Book Six: Vulnerability


Another in a long string of similar nights. She tosses in her queen sized bed, pulling at the sheets without realizing she's doing so. In her mind, everything is wrong. Everything is terrible. And it horrifies her.

Sometimes, she'll wake, but she has to sleep -- if she didn't get her rest, if she couldn't perform the same tasks she's had to perform every day, everything WILL go wrong. She'd find whatever strength is needed to get back to sleep. And then it all begins again.

How long could that strength last, though, when she had doubted herself for so many years? Just thinking about how many more days she could take stripped another day off the end tally...

Don't think about it. Don't face it. Maintain. She goes back to sleep. Hours later, she pulls at the sheets without realizing she's doing so...


This was starting to get repetitive. A lesser man would start to lose hope, but Gourry Gabriev was not a lesser man, thankfully. Instead, he woke up three mornings in a row in Atlas City trying to find out where his daughter was.

The trail had gone cold here. Wherever the group went, it had left in a hurry, and apparently everybody in town was at some public event and didn't see what direction they left in. There were some VERY confusing stories about what Penny was up to that Gourry felt no driving need to report to Lina... he didn't want to worry her.

Lina, who did what she always did, selling and buying and making deals to help support the family. Even when her daughter had run off and her husband was abroad it was business as usual for Lina. Gourry tried not to worry about her (why worry, when she was 'perfectly fine'?) but knew if this kept up, even Lina wouldn't be able to maintain...

Maybe that would be a good thing. This had shaken the family out of a loop, a daily grind. He wished Penny didn't have to be at risk to do so, but some dark part of him he never let surface was thrilled to be out and about and in the fray, and to have his wife be forced to face reality.

But none of that would matter if he never saw Penny again. So, he walked along Atlas City's streets on that third morning looking for signs of Penny, and just before he was going to turn in and get breakfast he saw a sign of Penny. Literally.

The likeness was off, but the warrior-princess figure (in a dress that really wasn't suitable for combat) fighting a huge dragon was DEFINITELY Penny. Next to the lovely painting was a large title -- 'WE HAVE DEMONS & DUNGEONS 1st ED!! ALL ACCESSORIES 25% OFF!'.

Inside, a bright-faced merchant with new purpose in life who went by the name of Mint Endo had exactly the information Gourry wanted. He was set back a few days by this, but surely he could catch up, even on the bargain basement horse he had rented.

It was only a matter of time. How long could he maintain this hunt before Lina's legendary ability to stay out of it cracked, though...?


Not that Roy Balderdash needed a lunchbreak. His entire existence these last few days had been a lunchbreak, constant and unending, since he was assigned this post. This ridiculous post, where he had no real orders to give and no actions to take -- likely his 'dear sister' just storing him somewhere until he was useful again.

True, he had a dozen soldiers to look after, but they were egghead types. ('Eggheads' being defined by Roy as 'anybody who knew more about these crazy machines than he did' which lately was 'everybody'.) These weren't hack and slash, up on the front lines, death by day and seventy dollars a month fighters. This was a siege, but it wasn't the normal kind with a huge wall and boiling tar and tense moments where one side tested the other.

The last testing THIS city had done ended with a greasy patch in the grass where soldiers once stood. After all, Sairaag had the War Machine on its side. Literally. A dozen of the cannons and energy stream throwers stood at the ready on all four sides of the city to mow down anything that dared to leave. Who needed a thousand hardy men surrounding the place when you could independently target anything by remote? Who needed men like Roy Balderdash?

Clearly not Elizabeth. He considered a few times... just how far was her all-seeing eye? Where did she GET this sort of power over the world in the first place? It didn't make any sense to him, but he was always a straightforward sort of bandit king, comfortable in a shortsighted fog.

He considered running away a few times, if he felt he COULD escape his sister's zealot technocracy, but what if she was right? What if Sairaag DID take over the world, and he was so obsolete that he didn't even have the limited value he held now? The safest place was here, in Sairaag's ranks. Which hopefully someone would crush soon so he could get about banditing in the traditional sense.

Maybe even Lina Inverse would crush them. Some tiny, quiet part of Roy secretly hoped that would be the case. Then maybe he could settle down into a nice, pleasant feud with her like the old days...

Finally, something interesting happened. One of those fancy portals the machines can open twisted itself in the air nearby... and unfortunately deposited Commander Greyweirs.

"What is your status?" Zelgadis asked, no Hi, How are you, How's it been, Is your job satisfaction at optimal levels, valued employee?

"No change," Roy stated. He'd gotten used to Zelgadis popping out of thick air lately. "They haven't made any further runs. There are a few weak points of coverage folks have been sneaking through, but as per your damn weird orders, we're leaving them alone. Are you here to relieve me? That would be a relief."

Zelgadis tugged a machine-printed scroll from his sleeve. "New orders. Lina Inverse is headed this way. You are not to stop her; we will take them all in one stroke once the circles break. We are to step up the siege on both fronts. Plans are already in motion on the inner front. As for the outer, you are authorized to increase the setting on the machine to 125%."

Roy wasn't the sort to shiver at an unpleasant thought, which made the fact that he shivered all the more unpleasant. When he first got here, one of the techies explained what the tiny, unimpressive little machine was for, and he hadn't liked it one bit...

If Lina Inverse really was coming, he hoped she'd quit taking her damn sweet time doing it.

Lina was not a master of stealth. Or a mistress of stealth, for that matter. But she knew the value of How Not to Be Seen, and was doing just that.

They had seen the dull shine in the air over the capital city of Sailoon from miles away. Lina, of course, knew exactly what it was from her past experiences here -- someone had raised a white magic shield through the inscribed magic circles that surrounded the city. It served well as a haven in dark times, since nothing known to man (except maybe Shaburanigdo himself) could get through those things.

Not that she had ever seen them raised. But Amelia had described them a bit to her last time she was here, how they'd only been used twice in the history of her extensive royal family... something pretty spooky had to be brewing to justify this.

She crouched in the bushes, nudging branches of nearby trees down so she could get a better vantage point, taking care not to snap the wood. No sounds. Nothing to give away position.

(Her armor and boots were designed not to make any noise, and fortunately her friends were similarly dressed; even Penny, who had left her armor behind in the mad run from Atlass City and was taking to wearing a fairly simple green tunic and skirt she bought en route. The idol dress went into her pack; Lina asked who she'd want to wear THAT getup around again, but didn't press further to avoid Penny's panicked blush.)

Why all the attention to stealth? Because that machine looked FREAKY.

Someone had parked a giant cannon gun blaster zapper thingy in a clearing outside the city. It stood about twenty feet tall, but was totally unmanned... and somehow, Lina suspected that didn't make it any less dangerous. The business end of the thing was aimed -- where else? -- directly at Sailoon.

And naturally, the machine had the imperial crest of Sairaag on it.

"Looks like Sailoon's got company," Lina said. "I don't think we're gonna be able to get in there, guys. Let's just move on. The dock town linking to Bimini Island is only a few day's stroll from here."

"What?" Penny asked, confused. "But you were going on and on about how great it would be to see Amelia again. I told you she's the Queen of Sailoon. You're just going to leave her like this?"

Xelloss pouted in his effeminate little way which suggested he was not in fact a dark demon slaking his unquenchable thirst on the sin of man. "Oh, poop. And here I had myself so excited about Lina finally getting her act together and squishing Sairaag. Maybe I should have gone with your counterpart, as inactive and unadventurous as she may be..."

"Look, just because I'm willing to toss myself into the fray now and then doesn't mean I pick EVERY fight I come along!" Lina hissed, keeping her voice low but nasty. "This is NOT a good time to put a chip on our collective shoulders marked 'Sairaag'! We've still got no idea why they're scooping up Demiurges like... like... dammit, what's something that's always getting scooped?"

"Err, ice cream?" Penny suggested. "Doggie doughnuts? News exclusives?"

"Oh my, Lina Inverse is scared," Xelloss teased. "She's got a yellow tail and -- really, Lina, you don't have to set me on fire, a simple 'Shut up, Xelloss' would have sufficed. Zoamel, may I borrow your canteen?"

"No," Zoamel stated flatly.

"Honestly, some gods simply have no manners whatsoever," Xelloss sighed, trying to pat out the fires in his clothes manually.

"I am NOTHING like that other Lina! No offense of course Penny, but I just feel like this is NOT the time to... I mean that if I go and... oh, fine! If you want me to attack that thing, I will!" Lina decided, snapping the branches out of the way and marching directly to the clearing, brushing up an imaginary sleeve. "Let's take the direct approach! Seems like what you all want!!"

The gun IMMEDIATELY snapped around one hundred and eighty degrees, sensing the motion. Sixty four tiny red sighting dots lit up on Lina's person. Everybody except the plucky little deified sorceress hit the deck.

"Behold, I am a heroine and in the name of whoever, I punish you!" Lina declared, charging the Mother Of All Fireballs. She flicked her wrist, casually lobbing the superpowered flaming wad of blazing doom at the machine and waited for the explosion...

Which didn't come, as a bunch of magical lightning rods had been planted in a tight circle around the siege equipment, sucking up the energy and grounding it harmlessly.

"What'd I say?!" Lina said, turning to her panicked group. "Picking fights pointlessly is stupid! If we're going to do this, we've got to do it MY way, and that's by -- "

"BEHIND YOU!" they shouted in unison.

Lina sighed, and waited for the volley of red hot electrified death to whiz past her immortal badass self and mow down an acre of forest. Zoamel quickly protected Penny -- Xelloss just felt annoyed that he was on fire again.

" I was saying," she said, while the gun charged a second jolt, "If we're GOING to infiltrate Sailoon and help Amelia win the day, we're going to do it MY way. Trashing one of these things would be easy enough, but who knows if they've got Eradicators or techno whatsitmajiggers and so on? Instead of just blindly attacking these guys, we get in, figure out how to help, get the job done and hurry along to where we're going. Nice and subtle. But THIS thing almost SINGED MY CAPE!"

The young girl turned, marched over to the machine, and gave it a royal PUNT. A huge crack ran down the center of the machine, and various kinetrope dot matrix displays repeated ERROR ERROR ERROR before the whole thing emitted a final death wail and shut down.

Penny... blinked. And blinked. (There's some strange human reaction to surprise that demands you blink many times to clear your eyes and assure your brain that Yes, you did just see the impossible. It also gives you something to do other than hold rock still, which is dramatically uninteresting.) "Lina... you... I mean.. WOW! That was amazing! But it wasn't very subtle, I don't think..."

"I've got my own definition of subtle," Lina explained. She turned to the shimmering bubble over the city, peering through the light fog to spot buildings and people... yes, people. Staring in awe. She then waved to them wildly. "HEY! YOO HOO! LET US IN ALREADY! I don't have all day, you know!"

"Definitely not subtle," Xelloss bemused, having grown his hair back for now. He kept his voice down, lest he raise the Ire of Inverse once more. "But that's Lina for you, boys and girls. Once pushed too far, on impulse and bravado alone... she blows up one of the machines, making enough of a scene to convince a paranoid city to let her inside as a new hero. I bet she doesn't even realize how clever that was. Ah, it feels like the old days! Look at me, I'm all weepy and waxing nostalgic..."

"The hell do you mean, you can't let me in?" Lina argued with the city guard on the other side. "I told you, I'm a close personal friend of your QUEEN. You know, Amelia Wil Tesla Sailoon? Short and idealistic?.. okay, probably not short anymore, but I have this feeling you should damn well know what she looks like without my help!!"

The guard pressed a small crystal to his ear, listening to the magically transmitted instructions. "All entrances during a Citywide Emergency Defense Alert State must be approved by The Council," he stated, although with some fear after that wonderful little display of power. "Err. They say they might be able to vote on the issue tomorrow after teatime. Maybe if you came back then?"

"I don't think it's working right, Xelloss," Penny decided. She cautiously got to her feet, to walk over and join Lina.

"Vote? Issue?" Lina asked, incredulous. "Look, bub, any minute now those guys from Sairaag are gonna come investigate, fully armed. If they do, I'll have to throw down with them, and this is going to be more trouble than it's worth and I'm going to go on my merry way as I had originally planned. Got it? So open up or I'll take my cute little famous world-saving holy butt somewhere else."

"Err... kind of getting into this god thing, aren't you, Lina?" Penny asked, a little nervous.

"You'd think something like that would be enough to merit a backstage pass," Lina muttered. "Membership ought to have its privileges..."

Penny took control. "Listen, mister... Captain Davin, is it?" she asked, reading his badge. She adjusted her voice, to be a bit more plaintive, rather than Lina's bull in a pottery shop attitude. "We're really in a fix out here. Now, we're old friends of Amelia's, and willing to help you guys with your problem, but if we can't get in then we're going to get attacked. Do you know who this is? This is LINA INVERSE. You saw what she did to that machine. She could do it again. Captain, have your troops had as much success as that against Sairaag's forces?"

The guard hesitated. Some memory clouded over his face, darkening it. "No, we haven't," he spoke, fear of Lina replaced by anger over something else. "...I could try contacting the Royal Palace directly. I'm not authorized to go over the heads of The Council, but..."

"It would REALLY help, sir," Penny added. Along with a little batting of the eyelashes. "Please?"

That did it. The guard swallowed, and adjusted the collar on his armor. "I'll see what I can do, miss," he replied, stepping away from the shields and whispering quietly into his communication crystal.

Lina turned to look at Penny, curious. "That... was pretty good, Penny. When'd you learn how to win friends and influence people like that? I thought you were the attack first with shouts of justice and ask questions later type..."

"Oh... well, you know, just been thinking recently," Penny tossed off, with a shrug.

The shield split... just a tiny aperture, tall enough for them to enter while crouched, wide enough to squeeze through. Utterly unimpressive. But the guard on the other side was saluting their entrance.

"Her Royal Highness Queen Amelia Wil Tesla Sailoon welcomes her friends with open arms, and wishes to express her thanks for your assistance!" the guard announced.

"Now THAT'S service!" Lina grinned, clapping once. "Let's go! The war can wait; posh palace quarters and four course meals, here I come!"

Plaster crumbled. But the sound of falling plaster had long since ceased to be a major event in the palace of Sailoon.

If anything, the stony crackle was a welcome thing, good for breaking the silence of the throne room. She was quite looking forward to a further lack of silence, if her guards were right. Things rarely were QUIET when Lina Inverse was around...

Her stomach rumbled.

Okay, there was that sound. But that was one thing the queen would have preferred quiet. Briefly her mind entertained the nightmarish prospect of Lina refusing to help because there wasn't enough food -- no, put that aside. Lina wasn't that shallow. At least, not often. Not when it counted. Hopefully not now. The suspense was killing her.

The door creaked open.

"Hey, what's going on?" Lina Inverse asked, looking around the empty throne room. "Shouldn't there be trumpeters to announce my presence or a parade through the streets or something? ANYBODY HERE??!"

A 35 year old woman attached herself to Lina like an energetic little child.

"Lina-saaaaan!" Queen Amelia Wil Tesla Sailoon of Sailoon cheered, voice not having changed much despite the ravages of years. She squeezed, almost smothering the young god. "I'm SO HAPPY you're here! Thank you thank you thank you..."

"ghh," Lina replied.

Thankfully, Amelia let go... and seemed confused. "Ara? Lina? You shrank! Last time I saw you -- "

"It's a long story," Lina offered, trying to decompress her rib cage through sheer air pressure, wheezing. She weakly gestured to her companions. "Penny Gabriev, Zoamel Gustav, and you know Xelloss. Guys, this is Amelia. Amelia, guys."

"Hi! Mother's told me so much about you!" Penny said, taking Amelia's hand and bowing, not quite up on proper male and female methods of paying respect to royalty. "You've been kind of a hero to me, with your optimism and leadership! How do you do?"

"Things could be better," Amelia weakly said, with a weaker smile. "Come, come! Let's.... er. There's no real chairs here, so.. let's all stand around! Lina, have you come to save Sailoon?"

"Yeah, whatever," Lina offered, getting back to full upright position. "Piece of cake. Just a bunch of machines out there. I'll fill up on a huge dinner, get a good night's sleep, go out there and pound them into the dirt!"

Zoamel stood, arms crossed, off to the side. "That did not work, if you recall," he reminded.

"Hai, hai, they've got these stick things that absorb magic," Amelia said, with a sigh. "We've made several attempts at them... magically they're nearly invulnerable. Every spell we use is eaten up by their defenses. Physically... we've lost several battalions trying to attack directly, sneak up unawares... everything. If we didn't have the magic circles, those guns would have this city easily. The situation could be better..."

"Ehh, they haven't MADE an enemy Lina Inverse can't handle!" Lina boasted. "Don't you worry a bit, Amelia. Everybody's got a weak spot, and I'll find one! We've.. come VERY close to besting Sairaag at every turn in our quest, and we'll best them here! You have my word."

"Oh, thank the gods," Amelia sighed, in relief. She trembled slightly, exhaustion clearly showing through her royal visage. "Now that Lina's here, everything will be better. Thank the gods..."

"I thought you didn't believe this was your fight, Lina?" Zoamel asked, making a VERY handsome Shaburanigdo's Advocate, as it were. "That this was not the time for it, and it was not your style of action?"

"You guys wanted to stop here and save the day," Lina said, almost growling it out. "And Amelia's like family! So, I'll kick butt and kick butt and when I'm done kicking butt, that's when the REAL buttkicking will commence! Right, Xel? You think I'm the one fated to blast Sairaag back into the Bronze Age, what do you have to say about my chances of winning?"

Xelloss, bored with the heroic rhetoric, poked a nearby wall -- his finger going right through the cracked and dusty plaster. "My my, Sailoon certainly has seen better days, hasn't it, Amelia-chan?"

Dust settled on the group from the ceiling, as a CRACK signaled yet another difficulty in the building's integrity. Lina shook her head, to get the stuff out of her hair. "Yeah, I mean, don't you guys have a maid service? Or some carpenters? Phil didn't keep this place looking like ancient ruins -- "

"Father's not with us anymore," Amelia said quietly. Informatively.

Lina paused. Death had a funny way of derailing your bouncy little train of thought. "...ah. Well. I'm sorry to hear that, Amelia."

"Oh.. it's okay," Amelia said, smiling absently. "He managed to take his assassin with him... my Uncle Jeffrey. But then grandfather died. And so did my aunt. And since Gracia's gone... I got the throne by default. But it's okay! I've been a good ruler. Everything's been great, except for Sairaag, I mean..."

"Speaking of ruling, what's up with this 'Council'?" Lina asked. "Since when has Sailoon been a democracy? I don't trust democracies, you don't get the good, honest ruthlessness of a monarch and have to deal with all that 'politics' stuff..."

Amelia kept her smile on like a mask. (It was getting obvious, even to Lina, who didn't normally pay much attention to how people felt.) "Oh, them... ah... well, they're the real power in Sailoon. I thought it was time for a change, is all. I've cut the budget a bit here in the palace and put it into the Council so the city can survive, even in the siege... it's better than a monarchy, nobody has to fight over a single throne of power. Although they haven't exactly come to a solution to the situation with Sairaag... but you're here, Lina! Lina Inverse! You always know what to do. You always win! You've beaten Mazoku Lords and Shaburanigdo himself, surely you can handle a small army, even if they have machines capable of.. of tearing apart six men in a single shot and... and..... and you're Lina! So I feel safe. Everything's good now. Good. Right?"

An awkward silence didn't bother to hang over the group; it freely mixed on a social basis and chatted up Lina unsuccessfully. She cleared her throat (partially because of the dust in the air), and smiled to Amelia. "Right. Everything's good. Don't you worry about a thing."

"Good," Amelia echoed. "Very good. It's getting late.. I'm afraid we don't have an in-palace kitchen staff anymore, but feel free to fix yourself something from the pantry. We.. you'll start tomorrow, and soon, we'll be free from this horrible siege! Oh, oh... wait, let me give you something..."

The queen fumbled in her robes a bit, and produced a simple charm bracelet. It was a pink ribbon of silk, with a blue gemstone attached by magical power -- a sphere with an embossed six pointed star. A copy of the magical circles.

"I've got one, and so does everybody else in Sailoon's local White Mage's Guild," Amelia explained. "The magic circles have taken a heavy beating, so we use these to supplant them with our own power while we sleep or go about our daily work. Together, we can't fail! There's safety in numbers, you know."

Lina fingered it a bit. She could FEEL some sort of link from it, something familiar, but she wasn't all that well versed in white magic and couldn't understand exactly how it worked. Would it even work on a Demiurge, rather than a human who taps genuine magic? With a shrug, figuring it couldn't hurt, she strapped the bauble on.

"I'll.. I'll give you special clearance!" Amelia decided, taking mental notes in a hurry. "Omega alpha red! Full security to move freely in and out of the circles! You can have any part of the army you need and any supplies you want! Total executive power. I can do that in the event of an emergency, even without the council."

"Then why haven't you done something already?" Xelloss asked, curious.

"Not to worry!" Lina said, interrupting quickly. "Come, friends! Off to the ... kitchen to make sandwiches, and then to rest before our day of glory!"

"I KNOW you can do it, Lina-san!" Amelia smiled, putting all her hope and faith in the young sorceress.

"I don't know how we're going to do this," Penny said, before stuffing another peanut butter and jelly sandwich in her mouth, chewing thoughtfully.

"The situation does seem grim," Zoamel spoke, sizing up the logistics. "Amelia's clearly feeling strain over this, and seems to have divulged all her hope in you. Despite her edict, likely we will have conflict with the Council if we try to actually USE the resources of Sailoon. On top of that, the machines are protected from magic, and likely have Eradicators just in case a situation like you arises."

"Now now, let's not be naysayers!" Xelloss interjected, while feeding a rat to his former Mazoku Lord. "I'm sure Lina will do very well tomorrow. She IS the one to defeat Sairaag. I believe in it right down to my cold black shriveled up little heart!"

Lina sat on the counter, swinging her ankles and remaining jovial. "Exactly! I actually agree with this little bastard."

"Why, thank you, Lina!"

"I'm a god, aren't I?" Lina asked. "A god of destruction, of profit, of a bunch of things. I blow stuff up, it's my reason to be. So I'll do a little property damage tomorrow. Maybe I don't know EXACTLY how to smack these guys back to Sairaag, but something will come up. Always does. I should be taking advantage of my immortality, invulnerability and general asskicking power. Amelia's backed to a wall here, at the end of her rope, close to the edge and a bunch of other metaphors, so it's time for me to step into the ring for her."

"She's the leader of her people," Penny spoke, with a hint of warning. "She hasn't done anything about this except shuffle the task off to other people. First a Council, and now you. I thought you.. I thought mom told me that Amelia was strong willed and idealistic? A natural leader, if a bit of a clumsy and silly one?"

"Amelia's had a rough time, okay? We'll leave it at that," Lina decided. "There's no reason to drop her into the fray on this one when she's that frayed to begin with. We don't need her. I mean, in this kitchen, we not only have the second finest meats and cheeses, but we've got two gods, a Mazoku, and an adventuress in training! That's GOT to be enough to handle any situation. If anything, a cast of wacky yet powerful characters with different skills lumped together against impossible odds ALWAYS works! I know these things."

"I will go along with this. It is part of my vengeance on Sairaag," Zoamel agreed. "But I will express doubts now. We must not be headstrong. Outthinking an enemy in a superior position is the key to victory -- "

Lina jumped off the counter, adjusting her cape. "I don't think," Lina said flatly. "In general, I don't bother to think things through. It's true, I'll admit it. But I'm a girl of action, that's just how I approach situations. If I'm really going to play this god card to hilt, I've got to have faith in MYSELF to roll with it and come out clean in the end. So, I'm going to go to bed, catch a little sleep so I can help out the magic circles, and tomorrow after a hearty breakfast we'll make our move."

"Three cheers for Lina Inverse!" Xelloss shouted, hopping up and down in a purple and black cheerleader's costume and waving pom poms. "Give me an L! Give me an I! Give me an N! Give me an A! Lina! Lina! If she can't do it, no one can! GOOOOOO TEAM!! YAAAAY!"

....and everybody just STARED.

"What?" Xelloss asked, pursing his lips cutely.

"I don't know if I'll be ABLE to sleep tonight after that," Lina grumbled. "Gonna give me nightmares."

All the lights focused on as single pinpoint, a single person on the stage. Hard wooden flats were under her bare feet, as she stood in front of millions of people, faces unseen but eyes on her harder than a hammer to anvil. Words seized in her throat, failing to come out. The script was in her hands, but the every sentence jumped for attention, blocking and mixing and scrambling before her eyes...

"Everybody's expecting you to act," Xelloss warned, sitting in the director's chair, off to the side. He shouted orders through a megaphone made with the skin of Shaburanigdo. "Come come, get into character. Know your role. Give me an L!"

"What's my motivation?" Lina asked.

Sentences jumped off the script and whirled around her head, like puppies in a pet shop window, each begging for love and faith. You want to be human! You want to be a god! You want your old life back! You want your true love! You want to eat good food! You want to save the world! You want to be rich! You want to be happy! You want to be purged from the world! You don't want to exist as what you are! You want to find out what you are! You aren't you!

"This a nightmare, isn't it?" Lina asked, turning to the audience. Her voice remained distant, a voice not her own, but she tried hard to focus. "I'm not stupid. I can tell these things."

"Are you sure it is?" Lina asked, sitting in the front row. She got to her feet, shaking her playbill angrily. "You're the worst Lina Inverse I've ever seen! You stumble around blindly, you don't remember your lines, and you've made terrible mistakes! You're just a character based on me, you don't exist and you never did!"

"No talking from the peanut gallery!!" Xelloss ordered, barking at the audience. "Let Lina play her part and save the world! She was born for it. She was MADE to do it. She doesn't have to like it, understand it, or even be conscious of it. If you idiots hadn't woken her up, it would have happened naturally!"

Pinches ran up and down her arm, but she didn't wake up. "Okay, okay, I'm getting sick of this now. Is it morning yet?"

Zelgadis tossed a small white disc up and down in his hand. "You won't wake up, Lina. You're in our grip. You always were. You're misguided, misunderstanding and you'll never be what you actually are, so you'll never defeat us. You'll never win the game."

"Shaddup!" Lina barked. "I don't care if you're a figment, I'm going to win! I'll beat Sairaag one day, when the time is right!"

Ace Champion sat behind him, wrapped in chains and straightjackets. He had a mad grin, and a pale complexion, drained of all life. Black lightning pulsed around his body as she spoke in a voice dry as paper. "But it's true, Lina. I lost my game. You'll lose it too, because the time will never BE right. All it takes is one tiny toy... then you'll know what hell actually is. It's knowing exactly what you are and what you were meant to do, but knowing you failed to do it..."

A popcorn box bounced off her head. For some reason, the lightweight box of snacks knocked her head over heels as if someone had shot her with a cannon. Blood pulsed in her head -- did she have blood anymore? Did she have a head? Her body started to break down, faith fading, faith in what, in what was she what did it mean to have faith in Lina, was she Lina? It hurt it hurt she was going away --

"Get off the stage, impostor!" Lina in the audience screamed. "You're not Lina the Human, you're not Lina the God, you're just a mistake! An errand girl sent by arrogant taskmasters! You can't help Amelia by being Amelia and you know it! Run away, go away, go into that waking sleep again so you never have to face yourself and what you'll have to eventually accept and become -- "

The nightmare snapped in half.

A figure dropped from the lighting rig, a shadow wrapped in a hooded black cloak. Lina stared, knowing this wasn't part of the show, as the nightmare slid apart, cut diagonally by the mental sword of this knight...

The black knight, with a full crest of Sailoon in gold thread on his cloak, spread his arms as the nightmare collapsed and faded away. In a snap gesture, the pale figure turned to look at Lina, with a serpentine hiss, before the dream ended and the sun smacked Lina right in the eyes. The show was over. Time to go to work.

Lina hated it when her own imagined demons romping in the landscape of her unconscious mind had a good point.

Where was she going? What was she doing? Ostensibly she was looking for the Tooth Fairy so she could become a human. But she wasn't a human, she was a god, and if she tried to pretend she was anything else she'd probably be dead a few times over so far during this quest. There was an end goal, sure, but WHY was she going for it?

Initially, she just wanted to get this crazy weirdness shoved aside so she could live a normal human life. It was an attractive, simple option. To whisk away all the mad events she'd been wrapped up in, to be Lina Inverse, enemy of all who live and spunky sorceress gal... but the image of herself, her older self, in the audience kept coming back. This world HAD a Lina Inverse. True, she had a low opinion of that Lina, but what was she if she wasn't who she...

She needed a distraction to keep her from thinking about this, and one was provided. As she lurched in a zombie-like sleep deprived trance, the delicate scent of butter slipped past her nostrils. She floated along (literally, spooking the few maids left in the palace) towards the source... and landed in a chair at the breakfast table.

"Lina! Did you sleep well?" Amelia asked.

"No, I made a few mistakes," Lina replied absently, taking up knife and fork. The spread was... magnificent. Baked goods of all kinds, finely prepared meats, pancakes and waffles in glorious golden towers of the gods... this was the breakfast of champions.

Naturally, Zoamel and Xelloss weren't having any of it, so that left all the more for Lina and Penny to devour -- and Penny, having those Inverse genetics, was already putting severe damage into the meal. Lina fought to keep up, figuring she could chat later, when there was less food to compete over...

Ten minutes later, most of the chow was gone, and both Inverses sat back with contented little sighs and slightly bulging bellies. Penny dabbed at her cheeks with a napkin, having a bit more table manners than the last generation. "That was amazing, Amelia-sama! Truly a meal fit for a king. Err, queen."

"I had it SPECIALLY ordered!" Amelia said, with a smile.. her own plate having only a few pieces of toast, which she hadn't finished eating. "I know how much Lina likes food, and since we didn't have an in-palace staff, I got one of the local restaurants to deliver this. I order out any time we have guests... it's a dent in the budget, but it's worth it. So, Lina-sama, do you have a plan of attack now?"

"To tell the truth... no," Lina admitted. "I didn't sleep real well and haven't had time to think about it... crazy nightmares and stuff. You know, the kind where six eyed penguins toss hair curlers on you and six copies of your sister laugh at you?"

"...uh... no, I don't know that kind," Amelia said.

"Guess I'm better at handling dreams in this form than I thought, though," Lina said, laughing. "Some knight in shining... well, in a big 'ol black cloak saved my ass right before I woke up. I don't think Gourry wears that kind of stuff, right, Penn -- "

Amelia's fork clattered to the floor. While it was only a small utensil and a very big floor, the noise made when her dish and glass of orange juice followed it was enough to attract a few funny looks.

She clutched the tablecloth in a knuckle-white grip, having accidentally yanked her breakfast off the table. Cheeks pale, and eyes trembling, she tried to regain royal composure, and settle in. "Ah... ha ha... nothing. Well, I'm sure you'll do very well against Sairaag today, Lina! And if you need ANYTHING, just let me know!!"

"...I think I need to know why you just freaked out, actually," Lina said. "Amelia, you're twitchier than a long tailed cat in a china shop learning new tricks or something. What'd I say?"

"Nothing!" Amelia replied. "It's nothing at all! I haven't been having ANY problems sleeping tonight. The entire city is counting on.. on the Council, but I'm supporting the circles and I'm just fine! You have nothing to fear..."

Lina leaned closer to the queen. "You've NEVER been a very good liar, you know. Spill it. ...we won't think any lesser of you, okay? I know I couldn't pull royal rank half as well as you can, so it's no big deal to admit a problem. We're friends here, right?"

The young queen's throat seized, momentarily. "...yes..." she managed, weakly. She slumped back into her chair, tension not going away, but untensing for long enough to speak better. "...I was just.. you said someone in a black cloak stopped your nightmare, right?"

"Gosh, I always thought you assumed the guys in the black hats were the bad guys, Amelia-chan," Xelloss quipped, feeling like there wasn't enough comic relief in the room. Zoamel gave him a nasty glare in thanks.

"N-no! Not this time!" Amelia replied, quickly. "Whenever I'm having a.. bad dream, this person in a Sailoon royal crested cloak saves me. But.. but I just thought it was the stress getting to me. Getting to all of us."

The sinking feeling started right about now.

"'All of us'?" Lina prompted.

"The Circle Keepers," Amelia replied. "The white mages who have dedicated themselves to maintaining the city's safety. The ones who lend their power to the circles. We've all feeling stress because of constantly keeping the circles going, but the doctors said that was normal. Even the bad dreams are normal. And I figured, I was just imagining someone in a cloak who hissed like a serpent to.. you know..."

"Okay, that's enough, thanks Amelia," Lina said, taking charge. "I know what's going on."

"Oooh, Lina's going to unmask the bad guy now!" Xelloss cheered, clapping lightly. "I bet it's Old Man Withers who runs the haunted amusement park!"

"Xel, don't make me hurt you," Lina scowled. She held up her wrist... specifically, held up the blue gem she was given the other day. "Stop me if you've heard this one. Whole group of people wears these things, linking themselves up to the circles Sairaag's battering at. ALL of them start experiencing nightmares. Amelia, in the past, are there any records saying that putting up the shields caused bad dreams?"

"Well... no," Amelia said, trying to remember. "No. Not as such."

"And I know I'VE been having no problems until I got here," Lina said. "Penny, you having any bad dreams?"

"Not a one," Penny said, feeding the wandering monster table some of the cutlery.

"So somehow, nightmares are coming over this link," Lina finalized. "Think about it, it's perfect drama. Sairaag must have some crazy machine pumping bad vibes into the circles, and thus into you guys. Undermine the city from within, crack the people in charge, and bust the place up when those circles finally give."

Zoamel ingested Lina's theory, and found himself nodding. "It does assume a great deal, but I would not be surprised if a similar tactic was being used by Sairaag. It is their style to take over by subtle use of technology and subterfuge. They knock your invisible means of support out from under you, and then claim the easy kill. But you have no proof, Lina."

"A mysterious figure in a black cloak," Lina stated. "Common in my dream and Amelia's. These bracelets. The others having nightmares when no one else is! It's all too coincidental to be coincidence! Nine times out of ten stuff like this is a mysterious dark plot sneaking up behind you to pull your underwear up over your head in a metaphysical sense!"

"Metaphorical," Zoamel corrected.

"What EVER. So, we find this guy Amelia and I saw, and we either find the SOURCE of the problem, or an ally AGAINST the problem -- he did knock my dream silly in two seconds flat, and he's been bailing Amelia out as well. He'd be perfect to stop Sairaag! Hah! How do you like THAT tactical planning, Zoamel? Do you doubt my mad skills now?"

"Yes, actually, I do," Zoamel spoke, calm and restrained as ever. "This is an interesting diversion, but the hard reality of the situation are the many guns pointed at this city. Running around chasing shadows will not stop the immediate threat. Although I am curious as to how these circles work... they are landmarks, yes? Why do they need additional supports?"

"We can worry about the wiz-biz of local mages later, okay, Zoey?" Lina said, dismissing him. Zoamel's metaphy -- metaphorical feathers bristled ever so slightly. "Amelia, what can you tell me about the guy in the cloak? Presumably he's somewhere nearby, maybe in the city, if he can walk in our dreams with magic."

"There's been sightings of a sorceress at Black Widow's Peak who wears a cloak like that," Amelia said.

"...well, that was easy," Lina spoke after a bit of a pause, surprised. "Uh, how long have you known about this connection?"

"Awhile now. Why?"

"Why didn't you DO something about it? Go pay a house call or something! I mean, maybe this guy.. this whoever could have helped! Jeez, Amelia, it's simple logic here, you know?"

The queen shirked back into her less than regal kitchen chair throne. "I've.. I've been busy with affairs of state. Busy. And it's a dangerous peak, I mean, I DID send two men, but they got chased off by a powerful sorceress so I didn't want to risk anybody getting hurt and -- "

"Okay, okay," Lina interrupted. "Everybody, you're coming with me. We can get out of the shields with no problem, they're only one-way. We'll go handle whoever this is and see if we can win them over to our side. Maybe with enough money it can be done..."

"I am not interested in a day trip jaunt to find a mystery man," Zoamel stated. "It would take us away from the city, and give Sairaag a good opportunity to press the attack, possibly keeping us from returning."

Lina gritted her teeth. Zoamel was always a bit of a stick in the mud, wasn't he? "Fine, fine. You can stay here and chat it up with the local mages. Penny, you and -- "

"I think Zoamel's right," Penny chimed.

"You ALWAYS have to take his side, don't you?"

"What's that supposed to mean..?" Penny asked, a bit of hostility growing there.

"I thought I was the heroine here?" Lina asked, standing up. "When we started out, you were all thrilled to be going around with me and learning from me how to be an adventuress -- and apprenticeship takes dedication and loyalty! What gives?"

"Lina, jeez! I'm not saying I don't want to be a part of the quest or to help you or anything! I'm just not sure this is the way to do it, is all..."

"Who's the experienced veteran here?" Lina asked. "Who saved you from bandit thugs back in Zeifelia and generally saved the day each time we -- "

"Penny was responsible for the defeat of Ace Champion," Zoamel interjected.

"That's right!" Penny replied, nodding, the table sitting on her head bobbing along in agreement as well. "I mean, I'm only now starting to really contribute to this group, and I think I should have a say here. If you want to check this lead, it'd be better if we split up and have some people stay here, to cover our bases -- "

"Fine! Stay!" Lina shouted, tossing her hands up. "Xelloss!! Any objections?!"

The Mazoku visibly sweatdropped, smile turning nervous when the Evil Red Eyes of Inverse turned to stare at a point six inches inside his skull. "No ma'am. Sounds like an excessively nifty plan. Please don't hurt me."

Lina put a grip on his shoulder that could have compressed coal into diamond. "Okay! We'll be off. And we'll be back in no time with a powerful ally! Don't bother showing us out, the window is fine. RAYWING!"

She unlatched one of the main windows to the dining hall, shoved it open, and dragged a giggly Mazoku with her off into the sky. In moments, she had reached the shield, and was out.

"...perhaps we did push her too hard the other day," Zoamel admitted, watching the young god leave. "But she is acting a bit rashly. Much like a young Demiurge would, given no training or guidance -- believing herself unstoppable and divinely right. The power goes to your head."

"I know how that is," Amelia spoke quietly, breaking her silence. "I was just like that long ago. You think you can really change the world, that you can defeat any enemy because you're in the right... and... but hey, hey, it's okay!" Her voice dove into an upswing. "Everything's good. After all, Lina Inverse never loses! She's so much better at this sort of thing. She's beaten the Demon King, she's stopped the destruction of the world... I just know she'll do very well, and save us all! She's going to save me. This is SUCH a relief..."

Penny peered a bit at Amelia. "Um... Amelia-san, Lina's blown up cities in the process of saving them sometimes. I agree that she's pretty incredible, and definitely a hero, but don't you think blind optimism here is kind of... risky?"

"But what could go wrong?" Amelia asked.

The room exploded.

She was dead.

She had to be dead. She couldn't feel anything, and everything was black. She was almost dead once and this felt just like it -- and the same fear set in. What if this is all there is? No paradise, no hell, just a nothing that lasts forever and --

When Zoamel found her under a large piece of debris, she was curled up in to the fetal position, and crying. But she stopped that fast. Don't let them see...

"What happened?" Amelia asked, regaining that composure, and looking around...

The hall was a mess. The entire windowed wall had exploded, debris everywhere. The ground continually shook, as if there was some kind of earthquake... and in the distance, directly across the view to the edge of the city... one of the cannons from Sairaag was calmly pumping shell after shell into the air, explosive clouds forming from the huge muzzle of the cannon.

"We're being shot at!" Penny summarized.

"N-noo!" Amelia blurted. "The circles! They stop the shells! It's impossible for them to be able to shoot THROUGH -- "

The next blast tore half of the room away. Zoamel spirited both the queen and the adventuress away, landing on an adjacent building roof in less than a second.

From out here the damage was incredible. Huge chunks of the royal palace had been torn away from the building, debris flooding the street below. New parts exploded, raining dust and rock everywhere, barrage unending, until the cannon's roar made Amelia want to scream, scream in terror...

And that was it. Nothing else blew up, and the gun went quiet.

A voice replaced it. A voice that had been amplified in the peculiarly tinny way that Sairaag managed to project voices. It echoed across the city, the city shook into silence by the attack...

"People of Sailoon, your attention please," the even tones of Commander Greyweirs spoke. "As you can see, your magical circles have been rendered obsolete by the superior scientific craft of Sairaag. This demonstration on your useless Royal Palace was simply to awaken you to the reality -- the reality that you are no longer living in an age of magic. I beseech the Council to participate in developing terms of surrender, so that we do not have to destroy your homes. Sailoon is a proud country, and Sairaag salutes your heritage... but this is the new age. You can either join in the celebration of the Age of Science, or be cleared to make room for it. The choice is yours. Let us end this siege. Council, I will await your answer tomorrow morning. I am sure the people trust you to make the right decision. That is all."

A thick, terrified silence fluttered around Sailoon. It was quickly replaced by commotion. The circles had failed, they had failed completely...

"..z.. zelgadis..." Amelia said, eyes wide in shock. "That was..."

"Those BULLYING little bastards!" Penny shouted, shaking a fist at the cannon. "They think they can push us around? Blah! If even HALF the stories Lina's told me about this place are true, there's no way in hell that Sailoon will give up its ideals so soon -- "

'it's over,' Amelia spoke. The words were soft, but they still halted Penny in her tracks.


"It's over," the queen repeated. A weak, frightened smile spread across her face. "Sailoon lost its idealism long ago. Don't you see? It's over. They didn't need me anymore. And now they won't need Sailoon; any country will do. Maybe.. maybe Zelgadis is right... he..."

The frail woman faded, eyes fluttering shut. Her body, strained beyond strain emotionally, just gave up and sank into unconsciousness. Zoamel supported her very carefully in his arms, before easing her to the rooftop, for now. He stood... frowning, in the way that meant he meant business, and someone was going to lose an appendage.

"This will not stand," he spoke. His hand slowly curled into a fist, as the words poured from him. "This is what Sairaag desires. They destroy you from inside, kill your faith, as they have done here, destroying faith in these people's homeland..."

"First thing's first, Zoamel," Penny said, trying to cool the god down. "She needs some medical attention. Let's get her to a hospital. I know, and I agree with you. You and I, we'll find a way to stop them. But first she needs help."

"...yes," Zoamel agreed, letting his hand go slack. "First things first."

If a building code existed for proper evil castles on twisted rocky spires of foreboding doom, this place would serve as the floor model real estate agents would take young couples on tours of.

What else could one expect from 'Black Widow's Peak'? There was a 'Valley of Despair' all around it, and a 'Mountain of Insanity', and the 'Long Jagged Path Of Irritating Little Pebbles That Get In Your Boot And Give You Horrible Blisters'. (Lina knew this because it had been pointed out in a helpful sign, near a pleasant shubbery arrangement.)

She just wasn't expecting a 'Doorbell', and a sign reading 'Deliveries in the Rear'.

"Okay, here's the plan," Lina said. "I've gone through enough of these sorts of evil lairs to know how they work. Xelloss, you go in first and spring all the horribly mangling man-traps that have been set in the maze leading to the black cloaked guy's tower. I'll walk along behind you and try not to step in any puddles of your blood. With me so far?"

"No," Xelloss said, quite horrified.

"Good. Then, when we get there, I'll use you as an inhuman shield to absorb all her biggest spells, and then I'll pound her into submission and MAKE her help us defeat Sairaag with his incredible magic powers. It's foolproof! Come on, I've got to use you as a raft so we can float in the moat of acid and find a secret sewer entrance."

"Here's a silly idea. Why don't we RING THE DOORBELL?" Xelloss offered. "I'm sorry, but it just seems like a considerably easier way to gain access. It also involves a lot less gratuitous bodily harm to my person. Please? Pretty please? I'll be your best friend!"

"They'd be EXPECTING that approach, man! Jeez, Xelloss, you can be SO dense -- "

ding dong

"Sorry, my finger slipped," Xelloss apologized. "Won't happen again."

Lina smacked her forehead. "I swear, I can't take you ANYWHERE..."

"Well, excuse me for not wanting to be a pincushion," Xelloss chirped, hands on hips in cute defiance. "I'm not getting any younger, you know, and being a Mazoku doesn't exactly have the same stock value it used to. I'd prefer a nice, quiet, safe entrance -- "

The 'GO AWAY' unwelcoming mat under his feet swung away, dropping him into a pit of spikes. There was an unpleasant little crunching sound.

Wincing, Lina peeked into the dark pit, trying not to see if he was okay. "Xelloss? Yoo hoo?"

"...oh, I'm just dandy..." Xelloss weakly replied, voice floating up from the bottom of the trap. "Going to take a little while to get, ah, unimpaled. Better move on without me for now. Have fun storming the castle!"

"I'll never forget your noble sacrifice, Xelloss!" Lina pledged, pounding a fist against her chest. "Yosh! I'm off! By the Mighty Iron Fists of Justice, this will not stand!"

"Hammer," Xelloss corrected, from the depths of despair.


"It's HAMMER of Justice. If you're going to rip off Amelia's catch phrases, DO try to at least get them right, Lina-chan... oh, dear, there's venomous cobras in here tooghgjkkhghkkk..."

"Hammer. Noted. Okay! I'm off!"

She kicked the doors open with her Mighty Boot, and strode brazenly into the gaping maw of death. Or at least into the tastefully furnished foyer of death.

Whoever owned this place clearly was rich. Great winding twin staircases lead up the sides of the tower, while enormous chandeliers hung from the ceiling. A full red carpet with finely woven magical symbols covered the base of the tower, and a few stray tables had vases with black roses in them... but Lina wasn't here to evaluate the place for aesthetic purposes, she was here to kick ass and chew beef jerky, and she was all out of jerky.

"I seek the owner of this keep!" Lina announced. "I have traveled far and wide for at least the last hour to get here, and demand an audience! And I'm not above lowering the property values to get one!"

All the chandeliers dimmed, the candles magically snuffing out one by one. A rising dramatic dirge floated up from an unseen organ, as spotlights snapped on, highlighting the landing at the top of the stairs... Lina looked up, a little irritated by the theatrics, and wondering exactly who was...

Well, the figure DID have on that black cloak from her dream, but she wasn't exactly formidable. A fourteen year old girl with raven-black hair did not an allpowerful dreamwalking mage make.

"What, that's it?" Lina asked. "You're the one?"

"OHOHO! Arrogant little girl!" the arrogant little girl laughed, mocking Lina. "I mock you! Mock mock MOCK! I will be a suitable opponent to eject bandit trash such as you from my home! PREPARE YOURSELF! TOOOOOH!!"

The sorceress charged a massive fireball, leaping from the staircase. Lina took five steps to the left to avoid the fireball, and tried not to look when the young girl crashed face first into the smoldering remains of the nice rug.

"...ow..." she groaned.

"Nobody's that clumsy or that stupid without being related to Amelia," Lina decided.

"OOOOOOOHOHOHOOHHOOOO! You're so naive, Lina Inverse!!"

The TRUE owner of this gloom keep had showed her face. Wearing a fine black cloak with the Sailoon royal crest in gold thread, she descended from the stairs using a Levitation spell, rather than a swan dive, but touched down with the grace and dignity of a swan...

Lina fell over with considerably less grace and dignity when she got a good look at the face.

"N-N-N-N... NAGA?!!!"

"I see that time has not improved your bust size," Naga joked.

Penny Gabriev picked up a bomb fragment. Normally, red hot jagged metal would not be a wise thing to pick up with your hands, but Penny had A) dumped a bucket of cold water over it and B) donned a heavy pair of gloves. She knew a few things about safety around some of the riskier elements of 'the new age'.

Finding the fragment amidst the rubble hadn't been easy. There was a considerable amount of blasted concrete, stone, and furniture lying in the courtyard in front of the main palace building, the side that was pounded on by cannon fire. The palace guards were too busy digging out survivors to help -- fortunately, the body count had only tallied up minor injuries, as there were few palace staffmembers around anymore. Small miracles often were the best ones.

She started dropping the tiny fragments into the cold water bucket, so busy that she didn't notice Zoamel's approach.

"Amelia is resting," Zoamel said, announcing his presence. "The family doctor is seeing to her at the city hospital. The strain from her nightmares and today's events was just too much for her."

"Zoamel, look around and tell me if you see anything that doesn't quite make sense," Penny said, still collecting fragments.

"I see the results of the cannon attack. It's to be expected, given the sort of guns we saw they had outside. If anything, this damage is probably minor compared to what they are capable -- "

"All the debris is OUT HERE," Penny explained, with a sweeping arm gesture. "There's almost nothing in there, aside from a few collapsed ceilings. Everything blew outward, not inward. If they were shelling the building from that distance, wouldn't it punch holes INTO the structure and knock things inward? Some would get blasted out, but not THIS much. There's even some blast damage BEHIND the building, where they weren't shooting, and it's not from exit wounds. This is more like -- "

"Bombs placed inside the building to begin with, rather than shells launched at the building," Zoamel finished. "I've been entertaining the notion as well. As far as I could tell, those magic circles around the city did not shut down, were not punctured and remained undisturbed during the attack... I've kept a feeler on them ever since Lina took that amulet. But even if this is logical, it's not conclusive proof."

"That's what I'm getting now," Penny said, dropping the last bit of metal into her bucket. "I had a few classes in metallurgy and chemistry before I decided to be a full time adventuress. We can figure out what sort of explosives these were based on the chemical residue, but I don't know enough to tell for sure myself... I'm going to head down to the Alchemist's Guild, see what experts I can dig up on short notice."

"If we can expose this as a scheme, perhaps we can convince the Council not to surrender," Zoamel said. "I got an earful of public opinion. Ever since the.. demonstration this morning, people have lost faith in the circles protecting them.... hrhmmm."

"Hrhmmm? Whyfor hrhmmm?"

"While you're checking out the bomb shell, I believe I have a lead of my own," Zoamel decided. "Let's meet back here in two hours. Amelia may be awake by then. I wish Lina hadn't left, we could use someone to stay with the queen while we work..."

Penny smiled, hefting the heavy bucket up a bit, as her shoulders grew tired. "We really do work great together, don't we, Zoamel?"

"Ah... I suppose so," Zoamel said. "We have skills in differing areas that compliment well."

"Huh? Yeah, there's that. I meant, though... umm..."

"Yes, Penny?"

"Let's get to work," Penny quickly said. "Amelia's counting on us. I'd LOVE to come back to her with good news for a change. She deserves it, after what she's been through. I hope Lina appreciates the hard work we're doing here while she gets the easy stuff!"

Lina wished she could die.

One Naga was bad. One Naga was enough to put her off her lunch and find the nearest exit. One Naga was MORE than enough to convince her, after a year or two of questing with her, to go solo. (Then she met Gourry, and the rest takes too long to cover...)

THREE NAGAS was enough to drive a headache six feet into her skull, even if she was a god and shouldn't be getting headaches, dammit. She countered the headache by chugging the apple juice offered to her as a 'relatively honored houseguest'. The sugar took some edge off the pain.

Even Xelloss seemed to be frightened, but it could have just been the after effects of his recent encounter with the hospitality of Black Widow's Peak. He'd managed to close up most of the embarrassing puncture wounds after being pried out of there with a large lever, but he'd still seen considerably better days... he managed to ignore the evil looks from the teenaged Naga sitting across from him, fortunately.

Said teenaged Naga was sulking. She'd gotten a sticky bandage or two on her face after her failed attempt to annihilate Lina, and didn't like it one bit. "Mommy, I could have taken them! I've studied my black magic like you told me to, and I can do three spells in a row before I get tired!"

Naga the Matriarch White Serpent bounced the adorable little four month old Mini-Naga on her knee, while spooning it baby food. "Now now, Gabby, I told you that I'm to greet all houseguests, gatecrashers, inlaws and assorted scum who visit the castle. You should have been cleaning your room, anyway! It looks like someone cast Diem Wing in there!"

"Goo fis fee sees!" the baby warbled, waving her cute little arms.

"Ah... mummy told you not to say that, little Olga. But you're so cute, I will forgive you! Whoosalittlepoosypoo? Yes you are! Yes you are!"

"Goooeeooo!" Olga cheered, spitting up applesauce.

"Oh, but I'm ignoring my guest!" Naga realized. "It is SO good to see you after all these years, Lina. I'd love to know what spell you found to stay eternally young... not that I've aged badly. I'm still five times larger than you are where it counts! OOHOHOHOOOOHOOO!"

"Kill me," Lina whispered to Xelloss. "Just kill me now."

"But I AM curious," Naga continued, "As to the reason for your little visit. We don't get many visitors to the castle aside from the occasional person selling magazine subscriptions, and they usually entertain the moat beast before leaving. Are you here to catch up on old times?"

Lina couldn't take it anymore. "WHO did you trick into helping you spawn these.. various incarnations of you, Naga?!"

"Oh, you mean Earl, my good husband," Naga said. "Earl? Burt? Gabby dear, what's his name again?'

"It's Peter, mum."

"Yes, Peter. Good man. Does the dishes and makes sure the cat stays fed. I met him shortly before we had little Gabby-chan there, he's been quite an obedient husband. Although he DID throw his back out while we were conceiving Little Olga and is resting up at my inlaws right now, or I'd introduce you to him."

Lina muttered a quiet prayer for Peter, wherever he was, and rolled right along. "Naga... I know you've been doing some funky dream magic up here. You walked INTO my nightmare last night, for starters! What are you up to?"

"Oh, that was you?" Naga asked. "I thought I got sidetracked into one of the palace servants -- "

"What were you doing there in the first place?!"

"It's quite simple, really. Gabby-chan wets the bed some nights -- "


" -- and I've taken to dreamwalking while I sleep using an ancient family technique in order to help quell her bad dreams before she ruins another mattress," Naga continued.

"That doesn't explain how you ended up in my dream."

"Oh, that. Well, I tend to wander," Naga explained. "You know, here and there. To Sailoon, mostly. I don't go into the city itself in person, but it helps to stay abreast of current events."

"There's certainly a lot of breast to keep current," Xelloss quipped, before getting a chair to the head courtesy of Gabby.

"Manners, Gabby, manners," Naga reminded.

"You've been helping Amelia out, haven't you?" Lina asked, leaning in closer, moving for the kill. "I recognize the crest on your cloak now. It's a ROYAL crest. And your daughter there did a patented Amelia nose dive of justice... I'd suspected it for awhile, when we were travelling, but.. YOU are Princess Gracia ul Naga Sailoon, aren't you?!"

"No," Naga said, voice dropping sixty degrees in temperature. "My name is Naga the White Serpent. I've renounced ANY claim to the throne or my family lineage. I have nothing to do with the palace anymore."

"You're still helping Amelia."

"And why not?" Naga asked. "I helped you, didn't I? I help out where I can. It's in my power, and I feel like it, so I do. It goes no farther than that. Lina... my family is insane."

"Yes, I know. I traveled with you for a year, remember? And Amelia for years after that -- "

"I'm serious here! They are quite barking mad," Naga insulted.. but never getting angry enough to disturb Olga. "Did you know that of all the neighboring kingdoms, Sailoon's throne has the highest turnover rate? Regicide is practically a cash crop! Princes feuding for the throne, princesses competing with each other for good husbands that can lead them to power... and if you know who I am, then you know what happened to my mother."

Lina thought back. Amelia had told her, once, but... no, there it was. She had no problems remembering when she remembered her brain was more the idea of a brain given wings of faith rather than a lump of gray matter. "She was assassinated..."

"Just as father has been," Naga added... then paused. She shook it off, and continued. "I have no interest in a throne that has been contested in blood time and time again. The Council's no better, with the same amount of political backstabbing. When you get down to it, father's ideals of justice were... ridiculous. Nobody believed in them except a few hopeless fools in the population. The night after mother's death... I took her costume, and left to find my OWN fortune. Not one handed to me. So no, I have nothing more to do with the family, not even Amelia. What you saw was.. a lucky coincidence, I suppose. Now. Is that all you came to learn, Lina Inverse?"

"The nightmares are being caused by the siege party," Lina said, dropping all cards on the table and hoping this would work. "It's linked somehow to the shields around Sailoon. Sairaag is driving your sister to the brink of mental collapse, Naga. I saw you defeat my nightmare, likely generated the same way, with ridiculous ease. I was HOPING that I could convince you to fight with us against them, to break the hold they have on the ones supporting the circles. That you'd help us save your sister. But I guess you don't care about that now, since you were expecting her to die anyway. C'mon, Xelloss, no reason to stay any longer. She's made up her mind to support Sairaag."

"Oh, good," Xelloss said, weakly pulling himself up off the floor. "I could use a nice cold shower and some warm tea, myself..."

"EXCUSE me, Lina," Naga spoke, setting Olga back in her nearby crib. "But I don't recall ever saying I supported those ridiculous people from Sairaag -- "

"But you do," Lina broke in with. "Because you know what's going to happen? Your sister will crack eventually, and the circles will stop working. Then they'll take over. And you better believe they won't want any royal bloodline interfering in their 'new age' -- they prefer indecisive political Councils to a strong single leader. So that not only means they'll have to subvert or eliminate Amelia, but they'll have to do the same to you... and your whole family. You're all the same bloodline whether you admit it or not. Maybe you don't approve of what your family's done in the past, but I can't believe you'd be willing to drop your sister, yourself and your children into that particular situation..."

Naga narrowed her eyes like a coiled serpent observing her prey, or a mother eagle protecting her hatchlings, or a Naga that thinks it's being played as a fool. "You're trying to play me as a fool, Lina. Speculating and making speeches in hopes of me aiding you -- "

"Trying to convince you, sure, I'll freely admit that," Lina said. "You can't argue with logic, Naga. Sitting back and saying it's not your problem is not how change happens, not change for the better. ...listen. You're wondering why I'm so young, aren't you?"

"The thought had crossed my mind a few times, yes...."

Lina settled in. This would take time. "Then I'll tell you. It'll be a tale crazier than any quest we went on together, but you know I only lie to knock down shopkeeper prices or hassle the bad guys. It's a story about gods and monsters and the biggest monster squatting right now in Sairaag... but most importantly, it's also about the OTHER Lina Inverse... the one who's thinking the same way you are now. Then maybe you'll understand..."

The country of Sailoon has a capital city (also called Sailoon; not very imaginative, admittedly) and that city is inscribed in a series of magical circles. In the center of those circles is the main palace, but in the center of the palace is a simple dome, a building that rests at the very core of Sailoon itself. It's easy to find, if you know a little geometry and are good with a compass, and Zoamel had no problems finding it. Because he wasn't just following a hunch.

He was following a scent. It was a familiar power, although in a blend he wasn't wholly familiar with. It connected the circles to this place, but connected other things as well...

But speculation could wait. Answers were more important than conjecture. So, while Penny did her scientific research, Zoamel Gustav did a little magical research.

Inside the dome, he found what he was expecting; a large statue at the very center of Sailoon. It was a fairly stylized marble symbol meant to represent the Dragon King Ceipheed, heart of white magic, bitter enemy of the Dark Lord Shaburanigdo. In truth, they got the nose wrong, but Zoamel wasn't here to be an art critic.

Twelve sorceresses of the white variety stood at clock-points around the statue, clearly feeding it white magic energies with baubles similar to the one Amelia gave to Lina. Zoamel didn't wish to interrupt their prayer, so instead, he felt for those connections he was sensing...


All twelve were connected by lines to the statue, but they ended INSIDE the statue itself. Zoamel probed the stonework, past the Ceipheed-disguise this being wore, and found what he truly sought.

'Hello,' he spoke, on a level only the gods can understand.

The magic circles surrounding Sailoon quivered slightly. The white magic guild looked up in alarm, but Zoamel soothed the circles quickly, assuring them he meant no harm at all and just wanted to talk, which was a simple thought-gesture for one who was used to communicating by imagination itself...

The circles didn't speak human language, so translation was spotty at best, but the dialogue went as thus.

'I didn't mean to scare you. Terribly sorry. I am like you... I am Demiurge as well,' Zoamel said. 'I felt your links... to these twelve who support you, from your Queen and a friend of mine, and even from the population itself. The links of faith that keep you strong. I followed them here.'

[faith weak circumstances unknown blind information rectify], the walls spoke, from the central focus inside the statue.

'There was an attack,' Zoamel explained. 'Humans tricked your believers into thinking you had failed them. They are losing faith in you, aren't they?'

[hurting tired no faith no warmth need help want protect faithful want save want keep out enemy please help sworn protect Sailoon bloodline hundred generations help hurting please rectify]

'I understand, I understand. My friends and I will aid you. We are working to restore the faith your believers held. Is there anything.. more immediate I can do for you, until we succeed?'

[stop dreams wall filter not good stop Sailoon bloodline hurting stop find lost bloodline lost one help bloodline many time help again comprehend]

Zoamel took a step back. 'Lost one...?' He thought in terms of geography, in terms of things this unusual Demiurge would understand. 'The one in the mountain five miles from westward wall gateway?'


The elder god allowed a smile. 'It seems Lina's impulsive behavior will help after all, rather than waste time. Do not fear. My companion has departed this very morning to seek the one you talk about. The lost one will join your cause.' Or likely suffer a few broken bones until he or she submits to Lina's will, he didn't add.

Still, the situation sparked a bit of pleasure at the irony of it all. It was exactly as Xelloss explained; Lina's brash action got them entrance to the city and a place of honor with the city guard. It wasn't her intention, and her methods were questionable, but they worked all the same. Now she had run off on some side quest Zoamel had thought to be a childish waste of time... and which would end up bringing exactly the right tool to the job at hand.

That was Lina Inverse, distilled to the most mystical core she possessed in mortal life; the ability to get shoved to the wall, with almost no planning and resources, and still come out on top through phenomenal luck and gut reactions.

It was philosophically intriguing, but Zoamel wasn't going to rely on luck alone. The way he saw it: the moment you ease back, relying wholly on your good fortune and taking a callous attitude towards risk, your luck WILL fail on you. No -- he would continue as planned, just as Penny was, and eventually all points would converge on a solution... or possibly a situation even worse than the current situation. But that would be dealt with in time. The here and now was more important.

Zoamel allowed a small amount of his own faith to flow from his godself to the walls. A show of support, a tiny dose of strength. It wasn't much; he didn't command thousands of believers anymore, and knew he would have to conserve... especially if things were about to get quite hot in Sailoon.

'Rest assured,' he spoke, soothing. 'The ones who have done this will pay. We will see to it. Or die trying. I am bound by my faithful, and the enemy of my enemy is now my ally. We work together.'


Penny Gabriev walked the street of Sailoon, expecting some tension and unrest. The city WAS technically under siege by a few hulking monstrosities outside, after all. But she wasn't expecting this level of tension.

The whole city seemed near the verge of spiritual collapse. No conversation was held outside of a hushed tone, and groups convened in small clusters... under pretenses of carrying on regular activity, like buying apples or negotiating the repairs to a wagon or getting a dinner order. But only one topic was open for discussion -- surrender.

The Council had convened immediately on hearing the declaration this morning. Rumor had it they were favoring giving up; clearly the magical shields had failed miserably, and that meant they had no force left to resist. There were no rallying cries to the noble banner of Sailoon, no 'when I was your age, we didn't surrender to every namby pamby army that pushed us around'. The population, already weak from the siege, was ready to fold and either deal with the new regime or resettle elsewhere. There were even more hushed talks about nightmares people had been having, but these were silenced quickly... as if nobody wanted to acknowledge they could be weakening that much.

Penny held her silence. She wasn't going to go spreading rumors about the evidence she'd found. Rumors were what was feeding this crowd now, whipping them up into a paranoid frenzy, and adding a rumor that there may be hope into the mix would make it lose credibility. The better strategy would be to find hard evidence, locate the perp punk who did this, and bust them publicly...

She almost stumbled two steps after that thought, but recovered. She was doing strategic planning, wasn't she?

It was enough to give her a smile in this atmosphere of pressure and despair. Maybe she'd be forced into a silly dress and almost brainwashed, but she'd realized one very important thing out of her run-in with Ace Champion: she actually COULD think for herself. This wasn't Lina's plan, or even Zoamel's. It was hers and hers alone. Admittedly, the others were HELPING... which kind of made her the leader of the team, didn't it?

She didn't realize she was whistling cheerfully while skipping down the street like a little girl until some of the hopeless, exhausted eyes of the population started to stare at her. She quickly cut that act out and got on with business, embarrassed.

Finding an alchemist hadn't been hard. Her little group (HER group, maybe?) had an enormous amount of respect with the city guard after the stunt Lina pulled the other day. Hence, the captain was quite helpful in pointing out the address of a travelling alchemist who was staying in town; one who had set up shop under Council contract specifically to help find a way to defeat the siege machines. TECHNICALLY she was supposed to go get the Council's approval before she diverted him from his work, but TECHNICALLY she had Amelia's royal support and Amelia still was above the council in name if not fact and TECHNICALLY she didn't actually give a flying.. a flying... well, something very nasty, indeed.

Penny walked up to the small government issue cottage, which had already seen some fire damage from the day's first alchemiac experimentation, and knocked on the door. It crumbled into a small pile of ash from the impact, which she took as an open invitation to make herself at home.

"Hello??" she asked, leaning in and looking around. "Is anybody here?"

"...daft idiot!" the alchemist shouted, before whapping his pupil over the head with the Staff of Educational Enlightenment. "How many times do I have to tell you about mixing the elementals? You always put the bottled lightning magic into the diffuser BEFORE dropping it in the pot with the sulphurous dioxide! A child of five would understand that!!"

"Ow," the student replied in absolute respect for his teacher and humility.

Penny approached, looking at the paper in her hand -- this WAS the right address, she hoped. "Excuse me -- YOU!?"

"YOU?!" Lord Noisemaker the Alchemist exclaimed.

"ME!!?!" Penny shouted. Paused. "Ah, I mean, yes. Me. Hi! Uh... before you ask, I left Table-chan with Amelia and no, you can't have him back -- "

"I've got more pressing problems to worry about than that," the old man grumbled, sitting his tired bones down in a government issue entirely too uncomfortable chair. "Speak your peace and leave, miss. I've got a fat scientific grant I'm not going to get if I can't save this blasted city by dawn and I need time to work on my superexplosive compound. What I wouldn't give for a standard issue Deathtrap Construction Kit With Retractable Springloaded Orthagonally Launched Magical Warheads, but NO, they won't spring for something as basic as -- "

"I've got what you need to save the city," Penny said simply, to cut through the man's tirade. She fished around in her bag, looking for her evidence.

"Oh, you do? Pull the other one, it's got bells on."

Penny turned red. "What?!"

"It's not what you think," the younger assistant said, already too familiar with his master's little social problems.

"Lass, miracle fixes to life's problems don't just miraculously wander in through the door in the final hour while being presented by your old enemies," Lord Noisemaker said, removing his spectacles and cleaning them on his soot-and-grease covered apron. "So permit me to be a little skeptical about your claim. If you've got some miracle in that sack of yours, I'll eat my beard."

Penny presented him with the bomb fragments.

"Salt, master?" the apprentice asked, holding up a shaker.

"...and that's the whole story," Lina finished with a croak. She dove for the pitcher of lemonade, snatching it away from the marched Mazoku before he could have a glass, and chugged it. Explaining your life's history tended to dry out one's throat.

Naga was speechless. An expert in reading faces, such as a master poker player, would be able to hear her reaction loud as a bell : a contemporary blend of doubt jazzed up with a little common-knowledge of Lina's typical modus operandi and a zesty splash of knowledge pertaining to magical and religious legends. The whole rockin' affair went into a guitar solo of understanding and finished with an encore of rock solid comprehension.

"Interesting," she said in actual words.

"It's all true, swear to Myself," Lina declared.

"So the Lina I know of... is in her hometown pushing spells on buyers," Naga stated. "I always knew you... she had a good sense for business. Although I of course was ALWAYS the superior Achiever of Bargains!"

"AND she's not lifting a finger," Lina continued, getting to the point. "She's sitting back and ignoring things. Just like you are. And look at me; I could have just... sunk back into that weird sleep, and not taken an active role in my life. Nobody would even have noticed, but that's not ME. I don't do that, and I know you don't either! Come ON, Naga! Even putting aside the long-term problem this causes for your.. scarily identical children, you WON'T sit back while Amelia's suffering and your home town is gonna get plowed into the dirt. You believe in actions, not words!.... okay, words too, and those awful laughs, but actions above all! I've SEEN you act without the slightest thought before!"

"Thank you," Naga spoke, with added Ice and Nastiness.

"You've been helping Amelia," Lina pointed out. "Don't you think at least a PART of you wants to save her from this? Just let go of your dislike of your family. Amelia's all the family you have left outside of this castle! You have to make a stand! You have to do what's right! In the name of justice, you must punish the bad guys and SAVE THE DAY!....."

Then Lina realized she was standing on the table and posing dramatically. Xelloss had already unfolded a cheap paper backdrop of the glorious rising sun behind her.

Naga's eyelid twitched. "...that is frighteningly familiar," she admitted. Her voice was softer than the harsh tones she used to condemn her family, and slightly rattled from the display. "And it does take me back. Little sister... she was always the idealistic one. But she truly BELIEVED in what she espoused, I will give her that..."

Lina hopped off the table, but not before frying Xelloss's stage props with a tiny fireball. "So what do you say, Naga?"

"Don't be a wuss, mom!" Gabby interjected.

Naga snapped. "Gabby! What did I tell you about insulting people?!"

"...I'm sorry, mum," Gabby said, meekly. "I meant, 'Don't be a yellow bellied sand crawling cowardly little dog unworthy of licking the dirt off my knee high leather boots, you sad little spineless being.'"

"That's better!" Naga approved, wholeheartedly. She stood, rising to her feet, adding a bit of Looming to the equation for good measure as she placed one self-assured hand on her hip. "Always assert your superiority in creative ways! That is what the royal family of Sailoon is about; never surrendering our inferior enemies! Amelia has faltered, and I, Gra -- Naga must save the tradition. Yes, Lina, I will take you up on this offer. I will link my dreamwalking spell to you and your friend here whose hair is on fire, and tonight, we will CRUSH the Sairaag nightmare-machines like so many insignificant little ants!!! OOOOOHOHOHOHOHHOOHOOO!!"

Gabby got to her feet, striking an identical pose, laughing into the back of her hand. "OOOOHOOHOHHOOHHOOHOOO!! Nobody defeats the White Serpent Clan of Sailoon!"

"oohohoohoohoho," a little voice gurgled from the crib.

OOMPH, went Lina's face on the floor.

"Oh my," Xelloss added.

The Instrument, as Lord Noisemaker had dubbed it, was some bizarre combination of mechanically rotated lenses, a small steam driven engine and luminescent gas lamp for lighting (with a magical fuel source to provide the heat) and a series of browned filters designed to produce coffee on the fly.

"Alchemy's sort of a twenty four hour a day thing," the young assistant was explaining to Penny, while the master did his work. He drew two more cards from the deck. "Call."

"Four of a kind," Penny announced, spreading her hand.

"Damn. Anyway, we've been at this just for a few days... basically since we left Darata. Master says the contract is good exposition."

Bonk. "EXPOSURE, you nitwit! Get the big words right."

"Does him hitting you like that really help you become more enlightened?" Penny asked, curious.

The young sir rubbed his sore head. "No -- " Bonk. "Yes. Yes, it does, I mean. Anyway, Lord Noisemaker here is trying to promote the idea of thaumatological science, a sort of 'scientific study of magic', and if we can get this contract money it'll help spread. Right, master?"

"For once in your miserable life... yes," the master replied, eyes not leaving the scopes of his Instrument. He rotated a few more lenses in and sipped his coffee. "If it weren't for the mechanical purists of Sairaag or some of the magical purists in Zeifelia, we'd be making better progress. understand, young lady, what with the fees and expenses involved in this chemical analysis, I'm afraid we can't impart any of our contract money to you as a reward -- "

"We're not in it for the money," Penny explained, smiling. "We just want to see justice done and stuff."

"I'm not finding anything unusual about this fragment, child," the Master said, frowning. "This could have been from a hand-held bomb, or it could have been from the cannons. The metal grade is the same cheap material Sairaag usually employs for munitions. Bah! Pure burning powder will never defeat the enemy the same way as a black magic-charged nitrous compound -- "

"Shouldn't we be applying our science to peacetime efforts, Master? You're always raving about deathtrap this and explosive that and -- "


This time, the student ducked and the Staff of Enlightenment missed him completely. It went WHOOSH right over his head, before striking against the floor stones with a satisfying clacking sound.

And a HUGE GRIN burst out across Lord Noisemaker's face.

"Lad... you are now officially enlightened!" he said. "Oh, how I've waited for this day! Whole bloody point of the Staff of Enlightenment is to figure out that the SMART thing to do is not to get hit by it! I always knew you were slow, but you'd catch on eventually. Perhaps NOW you're worthy of the higher learnings!"

"..." was the boy's reply. His face lit up like the halogen bulb in the Instrument. "Golly!"

Penny made a mental note to just teach HERSELF thaumatological science one day and continued. "Maybe you can't tell from the type of metal, but are there any residues? Anything trace? Fingerprints, or something...?"

"There's an unusually high level of calcium," Lord Noisemaker explained, ignoring his radiantly gleeful subordinate for now. "I'll admit, that's a little odd, but I figured it for a chemical transformation after the fact. ...although there's also some specks of flour burned into the metal itself. And bread crumbs."

"...didn't you just say you didn't find anything unusual?" Penny asked, incredulous.

"Ah... well, I was eating breakfast near the Instrument this morning," Lord Noisemaker admitted. "That might've tainted the sample. But I don't recall having toast, or any bread for that matter... I'm a backbacon man, myself. Science takes a hearty load of protein to work properly, you know."

"Sunny side up, please," the pupil warbled, still a bit dazed with glee.

Penny snatched the bomb fragment out of the Instrument's tray, and stuffed it back in the bag. "I think I have it," she said. "But I need to do a little more investigation. Sir, I'll let you know when I've got definitive proof... or if my hunch is right, a suspect! Thanks for all your help!"

"A suspect? But we've hardly discovered anything!"

"I know enough now," Penny said, smiling. "More than enough."

Amelia huddled in the corner of the room. Her bed was pushed up against the wall, away from the light of the setting sun, but she didn't lie down; she didn't want to lie down, she didn't want to risk falling asleep. The nightmares were bad enough, even after fainting from the shock of Zelgadis's announcement... no more. She couldn't face them again.

She was kept in a private room, on a guarded private ward... a holdover from the days when the throne was routinely tested by the sword. But nobody was bothering to worry about her. They were too worried about the dawn, about what it might bring. Amelia knew what it would bring -- surrender.

The Council would surrender. It listened to the people, and the people had long since lost any idealism they had about Sailoon... just as she had. But it still hurt. Her home, her birthplace, the nation once so proud would be no more than a Sairaag puppet tomorrow. Assuming she wasn't put to death to 'make way for the new age'...

Zelgadis walked into the room, seemingly stepping out of thin shadow.

She immediately screamed for help, the surprise and shock making her fear snap into full blown terror.

"Please, Amelia, you don't have to yell," Zelgadis spoke, putting his hands in the pockets of his military issue uniform. "It won't do any good, anyway. We've silenced the room."

The young queen pressed herself deeper into the corner of the room, sweat running down her neck. She couldn't FEEL any shielding magics against sound. "S-Silenced? But that's impossible!"

"I think you'll find -- as I have -- that technology makes the impossible possible. It's a miracle, a man-made miracle. But don't be afraid. I simply want to talk," Zelgadis said. "Besides, I'm not really here. This is a projection of light, being shot through your window. The technology for communication Sairaag has developed is quite revolutionary. If you don't believe me..."

Zelgadis two a few steps forward, and waved his arm... through a nearby chair. The image blurred and shadowed out when it reached an area blocked from the setting sunlight.

Being addressed by a specter was no less frightening. "What did you w- want to talk about?"

"About us, of course," Zelgadis said softly. "We know each other, Amelia. It has been some time, but I'm still the same man you knew. I stand for what's right and just, and I don't wish to harm you or anyone in this city. But I'm also a man of duty, as you know. I came to plead with you, actually. To plead with you for your life."

"..." Amelia said, softening slightly. The exhaustion was setting in, now that the initial adrenaline rush had left. " life?"

"Your Council has already approached us for surrender," Zelgadis said. "I finished coming to terms with them not ten minutes ago. Your people are ready to end this pointless siege, and enter the world civilization. But you still have some small measure of final say in such circumstances, it seems. Until you sign the papers, we can't make it official. I know you treasure your country... and it's a wonderful country, I agree. But you have to listen to REASON, Amelia. This is the only way to ensure Sailoon continues to exist and thrive in the new age of man."

Amelia fell silent. She knew it was an eventuality. She knew she'd sign it, no matter how many tears she had to choke back. But SAYING the words, saying them even to an old friend... the tone of voice, the soothing one he used when he occasionally let slip how he really felt...

"We've got some final changes to make to the papers," Zelgadis explained. "They will be ready at dawn for your signature. I want you by my side, Amelia. By the side of Sairaag. It's for the best. There may need to be some small changes in how Sailoon works, to integrate better into the future of society, but you don't have to worry about that. Let your Council worry for you. That's why you set it up, didn't you? To take the pressure off your throne?"

"'s for the people," Amelia squeaked, a company line.

"Yes, for them, too. But I understand perfectly. I know about what happened to you, the day before you signed the Council's existence into law. It will never happen again. Sairaag will be your ally, and you'll wear the finest regal wear, and be able to support your people as a figurehead and never need to lose your smile again. Trust me. I know what's best for you. You do trust me, don't you? I'm your 'Zelgadis-sama', after all..."

She didn't nod. She wanted to, to agree and sigh in relief and go to sleep, to know it'd all be better and she wasn't in danger, and she wouldn't have to make mistakes and wouldn't have to be hurt but...

Something stopped her. It rose to her lips unbidden.

"...I love my home," she said. "I don't want to lose it..."

"It's time you grew up, Amelia," Zelgadis said, his voice tone dropping into a more hostile area. "Everybody leaves home eventually. You'd better decide what means more to you; your life and the lives of everybody you know or some sort of archaic patriotic pride that YOUR regime has all but destroyed in your country. I will see you at dawn. I trust you to do what's right. If not... you know I am a man of duty. I will carry my duty out to the fullest."

The image faded. And so did the tiny flicker of a flame that had started to grow in Amelia's heart. She tucked her head between her knees, and rocked slowly, waiting for this nightmare to be over. Waiting to sleep forever...

All things considered, it had been going quite well.

Naga had agreed to help, which is what Lina came here for in the first place. They'd go into dreams, knock out whatever was causing the nightmares that were destabilizing the circle-support mages, and then give Sairaag the 'ol one finger salute for a job well done!

Lina had rolled on a wave all the way to this, a guest bedroom at Black Widow's Peak. A wave of acting without thinking too hard about it. She knew that's how she worked best... but now there was no acting to be done, in the hours before the attack. Just time to rest, get prepared mentally, and go to sleep to face the battle.

And she couldn't sleep. She knew the deadline, nine o'clock, was when Naga would start off with or without her. She knew she wasn't human and could do anything she wanted, and could sleep on and off like a light switch. And she still couldn't sleep.

Lina rolled over in bed, hoping that maybe her left side would work better than her right, and came face to face with the smiling Mazoku under her covers.

"Hello, dear!" Xelloss chimed before Lina punched him in the eye and punted him into a wall.

"Get out of my bed, you freak!!" Lina shouted, a little vein bulging in her forehead.

"...I was just wondering where you were," Xelloss said, upside down and slowly peeling off the wall. He flopped to the floor, rolled, and got right back to his feet. Smiling all the way. "Naga's asleep. She asked me to get you. Do you want a glass of warm milk? Shall I sing you a lullaby?"

"Oh, good, a Mazoku lullaby," Lina grumbled. "Probably involves disembowlments and decapitations and defenstrations..."

"You know it already?" Xelloss asked, impressed.

"I'll be asleep in a minute, okay? It's not like I can switch off like one of those gas-lights," Lina said, pointing to the fancy Sairaag-designed table lamp. "I'll join you when I'm good and ready!"

The Mazoku scratched his chin, pouting a little as he thought it over... then snapped his fingers. "Of course! How could I be so blind? I must be losing it in my old age. You're scared, aren't you?"


"I can smell it," Xelloss said, smiling wider. "Mazoku are just sort of in tune with this sort of thing. You've still got doubts. Whenever you're alone, and not leading the wacky, eclectic group of adventurers onward towards victory, the doubt creeps in. Are you doing well enough? Are you true to yourself? Are you even sure of who 'yourself' is? Or are you just walking a path directly towards destruction -- "

Lina chucked the lamp at Xelloss. He ducked it, not wanting to pry glass out of his face.

"I am not 'scared', thank you very much!!" Lina protested.

"It's no use lying, Lina. I know. But it's okay! If there's any one human emotion I understand, it's fear," he said, less jovially mocking and more serious. "Allow me to explain. Fear has many interpretations, but I've developed my own -- which, of course, is absolutely correct in all respects. Follow the steps. Shaburanigdo is a Demiurge, yes? And we Mazoku feed on negative emotions. Fear. Anger. Despair. We feed on faith from you humans."

"I've never worshipped Shaburanigdo," Lina said, coldly.

"Ah, but you have. Every dark thought you have. Every doubt, every uncertainty, every fantasy about how things can go wrong... that's faith, Lina. Faith in your worst nightmares coming to life. Faith that nothing will be good and everything right will be wrong again. That faith powers us. Right now, I feel a small trickle from you, and I'll admit that it satisfies me on some small level. Are you still going to deny it now, Lina Inverse?"

Lina dryswallowed. She wanted to smack the guy around, beat him up, maybe blow him up... but it was unnerving. He read her like a book. To show that vulnerability to him was UNTHINKABLE... but right now...

"...okay, maybe I am," Lina said. "Fine. And yes, I don't want to go to sleep. Not after the wham-bang of a nightmare I had recently. So what's your proposal, Mister Evil Genius? You got an actual plan here or did you just come to talk smack and make fun of me? Because if you DID, I'm gonna -- "

"Please, please, let's be nice-nice with each other," Xelloss begged. "I'm in NO shape to go toe to toe with you right now. I am here to HELP you, Lina. Do you want to know the trick for going to sleep? For 'overcoming' your fear?"

"If it's the last thing you say before you walk out that door, sure."

"It's quite simple," Xelloss said. "Essentially... don't bother trying to defeat your fear. Oh, sure, it's all sweet and wonderful in the storybooks when the hero overcomes that stumbling block right when he needs to and walks off into the sunset fearless and proud, but that's not reality. In reality, it's never that convenient, and fear takes a LONG time to fully purge from your system."

"That doesn't sound like a solution, Xelloss."

"Ah, but you misunderstand! If you cannot simply destroy your fear right now and go to sleep, what you need to do in the meantime... is act anyway. Act despite fear. Be afraid, be very afraid, but never let fear stop you cold. Humans live in linear time; they don't see the future, but they run at full speed into it anyway, despite fear of the unknown. THAT is how you deal with fear. So go to sleep, even if you have a nightmare, and let's finish this side quest. Mmm?"

Lina perked an eyebrow. "'Act despite fear'? That's it?"

"The results speak for themselves," Xelloss said, with a wry grin (but which grins of his weren't wry?). "Just go to sleep. Straightforward, simple, effective. Right now. Just go to sleep right now. You're a Demiurge, you CAN turn it off like a gas light. I know more about Demiurges... and you... than you'd ever imagine."

"...such as?"

"Ah! That is a -- "

Lina went to sleep so she wouldn't have to hear the rest of that.

Nobody slept at the small Sairaag camp, after the sun had set. They weren't afraid; they were just on orders not to, in case anything came up. But it was dead boring, and Roy had blown through three cups of coffee already just trying to stay awake.

Why was he here? These soldiers didn't need a leader, and he was no army commander. They went about their business with or without him. Elizabeth (whose grave Roy would spit on if she were dead and not family) had to be punishing him... blackmailing him into menial labor, forcing him to heel to her. That was always the way; if you weren't with her, you were gonna be with her eventually. This was how she showed people that. No surprise she was hell bent on world domination, it was the only viable occupation for a person like that.

He'd sat by like a good little soldier while Zelgadis negotiated with the two Council members who left the protection of the circles. He'd listened to their heated discussions... how they caved to every one of Zelgadis's demands, whenever a little sweetener was tossed into the mix. Some extra funds for the Sailoon government there, a tax hike here, a mansion on the Sairaag coast there... and the deal was done. Now they just had to wait until dawn for final approval from Elizabeth.

Zelgadis sat on the grass, sharpening/loading his gunblade, and watching the city. Almost thoughtful. Damned if HE should be allowed to be thoughtful and moody in silence while Roy was freaking bored, so Roy Balderdash interrupted the silence.

"Think sister 'o mine will approve?" he asked.

"The terms are agreeable," Zelgadis said, dragging the stone across his blade's edge. "We honestly weren't expecting such an easy takeover to get what we want. I was counting on Amelia being as clueless and thickheaded as ever. She was always the dense one, when we traveled... steadfast in her resolve, but to the point of stubbornness. But she buckled like a belt, and now it is over."

"Beats trashing the city," Roy said, with some small relief. "Land is no good for Sairaag to resettle when it's got huge glowing craters all over the place."

"We're not resettling," Zelgadis said. "We have no interest in Sailoon, truthfully. Perhaps we can find a use for it now that it has been so easily delivered into our hands, but the only goal was to get inside the circles, and take the prize."

" were gonna kidnap the Queen?"

"No, you idiot," Zelgadis barked. "You bandits always think in small terms. Money or ransom to lead to money. Getting fat and rich and stupid on your tiny conquests when you can't possibly fathom the greater prizes -- "

"Get to the point, Zel."

Zelgadis glared at him. "I am your superior officer. Do not take that tone of voice with me."

"What're you gonna do, fire me?" Roy asked, grinning. "Go ahead. Do me the favor."

"...if you MUST know," Zelgadis continued, quite irritated, "We want the Demiurge. It rests, hidden, inside a statue of Ceipheed in the center of the city. We can't simply stick a disk on the wall and get a drain; it has to be at the core. Once the city is weakened, it will be ours."

"Oh, one of those things again," Roy said. He never understood this weird mythological fixation of theirs, but it wasn't his place to understand. "At least we can take it and go without wiping the place off the face of the world. Bloody hell, you should have just asked to enter or snuck in as a merchant and taken it! Beats squatting around here all day next to these blasted guns with nothing to do."

Idiot. If we did that, Zelgadis thought silently, then we wouldn't achieve the other, lesser goal... and that was to eradicate a backwards nation that would eventually try to rise against Sairaag, no matter how demoralized they were now. History had shown that Sailoon's bloodline ran unusually strong, and had to be cut off to truly kill the threat they posed. Specifically, cut off at the neck.

But no need to tell Roy Balderdash that. He was just a grunt. Zelgadis dragged the stone over his blade slowly, again and again, waiting for the sun.

"Here's to our new allies, Sairaag!! May they live forever, with the RIGHT thinking sorts from Sailoon as their proud and noble companions!" the master belted out, already having a drink or two in him. (Fortunately, he was in the kitchen, and the customers couldn't see him getting tipsy.) He raised his wine glass in toast with his fellow workers, and downed it.

The day couldn't have gone better. The bombs were so easy to get into the palace that he almost felt ashamed of his country -- and in fact did feel quite ashamed that they hadn't given up this ridiculous siege and joined under the Sairaag banner sooner. Soon, he'd move his place of business to the glorious capital of technology... steam pressure cookers... automatic coffee machines... powered bread slicers! He'd be living the EASY life!

"Master!" one of the waiters shouted, running into the kitchen.

"Yes, what is it, Harold?"

"It's Howard," the breathless waiter replied. "Ah... we have a customer who wishes to speak with you!"

"With me?" the head chef asked, curious. "Why is that? No doubt a fan of my fine work in the culinary arts. By all means, let them in, let them in! Welcome, welcome to the Golden Roast Side of Meat!"

"Thank you," the unassuming looking girl said, smiling. "I've heard a lot about your business. You're on contract with the royal palace, aren't you?"

"...yes, we are," the head chef said, puzzled as to the question. "Why, do you wish to contract us for a catering event? We may be changing locales soon, you see, and can't take up any new jobs -- "

"Actually," Penny said, "I specifically heard that you provided the breakfast that Amelia served to her guests today. Your entire team brought it down on carts, right?"

"What are you getting at, young lady?"

Penny held up the bomb fragment. "It's simple. You hid bombs in the food. Then, after serving most of it, you dumped the carts at points in the empty, unguarded palace and left... since you had already gotten them past the front gate guards, being well known as caterers to the cash-strapped palace kitchen. I'll give you one chance to fess up."

The air in the room grew so tense that you could cut it with a knife. Fortunately, many knives were present, such as the one that had slipped into the master chef's hand.

"An interesting story," he said. "And entirely speculative, little girl. Let me add some to that. What if, hypothetically, a young little tart by the name of Lina happened to completely wipe me out recently, and being strapped for cash, I took a payment from Sairaag to handle the bombing that would make it look like they'd beaten the circles?"

"It'd make sense," Penny said, folding her hands behind her back, and rocking on her feet, quite happy. "That's the part I hadn't figured out yet. So, are you coming quietly or do I have to get rough?"

Snickers and chuckles rolled around the kitchen. The chef raised his knife. "And who are you, exactly, to get rough with a master of the Culinary Martial Arts Nine Blades Rolling Cucumber Technique?"

"I'm an adventuress, of course!" Penny said, smiling to him. "I seek fame and glory and adventure and stuff like that."

"And where is your sword, adventuress? Where is your armor? A sorceress's cloak, perhaps? I just see some foolish girl in a pretty skirt."

"I left that stuff behind. I didn't need it anymore," Penny said. "Not with an intellect as sharp as mine. And not with a nine foot tall walking demon god with teeth longer than that knife looming up directly behind you with intent of having a good meal at your restaurant."

"Oh, PLEASE," the chef laughed, turning to look into the eyes of a nine foot tall walking demon god with teeth longer than his knife looming up directly behind him with intent of having a good meal at his restaurant.

The customers in the main dining hall ran away after hearing what sounded like a herd of wild lions tearing the kitchen apart.

Lina knew she was dreaming. She KNEW she was dreaming. She fell asleep so she could dream, so she could go off on this.. particularly unusual sort of fight. But that didn't make it any more comfortable.

All around her, a thundering wave of her believers called out to her, asked her to do things, each pulling on her with a rope. She instinctively pulled back, not wanting to be yanked this way and that, but the harder she resisted the worse it got. Panic kept her rooted in one spot, fear of losing herself again, while pride and a sense of duty kept telling her: let go, let go, this is what you are... what you're feeling is just a fear of the unknown. You don't really understand yet. Let go, and you'll find out...

It's a strange feeling, to recognize something as blatantly digging on your fears, and still fear it. In a dreamlike state, despite all your best intentions, the simple is the horrible and the obvious is the unnerving --

The dream split into two, sliding apart before shattering like a funhouse mirror.

"If you're QUITE done, we have to be getting on," Naga warned, temporarily flashing to the White Serpent avatar she wore from the last encounter Lina had with her here. "I'll have to feed Helga in a few hours, and I'd like to be home before she gets too upset. Let's begin. Unless you'd like to stay behind? You and your little purple haired friend are not familiar with dreamwalking, whereas I've had years of experience practicing the magic."

"Oh, I've done a little dabbling," Xelloss probably understated. "Don't you worry about me, miss."

"...I'm coming," Lina said. "You might need backup. Otherwise, you'd have taken this thing out already, wouldn't you?"

"HAH! The great Naga the White Serpent requires no backup. ...but generally, I have found the source of the waves to be unapproachable, yes," she admitted. "But before we continue, I must teach you the basics. Everything has meaning and nothing is real. Once you accept that, no matter how strong a fear reaction you experience, you can still fight. You must cut through the dream with a firm belief that what you see is not what exists."

"...act despite fear, then?" Lina summarized, finding the resonance strange, as she glanced at Xelloss. "And fight with the truth?"

"Essentially," Naga agreed. "But there's a lot more subtlety, technique, and training you lack. Let me lead the charge; clean up anything I miss, and if you spot something ahead, tell me. We're going to be plowing through Sailoon, along the shield wall, towards the source that is using the circles to resonate nightmares. It will get worse and worse as we continue inward, so stay back if you lose your resolve. Understood?"

"Let's kick some," Lina said, smacking a fist in her palm. "No stupid little spookshow is gonna knock Lina Inverse out of whack. Bring it on."

Xelloss remained amused. But that was normal.

The situation couldn't be better! Zoamel had... 'encouraged' a confession out of the chef responsible for the bombing. Of course, that meant nothing if they couldn't put it to good use... and Penny knew exactly how to do that.

If the Council was dead set on surrender and likely to debate for hours before agreeing to change that, then there was only one person who could carry this revelation to the people. Assuming Penny could convince her to do it. It FELT dramatically right, like the sort of thing an Inverse would set up, but --

But the sound of shattering glass from Amelia's room wasn't encouraging. Penny picked up the pace, shoving by the guards posted at her door (who knew her, and allowed it), to enter the darkened hospital room...

Light glinted off the broken mirror shard Amelia held up, as she whirled to face Penny. A tiny dot of red appeared on her neck, as she accidentally scratched herself in the process.

"St-stay back!!" she shouted. "Don't think I won't use this!"

Penny stood her ground, but put up her arms defensively -- a peace gesture. "Amelia... put it down, okay? Please? You don't have to do this!"

"I have to!" she said. "It doesn't matter! Don't you see? We lost! The city is dead! I'm dead! Nobody cares anymore and nobody ever cared, and.. and I can't face that! No more nightmares, no more failures, no more disasters... they don't need me. I set it up so they don't need me; they have a democracy now and I'm out of the loop. So it won't matter if I do this!"

"Your father cared," Penny said, risking the reminder. She didn't want to unsettle Amelia, but if she didn't talk her down fast...

It worked. The hand holding the shard shook a little. "...he cared.. and he was a fool! He was killed because he cared! Don't you get it? ...years ago... I took the throne. I thought I could carry on in his name, do him proud. I announced to the people that this would be the era of justice and fairness, and Sailoon would embark on a new golden age, and, and ... nobody cared! There were cheers, empty cheers and everybody left without having actually LISTENED to me! Father just didn't realize how little the people cared about his ideals... I failed. I failed my people."

"Is.. that why you made the Council?" Penny asked, keeping her talking.

Amelia slumped backwards, sitting on the edge of her bed, the weapon nearly forgotten. "No. No... that was when... when I realized what the throne was. It was a prize, nothing more.'s a long story..."

"I think we have time," Penny said, carefully walking over and sitting next to her. She slipped the glass shard from Amelia's unresisting hand. "And I want to know. It's important, Amelia-san."

The queen let a ragged exhale out. "Very well. One day, I was travelling with the white mages to review prospective candidates for entrance into the guild. While on horseback, travelling the roads... I was shot in the chest with an arrow, and killed. Just like that; the whole thing took seconds. But one of my companions was strong enough to cast Resurrect, and heal me... heal me so I could hold a trial and bring the would-be assassin to justice. I still believed in justice, until then."

"What changed your mind?"

Amelia looked Penny, square in the eyes. "...I put a man to death because he shot an arrow at me. The assassin was a paid professional. But even though I knew WHICH Duke was responsible for it, one who was trying to climb his way up to my throne on top of bodies, I could never PROVE it was him. I can't condemn a man in the spirit of justice without proof... but the wrong man went to the gallows, in the end. He may have pulled the trigger, which was enough for the written law, but he wasn't the evildoer. Evil got away with it. After that... I understood how unfair and unjust the throne was. It only led to chaos and bloodshed, so... I signed the Council into being shortly after. To take the focus away from it, and away from me, and how I failed, to give the people something they NEEDED..."

"...and it didn't work," Penny filled in. "Because, and I doubt I'm off the mark here, the Council is just as filled with political infighting and indecision, and nothing actually gets done. It just fails to get done with less violence than before."

The queen nodded, mutely. It pained her even to acknowledge it.

"Okay... you've told your story," Penny said. "Now I want to tell you one of mine. Is that fine?"

Amelia seemed confused, but nodded slowly. "...I suppose."

"Ever since I was young, I wanted to be an adventuress," Penny started. "Just like my mother was, before my mother got boring. Sword, cape, dashing heroics, lots of money, the whole thing. I patterned everything I did after that idea I had, of the bandit-stomping power that was Lina Inverse. My boyfriend mocked me, the local thugs always beat me, but I kept going despite all signs saying I was doing it the wrong way... and I didn't realize how completely wrong that way was."


Penny smiled weakly. "It wasn't until I met the REAL Lina Inverse, the one from my fantasies, that I figured it out. I wasn't like her. She's a lot more cynical, and a lot crazier, and larger than life than I ever could be or want to be. I admired her, and I still do. I have so much faith in her... but I can't BE her! Everything she did overshadowed me; every plan I took part in was hers, and I was always the wanna-be copy of her. Sure, I was adventuring, but only by shuffling from problem to problem under her guidance. I didn't know how to do anything by myself and do it well. It's a lot like your problem... your dream proved to be less than pleasant when it was reality, and you were afraid of failure... I was afraid I had failed. That I picked the wrong goals in life, that my boyfriend and others were right and my life was over... you got killed, and it cemented your view that it was hopeless... but I got kidnapped and it cemented my view that there was hope."


"I escaped," Penny quickly said. "And I escaped on my OWN. I put together a plan, I commanded the troops, I got it done. I could have waited for Lina to rescue me, and she probably would have, but I'd forever be in Lina's shadow if I did that... just like you're in the shadow of Sailoon's problems. Amelia... if you want to just sit by and let things go out of control, I won't stop you. But if you want to take hold of this country, and right those wrongs you've seen and done... I think I can help."

Amelia seemed skeptical... she still clung to despair like a starving man in the desert. "'s beyond help. The people have no faith in me or their city. Sairaag's cannons just... sealed the coffin that had been built for so -- "

"They didn't actually breach the circles."

" -- what?"

"Get ready for this," Penny said, bracing her. "It was all a trick. A local chef delivered bombs to the castle with your breakfast, and they went off while Sairaag fired blanks. It LOOKED like they broke the circles, but they never did. They're just as locked out now as they were yesterday. It's a scam, Amelia! And my friend Zoamel HAS the proof you want, the proof you need to see justice be done! The Council won't act on this... but YOU can."

A tiny flicker sparked in Amelia's eyes. "...a scam?" she repeated, as it slowly sunk in. "Sairaag deceived us...?"

"All to demoralize your city. To seal the coffin, as you said. If you go public with -- "

"It I tell my people what happened, they'll know they've been tricked," Amelia said, not needing to be fed the lines anymore. "They'll demand justice. They'll realize Sailoon is STILL strong, and we can still hold our own against our enemies! ...but will they rally behind me? I'm... I'm only a figurehead. A failure..."

"It's time to turn the city around," Penny said, standing. "If it's Sailoon's darkest hour, maybe it can build back up from this low. But you won't know until you try. We'll go to the belltower at the north end of the palace, and bring a megaphone. State of the city address. Are you willing, Queen Amelia? I can try to do it myself, if you're still afraid, but I think it'd be better coming from you..."

Amelia stood up.

"I'm afraid, but I must do this," she said. "It's the only chance I have left. The only chance Sailoon has. Let's go."

"Hey, Naga..."


"You remember that time when we were captured by those trolls and stuffed into a cookpot with six week old cheese, various nine week old rat corpses, and parsley?"

"I had successfully forgotten that, Lina. Thank you SO much. Why do you bring it up?"

"...because THIS IS WORSE!" Lina shouted, hanging upside down over a pit of scorpions the size of rotweilers on anabolic steroids. She jerked to the left, shaking one off her dangling cape. "Haven't you found the lever or the switch or the whatever yet?!"

"That's LEVERAGE! And I'm looking right now," Naga said, concentrating. "Every nightmare has a certain breaking point. You just have to find it and apply pressure of will... the more obvious ones are easier to shatter -- "

"These scorpions are starting to tickle inside my pants," Xelloss groaned from the bottom of the pit. "Can we please move on?"

"Almost... THERE!" Naga shouted. She pulled free of the chains designed to hold a stampeding elephant, and flicked her arm in a single glowing arc; the nightmare shattered, split at its weakest point, and fell away into the dreaming void.

Xelloss fished a stray scorpion out of his underwear and tossed it away. It faded to nothingness. "At least few people are asleep in Sailoon. It's been a cakewalk so far. Except for that time Lina imagined a huge cream- filled pastry trying to kill us..."

"Hey, can I help it if I have stray thoughts?" Lina asked. "I'm new at this. And NO, I'm not going to wake up! Let's just get on with it. Where to now?"

Naga felt around in the non-air before her. "The trail is getting colder. I had always suspected there was some masking to the machine generating the nightmares... the closer you get, the harder it is to find. This could take awhile."

"We will finish before daybreak, right?" Lina asked.

"That depends, Lina! This is not easy work. It might take a few nights of travel to finally pinpoint the source -- "

"We don't have that long," Lina said. "No... I don't know how I know, I just do, and I'm not going to question that. We've got to get this done TONIGHT. Let me help. How do you look for this thing?"

Naga formed a complicated chalk drawing with the flick of her mind. "First, you parse the pulses of fear in the back of your mind and count the number of seconds between waves. Then you move to three random points and take new samples of the -- "

"Never mind," Lina said. She focused her mind... and for someone unused to really focusing on much of anything except whatever's trying to kill you with a sharp object or how to maximize your dinner potential, that was no small feat.

Didn't help, either.

So, she thought about something else. She thought about that nightmare she'd hit when she got here, with all her believers. How she felt so connected to them, exhilarating and terrifying at the same time. She was trying to cut those bonds, wasn't she? But there was a flip side to that coin, something intriguing that she didn't think was frightening at all, and before she could see it Naga had...


Just like the time she tried to feel for Ace Champion's connections, wandering her mind around had gotten here just where she needed to be. There was a tug... there was a link to the free-floating dreams all around them, in Sailoon, and it came from a VERY definite direction. No triangulation needed. She could say where it was just as sure as one could say the moon was in the sky...

"This way," Lina said, with a nod of her head. "And please, just don't ask why. It's this way. But you're right; the waves are getting stronger closer to it, and likely harder to break. Try to keep your minds blank so we can avoid any more encounters. Thought is REAL here if you make it real, right, Naga?"

A glossy magazine unfolded in the air, with a full centerfold nudie spread of Lina wearing bunny ears and a tail.

"Sorry, my bad," Xelloss admitted, waving it away with a thought before Lina slugged him.

Lina wasn't the only Inverse applying lessons learned from Ace Champion's little run-in. Elsewhere, in the waking world, Penny was juggling her first stint as a media producer and spectacle promoter, in a public event that would make the Mooki-Pokko spotlight hogger proud.

They're gotten all of Sailoon's attention easily; a few white mages to kick up some light spells, pointing an arrow to the tower, did that. A large crowd, most of the sleepless population of the city had formed. The bell chimed, and everything was ready to go. Lord Noisemaker was ready with a few colorful bar charts he'd prepared about the bomb fragment's makeup to convince the Council he was spending their money well. Zoamel had their confessed suspect by the jugular (literally), the megaphone had been prepared, and now it was time for Amelia to blow the doors off this scandal in front of the teeming masses...

And Amelia had stage fright.

"I can't do it," she said. "I thought I could but I can't. I'm afraid. I'll admit it. I'm scared to death. They won't accept me. Not after all I've done to them. They won't believe it, and it won't work, and -- "

"Amelia?" Penny interrupted. "Listen, I'm sympathetic, and I want to help you work this all out, but we really don't have time for another inspirational speech here. I'm sorry. It has to be NOW, before people leave. You've even got the Council down there ready to listen -- bunch of guys in brown robes and wigs, right?"

"...they're here?" Amelia asked, surprised. "But.. they almost never leave the Council mansion, except when campaigning..."

Penny leaned over the ledge, to verify. "Yep, they're here. I know you're afraid... but just do what comes naturally. Like you would have done years ago, or like you remember your dad. Okay? And TRUST that it'll work."

"Like father..." Amelia repeated. She drew in a deep breath. "I'm not sure they paid attention to father, Penny. He was loved by the people, but respected as a leader... no. I'll do it how I'll do it. That will have to be enough."

She curled her fingers around the megaphone handle, and began.

The queen may have started her speech shaky, almost begging for attention, but when she found she DID have their attention, the rest was almost a matter of routine. Almost.

Amelia explained the deception, but not the way Penny did -- she enriched it with emotion. Her fear, her loathing of the Sairaag army worked into her words, into the way she SAID the words... by the time Zoamel had prodded the master chef up to the ledge to say his piece, passing off to Noisemaker's brief presentation, the crowd was sold. Completely sold.

Except for a few.

Someone had slipped a mechanical voice amplifier (likely donated by Sairaag) to the Head of the Council, an old man with a graying beard. "This is preposterous!" he declared. "I tell you, I have been to the camp of the Sairaag party, and I have seen their weapons. They breached our circle! Your highness, I mean no disrespect to the throne, but how do we know you didn't just hire an actor to play your saboteur, and convince the alchemist to doctor evidence so he would be paid his over inflated grant?!"

"The nerve!" Lord Noisemaker bellowed. "By the honor of my chosen profession, I ought to take this Staff of Enlightenment and shove it up that loudmouth's -- "

"Head Councilman," Amelia said, quickly cutting off the alchemist. Penny could see her shaking, a subtle touch the crowd would miss, as her words came sure and clean despite the terror the confrontation prompted in her. "Perhaps you mean no disrespect to the throne, but you are giving it in large amounts."

"My queen, I hardly think -- "

"Yes, that is true. Need I remind you MY signature must go on your presumed surrender papers? Listen to me... I know I have been reduced to a figurehead. I did this by my choice, and I thought I chose well... but all I did was take the possibility of having a strong leader and exchange it for an absolute of bureaucracy. There is less risk now, but that is because nothing can get done! Perhaps my reputation has fallen... but I am of Sailoon blood. My father dedicated his very life and death to this country, as his father before him and onward. I beseech the Council. Support me in this, and do not quibble in it. I want what is best for the country. For us to carry on the name Sailoon, and not the name Sairaag. That is ALL I want."

Steam practically rose from the Head Councilman's ears. "It seems disrespect goes around quite easily, MISS Amelia. People of Sailoon, listen to me! We CANNOT stand against Sairaag. We must adapt! You have seen the damage to the palace, how can you comprehend this ridiculous..."

A gas light went off in Penny's head, as the man ranted. She quickly slipped up next to Amelia, staying hidden by the ledge, and motioned for her. She whispered the plan... and the queen's eyes widened. This it was not a gesture of fear, simply surprise... she interrupted the politician once more.

"If this proof is not enough, I will give you more proof," the queen said. Then... she turned, to face the large cannon that was aimed directly at the building, from across the city. "ZELGADIS! I know you can hear me out there. You wouldn't be a good soldier not to monitor us in these last few hours. I tell you now, we WILL resist you! If you are a truly are a man of duty above being my friend... then fire your guns and destroy the tower I stand on!"

A wave of panic shot through the crowd. The Councilman tried to shout a protest, but his megaphone died out, the machinery blown from overuse. Frightened voices mixed together, blended as everybody waited...

Waited for nothing to happen.

"What's the problem, Zelgadis-san?" Amelia called. "Fire your guns! I'm saying we will resist you to the last. I won't run anymore! This is your only alternative. Or do you not want to show that you never really could penetrate the walls of this city?! I'm calling your bluff, on the behalf of Sailoon, and its millennia-long history of pride, and I will show you the error of your ways with the HAMMER OF JUSTICE!!"

The queen posed, one leg up on the ledge, one hand pointing to the cannon. Heroic. Defiant. Melodramatic. The crowd ate it up like taffy.

Fears turned to jeers, as they realized how embarrassing this had to be for Sairaag. More taunting came from the population, and laughs... some of it directed at the Council for being proven wrong in such a bold way. The day was won -- even if they were still under siege, faith in the city's strength had been renewed.

Belief flowed into the circles of Sailoon like a dammed river with the dam blasted to harmless pebbles. Zoamel breathed a sigh of relief, feeling that energy sweep from the crowd to the tiny Demiurge hiding in the statue of Ceipheed, and could faintly hear it's poorly worded thanks.

"It seems to be over," he said aloud. And immediately wished he hadn't.

"So much for that idea," Roy Balderdash said, with a shrug. "They wised up. Do we get to go home now, FINALLY, Commander Greyweirs?"

Zelgadis stood rock still. Which was very appropriate, considering he was covered in rock. Roy peered at the boy oddly. Did his brain snap? There was that shocked look on his face, like he never expected Sailoon to have half a brain and see through the ridiculous plan...

No, there was motion. A fist, slowly curling.

"...turn the machine up to five hundred percent strength," he spoke. "Once enough of them are destroyed, there will be nobody left to feed the circles, and they will collapse. Then, the Demiurge will be ours. Those are the orders Elizabeth gave to me in case something like this were to happen."

"What? Whoa, whoa!" Roy protested. "The dream machine? First of all, if your techie boys are right, it was never designed to go over two fifty. Second, if you do that, you'll probably burn out half the people in the city, awake or asleep! What's the point? They WON, you daft twit, they called our bluff! Bagging some mystical fairy is not worth geno -- "

The former bandit king found himself pinned up against the huge power generator for the cannons, raised a full two feet into the air in a grip of stone. His breath started to stop.

"You DO NOT UNDERSTAND," Zelgadis hissed. "You never bothered to understand what this project means. Your sister gave you a chance to see and you've dug your heels in, refused to look into the light every time. This project is worth more than a thousand lives, more than a million! It will revolutionize the world, bring it under one banner, one church, with no more war, no more fear... it's also everything I've ever wanted and dreamed of through years and years of failure and despair, a price spent in family blood, and I WILL NOT LET IT GO. If I have to destroy Sailoon to get what I want, I will. If I have to kill Amelia, I will! All of you are obsolete, all of you have NO place my future!! BEGONE!"

Zelgadis hurled Roy Balderdash across the camp, into a stack of drinking water barrels. The bandit cracked his head on one, too dizzy to stand, to resist... but not too dizzy to watch the chimera scowl in absolute contempt for him. But Zelgadis wasn't the sort to stay mad and carry on the fight... not anymore. He had a job to do. So, he wiped all emotion from his face, walked calmly to the Nightmare Maker, and cranked the knob so hard into the red that it clacked against the stopper. Then the stopper broke in half.

"Goodbye, Ameila," he spoke. But it was hard to tell why he said it, and Roy couldn't focus his thoughts any more. He fell into blackness, with one final thought: a small, half-hearted prayer that Lina Inverse, if she really was mixed up in this mess, would save the day.

After all, just because he was a bandit didn't mean he was an idiot.

Lina Inverse felt a funny little twinge. Some sort of pull that --

Not that she could feel it after the WAVE hit. It blasted her a million miles away into her mind, into the darkest corners that she didn't even know existed, a thundering roar that she couldn't cover her ears to avoid, like an infinite number of mouths open to one combined scream...

Naga plowed through the holocaust, fighting it, swiping at every breaking point she could find. She yelled something at Lina, but Lina could barely understand until they were standing side by side.

"...wrong!" Naga shouted. "It's gotten more intense -- far more intense than it should. The machine must have been turned up, or something. We have to retreat!"

"Whoa, no, no way!" Lina shouted right back. "If anything, we'd better hurry up and whack this thing! We have to, I can feel it. Don't ask me how I know -- "

" -- you just know," Xelloss finished, appearing at their side. "Unfortunately, this does seem to be rather a lot of power, doesn't it? I'm afraid even an expert such as Naga will be unable to withstand another few minutes of this, and we won't be able to run away from it fast enough to survive. This seems to be the end. This is another fine mess you've gotten us into, Lina."

"Impossible!!" Naga growled, shattering every wave that approached. "Naga the White Serpent never admits defeat! If I go down, I will go down fighting!!"

But even Lina could see it wasn't going to work. Every wave that hit Naga got just a LITTLE closer, a little hairier. She was struggling to keep up, and once one of them got past her, they'd be lucky to remember who they were, lost in a maze of paralyzing fear, much less remember how to wake up from it...

"Such a shame, such a shame," Xelloss spoke, totally unafraid. "There's so much I wanted you to DO, Lina. So many plans I had for you. You don't know how unhappy this makes me, that my careful timing, my years of preparation are all going to naught. I suppose you'll never know your purpose now..."

Lina turned to face him. "What are you TALKING about?!"

"Ah," Xelloss said, with a smile. "That is a -- "

Naga failed to break a wave.

The effects were less pronounced in the waking world, but still quite staggering.

All at once, a black aura started to spread over the dome that rose from the circles. It corrupted, it tarnished, it made the invisible walls visible in the ugliest possible way. The taunting and laughter in the crowd slipped right back to fear, as it slurped its way along their protection, the bubble wobbling under the pressure...

Zoamel could hear Sailoon's protectorate god wailing in agony, and came to the immediate conclusion. "Zelgadis is amplifying the nightmares," he said. "I am unaffected, but everybody in the city..."

Amelia held her head, staggering. She leaned hard against a wall, her breath coming in ragged bursts. "..hurts.." she groaned. "I'm.. I'm linked to the circles. It's awful! Screaming and screaming and..."

"In minutes, it's going to start reaching the rest of the population," Zoamel said quickly. "Something must be done. If Lina hadn't run off, I would -- wait. Was Lina successful? Did -- "


Zoamel turned to the voice... the queen's eyes flew open, her mouth a frozen O of shock. "Gracia! I heard her scream... she's in there! Her, and Lina, and Xelloss! They're trying to fight it and they're failing...... Penny!"

"What? What, yes?" Penny babbled, spooked enough to lose her cool.

"I need you to knock me out!" Amelia said, bearing her jaw. "I have to go to sleep. I have... I have to face the dreams and help them. Oh, Ceipheed, I'm so scared, but... they need help, they need it and... hurry and do it before I lose my nerve!!"

"Uh.. uh..." Penny stammered, looking at her hand, unsure. "You want me to hit you? But, I mean, I couldn't -- "

The queen fell like a puppet with cut strings.

"...a simple enough task," Zoamel said, lowering his hand. "Sleep enchantment. Of sorts. I hope it will be enough. Penny... if you want to leave here, to escape this, I can provide you with assistance..."

"No," Penny quickly said. "I said I'd support her and I meant it. I just..." A full-body tremble took her, her knees starting to go weak. "Oh, jeez... I can feel it. Just like she said. It's getting to me now too... Lina HAD to have succeeded. It's up to them now..."

While the god wasn't afraid, since he could feel nothing, he was perplexed. Perplexed, because he found himself holding the young girl, trying to comfort her. He didn't second guess the action, going with it. It felt... right. It felt perfect.

"Lina will succeed," Zoamel said, stroking Penny's hair, hoping it would soothe her through the next few minutes. "You must have faith. ...and failing that, I will do what I can. You will come to no harm, Penny. I swear it."

A million zealots swore to follow Lina to the ends of the world.

A million fanatics burned her at the stake, flames licking her cheeks, as she was called a freak and an abomination.

A million victims of violence looked up to the sky and wished upon her to justify what had happened to them, to have it make sense.

A million hearts opened to her in flaming fury, emotions sweeping like a tsunami, as she drank it in and grew powerful.

Over and over she felt she hated herself, she loved herself, she couldn't stand herself, she just wanted to accept herself, to be herself, to shine and be true but it was like a white-hot rod she feared to grasp, in case it burned her to ash --

A comet shot past Lina's shoulder, in between the waves. It was enough of an outside element for her to return to 'consciousness', for a moment. She focused. The dreaming. Who she was, where she was, what was going on... if she lost grip on it again, there was no guarantee she'd return.

It had the same effect on the others, with Naga and Xelloss temporarily coming to their senses. And what they saw...

A young girl, barely fourteen, in a pink and white adventuring costume. She wore bright blue talismans on each wrist, and had struck a dramatic pose.

"Sister! I have come to join you in battle!" Amelia declared. "Sailoon's darkest hour is on us. Join me, and we will show the Sairaag aggressors that our family will never fall!"

"...Amelia?" Naga asked, as her mind cleared. "How did you... Amelia, I can't... we can't fight it! I can't find the points anymore, there's just too much -- "

"Don't fight it," Amelia said. "You can't conquer unlimited fear. But I understand what can be done. Night after night, I've experienced what this machine does, and it pushed me and pushed me... now I understand. Take my hand..."

The sisters joined hands, as the next wave came on, stronger than ever...

Xelloss dove in front of Lina, twirling his staff into a radiant black circle, extending into a cone shape. The wave sucked itself into the ultimate darkness of the Mazoku self, harmlessly passing Lina. But that didn't surprise Lina... what surprised her was that the wave did nothing to Amelia and Naga, either.

"...don't try to fight it," Amelia spoke. "Just let it go through you, acknowledge it. It's okay to be afraid if you don't let it stop you. Now, which way to the machine?"

"It's.. that way," Lina said, feeling for the invisible links that told her the way to go. "Sic 'em."

The two sisters blurred, punching forward, simply passing through each oncoming wave as if it never was there.

"It's funny, the synchronicity of enlightenment," Xelloss admitted. "But then again, I suppose all actions and reactions are interrelated like that..."

Lina put him in a chokehold submission grip. "WHY didn't you do something before if you could block the nightmares, you Mazoku bastard!?"

"..ghh..." Xelloss gagged. " would've been too easy that way?"

The frustrated god let go. "Fine! Whatever. C'mon, let's go help them -- "

"Oh, we can't do that," Xelloss said. "It's not our fight, see. You got them this far, Lina. You got Naga into action, while your 'daughter' got Amelia going, and this is where the two meet and save the day. Bravo! Fine work all around. However, your part in the play is done now, so you may go backstage and wait for the finale."

"That's ridiculous!"

"Nobody said life was anything but," Xelloss quipped. "Now stay put, please. Just because you're a heroine doesn't mean you're always the savior."

Lina stayed put. What else could she do? Xelloss was the only shield she had against the waves right now. But she didn't like it, not one bit. It didn't FEEL right for her to stay on the sideline, without contributing... no, she had contributed, but...

She looked on, into the distance. The machine was almost visible, a tiny cube of silvery metal against the field of black. It zigged, it zagged, it tried to evade -- Amelia and Naga were there, doing their best to destroy it.

Lina was fed up with pseudo psychological symbolic dream imagery. Why didn't the thing look like some funky machine with a crank and a dial and whirly bits that light up and so on? That's what it SHOULD look like. If she could look at it and see what it really was --

She saw.

It saw her, and in absolute surprise, went deep into hiding again. Not that it did any good; far, far too late. Lina had seen what she wasn't supposed to see, what nobody was supposed to see.

It was like watching a fabulous stage play, with elaborate costuming and props and sets, where you were so into the drama that you didn't realize it was a drama... and then some idiot tosses the wrong lever and the curtain falls, and you can see the backstage area where people are eating doughnuts and reading the paper. You can see the stone wall and the unused sets and props and the stagehands and ALL the hard, unyielding reality behind the fantasy. You can see the soul behind the machine...

No wonder Lina was able to trace the connections so easily...

But before she could think any farther on that subject, the machine went 'boom', and it was all over.


The explosion ROCKED the Sairaag compound. The nightmare machine, already overloading, received a massive blast of psychic feedback and gave up the ghost. It exploded in a very aesthetically pleasing blue fireball... and, unfortunately, was large enough to engulf the power generator as well.

That went up in an explosion that made the first one look like a kid's firecracker. Boom. Boom. Dull concussions that shook the ground, that knocked Zelgadis flat on his back. The first cannon overloaded, the connections to the power plant proving to be a fatal lifeline -- and then the next gun, and the one after that, and the one after that... dominoes going down in a chain.

Two full minutes of blasts later, the landscape around Sailoon was a smoking wasteland, and Zelgadis's group was quite battered, but alive to see the aftermath.

Sailoon itself was quite fine and dandy. The circles had held true.

Not even Zelgadis could deny the facts of the situation. They were defenseless, the siege equipment was gone, and Sailoon would wise up to that fact in very short time.

With much disgust, he ordered the retreat. Elizabeth would not be happy, but there would be other gods to capture, other chances. The project would not halt, the future would be assured... and his cure would be found.

Using a portable portal generator, he and his crew dragged the unconscious Roy Balderdash with them across miles and miles, back to Sairaag. It was a physically impossible feat, of course, since you can't exactly go that far in an instant, but Zelgadis trusted his little gadget.

"HEY! Hands off the eggs, I already called dibs on them!"

"OOHOHOHHOO! Quite like your mother, it seems. I will not let my eggs go without a figh -- GABBY!!"

"What? You two were too busy fighting to eat them. And it's not like Helga would eat them, she doesn't got her teeth in yet."

"Although no doubt little Helga receives a bountiful meal from her mother's rather impressive teats whenever she desires!"


"What? It's true, isn't it? Ano, ano, put down the chair, ha ha, I was just jo -- ow."

"...tactless, as usual. But I have come to expect this from a Mazoku. Lina, are you sure you do not want any of this royal breakfast?"

Lina pushed her chair out. "I'm sorry... I'm not hungry," she apologized. With that excuse, she left the room, as silent as she had entered earlier in the morning.

Naga paused, ignoring the battered Mazoku whose neck she was squeezing the unlife out of. "...excuse me, but did I hear that accurately? Lina Inverse... has no appetite?"

"She technically doesn't have to eat, being a god. Still, I have yet to see her turn down free food," Zoamel said. "Something is amiss. I will go talk to -- "

"I'm coming too," Penny said, sliding her chair out as well.

Lina stood on the royal balcony, overlooking the city. It was a day of celebration, after all -- the first day they could safely lower the shields, the first time in a long time that it was okay to be proud of Sailoon... merchants were selling things at half price, the scents of dozens of fine foods wafted up from the streets, and laughter and song were found a plenty.

Not that she felt like shopping or eating, despite the temptation. None of them knew. None of them knew what she knew...

"Okay, spill it."

She didn't turn. "Hey, Penny, Zoey. What's up?"

"Don't play coy, we know something's wrong," Penny said. "So you might as well tell us, otherwise, we'll have to dog you about it from here to Bimini Island and back -- "

"It's okay, I was planning to tell you two," Lina said, almost thoughtful. "It affects all of us. It's about our enemy, after all."

"It seems we dealt the enemy a rather humiliating defeat," Zoamel spoke. "I'm quite pleased with the outcome of this simple 'side quest'. Vengeance has -- "

"Not been served," Lina said, turning to face them. She leaned against the railing, for support. "Because the real enemy's still out there. I saw it, guys. When in the dream, I was able to track that thing, and I tracked it by lines... connection lines, like I used to spot Ace Champion's followers."

"...I don't quite follow," Zoamel admitted.

"Think about it. Sairaag's growth is phenomenal! They've got air travel, train travel, mass communication media, all sorts of wondrous and miraculous devices and gadgets and widgets. Penny... I've told you a couple times how much I doubt all this stuff, right?"

"But Lina, it EXISTS. What's to doubt?"

"I doubt how it exists," Lina said. "It's too convenient. Too easily won. No human scientist could make those incredible leaps of development this soon. Not without... invisible means of support. Not without a force that wanted it developed and developed fast, so it could be used, used to spread influence over the whole world..."

Zoamel may not have had a stomach, but if he did, there would have been a sinking feeling. "Surely you can't be saying -- "

"Sairaag has one true god," Lina stated in a voice serious enough to cut diamond, "And its name is Science. A Demiurge of Science. A Demiurge with a thirst for the power and faith other Demiurges have, and the means to get it. Every day it's getting stronger, and getting a tighter hold on the world by eating up all the competition. That's the enemy you've sworn vengeance on, Zoamel, not some city or some simple social movement. It's been a god all this time, hiding in wait."

Penny remained speechless until she was not. "...waiting for what?"

"I haven't figured that out yet," Lina said. "Or what I can do about it. Because now, I HAVE to do something about it. I can feel the pull, the call to save the world. This time, I want to follow that pull. Everything in me feels RIGHT about doing this, no matter how much I protest being a god, it's something I want in my soul. I can't tell where it's going to take me, or what I'll have to do when I get there, but it's going to happen. I hope someone out there is praying for me to pull through, because I think the odds are actually against me on this one..."

She turned back, to look over the city. All those people had no idea what was going on in the celestial temples, that the gods they prayed to, the superstitions they held could be REAL... and be a real threat. None of them knew, none of them knew what could be done even if they knew, but Lina knew one thing.

"We're carrying on with the quest," she decided. "We're going to Bimini Island, I'm going to find out how to become human. We'll blow stuff up and make money and have some laughs and fight some serious battles as we always do. It's the only thing we CAN do right now. Xelloss's grand idea about a mad rush to blow up Sairaag isn't going to work right now, I'm absolutely positive about that. We'll have to figure out what WILL work when the time comes. Until then..."

"Until then... business as usual," Zoamel said, his voice unusually quiet.

"If either of you want to back out, hey, I can understand," Lina said. "I came into this life out of my haze of two decades by myself, and I can finish this myself. But you two could get hurt. I can't abide by that -- "

"No way," Penny interrupted. "We're not ditching you. I can't speak for Zoamel but I've got this feeling he'll agree with me. If you started that way, we started this WITH you, and we'll end it with you. The plucky band of mismatched heroes facing the end of the world... it works out perfectly, right? It always works out perfectly..."

The other two remained silent.

Mid day, they packed their backs, and set off to the coast. From there, it would be a boat ride, and on to Bimini, and whatever was waiting for them there.

Book 7   |   Fanfiction