The stars were out.

     Penny blinked her eyes a few times. No stars, stars. Stars, no stars. Cool air passed over her skin, the distant rumblings of collapsing machinery trickling into her ears. It was her body; she felt alive. Truly awake and alive...

     A shape eclipsed the moon. Familiar to her, and dear to her...

     "I'm free, Penny," Zoamel said quietly, brushing her hair back from her face. "You did it."


     They leaned ever closer, the inevitable drawing better than gravity, better than any force in the universe... and...

     Fortunately Gourry covered Lina Gabriev's mouth to keep her from interrupting the scene, and the couple finally got to have their first kiss. At least until the Table landed on Zoamel's head in its euphoric glee over the recent victory, and broke things up.

     Penny giggled, as the normally graceful and unflappable god looked adorably confused, Table-chan squatting on his head. "Demiurge!" it declared.

     "That IS you, right?" Lina Gabriev asked, staring down at her daughter.

     "It's me, mom," Penny said, getting back to her feet. "It's just me. Lina... Lina left. She let me go so I could come back to.. to all of you."

     "I'm glad I woke up for the real show!" Gourry said, rubbing a hand behind his head and laughing. "Except usually it's me bailing your mother out of bad situations like this, not the other way around--"

     Lina Gabriev tugged hard on Gourry's ear. "ExCUSE me? When did I ever need help from you?! You couldn't even tie your shoes if I didn't remind you how to do a bow knot!"

     Zoamel swallowed hard. Although they had defeated the near-omnipotent god of Science, now he had a far more frightening situation to deal with... future in-laws.

     Still, they had won. Zoamel looked up at the fading mists... Demiurges winging their way back to their temples, their churches. His vengeance had struck true, and his brethren were free...

     All's well that ends well.

     The grip around the ruby-helmed staff tightened. Xelloss's gloves let a protesting squeak of fine leather, as his fingers flexed... his smile flexing even wider, as he watched part of the mist break off, drawing closer.

     "Why, look, Zelas!" Xelloss said, pointing out the approaching comet. "It's the rest of your self! It knows you're here, and it's coming home. And look, Dynast is with you, and all the other nice Mazoku that were trapped by the naughty humans! Free at last, free at last, thank Lina we are free at last!!"

     Zelas-Metallum flapped her wings a few times, squawking in delight. She landed on Xelloss's outstretched hand, and spread her wings wide... waiting to accept her glory once more.

     "Didn't I promise you this day would come?" Xelloss asked. "Didn't I tell you all my plans were building to this moment? Do you doubt me now, Zelas-Metallum? Do you doubt your poor little underling, your general- priest, who you treated just as poorly as the weakest runt in your litter of demons...?"

     With a snap of the fingers, black power poured into Xelloss's hand... as he whisked his hand, grasping the bird who had so foolishly perched there.

     "I'm afraid I lied," Xelloss spoke... eyes opening, flaring up with purple in the irises as he stared at his former master. "I led you to the North Pole specifically so you would be crippled, and I could use you as a magnet tonight. Your usefulness is officially over. Goodbye, dear Zelas."

     There was a squawk, a wet crunching sound, and Xelloss let the dead bird fall to his feet. Simultaneously, he twisted, raised his staff and let the energies previously trapped in the Core flow to him. The comet plowed right into his body, whirling around the black cone of darkness that was his true Mazoku self... until all that bottled Mazoku astral energy was integrated into his own identity.

     Xelloss, now effectively 2.4 Mazoku Lords strong, closed his eyes smiled in relief, and gave a sweeping bow to the scene in general.

     "Thank YOU, Miss Lina Inverse," he graciously offered. "I couldn't have done it without you. Farewell."

     He folded into shadow, and disappeared.

     Slowly, the citizens of Sairaag trickled back into the city.

     The term 'city' had to be applied very loosely. There was barely enough left to qualify as a respectable set of ruins. The few scraps of buildings remaining after the disaster were totally unusable. Machines littered the landscape, broken and discarded... a huge pile lurked less than two miles away, where Science had given up the ghost.

     Survivors picked through the rubble. Everything they had built up after the LAST time Sairaag was destroyed was gone... again. They wandered absent- minded through the streets, not sure what to do next, not sure if they were dreaming or just having a nightmare.

     A group of three walked along the streets, surveying the damage as well.

     Roy Balderdash grumbled, shaking his head. "Terrific. We were trying to save the city, and we leveled it. At least the damn god is dead now..."

     "Does this mean I'm going to go down another rank?" the Apprentice asked, nudging the remains of a steam powered cart with his foot. "Ah.. actually, IS there a lower rank than Apprentice?"

     Lord Noisemaker crouched down, to pick some parts out of the wreckage of the cart that he figured he could use later. "Don't be daft, lad. Nothing's lower than Apprentice. But... I'd be willing to restore you to Journeyman in wake of this. We DID achieve victory, at lea--"

     A club struck the window near Noisemaker's head, shattering it; he threw up his cloak quickly, and stepped back. One of the locals was busy beating on the cart with a stick, frenzied in the pointless action.

     "What's the matter with you?!" Noisemaker demanded. "You almost hit me! I'm the one who does the whacking around here, my good man!"

     "It's these blasted machines!" the Sairaagian shouted. "They ruined us! Destroy all technology! We should have never turned our backs on the old ways of magic!"

     Roy smacked his forehead... then marched over, and yanked the club away from the man, intent on shaking some sense into him. "You putz! That's just as extreme as what got you into trouble in the FIRST place!! The problem isn't technology, or magic, or the birds or the bees or the Mazoku or anything like that; it's when you turn into a bloody zealot!"

     He tossed the man aside, continuing as he towered over him.

     "What were you planning to do, start up some technophobic group to run around rioting and trashing the city? Oh, that's real smart, let's destroy everything that's already been destroyed, lather ourselves up into a frenzy... better yet, let's form an army and go around the world trashing all the machines and gizmoes and inventions you guys came up with! It'll be the same old story from the other direction. I may be an outsider here, but I've dealt with this city long enough to know the score. What you people need isn't to bank all your faith in one thing or another; there's nothing wrong with technology. Just stop deifying it! If you REALLY want to build this city back up and not have it fall over again, stop relying on one thing or another and just rely on yourselves!!... .. what're you guys lookin' at?!"

     Roy turned one hundred and eighty... looking at all the refugees, who had gathered, to listen to him speak. They seemed expectant, as if they wanted him to go on... to guide them.

     "...I'm not falling into that trap," he said quietly. "I'm not my sister; I don't want power. But if you people are serious about still living here... oh, hell. I'll do what I can. What do I have at home, a bunch of immature little punk bandits? Noisemaker! How much would it cost to hire you on permanently? These guys are going to need a brainiac like you to make stuff go. I'm no scientist, or magician."

     "Ah... well, I suppose we could stay," Lord Noisemaker said. "In exchange for, say, a guildhouse for fellow Thaumatologists--"

     "Good, the more the merrier," Roy said. He rolled up his sleeves. Time to get to work.

     Leave a Balderdash to clean up after a Balderdash. But maybe this time, he could avoid the family curse, and make things better for a change.

     A middle aged man with a very bad combover spread his arms wide in front of the graven icon, the motions identical to how he had performed them hundreds of times previously.

     "O terrible god!" he declared, bowing to the statue as was tradition. "Please do not step on us like the worms we are. Hear our calls, hear our cries, and CURSE our enemies who tremble like pillars of salt in the eyes of your rage!! The curses of the unholy and the damned be on our enemies! Black god of vengeance, above all gods, these are the names of those who will burn forever in the acidic pits of your gallbladder!........"

     ...and the cult leader tapped his foot, waiting. The statue of the monsterous god gave about as much reaction to the speech as the crowd had. IE, el zippo.

     "People," the leader addressed, quite accusing in tone. "We have gone over this time and time again. WHEN you attend the weekly meetings of the Unholy Cult of Zoamel Gustav... you are EXPECTED to intone the names of those you seek to destroy right now! Come on, am I talking to myself up here? Sometimes I wonder if I'm the only person here who really CARES about the complete and total annihilation of those who oppress us. MARTY!"

     "Here, o terrible leader!"

     "Are you calling me a terrible leader?!"

     "Ah... I meant it with respect, sir."

     "Marty, what's the problem here?" the cult leader asked. "You're the keeper of the List of the Damned. What's the problem? Have you lost interest? You're all faithful, yes?"

     "Yes, they are."

     "Right. Well, if you are, then... then...... ahh. Who, exactly, said that?..."

     "Me," the man spoke, sitting casually on the stone base of his mighty frightening statue. He sat with his chin on one palm, a thoughtful poise. "Your god, Zoamel Gustav."

     Everybody went pale. Or at least as pale as a bunch of cultists who thought hooded robes were very fashionable and rarely got out much could get.

     "You know in your hearts that it is I," Zoamel reminded them. "I have appeared to you once before, when I set out to destroy our enemies... and I have done so. With the help of our new allies, we've vanquished all who threatened the world itself."

     "...ah... very good, sir," the cult leader said, wondering if he should be bowing. But... it didn't feel right to bow to someone who was sitting around as if he was chatting over tea.

     "But that was then, and this is now," Zoamel spoke, standing and dusting off his hands. "I've had time to think about the situation. I'd like to ask you, my faithful, one very simple question. Do you REALLY want vengeance? Is there truly malice in your heart, and an unquenchable need to punish the ones who you are upset about?"

     "Oh, quite terrible and horrible malice, great lord Zoamel! Our knives dipped in blood will forever--"

     "Marvin, please."

     "--not really, sir," Marvin the Pagan Cultist corrected. "I've been trying to encourage them, sir, but... we're just simple town folk. There's just not very much around here to be angry about. O please don't crush us like maggots beneath thy mighty iron--"

     "What is it you need?" Zoamel asked. "Please... tell me. I've sat in shadow, I've allowed the rituals to continue until they have become meaningless. If I'm truly going to support you, now that I've come to a realization about my relationship with man, I'm going to need to talk with you... one on one. As a true leader, and not simply a figurehead. Charlie? I see you in the back. There's something you want, yes?"

     "Ah, it's nothing really," a younger cultist said. "I just..."

     "Speak up, son. We're all cultists here."

     "I'm very worried about my math test tomorrow, sir."

     "You really should have studied," Zoamel warned... but chuckled a bit at the requested, and waved a hand, a brief glow following it. "I will grant you a boon, however, young Charlie. You shall not require sleep nor food nor drink tonight, for as long as you read your textbooks and make up your skipped homework. If you are diligent and true in this path, then victory over your... archnemesis the math test shall be yours."

     Charlie's jaw fell. "Th.. thank you, o great Zoamel!"

     "Hurry home, you have much to catch up on," Zoamel said, waving him off. "My followers... the Cult of Zoamel Gustav changes from now on. I will break the news to Martina back at the head temple... of that and... other recent developments. I want to work with you, to be the best god that I can be. I promise you I won't hide from you any longer. I can't promise I won't hurt you, as I may be immortal, but I am still capable of error... but I will do the best that I can by you. This is my New Covenant of Zoamel. Let the book begin anew."

     "Hail Zoamel!!" Marty pledged. "Hail Zoamel, god of the people! Hail Zoamel, god of wisdom!!"

     The faith flowed anew... fresh and pure, unlike the diluted and ritualistic belief from before. Zoamel smiled, and basked in it... this was how it was meant to be. Just as Drake had taught him... to help people, to TRULY help people, you couldn't hide from them.

     Of course, the future was unknown to him. He couldn't say it would prove a success. But at least now, he was trying.

     Despite being a mature young adult now, who had stood against monsters and gods, Penny still freaked completely out when she opened her bedroom door and walked right into a cobweb occupied by three spiders.

     Her room was almost derelect. Lina hadn't bothered to clean it much since Penny had run away from home, a time that felt like years gone by... it would probably take all of tomorrow to get the place presentable.

     It didn't matter, however. She was home. Zoamel was off with his followers, her mother and father were sharing some... personal time in a nearby room (and thankfully on a bed with a Silence spell cast on it) and the quest was over...

     ...and then she noticed the string of tied up bedsheets dangling out her window. They had been a bit rain-soaked and torn, but it was still the very same ladder she had used to climb to freedom, and join Lina on her journey. Penny smiled fondly at the memory... then pulled the sheets back in through the window. She wouldn't be needing them anymore.

     Because the NEXT adventure she went on, she'd be walking out the front door. She'd come to a sort of agreement with her mother; she was trusted enough to go out on her own now, as long as she didn't come back with any crippling injuries, cursed magical artifacts, maps to treasures that would take her halfway around the globe, or new immortal boyfriends. Mother had been very specific about these things.

     Despite that, the future was wide open to her. For now, she'd sleep. But tomorrow, she'd start her life anew.


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