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Starlit Ruins

Contents

Title Page

PART ONE Part One: Moon Shards

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

PART TWO Part Two: Shatter Margin

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30

Chapter 31

Chapter 32

Chapter 33

Chapter 34

Chapter 35

Chapter 36

Chapter 37

Chapter 38

Chapter 39

Chapter 40

Chapter 41

Chapter 42

Chapter 43

Chapter 44

Chapter 45

Chapter 46

Chapter 47

Chapter 48

Chapter 49

Chapter 50

Chapter 51

Chapter 52

Chapter 53

Chapter 54

Chapter 55

Chapter 56

|^. p. Simon Woodington

10584 138 St

Surrey, B.C.

V3T 4K5

778-395-3376

[email protected]

 

  |^.
p>. 166,900 words.

|

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

<$Sailor Rifts Crossover>

 

by <$Simon Woodington>

A Few Words

 

I didn’t stop to consider if it was a good idea, but that’s what youth does. Having read Harlan Ellison, Roberts Zelazny and Heinlen, Stephen King, Shakespeare and some Jane Austin, I set about to tell a burgeoning tale with a willing and interactive audience.

Chapters were almost cobbled together, written in a stream of consciousness that is a template for good flow reference to me now. The blue binder that held it all together; every printer I could get to print a few pages of the manuscript on sometimes absconded time and paper. My first dot-matrix printer toiled noisily to produce the majority of the first draft of the manuscript.

Various computers including a Mac Plus, Mac SE, Mac IIcx, Pentium Pro, Macbook and gave up endless cycles so I could compose this monster. Saving it on floppy disks and breaking it into two parts when it wouldn’t fit on a single High Density Diskette. I was flabbergasted by the madness of that. I had filled an entire disk with my ideas.

It was also empowering.

I was even comfortable with the idea of hurting the Sailor Senshi. It never bothered me, and still doesn’t. Why? Read and you’ll learn. When I began, however, my friends wanted an adventure, so I gave it to them in the form of rescue and protection missions that meandered around the core[_ _]concept for this book and then branched off into its own path.

I had horrors in store, as the Senshi were going to endure violence and magic, turmoil and molestation. I was skirting something I didn’t know much about then but have learned much about since: Japan’s cultural and historical fascination with abuse and exploitation. By that I mean the fetishism of sexual abuse.

Sailor Rifts had no such intention, and access was limited in those days. Suffice to say that Clamp’s ‘X’ was shocking, and no, I haven’t seen it, and I never will. Fascinated, though, my understanding somehow gave me the idea that the Senshi were designed to be appealing in their pain. “Damaged enough to be interesting”, so to say.

But it was more. Doe eyed and same-faced these girls are appealing no matter what happens. The danger lies in forgetting that they are young women, deserving as much respect as any real woman because of that resemblance. Following the no-holds barred mantra of Anime was just the thing to do. Readers of the original version of these books will find some events changed and for good reason. They just didn’t make sense. Tears don’t stain, but they can ruin.

That they might survive because they had to was not enough. Usagi especially lacked sufficient reason to carry on, and her metamorphosis gave her instinct but not purpose. Seems awfully metaphysical, doesn’t it? I didn’t know what I was doing except following my heart when I wrote these books. Somehow they’ve become well read along the way, and to leave them in an unpolished state is just plain wrong. So here I am to right the wrong, again.

- Simon Woodington, Feb/2016

 

About this Edition

 

The original manuscript was 180k in length, and I have reduced that to 170k with good reason. Mostly for clarity, and because I was a sloppy, inexperienced writer. That’s another thing youth does: Power you through your mistakes so you can learn from them. Apart from the stark reality of overusing a few adjectives, I’ve had a couple of years to get over the more cringy sections of this story.

If you’ve read the original version of this tale, you’ll notice I’ve removed a couple of incidents. Why? Because it just didn’t feel right. To say more would be to spoil the work to new readers, but suffice to say I have to trust my gut to know when the line has been crossed.

So, when is abuse okay?

The answer is never. However, at a certain point the story falls off the tracks and becomes too concerned with the subject of abuse. This is about the overall survival of the Sailor Senshi, their loved ones and those who step up the fill the void. During the process of editing this book, I’ve rediscovered characters I loved to meet for the first time. Putting them on more solid footing is a matter of professionalism, and respect.

Finally, this digital edition is freely available to the world as an eBook. If you were charged for it, then you need to get your money back.

 

‘Nuff said.

 

- Simon Woodington/March 2017

 

A Sailor Moon/Palladium Rifts Crossover[
**]

Part One

Moon Shards

Copyright 1998,2016-17 Simon Woodington

Published by Simon Woodington at Smashwords

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PART ONE

Part One: Moon Shards

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Prologue

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His crimson glare caused her to flinch, betraying fear where arrogant confidence once resided. What was a war of attrition had become unmitigated defeat. ‘Beryl, I should send you to the Abyss!’ his voice crackled, short of sounding menacing. ‘I cannot believe you were defeated by such foolish girls!’

She said nothing.

‘You masterminded the destruction of the Moon Kingdom? What will you do next, claim a rock from the ground as your pet?’

Resentment became clear in her eyes.

‘A child! Uraki-Ayo-sama, that girl – Usagi! – she was no child! She had the ginzuishou.’

‘Dispense with my name, foul woman!’ he growled and struck her to the marble floor. She fell with practiced ease, defiance unfeigned in her eyes when she raised them to his. ‘Know your place! Impertinent creature. That you should be spared is beyond my comprehension.’

She sighed internally, relieved, but did not relax. Midnight tones around them shimmered with dark streaks of blue and red light, indicating the strong presence of the NegaForce. Her shelter of purpose was now the promise of nightmares made reality.

‘You will not be allowed to fail again,’ he began, getting to his feet awkwardly with the aid of his staff. ‘Of that you may be certain.’

She began to tremble, not revelling in the notion of eternal sleep, or service to him. Stubbornly, she assessed herself. Being reduced to less than atoms did little for comfort. Regaining the strength to merely stand took several long, anger inducing minutes.

Her wavy, waist length red hair appeared flawless, despite her literal physical reconstruction. While the robe did cover her body, only her stiffly unemotional face could mask the agony she had been subjected to under the possession of Galaxia.

‘It was foolish of you to let yourself become possessed by Galaxia as you did. To reach that point optimizes your defeat. Pah!’ he spat.

‘And you would question Galaxia!’

‘Question!’ he flared, a bright red aura flashing about him briefly. ‘By whose whim do you preside? This tirade is utter foolishness!’

‘My foe, the senshi …’ she muttered, curling up inside.

‘They were never yours, woman,’ he intoned and broke into her personal space, heat of his breath on her chin. ‘You will leave now and await Galaxia.’

She looked back at him, gaze steady, yet indomitably furious. Even as she thought to speak, her mouth formed not a single sound. He did not relent, determined to bury her pride. Finally, her eyes fell, and her head bowed. She said softly, ‘I obey.’

He paused, knowing she would not leave immediately, so he baited her. Turning eyes away, too, then back and when he grew restless, his back to her. With a click of some verbal cue he said, ‘Go.’

Her well-figured form faded into darkness with a pitiful scowl upon her face. He grinned, waved a hand in the air and declared, ‘Deposed one, witness my rule.’

@~%~~~

‘Mercury, no!’ Sailor Moon cried as her friend jumped at the flame lion that had appeared out of the strange portal only minutes before.

‘I won’t let you hurt my friends!’ the blue haired sailor suited warrior declared. “Shabon Spray Freezing!”

A cold wind blew across the park, where they had happened into the shimmering blue gateway. As the icy uttering swept nearby trees, their leaves froze, losing their earlier animation. The flame lion stood, the intensity of its fiery coat waning under the frigid attack of Mercury’s summoning.

The lion had yet to speak; its first cry foreboding thunder predicting the child of cruel war. Mercury could no more avoid leaping claw and snapping teeth than the comprehension of its declaration. She fell limp to the ground, teeth caught in the shoulder of her ragdoll body.

“Supreme Thunder!” came a voice. A flash of light seized the already fazed flame beast, which dropped Mercury’s motionless frame.

‘Jupiter!’ exclaimed the blond haired leader of the senshi.

‘I couldn’t let that Nega-creep get the best of you, I …’ her voice faltered as she took stock of why her friend had not moved to help Mercury. Sailor Moon looked up at Jupiter, tears trailing down her face. In her arms she held a badly wounded Mars.

‘Th-that …’ Jupiter stammered as she knelt down next to Sailor Moon. Mars’ eyes trembled as they opened again, and came to regard Jupiter.

‘Makoto …’ she breathed.

‘What happened …?’

‘The … lion came through that,’ Usagi supplied in hushed tones as she pointed to the portal, ‘and attacked us … we barely had time to transform …!’

Sailor Jupiter merely bowed her head for a moment, before raising it again and standing. Her eyes glowered angrily under the brown locks and ponytail of her hair.

‘Jupiter! Wait! I’ll help you,’ Mina ran up to stand next to her, her long straight blond hair flowing out behind her.

Jupiter simply nodded, looking deeply wronged and darkly intense. Mina regarded her friend for a moment, noting uneasily that she could not remember her seeming so fierce.

Mina raised her hand, her transformation pen turning aside it before it closed as she said, “Venus Star Power – Make Up!”

Moments later, that same voice rang out: “Crescent Beam!”

Just as the yellow beam sought the flame lion, it began to change color. It came to match the tinge of the flame lion, which had turned a dull sapphire. The sliver of blue light touched the lion, and as it did, Venus screamed.

‘Venus!’ Jupiter cried, eyes wide.

‘No!!’ Usagi shrieked, and burst into passionate tears.

Venus stood, her face transfixed in an expression of pain, before her form wavered and faded in a nimbus of blue light. A sapphire point of light appeared and hung in mid-air. The breach in reality expanded, forming an oval portal. Jupiter looked aghast, as she noted Mina, gazing helplessly at them.

‘Okay Nega-jerk, you’re going to get moon-dusted!’ Jupiter snarled. “Sparkling Wide Pressure!”

A brilliant shard of electric blue light oriented on the flame lion as Jupiter gave a powerful underhand motion. Before she had even completed the arc, the lion roared, and the shard halted. Jupiter gasped, all at once astonished and scared. There was a moment of silence, and Jupiter screamed.

‘Jupiter!’

Before Usagi could utter another word in desperation, the lion gave out another low war cry. The blue portal uttered out, grasping the forms within reach. Usagi held tightly to the badly wounded Mars, determined not to let her go.

Each of the five Sailors fought against the consuming blue light as it gripped them. Moments passed, and the struggle reigned. Mercury dropped to her knees, her shimmering transparent form falling unconscious.

‘Ngggh … Mercury!’ Usagi managed tensely. She grit her teeth as pain wracked her body. Mina fell, no longer able to hold against the force that struggled to overwhelm her. Usagi found she could not even cry out at her friend’s collapse. Somehow, she felt that this was one battle that the senshi might not win.

‘I’m so sorry Sailor M—uunn,’ Jupiter gave, and fell to her knees, her strength failing her.

Usagi winced against the blue light, the grasping blue portal. She felt the fight leaving her as a warm faint feeling began to consume her.

As Mars slipped from her arms, taken by unseen hands, Usagi found that she lacked the strength to struggle. She held for a moment, but her fingers slipped easily. She fell forward, darkness grasping her mind.

As felines always do, the deep blue flame lion appeared to grin. If one was to pay attention, one might hear a low chuckle rise in its throat. As the portal took the last of the Sailor Senshi into it’s frame, it faded, and disappeared, leaving only the stale evening breeze alone in the darkness of the evening.

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Chapter 1

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Time. Probably one of the most alien and familiar aspects of life. Something to which many feelings have been ascribed. At this particular moment, laborious, unyielding, unsympathetic, unmerciful, and foremost both responsible and not. Yet, to the five anxiety-laden young women, there was a sheer gratefulness. They were alive.

Consciousness, to the young Princess Tsukino Usagi, had returned during what appeared to be a stunningly glorious midday. They lay somewhat precariously strewn about the edge of a densely populated oil painting-like forest of rich jades and deep coppery earth tones against a soft butter-yellow and crystal blue sky.

‘Usagi-chan …’

It was Mina, her beach-blond waist length hair slipped over her white and blue sailor school suited smooth shoulders. She helped the wounded, fatigued young leader sit up, who winced and gasped out at the echoed pain of several cracked ribs.

‘Mina-chan …? Are you okay?’

‘Ow! Um, I guess,’ she muttered, grasping her rib cage. Dully, and oddly, she realized now would not be the appropriate moment to burst into tears.

Altogether unusually selfless.

‘You okay …?’ she asked faintly, biting back the powerful urge to cry.

Mina nodded slowly. Her gaze wandered over the others, who sat in a very small circle, including the previously near fatally wounded raven haired priestess, Hino Rei.

‘Rei-chan!’ she called, running her hands over a few of the multitude of bruises by which she was marked. The recepient nodded, her lips tightening into a compressed line as their gazes met. She nimbly pulled back a collection of her thick, well-kempt hair which hung loosely, albeit messily, over her left shoulder.

‘You almost died!’ she wailed, running over to her and hugging her desperately. ‘What happened?!’

‘I don’t know!’ she barked, shoving her back slightly. ‘Get off me Usagi-chan!’

‘I’m sorry,’ she sniffled. ‘I just …’

‘I know …’ she replied with a heavy sigh.

Usagi plunked herself amongst her friends, somehow feeling very distant, even though she could easily lay her hand upon any of them just then.

‘Where are we?’ Makoto half-growled, eyes darting.

Ami played her delicate fingers over her compact computer. A stricken look bent her thin eyebrows, and twisted her small mouth in a deeply ingrained frown.

‘We’re not home … um, I mean, on Earth, Usagi-chan. Whatever that portal was … it took us away.’

‘We should transform,’ she noted, running her fingers through on of the thick, tangled length of distinctly unique hair.

‘We can’t. At least, I couldn’t. I don’t know if it’s because our powers won’t work here, or if we’re all too scared.’

Makoto frowned sternly, standing, and grasping her transformation pen.

‘Scared? Who said I was scared?! They can go to bloody blazes!’ She paused, then remarked, ‘Uh, whoever they are … anyway …’

She then raised her arm and proclaimed: ‘Sailor Jupiter – Make Up!’

The girls stared on as her second stage transformation introduced the power of her senshi title as uniform, something they had until then thought impossible.

‘It does matter,’ Rei negated. ‘You can’t possibly have enough power to teleport us all home.’

‘Why don’t you try?’ she barked, eyes narrowed as she faced her, hands upon her impressive hips.

‘I …’

Hesitantly, she stood, taking her red handled pen in hands, and gazing at it brief before raising it and calling: ‘Sailor Mars – Make Up!’

Her mystic metamorphosis transcended her lack of confidence, bringing her the somewhat waned semblence of her heroically proven alter ego. Then, as they looked on, her white and red uniform shimmered and retreated as she collapsed to the soft grassy earth. Tearily, she shook her head, huddling against Ami, who hugged her comfortingly.

‘I’m sorry … so sorry!’ she cried, voice wavering.

Abruptly, as Usagi approached Rei to lend her support and soft words, a stunning blast threw her to the unyielding earth.

‘Iye!’ Jupiter snarled, whirling to face the enemy, and froze in abject horror. It was no more than a second that she stared upon the futuristic saucer-like airborne barge, upon which was a snake-like creature surrounded by four lovely grey body-suited young women. The nearest, despite the eye masking silver-grey helmet upon her head, fired an energy bolt from what looked like a wrist mounted weapon. Makoto barely dodged this, and gave out a cry as Mina crumbled to the ground at the impact of the weapon fired by the strange woman next to her.

‘Supreme Thunder!’

The shard of electric force struck and rocked the barge, after which plain, simple attacks from the strange women brought down the remained senshi. In a blind rage, Jupiter leap at the alien vessel, and folded, dropping like a heap of stones as she was knocked aside by twin flashes of energy.

Gazing faintly at the barge as it hovered over them, she felt weakness draw her to a dark, cool place.

 

@~%~~~

 

Over a crystal of turquoise, a woman marred by the violence of fist, whip, and neural mace raised her closed fist to the middle of her chest, her heart, and bowed her head.

“Sivil-san!”

The young battered dirty blond snapped her head towards the voice as she tapped a switch hidden in her wrist, a cool, unruffled look sharing the address with the faintly attractive features of her face. The crystal faded to what might have been an alternate reality. Her voice was calm, none of the abundant tension she felt evident in her manner.

“Yes, Usagi-chan?”

“My friends, my …” Team? Is that even right anymore? “Um, they’re ready. Are …” the pig-tailed blond paused, her eyes wandering helplessly. “Are we going to leave?”

Sivil nodded firmly. “Yes. We must. Do the clothes fit?”

Was there nothing remaining of which she was uncertain? Reluctantly, she succumbed to this truth, internally. Wistfully, she nodded, running her fingers over the icy silver silk cat suit. Concern lit upon Sivil’s pleasant, yet hard face. “How are you doing?”

“We’re alive,” she stated softly in the somewhat awkward verbal conjugation of English, as if the fact surprised her.

“No,” she negated. “I mean you, Usagi. Maybe you should talk to them. Before we go.”

She shrugged absently.

“They need you,” Sivil stated. “There’s no one else to lead them. They depend on you.”

Usagi’s sapphire eyes reached for her, and set steadily upon her. A momentary focus flickered.

“How do you know that?”

Sivil froze in word and deed for an instant before allowing herself to speak. “It’s obvious. You’re a natural leader.”

Usagi shook the husk of recent pain for a moment while she bristled with pride. “Really? You think so?”

“Yes Usagi, I really do,” and gentle smile broke the mask of stalwart emotional death. For a moment she considered the young woman, before letting her words travel forth. ‘Do you need time?’

“Do we have time?” The pride dropped and scurried into a darkened recess of her consciousness, not to be forgotten.

“Long enough.” Her facade of strength returned, eyes averted slightly.

“How long is that?” she nearly whined, sounding frightened.

“Just tell me when you’re ready to go,” she stated, turning away, leaving the matter closed.

Saying nothing, Usagi retreated from the room. This woman, this light offering hope, one destroyed when they arrived here, when it became clear their situation, was an odd creature. There was a silhouette of death standing beside her, a dismal shadow drawing Usagi short of confidence. It had been hard to give up. To submit to the Splugorth Slaver. No, that had not been difficult. When it came down it, they never did. What had it been? Painful. To watch her friends as their strength failed, as their training faltered. To see that Luna and Artemis were gone, that she could not reach Mamoru again, that he could not protect her, nor touch her again.

That was the most dramatic point. Fear. Of everything.

‘Usagi-chan? What did she say?’ Ami’s voice and language of body spoke of her demure nature, as ever, yet there was an additional anxiety to her. Usagi waved her off, sitting with mildly graceful motions in a small circle of cushions. Silently, she bid the others join her. Slowly, they did, each in a varied state of a theme in mind and soul.

Makoto, as the fury and strength of the Sailor Senshi, looked beaten, as the others, yet she remained unshaken, powerful. To Usagi it was clear that she would be the last to fall. Ami’s battered form – slender as a cat, despite any mistreatment – betrayed her nature: The intellectual whiz kid with brains where brawn was inappropriate. In comparison, the two made a sharp contrast. While the Ami seemed to be faring well, she was far from the most resilient of the Senshi, and was the first likely to crumble. Watching the fire and heart of the team, Rei and Mina, it was plain they had been hurt. Why she placed the two together did not occur until she noted that they spent more than coincidental amounts of time exchanging shamed and scared glances.

‘Rei … nani honto-wa?’ Usagi’s sudden question was sharp, and each of the four girls emitted a short gasp.

‘Gomen nasai, Usagi-chan,’ she apologized softly, not willing to elaborate, eyes downcast.

‘Mina?’ Usagi prodded, turning to the most experienced Sailor Senshi.

The golden blond felt herself wanting to flee, and that her eyes fled from Usagi’s gaze. ‘Rei and I, we … we …’ she was trembling, forcing down her reaction. ‘No, nevermind.’

The two shared a deep, telling look and Usagi blinked, worried and lost. All she could do was apologize. ‘Gomen. Gomen nasai, Rei-chan, Mina-chan,’ Usagi muttered in reply. After several minutes of intimate silence, she spoke, drawing out the situation. ‘What will we do? Ami? Do you think we can make it back?’

Ami flinched self-consciously. Realizing she was reasonably safe, she nodded, and retrieved her miniature computer. Opening the pink make-up case, she noted – as if to herself, ‘I’ve already done the calculations. If we can … well … um …’ her ammunition was cut short. Her serene blue eyes descended into sorrow. ‘I don’t know. We should be able to, if we can get a hold of some magic stuff. Maybe some scrolls for something. Teleportation, or … maybe … I don’t know.’

Makoto piped up, ‘But we can’t use magic! We don’t know how.’

An emotionally darkened “hmm” selected one girl, then moved through each once, before dying in a faintly off-key chorus.

‘I’ll try to learn,’ Mina determined. ‘As Sailor V I ran into a couple demons who used the stuff. Cancelling their summoning spell was the only way I beat them.’

They all handed her an amazed stare. She blushed, embarrassed.

‘Well … you never asked …’ she replied with a weak chuckle.

‘Anyone have any idea, um, what we need?’

Each shook her head in turn as determined by Usagi’s questioning gaze.

‘Usagi-chan,’ Ami half-whispered, trembling eyes upon the owner of the name. ‘A-are we going to make it? I-I … I m-mean home.’

By silence, she admitted uneasily her uncertainty. She got to her feet, expending energy she felt beyond her.

‘I’ve got to … Um, I should tell Sivil we’re going.’

No, she thought, “ready” isn’t the right word.

Sivil said nothing, merely nodding when faced by Usagi. Proceeding through the hush and aphony of Atlantis’ back alleys and tunnels, words became necessary only in caution, usually at the behest of Sivil.

@~%~~~

 

Usagi, for once, was paying attention, and noted that this woman’s knowledge was great. What was it she had said? A slave of ten years? And not sold? She lacked the time to inquire, and wondered how much truth belonged to the words at any cost. Even at that of their lives.

Atlantis was beautiful, flawless in appearance, if only to hide … no, she paused. The Splugorth did not seem to be concerned in the least of their phantasmagoria, the swatch of evil that permeated every structure of the formerly lost realm. They did not hide their deeds, the slave trading, the domination of races, the atrocities of their existence. The sky explained the method of the ideal dream, while below it was disregarded for carnal pleasures, and other inequities.

“Hold up,” Sivil whispered. “That’s it, we’re here.”

Usagi laid a hand upon the tunnel wall, panting dry heaves, while the others took to recovering their winds. Beyond the shadow of metal crate lay an endless expanse of water, and a gleaming, thrumming dock wrapped tightly to the edge of the city-island.

“What?” Usagi half-muttered.

Sivil turned to her sternly, eyes narrowed, brows knotted. “Hush! This is the crucial point. We need a little ship, a scow, or maybe a freighter. Something!”

Her eyes sailed the opportune vessels, each the prodigy of modern technology. Unfortunately, every one of them was crawling with guards, Over and Power-Lords, among other Splugorth.

Fine, she determined, wrenching herself to the decision. There’s no other way.

Face set with a dispassionate glare, she swiveled to Usagi. “I need you to head to that ship,” she stated, indicating a crippled looking little freighter.

Trepidation swam in Usagi. “But … Why Sivil-san?”

‘Don’t question, just go. When you reach Japan, just look for a little shop called Conroy’s Cybernetics. Give them this.” She produced a tiny jade crystal, shoved it into Usagi’s open palm and closed it with the other. She then stepped out of the tunnel, not looking back.

“No, Sivil-san! You can’t!”

A serene expression declared itself, and was offered to Usagi in Sivil’s face as she gazed backwards. “Go!”

Usagi felt tears well as the young woman brought forth the pace of a run, heading directly for the required distraction.

‘Usagi,’ Makoto urged, touching her shoulder. ‘C’mon.’

Lethargic, she agreed, feeling vaguely numbed.

Gazing behind her, she thought: I’m sorry Usagi. I’m sorry I didn’t get a chance to know you better. I’m sorry for what I have to do, but you’ll later thank me.

She swiftly placed herself in the blind spot of a five-foot tall being of stony skin, tail, claw, and asymmetrically armoured figure. The tripod of eyes failed to perceive her, while the unseen nose detected her scent. She buried her repulsion with the greater need; save the Senshi.

‘Hi-ha!’ she snapped, taking an arm by the hand and flipping the inhuman weight over her stiffened shoulder. The creature grasped her with the fourth member of a quad of limbs as it flipped nimbly to land upon the pair of armored legs. Hauled in the reverse of the preferred direction by thin lengths of hair, she stumbled backwards, twisting to face it. The slender beast uttered a low whining growl, striking her with a clawed hand.

She cried out as the fingers bit into rib and lung.

‘Sivil!’ Usagi screamed desperately, stopping her flight for the freighter.

‘Usagi-chan iye!’ Makoto grabbed her shoulder, spurning her onwards, tossing her roughly behind the crates just within the door of the sea bound vessel.

Another cry flew from the mouth of the doomed young woman while other Splugorth approached.

“Escaped human slave! Kill it!”

‘Sivi …’ her words were cut off by a swift motion drawing her face to the side, and causing a red welt to display upon her cheek. Makoto glared at her.

‘Don’t! You’ll attract their attention!’ Anger inducing fear clenched Makoto’s jaw and tensed the muscles of her face.

Shocked, she sat down. ‘Makoto …?’

Looking on, amazed, the others saw the brawn of the Senshi made a harsh gesture for silence. The cacophony beyond the open loading doors fell away as Sivil’s screams halted. The violence hardened brunette winced at the sickly pronouncement of death; an audible dissection of flesh and bone.

‘Oh … by the Goddess,’ Usagi sobbed, burying her face in her hands, knees drawn to her seated body. Mute empathy held the team, and brought them to sit, hide and cower in the silver of hope provided by the death.

Chronos visited, wandering the room with Silence, who explained Nothing, who agreed wholeheartedly with the other two. Silence found herself cut off by the introduction of Sound as a low, rumbling, strangely calming and quiet hum. Makoto stood, and began wandering the storage bay, searching for … well, anything. Preferably weapons. She returned in short order with blankets, a few packages of rations, and an odd looking pistol.

‘What do we do when the ship docks?’ Ami asked hesitantly. Usagi looked surprised as she curled up in the yellow tinted cloth covering. The short blue haired girl usually had more answers than she did questions.

‘We get off,’ Makoto supplied shortly. ‘Then get away. The Splugorth won’t catch us again. Anyone who gets in our way will have to deal with me.’ She hefted the pistol.

‘I wouldn’t use that unless someone attacks us first,’ Rei observed quietly. ‘We don’t even know what it does!’

‘I doubt that weapon is not powerful enough to kill,’ Ami said in an uncharacteristically obvious statement. The other three nodded agreement as she bit into a portion of ration, then spat, grimacing.

‘Usagi-chan?’ Mina asked, putting a hand on her shoulder. ‘You okay?’

Usagi looked at Mina, a frightened distance in her eyes.

‘I … wish Sivil hadn’t died,’ she said. ‘I wish Luna was here.’

They had all been struck by the reality of that loss. Luna had not come through the portal with them.

‘Ami-chan, it’s all right. You’re doing the best you can,’ Usagi offered consolingly.

The youngest of the five nodded weakly, trembling slightly. The rest of the trip had given way to Sound as moving water, and the uncomfortable realization of uncertainty of the future. They had docked some hours later. Makoto woke everyone, aside from Usagi, who had been too scared to sleep.

‘You going to be alright?’ Mina had asked as they had prepared to leave. Her pale orange cat suit accented her trim figure as she moved gracefully toward Usagi.

Usagi nodded, not sure of the truth of it.

‘Let’s go,’ she distracted. ‘We’d better do this before it’s too late.’ Or before I give in to fear.

Makoto formed the head of the line, with Ami behind her, Usagi in the middle, for the protection, following back to Mina, and Rei at the end. They followed a line of crates off the ship, and after some time, managed to reach the dock were they could see a town at the edge. Freedom had never seemed closer since their arrival here!

“Halt!” A tall white-faced overlord bellowed deeply from a deck aboard the ship.

Makoto turned, rage afire within her, and realizing a perfect outlet.

“Not a chance buster!” she snarled. Without hesitation, she raised the pistol and pointed it at the OverLord.

“Seize them!” The OverLord did not appear to be terribly troubled by Makoto’s weapon, or where it was aimed. A half dozen blind warrior women, on the other hand, seemed quite concerned. So concerned, in fact, that they rushed the five girls simultaneously.

“Transform …!” Usagi commanded with little conviction. Without Luna, Usagi had realized there was no one but her to give the orders. Her first thought was of their senshi powers. She was not sure if their transformation pens would work – especially in the light of past evidence – but the chance for freedom was so clear.

One by one, each respective Sailor Senshi replaced the five human girls. There was a discrepancy that Usagi noted with ill ease. Each uniform had appeared, but without the usual transformation energies. Due to the speedy approach of the blind women, Usagi did not have the time to ponder the matter. She was just barely able to dodge a blast from a weapon much like Makoto’s. Ami was the first to attempt the utilization of her powers.

“Shabon Spray!” she called in English, crossing her arms in front of her, then pushing the bubbles forth as they appeared in one motion. The bubbles dispersed, creating a heavy fog. The women did not stop, nor did they even slow, uninhibited by the normally visually inhibiting attack. With a gasp, Ami realized that her power was completely ineffective against the sightless women.

Usagi called out a rapid succession of orders, mainly of attack and retreat. As the battle ensued, it appeared that they were winning. Two of the six blind warrior women remained standing. Only Ami and Rei and fallen on their side. Usagi shouted for Jupiter to grab Mercury, and Venus to grab Mars, they were going to retreat.

A shot came out of the blue and hit Usagi in the upper arm, near her shoulder. A brilliant flash of pain burned, Usagi cried out in agony. Mina screamed, ‘your arm!’

As the pain ebbed, Usagi realized she had lost all the feeling in her left arm. Looking for her left arm, she found with a gut wrenching shock that it was not where it was supposed to be. There was a great, dark looking burn from which the pain still stemmed. A blackness wrapped itself around Usagi’s mind.

 

@~%~~~

 

The face of a violently weathered young woman flicked into existence before his wearied eyes. She squinted for a moment, then straightened her back and winced as she squared her shoulders. Her hair was matted with grease and dirt, her face a mesh of bruises, scars, and fresh lacerations.

“Date: 35853.6. Sergeant Silver, this phase of the mission has succeeded without error. The collective emotional state of the Sailor Soldiers -” she paused to nod to something off screen “- is fearful, uncertain, and hopeful. Their experience conforms to the specifications provided. We have remained here for twenty-four hours, and are about to proceed. With any luck, I will return alive. If not, I pray to die with honor to the service.”

She signed off with a customary salute before the image departed to the null of cyberspace.

“Lt. Nira was later slain in the escape, though the Sailor Soldiers were able to stow away aboard a cargo vessel bound for Japan,” the icy tones of a screen-bound plain-faced young woman elaborated.

He bowed his head and breathed a shallow sigh.

“Location?”

“Currently unknown. It is assumed that the Soldiers landed safely in Japan.”

“Never assume anything,” he stated, adamant. “Send a scout team to investigate the matter. Immediately.”

“Yes sir,” the woman represented in the screen bowed her head slightly. “Will there be anything else?”

“Yes. Notify our global contacts. We cannot afford to waste time.”

[* *]

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Chapter 2

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She could no longer recall how long she had been running. A glance backwards told her that pursuit had dropped off. Exhausted, she dropped her knees, her mind a blur. She struggled against her fatigue even as the resurgence of pain brought her mind to a warm vertigo.

Who am I running from? Recollection failed, she was having a hard time thinking straight. Two days of running had not helped. Hunger drew her consciousness to a focus again, as it had done several times over the last forty-eight hours. Dully she remembered. She was running from a strange man in black armor. He had called himself “Cage.”

Not terribly inventive, she noted.

He had proclaimed that he wanted to protect her. His obvious efforts at capture had not exactly inspired the young girl’s confidence. She glanced down at her torn outfit. Transforming to Sailor Mercury had not helped, much. She had been able to use her Shabon Spray to confuse them for her escape. She shook her head weakly, it had not helped at all. They seemed to be able to follow her anywhere. This strange environment had displayed more advanced technology than she thought could have existed. Even if she had her computer, she doubted it would have proved to be of any assistance.

Well, she thought, I am not without my resources. I’ve made it this far, haven’t I? The effectiveness of the thought ceased. Why? With Usagi and others gone, what good is it to run?

Of that she was not yet sure. From what she could ascertain, this was Earth. She determined that she was no longer in Japan. Somehow the explosion had resulted in a teleportation of some kind. The thought that she might teleport back to where she came fell strictly to chance. First of all, she had no idea where she was, and secondly, none further of where she was going. Beyond even this, she knew herself to be lacking the necessary strength for such an action. So if it was random teleportation, as they had not arrived together at the terminating point of the transport, which meant the others could be six ways from the moon. There was no way of telling where they were. With a dull gaze, she looked about, trying to figure out where her feet had taken her. She felt a stale warm breeze wash over her, making her feel nauseous, and adding an undesired soporific effect to an already depressing day. She was at the edge of both hope, and what seemed to be a very poor, and rather dismal looking village.

She staggered as she stood, her senshi enhanced strength waned under her human weakness. As she walked, her mind wandered listlessly over the past several days of her life. Even though she tried to forget Atlantis, she could not help but dwell on it. What was it? Maybe there was something she was missing that could help her? Perhaps it was just a morbid fascination with the former legend, and the pain it had brought to her life.

She had always thought the world of Atlantis to be one of greater enlightenment, and advanced knowledge. As a part time bibliophile, she was always searching for more knowledge. It was from that search she had gained a romanticized view of the legendary Atlantis. That hope had been brutally dashed when she had learned of the true nature of the inhabitants of the archaic continent. They had turned out to be a race of slavers. Well, perhaps a single “race” was an inaccurate word. She knew they were called “Splugorth,” but it did not seem to have to do with their appearance or genetic structure. Ami was sure there was one intelligence behind the Splugorth, with the rest of the operatives being obedient races, and those perhaps with a debt to their servitors, or whatever the case.

She shook her head again, trying to keep awake. Hunger was no longer staying her fatigue. She entered the town at a pace that resembled a crawl, finding it difficult to muster energy for a more substantial effort. Nearby people noticed her, but kept their distance, as if unsure of her existence. Many regarded her as some kind of illusion, then turned away to continue on with their lives. Others appeared to be concerned, but lacked the nerve to approach the haggard looking young woman. In return, she merely ignored them, or at least tried to. After the resulting submission, and violence of Atlantis, somehow she was not compelled to plead for assistance, even though she was sure she would die without it.

Another woman, however, seemed to lack the fear of those about her. She was a sharply dressed contrast to the poor look of the inhabitants of the town, which swarmed about her as she approached Ami. It seemed obvious to her that the woman was an outsider, a traveler of some sort. She certainly did not live in this god-awful town.

In one slender, soft hand, she held a canteen, the other a rather tempting slab of cheese. Ami just stood for several minutes, staring at the food as if it was entirely alien to her. She reached towards it, and hesitated, gazing at the woman who offered it to her.

‘Gomen nasai, wakarimasen,’ Mercury muttered faintly. So sorry, I don’t understand.

‘Nihon go ga hanase-masen,’ the woman replied softly; I don’t speak Japanese. She thought apologetically, but I do want to save your life. Too bad I can’t tell you that outright … “Mizu, um … water. I’ve got water, and food. Dozo. Please, eat.”

‘Ah, so desu.’ With a deft nod, and a weak ‘Hai’ the food disappeared, and Ami attacked it ravenously.

‘Namu ka _]Allison,’ she said with a slight gasp. “Do you speak … uh … English? [_Wakarimasu ka? English?” she gestured to her mouth as she spoke, hoping to get the point across.

With a vague grin, she nodded. “Yes. I do, pretty well.”

“Cripes. Then why didn’t you just …” she glanced down for a moment, then sighed. “Oh.”

“Right.”

“You haven’t eaten in while, I guess. What’s your name?”

“Two days,” she muttered with a heavy Japanese accent between bites. “Ami.”

Allison looked shocked. Her eyes traveled down Ami’s bruise marked, and ill-clothed frame. Then her face set in a concentrated look as she slipped off her knapsack, opened it, and began searching through it. After several seconds of rummaging, she pulled out a dark blue robe. She handed it to Ami. Having finished the cheese, and water, Ami just watched the woman like a wild animal; wary, and uncertain. Again, she was hesitant.

There was a clearly questioning expression on her face as Allison offered the robe. With an affirmative nod, she watched Ami put it on. The care with which she donned the covering betrayed her refined nature. She slipped the heavy hood over her short blue haired head. Noticing her gaze, she did not smile. She just bowed stiffly and turned away slowly.

“Where will you go?” Allison asked boldly.

The young woman paused, and turned back.

“Why do you care?”

“It’s not personal, if that’s any comfort,” she replied. “Keep walking, I’ll leave you alone.”

Ami considered this. It was possible that Allison had ulterior motives, she found that she almost could not think to care. Her vision swam before her.

“Uh—unnn.” She took two shaky steps, then fell into her arms, unconscious.

 

@~%~~~

 

“Ami?”

The voice was not much more than a whisper. Warmth blurred vividly in her mind, and she recollected having fainted. She opened her eyes. The sun was up, and she shut her eyes quickly as the light of it blinded her. She uttered out slightly at the attack.

“Oh good, you’re awake! You’ve been out for a while. Almost two days,” Allison helpfully supplied. Ami opened her eyes slowly, dark afterimages dancing in her vision. She blinked, unsuccessfully trying to get rid of them.

“Are you hungry?” she asked as Ami glanced at her, and at their surroundings. They were in a poorly built, and lit, bedroom. The walls were composed of loosely placed panels of wood. The bed consisted of straw, and she felt her back cry out in agony in testimony to the stiffness of it. Ami’s mind balked; sun? A makeshift hole in the roof had been covered with some kind of transparent material. It looked as though the hole had resulted from a fall, or battle of some sort, rather than by the plans of the individual who constructed this place.

“Yes,” Ami nodded slightly, eager to sate her hunger. Allison produced a large piece of cheese, and several other items, which she quickly pieced together to form a sandwich. Ami ravenously accepted the feast.

Allison could only watch as this plainly wan girl polished off her sandwich in not much more than a dozen bites. Allison put together another, hoping to sate her appetite. It was evident to Allison that this girl had been taken for slavery. She bore the marks of a slave; her back scarred, her wrists and ankles raw. Also, the two long claw scars on her face. Fairly recent, she surmised. Ami’s health was in such a state that she was not likely to retaliate. Allison knew that included her mental health, as well. Her feet had been bleeding when she had tended them. More importantly, she bore the marks of an Atlantean slave. Allison had flushed a symbiotic organism from Ami’s system.

Thank heavens for Shi-Con tech, she thought.

Allison observed her finish off a third sandwich, and her second glass of ale. Finally, she felt she could inquire; “Who are you? How did you escape from Atlantis?”

She paused eating and swallowed before speaking. “I am Ami Mizuno. I was helped by one who claimed to be my friend.”

“What happened?”

“Nothing. We escaped.” Her tone was measured, her eyes narrowed slightly, full of distrust.

“Then why are you alone? Where are your friends?”

“Friends? Did I say anything about friends?”

She was lying, and Allison was aware of it. Allison pursued the strain of fiction, however.

“The one who helped you escape.”

Ami studied her for a time. She is no fool.

“She was killed.”

Allison merely nodded. That part was true enough; Lt. Nira had been a somewhat distant friend. Despite the remainder of dishonesty, she was sympathetic of Ami’s distrust. She had no valid reason to place any faith in this unfamiliar woman.

Well, that’s something I intend to earn, Allison decided.

“How are you feeling?”

Ami regarded the inquiry like the promise of a politician; with the expectancy of treachery. “Better,” she replied. “Thank you.” A moment of silence was the intervening point between that, and her next words: “So what do you know that you haven’t told me?”

Allison was not sure how to reply. She knew that the lie had buried a hatchet of one kind, and to remove it, she only had to tell the truth … but one question remained; would Ami believe her?

“What would you say if I were to tell you I was responsible for your freedom?” Allison ventured dangerously.

“You going to prove it?” Ami asked, seemingly unfazed by the notion.

“I can. You think you can manage a short walk?”

She sat up sluggishly, and then swung her feet over the edge of the bed. She leaned forward, abruptly, gagging. Allison startled, getting to her feet rapidly. She put a hand on the young woman’s shoulder. Finally, Ami stopped, and looked up at her.

“Are you sure?”

Ami glanced up at her and nodded deftly.

“I guess I ate a little quickly. I’ll be fine.”

A few minutes later they exited the inn. Allison was sure the innkeeper did not mind the two gold piece tip she had left him, next to the five silver for the room. Quite a bit for such a shack, though it was apparent that she was little concerned about the money. They were moving as quickly as Ami’s somewhat ragged pace would allow.

“So where are we going?” Ami asked.

“I’ve got a hovercraft hidden just outside of town,” she explained. “That will get us where we’re going.”

“A hovercraft?”

“Yeah,” a deep voice started behind her. “One ‘o those things ya crash in, y’know? Kinda like this!”

Just as they turned towards the voice, a fist descended, smacking soundly against the back of Ami’s head. Ami gasped, and Allison cried out, grabbing for an amulet around her neck. Allison’s slender form was abruptly replaced, in a brilliant flash, by a dark blue exoskeleton armor, with great silver avian like wings. Reaching for the blue scabbard mounted on her left hip, she pulled forth a heavy broadsword. Ami stumbled forward, completely enveloped in shock, trying to remain conscious.

The power armored Allison struck at Ami’s assailant, aiming to kill. The seven-foot tall cyborg raised his claymore and turned to parry Allison’s strike. They met evenly, snarling at each other as they struggled to determine the greater strength. The cyborg grinned, and raised what looked like a remote above his head. The one finger not gripping it was used to point something … up?

She cursed loudly as a hovering tank descended upon them, it’s great cannon and accompanying rail guns making everything crystal clear.

‘Yeah, I figgered y’ might see it’n the end,’ the cyborg stated, his ugly grin retaining its unpleasant presence. Angrily, Allison raised her hands, dropping the broadsword.

“Now, now,” snarled the cyborg, leveling his arm cannon at Allison, three inches from her suddenly sweating face. “Let’s be all civil-like. I don’t gotta kill ya, but if yer gonna get all nasty …”

Allison cursed under her breath, watching the hatch of the tank open, and a heavily armored man appear from its depths. On a hope, Allison extended the vibro blades concealed in the armlets of the armor, and moved as if to attack, striking the arm cannon aside easily.

“Hey there you,” snapped the voice from the hovertank. “Don’ you be getting’ no ideas!Perry, we’s goin’ er what?’

“Yeah sure,” replied the cyborg. “Ya don’ mind, do ya? Naw? I dun’ thunk it …”

Allison felt something smack sharply against the back of her head, then, only a dark veil.

 

@~%~~~

 

Pain. She awoke subsumed and lost in a sea of it. The world was dark, her body numb – for the pain seemed to center in her head – and endless minutes passed before the inky black transformed slowly into clean, white walls and cool, hair prickling air. A faint click and whine sounded above her head after which a voice communicated by narrow frequencies made a cursory assessment:

“Ah, good morning, how are you?”

She sat up, looked around, and ran a hand through her short blue hair.

“Pardon?”

“You’re quite lucky to be alive,” the voice stated coldly.

Where is the voice coming from? She could see no one around.

“Lucky?”

There was a sigh. “Take a moment to gather your wits, you’ve been through quite the ordeal.”

Where am I? She paused, gazing at the smooth white walls of the room. There did not appear to be any way out, no discernible door. What have I been doing that might have brought me here?

“Who am I?”

Another sigh; “We were rather hoping you could tell us that.” A pause. “I suppose we’ll have to start from the brick at the bottom. First of all honey, you’re not human.”

“I’m not?”

“At least you understand that, that’s a good sign. Lateral thinking. Problem is, we don’t know what you are exactly. Aside from what we could tell from the cybernetics you’ve had in.”

Cybernetics? she thought, getting slowly to her feet. Why do I know that word?

“What do you suppose about that now?”

She began to recognize stiffness in her leg, in the left side of her … face. Without thinking, she touched her left cheek, then her right. She felt less pressure on her left cheek. She pressed harder on the one, then the other. Same result.

“Yes, it might feel odd. That would be because most of the left side of your face is synthetic.”

“What’s synthetic?” Her hand fell away from her face.

“Fake. Synthetic is manufactured material. Unnatural, like you. But not. Understand?”

“What?!” She stumbled backwards, falling against the smooth wall.

“Calm down honey,” the voice said flatly. “Do you have a name?”

She heard a mumbling as she scrambled up against the unyielding whiteness of the wall. Trembling, she fought against the thoughts of not being real.

“Damnit,” the voice cursed. “The first thing she does after coming to, is freak out. Doctor Lambert, we need you to sedate our blue haired girl here,” the voice observed in tones indicating minimal alarm.

She did not hear these words as they were spoken. Nor did she hear the entrance of the cyber doc, as he approached her, needle in hand.

He spoke in whining tones; “Calm down, this will make you feel all better now.”

He reached for her, taking the upper portion of her left arm with one hand. Something snapped, a frantic look passed over her face, like the sudden flash of summer lightning. She stuck at him with her right arm, a blind action, and her hand hit the doctor in the face, which cracked open like a ripe melon. She screamed, and crumbled into a crying heap as the body made a pool of crimson upon the consistently white floor.

“Cage! Get in here! Handle your flipping SDB will you!?” the voice growled, no longer sounding quite so calm.

Two Dead Boys in heavy armor entered the room without hesitation. One of them uttered a curse. The second, however, sounded as though he was smiling when his dark voice left his throat.

“Rather more’n I thought,” he noted as he reached over and grabbed her by the neck, lifting her to her feet. She struggled and choked, but did not seem to be aware of his words, nor the pain he was inflicting. “Not that I mind.”

“Glad you’re enjoying yourself. Will you just get on with it and put her out?” the voice snarled in controlled tones.

He glared upwards.

“Fine. I guess we’ll just have to get it all the hard way.”

The next morning brought bright light, in multiple sources. It felt like a hospital; the cold air on her skin, the white ceiling, the unemotional voices …

“She’s coming around …”

“Good, just make sure you keep those sedatives pumping. That way we won’t have any more messes like the last doc who attempted to administer.”

“Right.”

The world spun, dazzling in its brightness. It felt like the most she could do to raise her finger.

“No, no, don’t try to move, you’ve been hurt.”

Hurt? I don’t feel hurt. I feel violated. “Wh-whu …” her mouth refused to form the words she wanted. Any words at all. The blur of white and blue hovering over her refused to leave. Not that it mattered. Why doesn’t it matter?

It came back to her in chunks, in fragments.

Messy doctor?

She had killed the doctor when he …

Killed?

… tried to inject her with something.

Killed? I caused someone to die?

Then the men in black suits had come.

Good. I’m glad he’s dead. Jerk.

They wanted to know why …

I killed one of them too. They shouldn’t mess with me. They don’t …

They wanted her to come quietly with them.

They don’t know me.

Who is she?

Do I know me? I know the night.

Sarah Feldman had tried to get into her mind. Tried to reach into the sealed depths. She succeeded.

“You were a Sailor?”

Long walking nights in the cool moonlight …

“Not really. A Sailor Senshi. They are very different.”

“So you were a ‘Sailor Senshi’. Would you mind telling me what that is?”

Jumping so high I could ascend two story complexes …

“It’s a warrior. A protector. We fought the NegaVerse. We fought the creatures of the NegaVerse; Jedite, Malachite, Zoisite, Neflite …”

“Do you know that those are stones?”

Fighting for all I was …

“Yes. The names are stones. The warriors we fought were not.”

“Who are ‘we’?”

Is that me? I don’t want that to be me …

“The Bishojo Sailor Senshi. Pretty Sailor Solders of the Moon. Sailor Moon, Sailor Mercury, which was me, Sailor Mars, Sailor Jupiter, and Sailor Venus.”

“Do you know that those names are the names of celestial bodies?”

I fought. Yes. That’s okay. It should do …

“Yes. But the Sailor Senshi were human.”

“You speak as if you are no longer a part of that group.”

“I’m not.”

“But you are Mizuno Ami, from Tokyo. We read that on your ID. Amazing to have carried it all this way through the rift. Spectacular.”

Who was I? …

“That’s not me.”

Sarah adopted the complexion of a fleshless corpse some two centuries old.

“She is dead.”

They had been foolish enough to think that the sedative was strong enough to hold her back. Foolish enough to leave her alone with the D-Bee.

It doesn’t matter who I was. I can be what I need to be. Who I need.

Sarah’s screams were not heard through the sound proof walls, nor by the sleeping surveillance officer. By the time the cameras had alerted security, it was by then far too late.

Who is this psychotic woman to murder a therapist?

She is fight. Fighting. She is Sarah Night.

Sarah would go and then return. Again she would go and then return. Sometimes with snacks, sometimes with guards and pain. Did she care? What did she want? Reality flew by in blurs of consciousness. Snippets of awareness, some violent, some crimson coated, others totally awash with pain. Each time the same, or similar questions.

- Who are you? -

I don’t

(want to tell you)

know. Who I am now isn’t who I was

- Why? Who are you now? -

I told you already

- Why are you here? -

Shut the hell up

Blur of an already bloody glove. Pain snapped in her face.

- That’s no way to talk to your saviors. Without us, you would be dead, D-bee. Where are your friends. -

What friends?

Then the surgery. Sometimes they would beat her up, sedate her, then take her to be operated on. Other times she would just wake up in the room, lights shining down on her, blurring her vision, pain fogging her senses, blood staining her reality. She continued to fight against them, hold what information she still held within her, no matter how hard they hit, or how deep they dove with their scalpels. Even then they took her arm, she held firm. Through the many days of tears, through the seemingly eternal pain.

They hoped to fetch knowledge from her DNA. Why not just take a blood sample? They had. It seemed to them it would be curious to gauge how the ‘subject’ reacted if they removed an entire limb. She reacted, to be sure. So much so that even their strongest sedatives, on single dosages (all of them), only managed to keep her from breaking down the door. Underestimating even the most attractive and slender was a lesson they would learn the hard way.

[* *]

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Chapter 3

[* *]

Heavy winds tore through her brunette bangs, frustratingly obscuring her view of the blade angled at her torso. She steeled her amusement at the sluggishness of her opponent. It would be so easy – so easy to let the vibrating weapon enter her skull and cleanse her of all doubts. Yet, at this time she did not desire it.

She clasped the blade between her hands in a demonstration of physical superiority and then twisted quickly, disarming her opponent in a single motion. The three exchanged yellow pupil glances, and decided that this village was not worth the effort. To further convince them, she manifested a long blade of simplistic design.

“Seen enough?”

“Ah-ah we do have suh-seen enough,” the tallest stammered, “we go. Alone we do go.”

She said nothing, making a gesture with her transparent blade. The gesture told them to leave, and that if they were to ever return, she would kill them. They scrambled away, giving no hint of rebellion in their retreat. She let the psi-sword disappear into the nothingness from which it had come.

A small group of cheering towns-people approached the tall woman, as she merely regarded them, apparently indifferent.

“Savior!” one of them said, the self-evident elder of the small village.

“This once,” she noted evenly, almost in reflection. “There will be others.”

“Feh,” the old man quipped, “what does it matter with the likes of your kind about? I prefer you knights to the technocrats of the Coalition and the D-bees any day.”

She seemed to study him for a moment, and his confidence froze in mid-motion. He tried to dislodge the wedge by asking a question of the valiant stranger.

“Have you a name there?”

She remained silent for a moment, but said, as if adding to an unspoken thought; “I am known as Sliver.”

He paled.

“The Sliver, in our humble town! Why are you not off fighting the Coalition now? This town means nothing,” he muttered, “not a-one’ll miss us.”

She regarded him with sudden warmth that set him at ease.

“I go were I am needed. To defend the good people from evil is my life.” Her gaze hardened again. “There is always another waiting. Always.”

“Well, you’ve done enough for one day, my dear,” the old man slapped her shoulder heartily, and in good humor. “Come. We’ve not much here, but the food is fresh, and hot. You shall have some rest after that. You look as though your search has only begun.”

Her gaze, having drifted into the crowd of people who watched the conversation, seeming too scared to move any closer to the legend at hand, snapped back to him. It was steady, probing, curious. She began to wonder how much he really knew.

The old fellow merely smiled.

The hut he accompanied her to was small, and looked well kept. The crowd that had gathered about them earlier seemed to disperse, leaving them alone by the time they reached their destination. Dinner, it seemed, had already been prepared. It consisted of steaming spice soup, cheese, bread, and a variant of barley beer.

“So what part of your search brings you to Quebec?” the old man asked, cutting a few pieces of cheese with a small knife.

Sliver watched him carefully, as she had since he dropped what she suspected to be a hint about her origin.

He shrugged.

“We are all searching. Where that search brings us depends on where we care to go. How willing we are to follow it.” He sipped a bit of his soup. She shook her head, unable to accept that generalization.

“Tell me what you know of the young D-Bee women rumored to have escaped from Atlantis.”

His face set dubiously.

“I haven’t heard much,” he said, putting his spoon down. “Why would you care anyway?”

She leaned forward and snarled, “Just answer the question.”

He startled, and nodded eagerly, clearly intimidated.

“W-well, it’s like I said. This place is pretty quiet. All I heard is about th’ girls, and that the Coalition wants them. We’re so far from the coast … it takes months for us to hear anything from so distant …”

Neither of them were eating; both were far too tense. She measured him again with her eyes, attempting to perceive any knowledge he might be hiding. As some moments passed, she decided to risk a psychic probe. Reaching forth with her mind, she felt some measure of apprehension within him. He did not react.

“You’re nervous about something, what is it?”

He merely gazed at her. At first she thought it was his fear holding his eyes on her, then she realized that he was looking above her.

She dropped to the floor and rolled away. As she did, she heard the easy smashing of wood. Getting to her feet and turning around, she noticed the splintered chair she had been sitting in. The voice behind the black skull motif helmet cursed and approached her. She snarled and leapt at him, catching him by the throat and knocking him to the floor. She clenched her fist, and three slim blades extended outward from the back of her hand.

“You won’t kill me,” the baritone said, still defiant. “You’re just a cyber-nut.”

“Maybe so,” she agreed. “But you’re just a squishy.”

She then pulled back, and decked him, leaving an impressive dent in his helmet. In one motion, she turned and stood up from the unconscious form, and froze. The old man gazed at her, straining against the neck hold of the second grunt, watching the energy pistol held to his head.

“Sliver I …” he coughed as the grunt tightened his grip.

“You’ll co-operate, or the old man dies,” he threatened.

“Not a chance, creep,” she glared at the grunt, speaking in angry undertones. “Supreme Thunder!”

A white bolt struck the man, knocking him over and causing him to release his grip on the older man’s throat.

With a violent cough, the elder called out; “Sliver, run!”

She did that, before she had time to second guess herself. As it turned out, as she bolted out of the door, the Coalition had expected the possibility of her running. She was deafened by the sound of a sonic boom as a vicious explosion vaporized the front door and most of the adjoining wall, and also threw her aside. Scrambling to her feet with a dull ringing in her ears, she had barely enough time to notice what had fired at her before it took another shot. She recognized the laser resistant glint of the power armor immediately.

Just as the thought surfaced in her mind, Sliver was caught by the second Power Armour’s attempt at subduing its target. She screamed, thrown backward by the force of the rail gun blast. Her chance for action arose. Allowing herself a moment to drop into place psychic pain barriers, she determined her course of action. Not a difficult choice:

Get the heck away from that Glitter Boy!

Swift to her feet, she turned, and sought nearest exit, if one existed. A curse rose to her lips. No such luck, the Coalition had anticipated that tact, apparently. She turned again, and ran at the ten foot tall glittering Power Armour. The man inside the armor gave with a gasp as the half-ton of armour fell over with the impact of this comparatively small humanoid woman.

“Halt!” A voice demanded coldly. “Or there will be more corpses like this one around here.”

The charred remnants of the old man landed at her feet, smoking, and smelling of freshly warmed death. She said nothing, replying as much cold hatred her face would allow.

“Bloody bitch,” a voice cursed from within the glitter armour. “Here, have some back!”

She felt a dull thud as something knocked her the cool earth. Then she remembered nothing.

 

@~%~~~

 

She awoke with a groan. Silence greeted her as she glanced about the white walled room. There were no windows, which did not surprise her. What did, however, was the apparent lack of any door.

Getting up, she felt a wash of pain move down from the back of her head to her neck. Strangely enough, they had not bothered to bind her. On that mental note, she realized that she was not clothed! The only article of clothing she seemed to be wearing was a metal collar, and a loincloth. Horrified, she sat down with her knees drawn to her chest.

“Getting comfortable, are we?” came a voice in clearly mocking tones.

She said nothing, looking around for the source.

“Good. You’re going to be here for some time.”

“Where am I?” she demanded.

“Supposing I told you, what would you do with that information? No, I don’t think so. You’ll know what we want you to know, and answer the questions we ask of you.”

“Bloody hell I will!” she retorted angrily.

“No? Well, you might not agree immediately, but given time, and a little persuasion, I’m sure you’ll become all too agreeable.”

“Not a chance, buster!” she stood, anger pushing aside her modesty as she got to her feet. “I’ll die before I …”

“Perhaps later.” A pause. “My my, you are a pretty thing, aren’t you? I really had no idea …”

Clenching her fists, the six vibro blades failed to extend. She looked at the back of her hands. Steel plates had been affixed to her hands via small slips of synthetic material wrapped around the palms.

“The cat gets de-clawed,” the voice laughed. “Little good they would do you anyway. You’re ours now.”

She bowed her head and started to mutter something under her breath.

“Magic? We took that as well,” the voice continued. “Along with your psychic powers.”

“Everything?” she asked, a slight smile spreading on her face.

“Good to hear you’re starting to see things our way.”

“You might say that,” she said as she walked towards one of the walls. She raised as fist and put it through the wall in one violent motion.

The voice cursed its error.

Makoto began pulling out sections of the wall. It seemed as though the wall had been built next to a … sewer? She was underground! She punched the black piping. It gave a little, and also hurt a bit. She clenched her fists together, and hit it again. The pipe gave completely and her hands sank in. She reached into the hole and began widening it. Just as the opening started to become large enough for her to fit into, she heard a hiss. Turning, she saw a square section of the wall opposite her open.

“Holy shi …” a voice gasped.

“Halt!” augmented tones demanded.

Makoto cursed. She had just enough time to duck the first blast as it struck the opening she had been prying at. Glancing at it as she scrambled to her feet, she noticed that the rest of her work had been finished for her. She jumped into the opening, and fled.

The inside of the sewers turned out to be just as bright as the outside of the piping. It was damp, cold, and she was shivering. Her awareness of that brought her to think ahead.

Where will I go? I can’t go above ground like this! Emotions welled inside her as her feet carried her onwards.

“Hey you!” A deep voice called. “Stop!”

A backward glance told her that she was no longer alone. They had caught up to her. At the speed they were running, she had time to – maybe – find a place to hide, but no more than that.

Lights flashed ahead of her.

“Halt, you!”

She stopped, eyes darting, furious.

“Hey!” a rustic voice said quietly. So quietly that it failed to register at first. “Hey babe!”

Makoto’s eyes snapped to the source. To her right she could see a very masculine face not trying to not stare at her from a space between where two of the sewer pipes had formerly joined.

“Geez, it’s gettin’ kinda cozy here. Come on!”

She hesitated for a moment, and realized that there just was no time. The fellow offered his hand. She took it, and slipped into the crevasse with him. They ran for what felt like some distance. Finally the man started to slow.

“We’re probably safe now. They can’t follow us.” Makoto was silent. He gazed at her and shook his head. “Yer way too pretty to be a D-Bee,” he remarked.

“I’m not a D-Bee,” she protested.

“Wait,” he eyed her. “You are a D-Bee. You’re that lady Cyber-Knight, right?”

“Glad you noticed,” she replied sarcastically, arms folded over her breasts.

He did not seem to notice her tone.

“Damn fine piece a’…” he grinned, gazing at her body boldly. “Uh, you want some clothes maybe?”

She glared at him. He shrugged. He took off the leather coat he was wearing and offered it to her. She refused it, shivering.

“Gettin’ cold, eh? Come on, I’m not gonna hurt you, ‘cause they ain’ gonna let up so easy,” he said, nonchalant. “An I’ll be damned if I’m just gonna let you float here and get vaped. Got me?.”

“Yeah,” she replied with a faint measure of gratitude.

Makoto took the coat and wrapped it about her shoulders. He had a point. As they continued on, she noticed a dramatic change in the climate. From cool and muggy to warm and stale.

“Where are we?” Makoto asked.

“Jus’ under a power plant,” he stated seriously. “How ‘bout I take ya somewhere you can get that collar and bracers off?”

“I can’t go topside like this!”

He gave her a look that told her he would not mind forgetting that, but had not.

“Here.” He stopped and gestured towards a small closet. She stepped towards it, and opened the door. Inside were several sets of pants, shirts, blouses, and other accessories of varying types. Oddly, she noted that a fair portion, at least half of these, were selections of reasonable taste – in the feminine sense of the term.

“I set this up a long time ago, just ‘cause you never know.”

She started towards them, but hesitated.

“Do you mind?” she asked.

“Wha’?” A stern glance made him concede. He turned around. “Okay. Sorry.”

She blinked, and was silently thankful for his intervention, despite his somewhat harsh attitude.

“Set this up? Why?” she muttered thoughtfully. “What do you do?”

“Bodyguard,” he offered curtly, his tones indicating his restlessness. “Look, we gotta get goin, okay? They’ll catch up pretty frickin’ fast.”

She frowned, and slipped on a shirt.

“Hey, I’m getting dressed as fast as I can, okay?”

“Sure. You mind if I ask what you were doin’ down here, anyway?”

“Actually, yes.”

“Huh,” he grunted. “Right. Fine.”

“Okay, you can turn around now.”

He did, and froze, gazing appreciatively over her. He whistled appreciatively, though Makoto hardly found herself enjoying the attention for its baseness. She sighed heavily, eyebrows knitted, glare dangerously sharp.

“You want the jacket back?” she uttered tensely.

“Naw, you can keep it. Uh, you can call me Hanlan, eh … um, Han.” He reached into the closet and pulled out another leather jacket while she slipped his old one over her shoulders. “What’s yours?”

“Makoto.”

“Huh, interestin’ name. Suits ya.”

She squinted a curious eye at the comment, a little reproachful, but decided to let the matter drop. As it fell, they, in turn, shared a brief fascination.

As he put on the jacket, she realized that there was something she found vaguely … attractive about him. He was quite heavily muscled. He seemed like the sort of fellow who spoke with his fists rather than words. His brown shoulder length hair looked like it could use a good combing, and washing. Nonetheless, it appropriately framed his roughly chiseled face. Even that looked stocky, edgy, and tough. He had deep blue eyes, which held her attention for a greater span of time than she preferred to admit. Despite this, Makoto thought they were almost inappropriate for such a bruiser. Lack luster, lack culture. Summarily a physical attraction, she felt. Nothing more.

Though, he did remind her somewhat of her ex-boyfriend … If I had a little time I could teach him to … I dunno, to wipe the drool off his face when he look at me too long, he just might be worth this hell trip.

In her nudity, at first glance, she had seemed to him like a pretty-girl. Further unabashed study indicated that she had more muscle definition than any pageant beauty was likely to have. She looked to have seen a lot of adventure and enjoyed it. Despite her musculature, she did not lack a figure. As a matter of fact, she had enough of one to rival a lot of the fragile beauty queens he had known in the past. Even though he really failed to comprehend her nature, he found himself quite drawn to her. It actually helped that she was clothed. Particularly in the style she had chosen. She had selected a blue shirt, black pants, shades, and black biker gloves, which he saw hanging out of one pocket. He decided his jacket looked very nice on her as well. She had a throaty, husky voice, and a tough, hard edged demeanour which he found quite relaxing. All the women he had known had run at the first sign of trouble. She looked like the type of girl who would not only face the trouble, but look for more. But then, trouble was just another factor in his life. He enjoyed it.

The moment he realized he was attracted to her, he distracted from it by turning to the task at hand. “Uh, why don’t we get you do that doc.”

“Doc? Who said anything about a doctor?” she asked, suddenly on her toes.

“You deaf? I did. Look babe, if you want those bracers off … I can’t do it, so … it’s your call.”

“First you start by telling me where hell I am.”

He gazed at her for a steady moment.

“What, you aren’t from around here? Does New Quebec ring any bells?”

She half-frowned, eyes narrowing.

“Quebec? You mean Canada? I thought it was all mountains and snow peaks!”

“What?” he blinked, looking puzzled. “Where’d you come from, anyways? C’mon, let’s go.”

She nodded slightly, following his lead, a matter of second hand nature.

“I don’t know where I was, really. I was only down there for a few months, and no one told me.”

“Uh, okay. Don’ matter to me.”

“Han, how about we get something straight, okay?”

He stopped and faced the girl who he knew was about to draw the lines of interaction between them. His face was somewhat hard, but he said nothing.

“Next time you stare at me like a side of beef, you’ll regret it. Clear?”

“A threat?” he drawled. “Gots damn, I think I’m shakin’.”

She growled angrily at that.

“Hey, hey … Most chicks don’ mind if I stare, you got me? Way I figure it, it’s a compliment! If ya do mind, you jus’ tell me. Okay?”

Makoto’s sour expression did not lessen. In fact, she threw him an angrily rancid look. “Bullshit. I don’t buy that.”

His sigh was weighted, and his eyes jumped uncomfortably between her face and the stone floor. No one had ever had the nerve to call his ego on the level, aside from his deceased mother. Not really sure why, exactly, he felt the need to apologize to her. She was so pretty, and man, tough as nails!

“Fine, fine. Fine! … Ah geez Mako,” he started slowly. “I’m sorry. Okay? I mean it.”

She considered this for a moment, and watched his slightly slumped shoulders and uneasy face. Like most of the boys she had known, he was falling into place. Though usually they gave her immediate respect.

“I can do respect, if you can just ease up and maybe trust me. ‘Cause I tell ya, we ain’t gettin’ topside if you jus’ wanna argue.”

She nodded slowly, and uncrossed her arms. “All right, but if you cross that line buster, I will make you wear it!”

“Huh, if you say so,” he replied, disbelieving, then turned around and started walking.

“You don’t think I can?”

He shrugged. “Whatever. I don’t much care.”

Oddly enough, in spite of his treatment, it did matter to her. Bitter confusion arose that this point, but it relaxed swiftly. His attraction to her was obvious, and altogether not at all surprising. They passed quickly back into the sewers, up through a tunnel and into a back alley, right into Coalition suburbia. They were directly within the walls of the CS State, guarded from the dangers of the Rifts, and smitten by the threat of capture by their guardians.

“Are you sure it’s safe?”

He looked back at her. “You tell me. You’re the Psi-Freak.”

“Psi-Freak?!” she snapped back. “Just because I can … uh … cripes.”

“What?”

“Look over my shoulder,” she said. “Someone nearby … not sure where – is upset. Actually, it’s more like disappointed. There’s a lot of related anger there, too.”

“We’re almost there …” Han’s unshaven face tensed in consideration. “Damnit, I’m not taking any chances with you.” He grabbed her arm and pulled her into the nearest alleyway.

“Just what do you think you’re doing?” she snarled, easily freeing his arm from his powerful grip. “If they want a fight, they can just come and get it!”

“We’re going to take the back door,” he said, ignoring her statement.

“What? Just you …”

“Look, I don’t give a damn who trained you,” Han said plainly, not looking at her. “You’re a woman. And you don’t fight. So don’t give me no sass, cause no one fricks with Han the Man.”

Still, glancing over her shoulder, Makoto could see no one behind her.

“Okay,” she flared, pausing to summon a glowing broadsword of pure psychic energy. “You can just argue with this!”

“Holy hell,” he swore, staring dumbly at the impressive weapon. With that, she could quickly reduce him to pieces. “A CyberKnight …? I thought they were just legends!”

She stopped, her face losing its resonant anger. Abruptly, the sharp report of a shotgun sent her flying – a shapely rag doll – into the red brick wall nearby with a solid whump!

“Some legend,” said a voice, accompanied by the click of a rifle. “Psionics don’t mean shit.”

With a feral snarl and low bellow, Han leapt at the man before him in a tier of rage. There was a gunshot and a dull thwack! and Han got to his feet, his barrel-like chest heaving with effort and emotion.

“Bastard,” he cursed, then whirled about to check on the folded form of Makoto. She was breathing, and moving, he noticed as he grabbed his opponent’s weapon. No blood, though.

“Armor,” he muttered, gazing about him. He wasn’t alone, and knew it.

“He greased Alex!” a voice exclaimed. Three dark figures appeared seemingly from nowhere. They did not appear to be armed. Han picked up the rifle from the unconscious man.

:One man with a gun against three. Yep; Han thought, :that makes it about even:

He shot the nearest of the three, who fell to the ground, motionless. Just as he turned to aim for the next, hands reached out and wrenched Han’s rifle away. A fist hit him, hard, and he tasted blood. He staggered backwards, landing on his butt.

Makoto cursed as she approached Han’s assailant. Han was not sure if she even moved when she attacked the two figures. No, her hands and arms did blur as she struck them. They came back twice, and Makoto delivered, quite clearly enjoying physical combat. She was a natural. Scratch that. She was supernatural. She could kick his ass!

Finally, they lay on the ground, unmoving. Han managed to get to his feet by the end of the fight, cursing is inability to defeat the three attackers.

“So I can’t fight eh?” she stated, stepping up to him, hands on hips.

Han said nothing, he just looked at her. His eyes fell to her, and locked. Before he knew what happened, she was in his arms, and their lips pressed. A moment flickered, and dropped. She stepped back, flustered. The attraction was mutual, she blinked, abashed and ahgast. Her face soured slightly as she spoke.

“Wha … what was …”

“Let’s just go, ok?” Han said.

Dazed, and feeling psychologically mussed, she nodded. She needed time to figure him out.

“Where’d you say you was from again?” A slightly overweight man asked as he carefully lasered the vibro-restraints.

“Tokyo,” she said, watching his cigar stained fingers carefully.

He snickered. “Don’t ya worry none, I ain’t hurt a’one yet.”

“Yet,” she observed tiredly.

“Tokyo? Can’t say much about th’ place, ‘cept they got some nice tek,” he paused to expel a cloud of smoke through his mouth. “And nice women.”

Makoto sighed internally, and coughed aloud.

“Nothin’ pers’nal. Yer nice lookin’ too.”

What a shack, she thought. Bits and pieces of what Laray called “tek” lay strewn everywhere, in no particular order. How can he live like this? But, I guess he really doesn’t have any alternative. Ah … I want to go back home. I want …

She bowed her head slightly, hoping to hide her tears. Suddenly Han was there, asking Laray if he was done. The balding man nodded deftly. “If y’ don’ mind, I’m gonna keep yer collar. I guess y’ don’ want it?”

She merely shook her head.

“Okay. I gotta check sum s’pplies ‘n the back room …”

“Just go,” Han said. Without further supposition, he turned and then stopped. “Why’re you crying, babe? Was it something they … uh … did?”

She smiled faintly then broke into bitter tears again. She thought, [Why am I crying now? Why in front of _]him[? _]Somehow it came to her that he was a kindred soul and a safehouse. The bruiser took Makoto in his arms, and was quiet for a while.

[* *]

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Chapter 4

[* *]

“So you really are that ‘Sliver’ chick?” Han asked, sounding somewhat skeptical. His eyes traced her figure again underneath her clothes. He still was having trouble getting used to the idea of her being so pretty and tough at the same time. The fact that she was so tough made her more attractive, he reasoned.

“Yeah,” Makoto confirmed with some measure of ill ease.

“What are you?” He gazed at her.

She was silent a moment, nearly expectant. Han looked puzzled. Then he clued in; the fight, the kiss. He frowned, almost looking sheepish.

“Hey look, it’s not like I mind you bein’ all powered up an CyberKnight-like … but I never figgered a legend to be a chick, unless it was Erin Tarin,” he started. Makoto indicated to him that she was listening by raising an eyebrow. “I mean, every girl I’ve been with couldn’t fight. Scared dumb of it. But you know, I ain’t gonna argue ‘cause it’s money.”

Makoto gazed at him steadily. He hadn’t answered the question.

“Well, yeah, I’ll say it: It’s nice t’ know a girl with guts.”

Even though he seemed finished, Makoto said nothing in reply. Again, he took a moment to speak.

“What can I say about the kiss, Mako? Maybe I did it ‘cause I don’t know how else to say I like you.”

Something grabbed her. She could not be sure exactly what it was, at first. She knew, however, that it was something about him. She regarded him, wanting, for a reason she could not quite understand, to hold him, to kiss him again. She closed her eyes and tried to clear her mind of the thought. Stubbornly, the desire remained.

Why? He was such a creep!

“Hey, you okay?” he asked. She looked at him and nodded.

What is it about him? Why do I … a knot tightened in her stomach. Even thinking of it brought the desire forth, like a lure. What is the difference between Han and the other men … no, boys. The thought dawned that this was the first man that she was attracted to. That is what it was. She was uncertain. Almost … afraid.

“Hey babe?”

Of him? No, that wasn’t it. But… what? Makoto snapped out of her trance of thought.

“Um, yeah. I was just thinking.”

He smirked. “I kinda got the feeling you were like me when it came to thinking. I usually go for the trouble first. Even if I know it.”

Makoto was not sure what to say. “I guess so.”

He leaned forward. “We can’t stay here too long, sexy, but maybe you could tell me something about being a … uh, what is it?”

“Sexy?” she returned with an amused smile and a warmth in her face. “I guess I could,” she supplied.

It turned out that Hanlan did not live very far away. He lived in the top floor of the building, in fact. Laray and he had been friends for years, and helped each other out in the knowledge starved society the CS was creating. Laray was kind enough provide Hanlan with weapons (at a friendly price of 40% black market value) when he needed them, and Hanlan, in turn, mostly due to the type of people he hung around with, kept up a steady flow of clients for the cyber-doc and part time techno-wizard. Unfortunately, Laray was really bad at the latter, so he avoided it most of the time.

Makoto and Hanlan sat across from each other in his three-room home. The main part consisted of a kitchen/livingroom – or rather, what passed for one – bedroom, and storage-bathroom. The bedroom was in shambles. Apparently he was a much more efficient fighter than keeper of house and home. Not that this surprised her; most men like him relied on women – often very much like their mothers – to keep such things in order. It could have been worse, most of his clothes had somehow ended up in a pile – destined for what she hardly cared. The rest consisted of Pre-Rifts artifacts; mostly melee type and other ancient type weapons.

“You know we didn’t even have a chance,” Makoto began, somewhat hesitant. “Only I could transform, and no way could I have fought them off alone.”

Han gazed at her, not quite sure what he was hearing.

“Uh, what? Whaddya mean, ‘transform’?”

“The slaver barge. Uh, my … well, I have a pen that turns me into a sailor suited warrior.”

“A what?” he asked with a quirked brow. “Show me?”

“Well, I …” her mouth curled in consideration. “Um …”

“I won’t laugh,” he grinned. “Promise.”

She frowned, worrying on exactly that point. Gradually, she nodded. With a motion practiced to the point of expertise, she brought the pen into the air above her head and called: “Sailor Jupiter – Make Up!”

There were no lights, no flashing lines of energy, just Suddenly Jupiter. She gazed over herself as Hanlan took in an eyefull, and then some.

“You sure you ain’t some kinda street wal …”

Her stern expression cut him off. “I didn’t do this so you could leer at me!” she snapped, glaring at him.

“Uh, okay, sorry,” he offered, though having a hard time not staring at her. “Why don’t you just sit down, huh? We can talk, okay? You can tell me about the … uh …”

“Senshi?”

“Well, uh, actually, the Splugores, or whatever y’ call ‘em.”

“Splugorth,” she pronounced delicately. “I guess. There’s not much to tell, really. We woke up in Atlantis, all still together.”

She paused, noting his politely raised hand.

“Okay there sexy, who’s ‘we’?”

She glanced at her hands as they fliddled with the hem of her mircoskirt.

“My friends. Ami … Usagi, Rei, and Minako.”

“All girls?”

A nod.

“Okay. Go for it.”

She threw him a look, indicating that she hadn’t exactly been waiting for his permission. He shrugged.

“Apparently we were together because of our uniqueness, being aliens – from the moon, I mean.”

“So Atlantis is legit?”

“Yeah, where’d you figure I got my scars from, hm?” she set upon him nastily.

“Kinky sex life?” he half-grinned, eying her skirt as if to peer underneath.

Makoto sighed. She began to wonder what she saw in him until she looked at him again. The thoughts of his ill-humor faded. Every time she thought about it, she realized that she was falling more deeply in love with him.

“I met someone called Sivil Nira.” Makoto closed her eyes for a moment, as if watching an unpleasant scene play in her mind. “She … brought us together, and …”

“What happened to her?” For a moment a flicker of recognition shone in his eyes. Makoto noticed, but in her state, it failed to register.

“She died attacking one of them,” she said, her voice hushed with emotion. Han’s eyebrows knitted and his gaze fell for an instant. “She had to create a diversion for us to escape.”

“That sucks. That really, really sucks,” Han stated, sounding sullen.

Makoto arched an eyebrow.

“You talk like you knew her.”

“Yeah, actually, I did. She was a client, and an old girlfriend. Freaky, huh?” He spoke with a soft wistfulness in his tones, and the anxiousness of recollection.

“Yeah,” she replied somewhat numbly.

“So how’d ya get here?”

She shook her head, lifting her hands to her head and rubbing her temples.

“Okay,” he shrugged. “You take is easy, K? I’m just gonna get up here in a sec and … uh … you hungry?”

Her eyes widened. “You have a kitchen in this dump?”

“Yeah there’s a hotplate someplace an’ a coupla shelves, an, yeah a fridge – I think,” he replied her expression with a chuckle in a slightly ignorant-looking fashion. “What? You cook?”

“Oh yeah,” she smiled, a comfort wafting over her expression as she rose, approaching the one wall culinary outfit. Modest was a kind word that could not have been attributed to the kitchen-like structure, but it was enough. A keyword both were used to living by. Popping open the waist-high refrigerator, she began rummaging through the contents, and plucked out the occasional useful item. Mind you, they could all be useful, if one was skilled, knowledgable, and creative enough. Fortunately, this was an area in which she excelled even when out of practice. Ten minutes later she had a vegatable, ham, sweet and sour sauce stir fry prepared and served.

“Holy shit,” Hanlan gasped as he gaped at the plate set before him. He’d never seen such a well prepared meal before. Not in his apartment, anyway.

“Actually, it’s ‘thank you’,” she corrected him calmly, taking a pair of make-shift chop sticks in hand and digging in. “This much better than that.”

“Oh, uh … yeah!” he smiled. “Wow! Uh … thank you. Looks, cooks, and kicks ass! Damn, you rock, Makoto.”

She gave him a curious glance briefly. “I will tell you how I escaped from … uh …”

“What was the place like? All white like a hospital?”

She nodded, chewing delicately.

“Musta been Neo Tech. They’re the only outfit out here coulda kept a CyberKnight under wraps.”

She gazed at him steadily, trying to read his meaning beyond the words.

“I just punched through the wall and into the sewer. It was tough, but … I’m here, right?”

“Oh geez … Jus’ how strong are you?” he asked, the smile disappearing.

“I can put my hands through CS Armor like tearing paper.”

Ouch. Han was visibly impressed.

“You sure you don’ wanna talk about Atlantis …?”

Makoto averted her eyes as Han sought them. She said nothing.

“Okay, forget it. I wouldn’t push ya, even if I could.”

Abruptly, Makoto’s expression became sorrowful, and looked to promote tears. Han immediately felt bad for speaking, even though he wasn’t sure what had set her off. She made not so much as a single sniffle, but he knew she was torn up inside. Tough girls rarely, rarely ever cried. Never, in front of others. Something about their chemistry made her comfortable enough to do so. He just gazed at her, a powerful ache in his soul for her as she set the chopsticks beside her empty plate to cover her tear streaked face with her hands as her shoulders began to jolt with the forthcoming wash of pain. This ache, its presence was sudden, but immovable. How to deal with her pain, he did not know. All he knew was to be silent. He had learned that from Astin. She had been very clear about that. You don’t talk when a girl is shedding tears, she had said. Shedding tears. She actually said that.

And why exactly this powerhouse of a girl burst into tears around him puzzled him even further, but he wasn’t exactly insensitive. He rose, and walked around the table, nearing her side. Folding her arms across her stomach and bowing her head, she refused him, bravely shouldering her own agony, though somewhat foolishly so. His offer was the first, and while sincere and worthy of honour, her hesitance was understandable.

“Han …?” an emotion choked voice whispered. Han snapped back into reality. He was with Makoto, not Astin. She was still crying softly, so Han did not say anything.

“Hanlan?” The heaving of her sobbing trailed to a close.

“Yes Mako?” Han said, voice also hushed cautiously.

“You’re not …” she hesitated for a half-instant, “involved, are you?”

He blinked at the question.

“Uh, no,” he replied uncertainly. “Listen babe, you okay? Can I ask why you were crying like that? If it was something I said …”

Makoto shook her head silently, and gazed up at him, red eyed and so very vulnerable. The contrast startled him. With a not much more than a thought she could have killed him, yet at this moment she appeared as fragile as thin glass. He could make no claim in understanding her. Silently, he grasped her hand, and gently drew her to her feet, and into his finely muscled arms. His mouth opened, worked as if to speak, and issued nothing forth.

“Oh blasted hell …” He took her chin in his hand and kissed her softly.

“Han … I don’t …” Makoto looked down for a moment after their lips parted. “I can’t.”

He nodded slightly, sensing only afterward that his advance had been ill-timed. She stepped back from him, and not so much as sat but crumbled into a nearby patchwork recliner.

“That’s cool, babe. If maybe you just want to take it easy, I’m gonna hit the couch, okay? I’m beat.”

She watched him rise, and leave without so much as a lingering glance. He did smile at her before flopping on the aforementioned furnishing, and there was a trace of disappointment. Yet, he hadn’t insisted, not even arguing a single wit. Some hours later, after much thought, and prayer, she joined him, leaving the pieces of her fuku in a trail to the couch.

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Chapter 5

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She was naked with him again. This time, however, she did not really mind. It was not that he was naked as well, it was that she had gained some amount of certainty – and control, having made love with him like this. She looked up at the hard features of his face. He looked so, calm, almost peaceful. She ran a hand over his cheek, and then kissed it softly. Carefully, she stood, trying her best not to wake him. She almost regretted what she knew must be done. The emotions she felt for him were more certain now, and felt all the more like love. She felt a pang.

Everything was happening so rapidly!

I know you wouldn’t want me to do this, she thought. [But I’m going anyway. My friends are still out there. I can’t give up. Not yet. _]She slipped on the blouse, and other clothes he had given to her earlier. For a bruiser, he was rather sweet. _I know you won’t understand.

The leather jacket slipped easily around her shoulders, fitting perfectly. He groaned, shifting in his slumber. She froze, watching his eyelids carefully. They did not open. Finally, after what seemed an eternity, he relaxed, snoring quietly. She noted that his home was not much, but it was more than she had now. It was more than she ever had since arriving here.

Makoto had almost discarded the desire to settle down, having joined the Cyber-Knights. She let herself be consumed by the war against the D-bees, the demons, the evil. There was so much of it. There was more every day. Not all of it came from the Rifts, she knew. There was one man who was a great source of it. Prosek, and his son. To think a man of such corrupt power had procreated sent shivers through her. Rumours told her that Prosek had Rei. Or at least, a girl who sounded a great deal like her. Then there were the rumors of Ami’s capture, of the violence she endured, that perhaps she was dead.

Makoto walked into the kitchen, or that which passed for it. She gazed at the section of wall, and realized just how much she had missed cooking. Hanlan had wolfed down the stir fry with male politeness. It was nice to have that aspect of her life appreciated again after so long.

Well, she thought, what’m I supposed to choose? Give up? Fight? How can Han hope’t help? I—

“Hungry? I s’ppose you where just running out for a snack, eh Mako?”

She turned on one foot, tense as a drawn bowstring. There was a sour expression on his face. Her tension drifted to the floor as her eyes did, and she found herself wanting for words.

“What do y’ suppose you were gonna do? Save me trouble by takin’ off?” He was angry, and rightfully so. Still Makoto could say nothing. She gazed at him as he stood there, and strangely, despite the fact he was angry at her, she felt drawn to him again.

“My friends are out there, Han,” she started. “I can’t let them go.”

The anger drained from his face, and in the place of it was understanding. A boyishly quiet look came to his face. “I haven’t had a lot of friends in my life,” he admitted softly. He stopped for a moment, clearly thinking on his next words. “I guess I’m not so mad at you for wanting to help them. Loyalty’s a thing I never let go of, even for all the scars I got.”

Makoto felt herself near tears again, and hated herself for it. She cursed under her breath. Han walked up to her, and took her in his arms. She let her head rest on his barrel of a chest as tears flowed.

“I think I love you,” he said. “I guess that’s why I don’t want you to take off. I think maybe I can help. I think maybe I want to.”

They were silent for a time. He continued talking. Makoto was not sure of most of what he said, but found it comforting. She wondered why it was her crying, and not Usagi. She did not know. Maybe Usagi was crying a lot still. She … no, they – Han kept on stressing that – would find her friends. Then what? Makoto thought for sure they were not the same as they used to be, or that they would not be. But what would happen after they found them?

“Mako? Are you okay?” she heard his voice ask. She nodded against his chest. He pushed her away slightly so he could look into her eyes. “Are you sure? I mean, you seem to be doin’ a lot of cryin’.”

“I think so,” but her face did not share the conviction of her words. She looked away, bringing a concerned look to his face.

“What, babe …? What?” His voice was soft, gentle. She wanted to say it, but found the words locked in her throat. He was silent. In his eyes she could read he wanted to help her, but did not know what to say, nor how to say it.

“I’m scared …” she said, and leaned against him, the spoken emotion welling inside of her. “I’ve never really been scared before like this. Even when I died for Usagi … I wasn’t scared.”

“Died?” he grunted. “Uh?”

“Later,” she muttered faintly. “Please …”

“You got it babe,” he replied warmly.

In his mind he wondered what there was she had to be afraid of. His eyes narrowed and he felt himself grow angry at the thought of her being fearful. He paused, and wondered at this feeling. Sure he had protected women before, but not because he cared about them. Rather, because it was his job. This was different. He actually cared about Makoto, and wanted to see her happy. That was all that mattered to him now, he realized. If fighting made her happy, then she could fight. If being with him made her happy … he did not mind that at all. He smiled gently.

“Makoto,” he said, breaking Astin’s rule. She was silent. He pushed her away slightly again, kissing her softly, to reassure her. “We’re gonna see a friend of mine. I think he can help us.”

“What? Who?” she asked, sounding startled. “You mean Laray?”

He shook his head. “No. Laray’s just a techie. He’s a good guy, but just a techie.” He let go of her, and headed towards the other room. Makoto looked tired and afraid.

“What’s his name?” she asked, voice hushed.

Han stopped just before the leaving the room. He smiled and said, “Conroy.”

They had been on the road for a while. Nothing much had happened. Makoto had tripped up a couple of black market thugs looking for a quick credit-hit.

“So you never really told me much about being a Cyber-Knight,” Han said, smiling at Makoto. “All those monsters you fought.”

She shrugged. “I just defended a couple towns from some demons.”

“No wonder you took out those guys like that,” he smirked, thumbing behind him.

“Humans are easy to fight, most of the time. Unless they have magic, or power armor. I like fighting Juicers,” she smiled darkly, “they’re a little tougher, but they’re all human.”

Han blanched. “You mean you fight Juicers for fun?”

“No, but I could,” she eyed him. “What?”

The bruiser looked amazed. “You’re not nuts. At least, you don’t look like a crazy. You don’t have those freaky knobs stickin’ out of your head,” he replied in both verbal casting and facial expression.

“I guess that makes me a little more than human, eh?” she grinned, enjoying his reaction.

Han scratched the back of his head, still unbelieving. “Okay, so maybe I don’t wanna know.”

Makoto shrugged, “Whatever, hon.”

Han gazed at her. “Hon?”

She smiled and nodded. Han still could not quite believe he was falling in love with the tough girl he had never dreamed existed. Yet, here she was, accepting him with argument aplenty. Such is love.

“Uh, okay, so maybe I do.”

She shrugged, saying nothing. Han waited.

“Are you going to say anything?” he asked, incredulous.

“Are you sure you want to hear it? Fighting Juicers is the least of it, if that give you any idea of what I’ve faced.” She did not look at him, seeming to concentrate on where they were. “How much farther is it anyway?”

“New Quebec’s pretty frickin’ big, and alleys ain’t the best way to get around. We still got awhile.” He paused. “Yeah I’m sure. I can handle it.”

She smirked, then her face assumed a more serious expression. “I became a Cyber-Knight one year ago because I didn’t know what else to do. I did it to repay a favor, and for my friends.”

“What kind of favor?”

Makoto hesitated.

“Well?” He looked expectant.

“A Cyber-Knight saved my life. I thought becoming a Cyber-Knight might help me to find a direction. Besides,” she giggled lightly, “he was so cute! It was worth it just to train under him.”

“Wasn’t easy, was it?” Han was watching something ahead of them. It appeared as though a fire had broken out in a small industrial building. People were scrambling about like headless chickens.

“Uh,” he swore, “Coalition. I won’t have a problem wit’em. But I don’t think we wanna get you mixed up with ‘em.”

Makoto nodded. “I want to avoid any ISS Kooks, if I can.”

“Damn straight babe. We’re jus’ gona have t’ take the long way ‘round then.” He indicated the adjoining alley to his right. “This’ll take us there, but not fast.”

She nodded, then proceeded with her explanation. “You want to know why I like fighting Juicers? ‘Cause one almost killed me.”

“Makes sense,” Han shrugged. “Do’ya think y’d mind tellin’ me how?”

She echoed the motion of his shoulders. “I guess he was just a rouge. Probably at the end of his term, too. It was just after I’d arrived here …” she closed her eyes. “Um, no, nevermind. Anyway, I was lost in the woods, wandering, and wounded. I was hoping to find a city – or something. Instead I ran into the Juicer and his pals.

“One of them just looked at me and said, ‘Squishy.’ He laughed. I don’t know if he saw me bleeding, but he must have figured me for a normal human. Maybe he was looking for credits. Or fun. I don’t know.

“ ʻC’mere pretty thing,’ he sneered. I did. I didn’t know what he was then, but I figured I’d wise him up for badmouthing me. I just swung at him. He seemed to know it was coming. He side-stepped the punch and laughed again. I never saw anyone move so fast before! Not since Usagi …. uh … He didn’t swing back or anything, he just stood there and laughed.

“I was getting really pissed off. So I tried again. I was weak, and was bleeding pretty badly. I guess I wasn’t thinking straight either, trying to fight him like that. I tried a few times, and just kept missing. He made a joke of it, dodging before I threw my punches, and commenting on my swings.

“ ‘You fight like a girl,’ he said. He was looking at his pals and laughing loudly. I don’t know what happened after that. I guess I just lost it, or snapped, or something like that.

“I didn’t know if he was careless, drunk, or what, but I tagged him. I can’t have hit him that hard. I was practically dying, but I ripped his shoulder open … damn nearly took his arm off.” Makoto closed her eyes, remembering, a look of pain, and distaste passing over her face. “He didn’t even scream. His pals just looked scared, and then ran off. One of them muttered something about him being ‘juiced.’ I saw a crazed look in his eyes, and knew, no matter how fast I ran, he was going to kill me.

“He nearly did too.”

Han looked slightly upset, but lost for words. “I’m sorry Makoto.”

She set him a glance portraying a trace of gratitude, and she then shook her head. After a moment, she continued. “I was barely conscious when the Cyber-Knight came. All I heard was a scuffle. I felt his presence, and heard his voice. That’s when I fell in love with him. More of a crush, really. He saved my life. Took me back to his house, healed me, and eventually taught me the ways of the Cyber-Knight.” Han looked chagrined.

“Is that it? You just learned it all?”

“Well no, of course not. It took me weeks to accept the lifestyle. As for the training, do you really want me to get into philosophy?”

“Philosaucafie?” Han started, confused. “Damn. Uh, I guess not.”

They walked for a while in silence. Makoto watched the area around her. Somehow they were managing to avoid a lot of Coalition troopers. She watched Han, too. He seemed to be very aware of what was going around him, and he seemed to want to stay out of the way of the Coalition as well. Makoto slowly worked up the nerve to speak.

“So what do you do?” she ventured.

“Do? Uh, I’m a Bodyguard.”

“Protecting who?”

“Depends on who’s still alive,” he stated flatly. “See, I’m really good … I keep my clients alive. The others guys ain’t so good, or jus’ don’ care. Most don’ care, mostly. Tho some of ‘em work for the black market, too. So if a client dies accidental-like, no one really notices. Dig?”

Makoto looked a little shocked. “You don’t care?”

He inclined his shoulders upwards indifferently. “Me? Damn yeah. I guess I do care, but I’m not gonna get the black market on my case, right? I’m just one guy. I like my life just fine.”

“Before, or after?” Makoto asked with a smirk.

“What? Oh,” he smiled. “After, of course. And I’m thinkin’ maybe I’ll just quit the bodyguard biz. I mean, I think we’ll find plenty of action lookin’ for your friends.” He looked at her. “Speak’n a which, who are they? And what the frick is this stuff about you dyin’? You immortal ‘r something?”

“You heard of the girls caught at Lone Star?”

“What? You mean the one who’s dead? And what … the other one, she’s some kind of freak or something? Those are your friends?” Han had an expression of distaste written on his face.

“I’m pretty sure that those two are Rei and Ami. Ami was, well, still human when we, um, parted company … So I don’t think that’s changed. I think it’s a lie.”

“Rei, Ami. That explains it,” he sighed. “Yeah. All of it.”

“Where I come from we fought the NegaVerse. They wanted to take over the universe, starting with earth. The five of us …”

“Wait,” Han interrupted her, “five?”

She nodded. “Yeah, including me.”

“And you saved the whole planet? I mean, where you come from.” He sounded skeptical.

“Well, there weren’t very many of them, and they only tried to take over Tokyo. I’m not really human, if that helps to explain it. I’m from the Moon. I’m a Princess of Jupiter. Well, I was, anyway.”

“Pretty tough for a princess,” he remarked with a grin. “And what, you still got killed? By what?”

She did not reply his expression as she spoke: “We protected Tsukino Usagi, the heir of the Moon Kingdom. We were all senshi. Her scared champion protectors. It was our job, our destiny. We died fulfilling that destiny, and defeating the crowned Queen of the NegaVerse.”

“Pretty cool job if ya ask me,” he said, still grinning. “So who brought ya back?”

She shrugged. “Queen Serenity. She’s … um, related,” she coughed, “to Usagi. Sort of. Anyway, we beat Queen Beryl, then Allan and Ail and the Doom Tree, but then we were brought here.”

“I guess you didn’t have a choice, right?”

“Well, no! Do you think I would’ve wanted to be here?”

Han’s face suddenly darkened. “No, I guess not.”

“Um, that is … I’m okay now …” her voice and tone dropped. “Well sorta … But …”

“Listen Mako, you don’t have to say anything else if you don’t want to. I get the point.”

She grabbed his arm and stopped him, looking vaguely upset. “Han, don’t think you haven’t made me happy. You have … but I miss my friends. I don’t think I can be totally happy until I know what’s happened to them.”

Han frowned, still unsatisfied.

“I don’t think I really want to go back now anyway. I mean, I guess the NegaForce took over by now without us there to stop it.” She suddenly looked angry.

Han turned to her and took her shoulders in his hands. “I’m sorry. I guess I was bein’ selfish. They’re your friends … I know I miss mine.”

Makoto’s anger faded as she looked up at him slightly.

“What happened to them?”

Han sighed. “Like I said, I haven’t had a lot of friends. Mostly just one or two along the way. Most of ‘em are dead. Others, well … enemies make life interesting, I guess, eh?”

Makoto looked to the ground for a moment, then to his eyes. “I just like to crush ‘em,” she smiled darkly.

Han smiled, “I love that about you.” He pulled her into his arms and squeezed her gently. “It’s gonna be okay. Really.”

Makoto leaned her head on his shoulder. “Oh I hope so.”

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Chapter 6

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Unlike Laray, Conroy turned out to be a softly spoken, smart sounding fellow, proprietor of a shop named Conroy’s Cybernetics. His shop was unorganized, unkempt, and distinctly disturbing. In spite of her familiarity with his technological medium, she found the sight of disembodied mechanical limbs quite unsettling.

Thank Coake, she thought, he’s not into Bio-System prosthesis. Ick.

“So the great and highly sought Sliver is Makoto Kino!” Conroy remarked, sounding genuinely amazed. He was a short, thin man, who always looked as though he was thinking something terribly amusing. His strict crew cut of hair left little of the tan colored shag atop his skull, seeming to make a point of the impish features upon his face. It was his apparent knowledge of the situation that brushed aside his self-imposed image of the isolated doctor stereotype.

“Sought … What do you mean?” Makoto asked, eying the fellow closely, wrinkling her nose slightly when she detected the undeniable odor of oil and blood.

“Oh yes,” he replied with a half grin, clearly aware of her response to him. “You, my dear, have a very sizable price on your head. Something close to thirty-kilocredits I believe. Not to mention that at the moment, there are more than a dozen troops seeking you within the confines of New Quebec’s walls.”

Makoto stared at him, trying to glean some indication of honesty or deception beyond his augmented monovision sight.

“How do you know that?” she demanded angrily.

Han put a gentle hand on her shoulder. “He’s got his methods, babe … trust me.”

For a moment she could not be sure. He seemed sincere, and Hanlan trusted him. She sighed. “I don’t get it. Is there some kind of organization behind all of this?”

“All of what?” Conroy asked, looking curious.

“Don’t play stupid with me,” Makoto snarled, striding with heated deliberation towards the man. “There’s no way Han could have just turned up to save me the way he did.”

“Why not?” The wisp of a fellow did not seem to be intimidated by her harsh demeanor. Then, as he spoke, his voice assumed a darker, more serious tone. “Listen Makoto. Listen carefully. If you want any information at all, you are going to have to be more specific. I deny nothing; you are merely not handing me the details I require.”

Somehow, she felt, the conversation had resorted to a game, or rather, a form of verbal combat. To win, she had only to … to what? What was it he was playing at? Then it occurred to her. To win, she merely had to answer her own question. To solve the object of twenty questions. Supply points to be denied or affirmed, and it would become clear. Whatever it was. She fought an urge to tell him to take a seat on her vibro claws and go for an unhealthy spin.

“Like what? Like our escape, for starters. Tell me what you know, and not what you’ve heard.”

He half smiled, as if impressed. “Over a cup of coffee, perhaps?”

Han grunted, confused. “Uh, Con, what are you doin’?”

The blond haired man allowed as self empowered grin to alter his expression. “You wanted help Han old friend … You’ve just found it. Your dear love and I, not excluding yourself, must talk, before we proceed any further.”

Han scratched his head.

“It’s fine. You’ve done well,” Makoto offered, as Conroy led them deeper into the building.

It was cold; Conroy did not seem overly concerned about heating. As a cybernetics doctor, who knew how many implants he had within his thin shell of a figure? Light seemed to be held at a lower priority as well, a single sixty watt bulb supplying for their conversation around a circular table of what might have been sealed wood, some lightweight alloy, or plastic. She could not be sure. Nor could she care less.

“I can’t trust just anyone, you know,” he explained after taking a brief sip of his steaming coffee. “Not even you, Han.”

“Why the frickin’ heck not?” the rouge demanded. “Me and you go back … way back.”

“Look at us now, though. You’re the musclehead, I’m the veritable cyber-freak.” His expression seemed appropriate; a calm, cool one which might very well have set in stone at any moment. The vague bemusement, however, was gone. Makoto snickered at his directness.

“Yeah, so?” Han retorted, not quite comprehending.

“Remember when we were approached by the Shi-Con underground market?”

Han nodded deftly. “Yeah. I wanted …” his voice fell.

“You wanted to be the big knight defending the damsel from the dragon – or in this case – society’s counterpart; the media. Not to mention the girls that went along with it.” Conroy punctuated his sentence with a smirk. “As a result, only I accepted what they presented to me. It’s very difficult to accept the Coalition’s knowledge stifling ideals.” He took a breath. “Simply put, the difference is this; even Shi-Con doesn’t trust you with every ingredient boiling in their stewing pot of a company. As an employee, even of the elite sort, they share little more with me, my friend.”

“I guess so.” He breathed in the vagrant flavour wafting from the cup sanctioned in both hands before taking a short sip. “You’re not gonna to dump out on me, are you?” An expression of what might be faint concern lighted Han’s face.

“Regarding anything else; certainly not.” Makoto paused before letting her pre-warmed questions loose upon this new fellow.

“So Han wasn’t sent to rescue me?”

“Why not ask me that, babe …?”

“Um, sorry …” she glanced at him apologetically.

“Hey it’s cool,” he replied with a warming smile. “Y’see, I wasn’t really looking for you … I was looking for any of the … uh, Sailor Soldiers. I still think that’s frickin’ strange name. Anyway, I figured that she – uh, well, you, as it turned out – might’ve gone underground, like I would. I mean, it’s not safe topside – not like that, anyway.”

“So it was an accident.”

“Kinda,” he said sheepishly. “I heard lotsa noise, and figured maybe one of you’d escaped from Neo Tech. See, I knew it was jus’ one of you. But, didn’t know which.”

Makoto gave Han an acknowledging nod, and turned again to face Conroy.

“What is Shi-Con? Why are they interested in the Bishojo Sailor Senshi?”

“The Pretty Sailor Soldiers? For many reasons, few of which have been disclosed to me. The first of which is the uniqueness of your power. Are you sure you don’t want a cup?”

“No, thank you,” she negated softly. Her eyes then narrowed. “What do they want, to dissect us?”

“Our first objective is to return you home. Unfortunately, the task becomes more elaborate as we speak, and largely because we have so little information as to your individual whereabouts. As a result, the risk of exposing ourselves presents even greater complications.”

Makoto considered her words for a moment. “ ‘Ourselves.’ Who is that? What do they want, then?”

“Sorry, can’t say. It’s too soon, even for me. I am afraid they have protected this information because they fear a misstep on my part. You understand.”

She pursed her lips, giving his words some thought, then nodded. “I guess. What do you know about my friends?”

“That’s the most direct question you’ve asked since we met,” he smiled. “Your speculation is correct, and the rumors are indeed true. The Coalition State of Lone Star has Ami Mizuno at this point. Rei Hino is apparently training as a Fire Warlock in the Magic Zone. We have yet to locate Mina Aino, and Usagi Tsukino.”

“I suppose you’ve got people watching them.”

He nodded. “Or at least, we had. Our operative failed to bring Ami to us before a pair of mercenaries got a hold of the girl. Apparently this was shortly after your escape from Atlantis. Certainly a remarkable feat in its own right.”

It would be a lie to say Makoto was surprised by the lack of emotion in Conroy’s voice. He was working for an outside force towards an objective that only mattered to him for certain reasons, none of them emotional, unlike herself.

“So what now? What have you done about Ami’s abduction?”

“Our undercover agent, Carl Silver has undertaken the task of her safety. He currently poses as a geneticist specializing in the mutant properties of humans, in the Lone Star facilities. As such, he is well trusted by our opponents, and will not come under any suspicion.”

“How can you be sure?” Makoto asked pointedly.

“He will not. To save yourself time, I would accept that as fact. Unless of course you are not interested in the lives of the other ‘senshi,’ as you call them.” Conroy’s voice became hard, almost cold.

Makoto immediately reached the conclusion that “Carl Silver” was a supernatural being of some sort. A mage, at the very least. A very powerful one, to remain undetected by the CS as long as Conroy’s voice seemed to imply. His condescension irritated her.

“Don’t play games with me dammit,” Makoto half-snapped. “I’m not unfamiliar with supernatural creatures. I have many friends among D-Bees, including dragons.”

Conroy arched an eyebrow. “Then you are more resourceful than I first deemed you.”

Makoto was tiring of the vocal chess.

“Before Han and I go, I want you to answer my first question.”

“You will reciprocate?”

“I’ll think about it. Tell me: Did you engineer our escape from Atlantis?”

It was obvious to Conroy that to deny what she seemed to believe to be true would only inspire a negative response. Not what he was opting for. Thus, he seemed to consider his response for a delicate moment. A thoughtful finger was placed against his closed lips. It then dropped, at which point he spoke.

“Not directly, but yes, we are responsible for your freedom.”

Makoto stood. “That’s all I needed to know.”

Han got to his feet in turn, and followed her as she exited the room. Conroy made no comment, despite her expectation. Makoto did not stop when she passed the exiting door of the building.

“Where are you going, Mako? Did he tick you off or something?” Hanlan asked, concerned. She halted and faced him.

“No, love, he didn’t. I just need time … time to think. Alone.” Suddenly she was looking to him, asking for time alone, and Han found himself hesitant to answer her. There was something in her expression which set him at ill ease.

“Mako,” he took her hands in his. “I need you …”

Her gaze did not quite meet his. “I’m not going to run off, if that’s what you think.”

“Not like before?” While her words did not betray the raw anxiety she felt, her body did.

“I … you’ve got too trust me.”

He did not, and a single glance told her that. He said nothing, fearful the wrong words would slip forth.

“If you love me … you will. I know you do … I can feel it.”

Han looked puzzled. “What do you mean?”

“You know I’m empathic, right?” Waiting for his nod, finding it, she elaborated. “I don’t know why – or how – but I know what you feel. Even when I don’t try, I know you love me … but …”

“But what?” Tension drifted audibly in his tones.

“I won’t leave you, I swear. I know those other girls, even though they might have cared for you … they never stayed. I’m not like that …” her face worked visibly in nervousness. “Han … do you want to marry me?”

Something like relief, amazement, and pleasure appeared on the bruiser’s handsomely chiseled face. His words did not share the tone, however.

“Are you … uh …” No, he thought, she’s sure. I know it. She doesn’t say stuff she’s not sure of. Not usually. “I mean, we don’t know we’ll ever make it …”

“Exactly. That’s something we’ll know when it happens.” A wistful look succeeded the uncertain expression.

But why? something asked inside of her. [_Why marry him so soon? You know what mama would have said. ‘Wait a year, maybe two. Then settle in, have a dozen babies in your dreams while you give one birth.’ _]“I never thought … I mean, isn’t this a little …”

She smiled. :What would mama do faced with this? I don’t know. But for me, I think … I feel more than anything that this is right:

“Yes but isn’t it what you want?”

“C’mon? We haven’t known each other for very long …”

Makoto was surprised, and impressed, by Hanlan’s emotional chastity. “You’re gonna count seconds? Thought I was going to do that.”

Han turned over another leaf. “I just … gotta do it once. Get married I mean. Don’ wanna rush somethin’ so important!”

She pulled him towards her, pressing against him firmly. She mimiced his discomfort with a loving grin, saying, “C’mon? Big brave fighter’s worried little girl’s gonna cause him too much trouble?”

He ‘hmmed’, locking eyes with her. “I just remembered how much I like trouble.”

“Yeah …”

He wrapped his arms around her, loving the feel of her solid warmth. “Yeah,” he crooned. “And I ain’t gonna run either. Not from you … never.”

Without another word, they kissed. It was a long, deliberately passionate, lingering kiss, opposed to their first, emotionally desperate encouter. Makoto found herself feeling rather warmed by the heat between them, and felt very much intoxicated, as Han did, in turn.

Finally, they paused long enough to breathe. Neither let each other go, holding tightly, as if trying to bond physically. Han felt now, more than ever, that Makoto was a fact in his life, and to lose her … he did not want to imagine it. Makoto, separately, shared his thoughts, realizing that he was the type of man, who could never betray her.

“Mako-babe … I’ll leave you alone now if you want,” he whispered, mouth against her ear.

She murmured dissent. “No, please don’t. Alone is really the last thing … I want to be right now. Really.”

Silence accompanied them, sympathetic, holding them for a Time in solitary fashion, allowing them a brief peace.

“Do you want to go and find someone to get us married?” Han asked, not really wanting to let her go, wondering if he ever could.

“Not yet,” she replied softly, tightening her grip on him somewhat, as if telling him she would never leave. “There’s no hurry.”

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Chapter 7

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The Coalition did not support the legal bearings of marriage, since it required formal knowledge, which they were not willing to allow the public. Nevertheless, even the uneducated masses honored various marital systems. Often was included a dowry, though, unlike recent centuries, it need not always be offered from the woman’s side of the bond. Makoto’s offering of an exchange of gifts – rather than having a formal wedding, in the light of limited time, funds, and guests – suited Han just fine.

Makoto decided that a pair of matching rings, which they purchased from Conroy, would have to compensate for a legally binding signature. The rings, both of ruby in the form of pre-Rifts doves, and silver, elaborately formed as vines to encircle the appropriate finger, were as much magical as they were beautiful.

Conroy informed his unduly wary friend that it had been Laray’s most recent venture as a Techno-Wizard, and promised that the rings would help them in times of greatest need. When asked, he explained that the rings would act as tracers, allowing the two to be instantly aware of the others’ locale at any given time, as well as allowing greater range when using telepathic communication.

Han shrugged in response, thinking little of the latter.

The proceedings took place in Conroy’s shop. He professed that he was a practitioner of the ways of the once well known Christian Clergyman. Hanlan seemed more concerned with Makoto’s happiness than any other factor, and offered little in the way of verbal obstacle in her expressed interest, despite his lack thereof. Never quite the religious man, but damned if he was not certain there was a creator keeping him alive and sane through the turbulent reality that was Rifts Earth, and expressing his gratitude for his meeting and love for Makoto Kino in the manner of prayer, something he had never attempted before. As she had regarding many other factors of her life, Makoto attempted to settle her heart with the knowledge that things could definitely be worse. Through everything, she had fallen deeply in love, and was about to be married.

Wonders never ceased. The wedding was not expensive, nor did it have any extended list of invited friends. On the other hand, Makoto had not expected to be married at all after becoming a Cyber-Knight.

“Do you, Hanlan Ireson, take this woman, Makoto Kino, to be your wedded wife, through richer or poorer, sickness and health so long as you both shall live?”

For the first time in his life, he actually began to consider his actions. Everything he knew spoke against this. It was as he had explained to her. He was sure they would come to hate each other after too long.

What would Mom think? he thought as an uncertain moment drifted between the gathered three. What would Mom say? ‘She’s a nice girl Hanlan.’ Is that it? What are we about? I don’t know, but she loves me. Not because she’s weak … but, ah heck, I guess I’ll never know if I don’t do it.

Finally, the words came forth with the warranted hesitance. “Yes, I do.”

“Do you, Makoto Kino, take this man, Hanlan Ireson, to be your wedded husband, through richer or poorer, sickness and health so long as you both shall live?”

Makoto scarcely believed she was doing this. A hundred thoughts fluttered like a furied murder of crows through her mind.

I wanted to share this day with my friends … Rei would tell me I’m going to screw this up, somehow. But … Am I making a mistake? Each time, a glance at Han negated that fear. Mama, forgive me, but I guess this isn’t what either of us wanted.

“Yes,” she affirmed.

“And since there will be no contest by any third party … I now pronounce you man and wife. You may kiss the bride.”

“I was waitin’ for that bit,” Hanlan smirked as he took Makoto into his arms and laid his lips upon hers with all the passion befitting. What seemed an eternity passed before their lips parted. Again, Makoto seemed half consumed by her passions. Hanlan gazed steadily into her eyes, sure that he had made no mistake. Makoto turned quickly to Conroy.

“We need,” her eyes barely met his. “Well … you know.”

Conroy nodded soberly. “Certainly. I would not trust any inn, however. I have prepared a room for you upstairs. If you do not wish to pursue your friends until tomorrow, I quite understand.”

A faint blush warmed her face. We might need tomorrow, too, Hanlan thought.

“Han!” Makoto blurted, her blush only deepening.

Han looked immediately confused. “Huh? Babe, I didn’t say anything.”

“Um …” she wondered how much warmer her face could be. You must have thought it, she replied experimentally, keeping her tongue still.

Guess I musta. He took her hand with a smile, hefted her easily into his thick arms and carried her upstairs. A sinful grin evoked itself upon his face. This could be interesting!

Makoto found herself both shocked and excited by the implications. As they exited stage left, Conroy turned to his shop, and decided it would be best to leave it closed for the next twenty-four hours. It was going to be a long night.

 

@~%~~~

 

There was no question about it, it had been a long night. On that note, it was not quite over yet. Like everything else in Makoto’s world, her emotions were a stirred mess, rather like a four thousand dollar painting composed by a madman. Every thought consumed her, and pulled her back to a single pair of questions:

Was their arrival on this future Earth an accident?

What would the senshi do if they should act as a team once again?

The first of the two was the most difficult to answer, for she had so little knowledge to fit into it’s puzzle. Conroy, and this “Shi-Con Corporation” presented a large chance of discovering the executioner of the Bishojo Sailor Senshi. Despite the unadulterated opportunity, trust was a large – uncertain – commodity. Conroy could be lying through his not-so pearly whites. While it was unlikely, it was indeed possible, especially when considering the resources and demands of such a considerable company.

Though every feeling she could glean from him indicated honesty, and a plainness of attitude. Makoto felt unable to face the sliver of a chance that the senshi would ever become a team again. Pitched with other darker, unsettled emotions, tears seem in ready supply. As she mingled with the midnight call of the calm outside, warding those forlorn wellings was neither something she was able to do, nor cared to. She had shed tears in Hanlan’s presence before; his harsh nature did not seem to halt that. After having had made love to him again, and not in a premarital fashion, she felt that it was difficult to share such feelings again. Why? He was supposed to be happy, wasn’t he? Fielding her sadness might only draw him down as well. She did not want to do that.

The air was cool on the naked skin of her arms and legs. It was mid-spring, so the night was cool enough for a midnight stroll, and ideal for this chance for contemplation of her life. The shorts and tunic of tan cotton felt comfortable, and eased her mind to some small degree. A deep breath revealed a distinct sweetness she had not noted earlier. She could only relate the fragrance to the forest around them. In her day, in the point of history which contained her birth, such an odor was missed. It was as calming to her as the clothes she wore.

Despite her efforts, in action and garment, to drop the weights set upon her shoulders, she still felt as though she bore their impressive girth. Reflection brought the nagging feeling that her act of marriage had been one of desperation and survival, as much as one of love. She raised her hand and regarded the ring she continued to wear. The crimson dove had a radiance, a presence, and she felt it against her mind. After a moment of study, and unconscious probing, she realized that the presence was Hanlan’s elemental mind.

Makoto smiled selflessly; he had expended much effort and energy trying to indicate the honesty of his feelings for her through his passions. While he excelled in that area, as he had proven, his inability to express himself through words bothered her. She felt an undeniable need to simply talk to him. As much as the idea came with ill ease, she hardly wanted to conceal her misconstrued feelings and compunctions from him.

As Hanlan had said, was it not that kind of thing which tore young lovers apart? Not taking time to learn about each other, stumbling headlong into a relationship in which communication was an unimportant factor? But they weren’t young, she certainly no longer a teenager, just lost, and uncertain. Funny he should know so much about relationships.

“Excuse me, Ma’am,” quoth a year-grated baritone of mislaid sounding.

Reflexively, she snapped around to face the intrusion. A male figure of aged appearance sheltered in a robe reaching to ground length stood before her.

“Yes, what do you want?” Her words were ill considered, and held some amount of venom within them; she had no wish to be disturbed.

“I’m sorry to bother you, my dear, honestly. I know something of your troubles; I have only recently shed the skin of a long ailed marriage.”

Instantly his words inspired mistrust. With a fragment of her mind, she reached forth to verify him, and beseech any lie which might motivate his tongue. Upon finding none, she waited, hands set upon hips, for him to speak his purpose.

“I seek only to quell what viral concerns taint your thoughts. Fear me not, I mean you no harm.”

She removed her hands from her hips, and crossed them – along with her arms – over her breasts.

“Who are you? Should it concern you?”

“It does not, to be frank. Nothing does anymore. My single motivation here is to share with you a few words that may have saved me many pains now well faded.”

“Are you a blind man? A beggar? If you want a spare coin, I have a few.” Her eyes narrowed, gazing upon the somewhat distorted figure.

“Hear me well, child. The mind will conceive lies which the heart will follow, for the truth can scar.”

Child? Her mind whirled. Anger flowed easily to the surface. The ring of steel uttered gently as three blades slipped easily forth from the back of her hand. “What do you want, old man?! Talk straight or just leave me the hell alone!”

“Aye. I will seek to enlighten you no further.”

In a blur of emotional agony, she grasped the man by the collar of his robe and dragged him from his feet. “Who are you! What do you want?!” she demanded in harsh, violence overtoned words.

“People are ignorant and childish Makoto; they will believe what is heard because it is gentler than the truth!”

With that, the robe sagged, and fell empty in her grip. With a snarl on her lip, she cast aside the robe and dropped to her knees, eyes closed, hot tears streaming. In an instant, the stranger had made her face everything. The truth. They could never be together again! The senshi had been scattered to the four winds, and none save a Goddess could recover the brilliant shards. Hanlan was all she had! The only one she had.

What was hope? A starving babe, scrying with it’s failing voice for love, for life, for comfort …

Warmth against Makoto’s flesh caused her to forget her pain, and recall the fury which had surfaced so sharply. As she rose, the cool smell and maroon tinted evening had been replaced by a bedroom catering an expensive layout and contents. Her tears felt vaguely warmed as she wiped them away with the back of her hand. The bed, chair, and table all offered a late eighteenth century hand constructed appearance. The remainder of the room’s pieces, curtains, carpets, a shag rug, and Victorian paintings, complimented the decor with accent colours of scarlet, and a soft sapphire. The stiff brush of stale air across her neck caused her to turn, eyes asking for an opponent.

“Welcome, makoto kino. You like? Not that it matters, really …”

Before she could think to follow the source of the voice, a biting frigidness wrapped itself about her neck.

“Ki-ha!” Makoto cried with a blurred backhand strike of fist and fury.

The woman chuckled. A charcoal-skinned, silver haired woman of some five feet in height adorned in a knee-length dress of cool grey took Makoto’s hand and drew her forward. The shock of her cool kiss was shortly enveloped by Makoto’s seething rage at the perverted advance. Makoto grabbed the woman by the great lengths of thin hair and pulled with such force as to snap her head free from the shoulders.

“How dare you!” she growled venomously.

The woman laughed. “You’re responding very well to this, my sweet.”

Aghast, and horrified, she tore the creature lose and threw her to the ground. The Darakan female responded by replying an expression of wanton lust.

“Ah! The passionate warrior … a reliable source of …” she paused long enough to select the appropriate word. “Entertainment. Perfect.”

Makoto said nothing, offering only an offensive stance for want of combat. The woman slowly rose to her feet.

“I have little time at the moment to play with you, however, so here it is: You are now my slave. My name is unimportant. You may call me Mistress, Lady, or Love. Enjoy the agency I allow you in this choice, for it is all you will ever be granted again.” She paused, the reason for which Makoto was uncertain, but she obeyed the instinct belaying retaliatory action – for the moment. With a dead smile, the emotionally severed creature spoke, issuing decrees it seemed she was certain would be followed.

“My expectation is that you fight – for me – as a gladiator. That is, of course, when I’m not ‘working’ with you.” A sly, dark and slightly sundry expression lighted upon her face. “I’ll leave you now to adjust to this. I’d highly recommend that you forget any former life or love you might have acquired. I expect now that you only respond to me, and no other.”

A seed of hatred was planted within Makoto’s very soul that moment, to wind – eventually – itself to her heart. The woman approached her, expecting her to step aside. When Makoto failed to concede, she noted:

“Of course, you’re not trained yet. Fair enough. Move.”

“The hell I will you coal-skinned bitch,” were Makoto’s well fueled words. “Release me. You don’t know who you’re trifling with.”

“Oh don’t I?” A strictly bemused expression darkened her face. “I know who you were. The incomparable – within your power frame, and uncageable – until now – Sailor Senshi; Jupiter, and the Cyber-Knight; Sliver, defender of the good, the righteous, and the weak. Now, merely makoto, my pleasure slave and gladiator.”

“Shi-Con will look for me! Hanlan will look for me! You can’t hide me from them!” Makoto replied desperately.

“Of course not. You vastly overestimate your importance and situation. You act as if you have command of your situation. A quaint assumption, my sweet warrior,” qouth she, with the regard one offers a newborn babe. “Push. fight me. I invite you to do so.”

With a grim grin, Makoto drew her right fist back in a dramatic gesture, eyes jammed shut, and brought that projectile forth with strength enough to crush an ordinary human, and cried out in agony as it cracked – slightly – the suddenly stone structure of Marlanda’s head. Grasping her broken and bloodied hand, three blades twisted at it’s end, she crouched forward and bit her lip with distracting force.

“You see? Be warned, you will truly regret your next attempt to retaliate.” She stomped, stone-footed steps, towards the door, and said before exiting:

“As for the pain, you will learn to enjoy that soon enough.”

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Chapter 8

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In spite of the pain, Makoto found herself spending the time given her thinking. Her hand was only broken in five for so places, she felt vaguely. Gazing at her numbing hand, and the mangled slivers of polished steel alloy, she cursed harshly at her own stupidity.

If it hadn’t been a mutation, she would have had a force field or something else, Makoto winced sharply, wondering if Marlanda would send someone to repair the damage she had done to herself. It was her swift, unthinking anger that had gotten her into trouble, and she regretted it. Not that she had acted, rather that her blow had failed to land. Yet, if consideration could have saved her this agony … What felt like hours passed. Finally, she gave in to curiosity and gauged the room with her eyes, pacing slowly about like a woman stoned.

[Stoned? Stoned on pain, perhaps. Is that possible? To be in so much pain that it’s like a drug trip? This could just be the start. Besides, I’ve been hurt worse. _]Makoto experimentally flexed her right wrist, flinching as pain stabbed through her numb hand, arm and into her shoulder. [_But not _]much[ worse._]

A sordid fascination eased into her mind as she watched the blood pour slowly through the ports through which the vibro-claws extended. She muttered a curse, reaching for the nearest cloth to stifle the crimson substance.

“Makoto?” The voice was distinctly male; deep, with a soft, nearly undefinable attractive quality to it. Her gaze rose, and fell upon a figure her mind stumbled to perceive. She gasped, reality faltered and ceased to matter.

“W-who … Um … what … Uh …” each word was a mountain, and ascending them was a course of action which was of little consequence. He was impossibly attractive, flawless in every visible manner. The fact that Makoto did not really prefer redheads hardly seemed to matter anymore. His body was that of an athlete; firm, well muscled without the failings of extensive girth.

“Oh my …” Makoto found herself feeling light headed, and sat down upon the edge of the bed.

“Oh …” Upon his face was a look of welcome concern. Rather, Makoto welcomed it. “Are you alright? I’m just here to make sure … if you are I’ll go.”

Makoto shook her head curtly. “No, don’t go …” her voice fell to a whisper. “Don’t ever leave …”

He said nothing as he stepped towards her with the soft padding of a cat. The athlete facade waned, and in its place fell the hardened edge of a war worn man, a soldier, from the frequency of scars upon his body.

“Show me your arm? The Mistress told me that you struck her.” As he unravelled the bed covering, Makoto’s heart thudded violently in her chest. An inwardly drawn breath drew a clean, pleasant smell from him.

“This is bad. I’m going to have to remove these,” he stated softly. She just nodded, entranced by his presence. How was a question which failed to occur to her.

“Who are you?” she asked gently, noting only faintly a piercing spike of pain as he tested the strength and resilience of the claws.

He grimaced.

“This is going to hurt. I’m Chalin.”

“Hurt?” she blinked slowly, awareness flickering as a wind-whipped candle.

Before she could say another word, a shrill yelp tore through her throat as the first of the three blades came free. She flinched back, pulling away from him as the fire came alive in her arm.

“I’m sorry … You’re bleeding a great deal. If I don’t pull the other two, it will get infected for certain. Don’t you worry. I have training in such things.”

Hesitance seemed to hold him, and a squeamishness which drew Makoto somewhat back into focus. She noted suddenly that Chalin bore a recently beaten look, which tarnished the brilliant shine of his beauty, though only by a small degree. Another nagging point hit her: For someone who looked like he was familiar with violence, he certainly appeared to be jumpy enough!

“Chalin? Are you alright? Um …” her eyes dropped to his neck. He was adorned in a collar much like her own. It became transparent. Lacking eagerness for self apparent reasons, she offered her wounded arm to him again. He yanked roughly at the second claw, which, with the scry grinding of metal, came wrenchingly free. Another cry joined the first.

“Hold still, I don’t want this to hurt any more than necessary. Mercy knows you’ll experience enough of it later …”

She squinted at the barely audible statement. “What?”

“Just hold still.” He set the pliers carefully as closely to the back of her hand as possible, and with the visible flexing of firm arm and chest muscles, the third drew additional bloody blade and a whimper from Makoto. She leaned forward, tears of agony welling.

“I’m so sorry! I … I didn’t mean to hurt you … Please forgive me …! It was that, or the Mistress had commanded me to amputate it!”

By the Goddess! Makoto thought raggedly, feeling weak, as though she had been summarily flattened by a Great Horned Dragon.

“It’s th-uh-the blood luh-l-luh-loss … uhm … L-uh-ie down … um … Makoto.” His hands trembled, reaching for her, and halted. Supplying comfort was something he seemed unable to do. He retracted the unseen offer. “It’s … it’s over now, I just need … no, it’s … I will dress your hand. This putty will heal it. Please hold still. Please.”

She looked up at him, as she lay back, waned curiousness in her eyes. He carefully shifted aside the crimsoned blankets, urging her to relax.

“Chalin, why are you scared? I won’t hurt you!” she breathed.

It was clear that he expected her to. “I … Uh …”

He swivelled away on a single foot, picked up a hand cast, a somewhat extensive collection of bandages, and some rubbing alcohol. Makoto let the subject drop. The primary image of him drifted romantically in her mind. She felt, and saw with such definition his purity, and his beauty. A furious blush rose to her cheeks as she recalled Hanlan, who seemed such a contrast, yet so similar in comparison. His soul was as pure as that of her husband, yet Chalin was an obviously cultured, properly educated man.

As he cured and bandaged her hand, she felt the sensual nature of his touch. Her eyes followed his long fingered, silk skinned hands, how they traced carefully the outlines of her fingers, straightening them to fit into the cast, setting the bones so as to heal properly. Finally, after an eternity of study, of relishing his touch, wondering how it would feel to have him touch her elsewhere … another flash of warmth added a tint of crimson to her cheeks.

“You’re not the first to wonder,” he stated gently, calmly, his stuttered tongue replaced by the refined calm and ease that permeated his touch. A trained mode, she realized with a dull wash of horror.

“Uh …” Makoto gasped. Her left hand found her mouth and covered it.

“It’s alright Makoto, if you want to …”

Makoto was shocked. “No, I … um …” I can’t say yes, even though I want to … It’s not right! I don’t love him!

“I’m … I’m married.”

He smiled. It was a beautiful smile. “That’s wonderful.”

His words drew the tension from her. He meant it. Swallowing, she thought to ask, “Chalin … why offer to have sex with me?”

“It would please the Mistress.”

“No, no, no no no,” she chanted self determinedly. “Never. I will never bow to her! I would rather die!”

Chalin spoke, his response so clear it was as through this was a conversation he had carried out before. “She won’t let you. She is a very possessive woman. She is also very meticulous in keeping her new slaves.”

“I don’t care! I’ll fight her with every last bit of strength! That whore’ll never touch me … I won’t let her.”

Chalin had no reply.

“I’ve fought and destroyed tougher than her,” Makoto finished, realizing Chalin’s state of withdrawal. “Is that it? Is that the only reason? You just offered to have sex with me to please her?”

He was silent.

“Have you ever actually loved anyone?” Makoto realized the error of the question a moment too late. By then the time had passed to correct it.

“No.”

She succumbed to the abundant tranquillity in sound. Awkwardness was shared as the intimate distance between them.

“I’m sorry,” she said finally, uselessly.

He stepped back from her.

“No … I am. If there was any reason to make love to you, it would be out of love … not just for the Mistress. She will not be pleased, but I will accept the consequences on your behalf.” In his hand trembled the medical equipment, and the shattered strength of a once impressive seeming fist. Makoto’s mouth opened, but not a word introduced itself. What in mercy’s name could she say? ‘I’m sorry for having morals’? Yet, as she gazed at him, she could see plainly enough that beyond his pain, and submission, he understood. There was no anger within him.

It was an eerie thing, to glance into his tormented soul.

“I must leave. The Mistress will wonder if I linger too long.” Then he was gone, the white door having shut automatically behind him.

“ …the Mistress …” Makoto muttered, lost in thought, before lying back upon the lightly blood stained bed and drifting into a listless slumber.

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Chapter 9

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“So how is she?” an impatient female voice demanded. The white skinned being turned towards her in the faintly lit hall. His grey-eyed gaze settled upon her, seeming to consider her with little more importance than an expressly beautiful specimen of gnat.

“She’s a pretty thing, for a human,” the plainly male creature answered with a faint measure of interest.

She scowled unpleasantly. “You had best not have laid a hand upon her. I paid extra to see that she wasn’t sullied!”

He nodded with a vaguely discernible wry grin. “I haven’t. And for the extra bit you gave me, I watched her myself.”

Which meant as much as the oath of a dragon to her. A gleam entered the creature’s eye above the deep grey rim of skin.

“Entertaining she was, too.”

Marlanda suppressed a dull shudder. She felt remotely sorry for the young woman, having to be submitted to the scrutiny of the inhumanly ugly Kidian, and perhaps worse. She gazed upwards at the ten foot tall armored creature who looked ready to fight the nearest war. “And is her training record accurate?”

“Yeah. She takes orders just fine. We even left her outside her cell for a bit, under order, and she didn’t take off.”

Her replying nod was a pleased one. At least she would have no trouble with her. It was becoming exceedingly difficult to break in new slaves. An immediately obedient one would be a nice change of pace. She balked at the thought of the effort she knew she would have to expend training Makoto. Unlike Chalin, Makoto did not seem about to bow directly. She did not fear Marlanda, yet. Oh well, that would come with visitations of Chronos and the vibro-whip.

“Fine. Take me to her then, will you? I’m a busy woman.”

A smirk. “I bet.”

Under her breath she uttered an unladylike guttural curse. He grunted and gestured stiffly with the eyed staff held in his thickly muscled arm. Ignoring the voices beseeching freedom, mercy, and similar desires, her mind wandered to the image of her purchase in her mind. If the description was accurate, Sharla Westshore was a young woman of notable secondary physical endowments. She had – as it was recorded with indeterminable accuracy – strawberry blond hair which fell to waist length, was roughly five feet ten inches tall, one-hundred forty pounds, with dark green eyes. She was described as a highly desirable creature.

Her mind caught on the calls of surrounding slaves, and the occasional slam of metal to itself as the Kidian shouted harsh orders of silence.

“No, you needn’t do that. I don’t mind it,” Marlanda noted.

The guard looked puzzled, decided he did not care, and shrugged. “Here she is. Cell G3, like you asked.”

He manipulated a small panel to the right of the armor sealed door, which slid ajar with a faint grinding noise. Without further indication, he turned, and leaned against the wall aside the open section of wall. Upon entering, the woman inside dropped to her knees, head bowed.

“Ma’am,” she offered in greeting, her voice soft, like strings of falling silk.

“Stand sharla,” she commanded with practiced ease. As the Kidian had stated, Sharla seemed to easily recognize and act at the behest of the dominant personality.

“Yes Ma’am.”

Marlanda studied her for a moment. The alterations from the description were few: Her hair was a fair sight longer, and she was pale, having the appearance of illness. She uttered a dry oath.

“Damn them. sharla, tell me, have they taken advantage of you?”

“Yes Ma’am.”

She did not ask in what manner. The thought sickened and angered her. That they had was all she needed to know. “I will have you examined later. I do not desire that you should die of some alien malady.”

“Thank you,” was her gentle reply.

Marlanda fetched a rune encrusted collar from a small bag hung over her shoulder. “Wear this. It bears my rune.”

“Yes, Ma’am,” and offered no delay in compliance.

A smile turned the corner of Marlanda’s lips. “It suits you. The grey-blue works very nicely. Now, come. I have another slave to retrieve.”

 

@~%~~~

 

“Ten-thousand credits!”

“Ten-thousand five!”

“A Gideon Mystic Mark is worth more than that! Twelve!!”

“Thirteen!”

“Thirteeeen … I hear thirteeeen-thouuusand. Anyone going to give me thirteeeen-thouuusand fiive?” Inquired the spurred voice of a silver suited and blue-skinned humanoid figure standing behind a podium.

“Fifty,” called a sundry tone.

“Fifty-thouuusand!” smiled the fellow, waving his hand towards the voice. “I want to hear fifty five-thouuusand! Will anyone give me fifty five-thouuusand?”

“Sixty!” Answered a voice, meeting the challenge.

“Is that it? I bought sixty Portable Holes for that cost! Sixty five!”

“Seventy!”

“I hear seventy-thouuusand universal credits … I’m listening for a call of eighty-thouuusand … anyone going to meet the value of this prize creature? A firebrand; Manarr, member of a dying race … with no fear of death! A challenge to be sure!”

The fellow tugged on his up-to-date suit. “ …Not to mention attractive! This one would make an ideal pleasure slave!” His hand fell in the direction of the dark skinned young alien woman, a fearful and angered snarl her only reply.

“Curse you to all to hell!” she barked, struggling against the pole to which she was bound by hand and foot. Clad in only loincloth and half-shirt, she felt restrained as much by modesty as by the enfolding of metal at wrist and ankle. Despite her heated and fiery demeanour, her physical attractiveness was self apparent.

Of course. It was the solitary reason for which she was on the flesh slave market as opposed to the labour.

“Gods damn you all!” she cried, tossing against the chains, hoping in vain that they would betray a weakness not recently self-evident. Laughs, cat-calls, and hollers of inspired ill-taste and moral vacancy withered her retorts after a time. Relinquished to a faint hateful expression, she retreated to more pleasant thoughts of grisly anarchy as the bidding continued.

“One million,” stated the same feminine voice, as in victory.

The crowd of no less than fifty men, women, and other dimensional beings fell abruptly quiet.

“One million …?! Uh … going once.. going … oh hell … sold!” barked the still stunned auctioneer.

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Chapter 10

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“Rune?” prodded a voice with predetermined gentility. She looked up at him weakly, a faintly wry expression resting upon her features.

“From demon to slave,” she remarked with a trace of wearied humor. “I wonder what Mike would think. But I guess he’s got his own troubles …”

“Mike is your friend?”

She smirked, sitting with legs drawn to her bare breasts, arms wrapped around her knees. “If you consider a friend someone constantly trying to kill you … then I guess so.”

Chalin had no remark in reply. She thought for a moment, gazing about the room.

“I know I’d prefer that to this. At least I could manage him.”

He said nothing. For a moment, she watched him, gauging the core of his existence, trying to determine what drove him.

What was it that keeps him in silence? She shut her eyes tiredly. [_No, I got that one down. It’s Marlanda. Can’t help that right now. Or him. _]“Chalin … why do you keep on risking yourself for me?”

His eyes flicked to hers, then away just as rapidly. Annoyed, Rune staggered to her feet, grasping at the bandaged holes in her side.

“Don’t look away. Damn it Chalin … I don’t get you.”

“I’m sorry Rune … I …”

“Don’t apologize … You haven’t done anything wrong.” For a moment she felt the distinct need to hold him, knowing he could barely stand his own fear of her.

“Why …? Just answer that. I need to know.”

“I … I felt you coming here. I know you … I …” his voice trailed off to a dark timbre of silence.

“What?” she touched his shoulder.

“I love you.”

Immediately she was struck by the power of his statement. All at once she found it impossible to believe, and to accept. For her entire life she had been fighting fearlessly, expecting to expire dramatically in battle, and rather hoping to. She took a step back from him, torn by her own emotions.

“I … I know …” the words fell from her mouth, and she startled at them. As they passed, she began to realize their truth. She reflected to the first occasion of their meeting. Marlanda had just purchased her and she was being transported to she-knew-not-where. Chalin had introduced himself during the trip in the miniature hover vehicle, and had expressed his concern for her. Even then he had seemed vaguely familiar, and she had felt something between them.

“There’s a bath ready if you want to take it,” he offered, breaking the recollection.

“Chalin …” she started. A glance elaborated his nervousness, and she dropped the dire subject at hand, determined to have the whole explanation from him later. “All right.”

Chalin reached towards her neck and removed the leash cord chaining her to the corner of the room. The cord retracted with a pain promising sharpness.

Rune Mourndealth was a young woman of considerable stamina, intelligence, and beauty. Marlanda had owned her for only a pair of days, and she still refused to concede to her. Her insistently lofty regard for life included her own, of late. She had been informed that she would not die of a racially-spanning genetic mutation, to which she was unknowingly immune. Her attitude had altered radically since that point, and she fought for her own life as much as that of others.

As she stepped into the steaming bath, she noted Chalin exit discreetly. She sighed, bruised, battered, and fatigued. That red haired man was a dynamic she would hardly have expected. As yet, he had revealed nothing of his former life. Only that he had been a slave to Marlanda for five years.

“Oh gods,” she muttered, scrubbing two days of sweat from her skin. “What the hell have I gotten into?”

She had to discover a way to flee. She knew herself to be far too proud to cave in to this violent wench.

“Maybe I can piss her off …”

Of course, if she could had accomplished that by utilizing her talents as a skilled fighter, she would have done so. The fact of the matter was, the collar, somehow, rendered her physically benign. So if Marlanda decided she was going to beat her senseless, then there was no point to argue. She snarled faintly. After a time, the unpleasant expression dissipated into a serene look as she began to hum a familiar folk tune she had learned before leaving her homeworld. Her voice was gentle, and had the trained range of a professional singer.

“That’s pretty,” a voice remarked.

Rune smiled, knowing the owner of the amiable tones. “Thank you.” She stood slowly from the bath, and stepped towards him with all the sure-footed grace of a tap dancer. “Did you know I was a singer as a child? I’ve sung before thousands. This self-serving cow doesn’t scare me.”

Realizing he seemed to be deliberately keeping his distance, she queried, “If you love me, Chalin, then why shy away?”

She took the hung towel from the wall and proceeded to dry herself with it as she awaited his reply. She honestly expected him to say nothing; he seemed apt enough as it stood.

“I’m sorry Rune …” He squirmed as if suspended from a hook.

Concern lit in Rune’s mind, and anger followed sharply behind. How could that harlot turn that gorgeous man into a scared child? she thought bitterly.

“We can’t take too long, the Mistress will be returning soon.”

Annoyance flared once again. “Why do you have to call her that?”

“It is what I have always called her,” he replied her, sounding certain of the ‘fact.’

“I don’t believe that. To me a name is a matter of respect. I have a list of things I’ll give her before she ever gets that!” Rune’s words sparked audibly with the passion that fed them. “It’s your choice. You’re so much stronger than she is!”

Chalin looked sour for a moment, then stifled the expression, gesturing quietly for her to exit the room.

“How can you …”

“You don’t understand!” Chalin snapped abruptly, his voice containing a shred of forcefulness never evident. He turned and left the room, not pausing long enough for her to follow.

“Maybe not, but I know this isn’t right!” Rune replied, further put at ill ease. She sighed uselessly.

He said nothing. Rune was sure he had something to put forth, and also that there was a restraint of a sort, whether physical or emotional. Aware of the futility of an ensuing discussion, she did not pursue the topic.

 

@~%~~~

 

“Ki-hi-ha!!” Makoto cried, punctuating the first word with a punch, the second with a high kick, and the third with a blurred knife hand. Heaving air with unconscious regularity through her lungs, she continued, practicing her jan-ken – basic strike techniques – determined to beat the living daylights out of Marlanda should she return.

A flash of pain threw her left-handed punch aside to knock a small oak box to the carpeted floor. Collecting herself, she halted and retrieved it, picking up the small crystal which hung from a silver chain necklace.

Who are you? demanded a female voice through what Makoto recognized to be telepathy.

I am Makoto Kino. Now you can do me the favor of replying the same.

I am Ellison Cadre. I am the crystal in your hand, which I might add, you will lose if I do not repair it.

What? How do you know that?

How is it I speak to you, a mere crystal? Let me heal you.

I wasn’t exactly refusing. It does hurt a lot. I don’t think you’re lying to me, she replied cleanly, gasping faintly as an abrupt, but welcome tinge surged through the shattered bones of her mangled hand. Within minutes, a remotely normal feeling returned to her hand, which she clenched experimentally as she removed the cast from it. Mechanism still existed within her modified lower arm, yet the back of her hand lacked the ports and the vibro claws.

Wow … thank you, uh, Ellison.

You are welcome. Please, if you would sit down, I will answer your questions.

She obeyed, still stunned somewhat by the abrupt scewing of events, eyes fixed upon the small talisman.

Uh, first, she’s going to notice the wound has healed.

Let her. She cannot harm you when you wield me.

Wield you? Okay, slow down. Let’s back up. Does she know you can talk?

No, she has determined me to be a mere trinket.

So … what are you, anyway? Makoto replied with a smirk.

Yes. Are you familiar with Rune Weapons?

Makoto’s confidence drew to a sharp halt. The very idea of owning one had simultaneously shocked and interested her. To be trapped within a weapon, sealed for all eternity … The very concept horrified her.

I chose this, Ellison replied, meeting Makoto’s response quickly. I would rather this than die.

I’m sorry, Makoto offered.

You have nothing to be sorry for, my dear. Now, you have little time, and much yet to learn.

Why should I trust you?

None. Tuck me away and submit as you might to this master.

Master? The hell she is!

Then you accept.

Damn straight. Fat chance I let this coal-skinned bitch get the upper hand again. Okay, so what was that you said about wielding you? You some kind of shapeshifter?

Of sorts. Tell me of yourself.

So she did. Ellison listened intently, reassuring her by providing emotional and telepathic feedback to allay her doubts.

Yeah, so … I owe the order my life. Uh … Forget magic if you want me to do that. Sorry. I just never could get my hands around it, Makoto stated apologetically. I know its real, and I’ve seen it, but … nothin’ doin’.

All I can do will not require your … skills … merely your trust.

At least that’s not a tough decision. I like you turn into a super tough blade. Should be useful. I guess maybe a little practice’d be a good idea?

“makoto!” called harshly a venom-filled voice. A sharp spike of agony erupted from her neck to take her body in full, causing her to shudder and utter out a rending scream. The crystal fell into her palm where it was clenched so tightly that blood ran from where her nails penetrated the skin. A pair of slender hands took her by the feet and jerked her to the floor, forcing the air from her lungs. She cried out in protest, delivering what seemed to be a well placed kick, leaving an invisible mark in the air beside her assailant.

Ellison! Help me!

Makoto, you have merely to release me … I will assist you!

“So makoto, tell me now,” she jammed her fist into her gut. She felt a prick befitting that of a knife. “Do you wish to refuse me still?”

Makoto tasted blood, and heard a ringing in her ears. Reality still held the tangible sense of agony which had been so sharply forced through her. Marlanda smelled remotely of an earth-drug she could only relate to a smoked narcotic, and also of something akin to alcohol.

Makoto swore heavily. “Let me go, or die!”

“Foolish, foolish fighting child,” Marlanda sneered, drawing the blade across her stomach, eliciting a cry of pain from Makoto. “You will regret this day, my love. It is simple. You will be punished for this.”

Makoto flinched, expecting another searing wound to appear, but none did. “Come!” bid her voice angrily. Makoto simply refused to comply, offering only resistance. ‘The Mistress’ returned, and snarled:

“Have it your way then, foolish girl.” A flesh-toned blunt weapon collided with her skull, dropping the curtain on her consciousness.

 

@~%~~~

 

To be awoken by a kiss would be a thought for want in Rune’s mind could she think beyond the brilliant presence of agony. Her mouth distorted by a dead scream jammed in her throat, she curled up reflexively, scrambling into the corner of walls, away from the source of pain.

“Get up!” was the command, harsh among the failing patience of the madwoman. The broad shouldered creature drew her would-be slave to her feet, and paused not long enough to strike her. Whether by drunkenness or sheer luck, Marlanda missed. Rune’s eyes snapped wide in sheer amazement and uninhibited relief. Chalin, eyes narrowed from the still open door, gazed on, hatred shuddering inside him at a violent boil.

“The nerve of you to dodge me!” the banshee declared with a faint hiss. The second motion was double that of the first, in power, and speed, throwing Rune to the floor.

Firesky eyes and death reflected upon her unpleasant face, and Marlanda raised her fists to sever her mortal thread and Phate.

“No!!” his voice matched every protective will borne within him by the introduction of this young woman to his life. It was those passions which caused his fist to deliver the body of the dominating creature to the wall behind Rune with force enough to shatter her skull. Rune flinched and scattered from the spray of blood which fled from the body of the former Master as it sank to the otherwise unmarred floor.

“Chalin!” Rune cried in horror and disbelief, overwhelmed by the implications of his action. Gazing upon him, for a moment she saw the man he must have been, his face flushed with fury, his body taut in the heat of murder. His grisly, though romantic, visage burned itself into her mind before the man of lost self began to return from the journey of her salvation.

Running towards him, her eyes spoke volumes where words faltered. Accepting her to his finely muscled arms and chest, he said: “I love you … I couldn’t let her …”

She uttered a gentle hushing sound, eyes closed, savouring the moment of intimacy, unsure of when she would next be so close to him. They had to flee, but she balked at the thought of losing him should they part. His voice was gentle, though passioned: “Rune, we have to …”

Her reply was a nod, for she could summon forth not one word to penetrate the fog of emotion which had ensnared her heart. The Phated and fearful action dawned, Chalin stepped back, leading her by hand to his destination.

“Chalin! Aren’t we leaving?” she asked, nonplussed by his pause aside a door similar to her own.

He shook his head, gaze not quite meeting hers, as his weakness in personality bid. “Sharla and Makoto are here. I was helping Makoto. I must free her as well.”

The hard scrutiny of the young woman failed to catch his notice, unlocking the door, and stepping inside as it opened.

“Chalin?” asked a voice, infinitely genteel. In Makoto’s arms was a woman struck by the repressed fears of a child, and trembling with all their intensity.

Rune approached her, eyes sharp and gauging. “What’s wrong with her?”

The long haired brunette held in her eyes the learned patience of age, and merely said: “It’s a long story. Sharla …”

The pinkish blond untangled herself slowly from her, seeming barely able to stand.

“Yes …?”

“Stand up. You’re free.” Makoto stood also, expectant glance given easily to Rune, who nodded.

Makoto turned to Chalin, obviously the leader, as the eldest slave and most able to determine their route to liberty. In silence, Chalin guided them quickly through hall and corridor to what appeared to be a launching pad of sorts. Voices of authority joined his indication towards the vessel of choice. Weaponless all save Rune and Makoto, who wielded her newfound Rune Blade, they fled towards the vehicle in question.

Sharla, however, stumbled on her robe, succumbing to fatigue, unprepared for the haste with which they sought respite from the moral horrors experienced.

“Sharla!” Makoto cried, eyes fallen to the alluring woman, hating herself for lack of foresight. “Rune! Cover me! I’ll get her!”

While Makoto retreated to the sight of blunder, a squad of ten armed troopers trodded up to her, taking her in arm, and stopped.

In mid-motion, partially closed grasp, a punch given but yet to land. Unerringly obvious and dubiously impossible. Makoto’s senses betrayed every accepted logic in her mind. Sound had ceased, aside from the thundering of blood in her ears, the heavy drawl of air through her lungs, throat and mouth, and every visible object within reach, which had halted completely in motion.

“Nice, isn’t it?”

Makoto’s heart resumed the ponderous ka-thud inside the cage of ribs which contained the air she abruptly gave freedom. A step brought her to the voice. As the realization of the speaker’s identity sank in, the color drained easily from the already pale subtle curves of her face.

“How did you …” She knew as the words rose that the answer was insignificant. “You’ve been watching me.”

“Yes my dear, that is very true. You’ve been most entertaining, you realize.” The once heavily swathed ancient smiled inside the facade of tooth and hand to replace the latter of claw.

Yes, Ellison affirmed. He is like me many tens of centuries past.

“What do you want?” she began, her mind seeking the words which would please him as much as assist her.

“You. You interest me. Few women have done that in the last centuries I have lived.” He paced up to her, examining the hardness of her jaw as softness of her curves. “I always select the strong …”

“Like Marlanda? To toy with?” Makoto growled, unable to restrain herself.

A firm and sinewy hand parted the silver threads of hair formed like a tangle of disorganized webs atop the sun beaten crown of balding skull.

“No, Makoto. I fought once like you do now. That was the ailed marriage of which I spoke. I stopped fighting for myself.” His eyes of a crow’s detailing held her. “I no longer have that passion. Nor the need.”

Makoto said nothing, expecting only an answer.

“Ah! Youth! To have such a delightfully narrow view of life! I would cherish it, my dear, for it is innocence, and regretfully, it is a creature born only to die. Like us.”

Her hard eyes softened, if only to glaze at the point given. “Why bother then? You said you don’t care anymore.”

A gleam was fostered in his heart and displayed in his glossy silver eyes. “I don’t, not about me, at least. You, and the others, your feral sexuality keeps my interest.”

Oh fantastic, Makoto remarked internally, a sour frown on her face which the ancient either failed to notice, or enjoyed.

Ellison unearthed a utilization suited for both parties: He will not risk your death. And as it seems he has the power to bring you here … why not return you to where you will be safest?

But what about my friends? she replied. I don’t want to go back to my home! Not now.

Where then? Back to the place of your exile? As you will, young warrior. It is not my choice, ultimately.

“Can you send me back?”

He shook his head firmly. “Not now. There is another who would have your time. Moreover, a quad searches for you. One is your friend, the other your husband.” A smile lit his face. “It was a keen move to marry him as you have.”

“Han! Oh hell …” she gasped, eyes wide. “ …and who else?”

“Mamoru, and a woman you will come to know as Aaran Yyone. She is an apprentice mage and Hormone Juicer of some ten years.”

“Mamoru …” she murmured distantly, then “A Juicer?!”

A wry grin appeared on the ancient. “Why yes!” he chimed delightedly. “Is that a problem?”

Beyond her primed prejudice, she had to wonder favor a Juicer might possibly owe her? Though, there was no telling what Hanlan actually knew, exactly. He had never denied having friends that were Juicers.

“No … No it isn’t.”

“Good luck then, my lovely child,” he stated with a mind numbing gesture of hand.

When her vision returned, she was beset by a landscape of unimaginable and delightful beauty. Air-brushed jade plains stretched out beyond sight and caring, trees of oil-painted appearance wafted gently at the limiting dome of the turquoise sky-ceiling. With a gasp, she realized the she was not on Earth.

“Makoto,” a voice from behind her demanded softly.

She turned to face a woman no taller than she, yet impossibly attractive, making Sharla (for the well formed beauty she was) seem homely and nearly asexual. Her waist length slightly wavy hair churned easily in the wind. Her body seemed almost bound in the body suit of deep blue, and the light long coat of a tamer shade to match the former item. Emerald eyes of inconceivable experience grasped hers, telling Makoto that she was expected.

“Come,” she stated curtly, turning to proceed towards a quaint cabin of small stature.

“What …? Who are you?”

“I am Phate,” were the words. Makoto felt her ears were deceiving her. For she did not pause in her step, so was it not possible that she had misheard it?

No, young one. You haven’t. Follow her.

Ellison …!

Just do it. Trust me.

Okay …

[* *]

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Chapter 11

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For a moment, he considered her nerve, and just what might be behind it. Certainly, she had shown a dramatic natural gift for magic, and a rather distinct inclination towards the element of fire. However, she had only the most basic training in forming spells, and a very rudimentary knowledge of said theory. His scrutiny did not fall to the wayside as he inquired precisely what her point was.

“No, I don’t agree. There’s more to it than just faith in magic,” she began, idly running the feathered end of the quill along her cheek. “Faith in the deity is what’s really important. There wouldn’t be magic without the deity.”

She glanced at her notes momentarily, realizing just how much like her grandfather she sounded.

“Granted,” he replied, pacing slowly. “But how will that help you focus your mind on the ‘impossible’?”

She raised her hand again.

“Yes, Falra?”

“We can’t see the deity, normally. There are visions, and other stuff like that, but magic is the same. We can’t see that until it’s done. Believing in what we can’t see … it’s all the same.”

“There’s the feeling, though,” observed a dirty blond haired young man, raising his hand, and lowering it as the words passed his lips. “You know it’s there, the whole thing. Doesn’t matter what it is, either, each feels different.”

“Good, Juan,” the teacher smiled. His gaze shifted to the rest of the two dozen member group. “Juan has it exactly right. What you feel is most important. Magic is very emotionally tactile. Positive spells, such as the restorative, tend to have a positive manifestation. Some have been aptly described as ‘invisible hugs’. This is part of why healers tend to be the friendly sort. Oppositely, as most of you already know, there are negative magics for the darker aspect of people. Summarily, faith in magic, or the deity, however you may view it, is supported by these feelings.”

He turned and faced the distraught looking student, who twisted a collection of short shoulder length black hair in her fingers.

“You are not wrong, young lady. Your approach to spell construction is valid as any other. Do not forget that it is not so much the path taken, but the result of the direction chosen.”

‘Shimatta,’ she muttered, writing somewhat frustratedly, and adding to her newly learned scrawl upon the scroll, despite his affirming words.

“That is all for this week,” the teacher announced. “We meet again same time next week, as usual. Your only assignment,” he continued, pausing long enough for the students to settle down. “Is to read the local lore records. Now get the heck out of here!”

“Miss Hino?” requested the unpaid educator upon her standing up. “I would like to say something to you.”

She felt a cold welling in her stomach.

“Yes?” she replied softly, facing him with mixed emotion.

“I realize you are quite gifted, and do have experience in these matters.”

She nodded. More than you would even guess, she thought, concealing her ire.

“Try to remember that your surroundings have completely changed. You must learn to accept others’ attitudes, especially when it comes to magic. The balance between manna and the mind is exceedingly delicate. Your formidable arguments, while passionate, are not always spot on, and can discourage early apprentices.”

“Yes,” she nodded half-heartedly. “May I go?”

He nodded, and walked away, shaking his head slightly. He had failed to reach her, and could not fathom why. She, on the other hand, knew precisely the reason for which she cared not for his words; unserved interest. Folder locked against her chest, a frown written upon her stern regard, the young man who came to her in the hallway afterwards founded considerable nerve in the approach as she half-stamped away from the classroom.

“Uh, Falra?”

She blinked, frowning faintly. Great, the guy who made me look like an idiot, she snarled in thought, not stopping, nor acknowledging his request for attention. Her pace became heavier, and somewhat increased.

“Okay,” he replied to her lack of response. “Forget it. Seeya.”

Instantly she whirled about, feeling badly. She reached out and pressed a hand to his shoulder. “Uhm,” she began rather eloquently. “What?”

He faced her, arms crossed, a negative expression upon his simply attractive face. “Look, I wasn’t saying ‘hey stupid, this is how it really works’. I’ve been a mage for years, and I know better. The way you see it is right too, for Lazlo’s fricken’ sake.”

She said nothing, not even looking at him.

His frown deepened. “Your attitude sucks,” he half-snapped, then turned to leave. She gazed after him, not quite knowing what to think. An urge pushed her to pursue him, which she ignored at first, until nostalgia reminded her only one other had been able such nerve.

With this thought, she walked rapidly after him, following her sense of his comparably high-level aura. He had to be the most powerful mage in the whole of the minuscule school. As she reached the men’s dorm, she realized she had no idea where his room was, and also that she could no longer sense that powerful aura. Glancing around, she noted a green haired girl, who was chatting at high-speed with three others.

“Meiya!” she called, waving at the lithe blue robed girl. She was a recently indoctrinated healer, one who was not only proving her mystic prowess, but her social as well. Out of thirty students, there was perhaps one who had found cause to dislike her.

The thin-lipped girl smiled widely in reply, muttering something to her friends, then walking over to her.

ʻHiya Fal-san,’ she chimed in Japanese, bowing faintly. Instantly Falra recalled that the young woman was of Asian decent, despite her strongly western appearance.

‘Hai, how are you?’ she bowed, mollified by being able to lapse into her native tongue.

‘Really good!’ she laughed. ‘I learned “Ball of White” today. My first offensive spell. Not often a healer gets to pick up stuff like that!’

She nodded curtly. ‘There are no healing spells for fire elementals like me,’ she replied with a faint grimace. ‘Too bad, I …’

‘Iye,’ she negated, interrupting her, a friendly snide grin spreading across her face. ‘There is a healing flame even you can learn, you stubborn thing.’

Rei smiled faintly.

‘So, what is it?’

‘Is what?’

She tapped the side of her head, a knowing smirk upon her face. ‘You forget very quickly,’ she said. ‘I am a psychic. Silly girl.’

‘Empath. I remember. Um … it’s a guy I’m looking for. I was nasty to him and … I kinda wanted to say sorry,’ she explained, averted her eyes slightly.

‘You? Nasty? No joke?’ she blurted, mock surprise upon her finely detailed face. ‘It’s Juan, isn’t it.’

‘How do you know?’

‘Because he’s staring at you,’ she pointed behind the dark haired mage. ‘Good luck, ‘cause I’m outta here!’

They bowed simultaneously, and Meiya departed with a warming smile.

“Funny you two should get along,” he remarked. “She’s so nice …”

“And I’m not?”

He shrugged, his eyebrows pitching up for a moment. “You’re Falra the Phoenix. You know what they say. ‘Don’t get too close, or you’ll get burned’. It’s true too,” he concluded. “I’m still smoking from the cold shoulder you nailed me with.”

She sighed with the weight of emotion resting within her soul. “You don’t know me, so don’t think you can make judgment calls. I’ve been through more than you think.”

“I don’t think anything. I’m just going on how you’ve treated me: Not very kindly. That,” he declared, “I can judge as I like.”

She folded her arms and turned away slightly. “And I was going to apologize. Silly me.”

“Okay. Silly you.”

Her eyes narrowed, her thin black eyebrows nearly meeting. While he waited, she thought, and after a while, came to a decision. She faced him. “All right,” she began soberly. “I’m sorry for …”

“Being a cow?” he filled in helpfully. Her face tensed again, then relaxed.

“Yes,” she sighed heavily.

“Well, that’s cool. I’d heard you never apologized to anyone.”

She regarded him seriously. “I don’t.”

“First time for everything,” he smiled so warmly that the effect caught upon her expression, lighting her mind as much as physical representation of emotion.

“Come on,” he gestured, turning towards the lunchroom. “Buy ya lunch?”

She balked at him, then nodded, warming internally to his pleasant attitude. Shortly thereafter, over a steaming bowl of chicken noodle soup (it was flu season, after all), she smiled.

“Thank you.”

“Sure, you’re welcome,” he blinked. “For what? You thanked me for lunch.”

“I’m kinda stubborn …” she started.

“No, really?” he smirked as he lifted a noodle laden spoonful to his mouth. She frown for a moment. “You mean for standing up to you when no one else would? I know.”

Silence.

“I did it ‘cause I think you’re as hot as hell.”

Her spoon soundly splashed in the large earthenware bowl as a deep blush flooded her features.

“Uh …” she gasped, fumbling for the spoon, dipping her fingers into the scathing mixture as she stared at him blankly. “Ow!”

Her burnt fingers quickly went to her mouth, then were clasped in her other hand. Concern washed over the young man’s face as he urged her to let him caress the burn. “I’m sorry,” he issued before pulling her delicate hand up and kissing the fingers.

“It stings. How romantic is that?”

“It was my fault, let me …” he said, and in so doing, confessed to her, ‘no, I’m not perfect.’ Within moments of his hushed chanting, a tingling sensation banished the superficial throbbing. Politely, she pulled her hand away.

“It’s better,” she told him, a faint warmth in her voice. “A lot. Thanks.”

“Forgive me?” he tried, not appearing terribly interested in his cooling lunch. Numbly, she averted her gaze, and resumed eating.

“Sure. Nice to know you’ve got good taste,” she half smirked. There was no point in inquiring after his sincerity. His eyes told her plainly that which she needed to know. He was cute, no doubt, but … a tad pushy.

Oh, she thought sarcastically. Just a little.

In a relatively short span of time, she realized that lunch had ended, and that he was gazing at her quite steadily.

“I’m not busy now,” he offered, elbows upon the table, hands clasped together.

“I am, though,” she growled. He blinked at her, almost offended. “No, no, it’s not … It’s Ms. Kayole. She’s pestering me to perform a Cloud of Smoke … but …”

“But …?”

“Uhm … but …” she stopped, cursing her mumbling mouth. Then, she gazed at him firmly, flicking her hand through her hair flirtatiously. “Do you tutor?”

Juan found the table of sexual control flipped over quite swiftly. She had it, and … he didn’t mind.

“Uh,” he muttered, her smile beaming. Her cunning combination of appearance and action had the desired effect, prompting him to say, “I do now.”

 

@~%~~~

 

The effect was immediate and dramatic. Juan laughed loudly as the light grey cloud quickly suffused the circumference of the circle of apprentice mages with such speed that the bright haired and compactly built teacher literally lost her equilibrium, falling over in a robed heap.

There’s your cloud, you impatient cow! Falra grinned.

“Excellent!” cried Ms. Kayole, waiting for the thick manifestation to dissipate before recovering her feet. “Your improvement is exceptional! I am very pleased.”

Falra bowed, hands clasped in front of her. “Thank you, Ms. Kayole.”

“ ʻCissy’ my dear, please,” she smiled, approaching her and laying a hand upon her shoulder as she leaned close. “Lucky girl. He’s so cute. But you know he doesn’t just tutor anyone.”

“Oh really …”

“Oh yes! He must really like you … and see – as I – that you have a great strength.”

He was smiling proudly as her eyes fell upon him. As they exited the circle, Falra allowing for some distance away from the other mages, she turned to him, took his face in her hands and laid her lips fully upon his. As they kissed, his hands descended to her slender hips. She murmured something as she pulled away, removing his hands from her body and taking one of his hands in both of hers.

“No,” she decreed softly. “Don’t.”

He nodded, a sincerely innocent expression upon his clear regard. “Shoot. Okay. On your word, gorgeous.”

She turned, leading him through the hallway toward the large, open garden. “You’ve been so sweet this last couple of weeks Juan. I was just thanking you.”

“Hey, I’m not complaining,” he replied with an earnest, and honest smile. “Maybe we can go further next time.”

“Maybe.”

Juan felt the tension suddenly surrounding her, like a glimmering shield of manna. Gently, he inquired: “What’s up, beautiful?”

“Just because I won’t … you think something’s wrong?”

“Did I say that? Before you get nasty, stop and think. Please?”

Internally, she reluctantly snapped a leash about the roaring beast of emotion that loomed over her sense of hope. “Sorry.”

“Forget it. Not your fault. It’s been a long week.”

She shook her head minimally. “That’s not it.”

“I’m all ears Fal,” he offered, pushing only slightly.

The fact that someone actually cared, in a more intimate sense than she had ever previously understood, brought a wash of brief serenity through her being, and into her shining eyes as she beheld him. Yet, as memory beckoned, her expression darkened.

“I think I’m falling in love with you,” she admitted rather selflessly.

“Great! Me too.”

She chuckled despite herself.

“What’s that ‘but’ expression for?”

Her hand squeezed his, emotional need tearing through her young soul. “Before, um … we get serious, we kinda need to talk.”

He glanced at her with stark curiosity. “ ʻKinda’? Sounds scary.”

She wrapped her arms about his. “It is.”

“Scarier ‘n you? I’m all ears,” he offered.

“No, no, not here. It’s … can we go to your room?”

He suppressed a smirk, knowing what he had in mind was quite distant in interest from hers.

“Sure. Anytime.”

“Now.”

He shrugged. “This way.”

As they proceeded in silence, she admitted something that made Juan wonder, to say the least.

“I’m a D-Bee.”

“You mean you came through one of the Rifts?” he started, not stunned as she might have thought him to have been. “I thought only freaks, demons, and mutants came through those.”

“I didn’t exactly have a choice,” she muttered.

“No? Kid-” he was stifled as she slapped a hand over his mouth. He nodded as she pulled her hand away, and let her into his room. She hopped onto the bed and sat, legs crossed as he took his usual place in a customized chair. That is to say, a comfortable but haphazardly cushioned thing.

“Yes,” she confirmed. “I was kidnapped …”

“If I wasn’t a mage and …” he chuckled, “who I am, I wouldn’t believe you. But I do.”

“I wasn’t sure you would,” she replied, arms folded over her chest.

“Why not? I mean c’mon, they’re rifts. At least it was something worthwhile, like you, that came through one for a change.”

“Thank you Juan,” she smiled gratefully. “But it wasn’t that simple! It’s not like we were sucked in by a mystic vacuum or something. Someone – something – sent that flaming lion after us.”

“Okay, I’ll buy. What does that mean for you?”

“I … I don’t know what you mean,” she gazed at him blankly.

“Do you know what you’re going to do? Sounds to me like you care about your friends alot. You’re aren’t giving up, are you?”

Her wandering eyes locked to his, face abruptly tensed. “What?”

“On them. Your friends.”

She averted her gaze. “No, that’s why I’m training to become a Walker.”

“I’ll help.”

She peered at him vaguely. “You already are.”

He spread his hands, palms up in a brief motion.

“Sure, but I mean in finding them. I know people. It might take a while, but hey, I don’t think you’ll mind my company hey?” he grinned assuredly. Rising from the chair, he approached her, and paused as she negated him for a moment, before wrapping his arms about her. His lips found her forehead, and she sighed, emotions swirling in her soul.

“No. I can’t ask you to risk your life for me.”

“But you’re not asking,” he uttered with that ever-calming confidence which inspired his being. “I’m offering, and hell, I’m not gonna watch you suffer, ‘cause it sucks to see you like this. You said you were falling in love, gorgeous? Well so am I …”

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Chapter 12

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“Why can’t I sense anything?” she asked, purple eyes squinting into the translucent blue energy clearly visible before her in the darkness. The distant crackle and hiss of tangible mana was awe-inspiring, and she could think of little else to say.

“Give yourself a moment to adjust,” a brown robed figure said.

She stopped.

“What is it Rei?”

She glanced at him, “Juan, I asked you not to call me that!”

“Sorry gorgeous.”

“That’s okay,” she replied somewhat absently. Her eyes swept the valley which the small cliff overlooked, her gaze ponderous, alert, searching. Her voice came to his ear hushed, as if she feared being overheard by someone, or something; “I do sense something.”

“Didn’t I tell you?”

“Yeah, you’re right … but I sense something else.” Her words turned harsh again, “Don’t give me that look! I don’t know what they are!”

“Damn Fal, I don’t know either!” he snapped in reply. “You don’t have to yell at me!”

She grabbed him by the shoulder of his robe, pulled him over to her, and made sure he was within arms reach.

“This was your dumb idea, you cute twit. It’s not safe, we shouldn’t even be here.” She guided him to edge the cliff, where a section rose like a protective shield. They sat down behind the relative safety of the stones. He took several calming breaths, realizing why she was being so argumentative.

“Falra, would you calm down for a sec? We’re safe, this is pretty well neutral territory. The Coalition is a long ways off.”

“I’m sorry,” she sighed, pressing a hand to his shoulder, and frowning. “I’ve never been to a nexus before. I didn’t realize they were so big!”

Indeed, massive glowing lines of blue psychic energy, some three hundred feet high, wavered and shimmered in the cool night, as if swayed by some otherwise ineffectual wind. Where they crossed, a towering oval of loudly crackling energy formed, very much like the portal …

ʻJupiter no!’

Usagi!

…that had brought them here. Images flooded her mind. Where they had arrived after the portal had closed. The lion had gone. Why? She still failed to understand that. The strange floating ship, the blind women aboard it. Why did they not retaliate against the Splugorth? Again, another answer which was beyond her. She shook her head. Thoughts of Atlantis, death, and slavery, made her shudder.

“Amazing, isn’t it?” Juan breathed, holding her shoulders as they gazed at the incredible swelling of energy.

“Makes me wish I’d finished my Line Walker training …” she half-whispered.

Dully, she stared at the fantastic manifestation, her mind transporting her to a place much safer, and more forgiving than the savaged Earth upon which she now lived. The power of the massive ley lines made her entire body tingle, a powerful rush moving through her slender frame. Never before had she felt quite so alive! As Juan observed the tiny spots fly through the great portal, he found his memory faulter in attempts to recall just what the heck they were.

“What are they …” he muttered, frustration beckoning.

“Hmm?”

Juan looked serious. “Look,” he said, pointing towards the portal. “I think the leader, the queen, or whatever, is coming through the portal.”

“Are you sure, Juan? I don’t see anything,” she squinted into the light of the dimensional doorway. “Wait, no, you’re right, I do see something …” Carefully she watched as a larger humanoid insect came out of the portal. It looked as though the creature had skin made up in plates, like armor, or was it an exoskeleton? She could not be sure. As she watched it fly through, she noticed that its abdomen was much larger than the others of its kind. It reminded her of a queen bee, from her homeworld. A pang of homesickness struck her. After a time of study, she realized abruptly that the queen-bee creature was looking back at her.

She cursed. “We’ve been seen! It knows we’re here!”

“Oh hell,” he said, not wanting to believe that they were in grave danger.

“Run!” she grabbed him as she turned to act upon her word. He uttered an oath, and hurried to catch up to her. Her long black hair flew out behind her as she ran. She threw a glance over her shoulder.

“We’re not going to make it!”

Juan could see the hovercycles in the distance, and judged that she was right. If they had left a few moments earlier perhaps they might have had to start their engines. At that point, they would be just short of reaching their means of escape before the creature caught them.

“We need a distraction!” she called out. “Any ideas?”

“Well if I can just get a sec to cast a spell …”

A myriad of spotlights lit the sky, announcing silently another distinct presence.

“Oh beautiful,” Juan quipped. His eyes widened in alarm. “Duck!”

“Huh?” was her startled and stunned reply.

As Juan fell face first into the dirt, he reached out with a hand in hopes of dragging her to the ground with him. Via a combination of tripping over an unseen stone, and being grabbed by Juan, Falra found herself painfully winded as the ground came up to greet her by smacking her soundly on the forehead. Juan heard the low rumble of what he recognized to be jet engines as they flew over him, tossing, tangling his short hair, and rippling his robe as the violently expelled exhaust pushed at the two of them. He spat dirt, and crawled over to Falra’s fallen form. He pushed at her shoulder gently.

“Rei?”

She groaned and coughed. Her wildly disheveled hair lay in the dirt, twisted and mangled. She put a hand to her head as she turned over, a dull throbbing washing through her skull. She did not speak, mainly due to her struggle for air. Once she found it, she croaked an effort at vocalization.

“Wha- What was that?”

“SAMs,” he said, sounding defeated by a battle she did not even know they had been fighting. She lay there, not trying to move, and gave him a quizzical look.

“The Coalition.”

As if to make a point of their presence, a lone ‘Smiling Jack’ SAMAS approached the two of them. The winged armor landed, and waved a gun in their direction.

“Get up,” a deep voice said behind a very prominent metallic grin, the namesake of the power armor.

“Come on,” Juan whispered, “numbnuts here won’t take kindly to argument.”

“We can handle him,” she snarled, lighting beginning to manifest within her clenched hand.

“No, don’t. Not yet, anyway.”

“Get up!” the ‘Jack snapped impatiently, and threateningly.

“Wait until I say ‘when’,” he ordered in hushed tones, helping her up. Once on their feet, Falra winced when she set her weight on her right foot.

“Hurt bad?”

She nodded. “I think it’s broken.”

“Shit,” he sighed.

“What are you to doing here?” the ‘Jack demanded.

Juan gazed at the armor with his best false cock sure mask. “We heard a loud buzzing, thought it might be a good idea to check it out. You know, D-bees. Thought maybe the good Coalition might want to know about it.”

With a pair of mechanical whur-thwumps, the darkly smiling armor stepped towards them. “Your ID. Let’s see your ID.”

So it’s not just the grin that’s stupid, Falra thought sardonically.

The bravado quickly fled Juan Nathan Iridian. “Would you believe we left them at home?”

There was a dull click.

“Didn’t think so.” Juan muttered something under his breath, then dropped a magic net on the grinning idiot armor. “Falra, let’s go!”

Falra hung frantically on to Juan with one arm as they fled, trying to reach the … “They’re gone!”

“Halt magic users!” another commanding, deep voice demanded. “Halt or die!” Two larger Super SAMAS armors stood at the site where the hovercycles had been.

“I’m sorry Rei,” he apologized uselessly in hushed tones, “If we get out of this alive, I’ll make it up to you. I …” His voice fell silent, lacking words in the seriousness of the situation. Falra merely nodded, her head at his shoulder.

“I guess you can drop Falra,” she noted just as cautiously. He started to speak, but she did not give him the chance.

“Wouldn’t be good for the kids, right?” she chuckled faintly, pain creasing her brow.

“Well, well,” one of the grunts in the armours said with a hint of false pleasure. “What’ve we got ‘ere?”

The other SAMAS turned to the first. “It looks like th’ D-bee girl we been searchin’ for,” the second stated with a laugh in his words.

“I don’t s’pose they’d mind if we played wit’ her fer a bit?” the first asked the second.

Rage poured through Juan as his mind registered what they dared conjecture. Rei gasped, stunned by the flow of power from his flaring aura.

“Not’t all.” The first seemed to ponder something. “What ‘f,” the first dropped the supposition.

“What?”

“What ‘f she’s too inhuman for us?”

“No!” Juan screamed, a swirling silver light encompassing the two young mages as he did something unique to his class:

He winged it. No spell in store, no wit in summoning, just a sharp blast of white energy, which tore into the first of the two robust armors, knocking it aside with a deep, male grunt.

“You won’t touch her, not if I …”

“Oh shut up!” bellowed the second, a multicoloured bolt reducing Juan’s head to particles. Rei fell away from the sudden corpse, and collapsed into a shrieking heap.

“You too hussy,” the armour grunted, slapping her softly. A large red welt formed across the side of her face. “Hey Joel, you cool?”

“Yeah, cool,” he replied as he got to his feet. “That jerk hit hard, but I’m still kickin’ shit. I tell ya, I like these new PAs!”

“Ain’t they sweet?”

“Oh yea. So, who first? Oh man she’s gonna be a great piece of action …”

“What … she’s out! Are you really gonna …”

“What’s she gonna do, wake up?” the first laughed. “You’re bloody paranoid, Dallas. Witch bitch won’t be casting nutin’ when we’re up in her …”

There was a hiss as the back of his armour opened. The noise was muted by the short deep air cutting sounds of helicopter blades. A small spotlight lit the collapsed figures, and reflected off the glossy darkness of their armor.

“Report!” a loudspeaker voice rang.

“Emperor Prosek! Sir! We captured a D-bee sir!” the second replied frantically, his fear keeping him from error in words.

“Ah, so I see. And the other?”

“Tried to kill me sir!” the first armour snapped off as his armour hissed closed.

“I see you dealt with the creature appropriately. Good. Take the corrupted one and report back to Headquarters.”

“Aye sir!” they agreed in unison.

The first sighed as the spotlight and the sound of the helicopter faded.

“Damn!”

“That was close. Well, lets get busy. I can’t wait to get a taste …”

“No,” the first Sam said, sounding angrily disappointed. He turned to the body of Juan, and fired off a quick round. The body dispersed into the air, vaporizing in a thin burst of smoke. “You know what happened to the last guys who ticked him off, right?”

“Uh …”

“So shut yer damn trap and grab the D-bee hussy,” he snapped.

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Chapter 13

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Rei awoke and the first thing she felt were broken bones. Or rather, the bonds that held them. They had not set her broken leg, there was no support for it, they had merely tied her to a chair, unsympathetic.

Why should they care? she thought. Her hands were bound behind her back. Useless. She also felt something around her neck. It was cold, metallic. A collar was her first thought. Then: Why? Movement was limited to her head and shoulders. She felt a wetness on her cheek. Tears?

She remembered suddenly the grinning armor and the tornado of manna which slammed the first of the threatening armours aside like a tinker toy. Juan had been so protective, and she had felt so safe in his arms, as if nothing could touch them …

Yet something had, and now she was alone again. “D-Bee,” said a voice. There was a click, and suddenly lights were upon her, blinding her. She wished she could shed her robe; the lights were so warm.

“Hey bitch,” demanded another voice. A hand appeared from the darkness, collided with her face, then disappeared again. “Answer the man.” He stressed the word; man.

“Wh-wha …” she gasped, feeling her splintered lip pulse sharply.

“You got a name there, D-Bee?”

Silence. A stocky man stepped out into the silence, and the light, then hit her again, palm open.

“Every time I don’t get an answer, you get another one of those,” the voice from behind the lights said. “Okay, let’s start from the top …”

Rei kept her split-lipped mouth shut as she jutted out her chin defiantly, a clear expression of hatred souring her features. “Get vaped, losers,” she snarled.

“You’re not very smart, are you,” qouth the voice as the hand snapped against her face again.

That was not a question.

“What are you called?”

Silence broken. A whimper.

“Uhh …”

“No, clearly no intelligence here,” the voice stated coldly. “What do they call you?”

Silence once again.

“No name? Really?” Followed by a gesture, and the taste of blood. “Too bad. You know what? ‘Bitch’ sounds pretty good to me.”

“It fits. She’s a real tough Bitch. Real quiet, too,” a more robust tone growled as she felt a closed fist make her head snap to the side.

“Uuuhk …!”

“That’s enough,” the voice said, “let her fry for a while.”

They were all too soon gone. The lights did not relent their warming stare. She was sweating, close to tears, all hope fled. After a time of silence, she heard a barely audible hiss. The lights went out. Falra flinched numbly when she felt a cool cloth dabbing at her face.

“Uhh!” she grunted, at first unable to think to speak, or to make her sore mouth obey.

“Hey there,” a cool voice said. This one was different, it had a calm, trusting tone. “How are you doing, Rei?”

“Huh-h-how do you know my name?” she whispered, mollified.

“I’m a friend.”

She was silent.

“I know you can’t really trust me, but you’re in no position to refuse any help I offer. For Your Information, I have as much an interest in your life as I do that of your friends.” He wiped the blood from her lip, and pressed a finger to it.

“Yes I know about them. We’ve found Mina, but we’re still looking for the rest of them.”

“Are …’ she swallowed, tasting unpleasantly sweet blood as her tongue worked at the unusual mass of her split lip. “Are you going to free me?”

“I can’t, not just yet. I need some time. In a couple of days I’ll be able to, once I’ve got the people I need.” She felt something, a vial, pressed against her lips. “Drink this.”

Rei hesitated.

“It’ll dull the pain. I’d give you something stronger, but they might suspect interference if you don’t react. I’m sorry.”

Understandably reluctant, she hesitated several moments before deciding to trust him. Once there, she realized she was thankful for any help, at that point. She tipped her head back slightly as he held the vial. She breathed a slightly pleasured groan at the cool soothing liquid warding the burning in her throat. As he stood to leave, a warmth gradually fogged her mind.

“Wait,” she said, “what do I …”

“Silver,” he replied, still cool as ice. “I’ll see you in a couple of days.”

Only moments later did the two men return, with their words and violence.

“Okay, let’s start from the beginning …”

When her eyesight quit on her she was not sure. All she felt was the searing scars of pain. Since they returned, she only vaguely recalled the questions they asked. Names, something about names … A name? She groaned, unable to move as she lay face first on the white floor. They had wanted to know about someone. Who … Her? What? They finally called her a name. Mostly curses, angered, taunting words. Where did she come from? Who was she with? Who was her boyfriend?

Juan was not her boyfriend. Not anymore!

Oh Juan … Tears failed for lack of strength. What happened?

Who taught you magic? Who taught you. Was it Lazlo? Are you a criminal of the State? Yes, you are. Never forget that. Never.

Finally she lost consciousness. Even then, the words rang in her mind, in her dreams. She screamed at them, and managed to avoid the striking hands. Darkness consumed them. The darkness gave way to light.

Pain flared in her stomach. “Wake up, Bitch.”

She scrambled away from the source of the pain, gasping. Something caught her hand. Her eyes opened, perceiving distorted images of a man dressed in white. She also saw a pair of black towers behind him. No, those where men too. She felt a pulling at her arm, dragging her to her feet. She stumbled, still half blind, one eye swollen shut. Clothes were a thing of the past; they had relieved her of them before the beating.

“Come on!” he cursed. “We want you to see someone.”

Rei was afraid to ask, even if her throat had not been too dry to let her. She just followed him, stumbling, and falling twice. Some doctor had come in and set her leg, so she could walk. Every step brought a new variety of pain to her already beaten form. She wished she could remember the doctor’s name. He had been so nice.

It was … was … Dr. … Silt … No, Silver. Dr. Silver. He had not said anything, but he’d smiled. The smile felt familiar. How …? I’ve never seen him before! He was so gentle …

“Hey Bitch,” the man snapped, pulling her forward with a jerk. “Keep up, will ya!”

Rei flinched. He grinned.

“They got ya pinned real good, huh,” he laughed callously. He stopped.

“Well, here we are, Bitch!” He jabbed a series of buttons. “Go on.”

He pushed her through, after which point the door closed automatically behind her. Rei fell forward and landed on her face. For a while she just lay there, not really caring who it was they were talking about. Finally, she staggered to her feet. Her eyes blurred. Adjacent to her was a girl, shorter than she. She wore the same as Rei, a collar, and what appeared to be a band of metal strapped to one hand. The other arm looked somewhat strange, a little discoloured, but Rei took scant notice of it. She was slight of build, had harsh blue eyes, and shoulder length blue hair.

“By Lazlo’s good name!” Rei muttered, her voice cracking. “Ami!” she cried, finding strength to run towards her. Rei hugged her, and the girl just looked … confused.

“Well aren’t you friendly!” she said. “Have we met?”

Rei froze, emotionally as well as physically. “You don’t remember me Ami-chan? I’m your friend, Rei!”

“Ami-chan? I ain’t heard that name before …” she blinked. “You do seem awfully kind, but … no, I don’t think I know ya.” She gazed down at this strange black haired girl. “Oh my!” she said, voice sounding shocked. “What’ve they done to ya? Poor girl.”

Rei dissolved into tears.

“My name’s Sarah,” she cooed, holding Rei gently. “Sssh darlin’, I know. I know what they did. It’s gonna be okay.”

Several minutes passed while Rei cried. Hope, after the last night’s beating, had fled into some distant shadow with her only seeming friend; “Sliver.” Even with his actions of the night before, and the meticulous binding of her shattered leg, she trusted him about as much as she did a rogue Fury Beetle. Sorrow welled within her, for living to see the next day had become suddenly a very uncertain thing. Slowly, her tears ebbed, and she calmed.

“You going be okay now?” Sarah asked. Rei looked as if she had been asked if she would survive the world ending. She shook her head, and said nothing.

“I’m sorry I don’t remember ya. Ya seem so nice. Were we good friends?” She seemed genuinely curious.

“I don’t know. I might be wrong,” Rei said as she stepped away from her. “She and I were, yes.”

This can’t be right. Carl said it was her … but they almost look nothing alike! she lamented in thought alone.

When she went to put her hand on her shoulder, she noticed a split in the skin where Sarah’s arm visibly joined her body at the shoulder. Under it was …

“Oh mercy,” she whispered.

… the cold sheen of metal.

Sarah seemed to barely notice Rei’s reaction.

“Oh yeah, my arm. Nothing special, just prosthetic.”

Rei was frozen, not moving, not even breathing. Sarah took her by the shoulders.

“Hey. You okay?” She shook her slightly. “Darlin’?” Sarah shook her again. She swore, then drew her hand across her face in a quick motion. Rei gasped, eyes jammed shut for a moment.

“Better?” Sarah asked, studying the black haired girl’s swollen eyes carefully.

Rei sank to her knees and sat down, head bowed. There was a hiss as the door opened. A man in a white lab coat, and a black armored grunt entered. The man gestured for the grunt to wait. He approached the two. Sarah snarled protectively, noting the needle in his hand.

“No, no, it’s me, Dr. Silver. I’m just here to give you your shots,” he said reassuringly. Rei’s head snapped up to him. She mouthed the words; ‘You helped me,’ and smiled slightly.

“That’s right,” he crooned, “this’ll just take a second.”

Rei put up as much fight as her strength would allow, which was not much. He kneeled close, as if he was holding her down.

“I can’t stay, they suspect me,” he whispered, “I promise you, I’ll be back as soon as we can shift the blame.”

Sarah also feigned putting up a fuss, but eventually took the needle. Then, with a snarl, she pushed him roughly towards the grunt. He fell against the armored guard, who cursed.

“You bastard human,” Sarah snarled at the doctor as she got her feet. Something told Rei she enjoyed playing the feral aggressor.

Play along, her gaze told him for not much more than an instant. She snarled and leapt at the grunt, who knocked her aside. Dr. Silver cried out in mock terror, and pounded at the door. Rei lay there crying, listless, and lost. Sarah continued to snarl at Dr Silver, who appeared to be scared out of his mind as he scrambled against the door, hoping to claw his way out.

The grunt punched in the door combination as he eyed the Amazon warily. The doctor flew through the door like it was the pearly gates, leading to his salvation. The grunt seemed in no hurry to leave. Sarah decided he needed some convincing. She dove at him, aiming to wrench the weapon from his black gauntleted grip. At the last instant, the grunt stepped aside. She sailed into the wall, face first, her nose snapping like a thin twig. As she impacted, she felt a jolt of pain, and a numb sensation began to spread through her back. She felt limp to the ground, paralyzed.

“That’ll teach ya,” the grunt chuckled.

If I weren’t so weak, he’d not’ve hit me!

Sarah’s mind fogged as she watched the grunt approach Rei, still consumed by her tears. The grunt raised the mace, and Sarah found she could not get her voice to work. She could only watch as he stunned her, and carried her off over his shoulder.

She feared for that kind girl.

 

@~%~~~

 

“Careful, careful!” he cried. “I don’t want any unnecessary bruising!”

“Yeah, yeah,” the grunt replied, letting her fall with no particular care to the examination table. “Do ya really think I give a flying frag? You do yer job, I’ll do mine. Okay?”

The doctor’s scrawny features assumed an unpleasant expression, making him look like a dissatisfied vulture.

“Moron!” he snapped. “I ask for elite guards, and what do I get? Simpletons like you!” he almost spat at the grunt.

“Listen you,” replied the black suited grunt grumpily. “I didn’t ask for this lousy job, so why don’cha just mind yer own crap!”

“Oh go on, haven’t you got a Dog Boy to associate with?”

The grunt departed, muttering something about apes and the doctor’s mating habits.

“Philistine!” the doctor croaked as the door slid smoothly shut. He shook his head and sighed, muttering curses under his breath. As he neared the young woman the grunt had unceremoniously dumped on his lab table, a smile began to warm his face.

“Why … Aren’t you a pretty one,” he observed appreciatively. “Hardly any fat at all. All muscle. It’s too bad they won’t let me do Juicer conversions on your kind. You’re so strong already,” he said, as if she were awake, as if she were a child requiring nurturing. He began the task of binding her to the table. He hummed as he did so, some nameless tune that had no direction, nor key.

“The doctor is going to have to remove this collar,” he singsonged tunelessly, “it will interfere with the tests.”

As he moved up to her neck, his eyes fell to her long black hair. “Such pretty hair,” he muttered, running his sinewy fingers through the thick strands. “Dr. Ravelli is going to have to shorten it. A pity.”

After he was finished binding her, he idly bandaged her bloodied nose, cleaning the scarlet substance from her face, and carefully securing a strip of gauze which contained a metal band. He then took a seat on one of his stool chairs, and spent some time just admiring her. The scanners did their work, querying the anatomy of the young woman, gathering the scores and details of her body. An hour must have passed before he noticed her eyes fluttering open.

“Oho! She awakens!” he piped cheerily, hopping down from the stool so he could stand next to her.

Her gaze, confused, fell on him, making her face look fear filled. He could see the muscles of her body tensing as she tried to move, as she realized she was restrained.

“No no, you dear beauty, don’t panic. It wouldn’t be good for you to panic.”

She relaxed somewhat. He smiled, the sags of flesh on his face tightening into lines.

“Good good, that’s it. Relax.” He reached for something out of her line of vision. She felt the tips of fingers on the inside of her arm, and tensed again. There was a sharp spike of pain as what she recognized to be a needle slipped into her arm.

“No!” she cried. He flinched, digging the intravenous too deep into her arm. Blood began to trickle from the wound.

“Now that’s no good,” he said softly, “can’t have you startling me like that!”

He proceeded over to a wall of vials, beakers, and other scientific equipment.

“No talking,” he whispered, returning with a gag, wrapping it around her head while she struggled.

“See?” he mock questioned as he picked through a number of heated IV bags. “Isn’t that better? I much prefer the silence, myself. Life is really much too loud.”

The doctor finally settled on not the green bag, not the blue one with red spots, nor the neon one, but the gruesomely coloured rainbow one.

“Ah-ha,” he smiled, “Hell In A Needle. Just what the doctor ordered!” he chuckled. “Will you listen to me? I just made a funny!” He laughed for several moments, not seeming to notice the wideness of Rei’s eyes, how they watched the bag he held in utter horror.

With great precision, he set the bag on a hook on the wall nearby, then hooked the tube to the IV in her arm.

“Oh,” he gasped, noticing the blood on her arm, “my little goof up is making a mess everywhere, isn’t it? I guess I’ll just have to do something about that.” He disappeared from her sight for a moment, then returned.

“Here,” and he slapped a bandage on the ‘oopsie.’ Rei gasped loudly into her gag. A solitary tear traveled down her cheek.

“Is that better now?” he smiled at her as the rainbow sludge mixture drained slowly into her bloodstream. Eventually, his eyes began to wander. Rei watched those eyes, wondering what it would be like to crush them in their sockets. She also came to wonder how far you had to open the mouth to slip a knife in and carve out the tongue. Considering how would be the most painful way for him to die, her mind raced to the fire.

The fire; it had always guided, helped her, in her time of need, and when the senshi had needed to know of the evil that the Negaforce unleashed. Even before, as a Priestess, it had never failed her in her times of need. Her mind saw his flesh boiling under the extreme heat it could produce. She saw him being consumed by the fire, and heard him screaming, pleading for mercy. Anything for mercy, please!

Her mind waded and stood amongst death, knowing that these thoughts might be her last. She wondered what could possess someone to

(kill)

Why would you

(crush someone’s skull, sending pieces of bone deep into)

Her mind faded, blurred, scurried at the reality that hers was changing.

A silent vow came to her, a reaching, a probing, a lost hope:

If I survive, I will kill him. I will use the fire to fry him alive!

Then her reality ended.

[* *]

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Chapter 14

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He paced; only a few minutes remained. She would come out of the coma in less than ten minutes. Dr. Ravelli fidgeted furiously in expectation of his latest creation. Such beauty to be transformed into such power!

What will manifest in my black haired beauty? If nothing, then she would simply have to undergo further treatment. He almost had to wonder how much more she could take; she had already endured a week of exposure to the drugs. No matter. She would come into her own. She was too much of a wonder not to survive.

The fire.

The flames licked at her soul, teasing her. She felt the warmth, and knew that the fire was there. It was there for her. It was going to help her take her revenge.

You have known the fire most of your life. Use it. Use it to take back that which has been stolen from you.

Her eyes snapped open. Awareness flooded her senses. Color. Light. The lights in the ceiling shone above her. She felt the coldness of the table, her bare skin against it. The air was warm in her dry mouth. Listening to the sound of her world, she heard nothing. Nothing.

Movement in the corner of her vision brought her attention to him, The Hated One, as he entered the room. The door closed, she saw his mouth move. Silence was his only comment. He reeled as she screamed. Rei felt the vibrations in her throat as her voice tumbled forth in terror and anger. The Hated One drew near as the noise ceased.

The fire!

Anger coursed through her. Rei felt her hand suddenly free from the bond that held it. That hand was on fire. The Hated One’s mouth opened in a mixed expression of pleasure and stark amazement. She reached toward him with her flaming hand, and sent the fire towards him, to let it burn, to destroy him. The fire took him, holding firm though he scrambled and ran through the door, leaving it open. She willed that the fire help her, so that she might be sure of his death.

As the fire of her hand consumed the rest of her body, she felt the power of it fill her soul. Never again would he take anything from anyone. His life was hers. She flew out to the blackened body of the doctor, she knew the truth of the fire. It would never forsake her. Never.

Soon, others came. They wanted the fire. She cried out again, and struck those down who came. They would not steal the fire from her. She was the fire now, and she would not be taken. She flew through the open door, going somewhere. She was not sure exactly where. Away? Away from what?

The pain.

As she sped down the white halls, she noticed cells like the one she had been held in. The thought that she might be able to free them did not even occur to her. She was consumed by her hatred for the Coalition. Then she saw them as they ran towards her. They had weapons. The first stopped.

A cry of rage left her throat as she struck the first of the five. His helmet exploded in a plume of smoke. The second merely stepped over the body and pointed a strange looking gun at her. A white foam issued forth from the nozzle of the weapon, and as it struck her it caused …

My fire! No …!

…a violent wash of pain to take her as the flames of her body dissipated. She landed on her knees, coughing and cursing. Her voice rang out in uneven curses at her attackers.

She felt a hand pull her hair, forcing her to look at one of them. She watched his mouth move, her anger only growing as he spoke. Though she could no longer hear him, she was starting to understand the words that his mouth formed when it moved.

‘ … Gonna pay Bitch …’

Then a hand hit her in the face. She bit the hand that slapped her, drawing blood. His mouth moved again, and so did the hand. Rei felt her arm snap as he twisted it violently behind her. She gave out in pain. The next thing she felt was a needle, then the welcome bliss of the veil of unconsciousness.

 

@~%~~~

 

Rei could no longer tell night from day. She slept whenever the opportunity presented itself; which was not often. Between those restless periods lay more questions, beatings, and examinations. At times the directing Doctor, Cassandra Analeek would submerge her in a glass tube. It was discovered that Rei no longer needed to breathe. She could also cause an aura of fire to surround her at will. This, and other things led Dr. Analeek to install cybernetic hearing implants in Rei so that she could explore her interests on a more intimate level.

Rei had only been awake for a short extent of time. The length of which she failed to recognize, not that it mattered. Being able to hear again was something she really did not revel in. What was there to listen to but the curses of her captors as she continued to rebel in what few ways she could?

At least when deaf she could pretend to ignore the name ‘Bitch.’

She had been told to expect to meet the senior doctor. Dr. Silver’s kind words were always welcome. He had also elaborated on the condition of ‘Sarah,’ a.k.a. Ami Mizuno. Apparently the mental stress was too much for the young woman; she had spontaneously developed amnesia. Every fact from the point of birth had been conveniently forgotten. The doctor sympathized with the tears Rei had shed, and that she shed none at the point of his recollection.

“Damn lot of good that did,” Rei snarled faintly, getting to her feet. Her violet eyes traveled the wall, hoping that some kind of weakness would present itself. Of course, none did.

She shivered. Most of the time the climate of the room was bearable, but sometimes, like just then, it was like a warm evening on Mount Everest. She still wore the collar, since they replaced it. No more, since they did not care for any dignity that might have remained within her. Despite her bruises and scars, the evidence of her blossoming into womanhood was unmistakable. Her form had filled out, mostly in the hips, and bust.

Being a woman in captivity was no better than being a teenager. It presented her with nothing she could use.

“Be that all ye see of it? Mayhap there be more, my dear, than first appears,” queried a deep, faintly pleasing male voice.

Rei gazed around sharply. “What?” She gazed sternly at the wall, as if trying to perceive something in it other than the whiteness of the ballistic plating.

“Quite right,” the voice said, sounding amused. “Thou hast been less alone than thou hast thought for a very long time.”

Rei swore darkly. “What the hell is it you want?”

“I want ye, love.” The conviction of his voice stunned her into silence, and brought her anger to a halt. As the moments passed, she began to sense more than just his voice. His presence became gradually clear to her, his emotions, his mind and his soul.

Over the course of seconds, his life played itself out in her mind. The collar did not seem to be able to restrain the flood of memories which ensued. He was a True Atlantean of some one hundred years experience. He had known of her existence since the point of birth, and had sought her out from that point forward. He was a powerful mage schooled in many magic arts, including the element of fire, temporal wizardry, and the delicacies of dimensional travel. He was considered by many a force to be reckoned, and respected. She also read in him that she was his first and only love, that he had not fallen for another over the century of his life. The passionate strength of his love took possession of her heart, until she replied it in intensity and potency. Rei found herself crying tears of insurmountable joy.

As the bond tightened between them, a humanoid figure trickled into existence. He had the seriousness of a raven written in the gorgeous features of his face, the muscular build of a powerful warrior, and midnight tinted waist length hair smooth as silk. He was clothed in deep shades of silken black as if in mourning.

Immediately she was in his arms, mumbling softly, wordlessly. Emotions and thoughts flooded her mind to the point of confusion. She knew not what to say first.

You need speak not.. I know. I have read in your beauteous heart all you offer me, he uttered gently in her mind.

“But …” Rei whispered. “It’s just so much … to be loved like this … um, to have you, everything …”

Speak with thy mind. They can nary block the passions we share.

It seemed incredible, even for its honesty, she felt for an instant. We must escape, Rei started, her telepathic words hesitant at first. We must … I … It’s not safe here.

Aye, my sweet. Howe’er, thou needs must speak first with Cassandra.

Rei recoiled. Why?

She means to free thee, tagged that she might track you to your home and kin. Ah, blessed heart, listen. Though my powers be great … You know what it is to be mystically exhausted?

Hai, Adolphus, I understand, she replied, feeling calm for the first time since she knew not when. What about you? Surely you weren’t so reckless … as to spend all your manna?

Oh I’ve a tid-tell little spell, that will need a touch more’n I’ve got a-yet. He leaned forward, planting his lips firmly to hers. Silence drifted idly by as immeasurable passion was shared. He then smiled softly, stepping back from her. Until then, I will be invisibly yours.

She nodded, a warm smile radiating on her face. His eyes narrowed in a rare expression of hatred. Immediately Rei understood; she was sharing his hatred for their abuse of her. As much as she appreciated the direction of his emotion, she would rather he was not angry. It darkened his face so unpleasantly!

They come! he thought bitterly. It would be wisdom itself to play your anger out now, aye?

In response, she pushed her feelings down into the core of her soul, forcing what little animosity remained to come to the surface. The focus of Adolphus’ feelings became darker, she felt, and it helped her to concentrate on the matter at hand. As the door slid smoothly open, she brought a scowl to her face.

“Feh,” the grunt said. “In a bad mood tonight hey Bitch? Well,” he hefted his standard issue CS energy rifle. “It don’t matter t’ me. So long as yer not too loud.”

He grabbed her shoulder, pulling her out into the hall with him. “Dr. Analeek said she wanted you.”

Rei remained silent for most of the trip, actually caring for a change whether or not she was brutalized.

“Why so quiet, fire-hussy? Did we finally beat the fight outta you?”

Rei snarled under her breath, fully prepared to turn and fight.

Please love, not as yet! Adolphus’ mind explained soothingly to her. She knew he was walking beside her, she could feel him. She wanted so to look at him, to hold him, and it hurt her so that she could not. Besides, ye have seen only the one side of yon coin.

“Huh? I guess we ‘ave! I never figured ya fer a quitter,” the grunt said, seemingly surprised. “The doc said ya’d never let up, if ya know what I mean …”

Rei stopped and cast a measured glance back at the armored man.

“Hunh … Just you keep moving Bitch!” He slapped her, his hand cupped for effect more than pain, knocking her to the floor. As he knelt down to help her up, he spoke in hushed tones.

“Sorry, I hafta do that. Dr. Silver said he’d be back real soon with the others. He said he’d gotten word ‘n Usagi and Mina. Ya’ll be gettin’ outta here soon.” He shoved her away roughly as he finished, and uttered another loud order.

She nodded ever so slightly in his direction, thanking him. The passing of a pair of moments saw them to Dr. Analeek’s office, and the entry of Rei into her presence.

“Radiant! Absolutely radiant!” a soft, sultry voice exclaimed gently. “My sweet heavens you are beautiful. Dr. Ravelli did have glorious taste, if nothing else.”

Rei risked a glance upward at the woman, challenging her with distinct ferocity. The sun-bleached blond stood and returned Rei’s gaze evenly, maintaining the altercation. It rather seemed to Rei that the amply built woman would make a better whore than a scientist. She hardly fit the stereotype; wide dark green eyes, full, firm lips, a slender hourglass figure, and a graceful, sensual look about her. If not for the fact that her hair had been done up elaborately on her head, it would have easily fallen in full pale gold lengths to her svelte waist. She wore a simple khaki business suit which somehow accented her figure rather than concealed the generous curves of it.

She is as she is, a tool at this moment of use to you. Bide this moment.

Rei felt the warming of emotions in Adolphus and fought to conceal her reaction. For a moment there was the flicker of oddity at the statement, and another pang at the loss of Juan, but both were stifled by her new love’s complete understanding and sympathy.

“What do you want?” Rei began, making a point of simplicity for the complication of emotions within her soul.

“That, my dear, is – for the most part – up to you. I know what I want, but the real question is, do you?” The woman raised a sleek eyebrow.

She’s playing with me, Rei stifled a flare of rage. She’s toying with me!

Blessed heart, there will be no trespass upon you. None that I will allow, Adolphus stated. I am one with your fear.

Rei sighed. “I want to leave, Cassandra.”

Cassandra smiled; she was winning. “That makes two of us, my angel. I tire of the Coalition. They tire of me. I find the concept of being an enemy of theirs tantalizing.”

Rei looked nonplussed. “I don’t get it.”

Cassandra nodded seriously. “Of course you don’t. To put it plainly; I have two problems. First, how to make an enemy of the political power I have served my entire life? Leave. That, my luscious creature, is my second problem. How to leave in such a way that in order to return I must occupy a body bag? You are my means. So far, breaking the standards of experimentation upon you has meant nothing. Why? Merely for the reason that your angelic frame refuses to expire. You have survived the most brutal exploratory surgery, drug exposures, and physical abuse.”

Rei shuddered plainly at the references made by Cassandra to her. Each time she did, the blond woman smiled, pleased.

“Stop it!” Rei snarled. “I am not your angel!”

Cassandra merely looked satisfied. “I knew you wouldn’t hold back. I was counting on it.” She stepped around her white desk, and stood before Rei, studying her closely. “You are too much the Firebrand. I am glad I choose you.”

Rei’s open palm moved before she could think to stop it. Cassandra gasped, and wiped a bit of blood away from her lip as it curled somewhat angrily downwards.

“Mind your temper. I have limited generosity, my dear.”

Rei growled, her fury growing. Thoughtlessly she grabbed Cassandra by the neck and squeezed lightly. “You came to me. You do what I say. Got it?”

Cassandra gagged and gasped. “Y-yes … ugh … yes! Okay! What d-do you want?”

“I want you to free Ami Mizuno.”

Cassandra looked shocked. “The half-cyborg?”

Rei tightened her grip on the woman’s neck. “Agh-gh-all right …!” she coughed.

Rei dropped her, and with a dark scowl, stated, “I won’t hesitate to kill you. Don’t forget that.”

Cassandra coughed, rubbed her neck with her hands, then said: “Perhaps. Were I you, I would endeavor not to forget that if you kill me now, you will never escape.”

Rei’s eyes narrowed.

“Ah,” Cassandra smiled. “I see you do not favor the idea. Good. Shall we go?” She gestured towards the door.

How much longer, Adolphus?

No longer than my own patience, blessed heart.

[_ _]

@~%~~~

[_ _]

Ami, or rather, Sarah, did not seem terribly attached to the idea of departing.

“Damnit Sarah, why not?” Rei asked, uncharacteristically trying to restrain her frustration. Sarah gazed calmly, and steadily at her, her blue eyes serene, and hard at the same time.

“Listen honey, I’m glad yer fine, but I can’t go. Shyanne needs me.”

Her eyes widened, “Who?!”

“A ten year old girl in GECA. Unless I kin find a way ta get ‘er out …”

Adolphus?

It is the same to me when I am ready.

[_Okay. _]“Alright Sarah, I’ll get her out for you. Where is she?”

Skepticism washed over her face. “How?”

Rei leaned forward, and whispered as she spoke. “A mage. He’s … Um, he can get her out.”

“Magic!” she blurted aloud.

Rei! Cassandra has betrayed thee! Suddenly his form became visible. He took Rei’s hand and pulled her to him. “Needs must we leave, now!”

Sarah got to her feet.

“Rei …” she started. Her face said the rest; come back for me …

“All right,” she said, looking at Sarah, then at her raven-faced love. “Let’s go.”

 

@~%~~~

 

As the grunts burst through the cell door, they noted a blue haired girl fallen, her soul pouring out through her eyes.

“What the hell is this?” snapped an angry sounding Dr. Desmond Bradford, following closely behind, stern glare cast upon the sobbing young woman.

Cassandra appeared beside him, eager to answer his question.

“Case 211-A, Sir. She seems to be crying.”

The man issued a dangerously intolerant sigh.

“Is that a decisive reasoning based on your thorough understanding of her physiological condition, Doctor?”

Cassandra walked about the room for a moment, as if looking for someone. Dr. Bradford’s hawk-like eyes scrutinized her actions. “Sir,” she started, “we seem to be,” she hesitated. “Missing one of the experimental cases.”

“Must I continually stand witness to these failures!” he boomed, turning away from Cassandra briefly. “Arthur, Drake! Go! Take a squad and search the entire level until this creature is found! Now!”

“Yes sir!” one of the two grunts barked before exiting hurriedly.

“You, Cassandra, have a great deal of explaining to do. Come,” the Administrator decreed as he departed the scene. With only a single regret-filled glance, she glanced back upon her failed ploy, and exited the scene. Some moments after her tears had dried, Sarah heard a small voice.

“Mom …?” As this word was uttered, two forms faded slowly into existence.

“Come Sarah, we cannot tarry!” Adolphus asserted swiftly. In his arms he held a small grey-winged blond haired girl. His face appeared somewhat pale, though Rei knew plainly why. A mystic talisman had given him the manna needed by drawing from his physical stamina. As a result, he leaned on her ever so slightly. He had been kind enough, however, to provide the young girl with a robe which was more than she had worn during her interval of residence at Lone Star. Sarah ran over to him, and they were gone.

[* *]

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Chapter 15

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ʻAkari! Yanei!’ Summoned by an authoritative bellow, their forms wavered into reality, the first, a short female, dressed in a pale gold officer’s uniform, with long red hair, orange eyes, a slender, well-formed body, and an childish whim. The second, a slightly taller male, was dressed in a uniform of pale blue, opposite of the woman aside him. His stocky build, dark blue hair and lighter eyes contrasted hers beautifully, as if designed carefully to strike that effect between them.

Immediately, before speaking, they bowed before their elder.

‘What would you require of us, sensei?’ the man requested respectfully in Japanese. It was true; he was their teacher, having trained the both of them since they were old enough to wield weapons.

He trusted them more than even the foolish Queen Beryl who had failed so recently. Hand picked senshi had their advantages. He did not have any confidence in Galaxia’s religious selection of so called ‘champions’ who had more faith than brains, power, or fighting capability. To her, it was not a matter of capability, merely servitude. Many centuries ago he had decided to entrust the knowledge of war with his senshi and it had earned him much respect in the eyes of his Queen. Enough respect to command several small armies. Not that he had lacked any faith in her on his own terms. He merely had a more efficient method of dealing with those who were deemed her ‘enemies.’

Even knowing that list included ‘everyone.’

So far all was going well. The lion demon Yalen had successfully neutralized the Sailor Senshi, and made the struggle to send them to another dimension much less … costly. He only paid attention to their apparent dilemma on occasion, when he felt like a good laugh. Their struggles he found quite humorous, and changes also most interesting. One thing surprised him; none of them were yet dead. Many of them had come close, but they still survived.

Is it possible I have underestimated them? he mused thoughtfully. It is true that the Moon Princess only seems to gain strength from such events, yet I was certain this would crush her soul …

‘What is it, sensei?’ asked a gentle female voice.

‘Hm? Oh. I was just thinking on the success of my plan,’ he replied evenly. He stood, and drew his staff in assistance to his step. ‘I have a task for the both of you. One which I am quite sure you will experience no difficulty with.’

Akari smiled lightly, eager to see action. ‘Anything!’

The man read the eagerness in his student’s eyes. ‘You are my most pliant students, if not the brightest. No matter. I do not expect you to have to trouble yourselves with many variables.’

Akari merely awaited his command. Yanei, on the other hand, pouted. ‘You think us fools? Old man, you confuse us with Beryl’s asinine fledglings.’

The man merely smiled. ‘No, dear Yanei. If you were my equal, would I make use of you? Think on that. And no, I would not.’ She bowed her head, pout fading to a frown. He continued, ‘But not now. I have other matters of greater concern.’

‘Hai, Uraki-sama,’ she replied sullenly.

The man hobbled up to his two champions, and examined them, eyes gazing over their forms. ‘I have eliminated the Bishojo Sailor Senshi as a factor in our war. They are no longer a concern to us.’ He turned away and began pacing slowly, unevenly. ‘There is only one person who concerns me now. It is the Earth Guardian, Mamoru. He is stronger now since Beryl lost him to Usagi.’

He shook his head. Idiot woman. Why Galaxia entrusted her with the task of destroying them I still cannot fathom, he lamented in his mind. How many times he had remarked on her inability he could no longer count.

‘I want you to lure him to the Moon, and then destroy him.’ His voice hung on the second to last word, in emphasis. ‘How you do this is not my concern. You will not fail me. Hai?’

‘We would sooner perish,’ Akari replied in earnest.

‘I would advise you to be watchful of this … wildcard … as well.’ He waved his hardwood staff vaguely, creating a circular portal of second sight in the air. Within it appeared a simple girl of waist length brunette hair, and an energetic countenance. She sprinted home adorned in the grey sailor suit uniform of her school as she tossed a glaringly green tennis ball between her long fingered hands.

‘What problem might she pose, as lovely as she is?’ Akari queried.

‘She is pretty, indeed. It is the way of our enemies, to be continuously attractive, it seems. Nonetheless, for a reason I cannot fathom, she has been deemed a threat. So much so, that I would have you capture her.’

Yanei rolled her eyes. ‘Her beauty pales to mine, wouldn’t you say, Akari?’ she yawned, undoing buttons enough of her tunic to reveal several sundry inches of her more than mid-sized cleavage.

Akari failed to notice, his eyes locked upon the vital body of the youth.

‘Akari!’ He faced her, his eyes dropping to the displayed flesh.

‘Hai my beloved. Much more …’ he murmured distractedly.

‘Enough games!’ Uraki declared impatiently. ‘You will see her captured and brought to me. I will give you a week of respite with which to question her as you might, but do not kill her. I have a sense she may be of use.’

Both bowed deeply.

‘Of course, my lord.’

‘Ours is only to serve,’ Yanei added.

‘Then there is nothing more to be said here. Go.’

Both students bowed, and returned to the faded state from which they had come.

 

@~%~~~

 

There was a somewhat distressed regard upon that young woman’s face as she strode quickly towards her appointed destination: Central Tokyo. She had been told the Kei-san had gone into hiding, due to the recent threat.

Hiding? If she gets to hide, then what are we supposed to do? she thought, terribly upset by the recent culmination of events. Even hardball hadn’t helped, even though she’d tromped Cale, Ayla, Meisu, and most notably Masurani, among others of lesser notice. It was those four in the game that had interested her most greatly. It was coming so close to the final selections, and she was being set aside like this? It was confusing.

There was a noise, somewhat like the strangled mew of a kitten. A flash of alarm tore through Xalia, and the fact that the freedom of the very world itself was being threatened ceased to matter, beyond the sudden search for a very frightened sounding baby cat. As she rounded the corner, a startled voice caught her off guard.

‘Xalia!’ blurted the tones of a voice the target dully recognized to be her sensei.

‘Nasura-sensei?’ she queried, peering about swiftly. ‘I’m kind looking for a lost kitten, have you seen.. uh.. oh!’

The tortoise shell colored cat gave a squeak as she was swept into the young woman’s arms.

‘Cuuute!!’ she spouted, tossing the frightened looking cat up into the air briefly before hugging her tightly.

‘Oh shimatta! Xalia! Stop!’ protested the little feline desperately, its voice choked by Xalia’s smothering attentions. Just as she had begun, she halted, holding the cat so as to gaze into its yellow eyes.

ʻNasura?!’ she gasped, stunned.

‘Hai! Would you put me down? You scared the living daylights out of me!’

‘So sorry Kei-san!’ she bowed, setting her down in the process.

‘Nevermind Xalia-chan,’ she replied, ‘We have matters of greater import to attend to.’

‘Sensei-san, may I ask a question?’

‘Hai.’

‘Why are you a cat?’

‘It shields me from their detection, young one,’ was the reply. ‘Oh, I have decided to Knight you.’

‘Um, are you sure this is such a good idea? Not that I’m about to openly refuse or anything …’

‘Such a good idea? I’m afraid there’s really no choice.’

She glanced curiously at the brown and silver haired cat perched on the pavement at her feet. The feline returned the regard, but somehow much more seriously than any ordinary cat might. ‘Don’t forget why you were sent here,’ she chided, pawing the young woman’s leg. ‘It’s your duty to …’

‘Sssh! Someone’s coming.’ With a congenial smile, she took the cat into her arms and began stroking her gently. A fellow of short dark hair, silk pants and a black sweater approached with sunglasses, and a dark expression upon his face. ‘Oh no! It’s Mamoru!’

‘Don’t worry!’ the feline whispered. ‘He doesn’t know …mmpph!’

Feeling her gaze upon him, he glanced up, only to see her giggling and waving nervously. Normally, he would have passed her by, but as a result of recent events, he wasn’t taking any chances.

‘Hi,’ he began, half-smiling. ‘Do I know you?’

Is this some kind of stupid pick up line? Somehow, I doubt it …

‘Uh,’ she giggled. ‘No.’

He pulled his hands out of his pants pockets and folded them across his chest, as if readying further interrogation, when a scream tore through the small business sector.

‘Oh, that’s my cue!’ she blurted, bowing her head quickly and making a mad dash towards the source of the noise. As she tore down the sidewalk, the cat matching her running pace tersely commented:

‘Why did you have to say that? Do you want to get caught?’

‘Nasura! What was I supposed to say?’

‘Anything else! Just not that!’

She rolled her brown eyes, her waist length brunette hair flying out behind her. ‘Too late now.’

‘I suppose so. Okay, stop!’ she commanded, drawing to a halt in front of a restaurant, which seemed rather vacant. The small feline closed her eyes and bowed her head, after which a palm sized shining jade crystal appeared on the pavement at her feet.

‘Take it,’ she commanded, and after she did so, ordered: ‘Hold it and say: Sailor Ether – Sugoi Henshin!’

‘Uh, sure,’ she replied, raising the crystal above her head and pronouncing: ‘Sailor Ether – Sugoi Henshin!’

As she did, swirls of energy produced a uniform that suited her every desire as to how she envisioned herself one of the Bishojo Sailor Senshi. As she fell into her final pose, adorned in the greens and white of her uniform, she gave herself a once over glance.

‘Eeek!’ she exclaimed, pushing at the microskirt. ‘It’s so short!’

‘It’s what you wanted!’ Nasura explained. ‘This is how you envisioned yourself as a Sailor Senshi.’

‘Great,’ she sighed, then spotted the stylish dark green mid-calf length boots upon her feet. ‘Oh cool!’

‘Don’t forget, you’ve got a job to do!’

‘Oh, right,’ she blinked, snapping out of her trance. ‘How do I stomp it?’

‘You control wind, and have incredible speed. You run fast enough that the human eye cannot detect you. You can also fly.’

‘Huh?’ she muttered, practically drooling.

‘Fly. You have wings, you ninny! And you can’t be seen when you run,’ she stated on a flat, slightly disappointed sounding note. ‘Don’t be afraid to use your kick boxing, or to get creative with your powers. Nothing is defined yet. It’s all up to you.’

‘Oh, wings!’ she laughed, flapping them experimentally. Her expression turned to puzzlement, which slowly found Nasura. ‘What do I throw at it?’

‘When you want to throw something just shout “Wind Blade – Slice” and act like you’re throwing your strikeout fastball,’ she hinted, sulking. ‘But don’t be afraid to experiment. Play with your powers.’

‘Oh, sure.’ Whatever that means. She made a single running step, and was gone.

‘Look! It’s Sailor V! She’ll save us!’

To the four dozen men and women trapped in the demon besieged restaurant, she was both recognizable – in a vague fashion, despite the unusual colour of hair and undeniable presence of wings – and their only savior.

‘Halt beast of the NegaVerse! Release that woman!’ The rotund sumo wrestler-like black skinned creature smiled a toothy, blood filled smile, and proceeded to tear the woman in two. Before it could complete the task, the young woman proclaimed “Sailor V” shouted:

‘Wind Blade – Slice!”

Despite the strangeness of the declaration, four cloud-like free flying chakram blades rapidly sought the distracted demon. As the new senshi landed on her feet, the hands attempting to segment the victim fell to the ground, allowing the internally rent woman to collapse in agony.

ʻI am Sailor Ether! I live to destroy all evil! I won’t stand by and watch you harm another living being! Prepare to be punished!’

‘You think you can beat me, little girl?’ growled the beast gutturally, swinging its abruptly regenerated clawed hands and easily decapitating a nearby business suited man as it laughed loudly. With a lunging toss, he hurled the grimacing head at her. Deftly, she dodged the attack, leaping towards the creature.

As she did, she seemed to disappear.

‘It’s no use hiding! I’ll ge-aaaaagggh!!!’

The beast fell to the earth, its collapsed skull rolling free from its gutted body. The gory spray of blood turned into a fine grey dust as the creature dissipated, banished from the realm to which it had been summoned.

‘So who’s hiding?’ she smirked, holding a blackened crystal in her hand, watching uninterestedly as it turned to powder in her palm.

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Chapter 16

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Mid-summer heat brought little comfort to those in their offices. Appreciation of the brilliant weather was passed down to beach-dwellers, of which there was many that day. What better way to spend the restlessly hot day but in the sun? The cool waters lapping at the edge of the beach drew a misty breeze to those who had accepted the offer of the weather.

They were, in part, interested by the gathering of individuals, and why they nestled in groups, and such heat. Yet more distinct was their interest in how this collective might serve them.

‘Uraki-sama was right,’ Akari observed. ‘The girl has become a problem.’

‘Of course he was right. She can wait, however. We have greater concerns right now to deal with.’

Akari and Yanei had spied their lure. Neither expected their task to be an easy one. In the past, Mamoru had not been easily fooled. Defeated and simply overpowered, but not fooled. He was considered to be a most worthy opponent.

ʻSo we must draw his attention,’ Yanei observed, her gaze settled on the iridescent pool of seeing.

Akari nodded. ‘I will summon a gem-beast. It will steal the energy of the fool humans on the beach. Mamoru will have no choice but to respond.’ He smiled, quite proud of himself. ‘Uraki-Ayo would be pleased.’

‘Even if it does take time,’ Yanei added.

Akari blinked, confused. ‘Time? Why should it?’

‘How will he know to reach us? It may take months to sufficiently bait him, my darling,’ Yanei explained lovingly.

‘I see your point, beloved. Is there nothing we can do to alter this delay?’

For a moment, she was silent with thought. Her finger twirled several wayward lengths of orange hair absently.

‘Ah!’ she grinned. ‘We can tempt him directly. It will cost us valuable energy, but I am certain it will be worth it. An appearance, however brief, will certainly motivate Luna and Artemis, hai?’

‘Hai! You are much wiser than I, my sweet, and I love you for it,’ Akari smiled, taking her hand and pressing his lips to it briefly. Childishly, she blushed, a pleasant smile warming her young face.

Akari bowed his blue haired head and mumbled a series of words under his breath. Moments later, the pool of seeing fogged, the image on the surface swirling and fading into grey. Several slivers of light rippled from the edges of the pool to the center, where they gathered into a physical substance. As the process continued, a small opaque object began to take form. Akari stopped his chanting, and let the spell complete itself. His hand reached and picked up the crimson-tinted gem in two fingers.

‘It is your turn my beloved,’ he said, not looking at Yanei.

She said nothing as she closed her eyes. The image of the beach returned, and shifted, as if panning, like a camera. The image moved to the strip of park that strode the length of the sandy surface of land.

Now, Yanei thought.

Akari’s fingers appeared to let the gem slip. The gem disappeared into the waters. When it reappeared, it seemed to have landed on the pavement pictured in the pool.

ʻIt only requires a touch, and they will bring forth the beast within.’ Akari smiled, and leaned backwards. ‘We have only to wait.’

‘What about the girl?’

‘I think I have a gem that will work beautifully for our cute little warrior …’

 

@~%~~~

 

He landed effortlessly on the ground. A small black feline ran aside the formally dressed man, calling out his name: ‘Tuxedo Kamen!’

He looked at her behind his white mask.

‘How do you expect me to defeat this creature, Luna-chan? I can’t banish them the way Usagi did.’ Irritation and anxiety rang in his voice.

She halted suddenly. ‘I d-don’t know.’

A small white cat followed up behind her. “We can’t just let it roam free!”

His words came as more of a command than advice. Tuxedo Kamen had no choice in the matter, and he knew it. For a moment he watched the beast, the humanoid qualities of it as it grabbed and stole the life energy from the scattering people on the beach.

Hardly efficient, he decided suspiciously. It was taking much too long, terrorizing single victims before seizing their energy. Playing with them as one does with food.

It appeared to be mostly humanoid, aside from the claw-like appendages in the place of arms. He decided that if he was going to act, he had to do it carefully. Perhaps he could scare it off? He grumbled discontentedly, placing himself before the beast, preparing for the confrontation.

‘I am Tuxedo Kamen!’ he declared, expecting rage from the creature as a reaction. ‘What did Usako used to say?’ he muttered under his breath. ‘Uh … In the name of … uh … oh hell, prepare to get your ass kicked!’

The creature spied him, and paused. ‘Tuxedo Kamen?’ a guttural voice mumbled. A deep war cry tore loose from the beast’s throat, assaulting his ears. ‘You will die!’

Without further ado, the beast charged at him. Tuxedo Kamen aptly sidestepped the attack, swatting the beast with his cane. The beast fell over, causing a brief explosion of sand. No question as to who was the superior fighter here, he decided.

With a growl, the beast rose to his feet. It did not move, it merely stood, seeming to gauge the opponent it faced. The oddly formally dressed man was suddenly gripped by the question; was it actually thinking ahead? He nearly laughed at the concept. When the gem-beast saw his distraction, it struck. Tendrils from the creature reached out and grabbed him by the arm, latching on tightly. Tuxedo Kamen gasped at the unexpected movement, and also when he realized he was about to be seriously hurt.

‘Damn,’ Luna cursed, then jumped at the creature. Claws raked across the dark blue skin of the beast’s face, drawing blood and rendering it sightless. The creature wailed out in agony and dropped the weakening Tuxedo Kamen.

‘Thank you, Luna-chan,’ he gasped.

Artemis ran up to Luna. ‘How do you suppose he defeats the demon, Luna-chan?’ he asked.

Luna’s eyes narrowed. ‘I have a thought, but I’m not sure it will work.’

‘Whatever you’re thinking has got to be better than not trying at all,’ Artemis stated flatly.

She glanced at Artemis briefly. ‘Hai. Of course.’ She looked at the kneeling Tuxedo Kamen. ‘Try to pierce its heart with your rose!’

He gave her a strange look, but nodded. ‘Summoning crystal?’ Artemis whispered, voicing his own suspicion.

‘Hai,’ she replied. ‘That’s my thought. If not, then we’re in trouble.’

Tuxedo Kamen got to his feet, to face a severely angry, and equally disoriented gem-beast. It tossed and struck out blindly, hoping to grasp something from which it could steal energy. He moved like liquid lighting, his action only clear when completed. The stem of a full red rose sat embedded in the chest of the creature, which cried out in further pain, and dissipated with a cool hiss.

‘Good work, Tuxedo Ka …’ she fell short when she realized her tone. This was not the klutzy Usagi she was used to dealing with! Luna cleared her throat. ‘So sorry, Tuxedo Kamen.’

‘No, Luna-chan, don’t worry about it,’ he replied, with a somewhat sorrowed tone. He turned, preparing to leave the scene.

‘Konnichi wa, ronin Tuxedo Kamen. Where are your lovely senshi when they are needed most, neh?’

He turned sharply in response to the voice. Suspended several feet from the ground was a transparent image of a stocky humanoid male, dressed in a purple gi. Standing beside him was a short woman, dressed in a gi of pale orange.

‘Nan desu ka!’ Mamoru demanded curtly, drawing his cane from thin air and hefting it threateningly.

‘I am Akari. This is my beloved, Yanei,’ he began. ‘We are here, to destroy you.’

‘Tsk, tsk, love,’ the woman said. ‘So blunt! Do you recall that is not our purpose?’

He gazed at her and smiled. ‘Hai. You are right. My personal desire proceeded before my wit.’ His dark blue eyes turned on his opponent, narrowed, and cold. ‘Perhaps you are wondering about your missing Sailor Senshi? You might be interested to learn that they no longer exist.’

Tuxedo Kamen felt a brief bolt of fear and panic. ‘No! You lie!’

‘Do I? Perhaps if you can find us, you can reach what you seek.’ The image waned and faded as the man laughed boldly.

Tuxedo Kamen sank to his knees, tears trailing in abundance from his eyes, and whispered; ‘Iye, Usako …’

‘Tuxedo Kamen?’ queried a gentle female voice. He wiped his eyes and stood, presenting strength where none he felt. The girl was not smiling as she greeted him. ‘I’m Sailor Ether, I’m here to help you.’

For a while he just looked at her, as if really just realizing she was standing there being quite pretty and on his side. Luna, on the other hand, neared him, and glared up at the stranger.

‘If you are a royal senshi of the Moon Kingdom, then why don’t I recognize you?’

The girl shrugged. ‘I was given a crystal, and told to help. That’s all I know.’

‘By whom?’

‘She asked me not to tell you. I’m sorry,’ she replied, fidgeting with her hands at her skirt.

‘ “She?” ‘ Luna prodded. With that, the strange girl turned and flew up into the air.

‘Forget it! I’ve said too much already! I just wanted you to know I’ll be around to help! I’ll take care of things!’ she called as her slender, winged figure disappeared into the distance.

 

Several days later, after many lost hours of sleep, Mamoru sat up with Luna and Artemis in his apartment. Days of speculation had shed no light. The only reasonable explanation was that these two were from the NegaVerse. How could that be? Had Usagi not defeated Queen Beryl, banishing her, and the NegaForce back to the dimension from which it had come? There seemed no logic to the source, if indeed, it was them.

ʻI’m sure they’re lying,’ Luna offered weakly. The slender black cat the voice issued from jumped up on the young man’s lap. He refused to pet her. He was too angry. He had remained quite angry since losing this battle.

‘You don’t sound sure,’ Artemis replied tentatively. Luna could say nothing, nor could she meet his scrutinizing gaze.

‘Where could the Sailor Senshi be if Akari and Yanei aren’t lying, Luna-chan? They can’t have just disappeared from Tokyo.’

The Japanese youth scowled. He ran a hand through his short black hair, the knowledge of his greatest fear born to reality consuming him from the inside out. He did not know where the Sailors were, and he was unable to protect them. How could it get worse?

‘If these two … Akari and Yanei … are as powerful as I seem to feel they are, then they very well could have, Mamoru. We clearly don’t know what we’re up against.’ Luna was feigning calmness. She had already spent her tears some days ago. This was her greatest failure, losing the Moon Princess to an unknown force. Luna was quite certain that it was Akari and his consort, Yanei. She could not belay the darkness she felt when she regarded the situation. She was lying to Mamoru, and herself, in the hopes that she was wrong.

The similarly slender, white cat regarded Mamoru sternly.

‘I don’t know what’s going to get done with you guys just sitting around,’ Artemis’ cool deep voice stated evenly, his eyes then met the disillusioned young man. ‘You’ve got to face them.’

‘How?’ Though he had successfully destroyed six gem beasts since their initial appearance, the idea of fighting their creators made him somewhat hesitant. Quickly, he brushed that hesitation aside. If Akari and Yanei had the Sailor Senshi, he would save them!

‘Go to the moon. I think that between the three of us, we can channel enough energy to get there,’ Luna said, her tail twitching nervously.

Mamoru could only nod.

‘What about this … new Sailor? I hear them calling her “Sailor V”, but it’s not her. I would know,’ Artemis stated, a timbre of fine unease in his usually cool voice.

‘Of course it’s not,’ Luna replied. ‘I don’t know who it is. I don’t recognize her as one of the Inner Senshi. She’s not familiar.’

‘Do you think she might be from the NegaVerse?’

‘It’s not their style,’ Luna observed. ‘They wouldn’t try the same trick twice, after Zoisite fouled it up the first time.’

‘Hai, I agree, but neither is capturing our senshi,’ Artemis tersely frowned. ‘We can’t be sure what they’ll do anymore.’

‘I’m sure I would know,’ Luna shook her head morosely. ‘Especially under the current circumstances.’

‘I don’t think she’s evil. She’s been helping too much. We’ve even talked to her, and she was honest.’

‘As far as we know, Mamoru,’ Luna pointed out, lying down slowly. ‘But I think you’re right. She did say she wasn’t Sailor V.’

‘The title “Sailor Ether” doesn’t ring any bells, if you know what I mean,’ Artemis commented.

‘There were senshi from other dimensions, you know,’ Luna said, glancing at Artemis. ‘I’m pretty sure we can’t have known all of them.’

‘I suppose. I say we forget about her. She can take care of things here while we’re gone. She’s destroyed over a dozen of the creatures during the last week on her own! I think we can trust her.’

‘I don’t know …’ Luna hesitated. ‘It’s awfully risky.’

‘Anything we do is. Even if we didn’t have this stranger helping us out, leaving would put everyone in Tokyo in danger anyway.’

‘There’s no choice,’ Mamoru agreed firmly. ‘We go. Without Usagi we don’t stand a chance.’

Luna remained silent for a time.

‘I’m still not sure,’ she began. ‘But what else can we do …?’

 

@~%~~~

 

‘Dance-ance-ance! Or you won’t be stayin’ alive-ive-ive!’

The camerawoman hiked her skirt up awkwardly, moving her feet as to avoid the spikes of metal which shattered the tile underneath her. With a frown at the woman’s success, the patchwork clown of red eye and black tooth took her by the throat, laid a claw about her waist suggestively, and began draining her of energy.

‘Drop her, fiend!’ commanded a slight, but loud voice. It ignored the request, but glanced about, seeking its source.

‘Cannot fool-ool-ool the clown of NegaForce! Come forward-ard-ard Sailor Girl! Let me drain you!’

There was an echoed nervous clearing of throat. ‘Your innuendo doesn’t scare me,’ she replied defiantly. But you being a clown doesn’t exactly help! ‘I said let her go!’

The body from which the voice originated appeared standing as defiant as the vocal weapon, hands upon her hips, snarl upon her face, adorned prettily in a green body suit with even deeper green microskirt. The suit was coated by a thin layer of mystic armor, whereas upon her naked arms and legs were armlets and shin guards of white. The expression upon her face, however, denoted extreme distaste, even while she harbored similarly inclined anger at the creature’s very presence.

‘Why should-ould-ould eye,’ it pointed to the optic organ of which it spoke. ‘Little greenie?’

‘Because I am Sailor Ether! I live to destroy all evil! And I won’t stand by and watch you harm another living being! Prepare to be punished!’

The crowd cheered, filling the young woman with confidence.

‘Oh really-ally-ally?’ it sneered, tossing the woman across the news desk and reached, extending its arms with such speed towards Xalia that she found herself held by waist and thigh before she could move. She gripped the limbs and pried, finding little give despite her augmented strength.

She screamed despite herself, the following words trailing into the high pitched exclamation. ‘Let … go … Stop! Let go of me!’

There was a small sea of gasps, accompanied by a rather distinctive: “Drop her you damn ugly clown!”

With suitably unsightly frown, it turned upon the small gathering of people and uttered a wail of challenge so powerful, that the crowd shattered like warming mercury, fleeing as if on a downhill slope. A high pitched laugh rang through her skull, its multi-toned falsetto taunting her as much as threatening a major headache.

‘Helpless, little greenie-eenie-eenie is helpless! At my mercy-ercy-ercy!’

‘That’s what you’d like,’ she snarled hatefully. ‘Hurricane!’

The spinning of wind began, tossing her hair and pulling at the creature, threatening it with untold of violence … until it halted unduly, sputtering like a car on empty. With an unearthly, toothy grin, it locked its metal claw hand around her neck, forming a simple collar. The long limbed clown like creature tore at her bow and the crystal embedded within, shearing away these items easily. Her uniform flickered and disappeared, leaving her dressed in black tights and a loose, short sleeved green top. The small jade stone flipped away with the rending motion and landed on the floor with a glass-like tink.

“Oh damn!” she cried, thrashing against the restraining monster, her ‘ordinary’ strength a far cry from sufficient.

Oh no! Nasura gasped. She’s losing! I haven’t worked through this scenario!

It raised the nullified senshi into the air, draining energy as it did. ‘Sailor Ether – or should this clown say Xalia! – Is lost for good-ood-ood! Never stood a chance-ance-ance!’

‘No …’ she uttered faintly, feeling her strength waning.

How does it know? Nasura wondered, dashing towards the creature and making a leap for its face. With a scowl, it simply swatted her aside, who then aptly landed on her feet.

‘Face it girl-irl-irl, you don’t have the goods!’

It drew her forward, grabbing her right breast and placing an unwelcome kiss upon her lax lips. Struggling nigh uselessly, her mind rang out in scintillating shards of pain as tears formed in her squinted eyes.

Stupid, stupid, stupid, Nasura! You can’t help her as a cat!

‘But then again-ain-ain,’ it taunted, pulling away, ‘there may be hope-ope-ope for you yet …’

‘Drop her!’ declared a voice in unquestionable selfless fear spurred anger.

The clown swiveled about to face a glowing woman adorned in a grey kimono and flaring waist length purple hair. ‘Catch,’ she issued, tossing a silver crystal at the creature, who caught it with a free hand. Suddenly it gave a withered cry as she clenched her hands, from which light flared like the interior of a sun. The crystal in its hand exploded, and as it dropped its prey, it fell forward and turned to dust, scattering on the wind inspired by Xalia’s limited recovery.

‘You know we really hadn’t anticipated this,’ stated a rather calm male baritone, considering the event. ‘Magi do so complicate things.’

‘Akari! Yanei!’ Nasura snapped, whirling upon the semi-transparent pair.

‘Don’t look so bloody shocked, Nasura,” Yanei snarled, stepping forward, hands on her slender hips. “You knew we were behind this. Just hoping we’d forget about your cute senshi? Not when she’s toting power of that kind around!’

‘What do you want?’ she snarled, positioning her hands gracefully so as to summon manna.

‘Isn’t it obvious?’ she replied, then balked thoughtfully. ‘Well, I suppose not. You know, you really are quite pretty. For your age,’ she commented seriously, hands upon her slender hips. ‘No matter. We’ve done our research, channeller. We know you are useless without a portal through which to focus your power.’

‘Is that so,’ she snarled coldly, straightening her posture and reciting a brief spell.

The lovers dropped to their knees as if she had lit a fire in their bellies. Yanei held her eyes with an unfeigned expression of newfound respect while she executed a counter-spell. They recovered, and Yanei gasped thusly: ‘Damn it. It’s not over, witch!’ she issued, their forms slowly washing out of that reality. ‘We will have her, sooner or later, then you will have truly lost.’

Her echoed laugh as they faded away brought a dark unease to Nasura as she touched Xalia’s limp form, waking the pale looking young woman.

‘Nasura, it …’ she curled up against her, weeping quietly.

‘I know. I am sorry,’ she replied sympathetically. What are they playing at? Sexual effrontery was never part of their ploys in past. Who is leading now? It cannot be Beryl.

Gazing up into the sallow sky, she could glean no answer, and knew not how much longer they could last without the Bishojo Sailor Senshi. Hurry Mamoru! The Earth needs the senshi!

[_ _]

@~%~~~

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Chapter 17

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The strong pitch of the wind tossed and pulled at the heavy clothes and coat he wore. He squinted his eyes behind a pair of thick goggles, looking into the distance ahead. That distance held little of interest, as it consisted mostly of white powder, and the light that reflected brightly from it. Save for the existence of a small cave, Mamoru might otherwise have left the life-starved scene.

‘He made it!’ she smiled, kneeling down next to the pool of seeing. She was a long, lithe creature of some slender, childish beauty. She wore a simple dress of pale gold, none to elaborate in style, but well suited to her tall, soft-skinned form. Her ashen red hair flowed to the small of her back, no lower. Flaccid orange eyes gazed into the pool, and then to the focus of her life, her love; Akari.

‘It is as I said it would be, my beloved.’

Akari smiled as Yanei gazed at him. Akari was a tall, barrel-chested humanoid male who prided himself on his supernatural strength, and his capabilities in battle. His blue eyes followed his love as she took a scroll from the shelf near her. He ran a hand through his short green hair, and smoothed out his long dark blue robe, the grin fading from his face.

‘What to you intend to do, my love?’ he asked gently.

Her replied smile was deceptive. ‘He will need further guidance.’ She bowed her head and chanted a few words under her breath. ‘Come Uyline-chan, take the lost one, bring him to us, show him his true destiny.’

As her voice fell silent, a large shadow grew to cover Mamoru’s form.

‘Mamoru-kun!’ Luna cried, noting the snow beast before him, and attempting to warn him of its presence.

‘Silly man-thing,’ the creature observed. ‘Do you really think my masters sent me here to harm you?’ Mamoru dodged the grasping fist that came at him, indicating exactly his thoughts on the matter. The ten foot tall snow woman ‘tsked’ and grabbed him.

‘Come along nicely,’ she said in almost motherly tones. ‘Or I might have to hurt you!’

Mamoru struggled as they approached the cave, certain that the snow beast would throw him over some cliff to his death.

ʻNow wouldn’t that be a silly thing for me to do,’ she chided his thought. ‘I might get in trouble with my masters! I do not think I will do that.’

Mamoru remained silent in mind as word, trying to think as little as possible. The cave carried into darkness, as much in lack of light as sense of evil.

‘Luna! Artemis!’ he called. Both cats struggled to keep up, even though they knew that they were slowly losing him, as well.

‘I think we’re going to be a little late, Luna-chan,’ Artemis panted.

‘Mamoru-kun!’ she cried, as if having not heard him. ‘No!! I won’t lose him too!’ she snarled. ‘C’mon Artemis-kun!’

The snow beast set him down carefully, nearly chilled through to the bone. He shivered violently.

‘Thank you Uyline-chan, that will be all. Why don’t you go and watch out for other lost humans?’ Yanei smiled.

‘To please my masters is my sole desire,’ she bowed, water trickling from her femininely snow bound form, and exited, her feet leaving only a trailing echo.

‘So where is your bravado now, Mamoru-san?’ she started, her face bearing a near-perfect confident white toothed and wicked smile.

‘W-what have y-you d-d-done … uhhh,’ he got to his knees slowly, still shivering.

‘Done … you are in no place to ask questions, failed champion! What do you think? How do you believe your fair Xalia, um, fares?’

Mamoru did not reply. He merely shivered in place, trying to recover some warmth, but not succeeding.

‘Calmly, Yanei-san, calmly,’ Akari urged softly. ‘I think he might be a little …’ he paused, searching for the word, ‘ … cold. Humans tend to suffer from that when without warmth. If you are to question him, then …?’ His hand indicated the cave about them.

Yanei pouted, looking very much the child, and sighed. ‘Hai. If I must,’ she said. She muttered a few more words under her breath and Mamoru finally felt a gentle warmth surround him.

‘I asked you a question! Answer it!’ she demanded, glaring at Mamoru, then glancing at Akari for reassurance. He smiled and nodded. Mamoru struggled to his feet. Numbly, he pulled open his coat, and pulled out what appeared to be a rose of crimson.

Yanei gave a little gasp.

‘I am Tuxedo Kamen,’ he declared weakly. Only moments after this statement, Mamoru’s water soaked clothes were replaced by a complete formal outfit: Tuxedo, cape, cane, hat, and mask, all but the latter black. ‘In my mind there is no question how she fares, but well!’

‘Amusing!’ Akari laughed, standing, sounding impressed. ‘Your faith is quite remarkable, even though you hardly know the child!’

Ah, Akari, Yanei smiled, glad she had coached him on his manner prior to this meeting. His calmness angered the righteous warrior, as she had known it would. You play the King well. Keep to it, and we shall win yet!

Tuxedo Kamen’s expression turned sour. ‘I want to know what you have done with the Sailor Senshi!’

Yanei looked at her love, face placid for a moment. Then she giggled. She glanced at Tuxedo Kamen and smiled.

‘Done? My you are a foolish one, aren’t you? Even for such a beautiful senshi …’

Akari looked irritated as he approached his intended opponent. ‘We have done nothing to your precious girls,’ he snapped, angered by his love’s flirtations. Mamoru ignored Yanei’s attentions, adamant on his answer.

‘You have them!’

Akari took a moment to clear his mind. Yanei, he thought. Please my love, remember the one who cherishes you.

She glared at him, then sighed, frowning prettily. Hai, love, of course. Shall we end this?

Akari nodded. Tuxedo Kamen took a step towards the two, confused by their silence.

‘We have nothing that would interest you here, Earth Guardian,’ Akari stressed softly, walking backward towards Yanei. ‘Perhaps some of these might entertain you.’

With a gesture, four demons swathed in shadow dropped down from the darkness above.

The masked gentleman did not hesitate in his attack, knowing that the demons would not in theirs. Pulling a rose from his coat, he pierced the nearest creature with it, thrown, like a dagger. There was a dry hiss, and the form of the shadow-like beast turned into stale streams of smoke.

Akari chuckled to himself, wondering if he would find a chance to battle the masked one himself. A good battle, as short as it might be, would be a refreshing change.

Approaching his love, the sounds of hand to hand combat clearly audible in the background, he leaned over and kissed her softly. When his lips left hers, she stood, and bid him towards the elaborate thrones of ice they had abandoned in their interest of their opponent.

‘Do you expect him to win, my beloved?’ she asked.

‘Hai. Against the darklings,’ he mused, ‘but not me.’

She blinked and smiled, tossing back a length of hair flirtatiously. ‘Of course not. I have yet to see a human best you in combat.’

He frowned slightly. ‘The potential energy wasted while we bicker over his silly Bishojo Senshi.’

She nodded, empathic in his concern. Yet, something prodded her. ‘My love,’ she began, distracted by the swift, skilled combat. ‘I do not think … that Uraki-sama would have gone to such trouble to remove them from their home dimension if they were merely silly!’

‘Perhaps,’ he frowned thoughtfully, placing a thick hand against his chin. ‘Why did he not just kill them?’

‘There is a good reason. He would have slain them, rather than sending Yalen after them, but there’s more to it …’

‘Hai. He did need the exercise,’ he remarked, glancing at her briefly.

‘Maybe … I’m not sure about this,’ she replied his gaze for a moment, ‘ … but, maybe it’s about breaking them.’

‘Breaking them? I could do that,’ he started with a scowl. ‘Yalen himself broke the blue haired girl, and nearly killed that long haired one.’

‘You mean Ami and Rei? Hai, but they are alive now. No, my beloved, it is, I think, about breaking their will to fight. Our power is of no matter if we do not use it.’

Silence drew a veil over the two. Yanei found herself watching the human, the smoothness and grace of his movements as he struck down the third demon. As the fourth took care to sneak up from behind, the black haired human turned aptly and hit the assailant with what would have otherwise been a winding blow. As it was, he merely knocked the darkling aside, setting up for his next attack. She desired further time to converse with Akari, so she breathed a simple spell, summoning another half-dozen shadowlings.

‘I don’t understand, my love,’ Akari stated plainly, not noticing the additional opponents. Or, simply not caring.

He’s good, she observed, closing her mind from that of her love.

‘Do you remember? We watched Beryl’s senshi continuously fail against them?’

Good enough to best Akari-san? She shook her head. Such foolishness. He is a mortal. No mortal has ever beaten my love.

‘Hai,’ Akari growled. ‘Fools, every one.’

‘It wasn’t entirely their fault. They came so close, and each time the senshi grew in strength.’

‘Hmm, true.’

‘It is their will to survive. Their spirit. No matter how hard they are knocked down, it gives them the strength to get up again.’

Silence overtook them again. She knew Akari was not pleased with her observations, as they interfered with his want to combat the powerful human warrior, and she almost felt badly. Yet, Uraki had encouraged her to analyze the situation. It was her responsibility to see that they did not fail! Moreover, Akari would have plenty of time to challenge the young Xalia.

‘My love, is that why you have instructed our gem-beasts to take sexual advantage of the child as much as possible? I did not understand that, either. She is pretty, perhaps, but I cannot see what is accomplished by molesting her. Moreover, how could she deserve such vile treatment?’

As Yanei gazed at her mate, she both realized, and felt, that he was genuine in his confusion. He did not understand the concept of rape and the demoralizing power it held in battle. She frowned, averted her gaze, grateful she had closed her mind. It was something she indeed understood, and had experienced. Uraki-Ayo had been careful to place her with one who treated her with such support, and gentility, during the period of her physical and emotional recovery. She owed Akari very much, even though he did not realize it, and never may.

‘My love, she does not, of that you may be assured. But Uraki-Ayo wants her out of the way … It would hurt her emotionally Akari-san,’ she stated clinically, removing herself from the fact of the matter. Truth was, the very idea of the action she had taken left her with sallow reflective nightmares of that night. She had prayed forgiveness, and had received guidance to merely let her feelings subside.

Flitting chance of that, she thought bitterly against her rising sense of guilt. I do not hate her, but she is an interference! There is naught I can do!

‘So?’

‘Oh? Ah, um, it is more intimidating to face the fear of rape. Violence is a simple matter one really must only heal from physically. Rape affects the innermost part of one’s personality, and scars. She will be less willing to fight them, making matters far easier for us, my sweet. Even though the none of them actually will force her. It is a mere scare tactic.’

Internally, she shuddered at the mentioning of it, but held her gaze upon Akari, who had such peace in his eyes that she was comforted. His nod was almost a bow, and she accepted it, knowing he was once again paying respect for her intelligence, for which he was greatly in debt. Gradually, her fleeting interest returned to the fighting warrior, as he neared the battle’s termination. Briefly, searching his heart, as only she could, she came to see that it was bound most powerfully to another.

Of course. He loves that moon girl, Tsukino. Even if he was to defeat Akari, I could not have him. He would not love me as Akari does. She closed her eyes. I tire of this. I will help Akari-san to end it.

Abruptly she realized that the battle had ended. The beautiful male human had defeat the darklings, sending them back to their native realm. Home.

‘Now I will challenge him,’ Akari decided, sitting forward.

Yanei put a hand on his arm, halting him. ‘No, my beloved. Why do we not send him to his senshi? We will waste no more time. Perhaps it may break his spirit as well.’

He gazed at her, an uncertainty on his face. Consideration dwelt for some time in the minuscule reaches of his mind.

‘Hai, my love!’ he agreed, a smile creeping across his well muscled face. ‘We will send him to the Earth, to find his senshi, and be lost with them! You are a most worthy woman Yanei,’ Akari offered from the core of his being. ‘Most beautiful, and most loving.’

He stood, kissed her again, lingering a moment, and then approached the edge of the ice platform. Her smile was complete, a fulfilling warmth alighting within her slender frame.

‘Well fought,’ Akari smiled approvingly. ‘Too bad I won’t get to challenge you myself.’

Tuxedo Kamen glared at him icily. ‘Oh really? You afraid of losing to me?’ he snarled with a slight grin.

‘I fear no such thing. What I do have, is a matter of much interest to you, mortal.’ He pointed towards the pool of seeing. Tuxedo Kamen approached the limpid waters warily, unsure of the intent.

‘Mamoru-kun!’ a voice cried.

Tuxedo Kamen turned towards the source of the voice. ‘Luna-chan? Artemis-kun?’

The two small cats stopped as they realized who else was in the room.

‘Akari! Yanei! What have you done!’

Yanei sniffed, indicating her distaste of cats.

‘We are showing your Earth Guardian his senshi.’

Luna thought; She must be lying. How could she know?

‘Don’t think you’re fooling us Yanei!’ The dark blue haired feline growled determinedly.

Artemis whispered to her; ‘look at her, pretty kitty, I don’t think she’s bluffing.’

Luna looked back at him.

‘Do I[_ look_] like I’m bluffing?’ she snarled. Artemis conceded, a stern expression on his face.

‘Foolish mortal. Look to the image, see what it will show you,’ Yanei snapped impatiently.

Mamoru glanced nervously at Luna, who did not appear to even see him, and then at the pool. He was not quite sure what he was seeing. After several moments, he slowly came to recognize a scene. It was a dock. There were … he squinted, eleven girls, only five standing. As he watched them, one of the five in what he recognized to be the uniforms of the Bishojo Sailor Senshi shot the remaining two in skin tight body suits. Mamoru trained his eyes on the pair of blond haired girls, not believing what he saw.

Iye …’ he breathed. Her odango atama – the dumplings of blond strands – hairstyle could not be mistaken. Mamoru did not want to see the hole where her shoulder should be. He did not want to think about the ensuing implications. Facing the possibility of that reality was almost worse than having lost them.

‘Usako!’ he cried, tears rising to his eyes unexpectedly.

‘Mamoru-kun no! It’s a trick!’ Luna implored, quite certain she had lost him already to the image he saw, whatever it was. She studied him. Was he crying? As he watched, the girl wielding the weapon continued firing. In his heart, he knew it was them. His Senshi. His Sailors. They were alive.

‘If you wish to join your beloved, be our guest. All you have to do is touch the pool of seeing,’ Yanei offered, knowing he was sold to her proposition already.

‘Mamoru-kun!’ Luna snapped in a panic, ‘You can’t abandon the mission like this!’

‘I’m supposed to protect the Moon Princess,’ Mamoru said in uneven tones. ‘How can I protect the one I love if I’m not with her?’

Luna looked at Artemis, hoping he had an answer. He did, but it was not one she expected.

‘He can’t go alone, Luna-chan,’ he said coolly.

For the first time in her feline life she did not know what to say. She knew, however, that she had no choice now. If the Moon Princess was alive, she had to be next to her, to guide her, and protect her.

‘Mamoru-kun!’ Luna snapped, frightened and uncertain. ‘We’re coming with you.’

Mamoru nodded, and picked them up in his arms. He gazed solidly at Akari. ‘If this is a trick, demon, I will return and destroy you both.’

Akari was having a hard time not looking smug. In one fell swoop, they had won the battle for the NegaVerse! ‘I assure you, it is no trick.’

Mamoru gave him a hard look, then turned and reached toward the water of the pool. For a moment he felt wetness surround his fingers before the world about him swirled and faded.

He landed on his stomach. The voices were clear to him before he became aware of his location.

‘Die!’

‘Usagi-chan …’

‘No!’

Despite his weariness, he fought his way to his feet. He opened his eyes, his vision blurred and fogged. Slowly, as it came into focus, he saw them. Usagi lay in Mina’s arms, her face bruised and dirty, a dark looking gap in her shoulder the only remnant of her left arm. Mina was in tears, Rei and Ami were hurt, and lay motionless at the edge of the dock. Makoto appeared to be the only one left standing. Mamoru wanted to run to them, to protect them, to fight whatever it was they were up against.

But he could not make himself move. Whether it was shock, fear, or something else, Mamoru could not seem to get his mind to work to figure it out.

‘Mamoru-kun …’ a familiar voice whispered weakly. He looked down. In the place that Luna had fallen, there was a small humanoid woman. She had long black hair, and a long, slender form. Beside her was a white haired man. He had neither clothes nor consciousness. The woman had the latter, but not the former.

‘Luna-chan?’ Mamoru dropped to his knees, confused, angered, and lost. He did not know what to do. Just as his mind began to toss with the revelations brought, an explosion consumed the small dock.

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Chapter 18

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Luna awoke with a start, feeling a hand trace her hip roughly. Shock, fear, and a feeling of loss brought her to panic. She got to her feet quickly, immediately defensive, forcing down the feeling of panic, along with the other emotions swelling inside of her. Slowly, the panic subsided. Her gaze told her this was not home, that Mamoru had accepted Akari and Yanei’s offer, and that her nightmare of the last month was indeed true. It also indicated to her the close proximity of a very well-muscled human.

“So what’s ya gonna do darlin’?” he taunted with a leer. The realization that she was human, and that she was naked, brought the panic back.

That is when she noticed Artemis. He was also unclothed, and apparently unconscious. She felt someone reach up behind her and grab her arms, holding their hands in a lock behind her head, with her arms looped through. The man advanced on her, a dark expression on his face. She gave with a whimper as the man before he drew his hand across her face in a blur.

“Yer gonna take it nice ‘n quiet bitch,” he snarled, undoing his pants. “Y’ make a noise and I’ll cut yer fraggin’ tongue out.”

Luna thrashed and twisted against her captor’s grasp. His thick fist smacked soundly against her cheek, leaving a dark bruise. Then, a second collided with her stomach. Only the man holding kept her from doubling over. He could not, nor cared to restrain the tears that followed.

Time blurred with the violence that followed. Fortunately for Luna, neither man had a taste for violence that did not involve guns. Despite that, she was nearly numb by the time the first entered her. The numbness helped little, for they where as forceful in their act of rape as they had been in beating her. The smattering of violence and evil that took Luna then was a clear personification of the state of the world in which they now existed. What possessed passerbys beyond the depth of the alley to not respond to her screams in violation she could never know. Perhaps it was the fear of greater forces; the Coalition. It was her sense of this beyond the agony of the attack that frightened her the most.

On a conscious level she did not care about that. It was only a calling in the back of her blurred mind. All she registered then, was the attack of the men upon her. Even as the second took his liberties of her, tears came forth as she had never known them to. Emotions struck and crumbled. She pleaded, and was not heard.

Artemis’ green eyes slowly crept open, and with them, a grasp rose to his lips.

‘Luna-chan,’ he muttered. Abruptly aware of his change, he startled at his own voice, his feelings, and his human form. Anger grew so sharply within him that he moved to action before he was aware of it. One of the two saw him move, and struck with a fist, sure that it would knock him back. The white haired man ducked the strike easily, and returned it, with such fury that the man flew against a far wall. He collapsed to the ground unconscious, his chest collapsed. Artemis’ fury only grew. He turned towards Luna’s assailant. The man regarded him, stepping back from the pallid, beaten form of the young woman. Luna dropped the ground like a pile of bricks, emotional agony writhing in the core of her being as tears poured forth.

‘Kaibutsu,’ Artemis snarled in Japanese, vaguely aware that the man only understood his rage. Such was it that he did not bother to translate his words to English. He reached forward and grabbed the scrawny man by the neck, holding him aloft. ‘Bastard!’

“I …” he gagged at Artemis’ iron-like grasp. Though he could barely understand the indiscernible furious natter of the albino’s native tongue, he understood the straining blade of Morcanis. This guy must be one of his!

“I …” he choked and struggled to swallow. “I don’t have …’ he gasped, ‘the money!”

‘Curse you! You … you …’ he stammered angrily, unable to retrieve the words to meet the uncanny rage in his soul. ‘I will kill you!’

Artemis pointed sharply to the bruise marked frame of Luna as he spoke in short, biting lengths, and the man frightened further, paling dramatically.

“Oh man! Hey, I din’ know she was yers! I wouldn’da touched ‘er if I’da known!”

Thoughts flooded through his mind as heated fury threatened to overtake him as it never had before. He should kill this man for raping Luna. Then the rebuttal. Should he? Was it right for him to take his life for hurting her? His emotion cried; hai, his reason spoke; iye. He threw the man towards the other. Artemis paid little attention to either of them, stepping over to the wan form of the scathed young woman. He could not recall seeing her as human before, and it hurt him that he must see her after being violated so. He touched her cheek, feeling the drying tears upon it. As he did, her eyes drifted slowly open. When they focused upon him, she began sobbing again.

‘Artemis-kun, please …!’ she whispered in faint and desperate Japanese, hands held to her face.

He hushed her. ‘They are gone. Do not speak.’

She did not seem to hear him. He grasped her wrists gently, prying them from her face.

‘Luna-chan! Please …! I will not hurt you.’ Still, she did not relent, holding back from him for the desperate passage of several moments. Finally, she reached to him. He took her up against his chest and let her cry. For some time her tears came forth. Artemis held firmly to her, for she seemed to draw on his strength.

A voice behind him spoke clearly in Japanese:

‘I can help you.’

Artemis gazed quickly about, eyes narrowed. He spied a young woman with blue and silver hair. She wore a long dress of blue silk, and watched with calm, warm eyes. Her jade eyes displayed concern, and sympathy. Artemis could sense that she was not of evil intent.

‘Come,’ she continued, ‘I will not harm you.’

‘If I learn you are lying to me …’ Artemis began as he stood slowly.

‘Warning taken,’ she replied. ‘Will you be alright to walk, Luna-chan?’

She regarded the young woman empathetically. Luna shook her head; no. Artemis picked her up in his arms, holding her with the genteel of a father, or a lover. Her eyes formed a question, though she did not speak.

‘Do not worry, just rest. Hai,’ Artemis ordered. He then turned to face the woman with a cold, stagnant expression on his face. ‘How do you know us?’

‘I am very,’ the woman started in reply, ‘observant.’ She glanced about, looking wary. ‘Come, we must hurry. Others will come soon.’

‘If you saw what they did, then why did you not stop them?’ he asked as they began walking. She did not look back to what she knew would be an angry glare.

‘I only arrived at the last moment, and you had subdued them. I am most sorry.’

Saying nothing, he merely gazed at Luna. They walked through the alleyways, avoiding the street. Artemis noticed that any others they encountered gave this strange woman plenty of space, while they grinned and leered at the two who followed. At one point, however, a rough hewn man dressed in denim and leather pulled out a switchblade and strode directly towards her. The woman did not stop. He sneered and blocked her path. Only then did she halt. She raised a hand. There was a flash, and the man stumbled backwards like a handful of filthy rags, falling into a nearby pile of trash, unmoving. Without comment, she bid them proceed.

After a time of silence, Artemis asked, ‘Do you have a name?’

She did not respond immediately.

‘You may call me Katrin.’

The rest of the relatively short distance they covered lacked conversation. There did not seem to be a need for it. Even so, Artemis would not have known what to say to this strange woman.

‘Luna-chan, how are you feeling?’ he asked. If Katrin heard him, he did not care. He was too concerned about Luna. She merely gazed at him, saying nothing. In her face he read fear, pain, and other emotions he knew choked her words. To some extent he could understand; he was having a very difficult time knowing what to say, or how to deal with what had happened. This, he realized, was negligible, when compared to her emotional state. Not that he understood the faintest hint about that. He was not going to pretend he had any idea what she was feeling. As they walked, she clung to him. Artemis was not sure why, again, she did, but was not about to question it. Nor was he about to refuse her.

‘We are here,’ the woman announced softly.

‘Where is here?’ Artemis asked.

‘My shoppe, and your sanctuary, if you care to accept it.’

Artemis nodded reluctantly. What choice was there, after all?

 

ʻSo what brings you to England, Artemis-san?’ Katrin asked, handing him a drink. Luna had refused the offer of food, saying she was not hungry. They were both dressed in loose fitting shirts, pants, and robes of cotton. Luna in pale yellow, and Artemis in light blue.

Artemis looked somewhat offended. ‘England?’ he replied with undisguised shock. ‘We are from Tokyo.’

Katrin merely shrugged. Artemis shook his head. Additional confusion, just what he wanted.

‘A pair of demons from the NegaVerse,’ he told her. Whether or not she reacted to him, in surprise, or disbelief, Artemis was not sure. He did know, however, that she was listening. ‘But that doesn’t matter. We need to find a friend.’

Katrin gazed at the sleeping form of Luna. ‘She needs help,’ she said softly. ‘Medical attention, at the very least.’

‘I can help her. Mamoru can help her.’

‘Mamoru? Who is that?’ she asked. Artemis described him, not mentioning the part of Tuxedo Kamen. ‘Is he a doctor? What does he know about your situation?’

‘Nothing, Katrin-sama, but it is all we have to go on.’

She nodded. ‘You are new to this world, then.’

‘I … Hai. But this can’t be … our time,’ he agreed.

She arched a slight eyebrow. ‘It matters?’

‘I do not … no, but I must have some sense of things. For her,’ he stated, gazing – a wash of anger and pain touching him – at Luna’s pale form.

‘These are not gentle times for strangers. Tourists are well armed,’ Katrin observed. Her eyes followed his gaze. ‘She will survive, but not without you.’

Artemis looked at her, a painfully frustrated expression that indicated he was at a complete loss. All he had was Luna. The former, however, he discovered he really was not interested in. So Katrin could read his mind. That did not bother him. His helplessness in dealing with Luna, on the other hand, troubled him deeply.

‘Is there somewhere I can sleep?’ he asked, getting to his feet wearily. Katrin pointed to an adjacent room.

‘That sofa will open into a bed. I will help you with it. Artemis-san,’ she said, ‘You are both safe now. In the morning, I will have someone attend to her.’

‘Your generosity is welcome,’ Artemis agreed, though not sure he trusted her definition of ‘safe.’ He walked over to Luna, and stopped before waking her. She looked so calm, at peace. Awake, she seemed vague, and afraid. He found he could not gather the nerve to rouse her. He glanced back at Katrin. ‘After that, we will leave.’

The woman said nothing, she only nodded.

 

@~%~~~

 

The morning came, and the parting soon after. Luna had suffered no more than bruising, and some minor scarring. She had been, after all, a virgin no more than minutes into her newly metamorphosed form. She refused the offer of breakfast, insisting that she was not hungry, again. Artemis spoke once, but kept his remaining unvoiced concerns thereafter, while he ate. They had been provided with the most basic of necessities for survival in this world. Some of these items included garlic, wooden steaks, and mallets. The remaining two items they were told were given for as much use with their tents as a way to destroy vampires.

Not that there were many vampires in the British Isles, Katrin elaborated. Artemis had feigned indifference. In truth, the blatant unknowns of this world frightened him. He was finding it difficult to adjust to the lack of a basic knowledge of the world around them.

They had been walking around in New Camelot for some hours, and were surprised to learn of the existence of one King Arr’thuu, and others who appeared to be the Knights of the Round Table. Artemis puzzled at the use of new technology in an Age of Knights, and further still at what that technology was. Luna expressed little interest in any of it, speaking only when addressed, and sometimes not even then.

As they walked through the Open Market, one sun warmed day, she asked a question that startled him. “Have I troubled you greatly?” in heavily accented English, and at that particular moment, her voice was even, and somewhat unemotional.

Artemis did not know what to say, so he said this: “I care about you.”

“Then I have.”

From her tone, Artemis was sure that she was quite serious in her words. He was entirely lost in how to respond. Luna gazed at him for a few moments, then returned to her wistful calmness.

It had only been two days, but Artemis was slowly becoming frustrated with his inability to wrest some sense of control over their situation. There was little point in talking to Luna. She offered the least of assistance. Everything was a source of trouble, or rather, unrest, for him. Whether it was Luna, Katrin, Mamoru, or the senshi, Artemis did not have any answers. Luna was an emotional wreck, he was sure, and the only way he knew to help her was to find some point of familiarity; the senshi, and Mamoru. That led to his other problem. He did not know where they were, or even if they were still alive. Katrin might be able to help. She had offered her assistance, and that of her husband, Randy. However, Artemis found himself still unable to trust her, despite her apparent warmth and unmasked anxiousness in providing what they needed most; sanctuary. It was partially related to frustration he felt at not being able to protect her himself. Beyond that, Mamoru was just as lost as the others, so that avenue led to as much an unknown street as the rest.

Another day passed. No rumors about anyone who sounded like the senshi. Artemis resorted to menial labor to provide for their limited financial needs, while he struggled with the idea of going back and taking Katrin up on her offer of sanctuary and assistance. They could certainly do worse, he hoped. Luna just nodded when he mentioned this to her. She offered little or no argument with what Artemis provided for her.

She did not seem to care anymore.

 

@~%~~~

 

The day was musky, warm, and a constantly soft breeze kept the weather from being unbearable. They had been walking most of the day, as Artemis had only reached his decision roughly a pair of hours ago. At that point, they were still a fair distance away from Katrin’s shoppe. They were in the outskirts of New Camelot, and Artemis took scant notice of others. One of the few he noticed, however, he felt misgivings about. As usual, he did not consult Luna.

Best not to let her be troubled by my apprehensions, he decided. Artemis had first perceived this man when they had been in the Open Market. He had been mulling about a fisher’s stand, across from them, buying assorted supplies. One of which he noted, was a rather sizable fishing net.

Artemis had first become aware of the stalking when they had stopped to buy lunch. Luna had started eating again, after almost two days, and Artemis had only been too eager to provide. He recognized the dark silk robe from earlier, his hood, and the distinct markings on the sleeves, and neck of his apparel. Luna had not seemed to notice. He guessed she had been too preoccupied with her food. Artemis hardly argued. It was the most she had eaten in days.

Artemis was somehow struck by the idea that this man wanted him to know that they were being followed. Why? He certainly was not playing possum anymore, so there was hardly any question. In frustration, Artemis grabbed Luna’s arm and pulled them into an alley.

“Why did you do that?” Luna asked.

Artemis was glad to hear her voice again, even if she did sound insecure. “I’m pretty sure we’re being followed.”

“You mean the man in the black robe?” she replied. “I know.”

Artemis looked surprised. Luna gazed at him, but remained silent.

“Bloody well took ya long enough aye,” commented a voice with a light celtic accent.

Artemis’ form blurred as he turned on one foot. Directly in front of him stood a man, roughly five feet in height, with black hair and brown eyes. He looked like a hawk waiting for his kill. Without thinking, Artemis reached for him. The man dodged easily, as if expecting the grasp.

“Not smart,” the man stated, drawing his hand out of his robe, and pressing it to the white haired man’s side. Artemis gasped and fell to the ground, still, as if frozen. Luna cried out, and tried to dodge the forthcoming attack. With a groan, she crumbled to the earthy floor.

The man sighed. “Mind ya, it’s not as though you got a’ choice …”

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Chapter 19

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What happened? he asked himself, regrettably with no answer. Reality blurred into a vague sense of focus. He felt nothing but a dull pain in his ribs. Gradually memory flooded back like the insistent wash of greyish surf. Luna was depressed. They were both lost. He had decided to take them to Katrin, who might be able to help them locate the Sailor Senshi. They had been on their way there when he had realized they were being followed …

“Well, good ya finally joined us, aye?” a voice said calmly. Artemis tried to shake the darkness from his mind. The fog persisted, keeping him from thinking clearly. “Blimey, that was a disappointin’ fight. Next toim, if wanna win, you gotta play smart.”

Though, something in the assurance of his voice told Artemis that this man was used to winning. He sounded comfortable in the knowledge of it. Sluggishly, Artemis became aware of his predicament, and the fact that he was alone.

“Luna-chan …” he mumbled faintly, sitting up in the cage.

The man chuckled. “Yeah, you got’t. She’s yea,” he paused, “mo’ivation. Me’n my huntas ‘r track ‘er down, ‘n you too. Issa game y’see. O’ever lives, wins. Real plain, see.”

‘I will kill you if you’ve hurt her!’ Artemis snarled.

‘Do itashimashite Artemis,’ he replied casually in shoddy Japanese. “Mind ya, that’s all I know. But … y’see, that part’a why ya here. We don’ get game from Japan, ehm, ‘specially Mind Mel’as.” His pause caused a faint intolerant glare to settle on the war scattered features of the man’s pockmarked face.

Artemis’ green eyes followed the man as he approached a pair of grand doors.

“Let’s maike no mistaike, this ain’ fair. Wouldn’ be no fun that waiy. Though, ehm, you do staind a great chance’a winnin’ hea. So, ehm, good luk.” Before passed through the doors, he added: “Eoh. You go’ exactly …” he tapped a wristwatch raised to his lowered gaze, “ …one minute t’ ge’ out’a thea befo’ it crushes yea.”

The great oak doors closed, and silence suddenly became quite overwhelming. He fell into a trance, knowing the only way out was to risk teleportation. He knew he could get himself killed, teleporting without a preset destination, but he did not have any other alternative. Luna’s life was at stake. Letting his mind focus onto the trace of Luna’s aura felt, while the energy coalesced within him, he prayed he had enough time.

He felt the cool musky air of the outside world around him. He opened his eyes. A forest? Perhaps he had a chance after all.

Now, he thought, to focus on Luna. Where are you my love?

He had been running for what felt like hours, with no favourable results. His powers helped little, he discovered. Jumping was no good. A short leap had revealed him to one hunter who had seemed to be quite the marksman. Limping made already cumbersome two-legged travel even more so. He almost hated being human. As a cat, he would have had no trouble negotiating the hundreds of slightly unearthed roots. On the other hand, being human had a number of advantages. The most obvious of which to him at that point were combat abilities. He doubted he would have been able to defeat that hunter in his feline form, or wear his armor.

He held the hunter’s energy weapon, not knowing how to use it, other than by relying on the obvious method; pulling the rather self-apparent trigger. Better to risk not being able to use the weapon to full effectiveness rather than being unarmed.

His enhanced strength – by which he was most satisfactorily impressed – had proved to be worthless as well. What good were a few uprooted trees? The trees proved to be little help in anything but hiding. There were plenty of them, but nowhere to go. Artemis was quickly becoming annoyed by the presence of trees. He hobbled onward, still reaching out for Luna’s psychic presence.

She felt him. He was nearby. She struggled to her feet, cursing at the pains which wracked her body. There was a guttural growl.

“Don’t move,” a slightly muffled voice commanded. Luna felt a very primal anger rise within her. Her mind began to clear. The frustration and pain fled as she thought of Artemis, as she realized the nature of the creature standing in her way.

She hissed, “I will move if I want to.” Her blue eyes narrowed, her hackles risen. “Get out of my way!”

The dog-faced humanoid regarded the woman warily, teeth bared. “No.”

She paused for a moment. “What did you just say?”

“No!” There was an undeniable nervousness in the creature’s voice. For a moment the young woman did not know what to do. She reeled slightly, an unreasoning fear gripping her. She cried out angrily at this.

Enough! her mind screamed. I will not be a … “victim any longer!”

The hound faced male took several steps back at her outcry.

“Stupid dog! Don’t you talk to me that way!” she snapped harshly, neither impressed nor intimidated.

“I’m sorry! Don’t hurt me!” the dog boy replied fearfully. “Master just told me to watch you!” He raised his gauntleted hands protectively.

Luna’s voice was quiet when she spoke. “That’s better. He did? Well …” she hesitated. “You can watch me if you want to. I’m going to find Artemis.” She turned away from the dog.

He walked around to stand in front of her. “I’m not supposed to let you do that.”

She snarled at him potently, her entire sore body tensing.

He recoiled with a high pitched breath. “I’m sorry! But I don’t want Master to get mad at me!” He backed away from her, indicating that he clearly did.

She started to leave, then something occurred to her. “Give me your knife,” she ordered, palm open.

He faltered.

“Now!” Abruptly the weapon moved from his scabbard to her hand. She smiled falsely. “Good boy.”

He simply looked scared. She turned around and followed the sense of Artemis. The humanoid dog did indeed follow her, evidently trying to keep to his master’s orders. Luna barely noticed him. She was too preoccupied with the fading psionic trace of Artemis. She wanted to run, but knew she was in no shape to do it. Cavell had not been terribly gentle in his explanations. She shut her mind from that, doing her best not to recall the unpleasant experience.

Eventually, her mind wandered back to the presence of the strange dog creature. He stood tall like a human, but was built much like a dog. His haunches kept him from standing completely upright. His body was completely fur-covered, as far as Luna cared to discern. She dwelt on him. He was nice, basically. He was merely trying to obey his master. What was wrong with that? Everything, as she saw it. His master wanted to keep her from Artemis. Luna was not about to put up with it. It was a good thing the dog was a basset hound. With any other breed she might have had trouble.

“Do you have a name?”

He glanced at her, not quite sure how to respond. “Thomas,” he replied uneasily. She nodded and smiled.

“Thomas. I’m not going to hurt you. You’re a good boy, Thomas. It’s alright.” He appeared to be pleased by this resolution. It was clear to her that Thomas did not desire to hurt anyone. He only wanted to please whomever he was with.

“Is your master nice to you?” she asked, genuinely curious.

Reluctantly, he replied, “I-i guess.”

Her eyebrows knitted. “You mean you’re not sure?”

“Sometimes Master hits me … but he says it’s because I’m bad.” His ears drooped slightly. “If I wasn’t bad he wouldn’t have to hit me.”

Luna suddenly felt badly for him. He mistreated Thomas like he had her. “Why does he say you’re bad?”

He was reluctant again. “He wants me to hurt humans, and other dees. I don’t want to. When I don’t obey he …”

“Dees?”

“Like you. Dimenson … um, diamon …” he stumbled over a few variants of the word before Luna stopped him.

“You mean ‘dimension,’ right? Dimensional beings?”

He nodded. “Dees, and humans.”

“All of them?” she inquired, prodding gently.

“No. Just the ones he doesn’t like.”

She started to ask him another question.

“Wait,” he said, ears perking slightly. “I hear something.”

She cursed her human hearing as her eyes searched about. It was Artemis, he was close … so close. A figure in what appeared to be body armor jumped out from a thick of brush to their right. In one hand it awkwardly held what seemed to be a futuristic style rifle as it limped slightly towards them. Thomas growled menacingly, and stepped up in front of Luna, who balked, confused and panicked.

“Luna …?” The voice was unsteady, tired and rough. Luna’s eyes widened, and Thomas’ growl deepened.

“Thomas … it’s alright,” she issued faintly as she ran up to Artemis, emotions alight within, making her eyes burn with tears. Slipping off his helmet, he accepted her to his arms, like a blessing. Empathically, Luna whispered; “Ssh.”

Thomas paced as the two embraced, unsure of what to do with himself.

“Luna?” he asked uncertainly. She looked at him, her head on Artemis’ padded shoulder.

“The other hunters might come. Master will come for sure!”

Luna and Artemis broke their embrace, hands remaining joined. “Why?”

Thomas did not answer, looking somewhat sheepish.

Tell me,” she said firmly.

“You’re not dead.”

Luna bowed her head. “Why can’t he just leave us alone?” Her voice was hushed and weak.

Artemis took her shoulders in his hands. “We will find a way out of here, Luna-chan. I refuse to give up.” He looked at the dog boy. “Do you know of something that can get us off this island?”

Thomas spent a few moments in obvious consideration. “Master has a whirly-chopter at the house.”

Artemis nodded. “A helicopter. Good.” He looked at Luna, finding her head still bowed. He took her chin in his hands. Hesitantly, her eyes met his in gaze.

“We’ve made it this far. Luna-chan … are you with me?”

She swallowed, then nodded. ‘Hai, Artemis-sa … Artemis.’

“We will survive this,” he proclaimed. For several moments his gaze set in hers. “For the princess.”

“Let’s go, Artemis,” Luna said in hushed tones.

The trek to the castle was surprisingly short. Artemis surmised that he must have been traveling in circles. Perhaps the island was not as big as he had thought. Only two problems, rather, hunters, presented themselves. Artemis and Thomas handled the first with little trouble. Superhuman strength apparently overwhelmed the endurance of body armor in rather short order.

Luna stayed out of the way on both occasions, avoiding battle. Artemis refused to let himself worry about it. His solitary concern was her safety. If she did not want to fight, he was not going to argue. After the third obstacle finally fell, they entered the chamber which Thomas indicated led to the helicopter. Inside, they found a silver encrusted throne, the back of which displayed a poetically beautiful serpentine dragon. The dragon was also reflected on the great wall behind the throne, carved strenuously in black marble. The work would have brought awe to the onlookers, who barely noticed the magnificent work for the man below it.

“Well, I say, didn’t ‘xactly expect this,” said Cavell calmly, “but, ehm, I’m very impressed, yea. Ownly one go’ this far. Mind ya, she din’ win ‘ither.”

He turned on the raised steps of the throne, and walked off to one side, towards a delicately detailed collection of runes embedded in a square section of wall, like a three-dimensional painting.

“So I stuck ‘er in thea.”

Eternal entrapment! He is lying! Luna rasped in thought. Impossible!

Even as these thoughts surfaced, she felt a presence within the intricate red-grey stones. Fear, hatred, and pain caused her to reel, and tears to well in the back of her eyes.

“No!” she whispered. “You bastard …” she stepped back into Artemis’ arms, and fought her tears.

“You,” Cavell snapped, pointing towards the suddenly scared dog boy. “Not impressed. No. You screwed up, ‘n betraiyed me. For tha’, I cast ya outta ‘m pack.”

Thomas looked already crushed. “Master … no …”

“Yea! I trusted you! Wuha’ I get? Betrayul!” He looked fiercely angry. “No toleraten’ tha’.”

Thomas stepped back, emotionally torn. “You don’t mean that.”

“The ‘ell I don’!”

Thomas turned away, but refused to leave. Cavell turned his attention back to the now sobbing Luna, and savage looking Artemis. “Y’know, this ain’ been worth i’. I’ll hava kill you, jus’ t’ braike even.”

“Break even?!” Luna broke free abruptly from Artemis’ warm hold. The intensity in her voice startled both the white and black haired men alike. It was the only thing they would ever share, aside from their humanity. Cavell snatched his energy pistol from the holster on his leg and pointed it at her.

“You took someone veiry dear to mie. I loved ‘im loike a son.”

Luna’s anger boiled. “You believe that? Have you seen the way he trembles when yelled at? How he whimpers when he speaks of you?” She felt every muscle in her body tense. Only once before had she ever felt so strongly for anyone. It was that person she missed more than her innocence.

“It’s ova fo’ ya,” a hiss trailed behind her words as they ended, burning in his ears. “An you cain’ stop mie!”

He raised the weapon. Abruptly the seemingly listless Thomas moved with a speed Luna had not thought possible. He jumped at his former master, death in his eyes. Cavell pulled the trigger desperately as Thomas dug his claws into his throat, tearing it out. He gurgled, and died in a crimson splash. Thomas gave with a canine whimper and collapsed to the ground, unmoving.

“Thomas!” she cried as she bolted to Thomas.

“Why did you defend me? No one ever did that before,” he uttered faintly as she cradled his head in her lap.

Artemis moved up beside them as they spoke.

“You remind me of a friend I care a great deal about,” she said softly, in calm, mother-like tone.

“Luna …”

“I feel tired,” Thomas muttered, the stain of crimson trailing over his arm and stomach. “I’m sorry Luna.”

“No … it’s okay. Don’t.”

ʻLuna-chan, let me see him, please?’ Artemis requested gently. Luna nodded, and moved aside as Artemis attempted to gauge the damage done. A grave expression rested firmly upon his face as he stood from the limp creature.

“Artemis-san …?” Luna pleaded.

“I don’t know. It looks bad,” he said. “We need to get him back to Katrin, fast …”

Several hours later, they were aboard the helicopter. Luna’s tears had dried. Thomas rest on a stretcher, holding his bandaged stomach, while a well set white cloth held his shoulder. After a great matter of fuddling with the controls, Artemis and Luna discovered both a manual (a miracle, to be sure), and a marked map indicating a path to the British Isles. Collaboration with Thomas (who had learned to read maps as part of a hunting game of Cavell’s invention) gave Artemis the necessary information to make the trip.

“Luna, did that man do anything do you?” Artemis asked tentatively. “How did you know about Thomas?”

She was silent, eyes intent, locked upon the shallow breathing of her newfound friend. “Luna?”

ʻHai?’ She was still caught in the grip of grief. It amazed her to feel so much for someone she had known for a very brief amount of time. Perhaps it was because she identified with him so strongly. He had been abused, and so had she.

“How did you know?”

“He did the same to me,” Luna stated evenly. The loss of control still scared her, but she felt that she was starting to come to terms with it. She had Artemis. Thomas, until their meeting, really had no one.

Artemis found himself lost for words again, and thus breathed a frustrated sigh. “I feel bloody useless.”

“That’s not true! I wouldn’t be alive now if not for you.”

“Do you think they would have …”

She cut him off with a gesture. “That’s not what I meant. You’ve been here for me. Even when I wouldn’t eat, or speak. You … haven’t left me alone, Artemis-san.” She stood up and walked up behind the pilot’s seat. “I’ve learned … I … I don’t ever want to be alone again.”

Artemis smiled. “Are you sure, Luna-san?”

“I’m sure,” she smiled, wrapping her arms around his neck gently and kissing his forehead.

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Chapter 20

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For well over a thousand years, the incredible example of nature buttressed free society like a fortress, it’s sheer size and total of inhabitants in the the very equal of major Coalition cities. Namely, Chi Town. Chi Town was another battlement, the capital of Coalition society. Unlike Chi Town, this miracle of nature displayed no fear of the unknown environment about it. The hugely intricate form displayed only beauty, and strength. Mile long branches held massive baubles, homes for the many kind and welcome healers, warriors of good, and other champions of the future. What kind of mage could ignore the plainly sentient and highly magical nature of the tree?

One young healer could not. It was the way of her life. To change, or forsake the gift of the tree would be to sacrifice her own existence. At this point, however, she was considering a sacrifice of another kind entirely. Why did Jenra trouble her like this? In the time she knew it would take her to reach her destination, she knew that a wounded man or woman could die, if the wound was bad enough. The thought of using her power came forth with a great measure of unease.

Catch a good look ‘round, she thought. Even though she did not fear being ostracized, as she was well aware that the millennium tree would not allow such a thing, she did not want to jeopardize the normality of her life. The respect – the nigh worship – she knew her kind were always given was not something she desired.

She scrambled up the seamless steps of wood. The walls kept a similar appearance, round, like the inside of a tube, as if grown that way. That much was true.

No, she decided, I won’t make light – she chuckled – of my powers. She aptly evaded others in her haste, knowing she could not spare any time. Pushing aside a curtain as she entered the spherical alcove, she halted, catching her breath as she regarded a middle aged woman with brown hair and a knowing smile.

“What took you s’ long Demelza?” the grey-robed woman asked, belaying a smirk.

She bowed slightly. “I am sorry MasterHealer, but I was so far away …”

Finally, her resolve failed her. Her green eyes lit with warm humor.

“I am glad you did not give into an act of ill caution, shining one.”

The young woman sighed as she turned towards what appeared to be an adolescent male. “Who is he?” She ran her hands over him in assessment.

“He is called ‘Mamoru’ by friends. He does not have any relatives here,” the MasterHealer noted almost indifferently.

Demelza heard those words fade into a dark silence as her trance set in, clearing all emotions and thoughts from her mind. A white field was all she conceived, letting his presence indicate what damage had been done. She did not even act in thought to search for pain, for it made itself quite evident to her.

“ ʻTis internal,” she noted calmly, nigh emotionless. “He is bleeding gravely. He’s got broken ribs, a punctured lung, an’ he will die anon.” Her eyes snapped open abruptly. “Jenra, why did j’ye not tend ‘im?” She sounded more puzzled than angry, hesitant to question the motives of her mentor.

“You know very well that your talent exceeds mine,” Jenra replied calmly. Regarding her student with a stern look, she added: “Besides, I exhausted myself saving the life of that foolish prince.”

If those words sparked any reaction within her, she forced it down. It had to wait, for his life was quite literally in her hands. She cleared her mind again, observing the white veil in the core of her consciousness. She reached out, hands already lying on his chest, where the pain resided. In her mind she saw, as much as felt, the weak pumping of blood through his veins. He was not fighting. A despondency gripped him so tightly that he refused to give any effort for his survival.

Who are you? his weary mind asked.

I am trying to save your life.

Don’t bother.

An’ why not lad? What puts you in such a dark emotional place?

You’ve lost someone close to ye.

Hai …

I canna see that you’ve lost all hope for ‘er

What of your circumstance? Sure it isn’t so hopeless as all tha’.

I was so close … just to lose her again!

You love her, aye?

Hai!

I can see y’ve been though worse. What is different now, lad?

We are alone, and on a strange world. How can I …

An’ what makes ya think that y’are really so alone? What would y’ say if I told you I would help?

What can I do?

Start fighting, dark eyes.

Minutes passed in seconds, reality blurred into emotions. When Mamoru opened his eyes, he felt the tears in them. Demelza sighed and fell forward on him.

‘Nani …?’ Mamoru gasped.

Demelza forced her eyes open, and dragged herself to her feet. “You’re alive lad,” she muttered. “See? There be hope, if ya jus’ be willin’ t’look.”

Mamoru was stunned into silence as he recognized her voice. ‘Domo,’ he murmured. ‘Domo arigatao Dem-chan.’

“Please, Mamoru, in English, if ye don’t mind, aye? My Japanese is very weak.”

He nodded.

“Ah, so sorry.” Gradually, the events already past flooded his mind. He groaned and closed his eyes, emotional pain welling inside him. Demelza closed her eyes in unison, as if reacting to his pain.

“Demelza, close your mind, will you dearest?” Jenra chided in motherly tones. “You have helped him. He must find a measure of his own strength with which to fight.”

She smiled faintly and nodded. “Sometimes I forget.”

Jenra gazed at her steadily, a smirk painted on her face.

“Okay, so I ne’er remember,” she sighed, rolling her eyes.

“Dem-chan?” asked a faint male voice. The light brown haired girl turned towards the source. She knelt beside his bed, and bid him lie down as she ‘sshed’ him softly.

“Yes Mamoru?”

His eyes trembled. Demelza knew that his heart did also; she had felt the striking of his emotions. “Will you help me?”

Jenra looked curious. Demelza looked startled, and gravely uncertain. Knowing what he asked of her, it was almost entirely too much for her to bear. She knew his pain, and sympathized with the core of her heart. How could she refuse, having assisted him in finding a will to live? She turned away for a moment, her unsettled gaze cast at Jenra, who got to her feet as the implications became clear to her.

“Demelza, you can’t,” she began, knowing it was a fight already lost. As a psychic herself, she knew that what Demelza felt could not be ignored; she knew the psionic nature of the persuasion.

Demelza said nothing. Her face settled to a concentrated look, which she kept as she turned towards Mamoru again.

“There’s only s’much a young lass like m’self can do Mamoru,” she said, her voice testimony to her decision. Her voice also betrayed the concern, and sympathy to Jenra, who did not appear shocked, or surprised, in the least. Mamoru smiled faintly, and closed his eyes, falling asleep moments later. With an emotionally heavy sigh, Demelza sat down beside her mentor, her eyes downcast.

“She is very far from here. You realize that, don’t you?” Jenra noted quietly.

Demelza merely nodded. “Aye, but he needs m’help,” she admonished. “It’s this stuff, Jenra, that makes me wish I was somethin’ else entirely.”

“It is what you are, you cannot escape that,” Jenra said, gazing at the young woman. “Besides; you are young yet. Understanding comes with experience.”

“An’ I suppose experience comes with age?” Demelza finished.

“My heavens no! Whatever makes you think that?” her elder replied rather sharply, yet calmly. Demelza looked startled. “I have known many who know very little about life, yet a great deal about age. Experience makes the difference of perception, of understanding.”

“It’d be a lie t’ say I understood ye, mentor.”

A wafting silence punctuated Jenra’s following comment. “You do like him, don’t you?”

“What?” She felt her face redden. “I …”

“You would have to, to want to go through so much trouble for him.” A knowing smile drifted across her face. “Oh don’t blush so, Demelza. Why be embarrassed about being attracted to him? Were I ten years younger …” she gazed at the sleeping form of Mamoru.

“Mentor!” Demelza gasped, aghast.

“You suppose because I’m married I can’t recognize masculine beauty when I see it? Though really dear one, you know me better than that,” she smirked. “He is very handsome, though. This girl,” she paused, as if in thought, “Usagi … She must be a very happy girl.”

“She is,” Demelza stated with a trace of despondency. “Or was … he worries so for ‘er now.”

Jenra got to her feet, plainly careful of her back, and stood before Demelza. She put her hands to the young woman’s forearms.

“Trust in the good of this world, young one.”

When their eyes met, Jenra could plainly see that it was not the good that she trusted. She wrapped her arms about Demelza, who trembled in silence. The peacefully silent respite of the omnipresent millennium tree offered what comfort it could.

Time, Demelza was sure, was dawdling. Was it her dwelling on Mamoru that caused this? The young black haired Japanese man slept nigh constantly over the following several weeks. She knew it made sense, but she so wanted to talk to him, to come to know him better. Feeling the strength of the love he held for Usagi was toxic. She wished she could share it, or be his focus. It was selfish, but she had never known such love. Most of the young men she had relationships with regarded themselves as being “unworthy” somehow.

She truly began to wonder if what she was feeling for him was true. It was plain to her that it was merely superficial, but the emotions had been so potent that she had a difficult time being anything but envious of their intensity.

Demelza watched him heal much faster than any other human she had seen in a long while. The fact that he healed so quickly did not surprise her; psychics, and other mystics healed just as, if not faster than he. What surprised her was that she had not sensed any innate psionic ability within him. For what she had read of him while in his mind, he was without any superhuman abilities.

Finally, his restlessness founded his interest in leaving. He did not seem too make any note, or even recognize that anything had transpired between them. It was as if she had never been in his mind. Demelza realized that it would be irrational to feel slighted, but could not help her response. She refused to talk to him at length, though his concern eventually caused her to falter her anger. Friendship seemed to be an obvious close second to his love, which she knew she could not win.

Though the occasional irrational argument out of sheer frustration regarding this point could not be halted. As time passed, Jenra saw that he could not be held. She also saw that her student would fall into depression, and worse, if she delayed her any further. They decided to make a trek to New Camelot. It was not very far away, and it was the most likely source of rumors, and assistance.

Demelza had heard little from those who visited the Millennium Tree, and those she tended. What she had heard, complied with the information Mamoru had given her. He had described a young man and woman, pale-skinned, and stressed on their foreign appearance. Some told her that there had been a number of murders, and a few deaths of various women which matched the description of Luna. Mamoru refused to face the possibility that Luna might be dead. Instead, he followed the more likely (favorable) prospect: A man and woman had been noted wandering about the Open Market. How were they distinguished? Few humans had such psionic power. They had been suspected to be a pair of European Mind Melters.

The next question: How did they get from Europe to England? Few speculated. The fact of the matter was, Mamoru did not care. Even though the idea of their being psychics did not quite fit, it made relatively little difference in the light that they were human, instead of feline.

He did, after all, clearly recall the difference in their appearances just after arriving here, before their separation.

Jenra saw them off with a blessing, and a prayer. For as short as the trek was to be, the dangers along the way could see their deaths, or worse.

 

@~%~~~

 

“By th’ Generous Soul of th’ Tree,” Demelza said, sounding as stricken as she looked. She held her ankle as she sat there, her back to an ancient tree, watching in astonishment, and horror, as Mamoru challenged the Splugorth to battle.

She could not understand why he was reacting so strongly. The Splugorth had not actually hurt her. Not directly, at least. Sure she had walked into a trap and broken her ankle. Escaping could have been as simple as changing to light. Of course, she had not been able to do that, unfortunately. Not in front of Mamoru. He, however, had jumped up – much to her surprise – the ten feet to cut her down, then hopped back down with her in his arms. The Splugorth had then decided to reveal himself. He struck Mamoru from behind, knocking him to the cool earth, and sending Demelza with him. It was at that point that the Japanese youth issued his guttural wailing of challenge.

As Mamoru approached the creature, his robed form began to change. Demelza gasped, watching as his clothes stretched and tore against his abruptly earth toned skin. He appeared to become a statue, his normally attractive facial features dulled and blurred by the roughly unchiseled stone that either covered or became him. Even she was unsure of which. His voice deepened in a cry of rage. There was a flurry of motion and noise as nearby animals bolted, squawking and chirping, as if feeling the anger of this being.

“An Earth Child – - – !?” She cursed her own inability, wincing sharply. The earthen creature formerly known as Mamoru ignored her, and took a slow, heavy swing at the Slaver with a fist. The Slaver blocked aptly with an arm, then struck Mamoru, sending him flying back into a tree, causing it to tear free from the earth.

The Slaver turned to Demelza, who seemed stunned. He leveled a small energy pistol at her, and fired. A scream of pain echoed, spurring Mamoru to his feet.

“Mamoru help me!!” Demelza cried frantically, pain distorting her sense of panic into the beginnings of hysteria. Her screams continued, for a moment, then ceased as the shock overwhelmed her. Mamoru’s eyes fell upon the young woman who helped him. His eyes and heart betrayed him, at first. She did not look hurt, as there was no blood. The second glance told the truth. The absence of her lower right leg sent Mamoru into a rage which would not see an end until either the Slaver, or he, was dead.

The Slaver laughed. Mamoru’s thick fist traveled through the air again, evenly, to catch the snake-like creature by the jaw, sending it flying backward. The Slaver lay stunned for a time. Mamoru stomped up to the creature in a cold fury. His foot raised, then there was a sound like the cracking of dry wood.

Just as quickly as the transformation had occurred, it reversed, leaving a very unbelieving half-clad Mamoru standing before the still reptilian form of the Slaver.

A dark nagging took him; “Demelza!” He turned, and ran to her unconscious form.

“So sorry, Dem-chan!’ I never meant for anything to happen to you …” He uttered a dry curse. Without thought, he laid his hands on her, and closed his eyes. After a few moments of silence, her eyes began to flutter open.

“Mamoru …?” she muttered, gazing upwards at him.

“I’m here, Dem-chan.”

Realization slowly set in. Her eyes flew from the missing part of her leg, to the still body of the Slaver.

“By the Tree. Mamoru … You killed the bugger,” she half whispered in astonishment, and skepticism.

“Yes,” he nodded firmly. “I had no choice. How far are we from Camelot?”

“A day an’ night,” she replied, not quite trusting the implications of the question. “Why ask?”

He took her up in his arms. “That’s all I need to know Demelza. Thank you.”

“Mamoru!” she started, surprised, and concerned. “If we’re going … best we tarry not! But … are ye sure ‘bout our safety, nonetheless?”

He frowned, knowing what she said was true. Then his face set. “There’s another way.”

All it took was a gesture of mind to let his senshi transformation consume him. In a matter of moments, his torn robe was replaced by the formal outfit of Tuxedo Kamen. With her in his arms, not waiting to elaborate for Demelza’s startled gasp, he jumped up into a high limb of a tree.

The thick tangle of trees had given over to hills and plains fairly quickly. Demelza indicated that it was due to their proximity to New Camelot. As the silence grew between them, she felt it become increasingly uncomfortable, as if it was driving a wedge between them. Aside from the fact that he had saved her life, she did not want to make things any more awkward than they already were. The fact that he was an Earth child disturbed her as much as it surprised her. He had not asked any questions about it. Apparently he wanted to avoid the subject of the terrible transformation as much as she did. Jenra had taught her that such things could not be ignored. Such power would surely lead to trouble if disregarded.

Further, there was the matter of his summoning formal clothing and cape, and the fact that he was able to leap significant distances with what seemed no more than a shrug’s effort. Yet, somehow this really didn’t worry her. From having been in his mind, there was the vague sense that he was a protector of women, including his lost love, and it was, if anything, comforting. So, on to question the most piquant concern …

“I shoulda known! Have ye always been a Child of Earth, Mamoru?” The question, she realized, was pure foolishness. The fact of the matter was one was born that way: With the ability to draw from the power of the earth, or the sun as she could. It was no different for Star Children. The powers themselves manifested at a young age, and the clan was usually filled with many of the Earth or Star Child’s’ kind.

“What? Earth Child?” He looked puzzled. “Demelza, what … oh.”

She groaned as a dull pain washed over her. “Y-yes. How long?”

He gazed at her steadily, worry creasing his brow. “Are you alright?”

“I-i …” she gasped in a quick rush of air involuntarily. She began trembling in his arms, eyes closed, voice still.

“Dem-chan!” Mamoru cried, his eyes narrowing. Touching her forehead revealed that she was burning up with fever. He doubled his pace, desperation spurring him on. Fortunately, Camelot was only an hours’ distance away. Mamoru reached the gates of the sprawling city heaving air through the dry passage of his throat. He was stopped by a pair of guards adorned in knight-style armor.

“Is there a problem?” one of them asked.

“She’s very ill!” Mamoru panted, almost dropping to one knee in his own weakness.

“Thom!” the fellow hollered. A short fellow, wearing the clothes of a squire approached the knight.

“Yes Sir!” the young man snapped obediently.

“Escort this man to the nearest healer, lad, on the double!”

“Yes Sir!” He turned to Mamoru, his twentyish features studying him for a moment. “Give ‘er to me. You look almost to the point of collapse yourself, man.”

Mamoru relented the pallid and still trembling form of Demelza. The young man took her, and started off, hardly waiting for Mamoru to catch his wind.

They had not taken long. Apparently the squire knew the area well. He was able to conduct them to a place called ‘Hysian’s Healings’ in a matter of minutes. The place smelled strongly of herbs and other plants. Mamoru felt lost again, his hope hanging on a thin silvery line.

“Hysian!” Thom called, setting Demelza down on a table in the middle of the room. “Where ‘re ya! I’ve got an ill lass here!”

He paced about, hands on hips, the expression on his face seeming quite expectant of this behavior. He threw Mamoru an exasperated glance, his arms akimbo.

“I know!” a high-strung voice said. A woman of a very fitting form to the voice appeared from behind a congregation of tall vines.

“Oh my! Demelza!” Her smile faded to a concentrated frown as she regarded the haggard looking young woman. “Come come, I won’t bite. I’m not that strung out.”

Mamoru tried to suppress his surprise as he approached her. “Thank you Thom. You’d best get back to Terin. He’ll be waiting,” she said absently as she ran her hands gently over Demelza.

“Yes Healer,” he said with a half-bow at the waist, and left.

Hysian sighed. “He’ll not make much of a Knight if he continues to be so submissive. Oh well. Now,” her green eyed gaze gripped Mamoru’s stony expression. She resisted an urge to sigh. “Well, are you going to tell me what happened or just stand there and look stoned?”

Mamoru blinked. ‘Gomen nasai.’

“Japanese, eh? Hm … ‘Well, young thing, how did it happen that Dem-chan lost a part of her leg?’ “ A certain smile followed her inquiry in his native language.

ʻWe were attacked by a strange creature on our way from the Millennium Tree that Dem-chan lives in.’

‘I see,’ she replied. ‘What did it look like?’

‘It was like a man-sized lizard, but it had armour on it. Instead of eyes, it had a band of metal. It had no legs, just a long tail.’

‘Splugorth, then. How unpleasant for you.’ Then she quirked an eyebrow. ‘How did you come to defeat the thing? And what is your name?’

Mamoru’s gaze dropped. ‘That is not something I wish to discuss. It’s, uh, Mamoru.’

‘If you wish, Mamoru,’ she smiled faintly, consideration abound. ‘Then tell me how she was wounded.’

Mamoru suppressed a shudder of rage. ‘She was first caught by a trap. A rope caught her leg and pulled her up into a tree. I think it broke her leg.’

‘Not that it matters now,’ Hysian muttered. She glanced up at him. ‘Go on.’

‘I killed it. That’s, uh, all.’

Hysian’s eyes wandered to the vine swathed ceiling of the small herbalist shop as she ‘hummed’ thoughtfully. ‘There is more you aren’t telling me, my boy, but we shall discuss it later. At any rate, she’s quite ill. A contact poison on the rope would explain this. She will be alright though. I’ve dealt with worse.’ She put a hand on her forehead. Demelza’s eyes wandered slowly open.

“Eat this,” Hysian commanded softly, presenting a small leaf to her lips. As if in a trance, Demelza obeyed, not seeming to react to her surroundings. Mamoru started to ask a question, but Hysian raised a finger to her lips, indicating he should remain silent.

“Now rest,” she said, removing her hand, and letting the young woman’s eyes drift closed. ‘Mamo-chan, she was as much in a trance as you thought. She will be recovering from this for many days. I merely gave her that to settle the fever. I still must prepare a tea to cull the poison.’ She glanced at him. ‘There is another matter here, however. She will need a prosthetic. I must leave to discuss that with a friend. You will watch her while I am gone, hai?’

‘Of course. I don’t know, senpai, about the prosthetic.’

‘You don’t have to. The decision is not yours.’ She turned, and headed towards the entrance of the shop. ‘There is a chair next to you. Use it. If she begins shaking again, I will be in the shop right across from this one. Come and get me without hesitation.’

‘Hai, Hysian-san.’

 

@~%~~~

 

Randy’s face lit up.

“Mamoru, as in Mamoru Chiba?”

Hysian nodded her brown haired head. “He’s over there, watching over the girl who saved his life.”

“As long as he’s alive, that’s all that matters. I’m going to have a talk with him.”

“What about Demelza?”

Randy paused, then shrugged. “It would be best to leave the operation until she’s recovered.”

Hysian nodded; that made sense.

“How long?”

“A week.”

Randy nodded, “Fine, fine. Why don’t you ask him to come over here.”

She sighed, and nodded, leaving the shoppe.

Mamoru was still somewhat stunned by the request.

“I could use your combat talents,” Randy stated firmly.

“How do you know who I am?”

“We know a great deal about who’s responsible for bringing you here. We also know about your Bishojo Sailor Senshi. Right now we’re doing our best to rescue them.”

Mamoru’s heart leapt in his chest. “Usako!” he blurted. “Where is she!”

Randy shook his head.

“We don’t know. She’s still missing. The last we heard, it was possible she’s somewhere in North America. Pretty vague, I know, but it’s better than nothing.”

Mamoru looked puzzled. “There’s still a lot you haven’t told me.”

“So you accept?”

Mamoru nodded firmly.

“Good. Then perhaps now would be a good time to bring Luna and Artemis into this …” Randy added with a pleasant smile. Mamoru’s expression of surprise was superseded only by the gladness in his heart.

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Chapter 21

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Oh hell! he thought, scrambling away as the shimmering sliver of light slammed through the hood and into the engine of his beaten ’87 Civic.

Oh damn, was hers, diving down and scooping the gangly fellow in her arms by his shoulders, and drawing him into the night darkened air.

‘Holy …’

Shortly thereafter there was a hiss and a sudden burst of heat and light from the frame of the vehicle which lifted with the force of the blast. A concussion wave hurled the pair to the ground like wind-tossed butterflies. The young man groaned, and rolled over, eyes wide.

‘My car!’

‘You’re welcome,’ she sighed with a huff, pulling herself up on the indented side rail as she flexed her great grey wings tiredly. He gazed at her, the very fact of her existence still banging its head against the door of his consciousness. Part of his stunned look stemmed from the destruction of his well favoured car.

‘Geez, uh, yeah,’ replied he. ‘Thanks.’

‘Okay!’ she bellowed, favouring her right leg slightly as she stepped forward. ‘Come and … huh?’

Her bright green eyes darted about the devoid scene, the wreckage burning rather happily against the sidewalk edged tree endowed park. Opposite this was an undeveloped sand dune of weed smattered land.

He swore. ‘It’s gone.’

‘No, look,’ she pointed, finger aimed at the lively flaming husk of metal. Upon it was strewn the blackening, broken corpse of the excessively limbed aggressor.

‘Gross,’ he grimaced. She shrugged nonchalantly.

‘I’m not complaining. That,’ she cursed with harsh intensity, ‘… well nevermind. Thanks. You good?’

‘Oh, great, not counting my fried junker.’

‘I’m sorry,’ she started plaintively. ‘Uhm …’

‘Naw, it was goin’ on me anyway,’ he offered, gazing at her steadily. ‘Just an excuse to pick up another one.’

As her eyes rose, settling upon him, his flicked away.

‘Oh.’

‘Hey – it is “Sailor Ether” – right?’

She nodded, biting her faintly painted, thin lip.

‘You okay? The way it grabbed …’

‘No,’ she interrupted him, turning away, arms folded protectively about her torso. ‘I’m fine.’ Silence, during which she gave him a sidelong glance with visible recently buried pain. ‘You, uh, have a nice life, okay?’

‘Yeah, sure,’ he muttered, watching her lithe figure disappear into the distance. She’s got problems.

His dark high top shoes carried him along at a glum, sullen pace until, Phatefully enough, company of the familiar sort purred to a halt aside him.

‘Hey Roger! Need a lift?’

He peered into the yellow Austin Mini, then nodded.

‘Hey Mr. Goodwill,’ Roger grinned, tugging the thin door open, and clapping it shut behind him as he hunched into the passenger side of the little car.

‘I see you’re missing the Civic? Going for a late walk?’

‘Yeah, right, at two o’clock in the morning? Fat chance wise guy,’ he replied with a visitation of ire. ‘How about we go get a drink? I’m going to tell you something that’s going to blow your mind.’

‘You saw a girl flitting by in the night sky.’

‘More than that. Come on already! Let’s go!’ he snapped impatiently.

‘What crawled up your ass and died?’ he retorted, the engine buzzing loudly, accelerating with several jerking shifts of gear. The dark haired young man stared out of the window angrily, saying nothing. Within minutes they were scooting along an apartment littered urban back road.

‘Bobby Sox?’

‘If it’s quiet,’ Roger muttered tersely.

‘What? You’re muttering.’

The dark clothed young man cursed.

‘Fine, let’s go,’ he snarled faintly.

‘What happened?’ the short haired young man studied him for a moment, before casting his eyes to the road as they rounded a corner.

‘I saw Sailor Ether,’ he admitted, his face relaxing slightly, tension yet abundant in his being. ‘She frickin’ saved my life, Troy.’

He pulled the British mini-miracle into a space for which it was much too small, and turned it off, hands tapping the steering wheel as he considered this. It was too outlandish, even for Roger, to be a lie. Not that he was inclined to such falsities. Roger had been carefully keeping him informed regarding the situation of the Bishoujo Sailor Senshi. Their previous disappearance, and the replacement who, first thought to be Sailor V, had proclaimed herself to be “Sailor Ether”, the defender of Tokyo. Further, she had proven herself by protecting civilians from the ascending rate of demon attacks since the vacancy of the Sailor Senshi.

The door popped open with a metallic click, and before closing it again, he gestured for Roger to lock his as well. They hopped over several protrusions of displaced curb, and blatantly ignored the sign of the small 60s Diner. Troy stilted into the building as Roger held open the thick, glass panel door, and sauntered on in after him. Taking their usual cherry red corner seat and casting glances at the classic prints of unshakable cool of James Dean, then Elvis the man of dangerous gyrations, and Marilyn Monroe in all of her sundry beauty, they tensely grasped their brightly colored menus.

‘Hungry?’ Roger asked softly.

‘Yes, I just got off work.’

‘Oh,’ he half-murmured as he folded and set down his menu. As Troy laid his atop the first, a girl who might have otherwise shined for the years of tarnish upon her attractiveness approached with pad in hand and pretty smile upon face.

‘So do you know what you want?’ she chimed, pen in hand jotting at the pre-fabricated order form.

‘Sure,’ Roger responded congenially with a smile. ‘Fries and a Sprite.’

‘You know drinks are only bottomless with a dinner, okay?’

He nodded, after which she faced Troy, who’s fingers rapped the grey speckled table top distractedly.

‘Yoo-hoo,’ she prodded, bringing his wandering eyes to her face.

‘Sorry. I’ll have a chicken burger.’

‘Salad or fries? Something to drink maybe?’ she queried, eyes orienting upon him with a furrow of doubt.

‘Salad, and a Sprite, too,’ he added morosely.

‘Ranch, Italian, or Thousand Island?’

‘Ranch.’

‘I’ll be back in a minute with your drinks,’ she indicated as she turned away.

‘Oh good, I like drinks. Handy things when your thirsty, I’ve found,’ Roger commented with a smirk.

‘Yeah,’ she agreed with a giggle, disappearing around the corner into the kitchen.

‘So when did this happen?’ Troy requested after a time.

‘Maybe ten minutes before you picked me up.’

Silence.

‘Okay, I’ll tell you from the beginning.’

An affirmative nod, if not somewhat ire driven.

‘You remember I told you about how this winged girl has been fighting off demons locally.’

‘Not local bums? I’ve had a couple really get in my face lately.’

‘Isn’t that the way you like it?’ he grinned with the vocal jab.

‘Just because you don’t get any action doesn’t mean you have to get jealous,’ he snapped, his face echoing facial adornment and voice in tone. Roger laughed.

‘Anyway, like I said, I saw her tonight. She was fighting off this clown, you know, like the ones on stilts in the circus?’

He nodded briefly.

‘It was just a bit down 210th from the school. She was doing pretty well too …’

‘You stopped and watched?’ Troy blurted, unbelieving.

‘Yes. I drove up against the curb near the old school, and just kinda sat there for a while …’ his voice tapered off as a red plastic basket of wedge-style fries appeared before him. Two clear plastic cups followed, guided by a long fingered hand. A straw in each cup hung dangerously over the edge, suspended by the brisk carbonation of the drink within.

‘Thanks,’ Roger smiled simply. Hers was accompanied by a spoken indication that Troy’s dinner would arrive shortly. Her black jeaned, white bloused figure signalled the continuation of explanation as she departed. Roger grabbed a fry and bit down, finding it to be reasonably crunchy, yet soft under the skin.

‘Drove up? Where’s your car then?’ Troy asked, eyebrows knitting as he squeezed some ketchup onto a portion of the fries, after which point he grasped one between a pair of fingers.

‘I’ll get to that. Anyway, I don’t know how, but it cancelled one of her attacks. Nothing else after that seemed to work.’ His eyes narrowed in consideration as he forgot his food for a moment. ‘It grabbed in her a hold … uh, I mean … took …’

‘I know what you mean.’

‘Yeah. Anyway, it held her … in a very sexual way, like …’ as it had before, the stark unpleasantness reformed in his gut, and he swallowed. His eyes fell upon his late snack, and he grabbed another.

Troy said nothing, just gazed at him.

‘Like it was going to…’ he shut his eyes, pulling his oval, thin rimmed glasses from his face and rubbing his eyes. ‘It almost was … until I came around the corner and floored it. I guess it’s just that Knight in Shining Armour complex I’ve always had.’ Wide eyed, he set those brown and white orbs upon his friend of many years. Roger found himself chuckling faintly. ‘I never made it though. It saw me and dropped her. It all happened so fast …’ the young man paused as the waitress neared them, and set down Troy’s pleasant smelling dinner. The recipient swallowed and attacked it.

‘Go on.’

The short haired young man sighed. ‘Well, I jumped out, for starters, and the Civic just sailed towards it. You know how the pedal catches, right?’

Troy nodded sympathetically.

‘Well you know, it’s not hard to fix … you just kick it to the left … but I didn’t. The stupid thing saved our asses. So, uh, I jumped out, and it kept going. By the time I rolled to a stop, I saw it, and then she picked me up, and tried to get us both out of range before it blew.’

‘Looks like you survived,’ commented a throaty, dry female voice. Their eyes reached up and locked upon the amazing figure of the young woman smiling at them, her dark purple hair styled in a somewhat familiar paired pigtail manner which twigged a hint in Roger’s attentive mind. One which he failed to notice on a conscious level due to her very presence.

‘Yeah,’ he nearly stammered. ‘Uh, do I know you? Or do you …?’

She shook her head mildly with a smile. ‘No, I just overheard you talking about Sailor Ether,’ she replied, flicking her hand through her hair flirtatiously. ‘Was she okay?’ Mutely, and dumbly, they both nodded. ‘Good,’ she sighed. ‘It’s getting too scary to walk alone at night. I don’t know what Tokyo would do without her.’

‘I didn’t get your name …?’

‘Hai,’ she bowed her head slightly. ‘Jisura. And yours?’

‘He’s Troy, and I’m Roger,’ he smiled, bowing his head deeply. ‘Nice to meet you. Really.’

‘I’m sure it is. Good night Roger and Troy,’ she smirked, bowing slightly at the waist as she turned away and exited the diner.

Roger faced his companion of many years for a moment with a look of pure distaste upon his face.

‘ “I’m sure it is?” Gorgeous girl, but her nose is so high she must be breathing ozone,’ he remarked, his eyes and head turning to watch her cross the empty street unaccompanied.

‘Her eyes weren’t brown, were they?’ Troy asked.

‘No. But I swear they should be, ‘cause I think you’re right,’ Roger agreed. ‘Bloody full of it.’

As their conversation dwelt upon the strangeness of her interaction, and then trailed on to other matters, the well formed young woman strode confidently along a solitary highway, ignoring the occasional hoot and holler over the boldness of her mode of dress, and the body it concealed. She stepped swiftly, her wide hips swaying minimally towards and through several obstacles, only one of which attempted to pose any threat.

‘Hey sexy,’ muttered a staggering thickly built male, eyeing her ‘assets’ with alcohol inspired confidence. His similarly statured pal swung his arm in an arc, hand open as such as to receive a grasp of female flesh. Contact was never made, as the arm was snapped back with ten times the force it had been propelled forward.

The scream of the muscular man echoed in the empty parking lot aside them as he crouched forward in searing agony, his arm twisted and hanging loosely at his side, snapped in several places. The curse of the first followed, his eyes locked on the woman who had fallen in a martial stance of obvious self defence, a cruel snarl upon her lovely visage.

The first turned and ran for his life, tripping and stumbling as he did, while the other followed, staggering and wheezing as he ran. Muttering angrily to herself as she continued at a comfortable pace, she eventually came to the edge of a collection of high rise buildings. Without a glance at her black short skirted hips, she clenched her right hand, from which a black sphere of light snapped. The grip of her hand loosened, suggesting that she was clenching something in her purple nailed hand.

As her grip loosened further, allowing the crystal freedom from its hold, the hand assumed a paleness, then a formative transparency, which increased to the point that by the time the crystal penetrated the grassy earth, her form no longer occupied its given space.

[* *]

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Chapter 22

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It reminded her of home, in a dark, beggar ridden, alley corner turned home kind of way. Inescapable, the proliferation of people in the cement-walled landscape. Wandering brought her nowhere, as she had no idea as to her location in the first place. What it did offer, was fear, the awareness that she was being watched, and followed. Their often tattered red jackets made them stand out, even in the corners of her vision. She counted roughly six of them now. She wanted to bolt, but she knew that would only draw trouble nearer, sooner.

Losing her arm was turning out to be the least of it in the light of being stalked so. Reality seemed so much more harsh that even losing Mamoru. Perhaps she would be better off not having anything at all. All that much less to lose, right?

“Hey, d’ya know yer cruisin’ through Scavrick turf chickie?” came a voice, and the grip of a rough hand on her upper right arm. The hand wrenched her around and abruptly she stared into a pair of large dark eyes, tasting the bad breath that came forth from the unwashed and unshaven face before her.

“Let me go!” she snapped, tearing easily loose from his strong grip. He growled at the insubordination, and swung an open palm at her. She ducked easily, and struck him in the crotch. He doubled over, making a strange gurgling noise.

‘So sorry,’ she said with a mocking sneer. A fist collided with her head from behind, knocking her forward into a pile of trash.

“Gugh,” she spat, wincing.

“C’mon bitch,” said a voice, accompanied by a hand which grabbed her shoulders, and pulled her up. “If ya wanna hang inna turf o’ the Scavs, then ya gotta pay da price.” His free hand tore at her already slightly torn sailor uniform, revealing the naked skin beneath.

“No!” Usagi cried, striking him with her right arm. He fell backwards as if struck by a sledge hammer, his nose smashed against his face like a burst liquid-filled balloon, blood pouring down eagerly from it.

“Help!” she screamed. Someone help me!

A laser blast caught an approaching thug, angered by the death of his friend, incinerating his skull in a yellow flash of light. The body dropped forward, landing on Usagi, eliciting a drawn out scream from her.

“Leave the lady be, trash-n-wasters! Gots damn!” demanded a small, yet not ineffectual, tenor. The dozen other Scavricks fled, with the death of their leader, and the presence of higher technology. The few had maybe two handguns on them, and were no match against the energy weapon the man wielded.

“Fallen on people like theys yo family o’ somethin’. Practic uncivil! Hey now … ugh,” grunted the stranger, shoving the heavy corpse off of Usagi. Those same hands offered her a heavy overcoat. Tears streaming down her cheeks, she accepted the offering. “That’s a girl now. Cover y’self up.”

“Thuh-thank you.”

The small man brown haired man shrugged. “Slap me ‘n call me a red faced bum. Ain’t ya cute. Oh. Uh, I’m Garen. I guess yer a citizen, eh? Where’s yer pr’tection?”

She did not respond. Garen looked down at the dirt caked brick floor behind heavy sunglasses.

“No? Huh, okay. Let’s go while you’re not yellin’.”

Usagi sniffed, getting to her feet slowly, gripping the coat tightly. “Where? Why?” she asked, looking and sounding stunned.

Garen stopped, surprised by her question. “Cause it’s easier to run when they can’t hear ya?”

She stared at him blankly.

He swore. “Oh c’mon! Wassit now? Talk!”

Suddenly fearful, she cried, backing away; “Just leave me alone!” She then turned and bolted.

“Damnit. Stupid girl,” Garen cursed. “Stupid Garen! I mean me! Stupid, stupid, [_stupid. _]Didn’t even intraduce m’self!” He then followed her. “Realty class idjit is me!”

Usagi was not thinking. Why run from the man who had saved her? That had not even occurred to her. Fear, however, had. Her leggy, overcoat clad form sped quickly through the downsider section of Coalition society. Her hair spilled out behind her, mussed and tangled, odango atama undone, causing the golden blond lengths to flow as a tangled mess.

Garen dashed some distance behind her, her fear driven destination caused him to almost stop in place. They were cause enough for him to almost forget her entirely. The new style was strange; Garen couldn’t help admiring the sleek look of the white skull motifs and bone-like lines which followed the curves of the midnight toned armor. That, and interest, kept him watching.

“Whoa, whoa girl,” said a black armoured figure as she ran blindly into him. “Where do you think you’re going?”

She stumbled backwards, eyes opening, glancing at her obstruction. Somehow the skull motif of the old style armor did not scare her. Perhaps it was the long lived fear of further abuse still holding her that kept her calm.

“Um, I d-don’t know …” she half muttered, tears still tracing lines down her face.

“Okay psychic. Calm down. What’s your name?”

“Tsukino Usagi,” she started. Then; “huh? I’m not …”

“Wait,” the first reached forward, grabbing her with a black gauntleted hand. The other pushed aside the short mess of bangs which hung over her forehead. The spiked helmeted man scrutinized her for a moment. “She’s not marked.”

She broke free easily and broke away. “What? Marked?”

The first grunt turned to the second. “She’s not registered, then,” she heard the second mutter. “Better take it slow. Probably a D-Bee.”

“Registered? What …?” Fear forced her to turn, and start into a run.

“Ah damn! Don’t run!”

“You have too much patience. Gres, grab her!” A humanoid figure appeared, grabbed her shoulders, and held her.

“No! Leave me alone!!” she yelped.

“They gots her, gots damn!” Garen whispered as he ducked low behind the mess of garbage and makeshift box homes. Of all my bad luck, he sighed. At best, he was outnumbered. Two to one. Not counting the Dog Boys, which makes it six t’ one. Gunna be stitches for me if’n I don’t get vaped.

His first shot caught the Dog Boy holding Usagi in the head, killing it instantly. His second shot nicked the grunt at the shoulder, bringing his attention to Garen. The Psi-Net grunt issued orders for his Dog Boys to attack, just before Garen’s third shot hit his helmet, leaving a faint scorch mark.

“ ‘Ey! Run!” Garen shouted with a pair of mutant dogs on her heels. Taking a few wild, pot shots as he ran into a sewer grate, not bothering to close it behind him he hoped he had judged Usagi’s running speed properly, along with her direction. If he timed it correctly, he would pop up right in front of them. If not, he would have some more running to do.

As it turned out, what he failed to take into account was his own speed. He turned up ten feet behind them. Fortunately, his energy pistol had a more considerable range. He fired off a few shots, killing the first, and getting the attention of the second, which turned, ran, and leapt at him. The Dog Boy caught him, knocking him over and sending his pistol flying from his hand.

“Blasted gots damn!”

Usagi turned around, hearing the voice of the man who had saved her. At first she thought to ask why he had followed her, but then it occurred to her that she would not get any answers out of him dead.

“Moon Crystal Power – Make Up!” came her voice. It had not actually occurred to her that she might not be able to turn into Sailor Moon without the ginzuishou, but as colored energy flared about her, the silver crystal appeared. Both Dog Boy and garish rouge stopped wrestling as the flashy transformation took her, replacing the overcoat with her Sailor uniform, and putting a golden tiara in her self-enmeshed hair.

“Moon Tiara Action!” she called, taking the tiara awkwardly in her left hand instead of the missing right, at which point it turned into a nimbus of yellow energy. Intent more than muscle memory sent the sliver of energy toward the Dog Boy, who yelped as it struck him, knocking him from her waylaid savior. Garen scrambled up to the literally transformed young girl, cast an appreciative gaze over her, smiled, then gestured for them to run.

“How’d ya do that?” he asked as they ran for their lives. “You some suprahero or somethin’?”

“Supahiro? Um, I’m Sailor Moon,” she said, as if that explained everything.

Consideration washed visibly over his face. “Uh, you’re some kind of warrior … I guess, right? Or, I dunno … a Mage?”

‘What? Um, no. Garen-san does not understand? Ah … er … um …’

“Wassat you keep sayin’? Nani … uh … waka-wuka-sasu … uh … What is that? Some kinda differen’ language er somethin’?”

“Oh,” she half-frowned. “I’m Japanese.”

“‘S okay. I really don’ care. I just like to know what my friends ‘er sayin’.”

“Friend?” her depression-shaded face lightened somewhat. “Um, thank you. Hey … I don’t even know your name!”

“It’s Garen Hel’.” He threw a long glance behind him. “An’ yer Tsukino Usagi, right? Uh, Usagi Tsukino, that’d be here, I mean. Sorry ‘bout not sayin’ so before, but names er blasted important.”

“Uhn … um, I guess,” she started, then paused. “Um, hai.”

“Hai is ‘yes’, right?”

“Sure,” she replied seriously.

“I think we can stop runnin’ now. They ain’t followin’ us no more.” They slowed, and stopped. “There I got thinkin’ you were some Citizen, but no ways if they chasin’ ya. I knows its ain’t me they chasin’. Guess we stickin’ togetha.” She looked puzzled. Garen shook his head. “You don’t mind, ey? Once a foots in the mud gotta get it out! Hm … Uh, I guess I shoulda asked how long ya bin’ here, first, but go figure I don’ think of it!”

“Uh, I don’t know … everything is strange,” her voice trailed off, and she shuddered. “I just thought maybe … this was a safe place to be.”

“Neh, not with the Coalition.”

“Those guys in the black armour?”

Garen nodded. “Yeah, dem freaks what figger dey can keep us low lifers down. ‘Cept they doin’ a fine job, eh?” The solemnness drew her face into a shadow again. “So, why is y’ here, anyway? I mean, the ‘burbs is a pretty crappy place for a chick so nice lookin’ as you.”

“Thanks,” she blushed, half-smiling. “Why did you save me, anyway?”

“Dunno. Just did. Never did like bad odds.”

“Oh. Then, thank you. Again.”

He peered at her. “Ah huh. Nevah mind all the thanks and thanks, okay? Gettin’ kinda weird.”

“As you say.” Forgiving his continuously lousy grammar, she asked: “So what do I do now? You’re the only one I know now … I just … um …” she felt herself nearing tears again.

They had passed into a small run down open market of sorts. Garen glanced around. His eyes passed over a tall fellow armoured in dull grey steel with black hair, strange looking face, and a sword on his belt. His eyes moved on. They settled on a man in a workers suit. He stepped up gingerly behind the fellow, and seemingly without effort, relieved him of a straining coin purse.

The man continued chatting with his buddy idly. As Garen approached Usagi, he noted the shocked look on her face. He merely stated; “We make us a livin’.”

 

@~%~~~

 

Days and weeks interwove into an entanglement for which Usagi discovered she had no stomach and precious little skill. Thievery was no more desirable than the housework Garen casually neglected. The overbearing, kind-hearted man provided sanctuary that entombed Usagi’s hopes of repayment in a whirlwind of frustration and bitter sadness. Garen continued his daily habits and labours while she partook of food and sleep in gradually smaller portions.

One morning she did not get up. Garen, never one to neglect work, had just completed a job of many thousand credits and wanted to celebrate with Usagi. In what passed for her bedroom, a closet with a gaudy patterned sheet for privacy, he knelt at her side and pressed almost bony shoulder. The golden blond opened her eyes weakly.

Gots damn, he thought. Sickly, scary sickly! “Heya cutie … when’ja last eat?” She glanced at him, face pale and thin, eyes uncaring and cold. “Nop,” he grunted. “Nothin’ doin’. Ain’t gonna lose ya. Come eat.”

She said nothing, her gaze turning away from him. He gave a sigh and sat down on the bed beside her. He knew pain and regret when he saw it. “Neva bothered ya ‘bout ya friends. Ya recovered well ‘nough wit that arm. Thought it was okay. You ain’t though.” Usagi groaned. “Din’t even wonder, did ya? Garen left ya be t’ get yer rage up. To decide t’ fight. But ya ain’t doin’ that. Why?”

No answer.

“Ya gotta talk t’ someperson. Maybe anyone but me? That sucks if its trust, if its me,” he paused, the expression of his face soft. “I like ya well ‘nough t’ be my sister if its not gonna hurt?”

“Humph,” she replied. He offered her a drink, and while she drank, he said, “Bros don’t let sistahs lie an’ jes hurt. Ya, ya, stop lookin’ at me like that, like all I got is stealin’ and lyin’ in me. I gots a Ma what taught me right.” A gentle smirk crossed over his hard little face. “First off, I’m gonna talk yer ear off ‘til ya say somethin’. Don’t care what. If ya tell me a bit ‘bout ya pretty self I’ll lay off for a while an’ leave ya be. Like tell me if ya hairs are all been blond since ya were born?”

She nodded reluctantly, trying to sit up. Garen placed a hand on her shoulder and assisted her. He handed her the drink, which she accepted, and sipped at.

“Gonna say?”

She coughed and laughed, then cleared her throat. “Um, of course. I’m missing my friends. Somewhere there are four girls … all lost and …” Her heart sank and her words followed. She looked up again and concluded, “I don’t know.”

“Yeh?” he scratched the back of his head, “Good then. Lemme do ya one better.”

“Good then? What’s that mean?”

He gawked, shut his mouth and grinned, comprehending. “If yo gonna win a fight ya gotta take a hit, ‘r chance it. H’rm, like knowin’ the field yer gonna run ‘fore ya run it. Makin’ a start?”

His quirk was showing and a hint of a smile touched one corner of her lips. She asked, “One what?”

“Jes listen to me. A buddy o’ mine. We calls ‘im Randy. If you got four friends – I don’t know anyone got four friends – then,” he made a gesture for her to remain silent, “If yer the chick. He said blond hair, but not done up, like all that. Gots damn its pretty.”

“Uhm, thanks? Um,” she squinted, eyes cast to the ceiling of the small bedroom. “Dumpling head, I guess, in English … er, well …”

Garen laughed loudly.

“Dumpling Head! That’s glass!” He slapped his knee and continued laughing. Usagi started to look somewhat disgruntled.

“Hey …”

Garen tried to pull himself together. “Sorry Usagi, but it wus too funny.”

“No, I think I understand … Thanks Garen.”

“N’prob,” he nodded. “So … check me gettin’ all dis’racted. About yer friends. Randy wants ta meet ya. If ya thinks that’s fine, ey? He says he knows somethin’ ‘bout yo other friend, right?” He shrugged. “ ʻCept it’s up t’ you.”

“Do you trust him?”

Garen’s face hardened seriously. “He’s … A man … or whatever … good’n‘truth as ever I met. He ain’ got no dirt on him, and cutie, I know a lotta frickin’ dirt. The Black Market hates ‘im. Dat’s my playbook, yeh.”

Usagi studied the little man, and began to open her mouth to speak, but he interrupted: “So, is ya hungry? Gots damn ya get any skinnier gonna fit you inna jet filter!”

She pouted and crossed her arms over her chest.

“What’d I? Ah scrap, Usagi I din’ mean …” He frowned then shook it off. “You wanna meet those friends, ey? Well get yer strength up or ya nevah will.”

“I know, it’s just … you sound like my Mama” -san, she thought, but didn’t say it. The appellation wrenched an unnameable fibre in her soul.

“Yeah, Mamas said I’d do it sometime’r other. I likes ya well ‘nough ya don’t gotta be lonesome.” He grinned, “Besides, it’ll be a coupl’a days befo’ I can arrange a meetin’ wit’ Randy … so that gives ya time ta get better. Right? C’mon.”

“I guess.” She grinned, then – with a wink – said; ‘Baka.’

“No more’n you … Bakayaro!” he replied, mangling the Japanese accents badly.

‘So desu ka? Tsuyaku ga imasu ka?’ she laughed, continuing the joke with: ‘Baka no sugoi. Gi, baka-goofball Gi!’ she chanted, running down the short hall.

“Gots damn I need that translator implant,” he groaned, and proceeded slowly after her.

 

@~%~~~

 

It had taken more than a couple of days to arrange the meeting. It was just as well, he figured. It had taken her more than two days to get better. The operation she had undergone was still having adverse effects on her body. Apparently it was a serious strain for her. Garen knew that all too well. Usagi gave him a steady look. The colour of her face had deepened, and the sickly thin look had faded, but his unease was unaffected.

“He’s your friend, but I have to decide for myself,” Usagi informed him, eyes casting about warily as they walked through the night darkened streets of the ‘burbs. “If I trust him.”

Garen merely shrugged, “Yeh, yeh, scrap me’n‘sell me for parts, I read ya. I’m jus’ sayin’ he ain’t never hurt me, an’ never lied t’ me, not once. So …”

Usagi’s eyebrows knitted. “I know, and I am grateful. I …” something inside warned her that further words were pointless. They continued on for a while in silence, until Usagi felt something. She could feel some kind of infamy nearby, a word out of place in a story about kittens. The Splugorth in the magical fantasy of Atlantis. Abysmal parallels. She shuddered.

Garen noticed the tension on her face. “Hey … somethin’ wrong Bunny?”

She gazed over at him briefly, then shook her head. Troubled, he shrugged and said, “Well, we’s here.” He pushed open a ramshackle steel patched door and gestured for her to enter. With all the bravery of a mouse under the gaze of a ravenous cat, she did.

Inside, the building was more immaculate in its presentation than any in the entire City. Clean storage cupboards, labelled in clean cut wall units. Paintings of unfamiliar warriors and people with arms affectionately slung over gear and other people. A small kitchenette and oven. It was like a parallel universe. Slowly, she began to feel his gaze upon her. She squinted. In the darkness sat a man with black and gold streaked hair. His eyes glinted metallic tan just shy of gold.

“Garen, would you be so kind to leave us?” he asked, his voice strangely comforting.

“Oh no. He won’t. I want him to hear everything you tell me.”

Garen balked at first blush, but soon felt reassured by her attitude.

“As you wish, then, Tsukino Usagi,” he continued. “I may need to be indelicate before I can be of service.”

“Inwhatawhat?”

“I must pry into your past.”

That sensation of infamy began to make some sort of sense. He was trying to help, but he sounded like a jerk in the process. She swallowed hard and her voice cracked a little as she stammered, “I’m not… I’m… Garen… I’m okay. It’s okay. Ask me.”

Maybe a nod, a tilt of head, a flicker of recognition, but she was not sure. He asked, “Where is Hino Rei?”

“I don’t know. I haven’t seen her since Japan,” Usagi replied, coldness creeping into her voice.

“Hino … er, I’m guessin’ that’s one o’ ya friends?” Garen asked, and Usagi nodded, not making eye contact. Garen sighed, and took a seat. No ways I’m gettin’ though t’her when she’s like this.

“Neither have we. Pardon me, Usagi, but I have a request for Garen,” the fellow said, gaze shifting over to Garen, expression soft.

“Beh, sure, like what?” Garen asked, standing.

“Find her friends.”

Usagi growled unpleasantly. “How? Why’d you want them? Nobody cares!”

“Perhaps you’re right.” He stood, manner resolute. “Then, you are uninterested in them?”

Usagi backed away as he approached her. I’m not going to take another chance, not even for the other senshi, Without a word, she turned, and began to leave.

“Usagi, wait.”

She turned, eyes narrowed sharply, face drawn in an angry scowl.

“If you cannot trust me, then trust Garen. Action is your currency, is it not?” he offered in unaffected tones. Usagi left, leaving the space for her reply empty as the depths her heart had fallen to.

Garen shook his head. “Huh,” he grunted. “Ya think she’s it?”

The black haired man nodded self-assuredly. “Yes.”

“So … but she don’t trust ya?”

“No. Fortunately she trusts you.” Garen shrugged, and left. Outside, Usagi had curled into a ball on the ground, and was sobbing into her arms. Garen knelt down next to her, and put a hand on her arm.

“I’m sorry,” he heard her mutter as she cried. “I couldn’t.”

“Nevah mind him. Jus’ … nevah mind,” he touched her shoulder, and let her wrap her arms about him.

[* *]

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Chapter 23

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Between them was nary even room to breathe. Not in months had she looked upon a respectably suited man. Naturally, this fellow lacked in respect what he obtained in fear, and simple-minded followers. She, opposite him, was the picture of leather jacketed cool as she read the feral desire in his squarish face.

“Nice aren’t they. Try it,” she dared him. “I’ll kill you and walk out of here smiling.”

His mouth opened, hands vaguely indicating the well armed, formally suited thugs stationed carefully throughout the spacious room.

Smiling,” she reiterated. He bowed his endangered head with respect.

“Ease up fellas,” his icy-cool tones decreed. He stepped around her, placing his arm around her tense shoulders, and patting her comfortably.

“You too. I ain’t gonna hurt you, blondie. I’ll admit,” he uttered with an affected, and vaguely inaccurate Italian accent as he led them towards a small oak table. “The thought had occurred, but … I like your nerve.”

He pulled out a recently restored chair and proffered it to her. “Let’s eat.”

Eat? she balked, giving no indication of her astonishment and wonder at who actually had the ‘nerve’. Yet, rather than offend him, she accepted.

“So, you come to Val lookin’ for work, eh?” he curtly questioned with a slightly worn expression. This young man had seen much violence for his age. “You know I gainfully employ over three hundred men … thanks Teresa,” he half smiled at the maid costumed girl who served them delicious smelling plates of grated cheese sprinkled spaghetti.

“Jus’ so you know blondie – you mind if I call you blondie? – I never assaulted even pretty girls like you,” he professed. “But you knew that, eh?”

“What I said …”

“No empty threat,” he drawled. “But let us not dwell on these annoyances. May we have some pleasantries, presently? You have not tried the wine. Does it bother you? Does two hundred years of age not sit well with you? Tony …”

She blinked, slipping her hand around the slight crystal, and easing it to her lips. A sip indicated to her the truth of his words, and as she did, he nodded, seeming pleased.

“You need not fear me. Tony would only have given you something more to your liking. Ah, well, let us discuss why you are here. Uh,” he paused, glancing reluctantly up from his dinner. “Why are you here – exactly?”

“Looking for work,” she began. “You’ve got it. I want some.”

“Ah, yes, the Blessed Virgin has been kind to me,” he hinted a smile. “But there is no dancing around the subject with you, eh blondie? You will do well here. You will make plenty of credits working for me.”

It was the only way. How they had learned of her virginity hardly mattered. What did was that they knew, and that there was interest in it. Of course. She was only free working courier who remained so unchanged from the point of birth. She had learned rather quickly that it took often a tad more than verbal denial to defend it.

She would not succumb, she felt angrily. The portal had taken everything, her friends, her home, her guardian Artemis … The merciless tapestry would not claim her maidenhood! Yet, nor was it, strangely, difficult to enforce. In resorting to the physical as she had first transformed into Sailor Venus, the point that her skin could reflect bullets, and that her strength was sufficient to kill barehanded came as a peculiar comfort.

Allying herself with Valance Carosa was part of her effort to protect her physical innocence. It was well known that while there had been many deaths dolled out by his gang, the leader had no tolerance for the abuse of women. Blame his mother, the great Maria Carosa, the notorious gangleader, who survived her own beating and rape, and husband’s assassination by undergoing partial conversation into a very feminine cyborg.

Valance promised a very special and unique task for the gifted young woman, by which a rival gang would tumble to pieces, which he could collect with relatively little trouble. In response to the question of loyalty, he had explained: “You and I got no relationship, blondie. There are no hard feelings to sour us, and turn you against me. Besides, I’ve been watching you. You’ve never turned your back on a job, or an employer.”

Would you rather have called me “stupidly loyal”? she thought with bitter sarcasm.

He knew very well what he had admitted. That, like the others, his organization too, depended upon trust. Then came the dwelling upon the nature of the assignment. Assassination. A matter she approached with much understandable hesitance, but then, in the light of her current life, many other arguments came into play.

The brutality of this world was only different in the amount of violence she witnessed and experienced. If anything she was reminded of her feudal Japan studies. One had only to choose whom to serve. Proving her skills and qualifications in a male dominated business seemed ironic, but maimed men cannot argue. When it came down to it, this was the only way.

Anthony Lincenti had to die.

Getting in was no hassle. Posing as a prostitute and letting the drunken, staggering quad of ape-like men drool and paw her as they escorted her into the empty kitchen bypassed that obstacle. It was shaking them loose afterward that was the complicated part. By the time they had arrived, her tank top had been removed, and three of them had gotten a feel of her smallish bra-clad breasts.

“Hey,” grunted the shortest member as he pushed up her skirt as she sat upon a cutting board. “Wassis?”

“Gratitude,” she hissed, palming the vibro dagger and plunging it into his neck as it hummed to life.

“Whoa!” was the second’s last shocked word as she kicked her long, shapely legs into his face before slamming the humming energy blade up to the hilt in his black jacketed torso.

“Gots damn!” the third swore, as his hand diving under his coat, grasping at the small concealed energy pistol within. His stocky corpse dropped like so many bags of coarse sand, motionless, and apparently no worse for wear. The forth raised his hands, shaking his head fearfully.

“I ain’t armed. I ain’t armed!” he nearly stammered, tones of abundant fear unhidden in his voice. “Don’t kill me!”

She paused over his pitifully cowering, hunched over body. “You didn’t touch me. You get to live. Run.”

Before she had time to blink, he was up and scrambling away, apparently quite thankful for his existence. Alone, finally, she had something else to consider. She need clothes.

Sailor Venus.

No. How could she dare assassinate someone in that uniform? To dishonour the Senshi … her face twisted in discomfort and anger. However, under no circumstance was she going in half-dressed. Okay, she admitted, the logic was fuzzy.

Minutes of searching procured a white ankle length chief’s uniform, which she found to be a little more than two sizes too large. Oh well. Move on. The halls of the newly constructed cafe seemed oddly empty, and hushed. It was not long before she understoood precisely why.

“I’m tired of takin’ the bullets for Anthony Lincenti,” bellowed an anger charged voice. “I lost my arm cause’a you!”

“Blame me,” a second, slightly raspy voice replied. “Blame yourself, because you disrespect me, and when you disrespect me, you disrespect my house. Disrespect my house and you shame your own house. The circle of respect.”

“Disrespect?! I took more bullets, killed more guys than any mug here! You talk to me about disrespect …! I’m gonna kill you Anthony!”

The voices gradually became clearer, and more pronounced as she neared the source through a backstage passageway, which in turn gave her direct access to the lounge. She crept around the dancing poles used by numberless female entertainers as she peeked through a hole in the thick red curtain, catching a view of the lonely vocal combatants.

“You whine so loudly I barely understand you, Vincent. Leave now, and no dishonour will come upon your household.”

“What household?” he shrieked. “My family is dead! So will yours be!”

She squinted and grimaced, grim-faced at the yellow flash of light, which very simply ended Anthony’s already short life.

“You!”

She jolted, her hands jerking the curtain visibly as his sleek-looking energy weapon met her direction.

“Come out of there!”

Her hand slid to her inner thigh while the other parted the long hanging coat, where she palmed another energy dagger, the unactivated hilt of which fit snugly in her hand. A flick of the highly sensitive switch would bring it to deadly life.

“I said …!”

“Okay okay!” she replied, stepping out onto the edge of the stage beyond the swaying curtains. His eyes traced her lines, and tried to make sense of her appearance.

“A cook?”

“No.”

“Cute, whatever you are. You here to kill me?”

She shook her short haired head. “I was supposed to kill Anthony.”

“Too bad. Looks like you lose out.”

“I don’t know,” she shrugged. “I could take the credit.”

“You’d do that? Save me plenty of trouble, blamin’ you. But not out of the kindness of your sweet little heart, though.”

“Not on your life. Which, I might mention, is in jeopardy.”

“I am well aware of my social standing, girl.”

Her eyebrows arched, her mouth twisting in faint anger. “Not really,” she replied boldly, flicking on the slim dagger, the hilt of which issued forth a stiletto-style energy blade. “Go ahead. Shoot me. I can take it.”

She can’t be wearing armour under that, he thought. [_She’s got a real lean figure … no bulk for built-in armour, either. She must be … _]“Hey, you’re that D-Bee slinkin’ in amongst the gangs takin’ our jobs. I don’t like you.”

“Too bad. What’s it matter?”

“I tell you what. I’ll tell you what kind of beast you are: A nosey, no account thug. No respect, no deals. Yeah, that’s the kind. Plenty o’ joes would pay me t’see your head in a jar. Free up the labour pool, too.”

“That’s a lot of talk.”

His mouth curled at the insult, and he pondered his next action, hand working for a moment on the handle of the gun. “I think we have an understanding.”

She frowned, cursing herself. She was taking too long. He should be dead already. Any longer and she might lose her nerve! As if in response to his unease, she flipped the knife in her hand, catching it between two fingers and thumb at the same end of the hilt.

“Yeah, I think we do,” she hissed, flinging the blade with inhuman accuracy at him. His hand clenched as the knife sunk into his jacket, a white bolt hitting her shoulder. One hand clenching the burn upon her left shoulder, she exited the life-starved scene, head hanging with a disconcerting stark indifference holding her slender being.

 

@~%~~~

 

“You’re good. I like you. You know how many men I’ve lost because of that childish coward? Too many. I won’t make the mistake of opening my arms to you, my family is not safe for you. Though I will always welcome you into my house, Anim.”

Her eyes reached up and held his half-smiling face. Probably about as much as the stern looking mask would allow. Her nod was slight, but words sincere. “Thank you, Mr. Carosa.”

“Valance, even Val,” he offered, drawing a conical wineglass to his thick lips.

“Would do you me a favour?”

“You need only ask,” he replied kindly.

“There is a contract on my virginity,” she stated, hoping she was concealing her deep, anger sparking fear. “I would appreciate it if you would help me find its source.”

“Done. Tony. Take some men and locate the contractors, and explain to them that we do not like very much the trespass upon the sanctity of the friend of our family, eh?”

The heavily muscled fellow nodded, pointing at a handful of men to accompany him. Neither admitted to the truth: One of Valance’s men had issued the contract, one with whom he was very intimate. Yet, it solved the problem of the betrayal, even while creating a large emotional rift within his house.

“Sit, blondie, and eat. We have much yet to do in this little city.”

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Chapter 24

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Anim snarled, blocking the strike as it came in, the tip of the blade reaching for her midsection. Her naked fist landed solidly, crushing skull with a sickening impact. The first of the four was thrown backwards into a sewer grate which rattled loudly into the alleyway.

“Who’s next,” she hissed, her blue eyes cold as they danced over her opponents. Another answered her call without so much as a word. She merely stepped aside as the quarter staff missed her. Taking the end of the weapon in her hands gave her control over the warrior that held it. She pulled, and let her foot sink into the stomach of her black garbed opponent, who doubled over, groaning.

Her short straight blond hair snapped sharply as she turned, looking for the last two warriors of the quad. She found the alleyway to be as empty as she felt of any sympathy for the poor judges of target. Relaxing somewhat, she turned back to the winded ninja.

“Go on,” she said, sounding tired. He did not seem to require any convincing, as he ran off hurriedly, thankful for his life. “No honour. No code. No damn ninjas. Scrap it.”

She sighed heavily and walked towards the darker end of the alleyway, where the sallow light faded to no more than shards and fragments. Garbage and mud squished audibly under her feet as she walked. She ignored the beggars and other would-be loyal Coalition citizens. As she tugged at her leather jacket, trying for warmth that just was not there, the darkness of the alleyway gave way to a street as it opened to the low lifers’ end of ‘modern’ society. The street wasn’t any cleaner than the alleys, just better lit.

“Yo, girlie!” At first she did not respond to the voice, figuring it to be meant for someone else, but as it called again, she noted that it was closer. “Hey, blond girlie!”

She stopped and turned. The look on her face asked; me?

“Yeah, you,” replied a short leather swathed individual. He sported a pair of shades, covering what she figured were a lot of sleepless nights. He approached her, seeming very confident. She put her hands on her hips, and tried not to take notice of the Juicers, Cyber Snatchers, and other strange beings that grumbled and complained at her sudden pause as they passed.

“What do you want?” she asked, trying to look and sound angry, fearing it was not working. It occurred to her that she was glaring down at him.

“We get steppin’ or they get steppin’, on us. Come on,” he suggested.

She did not budge. “Why, where are you going?”

“It’s not me whats … who’s goin’,” he grinned. “Yer comin’ with me. Jes don’t know it yet.”

“Brave little stain, aren’t you?”

The grin faded. He removed his sunglasses, revealing a pair of green cybernetic eyes. “That’s jes rude. See how it is, if you’ll lookit it. You gots ta be Mina.”

For the first time in a year, she felt a shard of hope. So, she grabbed him by the scruff of the neck, and held him off the ground. “How do you know that name?”

“Oh yeh! Done nail’d it!” he chimed triumphantly. “Jes a hunch, but ya proved it! Now kin ya set me down?”

“Maybe. Why should I?”

“Coz a bunny girl missus ya.”

Shock flashed cross her face, and then vanished. She set him down and smoothed out the neck of his coat. “You better have answers.”

He nodded curtly. “Mina girlie, I got lots. Plenty, even.”

“It’s not ‘Mina girlie’. It’s ‘Anim’. Tell me how you know that name,” she demanded.

He grunted. “Ahrite. Okay? Yeah. Usagi Tsukino ‘n I are close, see? She saw ya an’ I said I’d try ya. In case she was wrong. Boy-o, girlie, she is a gem in this gat-hole,” taking pride in the fact. “Ahm sorry t’say she’s ain’t doin’ so hot, wit th’ prosthetic making discomfort.”

She held her breath for a moment as a makeshift garbage service vehicle passed by unhurriedly. “Prosthetic!” It has to be her! “No way Usagi would get a prosthetic. She’s never seen a doctor in her life.”

“Eh I don’ care about all that. I don’t look so trusting, I knows it, so she gave me dis t’ give ya,” he handed her a small star shaped locket, apparently none too concerned about her flaring anger, and vibrant vibro weapon. “Yeah, that’s it. You are Mina, even if ya calls y’self a tarp.”

“Oh blasted hell,” she cursed in emotion torn tones, taking the golden object in her hand quickly as she disarmed the small weapon in the other. “She is alive.”

Turning away, she wiped at something she had not permitted in ages; tears.

“Ya alright there, girlie?” he asked almost tenderly.

She nodded, not looking at him.

“Usagi nevah said her friends were all so pretty. But I’m a nice kinda guy. Sure ya noticed, ey?” he ventured.

“Yeah. Pretty,” she sighed, smiling faintly.

 

@~%~~~

 

Again, as they had so many times before, the tears came, and in abundance. If not for Garen, Usagi knew she would have killed herself, or simply died. Without the others, she saw no point in living. There was no telling what could have happened after being separated by the Splugorth. She could all too clearly remember the slaver, the scars, and the escape. Usagi understood that escaping with her life, forget losing an arm, was rare, and extremely lucky. Through blurred eyes, she looked at her left arm, the shining metal of it. Tears welled again, and she felt herself succumb to them. Remembrance swept the feelings of loss back anew, and threatened to overwhelm her.

“Senshi, where are you?” she sobbed, haggard.

“I’m right here, Usagi-chan,” said a vaguely familiar voice. Usagi did not look up, she merely ignored the voice. [_No. It’s not possible, not after all this time. _]“Usagi-chan?” A hand touched her shoulder. A glance upward through tears told her more than she needed to know.

Usagi wore loose brown pants, a heavy grey tunic, and a tattered hooded cloak. Her aforementioned meatballish hair seemed to have acquired a stylishly dishevelled look, giving her the appearance of someone who was always on the run. She bore the permanent scars of claw marks on her right cheek, one of the many scars left from her capture by the Spulgorth. Mina looked no better. She wore black leather pants, a light, grey shirt, and a heavy leather waist length coat. It was clear that Mina had not removed the coat in several days. It looked as though she lived as much in that jacket as she did her one room home. Her hair looked somewhat unkempt and her face had a somewhat aged, hardened look. Instead of looking like a teenager, she looked like a war worn girl of some twenty years of age.

“Minako!” she sobbed, wrapping her arms around her. “Oh Minako! It was you! Is you!”

“Heh,” Garen chuckled, “ain’t this touchin’.”

Usagi ignored him until she let go of a friend she had long feared dead. “You did it anyway.”

“Said I would. You jes forgot is all. I been lookin’ nonstop. Allatime allover. She’s a looker if ya don’ mind my sayin. Are all ya friends so pretty?” he grinned, enjoying very much one of the few friendships he had ever experienced. “I’m gonna putter up some food – or some thing? Gotta be some growlin’ stomachs in the place.”

“Fine Garen, fine,” she replied, and turned back to Mina.

“Sit down Minako-san,” she urged, “you look …” like hell. She did not complete the sentence.

Taking the seat offered, she agreed; “Life has been rough.”

There was a silence, which she seemed to use to consider what she was going to say next. “I’d lost any hope of seeing anyone again.”

Usagi handed her a small cup of tea she had just finished preparing from a boiling kettle on a small gas stove. Gingerly, Mina took a sip of it.

“Um, you don’t mind if I ask about what happened after I … a-af … um …” Usagi began again, her eyes dropping.

Mina was silent for a moment before she started. She pulled back some stray hair, fighting a powerful urge to leave the room and abandon her friend. “Do we have to get into that now?”

“I want to know if … there’s any chance we can find the others.”

Mina took a deep breath, savoring the bitter aroma of the tea. “There has to be. I didn’t stop looking either, Usagi-chan. I’ve heard a lot of rumours. Texas? Canada? It’s crazy. When that ship blew up it sent us all over the continent.”

“I am not giving up.”

“I didn’t say that. It’s been hard. Very hard. People will take anything they can get from you here.”

“Um, I know. You work for a mob boss?!” Usagi blurted, aghast as she set down her tea.

Mina frowned, an expression that did not do much for the softness of her features. “Usagi. I just … I have to survive. Wasn’t going to go to one of the cat houses.”

“It makes crazy strange sense. Banish demons, kill people,” Usagi replied heatedly. “But you … you’re an assassin!” Abruptly she stood, stepping out of the personal space of her estranged friend.

“I’m protecting my own life now!” she retorted, gazing out of the secluded enclosure as Garen dropped several bullion cubes into the energetically bubbling pot. She turned and beheld the scored looking little camping stove, and frowned harshly. “I’m sorry … I stopped counting my flirtations with death a long time ago. Being Sailor Venus is the only thing that’s saved me. I wouldn’t even …” her voice lowered “ … have my virginity.”

“Oh Minako…” she whispered, a soul striking darkness beckoning tears to her eyes. Her head bowed, hands to her mouth.

“We had it easy back home. Did we know what fighting even was?” she observed, not gazing at her until the sentence had been completed. Silence invaded the space, and out of consideration, Garen entrusted his meal to his friend and departed. Even he understood there were times you needed to be alone.

Usagi’s face hardened. She started in Japanese and Mina followed automatically. ‘Why did you side with Valance?’

Mina replied what looked like a violence hardened half-smile. ‘He’s safe, that’s why. You’ve heard about him, right? All on the honour of his Mama.’

‘You’re lucky.’

‘Hai,’ she agreed. “We respect each other.”

Her smile faded. She thought, Is it real, though? Real enough for survival, just like Garen. “Did you hear about Makoto-chan? Supposed to be called ‘Sliver’ now. Quite the rep.”

Usagi merely nodded. “If it is …”

“It’s her. Have you seen the artwork of her? She’s an idol. A noble warrior idol.”

“She can’t know, then?”

“Probably clueless,” Mina wistfully stated, brushing aside some hair. Her face set in a serious expression. Usagi read it; Why aren’t you crying?

‘I can’t. I don’t know why.’ The expression on her face indicated to Mina otherwise, however. She leaned forward and took her lost friend in her arms in a hug. Usagi shed not a single tear. Mina was actually surprised; the former Usagi did nothing but.

‘I’ve missed you,’ Usagi whispered faintly.

‘Me too,’ Mina agreed, seeming unusually short-winded. The blond haired senshi let her friend go.

‘Do you think we can get back home?’ she asked. Usagi startled at the question.

‘I …! I don’t know. You know what Ami said … um … she …’

“Yer not kiddin’,” the short man began, sounding awed. “Yer really not from dis place, ‘re ya?”

“Garen! You speak Japanese …?”

“Uh, no. Got a translatin’ imp lately,” he replied, nonchalant, as he closed the thin, worn door behind him.

“Usagi-chan, if you followed a rumour to me, does that mean others can? Or will?”

“The Coalition,” she gasped, her face paling. Reaching forth with her mind, she tried to detect the presence of any unwanted visitors. “No, I don’t sense anyone besides us.”

“Uh … Usagi-chan, it’s not safe here anymore,” she advised, shrugging off the shock of her friend’s apparent psionic ability in the light of her own change. “It’s only a matter of time now.”

“You must have a place here,” Usagi suggested. “We can go there.”

Mina nodded as she stood. “I’m actually living with Valance now, but … he probably won’t mind. But, we can’t stay there for very long. It won’t be safe there either.”

Usagi looked puzzled. “Why not?”

“The Coalition are relentless. I picked up a lil’ bit of magic lately and they’ll know.”

Usagi looked surprised.

“What? You’ve got psionics, don’t you? Everyone needs an edge. Anyway,” she sighed. “We need to find the others.”

“Not ‘til I eat,” Garen declared, sniffing the steam rising from the battered steel bowl. “I got rumblin’s in m’ tummy dat’d make a fury beetle roar sound like a purr!”

 

@~%~~

 

“Usagi-chan you’ll have to make sure no one is looking for us,” Mina said quietly to her as they walked through the dank smelly streets of the ‘burbs.

“Hey, what if they trace ya t’ Val?” Garen asked stepping over a small pile of garbage in his path.

“No. They won’t mess with him on his turf,” she said with a certainty that made him uneasy.

“Wha’ ya mean? Da Coals’ll fraggin’ take on Lazlo! What makes ya think dey won’ take on Val?”

“They can’t afford to fight a war right now. If they attack him, every gang this side of Chi-Town will strike back, on principle.”

“I dunno. It’s damn risky. I don’ get why ya bother?” Garen asked, reaching inside his long leather overcoat to verify the existence of his Wilks pistol.

“Why? Because I don’t want an imp’ in my neck and a stamp on my forehead, smart guy.” She glared at him.

“Yeah yeah. Yeez, li’ me don’ get ‘t, eh?” he groaned. “Yer frickin’ crazy, ya know dat?”

“I thought you wanted to help us,” Mina snapped impatiently.

“Yeah, but ya think I wanna get killed alongways?”

“Look, you can just shut your mouth, because you’re stuck with us. Oh damn …”

“Ah-huh, ‘n double damn, sweetie,” Garen stated, pointing towards the half dozen members of a Dog Pack.

An armoured Dead Boy with spikes on his helmet pointed in reply towards them and shouted, “Halt Psychics!”

“Go!” Garen said, “Run! I’ll hold ‘em off!” He fetched out his slim black energy weapon and fired. Usagi and Mina had already started off at a particularly impressive pace.

“I can’t just leave him behind like that! Is there something you can do to help him?” Usagi asked, looking somewhat surprised at her usually gentle natured friend. “He saved my life!”

Mina gazed at Usagi for a moment, in an attempt to determine her naivete. “Well … I …” she sighed. “I suppose.” She muttered something under her breath. A few moments later, a blue shimmering outline began to appear about Garen. “That’ll protect him for a bit.”

Something nagged at Usagi. Has she really changed that much? She was never this cold!

“What is it?” Mina demanded when she realized Usagi was staring at her.

“Nothing,” she lied, then cast a glance backward. She swore. “Look back!”

She did so just long enough to see a burst of yellow light where Garen had been standing. A large black airborne vehicle swooped over the ashes, blowing them into oblivion.

“A Sky Cycle!” she cried. “Get down!”

They dropped to the ground just as it dove for them, the rapid fire of its twin rail guns strafing the ground and missing them. A pile of rubbish burst into flames ahead of them as the cycle performed a tight turn and sought its quarry once again.

“We’ll have to stand and fight,” Mina decided. She quickly cast a spell.

“What?” Usagi sounded startled. “We should run!”

“Normal weapons can’t hurt us,” she said, sounding rather confident. “I’m going to take it out.”

Usagi took a step backwards from her friend.

“Are you out of your mind? You can’t do that!”

“No? Watch me,” she said with an unpleasant grin.

Usagi watched her suddenly battle hungry friend with apprehension. As the cycle neared them, Anim took an offensive stance. The Gatling guns in the lower retractable appendage began firing. Mina leapt backwards in a blindingly fast backflip. As she landed, the Cycle neared her, trying for a collision. She clasped her hands together and swung them forward and down. The Cycle shook as one of the smaller engines burst into flames.

Usagi looked stunned. “Minako-chan?!”

“Don’t call me that! Call me Anim!” she snapped, looking irritated. “But you see, don’t you?” Anim clapped her hands to her thighs to put out the flames. “Didn’t hurt me,” she held up her hands for the purpose of illustration, showing them to be unmarred. “We’re not just human anymore. I can kill with my bare hands!”

Usagi was still stunned. She did not even blink. It occurred to her to remember to breathe. She laboriously heaved several deep lungfuls of air, staring at Anim for some time before she saw the cycle return. It opened fire before the words of warning left her mouth.

“Minako!” she cried as Anim was thrown back by the force of a rail gun blast which hit her in the side of the face. Blood flew, and the blond haired girl screamed with ear shattering intensity. Hands fled to her face, crimson flowing onto them. Anim stumbled, fell against a wall, and then into a burning pile of rubbish.

“You bastard!” Usagi bellowed in high tones, levelling her arm mounted energy weapon at the nearest approaching Grunt and firing. The mini rail weapon punched a baseball sized hole in his helmet, sending the body rolling backwards against his companion, who dropped with the Grunt.

“Oh hell!” blurted the third, escaping the falling pair and rolling into an adjacent alleyway. “Back off Boys, she’s loaded! Jamie, flank her, and Koey, don’t you dare let him ago alone!”

The golden retriever Dog Girl nodded with a hint of a snarl, and bolted off after the Bull Mastiff Jamie.

“If you hurt any of my guys I’m gonna have your blond head on a platter!” he cursed loudly, ensuring his voice was clearly audible to his target.

“You killed my friend!” Usagi shot back, tears gathered in the corners of her eyes, incinerating a chunk of wall and barely missing her mark.

“We didn’t want t’ kill her,” he replied, checking the power gauge of his energy rifle. “If she’d just’ve co-operated, none ‘o this need’ve taken place.”

“ ‘Submit to Fear’,” she coined for him with a snarl. “Well I won’t!”

“You’ve got it wrong …” he insisted, noting the movement of Jamie and Koey some ten meters behind her. “We just want to help.”

Usagi turned to the noise of the Wind Jammer descending upon her, and cleanly severed the pilot’s right arm with a clear shot. There was a cry, and a rumble as the black sky cycle slammed through the side of a building, where it burst into flames. Taking advantage of her distraction, Jamie leapt out, took her in a well practiced Half Nelson, and held her shrieking and squirming form in place.

“We just want to help,” the Psi-Net Officer insisted as he raised his gun and turned the butt end of it to face her. She tasted blood as it struck her in the face. She allowed herself to slip into a self induced death trance in the hopes that the semblance of unconsciousness would protect her.

“Okay, she’s all yours!” snarled the voice of the apparent commander.

“Nice work Yaletown Kid,” a strange voice laughed.

“Damn Straight. Looks like yer Little Miss Potato Head put up one helluva fight. Howsabout the other one?”

There was a silence.

“Dead. No loss there.”

“Both of ‘em sure could fight. Hell … I figure we’re damn lucky to be alive!”

The ISS grunt must have nodded. “You got another Jammer here?”

“Yeah, but looks like I was a little late, huh? Fraggin’ hell. Who was pilotin’ that one?”

“Meg.”

“Frag. Why Meg? They gotta pick off the good ones, don’t they.”

“As if blondie here cared. Don’t worry, they’ll take it out of her hide at Lone Star. Why don’t you grab her. I’ll report in.”

“Okay. What about the other one?”

“Naw, forget it. The rest o’ them freaks need an example.”

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PART TWO

Part Two: Shatter Margin

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A Sailor Moon/Palladium Rifts Crossover[
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Part Two

Shatter Margin

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Chapter 25

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Mina sat up and grabbed the nearest man by the throat. There were two of them, she noted. The fellow she assailed was a man of short brown hair, a classically handsome British-blue-blood-in-a-suit-and-tie fellow of romantic elegance, and a nearly undefinable boyish quality about him. As she focused on him, she began to see traces of colour that should not be there normally … she saw reds, oranges and yellows in his form. She closed her eyes and put her free hand to them.

“What have you done to me!” she demanded in a somewhat desperate tone. The man she had been holding must have tried to speak. She heard choking and gasping sounds. She relaxed her hand slightly, just enough for him to talk.

“Think, Mina,” he gasped, “had we desires to molest you, would we not have at least,” he took a shallow breath, “restrained you? I have healed you. Nothing more.”

It was not so much that she could hear him breathing, it was, that by choking him, she could feel his breathing efforts. She let go and hesitantly opened her eyes. The colours were gone. At least until she focused on someone, or something. She winced and shut her eyes again.

“That would be the Thermo-Imager.”

Her eyes opened, her hand flew out and grasped the ‘doctor’ by the collar of his white formal shirt. “You’ve got some nerve,” she began.

“Saving your life?” he finished. “Perhaps. Though I doubt the alternative route would have been your first choice.”

“Maybe,” she snarled, letting him go. Another debt I don’t need. “Why? And where’s Usagi?”

“Usagi was captured by the Coalition,” Randy supplied with some measure of unrest. “Before you ask anything else, know that a rescue effort is being organized.”

“Organized!?” she snarled. “Is that it? How does that make any sense?”

“Okay, you’re getting a little ahead of yourself, and us,” the light haired brunette sighed as he ran a hand through those short lengths. “We’ll tell you everything … under a certain condition.”

Anim paled. “Condition nothing! Either you tell me what I want to know, or I turn this dump into a flaming heap,” she gritted, reaching for a vibro dagger on the inside of her right thigh.

“Okay, go for it.”

“Uh …” she stopped and considered her situation. These guys meant business. She switched the dagger off, an awkwardly mute expression on her pretty face. “Uhm … what were you guys saying?”

The light haired young man gave his dark haired companion a “you see? It worked” glance, and proceeded to elaborate. “Here it is: You’ve been separated from your companions by a force you know little to nothing about. We’re going to help you by rejoining you with your friends.”

“Uh-huh, sure, who? You tell me, okay?”

“Deal,” he replied nonchalantly. “Usagi Tsukino, Rei Hino, Ami Minuzno, Makoto Kino, Mamoru Chiba, and a couple who describe themselves as Luna and Artemis. The latter three we have located, and offered sanctuary.”

“Whoa,” she started, caught off guard by his accuracy. “Couple? Sanctuary? Located?!”

“Well, yes. I expect you’ll want to converse directly with them. That can be arranged, provided we have a deal.”

“Deal? That’s not nearly going to hook me,” she replied very conditionally, before her voice became somewhat mousy. “Well, um, actually, it has, but I want to know more. Like who the heck are you?”

“My name is Carl, I replaced your damaged face and eye. Randy here,” he gestured towards the stocky man beside him, “supplies everything else. This building, for example, belongs to him.”

My damaged … face … No, no it’s a distraction. I’ll, I’ll… worry about it later. “So why help us?”

Carl fell silent, accepting a glance from the black haired fellow apparently named “Randy”, and nodded.

“Knowledge,” he said. The doctor held his silence.

Feasible, she though, unmoving as sat there for a while, the depth of her concentration visible. “You want to study us.”

“Not exactly. Our interest is much more, shall we say, abstract. The point of it is, what if I were to say we could tell you more about yourself,” Randy offered. “If I were to offer you safety.”

She considered this. “Obviously you know enough about me to know that I have nowhere else to turn.”

He remained silent. The question remained unanswered.

“And if I tell you creeps to take a flying leap …?”

“You’ve been running for a very extended period of time. I don’t honestly believe you wish to continue that lifestyle,” Dr. Silver piped in, certain of the painfully self evident truth.

“You’d be surprised,” she noted halfheartedly. “I’ve managed pretty well over the last year. Oh, I’m sorry, you probably already knew that.”

“Actually, we didn’t. Not in detail anyway, aside from your black market alliance,” the brown haired doctor observed to her, paying some tribute to her apparent intelligence by offering information that was more than obligatory. “Your choice in the uniquely moral Valance Carosa led us to believe you still have hope for the future.”

“Basically, we would disavow any knowledge of you if you decided to turn us away,” Randy concluded, finally able to slip a word in edgewise. “I assure you that we would most regret having to do that.”

She fell silent once again, praying in her mind that she was not being taken for a fool. “So how long have I been out?”

“A week and three days,” the doctor supplied.

She nodded, masking her surprise easily. “If you really know what’s up with Artemis, send him in. I want to talk to him.”

“I’m afraid it’s not that simple. They are currently residing in England, and we are not.”

“Okay … you can tell me this, though … how is,” she hesitated for a half instant, “um … he doing?”

“I don’t honestly know if it’s my place to tell you.”

“You’re too nice to be a government type,” she replied sharply. “I don’t get you. Not that it actually matters, or anything. Screw it. Tell me. It can’t be that bad.” She knew however that it certainly could, and probably was.

“He’s human. As far as we can tell, he’s always been, though he insists he was a feline before his arrival here.”

“He was!” she blinked, falling silent.

“So he’s not crazy.”

“Bloody hell no,” she groaned. “Though I feel like I’m poppin’ a few loose … Where did you say he was?”

“England.”

“Oh hell …” she squinted, gleaning just how much weaving destiny had added to her personal tapestry. It was a cinched knot.

“The explosion that separated you brought them to there, just outside if New Camelot.”

“They weren’t there when that happened!”

Doctor Silver shrugged. “I don’t blame you for not trusting me. I could be deceiving you, but somehow, I think, even if I am – which, I assure you, I am not – you would know.”

She fell silent. He was right, after all. She could read his emotions. Words were much easier to falsify than the latter. “I’m sorry,” she said halfheartedly. “But trust you I won’t … until I’ve talked to Artemis.”

Then at least you don’t deny the truth, Mina.

She startled.[_ Stay out of my head. I’m not Mina anymore._]

The British doctor sighed. “Perhaps a bit of your history will settle your attitude somewhat.” He heaved a deep lungful of air. “You come from Earth. Tokyo, specifically. There, you – apparently – fought creatures from another universe who were looking to take over. In that respect, these two realities aren’t that different. It’s just that here, there are a multitude of races out to dominate, rather than just one. You and your – it’s five, I believe – friends continued to subvert them, until an elemental lion appeared and brought you here through a strange blue portal. Am I right so far?”

“To a ‘T’,” she admitted. “Go on.”

“That ‘strange portal’ is what’s called a ‘rift’, around here. They have an unfortunate habit of linking one dimension to the next. More often than not bringing what we call D-Bees and other unusual, powerful, and more regularly than we’d like to admit, dangerous beings to our world. What to we do about it? Arm up, for the most part. Of course, that doesn’t include the magic users, and psychics who make use of their own abilities to survive.

“When you arrived, you had no knowledge of the powerful beings who exist here. So, when the Splugorth Slaver barge appeared, they took you without a fight. You were all taken to Atlantis, and held until you would have been sold. Until a young woman by the name of Sivil Nira determined that she could escape.”

‘Nani?!’ Anim gasped, eyes wide, quite aghast. ‘How do you know that?’

‘I was her superior, and friend,’ he replied sharply in the same language, making Anim feel somewhat guilty.

I never asked her to die for me,” she stated weakly, dropping back into English, somewhat uncomfortable by his unerring ability to understand her, knowing further than on any terms her words meant little.

“It was her job, Mina. That is all. What you feel is … not in my control, but your future choices are very much my concern.”

Anim could not speak, nor meet his eyes.

“In any case, you succeeded. You fled to a supply vessel bound for Europe. Apparently, you fought some Blind Altara Warrior Women when you attempted to escape the ship. There was an explosion and the rest … you know, not us.”

“I guess you want me to fill you in.”

“If you would be so kind.”

“Okay, but I want to know how picked that info up. Mamoru and the others,” her eyes wandered wistfully, “there’s no way they would’ve known any of that.”

“What Mamoru knows is for you to discuss with him,” Randy noted with an odd amount of consideration for one in his apparent position. “As for the rest of it, suffice to say that we have very – observant friends,” he finished. “Any other questions?”

‘Hai,’ she said, “This eye thermo-thingy you gave me is really annoying. How in hell do I control it?”

“That will take time for you to learn, but I will teach you.”

“That’s a comfort,” she replied sarcastically. “When do I get back together with my friends?”

“I think we may be able to arrange a meeting.”

Despite the sarcasm in her tones, Mina had never felt happier in her life, and more afraid.

 

@~%~~~

 

Mina could not be satisfied, even though her saviours made every effort to appease her. Randy supplied her with what he said was a ‘secure’ place to live. She accepted it and spared what gratitude she could muster.

The most exciting event over the course of the next few months consisted of her meeting with Artemis, Luna, and Mamoru. The trip itself took nearly a week to complete, due to the rifts and other distractions. It turned out that they were indeed living in a place called ‘New Camelot,’ and were, for the most part, quite comfortable, if not worried for the future.

Entering the abode of Artemis and Luna altered Mina’s relationship with her feline guardian forever. Standing there, looking at him, stunned, gazing over his six foot tall form swathed in white and blue robes, his silver hair cascading past shoulder length, eyes of blue gem’s beauty, she wondered which Goddess had blessed him. Nevertheless, it was Artemis, and there was not a solitary doubt in her heart. Even in a different form he seemed so familiar.

ʻArtemis-san …’ she whispered as she ran to him. He caught her in his arms, weeping as she did, half-expecting her arrival to be another dream. As he held her, he realized they had truly been reunited, and that there was still some hope.

‘Mina-chan?’ a familiar voice hesitantly inquired.

‘No,’ she replied subconsciously. As her eyes fell upon this woman she instantly recognized her. ‘Luna-san, I …’

‘So sorry,’ the purple haired woman replied, closing her eyes as if pained. ‘I understand, Anim-san. Is that what you are called now?’

‘Um … Hai, Luna-san. But I don’t understand! I should be happy to see you. And I am, but …’

Luna gazed at her expectantly. As Anim watched through the windows to her soul, she began to note a glimmer, one of pain, one so familiar, it struck a chord of deeply entangled agony within.

‘Luna …’ she offered uselessly. What was there to say?

‘There is hope. I almost thought we’d lost,’ Luna spoke softly, and tread ever more delicately. ‘The senshi …’

‘There are no more senshi!’ Anim snapped furiously. ‘Gots damn, Luna-san! Can’t you see that? Usagi, Rei, Ami, and even Makoto are gone! The Bishoujo Sailor Senshi are no more!’

Luna seemed calm despite her friend’s outburst. ‘How can you say that? Of all the girls, you should understand …’

‘Understand what?’ Anim blurted harshly, bringing a hurt look to Luna’s face. ‘That I can scrape by? If … I can’t. I don’t know if I can hope.’ She was crying. Tears poured rapidly over her bright red face while she stood there in confused fear and sorrow. She bowed her face as her hands reached up to cover it, and she felt Artemis near her.

“No … back, please …” she whispered, stepping away and falling into the delicately patterned crimson couch, where she wept in quiet for several minutes.

She was utterly flabbergasted. After all this time, to still be intent on the future of the senshi. How could they ever return? Even if they could, how could they stand a chance against the NegaVerse? If they had overrun Earth, they stood a better chance spending the rest of their ‘lives’ here, their home in exile!

‘Luna-san,’ she gasped in a choked, raspy voice, ‘Hope is that we do not give up. Are you not happy to see us?’

Artemis put his hand on her shoulder as he sat next to her, all concern and sympathy. He understood her emotional position very intimately.

‘Mina-san,’ he paused a moment for her to protest, which she did not. ‘You are. I am joyed beyond all words. That you have changed so much … it does not affect my love for you.’

That name … yet just then, it failed to bother her. There was so much pain behind what that name represented to her, but facing them, human as they were, and exuding such undiminished faith seemed to make it bearable. She gazed up, face flushed from the crying, and held her eyes, asking, wanting her to say it mattered.

‘There has never been anyone else more important to us,’ she said very softly, very much the sole mother figure, in heart, and presence.

She blinked, and glanced at the floor for a moment before sharing her heartfelt expression of thanks in facial adornment and vocal arrangement with her mentors, and guardians.

‘Thank you.’

 

@~%~~~

 

Even with the apparent honesty of Dr. Silver – who’s first name was Carl, she learned – she realized that she was continually tense. How could she relax for a single moment? She was indeed waiting, but it was not for the information offered by her would-be-saviors. She was waiting for the betrayal, waiting for the next battle. Randy offered a training room, where she could spar to her hearts content. She found little enjoyment in the diversion.

Part of her missed the edge of the life she had lead up to this point. Being safe dulled the danger of always having to run to stay alive. She started to remember her old self, Mina, the calm, quiet girl who could not take a life to save her own. On those thoughts, she knew that Mina just could not survive a place like this. It was all too harsh for a pretty pageant girl like that. Sure, there had been her life as Sailor V, and the adventures as Sailor Venus. But that was over now, gone like her friends. As her mind wandered to her friends, she came to thinking that if the rest were still alive, they were bound to have changed as she had. So far, the worst possible scenarios seemed to be showing in the violent tapestry that was the world of Rifts Earth.

The thought of what might have happened to the others scared her. Usagi had seemed so different; calm, and withdrawn. She had always cried. At the slightest incident, she would break out in a fountain of tears. Now she did not seem to be able to cry. She did not even speak unless spoken to. Was that fear she had read in her eyes has she had hit the back end of the Wind Jammer Sky Cycle? No more pretty girl. Just Anim.

Her hand touched the metal of her face, and felt the coldness of it. A warmth moved down from her eye of flesh, across the cheek. That’s when she heard the knocking.

“Mina?” The voice was male; familiar.

“Come in,” she said, voice somewhat hushed.

The door opened. He poked his light brown haired head through the gap. “Can I have a little of your time?”

“I’ve time. Too much. You can have it.” She gazed at him for a moment, thinking nothing, just looking at the soft build of his face, his dark blue eyes, the thick curl of his hair, the worry on his lip. She bit hers. He came in and sat down beside her, and took one of her hands in his.

“Talk to me,” he offered.

“I don’t know if …” she hesitated.

“If what?”

“If anything.”

He looked at her for a moment, dropped his gaze, seeming thoughtful. He then looked back into her eyes and said, “What’s the first thing you think of when your mind wanders?”

It took her a moment to gather her nerve, and wits about her. “I … I think I’m waiting until I have to start running again.”

Carl merely nodded. “What about your friends? Have you thought about them?”

“I have.”

“What about Mamoru? Why haven’t you wanted to meet him? He’s asked about you, and worries a great deal.”

Her face twisted with regret, and fear. “My guardians, Artemis, Luna … they changed so much. I’m not sure if I can face him, thinking how he might have changed …”

Carl shook his head. “He really hasn’t changed much that we can tell. He’s all the human he ever was. With the acceptance of his metamorphosis abilities.”

Mina looked at him. “What do you mean? His henshin? You mean when he turns into Tuxedo Kamen? Seems a little strange now in all I’ve seen here, but …”

“Well, no, I … forget it. That’s not what I’m trying to get at. I mean his other, I guess, earth metamorphosis abilities. He’s an Earth Child.”

She fixed him with a blank stare.

“I don’t suppose that I’ve really given you a choice, have I?”

Mina sighed. “No. Thanks alot. Damn it … This whole bloody thing scares the hell out of me.”

He looked grim as she studied his face. She said, “You know.”

He nodded slightly. “Yes. I had indicated that previously, had I not?”

She shook her head. “You said you knew about them, not what happened to them.”

“Sorry. Vagueness seems to be one of my gifts. We’ve only just recently pinpointed Rei, Ami and Usagi. Today, in fact. They’re in Texas. The Coalition caught Rei just before I left to help you. Apparently Ami’s been there for quite some time.”

She grabbed him by the shoulders. “Tell me.”

“You don’t have to strangle me for it …”

She let him go. “Sorry.”

“That’s quite all right,” He hesitated. “Ami is amnesiac. We don’t know when it happened, but she seems not to remember anything at all. I’m so sorry.”

“Maybe I should just be happy they’re still alive,” she muttered, shaking her head morosely.

Carl opened his arms, and she leaned against him, her breathing shallow, her mind flooded. He thought to speak, but remained silent, not knowing what to say. He just held her, curious of what she had been like before her arrival here. He knew she had been proud of her beauty, and was quite tough despite what the Rifts had introduced into her life. He wondered what had happened to that girl. He was also amazed by what seemed to be developing between them. It seemed oddly … natural.

“What else …” she asked wearily, sounding strained. Carl hesitated. He did not want to hurt her any further. “I have to know,” she insisted. “Just tell me.”

“They removed an arm, her left one, as a cruel experiment. Coupled with the exploratory surgery, they have reduced her to a half cyborg.”

A growl emanated from her throat as she leaned back, her face scrunching in an angry glare.

“She’d have died if I hadn’t intervened.”

She calmed slightly, looking Carl in the eyes. “Are you going back to see her soon?”

“I … yes, as soon as the charges against Dr. Ravelli pass through.”

She looked puzzled.

“I was almost caught. Still a chance I might be. If we’re going to rescue her, it’s going to have to be soon, because we’re only going to get one chance, the way things are now.”

“Alright, but when?”

A ponderous look passed over Carl’s face. “Randy will handle it.”

She smiled. “Thank you!” she exclaimed, and kissed his cheek. “Thank you.”

“You’re most welcome, Mina.”

Blushing, she looked away from his face. “Can I see Mamoru?”

“At your leisure.” He stood, bowed slightly. “May I come again?”

“If you’ll be as charming. I would like that.”

“Then it shall be done. Now … I wasn’t just, misreading you, then?”

“What?” Mina blinked, blood rushing to her cheeks again. “What were you reading?”

“You. Falling in love. Me, doing to same.”

She demurred, but could not fully deny it. “It’s … I can’t, I think I need some time.”

“Then that will be done too. Your time alone must end, and the wounds be healed, in time.”

She let out a little sigh. “I don’t know. I don’t.”

Meeting with Mamoru was less awkward than she initially thought it would be, and somehow she felt he was more attractive than she remembered. As always, he seemed to radiate immeasurable calmness, but the serenity in his brown eyes seemed somehow disturbed. As with the others, it was plain to Mina that something that something had altered him and self perception. Mina met him with a warm hug, feeling that it was the most she could allow him, even after being apart from him for so long. The way he dressed had not modified; he wore a black turtleneck sweater, and dress pants of white silk.

I could be wrong, she thought in amendment.

His mouth proscribed amiable words when he spoke of his life here, how it had seemed to be refashioned to whatever will drove this world. He also reflected on his encounter with the ones responsible for their arrival in this terrible perversion of their own reality. He spoke with trepidation about his role as their protector:

‘I do not know if I can protect you anymore as Tuxedo Kamen,’ his voice was soft, but the words he spoke in his native Japanese betrayed his fears, and his doubt.

‘Why not? Because you could not protect Demelza?’ Mina offered, feeling very much her old self, for the moment.

‘As Tuxedo Kamen, I wouldn’t have dealt with it the way I did. As the Earth Child, my anger knew no bounds. I had no control.’ He frowned. It was clear to her that it drew forth a dark anxiety from within him

‘You did not hurt her, though, Mamo-chan. You protected her. I do not see how that is different from what you would do as Tuxedo Kamen.’

He gazed at her, amazed by the lack of understanding she displayed. ‘I killed it,’ he stated ruefully. ‘How could you agree? I would never have done that before!’

‘Usagi would have,’ Mina interjected sharply. ‘You did not have her to do that for you. Perhaps being an Earth Child gives you that. Would you rather be defenseless against the predators here? Would you run?’

‘No. Never. Not when Usagi’s future is at stake …’ he bowed his head. ‘I pray she’s still alive.’

Mina nodded solemnly. Mamoru’s eyes fell to the metallic side of her face. ‘You have changed, Mina-chan. Your face. It reminds me of all the death I have seen.’

‘Hai,’ she replied, eyes narrowed. ‘I have survived. Very little seems to matter here. If I did not, I would not be alive now. Would you rather I simply gave up?’

‘No Mina-chan, do not mistake me. I understand what you have been through, but it is not easy to accept.’

‘Do you really? To be hunted because you are sexually innocent?’

He blinked at her.

‘Not going to get into it.’

He nodded. ‘I get the point,’ he stated, clearly shaken.

Mina turned away, arms folded over her breasts.

‘It’s not the same for you. You have your strength to fall back on. It’s different for men. They don’t mind killing.’

‘What makes you think that? I did what had to be done. I’m not proud of it.’

‘You have lost heart? Where is your pride? Your honour?’

‘Stop. You’re right. I don’t know what you’ve been through. I don’t even know you anymore.’

She faced away from him for a moment, feeling like they were light years apart in distance. Mamoru could not believe his ears. She seemed so cold, almost heartless, but he still cared for her, and had no desire to cast aside their friendship.

‘Mina, I think we are both very different now than we used to be. I wish still to be friends, but …’

She did not look towards him. ‘But …?’

‘Will you talk to me? I’ve missed you all so much, and never …’ he stopped. He couldn’t lie to her. He had given up, for mere minutes, but the truth hung there like a rotting corpse before him.

‘Never what?’ she turned, and held her eyes to him steadily, expectantly.

He frowned faintly. ‘When we found Akari and Yanei, and they showed me where you were, there was no doubt …’

‘What? Akari and Yanei? Who are they?’ her folded arms came to ease aside her hips.

‘They …’ he paused. ‘They brought you here.’

Her fists clenched instinctively, anger wrapping around her heart like a hissing viper. A vivid snarl appeared upon her suddenly grim visage.

“Mamoru?” a voice called from outside his room. Mamoru turned to face Demelza as she entered.

“Good day Mina,” she said, pausing in her step. Mina turned sharply to face her, startling the young healer.

Mina-chan … Mamoru pleaded in her mind.

What? You will assail me when your mouth could not be opened?

No. Understand me. I was scared, and lost too. I may not have been through the same as you, but you must trust me that I understand your feelings.

I … I guess.

I’m so glad you’re okay, he stated warmly, long after needing to, or perhaps just at the right time. He then smiled. With a glance, he could see that his happiness was infectious, as Mina’s face echoed his as she faced him for a moment.

[_Me too. _]Mina’s expression of pleasure eased Demelza’s discomfort.

Her face remained serious, however. “Mamoru. Aye, this involves ye too, Mina – if ya don’t mind me callin’ y’ that? – I mean to say we’ve found Makoto.”

They both held their breath during Demelza’s pause.

“She’s fine, jus’ like you said. Though after she talked to Conroy … she just up an’ disappeared.”

Mina gasped sharply. “What? How?”

“Dimensional teleport, though we canna fathom why,” she muttered, knowing the uselessness of the information.

Mamoru cursed under his breath.

“That’s it,” Mina began with a snarl. “I can’t stay here any longer. I’m going after her!”

Mamoru grabbed her shoulder. “No. Demelza and I will.”

“You can’t! You don’t know what’s out there!”

“Neither do you. Demelza and I will be fine. As an Earth Child, I have a better chance.”

Demelza nodded her compliance, and consent. “Already we’re ready t’ send ye with Kirin to find ‘er, if you’re ready, Mamoru.”

“Of course!”

“What am I going do? I can’t stay here!” Mina whispered, looking forlorn. “I just can’t! I …”

“You won’t be bored long lass. Randy’s ‘bout ready to send ye,” she smirked.

The short haired blond reached over and hugged her. “Thank you Demelza!”

Demelza looked somewhat aghast, but pleased.

“You’re welcome.”

Mina smiled faintly, somehow beyond her puzzlement feeling open to her foreign show of concern and support. Mina’s face lit with consideration as she reached forward and grasped the young healer in a gracious hug.

[* *]

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Chapter 26

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How hard could it be to find a power armour? The streets of New Camelot only made him aware of how minute the likelihood really was. The whole place reeked of Dryads, Nexus Knights, Millennium Druids and other anarchists. He paused before a shop that appeared to have no distinction in any quality but its name.

‘Randy’s Rarities’ blared in bright green letters above an otherwise ordinary shop door. Grinning at the absolute corniness of the name, he wandered in. The name was apt, he decided: Each item a rarity more bizarre and alien than the last, and nothing was labelled. As with many of New Camelot’s street side shops, this was more or less a magic paradise, if you could afford it.

Looking at the back end of the shop, he searched for an owner. Who would leave such a place unattended?

As if on cue, a hefty looking tall black and gold haired man strode up to the smallish counter. The man leaned forward on the wooden surface with both open palms down.

“Welcome to Randy’s Rarities, my friend,” he smiled toothily. “What manner of search brings you here?”

“Power Armour,” Fade answered, eyes narrowed. “You have any of those?”

“Perhaps. Tell me; have you a name? If you don’t mind my asking.”

“Go ahead. It’s Fade,” he replied in a measured tone.[_ Can’t be too eager,_] he thought, so he waited half a breath and then asked, “What about magic?”

“Depends on the coin,” the fellow replied easily. He idly wandered over to a shelf beside the counter and inspected the items upon it.

“How about Cloud of Smoke?”

The man turned to him with a serious look. “That’s not much of a spell.”

“The coin lacks polish,” Fade said nonchalantly.

“No coin is unwelcome, friend. Is that your interest?” He stepped over to another shelf and fingered through a number of papers messily arranged.

“Part of it,” Fade said, approaching the counter.

The man turned to him and handed him a small scroll. “Study this, and lend me your coin so I might decide how much polish it requires.”

“Half now,” the elf said conditionally, “and the other half when I’ve learned the thing.” He handed the taller fellow a pouch that filled a hand, no more.

He pointed and smiled widely, “Use the back room there. If you have any troubles, I’ll call my lady in to assist you.”

With a smirk, the elf took the scroll. “Do you really think I’ll have ‘troubles’ with this?”

“You never know,” he said with a smirk as he pulled up a chair and sat down.

Roughly five hours later, the elf emerged from the back room, holding a rolled up scroll, and looking like he had just walked through a flaming forest. Glancing about, he could find no trace of the fellow who had given him the scroll. In a chair, however, was a very attractive human woman, who looked to be in her late twenties. She wore a long black cloak, light blue shirt, and a long loose dark blue skirt. She looked at Fade, and smiled, running a hand through her blue hair. After a moment, unbelieving, Fade noticed the silver streaks in it.

“Hi,” she said. “Done with the spell, I see.”

Fade merely nodded.

“Well then,” she started, as if expecting something.

“I guess I’ll see you about, eh?”

“You like your head on your shoulders?” she threatened casually. When the elf turned back to her, she was still smiling.

“Little use for magic without it,” he chuckled, handing her the pouch and the scroll.

“I should take the scroll,” she told him, then paused, “but it is part of the service.”

“Is it? Written in your hand? I like them,” he half-smiled, accepting the worn looking handmade scroll. He walked over to a Power Armour he had not noticed before.

“My hands? How flattering,” she drawled.

Silence mingled with his study of the simple looking exoskeleton. The head of it was shaped much like a simple mask, and lacked any real decoration, besides that of a thin bandanna wrapped around the head. The remainder, as plain in styling, barring the exception of silvery jewels embedded in lower arms. He noticed also the oddly empty sword scabbard.

“Is this supposed to be … I suppose it is,” Fade stated, knowing he was being listened to. “Where’s Randy?”

“He went … out.” Fade heard the sound of her getting out of the chair. “Interested?” She came up beside him quietly.

“Possibly.”

“It’s a seller’s market, my friend,” she advised him, and followed it with a smirk.

“Tell me about it. Would you?”

She threw him a look. “A magic user like you would love it. The power source is the pilot. If you’ve the mana for it … that is. Still interested?”

“Well,” Fade muttered, “Perhaps … I am regarded as a hard worker …”

“And so broadly skilled, now. We will s—”

“Katrin!” a male voice called weakly.

The woman blanched. “My Gods,” she murmured as she ran out of the side door opposite of the back room. Fade followed her, curiosity abreast. The man Fade had described as “Randy” stumbled away from a hovercraft, a blond haired young woman in his arms.

“Are you hurt?” Katrin asked, taking the girl into her arms.

“I’ll live,” he replied, looking as though he was in pain. “Go, lie her down. I’ll be along with a kit.”

“She’s breathing … what a mess …”

Without hesitation, she left. A few moments later, a man roughly five feet tall ambled into through the door. He cast a glance at Fade, who appeared somewhat bemused. The man muttered something under his breath, grunted a brief “hello” to Fade, then followed the woman. With an arched eyebrow, Randy passed by him, holding his stomach, and headed into the adjacent room, the one in which the elf had learned the spell.

What? That room was so small. Why would he go in … Fade thought.

“Come come,” Randy said, “if you’re that curious, join me.”

So he did. The room he walked into was a veritable warehouse of miscellaneous armour, weapons, and other items. Many of which exuded such an intense aura he puzzled about failing to detect it before. Fade immediately recognized scraps of Coalition equipment: SAMAS rail guns, pieces of a disassembled SAMAS armour, Dead Boy body armour, stacks and piles of CE and standard E-clips, among a multitude of other things. The rest was unfamiliar to him.

“I don’t suppose you’ve got a Glitter Boy armour in this mess somewhere?” he asked, not seeming at all daunted by the collection.

“Not anymore; we’ve exhausted our needs for those,” the man replied, sitting forward in a small chair, drinking something. “Parts and refits, repairs and custom builds. That’s all.”

“That’s it?” Fade grinned as he picked up a helmet that looked like a black skull. “Then what is that armour your woman showed me?”

“A shot in the dark, I’m afraid. Armor wrecks havoc on … mana control,” the man commented, taking another sip of his drink. “It’s your life if you want it. Might give a magic user a chance against the Coalition, if he wants it.”

“He might want it,” he remarked, wondering at the fellow’s cool demeanour and endless supply of information. “It have a cool name?”

“Cool name?” He squinted through the wall as if he could see the armour through it. “Let me, ah, the SC-A101. Eh, Mana Breeze, if you like. Paltry name with no battlefield presence.”

Fade shrugged. “ ‘Glitter Boy’ is a questionable moniker, but just try shouting over its cannon. Nice piece of work. Yours?”

“Me? I just sell them,” he grinned. “So you have a lot, then?”

“A lot? Oh, mana. If all I have to do is risk my neck, I have enough,” he answered firmly.

Randy shrugged. “We’ve got trackers in the suit, so there’s nothing to sign. It’s yours, but now you’ll be following orders. Understood?”

“Yes. By the Great Tree, that was easy.”

“Grand. Follow me,” he gestured, standing. Fade followed Randy back through the shop and into the room Katrin had entered.

“How is she?”

Her blond hair was matted with the crimson stains of blood, and her face bore the healing putty-like substance of a MediKit. Fade noted with some interest that there was uncouth man seated concertedly beside her, eyes on as a lover, or father. As the elf watched, the man looked up at him, and the worry on his face changed to a self-protective scowl. “Gotsdamn Randy, what’s this? Strangers in ‘ere?”

“Nice to meet you, too,” he commented, dry ire running in his voice.

The fellow shifted uncomfortably, “Oh, yeh. Guess it’s no thing. Name’s Garen. You?”

“Fade,” he replied, arching an eyebrow. “She a friend?”

“Somethin’ like it. Client.”

“Ah.”

“Look Garen, she’ll be fine, but she’s not going anywhere until tomorrow at the earliest,” the blue haired woman stated.

Randy sighed heavily. “Anything else?”

“You might want to explain to Fade what this is about,” she said with hands on hips. “If you’re serious about this ‘test pilot’ stint.”

“That’s probably a good idea,” he laughed, kissing her on the cheek. He turned to Fade. “C’mon you.”

“Just a sec,” she interrupted. “Don’t forget Garen.”

“Don’t f’get me? Like I’m not every thing she needs?” She set him with a look and he chuckled submissively. “Ah, yeh right. Maybe then we’s rush up some grub! I ain’t had anythin’ since dis creep,” he gestured towards Randy, “showed up!”

Later they sat in the main part of the shop, the door shut and a sign reading “Closed, Try Back Again” hung upon it. Fade took occasional sips from the drink he had been offered. Garen was very deeply involved in an apple pie Randy had unearthed from a storage freezer in the back.

“She’s in pretty rough shape,” Fade commented. “Whose handiwork was that?”

“You’re no stranger to the Coalition,” Randy started.

“Nor is she … recent encounter?”

“Juicers don’t usually don the mask.”

“Well, recently, believe it or not, after their uprising, the Coalition adopted some of the leftovers to beef up their armies. Better than standard troops and pretty cheap to make. A heckuva lot cheaper than a Grinning Demon. Power without the Price. Also considered to be pretty expendable.”

“And if they go AWOL?” Randy asked, sounding interested.

Fade pointed to his head and said, “Little MDC bomb here.”

“So what’s the difference between them and other Juicers?”

“They’re better fed.”

Randy eyed him knowingly, “That’s one way to put it.”

“So wha’?” Garen snapped, irritated. “What this all got t’ do with my sistah?”

“Your other sister?” Randy asked with an air of suspicion.

“All ‘em girls, Usagi’s friends are my sistahs.”

“Listen Garen, I agreed to let her meet Mamoru, nothing more. I wasn’t thinking she’d scoot off and start window shopping. It’s just not safe, even for someone as strong as she is.”

Garen scratched the back of his head. “So you gonna argue wit’er nex’ time? Go to it!” He swore heavily. “Gots damn I did mah best! How ya figure some Snatcher’d be here? Never happens!”

“I’ve got to give you that,” Randy nodded. “Perhaps I’ll have Carl check her for tracers when he repairs the damage they’ve done.”

“Tracers?” Fade blinked. “She marked or something?”

“The CS has a long memory where dimensional trespassers are concerned.”

“Corruption is everywhere,” Fade sighed, propping his head on his hands. “So, this have something to do with my first outing in that suit?”

“If you still want the armour, that is,” he said, leaving the entire matter open.

Fade glanced at the floor and smirked at the irony of his greed. Then he looked up and said, “At what point is living not dangerous?”

A few days later Mina was hale and hearty, voicing her frustration and annoyance in the presence of Randy, Fade and Garen. The former’s pleasant smile disappeared. “You could call this janitorial, Mina. Straying from the path left quite the mess.”

“Meaning?”

“It means staying on plan. You’re meeting him in Texas just to get them out. No visitations, no random encounters.”

Mina snorted. “Have you met this place, you know, where we live?”

“I’m asking you to minimize problems. Carl is your CO. Let him make the big decisions.”

She cursed. “I hate it.”

Randy caught her eyes and held them. He said, “You don’t hate everything.”

“No, you’re right.”

“Well, that got emotional fast,” Fade remarked. “Why don’t we channel our hate at the Coalition together?”

“Okay, I can do that … who …” Anim regarded the elf, and stated sarcastically, “And another magic user is going to make our rescue easier?”

“Job’s a job. If he can make a magic user effective in powered armor, I think they worked out how to sneak us into Lone Star and back out.”

Randy shook his head. “That’s the least of your worries. Are you committed?”

“Why are we still here?” she bit off.

“Grand. Come with me.”

 

@~%~~~

 

The arranged transport was a CS Death’s Head Armoured Personnel Carrier. The man made behemoth towered over twenty feet high, and sixty feet long. The impressive alloy hide of the beast was shaped like a rather stubby twentieth century rocket. From its slender arrowhead aileron to foreboding skull flat nose. A marvel and a melodramatic curse. Anim did not seem at all surprised by this. Fade, on the other hand, had to wonder.

“Where can I get one?”

Randy replied a sly smile. “Don’t think it was easy stealing one of these buggers.”

“A risk not to be taken lightly,” Fade agreed. Randy nodded gravely. Anim had already climbed into the huge craft, and was busy inspecting the pilot’s compartment. Fade stepped into the open hatch in the side, stopped, and turned about to regard Randy. “Thanks.”

“Thank me later if you … well, we’ll see.”

“Indeed,” he answered, then disappeared into the ship. Randy watched as the ship lifted into the air under the power of the harrier-style jets, and flew off into the distance. Shaking his head, Randy returned to his shop.

“I don’t suppose now is a good time to tell me about your ‘senshi’ friends?” Fade asked from the co-pilot’s seat.

“Now is probably the best time,” she half frowned thoughtfully. “It would help me to know what Randy’s told you.”

“Tell me? I get you’re tough, a good healer, but Randy’s not exactly exhaustive if you get me.”

Mina cleared her throat. She thought, _Swell, thanks Randy. _“Well, back were I came from, an evil force attacked our world. Not much different than here, really, except that it was just a localized force. Luna, a cat, sought defenders and found us.”

The elf blinked. “Was the cat black by any chance? I suppose it talked too? I understand that happens a lot in human culture.”

“Um, yes and no,” she looked at him, somewhat surprised. “Are you sure you didn’t siphon it from his thoughts?”

“Moi? That was a guess.”

“Who are you kidding, fella?” she frowned, pretending to focus on flying. “Aren’t you telepathic?”

“You can fly this crate, does that mean you can captain a ship?”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Nothing, I suppose.” Fade found that he lacked a response that would not draw her ire, so he said nothing. They flew in silence for a time, neither really expecting much from the other.

“I guess … I haven’t been very nice. That’s not a parade float,” she said and thumbed his empty but impressive power armour.

“It’s a risk I want to take,” he agreed slowly. “Allow me to apologize? My pointed ears are pricked.”

She consented with a flicked glance at him. “Hm … Well, that cat selected us … well, five young girls to protect our city. The leader of our group, ‘Sailor Moon’ was …”

“That’s you, I suppose?”

She shook her head. “No, actually. That was Usagi.”

“I see. Your friend?”

“Yes,” she confirmed with a flat lipped expression.

“Okay. So who was invading earth, and what was stopping them from succeeding? Besides the five of you, I mean.”

“Resource troubles. The Negaforce didn’t have access to the leylines that we have here.”

Fade had to agree, so he did in a blithe manner: “You managed to hold them off on your own?”

“More or less,” she admitted. “If I knew then what I know now, we’d have beat them already.”

“You mean you haven’t defeated them?”

“It’s not that simple.”

“Is it ever?”

She chuckled something sardonic, but kept the thought to herself. “No, but even when you win you don’t get a break. We sacrificed everything … something else turned it all around on us.”

“A change in leadership,” he noted observantly. “Mercy can be perilous.”

“Mercy?” She hadn’t heard that word in a while. “I guess … we did, we were, merciful.”

Silence manifested drifted in a very solid, tangible form between them. Fade gave it some thought, and came to the conclusion that there was no reason for her to lie to him. If she was acting, indeed, she was performing expertly, even to the point of guiding her very feelings without the slightest miscue. He glanced at her, and noted that she was wiping the right side of her still flesh tear laden face as she stared on through the HUD piloting window. Guilt roared through him. He’d been insensitive, and further, a jerk to a young woman who only wanted what anyone wanted: Family.

“Anim? I’m sorry. Really,” was all he could think to say. “I’ve been a jerk to you. I apologize.”

“Okay. Thank you,” she whispered. “You’re right.”

He blinked at her boldness. Generally one wasn’t suppose to agree, but he supposed he deserved it. The fact that she was human did not derail the point of her sex. Women, elven or otherwise, deserved his respect and honour. This one without question, as she was asking nothing more.

“We’ll rescue your friends, whatever it takes,” Fade vowed. “I mean it. I hate to see a pretty lady cry.”

“I thought you didn’t like the prosthesis?” she smirked at him past dried tears.

Fade simply looked confounded. How the hell does Randy do it?

[* *]

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Chapter 27

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“I don’t suppose it’s too late to turn back now?” Fade asked nervously under his black helmet as they approached the gates of the Coalition State of Texas.

“Not nervous, are we Fade?” She glanced at him, not yet wearing her helmet.

“Yes. That’s not what I’m worried about.”

“Shut up, we’re almost there.”

“Yes Ma’am,” Fade replied sarcastically.

The radio hummed. “Identify yourself,” it demanded.

“This is the ‘D-Bee Crusher’ Cargo Transport, carrying supplies to the Lone Star Underground Facilities.”

A moment of considerate silence followed.

“Come on Randy …” Anim whispered desperately.

“Transmit your clearance code.”

Her fingers flew across a small numeric keypad, numbly hoping their order was correct. Her breath paused in the slender corridor of her throat. Fade glanced at Anim, and realized he was not breathing either. So far Randy had come through, if this did not pass …

“Thank you. Proceed to Hangar 16,” the voice confirmed.

“Thank you.” With a click the communication ended.

“You know where we’re going?”

“Yes,” she hesitated. “At least I think I do.”

“Now I am getting nervous,” Fade said.

“Can’t be that difficult.”

“No, of course not. It’s only a great way to fool D-Bee spies like us.”

“We’re not spies,” she said, looking annoyed.

“Aren’t we? We’re here to infiltrate enemy secrets. Isn’t that what spies do?”

“I …” her eyes narrowed, “damn you! My friends are not enemy secrets.”

“Not to us they aren’t …”

“Screw the CS!” she cursed furiously at Fade with a harsh glare.

“You know what? That’s damn fine with me,” Fade said. Then; “look out!”

A smaller cargo ship, traveling at too high a velocity to avoid the path of the Death’s Head transport, zipped out in front of them. Anim managed to turn the massive APC aside soon enough to evade disaster.

The radio hummed again.

“Hey there.”

“Uh, hi. Sorry about that,” Fade said rather uneasily into the receiver.

“No prob. No better way to get someone’s attention than to try and hit them.”

Anim raised an eyebrow.

“Hey there,” she said, leaning forward to assure the clarity of her voice.

“Hey there pretty lady.”

She smiled. Fade gazed at her.

“What are you thinking?” he asked quietly.

“Pretty Lady, hm? Answer me this …” she began, putting a finger to her lips. Fade answered her gesture with the appropriate silence.

“And what might that be, my dear?”

Fade might have found the exchange pleasant in any other situation other than the one they were currently in. As it was, the least of it was nervousness.

“What do you know about the ninth level?” she seemingly ventured.

“No more than any other CS fearing Dead Boy.”

“Eighth?”

“Plenty of delicate subjects there, my sweet.”

“And Seventh …?”

“Oh, Seventh Heaven you mean? Wouldn’t that be the last time we …”

‘Hai?’

‘I believe it would be foolish to speak of such acts in the presence of others,’ he stated in fluent Japanese.

With a faint blush, she smiled warmly, ‘hmm, no doubt.’ She reverted to American. “Randy came through again, Fade. This man’s our contact.”

Geez, Randy could have at least told me this is how we’d meet, the elf thought tiredly.

And leave you with the illusion of having control? the man over the radio laughed in Fade’s mind. Don’t be ridiculous.

You could well have knocked.

I could have.

You’re Carl?

You’re well informed.

It’s no mistake I’m here, fellow.

Good. Now be quiet.

Yes sir.

“Lead on,” Anim said with good humour.

“Of course.”

The crater of a vessel turned around beneath the hull of the considerably larger APC, and headed towards one of the smaller buildings in the State.

“So how have you been, Drake hon? How are the supplies?”

“Not good. Unfortunately, they’re planned to ship within the hour. We don’t have much time.”

“Damnit.”

“Hey,” his concerned tones offered, “if you want to get together after we deliver, I’m all yours …”

Slowly her face warmed.

“I’d like that. I’d like that a lot.” Her face was lit by a soft smile.

I care about you.

I know that. “C’mon, tell me you will.”

Listen honey, would you resent an offer of something a little more involving than, well, you know …

She paused, stunned by the open nature of his statement. [_ I … Ca- um … Drake, I'm not … I mean I'd love to, but … We need to talk. I care about you a lot too, more than I've ever cared for anyone, but things are so … messed up right now. _] “I’m not so sure.”

“The supplies?”

“Yeah …” We might want to go back.

Did it ever cross your mind that I’d be willing to accompany you.

Anim’s face hardened. How can you say that? You know so little about me.

Hey, the way I figure it, anything will be worth the trouble just to be with you.

That’s so corny … she smiled warmly, loving the fact that he meant every syllable. And so cool.

Hey, I try. So? Have I got your vote?

I …

It’s simple Minako, yes or no.

It’s impolite. To call me ‘ko’, she replied, feeling her eyes mist with emotion. You can be so brutish … but I trust you.

Brutish? I am sorry. Thank you.

There was a time of silence as they flew through Texas, bent on their destination. Anim was not sure what she would do when they rescued Usagi “Okay, land. I’ll join you shortly.”

“Just don’t crash Mr. Drake,” Fade interjected.

“Sage advice,” the voice replied coolly. “Welcome back.”

“Eh, well, thanks.”

“No prob. Now, here’s the tough part.”

That arrogant little loudmouth is going to get us killed, Carl, Anim projected. Are you sure about this? I mean really?

Fade is a wild card I can handle. He wouldn’t be alive right now if I wasn’t certain of that.

Her eyes fell to the ground. She looked rather uncomfortable. How are we going to do this anyway? How do you know Ami and Usagi aren’t already dead?

I don’t. I’ve got to trust my people down there.

With misty vision, Anim leaned against the console. Everything’s so damned bleak Carl. I miss my friends, I miss my old life … I …

Sssh, after this, you and I are going to have a long talk. There are some important things you need to know about me.

She gazed up for moment; You’re a magical being.

Yes, but it’s a little more dramatic than that. I’m a dragon.

Anim did not move, nor did she tense. I know.

You and I do need to talk!

The silent passage of several minutes saw Anim’s tears dried. Carl thought, You aren’t going to break down on me in there, love …? If you are, you’re better off waiting here for us.

Her eyes narrowed. Carl, if you really knew what I’ve been through to get to this point, you’d know I’d be damned if I didn’t see this through. I’m not giving up on them. Not for Karl Prosek, not for any of them.

It is your choice, but know that I will protect you. I swear it.

[_ _]

@~%~~~

 

For all outward appearances, the upper layers of the stronghold known as Lone Star seemed calm. No expense was spared; the only grunts visible wore the new style light and medium Dead Boy armour. Grunts who sat in the cusps of the towers bore impressive looking rail guns, and even more impressive were the new Smiling Jack SAMAS PAs, and the DeathWings. Carl held a certain appreciation for the level of technology the CS was able to produce from such a small State. The self-sufficiency was primarily a result of technology borne from the Golden Era of Man, before the Cataclysm of the Rifts.

The nine levels were capable of housing several thousand people, complete with manufacturing plants for all necessities, from toiletries right down to the design and construction of old and new SAMAS armors, among other similar technology. With the inclusion of the Genetic Engineering Division, Lone Star represented the most incredible technological achievement of mankind. Also, one of the very few to survive the holocaust. As they approached the entry to the elevators to lower levels, they were set upon by a small group of Dead Boy troopers. The first of the five member squad spoke:

“Greetings Dr. Silver. We’ve been asked by Dr. Bradford to see that you reach the GECA division without molestation.” Not waiting for a response, the squad leader signalled for his grunts to assume a preplanned defensive position about the three.

“Would you prefer I had one of my men handle the SDB?” the trooper asked.

“Why?” Carl asked, curious at the young man’s offer.

“If I may say, sir, Private Jarre has some,” he cleared his throat, “attitude problems. I would hardly consider him trustworthy.”

The unusually piquant ‘Private Jarre’ huffed under his breath: “Figures.”

“May I ask your name?”

“Yyone, sir.”

“Yyone. Thank you. You may be surprised to learn that Jarre was responsible for the capture of this young female creature.”

“Sir? He was stationed at … Chi-Town, correct?” A tone of doubt shone in his voice.

“Yes. She was sent to me by Prosek himself. You understand.”

“Yes sir. Of course sir. Sorry sir,” the trooper nodded curtly and fell silent. They entered the elevator, which began descending shortly after Carl punched in the appropriate security sequence.

“Sir?”

“Yes, Yyone?”

“Why is the female so attractive if she is evil?”

Anim tensed, snarling faintly. They both seemed to ignore her. Carl said, “You mistake her. She is not evil by nature. She has no more wish to harm you than I. What threatens our race is the multitude of aliens like her. They would overwhelm us by sheer numbers if we did not act to deter them.”

“What about her beauty?”

“Being alien does not always mean being unattractive, at least from the human perspective.”

“You seem to have a great understanding of these things, sir.”

“And you ask many questions. Why is that?”

“I wish to serve the State to the best of my ability. May I speak freely?”

“In front of your squad?”

“They share a similar mindset, sir,” he replied with a trace of hesitance.

“Permission granted.”

“Frankly, I wouldn’t ask these questions of the other doctors, sir. Certainly not Dr. Bradford.”

“And why not?”

“He disturbs me.”

Carl smiled privately. “Continue.”

“Sir, it seems to me that you are the most open to other thoughts. Dr. Bradford’s elite are insane, and so his he. I’ve taken very particular efforts to serve with you.”

“Yes, I’ve noted this, Yyone. Your squad has been quite attentive.”

“I’ve noticed you choose to assist the D-Bees at every chance, rather than conduct experiments.”

“What are you implying?” Carl turned to the trooper, face revealing nothing, yet.

“Well, frankly, sir, we’ve heard rumours.”

“Such as?”

“That you are allied with an outside force that would be willing to take on those with,” his voice betrayed his nervousness, “Unusual talents.”

“Well that’s pretty specific.”

“Yes sir. Hopes are high.”

“Very well,” he replied sternly. “May I offer a conjecture?”

“Of course sir,” the trooper answered.

“That you weren’t sent by Dr. Bradford as you said.”

“No sir.”

“Obviously you intended to approach me with the problems of your squad, and yourself,” Carl said, drawing out the as yet unknown conclusion for the undeniably nervous young man.

“Yes sir.”

Carl could feel with his mind that the young man was stretched to the point of breaking, and the only thing holding him together was his training. and fervent hope, the latter as mentioned.

“May I ask you something else?”

“Of course sir.”

“If I am to accept you, you must be willing to betray the Coalition completely. This includes your squad. Can you vouch with unwavering conviction that they are trustworthy?”

The trooper glanced over at one of the grunts, who responded more than she should have by returning his gaze.

“Well Dakota, are you in?”

“Sir …” the young woman replied uncertainly. “This is one heckuva pinch, y’know!”

“Agreed.” Carl turned to her with an expression that could have cracked stone. “We act now, with as few as choose to join us. She,” he gestured towards the bound woman, “is restrained only because she chooses to be. When she breaks loose, it is her friends we will taking when we break out.”

Her eyes fell upon Anim, who did not respond.

“No kiddin’?”

The bound blond simply nodded, looking somewhat uncomfortable.

“Cool.”

“Call me Carl. The plan is this, get in, locate Cases 210, 211-A, B, and 118, then return to me. Can you do this?” He faced the leader of the squad once again.

“Sir, you’d be surprised how many of the CSM are stationed at Lone Star,” Yyone replied, sounding relieved.

“Probably not. Yyone, may I ask your first name?”

“Yes sir. It’s Jake, sir,” he replied. Carl was sure he was smiling behind that black and white helmet.

“Get all of your,” he quirked an eyebrow, “‘CSM’ together, tell them to meet just outside of cell 204. How many are there?”

“Twenty-seven,” he said, darkness marring his voice. “We lost three to the monsters of the Rifts.”

Carl nodded sympathetically. “Unfortunate. You are doing the right thing, Yyone.”

“You’n my sister hope, sir. If I cut through this I’ll have a tale for her, to be sure.”

“We’re almost there,” Anim said, breaking her bonds easily. A series of gasps washed through the cargo elevator, eyebrows knitted as she slipped the heavy white jacket from her torso and arms.

Carl gazed at Jake. “I need to know what each of the members of your squad is capable of.”

He nodded deftly.

“Greg – Hawkeye – here can teleport just about anywhere he’s been, or can see – which is pretty damned far, and heals really quickly. Sarah – Hard Edge – can fly, can shoot energy bolts, and can turn her skin into stone. Callan, or Canary, can turn into just about any animal he wants, can stun people just by touching them, and seems to be able to control water. Dakota is our brute. She’s wrestled Skel-bots barehanded to a standstill and she can dominate people with her looks; her beauty has a habit of getting her into trouble.”

“Knock it off,” she griped.

“Never. The last of us, Jenny – she doesn’t have a nickname – can turn into water and metal. She’s the powerhouse of the group, really,” he said, as if finished.

“And what about you?” he asked pointedly.

“Me? Well,” he cleared his throat. When he spoke again, his voice was a clear and unmistakable rendition of Carl’s. “I imitate voices. If I’ve heard it, I can parrot it.” His voice altered to its original state. “Not much else I can do is terribly useful. I can turn intangible, so that no one can touch me. Problem is, I can’t touch anything else like that. It’s handy for quick entry and exit. I can also turn my arms, or whatever else, into bladed or blunt weapons.”

“We call him Untouchable,” Dakota said with a hidden smirk and a hint of laughter.

“Wait,” Jake said, indicating the requirement of silence with a raised hand. Moments passed as Jake seemed to listen to something. Finally, he looked at Carl.

“It’s too late. They’ve broken out. 210 is missing, and so is 211 A and B. We’re a little late.”

“118?” Anim asked, eyes wide.

“No word,” Jake confirmed. “Must still be there.”

Carl’s eyes narrowed in concentration.

“Greg, can you get your group out of here?”

The fellow nodded. “Yes sir. Where do I go?”

Carl closed his eyes. Here, he said in the young man’s mind as an image followed.[_ If it takes more than one jump, then so be it. We can’t risk blowing your cover now. Your friends would be in danger. We’ll come back for them later if we can._]

Right. You’ll meet us there?

Yes. Just focus on that image and go! Now!

Without further pause for thought, the five armoured men and women disappeared.

“What now?” Fade asked, shedding his helmet.

“We make sure they aren’t missed,” he stated, pulling a small cube from his pocket. He wedged it against the control panel of the industrial elevator.

“Cover me,” he commanded, touching both their shoulders. Before they could think, the scene had changed. Mind you, not by a large degree.

“Mina!” A familiar voice gasped in stark disbelief.

“Usagi-chan!” she replied, running over to her. Usagi had been bound to a wall by wrists and ankles. Anim grabbed the bonds and pulled at them, feeling no give. Anim started as she felt a jolt, like a solitary quaking of earth. Gazing around a moment later indicated her reaction was quite uniform.

“What the …?!” Usagi chirped, as if shocked awake by the blast.

“Carl?” Anim pined nervously.

“Later! There’s no way you’ll break her bonds,” Carl decreed sharply. “Come here!” Fade stepped quickly up to them, at which point, they also disappeared.

[* *]

[* *]

[* *]

[* *]

[* *]

Chapter 28

[* *]

“Where the hell are they!” Minako growled. “Who took them!?”

Carl just shook his head. He tapped a button, and leaned backwards in the pilot’s seat of the SC-APC Cruiser. “I haven’t a solitary clue.”

“That makes three of us,” Fade commented glibly. Minako threw a mock expression of amusement his way, and sat forward in the co-pilot’s seat, mumbling angrily and uselessly to herself as frustration squirmed inside her.

“How is your neck, Usagi? Feeling better?”

She nodded demurely in his direction. “Yes, thank you. Mina, we’ll find them, I’m sure of it.” Usagi offered in an attempt to console her.

“How the,” she swore with a dark scowl, “hell do you know that, Usagi-chan! You don’t know who took off with them!”

“I think I do,” she said hesitantly, taken aback.

Carl turned abruptly to face her. “You had the same sense?”

She nodded. “Hai. And I think – um, I dunno. I think I can follow it, too.”

He looked curious as he tapped a key and took hold of the control stick. “Why don’t you just tell me when I’m getting warm, okay?”

Usagi gazed around uncertainly. “Well, we’re way cold now, but I don’t know if …”

“Just point.”

“Okay,” and she did so.

“Good enough for me,” said he, leaning the APC into Usagi’s indication.

“Hey Usagi, we’re going to be a while right?”

Usagi merely shrugged in reply. “I don’t know. They are pretty far away, though. It’s kinda hard to tell.”

The elf sighed. “Lovely. Carl, you mind if I rest for a bit?”

“I suppose not. You had best be ready to move, though. There’s no telling what took the two senshi. If you’ve got any defensive magic, you should probably get it ready.”

“Will an Armour of Ithan do? Don’t worry about me; I got skills,” Fade remarked with a confident smirk. After a moment or two of silence, he wandered out of the room.

Mina sat down in a corner and fell into her own considerations as Usagi continued to direct Carl in their bleak hopes. She was beginning to wonder if it was all worth it. What would they do even if they did all get back together? What could they do? They had all changed so much. With Makoto missing, maybe even in another dimension, the likelihood of the senshi getting back together seemed diminished. She knew she was falling in for it too, with Carl. Emotions first, logic second … hardly surprising. Usagi was the only one left waiting.

“Usagi-chan?” Minako started delicately. Force of habit prompted the honorific. Usagi turned to her, looking once irritated and twice angry. Her eyes were so … hard … it was unsettling. She said, “It’s about Mamoru. He made it … he’s okay.”

As the words left her mouth, the anger in Usagi’s face melted to a look of godsent relief. Minako could clearly see the tears behind her eyes.

‘Where-is-he-what-happened-to-him-has-he …?’

‘Usagi-chan! Calm down! Please …! I can’t tell you anything if you won’t calm down! Here,’ she gestured towards the co-pilot’s seat as she stood from it. ‘Sit.’

‘Hai … Gomen, Mina-chan …’ Usagi sighed as she seated herself, sounding shaken.

'He's with the woman who saved him, they're going to -'

‘He’s with who!?’ Usagi snapped in high tones.

‘Usagi-chan! It’s alright! He still loves you … Demelza is only the healer who took care of him. She’s psychic, too, and nothing … besides everything, has changed.’

Usagi wiped at her eyes. ‘Oh Mamoru, I miss you …’ She blinked at a sudden realization. ‘Why isn’t he here?!’

Mina took a moment to sit down before her reply. ‘The both of them have gone after Makoto-chan … Makoto … oh, whichever.’

‘Whichever?’

Mina’s eyebrows scrunched, and she said, ‘Isn’t it strange to use honorifics now?’

Usagi’s blank look was both an answer and a prompt to sigh. Typical of her not to think it through. ‘It doesn’t matter to you?’

Usagi’s blue eyes went to the left, then down. She said, ‘No. If we let go we lose us.’

Mina was nonplussed, and agreed.

‘But you haven’t told me anything. Will you tell me?’ she pointed out, sounding angry.

Moody as ever, Mina thought. She said, uncertainly, ‘Now isn’t exactly the best time for it.’

‘Do you know of a better time? You can tell me now! Carl doesn’t need my directions anymore!’

Mina seemed somewhat startled for a moment before her eyebrows narrowed in irritation. ‘Usagi-chan! For heaven’s sake calm down! You don’t have to yell at me!’

Usagi’s expression darkened apologetically. ‘Gomen, gomen nasai.’

Mina shook her head morosely. ‘I don’t know much. Makoto was taken by some kind of spell. We were told that it was teleportation of some kind, possibly dimensional.’

‘So Makoto and this healer went to find her.’

‘Hai!’ Mina gasped. How did she know? She continued, ‘Um, Luna and Artemis are fine, in love, married, and human, but otherwise okay.’

The blond haired girl jumped to her feet suddenly, an expression of stark disbelief on her face. She gaped, ‘Nani! Nani, nani!’

Mina was nearly relieved to see some of the old, and seemingly lost Usagi resurfacing. ‘Hai!’ she replied. ‘I said human. She’s beautiful, and so is Artemis …’ A dreamy look wandered over her face as she completed the statement.

Usagi arched an eyebrow. ‘Oh, really? But … how can she guide us like that … I mean …”

Mina looked uncertain again. ‘I don’t know. She said nothing has changed. I trust her … it’s got to be better than giving in …’

Usagi plunked herself back down on her seat. ‘Do you really believe that Mina-chan? What if it’s not? What if we ever do go back home? With the rest gone, does Earth really stand a chance?’

Mina leaned forward and pressed a hand to the young woman’s shoulder. ‘I think we stand a better chance now than we did before. Even if the entire NegaForce has taken over Earth.’

Usagi shook her head in denial. ‘What makes you say that? We don’t even know anything. There’s almost no hope! I don’t understand you sometimes.’

‘Usagi … we’ve survived the Splugorth! They couldn’t keep us apart. We’ve got Carl, Randy, Katrin, and the rest on our side. I don’t think there’s no hope.’

‘Randy?’

She nodded deftly, puzzled. ‘So?’

“Carl, you work for Randy?!” Usagi snapped harshly. Mina withdrew her hand suddenly.

“No. We are associates in business.”

“Business? What kind?”

“Usagi, please!” Mina explained, aghast at Usagi’s reaction.

“He’s a demon, that’s what he is! He’s no human!” she snarled.

Mina stood up sharply. “What? What are hell are you talking about?!”

Usagi! Carl snapped authoritatively in her mind, [That is enough. Think of your friends and the effort they have gone to. _]The blond turned on her heel to face the challenge, the snarl unfaded. He reiterated: _You are not among the enemy.

Can I do that? Do I have the time? I guess … I guess I do, she replied, calming slowly. Even as she sat she seemed angry, wary, as though any hand that touched her she would bite off.

Heya Bunny! Issat you? a familiar sounding voice asked in Usagi’s mind. She reeled as if struck. Minako caught her shoulder, steadying her.

Garen? I thought …

Dat I wus dead? Gots damn I’m owin’ ya all kinds-a sorries, but c’mon, what’s a little scrape? The overbearing little man appeared next to Usagi, wide smile on his face. “I jus’ don’ like usin’ m’ powers is all, y’know. Makes my clothes feel … tight, or wet, or somethin’. It’s jes scaggin’ weird.”

Usagi grabbed the fellow in a warm hug. “Gi, I missed you!” she laughed happily. Garen responded by replying her gratitude. Finally, she set him down.

“Sorry I hadda freak ya out like dat Bunny,” Garen started. Usagi shook her head, indicating it was an apology long past requirement. “Gots damn I missed ya too.”

“Carl, that mountain, that should be it. There should be – I’m not sure, some kind of cave or something.” She turned back to Garen. “Gi, I’m just happy you’re still alive. Things actually seem to be turning out alright – I guess. Minako’s back, Rei-chan is alright, and once we pick up Ami-chan … we can go after Mako-chan!” Her smile was pleasing, at least to Garen, who grinned.

“Usagi? What cave? I don’t see it …”

Usagi sat bolt upright, and was at Carl’s side in an instant. Minako made noises of puzzlement. Garen nodded agreement.

“It’s right there!” she pointed. “You can’t see it?”

“I bets it’s a fake-out,” Garen pointed out helpfully.

Carl nodded. “I’m quite sure you’re right. Usually I can see through such things, however … it seems not in this case.”

“I can feel an extremely powerful presence in there. Not like you, Carl, but … pretty damned close.”

Minako cast an inquisitive glance Usagi’s way, not that she noticed. Somehow, this world, or maybe the Coalition, had turned her into a mystic tracker of some sort. Her harsh temper seemed a clear indication that she had been altered in some sense. The Coalition was capable of almost anything, but just to be sure …

“Usagi, tell me, how magical am I?”

Usagi sniffed, her eyes rolled in consideration before she spoke. “A lot more magical than Garen, and much less than Carl here. You have a spell on you, I can tell, too. Why?”

Mina shrugged, satisfied. “Just curious.”

Dearest, what are you up to? Carl’s soft mind-voice prodded.

Just trying to figure out with the CS did to her. So far as I can tell, they’ve made her into a magical predator of some kind. Thing is, she doesn’t know it.

They have done much in my time away, and I am troubled not to have been privvy to it, but … Carl concurred. That is not all they’ve done.

Usagi suddenly looked startled. As the expression passed, another of feral anger wandered onto her face. “Let me out!”

Mina gave her ample space as the former leader of the Bishojo Sailor Senshi darted towards the hatch of the vessel.

“Carl!”

“Why,” he asked. “What is it?”

“Damn you,” she cursed, as if he had just insulted her. “Let me out!”

“Bunny! Hey! Watcha doin’?” Garen ran up to her and grabbed her overcoat, tugging insistently in an attempt to entreat her attention. Usagi merely ignored his concerned cries.

Let her go. You want to see what they did, right? Mina shook her head. I think she knows what she’s doing … in an instinctive way.

That I do, and … if you wish, he replied, then tapped a few buttons. Without so much as a “thank you,” Usagi leapt out of the opening. Minako gasped, fearful despite her apparent faith.

“Bunny!” Garen cried. “What’re you guys doin’? She’s gonna—”

Usagi did not fall, but flew the distance to the cave, to most everyone’s astonishment. Her spread eagle form gripped enough surface area to suspend her in the midst of it.

“Come,” Carl said. His words somehow distracted from the great leather-skinned wings which grew suddenly from his back. He took Minako and Garen’s hand. Without warning, he let himself fall through the hatchway. Garen yelled in protest, and Minako merely wrapped her arms around him, clinging to him, loving the thrill of the fall.

Fade ran out of his room just in time to note the leaping forms of the three. His voice trailed behind faintly as he attempted to gain Carl’s attention.

Carl cursed softly. We well return. Guard the ship until we do.

Fade swore. “I guess I’ll grab a drink, or something?”

They arrived too late to witness the interaction, though Usagi’s feral expression had not abated. Fists clenched and glowing with energy, she seemed entirely prepared to do battle. Opposite her stood four figures, the first she instantly recognized as Rei – albeit with dramatically shorter hair. They were paired; the two each opposing and also clinging to each other. A tall, long and dark haired male held to Rei as only a lover would; one arm around her hip, while her head rested on his shoulder. She perceived the entire situation, though she had not formed a response to her missing friend’s sudden appearance.

The second pair seemed to be of mother and child. She could not relate either of the two to anyone she could recall. Oddly, the woman of long blue hair reminded her faintly of Ami, but the two looked so different that she found it hard to believe that such change was possible. The young girl knotted to her leg looked very similar to Sailor Venus; she had long blond hair which cascaded to her undefined waist. She also had calm blue eyes which radiated such familiar intensity, and occasionally, additional colours. Her eyes registered with such intelligence that Usagi paused, amazed, before speaking with Rei.

“Who is he!” she growled.

“Usagi. He’s my soulmate,” Rei confessed. Usagi’s eyes narrowed as if trying to focus on something. After a few moments, she calmed. She turned to the child, who snarled at Usagi when she approached. Rei stared aghast after her.

Adolphus, what did she do? I felt something … she queried, running fingers through hair which still felt oddly short. Sorrow and soul-flickering concern followed Usagi by Rei’s continued gaze upon her.

“Ami?” Usagi ventured uncertainly, seeming quite on her guard in spite of her defensive posture.

“Who? Shyanne, wait … calm down honey!”

“I don’t like her,” the child remarked.

“You don’t have to, demon,” Usagi snapped coldly. Sarah’s eyes narrowed as the woman neared. She pushed Shyanne behind her, raising her hand from which three slim blades slid easily forth.

“Stay back! Don’t ya dare touch m’ girl!” Sarah stated angrily. “I don’t know ya are, but Ami’s dead!”

Rei gasped. “Sarah! No! Don’t say that! Usagi …! She doesn’t know what she’s saying!”

“No!” Usagi clenched her fists and jabbed at Sarah as if punching her. A burst of light shattered over Sarah, knocking her away from the girl, who cried out, “Mom!” The woman lay motionless on the ground. Shyanne faced Usagi, looking near tears.

“Stop it!”

“Usagi-chan! She’s just a child!” Rei screamed, hoping to fetch her ear.

“I cannot let this be, I cannot stand by. Step back,” Adolphus stepped in front of the enraged Usagi. He grabbed her shoulder. “Usagi, the girl means you no harm.”

She glared at him, then shrugged off his hand. “First, mage, you don’t know what the hell you’re talking about. Second, you just got a freebie there. Any part of you that touches me next you’re not getting back.”

Rei stood, again shocked.

Rei, stand ye back. I fear she be affected by a malady of the Lone Star, Apolphus warned.

What? Why? What’re you going to do?

I know not, he paused. I fear we are outmatched, my phoenix.

“I wouldn’t,” Usagi snarled, “dare. Nothing you can do will keep you safe. So long as you let me alone, I won’t bother you. Got it?”

“Usagi!”

For a moment, the torn, former leader of the Sailor Senshi gazed at her friend, confusion aside anxiety and artificially instilled instincts that drove her onward. “I’m sorry Rei …” she muttered. “I don’t mean to do that … but your guy, he’s really getting in my face.”

Your guy? Rei thought, incredulous. Usagi’s whole manner was odd, confused, and very unlike the girl she knew. Wisely, she reached for Adolphus, and was quiet. “What do you want?”

Usagi whipped around to face the source of the voice, hard resentment on her face. Suddenly Shyanne snarled, though it was clear she did not understand why she felt such fear. Usagi’s eyes and heart fell at Carl’s identification of her former friend. Her instinct had proved correct. How was it possible? What had they done to her?

“What are you,” Shyanne snapped at Carl, who strode with determined ease.

“I mean you no harm, young one. I only wish is to help your mother.”

The corner of her lip curled upward unpleasantly as she backed towards her surrogate mother. “No. Stay away. I won’t let you hurt her too!”

‘You know of me, and my world, don’t you, little one,’ Carl offered softly in a foreign, guttural tongue. Mina’s uncertain gaze shifted quickly between her love and the doll-like child.

‘Yes, Silver One,’ she replied calmly, meeting the level of his word in tongue. “I am the daughter of Sarah Night, woman,” she snarled faintly to Mina. “Be careful where you wag your tongue, lest I remove it.”

Carl snorted loudly. ‘Your attitude is not welcome before me. Consider your manners.’

‘Consider whom? How do you regard your trinket?’

‘My trinket?’

‘You dally, and I do not like you. Where is your trust if you will not show it? Farewell.’ Like the flicker of a badly edited film, the child disappeared. A moment later, so did Sarah.

“Ami-chan!” Rei cried.

“Love, ‘tis of no use. They have gone places we cannot follow,” Adolphus offered.

“No. You’re wrong,” Usagi stated. “I can follow them. I followed you.”

“Aye, mayhap. Thou mayest try. Eh? I suspect within your words the wavering flag of truce?”

Carl stepped forward. “That is something which warrants discussion later, perhaps? We cannot afford to waste time now. The CSM await us.”

“The what?” Rei asked.

“Exactly,” Mina chimed in with a smirk. “Let’s go babe.”

Carl nodded. With a bowed head came another ill cut clip of film.

 

@~%~~~

 

Above her grey sweater vest and stonewashed jean combination of clothes, her hands inspired a brief span of dark shadows to run from the sphere of yellow like the burn within them. She said, “I told you, you would regret our meeting, creature.”

“Where is she?!” she demanded, making a twin palm strike with hands of energies nimbus, slamming the shadow shrouded being with white light.

“The demon child, her child,” she breathed heavily. “The trace came to you. You must know!”

“Answer me!”

“What did you call me?”

“No …” she squinted, teeth grinding. “You’re not telling me everything. What aren’t you telling me?”

“What are you raving about?”

The massless creature shrunk into the shadows, and beyond her mystic sense. She sniffed the air, the trail of the powerful alien obscured mystically.

“No!!” she wailed, angry light trailing from her clenched fists and she swung them about uselessly. “Damn you Morcanis!”

Alone again. Vaguely, like the fade of music against the wash of static, a briefly passed channel some distance out of range, she recalled a mild-mannered girl, not fueled by the incredible sway of power which tore at her young soul. Also came the sense of a feminine warrior, a heroine dimensions apart from her current locale and mindset. Stumbling blindly through the dense forest of sky touching evergreens, these thoughts transported her, and then fled as a flurry of a spooked owl.

What did he mean “find friend / mentor / whatever when gone”? she mulled, pacing quite literally on not-so-thin air.

Usagi-san.

Her eyes flicked upwards to a great serpentine silhouette winding through the loose tangle of heaven touching spires. Yes?

Keen observation, replied the distinctly male mind-voice. The silvery dragon descended upon the fearless, altered young woman, who seemed, oddly enough, within her own realm of respite.

There was a burst of white light, a shimmer, and the mythic dragon became a white silk shirted and black slacked short brown haired middle-aged man. As he approached her, his foot caught upon an unearthed root, and he paused to dislodge it, muttering something unpleasant.

“Then why become human? I’m not afraid of your dragon form,” Usagi stated dramatically.

“Very few are,” he replied as he neared her, brushing off his cotton clad legs. “Good people have nothing to fear from me.”

Her blue-eyed gaze hardened. “What are you saying?”

“Fact. What does that tell you?”

“That I’m good?” she blinked.

His regard also hardened as hers dissolved into uncertainty. “You don’t sound terribly certain of yourself. From what I have seen, and experienced, survival here requires great strength, whether it be physical, or emotional.”

Her mouth curled downward. “Where is Ami?”

“I know, and for that, I also see that you are blessed most generously, Usagi Tsukino.” He paused, letting the words penetrate the shrouding fog of her augmented mind. “Why are you avoiding my words?”

Reality was, he knew perfectly well. The exercise, as he saw it, was merely an attempt to further prod her awareness of her unwilling metamorphosis, as little as there might be of it.

“I don’t like them,” she answered promptly, and truthfully, pulling a dramatically shortened length of pony tail over her shoulder and wringing it in both of her delicate hands. “Why do you push me?”

“Is that how you feel?”

“Yes.”

“Then I apologize.”

Silence, the breathing Earth, tresses of nature flowing with each gentle release, and calm pull. He made a similar request in temperament: “My turn.”

“What?”

“To change the subject: Luna misses you.”

She averted her eyes, and spun away, releasing the hair to which she desperately clung – for comfort. Carl proceeded about her, seeking to reach the confused young woman.

“She …”

“No!” she said and recoiled, anxiety blurring her vision and rising her voice in tone. “I don’t want to talk about this!”

She was gone.

“Oh fantastic …”

 

@~%~~~

 

“Luna-san,” he bowed, as he entered the red and green accented apartment-sized living room. A slender, purple haired woman adorned in a black silk kimono faced and addressed him with a deep inner strain.

“Hai Carl-san?” she bowed, deeply, hands clasped together. “Do not blame yourself. The choice was hers.”

“Undoubtedly,” he stated glumly. “It is you for whom I suffer. I know what it is to lose someone who has such an intimate connection to your heart. Moreover, I am concerned regarding the psychological alterations performed upon her, beyond the mystic, and physical.”

“And the crystal?” she breathed expectantly.

He sighed. “Hai. It has been embedded within her torso, placed next to her chemically augmented heart. That much I can ascertain. I would need to examine her to. …” he fell silent.

“It is worse,” she gasped, hands coming to clench upon the island-style kitchen counter. Carl said nothing, appropriately enough, waiting for her to speak, sensing very clearly that she would.

“Ami?”

“Sit down, please,” he urged her. A roaring beast of fear lurched in her stomach, and her face paled slightly, reading the emotional darkness within him.

“There is a local alien intelligence that has gained the confidence of Shyanne. When she teleported from the cave, she went to it. I discovered Usagi just as she had frightened it off. You know what that means, don’t you?”

Numbly, she shook her head.

“Morcanis, that’s what this one is called, controls thousands of local animals, and a multitude of semi-intelligent monsters. For it to actually want to avoid your friend …” He could see that she understood the implications of his observation. “We don’t know what has happened to Ami, but Usagi has lost the trace of her. Optimistically, I suspect outside intervention.”

“Hai. There has been.”

He blinked at her. “You know?”

“Akari and Yanei.”

“That doesn’t make any sense.”

“Doesn’t it? Who else could have known?” she quested, folding her hands nervously in her lap.

“Awareness of her situation has nothing to do with this event.”

“No, you’re right. It doesn’t. I just get this sense …”

“Luna-san, we will do what we can, I promise you that.”

She gazed at him, expression clearly thankful.

“If I may ask, where is Artemis?” he requested softly, after a time.

“He is praying.”

He nodded slowly. “I must leave, Luna-san. If we are to locate Makoto Kino, there cannot be more time invested here. Usagi will come to you, I am certain of this.”

She nodded, only half-believing him out of some squalid hope, eyes closed, one hand to her mouth. Even as Carl closed the thin wooden door behind him, he could hear Artemis’ entrance into the attention, and tending of his beloved.

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Chapter 29

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Mai had promised the sensei supper upon arrival, and of course, she would not be late. Mai had selected this woman primarily based on her excellent training and reputation. Though, something had nagged at her. Was it Andy’s unanticipated absence? She doubted it. Watching Kai apologize to Tenma, and then giggle and snicker at their childish games, it had come to her that it could not have been that. Andy had only left yesterday, and was due back the following night. He worked so hard … paying the mortgage so Mai could run her martial arts school.

They had needed the time for the school to gain recognition, and bountiful enough students through which they could establish the school reputation. Even with Kai and Tenma as examples of their ability to teach—her pondering was interrupted by a faint knock at their heavy oak front door.

‘Hai!’ she had called. Behind the entrance dwelt a woman adorned in a simple robe of khaki green, a scabbard at her waist, and a hood over her head.

‘Greetings Mai-san,’ said a dulcet female voice in fragrant Japanese. ‘I trust I am timely?’

Flustered, she had replied only a simple nod. ‘Yes. May I ask your name?’

‘Kani Nakio,’ was the reply, easy, and of a carefully gauged tone.

Mai had nodded simply with a smile. She invited, ‘Come in. Make yourself at home.’

The woman had done so, and with her entrance came the removal of her hood. Beneath the thick cloth were gentle brown eyes, lengthy brunette hair hanging loosely about her face, and the war worn countenance of an experienced fighter. Mai could not miss the tell-tale weariness and wariness in those soft eyes, the deliberate stride on the edge of fleeing.

So highly recommended a sensei … I must give her a chance to explain, Mai had decided, setting her mind to be watchful of this creature. As if sensing the gaze of the parent, Nakio had faced her, scrutiny also evident in her features. Saying nothing, the agreement had been set.

‘That smells nice,’ Nakio noted with a hint of a smile.

‘Thank you Nakio-san,’ Mai replied curtly. ‘Sit down, relax. There is no hurry here. You are safe.’

The woman merely bowed. She said nothing and then proceeded into the living room. She paused to introduce herself to Kai and Tenma, who smiled cheerfully at her sister. Kai frowned slightly, then grinned up at Nakio, who bowed, and sat down between them. A time of somewhat less than idle conversation had passed: Both girls boasting their abilities, ages (measured in the distance of minutes difference in birth), and talents. They were gently hushed by their new mentor’s words: ‘It is good to know what you can do, but better still to be aware of what you cannot.’

Kai mystified at the statement, while Tenma’s thin brows had furrowed in consideration. She observed to her sister: ‘Agragance isn’t good. Makes you blind.’

Nakio smiled, pleasantly amused. ‘The wisdom of youth. But, little one, the word is “arrogance”.’

‘Um, hai. Arrogance. Thank you Nakio-san.’

‘Where’s Mama?’ Kai had asked. A plate was set softly in front her in place of an answer. The upturned corners of her lips indicated her pleasure as she had begun to eat. Mai set out the proceeding plates, and then sat down herself with all the grace of a sure footed doe. During the course of dinner, she had sought conversation in brevity, hoping it would drain the unease and tension she seemed to be feeling so readily. Nakio mentioned only the pleasantry of the weather, the kindliness of the people, and the exceedingly excellent and aptly prepared food.

She had related that she was ill-prepared to talk at length, as her trip had been arduous, and that she was fatigued. Of course, Mai relayed to her that she may excuse herself at the earliest convenience to her awaiting bedchambers, and said that Tenma would show her to the room. Eagerly, Tenma had nodded, wiping at her face as to not spill her food from her mouth, while she was chided softly. Dinner had proceeded in silence beyond that point, and Nakio had accepted Mai’s Gracious Offer with a simple bow of gratitude.

Mai had been convinced somehow that Nakio was hiding something. What? She had treated the kids with utmost respect, and seemed honest enough. She knew, of course, that these outward appearances meant as much as the visage of the local media “personality.” I’ve Got The Look. Trust Me, I’m The Good Guy. Only a witless idiot would set foot upon the Shirinaui grounds with ill intentions. Unless, of course, they had the strength to back them up.

It had to be done, she had to talk to her. This distrust was upsetting her too greatly. Forestalling the matter had kept her up that night, well into the wee hours of the morn’.

“Nakio?” Her door had been slightly ajar, allowing the vaguest sliver of light to intrude upon her apparent rest. Mai had knocked faintly, fearful that her intuition may be leading her astray.

‘Hai,’ she had replied, abruptly revealing herself as she opened the door to allow Mai’s entrance. ‘Mai-san, you wish to speak with me?’

Mai had nodded demurely. ‘I’m sorry Nakio-chan, but I can’t sleep. I have troubles which …’ she faltered, eyes stooping to the floor.

‘ … concern me. I know. Come. We will talk.’ She turned curtly, her pale blue nightgown shifting pleasantly around the slender curves of her figure, leaving the door for Mai to close behind her. As she walked to her bed, she pulled out a frightened looking chair for Mai to rest upon. Mai had watched her, as she had promised herself she would. Every motion, carefully executed like the motions of a dance. Not one an afterthought, or lacking foresight. It seemed nearly painful to witness how much effort she seemed to drop into the bin of thoughtfulness.

‘Nakio,’ she had begun before even seating herself. The woman gave her a Get Comfortable expression and a negating glance. She asked, ‘What’s wrong?’

Mai was quietly stunned. A well constructed, carefully delineated outline of protective shell had been pulled off to display a real, emotional creature. The questions in her mind had been washed into obscurity along with the strains of anxiety.

‘I’m sorry Mai, I didn’t mean to be so cold,’ she had offered, opening up in such a manner she had not conceived possible. ‘It’s hard to know who to trust.’

An emphatic nod was Mai’s only comment. ‘I knew there was something.’

Nakio had only smiled. ‘Of course you did. I’m not a mother yet, but something close to one. You, on the other hand …’

‘You’re married?’ Mai had leaned back, set – to a fair degree – at ease.

‘And pregnant,’ she sustained. Mai started, sitting forward, surprise and concern alight upon her fair countenance.

‘Why are you training my twins then?’

‘You need to ask?’ Wry smirk.

‘Perhaps not,’ Mai chuckled, sympathetic. ‘When are you due?’

‘Two months, I think…’

‘Oh my!’ she gasped. Nakio was expected to act as sensei to her twins for five years. How could she raise a child and-oh. ‘You knew I would help you.’

‘If you don’t wish to … I’ll leave,’ she tossed the words out, knowing they would be knocked out of the park before they were volleyed forth.

‘No, Nakio-san. I wouldn’t do that. I had enough trouble with the twins to do that to someone like you,’ Mai had half-smiled, sharing empathy with the Mother-To-Be. ‘Will you say… why are you here alone? Where’s the father?’

‘I’m looking for him,’ she had replied, restraining the sorrow in her voice, in the core of her being. ‘We were separated just after our marriage.’

‘You “were separated”?’

‘It’s complicated, Mai. I can’t explain yet,’ she fell silent.

‘And you will when you can?’

In spite of her calm facade, Nakio was flummoxed. ‘You are so kind and patient. Yes, yes I will.’

‘That will do. You have an excellent reputation,’ Mai confirmed. ‘I’m very sorry about your loss. You are welcome here. If it will help.’

‘It will, I am sure of it,’ she said, an unseen distance in her eyes, and echoed within her gentle voice. Mai could feel the welling of tears behind the woman’s eyes, aware that she was in dire emotional agony. ‘Arigato, Mai-san. Honto domo arigato,’ she had said finally, softly. She said nothing more, knowing that to do so would be an error. Mai stood, and hugged her, feeling a very close emotional tie to her, very much like the bond of siblings, though exactly why, neither could she fathom nor concern for.

 

@~%~~~

 

‘Kai! Where are you?’ Her brown eyes narrowed uncertainly, fearfully. ‘Stop it! You’re scaring me!’

Finding no answer, she turned and fled towards her sensei, her Elder, her Mother. ‘Tenma Misty Bogard,’ Mai had chided. ‘Your sister isn’t far. Remember what I said: It’s …’

‘ …all part of the training …’ the girl finished for her. ‘I know Mama,’ she sighed as she shifted to face the open field beyond the walls of their home. Her eyes squinted in concentration as a gentle wind shifted the short and stylish locks of her ruby red hair.

The young girl raised her hands and arms in the ingrained martial form of defense as she strode with determined caution. Mai had been very impressed with the progress of the twins, especially Tenma, who seemed so innately skilled. Mai was hoping to press them into tournament fighting, noting even Kai was at least as good as she was at that age. Not even eleven yet, and so strong, so graceful.

‘Ki-ha!’ Kai snapped, causing Tenma to duck sharply. ‘I almost got you that time! You shouldn’t spend so much time thinking!’

‘Not like you,’ Tenma retorted as she turned, adding a quickly and aptly guided fist to the remark, which was similarly dodged.

‘That’s not fair!’ Kai replied, missing her sister with a beautiful crescent kick.

Tenma giggled, leaping at her and knocking her to the ground.

‘Gotcha, Leaky!’ she cried triumphantly, sitting on the shoulder length brunette’s stomach. With a gasp, the waylaid altered her position dramatically by wrapping her legs around her sister’s neck and dropping her to the ground beside her. “Leaky” a strictly childish parody of Kai’s middle name: Waters.

‘Oh yeah, Little Miss Fogs?’ she laughed. Tenma, on the other hand, had not. Kai smirked, jumping to her feet and letting herself relax, preparing for a more serious match. Her sister was a joker by nature, but did not enjoy losing. Kai had been smart enough to use that to get her to be more serious about training. When it came down to it, Mai recognized Tenma’s apparent disregard for the intensities involved in marital training. Despite this, her sheer skill in battle exceeded her sister’s by a fair degree. So by that mark, they were evenly matched.

‘Kai! Tenma! Come home!’ Mai had yelled in an only mildly authoritative summons, knowing they would obey. Calling names and chasing each other to the doorstep, they removed their shoes at the door before lowering the tone to a hushed match of vocal hand-to-hand.

‘I want you to get cleaned up for supper,’ she had stated in a timbre more pleasant and gentle, from the small kitchen. ‘We’re having company. The new sensei will be here soon.’

‘It’ll be a guy!’ Kai snapped playfully, disappearing into the bathroom.

Tenma’s gentle voice retorted: ‘No it won’t! It’ll be a girl!’

‘Will not!’

‘Will too!’

‘Won’t!’

‘Will!’

This bout continued until Tenma had cried out, and Kai had come running, laughing loudly. Tenma followed, chasing her, childish frustration distorting her otherwise cute face.

‘Tenma! Kai! Calm down!’ Mai had called impatiently, if not tiredly. Tenma had run up to her mother and whined:

‘But Kai got cold water on me!’

Her eyes widened, more irritated than shocked. She turned to Kai, knowing she would be standing underneath the range of her gaze. ‘You know that was wrong! Apologize to her, then go and get some warm water.’

‘But Mama …’

‘Sush!’

So sorry, Tenma,’ she offered, bowing curtly before she hurried to retrieve the requested item, not wishing to entice punishment any further.

‘Are you alright honey?’ she had asked, and hand on her head.

‘I don’t like it Mama,’ he had replied, sticking out her tongue in distaste. ‘It feels funny.’

Again, she had not known what to say other than, It’s Alright Honey, It’ll All Be Okay. Some luke warm water and the promise of dinner had settled the twins for a time. Didn’t it go something like; Dinner is when kids sit down to continue eating?

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Chapter 30

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Was she really edging up the drying husk of forty? It wasn’t [_that _]bad, was it? Even at this age she looked as attractive as she had when she was at her peak. Of course, it was easy to say that based on the opinion of her husband. He was always telling her how beautiful she was, even when she did not agree. But that is the way of men, is it not? Competition with the mirror, assurance found in his sincerity.

Thoughts of the distant past permeated her consciousness. Hindsight elicited thoughts of regrets, the least of which were the twins. Kai seemed so happy, and Tenma, somehow emotionally – well – removed. How could she expect a teenage girl to deal with also being a part-time teenage guy? Nakio had been very good about helping her to discover the – woman, as it was revealed – who had issued the curse upon Tenma. Apparently it was performed during her pregnancy.

Being a martial artist of considerable prowess in reputation as much as ability, Mai understood the faucets – the escapes – that training could offer to cope. In many ways, it was a healthy way in which to focus emotional turmoil, but in doing so, it was possible to become lost, or engulfed entirely. Through the years Tenma had become a fiercely powerful warrior, and – like her uncle, Terry Bogard, she admitted – had declared herself a Lone Wolf. She was only sixteen, and yet it was clear she believed she had no equal, and no one so far had been able to disabuse her of the notion.

‘Mama?’

Blinking slowly and swivelling the recliner, Mai faced the daughter upon which her thoughts dwelt so frequently. It was the next day, she observed dully, and dinner was simmering in the kitchen. Had the whole of it passed her on such brief terms? Shaking the thought and attempting to seek light past the all consuming considerations of recent history, she gazed upon the young woman.

‘Yes sweetie?’ she half crooned subconsciously.

The demure fear in the young woman’s eyes betrayed her usual fire-eyed demeanour. ‘Mama … I need to talk to you.’

Uncertain, Mai sat forward, reading tears and pain in her expression. Offering silence and open arms, Mai accepted Tenma’s abrupt sobbing, trembling and confused mutters.

‘It’s okay,’ she whispered, hoping to heaven that she could convince herself of that. Everything inside her spoke ill, denying her the security of certainty. ‘I’m pregnant,’ were the words, breaking the vision, shattering the thin sheen of memory. A shrill spark of rage shot through Mai, and she clenched at Tenma until she whimpered slightly.

‘Mama … that hurts!’ Recalling herself, Mai unclenched the figurative talons and retracted her nails. Red faced and terrified, Tenma sniffed and blinked, saying little. ‘What am I going to do?’

Mai got to her feet, standing, walking, exercising her body in a weak effort to calm the torrent of anger flared within. Like an automatic parry she asked, ‘Who’s the father?’

‘I don’t know!’

‘What?’

Mai’s fury passed as the tale flowed, along with Tenma’s tears. Cursing herself and her “feminine” weakness, she reflected on changing to her male self, staying that way for days, and only now, two weeks later, turning back to herself. She had been mugged and raped at gunpoint. She’d been shot. Where? In the arm. It was only a flesh wound! No, he hadn’t beaten her. She said she had been tested. No! She hadn’t tested HIV positive. An abortion …?

‘Mama … I don’t … I … I can’t! It’s not the baby’s fault!’

Mai crossed over to the couch, taking her daughter’s hands, and said: ‘That’s okay. I’m here. We’re here.’

Tenma’s eyes fell. ‘What about Papa?’

‘We’ll talk to him. Together.’

‘But what if he says …?’

‘Papa loves you Tenma … We both love you. Always. We’ll work it out.’

‘I know … I just … I shouldn’t have been walking around like this,’ she glanced at herself, indicating her sexual state. ‘If I’d been male he’d …’ her voice dropped.

‘No!’ Mai searched her face, finding no end of sentence. Her expression set sternly. ‘He could have killed you. I would have lost you. I couldn’t bear that!’

Tenma gazed at her, hearing the words, fearing them, feeling for her mother, knowing it was a return of favour. ‘Arigato gozeimashita,’ she said bluntly, softly. ‘That was a stupid thing to say.’

‘No, no, Misty darling.’ Open arms to receive the deathly terrified girl.

Rest came only several hours beyond midnight. Rest, lying down of the body, without calming the mind. The muscles in her neck felt like a firm crosstitch. Mai feared this more than death itself, this unrelenting pain in her daughter. She could not let herself act upon the wills which her mind fed upon. What comfort she could find was not, ironically, in Andy. Nakio, she knew, would understand. Tomorrow they would talk.

 

@~%~~

 

After having prepared the fast-breaking meal, Nakio was joined by a very quiet Mai and Tenma. Over the duration of the meal, it came to her that the silence had reason.

‘We must talk,’ Mai issued in a hushed voice, swallowing with some difficulty. She sipped at her drink.

Nakio merely nodded, offering no conjectures as to why. However, from study, she was able to determine that it was about Tenma, who avoided her gaze tenuously. There was a glazed look of pain in her eyes, and the bags of want for sleep underneath. The blade of pain had cut deeply, and the wound, still fresh, bled copiously. The stain of it was evident in her body language, as she leaned forward slightly at the table, eyes wandering, uncertain of where to settle. Mai also seemed to have managed little in way of rest, fostering the dreary look of unspent frustration. These expressions fell into place in glances shared, and not, by mother and daughter.

‘Come Mai, Tenma,’ Nakio said, standing from the table. Mai began to collect the plates. Nakio merely negated her.

‘No. Obviously there is something much more important to deal with.’

Mai squinted in her direction, her face betraying curiosity in the woman named Kani Nakio, even after knowing her for six years. Finally, she set the pieces down, tapping Tenma on the shoulder, realizing she seemed unaware of the movement. Tenma wanted to sit in the dojo, noting something about safety. Nakio arched an eyebrow at the comment, but made no remark. They made themselves only somewhat less than comfortable on a cushion apiece, atop the slightly raised stage of instruction.

‘So who will start?’ Nakio quested strictly, in her native tongue, Japanese, wanting to cut to the quick rather than dodge the obvious. Mai and Tenma exchanged wistful looks, and the mother decided it would be best if she began. As expected, Nakio understood, and was able to relate on terms of which Mai had long term suspicions. As they talked, Mai slowly fell to the wonderment of how much more of a history had Nakio that she had yet to divulge?

‘Have you chosen whether or not to abort the child?’ Nakio asked with a faintly betraying tone of disgust. It was clear she did not condone the idea.

‘I don’t want to do it,’ she replied, fear and passionate fires in the windows to her soul. Nakio set Tenma with a hard gaze of scrutiny. ‘It’s not the baby’s fault …’

‘I need to ask you something …’

Tenma choked, tears rising in her eyes.

‘Sensei,’ she started, recognizing the tone of command. ‘What?’

‘It’s about you and your sister’s safety.’ Something not unlike desperation shone in her voice. ‘You must be strong, Tenma-san. Please.’

Swallowing the shard of emotion down – or trying to – she blinked and nodded.

‘What did he look like?’

Memories flashed, and with them, like the deeply unsettling call of thunder, terror beckoned. His grin was the first slide to appear upon the white wall of calmness she had constructed in her mind. Goosebumps rose on her forearms, she shivered vaguely, clutching her stomach, sheer terror in her eyes.

Nakio cursed under her breath. Of course! Tenma had only buried her feelings, unable to deal with them. It was not so much that she expected the young woman to face them so soon, it was that she hated to bring them forth like this. Yet, she simply had to know! Mai reached over with a wing to shelter her, but Tenma chirped nervously and shrunk away, not wishing to be touched.

Revulsion and abhorrence for herself were adamant. Again, she damned her stupidity, her ignorance. She had known! Was it not true that she tempted them like that? With her beauty? She was attractive to them, and they smelled her like wolves, knowing which would flinch at the hint of violence. The weak ones. She had been fooling herself, training so hard. What had it done? Nothing!

“But you’re wrong,” said a voice. It was Nakio. Tenma looked up at Nakio through her blurred reality. “You are not weak, you are not stupid. You were not unwise. Look at me.”

Tenma shifted her wandering eyes, wiping them with the backs of her hands.

‘You see me? I am a strong woman. I was entrapped and owned like an animal.’

‘How can that be true?’

Mai regarded her daughter seriously. “There is still so much for you to learn, Tenma-chan.’

‘Hai. I survived, fell in love, gave birth to Ayana.’

‘But you are stronger than I am,’ Tenma said, forlorn. ‘How can I—’

‘Mama-san! We’re back!’ called a familiar voice.

Immediately Mai dismissed Tenma, and she departed quietly. Kai had proceeded to the open kitchen where Mai had apparently immersed herself completely in aforementioned task. Watching her, concern took the forefront.

‘Mom?’

She started, dropping a mug into the sink. The descent was accompanied by the sharp, harsh shattering of ceramics. Mai gazed dully at Kai, looking tense and on edge.

‘Gomen nasai!’ Kai apologized quickly, approaching her. ‘I didn’t mean to scare you.’

Mai clearly her throat uneasily. ‘No,’ she replied, offering no denial. ‘It’s alright. I’m just tired. I’ll be fine.’ She grasped for the shards in the sink, gathering them slowly into her palm.

‘There’s something wrong with Tenma, isn’t there?’

Mai gasped, taking in a mouthful of air suddenly. She clutched at her left index finger and winced faintly. Kai responded on a reflexive thought, retrieving the first aid kit and urging her mother to sit so she could bandage the cut. ‘It’s nothing,’ Mai protested weakly. ‘It’ll stop bleeding on it’s own.’

‘Will you, though, Mom?’ Kai parried carefully. ‘I know I haven’t been around for awhile, and I don’t know what’s been going on lately, but …’ Her eyes met her mother’s, letting the dressed finger go. ‘I’ve missed you.’

Mai was silent for a thoughtful moment. ‘I’ve missed you too,’ she issued warmly, then exhaled slowly. ‘Honey, I can’t tell you what happened to Tenma. You’re supposed to talk to her aren’t you? Isn’t she waiting?’

‘Yes, but I’m worried about you too,’ and her face screwed up in a worried look. ‘What then? Is it Nakio?’

Something like shock took Mai for a moment. Of course, that was her concern. What could she tell her? That her sensei was … what? She really failed in mustering a specific concept regarding the matter of her somewhat enigmatic friend. Over the years, since the beginning, it had ceased to matter … until now. Mai stood and walked over to the home brewed herbal tea she had prepared. Automatically, she retrieved a quad of mugs and began pouring some into each.

‘Mama-san?’

‘I’m sorry baby, but I … I don’t know yet.’

‘I understand,” she sighed. “You will tell me, right?’

Turning, she handed two of the mugs to Kai.

‘Hai.’

‘Alright,’ she half-smiled, kissed her lightly on the cheek, and left without a backward glance. Questions swirled anew in Kai as she proceeded to meet her sister.

So what is it? What’s is going on? Is Nakio hiding something? What could it be? The only answer came: Anything. Not easily, mind you, but it was indeed possible. And since having attended college and being away for two years, Kai felt that her awareness of the situation in total was slight at best. A week at home just wasn’t enough to give her an accurate sense of the undertones of interaction that had developed over those pair of years.

‘Tenma?’ she called into the room.

‘Hai!’ a voice replied. ‘Come in.’

Her hair was thin and wet, and she had changed into a – Kai blinked – maternity dress? Gazing at her, Tenma’s face registered nigh coldness, and a partial frown.

‘So what was it you wanted to talk about?’ Kai asked gently, very aware of her sister’s defensive mannerisms. The answer, however, was made quite obvious.

‘So what’s his name?’

‘Kai … it’s … I …’ she swallowed a chunk of lava into her stomach, for it burned inside her as the emotions swirled within. ‘I was raped.’

Everything Kai had felt to be true about her sister, the stalwart, the strong, the column of confidence, shattered like an ice sculpture under the violent throe of a rock slide. Tenma’s words held an uncertainty for sympathy, aware of the remoteness Kai had walled about herself.

Kai found herself trembling, feeling as though slapped. ‘Tenma!’ she cried softly, reaching for her sister.

Silence offered itself to them, and was accepted in part, aside from their faint, autonomic breathing.

‘It scares me to see you so … so scared.’ Kai admitted with Time-wrought hesitance.

Tenma only shook her head. ‘You can’t dwell on it, sis’. Really. You’ve go to move on … forget the assh …’

‘Kai! You don’t have to swear!’ Tenma snapped abruptly, interrupting with round eyes.

‘Since when did that start bothering you?’

Tenma refused an answer, feeling vague, and uncertain. ‘I guess it doesn’t matter. Why are you wearing this?’ she pinched and tugged at the light blue dress in a pair of fingers. ‘You don’t start to show for several months … Um, how long has it been?’

‘Only a couple weeks,’ she admitted, eyes downcast. ‘But I am … feel,’ she took her sister’s hand, pressed it to her stomach, and held her there for a time.

Aghast and awestruck, she pulled back. ‘Tenma-chan … how …’

‘I don’t know.’

‘This is what you were talking about with Mama and Nakio.’

She nodded.

‘You need to see Osaka,’ Kai decided gravely.

‘Who’s that?’

‘A person I met on campus.’

‘What about Mama?’

‘Well, hai, of course after we tell her,’ she replied with an ashamed smirk. She got to her feet. ‘I’ve got to change. We’ll go talk to Mom afterwards, okay?’

‘Umm, I suppose.’

 

@~%~~~

 

‘I apologize, Mai-san,’ Nakio had begun, setting herself down at the table aside the light of the window in the kitchen.

Mug and plate of sweets in hand, the recipient of the apology refused the offer as she accompanied Nakio, sitting opposite her. Ayana had decided that her mother was not likely to entertain her, and had departed, seeking just that. Nakio warned her not to interrupt Kai and Tenma, explaining to the young girl that they wanted to be alone. She had smiled, understanding, and trotted off.

‘She’s so bright, Nakio. Even at six she understands so much,’ Mai observed, eyes catching the empty doorway through which she had exited.

‘Hai,’ Nakio calmly agreed, sipping at her tea slowly. The warmth filled her throat, drew forth a thread of tension from her and untying a pair of knots in her neck. Mai’s earth toned eyes drifted back from the doorway, and halted on Nakio, gauging and considering her.

It is well beyond time now to tell her, advised a voice within.

Yes, I know. How can I avoid it feeling like an abuse of trust? she replied wistfully.

My kind heart, you cannot.

‘Nakio … Or is that your real name?’ The hardness in her voice hurt, and Nakio winced as if struck.

‘No, Mai-san. Forgive me. It is not.’

Mai’s glare did not soften.

‘I am Kino Makoto. I don’t know if you’ve heard of the …’

‘Bishojo Sailor Senshi. …’ The tension eased in an odd manner. She’d heard about their disappearance. Everyone had. Yet even as she said the words, only then did the remainder of the facts fall into place. There was a rumor one of them had returned, but … ‘You’ve been here for seven years Makoto. You’ve only been missing for a couple of weeks … How is that possible?’

‘I don’t know. I guess Phate knows what she’s doing.’

‘Phate? What do you mean?’

‘I’ll explain.’

‘Okay, but what about Kai? You’re going to have a hard time explaining that to her.’

‘Well, it’s not going to be any easier than this …’ her words jammed firmly in her throat, constricting thought has much as her vocal instrumentation, ‘ …but I guess it’s got to be done.’

Makoto’s tension tripled as a stark thought raised its fearsome head and glared upon her with glowering spheres of yellow light. ‘How do you know? Kai and I weren’t friends long enough to …’

‘No …’ It was Mai’s turn for guilt. ‘But Kai knows people. It’s not my place to tell you, but she can. If she knew who you were, she would have already …’

She nodded slightly in reply.

‘Um, do you mind if I ask what happened?’

‘No. I guess it doesn’t matter now anyway, since we’re pulling all the stops. I was captured by a lion youma, who took the us and sent us away from this world. It is a long story Mai-sama.’ A long restrained fatigue penetrated the usually tempered look she wore with such deliberation. ‘There is so much … and to relate it all …’

Mai shook her head.

‘It’s alright Makoto. Just tell me … what … where did you go? How did you fall in love?’

The request faded into oblivion as Makoto began speaking. The encapsulation passed with several pots of tea, lunch, and the delicate darkening of the midsummer sky into the early evening. Makoto illustrated the violent nature of the future Earth. She elaborated on the Coalition and their Communist-style attempts, and frequent successes, in rebuilding a society dominated by their order. She spoke of her experiences, her capture – Mai pointed out the reference to the story she had told Tenma – her life as a Cyber-Knight, being hunted by the Coalition. Through a bout of tears she spoke of Hanlan, of her love for him, and the emptiness in her soul, which delivered the finest charred slivers of agony every moment she did not distract herself from the situation at hand.

Makoto did not speak of Marlanda, and deliberately failed to mention the ancient who had saved her from the Slaver and former CEO of Neo Tech Industries. She did, however, tell the story of Phate, and what had been her bidding. Rapt, unable to conceive the majority of the events told, Mai sat, and having already wept for her, was silent.

‘This woman – so beautiful, so, so …’ she paused, lost in the recollection. ‘She was so outrageously sensual … oh, well, sorry. It’s impossible to describe. She called herself “Phate,” and she wanted – well, it was really simple. She just wanted me to prove myself. She said that she was impressed by my fighting ability, but said that I could be better.’

Answering Mai’s curious expression, Makoto said: ‘It was really crazy. I thought it was a dream. Even a nightmare would have been suitable. It wasn’t though, and Phate proved that to me pretty quickly. She has little tolerance for ignorance. I stayed for a few months, training under her, and then she just … sent me here.’

‘Why?’

‘To protect the twins.’

A quizzical look washed over Mai’s face.

‘I don’t honestly know. It’s been so long that I can hardly see the point, but … she’s never been wrong.’ Makoto stated with a tone of finality.

‘Pardon? Don’t you mean “hasn’t been wrong before”?’

Makoto shook her head firmly, saying nothing as she stood slowly. ‘Mai … are you up to cooking, or should I?’

Mai blinked. ‘Um, if you don’t mind …?’

She smiled faintly, ‘I don’t.’

Makoto began running a sink of dishwater as Mai turned to leave.

‘I’m going to check on the twins,’ she stated softly.

‘Hai,’ she replied, not looking at her.

‘Makoto?’

The tone of her voice drew Makoto’s eyes upwards, her gaze somewhat expectant.

‘Darling Mako-san, thank you. For your honesty,’ and she departed with an endearing glance. Makoto sighed, left with the frustrations of ignorance. What next?

What kindness she has, Ellison pointed out.[_ Are you not fortunate?_]

I suppose, was the morose reply. For once, Makoto’s ancient rune weapon could not muster a response. At least she would not have to trouble Ayana with the nonsense of her fake identity. She was at such an age that details like those would affect her minimally – or so she thought. With this obstacle cleared, what would come next? The idea of Ayana growing up never knowing her father frightened Makoto deeply.

‘Mama-san?’ Her voice was soft, thick with concern. ‘Are you okay Mama?’

Tears jumped to her eyes, she turned and scooped the little girl into her arms, hugging her tightly. Alarmed and frightened, she yelped.

‘Mama-san! Why are you crying?’ her bell of a voice pleaded. ‘Are you hurt?’

Beyond her own pain, Makoto became vaguely aware of a difference in her little girl. Her voice, her weight. She distinctly felt heavier. The tears halted. It was not just a matter of an additional five pounds over a few weeks. The difference was nearly five pounds in just a few hours!

‘Mama-san? Are you okay?’ she entreated of her mother with her startlingly sharp brown eyes.

‘Hai Ayana sweetie,’ Makoto lied, heading towards the nearest bathroom. ‘I’m fine.’

‘But you were crying. Are you hurt?’

What do I say? ‘I was just worried about you.’

‘Mama-san … I know. It’s okay. Papa-san is here.’

She nearly fell forward as she set Ayana on the scale. Her heart paused for a preplanned action, and as she gazed unbelieving at her child, resumed. She landed on one knee, wincing faintly. ‘Ayana … Papa-san is gone. I told you—’

She shook her little head eagerly with a pleasant smile. ‘No Mama-san. He’s here!’

‘Ayana, can you tell Mama how you know about Papa-san?’ she asked gently, striding at an alarming pace towards her bedroom.

‘Hai. I felt him,’ she replied matter-of-fact, extremely proud of herself.

Thoughts flew through her mind. Ayana weighed too much for a five year old now. Almost sixty pounds. Enough for an above average height eight year old. She was psychic and she recognized Hanlan’s psychic presence. Well, as Makoto was so powerful, from being a Sailor Senshi as much as a Cyber Knight, it made sense. Like mother, like daughter. The first part, however, bothered her. Why was she growing like this? Nothing she had read during her training mentioned anything like this. Besides, she was not on Rifts Earth any longer.

‘Stay here,’ she bid, fading into her room, collecting her silver and ruby dove ring, and returning only a moment later.

Hanlan, she thought, reaching out with her consciousness.

Silence.

‘No Mama-san, he’s busy,’ Ayana explained.

A confused and surprised glance suffused Makoto’s expression. ‘What? Doing what?’

‘Saving Tenma-chan.’

‘Oh my Goddess …’ she took Ayana in her arms and dashed straight to the dojo, expecting Mai to be there.

‘Where’s Mai?’ she asked herself.

‘Outside,’ Ayana replied, her voice sounding distant, vacant. Makoto’s fear carried her thoughts while she strained with child in arm as her feet carried her body at full stride.

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Chapter 31

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Hovering over the body of Kai, it was obvious she was attractive in a rough edged sort of way, though Makoto did not really care. Upon spying the creature, she set Ayana down and said: ‘Hide. Don’t come out until I call you.’

With crystal eyes, her lip trembled. ‘But Mama-san …’

Papa is close, be quiet, please, she replied firmly in her mind.

Hai, Mama-san, she answered obediently and turned, chasing a shadow back into the house.

“Get away from her!” Makoto cried sharply in English, drawing her saber from the leather sheath on the belt of her robe, as she ran with a fury in her step.

“Oh damn,” the woman cursed, hopping backwards from the harshly beaten girl, to her feet. A faint ring of steel pronounced the existence of her two handed claymore.

“What’d you do to her!” Makoto snarled, dropping on the woman with her weight behind her sword. She met the strike easily, and pushed Makoto back with what seemed a minimal effort.

Makoto, wait!

“Listen,” the blonde started to say. “I really don’t want to fight you.”

A shrill cry bolted from Makoto’s throat as she struck several times, in what seemed to be less than rational attacks. Aptly and cleanly, the muscular stranger dodged the first lunge, and parried the following motions. With a frown of annoyance, she hit Makoto across the head with the pommel of her sword. Stunned, she stumbled backwards.

“Hey! Sorry for that, but I’m here with Mamoru, Makoto!” the woman cried in a partially commanding tone. “Um … and Han needs our help!”

“What?” she gasped, hand on head, enthralled by the mention of her husband.

Hanlan, dear child. Ayana’s knowledge of her father’s location is very accurate, Ellison replied calmly. Both heads turned as an utterance of protective fury was recognized.

“What the hell…?” the woman flinched, striking towards the direction of the voice. Her narrowed eyes eventually reached Makoto. “Freakin’ telepaths are everywhere! Gotta catch a break … somehow …”

The other was half into a nod when she was interrupted. “Fine. You stay here. I’m going after Mai.”

“The hell you are!” she retorted. A challenge drifted nigh visibly between the two fighters. Finally Aaran turned as if conceding. However, she said: “Kai’ll be fine. I’ll just leave my blade with her.” She unsheathed a plain – yet beautiful – and lithely placed the blade on the brutally marked young woman. Aaran turned to the apparent leader. “There. Better already. Hey, you wanna go or what?”

‘Hai!’

The stranger had to be impressed, Makoto moved quickly for a non-augmented human. Quickly enough for her to have to jog to remain abreast. Impressed for a brief period, perhaps.

“Gots damn this! Let’s fly!” she called out, leaping at Makoto who reflexively ducked. She yelped as she felt her feet parted company with the earth, the rough beating of wings assaulting her ears.

Nani!?’

She laughed delightedly. “Now that’s a rush, right?!”

“You – you … oh, um what do I call you?”

“What?!”

“Your name!” Makoto threw a glare upwards.

Aaran flinched. “Aaran! Okay, there they are, we’re just in time! … You ready or what?!”

“Yes!”

“Right then!” Her grip loosened sharply, and Makoto felt the air surge as she descended quickly towards a shadowed target.

Mai ducked and rolled forward on one shoulder as Makoto’s blade slipped easily into the shoulder of the beast. Whirling with a howl echoing forth from a purple rend of a mouth, Makoto’s vision flashed crimson as pain seared across her face.

“Makoto!” Mai cried, pushing back her sweat matted hair with a bloodied hand.

“That’s flakkin’ it!” bellowed a Boom-Gun of a voice. “No twobit creep hits my wife!!”

With a harsh roar, a silver-grey club of nigh ridiculous proportions careened in a deliberated course to introduce the creature to the earth. Makoto’s ears screamed at her as the shadow-creature dispersed in a chaotic cacophony of sound. Stumbling to her feet, she muttered:

“Han …?”

“Mako!” he cried, gently; for his voice could easily strike one down as the strength of his fist. He received her gratefully to his arms and held her like a lost love. Two others appeared beyond the wall of forest, and that of shade, taking upon the sight of the reunited with heartfelt smiles. Tears abundant spoke to Hanlan, even as she discovered were not so great a distance in departure from her mind and mouth.

“I guess now y-you’ve got an excuse to fight …” she gazed at him, eyes wet and imploring.

He smiled at her, all gentility, yet no restraint.

“Babe yer bleedin’ all over tha place,” and he took a cloth from his pocket to hold to her face.

“It’ll stop soon, I promise,” she said, and thought, When I can concentrate…

Mai scrambled over to her pallid child while the party gazed on, and upon taking her into her arms, cried: “She’s not breathing!”

The young woman standing aside Mamoru went to right to Mai’s side and interposed herself between mother and daughter. “Step aside,” she declared. “I’m a Healer.”

Clasped together, Demelza laid her hands on her chest and bowed her head in silence, letting her training guide her were she knew her emotions could not. Mai stared on, unconcealed terror in her eyes. Mamoru stepped up next to her, sympathy flickering within.

“Can she save her? What’s she doing?” she whispered.

Mamoru glanced at her, manner cool, empathy flowing from him like sanguine perfume. “She is a psychic healer, and she can.”

“Who are you?” Mai requested in tones less than at any form of ease.

“Mamoru Chiba, Mai-san. Friend of Makoto.”

“Mama!” Tenma coughed as she was received to her mother’s arms. “Mama-san … I’m okay …”

Grateful tears stirred Mai’s heart, and spilled over her cheeks as she held her daughter and merely nodded vaguely at the Healer.

“What about Kai?” Hanlan asked, worry upon his thick-seeming brow. Makoto pushed herself from his shoulder slightly, and pointed at Aaran back at the house.

“She’ll be fine. Aaran’s taking care of her,” she noted, sounding oddly confident of the fact.

“Makoto-san?” For a moment her heart held at the voice, hardly believing the existence of it. As she turned, Hanlan sighed, and she saw hope again, faded though it might be.

Rather abruptly, Makoto turned to Mai. ‘Mai, I am sorry. I am so very sorry!’

A harshly thoughtful look penetrated Mai’s gentle features. ‘Why, Makoto? This isn’t your fault.’

Makoto set aside her coffee, and stood, turning away. ‘You would not have been involved if I did not come. I drew you into this.’

‘No my sister, we are hatamoto,’ Mai smiled, rising to meet the long time sensei of her children as she paced, drawing her to a sudden halt.

Makoto’s eyes fell. ‘You have done so much for my daughter and I …’

“Babe?” spoke a deep, yet gentle voice. Immediately, Makoto’s eyes shot upwards, catching Hanlan standing just in the doorway, Ayana in one thick arm. “It’s ‘cause she cares.”

‘You understand Japanese, Hanlan-san?’ Mai inquired with a slight smile.

“Jus’ a bit,” he grinned.

“I have been a fool … Uh … Oh! When we married … before I … um …” Makoto started slowly. She noticed Ayana peering between a pair of shogi doors. “Ayana … come here!”

“Mama-san! Papa-san”

“You were pregnant!” A welcome smile lit Hanlan’s face as he watched Ayana run up to him. With a definite leap, she landed in his accepting arms. Laughing and cajoling her, he beamed, and Makoto could see he would be a wonderful father.

“Ayana, how old are you?”

She rolled her little brown eyes, toying with her hair. “Six, Papa-san.”

“She looks just like you – Mama-san!”

“And she’s got your temper,” she replied easily, albeit sharply.

“Let us go in before the chill does us in,” Mai suggested.

Inside, Mamoru did not require prompting to explain, “Demelza did more than save my life. When you all disappeared, I was lost. We were all lost. Luna and Artemis barely knew where to start.”

“Luna! Oh heavens! Artemis … Are they alright?” Makoto said with apprehension of the answer.

“They’re fine. When we came through … after fighting Akari and Yanei … they became human.”

‘Nani?’ she half shrieked in Japanese. ‘What do you mean?!’

‘Makoto …’ he cursed lightly. ‘I don’t know how to say it … It’s way beyond my ability to understand.’ Entreating her with his gaze, he continued. ‘They’re very happily in love, Makoto. They’ve married. It’s amazing.’

Makoto shook her head at the impossibility. ‘The human part I don’t get, but the rest …’ she breathed and leaned tiredly upon Hanlan. ‘I am happy for them.’

A smile appeared upon Mamoru’s face. ‘So you are married.’ Somehow a sliver of irony failed to escape his words.

‘Just squeezed it in before I got—no, it doesn’t matter now. It was scary. I’ve been away from Han for too long,’ she replied, astonished by the abrupt awareness that it was Mamoru she was speaking to. The thought fled as she squeezed Hanlan.

“Guys?”

One and all turned to the source of the voice.

“Tenma’s stable now, and Kai wants to talk to you,” Demelza said calmly.

“Oh Ayana … she’s fallen asleep,” Makoto sighed slowly, in sweet tones. “Mai? Would you please …?”

She shook her head, stepping up to Hanlan, arms open. “Not at all.”

Hanlan proffered – with much hesitance – Ayana to Mai. It was a moment before he let her go, smiling as he did. Mai bowed her head slightly, and was gone to lay her down to rest. Hanlan quite expected Makoto to run into his arms, and was half surprised when she did not. Watching her, he finally perceived the matter; something inside held her in place. A frown replaced the smile he wore, and he approached her.

“Listen, darlin’ … whatever it is, we can deal. I ain’t crossed so many dimensions t’ have ya run away from me now.”

Utterly wordless facing her beloved husband, Makoto’s heart twisted against her soul, as she felt her emotions rend, coming to lean towards Hanlan, and though flinching, not running, nor wishing escape.

Kai was clear eyed though bandaged near to mummification.

“At college I met group of people who, well … have formed a secret society based around the Bishojo Sailor Senshi. In fact,” she gazed at Makoto firmly though sleepily from her bed, “I joined them. I’ve known your identities for almost four years now. They’ve known for much longer.”

Dumbfounded, Makoto harbored a stupefied gaze for a moment.

“You were never suppose to know about us,” she said, admitting that she had known the answer in advance. “But we were there just in case Sailor Moon ever really did crumble … and now I guess there’s no choice…”

 

@~%~~~

 

Makoto awoke nauseous, not wondering for a moment if pregnancy was a concern. Celibacy was the only thing that felt right to her in Hanlan’s absence. The grounds were eerily quiet, lacking even the distant sound of animals. Heart thudding in her chest, she climbed out of bed and dressed against all logic. Then she went outside to patrol.

The practice over the years had eased her mind at times, reminding her of the days she had regained control, serving Coake and awakening her physic strength. Reaching out provided no comfort. It was a faint light in absolute stillness. She followed this sensation against all better judgement. While she had not tried to manifest her psi-blade in such a long time, she trusted the instincts that honed its lethal edge.

They told her to find and confront this presence. It was not far into the forest that she located the being. In the darkness, it could have been anyone – but it was unmistakably female – if not for her voice. It was so damned familiar.

“Usagi-chan?” she called hesitantly, hardly believing she could ever sound so calculated, so selfish. A deep dulcet chuckle met Makoto’s ears.

‘I am Tsukino Jisuruka,’ and the form behind the voice peeled forth from the absence of light. She was a dark parody of her friend, glare as harsh as it was sultry, demanding as it was seductive. Despite her anger, Makoto felt a faint blush rise in her cheeks.

‘I know why you’re here,’ the woman stated with slightest trace of a smile. She set her feet upon the earth, and regarded Makoto with a direct curiosity. In response Makoto flinched, not quite knowing why. ‘How do you fare? How is Hanlan? Is he gentle or rough behind closed doors and shuttered windows …? You have been so long without … it.’

Makoto’s nostrils flared as she scowled. The chuckle returned. She was struck by the condescending quality that this strange woman was relaying. She hissed, ‘Usagi has no sisters.’

‘Do tell,’ she replied seriously, a callous smile darkening her face.

‘Oh I will,’ she said. The pale blue of Makoto’s psi-blade lit her chin as she placed the tip of her blade to the female creature’s throat.

She did not tense. ‘You are boring me, Makoto … maybe I will just see how he likes me, perhaps … hai?’

A retaliatory cry tore out from the core of her being, making Jisuruka startle, and take back from her. Before, however, she could ask for more than two steps, the threatening blade took at her shoulder, slicing the black fabric and bringing forth a crimson mark. The woman staggered back with a low grunt, and gripped her shoulder, blood painting a partial glove upon her hand.

‘Curse you Makoto … have you not learned?’ she cried, drawing her free hand up to clasp into a fist. Makoto abruptly felt an impulse to duck, though her body did not seem too eager in complying. Jisuruka placed her left hand on Makoto’s chest and uttered softly: ‘Dire Force!’

The sensation of her chest exploding was interrupted by the pain of smashing into a tree. She inhaled, and then exhaled. Still alive. Gradually, as she gathered her wits, Jisuruka grabbed her by the bangs of her hair and slammed her head against the tree, indicating clearly who had control.

‘What you have made me do? It is a tiresome bore. I own your life and would take it – doubt me not,’ she snarled deeply, turning Makoto to face her as she kicking her knee into her stomach. ‘But I need to leave a warning to your merry girlfriends of magic.’

‘What…?’ she gasped faintly, blood curling at the corner of her lip.

‘Your tarty little cavalry, you bludgeoned cow.’

‘I don’t,’ she coughed, ‘don’t… know…’

‘Enough,’ intoned gently, then clenched her open hand and hovered it above Makoto’s left cheek. Her nails dug into the fleshy part of Makoto’s cheek, who thrashed threw her back several feet. She yelped, holding her bloodied face.

‘Show them all, you human loving whore,’ Jisuruka cursed evenly. After a moment of seeming study, appreciating her work, she sneered: ‘Your life is ours,’ as she faded into nothing. ‘ …and that is to say nothing of what my sisters will do to you before then!’

Stark fear held Makoto, hating this creature, hating her with her soul, wanting desperately to kill her, cursing her mark. Footsteps rumbled up to her and the muscular bulk of Halan right behind. She twisted in his arms as he shook her, gentle as a baby.

“Hanlan …?!” she muttered wearily, adrenaline ebbing.

“Where’d that beastie go!” he got to his feet and drew her easily into his arms. Her eyes, half-lidded, took to him stunned, as a lost child. “Aw, y’got cut up again. Gots damn it.”

To tell you plainly, Hanlan was quite angry. For the wound would heal only stubbornly, was certain to scar, and there was not a single thing he could do about the entire matter. He never took such things lightly, even when it was best to; it was not in him. Makoto’s fear transcended his own, for she was sharply aware of the power of the woman, and her nature. Kai somehow seemed to have a subtle awareness of Jisuruka, though, she admitted, it was not her own.

“Osaka has been watching them,” she stated, frowning slightly at Makoto. “They’ve made some countermeasure of some sort. I don’t know what, though …” she shrugged.

“I swear it was Usagi,” Makoto frowned bitterly. “But she only used Usagi’s family name. She did mention something …”

‘…that is to saying nothing of what my sisters will do …!’

“ …uhm … she said … um … she has sisters.” For the first time in a while, she was deathly frightened. She pressed her fingers slightly to the bandage of the wound, and winced. “It shouldn’t hurt this much.”

“Definitely a spell, and tricky stuff too,” Aaran explained. “Made up of two parts; a tracer, and physical manifestation thingy. Lotsa fun.”

The Mega-Juicer Hanlan had travelled with. A brash woman, strong, a fighter, someone she could understand. “That would explain why I have broken ribs and a concussion,” Makoto blinked, her eyes weary from the pain alone.

“I’ve done what I can,” Demelza stated, clasping her hands in her lap as she sat. “The wounds are magical in nature, and beyond my ability to heal.”

‘Sisters? I haven’t heard anything …’ A none-too-vague scowl appeared upon Kai’s face as she stood and began pacing. Her eyes settled on her mother, who looked the least on edge.

‘What about Osaka? Wouldn’t she know?’

Kai held her with a dark, uncertain look. ‘She might, I’m not sure. We’d have to go see her.’

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Chapter 32

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Silk tresses of pale violet nightgown shifted in a faint wave against her lithe body, the billowing sleeves concealing smooth shoulders and slight arms. While blue edged, hollow manifestations of mana trailed meltingly from the practised movement of hand and arm, another sensed the ascension of energy, and awoke.

‘Iye,’ she muttered in Japanese, her breathing steep. ‘Wait Yalen.’

The elemental creature yawned and stretched, then sauntered over to her pink bunny slippered feet, and curled up closely enough that his flame warmed her ever so subtly. She crooned softly, enjoying the gentle waft of warmth.

‘Void of Whispering,’ she intoned, clapping her hands together as the aspects of the weaving took final form. A curious rumble rooted itself within the core of the flame lion’s billowing chest for a moment, before fading.

The long-legged black haired botanist drew to a halt, hands buried to the wrists in rich multi-toned soil within the gaze of the Pool of Seeing.

Who are you? Would you mind getting out of my head?

I expressly apologize, Yanei offered, know the futility of the gesture. Your guest, however, and I have dealings. I must borrow your mind for a while.

Then get … uhh …, Professor Tamara Lillin found herself suspended in an expanse of black, even while remotely viewing the actions of her commandeered body. Yanei, an inexperienced body thief sifted through her host’s recent memory.

Endless shores of knowledge, but nothing I desire is here! She sneered, noting that even while the cross pollination of exquisite flowers did, indeed, under Tamara’s talented guidance yield awe-inspiring results, she had no time for admiration. An image of a black clothed man smiling at her while her heart pounded in her chest caught her brief attention.

Her uncle. Nothing more, Yanei thought. Busily, the image sped on, drawing her to the appearance of a long haired young woman and a blonde, metal winged child.

“Lady Tamara!” the little one had cried, even as the botanist approached the two.

Lady Tamara? Yanei wondered briefly.

Apparently she had encountered a number of strangers who were interested in her mother, and the two with whom they had escaped, none of whom she actually placed any trust in. After a brief verbal altercation with an oddly hair styled blonde woman and a human formed dragon (a clear shock thus delivered to Yanei), she had teleported her unconscious “mother” here. It seemed that Sarah, as she called herself, was asleep, sunning herself at present, next to a partially redirected springwater pool.

The blonde was Tsukino Usagi, Sailor Moon, and the other … hmm, Hino. Hino Rei, Sailor Mars. But this, this is Mizuno Ami? The pretty Sailor Mercury? I don’t believe it.

The brightly shimmering pool offered a clear, springwater tinge against the young woman’s left side, which betrayed a slight discolouration. Ah, the benefits of the Northern continents. Tamara neared her, seeming somewhat uneasy, and the alert blue haired girl sat up sharply.

“Huh?” she coughed, one fist to her mouth while the opposing hand grasped a partially full glass of orange juice. “What’s up hon?”

“Just checking on you,” she responded, her face surprisingly bright. Upon gleaning that Tamara was more the deadpan sort, she altered her borrowed expression accordingly. Not cold quite, yet distinctly lacking warmth.

“I’m fine,” she echoed in expression. “Where’s m’baby?”

Astonished by the sense of lordship – or in this case ladyship – that washed through her host, she risked a more through telepathic probe. Flickers of of intimate symbiotic communions with humans to the point of sharing their innermost desires, fighting to protect them, and receiving life sustaining energy from each individual. Never more than one at once, yet each all-encompassing, mystically inseparable, until the point of death, or termination of agreement. The former far more prominent then the latter.

“Lady?” inquired a soft, somewhat ethereal voice.

“Yes little one?” Yanei felt herself reply.

What manner of being is she? She is so domineering! Yanei balked, staggering back onto a nearby chair.

I am so much more than that, fledgling, pale child, angrily rebuked Lady Tamara with teeming, raw confidence. Yanei lurched forward, landing jarringly upon her hands and knees with a sharp cry.

“Get out of my mind!! Akaaaaaarrriiiiiieeeeeeee!!”

Sarah gave a start, scrambling to her feet at the abrupt metamorphosis of her generous and gracious host.

“Lady?!” Shyanne cried faintly.

‘Calm yourself, little one,’ she issued in a foreign tongue. ‘Your mother-false be safe.’

“What’s she sayin’ Shy?” Sarah questioned, tempering her anxiety sternly.

“You’re safe, mama,” she loosely translated.

“Safe?!” she blurted, grasping a denim vest, which she slowly slipped over her shoulders as she walked over to her daughter. “Are you sayin’ I was in danger, hon?”

A firm nod.

“A young mage foolishly attempted to possess me,” Lady Tamara stated coldly. “I will handle her in due time. Until then, you might consider Morcanis’ advice.”

“Tam, ah wanna know.”

“Does ‘Yanei’ sound familiar?” she offered.

“No, but then I don’ seem t’ remember much o’ anybody,” she replied, mouth twisted in a frown. “Shyanne? You wanna go back home darlin’?”

Her face scrunched uncertainly, then she nodded.

“Not without you,” she squeaked, pouncing upon her mother and grasping her thighs with her little arms.

“Nah, we’re goin’ togethah,” she smiled faintly.

 

@~%~~~

 

“Who are you?” demanded harsh male tones, protective in the extreme. He rose from the limp female figure upon their bed, and regarded the strange winged woman with a feral snarl.

“Your mate has threatened one of mine,” declared the creature, nearing him with a flare of light upon each hand. “I have come to see she pays the consequences.”

“Over my corpse,” Akari swore, his mind balking at the reason for her approach. What had Yanei done?

“Yours or hers, makes no difference to me.”

Dimly, as Akari responded to her affront by drawing his energy inward and assuming a defensive stance, he thought to ask of her reasoning.

“What has she done to you?” he gritted, indicating that even should he find her reason acceptable, he would not allow her to come to harm.

“Odd that you should not be aware, soul-bonded as you are,” she observed, half to herself. “Matter it does not, for you cannot halt my hastening of her death.”

Akari’s brutish face reddened. “Try it,” he dared her, gesturing in such a fashion as to invite the onslaught. “I mean it. Attack.”

She leapt at him with a banshee screech, the fingertips of her hands formed to metal points, which slashed at his tunic, flicking bits of grey cloth as he dodged nimbly aside. One hand rose, catching her neck, and he held her for a moment.

“Trifling demon,” he growled darkly. “You will leave my beloved alone, or I will destroy you. Understand?”

She hissed at him, a high, whining thing with tore at his ears. His grip tightened, and something small creaked in her neck.

“Don’t waste your time trying to change. I am stronger still than even that pitiful form.”

Her face became a defeated grimace, during which she forced herself to relax.

“I understand,” she replied, voice restrained, but not by breath.

With a quick, almost robotic snap, his hand opened, allowing the demon to collapse upon the grey carpeted floor. She glared up at him angrily as she rose, rubbing her neck and growling.

“If even so much as a hair prematurely leaves her head,” he whispered, his temper quite well restrained for its mass. “I will kill you.”

As she turned away, an insulting glare upon her fair regard, his left hand caught her upper arm while the right gripped her shoulder. There was a wrenching, and a high scream. Akari flipped the severed limb aside, several thin laces of crimson arcing with the motion, and held his eyes upon her prone figure, hating that she had dared threaten his sole desire.

“I could have easily done that to your natural form, demon,” Akari stated. She knew that well by the ease of his action. Trembling with agony, her blood spattered torso shimmered out of their reality with the rest of her.

 

@~%~~~

 

Her voice tore through the temple as only one can when it is propelled in abject terror, betrayal, and soul-scored agony. In the place where a powerful example of his kind once stood, and the man who’s glowing robe mirrored his anger as he glared at the steaming ashes. The stone structure, in observation, failed to react this time, for recently, these sort of occurrences had become quite common. If ever so unpleasantly that word may be attributed to death on any level.

He’s going to alienate her, was the thought. This, of course, Uraki-Ayo knew.

‘This cost, dear Yanei, was forewarned. Even as you feared me, you did not fear consequence,’ he snarled cruelly in viscous Japanese. ‘This is your error. Take it and learn, for I am at least gracious enough to offer you the opportunity of repentance.’

Flaccid of being, wit, and emotion, she gazed at him, soul-stricken as the crystal shimmering of tears flew over her flushed cheeks. She withdrew internally. To attend the tears would be to admit weakness, and beyond desiring to, and wishing her soulmate back, she knew he would strike her down should just a hint of this desire slip.

‘This has come to exceed my want,’ he said, his voice gaining unsettling respite. ‘Yet I still trust you enough to ask of you a mission.’

The bowed her head, and did not raise it.

‘You will find Makoto, and once you have learned the nature of this … Resistance …and its leader, you will kill her. I have no tolerance for this potential source of interference.’

In observation, he was certain she would gesture in the slightest, and betray her more honest nature, yet, she did not, so he spoke further: ‘You will leave now, and not return until Makoto’s demise.’

As her childishly attractive form faded in a wash of springwater and lilies, another introduced itself. Her form was generous, and purple adango atama, unmistakable.

‘Report your success.’

She merely nodded. ‘As you predicted, she was vulnerable. I marked her.’

‘The second part?’ he requested, unsuccessfully attempting to conceal his anxiousness. The response was as elaborate as the sealed vial she handed him. ‘Ah wonderful, Jisuruka!’ he smiled, seeming to examine the contents more than the container. ‘Yanei will soon be joining Makoto. You may continue the remainder of the collection, I will send your senshi as we can fabricate them.’

‘You enhance my honor, Uraki-sama,’ she replied, the motion of bowing in the gentle closing of her eyes.

‘Hai, I do. Now go, I have other matters of greater importance to settle.’

He turned upon a bound woman in green and white, regarding her scarred figure bound and lax upon the bloodied white table. He had shattered the bones in her arms recently, and she had spoken only what he was sure were lies, saying she knew nothing, while her screams had professed his effectiveness.

For the moment, she had earned the respite, suffering the presence of piercing nails within various parts of her tender anatomy. He genuinely wondered why it was he could not infiltrate the source of her power. Perhaps he had merely sought it in the incorrect manner. Her groaning voice, raw and weak, indicated her state of awareness.

‘Good morrow, Xalia,’ he grinned, taking the crimson matted bow pinned to the front of her uniform and straightening it. ‘I trust you slept well?’

The confusion in her face brought a measure of a smile to Uraki-Ayo’s expression, which he did not hide.

‘Are you still sore?’

She moved slightly, feeling the spires of agony were the nails resided, and attempting futilely to restrain the cries that followed.

‘Are you hungry?’

Her eyes widened, her befuddlement furthered by his apparent kindness after the previous nights’ torture. A week before that had passed, countless unnameable acts performed upon the young woman. As such, reality was a blur, and made little sense. Uraki retrieved a fine looking sandwich from his cloak, and held it temptingly above the girl’s red, swollen face. She tried to swallow, her throat working harshly as she stared with glazing eyes at the morsel.

Even if I could eat, she thought, mind blurred, I couldn’t swallow. My throat’s too…

The glass of crystal water hovering above her in his other hand brought her world to a halt.

‘There is a stipulation, however,’ he advised her, drawing away the life sustaining items. ‘This is very much a co-operative, trust earning matter. If you give me what I want …’

Her bleary eyes grew wide once again.

‘Then you shall receive what it is you most desire.’

This was part of the routine, she knew. Thought what he wanted precisely, she still wasn’t quite sure.

How can I tell him what I don’t know?! Nasura didn’t tell me anything! she thought, the fear of further pain rising in her stomach, doubling the effect of that which already existed. Maybe this is why … she didn’t trust me?

He placed the water at her side, and took a bite out of the sandwich.

‘I consider perhaps that you are afraid of the pain,’ he mused, to which Xalia nodded as vigorously as the collar and her tense, sore neck would allow. ‘And that perhaps you are indeed telling me the truth. That a woman, who metamorphosed from a cat, entrusted you with crystal empowering you to battle my forces. What was her name again?’

‘Nasura,’ Xalia croaked. What Harm Is There In a Name?

‘Ah, now I recall. You did mention that last night,’ he replied, as if participating in a casual conversation. ‘As Sailor Ether you vanquished over thirty of my best warriors. I must admit, your speed, mystic prowess, and power over the element of wind is most impressive. None of the previous Sailor Senshi exhibited such powers. You even modified your uniform to support armour when the situation warranted it. Not that it was difficult to eliminate …’

Xalia shuddered. With a welcoming, slight smile, he allowed her a generous gulp of the unbelievably refreshing water. She gasped loudly, struggling for breath after swallowing so much of the substance.

‘Now this is ingenuity which I find highly agreeable!’ he noted, half-smiling. ‘I also find it remarkable that you, alone, were strong enough to combat my warriors, best them, and avoid capture until I interceded personally. Draw comfort from the knowledge that you were hopelessly outmatched. Only your champion Princess Usagi would have stood a chance, even if it was a slight one. Do not feel badly. You put forth your best effort. For that, I reward you.’

For the next ten minutes, he assisted her as she consumed the proffered food item, and then healed her arms. As he completed that, he faced her, and asked: ‘So this I must know, are you being truthful? I am fairly certain of the answer, but your response would settle my personal doubt.’

Despite his shocking kindness, she felt suddenly as if she had been slapped, even though he had removed any devices of torture from her body.

He nearly killed me because he wasn’t sure?! With stammering tones, she nodded, and answered: ‘H-huh-hai.’

He closed his eyes and stood, as if she had erred. Her heart leapt, thudding loudly against her rib cage. ‘W-what?’

‘Nothing,’ he replied pleasantly. ‘I believe you. There is the matter of your alliance, however.’

He summoned formal uniform which represented the finest of elite warriors, and snapped his fingers, altering the blue lining to green, to the most accurate shade of her favorite colour. With a motion, it appeared upon her body, masking the scabs upon the flesh of her arms, legs, and torso.

‘I would have you know that I did not enjoy a single moment of your interrogation. Surplus agony services no one. I merely had to be certain you would answer me honestly.’ He regarded her seriously, as an equal. ‘Yet now I am pressed to know if you would join the core of my forces elite, and lead us to victory. Before you speak, let me offer you my side of the story with which you are already familiar.

‘Our struggle for survival is no different than yours. You understand very well the need for freedom? To stay up as late as you like, to spend time unhindered with your friends, to experience the joys of the world given you? Of course you do. For us, it is really no different. We wish to live, spend time with those we love, and to share our joy with others. Our joy is the joining of power. To do this, we need to establish order. Our order, as there is no other manner in which our joy can be spread properly.

‘What good is the ability to watch falling cherry blossoms if you do it alone? In that manner, we offer any to join us, to share in the falling of the blossoms and in our strength. There are those, however, who would wish to steal trees, and plant them in their own yard, and enjoy them in solitude. How can anyone else possibly enjoy the beauty the blossoms offer? I say you cannot. To them, who selfishly hoard that beauty, we must explain to them why they must share. And if they refuse to listen, they must be destroyed. It is all for the greater good, as such ignorance creates disharmony among the blossoms of our world.

‘In joining us your strength would be as mine. No other senshi in this kingdom would match you, but you would have access to powers unimaginable! There are many who need our direction, who need to listen to be able to join us in our field of blossoms. You could be a great warrior, leading many in championing our cause.’

It was for quite a while she lay stunned by the fountain of logic which had he had spouted. It made so much sense! She just wanted to be normal, when Nasura had foisted this strange cause upon her. They only wanted peace too! If she could just get them to understand …

‘Hai, Uraki-Ayo-sama.’

His smile was grand as he released the metal bonds about her wrists and ankles. As she sat up, she touched the collar warily, looking at Uraki questioningly. ‘I must apologize, dear Xalia, but that must remain until you have proved your loyalty. You understand, correct?’

She nodded, massaging her wrists. ‘What do I do first?’

‘There is the little matter of this Resistance they are forming. I understand Nasura is making plans to replace you …’

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Chapter 33

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The hand was slender, and as it reached, the facade of skin shattered and fell, leaving behind the geometric gleam of metal. She ducked back, weaving away, but failed to flee. The clawed hand gripped her upper arm, and painlessly, the fingers slipped into her flesh, tearing the arm loose in a robotic motion. She did not scream. It was not the first time. Though tears stained her beautiful face, her blond slivers of hair shifting over her slender features, though pain rendered her soul, she did not cry out.

Who are you …

A blue streak lit the infinite darkness, holding a part of her mind, drawing forth her inner child. She remembered, she knew. It was a friend. Her inner southpaw was too young to know, but it was there, buried back … nearly forsaken, but still alive.

Ami?

A feral snarl wafted beyond her sight, hovering in her ears. Three silvery blades drifted near her face, and she held her breath.

I don’t know who you are, but get out of my dreams!

Ami no! Don’t do this..! Don’t you know who I am?

The anger distorted face appeared in a shadow, glaring with the intensity of acknowledged death. Sorry honey.

‘No!’

‘Usako!’ replied a concerned male voice in Japanese. ‘Usako … it’s alright.’ His arms wrapped firmly about her, she trembled at the passage of dreams. Again. Tonight they shared the same cot, for Usagi was temperamental and unpredictable. ‘Was it the dream?’

He felt her hair shift at his shoulder; a nod. She said, ‘Ami’s out there … she’s lost … she’s confused.’

‘I don’t understand.’

She shook her head. ‘Neither do I. I think maybe she is trying to reach me.’

‘But she lost her memory of us, how …?’ Silence. Dead, unquestionable silence. He pressed, ‘My love, Usako … Please darling, speak to me.’

‘No!’ she whispered, pushing away abruptly from him. ‘You … you don’t know yourself, I don’t know you!’

‘I …’ he felt the silence in him, and did not refuse it. It was almost comfortable. The moonlight fled from their dispassionate faces as a silver of warmth replaced it. The easy heat lit her forearms, where her fists were clenched in all of her torrential feelings. ‘Usako? What do you mean by all of that?’

She levelled her eyes to his, reading the fear in her sudden power, and his pure love.

‘The Coalition did this,’ she said in hushed tones. ‘They changed me. Do you still love me? Can you? Love this? What I—’ His mouth opened, but her shining finger halted him. ‘No, Mamoru, look at me. I am not the same childish teenager you fell in love with back on earth. I hunt demons, I smell magic. Can you love that?’

‘Usako, we have both changed. I have become an Earth Child. I am psychic. It doesn’t matter. It simply does not matter. I fell in love with you over a thousand years ago. I will always love you.’

‘Mamoru!’ she leaned upon him fully, kissing him upon the mouth – an altogether clumsy thing – leaving no doubt in his mind. She had not changed all that much.

 

@~%~~~

 

‘How do you know? You’re just a …’

‘Juicer?’ Aaran shook her head. ‘Not anymore … You help me, I help you. Make sense?’

‘No.’

She grinned sarcastically. ‘Then I’ll lay it out for ya easy-like: I’m looking for my brother and it just turned out I could help Demelza, who was kinda going my way when I stuck out my dimension shifting thumb …’ A slightly pleading look entered her face, as if she expected Makoto to have a concept of her desire. Again, Makoto fell short.

‘Kinda something I do. Maybe you’ve heard some rumors, or … His name is Jake Yyone, he’s stationed at Lone Star, in Tex …’

‘I know where Lone Star is,’ Makoto waved her hand with a hard set facial adornment. ‘Listen, I really don’t know. I’ve been away for seven years.’

Aaran arched an eyebrow sharply. ‘Hey now, we didn’t take that long!’

‘Look, it really doesn’t matter. Talk to Usagi. She was there.’ Makoto gave a faint half shrug, turning away. ‘She might know.’

‘Okay,’ Aaran said softly, getting to her feet and approaching the door. ‘Makoto… thanks.’

Makoto shrugged. ‘I’m going to see Usagi in a minute if you want to come with me.’

‘Well, sure,’ Aaran agreed, waiting for Makoto to walk through the door first, leading the way.

As they entered the dojo, Makoto half called out her friend’s name and caught herself.

‘I cannot tell you what it means, I am not you. Yet, I think your instincts are correct,’ offered the oddly red-haired woman. Immediately Makoto knew why.

‘She’s American,’ Aaran muttered, glancing at Makoto.

‘Canadian, actually,’ was the woman’s unbidden reply. ‘Come now. I have as much need to talk to you as Usagi.’

The two stepped forth, as bid, and dwelt before her, Aaran quite certain she was not included in the matter at hand, and rightfully so. Regarding only Usagi and Makoto, the former of whom took aside her friend, in worry.

‘So, Sailor Senshi, what will you do?’

Usagi handed her gaze to Makoto, who offered it directly in reply, also unsure of their next course of action. ‘Osaka, I do not know. We are not ready to fight. We are not even together yet!’ Usagi replied, expression unsettled. ‘It all hinges on you.’

The middle aged woman gasped at her forgetfulness. ‘I am sorry,’ she stated, blushing faintly. ‘I was brought into this at the last possible minute and told you had questions for me.’

‘Um, hai,’ Usagi nodded glumly, feeling very much a small child. ‘We do. But …’

‘Actually, we were kinda hoping you would be able to guide us,” Makoto elaborated for her friend who seemed unable to pull together a complete sentence. “Kai-chan said you would tell us about the Senshi Resistance.’

‘Oh, of course!’ she smiled faintly, and briefly. ‘There’s so much more to it than that. It’s hard to cover all at once.’

Usagi nodded, a panicked ache in her chest. ‘Hai. I get it,’ she breathed, gazing about herself nervously.

‘Usagi-san?’ Makoto prodded. ‘Are you okay?’

‘Hm?’ she started, flinching away from Makoto’s gentle hand. ‘I guess. I’m leaving with Mamoru very soon to get Ami … I just want to know who it is that’s set up this whole Resistance thing, and what it means for us.’

‘Hai, then. You have many more friends than you are aware of. Nasura Iridian and I are responsible for the network of people who have come to form the Resistance. What it means to you is that there is hope here. We have successfully fought off the increase of demons since your exile.’

‘I don’t understand. How many? How powerful? Who? Who is the new senshi? What’s happened to her? Who are Akari and Yanei?’

Osaka fell silent, gazing at Usagi wide eyed in stock amazement. ‘I don’t have answers to most of those questions,’ she gradually managed to reply. ‘But here is what I know: A young woman was appointed to be the first protector of earth, as Sailor Ether.’

‘But Ether isn’t a planet.’

‘None of these girls are Royal Senshi, either. Nasura felt it would be disrespectful to select names that might already have owners.’

‘…Hai, I understand.’

‘Of course. This girl has done very well, up until the introduction of the Vortex crystal which has appeared in northern Tokyo.’

‘What?’ Makoto blinked.

‘Later. Members of the Resistance are attempting to determine it’s purpose as we speak.’

‘When that thing starts up, you’ll know it,’ Usagi snarled faintly, hands slipping up to her hips. ‘What about Akari and Yanei? And where is Sailor Ether now?’

‘That’s the problem. We don’t know. The same goes for Akari and Yanei. Ether is missing, and the other two haven’t done anything in days.’

‘So I guess things are getting pretty tense, eh?’ Makoto remarked.

She nodded, emotions restrained.

‘Good. That helps,’ Usagi stated softly.

‘Helps?’

‘Helps me to understand this. So what made Nasura decide to start up this little network?’

‘She is merely an organizer of those with interest in your welfare. The initiative comes from every individual involved.’

‘Then what’s hers?’ Usagi inquired sharply.

‘She seemed to sense some greater evil, something powerful. Something you couldn’t defeat.’

‘I’d be insulted if it wasn’t true,’ Makoto frowned angrily.

Usagi nodded at her, then asked: ‘What is the enemy?’

‘The NegaVerse, directed by its newest champion; Uraki-Ayo.’

Makoto did not suppress her snarl. ‘Give me one round with this bloody …’ her words deepened into viral curses.

Usagi startled slightly at her harsh language. Osaka shook her head negatively. ‘Please, Makoto … I cannot pretend to understand how you feel, but …’ she frowned pointedly.

‘Gomen nasai!’ she replied, her face darkened by the internal swirl of long buried emotions. ‘What are we going to do?’

‘Not much until Nasura Knights the new warriors.’

Makoto’s feral expression faded into puzzlement.

‘You haven’t already?’ Usagi asked, ignoring her friend’s subsiding torrential anger.

‘You must understand, we were caught off guard by this. If we Knight the wrong ones, then we could endanger Tokyo … Japan, even the world. Ether was Knighted prematurely as an emergency response.’

‘We couldn’t exactly warn—”

Osaka shook her head and said, “I did not imply that. Nasura’s true power is concealed, and we are grateful for her strength. However, we cannot afford to take her protection lightly.’

‘I see you understand. Forgive me.’

‘Forgive what? We’ve been acting behind your back for almost a year. We should be asking for forgiveness for not telling you sooner.’

Usagi could only shake her head.

‘Usagi?’ prodded another feminine voice.

‘Hai?’ she returned weakly, vaguely, eyes flicking upwards for a solitary moment.

‘I apologize for my interruption,’ the buxom blond excluded from the conversation bowed nervously. ‘But I was hoping you might be able to answer a, um, couple questions. When …’ Aaran paused, uncertain. ‘When you escaped from Lone Star,’ and paused again as Usagi winced. ‘You ever hear of a CS grunt named Yyone?’

Aaran felt the pain writhe inside Usagi, and knew that she wanted to help, despite it. Despite everything she had suffered. She also was aware of a potentially all consuming shard of rage, one very similar to those she had experienced as a Hormone Juicer. This made her draw back slightly. Usagi closed her eyes tightly as tension sought to invite her fury forth.

‘Hai, Aaran, he is out of Lone Star. He is with my friend Mina.’

‘Thank you,’ Aaran bowed slightly to Osaka and Makoto. ‘Makoto, I have things to attend to, but I will be here when you wish to go back.’

Usagi’s eyes snapped open, and she hissed at Aaran angrily. ‘Go be with your dragon lover, then! Leave!’

Dumbfounded, Aaran gazed at Usagi, stunned. Makoto stared at her friend, openly lost. Aaran merely bowed her head and was gone.

‘What the hell was …’

Makoto-san, let it pass, Ellison warned.

What was that though? How the hell does she know who Aaran’s with?

No idea. It would be unwise to tamper with her internal calm, however. Best to leave it be.

Hai…

‘Uhm, Usagi, what’s wrong?’

The blond woman’s face grew a tad more placid. ‘Nothing. I’m just tired, that’s all.’

‘Then rest,’ Osaka offered.

‘No! There isn’t time,’ Usagi rasped, unusually stubborn. She cleared her throat and said, ‘I have to find Ami.’

Osaka frowned, her head bowed. ‘Usagi, I wish could help. But …’

‘No, thank you, and I am so sorry. I would stay, but I need the others if we’re going to defeat this …’ she squinted, an emotional fatigue washing over her. ‘Uraki-Ayo. You’re doing everything you can, and I am very grateful.’

Osaka blinked at Usagi’s words, but then decided not to question them at this point. ‘Then please go. I understand what is at stake.’ Her eyes met Usagi’s, seconding her earlier wish of favourable luck.

‘Makoto, I’m so sorry!’ Usagi whispered, wrapping her arms around her friend in slighted emotion. ‘I’m … I just …’

‘No, Usagi-san,’ she replied with a faint smile, altogether startled by her friend’s abrupt alteration in temperament. ‘This bastard isn’t going to win. I should go with you. … but …’

‘Forget it. Mamoru and I will be okay. I can take care of myself.’

‘Yeah … good luck.’

‘Arigoto.’

Watching them, Osaka’s thoughts came to her own daughter. Nasura would not miss a beat, and it occurred to her to wonder if she might select Ayla. She hoped not. A nod saw Usagi’s departure, and Makoto’s induction into Osaka’s command.

‘Osaka-san, when will your Senshi be “Knighted”?’ Makoto asked with heated anxiousness.

‘That is entirely up to Nasura. She has told me nothing of what she plans to do. All we can do is wait.’

‘Wait. That was my first choice,’ she sighed.

 

@~%~~~

 

“You’re pretty lucky there Mamoru, she’s a nice girl. Fine lookin’ too.”

The recipient leaned back against the chair, hands in his loose pant pockets. “You don’t know what Makoto was like before, do you.”

“All I know now is she’s plenty tough, a helluva fighter, and the sexiest woman I’ve ever seen,” he replied with a wide grin. “My wife kicks ass. Pretty sweet package if you ask me.”

“She’s always been beautiful, but she’s more now than she used to be.”

“What’re you sayin’?” Hanlan half-snapped.

He answered him with a reproachful look. “Look, do I really seem like that to you?”

“I dunno. She talks about you like you used to be an item.”

“Figures. She always did have a funny sense of romance. No, you don’t understand. Before all of this, I used to protect them.”

“Them who?”

Mamoru stored his sigh for later use.

“The Sailor Senshi. Makoto, Usagi, Ami, Rei, and Minako.”

“Oh,” he nodded slowly. “Uh-huh. I remember.”

“Usagi and I are destined to be together. We loved each other before we were reborn.”

“Reborn? Whatcha talking about?”

“Didn’t Makoto tell you anything about herself?”

“Yeah, lots. She told me she’s not human if that’s what you mean.”

“It is. They were all born on the Moon. Usagi’s mother was the Queen. Queen Serenity of the Moon Kingdom.”

“Freaky,” Han commented dryly. “Well, yeah, it’s like I said: When Makoto talks about you, it’s like you’re her brother ‘r somethin’. Sometimes more. I mean, I guess that’s why I got all like that.”

“That’s alright,” Mamoru replied curtly. “What I meant by her being more beautiful … it’s just the fact that she’s older now. A woman, not so much a girl anymore.”

“With little Ayana? No frickin’ doubt,” Hanlan whistled. “So what about you? Weren’t you born on the moon too?”

“No. I was a warrior from Earth. I was courting Usagi when the army of the NegaForce attacked and destroyed the Moon Kingdom.”

“So what happened? How come Mako didn’t nail their asses to the wall?”

Mamoru had to wonder just how much of his friend’s change was not visible. “She’s always been the toughest of the Sailor Senshi, but wasn’t as strong then as she is now … if that puts it in perspective.”

“Sorta. What’s different about her?”

“It’s hard to tell. I mean, I don’t know exactly, not really … so much has happened,” Mamoru sighed.

“Well, maybe it doesn’t matter so much. What happened after this bitch nailed the Moon Castle? Or whatever it was.”

“Queen Serenity sacrificed herself to banish the creature which destroyed her Kingdom.”

“Yowch. When was this?”

“About one-thousand years ago.”

Hanlan’s face twisted inquisitively. “So why didn’t they come back and cream you guys when they got strong enough? And how’d you survive, anyway?”

“I don’t know. The Sailor Senshi were much more powerful then … To protect us from the NegaVerse, Queen Serenity sent us into the future.” He shrugged, indicating that it still made little sense to him.

“I dunno Mamoru, I’d be happy just t’ still be kickin’ it with yer sweetie.”

Mamoru chuckled. “Yeah. I am.”

“So … my Mako-babe and her friends are your chick’s bodyguards?”

“That’s about the size of it.”

Hanlan lifted a tall cold one to his lips, took a long gulp, and remarked: “I married into the biz. Why doesn’t that surprise me?”

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Chapter 34

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The evening air of the clouded amethyst sky cast over the Shirinaui acreage like some great downy blanket, muffling the still bright sun and warding its soothing warmth. It was damningly cold, and Mamoru strode with the edge of wary concern, watching the world about him as much as Usagi. Makoto had told him of her outburst, and he knew from Minako that there was some change in her, some fearful, dramatic skewing of what she was. Worrisome, he took her in his arms, and she did not refuse him.

Why she had chosen the contemplative territory of the open aired training grounds of the Shirnaui martial arts school puzzled him, and summoned forth unpleasant curiosity. It was unlike her to seek the outdoors when troubled. However, he was frightfully aware of there being so little that remained of her former self. On the matter of their earlier argument, he understood to a degree her angered reaction. In the revelation of suddenly becoming an Earthen creature of much strength and fury, an Earth Child, he had felt much the same. Bitter, angry, betrayed. By whom? Phate, probably, though she never made promises of any variety.

‘Usako, what about Makoto?’ his voice was concentrated with acidic concern as he held her.

‘The NegaForce still wants to fight,’ she began, her light tones lethargic. ‘They just wanted us out of the picture. I see that now. Makoto is going to stay behind to help the Neo Senshi get together to fight for us until … until we can get our team back …’

Mamoru’s head shook slowly. ‘What if they are not strong enough?’

‘I think Nasura knows what she is doing,’ she replied, hatefully uncertain of her words. ‘I don’t know who else to trust anymore.’

‘You can trust me.’

‘Hai Mamoru-san,’ she replied, as if unsure.

The evening bitter wafted amongst them again, as if attempting to separate them. Mamoru was not so surprised by her tactility, but rather by her edgy demeanour and frantic emoting. Yet, he had sworn his life to her … a vow honoured in diligence by will of heart. There was an answer. It would be found!

‘Aaran is waiting. We should go.’

‘Hai, my love. Hai.’

They proceeded beyond the walls of the structure ancient in design, recent of construction. The scene presented was one of nigh restless tranquillity, as if at any point a disruption would rend the canvas bound images to embittered shreds. Carl had honoured his promise of assistance, providing them the means to discover the precise whereabouts of Ami, and the opportunity to recover her. It was not an offer accepted ungratefully, nor without the acknowledgement of how fortunate they seemed.

‘You ready? Carl’s waitin’,’ Aaran pointed out plainly in accented Japanese. She ushered them into the sleek black and white low slung vehicle with literal scads of armour and weapons adorning its nearly sensual aerodynamic figure.

‘Hai,’ Usagi nodded. She glanced over at the silent, yet anxious Mamoru, who held a deep query in his soul as he reclined comfortably beside his formerly lost love.

I feel that, my love. Tell me?

Mamoru blinked. Hai! But I thought … no … nevermind. What did I miss? How did you escape?

I’ve told you that, Mamo-san.. she noted gently. Carl was very kind. The ‘CSM’ a group of mutants, they, well … they offered to help free me, as I understand it, in exchange for sanctuary … You remember, right?

Hai, I do.

Is that all?

Mamoru’s eyes widened. Usagi’s shocked expression passed for one of humour as she raised her slender prosthetic hand to her mouth.

You’re so cute when you look confused

Confused? Ah … um … go ahead.

Usagi shuffled the heavy grey overcoat she had acquired from Mai about the smooth curves of her matured figure.

Carl ‘ported us out of Lone Star … where … um … where they …

I know. Let’s not get into again.

She smiled wistfully, and gratefully at him. I guess he was looking for Ami too, but she was gone. I was very angry about that… she noted in a nigh unemotional monotone. She blinked, and rubbed her eyes before continuing. When we found them, I fought with a small demon child who had claimed a very different Ami as her mother.

Carl argued with her for a bit after I knocked Ami away with a faint energy burst. She wasn’t hurt, I just wanted them separate. I remember clearly that Carl became quite vehement with the child, who took off shortly thereafter.

Mamoru shook his head morosely. She’d never had struggled in school with a vocabulary like that!

It’s been a year Mamoru! I’ve been through so much. Do you honestly think I haven’t learned?

No, Usako, he sighed audibly. I guess not.

I mean look what you’ve learned! You’re a Knight, besides being an Earth Child … you know?

Silly woman, I didn’t learn that.

Foolish man, does it matter?

It does when I’m right.

She pushed his chest playfully. [I could be _]so[ mad at you, but I don’t want to be alone right now._] She yawned and leaned forward, as she locked her arms around his torso, head on his chest.

You don’t want to be a Knight?

[No. Because of my responsibility to the Senshi. Luna is right. I can feel it. We can still win. I can’t be a Knight, a Sailor Senshi, and a Demon Hunter all at once. _]She looked at him with the regard of a hyperactive child and giggled warmheartedly.[ Silly love. There’s so much you don’t get._]

He sighed, and urged her to continue. Do you know where they went?

I told him I felt a dimensional shift, like when Makoto disappeared. I wonder if it was a transit to the same place, and why she hasn’t talked about it…?

I imagine she has good reasons, even though we haven’t thought to ask. What about Ami? Has Carl found her?

Oh, I’ll ask her when we get back. Anyway… hai, he knows where she is. He said he would find her while we helped look for Makoto. That was when he brought me to England … to be with you again,

Mamoru smiled at that. So many anxieties abated, so many others born. He paused as he noticed the lack of forward motion. Glancing about, he noticed only the succinct wash of green forest and shining sky.

‘That’s the ride kids, thanks for traveling Dimensional Skippers!’ Aaran laughed.

‘Where are we?’ Usagi hissed, hackles risen.

‘A world of fantasy, to put it mildly. This is where Ami is,’ she replied, then shrugged. ‘All’s I know is Sarge told me to bring you here!’

The side door opened, and as they stood and stretched, Mamoru gathered the existence of a distant town.

‘Usako, look,’ he indicated with word and directional finger.

Usagi inclined her shoulders upward for a moment as she slipped the heavy overcoat from them.

‘It’s nothing, just a warring town,’ she elaborated, folding the coat into her palm, where it seemed to disappear. ‘They’re in the middle of a war against some local demons.’

Mamoru just gaped at his soulmate, completely befuddled.

‘She’s right,’ stated a friendly baritone in perfect Japanese. ‘I guess there’s more to her transformation than even I can sense.’

‘Hello Carl Silver,’ Mamoru offered somewhat stiffly.

Carl regarded the tone with sympathy, a vaguely concerned expression upon his face. I am sorry that I cannot change what has happened here. We have acted as swiftly as humanly possible.

The fire in Mamoru’s bosom tamed, and calmed in respect, but found words lacking.

We’re grateful, Usagi elaborated softly, where he could not.

‘Listen gang, I’d love to chat, but I’m needed!’ Aaran proclaimed, bowing her head as her blond hair altered to red, her figure gaining a shapely quality formerly lacking as a dark brown kimono concealed her newly adorned body. She cast her brown eyes skyward and called a summoning in a strange tongue. “Sakoheni-li!”

Usagi’s gaze met a small winged creature which glided effortlessly to Aaran’s gauntleted arm. She retrieved a miniature note from its leg, and upon reading it, set it free with a whispered phrase:

“Corr cheni. Ska!” She then bowed deeply two the gathered three, and set off towards the war borne town.

‘What did she say Carl?’

‘Sakoheni is the family name of the house she serves. Li is “come.” Corr cheni roughly translates to “go home,” and ska is “hurry.” She is speaking the family tongue …’

‘A mage’s language!’ Usagi snapped, whirling with white fire in her clenched fists and sparkling eyes towards Carl. ‘I’m going with her.’

‘No, Usagi-san. The plan is very delicate and …’ he blinked, and saw she was gone. ‘Usagi?! You can’t do this! Ami is depending on you!’

‘Carl, she’s asking me to say “It’s nothing you haven’t already figured out. Besides … you can’t force me.” Before you ask, I don’t know where she is.’

Usagi. What are you doing?

It’s really simple. There are demons out there, and I have to kill them. Got it?

Uh … I guess. What about Ami? was his less than calm reply, knowing he could only fail in an argument with her.

Don’t worry about that. I’ll be there when you need me. That’s real simple too, but I don’t expect you to understand.

It’s not about understanding, Usagi. He loves you, Aaran interjected. Even I get that. Well, if you are going to tag along, then hurry up, and stay close!

Hai, she agreed.

‘Ultimately she is correct. I cannot coerce her into an action not of her own agency. Come Mamoru, we will discuss Ami’s alteration. Usagi, I imagine, is powerful enough to take care of herself.’

‘She’s changed so much … I don’t know if I’ll ever get used to it,’ Mamoru groaned.

‘Mayhap … though are not the ways of women mysterious and fantastic? Perhaps that is why they intrigue us so vastly.’

‘Uh, yeah …’

 

@~%~~~

 

The young red-headed woman flicked her head about, as though a suggestion of a presence had glimmered aside her. With a frown, she glanced downwards, before returning her gaze to the silver armoured man among those of the court. Her dark dress of short skirt, grey leggings, headband, and hefty armor of legs and arms appointed her the squire of the Knight. A pretty young woman, who seemed ill at ease in the presence of royalty.

Ayana! Usagi rasped mentally. Makoto’s little girl? Grown? I don’t get it…

What?! I thought Ayana was with Makoto! Aaran blurted skeptically. Are you sure?

“Please, Sir Knight, call me Arthur.”

Undeniably. Her power reads the same, but it’s much higher… The young man bowed deeply, the short black lengths of his hair unmoving.

“If it is your lord’s wish.”

Arthur smiled faintly. “Your exploits are well heard. It takes considerable skill to dispatch those beasts as you have done.”

It also seems to require a bloodthirsty blade as well, the recipient sighed internally.

“And your squire …” he indicated to her that she should step away, and without hesitation, she complied. “It is important to nurture her skills, her … ability. Also, have you kept in mind to respect her interests in you?”

“I’m afraid I understand you not,” qouth the undeniably nervous Knight.

“Nay …? Sir …” he paused, searching for a name.

“Sir Lording, my liege. Narayan, if it so pleases you.”

“Narayan, then. Can you see it not? Her pleasure as you have ascended so abruptly? She cares for you. To have earned the concern and feelings of one such as her … a point worth attention, no doubt.”

“No doubt,” he agreed half-heartedly as Usagi traced his gaze to the young woman, her eyes intent upon him. Ayana could not belay the sharp anxiousness and curiosity stemming from within, and immediately, Usagi became aware of Narayan’s sense of her beauty. As if he was seeing her as a young woman rather than a girl. An instant later, embarrassment flashed across her cheeks, and she turned her burning eyes away. The young man once again faced the emotional revelation.

“You are a very perceptive man, my King. I am afraid I failed to notice. I have been distracted by the war, as you have said. Thank you for informing me. Is that all, my Lord?”

“Were I you, and plainly I am not, I would become less ‘distracted.’ As for her … talents, know you well, or might have you a question or three?’

“I will not trouble his Lordship with such a trifling matter. I wish not to disturb you any longer. May I be dismissed? I have preparations for the battle tonight to make.”

“Indeed. Fare you well good knight. May Phate smile upon us.”

“May she indeed, and may you stay safe m’lord. I will be by your side,” he bowed deeply. “It is in my blood. It is in my name.”

With a nod fell their dismissal, and as they departed, the arrival of Aaran. “Sir Lording!”

He blanched, and nigh clumsily about-faced to meet the voice. “I know you not!” he snapped, unsettled. “State your business or be on your way.”

Aaran simply produced a silver-white pendent with a family crest upon it. “I am but a humble messenger, Sir Knight.”

“Aye then,” he coughed and swallowed. “What message have you?”

“It is the wishes of your house that you should represent them in the war. They have sent you a small token of men with which to battle.”

“How many?”

The woman’s eyes flitted to Ayana, who shrunk behind Narayan.

“Two thousand men. I am sorry to say that they are not well trained. The house suffers ill funds. The taxes have taken their toll.”

“Are they ready for battle?”

“Barely. They wear light leather armour, wield cheaply wrought swords and shields, and hold only a months training in the summer’s scorching light.”

“Are they [_ready _]for battle?” he demanded impatiently.

Impudent brat! Aaran snapped harshly in thought alone as a dangerously intolerant glare soured her face. :If I wasn’t here to save your thick skull, I’d hack it off!: Despite these inner decrees, her face softened, and her tone, when offered, was gentle.

“They can fight, aye, Sir Knight.”

“Come then. We will attend them.”

As they proceeded, Usagi gauged the older Ayana, pressing her mentally, attempting to gain a sense of her ability.

Usagi-san? Is that you?

Such was her shock that she tumbled over her intangible self, bringing Ayana to a halt, and calling attention to the entirely imperceptible matter.

“Ayana? What is it? We must proceed apace! The men wait,” Narayan iterated pleasantly, a dark patch of unrest serving as an undertone.

Are you alright? I’m sorry if I startled you! Ayana apologized, not giving Narayan his due.

Usagi brushed her transparent body off as she stumbled to her feet. [I’m fine! How did you know? I mean … Carl couldn’t _]even[ sense me …_]

“Ayana!”

She spun on one foot, facing him with a puzzled expression. “What?”

“Didn’t you hear me?” he frowned.

“Nay, I’m sorry. Aren’t they waiting at the Silver Blade? Shouldn’t we get going?”

Narayan sighed loudly. “Aye, they are.”

I’m sorry. Where were we?

I don’t remember. Um … so how’d you end up with this kid?

Kid? You mean Sir Lording?

Hai.

It was prearranged. Phate is healing Mama-san while I’m away.

What?! What happened to her?

Uh … nothing.

Usagi glared at her, winding her fists into balls. Who hurt Makoto?

It doesn’t matter, Ayana admonished, abruptly nervous. She’s okay. Really!

It does to me! Tell me! Usagi flared, a light forming in her hands as her power spiked aside her ascending rage.

She’s going to be fine! Usagi-san … don’t! You’re attracting attention!

Aaran had, indeed, redirected her gaze to the emotionally and dramatically empowered woman, as had several others as they had approached the aforementioned inn. Narayan faced the semi-opaque Usagi, poised and eager to fight.

“Fell creature! Behold Sir Lording, slayer of demons and your end! Stand ye back from my squire!” Narayan declared, drawing a seven foot blade from his back to leer over the unimpressed woman. “Harken to my command lest I entreat your annihilation!”

“Sir Lording! No!!” Ayana desperately wailed.

“What are you saying, brat?” Usagi growled, assuming a stance of trained defense and dropping the waning facade of invisibility. “Are you trying to say you want to fight? Okay. Bring it.”

“ ‘Tis no use, this creature is as stubborn as the wicked sea! I shall have to banish this lovely yet evil creature!”

The blade fell with a swiftness nigh inconceivable, and was met by a steady hand, reflecting its fatally segmenting force. Usagi grinned. The blade, through each strike, harboured a faint sapphire light, a visual echo of every movement.

[_Bloody hell… _]Aaran cursed, standing stunned, as Ayana, uncertain of how to avert further disaster, if even possible…

“Natole!”

The female tones expressed such discord, surprise, and outright fear that the small gathering crowd, both combatants halting, simultaneously faced the direction of the vocal proclamation.

“Ami?!” Usagi started, silver light spinning in balled fists. The curvaceous blue locked woman donned a classy sexy dress of deep sea sapphire, offering only frightened glances.

“Why’d you follow me Usagi? Why?”

The reply was tremulous at best, scattered, and vague. “I wanted … Mamoru and I … we … Luna, um …” she swallowed, tearful eyes shining. “The senshi need you!”

Sir Lording’s gaze hardened reflexively.

“I d-don’t know nothin’ ‘bout n-n-no demons, witch,” she nigh stammered. Thunderous steps introduced a masculine mountain of muscle, a twelve foot rock face of testosterone power into the verbal battlefront.

“Natole!” Sarah whimpered, taking his thick forearm in her slender arms, “she wants Shyanne!”

A wash of frightened gasps fell across the small crowd like a threatening tsunami as the Half-Giant scowled darkly.

“I am One-Punch,” he declared in a drawling bassoon voice. He opened his tree trunk of a free hand, and an iron staff appeared within reach of his massive fingers. Usagi instinctively recoiled.

“Called so with good reason. You,” he deftly demolished an empty iron wine keg, then placed the blunt tip of the brutal fourteen foot weapon inches from Usagi’s flared nostrils and wary, anxious eyes. “Stay away ye from my wife, lest I flatten ye.”

Usagi, without hesitation, bowed and respectfully stated: “Aye. Coril so sa lynn.” Respect to the Order.

…and was then gone.

Sir Lording made his efforts in the dispersal of the crowd, cursing himself the futility of the battle.

Usagi? Ayana’s uncertain mind tones rang freely, receiving no response.

We are alone, Ayana. Usagi’s back with Mamoru, Aaran affirmed, entreating Sarah’s attention. She hesitated briefly as Natole glared down upon her for a moment, before Sarah bid him calm.

“I’m okay sweetie,” she urged, caressing his thick hand subconsciously.

“What do you remember?”

Sarah shook her head, squinting, thoughts vague.

“She … the witch tried to steal my little girl before we came here. Did …” here was a frightened pause. “Did she summon those dreadful white cats? They’ve vacated half the populace.”

Aaran gazed at her sharply, inquisitive. “Pardon?”

Sarah – Ami’s amnesia balking – blinked, a detached expression holding her slender facial arrangement. “Well, observation indicates that the number of felines doubled when she arrived here. Now that she’s departed, the total is decreasing rapidly.”

“So …?”

She frowned as if it were self-evident. “They’re following her. That’s the only reasonable conclusion.”

“So you could follow her?”

Her eyes rolled in consideration. “Sure,” she shrugged. “Why you’d want to though … Yeah. It could be done.”

“Why all the combustible cats? Besides the horror factor,” Sir Lording queried curtly.

“That’s precisely it though, you see? No people equal inequitable land. Felcor is worthless without the magic and economy of the Felynx,” she elaborated, unblinking. “It would win the war for the enemy. The Felynx cannot fight without supplies, and a supportive social structure.”

Aaran nodded. Sharp girl.

So this is what my Aunt Ami is like, Ayana smiled. Isn’t she a scientist or something?

“Well, no. I’m studying to be a doctor, actually. Though I still have a long way to go,” Ami blurted with a blush, her mousey posture momentarily breaching the sundry guise of her fragmented mind. The moment fled, and she blanched, bursting into great gasping sobs as she ran from the scene, leaving the remaining participants stunned. Natole swiftly, for a several hundred pound creature, pursued Sarah, belaying the others with his mere action, and the intimidation of his incredible presence.

Yet it no longer mattered. She was still in there somewhere, terrified, the very same Ami, a victim of this twisted weaving. She was split, in fact, a fragment of her scarred consciousness living for her when she could not otherwise survive.

“Ayana, go see what …”

“No Sir Lording,” she negated oh-so gently.

“Listen, she knows about the demons … I want you to …”

“Respectfully, I can’t do it. She’s scared! I’m scared! Please, don’t push her. Z[_en lass, sein tol.” _]Forgive me, my lord.

The annoyed look immediately faded as he gazed at her. “Of course,” he smiled softly. “Of course, girl. I’ll simply contact my sister.”

[* *]

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[* *]

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Chapter 35

[* *]

She was ready. The entire week and been invested in something which wouldn’t last more than ten minutes, but she was prepared. She smoothed out the long skirt of her formal dress, smiling at the feel of the cotton.

Worth every yen, she thought, quite pleased. I’ll definitely make a good impression.

Her tail twitched, and feline ears swivelled about the bedroom, having heard the faint swooshing of unfamiliar movement.

No one else is up yet, she reminded herself as she exited her bedroom and stepped out onto the carpeted landing at the base of the stairwell leading up. Well, maybe…

‘Sashi! Are you downstairs?’

She strode hesitantly towards the kitchen, her clawed hands falling into an instinctive position of defense. She plainly heard a drawer slide open, and then shut, as padded feet slid across the laminate towards her.

‘Xalia!’ she cried as her friend appeared suddenly, clasping her hands to her chest as her heart nearly took leave of her body. ‘You scared me! Why didn’t you knock? I’ve been up since five, I would have heard you!’

The young brunette smiled, her hands clasped firmly behind her back as her friend’s eyes travelled down the strange uniform. Upon moving upwards again, she noticed the unusual gleam of a collar which appeared to have foreign engravings in it. She tore her eyes away from it with some effort.

‘Where did you get those funky clothes from? Did Kei give them to you?’

‘Kei?’ she repeated slowly, nearing her. ‘No Asa, not from Kei. You like them?’

She blinked, not sure if she really did. ‘Uh, yeah, they’re, uh … really weird. Like military or something … um … What are you doing here so early? Didn’t I say we should meet at seven? At the school?’

‘Oh,’ she replied, ‘right. I remember. Seven. At the school.’

Asa gave her an “what are you on?” look, and took her shoulder, leading her towards the living room. ‘Forget it. I’ll make breakfast. You can just take your weirded-out self and get comfortable. The Playstation has Motocross in it.’

‘Oh, I’m not hungry, thanks.’

‘Then why are you here? Forget your question sheet? I can print out another copy if you want …’ she turned, and headed towards her room. ‘That’s what you get for dragging your … Uk!’

Xalia regarded her unemotionally as Asa turned around, her face chalk-white, eyes wide, mouth gaping. She stumbled backwards, reaching for something at her back, then staggered over to the couch, over which she fell, motionless, and no longer quite so puzzled. The shadowling extracted the blade from her back, then plunged it into the back of the gurgling girl’s neck, where it was left.

‘Sorry Asa, but you’re just in the way,’ Xalia began, gesturing towards Asa’s room. Asa’s eyes rolled uselessly, something in her mind clicking just hard enough to acknowledge she was dying. Her brown eyes caught the movement of the shadow-being tearing through her bedroom, dimly aware of the object of its search.

‘Trust can be deceptive, but it’s not your fault,’ she continued, gazing at the beast as it turned up empty handed. ‘It’s just the way things are.’

The young girl, someone’s former bundle of joy, expired with a faint breath as Xalia turned, muttering: ‘One down, three to go …’

 

@~%~~~

 

Straggling into the dojo, ill-prepared, though hardly willing to admit it. The whole night had been spent in the interest of the debate to come. She hated them. It was not a matter of inability on her part, she was certainly intelligent enough to participate in a logical argument. The toughest part was avoiding anger. It was so much easier just to use physical demonstration to illustrate her intention. It just came so naturally.

She could hardly see a problem with it. The method had preserved her for most of her life. Knowing that she could not, at least, not in school, not with the Kei-san present (at the very least), made her job that much more awkward. Stooping to fetch an escapee book from the column of a dozen in her arms, she startled as someone bumped into her. With a stark snarl upon her face as the stack tumbled freely to the floor, she faced her impending opponent. Her ire was pacified as she noted the presence to be a friend.

‘Uh, good morning Masurani-chan,’ the red-headed Asian girl stated softly in Japanese, smiling weakly and stooping to assist her. ‘Gomen nasai!’

‘That’s okay,’ she sighed, her voice heavy with the tension aforementioned. She collected a few books, then accepted the remainder the young woman handed her.

‘You look tired,’ she said, rocking slightly on the balls of her feet.

‘Hai Ayla-chan,’ she replied caustically. ‘I was training late. My sensei insisted I finish the new technique …’

‘What? I thought you …’ she gasped. ‘Isn’t black belt enough?’

Masurani glanced about, her sky blue shoulder length hair shifting with the motion, noting immediately that they were the only students unseated. She headed off towards the nearest pair of empty spots. Easily done, since the rotunda was sparsely populated. Once the situation was remedied, she replied: ‘No.’

Ayla blinked at her. ‘Come on. I know you want to make it in, but don’t you think it’s a little much?’

‘No way.’

Ayla’s eyebrow arched at that. Leaving her thoughts unspoken, she turned to the task at hand.

‘My sensei says self improvement is always worthwhile,’ the blue haired girl continued. ‘There’s still so much to learn!’

‘Yeah, like he put it that way. Probably said something like: “Never stop training, ‘cause you won’t know who might come along to whip your butt.” Right?’

She laughed. “Close.”

“So anyway, who are you paired with?’ Ayla asked gently, seeming to ignore that statement, skimming over her notes.

‘Naritha Hylaow, some little Chinese mouse,’ Masurani stated with a derisive snort. Ayla gave a half frown at that.

‘She’s quiet, but she’s smart, so don’t underestimate her,’ she suggested. ‘Remember the first time you tried to out talk me?’

Masurani smiled and nodded, ‘Hai. I finally got you in the sparring match afterwards. What about you? Who are you with?’

‘Haisha Walynn,’ she glanced up at the stage, half listening to the already sparring voices.

‘I’m not sure if I like her, she gets so angry so easy,’ was the terse observation.

‘Remind you of someone you know?’ Ayla parried simply, gazing at her friend to drive her point.

‘Oh thanks,’ she groaned. ‘I’m way calmer than she is. Why? What do you think of her?’

She considered the next combination of words over the course of an inwardly drawn breath, then set them free. ‘I think she’s way too loud to be very tough …’ Ayla replied, a distant look wandering into her eyes, “ …I guess.”

Masurani suspect for a moment.

‘Um, it doesn’t matter. There’s something else I need to talk to you about,’ she began, her face drawn tightly by some unseen stress. ‘Nasura-san may not honor our kinship.’

‘What! But that’s not her choice! …is it?’ she glanced nervously up at the short redhead in matching business suit of sports coat and skirt. ‘I mean … um … what does it mean?’

‘It means they won’t take any special considerations concerning missions, or tactics. It also means they won’t provide the traditional armour and training.’

Masurani groaned loudly. ‘Great. Not only do I have to argue on stage today, but I learn that I’m hooped for kinship rites. Bloody frickin’ wonderful.’

‘Gen Asa!’ was the name abruptly issued.

Masurani blinked at the false start, sitting back down. She glanced around at the lack of responsive movement.

‘Gen Asa!’

Ayla looked nonplused at her friend, shrugging her slender shoulders.

‘It’s not like her to skip,’ Masurani noted seriously.

‘I always kind of thought she was a flake,’ Ayla replied with a chuckle. ‘I mean, she’s part cat. I don’t know very many cats that care about punctuality.’

‘Last call for Gen Asa!’

‘Yeah well I don’t know many cats,’ Masurani chuckled. ‘But, this is important to her…’

‘How do you know? Oh,’ she smirked. ‘Sparring partner.’

‘Yeap,’ she replied, lacking a usually appropriate grin.

‘What will happen?’

‘What?’

‘To her debate partner?’

‘I dunno. Maybe they’ll just stick her with someone else who skipped, but this bothers me,’ she muttered worriedly. ‘Isanu didn’t show up to class this morning either.’

‘Really? Wow, maybe she slept in!’ Ayla laughed.

Masurani regarded her with a stern glare. ‘Come on Ayla! It’s not like being a KnightsMage is important or anything!’ she retorted, seeming quite upset by the entire matter.

‘You’re right, but I think we should just focus on making the team. It won’t hurt us really if they blow it by not showing up. Especially since we can’t help it.’

She looked further ill at ease, then bowed her head and sighed. ‘I suppose.’

‘Sarle Masurani and Hylaow Naritha!’

‘Oh shoot!’ she blinked, recalling something abruptly. ‘Masu-chan, this will determine our placement and rank. So try not to lose your temper.’

‘Yeah? No kidding?’ she huffed. ‘Got any more wisdom for me?’

‘Yeah, don’t lose your temper.’

‘I’ll try to remember that.’ Masurani glowered. She muttered tersely under her breath as she took a dozen palm sized cards from the top of her seated books as she left to face grim vocal combat.

 

@~%~~~

 

Only further unsettled, fingers tightly curled about the fragile edges of the podium, Masurani growled at her debate opponent mere moments past the point of no return. ‘Bloody hell he doesn’t! The child is his flippin’ fault, he can’t shirk on his responsibility!’

Naritha, a young woman just on the edge on childhood, long blue and silver streaked hair adorning her gentle and forgivingly attractive features, held a barely confident expression, to match that of her donned apparel: A loose khaki blouse and matching skirt of deep brown.

‘To disband such relationship not a crime … um, punishable in law. Were she underage …’ she stated clearly, her voice laden with a thick Chinese accent.

‘Disband?! It’s not a military establishment! It’s his bloody fault!’

Ayla shook her head with an embarrassed laugh, watching her drowning companion on stage.

‘There are, um … laws to protect mother … and to determine his …’ she cursed faintly in her native tongue, searching for a word she could not find. ‘Uhnm, ahh … oh! Accountability.’

Masurani’s fingers clutched the podium with such force that the edges cracked, bringing an uncomfortable look to her face, and a shocked one to her opponent.

‘I … oh mercy Goddess,’ she whispered faintly, fear briefly flashing behind her eyes. ‘I forfeit!’

‘Hai! Enough!’ the presiding Kei barked, glaring starkly at Masurani. ‘Return to your seats.’

Trembling vaguely as she departed, she replied a fearful ‘what did I do wrong?’ glance to Masurani, who winced, and plunked herself down heavily beside Ayla in the bleachers.

‘That was wrong! You scared her into forfeit!’ Ayla stated, gazing sharply at her friend. ‘She didn’t deserve that!’

‘I don’t … I didn’t mean …’ she gathered her apologetic feelings and held them aside. ‘I don’t usually fly off the handle like that. You know me.’

‘I do,’ she sighed, falling into silence and watching the next pair of verbal warriors. A moment later, she faced her friend with knitted brows, and declared: ‘But I wasn’t your debate opponent. You need to apologize to her.’

Masurani glared at her knees, after which her softening eyes met Ayla’s.

‘She probably thinks I’m going to pound her,’ she smirked selflessly.

‘Not funny.’ Ayla frowned pointedly, ‘Your reputation precedes you, neh?’

‘Uh, yeah …’ she responded uncomfortably, gaze fallen. ‘I’ll be back in a couple minutes, okay?’

Masurani had to wonder why Naritha stood rather than fled when she approached. Perhaps she had more guts than she had first determined. Or, perhaps she was just open to peaceful relations.

‘Hi,’ Masurani half growled unconsciously in Japanese. Guilt overtook her an instant later. ‘Oh damn. Gomen nasai Naritha-chan! I didn’t mean to freak out on you on stage there I was panicked I’m really bad at debates and I just…’

Naritha nodded expectantly. Masurani blinked, somewhat stunned, then took a deep breath as she placed her hands together palm to palm and bowed dramatically at the waist. ‘…I got angry. It’s been such a rough week with all the training … Twenty-four-seven regiments since Nasura-san called alarm. I was mean. Really mean. Gomen.’

Naritha’s eyes whirled for a moment, after which point she smiled, and proffered her hand.

‘[Nihao!] I’m Waylnn Naritha,’ she smiled.

Dumbfounded, Masurani gazed puzzled at the girl for a moment, before returning her smile, and shaking her hand. ‘Uh, [nihao] I guess. Um, I’m Sarle Masurani,’ she replied, taking this as a truce.

‘Can be …’ her face locked in dubious consideration, ‘ …friends?’ Her pleasant expression instantly darkening in expectation of refusal.

Is she manipulating me? Masurani thought, strangely mollified by the idea. So what if she is? I think I like her. She’s … nice.

‘Um, I guess. Why don’t we go correct the result of our debate. You were way more clear headed, and I can just drop it if you want. You deserve it.’

Naritha glanced at the raised oak stage, and Masurani’s gazed followed immediately. ‘Your friend already doing.’

Masurani sighed, exasperated. Though, even as she watched, her torrential feelings washed away, and she felt herself turn and slip into conversation with Naritha, who it turned out, stumbled less frequently in speech when comfortable.

‘Aren’t many people here today,’ Masurani remarked softly.

Naritha nodded curtly. ‘Hai, I see this. Nasura Kei-san said only final girls here. None other.’

‘Oh. You mean the finalists? You mean we’re it?’

‘Hai,’ she said with a blink. ‘If you are chose, what will do?’

‘I want to be the senshi of strength,’ rolling her eyes with a warm smile. ‘Obviously, it’s what I’m good at.’

‘Hai. Yet, there are two. What will be other?’

‘I dunno, I never really thought about it. I guess it would have to be stamina, I’m fast, but not fast enough to qualify for speed. What about you?’

‘I will be heart and soul. I not fight like you.’

‘Like me? You do fight?’ Masurani quested, interested.

‘Violence hurt many. I wish not cause pain. Fighting necessary, but very unfortunate,’ she replied, avoiding Masurani’s direct gaze.

‘What style? I was taught a combination … it’s a little much to get into.’

‘Te. I was taught from very young and worked very hard to master.’

‘Very. I understand it’s a very unique form. Uhm,’ she hesitated, the question forthcoming awkward, ‘when we argued up there, your Japanese was better …’

Her eyes rolled prettily in consideration, and she reached into a pocket and pulled out her prompt cards.

‘My writing much … as you say … better than my speech. I speak English too, but very worse,’ she replied softly, watching the movement of Masurani’s hands. ‘I see you fight. I see you with friend. You spar, you win.’

‘I fight hard, and train harder. Becoming a KnightsMage is very important to me,’ Masurani stated seriously, dropping her clenched hands.

‘What style?’ she inquired, leaning forward slightly as she toyed with a rallied length of hair at her shoulder.

‘Many things. I’ve been training under Nakio, and a friend of my Mama’s. Mostly it’s Silver Light stuff, though I have received some tutoring from the Shirinaui School,’ she stated, her eyes casting over Naritha, shifting occasionally to the stage, where some of the elders had started to gather. ‘Mostly energy channelling, you know.’

‘You train Silver clan when not together?’ she queried gently.

‘I’ve been training long before the Silver clan dissolved. And since.’

The young woman – nigh girl, in appearance – nodded with a serious look. ‘What other …’ she blushed suddenly. ‘Pardon my inquisi..ivi…osi.. Oh, … um, curiosity.’

Masurani smiled, respite. ‘Feh. Don’t worry about it. It’s nice to have someone to talk to about the martial arts. Ayla … my other friend … she’s not a passionate about it as I am.’

‘Hai … I see. Your friend have much natural grace. She … star on foot?’

Masurani looked befuddled for a moment, after which the statement clicked.

‘You mean “light on her feet,” right? Like th’ way you say it. Cute.’

Naritha bowed her head with a giggle. ‘Hai. She seem faster than you.’

‘She is, when I go normal … uh, um … Power is my thing.’

‘As humble Master of Te, I learn never be hit, and not strike until last cause.’

‘I don’t think I could ever do that … just stand there and let some guy swing at me, even if he wasn’t making contact…’

‘What mean, when say ‘go normal’?’

Masurani averted her eyes. ‘It’s hard to explain. When I fight, I have two modes, mostly, normal is when I fight ordinary people. I can increase my speed by focusing chi. Problem is I burn off some major energy when I do that. It’s kinda dangerous, but a real trip.’

‘Ah, I see …’ she muttered distantly, somewhat set aside verbally by her near ramble. ‘Do what must do. If not, no say what might lose. Home, planet, life. To choose, is not our cho.. um, choice, hm? But what you say is not so strange. I learn to work with water and chi.’ She adjusted her skirt absently. ‘Mostly, I sense evil, heal, and protect.’

Masurani nodded, an elaborated thought restless in her mind.

‘There is more,’ Naritha asked.

A pleasant smile warmed her face. ‘I wasn’t going to get into it unless you asked …’

 

@~%~~~

 

‘Looks like you’ve got yourself a new friend,’ Ayla smiled warmly as Masurani accompanied her out of the hall.

‘Yeah. She’s much tougher than she looks! Can you believe she’s a master of Te?’ Masurani gushed, still quite impressed.

‘What’s Te?’

The short turquoise haired young woman prepared an astounded look, which she tossed quickly at her friend. ‘The Chinese developed it decades ago during the war, when they were banned from using weapons. It’s a deadly hands only martial art. I’d have a bloody hard time trying to beat her in combat. In slow mode, anyway.’

‘That’s pretty scholarly of you, Sarle,’ Ayla prodded.

‘Step off,’ Masurani grumbled.

‘She looked so hurt though! If she knew …’

‘Naritha’s a pacifist. One of the big things about Te is avoiding fighting. That’s the first focus of the style. Defence,’ Masurani stated, facing her locker, applying her hands to the bound storage unit. ‘She’s such a sweetheart. What are your plans?’

‘I know,’ Ayla acknowledged, opening her locker with a clink. ‘Well, actually, I was going to invite you to Aunt Mai’s.’

Masurani smiled plainly. ‘Would you mind if I invited Naritha?’

Ayla looked surprised. ‘Okay, where’s Masurani? What’ve you done with her?’

Masurani could only laugh. ‘Well, she shouldn’t mind. I mean, the dojo is open to the public…’

‘Of course. Don’t worry about it.’

Slipping a knapsack over her shoulder, Masurani commented: ‘Turns out she’s also half Japanese.’

‘So?’ Ayla replied dryly.

‘She’s got some Japanese blood in her family, and…’

‘That’s not what I asked. What does it matter that she’s any part Japanese?’

‘I… uh.’

A sigh akin to a hiss escaped Ayla’s lips. ‘That’s pretty crass, Masurani-chan. You know my Mama raised me not to do that.’

‘S’your Mama, not mine. Anyway, she’s Canadian.’

Ayla growled angrily at that. ‘Masurani-chan!’

Masurani looked abruptly apologetic. ‘Um, I … Ayla-chan, your Mama-san is an honorable and kind woman. I …’ her eyes fell. ‘I just meant that she’s used to all the different cultures and I’m not.’

‘Lame, Masurani-chan. [_Lame. _]You wanna be friends again when you grow up?’

Masurani’s eyes trailed along the floor as they proceeded from the verbal blast site. ‘Masurani the Master of Morality strikes again,’ she chided herself. ‘I guess we’ll be eating separately?’

‘You apologized pretty fast this time, so I’ll forgive you for being a bolt-on,’ Ayla sighed. ‘Besides, we need to discuss our senshi outfit designs. Unless you’re going to refuse Mama’s invitation?’

‘No Ayla-chan …’ she half whispered. ‘So sorry! I like her … I just …’

‘Just what?’

‘They’re just so …’

‘“Just” nothing! How many Japanese people have you known are the same as the next?’ Her red eyebrows curled downward tersely.

‘Well, none, really …’ her eyes flailed to the doors leading to the outside world, embarrassed and disgraced, as they passed through them.

‘Why do you think another culture should be any different?’

There were several turnings of a glossy black feminine silhouette before Masurani spoke again. ‘I don’t know. I guess … Dad never really … he didn’t like the Chinese very much.’

Ayla only nodded, noting the darkening of the sky as a flow of harrowing clouds drew over them.

‘It’s simply a matter of respect. “Eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth.”’ Ayla elaborated plainly, ‘Just think about it, neh?’

‘Uh, yeah,’ she sighed, betwixt feelings of guilt and honor.

 

@~%~~~

 

‘There isn’t much to mine,’ she noted, pulling the dark blue weighted armlets over her wrists. Her orange gi travelled loosely over her distinctly curvaceous form, belted at the waist, laden with heavy, thick dark blue boots, and where the neckline plunged, a dark grey weighted tunic covered any discounting view.

‘“School of the turtle sect,”’ Osaka read. ‘Is he collaborating with Mai at all?’

‘No. He said he doesn’t want to confuse my training,’ she replied with an indifferent shrug. ‘I don’t know if I want to take on any more than this. It’s hard enough as is.’

‘“School of the Sparrow,”’ Ayla grunted. ‘Nakio never suggested the use of weighted clothing like you’ve got! Though … I’m not much of a fighter.’

‘I dunno about that,’ Masurani replied. ‘You may not be as tough as me, but you’re pretty frickin’ fast. But then, you’re a brain. Helluva lot smarter’n me. It’s what we’re good at. Doesn’t have to be the same thing.’

‘Hai. It’s just that I don’t, well … you enjoy it. I do it because there’s no other way.’

‘I buy that,’ Masurani replied, ‘and you can go ahead and call me stupid! Whatever, Ayla-chan. You might not go for it like I do, but you wouldn’t at all if you didn’t get a kick out of it a bit.’

‘Oh, really punny. I don’t though. I mean, sure, I like the idea of actually being able to defend myself, but I’d rather not fight,’ she elaborated, practising several streamlined motions of ken, the smoothness betraying the grace of a dance. ‘I’m no white rabbit.’

‘I never enjoyed violence much either baby,’ Osaka admonished wistfully. ‘Dinner will be ready in a few minutes. Why don’t you two wash up.’

‘Sure, me too,’ Masurani smirked. ‘Though mine hardly recommended the use of books.’

‘That’s not hard to believe!’ Ayla remarked from the hallway.

The Apollo house spoke calmly, though pointedly, and plainly. As did those who dwelled therein. Ayla knew that Masurani was not one for words, and wondered exactly how intelligent this young half-Japanese girl was. Another intellectual sparring partner would hardly hurt her. Of course, the hope of finding a new friend struck her as well. As Ayla’s thoughts nearly simultaneously carved this path of thoughts, the rapid, dull beating of a minuscule bell battled for her attention.

‘Ayla! Phone!’

She sat forward on her bed and grasped the top of a deep black cat shaped phone, and drew the receiver to her ear.

‘Hai – Ayla. Oh, hai … No, Masurani’s kinda busy … And no, that’s tonight … it’s my Aunt, Naritha,’ a pause. ‘We’ll have the whole weekend.’ Another. ‘Yeah. I don’t know if you’ll want to show them up!’ she laughed. Instantly, her face darkened. ‘No, um, that’s not what I … no, that’s fine. Forget it.’ Yet another drawling silence. ‘You know where the “Yarrow Temple” is? Right. Just at the end of the street. Big white building, can’t miss it. We’re being picked up at six.’ She glanced at Masurani with a bemused smile. ‘We’ve been friends for years … since … what?’ A further gaping quiet. ‘No problem. Sure. I’ll see you then. Bye.’

The click of the receiver drew Masurani’s idle question forth. ‘What?’

‘She’s talkative for a mouse,’ she replied, sitting back.

‘It’s just a matter of finding the right people to talk to…’ Osaka pointed out, poking her head inside the door. ‘Dinner’s ready. Why don’t you to come down and eat before Naritha gets here.’

‘We should have time to spar before we go, right?’ Masurani asked hopefully.

Ayla grinned. ‘Hai. I’m looking forward to it.’

[* *]

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Chapter 36

[* *]

Why are they here?! It’s been three bloody years! Why don’t they just give up?! the sensual being known as Sapphire Dawn, the host of all Ami’s pain, stammered angrily.

Usagi … she’s like … like a sister. She loves us. I can’t explain it. I know she hates not being able to help us, replied the core of her mind, one Ami Mizuno.

Help? What for? What’s she going to do, take us away from Natole and bring us back to our friends? Are they even our friends anymore? I mean, how wonderful is it that Luna were raped … an’ everything else! Ugh! I say forget it! There’s nothing but pain for us back there.

Ami found it difficult to marshal an argument, thus encouraging the young independent section of her mind to continue: And what about us?

[What _]about[ us? Do … do you mean … buh-back at Luh-luh-lone Star?_]

Lone Star? I … no … what’s that? … The voice quelled itself.

“Know you well the reason for your flight. Sapphire has brought herself about to save your sanity.” Her comforting voice beckoned long denied tears forth as Ami wrapped her arms around an ideally endowed figure offering only motherly love.

“Why does it have to be like this?” she sobbed, blue lengths of hair tangling in front of her face. The brunette smiled, and a faint glow of respite enshrouding them.

“It is of the Great Weave child. Accept your past … you had no control. The blame,” her eyes slowly drifted open as she leaned back, releasing Ami, “ …is not yours. Hold it not! Natole loves you, and know that you need not abandon him to rejoin your friends! Let not your fear disguise the Holy Truth.”

The reasons became transparent. Usagi wanted her … the senshi … the Bishojo Sailor Senshi, were a family, a supportive group of intimate friends. Tsukino Usagi, the emotionally flickering light, yet somehow continually able to muster the strength – the courage – to win over consistently unusual and overwhelming odds. Hino Rei, the verbal powerhouse, the engine of fury, the sensitive soul, always dependably critical. Kino Makoto, the pillar of stamina in moral excellence as well as physical prowess, a concerned friend and supportive woman who shouldered much for her age.

But then, didn’t they all?

Even Aino Minako, the less than chaste but never morally lacking woman, despite her attractive looks, charm, fiery determination, and more wit than her appearance implied. Luna and Artemis, like parents, worrisome and so full of love, offering unending guidance in their formidable ordeals. Surely, without them, the story would have ended before it had begun. The Sailor Senshi had failed, but in survival, had not abandoned her. How to return that love?

“You have only to try,” the enigmatic woman stated clearly. “These Silver Threads have not been cut. Follow them!”

As the words fell Ami knew herself to be alone, and knew much pain had she yet to receive.

“Heretic!”

The door tumbled inwards upon itself like a handful of thrown matchsticks as a baker’s half dozen Felynx rioters subdued and drew the fitful Ami forth among the rallying crowd outside of the Sapphire Night Inn. Holding the retaliatory force above their heads, they declared her association with the “witch” a trick to betray the town to the besieging demons. Yet no more than a scapegoat to belie the knowledge of loss in battle.

“Her discussion with the witch is proof enough! She must be punished for this mortal sin!”

The remaining skeptics soon forgot the truth of the matter: Three peaceful years of kindness amongst this woman of beauty, sagacity and integrity. It was shouted:

“She must burn!”

“ … Natole …!”

“Burn … burn …”

“Natole!!” she shrieked, the volume rending her throat. Nigh impossibly she saw him bound by magic, standing, a being of protective rage, so dramatically infuriated …

“Burn …! Burn!”

…by his apparent inability to save his threatened beloved. Ami could feel the shuddering of earth as his crimson painted fists sought freedom through the unseen box that contained him.

“Burn! Burn! Burn! The witch will burn!”

The chant permeated her soul, sending her mind reeling, a merry-go-round of unimaginable nightmarish horror.

“Burn! Burn! Burn!”

“Usagi! Save me!!”

“The witch will burn!”

“Usa …”

“See how …”

“Burn! Burn! Burn!”

“ …gi! Usagi!”

“ …she calls upon the witch now! What do we say?”

LET HER!!” boomed the crowd. They were prepared! They … the ringleader knew to be ready for this!

“Right! Why? So we can …”

A female voice?

KILL HER!”

Consumed by the weight of fear, rage, inner turmoil, and that of her recent life, she drew herself apart from the unquestionable feral mare of nights.

Of course there was a ringleader! Ami thought, and was not surprised entirely by the fact that she knew the young woman. A KnightsMage. A woman of vacant mercy. A woman who, dressed in the correct dress could walk unscathed amongst a furious war and draw it to a sudden halt. An obsessive force against all evil, even the slightest trace of Scior’s mark.

[_You lied to me! You used me! You betrayed me! _]she railed in thought, knowing she was listening.

[You sacrilegious _]witch![ I knew you were linked to evil somehow. I always knew it!_]

The crowd had been proceeding slowly towards the town square, and a vast emptiness filled her soul … What have you done? …and stole her reason as they approached an already smoking pyre.

The child wailed in agony and terror, her chained, naked and spread eagle figure a soul bending statement of child violence. Her agony distorted mortal mask gave vision and voice to the state of her shattered legs. The grey wings nigh torn from her shoulders all but shined as metal, crimson streaming in stark lines from several pockmarked holes where early attempts had failed to grip the muscle.

“Let us destroy this demon servant!” she cried sharply.

A question raised itself from among the energized crowd.

“Is she not a demon, herself?”

She glowered darkly at the crowd, and stepped towards the soul-scarred Ami. With a wicked frown, she pressed her hand to the bound woman’s stomach. Shyanne’s voice had stilled, but instantly came to life, echoing her mother’s agonized screams as the literally white palm ate at her flesh, slowly revealing the dull gleam of metal. A great, shocked intake of breath momentarily took the throng of people as all doubts were quelled.

“See the truth now? This creature comes to us in the attractive guise of a Canora golem to tip the war against us! As a demonic summoning, it must be banished!”

“Burn burn burn …”

“No! Not before the full cost has been extracted!” Sapphine declared against the cacophony of racing tones in seething, tangible hatred. “Kill the demon child!”

“NO!!!” Ami screamed nigh hysterically, unsure of the source of strength, and concerned nary a wit.

An abrupt shower of vaguely spherical grey missiles produced deafening thunking sounds as the first several missed. A rare event in the continuous muffled squishing, crunching, and shrieking as Shyanne was slowly reduced to stinking meat stapled to the crimsoning stone wall. By then, Ami had completely withdrawn, letting the distraught Sarah Night (Sapphire Dawn) face a reality so soul shriveling that she would have taken her beloved daughter’s place, receiving every stone to spare her young one’s life.

Natole’s defeated moaning could be heard for miles, causing a few to turn away in unuttered shame. Yet, somehow the massacre of the child was not enough to halt the proceedings, or even force them to leave. Perhaps they felt too deeply ingrained in the unspeakable carnage, knowing that even if they were wrong, what could they do to redeem themselves?

In truth, more than half of the Felynx rioters – over eighty mothers, fathers and newlyweds (Mate-Joining season just having past) felt to turn away and beg their God forgiveness. But each one, fearing themselves alone to be taken as a sympathizer, and in admonition under the very same threat of execution, found it easier to inspire the matter through to the end, so that the guilt could be charred and forgotten as Ami.

The fire had begun consuming Ami before Shyanne was quite dead, crying feebly to her mother for protection and loving sanctuary. Ami’s anguished cry as the skull of her daughter (in heart and intent if not body) fell in upon itself was so complete that several mothers responded by weeping for their own, seeing the potential threat and hinting fatal connection. Sapphine attempted to remind them that the child was a demon, and not worth their tears. Despite her sway, few listened. Many bowed their heads, not watching as the flame continued to reduce the writhing, shrieking woman to ashes.

“Ami! Oh mercy, AMI!!”

Usagi howled these words at the top of her lungs, drawing every iota of attention as her scarlet wrapped form shoved through the knotted, resisting crowd.

Know this, a voice stated in Ami’s flickering consciousness. It is not over.

“Senshi! Halt and face me!”

Usagi paused, surrounded by a pool of growling and hissing Felynx, who parted, forming a sizable circle in which Sir Lording and she could commence combat. As she approached, Usagi’s eyes slipped past her, and to the reeking corpse of what must have been Shyanne. Knowing she might have killed the child herself, and knowing how it had affected her friend (for she drew the experience from Ami’s waned consciousness and could not stay the abundant tears), she faced combat all the more willingly, hoping to distract the rising tsunami of remorse.

Usagi! Sapphine’s a KnightsMage of the first rank! Ayana chirped fearfully, embroiled in the war against the demons, sensing the peril and attempting to extract herself from the battle to join her.

I don’t care, Usagi growled.

Sapphine’s shapely form was armoured in no more than white leather, a headband, silver armlets and shin guards, and a long red binding sash. As she approached the newly inducted Demon Hunter KnightsMage, her aura became visible as a vivid white flare of self righteous power.

“You self-righteous bitch,” Usagi snarled.

“What foolish talk is this, demon? I am here to annihilate you and your army! Surrender and I will end your existence very quickly,” her opponent responded heatedly, watching the creature deemed her foe with a trained eye.

“The KnightsMage General would have you dead already for your mistake,” Usagi declared tersely, striding towards her target.

“What …? How … what do you know of him?” Sapphine demanded, matching her pace precisely.

Usagi flared her anger darkened aura, her paramount emotion influencing her strength as she clapped her hands together, a vibrant burst of light snapping into existence and holding firmly in her hands and forearms.

“I was indoctrinated by him, Sapphine Lording.”

Sapphine frowned. “So why then, do you fight with my brother?”

“Because he’s a young pup, like I was.”

She only sniped a harsh expression at Usagi. Then, not four feet between them, the world halted as they gauged each other. Sapphine, all spritely energy, shifting slightly between both balls of feet, her right hand clenched in a fist under her chin, her left matching at her waist. A dark, seductive beauty of generous figure, of gold highlighted brunette hair bound in a single tail and tucked neatly under her headband, intense green eyes reading copious vengeful murder, full lips tightening in a pleasured smile, so totally full of confidence it was all she could do to halt from lashing out and ending it all right then.

Usagi, relying completely upon instincts, knew not what would come, only that it would. Her clothes felt relentlessly tight and constricting; grey vest and silver cotton turtle neck; form fitting stone washed jeans; long lightweight khaki overcoat billowing elegantly behind her. Her great blond flowing tresses accompanied the standard yet shortened odango-atama, nigh three quarters her own height in length as she stood in ultimate defiance.

“I know of your past. I know of the Death’s Hunger,” Usagi snarled. “I know he took you as a child, violated you … killed your family. Had you until six years ago.”

Sapphine merely blinked, registering nothing. Her voice, however, confirmed the story in the stored emotions behind each calculated word: “You will suffer. For that, for interfering, for bewitching the KnightsMage General, and for living.”

Usagi’s Blue Light Special shoes marked her feet at shoulder width apart, her sunspotting hands glowering with the same force that crept into her crystal blue eyes, shadowing them menacingly. “Ami was an innocent girl, and you have no right doing this! It’s over!”

Each woman wove a nigh silent spell, the words of which were audible to the supernatural senses.

“Luna, Artemis, Sailor Senshi …”

“Phate, let thy work strive …”

“Give me strength to preserve …”

“Through thy generosity let …”

“My beloved friends! Please …”

“This White Light of Retribution win …”

“Nothing means more to me!”

“Over these thy enemies!”

The result was a gathering of manna so fierce that it killed the twenty nearest the epicenter. There was no blood, no outward violence, only the instant consumption of Felynx lives. The remaining sixty were picked up and carried aloft like sailboats in a stark raving hurricane. Of those, twenty eight died, the remainder suffering major wounds.

The result?

Mystic Ground Zero in a distinct radius of exactly one-hundred feet, six inches and two eighths. Sapphine lay as nude as her unconscious opponent, hair undone and thrown lightly about her delicate shoulders like so much fallen snow. The manna bomb had incinerated all non-organic materials, leaving four bodies lying upon the naked earth. Usagi and Sapphine both apparently unhurt – aside from the former’s vaporized prosthetic left arm, the nearly unrecognizable earth pummelled mass that was the unfortunate Shyanne, and one half of Ami’s scorched torso.

Usagi’s eyes beheld naught but a nightmare inducing scene as she gazed directly into the smoking torso of Ami, whose cybernetics had obliterated with the motion of the freak spell. She saw no more than half of a legless corpse, beaten, charred … vacant of an eternal soul. Fierce burning tears took her as she heard an awed gasp: “Forgive me!”

Usagi sat up, feeling an unfamiliar weight upon her shoulder blades. She twitched, a brush of air wafting across her back, adjoining the soft caress of … feathers? Instantly her mind cleared. She did not smile, but rose gracefully, aware of her flawless nudity, but not ashamed. A sliver light wrapped itself about her, a delicate hug of glorious clarity, peace, and godly love. A pleasured croon emanated from her throat as her formerly missing arm was restored in a wash of pale blue heat and light. Gathering herself, Usagi set her eyes upon the ruined body of her friend, and while she looked on, her friend was made whole in the glow of a harmonious light.

Her ocean blue eyes opened gently, and she smiled, love in her heart, gratitude in her soul.

“Mama?”

Ami had barely regained her feet before she was obliged to accept a reborn angel-winged girl into her arms. Sweet tears of joy cascaded down both mother and daughter’s cheeks as they exchanged rapt long lived hugs.

“Forgive me Usagi-ana!” Sapphine begged, bowing on both knees.

[_“Anso tala sol goru alh solo!” _]I pledge my life to your service!

“No, Sapphine …” Usagi negated, her faultless tones the epitome of motherly genteel and empathy. “You musn’t.”

“But I …! I accused and destroyed an angel! How can I ever …” she turned, heartbroken, bitter tears quick to surface.

“How? Serve the truth. Serve what is righteous.” She took Sapphine’s shoulders, turned her about, grasped her hands and held them, finding purchase through the glimmering windows to her wounded soul. “I was not kind either, Sapphine. May I ask for your forgiveness?”

“But … Usagi-ana, why?” she nigh pleaded her inquiry.

“Because I need to make amends too, for my mistakes. I’m so far from being perfect,” she paused a moment, then continued on a new strain of thought. “I know the physical and mental molestation you suffer does not exclude you from His love. Trust the holy desire of your soul, Sapphine.”

The now golden haired woman read such unmitigated sincerity in her eyes, that she dared not doubt. “I still don’t … how …?” she bit her lip, eyes unshifting, tears roiling slowly. “I’ve hurt so many … believing them cursed because … I … because I couldn’t face my own pain. How can I be forgiven? How can I forgive anyone else … I am unworthy!”

Usagi smiled ever so slightly and pressed Sapphine’s hands just below the collar bone, between her breasts where her heart beat rapidly. “Have sincerity in your heart, and He will know. He knows us all by name, and knows our most intimate desires. You cannot disguise them. Have faith, a chaste, obedient heart, and humility. Be as a child.”

Sapphine finally bowed her head and sank slowly to her knees, hands clasped together as she sought fervent and honest prayer. Usagi turned to Ami, who, having been rejoined by Natole, slept contently in his warm, loving arms.

“Usagi Tsukino,” Natole began, voice hushed by the overjoyous ecstasy in his soul. “My life is yours. You have my unending gratitude.”

“Your life, Natole Shard, belongs to you. Though I would press you to dedicate it to my friend.” She then nodded, as if she had performed the act as a matter of instinct.

Perhaps now it was.

 

@~%~~~

 

His strike would not fail to hit its mark, it could not, for if it did, it would spell his doom. The heavy handed pole arm impaled the shadowling through its middle, causing it to burst angrily into dust.

‘Don’t make this personal Thanus,’ she warned, wielding an elaborately detailed trident, and hovering threateningly over his couch, which looked as though a large, wild boar had attacked it.

‘Why, isn’t it?’ he retorted, ducking and rolling to his wall of weaponry. Nimbly, he retrieved a crossbow and a handful of silver tipped bolts. He raised the bow and fired three shots in what seemed a single motion. With what appeared to be a mere twitch of the trident, she blocked each one, and the next four that followed, before replying a blast of fiery energy that threw the young man against the aforementioned wall.

‘No,’ she replied soberly. ‘I liked you.’

Rising and retrieving a short bow and a handful of arrows, he commented: ‘You’re cute. I could have liked you too,’ he offered, letting a triple notched shot loose, only to watch it repelled. ‘Attempted murder really sours the possibility of a relationship. I mean, there’s not even much chance of a first kiss.’

‘Attempted? You place too great a value on your power level. You don’t even know how badly you’re outmatched,’ she stated, not moving to block his incoming half dozen shots, which she reflected with a force of energy. ‘On the other hand, you could always quit the Knighthood. Then I could avoid killing you.’

‘Funny how you believe you’re actually going to win,’ he returned, gritting his teeth as he approached her with a glowing Bo staff. ‘If you were the Xalia I knew, then you would know I’ll never quit. There’s no such thing. This is what I live for.’

‘I just had to ask, you know, be fair, and all that,’ she explained as they fell into a blinding routine of strikes, blocks, parries that no human eye could perceive. Gradually, as the sweat appeared upon each brow, as each pair of eyes tightened in glares of concentration, Thanus noted something: The dark energy of her trident had become greater than the gentle radiance of his.

‘What you live for is what you die for!’ she snarled, shoving him away with such inhuman force that he sailed into his wall of weapons, and sank right back against a fallen katana. Dumbly, he gazed down at the blade protruding from his chest, dropping the Bo, which crumbled to dust as its creator was fatally wounded. He glanced up at Xalia briefly, a crestfallen and heartbroken expression his final conclusion of just how life had treated him.

Somewhat unfairly.

His head then slumped down, his body toppling forward onto the floor, an empty shell.

‘Guess what cutie, life is unfair,’ she remarked coldly, glancing indifferently upon the corpse. ‘It’s not your fault. It’s just the way things are.’

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Chapter 37

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It had been, well, only a week since their last visit. Nasura’s demands had only exponentially multiplied since the news had reached her of the Xalia’s disappearance. But why hold a meeting at the dojo? she thought, a concerned welling in her heart. What could be so urgent?

She smiled briefly at her blond locked husband, who replied a striking sparkle in his eye. He enjoyed working with the girls, training, teaching. Having recently paid for the land, he had returned to his training, giving fine instruction to the small wealth of students by which they were blessed. It would be the Kei’s first visit. The vibrant woman bowed her head, poking at her dinner with a lax hand. It troubled her. There was such an attitude of foreboding about it.

‘Mai-san, my dove, what troubles you?’ he uttered softly in Japanese.

Her eyes met his sharply, watering. “My dove,” a term of great endearment between them. For a flickering she recalled the snowy creature as it paled in her hands.

‘Nasura-san will be joining us soon.’

He merely frowned at her as he set his fork upon a barren plate. She stood, not bothering to excuse herself from the table as habit dictated. The loveseat caught her in all the silks of her kimono, her slender weight beset by breaching emotions. It was several moments before she felt his presence, and noticed the altering light of his shadow upon her.

‘At least they’re not asking of Tenma and Kai,’ he offered with a thoughtful calm.

He joined her in a fashion that placed her head on his broad shoulders, bodies meeting gently, for comfort, yet incalculably more, their hands grasped such as had been at the point of their marriage. Mai’s mind was blanketed by the frigid culmination of events many years past.

‘Would you exchange any of the discourse for what she has brought us?’

Her reply was without hesitance, ‘Never.’

‘Are you sure it was a good idea to send the twins away?’

She nodded. ‘Makoto is sure they’ll be safe with her friends. That way they can’t get hurt …’ she paused and took a deep breath. ‘And Tenma’s baby …’

‘I understand. There’s no sense in endangering them.’

Silence transcended their intimacy, and watched them in their concern, and alighting fear. A white flash suffused the dimness of the room, drawing Andy to his feet as a sharp bolt of wind and a humanoid shadow carelessly dismantled the pane-glass patio door. The table collapsed upon itself as a laugh sailed to the ears of the battle ready pair, who marshaled their forces, expecting combat.

‘Get up! Fight if you can!’ wailed a ferociously determined female voice.

‘Get up?’ murmured Mai, who turned and noticed the bruised and bloodied form of Haisha, a young warrior of repute. ‘Andy…’

‘I’ll get Nakio, Mai – go!’

‘Right.’ Mai pronounced her attack, and presence, with spoken phrase and motion of hand, after which her white fans soundly battered the silhouetted target, who fell with the abrupt breaking of water.

‘Pick on someone your own level!’ she snapped dramatically, hearing someone twenty years her junior. Sputtered and coughing, the blond creature flipped backwards out of the pool, water favouring her lithe form.

‘A challenge!’ smirked a woman of considerable nerve and hair length. ‘Too bad about the Neo Girl, really … though much too weak for my tastes.’

‘Crescent Slash!’ was the calling, the summoning not far behind, though easily evaded by the limber Mai. She hissed angrily, seething. With a long legged run, she leaped at the woman, leaning forward, all weight and crimson heat in her elbow. The woman smiled, and ducked back, rolling back on her shoulders. As the back of her head met the earth, she pressed her hands palm down, and with a blinding surge, boosted herself upwards.

‘Mina!’

Mai glimpsed Makoto standing in the gaping portal of the patio doorway as a splitting agony threw her, like so many sandbags, into the shimmering manufactured oasis.

‘Not quite, baby-girl …! I’ve still got my face!’ she winked, tossing a ‘peace’ gesture at the more than fuming Makoto, who growled as her iridescent broadsword came free from its scabbard. Andy’s foot, in the white heat of a beautiful roundhouse kick, caught the back of the familiar looking stranger’s head and sent her flipping into the pool where she failed to surface.

‘Oh no!’ Andy cursed, before diving down to meet his wife who fought valiantly for air. The doppelganger’s hands fit nicely around Mai’s neck, despite the brunette’s urgent struggles to remove them. Makoto neared the edge of the pool, watching them closely enough to see the deathly buildup of scarlet light before it solved her problem by tossing Mai’s unconscious bodiy from the pool and to the grassy earth.

‘Is that how you want to play it,’ Makoto growled, watching the sputtering blond extract herself from the blast site tiredly. A silver light extended itself from the rune blade, encompassing the enraged senshi, who exuded an aura of righteous anger.

‘Huh?’ she gasped eloquently, staring stupidly at the iridescent woman before her.

With a fearsome snarl upon her face, she raised the blade above her head, her target transfixed by the beauty of the attack. Makoto screamed the following as she leapt at her intended deathmate: ‘Raaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah!’

As though the sun had quadrupled it’s divine luminescence, every eye closed, every ear rapt/horrified in the audibly singular piercing of flesh …

‘No!!’

Makoto’s defeated voice rang, drawing Mai’s hallowed focus from the dire depths of blackness, and her blurred sight upon the eerily suspended figures. The rune blade caught in the blond woman’s stomach … and as recognition dawned … the crimson spire protruding betwixt Makoto’s shoulder blades, beyond wind tossed earth brown hair.

‘Nakio-san! No!’ cried a youthful voice in unfathomable loss. Ayla knelt over the inert form of Haisha, struggling to secure her life as it fled though the crimson marking the fragmented oak table. Whilst Masurani’s fury ascended, a heavily muscled figure appeared just underneath the still-motion forms, a large club in hand, a handsomely dark snarl upon his roguish face.

‘Die …!’ Masurani vehemently declared, fists clenched to whitening, her form alight by a scarlet force. ‘DIE!!’

“Mako-!”

A surge, like that of scarlet flame, became the aura of seething energy about her, and she uttered no word, but a fearsome cry as she jab-punched the nimbus of power at the already dying blond. The blood coursing from the left corner of her mouth dissipated as the rest of her, a raw burst of ashes the only remnant. He caught Makoto’s body, and was gone less than an instant later. As the emotional bonfire abated within the heaving breast of Masurani, her eyes grew wide, as did a spark of fear.

‘Did … I …’ she panted, drawing a hand through her thick turquoise hair. ‘Did I just kill Minako?!’

‘No Masura-chan,’ Andy noted gravely as he took Mai into his arms.

‘And did he say …?’

‘Masurani, I need help!’ Ayla interrupted fearfully.

Masurani hustled over to Ayla’s side as she proclaimed: ‘Help me get her into the spare bedroom. Quickly!’

‘Hai!’ she acknowledged, easily gathering the limp girl into her arms. As they proceeded, there was a subtle knock at the door. ‘Andy-san, would you get that? I need Mai with me!’

‘Hai Ayla-chan!’

Inside, Mai did what mothers do: Organized the chaos and protect her own. ‘Set her down here. Where’s …’ the deep crimson haired girl glanced about. ‘Ah, Naritha! Come here.’

Naritha bowed slightly. ‘What is your need?’

‘I …’ she closed her eyes and shook her head. ‘You’re an empath, right?’

‘Hai? How know you?’ she blinked.

‘Doesn’t matter. Can you tell if she’s bleeding inside?’

‘Hai. I will tell as best I can.’ Naritha set her hands lithely upon the copper-haired girl’s forehead as she bowed her head and drew her mind to bear on the victim.

‘There’s no time, Ayla!’ declared a studious voice, quite accustomed to the challenge of command. ‘She’ll bleed to death well before Naritha’s done.’

Ayla whirled about on her toes to address the speaker. ‘Nasura! I … I mean … um …’

‘Forget it! Catch,’ she issued, tossing a crimson toned crystal towards the stunned young woman. ‘Naritha, place this crystal on Haisha’s chest,’ she continued, handing her a purple crystal. ‘You’re the only one who can get her to activate it.’

With an uncertain curl at the corner of her lip, she set the flat octagonal crystal just above Haisha’s small breasts. She then replaced her hands upon Haisha’s crimson marked forehead before bowing her head. Ayla watched as a blue shimmering line washed over the badly brutalized young woman. Her broken arm, leg, and ankle set as a purple shoulderless bodysuit replaced her stained and vaguely torn clothes.

‘Wow …’ Masurani whispered, as if afraid of upsetting the process of change. To complete the mystic transformation, metallic-white armlets, shin guards, breastplate, belt, wristbands and choker took their place upon the now formal outfit. Upon close examination, Ayla perceived that she was not completely healed, for there were a number of small cuts and bruises adorning her abruptly remarkably clothed teenage figure, where former gashes and major wounds had once been.

‘Kei! How she healed so?’ Naritha gasped, swathed by a stunning wonder.

‘Well, it’s the Neo Senshi armor. It augments your strength, and all sorts of other things …’

Ayla smiled, her face lighting up with the knowledge. ‘Then that’s it! You’ve chosen the new senshi!’

Nasura frowned vaguely. ‘No, I haven’t. They chose for me,’ she found a chair and sat down, head bowed solemnly. ‘I take it the three of you were attacked?’

‘Hai sensei,’ Ayla affirmed. ‘The woman looked like Makoto. I don’t believe it though.’

‘Good!’ Nasura started, her gaze meeting Ayla’s. ‘I’ve got enough trouble without the complication of the clones. Nice to see you’re thinking it through. You weren’t hurt, either, I see. I have Masurani to thank?’

‘Hardly,’ Masurani frowned. ‘It was Naritha that kept her off our backs … not that she had much of a choice. She really didn’t seem to like her.’

‘Shao-Enya. Most unpleasant woman,’ Naritha nodded, a faintly matching darkness in her face and voice.

‘Hm? She’s still alive? Unfortunate. I was hoping you’d killed her. In any event, you’re right Naritha, the lot of them are a murderous lot. Powerful in the extreme. They’ve killed the other squires. It’s you five or nothing.’

The rush of gasps came so sharply that Nasura was surprised to note Haisha’s among them.

‘If there was a time to fight,’ she snarled ferally as she sat weakly up, ‘this is it!’

‘Not like that you won’t!’ Ayla rebuked. ‘You nearly died!’

‘Do you think we can honestly afford to stand aside and wait for them to hit us? They won’t be so gentle the next round!’ Haisha winced as she swung her legs over the side of the bed.

‘Ayla is right Haisha. Your senshi strength is only an amplification of your own. It cannot augment that which is not there,’ Nasura explained gently. ‘Besides, she’s the leader of the Neo Senshi now, you must obey her.’

Haisha looked stunned, gaping as Ayla did. She stammered, ‘Wha-at …?’

‘I don’t believe it!’ Haisha blurted, plainly aghast. She glared at her ‘superior,’ not saving anyone face by hiding her feelings.

‘I should be leading the Neo Senshi! I don’t know that this bookworm has any experience in the field!’

‘Bookworm!?’ Ayla snapped angrily. ‘How about you, you …’

‘Neither do you, Haisha,’ Nasura reminded her firmly as she stood, bringing attention to the state of command she had not ever quite fallen out of. ‘Your father’s involvement in the military hardly replaces the caring wit this young woman has already brought this team. Now, I won’t hear any more about this matter.’

Both girls bowed their heads, and answered an affirmative ‘Hai.’

‘Kei-san,’ Masurani requested gently, ‘I meant to ask about kinship rites.’

Nasura seemed to sigh.

‘They will be honoured. The traditional armour is part of the crystal, but be aware that it uses a great deal of chi,’ Nasura warned. ‘And know that we must move, now, to counterattack. Haisha’s headstrong, but right. She will accompany me as we attempt to determine the whereabouts of the last member of the Neo Senshi. The three of you, and the CSM, will make the stand at the front lines.’

 

@~%~~~

 

Makoto watched in emotionally charged silence as the semi-transparent image shifted; Usagi talking calmly to Natole, then Ami and Shyanne as they awoke.

“Phate – how? Did you alter her thread?” Makoto prodded gently, wiping her tear reddened face.

“Nay child, this was a potential buried in her pure soul from birth.”

“You are no longer cursed Shyanne,” she was saying. She knew the honesty of the matter. Shyanne had been cursed with the powers and terrible needs of a Death’s Hunger demon: The need to feed upon the energy of the living, the ability to fly, the gift of demonic strength and confusing emotions. Born a demon/canora halfing, always wanting to be fully one or the other, frustrated and pained by the inability to follow either.

“I have changed you … you are healed.”

“Um … thank you …” she offered, her young soul behind the words awkwardly spoken. “What about Mama?”

“I helped her, she’s safe now,” Usagi answered easily, eyes sparkling.

“Is …” she blinked. “Is she like me?”

Usagi’s heart abruptly thudded within her caging ribs. Makoto, twin in realization to her friend, saw the rising dilemma. How could a human mother raise an angelic child? Usagi’s act, both inconceivable, and apparently unavoidable, had created a very unique and nigh impossible parental situation for the young mother.

It’s not enough that she should understand …

Makoto whirled about to face a pulsing turquoise light. Uttering a slow gasp, she literally felt Ami’s reaction, and returned her eyes to view the look of resplendent peace and joy within Ami’s unscathed face. Ami’s wings shimmered into existence, as blue as the gauze-like aura that illuminated the young woman. Ami’s mortal born beauty suffered little adjustment but mere purification and enhancement of her already native fairness and child-like innocence, as well as the solidification of pale ocean blue wings and clearing of skin blemishes. The multitude of internal changes, the greatest of which was her induction into the universe of immortality, were known instinctively.

Makoto drew an exhilarated breath as an all encompassing warmth encircled her. Her eyes closed while her consciousness expanded. She did not, on any level, fail to notice the realization of the power of her very soul. She knew it to be different than Usagi’s, knowing that her most basic nature; the warrior, the confident pillar of physical and emotional strength, the survivor, had not suffered change. Moreover, she knew she was not alone. The others …

Minako holding the shed cybernetic implants that had kept her alive. The half face had separated cleanly as the missing part of her face had spontaneously regenerated. Surrounded by strangers – the CSM standing all at once awed and aghast – and Dr. Carl Silver, a Silver Tail dragon and her lover, who gloried in her fantastic transformation.

Rei, as emotionally scarred as the rest of the group, wept openly as her expansive wings spread and caught the surging wind atop the ridge mount she enjoyed with the company of her soulmate. Adolphus held her hand and drew close to her, enrapt by the heavenly transfiguration.

As each opened her eyes, she found herself clothed in wafting silken robes:

Usagi, a cloud white; Ami, a crystalline sapphire; Makoto, a suiting khaki; Minako, a pastel gold; and Rei, a gentle, pale violet. The awareness was so abrupt, each knowing their teammate’s purification in the recent, crimson spattered years of harsh dealings, and soul battering plight, that words, where insignificant, failed completely. Makoto’s inhumanly vivid sight transmitted the image of a rarely smiling Phate, a loving mother more than generous benefactor or even bestowing mentor. For how great a gift could any mortal give comparatively?

“Never undervalue the worth of a gift of the heart. No matter it’s size,” Phate stated calmly, sensing the question. “For there is no greater gift than love in this infinite universe.”

“Why, mentor?” Makoto requested softly, comfort centering her tones and her being just then.

“You are not meant to lose,” she explained, her voice full of sympathetic awareness. Knowing the enigmatic woman well, Makoto was mystified by the length at which she spoke. More words had been offered in the last few minutes than during her years of training. She fell silent, but her unimaginably powerful mind rang out amongst the newly born psyches of the Angel Senshi.

You are immortal now, and have the power to triumph. Know that I have done no more than accelerate your ascension. To honour this gift, you have to no more than use it. Illness, death, nor violence can take you. Only magic may affect your holy beings. Even for the telepathy and empathy you know of each other now, there is, furthermore, an intimate form of teleportation that will always join you.

Makoto stood and bowed deeply, weeping silently. There was a white flicker, and she disappeared. There was no explanation required.

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Chapter 38

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“Babe, how did she … I thought …” Hanlan’s great arms encircled the now porcelain brunette, and for the first time in decades, he wept. She ‘sushed’ him, not wishing to disturb the sanctity of their embrace.

I’m still your warrior love, she assured him compassionately. Now I’m just your fighting angel.

Okay, I … I guess.

Yet, she could feel the rapid flood of his limited regard as he attempted to garner and absorb the sudden storm of events in his sluggish, but openhearted manner.

Baby-sweets, he began plaintively. I think it’ll take me a while to understand this … but … I gotta know, and I know it’s gonna sound selfish … I just want us to be forever … y’know …?

There is nothing selfish about the fear of separation, Han, Makoto replied easily.

So … are you really gonna live forever? I mean … are we …?

I don’t know, Makoto offered weakly. At least, I’m not sure … but I think there’s associative powers you’ll gain as a result of our intimacy.

You mean, as long as I … well, keep lovin’ you … then I’ll live like you? Hope transcended the feelings of forlorn worry in his mind.

Hai. I don’t believe destiny would ask me to abandon you, not after everything we’ve been through.

Hanlan, lying down on the bed in their apartment and drawing Makoto carefully with him, had one final question.

And does this mean you don’t have to run anymore?

No, _]she affirmed, turning about in his arms, placing her slender arms about his neck and kissing him urgently. [_Not anymore…

 

@~%~~~

 

“Usako!”

The recipient of the nickname ran smiling and crying into his arms, her voice chiming his name in endless gratitude for his existence. For the moment, they were alone. Aaran had not returned from the war, destined to follow her own path onward, however away from the Senshi it was. Ayana had been near fatally wounded, and was being tended by Narayan Lording and a unique young woman by the name of “Misa-Takuri.” There was a chance she would choose to remain, especially with news of Tenma coming to term. Makoto knew this, and had heart to respect her will.

Ami had teleported away with daughter and husband for some necessary “family time,” before she could return to earth to join the others in the war against the NegaForce. Usagi, then, had removed herself to Mamoru’s presence, finding him back on earth, at the Shirinaui Dojo.

‘Oh Mamoru!’ Usagi sighed, nearly choking him for the heights of her joy. ‘Thank you!’

He opened his pleasure clenched eyes. ‘For what, odango-san?’

‘For not leaving! That’s what,’ she quipped, all bitterness lost. ‘I was an insane cow. You could have forgotten me and married Demelza.’

‘Leave my pre-destined love?’

She pushed him away playfully. ‘I know,’ she beamed. ‘I’m so blessed!’

‘So am I …’ his eyes fell. ‘Usako …’

Her heart hit her rib cage and stuck. ‘What?’

‘Will you …’ he clumsily patted his pants pockets, rooting through them in a hurried search. ‘Will … ah!’ he exclaimed, producing a palm-sized jewelled box. He opened it to reveal a ruby studded engagement band of gold and Celtic knotted silver. ‘Will you marry me?’

‘Oh Mamoru!!’ she yelped in a tone true to her younger self as she leap at him, sending them toppling onto the floor. ‘Of course! Yes, yes, yes!!’

Silence was evaded by the sound meetings of their lips in joyous celebration. For a while, it was all Usagi could do to breathe and kiss her husband-to-be, while Mamoru felt somewhat helpless under her sudden – but far from unwelcome – attack. Finally, she drew still and calm, her golden hair tossed about him while her head lay on his bare chest, made so by her emotionally fueled contact.

‘Mamoru …’ she sighed wistfully. ‘Aren’t you afraid losing me to the war?’

‘Why? You are immortal, Usako.’

She sat up, pulling herself up onto the bed and perching at its edge like a frightened sparrow. ‘We can still lose,’ she pointed out cautiously. ‘Just because I can’t die doesn’t mean I can’t be killed. The Neo Senshi certainly aren’t immortal … And neither are you,’ she gazed at him anxiously, bitterly concerned.

‘We’ve survived worse,’ Mamoru’s voice was even, unwavering, and unutterably assured. ‘Carl doesn’t seem worried.’

‘Only because he’s a dragon,’ she muttered, eyes downcast.

Mamoru’s eyes widened as he gasped: ‘A what?!’

‘Oh love, don’t you know?’ Usagi breathed, sounding not unpleasantly fatigued. ‘That’s why Minako fell in love with him …’

 

@~%~~~

 

…you could protect me, no matter what.

The desperate urgency once found in the remaining side of her face had spread to both in the regrowth, leaving no question. Minako was still amongst the throng of stunned black armored soldiers. Their initial reaction had been dramatic:

“Oh mama,” Dakota had gasped, dropping her food at the sight of the transfiguration. The iridescent span of silver light had demanded the attention of all twenty seven young men and women, but only she seemed to have the wit to speak on any level.

“Oh Lord …” came as a mute prayer from her lips and stunned face, transfixed by the sight of a newly born angel in their midst. Minako stood in a nimbus of sheer white luminescent energy, held in the glory of glories, unimaginably altered. For as soon as it came, the light receded, leaving a very changed woman among strangers. Clothed in a pastel shimmering gold robe, great glimmering yellow wings at her back, and an intense fiery yellow aura about her nigh flawless body.

Many of them had yet to stumble over what they had just witnessed. The remainder, some fourteen or so, failed to reach even that point, and had bowed themselves to the earth, feeling every dark twinge of iniquitous guilt grasp hold of their souls in stammering fear. Minako’s eyes had slowly opened, taking the in the scene and frowning faintly.

“Get up,” she had finally commanded, knowing their fear, and not delighting in its source nor being another cause of it. She did not have to jump into repetition. Of those who rose, some turned away from the sight of her believing they could not behold her for their unworthiness. Carl was quick to her side, sensing her distress.

They’re afraid I’m here to judge them! she cried internally.

Yes. But tread carefully. They will hang on your every word, and make you a villain or ally from them.

What am I supposed to say?

Carl’s eyes were clear as spring water, and equally lucid.

The truth, my love.

The implications were incredible, she perceived, and stumbled to form a sentence in her mind.

“Minako …” Dakota chanced, voice wavering. “Why are you here?”

Minako bowed her blond head briefly, emotions throbbing in her slender frame. She glanced upwards, linking eyes with the young woman before she spoke. “I’m here because of the selfish, cruel desires of a being who wants to capture my world.”

Dakota stood, while the others cringed and shrunk away. “What is your world like?”

The glimmer of hope in her eyes was so sharp that Minako winced internally. “It’s free,” she stated, the only honest statement she could make. “Where I live, I learn what I want, attend school … I read freely, speak openly, and love whomever I chose.”

“Can we help you? Is it possible for us to go to your world and fight for your cause?”

Minako’s gaze shifted to Carl, who nodded. The three heard plainly the murmurs of confusion and mistrust. Jake Yyone approached Dakota, seeming almost to avoid Minako’s eyes.

“How can you volunteer us like that?” he demanded curtly. “We don’t know what we’re up against!”

“Do we ever?” she retorted with a snarl. “Since when has the CS told us anything?”

“It’s not our place to know these things. We can’t understand them.”

“That may work for you textbook boy,” Dakota growled. “You haven’t been out in the mission field! I know there’s more out there than they’re tellin’ us. And if that ain’t enough … I mean, we’re alive to use our mutant powers, ain’t we? That alone breaks every rule in the handbook.”

Jake folded his arms against his chest and frowned.

“I just don’ believe it. It’s too good to be true.”

“Believe it. And Jake cutie? Your cliche is showing.”

“My wha …?” he glanced at himself briefly. “No it’s … oh.”

Dakota barked a throaty laugh at his “oh, very funny” expression and grinned shortly at her somewhat gullible friend.

“I dunno ‘bout you, but I trust her. Ain’ often yer lookin’ right at an angel!”

“Forget that she just asked us for help, hm?” he sighed. The dark skinned young woman nodded with a prominent smirk.

Jake hesitantly faced Minako, and forced himself to remain calm, a stony unrelenting expression marking his emotional position.

Jake, Natasha’s death wasn’t your fault, Minako assured him. The charge was damaged.

“But I was responsible for her life!” he blurted defensively. “I should’ve checked it before sending her into the battlefield!”

There were a dozen sharp intakes of breath.

“ …how did she know …?”

“ …she is an angel …”

“ …she’s psychic!”

“ …she’s a freakin’ mage.”

“Shut up!” Dakota barked as she whirled swiftly about on her heel. “She’s given us all freedom! Can’t you all just damn well see we need her?!”

“But how do we know?” one stocky young man requested firmly. “Any psychic would know about ‘Sash.”

There was a wash of assent.

“I don’t ask anything of you,” Minako stated, voice raised above the idle confusion. “You may leave as you desire.”

Half of the jaded group stood to do so. Carl stepped forth and called attention.

“Far be it from me to remind you of the future you lot would have suffered at the hands of the Lone Star Geneticists.” He had placed his hand on the table, and it held them in place, for a time. Good Enough. “Where your gratitude? She gave me the very opportunity to draw you from the iron grasp of the Coalition. Dakota is right in saying that you owe your freedom to the hard work of others, not just Minako.

“I know you all have seen many strange things in the world. I know also that you have been taught to distrust them. What I am asking is not easy, and stands against everything you know. However, what you are, is, in itself, evidence that there is more to life than what the Coalition has presented to you. It may be difficult to accept, and I know it’s a leap of faith, but I ask you: Have I ever lied to any of you?”

The general reply; No.

“Then I ask you to believe her. The Earth she comes from is free of the Coalition.”

“But how?” one young woman demanded in harsh, raspy tones. “They gave us all we’ve got.”

“The technology they have now is based on that which has existed for decades. What they have accomplished is no more than elaborate archaeology. Would you turn away the chance to live as the educated do?”

A dawning wave of voices uttered noises of agreement, of acceptance.

“Uh, what’s archaeology?” a distant voice muttered.

“Somethin’ ‘bout diggin’ up old stuff’n readin’ it t’ learn the past history.”

“Oh.”

“Y’know Dr. Silver, it might blow ya away t’learn this,” spouted a fiery young man as he muscled his way out of the crowd. “But some of us like the fightin’! We ain’t exactly gonna give it up fer book learnin’! So you can take your offer and get vaped!”

“Shut up!” snarled Dakota, easing herself up against the stocky man who was a clear foot taller than she. He snarled down at her, but said nothing. “You get too close to a Boom gun or somethin’ Kale? You ain’t heard a damn thing he’s said! You know what she’s offering? We would get to fight, our rules, no Coalition! It’s your bloody dream!”

“Uh …” his barrel chested torso slackened in posture abruptly. “No lie?”

Minako shook her head at him. “No lie. All that matters is winning.”

“I kin handle that no prob,” he grinned lopsidedly and nodded. “You ain’t sore wit’ me, ‘re ya?”

“Kale,” Minako began. “You’ve got to trust that Carl and I have your best interests at heart.”

His dark eyes studied the floor for a moment, then reached up to her again, thankful. “I’m real sorry … real sorry. Din’ mean to be a jackass,” he said, then performed an about face and disappeared back into the crowd. And Carl just picked up where he left off.

“I must tell you now that her world is beset by a demonic creature, and they mount an attack as we speak to capture it. The risk is great, but the reward of ultimate freedom will be yours when we win.”

Jake looked puzzled. “When?”

“Yes ‘when’.” Carl rebuked with cold authority.

“Yes sir. We will kick ass, sir!”

 

@~%~~~

 

Adolphus my love, you are worried.

Within the violent tumbling descent of shorn angel hair was a small stone cabin, seemingly molded from the rockface. The blizzard spared no mortal creature, and chiselled away at their haven so insignificantly that only time immemorial could destroy it. An open, smokeless mystic flame heated the two mages as they discussed her transfiguration. Rei’s kindly, mollifying telepathic voice drew the gifted mage from his ominous trance. He oriented and centered himself upon his winged mate, letting his eyes steal into hers.

“Of course I am worried!” he stated urgently. “Confront ye not great forces and see their nigh overwhelming power and number?”

“Aye,” she confirmed. “Yet I have my friends now! A miracle has brought us back together…”

“And ye be drawn asunder nonetheless.”

Rei looked hurt. “What makes you say that?”

“Deny ye the sense of your heart? I read it Rei, like the scrying calls of a spooked murder of crows, I know it.”

She leaned forward, pushing her closed fists between them, and leaning her head on his chest as she groaned in frustration and anxiety. “You’re right, I’m scared. I’m scared of dying, of losing. I know it’s foolish to fear that now, and stupid.”

“Nay,” Adolphus began. “It be not stupid. Ye are not.”

“I didn’t say I was. I was just thinking that it’s kinda silly for me to worry about that after nearly having died several times in the last year.”

“Nay! Ye see only from that which ye know. Ye know only survival, and what concerns thee next.”

“Hm.”

“Ye know only the next threat, and are wary of it. To be otherwise would be foolish.”

She was silent, aside from an uncertain: “I guess.”

“There is more.”

She nodded. “I’m pregnant.”

His arms encircled her, a comforting warmth in the gracious hug.

“I’m afraid he’ll get hurt. He could die if I’m wounded.”

“Then refuse the battle.”

Rei felt twin pangs. One of anger; how could she turn the opportunity of revenge? Second; the ebbing guilt of the thought of forsaking her friends. She nodded, eyes closed, heart open.

“Forget not the sacrifice I made,” he paused, breathing deeply for the weight of emotions upon him. “Forget ye not the love of thy friends, that they sought thee beyond all chance.” She was silent, breathing short, tight gasps. “If ye wish justice bought, then weigh carefully the cost. Outwit the fiend. Strike him down yet fail to lay a hand upon him. Need ye only be in his presence when the blade sinks home.”

“B-but …” she sniffled and wiped her nose with a readily grasped tissue. “Wh-what if thuh-they don’t …”

“Sssh,” he crooned. “They will my angel. They will. Guide them from a distance, and seek not the battlefront. For ye hath many friends, and great be their powers. Let thy wit win over thy fury.

“Oh Adolphus,” she sobbed tearlessly. “I fear what I would be without you.”

“And I …” he sighed. “And do I …”

 

@~%~~~

 

“I’m not much of a warrior. That’s all there is to it.”

A remarkably smaller Natole Shard held his angelic wife – her back against his rock solid abdomen – and looked lovingly upon his sleeping daughter.

“Yes,” he agreed. “Yet I have fought much.”

“Honey,” Ami began. “I appreciate your suggestion. But ‘stomping the enemy’ …? I know you may be ‘One-Punch’ – I’ve seen you in action, remember? – but this is war.”

“I never plan to fight,” he declared in a ponderous bass cannon voice. “I know only to win.”

“I appreciate that, but we can’t afford not to plan, my hulking dear. Makoto has Ayana to consider, Rei is clearly expecting, and so have I Shyanne. Usagi and Minako will not be far behind. I wish to assure their future parenthood. Not to mention lives.”

He nodded his head against her shoulder.

“It’s simple, really. If we fight on Uraki-Ayo’s terms, we’ll be quashed like a trapped bug, and the twenty-eight of us can’t possibly manage the thousands of demons he’s no doubt marshaled.”

Natole was silent. Ami was accustomed to the weight of his consideration, knowing that he reserved himself to speak only when absolutely necessary. For the moment, she basked in it, knowing he would voice his concern. It was not a matter of his being slow-witted. It was in no doubt true. He had learned at a young age, however, that there was wisdom in silence, and used it to offer only the choicest words he could conceive. His few words compensated for the lack of cunning, and often made those long in the tooth bite their own tongue.

And when he failed in that, he had his Half-Giant nature upon which to rely. Handy, that.

“We have to end it quickly,” she concluded. “We have to throw him off balance and enter combat with him on our own terms. The Neo Senshi can take the forefront along with Minako’s CSM, while we locate Uraki and annihilate him.”

“But what of Rei?”

“She doesn’t know it, but she has powers forthcoming that will protect her child.” Ami blinked, stunned by her own words. “How I know that … I haven’t a clue. I was just arguing against her joining us!”

“Aye love,” he replied coolly.

“Intuitive knowledge?” Ami questioned, more of herself than acutely listening husband. “That’s something I could get used to.”

“There is a matter you have forgotten,” Natole indicated. “What of the traitor Xalia?”

“I don’t know. Right now there are so many questions. If she turned of her own will, then we’re in a fair sight of trouble. The Neo Senshi are not quite powerful enough to receive her. On the other hand, if her personality has been altered in the same manner Mamoru experienced, it puts us in another position entirely. We can’t spare the power to send in a rescue party. We’re only going to get one chance at the NegaForce. It’s much too early to tell. Besides, I’m not getting any intuitive hints on this one …’

 

@~%~~~

 

There was a faint shimmering in Makoto’s nude form as she slept, arms twined about Hanlan loosely. Her eyes flicked open.

“What?”

The heavy down comforter wafted downwards in the newly found empty space she had once occupied. When reality whirled to a standstill, Makoto realized she was drifting in a numb, wonderless void of grey. She beat her wings experimentally, finding that they only provided guidance, rather than the power of flight in this instance. Feeling her nudity, she summoned a simple khaki robe to cover herself.

“The time has come to draw our contract to a close.”

Makoto snarled instinctively. The point of his saviourhood did little to affect her anger at his intervention, and constant watchful eye. Being traced by a dragon was no pleasant ordeal.

“Do you want another match, dragon? To defeat me again? Would that please you?” she growled angrily, flaring her aura into a white heat about her.

“No, unfortunately, it would not. I have seen your transformation, and because of it, I know that it is no longer my right to watch you.”

So he had morals after all! He simply chose to disregard those that did not suit his purposes. As Makoto gazed off into the grey void, she felt a presence, and watched it fade into existence. He appeared as no less than himself, a fifty-foot grey horned dragon of mountain-like structure and ballistic plating hide. It was difficult to perceive from her vantage point that his face did less than glower upon her, rather than his honestly forgiveness seeking frown.

“I believed you a mere mortal,” he feebly explained. “I would never have harmed you in such a way…”

She raised her hand and stilled the thundering tones of his voice. Her seething fervour of rage had all but ceased. Even for his pointless physical rigours of violence and magic, he had never done more than caused bruises. Hindsight, as it is well known, is twenty-twenty, and she could see plainly that he was little more than an irritation. Besides, he had saved her life, after all, and opened up the chance to return to Hanlan, and her friends.

“I forgive you, Penmatre.”

The dragon bowed his head and then was gone again.

“ …Thank you …”

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Chapter 39

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The Resistance had been called into action, since the previously inactive Vortex crystal had reversed its role by issuing forth small amounts of shadowlings into the world of the newly ascended Angel Senshi. The Neo Senshi, on the other hand, moved forward in an attempt to destroy the crystal altogether. Between the two forces, and the courageous citizens, the shadowlings were beaten back to the source, and for a short time annulled.

This, unfortunately, lasted only twelve hours, after which a surge of the creatures from the crystal began to route the human forces, consisting of largely untrained ranks. However, as slowly as the military tended to respond to the formerly unverified threat, they did come into play, bringing all manner of tanks and troops to contend with the enemy spewing crystal, which it seemed remained undamaged by countless rounds of weapons fire. For the time, the war was a stand-off. There was time to plan, among other things.

‘I don’t know if I can face them. What if I do, only to fail against Uraki?’

The red-haired Canadian regarded the three women as an understanding mother only would, and spoke with concern: ‘My daughter is out there right now, risking her life for me, for us. How do you think I feel, not knowing if she’s hurt, or worse? This is not a question you should be asking me right now.’

‘So sorry, Osaka-san,’ Usagi offered plainly in a deep bow. ‘This is difficult for me.’

‘We’re relying on you, Usagi. If you don’t know what to do, then I cannot help you. And frankly, the idea scares the hell out of me. We need you more than you know.’

‘I’ve always had a knack for the weird stuff – being Sailor Moon for all these years,’ Usagi began in reply softly. ‘It’s everything else that gets me. School, tests, punctuality …’

Osaka gazed at her with a puzzled, nearly pained expression. ‘You’re scared.’

With a piercing frown, Usagi looked up at her, her blue eyes glimmering, and nodded. She was afraid to ask.

‘Osaka … what about our parents?’ she finally murmured, her head bowed as the words slipped out. She looked up again as they fell heavily to the carpeted floor. Osaka paled visibly, the knowledge settling in her small frame like a chilling wind upon her resilient, tempered soul.

‘It is not my place to say, not this way. Ami, you will find your mother defending your home with a troop from the Resistance. We have no word on your father. Apparently he is not in Tokyo, so we can only assume he’s safe. Their attacks have yet to even spread further than the downtown area. Rei and Usagi, however, I must speak to alone.’

‘Then I will go,’ she stated, rising to her feet, and bowing deeply to her friends.

‘Usagi … before I begin, I ask you to tell Mina that her parents … they did not survive the initial attack.’

Osaka’s voice was filled with remorse and delicate tones as she spoke. ‘Uraki-Ayo targeted your homes first, and slipped by our forces mostly unnoticed. It grieves me to tell you …’

 

@~%~~~

 

Somehow, even with the knowledge that she had survived, facing her made little more sense. What could she say: ‘Mama! I went to a strange world, had a split personality who adopted a half-demon girl and got married to a Half-Giant Warrior of Mercy in another dimension! Then I was burned at the stake as a heretic, and resurrected as an angelic being by the incarnation of fate, Phate – that’s right “P-h-a-t-e” – in another dimension! Oh, and guess what! I’m Sailor Mercury!’

The best of luck, Mizuno-san.

From her vantage point, she could see her mother in fatigues, wielding an impressive looking double barrelled shotgun as she tore into a half-dozen shadowlings approaching her house. She had admirable aim, it seemed, and as she issued the command to retreat to the several other members of the Resistance, it was plain she was coping quite well. It was as if she didn’t miss her.

‘Mama?’

She blinked, half-smiling at her daughter. ‘Hai Shyanne?’

Ami’s winced at the remorse in her voice. ‘She’s my grandma, isn’t she.’

Ami nodded simply. ‘Yes, my little blossom, she is. She doesn’t know we’re back. Not yet.’

The sprite-like girl nodded, then fixed her eyes upon the group as they shut themselves within her barricaded house. There was no wondering, for the moment why her mother had taken the front lines. The building was filled with the wounded and dying that had gone before her. She was partaking of her duty to the best of her human ability. Ami found herself discovering a new respect for her mother. Then Shyanne broke into her train of thought: ‘We should help, Mama-san!’ she frowned, pointing skyward. ‘Grandma’s not safe!’

Plainly; nearly twenty of the shadowlings descended upon the battered and worn building. It had the attitude of weakness, as if … even as the thought came, the front of the building collapsed in upon itself, exposing the makeshift infirmary. Acting before thinking, Ami grabbed Shyanne and flew towards the house, flaring her aura dramatically as she sailed towards the newly razed battle site. Not moments later were the less than two dozen creatures banished, and the passage of an expression of complete astonishment into a loving welcome.

‘Oh my God, Ami!’

Tears came, as the hug remained, and Shyanne smiled glowingly, her eyes filled with wondrous happiness, inspired by her mother’s emotion.

 

@~%~~~

 

They were alone for a suspension of time, it seemed, and the news Osaka bore did not come without its emotional impact. As she spoke it, the force struck her like something of a sledgehammer. Like ice scattered on the pavement, a part of her world had been destroyed. Then came the overwhelming need to be with them.

As she flew to their indicated locale, there was something else, a nagging emptiness that could not be filled by even Mamoru’s love and dedication. A young boy who’s performance in school had been dramatically altered by her disappearance; a mother who cried every day she wouldn’t be late for class; a father who knew all too suddenly that boyfriends would never again endanger her.

There was nothing else to do, they needed her. Returning home through the midnight sky carnage, dispersing the occasional shadowling that threatened. Meaningless. Each of the dozens of creatures she destroyed with little more than a blinking effort mattered naught aside her ascending panic as she noted the destitute surroundings of her block, how many of the homes were vacant, some torn open and gutted, others entirely vacant.

It should not have been a surprise to discover her own to be a shell. Images flashed in her mind, her brother crying, her mother tumbling … limp, hurt … the raised, frightened voice of her father: ‘Usagi-chan?!’

Through blurred vision she perceived him, gazing numbly up at the winged woman that had been his scattered, lively, energetic daughter. Beside him was her brother, Shingo.

‘Papa-san?’ she whispered, landing gracefully, her robes swirling about her slender legs as she approached her misty-eyed father. He hadn’t shaved in weeks, and looked as though the emotional buildup inside was finally taking its toll on his body, and his soul.

Reading his face, and his emotion, she could see the tearing between despair and eternal gratitude. Foreknowledge did not restrain her question: ‘Where is Mama-san …?’

His mouth opened, held, then shut as he bowed his fatigued visage. Tears came, and she fought them not, she merely came into a desperate hug with lost father and brother.

 

@~%~~~

 

Rei had no one to turn to save Adolphus, who gazed as she did upon the long settled corpse of the temple. She wept in his arms, remembering his overbearing voice, his foolhardy disregard for his age, endless chasing of girls, and protective strength.

‘I’m sorry Grampa-san,’ she whispered. As she did, she felt a distinctly familiar presence, accompanied by the rising flame of her prayer-fire amongst the lifeless wreckage of her home.

issued a somewhat ragged voice.

‘Grampa-san?’ she blinked, gazing at his transparent image within the flames.

‘Oh…’

‘I missed you, too.’

‘Oh Grampa-san …!’ she sobbed, her eyes holding to his bald-headed tired looking face.

‘I know Grampa … I know.’

‘I’m sorry! I left you alone! I have failed you …’

‘I… you’re so single minded,’ she laughed half-heartedly, then soberly smiled: ‘Hai.’

Her voice was reverent as she spoke, whispering a final departure.

‘I will, for you.’

 

@~%~~~

 

‘Usagi …’

They sat upon the edge of the dark, pock marked and war-scarred street, silent until he offered his voice in an attempt to stay the tension of so many years apart, and such violent diversity.

‘Hai Papa?’

‘I just wanted you to know that I love you.’

She leaned over, resting her head upon his dirt darkened shoulder, letting her right wing shield her father and brother from the silky breeze. The silence after their embrace had been on his part. The death of her mother, and his wife, passed in a brief bout of sobbing. Thereafter, they had listened to Usagi’s explanation of everything, her being the super-heroine Sailor Moon, leader of the Bishojo Sailor Senshi, and Princess of the long shattered Moon Kingdom. Like a hamster running in place, the truth of her words, there was no mistaking her now, she was so lucid, hung there, slowly reaching the very point of registration in his troubled consciousness.

‘Thank you Papa.’

‘I missed you, sis’.’

She smiled warmly at the frightened, yet somehow toughened boy. ‘Papa … I want to tell you something.’

‘Hai?’

She hesitated, no telling if his reaction had altered since … ‘I’m married.’

His face reddened slightly, but he remained silent, knowing she was beyond his parental lockhold in that facet.

‘That’s … that’s … Who is it?’

‘Mamoru Chiba.’

‘Oh cool! You said he’s Tuxedo Kamen, right?’ Shingo piped excitedly.

She nodded.

‘I’d like to talk to him sometime,’ her father issued, picking his glasses away from his face and wiping them with his grimy formal shirt. ‘I wouldn’t want to have to hurt him for mistreating my lovely daughter.’

His face, while mostly stiffly unemotional, was betrayed quite simply by the fondness and trust in the tones of his moderate voice. Usagi wrapped her arms around him and beamed a smile. ‘Oh Papa-san!’

His arms encircled her, and he wept gently, silently, and she only knew by the psychic wash of fear and love that encompassed her as the glow of warm entitled to those of family love in truth grasped them like a divine calm.

‘I love you Usagi… I always will…’

 

@~%~~~

 

Usagi had time thereafter to deliver the message to Mina, who took to Carl immediately without regard for the surrounding warriors. Carl removed her from their presence, and upon discovering the cause of her tears, offered what little support he only could. There were no words in her heart for him, or anyone else. Only a powerful, nearly overwhelm roaring wave of loss, hurt, and confirmation of a long nursed nightmare.

In many ways, despite being an angel, and beyond surviving a world which shredded people like discarded paper, she reached that edge … the one where during a late night, the car would halt in the middle of the empty, cold road, while the occupant would leap to a watery death for no apparent reason … or digging a knife into the wrist merely out of curiosity, only to be caught white and dead the following morning. The edge of the human mind that so frequently teased fracture. What sturdied her soul at the brink? Her newfound resilience? Carl’s devotion?

None of it mattered.

There would be time to heal, but not then. It was enough that she had to find it in her to be functional on the most basic level. Lives depended upon her. Perhaps that was another factor driving her onward when nothing else might have. Perhaps.

 

@~%~~~

 

‘Mama?’

She gazed at her blue-winged angel child, her face an unreadable mask.

‘Yes Ami-chan?’

‘I’m sorry I have to do this.’

‘Why? I know how important this is.’

‘But you… you… you aren’t… Mama… why aren’t you smiling?’

‘I’m sorry angel… would you rather I fake it?’

‘Mama…!’ she pined, looking deeply stricken.

She bowed her near-black haired head, the conflict of emotion pulsing powerfully within her as her heart thudded against her caging ribs. She was weeping when she finally raised her head to regard her daughter.

‘It’s everything you told me,’ she started, hands folded limply against her bandaged stomach. ‘I can’t get my head around it. Died? Half cyborg? Insane…? What is the world trying to do to us?’

Ami just shook her head in silence.

‘You know, if I could have done anything… I just wish… I wish I could have protected you!’

‘But Mama, I feel like this was my fault. I couldn’t stop it.’

‘No, dearest child, it’s not your fault,’ she almost whimpered, wiping her eyes awkwardly with her war-sodden hands. ‘You did the best you could…’

‘But it wasn’t enough.’

‘A little guilt is healthy. Just… don’t leave me again.’ There was a shifting silence. ‘You know I’m just happy to have you back,’ she offered sincerely. ‘My little intellectual is an angel…! I always knew you were, but this…’

‘Hai. It seems impossible.’

‘All of it. Why didn’t you trust me enough to tell me you were Sailor Mercury?’

‘Mama… How could I?’

‘How…’ she glanced around at the ruins of their home, ‘well, however you felt, there’s no denying it now. I hope you trust me more now.’

‘Oh Mama …’ she almost crooned, then supplemented: ‘I love you.’

‘I love you too angel.’

‘Um …’ she started after several moments of silence. ‘How is she?’

‘Sleeping. She’s amazing Ami … so beautiful. So much like you! I told her a story, like I used to when you were so young, and such a gorgeous doll… and she fell asleep smiling. You’re a wonderful mother Ami. I’m so proud!’

‘Oh Mama! Thank you…!’

‘We will take care of her until you get back… okay?’

‘Mama… I…’

‘No. Don’t argue. We’ve got a war to win. Besides, she’s a tough girl.’

‘Hai Mama-san,’ she smiled gloriously.

 

@~%~~~

 

For Makoto, there was no one to lose, for her parents had died long before the war. Her feelings, as a result, when she eventually learned of the plight her friends suffered, was directed in the offerings of sympathy and emotional support. It was a learned thing then, for never before had she been leaned upon with so great a need, nor by so many at once.

It was for her a time of selflessness, and undeniable growth.

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Chapter 40

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The city seemed lost and distinctly lonely below them. A dark shroud had enveloped the light mottled and remarkably inactive realm. It would seem to the five women that the population of the city had abruptly vanished, yet they all too sharply recognized the fearful silence. There was an eerie calm about the city, the armies of Tokyo beaten back by the shadowling forces, who in turn were muted by their own lack of energy. The war had reached a great pause, and for those of the Resistance and the Military that survived yet, there was a great, welcome reprieve. Time had been given for each side to lick their wounds, regroup, and for the Resistance, to fortify their barracks and holdings.

The Neo Senshi, however, had chosen that moment to mount their attack, taking clear advantage of the vast emptiness, allowing them time to scout their remaining territory and study the vortex with deeper scrutiny. They had already been fighting for nearly ten hours, destroying the last few shadowlings the natives of Tokyo had been too weak to eliminate. Presently, they proceeded to the vortex crystal and the great winding tower of sinister energy that swirled about it.

“Not too long ago we cowered down there with them,” Masurani remarked wistfully, albeit sourly. “It must have been months … but I swear … it feels like yesterday Usagi fought Beryl.”

Their transformations had revealed outfits not too dissimilar from the style of their predecessors, aside from the addition of armlets, and white shin-plate armour, among other plainly cosmetic alterations. The Neo Senshi expected to see a bear the physical brunt of combat.

‘Usagi is very, very brave woman,’ Naritha confirmed with an emotional flutter.

Ayla nodded slowly. ‘Hmm,’ she agreed, the short affirmation filled with anxiety and unease.

‘What do you mean “hmm”? We still don’t know very much about that bloody thing!’ Haisha observed, her sharp tones masking very powerful bouts of rampaging internalized fear.

“That bloody thing” denoted the tornado of swirling violet leeching forces which they approached with as much a sense of its power as a respect for their overall duty, had taken a firm hold on the corner of the city in which it had been planted.

‘Sailor Pheonix, don’t ignore your mystic senses. They will tell you what you need to know,’ Nasura advised her gently.

‘Oh, okay… I just thought that was Seraph’s job.’

Nasura refrained from sighing before she threw a hinting glance to Ayla, who bowed her head and nodded. ‘Sailor Seraph, what can you tell me about the crystal?’

Naritha took a deep breath, and opened her mind. She bowed her head, shuddering, and expelled the inhaled lungful sharply an instant later. ‘It very, very grave, Ayla,’ she nearly whispered, raising her tear streaked face to meet Ayla’s gaze. ‘Hundreds caught in. Death for many days. Much loss, pain, and fear on those threatened by it.’

‘What else? Haisha? What do you know about that area?’

‘It’s urban, if that’s what you mean. Lots of people are… oh hell!’ she stopped as she gained a flickering sense of Naritha’s explanation of the situation. ‘There were! Oh Seraph… you’re – oh Lord – right. It’s killing the residents of the area and…’ she paused to breathe, eyes wide with shock. ‘Literally growing! Look at those apartment buildings!’

Each of the four senshi trained their mystically augmented sight on the buildings, which appeared as though they had been blown or split open by some muscular giant. They shared angered, determined, or sorrowed glances as the reality struck home.

‘I don’t know what to…’ Ayla muttered softly as she shook her bowed head. ‘Is there anything else?’

There was a stern, unwieldy, and stark silence. It was not a concern they wished to face, but knew, that that was the very reason for their Knighthood. Such a demand could only be carried on a fellowship of shoulders.

‘There’s an energy shield surrounding it,’ she explained. ‘Masurani?’

‘Hai?’

‘Would you hit it with one of your chi bolts?’

Masurani glanced questioningly at Ayla, who nodded. A shrill yellow light formed about Masurani’s figure as she gritted her teeth with effort, squinting fearsomely at her distant target. Then, as she shoved the ball of fire-like chi forward with her hands, she snapped of a short vocal report: ‘Kei-ya!’

The shimmering bolt flared away and struck the shield with no more event than a single shudder, causing Haisha to blink as her suspicion was confirmed. ‘Oh geez … It did. It absorbed the energy. That complicates things.’

‘No doubt,’ Masurani grunted sarcastically.

‘We can’t let it grow any further … it’s nearing central Tokyo!’

‘Well, I’m leaving it up to you to figure this out,’ Ayla replied curtly. ‘You’re the tactician.’

Haisha blinked, as if confused by the order.

‘If you won’t do it, I’ll find someone else!’ Ayla snapped, her temper rising so quickly that Haisha was too startled to answer at first. ‘He will attack soon. You made that abundantly clear. Are you going to make use of your military knowledge or would you rather join the civilians down there?!’

‘Hell no!’ Haisha replied sincerely, her voice hushed by obedience. ‘You just be ready to attack when we return, ne?’

‘Don’t start. We’ll be ready,’ she snapped back.

Nasura shook her head, and spoke: ‘I swear, you two make up for the lack of any masculinity in this group. Nasura, be ready to leave in a moment. We are almost there.’

‘Hai sensei.’

‘Nasura, did you have to make them so skimpy?’ Masurani complained from her own consuming thoughts, tugging at her awkwardly short skirt. Nasura arched an eyebrow with an amused expression on her face.

‘Me? What makes you think I am responsible for their appearance? It’s tailored to your idealized design.’

Ayla giggled as Masurani blushed furiously. She held her silence as they continued toward Nasura’s destination.

‘Who’s a girly-girl?’ Ayla prodded with a sly grin.

‘Nu-uh! I don’t wanna be flashing the world in this getup.’

‘Masu-chan,’ Naritha interjected. ‘Nothing wrong with being womanly. I worry for being wanton. You like my choice?’

Masurani’s regard softened. Naritha’s ‘choice’ was indeed womanly: A sleeved body suit of silvery blue with knee high shin guarded boots, white breastplate, upper arm plates, full gauntlets, and standard white choker. Each piece of armor was also decorated by a single sapphire crystal.

‘Masurani, you can alter your costume if you are not satisfied. You know better.’

‘Yeah, well, so?’ she replied with a streak of ire. ‘Shardin’ idealized whatever…’

‘I think maybe you should just drop the skirt entirely, Masu-chan. Why don’t you just go for full plate armour?’

She smirked, ‘It’s no wonder you’re the leader, Ayla-chan. I wouldn’t have thought of that.’

‘What about something more like this, Masurani?’ Haisha offered. Her purple, shoulderless cat suit struck both the classy and sultry chords. Masurani gave it a briefly appreciative glance.

‘I never really liked the Inner Senshi outfits,’ she added.

Nasura demanded their attention sharply. ‘You had best make it quick, young one!’

‘Hai sensei!’

Nasura merely nodded. Ayla cast a serious glance to her friend. ‘Geez, she’s absolutely intense.’

‘Out of the frying pan and into the fire, I think. Wait, does that mean we’re roasted? Oh, nevermind,’ Masurani grumbled, cracking her knuckles loudly as the change washed over her. Her suit was replaced by light plate armour and a skin tight body suit of dark brown. The armlets, shin plates, and breastplate shone of newly polished steel, and each bore a crystal of earthen tones. Ayla gave with a start, amazed by the comparative masculinity. Masurani winked at her.

‘Didn’t I say it was a little too little? That thing wasn’t fit for a senshi like me. Oh,’ she glanced at Haisha. ‘Thanks.’

Haisha merely nodded, seeming to – rightly – concentrate on the task ahead of them. She was remaining near Nasura, discussing the statistics and stratagem of battle. The ashen haired girl nodded deftly at Masurani. ‘But Nasura said that the first outfit stemmed from you, why …’

‘It was kinda nice, but way too impractical,’ she shrugged, indifference setting upon her face. ‘I’d never wear anything like that if I wanted to fight, really. Too skimpy.’

‘Compared to what, a bikini?’ Ayla retorted with an arched eyebrow.

‘Well, no, that’s not what I mean! Too… teasing… just, not classy,’ Masurani’s voice faded into silence as she noticed that Ayla’s outfit had not changed from that standard. Her expression clouded with discomfort. ‘Ah, cram it, I’m sorry.’

‘No, you made a damn good point.’

‘Halt!’ Nasura called back sharply, sounding irritated.

Ayla’s eyebrows knitted. ‘Is there something wrong?’

‘We’re having company,’ Nasura glared into a point in the sky just ahead of them.

If looks could kill, Ayla remarked to herself, we’d be postmortem.

Alya quickly willed a variant of her friend’s outfit over her own. She fashioned a two piece body suit of crimson, with white plate armour and also the orange-red crystals of Masurani’s design. The upper body armour started at her neck, and stopped at the wrist and at the bottom of her rib cage. The lower part began at her waist and ended evenly at a pair of ankle-high boots. Masurani handed her a sly grin, noting the alterations. Her attention was quickly distracted as a piercing blue light opened in the air before them. From it the angelic Makoto, and her husky, thickly muscled soulmate appeared.

‘Makoto?’ Nasura squinted at the two, as if unsure of their existence.

‘Hai. Nasura-san,’ Makoto smiled faintly. ‘Things have changed.’

Masurani drifted close to Ayla, and whispered: ‘She’s been working with Makoto already? Why hasn’t she told us?’

‘Sssh,’ Ayla urged, trying to catch the conversation. Makoto? Was it really her? What had happened? Where had she gone?

‘Carl has a small detachment of Rifts Earth Coalition Grunts to assist you at the forefront. I know you’re ill prepared.’ She faced the four star-eyed young women, awed by someone they idolized adored even more greatly since her unwilling departure from Earth. ‘Are these your senshi?’

Ayla bowed respectfully to Makoto. A blush warmed her cheeks gradually she noticed how attractive Hanlan was.

‘Makoto-sama, I am Apollo Ayla, Sailor Sol, leader of the Neo Senshi. This is Sarle Masurani, Sailor Titan, Mishuru Haisha, Sailor Phoenix, and Walynn Naritha, Sailor Seraph.’

‘An honour to meet you,’ she bowed deeply. Each of the four instantly replied the bow, feeling varying degrees of embarrassment and unmasked shock at being so abruptly distinguished.

‘The honour is ours!’ Ayla quickly established, a wash of crimson upon her cheeks.

‘I’m sorry I cannot fight with you for very long,’ Makoto apologized. ‘But we are going to approach Uraki-Ayo on our own terms.’

‘ “We”? The Inner Senshi?’ Haisha queried eagerly.

‘Hai. We have been reunited,’ she smiled to the young woman.

‘Sailor Sol, Makoto, Sailor Phoenix and I must leave you,’ Nasura determined abruptly. ‘We must locate the last of your senshi.’

‘On that point,’ Makoto began forebodingly, her darkening eyes locking with Nasura’s. ‘I learned something you’re not going to like.’

‘What?’ Nasura nigh pleaded, the leaden weights within her soul seeming to increase.

‘This was discovered at the murder site of Kinisou Thanus,’ she stated, handing her four small jade crystals. At the paling of Nasura’s complexion, it was plain the import of the event.

‘This isn’t possible!’ she gasped, gazing stolidly at the shining gems resting in her palm. ‘She wouldn’t have!’

‘She did,’ Makoto decreed. ‘She left signature chi constructs everywhere. Thanus’ body was laced with them.’

The four young woman gazed at each other in certain unbelief.

‘I’m sorry to have to tell you this,’ Makoto sighed, as deeply wounded as any other there. ‘But Ether Xalia is a traitor and murderer.’

Dramatically, she faced the stark angel, and spoke: ‘Haisha, come.’

‘Hai sensei,’ she replied faintly, still stunned by the facts Makoto had presented.

‘But sensei! Who is Xalia?’ Ayla demanded.

‘The first Neo Senshi. Sailor Ether, who I Knighted just after the Inner Senshi disappeared. There isn’t really time to explain it, I regret to say. Haisha!’

‘Hai!’

‘Good luck …’ Ayla offered with a weak bow. Nasura bowed deeply to Makoto, then briefly to Ayla and the remaining senshi. At a pace Ayla could only guess was mystically augmented, they departed the scene without another spoken syllable.

‘You may lead, Sailor Sol,’ Makoto offered with a wan smile. She nodded to Hanlan, and they trailed only seconds behind as Ayla set the pace towards their target.

‘What the hell?’ Masurani snapped. ‘She killed the other squires? She’s why we’re senshi?’

‘I don’t know,’ Ayla replied. ‘I thought she said the clones were responsible.’

‘Look Sol, I don’t know how you expect her to know. She isn’t perfect.’

Ayla said nothing, having fallen into one of her trances of consideration. How did she know?

‘I sense Nasura with much fear and tension. She not like self much now,’ Naritha elaborated, taking advantage of the silence.

‘I don’t think I’d be too pleased with me either if I screwed up like this,’ Masurani frowned, feeling somewhat unnerved. ‘Why’d she still go off to check out Thanus’ place if there’s no chance of bringing back another senshi? And what if she does? Don’t think I won’t fry this chick if I ever see her!’

Ayla snapped out of her mental pacing and spoke up: ‘I think it’s personal. We have to trust her.’

‘Trust her to what?’ Haisha asked with a caustic tone.

Ayla regarded her, stock, unreadable, ‘We’ve trusted her up ‘til now, haven’t we?’

‘Guess so.’

‘It all centers around the second line of the code,’ Ayla stated calmly. ‘Don’t you remember? “Keep the Word, with every Means at your disposal.”’

‘You’re dreamin’,’ Masurani scoffed, rolling her eyes. ‘Faith won’t win the war.’

‘It’s better than getting down about it,’ she rebuked softly with the slight appearance of accusation. ‘Don’t you believe in them?’

‘Sure, but I know the Inner Senshi. This chick though,’ she scoffed, ‘No way. Not a chance.’

‘Ah … if may speak mind?’ Naritha interjected hesitantly. Both girls continued to glare at each other, holding a rocky silence. The young Chinese girl took that as an affirmative.

‘If sense right, then Nasura believe same,’ she observed, glancing at the spiteful pair. ‘I say give chance. May not be Xalia acting on free will. Recall what NegaForce did to Mamoru? Could be same, now.’

A regretful look fell over their faces as Naritha’s point struck home. ‘I guess, but I won’t trust that until I can get some proof. If not, I’m gonna smoke this chick,’ she declared assuredly, smacking one gloved hand into the palm of the other.

‘You may have to get in line,’ Ayla suggested, and Masurani shrugged. ‘Whatever.’

‘What are we looking for?’ Haisha questioned, examining the remains of the slivers of couch. She picked up a two silver crossbow bolts and scrutinized them with eye as much as mystic sense. Upon finding nothing, she dropped them, standing to face her mentor.

‘Anything. I’m hoping she left some kind of trace spell …’

‘Can she do that? It doesn’t look like she was here very long. Not that I have your weaving experience.’

‘Of course. She was a very talented mage. Her wind powers were only an extension of her innate wind elemental abilities…’

‘I knew that. How long ago was she initiated?’

‘It’s been a month. What I fail to comprehend is why her crystal didn’t … ah!’ she exclaimed, grasping a thumb tack and holding it with a smile. ‘Here we go.’

‘What? That’s what?’ Haisha blinked, staring curiously at the ordinary looking object.

‘Hai,’ she nodded, reciting a few words, at which point the thumb tack became a small green orb. She closed her eyes, and the orb began to seethe light. An image of a young woman’s face appeared above it, cut off at the unclothed shoulders.

‘What’s with the tripped out background?’ Haisha queried, giving the cross between a football, baseball, and soccer field floating erratically sideways a strange look as unusually large balls from each game floated suspended in mid air across the field.

‘There’s only one method… a chancy and risky one at that, but … this was woven on the subconscious level,’ she decided seriously. ‘Like a dream.’

‘Okay, so I guess that explains the background… but good gravy! How?’

‘I do not know,’ Naritha demurred.

‘It is a soul-threaded shard. A gem with a link to her heart,’ explained a familiar voice. The group turned toward it and saw Nasura standing behind them.

‘I guess I misjudged her,’ Haisha admonished. ‘She’s tough.’

‘That is precisely why I chose her Haisha-chan,’ Nasura elaborated needlessly. ‘Hand me the gem.’

Naritha place it in her palm. Haisha set her with sorrowful gaze and nodded. The image glancing about as Nasura muttered invoking tones, then glanced towards between the two awaiting women.

‘Nasura! Oh I hope it’s you who found this message, and not one of Uraki’s shadowlings. Not much of a chance of that. Only the clones’ senses are fine enough to detect this. So, I’ve been captured, but then, I guess that’s kinda obvious now,’ she laughed. Suddenly, the jubilant expression was slain. ‘I’ve killed. Not just Asa, Inasu and Thanus … I’m sorry, but I know he won’t make it. My power is superior now, increased by the NegaForce like it is. He doesn’t stand a chance. None of them did. I’ve probably killed six or more now. I’m not sure…’ she paused and put her hands to her head as if seeking the pressure points of a headache. ‘It’s getting harder to fight off the spell. I guess I should just finish this so you can stop me. By the time you get this, you’ll have chosen your senshi because there’s no one left. Uraki-Ayo was precise in forcing the issue. Don’t underestimate him, sensei, or me. I’ve been given a Galleon Trident. I know, it’s pretty major stuff. Not much chance of you beating me without killing… uh…’ she paused with eyes downcast. ‘Well, I knew what I was doing when I accepted the Knighthood. This is what it’s all about, right?’

She paused for a wistful, somewhat lost expression. Then shook her head tiredly and resumed:

‘Anyway, you should know I’ve only personally killed four of the candidates. I know it’s lame, but what am I supposed to say?! I lose more of myself the longer the spell stays on me. I’m in a bloody heap of trouble here…! Oh hell. Uraki-Ayo-sama … sama? Damn! You see? Even if you do somehow manage to save me, it might not even matter! I guess none of this will if that happens. Okay, enough talk like that Xalia! How about telling them how to beat us safely? Well, yeah, right. It is possible. You see, Uraki put a collar on me to make sure I don’t turn on him. I’m nearly as strong as he is now, and could hurt him pretty seriously. If you can shatter the collar… don’t ask me how, he said it’s indestructible. Mentioned something about there being runes on it, or something. I’m hoping you’ll understand what that means, Kei. If you can destroy that, or use a Break Spell, I won’t be a danger to you, and you can disenchant me.’

Nasura bowed her head, knowing the deadly spell might be the only way, and not enjoying the knowledge of it a single bit.

‘That’s all I can do. Oh, yeah, right … Watch yourself. Uraki may set me after you. Actually, I’m quite certain he will, since the clones aren’t quite ready to take you on. I do mean you, Nasura. He figures I’m strong enough now. As for the clones, you should warn your senshi against them. They’ve been given the task of individually taking out each Neo Senshi. They’re tough enough to do it, too. Haisha will have already been attacked by now. I hope she’s okay.’

‘Yeah, fan-truckin-tastic, no thanks to you,’ Haisha remarked. ‘Was she responsible for the clones?’

Nasura shook her head vaguely with a slight, ill-inspired shrug. Xalia, coincidentally, seemed to answer, sort of: ‘I don’t know how he made the clones, but I’ve tried to send those who won’t have any advantage other than raw power. Jisuruka is getting suspicious, so she might override my commands. If she does, there’s nothing I can do. She’s closer to Uraki and even I am. She’s the only major obstacle I face. She’s really creepy…

‘Um, anyway, I’m running out of manna, so I have to end this spell. All I can ask is that you do the best you can. If you have to kill me to save the others, then… well, you know. Just do it. I’m hoping things go right. Or, something, or whatever … Goodbye Nasura-san. Whatever happens, I trust you.’

The image died as she bowed her head. Nasura no longer gazed upon it, her head similarly poised, silent tears streaming down her reddened cheeks.

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Chapter 41

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‘Where has she gone!?’ he cried. The four young women who stood before him had each a unique reaction: The brunette flinched, wringing her gauntleted hands, a frightened expression marking her face. The blue haired girl snarled as her auric power peaked, causing the other girls to step back. The remaining two, a raven haired girl – who’s s arguing with Jisuruka ceased, the last girl of a trademark infringing purple odango atama. ‘Curse that wretched girl!’

‘You cannot of have honestly expected her to maintain her alliance,’ Jisuruka stated evenly.

‘No. As a matter of fact, Yanei has exceeded my expectation. That is the meat of the matter,’ he snarled. The expression faded, to be replaced by an earnest smile. ‘I am proud of her. To have eluded me portrays cunning I did not believe she had. Cunning you four,’ he spat vehemently. ‘Most of all your dead sister, fail to show me. We are very close to ending this war. Mistakes cannot be afforded!’

‘What about the spooked multitude?’ the blue haired girl requested.

‘And squander precious resources?’ he growled. ‘Do not speak if you have not understood.’

‘Panji just wants to play with the senshi,’ the midnight haired girl grinned.

‘Her duties are clear, as are yours.’ He turned and approached the battered and bound young woman who winced weakly at the protrusion of dark iron through her midsection. ‘You see Xalia? I have kept my end of the bargain. This is the result of your treachery. Did you honestly believe that such a simple spell would elude me?’

She could not meet his eyes, for she could not move her face, the lips of which were locked to Panji’s. Consummate hatred glowered within her soul.

‘Want not, waste not, as the humans say,’ he stated coldly, turning away from the badly wounded young woman, in both physical and emotional terms.

‘I never trusted her,’ Jisuruka remarked.

‘Then you believe the alliance was a mistake?’

She floundered in place, gazing about for support, and upon finding none, lowered her eyes submissively. ‘No Uraki-Ayo-sama. No. Forgive me.’

‘No Jisuruka,’ he said, his voice gaining an interested tone. ‘Explain to me your reasoning.’

She blinked at him then said, ‘Omae-sama, I am worried she has cost us time and energy we do not have to spare. The Inner Senshi seem limitless!’

‘An astute observation, but our tactics are not yet spent. Have some patience, and you will be rewarded.’

‘Hai. If it is your desire,’ she paused, gazing on as the blue and black haired girls had their way with the weakly struggling Xalia. ‘I understand she’s strong?’

‘Quite,’ Uraki-Ayo agreed. ‘Her strength was yours twofold. She would be a fair challenge for you to defeat at full strength. No matter! You may each have a turn with her. Jisuruka and I must leave to discuss other plans.’

As they proceeded apace, the young woman’s vitality was renewed by the ignition of humiliation and sun paling agony, and the verbal expression of it in languishing moans and pleas for mercy. Jisuruka frowned behind the pneumatically closing door of iron and manna. ‘She’s very pretty. A hyperactive, sweet girl. It’s not her fault she was chosen by the Kei.’

‘On the contrary, it is very much her fault. She rose to the performance of skill and talent in her grasp to achieve the status of Neo Senshi. If she had not, Nasura simply would have selected another. Nonetheless, she was the first, and is to be the last. Nasura is aware of her subterfuge, and attempts even now to seek a method of rescuing her. Her attitude regarding this matter puzzles me. Before long she will be dead. I really fail to see how she might be worth the trouble.’ Uraki-Ayo neared a redwood throne and carefully placed himself upon it.

‘I think it is due to her loyalty. Such allies are worth preserving, if one has the resources. Uraki-san, I offer, in that light, that she may make a useful pawn. Another lever with which to tip the scales?’

‘We do not discard active pieces. Bide your time and be two steps ahead of the senshi. Each encounter raises the value of our quarry, and the risks we take to acquire them.’

‘Of course Uraki-sama,’ Jisuruka bowed respectively.

‘Even this unexpected variable does not alter the odds. The Bishojo Sailor Senshi’s advancement has upset the balance too greatly.’

‘Omae-sama?’ Jisuruka puzzled, approaching the ages old leader and sitting upon his lap.

‘They are angels now, Jisu-chan,’ he explained gently, resting his hand upon her naked thigh and caressing it softly. ‘They are holy beings, with power enough to annihilate any total force I can send at once, given our limited resources. Even the clones are not so powerful. I could not have prepared for this,’ he growled, smacking his fist on Jisuruka’s thigh, who uttered out faintly as the bone under her flesh cracked.

‘Forgive me Jisu-chan,’ he whispered, chastising himself internally as he took several calming breaths. He began caressing her thigh again, but with greater effort, letting a spell heal the damage done by his rampant temper. ‘You have not been unkind to me. This was not warranted.’

She bit her lip, and bowed her head while reaching under his hood. ‘It is my fault. If I had known, you would not have become angry.’

‘Listen child! Do you not hear me? This is pure foolishness,’ he growled faintly, removing her hand from his hood. ‘You do not deserve the brunt of my temper. Moreover you know better. There is no source in this realm which could have informed you before I had.’ Mostly because I have seen your spies slain. ‘Forget the womanly nonsense in your head and listen to my words.’

Jisuruka did not seem fazed as she retreated her hands, clasping them in her lap. ‘I have decided that you are to pose as a Neo Senshi, and undermine them. Though it is clear Nasura is aware of the situation, I believe she will not be able to refuse you.’

‘Omae-sama, I fail to understand.’

‘You must assume the appearance of a defector. Nasura will offer you asylum, even though she is well aware of your past deeds. It is not in their manner to refuse the needy. Do you understand?’

‘Hai Uraki-Ayo,’ Jisuruka nodded, hiding her nervousness. It would have to be a fairly dire situation for her to betray the NegaForce. She knew she would have to suffer near deathly wounding to gain Nasura’s sympathy. Hardly a mollifying thought.

‘Also, I would appreciate it if you could locate and terminate Yanei.’

Jisuruka nodded simply, straining to contain her reservations. ‘And the odds?’

Uraki-Ayo smirked satisfactorily. ‘Yanei poses absolutely no threat. I simply abhor loose ends. As for the young senshi, I can make you the match of any one of them. That will come later. For now, you may let that womanly nature of yours do as it will.’

A smile met her lips as she slipped his hood away and slid open his cloak, laying a generous kiss upon his crackled and worn lips.

 

@~%~~~

 

Before them lay a twisting tower of colour, shaping the sky as if wrought by the hands of a drug infused surrealist artist. The five senshi reeled from the potency of the dark essence leaking through the portal. A sudden wash of cold like the onset of a wall of winter clouds, bringing with it an abrupt temperature drop of nearly ten degrees. All eyes centered on the black eye of the swirling mass of dark energy.

‘I guess that’s our cue!’ Masurani cried as a swarm of shadow-like creatures descend abruptly upon them. The searingly low hallowing war cry of the shadowlings was accompanied by the already bloodied edges of claws and other weapons as the first strike fell.

Ayla estimated a rough fifty or so, and was hard pressed to determine if they were overpowered. There was no telling the degree of their own comparative strength, and that of Makoto and her husband. She found herself dodging frantically the strike of many a demon, and not all of them successfully. Masurani’s design proved to field most of the damage, but failed to take into account the more tender parts of the anatomy. She made a note to herself – if she lived through the battle – to add padding.

Makoto responded like lightning, her rune sword swiftly dismembering the nearest enemy. Masurani followed suit, drawing her own iridescent Bo into existence and delivering some impressive damage. Hanlan, albeit with a fair degree of comparative sluggishness, brought his club into action, crushing several of the creatures with his initial attack. The pressed-into-combat Naritha seemed to manage with her gauntleted fists alone, even though she simply and aptly avoided a half dozen poorly coordinated attacks.

“You weren’t kidding, were you Sailor Titan?” Ayla called, ducking a deftly delivered clawed strike. She forgot the awkwardness of using the unfamiliar Neo Senshi name, favouring the privacy of the reference.

‘Ki-HA!’ Masurani cried, pushing her hands forward to release a burst of fire-like energy. ‘Me? Kid you? Heck no,’ she replied with steep inwardly drawn breath and curt glance at her friend. ‘Sailor Seraph is one tough gal!’

As the horizon of the battle lit the edge of each senshi’s mind, it rather appeared that they would be able to hold the unending stream of demons. Until the number was replenished, and after several minutes, increased.

‘This isn’t exactly working out the way I planned it!’ Ayla declared over the sounds of battle. ‘Not that I actually had time to …’

‘Hai, Sailor Sol!’ Makoto agreed. She lowered her head and sword, pointing it towards twenty or so approaching demons. A red light gathered at the red-grey razor edging of the blade, and then focused forward in a simple beam, incinerating everything in the path it constructed through the wall of shadowy beasts. Masurani and Ayla both seemed stunned. Han, on the other hand, bellowed a very male cheer.

‘Now is not the time for admiration,’ Makoto called, curtailing their distraction. In response, Sailor Titan merely smirked. She applied her fist to one of the demons, adding a pair of words to her strike: ‘Stone Fist!’

The creature suddenly became a statue of incredible detail before falling several hundred feet to shatter on the street below. Impressed, she continued with that approach, sans attack phrase.

‘Light Spire!’ Ayla hollered, gesturing towards the nearest demon, which screamed inhumanly as it was consumed by a pillar of blinding luminescence. Naritha gripped an iridescent shield, and stepped up her mode of combat by disabling the occasional opponent with carefully targeted blows.

‘Sailor Titan! Cover Sailor Seraph!’ Ayla ordered. It instantly occurred to her that they were stalemated. As combat wore on, and Ayla noted an untimely weakness constraining Makoto, who had demonstrated the greatest prowess in this small war. Consumed by her own unceasing opponents, she lacked the ability to offer assistance. Separated from the others, Makoto’s fatigue finally overtook her, and her strength waned.

Makoto! Flee! Ellison warned. Unfortunately, one of the creatures removed the sword from her slackened grasp with a solid blow. A pair of demons took her arms, holding her, as a third struck at her stomach.

Masurani’s anger spiked as she watched Makoto’s restraint. She attempted to carve a path through the unyielding creatures with several bolts of focused chi. Yet, they replaced those vaporized in such a manner that seemed to indicate they were aware of her targets. There was a blur of light, and the shadowling holding Makoto’s right arm washed away as it absorbed the creature. With an easy throw, Makoto propelled the second some distance away, her strength fuelled by unconcealed rage.

‘Sensei!’ Masurani gasped.

A tall, thickly muscled man adorned in an orange gi smiled towards her darkly – yet warmly, his thick black eyebrows set to match the stern expression of his face.

‘Good evening Masurani!” he responded affectionately as he relaxed into an offensive stance. “What’s going on?’ His voice betrayed his intense look by portraying the stark calmness and pleasantry of his disposition.

‘It’s a long story, I’m just glad you’re here!’ Masurani stated openly, taking advantage of the demons’ pause. Her Bo segmented the six before her by the time they realized that the stranger was not on their side.

‘Well, maybe you’ll find some time to tell me about it.’ He pressed his hands together, palms faced towards a target, which he vaporized in short order with an energy bolt, along with the dozen others within its path. ‘I guess I didn’t make it back.’

She looked puzzled. ‘What? What do you mean?’

‘Home,’ he said plainly. His body became a tornado of fists and feet as he proceeded to level the opposing army. Over eighty shadowlings fell, dropping like ill-trained white belts. After the passage of mere seconds, he halted, and said; ‘Your training was finished so I tried to get home, but I guess I didn’t make it…’

Masurani nodded seriously. ‘Gomen nasai, sensei.’

‘That’s okay,’ he shrugged, zen-style. ‘I would have helped anyway.’

They gathered about the stranger.

‘Masu-chan! You mean you know this …’ Ayla’s voice faded as she gazed at him. She blushed harshly. ‘Gomen!’

He shrugged, pleasant smile warming his face. ‘That’s okay. Uh, I suppose you’re Masurani’s friends?’

‘Hai,’ she nodded. ‘Since we were very young. She – um – never told me you were so …’ she cleared her throat, eyes wide. ‘Um, I mean … about you.’

She giggled nervously. It was Masurani’s turn to blush. ‘Well, um … Okay, everyone, this is Goku. Goku, this is Kino Makoto.’

‘Ireson Kino Makoto,’ she corrected pointedly.

‘Oh!’ Masurani gasped with a blink and a smile. ‘Gomen nasai Makoto-san.’

‘Nevermind,’ she replied.

‘Good evening,’ Goku bowed. She bowed at the waist in reply.

‘Um, that’s … um …’

“Uh, Hanlan Ireson,” Han supplied with a slightly irritated expression. “If ya dig I’m not Japanese, eh?”

‘Sure,’ Goku bowed, looking vaguely puzzled, then sighed indifference.

‘Hai. Then there’s Naritha,’ who bowed as Goku did. She blushed, and giggled anxiously. Goku merely smiled.

‘So what’s going on here? What’s with all the demons?’

‘Invasion,’ Makoto supplied frankly. ‘By the way … um, Goku-san, thank you for helping me.’

He squinted at her for a moment, then spoke in gauged, serious tones. ‘Are you an angel?’

“Like frickin’ lightning, ain’t ya?” Hanlan muttered. “Too bad yer brain ain’t as fast as yer fist!”

Hanlan, he means well.

I knew that Mako-babe, but how can a guy be so flippin’ strong and so flippin’ stupid?

Does it bother you that you see yourself in him that much? she poked, though not unkindly.

Uh … what’ya mean, babe?

You want to know why I fell for you, buster?

Sure. I told you. Looks, brains, and kick-ass fightin’ skill.

Because you treated me with respect. Even when you refused the idea that I could defend myself.

What, it’s that damned simple? You ain’t kiddin’?

Makoto merely glanced at him for a solitary instant, assuring him of the credence of the idea. By the love of his life, he had been told that even in his worst days, he had offered a very rare, and honourable thing. It was to him a very worthy treasure. So, even as Makoto broke their short lived conversation to answer Goku’s smoldering question, Hanlan drifted over to her and wrapped an arm about her waist, smiling without restraint.

‘Hai.’

‘Why are you here?’

In a world separate from the war, the mindless violence, the threatening evil, Makoto answered his question with a peace of soul that stilled all onlookers. ‘I am here to defend all that I have loved, and to protect the future of this world. I know you have done no less in all you have come through.’

He blinked slowly, as if in reply. He pursed his lips, pinched his brow and then said, ‘Okay. Then we can fight together, right?’

‘Uhm, yes?’

‘Good!’

Han wafted over to him. The two made for an impressive comparison: Hanlan, a tough looking thug of unmistakable physical prowess, standing over the more attractive Goku who represented the shorter, faster, while still remarkably muscled fighter.

‘So just who are you anyway,’ Hanlan demanded, not bothering to bear kid gloves. ‘How’d you truss up those shadowthings so damned fast anyway?’

‘That’s another thing!’ Ayla agreed.

Goku did not seem at all intimidated by Hanlan’s greater stature. He pressed a hand to the back of his head with a well mannered smile and laughed, ‘Can I help it if I’m strong?’

‘Strong!?’

Masurani laughed along with him.

‘Nasura should be back soon,’ Ayla offered. ‘When she gets back, we can talk.’

‘That’s fine. It will be a while before the next wave arrives,’ Makoto explained.

‘How long?’ Ayla questioned tensely.

‘Ten to twelve hours. Maybe longer.’

‘Oh, okay,’ Goku replied, relaxing. ‘Can I get some food then? I’m starving!’

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Chapter 42

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Ayla surmised that her Mom was probably dying of worry, and suggested that Masurani bring the three to her place while she “broke the news.” She tamed her protestations with the rationale of what alternative was there? After several minutes, Masurani conceded.

‘Mama-san!’ Ayla called as she stepped in the front door, not having changed out of her Neo Senshi uniform. A short woman, some five feet in height, dressed in a khaki green housecoat scrambled up to her daughter, her stark red hair flailing behind her.

‘You were out there!’ she snapped, both fearful and angry. ‘You were fighting and …oh my … you’re hurt!’ Her tones walked the edge of the disciplinarian, and the concerned mother. Ayla rolled her eyes as her Mom inspected the gash across her shoulder.

‘It’s nothing, really, Mama. I stayed in my uniform so it would heal more quickly.’

‘Don’t you roll your eyes at me young lady,’ she chided, drawing Ayla into the living room, sitting her down and slipping the arm of the body suit from the wound. ‘Just be happy I agreed to let you join the Resistance at all!’

‘Mama – ow!’ she winced. ‘I’d never have joined if you hadn’t …’

‘Exactly. Tsk, tsk, of course it’s going to hurt. It’s fairly deep.’ She stood and proceeded to the kitchen. A moment passed, and she returned, first aid kit in hand.

‘Nasura made me the leader of the Neo Senshi. That wasn’t so bad. It was just Haisha … she was so frustrating!’

‘It’s not good to yell at her, even if she did follow your orders.’

Ayla’s face darkened.

‘It’s okay sweetie. Just think it through. You’ve got to be firm and kind.’ She dabbed gently at the wound. Ayla bit her lip and winced.

‘Yeah, but how? You’re just loud,’ she laughed.

‘You got it from somewhere…’ Osaka replied with a smirk. ‘I think if you thicken the body suit… use mystic silk, instead of this flimsy cloth,’ she said and pinched the fabric with two fingers. ‘And maybe some padding would help …’

‘Oh Mama …’ she sighed as her Mom started wrapping her shoulder carefully with an off white bandage. “I know … I just haven’t had the chance yet …”

‘Listen, Ayla, I love you. I’m not going to let you die out there …’ her words fell to a deep and emotionally dark silence. ‘Not if there’s anything I can do about it.’

‘Gomen … I …’

‘Shush,’ was softly spoken reply. Her hands did not stop the task of bandaging the wound until it was complete. Osaka Apollo heaved a weary breath, pulling her housecoat tightly about her slender build and retying the waistband.

‘So what happened? How bad is it?’

Ayla wiped at her aching eyes. ‘It’s bad Mama. It’s horrible. There were so many! Nasura’s going to have a hard time alone. We nearly lost, even with Makoto’s help.’

‘Makoto?” she said, sharply inquisitive. ‘You mean Kino Makoto?’

‘Hai Mama-san. She’s changed, though. She looks like an angel!”

‘She hasn’t been gone long, then. Not since I saw her last.’

Ayla’s eye widened. ‘What do you mean?’

‘I saw her today at the Shiranui Dojo,’ Osaka began, leaning back tiredly. ‘She’s been taking care of Kai and Tenma for the last six years.’

‘You mean she’s Nakio!?’ Ayla gasped loudly. ‘Why didn’t you tell me!’

‘She only just revealed herself.’ A sly smirk crept across her face. ‘Neat to think you’ve been training with her for so long.’

‘Well yeah,’ Ayla agreed reluctantly. ‘But holy crow she’s changed! Um … I … I just … I just guess I would like to have known! Why did she keep it a secret for so long?’

‘Something about protecting the twins. Mai wouldn’t get into it.’

‘I like her. I mean, I know she’s still the same person, but she’s so intense!’

‘Why wouldn’t you like her?’

‘I don’t know. Maybe because she’s an Angel of War? That’s pretty harsh.’

Osaka gazed at her daughter, watching her mind drift and face dark as other events came to light. Her face twisted in motherly concern. ‘What else happened?’

‘What?’ she gasped, shocked out of her thrall. ‘Oh. It’s just one of, um … my Senshi. Xalia.’

‘Ether Xalia?’

‘Hai,’ she gazed at her mom resolutely. ‘She betrayed the order. The murders… she… it was her!’

‘Yes.’

‘You knew?’ she began at a start, then her face softened. ‘Great.’

‘I’m sorry baby … but I only learned during the first strike.’

‘No Mama,’ she sighed. ‘It’s not you. It’s just hard to know who to trust.’

‘What did Nasura have to say about her?’

‘Nothing! She said she didn’t have time, but … then she told us that things are pretty risky for Xalia.’

‘Hm. Did she tell you when she Knighted her?’

‘Hai. She did. But what about Mamoru? I thought he was the Earth Guardian?’

‘He is. Don’t you remember when the demons nearly got in the house? The wards were the only thing that stopped them.’

‘Oh boy I remember. I spent hours setting those things up,’ she commented. Then: ‘What does that have to do with Mamoru-san?’

‘Mamoru isn’t a frontline soldier. He wasn’t prepared to fight alone. That’s …’

‘ …why she Knighted her. I got it. So what happened?’

Osaka took a breath.

‘It’s …’ she stopped, looking upset. Ayla felt a primal twinge from her mother. ‘Uraki-Ayo intervened, and defeated her personally.’

She was shaking her head at the end of the sentence. ‘What!’ Ayla gaped. ‘If he came here do to that, why didn’t he just … he could have fought Nasura.’

‘She was busy with you, and had no idea he’d attacked her.’

Ayla paled. ‘Oh God …’ she muttered, dark tones in her voice. ‘It’s my fault.’

‘No Ayla, how? Don’t blame yourself,’ she replied, eyebrows knitting on her creased forehead.

‘I wasn’t paying attention to Janus …’ she started, clenching her eyes shut, her fists echoing the motion as she pressed them against her chest. ‘Akari wouldn’t have killed her if … if I’d just …’

Osaka bowed her head. She had heard. The final selection mission broken up by the sudden murder of the young woman. That, the murders of the twelve squires, and the sudden attacks of the clones had disrupted their Knighting. Nasura had then taken the only action that remained by Knighting the girls on her own, without the support or even awareness of the Resistance core supporters.

There just hadn’t been time for it.

Ayla was crying silently, and did not refuse her mothers arms as they opened. ‘There wasn’t anything you could do,’ Osaka stated gently. ‘You weren’t Knighted yet.’

She replied a solitary mumble of internal unrest, and cuddled against her. After some time, Ayla said: ‘What happened to Xalia. Why did she betray us?’

‘She was brainwashed, like Mamoru was.’

Slowly, in due consideration, Ayla nodded. ‘What if Uraki decides to come back?’

‘He won’t. When he came through, it delayed the expected wave of shadowlings. Nasura says the portal has a relative power level limit.’

‘Then why…’ Ayla’s eyes whirled. She blinked, and closed them, her head pounding. Osaka pulled the young woman over to rest her head on her shoulder. ‘He can’t stay here with the Inner Senshi… um, I guess I should say Angel Senshi, neh, Mama?’

Osaka chuckled. ‘Hai sweetheart.’

‘So they’re going to fight him, and what are we doing? Destroying this crystal. Haisha says that the shadowlings’ numbers increase with each wave.’

‘Nasura will explain. Right now you’ve got some time, so take it easy, okay?’

‘Hmm,’ she sighed. ‘I’m just worried … and scared.’

Osaka laid a hand on her daughter’s head and stroked her hair gently. ‘I know sweetie.’ A silence permeated the room. ‘Usagi was scared too.’

‘Usagi? You saw her too?’ Ayla gasped with a glance up at her Mom’s face.

‘Hai, I did,’ she replied gently. ‘She’s an angel too.’

‘Oh wow …’

‘Mm-hm. They all are … It started when Makoto was sent to another dimension …’

 

@~%~~~

 

‘Mom!’ she exclaimed, blushing furiously.

‘Iesha-san,’ Goku laughed. ‘Are you sure she was that strong when she was young?’

‘No Goku-san!’ she chuckled delightedly at her daughter’s embarrassment. ‘Those beds are only made out of wood. She was a little strong for five, but even a pair of three year olds accomplish the same.’

‘Thanks Mom,’ Masurani glared. ‘Sensei, can we go uh, spar – or something? Please?’

‘Well, I’m having a good time – oof!’ he winced as Makoto dug her elbow into his ribcage. He blinked and glanced at her. ‘Oh. Okay.’ He stood, and bowed respectively. ‘Thank you Iesha-san. The meal was excellent.’

She shrugged in reply. ‘I would’ve had my husband cook if he was home. He’s much better in the kitchen than I am.’

‘No kidding,’ Masurani muttered solicitously.

‘I heard that!’ Iesha snapped, smacking Masurani’s shoulder with a laughing smile.

‘Better move it before she decides to spar with us!’ Masurani laughed as she got to her feet. She then disappeared in short order from the room. Goku paused before leaving to ask: ‘Would you really do that?’

She nodded firmly and laughed, ‘You bet! I was training in the womb!’

‘We should spar sometime then! You must be really good!’

‘Oh get going you goofball,’ she laughed, shooing him off. He half bowed, then left.

‘Han, maybe you should join them,’ Makoto suggested.

‘Uh, yeah. Okay.’ Slowly he stood up and accompanied the others. Later sweets.

Makoto offered a wan smile and slight nod in reply.

‘Haisha, Naritha!’ Iesha called to the patio. ‘Are you okay out there?’

‘Hai Iesha-san!’ Haisha replied pleasantly. ‘Thank you!’

‘You’re welcome!’

Iesha took a sip of her sake before speaking. ‘So… what happened …?’ she began hesitantly. ‘You look … oh heavens, I can’t tell how old you are.’

‘It’s been about … oh, coming up on seven years in a couple months. I’ll be turning twenty five …’ Makoto placed her head on her right palm, the according elbow rested on the table. Iesha examined her face for previously undiscovered details.

‘Twenty five?!’ she gaped. ‘It’s only been a little over a month! What happened? You were so different when I saw you last, little fighter.’

Makoto half-smiled at the nickname of past and pleasant application. ‘I’ve been through so much … And now I really don’t have the time to get into it.’

‘What? That you’re married? You’ll have to tell me sometime,’ she smiled. ‘How’d you meet him …?’

‘Like I said, too much to get into. I met Han in the sewers of New Quebec. He probably saved my life, too.’

Iesha gave her an astonished look. ‘Pardon?’

‘Long, long story … way before this.’ She indicated her wings with a thumb.

‘I’m so sorry, Makoto-san, but I don’t even know what to think.’

‘That’s okay, he doesn’t either.’

‘You snagged a classic,’ Iesha pointed out. ‘Not that he isn’t nice …’

Makoto nodded and added; ‘I don’t love him any less for his thoughtlessness. He has a very pure heart.’

‘How can you tell? With a mouth like that …’

Makoto looked somewhat reproachful, as if unprepared for her statement. ‘I’m psychic,’ she explained softly. ‘I know what he feels, and what he thinks.’

Iesha fumbled her cup. ‘W-what?’

Matoko chuckled, amused by the reaction to something she took for granted. ‘I can read minds. At first it was just Han’s, but since my rebirth as an angel I can read just about any.’

‘Am I safe?’ she stammered, palms at her denim-bloused chest, a mock-fearful expression upon her face. Behind it, she knew, was genuine pause and worry. ‘I’ve nothing really to hide, except – well – the usual stuff, but … Can I still trust you?’

Of course Iesha-san. I’m an Angel of War, not death. Nothing else has changed between us.

Iesha gasped, but smiled. ‘Nothing else? More like everything else. You were only your mother’s adorable daughter when I last saw you. But that was so long ago … before we even moved to Tokyo.’

Makoto nodded heartily. Her eyes wandered to the door leading to the basement, and back to Iesha. ‘But that’s not what I wanted to talk to you about. It’s Goku.’

‘What about him?’

‘He seems so … naive, but he’s so powerful. And you seem to know him better than I do.’

Iesha tossed her head to one side so that a dark brown gathering dropped back behind her shoulder. ‘It’s not that he’s not bright. He’s just … I guess he’s like an overgrown child. He’s so very kind, though. I owe him a lot.’

‘Like?’ She arched an eyebrow.

‘He saved my life. I was mugged by a pair of shadowlings, and Goku banished them. I learned later it was an attempt on my life. Being in the Resistance hasn’t been easy.’ Her eyes ascended into recollection as she spoke. ‘He was so sweet. I offered him a place to stay that night. He said he was stranded here, away from home. In exchange for room and board he offered to train Masurani how to fight.’

Makoto smirked, and spoke with a certain gleam in her eyes. ‘And your husband wasn’t jealous?’

‘Well, he’s no eye sore himself …’ she giggled. ‘Of course he was. He broke a few things trying to learn Goku’s style of fighting.’

‘You mean he broke his arm … or …?’

‘No, no,’ she smiled. ‘Walls, tables, chairs. He’s not a bad fighter, but a bit of klutz with his ken. And his kamehame bolts are absolutely disastrous. Personally, the idea freaks me out.’

Makoto laughed. ‘So you weren’t kidding.’

‘Heck no!’ she laughed. ‘Not at all! You’d be surprised. I’ve actually taught Goku a thing or two.’

Makoto blinked, surprised.

‘Well no, I’m not that good a fighter! I mean in the kitchen. Goku’s a very charming, attractive man, but can’t cook at all!’ she giggled warmly.

Makoto reluctantly shrugged, not familiar enough with him to know either way. An uncomfortable silence pondered along, Makoto seeking something … What? Maybe something ordinary. The desire to settle. The taste of it had been sweet; nigh six years of living a normal life. No monsters, no demons, no headhunters, no juicers. Just able to lie back and raise Ayana. She wished it would end. To live with Mai again, to have Ayana and Hanlan with her. To settle … Makoto muttered something half-heartedly. Iesha snapped out of the daydream she seemed to be caught in.

‘Pardon?’ Her eyes settled on Makoto.

Makoto’s eyes fell into focus. ‘Oh.. I was just thinking … It must be nice to have a family.’

Iesha adopted a bemused expression for her face. Her eyebrows worked as something dropped into place in her mind. ‘You want a family …?’

Makoto sighed as she sat back and ran her long fingers through her slightly scruffy looking brunette hair. ‘Right now I wish I almost didn’t … being away from Ayana is almost worse than the idea of her being hurt or killed here.’

‘Oh Makoto … I’m so sorry,’ she offered sympathetically. ‘I can understand that. Masurani fighting out there … even with her friends, scares me to death.’

‘She’s an amazing warrior, Iesha. You should be proud.’

‘She is? I’ve seen her practice, and she almost dances … it’s odd to see so much grace in such a deadly art. I’m sort of clumsy at it, but Goku says I’m very powerful.’ She paused. ‘I am proud though. Very proud, but also very, very afraid for her.’

Makoto could only nod. ‘How old is your little girl?’

‘Hmm …’ Makoto agreed absently, fatigue drawing her into a blank, friendly zone. After a moment, she snapped back to the conversation, the query just reaching her. ‘Oh! Little girl? I wish! She’s almost sixteen now.’

‘But you said …’

‘I know what I said. It’s … could we not talk about that?’

‘Hai. Gomen Makoto-san,’ she breathed, somewhat overwhelmed by the whole weaving. ‘If you’re that tired, you’re welcome to pass out in the spare room.’

Again, she replied the same motion of her head. ‘No … I can’t. There’s no time for it.’

Iesha’s eyebrow creased in concern and motherly annoyance. ‘The Neo Senshi won’t be doing anything without you. It’s an order. If you head off now, you can catch eleven hours of sleep. That’s plenty for a young angel of war,’ she giggled. ‘No arguments.’

‘Three’d be a great start,’ Makoto murmured and chuckled soundlessly. Iesha helped her to her feet. ‘I … uh …’ she stuttered, flustered.

‘No, I won’t hear it little fighter. Come with me.’

She felt somewhat embarrassed to be treated like a ten year old again, especially by someone who clearly was not her mother. The awareness of that absence struck her with painful pang. To feel that from another, despite the fact that she was not a relative, she found oddly comforting.

‘Thank you,’ she said softly, smiling.

Iesha winked at her with a plainly parentally loving smile, and saw her to bed. No sooner had Makoto laid her head back on the pillow, than she had drifted in what Iesha deemed a highly required slumber. The rest of the loosely stitched together group rested soundly upon cheap roll out mattresses and spare feather-down pillows some four hours later. Adversely, Iesha discovered sleep to be quite elusive. Perhaps it was due to the absence of Sanja. Where was he? Was he in danger? He had only gone to a smaller city outside of Tokyo yesterday.

No, she thought. He should be home! Jencha Co. wouldn’t keep him for something like this.

Unable to shake the thought from her mind, she picked up a hardbound novel and tried to scare away the leering omen with the words therein.

[* *]

[* *]

[* *]

[* *]

[* *]

Chapter 43

[* *]

‘Hm? It is my move?’ Haisha murmured, blinking and drawing her eyes away from the darkened sky to the chessboard between them. ‘Oh. Thanks.’

‘I am unsure if to believe you.’

‘You mean …’ her eyes narrowed, and eyebrows knitted. ‘Just because I think I should lead the Neo Senshi doesn’t mean I’d lie.’ She pretended to gaze thoughtfully over the marble Chinese checkers board and pieces.

‘I am psychic, remember?’ Naritha chided softly. ‘I know she told not where she went. Not your fault.’

Haisha looked vaguely upset. ‘It was like she doesn’t trust me or something. I told her I could handle it.’

‘Nasura very wise. She knows you are very, very weak yet. Even more than me.’

‘If you’re a wimp than Bruce Lee-sensei is Master of Interpretive Dance,’ she peered at the young woman. ‘You don’t give yourself enough credit, Naritha.’

She shrugged indifferently.

Haisha sighed. ‘What are you getting at?’

‘Nasura have difficult choice sending us to war. We are very young. We sacrifice everything we are to save our world. She respect that, and care for us.’

‘Un, like any pencil pushing general,’ Haisha remarked darkly.

Naritha actually scowled at her. ‘No Haisha-chan! She had children. Her complete family perish in car accident many year ago. She do this to save sanity!’ She bit off the words with such severity that Haisha flinched, feeling guilty.

‘I didn’t know,’ she replied sorrowfully. ‘I’m sorry.’

A moment later, a nagging apprehension dropped into place, and her face curled unpleasantly.

‘You picked all that out of her mind? Does she know?’ she gasped, abruptly feeling nervous. ‘Are you going to do that to me? Pick the next move out of my head and flatten me?’

‘No. As starters, I not “pick thought” from any mind. Not unless discretion warrant, but even then … occasional thought bombing school? I would lie if say I never think same. Intent of heart say more than image of mind. Understand?’

‘Yeah,’ she grinned solicitously. ‘But how did you know…?’

Naritha glanced away into the open air of the dark sky beyond the small patio. ‘We had long talk … she knew I might figure this in long term, and told after she gave senshi transform crystal.’

Haisha gazed at her incredulously. ‘You mean she chose you? The rest of us just kinda wound up the only ones alive to be knighted …’ she rolled her eyes. ‘I always thought there’d be some kind of ceremony. You know, the way real Knights got it? It sucks.’

Naritha gave a small gasp thinking she probably should have kept that one in a dark cupboard. Oh well, one kettle of catfish out of the way, and well into another boiling full tilt …

‘So very sorry!’ she apologized sharply with a steep, yet awkward sitting bow. ‘I know she selected you … do not be dishonoured.’

‘I’m not. I know she picked all of us.’

‘So sorry, Haisha-chan, but not sure heard correct?’

‘You did. I know what happened to Xalia. Ayla was right. She was protecting us. Chances are she’s catfish bait now, but she made sure we were safe by having the others killed first.’

Naritha looked absolutely aghast. ‘How could she?’ she hissed. ‘She not able stop deaths?’

Haisha shook her head soberly. ‘I figure she doesn’t have any real control, just a little influence. It’s a really nasty thought,’ Haisha shuddered. ‘It’s amazing she’s done what she has so far. Frankly, I’m amazed the little sports nut is still alive.’

Naritha blinked, and nodded.

‘Even though it’s turned out this way, I pretty well had it figured out who she was going to choose. It was pretty clear Masurani had it over Isanu. She was fast and extremely skilled, but lacked formal training and wasn’t very sturdy emotionally. As for Ayla … Asa was certainly authoritative, but really brought tension to the command. Not exactly someone who’d promote morale. Ayla and I aren’t exactly bosom pals, but I respect her attitude. She’s got a knack for it; knows exactly what needs to be done and who’s the best for the job. But if you tell her I said that, I’ll deny it.’

‘And fact would be dead if not she think swift on toe.’

‘Oh, sure, yeah, well …’ she rolled her eyes with a vague sigh of embarrassment. ‘That was mostly Nasura-san’s doing though. Hm … but I wonder … did she choose Ayla because I got attacked by that clone of Mina? There’s no way I could have known. Besides, she was way too tough. I certainly didn’t have the strength, and I hadn’t thought to carry any amulets with me. Not that they would have helped. I think if anyone, only Masurani would have stood a chance. You’d be toast now if she hadn’t fished you out of that fight with Shao-Enya.’

The girl of blue hair and silver highlights seemed to be ignoring her monologue. Not that Haisha noticed.

‘Well, it’s not like that’s important now or anything. We’ve been Knighted, and are pretty well prepared to face anything Uraki cares to hurl our way. So … about the rest of the candidates,’ Haisha blinked, her highly organized mind drawing her back to her beginning rationale. ‘Xalia’s speed was unmatched, and as the only mutant, she had it nailed. Her elemental powers certainly aided the early decision Nasura made regarding her Knighthood. She was ideal: Fast, powerful, and obedient. There was no way Tasha could have equaled her. With you there was never any real question. We would have ended up with a sixth senshi if things had turned out differently. You’re the only psychic sensitive to have enrolled. I really would have liked to see how Janus might have turned out,’ she smirked.

Naritha knew, of course, that she meant the design of Janus’ outfit, for certainly the original standard would have been outright hentai. She had been the most buxom of the squires, and undoubtedly one of the most uniquely talented. Her ability to absorb the physical properties of anything she touched made her a force to be reckoned with. Not to mention the fact that any male who dared to oppose her tended to forget their names, much less any intent to fight.

This applied to some women as well, it seemed, and apparently, as Janus had defensively – and repeatedly – explained, was not entirely a direct result of her ultra-feminine appearance. Nonetheless, handy – to coin a pun – talent.

‘Not kind,’ Naritha stated, blushing harshly. ‘Janus treat with much respect. More than most. I liked her.’

‘She was walking sex. Her figure,’ she replied, her expression softening only slightly, ‘is – uh, was – a lot like yours.’

‘Haisha,’ she protested faintly, somewhere between offended and pleased.

‘Look, it’s nothing personal. You’re very pretty. Pretty much have your pick of guys, that is,’ Haisha said. Naritha blushed more fiercely. She persisted, ‘Take it as a compliment. Janus set the wrong tone, and the Senshi need to stay classy.’

Haisha finally clued in to Naritha’s lack of comfort as the young Chinese girl attempted to shelter herself in silence. Several moments of awkwardness drifted by on clouds as the girls made a few more furtive moves in their game. During this period, Haisha finished, as if to herself, her earlier thought:

‘Well anyway, I don’t know about me … Thanus was quite well versed in combat tactics. He was a weapons master, whereas I just have my sword. Feh. Helped that he was a serious cutie, too … which gets me thinking it’s a shame there aren’t any guys in the group.’

Haisha’s voice trailed off into a pleasant timbre of silence. Naritha used the ensuing silence to temper the juxtaposition of her ire and the sense of Nasura’s scathing emotional scars. It took a while. Long enough for the game to resume. After nearly a dozen moves, Haisha’s guilt broached a subject not too far lost.

‘Look, I’m sorry.’

‘Hm, Haisha-san? What for?’

‘For comparing you to Janus,’ she frowned. ‘It wasn’t nice.’

‘Oh. That fine. Not mind so much. Knew Janus well, and see she not – um – slut, as many think. Beauty, if too thought excessive, not mean quite that always as seen,’ Naritha noted, not gazing up at her friend’s surprised expression and arched eyebrow. ‘Her heart was golden.’

‘Golden? What’s that mean…?’ the copper haired young woman murmured. Slowly, it registered that Naritha had broached another subject as she looked up from the beautifully designed board to glance at her temporary opponent. ‘Huh?’

‘It means what you think it mean. Now, we end talk of Janus. Not dishonor memory further. Now we speak of others, of Inner Senshi we met.’

‘What?’

‘So what you think? Makoto blessed generous, hai?’

‘Oh! You mean her husband!’

‘He is … attractive, hai?’ she noted with a childish blush, the corner of her small full lips curling upwards slightly.

‘She’s a lucky … uh, angel … That’s a real man for ya, hot stuff!’ she punctuated her comment by licking the tip of her finger and pretending to burn it on her thigh. ‘If milk does a body good …’ she whistled appreciatively. Naritha gasped, embarrassed, mostly by the sharing of her new found friend’s feelings. Haisha relocated a piece and gestured to Naritha.

‘When win war, I will find such guy, and marry him,’ she giggled, as if the idea was foolish. ‘Um, maybe. I would be much happy with plain husband.’

Haisha shook her head. ‘Some guys really go for shy girls,’ she grinned. ‘Besides, like I said, you’re beautiful.’

‘Thank you. So are you,’ Naritha returned, displacing a piece to another locale.

Haisha repeated her earlier motion of negation. ‘Thanks. But I’m too bossy. I scare ‘em away more than half the time. Not that that’s a bad thing necessarily …’

‘I not know great much about dating.’

‘Not great and much. That’s a double – um – positive? Better to say “don’t know much.” Ah, well, being ignorant can be a good thing,’ Haisha moved a piece. ‘And bad. It can hurt.’

‘That why I wait. Not like sisters … who marry young. I left to be KnightsMage … stay unmarriaged.’

‘You mean “unmarried”.’

‘Hai.’

‘My move?’

‘Hai.’

Haisha captured several pieces in a row, then asked: ‘What do you think about the war?’

‘I worry that I not fight well. That I am weak.’

‘You’re a master of Te. I wouldn’t want to fight you!’

Naritha was contemplatively silent.

‘Look, fighting isn’t your main thing anyway. You’re the psionic senshi. We need you for that.’

Naritha traded one empty spot for another with a single blue and white veined marble sphere. ‘I disagree. This is war, Haisha-chan …’

‘“Haisha” is fine.’

‘ … Neo Senshi need more warriors. I am not sufficient strong.’

Haisha delved into Naritha’s eyes, feeling concerned.

‘Are you worried you won’t be able to make it?’

‘No. Worried I won’t make difference.’

[_ _]

@~%~~~

[_ _]

Iesha had attained no end of misery the previous night, and determined that while she was awake, the distraction of preparing breakfast might succeed her worries. It, however, several burnt pieces of toast later, failed. Finally, she – thanking mass production – retrieved some frozen waffles, and managed not to singe them in their preparation after the third cup of sleep dulling coffee. Alongside that was a fair amount of bacon, which disappeared quickly when early – and oppositely so – risers, came to greet breakfast.

‘Thanks Mama,’ Masurani called from the small living room.

‘Hey, yeah,’ Goku agreed between food-shoveling bites. ‘This is pretty good! Is there more?’

‘Not as long as you mind doing it yourself,’ Iesha replied flatly as she paced morosely into the living room.

Iesha, I know your worry for Sanja has kept you late. Fear not. He is safe now.

Iesha gave with a gasp and dropped her steaming coffee on the floor, yelping as she jumped back from the scathing liquid.

‘Mother of mercy,’ she whispered, watching her with teary eyes, her voice rich with anxiety and heartfelt thankfulness. ‘Um, maybe you guys should go spar.’

‘Hai,’ Masurani sighed, setting her drink down.

Goku looked around. ‘Hai Ma’am. But is there …’

‘I’ve got some food downstairs, Goku-san. You know that,’ she reminded him faintly.

‘If you don’t mind, Iesha-san, Naritha and I will have a few more rounds of chess.’

Iesha nodded distractedly as the remaining two young women traversed the fair distance to the kitchen-locked patio, well out of earshot. She faced the vastly altered young woman she had formerly known, the well of concern that was the core of her being driving her onward.

‘What happened? Is my husband …’

Makoto’s hesitation and bowed head made her heart leap, thumping in her ears as against the tight cage of ribs. ‘He’s well, now. The attempt on your life was no solitary event. You were right. When I found him, he was in an ER, critical condition. If I hadn’t intervened, he would be dead.’

Iesha’s shoulders shook in silent wracking sobs, face in open palms. Makoto felt a sharp mix of emotions; gratitude to Phate, for being able to save his life; sorrow, at her inability to prevent what had happened, and finally, anger. When Iesha spoke, minutes later, her voice was soft and distant, a flute piping in contest to the thundering roar of a sapphire white waterfall.

‘Thank you. Praise God for you, Makoto. I owe you more than … than I can say.’

Dread silence.

‘Please, if you will …’

‘Of course.’

Feeling herself alone, Iesha let forth the passion only her husband had ever seen, and would ever see, while Makoto mourned in the solitude of her mind. She proceeded downstairs with the air of loss and concern. Hanlan felt the ache within his soulmate, immediately as one feels a warming bonfire. He accepted her to his arms, said nothing and kissed her forehead gently.

‘I love you Makoto Kino Ireson. You’re the badassest angel ever.’

‘I love you too Hanlan. You hulking clown.’

Most of the basement had been cleared for Masurani’s vigilant training routines, which included her Kamisenin techniques, for which Goku was plainly responsible. For any audience, the only point of interest was found when one realized that the blur flying about the basement was a pair of fighters, rather than a stray tornado. Masurani was faring considerably well, when one realized how seriously she was outmatched. The fight was limited to hand to hand combat, for the moment. For the duration of the fight, once every odd instant for so, they would pause while Masurani caught her breath, or got back on her feet. Each time, she would return to the fight. So far, twenty mind numbing minutes of violence had expired.

It was to their vague interest that the sparring pair armed themselves. Masurani chose an unencumbered Bo staff, while Goku matched the selection, his motions of warm up easily ten times the speed of his student. Nonetheless, each weapon began to glow as if charged. Then, with a bow, sparring resumed. The result, however, did not alter. Hanlan felt much of the tension in Makoto’s close-pressed, sleek and generously proportioned body dissipated.

“She’s really getting whomped, love, isn’t she?” Makoto observed in English.

Hanlan nodded at her glib comment. “Yeah. But the only way I can tell that is ‘cause every time they stop, she’s on her butt. I tell ya, I wouldn’t want to fight her. She’d tromp me!”

Makoto seemed genuinely impressed. Hanlan conceded rarely to anyone even when outmatched in battle. It was an even greater rarity to hear him concede from a mere demonstration of their ability. “And there’s no tellin’ how tough this guy Goku is … Man, he took out over a hundred of those demons … and didn’t even work up a sweat! Kinda makes me wonder why we don’t just let him win this war for us.”

Makoto blinked before conceiving the answer. “Because brute strength won’t defeat Uraki-Ayo, especially if he teams up with Galaxia, as Beryl did. It will be up to Usagi again.”

Hanlan shrugged nonchalantly. He understood little about the NegaForce, but knew that it seemed to be an insurmountable opponent. After an additional minute or so, Masurani plodded over to Makoto and Han, and plunked herself heavily on the bench. Goku strode up, looking no worse for wear aside from a collection of small sweat beads on his forehead.

‘You’ve improved!’ he smiled.

‘Ar-arigato,’ she panted wearily. ‘Domo arigato, sensei.’

‘You’re welcome,’ he bowed with that selfsame smile, honestly impressed. ‘You’ve been training very well alone. I guess those techniques I taught paid off, hai Masu-chan?’

‘Hai,’ she nodded, taking a pull at a bottle of filtered water. ‘I’ve also had some help. Nakio-san taught me a few things.’

‘I’ve tried to help,’ Makoto noted. Masurani all at once looked stunned, as if it just came to her that Makoto had been one of her long term sensei, and friends.

‘Oh yeah!’ she smiled. ‘You did. Taught me that power isn’t the most important thing.’

‘Especially when you’re outmatched,’ Makoto stated caustically.

‘I think that’s really wise. You must be a good teacher,’ Goku smiled.

Then, Makoto regarded Goku for a moment, gauging his strength. She blinked, turning her eyes away as his aura seemed to blind her.

Holy… she gasped. How can he be so powerful?

Even Usagi has that kind of power, Ellison observed. Goku is a very unique fighter. It is, in my estimation, very fortunate that he is on our side.

‘Goku-san, would you like to spar with me?’ Makoto said, stepping out of Hanlan’s arms as she tied her hair up at the back of her head.

Looking to get trounced? Be my guest, Makoto, but don’t look for any help from me, Ellison stated firmly.

No sense in you breaking character, my frugal ally, she replied glibly, removing her scabbard and leaning the rune blade upon the bench.

‘Would I ever!’ he replied enthusiastically, before doubt furrowed his brow. ‘You don’t use advanced chi techniques, do you?’

‘Well, not since the transformation, no. I haven’t needed to,’ she replied firmly. ‘I just want to see how well I’d do.’

‘Okay!’ Goku replied as he assumed an automatic defensive posture.

She offered a curt shrug before falling into her offensive stance. There was a bow, where Goku scrutinized her before striking. Makoto was knocked back by Goku’s inhumanly fast reflexes for the next several minutes. Masurani was the only one clearly aware of each action made. She noted that Makoto lacked only a single third of her sensei’s superhuman speed, and began to wonder why she had been at such a disadvantage in the earlier battle. As the typhoon sparring match continued, Masurani watched in interest as the look of concentration on Goku’s face intensified into one of near feral regard.

Abruptly, only five minutes after initiating the match, Goku called a halt. The remarkable warrior sported a fair amount of sweat.

‘Wow! You’re as fast as I am,’ Goku noted in an unusually serious tone. ‘You’re nearly as strong, too! That’s amazing! How do you do it?’

‘I’m an Angel of War, Goku,’ Makoto replied calmly, taking deep, even breaths. ‘I adapt.’

‘Wow. Very, very cool,’ Masurani breathed in awe.

‘Just think … I could always get stronger if I trained with you! Thank you very much for sparring with me,’ Goku grinned, bowing deeply towards Makoto, who replied respect in kind. ‘Masurani couldn’t have had a better pair of sensei!’

‘Hai,’ Makoto nodded gravely. ‘Maybe we could teach each other someth—’

‘Nasura’s here!’ Iesha called, but in an unexpectedly sharp tone. Masurani dropped her towel and headed up the stairs. ‘Sounds bad.’

Makoto noted to Hanlan and Goku as they followed her; ‘It probably is.’

Hanlan grabbed Makoto’s arm gently, indicating he wanted to talk to her before they joined the group.

Love, Makoto started. It’s probably important!

Yeah, but this’ll just take a second… at which point he leaned over and kissed her upon the lips gently. Moments flew before they parted.

‘Mm,’ Makoto murmured faintly, and huskily. What is it?

What’d you talk about with Iesha?

She gripped at him, holding tightly.

It was about her husband. He’d been attacked.

Oh, he replied, sounding slightly disappointed.

[_What? Is that it? You coerce me with a kiss to get that and you’re not happy with it? _]The faint lust in her telepathic voice dropped completely.

Uh, well, sorta. I thought it was about you.

She sighed faintly. Well, it kind of was. Mostly it was about them, though.

Here, he offered, pulling her tightly to him. Lemme make it up to you.

She smiled. Better believe you will. A kiss now, the rest later.

Han’s face fell. Can’t they wait?

She shook her head. No. Now hurry up.

Tired of words, he pressed his lips to hers passionately. A brief, startling eternity passed between them before, like the stubborn hold of glue, they pulled apart. Makoto took a deep, sharp breath. Sorry, love …

Why? I’m not, he grinned as he led her up the narrow staircase.

[* *]

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Chapter 44

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I wish now I hadn’t come alone, Ayla admitted, attempting not to trace every shadow within her midst with her widening eyes. Oh Mama … you were right. I really haven’t thought this through.

Even flying above the black Lego brick grid of buildings failed to ease the unsettling sense of being followed.

Oh heavens, she sighed internally, realizing a very basic calming action. She cupped her hands and whispered: “Blinding Surge.”

A small ball of light attacked the midnight calm with the force of a four hundred watt light bulb, which Ayla could not look directly into, so that she willed it to echo her flight pattern in a two second delay. Ayla, even for the avid reader and stern intellectual she was, did not enjoy the self-indulgent conversation some pursued with themselves. Even in the worst bouts of nervousness, she could not bring herself to such ends. Repeating and recognizing regrets perhaps, but she had a more unique method of facing fear.

She sang.

The tune that came to mind then was a not-so-recent chart-topper by a popular band by the name of “Pocket Biscuits”, or “Poke’Bi”. Ignoring the heavy drum section, and favoring the more easing vocals, her humming became hushed words, some of which were marred by blurred memory, the remainder, strengthening as her anxiety increased.

‘Bitch.’

Ayla’s voice dropped into silence like a spearheaded weight as she whirled effortlessly to face her verbal opponent.

‘Shao-Enya!’ she squeaked.

‘You little crimson-haired slut! I fought you before, and you hid behind your tawdry Chinese psyche-child,’ the fiercely snarling brunette hissed. ‘Do you want to try again?!’

I’m outclassed big time! she thought, bleating, narrowly able to summon her light blades in time to parry the nearly imperceptible strike at her breast-plated torso. She raised her knees, catching the woman at the hips with her blurred booted feet and shoving her backwards to put some space between them. ‘Sailor Sol Armor Henshin!’

As the vicious opponent regained her wits, Ayla’s uniform hardened, forming a shining metallic layer over the mystic silk, matching each colour unerringly. Ayla fell into the path of a hundred motions, replying each in kind until her defenses were shattered by Shao-Enya’s greater strength. Her head flew back as a fist sent her reeling, and then forward as a knee met her back. Nimbly landing on a roof, and wiping the lips through which a sliver of blood fled, she flared her aura and rapidly approached Shao-Enya again.

‘Soul FLARE!’ the replicant of Makoto declared with intense hatred. A burst of scarlet light fell upon Ayla, throwing her two-dozen feet to a stone rooftop, which she tore through like so much recycled paper. In a foreign room with a pair of screaming teenagers, she lay stunned for a time, her shattered the armour shimmering and fading away, leaving her scathed and bloodied body clothed in the former silk of the first stage uniform.

‘Now it ends!’ Shao-Enya cried, aiming to impale Ayla upon her sword. As she descended, Ayla’s eyes snapped open, a harsh fire burning within.

‘Sailor Sol Light Henshin!’

The second young woman fell over herself glancing back at Ayla’s transformation into living light while she fled the invaded apartment. Such was Shao-Enya’s fury that she ripped through the floor, inducing further screams of terror. The feminine silhouette of light lurched sporadically to the middle of the room and hovered there, pulsing irregularly as a waning flame.

‘Nice …’ Shao-Enya snarled appreciatively, returning swiftly through the massive hole she had created. ‘You’re half dead, though cutie. I can tell.’

Ayla’s voice came as a force of energies that superimposed the concept of her will upon the genetically altered duplicate.

‘I suppose you’re oath bound to fight us to the end?’ she feigned curiosity.

She raised her blade, leveling it at Ayla’s near blinding body. ‘What tells you that we are so evil?’ she prodded experimentally.

‘You mean self defense is criminal?’

<“Self defense” doesn’t count terrorism and wanton destruction.>

Ayla! Don’t trust her, she’s up to something! a childishly feminine voice warned abruptly. I don’t know what, but keep her talking! I need a … oh hell, I’m on my way!

Who are you?

‘What do you know about my world? We could be fleeing a dying planet.’

‘She means nothing. What is a loser rag-tag group like the Inner Senshi going to help now? They failed miserably. Your world, girl, is ours for the taking!’

Oh … um, I work for Nasura. I’ll explain later, okay?

The viscous brunette said nothing while a hateful snarl set into her attractive features. A violent crimson light flared about Shao-Enya’s dramatic figure, and peaked at the tip of her broadsword. Another remarkably shorter and markedly more child-like woman appeared behind the first. In that same instant, she spun on one foot, her arm outstretched gracefully. Shao-Enya gasped, and Ayla winced at the wet thunk of her head meeting the oak floor, accompanied by the heavy thunk of her lifeless body meeting the compromised floor.

“Block that you stupid bitch,” the woman proclaimed with a flip of hair and jutting of hip.

Ayla’s altered structure reluctantly returned to its original state, before she collapsed to the ground with an anguished moan. ‘My legs!’ she cried, struggling to push herself into a sitting position with the control she retained in her upper body, and failing horribly. ‘I can’t feel my legs!’

‘Sailor Sol!’ the woman lifted her into her lap. ‘What happened?’

‘I’m numb from the waist down,’ she stated, a stern calm settling her frantic passion. ‘Shao-Enya was sent to kill me, obviously … I was returning from visiting my mama, and she attacked! I wasn’t ready for her … not by a long shot!’

‘Uraki was hoping they’d be strong enough. I guess he underestimated you.’

‘No he didn’t. This guy’s proving he knows his stuff. I owe you my life,’ Ayla admonished. ‘Thank you. What’s your name?’

‘Yanei,’ she replied, frowning as she brushed a stray collection of bangs from her eyes. ‘Don’t thank me … it’s my fault.’

Ayla was silent for a moment, considering the fact that the Neo Senshi’s greatest recent enemy had just saved her life. She glanced about, at her legs, at the monstrous hole in the roof, then back at her legs.

Things could be worse, she decided. I could be dead.

The panic at the loss of control swelled, and she shoved it back into the pit by concentrating on the task at hand. Without a word, she shifted back into light.

Yanei brushed her leggings off as she found her feet. ‘Magic. How else?’

‘What?’ she blinked. ‘Oh. Same thing. It’s what I do. I owe the Sailor Senshi alot.’

Yanei felt a sense of understanding from the nearly blinding figure of light before her. An internal flicker set off a learned reflex that told her there was more trouble. ‘Sailor Sol!’

she commanded, not hearing her.

‘The other Neo Senshi are in danger!’

Ayla replied weakly.

Yanei bowed very deeply, and followed the vague orders with such acute force that Ayla could sense the guilt behind them.

 

@~%~~~

 

‘I fail to see why I tolerate such fallacies!’

Uraki-Ayo, in the light of dawning retreat and failure in combat, was far from impressed, and was slightly infuriated.

How does one infuriate slightly? The answer: You don’t.

‘Crippling Sailor Sol is worth little more than clipped tail feathers! Even less, as she will heal before we can muster the energy required to stage another strike!’ his stormy pace caused the women to flinch, expecting fully to receive abusive violence. Only Tenki and Panji remained of the original five clones.

‘They must die! It matters not how – just destroy them! Do not return unless you succeed, for if you do, you will wish to be in Xalia’s place!’

The clones reacted sharply to the reference of the traitor who had recently suffered vigorous torture at their hands, and his. They winked out of reality so rapidly that they punctuated his furious ravings. He brought his staff before him, clenched it in both hands, and began praying swiftly. ‘I could not have prepared for this! With what force am I to defeat them?!’

A vaguely familiar voice agreed in sundry wafts of tone, her silk dress adorned figure sitting in a dank, quiet recess. She raised her blue eyes and long, blond haired head as she offered a suggestion.

‘Me. Isn’t that why I’m here now? To face Usagi?’

‘I would not risk you,’ he lied. ‘She would merely thrust you aside. Yours is too harsh a life for her to face the possibility of. It is your choice, my dear girl.’

‘I will. That cow doesn’t deserve any of it. What has she been through? He was kind to her. She has everything!’

‘Are you certain? There must be no question.’

‘I …’ she hesitated, bowing her head reluctantly. ‘I … hai. Hai. I’m yours. I just want her to pay!’

‘Hai. Then I will summon you shortly. Please, leave me to pray.’

‘Of course, my beloved.’

Silence was amongst them again, and though he welcomed it for a time, his exile of it was to be long lived. With a cruel regard, it departed, leaving him with his words and lust to conquer.

‘Galaxia, I would not be so the fool as Beryl in seeking assistance … Yet I know I cannot succeed without it. I seek now in the direst of straits, wisdom.’

And you shall have it, Uraki-Ayo Ginzui, replied a voice that was to his ears as fire is to ice.

‘I desire to know of the nearest threat to the kingdom. I would be honoured if you would proclaim the source to me.’

You honor me no more than you do your food. You have earned my grace by loyalty. Do not forsake that by simulating that which does not exist.

‘As you wish, my Queen.’

What you desire to know is this – Nasura has foretold your attempts to distract them. She knows Xalia will die, and is willing to sacrifice her. That pawn can no longer serve us. Nasura has also sent the same senshi you banished not weeks ago, to confront us. You, alone, will not gain victory over them.

‘Surely they cannot be so powerful! I estimated that they would merely delay us, not …’

[Uraki! We both know Phate intervened in your distruption of the Bishoujo Sailor Senshi. What little missed has altered the balance of this war. Arrogance does not become you. Play not the fool! If you fail to listen I will _]supplant[ you, as the asinine woman I destroyed at your behest! Harken to this, for the time has come for me to take a hand in this war._]

A dark armored woman of a clearly superfluous, yet slender frame, proceeded forthwith to stand before Uraki as he gazed upon her in pride, shock, and unexclaimed horror.

'How -' he nigh stuttered. 'Why? How can this necessity have arrived so swiftly? What of my final ploy?'

‘Use her. She is strong enough. However, Jisuruka has failed you. Yanei has betrayed you, and your clones will not survive to capture the slightest redeeming victory. Despite their power, they lack the spirit their opponents have. Your responsibility in considering that factor has long passed the point of punishment. However, there is not time for such pleasure,’ she frowned angrily, and even for it’s startling beauty, Uraki-Ayo fought a powerful urge to cringe. Galaxia continued in a voice that made the sun seem a wristwatch light bulb. ‘We are fortunate for Phate’s inaction. That foreign wench could have us annulled with no more effort than it would take for me to dispatch you. Fortunately she knows fully well her place. Foolish man! You will obey my every breath, or we will cease to exist!’

‘Of course Lady Galaxia,’ he bowed, as if to snap in two.

‘Do not mistake me!’ she roared abruptly. ‘They can destroy us – our realm – our world! Survival depends solely upon the outcome of this confrontation!’

He remained fixed in that position, hoping it would protect him from her rage and sun shattering fear while he trembled to the very core of his being.

‘We will prepare to unleash a nova upon them if need be!’ she decreed, the mist of innumerable energies converging about them. ‘This will conclude!’

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Chapter 45

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‘Naritha, did she happen to mention anything about powers? Like what these crystals were capable of?’

Haisha sat, legs crossed under her, head rested on her palm, the elbow of which was pressed to the inside of her thigh.

‘Hai. She not tell you?’ Naritha asked, not quiet certain she believed her friend’s ignorance.

‘Sure, the general elemental flame-busting fire-bursting kinetic projectile stuff.’ She lazily swapped a pair of pieces. ‘But nothing specific, like how much chi we need, or use … or heck, even have. Your move.’

The slim girl shrugged indifferently. ‘She not say more than “You will know when time comes”,’ she replied, her hand hovering hesitantly over a piece. ‘She said crystal taps imagination … has abilities conform what we know.’

‘I guess it pays to be creative,’ she paused. ‘You know, you really should pick up some more Japanese while you’re here …’

Naritha frowned at that. ‘If had time …’ she moved, capturing a pair of pieces.

Haisha grunted, unsatisfied. ‘I know, the war has kinda gotten in the way. We should all be in junior high right now.’

She nodded slowly, leaning back and extending her arms above her in a languishing stretch. As she did, her face scrunched inquisitively as she studied the board, which seemed to gain an iridescent glow, as if someone had planted a light bulb inside of it.

‘Haisha …’

‘Hm?’ her eyes fell to the board, and away from the still darkened mid-morning sky. ‘Wow …’

Naritha jumped at Haisha, knocking her from her seat and onto the floor in one fluid motion as the board splintered and shattered. The debris clattered loudly as it ripped through the thinner parts of the wood structured patio, and burst into dust as it hit the stone wall and thicker lengths of wood.

‘Un!’ Naritha cried as several stone shards pierced her blue blouse and sank into her back. She groaned and slumped against Haisha.

‘Naritha-chan! Are you …’ she exclaimed in concern, before noting the pair of shadowy figures against the irregular amethyst sky. ‘Oh damn …’

Reality dimmed and washed out into a sky of muddy grey as the two neared them.

‘Tsunami Blade!’

‘Screaming Flares!’

Haisha shoved her listless companion well away from her as she rolled in the opposite direction. The watery slivers of metal dissipated as they met the grey surface they had formerly occupied. The second attack, however, manifested as angry red bursts of flames about them, singeing and burning clothes and skin.

‘Stupid, stupid …’ Haisha muttered with a grin. ‘Back to basics, ladies.’ She reached into her pocket and retrieved her purple transformation crystal as she rolled to a halt on her back, then kicked her legs up in a motion that brought her to her feet. ‘Sailor Phoenix – Armor Henshin!’

A wash of flames traveled over her body, rapidly replacing her damaged clothes with her Neo Senshi uniform: A thinly armoured purple cat suit with metallic white shin guards, armlets, belt, breastplate, and choker. She summoned her katana and wakasashi in a burst of flame that extended from her clenched hands.

‘No, I’m afraid that wasn’t very cool,’ Panji disagreed, flipping her short hair back with one hand.

‘Stupid for a fire senshi to fight another fire senshi,’ Haisha declared shortly, leaping nigh effortlessly towards the two clones.

‘Haaaaaaiiii!’ she cried, slashing downward with both blades, catching the more sluggish Tenki across the stomach with the shorter of the blades, and missing Panji with her thousand year old katana.

‘Stupid of you to fight alone,’ Panji snarled darkly as she slammed into Haisha from behind. She tasted blood as she clambered against the strangely tangible surface of the grey void. Her blades tumbled out of her hands, and she twisted about to perceive the rapid descent of a turquoise fireball the instant before it smashed her back down, searing her eyes, breaking several ribs, and bursting a dozen blood vessels.

She gurgled a cry before staggering to her feet, gasping and choking, banishing her swords while she concentrated another attack.

‘You want more? Tough little chick!?’ Panji laughed. ‘Such a cute, sweet girl, too.’

‘FireWater – BURST!’

Haisha was thrown back by the elemental combination of fire and water that nearly manifested inside of her as the clones clasped their hands together. She heaved and vomited, the sensation of her flesh boiling sickening to her soul.

‘Flare STORM!’ Haisha rasped, struggling to her hands and knees. She heard the protesting cries of the clones as razor slim shards of lava like blades surrounded and confined them.

‘What good do you think this will do you little girl?’ Panji taunted, trying to unnerve her. ‘Enjoy your reprieve, because we’re going to mutilate you once we’re free!’

Haisha stumbled on her bearings, and found her way to Naritha, who groaned faintly in pain. She crouched next to the wounded girl. ‘Naritha …’ she panted, searching her friend for her crystal. ‘I need you. I’m still too weak to fight.’

‘Honto … Matsu … Nan desu … Oyasumi …’ she replied in a harsh whisper, sounding almost delirious.

‘Naritha! Come on! You’re tougher than this! You just need to change …!’

‘Give crystal … I will …’ she sucked in a short gasp of air. ‘I will change.’

She located it, and slipped it into her friend’s nigh limp hand. Without another word, she rose, and faced her waning cage, and the venomous villains within it. Fire against fire may not have been any more than an even match, but Haisha had the advantage … of her youthful imagination.

‘Plasma Surge!’

Like a sacrificial flame, the blue surge of flame-like searing energy began at their feet and rushed up as if they were seasoned firewood. Their high-pitched wailing brought Haisha no comfort, even as she watched the last parts of her cage scatter, and her enemies dash apart from the stationary effect. Only seconds had passed, but what damaged had ensued, wasn’t enough. They were still alive.

Haisha clutched her agony sparking stomach as the clones glowered at her with immeasurable hatred.

‘So it’s torture you want,’ Panji hissed seethingly. ‘What we did to Xalia will seem like nothing after we’re done with you.’

'Flare sh- aaagh!!' Haisha screamed as she fell forward, landing on her hands and knees, hot tears streaming.

‘Sister?’ Panji offered. Tenki nodded, raising her hand to lock with her sister’s.

‘FireWater Sla …!’

Rather predictably, Naritha interrupted with a voracious declaration of life.

‘Sailor Seraph – Armour Henshin!’ Naritha’s body quickly received the same treatment as her ally, though the effect manifested by water, rather than fire. Wasting absolutely no time, she called: ‘Ice Spike – Drop!’

The two gazed upwards just soon enough to throw themselves from the paths of the two-dozen stalactites of plummeting ice. Tenki screamed shrilly as one of the spires impaled her calf, piledriving through flesh and bone, and nearly severing her lower leg. She twitched and tossed in agony, pinned in place until the manifestation died moments later. Tenki spat blood, her paling face centered on the enemy. She shuddered in agony, holding her bloodied stomach, but refused to escape.

They must die! she swore. Either them, or us!

What are you talking about Tenki? Look! They’re nearly wasted!

But so am I. Oyasumi, sister!

Nani …?

Her blue eyes grew wide as she watched her sister’s aura gather angrily about her in scarlet waves. The woman raised her head and called: ‘Luminare!’

The grey void shifted and quaked as a handful of searching blue tendrils struck out for several moments. They retreated, only to be replaced by a rising blue half sphere of destructive force. Jarred, pummeled, and held in place, the three could only scream as the spell died away, vaporizing Tenki in the process.

‘It’s not over!’ Panji issued at the top of her lungs. ‘It’s-n-not-OVER!’

She rose shakily, her wingless flight stammering ineffectively, and barely holding her aloft. Her left arm hung limply at her side, grossly misshapen, the bones scattered. She clutched at her side with the other, her hips and legs mangled internally by the brutal force of her sister’s near fatal attack. Haisha could not move to wipe the gout of blood that had passed her lips, her legs and arms completely shattered. She gave a desperate, wailing whisper in her weakness.

‘Sailor Phoenix – Fire Henshin!’

Her battered and bloodied body seemed to be consumed in a rush of vigorous flames. After a moment, it became clear, that as the gathering of fire collected itself and rose in a mass, that there was a driving force behind it.

‘No, not let win!’ Naritha declared vehemently, lying as Haisha had, torn asunder internally.

‘Sailor Seraph – Ice Henshin!’

The impossible twisting of her hips straightened as her body crystallized, becoming living ice.

Haisha raged, her body flashing and tossing as wildfire.

Naritha seethed, stumbling to her feet.

‘Th-this can’t b-be right!’ she stammered, eyes wide and abruptly fearful. ‘W-we-we’re supposed to b-be stronger than you! You’re s-s-so young!’

‘Burning …’ Panji began haltingly.

the two Neo Senshi started in twin.

‘ …Scream!’

< …LavaBlaze!>

Reality ran white in a radius of one hundred feet, like a lazy brushstroke upon a beautiful rendition of a silver clouded sky. The languishing utterances of horror and soul barring agony seemed muted from outside the singular manifestation of channeled anarchy. There was a misinterpretation of reality, as it faltered and waned, the sheer violence of the meeting forces nearly vaporizing the Neo Senshi. As it was, only moments passed before Panji’s pain distorted face and tensed, mutilated body washed out in a flare of silvery heat.

Then they knew nothing.

 

@~%~~~

 

‘Yanei!’

Nasura’s voice was struck by terror for the brutalized young women she had teleported into the room. Ayla, Haisha, and Naritha looked as though it seemed impossible they might have survived.

‘They’re alive,’ Yanei breathed, summoning a scroll, and beginning to read it.

‘What happened …’ It clicked. She bowed her head, eyes closed. ‘The clones.’

Yanei nodded. Goku, Makoto, Hanlan, Iesha, and Masurani gathered around, each emotionally stricken for the shattered young women.

‘Oh Ayla!’ Masurani gasped, stepping forward to grasp her friend.

‘No, give us some room. Either make yourself useful or get out of the way,’ Nasura stated curtly. A flicker of light appeared and flashed before Yanei’s face, catching the collective attention. ‘It’s a healing spell. It’s not much, but it’ll help.’

Goku shook his head morosely. Masurani’s scowl lit up her face with a dark light. ‘Those clones must be pretty tough,” he remarked sympathetically. ‘Poor girls.’

‘Those bitches,’ Masurani flared. ‘They’d better be dead, or I’ll kill ‘em myself!’

Yanei faced the emotionally charged young woman. ‘I killed Shao-Enya, Masurani. I don’t know about the others, but that’s at least one less we have to worry about,’ she sighed. ‘I did sense a few traces of dead chi constructs. But, we won’t know what happened until …’ her voice fell sorrowfully.

‘Makoto, I don’t know how to contact the other senshi, but perhaps you might …?’ Nasura muttered.

She nodded curtly, understanding. A moment later, a pair of women on winged glory appeared by silvery shafts of light. The one, golden blond hair in unmistakable arrangement, odango atama, and the other like the first, yet long and straight, and more akin to beach blond. A silk shirted fellow of dark short hair and easy, calm continence accompanied them.

‘Come,’ Usagi stated without hesitation. ‘Minako, you tend Naritha. Makoto, Haisha will need your strength. Mamoru and I will attend Ayla.’

As he stooped to take the fractured creature into his arms, she gestured to Nasura and Yanei to join her. Both bowed swiftly, before locating a room into which they all but disappeared.

‘Iesha, Han, come with me,’ Makoto declared.

‘Of course babe,’ Hanlan replied.

‘Iesha?’

‘Hai? Here,’ she pointed to her bedroom. At which point they followed Usagi’s act.

‘Hurry!’ Minako snapped, gesturing to Goku, who blinked, then scooped Naritha gently but swiftly into his arms. As they pulled a quick fade into another room, Minako remarked: ‘I guess it’s just the three of us.’

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Chapter 46

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A silver haired man with distinctive gold streaks smiled and nodded at an unseen accomplice in a small, red cushioned seat. He blinked, adjusted the well fitting grey sports coat, dark blue vest, and informally worn formal white shirt, coughed, then proceeded to break the forth wall.

“Welcome to the ‘Anime Niche Review’,” he offered with an unmistakably congenial smile. “I’m your host, Randy Hayworth of the ‘Coalition Authorized Newsletter’.”

Abruptly, another, slimmer fellow appeared. He smiled as well, his short black dark hair gleaming healthily. His trademark black turtleneck sweater ended at a pair of loose khaki slacks, one leg of which he pulled up to rest on the opposing knee.

“And I’m Mamoru Chiba, of the ‘Moonlight Night Times.’ Tonight we’re going to re-review a recent film that has met a great deal of controversy since it’s release not one month ago.”

The attention swapped to the other fellow, on cue.

“This is a film is based on the Japanese television series called ‘Pretty Soldier Sailor Moon.’ For those of you not familiar with the plot, it’s about five schoolgirls, who at one point defended Tokyo from an evil force known as the ‘NegaForce.’ The famed television series was translated into nearly a dozen languages, and until its recent resurgence, was incomplete. With fewer than fifty of the two hundred episodes released in Japan, it’s not hard to understand why the completion of it has been met with such a positive response. As for this movie, which is an odd thing in itself, the idea stems around a “what-if” concept: A being from the ‘NegaVerse’ dimension sends them to a violent world where World War Three is just an unpleasant memory. Let me say now that if you haven’t followed the television series, that it will dramatically affect how much you can both enjoy the movie and understand it. The fact of the matter is that it stands out strongly against the other movies based on this series.”

Mamoru blinked as attention was routed to him.

“It’s groundbreaking P.A.C. – Petaflop Artificial Cast – technology seems to have been lost in the wake of the media circle which has sprung up around it. While their acting is without peer, as they bring the script to its finest rendition, they are limited by their code. The interest of seeing unique individuals portray characters with which we are already very familiar is almost lost. As they literally become the character, using script generated digital profiles. There is certainly no lack of controversy here, on any scale.”

Mamoru nodded, then took a breath before opening his own monologue.

“So why did you give it a thumbs up then?”

“Well, as mentioned, the acting was without peer.”

“I find that description annoyingly vague. Well, given the situation, and having read the novels from which this movie was adapted, I was impressed. I felt it did a decent job of connecting point A to point B, even with all the time shifting involved. The loss of minor characters, that could have been fascinating, did not dissuade my enthusiastic thumbs up. I recommend it to any fan of the already expansive franchise. Especially when one considers the first time use of P.A.C. actors, even in the midst of legal battles rivalling the recently settled Clone Agenda.”

Randy answered a hefty nod. “I agree, the main problem with this film lies in the narrow band of audience it focuses on. I would have to limit my recommendation to fans of the series and those who seek to enjoy the technical prowess this film displays. Not that I didn’t enjoy this film.”

Mamoru smiled. “At least there’s a common point of agreement. After the break, we’ll explore in depth the explicit violence and moral issues surrounding the P.A.C. actors that have had this film banned in twenty countries around the globe.”

There was a rapid darkening, which was reverted by the appearance of a blond haired woman sitting back upon a khaki couch. The male voice prodded earnestly and carelessly, yet with most pleasant tones: “As I understand it, P.A.C. actors are submitted to the digital equivalent of the actual violence to maximize the realism. Being digital yourself, that would make it as real as if I were to die of a heart attack right now.” Dramatic Pause. “I also understand that you recall each violent experience you had playing the role of Usagi Tsukino.”

She nodded curtly. “Yes. In a sense I was her. You see, instead of make up, I merely have to accept a digital profile, and instantly,’ she flickered, her semi formal blue blouse and dry cleaned black skirt altering to the angelic blue kimono accented with blue and golden elaborate detailing, her hair assuming the form of the appropriate odango atama. As she spoke, her voice had seemed to brighten by two and a half notes, gaining a slightly melodic quality.

“And I can keep several hundred characters on file at any given time. Of course I have to fill in any blanks – like body language nuances and other behaviours, like any ‘real’ actor. I’m not just spouting code,” she chuckled.

“So you code yourself. That is, rewrite yourself to suit the character?”

“Um, sort of. I don’t see it like that, like the actual ones and zeros, but I understand what you mean. Really I just act like anyone else.” There was a brief spout of giggling and an embarrassing snort. “Oh dear,” she giggled. “I’ll have to have a purge. Um …” a blush washed onto her lovely face, and she sputtered for a moment until regaining her composure, thus enabling her to continue. “As for the events in the movie that I portrayed? I remember each one with perfect clarity.”

“So what is your psychologist bill like?” the voice laughed.

She chuckled softly. “Well I can store the memories, keeping them out of my active memory, uh … what I mean is, I put them away, so I don’t actually have to deal with them all the time. Not good to have a wacko on the set, you know,” she smiled. “Unless it’s in the script.”

There was some congenial laughter. “Okay, so I have to ask; what was it like to experience the various stages of decapitation and disembowelment you suffered in the final battle?”

The young woman pursed her lips in consideration. “Truthfully? All that wasn’t so bad. It was the rape that really got to me. For some reason, I’m not able to store those kinds of memories, so they stay with me. Even the purge won’t do it …”

‘No!’ Usagi sat up out of bed, the word sour on her frowning lips. She was sweating, a cold, urgent perspiration. The clarity was frightening.

Being alone failed to help the matter. Mamoru had elected to watch the healing girls, who had been so terribly ravaged. It had taken so long, and so much power to heal them, being almost slaughtered by the mystic forces they had been thrown against. Images swam in Usagi’s mind, the finest details of falling crimson, of rent flesh, of slashed minds. The mental damage itself had been nearly enough to undo Ayla entirely. Usagi had spoken at length with the shaken young woman:

‘We would be dead,’ she whispered, red eyes trailing over a strange, yet familiar Usagi Tsukino. ‘Are you sure we …’ her voice fell. That wasn’t right. Was she sure they would make it? She was the leader of the Neo Senshi, after all. But she wasn’t. Not after this.

‘Yes Ayla? You know what is stake. You must not forget that.’

‘You know I haven’t. How could I? It’s only our entire world we’re fighting for in the long run,’ was the fatigued reply. She took several staggered, catching breaths. ‘I know why helped me, instead of someone else.’

Usagi nodded slightly. ‘It’s more than being the leader of the Neo Senshi, though. It’s about you, Ayla-chan. I know it’s not easy to ask them to risk death for you,’ her eyebrows reached for each other doubtfully. ‘My friends have died once already, and now we face it again. It takes a lot of strength to do this.’

She had closed her eyes slowly in lieu of a nod for which she had not the strength. ‘What about Xalia?’ she asked with some hesitation, vindictively fearful of the answer. “I’ve seen the message. Do you know what’s happened to her?’

Usagi had gazed directly into her eyes. ‘Uraki-Ayo discovered her ploy. What they have done to her,’ her voice darkened. ‘I do not know exactly. She is in grave pain.’

Ayla merely shook her head, emotions a stirred, boiling pot in her being.

They would be dead if Phate had not made me the angel of the Moon, she thought, both comforted and horrified by this revelation. There was no escaping the terminating point; battling Uraki-Ayo, the Earth hanging again in the balance. Yet, for everything she stood for, and was, the last daughter of Queen Serenity, the final heiress of a kingdom that existed in no more than her heart, it had to end differently. There would be no second chance, no rebirth, and no saviour to cull them from the razored grasp of Death’s silvery scythe. Either they, or Uraki-Ayo would perish. She bowed her head in silence.

Where was the end of the movie? she wondered. Her dream, still vivid, spoke lucidly. The idea she might die so gruesomely made her shudder, and balk. She was not infinite. Death could indeed claim her. Uraki-Ayo would surely turn to the NegaForce for such power. It was inconceivable that he would not. That led to a darker strain she feared more greatly than even loss.

‘Usagi-san?’ issued comforting female tones. Gradually, feeling the vacant ebb of tears, she glanced upwards at the warm, sharp presence of Nasura. She was shrouded in nightgown and housecoat of grey and white. ‘I’m sorry for putting you through all of this.’

‘Through all of what?’ she replied in what might have been clear, crisp Japanese, if not for the rending turmoil. ‘You have saved us … we owe you our lives.’

‘No,’ she negated ineffectively. ‘Not really. I know I’ve opened the door to your freedom, but I haven’t done it out of generosity.’

Usagi blinked, and listened quietly, her mind a shut, jewelled box. Nasura frowned vaguely, then her face became winsome again.

‘I did it because I was losing it. After Takari and the kids died, I turned to what always made be forget: All-consuming research. In college I ran did small time investigation firm to cover tuition…’ she offered a feeble grin and chuckle. ‘It came so naturally…’

‘I understand, Nasura-san.’ She gave her an uncertain look, but felt that she truly did.

‘I had a couple of friends who came to me … it just happened that you disappeared when you did.’ She offered a faint frown. ‘I could be chasing down a cure for a water curse in China right now …’

Usagi nodded gently, pulling her knees up to her body and knotting her arms about them. Her wings shifted and flexed slightly.

‘I guess what it comes down to is, I feel responsible for everything that’s happened. I’ve been watching you since Luna first chose you. When Uraki-Ayo replaced Beryl, I had a notion – even if it was nebulous – of what was coming. I could have done something. Saved you from all this pain.’

Usagi glanced up at her, face softly blank, a startlingly innocent regard holding her. ‘Nasura, why are you here?’

She flagged. ‘I wanted …’ she paused. ‘You know, I’ve been a KnightsMage for twenty years, and I still don’t know why they made me elect trainer of the squires.’

‘You’re strong. A survivor,’ she chimed pleasantly. ‘Like your senshi. And mine.’

‘If only by the slip of pinfeathers,’ she half smiled, the fleeting humour dropping wounded between them. ‘I guess after watching you all along, and helping you behind the thick red curtain… I wanted to know you better, Tsukino Usagi.’

She smiled at that.

‘Hai …’ Usagi’s brows furrowed. ‘How are the girls?’

Nasura caught herself amidst relief and sorrow. ‘They will have healed by tomorrow … incredibly enough,’ she offered, clearly awed. She shook her head with a distinct frown. ‘It’s been such a trial by fire for them. The moment they – well no – much before they were even Knighted, it’s been non-stop contention. He’s made things very difficult.’

‘Hai,’ she agreed wistfully. ‘And what about you? What will you do?’

‘I’ve decided to remain. Ayla is blossoming as I expected she would, but they will need my power here.’

Usagi nodded.

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Chapter 47

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Endless, the infinite corridor of grey, blue, and black. Immediately near was an oak table of intricate edgework. Upon it was a Chinese checker board of marble, the pieces of which were various precious stone spheres. Her eyes caught on it and latched while her body found the comfortable curve of the leather-bound seat. Naritha, it seemed, was already seated.

Naritha? Where is this?

‘It’s your move, Haisha.’

Naritha gazed up at her Chinese friend, befuddled by the grammatically sound structure of the sentence. She wore a simple blue dress, her waist length hair casting a deep, unsettling shadow over her child-like features.

‘Naritha? Is that … is that you?’

‘Hai,’ she smiled. ‘I am psychic, remember? We are talking in a dream.’

‘I believe it!’ she gasped. ‘But …’

‘We will remember. This is the only way now. We’re both too weak to talk.’

‘Weak?’ She shook her head with a curled lip. ‘What did we … uhn!’

She leaned forward, holding her stomach as if winded. She felt ill as she never had before. The power of the memory was overwhelming, but somehow unavoidable … The gruesome battle with the clones of Hino Rei and Mizuno Ami. The shattering of bones, the gouts of … she turned her head, heaving, spitting a small welling of blood onto the grey tiled floor.

‘Haisha!’ Naritha started, panicked. ‘Calm down. Please!’

The world spun as if suspended in a top, and she reeled, gripping frantically the edges of the game board. Her breath came in uneven, harsh gasps. ‘I’m … I’m okay,’ she offered windlessly. ‘It’s … there’s j—ju-just so m-much.’

‘That is why I joined you in your dream. You needed a companion.’

‘Hai,’ she nodded, her wind reaching a more respite pace. ‘A companion, huh?’

Naritha hinted a smile. ‘Hai, Hai-chan.’

‘So?’

Naritha blinked. ‘What?’

‘Why bother? And why is your Japanese so good now?’ Haisha questioned as she gestured for them to begin the determining rock/paper/scissors for the first move. Naritha was quiet for a few moments while they each turned up identical items over several attempts.

‘Mind if I go, Hai-chan?’

‘No, I guess not … you were nice enough to drag me here.’

She displaced a white/grey piece, then spoke with the overtone of confidence and due consideration.

‘Because it is not Japanese that I speak,’ she replied shortly.

‘What is it?’

‘I don’t know. But as we are close enough in friendship, does it matter?’

‘I suppose not. So, uh, somethin’ you wanted to talk about?’

‘You recall Yanei, neh?’

‘Sort of. She fought Shao-Enya, right? She toasted that stupid cow?’

Naritha nodded, acting upon Haisha’s movement of black/blue piece. ‘She saved us. That’s why I pulled up the memories for you. You wanted to bury them, but right now it’s important that you don’t forget.’

‘Why?’ she responded, creating a seemly pattern with a single move.

‘I’m not sure. I can’t read her.’

‘No. I meant why did you pull my memories up? I nearly lost it!’

Naritha considered both word and deed before moving her piece to capture, and word to mouth. ‘Because I can’t do it alone …’ she frowned, seeming suddenly quite the fragile, delicate creature her body portrayed her to be. ‘Miserly loves company, right?’

‘What?’ she blinked, both at Naritha’s sudden fear and her phrase. ‘I think it’s “misery”.’

‘I understand some old people can be both, yes,’ she nodded in apparent comprehension.

‘Oh geez,’ she groaned. ‘No. I mean the phrase is “misery loves company”. “Miserly” is totally different,’ she sighed. ‘I don’t mind … I guess. I’m still sane, right? Maybe I’m tougher than I thought.’ Then she added thoughtfully, ‘I didn’t know I could block you.’

‘Hai. Mind-wards, as you put it, can be used to block friend as enemy.’

‘So why did she save us? You didn’t answer that.’

‘But you …’ she blinked, recalling that Haisha was not a trained psychic. She had let her infinity split, pursuing the interest of question over every other interceding point. Formal discipline negated such problems.

‘What?’

‘Nevermind. I don’t know why, but I get the sense it was because she was betrayed. Where is Akari, anyway?’

‘Oh! You’re right. Where did he go? He could be hiding. That doesn’t matter. It’s your move.’

‘It will. For now I guess you’re right,’ she breathed, plucking a piece with two delicate fingers and making a move she hoped would evade disaster.

 

@~%~~~

 

Makoto seemed to be praying in the arms of her husband. Masurani and Goku stood either side of the new woman Nasura had brought in place of the captured senshi. Yanei maintained an inaudible hiss from a glaring distance. She was still, like undisturbed snow in the peak of winter, her long purple hair cascaded underneath her comatose form like frozen water. Her healed body was wrapped in a cotton blanket.

‘Yanei, are you familiar with this woman?’ Nasura quested, noting the appearance of the bird-like traitor.

‘Not sure,’ she muttered in consideration as she approached the prone figure. ‘No … I know her. I met her once before I left. She is your clone-sister, Tsukino Usagi-san. She’s really very pretty too. How did she get here?’

‘I recovered her from Xalia’s home. She appeared shortly after we discovered Sailor Ether’s message to us,’ Nasura explained.

‘Oh! The kawaii mage,’ she frowned slightly. ‘How is she?’

‘We don’t know, but I can make a fair guess she is not well,’ Nasura stated with darkness in her tones, yet no ill-will towards Yanei. The focus, more logically, was Uraki-Ayo.

‘G-gomen … g-g-gomen nasai, Nasura-san,’ she offered, heartfelt, if not somewhat uselessly. Nasura’s lips thinned as she held back her temper and encouraged the silence that followed. She nodded marginally at Yanei, tension written upon her face.

Usagi gestured for Masurani to step aside and knelt next to her modified duplicate. She placed her hands upon the young woman’s head, and closed her eyes, slipping easily into an exploratory psychic trance. Silence gripped Time’s shoulder, her nails nearly piercing his skin, before dissipating as Usagi began an unconscious meditative breathing regiment.

‘She was the right hand of Uraki-Ayo, serving him completely, as a military officer, and as a bedmate. She is solely responsible for gathering the blood samples, which allowed them to create clones of us. Her memory of this service was buried in her subsconscious.’

Masurani squinted angrily. ‘Where did you say she came from, Kei-san?’

Nasura blinked. ‘Xalia’s home, why..?’

It dawned. ‘He knew. It was a setup. We were supposed to find her.’ Nasura glared at the motionless and entirely vulnerable woman. ‘We can’t trust this, can we? Uraki-Ayo has proved himself repeatedly.’

‘It may not matter,’ Usagi pointed out. ‘I can affect her mind.’

‘What?!’ the four gasped. Surprise, it seemed, had surpassed Yanei and Goku.

‘Her mind is open, and her heart is not hardened, just misled. She loves Uraki-Ayo, and serves him because she believes his will is righteous. I only have to show her the truth, and she will …’

‘Lose her sanity,’ Nasura interjected.

Usagi was stunned into silence. Her eyes narrowed as the process churned in her augmented consciousness, finally resting on Nasura’s inspired observation. She gazed at the woman, who’s grim expression brought no comfort.

‘Great … so she was sane before?’ Masurani snarled with dark ire. ‘She’s strong … I mean major league “Can of Whup-Ass” strong. I can sense it. She could match me in battle, all out.’

‘ “Can of Whup-Ass”?’ Usagi questioned doubtfully.

Masurani shrugged with a smirk. ‘American saying. Means “kick ass”.’

She nodded curtly, after which Nasura offered her view on the matter at hand beyond Masurani’s spoken attitude. ‘If you’re right about her heart, then I have an idea that may save her sanity, and eliminate her threat.’

‘Oh, I could eliminate her threat right now,’ Makoto and Masurani hissed in a related phrase. They glanced at each other for a moment, and then fell silent at Nasura’s commanding glare.

‘Turn her perspective towards ours by planting the idea that she is already a Neo Senshi,’ she instructed.

Masurani peaked, hackles risen as she growled ferally. ‘Are you nuts?! What’s the bloody point? If she can just smoke us so easy, we’d be better off ending it now while we still can!’

‘Masurani! Enough!’

Crestfallen, she bowed slightly, pliant to the tone of command, and aware that she had overstepped her bounds. ‘So sorry, Nasura-sensei, but I really I think I’m justified here!’

‘You are,’ Nasura replied, to which Masurani’s eyes widened, mouth agape. ‘You merely need not yell to get your point across. I’m not one of your childish classmates. Do I have your trust?’

‘Hai,’ Masurani nodded, chastened despite her exoneration.

‘Nasura-san, I wouldn’t worry. She’s nowhere near as strong as I am. Only Usagi,’ Goku smiled warmly at her, ‘ … is that powerful. And she’s not even one-tenth as powerful.’

‘One-tenth?’ Nasura blinked interestedly.

He nodded.

‘Makoto’s ability to adapt makes her potentially more powerful than any of us,’ Yanei observed, displaying remarkable nerve in speaking amongst her former opponents.

‘Hai. If this woman proves stable, however, we may have ourselves a valuable asset,’ Nasura stated clearly.

Usagi closed her eyes and prodded Jisuruka’s skewed mind. ‘Uraki-Ayo has given her everything she need to become Sailor Ether.’

‘Ether? But he must know I know.’ She shook her head as if pained. ‘I mean Mortalis,’ she said, a shiver ruffling the feathers of her wings. ‘I don’t know why I said that. Something’s happened. I can sense him weaving a spell here. He’s using her presence …’

‘Yes, he’s …’ Yanei began, then assumed a pale complexion. Her breathing abruptly became labored. ‘Trying to tap me.’

An extremely alarmed glance passed between Usagi, Nasura, and Makoto. Usagi bowed her head and began whispering while the others followed suit. Within moments a shrouding mist encircled Yanei, who’s heavy, almost ragged breathing began to ease. As the mystic effect passed, though the protective mist remained, Yanei chanced a question: ‘Why? I didn’t deserve that,’ she stated with honest, heartfelt despondency. ‘I almost …’

‘Yanei, you have redeemed yourself,’ Usagi supplied. ‘In my eyes, at least. You have have earned our trust.’

Yanei prolonged the silence, allowing thought to take her focus. A glance at Makoto told her that she agreed.

‘Thank you, Usagi-sama,’ she offered simply.

With a soft smile, Usagi returned her regard to the still comatose Jisuruka. She mused, ‘What about my relationship with her?’

‘Why have one? It certainly isn’t necessary. It’s your choice.’

Usagi nodded in reply, shutting her eyes. Her face tightened, and she was still for several minutes. Each watched in earnest.

‘It would be wise to not turn the young woman away. She will be distressed, and lost. She will want a companion, a friend to lean on,’ a familiar, motherly voice elaborated. ‘No one else can understand her more completely than you, Usagi.’

Usagi smiled, the light of it shining through her entire being.

‘Hai Luna-san!’ she agreed wholeheartedly, a welling of emotion lodged in her throat. She swallowed, her throat suddenly dry, and bowed her head, eager to complete the task. Minutes flew by in an instant, and Usagi rose to face her guardian, whom she had not seen since her ascension to an angel. Luna and Artemis stood intimately joined by hands, and joined by a startling manifestation of their professed love for each other.

A young short purple haired girl gazed wondrously up at Usagi, the silvery caress of innocence in her amethyst eyes. Her mouth turned slowly upwards in an adorable smile as she played with the wide hem of her pastel violet sun dress.

‘Hi Usagi!’ she began in the placating tones of an unruffled child, all caring and warmth.

‘This is Diane,’ Luna smiled, slipping her fingers back through her hair and pushing a shift of the purple strands behind her ear. ‘She’s your cousin.’

‘How old is she?’ Masurani asked, smiling and waving at her.

‘Three months.’

The expected gasps passed rapidly, leaving only questions, save Makoto, and Hanlan.

‘Now isn’t the time for that,’ Artemis decreed. ‘We have a war to win. Ami?’

Ami, and the remainder of the Inner Senshi faded into existence, sans Minako. Ami, and Rei each bowed in turn to the gladly aghast Neo Senshi, who bowed immediately in response. Ami began, cutting to the quick without hesitation.

‘Uraki-Ayo is as ill prepared to carry out this war as we are. The majority of his resources have already been tapped. With so little energy to utilize, he will be pressed to end the war quickly. The vortex crystal supplies him with the vast energy he requires to attack our dimension. Without it, he is nearly powerless to endanger us. Uraki-Ayo is no fool, very unlike Beryl. He is a realist, knowing his weaknesses, and exploiting those of his enemies. He believes Xalia to be valuable to the Neo Senshi. This is not entirely true.’

A dread silence drifted over the assembled group. A gifted young woman captured and now suspended between the rails of life and death. They feared what she suffered, and hoped that she might be spared, all the while knowing the truth of Ami’s words, even as they found it difficult to accept.

Masurani gave a somewhat reproachful look, but Usagi raised her hands as the brute warrior opened her mouth. ‘We will do what we can. I promise you this.’

‘I guess I speak for the Neo Senshi, for now,’ Masurani realized dimly. ‘I trust you. I’m pretty sure the others would agree. The ball is in your court.’

Silence beckoned and was greeted enthusiastically, until Usagi spoke once again, only moments later. ‘The five of us will face Uraki directly, and end his cursed existence. If it is possible, we will rescue Xalia, and preserve her life.’ She paused. As for the “if not,” what was there to say? Nothing. ‘As for you, Neo Senshi, the Coalition Society of Mutants, and our mates, you will all confront the armies Uraki will manage to send to earth. Your ultimate goal must be to destroy the vortex crystal. It is his only link to our world.’

‘Why not have your …’ she blinked at the choice of word ‘ …mates with you?’

Rei bowed her head solemnly, then latched her eyes onto Nasura’s. ‘I don’t think is this the right time. We really aren’t ready for it yet. We haven’t been with them long enough.’

Ami nodded, and added: ‘I agree. It will take years for us to co-ordinate our abilities. Until then, we’re better off alone.’ She paused sheepishly. ‘Do you really think it’s easy for me to admit that?’

Nasura sighed, as if understanding, but not quite accepting the reasoning.

‘How are the remaining Neo Senshi?’ Ami asked finally.

Nasura frowned. ‘Well. Ayla is meditating, praying on the upcoming battle. The others are preparing in their own ways. They’re still quite weak.’

Usagi nodded. ‘Better than they were yesterday,’ she observed. ‘Luna, Artemis, are you ready?’

‘Hai,’ Luna affirmed. ‘Diane sweetie, you’re going to stay behind.’

‘I agree,’ Artemis grunted. ‘You can stay with Iesha.’

‘But Papa!’ she whined. ‘I want to help!’

‘You can, by keeping Iesha safe,’ he replied gently. She pouted, but was quiet. There was no argument.

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Chapter 48

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“Consider it an honour to serve with these angels! It is because of them our place in a free world is assured! Think of it! To live without fear of the Coalition, without fear of the rifts! We can live as we are. Mutants, and proud of it!” In the cool, damp recesses of a great stone niche, eighty-seven men and women gathered, leaning upon a solitary voice. Among them were several murmurs of assent. “The war we fight will be for our new home and new lives! Take that into battle with you. We will triumph!”

The cheers drowned out the most fervent of fears and doubts. Carl, watching from a distance, smiled, even himself heartened by the emotional energy the young warriors produced. “Report, squad leaders!”

As the vocal culminations of bravado, pride, and positive morale waned, the clicks and locks of armaments became an energetic background noise.

“Lieutenant Smitty of Gold Aces troop. Class One SC-Warrior Power Armored soldiers are ready!”

Jake nodded curtly. “Good to see you were up to the task, Trent. You will take the front line.”

“Thank you sir. We will do our best!”

“Silver Leader?”

A black suited woman with a confidant, assured grin deftly saluted. “Lieutenant Grenewald of Strong Arm troop stand prepared and eager to kick ass, sir!”

He smiled knowingly. “You’ll take up defensive positions for close combat, in the event the enemy decides to get intimate.”

“If they get fresh, they’ll get one helluva fat lip!”

“That’s what I want to hear, Dakota!”

A stout fellow saluted rigidly, his face almost stone. “Copper Leader of Red Slash troop awaiting your orders. Sir!” the statue-like young man snapped off like the rapid report of an automatic rifle.

Jake assumed a deadly serious expression and tone. “Good man, Jason. I expect you to take the perimeter. See that nothing so large as a fusion bomb penetrates your line. It won’t be easy. According to Carl, we’ll be outnumbered fifty-to-one.”

The stocky, urgent looking young man paled slightly, but maintained his rock-like composure. Jake paused, regarding steadily the fellow who was easily the youngest of the troops. He smiled faintly. So much dependable strength! It made his job that much easier.

“Yes sir. You can depend on us sir!”

“That’s good to know, because we’re all counting on your effectiveness! Now, Red Leader …”

By my leathery hide, Carl mused. There’s little humans cannot accomplish, when united.

Love, that’s why the Inner Senshi still survive, Minako observed as she took to his side, wrapping her arms about him and resting her head on his chest.

Aye. I can see that. Rarely in my centuries have I seen such dedication. Yours I especially treasure, he chuckled. Her nod was slight, her unease and conflicting internal holy calm both great in presence. Minako … What is the matter?

She pulled away and turned to face a trickling underground spring. It was young yet, some two hundred years of age, she gauged by the strength of its flow, and presence of natural manna. She flinched, blinking at the crystal water. “Mercy …!’ she sighed. ‘I couldn’t do that before.”

“Do what?”

“Sense manna. It’s very weak here, but this spring draws some in … It’s very nice. Almost calming.”

“Really? Good. Magic can be a wonderful thing.”

“Funny how we haven’t just talked since I became an angel,” she half-smiled with a sidelong glance. Carl offered nothing. Minako knelt to the spring, dipped her hands in the water and sipped from them gingerly. “Do you remember how the CSM reacted when I was changed?”

“Forget? You’re kidding … it was just yesterday! I doubt I will ever forget, even if we weren’t engaged to be married.”

“Hmm. They almost worshipped me. If it hadn’t been for that woman … Dakota, and you …” she frowned. “I don’t know if it’s even that. They either adore me or fear me … and I’m having a difficult time dealing with any of it. I’ve been in the black market for so long … you know what some of the local lords did to me.”

Carl was sympathetically silent. Washes of shame, turmoil, and unflinching sexual abasement flitted across her mind, and he twinged at his sense of it. Despite her holy nature, she hurt inside. He knew nothing could alter her experience, not even Phate. He also knew love – his love – could heal her, and desired intensely to disperse her emotional scars.

“Even if I heard Phate right, and I’m not sure I did, I’ve always been an angel. Or … was it I always had the potential to? Or … I really don’t understand that part.” She rose, hands clasped to her heart. “I don’t feel worthy of this form. I don’t feel sanctified.”

Carl approached her, perceiving the matter as one only can at a distance. “That you have – or at the very least had the potential – should tell you something. Both are significant. Even if it was buried deep somewhere in there. It’s like coming to age and expecting to feel like an adult. It doesn’t happen. It’s not self-perpetuating.”

Minako’s eyes darted swiftly between Carl’s lucid eyes, as they do when intimacy blurs reality. “But I know things … about me, about you … about the world, that no mortal can know …” she smiled briefly. “I can’t believe I just said that! But it’s true. I understand the world in ways no one can.” Carl merely gazed at her. She shrugged faintly. “Everything about me has changed, except the way I think. Or, parts of it. Usagi seems fine. Clearly she was ready for this. I don’t know if I am.”

His smile was welcome, for the sheer confidence and starlit adoration behind it. “You have heart, and strength to come through this, Minako love. Whether you are ‘ready’ or not is a moot point; you are what you are.”

“But I wasn’t! What I’m saying is that I feel like some of me still isn’t.”

There was a moment of clarity for the young dragon, and he grasped it firmly: “What are you clinging to?”

Minako bowed her lovely head, her wings flicking with uncomfortable concentration. “Angels can’t feel pain … of rape … can they?”

Her voice was dry, and the threatening ebb of tears caused it to crack as she spoke.

“You were never …” he started, approaching her. She stepped back.

“No. Almost, so many times. I broke hands, arms, noses, and I killed two … two d-bees that tried to molest me. I’ve never wanted to be ugly before, Carl!”

This time, she did not refuse him. “You are blessed with strength and beauty. My dear, have you not considered that I also understand it? The challenge? You are not alone.”

She averted her eyes. Carl took her shoulders in his hands, comfortingly, gently caressing them. She said, “I never told you, when I worked for Valance, one of his men put out a contract on my virginity. He hired twenty bounty hunters, Carl! I …” her voice locked in her throat. “My body … that act, with me, was a bounty. That’s worse than if I was to have sold myself.”

“I heard you know,” he supplied. “You knocked him on his ass when you found out. Shortly thereafter his organization crumbled to pieces.”

“It wasn’t like that,” she negated. “I didn’t knock anyone on their asses. I killed the man who murdered my target … then came back and drew the line for Val. Even though he wanted me so badly he burned a hole in my butt with his eyes.”

Carl chuckled faintly. Her eyes flicked back into his, and settled there, stars shining faintly within. “You know this pity party isn’t get us anywhere?”

“Pity party …?” she mumbled. “What do you …” a sigh. “I guess not.”

“Mina, my gorgeous angel, what’s past is past, though it might yet pain you. I love you. Your God loves you. You are strong enough now not to have to fear those things. It’s very easy to focus on the negative, even to the point that you are an angel, the very embodiment of holiness, escapes us.”

“Us … I like hearing that. Would you say it again?”

“Us.”

“Mmm …” There was a pleasant emotional meeting then, brightening the lost young angel’s face. “I don’t – not anymore – but it would be a lie to say I don’t feel hurt, and angry.”

“There’s nothing wrong with that. I’ve killed for less.”

She blinked at him, wide eyed. “Don’t believe you’re the first, my love.”

She frowned slightly. “No, I guess not. And you,” she grinned suddenly, poking him and laughing.

“Excuse me, Dr. Silver,” prodded a voice. He gazed at the young man, then beckoned him enter. Without a word, he gestured for him to continue. “We are prepared to depart at your earliest command. The troops are eager, quite excited by the idea of freedom.”

Carl smiled. “They ought to be. It’s a rare opportunity. Not one they won’t earn, however.”

“That’s what worries me. Will we really be so badly outmatched?”

His expression became sober. “By a much larger degree than I have previously understood. I expect at the very minimum five thousand shadowlings to arrive during Uraki-Ayo’s final assault.”

Jake quirked an eyebrow. “Final? As in ‘last ditch effort’? Sounds like the enemy is running out of steam.”

“Cornered, the rat-shadelin strikes most viciously. Part of your job will be to defend the strike team due to attack their source of power.”

“Right. Uh … those are some pretty freakin’ nasty odds,” Jake stated seriously. “I mean, we’re just backup, right?”

Minako shared Carl’s somewhat shamed gaze.

“More or less. The main forces will consist of the Neo Senshi …” he read Jake’s befuddled mask. “They are five warrior defenders of the alternate Earth you will be going to. Ayla Apollo, also known as Sailor Sol, will be the ranking officer. Anything she says goes.”

“If you say so, Dr. Silver,” he shrugged. “If you say ‘jump’ I’ll ask how high, if you say ‘bark like a dog’ I’ll ask you what breed. We owe you.”

“I appreciate that Major,” Carl laughed mildly at the knowledge that the young man could actually fulfil the latter, thanks to his mutant abilities. “Your sister would be proud.”

His brown eyes widened. “My sister? You know Aaran Yyone?”

“That’s correct. I spoke to her recently …” he winked at Minako, and then closed his eyes. Clothed in ancient style black toned armor, she appeared, her helmet pressed to her hip by a somewhat limp gauntleted hand. She smiled at him, looking bruised and mentally scattered.

“Sis’!” he gasped, taken aback by her formidable armor, like a human formed dragon might wear. Reluctantly he neared her, then forgave the armor and delivered a powerful hug.

“Watch it Jake,” she grunted. “I’ve got more broken ribs than you do teeth.”

He laughed faintly. “No joke?”

“No joke.”

He drew back and regarded her seriously. “We gotta talk. It’s been so long!” he faced Carl. “You mind?”

“Of course not. I wouldn’t have asked her to teleport here if there hadn’t been time for it. We’ll leave as soon as Makoto gives the word.”

“Oh,” he held his sister’s hand feeling the strength of the gauntlets, plainly impressed. “What? Who’s that? Teleport here? You?! I thought you got Mega-Juiced!”

“Uh, yeah, I did, way back … that’s were it gets weird. I hope you got some time.”

“Me too,” he replied, gazing at Carl uncertainly.

“As for my friend, you can’t miss her: Dark brown hair done up in a pony tail … hm … maybe not. She’s been wearing it down ever since …” Minako blinked. “Nevermind. She’s an angel. Like me, only bustier.”

“No joke,” Aaran chuckled.

 

@~%~~~

 

They gathered over a nigh dozen drinks. Adolphus, a centuries’ old mage of much experience and old English regard, drew sedately from a nearly full mug of ale. Hanlan, a man’s man, the adept of muscle, sipped idly at a pint of odd tasting elven beer. Mamoru, long standing senshi of the earth bearing much forlorn regard, attacked his fifth cup of traditional sake with apparent indifference. Natole, by magic alone reduced to seven feet from his natural twelve, a warrior much feared for his ability to destroy as to heal, drank heavily from his eighth flask of prune juice.

‘We’re suppose to fight alongsuh-side the Neo Sensuh-shi,’ Mamoru muttered in blurred tones. Adolphus blinked, realizing just how shoddy his Japanese was.

“I would ask ye to repeat that indeterminable statement, but it hits mine ear like a stone. It seems my Japanese bites the bitter tail of a serpent.”

Natole nodded agreement. Mamoru could not restrain his guttural, uneven chuckle. He shook his head loosely.

“Oh yeah? Looks like yuh-you need to fix up yer Japanese …” he grinned foolishly. “Listen harder and you might even …”

Adolphus gazed at him disdainfully, certain the remainder of his sentence made as much sense as the beginning of it. He made several obscure gestures, and murmured something under his breath.

“That may raise thy spirit,” he offered as Mamoru felt his head clear of the thick, noxious cloud culled from his consciousness. “And bar thy tongue.”

“Oh geez!” Mamoru gasped, mortified by his attitude while intoxicated. “Sorry.”

“Forgive ye I can, as thy words have caused no offense. Best ye be wary of indulgences ye may embark upon, as they may cause between us an unbridgeable rift.”

“Unbridgeable is a word? Oh, nevermind,” he replied with an embarrassed expression. “Don’t you never get drunk?”

“Nay. Such powerful drinks as that be not kind to mine magic, so I rarely partake of them. Now, do tell us more of the expectation that we should abandon our dearly beloved to a villain who may certainly reduce them to slivers of unsightly flesh?”

Hanlan gave a deep grunt, setting his bottle down firmly. “Geez, nice’n poetic, but a little much for my stomach.” He absently summoned a triple bladed dagger and began in repetition an ad-libbed kata between both hands. “I’ll tell ya I don’t like the idea of my babe being sliced to ribbons, or vaped, or whatever. But she said she’d summon me if she figured she was outclassed.”

Mamoru shared a ‘do you believe this guy?’ glance with Adolphus. Hanlan looked perturbed. “What? I trust her.”

“Hanlan, it’s not a matter of trust,” Mamoru explained with some unease. “I know Makoto, I know all of them. It’s not their habit to plan a battle. Most of the time they don’t get the chance. They won’t think to summon us until it’s too late. Even now, Usagi’s not that thoughtful,” he observed with all due tact. “She trusts Ami’s idea that we won’t work well until we’ve been together longer. Which is garbage.”

“Clarify, please,” the half giant requested politely.

“She thinks we have to attune to each other or something. I don’t get it and doesn’t matter, because I’ve got other ideas. I figure the Neo Senshi and the CSM will manage just fine without us.”

“Mamoru, please, what be a ‘CSM’?” Adolphus requested gently.

“‘Coalition Society ‘o Mutants’,” Hanlan interjected. “Basically they’re humans wit’ powers who hadda hide from the military they lived in. The Coalition don’t like D-bees – huh, Dimensional Beings, I mean – too much, an’ don’t like humans with strange powers neither.” He took a lively gulp of his drink. “Oh, an’ D-Bees ‘er anything that comes outta the rifts. Like Makoto. Only, most times they ain’t so damned stunnin’ – if ya dig.”

Apparently elven wine turned the normally silent powerhouse in a running spring of words.

“I see,” he drawled shortly with an arched eyebrow, divining of his own wit what Hanlan was attempting to relay to him. “Be they appointed to the main force? How many number they?”

“Eighty-seven at last count,” offered a slightly unfamiliar voice. Mamoru leaned back and craned his head towards the brown haired human metamorphosed from silver tail dragon.

“The real powerhouse joins us,” he grinned, shifting himself over as Carl pulled up another seat, which he perched in reversed.

“I see only one of you I do not recognize. You would be?”

“Natole Shard.”

“Husband to Ami Mizuno Shard. I see. I am Carl Silver. It is good to make your acquaintance.”

Natole’s thick forehead creased briefly in thought. “Aye. I know you also.”

Carl handed him a curious glance.

“You are Silver Tail, no? Perhaps also Dr. Carl Silver?”

Carl smiled simply. “I am. Your wit does you more credit than do all social accounts.”

“Thank you, Silver One.”

Carl nodded curtly. “So where are we?”

Mamoru blinked himself from distant thoughts. “Discussing how best to protect the women we love behind their backs. Any suggestions?”

“Bondage,” Hanlan grinned.

“Besides that,” he sighed. “There’s got to be …”

“Reason will serve us not,” Natole urged. “They are not flexible.”

“You’re right,” Carl interjected. “I really don’t know what Ami’s thinking.”

“They died once y’know. Did Mina tell ya that?”

“No, she hasn’t. She’s been very quiet about her past with me.”

Hanlan shrugged. “I jus’ really think she jus’ don’t wanna have us get snuffed too. Scares the living crap outta me thinkin’ they could get nailed. I flippin’ can’t blame ‘er for worryin’!”

“All the more reason to work together,” he affirmed.

“Ah, but I know they be not all inflexible to our well intentioned concerns,” Adolphus deterred. “None of ye know, but my raven was pregnant before Usagi sought to approach Uraki-Ayo. T’was our concern she would yet suffer the death of our unborn child. Yet, God acts in ways beyond our conception. Rei gained powers to cancel magic, and repel all damage. It was all I could do to reach her mind by intent of heart and the greatest spell of my knowledge and power.”

Pausing at the unbelief and gaping jaws at his revelation, Adolphus took a moment to consider his next words. The urgent silence rampaged hungrily for several moments more.

“A gift of broach links me to her by means of spell,” he concluded. “No other spell I have woven matches it. None may ever. So, my friends, by adversity’s dire touch, we stand on stone, not clay.”

“So basically you can ask her to teleport us to them,” Mamoru chimed.

“Mayhap. Though she shined a wit of doubt upon that reasoning,” Adolphus replied. “She promised that only I could be summoned, as her significant other. So difficult is it that only the binding of thy hearts allows it.”

“I think you’ve hit something,” Carl pointed out. “Most of us here are telepathically linked pretty tightly to our wives. If we can use that, perhaps by enhancing that link with a spell. Adolphus, you and I are the only mages here. We’ll have to …”

“Silver One,” Natole spoke, his bassoon tones rumbling through each man. “I know your skill, yet you know not mine. I am far from a master, but my skill is enough …” he raised his thick hand, in which a small plume of flame appeared. It danced there for several moments, while the remaining four gazed on entranced, as if never having seen such a thing before. With a bow of head, the flame died, washing out as if attacked by a solitary – and very accurate – burst of wind. “Aye?”

“Hai,” Carl’s face selected a – “damn, I goofed” smile – and wore it. “Allow me to apologize, my gifted friend. Any efforts you can put forward will be greatly appreciated. So, just who of us is linked to their girl telepathically?”

“Holy hell,” Hanlan laughed. “Me. Can’t admire another girl without her knowin’. Not that I’ve done it really since marryin’ Mako. Never thought I’d hear m’self say that one.” Adolphus, Carl, Mamoru, and Natole all nodded. “Used t’be I had a different girl every month. Clients, y’know. Now … man, she’s all I need. All I frickin’ want. It’s weird, but man, I think I’m winnin’ pretty frickin’ big …” he grinned, his muscular frame warming with reflection upon the unending passion of her all-consuming love, the physical and the emotional.

“I didn’t used to be psychic, but ever since becoming an Earth Child … I just, um, have been,” Mamoru shrugged. “All I get right now is a black wall, and it’s really unsettling. I’m so used to just feeling her psychic presence I nearly forgot about it. Until now.”

The other men nodded soberly. “Mind powers are not part of me,” Natole literally elaborated. “But since my dawn’s transformation into an angel, her thoughts are an open book to me. So is her heart. My soul aches without her.”

“But you can’t talk to her with your mind?” Carl asked, sipping an oddly discoloured drink. Natole shook his block-like head.

“Well, you know me, and what I am. So for us it’s a two way psionic street,” Carl began. “But you know what I don’t get? I was never interested in human women. Not for more than the occasional fling, right? Now Minako comes along, and somehow she’s more attractive to me than my own kind? That I just don’t understand.”

Silence permeated the room, the outright awkwardness restraining all comment. Hanlan’s grin rampaged unfaded as he failed to register Carl’s words, his mind still dwelling upon his angelic mate.

“Natole, you won’t have any more a problem reaching Ami than any of us will. I’ll teach you a spell that will compensate for your lack of psionic ability.”

“Thank you, Silver One.”

“Carl. Call me Carl,” he sighed. “We’re on equal terms here. Understand?”

“Aye.”

“Okay …” Mamoru started after several moments. “So we’re settled then?”

“Aye!”

“Hai!”

“Bondage!”

“Aye!”

[* *]

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Chapter 49

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“Luna, there is an epicentre of energy here. We should be able to follow it to Xalia, and to Uraki-Ayo.” She turned and gestured for them to follow as she proceeded warily forth. The going, uneasy, anxious, fearful, but swift, sure, and well lit.

The great tunnels gave way to a cathedral, which seemed to have no ceremony in the transition. The fourteen foot walls contained no more than ionic columns, and great venomous statues of what appeared to be the five Inner Senshi. It was to their disdain that they had been portrayed as villains within the NegaVerse’s society. To Ami it came as no surprise: ‘We have defeated them at every turn. How easy it must be to paint us as such witless creatures – more power than brains,’ she began. ‘Give them an image, and they will hate.’

They regarded the statues for a time. It wasn’t that the renditions were not attractive; it was, rather, that they were much too. They were presented as scantily clad, overzealous, and excessively passionate – and physically proportioned – creatures who didn’t seem to care much what it was they were doing, as long as they were doing something destructive.

It was enough to turn the stomach, Minako admitted.

‘We shouldn’t stop,’ Usagi stated. There were several nods. For some minutes they travelled in uncomfortable silence.

‘Usagi,’ Artemis quested. ‘Should we return – afterwards?’

‘No!’ she snapped, whirling to face him abruptly. ‘No. That won’t … Just get Xalia back home. Heal her, then help the Neo Senshi. I have a feeling they’ll need it.’

His replied nod was solemn.

 

@~%~~~

 

‘They come,’ her voice resounded sharply from the pulsing multi-hued walls.

‘Hai, my Queen.’

‘Is that all? You hold now the power within you to shatter the very essence of life. And that is all you offer?’

‘I have so little to offer, my Queen. Forcing them to witness the death of the girl will only slight emotions.’

‘Precisely. It will force them to expend valuable energy. Do it … face them, and disperse their “champion” …’ she laughed, an echoing, throaty thing that chilled the soul to the core.

 

@~%~~~

 

‘Wait!’ she stopped, spreading her arms. ‘I sense something!’

A flickering multifaceted figure washed into their reality. He gazed at Usagi ominously.

‘I consider it most remarkable that I should face you in this manner. While I have watched you, and known your trials, deserved though they may be, it is most amazing to me that you have become a threat to my success. Your will for survival impresses me. As does hers.’ A battered, bloodied and nude winged young woman blurred into focus before them. ‘She represents but a silver of the cost …’

Xalia’s eyes snapped open in fatigued horror as a dozen white motes fluttered about her body, which slowly drew itself into transparency.

‘I’m suh-sorry Usa-sa-gi …’ heaved between ragged breaths.

‘Senshi!’ Usagi charged. ‘Unite!’

A vibrant aura of tranquil energy gripped the five angelic warriors, while a tendril like mass sought Xalia’s jerking form. Uraki-Ayo uttered a gasp, tensing as he realized they were interceding!

‘Impossible!’

‘No. Nothing is. Haven’t you learned that by now?’ Usagi hissed. Xalia fell forward into Rei’s open arms as the dark force released her. All but the most severe damage had been repaired in a tremulous instant.

‘You are out of your league, foe,’ Makoto declared assuredly.

‘We shall see!’ he roared quietly as he retreated. ‘Come! Waste no more! We will end it!’

Usagi squinted, affixing the source in her mind, waving for Luna and Artemis to depart.

“We can’t leave the Princess now,’ Luna pined to Artemis. ‘We may never see her again!’

Usagi halted and turned, the chord struck within an earnest, fearsome thing. ‘Luna, it is a matter of duty. Xalia is dying!’ she gently, but urgently replied.

Luna was respectfully silent. She bowed deeply, then, grasping hands with Artemis, who held Xalia, was gone.

The darkness failed to bother her. It was their presence. Overwhelming, the stench of them, the rigorous earthy odor. The cold, wet, and clammy lengths of snake-like flesh prodded her, caressed her intimately, roaming across her exposed breasts …

‘N-ya! Taruko-kun! Help!!’ she wailed in fragrant Japanese to her earless tormentors.

“Hold her!” a voice commanded sternly. “I du’na know what she be fightin’, but she’ll make it mighty worse in a blink!”

Artemis took hold of her left wing and arm while Demelza held her legs, and Luna seized the remaining limbs. Each struggled against her thrashing mutant-augmented strength. The moist muscles drew taut at her wrists and ankles, pulling them apart. Fear drove, tears sprang, strength peaked… Artemis, Luna, and Demelza found themselves slumped in painful heaps as Xalia’s superhuman strength threw them like rag dolls against the nearest walls. Demelza groaned, feeling a numbness running through her shoulder blades. Her prosthetic lower leg bellowed in rising spikes of flaring pain at her. She staggered numbly to her feet, leaning heavily upon the table on which the patient tossed.

There was only one answer.

[_Xalia! _]The innately skilled training healer fell back in utter horror, then stumbled forward and regurgitated in gasping heaves.

“Dem-chan!” Luna cried. “Are you okay?”

“In her m-mind,” Demelza stammered in a rasping voice, eyes clenched shut, hands jammed against her body in a defensive posture. “In her mind …”

“What? What’s happening to her?” Artemis quested fearfully.

The two lovers’ eyes set upon Xalia’s shifting figure, and indeed, she twisted to avoid something it was plain she could not, her mouth gaping open, knees spread, hands laying as if pinned in place.

“What?” Luna breathed, her chest heaving as she gasped against her own tears, knowing she was needed, and struggling to restrain them. Artemis held his stony silence, a mix of anger and puzzlement upon his hard, angular features. Demelza slowly rose, her face scarlet by her fearsome sympathy, her mouth dry and sour. She glanced at Luna, who shook her head, indicating that she understood well enough. Artemis, despite his solid founding, admitted a lack thereof with a softening of his rigid features.

Demelza took his hand and placed it upon the girl’s sweating forehead.

Reality took a powder.

Xalia, pinned down by innumerable lengths of tubular flesh, shuddered and screamed at the incomprehensible sexual assault. The knotting about her breasts, the movement between her taut thighs. Artemis retreated his hand and staggered back, a cold, dark creature in his gut.

“How can we help her?”

“By pullin’er from the mem’ry,” Demelza fumed. “I need ya t’ help me Artemis. Luna, I need you to watch ‘er … if ya can’t feel ‘er pulse, then I need ya t’ bring us out.”

“How?”

“Slap me. Hard. This is more important than a bruise ‘er two.” Luna could not mistake the seriousness of the instruction, and so she nodded understanding. Demelza was firm, and said, “If I don’t come to first time, y’must hit me again. Got it? I’m the anchor, an’ we’ll have plenty o’ trouble if I don’ wake from the trance.”

“Hai,” Luna said resolutely.

Demelza had experience, fortunately. The trick was to make yourself immune to the threat. Easy for a well-trained psychic. Flying was a new experience, one she could dare become accustomed to. The force barriers, on the other hand, took a bit of work, though they proved to ward the attacking creature without fail. At least, until they had to retrieve Xalia’s psionic core.

Xalia! she called. The young woman’s demeaned groans were shut out by the trained healer’s psychic reflexes. Being so close, forget hearing the event, had Demelza exceedingly nervous as was. Xalia was literally overwhelmed. Trembling of body, stammering of will, she approached with fear of similar experience. Then, all at once, rage collected, she, in one motion retracted her barrier and grabbed Xalia’s dislocated right arm. As she did …

… Luna gasped, catching the limp robed form of the young English healer.

“Demelza?”

Demelza blinked, then felt her eyes gradually wandering open.

“Hai. Xalia, is she …?”

“Calm,” Artemis reported, rubbing the back of his head as he recovered his footing.

“Good. Get my herb satchel, hurry!” Without undue prompting, Luna was gone. Demelza took hold of Xalia’s shoulder and relocated it with a deft, dull crack. “Grab that blanket.”

Artemis’ hand moved without direction. Demelza began tearing the scraps of Xalia’s clothes from her badly brutalized body.

“Demelza, may I ask …”

“What?” she replied distractedly.

“Why that? It was so difficult for Luna to heal from the pain of her assault. With this … I cannot imagine.” He watched the white blanket slipped over Xalia’s nude form, noting the dislocation of her hips.

“You are a man, you never could.”

“I felt her thoughts …” he replied defensively.

“An’ that means what? Artemis, there be naught to squall over here. You are a good, trustworthy man. Yours is a blessed marriage.”

“Thank you, Dem-chan.”

“As for the …” she hesitated a half instant. “I said it t’was mem’ry, aye? Obviously what he did to her.”

“Uraki-Ayo.”

“Aye. I’ve had the misfortune to see this b’fore. Re-triggerin’ the mem’ry does more damage, if ya gather my meanin’.”

Artemis expressed further lack of understanding.

“Artemis, this was real. Only two things keep ‘er alive: Her Knighthood, and the power of your angel friend Usagi.”

“But what about her betrayal?”

“What of it? ‘Er heart remain’d strong and pure. I guess,” Demelza paused, her expression stern as she prepared a rich, foul smelling salve from the materials at hand, “someone up there decided she should live.”

“So he put her back in the memory in a final effort to crush her spirit,” Luna noted angrily as she placed the herbs in front of Demelza.

She only nodded. “Now … enough chatter. I want you to fetch Hysian, and Luna, use your best psionic healing tricks. She’ll never have kids if we don’ get crackin’ …”

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Chapter 50

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By many it was called the ‘eternal dark.’ The sun had not risen in days, and the population of Tokyo dwindled. By suicide, by the need of the vampiric ten story high crystal, or by the multitude of shadowlings which freely roamed the streets, and populated the skies like vultures. Buildings within ten blocks of the crystal had taken the appearance of being gutted, the residents within resembling somewhat the bug-splatters upon a windshield.

Hundreds by the day.

Even the Senshi Resistance struggled, being overwhelmed by the combination of number and mystic ability rivalling even the most powerful practitioner on their side. Much to Osaka’s disheartening, the ratio of death from shadowling to human had altered again, with unfavorable results. Closing in was a near equal level of death between each race, and the knowledge that the shadowlings seemed numberless not promoting morale by any degree.

Yet, shortly after the latest siege, Nasura turned over another leaf, pleading to the unaffected populous, and bidding them join. A call to which many responded, offering up another chance to the subjected occupants of the ruining Toyko. Unabated, the shadowlings would soon have taken the whole of Japan, and moved on to the rest of the unprepared world. For so closed off from that world was Japan that no one else seemed to be aware of their dire situation. It was conjectured by the Resistance that this was in part the design of Uraki-Ayo. Outside assistance would surely have ended the war some weeks ago.

Naritha Walynn, the psychic soul of the Neo Senshi, who, in turn, who represented the central force of defense of the besieged Earth, stood on the edge. Emotionally, for being so physically shattered put her very life into question, even without the support of her newly found companion, Haisha, the unabashed verbal core of the recently instituted team.

Her powerful psionic ability lent her a touch of this conflict where her bright, yet violence tarnished eyes failed to perceive the horrific conflict. She had seen so much of it, and was in the midst of a desire to flee the sight of further destruction, even while knowing that such an action would surely lead to yet more of it. Despite these conflicts, she knew it was not in her to succumb to weakness, when others had sacrificed themselves to allow her the chance to do what must be done!

Not so much to assist her observation of the destruction as to attempt to perceive the source of her sensing, she stood on a psychological ledge. The explosion not even a day passed had destroyed the wooden fencing of the balcony. And yet, so much had occurred then, and since. The near complete obliteration of three of the Neo Senshi; Sailor Sol, Phoenix, and herself, Seraph. That failed to account for Xalia, who despite being recently rescued, still hung upon a fraying thread. Apparently she had been submitted to lengthy, inhuman torture.

Hours of prayer had brought little comfort. Somehow, her mind was privy to Xalia’s emotional turmoil. Naritha no more knew the certainty of her own life over the outcome of the ensuing war, nor, come to think of it, the strange senshi who had simultaneously murdered their friends, and saved their very lives. She only knew her part in it. She turned away from the darkness of the light-nulling Vortex Crystal miles distant, which seemed to leer at their inexperience, and weakness.

‘Yanei!’ she gasped faintly, feeling the aura of the woman, hearing the smooth sliding of the patio door, and turning to face it. The bird-like woman gazed at her vacantly, clothed in a slightly ajar kimono of a strong yellow-orange. Her presence was overtly sexual, and though the silver-blue haired girl had not the strength, she wished herself flown away from it.

‘You know he killed Akari,’ she stated blandly, as if having no regard for her own loss. ‘And I, we had something.’

Her sultry, wanton, child-like gaze made an uneasy dark matter form in the young virgin’s stomach. ‘Yanei, I see no need you share …’

‘We had passionate sex,’ she uttered lustily. ‘And you, the sweet virgin … hai, very much a virgin. Beauty like yours attracts women as much as men you know. But then, you did know that, didn’t you? Being psychic would tell you such things.’

Naritha retreated a step, immediately repulsed. This was wrong, she had not detected such feelings from this traitorous creature. She had been extremely thorough. ‘Iye, Yanei. Stop.’

‘Denying yourself for the would-be husband?’ she declared teasingly. ‘A cubicle bound hermit with more time for hentai young sluts than you?’

‘Iye!’ she snapped, transparent smoke playing from her defensively postured arms as she fell instinctively into a trained stance of defense.

‘I will have you, as I did Xalia,’ she declared, advancing quickly. With an unpleasant snarl, the shaking, silver haired girl struck with a fore knuckle fist, which was easily parried. She uttered a high-pitched grunt as she was slammed against the wall with a thick, loud rattle of the separated wood. Pinned as she was, it was simple for Yanei to grab her chin and place an unwelcome kiss upon her lips. Abruptly, Yanei lurched back with an ear-piercing squeal, eyes wide with pain.

‘Which part didn’t you get, the “N” or the “O”?’ a throaty female voice confidently snapped. A deft motion rendered the woman unconscious. The slender girl slumped into a heap, sobbing in great heaves. Nasura, clothed in a tan nightgown, rushed through the patio door and took the tearful girl into her arms. Upon dropping the orange locked flaccid woman, she paled, taking on the appearance of someone who has seen no less than the holiest of holies.

‘Naritha-sama!!’ she cried, shocked, and nearly stammering her continuing words. ‘What are you doing here? I thought …’

Nasura shot her a suspicious, and menacing glance. Instantly she clasped her hands to her mouth.

This is… she knelt beside Nasura, gazing mutely at the weeping young woman. Her younger self?

‘Zia, don’t … whatever in blue blazes it is,’ she uttered tensely under her breath. ‘Just keep it to yourself! Got it?!’

She nodded simply, bowing her head to hide her frown of sorrow. A moment later, she stood, eyeing Naritha’s attacker warily.

‘Zia, what happened?’ Narusa asked urgently.

‘That girl,’ she indicated Yanei’s lax form. ‘Tried to rape Naritha.’

‘Curses! I wasn’t sure if I could trust her,’ she cursed, absently stroking Naritha’s silk soft, while unattended, hair.

‘No,’ Naritha gasped, taking Nasura’s hand and squeezing it, ‘not Yanei fault!’

Nasura uttered a surprised gasp. She knelt back, regarding the red-faced girl at no more than arms length, closing her hand around the younger girl’s with a desperate sense of confusion. Zia opened her mouth to speak, but Nasura raised a hand. Her mouth fell shut. ‘If anyone would know, it would be you. Tell me.’

‘Kei-san, Uraki-Ayo, he take Yanei mind, and use it to strike my weakness. He suppose strike darkest fear, and most bold truth.’ Naritha’s bowed her shamed face. ‘Yanei not want more than dead mate. I not want more than distant love! To hide that wrong! But know must fight! No time to for self! Must be only strong senshi! Must want … Seek … gnuuh!’ she fell angrily into Chinese, cursing her inability to express herself in Japanese, cursing the language, until Nasura gripped her shoulders. Naritha’s emotion squinted eyes latched onto her mentor’s.

‘What is it Naritha? Why did he go after you?’

‘I know why.’

The voice sparked anger within all but the spiky, and leggy red haired woman who had halted her. As she reached down to restrain her, Nasura shook her head. She glanced tentatively at the three from her cross-legged position.

‘She would have teleported away if she didn’t want to be here,’ Nasura observed.

Zia blinked. ‘Huh … gotcha.’

‘So Yanei,’ Naritha began in only slightly less than trembling tones. ‘Tell why.’

‘You have the most potential. Out of all your teammates, you have the greatest power, or least, you could.’

Naritha blinked slowly, not understanding in the shallowest sense.

'You're like her!' she continued, pointing at Zia. 'Your power won't stop -'

‘That’s enough, Yanei,’ Nasura interrupted, deathly serious. ‘Haven’t you done enough already?’

‘I never wanted you,’ she continued tartly, either ignoring or not hearing Nasura’s protesting command. ‘Not that you aren’t cute. You are. Enviously gorgeous, actually. It’s just … I’m not that way.’

Naritha could say nothing. Yanei frowned sincerely as she rose, allowing herself to favor the points of deserved pain. ‘I’m sorry Naritha. I really am,’ she began uselessly, her hand holding her in place at the patio door before her final statement brought her departure. ‘I let my defenses down. I hope you find it in you to forgive me.’

Naritha’s pleading, frightened gaze struck Nasura deeply.

‘What mean, “power won’t stop”?’

‘There’s a little something your mother hasn’t told you about your father …’

 

@~%~~~

 

‘Oh Thanus … ugh! D-damn you Uraki!’

‘How are you feeling?’ Ayla asked tentatively, regarding the savaged young woman with mixed concern and anger.

‘Why d-did she choose me? I c-couldn’t handle him, n-nuh-nuh-no way!’ Her voice shook as she had, even though her body had eased the distressed expressive reaction. She glanced nervously about, reacting to the slightest shadow, while she sat legs stretched out underneath several cotton layers of blanket while her stitched and sewn torso rested upon three thick down pillows. Her movements were stiff and restrained, as most of the damage was internal, and anything so simple as a cough brought mind nulling agony.

‘I d-don’t … I r-re-remember their deaths, even though I wasn’t in c-cuh-control.’ She gazed thoughtfully through the window to her left, as she had wept, and could not move to wipe the dried tears, and those that visited her again. She bowed her head. ‘Oh Asa I’m so s-s-suh-orry …’

Ayla shook her head. It was hard to hate her. She felt nervous around her, as if despite her firm medical bindings she might rise up and plunge a mystically summoned blade into her chest. It was confusing in the extreme.

‘Xalia-chan, I know you weren’t. We all saw your message. You did what you could. You did more than anyone could have asked.’ Oh, fantastic choice of words Miss Debate Winner. She added hastily, ‘In your duties, I mean.’

The girl glared at her, her largely feather-stripped wings twitching with myriad emotions. It wasn’t anger so much as frustration, and it certainly was not directed at Ayla. ‘What am I s-suh-upposed to say? I’ve done what I c-c-can, and I’m not g-guh-going be able to regain my honour b-by fighting. I mean, how d-d-duh-did you do it? You were almost dead t-tuh-two days ag-g-go,’ she retorted, wincing as she tensed instinctively. ‘Why’s it any d-different for me?’

‘Usagi has a lot to do with it,’ the crimson haired girl replied sympathetically. ‘And being Sailor Sol has much more.’

‘M-more what?’

Ayla blinked, caught off-guard. ‘To do … to …’ she swallowed. “It was the extra healing of being Sailor Sol that allowed me to recover so quickly, aided by Yanei’s magic.”

‘Yanei!’ she started, paling when it seemed impossible she could appear any more wan. A shard of doubt leapt into Ayla’s heart. Had she made a mistake trusting the traitor?

‘She saved my life,’ Ayla bleated.

‘She d-did?’

Ayla sighed relief, but then caught it. ‘She didn’t do anything to …’

Xalia shook her head minimally. ‘No. She d-deserted before I t-tuh-turned on Uraki. It was only th-the four, and …’ she fell silent, gaze averted.

‘I understand,’ she breathed, wringing her hands in her lap. ‘When did Nasura give you the crystal?’

‘Ages ago. I d-don’t have it n-nuh-now, or I wouldn’t be in such rough sh-shuh-shape,’ she coughed.

‘I’m not familiar with magic in the manner you are. Was it different?’

‘Was wh-what different?’ she began, dumbfounded, before clicking in an instant later, slipping to a reverie apart from the emotional turmoil which stuttered her tongue. ‘Oh, well y-yeah. I don’t have the strength for it now, b-but Nasura just basically had me reciting spells as at-t-tacks. Only, she had them on constant w-weave, so all I had to do was invoke them. I can d-d-do it without the crystal, but it t-takes longer.’

Ayla was desperately seeking a topic with which to stay her impending nervousness. Gratefully, she stumbled upon another: ‘Why did she Knight you? Wasn’t Mamoru strong enough?’ The answer to this she knew, but was interested in both hearing Xalia’s perspective as well as keeping the verbal ball rolling.

‘He w-w-was. I’ve talked to him.’ She acquired a dreamy look, which faded as Ayla whistled, drawing her attention. ‘Anyway, I guess it was ‘c-cause he never really fought on the forefr-fr-front. He used to just come to Usagi’s rescue a lot. Not that he didn’t do okay against Z-zuh-zuh-zoisite. Anyway, Akari and Yanei tricked Mamoru into coming out of hiding. They summoned a bunch of demons to get his attention, and because they went overb-buh-board, Nasura set me up with my crystal to help out where Tuxedo Mask couldn’t be to f-f-fuhight them. I was d-d-doing fine t-too. Problem is …’ her voice lapsed as her face tensed in what looked to be painful concentration. A green shimmering brought several shards of jade into existence, to rest on the bed at Xalia’s feet. ‘Uraki made pretty sh-shuh-shuh-short work of me, and kinda truh-tricked me into joining his s-suh-side. Then I m-m—muh-managed to get out th-thuh … the message. After Uraki d-duh-dropped the mind-sp-spell he had on me, when the monster r-r-ruh-ruh-ruh … um,’ she hesitated a half instant, almost in sync with the tightening of Ayla’s throat, ‘ …it shattered my transformation crystal. I c-can’t turn into Sailor Eth-th-th-thuh … Ether.’

Ayla remained visibly impressed at the young woman’s strength. Though she could not move, she kept her anxiousness to return to the battlefield and … exact revenge? Perhaps that was her motivator, and perhaps the only one. At that point, however, she could see no problem with it, as she saw the matter through similar eyes. Though obviously, less intimately. Somehow, Ayla felt that Xalia’s stutter was a deadly indicator of the psychological damage that had distinctively been done along with the physical. Nasura had indicated Xalia to be a motormouth, rather than of the mealy sort. It spoke to her of the truth of the event. Silence traversed for several languishing moments amongst them, before Xalia’s will seemed to reasserted strongly enough to emote thusly:

‘I just w-wuh-want to get back out there and k-k-kuh-kick their asses!’

Yet as she did, the wash of tears across her cheeks and her shaking voice indicated the true nature of her words: Wards against Uraki-Ayo’s unrelenting battering at the walls of her sanity. Ayla could only gaze crestfallen at the young woman who hung so visibly on a silver thread of survival.

‘Xalia?’

Both young women glanced up at their weary looking mentor. Even beyond the brief gasp of agony, Xalia wondered along with her friend what had kept the enigmatic woman up so as to give her the appearance of facing … no well, the fact was that they faced the end of the world, if they lost, Ayla realized wearily.

‘Xalia, I must speak with your leader,’ she began, nearing the bed, palming the crystal shards, then placing an undamaged counterpart in her left hand. ‘Until then, use this. It will increase your healing further. Its power is more than twice that of your former crystal.’

As Xalia winced at her own exclamation of outright amazement, Nasura swiftly guided the mystified crimson haired young woman outside of the room, the door to which she closed.

‘You just gave her another crystal? Like that? No questions?’ Ayla demanded, surprised by her mentor’s action.

‘You just spent the last few hours with her. What do you think? Do you think she’s going to betray us again? Do you think she has the strength?’

Ayla’s face darkened. ‘No, she can barely talk straight, much less fight. Which is what she wants to do,’ she remarked incredulously. ‘This just blows me away. She’s so weak! I’ve had seven month old cousins stronger than she is now. If I was her, I’d just want to roll into a ball and forget everything! As for trust? She makes me nervous, but I think I can trust her as long as she’s not mobile.’

Nasura nodded. It would take time. Naught could be done to alter that. ‘Xalia has a good heart. Naritha agrees with that. You believe her, hai?’

‘Of course, but there’s an American saying: “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” She’s right in one thing; she has to earn our trust, and find a way to banish the dishonour she has foisted upon herself. It will be a good healthy while before I ask her to do anything.’

‘She actually said that? I’m impressed. It’s good to know you’re considering her a potential member of the Neo Senshi.’

‘“Considering” and “potential” are a good ways off, Nasura-san,’ Ayla retorted calmly, crossing her arms firmly across her armored chest. As soon as she had been able to muster the strength, she had become Sailor Sol again, sheltering herself in the strength the transformation provided.

‘I get the point. I suggest you keep talking to her. You’ll gain a better understanding of how her mind works. Hai?’

Ayla nodded dismally. There was a distended moment, after which Nasura spoke, her voice deepened by a ladening inner tension.

‘I must entrust you with something. It is important that you ask no questions. You must trust me. Absolutely.’

Nasura’s words, while calm, sparked a deeply rooted edge of darkness within Ayla’s being. ‘When haven’t I?’

‘We have so little time,’ she continued, clearly not observing Ayla’s words, ‘and I cannot explain. Take this. You will know what to do, when the time comes.’

Simply, and without expression, she handed the perplexed girl a sealed envelope. She bowed at the waist deeply, giving a great show of respect for her trust before returning to Xalia. Ayla remained stunned for a sundry shifting of time.

‘Sensei, what are we up against …?’ she muttered, wrapping her arms defensively about her torso, bowing her head, then turned to walk away.

 

@~%~~~

 

What was worse? The death of her soulmate, no nor death. Murder. Yet anger came so slowly beyond the ingrained servitude, the training of Uraki-Ayo, her long term sensei and even father figure. Yet there was another, more intimate, and foreboding matter to confront. As if she had a choice.

‘What do you want?’ she whispered fiercely, high tones cracking under the stress of fear, pain, and anger, kneeling upon her bed, a rather ordinarily clothed woman behind her, stroking her unclad shoulders slowly. Against her will, she had been mystically recalled to her own home, to the presense of her captor in emotional bondage.

‘You cannot know the last time I was with a woman of your beauty,’ she uttered, her voice dark, sultry, and lustful as she placed the lips which issued those souring words upon her neck in light, subtle kisses. ‘Your mate’s threats mean nothing to me now, for indeed, he is only mortal.’

Easily, Yanei broke her hard grasp, and took to the floor in several hurried steps.

‘Do not think me kind, nor affectionate, nor equal to you. There is nothing you have done of my whim. I do not desire your s