Yo. Mamoru Kusanagi here. It’s about time that these stupid authors got a MAN in here. A REAL man. A man that happens to be part plant, but a MAN nonetheless!
Unlike Ranma, who isn’t a man. And I don’t mean that water thing. He had a perfect chance to sleep with that bundle of lovejoy Shampoo, and he wussed out! Sure, she probably would have stabbed him a few times, but what kind of man lets that slow him down?
Speaking of getting stabbed, everybody was getting stabbed and shot and bludgeoned and crap when we ended up fighting these three hawt chicks that worked for that prissy jerk Vega. I totally owned them, of course, with a little help from my friends. I was talked into helping save their lives, which turned out to be difficult, cause they started dying as soon as we freed them from the mental control they were under. But then Ukyou and Tux-boy flashed with light and suddenly they were breathing again. I don’t understand what happened, but I know I was kinda turned on when Ukyou was giving the chicks CPR. Is that wrong? Nah.
Oh yeah, that Vega guy is not just WAY too into himself and also a murderous bastard, but also creepily into kids or something, cause he kidnapped this Hotaru kid after killing her evil (but hot!) nursemaid. I wish I’d had a nursemaid like her growing up… ow!
Hey Momiji, buzz off! This is my recap!
Oh, fine, I’ll stop. Anyway, some other girls did stuff. Akane (mildly hot), for instance, joined up with that worm Chris, which was really kinda dumb. I’ll try and make time in my busy schedule of being the sexiest and most powerful superhero in this entire story to kick his ass and knock some sense into her.
This chick Telulu (disturbingly hot) has some sort of big evil plan to destroy the world, which is different from the plan proposed by her Professor and his assistant Eudial (red hot). This’ll probably be trouble.
Then there was that youma babe Tethys (creepily hot), who decided the Dark Kingdom was doing things all wrong and she knew a lot better. Oh yeah, baby, call her queen!
The families of all those Sailor Senshi (hot, but kinda young) as well as Ranma’s mom (old, but still hot) and dad (just plain groty) agreed to go with this chick from the CIA, Sakura Yamazaki (smoking hot) to America. Pretty much all the kids decided to stay, though. One of them, Nabiki (ice queen hot), pretty much just threw a temper tantrum and told everybody off before leaving.
Damn, there’s a lot of chicks in this series. I’m not even sure if Kusanagi has the stamina for all these fine-
The laboratory door was ajar. Telulu paused and stared at it. The room beyond was dark, and a stale, acrid mist seeped out along the floorboards. The door had been closed when she left, of that she was sure. Being a careful and habitual creature, Telulu always made it a point to secure her work area before she went out of the lab.
She frowned and pulled on her lab coat, concealing her field gear. She pulled a pair of glasses from her pocket. Not that she particularly needed them anymore. Being a Witch did have advantages, one of them being a loss of her human weaknesses. In the same pocket, she also concealed the blue seed-like object she had procured. It had been a bit of a bother to kill the huge spider-creature and the girl it had brainwashed to acquire this, and it wouldn’t do for some intruder to know she had it.
Telulu stepped into the room as if nothing was amiss. The lab was massive and filled with dark shadows. Pipes snaked through the entire place, creating a jungle-like maze of dead ends and filling the entire room with an ominous cloud of fog. Telulu had already mapped out the entire area, and she moved efficiently to the place she had chosen as her private workstation.
She was not at all surprised to see Eudial. The red-haired elder Witch was sitting in Telulu’s chair, her expression bemused as she played with one of the four daimon eggs that had been placed in Telulu’s care. The other three were still floating in the miniature magnetic containment rings that had been devised to hold them and prevent them from merging with random bits of the laboratory.
She kept a look of studied indifference on her face as she stepped into Eudial’s line of sight. The redhead glanced at her from over the rim of her glasses and smiled. Telulu decided to let her start the conversation, since she was obviously here for a reason.
“And aren’t you supposed to be working on these?”
“I am,” Telulu replied. She just didn’t add that she now believed that finding a way to replicate the daimon effect was no longer necessary.
“You have a funny way of doing so. You’ve been out for over two hours.”
“Is that what you’ve been doing instead of finding the Messiah – waiting for me?”
Eudial only smiled wider as the venom crept into Telulu’s tone. She placed the egg down easily. The oblong grey shape bobbed precariously in midair, threatening to spill onto the desk and be ruined before the magnetic field secured it.
“I already found her,” Eudial said calmly as she stood up. Telulu’s eyes narrowed. “You look unhappy.”
“I am overjoyed.” Telulu placed her hands in her lab coat’s pockets to conceal the fact that she was clenching them into fists. If they had retrieved the Messiah, then Professor Tomoe would likely reclaim the daimon eggs for his own research. She needed those eggs. If she was to be proven correct, only the eggs could do so. “So… where is she?”
“In the city, nearby,” Eudial replied as she buffed her nails. Telulu did not sigh, although she did feel relieved.
“Ah…” Telulu smirked a little. “So that is what you are doing here. You are scared.”
“What?” Eudial snapped.
“The person who kidnapped the Messiah apparently killed Kaorinite with contemptuous ease. You are afraid to confront them yourself, aren’t you?”
Eudial’s eyes narrowed as the words struck deep. But she shook off the effects quickly and ran a hand through her long scarlet locks. “I am merely being cautious, Telulu. Unlike you, I know that we have time to accomplish our goals.”
“As you say,” Telulu nodded and stepped around Eudial, towards her machines. “I suppose I will get back to doing my work until-“
“Actually, that is why I am here,” Eudial interrupted her.
Telulu glanced over her shoulder at her rival. Eudial was now standing with her hands in her pockets as well. The air between them virtually crackled with energy as their eyes met dangerously.
“I am constructing a device to allow me to combat an opponent capable of defeating Kaorinite. I will require your assistance.”
“My assistance?” Telulu frowned.
“Yes, you are the one most familiar with the powers of these metahumans that dared to stick their nose into our affairs,” Eudial said with a smile. “I require all your files on them.”
“I’m so glad you asked my permission,” Telulu said with a thin smile. She guessed her encryption had been too complex for Eudial to hack, or else the other Witch would not have so openly confessed her need for help. “Aren’t you the one who said we didn’t need to worry about the puny powers of this planet?”
“Don’t be insubordinate to me,” Eudial warned, her voice dire. “You will give me those files, and you will do so immediately.”
Telulu inclined her head in the briefest of nods. She would give Eudial all the information she needed… but not all the information she had. Maybe it would be just enough for the woman to hang herself with.
Matsudaira looked tired as she puttered around the lab. She usually looked tired, but today she was especially dishevelled. Her tied-back hair had strands sticking up from it in more than a few places, and she had dark bags under her eyes. It was a shame, Ukyou reflected; Matsudaira could have been a real beauty if she put any thought into it. Then again, she had apparently attracted a husband once, and she certainly hadn’t done that with as little attention paid to her appearance that she displayed since Ukyou had met her.
“When was the last time you slept?” Ukyou asked.
“You’re one to ask that question,” Matsudaira said with a polite chuckle. “I think you must be afraid of sleep, from how little of it you do.”
“Something like that…” Ukyou trailed off. The nightmares continued, and the terrible price as well. In truth, it was probably less than a hundredth of her entire life that had been forced to ‘integrate’ in her memories with Aaron’s. But she felt the loss of those memories keenly whenever she was reminded of it. At least she didn’t wake up violently anymore. “But I’m not entirely normal. You’re just a regular human. You need sleep like I don’t.”
“Oh posh,” Matsudaira said with a dismissive little flick of her wrist. “If anything, you need more rest than I do. With the injuries you’ve taken, you should be bedridden.” She turned her head slightly to bring Ukyou into view again. “And I was right to worry. From what I can tell, your condition has deteriorated. That fight last night must have injured you.”
Ukyou frowned and looked down. That last fight… she hadn’t even been hit once. But even so, she had nearly collapsed a few hours later. Matsudaira had told her that she had been suffering from internal bleeding, and it was a wonder she was even alive. But Ukyou shook her head. This wasn’t about her.
“Don’t try to change the subject,” Ukyou said quickly. “You need your rest.”
Matsudaira paused. She sighed and placed a hand on her cheek. “I know. But there is so much to be done and so little time to do it.” The scientist gestured towards her workstation, which was a study in chaos theory. “I still have all my research on the aragami, and my work on this chi phenomenon and I’m working shifts as a medical doctor for you and your friends…”
“You’re stretching yourself too thin…” Ukyou said slowly. “When was the last time you went home?”
“Home?” Matsudaira laughed. “Three weeks? A month? I don’t know…” She slumped a little. “It’s just all so important. This world is much more than I believed it could be, and I feel like every minute I’m not standing here, I’m letting it get that much further out of my reach.”
“What?” Ukyou stood up. “The world? It will still be there tomorrow.”
“Are you sure?” Matsudaira grinned impishly. She could look amazingly young when she forgot herself like that. “But I don’t mean the world. I mean the answer… the truth behind this all. I just don’t know how it all works, anymore…”
“What if it doesn’t?” Ukyou whispered softly.
“What was that?”
“Nothing…” Ukyou waved her aside. “I still think we are done for today, though. You should get some rest.” Ukyou allowed herself to grin a bit impishly herself. “Doctor’s orders.”
Matsudaira laughed. She had a rich, vibrant and friendly laugh. “Okay. Okay.” She smiled and shook her head. “I think you might be as stubborn as I am.”
The door to the lab opened and a man stepped in. He was short, and had the kind of stocky body that verged on being pudgy but didn’t quite get there. His face was wide and… ‘soft’ was the best way that Ukyou could describe it. He had a bowlcut, and wore unfashionable glasses. He looked, basically, like a geek.
“Yaegashi,” Ukyou greeted him with a nod. He looked a bit nonplussed for a moment, since he had never really met her before today. “Are you having any luck breaking into that computer?”
“No…” Yaegashi said slowly. He looked at Matsudaira and she nodded almost imperceptibly. “That is, the encryption on that laptop is very complex. I’m not even sure if I have anything powerful enough to crack it.”
“That’s too bad…” Ukyou mused as she tapped her finger against her chin. “I thought I heard that the computer was used by a young lady with a very… active interest in other young ladies… if you catch my meaning.”
Yaegashi blinked owlishly behind his thick glasses. Then his cheeks turned red. He made a little mouse-like sound and leapt back a step. “I… I have no idea what you could be implying!”
“What, you don’t find that motivating?” Ukyou said with a chuckle.
“Not in the slightest!” Yaegashi defended himself.
“Too bad.” Ukyou shrugged. Although she meant it. They needed to get into that computer as quickly as possible. Vega was still out there. He still had Hotaru.
“Anyway, I’m here because there… uh, appears to be somebody here to see Ukyou.”
“Me?” Ukyou frowned and crossed her arms. Ranma and Ran were out trying to track down Sailor Pluto. Akira and Kyosuke were in school. Nobody from the TAC was really her friend…
“Yes.” The brown-haired man said as he adjusted his glasses. “She was… actually quite insistent. She said that you owe her your life, or something.”
“I do…?” Then it hit Aaron. “Nabiki.”
“Ah, yes!” Yaegashi pounded his palm. “That was her name.”
“Is she alone?”
“Hmmm? Oh yes…”
“Good. Send her in.”
“Is that okay? Kunikida said that nobody was even supposed to know you were here.”
“It’s okay, Yaegashi.” Matsudaira broke in. “Ukyou seems to know this girl, and I’ll stay here in case anything happens.”
“Right!” Yaegashi appeared much relieved now that someone had taken responsibility for the situation off his hands. He rushed out of the room with barely a goodbye. Aaron sighed. Something about Yaegashi leaving actually made him feel… sad. It wasn’t an emotion he was really used to. Ukyou thought it might have been because Yaegashi reminded him of so many of his friends from his old life. But that couldn’t be right. He had never really… liked them enough…
Aaron’s reverie was cut short as Nabiki walked into the room. She was smiling, and dressed in a fashionable skirt, blouse and leggings combo that accented her hair. Cradled in her arms was P-chan. Ukyou’s eyes narrowed.
“Ukyou,” Nabiki said with false cheer. “So good to see you again!”
Aaron was about to respond curtly when Ukyou stopped him. He closed his mouth and forced his tone to be civil. “I don’t believe I ever got a chance to thank you for helping me out the other day.”
“No, you didn’t.” Nabiki smiled again and met Ukyou’s gaze. Her eyes widened, but she didn’t flinch away. Aaron had to give her credit: the only other person who had managed that was Akira. “You look like you haven’t really recovered completely from the beating you took. It seems you have had some… side-effects. ” Nabiki dropped P-chan to the floor. The little black piglet landed gracefully. She pulled a small thermos out from under her blouse. “That’s too bad, really.”
Ukyou was expecting what happened next. Matsudaira, however, stared in shock as the small trickle of water turned the little piglet into a tall, muscular young man. A tall, muscular, naked young man. Aaron snapped his eyes up abruptly when he felt them wandering.
Ryouga was red as a beet, and tried desperately to hide himself with his hands. He did not exactly strike an intimidating figure. Nabiki sighed in a frustrated manner and produced a pair of pants. The boy put them on so hastily he ended up tripping over the legs and sending himself sprawling onto the ground. Ukyou bit back a laugh, allowing only a hissing cough to escape her lips.
“How did you do that?” Matsudaira asked, her voice full of childish excitement. “Is it like that transformation that Ranma Saotome undergoes? I can’t believe there is another subject with the same kind of curse… would you mind if I took samples?”
“Ranma?” Ryouga said. He was still flushing, and was not recovering quickly with the scientist literally thrusting her face at him to the point of nearly touching his.
“Ryouga, stop playing around,” Nabiki snapped.
“Uh, right…” Ryouga coughed and backed away from the older woman.
“I don’t know who you are,” Nabiki directed her comment towards Matsudaira, “but Ukyou and I would like some privacy.” Nabiki turned her attention to Ukyou with a nasty little smile. “She owes me a favor, and I am here to collect.”
Matsudaira looked at Ukyou’s face, then back at Nabiki. She frowned and stood up straight, crossing her arms. She did manage to tower over everyone in the room. She even topped Ryouga by a few centimeters. “This is my lab, young lady. I think I shall stay, if I do say so myself.”
Nabiki’s face twisted into an annoyed frown. She glanced at Ryouga, then back at Matsudaira. “I’m afraid I’ll have to insist.”
“If you intend to attack this girl, you will have to deal with me first.”
“Attack?” Nabiki laughed. “Ukyou and I are old friends. I wouldn’t think of hurting her.” She smiled maliciously. “At least, not if she gives me what I want.”
“I think you should leave,” Matsudaira said ominously.
“I think you shouldn’t push me!” Nabiki snapped. Ukyou frowned. What bee had crawled into her bonnet? It wasn’t like her to so flagrantly defy authority. At least, not when there were obvious consequences. She couldn’t have been so stupid as to think that Ryouga beating up Matsudaira wouldn’t come back to bite her in the ass. Heck, it was hit or miss whether or not Ryouga would even lay a finger on the older woman. Even if Nabiki was helping him with the waterproof soap to fight off his curse, or whatever it was that had caused him to be helping her, he shouldn’t have been that much under her thumb.
“I think this is going a bit too far,” Matsudaira said calmly. “Don’t you agree with me, young man?”
“Wha? Who? Me?” Ryouga gestured to himself as she spun on him.
“Yes, you,” Matsudaira poked him in his bare chest. “You strike me as a reasonable sort. Not like your friend here at all. I believe that this situation doesn’t need to come down to violence. Don’t you agree?”
“Well… yeah…” Ryouga rubbed the back of his neck and looked anywhere but at Nabiki or Matsudaira. “That would be nice…”
“Now I’m sure that we can come to a reasonable and adult solution to this whole problem,” Matsudaira continued to address Ryouga. Nabiki’s eyebrow was beginning to twitch violently. “We should all just sit down and discuss this over a cup of coffee. I have a specialty blend.”
“That sounds lovely!” Ryouga responded enthusiastically.
“What? I like coffee…”
“We’re not here for coffee. We’re here to beat information out of Ukyou!”
“Can’t we do both?”
Nabiki stared at him for a moment. Then she rubbed her forehead and started saying something to herself under her breath. When she was finished, she opened her eyes and looked at him. “Forget this. The entire mood is ruined. We’re leaving, Ryouga.”
“We’ll just jump Ukyou and beat her up another day.”
“Maybe you should just ask me?” Ukyou piped up. Everyone looked at her suddenly. Ukyou raised an eyebrow and stared back at them.
“Just ask you?” Nabiki smirked. “You’ve never exactly been forthcoming with me in the past.”
“Indeed.” Ukyou nodded in admission. “Things change.”
Nabiki frowned. Then she reached into her blouse again. She pulled out a file folder. It was badly burned, with black-edged holes all through it. She flipped it through the air. Ukyou snapped up her hand and caught it. She brought it down and opened it to leaf through the pages.
Her eyes widened.
“Yes.” Nabiki crossed her arms. “Incomplete in many ways. But it contains the information you knew about the future.”
“You read this?” Aaron asked slowly.
“Of course I did,” Nabiki replied with a sneer. “And I want the sword.”
“The sword…” Aaron trailed off.
There could only be one sword Nabiki was referring to. Ukyou flipped through the folder rapidly until she found the page. ‘The Wishing Sword is the solution!’ the page said in English text. ‘When the one millionth person attempts to pull it from its stone slab, it shall come free. That lucky person will get the sword, and more importantly, the three wishes that are granted to the true holder of the artifact. These wishes will only work for the person who truly drew the sword from the stone and are, as far as I can remember, without limit. The only tri-‘ and the words disappeared as the page became a charcoal smear and then nothing.
“Don’t try to tell me you don’t know where it is,” Nabiki said evenly. “You talk about it all over that little journal of yours. Your magic cure-all. The solution to all your problems. The Wishing Sword. I want it. You know where it is.” She grinned. “Somehow, I didn’t think you’d part with that information willingly.”
Ukyou stared down at the page. Nabiki was right. There was no way she was going to let the sword slip through her fingers. It was her hope. One wish, and she and Aaron could lead normal lives again. No more voice in their heads. No more lost nights of sleep. No more merged memories.
One wish, and Chris didn’t have to be their enemy.
One wish, and she could fix anything.
The pages began to wrinkle as Aaron squeezed the paper.
One wish and Chronos could be defeated. One wish and the aragami could be stopped. The Dark Kingdom could be destroyed. Aaron wasn’t a fool. He had read the news. All contact with England had been lost. The city of Cairo had been nearly destroyed by a sandstorm the authorities blamed on a group of terrorists called ‘Anakaris’. Aaron had watched President George Herbert Walker Bush break down and cry on international TV as he told the public that he had ordered a nuclear strike against Raccoon City just two hours ago.
‘May God have mercy on us all…’ had been the words he had said. Aaron had watched that address just this morning. For the first time in his entire life, he had felt the desire to pray along with a man he despised.
He looked up at Nabiki. She wasn’t the kind of person who would do the right thing. Nabiki was selfish and, in the end, foolish. She didn’t DESERVE the Wishing Sword. It was HIS. He had suffered so much. Ukyou had suffered so much. They needed that sword. They would do the right thing. They could-
(“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.”)
“I’ll tell you,” Ukyou croaked out. Her voice was brittle.
Nabiki almost fell over. She reached up and tapped her ear.
“You heard right,” Aaron continued. “I’ll tell you where it is.”
“You’re… not kidding?” Nabiki sounded shocked. “You’d really just give me that?”
“Ukyou…” Matsudaira sounded concerned.
Ukyou wasn’t sure what the woman was about to say, but she held up a hand to forestall her. She needed to get through this. “I’ll tell you where it is. I even figured out about how many more days there are left before we hit the magic number, a while back.” Ukyou took a deep breath. “But I want something from you in turn, Nabiki. Quid pro quo.”
Nabiki’s eyes narrowed. “Why should I do anything for you?”
“Because it will cost you nothing?” Ukyou looked into the other girl’s brown eyes. “I just want you to help me with one thing. I don’t even want you to do it. I want Ryouga to do it.”
“Yes. I need to save a little girl from a fate worse than death. I need all the help I can get.” Ukyou held up one finger. “Just the life of one little girl. You help me save her, and I’ll tell you everything I know.”
Nabiki paused. Her eyes remained dangerous slits. Ryouga and Matsudaira stood back, silent. Then she smiled.
“If all I have to do is let Ryouga help you save a little girl?” She laughed. “Fine, Ukyou. Perfectly fine.”
“Catch you later, stud,” Ran said as she waved goodbye to Ranma. He smiled and waved back. Ran sighed and stood in the doorway, watching as he strode casually over to the wall of the school and, just as casually, leapt over it. He was certainly impressive, in a purely physical sense. Too bad he was dumb as a post.
Then again, it was kind of endearing. Ran chuckled and turned to stride back into the school. There were a few dozen students milling around the hallway at this hour, and none of them gave her a second glance. Only one teacher took notice of her, but it wasn’t the teacher of the class she had skipped today, so she felt fine. Once she reached her ‘office’, she felt much better.
Ran frowned at the state of the room. The office of the Taiyo school newspaper could barely be called that. It shared the same room with the A/V club and the manga club. Ran had been lobbying the student council to get more room, but even she realised she didn’t have much of a leg to stand on. Especially considering the paper currently had one member, that being her.
But could she help it if she was just so good at her job that she didn’t need help? Ran rubbed her eyes and sat down at her desk. Someone had left a pile of papers on it. It looked like tech designs and other stuff, with enthusiastic notes in bad handwriting. It could either be refuse from the manga geeks’ latest blow-up over which Gundam series was better, or perhaps the A/V club’s latest project to get a camera into the girls’ shower. Ran took whatever it was and threw it in the garbage.
She rubbed her temples and looked up at the wall. There, framed in bullet-proof lucite, was a copy of the front page article that had been printed in the Tokyo Sun. It was a copy of The Story, the pinnacle of her success. Narita.
Ever since then, it really had been a bit downhill, hadn’t it? Her story about Ukyou’s blow-up in the construction yard had only been barely picked up as page ten news. Her story about the assault on the ocean liner had been relegated to the back pages of tabloids due to her lack of pictures. And since then… nothing.
She had to face facts. Stories about a bunch of martial artists fighting each other just weren’t selling anymore. How was she supposed to compete with what seemed to be a full-blown apocalypse? The front page of every newspaper this morning had all been President Bush, Raccoon City and the nuclear holocaust. ‘Reports from England have a disturbing similarity to what is happening on our own soil. Given how devastating the plague was there, we can not allow it to spread beyond the quarantine zone-‘
Ran’s mental recall of the press conference cut off as she heard a knock on the door. She stood up slowly, wondering who it could be. The geeks from the other two clubs didn’t bother to knock, and nobody else wanted to be anywhere near them, so nobody came. She opened up the door and was caught staring at the two people who greeted her.
One was tall, with short blonde hair in a pageboy cut. She had a slender athletic build, and looked elegant and refined in her obviously tailored slacks and jacket. Her face was just on the feminine side of androgynous beauty. Her companion was slightly shorter, with shoulder-length wavy aquamarine hair and a kind, bright face. She wore a more traditional blouse and skirt combo that looked like it had just stepped off the runways of Paris.
Something about them sent alarm bells ringing in Ran’s mind.
“Ran Hibiki?” the tall one asked in a gruff voice.
“Yes…” Ran shifted her stance slightly. She noticed the blonde’s eyes following her motions and mentally reevaluated her. Blondie carried herself like a fighter. “I don’t believe I have had the pleasure, however.”
“My name is Haruka Tenoh,” the blonde said.
“And I am Michiru Kaioh,” her companion said with a tiny bow.
Ran’s eyes widened as she stepped back. “You’re… you’re…” She gulped. “Uh… famous racer and violinist! Wow!”
“No need trying to cover it up,” Michiru said with an impish little smile. “There is no one around to hear us. I am Sailor Neptune, and my companion is Sailor Uranus.”
“You’re coming with us,” Haruka said forcefully.
“And if I refuse?” Ran snapped, her stubborn streak flaring up. She stepped back into a defensive stance.
“I think Haruka is being a bit too forceful,” Michiru said as she laid her hand on the other’s shoulder. The taller girl gave her hand a cold look and then shrugged it off. “This is a request, not a demand.”
“Why should I come with you?” Ran asked. She needed time to think.
“You have been looking for us for days now, haven’t you?” Michiru said calmly. “Do you really want to turn down the chance for such an exclusive interview?”
Ran opened her mouth, then closed it. She should get help. She still had Ranma’s cell phone number. Ukyou had warned her that the so-called Outer Senshi could be dangerous. Ran didn’t know why, but she believed her. There was something about the two young women, neither of which were older than her, that seemed menacing. To all appearances they were just ordinary girls, but there was something in their eyes…
“This is a waste of time!” Haruka snapped. “She won’t believe it!”
“She will,” Michiru said with certainty. “We have to give this a chance.”
Hearing their words, Ran knew what it was. They believed. They believed in something. Ran wasn’t sure what, but she could tell it from just their eyes. They had seen something profound, and it had changed them.
This could be a trap. It could be a trick. Some elaborate plan that was meant to destroy Ukyou. But Ran knew she would go along, because to not do so was to lose The Story. Because they had seen something profound… and Ran needed to know what that was.
Because curiosity killed the cat, so to speak.
“Okay.” Ran visibly relaxed. “Let’s go have a talk, then.”
“Land!” Ran screamed as she fell out of the car. She wasn’t sure what maniacs had given Haruka a driver’s license, but they deserved to be shot. Maybe she should write a story about the incompetence of the motor vehicle bureau…
“It wasn’t that bad,” Haruka said as she stepped out of her cherry-red convertible. She was frowning and had her arms crossed indignantly.
“You did cut it a little close at the intersection,” Michiru pointed out mildly.
“The light was yellow!” Haruka snapped.
“For about a tenth of a second,” Ran complained.
“Fine, see if I give you a ride home…” Haruka said with a glare. “Either of you.”
“Really?” Ran leapt up and clasped her hands in front of her face, “Is that a promise?”
Haruka threw up her arms and stalked off, muttering unladylike words under her breath. Somehow, even as she did this she seemed elegant and refined.
“Where are we, anyway?” Ran asked, looking around. The house they had parked in front of was so huge that it must have cost a small fortune, especially with the land prices in Tokyo. The privacy wall was pristine white, with gold-leaf covered gates and rose bushes along the top. The house was two stories, built in a modern style with a huge bay window that, Ran confirmed by glancing over her shoulder, had a spectacular view of Tokyo harbour. Ran upped her estimate of the price by a factor of ten.
“You are at my home,” a new voice said. Ran turned to see a beautiful woman step out from the doors of the huge home. She had long green hair and an almost Indian complexion, and her face was serene. She wore a green mini-dress with a midriff-length coat on over it.
“Who are you?” Ran asked.
“Ah,” the woman nodded. “You know me, though my magic prevents you from recognising me in my current form.” She reached out and was suddenly clasping a small rod with a knob on the end and a tiny symbol. “Representing the dark god, I am the Guardian of Time. I am Sailor Pluto.”
“Sailor Pluto…” Ran stepped back and clenched her fists. “You… you tried to murder Ukyou!”
“Yes,” the woman replied without even a hint of concern or regret in her voice.
“I knew this was a trap!” Ran shouted. She glared over her shoulder at Michiru. The girl just shook her head innocently.
“This isn’t a trap,” Pluto said as she approached. Ran backed off and she stopped. “Quite the opposite. I am here to help you.”
“Save it,” Ran said.
“I suggest you listen to her, child.”
Ran jumped as another new voice came from right behind her. She stared at the woman who had appeared there, wondering how she had managed to sneak up so close. Her eyes immediately focused on her hair. It was purple, and in perhaps the most improbable shape Ran had ever seen. Other than that, she looked almost normal. Her outfit was wine and yellow colored, and her face had the same kind of sereneness that Pluto’s had. She was holding up a long tarot card. No wait, there were three of them. And they were floating in space above her fingertips.
“The Fool, The Lovers, The Tower…” the newcomer, who had to be Rose, said solemnly. “Past, present and future.” She looked at Ran for the first time. “You should not tie your future so tightly to that of Ukyou Kuonji.”
“Hey,” Ran pointed a finger at the purple-haired woman. “Ukyou is my friend. And I haven’t tied my future to hers.”
“We know,” Pluto said. “We have been watching you, and all those who have gathered with Ukyou, for some time now.” The Senshi in disguise walked around in front of Ran. “That is why we chose you. You, alone among her friends, have the ability to step back and see what is really happening.” She gestured towards the house. “But it is chilly out here. We would be more comfortable sitting inside.”
“And doing what?” Ran said, but the fight was leaving her. There was no overt threat in what they were saying, after all.
“Just talking,” Rose replied.
Ran didn’t see the harm in that.
Fevrier rubbed her knuckles as she glared at the wall. It was made of concrete and covered in a thin layer of paint. In many countries, it would also be covered in graffiti, but in Japan only a few obscene pictures were here. One punch should have gotten her through the wall. It should have created a hole big enough for her to walk through without ducking. Failing that, she could have torn the bars out of their foundations and flung the entire cell wall out of her path. At the very least, she should have been able to bend the bars out of the way.
She glanced over her shoulder. That orange-skinned man, Kusanagi, was sitting at the desk just outside the cell. He was chuckling. His feet were propped up on the edge of the desk, and the legs of his chair were tilted precariously backwards. He was grinning at her. Fevrier was used to such lecherous looks. Her uniform left very little to the imagination even when it wasn’t torn up from a mountain of crates falling on her.
“Satsuki, Marz… come here.”
Satsuki walked over quickly. The right side of her face was covered in bandages, as was most of her torso. Her cap had been lost somewhere during the battle. Marz looked like she was in better shape, but she moved stiffly. Fevrier waved them all into a huddle.
“Hey… are you girls going to get naked and all that?”
Fevrier glanced over her shoulder at Kusanagi. He was still grinning. “I mean, I’ve seen all the movies. That’s what chicks do in jail, isn’t it?”
“Maybe later,” Fevrier informed him coolly.
He laughed. “Man, I am glad I got this job!” He winked at her and Fevrier turned around to ignore him. Why did he have to be much stronger than her intelligence had indicated, and a brazen idiot at the same time?
“We have to escape,” Fevrier told the other two Dolls in a whisper.
“Why?” Marz asked.
“Why?” Fevrier blinked. “What do you mean, ‘why’?”
“I do not wish to escape,” Marz told her flatly.
“You don’t wish…?” Fevrier hissed as loud as she dared. “Are you insane? Master Bison would skin us alive if he found out you were thinking for yourself!”
“Perhaps you are right,” Marz said with a nod. “And yet, I seem not to care.”
“Neither do I.” Fevrier glanced over at Satsuki. The other Doll looked slightly embarrassed that she had spoken up.
“Besides, we are in no condition to escape from here,” Marz pointed out. “Kusanagi would defeat us handily if we tried.”
“We are the Dolls!” Fevrier insisted.
“We seem to have lost our superior abilities, in case you haven’t noticed,” Marz said with a dry hint of sarcasm.
Fevrier glared at her. The fact that Marz was right was no excuse. Her hand still ached from where she had punched the wall. She could still hear Kusanagi’s laughter. She flushed with anger. But it felt different. Always before, anger had been accompanied by the sweet, burning, deadly rush of Psychopower. Now, there was nothing. Just… anger.
“There is no reason to antagonise Kusanagi,” Marz pointed out. “Isn’t that right, Satsuki?”
“I think Kusanagi is cute,” Satsuki said, her face flushing.
“CUTE!?” Fevrier roared.
“Hey, if you girls are starting the festivities, can I set up a camera first?”
“Shut up, you!” Fevrier barked as she turned to face the man.
“What?” Kusanagi blinked. “I distinctly remember you promising me you would get all hot and bothered later.”
“I did not!” she growled out through clenched teeth. If she had her strength back, or at least a high-calibre firearm…
“I do not find him cute,” Marz informed Satsuki.
“Perhaps you are right,” Satsuki said. “He reminds me of the other boy, Mamoru.”
“Ah, yes.” Marz nodded. “Mamoru is cute.”
“And sexy,” Satsuki added.
“Hey, I am Mamoru!” Kusanagi added unhelpfully.
“Not you, the other Mamoru!” Fevrier snarled. Then she snapped her mouth closed. Where had that come from? She closed her eyes and tried to screen out all the annoyances around her. She should concentrate on Bison’s teachings. His will should guide her back to the Psychopower. But, for some reason, every time she tried to find that little part of herself that was Bison… only that imbecile Mamoru’s face kept intruding.
Mamoru hanging on the wall, looking beaten and vulnerable.
Mamoru in his top hat and cape, looking dashing and brave.
Fevrier shook her head. Her cheeks were burning. What was wrong with her?
“I don’t see how he reminds you of Mamoru, he is brash and stupid and lecherous.”
“But they are both tall, and have a similar penchant for lurking.”
“This is true…”
“SHUT UP!” Fevrier roared and punched the wall again as hard as she could. Dust clouded the air in the cell. She drew back her hand. She nodded to herself in a dignified manner.
Then she started screaming and cursing and leaping about as she waved her arm in a vain attempt to get rid of the pain. Kusanagi was laughing again.
“…you’re trying to tell me that the reason you all want Ukyou dead is because she is going to destroy the world?”
Ran stared down into her teacup. That was preposterous. Ukyou didn’t have that kind of power. She wasn’t that important. Heck, Ran had just been thinking how little Ukyou meant to the big picture right before Haruka and Michiru had shown up.
“Essentially,” Michiru replied. “Although, it’s much worse than that.”
“Much worse?” Ran didn’t bother trying to hide the skepticism in her tone.
“Ukyou will not just destroy the world, she will destroy… everything,” Pluto explained before taking a measured sip of her tea.
“You can’t expect me to believe this,” Ran said rapidly. “You can believe in fortunetelling all you want, but I stopped putting stock in horoscopes when I was very little.”
“I knew this was pointless,” Haruka said. She was sitting apart from everyone else. “She’s under the girl’s spell, too. Just like all the others.”
“Spell?” Ran asked, but her question was ignored.
“You’ll have to show her,” Rose told Pluto.
Pluto nodded sombrely. “I suspected as much.” She sighed, and suddenly her face did not look serene anymore. Instead, it was filled with anguish. Ran was taken aback by the abruptness and the intensity of the transition. “But… to show them I must re-experience it myself. I had just hoped…”
Rose put a calming hand on Pluto’s shoulder. “You feel it more keenly than any of us. But we all share your pain.”
“She’s right,” Michiru added. “Ever since you showed Haruka and I, we’ve been sharing the same dreams…”
“Leave me out of this,” Haruka barked. But her face did not look angry. It looked scared.
What had they all SEEN?
Pluto reached out, and she was now holding a long staff. It was as tall as her and shaped like a key, with a heart on top that had a garnet-coloured sphere in its centre. Pluto held out her free hand and the orb detached itself from the staff and floated down towards her palm.
“This is the Garnet Orb,” she explained. “One of the three talismans. Its power is ancient beyond understanding of the word. With it, I have mastery over the Gates of Time and can travel up and down the timestream with the same ease you can walk up and down the street. It can also serve as a viewer. With it, I can call up images of the past… or the future, and show them to those who are willing to see.”
“So… you plan on showing me this future, then?” Ran crossed her arms. “I don’t think so. How do I know you haven’t created some elaborate fantasy for me? How can I trust what you show me will be the truth?”
“The Orb can only show you what you are willing to see,” Pluto answered sternly. “To view the prophecy, you must open your mind. If you do not wish to see lies, all you have to do is will away untruth and so it will be.”
Ran sat back and took a long time to reply. Really, she knew her decision the moment the offer had been made. This was… this was capital ‘B’ big. How could she turn down a chance to see this? But still, she couldn’t help but feel… well, like she shouldn’t. But such petty feelings of unease weren’t going to stop her from seeing the Truth.
“Yes,” Ran said reluctantly.
“Then look into the Garnet Orb and open your mind…” Pluto explained in a hypnotic voice. Ran looked and tried to let her mind open. She focused, bringing all her senses to bear. Her chi-enhanced awareness had been honed for years to uncover the truth, to probe what was hidden. She willed herself to see it.
And she saw…
Ran collapsed to her knees. She held up her hands. They were shaking. She was crying. Her legs refused to support her. She was barely aware of Michiru and Haruka helping Pluto to lie down on the couch. The woman’s face was pale as death. It looked like Ran felt.
Something that profound could not exist. Ran’s mind shrank back from it. She could remember everything up to it. All the little details of the prophecy were clear, from the anguished plea to the exact details of Ukyou’s condition. But then, the final blow and… and…
Ran’s mind simply refused it. Because it wasn’t destruction, or death or anything so mundane. It was oblivion. Nothing so pure could exist…
“Now do you understand?” Rose asked, her voice was soft.
“Yes… no…” Ran took a deep breath. “This… this doesn’t change anything…” Ran knew she was lying, but she had to. “Why not just talk to Ukyou? Why not convince her to stop?”
“Because that can’t be done,” Pluto said. “I know, because that other me tried and failed.”
“There has to be some other way…” Ran stood up. The strength was returning to her limbs now. The vision was fading, like a nightmare in the daylight. “Ukyou is a good person. A little bit of a bitch, but she has a good heart. She’s even trying to save one of you.”
“One of us?” Pluto said.
“Yeah, the little girl…” Ran waved her hand. “Sailor Saturn, Hotaru or whatever. She’s trying to save one of you Sailor Senshi types, and she doesn’t have to.”
“I see…” Pluto said. But there was something in her voice. It was there and gone in a flash. If Ran had been more clear-headed she might have called it raw, naked fear. But she felt the vision might have clouded her judgment.
“And besides… if you’re so all-powerful with your time powers… why do you even need help to kill Ukyou?” Ran challenged.
“You don’t think I haven’t tried?” Pluto said with a sigh. She rubbed her forehead. “I tried stopping time, but Ukyou just defied my will like it was nothing. I’ve tried going back in time and killing her as an infant… but it seems that all I do is just spawn an alternate timeline. In this timeline, in this singular timeline alone is Ukyou the threat. And if this singular timeline reaches its conclusion, then nothing that happens in any other will matter, because they will all end.”
“We do need your help,” Rose said. “But we aren’t asking you to help us kill Ukyou.”
“Then what?” Ran was shaking.
“Just… step aside.” Haruka explained. “The four of us are more than a match for her. But she keeps gathering friends to her. We just want you to step aside. Just don’t be there when she needs you.”
Ran stared at the blonde for a long time. Then, without a word, she turned and walked out of the house.
Zoicite was shaking. He couldn’t help it. His knees felt like they were made of jelly. Yet every step he made was with leaden feet. He swore he could feel the echoes of his own footfalls.
“You’re afraid,” Kunzite said. His cape ceased flapping behind him as he came to a stop. Zoicite looked up and saw him glancing back over his shoulder. His long silvery hair fell about his beautiful face, and for a moment he ached to see it. “There is no need to fear.”
There was, because this could be the last time he saw it.
Kunzite was holding out his hand, and Zoicite took it. He could feel the warmth of the other man’s hand even through both their gloves. He squeezed, drawing strength from that warmth. He wondered if Kunzite would stand with him, in the end. The senior General had always warned him against toying with Queen Beryl, and never once promised to aid him. But… what use was love, unless it brought aid when it was needed?
“I don’t see why you are worried, Zoicite,” Kunzite said calmly as he continued leading them down the hallway. “Queen Beryl is executing a traitor today. That usually puts you in such a high spirit.”
Zoicite smiled thinly. Kunzite was beautiful and powerful, but dumb as a post. Couldn’t he see the signs? Zoicite had spent the last few weeks trying to poison Beryl against Nephrite… an attempt to undercut the General’s growing power. But that had all changed when the Silver Crystal had returned.
The very Dark Kingdom had shuddered with it. All the youma had felt the outraged roar of Metallia, deep in her icy tomb. There could be no doubt about the fact that the mythic Ginzuishou had returned.
And that Zoicite had failed.
For hadn’t it been his task to locate the crystal?
Before he could work up the courage to flee, they were there. He had hoped that walking would buy them more time. The massive throne chamber of the dark queen was filled almost to overflowing today. It was a virtual who’s who of those who had risen highest in Beryl’s favour. The entire crowd of them parted like a whisper before the two generals. None of the youma dared raise their eyes.
Zoicite smirked, but the smirk was painful. He would probably miss this most of all, he supposed.
Then they were standing before Queen Beryl’s dais. The queen was looking particularly murderous today. Her pale skin was flushed with rage, and her dark eyes quivered with the same emotion. Her blood-red hair was a flash of colour in the darkness of the shadows she sat in. In her hands she held her staff of office. While it looked ornamental, Zoicite could feel the immense power of the magic that flowed through that scepter. With it, she could shred souls asunder.
“It is about time you two joined us,” Beryl said quickly. But there was no real menace in her tone, just impatience. Zoicite blinked, confused. If this was to be his execution, he would have expected a more dangerous greeting.
“Nephrite, is our prisoner still awake?”
“Yes, my queen.” Nephrite was standing nearby. His smug smile went perfectly with his arrogant stance. His long brown hair was immaculate, and his grey uniform without so much as a loose stitch. He spared a quick, infuriatingly mocking look for Zoicite before turning his attention back to the queen. “I would not let her escape your wrath so easily.” Then Nephrite was raising his hands and clapping loudly. “Bring forth the prisoner.”
The crowd parted again, and two youma stalked forward. They were huge hulking beasts, the kind of nameless brutes that were useful for nothing more than physical labour. Between their barely feminine shapes was being carried a third figure.
It took a moment for Zoicite to recognise her. Her appearance had changed significantly. She had an actual face now, for one thing… a smooth face with aquiline features. Her outfit now consisted of a skin-tight metallic breastplate and equally tight-fitting chaps. From the looks of the bruises forming along her body, she had not been treated well.
“Tethys!” Zoicite exclaimed before he could think.
The youma looked up at him. Her eyes were still red slits, but now they had human pupils within them. They narrowed at seeing Zoicite, and he slammed his mouth shut. He had been about to accuse the youma of leading his three best assassins to their doom. He had been about to call her unkind things and perhaps let out a little of his own anger… not enough to upset Queen Beryl, but enough to allow Zoicite to relieve some of his own worry. And yet…
There was something in the air. Something that had entered the chamber with Tethys.
Zoicite kept quiet.
“Yes, it does appear to be Tethys…” Beryl said, her voice a barely restrained fury. “And what brings this traitor back to this place?”
“She attacked me,” Nephrite said with a small laugh. “I don’t know what she was hoping to accomplish, but I showed her the error of her ways. No mere youma is a match for me.”
Tethys was looking down at the ground. Her eyes were closed. She was smiling.
“Perhaps she would like to speak for herself?” Beryl asked sharply. “Certainly you must have a wonderful story for us! Can you explain why you allowed one of my Generals to be killed, and three of my youma? Can you explain why you abandoned your queen? Can you explain why you attacked her servant?”
“Because you are a fool,” Tethys said simply. Her voice was not the voice of a broken creature.
Zoicite opened his mouth. He should tell Queen Beryl. He should tell the queen to kill the upstart now. There was something wrong here. Tethys wasn’t beaten. She was dangerous. Then he closed his mouth, and grabbed onto Kunzite’s hand more tightly. The taller General only looked at him in confusion, before turning with a smirk back to the held youma.
“What did you call me?” Beryl roared. To emphasise her question, she gestured with her staff and a bolt of ebon lightning sprang from its top and grounded through Tethys’ body. So powerful was the blast that the brutes holding onto Tethys were evaporated by the backlash. The youma fell to her knees, her scream echoing majestically across the chamber.
But she still wasn’t beaten. “I called you a fool,” Tethys said into the silence that followed.
“Such impudence!” Kunzite growled.
“Allow me to slay her, your majesty,” Nephrite offered with a bow. “I will harvest her power and add it to our reserves.”
Beryl would have replied, but she was cut off by an improbable sound. Tethys was laughing. The queen’s eyes narrowed to slits as she turned back to the traitor.
“More power?” Tethys said as her laughter died down slightly. “Is that going to be your solution to everything, Beryl? How much energy have you already gathered? Certainly you must have enough to revive Metallia by now. Then why haven’t you?”
Zoicite didn’t like where this was going, but he kept quiet.
“We need more power…” Beryl explained in a mocking manner. “To undo the seal which was placed upon her, we need power equal to that of the Ginzuishou.”
“A fool’s errand,” Tethys snapped. Her head raised up, and her defiant eyes came to rest on Beryl. “You will never succeed!”
“Be quiet!” Beryl roared. With a gesture and a twist of her magic, she formed a vortex of glittering crystal shards. They spun around Tethys and lifted her into the air. She was bent and twisted as long gashes and blue blood appeared on her body. Finally Beryl finished tormenting her, and the youma collapsed. “You are not worth my time…”
“And that is why you will fail…” Tethys gasped. Zoicite was impressed that the blue-skinned woman was still holding herself up. “Because you can’t see the danger that lies right in front of your face.”
“Are you suggesting that you are a threat to Queen Beryl?” Kunzite said with a mocking laugh.
“Yes.” Tethys looked at him, then back at the Queen. “You asked me why I came here? I have come to kill you, Beryl.”
“What?” Nephrite and Kunzite gasped almost simultaneously. Beryl only stared at the youma, her hatred almost palpable. Tethys was smiling now, her face grim but oddly triumphant.
“You aren’t fit to lead us anymore, Beryl.” She grunted and stood up slowly. “You can’t even see the danger that threatens your people anymore. The ultimate enemy that will be the undoing of the Dark Kingdom.”
“The Sailor Senshi?” Nephrite said with a smirk. “They are so scared they haven’t even bothered to try and stop me for weeks. Months, even.”
“No…” Tethys held up her hand. “Humanity. Humanity will stop you.”
“You can’t be serious…” Beryl said, now smirking herself.
“You still don’t see it?” Tethys clasped her hand into a fist. “Who was it that defeated Jadeite, Beryl? Was it our ancient enemies from the Moon Kingdom? No. It was humans that defeated him so utterly. He had power unimaginable, power to rival even yours… and still he died.” Her face suddenly became serious. “The power you have gathered, you will use it to throw open the gates of this Kingdom and then you plan on leading your army on a grand charge across the world again, don’t you? Just like last time.”
“And just like last time, humanity will fall before us like chaff before the reaper,” Beryl replied. She was smiling now. Zoicite could see the lack of concern in her eyes. She was no longer thinking of Tethys as anything more than a fool. Kunzite had the same expression. Only Nephrite seemed to be taking pause at Tethys’ words.
“Things have changed, Beryl,” Tethys insisted. “Humanity will rise up to oppose you. And they will defeat you. Without Metallia, you are nothing more than a speedbump to them.” The youma glanced at Nephrite and smirked again. “The power you have gathered. It is a fraction… a tiny fraction of the power you will face when you rise up from this cold prison and try your hand at conquest.”
“We will have Metallia-” Beryl started.
“No!” Tethys interrupted her with a snarl and a snap of her hand. “Metallia is dead! Her power is a fading echo. All your precious power… it is nothing more than a bandage that slows her decay. The Silver Crystal defeated her, and she can never be again.” Tethys began to laugh. “And even if she did step forth once more, the Silver Crystal would be her undoing this time just like the last.”
“I have had enough of your prattle,” Beryl insisted with a blast of magic that sent Tethys back to her knees. “It is obvious that living among humans has unbalanced your mind…”
“No… it has freed it,” Tethys said, and there was a hint of awe in her own voice. She stood up again. “This is your last chance, Beryl. Prove me wrong. Ask yourself why I attacked Nephrite if I couldn’t defeat him. I’ve let you have one last chance, in the hopes that I am wrong.”
“Let?” Beryl said. She was slowly gathering power on the tip of her staff. Enormous power. Zoicite began to back away, and Kunzite and Nephrite did likewise. Beryl was truly infuriated now, and was about to show why she was the queen. Zoicite hadn’t seen her gather that much raw power since the War. If she unleashed that on Tethys, all that would be left of the youma was the shattered crater where she had stood.
“But it appears I wasn’t,” Tethys said and nodded. Then she held up her hands…
And the entire chamber shook. Zoicite cried out. The wall, the right wall was exploding! The entire length of it just shattering into a million pieces. Zoicite saw figures landing among the wreckage. An army?
Beryl spun in place, a smirk on her face. She unleashed her power, and the orb of darkness exploded across the room. Youma too slow or stupid to get out of the way were annihilated in its wake. When the blast struck, it vaporised all the shrapnel.
Zoicite realised what must have happened a second later. Tethys had used her power over water to try and animate the ice. But Beryl had shattered her attack like it was nothing.
It was then that Zoicite heard the crack.
He turned slowly. Tethys was standing in front of Beryl, her arm extended. Her fist was embedded in Beryl’s neck. The queen’s eyes were still looking away from her, and they didn’t even look surprised. Nobody had seen Tethys move.
Beryl’s body didn’t even twitch as it slumped to the floor. Tethys drew back her fist, and placed her foot on the head of the body. She turned and looked out over the gathered youma and the three generals. As she did, wisps of power began to flow up from the fallen queen’s form. Tethys’ aura grew stronger and stronger as it absorbed the force of Beryl’s magic.
Zoicite was the first one to react. He stepped forward, his eyes narrowed. Then he fell to one knee and bowed his head, one arm crossed in front of his chest.
“The queen is dead…” Zoicite said softly, then raised his eyes and his voice so that it very nearly shattered the walls with just its force. “Long live the queen!” And slowly, one by one, the other youma began to fall in line behind him.
Tethys only looked upon them all, her expression grim.
ZX-Tole strode into the house. The two guards at the gate didn’t even bother trying to detain him. They were dressed in civilian clothes, and looked like nothing more than construction workers taking a break. Chronos needed to be circumspect these days, it seemed.
The house itself was large, a sprawling example of traditional Japanese design spread out over a large plot of land. The gardens and yards were attractively arranged, but had the signs of disarray that usually crept into such things after a few weeks of neglect. Chronos troopers moved about the area in small groups. They looked as tense as rabbits creeping through a field full of sleeping tigers.
“You there,” ZX-Tole snapped. The trooper practically leaped out of his skin before turning to face him. “What on earth is going on here?”
“Sir?” Chronos didn’t use insignia of rank and office, but everyone could recognise when someone higher on the food chain had arrived.
“This should have been a routine snatch and secure mission,” ZX-Tole said as he gestured towards the mansion. “But you all act as if this is a warzone.”
“It’s the traps, sir,” the trooper said nervously.
“The place is full of them,” a new voice said. ZX-Tole turned to see Thancrus walking towards him. He was adjusting his long black hair with one hand as he moved. and was smirking slightly. “It seems the previous owners left a lot of dangerous things around.”
“Dangerous?” ZX-Tole frowned. “To zoanoids?”
“You’d be surprised,” Thancrus said as he gestured for ZX-Tole to follow. “The single martial artist who resided here was easily subdued, but this entire mansion is filled with extremely potent bioweapons.”
“Bioweapons?” ZX-Tole said, surprised.
“Nothing like zoanoids,” Thancrus clarified quickly. “Plants, mostly. Toxic plants. Poisons. Plants that attack anything that comes near them. Plants with exotic effects…”
“Plants…” ZX-Tole shook his head. “I don’t care about plants, Thancrus.”
“Really?” Thancrus gestured towards a door. ZX-Tole glared at him and opened it up-
ZX-Tole closed the door.
“That was a Gregole,” ZX-Tole informed Thancrus. The smaller man nodded. “It had two cute little flowers on its horn.” Thancrus nodded again. “It was trying to serve me tea.” Thancrus nodded again, then opened up his mouth. ZX-Tole forestalled him with a wave of his hand. “Never mind. I don’t want to know.” He took a deep breath. “Is there any sign of our targets?”
“No.” Thancrus shook his head. “They must have abandoned this place months ago.”
“Damnit,” ZX-Tole growled. Commander Gyro was not going to like this. “We need to find that… Chris, wasn’t it?”
“There is one group we haven’t tried to question.”
“You mean the TAC?” ZX-Tole stood up straight and shook his head. “So long as they continue to report everything through official channels, they are no threat to us.”
“I still don’t think allowing humans to deal with these rogue bioweapons…”
“The Zoalord Council is far wiser than you, Thancrus,” ZX-Tole informed him as he turned around to walk out of the compound. “They will determine what our next move will be.” He paused at the threshold. “Though this house will make a good base of operations. Call in about another two dozen zoanoids to clean up the rest of the place.”
ZX-Tole didn’t wait for his teammate to respond before stepping out of the door. He frowned to himself. He should have been somewhere else. He should have been helping to hunt down the Guyver Units. He should have been helping to deal with the situation in Europe or America. Instead… he was stuck here hunting little girls.
He glanced to the side of the gate as he walked out. The sign said that this was the Kunou estate. He frowned and ordered the guard to tear the sign down.
Soon, he wouldn’t need to hide among the humans and worry about exposing the truth. A war was coming. He could sniff it on the wind. Then, he could fight his enemies the way they were meant to be fought, in the open.
“I guess you’re wondering why I called you all here.” Kunikida grinned and rubbed his head. “Sorry, I always wanted to say that.”
The joke did not go over well. Kunikida had the good grace to be embarrassed as everyone groaned at him. Aaron only smiled a little. The head of the TAC had a sense of humour that was almost as bad as Dr. Tofu’s. Or perhaps his own, since Ukyou reminded him he had made the exact same joke with Ranma and Akane once. Well, that awful sense of humour was one trait they hadn’t seen much of since she had met Kunikida. But then, most of the times they had talked, it had been about very serious subjects.
Aaron glanced around the room and took note of the heroes collected there. He paused and smiled thinly. He had used the term without even thinking, but he guessed it was true in one way or another. Everyone here was a good person, the kind of person that would risk their lives to save a friend or save the world.
Ranma was the first person that Aaron’s eyes fell upon. The brash young man was near the back of the room, and he was glaring at Kyosuke. For his part, Kyosuke was looking back with an innocent expression as he adjusted his pince-nez glasses with one finger. Ranma was rubbing his elbow. Then he grinned viciously and placed the arm on the small table that was between them. Kyosuke sighed and leaned down to place his own hand firmly into Ranma’s grasp.
A second later, there was a loud thunk and Ranma was glaring at Kyosuke again.
Not far from the two of them were Akira and Momiji. Akira had arrived on her motorcycle and was carrying her helmet at her side as she chatted with the other girl. Well, really it appeared that Momiji was doing the chatting, and Akira was smiling and nodding and looking vaguely lost.
Then Kusanagi stepped past her and flipped up the back of Momiji’s skirt. He whistled as the girl’s white panties flashed into view for a moment… then it promptly turned into a cry of pain as Akira elbowed him in the side of the face.
For a moment, it looked like Momiji was torn between thanking Akira and yelling at her. Meanwhile, Kusanagi just groaned and rubbed the side of his head as he lay on the floor. He was glancing up Momiji’s skirt, still. Aaron decided not to say anything about that.
Matsudaira was across the room from the little melodrama, examining Tux-boy. Mamoru was in his human form, wearing a green shirt and black pants that looked especially dorky but that somehow he carried off due to sheer good looks. He looked uncomfortable as Matsudaira told him to turn his head and cough.
The rest of the TAC were sticking mainly to themselves. Yaegashi was sitting in a corner, working at the Shadowloo laptop with a sort of feverish intensity. Koume was standing near the door, the stock of an assault rifle resting on her shoulder as she gazed with disinterest out of the room. Her orange hair and pink jump-suit rippled slightly in the dry breeze. Ryoko was standing near Kunikida, giving him meaningful looks when she thought nobody was looking. The man himself was sitting in traditional style in the centre of the room, and was even wearing equally traditional gi and baggy pants. He seemed content to let everyone settle down before he started talking.
Ran was the only person that really stood out. Usually she would have been near Ranma, probably talking up a storm. Instead she was sitting by herself. She looked away sharply as Aaron’s eyes reached her. Aaron knew she had been watching Ukyou ever since they had arrived, and she had been very quiet.
It was probably nothing. But Ukyou made a note for them to see if they could talk with her later, alone preferably. Little nothings had a way of turning into big somethings if you let them fester, as Ukyou had learned the hard way.
Even as Aaron finished his scan of the room, he couldn’t help but feel that he was missing something. It was like someone was missing… someone important. But Ryouga and Nabiki weren’t even supposed to be here, and he could think of no one else that should be. Still… it hurt. It was like he wasn’t just missing something, but missing a piece of himself.
“If I could have everyone’s attention,” Kunikida said just forcefully enough to draw the eyes of everyone in the room. “The reason I’ve called you all here is because you are the only people I really trust, and this is the only place I can think of that is likely not being watched or monitored in some way.”
Kunikida stood up and rubbed his temple absently. Suddenly he looked twenty years older, and he was no spring chicken to begin with. His eyes were weary, and his shoulders slumped slightly. The man looked up and his eyes met with those of Momiji. She was staring at him with… something close to awe. Ukyou recognised the look. It was complete and absolute trust. Momiji believed in Kunikida. The old man smiled and pulled in a deep breath, and Ukyou watched the vitality flow back into his body.
“As of this moment, the TAC no longer works for the Japanese government,” he announced in a solid voice.
“What?” Koume shrieked.
“Sir? You can’t be serious!” Yaegashi added as he stepped forward.
“This is some sort of bad joke, isn’t it, sir?” Ryoko said as she glanced at the man in worry.
“I mean exactly what I said,” Kunikida replied to all three of them as he looked around the room. “I have suspected for some time now that there are elements of our own government that are not exactly working in the best interests of the citizens of Japan. However, the corruption runs far deeper and has a far more sinister agenda than I had ever thought possible.”
“But we defeated those aragami!” Momiji burst out suddenly.
“You’re right, Momiji,” Ukyou said. “But the monsters out there aren’t limited to just the aragami.”
“The young lady is correct,” Kunikida said, regaining the attention of everyone in the room. “For months now I have been getting increasingly more worrying orders. The original mandate of the TAC was to deal with the aragami and protect the Kushinada, and that was all. But increasingly my superiors have been ordering me to engage in investigations into the various other supernatural phenomena that have been affecting Japan. Our resources have been strained so tightly that we haven’t been able to accomplish anything meaningful in months. Even our attempts to confront the aragami have been mostly hindered by the interference of outside forces.” Ranma chuckled nervously and rubbed the back of his head. “They’ve also been demanding I release far more information as of late. Until recently, I was allowed a much freer hand in dealing with these situations, but now my every move is closely monitored. Even the people in charge have changed. Old friends I had in the government at various levels have disappeared, or seem completely different…”
Kunikida frowned and shook his head.
“What does this mean, sir?” Ryoko asked. “Are we disbanding? Or something else…” Left unspoken was the fact that if Kunikida decided to go rogue, Ryoko would follow him without question. Aaron wondered how it was that Kunikida could fail to see the way that woman looked at him.
“No, we aren’t going to disband, Takeuchi,” Kunikida declared. “As far as our superiors know, we are still going to be doing our jobs the same as we always have. But I already started falsifying the reports I gave to them long ago. I sensed this day was coming, and what I learned from these young people has only cemented my belief that now we need to act with the utmost discretion. Our mandate hasn’t changed, but our methods will have to, slightly. We’ll have to work a little more… outside the official channels then we have before.”
“You mean illegally, don’t you?” Kusanagi said. He was smiling and leaning back against the wall.
“Yes, Kusanagi, that is exactly what I mean…”
“Sir!” Matsudaira piped in. “I’m not certain I can be a party to this. I need access to materials and data that I can’t get without going through official channels. Not to mention I have a family…”
“We all have families, Azusa,” Ryoko said quickly. “And if you need resources, we can still get access to them. I learned quite a bit about the black market when I worked for the PD.”
“This is highly irregular…” Matsudaira sighed. She looked very tired.
“If I may ask, sir… why the hell do we have to do this at all!?” Yaegashi stepped forward, his fist clenched. “If there are corrupt elements in the government our duty is to expose them, not hide from them!”
“It won’t work, Yaegashi,” Ukyou broke in. “The syndicate that controls your government is called Chronos. They have strings tied to the heads of every major government in the world. They have access to an army of monsters that make the aragami look like plush toys. If you try to confront them openly, they’ll crush you like an ant and no one will even notice.”
“This is insane!” Yaegashi insisted. “Do you even have any proof, or are we just acting on rumour and hearsay?”
“I have all the proof I need,” Kunikida said as he crossed his arms. “I know this is hard to believe, but Ukyou is right. I’ve done some digging on this Chronos since she told me about it.” He paused, and his voice became slightly hoarse as he continued. “Three of my friends are dead since they started looking into this. Two more are missing. One of them was killed when a train derailed and exploded, killing his entire family and a hundred more innocent people.”
“The train derailment?” Kyosuke said in surprise. “You’re saying that was caused by this Chronos?”
“I don’t have any direct proof…” Kunikida’s hand clenched into a fist. “I’ve told all my contacts to stop digging. Since then, there have been no more incidents.”
“This is really serious…” Yaegashi sat down suddenly. “You really mean that someone has taken over the entire Japanese government?”
“And most of the rest of the world as well,” Ukyou said. “I hear the Americans are putting up quite a resistance, however.”
“Which bears out with what I heard as well,” Kunikida said with a nod. “The Americans have been silently pulling their forces out of Japan. The base in Okinawa is staffed by a skeleton crew, just enough people to present the appearance of a fully manned base to the outside world. They’ve even left most of their equipment behind.”
“Hmmm…” Kyosuke nodded and adjusted his glasses with one hand. “You may be right about that. I didn’t think much about it at the time, but a few months ago Pacific High School started to close its doors. The student body there was almost entirely made up of the sons and daughters of American businessmen and diplomats. But over the last few months, all the students have started to vanish. When I checked on it, I was told that Pacific was being closed due to some budget cuts in America and they were simply transferring the students to other schools throughout Japan. But if what you say is true, I wonder…”
“Which only underscores my point,” Kunikida said. “We also have to be careful about dealing with this. The aragami are still a danger to Japan, and we are the group who is trained and equipped best to handle it. I won’t let someone destroy our chances to deal with the problem I have dedicated my life to solving!” The man was breathing heavily by the end of his speech, his face flushed. The room was quiet for almost a minute.
“I’m with you, Mr. Kunikida,” Momiji said as she stood up. “I don’t understand what’s going on. But I trust you.”
“I do too,” Ryoko added immediately. “I work for you, not the government.”
“Ah, for crying out loud…” Koume said with a grimace. “I’m in too. If what you say is true… it’s probably not like I could just transfer back to the SDF anyways.”
“I’m in as well,” Matsudaira said, her voice hard. She looked up at Kunikida and her eyes narrowed slightly. “I may not like it, but I like even less that the research I’ve been doing has all been going to help some shadowy conspiracy.”
“And you, Yaegashi?” Kunikida asked.
Yaegashi pulled off his thick glasses with one hand and rubbed at his forehead with the other. He looked up at Kunikida and nodded once, silently.
“I suppose I’m in too,” Kusanagi said with a sigh. “Hey. It’s not like I’m not used to being a little bit outside the law.”
“Good…” Kunikida looked at Kusanagi significantly. “As long as you don’t forget the promise you made to me.” Kusanagi’s inhuman eyes widened and he suddenly reached a hand into a pocket of his long red coat. He grabbed something in there and his eyes narrowed before he nodded solemnly.
“Promise?” Momiji asked.
“Nothing important, Princess,” Kusanagi said dismissively.
“Which I suppose brings this around to us,” Kyosuke said as he stood up leisurely. “I don’t exactly work for the government. So I was wondering why you felt the need to include us…” he gestured at the young martial artists gathered in the room, “in your little counter-conspiracy.”
“Because I think you children have a right to know,” Kunikida said without hesitation. “This doesn’t just affect us adults, although I wish it did. Plus there is the fact that you have strengths and abilities which most of us didn’t even realise existed until a few weeks ago.”
“So you want our help?” Kyosuke said. “Fighting a giant faceless evil conspiracy…” he chuckled. “It certainly makes handing out tardy slips and checking for hall passes seem rather petty in comparison.”
“Uh… I’m not sure if this is the kind of thing I want to be a part of,” Akira said. She blushed and retreated back against the wall a little bit as the group’s attention focused on her. “I mean… I’m not really… that is… I just wanted to help out my friends… just a little bit…”
“I’m not asking for your help,” Kunikida said, crossing his arms. “Just the opposite. I’m offering all of you mine.”
“Your help?” Ranma asked skeptically.
“Up until now, we’ve been working at cross purposes. The problem is a lack of information on both sides.” Kunikida nodded to Ranma and Kusanagi. “That can lead to… misunderstandings. But the idea I have is that we share information. Organise ourselves. Circumspectly.” He held up a finger. “If we can start to gather together, we may be able to withstand the storm that is coming. You kids have power, but no organisation or discipline. We adults have plenty of that, but not the kind of power we need.’
“It’s an interesting proposal,” Kyosuke said. “I’ll have to think about it. I’m still not entirely certain I believe in this Chronos, or most of this. I’m just here because I heard a little girl needs saving from a deranged psychopath and I thought I could help.” Aaron smiled. If anybody would join up with Kunikida, it would be Kyosuke.
“The guy has a point,” Ranma said. “I’m all for this yay Japan stuff and saving the world. But all this stuff went over my head when that chick from the CIA tried to explain it to me.” He grinned and cracked his knuckles. “Can’t you guys just point me in the direction of someone who needs a good old–fashioned Saotome School ass-kicking or something?”
“I agree,” Mamoru piped in for the first time. He had been quiet since Kunikida had started speaking. “I gave my word to Hotaru that I would come back for her. I mean to keep it.”
“Hmmm…” Kunikida sighed and sat back down. “I suppose we should move along in business. Have you made any progress in cracking into that computer, Yaegashi?”
“No, sir,” Yaegashi sighed. “The code in it is… just beyond me. It doesn’t even make sense.”
“Maybe if we asked the girls you captured to unlock it?” Momiji asked. “They must have the password, right?”
“I don’t think they’ll be exactly helpful,” Mamoru said with a frown. “They are our prisoners.”
“Heh. Just give me five minutes alone with them!” Koume burst out.
“Don’t you dare!” Mamoru shouted at her. The woman gave him a strange look and backed away a little.
“I was only kidding, pal,” Koume said half-jokingly. Aaron frowned.
“It’s nothing to joke about,” Mamoru said, his voice serious. “They’re victims in all this, and we shouldn’t be mistreating them.” He paused, then turned from the slightly annoyed Koume to Kunikida. “Where are they, anyway? I thought they needed to be guarded at all times.”
“Not anymore,” Aaron pointed out. “They don’t have any superhuman abilities anymore.”
“What do you mean?” Mamoru said as he spun on Aaron. The boy’s short black hair flashed as it shifted under the diffuse light. Out of the corner of his eye, Aaron saw Kunikida get up and leave, Ryoko following him.
“What I said,” Aaron replied curtly. “Without the Psychopower, they don’t have access to the skills they had as Dolls. They’ve been reduced to the same power as any other human being.”
“How can you tell?” Mamoru asked shortly.
“I examined them earlier,” Aaron said with a sigh. “They don’t have any more chi in their bodies than any other normal human. Much like you.”
Mamoru made as if to respond and then stopped, his eyes widening slightly. Aaron nodded to himself. “I could tell the moment you came in. That power you had inside you, the one I could only slightly sense before. It’s gone. I think your magic has deserted you, hasn’t it, Mamoru?”
“I…” Mamoru clenched his hands into fists. “Yes. I tried to transform. I did it when I woke up, and a lot of other times besides. But I can’t do it!”
“It’s nothing to be ashamed of-” Ukyou began, but Mamoru cut her off.
“Yes it is!” he shouted. “I promised Hotaru I would rescue her! I knew that as Tuxedo Mask I could track her down… even without the data in that stupid computer!” He slammed his fist into the floor, sending up a small cloud of dust. “But how can I save her now? I feel so useless…” He looked up at Ukyou again, his eyes meeting hers. This lasted a second before he flinched away. Aaron smiled thinly. “You know, don’t you? You know why I can’t use my magic anymore… tell me!”
“Indeed…” Aaron stood up. “The bodies of the Dolls aren’t living on chi. They are living off the power of your magic. Somehow, the other night… your power was transfused into them. I don’t understand it, but you must have shared with them your life force.” He nodded towards the back of the building, where Kunikida and Ryoko had vanished from the room. “Can’t you feel them, back there? The connection between you must have gotten stronger the closer you got to them. I can practically see the energy snapping back and forth between you and them.”
Mamoru looked at Ukyou again, then at the back wall. He closed his eyes, and his body slumped slightly. With a long sigh he nodded. “Yes. I was wondering what that was…” He looked up again. “Whenever I used to transform into Tuxedo Mask, I always felt this… beacon, like a primal urge inside my heart. It always used to lead me to Sailor Moon when she was in danger. But now… I feel that same beacon in this building. Not as urgent, and more diffuse… but it’s still there.”
“Uh, excuse me, but what are you two talking about?” Ranma asked.
“She seems to be saying that Mamoru and the Dolls share a psychic bond,” Matsudaira mused as she rubbed her chin thoughtfully. “They are living off his life force. That’s why he can’t access his powers, since the girls are draining away the energy necessary for him to do so.”
“Indeed,” Aaron agreed.
“Well, let’s see if these girls react any to him, then?” Kunikida said as he walked into the room. Behind him came the three Dolls. Ukyou only vaguely recalled their names. The one in the lead with the red hair was Fevrier, if she remembered correctly. The redhead was glaring about the room, her fingers twitching as they kept reaching for guns that weren’t on her hips. Behind her came the blue-haired girl whose name escaped Ukyou. She looked nervous until she spotted Mamoru. Then she smiled, a huge energetic grin. The final Doll’s name was Satsuki, Ukyou believed. She moved with a sort of quiet grace despite her injuries. Her eyes flashed across the room, instantly noting everyone. They too settled on Mamoru. Instead of smiling, she looked down just enough that he remained in her vision and blushed slightly. The redhead glanced back at her companions and snorted as she crossed her arms. But she also kept glancing at Mamoru despite herself. Ryoko came in last, moving with her hand on her pistol.
“If you plan on interrogating us, we’ll tell you nothing!” Fevrier snapped as she was led into the centre of the room.
“But we could really use your help!” Momiji said eagerly. “These people helped save you, right? They broke that man’s hold on your mind. Shouldn’t you want to help them out?”
“No one asked them to help us!” Fevrier spun on Momiji. She paused as Kusanagi slid silently in front of the slightly cowed girl. Fevrier smirked and her expression became cooler. “Because of you, I have lost everything,” she said, turning on Mamoru. “Don’t expect me to be grateful. You should have let me die.”
“I couldn’t do that…” Mamoru said. “Vega tricked you into fighting me to the death. I wasn’t going to have your lives on my conscience.”
“How could such a weak-“
“Thank you,” the brown-haired Doll said, cutting off the redhead. Fevrier glanced at Satsuki in surprise. The girl had knelt on the floor, and was looking down and away from Mamoru. Her cheeks were still flushed slightly.
“Yeah, thank you for saving our lives!” the blue-haired girl added enthusiastically.
“Marz…” Fevrier said as she clenched her fist. “I thought we agreed on a united front here.”
“You agreed to that,” Marz said innocently. “Besides, there is no reason to be mad at Mamoru.”
“And why is that?” Fevrier groused, but there was a hint of hope in her voice.
“Can’t you feel it?” Marz said, quirking her head at the other Doll. Fevrier frowned and shook her head. “Hmm, and I thought you were always so proud of your connection to the Psychopower.” Fevrier growled but said nothing. “Search your feelings, Fevrier. How does that boy make you feel?”
“He makes me feel…” Fevrier glanced about. Her eye twitched when she noticed everyone leaning in with anticipation on their faces. “I am not talking about that here!”
“Well, I’m not afraid to say it,” Marz said with a wink in Mamoru’s direction. “He makes me feel exactly the same way Bison used to. When I’m near him, I feel like I’m part of him.” She paused and quirked her head to the side. “Though I suppose the feeling is different. I don’t feel nearly so violent when I think about him. I just feel kind of warm and tingly. Like I am experiencing the afterglow of a major orgasm or…” there was a loud clap as Koume slapped her hands over Momiji’s ears. Akira also turned red. “…perhaps something else. I can’t seem to find any experience that quite matches it.”
“You…” Fevrier stuttered for a moment. Then her head dropped. “You’re right.” She glared at Mamoru sharply. “Damn it. Now I have to obey him without question?” Her face softened slightly, but she was still frowning. “No offence, but you’re a wuss.”
“None taken…” Mamoru said slowly. Then he did a double-take. “Did you say ‘obey without question’?”
“Yes,” Satsuki said with a nod.
“We have to,” Marz added happily. “Our lives are yours. We have been programmed to respond to your desires.”
“But… I don’t want that!” Mamoru said, aghast.
“Man, you ARE a wuss,” Kusanagi said. Momiji glared at him and he shrugged. “What?”
“Oh, don’t worry about it!” Marz said, waving her hand at him. “You’ll find we are very useful! We can kill anybody you want us to, and Satsuki here is a trained ninja. Plus I’m really good with computers. See, I have a neural interface and everything…” She pulled a small thin wire from her hair. “Plus there is the sex, of course.” She looked at Mamoru critically. “Then again, I’m not certain if you’ll be able to keep up with all three of us. You don’t look as… virile as Bison was.”
“He will be able to,” Satsuki added quietly, still looking away from Mamoru. The young man in question’s face was doing a good impersonation of a fire hydrant, complete with liquid dripping out of his nose.
“Would you two stop talking about sex for one minute!” Fevrier shouted.
“Sorry,” Marz and Satsuki said with a smile. But Marz was giving Mamoru a wicked little look, and Fevrier was also blushing heavily.
“Congratulations, Tux-boy, you are now the star of a harem comedy!” Ukyou said, laughing aloud. She couldn’t help it, really. The thought struck her so quickly and so acutely that not laughing was impossible.
Kunikida cleared his throat. “As fascinating as all this is… we still need to decide what to do with them.”
“I’ll take them if he doesn’t want them,” Kusanagi said, raising his hand. Everyone glared at him. He shrugged. “What?”
“We can’t just turn them over to the regular police,” Aaron said as Ukyou got over her giggle fit. “Even if they are normal humans…”
“For now!” Fevrier snapped.
“…they’re in too much danger,” Aaron continued as if he hadn’t been interrupted. “If Bison doesn’t track them down, Chronos will. Either way it’s probably a fate worse than death.” He looked down. It was really a perfect solution to the Doll problem, and it had fallen into his lap so neatly. “Mamoru should look after them. They can’t hurt him or disobey him, so he can keep them under control. Plus he’s a decent guy, so he can help them rediscover the person they used to be before Bison violated their minds.”
“That sounds reasonable…” Kunikida agreed with a nod. “If we’re going to be doing things not quite by the book, I suppose letting them go without actually punishing them is fine.”
“I never agreed to this!” Mamoru shouted.
“Ah, don’t be a sap, Tux-boy,” Kusanagi said as he walked over to Mamoru, throwing an arm around his shoulder. “Any guy with a pair would dream of this opportunity. Besides, it’s not like you can help us fight anymore. So you might as well play nursemaid!” Mamoru glared at him. Kusanagi grinned and stepped away, shrugging theatrically.
Sometimes Ukyou wondered what Momiji saw in him.
The corridor was cold and refreshing. Ono had found it hard to believe a place could grow so hot. The streets literally steamed, the waves of heat rising from them so intense it almost made seeing impossible. He took a deep breath and leaned against the wall, rubbing the sweat from his brow with one arm.
“You okay, Doc?” Sakura asked.
“Yes, I’m fine…” Ono looked at her then away. He adjusted his glasses to hide his sudden embarrassment. Sakura had insisted on wearing something ‘appropriate for the weather’, and the sheer fabric was now combining in a most disturbing manner with the air-conditioned building.
“You sure? You look a little flushed,” she continued, grinning wickedly. She stretched a little. Ono looked away some more and coughed.
“I’m fine, Ms. Yamazaki,” he replied earnestly.
“Good, come along with me then,” she said and began to sashay her way down the corridor. Ono tried not to look at her as he followed.
He glanced behind him to see Soun trying to prod Genma into moving. The man had thought to try and alleviate the heat by dousing himself with a bottle of water earlier. They had been forced to drag the huge ball of fur into the building before he perished of heat stroke. “I think we’ll need a few seconds…” he called after her as politely as he could.
“Oh, is he unconscious again!?” Sakura sighed. “I’ll have someone get him later. You two follow me. We have too much to talk about for him to slow us down.”
“Uh, right…” Ono looked at Soun. The older man sighed and straightened, rubbing the excess sweat from his own brow with his gi sleeve.
“I don’t feel right about just leaving him lying in front of the door like this…” Soun grumbled. “He is my oldest friend, after all.”
“Nobody will mistake him for a wild animal,” Sakura shot back. She was now considerably further down the hall.
“Right…” Ono sighed and followed her reluctantly. Soun cast a last reproachful look at his friend and then followed a step behind.
Sakura led them into a small room. It was mercifully dark and cool, with the shades drawn tight. The room wasn’t large, maybe three meters long and twice that wide. In one corner was an American flag, complete with golden cords holding it in place. Ono was sure that was significant in some manner. The rest of the room was well-appointed. There was a polished wood desk, a luxurious leather chair behind it and three more well-stuffed chairs arrayed across the room. Empty bookshelves lined the walls, and a large water cooler was in the corner opposite the flag.
Sakura walked in like she owned the place. She smirked at the furniture, running a finger along the top of the desk and then checking it idly for dust. Satisfied, she slid up onto the top and sat with her legs crossed.
“Well, what do you think?” she asked, tossing her head so that her long blonde hair glimmered in an arc behind her.
“Is this your office?” Soun asked, looking mildly impressed. Sakura laughed.
“Actually, no.” She turned her eyes towards Ono again. “It’s yours.”
“Mine?” He blinked.
“Perhaps I can help explain?”
Soun and Ono turned at the new voice. Two strangers were standing in the doorway. They were men, and had the look of fighters about them. The shorter one was definitely stronger. His aura was practically burning like a bonfire to someone as sensitive to such things as Ono was. Yet he moved with a sort of easy, careless quality. It was like he wasn’t aware of the violent power that resided within him. And Ono couldn’t have called it anything but violent. He had never seen a spirit so refined to serve as a weapon.
Physically, the man was a little short for an American. He had blonde hair he had tied back in a ponytail that stretched down to his waist. He was muscular; not like a bodybuilder but the lean, taut muscle of an athlete. He wore a green vest, open in the front and with a knife strapped to one shoulder and a gun under the other. Under that was a white short-sleeved shirt with a badge of some kind sewn onto the shoulders. He also wore jeans, kneepads and boots. On his head was a red cap with a metal plate riveted to the front.
His companion stepped forward first. He was also smiling, and he reached out to take Ono’s hand. Ono met him half-way and shook it. His grip was firm, and his spirit was powerful as well. But it was unrefined. Ono had met people like him before. They had strong willpower and led extraordinary lives, but had never gotten proper training. Where the blonde was a living weapon, this man was a sleeping dog… just waiting to be woken up.
“The name is Chris Redfield,” the man introduced himself as they shook. His Japanese was heavily accented but very good. His build was less lean than his companion, but he was taller, and definitely liked to work out. He had short brown hair that seemed to be naturally spiky and a sort of everyman handsomeness. “You would be Doctor Tofu Ono?”
“Yes…” Ono replied.
“The big guy here is Terry,” Redfield said, releasing Ono so he could gesture towards his friend.
“Terry Bogard,” the blonde said, stepping forward to repeat the ritual greeting. His Japanese was flawless. Tofu took his hand with some trepidation, but to his surprise the man’s aura felt surprisingly gentle. “Welcome to Southtown, Doc.”
The two introduced themselves to Soun as well. From the way Sakura greeted them, Ono guessed they had already met.
“Why don’t you both sit, make yourselves comfortable?”
“Sure…” Ono sat down and Soun followed him. “Can I ask what is going on here?”
Redfield glanced at Sakura. She just grinned impishly and shrugged. He sighed. “I didn’t introduce myself fully. My name is Lieutenant Chris Redfield, US Army special forces unit STARS.” He tapped the badge on his shoulder. It was a circle with three stars in it and the word “S.T.A.R.S.” written above it in block letters. Around the patch was the Latin phrase ‘pro patria mori.’
“You’re with the army?” Soun asked, surprised.
“Yes, now…” He trailed off and shook his head. “This is my staff sergeant, Terry. I wanted him to be in charge since he’s stronger than me, but he refuses to accept it.”
Terry shrugged easily from where he was leaning against the wall. He had retrieved an apple from somewhere, and took a bite out of it before responding.
“You have the actual field experience here.”
“I still say I should have been put in charge,” Sakura said with a mock pout.
Terry laughed. “The day you let them give you a desk job like this is the day you start attending confession.”
“Oh, wouldn’t you like to hear my confessions,” Sakura purred, sitting back languidly.
“Sorry,” the man responded and put his palms forward. “You’re a little young for me.”
“As fascinating as this is…” Ono said with just a hint of impatience.
“Oh, right,” Redfield smiled at him. He walked over and sat behind the desk. “Basically, STARS is the government’s response to Chronos… and the other things that go bump in the night.”
“The monsters?” Ono frowned. He had never seen any of these so-called monsters. But Akane had told him that they were very real before they parted ways. He had to believe Akane, didn’t he?
“Yes…” Redfield leaned back and laced his arms behind his head. “We’re already striking back. They fished me and a few of my friends out of Raccoon City before everything went to hell. Thanks to Miss Yamazaki here, they believed my story about the horrors that Umbrella had unleashed on the city…” He trailed off. “Mainly we’ve been gathering forces. Recruiting people like you and Mr. Tendo and…” He trailed off, again. “Where’s Saotome?”
“Cooling down,” Sakura explained lazily.
Redfield frowned. “Shouldn’t he be here?”
“Trust me, we don’t need to win him over.” She chuckled. “I’ll just convince his wife that her husband should repay our kindness and she’ll get him to fall in line.”
Redfield looked at her again, but her smile was unfazed so he shook his head and turned back to Tofu. “We’ve also been striking back. We already have enough forces to mount raids. Chronos fronts, Umbrella labs, vampire infiltrators on Capitol Hill… taking out the beasts one by one. For now, we work from here.”
“Why here?” Ono asked idly.
“Southtown is a city full of martial artists,” Terry broke in. “Most of the people we’ve recruited either live here or know people who do. Plus, as far as we’ve been able to tell, this is the only town in the entire country that was never touched by Chronos. I’d never even heard of Umbrella. Sure, we had a few bad apples here, but they’ve fallen in line now that they know what’s at stake.” He smiled. “The important thing is that this city is the only totally free city in America. So until we can move more openly, this is where we work from.”
“I see…” Ono murmured. He bowed his head. “Gentlemen, I’m sorry. I don’t think I’m the man you’re looking for. I’m a healer, not a fighter. I swore an oath to bring no harm. Even if what you say is true and these monsters are as bad as everyone says they are… I don’t think I could raise a hand against them.”
“We’re not asking you to,” Terry replied softly.
“You’re not?” Soun replied, looking baffled. “But Miss Yamazaki told us back in Japan that-“
“That we need you?” Redfield interrupted, smiling. “She was right. We do need you.” He stood up. “But there is a reason she didn’t fight harder to convince all the young people with you to come. You were the real prize all along. The three of you, actually.”
“Us?” Soun said.
“Yes,” Redfield nodded. He stood up and walked over to the window and continued talking with his back to them. “Gentlemen, there is a war coming. It is a war that America can not currently win. The enemy is too numerous and too strong.” He reached up and touched the patch on his shoulder. “People like Terry and I… we’re here to buy you time.”
“Time… for what?” Tofu didn’t like the sound of this.
“To get us ready for the future.” He reached up and pulled on a cord. The shades flew open, letting in a blinding sunbeam. Ono shielded his eyes. When he finished blinking away the spots from his vision, he saw Redfield gesturing for him to come forward. Ono did so slowly; Soun remained where he was.
The building they had entered had been massive, but now Tofu saw that was only because there was a huge courtyard in the middle. It was easily a hundred meters on each side, and in that courtyard stood children. None of them could have been older than ten. There were boys and girls, caucasians, blacks, hispanics and asians… hundreds of them.
“Children…?” Ono said slowly, not sure what he was seeing.
“Picked from the most promising students all across the country. They all passed rigorous tests: physical, mental and psychological. We looked for the qualities that stood out the most among those people we knew made good martial artists: willpower, drive, individualism, creativity… and talent.”
“Children?” Ono wasn’t sure what he was talking about.
“One thousand, two hundred and thirty, give or take.” He tapped the glass. “And now they are yours.”
“We need an army,” Redfield said slowly. “You three are among the best we could find. Teachers. You know how to teach others how to fight. How to harness their chi. How to fight on an even foot with the monsters. You are our only hope.”
“You want me to teach…” Ono broke off, aghast. “You want me to turn them into killers!” He stepped away from the window. “They’re only children! This is inhuman!”
“They won’t be children forever, Doc,” Terry said, his voice soft but filled with an edge of steel. “I’ve seen what we’re fighting. I’ve watched these monsters blow buildings to dust. I’ve seen creatures out of old horror movies walking around in broad daylight. I didn’t want to believe it at first either… but I know that unless we do this, these children have no future.”
“I can’t build you an army!” Ono shot back.
“We’re not asking you to do it overnight,” Sakura said, her voice mollifying. “The president realises you may need time.”
“Time…” Ono looked back out the window. They were just children… “I’ll need years.”
Terry stood away from the wall. He pulled his gloves on tighter. “That’s what we’re here for.” He grinned. “To give you that time.”
“Ukyou, wait up…” Daitetsu Kunikida called as the young woman started towards the door. She paused and looked back over her shoulder at him. Her eyes were as black as her long coat. Thankfully, Daitetsu was too far away to be distracted by the ‘interesting’ shape of her eyes. “I was wondering if we could have a word, for just a moment?”
Ukyou looked over back out of the temple. Her friends had stopped in the courtyard. The wind swirled maple leaves around their ankles as the young martial artists stood on the messy gravel, leaving the TAC inside the structure. Daitetsu couldn’t believe that the fate of the world might rest in the hands of such young children. They didn’t act like warriors, they acted like teenagers. Only Ukyou, ironically enough, looked like she understood what it was to be an adult. Perhaps, she looked too much like she did.
“We’ll all meet back here in a few hours,” Ukyou called to them. “Once we know which of the hideouts Vega is using, we can begin to decide how to take him down.”
“Right,” the tall, blonde-haired boy said. He nodded to the others and they all started moving in their assigned directions. Ukyou turned around and started back into the temple, her hair and coat swirling behind her. Daitetsu saw the others, his people, all getting ready to leave as well.
“Please, I want you all to stay for this as well,” he said, waving for them to stay put. Ukyou raised an eyebrow, and the others all sat down… some more grudgingly than others.
“What is it you want, Kunikida?” Ukyou said when she was a metre or so away from him. She crossed her arms, but her expression was as clinically neutral as all the other times he had seen it.
“You’re not in a hurry,” Daitetsu explained as he sat down and motioned for her to do the same. “Even if you have ditched your crutches, you’re in no shape to be going around town looking for a dangerous psychotic with superhuman powers.” He smiled ruefully. “With the list that girl Marz drew out of her computer, your friends should find him in no time.”
“Indeed…” Ukyou sighed and sat down. “I suppose you’re right.”
“I just thought that…” Daitetsu paused and fished in his jacket. He pulled out a thin Polaroid picture. It was an original shot he had secured from a friend he had in the newspaper. He knew what it was. It looked like a giant brown skin that encircled the top of a skyscraper downtown. “That you might know what this is?”
Ukyou’s eyes widened, and Daitetsu grinned. He had thought as much. She reached out and took the picture in her mechanically steady fingers. He didn’t resist her taking it. She stared down at the picture for a long time. Finally she said one word, spitting it out like a curse: “Kaede.”
“What?” Kusanagi said, standing up suddenly. “What did you say?” Ukyou didn’t respond, and Kusanagi stormed across the room. Momiji stared after him, her expression confused… maybe even hurt. “Let me see that picture!”
Ukyou wordlessly handed it to him. He lifted it up and squinted at it. Then he snorted and dropped it. It floated innocuously to the floor. “This just looks like another aragami.”
“Indeed…” Ukyou replied. She ran a hand through her bangs. Her lotus-shaped eyes had a far away look to them.
“It was found this morning.” Daitetsu explained. “Nobody knows how it got there, or what its purpose might be.”
“It’s a part of a ritual,” Ukyou explained. She sat back and crossed her arms. “The aragami that created this will place two more on similar buildings throughout Tokyo. When it finishes, they will create a mystic focus of energy. That energy will be directed into a single point, used to revive a dead god.”
“A what?” Koume said, disbelievingly.
“A god,” Ukyou repeated sharply. “Do you really have that much trouble believing in that, Koume?”
“Maybe I do,” Koume said just as sharply.
“We don’t have time for this,” Daitetsu pointed out mildly.
“You’re right, sorry,” Ukyou said. She looked at him strangely for a moment. “The name of the god is Susano-oh.”
“Susano-oh?” Momiji gasped. “You mean, like in the original legend of the Yamato-no-Orochi?”
“One and the same,” Ukyou agreed.
“That’s how all this started, isn’t it?” Matsudaira said slowly. “The ancient legend of the Orochi. Susano-oh slew the demon beast and took the Princess Kushinada as his bride for payment, and this must be some metaphor for what happened centuries ago when the Orochi and the aragami were forced to go dormant.” She nodded to herself. “And then, when the twins Momiji and Kaede were born, it broke the bloodline of the Kushinada in two, and the power that had been sealing the aragami was released.”
“Exactly,” Ukyou said.
“But wait…” Ryoko said. “We destroyed the Orochi already. It attacked Momiji at her school. That’s how she got the mitama implanted in her body. If the Orochi was slain by Susano-oh back then, how could it have been alive there?”
Kusanagi said nothing, but he too looked skeptical. Daitetsu couldn’t blame him. The only partially human young man was carrying seven of the eight ‘souls’ that had made up the power of the Orochi himself, and had been ever since he was a young child.
“Still alive, actually,” Ukyou said with a sigh. “The Orochi was not killed when you saved Momiji. He is still very much alive, and in Tokyo right now. He calls himself Murakumo, as long as he is walking around in his human form.”
“Murakumo?” Kusanagi said.
“Yes, haven’t you met him already?” Ukyou asked.
“Nope,” he replied.
“And that’s where assumptions get me, as usual.” Ukyou grimaced to herself. “The timeline has been so badly altered that events are beginning to diverge extremely from what happened before.”
“Timeline?” Yaegashi asked.
“It’s not important…” Ukyou raised up her hand to stop any questions. “The damage has already been done, and nothing I can do can undo that now. What I can do is make sure you know what you’re about to step into.” She looked significantly at Kusanagi as she spoke. He blinked, and pointed his thumb at his chest. She nodded to him. “Yes, you, Kusanagi. I’m afraid what I’m going to tell you is going to be difficult for you to deal with, especially. You should sit down.”
“I’ll stand, thank you,” Kusanagi said, his voice level. He crossed his arms and glared down his nose at Ukyou, but she didn’t flinch. Momiji walked up behind him, and Ukyou looked at the young girl. For a moment, her hard expression softened to something that could have been sympathy, then she looked back at Kusanagi and her face was an icy mask again.
“Suit yourself.” Ukyou picked up the picture from where it landed on the floor. “Kaede is the one who did this. She is the one trying to revive Susano-oh. She is the one who is in control of the aragami. She is the enemy.”
“You… lying BITCH!” Kusanagi grabbed Ukyou’s collar and lifted her off the ground. Everyone else was so stunned by her statement that they could only watch in shock as the orange-skinned man dangled her in the air as if she was a small child. The cords on his neck stood out and the muscles on his forearm bunched dangerously as he drew back one hand. “What did you say about Kaede?” he screamed in her face.
“You heard me, Kusanagi,” Ukyou said, not intimidated in the slightest. “Think back. You know what I’m saying is true. Remember that night she vanished. She wasn’t taken, Kusanagi. She went of her own free will. Remember what she said to you.”
Daitetsu stood up quickly and grabbed the young man’s shoulder. “Is this true, Kusanagi?” he shouted, barely able to keep his own emotions under control. “Did she really say something to you that night?”
“She’s lying!” Kusanagi roared and threw Ukyou back roughly. The girl managed to land on her feet, but winced and grabbed her side. “Kaede would never join up with them!” His hands were shaking. “I knew her! I watched her every day! She loved this country! She loved her life! She loved… she loved…” he trailed off slowly.
“Kusanagi…” Momiji said, grabbing his sleeve in a gentle grip. “What… what do you mean, Kusanagi?”
“I…” he glanced at Momiji, then shrugged off her hand and turned his back on Ukyou.
“Kusanagi!” Momiji gasped. Her eyes quivered. “Kusanagi… what do you mean by what you said?” He put his hands in his pocket and walked over into the corner. “Why won’t you answer me? Kusanagi?” Momiji’s voice caught, and her eyes glistened.
“Momiji…” Daitetsu walked over and put a comforting hand on her shoulder. She looked up at him, and there were tears on her cheeks. The old man smiled and bit his tongue. He had to be strong. How Kusanagi had reacted… it had… it had… He couldn’t allow himself to look sad. It felt like his eyes were burning. His jaw hurt. His heart felt cold and empty.
Kaede? She couldn’t have…
He had always loved her.
He had shown her nothing but kindness.
She was closer to him than anybody else ever had been. She was family. She was his daughter in everything but blood.
But Momiji had just learned that the man she loved still had feelings for another woman. Her own sister. Momiji needed him to be strong. He wouldn’t let himself cry in front of her. He drew her into a soft embrace.
As he held Momiji, he heard Ryoko speak up, asking Ukyou for details. Good, level-headed Ryoko… she could always be counted on keeping her focus. He sent out a silent thanks, because he didn’t trust himself to speak without his voice cracking.
“What does Kaede want? Why is she trying to resurrect Susano-oh?”
“That’s… complicated…” Ukyou said levelly. “On the surface, she wants to resurrect Susano-oh because she believes that Japan has become corrupt. She thinks that humans are a plague that have infected our country with machines and pollution and soul-crushing cities. She wants to use the power of a god to destroy every living human in Japan and wipe out all traces of our civilization. If she succeeds, Japan will be turned into a pristine wilderness with nothing but plants surviving.”
“That’s insane!” Yaegashi yelled. “I knew Kaede, she would never do something like that!”
“She can and she will, unless someone stops her,” Ukyou said forcefully. “That’s why I said it’s complicated. I never could figure out why she wants to accomplish that. If you’re looking to me for answers as to why she started this mad quest… I can’t help you. Something must have made her decide to do it, to change her from the kind person you all knew into… what she is now.” Ukyou paused. “Or maybe you just never could see what she really was. Maybe you all loved her too much, to see the malice that was growing inside of her.”
“You take that back!” Momiji shouted as she suddenly broke free of Daitetsu’s grip. The girl stormed over to Ukyou, and held up her fists. “Mr. Kunikida has never been anything but a sweet and gentle man to me! He wouldn’t have raised my sister to be a monster like you said…”
“I never said-” Ukyou started, her voice inflectionless.
“Apologise!” Momiji insisted.
“Momiji…” Daitetsu said softly.
“I won’t apologize for the truth, Momiji,” Ukyou replied implacably.
“That may be…” Momiji sniffed and rubbed her nose with the back of her hand. But her eyes were quivering now, not with sadness but with anger. “You might be right, but you don’t have to be so cruel!”
“It’s okay, Momiji…” Daitetsu said as he walked up and grabbed her shoulder. “I understand.”
“It’s not right!” Momiji insisted.
“Yes, it is,” Daitetsu said. “You can’t see it… but Ukyou is being cruel because she wants to prepare us.” Ukyou started and looked at him sharply. He smiled thinly. He could still feel his entire face aching from how hard he was holding in his emotions, but he managed to smile. “She’s right. We do love Kaede. She wants to prepare us because if she is right, we will have to fight her. We will have to fight Kaede with as much passion and drive as we would any other enemy.” He looked Ukyou in her intimidating, emotionless black-lotus eyes without flinching. “Ukyou wants to force all the pain out of us now, make us confront our own feelings, because if we don’t… and she is right… we may be helpless to fight when we need to.” He paused. “And then good people will die.”
Ukyou inclined her head slightly.
“To hell with you and your emotions!” Kusanagi roared. There was a loud crash as he put his fist through the wood of the temple wall. He was snarling. “I won’t believe this! How the hell does this girl know anything about us? About Kaede?” He turned his eyes on Ukyou. “I don’t care what you think you know, but I won’t just take your word on that. I would rather… I would rather… If Kaede had to be my enemy… I would rather she was dead!”
“Kusanagi,” Momiji murmured into Daitetsu’s chest as he held her tightly.
“If you don’t act soon, she will be,” Ukyou said, folding her arms.
“What?” Ryoko blurted out. “But you just said that unless someone stops her…”
“I know that.” Ukyou cut her off with one hand. “Listen. When Susano-oh is reborn, he won’t be brought back with his full strength. He’ll be only an infant. In order to regain his full strength, Kaede must take the child on a pilgrimage to holy sites throughout Japan where he can gather energy to eventually mature to his adult form. Then his power will be fully restored and he could, emphasis could, destroy every human in Japan.” Ukyou paused. “But this isn’t the world Susano-oh left behind centuries ago.”
“Would you care to explain that?” Koume snapped.
“Chronos, Shadowloo, the Dark Kingdom…” Ukyou held up her fingers one at a time. “Organizations and powers I haven’t even discovered yet. Japan is a land under siege by monsters. When Kaede finishes this ritual, she is going to create a massive signal, a surge of power that none of them could possibly ignore. She’ll also be announcing her location for everyone who wants to find her.” Ukyou frowned, her face grim. “The monsters will descend on her like locusts.”
“So if we do nothing…” Matsudaira mused. “Kaede will still be stopped? You’re saying that Chronos and these other conspiracies will do everything in their power to stop her, since they don’t want all of Japan to be rendered uninhabitable any more than we do?”
“Indeed.” Ukyou nodded towards the middle-aged scientist, but her voice was still cold and Daitetsu could tell she had more to say. “But she won’t go without a fight. Murakumo is the legendary Orochi, and he has powers that dwarf anything you people have ever seen. He could defeat Kusanagi without even working up a sweat… and that’s in his human form. In his eight-headed dragon shape… I don’t even know how powerful he is. He could probably level Tokyo.”
“No way…” Yaegashi gasped, his glasses slipping off his nose.
“Yes way,” Ukyou nodded. “And Chronos has powers as strong as him. Hyper-zoanoids, or even zoalords. If they attack, Murakumo will fight like a demon to protect Susano-oh. And so will all the other aragami.” Ukyou paused a moment, to let that sink in. “It will be like the proverbial spark in the fireworks factory. The war will spill over into the streets of Tokyo. Monsters with the power of gods slugging it out without a care of how many innocents get caught in the crossfire. At the very least, Tokyo will go up in flames. And who knows how far the devastation will spread?” Ukyou sighed. “Murakumo and Kaede would lose. Chronos is too much for them. But they could end up doing far more devastation than they ever would have had it just been you six trying to stop her.”
“This is unreal…” Yaegashi said, resetting his glasses.
“Ukyou, are you truly serious about this?” Daitetsu asked.
“I am.” She turned back towards him. “You have to find her and stop her now, Kunikida. If she completes this ritual, then all hell could break loose.” Ukyou’s face softened into the same almost sympathetic expression she had given Momiji earlier. “That’s why I wanted to prepare you. Because we don’t have time for you to wrestle with your feelings. You have to go down there and stop Kaede… no matter the cost.”
“You want us to kill her!” Kusanagi shouted, tearing his hand free of the wall. Boards clattered to the floor as he sent them scattering across the temple. “What a fucking hypocrite! You won’t kill three bitch assassins, but you want us to kill a girl we’ve known all our lives! Is that what you want? Is it!? Answer me, damn you!”
Ukyou didn’t answer, but her silence was all the answer Kusanagi needed. He stormed past her, shoving her aside. She staggered, but kept her feet. Kusanagi’s jacket swirled in his wake as he stepped out into the courtyard of the temple. Momiji held her hand out towards him, and for a moment it looked like she was going to follow him. Then her hand went limp and fell to her side. She stifled a sob and moved away from Daitetsu. He wanted to follow her, to show her that she was still safe with him.
But he couldn’t. He just… couldn’t. Ukyou was asking him to take her word, her word alone… and go and do everything he could to stop his own daughter from destroying Japan. Even if he had to kill her.
He stood in the centre of the room, stunned.
This was too big.
Ukyou was right. He couldn’t afford to be stunned. If Chronos was as dangerous as she said, a war between it and the aragami would devastate Japan. Not to mention all the other powers she had mentioned. A five, or six, or seven-way war between the monsters that wanted to enslave Japan…
What was he supposed to do? He was just a man.
He looked into Ukyou’s eyes. Beyond her black-lotuses, beyond her cold expression… he could see his own reflection. He could see the terror and uncertainty on his face. He suddenly knew that this was exactly how Ukyou felt. Even when she was at full strength… she was still just a woman. He remembered back to their first conversation, and that strange mix of resignation and determination he had heard in her voice. He had wondered, at the time, how anyone could feel that way.
Now he knew.
“How do we stop her?” It was Ryoko again.
“I’ll tell you!” Koume roared. “We blow her up!” She smacked her fist into her palm. “A few hundred pounds of C-4, maybe some thermite… We find this ceremony and we blow the living hell out of it is what we do! Then we blast this Chronos away! And Shadowloo, and anybody else that wants to mess with us humans!” She grinned maniacally. “We’ll show those monsters that humanity hasn’t been idle for the past few centuries. There is no problem that can’t be solved with enough high explosives!”
“Somehow, I don’t think it will be that easy…” Yaegashi sighed.
“Shut up, dorkwad!” Koume snapped.
“Be quiet, both of you!” Ryoko burst out. Her own nerves looked like they were beginning to fray. Daitetsu looked at her for a long time. Her face was white, and her eyes and mouth were thin, almost pinched with pressure. But her eyes shone with determination. She glanced at him, and her tension seemed to melt away when she noticed he was looking to her. “We need to think about this rationally. First, Ukyou… tell us how we can find Kaede, and everything you can about this Murakumo. Once we know more… then we’ll decide what to do.”
“She’s underground,” Ukyou explained. “In the exact centre of the perfect triangle her aragami is building for her. I think… I think I know how to find her. It involves using Momiji.”
“No!” Daitetsu snapped instantly. But Momiji had turned around at the mention of her name, and he found the fire he had felt spring up die at the look of quiet determination on the young girl’s face. She wanted to do this.
“What about you, wonder-girl?” Koume asked with a snort. “Aren’t you going to use your magic powers to help us find her? You seem to know everything else.”
“I can’t…” Ukyou said, bowing her head. “I have to find Hotaru. If we lose her… then none of this matters. Sailor Saturn will make everything we do moot.”
“And if you’re off saving the life of a little girl, that just happens to make you too busy to help us kill another girl, doesn’t it?” the spiteful part of Daitetsu’s mind snapped silently. But he didn’t say anything. He reached into his kimono shirt. He could feel the cold metal of his service pistol there.
Ukyou might be right, the more sensible part of his brain said as she started to explain her plan. They might have no choice. His fingers shook as he tried to grab onto the grip of the weapon. Could he… would it come down to that?
He looked up at the ceiling and wondered what gods he should pray to for salvation.
“The modifications we made seem to have exceeded even our greatest expectations.”
“Hrm. I see.”
Aptom slowly opened his eyes. His world was green. He was floating, weightless. It tasted bitter, metallic… it made his nose itch. He was in a processing tank. He knew the sensations well. Most of his life since he had been processed the first time had been spent in one of these tanks. Far more than any other zoanoid. The scientists had never stopped tinkering with him. He was their favourite toy, always moving in and out of the tanks and the testing rooms.
He hated it. He hated the way the fluid leeched all the warmth from the world until everything was a uniform, bland, ‘acceptable’ temperature. He hated the taste of it, and he anticipated his hate of the smell of it lingering on him once he was set free.
He glanced down and saw that his arm had been regrown, as had the rest of his flesh. He was once again in his ‘base form’, as the scientists called it. He vaguely remembered crawling away from the disastrous battle in Tokyo, still in the useless form of that pathetic Sailor Senshi. He must have made his way to some Chronos personnel, and been rushed back here. He would have chuckled, if he could breathe in this green hell.
“So tell me, Doctor, why take me down here for all of this?”
Aptom realised that there were voices outside his tank, and that they had awoken him. He glanced up slowly. They hadn’t realised he was awake, so he could watch.
He recognised Commander Gyro immediately. The man looked like some twisted anachronism in his suit that barely fit over his muscular frame. His features was weathered, and looked like the face of a man who would have been at home in some ancient barbarian horde. Commander Gyro had been his salvation from the tanks. He had hand-chosen him as the leader of the ‘Lost Units’.
The other man with him was new to Aptom. He was shorter than the commander, and looked much older. He was bald with a long flowing beard, and wore body-concealing robes of white and purple. Out of his wrinkled forehead a single gleaming gem emerged like some hideous egg, surrounded by the ruptured and scarred tissue of his scalp.
A woman was in the background. She had short hair, and wore an artfully cut skirt and jacket that enhanced her attractiveness while erring just on the side of professional. Her eyes were large, and lacked any form of pupil. Aptom had seen such creatures before… customised genetic servants of the Chronos elite.
“I wanted your opinion on my project,” the old man said, smiling grimly. “You spent the most time attempting to apprehend the Guyver. Now that the responsibility has been passed on to me, I was wondering what you thought of my new toy.”
“I think you are wasting your time, Valkus,” Gyro snorted and crossed his arms. “This creature was a complete failure. Even when assigned to a simple surveillance mission, all it did was get destroyed by mere humans.”
Valkus laughed. He walked away from Gyro. “Don’t be so quick to dismiss my work, commander.” There was a hint of sarcasm in the elder zoalord’s voice, and Gyro’s face became briefly dangerous before calming down.
“Show the commander some of the improvements we have made,” Valkus continued.
“Yes, Doctor Valkus,” the woman responded. She tapped at a handheld screen and a large display on the far wall flickered. Aptom’s eyes narrowed. They still didn’t know he was awake. He watched as a picture of his own face and a rotating model of his body appeared on the screen. Text began to appear, seemingly at random, with small green lines leading from the data to various points on his body. “As you know, the Aptom series was designed to be a superior metamorphic model. It was the hope of the Japan branch that it would be able to change its body to adapt to any form of battlefield condition or opponent. However, in its original implementation the model was unable to become a perfect imitation of the other zoanoids it mimicked.”
“Yes, yes…” Gyro growled.
“Doctor Valkus has improved on this,” the woman explained. “Via means of cellular communion, the Aptom unit can now sample the DNA of its opponents. With this DNA, it should be able to perfectly replicate the combat abilities of any creature it is exposed to. In theory, it has limitless power growth potential and the ability to assimilate a nearly infinite number of genetic templates.”
“I’m supposed to be impressed?” Gyro snapped.
“You are such a simple man, Gyro,” Valkus said, but his tone was mild. “It is good that you saw the light when you did. I think that this model shall be more than a match for the Guyver, don’t you?”
“This is only distracting me,” Gyro snapped. “I am supposed to be in charge of the capture operation for the Sailor Senshi, am I not? That was what you… assigned me, wasn’t it?” Gyro’s voice grated. “What does this have to do with me?”
“Nothing,” Valkus responded. “Like I mentioned, I simply wanted your input.”
“I think it is an impressive killing machine,” Gyro replied evenly. “But I also think you take too much pleasure in tinkering for the sake of it, doctor.”
“Perhaps you are right!” Valkus laughed loudly. “Come. There is no need for hostility between us. We are both on the same side, here.” He grinned. “Let us go upstairs and enjoy a fine meal. Then you can tell me how progress goes in the search for those escaped Senshi. I believe you tracked them to Tokyo, did you not?”
Gyro nodded wordlessly and allowed Valkus to lead him to the door. Aptom followed them with his eyes, making sure to remain as still as possible. The assistant turned to follow the two, but Valkus gestured for her to stop.
“I want you to contact Dr. Shirai and correlate all his data on the Unit Remover: have it prepared for me in two hours.”
“Yes, sir,” she replied with a tiny bow. She waited until her superiors had left the room before walking back over to the large screen to begin her work. Too bad she would never get a chance to finish it.
There was a loud crash as Aptom put his fist through the thick glass of the processing tank. He wasn’t worried about the noise. He knew from painful experience that these labs were soundproofed. The woman spun around, startled. Aptom grinned as he tore his way free of the tank, the viscous green fluid spilling in a tiny waterfall onto the metal floor.
“You are… awake?” she said slowly.
Aptom chuckled and walked over to her. “Yes. And I have no intention of wasting my time fighting the Guyver.” She gasped, but he moved quickly and his hands snapped around her throat before she could scream. He dragged her away from the console as her arms flailed vainly for the alarm. “Maybe later, I will have my revenge on him for killing my brother Somlum… and maybe later, I will destroy that bitch Sailor Moon for what she did to Dyme…” He grinned. He could feel her. Not just her flesh under his fingertips. He could feel his flesh on her neck… and then he began to feel the hot sweat rolling down her cheeks and the burning pain in her lungs as she tried to get air.
He was feeling her… more and more of her with every second. Her eyes widened. She knew what was happening, but it was far too late. An instant later, and the eyes changed. They weren’t her eyes anymore. He was looking into his own eyes. He could see himself. He was looking back at himself through her eyes. With a sort of twisted epiphany he realised that he had completely absorbed her. Her body was now a part of his body.
He looked down and saw that his hands had fused grotesquely with her neck. He frowned, and willed her flesh to withdraw. As he watched, her body unravelled like a ball of twine. The fleshy tendrils of her slowly sunk into his own naked form. In a moment, he was alone in the room. He raised one hand, and stared at it in fascination.
He looked over at the panel. She had been about to contact someone. He tried to picture who it was in his mind, but aside from the name he had already heard, nothing else became clear. So… he had not absorbed her memories. Just her body. Still, that should be good enough.
He smiled, and slowly his body twisted. The transformation wasn’t painful, as it had always been before. It almost felt pleasant as he compressed and expanded parts of his body on command. He would have to thank Doctor Valkus for his improvements. He glanced into the viewscreen and saw the woman’s face reflected back at him. Always before, his imitations had been imperfect… scarred as he was. But now the duplication was exact. He glanced up and down her naked body, but got no pleasure out of it. Zoanoids had such distractions designed out of them. It lessened the bloodlust.
He chuckled and began to pick up her clothes. With his new abilities, it would be child’s play to sneak out of the mountain. Then… then he would find the boy. The boy who had humiliated him. He would be first. Once he was dead… the rest would follow.
It was only a matter of time, now.
Ran wondered why her famous reporter’s instincts were deserting her. This was the perfect moment. It was like a scene out of a western, or a samurai epic. She should have been taping all this, recording it for future generations.
The street had cleared. Everyone could sense the sudden tension that filled the air. People hurried along, disappearing down the side streets. It left a string of six teenagers, lined up in a neat row. The wind blew a cloud of dust in front of them as they stared grim-faced at the building they had converged at.
Ukyou stood in the middle. Her expression was stony… and her eyes, they looked so much like the eyes Ran had seen in the vision. She stood with her staff held on her shoulder. Ran knew she was still too injured to be of much use in the fight, but Ukyou had insisted on coming along anyway.
Next to her, and on either side, were Ranma and Akira. Ranma was standing still, but you could feel the energy flowing from him like a river. He was smiling, and his confidence was infectious. Akira was opposite him, and her face was hidden behind her motorcycle helmet. The intimidating skull and mirror sheen of her helmet reflected the morning light. Her motorcycle was parked behind her.
Kyosuke was next to Akira. He looked out of place, almost, among all the others there. He was taller than anyone else present. His eyes were clouded as he adjusted his glasses with two fingers. Ran herself was next to Ranma. Her vest was overflowing with papers she had picked up from the street corner this morning. She had only read a few of them. She had been too nervous.
Ryouga stood next to and slightly behind Kyosuke. He kept looking at Ranma out of the corner of his eyes. But his expression was dark, brooding. In one hand he carried a bamboo umbrella. Behind him stood Nabiki. The girl had insisted on following them here. She had no intention of going in, but she claimed that she also had no intention of letting Ryouga too far out of her sight. Nabiki was an attractive girl, and Ran supposed that must have been why he kept glancing at her. She wondered why his face was filled with such longing and disgust when he did, but this wasn’t the place for that.
“Hey, Ran, you okay?” Ranma said. She glanced up at him. He grinned and slapped her on the shoulder. “Don’t worry about it. I could take this loser out by myself. With five of us here, he doesn’t stand a chance.”
“Don’t get cocky,” Ukyou warned. “Vega is dangerous, and will kill. Our best bet here is overwhelming force. If we take him down with sheer numbers, nobody should be hurt.”
“A logical plan,” Kyosuke agreed. Ran nodded weakly. Ranma patted her on the shoulder again, trying to bolster her confidence.
“The plan is simple,” Ukyou said, stepping forward. “We go in the front and draw Vega out. He’s arrogant, so he might be stupid enough to confront us all directly. If not, we don’t get separated no matter what! He can’t run fast enough to escape if he carries Hotaru. If he tries to use her as a hostage… let me do the talking.”
“Right,” Ranma, Akira and Ryouga all said simultaneously. Kyosuke nodded. Ran did so as well, but without as much force.
“I guess I’ll see you in a bit then,” Nabiki said as she waved at the group. “Just bring Ryouga back to that cafe down the street. Oh, and don’t forget our deal, Ukyou.”
Ukyou nodded. Ryouga glanced at the departing Nabiki. His fists clenched and he murmured something under his breath. Then his face set into a violent stare as he looked at the building.
As Ran turned her attention from him, she saw Ukyou whispering something into the side of Akira’s helmet. Akira paused, then nodded sharply. It was very hard to tell she was even a girl, under that helmet… even with her tight, black leather riding clothes.
“No more delays then!” Ukyou shouted, and began to march across the street. Ranma quickly moved in front of her, as did Kyosuke. Akira and Ryouga stayed just behind her. Ran took up the rear guard. She tried to focus. She couldn’t be thinking about unimportant things. A girl’s life was at stake. She needed to be on her toes.
The front door of the abandoned apartment burst apart as Ranma kicked it. He rolled inside, and Kyosuke followed him. Ukyou’s eyes had that faraway look to them, but Ran knew she was looking with senses far sharper than her own.
“He’s on the roof,” Ukyou said, almost instantly.
“Are you sure?” Kyosuke asked.
“He’s not even trying to hide,” Ukyou explained. “Hotaru is with him.”
“Straight up then!” Ranma shouted and started up the stairs one flight at a time.
Vega held up his claw. It caught the rising sun and created a brilliant slash of white in a nearby shadow. He smiled. Today was a beautiful day for a battle.
He glanced over his shoulder. Hotaru was crouched against a large air-conditioning duct. She had gotten her dress dirty. Vega clicked his tongue in disappointment. He had gone through such trouble to pick out a colour that brought out her eyes, too. Her skin was fine, with the healthy glow of the well-fed and well-treated. Her hair shone slightly purple in the sunlight. Her terrified eyes stared at him.
“Your friend Mamoru hasn’t come for you,” Vega explained in a cultured tone. “I must say I am most disappointed. It was my hope he would not abandon you. I guess I just put too much faith in him, don’t you think?”
Hotaru didn’t respond. She almost never did. She had spoken only once since he had sent off the Dolls to their fate.
“Don’t worry,” Vega said in a soothing tone. He walked over and stroked her cheek with one finger. She no longer flinched back. Not with her body. Only her eyes flinched. She had learned that he wouldn’t harm her. “That girl Ukyou, that Bison is so interested in, do you remember her?” He didn’t wait for a response. “It doesn’t matter, I suppose. She has come for you. She has brought friends with her. Quite a few of them.” He licked his lips. “I’m not certain if I can beat them all.”
He reached up and touched the edge of his mask. Hotaru’s eyes followed his motion. In all the time he had been with her, he had never once let her see his face. He had, after all, made a vow long ago that only those who were going to die could see the true face of Vega. He had explained that to her, in those long nights waiting for the Dolls, or Mamoru, or someone, to return. It was so hard keeping himself entertained when she didn’t talk.
Thankfully, he was such an interesting subject that he never really grew tired of it. Especially not when he had such a receptive audience.
“Do you want to see?” he asked. “They’ll be here shortly. Do you want me to show you before they arrive? Do you want them to see my face, as well?”
Hotaru’s eyes widened. She knew what he was asking her. She shook her head side to side. He laughed. Then he drew the mask slowly from his face. She stared up into his eyes. Then she closed hers sharply and jerked her head towards the ground. He sighed and tilted her head back up with one hand, while he used his other to gentle but firmly pry open one of her eyes.
“Look, Hotaru.” He smiled. “I am Vega. You are mine, no matter what happens here today. This is my promise to you. You know what it means. Look.”
He heard the door to the roof crash open. He smiled and stood up straight. He winked at Hotaru and elegantly placed his mask back in position. Turning with unconscious grace, he bowed slightly to his new audience.
Ranma kicked out, splintering the door with a single shot. For a moment the falling splinters and dust blocked his view, then sunlight shone into the narrow stairwell. He leapt out, glancing to both sides.
He needed have worried. Vega wasn’t lying in ambush. He was standing in the open. A huge clear space surrounded him on all sides. Ranma took a moment to study his opponent. The young man was wearing a mask, just like Ukyou had said he would be. He was also tall, with a body covered in taut, sculpted muscle. A tattoo of a serpent curled around his torso, and on one hand he brandished a wicked-looking claw. Ranma grinned.
He could take that jackass.
He could hear the others spilling onto the roof behind him. But Ranma’s eyes were only locked on Vega. Vega, in turn, looked straight at Ranma. Their blue eyes met. Vega had been in the middle of a mocking bow, but suddenly he changed. He bowed more deeply. Ranma inclined his own head slightly.
The message was clear. If only there weren’t so many other people here… they could really have a fight. Ranma’s fingers itched as he curled and uncurled them. It was too bad. He suddenly realised he hadn’t gotten the real fight he had wanted. The fight he had needed ever since he had met Ukyou. She had proved herself again and again…
“Vega!” Ukyou barked. “Let Hotaru go!”
“No,” Vega said after a moment’s thought. He had turned his head to regard Ukyou.
“You don’t have any choice,” Kyosuke said evenly. He held up one hand, slipping into a stance that gave Vega his profile. For a moment, sparks danced along the tips of Kyosuke’s fingers.
Ranma glanced behind Vega, and he could see the girl now. She didn’t look like she had been hurt. She just looked scared. Ranma smiled at her, trying to tell her that everything was all right now. Ranma was here.
“You children,” Vega said, laughing in a slow, refined manner. “You always think you know everything.” He shook his head, then raised his clawed hand into the air and gestured them forward. “I think this will be a glorious battle. Don’t you?”
Ukyou opened her mouth to respond, but she suddenly stopped. She turned slowly, her eyes widening. Ranma watched her mouth the words ‘not now’ as she turned. Then he heard it. A loud, repetitive chopping sound. Growing louder every second.
No. Not louder.
Ranma stepped back and shielded his eyes as the helicopter burst up from the side of the building. The wind tore at his shirt and he felt his pigtail snapping, occasionally flailing back and slapping him painfully on the back of the neck. The others had all turned and stood in shock as well. The helicopter was small, no larger than a large van. It was pure white, and spun gracefully in place so that it presented its side to them.
There were four women in the helicopter.
Akira tackled Ukyou to the side. A moment later three balls of light slammed into the spot where she had been. An explosion ripped up the roof. Concrete and plaster dust flew in all directions. Ranma stood his ground, deflecting it with a hundred perfect jabs. Nearby, Ryouga just frowned as the debris bounced off him.
As the echo of the explosion died down, Ranma could hear Vega laughing. His face was turned skyward, and his arms were spread out as if he were trying to embrace the heavens.
“This is just too perfect!” Vega laughed again.
“We missed,” a voice shouted from the helicopter. Ranma spun his eyes back in that direction. He could see Sailor Pluto sitting half inside the machine. Her long green hair was being pulled out in front of her by the pressure of the vacuum. Her staff was angling towards Ukyou’s new position. Beside her was that woman Rose. Her shawl, like her hair, was unnaturally stiff in the downdraft. A third girl was beside them, but Ranma didn’t recognise her. She had green hair and was dressed like another Sailor Senshi.
“Of all the times…” Ukyou growled as she rolled to her feet. Akira had bounced off of her and landed between her and the helicopter. The pilot was spinning the machine around the building. Ranma instantly knew she was trying to give the others a clear shot at Ukyou.
“Vega!” Kyosuke shouted, pointing.
Vega had grabbed Hotaru by the lapel. Her eyes were wide with shock and fear as he held her up easily with one hand. He turned his face in their direction for a split second.
Then he threw her off the side of the building.
“RYOUGA!” Ukyou shouted.
“Right!” Ryouga screamed, and charged after her. He vanished over the side of the building a fraction of a second later.
Ranma caught a flash of blue as Vega leapt across to the next building. It was three stories up, and ten meters across to the next roof. The man cleared the jump as if he had been skipping over a puddle.
“He’s getting away!” Ranma screamed. He could hear the helicopter behind him. He heard the sound of Pluto and friends opening fire again. He didn’t look back. Ukyou would survive. Ukyou would win. It was what Ukyou did.
Besides, she had Akira and Kyosuke and Ryouga with her.
Ranma made the jump. His feet touched down on the edge of the roof. He pinwheeled his arms for a second as he threatened to fall backwards. But he had made the jump.
Vega was two roofs away, but he stopped and glanced back. He saw Ranma running after him. Their eyes met across the distance. Ranma grinned. He wondered if Vega was doing the same thing.
“Right!” Ryouga screamed, and charged forward. The girl had already vanished over the lip of the building. He ran like the devil, he ran as fast as his legs would let him.
He didn’t know this girl Hotaru at all. She was nothing more to him than a scared girl who had been taken from her family. She was lost. She was afraid. That was all Ryouga knew. It was enough.
He dived over the side of the building without a second thought. The air screamed around him. The girl was screaming below him. She was falling in slow motion, her dress billowing out around her. Above him, the sound of explosions echoed.
He briefly wondered why it had been him that Ukyou had chosen. Ranma was faster than him. But then he saw why. It was a fifteen story fall to the pavement. He grimaced and willed himself to fall faster, trying to streamline himself like a diver.
It worked. He reached Hotaru as she passed by the eighth floor. By the sixth floor he had her in his arms. By the fourth he had pulled her against his body. By the second he had spun himself so that she was on top.
The ground gave way underneath him. Pavement and rock compressed so fast it gave off a cloud of steam and a sound like a cannon. It wasn’t fast enough. Ryouga screamed, his eyes squeezed shut as pain shot up the length of his back. If Nabiki had not trained him, he probably would have died.
One more thing he owed her.
He opened his eyes slowly. Hotaru was curled up on his chest. She was shivering. He was holding her gently. The crater he was lying in the bottom of was nearly two meters deep. The shockwave of his impact had blown out a nearby store’s display window. Glass covered the road.
Ryouga groaned and started to get up. He had taken worse hits in his life and kept on fighting.
“You’re… you’re okay…” Hotaru said. She sounded awestruck. Ryouga looked down at her.
“That was nothing,” he said with a wry grin. She looked at him, her eyes shimmering with tears of relief. He wanted to share her joy… but he couldn’t.
Monsters like him didn’t deserve the awe of little girls.
He glanced up the building. The helicopter was still spinning around it, the occasional blast rocketing out to hit the roof. Ryouga knew he was out of the battle. Even discounting how much time it would take to climb back up, and the fact he was likely to run up the wrong building while he was at it… he had Hotaru to protect.
There was a screech as a car pulled to a stop beside Ryouga. He turned, shamefaced. He was about to apologise to the person for blocking the road when he saw her step out of the station wagon.
She was beautiful, and wearing a red and black outfit that did little to conceal that fact. She had long, brilliant red hair and eyes that matched perfectly. She smiled at him, then stepped around to the back of her vehicle.
“Miss?” Ryouga asked. There was something wrong here. The little feeling on the back of his neck that warned of danger had started up. But this woman was the only one nearby. She was rummaging in her backseat. Finally she stepped out, holding what looked like the components of a stereo system.
Ryouga only watched in bafflement as the woman began to do the strangest thing. She began to put on the stereo. Like a suit. The speakers clamped onto her forearms, the tuners onto her torso (still leaving her cleavage exposed, Ryouga noted shamefully), and the tape decks onto her shoulders. She spent a second adjusting the entire contraption until it was snug. Then the woman in what was possibly the most ridiculous thing Ryouga had ever seen turned to him; she held out one hand as if she expected him to give her something.
“I believe you are holding my Messiah of Silence,” she explained in a polite, almost enthusiastic voice. “Hand her over or I will kill you.”
“What?” Ryouga said. He really wasn’t sure he had just heard that. Maybe he had hit his head in the fall.
“You’re very tough,” the woman explained with a smile. “I saw your fall. Thank you for saving her. But hand her over or die.”
Ryouga frowned. He slowly put down Hotaru. She was staring at the woman, but glanced up at Ryouga as he placed her on the street. He had no idea who this woman was, and from the look in Hotaru’s purple eyes, neither did she. His hands clenched into fists.
“Just who do you think you are?”
“Eudial,” the woman said. She gestured impatiently with her outstretched hand. “I’m getting tired of waiting.”
“Hotaru… step back away from me,” Ryouga said out of the corner of his mouth. The girl released his leg and he heard her shuffle back. Holding up his hands and curled them like claws, he glared at Eudial. “I don’t think I care who you are. Hotaru doesn’t want to go with you.”
The red-haired woman made a ‘hmm’ noise and nodded. She pulled back her hands. “You martial artists are supposed to be fast. Frighteningly so. Also strong and tough and generally superhuman.” She tapped the tuner on her chest and adjusted a dial. “That’s why I built this.”
Ryouga started to charge her a fraction of a second too late. Suddenly, all his balance left him. He gasped and collapsed to the ground. There was some sort of high-pitched screech in the air, hovering just on the edge of his perception. Ryouga growled and clapped his hands over his ears, but it didn’t help.
“Goodbye, hero.” Eudial raised her arms at him, pointing the forward mounted speakers at him. He clawed at the ground, forcing himself to his knees. But the world refused to right itself. It was spinning. He could see fine, but his body refused to react like it should have. “Sound Buster!”
Ryouga flew back through a wall. He was screaming, but he couldn’t hear anything. His hands were still clamped over his ears. He could feel blood on his fingers. There was no sound. No sound at all.
Ran ran across the roof, the explosions erupting behind her. She felt the roof move under her feet, like a wave travelling away from the blast. There was an ominous creak. She leapt, and landed on the edge of the roof. Her hand shot out and clamped onto the fire escape ladder with a deathgrip.
She glanced back. Ukyou had taken cover behind a piece of machinery. Akira was with her. The latter was trying to peek around the machine to get a view of the helicopter spinning through the air above them. Ukyou was staring off across the rooftops. She was looking in the direction that Ranma had run.
Kyosuke leapt into view suddenly, sweeping his hands apart. Five flashing blue fires flew from his fingertips, spreading out in a wave as they hurtled up towards the helicopter. They exploded in mid-air. As the dust cleared, Ran saw Rose falling through the smoke, her shawl held in front of her. The woman touched down on the roof with supernatural grace. Her ridiculously long forelock snapped and whipped in the downdraft from the helicopter.
Kyosuke landed in front of her. She spun to face him. His hand snapped forward and she dodged. Her shawl slashed out and he ducked. He planted his hands on the ground and spun both legs, trying to blow her legs out from under her. She merely floated over his attack.
Then she cried out and thrust her shawl down. It spiralled, blue and purple flames racing along the length of it. The roof exploded underneath Kyosuke as the blow sent him flying down into the building with enough force that a geyser of dust erupted in his wake.
The helicopter was turning the corner of the building. In another second, Pluto and Neptune would have Ukyou in their sights again. Akira stepped out from behind the machine, her hands held at her sides. She faced Rose as the older woman walked implacably towards her.
Rose had just defeated Kyosuke like he was a child. Kyosuke! Akira didn’t stand a chance.
Ran stood there. She had a newspaper in her hand. Her hand was shaking.
She kept seeing Ukyou’s eyes. Her eyes… and that terrible nothing…
Suddenly Ukyou was standing beside Akira. She grabbed the girl by the shoulder. Akira turned her head to look at the taller girl, but Ukyou wasn’t looking at her. Rose stopped her march. The women in the helicopter held their fire.
“Akira, I’m going to ask you a favor!” Ukyou shouted to be heard over the roar of the helicopter.
“They’re still at the bottom of the-“
“No!” Ukyou roared. “I want you to go off, and save Ranma.”
“Ranma?” Akira screamed back. “But…”
“Rose just reminded me. Vega is out of Ranma’s league. He’ll be killed.” Ukyou was shouting, but her voice had a sort of quiet strength to it. “You’re the only one who can catch up to him. You have to go!”
“Ukyou! That’s insane! You’ll die!”
“I won’t die,” Ukyou promised as she turned and looked directly into Akira’s faceplate. Ran could tell that somehow, Ukyou was seeing straight through that mirrored glass and into Akira’s eyes. “Please. Hurry.”
With a cry, the leather-clad girl pushed Ukyou aside. She sprinted across the roof. Ran took a moment to realise that Akira was heading directly towards her. Then she looked down and saw she was still holding the fire escape in a vicelike grip.
Akira was pushing past her, when Ran finally snapped to action.
“I’m coming too!” she screamed. Akira was sliding down the ladder, and she looked up at Ran as she leaped over the side and landed on the first platform of the fire escape. “He’s my boyfriend!” Ran explained.
She meant it too. If Ranma needed help, she would be there to help. He… he meant too much for her. And Ukyou was right, he was in trouble. She was always right about things like that, wasn’t she?
She wasn’t abandoning Ukyou. She was saving Ranma.
That was it.
Sailor Pluto felt her heart soaring inside her chest. Her vision threatened to blur, as tears of joy welled up. All the pain, all the suffering… it was going to end. She was going to win.
Ukyou stood alone in the centre of the roof. All of her friends were gone. Rose was circling her, cutting off any hope of escape. Sailor Uranus kept a firm hand on the controls of the helicopter, keeping it perfectly steady as she moved into optimum firing position for her companions. Sailor Neptune’s eyes never left Ukyou, as she held herself ready. The time key staff was pointed right at the woman who haunted Pluto’s nightmares. Then, after that… they could kill Sailor Saturn as well. It was almost too perfect…
No more hesitation!
“End it!” Pluto cried, loud enough to be heard on the roof.
“Flour bomb!” Ukyou cried, her hand snapping into the air. Rose was already charging her. Neptune fired. The roof exploded somewhere in the cloud. Pluto’s eyes widened. No.
“Neptune, the mirror!”
“Right!” Neptune snapped her hand forward and she was suddenly holding an ornate mirror with gold trim and a blue back with the symbol for Neptune marking it. “Submarine Reflection!” Neptune called as she spun the mirror in front of her. “She’s… inside the building, she’s going down!”
“I heard,” Rose called up. The flour had been blown clear quickly by the helicopter. Rose ran leapt up, before falling straight through one of the holes blasted into the roof. Pluto said something unladylike and stepped off the edge of the vehicle. Neptune gasped, but Pluto merely gestured with her staff and her magic buoyed her fall. She landed with grace on top of the roof, and ran over to the door. She heard Neptune land behind her. The helicopter turned sharply and veered away from the building as Uranus looked for a suitable landing site.
Pluto allowed Neptune to catch up with her. The girl was still gazing into her mirror, which glowed with mystic light. “Still down, about four floors. She must be injured, she isn’t moving as fast as she can.”
There was an echo of an explosion from below them.
“Rose caught up with her,” Neptune added with a wicked smirk.
“No. Let’s hurry.”
The stairwell opened up after just one flight into the interior of the building. The entire structure had been built around a single core column, a huge empty pit that travelled fifteen stories down to ground level. The stairwell circled the pit, a wooden banister preventing anyone from falling into the abyss. The apartment doors were along the walls.
Pluto looked down and saw a flash of purple as Rose leapt across the gap. Her hair snapped in her wake and she flicked her shawl. A ball of psychic fire shot off on a tangent to her path. There was a flash of black as Ukyou dodged the shot, but barely. The explosion sent a cloud of debris into the abyss. A few other clouds were slowly drifting down the passage.
Pluto gathered her courage and ran to the banister. She placed a single hand on it and flipped over the top like a gymnast. The sensible part of her brain was screaming at her. She didn’t need to do this. Rose could handle Ukyou by herself. But she was not about to leave anything to chance.
There was too much at stake.
Her staff flashed out and she caught herself after falling four floors. She grunted and hauled herself over the banister. Ukyou and Rose were still below her, but only by one floor now. She watched as Ukyou kicked out a door and flipped it over her back, sending the whole thing spiralling towards the fortune teller. Rose only smirked and batted it aside with her shawl.
But Pluto’s eyes widened. She saw the door behind Rose break open. The boy in white stepped out. His jacket was singed, but his face was focused.
She turned too late. The boy stepped forward and gestured imperiously into the air. Lightning answered his call, springing forth from the floorboards like a white–hot snake erupting from the grass. Rose screamed as the electricity coursed through her body.
“Dead Scream!” Pluto whispered. She released the ball of magic, but a trio of spatulas caught it in mid-flight. The boy glanced at Pluto and smirked. Then Rose kicked him in the stomach. He gasped and flew back into the room.
Ukyou stepped forward, walking up onto the banister with balletic grace. Pluto spun on her, but she was already throwing something her way. Pluto knew the tiny bags were filled with gunpowder. She had studied her opponent well.
A blue-white ball of energy flew from above and intercepted the bombs. The explosion was enough to knock Pluto off her feet. She gasped and cleared her eyes. There was the sound of grunting below her. She looked down to see Rose and the boy locked in a clinch. Lightning rolled up the length of her body as blue flames licked up the length of his.
But where was Ukyou?
Down below, in the abyss, Pluto saw her. At first she saw (hoped?) that Ukyou was plummeting. Then she saw the thin lines trailing from her hands that were connected to the banister. Pluto’s eyes narrowed. Her ‘special noodles’, of course.
With a soundless cry Pluto blasted the noodles, but it was too late. Ukyou had thrown out dozens of the super-strong noodles, hooking them around every banister on every flight of stairs. As she fell rapidly downward, she just kept releasing them. Pluto pointed down her staff and began to try and track the girl, but her blasts took too long between shots and Ukyou could swing herself from side to side. Even as Neptune joined in from above, Ukyou spun around both attacks like they weren’t even there. How could she anticipate their attacks so easily?
“It’s no use,” Rose said. She was breathing heavily, and scorch marks covered her clothes. But the boy was only being held up by her grip on his right wrist. His eyes had rolled back into his head, and smoke drifted up from his body.
“Is he…?” Pluto asked, afraid of the answer.
“No,” Rose answered with a small smile. “But he will have a very impressive headache when he wakes up.” And with that, Rose flipped elegantly over the edge of the balcony. Pluto envied her grace and prowess for a moment, then began her own descent. She dared not use her magic too much. Already she was beginning to feel the strain.
Rose reached the ground floor only a moment after Ukyou did. Ukyou had sprinted out of the door, and Rose followed her.
An instant later, she flew back into the room, crashing through the reception desk. Pluto stopped, wondering where Ukyou had gotten such strength. Then she dismissed it. They were too close. They would never have a better chance than this!
Pluto reached the ground floor a few heartbeats later. She turned and saw Rose getting to her feet. The woman was clutching her ribs. Pluto ignored her and turned to the door.
A man was standing there. No, a boy really… but he carried himself like a man. He was tall, with a long scar that crossed his missing eye. He had short black hair, and was wearing a black boy’s school uniform with a long jacket. He stood in the doorway like a mountain, cracking his knuckles as he glared at Pluto with his one good eye.
“Sailor Pluto, I’d like you to meet Daigo Kazama,” Ukyou explained. Pluto could see her standing in the street just behind the big man. She was hunched over, panting and sweating. “He’s the brother of my friend, Akira.” Ukyou gestured to the side. “This is Gan and Edge. They are friends of Akira’s.”
A huge boy stepped into view. He dwarfed everyone else there by almost half a foot. He had a huge square head and the build of a sumo wrestler. He was also wearing a barrel around his waist, over his green school uniform. He grinned at her. “Hi!” he said and waved cheerfully, before laughing. “I just hope you’re tougher than that blonde chick. She was a real pushover!”
“Gan…” Daigo said in a soft, dangerous voice.
“Uh, sorry boss…”
Ukyou glanced to the side. “I’d leave that alone, Edge.”
“But it’s such a pretty-looking blade…” a high-pitched voice said from off to the side. “The blonde chick really won’t mind if I just take a look- YOW!” There was a screech like electricity and a boy with huge spiked blonde hair and a purple jumpsuit ran past the door waving his hand and blowing on it.
“Damn you…” Pluto hissed.
“Let’s just say…” Ukyou smiled thinly. “I believe in plan B.” She cocked her head. “Shall we call it a day?”
Pluto glanced back at Rose. She was standing, slumped. She shook her head from side to side slightly.
“You win, for now,” Pluto said flatly. She turned around, and as she did she heard Ukyou say one last thing.
“Daigo… where is Hotaru?”
Ranma stood up slowly. He clasped a hand around his forearm, but the blood didn’t slow down. In truth, it was just a shallow cut. Nothing more than a flesh wound. The blood dripped down, splattering against the glass underfoot.
He had to admit that Vega could certainly pick his battlegrounds. He glanced down, and saw all the milling people beneath them. Up until a few minutes ago, they had been peacefully shopping. They had been enjoying the summer sun shining through the huge glass sunroof atop the mall. Now they were getting the show of their lives.
Vega shifted position, sliding across the glass like an ice-skater. Ranma carefully spun to keep him in sight. He had to be careful. If he put too much weight on one place, the glass would shatter and he would plummet three stories. At least the crowd had the good sense to stay out from underneath the battlefield, where they could be showered with broken glass if he or Vega slipped.
“You are better than I thought you were, boy,” Vega purred. “You avoided my last attack.”
“I’m full of surprises.” Ranma smirked. “And the name is Ranma Saotome!”
“Marvelous!” Vega spread his legs and pointed his claw at Ranma. “Then let us dance, Ranma Saotome!”
Ranma dashed as Vega pounced. The world became a blur as they flashed back and forth across the glass. The light glistened around them. Vega’s claw was a silver flash. Ranma’s form was a red streak.
Again and again they crossed paths, in mid-air, along the ‘ground’, and in some dazzling mix of the two. Ranma spun and twisted. He flowed and snapped. His heart raced in his ears. His breath came in short gasps. Sweat poured down his face. He was pushing his body faster and further than he ever had before.
It wasn’t enough.
“Damn,” Ranma said as he skidded to a stop after one exchange. He had to use his good hand to brace himself, as the glass shuddered ominously underfoot. He glanced down and saw that there were now three red lines running up the length of his hand. When had that happened?
He looked all around and saw that the glass was covered in tiny flecks of blood. His blood. Vega had caught him once across the small of his back, and once along his shoulder. His right thigh was burning as well.
Vega was standing on one foot, balanced like a ballerina at the intersection of four glass plates. His eyes were locked on Ranma’s. They had narrowed to pinpricks. He was laughing.
“Damn you!” Ranma charged. Vega neatly flipped over him, and as he came down his claw ripped a foot-long gouge in Ranma’s back. He screamed out for the first time since the fight had started. He staggered. The glass creaked. He skidded forward on his knees, somehow keeping himself from going through. His hand reached out and caught a flagpole that was sticking out of the atrium roof.
“Don’t give up now, Ranma Saotome,” Vega said with a laugh. “This is just getting exciting.” He began to walk towards Ranma. “You aren’t the most beautiful of opponents… but the way you fight! It is pure poetry! Such grace and ferocity! It inspires me. Come… dance some more with me! I will make your trip to the next world a spectacle that those little people below shall remember for the rest of their lives!”
Ranma got to his feet. He looked around. He needed an edge. Somehow… somehow, Vega was faster than him. More agile as well. And that claw of his… Ranma didn’t gulp. He wasn’t afraid. He wasn’t outclassed.
He was Ranma Saotome! He. Did. Not. Lose.
“Come and get me, you freak!”
“Such vulgar language. Perhaps I should cut out your tongue?” Vega laughed.
Ranma charged him, and this time Vega danced back. He was leading Ranma back out into the centre of the glass ceiling, but Ranma didn’t care. He grit his teeth and pushed himself. But his blows never came within more than a few centimeters of Vega. Worse, the man kept flicking out his claw. Not actually striking Ranma. Just nicking him. Here, there… a little bit of pain. He was pointing out the flaws in Ranma’s attacks, he realised in an instant.
Vega was better than him.
He was on a whole other level.
Ranma ground his teeth and pushed that thought aside.
He missed seeing Vega’s foot arc up entirely. It caught him dead in the jaw. Stars exploded across his vision. He flew back almost gently. He knew if he hit the glass like this, he would plummet three stories through a rain of razor-sharp shards.
He landed on his stomach. He landed with all four limbs spread out, his hands and feet just touching the glass. The surface beneath him shook and made a soft hum. He could see it starting to buckle… then it bounced back.
Ranma looked up. Vega was walking up to him. He was shaking his head.
“Your heart isn’t truly in this,” Vega said regretfully. “You need motivation. Too bad, really. I don’t have time to wait for you to find it.”
Ranma grimaced. Then he heard it. The sound of an engine. An engine approaching fast. An engine approaching really fast.
He looked over his shoulder. A motorcycle was screaming along the parking lot of the mall. It ran up to a long sculpture in the shape of a giant wave. It ran right up the wave. It ran straight into the air. And now Ranma could hear something over the sound of the engine. A girl screaming.
“AKIRA YOU’RE INSAAAAAANEEEEEEEEEE!”
Ranma’s eyes widened and he rolled to the side. Vega was standing there, staring at the descending motorcycle in absolute shock. Two figures were on the back of it. One in black, her face hidden behind her helmet. The other in blue, clutching on for dear life, her brown hair whipping behind her.
“JUMP!” Akira ordered, moments before she did. Ran obeyed – well, she more fell off the bike in a controlled manner. Vega cried out, realising even he was too slow to avoid the plummeting vehicle now. His hand flashed up… and the bike snapped in two along its length. The two halves crashed through the glass beside him.
The entire ceiling went.
Ranma slid and pushed off. Ran was screaming as she fell. He grabbed her in his arms. He caught a banner on the way down and swung with it, snapping it loose of its fastenings. The glass fell all around him. Ran was still screaming. Ranma might have been screaming too, he was too scared out of his mind to tell.
He landed in the fountain.
“Why does it always have to be water?” Ranma moaned as he sat up. He frowned down at his shirt. It was too shredded to be really considered decent anymore, but what did he care? Ran emerged from the water beside him, spitting water from her mouth. The water had plastered her hair to her scalp and it ran down between the freckles on her cheeks in tiny rivers.
“So, uh… I came to rescue you,” she explained.
“Thanks,” Ranma said.
Ranma leapt to his feet. His back protested, but he ignored it. He had heard Vega laughing. He could see the man standing in the middle of the food court, on top of one of the tables. He wasn’t even scratched. Akira was standing in front of him, on another table.
“You broke my bike,” Akira said in the same tone of voice you would use to say ‘you killed my brother’.
“You threw it at me first,” Vega explained.
“Die!” Akira leapt across the table. Ranma watched as Vega dodged around her blows. He kept slashing at her, but somehow she evaded his attacks. Ranma stopped in mid-stride as he watched the exchange. There was no way Akira was that good. She was moving with a speed and certainty that Ranma had never seen her do in all their sparring sessions. Vega was still outpacing her… but only by about as much as he had outpaced Ranma.
That was impossible. Ranma wondered what could be different about Akira… then he saw the light flash off her helmet. He blinked. She had never once worn it when they were sparring. He also remembered that, when she was fighting the Dolls…
“Ranma, snap out of it, she’ll be cut to ribbons!”
“Oh, yeah,” Ranma said slowly as he started running again. “Thanks, Ran!”
Ranma and Ran reached the battle just as Vega kicked Akira into the air. The man screamed, a wild yell, and flashed into the air. His arms locked around the girl’s midsection and he spun her about. With a tremendous crash he slammed her face-first through a table.
With a roar, Ranma leapt and kicked. Vega had just sprung to his feet, and couldn’t avoid the boot that caught him straight in the chest. He flew back into the salad bar, which exploded around him.
Akira groaned and rolled over. Ranma landed in front of her. Ran crouched beside her.
“Yeah.” There was a tapping sound. “This thing comes in handy.”
Ranma chuckled. “Let’s go, Akira!”
“Right…” Akira said as she rose and stood beside him.
Vega had paused to fussily pick the bits and pieces of food off his body. He looked up as Ranma and Akira charged. Ranma couldn’t see his face, but he knew he was smiling.
This battle was far less one-sided. Vega was still faster than both of them, but they were two and he was one. Akira came in on the ground. Her strikes were violent and short and direct. Ranma came in from the air, his blows fast and coming from seemingly all directions. Vega dodged and blocked and danced between them, but never once could he attack.
Then Ran stepped in, throwing a paper at his back. Vega backflipped over it. Ranma followed him, caught his legs with both hands and threw him back at Akira. Akira charged in as Vega flailed to recover and her palms flashed forward straight into his face. She roared.
There was a giant blue flash. Vega’s body flew back and he crashed through the window of a shoe store. Ranma blinked away the light as he landed lightly on his feet. He could have sworn he’d seen a giant skull in the middle of that light, but he dismissed that as silly.
Akira stepped forward and fell into a stance. “It isn’t over,” she said gruffly. Ranma nodded as Vega stood up. The man was staggering. His hand was on his mask… and as he pulled the hand away, a large crack suddenly bisected it. With an innocuous little clatter, the two halves of his mask fell to the floor.
Vega looked surprised. There was a flash.
Ranma turned his head and saw Ran holding the little camera he had given her. She looked at him and shrugged. “Instinct.” He grinned.
Vega started laughing again. “Oh, this is too beautiful!” He looked at them all. His face was pretty, but twisted by arrogance. “I shall have to make sure we meet again. Goodbye for now.”
“You aren’t going anywhere!” Akira roared. But even as she ran after him, Vega slipped out of the store and sprinted down the mall. He was moving far too fast for her to hope to catch. Ranma took a step to pursue, but then gasped and collapsed to his knees. He suddenly felt dizzy.
“Ranma! Your back!” Ran gasped.
“He’s getting away again…” Ranma hissed, struggling to remain upright.
“Let him! We have to get you to the hospital!”
“She’s right,” Akira said. She turned to him. “Besides, I have to get back to Ukyou.”
Ranma winced, not in pain. He had left Ukyou behind… but she would be alright… wouldn’t she?
Ukyou tightened her grip on Daigo’s torso as he took a turn so fast his wheels screeched, leaving a long black streak in the pavement. She grit her teeth and tried to focus on keeping her stomach in one place.
“Which way?” Daigo shouted over the roar of the wind. He didn’t turn around to look at her. She was thankful he was keeping his eye on the road, so to speak.
“Two blocks down, then hang a left!” Aaron shouted back. He could feel Hotaru, receding steadily into the distance. Her aura stood out among the people of the city like a sore thumb. Just as it had been on the roof, the aura flickered and boiled with negative energy. It was also immense, but not in the same way that a martial artist’s was. He had glimpsed something… something larger than chi, flickering dangerously through Hotaru’s aura.
Daigo took the next turn even sharper, then the next, and Ukyou focused on keeping herself steady. His bike was much bigger than Akira’s, and probably twice as powerful, but not nearly as nimble. Its engine roared as he streaked down the street. Ukyou’s eyes widened as she realised he was driving the wrong way down a one-way street at about the same time all the other motorists did. Daigo just frowned and gunned the engine, slicing between the oncoming traffic like a downhill skier.
Aaron left trying to keep them aboard the maniac motorcycle to Ukyou as he tried to focus in on Hotaru’s exact location. He was still surprised by how… precise his senses had grown. He had begun to notice it after the other night, but now it was clear to him. Even back when Ukyou had been running for her life from the Outer Senshi, it had been his ability to exactly pinpoint where each of their magical blasts would hit that had saved their lives.
He also knew he shouldn’t have been able to sense Hotaru from this far. But it seemed like his skill had taken another leap. He frowned, not really wanting to think about the implications of that.
“There… on that overpass!” Ukyou shouted as Aaron fed her the information. She pointed up. Her eyes narrowed and she could see a small car running haphazardly down the highway.
“Right… hold on!” Daigo roared. Ukyou gulped and tightened her grip.
He pulled on the bars of his bike like a man trying to wrestle a bull to the ground. The bike reared and spun nearly on a dime as Daigo launched it up a grass-covered embankment. Sod flew up in their wake as the bike charged up the incline. Then the concrete crashwall was before them. With another roar he brought down the front wheel of his bike on the top of the wall. The entire bike flipped forward, spinning in mid-air. Ukyou didn’t scream; she was too stunned to.
With a loud clatter the bike set down on both wheels, only three car lengths behind the mini that Aaron could sense Hotaru in. He could feel the other presence in the vehicle now. That aura also was filled with something larger… no, not larger… that was the wrong word. It was denser and deeper. Aaron realised he had felt the same sort of strange power in the auras of Pluto and the other Outer Senshi as they had fired at him.
The car jerked to the side suddenly and passed a delivery truck with a squeal of burnt rubber. Daigo twisted the accelerator in his hand and his bike shot forward like a rocket. The truck had come up parallel to a sports car, but Daigo flew between them without pausing.
Then Ukyou saw her. Her long red hair flapped behind her as she poked her head out the driver’s window to stare at them in disbelief. Eudial. Ukyou grit her teeth. Of course. Trust her luck to run into one of the competent Death Busters. Why couldn’t it have been Mimete?
“Daigo, bring us up alongside her!” Ukyou shouted. She released him with one arm and dug into the pockets of her coat. Most of her equipment was gone, having been expended in her mad dash to the bottom of the tower. But she still had enough throwing spatulas to take out the wheels of Eudial’s car and force her to stop. Then Daigo could deal with her.
He nodded and gunned his engine again. He ran up alongside the car as if it were standing still. Ukyou saw Hotaru curled up in the back. The girl looked out the window of the car. She looked so young… Aaron’s head snapped to the driver as he felt a sudden spike in that strange deep energy in her aura. She was fiddling with… was she wearing a stereo system?
Ukyou suddenly felt her balance abandon her. The spatulas slipped from her hand. Daigo’s bike began to lean heavily… and it was hard to tell how close they were coming to the ground. And they weren’t the only ones. A van two cars up suddenly lost control and spun out. A car plowed into its back at over a hundred kilometers per hour and flipped into the air in an almost graceful manner. A truck slammed into the crash barrier and screeched along the length of it, sending sparks flying. There was a loud crash from behind them, followed by an explosion.
The highway had become a death trap, and Daigo was spinning his bike straight into the path of the descending car. Aaron screamed and focused. A high-pitched whine was hovering at the edge of his hearing, but he ignored it. Instead he focused his Void chakra, willing his balance to remain. His hands slammed over Daigo’s and he pulled at the controls. The bike skidded and almost fell over, but the car landed in front of them. The cab crushed inward as it landed on its roof before skidding another dozen meters and spinning to a stop.
Ukyou stared in mute horror. They had stopped, but the highway in front of them was rapidly becoming a wasteland. Then suddenly the buzz vanished, and her balance returned.
“What… what happened?” Daigo gasped. “I couldn’t steer…”
“Sound…” Ukyou guessed. “She must have used sound to throw off our inner ear. It completely destroyed our sense of balance. Clever.”
“Clever?” Daigo grunted. “You don’t have to sound so respectful. Look at what her clever plan did… all these people…”
“I know!” Ukyou snapped harshly. She took a deep breath and calmed down. “She’s not using it anymore, see?” She pointed at where the car was receding into the distance. Aaron could no longer sense the sharp spike in what he assumed was her magical energy, but he had locked onto Eudial’s ‘signature’ as firmly as he had Hotaru’s. “If she uses that recklessly she could get herself into an accident.” She leaned forward. “Get after her, but stay back. If we don’t get too close, we won’t spook her into panicking!”
Daigo glanced back at her. Did he ever do anything but frown meaningfully? He nodded sharply and wordlessly gunned his engine. His bike slalomed easily between the wrecks on the road. Ukyou did her best to cut out the cries of the wounded. She could hear the whine of approaching sirens.
They followed Eudial, but managed to stay back just far enough that she didn’t notice them. Aaron was glad he could feel their signatures through that strange web of energy the world seemed to be made up of. It made their task much easier.
Her car pulled off the highway and rocketed into a much more residential part of Tokyo. Ukyou knew there was only two places that Eudial could be going, and so wasn’t surprised when she pulled with a screech into the parking lot of a simple-looking two-storey house. Daigo pulled his bike to a stop five houses down, and they sat there for a moment, the engine idling.
“We should get help,” Daigo said matter-of-factly. “Even I can sense the bad energy coming out of that house. It’s dangerous.”
“You’re right…” Ukyou leapt off the bike. Her jacket flapped behind her as she landed. She grimaced and made Aaron shift a bit more of their chi back to her physical body. Their energy was still dangerously low from how much she had pushed it just trying to evade Rose for a few minutes. With that and the injuries that still hadn’t fully recovered, she was in no shape to be taking on potentially all of the Death Busters.
“But if Hotaru goes into that house, we will never see her again,” Ukyou said softly. Sailor Moon was gone. The Outers were more concerned with killing Ukyou than fighting a threat that should still be two years away from maturing. Worse… there would be no Crystal Tokyo, no daughter of the royal family sent back into the past. There would be no one to save the soul of Hotaru Tomoe now. Things had gone too far off track already. “If we don’t stop this now, I won’t be able to live with myself!”
Ukyou was running before she finished talking. Daigo grunted and followed her. He moved quickly for a man of his size, but she was faster. She reached the front lawn of the house just as Eudial was dragging Hotaru out of the backseat by the wrist.
The witch turned slowly as she heard them approaching, but not fast enough. Ukyou ran right into her, fist first. The blow sent the woman spiralling over the top of the car. The long black strips of her skirt rippled behind her as she slammed into the ground.
“Hotaru…” Ukyou gasped. That had taken a lot out of her, and the ribs that Chris had nearly pulverized were burning. But Hotaru wasn’t looking at her. The little girl’s eyes were fixed on the house behind Ukyou. She suddenly realised that to Hotaru, this was home. This was safety. She had no idea what bargain her father had made for both their souls.
“Daddy!” Hotaru screamed and dashed around Ukyou. She raised her hand up, but what was she going to do? Hotaru didn’t know Ukyou. She had no reason to trust this stranger. Nothing Ukyou could say would stop her from running into those doors.
“Little bitch, that hurt!”
Aaron whirled to face Eudial, but it was too late. She had already flipped the switch on the controls arrayed across her chest. The world suddenly filled with a high-pitched buzz, and Ukyou’s legs gave out underneath her. As she fell, she saw Daigo collapsing at the edge of the lawn. He struggled to get up, but his body kept rocking and his arms slid out from underneath him. He grunted and didn’t stop struggling.
Hotaru, too, had fallen to the ground. She was trying to crawl; crawl to what she thought was safety. Ukyou could hear her crying for her father over and over. There was a soft sound as Eudial stepped around the car onto the grass of the lawn. Ukyou looked up and saw blood leaking from the side of Eudial’s lip. The vicious little part of her grinned.
“Smile all you want,” Eudial snarled. “But hitting my face! I’ll kill you!” The woman slowly began to level her arms at Ukyou. There were speakers on her forearms. This must have been how she had taken down Ryouga. If so… Ukyou didn’t much like her chances of surviving this attack.
Aaron ground his teeth. He would be damned before he gave up now! With a simple, desperate mental lunge he channeled all his chi into his Void aura… and simply willed his ears to stop working.
Suddenly the world went silent. Ukyou’s balance returned to her. The vicious little part of her smiled again.
Eudial’s mouth was moving: she was about to fire. Ukyou simply rose to her feet, spun in place and roundhouse-kicked the Witch in the gut in the time it took her to say a single syllable. The woman rocked back, her body crashing into her car with enough force that the side of the vehicle smashed in around her. Then Ukyou stepped forward, willing her energy into one good punch. She caught Eudial in the face again. The Death Buster was caught in the car, but the force of the strike sent the vehicle flipping over three times before it landed in the neighbour’s yard. All of this happened in eerie silence.
Aaron felt a powerful aura step out of the house. He turned slowly. Professor Tomoe was standing on his front porch. His lab coat fluttered in the breeze around him. His short white hair was unkempt, and his glasses shone in the morning sun. Ukyou couldn’t see the bizarre symbol scrawled into the glass over his right eye through the glare. Hotaru was running towards him. Aaron could feel Daigo getting to his feet.
For a single mind-numbing moment Aaron struggled to undo his self-imposed deafness. But then the world of sound started slowly seeping back in. A relieved sigh escaped his lips, and he felt suddenly grateful for the ability to hear it.
“… can’t believe it! Hotaru, you’re home!” the Professor said as he started down the stairs, his arms outstretched. Hotaru was sobbing his name and running to him.
“Hotaru, stop!” Ukyou said, realising it was useless.
“Daddy, daddy! I was so scared!” She ran up into his arms. He pulled her off her feet and hugged her fiercely. But he was looking straight at Ukyou. His eyes were cold and dangerous.
“Are you the monsters that kidnapped my daughter?” Tomoe said, his voice accusing.
“We were just trying to rescue her, sir,” Daigo explained. His voice sounded weary, like he was used to being treated like trash no matter what he was doing.
“Is that so…” The man glanced at the remains of Eudial’s car. “Then why were you attacking my assistant?”
“Enough of this, Germatoid,” Ukyou snapped. “Don’t think I don’t know exactly what you are. I’m not leaving here without Hotaru.”
Tomoe flinched at Ukyou’s words, but then he smiled. “I have no idea what you are talking about. But I love my daughter very much, and won’t let you take her from me!”
“Ukyou?” Daigo said, confused.
Aaron cursed inwardly. He had never had a chance to explain everything to the young man. He had never even met him until he had run past him in the lobby. It had been Akira’s idea to ask for his help. It had been Ukyou’s to keep him in reserve.
“This isn’t going to happen,” Ukyou said, her voice low and dangerous. She looked down at her feet. Aaron made their face cold. They focused their aura, but not for power or perception. Instead, they just let their power build. Slowly, wisps of energy began to circle up from her feet. “Hotaru is not going to enter that house. You are a monster, Germatoid. You have stolen that man’s body. You can continue to play the loving father all you want, but I will not let you have her!” Ukyou raised her head up, and as she did her aura snapped to writhing life. Cold white flames erupted around her body, bleaching the colour from the air around her. She fixed her eyes on those of the daimon that was inside Professor Tomoe. His visible eye widened slightly as their gazes met. “I am taking Hotaru away. If you want to play at being a man, then that won’t stop me.” Ukyou started forward, her footsteps steady and implacable. “If you want to stop me, you’ll have to fight me. You’ll have to reveal to Hotaru what you are. And then I’ll defeat you and take her anyway. You saw what I did to your witch. And once I take her from this place, you will never, ever see her again.” Hotaru was looking over her shoulder at Ukyou now. Her eyes were wide with shock and fear. Ukyou kept her face cold, her expression dangerously blank.
“Decide, Germatoid. Either fight me now, or surrender the girl to me.”
Ukyou had reached him by the time the last word left her mouth. She didn’t pause. She simply reached up and grabbed onto Hotaru’s shoulder. The girl screamed. Ukyou’s stomach twisted into knots at the sorrow and pain and terror in that scream. But her face remained implacable. She kept her eyes fixed on Germatoid’s.
She reached up with her other hand and grabbed his wrist. She twisted his hand off Hotaru. He gasped in pain and collapsed to his knees as Ukyou forced him back. Aaron drew Hotaru in with their other hand. The girl was struggling, but even in their weakened state they had more than enough strength to restrain her. With a final shove, she sent the man stumbling back into his house. He cried out Hotaru’s name, but Ukyou was already turning her back on him. Aaron kept a focus on the man’s energy… but nothing happened. He was just sitting there, half inside the building.
Daigo was looking at them coolly. He wasn’t frowning anymore, but his expression was unreadable. His eyes met Ukyou’s… and he flinched away slightly. Hotaru was still screaming, struggling to reach back for her father. Ukyou felt lower than she ever had. This was not how a hero dealt with things…
But she was no hero. She knew that.
And if she needed to play the villain to save this girl’s life… so be it.
“Let’s go,” Ukyou said coldly once she had reached Daigo.
“Right…” he said and nodded.
Agito leaned back in his chair, rubbing his temples. He needed to sleep more. He just wished he could afford to. He looked up when Shizu set the teacup down in front of him. He smiled gratefully, and she blushed and backed away.
Sometimes he wished he could spend more time with her. The girl had been with him almost since the beginning. He had saved the lives of both her and her father years ago, back when Chronos had taken everything that had belonged to his father. His real father.
His hand clenched tightly around the cup. There was a sharp crack as the porcelain broke in his grip. He cursed as the hot tea and shattered porcelain hurt his hand.
“Are you okay?” Shizu called, her voice filled with concern.
“I’m… fine…” Agito murmured, wiping off his hands on the edge of the table.
“I could get you some bandages…”
“No, it will be fine,” he replied. His voice was cool and soft, dignified and suave like he had practiced for years. “Could you please get me another cup?”
She nodded wordlessly and retreated into the kitchen. Agito stood up and walked away from the table. He paused at the window and pulled aside the curtain just enough to see outside. There was nothing out there, like the last fifty times he had checked. But he had to be careful. Chronos could be anywhere. He could never let his guard down, ever.
The city was crawling with them. Zoanoids. Vermin. His lip curled into a sneer. He knew what they were after here. It was the same thing he was after.
Agito let the curtain fall back into place. He needed to find her first. His own personal quest for vengeance… all the sacrifices he had made… the fate of the world… they all rested on him finding her first. He had spent nearly a decade working until finally he could acquire his tool for vengeance, the Guyver unit.
He clenched his hand into a fist. He could feel the organisms on his back. The symbiotic growths that connected him mentally to the Guyver in the extradimensional space that existed just behind him. With them, he could summon the unit. But what good was it?
Gyro had been a god. Agito had never expected such power. It made any other zoanoid look like a kitten. He had done the only thing he could do when faced with such might… he had ran.
But Sailor Moon had not. She had defeated a god. Somehow. He needed to know how. She was the only person in the world who could defeat a zoalord. Without her…
He shook away dark thoughts. They would do him no good. He needed to concentrate on his objective. He was just too tired. He needed rest. But every moment he rested was another step they got ahead of him in the chase.
Sailor Moon had vanished, that much was clear. She hadn’t been seen since the attack on Mount Minakami. She was either hiding out, or had fled. But she hadn’t fled with all her friends.
He turned his eyes to the table. On it was a newspaper. The fourth page was about the battle that had occurred today. Three Sailor Senshi, and some of those suddenly ubiquitous martial artists he had somehow missed in all his years of plotting against Chronos. If anyone could lead him to Sailor Moon, it would be those three. He grinned mirthlessly. Thankfully, they had already given him the first key to their trail.
Not many people in Tokyo owned helicopters.
The fence had been repaired since the last time Ran had been up here. The wind was cold now, with the sun long gone. She glanced around the roof of Justice High School and immediately saw Ranma.
He was standing in the centre of the roof. His shirt was off, and his bandages were almost glowing in the darkness. Sweat poured down his half-naked form as he pushed his body through the same motion over and over again. He kept stepping forward and thrusting with both palms, then stepping back and repeating the process. Ran found herself caught up in the beauty of him for a moment.
“You… are supposed to be resting,” she said sardonically as she stepped out of the shadows.
“Can’t,” Ranma said, his breath coming in puffs. “I need to train.”
“Ranma, you haven’t recovered enough to train!” she accused as she stormed over to him.
“Kyoko stitched me up and did that magic touch thing of hers,” Ranma said, obviously confused.
“But that’s only like a band-aid!” Ran stepped in front of him and he finally stopped his exercise, but only because she was literally standing in his way. She placed her hands on her hips. “If you strain too much, you could reopen your wounds!”
“I’m fine…” Ranma said, but his voice was soft. “I need to train, Ran.” He held up his fist. “Vega… is on another level. If I’m going to defeat him, I have to reach that level. I won’t stop until I’ve surpassed him.” He smirked, and Ran saw the old-fashioned Saotome confidence return to his face.
“Because I am the best. If someone comes along that looks like they might beat me, it’s only because I haven’t tried hard enough to win yet!”
Ran found herself chuckling. She bent forward, clutching her gut, as the laughter continued. Ranma smiled, but his expression slowly became confused as her laughter began to be mixed in with sobs. Then, for some reason, she was crying. She just couldn’t stop it. She felt so sick, so tired.
Ranma stepped up to her. His hand fell on her shoulder. She looked up at his face. He reached down and rubbed a tear from her cheek.
“Don’t cry,” he said softly.
“I can’t help it…” she sobbed. “I… just can’t stand the thought of you hurting yourself. It just… I can’t stand it…”
“Ran…” Ranma sounded nervous.
“Not over stubborn pride!” She grabbed him and pulled him to her. She rested her head against his chest and listened to the sound of his heartbeat. Ranma’s body went stiff as a board. “Ranma… I want to see you do such great things. I want to watch you be a champion and a hero. You have it in you. I’ve spent my entire life, looking for a hero like you… someone that the world has to know about. Someone that I can feel pride in telling the stories of.”
Ranma slowly relaxed, and his arms drifted around Ran’s midsection.
“I want to watch you do great things, Ranma… not throw away your life chasing down a man who we’ve already defeated.”
“Ran…” he whispered into her ear. “What is this?”
“I don’t know,” Ran lied, and suddenly she was laughing again. It was like her body couldn’t decide how to feel. Was she giddy or sick? She was hot, but Ranma’s warm body felt refreshing as he pulled her a little tighter.
“Ran… I’m not just doing this for me,” Ranma said cautiously. “I’m doing it for Ucchan.”
A white-hot spark of jealousy flared through Ran’s mind, but she viciously snuffed it out. “Ranma… the world doesn’t revolve around Ukyou.”
“Yeah…” Ranma sighed and he released her. “But she said Vega would be back. She said that the Death Busters would be after Hotaru. And you heard what she told Nabiki about that sword…”
Ran nodded. She still had trouble believing that story. A sword that granted any wish? Just for being the one millionth person to try and draw it? But Nabiki had looked very annoyed when Ukyou had told that story to everyone after they had gathered together to celebrate their victory. She drew in a deep breath, because that reminded her of why else she was here.
“Maybe Ukyou isn’t always right, Ranma,” she said softly. She looked down. She loved him. She had to admit this now, because she had just said the one thing that might drive him away. But Ran wasn’t sure she could trust Ukyou anymore. Holding a little girl against her will… it just seemed wrong. And then there was the vision. She couldn’t forget that.
No matter how much she wanted to.
“Maybe she isn’t,” Ranma said as he stepped forward and lifted up her chin. His kind blue eyes looked into hers. There was no anger or disappointment there, only acceptance. “Ukyou makes mistakes. But I think she has a good heart. I trust her.”
“Ranma…” Ran reached up and clasped his hand in between hers. “I want you to promise me… promise me you won’t let her control your life!”
“What?” Ranma was confused again.
“I want you to seize your own destiny, Ranma…” She was crying again. “Just promise me that you won’t spend your life in her shadow. Be your own hero.” She stepped into his embrace again, and her sobs stopped. “Don’t abandon her. But… you’ve got to be yourself. Be the hero you were born to be.”
“I…” Ranma looked down at her, and his breath caught suddenly. “I promise.”
Ran nodded quickly, then pushed away from him. Ranma stood there, stunned. He was half-caught between reaching out for her and waiting for her to come back to him. But she was walking away. She had gotten what she had come up here for. Now…
Now she needed to think.
She stepped into the stairwell and closed the door behind her. Ranma didn’t so much as call out for her to stop. A part of her wanted him to chase her. A part of her wanted to be caught. But a larger part realised that there were more important things than hormones.
The night wind was cold as she walked the streets of Tokyo. She idly played with the camera Ranma had bought her way back in what seemed like a million years ago. Her mind seemed as unable to settle on a thought as her body was. Her emotions kept flaring and dying.
How was she supposed to make the kind of decision that Pluto had forced on her? Because a part of her did believe in Ukyou. She believed in Ukyou because Ranma believed in her. Ranma believed with such a fierce certainty that it spread like wildfire. A part of Ran wanted to tell him about what she had seen. A part of her wanted him to see it for himself.
She walked into Taiyo High School. The building was locked up this late at night, but she had a key. Nobody knew she had a key, but what they didn’t know wouldn’t hurt them. She made her way up to the room she shared with the A/V and manga clubs and she stood outside the door for the longest time, thinking that she needed to make a decision.
But she wasn’t even sure what decision it was she was supposed to be making. Finally, she sighed and opened the door.
Vega was sitting at her desk. He was drinking a glass of wine. He slowly turned his arrogantly beautiful face towards her. He smiled; a dashing smile. The kind of smile that would make most women swoon. He raised his glass towards her.
“Miss Hibiki. Do come in. Have a seat.”
To Be Continued….
Blade: It’s time once again for the “Blade and Epsilon don’t have much to clarify so they desperately fill up some space with lame humour” section!
Epsilon: Why did Daigo cross the road?
Blade: I don’t know, why?
Epsilon: FOR GREAT JUSTICE!
Blade: …okay, that’s lame, granted, but can we keep to a certain minimum standard?
Epsilon: No. There are no depths to which we will not sink.
Blade: Au contraire! I will not sink to the depths of NOT warning our readers (Kusanagi sends his love, all you fine ladies!) that next month is when we start getting to some of the plotline spoilers we mentioned a few chapters back. Specifically, Utena.
Epsilon: Yep. We spoil the HELL out of it. We spoil it so much, you’ll never be able to watch it without getting sick! You’ll become some sort of anti-Utena, such that if you and Utena ever come in contact, there will be a violent reaction!
Blade: So make sure you watch all of Utena before next month!
Epsilon: Yeah, because otherwise, you’ll get spoilers like THIS!
Blade: (BEAT EPSILON TO DEATH WITH A STICK) Yeah, like that one.