idnight soaked Noh Wheir like the dew that had soaked its morning.  The stars were out, but did very little to illuminate, hanging in the sky like unimportant little white dots.  Forest sounds were tempered and dampened out by the chill of evening.  There was no raging thunderstorm, no dark aria to be played, but either way, Lina felt the most foreboding presence in the air that she had felt in months.
    "At least let me hide in a tree and cover you," Naga requested.
    "How about if I skulk across the rooftops like a raven waiting to strike and--"
    "But it's silly to go into a hazardous encounter without some kind of support!"
    "I'll handle it," Lina said, unbuckling her sword belt and setting it aside.
    "You realize that if you go and get killed because you wouldn't accept help from your strongest enemy and ally, Naga the White Serpent, that I'm going to be very bored without you around, yes?" Naga said, translating 'I'm concerned for your well being' into a highly warped dramatic speech.
    "Naga, this is very important," Lina said, tone calm but fear present.  "I've got to face this person.  The last few days have been building up to this; I can feel it.  It's very important."
    Naga pouted, but offered no further protest.
    "Wait right here, and in a little while, I'll be back with Gourry," Lina said.  "It won't take long.  Wait right here."
    "You're repeating yourself a lot, you know."
    "Just wait here," Lina repeated.
    Lina refused herself the luxury of fear.
    She knew exactly who she was going to meet, the person who planted that note and likely arranged for the bandits to haul Gourry away.  It was the same person who'd tried to kill her back in Other Village, the girl with white hair who looked so much like herself that it sent chills down Lina's spine.  The same girl she had talked to Zelgadis about.  She wished Zel was here now, not that she had anything specific to ask him.  She wished Gourry was here, too.  She almost wished Naga was here.
    But she had decided she was going to take this on herself.  Lina had to know what was going on here, and didn't need any random elements like Naga thrown into the mix that could mess everything up.  Although Naga would have been a good distraction while she tried to get Gourry back... but no.  She'd handle this.  It was her task to do, after all.
    The hilltop was near the road into Noh Wheir, the road where they had originally crashed.  How would things have been different if they hadn't plowed directly into the dirt there, and had just breezed through this backwater town?  Lina tried to imagine another her, which was many miles down the road at a nice inn, where she got a warm bath and cotton sheets to sleep on.  That other Lina was probably having a considerably better life than she was at the moment.
    Lina approached the hilltop carefully.  Nobody was there.  She stood at the apex, looking back at the village, looking down the road she was supposed to be on right now.  Patience was the game now.
    A few minutes later, she heard a twig snap, and whirled around -- to a figure in the shadows, at the bottom of the hill.  Pointing a stick Lina knew could punch a lead ball through her faster than she could cast a spell.  The white of the girl's hair was visible in the low light, but not much else.  No face, no form.  Just her white hair and the glint off the metal in the stick.
    "That's probably the most cowardly weapon I've ever seen," Lina commented, resisting the urge to play this plaintively and meekly.  She needed an edge over this person, something to work with.  Defiance.
    "It works for me," he own voice said, drifting up from the base of the hill.  "It's funny.  Lately, I've been rethinking things, since I got here.  About erasing you like you should be erased.  I don't think that alone will put everything back to normal."
    "Fine by me," Lina said, not the least bit relieved.  "Hand over Gourry and we'll get out of your hair."
    "Gourry... that's another situation," the other girl said.  "Gourry's supposed to be dead.  But he's not.  I saw him die and he died, and here he is walking around.  That isn't the way it was supposed to go."
    Was supposed to, supposed to be dead.  A puzzle piece locked into Lina's mind.  "You came through the mirror, didn't you?  From the Oracle Mirror in Sailoon."
    "I think I did," the other girl said.  A little giggle faded up in the winds, a mad giggle of delight, then stopped sharply.  "I've had a lot of time to think about what to do, and I know what to do now.  I just wanted you to know that it's all for you, all of it.  I'm doing this for you.  Because I hate you, Lina Inverse."  The stick wavered, then locked on target.  The red dot activated.
    "Whoa, wait... why?  What'd I ever do to you?!" Lina said.  She looked left, looked right, but was in the open; she couldn't dodge the fire from that blasted thing.
    "You went on," the girl said, voice dropping low and angry.  "You went on happy and carefree when I was left to burn... you got to be with G-Gourry and I lost them all... you exist!  You're not supposed to exist this way, I'm not supposed to!"
    "What was it?" Lina asked.  "What's the difference between your side of that mirror and mine?  I know I knew it, but I can't remember--"
    "This whole world is wrong," the girl continued.  The muzzle of the stick wobbled, her body trembling with fear and loathing.  "Everything.  It's destroyed, burned out, annihilated, everybody's gone and the Mazoku are the new lords, we're all their toys and it's all my fault and this is all YOUR FAULT!  You were able to control the Giga Slave, and mine ended the world as we knew it!!"
    Lina froze like nitrogen had been poured into her veins.
    The other Lina, having gotten that out, calmed slightly.  Only slightly.  "Sure... I destroyed Shaburanigdo.  The world was saved.  But the darkness got wild, the chaos.. the Lord of Nightmares burned Gourry, Zelgadis, everybody.  The entire world was tainted from that day on.  My magic burned itself out from the spell's power, drained from me.  The Mazoku were overbalanced, they took over, feeding on the negative emotions they craved... I-I-I... I suffered their... for years and years, and running to hide without being able to, and.."
    The stick locked back onto her target.
    "And here you are," the white-haired Lina said.  "Prancing around with Naga and Gourry.  Not a care in the world, running off on some jolly little quest to get some mirror lores.  And why?  I know you, I know why.  Because it seems like a good idea, because it might be fun, because it'd make you more powerful.  Because you CAN.  Let me explain just how much I hate you.  There are thousands of blades of grass on this hill.  If the word hate was printed on every single one of them in letters so small you needed a magnifying glass to see them, it'd only be a tiny percentage of how much I hate you.  Do you understand now, Lina?  Smile, and nod your head."
    Lina Inverse nodded her head, but could not smile.
    "I'm going to kill Gourry in a little while," the girl below her said.  "He wasn't supposed to live.  This whole world was supposed to burn, him along with it.  I've got to put things right.  I just felt... I just felt you'd want to know this, know what you should have been.  Of course, I'm going to have to stop you so I can get my work done.  Goodbye, Lina."
    A tiny red dot raised itself, to Lina's forehead.
    "W-wait, wait--" Lina started.
    The roar of the weapon filled the air, and Lina closed her eyes.  A whoosh, a smell of burned grass and a scream of pain...
    Opening her eyes, she saw Naga facing down her mirror self, smirking defiantly.  The stick lying on the grass.  The white-haired Lina glared up at Naga with eyes of rage, nursing her shoulder, which had been burned by a pinpoint Flare Arrow.
    "Lina, Lina!" Naga laughed.  "No matter what world you're from... you're so naive!  Do you think you can so easily kill my number one companion, Lina Inverse, while Naga the White Serpent is present?  OOOHOHOOHHOOOO!!  Now, I'll--"
    The other Lina grabbed her stick from the ground and dashed with surprising speed into the safety of the forest, ignoring Naga.
    "Naga!  Follow!" Lina shouted.  "She's going to kill Gourry!"
    Naga took off like a gazelle, weaving in and out of the forest trees, using her longer legs for a speed advantage.  Lina gathered her wits as fast as she could, pushing the nightmare experience down to be dealt with after this was over, and sprang into the chase as well.
    Gourry ran along the street with his friends, laughing and playing.  His blonde hair tossed back in a ponytail, as was the fashion in New Piper's Cove.  They were brought up on good home traditions, saying what sorts of jobs were good honest labor, what sort of roles people should play, how everybody should get along.  And they did get along, really, quite well; the neighborhood was a young boy's paradise, with friends to play with, things to do, no crime, no disease, no problems.
    The group came to the abandoned field, where they began to play.  They were all determined to be swordsmen, this little group, and were given practice swords for Year's Birthday; simple things, they could cut, but not very well.  It was more than enough for them to start up the ladder of the Tricks, from watermelons to apples.
    Gourry wanted to try insects.  His friends thought he was daft to attempt it, since only the big kids could do insects, but Gourry was always the sort of boy who could smile and try something good instead of listening to others saying it was impossible.  He liked the challenge.
    They found a honey bee and caught it in a jar, then when Gourry was ready, they unscrewed the lid.  The bee buzzed out, and Gourry rose, his feet like coiled muscle, his arms bringing the sword around, adjusting it a little, bit by bit, until it neatly cleaved the bee in half.
    His friends were so impressed that they weren't able to make a sound.  Gourry smiled, happy with himself.
    Quiet clapping cut through the air like a snap, as everybody turned to see who was applauding.
    "It's that tomboy Angie!" his friends laughed.
    The girl, in her overalls dusty from a day's exploring and crawling through fences, turned red a moment out of embarrassment.
    "Whoever heard of a girl that fights and climbs?" one of Gourry's friends said.  "It's so stupid!  And I hear she wants to be a swordsWOMAN!"
    More laugher.
    "Aww, come on, guys," Gourry said, trying to calm them all down a bit.  "She's not all that bad.  Angie-san, ne, want to try my sword?"
    The boys looked at Gourry like had grown a second head.
    "Why're you always sticking up for her?  That's like the second time this week," one boy said.
    "Maybe they're KISSING!" another said, grossed out.
    "No boy that kissy kissy could do Insects," the new ringleader declared.  "He must've conspired with that tomboy to fake us out!"
    "Huh?  No, I'd never tell a lie," Gourry said, backing off.  "Guys, come on.  Let's be nice here, okay?  And--"
    "Know what the Testabourne punishment is for liars, right?" the ringleader grinned, cracking his knuckles.  "Dip 'em in mud so everybody knows they told a lie!  Get 'em both!"
    Angie, who was curiously waiting by the sidelines, looked alarmed.  Gourry was quick to act, though, running away from what were at least five minutes ago sort of his friends, and quickly leading Angie towards safety from the raging mob.  The posse followed the two of them for several streets, until he made it to a hiding place he knew he hadn't shared with anybody else; a crawlspace under Mrs. Radinov's front porch.
    "Quick, get in!" Gourry said.  "It's dirty, but--"
    Without hesitation, the young girl slipped between the cracked boards, and disappeared into the dark.  Gourry followed.  The mob stampeded on by, without noticing.
    "Sorry about that," Gourry whispered.  "I didn't mean to get you in trouble."
    "It's okay," Angie said, her breathing fast.  "Just was scary a minute.  I was worried you might.. well, agree with them."
    "Naw.  You want to be a swordswoman, right?"
    "Uh... yeah.  Although I haven't told anybody other than my mom."
    "I'm going to be one too," Gourry whispered.  "I'm going to be one of the best swordspeople that ever lived.  And daddy always says that when you agree to do a job, you gotta do it right and do it well.  You're gonna do that too, right?"
    "Then it's okay," he smiled.  "You wanna train sometime?  I--"
    Memory shifted, askew by an angle.  Gourry felt something odd; this wasn't how he remembered things.  The boards of the porch were noisily pried up, torn plank by plank.  Angie scooted backwards, surprised, as a hand reached in to grab her.
    The Goon smiled into the dark space where the two children hid.  But it wasn't exactly the Goon; the hair wasn't a fiery red, it was a light blonde, long and wild in a dashing sort of way.  "She knows what her job's SUPPOSED to be," he laughed.  "C'mere, girl..."
    Angie turned to Gourry, and smiled.  Her face shifted, one with a sly grin, with purple hair.
    "As much fun as this is, if you don't wake up soon, you'll never wake up," Xelloss said.  He raised his ruby-tipped staff, and--
    Gourry's eyes snapped open, his body rising from the cheap cot stuffed into the back of the Sinister Icy Black Hand of Death's Current Hideout.  Commotion filled the cave, the sounds of a battle.  Swords clashed, spells were being cast; he could hear voices shouting the spell incantations, voices shouting back.
    Through the dim light, he could see Lina and Naga, trying to stave off every single one of the bandits at once, who were being knocked around like leaves by magical spells only to rise again.  The Goon directed the charge, Lily hovering over the room to watch over the battle, radiating a soft white light for some reason.  Fifty two to two was not good odds.
    Gourry sprang to his feet, grabbing the Sword of Light from the floor, and drawing it.  No lying down on the job.  Lina needed help.
    The girls were able to hold back the bandits and their sorceress, but only barely.  Having that many bits of sharp metal and destructive spells waved at you in a confined space was more than two people could handle, no matter how strong, and they were trapped in the back of the cave with him; one of the disadvantages of having a hideout with only one entrance/exit.  This was going to be a tough escape.
    "Lina!" Gourry called.
    Lina threw a quick glance at him.  "Gourry?  How'd you wake out of a Sleep spell??"
    "I'll cut through," Gourry said, gesturing to the crowd.  "Follow in after behind me!  Let's go!"
    Gourry ran past Lina, into the fray, slashing and spiraling into the battle with honed skill.  He wasn't a bright man, he knew, but he was an Insect-level swordsman, and this is what he did.  Bandits went down only to come back up again, but he kept them away from himself, trying to clear a path through the sea for Lina and Naga to follow.  A spare look backwards showed them able to keep up with his frenzy of attacks, his sword gliding from form to form, using whatever technique would work best to make the person in front of him be somewhere else.
    He made it to the mouth of the cave, only to be stopped by the Goon, sword clashing on sword as he was halted in his tracks.
    "Gourry?  What gives??" the Goon asked, incredulous.  "I thought we were tight!  Now you're helping these bitches mow down my boys?!"
    "We're not tight," Gourry said, keeping his grip on the swordlock, keeping his ground against the Goon.  "I don't care if we're from the same place, if we had the same uncles or whatever.  We're not the same now.  Nobody kills Lina while I'm on duty."
    Goon's face contorted in anger.  "You PRICK!" he shouted, having nothing more intelligent to say, and shoved against Gourry.  The sword lockup was broken, but Gourry quickly recovered.  He watched Lina and Naga fly over his head, taking refuge in the trees, finally having enough room to get away from the mob.  The bandits weren't sure what to do, their bossman in a duel, their quarry having gone to higher ground.  Lilly floated near the cave entrance, also looking pensive.
    "All of you, back off!" the Goon shouted.  "ALL OF YOU!  This one's mine.  Then his little girls are mine, too.  Nobody make a move!"
    "Lina, don't do anything," Gourry warned, looking at the two.  "This won't take long."
    The two Testabourners faced off, circling slowly.
    "I'm Insect too," the Goon said.  "Don't forget that.  I'm more of a man than you've proven to be.  If you give up, maybe I'll let your women go."
    "Shut up and fight," Gourry said, with uncharacteristic acidity.
    The Goon dashed forward, sword in the fifth stance Gourry was taught, yelling in anger.  Parry, dodge.  Evade.  He slashed out in the V-curve form, which was blocked, and countered but counterparried.
    Sparks flew as the two battled, two minutes of raw intensity.  When it ended, the only way anybody knew the fight had finished was that one of them had stopped moving.
    The Goon sank to his knees, looking surprised, and then collapsed.
    Bandits are not a particularly loyal bunch, no matter where they come from.  The minions in the group slipped away / ran away / fled in a panic when their boss was cut down like grass, blending back into the night.  The fight was over in total.  Lilly hovered in one place, a look of shock on her face.
    Lina and Naga hopped down from the tree, curious.  Naga poked the Goon with the toe of her boot.
    "Who was that?" she asked.
    "Doesn't matter," Gourry said, sheathing his sword.  "We should probably get going.  The smithy's done our coach by now."
    "I lost track of her," Lina said.  "We were following her here, but she got away in the battle..."
    Naga peered up at the white sorceress, who was still hanging around.  "He's toast now.  You can do better than him, anyway.  Considerably better.  Want to travel with us instead?"
    Lilly ignored Naga, landing beside the defeated Goon.  Her glowing hands were placed on his body.  A healing spell moved through his system, knitting the wounds like cloth before everyone's eyes.  And the Goon woke.
    "Not again," Lina grumbled.  "Oooookay, we'll just--"
    "I defeated him," Gourry said.  "He won't attack us again."
    The Goon looked incredulous at Gourry.  "You did, yeah," he nodded.  "Fine.  You win this round, pansy."
    "No more rounds.  If you try this again, I'll defeat you again," Gourry said.  "Leave us alone."
    Lilly wrapped a bubble of energy around herself and the Goon, to provide them an exit.  The Goon smiled down at Gourry.  "We're not through with you yet, pal," he called out as the bubble shot away over the treetops.
    "Um... should we go after them?" Lina asked.
    Gourry watched the bubble vanish through the foliage.
    "Let's just get out of here," he said.  "It's late."
Story copyright 1998 Stefan Gagne, characters copyright H. Kanzaka / R. Araizumi.
A Spoof Chase Production.