awn rises over the forest, a bright yellow, sinking between the trees lazily as the sun climbs its way to the top.  Because that's what Brian was doing -- climbing all the way to the top.
    His professional name was Skeleton Badass, which he spent a great deal of time thinking up.  He was surprised at how easy managing a gang of bandits was, compared to his former career of cost accountancy; the profits were high, and as long as he kept an eye on the overhead and expenditures, it was quite profitable.  Once he had enough funds, he could invest in larger scale operations, scaling up that criminal underworld ladder... and soon, he'd be the most important man in Sailoon, aside perhaps from the royals and from the musical superstars and other notable persons... at any rate, a LOT of people would look up to him, and probably wouldn't make fun of his voice again.
    Because Skeleton Badass felt that waking up early was a good road towards better health, he survived that day.  (Which just goes to show that he was right.)
    His bandit camp wasn't anything special... some wooden walls, a watchtower, a cave to store the loot in.  Still, it was home.  Skeleton Badass did some stretching exercises, to keep in some sort of reasonable physical shape, yawned, looked at the fireball quietly wafting its way into his midst, looked around for his toothbrush, went...
    Wait a minute.
    The watchtower exploded into so much firewood, Skeleton Badass covering himself instinctively to avoid any damage; and lucky, avoiding any of that flaming driftwood.  More fireballs shot into the camp, impacting against the hill, blowing a hole in the gates, in the fence...
    Now the boys were awake, and had their swords / clubs / maces / knives out, ready to combat the invaders.  Skeleton was a smart man, and as a wise battle tactical commander realized his only chance to survive was to go hide, so he did.
    Through the fire, smoke and haze, he saw a single figure...
    Cost accountancy was starting to look like a very good way to live out the rest of his life.
    Lina Inverse was here.
    She hadn't even worked up a sweat, tossing around the most basic of shamanistic spells.  This wasn't any real test of her abilities, but it was akin to morning exercises... you know, get up, stretch, stomp bandits, and so on.
    Gourry was busy exercising as well, being simultaneously attacked by six or seven guys all carrying swords longer than he was.  Lina stood on one of the fenceposts, watching as her 'bodyguard' sliced each sword into halves, then fourths, then eights... then caused enough minor injuries and humiliations to the others to make them run away.  Because really, Lina and Gourry weren't here to murder these guys... just encourage a swift career change and confiscate their confiscated monies for the betterment of hersel-- ah, for all mankind.
    "Need any help!?" Lina called, hopping to the side to avoid an arrow.
    "I'm fine, thank you!!" Gourry shouted back up, nicking a false eyepatch off another one of the bandits.  Lina decided to give him a hand anyway, scorching/freezing/blasting some of the bandits away from Gourry.
    Within minutes, and we're talking minutes you could count on one hand if you had your thumb surgically removed, the battle was over and the keep was theirs.  Lina hopped down from her observation post, her wings opening just momentarily to allow her to flutter to the ground, before going away again -- she'd been practicing with them lately.
    "Is there anybody left?  I could use some coffee," Lina commented, glancing around.  She spotted the mess area (which was a mess, pardon the pun) and wandered over, in search of warm beverage.
    Motion caught her eye.
    Lina blew the table away, shattering it against a far wall, revealing the cowering form of Skeleton Badass.
    "Hello!" Lina smiled.  "Are you the leader of these guys?"
    "No?" Skeleton Badass guessed.
    Gourry wandered up, turning the Looming Spectre of Impending Bodily Harm effect on full.  "What do you want to do with him, Lina?..."
    "I'm sorry!!" Brian babbled.  "It was a stupid career move!  I should have never left my accounting firm, I just wanted some respect and I didn't want to be burned alive at the hands of the Enemy of All Who Live, Lina Inverse!  Oh, god, have mercy!  PLEEAASSEE!!!"
    "You're an accountant?" Lina asked, confused.
    Brian handed her a slightly crumpled business card.  It had several acronymized degrees after his name.
    Lina studied it a moment, gears turning... and she shrugged.  "Eh, let him go."
    Seventeen statements of thanks were compressed into five seconds, and Brian was up and running, out of the nearest hole in the fence, possibly never to be seen again.
    "You let him go?" Gourry asked.  "I thought you always said 'no mercy for the bad guys...'"
    "I don't know... he just looked so helpless.  Like a kicked puppy," Lina said, having a seat nearby.  "Hrm.  Gourry, are you enjoying our morning outings to clean the scum out of Sailoon?"
    "Sure," Gourry said, noncommittally.  He sheathed his sword, not needing it for the rest of the day.
    "My thoughts exactly," Lina said.  "Bit of activity, a little enjoyable, but... it doesn't have the same appeal.  I mean, these bandits are people too, just very stupid evil people who deserve a good thrashing.  But does that mean we have to harass them constantly?"
    "Who are you and what have you done with Lina?" Gourry asked, stunned.
    "I never said I LIKED bandits," Lina said.  "Just that I'm not getting the same kick out of kicking them I once did, you know?  What have we been doing for the last two weeks, anyway?  Hanging around Sailoon, investigating bandits, stomping them, getting rich, eating big dinners..."
    "But that's what we always do," Gourry reminded her.
    "I know.  And there's nothing wrong with big dinners and vast quantities of cash.  Just feels like... there should be MORE, you know?" Lina said.  "As careers go, this one's pretty repetitive.  Tiresome.  Uninteresting.  What we need is a big challenge.  I mean, a real test of skills, of magic and swords and wits!"
    "I dunno, Lina.  Auntie always said it's a bad idea to ask for trouble..."
    "I'm not asking for trouble, exactly, just... a little excitement," Lina said.  She paused, examining Gourry like a fine cut of beef.  "Hey, you wanna go out to dinner tonight?"
    "But we always go out to dinner."
    "I mean GO OUT to dinner," Lina said.  "Like, socially."
    Gourry didn't get it, as was his lot in life.  "But we always GO OUT to dinner like socially."
    "I MEAN... oh, nevermind.  Let's go get lunch, at least," Lina said, getting to her feet.
    "Aren't we going to loot the bandit cave?" Gourry asked, pointing to the hidden dark depths that might contain untold secrets and fortunes.
    "Naah," Lina said.  "We're so rich we don't have anywhere to put the cash nowadays.  We'll come back and loot it later if we run low."
    Now Gourry was worried.
    This was a new way for Lina to act.  He'd gotten used to her occasional bouts of depression and fake self-confidence.  He'd even gotten used to her desire to hide away from her problems.  But he'd never seen her totally uninterested in her usual hobbies, yet still smiling and carefree.
    Lately, Gourry had taken an exceptional interest in Lina's well being.  True, he'd always been her bodyguard, to keep her from being killed by people and stuff, but lately he felt she needed... other types of guarding.  Like keeping her happy, that sort of thing.  But this wasn't an area Gourry had any formal training in, unlike swordplay.  So far, he'd just been flying by the seat of his pants, trying to figure it out as he went along, just working from gut instinct.  Aunt Koirry said that he actually had a very well developed instinct, but Gourry couldn't tell.
    He knew better to invite trouble, but he secretly hoped something would happen that would cheer Lina up.  No, she was already cheerful... something that would satisfy her, then.  Something that would... oh, he didn't know.  He wasn't good with words.  He just wanted Lina to be well, and that'd have to do for explaining it.
    "What do you fancy?  Saileese takeout, maybe?" Lina asked, summoning her wings.  Gourry had gotten used to seeing them by now, the pair of golden butterfly wings that Lina obtained during her last big adventure... but he hadn't gotten used to her flying all over the place with them.  Lina's feet rarely touched the ground lately, unless they were in a city.  Walking was no longer an option for the sorceress on the go.
    "Do we have to... y'know, fly?" Gourry asked.  "I'm starting to get vertical."
    "Vertigo," Lina corrected.  "What's to worry about?  With the wings, I can put a Raywing flight bubble around you separately instead of using the power on myself.  You're perfectly safe."
    "What if you get distracted?  I'd be a Gabriev pancake!"
    "Sheesh, Gourry, don't be so negative," Lina smiled.  "You know?  I bet we're headed into some very interesting times."
    "That's good, right?"
    "Of course," Lina said, a brief look passing over her face of seriousness.  "Hard to explain, but... I've got a feeling that--"
    A low hum came from Lina's waist level, and the inside of her cloak started to glow a golden color... Lina glanced down, to see the hilt of her butterfly-handled sword, flaring briefly with power.
    "What the--?" she said, feeling a rush of power through her... not magic.  Magic had a feel to it that was distinct.  This felt more like cold liquid gold, flowing upriver to her mind, down the back of her shirt, a giggle, luck with drama and a myth and a paradox of weather with nightmare implications spreading out over her wings in a fine coat contrary to gravity...
    A harsh wind blasted across the land, disrupting the fair weather of Sailoon.  Gourry changed his footing, to avoid being knocked aside in the blast; Lina looked up, to see the clouds... move.  Sliding as if in gale force winds, just a few moments, before going back to their normal slow crawl across the sky.
    Lina lost her balance, world spinning like a top.  Gourry was there to catch her, but she righted herself before he got there, the feeling vanishing just as fast as it had washed over her.
    "Wh.. what was that?" she asked.  "Felt like a wave of something... didn't the enchantment on this sword die off after I killed Nightmare with it?"
    "I don't know any of that magic stuff," Gourry reminded her.
    "It's Talents, actually, but... I don't know any of it either," Lina said, focusing on the single unusual thing to happen that day.  "Maybe we should visit the palace and ask Reason.  She's still there, right?"
    "You shouldn't have wished for trouble, I think..."
    "Gourry, you can't just go 'I hope something interesting turns up' and expect something interesting to turn up," Lina said.  "The world doesn't work like that.  It's very ordered.  If--"
    The wind picked up again, but not from the weather.  A passing blur shot over their heads, blotting out the sun for a moment, with the downdraft of a gigantic pair of wings compressing the air... a tail shot past them, the Gold Dragon flying fast, ignoring everything below it.
    "Da-Dr-DRAGON!?" Gourry exclaimed.  "What's a Dragon doing here?!  Lina, I thought--"
    "Right," Lina nodded, watching it go.  "Gold Dragons tend to stick to mountains on the edges of continents.  They don't go inland and they don't show themselves so obviously..."
    "How do you know so much about Dragons?" Gourry asked, curiously.
    "Well, you have to know these things when you're a sorceress, you know," Lina said, proudly.
    Before Gourry could respond, a second shape slid through the air over them.  A considerably less pleasant one, one with bat's wings, black glimmering scales, and razor sharp claws on every hand and foot... and it was chasing the Dragon.
    "Uh... that wasn't a Dragon, was it?" Gourry asked.  "Dragons look nicer than that..."
    "That's it," Lina said, flapping her wings, hovering in the air.  "Enough freaking out.  I've GOT to go see what's up.  Gourry, wait here."
    "Wait?  But it could be dangerous up there!"
    "Exactly.  You don't like heights, remember?"
    "It'll just take a minute," Lina said, shooting up into the sky, and flying off after the two beasts.
    There are few things as spectacular as a Dragon and a Mazoku, in true form, having a mid-air battle.  The majestic blasts of power, arcing through the sky like black lightning and white flame... the two winged forms, circling and dodging and trying to get an edge on the other in freeform dogfighting... it's a sight few get to behold in their lifetimes, and rarely more than once.
    Because usually, anything nearby such a battle doesn't escape alive.
    "Did you think you could throw me from the hunt with that tainted weather, Mazoku demon?!" the Dragon roared, hurling several balls of whiteness towards his prey.  The Mazoku dodged, letting them harmlessly impact against a mountain three miles away, causing a landslide.
    "Hey, I got knocked aside in that wind too, you cretin!!" the Mazoku roared, in a voice like acid over flesh.  "You're the one that caused it to throw ME."
    "Lies and trickery!" the Dragon howled.  "Today you end, foul lord of the--"
    "TIME OUT!!!!"
    Both beasts glanced over at the funny human, then went right back to fighting.
    Lina dodged, as a missed volley of darkness almost knocked her out of this world.  Okay, maybe it wasn't going to take just a minute... something to get their attention, something to... aha.
    She grasped the power of darkness, calling on one of the few rogue spells that draws on the Lord of Nightmares.  "*LAGUNA BLADE!*" she cast, pulling a lance of flaring darkness out of the air, holding it steady (with much effort) in her hands.  She slashed through the Dragon's next attack, canceling it completely, then spun and annihilated the Mazoku's waves of darkness.
    Now they were ready to talk.
    "Stand aside, strange winged human," the Dragon requested, politely.  "I must destroy this beast of evil, lest its wrath be felt on your kind, and on all the world."
    "Beat it, kid, we're busy," the Mazoku summarized.
    "Have either of you looked DOWN?!" Lina asked, letting her Laguna Blade vanish.  "There's villages and forests and other easily breakable things down there!  What are you doing fighting here, anyway?"
    "I am afraid a demon wind brought the battle here," the Dragon said.  "We could not resist its pull.  But fear not!  I will vanquish mine enemy before too many of your kind are killed in the crossfire!"
    "Weird, but an acceptable answer," Lina agreed.  "Now.  WHY are you two fighting would probably be a better question, yes?"
    The Mazoku grinned, teeth like nineteen inch long steak knives.  "You don't know?  AHAHAHAHA!!!  Oh, you'll know sooner or later, kid!  Assuming you live long enough!"
    Lina glared at the demon.  "What's that supposed to mean?"
    "The third Mazoku War is now on!" the Mazoku declared proudly.  "We declared it today.  Tremble and weep, humanity!  The foretold moment is here, and this time, we'll beat those Dragon saps and destroy the pillar of the world!  It's the end, the end of everything!!"
    "Unless we stop you, as we have the last two times," the Dragons said.  "This will be no true war.  Fear not, human.  We will protect your kind--"
    Lina decided to fear instead of fear not.
    "WAR?!!" Lina boggled.  "Shaburanigdo got resurrected again?!"
    "Who needs him?" the Mazoku shrugged.  "We'll win this war without him!  We've got the edge!"
    It's not every day you're told, without any dramatic buildup, that the apocalypse had started while you were asleep.  What's more, she was told by two mere footsoldiers in that war; and not very bright ones at that, ones who just happened to blow through the area, so to speak.  Fortuitous timing of bad, bad news.
    In the last Mazoku War, right before the Age of Wonders, almost 75% of the human population died in the fighting.  Not that they did any fighting, having no way to hurt either a Mazoku or a Dragon... they simply happened to be in the way.  If it wasn't for the sudden wave of magical genius in the aftermath, humanity would never have pulled itself out of the anarchy and ashes and rebuilt civilization.  Given how stale magic had gotten in the current day and age, and given how much more of humanity there was... tomorrow didn't look pleasant.
    But it didn't make sense.  Lina had killed two of the Mazoku Lords, generals to Shaburanigdo; and if the Demon King himself wasn't resurrected, how were they hoping to win?  None of this made sense...
    She should probably be running.  They'd stop this chit-chat and start back up again soon, or turn on her.  Stupid as the Mazoku were, they'd cause a lot of damage on the way down.  She should be finding a good spot to hide for the next few years, if there really was going to be a war to end all wars.  Those are all things she should be doing...
    An idea struck her, source unknown -- no, source clear.  It came in a rush of power, similar to the one she felt when the weather changed.  And suddenly : Lina knew what she REALLY should do.  She cleared her throat, ignored the suicidal insanity of what she was about to say, and continued to address -- or rather, order -- the two beings.
    "Fine!" she declared.  "But you're going to go fight somewhere else, got it?!  There's people down there who don't want to have any part in your stupid war.  And--"
    "Mazoku fight where they want to," the Mazoku said, puffing out its scaly chest.  "Your little insect pals will all die anyway once we win, and end the world.  What're YOU gonna do to stop that, pathetic mortal?  I laugh at your--"
    Lina had had enough.
    "*ULTRA RESTORATION!!*" she cast, linking a white string between herself and the Mazoku--
    And moments later, the Mazoku started to fall apart, heavily wounded, smoke rising from burns all over its body.  It shifted down to a more humanlike form, easier to maintain, and tried to staunch its bleeding.  Coughing, it glared evil flaming hatred with loathing on loathing at Lina.  "You'll regret that!!" he shouted in an obligatory way, and vanished, teleporting to a safer location.
    Lina felt a wall of fatigue hit her.  That was a strong Mazoku... one dose of the strongest white magic wasn't enough to kill, simply cripple.. and it took everything out of her to do it.
    "Well fought, human," the Dragon congratulated, also shifting to a common human appearance, to thank Lina on a personal level.  "I will pursue and finish him off.  I thank you for your--"
    The rush tingled at the back of her mind again, reviving her momentarily.
    "What I said applies to you too," Lina interrupted.
    The Dragon hovered in place, confused.  "What do you mean, good human?"
    "Keep this garbage away from my people," Lina said, realizing how cheesy 'my people' sounded.  "You know how many folks died last time you two tangoed?"
    "We preserve life," the Dragon said.  "Any casualties are unintentional.  We do our best--"
    "Try harder," Lina said.  "You're so hot on being our friends, prove it.  Because we're not going to put up with it the way we have before.  We'll defend ourselves from Mazoku AND Dragons if we have to.  Understood?"
    The Dragon's heckles were ruffled by this.  Patience and wisdom could only carry it so far.  "Who are you, little human?  Who do you speak for with such unusually direct tones?"
    "I'm Lina Inverse," Lina said proudly.  A tingle... more words.  "I am Chaos of the Winged, Knight of the Lord of Nightmares.  And you can quote me on that to your superiors.  In fact, definitely quote me.  Now, if you'll excuse..."
    In dumb silence, the Dragon watched the winged human limp her way back to where she came from.
    Briefly, it considered chasing after the Mazoku he was hunting, but higher need tugged at itself.  The Council must be informed of this.  Turning, it flew straight as an arrow, back to the mountains.
    Gourry's concern was justified; Lina flew back to the ruined bandit camp, pale and weak.  Quickly, with cunning speed and instinctive skill, he calculated where Lina was about to land, and moved to intercept, to catch her on her entirely-too-fast incoming run.
    "Don't worry, Lina!  I've got you!" he shouted reassuringly as Lina flew two feet to the left, skimming right past Gourry and coming to a crashing halt in the ruins of the mess hall table.
    'ow,' Lina said, picking herself uneasily from the wooden chunks.  "Bad hands, Gourry."
    "Sorry," he apologized.  "I was never good at Throw The Ball back home..."
    "I just did.. a very stupid thing.  Probably two very stupid things," Lina said, rubbing her head and opting to sit down for awhile.  "Brace yourself, Gourry : apparently, while nobody was looking, the Mazoku declared war.  We're all going to die and the world's going to burn.  It's time for the apocalypse."
    Gourry nodded.  "So?"
    Lina wobbled.  "So?  SO?!  Don't you remember the history lessons I gave.... no, nevermind, you don't.  Let's just say a lot of really powerful maniacs are going to come tearing through here soon and we need to RUN.  Those two just happened to be knocked off course, but there'll be more within days!"
    "Oh.  That's bad," Gourry agreed.  "But.. what were the two very stupid things?"
    "I whipped the Mazoku and sent it running home, then practically declared war on the Dragons," Lina groaned.  "I don't know what possessed me to do that.  It just felt... right.  Stupid, but right."
    "You should always do the right thing," Gourry recited.
    "Not when the right thing puts your whole species at risk!  Not that they weren't before, but..."
    "What do we do now?" Gourry asked.
    "What else can we do?" Lina said, getting up, dusting off her wings.  "Get to Sailoon and warn Amelia that her country's at ground zero!  Then, I'd suggest we find a really good place to hide, preferably one that's heavily armored..."
    "We're not going to fight?"
    "Us?  Fight THEM?  Both of them?" Lina asked.  "Are you nuts?  Look, I may be pretty hot stuff with magic and you can swing a sharp bit of metal around, but we're talking about megapowerful beasts from the dawn of time here.  Even if we had an army of sorcerers, or a bunch of heroes with legendary powers--"
    "We do, though."
    "Since when?"
    "Since that day back at the palace, remember?" Gourry said, being remarkably fast on the uptake.  "Those wing people are yours to command, that god lady said.  Sooo... we've got heroes with legendary powers.  Right?"
    "I can't ask them to fight in this!" Lina said.  "It's not our war, even!  It's a Dragon and Mazoku thing--"
    "Which a lot of people could get hurt in, right?" Gourry said.  "So we're involved the war."
    Lina eyed him suspiciously.  "You know, you're taking this whole 'end of the world and we're all in horrible danger' thing remarkably well.  Even I can admit this is not good news and I'm spooked.  How are you managing it?"
    "It's just a war," Gourry shrugged.  "The Gabrievs have always fought in wars, one for every generation, so we're used to them.  We're good swordspeople and stuff."
    "I don't think they're going to be using swords--"
    "My point is," Gourry continued, "Even if you're not going to fight in this, maybe you can organize the winged guys to help DEFEND people.  That'd be a good thing to do.  Then less folks have to get hurt by the time it all ends.  It seems simple to me... weren't you saying you wanted something interesting to do?"
    "I didn't mean a THIRD MAZOKU WAR!  I just meant--"
    "Maybe it's not what you meant, but it's what's happening," Gourry said nonchalantly.  "So we'll just have to deal with the war, somehow.  It's a nice day for it, at least.  Right?"
    Lina just... stared at him.
Click to continue...
Story copyright 1998 Stefan Gagne, characters copyright H. Kanzaka / R. Araizumi.
A Spoof Chase Production.