azoku have standard operating procedures, and one of them says that if you're going to assassinate someone, the best time to do it is at midnight.  It's symbolic of the death of a day, the darkest pitch of night, the end of hours and of lives.
    That's why Bugger had taken to sleeping during the day and really, really watching his back around the twelve chimes.  He wasn't stupid and if he was going to survive, he'd have to imagine what he'd do if he wanted to hunt himself down -- then go opposite that.
    The worst case scenario had happened -- of course it did, bugger it all, of course it did.  Naturally, Zelas-Metallum heard from SOMEWHERE that he was working with a Dragon and that he failed to stop Lina.  He did the task Luna demanded, so she wouldn't have told; Dragons and their human pets are honorable, if nothing else.  So who told her?  Nobody KNEW!  Nobody except the folks in Lina's crew... and the only one of them who even knew how to contact Beastmaster was Xelloss.  The little piece of trash was probably a double agent.  Wouldn't it just figure?
    But where to throw the blame didn't matter, not when you're running for your life.  Despite the war, which Bugger was also quite non-thrilled to hear about, they had plenty of time and resources to keep hunting him down.  Tonight they had sent an expert assassin after him.
    The slithering blue lizard's head extended from the confines of his black robe, the magical crossbow aimed right at Bugger's heart.  Naturally, Bugger had jumped into a dead end alley in the chase -- wouldn't you just KNOW it?
    "Time'sssss up, Bugger," the Mazoku lackey hissed.  "Nobody crosssssesssss the Beassssstmasssssster.  Esssspecially not sssome two-bit lesssssser Mazoku like you."
    Bugger started to inch his hand towards the pocket on his overcoat... the crossbow shifted and pumped a razor sharp arrow into his arm, severing it before he could reach his dirt stocks.  He grimaced in pain, but tried not to show it.
    "No goodbyesss," the lizard said, retargeting and firing.
    The arrow melted, hitting a disc of white magic, the two canceling each other out.  Before the lizard could react, a similar disc slashed him in half, top to bottom, and he vanished into a puff of moist air.
    Relieved, Bugger allowed himself a moment to have a spark of hope that things were now officially looking up.  Until he did look up, and see who had saved him.
    A waitress looks pretty out of place hovering in the air, surrounded by a flaming white magical aura.  Unless you know why.
    "Oh, bugger," Bugger cursed.
    "Hiya," Luna Inverse said, landing and smiling most maliciously at him.
    "If you're here to whack me, gel, just know that I can reach into my pocket with my other arm before you..." Bugger said, attempting to, and being unable to do so.  "Well... I can bite your legs off, then.  See that I don't."
    "Whack you?" Luna asked, surprised.  "Naw."
    "What is it this time, then?  Haven't you wrecked my career enough?  I'm a rogue Mazoku thanks to you!"
    "Good," Luna said.  "Work fer me."
    The Mazoku glared evil flaming horrible nasty badness at her.
    "Oh, gee, bang up job you did improving my life LAST time I worked for you," he said.  He picked up his severed arm, remembering it, and used some black healing to re-attach it.  "I hope you'll forgive me if I ask that you kiss my ass, Knight of Ceipheed."
    "What else are you going to do?" a voice asked, from behind him.  A female voice...
    Bugger whirled around, looking at the figure, who was leaning against a wall, arms crossed.  One of her wings was white and fluffy, the other leathery and batlike.
    "Angela," he recognized.
    "I'm in the same position.  A fallen Dragon," Angela sighed.  "Although I'm not sure where a Mazoku can fall from, frankly.  Nowhere to go but up, I'd suspect."
    "Who cares?  At least the Dragons aren't trying to kill you," Bugger said, glancing at Luna.  "Got you working for their little human friend, too."
    "Screw 'em," Luna politely said.
    "What my understated forced colleague means is that neither of us are working for the Dragons anymore," Angela explained.  "They had... a falling out, so to speak.  She works for Ceipheed only.  And we're on a quest, although she refuses to tell me exactly what it's for..."
    "Tellya now," Luna said, grinning.  "Gotta team now."
    "Good for you," Bugger scowled.  "Lah dee dah.  So what's the deal?  MAYBE, and that's a damn big maybe, I'll tag along for kicks if it's interesting."
    "Simple.  Gonna end everything," Luna said quietly.  "Ceipheed's orders."
    He had to admit.  It had potential.  But...
    "Why's the Knight of Ceipheed planning to destroy the world?" Bugger asked.  "That's our.. that was.. it's the Mazoku's job, not the Dragon's."
    "Not gonna destroy.  End," Luna said.  "Everything changes."
    "I don't quite understand," Angela remarked.  She considered her situation.  "But I guess it doesn't matter.  Whatever."
    Bugger glanced askew at the Dragon.  "Gee, you seem happy to be on the job."
    "What choice do I have?" Angela asked.  "I have nothing left in life.  All my power and glory are gone.  Luna's the only one who's interested in my skills or even my continued existence.  I'll go along with it."
    "Now you're starting to sound like me.  I don't like that.  I'm me, not you.  So who cares about Luna?  You could slum around, like I'm doing..."
    "Be safe with us," Luna reminded him.  "Safety 'n numbers."
    "Something tells me you two aren't going to be 'safe' to be around in any respectable definition of the word," Bugger said.  Everything about this smelled.  Luna was being tightlipped about it, and even if she did save his ass from assassination a moment ago...
    He glanced over at Angela, and winced.  Some days, he knew, you just LOSE.
    "Fine, fine," he said.  "I'll tag.  Just fer a little while, you understand.  We'll see what happens after that, right?"
    "Right," Luna smirked.
    "So who we goin' up against?  Presumably there's some conflict 'ere," Bugger said.  "Otherwise you wouldn't need to recruit muscle like me."
    "Just the Knight of Shaburanigdo," Luna said.
    Bugger's heart would have sunk, if he had one.  Didn't it just figure?
     Somewhere far away, it was also near midnight.  But here, the moonlight touched nothing.  Night is eternal in the cave kingdoms Below.  The few dwellers down here either were carnivorous and simple minded, sleeping whenever they felt like it, or organized and adhering to a standard 'sleeptime' that could almost be called night.
    She wasn't sleeping, however.  The last thing she needed were a few of those simple minded carnivores looking at her and the chimera brat snoozing away and thinking 'Yum!  Dinner!'.  Besides, she had a meeting to keep, and she liked to be punctual.  Very punctual.
    In fact, the internal clock-spell she had kept running since she first learned magic was approaching the midnight hour.  She timed the words of her spell, so that the astral projection would arrive at its destination right on the final tolling of the bell, the exact moment of meeting.  It served two purposes.  One, it impressed anybody who knew how difficult astral projection was, and two, it showed that she could leave herself open like that and not care because she knew how bad it would be if you messed with her, and you'd know too if you tried it.  Everything had an implied reason.  But if you asked her, she'd tell you directly.  No sense in playing stupid secret little games like the Mazoku play, when you can tell them up front how you feel and what you're going to do.
    So when she arrived in the throne room of Beastmaster Zelas-Metallum, she only allowed herself a tiny formal concession before falling into her usual tone.
    "I greet thee, mistress of animals, of predators and beasts," she said in a formal tone.  Then her posture shifted.  "We're still hunting down the pieces, but the vision Shaburanigdo gave me is like a roadmap right to 'em.  I'm tracking the chain right now.  We won't have any problems beyond basic cave monsters, and are making good time getting to the next location."
    "That's the same report you gave last night," Beastmaster commented.  "Do you have no new progress at all?"
    "Moving around down here takes time," she said.  "Deal with it.  I'm working as fast and as effectively as possible, Beastie.  You'll get the power when I get to it, no worry.  How's the war going?"
    Beastmaster's feathers were ruffled.  She never failed to be insulted by this foolish little human.  She could move, to crush her astral form, so easily..... but the penalty would be harsh.  "The war is serving well.  By hurting the humans, the Dragons are moving to intercept, and we have caused them enough injuries to keep them hooked.  These play-skirmishes should be maintainable for at least a month before we have to fully commit to a true Mazoku War.  However... we were not able to distract the Knight of the Lord of Nightmares.  She is moving to intercept you, leaving her absurd winged friends to fight in the war in her stead."
    She frowned.  "How do you know that?"
    "That is a secret," Beastmaster smiled.
    "How do you expect me to get anything done if you don't give me the information I need?  No, scratch that.  I don't need to know how," she said, frowning the whole way through.  "The Knight won't be a problem.  I've been meaning to deal with her for a long time, anyway; and this time I have a head start.  What about the Knight of Ceipheed?"
    "No word on her."
    "She'll be coming too, if she finds out what's going on," she rationalized.
    "Perhaps if we sent you some aid...?"
    "I don't need help.  I can handle it," she said.  "I am the Knight of Shaburanigdo.  By his dark hand I slash through history like a sword of fire and destroy everything in my wake.  Trust me, Beastie... according to what I've been told, it's all going to end, and I'll be there with my finger on the button!"
    That was enough report for now.  Without asking for permission to leave, the Knight of Shaburanigdo pulled her astral form back into place in the astral plane, shivering from the displacement as her senses returned to that cold, dark cave.
    It was bad news, the other two being on her trail.  But she was expecting it to happen eventually.  Expecting it and wanting it.
    "It's about time, Lina Inverse," she said to herself, to the darkness.  "And this time, I'll be the one who's laughing, not you..."
    Her companion stirred in his blankets.  "Wh..?"
    "Shut up and get back to sleep," she ordered.
    The chimera sat up slowly.  "Can't... I wake up too fast," he said, stretching.
    He was lying.  She glared at him.  "You need your downtime.  Rest."
    "I need it," he reminded her, smiling while trying to make it look like he wasn't smiling.  "I can't get to sleep without it anymore.  You know that, Luna..."
    Luna didn't sigh.  But she wasn't pleased.  But she couldn't get around it.
    "Fine, but make it fast," she said.  "I'm suddenly feeling very tired."
    The moon rises over the village, a bright white, visible between the buildings as it slinks its way along the sky.  Because that's what Brian was doing; slinking around.
    He was chased out of the last village he went to.  The only clothes he had were his bandit's uniform, and Skeleton Badass was no more.  Never before had cost accountancy looked so good to him.  So nicely safe.  Yes, he could see a bright, bright future for him, if he could just get into some normal clothes so the local cops wouldn't try to haul him in for his past career difficulties...
    He didn't know how to mug anybody, but that was the idea; find someone his size, bonk him over the head and take his clothes.  Then he could check into an inn with the little money he had handy, and maybe find a job doing someone's books and finances the next day.  There was still money to be made in finance, yes.  Things were looking up.
    The accountant formerly known as Skeleton Badass allowed himself a smile of hope, looking around the street for a willing vict -- err, volunteer, glancing up at the stars, seeing a huge ball of black lightning come wafting his way, seeing...
    Wait a minute.
    Brian was knocked to his rear, as an entire city block went up in dark flames.  Windows in buildings miles around shattered from the concussion wave...
    The gigantic lizard thing swept in a whirlwind over the town, doing battle with another gigantic monster thing.  Another blast, and the lizard was knocked to the ground, taking out a few structures with it.
    Cost accountancy was starting to look like a very unlikely way to live out the rest of his life.
    The war was officially here.
    Professional running, now, that had a future...
Story copyright 1998 Stefan Gagne, characters copyright H. Kanzaka / R. Araizumi.
A Spoof Chase Production.