ina blinked a few times.  She rubbed her eyes.  She shook her head.  Standard sorts of things one does when they don't believe their eyes and want a second opinion.
    No matter how you stacked it, though, the smoking crater where Sailoon City once was remained.  There were odd bits of twisted metal and scorched stone sticking out of the upturned earth, but no living things... even the forests and plains surrounding the city seemed barren, rough encampments torn down, any survivors missing, presumed dead.
    "Where did Sailoon go?" Gourry asked, his brain refusing to answer the question.
    "There... WAS a war going on," Zelgadis reminded them.  Even he was having trouble grasping the situation, a rare event.  "Presumably there would be a few.. losses?"
    "Xelloss said there were some casualties, when I checked with him last.." Lina said, unable to move her eyes from the scene.  "I guess he meant this--"
    A rustle in the trees drew everybody's attention.  The problem with situations like this is that life rarely pauses to let you inhale and sort out your standing in the world -- instead, it lobs every awkward and sudden problem it can at you.  The figure pounced from the trees, a fireball charged in one hand, as it landed before them.
    "I have you now!!" the woman yelled... and stopped.  The fireball winked out.  "Oh.  It's You."
    She had changed a bit since last check.  First of all, she was actually wearing more armor that covered her flesh, as opposed to exposing it.  There was also a bandolier of tiny shrunken demon heads running from shoulder to hip...
    Something about her expression also was different.  It was a bit less haughty.  A bit less mocking.  And a lot more mean.
    "Naga?!" Lina gagged.  "What are you doing here?  What happened to Sailoon?  Where's Amelia!?  WHAT'S GOING ON?!"
    Naga counted off on a slender, gloved hand.  "I'm hunting Mazoku, it was vaporized in one fell swoop, she ran away, and I think the previous three explain what's going on nicely.  The real question is, where were YOU when we were busy being slaughtered?"
    "I was... I was getting this key, see, and... um..." Lina started, gesturing weakly to Timmy, who had remained quiet through the whole discussion.
    "Some job of saving the world you're doing," Naga scoffed.  "At least I'm out here taking care of business, instead of traipsing around looking for artifacts or hiding behind some pathetic white magic... I'm not going to rest until every last Mazoku is dead!!  I will avenge Sailoon! ...and what are you going to do?"
    "Ah... I haven't decided yet," was Lina's reply, rubbing the back of her head.
    "Fine," Naga said.  "I don't need you as my sidekick on this quest.  In fact, you'd only get in the way, so stay out of my way.  Amelia and the rest of the lot are in the World of Dreams, at last check, feel free to run there and pull the blanket over your head.  If you'll excuse me..."
    Naga teleported away.  It's amazing, the tricks you pick up when you're really determined.
    "Boy, she's acting funny," Gourry understated.  "I hope she's alright.  Ne, Lina, where are we going to go now?"
    "Uh.. we could, er..." Lina continued.
    Gourry waited patiently.
    "May I interject?" Zelgadis asked, careful around Lina.  "Maaaybe we should go to the World of Dreams?  If Amelia's there, and presumably everybody else, it'd be a good place to get updated on... what's been going on here, as it is."
    "We're going back?" Timmy asked.  "Awww..."
    "It would be prudent, given the circumstances," Chi'Nai noted.
    "Gotta agree," Lina said.  "They're all alive.  Everything's fine, right?  So!  I'll cast the spell.  Everybody ready?"
    "Yes?" Zelgadis asked, hypothetically.
    "Good!  Here we go!" Lina said quickly, and snapped off the spell, not bothering with any incantation or building of power.  Zelgadis twitched.  Was that level of odd mental concentration a good or bad thing?
    It didn't LOOK like the world of dreams.  In fact, it didn't look like they had moved an inch.  Except, of course, for the city.  Sailoon City.
    "Oh, this is better," Gourry commented.  "I guess they just moved it or something."
    "A dream of Sailoon City?" Zelgadis wondered aloud.  "Who could make something this huge in the World of Dreams?"
    Lina looked immediately relieved.  "This is a good sign, right?  I mean, case considering.  So... do we just walk in the main gate or what?  How can we tell if anybody's home?"
    "We should probably sneak in," Zelgadis said.  "We don't know for certain who's there waiting for us, if anybody.  If we--"
    Thinking less than a moment, Lina ignored Zelgadis's concern and shot a magical flare into the sky, willing it into dream existence like a giant golden firework blast.
    "...or we could be stupid and shout 'yoo-hoo' to the world," Zelgadis concluded, resting a hand on his sword hilt, just in case.
    With a trumpeting fanfare, Xelloss snapped into focus before the group, bowing deeply.
    "Hello, and welcome to Dream Sailoon!" he greeted.  "Good to see you after all this time.  Allow me to extend my--"
    Lina kicked him in the head.
    "BAKA!!" she shouted.  "Why didn't you tell me what happened?!  How am I supposed to be directing this stupid war from afar if you don't bother to let me know that headquarters got pulverized?"
    This dispelled any worry in Zelgadis's mind.  That was the Lina he remembered.  He also took a step backwards, away from her, just in case she exploded or anything.
    Xelloss mock-grovelled from the dream-dirt.  "Oooh, forgive me, Lina-dono... it's just that we've had a tricky time relocating the survivors here, and I didn't really have time to properly meet you... rest assured, your loyal subordinate Xelloss has the situation well in hand!"
    "Explain.  Use detail.  Give examples."
    "Weeeeell, the summarized, many fine details skipped version.... mmm," Xelloss said, getting back to his feet.  "Basically, Loathing backstabbed us by shattering our defenses, and the Mazoku teamed up with him to blow up Sailoon.  I'm afraid he's quite dead.  Fortunately, we got a lot of people out of the city in time, including the other winged, Dayvid, Amelia, and so on... and we have an approximately 75% complete dream of Sailoon City for the refugees to live in temporarily.  Quite a few casualties and losses, but the situation could be far worse.  Is this a satisfying description of current events, Lina?"
    "Ah... yes, that's good," Lina agreed.  "Sounds.. nasty.  Er.  Loathing's dead?"
    "He died trying to save the city, mind you.  Very noble way to go.  Very painful way, too."
    Gourry stepped up.  "How's my Aunt doing?"
    "Not well, but likely will be better now that you're here," Xelloss said, smiling.  "In fact, why not take the evening off from your quest?  I'd imagine things have become quite a shock.  We've got all the comforts of an imagined home for you to rest up with.  I know it's helping the Sailoon folk recover better than some refugee camp full of tents."
    "Right.  Rest.  I could use a rest.  Rest would... no, no, wait," Lina started, shaking her head.  "We're not done the quest.  We just got a key, there's still.... aha!  I can't believe I had forgotten.  Chi'Nai, where's the map-stone?"
    "Here," Chi'Nai said, pulling the circular stone from her pack.  Lina took it from her, careful not to touch any of the colored dots.
    "Oooooh, pretty," Xelloss said appreciatively.  "What's it do?"
    "You just touch a dot and it shows you where the thingy is," Lina said.  "Four more to go, four more to go... okay... how about this one--"
    Zelgadis waited for Lina to fall into the vision-trance.  It didn't happen.  Lina depressed her thumb against the dot a few more times, just to make sure.
    "I think you broke it," Xelloss pouted.  "Awww.  Darn."
    "If it's not showing anything, that means that part has already been remove from its resting place," Chi'Nai decided to inform.
    "Okay... okay.  So someone took that," Lina said, trying to remain calm.  "That's fine.  Still have three more.  That's a good number, three.  Next, we have....... no, wait, that one's not doing anything either.... or that.... or th--"
    Time froze for her, as her vision whipped over the Circle Sea, towards a great island of storms... and it stopped there, bouncing back like a rubber ball rather than showing where whatever it was was.  Not particularly helpful.
    "-at," Lina completed.  "Okay.  Um.  So... according to this map, one thing's left and it's apparently stuck behind an impenetrable hurricane somewhere I don't recognize.  The others were stolen by who knows--"
    "The Knight of Shaburanigdo and the Knight of Ceipheed, unless my guess is off," Xelloss supplied.
    Lina's left eye began to twitch.  "Bi-big Sis has one of these things?"
     "So.. so then... so they're taken, and... and Sailoon's gone, and... oh, for crying out loud!" Lina shouted.  "This stinks!  We're following some trail of bread crumbs sixteen steps behind the bad guys.  And what's more, because we ran off, Sailoon got blown up!  People are dead!"
    "That's not your fault," Zelgadis said.
    "Of course it is!  The leader is to blame when the war fails, right?" Lina pointed out, exasperated.  "All of you guys were relying on me, so I tried to keep cool and play what got thrown at us, and look what happened!  Do you know how frustrating it is to have no idea what's going to happen next?  If--"
    "Actually, sometimes the conditions in war are out of a leader's hands," Gourry said.  "You acted on the tactical information provided, and made decisions based on facts at hand.  Therefore, any actions taken were as good as they could get and there is no 'fault' to be given to the decision makers."
    Lina paused.  "Where do you come UP with this stuff?"
    "I told you, Gabrievs are good at wars," Gourry said.  "Look, I may be dense, but let me see if I've got this right... you're upset because you don't know stuff, right?  So find out that stuff and then you'll know it."
    "Oh, sure, what am I going to do?" Lina asked.  "Just shout, 'Yoo hoo!  Lord of Nightmares!  What the hell are you plann.....'"
    She froze, in mid-comical-shouting position.
    "I think I'll go do just that," Lina said, quietly.  She tossed the map stone back to Chi'Nai.  "I can't believe I didn't think of it before.  Take five, gang.  We'll set out again tomorrow morning.  For now, I've got an errand to run."
    "Uh.. where're you going?" Gourry asked.
    "To talk to the gal in charge," Lina commented.  And without incantation or flashy effects, a glowing golden door opened in front of her.  She stepped in without much fanfare, and it vanished behind her...
    Like a funnel that shunts through the universes of Chaos, a pillar on which structures rest, the Lord of Nightmares exists in some aspect in all worlds.  For Lina's world, she was a rolling lake of golden energy, beautiful and random...
    Lina ignored the poetic aspects, and cleared her throat.
    "Come on, I know you're here," Lina stated loudly.  "You might as well show yourself.  You've got some explaining to do!"
    But back at the World of Dreams, more explaining was needed as well.
    "My my, she does like the direct approach, doesn't she?" Xelloss asked, smiling amusedly.
    "Where'd Lina go?" Gourry asked, concern rising like mercury.
    "Oh, do be calm," Xelloss yawned.  "She's just used Giga's Gate.  And without the spell!  Her power is increasing.  Innnnteresting."
    "Is she in any trouble?"
    "No, of course not," Xelloss said.  "Really, Gourry-kun, you worry too much.  Now, seeing as how Lina could be awhile, how about if the rest of you come with me to the castle?  You're probably rather spent, and Gourry, your aunt probably could use a visit... oh, and Chi'nai-chan, can I see that artifact?"
    "The stone," Xelloss said.  "Let's make Lina's job a little easier and get Dayvid to locate this odd place where the final item resides, shall we?  Chop chop, there's things to be done."
    "I get the feeling we're not going to be doing any rest and recuperation today," Zelgadis said dryly.
    "Look at it this way, Zel-kun," Xelloss said, humoring the chimera.  "If we don't get these little tasks and quests done, everybody will get a nice, eternal chance to take a nap.  Ne?"
    Lina picked up pebbles on the shores of wild abandon and pitched them into the lake.
    "Come out come out wherever you are!" she ordered.  "I'm your chosen one, right?  So why aren't you talking?!  I'll stop this silly quest right now if you don't."
    Of course it wouldn't be as easy as showing up and expecting the Lord to chat with you over tea, Lina thought.  And given how rarely she bothered explaining anything...
    "Okay.. then I'll explain a few things to you," Lina said.  "Stop me when you've heard this one -- The Knights of Shaburanigdo, Ceipheed and the Lord of Nightmares are all on a quest.  They're tracking down parts of 'The Most Important Thing In The World'.  And what's more, according to Zelgadis, he claims these things are designed with one purpose in mind... to control you."
    A ripple formed in the lake... which would be normal, except that Lina had stopped throwing things in.  She raised an eyebrow.  A reaction, then?
    "He took a dip in some Water of Reflection and came up with that," Lina said.  "Or did he see it earlier?  He hasn't explained much, but I get the feeling... did you give him a vision a long time ago?  A hint?  You know, it'd be a LOT more efficient to just drop these hints on me instead.  C'mon.  Talk to me."
    No reaction.  Lina tried a different approach.
    "We also met a friend of yours," Lina said.  "He kept babbling about... order?"
    A larger ripple formed.
    "Yep, that's it.  Order," Lina continued.  "The natural enemy of Chaos.  You're a force of Chaos, aren't you?  And I'm your little embodiment of Chaos.  I remember that from the last set of hoops you made me jump through.  You're God.  Why didn't you just destroy these things?  Seems downright dangerous to leave them just lying around, waiting for someone smart to go and pick them all up."
    Nothing.  The water was unnaturally calm, like it was deliberately trying to be unreadable and restrained.
    "My big sis and the Knight of Shaburanigdo have all the parts, you know," Lina said.  "Looks like this groovy world of yours is going to end.  Boom!  So much for your hard work, and all us humans you seem to adore.  That's what Chi'Nai prophesied.  Don't you care?  Don't you give a damn about us?"
    I Do.
    Lina stepped backwards in surprise.  "You do, huh?"
    Of Course I Care.  These Are My Worlds.  My Creations, My Projects, My Children.  From The Nursery Of Dreams To The Waking World of Adolescence, I Have Used Every Resource I Could To Stop Order's Tamperings In My Worlds...
    "So kick him out.  You're God, aren't you?  He's just some--"
    He.. Is The Same As Me.
    "The same?"
    You Call Me God.  Godhead Is Your Concept, Not Mine.  It Is All... Just A Matter Of Where You Stand.  He And I Are Of Equal Nature.  But He Seeks To Prove That I Am Inferior, That Chaos Is Nothing Against Order.  He Wants To Show I Can Be Contained And Where I Stand Can Be Moved.  We Have Struggled Since Earlier Than Your Time Existed.
    "So destroy this stuff," Lina suggested.  She withdrew the silver key she was carrying.  "Here's one thing.  Just blow it to bits and we can all go--"
    But the water recoiled away from Lina, tide flowing out.
    Please Put It Away.
    Lina quickly pocketed the key.  "It can hurt you, can't it?  Sorry... should've thought.  So what'll you do, huh?  You want me to go defeat the other Knights, right?  Stop them from hurting you and hurting this world."
    Yes... I Do.
    "And then what?  What should I do with this stuff?  If I leave it lying around, someone'll just pick it up again, but if YOU can't destroy it, I definitely can't."
    I Have Prepared.  I Have Done Things.  I Have Done What I Can.
    "Yeah, what?  You haven't done anything I can see!"
    The chamber darkened, until Lina's eyes adjusted to... darkness.  Just pure void.  For a moment, she considered panicking; but the ground under her feet was still there, if unseen.  It was just a light show.
    A tiny, tiny, tiny dot of golden light appeared, hovering over the surface of a dark lake.  Lina watched it reshape itself, trying to decide the best volume, the best mass... shifting up and down to measure height... before it was released.
    The dot fell a very short distance, and impacted on the water.  Golden ripples, minuscule waves spread out from the epicenter... and grew larger and larger with distance, quickly becoming sweeping changes and tidal waves.  Similar dots, so infitesmal in power but not so in intent, fell; just a couple of brief points of light, reverberating waves in the water off of each other, adding up to a larger pattern...
    The lake shone golden once more, the demonstration over.
    Like A Butterfly's Wings In The Air, My Storms Are Planned Yet Unplanned. the Lord explained.  I Can Drop Hints and Small Changes.  That Is How I Am, That Is What I Do...
    "You're.. you never instructed me," Lina realized, as her eyes adjusted.  "Whenever you told me anything, it was short and directive... but you never walked me through anything.  I just had to figure it out as I went, sometimes accidentally doing it the right way..."
    A Tiny Push, To Start A Larger Process.  Yes.  A Fleeting Thought, A Random Passing Notion, To Break A Mirror, To Start A Journey.  A Small Wind, To Knock A Book Into Your Pack, To Start Down A Path Of Prophecy.  Vision In The Mind Of A Chimera, To Illustrate, To Hint Of Solutions.  A Minute Shift In The Winds, To Blow A Mazoku And A Dragon Your Way, To Set The Stage Of War.  A Passing Fancy, A Moment of Defiance, An Encouragement To Declare Defiance To Both Of Them...
    Lina's eyes widened.  They opened, in a lot of respects.
    "All of that?" she asked.  "Everything?  Just to bring me here?"
    To Bring My Chosen Savior To The End.  Yes.  Not A Dragon Of Order Or A Mazoku Of Nothingness-Order, But You.  At Any Moment, It Could Have Crumbled, Random Chance In The Winds Of Chaos.  But You Have Done Well.  It Has All Been Well.
    "Then tell me," Lina asked.  "Tell me what I have to do.  I'll go to get the final part of Order's trap, and.. stand up to Big Sis.  But what then?  I keep hearing people say the world has to end, but does it?  What's really going to happen?"
    The Lord of Nightmares remained silent.
    "...you don't know, do you," Lina realized, drooping slightly from the knowledge.
    I Know, the Lord said.  I Know Some.  Not All.  But I Cannot Tell You Even The Some.  You Know Why.  It Would Nullify Your Natural Talent Of Riding Chaos.  It Would Order You.
    The sorceress took in a deep breath, thinking unfolding in her mind.  Okay, she thought, so she couldn't predict the future.  She never could before, why start now?  But there was still the one, critical question.  Without it, none of this really mattered.
    Lina asked, "CAN I do anything about this?"
    And the Lord responded, Yes.
    "Alright...." Lina agreed.  Something of a smile spread across her face.  "Alright, then.  If that's all I can know, then that's all I can know.  I'm ready."
    You Will Aid The World?
    "Of course!" Lina said.  "After all, I'm Lina Inverse.  That's what I do, isn't it?  I've got the knack.  But for now, I need some dinner."
    Walking a little bit taller, Lina re-opened Giga's Gate, and stepped out.
Click to continue...
Story copyright 1998 Stefan Gagne, characters copyright H. Kanzaka / R. Araizumi.
A Spoof Chase Production.