Unlucky thirteen, huh? I guess it figures it’d be my turn…
Uh, hey. I’m Ryouga, but you don’t really care about that. Trust me, you don’t want to know me, because I am the lowest scum on earth.
Wait a minute… if I have authorial oversight perception… then…
I KNOW NABIKI TRICKED ME!
But I’m just gonna forget anyway. Sigh…
Well, anyway, there are other people’s lives who are almost as dark and hopeless as mine. Ukyou’s one of them, as she basically spent most of last chapter getting the living crap kicked out of her by Tethys. But Tethys wouldn’t kill her until she made Ukyou use the Third Circle stuff, which allowed Ukyou enough of a chance to eventually pull off a plan to defeat Tethys. And then Ukyou spared her life, which was probably a bad idea, I guess. But it was nice!
Around the same time, this evil group of monsters called Chronos attacked the Sailor Senshi. They kidnapped two of them, but with help from that undead guy Chris, Sailor Moon managed to escape. So did Sailor Mars, but only by abandoning her grandpa to the horrible monsters. Man, I wish I’d been there to help… but… well, anyway.
That wasn’t the only bad thing happening. This jerk called Vega showed up, supposedly to look for Ukyou, but he seems to be interested in the Sailor Senshi too. And some really bad guys killed a bunch of government muckety-mucks in England, and only a vampire girl and her, I guess boss, managed to escape them.
And to top it all off, Chris found out by accident about Ukyou’s evil prophecy thing, and figured out that that meant Ukyou had lied to him, and his ex-friend Aaron wasn’t dead, so he went to look for them. He seemed pretty… uh… how to put this… psychotic? Man, Ukyou can’t catch a break, and that’s coming from ME, here.
Which… is pretty much where we’re at. I guess things can’t get much more depressing, right?
C&A Productions Presents
A Work of Blatant Self-Insertion
“It’s been a long time, Aaron.” the rotting corpse said, in defiance of all natural law, as it stood before them.
Aaron’s eyes widened. Ukyou stepped back.
Chris flashed across the room. Ukyou might have been able to dodge, or even block. She might have been able to defend herself… if she had not just been beaten half to death. As it was, all she could do was stare as Chris’ skeletal fist ran into her face. For a moment, the world went black and she felt the wall behind her give way as the force of the shot knocked her from the building. She skidded to a halt on the rough pavement, stinging her hands as she grasped wildly in an attempt to slow down.
Ukyou was just lifting her head up again when the wall to Usagi’s house exploded outward. She scrambled to the side, barely avoiding the refrigerator that crashed to the street, spilling foodstuffs all over. Some inane part of Ukyou’s mind clucked disapprovingly at the waste.
Ukyou pulled herself to her feet using a nearby mailbox, and stared as the decaying body strode out of the hole it had created and into the street. He was wearing a black leather jacket, T-shirt and jeans; all standard apparel for Chris. But his body… it had reached a level of decomposition that bordered on horrific. His glassy, milky eyes flicked towards her, but there was no emotion in them.
“You know,” Chris said in a conversational tone, seemingly to himself. “I really feel like a complete idiot. I mean, I knew you lied to Ranma. Lied to Akane. Lied to yourself. But for some reason, I didn’t think you were lying to me.”
“Chris…” Aaron said slowly. “I think you need to calm down.” He had little hope it would work, but longshots were all he had at the moment.
“Now, why would I believe you, when you told me that Aaron was dead?” Chris continued, ignoring her. “Why? When I knew you were so dishonest?” The corpse-boy snapped his fingers, his skeletal digits producing a sickening clattering noise. “Oh! That’s right, now I remember! Because the alternative was that Aaron, my BEST FRIEND, was lying to me.” Chris’ voice began to rise, an angry hiss escaping through his non-existent lips as the words edged closer and closer to shouts. “Lying to me, and leaving me to ROT! ALONE! In this GODDAMN CORPSE!” By this time, Chris had closed to within a few paces of Ukyou. She stood transfixed. Her mouth opened, but no words came out.
Chris turned his head and regarded her. His voice lowered, and had taken on a dangerous, brutal sort of calmness. “But silly me. I guess I was wrong. So, Aaron, what do you have to say for yourself?”
“I…” Aaron sighed and fixed Ukyou’s eyes on those of the corpse body that Chris inhabited like a parasite. “Nothing I can say will make it better. The words ‘I’m sorry’ sound hollow even to me.”
“Just like you,” Chris said, his face twitching as he tried unsuccessfully to sneer.
Ukyou bent forward as Chris rammed his foot into her gut. Pain raced up and down her body as her already broken ribs reminded her of their existence. She coughed and collapsed to her knees, dry-heaving and bracing herself with her hands. Chris loomed over her.
Ukyou’s head snapped back as Chris’ foot drove up again and caught her in the chin. The force of his blow lifted her from the ground. But as suddenly as she started moving, she stopped. The jerk of the sudden stop sent sharp spikes of pain through her neck as Chris’ rotting corpse-hand clenched around it like a vice.
Ukyou gasped. She could still breathe. Chris hadn’t tightened his grip yet. Aaron began to focus, searching their body for some store of energy. There had to be a wisp of it somewhere, didn’t there? Wasn’t there always enough strength for one last defiant stand? There had been against Tethys. There had been enough to force their battered body to walk back to Tokyo. But this time the well was dry.
The only power inside them now, was that Other power.
Ukyou winced as Chris lightly slapped her with his non-skeletonised hand.
“No, no, no. You don’t fall unconscious that quickly.”
“Chris, it doesn’t have to be like this…” Ukyou hissed. Her jaw moved painfully. She thought maybe Chris had come very close to breaking it.
“Doesn’t it? You didn’t answer my question. You do that a lot.”
Huh? What question was that? “Uh…” Ukyou said, her voice still coming in a high-pitched squeak because of her half-compressed trachea. “Could you repeat the question?”
The hand around her neck quivered and the pressure increased almost imperceptibly. But you perceived a lot of things when they involved your air supply. Chris’ eyes closed, and Ukyou stared down at him through her half-lidded eyes. Then his other arm vanished in a flash, and there was a metal shriek. Ukyou hadn’t even seen the strike, but she saw the mailbox sail off into the distance. The sidewalk pavestones rippled like a pond in its wake, then exploded up in a line of concrete geysers. Ukyou’s jaw would have dropped, had Chris not been supporting it. She watched the mailbox sail through a parked car like it wasn’t even there. The car’s two halves remained perched in space for an absurd second before gravity finally decided to notice there was nothing connecting them and they collapsed in on each other. The mailbox didn’t even seem to slow when it disappeared into the wall of a house four blocks away.
A shriek rose in the distance.
Aaron frowned internally. He had felt that. Up until now, Chris was as dark on his senses as any other dead thing. But… something inside of him had reacted to that strike.
Chris drew in a long breath, and let it out again. The sound of it was oddly liquid, like he was gargling. “Pay attention this time,” Chris ordered her coldly. “The question is, ‘Why, Aaron? Why would you do this to me?’ Did you get that?”
“Do this to you?” Aaron said slowly. “No. Never mind. I don’t have an answer that will satisfy you. I did it because a part of me hates you, and wanted you to suffer. I did it because a part of me is afraid of you, and wants you to disappear from my perception. I did it because I was stupid and confused and going through my own crisis. But none of that really matters. I did it to you. It was wrong.” Aaron sighed. “I can’t take it back. I wish I could, but I can’t.”
“Wrong,” Chris said in an oddly happy tone. “That satisfies me completely.”
The next thing Ukyou knew, she was colliding with a wall. Her back screamed at her. And it was only as she started to slide to the ground that she saw the lamppost she had been hurled through topple neatly to the side. Well, on the bright side, she hadn’t really felt that. But again, Aaron had sensed something during their near instantaneous flight.
The lamppost stopped toppling. Chris was now standing under it, supporting it with one hand. His hideous, grinning face stared at her as he shifted his grip on it until he was holding it by the narrow end. Then he began to line it up on his shoulder.
“Aw, shit…” Ukyou groaned.
Aaron focused, and he sensed the same sympathetic pulse form inside him. With no more warning needed, Ukyou dodged… well, more accurately collapsed quickly, and the lamppole whistled through the air over her head. There was a cascade of crashes as the pole tore through the wall with enough force to send the debris flying back. Ukyou spun around on her back and stared as the arc of debris cut into the house behind her like a machine gun. Glass sprayed and plaster exploded outward. A moment later, there were screams.
Ukyou glanced to her left and right. People.
Oh god. This was the suburbs. All these people were just coming home for, or already at, supper. She had barely noticed them as they shrunk back from her while she had been approaching. But now that they were screaming and fleeing in all directions, she couldn’t help but notice.
“Chris, stop!” Ukyou yelled, turning to face him and holding one hand up.
“Stop? Why Aaron, can’t you take it as well as you dish it out?” Chris stepped forward, swinging the pole idly. “I heard about Hayato. Real Ukyou-like response to a problem there,” Chris said sarcastically.
Ukyou’s face flushed with a sudden surge of anger. She grabbed the remains of the wall and levered herself into a standing position again. “Chris, you have no idea what I’ve gone through, so don’t talk. Maybe I’m not exactly myself anymore, but that doesn’t mean I’m not the same person. People change, I guess.” Ukyou couldn’t resist the urge to sneer, just a little. “Look at yourself, for instance.”
Chris’ expression darkened as he stepped forward. With a casual flip he tossed the pole over his shoulder. Ukyou gasped as she watched it arc into the roof of a house, and through that roof with barely a pause. Chris didn’t even seem to notice. His eyes were all on Ukyou. Ukyou only noticed how close he had gotten when his backhanded slap sent stars spiralling across her vision.
“Excuse me, bitch, but I’m not talking to you.”
Ukyou coughed as she reeled from the blow. Aaron had felt it again, that brief surge from inside of them just before Chris struck. It had been much smaller this time, but still there.
Ukyou didn’t care. Chris was a menace. If they didn’t end this, more innocent people would be hurt. She clenched her fist. She could find the strength to fight back. They were still breathing. They didn’t need to do that for a few seconds…
Aaron pounced on that idea with all his willpower. His mind boggled at what Ukyou had been considering. He felt her anger. He understood it. But there was no way he was going to let her give into it. Mostly because it wouldn’t work, and would likely just get them hit again. All they had to do was endure until Chris came back to his senses…
Which, really, should have happened a while ago.
Because Chris, while he had always had a temper, had also always been the kind of person whose temper flared strong, but briefly. Usually, once he smashed his fist into some convenient inanimate object, he would calm down. Besides, even he had to notice how badly Ukyou was hurt. He had to realise that one or two more strong blows… and they might not wake up-
“Aaron,” Chris said sweetly, startling them out of their reverie. “Please pay attention to me when I’m speaking to you.” Then he swung his arm up and rammed it into their stomach. Ukyou lifted off her feet and flew breathless through the air, before she crashed hard onto the roof of a sedan parked nearly four houses down. The roof gave way and Ukyou plummeted again, landing badly on the car’s steering column. She felt something in her hip crack.
By the time the pain cleared away, they could hear Chris stepping next to the car. The car rocked, and Ukyou gasped as she realised what Chris was doing. She started to scramble, but the vehicle was already in the air by the time she got to the door. It flipped lazily through the sky and Ukyou could do nothing but grab onto any purchase and fight the vertigo. The car landed with a deafening crash, and Ukyou watched as plaster and glass flew by the window.
Somehow, she had managed to remain in one piece. Miraculously, she hadn’t even taken a scratch. The car had survived mostly intact as well. With a groan, she crawled out of the window above her. She stopped. Well, apparently falling on the couch had broken the car’s fall. Luckily, it appeared the young couple cowering in the nearby corner had not been on the couch at the time.
“Run,” Ukyou gasped. They just stared at her. “RUN!”
One of the walls exploded inward. Ukyou rolled off the car, shielding herself from the blast of debris. She heard the couple scream in pain and shock. “Knock, knock,” Chris called as he strode into the house. Ukyou watched as Chris’ eyes scanned the room, passed over the couple without pause, and stopped when they spotted her.
Chris… didn’t even see them. The young woman was lying on the ground, a small pool of blood forming under her chest. The man was screaming and clutching her. Chris didn’t even notice they were there.
This wasn’t Chris.
Not at his worst.
“No…” Ukyou said slowly.
The problem with epiphanies was that they always occurred at the most inconvenient times.
Aaron rose to his feet, and stared over the top of the wrecked car at Chris. The undead boy’s face twitched as he tried to smile again. Aaron could feel it now. It was like someone had turned on the proverbial light switch in his mind. The power radiated from Chris. The Other.
The same power that had nearly turned him and Ukyou into monsters, and Chris was using it. Of course he was using it. He had to be. How else could a corpse walk around? How else could he steal the memories and powers of his hosts? Chris had never had those abilities, to say the least.
Chris was using the same corrupting power.
And he was using it all the time.
“Chris,” Ukyou began, her voice suddenly hitching. “You… you’re going to kill me, Chris. If you don’t stop right now. I’m going to die. Do you really want that? Or is it already too late for you to care?”
“Do this to you?” the being that looked like Ukyou repeated mockingly. “No. Nevermind. I don’t have an answer that will satisfy you. I did it because a part of me hates you, and wanted you to suffer. I did it because a part of me is afraid of you, and wants you to disappear from my perception. I did it because I was stupid and confused and going through my own crisis. But none of that really matters. I did it to you. It was wrong.” It sighed. “I can’t take it back. I wish I could, but I can’t.”
And that was it. All that, all the pain, everything that had been done since then, and all it came down to, for Aaron, was the same thing it always had: apathy.
He hadn’t changed at all.
Chris had always wanted to do this, just a little bit.
“Wrong,” he said, and meant it. “That satisfies me completely.”
Chris knocked the Ukyou-Aaron back. They hit a wall and slid down. They’d knocked over a lamppost, he noted idly. Perfect. He grabbed it, wound up like a baseball batter.
“Aw, shit…” it griped.
He swung, but it dodged out of the way. Aaron looked side to side for a way to escape, then held up a hand at him. “Chris, stop!”
Chris sneered. It wasn’t even fighting back yet. Did it think he wasn’t serious? He stepped forward, prepping the pole for another swing.
“Stop? Why Aaron, can’t you take it as well as you dish it out?” He paused, remembering everything he knew ‘Ukyou’ could, in fact, ‘dish out’. Jadeite’s arm ripped off, Hayato’s spine broken. Chris had barely even hurt it yet. “I heard about Hayato. Real Ukyou-like response to a problem there.”
Ukyou – it was hard to think of it as being Aaron, he guessed, given the body – stood up straight, and snarled at him. “Chris, you have no idea what I’ve gone through, so don’t talk. Maybe I’m not exactly myself anymore, but that doesn’t mean I’m not the same person. People change, I guess.” It… SHE smirked. “Look at yourself, for instance.”
This old song and dance. And making fun of his tragedy, to boot. Chris said a silent apology to many newsgroup debating opponents over the years. Ukyou Kuonji WAS a fucking bitch.
He discarded the lamppost and cuffed her across the face. She’d had her chance to tell him the truth before. He wasn’t planning to listen again.
“Excuse me, bitch, but I’m not talking to you.”
She stumbled back a bit, and he saw her face light up with rage, but then she calmed down again, standing there, not even seeming to pay attention. She didn’t even attempt to defend herself, much less strike back. Just like she had been this whole fight.
Did she think he was so beneath her?
No. HE did.
But he was stronger than Aaron now.
“Aaron,” Chris said softly, causing it to notice him again, “Please pay attention to me when I’m talking to you.”
He knocked them away and followed. They’d landed on a car.
He’d wanted to try this sometime.
He easily lifted the car with Aaron-Ukyou in it and hurled it away. His arm was itching at the edge of his consciousness, but he ignored it. He’d deal with it later. He was still fine.
The car had fallen behind a wall. He casually strolled up to it, and made himself a door. “Knock, knock,” he called as he walked in.
THERE it was.
“No,” it said, and he could tell it was Ukyou again by her voice. What, did she think he was Ryouga or something, not to be able to find her again?
And it still wasn’t fighting him. It was just staring at him.
Well, he’d MAKE it fight back.
It wouldn’t be so smug when he was done.
Not this time. Not like the last time. Not like when they’d met for the first time in this world, and Ukyou (Aaron?) had taunted him and dangled her knowledge and left him to ROT.
It was talking. “Chris,” Ukyou said, a theatrical catch in her voice. “You… you’re going to kill me, Chris. If you don’t stop right now. I’m going to die. Do you really want that? Or is it already too late for you to care?”
“Spare me the melodrama,” he snapped. “I’ve barely even touched you so far.” She was hiding behind the car. He tossed it out of the way. “You won’t even fight back. Why not? Because you know I’m stronger now than I was when I beat you before?” He grinned, knowing the real reason. “Or are you waiting for Ranma to save your little ass? After all, he could probably beat Sentarou. But he won’t. He’s occupied, I think. You can’t play damsel in distress for him this time.”
Ukyou was still just looking at him, not even striking a defensive stance. “You really can’t see what you’re doing, can’t you? I know! Everything seems so simple, doesn’t it? All those little problems you had before you started-“
He cuffed her again, and she stumbled back and fell down. “Shut the fuck up, Ukyou. You think I can’t tell it’s you? You HAD your chance to talk to me. I’m talking to HIM.” He glared down, feeling the anger build. “You. You goddamn little son of a bitch. Everything I’ve done for you, every time I’ve supported you, every person I’ve defended you to… and you spit it back in my face the first chance you get. Did you have a good laugh about it? You always liked that, making people suffer, right? That’s what you always said.” He clenched his fist, and shooed away the itching again. “Well, congratulations, Aaron. You win. And here’s your prize.”
“And maybe I deserve it,” Aaron said. It was definitely him; that apathetic, uncaring, slightly mocking tone was oh too familiar. “So what happens next, Chris? Do you just keep beating me until I’m dead?”
As if he was even HURT. He wasn’t even trying to dodge! “Funny. But not very.” He stepped over to it, and saw it flinch just a little. He smiled.
“Kill you? Maybe I should. I mean, this is cathartic and all, but really, your assholishness isn’t the real problem here, is it? Or maybe it is. But it’s assholishness on a whole different level than you’ve showed me.”
“Chris, listen to yourself. You’re not even making sense. You’re sick. You need help. You need-“
He wasn’t even trying to sound sympathetic. What, did Aaron think he was an idiot? He kicked his arm out from under him, which he apparently didn’t expect, and Ukyou’s body flopped satisfyingly. “Shut up. Do you know how I figured out it was you?”
It paused for a moment, then said “No,” in Aaron’s cold tones.
“It was a coincidence, really. I was actually going to ask for your help. But Rei doesn’t like you. She told me about the prophecy. And I asked myself, no matter how much of a bitch she was, no matter how much she twisted and used people for her own selfish ends, WHY on earth would Ukyou Kuonji want to end all existence?” It didn’t have a reply to that. But, of course, what could either of them say? “And then it came to me. Do you remember the talk, Aaron? At Rob’s? Do you remember when we discussed what we’d wish for?”
“Wishes?” Aaron said. Then he looked up, Ukyou’s eyes widening. “Wishes? That was just idle talk!”
Chris smiled. “No, I don’t think so. I think you took it very seriously. Too seriously.” He jerked it to its feet, since it couldn’t be bothered to do so and he wanted to look Aaron in the eyes. “It made perfect sense. Ukyou would never destroy everything, never destroy this beautiful world. Why would she? It was HER world. It was what she knew! It wasn’t, to her, a world that… ‘shouldn’t exist’. She’d never take all the wishes away.” He held it up to his face, nose to nose, smiled as it flinched backwards. “You would. YOU would, Aaron. But I won’t let you. You’ll never take the wishes away from everyone. I’m going to stop you. Right here and now, if I have to.”
“Chris,” it said, and it was Aaron again. “You have to listen to me. Even if you hate me, even if you think I am going to destroy the world, you have to listen to just this: there is something inside of you. A power that isn’t of this world. And it’s destroying you, piece by piece.”
Chris laughed. “Welcome to last month, Aaron. What, did Cologne tell you about the Third Circle too? I know why my bodies rot. But it hardly matters now, does it?”
“No, listen, not your bodies, it’s destroying-“
He shoved Aaron back into the wall. He wanted to smash that glib little mouth in. But not yet. In a moment. He wasn’t finished talking. “No, YOU listen. I’m not going to kill you… at least not right now. Why? Because now you know. You know I’m going to stop you. And I’m stronger than you. I beat you when I was Kodachi, and I’ll beat you here when I’m Sentarou. And do you know why? Because I WANT it more. Because I want to be able to save this world. Save it from people like Susano-oh, and Queen Beryl, and Arkanphel… and you.” He smiled to himself. It seemed so obvious now. “Because that’s why I’m here. A very wise person told me that things like me don’t just happen by accident. And she was right. I have a purpose. This world is going to tear itself apart. Unless I stop it. And I can. I have the knowledge, I have the power, and most importantly, I have the will.”
He dropped Ukyou-Aaron, and stepped back. The sun was shining down, and he looked directly into it. It felt good. “I won’t let what you promised happen. All the happy endings CAN still come true. Everybody who wants to dream can have it.” He looked down into Aaron’s eyes. “And do you know why? Because I BELIEVE. I believe in the perfect possible future.” He held up one hand, clenched it. “And I can bring it about. That’s what I’m here to do.”
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.
It was time to get serious.
Ukyou was still standing there, waiting for him to make the first move. She hadn’t drawn out the power yet. Well, he wasn’t waiting for them to get ready. He lunged forward and-
And his arm was being held back. Chris blinked. What?
Hey, it was Ryouga. Standing there, holding his arm, looking grim-faced.
Where had the lost boy come from? How hadn’t Chris noticed him?
“This fight is over.” Ryouga’s voice was much colder than Chris had ever thought it could get.
“This fight is over,” Ryouga informed the monster, his voice filled with cold rage. The thing blinked at him, its eyes widening slightly. But Ryouga didn’t give it a chance to recover. He brought his free hand up with all the force he could muster, and did his level best to take its head off.
There was a sick ripping sound, and a crash, blended seamlessly into a single sound. Ryouga watched as the thing fell through the hole the force of his punch created for it in the wall. He then realised he was still holding the thing’s arm, and dropped it with a soft retch.
He glanced over at the young woman standing opposite him. Was this really Ukyou? First off, she was a she. That was new. But more importantly, she was barely recognisable. Her face was covered in bruises and welts. Blood was smeared across her features from a dozen small cuts. Her hair was matted with it. A red welt encircled her neck, and her sopping wet clothes did nothing to hide the bruises and cuts that covered her torso. Normally, Ryouga suspected he would have passed out at the sight of her cleavage, but either the ruin that was her body, or his own recent experiences gave him the strength to resist that.
More importantly, Ukyou was almost dead. He was no doctor, but he had seen enough battlefield injuries to know the signs. He guessed some or all of her ribs were broken, and probably one of her arms as well. One of her legs wasn’t doing as much to support her as the other. Yes, Ryouga knew the signs. One more attack… and Ukyou would be dead.
Sometimes, deep down inside where he refused to admit it to himself, Ryouga hated what Nabiki asked him to do. Like this afternoon. He hadn’t wanted to slaughter those monsters. But he had tried to turn off his emotions and obey.
He owed it to Nabiki. He owed her everything.
But this time, he was more than glad to step in. This time, he would be saving a life. He glanced to the side, where he could see a man cradling his wife? Daughter? Lover? It was hard to tell. But from the look of her she also needed a doctor, and soon. This time he would save two lives.
“Are you alright?” Ryouga said to Ukyou.
“I…” Ukyou stumbled back and slumped against the wall. “I don’t know…”
“Can you walk?” Ryouga asked insistently. “I don’t think this house can stay up much longer.” As if to emphasise his words, the structure creaked ominously. “I have to get them out of here…” Ryouga ran over and pulled the man away from the injured woman. The man tried to fight Ryouga, but the young boy simply overpowered him and then scooped up the woman in his arms. He didn’t like the way she was bleeding, but there was no help for it.
“Yes, I can walk…” he heard Ukyou say. He nodded and dashed out the way he had come. Then he felt something ping off the back of his head and stopped. “This way, Ryouga.” Ukyou said, gesturing out a hole through which the street could be seen.
Ryouga leapt free of the building, Ukyou stumbling after him. Once they were on the street, he put down the woman and released the man. Now that he was clear, he could hear the sounds of sirens growing closer. The police would be here soon.
“Where is the zombie?”
Ryouga looked up as Nabiki stepped up to him. She crossed her arms and stared down at him.
“I knocked it away,” Ryouga explained.
“Good, now…” Nabiki turned to look at Ukyou. Then she paused. Ukyou looked up at her through eyes half-closed by swelling. The young woman was leaning against a utility pole, obviously all but out of it. Nabiki stared at her, gape-mouthed. Ryouga watched her step lightly over to Ukyou. Then he watched Nabiki lean down over Ukyou. Then he watched Nabiki fondle Ukyou’s left breast.
He slapped his hand over his nose.
“Do you do that to everybody?” Ukyou asked flatly.
“You’re a girl!” Nabiki accused.
“Indeed.” Ukyou grimaced. “That hurts. Please stop.”
Nabiki pulled her hand away as if burned.
Ryouga spun as a crash and roar echoed up from down the street. He stared as a fire hydrant arced into the air atop a geyser of water. With a single motion he snapped his umbrella over his head, deflecting what few drops came near him.
A fraction of a second later, Ryouga’s eyes flicked to the side as a glob of water sailed past his left cheek. Then one hit at his feet. Cursing, he jumped back, using the umbrella as a shield. He felt a dozen water balls pelt off the bamboo in a matter of seconds.
“Ryouga,” a distorted voice echoed up from down the street. “I like you and all… but mind your own business.”
“Fat chance,” Ryouga shouted back.
“Ryouga,” Nabiki said stiffly. He glanced up at her. “Don’t talk back to him, okay. I do the talking here.” Nabiki shifted to look down the street. “Hey, whoever you are. I’m not sure what your problem is with Ukyou, but he… she and I have a little unfinished business to discuss first. So why don’t you come back later?”
Ryouga heard the response before Nabiki did. He was familiar with the buzz of projectiles flashing through the air. With a snarl he stepped up, placing himself and his umbrella between Nabiki and the attack. He felt something much stronger than water bounce off the bamboo this time.
Behind him, he heard a clack of metal on metal.
He looked back, and saw the long metal arm of the lamppole plummeting to the ground. Nabiki was standing directly beneath it, oblivious to her danger. Not on his watch. With a growl he leapt back and spun sideways, catching the pole with a kick that sent it spiralling off harmlessly into the middle of the street. He landed facing Nabiki and grabbed her shoulders.
“Are you okay?”
“Look out, you…” Nabiki began, but cut off as Ryouga felt something smack into his back. He blinked and reached around, brushing at his shirt. There were a few tiny holes in it, and he thought he felt a little bit of blood. But not really much at all. He looked back over his shoulder.
“Uh, I should let you know,” Ryouga said. “I’m basically invulnerable…” he trailed off slightly. His back was burning a bit. Huh. He shrugged it off and turned around again.
“Ahhh, the Bakusai Tenketsu,” the thing said, its distorted voice partially drowned out by the geyser of water it was hiding behind. “Just to let you know, Ryouga? Tough and invulnerable are not synonyms.”
“Heh.” Ryouga moved his umbrella in front of him again. His back was really burning now. It felt worse than when he had woken up two mornings ago and realised he was still in that damn harness.
And still being hit by rocks, too. Nabiki, apparently, did not believe in ‘rest breaks’ for training.
But by now, Ryouga was hardly able to concentrate, the pain had grown so intense. His eyes began to water, and he blinked them rapidly, trying to see or sense where the undead thing’s next attack was going to come from. But it appeared content to wait. Ryouga stepped sideways, as the pain began to creep down his leg. He felt dizzy. He used his free arm to wipe the sweat from his brow.
“Ryouga?” Nabiki said, sounding annoyed.
Ryouga wanted to respond, but couldn’t seem to find the strength. His leg suddenly gave out, and he fell to one knee.
“RYOUGA!” Nabiki shouted, sounding concerned now. Funny. He could still hear fine, even if his eyes had gone blurry. He could feel her grabbing onto his shoulders and trying to support his weight. He realised he was going to topple onto her at this rate. Moaning, he pushed Nabiki away from him. She made an indignant noise as she stumbled back. Then he allowed himself to collapse to the pavement.
Ryouga heard the soft clap of footsteps as the figure began to approach them at a gentle pace. “He’ll probably live,” the creature began. “I don’t know you what you have over him, Nabiki, but you should know better than to play with the big boys.”
“Who are you?” Nabiki snapped in an agitated voice. “How do you know me?”
The creature laughed, a hideous liquid sound. “We’ve met before. I have been Sheila, Roger, Greg, Takashita, Kodachi, and now Sentarou. You can call me Chris.” The creature chuckled and its footsteps stopped only a half meter away from Ryouga. Which put it dangerously close to Nabiki.
“Chris?” Nabiki said softly. “Wait, Kodachi…” There was a hesitant step backward from Nabiki’s position. “You’re… the thing that attacked Ukyou and… Ranma?”
“That beat them, actually,” the Chris-thing noted. “Last time we met, I believe I left you bawling like a little girl.” Then the thing’s voice became hard and dangerous. “Now. Get out of here. Before I do it again.”
Ryouga heard Nabiki choke. He felt his hands sink into the pavement. His fingers dug small tracks in the rock underneath. He closed his eyes and grit his teeth.
No one would hurt Nabiki.
Not ever again.
Not while he was alive!
“GET AWAY FROM HER!”
The first thing Ryouga saw was Chris spinning on him in surprise. Then his fist was burying itself in its chest. Almost literally, as the chest caved in and it went flying across the street. Ryouga watched as the thing flew, its ribs and sternum compressed inward like a pothole in his torso.
Ryouga stepped forward. He felt the ground crack around his foot. He held up his arms, and vaguely realised he was glowing bright green. The thing was rising to a sitting position, not even stunned by his strike. Ryouga growled and bared his teeth.
“Damn, must not have gotten as big a dose as I thought,” Chris said in a serious tone.
“I guess not,” Nabiki said in a sing-song tone. “Hurt him, Ryouga.” She paused. “Make him cry… ‘like a bawling little girl’ was his turn of phrase?”
Ryouga dashed forward. The zombie shifted and blurred sideways, appearing not even to move its feet. Ryouga spun, kicking into the ground with enough force to create a small crater, and dashed after the retreating figure. His world had narrowed down to a small green tunnel with only one thing on the other end: the thing that had to be HURT.
Then Ryouga paused as he saw the thing vanish backward through a blue spray. Oh wait, the waterspout. It was about then that Ryouga remembered he had dropped his umbrella a little while back.
He kicked to the side, trying to put distance between him and the water. Chris, however, was not about to let him. It had pulled a small ladle out and was flicking it through the water as fast as it could with its one arm. Ryouga managed to dodge the first three water bullets, but had no hope of dodging the next five. He roared in impotent rage as they smashed and washed over him.
He landed, bracing himself and closing his eyes. He reached up and wiped the water from his face… wait, face?
“Ryouga!” Nabiki yelled from down the street. “You idiot! Remember, we used the soap earlier?”
“Oh…” Ryouga blinked. “Right.” He turned on the startled zombie. It was just sort of staring at Nabiki. Somehow, this thing knew about Ryouga’s secret weakness… but not about the waterproofing soap Nabiki had purchased from Jyusenkyou Magical Springs Products to counter just that.
“How does she know about…” Chris said slowly, then trailed off into a growl. “More of Ukyou’s tricks!” It spun to face Ryouga. “Fine!” it hissed. “I’m still ME! You could beat Sentarou, but I’m another story!”
“Ryouga!” He turned his head and saw Ukyou staggering to her feet.
“Look out, he’s about to…”
Ryouga flicked his eyes back to the zombie. It was staring at him, holding its fist next to his neck. A small broken teaspoon was in its hand. Ryouga raised an eyebrow.
“Oh…” it began, but Ryouga was sick of it talking. He grabbed it by the shoulder and smashed it into the ground. Then he stepped down HARD on its shattered chest cavity, almost putting his foot through. The creature didn’t pause, continuing to flail at him with an increasingly bizarre array of weaponry. Ryouga recognised some martial arts rhythmic gymnastic stuff, and tea ceremony stuff, but decided to cut it off before it could get much further. He whipped off his belt, hardened it with a flick of his wrists, and set about the grim work of removing its limbs one by one, starting with the legs.
He flicked the gore off the belt, grimacing at the thing. It tried to knock the belt-sword out of his hand, but he just poured on the strength and cut straight through its block.
“No, no! NO! You can’t defeat me! You CAN’T!”
Ryouga didn’t reply and grimly raised the belt-sword. If decapitation didn’t work, then he would have to resort to more extreme methods. With an inarticulate howl of rage the creature flicked its stump of an arm, sending a spray of gore at him. Ryouga flinched back, preventing it from getting in his face. He slipped back, and when he looked down the thing was crawling like a worm away from him. Of course, his foot was still on a part of it.
“I won’t die like this! I! Have! A DESTINY!”
“Sorry,” Ryouga grunted and stepped forward, preparing to finish it off. Then he saw a form slide between them. He glanced up.
“No, Ryouga, leave him be,” Ukyou said, holding her arms out to her side. She was wobbling slightly.
“What?” Ryouga blinked. “Are you serious?” he roared.
“Indeed,” Ukyou said in a voice like ice.
“But that thing was trying to kill you!” Ryouga pointed behind her. Chris was very slowly getting away. “It’s a monster!”
“No!” Ukyou shouted. “It’s a human being! A scarred and damaged human being. But he can be saved.” Ukyou’s voice suddenly went so low Ryouga had trouble hearing her. “He has to be able to be saved…”
“No, Ukyou,” Ryouga growled. “I don’t care. It’s a menace. All the people of this neighbourhood…” He trailed off. “I won’t forgive it!”
Ryouga began to step around her. Ukyou tried to intercept him, but moved far too slow-
Ryouga snapped his eyes over to Nabiki, who had wandered over. “Let it go,” she said, smiling.
“I…” Ryouga sighed. “Yes, Nabiki.”
Ukyou cast a sharp glance at Nabiki, but then nodded in thanks.
“Just remember, Ukyou,” Nabiki said, raising one finger. “You owe me.” Ukyou just raised an eyebrow. “Now let’s get out of here before the police show up.”
Ryouga took a moment to realise this was directed at him. He grinned sheepishly and rubbed the back of his neck, then picked her up and leapt away. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Ukyou turning back towards Chris.
“Faster, over!” Pink shouted at her mount.
Shampoo, with some difficulty, managed to give her a glare. “If I weren’t carrying your fat asses and this stupid corpse, I could move a LOT faster… ‘mistress’.”
Pink glared right back. “And I gave you an order, so obey your order and move FASTER, over!”
Shampoo growled something inarticulate, but her legs did pump a bit more quickly as they leaped from building to building.
Link was looking backwards. “I think we’re leaving the police behind,” she observed. “They’re about three blocks back now, over.”
“Good, over,” Pink grunted. Stupid nosy Japanese police. What business of THEIRS was it whose body they were dragging through Tokyo? Adon wasn’t even Japanese! It was a good thing Shampoo had been sent by her slightly-less-annoying-today old bat of a great-grandmother to fetch them; Pink was a LITTLE concerned about the sheer number of armed officers that had been surrounding them at that point.
She was also concerned about what was ahead. The police they saw were no longer just the ones chasing them, but appeared to be in fact most of the city’s population of cops. Not to mention the significant contingent of Japanese Self-Defence Force troopers that were swarming in. But they were being pretty cautious in their approach, so Shampoo was easily putting distance between them.
The reason for the uproar was obvious, now – the whole block looked like a disaster area. Pink was impressed despite herself. Even Shampoo couldn’t have done that much damage. At least not very quickly.
Pretty much everyone had fled the area, seemingly, except for some of the wounded and possibly dead. Pink dismissed them. There’d be someone fighting. Another body in the street-
Wait, that body was moving! And considering what was left of it, it shouldn’t have been…
“Wait!” she shouted at her mount and pointed. “Over there, over!”
As Shampoo grunted and changed directions, Pink noticed there was another girl near Chris’s remains – man, he was in bad shape, even compared to what Pink had expected. Looked like they were just in time. Hey, the other girl was looking in their direction.
She looked like crap too. Slightly less so than Chris, but not by as much as you’d expect, given that she was presumably still alive. She definitely wasn’t a threat, Pink concluded after a moment of expertly sizing up the girl’s extensive injuries. But who was she?
Shampoo landed, and Pink lightly hopped off her shoulder.
“Pink,” the girl said, slowly. It wasn’t friendly-sounding.
Pink quirked an eyebrow. She definitely didn’t know this person. She didn’t recognise her from Chris’s journals, either… but, then, at this point, the girl’s own mother probably couldn’t recognise her.
Behind her, Link also got down, followed by a thump as Shampoo dumped the (stolen) travel bag that was now hiding Adon’s remains. Well, except for his legs – stupid kickboxer was too tall, so they were sort of dangling out the top. But that had annoyed Shampoo even more than carrying him had, so it was all good.
Chris was thrashing on the ground. He was shrieking and gurgling and seemed, well, pretty much upset and deranged. He was smashing his head against the ground, thrashing around with the one stump of an arm that appeared to be his only remaining limb. Something disgusting was oozing out his ears.
Pink heard her sister’s retch and Shampoo’s quick backsteps. The girl glanced at Adon’s body, but said nothing. Pink smiled, and walked right past her, towards Chris. A toe flipped his body over, and she saw the dead man stare wildly at her from his sunken eyesockets. Chris gibbered incoherently, his stump waving at her.
Pink grinned. They were indeed just in time, it seemed. “Poor, poor, Chris,” she said aloud. “You just go to pieces whenever I’m not around, over.”
Chris gurgled, but Pink ignored him for the moment. Turning, she snapped her fingers. Shampoo, holding a hand over her nose to ward off the stench, saw the gesture and nodded. She tore open the bag, revealing the body.
The strange injured girl slapped her forehead, muttering “Adon,” to herself. Innnteresting. The girl was another Street Fighter character? Not one Pink knew of. Well, she’d deal with her in a moment.
Pink turned back to Chris, and gestured. His eyes locked on her as she moved, and she directed his attention to the body Shampoo dropped next to him. For a moment, he fell silent, then the entire remains of Sentarou’s body LUNGED, and his spirit apparently lunged with it. Instantly, Adon’s body jerked to (un-) life, its eyes shooting open and then closed again. The huge martial artist curled into the fetal position, wrapping his arms protectively around itself. Chris’s shoulders quivered, and he shook and sobbed and made small inarticulate infant noises.
Well, he’d be all right. Pink turned back towards the strange girl, who had walked a bit away to sit down. “Link, Shampoo,” she called out, “Go delay the police until Chris has a chance to recover, over.”
Link looked at her for a long moment, but Pink met her gaze stonily. Link had won one today. She realised that, and nodded and headed off with Shampoo.
Leaving Pink alone with the girl. Well, and Chris, but he hardly counted right now. She stepped towards her. “Hello there. You know me, but I don’t know your name, over.”
“You’re right, you don’t,” the girl replied flatly.
Pink stepped towards her. She almost fingered for something in a pouch, but… not yet. She was curious. “So, who are you, over?”
“Ukyou Kuonji,” came the response.
Now Pink was really curious. She knew of Ukyou, of course. But only because she had been mentioned repeatedly in Chris’s Ranma 1/2 journal. Mentioned in stories, mentioned in biographies of others. Even her fighting techniques had been examined.
But unlike seemingly every other character from that comic book, Chris had said nothing about the character Ukyou Kuonji. Pink wanted to know why then, and now that the girl was before her, she wanted to know even more. Especially since she and Chris had been fighting… and the girl had apparently won.
“I’ve heard of you,” Pink smiled. “But how have you heard of me, over?”
“I’ve read unflattering things about you,” Ukyou said icily, staring her down with her cold grey eyes.
“You’re like HIM,” Pink said triumphantly. “You’re from the other world, aren’t you?”
There was a long pause before the next reply. “Something like that.”
Pink stepped even closer to her, looking her up and down. The girl didn’t flinch. “But you’re not dead. How very curious. I thought there’d be more of you, but that they’d be like him, over.”
“If you want more details, ask Chris when he recovers,” Ukyou said shortly.
Pink glanced at Chris, who was still huddled up, then looked back and smiled slowly. “So. You’re like Chris, but alive. That’s a good trick. How’d you’d avoid your power making the body rot away, over?”
Ukyou frowned, obviously thinking. “Using my power DOES cause my body to rot away. So I don’t use it… all the time, or at all anymore.” The girl adjusted her position, wincing slightly, and looked seriously at Pink. “You’re Chris’s… friend, aren’t you? By some definition of the term?”
Pink grinned. “Sure I am. I like him a lot, over.”
“You would,” Ukyou muttered. “I don’t have much hope that this is going to change things, but I have to try, so… the power. This ‘Third Circle’ stuff, as Chris calls it. It rots his body… but it also rots his mind. You have to find some way for him to continue ‘living’ without relying on it, because otherwise he’s going to go insane. And I know, you might think you want that, but when he’s torturing you to death, you’ll probably have second thoughts.”
Pink paused, then glanced over at Chris. He was still muttering softly to himself, still shaking. Obviously not listening. Then she looked at Ukyou, and broke out the smile she reserved for special occasions. “Live without relying on it, over? That’s impossible, silly otherworlder. EVERYTHING Chris does uses it. Walking. Talking. Thinking. We’ve been observing the effects for weeks. He can’t escape it… except by replacing the body. It’s like a buffer, you see. He’ll be feeling a LOT better, now, over.”
“I was afraid you’d say that,” Ukyou said in a slightly despondent tone, then turned her eyes back up to Pink. “But there’s one problem with your argument: I’m just like Chris, and I don’t have to rely on it.”
“Are you, over?” Pink chuckled. She stepped until there was only a hair’s-breadth of distance between them. “You’re ALIVE. I feel it. You’re nothing like him. You don’t use the power, because you don’t have to, over.” She smiled, and raised a hand to touch Ukyou’s throat, feeling the beat of the pulse there. Silently, Pink willed the girl to step back, to flinch, to swallow nervously. After all, she knew Pink could kill her in a second if she chose.
But the damn woman didn’t move. Her cold grey eyes could have been staring at a smudge on the wall, for all the reaction she gave. Pink tried to match her gaze, but there was something… there… something unrelenting about those eyes boring into her that even Chris’s dead ones didn’t match.
She found herself several feet away and still backing up before she stopped. She snarled something almost Link-worthy under her breath. What reason did she have to back off? She had all the power in this situation.
She was in CONTROL.
“You think you’ve got everything figured out. But this reality isn’t just what you read about. You don’t know things as well as you think you do, over.”
“I figured that out the hard way,” Ukyou replied with a slightly sardonic tone. Her eyes were still boring into Pink, daring her to do something. “I suggest you take your own advice. Don’t begin to think that just because you know what happened in a comic book, that you can get away with whatever you want in this world.”
Pink felt her smile fraying. “Don’t get smart with me. You know what I could do to you, over.” She looked around theatrically. “Nobody could stop me. No friends will help you. You’re completely at my mercy, over.” Beg, she silently sneered at the girl. Beg just a minor character like me for your life, you high and mighty traveller from the ‘real world’.
Ukyou had the nerve to not even blink. “I’m not afraid to die right now. Perhaps you’d be doing the world a favour. But what you should ask yourself is if you’re prepared to deal with the consequences.”
A jolt of pain shot up Pink’s toe as she kicked Ukyou in the gut. But the reaction was satisfying – the girl doubled over, gasping for breath. As Pink leaned over the helpless martial artist, she palmed a special little something from her pouches. “Well, Ukyou, I think the real question is: do you want to deal with the consequences of continuing to annoy me, over?”
That was when Ukyou looked up and smiled. SMILED! Clutching her gut, she once again met Pink’s gaze. Her eyes were no longer flat, but were filled with a sort of almost manic intensity. “You’re going to do whatever you want anyway. It doesn’t matter what I do. So get it over with, because I’m tired of listening to you try to intimidate me.”
Pink inhaled once, then let it out slowly. “I told you not to make assumptions, over.” Grabbing a handful of hair, she jerked Ukyou’s face up.
“You think if you live you’ll just walk – well, maybe crawl – away from here and ignore what I said. You think this means nothing. You still think of me like I’m just a bit role in a story. Well, you’re wrong. You’re going to remember me. Every day for the rest of your life, you’ll remember you met me, over.”
Ukyou probably wanted to make another clever comment, but Pink cut that off by hurling the powder she had palmed in her eyes. The sound of Ukyou’s cry of pain and her falling over were immensely satisfying. “That’s the Eyes of the Black Lotus,” Pink explained in a calm tone as Ukyou writhed. “Don’t worry,” she sneered, “it won’t do any permanent… damage, over.”
Pink continued watching Ukyou twitch and moan in pain until it got boring, at which point she walked over and kicked the still-huddled Chris in the thigh. “Stop sulking. We’ve got to get out of here, over.”
Chris’s head snapped up, the spikes of Adon’s fiery hair flapping up and down comically. “Pink?”
“Who else, over?” she smiled.
Chris rose to his feet and looked down at his new form. “Adon…” he said softly.
“You’ll have to forgive me for getting ahead of things,” Pink said smoothly, “but I guessed you’d need this, over.”
Chris looked at her, his eyes blank as always. “You did… of course you did,” he sighed. “Never mind. It’ll do. Thank you.”
Pink smiled at him, and patted him on the back, since Adon was too stupidly tall to pat on the head. “You’re welcome. Now, police are coming from everywhere, so we should get out of here, over.”
“Police?” Chris repeated. “But why…” He looked around, and Pink heard a sharp intake of unnecessary breath. “All this damage…”
“Yeah,” Ukyou said sardonically. “It’s impressive, the property damage you can inflict when you put your mind to it, Chris. Or, more accurately, when you don’t notice anything but me.”
Chris spun as if burned, and glanced at Ukyou for a moment before turning sharply away. The girl had gotten back to her knees, and was still holding one hand over her eyes, wiping away the last of the powder. Her mouth was a thin, tight line, but she no longer seemed to be in much pain. Pink clucked to herself. She’d have to readjust the formula.
When Chris spoke, it was soft and measured. “I don’t even remember much of what happened after I saw you. But I remember enough.” He stared down at his body, and then his eyes flickered to the desiccated remains of Sentarou.
“Chris, since you seem to be a bit more rational now-” Ukyou began.
“Then you should realise we have to get out of here, over,” Pink finished smoothly for her. No need for Ukyou to scare the poor thing.
“Yes,” Chris said slowly. “Yes, we should.” He gazed around the battlefield again, his eyes lingering on everything but Ukyou, whom he still refused to look at. “This is over for today. But it isn’t over between us. I’ll be watching for what you do. Hopefully we’ll never have to meet again.” He turned away. “Let’s go.”
“Chris!” Ukyou shouted as he began to move away. “Stop! Listen to me for just one second!”
He didn’t turn around; his voice was sharp, almost but not completely hiding the edge of bitterness. “You had your chance to talk to me.”
Ukyou almost looked like she was going to say something else, but then her arm lowered, and her face became an expressionless mask. “Goodbye.”
Chris just kept walking away. Pink looked at Ukyou, and even though the woman couldn’t see her just yet, she smiled that special, secret smile at her.
“Goodbye, Ukyou, over.”
Artemis couldn’t move. The car beneath him was warm, uncomfortably so. The flames behind him were licking along the street almost at his heels. London was a burning hell, and yet he stood frozen.
The building in front of him wasn’t intimidating. Even for a small cat, it would have appeared almost humble. It was a simple two-story home in an affluent section of the old city. He knew it well. Over the year spent living here with his young ward, he had grown to love the place. He loved the smell of Mrs. Aino’s cooking that never seemed to leave the kitchen. He loved the soft spot on the carpet near the TV where the family gathered for an hour or two each night. He loved the people inside it.
The door was hanging ajar. Bullet holes traced a rough line across the front. One window was shattered.
‘Stay here, Artemis,’ had been what she had said to him. She had been frozen like him. Frozen in front of the shattered home. Then she had stepped past him, her skirt swishing softly, and disappeared into the building.
They never should have left. It had been foolish. But Minako was a hero. She heard about the attacks on TV, saw the enormous zeppelins floating above London. She had rushed off without hesitation, and he had rushed off with her.
They had found an enemy Minako could not hope to defeat. Vampires. A legion of vampires. A hundred, a thousand of them… dropping from the skies. Armed with weapons that Artemis barely recognised, and clad in the symbols of a regime that should have been scoured from the face of the Earth fifty years ago.
Minako could kill them. Her holy golden light could pierce their hearts and reduce them to dust. But there had been so many. They attacked in squads. They threw grenades and used cover fire. Minako had been fighting a running retreat ever since she had first announced herself. Artemis’ side still hurt from where a bullet had skimmed him when he had knocked her out of the way of the machine gun fire.
Then he realised that the vampires were destroying everything in their path. Everything underneath those immense black airships erupted into flame and chaos. He had realised that Minako’s home was right in the path of those ships.
Minako had vanished into the home almost five minutes ago. Four minutes ago she had screamed. Artemis would have run to her. His mind told him that she was in danger. But that scream… it had rooted him to the spot. Minako had screamed for almost thirty seconds. Then he had heard her firing. And firing. He had seen the lances of holy light tearing through the side of the house and disappearing into the sky. Then silence.
Artemis gulped. He sprang from the toppled car. He landed lightly on his paws and crept up to the doorway. His sensitive nose recoiled from the nasty smell inside. It was the smell of death. But he forced himself to keep walking. He could hear her now. Hear her crying. She was alive. She needed him. He had been too frozen by the horror to run to her, but he could at least creep up to her.
He found her in the living room. The place was a ruin. One wall had been completely torn out, by either Minako’s attacks or some other tragedy. She was curled on the floor, fetal and sobbing. There wasn’t a scratch on her. His eyes drifted along the floor away from her…
He didn’t want to see it. But there it was. Two piles of dust, swirling in the wind. Each almost touching her. They must have almost reached her when some instinct took over and she started firing.
“Oh, Minako… no…. no… I’m sorry…”
Minako didn’t hear him. She continued crying, the broken, hitching sobs of sorrow and horror. Artemis pawed over to her. He wished he was human. He wished he could wrap her up in his arms. He wished he could brush her tears away with human fingers and draw her to him. He wanted to protect her. To seal her away from the harsh world. It was the first time he had ever wished to be human.
He placed a small white paw on her thigh. It was so small. She was so big.
“I’m here… Minako, it will be okay…”
“No…” Minako said harshly. Her head lifted up and she stared down at him. Her voice was cracking and hoarse. Her opera mask had fallen away somewhere. Her eyes were unfocused and covered in liquid sheen. Her face was an ugly mess from crying. “No… it won’t be okay… they…”
“Minako, we have to get out of here. The monsters are coming…”
“THE MONSTERS TOOK THEM!” Minako roared. “They took my parents and made me kill them!”
“Oh, god… Minako, don’t think that…”
Artemis had seen the abominations. The victims of the vampires, those they didn’t shoot to death or tear apart with their bare hands. They rose and walked and stumbled with hungry maws into the living. They weren’t human anymore. They couldn’t be.
“We have to destroy them…” Minako said slowly. Her voice was beginning to sound less harsh now. The sobbing was beginning to trail off. “They can’t get away with this, Artemis.”
“We have to concentrate on getting out of here first…”
“I can’t do it alone…” Minako said. Her voice was drifting now. Her expression was far away. “I’m going to need help.”
“Minako.” Artemis pressed more firmly with his small cat’s paw. He was afraid for Minako now. Afraid in an entirely different way.
“Get the others,” Minako said, her voice still strangely absent. She was talking in the musing way of a child conjuring fairy tales on a cloudy afternoon. Talking like someone planning a picnic on a rainy day. “Sailor Moon. The Moon Princess. The person we came here to protect. She and the others. We have to do it together, Artemis. There are a thousand vampires out there, and we have to kill every single one of them.”
“Minako, we can talk about this later…”
But Minako wasn’t listening. She was standing up now. Her wrist was wiping away the tears in her eyes. Her eyes didn’t seem to see anything that was happening.
“You have a way of talking to them. Go. Use it. Summon them here.”
“I…” Artemis looked up at her, and he realised argument was futile. “It’s… in the basement. I can contact Luna through there. You go upstairs, pack some clothes. We need to get out of the city tonight.”
Minako nodded and strode away. Her Sailor V costume evaporated into pink ribbons around her naked form for a moment, until she was clad in her nightclothes again. Artemis said a silent prayer for her and then dashed downstairs.
To his surprise, Luna was already at the terminal. He had long ago used his knowledge of the ancient Moon Kingdom to create a transmitter, one that would send images to the nearest machine to Luna’s spectral signal. He wondered where Luna had found an out-of-the-way complex computer to receive the messages. He guessed it didn’t really matter.
“Master Control!” The voice on the other end was frantic. There was no picture of Luna, only the blank screen. The voice would have been inaudible to human ears, but Artemis had advantages that humans did not. “Master Control, respond please. This is an emergency!”
“I’m here,” Artemis said slowly as he stepped on the transmit button. An image of Luna appeared on the screen. Like him, she was a small cat marked with a golden crescent on her forehead. Only she was black where he was white. “What is it?”
“I need help! Sailor Mercury and Sailor Jupiter have been kidnapped! There are monsters called zoanoids attacking, and…”
“Luna!” Artemis cut his old friend off. Even if he could barely remember her, he knew he could trust her with anything. He flipped a switch, and the usual projection would be replaced with his image on her screen.
“Ar-Artemis?” Luna gasped, her voice partly shocked and partly relieved.
“Luna, listen to me,” Artemis said quickly. “I don’t have much time.” He took a deep breath. “I have listened to you tell me about the other Sailor Senshi, about the Moon Princess and about everything happening there. I know things look grim… but you have to keep faith. You will prevail, somehow.”
“Artemis, you were Master Control all along?”
“This is more important than that!” Artemis roared, and the cat on the other end of the screen cringed back. “You have to survive without me for now. Something terrible has happened, and this is the last order… no, this is the last favour I can ask you.”
“Artemis?” Luna sounded concerned now.
“Do NOT come to England!” he shouted.
“London is in flames. Nazi vampires roam the streets. Everyone is dying.” He emphasised every sentence with a stamp of his paw. “Sailor Venus almost died tonight. And even if the others came to help her, they would all just die together!” Artemis ducked his head and spoke now in a strong, calm voice. “We made a promise, a promise to someone I can’t remember, but a promise I plan to keep nonetheless. We will protect them. We MUST. You have to guide them and keep them safe. One day, when Usagi has reunited the Ginzuisho, and is fully matured into her power, she can come to this island and cleanse the darkness from it. But until them, all she would accomplish is being eaten alive!
“Luna. Keep the Sailor Senshi away from England, away from Europe. Persuade them. Trick them. Lie to them. Use whatever means you have to! But they must NOT come here.” He saw her about to protest, so he cut her off.
“Please. For me. For the Queen. And remember, I love you.”
He brought his paw down on the switch again, cutting off transmission.
He slumped to the controls, exhausted.
Luna would understand. She had to.
Artemis’ head snapped up as he heard the stairs creak behind him. He turned around slowly. Minako was there. She was holding a daypack in one hand. Her eyes bored into his. He knew instantly that she had heard every word.
His only regret was that when she killed him, he wouldn’t be there to protect her.
“Are you just going to sit there all night?” Minako said after a minute of silence. “We have work to do.” Artemis shivered. There was something gone from Minako’s voice. Something that had been there since the first day he had met her. Something he had grown to love and hadn’t even realised was there until this moment, when he knew it was lost forever.
“Didn’t you hear what I…”
“Of course I did.” Minako turned around and slipped on her daypack. “You were right. This place will eat them alive.” She paused. “They’re just little girls.”
Then Minako climbed up the stairs and out of his sight.
“Akane… I’m… I’m sorry… I…”
“Doctor Tofu,” Akane said and stopped. The line went silent for a few moments. Akane could hear the clatter as Tofu sat down suddenly. “I know it’s a big favour I’m asking, but we really need a place to go at the moment and I don’t know anyone else and-“
“Akane,” Doctor Tofu cut her off suddenly. “I really…” He sighed, the sound becoming something distorted over the telephone line. “I want to help out. But this is a little big for me, Akane.”
“It’s… a little big,” Akane repeated in a hollow tone. She blinked. She wondered who was chuckling, then realised it was her. “I guess you could say that. But… I don’t know what to do, Doctor-“
The line went silent again.
“Listen, I think that maybe you’re a little too young for this kind of thing, Akane.” Tofu was beginning to sound calm and reasonable again. “These girls, the Sailors? They sound like the kind of people this kind of situation needs. But you’re still a child, Akane. You shouldn’t have to fight this kind of battle. I know you gave your promise to help them, but you can’t do that. Look what happened to Ukyou. She got caught up in this-“
“Thank you, Doctor.” Akane hung up the phone. She stared down at the receiver for a long moment. She simply couldn’t think of anything else to do. Yet, at the same time, she felt a burning need to do something. Anything. Action had to be taken. Her friends, her family, the entire world was in danger, and the longer they stayed here ignoring it, the closer everything got to the point of no return.
Why wasn’t anyone doing anything? It was insane. Cologne was supposed to be old and wise, but she was just sitting there on a rock, smoking a pipe and chuckling as the people in the dojo spun around her in circles. Father was arguing with Mr. Saotome, saying Ranma’s father should go and ‘rescue’ his wife. Mr. Tsukino kept saying that they had to contact some kind of authority, that someone had to be responsible for fighting monsters other than his daughter. He sounded a lot like Doctor Tofu. Rei was sitting in a corner, brooding.
Nabiki was gone. Cologne had sent that girl Shampoo off to meet some of Chris’s friends. And Chris had vanished. Vanished looking for Ukyou. And where was she? Where was Ranma?
Akane walked back into the yard in a daze. She watched as everyone continued bickering and shouting and not doing anything. Didn’t they realise that their lives were over? Akane did. She believed Chris. She hadn’t before. Not really. But then the monsters had attacked her home. Now she believed. She knew they had to leave. After today, she would never see the Tendo Dojo again. She knew that, and she had no idea what to do about it.
Wasn’t somebody supposed to have the answer here? Some adult?
“Why aren’t you people doing anything!?”
Everybody stopped. They were all staring at Akane now. She flushed.
“And exactly what would you have them do, child?” Cologne rasped into the silence. “They have no better idea how to handle this than you do. What in their lives do you think has prepared them to deal with this?”
“Then why aren’t YOU doing anything?” Akane snapped, spinning to face the old woman. “You’re supposed to be wise, aren’t you?”
“I am doing something.” Cologne smiled and took a long puff of her pipe. “I’m thinking.”
“And that’s doing us a LOT of good, isn’t it!?” Akane wasn’t sure why she was shouting. But it felt good to be shouting, so she continued. “Any minute now, more of those monsters could show up and kill us all! We have to get out of here!” Akane waved towards Usagi and Rei. “We have to find and rescue their friends. We have to locate a safe place to hide for a few days, find some way to slip out of the city without being noticed, set up new lives…” Akane trailed off, the power behind her outburst fading as the enormity of the situation reasserted itself.
“Hmmm,” Cologne said slowly. “I think you have put your fingers on exactly what we have to do, child.” The old crone nodded. “On the face of it, your ideas are good ones. We should first get everyone here to a safe location. Then deal with rescuing the others. Then we can deal with other matters.”
“It isn’t that simple,” Akane said, sighing. “I already tried to find a safe place, and…”
“Well then,” Cologne said as Akane trailed off. “I think I can help with that. As widespread as this ‘Chronos’ is, I doubt they know enough about me to track my movements. Especially since I have… old friends that might be able to hide a few families for a few days.”
Akane looked at the old woman for a long moment. “Why didn’t you suggest this earlier?”
“Honestly?” Cologne shrugged. “It simply didn’t occur to me.” The old woman waved her staff at the gathered families. “My concern, you must understand, is solely with the safety of myself and my great grand-daughter. I simply wasn’t thinking much about your lives. But you are right, Akane. For now, we are in this fight together and I will offer what assistance I can.” The old woman drew her pipe back to her lips, then paused. “After that, you are on your own.”
Akane wasn’t sure how to respond to that. Her father was, however.
“We are not abandoning our ancestral home!” he thundered. Akane stepped away from him as a dangerous aura radiated from his body. “Fourteen generations of Tendos have spilled blood for this land and the honour of our name. I will not crawl away into the shadows like a thief!”
“And if you stay, then the fifteenth generation will get to spill its blood for this land too. Which will be a great comfort to them in the afterlife, I suppose,” Rei sneered. “I will have to remember to say prayers to placate their spirits whenever I am in the area.”
“That’s too harsh, Rei,” Usagi groaned.
“It’s the truth,” Rei pointed out, crossing her arms.
“Calm down, Tendo,” Mr. Saotome said, cutting off her dad before he could start another good rant. Ranma’s father was the picture of collected composure as he adjusted his glasses with one finger. “Remember, my old friend, that this place will always be here. Someday, Ranma and Nabiki will return after their years of exile. Stronger. Faster. Smarter. And they will reclaim this land!” Genma clapped Akane’s father on the shoulder and pointed off towards the setting sun. “There will always be a Tendo Dojo! The strength of our children, and our children’s children, shall hold this sacred earth against all the monsters of the world!”
“You… you’re right, Saotome!” Dad shouted, his eyes glittering with tears. “Like Liu Bei at Chang Ban, we shall retreat for now, but like Liu Bei, we shall have our Chi Bi!”
“Huh?” Usagi blinked and rubbed the back of her head.
Cologne chuckled. “Didn’t Liu Bei die heartbroken, never having fulfilled his dream of unifying China?”
“Well, regardless…” Genma coughed into his fist. “We still have to wait for Ranma to arrive, along with your granddaughter and that other boy…”
Cologne looked up and, as if on cue, four figures dropped into the yard. Akane recognised the purple-haired warrior girl Shampoo, and also the two silly ninja girls she was carrying that had, until recently, been her sworn enemies. The final figure was a mystery.
He was tall and Asian, but not Japanese. He was wearing not much more than a set of blue boxer shorts and bandages around his wrists and ankles. His fire-engine red hair formed a raptor-like crest atop his head. He also had cold, glassy, lifeless eyes.
“Chris…” Akane said, sighing. She wasn’t sure if she should feel relieved… or disturbed. When Chris had departed, he had been in a different body. That meant… whoever this person was, that he had died. Was that why Chris had left in such a hurry? Had he sensed the imminent collapse of his previous host?
“Ah, so that is what you two were up to,” Cologne said dryly.
“Relax, Rei, we’re not here to hurt you,” the new Chris said in a high-pitched voice. It still sounded a lot like Chris, however. Akane glanced back and saw Rei lowering her hands. She was still tensed up as if she expected an attack at any moment. Akane could hardly blame her.
“You recognise Shampoo, at least. And I am Chris, even if I look different than the last time you saw me.”
“Oh… wow, cool!” Usagi shouted in glee. “That is one neat trick. I can do something like that too.”
Akane spun and stared at the girl. Did she just say that- Oh, wait. Usagi couldn’t possibly know what Chris actually was. Akane was just opening her mouth to try and find a way to explain it when Chris himself beat her to the punch.
“No, Usagi. You can disguise yourself. This is the corpse of a man that was alive yesterday that I am wearing like a suit.”
“A shiny, pretty, superbly POWERFUL new suit, over!” the smiling twin shouted happily as she hopped down from Shampoo’s shoulder. Usagi blinked.
“Uh?” the girl who was supposed to be the saviour of the world said, tilting her head to the side. She hadn’t quite stopped smiling yet.
“So that’s your secret!” Rei growled and strode forward until she was nearly touching him. His new body towered more than a foot over her, and his forearms were so thick with muscles they almost equaled her thighs, but Rei stood so firmly, her eyes flashing so dangerously, that they almost seemed to be nose to nose. “I knew it. I sensed it right away. You’re not human, either.”
“Not anymore, no,” Chris said softly. Akane glanced behind her and saw that everyone’s attention was now riveted on the confrontation in the middle of the yard. Even Cologne was staring intently.
“You’re just another monster,” Rei snarled. “You kill people, just like those THINGS you warned us about.” Sailor Mars thrust her fingers into his chest, punctuating each word. “Why should we trust you, when you’re no better than them?”
“Because I’m the ally you have,” Chris pointed out in a flat, uninflected tone. “And right now, you need all the allies you can get.”
“The Sailor Senshi don’t make deals with the devil just because there are bi-” Rei stopped. Not just trailed off, her words actually disintegrated into a harsh, choking gasp, and she stepped away from Chris’s new body as if struck.
“Rei,” Akane stepped forward and gently laid a hand on her shoulder. “Is something wrong?”
“NO!” Rei snapped and pulled away.
“I see…” Akane didn’t really believe her, but she knew there really wasn’t time to deal with that now. “I think what Chris was trying to say, however, is that he isn’t really a monster. He’s…” She struggled for a few seconds, trying to find the right words. “He’s a human being trapped inside a monster.” Akane frowned. “I used to think like you did. I used to think he was a bad guy, but he isn’t. At least, not most of the time.”
Akane and Rei held each other’s eyes for a moment, and Akane felt some sort of understanding pass between them. It was something different than words, something deeper. Rei knew that Akane trusted Chris and thought he would help protect them, and Akane knew that Rei didn’t really care about Chris. She cared about something else. But Akane had no idea what that could be.
Maybe when they had time to sit back and talk, Akane would get to the truth. But for now, Rei seemed willing to accept what was going on.
“Now that you’re back,” Akane said, turning back towards Chris, “we have to start figuring out what to do. Did Shampoo tell you what happened?”
Chris shook his head absently. “Akane, I need to talk to you.”
“Chris, we don’t have much time…”
“Please, Akane,” he said sincerely. “Please.”
Akane paused. Then she nodded her head and gestured towards the dojo.
Chris began to walk towards the dojo proper, and she followed. After about three steps, Chris spun in place and stared behind Akane. She glanced over her shoulder and saw the smiling twin sneaking up behind them. The Chinese girl looked past Akane, and saw something on Chris’s face that caused her to step back. Akane looked back at Chris, but he was already moving again. Giving a mental shrug, she followed.
“Well, make this quick,” Akane said once the door was closed. She kept her impatience under control.
“Akane, what you said back there… thank you. I’m…” Chris trailed off.
“Well,” Akane coughed and flipped a long lock of hair out of her face. This hair was really getting annoying. “I… don’t want to sound like I… uh… condone… no, that isn’t the right word… it’s just that I think killing is wrong, and it IS. I just… I understand that you… that… uh… well… oh, I wish I had paid attention when we were doing creative writing… uh…”
“No, I understand,” Chris said, holding up both palms. He hissed an unnecessary breath in between his teeth. “I guess… I guess I’ll just come out and say it.”
Akane took a step back as Chris bowed gracefully forward, ending up on both knees with his forehead pressed firmly against the floor. “Akane, please help me.”
“Help…” Akane said softly. “How can I help you?”
“What happened when I…” Chris started, then trailed off. “Never mind.” He paused. “Something about this… this being dead or whatever. It’s too much for me. Something is happening to me. I’m afraid that I’m actually going to end up the monster Sailor Mars thinks I am.”
“Chris…” Akane knelt down and grabbed his shoulder. “I don’t understand. And look at me when you talk to me, okay?” She added the last part in as cheerful a tone as she could muster.
Chris sat up, but refused to stand. So she knelt across from him. He sighed. “Akane, I’ll tell you honestly. I’m afraid. I’m afraid that I can’t control myself. That I won’t… that I can’t always think clearly. I don’t know if it’s the rotting, or the Third Circle, or… well, it doesn’t matter what it is.” He gnawed on a nail for a moment. “I can’t trust myself. I need someone…”
Akane waited a few moments for him to finish, then she sighed herself.
“Chris. I…” Akane thought back. She could have had this conversation before, she realised. She could have seen something in Ukyou that would have pointed out that there was something wrong. But Ukyou had cut her out of her life. And when Akane had confronted her, Ukyou had raised a wall between them.
Chris was no Ukyou. He had never been her friend. He had been her enemy, once. But… but he was afraid. He was vulnerable and hurting. There was a part of Akane that had never been able to stand idly by when other people were in danger. And even as she realised that, Akane knew she was hooked.
Chris might be a monster, or a man. But Akane wasn’t going to let him become one because she scorned the other. She wouldn’t live with that on her conscience. She’d find a way to help him. Somehow.
“Akane… I know that I am asking you something I have no right to ask. I am asking you to put yourself in danger. I am asking you to leave your family. I’m asking you to give up on a normal life. But… I swear I am asking you this because you are the only person I trust. The only person I believe in. I will do anything. I will do anything you ask me to. I will let you guide me and teach me how to live with this, until I don’t have to live with it anymore. I don’t deserve your help, but I need it. I need you, and I’m sorry.”
“I…” Akane reached out and grabbed Chris by the shoulders. She stood up, dragging him to his feet. “Chris, I think you put a little too much faith in me.” She began to chuckle. Because, what else could she do but laugh? It was too big not to laugh a little. And laughing helped. It made the tension ease. She let herself chuckle for almost a minute before she continued. “I can’t promise you anything, Chris. Once we’re done… done with this. Then I can answer you. But for now… I just can’t think about all of it at once. Okay?”
“Okay…” Chris said neutrally.
“Don’t get me wrong,” Akane said, still chuckling. “I’m not saying no. I’m saying… maybe. But first, come on. We have to go save the Senshi, right? The only people we’re missing now are Ukyou and Ranma.” Akane paused.
“And Ran, I guess.”
“You’re right.” Chris straightened up, his voice taking on the same commanding edge that Akane found more familiar. “But even with them not here, we have to start planning. So, like you said, we should get started.”
Aaron woke up quickly. Ukyou was surprised at how much faster these transitions were going. But Aaron knew that humans were incredibly adaptable beings. The first time they had been forced to… integrate their psyches, for lack of a better description, it had taken them hours. Over time, the process was becoming more efficient, cleaner and faster. Heck, they hardly even jerked and spasmed when they awoke anymore.
Aaron wasn’t sure if this was a good or bad thing.
They only opened their eyes for the brief moment necessary to confirm they were in the hospital… and confirm that they could still see. Their vision had been blurry ever since they had wiped that stuff out of their eyes. An immense feeling of relief came over them both when they were able to see the area around them. The thought of being trapped in darkness for the rest of their lives… was not a pleasant one.
Aaron wasn’t surprised that the hospital was where they would end up. Not only because the injuries they had taken today put all their previous beatings to shame, but because the people he had been with before fainting had been the police.
It had been slightly surprising to see Kunikida from Blue Seed there. It had taken Aaron a moment to recognise the man, until he had spotted that distinctive wart on the side of his nose. Aaron had even recognised the black-haired girl Friday that accompanied him, even if her name eluded him.
Ukyou and he laid back in the lumpy hospital bed they had been placed in, thinking to themselves. The whoosh and beep of the equipment formed a monotonous soundtrack to their thoughts. Ukyou, immediately, began to grow maudlin.
Her thoughts were threatening to run in circles. She kept thinking about how she had drawn these problems upon herself. How her enemies seemed to keep growing in power, while she was standing still. How her one trump card was turning out to be the one thing she could not dare use. How she had taunted Pink…
Aaron forced his own thoughts away from that self-destructive angle. Though, that would be overstating the case. He could no more separate himself from Ukyou’s thoughts and feelings than he could will away his own identity. She was always there; different and discernible, but at the same time a part of him. Their mind was like a picture, a drawing. He could see the various lines, tell from the shape and texture and size which lines made up ‘Ukyou’ and which ones made up ‘Aaron’, but if you removed one or the other, the picture ceased to be a picture.
It didn’t really surprise him how used to this he was becoming. The equilibrium he had reached with Ukyou’s psyche was harsh and fragile, but becoming almost the norm. It had been… the end of January when he had first entered her mind. It was mid-July now. Seven months. Was that so long a time, that he should be having trouble remembering what thinking used to be like before he had been forced to share the process with Ukyou?
Aaron grit his (Ukyou’s) teeth and shook his head. There it was again. Ukyou’s emotions bleeding into his mind without him even noticing. He concentrated; if he could not force them away, he could at least work past them.
His first priority was determining exactly how bad off they were. He focused his chi, surprised and pleased to note that much of it had returned. Focusing on the Void Chakra was becoming second nature to him now. Causing the invisible threads of his life to infuse the aura that surrounded his body, he focused his attention inward and magnified his own self-perception.
They were in bad shape. He started to list off their injuries, but the process only threatened to make him as depressed as Ukyou, so he stopped. It was better, he decided, to focus on the positives. For one, most of his chi had returned. For another, the techniques and methods he had been trying to learn from Tofu and Kyoko seemed to be having some effect. At least, he was pretty sure he had been in much worse shape when he had fainted in the back of the ambulance.
His arms were barely injured, being covered mostly with superficial wounds. He could probably move them with no problem, now that he was no longer exhausted. His legs were also well off. His ankle was broken, but there were no other major injuries down there. They hurt like hell, but would be fine. The worst injuries were in his chest. Most of his ribs were broken, probably all of them. His spine hurt, which was never a good sign. His heart was beating steady, but his breathing was ragged and it took him a moment to pin down that the reason was because one of Ukyou’s lungs was badly bruised up. It was a miracle the thing hadn’t collapsed. There were a few other internal injuries, but no bleeding. He checked thoroughly, aware that even a minor injury could lead to major complications in time.
His head was almost as bad as his torso. The blows he had taken hadn’t quite cracked the skull, but Aaron could feel tiny stress fractures running along it. He redirected the healing flows of his body to there as best he could. It was the most he had learned to do. In truth, he wouldn’t heal much faster, overall. But he could choose to heal a portion of his body much faster while leaving the rest unhealed.
Since there seemed to be no immediate life-threatening crisis, Aaron focused his attention on their other problems.
Now there… was a problem. Chris was now their enemy. Any hope of reconciliation was gone. He had to accept that. The fact that it was very easy to accept that worried him, but he moved on. Chris was dangerous.
But that wasn’t all that concerned Aaron. What worried him was how easy it would be to blame Chris’ insanity on that alien power. What had Chris called it? The ‘Third Circle’? As good a term as any. The Third Circle was a problem. It twisted Chris, just like it had twisted Aaron and Ukyou. But it had not been like an invader into their minds. Using it just seemed to make things… easier. Touching it focused thoughts in such a way that things like consequences and complications didn’t occur to you. It was like the Third Circle was a lens, one that reduced the world to simple black and white. And a portion of that perception leaked into your normal mind.
No… not leaked into your mind.
That was the wrong way to think about it.
The Third Circle didn’t infect you like a cancer. It was more that it… drew away portions of you. Aaron tried to remember exactly what it had felt like, to lose himself into the clutches of that seductive force. After a moment, he had it.
Using the Third Circle was losing something small and warm and wholesome, and filling that void with something huge and cold and awesome.
And once that part of you was gone… did it ever come back?
Maybe not. Ukyou had made some dramatic leaps in power, growing faster and stronger. But every leap had been in the wake of one of those Third Circle incidents.
Aaron opened his eyes and sat up. The weight of such thoughts was threatening to sink him into the depths of Ukyou’s depression. He needed to focus on something else. He needed a third party, someone he could talk to.
“So, finally ready to admit you’re awake?”
Aaron started, jerking his head to the side. Kunikida was sitting in a hard plastic chair not three feet away. He was wearing a brown trenchcoat, and had a newspaper folded in his lap. Aaron cursed inwardly. How had he forgotten the man’s presence? Then he remembered that he had been focusing all his senses inward.
Aaron closed his eyes, and changed his focus with a thought. It was like the world suddenly came into sharper relief. Things didn’t become simple and obvious; instead, the world filled with startling detail. Scents became more intense, lights brighter and sounds louder. Letting your senses grow to this level was almost painful, but it was also beautiful.
Aaron always needed a moment to regain himself, lest he lose himself in the beautiful complexity of it all. He wished for the words to describe it, or the skill to draw it. The artist in him wanted to let others experience it. He had tried to explain the idea, the concept of it to Ranma, back at Justice High School… but Ranma hadn’t been able to understand.
Aaron noted as Kunikida stood up that there were more life forces nearby. Sensing a life force wasn’t like using your eyes or ears. Instead, it was like a resonance in the heart. Every being, all life, seemed to be connected in some inscrutable fashion. The movement of life through the world acted like a spider threading upon the webs that connected everyone. If you were sensitive enough, you could feel the vibrations of the world in that part of you that was part of everything else.
A good number of the life forces were clustered around the door. They were human, though Aaron could tell little beyond that. One of them seemed to be stronger than the others, and also something else. It seemed to be just More. Momiji? Kusanagi?
“Are you well enough to talk?” Kunikida asked as he sat down next to them. He had moved his chair closer, and now sat on it like a boy, with the entire thing backwards and his arms resting on the headrest.
“Indeed,” Aaron replied evenly.
“Are you certain?” the man asked more seriously. “You seemed to be in bad shape and…” Kunikida trailed off. “What… what happened to your eyes?”
Aaron blinked. He looked deeply into Kunikida’s eyes. The man wasn’t flinching back, but he looked surprised. Aaron slowly rose up his one useable hand. “Could I have a mirror, please?”
The middle-aged man nodded shortly and walked away to a nearby table. He returned after a few seconds with a small hand mirror. Aaron grabbed the handle and held it up in front of him. He didn’t recoil from what he saw, but instead stared into the mirror with a sort of shallow apathy. He opened his eyes wide so he could get a good look. The eyes still looked human, but the shape and colour of the iris had changed drastically. Now they looked like some sort of six-petalled flower, and were a black as deep as midnight. The pupil was nothing more than a slightly darker shadow in the centre of that black flower.
“Black lotus…” Ukyou hissed, her knuckles turning white as she clenched the mirror. The handle cracked ominously and Ukyou forced the image away from her. So this was what Pink had meant. She grimaced. She had no one to blame but herself. She had taunted Pink, all but dared her to do something… and why?
Because… because she was not taunting Pink… she was taunting something bigger than Pink. That had been the thought in the back of her mind as Pink had stood over her. That had been what had made her smile. ‘Fuck you, Destiny… get me out of this one, if you can!’
Aaron and her both took a deep breath. They had survived. Despite everything, they had survived. Tethys had not killed them. Chris had not killed them. Pink had not killed them. She would live. And now, there was something terribly wrong with their eyes…
“A gift from my enemies.” Aaron placed the mirror on the bed. “A reminder that some things shouldn’t be taunted. Despite these, I am still human… if that is what you are wondering.”
“I see,” the man said. “Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Daitetsu Kunikida. I run a special government investigation group called the Terrestrial Administration Centre.” He flashed her an ID, but Aaron gave it only a passing glance. He already knew Kunikida was legitimate, though he had thought the man was interested only in the aragami. “Our task force deals with unusual phenomena. So… dealing with you has become my problem.”
“I see…” Aaron nodded. “Well then, I suppose this is the part where you either inform me I am under arrest, or you begin to pester me with questions I probably don’t have the answers for.”
Kunikida chuckled. He slipped his ID into one of his inner pockets, and when he pulled his hand back out he was carrying a small notebook. He began to read. “Ukyou Kuonji, age 16. Only son of Masamatsu and Yahiko Kuonji. Mother died when he was one year old due to complications relating to surgery. Father died six months ago due to cardiac arrest. No fixed address. Last legal residence was at the Yuukari Private School for Boys. Other known residences include the clinic of one Doctor Tofu Ono, chiropractor and general practitioner with a focus on holistic medicine. No known aliases.”
He flipped the notebook closed. “You were also an instrumental player in what has become known as ‘The Narita Incident’. We also have several signed affidavits about the fight you had with one Hayato Myoujin. Most of the eyewitness accounts say you broke the boy’s spine, a story that can be confirmed by the hospital staff that looked after him until his disappearance a little over a week ago.”
Kunikida placed the notebook back in his pocket. He was looking at Aaron out of the corner of his eye, searching for a reaction. Aaron didn’t allow any to rise to his expression, though in fact he was mildly surprised with the amount of information Kunikida seemed to display.
“As you can see, we actually could arrest you, if we wanted to. We probably even have enough that we could successfully prosecute.”
“Are you trying to intimidate me?” Aaron asked flatly. Ukyou mentally groaned. All they needed was to be on the wrong side of the law.
“A little bit,” Kunikida said absently.
“It won’t work,” Aaron informed him. “For one, I’ve stared death in the face. I didn’t buckle against more dangerous enemies than you. For another, I’ll let you know that you are basically inconsequential to me.” Aaron raised both hands in front of him. “These hands can snap metal bars.” He balled the hands into fists. “These fists can crack open stone walls.” He let his hands fall. “I can dodge bullets. I can shrug off all but the largest calibers, even if they do hit.” Kunikida was staring at Aaron, his eyes hard. “Normal systems of justice only apply to me if I want them to.”
Aaron closed his eyes and took in a deep breath. He consulted with Ukyou briefly. The two of them agreed. “On the other hand, it is unnecessary. If you want to arrest me, go ahead. I confess. I broke Hayato’s spine. I did it in cold blood, and not as an act of self-defence. I will not resist prosecution. If you really think what I need is to be locked up, then go ahead. I won’t fight you.”
“I…” Kunikida cleared his throat. “I don’t think that will be necessary.”
Aaron smiled thinly. “Then why don’t we get to what it is you want me to tell you?”
Kunikida looked at Aaron seriously. “Very well.” He stood up and walked over to a table. Aaron had noted the folder there earlier, but not paid it much attention. The thin-haired man flipped through the pages of it for a moment, then pulled out a picture. He placed the folder down and walked over to Aaron.
“Do you know these girls?”
“Pink and Link?” Aaron said, surprised.
“So, you DO know them?”
“By reputation…” Aaron said slowly. “I’ve only ever met them once.”
“It’s only been a few hours, then?” Aaron chuckled, but the action hurt. “I would have have thought I’d be unconscious for days.”
“We were as surprised by that as you. It’s barely midnight. We expected you to be out for days, not hours,” Kunikida admitted. “But if you could answer my question…?”
Aaron nodded absently. “These two are botanists, herbalists really, from a remote village in China. They have the ability to rapidly grow plants from seed to maturity in a matter of moments. They also have access to a lot of exotic and dangerous plants that you won’t find listed in most encyclopedias. Many of their plants can produce noxious and deadly poisons, some airborne. Some of the plants have rudimentary animation and are capable of attacking people. Others have much more exotic properties. For example, they have access to plants that can cause complete personality changes, like a form of hyper-fast brainwashing or very specific hallucinations.”
“Oh…” Kunikida blinked. Aaron knew why the man was so interested in them, now that he had a moment to think about it. Ranma had told Ukyou that Chris had been fighting the aragami. But Aaron had never thought about why. It was obvious that Pink and Link must be pulling his strings, now. The only thing that surprised him was how quickly Kunikida had leapt to that conclusion.
“That one there,” Aaron said, tapping the picture for emphasis. “Her name is Pink, and she is the more dangerous of the two. She’s a certifiable psychopath. She specialises in poisons and is very good at them. I have her to thank for my new eyes. The other is less dangerous, specialises in medicines mainly. But both can be deadly if cornered.”
“Do you know anything else about them?” Kunikida pressed.
“Do they animate their zombies with these plants?”
“Zombies…” Aaron blinked.
“It doesn’t take a genius to put things together,” Kunikida explained. He walked over to the folder and flipped it open. He leafed through the pages for a few seconds. “Here we are. Kodachi Kunou. Disappeared in February of this year. She was spotted assisting these two. A few weeks later, one Sentarou Daimonji vanished without a trace. Since then, the boy has been seen at several of these girls’ crimes, assisting them. His body was recovered from the scene of your earlier battle, damaged almost beyond recognition. Strangely enough, the body was largely damaged due to accelerated decomposition, much more so than could be accounted for then in the time since his disappearance. The two were also seen running down the streets of Tokyo with a third dead body just this afternoon.”
The man spun on them. “Tell me… are they using the aragami to animate these corpses somehow? Is that their secret?”
“No,” Aaron said softly. “The zombie you refer to is a distinct entity. It is called ‘Chris’. It has the ability to leap from one body to another. In so doing, it gains all the memories and abilities of its new host.”
“What about this other girl?” Another familiar face on a photograph.
“Shampoo?” That was a good question. From what Aaron remembered, Shampoo and the Chinese twins were mortal enemies. Aaron remembered something Ranma had said about Shampoo showing up when he had come to visit Ukyou in Justice High School. “I don’t know what their relationship is. Shampoo is not a zombie, like Chris. She is, however, about as powerful as me in the martial arts.”
“I see…” the man said softly, rubbing his short beard. “I take it these people are your enemies?”
“In a manner of speaking,” Aaron said dryly. “We have… philosophical differences.”
“Oh, really?” Kunikida grunted and walked over to Aaron again. He stepped to the edge of the bed and loomed over her. “And who are ‘you people’ anyway?”
“You’ll have to be more specific,” Aaron replied. He knew what Kunikida meant, but felt the need to buy time. Ukyou wasn’t being much help, but he wanted to at least seek her input before he revealed more than was good for them.
“You martial artists,” Kunikida explained sharply. “Every time I dig more into this, I come up with more questions. I keep locating more of you, and it doesn’t make sense. Most of you aren’t even trying to hide yourselves, but you were barely even mentioned in the papers or in any governmental reports until four months ago. It’s like you all just showed up out of nowhere one day, but with complete histories, friends, family…”
“And a thousand years of corroborating evidence,” Aaron said, crossing his arms. “We are what we seem to be, Kunikida. We are martial artists. We are martial artists who are faster, stronger, tougher and better than any human has any right to be. Depending on the person, we can leap tall buildings, fling energy blasts, teleport and read minds.” Aaron glanced up into Kunikida’s frustrated eyes. “We are your worst nightmare.”
“What do you mean?”
“What you saw this afternoon was only a fraction of the destruction we could cause.” Aaron held up his hands, fingers measuring out a small distance.
“That was just two of us, and not even two especially strong ones. I wasn’t even fighting back, since I had been too injured by a previous encounter to put up much of a fight.
“We are meta-humans. We have powers that men were probably not supposed to have. We are like ancient gods, striding about the landscape. No mortal can hinder us, or keep us from our desires. The only opposition we face are those of our own who would oppose our goals.
“And there are a frightening number of psychopaths among us. Entire armies of monsters and demons exist, ready to overwhelm normal humanity like chattel. Thankfully there are also a larger number of heroes than normal among us. There are people who will step in and protect the mundanes from the predations of our more anti-social fellows.
“But welcome to the world you never wanted, Kunikida. This world is a world where you live only at the mercy of those of us who have the power. Law and government and society only mean something to us if we choose to let it mean something. For years, it seems that there has been a war going on underneath your world. But now it is coming to the surface. And when it does, the results are not going to be pleasant for those of you who live at the bottom of the food chain.
“This world is not pretty. It is not fair. There is no justice except what someone like me chooses to call justice. The only authority that matters is the authority of the mighty.”
Aaron slowly fell back onto the bed. He felt drained. The entire speech had somehow slipped out of him. He wasn’t sure if it was even him who had been talking. Ukyou wasn’t sure if she herself hadn’t said the words. But they struck a chord within them. They seemed right.
Kunikida was staring at her, his eyes wide, quivering. “You don’t really believe that?” he asked slowly.
“I do,” Aaron said. “Trust me, I know how you feel. Even with my strength, I’m still low on the food chain. Today, I nearly died because I had stepped on the toes of people who are much stronger than me. These people still want me dead. Frankly, I’m not even convinced I will live out the week. In my condition, I’m a sitting duck. And there is nothing you could do to save me.” Aaron smiled, a thin, cold smile.
“I’m just like you, Kunikida. We are both caught up in winds we can’t predict or control. We are the toys of the gods. The only difference is that I know it.”
Aaron closed his eyes, and a moment later Kunikida left.
In the darkness of his own thoughts, he and Ukyou mulled over their outburst. It felt so right to them. All they wanted were normal lives. All they wanted was to be left alone. This world, it seemed, would not let them. He reached up and brushed his fingers against his eyelids. The future looked black.
But Aaron would not become what it wanted him to become. He would not be a pawn of prophecy. He would not be the enemy Chris wanted. He would not be the hero Ranma wanted. He wasn’t a monster, or a hero; he was a man.
He would live his life by his own choices. He might not be able to change who he was… but he would choose who he would become.
“We are, who we choose to be,” Aaron said aloud.
Vega glanced idly over at the two Dolls. He considered asking them to be more quiet, but they hadn’t seen each other in such a long time that their love-making was getting a bit enthusiastic. He rolled his eyes and decided to let them have their fun.
It wasn’t that he didn’t appreciate the beauty of it. It was two lovely young women engaging in the second most beautiful act two people could engage in, after all. But Vega had seen it all before. Personally, he didn’t see why Bison had bothered to twist their minds so that they all felt such feelings towards each other. He knew, for a fact, that most of the Dolls hadn’t been interested in other women that way before Bison had begun to brainwash them.
Oh well. To each their own. Still, Vega didn’t wish to interrupt the Dolls, because he knew that soon they would be unable to enjoy such a simple pastime again. After all, it was rather hard to do so when you were dead.
Vega stood up and walked over to the nearly naked man that was hanging chained to the wall. Now this one was far more interesting. He was tall, for a Japanese, with short black hair and a face that was crude, but not at all not beautiful. Maybe with some polish and work, he could actually become someone Vega would enjoy killing.
Vega cupped his fingers around the young man’s chin and tilted his head up. His eyes were tired, half-lidded, but still alive.
“Please…” the young man moaned. “Let me go… I have to… I have to…”
“Have to what?” Vega said eagerly. He let his hand drop, but the man’s head remained up. He was staring at Vega now. His eyes slowly grew more lucid, and with the return of consciousness came a steady, smoldering anger. Vega smiled, even if his victim could not see it under his immaculate white mask.
“I have to get out of here!” the young man shouted. “She’s in danger!”
Vega watched, fascinated, as the boy transformed again. There was a flash, and a swirl of rose-petals shot across his vision. He tried to see the final moment, but as always, one particular petal passed directly before his eyes, and when it was gone the young man was dressed in his costume again.
Vega stepped back as the boy began to struggle. The chains clattered and cracked as he strained them to their limits. His face, even hidden behind his opera mask, was a study in enraged passion. His dapper tuxedo could not hide the bulge and flex of his muscles as he strained against his bonds.
“I have to save her! I have to help her!” the tuxedo-clad youth was shouting now. “Let me go, or so help me I’ll…”
“You’ll what?” Vega hissed and raised one fist into the air. The light caught just so on his claws, flashing a blinding glare into the man’s eyes. He winced back and Vega elegantly uncurled his arm and let the tip of the claws rest humbly next to the man’s neat little bowtie.
The man’s breath caught as he tried to draw his quivering neck away from the razor-sharp blades. Vega played with him for a moment, allowing the tips of his claws to draw closer and closer to his neck the further the young man tried to withdraw. He stopped only when he saw true panic in his prisoner’s blue eyes. Then he laughed and pulled the claws back.
He flicked a tiny drop of blood the tip of his claw had drawn away and then strode back to his chair.
“You bastard!” the young man Vega knew only as Tuxedo Kamen shouted. “Why are you doing this?”
“Why?” Vega flicked his hair off his shoulder with one hand before looking back. “This is a game, ‘Tuxedo Kamen’, a game for the greatest stakes there are.”
“A game?” Tuxedo Kamen’s face furrowed in hate. “Is that all this is to you, a game? What kind of monster are you?”
Vega flashed back across the room and backhanded the boy once, sharply. Thankfully, he had enough self-control to use his unclawed hand. Not that he cared if the ‘superhero’ lived or died, but spilling his blood would ruin this beautiful carpet.
“I am not a monster,” Vega explained as the boy tried to recover from the stunning blow. “Monsters are ugly, hideous things. They represent the worst of our fears and desires.” Vega stepped back. “I am an artist. No… more of a connoisseur. I appreciate beautiful things.”
Vega walked back to his chair, to the vase of roses that was being held on the side-table there. “Take this rose. Beautiful, is it not?” He held up the long-stemmed wonder and walked back towards the boy. He could see the boy’s eyes flash. Vega smiled under his mask. “But it is also dangerous, as you well know.” He wondered if the boy would try to use a rose to escape again. It had been so entertaining to shatter his petty dreams by slashing the flower from the air, then dancing untouched through the shower of petals to deliver the knockout blow. “All true beauty mixes such danger with such allure. The most beautiful animals in the world are often the most poisonous. There is nothing quite so compelling as watching a great cat on the hunt. ‘Fearful symmetry’ indeed, no?”
“What are you talking about?” Tuxedo Kamen hissed painfully.
Vega sighed. “You don’t understand.”
“Lord Vega.” He turned his attention to the third Doll. She had been performing her task soundlessly and quickly while Vega had been talking. “I have located the data you were looking for.”
“Oh, excellent, Marz,” Vega said in satisfaction. “So, let us have the good news then.”
“My sensors have managed to track down the cause of his transformations,” Marz explained as she typed on her laptop. She turned the computer so that Vega could see it. On the screen there was a wireframe model of a man. “I believe the transformations are being caused by some sort of external stimulus. An energy wave, quite different than any conventional chi field I have ever studied, projected from an outside source.” As Vega watched, a silver line floated in and struck the figure. The figure rotated and a black light overtook it, then when it was gone the wireframe looked different. A small army of numbers scrolled up and down the edges of the screen. “It acts like a trigger, causing the power inside this man to activate in response.”
“So… that is it?” Vega mused. He turned his attention back to the man. He was growling and shifting in his bonds again. “This one, then, doesn’t have much magic of his own?”
“Well,” Marz shifted in place. “If you believe in magic, I suppose he does. He certainly displays a different energy form than I am familiar with, and I am familiar with every waveform located in Shadowloo’s archives. In fact, the only reason I can even detect it with my equipment is because his waveform seems to interact with his chi as a form of crude booster.”
“I see…” Vega agreed, even if he barely understood what she was saying. He didn’t really care about the science of the matter. He almost wished Marz did not feel the need to prattle on so, but Bison had not been able to strip her of as much human personality as he had his later subjects. “So he does have magic?”
“But not nearly as much as the external source,” the Doll explained.
“Who are you talking about?” the man hissed. “What are you doing?”
“Oh, be silent,” Vega snorted and kicked up, catching Tuxedo Mask cleanly in the chin. A moment later his head fell down bonelessly and his transformation reversed itself. “Those signals must be the way that our guest can sense the danger he keeps mentioning. Perhaps one of those Sailor Senshi has a signalling device that activates him as a sort of safeguard?” Vega had to admire their genius, if that was so. Creating a human slave who was both instinctively drawn to you in moments of danger and empowered by such moments was a handy tool.
“Yes and no,” Marz explained. “I think that in actuality the waveform I detected is a constant link between the two of them, that is only amplified by certain conditions.”
“Oh?” Vega raised his voice slightly.
“Yes. Now that I have narrowed it down, I can detect the waveform itself. Or, at least, its influence on the natural chi fields. I can even sense a number of similar waveforms.”
“Similar waveforms?” Vega prompted.
“Yes,” Marz replied. She pushed a button on her computer, and the screen now showed a veritable rainbow of coloured beams radiating out from the wireframe man on the screen. “Nine waveforms in total. They are all connected to this man in some way. They all have a weak connection to each other, but all seem to share the same connection to the strongest waveform.” She tapped the silver stream. “By triangulating off of his position and the strength of the connection with the silver waveform, I believe I can track the physical location of any of the others.”
Vega smiled. “Show me.”
The screen faded away, and was soon replaced by a relief map of Tokyo and the surrounding suburbs. Vega leaned down. Seven dots, each a different color.
“I thought you said there were nine?”
“There are…” Marz said slowly. “Two of them appear to have left the Tokyo area, and are beyond my ability to track down with any precision. One other was an incredible distance away. I would guess in another country. This dot here…” she tapped the screen above a black dot. “This represents Tuxedo Kamen. Each of the six others represents one of the other waveforms. I have assigned them colours based on the frequency of the-“
“Yes, yes,” Vega waved away her tedious explanation. “These two are moving.”
“Yes, they are approaching the edge of my ability to track them. They appear to be heading in the same direction as the other two that left my tracking range, however.”
“So that leaves… four Sailor Senshi still in play…” Vega said and ran a finger along the edge of his claw.
“Yes, if these are indeed the Sailor Senshi,” Marz pointed out.
“I believe they are,” Vega said. “And they have true magic. I truly believe that.”
“Master?” Marz sounded worried. “I believe our job was to locate and capture this girl, Ukyou Kuonji?”
“Hmmm…” Vega stood back up. “Yes. You’re right. Bison entrusted us with a mission, after all. We could hardly fail him.”
Marz sighed in relief. “According to Fevrier’s surveillance, she is being held at Tokyo General hospital and is not in the best of shape. She should be an easy target for acquisition.”
“Acquisition?” Vega chuckled. “Tell me, Marz, does it bother you to do this? To drag these hapless young girls off to the same fate you yourself suffered?”
“I…” Marz glanced at him, confused. “But serving Lord Bison is the greatest joy I have, Lord Vega. I only barely remember my life before he took me into his presence, but I know it was a shallow and hollow one. Bringing others into his service is a duty, and a joy as well.”
Vega laughed. “Yes, it would be.” He shook his head. “Bison wants slaves. I wonder if this ‘magic’ is beyond even his ability to enslave? I suppose there is only one way to find out.”
“Nothing.” Vega said, shaking his head. He clapped his hands. Immediately, Fevrier and Satsuki ceased their lovemaking and turned their attention to him. “Clean yourselves up. This afternoon, you go and fetch Bison’s newest toy.”
“Yes, Lord Vega,” they said as one and began to untwine from each other. He turned his back on the erotic display. He had to get rid of them for a time, after all. It would hardly do to plan their murder with them present.
He smirked as he stepped out of the room into his private bedchamber. He slowly removed his mask and glanced at his pristine reflection in the mirror. Vega did not want slaves. He was a connoisseur of great beauty. And when he finally managed to kill Bison in their destined duel, it would be a thing of beauty. This ‘magic’ – it was the key. Up until now, the psychopower that Bison controlled would have trumped any weapon Vega could use. But now… now he had a wildcard.
It wasn’t time to play his hand yet, however. Vega sat down in a plush leather chair and gazed lovingly into his own reflection. It wouldn’t do for Bison to suspect just how ‘real’ this magic was until it was too late. It was really a pity that the Dolls were so psychotically loyal to their true master. They would report Vega’s suspicious activity instantly.
And after Bison had ordered the missing Doll Cammy terminated for merely showing a spark of willpower, Vega did not believe he would be afforded much compassion. Which made leaving the Dolls to go free a terrible risk.
But that was the Game, wasn’t it? And what fun would it be, if there was no risk?
Chris stopped digging and stepped back a bit. He was, he guessed, about half a kilometer away. The sounds of the people in the village carried even through the trees he was surrounded by; cars driving, a few whoops as school let out, a snatch of laughter carried on the air.
He hadn’t learned its name, or asked where to find it. He didn’t have to. A village by Mount Minakami. He knew what it was. A “sleeper” cell, so to speak, filled with once-people who had been turned to zoanoids by Chronos. As far as he knew, they were ignorant of their nature; probably brainwashed. The perfect trap to spring on an enemy, with the aid of a zoalord’s absolute mental control over all zoanoids. And, of course, there were two zoalords in the mountain.
And yet, from here, it sounded so much like an ordinary place.
He clenched his fist. He could have laughed at the irony. Yesterday, he’d begged Akane to help him, to give him the benefit of her impeccably aligned moral perspective. He couldn’t afford to lose sight of things like he had with Ukyou. Anger wasn’t enough of an excuse. Neither was stress. It was too dangerous for him to lose control, as he’d proven.
Now, a day later, he was planning to eradicate an entire community.
Of course, they were zoanoids. But that was an excuse. He knew Sailor Moon could heal them. They no longer had to die, they were no longer doomed to be hideous monsters under the control of Chronos.
But really, they did. Even if he brought Sailor Moon here, had her turn them back to humans, what then? Left here, Chronos would either just process them again or, more likely, kill them all. They liked the “kill them all” solution to problems, generally. And there was no way he could hope to feed, shelter, protect or hide hundreds, maybe thousands of people.
No, these people were doomed. That couldn’t be helped. The only difference was that HE was their doom. He was the one planning their cold-blooded murder, not Chronos. But it was necessary. Necessary to draw Chronos’ attention away, to hopefully have them send Team 5 to battle him, because he’d make sure to send a message that nothing else could.
Except a zoalord. He didn’t think either of them would come unless he did more than destroy a village, though. They tended to stay aloof. He hoped that was the case anyway. He wanted their attention on him, but not their PERSONAL attention. Even with the weapon he had planned for this little operation, he couldn’t dream of defeating something like that.
The mouse in his hand shivered as his hand clenched a bit. He looked down at it. The creature had tried to escape several times, and he’d considered using the knockout drug on it, but it was better to wait until the last moment, just to be on the safe side. Besides, there was no danger of it escaping. He was a martial arts death machine, and it moved in slow motion.
A martial artist, yes. Even more of one with Adon’s skills. Thinking of that set his teeth on edge. He hadn’t expected Pink to take initiative like that. But then, she’d surprised him before, so he should have known better. He wondered how she’d forced Link into accompanying her. Still, at least Adon was definitely not a good guy. He could deal with it. And Adon DID add a huge amount of hand to hand skill to Chris’s abilities, which could come in handy…
Chris shook his head. He was stalling. He looked down at the shallow pit he had dug in the earth, at the mouse he carried, at the large black bag that would protect Adon’s body from vermin while it was abandoned… and at his own backpack, which contained his precious Jyusenkyou water, a small amount of knockout potion for the mouse, and a huge dose of Pink’s latest and most potent batch of poison. ‘Enough to kill any monster, over’ she’d promised.
He pulled out three canteens of the magical water. One was Pantyhose Tarou’s chimaerical spring of yeti-riding-bull-carrying-crane-and-eel. The second, his other canteen of the spring of octopus, also used by Tarou in a future that hadn’t happened yet, proving that the powers of the springs could be combined. The third, the spring of Asura used by Rouge, a near-godlike being more than capable of going toe to toe even with Tarou’s huge, immensely powerful cursed form.
A dead creature couldn’t be cursed by the spring water, but an unconscious one could, and then Pink’s poison would provide him with the tool he needed.
Time to get started.
“I’m sorry, am I supposed to care?”
“Miss Teluno.” Professor Yaragano sounded annoyed. He was towering over her now, his palms flush against the desk. His jowls quivered with rage, and his eyes flashed menacingly.
Telulu yawned and inspected her fingernails. This man was doing nothing but eating up her precious time.
“You were admitted to this very prestigious academy based solely on your work with botanical engineering,” Yaragano growled. “What do you expect your parents will say when they find out what you have been up to?”
“I imagine they would be quite displeased,” Telulu said nonchalantly.
“I imagine so!” He gestured down at the folder in front of him. “In the past three weeks, everything about you has changed. You no longer pay attention in classes. You bully the other students, even your upperclassmen. Worst of all, you are letting your responsibilities in my laboratory-“
“Shut up,” Telulu told him. The tone of her voice ended his prattling immediately. “You are wasting my time.” She stood up. “It is not my fault that you were trying to take advantage of the advances I was making in producing viable, edible fruit from normally inedible species of plants. The fact that your reputation and project are falling apart without me to babysit your mistakes is the result of your pride.”
Yaragano’s face had turned red now, but Telulu didn’t want to waste more time with him. “Don’t think you can bully me around like you used to.” She smiled malevolently, and something in her face drove all the wind from his sails. “I’m not the same weak, naive little girl who was impressed by your degree and age that I used to be.” Of course, she was much more different than he would ever know, but she was under strict orders not to reveal to anyone else exactly how much more.
“Miss Teluno…” he began weakly, trying to recapture the initiative in their ‘talk’. She cut him off by cracking her own palm against the desk.
“Listen to me, you small-minded, pathetic little man,” she snapped. “I have no time for you. I have had my eyes opened to things you can not even begin to understand. I am working directly for Professor Tomoe now.” She smiled again. “His projects… they will truly change the world. I can guarantee you, that when we are finished with our work…” She laughed. “You won’t care about your petty little project.” She turned and gathered up her bags.
“If you have a problem with my behaviour, I suggest you take it up with Professor Tomoe,” she shot over her shoulder before leaving.
Telulu was getting tired of this. Three weeks. Three weeks since Professor Tomoe had… gifted her with the power and knowledge that had so changed her life. Three weeks and she was still walking these same halls, still dealing with these same pathetic humans.
Where was the glorious destruction she had been promised? After the Professor had lifted her from the ground where her transformation had left her weak and confused, he had told her of the glory that was to come. His voice had winnowed into her soul, explaining how the coming of Pharaoh 90 would wipe weak, juvenile humanity from the world. All that would be left was the Silence. Cold, pristine Silence without any life to mar the perfection of the Earth.
She had walked away from her initiation into the Deathbusters a true believer. But now her patience was wearing thin. Three weeks had passed, and so far they had not made a single step towards their goal.
What kind of crusade was this?
“Telulu.” A voice snapped her out of her reverie.
Telulu looked back over her shoulder. She brushed a lock of green hair out of her line of sight. Eudial was walking towards her. She was wearing the same green and black school uniform with the plaid skirt that Telulu was, but wore it with a bit more poise and confidence. Her red hair tumbled down her back and her glasses glinted in the afternoon sunlight. Telulu glanced around, making sure they were alone.
“Eudial…” Telulu greeted slowly. Eudial smiled, and walked straight up to her… then Telulu’s head rocked back as she was slapped with enough force to send stars spinning across her vision. She growled and turned a vicious glare on Eudial, clutching her burning cheek with one hand. “What? You dare-“
“Oh, be quiet,” Eudial said with a sneer. “You deserve much more than that.” Eudial gestured to Telulu to follow as the elder girl started down the hallway. She paused after a few steps and glanced back over her shoulder. “Well?” Reluctantly, Telulu fell into step behind her. “You think this is a game, Telulu?”
“I’m not sure what you mean…”
“I’ve been in the Deathbusters much longer than you,” Eudial pointed out. She never failed to point that out. Telulu glared at her back. “I know how this works. We leave the Professor alone. You take care of your own problems.” She led them down the stairs, deeper into the hidden and forbidden secrets of Mugen Academy. “Like that professor of yours. He may well call your bluff. Professor Tomoe will be most displeased to have his work interrupted.”
“What was I supposed to do?” Telulu said heatedly. “That man was a constant drain on my time and my work. How am I supposed to get anything done if I must constantly pretend to be the same pathetic human I was-“
“I don’t care how you get your work done,” Eudial cut her off. Again. That was growing very annoying. “The fact is you do. We Deathbusters have to keep ourselves from being noticed. At the moment we are few, and weak. In time, we will grow strong enough that we won’t need pretenses anymore. Until then, I suggest you use your talents to appease the humans.”
“Appease?” Telulu sneered. “Why should we? We are better than them!”
“So?” Eudial paused in front of the door to their personal laboratory. “Remember our plan. We must succeed in bringing Pharaoh 90 to this world. To do so, we must empower the Messiah of Silence.” She opened the door and gestured for Telulu to enter. “For now, the Messiah is too weak to take up her mantle. It is her we must protect. Until she has gathered enough strength to summon our lord, then we have to remain cautious and unobtrusive.”
“And how long will that take?” Telulu barked. “This world… it OFFENDS me.” She gestured towards the door. “Beyond that door, nothing but chaos and shallow people concerned only with their own personal problems and minor concerns. Living among them makes me feel dirty.” She pulled her hand back.
“So?” Eudial tossed her hair and smiled maliciously. “Learn to deal with it. We have nearly two years, by the Professor’s best estimate, before the Messiah is strong enough for us to begin searching for the Talismans.” Eudial stepped deeper into the lab, her body partly disappearing into the shadows.
“Work on your old project. Or find a new one. Or spend your time watching television. I don’t care what you do, as long as it doesn’t bother Professor Tomoe. Or me.”
Eudial vanished and Telulu stared after her for a long moment. Then, she sighed and stepped over to her own workstation. Eudial, much as she was loathe to admit it, had a point. There was nothing she could do until the Messiah of Silence was strong enough. Maybe she was right, maybe she should just watch TV or something to while away the long wait…
“…attack at the idol singer auditions was prevented by one of the contestants, a Miss Momiji Fujimiya. Miss Fujimiya was also involved in solving the recent kidnapping case by the monsters known only as ‘the aragami’. When asked to comment on the similarities between the monster attacks…”
Telulu’s eyes narrowed as her hand slowly moved away from the small TV set. She watched as the reporter went into a quick recap of the past few weeks, the monster attacks, and the strange plant-like monsters known as aragami. She raised a hand to her still sore cheek and smiled.
“Well now,” Telulu said. “Maybe… I don’t have to wait so long after all.”
ZX-tole kept his eyes closed. He hoped that if he did, the others would leave him alone. Or at least, leave him out of their bickering. Of course, it was hard to ignore them all when Elegen had his hand on ZX-tole’s thigh. Again.
Even after having it swatted off the first three times.
ZX-tole wished he could somehow cross his arms more than they were already crossed. He didn’t know why, it just felt like the thing to do.
“You’re so tense…” Elegen murmured sweetly from far too close to his ear.
“…” ZX-tole replied.
“He has good reason to be,” Thancrus said obliviously. “It’s about time we got an actual fight again. I mean, this… whatever, killed an entire village full of zoanoids. This should be a battle.”
“Hmmm,” Derzerb commented softly. Well, as softly as his enormous bulk would allow.
“Not like LAST time,” Thancrus said with that familiar undertone of whining that always put ZX-tole’s teeth on edge. “Here I am, the best hand to hand combatant on the team, and you send me to take out the WIMP. A wimp whose only special ability is making FOG. FOG!” Thancrus sounded disgusted now. “I had to kick her unconscious just to keep from accidentally chopping her head off!”
“At least it would have been accidental,” Elegen added cattily. “Derzerb seems to get his jollies out of turning old men’s skulls into petroleum jelly.”
“She pissed me off by running away!” Derzerb protested, his voice nearly causing the van to shake. “B-besides! At least I didn’t get any of us killed. Not like the high and mighty ZX-tole here.”
“Yeah,” Thancrus added with a little bit of malice. “I would have gotten that girl and taken out those party crashers AND kept Gaster al-“
“Shut. Up.” ZX-tole opened his eyes, and gave the wiry little weasel-faced Japanese man The Look. The look that said ‘Do not mess with me, or I swear to god, despite the years of training together, and intense combat side by side that have made us as close as brothers, I will kill you in your sleep’.
He glanced to his side at Elegen and gave him The Look as well. Elegen slowly withdrew his hand and began to nervously rub his bald head with it. He grinned mechanically and slid back a handspace. ZX-tole continued to stare at him. Elegen slid back another space, until there was a full arm’s length between them on the bench.
Finally, ZX-tole turned his eyes back to Derzerb. The huge black man wasn’t grinning. He was, in fact, tugging at the collar of his skintight blue ‘travel suit’ and trying not to meet ZX-tole’s eyes.
“You idiots don’t take anything seriously, do you?”
There was no response to ZX-tole’s question, so he pressed forward.
“Yes. Gaster is dead. I know that better than any of you. I know his death makes you all want to break things. I feel that too. But you have to understand that we can’t get on each other’s nerves right now.” He slammed a hand into the bench, and this time the van did rock. “Gaster is dead because we are fighting a war with an enemy we do not understand!
“That is why we have been going on these ‘pathetic missions’, as Thancrus likes to call them. We have to find out about these people who can fight zoanoids and win, like no human ever could before. Doctor Valkus thinks that even the Guyver units are not as much a threat to Chronos as these unknowns are.
“And we are going to fight one of them. If you want to get anything out of Gaster’s tragic death, then get this: We cannot afford to think we are the greatest warriors on the planet anymore. We cannot underestimate our enemy! Whoever this is that has decided to pick a fight with Chronos knows enough about us to hit us where it hurts, and is strong enough to do so. Do you really want your stupidity and infighting to jeopardise our mission?”
The other three human-form zoanoids in the van stared at him.
“Well, do you?!”
“No!” they shouted as one.
ZX-tole nodded and crossed his arms again. He smiled, and the others took up his cue and smiled with him. Suddenly they were brothers again. Which was good, because he had kind of meant that bit about killing them in their sleep if they kept getting on his nerves.
It wasn’t long after that when the van slowed to a gentle stop. The access door to the driver’s compartment slid open, and the trooper inside peered back. “We’re within a half-kilometer of the town. There is still no contact with anyone inside. The place is quiet, however.”
“How quiet?” Elegen asked.
“I think the fight is over.”
“I hope they didn’t run off,” Thancrus said as he stepped towards the back. A moment later he and his teammates were standing on the deserted mountain road.
“They haven’t,” ZX-tole assured him.
“How can you be sure?” Derzerb asked.
“Whoever did this…” ZX-tole said, pausing as he strode around the van. “Wanted our attention.” ZX-tole flexed his arms. He felt off. His instincts told him that he was missing something. That this was a trap somehow. But not a trap for him. He wished he knew what that feeling meant. “Transform. Stealth is not our friend. He knows we’re coming.”
ZX-tole screamed and allowed his transformation to overcome him. It was like sweet release. It was like you spent your entire day holding back a raging river, and then just let it go. He could feel the power exploding through every cell in his body. It was immense.
When he was finished, he lowered a foot to the asphalt, cracking it with his weight. He gestured over his carapace to the others. They were already transformed, of course. With that, they sprinted into the village.
ZX-tole didn’t bother trying to conceal his approach. Even so, he kept his many-faceted eyes on the lookout. If anyone tried to ambush him, they would regret it. But no ambush came. The streets were deserted. The buildings on either side were the only sign that there had been any fight. And from the looks of it, it had been quite the battle.
He would have sneered, had he the anatomy for it. So much needless destruction, for just one nest village of minor zoanoids? Whoever they were here to fight was powerful, but lacked finesse.
Thancrus spotted the boy first. He was standing nonchalantly in front of what had once been the town hall, the largest building in the village. He was a typical Japanese teenager, perhaps a little shorter. He was wearing a torn and burned school uniform, and ZX-tole could see a nasty looking burn running up the side of his face. But the boy didn’t seem to show any sign of discomfort. He only quirked his remaining eyebrow when the four biological war machines ran into the town square. He barely even moved as ZX-tole continued to charge towards him.
But ZX-tole stopped. Because his instincts still said something was wrong. He had to throw out his arm to keep Derzerb from charging past him, but his other two lieutenants stopped on their own. For a moment, the only sound was the gentle hum of Elegen’s electrical aura as he hovered behind ZX-tole.
“Ah, so you’ve come at last,” the boy said in a smooth, confident voice.
“Did you do this?” Elegen snapped.
The boy looked casually from side to side. “What… this?” He raised his arms in a mock shrug.
“We’re in no mood for your games,” Derzerb roared in his gravelly voice. “But maybe if you tell us who you are, and why you did this, we’ll kill you quick.”
“Well, it wouldn’t do to have this place too crowded for when you show up,” the boy said mockingly. Then his voice grew suddenly serious, and he looked down at himself. “But, I wasn’t expecting only about two-thirds of them to be zoanoids.”
ZX-tole glanced to the side and saw the occasional human corpse strewn about the rubble. Young people, not yet ready to be processed, for the most part. He shrugged. He guessed he had overlooked them on his way in.
The boy was looking at his hands now. “But I guess in wars, sacrifices have to be made. For the greater good,” he said unhappily.
“Fine.” ZX-tole said in his usual high-pitched buzz. “I don’t really care about your philosophical crap.” He gestured to his teammates to fan out. “Take him alive. Valkus will want to… talk to him.”
The boy looked up. He smirked.
“Take me alive?” He chuckled. “ZX-tole. ZX-tole. Poor, ignorant ZX-tole. Just like last time, you don’t know what you’re dealing with.”
“What’s he talking about?” Thancrus snapped.
“Ignore him,” ZX-tole commanded. “He’s just playing mind games.”
By now, the hyper zoanoids had formed a half-circle with the arrogant loudmouth in the centre. ZX-tole stayed in front, with the hulking rhinoceros-like Derzerb to his right. Elegen floated to his left, his long eel-like neck and prehensile tentacles writhing sinuously in the blaze of his ten thousand volt aura. Thancrus was further to the left, his thin body bent forward in a combat crouch with his blade-hands weaving in front of him.
“Hmmm. No more talking, eh?” the young man said, rubbing his chin. “That’s fine. That IS why I brought you here, after all.” The loudmouth spread his arms and tilted back his head as if in prayer. “First Gaster. And now the rest of you in one fell swoop.”
“Take him,” ZX-tole ordered curtly. The hyper zoanoids began to charge.
The boy began to laugh. He continued to laugh as the zoanoids closed. Then Thancrus burst past him, and the air literally flashed as his hyperfrequency swords carved through the air. The loudmouth’s laughter cut off abruptly as his body fell to the ground in two pieces.
But… it had begun to slump a fraction of a second before Thancrus struck.
“Well, damn,” Thancrus snarled and kicked the loudmouth’s corpse, cursing. “I expected him to dodge.”
Thancrus was caught completely flatfooted when the town hall exploded.
Rubble streamed past ZX-tole, some of it bouncing off his raised forearms. He grunted and lowered them as the chunks were reduced to pebbles by his armour. Thancrus was lying stunned on the street. Derzerb was standing. Elegen was still floating.
Then ZX-tole turned his attention to the monstrosity. It was three stories tall and almost as wide. It had three heads, each shaped like a bull’s, and each snorting flames from their nostrils. Huge, black, oily tentacles sprang writhing from its back, so many that ZX-tole could not easily count them. Six huge arms, each with hands as large as Thancrus, swung through the wreckage, clenching and unclenching their fists as thick gobs of oily flame dripped to the ground from their fingertips. It strode forward on the hind legs of a bull, with its thick pelt covering it from heads to hooves. Its eyes, all six of them, were black and cold as stones.
“Holy shit!” Derzerb roared and backed up a step.
“It’s so… BIG!” Elegen exclaimed.
“So?” ZX-tole stepped forward and allowed his laser pods to open. “Just an easier target.”
Akira forced herself to smile cheerfully. She looked up at the guy and carefully folded the paper. He was, by any standards, not really that bad-looking. His short black hair could use a little more personality, maybe, but he was thin and fine-featured and wore his school uniform with a panache that many boys his age could not. He was standing in front of her, stiff as a board, his eyes closed and his hands clenched into fists.
It was like he expected her to hit him.
Which was totally unfair.
She had only ever hit the one boy.
And that was because he had touched her.
“Thank you very much, uh…” she checked the note again. “Taikamatsu. It was a very lovely sentiment.”
“It was?” Taikamatsu gasped. He suddenly sounded hopeful, and his eyes opened up for the first time since he had handed her the note. “I really meant it! Every word of it!” He bowed slightly. “I just… never had the courage to say any of it out loud…”
“I see…” Akira smiled back at him. Outwardly, she was the picture of calm. Inside, her mind was scrambling, trying to find some way of letting the poor sa- er, young gentleman down easy. “I really do think you flatter me a bit too much, however.”
“No! No!” Taikamatsu held up his hands and waved them at her. “It’s all the truth.” He slowed down, and a slow smile crept across his face. His cheeks began to flush slightly. “You really are very pretty, Akira. I mean, I only ever see you when you are walking home from school, but even in those brief glimpses I can’t help but be in awe…”
Akira chuckled nervously and resisted the urge to scratch the back of her neck. She should have been flattered by his praise. It wasn’t every girl at her school who had her hair compared to ‘the weeping willow, dipping gracefully in the summer breeze’ or so Akira thought. But she couldn’t help feeling more embarrassed than enthusiastic.
“Taikamatsu, I really appreciate the thought,” Akira said, swallowing slightly. “But I’m… I’m really not… that is…”
“Is there some problem here?”
“Ky-KYOSUKE?” Taikamatsu gasped.
Akira turned and watched as Kyosuke walked towards her. His white school uniform jacket was unbuttoned as usual, and it billowed slightly behind him. It made him look thin, almost gangly. His face was stern and severe, with sharp eyes behind small glasses and short blond hair. His gaze was fixed firmly on Taikamatsu, who was shrinking back a little with each step that Kyosuke took.
“Taikamatsu,” Kyosuke said by way of greeting. His voice was cold and harsh. “Is this boy bothering you, Akira?”
“Huh?” Akira blinked. “No… he just…”
“Because I don’t like it when guys bother you, Akira.” Kyosuke stretched slightly and cracked the knuckles on his right hand. “You remember that, right?”
“Huh?” Akira blinked again.
“Oh…” Taikamatsu stepped back, his face suddenly downcast. “I see how it is.”
“Huh?” Akira said to him, beginning to feel a bit like a strange parrot.
He smiled at her, a wistful kind of smile. “I understand, Akira. What good am I compared to Kyosuke?” Taikamatsu turned and began to walk away. He shuffled despondently. Akira felt that she should be more concerned that he was walking away. But she couldn’t really think of what to do about it.
“W-wait!” She ran after him. He paused and let her catch up. “Your letter…”
“Keep it,” Taikamatsu said after a short pause. “Just because it can never be, doesn’t change how I feel.”
This time Akira reallu could do nothing but watch as the boy shuffled out of sight. Once he was gone, she turned to Kyosuke, who was chuckling to himself with his arms crossed.
“What on earth was that all about?” Akira said slowly. She wanted to use harsher language, but managed to control herself.
“You don’t have to thank me,” Kyosuke said, still chuckling.
“Thank you?” Akira stepped over to him and poked him with enough force to cause him to stagger back a step. “For interfering in my personal life? For implying that you and I are an item?”
“Well, yes,” Kyosuke said, sounding slightly surprised. “I’d thought you appreciate me getting you out of a situation you obviously didn’t want to be in.” He smiled then. It was the trademark Kyosuke suave smirk, the one that was supposed to make girl’s hearts melt. All it ever did for Akira was make her want to punch him. “That boy will come away from that now thinking nothing but good thoughts about you, and move on. If you had really turned him down, his heart would have been crushed.”
“What makes you think I was going to turn him down?” Akira snapped.
Kyosuke raised an eyebrow.
“It was only the one time!” Akira said forcefully. “And he touched me!”
“On the shoulder.”
“He still touched me…” Akira replied defensively. Kyosuke threw up his arms in surrender. “You just like being a busybody.”
“Guilty,” Kyosuke said, chuckling again. “But… I really try to help you out because I can sympathise.”
“Sympathise with what?” Akira said slowly.
“With how you feel,” Kyosuke shrugged. He started walking away, and Akira fell into step beside him.
“And how do you think I feel?” Akira asked slowly.
Kyosuke opened his mouth to reply, glanced at her, and thought better of it. They walked on in companionable silence for a few minutes until he started talking again.
“I hear you’ve been causing quite a ruckus lately.”
“Rushing over to Gedo High School and rounding up your old gang. Going and fetching your brother. You even went to Batsu and warned him about some guy that was trying to start the same kinds of problems as… my brother.”
“Oh, that…” Akira paused. She shrugged. “I told him to tell you about that sword when he next saw you, didn’t I?”
“Yes,” Kyosuke said evenly. “Though, I haven’t thought of what to do with it yet. Convincing my brother that he is in danger… well, let’s just say Hyo has always been quite difficult when he puts his mind to it.”
“Well, good luck with that,” Akira said, shrugging.
“Not going to offer to help?”
“Why should I?” Akira replied quickly. Then she paused, and moderated her tone. “You guys should be able to handle anything bad that happens. Edge and Gan are bodyguarding my brother, and I made them swear not to let him out of their sight…” Akira trailed off, realising she was sounding just a bit too wistful there. She injected some good cheer into her tone before continuing. “I just want to go back to being a normal high school girl. I’m not really the heroic warrior type.”
Kyosuke stared at her for a long time. “So… is that why you spent all last night helping Ran and her friend look for Ukyou?”
Akira snapped her eyes back to Kyosuke’s face. “How did you…”
“I know all, I see all,” Kyosuke said mockingly, holding two fingers to his temple. “Actually, Ran told me about it.”
“I see…” Akira sighed. “I just felt I kind of owed it to them. If Ukyou hadn’t warned me about the kidnapping attempt, I might not have been able to get to my brother in time.”
“I see,” Kyosuke said, nodding. “That makes sense.”
“Well, it’s all your fault!” Akira snapped, before forcing her tone to be cheerful again. “If you hadn’t encouraged me to go talk to her, I wouldn’t have learned any of this, and I wouldn’t have felt the need to stay up all night.”
Kyosuke flashed her his heart-melting smirk again. “So I guess you can thank me for helping to save your brother, too?”
Akira resisted the urge to hit him. Her fist uncurled, and she sighed.
“Yes. I guess I can.”
“Don’t be so grateful,” he said slowly.
“Kyosuke…” she warned.
He chuckled and adjusted his glasses. “Okay. I’ll stop teasing you.”
“I never thought that my suggestion would lead to so much, however,” Kyosuke said after a few more minutes of walking. “I really was just interested in…” He waved one hand, looking for the proper word. “I just remember Ran telling me about this Ukyou, and thinking that she sounded a lot like my brother. Right around the time when he started to… change.” He smiled wistfully. “I really wish someone had thought to have a friend talk to Hyo, maybe help straighten him up like you did with Ukyou.”
“I don’t think I straightened her up…” Akira said slowly. “Ukyou doesn’t need straightening up.” She paused. “All she needs is someone who can see her for who she is.”
Kyosuke remained quiet after that. It was only then that Akira thought to look around to see where he was leading her. They had walked right out of their own neighbourhood, and were rapidly closing on one of the more industrialised districts.
“Where are we going?” Akira asked. She wasn’t afraid. But Kyosuke was a manipulative little… friend, and you had to stay on your toes near him.
“I’m leading you to Ukyou, of course.”
“Huh?” Akira blinked. Then she inwardly cursed and outwardly winced.
Kyosuke chuckled. “Some guy named Kunikida apparently got in touch with Ran, and she and Ranma went off to see Ukyou in the hospital. She asked me to let you know when I saw you.”
“How long ago was that?” Akira asked quickly.
“Thirty minutes ago…”
“Wait, you couldn’t have possibly run into me by accident that quickly!”
“No, probably not.”
“Kyosuke…” Akira almost growled, but forced her voice to be level instead. “Can’t you just ever be direct? Why did you assume I would want to go see Ukyou?” Akira looked away from him. “I only wanted to help her out because I owed her. If she’s in the hospital, she must be okay… now.”
“Well, it’s too late now.” Kyosuke paused. “We’re over halfway to the hospital. Turning back would take just as much time as going forward.” He stopped. “So I hope you remember to thank her properly.”
“I remember…” Akira walked on a few more steps before she realised that Kyosuke wasn’t accompanying her anymore. “What? Aren’t you coming?”
“Me?” Kyosuke pointed at himself and smirked again. “Why would she want to see me? I’m not her friend.” He turned around. “Besides, you saved your brother. I have to save mine.” He waved over his shoulder. “Ciao.”
Akira watched him walk away. Outwardly, she only appeared confused. Inwardly, she was fuming. That… guy always got on her nerves. He couldn’t just be open and honest with anyone. It was all a game to him. Did he really think that Akira was going to dance to his little tune? She didn’t even know what hospital Ukyou was in…
Of course, there was really only one hospital in this part of town. Akira had been there a few times. Mostly to visit her older brother. She remembered sitting on the edge of his bed, starstruck and listening to him describing the fight that had put him in the hospital. She wondered if he knew that she had learned everything she knew about martial arts by acting out the fights he described, behind their parents’ backs.
Akira shook her head. Fine. She would go visit Ukyou. Thank her ‘properly’, whatever that meant. She started walking. She just wondered what kind of game Kyosuke was playing. Her pace sped up a little. What could he possibly hope to gain from this? Because he was always up to something. Akira began to jog. Maybe he wanted Akira to pick Ukyou’s brain about the cursed sword that Hyo was supposed to be carrying around. Well, fat chance of that happening. Akira was just going to thank Ukyou for helping with her brother and then get out of there. Ukyou was just the kind of person that proper girls like Akira didn’t hang around with, after all.
Yeah. Just in, thank you, and out.
Akira nodded to herself and began to run.
Akane dragged the last of the soldiers deeper into the forest. Shampoo was already undressing the one she had captured. The others were standing next to the small pile of unconscious Chronos flunkies. Usagi and Link had strangely identical expressions as they held up the dark blue body suits: both looked vaguely disgusted. Akane had to agree with them. The suits were made of some sort of thick, rubber-like material that still somehow clung to the body. The thought of wearing one of those things was a little unpleasant.
“I don’t know…” Usagi said slowly. “I could just use my disguise pen, couldn’t I?”
“Don’t be an idiot, Usagi,” Rei snapped. “First, that won’t help out the rest of us. Unless you plan on sneaking into that mountain alone?”
Usagi’s eyes widened and she shook her head violently, her pigtails snapping dangerously about the small clearing.
“Watch it with those, you moron, over!” Pink shouted as she ducked under one of the wildly flying tresses.
“Sorry…” Usagi murmured and calmed down.
“More importantly,” Rei continued as if she had never been interrupted, “even when you use the pen you still appear like… well, you. And female.”
“So?” Usagi blinked and tilted her head to the side.
“Haven’t you noticed anything about all these Chronos soldiers by now?” Rei egged Usagi on.
“Uhhh…” Usagi held up the suit. “They have bad sense in fashion?”
“ARGH!” Rei slapped her forehead. “No. They are all guys!”
“Oh.” Usagi blinked again and tapped her chin. “Hey, you’re right. I guess they aren’t equal opportunity world conquerors.”
“What Rei is trying to say, Usagi,” Akane said softly, catching the ditzy blonde’s attention, “is that we’re going to have to look like guys too if we want to be able to sneak around inside the base.”
“I feel the need to point out that there are some flaws with this plan,” Cologne said from her perch on top of the pile of unconscious bodies.
“Yeah, no amount of disguise could even make you look human, much less like a man, over.” Pink’s head rocked back and she shouted out in pain (and added ‘over’, Akane noted incredulously) as Cologne dinged her with one of the helmets.
“Actually, I saw Ukyou do this all the time.” Akane smiled and reached into her daypack and retrieved the rolls of bandages. “We just need a little of this stuff to tie ourselves down. Sure, we’ll all be kind of PRETTY guys, but no one should suspect anything for the hour or so we need to get in and out.”
“Maybe you need little,” Shampoo grumbled and crossed her arms under her breasts, ‘accidentally’ causing her impressive cleavage to bounce about like a jello mold. “What?” Shampoo snapped in mock indignation as everyone started glaring at her.
“Right,” Akane grunted, fighting down the urge to hit Shampoo. “Just get your clothes off and get changed.”
Akane didn’t have much trouble with the suit or even the bandages, but she spent almost five minutes getting all her hair up under the Chronos helmet. As soon as she shoved one end up, the other came spilling out. Finally, Akane just yanked the entire mass into as tight a bun as she could manage, wrapped it in a spare bandage and shoved the helmet down over it. At least it wasn’t getting in her eyes that way.
“Oh, shut up, Shampoo, over.”
Akane rolled her eyes. She had to admit that the plan had worked out a little better than she thought it would. True, they all had curves that men did not have, curves that the tight bodysuits did little to conceal… but they looked more like really REALLY effeminate guys now. Except Usagi.
“Usagi,” Akane said in her most diplomatic tone. “You have to tuck your pigtails up under the helmet.”
“Yes. And hurry up.” Akane glanced back out towards the roads that lead to the entrance into Mount Minakami. “Chris said he would start his distraction almost an hour ago.” Akane had no idea what the dead man’s plan was. All she knew was that he had wandered off with a mouse he had bought at a store and given them a timeframe. Whatever it was, it appeared to be working. For the last hour, the entire mountain had been a beehive of activity.
“Are you sure you can find them once we get inside, Luna?” Akane asked while waiting for Usagi to finish. Rei and Shampoo were ‘helping’ her now.
“Yes…” Luna said slowly. Akane glanced down at her. The talking cat had been surprisingly quiet ever since she had returned to the dojo after disappearing right after the zoanoid attack. “I can track down those girls anywhere on the planet.”
“Good…” Akane sighed. She glanced up through the canopy of the forest and saw the mountain towering over everything from the near distance. She clenched her fists and nodded to herself. Ukyou wouldn’t be here. Neither would Ranma or Chris. This time, everything depended on her.
The man collapsed to the ground. His body was desiccated. Tethys had not just drained him of all his energy, she had also drawn out most of the water in his body. She stared down at the corpse for a long moment.
If the workers had not come along when they did, she might have died. Hayato had forced her to live. His raw human instinct and willpower, his overwhelming need to survive, had forced her body to continue. The energy that was Tethys’ ‘soul’ had been forced to remain coherent.
“Was that really necessary?” Hayato said silently from the back of her mind.
“Don’t presume to lecture me,” Tethys hissed back aloud.
She had needed to feed. Hayato had saved her, but she had still been haemorrhaging energy ever since Ukyou had left her. If the humans had not come along to check out what destruction the ‘freak storm’ had inflicted on their still-under-construction ocean cathedral, Tethys would have faded away. It would have taken weeks, but it would have happened. But even just a little bit of feeding off their life force had been enough to stabilise her.
Killing the entire five man survey team had been unnecessary.
“Besides, they are just humans,” Tethys shot back silently to her host. “They exist merely to feed my desires.”
“Really?” Hayato said telepathically. His tone was dubious.
“Yes, really.” Tethys started to walk towards the edge of the structure. “Don’t make me remind you who is in charge of this union by ejecting you. Maybe I should dump your crippled body in the ocean? Wouldn’t that be fun?”
“Aren’t you the one who wanted so badly to live?” Tethys hissed.
“Yes. I want to live. I want to live more than I ever believed possible.” There was a long pause. “Even if you left me a cripple now, I still think I would want to live.” He chuckled through their telepathic bond. “But I don’t think you’ll do it. You won’t do it because you still need me.”
“I don’t need you…” Tethys retorted without much force.
“I know. You’re the superior youma, aren’t you?” Hayato came back instantly. “That’s what you kept telling me. But it isn’t true, is it?” Tethys didn’t respond. “You were nothing compared to Ukyou. If you hadn’t merged with me to gain my knowledge and techniques, you would have still been nothing to her.” Hayato chuckled again. “And even when you did, when you had every advantage, you still lost, didn’t you?”
“Ukyou is something different… she has a power…”
“No. She held back,” Hayato cut her off. “You know it and I know it. But more importantly, so did she. You toyed with her. Up to the end, you kept toying with her. You wanted her to break out that power I felt her use. You knew it might defeat you, and you didn’t care.”
There was a long pause.
“I don’t think you wanted to win.”
“Take that back!” Tethys snarled.
“No. I really don’t think you wanted to win,” Hayato insisted. “You could have killed her at virtually any time, but you kept holding back.” He chuckled. “Maybe we humans have something that does make us superior to you youma. Maybe you have power, and magic, and other advantages. But we fight to win. When we want something, we take it. We do not give the enemy a chance to fight back. We would as happily kill them in their sleep as on the field of battle.
“You may be better weapons, you youma. But we humans are better warriors. And that is why you lost.”
Tethys wanted to rail and scream at him. She knew he was lying. More importantly, he was being impudent. She was the master in their relationship. She was the one who could live without him. She had no more need for him. She should destroy him.
Tethys rose one hand up and wove her fingers briefly. Magical energy weaved around her form, and the matrix of her effect snapped into being. In seconds, a swirling disk of water was before her. It was a portal to a safer location.
She could not destroy him. Without him, she would be dead.
Gratitude was a feeling that was alien to her kind. In the Dark Kingdom, you were as likely to reward those who served you with a swift and brutal death as praise and thanks. She was not grateful to him for saving her life. No. She DID still need him.
Because her mission was not complete. Ukyou would be destroyed. And if he hadn’t been there, she would have died. There was something she still needed to learn from Hayato. And he had just told her what it was. He had just told her about how humans could be ruthless and dangerous in a way that youma never could. That was what she needed to learn.
“Perhaps you’re right,” Tethys said back to Hayato. “Humans are better warriors than we youma. And if that is true, then I am going to learn to fight as a human.”
Tethys stepped through the portal and was gone.
“It appears to be locked, over,” Link said, frowning at the door.
“I can see that. How do we open it, over?” Pink snapped back.
“I think this keypad here is how you unlock it,” Akane said, squinting as she leaned down and gazed at the complex-looking device. It had all the usual numbers, plus a dozen other symbols that Akane didn’t recognise.
“Well, anybody here know how to hack a computer?” Rei asked, crossing her arms.
“I wish Ami was here!” Usagi muttered sullenly.
“Shampoo have better solution,” the warrior girl said leisurely as she stepped forward. Akane was about to ask what that was when Shampoo kicked out, hitting the door hard enough to send it flying several meters down the hallway. She stared, bug-eyed, as the huge metal plate came to a clanking halt. Sparks shot from the doorframe where the electronics had been severed.
“Shampoo…” Akane took a deep breath and continued diplomatically. “Have you ever heard of the concept of an alarm?”
Shampoo cupped her ear, which looked ridiculous since she was wearing a Chronos helmet. “Shampoo no hear alarm.”
“SILENT alarms, Shampoo,” Akane hissed, losing a little of her composure.
“That’s stupid,” Pink declared with her hands on her hips. “If the alarm is silent, how is anyone supposed to hear it, over?”
Akane raised a finger to respond, but decided that she needed to keep from hitting any of her allies, at least until they were out of danger. “Never mind.”
Everyone just nodded at that and pressed further into the complex. Akane trailed along behind them. She couldn’t help but glance over her shoulder every now and then. The strange thing was, they hadn’t been confronted by a single Chronos soldier since getting inside. The guards at the main entrance had given them all long, flat looks when they approached and spent a few minutes talking into their commsets… but had waved everyone inside without any real hassle.
She kept waiting for the other shoe to drop. Thankfully, that hadn’t happened. They had even passed groups of scientists running about the facility, some of which had given them odd looks, but none had stopped to question them. Akane felt a slight tingle on the back of her neck. She knew that danger was around. She knew that things seemed to be going too well… but at the same time, she couldn’t think of anything else to do but continue forward.
Sighing, she marched up through the group until she was level with Usagi. The leader of the Senshi glanced over at her, but Akane wasn’t interested in her. Instead, she tapped on the pack that Usagi was carrying. The pack shifted slightly, and Luna’s head popped out of the slightly open zipper.
“Are we still heading in the right direction?” Akane asked quickly. She didn’t want Luna to be out in the open for that long.
“Yes…” Luna paused. “Sailor Mercury and Jupiter are still below us and towards the centre of the mountain. Once we find a way down, we should take it.”
Akane nodded and motioned for Luna to retreat before stepping up to the front of the group. Shampoo was taking the lead until Akane replaced her, and the large knapsack she carried rustled a bit as Akane passed.
“Akane,” Cologne’s voice emerged from the pack. She slowed down.
“Granny?” Akane whispered back.
“This is not good,” Cologne hissed. “This is… perhaps the most incompetent infiltration attempt I have ever heard of, much less participated in. It is inconceivable that someone doesn’t know something is wrong by now.”
“Hey!” Pink shouted loudly, her voice echoing down the halls. “We are the queens of infiltration! Nobody has anything on our spying skills, over!”
“Pink,” Akane growled. “Shut. Up.”
Pink looked about to protest, but then crossed her arms instead.
“I don’t disagree,” Akane said softly, turning back to the bag Cologne was packed in. At least it was no longer radiating a baleful battle aura like when Shampoo had first shoved the old woman inside. “But I don’t understand why they haven’t sprung a trap yet if that’s the case. Plus… well… we are getting closer to our objective.” She shrugged, then realised Cologne couldn’t see that. “I don’t know what else to do.”
“Hmmm…” Cologne paused a moment, then sighed. “Perhaps you are right. If worst comes to worst, I have a way to get us all out of here quickly. Hopefully the enemy has sufficiently underestimated us that they will be caught off-guard.”
Akane voiced her agreement, then continued forward. A moment later, they came to a large open area. It wasn’t exactly packed, but more than a few Chronos scientists and soldiers were wandering around the area. In the centre of the room were a trio of huge elevator tubes. Every now and then a door would open in one of them and people would step in and out. The activity in the room seemed agitated somehow. Everyone was rushing, moving with a strange alien intensity about them.
She motioned everyone to a halt. They stopped easily enough, but immediately started talking amongst themselves. Akane glared over her shoulder at them all, but her expression was dulled by the face-concealing helmet she wore. She was too busy figuring out how to get through the room without drawing attention to themselves to worry about how much attention they were drawing to themselves now.
“Exactly what do you think you’re doing?”
Akane jumped and spun to face the voice that had whispered to her from around the corner. The first thing she noticed were the young man’s piercing grey eyes. Then she took in his handsome angular features and slicked back black mullet. He was also wearing a boy’s high school uniform, minus the blazer. His arms were crossed, and he was staring at Akane with those penetrating eyes.
“Well? Do you realise how dead you would be if I weren’t helping you?”
“What?” Akane asked, playing dumb.
“Hey, Akane, who are you… Ohhh. Who’s the hottie?” Usagi nudged Akane in the ribs.
Everyone stared at Usagi. The newcomer’s right eyebrow twitched.
“He gay,” Shampoo explained unhelpfully, nodding at Usagi.
“I am… uh…” Usagi paused, realising that she had been about to blow their ‘cover’, such as it was.
“I should have expected nothing less of the Sailor Senshi,” the boy said with a sneer. “Follow me, unless you want to die.”
Without another word the boy strode past them and back down the hall they had been travelling. Akane glanced at everyone, and saw that most of them were looking at her to make the first move. Shrugging, she followed him. It was obvious he had seen through their disguises, and if he was leading them into a trap, at least he was staying close enough for Akane to get in a few good shots.
The young man led them to a room off the hallway and checked outside for any stray Chronos staff before closing the door. The room appeared to be some sort of lab, and Akane resisted the urge to groan as Usagi immediately leapt up and sat on one of the tables, dangling her legs playfully.
This was the girl that was supposed to save the world?
“I don’t have time for your silly questions about my motives,” the boy snapped as soon as they were alone. “My name is Agito Makashima, and my family has worked for Chronos for years.” He gestured to himself. “I, however, don’t like them. They trust me enough around here that I was able to hear from one of the commanders of this facility about your friends being held hostage, and was placed in charge of ‘intercepting’ you.”
“Good job, over!” Pink said, giving him a thumbs up.
Agito’s eyebrow twitched again. “Yes… suffice it to say, I want out of Chronos. They want me to be… one of them.” He loaded his sentence with enough emphasis that Akane could guess immediately what he meant. “I don’t care about you or your friends, but if you can help me get out of this facility, then I will help you rescue them.”
“How do we know we can trust you?” Rei snapped.
“I guess you don’t,” Agito said, sneering back. “I guess I’ll just leave you to your own pathetic devices. I’ll also stop intercepting all the alerts everyone who has been spotting you has been calling in. I’ll also stop diverting all the standard patrols away from your path. I’ll also stop…”
“We get it,” Akane stopped him, holding up one hand. “I believe you. I was surprised we got in so far by ourselves.”
“Good,” Agito said slowly, crossing his arms. “I know a quicker route to the detention areas. One that can evade detection. I even know a few ways out of this place that aren’t exactly on the blueprints anymore.”
“You know an awful lot, and have an awful lot of clout, for just another son of an employee,” Rei hissed.
“Leave it be, Rei,” Akane said shortly. “Agito, if he’s telling the truth, is taking a big risk for us.”
Agito snorted. “Hardly.” He turned his attention to Rei. “You may not trust me, but believe this: I hate Chronos. They destroyed my life. I will destroy them.” Akane stepped back. The intensity the black-haired youth spoke with was slightly unnerving. “If I have to assist you fools to do it, I will.” He held out one hand and uncurled his fingers slowly. “But I’m not doing this out of the goodness of my heart. You assist me, I assist you.” He smirked. “If you can’t believe in the basic goodness of my actions, believe in that.”
“I…” Rei stared into Agito’s icy grey eyes again. “I… understand.” Akane glanced at Rei sharply. There had been something in her voice…
“Good.” Agito stepped past them all and walked to the back of the room. “There are electrical service tunnels all throughout this facility. We can take one of them most of the way down to your friends.” He glanced back over his shoulder. “After that… well… we’ll have to improvise.”
Akira watched in fascination as Ranma changed forms again. One moment, he was a not-unattractive young man… the next he was a petite and voluptuous girl. The fact that she looked pissed off really didn’t do much to conceal how pretty her facial features were.
“Are you finished yet?” Ranma snapped.
“Just one more time…” the doctor woman said eagerly. She was holding up a small device that was connected to the wrist bands she had made Ranma wear by a series of tiny wires. “This is absolutely fascinating. It completely defies the law of conservation of energy!”
“It defies the laws of nature, lady,” Ranma murmured and crossed her arms.
“Let Matsudaira have her fun, Ranma,” Ukyou chided softly. Akira glanced at her eyes, and forced herself to look away a moment later. “The TAC is kind enough to pay for my… accommodations, after all,” Ukyou continued, her voice slightly playful.
“Whatever,” Ranma said, sighing. She kept shooting worried glances at the scientist when she thought no one was looking, however.
“I’m just surprised they let us all in here,” Ran said, chuckling. Akira turned her attention to the young reporter, who was sitting next to Ranma. They were sitting very close together, now that Akira thought about it. A fact that should have been obvious when Ran dragged her chair over next to Ranma’s. How could Akira have overlooked that until now?
“If you’re through getting over your Jyusenkyou shock, Akira…”
Akira flushed a little and spun to face Ukyou. The young woman did not look to be in good shape. She was sitting upright in her partially elevated bed, but did not look comfortable doing so. From what Akira could see under the sheet, Ukyou’s entire upper torso was covered in bandages. And her eyes… Akira couldn’t help but stare at them. Ranma and Ran had kept saying how different they were. Ran had insisted on taking pictures. Ranma had been insisting that they could track down that Pink girl and get a cure. Akira wasn’t sure why, but she didn’t see them as horrifying, or even wrong. Maybe it was because she had only known Ukyou for a very short time, but when she looked into those black flowers, she saw the same person that she had seen before. Ukyou returned the look, but she didn’t seem to be affected by Akira’s stare.
“I’m sorry,” Akira said, bowing. “I didn’t mean to embarrass your friend.”
“Ah, Ranma’s used to it by now,” Ukyou said, smiling. She looked like a completely different person when she smiled. “Isn’t that right?”
“I wish everyone would stop gawking, is all…” Ranma said, her voice switching register midsentence as the doctor upended another kettle over what was now his head. “And maybe if you could make that water a little less hot?”
“Sorry…” Matsudaira said absently, obviously paying more attention to the blood pressure reader she was consulting.
“Anyway…” Ukyou brought Akira’s attention back to her. “Was there something I could help you out with?”
“Oh…” Akira looked down at her feet. She wished she had gotten a chance to change into her street clothes. Not that her school uniform wasn’t attractive. It just was a little too… powder-blue for her tastes. Also it had a string for a tie. A string. Akira tugged at the red tie absently. “Actually, I just wanted to say thank you.”
Ukyou’s face had become cold and distant again as she tilted her head to the side and looked at Akira. Then she snapped her fingers and nodded. “Think nothing of it,” Ukyou said. “I suspect things are working out well.”
“Well, yes, I suppose,” Akira released the tie and sighed. “I did save my brother, thanks to you. And the others are going to get together and deal with this Kurow person you say is behind it all.”
An uncomfortable silence filled the room.
“Hey,” Ranma called attention to himself. There was a splash as Matsudaira upended a bottle on her. She didn’t seem to notice anymore. The floor beneath her was very wet. “I wish I could help you guys out with that. From what Ukyou told me, this Kurow jerk could use a patented Ranma Saotome butt-whupping. But I guess I have to stay here, make sure nobody starts anything funny, what with Ukyou being in the hospital unable to defend herself.”
Akira saw it. Nobody else was paying attention, so none of them noticed. Akira wasn’t even sure how she could tell she saw it. But Ukyou’s cold eyes flashed, and for a moment she looked helpless and afraid. Akira had never seen the eyes of a person who had come to accept the inevitability of their own death, but she thought that they would have looked very much like Ukyou’s did in that brief moment.
The strange, scared look vanished so quickly that Akira was left wondering if she had imagined it. Ukyou looked firm and in control now.
“I guess…” Akira pulled at one of the sleeves of her uniform and sighed. “You’re going to stay here too, Ran?”
“Maybe,” Ran shrugged. “Ukyou is news, but she isn’t very interesting news if all she’s doing is being held at a hospital.” Ran smirked. Her freckles always stood out a lot when she smirked. “I might drop by and see what kind of trouble Ukyou has brewed up, however.”
“That would be good.” Akira stepped back. “I guess… this is goodbye, Ukyou.”
“Uh, yeah…” Ukyou was looking at Akira strangely now. “Goodbye.”
Akira stepped out into the hallway with a final bow and began to walk away. It was really none of her business. She started to walk out of the hospital, staring mainly at her feet. Her mind kept cycling back to that instant. Something had changed in Ukyou since Akira had last seen her. Something profound.
It was none of Akira’s business. She would just go home, and maybe watch those shows her mother kept telling her the other girls her age were watching. Maybe then she would have something to talk to the other girls at her school about.
Akira staggered back as she collided with someone.
“Watch where you’re going!”
“I’m sorry…” Akira mumbled and stepped aside. She looked up and saw three young nurses start to stalk past her. She had collided with the lead nurse… an athletic young lady with flaming red hair who was carrying a tray with a covered dinner plate on it. Akira’s eyes met hers for a brief moment…
She staggered back again and stepped to the side.
“Those eyes…” she hissed to herself. She glanced at the others. Yes, they all had the same eyes. Not really emotionless, more just… staid. They were eyes that had been dulled somehow. She remembered seeing those same kind of eyes on the faces of her friends. Of course, they hadn’t been her friends at the time. They had been just other students, victims of brainwashing.
Akira watched the nurses walk down the hallway. Her eyes narrowed. The other two nurses didn’t look normal. The brunette was carrying a long wrapped bundle. The one with blue hair was carrying a laptop computer. All three had long black stockings on their legs; the other nurses wore only white.
They were heading towards Ukyou’s room.
Akira considered just ignoring it and leaving. It was none of her business. Kyosuke would have stuck his nose in. Kyosuke was the kind of guy who didn’t let anyone keep him from doing what he thought was necessary. But Akira was just a young girl. She shouldn’t even be here. She should be at home, talking to other girls her age about the boys that couldn’t go to her school.
Akira pulled at the edge of her skirt. She didn’t belong here.
The three nurses stepped into Ukyou’s room.
“Oh… forget it!” Akira ran forward.
She wanted to break through the doorway… but caution overcame valour and she slowly slid the door open instead.
The scene inside was frozen. Ukyou was sitting up in her bed, her eyes darting about nervously. She looked helpless, but not afraid. Ran was standing in front of her, holding a rolled-up newspaper like a dagger. The not-quite-a-nurse facing her was holding a much longer blade. The light glinted off the katana the girl wielded, and Ran’s eyes were fixed on that sharp point… and the three centimeters that had been chopped off the end of her makeshift weapon.
None of the nurses were wearing their uniforms anymore. They were all dressed in identical black bodystockings that covered them from neck to toe, except where it scooped low on their backs. Ranma was facing the other two. He was male again. He stood exactly between them, in a modified horse stance. A trickle of blood was running down his cheek. The redhead was covering him with a pair of pistols. The nurse that had been holding the laptop was now holding Doctor Matsudaira up against the wall by the neck.
“So you can dodge bullets,” the blue-haired girl was saying. “But can you get to me before I snap this woman’s neck?” Matsudaira’s eyes widened at the threat, and she began to gasp as the girl’s hand tightened slightly.
“You bitch!” Ranma snarled, his body tensing. “Guns and hostages? What kind of martial artists are you?”
“The kind that win battles,” the red-haired girl explained. “Satsuki, grab the girl. Marz… if either of the heroes interfere, kill the hostage.”
“Oh no you-“
A loud bang cut off Ranma in mid-sentence. His head snapped back, so fast that all Akira could see was a fading afterimage of his face for a moment. The glass behind him exploded.
“Don’t think we can’t kill you,” the redhead stated coolly. “We have studied your techniques and abilities. You are formidable, Ranma Saotome. But even you can’t hope to defeat all three of us at once.”
“Hey, don’t forget about me!” Ran snapped.
“Should I kill her, Fevrier?” the sword wielding girl – Satsuki presumably – said as she raised her katana to point at Ran’s throat.
“Your presence was unfortunate, but not unexpected…” the leader said. “Now you can choose to either surrender Ukyou to us, or you and this woman will die…”
“Ranma, go low!” Akira shouted as she smashed in through the partially open door.
Everything happened at once. Akira leapt up, spinning with a fierce warcry into one of her strongest roundhouse kicks. Ranma ducked down, the twin retorts of Fevrier’s guns coming a second too late to catch him. Satsuki stepped forward, slashing at Ran… who was suddenly pulled off her feet as Ukyou grabbed her and yanked hard on the girl’s skirt. Akira’s kick caught the blue-haired girl right in the elbow. She screamed and released Matsudaira. Ranma landed on his hands, and shot both legs up in a blindingly fast split kick that knocked both the guns from Fevrier’s grasp. Satsuki stumbled forward, off-balance, as her blade passed harmlessly an inch over Ran’s head. Ran reacted fast and punched straight up, catching the girl in the jaw with enough force to send her flipping back into the wall.
As Akira landed, she could feel her skirt swirling about her legs and cursed. The damn thing had gotten her legs caught up and she hadn’t been able to put her full strength into that blow.
“Who are…?” the blue-haired girl called Marz gasped, staring at Akira.
“A friend!” Ukyou shouted. There was a flash and Marz slammed against the wall. She reached down and gingerly removed a small metal spatula from her side. It was red with blood.
“Retreat!” Fevrier shouted. She somersaulted forward and up over the crouching Akira. Akira knew she was heading for the door. She figured she should stop her… but hesitated. Even as she did, the girl made good her escape. Satsuki followed quickly. Ranma was about to strike down Marz as she turned to run, but the girl tossed something over her shoulder at Ukyou. Ranma dove away from her and neatly backhanded the small sphere out of the shattered window. A second later there was a loud explosion from outside.
Silence filled the room.
“Matsudaira,” Ukyou said slowly. “Please contact Kunikida. I’ll need to be taken to a more secure location. Immediately.”
“I…” Matsudaira gasped and nodded. “Yes. I see that.”
ZX-tole buzzed in annoyance and violently swept his arms outward, sending the flaming oil splattering across the pavement. The town was an inferno already, the flames licking at the heels of all the hyper zoanoids as they tried to pin down that flying monster. Even as ZX-tole cleared his vision, he heard Elegen shout out a warning.
He tried to dodge, but the creature was so huge its fist was just too big to completely avoid. But his efforts turned what could have been a crushing blow into a glancing strike that merely knocked ZX-tole off his feet. The creature roared, flames erupting from all three of its mouths as it smashed down at him again. ZX-tole roared back and snapped his hands up, catching the fist by the knuckles. He felt the pavement crack beneath him as the sudden impact grounded through his body.
A second later the monster was knocked aside as Derzerb charged into it. Gore gushed from its flank as the creature staggered away. The blood was thick and black and smelled of rot. Even as it fell backward, one of its remaining tentacles whipped out and caught the grey-skinned hyper zoanoid across the chest, sending him flying back into a building with enough force to cause the burning structure to collapse like a house of cards.
“What is this thing made of?” Thancrus whined as he rose to his feet nearby. One of his arms was hanging limply now. But at least he had taken off ten or so of those tentacles before the creature had finally caught him.
“It… isn’t alive,” ZX-tole replied as he got to his feet. The creature was recovering quickly, as it always did. Its eyes, all six of them, locked solely on the hyper zoanoid leader. ZX-tole would have grinned, if he could. At least the thing’s mad obsession with defeating him first was keeping the others mostly out of danger. ZX-tole was not sure Thancrus or Elegen could have survived the kind of punishment he had been forced to shrug off throughout most of the fight. “Look at it. The body is practically rotting away as we watch.” ZX-tole pointed at the haunch of the monster, where most of its matted fur had fallen away and revealed disgusting, purpling flesh.
Apparently, this caught the attention of the beast, since it glanced down at its own side. ZX-tole saw a look of disgust flash across its inhuman features. Interesting.
“All we have to do is outlast this thing,” ZX-tole informed his companions. “Just stay out of its reach and it will defeat itself in time.”
The creature roared and sprayed another wall of fire at Team 5. ZX-tole just shrugged it off as Thancrus and Elegen nimbly dodged aside. Elegen was floating so far back that he was practically out of the fight. Not that ZX-tole could blame him, after how completely ineffectual his one electrical attack on the thing had been.
Still, ZX-tole couldn’t help but feel he was missing something. He raised his arms, preparing to give the chimaera something more to think about than attacking them. The creature tensed its rotting body to reply.
Then the explosion occurred.
ZX-tole would have blinked if he could have, and snapped his attention back towards Mount Minakami. He watched in mounting horror as the huge white beam erupted from the side of the mountain, flashing up into the atmosphere and out of sight. The light was so bright that the mid-afternoon sunlight seemed pale in comparison. It faded away slowly, first shrinking steadily until it was a pencil-thin line of brilliant energy, before vanishing into a trail of swirling silver motes.
“The mountain…” ZX-tole said and cursed himself. “Dammit! Retreat! This was just a distraction!”
ZX-tole was starting to turn around when the world went dark around him. He looked up to see the entire mass of the creature, all three stories of it, descending on him in a swan dive. The hyper zoanoid roared and raised his arms, but he was much too weak to catch it as the foul flesh smashed into him. The impact nearly stunned him, but ZX-tole was not so easily captured. The beast had foolishly left itself open!
The blast that ZX-tole produced was less impressive than the one he had just seen, but then it didn’t have to be. A dozen crimson lasers flashed up and out, vaporising the meat of the beast with ease. A second later the entire monster exploded as the heat reached critical. ZX-tole climbed to his feet as the shower of gore that used to be his opponent fell down about him.
“Damn…” Derzerb said, grunting as he climbed out of the rubble. “I wanted to finish it off.”
“Elegen,” ZX-tole said, ignoring the grey-skinned hyper zoanoid. “Is there anybody else nearby?”
“Huh?” Elegen glanced around from his vantage point nearly ten meters above the street. “No. Nothing but corpses.”
ZX-tole nodded, but for some reason did not feel jubilant. Just before he had struck, he had felt the muscles of the monster go slack. He gestured for the others to get moving, but stayed there for a few seconds, glancing about with his insectile eyes. He wasn’t sure what he was looking for, but he knew he would know it when he saw it.
After a minute, he sighed to himself. Somehow, he felt that this wasn’t truly over.
Shampoo watched the Sailor Senshi tearfully embrace the other Sailor Senshi with an air of bored indifference. This was easy, since she was pretty much bored and indifferent, aside from the fact it now looked like they weren’t going to fight anything, which meant her ‘charge off into battle and concentrate so single-mindedly on her foe that Pink and Link’s incredible incompetence would hopefully get them killed without Shampoo breaking her word’ plan had to be left for another day.
She squinted at ‘Sailor Jupiter’ and ‘Sailor Mercury’, but no matter how she looked at them, they just didn’t look like horrible Chronos monstrosities. She guessed that was a good thing… but she’d really hoped this was an opportunity to get rid of her dearly beloved mistresses.
Oh well. There’d be another day.
Agito was looking impatient. Or perhaps that was just how he always looked like, since he’d been looking impatient since they’d met the young man. Shampoo had immediately pinpointed him as someone who badly needed to learn to relax, and he hadn’t yet done anything to prove her wrong.
Ah, Akane was impatient, too. The girl was running around, working hard to get everyone moving and ready to escape, while at the same time trying not to offend the tearfully reuniting Senshi.
Shampoo sighed. Why hadn’t great-grandmother put HER in charge of this mission, if it was so important? Akane was weak. Too weak to be a leader. Of course, Shampoo supposed her own leadership would be somewhat hampered by Pink and Link ordering her to do stupid shit… but great-grandmother could have just knocked them out and left them in the woods outside. They liked plants, didn’t they?
But that was great-grandmother. Always, always complicating things that were really simple. Shampoo had enjoyed grabbing her by the hair and stuffing her in that backpack. It was the only way to sneak in, and protesting at the treatment would have been beneath her, so the old bat had simply had to stew in her own juices for awhile. Shampoo grinned a bit at the memory.
Well, if they weren’t going to fight anything, Shampoo was tired of all this hugging and crap. Walking forward, she yanked the Sailor Senshi apart.
“Say ‘hi’ later. Escape now.”
Akane actually gave her a grateful look. The Sailor Senshi gave her reproachful glares, but backed down… except for the tall brunette one, Sailor Jupiter. The girl stepped up to her, towering a few inches over her. Shampoo raised her eyebrows and met the girl’s gaze. She was tall, and seemed to be toned, but if the other Senshi were any indication, Shampoo wasn’t precisely worried. Besides, Akane would put a stop to any incipient fights.
Sailor Jupiter didn’t say anything, obviously just trying to stare her down. Shampoo, bored with this, let her gaze wander downward. The girl was, like pretty much everyone else in Japan as far as she could tell, flat as a board. Well, maybe she was a little less flat than the others. Still, she had nothing on Shampoo. Grinning a bit, she deliberately stepped forward, knocking the girl back a step. A double insult! She could see Sailor Jupiter flush with both anger and embarrassment at the same time.
Although, doing that reminded Shampoo she could hardly breathe. She grimaced, but then returned to her smirk. Wouldn’t do to let Sailor Jupiter think she had the upper hand. “You want something?” she asked sweetly.
The girl glared at her a moment later, but then her head forcefully snapped to the side. “Just to say thank you, I guess.”
“You welcome,” Shampoo grinned. And that was that. She turned to Akane. “We go now?”
“Yes,” the girl said, then turned to Agito. “You said you know some ways out of here?”
The dark-haired man was still looking impatient, but had added a shade of ‘annoyed’ to his expression. “There’s a freight elevator nearby. It can take us to a level where there’s some construction occurring. From there, we can make our escape through an access tunnel.”
Akane nodded. “Okay, let’s go.”
Since Akane and Agito were obviously determined to take the lead, Shampoo fell to the rear. She considered sticking a sword through the unconscious soldiers that had been guarding the cells the Senshi had been held in, but Akane had raised such a fuss about that LAST time…
What was the girl thinking? That the soldiers they’d stripped these uniforms from would simply conveniently remain unconscious for the amount of time they’d need to infiltrate the base? That even if they did, the numerous patrols in the area wouldn’t stumble across the bodies? Shampoo’s solution had been simple and elegant: killing them not only would keep them quiet, but the Chronos trick of making their monsters dissolve upon death would also effectively hide the evidence.
But no, for some reason, not killing homicidal world-threatening beasts was somehow a good thing. Shampoo snorted.
Those big double doors up ahead were obviously the elevator Agito had mentioned. So, that was it? Shampoo wasn’t very impressed with this organisation Chris had referred to as the greatest threat facing the world. Misfits, incompetents, and moderately dangerous monsters? One could find all of that just wandering around the Chinese countryside, and the world hadn’t ended yet.
Agito punched a code into the keypad by the elevator, and waited – impatiently, of course – for it to arrive. And, after a moment, it did. The doors opened, and the elevator waited invitingly.
Of course, there was the small matter of the guy who was waiting inside it.
He was pretty tall, with skin tanned to gold and white hair that was slicked back, revealing a widow’s peak. He wore a double-breasted suit that did little to conceal his impressive physique. His eyes… were inhuman. Not like Chris’s dead ones, these were definitely alive, but… they were a vivid purple, with sickly yellow irises, and seemed to almost glow with malevolent power. Shampoo unconsciously snapped into a defensive stance. This man fairly radiated menace.
“Why Agito, here’s where you’ve gotten off to.” The man’s voice was just as alien as his eyes. It was low-pitched, almost too much to hear, but at the same time she could hear it perfectly clearly, the sound of it reverberating in her bones. “And you seem to be with our guests. How convenient.” He chuckled menacingly.
“Damn you…” Agito growled. “You knew when you summoned me here, didn’t you, Gyro?”
The man chuckled again. “Of course I knew, Agito… or should I say ‘Zeus’? The son of Chronos, who rose up against his father… I should have known from the moment you said that to me! I was planning to wait until the first Guyver appeared to expose your treachery, but the arrival of these fools seemed too wonderful an opportunity to waste.” Gyro stepped forward into the hallway, and everyone almost involuntarily backed away to keep their distance from him. “And now, with you exposed as our traitor, and your friends all here at once, I shall sweep you all from this world!”
Sailor Jupiter was the first to react. With a cry of defiance, she charged towards the man… but at the same time, Shampoo was thrown off-balance as her backpack exploded and a small blur intercepted the Sailor Senshi, knocking her from her feet.
“Don’t be foolish, child!” Cologne said, now perched on her staff between the group and Gyro. “I sense a tremendous energy from this one… far more than you can hope to defeat!”
The man chuckled, adjusting his lapels. “Intuitive, old woman. It’s too bad I plan to kill you all here… but I am not nearly so curious about your abilities as that old fool Valkus.”
“Valkus? Here?” Agito declared. He narrowed his eyes. “I see… but don’t think you’ll take me so easily!” He spread his arms, and his impatient look vanished, replaced by a vicious grin. “Stand back, everyone, unless you want to die.”
Cologne looked at him for only a fraction of a second before leaping away with Sailor Jupiter in tow, which led to everyone else deciding to follow her example. Shampoo ripped off her helmet, drew her sword, and then quickly pulled out the front of the uniform and sliced away those damned bandages. She’d need air if she was going to fight. The uniform was a little tight, but… oh well.
Gyro, watching all this, merely smiled and continued walking forward.
“GUYVER!” screamed Agito. The walls, floor, and ceiling around him were punched away as if he’d unleashed some sort of enormous concussive force. For a fraction of an instant, the young man floated in mid-air, and then things appeared, floating behind him. They looked almost like some sort of black, insectile armour. A moment later they flashed forward, snapping into place around his body. Agito landed, but no longer looked even remotely human. He was covered from head to toe in chitinous black plates. The gaps between them were filled with alien, pulsing, wormlike flesh. Two small blades jutted from the elbows of each arm. His face… was even less human. It was covered with dark insectile armour, small spikes, and twitching silvery spheres, the largest of which was on his forehead, directly below a huge, spine-like crest. His eyes were glowing red demonic slits.
Agito’s voice, while still recognisable, had taken on an inhuman buzz.
“Your plan is for nothing, Gyro. You dare face me alone? You do not realise the true power of the Guyver unit!”
The man in the suit’s smile never wavered. “Don’t I?”
“Ummm, excuse me?” Usagi broke in. Everyone turned to stare at her. “Before you guys fight,” she said, holding up a finger, “could I just ask, um, what exactly is going on? Because you sort of lost me at the Guyver-whatzit and the Zeus thing…”
“Shut up!” Agito roared, then leaped at Gyro.
“Fool!” Cologne shouted. “Don’t-“
Gyro laughed. And, even as the Agito-monster leaped towards him, the skin in the centre of his forehead pulled back, revealing a large crystal underneath. The crystal pulsed with light, light that started glowing so bright that Shampoo had to turn away.
The explosion that followed sent her tumbling backward, but she quickly rolled back up to her feet. Out of the corner of her eyes, she saw the others, even great-grandmother, all struggling to their feet as well. But standing before them…
The creature Gyro had become was at least three metres tall, the tips of the gnarled, organic-looking spines that crested its head brushing the ceiling of the hallway. It was only barely more human than whatever Agito had become: most of the skin had torn away from its body, exposing huge pulsing knotted muscles. Some parts, mostly on the chest, were covered, but now with a white exoskeleton. Six lens-like objects were embedded in its torso. And its face… Shampoo couldn’t help but shudder a bit. It was the face of a monster. Not in the same way the ‘Guyver’ was – the armour didn’t have facial features, really. But this THING did. They were just twisted, almost perverse mockeries of that of a human.
“What the-” she heard Agito mutter.
Shampoo sidled over next to Akane. “Hey,” she whispered.
Akane glanced sidelong at her. “What?”
“We in middle of something no our business. Why not leave two boyfriends to settle problem?”
“Fool!” the monster-Gyro roared. “None of you shall leave here alive!”
Shampoo rolled her eyes and turned back to face him. None of this, she mentally reminded herself, would have happened if great-grandmother hadn’t made Akane be in charge.
The monster-Gyro was prattling again. “None of you insects can comprehend the magnitude of my plan. In this single moment, I shall show the folly of Valkus and his useless Hyper Zoanoid Team 5, eradicate the traitor in our midst, secure the Guyver III unit, and become one step closer to ruling all of Chronos, and thus, the world!” He spread his arms to the sky – well, ceiling – and laughed.
“You’re mad, Gyro!” the Agito-armour-thing snapped. “You’re gloating before your victory is secured. That’s always been your weakness!”
“Weakness?” Gyro laughed. “I am a Zoalord! Do you not understand what that means? Of course not. You think the little bits of knowledge your dead father trickled down to you is enough for you to comprehend what Chronos IS? Do you think, because you wear that ancient biobooster armour of a fallen race, that you are a threat to one such as I?
“I’ve known you were the third Guyver unit ever since you ambushed me in your home, when nobody knew I was there but you. Did you think I would allow you in my presence if you were any sort of threat?”
“We shall see,” Agito said darkly. He raised up his arm, and the paired blades jutting from his elbow suddenly extended to over two feet in length. A low hum filled the hallway, setting Shampoo’s teeth on edge. Agito roared, leaped forward… and was swatted aside with contemptuous ease. The young man crashed into the wall with a sickening crunch, creating a large crater on impact. The monster called Gyro vanished, and suddenly reappeared gripping Agito around the neck.
He lifted the armoured boy from the ground as Agito clutched impotently at the hand choking him, feet kicking helplessly. “Agito, Agito,” the monster laughed. “Only now, when it is too late-“
“GET HIM!” Sailor Jupiter yelled. Shampoo, more than happy to put an end to his speeches, ran forward, holding her sword low. The others followed suit. There was a flash of fire and lightning as twin attacks from the Sailor Senshi flew over her shoulders, only to explode harmlessly in midair, not even having reached Gyro. Akane was by Shampoo’s side, running as fast as she was. The girl took to the air, so Shampoo stayed running along the ground, hoping Gyro would be taken off-guard by the attack from two different directions.
They had just enough time to see Gyro turn his head to look at them before they were flung back by an invisible force, and just enough time to realise that had happened before the painful collision with the wall stopped their flight. Shampoo pulled herself up to one knee, wiping a trickle of something wet from her lips. She still had her sword, thankfully. But how to attack a monster like this?
Gyro smashed Agito’s head against the wall once, sharply, then tossed his limp body to the ground as he turned completely to face them. “Very well,” he said, and chuckled again. “The only person I care about here is Guyver III, but demonstrating my omnipotence on you insects will serve to show him the folly of his ambition.”
Shampoo grimaced, raising her arms to try to block the attack, but it never came. Instead, she saw great-grandmother flash between them and the monster. She was glowing visibly, her battle aura stronger and more vibrant than Shampoo had ever seen it before. With a cry, the old woman plunged her staff forward, directly at Gyro’s chest.
A titanic roar filled the hallway; a flash forced Shampoo’s eyes closed, though even through her eyelids it was bright enough to leave spots dancing in her vision. But what staggered Shampoo the most was how the blast shuddered through her body. She could feel all her energy cringing backward, and all of her martial instincts told her that this was a fight she wanted no part of.
But she was Shampoo.
She opened her eyes.
A blur flew across the room. Gyro was laughing. If the strike had caused the zoalord any damage at all, Shampoo couldn’t see it. Her eyes tracked the path of the blur. Her great-grandmother was buried nearly a foot into the wall. Her limp body spasmed slightly, and blood ran from her ears, the corner of her mouth, and from a shallow gash that crossed her face.
She stared at the old woman for a moment. Though Shampoo had found herself hating her great-grandmother, resenting her for using and tricking her own family and fully planned and expected to pay her back for it… Shampoo had never seen her beaten. She had never considered defeating her great-grandmother in a duel, because that was impossible. Cologne was indomitable. None in the village could hope to match her. Her strength, her skill, her knowledge were all legendary. She was the pinnacle of the Nyuuchezu warrior tradition.
She had been defeated in a single blow.
Shampoo was still staring as Sailor Moon crossed into her field of vision, picking up the old woman and cradling her in her arms. She was crying.
It was at that point that Shampoo realised she was going to die.
She stood up, feeling strangely refreshed. She hefted her sword again, and felt a grin spread across her face. She glanced over at Pink and Link, who were whispering back and forth at each other, searching impotently through pouches of herbs. Jupiter and Mars were flinging more blasts at the Zoalord, but all of them crashed harmlessly against his shield. Agito was starting to rise, but his limbs were shaky. Akane… Akane had grabbed Sailor Mercury by the arm, and was speaking into the Senshi’s ear with intensity.
But there was something wrong. The way Akane was speaking… it wasn’t with the desperate passion the twins were using. It wasn’t even the same sort of resigned calmness Shampoo felt herself.
It was intense, but calm. It was… something Shampoo couldn’t quite put her finger on. She looked at Akane, and as the girl finished speaking with Sailor Mercury, she returned Shampoo’s gaze.
Something passed between them.
Shampoo knew. She knew what Akane had planned. A part of her wanted to protest, to chide her with how stupid it was. But a part of her, a part deeper and truer, understood. Understood the part Akane needed Shampoo to play.
She made the smallest of nods towards the Japanese girl.
Shampoo barely saw Sailor Mercury spinning out of the corner of her eye before fog sprang from her fingers and instantly enveloped the corridor. She moved immediately, remembering in her mind’s eye the locations of the others.
“NOW!” Akane yelled. “Into the elevator!”
Shampoo heard the others starting to move. Usagi was the slowest, as Shampoo had known she would be, so with a single sweep of her arm she threw the girl over her shoulder and ran. Thankfully, Usagi had enough presence of mind to keep hold of great-grandmother.
There was a loud crash off to the side where Agito was. He was obviously making his own escape route. Shampoo wasn’t surprised. The man probably hoped Gyro would be too distracted with killing the larger party to follow.
They reached the elevator. She could hear Gyro, who had hesitated for an instant, turning towards them. Her fingers fumbled for the buttons. One of them had to close the damn door!
Then she heard Mercury’s voice. “Wait! Akane isn’t in yet!”
The sound of a step as Gyro turned towards them. And then there was a crash as he was knocked off his feet by an unseen blow. She heard the zoalord grunt in surprise.
She thought she’d found the right button, and pressed it. A rush of air brushed across her cheek as the massive doors began to slide closed, and she felt a surge of relief.
“No!” Usagi cried. “Akane isn’t-“
“We can’t leave her behind!” Usagi wailed. “She’ll be killed!”
Shampoo’s voice was flat. “Akane know.”
There was a moment of silence. The doors were halfway closed now. Why did it take so long?
“NO!” Usagi screamed, and Shampoo felt her running towards the doors. Shampoo reached out, grabbed the girl by the back of her ridiculous costume, and hurled her into the back wall. The doors clicked shut, and she felt a strange sense of vertigo as the elevator rocketed downward.
The magical fog was clearing, and after a moment Shampoo could see all of her companions. Sailor Mercury now had great-grandmother’s limp body, and was examining her wounds, but it seemed almost an excuse not to look at Shampoo, or any of the others. Sailor Jupiter’s fists were clenched in frustration. Mars… Mars was staring directly at Shampoo, an odd, expressionless stare. Usagi ran forward, breaking the stare, and slammed her shoulder into the doors, but they held firm.
“What an idiot. You would never catch me doing something so stupid. But, then, MY life is worth something, over.”
Everyone, Shampoo included, stared for the slightest moment at Pink. The poisonous twin’s permanent grin was somehow wider, her eyes almost danced with delight, her cheeks flushed with some hidden joy. Even Link was staring at her twin aghast, but Pink met all their gazes without flinching. Somewhere inside, Shampoo felt a flare of hatred towards the girl, one that ran far deeper than rivalry, even deeper than humiliation.
There was an incongruously cheerful chime as the elevator came to a stop, and the doors slid open, somehow seeming much swifter this time. The area outside was obviously under construction. Huge piles of building materials and half-finished walls were scattered around; ghostly sheets of transparent plastic billowed slightly over most of it. Shampoo thought she saw a bit of light down a distant corridor.
“Come on,” she growled, ushering the others out the door. “We no have time.”
“No!” Sailor Moon cried, her face glistening with tears, and her hands still red from hitting the door. She whirled on Shampoo. “We have to go back to save her!”
“Don’t be an idiot, Usagi!” Sailor Mars snapped, moving between her ostensible leader and Shampoo. “Don’t you get it? Akane sacrificed herself for US. We can’t let that sacrifice be in vain!”
Something… changed in Sailor Moon’s face as that was said. She rose slowly and gracefully to her full height, and Shampoo found herself almost unconsciously intimidated in a way that Jupiter, nearly a foot taller than Sailor Moon, never could have done. Her eyes seemed to lock on those of Shampoo, and those of everyone else at the same time.
She spoke, and somehow, when she did, Shampoo knew that Sailor Moon spoke directly to HER.
“No.” Her voice was firm and brooked no argument. “Nobody has to sacrifice themselves. Nobody will ever sacrifice themselves for me.”
And then, when Sailor Moon turned around and strode back into the elevator, Shampoo found herself following her. The others tried to follow, but with a sweep of her arm, Shampoo barred their entrance.
“No need,” she said. “Run. Either we enough, or nobody enough.”
The door slid closed before there could be any argument.
As they rose, Shampoo once again felt a calmness spreading over her. But it wasn’t the doomed calm of before. It was… a peace. She felt peace, and she felt a sort of hope that clutched at her heart and made her long to burst out of the elevator and rush to defend… Usagi? Akane? Either. Both.
She felt that if she wanted something, if she wanted it badly enough, that she could somehow accomplish it. She felt that all things were possible.
The door slid open.
The corridor was much as they had left it, aside from the new hole that decorated one of the walls near where Agito had lain. Gyro stood nearly two metres in front of them, holding Akane off the ground. She was still alive, and Shampoo’s heart sung to see it. Her hands still clutched at him, her body still struggled, her eyes still flashed defiance.
But she was covered in shallow, oozing gashes from head to toe. Her clothing was almost disintegrated. One of those flashing eyes was nearly swollen shut. She was not dead, but she was on the brink of it.
Gyro glanced at them. His eyes widened in surprise, and then he grinned, the jagged fangs of his maw flashing in the light. “You came back,” he hissed in malevolent joy. “How delightful! I was getting tired of punishing this one for briefly delaying my triumph.”
Gyro’s fingers released Akane. The girl floated in mid-air, her body slowly succumbing to gravity. Shampoo was stepping towards her, but she was moving far too slowly. Time crawled forward, as Akane gently descended towards the ruined floor. The only thing not moving in slow motion was Gyro.
With exaggerated casualness, he lifted up one hand. A bright, shining arc of energy trailed behind his fingertips. Shampoo opened her mouth, not sure what she was about to scream. Just as Akane’s toes began to touch the ground, the crescent light sprang from Gyro’s body. Shampoo saw it pass through Akane, seemingly without even touching her. The wall behind Akane was not so lucky, as a huge gash appeared.
Shampoo stared as Akane slowly toppled to the floor, in two different directions. Her body had been sliced cleanly in two from crown to hips. Hideous red splatter showered back, driven by the force of the blow, painting the walls and floors. The sound of her body striking the ground was oddly soft. Within seconds, the floor was a pool of liquid red horror. Blood and… worse things, spilled forth.
Shampoo fell to one knee. Her stomach heaved. She slapped a hand over her mouth.
They were too late.
Sailor Moon was screaming. She was raising a small wand with a thin golden crescent moon on it towards Gyro. Silver light flashed out from the device, a spray of millions of shining crescents… all of which bounced harmlessly off of the monster.
Gyro roared with laughter, his inhuman glee shaking something deep inside Shampoo. “Pitiful maggots! You cannot face me. I am Reichmann Gyro! I AM A GOD!”
Sailor Moon had fallen to her knees. She was staring down at the wand in her hands. Where had that power Shampoo had sensed disappeared to?
“She is nothing to you,” Sailor Moon said, her voice choked with emotion. “She is just a girl. A girl protecting her friends.” Her head slowly rose, and her gaze locked on the baleful, inhuman eyes of the zoalord Gyro. “No. Not her friends. I barely know her. I can’t even tell you what school she goes to. She probably doesn’t even know my last name. I never really understood why she came here.” Sailor Moon slowly rose to her feet again. “But none of that matters. Because this girl is special. There is a fire in her that I will not let your evil extinguish.”
“It’s a little late, don’t you think?” Gyro taunted. He raised both his hands. “I grow tired of your pretty words. Prepare to go straight to hell!”
Sailor Moon raised her wand again. A glow was now surrounding her body.
“I won’t let you win!” she screamed in defiance.
Shampoo wasn’t sure what she was seeing. They were lights. Seven glowing, multi-hued lights that spiralled away from the Sailor Senshi’s body. Gyro paused, his eyes narrowing. An instant later, the seven glowing motes snapped inward, converging in the hollow of the moon wand.
The light that sprang forth was brighter and stronger than any light Shampoo had ever seen. Yet staring into it did not hurt her eyes. It was a white so pure that it made the word ‘pure’ seem dirty. It washed out from Sailor Moon, flowing back across her body, and as it did the girl changed. Her costume – previously a skimpy parody of the school uniforms Shampoo had seen the girls of Japan wearing – was erased, replaced by a flowing white gown trimmed with silver lace.
As the transformation finished, Shampoo felt the light flow over her and… she knew they were going to win. That feeling could not be denied.
“What?!” Gyro screamed. “What… what power is this!” He was shielding his eyes, his mouth twisted in a grimace of pain. “It can’t be! Nothing! Nothing is stronger than me! I am a zoalord! I am power incarnate!”
“MOON PRISM POWER!”
Shampoo watched in awe as a shockwave of pure, glowing white light raced out from Sailor Moon. Gyro stepped back, his arms raising up. Shampoo could see the strange lenses on his body flare. Then the attack impacted him, and for a brief moment his entire body was concealed from view. Shampoo felt a cheer rising up in her soul…
And the light began to waver. The cheer died on Shampoo’s lips as, inch by inch, the light started to retreat. Gyro was still standing. His body was nothing but a blur, a distorted image through the flare of the energy surrounding him. Shampoo could dimly see his grimace of pain and concentration.
“Nothing!” Gyro roared, and only then did Shampoo become aware of how loud the clash of forces between the two of them were, as his voice sounded distant and muffled. “I will not allow you to shatter my ambition!” Gyro took a step towards them, setting himself more firmly and thrusting both his hands forward.
Shampoo flew backwards, her body suddenly feeling fifty times heavier. She could see the walls and floors buckling. Huge cracks raced across the corridor, causing chunks of the ceiling to collapse. Sailor Moon was staggering backward. Her light was faltering. She was crying.
“No… I can’t do it alone!” she screamed. “I need your help! Everyone! Please! Help me!”
Shampoo struggled to her feet. She took one step forward. The weight was incredible. It was like the earth was trying to swallow her. She could feel her bones straining, the blood rushing down to the bottom of her feet. She refused to give in. In two more steps she was behind Sailor Moon. She did not understand magic. She did not understand this battle at all. But she understood brute strength. Placing her shoulders firmly against Sailor Moon’s back, she braced the girl, taking all the pressure of Gyro’s attack.
For a moment, it seemed that wouldn’t be enough. Then Shampoo saw two beams of light emerge from the floor. Blue and green, they converged in the centre of the white glow. A fraction of an instant later, and the intensity of Sailor Moon’s light redoubled.
“NO!” Gyro roared.
This time, the light did not stop. It flowed over him like an ocean crashing over a rock. The light expanded outward in concentric waves for almost a minute. Slowly, it drew back. When it did, Gyro and everything behind him was gone. Sailor Moon had carved a tunnel that bore straight out into the sunlight.
“Nobody sacrifices for me.”
Shampoo snapped her attention back to the moon princess. The power that was flowing around her had not ceased. Instead, it seemed to have concentrated and become even brighter. The twin beams of energy still followed her as she strode over to the ruined body of Akane. She knelt next to the girl’s corpse and gently touched the tip of her wand to her.
“Breathe,” the moon princess commanded softly.
Nothing Shampoo had ever seen had prepared her for what she saw next. Akane rose from the ground, and silver lights began to orbit around her sundered form. Then the lights became a blinding shimmer that faded slowly to reveal Akane, whole and undamaged. Her long black hair billowed about her naked body. The recreated girl slowly drifted to the ground, and this time landed on her feet with enough strength to stand. Shampoo blinked. Akane was breathing.
“Thank you,” the moon princess said. Then she staggered forward. Shampoo watched as her form shifted, the layers of her magic seeming to peel away one by one. First she became Sailor Moon, then she became Usagi. The light vanished without a trace. Usagi stumbled and fell bonelessly into Akane. Instinctively, the dark-tressed Japanese warrior wrapped her arms around the very small and fragile-looking Usagi.
Akane’s eyes opened. Shampoo met her gaze.
“Let’s get her out of here.”
To Be Continued…
Blade: Had you going, didn’t we?
Epsilon: C’mon, we’re not going to kill off major characters like that until at LEAST a few more chapters down the line.
Blade: At least not at the hands of villains who showed up in the exact same scene. Who do you think we are, Akira Toriyama?
Epsilon: Yeah, it’s not like we rely on some magic Macguffin wish-granting stone to write us out of corners. Oh. Wait…
Blade: Uh, yeah, well, regardless of that, we’re happy to be back to a more reasonable number of new characters after last chapter. We’re just not so happy at the length of this one. But after this, we made a pact to try and keep each chapter to a 200K limit, so all should be good. In the meantime, thank you for your patience, and try to remember you don’t need to read the entire thing in one sitting.
Epsilon: Unless you’re one of those people who can read a chapter this size in an hour or less, in which case, I hate you.
Blade: Blade’s girlfriend, who can in fact do this, excluded.
Epsilon: Oh… yeah… whatever you say.
Blade: Well, not too much to say in this chapter, seeing as how every scene was a major plot point, pretty much, but hopefully the ride kept you interested. Until next month, then, where things get even MORE cliffhanger-like and important! Well, okay, actually, not really…
Akira wasn’t doing well. The blue-haired chick was keeping her busy, but the real problem was the brunette. She kept appearing on her blind side, striking whenever Akira was about to gain the upper hand. The biker girl was forced to abort her attack, and just narrowly avoid being gutted. Then her other opponent would step in and deliver a punishing strike.
Kusanagi stepped forward, ready to put a stop to that-
“Kusanagi! Behind you!”
Momiji’s warning came a second too late. With a pain-filled roar, Kusanagi’s entire body jerked forward. A geyser of green blood erupted from his chest. He gasped for air and fell forward onto his knees.
He was able to turn and stare incredulously behind him. The girl was still standing. Granted, she was hunched over slightly, and her face was a mess of bruises and small cuts, but she was still holding her gun as steadily as ever.
What did it take to put these people down?
Hybrid Theory Chapter 14: Don’t Stay