartbeat sounded faster and faster. "I told Xelloss I wasn't going to be satisfied with any ending other than the ending *I* wanted. And this is not what I want! I thought I wanted to be mortal, so I could live my own life, so I could be who I was... the way things were, with Amelia, and Zelgadis, and Gourry, but..."

     Gourry. A memory flashed... a confused, but heartfelt kiss he had for Lina. For someone he knew as Lina. She felt a pull, in that moment, and it was very hard to resist. In a rush she had remembered everything about Gourry, their adventures, their time spent together, the good and the bad and just for that BRIEF moment in the heat her battle she felt...


     Of course.

     "Penny!" Lina shouted. "Don't fall asleep -- don't give into the merge! Issac never bothered to try and break his merge, but that doesn't mean it's not possible! I know how you can break out of it!"


     "Think of Zoamel!" Lina continued to yell, exploring deeper and deeper into herself, trying to find Penny before it was too late. "Find him! You've got a bond with him, and it's the purest form of belief there is. You don't worship him like you do me, you love him! If he's truly free now, he can pull you away from me, and I can leave your body! PENNY, say something!"

     "... ..lina.." the quiet voice spoke. Lina could make out a foggy shape, and... pushed it away, hard. Pushed it away from herself, because touching Penny might only make it worse.

     "Have confidence in yourself, please!" she begged. "You're not me! You said so yourself: you can't BE me. Be yourself! Find him, go to him, it's what YOU want, not me!"

     She pushed herself farther away... and knew it was working. There was someone else here now, a ghostly blue and white shape... feeling the fresh air of freedom, and looking for Penny just as she was looking for him. The moment was critical... Lina had to let go.

     It had been a long quest. Everything they set out to accomplish had been accomplished, and more; this wasn't Lina's quest anymore, it was Penny's. Lina's part, saving the world, was now over. It was time to leave, and let the girl live out her life as she saw fit.

     Never looking back, Lina sped for the future's horizon. The faithful needed her; she could feel the pull, and embraced it, welcomed it. As long as there were bad guys to take down, as long as large dinners went uneaten and the world needed someone to cleanse its problems now and then, Lina Inverse would be there.

     "Goodbye, Penny," she spoke softly. "You've done well."

     And Lina Inverse was history.


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