It is only fitting that I, the beautiful, brilliant, stupendously talented herbalist Pink, should be doing this narration, over. After all, it was last chapter that I discovered this was all based on a comic book (and video games and crap) anyway!
So, discovering that this is all a written story based on them instead bothers me not at all, over! Am I your favourite character? I should be! I have risen above one-shotdom to a position of true grandeur befitting me. Well, I’m on my way, anyway. I’m the real main character now, over!
But, speaking of the OLD, boring main character, now that nobody likes her anymore (including the readers! HA! Over!), she’s pretty much been moping around and getting her ass kicked. That guy she crippled (Haya-whatever) was going to do it, but then Sailor Pluto and her new ally Rose stepped in to do it even better! Except they got driven off by Ukyou’s friends when Hayato gathered them up with his new magic water powers, since he wants to kill Ukyou himself. I like the cut of his jib, over!
In England, Sailor V killed some vampire guy. Wait, in England, over? Who cares? I’m nowhere NEAR England, so it’s probably not important, over.
So, back onto events concerning ME, which should concern YOU, because they’re obviously the most important ones, over. Some world-spanning conspiracy of god-like beings and their uncountable hordes of monsters, called Chronos, was watching us or something. Now they’re going to go kidnap the Sailor Senshi, so Chris and Cologne and MY SLAVE, Shampoo, went to stop them, over.
Sailor Senshi? Bah! As if anybody cares about those third-stringers when they could be reading about me, over! But don’t worry, my adoring public: I’ll be doing stuff this chapter too, promise, so pay attention, over!
OR ELSE. OVER.
C&A Productions Presents
A Work of Blatant Self-Insertion
Chapter 12: High Voltage
Harold Kramer had to die.
He was a nobody, really. A businessman on a trip to Japan, traveling first class on the Pacific overnight. He looked like he had a bit of wealth to his name, the kind of wealth that came from hard work rather than noble birth. His suit was expensive and in the latest fashion, but not by the right designer to indicate he came from old money. He was constantly jabbering into his cell phone, despite the stewardess politely insisting he turn it off. He was rude and dismissive to the woman, who was simply doing her job.
But all this wasn’t why he had to die. He had to die because he was FAT.
Fat, and sitting next to Vega.
Vega held up his arm and rubbed it. He had been forced to keep it on his lap for the duration of the flight, and now it was sore. But being sore was better than touching the rolls of Harold Kramer’s flesh. Huge, fleshy folds covered in fat-sweat and the remains of his many meals enveloped the armrest the two of them shared. Vega smiled, wondering if the fat dead man knew that his vocal insistence on having a window seat was signing his own death warrant. It was ironic, in that poetic way Vega so enjoyed, that his own focus on creature comforts would be Harold Kramer’s undoing.
Vega turned his eyes away from his victim, idly scanning the rest of the plane. It wasn’t hard to spot the two Dolls that accompanied him on this flight. Fevrier was sitting three rows down, glancing idly at a copy of the in-flight magazine. She didn’t look like anyone out of the ordinary, nothing remarkable about either her simple traveling dress or her short glossy red hair. Then again, she was trained in the art of not drawing attention to herself. She would have stood out much more in her black body-stocking uniform with the guns at her hips, but they were traveling incognito for this trip. Marz was even further back, packing away her laptop and getting ready for landing. She had dark purple hair, which did stand out slightly on the plane, despite how much she was trying to look like a simple office woman.
Vega rolled his eyes and returned his gaze to the front of the cabin. He didn’t know why Bison insisted he take along two of the Dolls for what seemed like such a simple operation. Vega had trained all of Bison’s little pretty-girl super-soldiers so that any one of them could have probably carried out this mission. And if they couldn’t, then Vega himself was here.
Ah. Now the seatbelt sign was flashing. Vega smiled, a secret little smile. Soon, his misery, and that of Harold Kramer, would be over. He reached up and brushed at his long blonde hair, using the elegant gesture to conceal the act of plucking one perfect strand. It pained him to so mar his immaculate coiffure, but Vega could not stand to actually touch the noxious man that some damnable computer had seen fit to place him next to. That left precious few ways to kill him.
Well, precious few ways to kill him without letting anyone else in the plane know about it.
Vega’s heart began to pump more rapidly. That was the trick, wasn’t it? Oh, he could kill the corpulent social parasite with ease. His claw was hidden among his luggage, and it would gut the slob with far more swiftness than he deserved. But if he did so, Vega would be noticed. Then he would have to kill everyone on the plane. It would be an inelegant and tedious job, and he wasn’t sure if either of the Dolls could pilot the behemoth they travelled in to a landing. But, more importantly, it would put an end to The Game.
Vega sighed as the pressure changed. He flicked his hair in a short arc, looping it around Harold Kramer’s fat neck. They had begun their descent.
He caught the hair between two fingers and pulled it tight. The slob’s hand reached up and brushed idly at his neck. He had no clue what was about to happen. Vega smiled and let the pressure ease. He could kill the fool slowly or quickly. But garrotting could be a messy and loud business if Vega went the slow way.
That would be just as bad as gutting him. Everyone would know. They would know that this young noble, the only surviving son of a long line of Spanish dukes, was a killer. The police would descend upon his home and his life. Not that Vega feared them. More, he feared an end to the chase. How exciting it was, to know that he was a killer, a feared assassin, yet noone else except those he chose knew it. It was intoxicating.
Vega jerked his hand into the walkway. He timed it perfectly, such that the sound of the lowering landing gear concealed the sound of Harold Kramer’s neck snapping. Vega heard it, however. He also heard his hair snap. He sighed. Such a waste. He dropped the hair onto the blue carpet, wanting nothing more to do with it.
The landing after that was uneventful. Vega waited patiently for the rest of the passengers to disembark before he even got out of his seat. He adjusted the collar on his suit – his was from the right designer – and glanced back at Fevrier and Marz. They had, of course, waited for him. He was their commander. They would do anything he wanted.
Vega gestured idly at his things. They were in the overhead, along with the effects of the late Harold Kramer. Vega would have them burned. All except his claw. That would merely have to be sterilised.
He noticed the stewardess going to talk to the dead man just as he was leaving the plane. He wondered idly if the woman would put two and two together. She couldn’t help but remember the beautiful, charming stranger that had made her job such a delight during the flight where Harold Kramer had done his best to make it such a hell. Maybe she would tell the police enough that they would have a solid lead. Maybe…
Vega smiled. Maybe The Game was up? Had he finally slipped?
Vega hit her. Not hard. It was more a poke really, and came and went so fast that the pathetic people that walked about the terminal only saw her stumble.
“Yes, Don Alvaro?”
“Better,” Vega said, smiling and patting her reassuringly. Vega was a name whispered in the underworld. Don Alvaro was a name spoken openly in airports. “Find me the name and address of my stewardess. I feel in the mood for a seduction.” Or perhaps… well, he’d see what he felt like later.
Vega looked to the left and saw Satsuki walking towards them. She was dressed in the manner of a Japanese teenager, her dark brown hair spilling down her head in a messy bob-cut. Ah yes. The Doll who had alerted him to the strangeness here.
“Satsuki,” Vega purred. He took her hand and brushed her knuckles with his lips. “I see the months away from me have not dimmed YOUR lessons.”
Satsuki blushed and stood there nervously as he rose up from his bow. Vega stifled the urge to laugh. It always surprised the other members of Shadowloo that Vega would spend so much time being polite and seductive to the Dolls. After all, he was their immediate commander. He could have just ordered them to pleasure him. He could order them to commit suicide, and they would do so without hesitation, though Bison would perhaps be vexed. But what fun was that? Better the chase. He had even ordered them never to give themselves to him, under any circumstances. It made the moment of their surrender to his charms all the sweeter.
“My lord, I…” Satsuki looked around. Vega raised an eyebrow, before realising she wanted to tell him something best said in privacy. He gestured for her to lead on. They walked out of the arrival area, the four of them easily bypassing the security of the Japanese. Once they were alone in the morning-dim corridors of the airport, Vega indicated she should speak. “My lord, I have news about those you have come to deal with.”
Vega didn’t yawn. He smiled and ran a finger along her cheek. He gazed meaningfully into her doe-brown eyes.
“Speak…” he said slowly.
“The… boy… Ukyou. He is really a girl.”
“A girl?” Vega backed up a step from her. That was unexpected. He could see Marz entering that information into her laptop out of the corner of his eye. “How do you know this?”
“She is staying at a school in a different section of Tokyo now. She has been spending the last two days recovering in the infirmary. Since the infirmary windows are not as well-guarded as those of the clinic she was staying in before, she can no longer hide her true gender.”
“So… this girl was going through a great deal of trouble to be seen by the world as a man?” Vega raised one hand and began to undulate his fingers slowly in the air. “I wonder why?” His words contained genuine curiosity.
“Also, Rose and her companion Sailor Pluto have made no attempt to attack her since she arrived at this new location.”
Vega nodded. Rose was probably the real reason they were there. A quirk like Ukyou Kuonji was notable, but not really important to Shadowloo when there were more critical matters to pursue. Like the missing Doll, Cammy. But Rose had once defeated the ‘Almighty Lord Bison’, and her actions were noted with great interest. For her to go out of her way to kill such a small-time hero drew all kinds of the wrong attention.
“What of the others?”
“The Sailor Senshi?” Satsuki looked slightly uncomfortable. She had been ordered by Bison to observe Ukyou Kuonji and her friends, and had been doing so for almost a month now. It had been Vega who had ordered her to observe the Sailor Senshi. To Bison, magic was a curiosity. To Vega…
“I have learned only a little about them. They do not register on any of our scanners. I have learned a great deal about the man, however. This Tuxedo Kamen is a powerful martial artist, but seems to have some other power that I can not identify. I tracked him back to the address of his civilian identity…”
“Yes, yes…” Vega waved dismissively. “Perhaps he is as good a place to start as any.” Vega turned and began to walk down the hall. “Satsuki, Fevrier, put on your working clothes. I want you to find this Tuxedo Kamen and bring him to me. And Marz…”
“The address you wanted, Don Alvaro?” The purple-haired Doll handed him a slip of paper. Vega smiled.
“Yes. Thank you. I think today I shall entertain myself. You keep an eye on Bison’s little girl who likes to pretend she is a man.” Vega heard their acknowledgement of his orders, but didn’t bother responding. Soon enough he was alone in the basement of the terminal with his thoughts. He adjusted his immaculate suit again. Yes. This city, Tokyo, would prove most entertaining.
In the dark, his laughter echoed long after he had vanished.
‘To Whom It May Concern,
I saw your ad in the paper. I am the “spiky-haired loser who’s looking for a former master with a big scar on his chest and also for a demon with stupid palm-tree hair who wanders around killing people or something, over”. I am on my way to the meeting place you suggested and will arrive shortly after you read this. I also do not like jokes. This had better not be one.
Link stared at the letter, her fingers gripping it so tightly the paper began to tear at the edges. Her twin was smiling at her.
“See, Link? I told you he’d answer, over.”
“Yes, he did… over,” Link answered mechanically. She couldn’t take her eyes off the letter. The reply had been almost immediate. They’d just put the ad in the Thailand papers yesterday, after scamming money off of Chris for ‘communications home’. Adon had read it, replied, and apparently left on the same day.
Just like Pink had said he would. Because he existed.
“What’s your problem, over?” Pink said, waving a hand in front of Link’s face. “You look like you swallowed one of my experiments. Well, one of my tamer experiments, over.”
Link growled something inarticulate, crumpled the paper into a ball, remembered to say “over” after her growl, and then tossed the telegram into the trashcan.
Pink rolled her eyes. “Geez, why the big reaction? Is it really that shocking to you that the information from Chris’s books was right? It’s obviously how he found us too, over.”
“The fact that his information was correct is the PROBLEM,” Link snapped. “This information is about… COMIC BOOK characters, over!”
“Well, actually, spiky-haired loser is from a video game, over.”
“Like that matters! The point is…” Link paused. What was the point? The idea that she was, in some other universe, a character in a comic book, made her feel… wrong inside. It was like reality had suddenly plummeted out from beneath her feet, and she was still experiencing vertigo. “The point is that this doesn’t make sense, over.”
“Oh?” Pink grinned. “Seems to make sense to me. Adon wants to find those losers, so when we waved the bait in front of his face, he came running like an idiot. All the people in Street Fighter are idiots, running around in circles like a rat with a leg cut off, over.”
“No, not Adon, I don’t really care about him. It’s… it’s more…” Link struggled to articulate what she was feeling. She felt like she was in freefall, and couldn’t find anything to cling onto. But her twin wouldn’t understand. Pink obviously accepted the idea of this ‘comic book’ reality. In fact, she seemed to be thrilled with it, and her newfound knowledge of it. And she wasn’t wrong – Link, too, felt the thrill of knowing that apparently the whole world was playing a game, and only they knew the rules. There were so many uses, so many things to find, so many things they could DO.
So why did that make her feel so disoriented?
Pink’s smile lost some of its smugness, and her voice took on a note of concern. “Okay, it’s more than Adon. So what’s wrong with you? Whatever hurts you hurts me as well, so you should let me in on the secret, over.”
Link glared at her. “Obviously, what’s affecting me ISN’T affecting you, since you seem so damn happy with everything, over.”
Pink’s eyes flashed for a moment, then she shrugged exaggeratedly.
“Then wallow in your self-pity if you like. You’re probably just angry that I believed Chris’s secrets, and I was right, over.”
“I don’t care about that undead abomination’s secrets! It’s your fault we’re mixed up with that thing in the first place, over!”
“Oh, so you don’t like Shampoo waiting on us hand and foot, over?”
“I’d rather she was just dead! But we can’t do that NOW, can we, over!?”
Pink smiled. “Patience, my dear twin. Good things come to those who wait, over.”
Link wasn’t mollified. “Good things like getting killed in turn by that stupid old woman, over?”
“She’s old. She’s just a small pebble in the road, over.”
“I’m not willing to wait-” Link cut off as the loud crash from outside echoed through the building. “What is he DOING out there, over?”
Pink walked over to the window and glanced down towards the street. “Interesting. I wonder who that is, over.”
“Who what is, over?”
“Who that is who is associated with the van Chris just smashed onto its side. I don’t see enough to figure out who they could be, over.”
Link felt her forehead throbbing again. “Not everything in the world is about his stupid comic books, over.”
Pink turned back and smiled. “You’re wrong. Everything IS. But we’ll have to talk about it later – he’s leaping up the building along with the annoying old bat, over.”
After a few moments, Chris stalked in from the balcony. His arm had gotten worse, Link critically noted: it was now obvious even to a casual glance something was seriously wrong with it. It was not yet as decayed as Kodachi’s body had been when it was discarded, however.
That old woman was hopping along behind him. She looked very grim and serious, a big change from the normal expression of smug amusement at everything that her great-granddaughter had also inherited.
There was something seriously wrong, at least to Chris. That was obvious. His dead eyes revealed nothing, but everything else about him practically screamed it. What could it be? Link couldn’t remember ever seeing the undead man looking so… off-balance before. Her frown lightened almost imperceptibly. Maybe he didn’t know the world as well as he thought.
“Where’s Shampoo?” Chris asked, looking around the room.
“She’s manuring the gardens with her bare hands, over,” Pink offered with a smirk.
“Call her back.”
Link almost thought Pink was going to push the point that Shampoo was THEIR servant, but they were not Chris’s… but she didn’t, and simply called out loudly to Shampoo to clean up and come here. Pink must also have noticed how upset Chris was – not the best time to test the bounds of their relationship.
Chris paced back and forth impatiently while waiting for Shampoo to arrive, rubbing absently at his rotting arm and muttering to himself. Shampoo’s great-grandmother sat on her staff, unmoving and seemingly perfectly calm, though still looking very serious. What had the two of them seen down on the road? Link frowned with impatience. Chris had better tell them the truth.
Shampoo strolled into the room, wiping her hands off with a towel. Chris saw her and promptly snapped back to attention. “All right then,” he said. “Cologne, please translate for Shampoo.”
The old woman nodded. Pink was staring at Chris with an intrigued smile. Nobody but her, Link and Chris knew what Pink had found in those journals. Was Pink wondering if this was some new tidbit Chris hadn’t written down? Probably. Link felt her stomach churn a bit.
A moment later, her fears came true. “I’m going to make this quick, because we don’t have a lot of time,” Chris began. “In essence, there is a huge, world-spanning conspiracy of… hmm, let’s say monsters. But monsters who look exactly like men, who are MADE by altering men, and who in their human guises control every aspect of government, every military, every major installation of any kind in the world. The monsters are called zoanoids, men who have been engineered to change into vicious killing machines. The conspiracy, the organisation behind it all, is known as Chronos.” He held up his hand to forestall comment. “I’m sorry, just wait until I’m finished to ask anything. For now, take my word for it. The reason for my rush is two-fold. First off, they have been watching this building, and it’s obviously because of us. They must be looking for… unusual people. They are utterly ruthless, can call upon hordes of killing machines, control the police, and would think nothing of blowing up this building or even this entire neighbourhood if they thought we were a threat. We have to get out, now, and hide from them.
“But that’s not all. Unfortunately, they’ve also found out about some other people, and as we speak, are planning to attack them. I have to go stop them, but they’ve sent some of their most powerful monsters, and it’s not going to be an easy fight. Time is of the essence, so I have to leave as soon as possible.” He looked around at them. “Any questions?”
“Sure,” Pink said. “What makes these people they’re going after YOUR problem, over?”
Chris sighed. “First off, I’m the only one who can do something about it. More importantly, the people they’re after are the Sailor Senshi, a group of, uh, I guess you’d say holy warriors who are destined to save the world, and I’m not talking about sometime when they grow up, I’m talking about NOW, as in they are in the process of saving the world as we speak. Unless they get captured by Chronos. Which is why I’m not going to let that happen.”
Pink grinned, and gave a meaningful look at Link. Link felt more nauseous. Of course, she knew everything Chris had written down about those Sailor Senshi. This was just as important as he said it was.
Shampoo, after Cologne translated for her, merely shrugged unconcernedly. “Okay,” she said in Chinese. “So you’ve got a problem. Whatever my mistresses want me to do is what I’m doing, I guess.” She glanced idly at them. “Well?”
Pink smirked at her. “It’s your problem now too, because you’re going to be helping him, over.”
Shampoo shrugged again. “Whatever. Monsters? I can deal with that.”
Cologne translated the exchange to Chris, who frowned. “Shampoo, these monsters aren’t as weak as the aragami. You might be in over your head.”
Shampoo cocked an eyebrow at him once she was told the meaning of his words. “That may be, but it isn’t you who gives me the orders, corpse.”
Pink broke in before Cologne said anything. “As she says, it’s we who give her orders. And I have just as much to lose as you do if you fail to save these world-savers, so take her help. I’m sure she’ll be good for something, over.”
Chris sighed. “Maybe you’re right. But I assume Cologne will want to look out for her great-granddaughter’s safety, and I don’t want to leave you two alone…”
Pink smiled again. “I wouldn’t worry. You took out the ones watching the building, right? So if we get out of here quick, no problems. You’ll need the help, but we can get out of here on our own, over.”
Of course, Pink would want him out of here. What she had planned for Adon wouldn’t work if he was around. Link felt her frown deepen.
Chris looked appealingly at Cologne. “Well? What do you think?”
The old woman sucked on her pipe for a moment. “Precisely how dangerous are these ‘zoanoids’, boy?”
“They come in many levels of danger. The weakest, the cannon fodder-“
She broke in sharply. “Precisely how dangerous are the ones you will be facing TODAY?”
“The Hyper-Zoanoid Team 5…” he paused. “Dangerous. Hmm. The strongest of them has armour sufficient to protect against a tank shell with ease, can regenerate from damage, can fire blasts with enough power to smash holes straight through buildings or set forests on fire, and is generally equivalent or better to even a strong martial artist in strength, speed, endurance and skill. The other four, not as strong as him, are each specialised in a certain area: one is immensely strong, one can fly and produce incredibly powerful electrical shocks, one is a living artillery battery that can fire guided missiles, and the other is as fast and skillful as, probably, let’s say Ranma, and he has swords that cut through anything with ease. They are experienced at working together, and the leader is an intelligent tactician and strategist. They will have as much support as they need, especially if they have any time to summon it. In short, they are very, very extremely dangerous.”
Shampoo’s great-grandmother puffed on her pipe again for a long moment, then put it down. “Well, I suppose I’ll have to come along to make sure you don’t screw up, then, boy.”
Chris nodded. “Very well. In that case, we’ll need a place to meet up afterwards. Can’t be someplace they’re likely to have seen us… ah yes. Meet me where we found Sentarou. I know, I know,” he said apologetically to Link, “but it’s the only place I can think of that you’ve been to and I’m pretty sure Chronos wouldn’t know anything about. You can hide in the trees pretty easily, too.”
Pink laughed suddenly. “Sure, sure, no problem. Good luck saving the world, over.”
Chris gave Pink a worried look, then shrugged it off. “Then Cologne, Shampoo, grab whatever you need and let’s get going.”
Rei placed the phone back on its cradle, sighing to herself. Normally she would have been happy to suddenly discover that she had the entire afternoon to herself. But something… didn’t feel right. It wasn’t that unusual for Usagi to be held back after school. It wasn’t even that unusual for Ami to have to go to cram school, though having to cancel because of some sort of ’emergency test’ was something that neither Ami nor Rei had heard of before. But, being Ami, the shy blue-haired girl had called in to cancel their meeting.
Rei realised she had begun to feel weird then, but had shaken the feeling off. The way she had seen it, it would have been a good chance to get to know Makoto better. Maybe the two of them could have gone off to the mall together and watched the boys walk by. Not that Rei would have really admitted that was what she was doing, but she knew Makoto well enough that as soon as the idea of going to the mall was raised, the topic of boys would be also.
But now Makoto had cancelled as well; apparently because she needed to go downtown to deal with some sort of emergency concerning her parents’ estate. Rei shivered, the little hairs on the back of her neck stirring. Most times like this she would have gone outside, done some sweeping. Something nice and mechanical that didn’t require thinking very much, so she could clear her head and try to puzzle out what was bothering her. But even that wasn’t an option. She glanced out her window at the work-crew that had descended upon the shrine this afternoon. Apparently there was some sort of gas main that needed maintenance. Thus, the Senshi couldn’t have held the meeting here even if they had all been available.
“Grandpa!” she called over out of her open doorway. “I’m going out for the afternoon.” She paused, waiting for a response. “Grandpa? Oh, never mind… old coot probably can’t hear me…”
Rei sighed and stepped into the hall. She couldn’t help but feel a hint of worry about Grandpa. Ever since they had pulled that Rainbow Crystal from his heart a few weeks ago, she had felt a nagging in the back of her skull about him. She knew that all the other ‘holders’ had lost something when the crystal was removed. For instance, as soon as they had managed to get the last crystal out of that Urawa boy, he had lost his ability to see the future.
Rei frowned and turned on her heel, now heading for the centre of the shrine… and the sacred flame. She had been putting off examining that boy’s ‘vision’ long enough. She didn’t know why. It wasn’t like she had ever really trusted, or even liked, Ukyou. But somehow the idea that Ukyou was the real enemy just struck her as wrong. Also, the idea that Ukyou was really a girl.
Rei chuckled. At least it had been amusing to see Usagi’s reaction to that little verbal bomb.
The sacred fire’s chamber was as pristine as always. Rei smiled at the soft glow of the well-oiled wooden floor and the pleasant smell of cherry that permeated the room. She slid across the floor, glancing at the large bonfire that was kept perpetually lit in this room. In the past, Rei had tried to use it to gain access to visions of the future… but her visions had always been cloudy and unreliable. The closest she had ever gotten to actually seeing the future was when she had successfully predicted that it would rain tomorrow… not really a feat, considering it was also what all the weathermen predicted.
Rei knelt in front of the flame, clasping her hands in front of her. She tried to will away that ominous sense of foreboding, but it had been growing more and more pronounced ever since she had hung up on Makoto. Rei forced her eyes closed and concentrated. She could feel her heart beating, the steady rhythm of her life force. Her centre. The source of her energy, her chi… she breathed in, gathering all her power there even as she chanted the mantra that focused her will.
When Rei opened her eyes, she did not see the future she was looking for. There was no image of Ukyou, or of some terrible battle or the horrid silence that followed… instead, she saw a man. He was tall, built like an olympic weightlifter, with black skin and short, curly grey hair. He had a strange lump on his forehead. He was walking towards her, clad in the same blue uniform all the humans-turned-monsters she had been battling lately had worn. He grinned at her and suddenly…
Rei gasped and fell back. What had that been?
Rei glanced up. As she turned her head she felt as if the whole world was moving in slow motion. Somehow she knew what she would see behind her. Seeing the man there only confirmed her fears. Her heart was running like a rabbit as the huge man stooped to step into the sacred chamber.
“It is you,” the man said in a gravelly voice. “You look just like your pictures.” He stepped into the room, and a loud crack accompanied each of his footfalls. Rei stood up slowly. “You are going to come with me. You can come with me the easy way, or the hard way.” He grinned. “Personally I hope you choose the hard way. I’ve never had a chance to fight a ‘Sailor Senshi’ before, and I’m looking forward to seeing what you can do.”
Rei reached down, gripping her henshin wand. That man, he had mentioned the Sailor Senshi… he knew! He knew her identity already. She opened her mouth-
“Go ahead and scream,” the man said, chuckling. As he did, his body began to bulge and distort. “No one can hear you.” Suddenly his shoulders exploded, great gouts of flame erupting along the length of his body. Rei shielded her eyes. “We made sure you were all alone.” Huge bulges of grey skin emerged from the flames, which now consumed the man-monster’s whole body. Rei backed up a step, raising her henshin above her head. “You see… you can’t win, little girl. We know everything about you.”
“Mars Power, Make Up!”
By the time Rei completed her own transformation, the beast had finished his. He resembled nothing so much as a humanoid rhino, complete with horn and thick, wrinkled skin. The floor cracked and split under the weight of his massive frame, and the tip of his horn was tearing a gouge in the ceiling as he walked forward. Rei stepped into her favourite pose and pointed a finger at him.
“I don’t know who you monsters are, but I am Sailor Mars, champion of love and justice. I will not forgive you for defiling this sacred sanctuary with your evil!” The monster only laughed at her. Rei growled. She would show him.
“Fire Soul!” Rei grinned as the flaming sphere formed at the tip of her fingers. With a wish she sent it forward, spiralling and growing in size until it hit the monster. Rei’s grin widened as the magic exploded against him and a pillar of flame briefly concealed the creature-
Its hand reached out of the flame. Then the rest of its body followed. Its movements were ponderous, but deceptively quick. And it was emerging from the flame without so much as a single char mark or a speck of ash on its body. Rei backed up a step.
“Heh. I told you, little girl, we know everything about you. You and your friends can’t hope to beat us! We are much stronger than any regular zoanoid!” The monster opened its mouth, and Rei saw a faint red light flickering deep down its throat. “I am a member of the Hyper-Zoanoid Team 5, Derzerb! And you are mine!”
Rei’s eyes widened and she leapt to the side. A jet of flame erupted from Derzerb’s mouth, washing across the length of the sanctuary. Rei landed roughly, but well away from the creature’s flame. She rebounded to her feet as quickly as possible.
“I hope you have more tricks than that,” Derzerb said, and his laughter seemed to shake her bones. “We’re supposed to take you girls intact, but nobody said anything about me not being able to play first…”
“Whatever you are, I don’t care how you resisted my attack! I will defeat you!” Rei just wished she felt as confident as she sounded. Especially considered she now knew why she had felt so strange all day. This was a trap. But not just for her. They had been separated… weeded out. She needed to defeat this thing quickly. Oh gods, she prayed silently, please let Usagi be alright until she could get to her!
Ukyou hissed, resisting the urge to tense up as Kyoko probed at her side. The nurse glanced up at her, her eyes flashing briefly over her glasses. Ukyou grimaced and looked away sharply, distinctly aware of the fact that she was naked from the waist up. Why did Kyoko have to act so much like a stereotypical naughty-nurse from a thousand schoolboy fantasies? Ukyou was trying very hard to see people as deep, emotional beings and not as the one or two note jokes that Aaron recalled from his years of fandom… but Kyoko was making it hard. Plus, it was really making Ukyou uncomfortable.
“It seems to be healing up nicely,” Kyoko said in her sultry voice as she leaned back, arching ever so slightly, and smiled at Ukyou. “I really don’t think it needs another treatment.”
“Humour me,” Aaron drawled out, turning his full attention back to Kyoko. He found it funny that he was more comfortable being naked in Ukyou’s body than she was, especially in this situation. Not that he didn’t consider Kyoko attractive: she certainly had the body of an attractive woman, and her face was very mature and could have been considered alluring, but Aaron just didn’t think of her in a sexual way. Aaron had been the closest thing to a complete and total asexual human being before his death, and much of his attitude had carried over despite Ukyou’s obvious teenage hormones.
“If you say so,” Kyoko laughed a bit and gestured towards the bed. “Then assume the position, young lady.” Aaron obliged, laying facedown on the hard-stuffed bed. Kyoko leaned over and laid her hands on Ukyou’s back. “I’d almost think you enjoyed this.”
“Actually, I’m just using it as practice,” Aaron pointed out.
“Practice?” Kyoko laughed. “For what?”
Aaron didn’t answer right away. He was too busy focusing his chi. He concentrated on his void aspect, trying to pin down that ethereal energy that was the chi of balance and perception. He could feel Kyoko’s fingers rubbing along Ukyou’s flesh and as he focused the sensation seemed to grow more acute. Then at some point, he began to feel the energy of Kyoko’s technique. The chi flowed from her fingertips, lacing into Ukyou’s flesh in gentle lapping waves. He closed his eyes, willing away all the other sensations of the world. Now he felt the foreign chi sinking deeper into Ukyou’s body, moving with patient purpose through the layers and veins of her physique until it came to the injured ribs. There the energy began to collect, and…
And what? Aaron frowned. He tried even harder to pinpoint the technique’s workings, attempting to block out everything but the chi he could barely sense at the edge of his soul. But the more he focused, the less clear it grew. It was like trying to glimpse the shadow in the corner of your eye. He could feel the sweat dripping from his brow as he pursued the elusive chi through the fields of his consciousness. Time slowed to a crawl as Aaron fought with his own limitations… and ultimately was defeated.
“Damn…” Aaron said, panting to catch his breath as the real world returned in full force to his senses. Ukyou reached up and rubbed her face with both hands. She absently noted that her hair had grown so long that the bangs now fell in front of her eyes. She guessed that stood to reason, since she hadn’t bothered to get a trim since this whole mess had started.
“I must admit,” Kyoko said, reminding both of them that she was still there, “I have never seen someone react so… strongly to one of my massages before.”
Ukyou sat up slowly, trying to look nonchalant as she reached for her shirt. “Actually, I’m trying to focus my senses. Honing them to the point where I can feel exactly what you are doing to me when you use that therapeutic technique of yours.”
“Trying to steal my secrets?” Kyoko said in an amused tone, tapping a pen against her chin.
“Not at all.” Aaron picked up the conversation while Ukyou quickly pulled on her shirt. “My previous teacher was also a doctor. His techniques of healing are very similar to yours. His aren’t quite so immediate, however.” Aaron stretched up one arm and touched the ribs that had been broken only two days ago. “He could have healed this, but it would have taken him weeks. You managed to do most of the work in days.” Aaron chuckled. “You aren’t quite as well-rounded as he is, however. You’re very good at fast healing, but not quite so good at long-term care.”
“I don’t know whether to feel complimented or insulted,” Kyoko mused, mainly to herself. She stood up and walked across the warm little nurse’s office to her desk. “If your teacher is a doctor, why did you come here for help?”
“That… is a long story,” Ukyou said coldly.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to pry.”
Ukyou rolled her eyes. Kyoko never meant to pry, despite doing it constantly since Ukyou had arrived at her office. Granted, a little curiosity was to be expected, but Ukyou had already made it quite clear that she didn’t want to ‘share’ with the nurse.
It wasn’t like Ukyou didn’t think she wanted, even needed, to talk. It was just that she couldn’t seem to make herself comfortable around Kyoko. The woman was much too… sexually charged. It kept putting Ukyou on edge, and made it hard to look past that.
Ukyou finished buttoning up her top as Kyoko left to answer a knock at the door. Ukyou ran a hand through her bangs and slid off the bed to go and stare out the window. The grounds of Justice High School stretched out below her, pristine and immaculate. Also huge. How could such a large school campus exist in the middle of a city so desperate for space as Tokyo was?
“Ukyou, you have a visitor,” Kyoko called out cheerfully.
Ukyou turned quickly, half-expecting to see Ranma or Ran. Both of them had come to see her daily since the fight. But it was still a bit too early for Ranma to be here unless he was skipping school, and Ran rarely came around unless it was with Ranma. So she wasn’t really surprised when it turned out to be neither.
The girl who walked into the room was short, a little shorter than Ukyou herself. She was also underdeveloped, with a physique that more resembled a young boy’s than an adolescent girl’s. She was tomboyishly pretty, however, with a long messy bob cut and a cute face. She was wearing a camouflage t-shirt and tight leather biker pants. A leather jacket was tied securely about her waist. Ukyou knew her, or more accurately Aaron did.
“Akira,” Aaron piped up with a half-smile. “I expected you to be taller.”
“You- you know me?” Akira Kazama stuttered, blinking. She suddenly looked like she wanted to turn around and slink out the door, and the only thing preventing her was how terribly impolite that would be.
“I know a great deal about you.” Aaron shrugged and crossed his arms. He leaned back against the windowsill, enjoying the play of the breeze outside as it toyed with Ukyou’s long hair. “I’m a little surprised to see you, however. You never struck me as the gawker type. Gan or Edge, sure. I’ve gotten a lot of people showing up to pay their respects the last few days, but you were one of the last I expected to meet.”
It was true. Aaron had met a surprising number of the Rival Schools cast since he’d taken up temporary residence in Kyoko’s office. Of course, running into the students and staff of Justice High School was to be expected, but the visits from the kids of other district schools had been surprising. Apparently Aaron had underestimated how influential Ran’s stories were in this part of Tokyo.
“I’m sorry if I disturbed you,” Akira said, bowing awkwardly. “I can come back later, if you…”
“No,” Aaron waved her objections aside. “You obviously came here for a reason, and it wasn’t just to gawk.”
“Umm…” Akira tilted her head to the side and rubbed her chin ruefully. “If you say so.”
Ukyou rolled her eyes and stepped away from the window. “Come on. Let’s walk together.”
“Yes, it’s too stuffy in here…” Ukyou cast a meaningful look at Kyoko, who was leaning forward eagerly on her chair. “And the walls have ears.”
“Hey, I would never snoop into student affairs!” Kyoko protested indignantly.
“But I’m not your student,” Ukyou said with a smirk. “So that makes it okay in my case, indeed?”
“Of cour- I mean, no!”
Akira giggled a bit as Ukyou walked across the room to the door. She made to grab her coat, before remembering that she had been forced to dispose of it. The battle with Rose had burned too many holes in it for it to be of further use.
Akira fell into step beside Ukyou as she made her way down the halls. There were still plenty of students in the building now, even though school was out. It always gave Ukyou and Aaron a bit of cognitive dissonance, since he was so used to schools being virtually deserted once classes ended, and Ukyou was used to the opposite. But moving through the throngs of Justice High students was no problem, as they all parted neatly to allow Ukyou to pass.
Ukyou smiled as she remembered why. On her very first day, she had been visited by Hyo Imawano, the president of Justice High’s student council. The two of them had gotten into a long discussion. It had started out well enough: he had accused her of being a freeloading inferior glory hog, and she had accused him of being a pompous self-deluded hidebound sociopath, and they had degenerated from there into increasingly shrill and vulgar profanities. Ukyou had enjoyed the whole encounter a great deal. Mainly because it had been a good outlet for the frustration she had been feeling for months, but also because it had just felt GOOD to reduce Hyo from his usual solemn, samurai-movie resolve to childish namecalling. Especially when he considered her a ‘guest’ and wouldn’t lift a hand (or sword) to harm her.
Apparently nobody in the entire school, including all but three of the staff, had ever stood up to Hyo before. It had given her a reputation and a great deal of unspoken respect.
She was just glad that she had popped into the Rival Schools part of this universe when its own timeline seemed to be ‘on hiatus’. She had half-expected to have been dragged along for the ride as either Hyo, or later Kurow Kirishima, attempted to take over Japan by brainwashing the fighting students of the Tokyo high school system. It had only taken her a few quick questions to learn that Hyo’s plan had been foiled only a couple of months ago, right around the time she had fought Jadeite…
“What’s wrong?” Akira spoke up suddenly, reminding Ukyou that she was there.
“Oh, nothing…” Ukyou sighed and ran a hand through her hair. “I just remembered something that happened a…” Ukyou blinked. Had it really been so short a time ago? It seemed like years had passed since that climactic battle, but in reality less than ten weeks had crept by. “Anyway, it’s nothing you need to worry about.”
Ukyou and Akira walked in silence for a few more minutes. They left the building and began to walk out into the grounds. Ukyou led Akira on a circuit of the school, circling back until the large empty lot behind the school could be seen. In a few months, they would begin to build a new part of the campus on that lot. A few months after that, Akira would have a dramatic confrontation with her brother in the construction site… and Ukyou wasn’t sure if the boy would survive the battle.
“What did you come here for?” Ukyou said as she leapt up and sat on the top of the wall, still looking out over the vacant lot. Akira hopped up beside her, easily reaching the top of the ten foot wall. She stood on the thin strip of concrete, shading her eyes from the afternoon sun. Her hair blew softly in the breeze.
“I wanted to talk to you…” Akira said slowly. “But I’m not sure why, and I’m not sure about what.”
Akira shrugged. “Ever since I started reading about you… I’ve felt… compelled to do something. Even when you did bad things, I still couldn’t seem to blame you.” She paused. “I think it’s because my brother is the leader of his own gang. He means well, and he does his best to protect me… and even Edge and Gan have good hearts deep down inside. But they do bad things. They steal things, worthless things, they vandalise property, they even get into fights. They’ve never done anything serious… but they could.”
“Ah.” Aaron nodded. “You’re afraid that your brother may end up ‘falling to the dark side’ as it were? Like I did.”
“I’m not saying that!” Akira turned suddenly and crouched beside Ukyou. “You must have had a good reason for what you did-“
“I didn’t,” Aaron said sharply, cutting her off. “I did a very bad thing. I can’t make excuses or apologies for it. And now my actions are going to come back and haunt me. And I deserve it.” Aaron looked away from Akira. “I was stupid, and I made mistakes. Does that make me a bad person? Maybe because I know what I did was wrong, it means I’m not.” Aaron laced his fingers together and rested his chin on them. “But maybe it does. Because I knew they were bad things before I did them, too. I knew they were bad, and I did them anyway. Sometimes I don’t know why I did. But I did.”
“I…” Akira shifted position and sat next to Ukyou, but trailed off.
“I’m sorry, Akira,” Ukyou said into the awkward silence. “I’m not a hero or a role-model. I don’t know what to do about your brother…” Ukyou cocked her head to the side and decided to play a hunch. “I also don’t know how to help you out with what you feel inside.”
“What? Me?” Akira’s hands fluttered nervously. Ukyou cracked a smile at how comical that looked in her huge biker gloves.
“You want to fight too, don’t you?” Ukyou glanced at Akira out of the corner of her eye and saw the smaller girl blush. “Ever since you fought to save your brother the first time. It’s gotten into your blood somehow. The thrill of it. The power and the rush of winning and losing, living or dying on your strength and skill alone. I can see it in your eyes. My friend Ranma has that look about him, and you do too.”
“No way!” Akira shouted, suddenly more forceful than she had been since Ukyou had first seen her. Her hands curled into fists. “I’m just a normal girl. I like bikes, maybe, but I’m not a fighter like my brother!”
“It’s a bad thing to lie to yourself,” Ukyou said philosophically. “Before long, you find yourself lying to everyone else as well. In this world, we are who we are and we can’t really change that. I could no more stop feeling the way I do than I could cut out my own heart, and you can’t stop your own feelings either. Dreaming that we are people we aren’t, or people that we used to be and aren’t anymore, can only lead to ruin. If you ever want to live with yourself, you have to learn to stop trying to be someone else, and learn to start being who you are.”
“You… aren’t talking to me, are you?” Akira said slowly, calming down.
“Not really.” Ukyou stretched her neck. “I’m sorry I said what I did earlier. It’s not right of me to burden you with my amateur psychology.”
“No. I don’t mind… really.” Akira smiled. “I guess what you said does sound right.” She reached up and clutched her shoulders before gazing out over the vacant lot again. “I do feel restless. Like I’m just waiting for something to happen. It’s as if this life I live now is just a waiting room, and the life I will live is rushing towards me. I don’t know whether I should be excited or afraid.”
“That’s up to you,” Ukyou said slowly. “This is just part of growing up, I guess.”
“You sound like you’re not my age, too,” Akira accused with a laugh.
“Indeed… heh.” Ukyou nodded and scratched her temple. “I keep forgetting. I was forced to grow up so fast… I feel like I’m almost forty years old. Like I’ve lived two lives.”
“I guess so,” Akira hitched up one leg and placed her hands on her knee. “In a way I envy you. A few months ago was the first real adventure I’ve ever had. I met so many people, and learned so much. You… you seem to be having a constant adventure.”
“It’s not all it’s cracked up to be,” Aaron pointed out ruefully.
“I’m sure it isn’t,” Akira agreed, deeply serious.
Aaron opened his mouth, then closed it again. Akira was a nice girl. She didn’t deserve a lecture on how horrible Ukyou’s life had been. So instead they sat in companionable silence again. When Akira broke the silence her voice was calm, confident. Her shyness had vanished sometime during their conversation.
“When you did it, when you hurt that boy I mean, can I just ask why you did it?”
“I’m not really sure…” Ukyou said honestly. “I can only say I did it because I wanted to. Because I enjoyed it. I was in the middle of a rush, a sort of bloodlust, I guess…. except it’s not really the right way to describe it.”
“Oh?” Akira turned her head and regarded Ukyou again. “How would you describe it?”
Ukyou frowned. Well, Aaron was supposed to be such a great writer. He would have to figure out a way to explain the feeling. “I felt… free,” Aaron told her, and Ukyou nodded along. “That’s it exactly. I felt like I was free. I had stepped beyond my normal life. I didn’t experience fear, or pity or regret. When I step beyond myself, I exist in a state where everything is pure: beautiful and terrible, but so unimaginably real. Like someone wiping the fog from a mirror, I saw much clearer than I ever had before, and I loved what I saw. I lost myself in the ecstasy of the fight.” Ukyou frowned and added, “But the reason I am afraid now is because when I think back on it, when I totally lost control… I liked it.”
“Ecstasy of the fight…” Akira shook her head. “I’d never really say I ever felt that way before. When I fight… I’m afraid and excited and a thousand other things. Every moment of the battle is a struggle against myself as much as it is against my opponent.”
“It’s like that for me most of the time, too,” Ukyou admitted. “It’s just when I tap…” She had been about to say ‘when she tapped Aaron’s chi’ but Akira would have no idea what she meant. “There is a power inside me. A power that I don’t think anybody else has. Something special. When I tap that power is when I feel that way.”
“You mean you’ve felt that way before?” Akira said, sounding surprised.
“Yes…” Ukyou rose her head from her hands. “Before and since. In my fight against Jadeite, and the fight with Rose.”
“Did… anything bad happen?”
“Bad?” Ukyou looked at Akira, perplexed. “Aside from me being beaten half to death?”
“No…” Akira rolled one of her hands in the air, looking for some words to express what she was trying to say. “I mean… Did you do anything during either of those fights that you regret now?”
“Not really…” Ukyou paused. “I mean, Rose beat me pretty soundly even when I tapped my full potential, and Jadeite had basically already been beaten when I got the full effect. All I did was hit him when he was helpless…”
“And you don’t regret that?” Akira sounded surprised.
“Huh? Should I?” Aaron scratched his chin. “I mean, Jadeite barely qualified as human. And he was Evil with a capital ‘E’. And I spared his life in the end. I could have killed him…”
“Spared his life?” Akira turned her eyes away and gazed down at the ground. “What did you do to him?”
“I broke his neck…” Aaron said slowly.
“You mean you crippled him, just like you did Hayato?”
Neither Aaron nor Ukyou had any response to that.
“Are you sure that’s all you’ve ever done with this power?” Akira asked, her voice taking on a sort of solemn excitement.
“Those are the only times I’ve ever felt that way…” Ukyou mused aloud. But it hadn’t been the only time she had ever used that power. She had first tapped into Aaron’s chi during the first fight against Jadeite’s minion at the Cherry Hill Temple… “No. Wait. I used the power a few other times. But I was drained of my normal chi at the time…” Aaron closed his eyes and rubbed his temples, trying to recall that first fight. “I… I did sort of brutally attack that monster. But… it was a monster…”
“It was?” Akira prompted.
“And then I did that thing to Sailor Moon…” Aaron opened his eyes. “Then there was the fight with Chris. I was using the power during most of that confrontation. And I just couldn’t let go of my anger. Everything else seemed to drift away but the fact that Chris was hurting me… hurting me deep down inside and challenging who I was…” Ukyou had taken over narration somewhere along the line. “I never… I never even considered his feelings. I just… he was a monster…”
“Ukyou? Who is Chris?”
“No…” Ukyou stood up suddenly, almost lost her balance. “That can’t be right.” But the more Ukyou and Aaron thought about it, the more it began to make sense. In every confrontation which involved that unnamed power, it had gotten progressively worse. First justified anger, then unjustified… then righteous punishment, then meaningless brutality… it was a steady progression. How could they have been so blind? How could they not have SEEN it before?
“Akira! I could kiss you!” Ukyou shouted. Akira’s eyes snapped wide and she almost tumbled off the wall. Ukyou laughed and caught her before she fell. “You opened up my eyes.”
“I did?” Akira said, obviously confused. Ukyou smiled down at her and lowered her safely to ground level.
“Yes. I can see it now…” Ukyou said, hopping down. “This power inside me… it hurts me. It always has. But I’ve only ever seen what it did to my body. I never considered what it did to my mind!”
“I’m… glad I could help?” Akira said nervously, rubbing the back of her neck.
“And what if the effects linger?” Ukyou mused. “That would explain why I’ve gotten so callous lately. I mean… I used to care a lot more. I’m pretty sure I should have felt sorry about what I did to Hayato…” Aaron shook their head. “No. That doesn’t explain it all.” Akira just stared at them. “I actually did a lot of shitty things before I started using that power. No… I can’t just blame the power for it. That’s the easy way out.” Aaron frowned and looked up at the sky.
“But it makes too much sense to ignore it,” he admitted aloud. “This hidden potential. Whatever it is… it’s damaging my mind. I can’t use it.”
“I’m sorry, Akira.” Aaron turned and bowed slightly. “I was talking mainly to myself the last few minutes.”
“Oh…” Akira shrugged. “I guess you’re entitled.”
“Heh.” Aaron shook his head. “But I can’t thank you enough.” He turned and gestured for her to follow him as he started back towards the school. “It seems I’m not nearly so smart as I allowed myself to believe. First the Fungus, then you… It appears that not listening to people has been my problem all along. Well, that’s about to change. If I can’t be the hero, I can at least not be a monster.”
“Can… can I help?” Akira said slowly.
“You…” Ukyou looked over her shoulder. “No, Akira. I can’t ask you to fight these battles with me.” She stopped and suddenly grabbed the smaller girl by the shoulder. Akira’s eyes widened. “Listen to me. Your brother is in great danger and needs you much more than I do. Not now, but soon, he is going to run afoul of a monster of a man named Kurow. You have to be there for him now, protect him. I can’t take you away from that.”
“My brother… wait, what are you talking about?”
“Come with me. I’ll tell you everything I know as we walk back. I have some phone calls to make.”
Chris scanned the school, shielding his eyes unnecessarily from the mid-afternoon sun. It certainly didn’t look like anything was happening. There were no soldiers surrounding the place. Instead, a single unmarked black van was parked outside the entrance, partially blocking it off. The entire place seemed to be deserted, however. Not a single soul could be seen on the grounds, and the windows of the school reflected too much of the sunshine for him to see inside. The lot where all the teacher’s cars should have been parked was also deserted, except for another unmarked black van.
Chris sighed. Well, it wasn’t like Chronos really grasped the concept of ‘subtle’ when it came to their operations. Then again, since they controlled the media… and the police… and the government… they didn’t really have to.
No explosions yet, though. Hopefully that meant the battle hadn’t started, and the vans meant it also probably wasn’t over already. He glanced behind him: Cologne was sitting calmly on her staff as usual, and Shampoo was sharpening the edge of her sword with a whetstone. He’d made it clear that killing the enemy was not only an option, but practically a necessity on this mission: it looked like her weaponry reflected that.
“They’re here, all right. I don’t know where the Senshi might be, though. Do you notice anything, Cologne?”
The old woman shook her head. “I sense nothing unusual.”
He looked back at the school. “Then they probably haven’t transformed yet. In that case, let’s move. If you notice anything that’s a clue to them – the zoanoids and the Senshi will likely be the only ones in the school – just change directions and I’ll follow.”
Without waiting for a response, he hopped from the building down to the street. There were a few trees within the grounds of the school; he leaped over the wall into the midst of them, hoping they provided enough cover so they wouldn’t be noticed approaching. It was almost summer, and a few of the school’s windows were open: only on the top floor, though. Irksome. Climbing up there with his huge backpack full of clattering canisters of Jyusenkyou water would be a pain to try to do quietly, even though that’s probably where the Senshi were being led to in order to prevent easy escape.
No help for it, then. There was a fire exit door on the side of the school. He ran up to it, then looked back at Shampoo. Motioning with one finger to his lips, he made a gesture at the lock.
The Chinese girl paused for a moment, then sauntered forward and casually shoved her sword through the lock. It did make a small sound not unlike that of a blade sliding into a sheath, but nothing compared to breaking a window. Nodding to her, he walked up and pried the door open.
Inside was a stairwell, of course, which was just what he wanted. He ran lightly up the stairs, reaching the third and final floor in seconds. He paused for a moment to listen at the door, but heard nothing. Carefully opening it a crack, he peered down the hallway, but it was deserted.
Slipping through the door, he dashed down the corridor, pausing to peer briefly into each classroom that he passed. Or at least that was the idea, but in fact he never got past the first one. Inside, he saw the bodies of several students splayed across their desks, their eyes vacant and horrible wounds gaping through their school uniforms.
“Well, if you had any doubts of what I said…” he whispered, letting the sentence trail off.
Cologne frowned, while Shampoo looked faintly nauseated.
Had they already done this to the Sailor Senshi? No, they planned an “extraction”. They had to be wanting to get their hands on the Senshi’s unusual abilities to study. So the girls had to still be alive, for the moment.
Moving forward again, he resumed checking out the various classrooms. A few were deserted, but most contained at least one, if not several bodies, both students and teachers. His lip curled. More of that lack of subtlety. And, oh yes, that unremittent evil.
To his mild surprise, there didn’t seem to be anything on the third floor. He was about to head towards the stairwell when he felt something tapping his shoulder. He looked over at Cologne.
“Something’s happening outside,” she hissed. “I sense violent energy.”
He swore. “What direction?” he began, but Cologne was already moving off to the nearest window. He followed. A quick flash of the old woman’s staff shattered the window soundlessly. Well, that would have helped in getting in, if he’d known about it. Putting that aside, he followed her as she leaped through the opening created.
As he was falling through the air, he took a second (about exactly that, actually) to look around, but didn’t see anything in the immediate area. Cologne landed and started running towards a large outbuilding that he immediately recognised as a gymnasium. His second choice for an ambush site… and one that made the slaughter of the schoolchildren even more pointless. Bastards.
As they reached the door to the gymnasium, he flicked out a teaspoon and snapped the padlock, then yanked the door open, hoping the hinges were decently oiled. Not enough time to be cautious here, though.
Emanating from the entrance came the welcome, relieving sound of Usagi Tsukino protesting, “-go of me, you creep!”
He held up a hand to Cologne and Shampoo. The Hyper-Zoanoid Team 5 were probably in reserve in case the regular ones failed – he wanted to take them off-guard. For the moment, he looked inside: he saw the gym floor, but a long string of bleachers were blocking his view of Usagi and whoever was assaulting her. Of course, it would be blocking their view of him, too. He slipped inside, glancing around to see if any Chronos soldiers were in eyesight, then upon seeing the coast was clear for the moment, creeped up to the bleachers to get a better look.
At the far end of the gymnasium, there was a large set of open double doors. About a dozen Chronos soldiers were standing there as guards. In the exact middle of the floor was…
Well, he’d expected that. The giant humanoid rhinoceros-beetle-like leader of Team 5 was standing in the middle of the floor. His chitinous hands swallowed up Usagi’s shoulders and most of her arms, holding the loudly protesting girl (she had transformed, he noticed) nearly three feet off the ground.
There were no other hyper-zoanoids that he noticed. Though there was a naked man near ZX-Tole and Usagi, sitting on the floor and looking dazed. Odd.
He couldn’t splash ZX-Tole with the Spring of Octopus water he was holding without risking hitting Usagi as well. But this was the one member of Team 5 Chris was sure he couldn’t defeat. Damnit.
Thankfully, the hyper-zoanoid didn’t appear to be doing much of anything at the moment. His glassy, emotionless insectile eyes were staring at the ceiling. Receiving psychic instruction from one of the Zoalords? Possible. In any case, it gave Chris a chance to get the advantage of surprise.
He tossed the rest of his bag to Shampoo. “Take care of this. I’m going to get their attention. If you get a chance in the confusion, take Usagi and get the hell out of here.”
Cologne started translating in a low voice, but Chris was already focusing his attention back on the hyper-zoanoid. Tucking the Spring of Octopus water into his pocket, he threaded a ribbon through his fingers. He didn’t expect to impress ZX-Tole and his armored carapace which could absorb hits from gravity wells much with his batons or teaspoons, but if he could lure the hyper-zoanoid into giving up Usagi and fighting him, he could hopefully hit him with the water. And hope it worked.
Where were the other Senshi? And the rest of Team 5? Well, no time to worry about that now. He leaped up, touched off the bleachers, and soared into the air directly above Usagi and ZX-Tole. His ribbon lashed out, curling around the zoanoid’s conveniently prominent beetle-like forked horn. Plunging to the ground, he yanked on the ribbon with all his might, hoping to pull the massive monster off-balance.
It almost worked. ZX-Tole staggered back a step before bracing himself with one foot, causing the gymnasium floor to crack.
“Heh heh,” the hyper-zoanoid laughed in his insectile buzzing voice. “I knew you’d show up sooner or later.”
Knew he’d show… oh, ZX-Tole must think he was Tuxedo Mask. How insulting. Even as he thought that, ZX-Tole yelled “GET HIM!” and the zoanoids at the door began to transform.
Five of them went down instantly, caught in mid-transformation by his hurled batons. “Not quite,” he informed ZX-Tole dryly.
He really, really wished either of his learned combat styles included a strong hand-to-hand weapon, or even proper training in how to fight with fists. But hindsight was 20/20. ZX-Tole was turning, hopefully providing an opportunity. Flicking out a teaspoon into his fingers, Chris dashed in fast and low, driving the utensil into the back of his knee at the chitinous joint, where it… promptly snapped like a toothpick while not doing any noticeable damage. Aw, shit.
ZX-Tole kicked backwards, catching Chris with deceptive speed and sending him flying back into the bleachers. Well, he’d figured he couldn’t beat the hyper-zoanoid leader. But he’d at least gotten his attention.
As he climbed out of the shattered bleachers, ZX-Tole had completed his turn to face him. He’d also shifted his grip on Usagi, and was now holding the Sailor Senshi by the wrists with one chitin-covered hand, letting her dangle off the floor. His other arm was pointing at Chris. “Hah!” he rasped. “Your pathetic flowers are- huh? Who the hell…”
Usagi meanwhile, had gone from panic to joy. “Yay! Somebody’s here to save – hey, who’re you?”
He dusted himself off as he returned to his feet. “Just your wandering friendly neighbourhood dead guy. So, ZX-Tole, Chronos has stooped to sending you out to kidnap little girls? How… pedestrian. Aren’t you bored?”
The hyper-zoanoid paused, quirking his head to the side. Then he laughed/hissed. “Oh, it’s just one of those… martial artist things.” The central horn on his head slid back, revealing the glowing crystalline ‘eye’ underneath. “Well, we have enough of your kind already, and I don’t need YOU in one piece.”
This, Chris decided, would be a good time to dodge, and accordingly did so just before the flashing arc of lethal red light sliced out and smashed into the remains of the bleachers, reducing them to ash in a huge explosion.
Since he didn’t believe in wasting movement, Chris aimed his dodge to take him towards the group of remaining zoanoids, who were… well, they weren’t quite clapping and waving flags, but they didn’t seem eager to rush into a hyper zoanoid’s line of fire, either. That was okay – Chris brought the fight to them. Also the line of fire.
They were all Ramotiths. Cannon fodder. Hairy monkey-bat cannon fodder. Chris treated them as such. Of course, being as he was the one doing the fighting, he actually DID get to see all the blows he was landing, instead of just flashing through them and then watching them all slowly crumpling into piles of dissolving goop. But the effect was much the same, except for the ‘slowly dissolving’ part, since just after he’d passed through them, ZX-Tole’s next blasts ripped out the front of the gymnasium and disintegrated their bodies in a cascading series of explosions.
Sailor Moon screamed “My god, you destroyed your own people!” Well, that was an expected sort of response from her, Chris guessed. ZX-Tole, for his part, continued to ignore her, opening up the pod on his arm to reveal the triple-bank of organic lasers there. He promptly used them to take another shot at Chris, who barely got out of the way in time.
He wouldn’t be able to keep this up forever – or even for long. And ZX- Tole was being very careful not to let Sailor Moon out of his grasp. Well, he was the smartest of Team 5 by far, too.
Chris landed nearby on a relatively smooth portion of the shattered landscape that used to be a gymnasium, prepared to move again… and then heard a distinctive whine in the air. Oh. Shit.
He jumped forward towards ZX-Tole, hoping that Gaster had been erring on the side of caution with his shot. His gamble paid off as the staccato explosions of the artillery hyper-zoanoid’s liquid missiles ripped apart the ground behind him. Of course, that brought him into reach of ZX-Tole, who swung out his massive fist and knocked Chris back again.
Thankfully, being dead, Chris was neither dazed nor stunned by the blow, even though it had caught him straight on the temple. But the hyper-zoanoids wouldn’t know that, so he tumbled when he reached the ground and sprawled out on his back, feigning being stunned. One of them would make their move, and that would leave them vulnerable… hopefully.
A whine in the air answered the question of “whom”. The missiles were coming from above, and annoyingly in all directions. For a split second, he followed the vapour trails back and saw Gaster’s crimson demonic face leering from a hole in the ceiling before he was forced to spring back to life and roll away from the missiles before they impacted.
ZX-Tole was between him and the main doors, so he rolled towards one of the side doors. He couldn’t kill ZX-Tole, but he was pretty sure he could destroy Gaster if he could go mano-a-mano with the artillery zoanoid. Gaster was continuing to fire, but that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, since it would obscure ZX-Tole’s view of him. He feinted to the side towards ZX-Tole, hoping Gaster would lead his path with the missiles, then made a mad dash for the door, so he could get outside and-
And there were twelve missiles streaking in through the ceiling, the holes in the wall, the shattered remains of the main doors, converging on… well, given the blast radius of a single missile, they were pretty much converging on “the entire half of the gymnasium”. Chris had just enough time to think that that was a pretty bad thing before-
Before there was a streak through the air, and a half-dozen missiles exploded harmlessly above Chris’s head, the rest detonating a relatively safe distance away. Cologne landed in front of him. Chris spared a nod for her before resuming his mad dash, smashing through the side door.
Out of the corner of his eye, he barely saw a flash of red light arc out… and then bank to the side sharply, cutting yet another chunk of gymnasium wall out. Wow. Cologne had those mad wind ninja skillz, no doubt. Not that he had had any doubts.
He leaped up, found purchase on a windowsill, and leaped again, reaching the roof. Gaster was turning to face him. The crimson hyper-zoanoid was raising his arms, bulges on the forearms pulsating as the nozzles on his wrists opened. That meant… yes! Chris smirked as he saw that the enormous, distended sacks of flash on Gaster’s shoulders contained only crater-like pockmarks. No missiles left, which left only the sprayers on his forearms as conveyors for his explosive liquid stores. For at least a few moments.
Chris charged, and let fly with several batons, but Gaster managed to blow them out of the air, leaping backwards. The roof, Chris noted, was filled with holes, making footing treacherous, and it also creaked dangerously as he put his weight on it. That was to be expected too, he guessed.
Back to Gaster. Best to goad him into an attack. Chris poured on the speed, flashing up to the hyper-zoanoid as fast as he could and waiting for the telltale signs of an oncoming liquid spray. One hand dropped to his pocket, grasping the canteen of Jyusenkyou water.
The artillery zoanoid wasn’t entirely stupid. He whipped his arm around as if delivering a backhand, pouring out a thick wall of explosive liquid. Chris took a step and then leaped straight up as straight and true as only a martial arts death machine could. Mentally crossing his fingers, he ripped the top off the canteen and turned Gaster’s trick against him, holding his thumb partially over the opening and whipped his arm across his chest. A sheet of cursed water splashed out.
Gaster had enough time to look up. His distorted, only vaguely human-like bat-face twisted into an approximation of confusion as he saw the water approach him. Then he became an octopus.
Chris breathed a sigh of relief. He hadn’t been absolutely sure that would work. But it had. Gaster hadn’t turned into a cute little octopus like Hayato’s pet: it was a big, ugly, sea-dwelling sort of thing, with flailing suckered tentacles and big bulging eyes that had a distinct sense of, well, continued and now acute confusion.
Chris put an end to the confusion in the most decisive way possible by putting his foot through Gaster-pus’s brain. Three times, just to be sure. Then he punted the slimy remains away and dropped through one of the holes in the ceiling.
Sometime while he had been occupied with Gaster, Sailor Moon had somehow escaped – or, more likely, been helped by Cologne – from ZX-Tole’s grasp, and was now being hustled by Shampoo out of the room. Still in the middle of the gym, the old woman and the leader of the Hyper-Zoanoid Team 5 (4?) were facing off. All of ZX-Tole’s laser eyes were exposed and glowing with terrible energy. There seemed to be so many MORE of them when seeing them in person, as opposed to the comfortable distance of a TV screen or comic book page.
As he landed, the zoanoid rasped, “If you think you’re going to get away with her, you fools obviously have no idea what you are up against. Nothing can prevent our victory!” The laser eyes’ glow intensified. ALL of them intensified, and Chris could now feel a little of that ‘terrible violent energy’ in the air himself.
Well, this was hardly any better than them succeeding at kidnapping Sailor Moon, so he sprang into action. Once again mentally crossing his fingers, he hurled the canteen and its remaining contents at ZX-Tole.
One of his insectile arms changed trajectories and blew the canteen to vapour with a flash of scarlet light. Well, so much for that.
But the distraction proved enough for Cologne. Even as the Jyusenkyou water vanished, she flashed forward almost too fast for Chris to follow, her staff snapping out in a circular motion. Then ZX-Tole was flying backward, his enormous bulk tearing an equally enormous hole in the wall.
That seemed to be about it for the gym: a ominous-sounding rumble emanated from the structure, and progressively larger chunks of the ceiling began crashing to the floor. “Run!” Chris snapped, taking off after where Shampoo and Usagi had gone. ZX-Tole was definitely a fight that could wait for another day. Or never, with any luck.
They fled the collapsing gym, leaping over the wall and to the roof of a nearby building and then the next and the next. All the time, his mind was racing. There had been only two of Team 5 there, and only Usagi. There was only one conclusion he could draw.
After they’d cleared about five buildings, he held up his hand to stop their flight, and looked over at Sailor Moon, who Shampoo was still carrying.
“Wait. Usagi. Where are the other Sailor Senshi?”
“They’re… hey, wait, how do you know my na- I mean, the name of that beautiful junior high school student who I have no relation to and-“
“Usagi!” he broke in. “There is no time for this – there’s more of those things, just as strong, attacking your friends. Where. Are. They!?”
Sailor Moon stared at him for a few seconds, looking faintly intimidated – at his tone, his demeanour, or his rotting arm, he didn’t know. Probably all three. “I- I don’t know…”
“Don’t you have some sort of Sailor communicator or something?” Did they have it at this point in the series? He couldn’t remember…
She snapped her fingers. “Oh yeah!” Shampoo chose that moment to drop her in an undignified heap on the rooftop. “Ow! You people don’t act much like heroic saviors!”
He sighed. “I’m sorry, but those things killed every single student and teacher that were still in your school. They are not nice, so at the moment, I can’t be taking time to be nice either, understand?”
“Chris, you’re frightening the poor girl,” Cologne pointed out.
“She performs better under pressure,” Chris explained shortly. “Usagi, your friends’ lives are in danger. We need to act as quickly as possible.”
“Ri… right.” Usagi fumbled her communicator out from… somewhere. She began to tap wildly at the buttons. “Ami! Mako-chan! Rei! Come in! Somebody, anybody!”
There was a hiss of static from the tiny credit card-sized device, and a voice he vaguely recognised came through. “Usagi…” the voice groaned. She sounded like she was in pain, confirming his fears.
“Mako-chan, where are you? We’ll come help you!” Usagi cried.
“No! Usagi, stay away! They’re too strong!”
There was a sudden, violent electrical crackle over the line, and Sailor Jupiter screamed. So, Elegen at least was there. Thinking over it, Chris realised how perfectly suited Team 5 was to specific Senshi. Elegen was immune to Sailor Jupiter’s thunder attacks, and his incredibly powerful electrical field would prevent her from using hand to hand attacks against him. Derzerb was impervious to flame and most everything else, making him easily able to take out Sailor Mars. And that left Thancrus for Sailor Mercury. Could he use those eel-like antennae of his to find her through her sight-obscuring mist? Even if he couldn’t, Ami had no offensive capability worth mentioning at this point in the series. It would only be a matter of time.
Usagi was screaming for her friend through the communicator, but got no response. Damn it. “Was Rei going anywhere that you knew of today?”
“We were all supposed to meet at her shrine,” she said absently, looking up at Chris with a shell-shocked expression.
He put a hand on her shoulder. She recoiled away in horror, and he realised too late he had used his rotting left arm for that purpose. But he pressed forward. “All right. Usagi, you need to point us to the temple so we can get there as soon as possible. If we can at least rescue Rei, that’s something. We can save Ami and Makoto later. Chronos won’t kill them yet, but we need to move NOW. Can you do it?” Of course she could. Usagi always rose to the needs of the moment.
And she did. Usagi stared at him, then stood, rubbing tears from her eyes, and pointed imperiously into the distance. “That way,” she said, with the voice of a queen.
“So, why was Akira rushing out of here in such a hurry?”
“Hmm?” Ukyou was leaning against the chainlink wall that surrounded the roof of Justice High School. She flicked a hand through her bangs, brushing the hair away from her eyes before turning to look at Ran. “She’s rushing to try and find her brother. He’s in danger…” Ukyou crossed her arms. “I forgot that he left right after Hyo’s little failed coup attempt.” Ukyou glanced over her shoulder at the main gate of the school. “I hope she finds him.”
“Brother in trouble?” Ran perked up. Her reporter-senses were tingling.
“If you want, I can tell you all about it. Later.” Ukyou turned her attention back to Ran. Ran shrugged, considering that as good as a promise for an exclusive interview. She stretched slightly and walked further across the roof.
“So, why exactly did you call me? You never bothered to do so before.”
“Indeed…” Ukyou shrugged, absently cracking her knuckles. “Actually, I called you and Ranma. You just got here first because you live closer.”
“Heh.” Ran grinned. “I knew it. And I bet he’s rushing over here as we speak.” Ran shook her head and walked over to the chainlink. “He’d drop everything to come help you out, if you asked. You know that?”
Ukyou gave Ran a long, unreadable stare, but said nothing. Ran chuckled to herself. Ukyou must think her expressions were hard to decipher, but Ran was beginning to get into her head. That cold look meant she didn’t really want to talk about the subject; at least, not that she would admit to herself.
“He really likes you. You’re probably the best friend he has,” Ran said, chuckling. “Too bad he doesn’t have a clue that you’re in love with him.”
“I…” Ukyou sighed. “Okay, Ran. You’re right. We need to talk about that.” Ukyou shifted her stance. “I’m not blind, Ran. I saw how you and Ranma were…” Ukyou searched for the right word for a moment, waving her hand in the air. “…interacting.”
“Well, if you don’t want to pussyfoot around, I guess I don’t either,” Ran said with a smirk. “I like Ranma. A lot. He’s cute and endearing in a dumb jock kind of way.” Ran adjusted her vest. “I think he likes me, too.”
“Good for you,” Ukyou replied in a cold tone.
“You still haven’t admitted that you like him. Much less how much you do.”
“It’s… hard for me,” Ukyou said, suddenly sighing. The ice melted from her voice as she continued. “A part of me really loves Ranma. It has for… over a decade now. I’m not sure what true love is, Ran. Or even if it exists. But this is a feeling I know is as close to true love as I will probably ever get. The funny thing is… I can’t really explain why. I mean… he’s attractive, but for some reason that means less to me than it probably should. He’s kind and loyal and honest, in his own way… but is he really something that special? I don’t know if he is or not. I’m beginning to realise I barely know him at all.” Ukyou crossed her arms over her breasts. “And maybe that’s part of it. I want to know about him. About what he really is. I want to laugh with him and cry with him and spend the rest of my life trying to understand him.” Ukyou chuckled wryly. “It sounds so stupid when I say it out loud… but I can’t help the way I feel.”
“It… doesn’t sound stupid,” Ran admitted. She was a bit taken aback by the sudden intensity in Ukyou’s voice. Her tone was so calm, so warm and casual but at the same time there was a power there. Listening to her talk was like stepping into a strong current.
“Yes it does,” Ukyou argued half-heartedly. “Believe me, I know.” Ukyou looked up at the sky, but her eyes were closed. “Because a part of me can’t help but see it as that.” Ukyou frowned. “Love is an illusion to that part of me. A word society made up to make us all feel like we aren’t just animals, rutting in the dark. Love at first sight? Love everlasting? Fairy tales. Wishes. Nothing but a thin veneer we put on lust and desire. And when the lust runs dry, and it ALWAYS runs dry, what happens to love then? It fades away.” Ukyou grimaced in disgust. “And the thought of it disgusts me. Sex. Is that the big excuse for all the pain and idiocy? It makes me sick, thinking that us humans waste so much of our lives obsessing over such a trivial thing.”
“That… is a real big load of crap,” Ran chuckled. Man, for a minute there, she had almost felt sorry for Ukyou. Ukyou blinked her eyes open and looked at Ran in startlement.
“What did you say?”
“Oh please.” Ran rolled her eyes. “Is that your big excuse for not telling Ranma how you feel?” Ran stepped away from the chainlink, shaking her head. “I’ve seen some people stuck up about sex, but you take the cake.”
“It’s more than that…” Ukyou hissed. “You don’t understand-“
“Oh, I understand,” Ran cut Ukyou off, still chuckling. “The thing is, you don’t.” Ran spun to face Ukyou, hands on her hips. “What your real problem is, is fear.”
“Fear?” Ukyou’s eyes narrowed dangerously. “You think I’m afraid to tell Ranma how I feel? You don’t have a clue.”
“Oh yeah?” Ran said, smirking. “Prove it, then. He’s on his way here. When he gets here, tell him.”
“What?” Ukyou blinked.
“Tell him how you feel.” Ran paused and ran a finger along the side of her neck. “No. That’s too much. How about just asking him out on a date?”
“A… date…” Ukyou said slowly.
“Yes. Just a simple date.” Ran smiled maliciously. “It’s just a single date. Maybe dinner and a movie. No sex need be involved.”
“Heh. I thought as much.” Ran walked up to Ukyou and poked her between the breasts. It was easier to do so now that Ukyou hadn’t bound them up. “I tell you what: You ask him out on a date, just one date, and I’ll back off. But if you don’t do it… I’m going to. And if he says yes… well.” Ran smiled. “I guess you have noone but yourself to blame then.”
Ukyou stared into Ran’s face for a long moment. She pulled her finger back, shaking it to try and work out a sudden chill. Ukyou opened her mouth to respond…
“Hey, there you two are!”
Both girls turned at once to see Ranma standing in the stairwell. He stepped out onto the roof, smiling like a loon. Then he stopped, suddenly moving self-consciously. He glanced nervously over his shoulder, then patted himself down.
“What? Is something going on that I should know about?” he said, rubbing the back of his neck.
“Nothing much, stud,” Ran said, smiling and walking over to him. “Ukyou and I were just talking about girl stuff.”
“Oh…” Ranma glanced at Ukyou, then back at Ran. “Whatever. I keep forgetting Ucchan is a girl.”
Ran saw Ukyou wince slightly out of the corner of her eye. She smiled.
“I think Ukyou has something she wanted to ask you, though.”
“Well yeah,” Ranma said with a grin. “She told me on the phone that we need to find Sailor Moon so we can take care of this Hayato guy. Personally, I don’t see why…”
“No. Not about that.” Ran glanced down, seeing that Ranma was still carrying his phone on his belt. “Isn’t that right, Ukyou? Didn’t you have something you wanted to ask Ranma?”
Ran took an involuntary step back at the look Ukyou was giving her. It was a look of such pure, cold hatred that Ran could feel it at the bottom of her gut. For a moment, Ran was sure Ukyou was going to attack her. Then she saw the young woman visibly relax, her fists uncurling and her body slumping.
“No, Ran.” Ukyou sighed. “I…” She ran a hand through her bangs. “I guess I don’t have anything to say.”
Ran opened her mouth, about to say something teasing. Then she stopped. For some reason, she felt bad. But she shook off the feeling. If Ukyou didn’t want to fight for Ranma, Ran wasn’t going to lose any sleep over it. Besides… it’s not like she planned to marry the guy. Ranma was fun and all, but they HAD just met. Maybe if Ukyou decided to get over whatever her problem was, they could have a proper competition.
Suddenly, Ran felt she was looking forward to that.
“We have important things to discuss though,” Ukyou pointed out, her voice suddenly all business. “We do need to go find Sailor Moon, Ranma. Because that is the only way we can save Hayato.”
“Save him?” Ranma said, blinking. “But the guy is trying to kill you!”
“Indeed,” Ukyou nodded. “And Hayato has every reason to do so. I destroyed his life. I don’t blame him for wanting me dead.” She frowned. “Nonetheless, I have to save him.”
“Save him from what?” Ran asked leadingly.
“I never told you about the Dark Kingdom, did I?” Ukyou asked. Ran shook her head. “Hmmm. Well, to make a long story short, they are ancient monsters that want to take over the world. Jadeite, the guy I fought at Narita, was one of their leaders.”
“I see…” Ran nodded, pulling a pen and notebook from her vest. “So, they have a reason to want to get back at you, since you killed one of their leaders?”
“I didn’t kill him!” Ukyou snapped, then sighed. “Sorry. But… Pluto killed Jadeite. Uh, Sailor Pluto, that is. You were there.”
“I’m guessing that the Dark Kingdom isn’t the kind of group that splits hairs on that kind of thing,” Ran deadpanned.
“You’re right, they aren’t.” Ukyou nodded. “I’m guessing that they’ve been waiting for a chance to get back at me, and Hayato offered them a perfect opportunity.”
“How so?” Ranma prompted, leaning against the chainlink and crossing his arms.
“The Dark Kingdom can… turn human beings into youma, a type of monster.” Ukyou paused. “I’m not sure if that’s what they’ve done to Hayato, or something else. But I remember him mentioning Queen Beryl: that’s the ruler of the Dark Kingdom. He must have struck some sort of deal with them to overcome the damage I did to him.” Ukyou’s voice took on a melancholy air. “I can’t blame him. But I can’t… let him do this either.”
“Especially since he wants to kill you,” Ranma pointed out. “Listen. I can see why you have mixed feelings, but c’mon. The guy is a jerk, Ucchan. If we have to beat him down, we do it.”
“Ranma… nevermind.” Ukyou rubbed her neck absently. “We won’t have to. Sailor Moon has the power to undo whatever the Dark Kingdom did to Hayato. If they turned him into a youma, she can heal him. If they did something else, I’m sure that she can save him.”
“And what makes you think I want to be saved, Kuonji?”
Ranma reacted first. He was already launching himself into the air, pirouetting… but not fast enough. A sudden wall of water washed over them. Ran felt herself slam into the fence, the metal links pressing painfully against her cheek. She opened her mouth to scream but only swallowed water.
As suddenly as the deluge had come, it was gone. Ran fell to her knees, coughing and gasping. She glanced out and saw that Ranma hadn’t been as lucky as her. The blast had sent him spiralling over the fence and plummeting three stories to the school grounds below. He had formed a small crater upon landing, but she could see him stirring.
“You didn’t think I would give you too long to plan, did you?”
Ran turned her attention back to the roof. Hayato was standing in the centre of the wide rooftop, his arms crossed and his ugly face sneering. Behind him a swirling disk of water flickered in the afternoon sunshine. Ukyou was getting to her feet next to Ran.
“Hayato…” Ukyou said slowly. “This was very stupid. Do you realise that this school is full of people as strong, if not stronger, than Ranma?”
“Of course I do,” Hayato said, cocking his head to the side. “I can sense their energy. Like the bouquet of a fine wine, it drifts around this entire building.”
“Then why would you be stupid enough to think-“
Ran blinked. Somehow Hayato had crossed the roof without her noticing. He was now standing next to Ukyou, his hand wrapped around her throat. She coughed and clutched at his wrist.
“I did this because I wanted to prove I could kill you anytime I wanted. No one can stop me.” Hayato smirked, an ugly, dangerous smirk. “And no one will.”
Ran pulled a newspaper from her vest, snapping it rigid with a flick of her wrist. “Put her down…”
Even as she spoke, Hayato spun and flung Ukyou. Ran’s eyes widened and she dove for the girl, but her fingers fell short as Ukyou impacted the upright whirlpool and vanished. Ran grunted as she skidded along the ground. Then she felt Hayato’s boot on her back.
“You don’t think I’m foolish enough to fight her here?” Hayato said, laughing. “I have a special place just perfect for her demise.” Hayato leaned down and whispered into her ear. “Make sure you get her friends together and come looking for her. In about a half-hour, she’ll be dead. But I would hate to see you all lose the chance to bury her.”
Ran tried to buck Hayato off of her, but was rewarded with a stunning kick to her side. The air exploded from her lungs and she rocked back, clutching her ribs. Hayato laughed and walked across the roof, stepping idly into the portal. Ran wanted to scream, but was too busy trying to catch her breath. Then Hayato, and his portal, were gone.
Rei didn’t even notice the wall giving away, nor did she notice hitting the hard tile of the shrine’s courtyard and skidding across it. She didn’t even notice crashing into the tree that finally halted her momentum. She was too busy feeling the aftershocks of Derzerb’s casual backhand.
She groaned, trying to get her legs to work. A string of mild curses escaped her lips. She had underestimated him. She had been doing so well, dodging madly, hoping to slowly wear him down… only he had suddenly laughed and then with a casual flick of his arm had nearly killed her. If he had hit her in the head, instead of in the back, she wouldn’t have been alive right now.
Somehow Rei found the strength to rise to her feet. She used the tree as a brace, but that wasn’t important. She was on her feet. She could still fight…
“Heh, you’re still awake!” Derzerb’s gravelly voice shouted out across the courtyard. Rei looked up, glancing through half-lidded eyes at her opponent. The monster casually stepped through the wall as if the thick oaken planks were mere paper screens. “Can you do that again? This will get boring if you go down too quickly.”
“Monster…” Rei spat. She noticed that there was a bit of blood on the ground afterwards. “I can…” Rei grimaced as a sudden spasm ran up her back and her legs almost gave out. How was she supposed to fight like this?
She felt the ground shake beneath her. Her attention shifted back up to the huge grey-skinned monster. He had already crossed half the distance between them, his head held down so that he very much resembled a charging rhino. Rei reached down, forced the strength back into her legs, and leapt.
The tree exploded. Not just fell over: the trunk literally burst into a thousand splinters flying in all directions. Rei cried out as one flashed past her face and drew blood. She twisted in mid-air, kicking off one of the surviving upper branches as it flew through the air. She landed badly, but managed to roll with it and put precious distance between her and the beast.
And the monster was laughing. She shook the dizziness from her head and rose to a combat crouch. Derzerb was shaking off the splinters of the tree like a dog shaking off water. His massive body twisted so he could glance at her.
“I wonder if you can do that again?”
Rei had to face it: there was nothing she could do here. Derzerb was a monster unlike any she had ever faced before. He had even ignored her wards when she had tried to use them earlier. And at this rate, the injuries he had inflicted with that one casual blow would take her out long before he even worked up a sweat. Rei glanced around. They were in the open, and she knew she was faster than him… not much, but maybe enough…
“Ah. Thinking of running away, I see.”
Rei glanced back at the monster, almost guiltily. The rhino-like creature was stalking towards her slowly, his footsteps leaving small craters in the once-pristine shrine grounds. It was impossible to tell what kind of expression his mockery of a human face was trying to form, but she could hear the smirk in his rumbling voice as he spoke.
“Foolish girl! You don’t realize the enemy you face, do you?” The monster raised one hand and snapped his huge fingers. Rei frowned, wondering what he was up to. Then she heard the sound of one of the shrine’s doors opening behind her.
Rei knew what she would see before she turned. A part of her told her not to look. A part of her already knew how things would go next. But like the victim in a horror movie, Rei found herself turning around anyway.
“Grandpa!” she shouted. Rei had never really seen her grandfather as small. She was aware of how short he was, but he had always seemed so… large and powerful to her eyes. Now, as he rested in the grasp of a hideously grinning gorilla-like creature, he looked very small indeed. He looked so tiny and frail. A thin trickle of blood flowed down his scalp, but Rei could see his chest rising and falling.
Derzerb laughed again, a gravelly sound that sent chills down her spine. “You didn’t think we had forgotten about him, had you?” the monster said in the closest thing he could get to a whisper. “We know all your weaknesses, Sailor Mars. Certainly, you might be able to run. But if you do, we WILL kill him. Slowly. Painfully.” Derzerb chuckled. “I am so looking forward to our fight, I would hate to think what I would do if you disappointed me.” Rei turned on Derzerb. Somehow, she could no longer feel her wounds. “There’s no escape!” The rumble of his laugh echoed throughout the courtyard.
“Monster…” Rei hissed. But it seemed so small, even to her. She closed her eyes, fighting back tears. She would not cry in front of that beast. She would not give him the satisfaction! There had to be some way that…
No. She couldn’t defeat Derzerb. Even if she somehow destroyed that other monster and grabbed her grandfather, he would slow her down when she tried to escape. She wasn’t that much faster than Derzerb, as he had already proven. Plus, she was injured.
But she had to get away. Rei could not defeat this monster… but Sailor Moon could. His impenetrable skin, his massive strength… all his advantages would be like dust in the wind before Sailor Moon’s ability to return him to his human state. Rei opened her eyes, and looked at Derzerb again.
He hadn’t moved. He was standing in the courtyard with his arms crossed, waiting for her decision. He was revelling in her agony. Maybe being turned back into a human was too good… no. That wasn’t the way. Rei let out a long slow breath. She couldn’t afford to let her emotions cloud her judgement here.
Any of her emotions.
“Come here, girl,” Derzerb growled, gesturing with one giant hand. “Bow at my feet, and maybe then I’ll spare your grandfather.”
Rei turned her head, brushing a few stray locks out of her eyes as she took a long look at her grandfather. The creature holding him saw her and it raised one clawed finger up to the old priest’s neck. And then Rei did cry. But just one tear. She wiped it away with a finger.
Rei didn’t really remember the next few minutes. When she could see anything else besides flashing memories of her grandfather, she was already on a rooftop somewhere else in the city. She forced herself to a stop.
Rei collapsed to her knees, unable to breathe. No. She couldn’t let this stop her. She couldn’t let it be in vain. She rose up, orienting herself. Somehow, in her rush, she had run in the correct direction. She looked in the direction of Usagi’s school. As she did she focused, the same way she always focused when she was using the sacred flame. The focus that required you to put aside all transient mortal concerns was what she needed now.
Rei took off, faster than she even knew she could. She would get there in time. She had to get there in time. Somehow the pain of her injuries had faded away. Was this some power of her Senshi heritage, or just a result of her focus? Rei didn’t know, or really care. As long as it worked, she would be grateful and leave it at that.
She was probably only a few blocks away from Usagi’s school when she heard Sailor Moon call out to her. At first, Rei wasn’t sure she was hearing correctly, but a quick glance confirmed it. Sailor Moon was bounding across the buildings towards her. Rei opened her mouth, but words failed her. Thought failed her.
“Rei! You’re okay!” Rei stood like a statue as Usagi crashed into her and enveloped her in a ferocious hug. “You escaped! Oh, god, I was so worried!”
Rei felt the tears that fell from Usagi’s cheeks as they dropped onto her chest. She reached up with one arm and awkwardly patted the girl on the back.
“It’s okay,” she said, and was surprised at how calm and happy she sounded.
“Rei, the monsters… they attacked me at the school! They know who I am!”
“I know.” Rei wondered who it was that was sounding so sympathetic and… normal. It certainly wasn’t her. But whoever was speaking was using her voice, was comforting Usagi. Someone was making her go through the motions.
Then Rei felt her heart skip a beat. It WAS her that was doing this. She was acting like this was just the aftermath of another of their fights. She was acting like she hadn’t just sacrificed her grandfather to the monsters she had sworn to oppose.
Because if she didn’t act that way, Usagi would know what she had done.
And Usagi must never know.
“I apologise for interrupting, but we can’t stay here.”
Rei only realised there were other people present when the unfamiliar voice spoke up. She looked up from Usagi’s shoulder and saw them. There were three of them.
The leader was a boy, slightly older than Rei, with a messy bowlcut and vaguely aristocratic features. He was dressed in a leather coat, t-shirt and jeans and stood on the roof nearby with an air of impatient energy about him. But there was something wrong about him. Rei could see how pale his skin was, and how glassy his eyes seemed… but there was something wrong about him that went beyond that, and Rei wasn’t sure she could pin it down.
His companions seemed more normal. Well, at least the girl did. She was obviously Chinese, with an extremely generous figure clad in a silk pantsuit that was designed to do little to hide that fact. The only thing odd about her was the sword she held casually in one hand. The little old… woman? Yes, woman. The old woman that stood nearby was perhaps the oldest and most shrunken person Rei had ever seen. But she was human. Even if Rei did feel her mystic senses tingling in the old woman’s presence almost as much as they did when she was near her sacred flame.
“That’s right!” Usagi pulled away from Rei suddenly and turned to the boy. “We have to go help the others now!”
The boy crossed his arms and shook his head. “No, we already know that Makoto was defeated. Ami doesn’t really have any defences, and we can assume she has already fallen as well.”
“I’m not planning to leave them, Usagi!” the boy said in a half-shout. “We are going to rescue them. But we can’t do anything now. Especially because we don’t know where they are.”
“Excuse me,” Rei broke in. “But who are you? What is going on here?”
The boy looked at her and bowed apologetically. “I’m sorry I didn’t introduce myself right away. I’m afraid this is a little confusing.” The boy rose up and Rei noticed that one of his arms was twitching spasmodically, but he didn’t seem to notice. “My name is Chris. And this is Shampoo and Cologne.” He gestured to the girl and the old woman in turn.
Rei nodded her head. “And you already know who I am,” she said, her voice coming out a bit more icily than she would have liked.
Chris’s lip quirked up a little bit, as if at some private jest. “Yes, well, we rescued Usagi from the attack on her and were coming to your place to do the same.”
Rei’s voice remained level. But inside, she felt a little bit of herself die. It had… it had… Grandpa…
But outside she remained calm and in control. No matter what, she would NOT let her decision be in vain.
“Anyway, I know you probably have some questions about who we are, but let’s just say that we are concerned citizens who decided to lend a hand when we heard about the attacks.” The boy sighed. “Longer explanations will have to wait. For the moment we need to get to a safer place than this, before Chronos can find you again.”
“Wait a moment,” Usagi piped up. “Where is Tuxedo Kamen?”
“How should I know?” Chris barked in exasperation, throwing his arms to the side.
“Hey,” Rei shouted, stepping between Chris and her princess. “She’s just concerned. If this Chronos is after us, it may be after him as well.” Rei paused, thinking. She hated to say it, but it was the truth. “They might also be after Ukyou and a few other people that have helped us out on occasion.”
The boy visibly calmed down, sighed and rubbed his twitching arm absently. “You’re right. I’m sorry. I’m just under a bit of stress right now.”
“These discussions can wait until we have found shelter and safety,” the old woman broke in smoothly.
“Also right,” the boy said with a nod. “Follow me.”
Seras stumbled to her feet, her breath coming in short gasps, despite the fact that she no longer had to breathe.
“Ah, Miss Victoria, I see you made it…”
“W-walter?” Seras looked up. She didn’t need to. She could smell the blood. Walter’s blood. She didn’t know how she could tell it was his blood, but she knew, in that deep secret part of her mind that she preferred not to think about. Sure enough, she could see him leaning against the wall. His right hand was clenched onto the side of his neck, and she could see the blood pouring out from between his fingers.
“Oh, this?” Walter smiled. Sometime since they had parted ways in the basement, he had lost his monocle. His face looked even older and wearier without it. Or perhaps that was because of how dramatically pale he was. “It’s just a flesh wound. Nothing to worry your pretty head over.”
“But Walter, there’s so much blood…”
“Heh.” Walter winced, but his smile never faltered. “I’ve fought on with worse before. I can do so at least one more time. I’m just not as fast as I used to be. Didn’t expect that young pup to catch me so off-guard…”
“Walter, we have to get you to a doctor…” Seras moaned, clutching her fist in front of her mouth. It wasn’t just because she was worried about him. It was also because she wanted to keep her mouth closed, to keep herself from… thinking about the dark, thick liquid that was oozing between his fingers. But a part of her couldn’t stop thinking about it.
“No!” Walter suddenly shouted. “Listen, we don’t have much time. There are two of them. They only slowed down because I collapsed the roof on them. They should be here any second. You have to get to Sir Integra and protect her.”
“Protect her?” Seras blinked.
“Hey, you two bitches!” a voice shouted from down the hallway. Seras ducked involuntarily as the retort of a machine gun filled the air. Woodchips and plaster flew around the corner as the bullets chewed apart the wall they had taken shelter behind. She could hear the unsteady shuffle of the ghouls as they stagger-marched down the hall towards them. “Is this what Hellsing does? Hides and prays? Huh, fuck that, man! You two get out here and fucking die like good little cows!” There was a burst of manic laughter. “I know you can hear me, old man! Don’t think I won’t pay you back for what you did to my eye!” Another burst of gunfire roared down the hall.
“Miss Victoria… no, Seras…” Walter reached out with his free hand and Seras stared at it. His sleeve had been torn off, and a vicious-looking bullet wound was pumping blood steadily from his shoulder. “Sir Integra must survive this day. She is strong and smart and powerful, but she isn’t ready for this…” Walter coughed.
Gunfire roared again. Seras shouted and ducked around the corner. She spotted a line of the undead steadily approaching up the hallway. Two figures were standing in front of the pack. On the right was a tall, blond man in an immaculate white suit. The other was a shorter man with a swarthy complexion. He wore a snow-cap with an eye symbol on it, giving one the illusion he had three eyes. Or it would have, had his left eye not been missing.
“Oh, a she-bitch…” the shorter man said with a leer. “Maybe I’ll pause for some fun…” Then his words trailed off as the grenades Seras had rolled down the hall came to a stop at his feet. He blinked.
“Yan, you idiot!” the other shouted. Then there was a blur of white and both of the men vanished. The line of ghouls behind them was gone a moment later, torn apart in the explosion. The pieces of their ceramic riot shields went flying in every direction from the force of the blast, some cutting into the ranks of ghouls marching further down the hallway.
“Walter, we have to hurry. I don’t think that got them…” Seras said, turning back to Walter. She paused, seeing that he was standing up again. His face was calm, and showed no more sign of pain.
“Seras, you got Alucard to safety?” Walter asked slowly. Seras nodded. There was something about Walter’s voice that was almost hypnotic, and she couldn’t work up the will to speak. “Good. Find Sir Integra and bring her to the same location.” He stepped towards the corner, his shoes clapping along the hardwood floor of the Hellsing mansion. “She’ll be with the Round Table. She won’t want to leave them. The men at the table represent the most powerful nobles, businessmen and military leaders in England, and she sees it as her duty to protect them.”
“Wait, Walter, you have to come with…”
“Hush now,” Walter said.
“Damnit, Yan, stop being such a loudmouth!” The voice of the other monster, much more sophisticated-sounding than the first, came around the corner. “You were so busy talking you almost died, again!”
“Aww, bro,” Yan said, laughing maniacally again. “Don’t spoil my fun!”
“We don’t have time to debate,” Walter said, frowning. “You have to get Integra out of here. She has the strength to save England from what is coming. But not now. She learned to rely too much on Alucard, but given time…” he trailed off.
“Walter, what are you saying?” Seras began to shake.
“Do whatever it takes.” Walter took another step towards the corner. “Oh… and take this.” He reached into his coat and pulled out a long black gun. It looked like the one her master used, but slightly different as well. “It was meant for Alucard, but with him indisposed…” He grimaced, and a sudden spurt of blood flew from between his fingers, drawing a long line across a portrait on the wall. “Damn… just take it, Seras! Take it and go!”
Seras lurched back as Walter shoved the weapon into her chest. She stumbled and dropped her own machine gun, struggling to catch the massive handgun as it bounced off her breasts. By the time she had regained her balance, Walter had stepped fully around the corner. He dropped his hand from his wound, and Seras saw flashes of silver unravelling between his hands. She took a long look at the vicious bite wound on his neck and gulped.
“Heh. Hey, old geezer! Not so mouthy now, are you?” Yan shouted from around the corner. “I was planning on finishing you off slow, but your blood tastes like shit. I want a taste of that girl you’re hiding. And maybe when I’m through with her, I can rape that whore you call a master, huh?”
“You will never lay hands on Sir Integra,” Walter said slowly. He glanced over at Seras meaningfully. She stepped back, shaking her head.
“No,” she mouthed silently. She wouldn’t leave him. He was in no condition to fight. Not against two vampires. She had to help. Her fingers tightened around the handle of the huge firearm in her left hand.
“Oh, come now,” the other voice said, sounding bored. “Is this the best you have to offer? Where is Alucard? I came here to have my match against the best there is!”
“Go ahead,” Walter taunted, but his eyes slipped in Seras’ direction again. “I’m the only opponent you need to fight tonight.”
That was when Seras’ hand went slack. She almost lost her grip on the gun. Before she knew it, she was dashing down the hallway, blinking away tears. Walter had always been so nice to her. He was the only one, the only one that treated her like she was still a human being. The only one that didn’t seem to care if she drank the blood or not…
Behind her there was a single gunshot. A second later this was followed by the thump of something falling wetly against the floor.
Seras was already several hallways away, but her superhuman senses heard this anyway. She kept running, and soon found herself in front of the doors to the round table room. Normally she would have knocked, but Seras didn’t waste time on that. Drawing on strength she didn’t even know she had, she brought up one foot and smashed in the door with a single boot. The door crumbled and clattered inside. It was nearly five centimeters thick and had a core of solid steel.
“Victoria!” Integra Hellsing shouted as she stood up. Behind her the long table of the meeting room stretched. The twelve members that held most of the reins of power in England sat in their chairs, each holding a pistol. They looked like men. Not giants of industry, or commanders of armies – but just men, holding pistols. And under their stoic faces, Seras could smell their fear.
Sir Integra was the only one who wasn’t afraid. She strode forward, her black suit causing her form to blend partially into the shadows of the room. Her long blonde hair billowed around her head, and her eyes flashed behind her glasses. “You’d better have an excellent reason for doing that,” she growled as she stepped up to Seras.
“Yes.” Seras looked into Sir Integra’s eyes and saw that there was no fear there. There was only determination, and rage. Rage at what had happened to her men? Rage at Seras for breaking the convention’s last line of defense? Rage at her own impotence? Seras would perhaps never know. But she knew, looking into those eyes, that Sir Integra would never abandon this room. She would fight the vampires and their army of ghouls when they arrived. Fight them with only a pistol and her courage. She would die defending these sick, fat cowards. “I’m sorry, Sir Integra.”
From the way the other woman’s eyes widened, Seras knew that Sir Integra had guessed her intention. But Seras moved with inhuman speed, and delivered a sharp rap with the butt of the black handgun to the side of her commanding officer’s head. The woman staggered to the side, her eyes rolling back, and collapsed like a marionette with its strings cut. Seras knew she would be okay. She had been trained for years by the English police, and knew how to subdue a suspect without inflicting permanent harm.
“You there! What are you doing?”
Seras looked up at the fat man who had shouted at her. She had already lifted up Sir Integra with one arm. She flicked her gaze over the twelve men inside the room. Only one of them wasn’t staring at her in shock. He was taller than the others, thinner and somehow more distinguished. He nodded at her when her eyes paused on him. Somehow, that made her feel better.
“Escaping.” Seras told them shortly and began to sprint away down the hall. She heard one of the men dash into the hallway after her.
“Wait, come back here! What about us?”
There was a single crack of a gunshot. Seras turned and saw one of the round table members collapsing to the ground, his left leg missing below the knee. Further down the hallway the two vampires stood. The one in white was still pointing his antique-looking pistol at the man, smoke drifting from its muzzle. His dark-clothed companion was laughing.
“You all get to DIE!” Yan screamed, laughing hysterically. “But that’s not all! Let’s tell them what they’ve won! Yes, you too have won a chance to be slowly and brutally tortured to death by a pack of cannibal undead! And as a take home prize, you get to rise as our new slaves and help us burn this fucking city to the GROUND!”
“Damn…” Seras paused in an intersection. The two brothers had noticed her, and she was sure if she tried to sprint to safety that she would get shot in the back. She had to get out of here…
Seras blinked as three of the convention members jumped into the hallway, pistols blazing. Seras recognised the tall one leading them. She didn’t wait to see what would happen. She dashed to the nearest window and was through it a second later. She almost screamed as she plummeted three stories to the ground, but her vampiric strength came to her rescue again as she landed without so much as jogging the unconscious woman over her shoulders. Seras then began to run, away from the sounds of gunfire and screams, like the devil himself was on her heels.
Because, maybe he was.
“Damn, he got here early, over!”
Link peered around the corner as well, and saw that Pink was correct. Adon was a tall man, wearing little besides a pair of boxing shorts, a red and blue armband on one arm, and tape on his hands and feet. His ferociously red hair jutted backward and forward almost like the crest of a bird, held out of his face by a yellow headband. If there was an ounce of fat on the man’s body, Link couldn’t see it: all of his considerable amount of exposed skin seemed filled almost to bursting with rippling, steel-hard muscle. There was nothing casual about his posture: he was here ready for and willing to take part in a fight.
In a word, he looked dangerous. Extremely dangerous. Every inch the God of Muay Thai he was said to be. And Pink planned to kill him? Link would almost have laughed, were her own welfare not so dependent on her twins’.
“Well,” she whispered, “at least his back is turned. But don’t count on a martial artist like him not noticing us for long. I hope you have a plan, over.”
“Of… of course I do, over!” Pink hissed back. “You just watch. He won’t be expecting the mandragora, and no matter how strong he is, that will defeat him. After all,” she said, her usual smirk resuming, “I have it on good authority even the mighty Ranma Saotome fell to it in Volume 29.”
Link rolled her eyes, and stepped back. “Go ahead. Just don’t get yourself killed, over.”
“You aren’t going to help, over?”
Link’s lip curled just a bit. “I don’t want anything to do with this. I’m here because I have to be, over.”
Her twin stared at her for a moment, then her expression hardened.
“Fine. See if I care, over.”
Link peeked around the corner as her twin strode towards Adon. The martial artist noticed her almost immediately, of course. As he turned, Link got her first view of the face of the man they had come here to kill. He looked… well, like a bird. His beady little eyes and sharp nose added to the impression she’d gotten from his hair; Link almost expected him to have a beak. But he had a mouth, a wide mouth twisted into what looked like a permanent sneer, teeth bared more in challenge than greeting.
Link chuckled a bit to herself. What a cute couple Adon and Pink would make, with those two ever-present smirks.
Adon was speaking now. “Who are you, and what do you know?” His voice was high-pitched, a hint of whining in it even as he was obviously being threatening.
“I’m Pink, over,” her twin said, bowing slightly. “And I’ll tell you everything I said I could. But first-“
Adon cut her off with a sharp wave of his hand. “No ‘but first’. Talk, or I’ll break your arms.”
Pink gave him a disgusted look. “You’re in Japan. Things work a little differently here than in Thailand. Patience and calmness… you know, Zen stuff, over.” She took out a jar and began sprinkling water around the area. Link prudently pulled out a pair of earplugs. She didn’t want to be caught by the mandragora herself, after all. “So first,” Pink continued, “We purify the area like so, over.”
“Cut the crap,” Adon snapped. “You’re no more Japanese than I am!”
“Yes, but I am entranced by the beauty of… you know, their culture and crap,” Pink explained, throwing the rest of the water around. “And now…” she smiled slowly. “EARPLUGS IN, OVER!”
Adon stared at her as Pink pulled out a pair of earplugs and shoved them in her ears. Then she took out a handful of seeds and scattered them. When the small black seeds drifted to the ground, touching the water Pink had scattered out previously, the small white human-shaped roots of the mandragora instantly erupted all over the area. Link hastily put in her own earplugs just as Pink bent down and ripped one of the mandragoras from the ground. Faintly, Link could just barely hear the blood-curdling scream the root emitted at being ripped up, but the earplugs blocked out the lethal effect that scream had on all who heard it clearly. Which would definitely take care of Adon…
Except that sometime around then, Adon had apparently ripped off some of the tassels attached to his headband and shoved them in his ears. He was glaring down at her twin.
How on earth had he known to put earplugs in?
Pink was staring at the martial artist, gaping open-mouthed. That didn’t last long, however, as Adon then punched her in the face. Hard. Link winced, feeling an echo of her twin’s pain as Pink skidded back along the grass and crashed into the wall. Before she had any chance to recover, Adon stalked forward, grabbing Pink by the collar and jerking her into the air. He cuffed her across the face twice, knocking the earplugs out, and removed his own as he began yelling something at her.
Well, no matter how Adon had figured out the secret of what to do, best to put a stop to that. There was a mandragora which had grown near her. Link leaped out at it, and Adon noticed the movement and spun, but he was a martial artist, and his instinct was to strike a defensive position. Which was his undoing, since this time he didn’t have a chance to put in earplugs before Link tore the mandragora from the ground. A moment later, Adon’s eyes rolled back in his head and he collapsed like a marionette with its strings cut.
Of course, so had Pink. Link removed her own earplugs and carefully secreted them away as she walked over to stare down at the two bodies. Well, this had worked out remarkably well. Link ALMOST smiled. Then she got to work.
A few moments later, Pink raised herself to a sitting position, then immediately groaned and raised a hand to her face. Her eye was already swollen; there’d be a nasty bruise there and on her cheek for awhile, Link guessed.
“Thanks, over,” Pink grunted as she returned to her feet. She kicked the unconscious Adon in the side, then staggered from a combination of vertigo and the fact the martial artist’s side was probably as hard as stone. “Stupid spiky-haired loser! How dare he! I’m going to enjoy watching him die, over!”
“Maybe,” Link said smoothly, “but not yet, over.”
Pink stared at her out of her good eye. “What, over?”
Link held up the other half of the mandragora antidote she’d mixed up.
“You said we didn’t have time to talk about this on the way here. Well, now we have time, and we’re going to talk, over.”
“Talk… about what, over?”
Link folded her arms. She’d been letting Pink take the lead in this situation for too long. But no more. “You dragged me into this. I don’t want to kill this man just to deliver that undead freak a new body, over.”
“You don’t have to,” Pink snapped back. “I’m going to do it, over!”
Link shrugged. “It’s almost the same thing. And I won’t let it happen, over.”
“And what do you plan to do, over?” Pink sneered at her.
“Give him this antidote and let him hit you a few more times before I explain we were sent by Chris and lead the guy right to him. I’m sure Chris can tell our friend what he wants to know, and if not… well, I don’t really care. I can drag you out of the way, over.”
Pink blanched. “Now… wait just… I’ll kill him before you can-“
“I’ll just give him the antidote to anything you use. You know I can, my dear twin,” and once again, Link almost smiled. “Since, after all, isn’t that what I spent much of our childhood doing for random strangers, over?”
Pink stared at her for a moment, her fingers clenching and unclenching. She looked down at Adon, plots obviously running through her mind, but Link wasn’t worried. Pink had been working on the lethality of her poisons, but given Adon was apparently stronger than Sentarou or Kodachi had been, Link estimated he’d take at least thirty seconds to die. Plenty of time to whip up something.
Finally, Pink stomped her foot. “Fine! What do you want from me, over?”
“Now we’re getting somewhere,” Link said. “You told me about Ryugenzawa, from Chris’s journals. Remember, over?”
“Ryugenzawa? That place with the giant animals and the guy who forgets everything, over?”
Link nodded. “Precisely. But it also had something called the Moss of Life, which can heal any injury. I want to study it. So we’re going there, over.”
And that was true; she did want to study a plant like that. It wasn’t the whole reason… but it was all Pink needed to know for the time being.
Pink thought about it for a moment, then shrugged. “Okay. How do we get Chris to go, over?”
“That’s your problem,” Link said coldly. “I’m sure you can think of some way to convince him… you’ve been so good at that up until now, over.”
For a moment, Pink’s eyes burned with hate, but that quickly died. There wasn’t much point, when it came down to it, to either of them holding a grudge against the other. “Fine, you win. Now can I kill him, over?”
Link turned away. “Be my guest. And then we haul him to where Chris said? Won’t he be surprised. It’s getting to be a regular body-dumping ground, over.”
She could hear the smile in her twin’s voice back in full force even as the sound of her rummaging around in her pack for poisons rose ominously. “Oh no. You said it yourself – Chris’s body is on its last legs. And he’s going to go fight some sort of horrible monsters, over?”
“Yes,” Link said after a moment’s thought, “that will probably accelerate the process more than he wants, over.”
“Exactly. I’m thinking he’ll be VERY happy to see us. So he’ll owe me another one. Which ought to get us to that Ryugenzawa, over.”
“But do you know where he’s going, over?”
“Hee hee. Don’t worry. I know exactly where – and who – he’s going to go to, over.”
Chris landed lightly in the Tendo’s backyard. He looked around, but still saw no evidence of surveillance placed on the dojo, and Cologne had also said it seemed clear. Guess the Tendo Dojo was still below Chronos’ radar. Which was good. If they’d been spotted here, the Tendo family was all in the same sort of danger that all of the Senshi and their families were in, and he didn’t want to feel responsible for that.
All the more reason to conduct his business quickly. Well, as quickly as would be possible. He hadn’t really wanted to come here. He didn’t like or trust Ukyou much; not only for deceiving him back then, but also from everything he’d heard about her since, she had definitely turned into quite the not-nice person.
But he needed her here. If they were going to rescue the kidnapped Sailor Senshi, they’d need to raid Mount Minakami, Chronos’ main base of operations in Japan. It would be incredibly dangerous and difficult, not only because of the remaining Hyper-Zoanoid Team 5, but the fact that at least two of the nigh-omnipotent zoalords, Reichmann Gyro and Doctor Valkus, resided there. Carrying off something like that… it was beyond his abilities, even with his allies. Ukyou KNEW what they’d be up against in a way he couldn’t explain to the others, and Ranma’s skills would be invaluable. He didn’t like it, and she probably wouldn’t either, but the fate of the world literally hung in the balance. They could work together this once, at least.
He heard the others landing behind him as he strode towards the back porch. That reminded him he’d have to warn the Senshi about what had just happened to their lives, too. But later.
Soun and Genma were on the porch, playing shogi, in a scene that might as well have been straight out of the manga. Or it was until they turned around and stared blankly at the small army of colourfully-clad characters who had descended upon their home.
“Hi there, sorry to barge in, fate of the world at stake,” Chris said before they could question him. “Where’s Ukyou?”
“I wouldn’t know,” Genma said, crossing his arms.
“Fine, well, Ranma should. Could you call him down?”
“Ranma ran out when one of his friends called him on that… phone-thing he picked up.” Soun said, then turned back to Genma. “By the way, Saotome, I’ve been meaning to ask… where did he get such a strange contraption?”
“I don’t know,” Genma said, pushing up his glasses. “But the ungrateful boy refuses to let me pawn it, and I’ll bet it’s worth-“
“Excuse me,” Chris broke in, a little impatiently. Just his luck, neither of them here. “Is Akane here, at least?”
“Oh yes,” Soun nodded. “She’s in the dojo practicing.” Then his eyes widened, and he smacked a fist into his palm. “Wait! I know now! Those two… those are the Sailor Senshi girls that helped save my precious Nabiki!”
The old man leaped to his feet and ran over to embrace Usagi and Rei, tears predictably coming from his eyes. Chris ignored him, and stepped close to Genma. “Look. If anyone comes to the door and asks, make sure NOBODY mentions any of us were here. There’s very dangerous people after those girls. VERY DANGEROUS. Kill-you-dangerous.”
Genma began to sweat. Visibly. “And you brought them HERE?”
“Like I said, fate of the world at stake. I meant that literally. We’ll leave as quickly as possible to avoid endangering you, I’m just warning you not to talk about it.”
Genma stared at Chris, recoiling a bit. Well, he’d sure make certain nobody put his hide in danger. One step hopefully accounted for. He turned around, started heading towards the dojo. Usagi seemed to be a bit taken aback by Soun’s teary affection. Rei, on the other hand, almost seemed to not be noticing. Strange, but not very important. Cologne was calmly smoking her pipe on the rock by the koi pond, while Shampoo was standing at the wall, as far away from the dojo as she could, looking grumpy. That was right, she hated Ranma’s guts. ‘Funny’ turn of circumstances, that. He wondered how Ukyou had managed it.
Putting that out of his mind, he stepped into the dojo. The damage from his battle with Shampoo had been repaired, unsurprisingly. Akane was indeed in here, dressed in her yellow gi and flowing smoothly through a series of violent-looking katas.
Actually, she was flowing very smoothly. More smoothly than Akane should have been, from his estimates. Obviously the changed events had caused her to train a lot harder – he guessed she was probably around… well, Shampoo’s level. Surprising.
As he gazed at her, Akane noticed him. She finished her kata nonetheless, and turned to look at him for a long moment. Then she walked to the side of the room, and grabbed a towel to dry the sweat off her forehead before walking towards him. “Hello, Chris,” she said. Her voice wasn’t hostile, at least: just a little questioning. “Was there something you wanted?”
“Actually, and unfortunately, yes. There’s a very big problem, and I’m going to need help with it. I was hoping you’d know where Ranma and Ukyou are.”
Akane looked down at the floor, and sighed for a moment before raising her head up to meet his gaze again. “I really… have no idea where Ukyou is. We’ve… fallen out of touch.”
Damn. Hoist by his own petard. Of course, what Ukyou had done to Akane was reprehensible, but he still could really use her help. “Hmm. Well, it can’t be helped, I guess. How about Ranma?”
“He said something about going to help Ukyou find Sailor Moon and then rushed out of the house… like, about a half hour ago.”
Chris stared. Then he laughed. It wasn’t quite a Kodachi laugh, but it was still pretty hearty, enough so that he leaned against the dojo wall for a moment for support.
Akane blinked, then continued to slowly dry herself off with the towel, giving him a “you are weird” look out of the corner of her eye.
“I’m sorry,” he said finally. “It’s just that’s so ironic. Since, as it turns out, Sailor Moon is here with me, in the backyard.”
“Oh?” Akane said, walking towards the exit to the dojo. “Is Sailor Mercury here too? I actually kind of wanted to see her again.”
His laughter ceased, and he spoke seriously. “No. That is in fact the problem. The Sailor Senshi were attacked by a huge, powerful, evil organisation that wanted to kidnap them.”
Akane broke in at that point. “You mean, a different one than the Dark Kingdom?”
“Considerably. Let me put it this way: comparing the Dark Kingdom to these guys is like comparing Kunou to, say, Jadeite.”
Akane raised an eyebrow as she slid open the door. “You mean by how dangerous they are, or how nasty they are?”
“Both,” he said grimly. “I managed to save Sailor Moon, and Sailor Mars escaped somehow, but the other two were captured. And that’s very bad.”
“Okay, what are these bad guys going to do with them?”
Chris gave her the quick rundown on Chronos as she led him into the backyard. Or started to, until about his third sentence, where she froze, and then swung around to stare at him with eyes that increasingly widened through the rest of his explanation.
As he finished explaining the horror that had occurred at Usagi’s school, he was cut off by a loud clatter. Both he and Akane turned to see Kasumi’s back retreating into the interior of the house. A tray carrying tea – of course – lay forgotten on the ground.
He turned back to Akane. “Anyway, you see this is a big, big problem. I don’t think, even with my allies, I can handle this alone. I don’t want to risk leaving them in Chronos’ clutches. I didn’t want to put you guys in danger, but I didn’t know who else I could turn to on such short notice.”
Akane gazed at Chris for a moment, then stepped around him and moved towards Sailor Moon. “I’m not strong, I’m not fast, I’m not brilliant,” she said, almost to herself, but loud enough for everyone to hear. “But I owe you for what you did for my sister. I’m going to help you save your friends… and your family.”
Usagi stood straighter, sort of shrugging off Soun without seeming to do so. Her stance… it changed. Chris knew it was just her going into her Regal Mode; aside from half an hour or so ago, he’d seen it plenty of times even in the limited amount of Sailor Moon he’d watched, but in reality, and this close, it was still impressive. She hardly seemed like herself, really.
She stepped forward and put her hand on Akane’s shoulder; her face was solemn, determined, and yet cheerful and radiant at the same time. “Thank you. But you’re the one who really saved all of us back then. Whatever help you offer, I’ll accept without hesitation, and be honoured for it.”
Akane blushed. And then was almost dragged to the side as her father’s clutching grasp impacted her side like a missile. “Akane! I forbid you to go out to fight evil murdering organisations of monsters that control the world from the shadows!”
“Dad…” Akane started, seeming even more embarrassed. And then she staggered again as Usagi, all semblance of dignity vanished, glomped onto her from the other side.
“But she prommiiiiiiised!” Usagi cried, tears streaming.
At this point, Cologne coughed, not loudly, but in such a way that everyone automatically stopped what they were doing to focus on her. “As much as I enjoy the emotional spectacle, children, I must point out that this girl alone will not be able to make the difference in this struggle.”
Chris nodded. “That’s right. We do have some time before we can rescue Jupiter and Mercury, because it’s a long trip to Mount Minakami. However, other matters demand more immediate attention.” He turned and affixed the two senshi with a serious look. “Usagi. Rei. I know you don’t know me, and I’m not trying to give you orders. I’m just telling you the truth. You, with our help, have to immediately, and I mean immediately, go and rescue your families. And by ‘rescue’, I mean you are going to have to take them from your homes, and they are going to come here, and they are never going home ever again. Neither are you.”
They had nothing immediately to say to that, so he continued. “You must understand that your lives, as you knew them, are over. Chronos knows your identities, and they won’t forget. Your families will be leverage against you. They hopefully haven’t done anything yet because they were expecting to capture you, but they WILL target your families. Maybe not today, or tomorrow, but soon. There is nothing they will not do to get at you. They will kidnap your families, torture them, turn them into zoanoids, or kill them. Whatever it takes. They have to vanish. So does Ami’s family. And so do you.”
Rei gave him a long, expressionless look. Then she turned around and walked to the back of the yard.
Usagi’s expression was considerably more animated. And wet. “But… I don’t wanna vanish! I was just about to ask Motoki out!”
He wanted to snap at her, but tried to keep his temper this time. Still, his voice had an edge of hostility even to him. “Usagi. Remember what they did to the people at your school. You can’t let them near your family. You understand, right?”
Sailor Moon shook her head violently, her pigtails whipping about her in an absurd fashion. “No no no, I can’t do this! If I tell my parents about all of this, they’ll ground me for-“
“Usagi!” Rei barked. She still hadn’t turned around. “Stop being such a crybaby and get ready to do what he says!” Then she turned, stalking back towards them. “We’ll disappear from here, but we can set up new lives somewhere else. We’ll just have to be more careful, so they can’t find us out again.”
Usagi seemed to be cowed by Rei, at least for the moment. Chris nodded, thankful the raven-haired priestess had lost her temper before he had. “All right. That’s step one. Since Ukyou’s actually looking for Sailor Moon, she or Ranma should come to us soon; if nothing else, Ranma will come home. Then we can set out to save Ami and Makoto.”
“Ukyou is looking for me?” Usagi said, tilting her head to the side.
“We don’t need her help!” Rei snapped instantly.
“Hmmm? From the way Chris has described this Ukyou, I for one would think her help would be invaluable,” Cologne pointed out, waving her pipe in Rei’s direction. The Senshi frowned at her.
“Granny is right,” Akane said with a sigh and crossed her arms. “Ukyou may be… a bit of a bitch, but she’s very good at winning. She also knows the future, so she probably knows as much about this Chronos thing as Chris here does.”
“The future?” Rei’s eyes flashed. “You mean the future she is going to destroy?”
A long silence filled the Tendo’s backyard in the wake of that verbal hand grenade.
“Rei! Don’t tell me you believe that…”
“Face it, Usagi, that boy was telling us the truth. He tried to warn us, before we took his Rainbow Crystal.” Rei tossed her head, her long locks flying behind her. “He warned us that evil wanted to separate and destroy us. And we dismissed his warnings. Just like you dismissed his warning about Ukyou.”
“Warnings about Ukyou?” Akane said loudly. Chris turned his gaze to her, but remained quiet. For some reason, he couldn’t think of anything to say, even though he had a million things he wanted to say.
“You haven’t heard them, then?” Rei walked up to Akane. “Ukyou is going to be the end of us. Of this world. Of everything. That’s why Sailor Pluto, the Guardian of Time, is after her. One day Ukyou will be fighting a terrible opponent in the future and she will tap into some sort of dangerous power… and when she unleashes it at full force, it will unmake everything!”
“You can’t be serious!” Akane insisted.
“I can and I am,” Rei snarled. “I don’t see why we should place our faith in someone who is destined to become our enemy!”
“Ukyou would never hurt…” Akane suddenly trailed off. Rei frowned and stepped closer to her.
“You’ve seen it, haven’t you?”
“No. I have no idea what this whole destiny thing is-“
“No. I mean… you’ve seen something about Ukyou. You’ve seen her use it. The dangerous power Urawa warned us about.” Rei nodded. “You don’t have to confirm it, I can see it in your eyes.”
Akane had nothing to say to that.
But Chris did. “You’re serious? Sailor Pluto and… that psychic guy, whatshisname, told you Ukyou is going to destroy the future?”
“Sailor Pluto didn’t tell us directly,” Rei said, her voice a little calmer, but still smouldering with anger underneath. “But she told us Ukyou was the Enemy. And she’s been trying to kill Ukyou ever since we first met both of them.”
“But… why? I don’t like Ukyou, but… what is she supposed to do? Why?”
“Like I said. She gets into a fight against some opponent, and she’s got scars and tattoos and such by then. The details don’t seem to be important. But what she does is… some sort of attack that unmakes the universe. Turns it into complete nothingness. The end of Time. Whatever you want to call it.”
Chris stared. This made no sense. Ukyou was drunk with her power, manipulative, selfish… but there was no reason for her to do that. None at all.
Rei tapped her chin. “He also said it was going to happen because Ukyou gave in to some sort of force. Something inside her.”
Something inside her…
A memory suddenly snapped into Chris’s mind, as clear as if it had been yesterday, and not years and lifetimes ago.
He remembered walking back into the living room of the apartment he’d shared with his girlfriend Jenn and Rob Kelk. Aaron was on the couch, then, watching the TV. Super-deformed Oh My Goddess characters cavorted around it in mildly amusing fashion. Neither of them liked that series (to say the least), but Rob had enthusiastically “encouraged” them to watch the Mini-Goddess offshoot while Aaron was up for his annoyingly brief visit. And, of course, Aaron would watch pretty much anything someone turned on in front of him, rather than argue, so that’s what they watched. It helped that it wasn’t that bad. At least Belldandy wasn’t in it much.
Chris popped open the can of Coke, and sat down again on the couch. He shifted position to get the weight off his bad hip. Mini-Goddesses was all right. But not so enthralling he wouldn’t talk through it. “You know, the whole premise of Oh My Goddess was the first thing that pissed me off about it.”
“Everything pisses you off,” Aaron said unconcernedly, leaning back and closing his eyes. He did that a lot. Mostly to be annoying.
“Well, consider – Keiichi got a wish. A WISH, from the closest thing to God that exists in that world. Does he wish for peace for mankind? For a cure for cancer? To be a god himself? For anything even remotely useful? No. He wants an effing housemaid cum sex toy. This is supposed to be a guy who deserved a noble reward? He’s supposed to be the hero I support? He’s worse than Tenchi.”
“Well, I suppose the wish could be given to worse candidates,” Aaron noted drily.
“Yes, but it sure as hell could have been given to better. ‘I want someone to cook for, clean for, and screw me.’ I mean, seriously. Even most no-life geeks could pretend to something a little more meaningful.”
“Maybe that was the whole point. Maybe the god of the OMG universe doesn’t WANT anything meaningful to happen, so the wishes go to useless dorks like Keiichi, who wish for things so meaningless they will have no impact.”
“But why? What’s the point of wishes, then?”
“I guess it’s the only way to explain how the universe exists without D&D-style screw-you-over wishes.”
Chris leaned back and took a gulp of Coke. Aaron was fidgeting with some little metal thing. Not that that was unusual. The man was never still.
“Yeah, well, if you gave ME a wish, I’d do something a little better than that.”
“Like what?” Aaron drawled. “The ability to instantly create anime-to-order whenever you envision it? I can see how that would make the world a better place. I’m sure you’d donate all your profits to meaningful charities.”
Chris affected a look of mock indignation. Anyone else, that tone of voice would’ve meant contemptuous insult. But, after all, it was Aaron. Par for the course. “Puh-leez. For starters, if wishes exist, the supernatural exists. If the supernatural exists, the world has far less boundaries than we’ve been led to believe. So why waste a wish on something so mundane?” He paused for a moment, thinking.
Aaron broke in. “The supernatural doesn’t exist for a good reason.”
He countered immediately. “The supernatural doesn’t exist because it doesn’t exist. There’s no ‘reason’ for it, unless you’ve converted to a religion lately.”
“I’m just saying the supernatural couldn’t exist. Not in a world…” he waved his hand, searching for the right words, “Not in a world that makes SENSE. Not in a world that’s right.”
“Interesting supposition. How do you back it up? Why couldn’t a world have the supernatural?”
Aaron opened his eyes again and looked over at Chris for the first time since the conversation started. “That means there would have to be elves or goblins or demons or mages or gods or martial arts death machines or whatever, that were powers unto themselves. That were MORE than people. And not ‘more’ as in richer, or having more resources. These beings would be worth more than you or me. Our opinions would suddenly not matter. The entirety of society would be dictated terms to by those who had the magic.”
Chris grinned. “Really, that’s only a macrocosm of the real world. Our opinions don’t matter, here and now, in any significant sense if we don’t have resources or money or some other form of influence available to the privileged few. When was the last time a President of the US, or one of our Prime Ministers, wasn’t rich? When was the last time an ordinary person changed the world? Only way I can think of is to assassinate people… pretty much anybody can pull that off if they want to badly enough. But even that isn’t much of an influence; you can just catalyse events that will sooner or later spiral out of any control or prediction.”
“And you say making the god-kings of the world invincible would somehow improve this situation?” Aaron countered, his voice taking on a solemn tone.
“Heh. It would change the situation. See, the thing is, when one man can truly become an island, society changes beyond recognition. Because talent isn’t really hereditary, and nearly all the fantasies carry that thought. Sure, the god-kings would be even more powerful. But also more vulnerable. In a world like that, one man – or woman, or alien, or it, or whatever – CAN truly make all the difference. One being can rise out of the muck, through talent and dedication and hard work, and change everything. In a world like that, everyone can have wishes. Of course,” he added with a shrug, “not everyone will get them.”
Aaron leaned back on the couch again. The little metal thingie had been dropped off the coffee table, and he was still. That only happened when he was thinking seriously about something.
Chris continued his earlier thought. “Sure, I recognise that there’d be huge problems with that world – it’d be nothing like ours, really. And it would be even rougher than ours on the people on the bottom. But the possibilities! The possibilities, the dreams, the wishes in that world would be so much brighter, rise so much higher, accomplish so much MORE than anything that could happen in reality. It’s selfish, but I’d prefer a world like that. Where I could shoot for something. Something greater than a college degree, or a job I can hold onto, or even publishing a book. Where I could aim to do ANYTHING, and know I had a chance of succeeding.”
“Good for you,” Aaron said with even more than his usual lack of anything resembling tact.
Chris rolled his eyes. His friend was taking this way too seriously.
“This isn’t really a philosophical debate, dummy. Lighten up. Say you were in a world like that. What would you do with wishes at your fingertips?”
Aaron opened his eyes, leaned forward, and ran a hand through his bangs in that oh-so-familiar gesture. When he spoke, his voice was deadly serious, utterly calm. “I’d make them go away.”
“If I had access to the power to make wishes, I’d use it to get rid of all the other wishes. I don’t ever want to be in a world like that. It shouldn’t exist.”
“Bah. You’re no fun.”
“Indeed,” he said, and they turned back to watch Urd suckering the rat into some inane scheme again.
And in the reality he knew now, Chris blinked. Rei was standing there, staring expectantly. It had only been an instant. But it felt like hours.
Ukyou was going to unmake the world?
How could he have not figured it out? How could he have been so stupid? Her cold demeanour. Her far more brutal fighting. Running her hand through her bangs. Saying “indeed” all the time.
She never acted like Ukyou. He’d known that from the beginning. But he’d never put two and two together until now. Why?
Because she’d told him Aaron was dead.
Which he was. Dead like him. But not like him at all.
She’d LIED. And Chris had believed her lies, because it wouldn’t make sense for Aaron to treat him like that. Aaron was his best friend.
But he had.
Chris snapped out of his reverie at the sound of a shuffling step. Rei was backing away from him, and her angry confidence appeared to have half-melted in the face of whatever she had seen in his expression.
His voice was perfectly calm, emotionless. “Now you know what you have to do. You don’t need me for the moment. I have things to do.”
Cologne piped up. “Where are you going, boy?”
He turned around, walked towards the wall. “I thought it was clear. I’m going to find Ukyou. I can handle that myself. Nobody needs to follow me.” He let a little extra coldness bleed into the last part.
Nobody said a thing to him as he leaped over the wall and to the nearby rooftop.
He was going to find Ukyou, all right. And once he did…
They would discuss the topic of wishes.
Ukyou collided with something metal and thick with enough force to cause it to bend. A gasp of pain escaped her lips and she slumped to the ground. She blinked her eyes open and saw Hayato stepping out of a swirling disc of water. He gestured absently behind him with the talisman around his neck and the portal vanished.
“Where are we?” Aaron said as he eased to his feet. Hayato seemed content to let him regain his footing, but his eyes never wavered off Ukyou. They appeared to be in some sort of construction site. Did Hayato just have a thing for them? They were at the bottom of… whatever it was. Huge walls rose up about them on all sides, a stiff salty breeze drifted down from the open roof, tall spires of beams and girders rose in all directions, decked with half-dimmed floodlights and the catwalks of the workers hung about with plastic sheets rippling in the breeze, giving the impression that Ukyou had fallen into a cavern of ghosts. In the distance, Ukyou could hear the electric hum of powerful generators.
“A suitable place for your demise,” Hayato said slowly. “I looked long and hard for it.” He stepped forward and spun with his arms outstretched before facing her again. “I knew that this battle had to be more than just a brawl in the street. Such an epic end to our rivalry demanded an epic location.”
“Hayato…” Ukyou clenched her hands into fists. Her coat was missing, and with it her collection of throwing spatulas. Her staff was missing as well. In fact, she had none of her weapons. This was not good. “Hayato, is there any of you even still in there?”
“Hmmm?” Hayato quirked his head to the side.
“Are you still even Hayato at all, or are you the youma that has possessed him?” Ukyou shifted stances, trying to lower her profile as much as possible.
“Oh, I’m still Hayato,” the ugly-faced boy said with a grin. “You see, you were half-right. I am in league with a youma, but not one that still serves the Dark Kingdom.” He folded his arms across his chest. “She needs me. Not just my body, but me. She wanted my techniques, my knowledge of the martial arts. So we made a deal. She gives me back my body, and I give her all my experience and training in return.”
“I see…” Aaron said softly, frowning.
“NO, you don’t!” Hayato suddenly shouted. Aaron could see him sprinting forward, but Ukyou couldn’t move in time to avoid his backhand. Her cheek exploded in pain, and she found herself flying through the air again. Somehow she righted herself and managed to land before crashing into another wall. Hayato was still standing with his fist extended when he spoke next. “You think you’re smart, don’t you, Ukyou? But you never realized the trail of enemies you were creating.” He chuckled. “How many people’s lives have you destroyed? You crippled me. You killed her lover. Because of these sins, both of us are as good as dead.”
Hayato turned to face Ukyou again. “In a moment, I’ll introduce the two of you. But first, I get to have a bit of fun. That was the deal.”
Ukyou didn’t wait for him to attack. She was already sprinting forward, bent low to the ground, by the time he had started his second sentence. Hayato smiled and leapt up, and Ukyou sprang to meet him.
They met in mid-air in a flash of fists and feet. Ukyou was a vortex of blows, striking mostly on instinct. But Hayato simply flowed and swayed around her attacks, delivering stinging but undamaging counterblows. With a curse, Ukyou kicked off him and backflipped through the air. She landed on one of the platforms scattered about the area. Hayato had been knocked back by her kick, but landed with equal ease on a platform across the centre of the gaping cavern.
“Heh. I can’t believe it.” Hayato shook his head. “I’m… even stronger than before.” He rose a fist up and slowly uncurled his fingers. “I guess draining all those people dry gave me more strength than I thought it would.”
“Draining…” Ukyou gasped.
“Heh. What did you expect?” Hayato spread his arms and laughed, but there was no mirth in it. “She IS a youma. Draining humans dry is what she does. I just didn’t expect to have so much chi afterwards.”
“Hayato, what have I done to you…” Ukyou said slowly.
“DON’T PITY ME!”
Ukyou dove to the side, barely avoiding Hayato’s flying thrust kick. His blow snapped the wooden platform in two and he sailed past her, still flying with the momentum of his cavern-spanning leap. Ukyou caught a girder and spun about it like a gymnast before launching herself in the other direction. She came to a rest on the floor of the chamber.
Hayato was standing up on the floor almost thirty meters away. Aaron did a few quick calculations in his head. Unless Hayato had been holding back, he could reach them in a few seconds. He was much too fast for them. Not as fast as Rose, but a bit stronger… They needed weapons. There was no way they could win fighting barehanded.
Hayato wasn’t talking anymore as he charged them, his form practically blurring out of view. His face was a mask of anger. Apparently Ukyou had hit a nerve. But there was no time to consider that. Instead she dashed to the side, leading him into the forest of steel beams.
As Aaron had hoped, Hayato was forced to slow down to avoid crashing into one of the beams at full speed. But still he pursued her relentlessly. Ukyou sidestepped and backpeddled, always moving to place a barrier between her and him. But he flowed through the forest with ease, and within three moves had caught her with a kick. Ukyou collided with a girder, but didn’t pause as she rebounded into a flip over his head. His hand snagged her foot and then she was crashing facefirst into the floor.
“This is where pity gets you,” Hayato insisted, tightening his grip on her ankle. “Let’s see how nimble you are after I break your leg.” There was a savage glee in Hayato’s voice as he spoke, and Ukyou cried out as he twisted her ankle viciously.
Aaron focused through the pain and saw a discarded piece of cloth nearby. With a desperate lunge Ukyou snatched it up and flipped, launching herself into the air. Her ankle nearly snapped as Hayato refused to release her… but a second later he let out a startled scream as Ukyou whipped the cloth into his face. The blow hadn’t really hurt him, just surprised him. It was enough to get him to release her.
Ukyou handsprung away and landed badly, her ankle almost twisting out under her. Aaron frowned. Their foot couldn’t take much more. Ukyou agreed with him silently and limped backwards. Then Aaron spotted what he hoped would help even the odds.
“You little bitch,” Hayato hissed as he stepped towards them. “I’m going to enjoy this…”
“I’m sorry, Hayato,” Ukyou said slowly. “I never meant for it to end like this.”
“Never meant…” Hayato’s eyes bulged and he trailed off, choking on his own rage. “NEVER MEANT?! Don’t give me your empty platitudes!”
Aaron had focused his senses down to a pinprick, and sensed the motion of Hayato’s blow before it even started. The boy’s punch rolled by in front of her nose as Ukyou faded away, continuing on to shatter a metal pole into a million splinters. Hayato winced and leaned back as the razor-sharp cloud drew angry red lines on his face. Ukyou didn’t. Closing her eyes and mouth she leapt through the cloud, a dozen lines of pain etched across her body, then she was clear.
Hayato wasted no time pursuing her. Ukyou pushed everything she had into her wind chakra, pouring on the speed. Aaron was her eyes, barking silent orders that somehow allowed her to run at full tilt through the closely-packed metal girders, weaving and flashing within millimeters of collisions every moment. Hayato was no longer running around the girders, but through. Aaron could hear the metal snapping and tearing as he gave chase. Then Ukyou reached their destination.
They skidded to a stop, kicking up a dome of dust, and the sheets around them snapped and cracked in the sudden wind. Hayato was upon them a moment later. Ukyou ducked his first blow, but didn’t even try to dodge his kick. Instead, she let the blow throw her into the air. She sailed up, blinking away tears of pain as her stomach protested. But up here was where the toolbelt had been.
At the exact peak of their flight Aaron snapped out his hand and grabbed the belt. Hayato frowned up at them, and as Ukyou plummeted he stepped aside. Ukyou threw the belt aside. She now carried a screwdriver in each hand.
“You think those little toys will help you?” Hayato said, laughing.
Ukyou didn’t reply. She stepped forward, spinning the tools in her hands. Hayato twitched to the side as she stabbed once, then his forearm crashed into her torso. Ukyou winced, but her ribs didn’t break. She slashed out with her other hand and Hayato hopped away. Even as he did, Ukyou stepped back and flicked both hands forward. The screwdrivers spun, buzzing through the air at him. Hayato laughed and leapt up, the weapons flying under him.
Ukyou dashed after her projectiles, passing under Hayato. Aaron heard him land lightly behind them. The ugly-faced boy was dashing after them a moment later, and Aaron could feel the air pushing against his back as the boy’s blow came in. Then Ukyou ducked and Hayato’s blow went wild. Her hand snapped out and snatched a long metal bar. The bar which her flung screwdrivers had neatly bisected a fraction of a second ago into the perfect length for a staff.
Hayato’s eyes widened as Ukyou spun to her feet and whirled the staff around her. She pushed with her chi, capturing all her momentum in the swing. The bar caught Hayato on the cheek and for a second his face distorted comically with the impact, then he was flying away. He crashed into a metal pole, snapping it like a twig. A second later, half the structure collapsed on him. Ukyou couldn’t help but appreciate the irony, since that wouldn’t have happened if Hayato hadn’t been smashing apart the supports so wantonly.
Ukyou spun the makeshift staff around her a few times, testing its balance, then settled into a stance with the weapon held just behind her. The metal pole had a spiral of thin metal around its entire length that cut lightly into her hand, but beggars couldn’t be choosers. After all, Aaron could still feel the pulse of Hayato’s chi from under the debris. This wasn’t over.
“Hehah,” Hayato’s laughter came out of the pile. “You are as clever as you always were. I… urg… had hoped to be able to play with you more. But… it appears my time is up…”
Ukyou shifted her stance, moving back a few steps. Aaron could feel Hayato’s chi suddenly spike, so strong it almost gave him a headache. The explosion didn’t catch him off-guard, and Ukyou was able to deflect the girders and debris sent her way with a few elegant twists of her bar. For a moment, the only sound was the loud hum of generators in the distance. Then a tremendous splash as the bubble of water that had burst out from the centre of the shattered pile fell to the floor.
As the curtain of water descended, Ukyou’s new opponent was revealed. She wasn’t tall, but seemed to somehow have a presence to her that Ukyou couldn’t deny. She had short black hair that fell wetly behind her, and a tiara with huge golden spines rising from its apex that gave her the illusion of horns. Her eyes were red and glowed with infernal light, and her skin was the color of the sea on a sunny day. Her face was beautiful, with soft flowing lines. She was clad in a pair of skintight navy leggings, with the inner thigh just below her crotch cut free. She wore a metallic blue breastplate that hugged the curves of her chest, and barely covered anything else. At first, Aaron thought the trio of quill-like horns that came out of her upper arms were decorations, but then he realised that they were growing from her flesh. Her forearms and hands were wrapped in strips of bright blue leather. Something about her tickled at the back of Aaron’s memory.
“So… I guess you’re my real enemy…” Ukyou said leadingly, hoping to buy time.
“Don’t try to fool me, girl,” the youma-woman said as she stepped forward gracefully. “My name is Tethys. You killed the man I loved. I shall kill you… no, I shall BREAK you!”
“Tethys…” Ukyou frowned. “Wait… you’re the youma that served Jadeite!” She pointed at the youma-woman. “But I thought you died…”
“Oh no…” Tethys chuckled. “An oversight that is going to destroy you, I’m afraid.”
Aaron felt Tethys gathering power, and Ukyou knew the time for words was over. She snapped into a defensive stance as the woman dashed towards them. Tethys moved fast, and skillfully… but no faster or better than Hayato had. Ukyou leaned to the side, avoiding her first punch and then cartwheeled away from the rest. Tethys came after her, easily closing the distance, and Ukyou was forced to resort to more dodging.
But Aaron couldn’t help but think there was something else. The youma that Hayato had turned into was strong… still faster and stronger than Ukyou, but no more so than Hayato had been. Maybe he had been watching too much Dragonball, thinking that any transformation should involve a massive jump in power…
The thought cut off as Tethys finally managed to tag them with a sharp kick as Ukyou’s ankle briefly betrayed her. Ukyou staggered back, then lost all track of time for a moment as Tethys stepped in and delivered a combination that sent Ukyou spiralling to the ground.
Thankfully she hadn’t lost her grip on her makeshift staff. As Tethys stepped towards their prone form, Aaron gauged her exact distance… then Ukyou was up and spinning. Tethys was fast, but had already committed herself to an attack. Ukyou’s staff swung up and into the youma’s waist… and right through it without pausing.
Ukyou barely had time to register this before Tethys’ punch crushed her nose. The blow drove Ukyou into the ground with enough force that it cracked around her in a spiderweb. Ukyou gasped for air, blood flowing from her face. Tethys picked her up by the collar with one hand.
“Surprise,” the woman said, grinning. Ukyou kicked up, only to feel her leg pass through Tethys’ body. It was like kicking a lake, even to the point that her leg came away soaked. “You can’t hurt me, little girl!”
Tethys smashed Ukyou against the nearest girder with enough force to crack it in two, then proceeded to smash her against another, and another. Ukyou began to scream after the third blow, and she couldn’t even feel her back after the seventh. She lost count after that. Finally, Tethys let her collapse to the ground.
Aaron reached out and his fingers clamped around the pole. Tethys had been arrogant enough to drop them within reach of it. He could hear her laughing, but chose to ignore that. Ukyou and he worked together, slowly regaining their feet.
“Come now, Ukyou,” Tethys said smoothly. “Is this the best you have? Where is that precious power of yours? The power that let you kill my master, and destroy Hayato?”
Ukyou chose not to answer. Instead she leapt back, away from the youma. The blue-skinned woman hopped after them, easily keeping pace in mid-air. As they floated backwards, Tethys took all the time in the world to wind up for a haymaker. Ukyou snapped her staff up, and easily intercepted the clumsy strike… only to have Tethys’ fist part around it like a rushing river. Ukyou cried out in shock and pain and was smashed into the floor again.
“Really, this is pathetic.” Tethys stalked over as Ukyou struggled to lift herself. A swift kick caught Ukyou in the ribs and she felt them snap again, before she was lifted and sent flying into another pole. Somehow, she kept her grip on the rebar. Though she didn’t know why she bothered. “Don’t ruin this for me, you wretched weakling,” Tethys growled. “I want to humiliate you, destroy you, defeat you utterly. Nothing less will satisfy me!”
“You seem to be doing a good job of that,” Aaron hissed as he used the pole as a support to rise to his feet.
“Not good enough!” Tethys roared and flashed forward. Ukyou threw herself to the side, barely escaping another haymaker. “Come at me with everything you have, Ukyou.” The youma turned and regarded her coolly. “Use that power you have. Fight me with all your strength! Only when I defeat you at your peak will you truly understand that I have destroyed you. Only once your spirit is totally crushed will I let you die!”
Ukyou stared back up at Tethys. She rose up from her knees. Tethys was faster than her… stronger than her. She was faster and stronger than even Hayato had been originally, and Ukyou hadn’t grown even to his level in the time since their fight. She had been training, trying to master her chi using the five chakra theory, but her progress had been so slow…
But it didn’t have to be. Aaron closed his eyes for a moment, and had no trouble feeling that power inside of them. It didn’t pulse, or do anything else inviting. It was simply there. If they tapped into that power, they could become stronger and faster. They could even exceed Tethys. Aaron knew this was true.
It would only have to be for a moment. Just a few seconds. How much harm could it do? And what choice did they have? Tethys would kill them, and there was no hope that Hayato’s human heart would sway her to mercy at the last second. Tethys had dragged them to a very private battlefield. There would be no cavalry charge this time. The only person who had a habit of finding Ukyou at times like this was Sailor Pluto…
And that was the fix, wasn’t it? Aaron opened his eyes. He could see Tethys’ lips curling expectantly. The youma-woman settled into a fighting stance that exactly mirrored Hayato’s. Ukyou and Aaron could tap into that power, but what then? How many times would they have to make this choice, between death and using that unnamed force inside of them? A force that, Ukyou now knew, had tainted them somehow. Every time they had used it, they had come away a little worse as a human being. How many times would they have to do that, before the vision Sailor Pluto had seen came true?
“No,” Aaron said.
“No,” Ukyou said.
“What do you mean, no?” Tethys growled.
“I mean, I will not fight you with that power.” Ukyou straightened herself and eased into her combat stance. “I will not give myself over to darkness like you did, Hayato. I am no hero, but I refuse to live if that means I become a monster like you!” Tethys took a step back, obviously confused. “If I must die, I will do so as a human being! So come on then and bring your best shot. I will fight you. And if I die, then I died as ME!”
Ukyou charged. Tethys’ eyes quivered with rage, her lips peeled back from her teeth. Ukyou wasn’t sure what she was going to do when she reached Tethys… but it became a moot point. With a gesture there was suddenly a wall of water between them. Ukyou screamed as the wall crashed over them with the force of a tsunami. She tumbled in the water for a second, before hurtling out of it and against the far wall of the chamber.
Aaron coughed as the water receded. He rose up to all fours and heard Tethys stalking towards them over the loud hum of the electric turbines. He looked up and saw her raising one hand slowly into the air over her head, the fingers curled into a bowl. As he watched, the water around them began to spin and draw away. Ukyou rose them up to their feet as Tethys continued to work her magic. The water continued to spin and withdraw, until it was a thin river that spun around Ukyou on all sides about a meter away. Occasionally the water snapped up in quick sheets, but it never splashed inside the circle Tethys had created.
“You say you won’t fight me with your full power because you are afraid of what it will do to you?” Tethys’ voice was almost calm now. “Well, well, well… Let us test that resolve of yours, Ukyou Kuonji. Your death will be all the sweeter if I can break your will, force you to use that power, and then defeat you anyway.” Tethys chuckled. “I will make you die a monster.”
“Nothing can make me!”
“We shall see.” Suddenly Tethys snapped her fingers together… and the river around Ukyou smashed inward. She tried to jump away, but her ribs protested the sudden movement, then she was caught.
Ukyou wasn’t sure what was happening at first. The cascade of water hadn’t hit with any real force. It simply slammed in on all sides and she found herself trapped in a pillar of water. She tried to step forward… and then was thrown back as the liquid began to spin about her. She struggled to maintain her balance as the entire pillar became a cyclone, twisting her about in currents that would have put a whirlpool to shame. Her mouth opened involuntarily, and water suddenly streamed into her lungs. Aaron clamped their mouth closed, but too late. They had lost most of their precious air.
Ukyou flailed about, but the current had carried her off the floor. She was now floating in the cyclone, spinning so fast the vertigo was making her nauseous. There was no purchase, no stable surface to grab onto. All she could do was spin and clamp her hand over her mouth and nose, trying to hold in the remaining air. She felt herself growing dizzy, growing faint.
Spots of darkness began to dance across her eyes.
It was growing harder to think.
She was dying.
A part of her paused at this thought. A part of her wondered if that was really so bad. Didn’t it mean an end to all the pain, an end to all the constant battles?
But a much larger part of her roared in silent rage. She would not die! Not like this! Not when there was so much left to do! She still had to redeem herself for what she had done to Akane, and Ranma and everyone else. Aaron railed with her, unwilling to accept this. They would not die here!
The power rested deep in their shared psyche. Ukyou brushed her will against it, not tapping in. The world around her was growing faint. She had lost control of her mouth. The water was flowing freely into her lungs. She realised that drowning really was like falling asleep.
Aaron brushed his will against that power, his power. It was his birthright, wasn’t it? As his mind began to drift, as the world seemed to flow away, he felt like he was dreaming. How wrong could it be, to use a power that was rightfully his? How much of a monster was he, that just using his own chi made him into a worse one?
The power remained untouched. They could feel their wills hovering at the edge of it, almost there but not quite.
And Aaron realised that his will was outside it. How could his will be outside of that power, if it was somehow ‘his’? As he felt the dream beginning to give way to darkness at the edges, as he felt Ukyou and his own mind begin to sink away, he realised that the power was not within him. It was between them, in some sharp cleft between his soul and Ukyou’s…
The power was not of him, not of her. It was Other. It was Outside.
What was it?
They had gone completely still. Only the spinning motion of the water kept their body moving. They couldn’t breathe. The world was dark. They would die without knowing.
Oh god, I don’t want to die.
For some reason they saw Ranma now, and Akane beside him. There was no way to tell if this was their memory, or something from the anime, or just a phantasm. Ranma and Akane were laughing, and they looked at them. They reached out.
There was something cold preventing Ukyou from reaching them.
Wind and Void. Motion ceases. Cold.
Suddenly their hand latched onto something. It was cold and sharp. There were dozens of them, all around her. It was real, not a phantom. Their eyes snapped open.
Ice. There was ice everywhere. It was forming along Ukyou’s skin. It was swirling in the whirlpool around them.
Without thinking about it, they shoved down with all their power. Suddenly there was ice at their feet. Not much, but enough. It was purchase. With a thrust, they kicked off the ice. Then they were free. The water parted around them. The air of the construction site was cold against their waterlogged flesh.
They collapsed on the ground, vomiting water and swallowing the sweet, beautiful air in ragged gulps. Their limbs quivered. Their strength was all but gone. The cold chi had saved their life, but exhausted them. They raised their head, hearing the footsteps approach.
“You escaped,” Tethys declared evenly. “But you still haven’t used that power of yours. I can tell.” She raised her hands and water began to spin around the youma in a tight spiral. “I will not let you escape with clever tricks!”
Somehow, they found the strength to avoid the blast. It was shaped to a point, exactly like Hayato’s needle-weapon. The blast tore a hole in the floor. Then they were flipping away, staying a centimeter ahead of the hundreds of needle-tipped jets of water. They ran out of space, and ducked under the last few.
“It’s useless to run…”
With a wordless scream, they charged Tethys as she started her speech. The woman cut off, but only chuckled and stood still. She didn’t even move to block as they swung their fist up at her cheek. The look of surprise on her face as the blow sent her flying back across the cavern was priceless.
“How the hell…” Tethys roared and reached up to touch her cheek. She was too far away for Ukyou to see clearly, but she heard the youma hiss and saw her hand withdraw. “Ice? Ice!” Tethys stood up. “You somehow froze me even as you struck…” the youma speculated. “Heh. I guess you do have some fight in you…”
But they knew that wasn’t true. Their knees felt like rubber. Their ribs were screaming, they could barely stand on their ankle. There was no more strength left to give. That had been the last of it. There wasn’t enough chi to force her aura to become cold enough for that to work again. If they had tapped that Other power, focused all its strength into the blow… it could have frozen Tethys solid. They knew it could have. It would have frozen her liquid body and shattered her.
Killed her. Killed Hayato.
“Come on, Ukyou!” Tethys raised her arms to the heavens. “It’s time for the end game!”
There was a sharp crack of thunder, and then it began to rain.
Akane glanced down the street. She was sure she had seen something, but the street was empty. Still, the back of her neck was tingling, and that always meant trouble. She glanced over at the quartet of people that were following her and frowned.
“Mr. Tsukino, I suggest you wait until we’re inside,” she said as she pushed open the gate to her family’s home. Mr. Tsukino looked over at her, breaking off from the lecture he was giving his daughter. He was a middle-aged man, his receding hair and his nose-pinching glasses adding nothing to his average looks.
“I’m certain you are a responsible young lady,” the gentleman told her in a short tone. “But this is between me and my daughter. I want to know why she felt the need to keep these little superheroic excursions such a secret!”
“To prevent exactly what is happening now,” Akane guessed aloud. “Now get inside.”
Akane didn’t like to be rude, but she couldn’t get that irritating feeling to go away. So she shoved the man lightly to get him to move inside. He stumbled into the yard, a look of adult shock on his face. Akane bowed her head apologetically then gestured for the rest of his family to follow him in. Mrs. Tsukino did so, the same shell-shocked look on her face that had been on it ever since Usagi had transformed for them. The little boy (Shingi? Shogo?) guided her in, holding one of her hands. He kept glancing at Akane with the weirdest expression on his face. Usagi entered last, cradling her talking cat (talking cat!) in her arms.
“Thank you very much,” the cat said as Usagi passed by Akane. She just nodded and smiled thinly. She didn’t know which was more weird: the fact that there was a talking cat, or the fact that by now she accepted this as par for the course. Usagi only nodded mutely, looking browbeaten. Akane might have looked like that too, if her father had been lecturing her ever since they had left his home.
Akane glanced up as she closed the gate. Cologne was sitting on a rock near the side of the house, smoking her pipe. It had been her who had spoken.
“Everything went fine.” Akane wasn’t sure she believed that. “Where are the others?”
“Shampoo and the Mars girl retrieved Sailor Mercury’s mother. They are all inside, having some of your sister’s hors d’oeuvres.”
“Woah, who’s the old troll?” the little boy called out. A moment later his head rocked back and he cried out in pain. When he bent forward again he was rubbing at a red welt on his forehead and muttering.
“Show some respect, boy,” Cologne said in mock indignation. Or perhaps real indignation, it was hard to tell with Cologne.
“Did you just hit my son?” Mr. Tsukino shouted. Akane sighed. Just what she needed.
“Yes,” Cologne answered calmly.
“You apologise right now, or… or…” Mr. Tsukino waved his hands in the air in frustrated anger.
“Mr. Tsukino, you have to calm down,” Akane insisted in a soothing voice. She placed a sympathetic hand on his shoulder. “I know this is all hard to accept, but if you don’t take a deep breath and start thinking about what’s best for your family, you all might be in grave danger.”
“I am thinking about what’s best for my family!” the man shouted, his glasses practically vibrating off his nose as he shook in place. “This is insane! Monsters? Evil conspiracies? My daughter, some superhero!?”
“You should believe it,” a new voice broke in. Akane saw Sailor Mars step out of the house. Unlike Usagi, she hadn’t bothered to return to her civilian identity. “Because these monsters are real, and they will kill you to get at Usagi.”
“Who are you?” Mr. Tsukino shouted and pointed at her. “How can you…” The man trailed off as Sailor Mars suddenly changed back. Akane’s eyes widened, since this involved her costume turning into completely transparent pink ribbons before her own clothing reappeared. Then she was standing in rumpled Shinto priestess robes. “Rei? Usagi’s friend Rei?”
“Yes,” Luna spoke up. “And Ami and Makoto, too.” The cat leapt down from her ‘owner’s’ arms and paced up to the distraught father. “We wanted to keep you out of the battles. But it appears that the enemy has decided to bring the battles to you.”
“I can’t accept this,” the man said, but at least he wasn’t shouting. Akane noted that he was completely ignoring Luna’s presence. “I have a job, and there is the police…”
“The police can’t help us,” Rei insisted.
“Have you even tried?” the man shouted.
Nobody in the yard could answer him right away. Except Akane. She stepped up into his line of view and let a bit of her own anger leak through into her face and voice. “No, we haven’t,” Akane snapped. “And you’re lucky. The police can’t handle this. Even if they aren’t in the pocket of these monsters, there is nothing they can do!”
“What do you know?”
“I know people like them took my own sister,” Akane hissed back. “The police showed up there, too. They thought it was a terrorist threat, or maybe even a hoax. All they did was end up as fodder for the magic that the enemy wielded against us. In the end, my friends and I were what had to stand up and save her.” Akane stepped forward and the man stumbled back again, his eyes wide.
“You may not want to believe this, but you should. I don’t want to believe this. The fact is you are scared… not of the monsters, but for your daughter. You can’t accept that she may be in danger. I understand that. But you are going to have to learn to accept it, because your daughter is a hero, a champion. I haven’t known her for long, but even I can sense that.”
“Akane, please…” Usagi interrupted her diatribe with a soft hand on her elbow. Akane released a breath and let her anger die out. Mr. Tsukino had fled back against the wall of the courtyard and was staring at her in mute horror, his glasses hanging askance on his face. “He’s just worried about me.”
“I know, Usagi…” Akane sighed. The truth was, she really wanted to lash out at someone, and the near-hysterical parent had been the most convenient target. Her own worry hadn’t died down; in fact, it had grown increasingly more potent.
“I… I just don’t want her to be hurt…” Mr. Tsukino said, sobbing. His wife broke away from her son and rushed over to him. The two wrapped each other up in their arms, clutching to their shared warmth and emotion. The woman began to cry, and somehow that turned Mr. Tsukino’s sob into a steady stream of tears. Akane watched as they embraced and shared the burden of their pain. She tried not to envy them.
“So, is that everyone?” Cologne said, drawing all the teenager’s attention. “Sailor Moon’s family, Sailor Mercury’s mother, Makoto has no surviving family…”
“What about you, Rei?” Usagi said, turning to her friend. “We should go out and pick up your grandfather.”
“That…” Rei trailed off. “That won’t be necessary, Usagi.”
“But… why not?”
“Because… he is… he is already dead.”
Akane gasped, an action Usagi mimicked.
“When did this happen, child?” Cologne asked.
“When…” Rei stopped. “They killed him when they attacked my shrine. They did it to show how cruel they were. When they threatened to do the same to you, that’s when I ran away, Usagi.”
“Oh Rei…” Usagi suddenly embraced her friend. Rei stiffened. “I… no… your grandfather can’t be dead! He can’t!”
“He IS!” Rei suddenly shouted. A quick shove sent Usagi sprawling to the ground in an undignified heap. Usagi’s face was covered in tears, but they had stopped as the shock of Rei’s shove caught her off guard. “He is dead, and nothing we can do will change that!”
“Rei, I’m sorry about…” Akane began to say as she stepped between the two girls.
“Everyone, look out!”
Akane reacted first, spinning and grabbing Usagi before diving back. Cologne’s warning came just in time, as the walls of the compound suddenly exploded inward. For a moment the air was filled with nothing but dust and screams, then Akane was free of the cloud and rolling to her feet. She was carrying Usagi in her arms effortlessly, but placed the girl down so she could check out the rest of the yard.
Rei had gotten clear of the blast, and was holding a small wand in one hand. Cologne was standing further down, the two Tsukino adults standing behind her, unharmed. Akane glanced about: where had the boy gone? She had lost track of him during all the drama…
“Heheh,” a voice chuckled from out of the dust. Akane glanced up and watched as a large group of men stepped into the yard. The cloud was settling down, so Akane got a good look at them. Most of them were dressed in body-hugging blue jumpsuits, with strange helmets on their heads. The leader was taller than any of them, with slicked-back greasy hair and a pair of thin black sunglasses that partially covered the enormous, puckered scar running down the left side of his face. He wore a simple business suit. “Well well, it appears that the mighty Hyper-Zoanoid Team Five has an overblown reputation, if they couldn’t capture four little girls!”
“Chronos…” Akane hissed.
“Hmmm,” the man cocked his head in her direction. “You know about us?” He smirked. “Too bad for you. I might have let you live, otherwise.”
“You won’t harm anyone in this household, monster!” Rei shouted. Akane saw a flash of light out of the corner of her vision, but dared not take her eyes off the men standing in front of her. There were almost two dozen of them, by her count. She clenched her fist and shifted into a better position to launch an attack.
“The child is right,” Cologne said, pointing her staff at the man. “You monsters have made a grave error, underestimating us.”
“Heh.” The man smirked. “Like I care about you, old woman.” He stepped forward, pointing at Akane. “I came for HER.”
“Me?” Akane said, surprised.
“No, the one cowering behind you.”
“Uh… you mean me?” Usagi’s voice sounded very small from behind Akane.
“Yes.” The man threw his arms wide. “I am Aptom, the leader of the Lost Units.” Aptom clenched his fist and snapped his head down to stare at the ground. “Dyme was my brother. And you… you destroyed him!”
“Dyme…” Usagi sounded confused.
“The man we saved?” Rei spoke slowly. “But we turned him back into a human!”
“Of course you did,” Aptom said with a sneer. “But we are called the Lost Units because unpredictable mutations arose during our creation that cannot be duplicated. Dyme could never be what he once was, because of you.” Aptom rose his shaking fist up to his face and snapped his eyes up to stare at Usagi. “I asked them to let me put him out of his misery. I swore to him even as I killed him that I would avenge his death!”
“You… killed your own brother?” Akane hissed, disgusted.
“He wasn’t my brother anymore, just a HUMAN!” Aptom pointed at Usagi. “Transform, you little witch! I want to enjoy killing you.”
“But boss…” one of the others suddenly spoke up. Aptom’s fist swung out and caught him in the chin. The man staggered.
“Shut up,” Aptom hissed. “You are here to handle the others, and that alone.” He turned his attention back to Akane and Usagi. “I would have come in here by myself, but even I am not that strong. I was only lucky that my task of spying on this ‘Ukyou’ led me straight to Sailor Moon!”
Akane was about to shout something back, asking him what he knew about Ukyou, when suddenly she realised Usagi was stepping around her.
“If you have come for a fight, Aptom,” Usagi said, her voice level and proud, “you have come to the wrong place. I don’t want to fight you. I can help you… heal you. But I will not fight you.”
“Oh you’ll fight…” Aptom sneered. “Or I’ll slaughter everyone in this dojo!” The greasy-haired man snapped his fingers.
Akane backed up a step involuntarily as his thugs began to change. Clothes split and hair sprouted along bulging muscles. Within seconds they were a small army of hulking gorillas; gorillas with huge claws and fang-filled maws. Akane shifted her stance, moving so that she could dash around Usagi.
“You poor man,” Usagi said, sighing. “Is your heart full of such hatred?” The girl suddenly stood taller, prouder. “If you really want me, then leave my family out of this! Moon Prism Power, Make UP!” Usagi thrust her hand into the air, clutching her locket. Akane shielded her eyes as the girl vanished in an expanding sphere of light. When the dazzle cleared, Usagi had transformed into her Sailor Senshi form. “I am Sailor Moon, and in the name of the moon, I shall punish you!”
Akane wasn’t sure what to think of the posing Sailor Moon went through as she gave her speech, but Aptom apparently found it amusing. He held up his own hand.
“Now we can really begin this battle… Moon Prism Power, Make UP!”
Akane stared as the man in front of her changed. Aptom’s body seemed to shrink and compress in on itself. His clothing went slack and crumbled around his feet. Except they weren’t his feet for long. For soon enough they were HER feet. Somehow Aptom had transformed into a perfect mirror of Sailor Moon. Akane blinked, but the image didn’t go away. Every detail, every curve of Aptom’s body now resembled that of the sailor-suited fighter. Even the costume was perfect… or was it? Looking closely, Akane thought there was something a little odd about it. It looked… leathery.
“Heh,” the girl that had once been Aptom said as she struck a triumphant pose. “Now you see why you can’t beat me, Sailor Moon. I have the ability to perfectly imitate the forms, and abilities, of all my opponents!” Aptom’s voice sounded just like Sailor Moon’s, except that there was some sort of terrible reverb to it that sent chills up Akane’s spine.
“Heh. How useless.”
“What, who’s there?” Aptom shouted as he turned to stare into the shadows. Akane followed his gaze. She had recognised that voice. What was SHE doing here?
Nabiki stepped out of the shadow between a tree and the wall. No, not just walked, strutted. She was wearing a tight sweater and jeans, but walked as if she were a queen.
“To think, you have such a useful ability, and you use it on such a worthless opponent,” Nabiki said, chuckling. She began to slowly clap her hands. “Bravo. You just made my job much easier.”
“Nabiki! Get back inside!” Akane shouted, waving wildly at her sister. What was Nabiki thinking? She wasn’t trained for these kinds of confrontations!
“Oh no,” Nabiki replied acidly. “This man has threatened my home and family. It’s only right that I step in and assist.”
“Girl, if you want to die…” Aptom began to hiss in her distorted little-girl’s voice. But Nabiki cut her off as she raised her hand and snapped her fingers.
“SHISHI HOKO DAN!”
Akane gasped as a brilliant ball of green light arced out of the shadows. Aptom had long enough to let her jaw drop before the blast struck. She screamed and was sent spiralling over the wall. Akane stared. Her arm had been blown clean off, and most of her chest as well. For a moment the entire yard was silent. Then a figure strode into view.
Akane barely recognised Ryouga. He didn’t really look different, but there was something about the way he walked, about his expression. Then it snapped into place. The Ryouga she had met before had always seemed filled with rage or energy. The young man that stepped up next to Nabiki was a broken man, his eyes those of a person who had lost all hope.
“Ryouga, these monsters are annoying me. Remove them.”
“Yes.” Ryouga stepped around Nabiki and pulled his umbrella free of his pack. “I’m very sorry about this,” he addressed the assembled zoanoids. “But… I have to kill you.”
Then Ryouga sprung into them. Akane could only stare in horror as the boy’s first blow caved in the skull of one of the monkey-men. She heard Sailor Moon gasp. But others were already moving. She saw flames arcing from her right, immolating one of the beasts where it stood. A second later the purple-haired girl Shampoo was dashing into the fray, her sword cutting a zoanoid in two. At least the old woman wasn’t bouncing into the battle as well.
“Stop!” Sailor Moon cried. “Please stop! I can HEAL them!”
Nobody was paying attention to her. Sailor Mars had run into the battle now, her hands conjuring more flame to burn one of the creatures to a crisp. Shampoo was smiling as she dodged two of the monsters and killed a third with a flick of her bloody sword. But neither of them held a candle to Ryouga. He simply moved through the ranks of the zoanoids like a lawnmower. He wasn’t even trying to defend himself, but the monkey-men’s attacks seemed to bounce off him without him even noticing. His face was grim, and soon the monsters were running from him in a blind panic.
“NO! STOP!” Sailor Moon wailed. “It doesn’t have to be this way!” Then the girl turned to Akane. “Make them stop! You have to!”
That broke Akane out of her stupor. She nodded and ran forward. She wasn’t sure why she did it later, but she caught Ryouga’s wrist and set herself as firmly as possible. God! He was strong! His swinging arm nearly tore her shoulders out of their sockets. But she stopped his blow short. He paused and glanced at her. The entire battle had stopped. Everyone was looking at her. Akane felt that this moment was somehow pivotal, and for a split second imagined that the universe was holding its breath in anticipation of her next words.
“You don’t have to do this,” Akane said slowly. She almost winced. She knew she had lost the moment. She stared imploringly at Ryouga, but the boy was looking past her, at Nabiki. Akane looked over her shoulder and saw Nabiki was just smirking.
“We can’t let any of them live,” Nabiki said. “They’ll just draw others.” She point. Akane turned to see the last two of the monkey-men fleeing down the street. Ryouga jerked his hand free and stepped forward, dropping his umbrella. He pulled a duo of bandannas from his forehead. Akane knew what was coming next. She had seen Ryouga use this trick against Ranma. She knew the zoanoids wouldn’t dodge.
She turned away, trying to block the sound of the buzzing scream the hurled bandannas made from her mind. She met Sailor Moon’s eyes and saw the sadness in there. Akane looked away. She had tried. She had tried to step in and do the right thing. That was enough. Wasn’t it?
“Ah. Now that we’re finished with that…” Nabiki’s voice broke into Akane’s thoughts. “I have a question for everybody here.” Akane turned and glanced at her sister, who was still smirking like she was the queen of the world. “Where is Ukyou, pray tell? I SO want to have a talk with him.”
Tethys stood in the rain for a few moments, revelling in the feeling of it against her ‘skin’. Ah, this power was intoxicating. She knew now how Jadeite had felt. But she wouldn’t make the same mistake he did. Even with all of Hayato’s considerable chi, and that of the humans she had killed minutes before confronting Ukyou, she knew she still had limits.
But that was why she had made her deal with Hayato. If all she had wanted was his power, she would have taken it. But instead, she was now sharing his body. It repelled her. She knew that Kunzite forced many of his youma to co-habit with human vermin, but she had always refused to even consider that. And even they simply subsumed their human hosts, effectively overwriting the human’s personality with their own.
Tethys, however, had been forced to let Hayato retain his mind. She could feel him now. She couldn’t sense his thoughts, but she knew he was aware of every action, of every sensation of their shared body. But even if he existed back in the depths of his own mind, he was a mute voice unless she allowed him to speak. Their ‘partnership’ existed only at her leisure. Once she was finished with Ukyou, Tethys would discard him like the trash he was.
She watched as Ukyou suddenly started to leap. Her jumps didn’t even cover a third of the distance they usually did. The little girl was bouncing up, bounding from platform to platform as she raced to the top of the cavernous room. Tethys chuckled.
She could have knocked Ukyou from the air, but she felt that what Ukyou would see when she got up there would be even more demoralising. Tethys raised her arms and willed herself into the air. She floated leisurely after Ukyou, easily keeping pace. She didn’t get too close, since Ukyou appeared to have a way to hurt her now.
Soon Ukyou had reached the top of the construction site’s walls. Tethys’ nemesis stopped and stared out over the top of the wall, stunned.
“Surprised?” Tethys said as she floated up into the air above Ukyou. She gestured outward. Beyond her hand the ocean extended in all directions. The shore of Japan could barely be seen, several kilometers distant. It was connected to the structure they were in by a concrete bridge. In the other direction, there was nothing but the unending waves of the Pacific Ocean. “I told you I looked long and hard for this place.”
“What… what is this?” Ukyou gasped, clutching her side.
“It is going to be called, ‘The Ocean Cathedral’, or some such nonsense.” Tethys shrugged. “I have no idea what purpose it serves for you mortals, but for me, it is the perfect battleground.”
Tethys lifted her right hand and suddenly the swells of the ocean waves doubled. The rain continued to pelt into the concrete. “As you can see…” Tethys clasped her hand into a fist, and the ocean mimicked her action, crushing the bridge in five fingers of water, each nearly ten meters thick. The destruction was spectacular, and noisy. Tethys smiled, satisfied, as the crumbled concrete sunk beneath the waves. “There is no escape.”
Ukyou turned to face her. The girl raised her fists, her face set and determined. Tethys frowned. She still couldn’t sense anything special about her. Hayato had only felt Ukyou tap her unusual chi once, and only briefly. But he knew it felt… different, somehow. Tethys was sure that her more refined senses would pick up the moment Ukyou decided to finally get serious.
“You can’t fight me as you are,” Tethys hissed. “Why do you persist? Use your power! I will crush you at your peak!”
Tethys clenched her fists and shuddered in rage. Ukyou was mocking her. The girl KNEW. She knew that no matter how this fight turned out, it was the end of Tethys. Certainly she would destroy Ukyou, but then what? Going back to the Dark Kingdom meant a death sentence. And it was only a matter of time before Metallia, her real master, her creator, was unleashed. Then Tethys would be wiped out like all the other chattel.
This was it. This was what she had been working towards ever since Jadeite had died. She would not let Ukyou ruin it for her!
With a gesture Tethys caused the rain to condense and crash into Ukyou from behind. The girl cried out in surprise and staggered. Then Tethys gestured again, and Ukyou’s head rocked back as a force like an uppercut suddenly hit her without warning. Tethys began to wave her hands about, weaving the chi and magic into a series of punishing attacks. Ukyou rocked from one to the next, not even able to so much as recover from one blow before the next struck her. Then Tethys doubled her speed. Then tripled it.
She heard one of Ukyou’s bones crack and smiled at the sound. But it wasn’t enough. Why wasn’t Ukyou fighting back? Tethys knew she could!
With a final cry of rage Tethys pushed all her power into a final blow. The strike knocked Ukyou off the wall and sent her plummeting back into the cavernous structure that had only recently risen from the ocean. The girl’s body plummeted limply the nearly six stories before colliding with the floor. Tethys growled and floated down after her.
The rain pattered down about her, and the machinery of the site hummed on.
Ukyou was on her feet again when she arrived. She could barely stand. Her body was hunched, her right eye half-closed from swelling. Dried blood spilled from her partially shattered nose. She wasn’t putting any weight on her right foot, and her left arm hung limp.
“She’s all but dead,” Hayato said to her in the silent reaches of their mind. “Finish her.”
“No,” Tethys hissed back, also silently.
“Why? We can’t break her. She will stand defiant against you until you kill her. Look into her eyes.”
Tethys did as the boy suggested. She saw no defeat in those icy grey eyes. They were cold, and tired, but not broken. They still defied her to attack.
“Once she is dead… I have no more use for you,” Tethys informed him as she raised her hand.
“I know,” Hayato hissed in the depths of her mind. “But I’ve become enough of a monster for the purpose of revenge. I let you use me to kill the workers of this place. Maybe she’s right. Maybe it is better to die a man, but I can’t go back now. Kill her, then discard me and kill me too if you must.”
Tethys hesitated, unsure how to respond to that. There had been such venom in Hayato’s mental voice. But it hadn’t been directed at Ukyou. Nor had it been directed at Tethys. It was self-loathing, she concluded in startlement. How could he hate himself? If there was any emotion foreign to the existence of youma, it was that one. Even love, of a twisted kind, could exist in the Dark Kingdom. But to hate YOURSELF?
Tethys snapped out of her stupor as she saw Ukyou suddenly sprint away. The girl ducked and rolled, then came up holding the iron shaft she had used as a weapon. Tethys quirked her head to the side. Then she smiled.
Perhaps Ukyou would draw this out further, after all.
Tethys floated after her. She gestured, causing the rain to form into orbs that pelted and battered at Ukyou. Somehow, Ukyou was dodging them this time. She wasn’t moving any faster, but she seemed to know where the blows were going to come from now. And Tethys couldn’t force the water to move faster enough in turn to compensate. She shrugged, and doubled the number of orbs. This time, Ukyou was sent spinning into the darkness.
Tethys touched down as Ukyou came to rest near the edge of the room. Here, the hum of the turbines was almost deafening. Tethys gazed idly at the large generator that was half-embedded in the wall. She could feel the water flowing behind that barrier, spinning the turbines that generated the power to this place. How clever, she mused with a smile.
“Tethys…” Ukyou said as she regained her feet. “And Hayato…” The girl stood suddenly straight, her face wincing, but her posture perfect as she adopted her fighting stance. “Let’s finish this. Come at me, with everything you have.”
“Are you finally ready to fight back?” Tethys said, frowning. She still didn’t feel anything different about Ukyou’s aura.
“Not the way you mean,” Ukyou said. Then she was running towards them. Tethys dodged the first blow of her pole-staff with contemptuous ease. She responded with a backhand that sent Ukyou flying. Ukyou sprang to her feet and came in again, but considerably slower. Tethys grinned and reached out, catching the girl’s staff with one hand. Ukyou tugged at it futilely, but Tethys grew bored quickly and kicked her in the ribs. Ukyou gasped and collapsed to her knees. She rolled away, though, spinning around behind Tethys.
Tethys turned slowly, facing the girl. She hadn’t felt any of the cold aura that Ukyou had produced the one time she had been able to hurt her. It appeared that the human was all out of tricks. Tethys sighed. Such a waste of time. She raised her hand and pointed it at Ukyou.
“Goodbye, Ukyou…” Tethys said with a hint of melancholy.
The girl suddenly shifted her grip on the staff. She was now holding it like a javelin. Tethys clenched her fist, and a ball of water formed there. Then Ukyou hurled the staff at her. Tethys didn’t even flinch. The metal passed through her chest without resistance. She grinned. Then she felt the staff stop. She looked down, and saw it quivering between her breasts.
“Goodbye, Tethys,” Ukyou said.
Then Tethys’ world was pain. She screamed, the water in front of her crashing to the ground. Her body twitched and spasmed. She saw a bright arc flash from the tip of the pole to the ground. Another blinding arc ran up the length of her arm before flashing away to hit a metal pole nearby. A shower of sparks exploded over her shoulders.
Tethys realised too late what had happened. Her hands reached down to try and pull the pole free, but the blinding white flash of man-made lightning knocked them away. She screamed again. The pain was intense, all-encompassing… soon it blocked out all thought.
She tried to absorb it, but this wasn’t life force. This was artificial, and it burned her very soul. She could feel the power run up and down her body, and as it did she felt the massive chi within her hum in sympathy. Soon she was losing control of even that. The chi flashed and roared, exploding out from her skin in brilliant white arcs. She couldn’t even hear herself screaming anymore. She felt her body losing cohesion.
Then the pain stopped.
Tethys collapsed to the ground, shuddering. She looked up, and saw Ukyou standing over her. The young woman’s body was smoking, and she was holding her pole in one hand. Ukyou shuddered as she took a deep breath.
“No… not even you… not now. Not ever,” Ukyou said slowly.
Ukyou had saved her life. Tethys wanted to laugh at the tragedy of it. But she was too weak. Her mind was sinking away. All her power had exploded out of her. She barely had enough to maintain her own existence.
And did she want to?
A part of her accepted this. She knew she had lost. This was the way it should be, that part of her said. She had lost to a greater opponent. It was time for her to fade away. She smiled, and felt herself giving into that impulse. Somehow, as she began to release the last bonds on her very being, she felt fulfilled…
It was Hayato who saved her. With a roar, he pushed to the front of her mind. She could feel the blistering power of his will and shied away from it. His instinct to survive, his basic human desire to live, overwhelmed that part of her. With a shudder and a sigh, she lay back. Her body changed, morphing slowly back to Hayato’s human form. It was still the same youma body, but when he was in charge, it conformed to his expectations and not hers.
But even he didn’t have the power to move. Only to live.
Then they were being lifted off the ground. It was Ukyou. She had grabbed Hayato by the collar and lifted him into the air so his eyes were level with hers. Tethys stared through Hayato’s eyes into those of Ukyou. They were cold. Defiant. Undefeated.
“Remember this, Hayato,” Ukyou said in a voice like ice. “Remember this, Tethys. I won. I defeated you. You were stronger, and faster. You had more tricks. You were my superior in every way. But I won.” Ukyou let them drop. “I didn’t even go all out, and I still defeated you.”
Ukyou began to walk away, but as she did Tethys heard her say one last thing over her shoulder.
“When you look back on this day, remember that the only reason you still live, is because I chose to let you do so.”
Then Ukyou vanished into the darkness, leaving Tethys and Hayato alone with each other.
Ukyou thought she must have been making quite a spectacle of herself. She couldn’t imagine how awful she looked as she staggered down the street. Her clothes were sopping wet, and on the one day she had decided to forgo chest wrappings. Her nose was at least not bleeding anymore, and most of the blood had been washed clean by the swim back to the mainland. Hitching a ride over the mountains back to Tokyo had been difficult, but the capacity to grin and bear the attentions of some lecherous salaryman had eventually seen her through.
She winced as her foot came down badly again. Frankly, the first place she should be going was to the nearest doctor. Kyoko might be able to patch her up, as could Doctor Tofu. Plus, she knew Ranma and Ran would be looking for her, and that going to those places would be the most likely way to find them.
But, for some reason, she didn’t feel like meeting Ranma at the moment. It struck her as odd, but after her victory she felt strangely ambivalent. She should have felt like celebrating. She had triumphed. Even if… at the end there…
But she didn’t feel like celebrating. She had defeated an enemy, two enemies, that she never would have fought, had she not been such a grade A bitch. So why should she be happy about it? Perhaps the thought of trying to explain her feeling to Ranma was why she wasn’t rushing back to meet him.
Besides, there was still Hayato’s soul (or body, or whatever) to save. If she fetched Sailor Moon now and brought her back to the… Ukyou winced at the very thought of it. Who was building such a ridiculous thing as an Ocean Cathedral three kilometers off shore from one of the most impassable cliffs on the Japanese shoreline?
Nevermind. That way lay madness.
The point was that Usagi could heal Hayato, drive the youma out of him.
And then… what?
Ukyou shook those thoughts aside. Usagi’s house was dead ahead. She stumbled towards the door, heaving a sigh of relief. She could lay the entire problem at Usagi’s feet, she guessed. Aaron certainly wasn’t being a help. Ever since the adrenaline of the fight had worn off, he had been busy thinking about other things.
The first thing Ukyou noticed was that the house appeared deserted. The front door was hanging ajar and the driveway was empty. But there was more than that… the place felt abandoned, somehow. Aaron’s attention returned to the outside world as he tried to put a finger on that feeling, but it stayed just at the irritating edge of his perception.
“Hello?” Ukyou called as she stepped in front of the door. “Is anybody home?”
There was no answer. Aaron frowned and focused his senses, but he perceived no life forces inside the building. Ukyou tapped the door open and stepped inside. It was after school, though: Usagi could be with her friends. Maybe her father was still at work. Maybe the brother at a friend’s place. The mother might have even gone out shopping. But why leave the door open?
Aaron paused at the threshold. Why were they even considering this? It was the quintessential horror movie mistake. The smart thing to do would be to turn around, walk away and come back with a posse of friends. But… Usagi’s family missing? That sent warning bells pealing in his mind. If someone had decided to get more serious than your standard Sailor Moon villain did, he might not have time to get help…
“Hello?” Ukyou called again as she stepped inside. She limped slowly down the hall and finally came to the living room. She immediately noticed the person sitting in the chair with his back to her. He had black hair and was hunched forward, perfectly still. Aaron could sense… something about him. It felt familiar, but he didn’t know why. “Hello?” Ukyou called, louder this time.
“I knew you’d come,” the man said in an oddly distorted voice. Ukyou blinked, running her good hand through her bangs. Aaron knew that standing here was a bad idea. But… he was mentally exhausted, and couldn’t come up with a better plan.
In a smooth motion the figure rose to his feet. One hand immediately fell limp at his side, and Ukyou grimaced in disgust at the sight of it. Also the smell, which hit her nostrils at that point. It was sweet and sickly, like meat that had been left in the sun. The figure slowly turned. He might once have been a handsome young man, but he was barely recognisable as one now. His hair still clung to his scalp, but much of his flesh was only doing so by force of habit. His eyes were sunk under his brow, and were milky white and unreadable. The lips had peeled back from the teeth, giving him the illusion of a smile. Most of the rest of his body was hidden under a leather jacket, T-shirt and jeans. Only his hands were exposed: the left was barely more than a skeleton, and even the right had a long strip of flesh hanging from the index finger.
“It’s been a long time, Aaron.”
To Be Continued…
Blade: Brains… brainsssssss…
Epsilon: You’re not actually a zombie. Well, uh, not that type of zombie, anyway.
Blade: Brrraaaaaaainnns…. are one of the few delicacies I have not tried…
Epsilon: Hey, do I have any attack names to put out?
Blade: Well, uh, no. Which is good, since if Ukyou had yelled “ICE PUNCHU!” while running at Tethys, you might not have hit her.
Epsilon: Don’t be ridiculous! We would have yelled it out in Pretentious Latin. What makes you think Tethys understands Latin?
Blade: Her name is Latin.
Epsilon: Pfft. (waves hand dismissively) Pure coincidence. All evil diabolical invaders from beyond space and time speak Japanese. That’s also what they spoke millennia ago on the Moon.
Blade: It’s also what they speak in the Jurai Empire!
Epsilon: That’s why you know Earth’s so damn backwards. Only one small island nation speaks Japanese.
Blade: Yep, Japanese is actually the One True Tongue that existed before the Tower of Babel fell. I’m pretty sure that’s in Evangelion somewhere.
Epsilon: Along with an angel who blasted gospel music at a pubescent girl until her brain broke.
Blade: Back on the subject of brains again, huh?
Epsilon: And on that note… UNGRACEFUL SEGUE!
Blade: Uh… readers with… BRAINS… will undoubtedly have figured out we have nothing profound to say about the fanfic, and are even now, using their BRAINS, scrolling down to what’s coming up NEXT MONTH…
Ukyou stood up straight, pushing off the wall, her fists finally clenched. She looked down at the ground, and Chris… FELT something. It was like a tuning fork, vibrating in time to something inside her. Something alien… something Other… and something oh so familiar.
Of course! Aaron had the Third Circle too. Of course he did. He WAS Other. Just like Chris. That was the power. The power they had, that could destroy the world… or save it. All that mattered was intent.
It was still dormant, but he could feel Aaron reaching for it. For their last gasp. It looked like there was no way out of this but for them to fight it out. Aaron just hated it too much. Hated this freedom he considered so wrong.
Well, too bad.
He raised his hand, and a baton slipped into it. Spikes extended, covered with glistening death.
No paralysis this time.
Hybrid Theory Chapter 13: Points Of Authority