taggering, Lara reached out blindly in the dark, finding only the jagged rocks of cave walls to help her.
    How long had she been wandering down here?  One day?  One hour?  One week?  Disorientation kicked her in the head every time she tried to clock it.  C.Q.'s friends had done good work.  For the first time since her initiation rites under the three Mazoku lords, she was miserably weak, and wracked with genuine pain.
    She swallowed any complaints.  It was for the cause.  Father would be proud of the lengths she went to.  She just needed to rest a little.  Yes, to rest....
    And her world went from vertical to horizontal, body collapsing to the ground.  The chimeras had better find her.  Lara did NOT intend to die down here from these obligatory injuries.  Dead souls that failed the Mazoku sometimes go to Phibrizo's realm, and she had visited Hell once already, without finding it to her liking.
    Time passed.  How much, she didn't bother to check.
    Finally, a boy.. it was probably a boy... came into her fuzzy view.  Seeing her, he quickly went to her side.
    "Miss!  Are you okay!?"
    Perfect.  Relieved, Lara let go of her consciousness, and drifted away...
    Lara knew exactly what part to be playing here.  You take one part vulnerability, one part nervousness, two parts thankful humility, one part meek, one fake name (Luna was her favorite) and mix 'em up... bammo, Instant Victim(tm).  Even when she faded in and out of consciousness, the chimera doctor using magics and potions and healing methods to revive her, she made sure to fit her role with coughing she didn't need, scared looks she wasn't feeling and mumbled words which could be constructed in ominous ways.
    After a day or two of this, she was strong enough to sit up, talk and stay awake.  Nobody suspected that Lara was faking her illnesses and injuries, because she wasn't faking them; she actually was ill and injured.  While she got back the energy to walk so that she could really case the town and see what she was up against, she started to learn a few things about her 'saviors'.
    The one who had found her was a boy named Chi'Bi.  He was a scrawny sort, unable to find the right words to say in any situation and very nervous around her.  She figured he was about the same age as her, but since she felt she was at least ten years older in her head, that made him a boy.
    "I'm real glad to see you're okay," he said.  "You had us all worried."
    "I was worried too," Lara smiled falsely.  "All those monsters... but you look strong enough to handle them.  I wish I had taken a bodyguard with me, or something, instead of exploring that cave myself."
    Chi'Bi blushed.  Lara couldn't see it very well through his stone skin, but it was something in the eyes that gave it away.  "Gosh, miss... well... when you gotta go home, I could bring you back!  I'm okay with a sword and I'm learning new stuff every day."
    "That would be great!" she said, relieved.
    Relieved, mostly because she had found her weak link to work on.
    Chi'Nai wouldn't serve her purposes; the girl was pretty vacant, without a strong reaction to anything.  In fact, most of the chimeras were emotionless, from what she saw once she could walk under her own power.  It was like a tribe of machines.  She sat in the same sidewalk cafe for three days to check this theory, and saw the same chimeras running the same errands at the same times, day in, day out.
    So far, the only ones she had identified as being possible patsies were Chi'Leas and Chi'Bi.  Chi'Leas was a senile, doddering old fool, constantly rambling about this thing or another, and taking this whole 'worship chaos' thing way too far.  He liked to stop by and 'talk' at Lara, and she'd have to put up with every boring minute of it.  No, Lara couldn't see any angles to work on there.  But Chi'Bi...
    The boy was emotionally dead, like the others.  From what she was able to observe when she spied on him from her temple guest room window, to other chimeras, he was as routine as the rest of the lot.  But whenever he came in to supply her with food or fresh bandages, he tripped over himself to try to contain emotions.  Clearly, she had triggered something in him and being such a psychological baby, he was having trouble coping with it.
    Now all she had to do was identify it and exploit it.
    The first step happened entirely by itself; the second seemed immediately obvious.
    The mission had taken a week.  Time was hard to measure in this underground city, but she had an internal clock like a Daratan Watch, and kept tabs.  She had made a few check-ins with Zelas-Metallum, more out of who-cares generosity than any genuine desire to keep the Mazoku informed.  Lara could handle things herself without their help.
    But there was still the Chi'Bi situation.  It seemed so obvious, so ordinary that she was clearly overlooking it by probing too deeply into the boy's psyche.  In a sweaty, nasty afternoon of frustration, Lara decided cooling off and approaching from a new direction was the only way.  Fortunately, these chimeras had heard of indoor plumbing, so a private bath was all hers to relax in.
    Unfortunately, they had yet to figure out what 'Privacy' meant, and put that bath in the main guest room.
    Chi'Bi walked on in carrying her dinner tray.
    "Hello!" he greeted, spreading a smile he only kept for her.  "I brought you your WAARGHGHHH!!!"
    Needless to say, the dinner would have to be enjoyed by the carpet rather than Lara.
    "Don't you know how to knock?" Lara demanded, grabbing a towel.  It was a rare slip to her usual speech, but suitable.
    "Sorry!!" Chi'Bi apologized, turning--
    No, wait.  He didn't turn right away.  No... he got a good eyeful.
    Oh, of all the...!  Lara was thankful for the revelation and grumbling internally at the same time.  Of course.  Some recluse who's never seen a human before, much less an attractive and female one, who's probably got a bit of a twitch to him to begin with.  Naturally that's what his angle would be.  Such a stupidly simple thing!
    On the plus side, it would be very, very easy to take advantage of.  On the minus side, Lara didn't particularly care to take advantage of it.  It was, after all, so typically evil to do and typically 'wicked wanton sorceress'.  If word got out about this, she'd never live down the jokes, becoming a living anecdote of villainy.  Of course, none of that truly mattered, she simply liked to complain before acting.
    Unlike the other Mazoku, she would do anything required.  Anything.
    Pasting her best purrrring feline smile on her face, she stepped out of the tub.  "Now now, no need to apologize..."
    There was one flaw in her plan, but she only saw it in hindsight.
    The chimeras clearly had underdeveloped emotions.  But they weren't dead feelings, simply submerged... and when you deliberately pull one out of the mire using every tool and technique you have, you can expect it to be a bit uncontrollably strong.  And wild.
    Not that she couldn't handle the brat physically, but his psyche started getting whacked out from word one.  He spent far, far more time hanging around Lara than before, and unsure of exactly what was happening to him, was clumsy with handling every emotion he had left.  If this kept up, others would notice how the reclusive guy suddenly was a spastic, nervous wreck who seemed to be addicted to something... and that would inevitably draw attention to Lara.  So she decided to accelerate things.
    First, she got him as hooked as she possibly could, until he was little more than an emotional wreck, dependent on Lara.  It was surprisingly easy.  Then she simply let the disguise drop, one night.
    "You'd to anything to help me, right?" she soothed, playing with the kid's sharp, pointy hair.
    "Of course!!" Chi'Bi blurted.
    "I'm actually here to steal something," Lara said.  "It's a set of clasps, silver in color.  Do you know where they are?"
    Chi'Bi concentrated.  Thinking was harder for him now that most of his memory registers were occupied with Lara.
    "The elder.... yes!  I know!" Chi'Bi declared.  "They're the holy relics the Lord of Chaos gave to our protection.  Chi'Leas keeps them in a special cave off to the side of the temple."
    "What kind of security?"
    "It's locked and barred with iron, no guards.  But it doesn't matter.  Nobody can touch them, according to the scripture."
    "Nobody who isn't human," Lara explained.  "If you lead me to that room tonight, I can bust down the door and take them."
    Whatever spell-without-magic Lara had on Chi'Bi, he proved to have at least one limit.
    "Wait, wait... I can't help you," Chi'Bi said, simply.  "It would be wrong.  I would be betraying Chaos and my people, and--"
    Lara got out of bed, and stretched for maximum impact.  "Okay.  I'm a fair person.  I'll simply find some other guy who's stronger and more willing to help me.  I'm sure he'd enjoy our little games as well..."
    Exactly the right lever to use.  Primitive jealousy over mate selection flared in Chi'Bi's eyes.
    "You're mine," he weakly insisted.  Lara tried hard not to laugh.  "I'll help you get those things.  I'm strong enough!"
    "That you are," Lara smiled.  "Very strong.  And we'll have a bright future together.  I think you'll actually like changing sides, the Mazoku are much more powerful than you can possibly--"
    Caaaareful... calculate words and postures, guide things where you want them...
    "They're not so bad," Lara said, putting as much casual emphasis in her voice as she could.  "They have SUCH fun.  Fun like you and I have.  And they're more exciting than anything you can think of, even in your wildest imagination.  I'll make sure you're rewarded for your trouble."
    Chi'Bi still had some doubt on his face.  This was going to be a hard sell.
    "But for now," Lara continued, playing a trump card, "There's something new I wanted to show you that we can try."
    Yes... she was definitely going to have to keep word of this from getting back.  Stone wasn't all that comfortable, but the embarrassment would be far worse.  Instead of worrying, she formed a plan of how to deal with it... a plan she could execute any time she wanted, once Chi'Bi stopped being useful.
    That night, she stole the clasps.
    Lara almost had to laugh and kick herself.  If she only knew where the blasted things were, she could have stolen them herself a long time ago.  But Shaburanigdo's vision stopped at the doors of the city, and some kind of guide was required.  Still, this was a lesson to be learned; why go through all the bother of corrupting some guy she didn't even like to find out the information when she could have simply beat it out of someone?  Very inefficient.  She'd have to endeavor to stop wanting to be so Dramatic.  It never got him anywhere, either.
    Once the clasps were safely away, she felt Shaburanigdo touch her soul again.
    "The next item is here," he said.
    Her mind reeled through a vast maze of caverns.  Perfect.  The next item would only be a long hike through the underground to get to.  She thought she recognized the final destination, but it was blurry and the vision ended right when she reached it... no matter.  Her mind had the map memorized to get there.
    Still, now on the lam from the city with the silvery glowing things in a backpack, she had this guy to deal with.  He slowed down her progress greatly, since now -- naturally!  Sheesh -- he wasn't even able to get to sleep without his fix.  To get rid of him now might not be wise, though, since who knew what kind of trouble they might hit along the way?  So, she kept the fastest pace possible in all things, and moved right along.
    The journey still was taking an inordinate amount of time.  What's more, at her last check-in with Beastmaster, it seemed that Luna and Lina Inverse were onto her scam.  Of all the luck!  But Lara refused to worry.  It was about time she faced down those two, now with a legitimate reason to scrag them back into the stone age... Lina especially.
    Days of boring travel passed.  Lara dropped all pretense of being this shy, innocent girl and felt free to be as nasty to Chi'Bi as she actually wanted to be... and annoyingly, he didn't seem to care, as long as she kept him satisfied.  Eventually she just stopped talking to him completely.
    And days later, she had arrived at her destination.
    Instantly, she recognized why she felt like she had seen it before.
    They were now standing at the gates of Hell.
Story copyright 1998 Stefan Gagne, characters copyright H. Kanzaka / R. Araizumi.
A Spoof Chase Production.