reasy air, thick as viscous liquid slid past Lina's ears.  The echoes of bats reverberated around her skull, as a thousand great flapping pairs of leathery wings whirled around her.  The sky was thick with flying rodents, trying to suck her blood.  Someone nearby was trying to recite a nursery rhyme she thought she had forgotten.
    She just HAD to have that Ultimate Feast, didn't she?" she thought to herself in the third person, unless she actually said it out loud and didn't realize it.  Her thinking wasn't impaired, not that she could tell, but she gave up trying to trust her senses an hour ago.  Lina tried to keep her eyes closed, hanging onto Naga's cloak to know where to go.  "How long did it say?"
    "It didn't specify, just a few days," Naga said.  "We should just get you an inn room to sleep it off.  Gourry and I can handle getting a map to the Library and supplies, ne?  And it's not a bad town to take five in for awhile."
    "We can't wait a few days!  We're supposed to meet back with the others soon!!" Lina yelled, so she could out-shout the shrieking wombat that was currently roosting on Gourry's head.  "IF WE DON'T HURRY THIS THING UP, WE--"
    "Ano, Lina, You'Re Screaming," Gourry signed, his face melting like putty as the words appeared in mid air in neon letters.
    Lina blinked a few times.  "Sorry.  Look, I'll be fine, I can still think clearly.  Nothing changes.  Gourry'll take me to find a map, Naga will get supplies, and we meet back at the hitching lot at sunset.  Once we're actually underway I'll try to figure out how to cure this damn soup madness.  Clear?"
    "I don't like it," Gourry said.  "Why can't we take Lina to a healer?"
    "This is Evilania, Gourry," Naga smiled.  "There aren't any healers.  That's white magic, and this place doesn't like wimpy things like that."
    "," Naga replied.  "I am a black sorceress."
    "And I already tried Restore on myself," Lina confirmed.  "Didn't do anything.  Given I'm just going to have to ride this out, we should just push on.  Naga, we'll need horse chow, I'd like some extra blankets, plenty of prepared food, and if you can get some, try to find those little travel board games."
    The wall of a nearby barber shop exploded, as the person inside engaged in scholarly debate with the proprietor about why his haircut was not of sufficient quality, punctuated with high energy magic.  Naga picked up a smoldering bit of scrap wood, without missing a beat, and started to carve her shopping list on it with a large knife.
    "Umm... Naga, that place just went boom and you're writing on a plank, right?" Lina asked.
    "Of course."
    "Good.  Then I'm not just seeing things," Lina said, as a passing cloud turned into the disembodied head of Xelloss, winking at her.
    Lina paused.
    "Well.. at least not MANY things," she corrected.
    As the trio walked away, a figure in priest's robes peeked out from behind the sign on the roof of the barber shop.  Funny, he thought, I could swear she spotted me.
    Xelloss hadn't counted on Lina trying the soup de jour de force back at that restaurant.  This changed matters somewhat, but he could work from it.  The important parts were already in place, and running smoothly--
    "Why, hello there!" he said, without turning around.
    "Is the task assigned to you by She complete?" an emotionless voice sounded.
    Xel glanced over at the wisp of energy.  "Not quite yet.  A few things left to take care of, things to plan, ambushes to set up, et cetera et cetera..."
    Zellas-Metallum's Minion floated over Xelloss's head, its eyeless bodiless form watching as Lina and companions turned a corner and left.  "you had a clear shot.  Why did you not simply carry out your orders and destroy Lina Inverse where she stood?"
    Xelloss flinched.  "That lacks... style.  Pinache.  There's a right way to do these things and a wrong way."
    "It is a simple order. Kill Lina Inverse."
    "Perhaps you haven't been... in existence? long enough to realize, but Zellas-sama implies a great deal in her orders," Xelloss said.  "She might have just said 'Xelloss is to kill Lina Inverse,' but what she MEANT was, 'Xelloss-kun, be a dear and pop off and snuff out Lina in a particularly ironic way.'  Trust me."
    "you will obey Her orders," Minion said calmly.  "Or i have been instructed to eradicate Lina Inverse myself.  i am the tool of my Mistress, i am her will made--"
    "Yes, yes," Xelloss said, yawning in mocking distaste.  "Now, push off.  I have things to arrange."
    The Minion vanished without a pop or a burst of light.
    The trickster priest consulted his mental notebook.  So many things to do, to prepare, and this little wrinkle was making it that much more difficult.  But he had never failed his mistress before.  Not her intentions, at least.
    Lina sloshed, ankle-deep, through the river of sheep's blood that had poured out of a nearby butcher's shop.  She had to duck to avoid the screaming, six-headed man with a meat cleaver; there are some hallucinations you don't want to put serious money on as being imaginary.
    "This is not a good town for psychedelic appetizers," she commented to herself.  "Why couldn't we have gone to some ordinary village where the peasants are trying to farm dirt?  Why'd it have to be an overly dramatic land of bad-guy otaku like this place?  This sort of atmosphere is weird enough, even without drugs..."
    "How about if I drop you off at the inn, and go looking for the map on my own?" Gourry asked.  "We could still leave on time."
    "What, you finding the map alone? YOU?" Lina asked.  "No way."
    Gourry paused in his footsteps.  "What's so bad about that?"
    Lina looked around...  "Look, Gourry, I don't mean any offense, but-- AAH!  TIGER!"
    "Where?!" Gourry said, hand going to his sword.
    Peeking out from behind Gourry, Lina bit her lip.  "Sorry.  Automatic reaction.  It's just the soup."
    "Oh.  So, umm... what didn't you want to offend with?"
    "Forget it," Lina said.  "Let's just get going."
    "Come on, Lina, it's okay," Gourry said.  "You can tell me."
    "I just think that... you'd have a little bit of trouble finding it.  Doing the investigating.  You know," Lina said, shuffling her feet.
    "You know."
    "No I don't."
    "That's why," Lina pointed out.
    Gourry stared into space for a moment, his brain doubling output to try and muddle through this.  Lina gave him the processing time, busy watching a chicken race.
    "Oh, I get it!" Gourry said, smacking his fist into his palm.  "You're just scared and stuff and want me around to protect you and keep you company but don't want to admit it.  That's okay, Lina!  I'd be more than happ--"
    Lina bonked Gourry over the head.  "NO!  That's not it at all!  I'm fine, I can handle anything!  It's you, you're thick, dull, dumb, stupid, ignorant, unobservant, and.. and other things!!  You wouldn't be able to find the map if it was taped to your forehead!"
    "--y to..." Gourry continued, then trailed off into oblivion, a confused look passing over his face.  "A... ano?"
    The young sorceress sighed.  "I'm just trying to say that you wouldn't be able to find out the information, because... I mean, it's not like you're... it's just..."
    Gourry looked positively hurt.  His mouth stayed open, in case he thought of something to say and needed it that way.
    "Don't look at me like that, sheesh," Lina said, looking away.  "Forget it.  Forget it!  I'll find the map or the guide or the trail of bread crumbs or whatever on my own.  Go help Naga.  I don't need you, I can handle this."
    "Ano..." Gourry repeated.
    Lina turned sharply on her heel, waved aside a large spider web that had grown across the street, and marched off in a huff.
    It was true, after all.  She was smart and resourceful.  And she could cast spells and even use a sword.  So why did she need Gourry?  Especially for something investigative, like this.  She'd be better off just taking care of it herself, even if she was seeing stuff, she'd STILL be more observant than--
    Lina collided stomach first with an ogre three times larger than her, and fell back on her tush.
    The monster glared down at her.  "Watch where yer goin', little girl!"  Fire poured out of its mouth, as its horns grew and spiraled in anger.
    "Stupid hallucination," Lina grumbled.  "Beat it, you're not real and I'm busy."
    Muscles flexed on top of muscles, like two hippos trying to wrestle under a blanket.  "Issat so?"
    Lina got up, dusted herself off, and started to walk away when a meaty hand clamped over her shoulder, a sword appearing at her neck.
    Probably just imagining that, Lina thought.  Probably.  Along with that hot breath down my back, and an edge up to my skin, and... and...
    Instinct took over.
    "AIEEE!!" she yelled, stomping on the ogre's foot.  This didn't faze the thing.  "Gourry!  GOURRY!"
    In a flash, the swordsman had hurled himself out of nowhere, smashing into the ogre's side.  Lina fell away, watching as Gourry tangled with the monster, which seemed way too real to be some vision.
    The fight was brief, but intense, the two doing sort of a combination of brawling and swordfighting.  For a big guy, the ogre was fast, but Gourry was faster, control over his sword tighter and more refined.  He narrowly avoided being run through, then let his blade follow through, neatly spanning the thing's shoulders.
    The ogre's head rolled almost comically away, his body feeling around where it was supposed to be.
    "You bastards!" the head shouted.  "You have any idea how hard it is to reattach that?  This'll cost me a fortune!"
    "Take out a loan," Gourry suggested, using the wit of fighting rhetorts that all swordspeople were trained in.
    Ogre body picked up ogre head like a football, and the pair ran off into the city.
    Lina sat there, speechless, as Gourry cleaned off his sword and slid it back into its sheathe.  He turned to Lina, and smiled.  "You okay, Lina?"
    "Ano..." Lina asked, confused.
    "Told you you needed me to protect you and stuff," Gourry said.  "It's okay.  I know I'm not a really bright guy, but Aunt Melba always said I knew what was the right thing to do.  That counts, right?"
    Lina looked sheepish.  "Yeah... yeah, it does.  I could've handled that guy, though... um. You're not mad, are you?"
    "Ano?  Why would I be mad?" Gourry asked.
    "Oooh, no reason, no reason," Lina said, letting it slide.  "So.  What's the right thing to do next, then?"
    Gourry scratched his head.  "Actually.. I was thinking we should try finding a tour guide or a tourist place.  Maybe the Great Library isn't so lost and legendary after all, and we could get someone to lead us right to it!"
    Lina groaned.  "Gourry, nobody's been inside the Great Library in centuries.  Why would some kitschy tour guide know the way?"
    "I think it's my incest I'm listening to."
    "Instinct, Gourry.  Instinct."
    Gourry made a face.  "No way.  Besides, I don't have a sister."
    Lina Inverse -- not the one with Gourry -- walked along the streets as well, on the other side of town.
    "I've been here before," she said aloud, not really for the Goon's information but more for herself.  "I remember some of this.  It looked different but it was all here in some way..."
    "I don't see any banks," the Goon said.  "Where're you getting this money from?"
    "I've got a stash," Lina lied.  "I--"
    Lina whirled.  "Shut UP!"
    Halting in his tracks, the Goon looked puzzled. "I didn't say nothin'!"
    "You laughed!  I can always hear you laughing at me!" Lina accused, raising her marble-thrower, not remembering when she had last loaded it.  "I know it!"
    'I swear, this freaky chick is always doing weird-ass stuff like this,' the Goon didn't say because he'd seen what that stick had done to others.  Instead, he said, "I didn't laugh, I swear.  Must've been... that guy!"
    Aware of the intrinsic value of bystander scapegoats, he pointed at some random person.  Lina whirled, and fired the stick; she missed wide, but the crowd of foot traffic knew better than to hang around, and ran for it.
    "That's better," she said, watching the empty street.  She blew smoke off the muzzle of the weapon.
    "I said SHUTUP!!" she growled menacingly at the air.
    Snickering, chuckling.
    Silly little thing, the laugher said, her voice condescending.  Look what you are, look what you've become.  A little animal that runs in fear and has to fight to stay alive.  Whereas I'm here, with Gourry and Zelgadis, and we're having the time of our lives in this lovely world.  I got to play and laugh for years with them while you alone had to beg them not to hurt you, and I'm still laughing and playing.  Laughter, more laughter...
    Lina clenched the marble-thrower, the only powerful weapon she had held in months -- back in the real world, the Mazoku had taken away her sword, and made sure anybody who armed her suffered.  She cracked off five shots, randomly, just wanting to fill the air with a sound other than the voices that mocked her from this dream-world she had stumbled into, and it worked; the sharp shots scared them away.
    Pausing, hearing all the no sound, she was satisfied.  Reloaded the stick with six fresh marbles.
    "Let's go," she said.  "It's not far away now."


Story copyright 1998 Stefan Gagne, characters copyright H. Kanzaka / R. Araizumi.
A Spoof Chase Production.