El-Hazard is property of AIC/Pioneer. All other characters and events are property of dooky.

Lyrical thanks to bis, "A" and X-Ray Spex. Proofreading is courtesy of Firebird.

El-Hazard: The Shape of Things to Come

The Shape of Things So Far-

The Holy Order disbands the priesthoods of Roshtaria and Mount Muldoon. It excommunicates Miz, Shayla, Qawoor and Nanami, and confiscates Afura's Lamp. Sakura experiences a blackout, during which she kills hundreds of Bugrom. Fatora proposes a mission to rescue Alielle. In Dorusland, Fran is discovered by the Ralielles. The mission departs, and Makoto is contacted by Arjah, who seems certain he is able to reincarnate himself, using a method that makes no sense to Makoto. The rescue party is attacked by the Bugrom, and Amiri uses Phantom Tribe powers to repel them. When pressed by the others, she explains that she developed her powers as a teenager, but hid them so that she could stay with her Opaque friends. Three discovers that her previous battle with Sakura has damaged her attack systems. After talking with Rune, Shayla decides to go to the Holy City. With Lora's help, Mari discovers the real reason Alielle was kidnapped- the Phantom Tribe need her baby to control the Eye of God. Alielle and Mari decide the time has come to escape. Shayla arrives in the Holy City and confronts Afura, but finds that she hasn't turned traitor after all. Lora breaks Alielle and Mari out of their cell, as the rescue party breaks into the hive. Confronted by Jinnai, Makoto links with Sakura and discovers a split personality. Alielle and Mari are rescued, but the group are stopped by Nahato. He dares Amiri to try and kill him, but she refuses. Ifurita uses her dimensional powers to transport the whole rescue party out of the hive, and they land in a Dorusian forest. Meanwhile, in Florestica, strange spots are appearing in the sky...

"Nail me down... I know my head's not here,

Bring it back... the end's starting today,

Will you leave this party with me?

We were not invited anyway."

The Twelfth Month: "Some Things Come From Nothing"

"It's coming up to seven thirty! Time to wake up! In just a minute we've got traffic and travel, but first, there's just enough time to tell you about our competition..."

Mari retreated deeper into the bed, trying to escape the relentless noise of the radio. God, she hated morning DJs. No ordinary human was that energetic so early in the morning.

Wait a second...

She poked her head out from under the sheets, and looked at her surroundings. She didn't recognise this bedroom. She did recognise some of its contents, though- her Sailor Moon plushies, her stereo and turntable...

Come to think of it, why did she have such a large bed?

She stopped. There was another noise. Running water... Yes, someone was using the shower.

This was all wrong, and at the same time, incredibly comforting. It felt good to be back on Earth. She climbed out of bed, and decided to explore her new surroundings.

The room was very tidy- which was strange because, as a rule, she wasn't. The colours were also surprising. Bright yellows and oranges- hardly colours that she would have picked.

I'm not the only one who sleeps in this room, she thought.

This required further investigation. She walked quietly into the hallway. The bathroom was up ahead, the door half open. She approached with caution.

The sound of the shower was louder now. Okay. She'd take a quick peek, just to find out who it was. Nothing remotely perverted about that. It was simple curiosity.

With both hands on the door, she leaned inside, only to see...

"Ohmygod..."

She retreated back behind the door. It wasn't. It couldn't have been.

The noise form the shower ceased. She heard wet footsteps across the bathroom floor.

"You're awake! It's not like you to be up so early."

Mari was confronted with the figure of a naked, attractive and decidedly wet woman. She looked away in embarrassment.

"Hello, Nanami..." she said shyly.

Nanami giggled. "You're blushing. How cute!" She gently placed her hands either side of Mari's head, and slowly turned her reluctant face towards her. "You weren't blushing last night though, were you?"

Mari gulped. "Last night? Oh, wow..."

"Are you okay, sweetie?" Nanami asked, concerned. "You seem a little distant."

"I just had a really odd dream. I mean, really odd."

Nanami smiled. "Was I in it?"

"Well, yes, but... it wasn't a good dream. But it all seemed so real, and now... I'm so confused."

"Oh, Mari." Nanami stroked Mari's head. "You do get emotional, don't you? I suppose that's one of the reasons why I love you."

Mari looked back at Nanami with huge eyes. "You... love me?"

"Of course I do, sweetie," Nanami beamed. "So, are you gonna tell me about your dream?"

"I was in this weird fantasy world," Mari began. "Your brother was there too, and Mr Fujisawa, and Makoto Mizuhara. Come to think of it, so was Sakura Tamaro."

Nanami looked amused. "The idol singer?"

"Yeah. Damn, that was a bizarre dream. I'm surprised I didn't wake up sooner."

"Sounds like it was pretty funny," Nanami smiled.

Mari shuddered. "Trust me, it wasn't. It was depressing. Everyone was fighting some stupid war, and you... even though you were there, you... didn't love me."

Nanami pulled Mari close to her. "Aw, you poor little thing. But you don't have to be sad. It was all just a dream."

"Yes, it was," Mari sighed happily as she embraced Nanami. "Thank God. I love you, Nanami."

"Mari?" a muffled voice said. "Hey, Mari. Aren't you awake yet?"

Mari looked around nervously. "Nanami? Did you hear that?"

"Hear what?" Nanami asked.

Mari was suddenly gripped by a horrible feeling. "No... please, no... This is the dream!"

"Aaaaaaaaaargh!"

Makoto leapt back. "Geez, Mari. You said to wake you up..."

Mari sat up and surveyed the surrounding area. The forest. She was still here.

She stood up. "Makoto... you idiot! What did you do that for? She loved me!"

"Um... what?" Makoto asked cautiously.

"She called me sweetie!" Mari continued, furious. "And now she's gone! Well, I hope you're satisfied! Bastard!"

Mari stormed off, leaving Makoto stunned. Alielle and Fatora watched from the other side of the clearing.

"What do you think that was about?" Alielle asked.

"Who knows?" Fatora shrugged. "Makoto has that effect on me sometimes as well."

Day 338

Ifurita descended through the trees, and landed a few feet in front of Makoto.

"I told them. They should be here in a few hours."

"Good," Makoto sighed. "It's just as well. Considering Alielle's condition, we can't carry on trekking through this forest forever."

Alielle leaned towards Ifurita expectantly. "Um... did you get them? Did you?"

"Yes." With undisguised bemusement, Ifurita took out a small packet and handed it to Alielle. "The man at the store was as confused as I was."

"Thanks." Alielle opened the pack, and took out a roll of pink, diamond shaped stickers.

Fujisawa smiled. "So that's where those things come from."

"I wouldn't want to face my mother without one of these." Alielle peeled off one of the stickers. "Could you do it, Fatora? I don't have a mirror."

"Okay," Fatora nodded, taking the sticker and positioning it with artistic precision on Alielle's forehead. "Tell me, whatever happened to the political statement you were making?"

"Come on, Fatora. You know what my mother's like. It's best not to agitate her."

"Well, we'll all be seeing her soon enough," Makoto said. "Personally, I can't wait for us to be taken to the capital. Maybe we'll get some real food at last."

"Oh yes," Qawoor nodded, recalling the Ralielles' hospitality. "You can expect lots of food."

"Do you have any idea what the spots are?"

Schtalubaugh hated press conferences. He cleared his throat and gave the best answer he could. "The objects are at an altitude inaccessible by most forms of aerial transport. We've confirmed that they are steadily decreasing in number, but in answer to your question, no, we don't know what they are."

Another journalist raised his hand. "Can you confirm that the remaining anomalies are getting larger?"

The doctor sighed. "Some of our analysis suggests that this may be the case."

There was a sudden commotion at the back of the room. It seemed someone else had been spotted in the adjoining corridor.

Miz was surprised to find herself suddenly besieged by journalists.

"Yes? What do you all want?" she asked irritably.

The crowd responded with a hundred shouted questions.

"Be quiet! One at a time!" she insisted.

"Kagsi Vulpix, Roshtarian Observer," said the nearest journalist. "Mrs Fujisawa, the Alpha Priestess has stated that the strange phenomena in the skies above Florestica may be a divine judgement on Roshtaria's disobedience to the Holy Order. Do you have a response to this?"

Miz frowned. "Oh, for God's sake."

She headed off down the corridor, and didn't answer another question.

"You're an idiot!" Jinnai screamed.

"No, you're an idiot!" Nahato screamed in response.

"They're both idiots," Chibi-Diva said to Sakura.

Jinnai stood his ground. "You let them escape! They were right there in front of you, you could have had them!"

"I wasn't the one who let Alielle escape from her cell, was I?" Nahato taunted.

"Well... you should have seen them coming!" Jinnai replied. "And anyway... Damn it, Sakura! Will you stop fidgeting?"

Sakura looked up and scowled. "I can't help it! I'm itchy!"

"Itchy?" Jinnai echoed.

"Yeah," Sakura winced as she tried to reach underneath her armour. "I don't like it..."

"Stop complaining!" Jinnai snapped. "This is no way to run a military operation!"

"Right," said Nahato. "We have to find out where they took Alielle..."

"Forget about her," Jinnai replied. "We should concentrate on encircling the enemy in Roshtaria!"

The two leaders growled at each other as Sakura carried on scratching herself. Chibi-Diva sighed.

"Sorry about this... but with things as they are, I thought it was best not to draw attention to you."

"That's okay, sir," Makoto said, peeping out from under the sheet. The transport moved slowly through the narrow streets of the Dorusian capital, with Alielle's father Guanes at the helm. At the rear, Makoto and the others sheltered under a large sheet. Alielle and Fatora sat together, while, Nanami and Mari sat at opposite ends, as far away from each other as possible.

"Are you alright back there, Alielle?" her father called.

"Yes, dad, I'm fine," came the reply. "I'm... hey!" She suddenly started squealing.

"What... what's happened?" Guanes panicked. "Have the contractions started?"

"No! No! It's Fatora! She's... tickling me! Stop it! Get off!"

"No mercy!" was Fatora's reply.

"Ow!" cried Nanami. "Fatora, what are you doing?"

Fatora laughed. "Nanami? Sorry, it's very dark under here. I thought you were..."

"Let's see how you like it!" Alielle interrupted.

There was a pause.

"Princess," Amiri said calmly. "That's not Fatora. That's me."

"Wait, wait," Fatora said. "What the hell have I got hold of now?"

"Ow! Ow! Ow!" Ura replied.

Makoto looked out at Guanes again. "Um... can this thing go any faster?"

There was no disguising Adena's joy at seeing her daughter again.

"Well," Amiri observed, "Alielle certainly is fortunate to have such an affectionate mother."

Nanami smiled weakly. "Are you sure 'fortunate' is the word you're looking for?"

"Mother, could you let go of me?" Alielle asked, struggling against Adena's iron grip.

"Oh, of course!" Adena replied. "You need to sit down. How long before the baby's due?"

"Um, about two weeks, but..."

"Excellent! I've been reading a fabulous book on pregnancy, and it says that at this stage you should..."

"Why don't I introduce you to my friends?" Alielle interrupted hastily. "I know you already know Fatora... she was the one who led the daring mission to rescue me!"

Fatora was suddenly the recipient of an unexpected hug from Adena. "Oh, princess, I can't thank you enough for bringing my lovely daughter back to me!"

"You're... welcome..." Fatora replied, struggling for breath. "Alielle..." she growled, "I'll get you for this later..."

"And I know you met Qawoor recently," Alielle continued. "That's Nanami- she's the temporary Fire Priestess, and that's Mari- she was kidnapped by the Bugrom as well. There's Ifurita, and her sister, sort of... we call her Three. Then there's my doctor, Amiri, Mr Fujisawa... oh, and Ura! Did I miss anyone out?"

"Yes," sighed Makoto.

"Oh yeah. That's Makoto."

"He's so cute!" exclaimed one of Alielle's assembled siblings.

Makoto smiled nervously. "Well, thanks, but I'm actually..."

"Listen to that voice!" one of them interrupted.

"Yes!" another agreed. "I think I'm in love!"

"Now, hold on a minute..." Makoto said, before being pounced on by five of the Ralielles. "Hey! Alielle, could you tell your sisters to lay off?"

Alielle laughed. "Actually, only four of them are my sisters. One of them's a boy!"

"What?" Makoto gasped. "Which one?"

"The fun part is finding out!" Alielle replied.

Adena stood up again. "Oh, this reminds me. I still haven't introduced you all to my family! This is my husband, Guanes, and these are my children- Valielle, Aspielle, Histielle, Cystielle, Glycielle, Lysielle, Leucielle, Prolielle, Isolasse, Serasse, Tyrasse, Methasse and Glutasse. It's so nice to have the whole family back together!"

"But, um... Parnasse isn't here, is he?" Alielle pointed out.

"Who? Oh, him," Adena said unenthusiastically.

"I'm sure you'd be very proud of Parnasse, Mrs Ralielle," Qawoor offered. "He has a wonderful new girlfriend..."

Adena suddenly looked interested. "Really? Is she a member of the aristocracy?"

"No..."

"Is she rich?"

"Well, no, but... she is training to be a doctor," Qawoor said.

Adena stopped and thought for a while. "Doctor? Well, that's okay, then!"

"So, Priestess Towles," Guanes said, trying to appear casual. "Tell me, how's that transport holding up?"

Qawoor looked back at the others, and it was obvious from their expressions that she'd be getting no help from them. "Oh, it's... I suppose it's still in excellent condition..."

"Oh, good!"

"But we did kind of have to abandon it in Bugrom territory," she finished.

Guanes appeared to go into shock. "A... abandoned? Bugrom... territory?"

Adena frowned. "Relax, dear. The important thing is that we have our daughter back."

"Yes... I know..." Guanes said weakly. "Just give me a moment, I need to sit down..."

"What's going on in here?" a moody voice demanded. A disgruntled figure stepped into the room, giving everyone something of a surprise.

"Fran?" Fatora said, horrified.

Nanami looked to Adena. "What's he doing in your house?"

"Well," Adena sighed, "he had nowhere else to go. The Bugrom have finished with him, and most people in this city want nothing to do with him."

"I see," Fatora snarled. "Well, I still owe him a beating!"

"Me too!" Alielle added. "Somebody give him one from me!"

Fujisawa raised his hand. "I will if you want."

Fatora smiled at the sight of Fran's terrified expression. "Wow. I must be even more imposing than I thought."

"It's not you he's scared of," Amiri said. "I'm afraid it's me."

"Y... you!" Fran stuttered, pointing a shaky finger at the doctor. "The Phantom Tribe!"

Makoto shook his head. "She's not Phantom Tribe, she's an Opaque."

"There's no difference!" Fran yelled. "And now I know... they're following me!" He suddenly fled.

Fatora shrugged. "Oh well. He's flipped. I saw this coming a long time ago."

"Yes," Alielle nodded casually. "He's always been quite paranoid, hasn't he?"

Fran's shouting could still be heard in the distance. Adena began to look concerned. "Where has he gone?"

"He's outside," Ifurita replied.

"Damn it!" Adena cursed. "We're trying to keep a low profile here! If people see him, it could completely blow our cover. We have to get him back!"

"Today's the day," Rune said solemnly. "They should have been back today."

"Oh, relax," Formyka said, crossing the chamber to join her. "Things happen. They probably got delayed."

Rune sighed. "Perhaps."

"Hey, come on. If anything had happened to them, don't you think we'd have heard Jinnai gloating about it by now?"

"I suppose you're right," Rune admitted. "But I can't help worrying... I'm grateful for your support."

Formyka grinned, and placed a reassuring arm around Rune. "Ha! It's nothing. I guess I'm just the caring type."

Rune winced. "Princess Formyka... what are you doing with your hand?"

"I'm reassuring you," Formyka said innocently.

"Let me make it clear that neither of my breasts require reassurance," Rune frowned.

Formyka pulled away and grumbled to herself. "Well, you can't blame me for trying. I miss my harem. I wonder what they're all doing now..."

"But you still have those two servants with you," Rune replied. "Don't they fulfil your... physical needs?"

"This is about more than sex, Runey baby," Formyka said, indignant. "My harem is very special to me. I'm genuinely concerned for their well-being."

Rune raised an eyebrow. "Oh. Well, that's... surprisingly compassionate of you."

Formyka nodded. "Yep. Now, tell me... do you think they'd be covered by my current insurance policy?"

"Princess Formyka," Rune said, putting her head in her hands, "you never cease to fail to surprise me."

"Huh?" Formyka responded, trying to mentally unravel Rune's comment. "I... oh."

Fran sat in the corner, trembling and muttering incoherently.

"Phantom Tribe... everywhere... watching me..."

"Oh well," Makoto sighed. "At least he's back indoors now."

Adena nodded. "Yes, but he was running loose for nearly ten minutes. I just hope none of the enemy spotted where he came from."

"I didn't detect any Bugrom in the area," Ifurita said.

"The Bugrom aren't the real problem," Adena explained. "It's the Phantom Tribe. As soon as we realised they were in Dorusland, we cut back our operations. But they're still intent on finding the Purple Lightning, so we have to be careful."

A thought struck Makoto, and he opened up his bag. "Hey, we might be able to help you with that." He took out one of the pistols and showed it to Adena. "We perfected these a while ago. They can disrupt Phantom Tribe illusions for a short period of time..."

Fran looked up, and staggered to his feet. "Give me that! I need it!" he said, snatching the weapon from Makoto's hands.

"Hey!" Adena shouted.

"Don't worry, let him have it," Makoto said. "We have more."

Guanes approached with curiosity in his eyes. "Mr Mizuhara... just how do these things work?"

"Well, they're mostly adapted from old technology. We found that spatial vibrations worked against Phantom Tribe powers... the frequency of the vibrations is controlled by a small coil inside the weapon. Unfortunately, the overall power is still limited by the size of the batteries..."

Guanes nodded, engrossed. "Yes, I see. But theoretically... if you could lay your hands on a big enough power source, you could deploy this on a massive scale, right?"

Makoto smiled. "I can see you're a talented engineer, sir. You're absolutely right... the problem is finding such a large energy reserve..."

Three, who had been silent up until now, suddenly gasped. "What... was that?"

"What's wrong?" asked Ifurita.

"Mrs Ralielle," Three said urgently, "I just detected somebody entering your house."

Adena looked concerned. "Are you sure? Where?"

"Through one of the windows, I think. They're in the hallway."

"Oh..." Adena moved cautiously towards the doorway. She looked out at the deserted hallway. "There's nobody here..."

"Hold on!" Makoto ran over to join her. He took out another one of the weapons, and swept the hallway with its distortion beam. A blue-skinned man suddenly faded into being.

Makoto stepped back, and tried to shield Adena. "I thought so."

He expected the Phantom Tribe man to put up a fight, but he didn't. Instead, he turned and fled from the house.

Nanami approached. "He left. I wonder why?" She walked out into the hallway and looked around.

"Um... Makoto?"

"Yeah?" Makoto joined Nanami. "What's up?"

"Do you have any idea what that thing is?" She pointed to a strange device that was lying on the floor.

Makoto gulped. "Uh oh."

"Come on!" Fujisawa yelled. "Everybody out!"

Adena stood next to the door, trying to keep track of her children as they poured out of the house. "Onetwothreefourfivesix..."

"Are you sure it's a bomb?" Qawoor asked.

"I don't recognise the design," Makoto replied, "but it's the only thing it could be."

"Seveneightnineteneleventwelvethirteenfourteen... I'm missing one!" Adena cried.

"That's Parnasse!" Alielle called back. "He isn't here, he's in Roshtaria!"

"Oh!" Adena said. "In that case, we're all out. What about you?"

"We're all here!" Nanami replied.

Amiri frowned. "Wait a second... what about Fran?"

King Fran glanced at the device on the floor, and began firing his weapon in all directions. "Where are you hiding? Come on out, you blue bastards! Where are you?"

"Fran!" he heard Fatora call. "Get out here now, you moron! Don't you know there's a bomb in there with you?"

"Leave me alone!" Fran cried. "You're trying to trick me, I can tell!"

"What the hell's wrong with him?" Fujisawa cried.

Fatora groaned. "I'll tell you what's wrong. He's lost it! Hey! Can you hear me, you idiot? Get out here now!"

"That's it," Makoto sighed. "I'm going back in to get him."

"You're what?" Fatora stared back at Makoto, incredulous. "Then you're just as dense as he is!"

Ifurita pushed through. "I'll get him." She quickly approached the house. "King Fran," she called. "I'm coming to get you."

"No!" he called back. "Stay away, Demon God! I know what's going on now. You're all with them, aren't you? All of you! You're all against me!"

Ifurita shook her head in despair, and charged into the house. "You must trust me," she shouted. "You're simply being paranoid."

She caught a glimpse of Fran as he cowered in the corner of one of the rooms. "No!" he insisted. "That's what you want me to think!"

Her sensors finally isolated the time signature of the bomb.

Two... one...

Too late.

The force of the explosion threw her clear. She suffered no damage, of course. She hadn't expected to. But she had failed.

Makoto ran over to see if she was okay, even though she clearly was. Physically, at least.

"I didn't save him, Makoto," she said. "If only I'd realised what little time I had to..."

"It's okay," Makoto interrupted. "Come on. We'd better get out of here."

The group sat in the basement of one of the nearby shops. Adena and Guanes were fortunately on good terms with the owner, who had provided them with somewhere to hide out for the time being.

Everyone was silent, and it was starting to get to Fatora.

"What's wrong with everyone?" she demanded. "Somebody say something! You're driving me nuts!"

"Fatora!" Alielle scolded. "Cut it out, will you? He's dead, don't you care?"

Fatora found herself considering her answer for longer than she would have liked. "I... well, look, it was his own fault. He had the chance to get out but he didn't. And he almost got all of us killed too, don't forget that."

"I know, I know," Alielle replied. "But it all just seems so... meaningless."

"All death is meaningless," Mari commented, emotionless.

Makoto sighed. "He didn't have to die like that, though."

"Of course he didn't," Amiri said. "It's always been my observation that the most tragic form of death is that which is easily preventable. But at the same time... what a fool. I suppose it all goes to illustrate what paranoia can do to a person. Imagine, choosing certain death over the unknown."

Alielle nodded. "You're right, he was an idiot. But I still can't help feeling sorry for him."

"You have more reason to hate him than anyone," Fatora said.

"Yes, I know," Alielle sighed. "But... I think it's sad when anyone dies."

Fatora put her arm around Alielle and pulled her closer. There were times when she found Alielle's logic very difficult to follow, but these were often the times that reminded her why Alielle was so special.

"Do you know what the really ironic thing is?" Adena mused. "That explosion was meant for us, not him."

"Fran always wanted to go down in history," Fatora commented. "Now he'll be remembered as the only monarch ever to die in an assassination meant for someone else."

"What'll you do now?" Nanami asked.

"We have friends in the city who'll protect us," Guanes said.

Fujisawa nodded. "In the meantime, we really need to get back to Roshtaria."

"Oh, of course," Adena said. "We can get you a transport." She smiled to herself. "Why, it's been nearly a year since I last visited Roshtaria!"

Alielle sighed. "You mean... you're coming too?"

"Well, what did you expect?" Adena beamed. "You didn't think I'd want to miss the birth of my first grandchild, did you?"

Day 341

Shayla heard the key in the door, and jumped up. It was instinct by now. She backed into the cupboard, and waited.

The door opened, and Afura stumbled in. "It's okay, Shayla," she slurred as she closed the door behind her. "You can come out. It's me."

"Wow!" said Shayla, emerging from the cupboard. "Afura, you're drunk!"

"Well deduced. Now shut up, I need to lie down." Afura collapsed onto her bad, moaning quietly.

Shayla refused to leave Afura be. "Just how much longer is this going to last, anyway? I'm completely sick of hiding out in your cupboard every day!"

"It was your decision to come here, Shayla," Afura replied. "You know that you can't let them see you. You should have considered that."

"Don't give me that," Shayla snapped. "This whole situation is completely unfair. I mean, here I am, having to hide all day long, while you're going out and getting drunk!"

"I was having a private meeting!" Afura said angrily. "It was with Priestess Moran. You know how much she drinks, and I was trying to be polite, so..."

"So you drank as well. How very selfless of you. So, did you find anything?"

Afura sighed. "Just like all the others, she says she didn't vote for Serati. I've talked to well over half of the selection panel, and none of them have admitted to voting for Serati to be Alpha Priestess."

"Then that proves it!" Shayla said. "The vote must have been rigged somehow."

Afura shook her head. "It was a private ballot, we can't prove anything. Besides, who's to say some of them aren't lying?"

"Well, we'd better find some real proof soon," Shayla said gloomily. "Things are getting out of control here."

"Yes," Afura conceded. "There is a growing degree of anti-Opaque sentiment..."

"I still don't really understand that, Afura. Anyone with a brain can see that the Opaques want nothing to do with the Phantom Tribe. Are the people here really so stupid that they don't realise that?"

Afura sat up. "You're right that it's stupid, but there's a little more to it than that. People find the prospect of integrating with the Opaques to be threatening in lots of ways. Particularly in a religious sense."

"Yeah?" Shayla responded. "How come?"

"The Phantom Tribe have their own religious beliefs. I've studied them, it's quite fascinating. They have a whole pantheon of Gods- some good, some bad. It's very different from our religion. And you see, that's why the Holy City finds the Opaques so threatening. El-Hazard has had a single, unified religion since the aftermath of the Holy Wars. Now, we have a potential competitor on our hands."

"But... there have always been, well... take atheists, for example," Shayla argued. "The Holy Order doesn't have a problem with them, so why should it have a problem with the Opaques and their religion?"

"Atheism isn't quite as worrying to the religious establishment. If you talk to most atheists, they'll tell you that they simply don't know enough about the universe to make a judgement on whether there's a higher being. In that sense, they're not really a threat to the Holy Order, since their beliefs don't directly contradict ours."

Shayla nodded. "I get it. But since the Opaques have their own Gods..."

"Correct. That makes our belief systems incompatible; at least, at face value. Which is why so many in the Holy Order are uncomfortable with their presence in mainstream society..."

Shayla smiled to herself. "Wow. Considering how drunk you are, you're pretty damn articulate..."

She looked back at Afura, who was now lying on her back and snoring noisily.

Parnasse lay on Tenax's bed and stared through the skylight. A few of the spots were just visible. He squinted, trying for a while to ascertain whether or not they were moving, but he quickly gave up.

He heard the door open and looked up. "Tenax? How come you're back so early?"

"You mean you haven't heard?" Tenax replied, catching her breath. "It's all over the city! Your sister and that other girl, they've been rescued!"

"Huh?"

"It's true! Princess Fatora and the others just got back. They're at the palace now!"

"King Fran is dead?" Rune echoed, surprised. "My, this is an unexpected turn of events."

Fatora shrugged. "Well, it was his own stupid fault. And somehow, I doubt the people of Dorusland will be lining the streets to pay their respects."

"But he died without an heir," Rune continued, "and to my knowledge, he doesn't have any living relatives. I wonder who'll succeed him?"

"The country's full of Bugrom at the moment," Fatora observed. "I doubt anyone there's going to care very much."

Rune nodded. "You're right, I suppose. And we have our own problems as well. The Bugrom are getting closer by the day, and..."

"Hey, don't worry," Fatora reassured. "We can win, I know it."

"Maybe so," Rune said solemnly. "But if this war ends like the last one did, who's to say that in five years we won't be facing another attack by the Bugrom or the Phantom Tribe? I just wish there was a way to end the fighting, once and for all..."

Miz hurried into the chamber, accompanied by Mika and Cerev. "Masamichi!" she cried, spotting her husband in the assembled crowd.

"Oh, hi Miz!" Fujisawa said cheerfully, shortly before he was almost knocked over by the force of Miz's embrace.

"Masamichi, darling, what a relief! Oh, I'm so glad you're back!"

Fujisawa struggled free. "Miz, not in front of the kids, please..."

Amiri approached gingerly. Cerev saw her and ran up to her.

"Hello, Cerev," she smiled.

It felt different, somehow. For years, she'd been able to ignore her secret, but now... she had to confront it. And Cerev was her only son, the most important person in the world to her. Was it still right to keep this from him?

"Mother?" Cerev said. "Are you okay? Did something happen while you were away?"

Fujisawa leaned over. "Nothing important." He and Amiri exchanged glances. Maybe it really wasn't that important after all.

Parnasse and Tenax entered. Parnasse immediately looked around for his sister. "Alielle? Alielle, are you here?"

"Parnasse?" Adena turned to face him.

He leapt back. "Aagh! Mother! I didn't expect to see you here..."

Adena gasped. "Parnasse! Why aren't you wearing your dhar?"

"Uh oh..." Parnasse panicked. "Wait... don't kill me! Let me explain! You, see, it was all Alielle's idea. It's an expression of... well, something to do with politics. Look, just ask Alielle, okay?"

Alielle stepped into view, proudly displaying her dhar. She smiled at her brother. "Heheh..."

Adena shook her head in disgust. "Imagine, blaming your poor sister, after all she's been through. I'm so ashamed! I don't know where we went wrong with you..."

Parnasse sighed. "Oh, I hate my life..."

Alielle took her mother aside. "You see that girl with Parnasse? That's his girlfriend."

Adena studied Tenax carefully. "Hmm... not bad. Her arms are a little fat though, aren't they?"

"Mother!"

"Well, they are. You'd think she'd wear something to cover them up..."

Alielle winced. "That's a little unnecessary. Besides, I... sort of like her arms."

Her attention was briefly caught by Mika, who ran across the room to Mari.

"Hi Mari!" Mika smiled. "Did you enjoy your holiday?"

Mari looked down. "Holiday? Oh... well, not really. The food was okay, but other than that..."

Alielle beckoned Fatora over. "Fatora, have you seen Nanami?"

"Nanami?" Fatora pondered. "Oh, yeah. She left about five minutes ago. She's probably gone to the restaurant."

"Thanks." Alielle headed for the exit as quickly as she could.

Nanami looked up as she heard somebody enter the restaurant. "Alielle... do you want something?"

Alielle joined Nanami at the counter. "Not exactly. Listen, Nanami... you haven't talked to Mari yet, have you?"

Nanami sighed. "Um... no. It's not as easy as you think. I really don't know what to say to her, and..."

"I'm very worried about her," Alielle said. "When we were escaping from the Bugrom, she said something a little disturbing. She doesn't seem to care about her own life. It's almost like a suicidal streak. Not that I think she'd actually kill herself, it's more that she might not protect herself if she was in danger. That's not normal, Nanami."

"I know," Nanami replied. "I know she's got problems, and I want to help. I feel so guilty that I've left it for so long, but... well, look at this."

Nanami reached into her pocket and took out a piece of paper. She unfolded it and showed it to Alielle.

"I recognise this," Alielle nodded. "It's the map Mari sent to you."

"Yeah." Nanami turned it over. "And this was the message she wrote to us. She added something at the bottom, though, in English. She knew only I'd be able to read it."

"What does it say?"

Nanami read from the note. "Nanami, if you don't love me then that's okay, but I will love you forever."

Alielle paused. "It seems to me that what she wants more that anything is an answer."

"Yes," Nanami conceded. "You're right."

"Well, there's no point in putting it off any longer, is there? You should tell her, now."

Nanami turned away. "Yeah, well... maybe I don't know what the answer is yet."

After a few seconds, she looked back at Alielle's blank expression.

"You see, I just felt so bad for her. And I thought it was guilt... maybe it is guilt, I don't know. I knew I was the reason she felt so awful, and I wanted to make her feel better. I wished that there was a way I could return her love. But I've started to wonder... could it be possible that the reason this is so important to me is that I do actually..." She trailed off nervously. "You know what I'm saying, right?"

"Yes," Alielle said softly. "It's okay."

"I don't want to go ahead and tell her that I love her if I'm only motivated by guilt. But on the other hand, I really don't want to break her heart if there's the slightest chance I don't have to." She sighed. "I don't know what to think... I don't know what I want anymore."

Alielle smiled reassuringly. "Everyone's different, Nanami. Take me- I've been certain of my sexuality ever since I was a child. Fatora wasn't like that... I pretty much had to point it out to her." She grinned. "I can usually tell with people, you see. But as I was saying, no two people are the same. Sometimes, it's just a matter of meeting the right person."

Nanami nodded. "I understand. So, what do you think I should do?"

Alielle stepped back. "For now? Nothing. You need to think about this carefully. There's no point in rushing into something you might regret." She turned and walked back towards the exit. "I have to get back to Fatora now, but if you need anything..."

"Alielle?"

"Yeah?"

"You know how you said you could tell if someone was gay?" Nanami asked with trepidation. "Well... what did you think about me?"

Alielle gave Nanami a wry smile. "I was afraid you'd ask that. It doesn't happen very often. But I was never able to tell with you. I suppose," she added, "it's why I've always found you so fascinating."

"You wanted to talk to us?"

"Yes," Rune nodded to Makoto and Ifurita. "I'm sure you've heard about the spots in the sky by now."

"We have," Makoto replied. "And I'm as stumped as you are as to what they might be."

Ifurita stepped forward. "Have you been able to analyse them at all?"

"I'm afraid we've been able to obtain very little information about them, although I'm sure Doctor Schtalubaugh could provide you with what data we do have. It seems strange that they're clustering around the Eye of God..."

"The Eye of God..." Makoto pondered, distracted. "My God! That's it!"

Ifurita looked to Makoto. "What is it? Have you thought of something?"

"It's nothing related to this, but... do you remember that conversation I had with Alielle's father? What he said about using a greater power source in conjunction with our distortion weapons?"

Ifurita studied Makoto's excited expression. "Yes..."

"The Eye of God is the answer. I know how we can beat the Phantom Tribe."

"I can't believe you aren't taking this more seriously!" Nahato fumed.

Jinnai laughed. It wasn't often that Nahato lost it, so for once, he was enjoying being the calm, condescending one. "Really, Nahato. You're obviously not thinking rationally. Try to relax."

"Didn't you hear what I just said?" Nahato exploded. "The enemy have developed a way to see through our illusions. This has serious implications!" He walked over to the large map displaying the Bugrom positions. "In some areas, up to ninety percent of the occupying forces are actually Phantom Tribe illusions. Now, we know for a fact that these weapons are being manufactured in Florestica..."

"So what do we do?" Jinnai taunted. "Come on, you usually have a solution for everything."

"There's no more time!" he replied. "We have to launch a full attack on Roshtaria. Now."

Jinnai's laugh grew even louder. "And just where does that fit into our war strategy, huh?"

"I agree with him."

Chibi-Diva stood at the entrance to the chamber, wearing a purposeful expression.

"You can't be serious," Jinnai challenged. "Attack now? We still haven't had time to..."

"I'm tired of the Alliance hurting my bugs!" Chibi-Diva interrupted. "I want to make them pay!"

Jinnai did his best to pacify her. "We will, we will. But just not yet. We already have battles on two fronts, it's just not feasible at the moment."

The queen scowled. "Well, I'm the queen, and you're not! And if I say we attack, we attack!"

"Well, um..." Jinnai didn't know how to respond. The old Diva had never confronted him like this.

Nahato smiled gleefully. "I suppose that settles it, then."

Day 347

Afura examined the documents before her with increasing interest.

"What's that you're reading?" Shayla asked, peering over her friend's shoulder.

Afura didn't look up. "Something... that might just give us the proof we've been looking for."

"Really?"

"Mm-hmm. When I examined the libraries here for information on Serati, I noticed something odd. There was hardly anything from the past five years or so. Most of the records concerning her recent past were missing."

Shayla frowned. "You think there's been a cover up?"

Afura nodded. "It's what I suspected. Now, previous to being elected Alpha Priestess, Serati served as a priestess in Perallia for more than forty years. And it just so happens that I have a friend who works as a librarian for the Perallian wing of the Holy Order. She told me that all records are produced in duplicate- one copy goes to the central library here, the other is kept by the local priesthood. So it occurred to me that if somebody removed a record form the main library, they might not think to remove it from the library back in Perallia."

She suddenly smiled, and waved the documents in Shayla's face. "Guess what? I was right! My friend sent me every record concerning Serati from the past five years. They make interesting reading. She's not the uncontroversial figure she's made out to be."

Shayla sat down next to Afura. "How so?"

"Four years ago, Roshtaria, Styrenia and Vandalia decided to allow the Opaques into their territory. Perallia was all set to do the same, but the government face powerful opposition from the local branch of the Holy Order. And that opposition was led by... Manserati Serati."

"I knew it!" Shayla said. "I knew that she wouldn't employ someone like Doht unless she had it in for the Opaques!"

Afura continued her analysis. "What's remarkable is that after all her time as a priestess, this was the first occasion she'd ever intervened in local politics. But from that point on, she became an ardent opponent of the Opaques. For some reason though, she's recently done her best to cover it up."

"It can't have been to win the election," Shayla reasoned. "We already know she probably rigged that. Besides, there's no shortage of people here who agree with her views."

Afura sighed. "True. There's no obvious reason for her to cover anything up."

Shayla stood up. "Well, why don't we ask her about it in person?"

"Are you insane? You can't just barge in on the Alpha Priestess!" Afura protested.

"Why not?"

There was a long pause as Afura tried to come up with a suitable reply.

"Hey," Shayla grinned, "are you telling me that you've been here all this time, and it never even occurred to you to just walk into her office?"

Another pause.

Afura turned to Shayla, beaten. "I... oh, just shut up."

Shayla laughed. "We have got to do something about your respect for authority, Afura."

Makoto sat at his desk, writing furiously. Amiri reclined in a chair near the window, reading her newspaper.

"This is nasty stuff... it says the Bugrom are really hammering into Roshtaria's borders. They may even be breaking through at certain points."

Makoto carried on writing. "Yeah... I just hope I can finish these plans in time."

Amiri closed the paper and folded it neatly. "You're absolutely sure about this scheme of yours, right? Because it sounds a little... far fetched, if you don't mind my saying so."

"It sounds ridiculous," Makoto conceded, "but I'm certain it can work. The Eye of God stays in position through some sort of anti-gravity beam. It's projected downwards, and has a radius of thousands of miles. All I have to do is connect our distortion system to the Eye's central power core, then integrate it with the downward anti-gravity beam..."

"Then Phantom Tribe powers would become useless across the whole of the Alliance," Amiri finished. "It sounds good... but isn't playing around with an anti-gravity system kind of risky? Isn't there a chance the whole thing could just drop out of the sky?"

Makoto smiled weakly. "Oh, I'm... pretty sure that won't happen."

"Pretty sure?" Amiri laughed. She walked over to Makoto's desk. "I don't know if I've ever told you this, but there are times when you really remind me of my husband."

"Well... I'm honoured, of course," Makoto said, unsure of how he should react.

Amiri sat on the edge of the desk and stared at Makoto, smiling. "Sometimes when you're talking, I feel as if I could just close my eyes and he'd still be here."

"Um... right," Makoto replied, distinctly uncomfortable all of a sudden.

Taking note of Makoto's expression, Amiri laughed again and stood up. "Don't worry. I think you're a little too young for me, Makoto. Besides, I'm not about to go up against Ifurita. Speaking of whom... where is she?"

"She's with Three," Makoto said, a sense of relief evident in his voice. "Apparently Princess Rune asked them to do a job for her."

The identical Demon Gods headed upwards.

"I wonder why they weren't able to collect any data on the phenomena?" Ifurita asked. "The palace does have a few transports capable of reaching that altitude."

"They were ineffective," Three replied, emotionless. "The transports ran out of fuel before any analysis could be performed."

Ifurita frowned. "How odd." She looked over to Three. "Are you getting any readings from the spots yet?"

"No. I can't pick up anything in that area. Perhaps a close range scan would reveal more."

They accelerated until they were just a few feet away from the objects. At this range, their true nature became apparent.

"They look just like zero energy bubbles," Ifurita observed. There was indeed a striking similarity. They were large, black and spherical, just like he anomalies created by Sakura in her attacks.

"I agree," Three said. "But that is not what they are. A zero energy bubble collapses soon after it is formed. These are obviously much more stable..."

"Three..." Ifurita called, alarmed. "I can't stay... up..."

She began to lose altitude rapidly.

"Keep your distance!" Three called back. "These anomalies must be draining your power. Evidently, that's also what happened to the transports sent to analyse them. I'll conduct the study."

Ifurita managed to halt her descent and called back up. "Why isn't this affecting you?"

"I have the ability to control zero energy. I'm more resistant to it than you are."

Three observed one of the spheres before her. If it wasn't a bubble, what was it?

Only one way to find out...

She lifted up her staff, and brought it down onto the sphere. The staff cut through the object like a knife cutting through butter. The two halves pulsed and undulated with the shock, eventually rearranging themselves into two smaller, identical spheres.

Then the backlash hit her.

Her body froze as her temperature dropped to a few degrees above absolute zero. Paralysed, she fell from the sky.

"Three!" Ifurita cried, seeing her drop. She quickly followed her twin downwards.

Three suddenly regained control over her body and stopped. Ifurita moved up to her, furious.

"What were you doing? That could have killed you!"

"I was doing what I had to do!" Three responded, equally angry.

"You didn't have to put your life at risk!"

Three shook with fury. "My life no longer has a purpose! My one remaining ability was to fight, and now even that's been taken away! All I can use now is a type of energy so dangerous that only a lunatic would unleash it!"

Ifurita moved back slightly, and let a few silent moments pass before she continued.

"Did you learn anything from your... experiment?"

"Yes," Three replied. "The objects have a uniform structure. Unlike the bubbles, they are solid blocks of zero energy."

Ifurita nodded. "Where do you think they came from?"

"It is possible that when zero energy is released by Sakura, it does not disappear. The bubbles collapse, but the dimensional disturbances used to create them remain at an atomic level. These disturbances may have a form of mutual gravity, causing them to join together to form large structures with internal cohesion. These are completely stable in the environment."

"I understand," Ifurita said. "And I'm afraid this all sounds very similar to what Makoto says Arjah told him."

Afura and Shayla marched together through the corridors.

"Come on, Afura, admit it," Shayla prompted. "This is fun! You're enjoying this!"

"No, I'm not," Afura replied. "I hate breaking the rules, I hate it. There's so much that could go wrong with your plan."

Shayla laughed. "What plan? This isn't really a plan, it's more of... a mentality."

"Oh, God..." Afura moaned. "Is it too late to turn back?"

The pair turned a corner, and collided with a familiar figure.

"P... Priestess Shayla?" Doht spluttered. "You... you've been excommunicated! You're not even allowed in this city!"

"Go to Hell," Shayla replied casually, pushing him out of the way.

Doht followed them, still determined. "Priestess Mann... associating with her will not reflect well on you."

"Too bad," Afura called back.

"Where are you going, anyway?" he persisted.

"To see the Alpha Priestess."

"You can't!" Doht said. "She's not taking visitors!"

Shayla looked over her shoulder. "She'll make an exception for us."

Doht growled. "You are in no position to ask for anything. You've disgraced our religion!"

"Damn," Shayla said sarcastically. "My mother is going to be so disappointed."

"You handed over a sacred artefact to another without permission!" he continued.

"Yep, sure did. What a threat to society I must be."

They stopped in front of the doors to the Alpha Priestess' office. The lone guard eyed them nervously.

"I'm afraid her eminence is busy..."

Shayla looked at him sympathetically. "Sorry about this, pal." She punched him in the face, and he collapsed silently to the floor.

Doht's panic grew. "You can't do this!" he protested.

"Do you want me to knock you out too, is that it?" Shayla snarled. She landed a hard punch in his stomach.

"Please... stop..." he wheezed, falling to his knees.

Afura shook her head. "It's too late for that, I'm afraid."

"Yeah," Shayla agreed. "We know all about your little conspiracy."

The two priestesses approached the doors. Doht tried to get to his feet.

"Conspiracy? What conspiracy?"

The ornate doors to the main office swung open, and Shayla and Afura stepped inside.

"Priestess Mann, Priestess Shayla," a decrepit voice said.

The Alpha Priestess sat behind her desk, facing the enormous window with a view over the entire city. She didn't seem angry.

"I thought you would come eventually," she continued.

Afura began. "Your eminence, we have some concerns we'd like to raise involving..."

"Aw. Let me handle this," Shayla interrupted. "You rigged the election! And you've been hiding evidence of your hatred of Opaques!"

Doht struggled into the office. "Your eminence! Please forgive me! I tried to stop them, but..."

She turned her chair to face them. Her eyes bore into Shayla and Afura. "Get them out. Now."

Doht made a pathetic attempt to stand up to the priestesses. "You heard the Alpha Priestess. You have to leave."

"In your dreams." Shayla sent him crashing to the floor with a second blow.

Afura ventured further into the office. "We're not leaving until you tell us what's going on."

"The two of you should be ashamed of yourselves," the Alpha Priestess said icily. "Such accusations are inexcusable. You're a disgrace to the Holy Order."

"No. You're the disgrace," Afura said, moving closer to the desk. "The Holy Order is supposed to stand for all that's right and good in this world. I've been horrified by what I've discovered here. This institution is rotten to the core. To think that you got where you are now by deception..."

With a single gesture, she swept the piles of books and documents from the desk.

"And not only that... you're intent on sowing hatred amongst the people we're supposed to guide and protect!" Afura continued, livid. "You're not even worthy of setting foot in a temple!"

The Alpha Priestess rose from her seat, and glared back at Afura and Shayla. "You disappoint me. Two of the Holy Order's top minds... and you still have no idea what's really going on, do you?"

She stepped away from the desk, and clipped something onto her belt. Shayla was the first to notice.

"Afura! Your Lamp!"

Afura tried to maintain her dignified stance. "That Lamp belongs to me."

"Incorrect. This Lamp is sole property of the Holy Order."

The scattered documents on the floor began to flutter as a breeze picked up around the Alpha Priestess.

"Be careful, Afura," Shayla warned. "The Alpha Priestess has control over all Elemental Lamps!"

"I know that," Afura snapped. "What do I look like, a junior shrine maiden?"

The Alpha Priestess smirked at Afura. "If you do not leave my office voluntarily, then I'm afraid I have no other choice." The wind around her increased in ferocity. "I've always wanted to do this."

The wind surged forwards and hit Afura in the chest. She was sent clean across the room and crashing into the back wall.

"Hey!" Shayla cried, enraged. "How dare you!"

Fire suddenly sparked into being around her. She gasped, taken completely by surprise.

"Your power..." Afura said, climbing to her feet. "It returned."

Shayla nodded. "Yeah, and what timing..."

"What's going on?" the Alpha Priestess demanded. "You don't have the Lamp of Fire!"

Shayla looked at Afura in confusion, then looked back at the Alpha Priestess. "No... is that a problem?"

"An elemental priestess had some control over her element, even without the Lamp," Afura said.

"Yeah," Shayla nodded. "A priestess of forty years... should know that."

Doht began to stir. He tried to pull himself up.

"This has gone on for long enough," the Alpha Priestess said. "Leave now, or I'll be forced to use the Lamp again."

"We're not going anywhere," Shayla said calmly. "I think I've finally worked out what's really going on here."

With one fluid movement, Shayla drew a weapon from the pouch on her leg, and fired at the Alpha Priestess.

Doht cried out in horror. "No! What have you done?" He looked over at the Alpha Priestess. "Your eminence, are you..."

His voice trailed off as the realisation hit him. Standing where Serati has been was a younger, blue-skinned woman.

"As I suspected," Shayla smirked.

Afura blinked, astounded. "What was that you fired at her?"

"Something Makoto came up with. It screws up their powers."

"This is a trick!" Doht insisted. "It's impossible, the Alpha Priestess could never really be... one of the Phantom Tribe..." He looked to her for approval.

"How long?" Afura probed. "How long have you been posing as Serati?"

The Alpha Priestess paused, and then smiled. "Manserati Serati died seven years ago. I assumed her position."

Shayla nodded. "Right. But when it looked like Perallia was about to let Opaques in..."

"I couldn't allow that. They could see through my illusions, I'd have been revealed. So I made sure that they were kept out."

"But why did you decide to become Alpha Priestess?" Afura challenged.

"Because my old position gave me limited power within one country. As Alpha Priestess, I can influence thinking in every nation in El-Hazard! Rigging the election was easy. Since then, I've been doing my best to ensure no more of the Allied Nations allow Opaques in. I couldn't allow the safety of my fellow spies to be jeopardised."

Flames grew around Shayla for a second time. "Innocent people have died because of what you've done!"

The Alpha Priestess Laughed. "Those Opaque traitors? They deserve whatever suffering is brought upon them. But you're giving me too much credit, Priestess Shayla. The bigotry was already there... I just had to push the right buttons. You people are so predictable. You'll do whatever the media tells you." She turned to Doht. "I couldn't have done it without you, Jennown."

Doht stared at the impostor, terrified. "Me...?"

"Yes, you. You were the most effective tool of all. You really believed what you were saying. It's such a shame that I'll have to kill you now."

The winds surged up around her. "It's going to be very tiresome coming up with explanations for how the three of you died. But I'm sure I'll think of something interesting."

Shayla dodged the air pocket launched towards her. The blast slammed into the wall, leaving a sizeable dent. In response, Shayla ran towards the Alpha Priestess, surrounded by flames. "Alpha Priestess or not, you're going down!" she snarled.

"I doubt that." With a single gust of wind, she extinguished Shayla's flames. A second gust sent Shayla skidding back across the office.

"Damn," Shayla cursed. "If only I had my Lamp..."

Afura looked over to her. "I know the feeling."

Doht suddenly gasped and cried out. "Priestess Mann! Look out!"

Afura just had enough time to avoid the air blast aimed at her head. Summoning what little wind she could generate without the Lamp, she aimed a retaliatory blast at the Alpha Priestess. It was absorbed harmlessly by the shield of air around her.

"That was disappointing," the Alpha Priestess laughed. "Don't try to struggle. It's so undignified. Remember that I have the Lamp!"

Afura found herself swept up inside a massive whirlwind. As the vicious air currents knocked her one way and another, she could just about hear the Alpha Priestess' laughter. She was completely outmanoeuvred, there was nothing more she could do.

Then she felt something unexpected.

It was a feeling she'd experienced many times before, but never under these circumstances. She wondered briefly whether her predicament was causing her to imagine things. But no... she could feel them, and she shouldn't have been able to.

The wind spirits.

The air currents around her began to soften. The whirlwind became an air cushion, which gently deposited her on the ground. It then shifted its position, enveloping the surprised Alpha Priestess.

Doht struggled to comprehend the events before him. "This... doesn't usually happen, does it?"

"Nope," Shayla replied, intrigued. "No, this is definitely new."

"What have you done?" the Alpha Priestess screamed as the winds pulled her up into the air. "There's no way you could be controlling them!"

Afura tried to disguise her own confusion. "I'm not."

"Then the winds are controlling themselves?" Doht asked, amazed.

Afura shrugged. "Well, isn't that something?"

The Alpha Priestess thrashed around inside the whirlwind. "Obey me! Listen to me, damn you! I am your master! I have the Lamp of Wind!"

There was a distinct ripping sound. The winds tore the Lamp from the Alpha Priestess' belt, and ejected it from the spinning vacuum. It landed on the floor a few feet from Afura.

"Hmm," Afura said, scratching her head. "I'll take this as an endorsement."

"Let me down!" the Alpha Priestess screamed as the winds lifted her higher.

Afura folded her arms. "If the great Alpha Priestess can't call them off, I doubt I can."

The winds built to a crescendo, and thrashed back against the huge window. It broke. The Alpha Priestess sailed through, and dropped out of sight.

Few seconds passed, then a quiet thud could be heard outside.

"Well..." Shayla said. "That was interesting."

"Indeed." Afura picked up the Lamp of Wind and smiled. "The wind spirits might not be as flashy as the fire spirits, but they don't like being messed with."

"Yep," Shayla nodded. "They're as weird as you are, Afura."

"Are you sure you don't want to take that back?" Afura challenged playfully. "You've seen what they can do when they're upset."

Doht walked up to the broken window and looked down. "This... is going to generate a lot of paperwork."

Shayla followed Doht, and jabbed him in the back. "You should have a little more humility. I hope you've learned something from this."

"Perhaps we all have," Afura mused. "We've seen firsthand how dangerous it can be to manipulate powerful forces for personal gain. Whatever one's beliefs, religion is an important and precious thing to many people. To use it to impose personal agendas and influence the thinking of others isn't just immoral, it's..."

"Hey, my ass really hurts," Shayla complained. "I must have hit it when I fell. Ow..."

"Shayla!" Afura frowned.

"What? Oh yeah, your little speech," Shayla smiled sheepishly. "Sorry. Carry on."

"No, I don't think I will."

"Aw, go on. I want to hear it, honest!"

"Forget it, Shayla. The moment's gone."

Day 350

Florestica was waking up.

Ifurita woke up, and noticed that Makoto was not next to her as he usually was. She sat up, and caught sight of him in the adjoining room. He was sitting at his desk, slumped over his notes, fast asleep.

Fujisawa opened his eyes with a sense of cold dread. The reports said that the Bugrom weren't far from the city. This could all end very badly. He looked over at Miz, still sleeping peacefully. He decided not to wake her.

Nanami awoke from another restless night. She'd hardly slept. There were too many things on her mind, too many questions still to be answered. She got up and decided to check her accounts. She didn't really need to, but still, it was something to do.

Fatora woke up with immense excitement. The baby was due today... and even if it didn't come today, she knew it wouldn't be long before she was cradling her first child. She enthusiastically tried to wake Alielle and found, to her disappointment, that Alielle was in no hurry to wake up.

Qawoor awoke with a sigh. The past week had been so lonely. There was news of some sort of disturbance in the Holy City- what sort was still unknown, as a communications blackout had been in place for the last three days. She hoped Shayla was okay. And Afura too... she'd never quite been able to believe that Afura had turned against them.

Parnasse stirred. There really wasn't very much room in this bed. Tenax was right next to him, her head on his shoulder. There were a lot of unpleasant things happening, but somehow they all seemed very far away. They could wait. Right now, he had no intention of moving.

Rune opened her eyes. Another day, another crisis. There had been so much to worry about over the past year that she'd grown rather used to it. She'd no doubt approach whatever arose with the same sense of resigned calm. Oh well. Time to get up.

Formyka awoke, and counted the number of other people in the bed. Four. Must've been a good night... it was just a shame she could remember so little of it.

Mari woke up, took one look out of the window, then rolled over and went back to sleep.

Amiri was very much awake- in fact, she was already at the clinic. Such was the life of a doctor. Still, at least it was too early to expect any patients...

There was a knock at the door. Already? She groaned, and went to answer it.

"Mrs Ralielle?"

Adena stood expectantly on the doorstep. "Ah, doctor. Good morning. I just wanted to ask you a few questions about the birth."

"Um... the birth?"

"Yes. My granddaughter. As I was saying, there are a few things that I wanted to clear up about it."

Amiri nodded. "Oh, I see. Well, I'm not really in charge of that. The baby's going to be delivered by the royal physician, Doctor Schtalubaugh."

Adena frowned. "Really? But I thought..."

"All of my tests indicate that this is a perfectly normal pregnancy, so there's no reason for me to intervene. Traditionally, the royal physician deals with all births in the royal house, and I don't see any need to break with that tradition."

"Oh," Adena replied. "Well, I suppose I'd better go and see Doctor Schtalubaugh then."

"Yes..." Amiri sighed, more than a little relieved.

The Bugrom convoy advanced further into the Roshtarian forest. At the front of the lead transport stood Jinnai and Sakura.

"We're winning!" Jinnai cried, ecstatic. "We're actually winning! Can't you feel the glory, Sakura?"

"Yeah, yeah," Sakura said grumpily.

Jinnai shook his head. "What's the matter with you?"

"I'm still itchy!" she complained. "It's been ever since that Mizuhara guy did that thing to me. I'm just itching all over!"

Nahato approached, and sighed. "Doesn't she ever stop moaning?"

"Well, I don't see you helping," Jinnai snapped back.

"I have given up trying to impact on your profoundly illogical way of thinking," Nahato said, exasperated. "Would you care to explain what she's doing here?" He gestured to the rear of the transport, where Chibi-Diva sat, surrounded by bugs.

"She insisted on coming," Jinnai said. "It's not as if I could stop her. Do you want to try arguing with her?"

"What if something happens to her?" Nahato continued. "Do you realise what a risk you're taking?"

Jinnai looked sceptical. "Since when do you care what happens to the Bugrom?"

Nahato paused. "I don't, really," he admitted. "But I do extract a great deal of pleasure from pointing out the flaws in your strategy."

"Are you sure you're comfortable? Do you want another cushion? I can get you another cushion."

Alielle frowned. "Fatora, I'm fine. Stop fussing. That goes for all of you as well." She glared at Parnasse, Tenax and Adena.

"We're just trying to be helpful," Parnasse replied. "Besides, we all have to be on our guard. It's due today, right?"

"That doesn't really mean much," Tenax said. "The due date's just an estimate. Most people don't give birth on the exact date."

"Really?" Parnasse probed. "I didn't know that. You're so smart, Tenax!"

Alielle made a little surprised noise, and started waving. "Um... hey..."

"She IS smart, isn't she?" Adena smiled. "I can see she has a promising future!" She looked disparagingly at Parnasse. "Just as well, really..."

Alielle's waves grew increasingly frantic. "Could I have your attention for a minute, please?"

Fatora looked over her shoulder. "What?"

"I think... something just happened."

Fatora jumped. Parnasse gasped. Tenax grinned, and Adena squealed in delight.

"This must be it!" Parnasse announced.

"Yay!" Tenax cheered. "Can I watch? Ooh, let me get my notebook..."

"I'd better go and find Doctor Schtalubaugh," Adena said.

Alielle nodded. "Yes. Hurry! Hurry!"

"Oh, don't worry, dear," she beamed. "The baby won't be coming just yet. I remember when I gave birth for the first time... I was in labour for more than forty eight hours!"

"Wow!" Tenax replied. "That's so cool!"

Alielle shrank back nervously. "Yeah..."

Mari sat in the restaurant with Mika by her side.

"...and while I was away, I had a pet Bugrom called Lora-chan."

Mika stared up at Mari, perplexed. "A Bugrom?"

"Mm-hmm!" Mari nodded.

"I didn't think Bugrom could be pets," Mika said.

Mari shrugged. "Well, she was only small. It's just a shame I had to leave her behind. I hope she's still okay..."

Miz, Fujisawa, Amiri and Cerev sat at the next table. Nanami stood with them.

Amiri gestured over to Mari. "She's good with Mika, isn't she?"

"Yeah, you're right about that," Fujisawa replied.

Miz stood up. "Are you coming, Masamichi?"

"Where to?"

"To see Alielle, of course!" Miz smiled. "That baby of hers should be coming soon, and I'm sure I could be of assistance."

Amiri frowned. "They do have Doctor Schtalubaugh and a full medical team."

"Yes, yes, yes," Miz said dismissively. "But they'll need a woman's touch. Somebody who's actually been through the process. Like me!"

"But hon," Fujisawa said, "hasn't Alielle's mother given birth fifteen times? I think she'd be more..."

"Well, I think I'll go anyway," Miz continued, determined. "Are you coming, or aren't you?"

Fujisawa smiled weakly. "I'll give it a miss. You... go ahead and enjoy yourself."

Miz hurried out of the restaurant. Fujisawa shuddered.

"Hmm..." Amiri pondered. "Looks like she's curious. But you don't share her curiosity?"

"Hey, one birth per lifetime is enough for me," Fujisawa sighed. "After the chaos Miz caused when Mika was born... Ever wondered why we didn't have another?"

"I wonder..." Amiri mused. "How will Alielle cope with all of this?"

Nanami shook her head. "I honestly couldn't speculate."

"I don't exactly picture them as the ideal parents," Fujisawa said. "But then, when I met them I didn't picture them as the ideal couple. I guess they already proved me wrong once."

Amiri smiled. "Yes, it's often the way. The most unexpected pairings can lead to the strongest bonds."

Nanami's eyes drifted over to Mari. To her own surprise, she spoke up. "Hey... Mari, could I talk to you for a minute?"

"Me?" Mari responded, taken aback. "Um, yeah. Sure."

"Mr Fujisawa! Miss Nanami!"

Qawoor ran into the restaurant with an expression of total panic. "The Bugrom are coming! They're on the outskirts of the city!"

"Okay." Nanami picked up the Lamp of Fire and fastened it to her arm. She looked apologetically at Mari. "Sorry. I have to go."

"Mari!" Fujisawa called. "Can you look after Mika while I'm gone?"

Mari nodded. "Yes, sensei."

"Thanks." He looked to Nanami and Qawoor. "Come on!"

The three of them ran from the restaurant. Mari sighed deeply.

"Come back safely."

As Makoto loaded the equipment into his bag, he heard the first explosion.

"Damn! They're here! We're too late!"

"No!" Ifurita maintained. "We can still do this, but we have to hurry."

Three nodded. "Priestess Towles and the others should be able to hold the Bugrom back for a while."

"Okay, I'm ready," Makoto said, fastening the bag. "Ura?"

"Nyah!" Ura leapt up to Makoto and wrapped around him. Makoto climbed onto Ifurita's back.

"We need to get to the Eye of God, quick!"

Ifurita took off, launching herself through the window and into the sky. Three followed her.

"I hope this works..." Makoto said, clinging to Ifurita. "If it doesn't, God help us..."

"I want a doctor!" Alielle demanded as Fatora, Parnasse and Tenax ushered her along the corridor.

"In a minute," Fatora reassured, trying to ignore the faint sound of explosions from outside.

They were unexpectedly joined by Miz. "Oh! Did I miss anything?" She asked excitedly.

"No," Tenax replied. "The main event is yet to come!"

"Where are you all going?"

"To the emergency shelters," Fatora said. "We'll be safer down there. I just hope the doctor hurries up..."

"Don't rush me!" Schtalubaugh barked.

"My daughter's in labour! The city is being bombed!" Adena said, beside herself with frustration. "She needs a doctor, not to mention the support and encouragement that only a mother can provide... Come on, doctor!"

Schtalubaugh grumbled. "Yes, yes, alright." He stood up and walked towards the door.

There was a deafening explosion outside. The whole room shook violently, and Schtalubaugh only just managed to stay on his feet.

"What was that?" Adena called.

"The palace has been hit," Schtalubaugh said. He turned the handle of the door with trepidation, and opened it to reveal a corridor completely blocked with rubble.

"Oh dear," he sighed. "Mrs Ralielle, it seems we're trapped in here."

"But we can't be!" Adena cried. "What's Alielle going to do without my support and encouragement?"

The shelter doors swung open, and Fatora began to help Alielle down the steps.

"Hello?" she called. "Anyone down here?"

"Fatora!"

Rune hurried over to meet her. "Fatora, Alielle, thank goodness you're both alright... Alielle?"

"She's in labour," Tenax said as she, Miz and Parnasse descended into the shelter. "Isn't it exciting?"

"Oh, my..." Rune replied. "Well... at least you'll have some company down here."

"Huh?" Alielle looked down into the shelter, and spotted three more figures. "Oh, no..."

Formyka beamed and waved. "Hi!"

Her two servants joined her, and greeted them in unison. "Hello, Princess Fatora! Hello, Princess Alielle!"

"No way!" Alielle wailed, struggling against Fatora. "There's no way I'm going to have my baby down here with them watching! Let me out!"

"Out?" Fatora echoed. "But we're under attack by the Bugrom!"

"I don't care! I'll take my chances!"

As Ifurita headed upwards, Makoto glanced back at the city below.

"What the hell's happening down there?" he shouted.

Three flew closer. "Sakura has started to bombard the city centre with zero energy blasts. Her fire is mostly concentrated on the palace."

"The palace?" Makoto gasped. "Ifurita... we have to do something to stop her."

"No," Three said sternly. "Ifurita cannot engage Sakura, and the two of you already have a job to do. I'll stop her."

Ifurita looked concerned. "Three, are you sure? Sakura's so much more powerful than you are."

"True, Three conceded. "But I do have superior tactical ability. Besides, we have no other choice."

"Very well," Ifurita said. "Be careful."

Three didn't reply. She turned and flew off in the direction of the explosions. Ifurita continued on her original route.

At the edge of the Greater Roshtarian Forest, the defence against the Bugrom had taken on a distinct pattern. Fujisawa engaged them at close range, tackling the ground forces more or less single-handedly. Nanami was further back, using her fire attacks to inflict damage on the troop transports and any associated weaponry. Qawoor brought up the rear, partly because her powers were more suited to long range attacks, but also because she preferred to keep as far away from the Bugrom as possible. Roshtaria's conventional forces had proven largely ineffective against such overwhelming numbers, and some of them had withdrawn further back into Florestica.

The Bugrom, for their part, were putting most of their effort into attacking Fujisawa, albeit with little success.

Jinnai, Nahato and Chibi-Diva observed the battle from an aerial transport at the rear of the offensive.

"We seem to have hit a problem," Chibi-Diva frowned.

"Oh, I wouldn't describe it as a problem..." Jinnai said unconvincingly.

"This isn't working," Nahato commented. "It's time to try another tactic."

Nanami watched in confusion as Fujisawa stopped fighting. He looked around nervously, seemingly lost. Qawoor seemed especially concerned by something, and ran to his aid, but then she too stopped. Observing the pair carefully, Nanami knew that something wasn't quite right.

"What's happening?" Qawoor called out suddenly.

That's it, Nanami thought. It had to be an illusion.

Well, fortunately she'd be unaffected.

She ran right over and waved at them. No response. They continued to stumble around aimlessly.

"Hello?" Qawoor called. "Is anybody there?"

"Qawoor!" Nanami said in response. "I don't know what it is you can see, but it isn't real. It's an illusion."

"Nanami, is that you?" Fujisawa said. "Where are you?"

"This is an illusion?" Qawoor echoed. "I can't see a thing, Nanami. It's like I'm blind..."

She squealed suddenly as Nanami took her arm. "What's that?"

Nanami sighed. "Geez, Qawoor. It's only me." She grabbed Fujisawa.

"Hey!" Fujisawa called. "Nanami?"

Qawoor paused. "We need to escape the field of the illusion..."

"What?" Fujisawa asked.

"Never mind. Just hold onto me..."

Qawoor launched herself out into the light on a crest of water, keeping hold of Nanami and Fujisawa. The stream of water curved back to the ground, depositing all of them abruptly but safely in the grass.

Nahato, watching through binoculars, shook his head.

"Damn. We didn't count on your sister's abilities..."

"Don't worry about it," Jinnai replied. "They can't keep fighting like this forever. All we have to do is wear them down gradually."

There was a loud noise from behind. A small, remarkably fast transport flew overhead.

"What's that?" Chibi-Diva demanded.

Jinnai shrugged. "I don't know. I've never seen a vehicle like it before."

"I have," Nahato frowned. "It's the official transport of the Alpha Priestess."

Sakura was distracted from her task by a shot that whizzed over her shoulder. She turned in mid-air. "Hey!"

Three hovered a few feet away. "Sakura," she said coldly. "I cannot allow you to continue with this attack."

Sakura growled back. "Go away! I'm very busy shooting stuff!"

"You leave me no choice." Three raised her staff again, and fired a zero energy blast into Sakura's stomach.

"What did you do that for?" Sakura yelled. "That's it... you've pissed me off!"

She fired a volley of zero energy back at Three, who managed to dodge the bubbles. As she retreated, she smiled slightly. She had distracted Sakura, for now. But she was well aware of Sakura's power. She knew her own defeat was inevitable.

"Okay, I'm almost done with this section."

Makoto, still with Ura wrapped around his torso, finished splicing the small device into the Eye of God's ancient circuitry. "It's a good thing these systems are compatible. I guess it's just as well we based the weapons off ancient technology."

He stood up, then examined the readout on a small screen built into the wall. "I think it's connected," he said. "But..."

Ifurita looked concerned. "Yes?"

"I can't divert power to it from here. If we want to activate the system, we'll have to do it from the central power core."

"Very well," Ifurita nodded. "Have you been there before?"

"No, I've never been that far inside," Makoto admitted. "But I've seen the plans. It should be quite simple."

Without another word, Ifurita picked up Makoto and flew deeper into the Eye of God.

Nanami, Qawoor and Fujisawa watched the transport touch down.

"It must be... the Alpha Priestess!" Qawoor gasped reverentially. She dropped to her knees and bowed her head. "Your eminence..."

"Well, not quite..." Afura called as she stepped down from the vehicle. "Not for a few years, anyway..."

Shayla followed her down. "It looks like they've started without us. How rude."

"Shayla! Afura!" Nanami smiled. "Where have you been? What happened to you?"

Afura walked over. "It's been an interesting few days. The Alpha Priestess is... gone. She was one of the Phantom Tribe."

Qawoor stood up shakily. "Honestly?"

"Yes. She was using the entire Holy Order as a tool to keep Opaques out of the Alliance."

"Come on, idiot." Shayla pulled Doht down the steps of the transport.

Fujisawa grunted. "What's HE doing here?"

There was silence as Doht approached Fujisawa.

"You're Masamichi Fujisawa?"

"Yes," Fujisawa acknowledged.

"The man who was so keen to defend the Opaques..." He looked down. "I can see now that some of my proclamations were... misguided. I feel I should apologise."

"Hmm." Fujisawa considered this for a second, then punched Doht in the jaw.

Doht staggered back, and put a hand to his bleeding lip. "What was that for? I told you, I've changed!"

Fujisawa headed away. "Yeah, well I haven't. I still think you're a jerk." He looked over his shoulder. "You think you can put things right by apologising to me? Forget it. This does nothing for all those people whose lives you ruined."

"Okay..." Afura said, changing the subject. "We've got a battle to win. Shayla?"

Shayla nodded, and approached Nanami. "Could I... have the Lamp back?"

"You can use it again?" Nanami asked, surprised.

"Mm-hmm."

Nanami unfastened the Lamp of Fire from her arm. "It's been a pleasure filling in for you, Shayla. But I wouldn't want to make a career out of it."

Shayla took hold of the Lamp. Reunited at last. "Thanks," she smiled.

"You should get back to the city," Afura called to Nanami. "Take the transport."

"Right," Nanami replied. Then she looked at Doht. "What about him?"

Afura shrugged. "You should probably take him too."

Three dodged another of Sakura's attacks, and moved higher into the sky. She had no expectations of winning, but still, the battle was going surprisingly well.

As she anticipated, Sakura followed her. This was all part of the strategy- to pull Sakura away from the city for as long as possible...

Something large and black shot past her. This came as a surprise because, as far as she could make out, Sakura had not fired anything. She observed the thing as it rocketed into the distance, drawing the spheres of zero energy into it. It spiralled up, collecting them as it went, heading towards its apparent target.

The Eye of God.

"There's something behind us."

"What?" Makoto called as clung to Ifurita.

"An object, following us. I can detect it, but I don't know what it is."

Makoto tried to look back, but they were moving too quickly. "I... can't see."

"It's about to overtake us!" she shouted, banking suddenly to the left.

A large, amorphous black mass shot past them.

"Oh my God..." Makoto said. "I can't believe... I didn't realise sooner."

"What is it?" Ifurita asked.

Makoto grimaced. "Remember how the spots were joining together? Dimensional disturbances gravitate towards each other. And the biggest dimensional disturbance in El-Hazard... is the reactor at the core of the Eye of God. I think I'm starting to understand what Arjah's planning to do."

Parnasse struggled against the shelter doors, assisted by Formyka's servants.

"They're stuck!" Number Two called.

"Sorry, Lady Formyka," Number One said. "We can't get them open."

"It looks like something must have fallen on them," Parnasse concluded as he came back down the steps. "Looks like we'll be stuck in here for a while."

"No..." Alielle moaned. She was lying on a table, surrounded by Fatora, Rune, Miz, Tenax and Formyka. "What am I going to do?"

Tenax smiled. "There's nothing to worry about, princess! I've had two whole years of medical training. And Mrs Fujisawa's given birth before, right?"

"Absolutely!" Miz said happily. "It's okay, Alielle. We'll take good care of you!"

Alielle looked up. "Mrs Fujisawa, tell me honestly... how much is this going to hurt?"

"I'm really not sure," Miz replied. She laughed. "When I gave birth, I was on so many drugs that I barely knew where I was!"

Alielle whimpered, and looked at Fatora. "That's not fair! I want drugs too!"

Formyka raised her hand. "Ooh! Ooh! Me too!"

Rune leaned forward, and put her hand on Fatora's shoulder. "This must be a very exciting time for you, little sister."

"Yeah..." Fatora smiled weakly, trying unsuccessfully to hide her fear. "Believe me, I'm thrilled."

Nanami was relieved to see the restaurant was still standing, and that Sakura's attacks had let up for the time being. She ran inside and saw Mari, Amiri, Cerev and Mika, just as she had left them.

"Nanami!" Mari called immediately. "Thank God. What happened?"

She joined them at the table. "Shayla and Afura came back. I gave Shayla the Lamp. They're still fighting the Bugrom just outside the city, but it looks like the bombing's stopped."

"Are the Bugrom going to reach the city?" Cerev asked urgently.

"Well..." Nanami said, "I sure hope not."

Mika clung to Mari's leg. "Miss Mari, I'm frightened."

"Its okay, kid. We'll be fine." Reassurance was hardly Mari's strong point, but she was trying her best. "Nanami, before you left... you said you wanted to talk?"

"Yeah..." Nanami nodded, watching Mika as she held onto Mari. "Now might not be the best time. We'll talk later."

Three was confused.

Sakura's targeting had become increasingly erratic. In fact, she didn't seem to be aiming for anything. Bubble after bubble shot past Three, until they all came to rest a short distance behind her.

Perhaps Sakura was malfunctioning...

Three considered this possibility carefully. If this was the case, there was still a chance that she could win. She knew that she couldn't defeat her in the same way she'd beaten Kalia. The entry port for Sakura's Power Key Unit was the wrong shape- her staff wouldn't be able to fit. But if Sakura wasn't in control, then she had a potential advantage. She decided not to waste it.

She flew up to Sakura, and pointed the staff at her chest. "I'm sorry, Sakura," she said quietly. "I take no pleasure from doing this."

"Then don't do it!" Sakura deflected the staff with her Power Key Unit, and suddenly began pumping one high-pressure blast after another into Three. The bewildered Demon God flew backwards involuntarily, and realised too late that she was about to hit the minefield of bubbles that Sakura had carefully distributed behind her.

As the bubbles exploded around her, all Three could think about was how badly she'd underestimated Sakura's tactical thinking. Finally, her body could take no more. Her propulsion system failed, and she dropped out of the sky.

This had happened only once before, during the battle with Kalia. But this time, there would be nobody to rescue her. Three closed her eyes, and waited to hit the ground.

Explosions began to rock the city again as Sakura renewed her assault. Inside the restaurant, the five occupants had taken shelter under the counter.

"Looks like I spoke too soon," Nanami said. "God, I hope everybody else is still okay."

Cerev kept perfectly silent, hiding in his mother's embrace. Mika was growing increasingly hysterical, and Mari seemed powerless to calm her down.

"Come on, Mika, it's okay," Nanami offered, trying to lend a hand.

Amiri leaned over. "Mari, why don't you sing one of your famous songs?"

"What?" Mari suddenly blushed.

"Nanami mentioned your talent for singing. What do you think, Mika? Would you like to hear a song?"

Mika stopped crying, and nodded.

"Well, okay..." Mari said reluctantly, mentally racing through her repertoire in search of a song that wasn't about death or destruction. "Right... I know one."

"Great!" Nanami smiled, doing her best to humour Mika. "Let's hear it."

Mari sighed, and held Mika's hand.

"I know I'm artificial,

But don't put the blame on me.

I was reared with appliances,

In a consumer society."

The explosions grew closer. Mari tried to ignore them, and continued.

"When I put on my make up,

The pretty little mask not me,

That's the way a girl should be,

In a consumer society.

In a consumer society..."

A medium sized blast hit the roof of the restaurant. The ceiling caved in, and all five occupants were buried under the rubble.

"Oooowww!" Alielle winced, her face growing redder by the second. "It hurts! Fatora, are you listening to me? It hurts! And definitely not in a good way!"

Rune blinked. "A... good way?"

Fatora looked up, exasperated. "You really don't want me to explain that now, sis." She knelt down and smiled at Alielle. "It's okay. You're in good hands."

Miz and Tenax were crouched at the end of the table, doing what they could to evaluate the situation.

"What do you think?" Miz asked tentatively.

Tenax shook her head. "To be honest, I usually kept my distance when Amiri was delivering babies. Also, I think I might have skipped this chapter in the textbooks. It's so hard to know what to revise, you know? Hey, can you remember how far dilated you have to be before you can give birth?"

Miz shrugged. "I'm afraid I've no idea."

"Oh well," Tenax smiled, still optimistic. "We'll just wait down here and see if anything pops out."

"That's it!" Alielle shouted. "I've had enough! Go away, all of you!"

Fatora stroked her head. "But..."

"All of you!" Alielle demanded.

"If you say so..." Fatora retreated to the edge of the room, followed by Rune, Parnasse, Tenax, Miz, Formyka and the servants.

A few seconds passed, then Alielle felt another significant contraction. "Ow! Owowowow! Wait! Come back, come back!"

"This is it. The central power core."

As Makoto climbed down from Ifurita's back, he knew something was wrong. Firstly, there was a definite presence inside this chamber. Secondly, he was reasonably sure... no, certain, that this was the tunnel-like area he'd seen in his dream.

"He's here, isn't he?" Ifurita said quietly.

Makoto nodded nervously. "I think so... but if he's not gonna show himself, I've got a job to do." He walked over to one of the wall panels, and tried to access it.

Ura was the first to notice the disturbance. "Makoto, look out!"

Makoto ducked as the black mass swooped over his head, and attached itself to the Eye of God's power core. The ancient generator appeared to crack, and a brilliant light emanated from it.

"My God!" Makoto exclaimed. "It's breaking up!"

"Not the power core," Ifurita corrected. "Space. There's a dimensional rift opening."

The vague outline of a face appeared in the centre of the rift.

"Hello, Ifurita," the face said.

"Are you... my creator?" Ifurita asked, overwhelmed.

"Yes," the entity said. "I am Arjah. Or as I will soon be known again... Jahad Ito Arundel." The face seemed to turn, looking to Makoto. "Do you understand now, Makoto Mizuhara? Do you?"

Makoto frowned back. "I know that you're trying to re-form your body by passing back through the dimensional rift. I also know that it'll never work!"

Arjah laughed. "On what basis do you make that judgement?"

"You exist in a zero energy environment! If you leave, that opens the floodgates. This whole dimension would be engulfed in zero energy! You might regain your form temporarily, but when the zero energy came out after you, you'd be as dead as the rest of us."

"There are ways around that," Arjah replied. "Your intellect pales in comparison to mine. Trust me, I have every detail of this plan worked out. And since you expressed concern, don't worry. This dimension will be quite safe."

"I doubt that," Ifurita frowned, pointing her staff at the rift. "El-Hazard would never be safe if you were to live again. Have you forgotten what chaos you caused last time? The millions of deaths that resulted from your creations?" She narrowed her eyes, revealing a vicious streak that Makoto had never dreamed existed. "I can't allow you to exist again. I'll kill you if I have to."

"Would you really?" Arjah countered. "Ifurita, you have me to thank for your very existence. Aren't you at least grateful to me for that?"

Ifurita stared back. "No. You created me to take innocent lives. The same poor innocents I see every time I close my eyes. I despise you for bringing such horror into this world. I despise you... for creating me."

For the first time in the conversation, the tone of Arjah's voice softened. "It pains me to hear you say that, Ifurita. You shouldn't be ashamed of your past. I created you for a noble purpose."

"Nonsense!" Ifurita shouted. "There's nothing noble about what you forced me to do."

"You don't remember," Arjah sighed. "It's my fault. I thought you'd be better off without the memories. Perhaps I was wrong."

The light from the rift grew brighter. Makoto, Ifurita and Ura were suddenly surrounded by the white glow.

A girl, running through a field.

Makoto squinted at the image before him. "Ifurita?"

Ifurita appeared beside him. "That isn't me," she said. "Although... she does look similar."

Arjah's voice became audible again. "That's correct. This is not you, but it is Ifurita."

"Excuse me?"

"This is Ifurita Ito Arundel," Arjah said. "My daughter."

Makoto's brow furrowed. "I don't understand."

"She was my only daughter," the entity continued. "Then the war started, and she disappeared."

Ifurita looked up. "Was she killed?"

"No," came the reply. "The truth was far, far worse. I discovered that she had... defected to the enemy." The bitterness in Arjah's voice grew deeper. "She betrayed our country."

"So what happened to her?" Makoto asked.

"I don't know," Arjah replied. "Nor do I care. She ceased to be my daughter the moment she betrayed us. But with you, Ifurita, I knew that I could make amends."

The scenery around them changed. They were now standing in an enormous laboratory, filled with technology more advanced than anything Makoto had ever seen. The room had a single occupant- a man hunched over a console, engrossed in his work.

"Here you see me at work on my most legendary creation," Arjah said. "Makoto Mizuhara, are you familiar with the concept of genetic modelling?"

"It's not a technique I've heard of," Makoto admitted.

"I had obtained a sample of my daughter's DNA, which I used to create an exact simulation of her physical form. This was the blueprint for you, Ifurita. I made you in her image."

Ifurita gasped quietly. "This explains... so much. It explains why I'm so much more realistically human than any other Demon God... why I have internal organs that I'd never need..."

"You were more than just a weapon, Ifurita. You were my new daughter. The materials used to create you may have been synthetic, but you were as close to a facsimile of my daughter as I could ever hope to obtain. There was just one difference... I knew that you would never betray me as she had."

Makoto and Ifurita looked at each other as the scenery blurred again.

"When they sealed you away, I was furious. But there was nothing I could do about it. I continued to build weapons for my country... it was a dangerous line of work. It cost me my limbs, and it almost cost me my life. But now, I've been given the chance to live again. And I want my daughter."

Red. Black. Yellow. Yellow. Red. Blue. Blue. Black. Yellow...

Three opened her eyes. She was lying in the forest. One of her memory files had activated by itself...

No wonder. Checking her status, she discovered the true extent of her injuries from the battle with Sakura. Her self-repair systems had kicked in, but she'd been lucky to survive the encounter at all.

She tried to switch off the memory file, but for some reason it wouldn't stop. This was the very file she'd intended to give to Ifurita one day...

She looked up at the Eye of God. Three didn't believe in 'signs', but nevertheless, she shakily took off and flew towards the Eye.

It was a depressing reality to Fujisawa and the priestesses that despite fighting at peak efficiency, they were still being pushed back. Now that they were inside the city limits, the assistance from the Roshtarian Armed Forces had collapsed entirely.

"There's just too many of them," Qawoor complained. "I know that some of them are illusions, but it's almost impossible to tell which ones!"

"Just concentrate!" Afura replied. "We're not beaten yet!"

"Well, it looks like the strategy is finally paying off," Nahato observed. "It shouldn't be long until we're occupying Florestica."

"Yes!" Chibi-Diva smiled menacingly. "I'm going to make that horrible Rune Venus pay for what she's done to my bugs!"

"Uh... yeah. Suits me," Jinnai said. The transport moved slowly onwards as the front lines continued their advance.

Amiri was the first to emerge from the rubble. She noticed her son, who was still under the counter and seemed to have avoided injury.

"Cerev, are you alright?"

Cerev scrambled over to her. "I cut my hand, but I'm okay."

She nodded, relieved, and looked back. "Nanami? Mari?"

"I'm here, I'm here." Nanami struggled up out of the debris. "Not a scratch. Looks like I was lucky..." She stopped. "What about Mari and Mika? Where are they?"

Nanami and Amiri noticed a huge pile of masonry a few feet away.

"Oh my God..." Nanami said under her breath. "Surely, they can't be..."

They climbed over to the scattered rubble and started to clear it away. Nanami moved a large ceiling beam from the pile, revealing Mari underneath it.

"Mari!" Nanami urged. "Mari, can you hear me?"

"Nanami..." she said weakly, her eyes still closed. "I'm in quite a lot of pain..."

Amiri carried on clearing the rubble that covered Mari. "Oh, no..."

"What?" Nanami urged.

The doctor replied with a whisper. "Her legs have been crushed."

Nanami closed her eyes and winced. "What about Mika?"

"It looks like Mari shielded her from the collapse. She's unconscious," Amiri said, turning Mika over, "but I don't think..." She let out a horrified gasp.

Mari moaned. "What's wrong?"

"She's been hurt... I... I'm not sure how bad it is." Amiri found herself panicking for the first time in years as she studied the gash on Mika's head. "It looks like a fractured skull. I think she's haemorrhaging. There's nothing I can do."

"No!" Mari called. "I was supposed... to look after her."

Nanami shook her head. "This isn't your fault, Mari."

"Give her to me!" Mari said. "Quickly! I can heal her, I know I can."

"Mari, you're too weak," Amiri objected. "You're bleeding heavily, you can't afford to expend such a large amount of energy."

Mari tried to raise her voice. "You said it yourself, my legs have been crushed. I'm going to die, aren't I?"

"Not necessarily!" Amiri insisted.

"Please, don't piss me around, doctor. There isn't much time. What are my chances?"

Amiri sighed. "Well, if I can't get you into surgery within about fifteen minutes, you'll most likely bleed to death."

"Thanks," Mari acknowledged. "That settles it. Give her to me."

Amiri nodded solemnly, and placed Mika down next to her.

"Mari, no! Don't do this!" Nanami begged. "Don't throw your life away like this!"

Mari put her hand on Mika's head, and closed her eyes. "There's no sense in both of us dying..."

The room went silent. Amiri watched as the cut on Mika's head faded away.

Mari made a pained noise. "I think I did it. I think she's okay."

Amiri felt around Mika's head. "Yes. She's healed." She lifted the child up, and bent down next to Mari. "Well done," she said quietly.

A smile flickered onto Mari's lips. "Unbelievable," she said weakly. "At long last, I've done something useful."

Nanami surged forward, tears in her eyes. "No, please! Don't die! Try to hold on!"

Mari smiled again. "Nanami... please don't be sad. I'm not. This is more than I ever hoped for. I always thought I'd die alone. I never imagined I'd die with you by my side..."

Her voice trailed away. Nanami burst into tears, and started cradling Mari's head in her arms. Cerev was silent. Amiri was deep in thought.

She had to think logically. There was something she was missing here, she knew it. If only she could work out what it was...

"The polarity!" she cried out suddenly. "Reversal... the energy... of course!" She could barely string her thoughts into logical sentences. "Nanami, listen carefully! You have to get her to form the mental link with you... as if she was going to heal you, okay?"

"What? How? What are you thinking?" Nanami replied, confused.

Amiri began to wave her hands around in excitement. "Mari uses the mental link to heal people... but when we were experimenting on her, we found that the direction could be reversed. You can heal her, but you have to form the link, now!"

"Okay..." Nanami complied, still not sure what she was supposed to be doing. "Mari, come on, wake up. We need to do a link. Come on..."

Mari groaned, her voice now reduced to a whisper. "I'm so tired... I need sleep..."

"No! No, don't go to sleep! I want you to link with me, please!" She held Mari's hand and leaned over her.

"I'd do anything for you, Nanami..." Mari smiled. And the link opened.

"Alright, I think I'm in," Nanami called. "Now what do I do?"

Amiri's excitement suddenly ceased. "Oh, I... I don't know. Last time, it sort of happened by accident. Just concentrate! Um... try to empathise. Try to feel her pain..."

Nanami froze. "I... I see her."

She collapsed on top of Mari. Amiri stood up and stepped forwards to examine them.

"What happened?" Cerev asked.

Amiri looked back and smiled. "It's working." She moved back, leaving Nanami lying on top of Mari, both of them locked in the link.

"Here it comes!" Tenax called. "I can see the head! At least... wow, I hope that's the head."

"You hear that, Alielle?" Fatora said, holding Alielle's hand. "The baby's coming!"

Alielle wailed in response. "You think I don't know that?" She turned to Fatora, irate. "This is your fault! If you hadn't been such a wimp and fainted at the clinic, I wouldn't have to do this now! Well, I'm never doing this again, got that? You want any more, you can have them... Owwww! How big is this baby's head anyway?"

Miz peered over Tenax's shoulder. "It does look like a big one."

Tenax smiled, and grabbed Parnasse by the arm. "Look! The miracle of life! Look, Parnasse!"

"Wait!" Parnasse objected. "I... Aagh! No, no, no! That is something no brother should ever have to see!"

"Let me look!" Formyka said excited. "Wow! This is absolutely disgusting! Cool! Hey, you two!" she called to her servants. "Take a look at this!"

Number One and Number Two joined the gathering crowd. "Eeew!" they both cried.

"Stop it, all of you!" Miz demanded. "You're ruining this beautiful experience for Alielle!"

"I want drugs!" Alielle screamed, oblivious. "And I... owowowowow!"

"What is it?" Fatora asked.

Alielle caught her breath. "I... I think it's..."

A baby's cry became audible from the end of the table, triggering spontaneous applause from Formyka and her servants.

"Congratulations!" Tenax called. "It's a gir... Actually, wait, let me check again..."

"Oh, don't be stupid!" Miz frowned. "Of course it's a girl."

Alielle lay back on the table and smiled. "Ahhh... can I see her?"

"In a minute," Tenax replied. "I'm still getting her cleaned up and stuff."

"That's not especially important, you know..." Fatora said.

"Tenax shook her head. "Presentation is everything in this business. Here we go..."

She carried the baby over to her parents, and handed her to Alielle.

"Isn't she beautiful?" Alielle said quietly.

Fatora nodded, and stroked the baby's head. "Blue hair..." She looked to Rune. "I think that's a first in our family."

"Hey, Fatora," Formyka grinned. "You're crying!"

"No, no, I'm not!" Fatora insisted, wiping the tears away.

Alielle tugged on Fatora's arm. "Fatora... looking at our baby now, I was thinking... I wouldn't really mind having another. What do you say?"

Fatora shuddered. Everyone in the room smiled nervously.

"Well, um... why don't we discuss this later?" Fatora replied.

Makoto, Ifurita and Ura looked around. They were back in the Eye of God, with the dimensional disturbance in front of them. Arjah's form was changing... he was becoming three-dimensional. No longer just black and white... he was alive.

"All shall be nothing, and nothing shall be all," Arjah laughed. "Now do you understand? Your Heretic Prophecy predicted my return!"

"But how are you going to stop the flow of zero energy from engulfing this dimension?" Makoto asked. "I suppose it's possible to stabilise it in theory, but still..."

"Stabilise?" Arjah mocked. "How pointless. I'll simply vent the flow outwards, into other dimensions."

Makoto gasped. "Other dimensions? Meaning what?"

"They Eye of God has had contact with many dimensions in the past," Arjah said. "It maintains contact with them, you know that. They should be more than sufficient to absorb the zero energy."

Makoto was horrified. "But that includes Earth... not to mention Cretaria, and I don't know how many others... you'd be wiping out billions of people, just to restore your life!"

"There are an infinite number of dimensions," Arjah said. "Only a handful will be destroyed. It means nothing."

Ifurita raised her staff again. "I will kill you, Arjah! I mean it!"

"Kill?" Arjah echoed patronisingly. "You're my daughter, Ifurita."

"No, I'm not!" Ifurita shouted. "You created me as a replacement for your daughter! I'm not her!"

"That girl was a traitor!" Arjah countered. "But you, Ifurita... you were a true patriot."

Ifurita growled. "Your daughter might have betrayed you, but it was her choice. Then you made me... a machine with a soul, but without the will to choose her own destiny. I was never a daughter to you! I was a slave!" Enraged, she went to fire. She failed.

Arjah smiled. "Ifurita, you know that you're unable to harm me. You cannot attack anyone with my family's genetic marker."

Ifurita shook with rage. Her staff was still pointed at Arjah, but she knew she was no longer a threat to him.

Something hit Ifurita in the back. She staggered forwards, shocked. Makoto turned around, and discovered the source of the blast.

"Three?"

Three stood at the entrance to the chamber, her staff pointed at Ifurita, expressionless.

Sakura landed on the transport and smiled. "How did I do?"

"Not bad, Sakura," Jinnai laughed. "And now, our final victory is at hand!" He stood up and surveyed the city. "Florestica! We made it!"

"I want to find Rune Venus!" Chibi-Diva demanded.

Jinnai nodded. "Okay. Troops... spread out!"

Makoto stared in disbelief. "Three... why did you do that?"

"Ifurita," Three said calmly. "Are you damaged?"

"Yes..." Ifurita replied, disorientated. "My secondary sensor array has been destroyed..."

Arjah flinched. Noticing this, Makoto began to think. "Wait, what sort of sensors does the secondary array contain?"

"Various..." Ifurita said. "Ultra-violet, infra-red, subsonic..."

"Genetic?" Makoto guessed.

Realisation flashed across Ifurita's face. She aimed her staff again. "Yes."

Three stepped into the chamber. "I apologise for the attack, Ifurita. But without genetic sensors..."

"I no longer recognise the Arundel family marker," Ifurita finished. "Thankyou, Three."

"Wait, wait!" Arjah panicked. "Ifurita, don't do it! I have plans! We need each other! Together, we'd be unstoppable! Father and daughter, as one!"

Ifurita sighed. "When I returned to this world, I promised myself I would never take another life. I pray that I won't have to break that promise again."

She fired. Jahad Ito Arundel, the man who should have died six thousand years ago, was disintegrated instantly. His return to life had lasted precisely two minutes and eighteen seconds.

Ifurita fell to her knees. "I killed him... I took a life..."

Makoto joined her. "It's okay, Ifurita. You had to do it. I'm... just glad he's gone."

Three glanced at the dimensional rift. "I suggest we do something about this spatial anomaly.

Makoto rushed to a wall panel, and examined the readout. "Damn it... it's destabilised. Without Arjah inside, the zero energy's spiralling out of control..."

"What can we do?" Ifurita asked, following Makoto.

Makoto rubbed his eyes. "We have to find a way of regulating the exact level of zero energy in the rift. Theoretically, there might be a way of setting the Eye of God's control systems to do it automatically... but we only have a few minutes!"

"And how long would your procedure take?" Three probed.

He sighed. "Ten, fifteen years... It requires a total overhaul of the weapon."

"Makoto..." Ifurita said quietly, "there is another way to stabilise the rift."

"No!" Makoto slammed his fist against the wall. "I know what you're going to try! I've seen it in the dream!"

Ifurita continued. "I have dimensional powers. I can take Arjah's place in the rift, and remain there, controlling the zero energy manually."

He grabbed her arm. "I won't let you do it!"

"I have to, Makoto. I know what I must do..."

"No!" Makoto begged. "I can't let this happen! Not again! We'll find another way!"

Ifurita shook her head. "I wish there was another way, but there isn't. Please forgive me, Makoto."

"But... you could be killed! Please!"

"That is not a certainty. I don't want to leave you, but I..."

"You don't have to," Three said suddenly. "I can take the Arjah entity's place inside the rift."

Ifurita looked around, surprised. "You?"

Three almost smiled. "I am the logical choice. After all, I can manipulate zero energy now."

"But..." Ifurita began.

"I lived a long, happy life with the man I loved. Your lives together are just beginning. Let me go. I need a purpose, a reason to exist. I believe that this is it."

Tears rolled down Ifurita's cheeks. "Oh, Three. I... We'll find a way to retrieve you, I promise..."

"If you must," Three replied. "But foremost, I want you to enjoy your lives. That's why I'm doing this, to let you have what I once had." She smiled. "I'll be watching you."

Makoto approached. "Thankyou."

"Oh..." she said. "I almost forgot. Ifurita, this is for you. Initiating data transfer..."

Ifurita blinked as a file appeared in her memory. "What is it?"

"The very essence of our being," Three said enigmatically. "I hope you find a way to use it one day..."

She walked towards the rift. "Goodbye, my friends," they heard her say. "Thankyou for giving me a purpose again..."

The rift closed. For a while, Makoto, Ifurita and Ura stood in silence.

"So..." Makoto said eventually. "She was the one I saw vanishing into the blackness..."

Ifurita's expression was distant, as she examined the file. "It's a series of colours. Red, blue, yellow, black... what could it mean?"

"We'll have to discuss that later," Makoto replied. "Right now... we have something to do. Let's stop the Phantom Tribe."

Nanami and Mari opened their eyes at exactly the same time. It was debatable as to who was more surprised.

"Mari!" Nanami gasped. "You're alive!"

"Nanami!" Mari gasped. "You're... lying on top of me."

"Oh!" Nanami jumped up, and noticed that Amiri, Cerev and Mika were sitting watching them.

Amiri smiled. "Don't be embarrassed. Personally, I thought the two of you made a very touching scene. Are you both okay?"

Nanami and Mari blushed.

"What are they blushing about?" Cerev asked.

"Are they in love?" Mika grinned.

Mari's eyes widened. She backed away from Nanami. "Um... maybe I should just go... somewhere else..."

Nanami reached out to take her arm. "Wait, Mari. Please don't run away. I still have something to say to you."

"Okay..." Mari said nervously.

"I know that you love me, and I know that you want an answer." She smiled. "And the truth is that I... I don't know."

Mari hadn't expected this. "What?"

Nanami knelt forward and clutched Mari's hand in hers. "When you were kidnapped, I realised that I cared a lot about you. You're... important to me, I know that much. But I... I can't make a decision. I'm sorry."

She sighed. "You must think I'm such an idiot."

Mari smiled back. "Oh... Nanami..."

"But I've made a decision about something else," Nanami continued. "Please, let's be friends. I've been more or less on my own here for so long, and so have you. I think we need each other."

Mari tentatively embraced Nanami. "All I ever wanted is to be close to you, Nanami. That's all that matters to me."

"Are they gonna kiss?" Mika asked, ruining the moment.

"No!" Mari replied quickly. "We're... um... we're not, are we?"

Nanami laughed. "Don't push your luck!"

There was a click.

Most people didn't realise it was a click, because most people didn't hear it. Specifically, it was only Makoto, Ifurita and Ura who actually heard it. But that was largely immaterial, as its consequences were felt immediately across the whole Alliance.

Fifty percent of the Bugrom in Florestica disappeared.

"What the hell's happening?" Nahato screamed, hysterical. "I can't use my powers! My powers are being blocked! Jinnai, I..."

"Yeah, I heard you," Jinnai frowned. "It looks like you're not the only one. All Phantom Tribe powers are being suppressed, somehow..."

Nahato moved threateningly close. "Well? What do we do?"

Jinnai paused, deep in thought. "I... I don't know..."

"Well," Chibi-Diva said calmly, "it's a good thing that I do."

A voice echoed across the city.

"Attention! This is Queen Diva of the Bugrom Empire! I have ordered my troops to temporarily stand down. In return, I expect to see Princess Rune Venus in person! If I do not, I will order Sakura to continue with the destruction of this city!"

Shayla, Afura, Qawoor and Fujisawa looked around them in surprise. True to the queen's word, the Bugrom had stopped, and were standing idle.

"I think..." Qawoor began, "we should look for Princess Rune."

"If she's still alive," Shayla added. "Just look at this place. It's a wreck."

Fujisawa gasped. "Oh God, the restaurant! Mika!"

Chunks of masonry the size of cars were tossed carelessly aside as Fujisawa delved into the wreckage at the front of the restaurant. Finally locating a narrow route inside, he crawled into the hole.

Nanami greeted him on the other side. "Mr Fujisawa... hello!"

Mika ran over. "Hi, daddy!"

"You're okay!" Fujisawa threw his arms up in celebration, and inadvertently brought another part of the ceiling down. "Sorry, sorry..."

"Mari saved me!" Mika smiled.

Fujisawa looked over at Mari, surprised. "She... did?"

"It's true," Amiri nodded casually. "Mari risked her life to save her. Most impressive."

Mari looked considerably nervous. "It... really wasn't anywhere near as noble as it sounds... hey!"

Nanami, Amiri, Mika and Cerev stared at the bizarre, incongruous sight of Fujisawa hugging Mari.

"God damn it!" Mari wheezed, helpless. "You're crushing my spine! Sensei... I really don't think the PTA would approve of this!"

He released her, and she collapsed to the floor.

"Well," Nanami mused, "he's never done that before..."

Mari groaned. "Jesus. Two near-death experiences in one day."

The three priestesses listened to the Bugrom message again as they headed to the palace.

"The Bugrom Queen..." Afura began. "She says her name is Diva. Qawoor, didn't you tell me that Queen Diva was dead?"

Qawoor nodded. "Yes, but Miss Mari said that the new Bugrom Queen also called herself Diva. She said they look exactly alike."

"Asexual reproduction..." Afura said absent-mindedly.

Shayla and Qawoor stared at her. "What?"

"Oh, I was just thinking aloud. Asexual reproduction is a form of procreation that occurs in some lower animals. I've read about it. The parent animal self-fertilises, and the offspring is completely identical to the parent. It doesn't have a father at all, only a mother..."

"Well, yeah, but... what does that have to do with anything?" Shayla asked.

Afura shook her head. "Maybe nothing. I was just thinking that perhaps..."

Ifurita landed in front of them, with Makoto and Ura on her back. They jumped down, and Makoto looked in confusion at the stationary Bugrom dotted around the streets.

"What's happening?"

"I'm not exactly sure, but the Bugrom seem to have called off their attack for now," Afura said.

"The device..." Ifurita said quietly. "It must have worked. That must be why they've suspended the attack. They can no longer count on the Phantom Tribe to support them."

Qawoor sighed. "Well, that's good news. We needed a stroke of luck around now."

"Ironic though, isn't it?" Makoto pondered. "After everything people have said about the Opaques, it was only thanks to them that I was ever able to do this."

Afura suddenly acquired an urgent expression. Her mind was racing. "The Opaques... my God, that's it!"

"What?" Qawoor urged. "What are you talking about?"

"The prophecy!" Afura continued, almost hyperventilating. "The Heretic Prophecy, I've worked it out! We were wrong! We've been misinterpreting it all this time! Qawoor, can you recite it?"

"Um... yes," Qawoor replied, bemused.

"Then do it. I need to work this out fully."

Qawoor knew the prophecy by heart, of course. She did as she was told.

"Bear witness to the shape of things to come. When the time of the Holy Apocalypse is past, the Shadow Nation will become two, and the inert shadows will make a formidable enemy..."

"But the Opaques were never our enemy," Makoto interrupted.

Afura snapped her fingers. "No. You're making assumptions. At what point does the prophecy say that it's talking about us? Think... where did we find it?"

"In Bugrom territory," Shayla frowned.

"Precisely! The Opaques weren't an enemy to us, but they were an enemy to the Bugrom, right? This prophecy isn't about the Alliance at all. It's about the Bugrom!"

She paused. God, she was good. "Carry on, Qawoor."

"Though the land be strong, rebuilt after war's ravages, it will fall."

Afura nodded. "You see? We weren't the only ones rebuilding. The Bugrom were too."

Qawoor continued. "All shall be nothing, and nothing shall be all... well, that part still doesn't make sense."

"Yes it does," Makoto said solemnly. "We figured that out. It applies... applied to Arjah."

"Before the end there will be three signs..."

"Again, we made assumptions," Afura said. "The end? End of what? The prophecy never made it clear."

Qawoor recited another line. "Two travellers will visit the land... well, I assume we still got that part right... the fatherless child will be born..."

Shayla gasped. "Afura! That thing you said! Is this what you were thinking about?"

"Yes," Afura smiled. "The fatherless child is a reference to the new Bugrom Queen."

Qawoor concluded the prophecy. "And the demon ally will fall upon the touch of death. Then the land will be silent."

"The demon ally is Sakura!" Makoto exclaimed. "It was never Ifurita!"

Ifurita smiled at him. "I told you it was nothing to worry about."

"Okay," Shayla nodded. "Look, we need to find Princess Rune."

"You and Qawoor go ahead," Afura said. "There are still some details of this prophecy that I need to work out. If it's true, then we're going to beat the Bugrom. I just need to figure out how..."

Shayla and Qawoor left in the direction of the palace. Ifurita turned to Afura.

"So the Heretic Prophecy... is coming true after all? I didn't think it was possible."

"It's all true," Afura replied. "Every word of it. Except... I still haven't worked out exactly how we're supposed to beat Sakura. Touch of death... not very specific. It must be a metaphor..."

Fujisawa approached the group, accompanied by Nanami and Mari. Afura's eyes suddenly focused on Mari.

"Death... you don't suppose that...?"

Makoto scratched his head. "Well, it's not a bad metaphor..."

Afura ran over to Mari. "Miss Kurai! You have to come with us!"

"Me?" Mari said. "Why?"

"I'm afraid I'm not able to explain that," Afura replied, taking her by the arm. "I don't really know how, but somehow you're about to kill Sakura."

Miz stood at the top of the steps, with her head pressed against the shelter doors. "I think I can hear something out there..."

"I'm surprised you can hear anything at all," Parnasse called, struggling to make himself audible over the baby's incessant crying.

"Why is she crying?" Fatora demanded. "Should she be crying this much?"

Rune smiled. "Babies cry. I'm sure it's nothing to worry about."

Fatora nodded, not really paying attention. "Mm-hmm... I hope there isn't something wrong with her."

"She's probably hungry," Alielle pointed out, starting to unbutton her blouse.

Fatora reacted immediately, pushing Formyka aside. "Alright, you pervert! No looking!"

"What? Fatora, I'm shocked!" Formyka replied, feigning disgust. "Do you really believe I'd gain gratification from watching a mother breast-feeding?"

"Yes," Fatora said flatly.

Formyka paused. "Well... as it happens, you're right on this occasion, but..."

"There's somebody trying to get in!" Miz exclaimed. "I can hear them!"

Parnasse threw up a celebratory fist. "Yes!"

"It could be the Bugrom," Tenax reminded him.

"No!" Parnasse responded, his previous enthusiasm replaced with trepidation.

A loud thud from outside interrupted the conversation. The shelter doors began to shake, and two faint voices could suddenly be heard.

"Shayla... please don't talk like that."

"Talk like what? All I'm saying is, they're probably all dead... Hey, I think I got it!"

One of the doors opened, and Shayla and Qawoor peered in.

"You see?" Qawoor beamed. "I told you they'd all be okay!"

Shayla raised an eyebrow. "Well... how about that? Looks like I owe you lunch, Qawoor."

"What was that?" Fatora demanded.

"Nothing!" Shayla assured her. "Um... great to see you're all okay!" She stopped, noticing the baby. "You... really gave birth down here?"

Alielle nodded. "Yep."

Qawoor gasped. "Wow... what was it like?"

"Hmm..." Alielle pondered. "I think I dealt with it pretty well, actually."

"Pretty well?" Fatora echoed. "Do you have amnesia or something?"

Rune walked tentatively up the steps. "What's happening outside?"

"Good question," Shayla replied. "I'm not absolutely sure..."

"No," Qawoor continued, nodding to the princess. "But there's somebody out here who wants to meet you..."

The first thing that Rune noticed was how quiet it was. Everything had stopped. As she stepped from the cosy isolation of the shelter, out into the city she ruled and loved, she saw for the first time the extent of the damage.

She didn't react. She couldn't. She knew that there was more to come.

A large Bugrom transport stood at the other end of the courtyard. It was big. Far too big, in fact, for her to identify any of the occupants, obscured as they were by its giant head. Flanked by Shayla and Qawoor, she walked purposefully towards the vehicle. Fatora, Miz and the others remained at the shelter's entrance, watching carefully.

Nobody knew what was about to happen.

A megaphone clicked on, and an unpleasantly familiar voice became all too audible.

"Attention! This is Katsuhiko Jinnai, supreme commander-in-chief of the all-powerful Bugrom Forces! Princess Rune Venus, prepare to fall to your knees and hand control of your nation over to me, a true... hey! What are you..."

A second voice was heard in the background- a shrill, female voice. "Give me the thing! I'm the one who wants to talk to her!"

There was a brief pause as the two parties attempted to resolve their conflict, and the now dominant female voice took over.

"Princess Rune Venus, this is Queen Diva. I'm very angry! You've been just horrible to my bugs! You're mean! Mean, mean, mean! And ugly!"

Jinnai's voice was briefly heard again. "Stop! Stop! What do you think you're doing? You can't go down there!"

The queen apparently took no notice, as a few seconds later a set of extendable steps folded down from the craft. Chibi-Diva headed confidently down and walked towards Rune. Jinnai almost fell down the steps in an attempt to follow her, dragging Sakura with him. Next, a small group of Bugrom escorted a noticeably self-conscious Nahato from the vehicle.

Chibi-Diva moved forward until she was just a few feet away from Rune. The diminutive queen barely came up to Rune's waist, but her expression alone made her look surprisingly menacing.

"Diva, are you insane?" Jinnai called. "You'll be killed!"

"Be quiet!" she snapped. She then turned her attention back to Rune, fury in her eyes. "Rune Venus, you've caused me and my bugs a lot of pain! You did stuff and it really hurt! Well, now I'm here, and I'm going to get my revenge!"

Rune remained still. Here it comes, she thought...

"Take that, you bad lady! And that!" Chibi-Diva began furiously kicking Rune in the shins. Rune staggered back slightly, dumbfounded.

"What... what are you doing?"

"I'm making you pay!" Chibi-Diva snarled, concentrating hard on every kick. "I'm hurting you! Ha!"

Jinnai approached as discreetly as he could. "Ahem... uh... Queen Diva? Are you quite finished?"

The queen stopped, mid-kick. "Um... okay. I'm done."

Jinnai grinned. He was back in control. "Excellent! Because now, we're going to..."

"Come on, everyone," Chibi-Diva said, starting to walk away. "Let's go home."

"What?" Jinnai nearly exploded in surprise. He ran to Chibi-Diva, stopping her. "What do you mean, go home? We're not going home! We came here to conquer Roshtaria, remember?"

Chibi-Diva paused. In all the excitement of exacting her ultimate revenge, she'd forgotten all about the conquest thing.

"Oh, fine," she said after a while. "If we have to..."

"Yes!" Jinnai punched the air, relieved. "Sakura!"

"I'm here!" Sakura called, waving. She joined Jinnai, and pointed her weapon at Rune, Shayla and Qawoor.

Jinnai began to laugh in a most alarming way. "It's all coming together, Sakura! Oh, I only wish that miserable rat Mizuhara was here to witness my final moment of glory..."

"Be careful what you wish for, Jinnai."

Jinnai recognised the voice instantly. It was him. His nemesis had returned.

"So, Mizuhara..." He turned around slowly. There he was... and Nanami, Fujisawa and Ifurita were with him. This could make things difficult...

"This is the end, Jinnai," Makoto said sternly. "Your game of conquest is over."

Jinnai paused, then broke out into a smile. "Go ahead, Mizuhara. Try something. I guarantee that not all of your friends will make it out alive." He gestured towards Sakura. "You already tried to stop my Demon God once, and you failed."

"I'm not the one who's going to stop her," Makoto frowned. "The one who'll stop her is..."

He looked off to his side, and saw Mari still deep in conversation with Afura.

"But I don't know what I'm supposed to do!"

"Just... do whatever comes naturally! You'll win! The prophecy says so!"

"Would this be a bad time to mention that I'm an atheist?"

Afura ushered Mari over to the others. "We don't have much time. Now just go over there and... do what your instincts tell you!"

Mari eyed Sakura cautiously. If her instincts were telling her anything, it was to run away and not look back. Hadn't she done enough for today?

"Oh, it's you," Sakura said. "You're the one who's going to stop me? What are you gonna do? Scare me to death?"

Mari glared back. She'd forgotten quite how irritating Sakura could be.

"Ooh! Or maybe you're going to bore me to death with some bad goth poetry!" Sakura mocked. "Let's see... 'Oh, my life is so black and empty... Why doesn't anybody love me...? Maybe it's because I'm a big stupid freak who looks like a weird zombie and...'"

"I'm not going to listen to your insults anymore!" Mari screamed, suddenly running at Sakura. To everyone's surprise, she caught Sakura in the face with a remarkably powerful punch.

"Ow!" Sakura put a hand to her cheek. "You hit me!"

Mari's expression of anger had been replaced by one of puzzlement. "Hey..." she said, placing a tentative hand on Sakura's shoulder. "You're hurting..."

"Of course I'm hurting, moron!" Sakura slapped Mari's hand away. "You just punched me in the face!"

Mari persisted. "I'm serious. I felt it. Something's infected you... and you want it out." She put her hand back on Sakura's shoulder. "I'll help."

Sakura squirmed uncomfortably. "Katsuhiko, she's being all weird with me!" she complained.

"Then do something about it, dummy!" Jinnai fumed. "You're a Demon God, aren't you?"

Suddenly, Sakura was struggling to keep her eyes open. "I... feel strange..."

Her body began to glow. Mari smiled. "Don't worry, You're almost healed..."

Curious at this turn of events, Miz, Parnasse, Tenax, Formyka and the servants ventured gingerly out of the shelter. Only Alielle and Fatora remained in the doorway, with the baby.

"Stop that!" Jinnai demanded. "Whatever you're doing, stop it at once!" Desperate, he lunged at Mari, but was knocked aside by a gust of wind by Afura. Anticipating retaliation, Shayla dived forwards and grabbed Chibi-Diva.

"Don't hurt me!" Chibi-Diva squealed. "I won't do anything! Just leave me alone!"

Sakura's glowing body collapsed to the ground, accompanied by the clatter of metal. When the light faded, the assembled onlookers looked in stunned surprise at a naked Sakura, surrounded by assorted bits and pieces of the Absolute Zero prototype.

"What... what did you do?" Sakura asked feebly, staring at her discarded body armour.

"I cured you of your infection," Mari replied, walking away. "It's amazing what the immune system can achieve with a little help."

Of all the implications of what had just happened, the first was noticed by Formyka.

"Woo hoo!" she exclaimed, punching the air. "A naked chick!" She looked over her shoulder towards the shelter. "Look, Fatora! A naked chick!"

"Yes, yes," Fatora snapped back. "I know."

"Aw..." she sighed, crestfallen. "You're no fun since you became a parent." She elbowed Parnasse. "Hey, kid. Check out the naked chick."

Parnasse blushed. "Umm... yeah..."

Tenax sighed, and placed her hands over his eyes.

"Sakura!" Jinnai cried. "Get up and do something! Shoot someone... anyone!"

Ifurita stepped forwards. "I don't believe she can. Her Demon God half has been expelled." She pointed her staff at the metal components strewn across the ground around Sakura. "She is human."

"Well, now..." Shayla smiled. "It looks like the balance of power has shifted very suddenly in our favour."

Jinnai looked around him, frantic. "No... no, it hasn't! I still have my troops! I can still order them to attack!"

Afura shook her head. "But you don't have a Demon God, do you? We still have Ifurita."

"And you don't have the Phantom Tribe to help you either," Makoto added.

"We can't stop now!" Jinnai ranted. "There's no turning back! Diva! Tell the troops to attack!"

Chibi-Diva looked nervously at Jinnai, then went to speak. Rune interrupted her.

"Before you give that order, Queen Diva, you should consider your position carefully."

Chibi-Diva looked sternly at the princess. "What?"

"If you opt to continue this war, you will be defeated," Rune said. "But not before a huge number of casualties are inflicted on both sides. However, if we were to end this war now, nobody need die."

The queen scowled. "I can't make peace with you. You're my enemy. You hurt my bugs."

"We were simply defending ourselves," Rune replied. "If you didn't attack us, we wouldn't attack you."

Chibi-Diva looked up at Rune, puzzled. "Really?"

"Of course. We're quite content for you to live on your side of the Holy River, provided you don't attack us."

"Don't listen to her!" Jinnai screamed. "We have to stand and fight!"

Chibi-Diva shook her head. "But I don't want any more of my bugs to be hurt." She turned back to Rune. "Very well, Rune Venus. We'll negotiate a truce."

"What?" Jinnai howled. "A truce? No! That's not the Bugrom way! The old Diva never would have done this!"

Nahato, who had remained silent up until now, sidled up to Jinnai. "I'm curious," he said quietly. "Didn't the old Diva instruct you to teach this Diva the ways of the Bugrom?"

Jinnai broke off from his ranting to answer this unexpected question. "Yes... but... she already knew everything, so..."

"So you did nothing," Nahato interrupted. "You imbecile! Just because she has the same memories doesn't mean she has the same attitudes or inclinations! Don't you see what you've done? You've let her become a pacifist!"

Jinnai swallowed hard. It looked like Nahato was right. But he still had one more card to play...

"Diva!" Jinnai said, striding confidently towards her. "Have you forgotten that I'm the messenger from God, sent to lead you to victory in El-Hazard? Have some faith in your leader!"

"Ha!" Chibi-Diva mocked. "You're no messenger from God."

This stopped Jinnai completely in his tracks. "But... but the old Diva always..."

"She knew you were a fake, ever since you screwed up the first time," Chibi-Diva continued dismissively. "But you were still the best military mind she had, so she stuck with you."

"She... what?" Jinnai responded, horror-struck. "It's not true! I am the messenger from God!"

"No, you're not," the queen said flatly. "And anyway, since I'm ending this war, I don't need you anymore, do I?"

"You... you can't just abandon me!" Jinnai gasped. "What about all we've been through?"

Chibi-Diva shrugged. "Well, the less said about that, the better."

"Traitor! I don't believe this!" Jinnai ran over to Groucho and tugged on his arm. "Groucho! You agree with me, don't you?"

There was a pause, then Groucho finally responded.

"Flkbrlg ldrftj mchlm rstvn tncmln."

"What do you mean, 'Let's give peace a chance?' You're all insane!" He began darting from one bug to the next, trying desperately to elicit some support.

Chibi-Diva looked back at Rune, almost apologetically. "I should have done that a long time ago."

Rune nodded, unsure how to respond. "You'll be better off without him."

"I still don't like you, Rune Venus," the queen said, frowning. "But I suppose I'll have to put up with you."

"Then we're agreed," Rune stated. "The Bugrom will return to the other side of the Holy River. There will be no further aggression between our two peoples."

Chibi-Diva folded her arms. "Agreed." A small messenger bug landed on her shoulder.

"Ymnyssrm," it said. "Mssnymm nyrr."

"Oh..." the queen replied, a little confused. "This Bugrom would like to remain here."

The bug hopped down from the queen's shoulder, and located Mari. It flew into her arms.

"Lora-chan!" Mari exclaimed. "I thought I'd lost you! Oh, welcome home, Lora-chan!"

"Mssrnm yymn!" Lora replied happily.

There was a sudden noise. The group looked over to the edge of the courtyard, and saw one of the smaller Bugrom transports taking off.

"What's going on?" Qawoor asked.

"Oh, that's probably Jinnai," Chibi-Diva said. "I expect he wants to escape."

Ifurita looked to Rune. "Should I pursue him, princess?"

Rune opened her mouth, ready to respond, then sighed. "Oh, what would it achieve? Without the Bugrom, he doesn't pose a threat to us."

Afura nodded in agreement. "Besides, what would we do with him if we caught him?"

"You've got a point there," Makoto replied. "I know people have said this before, but I guess that really is the last we'll be seeing of him."

Nanami stared at the fleeing transport. "Goodbye, Katsuhiko," she sighed. "You really were a crazy, weirdo freak."

'Regardless of how this my have started, you have truly earned your position as leader of the Bugrom.'

Those words, spoken by the old Diva just moments before she died, echoed through Jinnai's head as he struggled manfully to keep the transport level. She'd known all along. Why hadn't he realised sooner?

"Will you please try and make this thing go just a little bit faster?" the other occupant of the transport called. "I don't relish the prospect of being captured by the Roshtarians."

"Shut your mouth, kid!" Jinnai snapped at Nahato. "I don't remember inviting you along, so don't complain. At least you haven't been betrayed by your own followers."

Nahato walked across the deck to Jinnai. "Oh yeah? You think I'll be able to go back to the Phantom Tribe now? Our powers have been blocked, and I wasn't able to stop it! Do you really expect them to welcome me back with open arms?"

Jinnai ignored him, lost once more in his own world. "I'll be back..." he snarled. "They'll all pay! I'll be back!"

"You won't," Nahato said calmly, heading back to the rear of the transport. "This is the end, Jinnai. You have nothing. Can't you see when you've been comprehensively beaten?"

"Little bastard," Jinnai growled under his breath. "The first chance I get... I'll kill him."

"Deluded maniac," Nahato whispered to himself. "The first chance I get... I'll kill him."

Amiri, accompanied by Cerev and Mika, wandered into the palace courtyard. The damage was obvious, but still not as bad as she had expected. The first person she saw was Makoto.

"Doctor!" he called, running over. "Good to see you. Well, it looms like everyone's okay."

"Are the Bugrom really withdrawing?" she asked.

Makoto smiled and nodded. "Yeah. I can hardly believe it, but we're at peace, thanks to Princess Rune. Jinnai's disappeared though..." His smile faded suddenly. "And... um... so has that Nahato kid."

"Ah well," Amiri replied. "I shouldn't worry about that. The Phantom Tribe have come to rely so heavily on their powers that they'll be lost without them." She smiled, then remembered something. "By the way, what happened to that Demon God?"

"Sakura? Yeah..." Makoto sighed. "Unfortunately, she's still here..."

Sakura sat on the ground in the courtyard, looking up at some very angry faces. She was, at least, covered up now: Princess Rune had provided her with a convenient sheet, much to the protests of Formyka.

"The question is," Miz pondered, "how do we punish her?"

"P... punish?" Sakura echoed, horrified. "But why? You don't have to!"

Shayla cracked her knuckles. "Oh, yes we do. Somebody has to pay for what happened here."

"That's as maybe," Rune interjected, trying to calm the situation. "But we must find a fair and ethical way to assess her part in the attacks."

"Is there really that much to assess?" Fujisawa asked. "She was a Demon God, after all."

Ifurita nodded. "Precisely. But she is human now. Whatever actions she took would have been at least partially due to the influence of her Demon God half. We may never be able to determine to what degree Sakura was actually responsible for her actions."

"Um... yeah! She's right!" Sakura smiled nervously. "I agree with what she said!"

"Nonsense," Fatora said sharply. "She knew what she was doing. Let's kill her."

"Yeah!" Shayla agreed. "With hammers!"

"Eek!" Sakura squealed. "Stop being so mean!"

Qawoor decided to come to Sakura's defence. "That does seem a little extreme, don't you think?"

"Of course it's not extreme, not for her kind," Fatora replied. "People who have no respect for human life should be killed."

Alielle looked up from her baby and elbowed Fatora. "Fatora... that doesn't even make sense."

"Yes," Miz added. "Under the circumstances, I think a lengthy spell in jail is the most appropriate option."

"Jail?" Sakura gasped. "Eew, I don't like the sound of that either!"

Rune put a hand to her head. "Oh dear. I can see that this is going to be a problem..."

"Well, all you have to do is kill her," Fatora suggested. "Then the problem just goes away."

"Ha!" Formyka laughed, walking to the front. "You Roshtarian dinosaurs! Listen to yourselves, talking about execution and incarceration. Don't you realise that the only effective way to deal with criminals is through rehabilitation and community service?"

The others regarded Formyka with a variety of confused expressions.

"Your point being?" Rune prompted.

"Simple. Since most of the damage caused by Sakura was to my country, it's only fair that she be dealt with by me... er, us. I'm sure that Sakura could become a useful member of society, after a rigorous programme of community service." She turned to Sakura, and beamed. "Now... what would be appropriate? Hmm... you'd have to be somewhere where I could keep an eye on you... Of course! My palace! Sakura, I propose that you work off your debt to society by joining my... um... pool of servants. What do you say?"

Sakura smiled. "That's it? No prison? All I have do is be a servant for a while? And in a palace? Yay! I'm in!"

Formyka turned back to Fatora and grinned triumphantly. "And so am I!"

"And they called me cruel," Fatora sighed.

"Well, I suppose we could let the Styrenians handle this..." Rune said awkwardly, opting to rely on the theory that what she didn't know couldn't hurt her.

Sakura jumped up in celebration. "Yes! I'm getting off light! So long, suckers!"

"That's right, Sakura," Formyka agreed, putting her arm around the blissfully unaware idol singer. "Let's leave these violent, backward people to their business."

"Heh..." Sakura smiled at Formyka's servants. "I like her..."

"So do we!" they replied in unison.

With the judgement over, attention quickly turned to the newest addition to the royal household. Makoto and Amiri rejoined the group which had rapidly surrounded Alielle and the baby.

"I'm glad to see that the birth went well, princess," Amiri nodded.

Tenax raised her hand. "I delivered it! Well, Mrs Fujisawa helped, but it was mostly me."

"Well..." Amiri said, raising an eyebrow, "that's quite..."

"I stayed very calm and did absolutely everything I was supposed to," Tenax boasted. "It all came naturally to me. I might specialise in this field, since I'm obviously so..."

"Alright!" Amiri snapped. "Anybody would think you'd just performed brain surgery. It was just a routine birth, Tenax. I was delivering babies when I was half your age."

"What, when you were nine?"

"Yes... no... I mean... shut up." Amiri groaned, exasperated.

"So..." Makoto began, changing the subject, "have you decided on a name yet?"

Alielle shook her head. "I still haven't been able to think of one that I like. What about you, Fatora?"

"I don't know..." Fatora sighed. "I want her name to be perfect. I want one that she can proud of when she grows up. Something that implies dignity and courage..."

"Then you should take a name from classical literature," Miz suggested.

Qawoor nodded her head in agreement. "Yes, that's a good idea. What about Soroshi, after Priestess Soroshi from the Saga of the Holy Gems? She found a path to inner peace and true enlightenment through a life of solitude and chastity."

Alielle and Fatora looked at each other for a while, neither quite having the heart to say their thoughts out loud.

"Well," Makoto offered, "there are plenty of good names from Earth literature too..."

"Oh! I know!" Alielle exclaimed. "Mari, that girl you told us about. What was her name again?"

"You mean Hotaru?" Mari replied.

Fatora snapped her fingers. "That's it! The perfect name!"

"Yes, it fits perfectly," Alielle agreed. She smiled down at the sleeping child. "Princess Hotaru."

Rune leaned over to Fatora. "And who is Hotaru?"

"Only the greatest, most prominent figure in Earth fiction," Fatora answered proudly. "Mari told us about her."

Fujisawa scratched his head. "I don't think I've ever heard of this Hotaru person..."

Fatora folded her arms. "Well, clearly some people have no cultural knowledge whatsoever."

Mari took a few steps back. It was starting to feel crowded, so she decided to retreat to the edge of the group. With Lora still perched on her shoulder, she sat down wearily on one of the benches.

"I'm tired, Lora-chan. I just want to go to bed."

A second figure sat down next to Mari.

"I can't abide crowds," Amiri said. "But I was meaning to talk to you, Miss Kurai. I've been thinking about how you saved Mika earlier today..."

Mari looked up, visibly embarrassed. "What about it?"

"I was impressed," she said casually. "Very impressed. I'm considering taking on another student. Have you ever thought about a career in medicine?"

Mari shook her head. "My powers are limited. If I use them for too long, they burn me out."

Amiri folded her arms. "I'm not suggesting you use your powers at all."

"Excuse me?"

"Powers or not, the fact remains that you risked your life to save someone else. That's a quality I admire."

"But I don't really know that much about medicine," Mari explained. "I haven't passed any exams..."

Amiri chuckled quietly. "It doesn't matter. You can learn. You couldn't possibly be any harder to teach than Tenax."

"Well..." Mari replied, stunned, "I suppose I'll have to think about this."

Amiri noticed Nanami edging towards the bench, and stood up. "Yes, you do that." She winked at Mari. "Anyway, I'll just be going..."

As Amiri quickly made her exit, Mari saw Nanami glancing nervously at her. She patted the now vacant half of the bench.

"Um... do you want to sit down?"

"Thanks," Nanami replied, taking the seat. "Mari... I'm sorry I couldn't give you a better answer."

Mari broke out into a smile. "You're sorry? Nanami... you couldn't have given me a better answer."

"I... I don't understand," Nanami responded.

"It's the truth. If you'd have said that you loved me... I wouldn't have believed you." She placed her hand on Nanami's. "It's not that I don't trust you. I'm just... well, I'm kind of paranoid. We've been through a lot just recently, and I'd have worried that it was all based on that... or that maybe you just felt sorry for me. But this way, I know there's still hope." She smiled. "I never dreamed you'd understand the way I feel, Nanami."

Nanami blinked. "Well... of course I understand, Mari."

"And that's all I need to know," Mari sighed happily. "To know that I don't have to change... that I'm okay the way I am." She giggled to herself. "Hey... did you ever watch those American teen movies from the eighties?"

"Yeah, I remember those," Nanami nodded. "There was always a moody, quirky girl who dressed in black, wasn't there?"

"That's right," Mari replied. "And by the end of the film, she'd have had a complete makeover. She stopped being so weird and became just like the popular girls, and eventually won the heart of the most popular boy in school."

Nanami paused before responding. "I never liked the way those films ended."

Mari stood up. "Neither did I." She looked over to the rest of the group. "Come on. Let's see what's going on over there."

"So," Afura announced, "it appears that the Heretic Prophecy was genuine after all."

"But once again," Ifurita countered, "we are only able to say so in hindsight."

"I think we should give Sister Afura more credit," Qawoor argued. "After all, she worked out the true meaning when nobody else could."

"Hey," Shayla interjected, "whatever happened to that message from God that was supposed to be hidden in the prophecy?"

Afura shrugged. "For all we know, it was just a fabrication by the Alpha Priestess designed to get us to hand over the prophecy more quickly. Oh... that reminds me..." She put a hand in her pocket, and withdrew the prophecy cube. "Qawoor... I suppose I should return this."

Qawoor took the object from Afura. "Thank you... although I suppose its only value is as a holy relic now..."

Nanami, rejoining the gathering, came up behind Qawoor and tapped her on the shoulder. "Hey, Qawoor, what have you got there?"

"Oh!" Qawoor jumped, taken by surprise. The metal cube flew from her hands and landed with a crack on the ground.

"Sorry..." Nanami said sheepishly.

Qawoor was already knelt down over the cube. "I hope I didn't break it..." she said timidly, gently lifting the item a few centimetres from the ground.

It fell in half. Qawoor squealed in horror. "Oh no! What have I done?"

"What's that thing?" Makoto asked, pointing to what remained of the relic.

"What?" Qawoor answered, still devastated.

"This." Makoto knelt down and picked up a small metal ball. "It fell out of the cube when it broke. Looks like there's something written on it..."

Afura gasped. "The message from God! It was supposed to be within the prophecy... That must be it!"

Makoto stared back. "Um... message from God? Could someone please explain this to me?"

Afura could barely contain her excitement. "Makoto... what you're holding is the most important message in theological history! A universal statement about how we should live our lives!"

"Should I read it?"

"Yes! Yes!" Qawoor and Shayla urged.

Makoto studied the ball. "It says... wait, this can't be right."

"Just read it!" Afura hissed,

"Okay..." Makoto shrugged. "It says... 'Shut up and get on with it.'"

There was a long silence.

"I think," Mari said, "that's the most profound thing I've ever heard."

Shayla scratched her head. "I don't get it."

"Neither do I," Qawoor agreed.

Afura smiled. "It makes perfect sense to me."

Inside the darkened study of Doctor Schtalubaugh, two figures sat, still cut off from the rest of the palace.

"I think..." Adena sighed, looking over at the doctor, "they may have forgotten about us."

Day 365

El-Hazard had experienced many exciting and eventful days over the past year, and this wasn't one of them. Nobody was complaining.

Princess Rune stood in the entrance of a large, empty building.

"Is this the place?"

"It will be," Nanami replied. "The newer, bigger, Shinonome Diner. I'd been looking into moving to larger premises for a while... I suppose now is as good a time as any."

Rune stared up at the high ceiling. "There is a lot of work to be done."

"True," Nanami nodded. "I still need to find some reputable builders, and as for the decorators..."

"I mean everywhere," Rune sighed. "All over Roshtaria, and especially here in Florestica. Fatora and I are funding the regeneration, but it's going to take a long time to restore things to the way they were."

"I don't think things will ever go back to how they were," Nanami said. "And that's probably for the best."

"Oh? What do you mean?"

Nanami rested on the door frame. "Think about it. In the long run, things have changed for the better. The Bugrom aren't going to threaten us anymore, and even the Phantom Tribe have been pretty much neutralised."

"Yes," Rune concurred. "Of course, you are correct." She stopped and smiled. "Do you realise that in a few days it will be Fatora and Alielle's first wedding anniversary?"

"Has it really been a year?" Nanami replied. "Wow, I suppose it has. And what a year."

"Indeed," Rune continued. "Here's hoping that next year will be much quieter."

"Where are we going now?"

"Shopping!" Tenax beamed, dragging Parnasse through the main square. "Princess Rune said we all have to do our best to help the economy. And there's this really cute pair of boots I saw the other day..." She stopped in front of a shop window and pointed. "There they are!"

Parnasse frowned. "Are you sure you can afford them?"

"Afford them?" Tenax's face fell. "But Parnasse, I assumed you'd buy them for me. Surely you wouldn't expect me to buy them on a mere student's wage?"

"Fine..." Parnasse dug into his pockets. "I hope you appreciate that I don't earn that much more than..."

"Excuse me?" a voice from behind said. The pair turned around to see a journalist, accompanied by a few underlings.

"Um... can we help you?" Parnasse asked.

The journalist smiled. "I'm Kagsi Vulpix from the Roshtarian Observer. You're Parnasse Ralielle and Tenax, yes?"

Parnasse nodded. "Yes..."

"Excellent!" the journalist said. "Now, word has it that you're the first Roshtarian-Opaque couple in El-Hazard. How does that make you feel?"

"Actually..." Parnasse replied, "I'm Dorusian, not Roshtarian."

"Ooh! I knew that!" she replied, embarrassed. She turned angrily to one of her accomplices. "You! Call yourself a researcher? You're fired!"

Mika stood next to her parents, watching the other children walk past her into the school.

"It seems strange," Miz commented to her husband, "but it won't be long now until Mika starts school."

Fujisawa shrugged. "I guess not." He leaned back against the wall and sighed. "You know, Miz, it feels like ages since the last time I was actually able to concentrate on teaching. I wonder how long it's going to be before things get back to normal?"

Miz looked along the line of parents and children approaching the school gates, and smiled. "Perhaps not as long as you think."

Fujisawa followed her gaze, and saw two familiar figures heading towards them.

"Good morning!" Amiri called, her son in tow. "A pleasant day, isn't it?"

"Doctor!" Fujisawa grinned, brightening immediately. "Does this mean that Cerev is coming back to school?"

"I see no reason why not," Amiri replied. "It's remarkable how quickly things seem to have changed for us."

Miz nodded. "Well, ever since people found out the true role of the Opaques in the war, I think they've had to reassess their views."

"Possibly," Amiri said. "I don't think our problems are over yet... but for the first time, I can foresee a time when they will be."

"Have you heard any more about the Phantom Tribe?" Miz asked. "The last I heard, they were in complete disarray..."

"That's pretty much the case," Amiri agreed. "A large faction are trying to negotiate a truce with the Alliance. They've even thrown some of their technology into the bargain..." Her eyes glazed over, and she clasped her hands together joyously. "I got to look at some of it the other day... oh, you should have seen it! They have things you wouldn't believe!"

Cerev, meanwhile, was becoming increasingly agitated by two girls, stood a short distance behind him, who were whispering and occasionally pointing. Eventually, one of them approached nervously.

"Cerev... my friend likes you!"

Cerev responded with an expression of utter horror. "What?"

"Ssh!" the other girl urged, embarrassed. "I said it was a secret!"

"Mr Fujisawa!" Cerev called, desperate. "Make them stop!"

Fujisawa laughed. "Well, it looks like Makoto has a successor."

Cerev jumped as Mika unexpectedly latched onto him. "You too? Mr Fujisawa! Help!"

As Fujisawa did his best to extricate Cerev from his predicament, Miz turned back to Amiri. "What about your new student? How's she working out?"

"Oh, Mari?" Amiri replied. "Let's see... she's the most stubborn, awkward, cynical person I've ever met." She smiled. "She'll make an excellent doctor."

Three comrades sat in the royal gardens, surrounded by more wine jugs than was strictly wise.

"Come on, Qawoor! Drink up!" Shayla encouraged.

Qawoor, already red in the face from her first glass, looked nervously between the second glass and Shayla. "Well... I don't usually..."

"Now, Shayla," Afura said sternly, "don't bully her."

"I'm not!" Shayla protested. "We're celebrating. She should celebrate too." She turned her attention back to Qawoor. "Now, don't be such a wimp. Down it in one!"

Afura shook her head and went back to her newspaper. "It says here that Melisse Cartac is the favourite candidate for the next Alpha Priestess. Seems like a logical choice if you ask me..."

Shayla snatched the paper away. "Will you stop reading that? You're supposed to be getting drunk."

Qawoor held up her empty glass, oblivious. "I did it!" she beamed.

Afura pulled the newspaper back, annoyed. "I was trying to read about Doht."

"Doht?" Shayla loosened her grip. "What about him?"

"He's been... reclassified," Afura smiled. "He's no longer an advisor. The Holy Order have awarded him the prestigious position of assistant archivist. The official line is that he's spending most of his time studying the message from God.

Qawoor reclined on the grass and recited the message. "Shut up and get on with it... But what should we shut up, I wonder? And what should we get on with? There are so many layers of meaning..."

Afura sighed. "For the last time, it means exactly what it says! Shayla... look at her. She's drunk."

"I know! Isn't it great?" Shayla grinned. "You're one of us, Qawoor..."

She looked around. Qawoor was surreptitiously filling her glass from Shayla's jug.

"Hey! What the hell do you think you're doing?"

"A genome?" Fatora echoed. "What's that?"

Fatora and Alielle sat across from Makoto and Ifurita. This was the anniversary meal, to celebrate both Fatora and Alielle's wedding anniversary and the anniversary of Ifurita's return to El-Hazard. Ifurita and Alielle had arranged it, and Makoto's house had been chosen as the venue.

Makoto sighed and did his best to answer Fatora's question. "A genome... is the full amount of DNA needed to make a person, or animal. Ifurita was modelled using the genome of a real person, but she doesn't have any DNA of her own."

Ifurita continued the explanation. "Three's creators placed the full genome sequence used to model us in her memory. That was her gift to me... our genome."

"Amiri was the one who figured out what it was," Makoto said. "Now that she's getting hold of more technology from the Phantom Tribe, she's talking about using the data file to re-synthesise Ifurita's genome in DNA form. If it works... we could have a child, conceived the same way as yours."

Alielle smiled down at the baby resting on her lap. "Did you hear that, Hotaru? You could have a little cousin!"

"Metaphorically," Fatora clarified. "A metaphorical cousin."

"It sounds fascinating," Alielle said. "Amiri's a genius."

Makoto nodded. "Yes, but we really have Three to thank for this. She knew we might be able to find a use for it... Although the way things are looking, our child will be a teenager by the time I work out how to get Three back from the rift."

"I suppose..." Ifurita added, "she's watching us right now. She can see everything, just like Arjah could. It's reassuring, knowing that there's someone benevolent up there."

The baby stirred, and started to cry. Fatora immediately became agitated.

"Alielle! She's crying again!"

"I know, I know," Alielle replied calmly, rocking the child gently.

This didn't satisfy Fatora at all. "But why is she crying? There must be a reason!"

"Relax, Fatora," Alielle sighed. After a few seconds, the baby settled down again and went back to sleep.

"She's a beautiful child," Ifurita commented.

Alielle nodded in enthusiastic agreement. "She is, isn't she? Isn't she just the cutest, most adorable little thing you've ever seen?"

"I suppose becoming parents must take some getting used to," Makoto said.

"Oh, not really," Alielle replied. "I think I've got the hang of it now."

Fatora folded her arms. "And so have I."

Alielle looked back at her sceptically. "Well... that's debatable..."

"What do you mean?" Fatora objected, adopting a hurt expression. "I do everything a responsible parent should. The minute she needs changing, I go and get the maid. What more can I do?"

"That's really not the point, Fatora," Alielle continued patiently. "You should change her yourself. She'll respond to you better that way."

Fatora held her hands up in protest. "Hey, come on, that isn't fair. I'm all for bonding with my child, but I was born into royalty... and there are some substances I'm just not equipped to deal with..."

Alielle frowned. "Honestly, Fatora, you make such a fuss over everything..."

"Well," Makoto sighed to Ifurita, "there's nothing like a child to bring two people closer together..."

Ifurita decided to intervene. "Alielle... tell us about what's been happening in Dorusland."

"Oh..." Alielle paused. "Um... well, Fran didn't have any heirs, so the country doesn't really have a ruler right now. They're all pretty fed up with the monarchy anyway after the mess Fran left, so they're thinking about moving towards some sort of elected presidential... thing."

Ifurita smiled. "Yes. And what's this I heard about the current favourite candidate?"

"Heh..." Fatora smirked. "It's her mother."

Alielle groaned. "I'm afraid so."

"Hey, why not?" Fatora shrugged. "She's a resistance hero, and she's related to royalty. Besides... it's your mother! I think it's hilarious!"

"Hmm..." Alielle replied. "Well, just remember this. If she becomes president, then every conference and summit we go to, she'll be there too. Any dispute we have with Dorusland... we have to argue with HER."

Fatora shuddered. "Oh... I didn't think of that."

They were interrupted by a knock. A pale, mascara-laden face peered around the door.

"Am I interrupting?"

"Not at all, Mari," Makoto smiled. "Come and join us."

Mari stood awkwardly in the doorway. "I can't stay for long. I just dropped by to say hello."

"It's good to see you," Makoto said. "I don't think I've see you for nearly two weeks. What have you been doing?"

"Well... Amiri's been keeping me pretty busy at the clinic. I'm not really at the same level as most other medical students, so I've got a lot of catching up to do. But it's..." She paused, searching for an appropriate adjective. "It's... fun. And I've just moved back in with Nanami, so I haven't really had much free time. Actually, I've got to be getting back... Nanami wants me to choose a colour scheme for the new restaurant."

Fatora raised an eyebrow. "You?"

"I know, she's probably going to regret it." Mari paused, caught in one of her occasional conversational lapses. "I... um... have something for you." She shuffled into the room and placed two bouquets on the table. "For your anniversaries."

Alielle picked up the bouquet and studied the flowers. Black roses.

"They're incredible. I've never seen anything like them before."

"Black flowers," Mari smiled. "I told you they existed."

Ifurita smiled back. "Thank you, Mari. They're very pretty."

Mari headed to the door. "I'm glad you like them." She looked back over her shoulder as she left. "Perhaps it's true. Beauty really does occur in the strangest things."

Fatora watched her go. "She's weird... Still, nice flowers."

"I think we should propose a toast," Makoto said. He held up his glass. "To the strange things."

Ifurita lifted her glass. "To beauty."

Alielle joined in. "To love."

Fatora picked up her glass and grinned. "To sex!"

Three mildly annoyed faces glared back at her.

"Well? What's wrong with it?" she demanded.

Makoto smiled to himself. "Oh well. Cheers anyway."

As the four friends drank, their eyes drifted back to the flowers. These flowers, that seemed to defy nature and its laws, and yet had a beauty all of their own. Four minds, each as different from the other as one could imagine, were momentarily unified in a single thought.

Black.

Yes, it was a good colour.

"Some Things Come From Nothing" featured-

Makoto Mizuhara, Afura Mann, Princess Alielle, Nanami Jinnai, Mari Kurai, Shayla-Shayla, Ifurita, Princess Fatora, Doctor Amiri, Katsuhiko Jinnai, Qawoor Towles, Princess Rune Venus, Adena Ralielle, Queen Chibi-Diva, Masamichi Fujisawa, Ifurita Version Three, Miz Fujisawa, Sakura Tamaro, Arjah, Nahato, Parnasse Ralielle, Tenax, Jennown Doht, Princess Formyka, Guanes Ralielle, King Fran, Cerev, Mika Fujisawa, Doctor Schtalubaugh, Kagsi Vulpix, Number One, Number Two, Ura, Lora-chan and Groucho.

Fin.