Book Two: Belief

It had started. The players took their places. The chess pieces were arranged on the board of black and white, the good and evil. The actors knew their lines, the horses were at the gate, the cheese had been spread on the hamburgers, the first nail had been driven into the coffin, the bear had urinated in the woods.

But the fat lady was still busy warming up backstage and putting on a brassiere that resembled a pair of trash can lids, so it was far from over.

Various forces were just getting going on their respective journeys, usually unaware of the others...

Lina and her newly acquired not exactly her daughter partner, Penny Gabriev (and a small table that kept following them no matter how often Lina shot fireballs at it), marched along the maze of twisty little roads, all alike, towards the town of Nostrum. There, according to Penny, who was proving to be a wealth of half informed trivia and almost on the money facts, was more than a little bit of a lot sure that the Unholy Cult of Zoamel Gustav would be located there.

"But you understand," Penny continued, picking up the Wandering Monster Table and putting it on her shoulder for now, "It's fourth hand information, so I don't really KNOW -- "

"Yes yes, you said that, no need to repeat," Lina said, a little irritated. "And could you just stuff that blasted thing in a sack or something? It's creeping me out!"

"I think he's cute," Penny smiled, playing with the adorable little animatronic stone table with the end of her staff. "And he likes you, Lina! Probably thinks you're his mother."

"Oh, great, I look like some huge block of unchiseled marble. I can't tell if that's an insult or not. Anyway. Way I see it, if we find the cult in Nostrum, we find it. If not... well, I'm sure we'll find SOME crazy encounter. Trust me, I'm a seasoned veteran at this. So I want you to be up and ready, game face on, prepared to deal with ANYTHING that gets in your way. That's Lina's Rule #3 : Expect what's to be expected! Got that?!"

"Hang on, let me write it -- "


"Yes ma'am!!" Penny blurted. "Expect the expected. Um. What are we expecting, exactly?"

Lina considered. She took off a glove, licked one finger, tested the wind. Cupped an ear to the sounds of nature. Counted from five to one. "Well, given the current conditions, I think it would be entirely safe to assume that we're about to be jumped by nine well armed soldiers of profit."

"Ah, okay!" Penny said, smiling. "Boy, Lina, you really know best! ....what?!"

Nine armed goons stepped out of the thick trees, surrounding the pair. The Table panicked, and scampered off into the bushes where it would be safe.

"You know, those guys," Lina said, pointing, as her stroll rolled to a halt. "Don't worry, they'll explain things first before attacking."

Penny waved her arms in a panic. "Butbut -- "

"You two little witches are going DOWN!" the lead goon spat. "You froze that fat pig before he could pay us, and now we're out two days of work! We're gonna take it out of your AAHH AHH OH IT BURNS IT BURNS HELP ME HELP ME!!!!"

"Lina's Rule #3," Lina said, lowering her smoking hand, "Always punk them out while they're taunting you. It saves you work in the long run. Now, let's fight."

Penny paused, brain locked on a bit of confusion, rather than the immediacy of the moment. "But wasn't Lina's Rule #3 that I should expect -- "


The girl turned, and found a really big sword coming for her head. In a panic, she raised her staff, and blocked the strike -- the cheap wood taking a large nick in the process. She tried to push back, but didn't get very far, as she was knocked to the ground, the goon twirling his sword and bringing it down to stab her in the chest --

Lightning crackled through the air, as Lina twirled one wrist, a ball of blue-green flame flaring with a raging internal thunderstorm. Goons were trapped in the path of the sparking, jagged lines of electric death, and eight goons that were standing were then replaced by eight goons rolling around on the ground putting out small fires on their skin.

Lina exhaled, a little disappointed. "Penny, look, when you BLAST them, they tend to DO something about it. So you can't let your guard down like that. Don't think, DO."

"S-Sorry," Penny said, getting back up, still a little shaken. "I'm new at this, you know, and -- "

"Why didn't you just blast them into next Wednesday with a Flare Arrow or something, anyway?" Lina asked. "It's a lot faster than manually beating them around with that cruddy blade."

"...s'not cruddy..." Penny mumbled, before answering. "I don't do magic. That's MOM'S area. I'm a weapons expert!"

"Right, right," Lina said, stepping over a smoldering bandit, and leading Penny away from the unpleasant scene. "You're a lot like Amelia.. was. Too much faith in something, not enough practical sense. Being idealistic is very good IF you can back it up, but until then, maybe you should learn some spells. They're faster to get off, stronger, and are really the only way to fi -- "

A sharp, stabbing pain pierced Lina's shoulder. She stopped in mid word, looking at it... and seeing blood. And THEN feeling the full impact of it, as she stumbled, grasping at the shoulder...

"Lina!" Penny shouted, to rush and help.. but heard a click. A familiar click from behind her.

She twisted on one heel, getting her weapon up and ready, eyeing the bandit who was still on the ground, but still a threat -- another sharp bang rang out, Penny's weapon jerked, deflecting the shot. She wasted no time, running in with a sliding kick, propelled by her naginata like a low ground heat seeking pole vault.

The bandit's head made a nice THUMP against her boot. Penny kicked him over, then glared at the other bandits, who were just getting up.

"Beat it!" she shouted, trying to sound as authoritative as possible. The bandits, having enough physical pain and third degree burns for one day, did just that.

Lina staggered back, rigorously applying a healing spell to her shoulder, but the pain wouldn't fade. "What.. what the heck was that thing?!"

"This," Penny said, picking the scorched wooden pipelike object off the bandit. "A gun. He shot you."

"A GUN?! Why, that cowardly little so-and-so! Just like they did yesterday... I should've known, dammit. Since when do two-bit bandits like these on OUR continent tote around things like that?! I'll -- "

"Lina, most bandits use guns," Penny said, dropping the fried firearm. She walked over to the quivering bush, and tried to coax the Wandering Monster Table out, while explaining. "Maybe twenty years ago they were hard to find, but nowadays, just about everybody does. Maybe not so many in Zeifelia, where it's more traditional, but definitely elsewhere in the world -- what are you doing?"

"Trying to heal this wound. It's still smarting like -- "

"Whoa, whoa, stop!" Penny shouted, waving her arms. "The bullet's still in your shoulder! You're just sealing it in!"

Lina stopped quickly, going pale. "Uh. I hadn't remembered..."

"I've got a lot to learn about adventuring, but YOU have a lot to learn about this day and age," Penny explained, setting her weapon down... and getting out a knife. "Dad taught me this stuff one day. He has to deal with it all the time as a city guardsman. How's that for practical knowledge? Lie down, I'll get that out of you."

"Uh, how?" Lina asked. But knew exactly how. And didn't LIKE it.

It was enough to make one wish for the good 'ol days of ordinary hack and slash butchery.

It was enough to make one wish for the good 'ol days of ordinary hack and slash butchery.

Roy Balderdash examined the vacuum sealed glass display case. A personal shrine to science, a museum of technology; from the first primitive work at steam driven engines, two decades ago, to the here and now. Vehicles, personal conveniences, food preparation and storage units, weapons.

Plenty of weapons. Guns of all shapes and sizes, each using some flint or powder thing Roy had never quite gotten a grasp on. Even huge ones, meant for mounting on a carriage, which could be cranked to fire four large rounds of steel ammo a second.

'Just some of the many accomplishments of Sairaag Technology and workers just like these,' the huge sign behind glass read, along with a yellowing, fuzzy image of a group of swarthy men in hard hats. Presumably behind the glass so nobody could reach out and touch these things, mess them up from the perfect display they were in.

This wasn't his day and age. Roy was old school all the way, a bandit to the core, relying on muscle, wit and a sharp tongue. He'd resorted to the new tricks sometimes, when it was needed -- usually when the opposition was packing firearms as well, making them unapproachable... but he'd never liked the stuff.

And here he was, half a world away, in the core of the palace at Sairaag. Being watched by a chimera.

A strange boy. He couldn't be more than nineteen, with stone skin, craggy and blue-gray. The boy was content to just stand there, looking impressive in his military issue armor and fatigues, arms crossed. Waiting. Of course he hadn't explained what they were waiting FOR. But Roy had a pretty good idea.

The double doors hissed once, steam pressure building, then slid apart.

Roy stopped picking his nose and looked up.

"You," he stated.

"And you," the woman said, walking in, heels clicking on the metal floor. "The bandit."

"The brain."


"You hit like a girl."

"You hit anything that looks at you funny."



A long pause.

"Mother says hello, by the way," Roy added somewhat after the fact.

"I'm not on speaking terms with mother," the woman said, walking around to sit on a conveniently placed office chair. She withdrew a pen from her white lab coat, and clicked it into place, twirling a clipboard at the ready. "Now for the purpose in bringing you here, Roy. As much as I see you as an obsolete component of the old age, I have use of your skills for the time being."

"Well, that's a fine how do you do," Roy grumbled, kicking a wall. "Elizabeth, I haven't seen you in YEARS since you ran off to revolutionize the world, and this is your greeting? 'Hi, Roy, serve me'? You know better than to think I'm at your beck and call. Even if I gave a damn about your empire of nerds and losers, I've got a large rivalry cooking at home and -- "

"If you work for me, I'll absolve your gambling debts," Elizabeth Balderdash explained in simple words. "If not, I inform Gino the Leg Breaking Man Of Ill Disposition of where you can be found, where you will be chained to the heaviest rock in Zeifelia with a sign around your neck reading 'Come and get it'."

Roy Balderdash stopped talking.

The scientist tapped her pen on her clipboard, impatiently awaiting.

"I thought you didn't believe in taunting, sis," Roy said quietly. "I thought you were a 'rational' minded woman now."

"I wanted to ensure your comfort with the situation," she said cooly. "I know how your mind works and what reactions would be achieved with the right prompting. So, I selected optimal words for an optimal response."

"I'm not above killing family," Roy said.

"You're surrounded by thousands of my soldiers and the entire population of Sairaag, to whom I am savior," Elizabeth countered. "I was there when this city was decimated by Rezo. I was there when this city was annihilated by Phibrizo. But most importantly, I started the reconstruction when nobody else had any hope of recovery. The people trust me. In smaller words, it would be an easy suicide if you chose that option."

"What do you WANT from me, Liz?! Spit it out! I hate your damn head games."

"Zelgadis, my second in command and leader of Special Forces, requires an assistant," she said, without missing a beat, gesturing to the chimera. Zelgadis simply nodded in acknowledgement. "The last one was killed. You will replace him. It's simple enough, you obey his commands. You'll be asked to perform military style tasks, which I assume you are capable of? I wouldn't ask anything above your level of intellect."

"Yeah, I can be a grunt," Roy said, still completely disgusted with the situation. "What's the matter, your freak can't handle your errands himself?"

Roy turned his head and found that the freak had a sword to his neck before he could even notice he had a sword to his neck.

"Zelgadis is an expert modeled in the new age," Elizabeth said, again without pause, without inflection. She pulled a map off her clipboard, complete with machine printed instructional papers. "A student of pure science, with us from nearly the very beginning. He is not expendable. You are. You will proceed to this location with him and a small force, and complete the mission. There will be other missions, of course..."

Balderdash CAREFULLY nudged the sword away from his neck; Zelgadis didn't resist, as the point had been made, so to speak. He snatched the papers away, studying them. "And the mission?"

If Roy had looked up, he'd have seen a tiny, tiny perk to the corners of Elizabeth Balderdash's mouth. A puffy cloud of gray over the sea of absolute sanity she sailed in.

"Genocide," she stated.

A hooded figure -- as hoods were all the rage this season for those seeking to conceal their identity -- picked his way along the mountainous trail, through the rocks and debris from some age old crumbled kingdom. Of course, he knew exactly which kingdom and to a degree where each misshapen rock once went in its greatest palace, but that didn't do him much good when he just wanted a nice quiet rest and some shade.

The bird perched on his staff screeched in irritation, but it's hard to screech in any other expression.

"Yes yes, I know, must hurry up," the man replied. "Always nagging. Caw caw this, caw caw that. This is a shortcut to where we need to be, isn't it? Don't you trust me anymore? We'll catch up to Lina and her little friend. Even she can't get into too much trouble before nightfall... oh, glory of glories, a rest area!"

He wandered along the path, trying not to stumble on the little pebbles, and sat on the rock under the craggy outcropping. Sat, and sighed.

"I'm not getting any younger, you know," he told the bird. "None of us are. We wouldn't be in this state if I was running things..."


"Caw caw caw all you want, but it's true. And now look. Terrors of the world, reduced to wanting quiet naps and milk. How silly. Okay, perhaps it's not THAT bad, but I wouldn't have to feed every other day to stay fit and active if not for this whole mess... are you even listening to me?"

The jet black raven's beak poked up from the nearby entrails of some poor baby mountain goat. "Caw?"

"Oh. Terribly sorry to interrupt lunch. Carrion," Xelloss joked.

The Mazoku prankster leaned back against the cool rock wall, and pondered fate. Actually, no, he didn't have to ponder fate; he'd known about fate for a long time now, and made it a business to avoid not knowing fate very well. But he did ponder the fate he had known about all along. There was hope, and that was a good thing. (Even though Xelloss was considered evil by most who truly knew him, he wasn't daft enough to kick a good thing in the mouth.) All would be well, assuming everything fell into place properly -- which it would, if he had anything to say about it. He was a little disappointed that he had to prompt Lina onto the next step, but --

A sound like pebbles falling down a cliff alerted him to pebbles falling down a cliff, as a rope was tossed over the outcropping, and a young man in flashy clothes and sunglasses swung down in front of him, planting a spiked boot into the rough rock.

"Whoa, dude! This is EXTREME!" he exclaimed. "Hey, old guy! You scalin' this rock too, dude?"

"There are some who say those who would employ the word 'dude' twice in the span of twenty seconds... well, nobody says anything about them, but I'd say something fairly negative if I felt like it," Xelloss rambled. "Which I don't, so begone, foul youth. Go corrupt further generations on your own time rather than mine."

"...huh. Whatever, dude," the mountain climber said, squeezing some water into his mouth from a waterskin in an especially cool way. "Let me guess, you're stuck up here 'cause you're too weak to get down, huh? Bummer. Heh."

Xelloss started to think of a suitable retort (frankly, anything would be sufficient, against this) but had a better idea. He focused his mind briefly, very briefly, touching the young boy's psyche...

"Say, you don't like spiders very much, do you?" he asked.

"Wha? How did you kno -- AAH! GET THEM OFF ME! GET THEM OFF ME!!" the mountaineer screamed, running around the narrow clifftop, clawing at his skin. The rest was just incoherent yelling, foaming at the mouth and wails of absolute terror, but they were delivered while falling at nine point eight meters per second per second towards the ground.

Xelloss stood up, stretched out, and felt quite refreshed.

"A little intense burst of human fear always perks up the old body," he said, smiling in the face of the setting sun. He nudged the goat a little, to stir his companion. "What are we standing around for? Fate waits for no man, woman or demonic stereotype. Onward!"

By the time the pair and a quarter had reached Nostrum, the sun had set, Lina's shoulder was aching and she wasn't very happy about either aspect of her situation. At least the Table wasn't tumbling and doing tricks to try and get her attention, it was just quietly walking beside Penny, while the two talked about the Issues of the Day.

"So you're saying that the whole world's turned into some bad novel where everybody flies around in machines and people pull levers to get everything in life done?" Lina asked. "Bards usually got laughed off the stage when they told kid's fantasies like that..."

"Not all that, no, no," Penny said. "Just... some stuff. Like, Dad has a special rotating brush for polishing his armor. And at school we're learning more about geometry and chemistry and -- "

"Alchemy, you mean?"

"Sort of, but things explode less often and there aren't as much glowing substances that move by themselves after the day's done."

"Well, I'd hope not. Alchemists always had a few screws loose, in my opinion. Mucking around in copy homoculus and other crazy experiments..."

"Out here in Zeifelia, there isn't that much advanced stuff," Penny continued. "Just a few things that leaked out of the more industrial areas. Usually people say they can get by on magic just as well, but everybody my age is really interested in this stuff. It's the new way of things. I bet you in another twenty years, well, you won't recognize this world anymore! People will fly around in machines and we can pull levers -- "

"I get the idea, I get the idea," Lina said, to stop the flow. Penny did tend to ramble on and on when you got her excited. (At least it wasn't about the spirit of noble justice...) "Okay, whatever. Stuff's different in the world, I'm familiar with that by now. But I don't see what this has to do with the temples."

"I was just getting to that," Penny said. "After awhile, the technologists started saying that not only was magic obsolete, but religions were too. After all, any miracles on record could be explained scientifically if you sat down and thought about them long enough, and gods didn't really mess with men's lives very much -- not even Ceipheed, who everybody saw as the best god around to worship. Some folks even wondered if Ceipheed actually existed."

"I'd appreciate if gods would mess in my life a little less than they have," Lina muttered.

"Eventually, people stopped going to church regularly, if they were going in the first place. Keep in mind this is over twenty years in the new age, it wasn't overnight. But generally, folks didn't see the point in worshipping Ceipheed anymore," Penny continued, as the two started to walk through the dark city streets. "There are always a few people with a lot of belief, but it just wasn't popular to others. Not with anybody my age and a good education. None of the Dragons complained about it and there weren't any plagues, so... you know."

"Uh-huh. Right. Aaaand what about the Mazoku War?" Lina asked. "Sort of a large thing to be dismissing as a non-event, isn't it?"

"Wasn't that, um, thousands of years ago?"

"Yes, but... that doesn't mean it didn't HAPPEN! It's in the books and everything, and -- "

"Nobody's alive who experienced it; maybe it was all a metaphor for something important, like saying that you catch eighty fish in four nets and it's really about global peace, like in most religious kinda books. The Mazoku haven't been a problem since, anyway."

Lina waved her arms in heated protest. "Haven't been a problem since?! What about SHABURANIGDO? Don't forget he resurrected not... twentysomething years ago! I should know, I was the one who took him out!"

"I heard about some country to the south having some kind of disaster that a lot of people blamed on Shaburanigdo," Penny said. "Probably was just some Mazoku who looked like Shaburanigdo. But it stopped less than a day after it started and everything went back to normal."

"That's because I killed him!!"

"Oh. Well, there you go! Wasn't a big problem, was it?"

"WASN'T A BIG... okay, okay. What about Phibrizo? He enslaved and destroyed all of Sairaag!"

"But then he got killed by you, didn't he? So it wasn't a problem. And now Sairaag's rebuilt itself to be one of the biggest empires in the world! So something great came out of it!"

"This is ridiculous! You mean I did such a GREAT job at saving the world over and over that nobody realized they had anything to worry about?!" Lina huffed, getting little veins sticking out in her forehead.

Penny took a few steps away, just in case Lina exploded or anything. "Ah... maybe. It's been so long since the Mazoku have been a real problem that the whole thing just isn't much of an issue for the average person. Most people, most cultures and countries get by in life without having any problems with the Mazoku to begin with. So, people worry more about prospering in life than they do about Ceipheed, Mazoku, and all those legends and myths. And besides, the Mazoku are all gone now."

The world screeched to a painful halt as Lina hit the one thing she couldn't quite wrap her mind around today.

"WHAT!?" Lina shouted, shaking Penny by the shoulders. "WHATWHAT WHAAAAAT?"

Penny wobbled around, trying to start a sentence, but finding her tongue jarred out of place each time by a freaked out Lina.

Noticing this, Lina let go. "No way. You can tell me the Common Man is dumb enough not to notice demons running around causing problems, but you CAN'T tell me the demons are dead. Do you have any idea what kind of effort it takes to get rid of them? If -- "

"The Empire of Sairaag did it," Penny said, taking MORE steps back.


"It was so cool! There's stories about it and poems and everything," Penny beamed. "It all happened fifteen years ago. Sairaag had already been burned by the Mazoku so many times that they just could take it anymore. So they didn't wait for the next attack. They marched an army up to the North Pole, where the Mazoku Lord Dynast resided, and immediately went to war! And they crushed the Mazoku in a single week long campaign! The stupid beasts didn't see it coming!"

"..." Lina ranted. "..."

"Okay, maybe they didn't kill ALL of them," Penny said, noting Lina's disbelief and shock. "I don't think they could do that, even if the stories said it. But it's true otherwise! We 'simple humans' punished 'em so hard that the Mazoku haven't been seen or heard from since! Dynast is dead and that means there's only two lords left, and after the beating they got, they won't be coming back. So people are free to get on with their lives and not worry about some silly monsters. Isn't that great? The world's in a new age. Science is flourishing, we don't have to be afraid of huge forces that can kill us at a whim, and everybody can LIVE their lives. That's why I'm happy to be in this day and age. You know... Lina?"

"...?" Lina replied.

"Maybe this is just me making a silly theory, but maybe the world doesn't need you anymore. It's already saved and humans saved it with science. Of course, there's always quests and stuff for adventurous types like me, but at least we don't have to worry about saving the WORLD anymore. Isn't that great?"

"," Lina said.

"Huh? I mean, not to belittle your accomplishments but -- "

"No, I mean I don't buy it in general," Lina said. "Obviously it LOOKS the way you've described, or you wouldn't buy it. But I've lived long enough to know that what looks like a sheep is actually a seventy tentacled eighty fanged perverted beast waiting to tear your ears off! Make no mistake; the Mazoku aren't GONE. I can't see it. Somewhere, someone is plotting something or other. And I'd bet dollars to doughnuts that I know who it is!"

While strolling along the mountain path, Xelloss paused a moment to sneeze.

"Hmm. Funny," he decided, then continued on his merry way.

"Ne, ne, Lina, you sound paranoid," Penny said. "I'm just saying what I know, okay? And I know that -- "

"We're getting sidetracked," Lina said. "History lesson to be continued. It's getting pitch black out there and I want to get to this cult before sunrise. Get some ANSWERS. So where is it?"

"Uh..." Penny said, looking around. "It's here, in Nostrum."

"Where in Nostrum?"

"My best friend's brother's cousin didn't say."

Lina counted backwards from ten to one, and unclenched her hands.

"...then we look around until we find it," Lina said. "If it's as persecuted as you're saying, that won't be easy! It'll take sharp intellect, sharper eyesight and sharper yet reflexes! We'll search every nook, cranny and dark alley in this whole city until -- "

"Why don't we follow that cultist?"

Lina stopped cold, watching as a suspicious looking figure in a hooded black robe skulked in shadows across the street. He/she/it was doing his/her/its best not to be noticed by anyone, but had about as much training in the ancient technique of stealth as a drunken cow.

"You've got your father's blind luck, don't you?" Lina asked, peering at Penny in a particularly perplexed way. "Now let's stay quuiiiiiet and follow."

After a brief argument about jamming the Table into a sack so it wouldn't make any noise (an argument Penny lost), they started to trail the Dark Cultist. On tiptoes they went, staying a city block or more behind, as the cultist went on a deliberately winding path in, out and around the city. The whole process took a half an hour and was clearly intended to shake any tail. The process, on the whole, failed miserably.

Eventually, the ride came to a halt underneath the Not a A Cult Hideout Inn and Tavern and Bingo Parlor.

"Yeah, this is definitely one of Martina's cults," Lina commented quietly to herself.

Of course, back in the day, Martina's cult had a sum membership of one : Martina herself. She was the only person who really believed in dark god Zoamel Gustav, and that's because she made him up. It didn't stop her from selling Zoamel protective pendants to anybody desperate enough to buy them -- and there were usually enough desperate people when Lina was in town, because it meant something was exploding nearby, more often than not.

There had to be a LOT of fear and panic there to resort to worshipping Zoamel Gustav, the imaginary god. Even back then. Lina briefly pondered Penny's absurd world view... that maybe people got along better now, without having to fear the Mazoku. Or fear Ceipheed. Ceipheed probably wouldn't have stood for this kind of a cult, if the Dragon god actually did anything of note in the course of everyday affairs...

The cultist knocked on the door in a complex pattern that spelled out 'the dread portal' in ancient Zeifelian converted to smoke signal dot pattern syntax. A small window slid open on the oaken door.

"What's the password?" a throaty whisper sounded.

"Walt sent me," the cultist replied.

"One hand washes the other," the keeper of the gates to hell counter- passworded.

"I fear nothing."

"The seagull perches on the steeple in the rain."


"If this is five and this is one, what is this?"


"Enter the fold, oh my brother."

And the door opened just long enough to admit the cultist, before swinging shut, with the resounding clatter of seventeen locks sealing themselves behind.

"...uh.. that's not going to be easy to get through," Penny said. She twirled her weapon into the ready position. "I've got a plan! You blow the door off its hinges with a Dragon Slave, and I'll charge in and beat them all senseless, and we can make off with the High Priest!"

"Or we can use the rear delivery entrance," Lina decided, walking off to the nearby alley.

Penny blinked a few times. Her eyes followed the Inn and Tavern sign down to the smaller one, Please Drop Off Deliveries And Boxes Not Containing Ritual Sacrifices In The Rear.

"Oh," she said, vaguely disappointed. She caught up quickly. "Is it always like this? Like when you blew up that guy before he finished taunting us and -- "

"Don't get me wrong, we could go ahead with your plan," Lina said. "Works for plenty of other hero types. But that's not my style. Unless I'm in the mood for some satisfying mindless violence. Now hush and follow my lead."

"I've got a lot to learn, don't I?"

"Eh, we're all green at one time or another. Don't let it get you down, kid. Stick with me and I'll impart some wisdom that hopefully won't lead to your early demise! But shut up for now and let's do this."

"Fine, fine, mom."

For the manyth time tonight, Lina stopped dead in her tracks in shock.

"I mean, Ms. Inverse," Penny quickly corrected.


Of course, others were out this night than Lina and company. But they were not particularly happy about it.

On any other day, Roy would have been thrilled with the gear he'd been given for free. Armor of the latest styles, with ultrathin layering to stop even the toughest bullet, arrow or sword. A belt that made carrying dual blades effortless and noiseless, as it was padded with a special fabric that was made by machine-weaving human hair. An eyepiece built into his headband that could flip down, and allow night vision; amazing, that this was built only using a form of hardened glass made in the core of Sairaag's forges!

There was a drawback, of course. He was going to have to use it in a particularly strange mission, led by the particularly strange Zelgadis, and a particularly strange pair of soldiers...

He'd heard about these guys. Sairaag's shock troops, soldiers trained especially for combat in the worst possible conditions. A special drug had been designed to block all emotional responses from them. They moved with precision, with speed, without hesitation. The ultimate warrior, but with a catch -- self preservation wasn't in the mix.... but that could just be rumors. Roy heard a lot of rumors in the far away country of Zeifelia about his sister's empire.

His sister...

She had left to seek her fortune in Sairaag after a bad falling out with mother. Unfortunately a day after she arrived, Rezo leveled the place. Less than a year after that it was Phibrizo. Somewhere along the line, she.. maybe other people and her... figured enough was enough. And one long story later, here they were. And here Roy was.

Not that he'd be staying. Zelgadis was working the controls on the machine, a machine that took up one gigantic room, and ran on steam driven pistons that could flatten Roy into a six foot wide pancake if he stepped just a LITTLE too close. The round disc continued to spin, the portal, he remembered it from when Zelgadis first brought him here...

"Sir?" he called out, not liking the term.

"What is it, Balderdash?" Zelgadis asked, not looking up.

"Is this for real?" Roy asked, in his normal, flippant tone. "I mean, we're REALLY heading off to lay the smack down on the Tooth Fairy or something?"

"Of course not," Zelgadis said, twisting a final knob, igniting some incredibly complex mathematics that opened a hole to a distant country... "The Tooth Fairy is not an issue anymore. It's time. We will proceed."

There are places...

There are places where the light twists into itself, and does things that no innocent mind may comprehend. Where the darkness itself has a sort of unwholesome quality to it, seeping into the bones, into the flesh. Where drippy candles can be found by the gross and everybody's got a curvy knife.

Lina had been to many cult hideouts in her time and they all basically followed the same pattern. You'd have a ritual circle and altar on which goats, bunnies, duckies, virgins and so on were sacrificed, you had a huge statue to your god's honor, and a lot of guys in black robes chanting and going through the motions.

You usually didn't have a big Bingo calling board propped up against one wall, but space was limited here and the store room was already filled with eyeballs.

Swiping two spare robes that were the right size from storage was the easy part. The hard part had been convincing Penny to leave her cherished naginata behind in the store room.

"Couldn't we just, um, put a robe over it and call him Brother Stick?" Penny asked, but eventually relented when Lina described what would probably happen to her if their ruse was uncovered. She also lost her lunch, but in this sort of place, the mess probably would go unnoticed.

Lina prayed to whatever gods of luck were listening that Martina wasn't actually HERE, and got her wish. The leader of this sect of the Unholy Cult of Zoamel Gustav was a middle aged man with a very bad combover.

"O terrible god!" he declared, bowing to the statue. "Please do not step on us like the worms we are. Hear our calls, hear our cries, and CURSE our enemies who tremble like pillars of salt in the eyes of your rage!!"

The statue didn't reply. Which was for the best considering that the statue had the gigantic, misshapen mask of Zoamel Gustav, six tentacles, four clawed arms and was large enough to swallow three penguins whole, if you really wanted to count these things.

The effect was killed by a stonecutter's designer label chipped across Zoamel's mighty evil ass, but nobody was pointing that out.

"The curses of the unholy and the damned be on our enemies!" the leader chanted, with repeat verses and choruses backing him up. "Black god of vengeance, above all gods, these are the names of those who will burn forever in the acidic pits of your gallbladder!..... ... Marty, where's the list?"

A cultist nudged another cultist and that cultist woke up. "Er, wot?"

"The list. The list of the damned and the so on for this week's meeting."

"Ah. Well, you see, I hadn't gotten around to compiling it, because I was ah.. so stunned by the shadow magnificence of his lord Zoamel Gustav that I forgot it. Sorry."

"People, this is why I keep saying we need DAY PLANNERS," the leader groaned, turning to face them. "If we're going to be taken seriously by this town of gearheads and intellectuals we have to get organized. Now we're not leaving here until we've got a good number of people cast into the stygian abyss to writhe in pain for an aeon or two. Does anybody have any suggestions?"

The group largely shuffled their feet and mumbled. Nobody liked to specifically single someone out, that's why they had a list. Because usually they snuck each other's names onto that list for always leaving the altar all waxy or stepping on each other's feet in the poor lighting. (Cultists of Zoamel Gustav had a penchant for revenge; they liked to exact it at the drop of a hat, or more frequently, before the hat drops just to be on the safe side.)

"That bastard down the road who sells apples sold me one with a worm innit," someone suggested.

"Right, then. O TERRIBLE ZOAMEL GUSTAV, CURSE THE APPLE MERCHANT! May he experience a new level of agony for the rest of time!! Who else?"

"Wembley Peterson!" Penny shouted, getting into the swing of things. "He always throws erasers at the back of my head in cla -- OW!"

"What my fellow dark minion of the doomed and despaired MEANS to say," Lina filled in, "Is we have no suggestions, o lord, but Zoamel in.. ah... his infinite anger will have plenty of people to torture this week, so perhaps the list can be.. skipped?"

"I've got a cake in the oven," a cultist near the back piped in.

"Fine. Fine! But you all had damn well better get us some more souls to be our slaves for the duration of creation next week," the leader warned. "Zoamel Gustav demands nothing less."

'Almost there,' Lina whispered to her companion. 'Once they finish up we can ransack the place for religious texts, and find out what a Demiurge really is!'

"Now, let us begin the four hour closing ceremony!"

Lina's stomach fell far enough to possibly reach the black stygian gallbladders of Zoamel Gustav.

Deep snoring could be heard from the cramped pews of the cult room, only scant hours before the sun would come up. The rest of the sounds were of Penny, shuffling around the room in an attempt to search the place by fading candlelight.

She considered waking Lina... but Lina had fallen asleep on her feet a few times during the closing ceremony, and could probably use the rest. Besides, how hard could searching be? There was plenty of stuff piled up in this tiny room, but it was a tiny room, by definition!

Except, of course, that she was seeking 'information', which is pretty intangible, and meant going through MANY books. Instead, she found another use for the Wandering Monster Table; it had a special kinship to books and tomes, and was helping her sniff out the best ones, which she'd scan for anything useful.

Penny was a fast reader. Too fast, in this case. It made sense: she was a particularly bright student in her class, adept at anything you threw her at -- and yet, lacking a lot of the skills others had, such as meeting nice boys, not tripping over your own feet and not getting into trouble for doodling famous war scenes on her desk. She persevered, because she really liked school, especially PE class, where she often put a little extra spring in her work, until the teacher told her that a flying double arm elbow strike was an illegal move in baseball and that she could sit out the rest of the season...

Actually, the problem was that she was a person who seemed born to an exciting, death defying life of adventure trying to make it in the dull day to day of the world -- and she wasn't that good at living the exciting life, either. A common problem with children of such important and dangerous parents.

Thus, every time she poked through a book, she'd skim real fast and try to get to the good, exciting part, and that's why she slipped RIGHT by all the warnings of eternal death-within-life and maggots gnawing at your lungs and got straight to the incantation. 'Ask A Question Of The Terrible Zoamel Gustav.' JUST what Lina needed!

(If anybody else had read this, including some members of the Cult of Zoamel Gustav, nothing would have happened. You have to believe in it to make it work. And Penny believed it could help...)

"Auf neef keif aff freddyisthedevil afff neeef kiff iy iy! Zoamel! Zoamel!" she chanted. "Gustav est ein leibenshein dayo dayo! BOSCO!!"

She looked around to see if it had any effect and her face ended up less than three inches from the monstrous, sanity-wrenching visage of the demon god Zoamel Gustav.

His eyes glowed with a fierce red aura like the flaming hatred of a million raged souls, and his breath was akin to the plague that consumes flesh from your bones. He had a look to him, one that bore six feet into Penny's skull, which cried out from every corner of the dark inside her soul, 'Yes, what is it?'

The Wandering Monster Table opted to take a chameleon approach, and go completely rigid, to look like any other six inch tall piece of furniture in the room.

Penny screamed and screamed and screamed and screamed and screamed until Lina clamped a hand over her mouth and pulled her to safety behind a pew.

Both girls remained very, very silent, as the building shook silently with each footstep of the beast.

"What... did... you... DO?..." Lina hissed.

"...I summoned Zoamel."


"So you could ask him what a Demiurge was!" Penny yelled back, snapping.

"Ah, excuse me?"

Both girls blinked simultaneously, making a neat 'squick' sound effect. That voice was male, human, and rather dignified. Both slowly peeked over the edge of the pew, where Yes, the demon still stood... but he wasn't raging or anything.

"Did you say Demiurge?" Zoamel asked, quite calm and pleasant as how-do-you-do. "Sorry to interrupt, but I was sort of wondering why I was summoned by a non-believer, and, well... rather a curious question, is all."

Lina.. slowly stood up. True, she'd known flesh-eating atrocities that walked on two or more legs that could talk in a sweet voice, but something was really askew with the world right now. "...because I think I am one," she said simply, then waited to be devoured, keeping a spell charged at the ready...

The monster leaned its massive head in, to study her.. but then withdrew, reached under its chin, and pulled UPWARD...

The effect was like seeing an elephant pull upwards on its own trunk, skin peeling back in some eye-popping special effect, eventually revealing an ostrich. Sort of. In this case, a demon god pulling off his mask, and the illusion stretching off, sinking into the mask, to leave only a tall, but unassuming man in his mid twenties. A man in a spotless white suit, with pure white hair, and a flawless face that most girls would drool over. He slipped the Zoamel Gustav mask around to his back, as it was on a convenient carrying strap, and pulled a pair of glasses from a neatly pressed shirt pocket.

(With gods, there just isn't much middle ground; they're either hideously ugly, or astonishingly perfect. Nobody ever worshipped someone named Great Athlion the Average.)

"Terribly sorry, but I'm afraid I can't see a thing without my spectacles," he said, before brushing his hair back in a perfectly manly gesture.

"Waaaaai..." Penny chirped, little hearts in her eyes. "He looks like my old sempai!"

Lina.. tried to ignore that, and struck up the conversation.

"So YOU'RE Zoamel Gustav?" she asked, just to make sure.

"My name at this time is Zoamel Gustav, yes, this is true," Zoamel said. He pulled a folding chair usually reserved for the bingo nights over, and sat down, careful not to crease his pants. "The unholy terror of vengeance, the curse-god, the dreadlord of the disrespected. And you are...?"

"Lina Inverse," Lina introduced, getting more of a grip of things and offering her hand to shake. Which the god did.

"Ah, Martina's arch rival," he said, recognizing. "I should have recognized you, but it has been some time. How do you do? I must admit to being surprised to see you as a Demiurge. You are right; you are one. I can sense it in you. Is your friend well? She seems to be drooling."

"What IS a Demiurge?" Lina asked, at last. "Just say it straight out. I've had a long, long day."

"Very well. Since the dawn of time -- "

"Skip that," Lina instructed. "Definition first. Explanation second. At this point I don't care how shocking or unbelievable it is, I'm ready not to be shocked and I'm ready to believe."

"We are workers for the people," Zoamel corrected right away. "Workers for the maker of the world, the Lord of Nightmares. Agents employed by creation to shape belief, and be shaped by belief. Gods and demons. We are worshipped, we are spoken of in myth and legend, we grow with strength as people use us to guide their lives, and we fade to the winds as we are no longer needed. That is the existence of a Demiurge."

Lina's brain swallowed it. She latched onto one word. "I'm a god?.."

"A god, not the Lord herself," Zoamel noted. "Just as me. I am a god of vengeance, a god of curses. A god that brings down fire and wrath on the enemies of my believes. And I do. But the cult is small; my powers are limited. For instance, the seller of apples will have an extremely bad stomachache tonight, but he will not languish in the acid pits for all time. Do you understand?"

"You? Yes. I always figured you didn't exist, though. Martina made you UP! I mean, an imaginary god -- "

"But she believed, and the belief shaped me," Zoamel stated, pulling a teacup from nowhere, and sipping from it, to wet his throat. "Mmm. Do you remember when she obtained your headband, and cursed it with a knife? Your friends thought it was from sheer will. In a way, they were right. But it was the same will that eventually brought me into being. And soon after her divorce, when she resurrected my concept, others came under the umbrella, and belief increased. And thus, I am. But I see you do not understand?"

Lina definitely was shaking her head. "No. I mean... okay, I understand belief. But.. you're... you're a PRETTY BOY. Not a monster! What's up with that? ...Penny, close your mouth!"

"Huh? What?" Penny started, startled. She looked around. "Oh, oh, sorry. Belief. Right. I've been listening the whole time, I swear."

Zoamel offered his best polished smile... a wry smile, amused, but not condescending. He closed his eyes, and asked. "Which do you think Martina, in her heart of hearts, secretly believes most in; ugly monsters, or handsome men?"

Lina didn't even answer that. The answer was so obvious it was practically a hypothetical question. "Now. Your life story is very interesting, but why am I a Demiurge? There's already a Lina Inverse, even if she retired and got married and grew old; she's... she's probably the real one. So what happened? What am I really? I gotta know..."

"Technically, users of the incantation are only entitled to one question -- "

Penny took his hand in hers, and looked deep into his soft blue eyes. Candles around them lit a little brighter from the sheer drama of it.

"Please, Zoamel-san," she pleaded, quietly. "It's very important. Will you grant us another question? We would be very grateful, sir! We would do anything for you!"

"Oi! Does your mother know you act this way?!" Lina asked, feathers ruffled.

"I suppose it is fair," Zoamel said, reclaiming use of his hand gently. "But truth be told, I am not sure how this occurred. You were human; now you are a Demiurge, leaving a human behind?... it's unheard of, but there is one explanation. A theory of mine. Do you wish to hear it? Conjecture, true, but -- "

"Yeah, yeah, spill it," Lina egged on, snapping her fingers.

"You say your.. human self retired. But I know you; you are legend," Zoamel said, with a slight tone of awe. "The legend, it seems, carried on. With no continuing adventure of Lina Inverse, the world needed a Lina Inverse, and one was provided. ...but you already knew that, didn't you?"

"Of course not, I.... I mean..."

"A 'tug', I believe. I know it in my existence, but it would be new to you," Zoamel said. "A feeling of where you should be, where Lina is needed. A servant of the people, a god of vengeance similar to myself, lost in a blur of actions and reactions and quests and -- "

"I know," Lina said, stopping it there, before the creepy feeling came back. The feeling that she could sink into the haze again, she could...

The tug.

Somewhere, near Darata, bandits were attacking a family. All the possessions they had were stolen, along with their only daughter, and they called out for help, for someone to rescue, to assist, for Lina Inverse --

" -- Lina?" Penny asked, shaking her slightly, breaking the call. "What's wrong?"

"No, NO!" Lina shouted, grabbing her head. "I'm on a quest! I stopped those urges with it, I.... oh, no. The quest. It's over... you told me the answer and ended it! I'm free again for anybody to call me..."

"It's best to let go to it," Zoamel said, sipping his tea again. "We have a purpose and a reason to exist. Anything else is selfish. I'm sure you are a spectacular Demiurge, and well needed in these dark times for our kind. Thank you for coming. I always enjoy visitors."

Lina staggered backwards, bumping into a pew, as she tried to resist. She could sink into it. She could do some good, knock over some bandits, humble some cooks, all the things she does, she does them SO WELL... just like she's done for twenty years, ever since coming into existence, since starting her journey. Her life as a Demiurge. The end of her life as the human Lina Inverse...

Again, Penny's voice calling. Worried. Zoamel unconcerned. The Wandering Monster Table perched on a pew, looking nervous and frightened -- how a chiseled stone table could look nervous and frightened was a mystery but Lina was too occupied to solve it.

What do her instincts say?

Her instincts tell her she is self. She is Lina Inverse. She is in control at all times.

Pulled back to the present, like a man hanging in the air by tugging himself upward by the hair. She faced down Zoamel.

"Tell me... how to stop it," she said, through clenched teeth, as the tug started to fade. "This is very nice for you, and I'm sure I'm just a LOVELY Goddess Inverse, but it's not what I want to be. I want to be human. To be Lina Inverse again. Not Lina Gabriev, but myself, and ALIVE. You said Demiurges fade away eventually..."

"When the belief well runs dry, we return to wisps of notions," Zoamel said calmly.

"I want out."

"It's.. unheard of," Zoamel admitted. "I've never personally met a Demiurge who didn't want to be what they were. Perhaps because you started as the memory of a human, you -- "

"ENOUGH theories!" Lina shouted. "What do I DO?"

"I don't know," Zoamel quickly said. "...but I may know someone who does."

Another tug, this time in a distant tribal land where she once passed through while grabbing a mystic idol and the locals accidentally worshipped her as a sun goddess, that was new, she was needed to bring the dawn and eat all the breakfast in the village, curious, calling -- no.

"Of course, it would take many days of journeying to find him, since I don't know where he went after ceasing to be Demiurge," Zoamel added. "Likely with plenty of hardship along the way."

"A quest!!" Lina shouted, diving on the idea like a man dives on a chocolate chip cookie in the middle of the burning desert. Everything snapped into sharp focus, into relief. "Right! You're hired! Penny, go grab your weapon, put that damn table back in the bag, we are GOING right after we find a nice inn and have a big breakfast and sleep off this ridiculous night, Zoamel, I'll pay your way until you can start to pull your -- "

"I cannot accompany you," Zoamel said, setting his empty teacup back in the nowhere he got it from.

"Oh, say it isn't so!" Penny wailed.

"I'm afraid that my place is with my people," Zoamel sighed. "I cannot leave them. They need me here, and want me to be here, and I am unable to resist that. It would not do for me to gallivant around the world while the followers of Zoamel Gustav are left to twist in the -- "

"If I find a way for you to get out of here, would you follow?" Lina asked quickly, a plan immediately forming in her mind.

"Excuse me? I'm afraid it's not possible."

The young sorceress allowed a wry, evil grin to light up her face, and the candles to give her spooky underlighting to the point where the Wandering Monster Table skittered around Penny to hide in fear.

"Never underestimate the determination of a very tired, very hungry Lina Inverse!!" Lina proclaimed, clenching a fist. "You're coming with me, God, and I'll see to it that your followers WANT you to! Just you wait and see!"

Rain poured down on the city streets. Roy didn't care, though; he was indoors, enjoying a large amount of alcohol, and waiting for something to happen. A something he hoped would never happen, that this whole exercise would be a complete waste of time.

The two soldiers, Lt. Burke and Lt. Biggs, were sent out on a 'fact finding mission'. Find the target, to be specific. They'd hidden the temple well, and it'd take a bit of picking through the city through the night to find it. Through the night and to the morning, when Roy said oh to hell with it and was enjoying a brandy breakfast.

Zelgadis entered through the double doors of the inn, his face concealed by a mask, to keep the locals from panicking at his skin. Roy panicked anyway and tried to hide the booze.

"No luck so far," Zelgadis commented, sitting next to Roy. "But soon we will have the target locked. You'll take lead of the charge. Expect up to ten of the enemy cultists to resist."

"Yeah, whatever," Roy said, downing another drink, since the commander hadn't said anything. The drink, unfortunately, made him curious enough to stick his neck out. "So what are you doing with this outfit? Sir."

Zelgadis glared sideways at him, not interested in answering.. but answered regardless. "Working and waiting. Partially to pay a price."

"Oh, gambling debts. Yeah, same boat."

"No. I haven't purchased the item I intend to buy yet. It has taken years, but we are quite close to perfecting the process..."

"The what?"

"A cure," Zelgadis said, simply. "A cure that magic has failed to provide in the thirty plus years of my life. A cure that science can find. I'm a patient man, though. I can wait a bit longer for the results I need."

"Yeah, it's got to suck to be a freak and not be able to mix with normal people," Roy stupidly said. "And to be that way for thirty years, fweee, bad news -- you have your sword to my neck again, don't you?"

"Yes," Zelgadis said, voice like ice, grip as steady as a mountain. "And one of these days, I won't take it away. But for now, you're of more use to Elizabeth alive. And to me. But never refer to me as a freak again. Never."

The boy stood, slowly easing the blade away, and plucked two pills from his belt pouch. He dropped them into Roy Balderdash's alcohol, where they fizzled immediately.

"Sober up," he ordered. "Be ready to move out soon."

After the commander had left, Roy took one sip of the drink -- head clearing instantly to a large headache. He tossed the rest of the bottle to the potted plant and stomped off, in a foul, foul mood.

Of course, Lina's determination was so strong, burning like the fires of a sun, so incredibly powerful and righteous that she IMMEDIATELY walked right out into the rain and checked into the nearest inn, walking upstairs and into the room and flopping on the bed and snoring in one swift motion.

Several hours later, though, she was up and ready to put plan 'Amaze the Natives' into effect.

"What's the plan, exactly?" Penny had asked.

"Well, we walk in, and I convince them to let Zoey go!" Lina said. "I mean, it's a simple enough idea."

"But HOW!"

"I'm working on that," Lina said, dismissing it.

In order to fully prepare for this complex plan which had to be exercised like precision clockwork, Lina spent the rest of the day eating and shopping at various locales in and around Nostrum.

"Are you looking for ingenious special effects devices that will convince the cultists they're having a religious experience?" Penny had asked.

"No, I'm trying to find a new pair of boots. It's high time I replaced these, the heel squeaks."

As the zero hour approached, the rain stopping, the sun setting, Lina further braced herself mentally and physically with a very large dinner that she asked Penny to pay for.

"Gods don't carry much money," Lina had explained. "We just have gifts of bounty bestowed on us."

FINALLY the hour of the ceremony was on them.

"Guess we'd better get going," Lina decided, hopping off a bar stool (as she had been enjoying various drinks and complementary pretzels for the better part of an hour). The Wandering Monster Table, which was being used as a footstool to compensate for Lina's short stature and the high bartop, was tremendously relieved.

"About time," Penny grumbled. "I'd go broke if you took any longer to prepare. So WHAT is the plan?"

"The plan is THIS!" Lina said. "You stay quiet and follow my lead. Or better yet, just stay quiet and follow behind me. I know crackpot religious types, and I know Martina, so I've got the expertise to have this crowd eating out of my hand. Mark my words, in an hour (assuming they don't do the closing ceremony again) we'll be out of town with a dark god to guide us to what we seek!"

"What you seek, you mean."

"You're the one who wanted to tag along for the adventure experience," Lina pointed out, poiking Penny in the armored chest a little. "Now. Here's how it'll work. We take our stolen robes and sneak in the back, just like before..."

"OH GREAT AND UNHOLY ZOAMEL etc. etc. etc," the cult leader declared, waving his ceremonial staff with a knob on the end of it in the air, tracing the demon's sigils in the sky with black fire that nobody could actually see. "We come before you this night in the spirit of bloodlust and anger, so that our enemies may continue to burn forever in the sight of your RAGE!..."

"Eventually, he'll get to some point where he babbles about instructions from Zoamel," Lina continued. "And that's when I fake a rapturous seizure using a mild electrical spell on myself, for realism..."

"Let the infinitely powerful voice of your dark brilliance echo across the land!" the leader shouted, little veins poking out in his neck. "Hear us, o terrible lord, and guide us on the path! Let us be your hand as your wisdom leads us in a bloody path towards -- "

"Whaaaoorgh!" Lina wailed, twitching and shaking her arms. Little white sparks popped off her hands, to add to the effect. "Hooaahr! Wubba wubba! Oooaoaohagooooo! ZayzayzayZAAAY!"

"A seizure?" Penny asked. "Do you think they'll buy that?"

"That's what the spell's for, kid. Realism! Not that I've actually seen a mad cultist in the throes of a religious conniption fit, but I'm sure it'd be similar enough."

"But it's safe, right?"

"Of course!"

One of Lina's flailing arms smacked into Penny's robed head, and blasted the young girl back into the next pew from static discharge.

"Oh, okay," Penny said, relieved. "As long as it's safe. So what then?"

"Okay, then I improvise a little, depending on how they react. But the idea is to pass it off as having had a vision of Zoamel, one I'd be MORE than happy to relate to the rest of them..."

Lina turned off the spell, trying to shake off the aftereffects. The other cultists watched her, wondering in a sort of odd curiosity if she'd explode anytime soon -- the leader quietly wished he'd picked a god to worship who didn't have things like this happen on a regular basis.

"...O, what a vision I have had! What rapture!" Lina started. "I have seen the dark lord! The great and almighty Zoamel Gustav!"

"Well, of course, his statue's right there," a younger cultist said, pointing helpfully.

"Not THERE, you twit, I mean in my mind!" Lina snapped. "Now shaddup and pay attention!!"

"Yes'm," he mumbled.

"What glorious sights I have seen, and so on!" Lina continued. "The Dark Lord rising triumphant over all enemies, striking them down with a fantastic sword of fire! It must be an omen, a message, from the Lord to us!"

"Well, why didn't I see it, then?" the leader complained. "I'm the one who started this branch of the cult. I put in the paperwork and sent in my fifty gold, and I want at least ONE vision before I -- "

"Zoamel doesn't LIKE it when people interrupt his messenger's prophecy," Lina warned, in her best Creeping Evil Death voice. "Ahem. There is a PROBLEM! Out there, in the wilds of the world, rests an enemy who plots to DESTROY Zoamel Gustav!"

"...don' wanna get up for school today, mum..." Penny mumbled, one pew behind Lina. Lina got a large sweatdrop behind her head, but carried on regardless.

"We must all pray for Zoamel to go out into the world, and destroy this enemy! Only with our sacrifices, our hopes and our RAGE can the Dark Lord persevere! Our hatred and unending anger will, you know, help. So. How about it? Wish him well on his vacation?"

The bewildered cultists turned to the leader, the only real voice of authority around here. Such as it was.

"Uh..." the leader leaded. "Well, I guess so. You're quite certain it was lord Zoamel? Not some enemy posing as him to trick us? Who ARE you, anyway? You seem new."

"Yeah, but what if they don't buy it at all?" Penny asked, while they were planning. "You've got to have some kind of trump card. Maybe.. ooh! I know! We dig underneath the building and erect a complex trap door escape system that lets us flee to safety before we're all slaughtered?"

"I've got something better, which doesn't involve as much physical labor..." Lina said, with an evil grin.

"Ah.. I come from a far away land," Lina explained quickly. She pulled Penny out from where she was resting, jerking the girl awake "With my companion, I am spreading the word of Zoamel Gustav to all the branches, under.. the direct orders of HIGH PRIESTESS MARTINA!"

THAT impressed them. Hushed whispers whispered in hushed tones.

"Very well!" the leader said, spreading his arms to look cool. "Friends, this is a glorious day! Under the Unholy Martina's geas, we shall pray for the success of the Dark Lord in his travels! May his time from us be spent wading knee deep in blood!"

"Sounds like a good plan, I guess," Penny agreed. "Maybe we should run it by Zoamel first, though... you know, just in case?"

"Why? It's PERFECT!" Lina declared. She gathered up her cape, and walked out of the inn, to head right for the ceremony with Penny in tow. "In one fell swoop, we'll have our own Demiurge in the back pocket. What could go wrong?"

"In accordance to scripture, an offering will be made to speed Zoamel on his journey!" the leader declared, to the rousing cheer of the cultists. "Let us pay homage to the terrible lord. Marty, cast Detect Virgin."

"Right, boss," the cultist goon said, chanting a quick spell and snapping his fingers.

"Eh?" Lina asked, right before she started to glow a pale pink.

She was the ONLY one in the room glowing a pale pink. She looked left, looked right, notably looked at Penny, who had started blushing for some reason...

"Um," the leader said. "That's not good. Can we sacrifice Martina's messenger?"

"There's a precedent, o leader," Marty said, flipping open a Pocket Guide To The Unholy Rites of Zoamel Gustav. "Happened once fifty hunner'd years ago. Once dead, her spirit will become a beacon of ultimate power that continues to spread the message, according to Martina 3:16, which goes on to say 'I just sacrificed your ass!'."

Two meaty hands clamped over Lina's shoulders.

"Well, fire up the altar, let's get this show on the road!" the leader cheered.

"H-HEY! Whoa, whoa!" Lina shouted, waving her arms madly in protest. "I'm too important to be killed! And I don't want to become a spirit beacon of power, either! And I am NOT a virgin! I mean, uh..."

"It's in the rules," the leader explained, as the swarthy cultists hauled Lina onto the altar. "Can't wish the dark god off on a journey without a virgin sacrifice. That's how it works. Don't squirm, it makes the ritual messier, and Marty doesn't like mopping up this place."

"It's not the mopping, it's the blood-soaked Bingo cards," Marty explained. "Hard to scrape off the floor. Takes all day."

Lina thought quickly. Okay, this wasn't good. But COULD she die if they, you know, stabbed her repeatedly? She was a god, right? Although... she was shot earlier today and that hurt like hell. It wasn't fatal, so MAYBE this would be fine, but pain was generally disagreeable with her person. But if they weren't CONVINCED otherwise...

What was she thinking? She wasn't going to play pincushion to a bunch of robed weenies. Option C, blasting the hell out of everybody and wishing they'd built Penny's trapdoor so they could take a hike, was looking more and more attractive. It meant no Demiurge companion, but... She kept most of the words to a fireball spell at the ready, and waited for the right moment.

Penny, now QUITE awake and alert thank you very much, thought quickly as well. Most of her thoughts consisted of swinging on chandeliers waving her staff and shouting 'What ho!' but there wasn't a chandelier. And that would probably get them both killed, which was more of a problem. She had to try to push all the crazy heroic impulses out the door, and work this out LOGICALLY...

Then it occurred to her. She lowered her voice to a whisper, and spoke the words.

'Auf neef keif aff freddyisthedevil afff neeef kiff iy iy, Zoamel, Zoamel," she chanted. "Gustav est ein leibenshein dayo dayo, bosco.'

A voice spoke to her mind, a voice of handsome features and good annunciation. Her eyes watched Lina, who was clearly looking towards the exits, while the leader whistled and tried to sharpen a curvy knife on a flat stone.

'This is not a very good time to manifest,' Zoamel echoed in her ears. 'Not with everybody watching. Not really my style at all -- '

"You've GOT to help," she whispered to herself. "Do something. Please? Before it's too late!"

Three figures stood outside a darkened, closed tavern on the streets of Nostrum. By now, most sane people had gone to bed, so Zelgadis wasn't bothering to wear his hood. Roy paced irritably, waiting for word.

"So are we going to do this or not?" he asked.

"Patience," Zelgadis ordered. "Our scout returns."

A figure stood on the rooftop... then jumped off. He twisted in midair, and landed with a dull THUD on the dirt road, before straightening up and saluting.

"They are inside, sir," the soldier reported to Zelgadis. "It is a ritual hour, and they aren't guarding the door."

Zelgadis drew his blade.

"Now we act," he said.

'She would not be truly harmed,' Zoamel protested. 'She is Demiurge, and immortal. It is not our way to make ourselves obvious to people, not if it is avoidable. You have little to -- '

"Today, she was wounded, and she bled," Penny pointed out quickly, trying to ignore the looks she was getting from nearby cultists. "That doesn't sound very immortal to me. I don't know if she can survive this. PLEASE, do something!"

An unearthly pause.

'Penny... Lina Inverse means this much to you?' Zoamel asked. A tone of curiosity.

"..I believe in her," Penny said, simply. It was the truth.

The massive statue of Zoamel Gustav raised its head. Stone ground against stone.

Many, many heads quietly turned to see the miracle. The few unbelievers in the crowd, faced with a large statue coming to life of a god that likely would bite you in half rather than give you a flower, decided that maybe believing wasn't such a bad thing after all.

The flow actually seemed to strengthen the god, as the slight motion turned into a full motion, leaping from the pedestal with the grace of a cat; coming down on the altar, feet positioned on either side of Lina, who decided to hold very, very still.

[Your sacrifice is not required, my children of darkness,] Zoamel spoke, in a voice like knives shredding flesh. Handsome, well mannered flesh, but the edge was still there. [I hear your call, o minions of despair, and your rage empowers me. Boldly I shall go into the night, and return with the spoils of war, all for you, my faithful. It shall be done.]

Nobody was quite sure how to react. An embarrassed silence fell over the crowd.

[I would appreciate a 'thank you,' you know,] Zoamel admitted.

The cult fell all over itself to thank the god, swear allegiance, suggest the many ways in which they were already thankful and how he didn't have to squish them all into paste, that sort of thing. The leader QUICKLY hauled Lina off the table, taking out a lint brush to make her robes a bit more presentable, which Lina did her best to bat away in irritation.

Zoamel walked his statue back to its resting place, and reassumed the pose it was in originally... before changing his mind, opting for a fiercer sort of pose, as a reward. Then the light died out in the gargoyle's eyes, the ritual was over, and the cultists decided silently and unanimously to call it a night with no closing ceremony.

One minute later, Lina and Penny were alone in the temple.

Lina yanked off her robe, exhaling in relief. "Okay, maybe it wasn't AS perfect as I'd hoped, but it got the job done," she decided. "And you know what they say, any demonic ritual you can walk away from with your intestines intact is a good one -- "

She lost a fraction of her balance when the young girl grabbed her up in a huge, energetic hug.

"I'm just glad you're okay!" Penny exclaimed, laughing in joy. "It's all worked out so great!"

"...uh... right," Lina said, not quite sure what to do with the hug. Fortunately, it was interrupted.

"I believe we should be going now," Zoamel Gustav said, having manifested with no particularly flashy entrance, in his flawless white suit. "The night is long, but I am ready to honor my believers in this quest."

"Right!" Lina said, detangling herself. "So!... Lina, Zoamel and Penny, into the glorious future! Three kindred souls of adventure and -- "

The Wandering Monster Table jumped out of Penny's pack, and landed on Lina's head. "Demiurge!" it chirped in happiness, repeating the stock line it had in its data set as it analyzed Lina.

"...and that damn thing," Lina conceded. "Let's go."

While that would have been the high note to conclude the night of adventuring on, a nice, happy event, it was not the last event of the night.

After stepping onto the street, they couldn't ignore the roaring flames coming from the tavern just across the street. The building had been singled out, the entire structure turned into a roaring inferno, with no signs of who had done it. Likely, they had left shortly after finishing.

"Ara? Did someone kick over a lantern?" Penny asked. Before she noticed the dim shapes of bodies in the flames... bodies that were not moving.

Zoamel Gustav frowned, the warm air brushing his white bangs aside from his face. But his eyes weren't hard or rageful, they were sorrowful.

"That," he explained, "Was the last remaining branch of the Holy Church of Melody, Goddess of Bards and Musicians. And now, they are no more."

Lina scratched her head a little. " That sucks," she admitted. "Who would've done something like that? Music critic?"

The dark god in white turned, to progress down the street, not looking back. But he did speak, as he walked.

"Rational minds started this atrocity," he said. "Minds with no love for myths, legends and belief. We had best be on our way, Miss Inverse. There are more dangerous things than gods out on the streets tonight."

High above the city of Nostrum, cold winds whipped through the mountain passes, like icy reminders that Mother Nature wasn't always a happy woman.

Xelloss perched on an impossibly thin rocky cropping, balance better than any simple human, as he watched smoke pour out of the city. Normally, he was a smiley kinda guy. Tonight he frowned.

The raven made no sound, but Xelloss stroked its feathers anyway, in what little he knew about comforting people.

"Now now, in despair there is hope," he enigma'd. "They're well on their way. When the time is right, we will introduce ourselves. And then revenge will be ours. Sweet, lovely revenge. Mmm. So, where do you think they will go next?"


"My thoughts exactly. No sense in stalling. Off we go."

Summoning his fading strength, Xelloss studied the faded ruins of the mountain kingdom. It was just a matter of picking out the five points of the dark magical circle that was here a thousand years ago, which was easy to do from the landmarks.

If he was up to full speed, teleporting all the way to Darata would be easy and not require a circle of power. Sadly, this was not the case. Assisted travel would have to suffice.

For now.

Book 3   |   Fanfiction