Book Five: Competition

Competition is underscored by victory.

All known human conflicts are hinged on their outcomes, on the end results. Who will live and who will die. Who will win and who will lose. Microcosms of the purest form of conflict exist in simulations, in reenactments under restrictions -- the valiant, the proud, the brave, they are the ones who can overcome the odds and lay claim to victory.

Brave warriors all, facing off in the arena of combat, to pit skill against skill, in the honesty of competition. A noble and glorious form of combat, an ancient game of talent and will, and the drive to succeed.

Many stories are written of these honorable rituals, of these contests of the human spirit.

This is not one of them.

"Another one?!" Penny exclaimed, disbelieving. "How can you get two royal flushes in a row?"

"Oooh, just lucky," Lina chirped, collecting the pot, the wad of paper money and coins. "Well well! I guess that means I've got, what, more than half of the funds?"

"But it's MY trust fund!"

"Was. Past tense," Lina pointed out, while palming an ace into her glove.

The chain of events leading up to this 'winning' hand went something like this:

The impromptu game of poker had broken out of an argument, which had been egged on by the generally bad situation they were walking away from and the extended delay of their transport. Spirits were running low. Zoamel had wandered off, as usual, to do whatever odd business he tended to do; and in his absence, Lina decided to assert her 'Team Leader' role, and suggest that she handle the finances for their little quest. Penny objected. Lina suggested that if the gods of chance intended for her to handle the money, they'd deliver it to her in a game of cards. And from the looks of it, she'd be stinking rich in a few hands.

"So when the heck is this Spain gonna be arriving, anyway?" Lina complained, pocketing another 15% of the cash and swapping her hidden ace for a king and a jack.

"It's a TRAIN, Lina. And it should be any second now, I mean, Sairaag Empire Rail is usually so punctual. I don't see how they could be delayed an hour. It's a very efficiently run country, and -- "

"And they tried to kill us earlier," Lina grumbled.

"I know they tried to kill us, but.. that doesn't mean I don't have to like what they've done, Lina. I mean, without Sairaag we wouldn't have airships and trains and nobody would be able to communicate without a two month delay assuming your letter goes through, and we wouldn't be able to farm as fast as we can or any of the other great things we do thanks to technology!"

"You sound like a sales pitch. Call."

"Uh... two pair?" Penny tried.

"Five of a kind!" Lina declared, and snagged the rest of the booty. "Well! Good game! Don't worry, I'll spend this wisely on dinner for myself and nice, soft beds! And fresh baths and really nice clothes and maybe if I can find a magic shop along the way I can stock up on amulets, and... and.. ...what were we talking about again?"

"Sairaag," Penny reminded, sitting back in her uncomfortable train station waiting area seating and watching all her money go bye bye.

"Right, Sairaag," Lina said, pocketing the rest of the funds. "I don't buy it."

"I'd hope not! Even with my money, you can't afford a country!"

Lina just.. stared at her, for a moment, before clearing her throat to continue. "What I MEAN is I don't buy all these marvelous, world-changing advances. I was only gone for two decades! How in blazes did humanity whip up flying machines and iron horses and steam powered revolving modular whatsimajiggers in that amount of time?! It doesn't make any sense!"

"But how can you not believe in something we rode on the other day? It wasn't a dream, Lina. I mean, I guess it'd seem strange to an old person like you -- "


" -- but it is true. This stuff exists," Penny said, logically. "I thought we covered this when we were waiting for the airship, anyway."

Lina sat back in her seat, and rubbed her forehead. A headache was definitely en route. "Yeah, yeah, yeah. I know. It's been a long day, okay? Stuff's eating at me. For instance, WHERE IS THE DAMN TRIPE?!"

"Train," Penny corrected, again. "And I'm sure it'll be along any minute now."

Just a few miles outside of the port city of Darata, a lumbering beast of iron and metal roared down poorly constructed tracks, dragging behind it a tail of steel, boxlike cars. But a much nastier beast was lying in wait, just for the right moment to snag its prey. To make it do his bidding!

"SQUWAK!" came a muffled sound from the demon beast's napsack.

"Hush up, this takes concentration," Xelloss hissed, whirling the iron hook over his head, attached to a heavy chain. "And stay put, I don't need a wad of feathers getting ground under the wheels of that thing when we touch down. Alley-oop!"

The hook whirled through the air, sure and true...

And snagged on an outcropping on the speeding train.

"And now... the unpleasant part," Xelloss said to himself, as he was jerked from State A (a standstill on the hillside) to State B (flying through the air at fifty miles and hour) in the space of a second.

Normal humans would probably have remained on the hill, and watched as their severed arms went flying through the air. Then they would have died. Xelloss was made of stronger stuff, fortunately, even in his weakened condition. Once the acceleration wave hit him, he merely winced. Then it was all downhill, or rather, up-chain, as he quickly climbed along the length, and planted his feet on top of the car.

"That wasn't so bad, was it?!" he called to his companion, as he secured himself to the car, and settled in to enjoy the ride. The scenery would be rather lovely at this speed, he had to admit.

His eyes strayed to the road leading into Darata, which ran parallel to the train tracks, and to the rider who was practically keeping time with the train. The horse was winded, but he pushed anyway, driven like a man possessed.

"I hope he hurries," Xelloss commented to himself. "I'd hate to be him when his wife finds out he missed them by mere seconds."

The dustcloud kicked up by the horse extended for fifty feet, as it bore down with Ludicrous Speed, into the bullet-pocked city of Darata.

Two eyes locked onto the train, as the rider broke away from the tracks, and used instinct to try and navigate the city streets to the train station. Of course, the streets were crowded; but his horse was a fine mare, and managed to jump two apple carts, and skid under a low hanging bridge, before approaching the station.

(He managed to snag an apple off the cart as they jumped; his horse would probably be demanding it if he ever intended to re-mount without getting two hooves planted in his behind in equine disgust.)

He slowed the horse -- just marginally -- then JUMPED directly out of the saddle, feet breaking into a sprint when they hit the ground. Cheap, military issue boots pounded on the cobblestones, then up the marble stairs, into the station itself...

The train was starting to pull away, and he could JUST make out the orange-blonde pigtailed head in a passenger car window, back turned to him.

"PENNY!!!" he screamed, and made a lunging dive for the closing doors...

Only to get his hand caught in them.

He shrieked, and did his best to run alongside the train, pounding on the doors -- which made them let go of his poor hand, but didn't alert the girl sitting just fifteen feet away. He stumbled, tripped, and planted his face into the floor as the train finally rolled off.

Lina wasn't going to like this.

A familiar chime from his backpack told him that she DEFINITELY wasn't going to like this.

Gourry stood up, shook his head to clear it, and withdrew the two way scrying sphere he had been sent with. His wife's irritated face occupied the entire ball, warped around because she was leaning in so close.

"Well?!" she demanded.

"Ah... wouldn't you know it! Missed them by THAT much," Gourry said, making a pinch between his fingers that covered an inch. "Bad luck?"

Lina ZOTted him through the astral link. His hair stood on end.

"BAKA!" Lina barked. "I told you not to wait around in Nostrum so long! If you hadn't, you could've caught up to them by now!"

"But they couldn't get that temple fire out!" Gourry protested. "It's my duty as a protectorate of the country of Zeifelia to -- "

"GET ON THE NEXT TRAIN TO ATLASS CITY, jellyfish brains!" Lina shouted, loud enough to make the scrying sphere shake.

Gourry got testy. (Could he be blamed?) "I'm doing my best here, okay? I saw her, and she's fine, and that's the important thing! We'll get her back, I promise! Okay?!"

The sphere went quiet. Gourry cursed himself; he usually didn't yell at his wife. He didn't like to, and didn't want to, and each time he got mad enough to, he never forgot it...

"...okay. Okay," Lina said, her voice calmed. "Gourry.. I'm sorry. I didn't mean to snap, it's just... I mean..."

"I know, Lina," Gourry said, stroking the sphere with his thumb, smiling a bit. This he did know; Lina was never very good at expressing her feelings, unless it was done loudly. "I'm just as worried as you are. But I promise she'll be fine. She's just got a little wanderlust, you know... kids these days. Listen, Lina, it's not too late. You could probably hop a train or a ship to Atlas City and meet me when I arrive. The next train from here won't leave for half a day, after all."

Lina got That Look.

It was one Gourry was very familiar with. A blank stare, almost like a silent rest in the middle of a song. Whenever he suggested she actively go out and do something risky, she would get like this. He knew then he couldn't convince her.

"I've got to tend to the shop, Gourry," she said, her usual excuse, in her usual even, dulled tone. But immediately after, her expression slid from empty back to soft, and caring. "Besides, you can handle this. Look.. I have faith in you. I may yell sometimes, but you know I trust you. I'm going to zap you some of the money we collected today -- someone bought Big Bertha."

"The two hundred pound magical staff?" Gourry asked, surprised. "Wow. I thought we'd never get rid of that..."

A series of golden coins emerged from the scrying sphere, each with a sharp flash of light.

"That's for your train ticket," Lina said. "And maybe enough for a meal. I'll see if I can get some more big sales to help you. Okay? I'll help you from home. I'm helping, right?"

"Hai, Lina-chan. You're helping," Gourry said, caressing the sphere again. Not that she could feel it, but... "You're helping a lot. Thanks. I'd better go buy that ticket."

"Okay. And Gourry?.. call me when you're on the train. I mean, I'll be really busy here at the shop and all, but I'm sure I could find some time to chat, if you get, you know, lonely."

"Right," Gourry agreed, knowing she didn't mean HE would be lonely. "See you then. Love you."

He did love her. No matter how much she had changed since that day.

Lina watched the trees go by and go by and go by and go by and go by and go by and go by until she felt the need to throw up. Then she just sat quietly and waited for this train ride to be over.

At least on the Aquatic Mongoose, you could content yourself with big dinners and other diversions. You weren't sitting right next to a window watching the terrain go by -- and even if you were, it was just a featureless stretch of ocean. Here, Lina could damn well tell how fast they were going, and it was.. just abnormal. Unthinkable speed, for someone unused to this age.

She wasn't afraid of this stuff. No, no, that wasn't Lina Inverse, after all. She always knew what was going down, was always cool and in control because she KNEW the world. How it worked, what spell does what, histories ancient and mysterious. What she didn't know about was whatever the hell this world was she had woken to... and adapting was harder than she thought it would be. Not that she'd admit it.

To kill time and take her mind off things, she decided to strike up a conversation. Zoamel had been sulky ever since Drake's demise, and only talked when he had to -- which had Penny chewing on her lip constantly in worry, concern and puppy-dog-eyes style nervousness. Ick. Lina, however, preferred the direct approach in all things.

"What the hell's wrong with you, Zoamel?" she asked, shocking Penny and breaking the silence in one fell swoop. "Come on, spill it. Are you depressed because of Drake?"

"Depressed?" Zoamel asked. "No. Saddened, perhaps. But now, I'm simply contemplating my mission."

"Uh... wasn't your mission a fraud?" Lina asked. "We tricked your followers into letting you out. The rest was just happy coincidence. I know you're really excited about vengeance on Sairaag, but we didn't originally -- "

"Lina, quit picking on Zoamel-san!" Penny defended, moving to sit next to him instead of her living idol. "He's had a bad day."

Zoamel cleared his throat, a technique many gods, omniscient powers and holy icons use to get attention when lightning bolts or locusts fail.

"Lina... there is something you must understand," Zoamel said. "To a Demiurge, the followers are all. When you convinced my people to let me go with you, it was not just a convenient excuse. I took it to heart, as they did, to seek vengeance against our enemies. I have let them down, allowing Sairaag to claim another soul. My mission is not complete, and my faith will not be fulfilled until this extra sin has been punished. I am not depressed. I am simply contemplating what it will take to finish my holy quest."

"Oi, you sound like a bible," Lina grumbled. "And I know about the followers thing. Drake explained it all to me already, the whole song and dance."

"It's more than a song and dance," Zoamel corrected, mildly offended but far too gentlemanly to let it show. "This is our way of life. It is the whole purpose of what we consider our life. It's not enough to know the words, to understand them; you have to feel them."

"I'm planning not to need to feel them," Lina grumbled, crossing her arms. "...I don't need to be a Demiurge. The world can get along without me. Drake couldn't have been -- "

She found herself going from seated on a comfortable bench to flying to the front of the train car rather fast. Lina adjusted her position in the universe quickly, and got to her feet while the other passengers scrabbled and flailed around in confusion, over the screeching grind of the train wheels, braking hard against the track...

"Why'd we stop?!" Lina barked, marching to the door at the front of the train car. She wrenched it open. "You know how bad it is on one's stomach to go really fast and then stop that sudden? This truck's got no respect for..... Penny! Get off Zoamel and come with me."

Penny's face, tomato red as she had landed on Zoamel in a Compromising Position(tm) took a few seconds to react. "Ah, hai, Lina!!" she got up fast, bowed in apology, and took off through the door between the cars.

Quietly, and with dignity, Zoamel stood and resumed his seat. He did not need to be present for what would transpire; he could smell a small miracle a mile away, after all.

The iron rails beneath the train's wheels were still smoking and hot, as the engineer was marched out of the engine at staffpoint.

The goons had set a mountain in front of the train. A mountain! If he hadn't slammed the brakes, they would have plowed right into the thing. Who on earth would.. or could.. do something like that?

The magical staff smacked behind his knees, and he fell to them, looking up at the gang of black robed sorcerers. They were a mean looking bunch, but all quite old; as if the senior citizen's rest home had emptied out a bunch of very disgruntled wizards. But he knew better than to mess with old men who had THAT kind of magic, even if the folks back in Sairaag said there was nothing to fear from the old ways and arts...

"Kneel before Dreadlord Maygus the Relatively Omnipotent, foolish Sairaag dog!" the main gray bearded goon shouted, jamming his staff into the soft dirt. "Show respect to the true rulers of this wilderness that you and your kin so callously have laid heathen iron rails through!"

"But I just drive it, I didn't lay the rails," the engineer said before realizing exactly how stupid it sounded, and before getting a sharp electrical jolt from that staff.

The other sorcerers laughed at his plight, as the leader spoke. "You who would disrupt the absolute purity of our magical land with your beastous machines must pay a fine for disturbing our peace," he stated, holding out his hand. "The ticket money will do nicely, as well as any soft serve precooked dinners you had stored to give your passengers. The kind without the tough meat, it's bad for our dentures. ONLY THEN we will remove this mountain we have wrought with our divine black magic! "

The engineer spoke faster than his brain again. "But the ticket money's stored at the station now because the trains kept getting robbed -- "

The leader raised his staff again... pointing it at a guarded cargo car, hooked right behind the engine for maximum security. (Although the guards were currently paralyzed by spells.) "Then perhaps we should detonate a few cars, so that you understand the penalty and come prepared next time!!"

The working man's eyes widened. "Whoa, no, wait, not that! Anything but that! Detonate one of the passenger cars if you have to, but -- "

A ball of fire engulfed the lead sorcerer. There was a bit of panicked screaming, before he cast a dispel on it, and emerged merely singed... and utterly enraged with every single one of his seventy years behind him.

His request for information was simple, but cut short.

"WHO dares -- ?!"

"ME! Fireball!"

The row of goons behind the leader ran for the hills, hobbling along on their staffs before the orange ball of magical flame ignited the grass where they stood.

Who could be doing that? the engineer thought, and turned his eyes to the figure who stood atop the train's engine itself, a hand smoking from the fire she had just hurled from her fingertips...

Lina Inverse clenched a smoking fist. "What're you doing accosting these guys, gramps? They're just trying to travel places! You should go back to sitting in rocking chairs on porches and complaining about kids these days! Because this time, you didn't just upset a cowering bunch of passengers, you upset Lina Inverse's stomach, and for that you will be terminated with extreme prejudice!!"

95% of the remaining wizards had the same reaction. "LINA INVERSE?!", they shouted at top volume, and then ran away, picking up their robes so as not to trip over them as they beat a hasty retreat. The engineer scrambled to safety next to the train and away from these idiots... but one idiot stayed behind. The chief idiot.

"I've heard all about you, Lina Inverse!" the old man shouted, twirling his staff, and starting to glow with a sickly purple magical aura, power flaring and building. "I've always wanted to test my mettle against the ultimate master of black magic! Today is the day you learn to respect your eld -- what're you doing now?!"

Lina stood back a step, framing up the old man against the magically hewn mountain. One nice clear line connecting her to the wiz-bandit to the pile of rocks...

Of course, he'd see it coming a mile away since she'd have to chant the spell, part of Lina rationalized.

But we don't HAVE to chant the spell, another part said, with no small amount of glee...

To prove it, she didn't even say the words, as she launched a red flare that boiled sanity as easily as the air it plowed through. In her mind, it was a Dragon Slave, so a Dragon Slave it was.

The ground rocked with the explosion that engulfed the immovable object, freeing the path for the irresistible force to continue on its merry way. When the smoke cleared, the mountain was gone, the rails had melted a bit but were still in serviceable condition, and the chief wizard was winging his way to Atlas City via a more direct, airborne method.

And all around her, applause burst out, a rolling wave of it. In surprise, Lina turned, to see a crowd...

The passengers had left the train to see what was happening, and had done it just in time to watch the victorious blast. The engineer, thankful that his cargo hadn't been destroyed, was cheering louder than any of them.

Lina Inverse was the subject of so many smiling faces and cheers from the people that she saved that she actually started to blush. Penny, who hadn't actually gotten to fight (much to her disgust) got to lead the cheerleading squad (much to her delight.)

"THREE CHEERS FOR LINA INVERSE!!" she shouted, jumping up and down and waving her arms. "Bandit killer supreme and all around heroic kinda girl! Yaaaaaay!"

The first wave took her entirely by surprise. It was a strange sensation, an invisible stroke to the ego, but a stroke to more than that; it was empowering, it filled her, it satisfied her more than any six person chicken dinner ever could.

It was the faith and adoration of people who believed in her, in what she represented, in the miracle she had performed to save them all. Not just an ego boost, not just fame, but something more gratifying, something wonderful for its own sake as well as her own. Some sort of invisible pact between them that had been fulfilled, mutually agreed on. Not a slave being ordered around, or a helpless mass saved by an uncaring greater power. It was faith in miracles.

In short, it felt really good.

"Ah.. thank you, thank you!" Lina shouted, waving her arms too. "This train may continue to Atlas City without fear! If anybody else tries to mess with you, I'll blast them into next Thursday! Yeah!"

For the rest of the ride, Lina would be given personal thanks, a few token gifts, and lots and lots of food. This was Lina Inverse, after all, whose power was rivaled only by her appetite. Somehow, something inside her thought, this Demiurge thing isn't too bad. It was like Drake said, the way people thought of her, what it meant to you at the core. Maybe being a Demiurge wasn't as horribly unfair as she thought.

Then she got food poisoning from the poor quality mass transit precooked dinners and spent the rest of the ride to Atlas City with her head over a toilet, and promptly forgot all about that moment. For the moment.

(Despite the messy ending, Zoamel actually smiled for the rest of the trip home, silent yet internally pleased.)

The sun is as the sun does; it shines. It shines through thin clouds, it gets blocked by thick ones, it rises in the morning and sets in the evening. Consistent and predictable, you can always rely on the sun to behave in a certain way.

Still, one could argue that maybe the sun was shining just a LITTLE brighter over Atlas City that day. Band music sounded from its streets, balloons flew over head and fireworks were being set off. The whole city seemed to be involved in a celebration.

"Boy, these guys know how to throw a welcoming party!" Lina declared proudly, bounding down the steps to the train platform two at a time. She gave a V for victory sign to the cheering masses, gathered to wait for the train's arrival, and was about to launch into a prepared speech when she noticed something... odd.

The crowd was composed entirely of children.

A seething mass of short humanity, pushing at the heavily armed guards that kept them from rushing the train en masse. Their parents could be seen somewhere in the back of the crowd, nervous little mortals who seemed to be staring into the face of unmentionable horror. Lina knew she had that affect on some people, but why would all these kids want to see her?

"I don't think they're here to see you, Lina," Penny said, echoing her unsaid statement. "They're looking over at that car hooked up behind the engine. You know, the big white and yellow one?"

"...oh," Lina said, deflated a little. (That little reality check abruptly halted her amusing voyage into being a publicly worshipped goddess.) "What's going on, then? Looks weird enough to be interesting."

"It is none of our business," Zoamel stated, ignoring the crowd. "We do have a mission here, Lina. Drake said the Tooth Fairy, or someone who knew of his location, was here in Atlas. It's a shame he couldn't have been more specific, so we will have to work long and hard to locate -- where are you going?"

"I've got a hunch," Lina said, waving the pair off. "And I know better than to ignore hunches. Wait here if you're not interested."

She couldn't get too close to the crowd -- which was for the best, considering how dangerous that thundering pack of school age kids looked. They were trying desperately to push past the guards, as the train doors were hauled open.. revealing stacks and stacks of small, foil wrapped packages. A collective high pitched cheer went up that made Lina's ears seriously consider bleeding.

An overweight, balding merchant leaned out of the train car... and froze, like he was staring down a squadron of Mazoku death commandos rather than a flock of schoolchildren. But somehow, he managed to push past the fear, and issue some orders through his megaphone.

"NOBODY gets a card pack without a claim ticket!!" he shouted. "Present your ticket to the guard ONE AT A TIME, and you'll get your preorders in plenty of time for the event! Now... uh... we're a just a teesny LITTLE bit understocked, so I'm afraid it'll have to be first come first serve, and -- no, wait, don't do that! Children, please! No!! I swear you'll get your AAAHGHHHHH!!!"

The group swarmed the car, bowling past the guards with ease after the line finally broke from pressure. The merchant vanished in a seat of school uniforms as the car was summarily looted. The guards, partially trampled, tried to establish order but seemed reluctant to act -- after all, what were they going to do, shoot children?

(And oddly, each child had only taken one shiny and new package off the train before returning to their parent's side. Because kids may be driven to some pretty weird lengths, but they would later have to deal with not enjoying dessert if they actually STOLE something...)

Within minutes, the mob scene was over just as fast as it had started, leaving only some very disgruntled guards and the disheveled merchant.

Penny was aghast. "What.. what on earth could be worth THAT? It just looked like, I don't know, big packets of chewing gum or something..."

"Who knows with kids these days?" Lina said, with a dismissive shrug. "I remember back when I was a kid, EVERYBODY had to have one of those magic pet rocks that turn colors depending on what your mood is. Mine was always black, so I threw it out. So much for my hunch. I guess you were right, Zoamel, this has nothing to do with us. We should -- "

"We have to find the one responsible for this immediately."

" -- find the one responsible for this immediately, right," Lina repeated before realizing exactly what she happened to be repeating. She turned to him, in surprise. "Eh?"

Both Inverse and Gabriev looked at their companion in clueless confusion, as Zoamel looks at the empty train car in fierce coldness. He clenched a fist at a memory.. then released it, and explained.

"I know of the Demiurge that Drake intended for us to meet," Zoamel Gustav stated, in absolute seriousness. "This is his work. Whatever shape he has taken this time, he is responsible for this, and will tell us what we need to know."

"Oooo... kay," Lina agreed, a little spooked. "I get this feeling from your attitude that we're dealing with very bad news. Is this guy dangerous?"

"Not precisely," Zoamel said, turning to walk to the train station revolving door. "He is.. ideologically dangerous, I suppose. You'll see. First, we have investigating to do."

And so, the noble adventuring party did set forth towards battle and glory, leaving the peaceful train station behind.

Which is a shame, because if they had stayed half a minute longer they would have seen a VERY tired Mazoku slump off the top of the dining car, secretly praying to Shaburanigdo that one day, whoever invented this bloody form of transpiration would be dangled over a pit of scorpions. While on fire.

In a back alley, two heated rivals were ready to settle things once and for all. They had agreed to the weapons for the fight. They agreed to the setting, on the hard streets of Atlas City. Today, it would be settled, once and for all, which one of them was the big fat doody head.

Both street fighters stood at barely three feet tall, as they squared off, glaring each other down and trying to look all bad and mean.

"I'm gonna smash you, Danny!" the first said, pointing dramatically.. and flicking a card into the palm of his hand. "Your skills won't be enough to beat the expert training I've been undergoing! But I'll let you have the first shot, you big booger!"

Danny's left eye twitched. He twirled, and flicked a card between his fingers... a card that glowed a bright purple, as he spoke the words of power.


The lightning arced from the card, striking the alley -- and where it touched, a furry, adorable little green kangaroo with boxing gloves appeared. It shadowboxed for a second, before crying out "Pickle!".

But his enemy was ready. His own card flared, and a weird little cross between a duck, a zebra and an eggbeater emerged. And the fight was on!

"Pickleroo! Electric Gerkin attack now!" the bully shouted, pointing --


A brief orange blaze engulfed Pickleroo, crisping it nicely. The 'roo coughed a few times, spitting out soot, then collapsed.

Penny quickly pulled Danny to safety, while Lina kept the other kid covered. "Hey! Are you hurt?" Penny asked, checking the kid for injuries. "You could have seriously hurt each other! Little kids shouldn't be playing with wild animals!"

Danny pulled away from Penny. "You interrupted our match! Aww, man. Now we're gonna have to start all over. Hey, Billy, maybe we should go to your house?"

"I can't, mom won't let me have matches there since we burned down the garden last time," Billy replied.

Lina looked back and forth between the two, and the disgruntled little kangaroo, which was pitching a scorched fit in silence (since it only knew one word, and it wasn't applicable at the moment). "Uh... what the heck were you two doing, then?"

"We were having a Mooki-Pokko match!" Danny exclaimed. "Boy, you people don't know anything! It's only the biggest thing in Atlas City! Where are YOU people from if you don't know that, old lady?"

Lina LOOMED LIKE THE DARK SPECTRE OF DEATH over the kids. "WHO are you calling old?!!"

Both kids grabbed each other in fear. "N-nobody, nice lady!!" the blurted simultaneously.

"Lina!" Penny chided, frowning in Moral Objection. "Don't scare them like that!"

"It gets results, doesn't it? So, kiddies!" Lina chirped, looking pleased with herself. "What's Mooki-Pokko? You'll tell the nice lady all about it, yes?"

"It-it's a game," Billy explained, quickly. He flashed his white trading card, and held it out for Lina to examine. "You collect these cards that come in these packs, and you trade them with friends to get the best Mooki-Pokko. Then you have matches to see who has the strongest ones, and they get stronger the more they fight. Gotta smash 'em all! See, I've got Eggduckza and he's got Pickleroo, and Pickleroo is weak against Fowl Play attacks, but Eggduckza is allergic to vegetables but could evolve into Scrambleplatypusantelope if he beats a Pickleroo with his special ultimate finishing technique, so it's all about the strategy of who you fight and what you trade! Oh, and it's really fun, too!"

Zoamel, who simply stood at the mouth of the alley the whole time in determined silence, spoke up. "The maker of those cards is the one we want. Children, do you know who makes these... Mooki-Pokko?"

"You can't have mine!" Danny blurted. "I saved all my money to buy Pickleroo! You should have just preordered a card pack from today's shipment."

"They might be able to trade for some at the arena," Billy suggested. "I bet there's lots of kids there waiting for the big event tomorrow!"

"Now we're getting somewhere!" Lina said, offering the kids a big 'ol smile. "And where is this arena, exactly?"

The arena could seat up to ten thousand of the little brats, and with a hefty ticket charge on each seat, that added up to riches in the bank. Good for ensuring he could enjoy an indulgent lifestyle of women, food and motorized conveniences. Good for paying his medical expenses after that scene in the train station, as well.

When the merchant Mint Endo had signed on to produce and sell these Mooki-Pokko cards, nobody had talked to him about hazard pay. As he lumped around on a makeshift crutch, trying to see the stage preparations with his good eye, he only had one thought : hurts like hell, but OH so worth it. Selling those ridiculous mood rocks around Sairaag in this day and age wasn't getting him anywhere, but this new fad in Atlas City was like a license to print money! He took Mooki-Pokko quite seriously, as seriously as he took the concepts of profit, float, margin and gross. Since they were basically the same things, from a certain point of view.

If only his underlings would get their acts together.

Mint whacked a roadie with his crutch. "No, you idiot! It's MOOKI! M- O-O-K-I, no Y! We can't bloody well hang up a huge banner tomorrow reading 'MOOKY-Pokko Grand Happy Smiling Dragon Master Championship Tournament!' It'd look silly."

"R-Right!" the roadie babbled. "I'll have the banner changed immediately!!" He scrambled behind the stage, the offending paper banner flaring out behind him and snagging on various piles of stage props.

"And get more security outside!!" Mint shouted after him. "Those stupid kids will flood in here like a tsunami if we don't keep the doors shut!"

BOOM. An explosion rocked the south end of the arena... rent-a-guard security officials running screaming from the sound, as the massive doors of the arena collapsed, folding better than a Mooki-Pokko card despite being comprised of foot thick granite.

Mint's jaw nearly hit the floor. Rising doctor bills were floating in his head as he scrambled for higher ground, weakly climbing one of the support posts for the arena, while kids streamed in. Fortunately, there wasn't actually anything a kid would find interesting going around, so they mostly milled around looking for Mooki-Pokko stuff and wondering why nothing was ready yet...

But three others came in with them, once the crowd had thinned a bit. Some weird guy in white, and two girls. One of which had traditional dress for a sorceress... albeit a few years out of fashion. Mint knew fashion trends quite well.

"You're going to pay to replace that door!" he shouted from fifteen feet up, clinging to a pole like a koala bear.

Penny Gabriev pointed uber-dramatically. "You who would use your powers as a Demiurge to warp small children's minds around consumerism, you are unforgivable! In the name of Lina Inverse, I'll punish you!"

"...............what?" was Mint's reply.

Lina groaned, and bopped Penny lightly over the head. "Let me handle this, okay?"

"Ehheh.. sorry, I was just all excited, with the whole taking out the doors and rushing in, and, um.. right. Right. Go ahead, Lina."

"Better. Okay, bucko, we know what you're up to," Lina told the man. "So don't bother hiding behind the 'I'm just a simple merchant' crap. Where's the Tooth Fairy?"

"Are you people insane?!" Mint shouted. "I AM just a simple merchant! And the Tooth Fairy doesn't exist! Now get the hell out of here before I call for the city guard!"

Zoamel sized up Mint.. but not just with his eyes. He considered the children, busy trading cards with each other, already bored with the unprepared arena, and definitely ignoring the poor salesman in a fix. "Lina... he is telling the truth. Feel him, he's not a Demiurge."

"I'd rather not feel any part of him," Lina said, making an 'Ick' face.

"No, I mean with your mind. With your soul. Close your eyes, it might be easier... do you know the feeling you experienced at the train holdup?"

"Eh? How did you know about -- "

"Imagine that the flow of that feeling from your followers to yourself is a set of dual-connected paths," Zoamel explained. "Belief flows in two directions. Close your eyes and try to see them. But don't see ones connected to you... use the children around us. They aren't connected to this man at all."

Lina closed her eyes, willing to at least try it rather than dismiss it immediately. Of course, no mystical glowing lines popped into view, no matter how hard she tried to concentrate on them. (Not that Lina typically as a zen master of concentration.)

It was ridiculous. Ordinarily she'd have some flippant remark, but after what she'd been through today, it made an odd kind of sense. That sense of...


Her mind wandering off topic had worked. For a brief moment, she FELT rather than saw it. A flow like a river from the kids around them, possibly stronger than the people she had saved at the robbery... and it was going straight past the merchant and --

"He's coming!" Lina declared, feeling that the destination was approaching, rapidly. It ignored solid matter, making a beeline from Wherever to Here, with some sense of purpose about it... she juiced up a fireball, figuring on some monster god arriving ready to smite them all, and aimed it at the stage...

A trapdoor on the stage opened where there was no trapdoor. Six spotlights lit, from various locations around the arena... despite not having spotlights there. A drum roll echoed in the empty walls, all the children turning to face the stage, a unified motion...

And another kid rose from the trapdoor, waving friendly-like to everybody. He wore ordinary kid's clothes, save for a belt around his waist with a pouch for his Mooki-Pokko deck, and a backwards cap with the Mooki- Pokko logo emblazoned on it in the finest gold.

"Hi!" he greeted, a cheerful voice of youth. "I'm Ace Champion, and I'm the world's greatest Mooki-Pokko Master! It's great to see you all here!"

Lina's head rang as the cheers and adulation of the gathered younglings rushed past her, to the Demiurge on stage. Now that she knew it was there and knew how it felt, it was like standing in a river, a river flowing like white water rapids. Penny caught her before she could fall over, but it didn't make the pressure drop one iota.

Zoamel, however, stood his ground. He settled a glare at Ace Champion that could have sliced through diamond. (And not just cute little diamond rings, it probably could have vivisected MOUNTAINS of diamond.)

The younger Demiurge righted herself, pushed back against the flow. It was just a matter of ignoring it again; she was too tied to it before to do that, but if she shoved it in the back of her mind, forgetting about the faith was easy enough. "So, you're the one Drake sent us for?" Lina called out to him.

"Yes, I am the Demiurge of Fads," Ace announced, smiling all the time, a media figure in the spotlight despite his words. "The god of trends and desires, fans and fanatics. I see you've brought Zoamel Gustav with you. I haven't seen you in a long time, Zoamel, not since I extinguished one of your previous forms. Mint-san, please climb down now."

Mint looked at himself... he hadn't moved since Ace's arrival. "Right, boss." He slowly lowered himself to the stage itself, eyes a little glazed as he simply stood there, visions of profit obscuring his senses.

The children went quiet... still beaming smiles at the stage, still waving, but they didn't cheer and didn't shriek. Ace had a seat on the edge of the stage... as the children parted like the waters of a sea for him, he walked over to meet the newcomers. "Don't worry about them," Ace said, waving a hand dismissively at the crowd. "They're my followers. They only have to see and hear what I want them to. And right now, they see me giving them helpful lessons on how to raise and train their Mooki-Pokko!"

Penny clenched a fist. "You're CONTROLLING -- "

"Easy, Penny," Lina warned, holding out an arm to stop her. "And you too, Zoamel. You've got that whole barely restrained rage thing going on, and this is NOT the time or place for a fight. Not with the kids around."

The young boy laughed. "True! I know you by heart, Lina Inverse. You may have extremely questionable morals but you'd never allow a child to come to harm like that."

"Do not trust this one, Lina," Zoamel warned, using words if he couldn't use actions. "He's responsible for more inter-Demiurge wars than almost any other one of our kind. He may appear a small child, but he is one of the oldest gods."

"Don't listen to him, he's just sore after I had one of his previous cults rendered obsolete by a new invention I promoted," Ace explained. "I took his followers. He took it personally, but it's just healthy competition, isn't it? It's not my fault that he likes to stay small. He coddles and 'respects' his worshippers, never growing very strong, never fighting the others to increase his flock -- "

"Where's the Tooth Fairy?" Lina asked. "I could care less about the history between you two. I'm on a mission here. Just tell me what I want to know and I'll go away."

Ace Champion paused, not expecting that. "Really? That's it? I was expecting a fight, what with Zoamel here, and you. You're a recent Demiurge, aren't you? The Anti-Hero. The one who saves the day whether she wanted to or not. The selfish savior."

"Yes, I am," Lina said. Calmly. "But I don't plan to be that for much longer."

"It'll happen," Ace said, with a toothy, impish child's grin. "Whether you want it to or not. I can feel it in you. All you -- "

Fed up, Lina grabbed the kid by the shirt and throttled him. "Where's the freaking Tooth Fairy, you brat?! You have any idea what I've been through to get through this quest?"

She found herself holding an empty shirt. Ace Champion was back on stage, back in the spotlight, where he was strongest -- and with a new shirt on, one that was basically a walking advertisement for Mooki-Pokko. "Now, that's more like it! Lina Inverse has a lot of spirit, I've heard. This is going to be fun. I'll make a deal with you!"

"No, I'LL make a deal with you," Lina said, gathering flames to her hand, rolling them tightly into a ball. "And the terms just changed! You tell me what I want to know or you become Extra Crispy Fried Moopy-Pocky! I'll give you to the count of three!"

"I -- "


Lina's ball extended, warped, a beam-like blast of orange power shooting from her outstretched hands. She didn't have to content herself with the standard fireball, and didn't feel like doing so -- the beam struck true... and went through Ace, leaving no marks, no burns. As if he was a ghost.

Ace Champion laughed. "You're so funny! You can't defeat me that way! Not here, in my temple. These children know the rules better than you do."

Penny snapped her fingers, making the connection. "You can only be defeated in a Mooki-Pokko fight! Just like the kids dueling back in that alley. It's stupid, since you could just sock the other guy in the nose, but it's the only way to 'win' by the rules."

"What a bright girl!" Ace cheered, clapping for Penny. "You're cute! Hmm. You know, you could make a great official Mooki-Pokko master... our market appeal to girls isn't high enough, and -- "

"Stuff it, kid," Lina ordered. "I get the idea. If we enter this big tournament of yours tomorrow and beat you at your own game, you'll tell me where the Tooth Fairy is. Is that it?"

"That's it," Ace agreed. "My champion Mooki-Pokko versus your own champion. Of course, you'll have to defeat the other children to get to me... I AM the Grand Dragon Champion, after all. A good, clean competition between Demiurges!"

"This is ridiculous," Zoamel stated. "We will find the Tooth Fairy another way rather than engage in such childish games, Fad King. I have no intention of repeating -- "

"I accept!" Lina announced. "Your champion Macky-Picker versus my champion! Under those terms, I accept! I'll plow through whatever fights I need to get what I want!"

Ace clapped for joy. "Great! Great! That's the spirit! I'll see you tomorrow, Lina. And... I've never been beaten at my own game. It'll be so much fun to see you try!"

Theatrics over, Ace simply vanished... and the children resumed talking, as if nothing strange had happened. Lina kept an evil grin hidden, as she worked her way through the crowd, to the door, despite her protesting friends.

"Lina, this is not going to work," Zoamel told her, voice warning in tone. "He controls this social phenomenon. Any Mooki-Pokko you try to buy and use will likely turn against you. He may say he believes in clean competition, but his idea of 'clean' would rival a Mazoku's sense of honor. We will have to simply resume our investigation from square one."

"Oh, we're not entering a Mooki-Pokko," Lina said, her voice dancing along playfully. "He didn't say we had to. He just said a 'champion'."

"Umm... I think it was implied," Penny said. "Although he didn't specifically state -- "

"What are Mooki-Pokko, anyway?" Lina asked. "Weird little monster animal things. All I need is a weird monster animal thing that will obey my orders and attack other weird monster animal things. And we've got that!"

"We do?" Penny asked.

"Of course!" Lina said, grinning ear to ear. She twirled on one boot, and pointed dramatically... "Zoamel Gustav, I choose you!!"

The eldritch god of vengeance facefaulted.

While it's commonly known that Mazoku feed on the despair, sorrow, rage and trauma of man's psyche, growing ever stronger from the fuel of negative emotions hurled against them like adding fuel to a fire, it's not commonly known that they nip off to enjoy a good curry every now and then.

At least, Xelloss was the sort to appreciate the finer points of human cuisine. If you asked most Mazoku to define 'human cuisine' you'd probably get a far different nutritional overview, but it would still involve lemon sauce.

Currently, Xelloss was enjoying a two part meal, in the form of an excellent curry dish, with just the right amount of spices and just the right amount of sauce. He also was enjoying the royal chewing out the new waitress was getting in the back room, for dropping a stack of dishes -- her sadness at losing her only job, and the head chef's rage at the idiocy of children. Perhaps his tune would be different, if he knew Xelloss engineered the little accident, but that would deprive the Mazoku of his dessert!

He was JUST about to dive into the main course -- a prime roast rib, draped in barbeque sauces and fit for the finest of kings -- when his annoying little companion started raising a fuss with her yappy-yappy cawing and cooing. Xelloss took bird in hand and reminded her of the pecking order.

"I am ATTEMPTING to have a very nice dinner," he explained. "And no, I will not drop what I am doing and go beg Lina for the favor we need. It is not the right time, she doesn't have an adequate amount of rage built up to ply to our purposes. If I were to approach her or if she was to walk in right now, I can't predict how it would go -- "

"Come ON, Zoamel!" Lina whined, leading him reluctantly into the restaurant. "You'll be perfect! I saw you cleaning house with Drake in your full on hardcore nine inch curved teeth and scales and tentacles costume! Just think of how easy this tournament would be with THAT on our side!"

"Ooooh, not good," Xelloss mumbled to himself. The closest exit was at least twenty feet away, and he was one of the only patrons in the restaurant... escape wasn't an option, nor was blending with the crowd. So, he took a very human solution to the problem... and dove under the table and hoped they'd go away.

"Lina, stop pestering Zoamel-sama!" Penny protested, pursing and pouting her... lips. "He said no, and I'm sure he has his reasons!"

"Indeed. I have explained to you," Zoamel spoke, remaining calm but firm as he was led through the restaurant. "I have played Ace's little games before and have no intentions of playing them again. He is... a bad seed. Him and Demiurges like him are the reason we are constantly at each other's throats, engaging in holy war after holy war. Nothing good can come of it."

"You're such a pessimist!" Lina declared, exasperated. She looked around... and spotted a table, already set with a SCRUMPTUOUS roast rib dinner that nobody seemed to be eating. With glee, she hopped over, and had a seat, taking up knife and fork. "C'mon, Zoamel, live a little."

Penny paused, perplexed at the predicament. "Uh, Lina, this looks like someone else's dinner, you know..."

"I don't see anybody eating it, and I don't feel like waiting," Lina explained. "If I can steal treasures of untold value and nosh down on fine foods, I'm willing to combine the two and steal food. It's my divine right, and I'm starving. Sit, sit."

" it is. However, Lina, it's not my lot in life to 'live'," Zoamel balked, as he slowly sat down at the table. "I'm a god. We don't exactly live. We -- "

"Drake lived," Lina said, waving a fork at him as she cut off a slice of ribs. "I've been thinking about this stuff. You're both Demiurges... but Drake gets in with his followers, walks amoung 'em and talks to 'em and works with them. He's a people Demiurge. But you... when we found you, Zoamel, weren't you just sort of looking on from on high? We had to practically light a bomb under your ass to get you to do anything. You were just doing a few small tasks for your cult, not anything they could use to peg your existence. You didn't interact with them."

Zoamel sighed. "Yes. That is my modus. Your point, Lina?"

"My POINT is that Demiurges aren't slaves to their followers," Lina explained. "Drake wasn't. He was an equal with 'em. I don't see why you have to be so high and mighty, or why I have to be this force of nature with no consciousness like I was before. Drake LED his friends to war -- "

"To war!" Zoamel barked, his cool dropping quickly, as he banged a fist on the table. (The table went 'Ow.') "I have no intentions of repeating THAT error, god of vengeance or not! Let me achieve my follower's needs from afar, so they never have to see a 'holy war' head on! I'd sooner dissolve and fade into the memory of humanity than cause more of my flock to... to..."

The table fell silent. The people around it did as well. Lina actually paused in shoveling away food, and as many can attest to, it takes quite an event to get Lina to stop eating.

Penny's lower lip trembled... as she put a hand over Zoamel's fist. "Zoamel... what do you mean? What happened? I've never seen you this angry!"

The god as ancient as time itself let out a tired sigh, and seemed to sink into his chair. His fist unclenched, folding out to take Penny's hand. " happened long ago. It's not of importance."

Lina waved a fork. "Something's eating at you, Zo, and I have a feeling it involves our good buddy Ace Champion back there. He said he conflicted with you before, and this is the first time I've seen you talk smack about another Demiurge. Just give us the story and let us decide if it's important. Got it?"

"Yes... yes. I will summarize. You would be bored with most of the details," Zoamel warned, trying to downplay things. But the soft tone of his voice spoke of seriousness, and not the typical firm and resolute seriousness he usually carried... "At one time, most primitive cultures in the world were working with bronze tools and weapons. There were many wars between the various tribes, but nobody had an upper hand. I myself was a snake-god over a fairly large culture, in a river valley. As you say, I got involved with them the way Drake does... as their ruler and benevolent overlord. I did my best to ensure fairness in all dealings, but I was younger then... and not as patient.

"One day, Ace Champion -- although he came in a very different form then, that of a hawk god -- arrived with an army at my people's doorstep. They held new inventions of his devising, weapons made of something called 'iron'. Iron saturated their lives, it was their reason to exist, like fanatics. He was personally leading this army, in the physical form of a great flaming hawk... and he ordered my people to stand down and surrender to the will of the iron age..."

"And you refused," Lina supplied, seeing where this was going.

"I didn't want to lose my flock," Zoamel explained. "But not because I loved them. In my mind, it was a war of gods, and whoever has the most followers in the end wins. I dismissed iron as a passing fad... and within a week they were dead, or converted. All of them. Every single one of my believers that stood by me in my blind desire to win a war were killed, and the ones that turned against me... I'm pleased that they did, in hindsight, for they lived, even if it was under the bloodthirsty, competitive tyranny of Ace. I faded out into obscurity while wailing at my own despair, realizing far too late how much they meant to me, and what my folly cost them..."

The god was nearly broken by the end of the story. His composure was firm, but not nearly as firm as it usually was. And he was holding Penny's hand quite tightly.

" you stayed away from your followers from then on," Lina realized. "If they never had a godhead to rally behind, and you just nudged them occasionally, you wouldn't get them all killed in a mistake."

"All of Drake's followers are gone now," Zoamel spoke. "He didn't learn what I did. If you get too close... you will hurt or be hurt. That is the cost of being a god."


" -- excuse me?" Zoamel blurted, surprised.

"I don't buy it," Lina said. "Yes, you could potentially screw up and get your followers slaughtered, but LOOK at your cult, man! They're pathetic! They shuffle through rituals, recite prayers and try to get some vengeance all to please you, and don't really get a thing out of it. Maybe they don't even want vengeance, but without any revelations to guide 'em, it'll just keep going and going with the same old schtick. If I were a Demiurge -- "

"You are a Demiurge," Zoamel reminded.

"What I MEAN is that I wouldn't just stay the hell away and not deal with real people. I say what I mean and I say it to who I'm being mean to -- I mean, I say things right to people. I don't think I could be ME and not get involved; that ghost wandering around acting like Lina for twenty years wasn't me, for certain! I'm getting involved right now, aren't I, like when I saved that train? It was a thrill, and I got free food and gifts and everybody went home happy. And YOU'RE involved directly too, on this quest for your believers! So quit playing the meek card to avoid a chance at messing up, and get involved. Help us win this tournament!"

"Yeah, yeah!" Penny cheered, being the Morale Officer for this merry bunch. "Let's do it, Zoamel! I bet you'll scare the stuffing out of all those weird little animals. It's not like going to war. Nobody gets hurt."

"Someone will," Zoamel stated, voice gloomy. "I can forsee it. But... you raise valid points, Lina. I'll have to think about them for some time before I make up my mind. In the meantime... I will help. But I won't fight."

"RIGHT!.... what?" Lina exclaimed/asked for clarification.

"Trust me," Zoamel said.. with a slight smile. "I believe I can achieve the task my own way: or rather, Penny's way."

"Oh, no need to thank me," Penny beamed, turning a deep red.

"Now, I believe the young lady requires some dinner, even if I do not, and we have talked long enough. If there are no more revelations, I suggest you order her food, given that you've miraculously consumed an entire rib dinner in between lecturing me."

Lina dabbed at her mouth daintily with a napkin, and stretched out. "Yeah, yeah, well, food wants to be in Lina's stomach and waits for no one. So if there aren't any MORE revelations -- "

Her boot thumped into something that went 'Ow.'

Curious, Lina reached under the table, fished around like hunting for a bar of soap in the bath and pulled up a purple and gray haired Mazoku.

"This is a terribly embarrassing dramatic entrance," Xelloss admitted.

" you see, our sales are nearly four times what they were just last month," Mint Endo continued, showing pie chart after bar graph after line graph after...

Ace Champion leaned back in his chair, feet on the expensive conference table. "This is boring. I already know that the number of Mooki-Pokko fans are increasing every day. That's all that matters."

"No, no, boss, you're not seeing what I'm saying," Mint explained. "We're rapidly approaching market saturation. Soon, there just won't be any more Mooki-Pokko items left to collect, because the kids will have bought at least one of everything. Look, I know you're just a kid, if a very gifted one for gimmick design, but take it from an elder merchant -- if this keeps up people will get bored with Mooki-Pokko. The fad will die out."

Ace declined to correct the man on his age. Endo worked much better for him when he didn't know he was in the employ of a god, and his simple mind was VERY easy to flush selective thoughts from. "Yes, I know. I know better than you do. I'm sure we could get the resources from our ally if we pushed for them... but even if we had the resources to mass-produce these toys, and distribute them across the world, it wouldn't last for more than a few years. No, we need a new paradigm."

Mint paused, unsettled. (Where did the kid learn the word paradigm?) "Yes, exactly. A new fad. You have any ideas? I, ah, had this idea I've been working on for a few years... a sort of a game, with paper and pencils where you play adventurers -- "

"Booooooring!" Ace declared. "People want something active! Something hyperactive! Something so energizing they completely forget their dull, stupid little lives, and sink into it like a drug whenever they feel bad. Mooki-Pokko's great for kids, but we need something that's a pleasure for all ages. And I think I have it."

Mint's mind started to think: this kid is pretty clever. Because it was easier than him thinking: something's wrong with this picture, and Ace liked things easy. "What's your idea, boss?"

Ace pulled a full-color poster out of his jacket. It didn't technically exist, but he wasn't the sort to bother with pencils and paints and papers. He unrolled it on top of the conference table, looking smug.

The poster was loaded with vibrant colors... sweet and pure pink, daisy white, sun yellow, and royal purple. It depicted a young girl, smiling with delight and innocence as she waved to the viewer, while wearing an adorably frilly dress that made her look a lot like a piece of candy. Her long blonde pigtail twirled behind her in a very picturesque way.

And the caption read "FIRST CONCERT LOVE FOR YOU DASH!".

"I give the world... the Idol Singer," Ace Champion declared, a slow and gremlinesque grin crawling across his face. "A girl who never matures, never loses innocence. Someone the teeming masses can always approve of, and wish to be like! A musical messiah! It's perfect! And all the emotions the fools pour onto her, all their unsatisfied desires and dreams, it'll all go to ME, by proxy. We'll have to get our people to work harder on musical recording processes, but once it's ready, we can sell HUNDREDS of songs. And once one idol is used up, we toss her aside and get new ones. With THIS, properly cultivated of course, we can claim the world through the power of media!"

Confusion etched into Mint Endo's face. The fog over his mind wasn't helping. "What, you mean like a bard? They'd travel town to town and sing tales of heroes and stuff for food and lodging?"

"No, you mortal idiot, not some dirty old BARD," Ace growled. "Bards are wandering, impoverished beggars. An idol is an unreachable peak of perfection. But I'm not expecting you to understand -- you just do the boring work for me. The Mooki-Pokko project is going to die out soon, and we'll need our Idol ready. Someone we can train and program to carry out the stage instructions and smile for the unwashed masses. And I know just the girl for it..."

"Who is this guy?" Penny asked, peering curiously at the newcomer that Lina had in a Reverse Tongan Death Grip Chinlock Sleeper Hold (easily comboable into an Inverted Atomic Drop or a Sidewalk Slam).

"He's a VERY annoying Mazoku who has a bad habit of making my life more complicated than it needs to be!!" Lina declared, keeping a GOOD grip on Xelloss's noggin, despite his weak attempts to shake free. "Spill it, Xel! What were you doing under my table?"

"Ah, that is a -- "

"Don't forget, I can still cast Laguna Blade. Or at least something just as nasty as it."

"I've been following you for awhile now," Xelloss said quickly... while waving an olive branch with a white flag and a dove perched on it, in a quick illusion spell. "Can I please have a seat? You're starting to crush my larynx. And besides, you owe me -- I'm the one who swerved those bullets away from you in Darata, you know."

Zoamel frowned, in distaste. "As weak as the Mazoku may be now, they are still a danger. Do not trust him, Lina."

"Trust? Xelloss?" Lina asked, trying to put two words together like a square peg in a spherical hole. "Please, Zoamel, give me a little more respect than that. I trust him about as far as I can spit a rat. But he's not the sort to stick a knife in your head when you're looking away, so he's safe for now. Sit your ass down, Xel."

The gray haired Mazoku thankfully took a seat, adjusting his robes. He raised his staff, letting the raven perch on it, as it had been fluttering around in a frenzy before. "Good, good. I really wish you hadn't found me, Lina, the timing just isn't very optimal -- "

"Bite me, Xel. Now what's going on?"

"I suppose now will be as good a time as any," he said, with a sigh. He made himself as presentable as possible, ready to issue the wording he'd tumbled over in his head for weeks on end. "Ahem. Lina Inverse... speaking on behalf of the Mazoku, I'd like you to destroy the Sairaag Empire for us. ...please."

Lina stared at Xelloss as if he had grown a third head and learned to play the polka using only his kneecaps. "You? You WHAT? Want me to WHAT? For WHO?"

Xelloss pouted. "Is it really hard to understand? Surely you've heard the rumors, the stories of how Sairaag put the Big Hurt on the Mazoku race. They're unfortunately quite true. If we mounted an all out assault with all surviving Mazoku on the Sairaag capital, right now, we just might achieve a stalemate. We're about as menacing as two kids and a dog right now. So, the race of demonic evil slathering beasts would really appreciate it if you could take a few days out of your journey and burn Sairaag down to its foundations. Will you? I was hoping to ask you later, after they'd caused a thousand and one problems for you, prompting you to gleefully agree, to be frank. Please don't make me say please again."

The table went quiet. Lina continued to peer closely at Xelloss -- close enough to lick him. (Not that she did. This is not that kind of tale.)

"...that was a secret, wasn't it?" Lina asked. "You just told a huge secret after only being lightly manhandled by me. I didn't even have to dangle you upside down over a pit of scorpions. Something huge MUST be up."

"Yes, it's called 'extermination of my kind', and we'd like to avoid it," Xelloss said frankly, with a little depressed sigh for emphasis. "Hence, I've had to compromise my protocol a bit. Right now, we feel you're tactically the best person for the job. You're a Demiurge -- yes, we know about that, and a very powerful one. More powerful than any we have on record. It wouldn't take too long, just a day or so ride from here to lay the ever loving smack down on -- "


"Do I REALLY have to say 'please' again?"

"I'm busy, Xel," Lina said. "I have my own quest here. I'm becoming human again. You knew that already, though, didn't you? If you've really been following me this far. The LESS I antagonize Sairaag, the better. ...I'll agree with you, they're a bunch of little bastards and if they get in my way, they go down. But seek them out? No. Not interested."

Zoamel cleared his throat. "I will second that. I have my own grudge against Sairaag, for the extermination of MY kind, rather than yours. And thus, I will not act on your request. I act on the request of my followers, and see no need to participate in tandem with a demon to carry out their wishes."

Xelloss tapped the table, in irritation, and tapped his staff on the ground in time. "I could threaten to zap you folks, I suppose," he suggested. A tiny spark formed at the tip of his staff, boiling with darkness and the skimmed taint on reality... until the staff piffled out and went flaccid. Literally. "Oh, poop," he muttered, disappointed, shaking the droopy staff, trying to get it hard again.

Lina smirked, leaning on one arm. "Boy, you really ARE a magical eunuch now. How the heck did this happen?"

"Oh, they had a fight at the north pole, Lina, remember?" Penny filled in, feeling the need to be part of this conversation.

"Yeah, yeah, but the HOW is still eluding me," Lina said. "How a bunch of scrawny little humans took you guys down so low. Spill it, Xel. It might get me sympathetic to your cause."

Xelloss rubbed his chin, in thought. "Yes. Yes, it would, indeed. It's a rather large secret, but needs be when the devil drives, I suppose. And perhaps it'll show exactly how large a threat Sairaag truly is. Pardon my dramatic emphasis, it's just my little fun with storytelling... let me set the scene for you. There was snow, there was sky, and little else. But over the snow, the sky..."

The sky was the color of death.

Many people assume that black is the color of death, but this is just because they're stupid. In actuality, cultures that roamed the world more than a thousand years ago (before the great Mazoku War when the demon king of the north launched part of Shaburanigdo into battle) felt that white was the color of death. White, like the ice that started to overtake the world, the breath of Dynast, great Mazoku Lord of the Northern Wastes.

Of course, the war ended, humanity rebuilt, and Dynast was not seen again after having his metaphysical ass handed to him on a platter.

Oh, how he hoped today would change that.

The great lord hadn't been getting his exercise, and sat on a throne carried by this finest enslaved warriors of darkness -- all thirty of them, because of his tremendous fat bulk. He sat on the finest pelts made from the finest golden human hairs woven from a thousand children, and kept a human female slave under each arm for company and other services.

Long ago, someone called him 'The most stereotypically perverted evil bastard I've ever laid eyes on,' but he had long since decided to take it as a compliment.

He had a fine vantage point to overview the battle. Five hundred of his kin, his finest Mazoku, were ready to kill -- he'd left the bush leaguers back at the Underground Castle of Frozen Pain, a name he'd recently picked out to give the place a bit of cheer. Five hundred would CERTAINLY do against a mere two thousand humans.


HUMANS had challenged him. Openly challenged him! They had sent one of their strange flying contraptions all the way to the north, with one mission -- find the hidden Mazoku Lord, Dynast, and give him an invitation to war. He'd killed the messengers slowly over the course of a month after receiving the declaration, but had to thank them for amusing him. HUMANS wanted to war with him! A formal battle, one line to the left, one line to the right, and a trumpeting charge to clash in the middle. Only humans could think of something as inane as a polite, rule-abiding little war.

It amused him to such end that he agreed in full, even to the rules. Sure, he would have to come out of retirement after that whole little war debacle with the dragons an aeon ago, but this was TOO fun to pass up.

And there he was, lined up, his demonic horde slathering and flailing tentacles and so on, just waiting to devour and/or ravish and/or flay the humans who had traveled all this distance for the honor of dying by Dynast's hand.

Such a rag-tag lot, they were. Flying the colors of the city twice annihilated, Sairaag, and wearing armor unlike he'd ever seen before. War machines he'd never witnessed. Quite a spunky bunch, and if he wasn't a fully astral supported Mazoku Lord, he might have worried. Yet, his spies said they sensed no powerful magics amount them. Not a drop. It would be an absolute slaughter.

Briefly, he considered sending his army down there before they sounded the formal trumpet, but it amused him more to let them think they had a chance...

"You amuse yourself far too much, Dynast."

He didn't need to turn to look; and for that matter, he couldn't, given his immense bulk. "Do my ears deceive me, if I truly had ears through which to hear?" Dynast asked, in his high pitched prissy voice (not that anyone would say it to his face). "If it is not my good 'sister', the Beastmaster. It has been SO long, Zelas. You never write."

His slaves rotated the throne, so he could gaze on the floating figure of elegance, the ultimate predator, in all her splendor. She tapped cigarette ash off her long-stemmed smoke, her well-groomed fur shawl snarling at the fat man.

"And I see you've brought your favorite toy," he added, dismissing the 'priest' out of hand. It was strange, however, the look on his face. One of concern, and yet, some inward secret pleasure... but that was typical for Xelloss.

"So, what precisely is going on?" Zelas-Metallum asked. "My servant Xelloss suggested we drop in and watch the show. Is it true? You're pandering to the humans? I thought you vowed to be ensconced in the ice until the next time our king rises."

"Yes, well, I needed some fresh air. How fare the others? The spoiled brat?"


Dynast flinched. "Dead? Hellmaster Phibrizo dead? My word. I suppose the renegade half-breed finally got to him, then -- "

"No, actually, Gaav is dead as well," Zelas sighed, knowing exactly how much this would unsettle Dynast. "Phibrizo slew Gaav shortly before the Lord of Nightmares herself annihilated the boy. You really ought to keep up on current events, Dynast, even if you do prefer to be a shut-in. It's what spies are for, yes?"

".....good riddance to rubbish," Dynast bit off. "The three remaining lords surely can see these skirmishes out to the last. Share wine, Zelas. Enjoy the show. I believe we are about to be attacked, as amusing as the concept is."

"One of these days," Zelas warned, her tone dropping from playful menace to coldness that rivaled the ice, "You will amuse yourself to death, Dynast. Come, Xelloss. I have seen enough."

"Oh, I think we should say," Xelloss piped in with, watching the bristling, anxious army. "I've been keeping an eye on this new power in Sairaag, and find it very interesting. It can't hurt, can it? Please, please, can we please please can we huh? I'll be your best friend!"

A sharp trumpet line rang out across the tundra. At the INSTANT of the sound, war cries arouse from the human army, waving swords, and starting to charge blindly through the snow.

"I missed the start!" Dynast whined. He waved his orders into effect, a flick of an oversized thumb. "I'll never forgive you for that, Zelas. Minions, forward."

The Mazoku shrieked and wailed like raging beasts, to try and intimidate the human army. But not a single one of the mortals stopped, or even slowed in the assault. So, both sides raced to clash...

And then the humans turned a sharp one eighty and ran for it.

"HA! I knew it. They run!" Dynast laughed. "Forward! I want to follow them myself! Push on, slaves!"

"Do not be hasty..." Zelas tried to warn, but the throne bearers were fast, catching up with the army, blending into the mass.

One army chased the other, like two blobs across the plains the color of death. The human mass split in half, two parties... flanking around a particularly large snow dune.

Dynast pondered it, curiously. He had examined this terrain not three days previous, and there was no dune of that size when --

The snow exploded outward, a gigantic catapult hidden under a tarp. It unfolded, snapping into full functional order, a payload of a single greyish white sphere with a purple cross embossed on it at the ready...

TWANG! And off it was. Dynast wasn't quite sure what this was about, as clearly it didn't FEEL magical, and even if it was coming straight for him the best a big lump of rock could do was --

The ball impacted hard against the throne, plowing it twenty feet into the snow. Both armies stopped dead, in surprise, the Mazoku feeling through their master's link that something was very, very wrong.

Dynast was dying.

A roaring geometric ball of black astral energy screamed out of the dunes, Dynast's true astral Mazoku form, trying to GET AWAY from the flickering lightning that was sucking him down into the ball. The sound shattered eardrums -- but the humans didn't even flinch, helmets already designed to absorb the sound they were expecting...

Zelas-Metallum stared in open-jaw horror. "What is going on!? His form is collapsing! That's impossible!"

"Oh my, how interesting," Xelloss said, quite calm. "I wonder if he's going to die soon?"

The shape of absolute darkness (yet not beyond pitch) howled a final cry... and then was sucked down into the ball, annihilated. Silence fell across the snow. Mazoku, severed from Dynast's power, started to realize something, something that none of them had taken seriously in the span of history.

Humans were about to destroy them.

"It was a slaughter, indeed," Xelloss spoke, in low, ghost-story tones. "The Mazoku were leaderless and cut off from their master, while the humans moved with absolute confidence. They carried white disks with purple crosses, which wiped out any Mazoku they touched. I managed to escape, of course, but not before one of the weapons destroyed most of Zelas-Metallum's form -- and drained some of my essence in the process. The bird you see before you is all that remains of her. And that is the end. That's how the humans crippled the Mazoku. The rest of us ran into hiding, hoping to avoid that fate, and then we started to fade, as humans stopped believing in us -- "

"WAIT!" Lina shouted, waving her arms. "This is impossible. Okay. You say they used white disks with purple crosses? That's a weapon to kill a Demiurge, Xelloss, not a Mazoku! It couldn't have worked -- "

"Ah, but it did," Xelloss spoke, waving a finger to silence Lina. "And the larger model successfully eradicated Dynast in full. I didn't quite understand it myself, as I pondered the outcome for weeks. But as I said, we started to fade. The story of the war spread, and people stopped believing the Mazoku were a threat. Isn't it obvious, Lina? Isn't it as clear as day? We feed on the fear and despair of mankind, in belief that tomorrow will never come. We tap our strength from Shaburanigdo, the Demon King, whether he be divided and dead or living and walking. We are extensions of the dark god, his spawn, his unholy children. Children of a GOD. You see.... Shaburangido is a Demiurge."

The silence that clenched the restaurant tightened to a painful grip.

"...that is absolutely, utterly impossible," Zoamel spoke, his voice near trembling as his world shattered. "A Demiurge is a Demiurge. We are gods over MAN! We are not like... like Shaburanigdo. We are not demons with a thirst for destruction. It makes no sense!"

"Oh?" Xelloss asked. "It makes perfect sense to me. Only your false assumptions about our 'amazing power' block you from accepting the revelation. The ultimate form of nihilism embodied is the form of Shaburanigdo. The fear of world destruction. The HUMAN faith in the horrors of death. We live off your faith of the darkness, the faith you refuse to admit you hold true. Shaburangido, the god, is simply an extremely powerful Demiurge, perhaps THE most powerful one other than Ceipheed, the Dragon King. It's true. The disks may have proven to work just as well on Dragons, but the Dragons were smart. After the fight with Dynast, they went into hiding, patient enough to try and wait for humans to forget about this new power. Silly, isn't it? Once Sairaag has dominated with this technology, the Dragons will find they have no place in the new world order. After all... who needs the gods, be they light or dark, when you have the science that rendered them obsolete?"

Lina sat rock still, looking at the tablecloth. Her head span with thoughts. Horrified thoughts, calculating thoughts, fears and hopes... and questions. Far too many questions. "Penny... you say Sairaag is one of those happy go lucky world domination types. How much so? Do you think they have a chance at running the entire world?"

It took a moment to shake Penny out of the confusion she was in. "Ah... well... actually, yes. Yes. If Xelloss-san is right, then yes. I guess.. nothing could really stop them, could it? It's gone too far now. There isn't anyone strong enough, if even Shaburanigdo can't do anything..."

"That's where you come into play, Lina Inverse," Xelloss reminded, urgently. "We think you can do it. There's something special about you, about your power and how it came about. Ever since the crash of the Mazoku I've made it my MISSION in life to study the Demiurges, how they work, what they do. If you were to attack Sairaag -- "

"I can't do that," Lina spoke quietly.

"Haven't I proven they are a threat??" Xelloss blurted, actually showing annoyance. "What more do you need? We must strike, and strike hard! Penny is right; it's almost too late. Almost!"

" won't work, if we try," Lina said. "Listen to me, Xelloss. I'm the anti-hero. Reluctant savior. I'm not the one who goes blazing into the front gates to save the world the minute she hears it's in trouble. If I try that, I'm... well, I'm sort of Amelia, I guess. And it won't work."

Zoamel considered that, rapping his fingers on the table, in sequence. "It... makes a sort of sense, Lina. We find our strength in our roles. I can find strength against Sairaag, as I've been asked by my followers to punish our enemies, and they are the enemy. But if I had gone on some other geas from my temple, something simpler, I would have no chance."

"I can't just up and leave my quest to go blow up Sairaag," Lina said, nodding along with Zoamel. "I'd fail miserably. Here's what we're going to do, people. We're going to continue to seek out the Tooth Fairy. I'm still going to try to become human. And... if this works like EVERY other world- saving quest I've been on... it'll all work out, somehow. We get sidetracked, something comes up, I'm FORCED into a situation. And then I'll manage to pull it off, when all the cards are down and I'm pushed to a wall. That's how it works. Is it agreed?"

"This isn't like you, Lina," Xelloss warned. "You're NEVER this introspective, not to the point of questioning how you do things. Have you really changed so much, since becoming a Demiurge?"

"You know what? I have no idea," Lina said, with a weak smile. "I'm just making this up as I go along and trying not to get killed. But that's a pretty Lina thing to do, isn't it?"

Xelloss smiled, back to his happy bastard mode of facial expressions. "Yes. Yes, it is. Bravo, Lina. I will go with this plan... as long as it seems to be working, or rather, not working as the case may be. Quite a puzzle."

With a final breath of relief, Lina pushed her chair out, and got to her feet. "Let's just put this out of our heads, people. Stick to the quest at hand and let whatever power over drama I've got sort things out. If we try too hard, it might not play right. So goal number one: Defeat Ace Champion at the Mooki-Pokko tournament. Goal number two: Find the Tooth Fairy and beat an explanation out of him. Goal number three: Turn me human. But I guess goal number zero is we all get to BED. It's damn late and I'm pooped! Everybody to your rooms, and crash for at least eight hours. I get this feeling tomorrow's gonna be a little crazy."

"Agreed," Zoamel said, rising as well. "Xelloss, you may join me in my inn room. Specifically because I want to keep an eye on you. I don't trust Mazoku, even if your words make sense to me."

"Oh, thank you," Xelloss thanked. "I could use a little fear, mistrust and suspicion to keep my juices flowing. I wouldn't want it any other way. Say, Penny, would you like to join us? I'm sure Zoamel's bed has enough room!"

The young Gabriev turned a deep red. "Why.. why you -- " she raised a hand, the Cute Girl Slap Effect When A Pervert Bugs Her coming into play...

Lina smashed a wooden chair over Xelloss's head instead. The Mazoku went down like a lead balloon.

"Neee, if you're going to be the spawn of MY loins, Penny, you've got to learn what tools are right for the job," she chided, tossing the wrecked chair aside. "And the right tool is always the one that's total overkill for the task at hand. Got it?"

"Got it!" Penny chirped.

The moon is as the moon does; it glows brightly in the night sky. It glows through thin clouds, it gets blocked by thick ones, it rises in the evening and sets in the morning. Consistent and predictable, you can always rely on the moon to behave in a certain way.

Still, one could argue that maybe the moonlight was just a LITTLE brighter over Atlas City that evening. Maybe it was the excitement about the next day's tournament. Maybe it was the romantic, thoughtful mood it set up, which had Penny pondering her life, and her situation, as she got ready for a good night's rest.

She had unbraided her hair, to comb it and wash it earlier, and was now carefully rebraiding while looking out at said lunar object. The process took a lot of time, since her hair was longer than Lina's or Gourry's in their heyday. So, she had plenty of time to think.

Penny didn't want to bring it up to Lina, but... she felt a bit like a fifth wheel. Or a third wheel. Or whatever count seemed appropriately inappropriate. Today had only brought that out more, with her barely saying anything, while Lina and Zoamel made all the big decisions.

What had Penny managed to do, over the course of Lina's great quest? She'd been a decent informational resource, but any travel guide could have done that. Every fight she got into she messed up. Every time she tried to deal with their enemies, she got treated like a little kid! And worst of all -- what was the POINT of wanting to be a great warrior with a neat customized pike if she never got to use it?

All her life, she'd wanted to be an adventuress. Swashbuckling, heroic, victorious. But here she was on her first huge adventure and it was nothing like she had expected; no running battles through city streets, no great clashes of skilled fighters and mages. Mostly she sat around and reacted to things the others did. Was this really how adventures went? Lina didn't seem to care that things weren't fitting into Penny's paradigm, and Lina was the expert around here, so that must just be the way REAL quests go...

So, where did that leave Penny Gabriev? A fighter who wasn't able to fight with this league of enemies. She knew no magic, either. What good was she going to be? What use was she?

A clunk sound alerted her to potential danger. She twisted in her seat, holding her comb and brush defensively, ready to give the enemy a makeover it would never forget... and then felt a bit silly for it. All that had really happened was her pack falling over, as the Wandering Monster Table had gotten free again.

"Poor fella," Penny cooed, picking up the table and stroking its stone top a bit, which always seemed to calm the thing down. "All cooped up like that. You haven't had much to do either, have you? Not since helping us define Lina as a Demiurge..."

"Human!" the table chimed, as it was in contact with Penny's body, and she was in fact quite human.

"All you can do is tell facts," she spoke aloud, continuing to comfort her little Table-chan. "Just like all I can do is tell Lina facts about this world, while she handles everything. But I guess you're not too sad about it, are you? I mean, your expression is so... stony."

"Human!" Table-chan repeated. "Bipedal primary species!"

"I want to see Lina finish her quest... but maybe I'm just getting in the way," Penny said, talking to herself for the most part. "Zoamel and Lina have everything in hand. Zoamel's so great; he can do anything!... even help Lina adjust to this world, I guess. Maybe my old sempai was right. Maybe I'm not cut out to be some kind of heroine... naybe I should just go home, Table-chan. This isn't really my quest, is it? It's Lina's."

"Capable of using tools! Opposable thumbs!"

Penny set the table on her head, it's preferred perch. The table settled in comfortably, as she continued to ponder aloud. "Mom and Dad are really worried, I bet... I don't get along with them, but I don't want to hurt them. Although they'll be mad at me, too... I don't know, Table-chan. Should I stay or should I go? What reason is there for me to keep going with Lina and Zoamel?.."

A glow near her hand drew Penny's eyes to her portable mirror... where she saw the table glow, slightly...

"New data collected. Processing: Romantic feelings for Zoamel Gustav, Demiurge!" the Table discerned.

"Wh-what?!" Penny blurted.

"Human, bipedal species, specific designation Penny Gabriev, doubting current usefulness, but has hero worship for Lina Inverse!" the Table expanded, sounding almost proud of its skills. "Romantic feelings for Zoamel Gustav! Allergic to shellfish! Emotionally vulnerable to chocolate!"

"...but how did you...?" Penny asked.

Before she could get an answer, she felt a sharp little prick in her neck, and her world went black.

Mysteriously silent figures in black -- with no identifying characteristics aside from Mooki-Pokko deck pouches at their belts -- quickly stuffed up the drugged girl into a sack, pet table and all. In less than a minute, they were gone.

A figure, just as mysterious but decidedly less black, crept about the inn scant hours after that. He was also trying to escape without notice, but carried nothing with him except for his sole posession -- a mask.

He fingered it lightly, intending to get out without any incident. but ready to use it if so needed. That's why when a light spell floated over his head, turning a room dark as pitch into daylight, he snapped the mask on, and nearly filled the room with the essence of the monstrous Zoamel Gustav.


"Cut that out, you'll wake someone up," Lina muttered, unimpressed. She leaned in the doorway of Penny's room, looking at the monster. "You're gonna do great at the tournament if you can keep your game face on, you know. That's even better than your ravenous demon act in Darata."

Zoamel downshifted, pulling off the mask and returning to his handsome human form. But he retained a dark look about his aspect, a glowering expression. "I no longer wish to participate in Ace's little game tomorrow. The situation has changed. He has -- "

"Kidnapped Penny, I know," Lina said, holding up a note. "He left me one too. How he's taken her to 'increase the stakes' in our competition, and we'll only get her back if we win the tournament... although mine's also personalized to point out how useless of a Demiurge I am, and how she's not really my daughter and so on. I'm guessing yours is pushing other buttons?"

"...yes," Zoamel responded, fingering the note in his pocket. "We must rescue her immediately, Lina. Ace is not to be trusted -- "

"I know, that's why we're not going to do anything," Lina said. "Your pal Ace isn't real subtle. He WANTS us to barge on in there and fight him head on over this, just like you were about to do. I thought you said you didn't want to play his little game?"

"This is different," Zoamel rationalized. "We must act, and act now -- "

"Who's leading this expedition?" Lina asked, stepping into the room, to confront him. "I'll give you a hint -- she's short, has a fiery temper and a big appetite. You called the shots in Darata, and I went along with it even if I didn't like it, because I trusted you. Now you've got to trust me. I've got a hunch on this, that we have to play this scenario out. The only way out is through. We go to the tournament and beat Ace as planned."

"You would knowingly walk into a trap?" Zoamel asked.

"I like to think of it as picking my traps," Lina mused, smiling. "And tomorrow's tournament is a less dangerous trap than a midnight raid. I've had to knowingly walk right into traps before in order to win -- when Phibrizo had set up this huge chain of events for us to follow, and we knew Xelloss was leading us to a bad situation, there wasn't really any other choice. Besides... Penny's an Inverse. We don't take well to kidnapping, and if they're holding her IN that arena, at the heart of Ace's base of operations... this could be the best thing to happen to us."

Zoamel flexed his fingers, barely restrained displeasure at the situation quite clear in body language. "You are choosing to gamble a great deal on your instincts, Lina Inverse..."

"That's what I do," Lina said, poking a finger at Zoamel's chest. "You take calculated vengeance, I dive into the thick fireballs blazing and come through with amazing luck in the end. This is my quest, and it's high time I took command. Are you going to trust me?"

Zoamel considered her words. They made sense, as he was a logical Demiurge, and understood that what seems-to-be or should-become is often more important than what-really-is. But something nagged at him... an alien anger that demanded he press on anyway, against all logic. Something that wanted to blaze in, tear the arena apart and save Penny...

He pushed that down. For now.

"I trust you," he concluded. "You should resume resting. We will need all our power and focus tomorrow to defeat Ace once and for all."

"Oh, I've stopped sleeping," Lina said, matter of factly. "I don't really have to, anyway, since I'm a god. And it lets me practice my powers and read and go out shopping and so on..."

Zoamel quirked a metaphorical nonexistent eyebrow given physical form by virtue of faith and so on. "One might think you are getting used to being a Demiurge, Lina Inverse."

Lina gave pause. (She gave 1.47 pauses, to be specific.) But then shrugged it off, quite casual in appearance. "I am what I am," she stated. "For now. I'd be stupid not to take advantage of it while I've got it. Now, we have about five hours to dawn, and seven to the tournament. It's time to practice our Mappy-Pokey Grand Dragon Champion Master Whatsimajigger skills. Are you up for it, my loyal animal companion?"

The elder god allowed himself a slight smile.

"I suppose."

The sun is as the sun does; it shines. It shines through thin clouds, it gets blocked by thick ones...

But the sun technically had absolutely nothing to do with the situation at hand, and mentioning it doesn't actually add significance to Penny's plight. Repeating it over and over does not technically add some deep meaning to the weather patterns over Atlas City.

It's just worth noting that the sun did slip in between the cracks in the shuttered windows, and that was the first thing she saw on waking. A nice, pleasant morning.

The second thing she saw was that someone had tied her wrists to a light fixture over her head, and that wasn't very pleasant at all.

The third thing she saw was that someone had re-braided her hair into adorable twin pigtails full of ribbons and bows, a laughable parody of the braid she had worn since childhood...

But most importantly, the fourth thing she saw was that someone had stuck her in an exceedingly pink dress with more frills and lace than an entire old ladies' knitting circle, and in order to do that they must have seen her naked at one point or another, and THAT was absolutely pissing her off.

"HEY!" she shouted, trying to get some attention, as she had been tossed in the back corner of some store room. She thumped her feet on the floor a few times, raising noise a-plenty. "Whoever did this is gonna be... they'll end up... well, I'm going to hurt them very much, I'll have you know!! HEY! HEEEEY!!"

Mazoku teleport by blurring through shadow, elongating the eldritch darkness which man's light has not reached. Ace Champion decided to appear in a burst of adorable puffystuff and sparklies and whizzers instead.

He was all smiles, hands in the pockets of his jacket as he surveyed Penny's costume. "It looks great, doesn't it? I just knew you'd be perfect for my next project the moment I saw you."

"I swear, when I get my hands on..." Penny started. And stopped.

While she did have a bit of the naive girl left in her from childhood, and tended not to be as observant as she should be, and was fairly clumsy... she was still an Inverse. Some Drama Gene was waving its little chromosomes at her, shouting, 'Hey, the bad guy wants to tell you all about his evil plan! If you listen to it, you'll definitely escape when he's not looking!'.

"What project?" she asked, starting again.

"My Idol Project, of course," Ace replied. "Mooki-Pokko is fading. But this, this can stay for years and years. I'm going to turn you into a beloved singer, world renown, adored by millions. The costume is just step one... a symbol of purity and childish innocence. Although you're not exactly pure as the driven snow, are you, Penny Gabriev?"

Penny turned red. "How do you -- ?!"

Ace laughed. "I can just tell. Don't worry, I can probably fix that once we get the ball rolling. I wish I could tell you more, but I've got a tournament to win, and have to keep my sales pitch short."

"It's obviously not going to work," Penny scowled, channeling her anger. "I can't sing, I don't want to be a pawn in your fads and I'm not going to go back to being... a child. So you can take that little project of yours, shine it up real good, turn it sideways and stick it up your -- "

"Naughty words!" Ace gasped. "We can't have that out of our idol. But Penny, doesn't a small part of you want this? To be useful? You're a terrible, terrible adventuress. You know it. You can't fight, you can't cast magic, you can't do anything."

Penny resisted looking surprised. Somehow, this kid had gotten into her head... drudging up her weaknesses...

"Oh, I know what you're thinking," Ace spoke, a little music in his tone. "I'm an ancient and powerful god, Penny, even if I look like a child. I know you. I know you want to go home, I know you feel weak and useless, and that you have to find your direction in life. That's what I'm offering you!"

"You've got a funny way of offering it," Penny goaded.

"Granted, maybe the introduction had to be a bit harsh... since clearly your possessive little adoptive mother would never let you go, she's really unhealthy for your development, you know... but now we can carry on. Join me, Penny. I can make you loved. I can make you useful. EVERYBODY will want you. Everything you do will be magic, everything you touch will turn to gold."

Penny weakened. He was right, in some respects. How she felt, what she wanted... but was this the way? Did she even know what the way was, wasn't that why she was so confused and despairing last night?

"You don't have to despair, Penny. I can help you. All I ask is that you believe in yourself, and in me, and let me guide you, shape you and remake you. Become mine. You and I can RULE this world. Sairaag itself may think it will take over, that it has me in under watchful eye, but I have the upper hand. We can topple Sairaag, lead the people against it with the power of your song. You want that too, don't you? To stop the evil? Be a heroine? A heroine idol?"

Penny looked down. "I don't, I just... I want to be a heroine. Like my mother was, like Lina is, but.. I'm no good at doing it like they did..."

"Of course you aren't. You're not like them, and you don't need them. You don't need your mother," Ace soothed, stepping closer. "You don't need Lina. You don't need your father. You don't need Zoamel. You just need ME..."


Penny's eyes flashed, her anger rising again. And she kicked a god squarely in the nuts, using the bindings to the light for leverage to make it a really nasty zen master martial arts ballshot.

Ace flew back into a wall, his physical form propelled by the blow. He bounced off the stone, and came up... frowning.

"I should have expected a dirty trick from a dirty girl," he poured on her like venom. "Make no mistake, Penny Gabriev. I'll scrub you clean and start with an empty mind if I have to! I WILL get what I want. I was hoping you'd cooperate, but maybe it's better this way. Once I finish with Lina, Idol Project begins."

Before she could tell the little bastard off and swear violence against his person, the young Gabriev's drama gene perked up again.

Assuming her best impersonation of the Helpless Maiden, Penny twisted her hands a bit, to show Ace how she was effectively restrained. "Just you wait!" she declared. "Lina Inverse will rescue me!"

"I'm not sure about that, since she didn't feel like rescuing you last night," Ace responded, marching to the door. "Shame, I had my Mooki-Pokko Kabuki Ninja ready to jump them on arrival. Honestly, nobody EVER lets me have any fun with my games... now you wait here like a good little girl and I'll be back!"

Ace slammed the door so hard that the contents of a nearby storage shelf spilled onto the ground.

Which is exactly what Penny wanted. A box filled with scissors, knives, and other sharp objects spilled to the ground.

Unfortunately, it was several feet away, and she was actually quite effectively restrained. But it was a start.

No true to the blood heroine would take something like this lying down, after all. Or standing up, as the case may be.

The arena ROCKED with the cheers of thousands upon thousands of children.

Fireworks and balloons signalled the start of the tournament, as a stage show of various Mooki-Pokko doing a dance routine entertained the crowd. Music flooded the air, and tasty childhood delights of all kinds were being sold by vendors moving swiftly through the stands. If the situation were any different, Lina would almost feel happy here, like a kid again.

As is, she remained as focused as an arrow on a target. Vigilant, and ready to do battle, to lock horns and prove her mettle. Ready to cut a swift path to victory.

After enjoying a hot meat pie, some cotton candy, popcorn and a box of chocolate covered macadamia nuts.

"Would you relax? We're not up until the second fight," Lina said, trying to calm her companion down (in between stuffing her face a fistful of snacks at a time). "Jeez, Zoamel, you take everything so seriously. Even your FUN is serious!"

"I see no reason to make light of this situation," Zoamel replied, cold as ice.

"This is how I deal with stress," Lina philosophized. "You give me a good meal and a refreshing beverage and I can topple the world with ease. Now sit down and wait for the fight. Who's up first, anyway?"

"THE OPENING MATCH NOW WILL BEGIN!" the announcer blared through a magical amplification system, loud enough to make Lina drop one of her boxes of popcorn. (She had to resist the temptation to pump a Flare Arrow into the broadcast booth to avenge her food.) "The rules are as follows! Each Mooki-Pokko trainer may use ONE Mooki-Pokko! The first Mooki-Pokko knocked unconscious or out the ring is the loser!"

"Perfect!" Lina cheered, waving a V for victory. "This is gonna be a snap!"


The other popcorn box joined its brother on the grass. "What?!!" Lina gaped. "Xelloss entered the tournament!?"

Sure enough, climbing into the ring was everybody's favorite secretive little bastard, smiling and waving to the kiddies. His opponent, a young boy dressed similarly to Ace (his hero!), seemed a little confused.

"Wow, you're old!" Ryo declared.

"More than you can imagine," Xelloss teased. He pointed dramatically. "Now! Zelas-Metallum! I choose you!"

...and a small black bird reluctantly took off from its perch on his staff, to land in the center of the ring. It looked back at him, as if to ask 'MUST I do this?' but a stern look from Xelloss set the avian straight.

Ryo flipped a Mooki-Pokko card out from his sleeve, holding it up for all to see. He twirled it once, before striking out. "Lionation! I choose you!"

Black lightning sparked from the card momentarily, depositing a... six foot tall snarling teeth like daggers hungry as hell cat with blood red stripes in the ring.

"I almost feel sorry for that Mazoku," Zoamel mused, allowing himself a smile despite his fierce concern for the day's events. "Lina, do you suppose Xelloss is deliberately abusing his former master..? Lina?"

"Huh?" Lina asked, snapping out of her distraction. "Oh, right. Heh. I can see it. Wage slave finally getting it out on his old boss... sorry, I was just looking at that kid's card. It's pretty funny, I hadn't really paid much attention to the Mucky-Socky cards before..."

Zelas cawed madly, hopping back and forth as Lionation swiped at her with razor claws. It was almost comedic, the way the bird frantically tried to avoid becoming several smaller subdivided birds.

Lina dug through her pack, searching. "I bought a pack of the cards off some kid, so we'd have a dummy card to make it look like you were a real Mippy-Mappy..." She took the pack, and ripped it open, to study a card in greater detail. "Something about the light show these things use reminded me of... of... uh. Zoamel?"

"That is one plucky little raven, I must say... yes, what?"

He turned, to look at the card Lina was tapping... or rather, the faintly embossed purple cross in the center of it. A faded purple on a pure white surface.

"Where have we seen this design before?" Lina asked.

"...the Eradicator disks?" Zoamel wondered. "But how could they be related? This is a child's toy -- "

In visually illustrated children's stories, loud background noises are usually depicted by huge letters (mostly vowels) in big red letters behind the characters. In this case, Lina practically was tossed head over heels by a long string of 'O's and 'A's.

When she snapped to attention and turned her eyes to the fighting ring... Lionation was soaring through the air at incredible speed, towards the stands. The kids scrambled to get out of the way as the huge Mooki-Pokko crashed into a row of bleachers, shattering wood and kicking up splinters into the air.

On the whole, the tiny, unassuming black bird who was still standing in the ring looked rather pleased with itself. With the crowd in stunned silence, Zelas-Metallum flapped back over to her 'master', perching on Xelloss's staff. He fed her a cracker in reward.

"THE WINNER... XELLOSS!" the announcer announced, and the crowd busted out into applause, because everybody enjoys a good, clean afternoon involving the gratuitous abuse of imaginary animals.

Xelloss strolled away from the ring, towards Lina. He blew her a little kiss. "I'll see you at the semi-finals, Lina!" he greeted, before disappearing into the shadows of the backstage tunnel. The red eyes of the raven tracked Lina before they too vanished.

"..." was Lina's carefully worded response. Feeling that didn't sum up her thoughts precisely enough, she added to it. " me crazy, Zoamel, but.. I get this feeling that Birdie there wasn't hopping around and dodging because she was outmatched, but... so she could toy with that kitty a little longer before ripping it a new one."

"I have never believed in the existence of tame Mazoku," Zoamel spoke, unsurprised.

Lina rubbed her forehead, feeling those waves of a headache coming on. "I think this tournament just got a little more risky. If we're going to get to Penny and the Tooth Fairy, we're gonna have to find some way to beat that Mazoku, tame or not..."

Penny had cramps, and it wasn't that time of the month.

At first, she figured she could stretch a leg over to reach one of the many sharp metal objects that held the key to her freedom. After all, she was in pretty good shape for a girl her age, and it was just a matter of strength and flexibility! For a trained fighter such as herself, capable of dealing punishing blows to bandit after bandit, all she had to do was...

Be in the worst agony she'd ever experienced. The scissors and knives and whatnot were JUST out of reach of her feet, no matter how hard the pulled on her wrists or tried to bend. Kicking her adorable little pink Idol costume shoes off didn't help -- a few times she managed to nudge them with her toe, only the nudging put them FARTHER away.

Maybe she WOULD have to wait for Lina to rescue her... a lot like the typical damsel in distress. At least she was dressed for the part...

No way.

If she folded now and just waited, she'd forever be someone's lackey, Lina's or Ace's. It was a philosophical challenge! A massive ideological obstacle to overcome! It was.... not going to work if she kept trying to reach the scissors this way. By herself, like this, there was no way to get free. So she'd just have to think of another way.

Her Inventory Bag had been knocked down from the shelf as well, but was clearly too far away. She'd dismissed it from her escape plan because of that, but something was nagging at her. Some way to use it to get help...

"Of course!" Penny shouted. Then toned her voice down, in case any guards heard that. "...Table? Table-chan, are you hiding in there?"

The bag didn't stir.

"It's okay, it's okay," Penny soothed, trying to sound reassuring, using tones she knew calmed the table down. "The bad man went away. You don't have to hide anymore. It's okay, come on out. ...please? I need your help."

A little ruffle in her bag smoothed out... an object inside it moving around. Table-chan was in there! But he was having some trouble with the drawstrings on her bag. Penny might not have been able to move, but she could talk, and lead the table to its own freedom.

"No, no... Table-chan? It's okay, calm down. I'll help you out of there. First, you see the tiny opening in the bag? Work one of your legs into the opening, and wiggle it around... yes, yes, like that! Good! Now another leg, and try to shake the bag open... it's okay, you can do it! Push harder! Great! Great!"

The table toppled out of Penny's bag, and did a little victory dance, happy to be out of that dark, confined space.

Penny smiled to it. "Okay! Now get that knife, and bring it over here!"

The table scuttled around the pile of objects, nudging the knife along with the edge of its... table. Penny internally cheered, having found the solution she needed, and having done it only with her mind, not her weapons! Success! It was perfect!

Then the table stopped nudging, putting the knife at Penny's feet. Because it didn't have prehensile limbs and couldn't actually pick it up, much less climb up and cut her free.

Okay, maybe a little less than perfect. But it was a start. Carefully, VERY carefully, she tried to pick it up with her toes.

Zoamel arched his demonic back, rippling with horns, spines and unnecessary clawed limbs, emitting a low growl that shook his opponent to the very core of fear itself and back to the limits of psychological tolerance. Inset eyes the color of brimstone flared and smoked, tendrils of the infernal soot dripping from his eye sockets...

And the sixth Mooki-Pokko of the day ran away in fear, leaving the ring and giving Lina the win.

"THE WINNER... MINA REVERSE!" the announcer announced. (An assumed name. Never put your real name on something you'd be embarrassed by later, and Lina Inverse damn well didn't want to be worshipped as a Mooki-Pokko Grand Dragon.)

Lina looked up from her fresh box of popcorn, holding up the empty Mooki-Pokko dummy card. "Oh, over already? Good work, Zoamel! Return."

Zoamel warped an illusion around himself, pretending to get sucked back into the card, and reappeared back on the bench in human form to join the returning Lina, while stagehands tried to coax the Mooki-Pokko he'd just scared off out of the rafters.

"I hope we're not scaring the children as well," Zoamel spoke, concerned. "This plan is allowing us to win without having to harm anyone, but -- "

"Relax, Zoamel! The kids love you!" Lina said. "You're a bit out of touch with humanity, you know. Kids love huge gross scary nasty things. I did. And little boys do, too. Not that I'm a little boy, so no cracks about that, got it?!"

"Of course, of course," Zoamel said, quickly begging off. He glanced at the tournament standings. "We are undefeated, it seems, but so is Xelloss and so is Ace Champion. In a few minutes, we'll be facing the Mazoku to see who takes on Ace, won't we? Have you devices a strategy yet?"

"What answer would make you happier?"

"That you have a strategy."

"I've got a strategy, then," Lina said, grinning. "Don't worry. I'll play it by ear and we'll win. If I know Xelloss, he'd see through any intricate plan, anyway. I bet he's only in this tournament to discourage my quest and get me to go attack Sairaag for him early. Pfeh. What a jerk."

"I hope your thinking on your feet pans out, Lina Inverse. ...I will admit, now that we are here and committed, I find myself wanting to face Ace Champion again," Zoamel admitted, quietly. "Perhaps I can exact a small measure of revenge from him, a token to prove he is not the winner in all games. That would please me greatly."

"Zoamel! I'm surprised!" Lina laughed, teasing the god. "I thought you were all 'Oh, I have no wants save to support my believers' and so on! You keep this up we'll have you eating huge dinners and mugging bandits in no time!"

Zoamel coughed, uncomfortable. "Of course, you could say it's simply in the wishes of the believers I lost to him, after all, ah, that's still a debt long withstanding and so forth -- "

"You think too much, Zoey. Just be cool with this whole god thing, like me. It's not a bad thing to enjoy your life, even if you don't think you ever had one in the first place. Come on, we're up against Xel now. Time to flip the bird!"

A complex set of mirrors and refraction devices piped a live picture of the tournament to the backstage area. Three figures stood, watching as Lina and Xelloss took their places in the Mooki-Pokko ring. One smiled, one didn't, one was too fuzzy in the head to comment.

"I'm glad the demon entered," Ace Champion said, sipping a fresh lemonade, while fingering the card he intended to use. "Old friends and enemies against each other! It's perfect drama. It's a shame the audience doesn't know the history these two have -- "

"We are in position, and ready," the stony figure in shadow spoke. "Although it would be easier to take action now, when all four are in the same area."

"You're not going back on your word, are you?" Ace asked. "I thought we had today's fun mapped out. I want to look into that weak so-called god Zoamel's eyes one last time and compete with him. It'll be fun, an encore presentation of the last time I proved my superiority. Don't you agree, Mint?"

Mint Endo blinked through the fog in his mind. "Yes, boss," he replied automatically.

"We have a deal," Ace continued. "And if you want to stay on good relations with your savior, mortal, you'll stick to the terms. Understood?"

"Yes," the Mystery Man said. Although the tone suggested he was just speaking a syllable, putting letters together, rather than accepting the meaning behind his word.

Lina and Xelloss stood on opposite sides of the garishly painted ring of combat. They both knew what was at stake, and were quite serious, although Xelloss held the same smile he'd keep even if he was describing war atrocities. (Actually, it would be a little wider, in that situation.)

"Xelloss, you're not gonna dissuade me from this quest," Lina warned. "I don't care if your boss does beat Zoamel, I'm carrying on."

"Oh, I know, I know," Xelloss explained, waving a finger. "But what fun would it be if I didn't make life a little more exciting for you? Remember the time I switched your racket with a fake one the last time you took part in a tournament? Oh, what a grand day that was!"

Lina curled her hand into a fist. "Yes, in fact, I remember beating the tar out of you after I found out. So don't think I'll mind if, say, Zoamel chews a bit on your head after he finishes plucking your bird's feathers. Nothing personal."

"I wouldn't have it any other way," Xelloss chuckled, raising his staff. "Zelas-Metallum! I choose you!"

Lina flipped her empty card, tugging it with both hands to 'release' her 'Mooki-Pokko'. "Zoamel Gustav, I choose you!!"

Neither bothered with pre-match taunting, and engaged in one of the nastiest, high powered knock down drag out good old fashioned barn burning slobberknockers the Mooki-Pokko world had ever seen.

Whirling black shapes snarled and tore around the ring, keeping it nicely contained so as not to disqualify themselves, but it was enough of a maelstrom of energy that Lina felt the need to dive for cover. Zelas never changed from being a tiny black bird, but the aura of evil and power from her was strong enough for a minor Mazoku -- and Zoamel, not wanting to accidentally hurt any of the kids in the stands, had to hold back. The two were evenly matched.

And 'evenly matched' meant 'possibility of losing' which meant 'no freaking way' in Lina's 'dictionary'. Now that she was against the wall, though, she could actually think a bit more clearly about how to win one for the good guys.

Crawling around the edge of the ring, she crept up behind Xelloss. The Mazoku was, of course, enjoying soaking up the fear and adrenaline of the crowd, and even some of the anger in Zoamel's controlled outburst... while Lina kept her mind clear, nice and empty, only thinking about what she planned to do at the last second...

She gripped the elastic bottom rope of the ring, and HAULED it down, to snap herself into the air like a slingshot. Xelloss would be expecting magic.

"XELLOSS, RETURN!" she shouted.. and slapped the card on his back.

"Wh -- " Xelloss managed, before the black lightning enveloped him. He tried to break away, quickly, even turning into the black cone of power that was his true Mazoku form for a split second, but the card behaived as intended... and Xelloss was sealed into the Mooki-Pokko card, the purple cross glowing brightly.

"Wow," Lina said, waggling the card around, as it fought to bust itself apart. "I honestly didn't know if that would work. Go figure! I -- "


Lina quickly hit the dirt, expecting retalliation... the Mazoku blackbird of death swooped over her head, just barely missing getting a clawful of her skull... and thus, out of the ring.

"THE WINNER BY RING OUT... MINA REVERSE!!!!" the announcer shouted, and the crowd went wild, yaaay.

The paper card in Lina's hands burst apart, fibers scattering as Xelloss was flung from it, tumbling end over end until he crashed in a hot dog vendor's cart. His head came up with a little mustard and relish, which his bird started to peck at, having a few birdlike instincts remaining.

"Mouuu, that was dirty, Lina!" Xelloss whined, rubbing his sore back.

"Hey, you'd have done the same thing if you'd thought of it first," Lina pointed out, with a little smile.

Xelloss tapped a finger on his knee, in thought. "It's true," he admitted, and got up, dusting himself up. "Well fought! Looks like you're on to the final round."

Walking over in human form, Zoamel seemed quite concerned. "Lina, what did you do?" he asked. "I wasn't paying attention, but... it seemed like you managed to trap Xelloss in one of those cards?"

"They're like the Eradicators," Lina said. "But it stores AND ejects the Morris-Phillips, which are just extensions of Ace's Demiurge self, right?"

"But the Eradicators kill Demiurges," Zoamel said, in slight confusion. "How can these cards be similar? The discs pull your self from you and wipe you out utterly..."

A cheer went up from the crowd, as the tournament board updated itself, steam powered wooden slats showing the final round matchup. "FINAL ROUND! MINA REVERSE VERSUS.... ACE! CHAMPION!! MOOKI-POKKO GRAND DRAGON ULTIMATE CHAMPION AND HERO TO ALL CHILDREN!"

"Hold that thought," Lina suggested. "It's game time. Remember, this is for Penny. Don't hold back this time."

Xelloss waved a huge foam We're Number #1 hand. "Good luck! Break a neck! Don't do anything I wouldn't do!"

"What WOULDN'T you do?" Lina asked, curiously.

The hand waving stopped. "Oh. Well. Not much, I suppose. So just break a neck and have good luck and skip the doing part."

Sweat stood out on her brow. This... took.. very.. careful balance...

The plan, as she had laid out, was to make a Table-chan friendly ladder. Get him and the knife up high enough that she could grab it and cut herself free. The mechanics of it were a little more daunting than the concept.

Progress had been slow, but sure. Table-chan lent a han.. a table, nudging over a chair to step up on, and a tall table next to it. She'd picked up Table-chan with her foot, setting him on the larger table (which probably resembled its mother). Almost everything was ready, with one or two more details...

She perched on one foot, the knife CAREFULLY held with the other foot. Step up onto the chair, not too hard. Get her leg up to drop the knife on the table, that was easy, but then she had to... carefully... tilt the table, without knocking it over... so the knife would slowly slide down, towards Table-chan, who was lying on his side and ready... stopping when it hit him.

Thunk. Perfect.

"Okay, we're almost there," Penny said. "Table-chan, nudge it up and onto you, then stand up... so it's resting on top of you. Got it?"

The table chirped in response, and slowly waggled its legs... uprighting itself, with the knife lying just as Penny was hoping. She eased the taller table back to be parallel with the floor again.

"Now, here's the hard part," she admitted. "You couldn't jump up there from the floor, but from here... you can jump up to that empty shelf, with the knife, and then pass it to my hand. Okay? I know you can do it!"

The table trembled a bit, afraid it'd hurt her in the process, but she gave it her best reassuring smile... and in a quick leap, before it could worry anymore, the table SPRANG into the air, land --

The knife skittered off and onto the shelf, but only three of the table's legs made it up. It wobbled and rattled madly, trying not to slip off... and was nudged up when Penny strained to reach over, and prod it with her fingertips. A close call.

Penny breathed a sigh of relief. She held her hand out, and caught the knife perfectly by the handle when Table-chan nudged it over, and started cutting at the ropes. The hard part was over; it wouldn't be long now.

Not too bad for a girl Ace thought was essentially helpless.

Ace Champion sized up Zoamel Gustav, just smiling away at all the tentacles, snarling teeth and slimy eyeballs presented to him. It was fun to see his old rival trying so hard, even if Ace personally didn't feel the slightest bit of fear. If it made Zoamel happy, and was essentially useless, what was the harm?

"You know the deal, Ace," Lina reminded. "We defeat your Mooki-Pokko, you hand over Penny and the location of the Fairy. We lose to your Mooki- Pokko... we'll walk out of here without a second glance."

"You're lying," Ace decided. "Lina Inverse wouldn't do that. But that's okay. Because if I beat you once, it shows to all my followers that you're less than me. You'd be hard pressed to defeat me once I've buried your image in this town..."

The boy held up a single card. The crowd cheered -- they knew something Lina didn't.

"Behold, the most powerful Mooki-Pokko in all existence!" Ace declared. "The legendary psychic cat... NI-KO! I CHOOSE YOU!!"

The card flared, ejecting... a bright white ball, a sphere of energy that contained a white and purple catlike figure. (Catlike, with a bit of mouse and dog and sewing machine and rhino and street sign built in, but hey, Mooki-Pokko ARE funny looking.) The ball hovered towards Zoamel, utterly unafraid, smooth as silk.

"He won't be scared off like the others, because he's blind," Ace announced. "But even without sight, he hasn't lost a single Mooki-Pokko match since I started this trend. I've poured a lot of my essence into his form, and transfer the rest in when he's in combat. You're against me now, Zoamel, me in the shell of the children's hero embodied, me in my shrine. How can you possibly hope to defeat that, so far from your temples?"

The monstrous Zoamel Gustav growled/slathered/chittered something that probably meant 'Shut up and fight'.

The battle made the previous one seem like a cheap stage play with halfhearted smoke bombs and flat, unbelievable sets. A PILLAR of raw lightning sprouted from the ring, encased in the ropes and extending a hundred feet in the air, as the two tangled and twisted, trying to knock each other out of the boundaries. Both got in good licks, evenly paced...

Lina hopped out of the ring quickly, as did Ace, to let her competitor go ballistic without worrying about hurting her. "C'mon, Zoamel!!" she cheered on, waving her hands. "Beat that Demiurge! Spank that kitty! Fight fight fight!"

"It won't work," Ace said, a voice right to Lina's mind. "He has no true believers here. He has no leverage. He never fully used the power of his flock, never milked them for every drop of what they had. Can't you feel the children, giving everything to see Ni-ko triumph?"

"Shaddup," Lina barked... but she could feel it. Just like she had the other day, the lines, the wind from the children into the tiny sphere surrounding Ni-ko was there. What did Zoamel have? Her own belief that Zoamel could kick ass and take names didn't count; she wasn't human, she wasn't one of his faithful. And Zoamel was failing.

But it wasn't because Zoamel was weaker. Ace was so small compared to the great Zoamel, a tiny pinpoint of incredible power, with Zoamel's more dispersed and subtle power. But Zoamel wasn't getting any leverage, he didn't have any break out moments, while Ace could goad his followers on. Lina fingered through her pack, hoping she had more empty cards, but came up... well, empty.

It would take a miracle.

It would take ONE person with enough faith to tip the scales, even if just for a second. Someone who believed in Zoamel with utter devotion...

THERE. A stream, small but with incredible force, from somewhere backstage, getting closer...

And Zoamel gripped Ni-ko through the ball of energy, and SLAMMED the catthingy into the surface of the ring, embedding the Mooki-Pokko halfway through the canvas. It was only one attack out of the many failed attacks, but the impact on the pace of the fight was immediate.

A collective gasp went up from the kids. Their hero had been struck! The whirlwind of power faded, as Zoamel stood perched in the ring before his enemy, howling in rage. The cat's legs flailed around uselessly, as the humiliation of the WAY he had been attacked worked its way into the minds of the faithful... while Zoamel moved for the kill.

The human-shaped extension of Ace Champion balled his fists, sweating. "No," he whispered. "No. I can't lose, I never lose my games. I'm ACE CHAMPION! I will not LOSE!!" He twirled, facing the broadcast booth high above and the figures within... then whistled, sharply. A signal.

A tiny object glinted off the sun, whirling down from the booth, and impacted in the ring -- right underneath Zoamel Gustav. A tiny white disc with a purple cross.

Ni-ko pried itself up from the ring and BOLTED for the far corner, to avoid the effects of the Eradicator, but the black lightning reached up from the disk, trying to snare around Zoamel. Zoamel pulled and tugged, but the device was made to render resistance futile...

"How do you like it, Zoamel?!" Ace taunted, laughing at the god's plight. "How fitting that your existence should end, drained away into an invention of MY DESIGN! Say hello to Sairaag when you arrive!!"

Lina moved quickly, climbing into the ring -- but froze. If SHE touched that thing, she'd suffer the same fate.

It was a no win situation. No win for anybody except Ace, who was in the corner with Ni-ko, laughing away. He NEVER lost...

Like a javelin from the heavens (or more specifically, the backstage entrance) a poorly made custom naginata arced through the air, and SPEARED directly through the center of the Eradicator. The blade was blunt and cheap, but that served all the better to shatter the disc into several pieces, breaking its hold on Zoamel in an instant.

All eyes in the arena turned to the figure at the entrance, who stood with fury in her eyes, and an adorably fluffy pink dress that didn't quite go with her anger.

"How DARE you hurt my dear Zoamel!" Penny shouted, pointing at the unbelieving Ace Champion. "You wanted a Mooki-Pokko fight? I'll give you a Mooki-Pokko fight! And when I win, you're going to tell Lina what she wants to know, and we're ALL going to leave your crazy city! You're going DOWN, Ace!"

Lina clapped and hooted and whistled. "That's my girl!! Kick his scrawny little ass, Penny!" Then she QUICKLY dragged Zoamel's drained, unconscious human form out of the ring and got to maximum safe distance, just in case.

Ace didn't stop looking shocked. His world had been rocked, and it showed; the children now weren't watching to see their savior win, they were watching to see what would happen next, who would come on top. "You challenge ME?! The failed heroine, the broken girl? Fine! I'll show you what it means to pick a fight with one who has been around since man first had desires! Bring it on! NI-KO, I CHOOSE YOU! AGAIN!"

Penny vaulted into the ring, over the top rope and landing on her bare feet. She reached into her knapscak, and hurled out...


The table did its best to pose dramatically and heroically.

Ni-Ko fell on its face in surprise.

"Oh, no, geez, PENNY!" Lina shouted, clawing at her hair. "It's just a freaking TABLE! I know you're fond of the stupid little thing, but how the hell do you expect it to beat that guy?!"

A mad glint of delight flashed in Penny's eye, as she issued the command.

"Table-chan, Dirty Little Secret Attack NOW!"

The table SPRANG into the air, running on whatever rocklike equivalent it had for adrenaline (magma?), arcing towards Ni-ko. Ash and Ni-ko looked at it fly, not quite sure what it was trying to do, since the worst it could manage was to give Ni-ko a little bump on the noggin...

Table-chan landed squarely on Ni-ko's head, all four legs locked into position. It glowed briefly, filling up on data, stocking its internal information...

"Ni-ko!" the table chanted. "Demiurge extension, fragment of Ace Champion! Psychic Cat-type Mooki-Pokko! Allergic to mice! Wets its card whenever scared!"

The mighty Ni-ko trembled.. and started to turn red. Ace tried to order it to relax, to obey him, but he HAD breathed Mooki-Pokko nature into this extension of himself, and Mooki-Pokko were, by definition, silly and wacky creatures...

"Secretly believes itself superior to all children due to phenominal psychic attack power!" the Table continued... as the children started to BOO the Mooki-Pokko, and throw empty popcorn boxes at it. "Related to owner, Ace Champion! Ace Champion hates all children as well and only wants their money and devotion! Ace Champion, Demiurge, cheats to win because he feels justified in the outcome! Ni-ko, Mooki-Pokko, secretly likes to wear women's clothing and cries during sad stories!"

Task complete, Table-chan jumped off Ni-Ko's head, and scrabbled back to hide behind Penny.

"Stop that!!" Ace shouted to the crowd, dodging thrown garbage. "I love you guys! I'm your hero! STOP that! Ni-Ko, no, wait, don't leave the -- "

The embarrassed Mooki-Pokko fled the ring, crying its blind little eyes out, until it hit a wall of the arena and was knocked unconscious.

The shock of the loss delayed the announcement, but it was inevitable.


The god of fads knew for the first time what losing truly felt like. And he hated it. The sooner this was over, the better. Ace sank to his knees in disbelief, as Penny towered over him, flashing a V sign.

"Victory! Okay, Ace, fess up. Where's the Tooth Fairy?" she asked, hands on hips.

".... Bimini Island," he spoke, quietly. "He's at Bimini Island. Now go. Go away. Leave me alone."

Triumphant, Penny waved to the crowd, blew kisses, then marched out of the ring with the table on her head. Her friends joined her, and off they went, the cheers and adoration of the children ringing in their ears on departure. The tournament was over.

(Penny Gabriev left her naginata stuck in the canvas of the mat. She didn't need it anymore.)

But when they got back to the inn, they set a new world record for speed of bag-packing, and sprinted for the gates of Atlas City at a flat dash.

"We just crushed their hero, that's why!!" Lina shouted, in response. "Take it from someone used to dealing with angry crowds! Once the rush wears off, they'll be after us with pitchforks and torches. I intend to get at least twenty miles between us and this place before sundown!"

"Couldn't I even have taken this stupid dress off?" Penny complained, jogging along with the table on her head and her frilly skirt bouncing along. "It's humiliating!"

"Oh, I don't know, I think it shows off your cute little butt well!" Xelloss musically chimed in with, earning a Roaring Elbow to the face from Penny.

"I doubt Ace will come after us," Zoamel said, not bothering to run, simply to float along with them. "For the first time in history, he has been utterly broken by a simple mortal. I believe you have achieved the vengeance I sought over him better than I could have, Penny. Very good work. ...and I think it's a rather attractive dress, myself. If you don't mind me saying so."

"..." Penny replied, turning red.

"So where the heck is Bimini Island?" Lina asked, yanking a map out of her pack without losing any steam in her brisk jog.

"It's off the coast of Sailoon," Zoamel stated. "This road runs right through the capital city, and to the docks, where we can catch a boat."

"Just what I needed, another boat," Lina grumbled. "Well, whatever! I'm just glad to be gone from there. But... who threw that disk down there? One of Ace's guys? I thought I heard him say something about him the disk, but it was too loud for me to hear clearly..."

"He said he invented it," Zoamel spoke, voice going cold compared to the previous praise he as issuing. "The cards and the disks must be related. Ace has backstabbed his entire race in making a weapon that traps us. They are not 'eradicators' at all, but prisons."

Lina ran in silence... turning that over and over in her mind. The million gold piece question burned through the haze.

"Why on earth would THEY want to trap a Demiurge?" she asked.

Ace Champion punched a locker hard enough to dent it.

"I HAD him!!" he snarled. "I had that bastard, and ONE believer gave him the advantage. One believer! It's impossible that a single sheep could empower the shepherd so much. No human believes that strongly in their god!"

"It seems you were mistaken about a great deal of things," the man said, leaning on the locker bank, ignoring Ace's rage. "You have failed, Ace. We wanted them in the open, and easily taken. We could have had Lina and Zoamel before they became a larger problem for us."

"I can get them again!" Ace declared. "Chase them! Hunt them! I can make hunting a fad. I can turn this entire CITY into my army, devoted to me, to crush -- "

"No," the man said, stepping closer. "Sairaag isn't interested in failures. We've allowed you to continue to operate in exchange for your work on our primary goal, but your usefulness is at an end. You can do nothing further for us, and your desire to conquer the world with your gimmicks and tricks is contrary to our designs for civilization. It's time to join your kin in the core, Champion."

Ace's eyes widened.. and he stepped back, human instincts in his human shell to get away. "No, wait! How can you say that? We've been working together for years now, and I'm still useful! I DESIGNED those things, I can make more wonders for your technocracy! Put it down! Zelgadis, please, DON'T -- "

Seconds later, a white disk fell to the floor, glowing with stored power. Zelgadis picked it up, pocketed it without a second thought, and walked out of the room.

Mint Endo oversaw the deconstruction of the stage the next morning with a massive headache rocking his brain. Partially it was a hangover from having a good round of stiff drinks the previous night, but mostly it was from his confusion over recent events.

It didn't make any sense. The tournament had a SPECTACULAR turnout and an amazing finish. The kids should be buying more Mooki-Pokko merchandise...

But they weren't. All the cards had stopped working. Atlas City was waking up from its fascination with Mooki-Pokko, and moving on with other things. Enthusiasm for the fad had died almost overnight.

Win some, lose some, Mint thought. He'd gone through this before with the blasted mood rocks. Mooki-Pokko's era was gone, and he'd just move on to something else. Maybe something with a bit more staying power, not designed to appeal to the masses, burn hard, and die out in a year.

There was that long standing idea he'd had for a sort of game about adventuring, but the elements never came together. But ever since the tournament, he'd been thinking of new things... about a good heroine character with a nice dress and a naginata who could be the title character, and a new rule about rolling dice on a table of numbers to see what wandering monsters you bumped into...

The rest didn't feel as hard to think up, now. Tonight he'd start on the first edition of the rulebook, and maybe slowly leak it to folks hoping for a bit more of a mental challenge than Mooki-Pokko offered. They could be heroes and heroines using only the power of their minds... and a few random numbers, of course.

Maybe he'd call it Demons and Dungeons, or something. But first things first.

Mint took the last pile of wooden stage props, lit a match, and let it burn. It was easier than hauling it out to the town dump. He marched off, visions of adventures and glory in his head as the legacy of Ace Champion boiled away into the sky. The sun was a bit murky that day, but things were certainly looking up now.

Book 6   |   Fanfiction