he next day was a bright and sunny day over Sailoon.  People weren't too scared of the war anymore, and elbow room was made for the refugees and so on.  Things couldn't have been better.
    Mind you... there were some odd little notes on my personal visits to the winged.  Allow me to list them :
    My first stop was in Justivalero, to summon Drama.  I didn't need to do much looking around... he was everywhere.  On posters, on the lips of the citizens, and someone had even commissioned a giant statue to his honor in the main courtyard.  Yes, High Lord and King Drah'ma was definitely the man of the hour.
    When I introduced myself to his guards, they didn't want to let me in.  That was fine, no need to bother them.  I teleported directly into the royal chambers instead.
    It's not very fun, being shot at with crossbows.  Ordinarily I wouldn't care, because a Mazoku's healing factor can deal with such things... but as I was now human, those sorts of nasty flying objects could be quite deadly.  When I touched down, I was shot at by three of them.
    The first two I shielded in a snap reaction; the third missed.
    "Stop, stop!" the king ordered, waving his arms dramatically.  Yep, that was Drama; he had on an overly decorated crown of gold and sapphires and a fine blue robe, but there was no mistaking his jawline.
    "An intruder, m'lord!" one of the generic royal guardsman said, starting to reload his bow.
    "A friend," the king corrected.  "Good sir Xelloss, welcome to the court of Justivalero... what brings thee with this surprise visit, mayhaps I ask?"
    "Oh dear, has your new job gotten into your vocabulary as well?" I asked.  "Really now, Drama, isn't this all a bit much?  King?  Who said you could be crowned king?  When Lina instructed--"
    "I will accompany the visiting dignitary on a tour of the castle," Drama quickly stated, sweeping off the throne and over to my side, egging me on.  "We will not need guards.  Stand to your posts."
    His troops obeyed, of course; probably he used some Talent to ensure it.  He led me out of the throne room, through some random castle hallway (honestly, you've seen one palace, you've seen them all) and into a large, empty dining room.  It was generally a mess, in the aftermath of some sort of banquet... a cleaning task it'd take any respectable staff a full day to finish, very understandable.
    "What are you DOING here?!" Drama asked, losing most of his act.
    "Why, I'm happy to see you too," I mocked.  "We're calling an emergency meeting in Sailoon.  Go to the palace at once.  Assuming, of course, your lordship isn't too busy with the duties of the realm...?"
    "As a matter of fact, the war... things are going smoothly here, as we have exterminated all Mazoku in Justivalero," Drama said, regaining some of his ego.  "The land is peaceful once more.  I would be honored to visit fair Sailoon--"
    "Looks like you had a party in here," I commented, looking at all the upturned mugs and unsettled benches.  "A celebration?"
    "A victory most true and glorious," Drama responded.  "We smote no less than six Mazoku yesterday, the final stragglers who were too slow to flee in terror!  Our swordsmen cut them down like grass as they ran, the cowardly dogs!"
    "Sounds peachy...." I said, focusing my attention on the nearby mess.. and reaching out, to pluck a tiny item from between two planks of the table.  "Do you have a goldfish?"
    "We drove the filthy-- what?"
    "Fish.  Gold.  You know, the kind that would leave behind scales," I said, holding up the offending thing.  "Golden scales.  Funny to find lying around."
    "I have no idea what you're talking about," Drama said, which of course meant he knew damn well what I was talking about.  "I must attend to the tasks at hand before I return to Sailoon.  You will see me shortly.  You are dismissed, Xelloss."
    The King of Justivalero turned, and swept from the room.  Royalty never walks.  They sweep.  And they dismiss people when finished with them...
    I suppose it'd be redundant to state that I found the situation odd.
    Next on the hit parade was a short jaunt over to Testabourne, home of Love and Loathing.  I figured the best place to look for them would be at the Gabriev household; after all, it was the family center Love had attached herself to in guise of Aunt Koirry, and perhaps I could get lemonade and cookies from the always charming Mrs. Gabriev.  New Piper's Cove was a generally friendly place, in a sexist, racist, loud-mouthed sort of way; but because everybody in town basically thought the same way, they were very friendly to each other.
    I wasn't expecting to find a lynch mob outside the Gabriev door.
    Really, it was a genuine mob.  They had pitchforks and torches and the whole deal.  It's strange, but if you whip the population into a rage-loaded frenzy, they just... gravitate towards pitchforks and torches.  I doubt any of them actually tossed hay around, too.
    I snuck up to the back of the crowd, and sought information.  "Excuse me, what's going on?"
    A random Testabournian looked at me.  "You smell that?"
    Sniff sniff.
    "Yummy," I said, pleased.  Cookies are always so nice.  Although smelling them on street level is odd...
    "Koirry's little brother set fire to Windleman's bakery!" the man growled.  "That's the third time this week he's caused problems.  That boy ain't right, I say.  We don't want his kind in New Piper's Cove."
    "What about the valuable public service he performs?"
    "What, you mean teachin' our kids to talk back to their elders?" the man asked.  "Or encouraging that damn 'Angst' fad?"
    My suspicions were correct; 'Aunt Koirry' was silently helping to protect the area, rather than serving as the very public focal point Drama was.  And yet, Myth had reported that... mm.  Confirm that.
    "Say, how about those Mazoku?" I asked.
    "What Mazoku?"
    "Why, the ones in the war, of course."
    "There isn't a war," the man said.  "Few fights broke out between some monsters awhile back, but we ain't heard a peep since.  You ain't from around here, are ya, boy?"
    That's usually the first signal to move on before the locals start persecuting you.  Take it from a seasoned outcast.
    "No, not really.  Excuse me," I excused, and sought some cover before I could teleport out.
    I landed inside the Gabriev home, where the situation was equally tense, in its own unique little Gabriev way.  Nobody bothered commenting on my usual flashy, magic-induced entrance; they were too busy doing other things.
    Mr. Gabriev was stomping around in a small circle, mumbling something about small birds and gravity.  Mrs. Gabriev was baking cookies to relieve stress... they were piled up by the kitchen door and spilling out onto the floor, with more coming.  We all show tension in our own little ways, you realize.
    Figuring this wasn't the time to enjoy a snack, I headed to... wait, I forgot to explain how I knew my way around this house and its occupants.  Mm.  It'd ruin the dramatic pacing if I told you, so let's just call it a secret and move on.
    Figuring this wasn't the time to enjoy a snack, I headed upstairs to the guest bedrooms, and saw just what I expected; a locked door and a pleading winged.
    "Go away!!" Loathing shouted, muffled from behind the door.
    His sister was right up against the door, looking quite shaken by the whole deal.  You know, Love isn't the sort to be thrown emotionally... she has the unique ability to love everything and take it all in stride.  I guess you could say that, again, I found the situation odd.
    "Trouble?" I asked.
    Love jumped about a foot, turning to look at who was talking.  "Xe-xelloss... no, no trouble.  Just.. some trouble.  With the good people of town... I'm afraid my brother isn't getting along with them.  I know he's just as old as me, as old as any of us, but he's had a had time growing up... he just doesn't fit in anywhere."
    It was a summarized excuse.  If you don't mind me stepping out of time, allow me to return to something Love had told me... when DID she tell me this?  It was a long time ago, back when we were all basically waiting around with nothing to do after the last little shindig against Old Nightmare.
    Given that I was now in the family, so to speak, I had set out to learn as much about my adoptive brothers and sisters as I could.  The one among the bunch I could never get a grip on, though, was Loathing.  I figured he'd be just like a Mazoku, since both of them are interested in destroying things, but Love explained the difference.
    'My brother... he hates,' she said.  'He hates everything, with a passion, in the same way I love everything.  The Mazoku don't really hate the world, at least not most of them, and even though they claim destroying themselves is all part of the plan, most I've met would rather stay alive so they can enjoy the world... Loathing doesn't.  Loathing truly does hate himself.  I've tried for years to show him how much I love him, and maybe to help him fit into the world better, but...'
    'It hasn't gone well?' I asked.  In the flashback, I mean.
    'No.  Not well at all.  It's a constant struggle to keep him from consuming himself in his rage.  But I won't stop trying to save him, either.'
    It's not a very fun way to live, but Love somehow manages it with a smile and a gentle word.  To see her now, here and now, in amateurishly hidden despair, is not a good sign.
    Being a firm believer in the one-line reaction test, I decided to check something.  "You know," I suggested, "We could relocate Loathing to Sailoon while you protect Testabourne alone--"
    "No no, that's not required," Love interrupted, making it as casual as possible.  "These are just little problems.  This town needs our care and affection in the war.  Don't worry... we're carrying out Lina-san's orders quite well."
    "Again, so I've heard," I commented, rubbing my chin in a manner most thoughtful.  "So, no Mazoku attacks recently?  Amazing efficiency."
    "We've been lucky, really," Love said.
    Ah, yes!  Luck.  (Cute transition, yes?)  Now, tracking her down was.... impossible.  I had absolutely no idea where she had ran off to.  However, being the resourceful sort I am, I simply approached her via another avenue, the World of Dreams.  After all, the winged do sleep and dream.  It's part of their eternal curse to only see the perfect world they were born in in fleeting glimpses.  Unless, of course, the Lord of Nightmares was trying to suggest something else...
    But I digress.
    I'm afraid I can't even begin to describe Luck's dream.  It twisted and warped around, random things popping up left and right and vanishing at chance over whim, complete chaos of imagery.  It's to be expected, I suppose, given her bipolar nature to never decide on one particular dream... it took every skill I had to embed a message in a capsule, and shove it into that mess far enough for her to see it properly.
    Let me take a moment to explain how much I love the World of Dreams.  I've always been a bit of a nonconformist, never quite liking to use 'spells', those silly little poems which have nothing to do with actual power.  I've tried to teach Dayvid a lesson, and have been moderately successful, that you don't need spells to do magic.  All you need is will, and humans have an INCREDIBLE amount of willpower... willpower to shape the world around them.  And dreams operate on willpower alone, rather than magic.. thus, I'm a natural candidate!
    I hope you found that fairly interesting.
    Moving right along, I teleported over to Darata, where Reason was back at her old university cum laude haunts.  She was busy teaching a class in the art of applied illusionary magic in the field of optical projection onto the retina of humanoid creatures when I appeared on top of the podium.
    The class freaked out, of course.  It's funny, how easily humans can be surprised by magic, even when they're learning it.
    "Hi," I greeted.  "Group meeting in Sailoon tomorrow."
    "Okay," Reason agreed.
    That's really all there needed to be, so I left.  Reason's remarkably efficient that way.  Very efficient.  To the point where even Darata was seeing a distinct lack of a war, according to Myth...  I found the situation very odd.
    According to Myth!
    I made a pun!  Ha ha!... ahem.
    The last stop was to reign in the black bastard sheep of the family.  Paradox had backstabbed the group a number of times, notably recently working with Loathing to sell the whole group out to the Mazoku... if anybody was going to be slacking off in the war effort, it'd be him, given that he doesn't care about anybody except himself.
    Which is why I was very surprised to see what was really going on in Ky.
    I showed up in the middle of a battle.  Finally!  I was beginning to wonder if there was a war going on myself!  No Dragons were in sight; it was just Paradox and five Mazoku.  Five... well well well.  And he was doing a good job.
    I took a vantage point over the action, to see the three settlements from here to the horizon that Paradox had bubbled in with his own particular brand of reality manipulation.  The Mazoku were devoting half of their attacks to try and burst through, and the other half to the tiny little butterfly-winged, astrologically-robed winged that was trying to kick their asses.  Paradox was taking a serious beating, his robes torn and signed in a few places, but given the eye-wrenching swirl of light around him, he was fighting back just as hard, pounding on the Mazoku with everything he was capable of.
    FWOOSH!  And one of the Mazoku split into four pieces, divided horizontally and vertically, each segment rotated ninety degrees as Paradox warped space.  Nice.  Still, I figured it'd be a good samaritan act to lend a hand, so I erased one of the Mazoku with my finest spellwork (thank you, thank you) while he polished off the rest.
    When the air had cleared and reality had more or less returned to normal (except for the sixty foot tall mushrooms that had sprouted where a failed attack landed... oops) I approached Paradox.
    "Hello.  Having a nice day?" I asked.
    "The hell do you want?" Paradox asked.  "I'm busy.  They'll be back in a few hours, and I need to recharge."
    "Has it really been this bad out here?  Strange.  None of the others have had any real resistance."
    "They're not trying to protect as big an area as I am," Paradox replied.  "I'm pulling the work of three people here.  Lina had better be thankful, I'm busting my butt out here to get it done RIGHT.  And you know what the villagers call me??"
    "Gosh, no.  What?"
    "They're calling ME a Mazoku!" Paradox spat.  "Because I'm keeping them locked tight under my security!  This is nuts.  If nobody's grateful, why the hell are we out here?!"
    "What about the fuzzy warm glow that comes from knowing you're saving lives of innocent people everywhere?" I quoted from some of Amelia's babble.
    "Only fuzzy glow I'm feeling is from an Internal Inferno spell one of those idiots tried to cast on me earlier," Paradox grumbled.
    "Awwwww, poor baby.  Cheer up!  You get a day's vacation!  We need you tomorrow in Sailoon for a meeting.  The--"
    "Can't," Paradox replied.  "I leave my post for an hour, they'll run through and stomp this place flat.  These guys are getting a real kick out of tormenting me, just because I didn't want to cut a deal with them... so no, forget it."
    "Oh, I understand," I said, picking a lever to pull on the winged.  "If you're not strong enough to build a defense that'll last a day, it's no wonder you're constantly in danger.  That's fine; we can handle a meeting without you."
    "I didn't say THAT!" Paradox replied, right on cue.  "Fine!  I'll put a bubble over the entire damn country if I have to.  You'll see me tomorrow, bright and early at Sailoon!  I work my ass off and those are the thanks you give me?"
    I switched gears on him before he had a chance to cope.
    "Thank you, Paradox-san," I gratified, bowing formally.  My voice was genuine, as was intent.  "You have been doing a wonderful job out here.  I'm sure Lina will be very proud.  We're all proud."
    The dumbfounded look on his face was enough.  I skipped my way back home.
     So, all the winged arrived in the morning, even Luck.  We opened a small door in the shield, just long enough to move them in, and gathered in the palace.  There wasn't much talk, despite the lengthy buildup I just subjected you all to.  Sorry about that!  The meeting went by very fast indeed.
    "Something's amiss," I started.  "The Dragons are winning, and some of your places are unusually safe."
    "That's our job, isn't it?" Paradox scowled.  (Apparently he wasn't ready to acknowledge my little tribute yesterday.  Give him time, he's young.)  "Protect?  Defend?  You should be congratulating us."
    "Safety like the safety we're talking about involves more than simple defense," I said.  "Someone is going above the call of duty.  The results are good, but it's being done without my authorization or knowledge."
    "We don't swear fealty to you," Drama rebuked.  (Very defensive of him...) "I pledged my sword in battle to Lina Inverse, not some Mazoku taint!"
    This wasn't going to be easy, was it?
    "I don't see any reason to worry," Love said.  "We're doing very well.  The reasons why aren't important, right?  I think this war may actually blow over without anybody having to lose a loved one.  It would be wonderful."
    "I see no reason for concern," Reason supplied.
    I thought about how to approach this from another angle.  Something to drive my point home.
    "I almost wish Zelgadis was here," I said aloud.  "He has an uncanny knack for refusing blind hope.  In that way, he's prepared when the other shoe drops.  I think he'd be shaking his head at us right now.  Is this a consensus?  There is nothing wrong and no cause for alarm?"
    The nods were universal.  Myth agreed with them, from her scout standpoint; Paradox begrudgingly did so as well; he felt he had his situation in hand, no matter how much he whined about it.
    "Very well, then," I concluded.  "Enjoy Sailoon for the eve, we'll sneak you out of the shield later tonight.  Perhaps you're right, and we'll receive no windfall."
    But I knew then that it was eventual.  Nothing this good lasts.  It would be nice if it did, don't get me wrong, but I knew better.
    To tell the next part of the story, I'm afraid I'll need to be omniscient.  I was busy relaxing and enjoying my evening, trying to iron out the kinks of worry when things unfolded across town.  We'll start where I was, and improvise where appropriate.
    One of the practical upshots of Sailoon's intravenous injection of muse was that Karoke had come into unseasonable popularity.  Most bars now had these strange little machines, which were previously a novelty; now they were loaded with pro-Sailoon songs, most of  Sailor Justice's hits, and so on.  What fun!  Entertainment as propaganda and propaganda as entertainment.
    I had been going to these bars nightly, mostly to enjoy a human atmosphere -- something long in neglect for me in my years of Mazoku employment.  Myth usually came with me.  It was an ongoing sign of her acceptance as me, seeing me more as Xelloss rather than Nightmare... I suppose I deserve some lauding for that task.
    You know... now that I think about it, Myth is rather attractive.  Not just in a physical sense, although her petite form and 'cuteness' make her resemble a certain Inverse I know... mm.  She's also quite the intellectual, like Lyra was.  I like that even more...
    But things didn't work out.  Mostly because I didn't do anything beyond my usual teasing and self-amusement.  I never did anything with my other interest as well... she was always too busy questing, and... well.  I'm getting ahead of myself and diverging.  I don't think I want to talk about this anymore.  I'm sure you're not interested.  So.
    I was in a Karoke bar with Myth that night, enjoying mixed drinks with funny little paper umbrellas.  She was singing... she didn't have a good singing voice, but with her Talent, and JUST the right selection of ballad, she could spin a musical yarn of fiction unrivaled.  So far, she had taken home multiple trophies.  I suspect someone introduced her to this art before I ever did.
    She returned from her session, with appropriate applause, and had a seat.  Oh, she was all smiles.  None of the winged were worried.  At least, they didn't show it.  Myth's smiled was strained initially, but a few drinks later and it was nice and loose.
    "It's actually kinda nice, having the whole family back together today," she said, running a finger along the rim of her glass.  "Feels good."
    "Mmmhmm," I agreed.  "One big happy family.  I'm not really accept into that family yet, mind you."
    "Give it time," Myth said.  "We live forever.  Time changes us.  We don't admit it, but it does."  She can be very open when inebriated, I've found.
    "It's amazing you all get along like you do.  Badly, yes, but without MAJOR strife."
    "You think someone's a traitor?" Myth asked, almost changing the subject totally.  "Really?  I can't see it.  I don't think anybody's going behind our backs.  It doesn't feel like it."
    "Oh, someone is," I said with absolute certainty.  "Actually, if anybody else is, they'd do something.... now.  Tonight.  It's the ideal time."
    "What do you mean..?" she asked.
    "Think of stories," I said.  "When would be the best time to deal a blow?"
    "At the peak of success and pride," Myth responded automatically.  "Wait.  You don't mean..."
    "I'd suggest you finish that drink fast," I agreed.
    I can't tell for sure what happened here, but in hindsight, it's obvious.
    Down at the warehouse where the shield generator was stored, it was late, and the volunteers had gone home for the day.  Dayvid's batteries held the stored power, and Lily maintained her focus, generating the magic and channeling it as she had done so often, only swapping with one of her highly ranked Sisters of White for naps.
    She was concentrating so much, in fact, that the first glimpse of shadow went by unnoticed.  But I bet she caught on eventually.  She was very observant.
    Her focus snapped back to the present.  "What are you--"
    A crossbow bolt bloomed in her chest.  There was a gurgle, and an exhaling, and she slumped in the chair of Dayvid's machine, dead.
    I saw the bubble fade away to nothing, through the bar window.
    "Sometimes I just HATE being right," I sighed.  "Run."
    "What?" Myth asked.  "Y--"
    "Run, as in, flee, escape, move--"
    Explosions.  Explosions again!  Similar to the first day, before we had any of this miraculous progress.  We exited promptly, amid the screaming of  Sailoon's fellow citizens, to see not one... not two... but TWELVE!  Twelve Mazoku above Sailoon, all attacking randomly, dealing damage like it was going out of style, with nary a single Dragon to oppose them.  It was a wee bit more than any of us could handle.
    I wasn't surprised.  Didn't I say I was expecting this?
    "Gather the winged, and evacuate as many people as possible," I said.  "Don't try to protect the city itself, just the people.  Let them think they're having open season while we sneak out the back door, then we can worry about regrouping."
    "What?!" Myth yelled, over the din of destruction.  She wasn't good at grasping a situation right away.
    I repeated myself politely, and off she went.  I decided to be nice and also lend a hand, instructing people on where to run, which gates out of the city would work best.  It's all improvised and ill-thought, but was all I could think of.
    I spotted the other winged, aiding in the evacuation, through the flames and crumbling masonry.  The dust choked the air, smoke burned.  The sky was on fire with black magic, and here we were, caught in the middle.  I doubt many people made it out of  Sailoon alive that night.  I should have thought of some kind of evacuation plan ahead of time, or at least a backup plan of defense... careless, stupid.  I don't care about Sailoon or any of these people.  But I do care about shaming myself with such an oversight... and Lina.  Lina would be so upset.  I didn't look forward to her anger over this, after all my efforts to show I was on her side, once and for all...
    Love found me, somewhere in the mess, but her concerns were surprising.
    "Stop him!" she begged.  "Please, you have to stop him!!"
    "Pardon?" I asked.
    Love pointed up, to the sky.  "My brother!  He's up there, fighting them!  Xelloss, please, save him, save him before--"
    It was really too late.  The explosions had stopped centering over the city; now there were redirected up and out, like a dogfight in action.  Through the haze, I could vaguely see Loathing, the winged of rage and discontent, glowing this sickly red, his Talent in full effect as he poured every ounce of what he felt into the bodies of the Mazoku...
    It was a bad, bad thing to do.  Hate makes them powerful.  He destroyed three in the confusion, redirecting hatred against themselves, but Mazoku aren't that dense.  They caught on.  They caught Loathing.  I really think I shouldn't describe how they killed him.
    No.  This wasn't going well at all.  It was time to abandon ship.
    Love was paralyzed, the expression of horror on her face clear enough.  I scooped her up carefully, and pensed a magical mental message to everybody who could hear me, winged or not.  "Get out of Sailoon now," I suggested.  I figured a little swift obedience from mind control would be required to get any stragglers in gear.
    Why the hurry?  After dealing with the stray winged, the Mazoku bled anger and darkness, gathering it into one... huge... ball.  And just as I made it to safe distance, the ball came down, and it was good night for Sailoon City.
    That night was Hell.  I've actually been to Hell, Phibrizo's playground, and I can say that it easily compares... nothing keeps you on your toes like a full slugfest amidst thousands of fleeing humans.
    Once the city was pulverized, I don't think the winged cared anymore about running away.  Maybe I should have ordered them to attack earlier?  Would that have prevented this?  It's pointless to wonder about it now.  But in full force, and with an event like THAT, the Talents played off each other like cards in a stacked deck.
    Drama exploded with reality-bending force, driving the fighting spirit and critical hit ratios of the people through the roof.  Myth was already open to a new page, and had started writing the victory... and if that wasn't enough, Luck was on our side, and with Paradox acting like a living weapon, bisecting and turning Mazoku inside out as he manipulated space around them, the battle was short and nasty.  Even Reason got into the fray... to date, I don't know how she managed it, but by just talking to the Mazoku she killed two of them.
    Only Love stayed out of it, kneeling in the damp grass of the plains around the city, shellshocked.
    ...I'll allow myself a moment of weakness here.  I was overjoyed to see Dayvid and Amelia come out of the crowd, injured, but okay.  I was actually very worried about my boy.  I don't know how I would have reacted to his death.  I don't think I want to know, actually.  He's fine.  End of story.  Back to the narrative.
    There was just so much to do after that.  I don't want to go into it all.  We organized a refugee camp, since we were ALL refugees now, and... I don't even remember how, but the winged came up with some other scheme to shield it.  Dayvid's machine was destroyed, as was his lab and Lily, so no chance doing that.  Even Naga was gone... but Amelia claims she saw Naga fleeing the city, so maybe she was fine somewhere else.  Unless Amelia just didn't want to admit her sister was killed.
    Forget it.  It was a huge mess and I'm tired of writing about it.  The Dragons sensed the activity and protected us enough, so Mazoku weren't a problem, and now we're moving on with this story.
Story copyright 1998 Stefan Gagne, characters copyright H. Kanzaka / R. Araizumi.
A Spoof Chase Production.