lthough initially her sleep was pretty restless, as the night went on, Lina managed to sleep deeply.  It was one of those nice, warm, dreamless sort of sleeps you get after a hot chocolate on a cold winter night, or after you really had a great day beating the living snot out of evil and getting rich.  Ahhh.
    That ended sharply when Lina woke up.
    Apparently, lacking a pillow or teddy bear, Gourry had decided to use her as one instead.  Some tiny, discombobulated part of Lina's mind noted that he had really long arms, considering how they were wrapped around her like that.
    Terror, anger, confusion and a variety of other feelings fought to dominate her.  Of course, her first instinct was to beat Gourry senseless.  It was a tried and true method of dealing with stuff like this, adding the satisfaction of punishment against some pervert to the brief adrenaline rush.  She also could just sneak out of there and go make coffee and forget anything happened, or at least pry the boy off... but the scary thing was the one quiet feeling sitting in the background, saying, 'You know, this feels kind of nice.'
    So Lina stayed where she was, despite having a whole lot of Gourry in contact with a whole lot of her, frozen like a deer in headlights.  Minutes passed this way.  She didn't make a move to do anything despite coming up with a few dozen reasons why she should.  It was almost a trancelike state.  Almost... a comfy state.  Nice.
    *SNOOOOOOORE*, Gourry's lungs went.
    That broke the spell like a twig under a combat boot.
    Zelgadis woke up to the sound of a domestic dispute.  Noting that it was just Lina and Gourry, he got up and made some coffee.
    The next few days passed uneventfully.
    Lina told the entire story of her recent quest to an unbelieving Zelgadis.  He repeatedly said things like 'You're putting me on' or 'Suure, how did it REALLY happen?' and such, but after awhile, he gave up his protests.  But there was something odd in his eyes when she described how she became the Knight of the Lord of Nightmares.  He didn't seem... surprised.  Not just that he had heard it before, because clearly he hadn't heard all the details, but he knew more than he was letting on.
    Gourry announced the next night that he'd sleep on the cave floor, and was curled up and pretending to sleep before anybody could object.  Lina felt a wee bit guilty about that, given her reaction... reactions, the previous morning.  But she decided not to think about it and just went to sleep.  It was easier that way.
    Nothing new to report on the war front that night... it had been a quiet day, with no attacks made on the cities and areas the winged were guarding.  Xelloss let her out of the meeting quick, given how tired she seemed.
    Gourry woke up with a sore back, but the monsters were thin that day and he didn't have any problems.  The day slid by in very boring ways.  A few fights, some chatter, nothing special.  Lina had learned a long time ago to just 'tune out' travel days... the long stretches of time between point A and point B.
    However, the night before they arrived at their destination, Xelloss had something significant to report.
    He met her in 'The War Room', a vast chamber in the palace of chaos that he had decorated with a giant map of the world, complete with nonsensical little red dots and triangles all over the place, and words like 'strike zone' and 'demilitarized zone' and 'twilight zone'.  Lately he'd taken to wearing purple military fatigues instead of his usual priest's robes.  Apparently, whatever sadistic urges he once had as a Mazoku he was now pouring into interior decoration.
    "We're being avoided," he announced.
    Lina sipped her really bad war room coffee, and frowned.  "Avoided how?"
    "Avoided, as in the Mazoku are goading the Dragons into fights away from the cities that are under our protection," Xelloss explained.  "But it's not simply a trial and error, oh no, this city's protected, let's leave it alone thing.  Nobody has gone near the countries Paradox is protecting, for example, but every land around them has been attacked.  I believe the Mazoku are deliberately skipping us over."
    Lina tapped her chin.  "How do they know?  I mean, Paradox's places are probably obvious, but nobody should be able to sense Drama or Love right away..."
    "I'll be looking into it.  You need to concentrate on your quest.  You trust me to handle this, yes?" he asked.
    She was hesitant to ask, but curiosity could be overpowering sometimes.
    "Xelloss... you think a double agent may be involved?" Lina asked.
    "Probably," Xelloss said, looking nonchalant.  "But it would have to be someone with connections to the Mazoku.  I can't think of any of the winged who are on speaking terms with my former employers."
    Except for one, Lina thought darkly.  But if he was, why would he point it out to her?
    Faintly, Lina wished she wasn't on this quest, and was up where her friends were in trouble.  Now she understood why Gourry wanted her to be in the field... even if she was away from danger this way, she was completely disconnected from reality.  And that reality might not last very long.
    By now, she had learned not to expect ticker tape parades and joyous welcoming.  The last few times she returned to Sailoon with important information and such, nobody had raised an eyebrow.  But at the very least, there should be a feast of some kind... right?
    But the Hi'Chi'Orld tribe, despite having practically no human visitors over the years, barely noticed their arrival.  The reason was simple.
    "Chi'Leas already told people you'd be coming, so they're not surprised," Chi'Nai explained plainly.
    Lina wasn't buying it.  "I've seen more reaction from... from... Zelgadis, what's a good thing to say I've seen more reaction from?"
    "A statue," Zelgadis suggested.
    "A statue," Lina completed.
    "...although that could be considered an insult here," Zelgadis added after the fact.
    Actually, there were a lot of statues.  Lina surveyed the architecture as they walked through the underground city, occupying a vast cavern with no sun.  The buildings were very angular, uninteresting, but the courtyards were littered with statues -- presumably of important chimeras, now immortalized in stone.  Dead stone, at least.
    All the chimeras here were stone based.  True, some were stone gargoyles and some stone lizardmen, some stone cats... most were humanoid in appearance.  But Lina knew a few things about chimeras, and knew they weren't so much a species as they were a mix of species.  You could use stone, as was done with Zelgadis, but why would an entire group of chimeras all have some stone element to them?
    Still, they acted largely like people... wandering the streets, conducting business, eating food (where'd they get it?) and other ordinary tasks.  The whole city bustled quietly and politely in its daily business, with no eyes turned to Lina and her group.
    "Fun place," Lina commented dryly.
    "Yes, we do have a lot of entertainments," Chi'Nai said, not catching the sarcasm.  "We have a moment... would you like to see one?  The play stage is right over there..."
    Lina floated up a foot or four to see over the crowd.
    On stage, several chimeras were dressed like... other chimeras.  The audience sat in nicely organized rows, watching the play.
    "I thought you closed the window," one actor said.
    "No, Chi'Berta close it last night.  She said she felt a draft from one of the lower caves, and did not want to catch a cold."
    "It's very fortunate that she closed it, then.  I heard that Chi'Frat fell with a disease this morning, and could not show up to work."
    "Maybe we should send him tidings of good health?"
    "Dull," Lina said, levitating back to the floor.
    Gourry scratched his head.  "I hope that Chi'Frat guy'll be okay.  Hey, Lina, maybe you could use your white magic and heal him!"
    "Gourry, it's just a play.  Chi'Frat doesn't exist," Lina reminded him.
    Chi'Nai seemed confused.
    "Of course he does," she said.  "He got a cold a month ago.  His friend wrote that play about it."
    "Oh.  Art imitating life, then?" Lina asked.  "Hey, Zel.  You've been pretty quiet.  What do you think about all this?"
    "...I think I'm going home," Zelgadis said, studying the chimeras around him.  "This place is creeping me out, and there's obviously no cure here.  Good luck on your quest."
    "Go home?" Lina asked.  "But we just got started!  How're you going to find your way back to the surface, anyway?"
    "I have a good memory," Zelgadis said factually.
    "But there's adventure and excitement and really wild things afoot!  I mean, here we are, traveling again... I mean... ne, Chi'Nai, convince him to stay."
    "Me?" Chi'Nai asked.  "I do not see it as my decision."
    "Exactly," Zelgadis agreed.  "So if you'll excuse me..."
    Lina wouldn't give up.  "Come on.  Don't be such a sourpuss, at least stick around until after we meet the shaman or the leader or whatever his name--"
    "--Chi'Leas--" Chi'Nai supplied.
    "--was," Lina completed.  "Get some food, you know, maybe some rest... then you can head off.  Fair?  Is it a deal?"
    Zelgadis watched the stone-skinned pedestrians, passing by him on the road.
    "Fine," he agreed.  "But only until then."
    However dry and unresponsive the average chimera on the street was, Chi'Leas made up for it with bounding enthusiasm.
    "Welcome, welcome!!" he greeted, opening his doors wide.  "Please, come in, make yourselves at home.  I've got some tea on the kettle, if you'd like some... can I take that sword for you?  Don't worry, I promise to give it back.  My!  A chimera from Above!  Just as I had thought.  I'm so pleased.  Now, there's some comfortable chairs over there, I always keep them around for when I get human visitors even though I don't get any, and if you need a drink coaster there's a few in the rack by the gas lamp..."
    "...hi?" Lina greeted.
    The elder of the tribe was an old man, clearly; his beard comprised of a pale shale, his eyes glassy.  There was a lot of stone to him, but with patches of exposed flesh that were more pink than most they had seen today.  And he bore the widest smile seen in the day as well, like a little boy opening a gift.
    "It's so good to see you, very good.  I wish it could have been under better circumstances, but... ne, Chi'Nai dear, you didn't have any problems, did you?  Are you well?"
    "I am well, father," Chi'Nai said.  She hadn't matched the gleeful tone of her father, but wasn't upset, either.  She simply found a seat, and sat.
    "Well.  Well, well.  I'm sure you have a lot of questions," Chi'Leas said, taking his own seat, which was no different from the rest.  "Sit sit sit.  Let's get cracking.  Not that stone should crack, of course... heh.  My little joke, do you like it?"
    "It's very funny," Gourry smiled.  He was able to get along with anybody, no matter how senile.
    "Umm... Chi'Leas?" Lina started.  "About these Important Things--"
    "Yes yes, the quest.  I suppose we had better get to business indeed, not much time left in the world, what with everything ending," he agreed.  "So.  How can I help you?  Just name it and if I can get it it's yours."
    "Why exactly is everything ending?  That's a good place to start."
    Chi'Leas blinked... then burst out into guffaws of laughter  "A pun!  A joke!  Oh, it's been so long since I heard a good one."
    "And a long time yet, I'd suspect," Zelgadis said dryly.
    The old man got himself under control, and delivered, with a perfect smile, "The world is ending.  Well, the world as we know it.  It's hard to say, but everything changes, and the beginning is the end.  That's all part of the prophecy, you see, that the Lord of Chaos gave us when we found those bracelets... clasps?  Bracelets?  However you want to call them.  But I suspect Chi'Nai told you a lot of this.  She's a very responsible girl."
    "Yes," Chi'Nai agreed.
    "Very responsible...." Chi'Leas said, almost with a wistful sigh.  He recovered, and continued.  "A human claiming to be Luna Inverse stole them.  She tricked one of ours into helping her, a boy named Chi'Bi... very impressionable lad, but aren't they all?"
    "Yes yes, but WHY are they the most important things in the world?" Lina asked.
    "We don't know."
    Lina did a double-take.  "You what?"
    "The Lord of Chaos didn't say.  For the best, for the best.  We'd go and make mistakes if we knew.  I know what they might be and if they are what they might be, oh, it would be VERY bad," Chi'Leas said.  "But this is all secondary.  Chaos allows us to act without knowledge and still make the proper decisions as nature dictates, yes?"
    "...I suppose, but..."
    "There is one thing that this Not-Luna did not steal, because only I know that it exists," Chi'Leas said.  "And that's the key.  Well, no, the key is in the world of dreams, but the key to the puzzle of finding the pieces, yes, that I have and that I can give you so you can track the things down.  I'm sure you'll do the right thing with them--"
    "Whoa!  Slow down!" Lina begged.  "Wait.  Now... we're going to return your clasps.  But that's it.  I mean, nobody said anything about gathering all these pieces, and we have a war we're fighting--"
    "Ah, so the end times HAVE begun.  I figured as much.  In which case you had better find the pieces.  No, not that I was told that, it's just a feeling and I usually trust my feelings, you see?  Or maybe you won't.  I guess it's totally up to you and chaos as things will it, but since you're the Knight of Chaos I suppose we're all in the best possible hands even if everything goes wrong, yes?  Right.  Follow me."
    The old man got up, and shuffled off with surprising speed.  Bewildered, Lina set her tea down, and followed; Gourry and Zelgadis in suit.
    "Jeez, this place is like a maze," Lina said, worming her way through the twisted hallways of Chi'Leas's temple home.  It was hard to see where she was going in the dim light, but managed to see the outline of the old priest as he cruised along, knowing exactly where he was going... then paused.
    "You understand," he said, "I don't show this room to just anyone.  But I think it would help because it would be the right thing to do, yes?  Good."
    With that, he shoved on the massive double doors, flinging them open to the sun--
    Lina's eyes screeched in protest, but adjusted.  Flooding the corridor came bright, beautiful sunlight... as the doors opened to a balcony, overlooking a grassy plain and a sky of fluffy white clouds.  An impossible thing underground...
    "This is my thinking room," Chi'Leas explained.  "Thinking and painting.  I do my painting here because it's like Above, even if it's just an illusion.  I do remember some magic from the Alternative Magic Society, and Alyson taught me well, but... but I'm getting ahead of myself.  Come, come.  It's nice, fresh air, or at least the imitation of it."
    "Very.. interesting," Lina admitted.  She poked at the air, trying to find the real walls of the room; wherever they were, she couldn't reach them.  Looked around.  "Hey, where'd Chi'Nai go?"
    "Likely she didn't see a need to follow," Chi'Leas sighed.  "I love my daughter dear, but her curiosity is long gone... again!  Getting ahead of myself.  Please, Knight of Chaos, take this gift."
    The old man picked up a rough stone circle, sitting near the covered easel and paint pots.  At first Lina had thought it to be a color palette of some kind, with five hued circles on it, but now could see that wasn't any kind of paint... Chi'Leas shoved it roughly into her hands.
    "And I believe that colors my task done," Chi'Leas smiled, relieved.  "Now Chaos will take the burden from my shoulders.. and place it on yours, but you're far more worthy."
    "Burden?  What?  HEY!" Lina said.  "How long have you been underground, pops?  You aren't making any sense here.  Let's take it from the top."
    "Fair enough, fair enough," Chi'Leas agreed.  "I--"
    "Your thing gets stolen by some girl," Lina interrupted, not eager to see the old man rant more.  "You sent your daughter out to find the Knight of Chaos, right?"  The priest nodded.  "Okay.  That would be me.  So, Zelgadis here finds her and takes her to me by coincidence.  She says, go down, see my dad, one of the Most Important Things was stolen.  My advisor against all reason suggests that the Knight of Shaburanigdo stole it--"
    Chi'Leas's flesh went pale.  "Oh dear.  Oh dear.  That would be bad.  Before you ask, no, I don't know why, but it would be VERY bad."
    "I figured as much," Lina said.  "So, we come down here, you drag us here, and.... now.  What's this thing?"
    "That's a painting I did a week or three ago--"
    "Not the easel, this!" Lina said, holding up the stone.
    "Oh!  Oh, dear, I forgot to say... I'm sorry, Knight.  I'm very sorry," Chi'Leas apologized, mood-swinging from giddy to pleading.  "I've lost so much, you see, and... you see, that stone was part of the bargain.  It was a secret only the Chi'Leas knew about.  When we found those clasps, and the Lord of Chaos herself came down to speak to us, she gave the elder that circle.  If the clasps are ever moved, I was to give the circle to the Knight of Chaos.  That's all.  As usual, she didn't explain why."
    Lina paused, just in case the old man launched into another tirade.  He stayed silent.
    "How's it work?" she hazarded to ask.
    "You just touch a little colored dot and you'll see," Chi'Leas said.
    Figuring it couldn't hurt, Lina poked at a random dot--
    --peeling her mind across unimaginable distances, whipping through caverns until she couldn't stand the speed, shooting out into the bright blue sky and across the ocean, shooting by birds in flight, approaching a gigantic ivory tower in the sea, through corridors so fast she couldn't pause to recognize where she was and to a guarded and locked storeroom where a lock rested--
    --and back again.  Lina staggered at the total lack of movement, her inner ear threatening to go on strike.
    "Whoa," she understated.
    "I think it's a map," Chi'Leas said.  "A map that takes you to the other four pieces.  That way, you can find them.  That other person didn't know this map existed so she didn't take it, which means you have an advantage!  Isn't that great!  Well, bye now."
    "Bye!" Gourry said in farewell, since it was the only word he had really understood in the last five minutes.
    "Bye?  Whoa, wait!  What about--"
    "That's all I really know," Chi'Leas said.  "It's all I can tell you, so I suspect you're going to want to get going on the quest, mmm?  And such."
    "Jeez, this is just as insane as Sailoon was!" Lina grumbled, pulling at her hair.  "No way, pops.  We're staying put for the evening.  I need food, I need a REAL bed, and then we can go.  It's the only sensible way to start a quest!  Got it?"
    "Oh!  Oh, I'm sorry, I completely forgot about the feast I had prepared!" Chi'Leas gasped.  "Where is my mind today?  In my head and my stone, I suspect, but that's secondary.  Have Chi'Nai take you to the Hall of Ancients.  Here I am, that whole grand welcoming party slipping my mind--"
    Lina's eyes lit up like stars.  "Feast!" she recognized, pouncing on the word.  "Let's go, Gourry!!"
    She grabbed his arm, and took off like a lightning bolt.
    Once the balcony overlooking an imaginary land went quiet, Zelgadis calmly turned, and started to leave.
    A stony hand rested on his shoulder.
    "Actually," Chi'Leas said, his voice serious for a change, "I was wondering if we could talk first."
Story copyright 1998 Stefan Gagne, characters copyright H. Kanzaka / R. Araizumi.
A Spoof Chase Production.