This story is a work of fanfiction.  As such, it owes a great
debt to the creators of the characters used herein: Rumiko
Takahashi, creator of Ranma, and Naoko Takeuchi, creator of
Sailor Moon.

     This story contains scenes of a dark nature and Lime
rated material, and thus is not suited for younger readers.
Reader discretion is advised.
 
 
 

On a Clear Day You Can See Forever
 

Chapter 11: Osiren Black
 
 
 

     Fine dust filled the air like a gauzy haze, and Saekianna
stifled a cough as she moved through the gloom.  Something shifted
off to the side, and she adjusted her course to take her closer,
keeping Banri at the ready.  Slipping ghost-quiet across the floor,
she eased up to the doorway and stole a glance through.  What she
saw filled her with a mixture of relief and anger.
     "Yurina."
     "Nightmistress," Yurina replied.  The Black Rose sat
serenely on the floor, her normally impeccable clothes mussed and
torn, her glossy hair hanging in disarray.  Somehow, she still
managed to seem demure and delicate, like a single rose clinging to
a rocky escarpment after a storm.  Mirra, however, had clearly not
fared as well, lying on the floor with her head cradled in Yurina's
lap.  The girl's face was pale and her body terribly still.  Saekianna
moved closer, her anger growing at the sight of her subordinates
bloodied and beaten.
     "Alive?"
     "Yes," Yurina murmured.  "I bound the most serious of her
wounds, but she will need the attentions of Sister Xandra.  As will
you, it seems."
     "My injuries are minor," Saekianna said dismissively.  Blood
still flowed from a shallow cut on her forehead, matting her
platinum hair, but the pain was as nothing compared to the deep
wounds in her heart.
     No, she would not think of that now.  Her Sisters needed
her.
     "Just as you say, Nightmistress," Yurina said smoothly.
Only the dark fire burning deep in the girl's eyes gave away her
own emotional disarray.
     "What happened here, Yurina?"
     "We were ambushed," Yurina replied, stroking Mirra's dark
locks absently.  "Wraiths, with the power of Shadow."
     "Wraiths?" Saekianna echoed.  "They attacked you?  That
should have been impossible.  The Genosphere's call should have
been irresistible to such as they."
     "Indeed," Yurina said, inclining her head slightly.  "Yet it
was not.  They must have been answering a call far stronger.  Our
enemies, perhaps?"
     "No," Saekianna said flatly.  "Their power is great, but they
do not command such dark power."
     "Your pardon, Nightmistress, but I must ask.  Sister Rei
was strong in Shadow magick ..."
     "It was not her doing, Yurina.  This much I know.  The
others?"
     "Ines is dead," Yurina said softly.  "Ora and Vi chased the
ones that took Hundri and the Genosphere, and Jackinda and Miaka
went to find you."
     "Dark Lady, is the entire universe against us?" Saekianna
swore.  Returning Banri to her ring, the Nightmistress bent and
gathered her second-in-command into her arms.  "Come, Yurina.
We must return to the others."
     Yurina rose silently, gathering her torn coat about her with
the same languid grace she might have used to wrap herself in a fine
silk shawl.
     "And what of your prey this day, Nightmistress?" Yurina
asked, no trace of emotion in her low, melodic voice.
     "The Tsukino girl's true nature was revealed," Saekianna
said, starting through the gloom.  "She wields the power of the
White Moon as their leader."
     "Indeed?" Yurina said with a small but audible intake of
breath.  "This is ... unexpected."
     "To say the least," Saekianna said sourly.  "Her power is
not inconsiderable, and her allies are strong.  A direct confrontation
would prove costly, my Black Rose, and time grows short."
     "Then we must lay a honeyed trap, my Nightmistress,"
Yurina replied smoothly.  "One that will ensnare any who dare to
approach the site of the revival.  Let them come to us."
     "Indeed," Saekianna said darkly, staring down at the
peaceful features of her wounded Sister.  "Let them come.  We will
show them the true power of the Sisterhood.  They will suffer the
most terrible humiliations before they are allowed to die."
     Yes, she thought blackly as they made their way out of the
wrecked structure.  Let the entire world be against them.  That
would only make her revenge all the sweeter when it came.
     And come it would.  There was more than one way to
humble their enemies.  Many more than one, as it happened.
     After all, that was the Sisterhood's legacy.

***

     "That's quite a story," Mamoru said as the gates swung
open.  He drove through and up the winding drive, taking in the
overgrown shambles of the grounds.  The place definitely had a
kind of ruined splendour, he had to admit.  "Although I get the
feeling you aren't telling me everything.  Again."
     "Mamo-chan," Usagi replied, looking hurt.  He knew her,
though.  She was definitely holding some things back.  Like how
she'd gotten involved with the Sisterhood in the first place, for
instance.
     This was what came of being around those girls again.  Still,
he knew better than to bring the subject up with her.  They were
her friends, and she had made it clear she wouldn't chose him over
them.  Or vice-versa.
     She just had to have it all.  And, being Usagi, she would
probably manage to.
     "Are you sure it'll be okay?" she asked as he pulled up in
front of the large porch with its carved columns.
     "Yu's covering for me.  They've got us doing grunt work
anyway, so he'll be able to manage."
     "As long as you're not going to get into trouble," she said.
"I'm glad you came, Mamo-chan."
     "It looked to me like you were doing just fine," he replied.
"You've come a long way, Usako."
     "But I've missed you," she said, turning to him.  Those blue
eyes fixed on him, so wide, so earnest, and he leaned close to her,
breathing in the scent of her skin and hair as he slipped his hand
along her cheek and kissed her, gently at first, then with hunger.
She matched his passion with a fierceness he'd never felt from her
before, and they were both breathing hard when they finally parted.
     "Come inside," she said simply, leaping nimbly from the car.
He followed at a more sedate pace, noticing that Minako's car was
already parked beside Makoto's motorcycle.  Hardly a surprise that
the girl had beaten them; she drove like a madwoman.  In fact, she
did a lot of things that way.  He thought, not for the first time, that
she and Yu would get along famously.
     Usagi's voice echoed in the high-ceilinged foyer, and he
arrived to find her at the centre of all the girls, plus Artemis and
Luna.  She was being barraged with questions and hugs; Makoto
lifted her easily off the ground in a bear hug, causing Usagi to
squeal with delight.
     "I hear you kicked serious ass," the tall girl beamed.
     "Every woman's got a limit," Usagi said in a mock serious
voice, "and that witch pushed me past mine."
     The others laughed as Makoto deposited her princess lightly
on the floor.
     "Well, I'm just glad that you're okay," Luna declared.
"When Minako called in and told us what had happened, I had
visions of all sorts of terrible things."
     "The Market looks like a war zone," Minako said.  "I'd sure
like to know how the Sisterhood pulled off something like that."
     "Or why," Mamoru added grimly.  The girls all looked at
him, and most of the looks were, if not outright hostile, at least
wary.  They knew what he thought of them and the way they
constantly seemed to put his love in danger.  Maybe it wasn't fair,
but he couldn't help it.  With them, she was always riding off into
some crisis, and it made him feel so helpless.
     He hated that feeling.  And he associated it, rightly or
wrongly, with these girls.
     "Hey, guys, I'm going to give Mamo-chan the guided tour,"
Usagi said, rushing over and grabbing his arm.  "See you in a while.
Come on, handsome."
     He allowed himself to be towed away, casting curious
glances around as Usagi launched into an energetic ongoing
monologue.  They passed through the foyer and through a few
uninteresting rooms before she led him up a long, spiralling
staircase.
     "And this," she announced as they reached a door on the
second floor, "is my room.  Come on in."
     He followed her inside.  She couldn't have been here long,
but Usagi always seemed to leave her own, indefinable stamp on a
room, and this one was no exception.  Her clothes were draped
over a chair, some toiletries scattered on a dresser.  The air even
smelled like her.  He watched, a warmth blossoming in his gut, as
she spun idly through the room, hands clasped behind her back and
ponytails flaring with the motion.
     "Nice, huh?" she asked with an impish grin.  "Come, sit on
the bed with me."
     "How forward," he murmured, charmed in spite of himself.
As always.
     "Umm-hmm," she breathed as he sat beside her.  She leaned
into him with a heavy sigh, running her hands up his body, one
tracing the lean muscles of his back, the other the flat planes of his
chest.  He, in turn, wrapped his arms around her slim shoulders and
held her close, resting his chin on her head and breathing her in.
     "Usako ..."
     "Not now.  I know you're mad, and you want to hear about
everything that's been going on.  There's lots that has to be said.
There's always lots that has to be said."  She raised her face to his,
blue eyes sparkling all the way down into their infinite depths.  "But
right now I just want to be with you.  So no more talking, okay?"
     "Okay," he whispered.
     He hardly had to lean down at all to press his mouth against
hers.

***

     Minako looked up as Rei entered the room in a swirl of
midnight hair and crimson leather.
     "Looks great," Minako said appreciatively.  The leather
pants hugged the curve of Rei's legs, while the cropped top bared a
tantalizing expanse of taut belly.  "I've been trying to get Ami to try
something a little more daring than usual."
     "I live here," Ami objected.  "I've got lots of clothes."
     "Yeah, but Ames, your clothes are boring."
     "They are not," Ami huffed, crossing her arms.
     "They kind of are," Rei told her, brushing Ami's bangs out
of her eyes lightly as she passed the girl, then perching herself
gracefully on the arm of Minako's chair.  "And you, you blonde
maniac.  I thought this was supposed to be emergency supplies.
What's with all the lingerie and club clothes?"
     "Anything worth doing, Rei, is worth doing in style,"
Minako replied insouciantly.  "Thieving, fighting, loving ... I just
always like looking hot, you know?"
     "Well, you wear it well," Rei told her.  "Where are Artemis
and Luna?"
     "Artemis freaked out about what happened in town,"
Makoto said, coming into the sitting room from the same door that
Rei had.  "He's working to get those other communicators done.
He drafted Ranma to help.  Ranma didn't look too happy about
that.  Something about not knowing anything about micro-glyph
circuits."  Makoto sat on the sofa beside Ami, tossing her ponytail
back as she sprawled to take up space.
     "By the way, Makoto, your truce with Rin's bunch paid
off," Minako told the girl as she rummaged through one of the bags
she'd brought from the hotel.  "Yui showed up with reinforcements
to help fight.  She says hi."
     "I bet she does," Makoto sighed.  "Still, that's a good sign.
Rin's holding up his end of the deal.  It means one less problem for
us to worry about."
     "That was nice work," Rei said softly.  "At a time like this,
we need a few more friends.  Or, at the very least, a few less
enemies."
     Minako noticed that the praise seemed to make Makoto
uncomfortable: tension still hung between Rei and the tall girl.
Well, there was nothing for it but to let time run its course and heal
the wounds that had opened between them.
     "The best news, of course, is that our princess kicked ass,"
Minako crowed.  "If the monsters hadn't gone nutso, she would
have totally taken out the Nightmistress."
     "Oh, I wish I could have seen that fight," Makoto sighed
dreamily.  "Seeing that witch get kicked around, that would have
been sweet."
     "I hate to bring everyone down from such a high," Rei
interrupted, "but we need to talk."
     "Oh, come on, Rei!  Not more serious stuff!" Minako
objected.  She wanted to try on filmy nothings with the girls and
just kick back for a while, enjoying their victory.
     "I'm afraid so," Rei told her, dark eyes serious.  "Because
Usagi didn't take Saekianna out of the picture.  She and the
Sisterhood won't quit now, not as long as they see us as a threat to
them.  That's why I want you to know what we're up against."
     "I think we have a pretty good idea," Makoto said sourly.
     "They tried to grab you outside your place," Rei told the
girl.  "And Saekianna was planning to grab Usagi today.  That's the
heart of their plan to deal with any enemy.  All they need is one of
us, ladies.  This thing today, it was sloppy, rushed, and
overconfident.  We can't count on them doing that again.  The real
danger is from what will happen if they get hold of one of us."
     "You think they could break any of us?" Makoto asked,
face clouded.
     "I know they can," Rei told her.  "Given enough time, they
can get to anyone.  I know, I've seen it.  We can beat them in a
direct confrontation, and now they know that.  But what about if
they catch you, Makoto?  Or Ami?  They'll get you someplace
where they can work on you with drugs and depraved rituals that
have been passed down over the ages, and soon you'll be telling
them all you know."
     "I refuse to believe that it's that simple," Makoto grumbled.
     "Listen.  To.  Me."  Rei's gaze found each of them in turn,
pinning them with dark intensity.  "They can twist you around their
little finger.  They do that by changing your perceptions, making
you think black is white and up is down and obedience to them is
natural.  That kind of power tampers with the very essence of your
identity, of who you are.  If you twist a person around enough, then
you can take away all the things that made them the person they
were.  And it isn't easy to come back from that.  Sometimes, it isn't
even possible."
     Silence fell on the room, thick and heavy.  Rei saw them all
digesting her words, and nodded.
     "I've seen what kind of damage that this mind-rape can do,"
she told them.  "Once upon a time, I even helped do that damage.
That's why I'm telling you that we can't let the Sisterhood have an
opening.  We can't let anyone be taken, most certainly not Usagi.
>From here on in, it's going to be war, all or nothing.  Beryl just
wanted to kill us.  These women, they can do far worse to their
enemies."
     "They won't get the chance," Makoto said flatly.
     "We've been lucky so far, though," Minako said, her
stomach twisting at the memory.  "I almost wound up in their
clutches because I was overconfident.  And if they'd gotten you,
Makoto, they'd have ended up finding out you were Sailor Jupiter."
     "But now, we have an advantage," Ami spoke up.  Minako
started; Ami often sat quietly, but nothing got past her.
     "You mean Osiren Black," Rei stated.
     "Yes.  The preparations are complete," Ami said softly,
fidgeting in her seat.
     "You okay with this, Ami?" Minako asked.  "I mean, I
guess it's going to be kind of weird for you."
     "It won't be safe," Ami told them matter-of-factly.  "Aethyr
is a dangerous place.  And there might not be any answers there for
us."
     "But you understand why we have to go," Rei murmured.
"To protect our princess from the Sisterhood, to protect ourselves.
You understand how important this is."
     "Yes, Rei," Ami nodded.  "You made your point.  We can
go any time."
     'The sooner, the better," Makoto said with an impatient
wave.
     "Don't be in such a hurry," Minako grinned.  "You know
that the 'grand tour' proceeded directly to Usagi's room.  We
won't see them for a little while yet."
     "Things are getting hairy," Rei said, her eyes distant.  "They
should take what time they can."
     Minako regretted her words as she studied Rei's solemn
profile.  Things were bound to get more than a little tense when
Mamoru found out that Usagi and Rei had been intimate.  Mamoru
didn't like them very much, and he liked Rei least of all.  If anyone
could juggle Mamoru and Rei, it would be Usagi, but the early
goings weren't bound to be easy for any of them.  And if she didn't
succeed, well, that didn't bear thinking about.
     They'd all suffered through enough emotional turmoil
recently.
     "Oh, by the way, guess who else I saw today during
monster fun-time," Minako piped up.  "Our very own blonde and
yummy Sailor Uranus."
     "You're kidding," Makoto said.  Minako noticed that she
now had the tall girl's undivided attention; Makoto had always kind
of idolized Haruka, a fact that hadn't escaped Minako's notice.  Or
anyone else's, in all probability.
     "Nope.  She put in a brief appearance, but we didn't get a
chance to talk."
     "Talk," Makoto echoed, a tinge of bitterness in her voice.
"What would you say?"
     "I don't know," Minako admitted.  "But sooner or later,
we're going to have to figure that one out.  I'd thought that we
could give this thing some time, but if we keep running into
situations like we did today we're going to end up running into the
others in a ... shall we say, professional capacity."
     "First things first," Rei interjected.  "Let's concentrate on
the near future for now."
     "Where are your new friends, Rei?" Minako asked.  "I
thought it seemed quiet in here."
     "They flew home, making sure we weren't followed," Rei
said.  "Right now they're pestering Artemis."
     "How do you know that?" Ami asked.
     "I just do.  Ami, will it be a problem of they come along
with us?  They have a lot of experience in Aethyr."
     "No, no problem.  As long as they're with us when we
return."
     "You know, something's been bothering me," Makoto said,
rubbing her palms against her thighs briskly.  "You guys didn't go
out for very long, and like you said before, it's a big city.  How did
the Sisterhood happen to be right where you were?  That's a
mighty big coincidence."
     Everyone was silent again, and Minako winced.  It sounded
like Makoto was making an accusation, whether she intended it that
way or not.
     "I've been thinking about that myself," Rei said, apparently
unperturbed.  "They must have done a scrying to determine the
most likely place we would appear."
     "Whoa," Minako said.  "Back up.  I'm no magick expert, but
could they use that to find us?"
     "No," Rei assured her.  "That's not how it works.  The spell
can be used to scan probabilities in the near future.  The farther into
the future you try to look, the more muddled the vision becomes.
Anything past four to six hours becomes nearly impossible to
decipher, so its window of usefulness is extremely limited."
     "Fine," Makoto said.  "Limited window, got it.  But they
can still see the future."
     Rei sighed and ran her fingers through her hair, sending
ripples through it as she thought.  She was very close, and Minako
considered reaching up to touch her.  Rei seemed very focussed,
though, and Minako didn't want to invoke that legendary temper.
     "Setsuna could probably explain this better than I," Rei said
at last.  "The future exists as probabilities, branching off endlessly.
People's decisions affect which branches become reality, solid, and
which fade away.  You can't just turn the spell on and tell it to look
for Makoto Kino.  You have to trace the most prominent lines of
fate, looking for something that stands out, something significant
enough to be found even amongst the tangle of possible futures."
     "Sounds hard," Minako admitted, pulling her legs up into
the chair and wrapping her arms around them.
     "It is damned near impossible," Rei told her.  "In this case,
Saekianna had a few factors in her favour.  She's seen us mostly in
the Triangle, so she probably narrowed the geographical scope to
that area.  Then she planned to execute whatever exactly it was that
caused those monsters to gather.  That created a nexus of
probabilities that was easy to find.  Then she looked for us there."
     "Huh," Makoto sniffed.  "Some trick.  We were pretty likely
to show up to a disaster like that anyway."
     "True," Rei conceded.  "She probably had a few different
sites chosen for the attack, and changed the plan accordingly to see
where we had the greatest probability of appearing."
     "That sounds a little like cheating," Ami frowned.
     "It's a bit of a cheat, but she had the means and will to carry
through, so it would work," Rei shrugged.  "The spell takes a lot of
energy and can't be maintained long, especially if they have
something big planned for Baniesti.  They'd want to conserve their
strength.  So she planned her big bang, found the place that was
most likely to bring us running, and went ahead with it."
     "So what went wrong?" Ami asked.
     "Scrying is tricky business.  If it was so simple to see the
future and predict what was going to happen, Setsuna could use the
Time Gate to be a goddess."
     "I've always kind of thought of Setsuna as a goddess
anyway," Minako purred.  "All cool and imperious, just waiting for
the right lover's touch to unlock all that repressed passion ..."
     "Getting back to the matter at hand," Rei said firmly, giving
Minako a swat on the head, "scrying uses a prohibitively large
amount of magickal energy.  While they can try to see if it's likely
we'll appear at a certain event at a certain time, they can't just go
looking around for us at random.."
     "But they can pull the same trick they used today," Makoto
pointed out.
     "Next time, we'll be ready," Minako said with a cocky grin.
     "Hopefully, there won't be a next time," Rei said.  "But we
are going to have to be careful, at least until Baniesti.  Any crisis
could be a trap for us."
     "We could put an end to all this, though, if we find what
we're looking for.  Couldn't we?"  Ami's voice was soft and nearly
plaintive, and all three girls turned to look at her.
     "That would be ideal," Rei told her.  "But Ami, don't try to
do too much.  You know Aethyr, and we're counting on you once
we go over.  Don't put all the pressure on yourself, okay?"
     "She's right," Makoto said, patting Ami on the shoulder.
"We're all in this together."
     "I know," Ami said, smiling up at Makoto.  "Don't worry, I
won't let you down."
     "Hey," Minako said, stretching languorously.  "How about
we get something to eat?  If we're going to go romping around in
some dangerous mystical plane, I for one would like to do it on a
full stomach."
     There was a general agreement on that point, and they all
got up to go into the kitchen.  Minako noticed Rei hanging back,
though, and stopped.
     "It'll be okay, Rei," she said.  "Usagi will break it to him
gently."
     "It's just another distraction that we can't afford right
now," Rei said, her dark eyes hooded.
     "Yeah, life's funny that way," Minako snorted.  "Never
waiting for a convenient time.  Look, you and Usagi are closer than
ever, right?  So you'll have to do some work to share her with
Mamoru.  I'd say you're still ahead of the game."
     "I'm sorry," Rei said, taking Minako's hand between hers
and kissing the palm gently.  "That must have seemed pretty
insensitive to you."
     "Well," Minako sniffed.  "I'll think of a way for you to
make it up to me.  Somehow."
     "Certainly," Rei said, her eyes glittering.  "I'll write it down
and put it next to the list of things I'm going to do to get even with
you for screwing with my costume.  Or had you thought I would
forget about that?"
     "Oh," Minako said brightly.  "Makoto's calling.  We'd
better go see what she needs!"
     Rei let that go, but Minako knew that the girl hadn't
forgotten.  Rei was going to have her revenge, that was certain.
     Minako shuddered lightly.  That prospect filled her with a
mixture of apprehension and anticipation.
     One thing was for certain, though.  It was bound to be
intense.

***

     Usagi lay beside Mamoru on the bed, wishing that they
could stay like that for hours.  Unfortunately, the rest of the world
hadn't stopped for them, and they'd soon have to go join the
others.
     Her hand was loosely twined with his, thumbs stroking
along each other in a lazy dance of tantalizing touch.  His breath
stirred her hair, her face nestled close to his chest.
     "Usako?"
     "Mmmm?"
     "This pillow smells like Rei."
     Ooops.  Time for that discussion already?
     "She slept with me last night," Usagi said softly.
     "Just slept?"
     "Well, no."
     Silence greeted that.  Too much honesty too soon?  Well,
nothing for it.  She pulled back so she could see his face, clasping
his hand more tightly.
     "We talked about this," she said, staring into those solemn
blue eyes.  "You said you wouldn't get jealous."
     "I said I understood that I'd have to share you," he replied,
the pale light picking out highlights in his raven's wing hair.  "I
don't recall saying that I wouldn't be jealous."
     "Mamo-chan," Usagi murmured.  "I've never lied to you
about my feelings.  I love my senshi, all of them.  And I love you.
It can't be wrong to love, Mamo-chan.  Together, our love makes
us strong."
     "I've never lied about my feelings either, Usako," Mamoru
replied.  "I know how much they mean to you, so I try to get along.
For your sake.  But I can't pretend it's easy."
     "As long as you're willing to try," Usagi breathed.
"Because I know that we can work it out, as long as we're
together."
     "If it was anyone but you, that sort of wide-eyed optimism
would sound completely unrealistic," Mamoru sighed, shifting his
weight.  "But you, Usagi Tsukino, you're in a class all by yourself."
     "Such talk," she murmured throatily.  "It'll turn my head,
handsome.  C'mere."
     She barely had to move to bring her mouth over his, and
they kissed, a slow, tender kiss that slowly grew hotter and more
passionate.
     "Whoa," she whispered breathlessly.  His arms were around
her waist, her hands flat against his lean back.
     "Did I mention," he whispered back, "that I missed you?"
     "I missed you, too," she told him.  "If we had time, we
could stay right here and I'd show you just how much."
     She enjoyed the way his eyes widened at that, and she
giggled as she rose from the bed, tossing her ponytails back
insouciantly.
     "Usako ..."
     "Come on," she said briskly.  "I bet the others are waiting."
     "You mean, waiting to go into Aethyr on this dangerous
and poorly conceived mission?" he replied sourly, retrieving his gun
from the end table.
     It was her turn to sigh.  She'd told him most of what had
been happening, leaving out only Ranma's identity as the Outsider
and Rei's past.
     "It's necessary, Mamo-chan," she told him patiently.  "Too
much is happening, and we need any advantage we can get."
     "I won't argue that point.  However, I'm coming along."
     "Really?" she beamed, clasping her hands in delight.
     "Really," he said gravely, taking her in his strong arms and
kissing her lightly.  "I can't let my best girl go wandering around
someplace like that without her prince at her back.  Some
wandering faerie might take a shine to you and spirit you away."
     "I'd always find my way back to you," she purred, wrapping
her arms around his neck and kissing him again.  "You know that."
     He growled deep in his throat.  "If you don't stop doing
that," he breathed, "we won't be going anywhere."
     "Yeah," she sighed wistfully.  "I guess duty calls."
     Regretfully she pulled away from him, opening the door and
stepping out into the hall.
     "Mamo-chan," she said over her shoulder.  "Just be nice,
okay?  They're my girls, and you're my guy.  I want you all to get
along.  For me?"  She delivered that last with a wide eyed,
imploring stare that was sure to melt the sternest heart.
     "For you," he agreed.  She favoured him with her most
dazzling smile.
     Well, it was a start.  Now if only the rest of this mission
went as smoothly.

***

     I'd spent a couple hours helping Artemis out while Rei's
little friends crawled around on my head and made sarcastic
remarks.  I kept hoping he'd throw them out, but it turned out their
little hands were useful for working on micro-glyph circuits.
Whatever the hell those were.
     Afterwards, we followed Luna to the kitchen and had
something to eat.  The others were there, except for Usagi, who
arrived soon afterwards with a tall, dark-haired guy I took to be the
mysterious man in the tuxedo.
     "I knew the smell of food would bring you running," Rei
said, handing Usagi a plate.
     "Oh, pooh," Usagi responded.  "I just thought it was time to
go."
     "A likely story," Rei sniffed.
     "I don't think we've met," the tall guy said, fixing me with a
cool stare.  As stares went, it was pretty good, but I've been stared
down before.  "I'm Mamoru Chiba, Detective Constable, SPD."
     "Ranma Saotome," I replied blithely.  "Remember?"
     "You guys met already," Usagi frowned.
     "Oh, yeah," Minako said breezily.  "I forgot.  Here."
     A moment later I was doused with cold water.  I blew
dribbling droplets away from my mouth as Minako regarded me
with satisfaction.
     "Gods, I just love that," she said, grinning.  "I don't think I
could ever get tired of a sight like that."
     "I'm not a playtoy," I gritted, shaking droplets from my
sleeves.  When I'd changed back to a guy earlier, I'd found
Minako's predictions about the clothes right on the money.  The
coat had shifted to accommodate my broader shoulders and
increased height, and the shirt had stretched as well, albeit without
the benefit of magic.
     "You," Mamoru said slowly.  "You're that girl from before.
But ..."
     "Oh, did I forget to mention that?" Usagi asked around a
mouthful of food.
     "It'd funny, just how quickly you grow accustomed to it,"
Rei added, eyeing me carefully.  Following her gaze, I realized how
my wet shirt was clinging to my breasts, and tried not to blush.  The
locals' attitudes towards sex just seemed to permeate their whole
society, to the point where I wasn't sure if there was anywhere that
bringing it up was considered inappropriate.  Home was never like
this.
     The meal was excellent, which I gathered was mostly the
doing of Makoto.  I'd previously seen the tall girl mostly in a
leather jumpsuit; it was odd how at home she seemed in an apron.
There was some discussion, which I mostly stayed out of.
However, I gathered that Mamoru was joining us on our trip to this
Aethyr place, which seemed to neither surprise nor delight the girls.
Minako hadn't been exaggerating when she'd told me that he was
none too fond of them.
     When we were done, a strange, anticipatory silence fell on
the group all at once.  We all knew what was coming, but it was as
though everyone was waiting for someone else to make the first
move.  The moment stretched out to the verge of becoming
uncomfortable, then Ami finally cleared her throat.
     "Well," she said softly.  "I suppose we should get started.
Why don't you all follow me?"
     The tension eased, and everybody started talking again.
There was a slight edge to the chatter, but not as much as I would
have expected.  I supposed that they had been through situations
like this before, after all.
     We went downstairs, making our way down into the
basement where the big pattern lay.  Mamoru looked around with
cool eyes, taking everything in even as he kept up his side of a
conversation with Usagi.  The guy knew his business; I'd have bet
he was very good at being a cop.
     All too soon we ended up in the spooky room with the two
patterns, one big, one small.  Although, from what I gathered, we'd
only be using the big one.  I noticed that Makoto walked close
behind Ami, her mein protective and sisterly.  I'd have thought Ami
didn't even notice, except that she reached back as we went
through the doorway and brushed Makoto's hand with hers in a
small gesture.  I kept being reminded of how much history there
was amongst these girls.  Their friendships went deep.
     Nice.  Nice to have friends.
     We gathered around the circle, Ami standing at its edge
facing us.  I couldn't tell what changes she might have made to it,
but she was the expert, and she said it was good to go, so I had to
assume it was.
     "Okay, everyone," Ami said, speaking clearly and losing
some of her characteristic reticence.  "There are just a few things I
want to go over with you before we cross.  First, the rules are
different in Aethyr.  If you see something like looks strange or
unnatural, don't panic.  Its very essence is change, remember.
Borders change, most landmarks change, your clothes will even
change to reflect your mental state.  So keep focussed.  And stay
together.  I am the only one of us capable, as far as we know, of
making the transition.  We have to be together to come back.  You
don't want to get left behind."
     "Why not?" Mamoru asked.  "What would happen?"
     "When we cross, you'll notice something strange about
your shadow," Ami told him, adopting that lecturing tone once
again.  "You will see bits of the portal's pattern contained within it.
That is your anchor against the chaotic nature of Aethyr realm.  If I
return without you, though, that anchor will vanish.  Humans can't
exist long in Aethyr without protection.  Within as little as a day,
you could literally vanish into the fabric of that strange space.
Also, don't let your shadow fall across any areas of true Shadow
we might encounter.  It will disrupt the anchor."
     "Swell," he said sourly.
     "I'll be right there the whole time," Ami said firmly.  "And
Phobos and Deimos are experienced with the dangers of the realm
as well.  If things start to get bad, though, I'm bringing us back
immediately."
     "Will we be able to use our powers?" Usagi asked, brow
furrowed.
     "Ami used her visor to record the images of Osiren Black,"
Rei reminded her.
     "Oh, yeah," Usagi said sheepishly.
     "Our powers will be very close to the surface," Ami said
with a smile in Usagi's direction.  "I change just by thinking of it.
Summoning your henshin rod is not necessary.  The most important
thing, though, is to stay close together and follow my instructions
carefully.  Okay?"
     Nobody seemed to have any objections to that, not even
Mamoru.  Ami nodded.  Artemis and Luna stepped close to the
wall; it had been decided over dinner that somebody should remain
behind and monitor Ami's information nets, looking for signs of the
Sisterhood or our vampire friend while we were gone.
     "Okay, then," Ami said, straightening up with a determined look
on her face.  "Would everybody please step into the circle?"

***

     There was a moment of disorientation, a prickling of power
over the skin, and then they were standing somewhere else.
     Minako looked around her in awe.  The light was brilliant,
golden and rich, although she saw no sun in the arch of the indigo
sky.  They stood in a grassy clearing surrounded by lush trees of
every variety, including many which were just unnatural in shape,
size, colour, or all of the above.  The brief images they'd seen hadn't
done the place justice; the air was thick with something, power or
promise or just mystery, but most of all otherworldliness.
     Minako could see why Ami had kept coming back.
     "Okay, everyone," Ami called.  "Remember to stay close.
Phobos, Deimos, would you check if there are any patches of
Shadow in our path?"
     "Sure," Phobos said.  They took to the air in a gleeful tangle
of intersecting spirals, wingtips nearly touching as they soared into
the alien sky.  There was something curiously fey about the way
they played with each other and the very sky itself as they flew,
something that lifted Minako's heart along with them.
     "Whoa," Makoto said.  Minako brought her attention back
to earth to find that Makoto was staring at her, and she looked
down to find she was now wearing a diaphanous gown of filmy
white material that flowed around her like grace given physical
form.
     "Minako," Usagi breathed.  "That's beautiful.  How did you
do that?"
     "I didn't," Minako said, laughing and pirouetting with sheer
delight.  "Not on purpose."
     "I wonder if ..." Makoto began, then stopped short as her
clothes swirled and morphed into a tight, sleeveless green dress
with a long slit in the side of the sleek skirt.  After that, several
minutes of raucous exhibitionism followed, with almost everyone
joining in.  Ranma didn't seem interested in playing, although
Minako noticed that he was wearing a red version of the high-
collared shirt he'd lent her ...
     He?
     "Hey, Ranma," she said, sweeping the long, multicoloured
feathers attached to her corset out of the way with one hand.
"Weren't you still a girl when we came across?"
     "Yeah," he said slowly, giving her a puzzled look.  "Why do
you ..."  He broke off abruptly, giving himself the once over.
     "That's weird," Makoto said.  "Shouldn't you still be a
girl?"
     As she spoke, Ranma's form shimmered and he was once
again a she.
      "Whoa, again," Makoto muttered.
     "Hey, I wonder if I can do that?" Minako asked, excited.
     "I like you as a girl," Rei told her, looking stunning in a
silky dress with a high collar but virtually no back.
     "You think everybody looks better as a girl," Minako
pointed out. "I think it'd be a trip.  Hmmmm.  Anything?"
     "I think this must have something to do with Ranma's
curse," Ami said slowly as Minako continued to try to change.
"Just as the nature of the realm allows us to transform without
actually calling our henshin rods, he can activate his shape shift
mentally by thinking about it."
     "Huh," Ranma said, boy once again.
     "Sorry, Minako," Rei said, mischief lurking in her violet
eyes.  "But if it's any consolation, that's a very fetching outfit."
     Minako looked down to find she was wearing a man's
tuxedo, black with red cummerbund and bow-tie.
     "Hey, this does look good on me," she said, giving herself a
quick appraisal.
     "You know, I love the cut of a tuxedo," Usagi said
playfully, taking Minako's hand and spinning her slowly as Mamoru
looked on.
     "They're back," Ami announced.  Everyone stopped to
watch as Phobos and Deimos danced across the sky, coming to rest
upon Rei's shoulders.
     "Clear," Deimos announced.  "Things are relatively quiet."
     "All right," Ami nodded.  Minako noticed that the girl was
wearing her fuku and had summoned her visor as well.  One by one,
the others followed suit.  Minako considered calling up her Mistress
V togs, but decided to go with the flow.  Ranma stayed a boy in his
red silk shirt and loose pants, and Mamoru ...
     "Mamo-chan!  That's lovely!"
     "Hmmm," Mars mused.  "Isn't that your dress armour from
your days at court?"
     "Yes," Mamoru frowned, looking down at his black and
sliver breastplate and clothes, sword slung at his hip.  "I don't know
what made me think of it."
     "Well, I like it," Sailor Moon beamed.  "You look dashing,
Mamo-chan."
     "Or Prince Endymion, if you prefer," Mercury noted.
     "It's fine," he said, shaking his head.  "Let's just get going."
     Mercury set out, the others following close behind.  Venus
kept an eye on the strange surroundings, but although she heard
rustling and the occasional bird cry, she saw none of the local
creatures.  When she caught sight of her own shadow, she paused
and saw that, indeed, the faint glimmering lines of the portal were
visible within it.
     How Ami had ever managed to survive here alone, a
frightened young orphan, was beyond her.  But one thing was for
certain; Minako Aino had underestimated that girl.  Quiet and
unassuming, Ami had seemed ill-suited to be a senshi, or so Minako
had first thought.  The girl had proven to be cool in a crisis, though,
and fully as powerful as any of them.  But even now, she was
something of an enigma; Minako had never been able to figure out
what made the girl tick.
     She seemed fully at ease in this strange environment,
though, taking the lead as if it were the most natural thing in the
world.   The party followed a winding path that lead through the
long grass and into the forest.  Venus walked carefully, gaze
shifting from side to side as they were enveloped in the shady quiet
of the lush, alien woods.  It might have been nerves, but she had the
eerie sensation that she was being watched.  She thought about
mentioning it, but decided that she didn't want to seem so easily
spooked.
     "Willow," Mercury said, signalling a halt.  "It's all right, you
can come out.  They're my friends."
     Venus looked from side to side, wondering who Ami was
talking to.  The others seemed similarly baffled, but moments later
there came a rustling from the heavy undergrowth, and a
glimmering ball of light rose up into the air.  At first, Venus thought
it was some sort of will'o the wisp, but as it approached Mercury
the glow faded and she could see that it was some sort of faerie
sprite, all wild blonde hair and gossamer wings.  Mercury held out
her gloved hand, and the faerie lighted upon her palm with fey
grace.
     "Hello, Ami," Willow said softly, her voice a light, melodic
brush across the ears.
     "These are my friends, Willow," Mercury said.  "Remember
I told you about them?"
     "Friends," Willow echoed.  "Ami never came before with
anyone else, not since back then."
     "It's nothing like that," Mercury assured her.  The fairy girl
seemed mollified by that, but as her gaze shyly swept the assembled
group it stopped at Mars, a scowl distorting those fine elfin
features.
     "You," she spat.
     "Heya, Wills," Deimos said cheerily.  "Hows tricks?"
     "Stupid boy-stealing crow-girls," Willow retorted.  "Why
are you here again?"
     "Are you still cheesed about that?" Deimos asked
indignantly.  "I mean, get over it already!  He wasn't going home
with you, anyway!  It's not my fault you don't know how to make a
man happy!"
     "Willow knows plenty about keeping boy-fairies happy,"
the sprite shot back, hands planted on her hips as she bent forward.
Then she did a little undulation with her hips, a sultry little come-on
move that made Venus blink.  Yep, no doubt that this little spitfire
knew how to get attention.
     "Willow," Mercury said.  "When we saw the crows last
time, you knew they were Phobos and Deimos?"
     "Willow knows them," the tiny girl replied petulantly.
"Willow didn't think Ami cared about crow-girls.  Not even real
fairies."
     "Well, excuse us," Phobos sniffed.
     "Okay, truce," Mercury sighed.  "Listen, Willow, we're
going to look at the castle thing.  Remember?"
     "But it pushes, Ami.  Willow told you," the fairy frowned.
"Maybe you won't be able to get close."
     "We want to look anyway," Sailor Moon said gently,
leaning down to look at Willow.  "Would you like to come along?"
     "Uh-huh," Willow mumbled, staring wide-eyed at the other
girl.
     "Good.  Let's go," Mercury said, starting off again.
     "Ami!  Guess what!  Dragon took the shiny ball-thing!"
     "Really?  Well, I suppose I'm not surprised, Willow.  But at
least you were safe, right?"
     "Ha!  Willow doesn't stay around where Dragon is,"
Willow announced.
     The two chatted as they walked, with Willow only
occasionally turning to glare at Phobos and Deimos.  It made Venus
smile in spite of herself; if wounded feelings were the worst they
had to face here, then she'd consider the trip a smashing success.
     Ranma was walking near her, still a boy and looking quite
striking.  The red suited him, and she noticed that his shirt was now
a sleeveless version, perhaps prompted by the warmer temperature
here, and that he also wore bracers on his wrists.  He noticed her
watching him and frowned.
     "What?"
     "Just admiring the view," she said flirtatiously.
     "Huh," he replied.  "You know, I've never seen you wear
yours before.  Senshi uniform, I mean.  Looks good on you."
     "Well, thank you," she said.  It wasn't the silvered words
that some slick suitors in the past had showered upon her, but
coming from Ranma she considered the compliment sincere, and
therefore especially precious.
     Before she could pursue the subject of their mutual
attractiveness, though, she noticed the golden light becoming
brighter.  They were approaching the edge of the trees, and ahead
of them the others had stopped dead.
     When she had joined them, she saw why.
     They stood at the top of a long, gentle slope of verdant
grasses that rippled in the fitful breeze.  It was like summer in
paradise, golden blossoms of earthbound sunlight scattered in artful
disarray across the landscape.
     All that, however, paled in contrast to the land's end, and
the apparition that floated above it.
     The edge of the world stretched in both directions, as if a
ragged mouth as wide as the horizon had descended and bitten it
off.  That sight alone was enough to make the breath catch, but the
castle of black crystal added a resonant note of wonder to the vista.
It was at once majestic and forsaken, a once proud fortress that
could not be totally stripped of its aura of foreboding power, even
cast adrift here in an alien place, abandoned and long forgotten.  Its
soaring towers and implacable walls spoke of might that lay
dormant, but in an uneasy sleep.  To tread carelessly within those
walls was to chance waking such a power.
     It was not a thing to be done lightly.
     "So," Sailor Moon said at last.  "That's Osiren Black."
     "No doubt about it," Mars nodded.
     "Looks spooky, doesn't it?" Jupiter muttered.  That was
putting it mildly as far as Venus was concerned, but she didn't
bother to say so.  Just the mere sight killed the urge for idle chatter.
     "Well, we won't get in if we just stand here," Mercury said
at last.  "Come on.  Let's get a closer look."
     She set off down the hill, and one by one the others
followed.  To Venus, it felt like a subtle weight descended upon her
body as they came under the gaze of the ruined giant.  There
were signs of some long ago battle visible as they drew nearer;
shattered spires, wounds gouged from the walls and inner
structures, irregular patches in the smooth profile.
     The word "haunted" might just have been coined to
describe this place, Venus thought.  And we, of course, want to go
inside.
     "Mercury," Mars said in a hushed tone.  "What is this place?
It looks like the end of the world."
     "This is called the Abyss," Mercury replied.  "And essentially, it
is the end of the world.  It's one of the few physical boundaries in
this place that never changes.  The land just ends there, and there's
nothing beyond but sky."
     "They say that on a clear day you can see forever," Phobos
said softly.  She clung to Mars' shoulder, staring dreamily off at the
edge and kicking her feet idly.
     "They also say that people see that sometimes don't come all the
way back," Deimos added, nuzzling her mistress' cheek.
     "When you stare into the abyss, the abyss also stares into
you."
     Venus blinked.  The words had been so soft that she'd
barely heard them, and was certain no one else had.  Ranma didn't
seem the type to wax poetic, and when he saw her staring at him he
shrugged self-consciously.
     "Something somebody said to me once," he said ruefully.
"I'm pretty sure he didn't mean it literally, though."
     "Oh, that abyss," she said softly.  "Yeah, I've visited the
edge a time or two.  A lonely and desolate place, that edge.  People
sometimes don't come all the way back from there, either.  And the
longer you spend there, the greater the chance that one misstep will
put you over the edge."
     Ranma didn't say anything for a time, and just as she had
decided that he wouldn't, he spoke in a low tone meant only for
her.
     "Some people belong there," he said, his stare distant.  "It's
the only place where they feel alive."
     She didn't know what to say to that.  She was becoming
more certain that Ranma was a person with deep scars on his soul,
someone who might just plunge into a self-destructive personal
implosion of violence and death.  And anyone near him when that
happened would be taken along for the ride.
     She was becoming fond of Ranma; well, maybe a little more
than that if truth be told.  But to risk the cold and treacherous
winds that blew along the edge of the abyss took more than
fondness.  You had to care a lot for a person to risk that, and even
then it wasn't necessarily enough.  Minako Aino was Sailor Venus,
and she had a princess to protect as well as several sister senshi
who were dear to her.  Would she, could she, risk all that for this
boy, who might not even be willing to be saved?
     She didn't know.  There were times when she saw glimpses
of the person inside, and he was someone she wanted to know.  But
there were other times when she couldn't ignore that Ranma
Saotome was a troubled man with an intensely painful past that he
rarely spoke of and a lost love whose very name pained him.  If she
was honest with herself she had to admit that, seductive as the
notion was, love wasn't always enough to cure a broken heart.
Rei's vision had showed a broken figure, empty and soulless.
Venus dearly hoped that future would not come to pass.
     But she knew that it could.  She'd seen people succumb to
despair as a young girl, and the impact of that sight had never left
her.  When a person lost their grip on the world, all the good
intentions and hope in another's heart could not bring them back.
     She shook her head impatiently.  Such dark thoughts, she
told herself.  It's just this place, kiddo.  Don't go worrying about
this, okay?  Ranma's got it wired pretty tight right now.  Let's deal
with one thing at a time.
     They were approaching the brooding shadow of the castle
now, and Venus found herself looking around.  There was no sun, a
fact she'd already established, yet the shadows were sharp and well-
defined.  She looked more carefully at the group ahead of her and
felt a tiny chill skitter down the flesh of her neck and along her
spine.
     Everybody's shadow was cast in a different direction.
     There was something fundamentally wrong about that.
Perhaps she'd just let herself be lulled by the warm air and charming
fairy girl, lulled into forgetting where she was.  But this wasn't her
world, and it wouldn't do to forget that.
     They entered the castle's shadow, and the air temperature
seemed to drop instantly.  Silence settled upon the little group as
Osiren Black loomed over them, instilling a sort of atavistic dread
with its mere presence.  The playful breeze had stilled, unwilling or
perhaps unable to enter the shadowed threshold of this place.
     "Whoa," Mamoru said.  Sailor Moon was a few steps
ahead of him, and stopped, glancing back with an expression of
concern on her face.
     "Mamo-chan?"
     "This is ... weird," he said slowly.  The others had all
stopped and were watching him as he put his hands out and walked
slowly forward.  With each step, the effort seemed to become ever
greater, until he finally halted just short of Sailor Moon.
     "What's wrong?" Jupiter asked.  She moved closer, and
Venus followed suit.  As she did so, she felt a strange sensation,
akin to spiderwebs brushing across her skin like intangible phantom
breath.  Her clothing seemed to provide no impediment to it, and
she shivered involuntarily.
     "I can't go any further," Mamoru gritted, exertion clear on
his face.  "It's like something's ..."
     "Pushing," Mercury said softly.
     "It pushes," Willow agreed solemnly.
     "All around, Willow?"
     "Uh-huh.  Every all around."
     "Sailor Moon?" Mercury asked, moving so that her visor
covered the area.
     "I don't feel anything," the princess frowned, walking back
to Mamoru.
     "I do," Venus said.  "Like spiderwebs all over.  But it isn't
pushing me, really."  She walked up to where Mamoru stood,
droplets of sweat coursing down the sculpted curve of his high
cheekbones.  She thought about telling him how the sight made her
want to lick them off, but playful flirtation had never been
Mamoru's strong point.  Well, not with any of them, at any rate,
save Usagi.
     "Can you move at all?" she asked him.  He stepped back,
blue eyes fairly sparking.
     "Damn," he muttered.  "I can move back fine.  But if I try
to go forward, the resistance builds until I can't move."
     The others moved forward slowly, approaching the point
where Mamoru stood.  Mars acknowledged feeling the spiderweb
sensation on her skin, Jupiter said it felt to her like a sharp tingling.
Phobos and Deimos were able to progress a few feet past Mamoru,
but no further.  Willow wouldn't even try.
     "I'm not detecting anything unusual at all," Mercury
frowned.  "Sailor Moon, you don't feel anything?"
     "No," the princess replied.
     "Mars, Venus, try to go forward," Mercury instructed.
Mars set off, with Venus a step behind.
     "I still feel it, maybe a little stronger," Mars reported as she
passed Sailor Moon.  "But it doesn't appear to be strong enough to
impede my progress."
     "Ditto," Venus shrugged.  "It feels damned weird, but not
painful."
     "Hmm.  Jupiter?"
     Jupiter walked to where the other two senshi stood and
crossed her arms.
     "It's a little stronger," she admitted.  "But nothing I can't
handle."
     "Ranma?"  Venus watched as Ranma advanced, only to be
brought up short at almost exactly the same point as Mamoru.
     "That's really freaky," Ranma said.  "I can't feel anything,
but something is pushing me.  Like a current that gets stronger the
closer you get to its source."
     "Try changing into a girl," Venus suggested.  "Maybe men
can't enter."
     Ranma shrugged.  His form shimmered and shrank, but the
petite red-head had no more luck than her male self.
     "Damn," Mercury muttered as she joined the others.
     "No big deal," Jupiter shrugged.  "We'll just go take a
closer look.  It's not far."
     "I don't like splitting up," Mercury objected.  "Willow and
the twins would be fine if anything happened, but Mamoru and
Ranma would be in very big trouble.  They can't return without
me."
     "We've come all this way," Mamoru called out.  "It doesn't
make much sense to turn back now."
     "He's right," Ranma agreed.  "We'll be fine.  Go check it
out."
     "You don't understand," Mercury insisted.  "If we are that
far apart, then you two are vulnerable."
     "It's been a long time since anyone called me that,"
Mamoru said wryly.
     "Look, at the very least we can go back to the mansion,"
Mercury said.  "You two would be safe there while we came back
and explored ..."
     "Ooops," Venus muttered under her breath.  That was
exactly the wrong thing to say to just about any man, let alone
Mamoru.  There was no way he would sit in safety while Usagi
risked herself.  Even if it made no sense for him to stay.  She could
see by the look on the princess's face that she was thinking much
the same thing.
     "I was once Crown Prince of Earth," Mamoru replied, his
voice quiet and even.  "I am a decorated police officer, and I have
fought every kind of beast that lurks in the dark alleys of our city.  I
am not in the habit of turning tail every time things get tense.  I'll
stay right here until you all return.  If that's all right with you."
     Mercury's expression showed that she had gotten the
message, loud and clear.
     "I understand," she said, suitably chastised.  Just promise
me that you won't wander off.  Wait for us right here."
     "We'll be back soon," Sailor Moon promised, giving
Mamoru a parting kiss that lingered lovingly.  Ranma looked away,
clearly embarrassed, and Venus wondered again how someone so
tough could be so straitlaced about something like a little kiss.  His
world must be a very strange place, she thought.
     Then the five girls were ready, and set off across the cool
grass towards the edge of the world.
     "I don't think it's touching," Jupiter said, her lovely emerald
eyes narrowed.
     "The edge?  No, I don't think so either," Mercury agreed.
     "Wow.  It's big," Venus murmured, craning her neck back.
"Beautiful, kind of, but in a cold way.  Not real homey."
     "That feeling's getting stronger," Mars breathed.
     "Yeah," Venus nodded.  "I wonder what it is?"
     Nobody had an answer to that, and at last they stood at the
edge.  Venus looked down, fighting off a sense of vertigo.  There
was nothing below but scattered clouds receding into eternity.  It
was terribly disorienting, and she felt her balance slipping away.
Closing her eyes, she took a deep breath and raised her chin
carefully, then slowly opened them again.
     "Yikes," she said softly.
     "I second that," Mars whispered.  "Mercury, has anyone
ever tried to find out how far down it goes?"
     "Willow says she flew down for a few days one time.  She
ran low on food and water and had to come back.  She didn't say
much about what she saw, but in this place I wouldn't bet that the
Abyss couldn't literally be bottomless."
     "Well, what now?" Sailor Moon asked.
     Venus had to wonder that herself.  Osiren Black hung in the
air at least fifty feet from the edge of the Abyss, and from here there
didn't appear to be any projections for her to snag with her whip.
     "What do we know about this thing, anyway?" Jupiter
asked.  "I mean, who built it?"
     "Nobody remembers," Mars said.  "The Five Fortresses
were legendary even during the Silver Millennium, long abandoned
and rumoured to be haunted places.  They were surrounded in
mystery, and few people ventured there.  Over the ages, they
receded into the mists of time, forsaken and forgotten.  Of the other
four, two are known to have been destroyed by the Genrous.  Of
the others, Osiren Blue is supposedly still intact at the bottom of the
Western Sea, too deep to be explored.  Osiren Silver is rumoured
to have been occupied by the last of the Drakennin Sidhe, deep in
the Reaches."
     "And now this one, here," Jupiter said flatly.  "There look
to be gates there, big ones, set in that wall."
     "Yes," Mercury confirmed, adjusting her visor.  "But even if
we could get over there, I'm not sure we could force our way
through.  My scans aren't penetrating that crystal.  I've never seen
anything like it."
     "Geez," Sailor Moon grumbled.  She walked out to the
edge and spread her arms wide.  "Come on, just let us in!" she
called out.
     "Not so close to the edge, princess," Mars cautioned.
Sailor Moon turned to make a retort, but her words remained
unspoken, swallowed in a low rumbling that spread through the air
like a physical force.  Sailor Moon saw their eyes widen, and turned
to see what they were gaping at.
     Venus couldn't believe it.  The gates, easily two hundred
feet tall, were slowly and majestically swinging inwards.  The five
girls watched in stunned silence as the massive slabs of crystal
moved, seemingly of their own accord.  Finally they stood fully
open, revealing a rectangle of crystalline interior.
     "What in the hells," Venus said hoarsely, "did you do?"
     "Nothing," Sailor Moon protested.  Venus shook her head.
The sensation of something brushing her skin all over had
intensified, and although it still wasn't painful it was somehow
disturbing.  It made her want to brush herself off fastidiously,
shaking out her hair and checking herself for bugs or something
even more unspeakable.
     "Mercury?" Jupiter asked.
     "I don't know what happened," the quiet senshi replied,
gaze fixed on the open gates.  "But apparently we've been invited
inside."
     "Yeah," Venus said slowly.  "But by WHAT?"
     "The boys are quite agitated," Mars said dryly, glancing
over her shoulder.  "I'll bet they're sorry they got stuck in the
cheap seats."
     "Uh, guys?" Sailor Moon said nervously.
     Venus moved to see what else could possibly be happening,
only to find herself flabbergasted once again.  Blocks of gleaming
black crystal seemed to be coalescing from the very air itself,
drawing themselves together to form a narrow finger.  That finger
extended from the open gates, slowly growing longer as it reached
across empty space towards them.
     "Come on in," Venus muttered.  "Don't mind the spooky
open-by-themselves horror movie humungoid gates and the
convenient bridge-from-nothing."
     "Ranma and Mamoru are sending us a message though the
girls," Mars said.  "They want to know what's happening."
     "Tell them," Jupiter suggested.  "There's no reason to hide
this.  The real question is, what do we do when that bridge gets
here?"
     "Dasma is supposed to be imprisoned in there," Mercury
pointed out.  "So it doesn't make much sense that she could be
doing this."
     "It's been a long time," Jupiter pointed out.  "Maybe she
got loose."
     "We came all this way," Sailor Moon told them.  "Don't
you think we should at least go inside and see what's what?"
     "Maybe we should wait for someone to hang a big 'Please
Enter the Deathtrap' sign first," Venus scowled.
     "Could the gate and the bridge be automatic, Mercury?"
Mars asked.
     "Anything's possible," Mercury admitted.  "I just can't tell
from here."
     They watched as the crystal bridge assembled itself across
the void, finally butting up against the edge of the Abyss.  The
stood back and watched it warily, but the bridge just sat there,
apparently having done all it was going to.
     "Okay," Sailor Moon said.  "Okay.  Well.  We came here
for a reason, right?"
     "Don't say it," Jupiter pleaded.  "You don't want us to walk
out on that thing, do you?  What if it goes away as fast as it came?"
     "It's a long way down," Venus pointed out.
     "People," Sailor Moon said, drawing herself up to her full
height.  "Have you all forgotten what's waiting for us back home?
A vampire on the loose?  The Sisterhood waiting to pounce on us
every time we turn around?  Us, the powerful and mighty Sailor
Senshi, hiding out like scared kids?  None of those problems have
gone away, and none of them are going to.  So.  Do we let this
chance pass us by without even trying to find out what's in there, or
do we show what we're really made of?"
     Venus smiled.  It was inspirational to watch that girl when
she was showing off her regal heritage.  She was a princess in more
than just title; she really had what it took.  When she wasn't being a
clutzy crybaby, at least.
     "Point taken," Mars said with a slight smile.  "Fortune
assists the daring, after all."
     "Excellent.  Me first."  Sailor Moon turned to go, evoking a
chorus of protests.  "Hey," the princess shouted, drowning them
out.  "I'm in charge, remember?  I'm first!"
     Mars stalked over to the princess, and Venus braced herself
for a torrent of angry words.  Instead, though, the raven-haired
senshi swept her princess into her arms and proceeded to kiss her
passionately.  Sailor Moon was taken off-guard, making a few
muffled protests before slowly being drawn in.  Venus shook her
head, stricken by equal parts jealousy and arousal.  The kiss went
on and on, the princess wrapping her arms lazily around Mars' neck
while their lips clung and slid hungrily over each other.
     "Yow," Jupiter muttered quietly.  "Are they ever coming up
for air?"
     "Um," Mercury mumbled, shuffling her feet and studying
the crystalline bridge much more closely than strictly necessary.
     Finally, the two girls let the kiss trail off, simply standing
there, each gazing into the other's eyes.
     "Princess," Mars whispered huskily.  "You know I love you.
And I respect you, as we all do."
     "I know," Sailor Moon replied softly.
     "We are your senshi," Mars went on.  "We serve you,
protect you, and if necessary risk our lives for you.  You have
nothing to prove to us.  And you aren't going first."
     Sailor Moon stood in the loose circle of Mars' arms, finally
letting her shoulders slump ever-so-slightly.
     "I know," she sighed.
     "Hey, Mars, could you explain it to me? Venus asked
lightly.  "From the beginning?"
     The others laughed while Mars shot her a sultry smile.
     "Maybe later," the fiery senshi purred.  "All right.  I'll go
first ..."
     "Bad plan," Jupiter interrupted.  "Here's what I think.  I go
first.  If the bridge crumbles, Venus can snag me with her whip and
you guys can pull me back.  If I make it, then Venus comes next.  If
the bridge lets go on her, she throws me her whip and I pull her up.
Then you guys, one by one."
     "Sound plan," Venus nodded.
     "Mamoru hates it," Mars informed them after a moment.
     "Too bad," Jupiter smirked.  "What with him being stuck
over there."
     "I'm still concerned about us splitting up even more than we
already have," Mercury said, doubt creasing her brow.
     "He says that he still isn't going anywhere," Mars shrugged.
"Look, Mercury.  We can stay in touch with the boys through the
twins.  If anything goes wrong, we come out and all get out of here
together.  But the princess is right, we need to take advantage of
this opportunity.  Back in the real world, events are starting to
breathe down our necks.  What do you say?"
     "All right," Mercury sighed breathily.  "All right.  Your points
are well-taken.  Let's do this, then.  But quickly.  The longer we
spend inside, the more chance of something going awry."
     "Oh, I wouldn't worry about the boys," Jupiter told her
with a gleam in her eye.  "I have a feeling those two can handle
anything stupid enough to mess with them."

***

     Mars listened to her footfalls echoing away into
nothingness.  The atmosphere of this place was gravid with its own
history, pressing on the skin insistently like dank mist.  The
sensation of spiderwebs on the skin had vanished when they'd
entered through the gates, but this feeling was easily much creepier.
Not that she intended to admit that to anyone.
     They'd been exploring for a while now, through barren
corridors and empty chambers, to no avail.  There was no sign of
habitation, only artifacts of strange design and unknown purpose.
Even Mercury couldn't fathom whether they were some type of
machine or magickal device, or even abstract art.
     "Man, this place creeps me out," Jupiter said in a hushed
voice.  Everyone spoke in hushed tones, even though it appeared as
though there was little chance of disturbing any living thing.
"Mercury, anything?"
     "No.  My scans still won't penetrate this crystal.  And the
residual energy readings I'm getting are just too strange for me to
make sense out of.  I'm sorry, I just can't find anything."
     "We're going about this all wrong," Sailor Moon
announced.  They stopped under an ornately carved arch and
waited for her to continue.
     "Think about it," the princess went on, her voice sounding
hollow as it drifted up through the wan air to the vaulted ceiling
high above.  "We're talking about goddesses here.  They love grand
gestures and drama, right?"
     "That's what all the stories say," Mars shrugged.
     "Right," Sailor Moon said firmly.  "They had a great big,
climactic battle, and then the winner sealed the loser up in here.
Where did Alieva imprison her defeated foe?"
     They stood in silence for a moment, then one by one their
gazes were drawn to the soaring lines of the central spire, largest of
the five main towers.
     "Up there?" Venus asked.
     "Up there," Sailor Moon nodded.  "In all the old stories,
doesn't the maiden always get locked in the highest tower in the
castle?"
     "It's worth a try," Jupiter sighed.  "This place is huge, and if
we have to look through all these rooms in the main castle plus all
those towers, we'll be here forever."
     There was a general agreement, so they set off through the
castle proper's main hall.  Fortunately, although the wings that let
off the main run were labyrinthine, navigating through the central
part of the castle was not difficult, and they found their way to a
point where they could enter the tower itself in short order.
     Gleaming stairs wound up inside the tower for a short distance,
ending in an alcove with an ornate pattern etched into the floor, but
no exit.
     "Have you guys noticed that there's no dust anywhere?"
Venus asked as they made their way into the alcove.  "This thing's
been here for a long time, but no dust."
     "I'd like to have the secret for my place," Jupiter said dryly.
     "Dead end," Mars observed.  "That's strange ..."
     Light flared around them for an instant, and the senshi fell
into a defensive posture, with the princess at its centre.
     "Whoa," Venus breathed, looking around warily.
"Everyone okay?"
     "I don't know what that was," Mercury replied.  "It
registered on my visor, but ..."
     "I know what it was," Mars told them.  She was facing the
rear of the alcove, or rather had been.  Now there was a window
there, and she gazed out from a dizzying height over the intricate
architecture of Osiren Black.
     "Again, whoa," Venus muttered.
     "Beats taking the stairs, I guess," Jupiter said ruefully.  "A
trap?"
     "I don't think so," Mercury said slowly.  "Look."
     At the inner edge of the alcove, there was now a set of ornately
carved, high double doors, made of the same dense glossy crystal as
the rest of the castle.
     "The pattern?" Mars asked Mercury.
     "It seems logical," Mercury admitted.  "But I couldn't
localize the energy surge."
     "What triggered it, do you suppose?" Venus asked.  "It
didn't do anything until we were all standing on it."
     "I've got a better question," the princess said, her blue eyes
sparkling with excitement.  "What do you suppose is behind those
doors?"
     "Well, we're here now," Venus pointed out.
     "That we are," Mars agreed.  "Suppose they're locked?"
     They weren't.
     At the merest touch of the princess's gloved hand, the doors
swung soundlessly wide, allowing access to the large circular
chamber beyond.  Mars looked at the doors as they passed through,
noting the strange symbols and designs that swam deep within the
crystal.  Who had put them there?  What did they mean?  Was there
anyone left who could answer those questions, or had Osiren Black
outlived those who had built it, doomed to slowly decay, its true
nature forever unknowable?
     The ceiling of the chamber was lost in high shadow, but
shafts of light penetrated the gloom from high windows set around
the curve of the wall.  Those shafts lanced down, meeting at a point
in the middle of the floor, and at that point something rested.
     Something that looked like a coffin.
     They stood together in the doorway, none of them saying
anything.  For Mars, the overwhelming sensations of loneliness and
awe evoked by the sight were joined by nagging doubt.  Was
Dasma really here?  The Dark Lady, the goddess she had
worshipped, could she be actually lying in that very room?  Like all
goddesses, she was wreathed in mystery.  The few paintings and
statues Mars had ever seen of her had obviously been highly
stylized; what would it be like to gaze upon the face of an actual
goddess?
     "Well," Sailor Moon whispered at last.  "I guess the old
stories had a grain of truth in them after all."
     "Good call," Venus whispered back.  "But now what?"
     "I don't know about you guys," the princess said, staring at
the pool of dusky light with her lips moist and slightly parted.  "But
I didn't come all this way to stop here."
     She took a step forward, and the others fell in behind her.
     "Mars," Venus hissed.  "What should we expect?"
     "I really have no idea," Mars replied hoarsely.
     "Booby traps?" Jupiter suggested.
     "We haven't encountered any problems so far," Mercury
murmured.  "There wouldn't have been much need for traps
anyway.  And I'm not detecting anything."
     As they drew nearer, footfalls clacking sharply on the cold
crystal, Mars could see that the object was indeed vaguely coffin
shaped.  It looked as though it had grown from the floor of the
chamber to approximately chest height, and it was definitely large
enough to hold a person.
     There were nearly at the nimbus of light now, all eyes fixed
on the prize.  The princess hesitated at the threshold of light,
lowering her head and taking a deep breath before proceeding.
Mars noted that the others had joined her in automatically
deploying around Sailor Moon so that she was surrounded by her
senshi.  Together, they moved into the light.
     The sensation of spiderwebs crawling over her skin returned
in force, then subsided to a slight nuisance level.  Nothing else
happened; it was rather anti-climactic, really.  The five girls
clustered around the chest-high protrusion of crystal, gazing down
expectantly.  The surface was flat, smooth, and cloudy.  There was
a faint suggestion, though, of something within, a dark form whose
outline could almost be discerned.  Carefully, the princess reached
her hand out and brushed at the surface, as if to wipe away a layer
of dust.
     The crystal shimmered under her touch and slowly, the
clouded substance began to lighten and clear.
     "What did you do?" Mars whispered.
     "Nothing," the princess replied breathlessly.  "I just touched
it."
     "I can see ... something," Venus said, excitement tightening
her voice.
     "A woman," Jupiter agreed.  "She's ... is that her?"
     Mars watched, her heart racing, as the crystal slowly cleared
to show the woman trapped within.  Her mind picked out details in
rapid succession, piecing them together as the sight became clear.
The woman was clad in flowing black robes that were frozen
around her body.  Beneath them she wore a dress of semi-
transparent, gauzy material that alternately clung and billowed,
revealing taut expanses of pale skin.  Her limbs were long and
sleek, arranged as if in restful sleep.
      Her hair was tied into elongated ovals on her head, swirling
into twin falls of lustrous silk that reached to her feet.  The colour
was beautiful, a rare shade that lay somewhere between the lighter
range of red and deep violet.  Upon her smooth forehead, a slim
black crescent moon emblem shone with dark light.  And beneath
that emblem, the sign of a fallen goddess, was the face of a goddess
...
     The senshi stood in stunned silence, taking in the details as
the trapped goddess's form became clear to them.  Mars couldn't
help it; she shifted her gaze slowly from those peaceful, perfect
features to the profile of her princess.  She was dimly aware that the
others were doing the same.  The princess, however, could not
seem to tear her gaze away.
     "Princess," Mars whispered.
     "Gods," Venus breathed.  "Is this really Dasma?"
     "The Dark Lady," Mars said, feeling as though the breath
had been driven from her body.
     "But why?" Mercury asked, confusion in her eyes.  "Why
does she look so much like ..."
     "Our princess?" Mars completed for her.  Still, the princess
hadn't looked away, her eyes wide as she gazed spellbound at the
form of the fallen goddess.  Mars looked down again, but the sight
hadn't changed.  The lines of that face were unmistakable; the bone
structure, the curve of the dark lashes, the lush mouth, the line of
the chin.  All fine, delicate, regal features that formed a beautiful
face, one that Rei Hino knew well, and loved.
     Dasma and Usagi could have been sisters.  What could it
mean?  What ...
     "Everyone!" Mercury cried out in alarm.  "Look out!
There's something in here!"
     Before any of them could move, a dark blur moved through
the air, passing close enough to Mars that her hair was ruffled by
the force of its passage.
     Then her princess cried out as something collided with her,
knocking her out of the light to fall sprawling on the cold crystal
floor.

***

     I shifted my weight, plucking a long blade of grass far
greener than any I'd ever seen and clasping it in my teeth.  No word
from the girls, and nothing for us to do but wait.  I sat on the
grass and tried to enjoy the serene atmosphere.  For a place that
was supposed to be so dangerous, Aethyr had so far proven to be a
cakewalk.
     Mamoru sat on the grass not far away.  He'd asked me
earlier about how I'd come to meet the others, but my terse
answers and his concern for his girlfriend had curtailed any further
discussion.  Deimos and Willow flew around in circles, insulting
each other while playing some sort of game that involved flying
around flowers in complex patterns.  Or something.
     Phobos sat on my shoulder.  I had no idea why the little
buggers liked sitting on me, but she was being quiet so I saw no
reason to squawk about it.
     I cast another glance at the castle.  The gates were still
open, but I could see little of what lay inside from where I sat.
Those girls sure were taking their time.
     On my shoulder, I could feel Phobos stiffen, and when I
glanced down her wings were extended to their full length,
quivering with tension.  Deimos, too, had stopped in mid-flight and
was staring at the black colossus at the edge of the Abyss.
     "What?" I asked, feeling the first fingers of concern
worming into me.
     When Phobos spoke, her voice was little more than a
whisper.
     "Trouble."

***

     Venus rolled to the side and came up in a crouch.  Her
uniform had grown long armoured shoulder guards for some
reason, and the one piece fuku was now two, but she had no time
to dwell on such mysteries.  The nimbus of light partially screened
the princess, and Venus slowly extended her foot and slid to the
side to get a better look.
     Sailor Moon lay on her back, something dark crouched above
her.  Venus was dimly aware that the others had spread out as well,
but most of her attention was reserved for her princess.  Damn,
how could they have let their guard down like that?  And where had
the thing come from?
     The dark form was too close to the princess for comfort,
practically lying on top of her.  Its palms were flat against the floor
and its arms cocked out to the sides, hemming in the princess as it
held itself barely a hair's breadth from her body.  The princess
looked to be stunned but unhurt, but Venus wasn't counting on that
continuing.  She ached to take a shot at the thing, but it was so
close to the princess.  Better to not provoke it, or to take the shot?
     "Princess?"  Mars' voice, soft and non-threatening.  "Can
you hear me?"
     "Yes," Sailor Moon replied softly.
     "Are you all right?"
     Venus shifted slowly, moving so that she would have a
better shot at the thing, her arm extended as she sought a safe
angle.
     "I think so."
     "What's it doing?" Mars asked as she flanked in the other
direction.  "Can you tell?"
     "Well, she seems to be, um, smelling me."
     She?  Venus stopped.  She could make out the creature's
head now, face lowered perilously close to the princess's bared
throat.  Was it preparing to strike?  Venus extended her finger,
feeling the power build within her.  Just a little more ...
     "Everybody, just take it easy," the princess murmured.
     "You," the creature hissed.  Venus started; its voice was
definitely female, low and sibilant.  "You have her sssscent.  Her
blood runs in your veinssss."
     "Um, whose blood?" Sailor Moon inquired as Mercury
waved at her from one side to remain silent.
     "The Lady," the shadowy creature crooned.  "And you bear
the mark of Paal Lunae."  That lithe dark form lay atop the princess
now, one hand trailing along the crystal floor to caress the insignia
upon the princess's choker.  Venus felt her skin prickle at those
words from a language that had been ancient when they had walked
the verdant surface of the moon.  She was no linguist, but she knew
the reference: Pale Luna, Mistress of the Night.  Few had referred
to the moon by that title before the fall; there were none besides the
senshi who would even remember that the cold and distant satellite
had once borne that proud and ancient appellation.
     "I am the princess of the White Moon Court," Sailor Moon
informed the creature.  Venus' heart seized with panic.  What was
she doing, invoking the name of the White Moon here?  If the
creature struck, none of them would be able to stop it from tearing
out the princess's throat.
     "Yessss," the creature hissed.  "You have come at last to
aid Her.  We have waited so very long, princesss.  So very long ..."
     "Um, could we possibly get up?" the princess asked
cautiously.  "This floor is hard."
     "Yesss," the creature murmured again.  It flowed to a sitting
position with boneless grace, straddling the princess easily and
reaching down to pull her up.  Then they rose together, and Venus
rose with them, still uncertain of whether to attack or just remain
ready.  She could see Mars nearly opposite her, and Mercury to one
side.  Jupiter was not in evidence, but Venus suspected that her
fellow senshi was lurking, using the border between shadow and
light for cover.
     Clever.  But if they'd been a little more clever, they
wouldn't be in this position.
     The creature which had bowled the princess over was
standing now, still entirely too close and with Sailor Moon's hands
in her own.  She wore a skintight suit of black, covered with a faint
scale-like design.  It was open at the throat, plunging deep to reveal
a wedge of bluish-gray skin and the curves of full breasts.  Her eyes
were amber and her lips dark, nearly black, standing out in sharp
contrast to that inhuman, blue-gray skin.  Her hair was as black as
her costume, slicked back from a sharp widow's peak against her
skull to fall down to the middle of her back.  She was striking,
perhaps even beautiful in an exotic, alien way.  But when she spoke,
those full lips parted to reveal fangs, and her pupils were slitted like
a cat's.  Beautiful or not, she had the bearing of a predator, and as
they'd seen, speed to match.
     "Thank you," the princess said warmly, as if this creature
hadn't been the one to knock her down in the first place.
     "So beautiful," the creature replied, leaning in close.  Venus
tensed, but Sailor Moon held out her free hand to forestall any
action as the sleek woman reached her hand up to trace the lines of
the crescent moon on the choker once again.  "Paal Lunae,
lonesome in the darkness.  She of the two faces, Pale and Dark.
Her  daughters bear her legacy and are beautiful indeed, and
fearsome.  And now they come to free their Lady from her unjust
bondage."
     "Tell me," Sailor Moon said softly, looking down at the
creature's rapt eyes.  "What is your name?"
     "Do you not know me, princesssss?  Proud and noble
daughter of Paal Lunae, I am the Lady's loyal servant."
     The creature's body shimmered and twisted, and suddenly
shrank in on itself.  Venus heard Jupiter cry out as a writhing snake
fell into the princess's arms, but Mars called out for them to wait,
and Venus froze in place.  She couldn't fire, anyway, not with the
thing so close to her princess.
     And yet, there was something familiar about it, as the dark
coils slithered up the princess's arm to wind around her shoulder in
a languorous embrace.  Something was cradled in Sailor Moon's
hand, something long and slender at the end of the coiling snake,
and it suddenly struck Venus what she was looking at.  But it was
Mars who named the creature, in a hushed, nearly reverent tone.
     "Banri."
     "Yessss," the girl crooned, returning to her humanoid form,
but now behind the princess.  She wound her arms around Sailor
Moon's shoulders and nuzzled the princess's cheek almost
kittenishly.  "The women of Paal Lunae were always the strongest,
the fiercest, and one who has the blood of my Lady would be the
strongest of all.  You have returned to the world in our time of
need, princessssss."
     "Whoa, hold on," Venus said, staring at the girl who had
turned into that cursed whip.  "How can you be here?  And ..."
     "I have the blood of your Lady?"  Sailor Moon's voice was
soft, but it cut through the still air without effort.
     "She was one of the defiant ones who gave life to the
kingdom of Paal Lunae, so very long ago," Banri murmured, still
nuzzling.  "Many of Lunae's queens could have traced their lineage
back to Her, although in time they came into their power and the
circle of renegade gods retreated to allow their children to grow
unhindered.  Did you not know this truth?"
     "Truth?" Jupiter spat.  "You expect us to believe that the
princess is descended from ... from HER?"
     "It's true," the princess whispered.  "Isn't it?  The reason
the White Moon was so advanced, so powerful, was that we were
descended from the gods who didn't pass through AsterGate when
it closed."
     "Yessss," Banri, purred, her eyes lidded.  "The Fall was
sudden, unexpected.  Proud Paal Lunae was laid waste before my
Lady and her kin could intervene.  But blood calls to blood,
princessss.  You have come to Her aid now, at last, to undo the
treachery wrought by Her jealous sissster."
     "Banri, isn't the Sisterhood helping you to free Her?" the
princess asked gently.  Venus noticed that Sailor Moon did nothing
to discourage Banri's attentions, allowing her to stand close and
touch her freely.  She wanted to separate the two, but was afraid
how the wild changeling girl might react.
     "Without the Lady's guidance, Her priestesses must be losssst,"
Banri breathed, nudging the princess's earring with her nose.
"Warm, princesssss.  So warm, and real ..."
     "But you were with the Nightmistress," Mars said firmly.
"A few nights ago, back in our world."
     Banri's head came up sharply, those slitted eyes narrowed.
     "What is thisss?" the girl demanded.  "I hid within the
fortress when my Lady was sealed so long ago.  I lack the power to
cross the barrier."
     "But the Nightmistress claims to have found you in the
labyrinth at Caostye," Mars persisted.  "Along with secret
knowledge that will allow her to free the Dark Lady."
     "Liessss," Banri hissed.  "That place was never completed,
never sanctified with Her power.  It holds no power, only cold
darknesssss."
     "I saw the whip she wielded, felt its power," Venus said
carefully.  "It was powerful, and it certainly looked like you."
     "I know the Nightmistress," Mars added, drawing Banri's
attention back to her.  "Her predecessor betrayed the Lady and the
Sisterhood in her greed."
     "Betrayal?" Banri growled.
     "Yes," Mars said gently.  "But that is not the case with this new
Nightmistress.  She overthrew the betrayer, and I do not believe she
would attempt to deceive the Sisterhood.  She is loyal in her heart.
All the Sisters, all the Maidens, they support her."
     "Then she is the one who is deceived," Banri said in a low,
venomous tone.  "This bodes ill.  Someone attempts to use my
Lady's loyal priestessessss?  But for what end?"
     "We don't know," the princess told her.
     "Please, princesssss!  Forces conspire against my Lady, fearing
her power!  Please help her, and her Sssisterhood!"
     "Um, princess, could we have a word?" Mars asked,
keeping her tone light.  Her eyes, however, belied that tone, and
Venus watched to see what would happen.
     "Banri," the princess said softly, touching the girl's arm.  "I
must confer with my senshi for a moment."
     "Of coursssse," Banri sighed, reluctantly letting the princess
slip from her embrace.  The girl moved with a sleek, sensual strut as
she crossed the cold crystal to stand beside her frozen Lady.  Mars
firmly took the princess by the arm and steered her to a spot across
the chamber where they were out of earshot.
     "Are you okay?" Venus whispered.
     "Yes,"Sailor Moon replied with a smile.  "She didn't hurt
me.  She just likes to touch, even more than Venus."
     "If she's really been alone here for so long, that isn't much
of a surprise," Mercury pointed out with a nervous glance over her
shoulder.
     "What is this crap?" Jupiter growled.  "Our princess
descended from Dasma?  That's just insane!"
     "The rebel gods weren't declared fallen until long after the
Fall, when AsterGate was reopened," Mars mused.  "And the
origins of the White Moon's people has long been shrouded in
mystery ..."
     "You can't mean you believe her?" Jupiter demanded.
     "I'm saying it's possible," Mars clarified.  "That's all.  I
don't think it's an especially good idea to take anything at face
value at this point."
     "But if she's telling the truth, then the Sisterhood can't
really unseal Dasma.  So what in all the hells is going on with
them?"
     "Right now, we only have to figure out what we're going to
tell her," Mars said flatly.
     "That's easy," the princess said.  "We're going to help."

***

     "So what's happening?" Mamoru demanded.
     "Well, it's hard to tell," Phobos muttered, her eyes closed.
"Things have settled down, and nobody is hurt.  But I can only get
vague impressions ..."
     "Well, ask Mars for details then!" Mamoru snapped. This
waiting was driving him mad; Usako was in danger, and he couldn't
do a thing to help her.  He should never have let her go in there.
     "We don't want to distract her," Deimos replied coldly.  "In
case things get out of hand again.  She will let us know when she
has something to report."
     Mamoru bit back a retort.  He should have known better
than to let his frustration get the better of him.  Jaw set, he turned
and strode across the grass, each step becoming more difficult until
he found himself unable to proceed any further.  His rational mind
knew that being an extra ten feet closer to the castle could not
make the slightest bit of difference to what was happening, yet he
stood there anyway, muscles locked tight against that invisible
force.
     For her, he would stand there until the damned castle was
dust.
     Behind him, the little fairy girls went on in low tones, not
saying anything that interested him.  Ranma said little when he
bothered to speak at all.  A strange one, that guy.  He made
Mamoru's cop radar ping.  It was the eyes, mostly; they were eyes
that had seen too much, the type of eyes he'd seen in men and
women who'd taken that last step off the edge of the big drop.
Folks with those eyes sometimes decided they didn't want to see
any more.  Sometimes, those folks took that last step alone, but too
often they decided to share their trip over the brink with lots and
lots of innocent people.
     It was just like Usako to pick up a stray like that.  She
wouldn't understand that someone like that might be dangerous to
her.  No, it wasn't that she wouldn't understand as much as that she
wouldn't believe.  Even after what had happened with Hotaru, she
was still willing to be led by her heart.
     Her open nature was part of what made him love her, that
was the hell of it.  But that nature also made him afraid for her; she
was far too trusting, and he'd seen how many people there were in
the world who were willing to take advantage of trust.
     His attention came back to the immediate surroundings
sharply.  Something had changed, and he cast his gaze about, trying
to figure out what it was.
     "Is it just me, or is it getting dark?" Ranma asked the little
white-winged girl on his shoulder.
     "This is Aethyr," Phobos shrugged.  "Night comes when it
comes."
     "It's not just that," Deimos said, her tone wary.  Mamoru
backed away from where he'd been maintaining his vigil, knowing
somehow that she was right.  Something worse than mere darkness
was coming.
     The wind picked up, lashing at the brilliant trees that lined
the top of the nearby hill.  Somewhere distant, there was a rumble
like thunder.  Ranma was on his feet now, and Willow circled them
in a dizzying eccentric orbit, darting in and out.
     "A storm?" Ranma asked, eyes narrowed as he peered into
the wind.
     "Storms here are nothing to be taken lightly," Phobos
informed him.  "They are far more dangerous than what you are
accustomed to."
     "Not a storm," Willow said in a high, breathless voice.
     "Damn," Deimos muttered, hovering in the air and staring
off at a point in the distance.
     "What?" Mamoru asked, hand falling to the hilt of his
sword.  It felt familiar, just like the one he'd carried as the Crown
Prince of Earth.
     "Dragon," Phobos whispered.  "He's coming."
     "Again?  But he came out only a couple of days ago!"
Deimos spat, her voice filled with anger and something that
sounded suspiciously like panic.  "And he hardly ever comes up
here anymore!"
     "Run," Willow said tightly.  "Run.  Hide.  Hide from
Dragon!"
     "What about Usako and the others?" Mamoru demanded.
"We can't leave them!"
     "They're safer than we are!" Deimos shouted over the rising
wind.  "I'll bet Dragon can't get any closer to the castle than we
can!"
     "Go!  Ami's friends have to go back!" Willow cried, flying
in close to them.
     "We can't!" Ranma shouted back.  "Not without Ami!"
     "The trees!  We can take cover there and still see the
castle!"  Mamoru pointed, and Ranma nodded his agreement.
Together they set off at a run, Phobos and Deimos flying alongside.
Willow streaked ahead like a tiny golden comet, glowing brightly
against the gathering gloom.  Mamoru glanced back once at the
castle which still brooded over the Abyss.
     Usako.  I'll be back.

***

     "Help her?" Jupiter asked, an expression of absolute
disbelief on her face.
     "Are you out of your mind?" Mars asked tightly.
     "It's the perfect solution," the princess said patiently.  "We
help Dasma, and our problem with the Sisterhood goes away.  They
won't dare come after us if their own goddess forbids it."
     "Assuming She does," Mars gritted.  She couldn't believe
what she was hearing.  Even for Usagi, this was daft.
     "Why?" Sailor Moon asked.  "Dasma is a patron of women,
right?  And I'm a direct descendant of Hers.  If, on top of all that,
we are the ones to free Her, then doesn't it make sense that we
could be allies?"
     "Princess, I want you to listen to me," Mars said in a low
voiced, leaning in close to fix those eyes of summer blue sky with
her own.  "Yes, Dasma stood for empowering women, but
remember this.  She used any and all means to gain that power,
including dark and depraved paths of influence and control.  And
without Her guidance, the Sisterhood has gone even deeper into
that darkness.  I can see what effect this revelation has had on you.
You're excited about learning of this kinship, although the gods
alone know why."
     "Mars ..."
     "But this is not a simple matter, princess.  Would She
choose us over Her own Sisterhood?  Because that's what it would
come down to."
     "Not necessarily," the princess said firmly.  "It's pretty clear that
the Sisterhood is being manipulated.  That may be why they're so
convinced that we are their enemy."
     "We should not rush in to anything," Mercury put in.
"Princess, even if your intentions are noble, and even if Dasma
accepts them as such, even if we could free Her and make peace
with the Sisterhood, it doesn't end there."
     "She's right," Venus said darkly.  "There are plenty of
cautionary tales about mortals who involve themselves in the affairs
of gods."
     "We aren't mortals, exactly," the princess said, her eyes
flashing with excitement.  "We're descended from the gods
themselves!"
     "So we end up with Dasma as our friend and ally," Jupiter
said sourly.  "But think about who put Her here.  We could end up
with Alieva pissed at us.  And She's been running around all this
time, so She's doubtless got a lot more support with the other gods
than Spasma over there."
     Mercury elbowed the tall senshi sharply, and the princess
frowned.
     "But," Sailor Moon protested.  "Think about it!  Haven't
you always wanted to know about where we came from, about the
secret history of the White Moon?  This is a link to our past!  It's a
part of who we are!  We're the last survivors of the White Moon
Court, and we all have the blood of those rebel gods flowing in our
veins!  How can you not want to seize this chance?"
     "All I'm asking, princess, is that you don't let your
enthusiasm get the better of you," Mars urged.  "We have to
proceed carefully.  If we discover that we can release the seal, then
we'll have to decide whether we should."
     "You were a priestess, Mars," Venus murmured.  "What's
your impression of how Herself would react to us?"
     That was a good question, and Mars thought hard as she
felt the weight of four hungry gazes upon her.
     "The association of the moon with Alieva is fairly recent,
historically speaking," Mars said at last, "more an invention of bards
and tellers of tales looking for drama and symbolism than anything
else.  Some people associate us with Alieva simply because of our
association with the moon.  To Dasma, that association would not
exist.  If She awoke to find us standing over Her, I believe She
would see us as women of Paal Lunae, Her daughters who were
lost so long ago, assuming that Banri is telling the truth.  Initially,
we would probably be welcome."
     "Ah-hah!" Sailor Moon crowed.
     "But what if she demanded our fealty?" Mars went on.  "At
the very least, I left the service of Her Sisterhood.  If She found
out, She could insist that I return.  Or ... She could punish me."
     "But your reasons were good!" the princess cried.
     "Life isn't always fair, princess.  Gods and goddesses have
different priorities than we do, that much is certain.  We can't judge
her reactions by what we would do.  You understand?"
     "Yes," Sailor Moon murmured.  "I suppose I do.  But Mars,
if someone is manipulating the Sisterhood, and we put a stop to it,
then She would owe us even more.  And She's a goddess, so She
might know about the key and the Eye and all that, even what was
in your vision.  But no matter what else, we are involved in this
thing now, all of us.  I don't like what I've heard of the Sisterhood
and their methods, and you know how I feel about Saekianna.
They are after us, and no amount of wishing is going to change
that.  We can't hide out for the rest of our lives, guys.  We have to
do something to resolve this situation.  Personally, I think bold
action is called for."
     "Unsealing a goddess?" Jupiter asked uneasily.  "That's
bold, all right."
     "And I'm not even certain we can," Mercury added.  "None
of my scans so far have given me any indication of just how the seal
was set, or how it might be broken."
     "All I want to do is tell Banri that we're willing," the
princess said softly.  "That we'll do what we can to help her.  At
least then we'll be keeping our options open."
     "I don't suppose that could hurt," Mars sighed, glancing at
the others in turn.  "After all, if we don't make her happy, things
could get ugly.  But this is nothing to rush into."
     "We came here to make sure that She didn't get released,
and now we're going to promise to help that happen?" Jupiter
muttered.  "How do our lives always end up like this?"
     "Please, Jupiter?" the princess implored.
     "I guess we can agree to look into it," the tall senshi nodded
reluctantly.  "But I'm only agreeing because I don't believe we can
break a goddess's seal anyway."
     "I'm in," Venus shrugged.  "The Sisterhood knows who I
am now, and the princess is right about how ignoring this problem
isn't going to make it go away.  I, for one, don't want to spend the
rest of my life looking over my shoulder.  Maybe we can wake
Herself up and get Her to put in a good word for us."
     "The possibility is worth pursuing," Mercury agreed.  "And
I would like to hear what one of the founders of the White Moon
knows about its early history."
     "So we're believing that part, are we?" Jupiter asked sourly.
     "You saw Her," Venus pointed out.
     "It is true," the princess said, her gaze soft as she peered at
something far away.  "I can feel it.  I'm certain of it.  And I believe
that this is somehow important to us, as the last survivors of the
White Moon Court."
     "Fine," Jupiter sighed, sounding resigned.  "Let's go tell
psycho snake-girl the good news."
     The princess set off across the floor, Jupiter close behind.
     "Are we really going to go along with this?" Venus
muttered.
     "I don't know," Mars replied tersely.  "You know how she
can be, and finding out about her link to Dasma has really got the
princess excited.  I guess I never understood how many unresolved
feelings she had about our past."
     "She's not the only one," Mercury admitted in a low tone.
"But is there any way we could trust Dasma?"
     "I wish I knew," Mars sighed.  "Goddesses have always sort
of been a law unto themselves, especially when dealing with
mortals.  If we could convince Her to help us, I believe She could
make it stick, even with the Sisterhood.  The hard part is knowing
exactly how She'd react to us.  When we get back, I'll try to talk
some sense into our princess about this.  Unsealing a goddess?
That girl can be such a handful sometimes!"
     Banri was overjoyed when the princess relayed the news of her
decision, and rubbed herself against the girl's body in celebration.
     "You have Her spirit," Banri crooned.  "Wild and free.  The
fates have sent you to Her now, at long lasssst."
     "We need to study how to break the seal," Sailor Moon told
her.  Mars stood as close as she could without being blatant about
it; Banri had no reason to harm those who would help her mistress,
but Mars didn't know what sort of creature the girl/whip was.
When dealing with the works of the Dark Lady, caution was always
called for.
     "And the Sssisterhood," Banri said, her eyes narrowing.
"Someone profanes Her priestesses, seeking to deceive them.
Please, princess, you must snatch the veil from their eyesss.  I fear
great evil is afoot."
     "We'll try," the princess promised, eliciting a small
strangled sound from Jupiter.  "I promise, Banri.  But they do not
trust us, so it is difficult."
     "You must make them believe!" Banri urged her, clinging
and caressing the princess.  The plunging neckline of her bodysuit
showed plenty of cleavage, and as she moved Mars could make out
a tattoo on the slope of one full breast, dark against the gray skin.
It was a black rose.  Of course.
     "It would help us, Banri, if you could give us something,"
Mars spoke up.  "Some proof that we'd spoken to you, something
that would convince ..."  She trailed off as a jumble of panicked
images flooded into her mind.
     "Mars?" the princess asked, sounding concerned.  "What is
it?"
     "The twins," Mars replied, trying to sort out the message.
"Something's wrong.  I can't ..."
     Thunder rumbled distantly, outside the thick walls, and one
word came through to Mars clearly in that moment.  The
expression on her face must have been quite telling, for the princess
broke free from Banri and rushed to her side.
     "What is it?" she asked, eyes wide.  "Mars, what's
happening?"
     Mars' eyes sought out Mercury, and she spoke the word.
     "Dragon," she said.

***

     We ran through the wind and the dark, trying to make the
cover of the lashing trees.  I could have sworn that the trees had
been closer, the hill's slope less steep.  It must have been the dark,
distorting distance and perception.
     "Hurry!" Willow called back over her shoulder.  Whatever
Dragon was, it scared the crap out of the little fairy.  We ran on,
but lightning flashes were throwing the world into harsh relief now
in quick succession, and the wind was howling around us like a
thing alive.
     Mamoru stopped at the top of the hill, and I came to a halt
beside him.  The trees were at least a hundred feet away, and I
knew for a fact that they'd been closer than that.  But that wasn't
the problem.
     Something dark was descending from the sky, coming to
earth between us and the safety of the trees.  It was huge, covered
with scales that glittered and gleamed even in this gloom.
     It was a dragon, all right.  Not one of the long, snake-like
ones that I'd seen in paintings in China.  This one was massive, with
a solid body, huge wings and a wedge-shaped head that was bigger
than I was riding at the end of a long neck.
     It also seemed to be part machine; tendons that shone like
steel ran along that neck, the scales seemed to be polished metal,
and the eyes were faceted like gemstones.  Even the wings were all
straight, hard edges, folding up like a woman's fan as the thing
settled to the ground and sat there menacingly, looming above us.
Those pupilless eyes were hard to meet, suffused with a pulsing red
glow that seared as it swept from Mamoru, who stood with sword
in one hand and red rose in the other, to the twins who hovered
between us, and then to me.  They fixed me for a long moment, and
then its mouth opened to show an impressive and not at all
comforting array of teeth lining the long jaw, top and bottom.
     "WELL," it boomed, its voice dwarfing the thunder.  "WE
MEET AT LAST."
     It could talk.  Swell.  "Who, me?" I asked, keeping my weight
balanced so that I could jump in any direction at a moment's notice.
"I think you've got me confused with someone else."
     "THERE IS NO CONFUSION, BOY," Dragon rumbled, its
voice edged with menace.  "YOU HAVE SOMETHING THAT
BELONGS TO ME.  IT WOULD BE WISE TO RETURN IT
IMMEDIATELY."
     "What are you talking about?" I shouted, although I was
pretty sure I knew.  There was only one thing I had that ever
brought me this much trouble.  Well, besides my ego.
     "NO GAMES, LITTLE HUMAN.  YOU ARE UNFIT TO
BE WARDEN.  RETURN TO ME MY KEY."
     Damn, I hate being right.
 
 
 

end chapter 11