acking turned out to be a more involved task than previously expected.
    Given that Lina had no idea how long this trip would take to recover the next four pieces ("But the less time the better") the group was not going to take off underequipped.  Lina personally oversaw the packing of rations and supplies... cured meat, fruit, breads, berries, nuts, grains, leftovers, snacks and so on went into a very large bag.  A very large, heavy bag.
    "How're you going to carry all that, Lina?  We don't need THAT much food, do we?" Gourry asked.
    "Of course we do!" Lina said.  "We're underground, and I'm sick of living off prepackaged food.  And we are NOT getting into another 'Meals Ready To Eat' scenario!  Besides, you're carrying the food."
    "My poor frame is too delicate for such backbreaking manual labors..." Lina sighed, putting on her best feminine wistful expression.
    "Actually," Gourry said,  "I heard that short skinny people are better at bearing weight, because they have less weight to carry themselves--"
    The end result of that discussion was that Gourry would tote the food and the swelling would go down in a few hours.
    Next up was a shopping expedition to the town's market place.  There, they found a sleeping bag and pillows for Gourry, an immediate concern for Lina.  Figuring 'what the heck' she also added a few pillows for herself and a magical space heater so they wouldn't clog up the cave with smoke and she even bought a fuzzy doll that looked like a penguin.
    "Aren't you a little old for stuffed animals?" Zelgadis asked dryly.
    "The advantage of being a powerful sorceress and the Knight of the Lord of Nightmares posessing powers unknown and important to the span of history is that you don't have to defend your little quirks," Lina reminded.  "So nyah nyah."
    "Could you please take this more seriously?" Zelgadis said, voice on edge of wanting to throttle her.  "The Lord of Nightmares could be chained by these things.  It would be the end of the world!  If--"
    "We knew that already, Chi'Nai told us everything was going to end soon," Lina said easily.  "And Myth confirmed it.  So why worry about what we can't change?"
    "You mean you're treating this like a joke because you've given up?"
    "No, I'm just not panicking and running around screaming because I prefer to approach problems one at a time," Lina corrected.  "When the apocalypse hits, well, we'll just burn that bridge when we come to it, mm?  Our first task is to track down those other thingydohickeys.  We.... oooh, kitties!"
    Lina's arms blurred as she shuffled over to the vendor across the way.
    Zelgadis grumbled a few mutterings of discontent, and turned his glaring anger on Gourry.  "And why are YOU smiling?"
    "Lina's happy," Gourry said.
    "I dunno, I think it's good that Lina's happy," Gourry said.  "And she's right, this whole world situation event whatever's not something we can deal with right now.  Heck, I barely understand what's going on! That makes things a lot easier for me!"
    Unable to vent in the face of Gourry's unique approach to life, Zelgadis aimed next at Chi'Nai, who was carrying a small bag with some personal supplies she'd need.
    "And why are YOU coming?  You're no adventurer," Zelgadis pointed out.
    "Father thinks we have an interest in this, and wants me to observe," Chi'Nai said.  "And I know a little about how to defend myself, if we get into any trouble.  You don't have to worry about me.  I have been taking lessons at the community center for two weeks now."
    "Lessons," Zelgadis repeated, contemptuously.  "We're not talking about plush mats and white robes and guys shouting 'Hiyah!'.  We're talking about monsters beyond anything you've seen.  If--"
    The girl reached out and grabbed Zelgadis by the shirt, leveraging her stance perfectly to pivot the surprised chimera over her head and fling him across the street, into a stack of empty wooden crates left for the recycling guys to pick up.  With a splintering crash, Zelgadis came to a halt, upside down and staring in confusion at Chi'Nai.
    "Sorry, I just figured a demonstration would be more to the point," Chi'Nai said.  "I think I clarified the situation."
    He could SWEAR she smirked... but it was gone in a moment.
    In fact, packing took so long that the town clock was already chiming the start of Sleeptime.  Night and day had little meaning, but the chimes were enough of a signal that the population started to wind down, pack up, and head home.
    Lina watched the shops start to close down, still having a few items left on her list.  Gourry staggered around under a heaping mountain of packages, unable to see where he was going, relying on Chi'Nai to guide him; fortunately the chimera tugged on Gourry to get him to stop before he ran over Lina, who had paused in the middle of the road.
    "What, night already?" she said.  "Damn.  Okay... let's find a good inn and crash for the evening.  We'll start out first thing in the morning."
    "Crash?!" Zelgadis asked, amazed.  "You spent the whole day shopping when we SHOULD have been questing, and now you want to spend the whole night sleeping?  We need to go!  Lina, maybe I didn't adequately relate how important this is.  I saw--"
    "I know what you saw," Lina said.  "And yes, it's important.  But not as important as a hot meal, a warm bed and maybe a bath!  I'm looking forward to all three, perhaps the food most of all, although a bath would be great too and... ah, I'm getting ahead of myself.  So, c'mon, gang!  Let's go rest up.  Big day tomorrow."
    "My legs are going to break," Gourry whimpered from somewhere inside the consumer goods.
    "All the more reason.  Now--"
    "I can't believe this," Zelgadis said.  "Lina, for heaven's sakes!  You never take anything seriously.  You'd think after the messes you've been through you'd have learned, but you haven't changed one bit!  Forget it.  I'm still having weird little flashbacks; maybe I'll get lucky and find whatever it is we're looking for on my own."
    With that, Zelgadis turned sharply on one heel, and marched off towards wherever he was going.
    Lina paused, her cheerful bounce still for a moment while she thought of something.
    "Hey, Chi'Nai, get Gourry to the inn down the road and.. I don't know, give him a leg massage or something," Lina said.  "I'll be right back with Zelgadis."
    "But isn't he going away?" Chi'Nai asked.
    "Trust me," Lina said, flashing a smile, and briskly trotting after Zel.
     Zelgadis quelled his anger, ignoring that he didn't know where he was going.  The silly, ridiculous little...!  Buying dollies when she should be responsible and do what she's supposed to.  It was fine with Zelgadis... he was used to having no resources and being on his own.  Maybe he could do something if she wouldn't--
    "Yoo-hoo!  Zel-kun!"
    He was tempted not to turn around.
    "What is it now?" Zelgadis asked.
    "I was just wondering if I could have a brief word with you..." Lina said, approaching him, and putting a hand on his shoulder.  "In there."
    Lina steered him into the nearest dark alley between two buildings, for a little privacy.  This being a very ordered city, crime wasn't a factor, but chances were she'd just have blasted anybody hiding in there to kingdom come if the situation called for it.
    "What do you--" Zel started, but was cut off again when Lina shoved him against a wall hard enough to make a loud clack of stone on stone.
    She closed her eyes... and a pair of golden wings unfurled from Lina's back.  Zelgadis had heard of them before, and seen them, but never up close.  It came as a surprise despite his knowledge.
    "You see these?" Lina asked, fluttering them a little for emphasis.  "You know what these are?"
    "Wings," Zelgadis said.  "Now--"
    "No.  They aren't wings," Lina said, voice quiet and restrained.  "They're problems.  They're problems that have nearly gotten me killed on several fun occasions, including but not limited to the time YOU tried to kill me."
    "I was--"
    "I have been shot at, attacked, ambushed, led into traps, manipulated, dumped into a prophecy I didn't need or want, expected to lead beings of power from before time was time, put through an emotional roller coaster trying to figure Gourry out, and that's just the tip of the iceberg," Lina continued.  "I've lived through parts of history in the last two months that would make sane people run away and become accountants.  I've been saddled with the title Knight of the Lord of Nightmares and all the nightmares that go along with it.  Despite a few desires to flee for the hills, I have not once backed down from whatever absurd journey I was expected to go on, and have yet to screw up in any way that can be considered failure.  I've toughed out things that you can barely imagine.  Are you with me so far?"
    "Without a doubt, just KNOWING how things like this end up, I'm also going to have a front row seat for the end of the world and have to face down the scariest person on earth, namely, my big sister.  In fact, odds are that I'm one of the only things between doom for the world and a better tomorrow.  That's not a boast, that's just based on my past experience!  What I really, really want to do right now is go home, lie down and forget all of this happened, but I'm not going to, because it's the wrong thing to do.  And what I really, most of all, on top of everything else with a cherry and whipped cream DO NOT NEED is you kicking my ass over being irresponsible.  NOT when I'm giving more for whatever the hell we're supposed to be doing -- despite the fact that what's going on hasn't been explained to us -- than three or four normal people could manage in their prime!  SO PLEASE!  BE NICE TO ME OR I MAY BE FORCED TO HURT YOU!!"
    Zelgadis had absolutely nothing to say, eyes wide.
    Lina eased up a bit, letting go of his shoulder, stepping away, looking aside.
    "If I'm acting happy about this, believe me, it's not because I'm happy about things, or because I don't care about the quest," Lina said, calmer now.  "It's because I'm not the kind of person who likes to live in fear.  You lectured me a long time ago at MagiCon about taking life more seriously, right?  You better believe I am.  But there's a difference between acting serious and being serious.  Unlike some people, I choose to keep my spirits up despite everything running out of my control... and I also choose to think carefully about this.  Zelgadis, what do you think would happen if we ran out the door this morning with no food and no supplies, charging willy-nilly into whatever's ahead of us?"
    Zelgadis stayed quiet.
    "This is the part where you speak," Lina reminded him.
    Grabbing a hold of his wits, since Zelgadis thought himself to be a reasonable person, he analyzed Lina's question.  "Given that we're underground, and this is the only thing resembling a village or a waystation we've seen, we could run the risk of getting lost and starving to death.  Even on the food we had, it wouldn't be enough to feed us plus Chi'Nai.  Plus, you'd kill Gourry in his sleep if he grabbed you."
    "And why didn't you realize this before?" Lina asked.
    "I.. thought the quest was more important," Zelgadis said lamely.
    "And what would happen if, after buying all our supplies, we jumped right into things tonight without getting some sleep?  This one should be easier."
    "We'd end up sleeping anyway in a few hours from exhaustion."
    "Now do you see why these things are important?" Lina asked.  "And you missed a very vital one, which I'm not surprised you overlooked; morale.  Gourry's a whining mess after a rigorous day on the town and needs his nap, for instance.  Do I really want to go up against unknown danger with him in a bad state of mind?"
    "He's a warrior," Zelgadis rebutted.  "He should be able to handle things at any state of mind."
    "Maybe he could, but why take the chance?" Lina asked.  "I don't want to run him into the dirt, or make him unha... you know, unsettled.  We'll all just cool our jets tonight and be in shining form tomorrow.  The quest can wait for its questors, regardless of what it is.  Now.  You advised me before in the past, I think it's time for me to advise you now.  Since I've explained exactly what's going on and why, do you think you could ease up on the gloom, doom and naysaying, for the betterment of the whole crew?"
    He wasn't sure what to say.  He didn't think burbling out a 'sorry' would cover it, or that he even wanted to have to say it to Lina...
    "That'll do," Lina said, recognizing.  "All is sunshine and roses once more, except for the bits that are not.  Let's go back to the inn, okay?  It was kinda silly to think you could do a quest this wild by yourself, you know."
    "I wasn't expecting to," Zelgadis admitted.  "I just.. figured I had to do something productive.  Get rolling on this."
    "We can do that while resting," Lina grinned.  "For starters, I'd be thrilled to hear -- in as excruciating detail as you can manage -- about the first time you saw whatever it was you saw.  WHAT you saw would be a great start.  Maybe we can decode some of this weirdness before beddy-bye, yes?  Talk and walk, it's two things at once.  Off we go."
    Zelgadis nodded, and fell in step by her side.  "It was a dream vision, so I don't know how much to trust it..."
    "That's fine here," Lina encouraged.  "Dreams have been particularly useful for me lately."
    Nothing encourages a nice, deep sleep quite like a full meal, a chance to soak in a hot tub, and a comfy quilt.  Lina had a rather pleasant evening, all things considered, and reveled in it; after all, chances were it was the last one she'd get for awhile.
    For the last few nights, Xelloss hadn't been updating her on the situation.  Either that, or she had forgotten the dream by the time she woke up; but once, she snuck away from the group and cast Giga's Dream to go poke around while awake, and hadn't found him then either.  Lina still was a bit rusty with using the world of dreams, whereas Xelloss was a self taught dream master... if he wanted to hide from her, he'd have no problems doing it.
    Lina was relieved to see Xelloss in her dreams tonight, as she was pulled to the War Room.
    "'bout time," Lina said, tapping her foot.  "Where have you been these--"
    "Hello!" Xelloss interrupted.  "I'm not in right now, but I've left his handy recorded answering service in my place.  Lina, I timed it to pop you over tonight so you could leave me a message if you wanted to.  We're having a few... problems.  Nothing I can't handle, of course!  The war's going splendidly, all things considered, although there are a few kinks to iron out and some casualties to cover--"
    "This is a message only," Xelloss smiled.  "I figured you'd try to say something right there.  Ha ha!"
    "Sneaky bastard," Lina grumbled.
    "Sooooo, once I get un-busy provided we all survive this little sticky business, I'll get back to you," Xelloss-recording said.  "Leave your message at the sound of the beep.  Beep."
    "Xelloss, you creep, get back here!" Lina shouted.  "What's this about casualties?  I'm supposed to be in charge of this war, you know!  General and tyrant and whatever.  How can I do that when I'm stuck underground and you're leaving me toys to talk to?  So... sooo... just get back here!"
    Lina, satisfied, waited for him to show his face.
    He didn't.
    Eventually the recording beeped, signaling the end of the message space, and the figure vanished.
    So, here was Lina, alone in the world of dreams, with absolutely no connection to the real world.  A war with her friends situated at ground zero was blazing a mile over her head, and she had no way to do anything about it.  Being faced with a quest of unknown origin didn't help matters.
    All things considered, it was hard to shrug and smile as she had proclaimed to Zelgadis she chose to do.  But she'd shrug and smile when with the others.  It's when she was alone that she'd sit, and quietly worry.
    Morning came quickly.  Dress, brush teeth.  Have a breakfast.  Lina ate fast.  The others did likewise.
    "Okay, ramblers, let's get rambling," she declared, leaving a small wad of cash on top of the bill and fetching her sword.  "Chi'Nai, you got the map?"
    "Map?" she asked.
    "The stone.  The thingy that shows you where the pieces are," Lina said.
    The chimera passed it over quickly.  Lina nodded in thanks, picked a spot on the color wheel at random, and touched the circle.
    Zelgadis recognized the moment of pause Lina was having; it was the same kind of vision attack he had the other day.  When the world stops for you, until whatever's holding on finally lets go--
    Lina snapped out of it quickly.  And came up smiling.
    "Good news, guys," she said.  "The next piece isn't that far away.  It's just in the reality next door.  All we... Gourry, where are you going?"
    Gourry paused.  "Um... next door?"
    "I didn't mean the BUILDING next door," Lina remarked.  "I meant... oh, never mind.  Let's just cast the spell and get to the world of dreams.  With any luck, we'll have this thing before nightfall!"
    "That soon?" Zelgadis asked suspiciously.
    "Sure," Lina smiled.  "What could go wrong?"
Click to continue...
Story copyright 1998 Stefan Gagne, characters copyright H. Kanzaka / R. Araizumi.
A Spoof Chase Production.