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 14: Black Rose
 
 

     They were already waiting when Kendra arrived, and all
three stood, executing bows of differing degrees of formality.
Raine, the captain of her guard, moved to take the sword she was
still carrying.  Kendra had been engaged in a gruelling training
session, which explained her garb and appearance.  Although, as
those who knew her personally could attest, she had no love for the
elaborate trappings often required by her position.  The plain white
blouse and snug pants she wore for practice suited her just fine, and
her long scarlet hair was bound into the simple, heavy plait she
favoured when not forced by ceremony to endure a fancy style.
     She sat in the ornate chair at the head of the table, crossing
her legs and turning her fiercely intelligent gaze upon the others.
"So?" she demanded curtly.  "What, by all the gods, is going on in
my city?"
     "Your Majesty," Raine replied, holding the unadorned blade
as though it were an extension of her own arm.  "The incident was
similar to yesterday's occurrence in the market."
     "But somewhat more severe," added the slender, gray-
haired man with the neat goatee.
     "Lord Greely is indulging in understatement, I fear," Raine
said, with no sign of her usual dry humour.  "Reports remain
sketchy ..."
     "My cousin does not want to hear what we don't know,"
the third person in the room said dryly, just as Kendra was opening
her mouth to say that very thing.
     "Then tell me what you do know, Gar," Kendra said, feeling
her characteristic mixture of fondness and exasperation towards her
favourite cousin.  Despite Gar's well-deserved reputation for
roguishness, his skills were indispensable to the Crown.
     "The target of the attack was Fifty-five Division," Gar said
as Greely touched the tabletop, activating the display pattern.
Kendra felt a scowl forming as she was treated to an airborne view
of the fortified police compound.  "As you can see, there was
considerable damage to the main building, as well as to surrounding
structures.  The fires are under control, but the subway tunnel that
runs under Carwin Street suffered a collapse, and crews are still
trying to reach a train that went off the rails."
     "Initial reports are still coming in," Raine told her, taking
over.  "But it looks bad, Majesty.  The police suffered heavy losses.
An SJA alert was also in force, although it will be difficult to get an
accurate accounting of how many bounty hunters are missing.
Also, although the attack was directed at the division itself, there
were civilian casualties."
     "Numbers?" Kendra asked, her expression stony.
     "Estimates are already over one hundred dead," Greely said,
his gray eyes meeting her gaze steadily.
     "I want to know who has done this."  Kendra looked from
one to the next, her eyes narrowed as she fought to keep tight reign
on her temper.  "There will be a reckoning for this travesty.  Gar?"
     "As yet, I don't know who," the big man said, giving her a
ghost of his lady-killer smile.  There was a hint of stubble on his
angular jaw and his dark reddish-gold hair fell untidily over
electric-blue eyes; ordinarily, she would have accused him of trying to
charm her, and ordinarily she knew she would have been right.  But
not even her outrageous cousin would be foolish enough to trifle with
her today.  "I do, however, know how."
     He moved to the table, and Greely stepped aside.  Greely
was a tall man, but even his head only just topped Gar's shoulder.
     "This," Gar said as an image of a glowing sphere appeared,
hanging in the air.
     "Silkaine's Siren," Kendra muttered, reading the
information that unspooled across the air above the table.  "An
artifact?"
     "Indeed," Gar nodded.  "A nasty bit of work, that.  I had a
team venture into the bowels of the main tower, where they retrieved
the troublesome little thing from the guts of a recently deceased
salamander, along with a body in very poor condition.  Apparently,
salamanders digest very quickly, since I understand she was not a
resident of the belly for very long before its demise."
     "Do go on, Gar," Kendra said, leaning forward in her chair.
"I am most anxious to learn how you knew to look in the belly of a
dead salamander in the basement of the building."
     "Well," Gar told her, crossing his arms across his broad
chest.  "It so happens that I received an anonymous tip.  It is worth
noting, however," he went on as her expression darkened, "that the
salamander became deceased courtesy of a certain group of sailor-
suited warriors."
     Kendra understood immediately, and leaned back in her
chair once more.  "So, then," she mused.  "I take it this ...
anonymous tipster did not reveal who had used the artifact, or
why?"
     "I am afraid not, Cousin," Gar shrugged.  "I can assure you,
though, that the artifact has been secured and is on its way here
even now, in the care of my operatives.  Perhaps we will be able to
learn something from it."
     "Perhaps," Kendra said, frowning.  It appeared that she
owed another favour to the enigmatic Lady Saturn and her comrades.
"Gar, I wish you to pursue this matter personally.  Anything you
can learn may be useful."
     "I live to serve," Gar replied, that crooked grin peeking out
once more.
     "Majesty, this incident has left our police units badly
overextended," Raine said, giving Gar a black look.  Kendra knew
that her captain disapproved of Gar's reckless charm and rakish
demeanor.  "And there is still the matter of the vampire.  Perhaps we
should consider deploying troops within the city for the time being?"
     "A politically tricky proposition," Greely countered
immediately.  "Lord Carn will argue that this proves his point about
shortfalls in his police budget, and the Council of Lords will
certainly not wish to grant easy passage of any bill authorizing
temporary deployment.  Not, at least, without concessions.  And
the matter of the Eastern Duchies remains before council, as you
know, Majesty.  The involved parties will feel quite justified in
holding up debate on the new garrison agreement if we pull military
resources from the east to cover our police problems."
     "They will bring up Port Augai," Raine sighed.  "We did
refuse to allow troops to cover the city last year."
     "You could press the issue, Majesty," Greely told her,
spreading his hands.  "You are Queen, after all.  But there would
certainly be repercussions if you were to act precipitously."
     Politics, Kendra thought blackly.  Mother, why couldn't you
have lived to a ripe old age and spared me this idiocy?  I am far to
young for this ...
     "Ah, Cousin," Gar said, leaning against the edge of the table.
"Such an unbecoming look for a beautiful woman."
     "Gar," she began, warning clear in her tone.
     "Be at ease, my favourite cousin," Gar said, his eyes alight
with electric blue fire.  "Troubles beset you from all sides, but I
believe I have a solution that will meet your needs nicely."
     And he smiled.

***
 

     "And you're sure you want to do this now," I said again.
     "Look, we've been over this," Minako told me as she
surveyed the scene.  I'd noticed that, despite her usual flirtatiousness,
she seemed to be aware of everything that was going on around us.
Usagi had walked over and asked her about the defensive pattern as if
it were the most natural thing in the world.  Minako had answered
easily.
     Okay, so I still tended to underestimate her from time to time.
But these girls all knew their business, that much was certain.  They
had set up this little trap of theirs with military precision.  Well, I'd
never actually seen a military operation, but I imagined it would be
this precise.  Probably wouldn't involve so many short skirts, though.
     "Yeah," I sighed.  "Look, don't get me wrong.  I'm good
with the fighting part.  It's the magick that makes me nervous."
     "That's just because you don't understand it," Minako
shrugged, twining a stray lock of deep honey-blonde hair around her
finger as she watched Ami and Rei put the finishing touches on their
part of the trap.
     "Do you?"
     "Not completely," she admitted.  "But I trust that my friends
know what they're doing."
     "Ami is helping Rei to locate her wards for maximum
efficiency," Artemis told us as he reached out to give Minako's
shoulder a friendly squeeze.
     "Right," I said, looking around the old warehouse.  "It's like
a shield."
     "Not exactly," Artemis said, turning his attention to me.  "It's
more like ... hmm, how to explain this?"
     "More like a sponge," Rei said.  She strode across the
cavernous space in a swirl of leather, Phobos and Deimos fluttering
down from pitted steel rafters to land neatly on her shoulders.  I was
already beginning to get used to seeing them there.
     "A sponge?" I asked.  "Our protection is a sponge?"
     "Relax," Rei reassured me.  "Remember the club you
followed us to that night?"
     "Of course he remembers," Minako purred.  "That's where
he first met me, after all."
     "Indeed," Rei said dryly as I felt my face grow warm.  "Well,
from that skirmish we learned that the wraiths can use Shadow
Magick to get around."
     "And our Rei is talented in that department," Minako said
sleekly, draping herself over Rei and kissing the girl's pale cheek
softly.  "Amongst others."
     I had the feeling that the topic of Shadow Magick, and Rei's
abilities with it, were a little touchy; it occurred to me then that
Minako
was not just indulging her whims, but actually trying to defuse the
tension.  And it seemed to work.
     Another point for Minako.
     "You'd better hope I'm talented," Rei told her, one hand idly
stroking the blonde's jawline.  "I'm an Adept, like many Sisters, but
the strongest magicks have been lost to even them since the art was
outlawed over a century ago."
     "Like the ability to generate a Shadow Gate," Ami said.  I hadn't
heard her come up, distracted as I was by Rei and Minako's flirting.
It was so natural, yet sensual at the same time.  Once I would have
been shocked, but I was coming to see it as a natural expression of
the affection between them.
     It was still plenty distracting, though.
     "Which I assume you can't do, Rei," Artemis said, cocking
his head.
     "No," Rei replied.  "I don't know anyone who can enter
Shadow.  Unless Ami can."
     Everyone turned to Ami at that, causing the quiet girl to
blush.
     "No," Ami told us quickly.  "I've studied the different
realms, but my ability only allows me to enter Aethyr."
     "Shadow Realm intersects Aethyr," Phobos pointed out.  "As
do all realms.  It is, by all accounts, a fearful place."
     "But not to wraiths," I muttered.
     "Exactly," Rei said.  "Our opponent must be very strong in
Shadow Magicks for her wraiths to be able to slip through Shadow
the way they do.  Thus our trap."
     She gestured, and I followed the sweep of her arm.  Ami had
plotted and etched strange patterns on the floor and walls in coloured
chalk, then she and Rei had gone around and placed wards at certain
points where the lines intersected.
     "A sponge," I said, doubt heavy in my voice.
     "You are going to lure the wraiths in," Rei said.  "They will
likely enter through the shadows within this building, once they find
that Usagi and Makoto have sealed all other access.  The way to
Shadow Realm lurks in the depths of mundane shadow, after all."
     "Rei's wards utilise Shadow Magick," Ami went on, that
explaining-things sparkle in her eye again.  "In this instance,
however, instead of invoking Shadow they will do the opposite,
drawing in all shadow in this space once the wraiths have entered.
They will not be able to escape through Shadow, and no others will
be able to enter."
     "Cool," Minako enthused.  "Then I rope one of the little
vixens with my whip, you guys take out the rest, we interrogate the
prisoner, and then escape by using one of the routes Artemis and
Luna scouted out.  Beauty plan."
     "If it works," Makoto cautioned.  She and Usagi had been
working at the far end of the building, but evidently they had finished
their work.  Luna trailed along after them, looking vaguely troubled.
     "I just don't like it," the dark-haired girl was saying.
     "You still think we should talk to the Outers first, Luna?"
Artemis asked.
     "This could be risky," Luna replied, blue eyes wide as she
turned to him.  "We can't anticipate everything that might happen."
     "Welcome to my life," Usagi grumbled.  "Look, Luna, if this
vampire has something to do with Hotaru, she won't listen to reason.
You know her.  But if we go there with hard information, then she'll
have to listen."
     And she'll have to admit that you did something she couldn't,
I thought.  That might be unfair, but it seemed to me like Usagi felt
she had something to prove to this Hotaru.
     "Plus it'll keep her from worrying about the Outsider,"
Minako pointed out.
     Silence, and all eyes on me again.
     "I know, I know," I said irritably.  "Don't say anything about
the Outsider.  Sheesh, I get it!"
     "Good," Rei murmured.  "Because if Hotaru learns that you
are the Outsider, she might try to kill you."
     Swell.
     "Well, we're ready," Makoto sighed.  "You guys set?"
     "Wards are placed and ready," Ami informed her.
     "This place is isolated enough that it'll just be us and the
wicked fang sisters," Minako grinned.
     "And we should do this as soon as possible," Rei added.
"The vampire's powers should be weakest now, at midday.  We don't
want to risk a direct confrontation with her."
     "Okay," Usagi nodded, turning to me.  "Then I guess this is
it, Ranma.  You're up.  Are you ready?"
     What could I say?  So far today I'd seen a horde of monsters
destroying a police station, been sent into the Nekoken again by a
bunch of werecats, and ended up in an abandoned warehouse setting
a trap for a bunch of wraiths.  Hell, it was my idea, after all.  What
else could I say?"
     "Let's do it."

***

     "Rin."
     There was no welcome in Gareth's voice.  That meant the
wily old cat already knew what had happened.  Rin wondered
which one of the others had rushed to tell the pack leader.
     Not that it much mattered.
     "Gareth," Rin replied, showing the obeisance that was his
alpha's due.  Gareth sat shirtless on a floor mat, a rangy young lad
named Piet massaging oil into the older man's shoulders.  Gareth's
muscled body gleamed with oil, scars standing out in stark contrast
to the pale skin.  The one that slashed across where his left eye had
been was the only one that was never hidden, but Rin knew full well
where all of Gareth's scars were.  There were privileges to being
the leader of a pack, after all.
     The look on Piet's face as he brushed stray locks of blonde
hair out of his face with the back of his forearm was just short of
adoration; Gareth was strong, yes, but his cats loved him, too.  Piet
glanced up, making little secret of the fact that Rin's presence was
unwelcome.
     Too bad.  He had, after all, been summoned.  Piet would
have to wait for Gareth's undivided attention.
     "I hear it was bad," the grizzled old cat grumbled, his one
good eye seeking Rin out.  That eye was wonderful, gray-green
speckled with gold.  Gareth never spoke of who had taken his other
eye, but whoever it was had destroyed a rare treasure.  Gareth was
ruggedly handsome, but with two such eyes he might have been
beautiful.
     "Bad.  Yes, bad would be accurate," Rin said blithely.  He
had not been invited to sit.  A bad sign, that.
     "Have you any idea what it is that calls to our animal sides
and draws the monsters so strongly?"
     "None.  However, we were all able to resist its call."
     "As you should be.  We are not mere beasts, after all."
There was no rancour in that voice, and Gareth's eyes closed as
Piet continued his ministrations, long supple hands working the
scented oil into Gareth's broad shoulders.  Rin simply stood there,
waiting for the question he knew was coming.
     "The sailor girls, Rin."
     "Indeed," Rin said.  This was the crux of the matter.  Which
of them had it been?  Not Yui; she would never place him in a
situation like this.  She longed for him, after all.  That desire was
better than any oath.  "There was something of a ... disagreement."
     "Over this girl.  The one who manifests the spirit of the
cat."
     "Their princess personally extended her protection to the
girl," Rin said.  "It appears that one of hers has claimed the girl as
her own."
     "How charming," Gareth rumbled, and there it was, that
warning tone that everyone in the pack knew meant trouble.  "This
truce is starting to seem less and less like a benefit to us, Rin.
When you approached me with the idea, you made no mention of
changing the truce.  If the girl can change it at will, we may well
find ourselves hamstrung."
     Gareth's eye opened then, fixing Rin with its feral golden
light.
     "That is not acceptable to me, Rin," Gareth said, his voice
resonating deep in his barrel chest.
     "I understand," Rin said smoothly.  "But to end the truce
now is to open ourselves to conflict from the sailor girls while we
yet seek the nightfeeder."
     "Don't tell me things I already know," Gareth said quietly,
and the warning in his tone made Rin stand a little straighter even as
Piet froze.  "Tell me your fondness for this Jupiter is not colouring
your judgement."
     "My loyalty to the pack is as strong as ever," Rin informed
him, letting a trace of arrogant pride creep into his voice.
     "Is it?" Gareth asked, his voice lazy again.  Piet relaxed and
continued with his massage.  "How reassuring, Rin.  It is good to
know I can depend on my second.  I understand that the rogue wolf
interfered as well.  Did the young sailor princess forbid you to
touch him?"
     There it was, the trap.  Still, Rin knew there was only one
way to proceed here.
     "She did not," Rin acknowledged.  "In fact, it was stated
explicitly that Sakamura was not under her protection."
     "Indeed?" Gareth asked, as though he hadn't already known
that.  "Well, then.  There will be no repercussions when you seek
him out and teach the cub not to interfere in our affairs."
     "No, Gareth.  I will see to it immediately."
     "See that you do," Gareth said.  "And Rin ..."
     "Yes?"
     "Bring me back a souvenir."  Gareth's grin was feral,
hungry.  Rin just nodded.
     "As you wish," he said, and left Gareth to his relaxing.
     So.  Yoshi was to bear the brunt of Gareth's anger over this
latest frustration.  Jupiter was going to be very unhappy with Rin
when she found out.  Very unhappy.
     That was going to make seducing her all the harder.  Damn
Gareth, anyway.  This was a situation that called for subtlety.  Still,
Rin couldn't deny that sinking his claws into that meddling prettyboy
would be enjoyable.  He'd had quite enough of the wolf's meddling in
his affairs.
     No repercussions.  Rin sighed, slipping off his silk jacket
and loosening his designer tie.  Gareth was not naive.  He knew that
Yoshi had no pack affiliations, and thus there would be no problem
with the local wolves.  But he also knew that there were always
repercussions.  Still, some lessons had to be taught.
     Doubtless, when the current situation had been resolved,
Gareth would want to make that clear to the sailor girls as well.  He
didn't react well to challenges to his authority.
     Ah, Jupiter, Rin thought fondly.  You did start this, you
know.  And sooner or later Gareth is going to want me to finish
what we started in that bar.
     I am looking forward to that.

***

     It struck her like a bolt as she reclined in delightful languor,
sending her to her feet instinctively.  Night-black hair and silks
swirled, merging with shadows as she moved through the
luxuriously-appointed bedchamber, lips pulled back into a fearsome
snarl.
     That light.  THAT LIGHT.  The Warden again, that
maddening rogue factor in her master plan, the one who had
remained just out of her reach.
     That would have to change.  Sooner or later, Wynneth needed
the Warden.  But not dead; no, that would not serve her purposes.
Ignoring the burning sensation within her, she summoned some of her
loyal wraiths.  They flocked to her feet like dreadful crows, lovely
and lethal, black on black encompassing a rainbow of captive colour.
Wynneth surveyed them a moment in imperious silence before
speaking.
     "The light flickers once more," she hissed.  "You know what
to do.  I want the Warden alive.  Go."
     Robes rustled and hair flowed, then ruby eyes winked out into
shadows and were gone.  Wynneth stood still, calming herself.  Each
time the Warden escaped by a slimmer margin, of this she was
certain.  She ran one long nail along her full lower lip, nearly hard
enough to draw blood.
     The end was near, so near.  Events had been set in motion,
and none could resist the inexorable tide which had been engineered.
Not the Warden, not the White Moon girls, not even the gods
themselves.
     She would not be denied.  Not after having come so far.
     And as her wraiths sped through Shadow towards their goal,
the light continued to burn brightly, not disappearing as quickly as it
had in the past.  Excellent.  Not even its hated light could thwart her
will, and this time the Warden would not escape.
     This time, she had him.
     Smirking, she crossed to the bed and sank into its silken
depths, closing her eyes and seeking her bond with her pets.
     Show me, she thought.  Show me ...

***

     V watched from her hiding spot, tension singing along her
muscles.  The first moments would be the trickiest; the wraiths might
enter from anywhere before the trap was sprung.  They had to be
ready to move fast.
     Ranma stood in the middle of the floor, key held aloft.  Its
light glimmered steadily  in the gloom, bright yet somehow not
painful to look at.  The lithe red-head stood in the middle of the
nimbus of light, and if she felt fear it didn't show in her expression.
     V couldn't see most of the others, although she knew they
would be where they were supposed to be.  From her vantage point
she could only see Rei and the twins.  Rei had claimed that, because
she was not certain how Shadow Magick would interact with her
senshi abilities, it was better that she not transform, instead only
summoning her shadow in preparation for springing the trap.  V
wondered about that; Mars had used Shadow Magick in Aethyr, after
all.  She suspected that the senshi of fire didn't want to confront her
princess with the vision of a senshi wreathed in shadows.  Regardless
of the truth of the matter, V had watched intently as Rei called her
shadow to her flesh.  She thought the process fascinating, but
neither Usagi nor Makoto had seemed thrilled by it.
     Just more fodder for their rocky road, apparently.  But it
would be worth it if they could ferret out the vamp's hiding place.
     The gloom returned as Ranma let the key's light die after the
prearranged time.  He'd never used the key continuously for a
particularly long time in the past, and they hadn't wanted to arouse
the vamp's suspicions by changing anything now.  V concentrated on
her breathing, senses questing for any motion in the shadows.  How
long would it take for the wraiths to reach them?  There was no way
of knowing; it would depend on how far they had to travel, how
quickly the vamp responded to the key's appearance, any number of
factors ...
     There.
     Something stirred off to the left, shadow within shadow, and
as she watched a wraith emerged with inhuman grace from the
gloom.  Then another, and another.  They rose into the air, robes
fluttering as they circled like harbingers of doom, eyes locked on
Ranma.  The red-head simply stood there as the air filled with them,
scarlet-eyed huntresses who didn't bother to hide their hunger, nor
their triumph.
     This was it.  The cavernous warehouse now contained dozens
of wraiths, all concentrating on Ranma as they swooped lower and
lower.  She was the centre of their attention.
     That was about to change.
     A low chanting filled the air, and some of the wraiths at the
periphery broke away from the pack, drawn by Rei's voice or the
skittering of magick that followed it.  But they were too slow; the air
seemed to thicken, then thrum with a sound just below the threshold
of hearing.
     And then the light changed.
     V had not known what to expect exactly.  Rei's wards drew
in the magick of Shadow within this space, that much she'd
understood.  But all around her now, things looked different.  The few
working lights were only bare bulbs, yet the harsh light they had been
casting was now flat, grainy, an oddly lifeless light that coated the
interior of the warehouse like ochre paint.  Their were no more
patches
of gloom, no spots of brightness, only that weird monochrome light
everywhere.
     But, as promised, there were no shadows, and thus no way to
enter Shadow.
     "Now!" the princess's voice rang out.  As the wraiths milled
about in the air, disoriented by the sudden change, the air came alive
with power.  A stream of water smashed through the flock from one
side, a scathing arc of lightning from the other.  Then Moon's power,
brilliant even in the Shadow-locked light, struck one of the wraiths
squarely, and the enemy erupted in fury.
     So far, so good.  V slipped along the periphery of the chaos,
seeking her quarry.  It was up to her to isolate and capture one of the
wraiths.  Once that was done, the others could be eliminated.  For
now, the wraiths were being kept busy and off-balance to keep them
from figuring out that they were being manipulated.  Ranma ran
along the floor, staying low in accordance with the plan.  She drew
ten or twelve wraiths along in her path as she wove effortlessly
among the cracked concrete pillars.
     One of the wraiths hung back, rising up above the fray and
looking around, cruelly lovely features slipping into a mask of
understanding as she began to survey the area.  Just what we need, V
thought.  A smart one.  Summoning her power, V sent her whip
snaking up through the air.  It wrapped itself around the wraith's
slender, pale neck, then coiled downwards.  The tiny golden links
looked strange, seeming to still glow, yet somehow not casting any
shadow in this odd, shadowless atmosphere.  They were, however, as
effective as ever, answering their mistress's will as they ensnared the
infuriated wraith.  V planted her feet and began to reel in her catch.
     "Got one!" she crowed.  "Clean 'em up, girls!"
     The attacks intensified as the wraiths shrieked and swooped
madly, only just beginning to understand that they were now the
hunted.  Jupiter and Mercury had set up a wickedly effective
crossfire, with the princess herding the airborne wraiths into the
killing zone as Ranma picked off the stragglers.  V couldn't spare
much attention, though, trusting the others to do their part as she
continued to draw her prey closer.  The wraith was wrapped tightly in
coils of V's whip now, unable to do much more then writhe and
scream as she was drawn inexorably towards the ground.
     V felt the strain in her arms as she fought to bring the wraith
under control.  Crimson lips gaped as the creature screamed defiance,
but V was winning the battle, and she grinned fiercely.  It felt so good
to be taking the initiative after reacting for so long.  Then she saw the
wraith's gaze shift at the same time as she sensed motion.  Rei was
walking over towards her, coat swirling like liquid oil around her
body as she moved, and a sick sensation curdled in the pit of V's
stomach as she took in the one detail that Rei had neglected to mention.
The wraith screeched and pulled, swinging at the end of her tether like
a
deranged balloon as she tried to get closer to Rei.  V gritted her teeth,
though, and as the muscles along her arms and back tensed, she dug in
her heels and swung with all her might, sending the wraith crashing to
the hard concrete.  V closed the distance, shortening her whip as she
moved to place one booted foot across the captive wraith's throat.
Then she turned to Rei, her eyes narrowed and her lips thinned with
anger.
     "You should have told us," the blonde senshi snarled.
     "This?" Rei asked, gesturing.  "Unavoidable.  Anyway, I
knew you could hold her."
     V glared at the sable-maned priestess.  Rei was keeping all
shadows in the warehouse at bay with her magick ... all but the inky
tendrils of her own shadow, which still adorned her porcelain skin.  If
V had thought about it, she might have realized that Rei would need
to keep her shadow about her to manipulate the wards that way.  But
shadow was shadow, and judging from the way the wraith had tried to
lunge at the priestess, Rei's shadow would have sufficed for the needs
of
their enemy.  And what would have happened to Rei if the wraith had
tried to use her personal shadow, which lay like living inky tattoos on
her flesh, to escape?
     A good question, and one that V intended to put to her friend.
Pointedly.  But later, away from their princess.
     "That's it!" Artemis called from his hiding spot.  "That's the
last of them!"
     The others joined them, all looking quite satisfied.  And why
not?  Their plan had been an unmitigated success.  And none of them
had so much as a scratch.  After the last week, it was nice to be in the
driver's seat.
     "So? Moon asked, eyeing the struggling, supine wraith
eagerly.
     "So," V replied, shifting her weight and forcing her boot
down with more force until the wraith stopped moving.  "Now, I
think it's time for answers.  Don't you, sweetie?"

***

     Rei watched as V buried her fingers in the wraith's dishevelled
hair and roughly hauled her to her feet.  The captive wraith bucked
and writhed, but in the end she was no match for the mystic bonds of
V's whip.  Those mesmerizing scarlet eyes darted madly, finally
settling on Rei.  It didn't take any magick to know what the wraith
was thinking as her gaze traced slowly over the inky tendrils of
darkness that lay bound to Rei's skin.  That darkness represented the
only hope of freedom for their captive.
     Rei smiled as the wraith's lips parted, the tip of its tongue
stealthily wetting its lower lip as its struggles subsided.
     "Shadow Mistress," it hissed, voice low and feral, yet
somehow compelling.
     "That's right," Rei said smoothly, aware that she and the
wraith were now the centre of attention.  V kept a firm grip on her
whip, so all the wraith could do was turn its head.
     "But not my mistress," the wraith continued, lips peeling
back in a slow motion snarl to reveal tiny ivory fangs.  "She alone
may command me."
     "Tell me about your mistress," Rei urged, holding the
creature's gaze with her own.  The creature was drawn to her,
wreathed as she was in Shadow Magick.  But Rei could sense the
wraith as well, feel it pulsing on a dark, primal level.  The one who
had
summoned this creature was powerful indeed.
     But she was not here, and Rei was.  Coupled with the fact
that the vamp's power would be at low ebb with the sun at its zenith,
Rei was confident that she could overwhelm this creature.  Its link to
its mistress would prove invaluable to them.  She took one slow,
confident step closer, then another.
     "What's wrong?" she taunted as the others tensed.  "If your
mistress is so powerful, then you have nothing to fear from me."
     "I do not fear you, girl," the wraith spat.  But Rei saw a
flicker of uncertainty in the creature's inhuman eyes.  It knew now
that it had been lured and captured, and it had to know that Shadow
Magick could plumb its secrets.
     "Indeed," Rei crooned.  "But if you will not give me the
information I seek, I will have to take it from you."
     She was close enough to touch the wraith now, but as she
brought her hands up Sailor Moon and V cried out at the same time.
     "This is a bad idea," V muttered, looking at the dark patterns
on Rei's hands.
     "I agree," the princess blurted.
     "Everyone just relax," Rei commanded.  "I can handle this.
After all, this is why we're all here, right?  The longer we delay, the
greater the chance that she will send reinforcements."
     "My mistress remembers you," the wraith hissed, eyes lidded
as a sly smile crept to its full ruby lips.  "From before.  She will enjoy
making you hers, girl.  All of you will be hers.  The most beautiful
and powerful of you will have the privilege of serving her
personally."
     "Your mistress seems pretty full of herself," Rei replied with
a hard-edged smile.  "For someone who sends flunkies to do her dirty
work."  With that, Rei framed the wraith's face with her hands,
holding it tightly between palms devoid of Shadow.  The compelling
creature's skin was cool, smooth, yet it seemed to squirm and wriggle
under Rei's hands.  The priestess knew that her prey was seeking to
make contact with the eldritch shadow that was so close in order to
draw power and break free.
     It would not have the chance.
     Eyes narrowing, Rei sent her power knifing into the creature,
feeling a familiar surge of dark pleasure as the wraith stiffened under
her assault, crying out as its defences were shattered.  Shadow was
dark and wild, and her study of that forbidden art had always called
to the untamed part of her own soul. That part of her wanted to
conquer the wraith and tame her, to take her from the other woman.
Resisting the siren call of that savage darkness was made easier by the
presence of her friends, as well as her guardians.  She wondered for a
moment if V and the princess benefited from their links with Artemis
and Luna this way.
     Rei leaned closer, gazing deeply into the captive wraith's
wide eyes.  Panic was beginning to curdle in those crimson depths as
the wraith felt her control being eroded, and her mouth opened in a
soundless scream as Rei sought to divine the location of the
creature's mistress, sought the vamp's nature, her face, everything
they needed to find and destroy the creature.
     The wraith trembled in Rei's grip as the priestess bored
deeper, sensing that she was near her goal.  There, right there, that
was it, the secret bond that lived at the creature's dark core.  Rei sent
tendrils of power down to that pulsing black heart, cold and hot at the
same time, questing, searching ...
     The wraith stopped trembling.  There was a moment of
shock, of disorientation, then Rei felt it.  Power slithered up through
her probes and into her body, sliding along her skin like the sheerest
silk.  It was a primal sensual pleasure, raw desire that wound itself
tighter and tighter around her core, riding her power and somehow
owning it.  Fey laughter filled her head as her vision was dominated
by dark, soul-drinking eyes.  Her power, which had been so dark and
wild, now purred like a kitten, stroked by something infinitely more
powerful, something that was reaching deeper within her, closer to
the place where her will resided.  In her mind's eye she saw slender
hands tipped with blood red, holding a spiked collar that danced with
glossy liquid highlights of pure blackness.  It was for her, bound for
her soul where it would be cinched tightly around her most intimate
being.
     And she couldn't stop it ...
     Something struck her, and she felt herself falling, the spell
broken as her hands were torn free from the wraith's flesh.  Arms
wrapped around her and a body cushioned her fall, then rolled her
quickly to her feet.  She blinked, gasping for breath as though she'd
forgotten to breathe for minutes on end.  Ranma was holding her,
those wary blue eyes filled with alarm.
     "Rei-sama!" Deimos cried.  Rei, though, was beginning to
regain her senses.
     "Everyone get back!" she shouted, pushing the petite red-
head behind her.  "Quickly!"
     The others complied, all but V, who retained her grip on her
whip.  Little did the blonde realize that she had an infinitely more
dangerous tiger by the tail, though.
     "V!  Watch out!"
     The wraith stood perfectly still now, but something was
different.  The planes of the face seemed to shift, becoming less
fierce, sleeker and more refined.  The long, ragged hair smoothed and
gained a liquid gloss even in the flat light.  But the eyes, they were
the worst.  They were bottomless black now, and filled with terrible
allure, hungry and hot and captivating.  The wraith's lush lips parted,
and a slow, honeyed voice flowed out to caress them all.
     "So," it murmured.  "Are you really in that much of a hurry
to meet me, my darlings?"
     "Is that ...?" the princess began, her eyes wide with shock.
Rei could only nod dumbly
     "Ah, so lovely," the throaty voice purred from the captive
wraith.  "And so cunning.  Did you really think you could trap me,
my pets?"  Those eyes sought them all out one by one, and Rei could
feel the power behind that gaze.  This should not have been possible,
but it was happening.  The vampiress was looking at them, marking
them with her hunger.
     "Lovely," the voice sighed.  "And my key, sweetness.  Are
you the one?"  Those eyes sought out Ranma, who paled under their
regard.  "I have sought you for so very long, and now you wish to
deliver yourself to me.  But have no fear, pet.  We shall meet soon.
Very soon."
     Her hair stirred as though caught in a breeze, and thick
tendrils slithered along V's cheek, causing the girl to flinch and
tighten her grip on the whip.
     "Don't try anything funny!" V blurted.  Wonderful laughter
greeted that defiant outburst.
     "Oh, my pets," the voice came, dark eyes sweeping across
Rei to settle on the princess.  "So lovely, and so proud.  I shall revel
in your debasement.  But don't make it too easy on me, all right, my
loves?  After all, the anticipation is part of the experience.  Call it ...
foreplay."
     Then that dark, enchanting laughter came again, sweeping
over them all.
     "Rei," the princess whispered.  "What do we ...?"
     Before she could finish, the wraith's eyes returned to
guttering crimson for a split second.  Then the creature seemed to
explode into a spray of blood.  Several startled shrieks split the air as
V's whip fell to the cold floor in loose coils.  Rei jerked, swiping
reflexively at the splatters of blood that seemed to burn on her skin
with unwholesome heat.  V was practically drenched in the foul stuff,
and Jupiter was holding her hands up, trying to find a clean spot with
which to wipe her face.
     Then a cool spray swirled over Rei, water sluicing along her
skin and chasing the blood away.  Rei shook the water out of her eyes
in time to see Mercury carefully tending to the others.
     "What in the hells happened?" Artemis demanded.
     "Well, something went wrong," the princess spluttered wetly, water
dripping from her ponytails to pool on the cracked concrete.
     "Yes, I should say so," Rei breathed.  "Come on, we've got to
get far away from here.  And fast."

***

     Mamoru wiped a slick of sweat from his forehead with the
back of his hand, waiting for Yu to come over to him.  The sight in
the ward room was sobering; white zippered bags lay in neat,
precise rows on the floor, replacing the chairs which had been
moved against the walls.
     "Why are they putting them in here?" Yu asked.  He looked
worn, tired.
     "They've sealed off the morgue," Mamoru told him,
loosening his tie.  He'd been helping to move the bodies, and sweat
prickled his skin under the straps of his holster.  "We're supposed
to be getting a sorceress in to try and get some psychic vibes off the
room.  Try and figure what got Wasa and took the bodies."
     "He here?" Yu asked.
     Mamoru just nodded at one of the bags, third from the end
in the row nearest the door.
     "I saw a couple other familiar faces, too," Mamoru told him
quietly.
     "Yeah," Yu said, letting his breath out in a rush.  "Yeah.
They're putting bodies over in the loading dock, too.  I got a rough
count off someone.  Forty-eight of ours confirmed dead so far, but
there'll be more.  Over forty other bodies, mostly bounty hunters,
some unlucky civilians, with more coming in.  That's just what
we've found, partner.  There's lots of collapsed buildings,
burned-out vehicles.  Some of them ... some of them we aren't ever
going to find."
     Because they were eaten, Mamoru finished silently.  Or
taken.  He surveyed the silent scene inside the room, oddly
removed from the chaos outside, and felt rage trying to take over.
And for what? he asked himself.  What was this all for?  Did the
Sisterhood do this?
     If they were responsible, then Mamoru knew he was going
to be taking on the responsibility for hunting them down.  No
matter what Usagi said.
     "White body bags," Yu muttered.
     "Huh?"
     "Remember?  Wasa was complaining last month because
they started issuing us these white body bags instead of the black
ones.  Because they're cheaper.  Flimsy fucking things, he couldn't
stand them.  And now he's in one."
     Mamoru put his hand into his pocket, felt the small wrapped
bundle there.  He'd gone back into the morgue before it had been
sealed off.  Technically, he'd tampered with evidence, but that was
the least of his worries.  If there was any chance, any chance at all,
that the things he'd taken could help find the ones responsible for
this, then it was worth it.
     "Listen, Mamoru," Yu said, straightening up and pulling at
his tie.  "Come with me.  I'll buy you a drink."
     It was somehow surreal to Mamoru that the drink machines
should still be working amidst all the carnage, but power had been
restored to this part of the main building.  Yu waved wearily at a
pair of uniforms that they passed in the hall.  The pair returned his
greeting, but their eyes bore a haunted look.  Mamoru knew he
would be seeing that look everywhere for a long time to come.
Maybe he would even be seeing it in his own eyes.
     The vending machine had taken a solid hit from something, and
the coin box had been split open.  Yu deftly scooped some coins off
the dusty floor and popped them back into the machine.
     "So call a cop," he sniffed at Mamoru's raised eyebrow.  He
handed a cool can to Mamoru; judging by the joyous label, the can
was where rapturous lemons went when they died.  Mamoru
popped the tab and downed half of the drink in one go.  It tasted
pretty good, and reminded him that he'd missed lunch.
     "I was down near the vehicle docks a bit ago," Yu said in a
low voice.  His expression was deliberately casual, but Mamoru
knew his partner, and right away Yu had his full attention.  "I saw
some guys coming up from the sub-levels."
     "Guys?" Mamoru asked.  "Our guys?  Firefighters?  Rescue
services?"
     "There was a fire down there, all right," Yu murmured.
"Sprinklers went off, remember?  But these guys weren't SFD.  I
know the look, partner.  These guys were RO."
     "There is no such service branch," Mamoru said blithely, "as
Royal Operations, Yu.  I know this because the nice, trustworthy
bureaucrats always say so."
     "There were suits, too," Yu went on, ignoring Mamoru's
sarcasm.  "Commander Fuyuri, for one.  Blessiruth was there, too.
I think they were removing something from, as our friends in the
media will doubtless say, 'the bowels of the main tower'."
     "Whatever was causing the monsters to go apeshit, you're
thinking?"
     "I am thinking," Yu said, shifting his gaze to Mamoru, "that
the lovely lethal sailor girls were down there, and most likely for a
reason.  And if RO knows what went down, they sure as all hells
won't be in a hurry to tell the rest of us."
     "Yeah," Mamoru muttered.  Although he intended to find
out from Usagi exactly what had gone on down there, Yu had a
point.  "They sure didn't waste any time.  I wonder how they knew
where to look?"
     "Or what they found?" Yu countered.  "Look, partner.  The
longer this goes on, the more muddled things are going to get.  I
say we track down Blessiruth.  He strikes me as a decent guy.
Maybe we can pry something out of him."
     "And then what?"
     "Mamoru, I know a thing or two about cover-ups," Yu
replied, a strange gleam in his eye.  "I've participated in a big one,
lest we forget.  I'm no crusader, but I dearly want to know who to
shoot over this.  I owe a few people that much.  Wasa, for
instance."
     "Nothing," Mamoru observed with a feral smile, "like the
personal touch."
     "My thoughts exactly."
     Mamoru thought about the objects in his pocket.  For a
moment he considered telling Yu what he was going to do, but the
moment passed and he sighed.  He was in no position to reveal such
things, not even to Yu.  But if he found a target, he would make
certain that Yu was in the loop.  His partner would not question the
information, not if it came from Mamoru.  Still, his plan might not
pan out.  In a situation like this, it couldn't hurt to play all the
angles.
     "Well, then," he said grimly.  "Let's go see what Blessiruth
has to say for himself."
     They found him standing in a small knot of people, along
with Commander Amagi and Meaghan Piakesti, staring at a
television in the ward room.
     "What's going on?" Yu asked quietly, sliding up behind
Piakesti.
     "It's hitting the fan," Piakesti told him, dark eyes gleaming.
"Her Majesty is pulling out all the stops."
     "What stops would those be, darlin'?" Yu pressed, trying to
see the television.  Blessiruth answered, half-turning so they could
see the grim expression on his face.
     "Martial law," he said.

***

     I was glad to be out of the sewer at last.  The smell had been
bad enough, but given the sorts of things that skulked around this
city, it seemed like a dangerous place to be.
     Of course, staying in the warehouse hadn't been an option,
either.  There'd been a lot of nervous glances cast back as we hurried
through the maze of tunnels, but if more wraiths had arrived after
we'd left they certainly had no way to track us.
     We'd made a clean getaway.
     Which was all well and good, but that was a far cry from
trapping a killer vampire with her own minions.
     "I know where we are," Makoto was saying as I dropped the
heavy grate back over the sewer access.  "Our wheels are back that
way."
     "No sign of pursuit," Mercury added, before changing back
into her civilian duds.  "We're away clean."
     "Away clean," Minako spat.  "Swell.  Can anyone tell me
how we went from being on top of things to running away with our
tails between our legs?"
     "Take it easy, Minako," Usagi said soothingly, putting her
hand on the other girl's shoulder.
     "She's got a point," Makoto scowled.  "What in the hells
went wrong?"
     A very good question.  Rei was the first one to answer it.
     "Something is very wrong here," the dark-haired girl said
soberly as Phobos and Deimos glided around her lazily.  "This
vampire is far more powerful than I anticipated."
     "We already knew she could summon wraiths, though,"
Minako said carefully.  Minako was watching Rei closely, but I
couldn't figure out what she was looking for.  Did she think Rei
blamed herself for what had happened?
     "True," Rei grimaced.  "But to be able to manifest her
presence through a summoned wraith?  At mid-day?  I felt her power,
guys.  Somehow, her influence reached out to me through that wraith.
And it was strong."
     "So she's strong," Makoto frowned.  "We knew that, right?
She's a bloodsucker who was a sorceress as a human.  What's the big
deal?"
     "The big deal," Rei told us, "is that what she did should not
have been possible.  Not for any run-of-the-mill vamp, so to speak.
This one, her power is in a different league from what was reported
during the Long Dark."
     "So what are we saying, here?" Artemis asked her, leaning
against a nearby wall with his battered fedora low over his eyes.
"She's not just a vampire?"
     "Vampires get more powerful over time," Rei said slowly,
beginning to pace.  Her long coat swirled around her legs as she
moved.  "Even those who don't carry over magick or abilities from
their human lives usually develop some powers after at least a
century."
     "So she's more than a hundred years old?" Usagi asked.
     Rei hesitated.  "I'm no expert," she said at last.  "But there
are still stories of the fight against the vampires' inner circle during
the Long Dark, of the abilities some of those vamps possessed.  Those
in the inner circle, their ruling council, had powers far beyond what
most of their kind manifested.  And they had those powers because
they had somehow managed to survive much longer than most
vamps.  I've heard their leader, Demetias, claimed to have witnessed
the fall of the Genrous with his own eyes."
     Silence greeted that.
     "Are we saying," Minako finally said, "that this vamp is
thousands of years old?"
     "I'm saying that's possible," Rei told her.  "And if she is, then
this is a whole new ballgame.  Any vamp capable of surviving that
long is going to be smart, experienced, and may have powers that we
can't anticipate."
     "Which is why our trap didn't work," Luna sighed.
     "Not only didn't our trap work," Ami pointed out, "but now
the vampire knows that we are after her.  And she has seen Ranma's
face."
     They all turned to look at me, and I fought the urge to
squirm.
     "She's seen Rei, too," I pointed out.
     "Her wraiths already saw my face, remember?" Rei said.
"And yours, too.  But now the vamp knows you have the key."
     "And that you're allied with the senshi," Usagi declared
morosely.  "Boy, this didn't turn out the way I wanted.  Instead of
going to Hotaru with information on the vampire, we have to tell her
that we're being hunted by the Sisterhood AND a vampire!"
     "Okay," I said.  "Fine.  But there's no use in moping about
this, right?  This vampire has killed a lot of people to get to me, and I
gotta say that I've had enough.  Maybe now she'll just come after
me."
     "Be careful what you wish for, Ranma," Minako cautioned.
     "She's right," Artemis told me.  "Elder vampires are very
hard to deal with.  Physical force may not be enough."
     "So what do we do now?" Makoto asked, looking around.  "I
don't suppose it would do us any good to try and catch another
wraith?"
     "Definitely not," Rei said flatly.  "She's not going to be
caught off-guard like that again.  No, for now I suggest we
concentrate on our problem with the Sisterhood."
     "And that means we have to get to our talk to Hotaru and the
others," Usagi sighed.  She didn't seem to be relishing the thought.
     "Yeah," Minako added, "and we're going to be late.  We'd
better get cracking."
     We set off down a nearby alleyway with Makoto in the lead.
She seemed to know this run-down part of town quite well, and
moved with confidence.  I kept an eye out for wraiths or other
beasties while we walked, mulling over the day's events.  Nothing
seemed to be going our way, that much was certain.  The Sisterhood
had wrecked a police station, the were-cats had wanted to adopt me
or something, and the vampire was even more powerful than anyone
had imagined.
     What else, I thought, could possibly go wrong?
     Yeah, I know.  I should have known better.  I really should
have.

***

     The streets were uncharacteristically empty today, even this
far from the centre of the devastation.  The citizens of Saeni were
used to monster attacks, but the events of the past two days went
beyond even what they had become accustomed to.
     Of course, Saekianna had an advantage over the wary few
who scuttled along the narrow sidewalks.  She knew what had caused
the creatures to flock as they had.  What she didn't know was who
had taken the Genosphere, or why the police station had been targeted.
     Another source of aggravation for a woman who had more
than enough on her plate as it was.
     Yurina reclined against the glossy black fender of Saekianna's
Hisea Scorpion, pale hands splayed against the cool metal.  The girl
was a vision in her low-cut black dress, tailored to hug the petite
beauty's curves.  Her midnight-black mane was bound up in a
complex swirl and pinned with long, lacquered pins, leaving her slender
throat bared enticingly.  Even those who hurried to the perceived safety
of their homes lingered for a second glance at the Black Rose,
haughtily indifferent to the admiring gazes she evoked.  Yurina met the
Nightmistress's eyes, pushing off the car as the other woman drew
near.
     "From the expression on your face," Yurina said softly, "I
take it the negotiation was less than fruitful."
     "The priesthood of Dios appreciates our historic bonds of
mutual support," Saekianna replied in a low voice.  "But they are,
sadly, unable to spare any resources during these uncertain times."
     "In other words," Yurina sniffed, "they do not see any
advantage in this for them."
     "I could not very well reveal that we are working to free our
Lady," Saekianna sighed.  "As far as they are concerned, we are not
in a position to return any favour, no matter how small, nor shall we
be in the foreseeable future.  Under the circumstances, I am not
surprised by the response."
     She skirted the low-slung car, lowering herself into the deeply
contoured driver's seat as Yurina slid in beside her.
     "Their relations with Griitna were quite warm," Yurina
opined.  "Even if they were unaware of her deceptions, some of the
quests we performed were no doubt at the behest of, or to the
advantage of, His order."
     "True," Saekianna nodded, drumming her long red nails on
the leather steering wheel cover.  "But now is not the time for
accusations.  Once our Lady is revived, all accounts will be called
due.  But without someone to hunt the White Moon girls for us, we
risk their interference in the ceremony.  And now an unknown player
has taken the Genosphere.  The Lady Fortuna bedevils us, Yurina."
     Yurina remained silent as Saekianna started the car, listening
to the powerful thrum of the engine.  She had a fine collection of
expensive cars, but the Ferengetti had been her favourite.  It galled
her that the White Moon girl had destroyed it so easily.  That girl was
far more troublesome than Saekianna had anticipated.  Direct
conflict was out of the question, and the more subtle approaches
took time, which was in short supply.  But she had to do something.
She had guided the Sisterhood so close to their cherished goal.  To fail
now was unthinkable.
     A low chirping broke her reverie, and she glanced over as
Yurina reached inside the centre console to retrieve a slim phone.
     "Yes?  Yes, she's right here."  She held out the phone to
Saekianna, mouthing the words, It's Vi.
     "Yes, Vi," Saekianna murmured.  The girl had only been
released by their healer that morning, and was accompanying the two
Maidens Yurina had detailed to check out the area of the attack.  As
the Sister spoke, Saekianna's heart began to race.
     "Very good," she said crisply when the girl had given her brief
report.  "Keep him in sight, but do not try to apprehend him yourself.
We will be there shortly."
     She handed the phone back to Yurina, then accelerated away
from the curb, sending the Scorpion rocketing down the half-empty
street.
     "Nightmistress?" Yurina asked.  "Good news?"
     "Indeed, my Black Rose," Saekianna said with a predatory
smile.  "I believe we have finally had a bit of good luck."

***

     "You made it easy for me to find you, pup," Rin said
smoothly.
     "I'm not one for hiding, puss," Yoshi replied, pushing off the
fender of his Griffon with his hips.  Yoshi knew that Rin's people had
eyes around town, and he had been sure to drive by several places he
knew his presence would be noted.  After what had happened on that
rooftop, Yoshi knew that blood was going to be shed.  It was
inevitable.  Which was fine by him; Yoshi had never been one for
avoiding conflict.
     "You see," Yoshi went on, looking the stylish werecat in the
eye brashly, "I'm having a bad week, and I'd like nothing better than to
get uncivilized with you."
     "How disappointing," Rin smiled back, icy green eyes flashing.  "I
had an entire speech prepared, with several vicious verbal barbs
designed specifically to provoke you.  All that effort for nothing."
     "Sucks to be you, pretty-boy," Yoshi sniffed, shrugging his
shoulders.  "That's a nice suit, by the way."
     "Yes, it is," Rin agreed.  "Carnian silk.  Very expensive."
     "You must wreck a lot of suits, changing on the fly," Yoshi
continued, slowly advancing on the other man's position.  "But I
guess you can afford it.  How much did you get for your balls,
exactly?"
     "Keep talking, boy," Rin breathed, tossing his hair back from
the sharp angles of his face.  "Jupiter isn't here to protect you now."
     "If you knew her the way I do, you'd know that fancy suits
and expensive toys won't impress her," Yoshi pressed.  It wasn't very
smart of Rin to bring her up.  "Face it, you're just Gareth's errand
boy."
     "Very droll.  Can we get on with the main event now?"  Rin's
stance was deceptively relaxed, but Yoshi wasn't fooled.
     "Down here," Yoshi said with a feral grin, gesturing at the nearby
alley.  "Cops are on edge today.  Don't want to get bullet holes in that
pretty suit just 'cause some rookie saw fangs and teeth, right?"
     "By all means," Rin said with a courtly bow.  "Let us take to
the back alleys.  An appropriate setting for what I will be leaving
behind."
     Yoshi ignored that.  He didn't like what had been going on between
Rin and Jupiter, not this bounty disagreement and not this whole
precarious truce situation.  And on a personal level, now that he knew
Makoto was Jupiter, his dislike of Rin had intensified greatly.  There
was no way he was going to let that smug lady-killer play with that
girl's heart.  She might not see him for what he was, but Yoshi had
never been fooled.
     Jupiter would disapprove, but this was a matter that had to be
settled between men.  It was time to express his displeasure to Rin.
     Personally.

***

     I got out of the car and stretched.  It was back, that feeling I
sometimes got.  It was like an itch under the skin, an itch that you
couldn't scratch.  I knew what was causing it, but getting rid of it was
another matter altogether.
     "You should relax," Artemis advised me.  He sat behind the
wheel of Minako's car, slumped down with his hat pulled low over
his guileless eyes.  With his battered leather jacket and long hair, he
looked like a slightly disreputable musician or actor, someone who'd
adopted a bad boy persona but really didn't mean it.
     "Relax?" I grumbled.  "So far today monsters overran a police
station, I got sent into the Nekoken, our plan to trap the vampire
failed, and now the girls have gone into a cemetery to talk to this
Hotaru, who apparently would gladly chop me into bits if she knew
that I was the Outsider.  Not feeling the urge to relax here."
     "It'll be fine," Artemis sighed, shifting his weight.
     "Will it?" Luna asked, turning to him, legs curled up under her.
"Things are tense enough between the two groups.  Usagi was really
counting on having some hard information on the vampire to present
to the Outers."
     "Usagi doesn't have to mollify Hotaru," Artemis said.  "If
anything, it should be the other way around."
     "This Hotaru sounds like a pain in the ass," Deimos snapped.
"And why do we have to wait here, anyway?"
     "I agree," Phobos said softly, sitting in the back seat while her
twin spun crazily around the car.  "We should be with Rei-sama."
     "We agreed," Luna reminded them, sounding a bit impatient.
"The senshi would meet alone."  It struck me that she might be
scolding the twins, but she really wanted to be on the other side of that
big stone wall with her princess.
     "I didn't agree," Deimos sulked.  Luna looked liked she wanted to
start an argument, and I knew if I had to listen to more bitching I was
just going to snap.
     "Okay, that's it," I said.
     "Hey!  Where are you going?" Artemis asked, sounding vaguely
alarmed as I began to walk away from the car.
     "There's a little café just around the corner up there," I told
him.  "We passed it on the way here.  I'm going to get a bite to eat
and some hot water.  Time to be a boy again."  That wouldn't cure
the itching need for activity that burrowed under my skin, but it
might distract me for a few minutes.  And right now, any distraction
was welcome.
     "Right on!" Deimos crowed, flying over the car's roof to perch
on my shoulder.  "Let's rock, gorgeous!"
     "Wait a minute!" Artemis objected.
     "I'm just going up to the corner," I said as patiently as I could.
"I'll only be five minutes.  Don't worry, I'm not going to run off."
     "Yeah, I'll keep him out of trouble," Deimos grinned with a
saucy wink.  "If anything happens, I'll let Phobos know, and you can
ride to the rescue, Artie!"
     Artemis muttered something under his breath as I walked off,
but I ignored him.  He was a good enough guy for someone who was
really a cat, but I'd had enough of being cooped up.  I had travelled
between worlds.  A walk down the street wasn't anything I couldn't
handle.
     "You know, even in this city you're going to attract some
attention," I told Deimos as I walked.
     "What attention?" she asked, folding her black bat-wings up
neatly.  "Nobody's out on the street around here.  That little monster
freak-out this morning's got everyone spooked.  And this close to a
big-ass old graveyard like that," she added, pointing off to my right
where a high stone wall ran for blocks in either direction, "gawkers
are going to be a rare breed on a day like today.  So take it easy."
     She had a point.  I strolled along the sidewalk without seeing
another pedestrian, and only the odd car travelling along the wide
street ahead.  This little side street was nearly deserted.
     I was startled out of my reverie by the feather-light brush of
hair and lips along my cheek.  I turned my head to see Deimos
smiling at me impishly.
     "What was that for?" I asked, trying not to sound too
flustered.
     "You were looking pretty serious there for a minute," the tiny
girl replied.  Then she leaned forward again, pressing her perfect tiny
lips against my mouth in a lingering kiss.  I was taken off-guard
again; it just hadn't occurred to me that she might do that.  In some
ways, Deimos was like a mini-Minako.
     "And that," she said softly, clinging to a stray lock of my hair
as she gazed intently into my eyes, "was for earlier.  When you broke
the contact between our Rei-sama and the wraith."
     "Oh, that," I mumbled, my face flushed.  Even little fairy
girls were too much for me to handle.  This was getting ridiculous.
"That was nothing."
     "Phobos and me, we think it was something," Deimos told
me, her dark eyes sparkling.  "And don't think Rei-sama didn't take
notice.  I'm sure she'll want to show you her gratitude later."
     "Er," I said cleverly.
     "She finds you quite comely, you know," Deimos went on
with a sultry toss of her head.  "In this body, at least.  I've always
liked red-heads too, although Phobos favours your boy form."
     "Ah," I replied.  The small spot on my mouth where Deimos
has kissed me still burned as if from the imprint of her mouth, and I
tried not to think too much about what she was saying.  What if Rei,
as an ex-sex priestess, wanted to show her gratitude, well, THAT
way?
What if she was offended when I refused?
     What if I didn't refuse?
     I shook my head at that.  What the hell was I thinking?  Of
course I'd refuse!  Because ... because ... well, because it would be
wrong.  That is, it was the right thing to do.  To not do it, that is.  Or
...
     "You okay, sweetie?" Deimos asked, gripping the collar of
my coat with one tiny hand.  "You look like you need to pee or
something."
     "Do you just say whatever comes into your head?" I snapped,
embarrassed all over again.
     "Sure," Deimos said easily.  "I'm not afraid to say what's on
my mind.  Or to admit what I want."
     I figured that was directed at me, but I had no response.  Hell,
she had a point.  Everyone around me seemed to know what they
wanted, and made no bones about going after it.  Even if they failed,
at least they'd know they had tried.  Me, I didn't know what I
wanted.  Or maybe I did know, and was afraid to admit it, which was
probably worse.
     Damn, I wanted to hit something.
     "Uh-oh," Deimos said as we reached the café.  "Closed."
     "Well, there's something just down at that corner," I sighed, craning
my head to look up and down the street.  "Maybe I'll have better luck
there."
     "Artemis wants you to come back," Deimos told me.  "He's
pestering Phobos."
     "Better her than me," I shrugged.  "Tell her to pass along that
he's a nag."
     "Done!" Deimos chirped, apparently amused at the goings
on.  This street was wider than the one we'd parked on, two lanes
each way with streetcar tracks and lots of signs to tell people where
not to park or stand or turn.  Traffic wasn't going to be a problem
today, though.  There were hardly any cars out here at all, and the
ones I did see seemed in a hurry to be somewhere else.  Apparently,
we were still too close to the scene of the monster attack for comfort.
     Me, I'd have welcomed a fight.  I fairly itched for one.  Any
monsters showing their ugly faces around me would regret it, that
much was sure.  Unfortunately, everything was quiet, and I moved
along the sidewalk in total peace.
     After a few blocks I finally found a place that was open, but
when I went inside I found it deserted.  It was a small place that
reminded me, for some stupid reason, of the Nekohanten.  The flash
of memory was so strong that, for a moment, I was certain that
Shampoo would come bounding out and throw her arms around me.
     I shook it off irritably.  Would memories like that ever stop
ambushing me?  Maybe not.  Maybe those ghosts would always
haunt me, no matter where I went.
     And maybe they should.  After all, I was the last one.  The
Nekohanten, like the Tendou Dojo and Furinkan and all those other
places, only existed as phantoms of my memory, restless phantoms.
As long as I lived, a little piece of them would too.
     Damn.  My mood was turning black again, that restless itch
trying to claw its way out through my skin.  I stomped into the back
of the small eatery, which in truth didn't really resemble the
Nekohanten much after all.  I ran the water in a big stainless steel sink
until it was hot enough, then filled a bowl and doused myself.  Deimos
had left my shoulder and was poking around the shelves; it seemed to
me somehow that she had sensed my mood, and wisely decided to
leave
me be for the moment.
     "Does it hurt?" she asked suddenly.
     "What?" I asked, my voice lower now. I shook the water
from my long coat.
     "The change," she said.  "I've heard that shapeshifting is
painful."
     "My curse isn't," I shrugged.  "Tingles a bit, that's all."
     "Huh," she said, holding something out to me.  "Bacon bit?"
     She had found some bins full of different toppings, maybe for
okonomiyaki or pizza or something.  We helped ourselves for a
minute, sampling the contents of the different containers.
     "Not bad," I mused.  "I wonder where the staff went?"
     "They probably just took off in such a hurry that they forgot
to lock up," Deimos shrugged.  "Look, the door to the back alley is
still open."
     So it was, standing ajar down at the end of a short, cramped
hallway.  In fact, it seemed to me I could hear voices as I stood there,
angry voices.  I moved closer, and it quickly became clear that
somewhere not too far away an argument was getting out of hand.
     "Trouble," Deimos remarked.  I grinned.
     "Yeah," I said softly.  "Trouble.  Just what the doctor
ordered.  Come on.  Let's get us some of what's going around."

***

     Saekianna brought the Scorpion to a sharp stop near the curb
and slid from the clinging embrace of the luxurious sports car.  The
two Maidens, Bella and Jade, were already moving towards them.
     "Well?" she demanded, covering her anxiety with haughty
superiority.
     "Vi says it was definitely the wolf from the Kino girl's
place," Jade replied.  She was tall and broad-shouldered, with sharp
features and striking red hair cut short and stylish.
     "We tried to counsel caution," Bella added.  "But she
followed them down that alley."
     "Them?" Yurina frowned.
     "The wolf and another shifter," Bella replied.  The second
Maiden appeared fragile next to Jade, her pale face dominated by
large dark eyes and bee-stung lips.  A profusion of midnight curls
formed a full mane that fell to her waist, overwhelming her petite
form.
     "They did not appear to be on friendly terms," Jade said with
a sharp grin as they moved to the mouth of the alley.
     "Which is to our advantage," Saekianna nodded.  "Still, I
will have the boy this time."
     "Jade?" Yurina asked softly.
     "I am prepared," Jade replied, pulling open her tailored suit
jacket to reveal a lethal-looking pistol.
     "Only if necessary," Saekianna interrupted.  "And shoot to wound,
I want the boy alive."
     "The other, Nightmistress?" Bella asked softly, her long skirt
swirling around legs that had inspired besotted suitors to paroxysms of
reverence.
     "Expendable."
     "I understand," Jade said with a wolfish smile.  They moved
quietly down the alley, the sound of angry male voices faint but
growing louder.  They found Vi lurking behind a battered old
dumpster that was stained with rust and other, less mundane
substances.
     "Nightmistress," Vi breathed.  "They are in the courtyard.
There is only one other way out, an alley onto an adjoining street."
     "Jade," Saekianna whispered.  "You cut off their escape.
Bella, watch our backs.  I do not want any surprises.  Go."
     The two Maidens slipped away as Saekianna moved up
beside Vi and peered cautiously around the corner.  The alleyway
continued that way, widening part way down to form a tidy little
courtyard.  A nice, private little place for a showdown, apparently.
But luck was on their side; they were downwind of the pair, not that the
two shifters had any interest in anything besides themselves.
     "The blond is our wolf, Nightmistress," Vi hissed.
     "And the other is also a shifter," Saekianna mused, sensing
the man's aura even at that distance.  "But not a friend."
     Indeed, it was clear that the two were on the verge of
violence.  The blond stood toe-to-toe with a sleek, dangerous-looking
man with long russet hair and an expensive suit.  Pack politics?
Well, whatever the argument was about, Saekianna was about to
solve it.  And woe to the lovely newcomer if he decided to interfere.

***

     They moved through the grounds in silence, none of them
looking forward to the coming meeting.  Venus knew that their
princess had hoped to bring something tangible to this meeting, some
valuable information from their interrogation of the captive wraith.
Now they had nothing.  No, worse than nothing; the vampiress was
aware of their interest, and of the identity of the bearer of the key.
     Hotaru had always pushed the princess, and despite their
mentor's curt nature Usagi had always desired nothing more than to
live up to those high expectations.  Venus knew that the princess was
taking this failure particularly hard for that reason.  If this vampiress
was really the one who had attacked Hotaru's mother, Usagi would
want to be the one to deliver her.
     Venus glanced quickly at Sailor Moon, suppressing a sigh.
Despite being the one wronged, it would be typical of their princess
to want to present Hotaru with a peace offering.  But if the princess
was conciliatory in this meeting, Venus suspected that Saturn would
take that as a sign of weakness.  Her resulting displeasure would
certainly not help an already potentially explosive situation.
     Venus followed the princess and Mars, unruly grass providing a
soft cushion for her booted feet.  The cemetery was a sprawling
affair, like a garden of stone left to run wild.  They passed through a
maze of towering monuments and gaunt crypts that stretched into the
distance, bearing silent testament to the resting places of the dead.
The marker nearest to her bore a winged figure, her arms
outstretched and her cold stone face turned upwards.  The edges of
the stone were soft, worn by the elements and by time, and Venus
noticed, as she had that first time, that some of the monuments leaned
this way and that, perched precariously amongst the frozen verdant
waves of the grounds.  None had yet fallen, at least that she could see
from her vantage point, but moss and ivy clung in more than a few
places.
     Not just a graveyard, an old one.  That always helped the
spookiness quotient.  Not exactly an auspicious meeting place, but
it at least had the advantage of privacy.  It was also intimidating as
all the hells, and Venus suspected that those two reasons had played a
major role in Hotaru's decision to meet each of them there when
they'd first been recruited.
     Jupiter and Mercury brought up the rear, and Venus noticed
the two were conducting a whispered conversation.  With any luck
Mercury was reminding Jupiter to keep her temper in check.  An
explosion was all they needed, what with everybody on edge.
     They paused at the edge of a shallow dip in the ground that
extended in an irregular circle.  Down in the middle of the depression
was a huge old crypt guarded by stone gargoyles who stood eternal
watch on its flat roof.  Standing near the door were four more
guardians, these no less fierce but much lovelier.
     "Ready?" Mars murmured, catching sight of the Outers.
     "Yes," the princess replied, reaching back to squeeze the
sable-maned beauty's hand briefly.  Venus felt a twinge of jealousy;
no matter how the princess tried not to play favourites, it seemed that
she always reached for Mars first.
     Grow up, she told herself sternly.  This is not helpful.
Steeling herself, she followed the other two down the gentle slope
towards the Tomoe family crypt.  As usual, Uranus and Neptune
stood together, hip to hip, watching them come.  It just seemed so
natural that Venus wondered if they were even aware of how they
always seemed to exist in their own private space whenever they were
anywhere together.  Pluto stood off to one side, long dark hair
billowing in the breeze, with Saturn in the centre.
     Showtime.
     "You're late," Saturn said curtly as they approached.  They stopped
a short distance away, and Venus saw Uranus fairly wince at the
woman's icy tone.
     "There was trouble," Mars replied smoothly.  Jupiter's mouth
had opened, but a subtle elbow from Mercury forestalled any
outburst.
     "Yes," the princess nodded.  "Just one of the things we have
to talk about."  Venus noted with approval that the princess seemed
to be maintaining her composure so far.  Good.  The more the two
leaders could be seen to be on the same level, the better.
     "I was hoping for a better show," Uranus murmured, sober
expression belied by the mischievous glint in her sky-blue eyes.
"Although I suppose the maid outfits would have been a hard act to
follow."
     "Uranus," Saturn snapped, glowering at the taller senshi.
"That's not helping."
     Venus begged to differ.  A little of Uranus's famous
flirtatious charm went a long way towards defusing tensions.
     "But if you're really that interested, maybe a private show is
in order?" Venus inquired coquettishly.  She had, at her princess's
request, worn her senshi uniform instead of her Mistress V outfit, but
she really would have enjoyed provoking the Outers with a show of
skin, black leather, and attitude.
     "It would be worth the price of admission," Neptune said
with an enigmatic smile, "to see what sort of outrageousness is born
of your creative wellspring, Venus."
     "I've never heard it called that before ..." Venus began impishly.
     Sailor Moon coughed politely.  "This may not be the best
time," she said, containing her amusement rather well, at least in
Venus's opinion.  The princess stepped forward, meeting Saturn's
smouldering gaze evenly.  "Saturn, I think it's time we talked about
what's been going on.  There are at least two enemies that are targeting
sailor senshi right now, and you need to know about them."
     As the princess spoke, Venus noticed Mars' expression.  The
girl cocked her head, lips pursed into a frown.  She seemed to be
listening to something nobody else could hear, and it came to Venus
in a flash that Phobos and Deimos were communicating with their
mistress.  Venus could feel Artemis in her head sometimes when they
were close, and she knew that Luna and the princess shared a similar
bond, but apparently the link between the twins and Mars verged on
full-blown telepathy.  And, judging by the expression on her face,
Mars wasn't liking what she was hearing.
     "Sass," she whispered.
     "What?" Venus blurted.  Mars shook her head and looked up.
     "It's her," Mars announced, causing the princess to fall silent
as everyone shifted their attention.  "Saekianna.  She's after Yoshi
again."
     "That bitch!" Jupiter exclaimed.  "Where are they?"
     "Close," Mars said, closing her eyes.  "Rin is there too.
Things are going to get ugly.  We'd better ..."
     She broke off, her normally pale skin going deathly white.
Venus felt a sinking sensation in the pit of her stomach as Mars
opened her eyes, dark gaze seeking out Jupiter.
     "What?" Jupiter asked with obvious trepidation as Saturn
loudly demanded to know what was going on.  "Mars, WHAT?"
     "Yoshi," Mars said, her voice breathy.  "Oh, Jupiter.  We have to
hurry.  It may not be too late."

***

     The air was thick with imminent violence, an electric heat
that roiled and simmered, barely contained.  Saekianna stepped into
that maelstrom without fear, her stiletto heels clicking on the cracked
asphalt as she strode confidently towards the two men.  After all, her
training allowed her to take intense emotions like this and twist them,
capturing her prey in bonds of darkest desire.
     The blond wolf, he would be tricky.  Vi's experience with
him showed that trying to control him with a rose was fruitless.  No
matter.  If he could be snared, there were other techniques at her
disposal.  In the end, he would submit.
     But first things first.
     The pretty one caught sight of her first, lovely green eyes
narrowing as he followed her progress.
     "Well, we have an audience," he murmured, his voice a low,
throaty growl.  "And quite a lovely one at that."
     "Sorry, gorgeous," the wolf growled with an insultingly brief
glance in her direction.  "This is a private party."
     "I am most sorry to hear that," Saekianna said softly.  Her
wrist snapped out, sending Banri snaking through the intervening
space like black lightning.  The mystic whip coiled around the wolf
before he could react, tightening and unleashing dark energies through
his body.  With a cry, he fell to his knees.  The other one moved,
beginning to advance on her.
     "Ah, ah," she warned, revealing the black rose cradled in her
other hand.  "That's far enough.  I only have use for this one, pretty-
pretty.  But of you push me, I'll take you as well."
     "I can't imagine what Sakamura might have done to gain the
enmity of the Sisterhood," the man said softly, his eyes fixed on the
rose.  "And ordinarily, I would not much care.  But I have my orders
regarding him.  Once I have punished him, you may do what you
wish."
     "You do not seem to grasp the situation," Saekianna
informed him haughtily.  "The wolf is mine.  And now, so are you."
     She knew the shifter's reflexes would be excellent; prepared
for her attack, he would be a formidable foe.  Unfortunately for him,
she was not the threat he needed to worry about.  Vi had used the
distraction provided by her Nightmistress to move into position, and
her ribbons snaked out and wrapped the startled shifter in coils strong
as steel before he knew that she was behind him.  Vi slowly began to
reel the enraged shifter in, magicked silk tightening around his throat
and arms, and Saekianna let a pitiless smile creep to her lips as the
man's face began to turn red.
     "You seem to be cutting off his air, Vi," Saekianna
admonished.  "How cruel.  I know a better way to control our new
pet."
     As the wolf struggled fruitlessly to free himself from Banri's coils,
Saekianna flung her rose straight at Vi's captive.  With the boy as bait,
she could flush out the senshi before Baniesti arrived.  She could
finally guarantee the success of the revival.  She ...
     The rose never made it.
     Saekianna blinked.  Someone had moved fast enough to catch
her rose, and now stood twirling it idly.  He was a rangy youth,
attractive and vital.  And familiar, despite having changed from his
outlander garb.
     "You," she hissed.  The boy, the one who'd snatched V from her
grasp that night near the club.  His blue eyes flashed as he took in the
scene in an instant.
     "Up to your old tricks, huh?" he asked, stance casual.  Then, in one
blindingly fast move, he spun and kicked the russet-haired shifter in
the chest, sending the man flying back into Vi.  They both tumbled to
the ground as the boy kept spinning, discarding the rose and unleashing
a bolt of energy at Banri.  Not magick, that energy.  Chi.  A martial
artist, then.  Still, Banri and her mistress were both taken off-guard, and
the whip's coils slipped off the captive wolf, who was on his feet in a
moment.
     "My thanks, stranger," the wolf gasped, his gray eyes pinning
Saekianna with predatory fury.
     "Not so much a stranger, actually," the boy began.
     At that point things began to happen very quickly.  Saekianna
saw Vi struggling to contain the other shifter as they tussled on the
ground, saw motion down the alley the boy had used.  The wolf's
gaze shifted from her to a point to her rear, and his eyes widened.  He
seemed to freeze for a moment, shock robbing his face of colour, then
he screamed, a feral cry of rage.  The outlander boy dodged a stray
rose thrown by Vi, the wolf charged towards her, she tried to
backpedal and get Banri between them ...
     And then there was a gunshot.
     And the wolf fell.

***

     She wasn't certain what was happening.  All she was getting
from Deimos was a jumble of images and sensations.  One thing she
did know, however.
     Saekianna had made another move.  And Yoshi was hurt.
     Or worse.
     "How far?" Jupiter demanded.  The girl was beside herself
with worry bordering on panic, and Mars only hoped that they would
be in time.
     "Just down that alley!" she replied.  Jupiter leapt on ahead,
long legs carrying her ahead of the others.  Mars cursed.  The girl
was going to rush headlong into danger with no thought of the
consequences.  It would be up to the rest of them to protect her.
     Of course, the rest of them included the Outers.  They had
followed from the cemetery, and Mars knew that the explanations
that had to be made would only be complicated by a confrontation
with the Sisterhood.  Her own secret would no doubt be revealed.
     But that could wait.  Right now, she had to catch Jupiter
before she got herself killed.  Or worse.
     She had been the closest, but as she entered the alleyway,
Venus drew even with her, Mercury and the princess close behind.
The Outers were closing the gap caused by their late start; perhaps they
had debated the wisdom of following their younger counterparts.  They
were not far behind, though, and Uranus was in the lead.  It was those
long, long legs.  Only Jupiter could match the blonde in a footrace.
     "Nobody move!" an imperious voice commanded.  Mars
recognized Saekianna's voice immediately, saw the situation as she
came up behind Jupiter.  Yoshi was down on the ground,
blood pooling around his prone form.  A tall woman stood over him,
lethal looking handgun pointed at his head.  Mars recognized Jade
immediately.  And Vi, who was carefully backing away from a
disgruntled Rin.  Ranma stood very still, and from Mars' vantage it
appeared he was judging his chances of getting Jade before she could
fire.  But even fast as Ranma was, Mars wouldn't have wanted to
chance it.
     A standoff.  Not good.  The rest of the senshi were arriving,
but there could be other Sisters and Maidens nearby.  In fact, she
caught sight of Yurina walking slowly up behind Saekianna.  Yurina
was now Black Rose.  That did not make her any less dangerous than
she had been when she and Rei had known each other,
just dangerous in a different way.  Yurina's dark eyes didn't meet
Mars', however; they were rivetted on Yoshi's fallen form, face even
paler than was normal.  That was odd; Mars knew Yurina was not
squeamish.
     "Well, well.  What an interesting development," Saekianna
breathed, fury coiling within her eyes as her gaze met Mars'.  "You
had best ensure that your people behave, Rei, or the boy dies."
     "Silver," Rin spat, standing rigid and glaring at Vi, whose ribbons
were twitching restlessly in the air as she faced off against the werecat.
"She's using silver bullets."
     Bad news.  Even a shifter's healing powers would not save
him from silver.
     "What do you want?" Mars asked evenly as the others began to
arrive.  Saekianna smirked, back in the driver's seat at last.
     "First, tell your ..."
     "Lily," Jupiter said softly.  Mars blinked.  Jupiter's eyes
seemed glazed, unfocussed, as they went from Yoshi's fallen form to
Saekianna.
     No.  Not Saekianna.  She was looking behind her, at ...
     "LILY!"
     Then the world exploded in light.

***

     Lightning.
     It flowed like water, thick streams of actinic blue-white
power that filled the air, snaking out towards its target.  It was filled
with insensate rage, a thing of pure primal fury, knowing only one
thing.
     It must destroy.
     Then it met an obstacle, and power struggled with power as
screams rose into the air.  Concrete and steel shattered, someone
screamed, and the streams of energy turned black.
     And then there was silence.

***

     Somewhere, far off across the cityscape, a siren wailed
forlornly.  Sailor Moon wondered for a brief moment if Mamoru was
rushing to the scene.  But only for a moment; he would have more
than a few problems of his own to deal with.
     "Everybody okay?" she asked, blinking the blue-white
afterimages out of her eyes.  The alleyway was strewn with broken
concrete from nearby walls, but there did not seem to be any imminent
danger.
     "I think so," Mercury replied cautiously.
     "Princess!"  Luna was running down the alley, hair streaming
out behind her.  "Thank the gods you're all right!"
     "What in all the hells just happened?" Artemis demanded,
skidding to a stop beside them.  "Was that Jupiter?"
     "Uh-huh," Moon replied, watching as Mercury crouched
down beside Yoshi's unmoving form.  "At least, the first part.
Mercury?"
     "He's been shot," Mercury said, scanning Yoshi.  "With a
silver bullet.  He's lucky that the bullet went right through his
shoulder and exited cleanly.  If it had fragmented and a piece
remained in him, he could have died."
     "As it is, he is in shock," a voice informed them.  "Silver
poisoning.  Not something any of our kind should trifle with, to be
certain."
     "Rin," Moon said, frowning.  The man was walking towards
them from the far end of the alley, his normally glossy hair tousled
and his suit jacket badly torn.  "Weren't you just over there?"
     "And where are the others?" Artemis added.  "I saw you all
entering the alley ahead of us ..."
     "That's a very good question," the princess muttered.
Concern was beginning to penetrate the shock that surrounded her.
The alley had been filled with people before ...
     Before what?
     "That girl is insane," someone declared flatly.  The princess
turned to see Neptune coming up the alleyway behind Rin, brushing
dirt from her skirt and looking uncharacteristically flustered.
     "Will someone please tell me what happened?" Artemis
pleaded.
     "The lovely Jupiter completely lost it," Rin said dryly,
looking down his aquiline nose at where Mercury was carefully
tearing Yoshi's t-shirt off to reveal puckered flesh edged with ugly
black lines.  "She unleashed a tremendous attack which that whip-
wielding Sister tried to block."
     "Sister?" Neptune asked sharply.
     "And then Jupiter's power reacted with Ban ... the whip,"
Moon added quickly.
     "Neptune, what happened to you?" Mercury asked without
looking up.
     "Everything went black for a moment and I felt disoriented,"
Neptune shrugged elegantly.  "Then I found myself one street over,
tripping over a trash can.  Not an everyday occurrence, I assure you."
     "Yes," Rin nodded.  "Darkness, then suddenly I was
somewhere else.  Some sort of escape spell?"
     "I think not," Saturn said coolly, landing with feline grace on
the stained asphalt in the middle of the courtyard.  She swept her
glaive behind her and surveyed the small group with a disapproving
gaze.  "I believe that we experienced some sort of backlash that threw
us
randomly from this place."
     "So the others are all nearby?" Moon said, flush with relief.
     "We can only hope," Saturn scowled.  "And what exactly
was Jupiter thinking, Princess?"
     What indeed?  Moon recalled the hoarse scream that had
erupted from Jupiter's throat, a name from her past.  Could it be
true?  Had that girl been the one who'd betrayed a younger Makoto?
     They all turned at the sound of metal clattering madly across
unyielding pavement, then Jupiter appeared, careening around the
corner and down the alley.  She ran full out until she reached them,
face flushed and eyes wild.
     "Jupiter!" the princess cried.  "Are you all right?"
     "Where is she?" Jupiter shouted.  "She can't get away from
me!  WHERE IS SHE?"
     "Gone," Rin said, watching Jupiter carefully.  "All of them, gone.
Courtesy of your rage and that magicked whip, it appears.  I must
confess, I would dearly love to know what that woman did to have
enraged you so."
     "No," Jupiter breathed, turning her infuriated gaze on him, every
line of her body singing with tension ready to be released in the most
destructive manner possible.  "You wouldn't."  She started to push
forward, and Moon saw Saturn preparing to intercept the irrational
senshi.  That could only go badly; the princess stood quickly and
interposed her body between the two, placing her hands gently but
firmly on Jupiter's shoulders.
     "Hey," she said softly.  "Jupiter?  We need you here right now.  I
need you."
     Jupiter's throat worked as she swallowed, tension arcing through her
body and into the palms of Moon's hands.  Blazing green eyes filled
with anguish met hers, and Moon felt the pain of her friend's wounds
and suffered with her.  "Princess, that girl ..."
     "I heard," Moon murmured.  "But you have to focus now.  Yoshi
is hurt, Jupiter."
     The taller girl nodded, fury still seething like a verdant storm
in her eyes after she closed them and then slowly opened them again.
"Mercury?  How is he?"
     "In shock," Mercury replied.  "I don't know much about
silver poisoning, but I think we need to get him to a hospital."
     "With a gunshot wound?" Rin asked, smiling thinly.  "There
will be questions, and undoubtedly some other ... unpleasantness."
He stooped to gather up Yoshi's torn t-shirt.
     "He's right," Jupiter said hoarsely.  Sailor Moon let her
friend go, and Jupiter moved to Yoshi's side, crouching beside him.
     "Princess ..." Neptune began.  Moon held up her hand, still
watching Jupiter.
     "I screwed up again, didn't I, Yosh?" Jupiter whispered, her
voice thick with barely repressed grief as she reached out tenderly to
brush stray locks of blond hair from the fallen shifter's pale face.  "But
I promise I won't let her win.  I won't let her do this.  Not again."
     "There is a shop in Grie Square," Rin said.  Moon turned to
face him, noting that he was watching Yoshi and Jupiter closely.
"An apothecary's named The Silver Leaf.  Give the owner my name.
He will have fae root, and instructions on how to use it.  But do not
delay.  Silver poisoning is tricky.  The sooner you treat him, the
better."
     With that, Rin spun and walked off down the alley.  Moon
watched him go, astonished.  Rin was helping Yoshi?  Or was he
doing it for Jupiter?  Regardless, help was welcome, motives be
damned.
     "Princess," Neptune repeated, her voice low and urgent.
Saturn was frowning, and for the first time Moon realized that the
woman's attention was elsewhere.
     "What?" Moon asked sweetly.  There would be questions
now, uncomfortable questions.  There would be no easing into the
matter of their quarrel with the Sisterhood; perhaps she should insist
on waiting until the others got back.  That would delay matters for a
little while anyway, giving her time to figure out what she was going
to say.
     "I can't raise Uranus on my comm," Neptune told her, mouth set in
a thin line.
     "I've been trying Pluto," Saturn added, fiddling with her left
earring.
     "Interference from what happened?" Moon asked.  Oh please, let it
be interference.
     "There's no interference," Mercury informed her, visor
appearing as she scanned.  "Try Mars and Venus."
     The princess did so, her pulse quickening as she found no
response.
     "But ... but we weren't even affected!" she blurted.  "And
Neptune and Saturn weren't thrown that far!  They have to be
somewhere!"
     "I can't locate them," Mercury told her, shaking her head as she
swept her visor from side to side.  "I have a theory, though.  Based on
my scans, it seems that Banri summoned some sort of Shadow Magick
in response to Jupiter's attack.  Rin, Neptune, Jupiter and Saturn could
have been thrown through Shadow, emerging at points nearby."
     "Shadow Magick?" Saturn asked, violet eyes narrowing.
     "But what about the others?" the princess cried.  "Mercury,
where are they?"
     "I can't say for certain," Mercury replied, expression
guarded.  "It seems likely that they were also thrown into Shadow.
But ..."  Mercury hesitated.
     "But?"
     "But they weren't thrown back out again," the girl finished.
     Shadow?  But the vampire's wraiths went there.  And other
things.  And none of them could make a gate to Shadow.
     So how were they going to reach their friends?

***

     Pluto leaned on her staff, getting her wind back.  That had
been quite a rough ride.  She'd made it to the mouth of the alley
behind Uranus, just in time to see a veritable eruption of lightning,
presumably Jupiter's doing.  Then everything had gone black.
     There were buildings around her, edifices that somehow
looked gaunt, ancient.  The patterns reminded her of their own city,
which was hardly a surprise.  They were a phantom echo of the true
Saeni, after all.
     One look at the sky had told her where she was.  Nemesis
rode high in a sky that knew only night, gravid with crimson
corruption, and dark mist hung in the air, thick in places, tattered
gauzy streamers in others.  Somehow, she had entered Shadow Realm.
     She straightened up, scowling as the dry, withered wind blew
long strands of hair into her face.  She brushed it away impatiently,
casting about for a landmark.  Patterns from their world were
repeated in Shadow, this much she knew.  If she could get a bead on
where she was, that might help.
     Although she wasn't certain how ...
     As she suspected, her communicator was useless.  It couldn't
find a viable sub-etheral frequency in this realm.  If any of the others
had ended up here, she was going to have to find them the hard way.
     "This day," Pluto muttered blackly, "just keeps getting worse
and worse."  They hadn't gotten anything from the girls before they'd
suddenly raced out of the cemetery and past Artemis and Luna, so she
had no idea what had gone wrong or who had been in that alley.
There was nothing like being kept in the dark to make her irritable.
     And there was nothing to be learned by just standing here.
Hefting her staff easily, she set off down the deserted street, keeping
close to the hunkered buildings.  There were some very unpleasant
things that lived in Shadow, if the rumours contained any grain of
truth, and she didn't want to be far from shelter if one showed up.
     That was when she heard the scream.
     It echoed strangely off the ancient stone, but Pluto chose a
direction and sprinted across the weathered roadway.  It had seemed
to come from ahead of her and off to the right, a high, startled sound.
There was no sign of offensive magick, though, and her heart
pounded in her chest.  Had one of the others been taken by surprise?
     Her boots skidded on stone worn smooth by whatever
elements bedevilled this eldritch plane as she rounded the corner.
There.  Not one of hers, after all.  A petite woman was backing away
from her, dark eyes wide as they remained fixed on the horrifying
apparition in the middle of the street.  The girl was a vision of beauty,
but unfortunately the most lethal weapon she seemed to possess was
the ornate fan she held in one trembling hand.
     "Run!" Pluto shouted.  She could worry about how the girl
had gotten here later.  Right now, she had bigger problems to worry
about.
     Bigger, uglier problems.
     Pluto moved so that the girl would not be in her line of fire,
levelling her keystaff at the creature that had turned to face her.  Its
body was inky black, long tendrils waving along its slender length.  It
looked like some kind of giant shadowy centipede, only with glowing
red eyes and a mouth that was a vertical slash that ran nearly its
entire length.  That mouth gaped as Pluto watched, showing a
crooked array of wickedly sharp teeth as it emitted a challenge that
cut through the senshi's composure like a rusty razor through wet
tissue.
     Pluto shook off the feeling of nearly suffocating dread that the
creature's alien scream evoked, summoning a bolt of power and
unleashing it as the thing charged her, heedless of any possible
danger.  Dark energy coalesced at the tip of her staff, forming a
roiling ball which streaked out at the shadowy menace.  For one
panicky moment, Pluto had a vision of her power being rendered
somehow useless in this place.  Fortunately, this creature, denizen of
Shadow or no, proved no match for her bolt, shrieking in pain as it
was torn in two by the attack.  It fell to the ground and twitched
fitfully, if briefly.  Taking a deep breath, Pluto approached the fallen
thing, staff held at the ready.  It had shrieked its last, though, foul-
smelling ichor leaking from the rent body, and she finally
straightened and made her way towards the would-be victim.
     Up close, the girl was even more stunning, dark-lashed eyes
staring out of a delicately lovely face of palest porcelain.  The dead,
fitful wind tugged the girl's skirt, which was slit to the thigh on one
side, revealing a length of shapely leg encased in mesh hose.
     "Are you all right, miss?" Pluto asked gently.  The girl
blinked, tearing her gaze away from the fallen beast.  She snapped
her fan open, hiding her face in a demure fashion that made Pluto
think of ladies of breeding.  In fact, everything about this girl
suggested a daughter of the aristocracy, from her tasteful clothing of
the latest, most expensive fashion, to the refined grace of her bearing.
Those bottomless eyes sought Pluto out from above the fan, which she
then lowered slowly.  The tip of the girl's pink tongue slipped out to
wet her full, lush lips, but other than that nervous twitch the stranger
seemed to have recovered her poise.
     "A goddess," she breathed, her voice as exquisite as the rest
of her.  "You must be a goddess."
     "I assure you, I am not," Pluto said dryly.  "Are you hurt?"
     The girl shook her head, fan describing graceful arcs as she
toyed with it.  "No, my lady.  I ... oh, please forgive me.   This hardly
seems real!"
     The girl's breathy gasp tugged at Pluto's heart, and she
stepped closer, putting on a reassuring smile.
     "Relax," she told the girl.  "Can you tell me what happened?"
     "I am not certain," the girl replied.  "I was walking along the
street, when all of a sudden there was some sort of explosion or ... or
..."
     The girl's lips began to quiver, and before Pluto could react
the captivating young noblewoman threw herself into the startled
senshi's arms.
     "Please," the girl whispered, her arms twining around Pluto's
neck as she buried her face in the senshi's shoulder.  "Please, forgive
me.  I was so frightened ..."
     "It's all right," Pluto soothed, slipping her arms around the
trembling girl's petite body.  "You're safe now."  She breathed the
scent of the girl's glossy midnight hair, bound up in a sophisticated
style, and suddenly felt acutely aware of the heat of the other girl's
body where it was pressed against her
     Timing, she told herself ruefully.  How can you even think
about such a thing at a time like this?  Slowly, the girl's shaking
subsided, and she pulled back, tilting her head to gaze up into Pluto's
eyes.
     "I'm sorry," the girl whispered, biting her full lower lip
fetchingly.  "You must think me such a goose."
     "Not at all," Pluto replied softly, her mouth dry in spite of
herself.  This girl was quite an armful; that designer dress hid very
feminine curves.  And that perfume of hers was quite intoxicating ...
     "I just want to thank you," the beauty breathed.  "For saving
me."  The girl's chin tilted up, and Pluto found that ripe, kissable
mouth pressed against hers.  At the same time the girl's fan, which
was still in her hand, brushed against the back of Pluto's neck.  She
felt a tiny prick as she tried to gently disengage herself, and a rush of
heat filled her body.  The girl's perfume became even sweeter, filling
her senses as a nimble tongue slipped inside her mouth.  The girl had
twined the fingers of her free hand in Pluto's hair, preventing her
from breaking the kiss, but within seconds Pluto could not recall why
she had ever conceived of such a course of action.  Her knees seemed
to melt, and distantly she heard the sound of her staff as it slipped
from nerveless fingers and hit the ground.  That should have
concerned her, but that spine-melting heat consumed everything,
leaving her breathless and overwhelmed, unable to marshal her
thoughts.
     Finally the girl's mouth pulled away from hers, leaving Pluto
gasping.  Those guileless dark eyes were lidded now as the girl
stepped back, leaving Pluto to fall to her knees.  She barely caught
herself from falling by flinging her hands out, swaying on all fours,
her hair hanging down in a green-black curtain.  Shakily she raised
her head, peering up through dishevelled locks at the satisfied
beauty who regarded her with amused disdain.
     "That posture suits you, my dear," the girl smirked.  "And
since you did save me from that monstrosity, I shall not kill you.
You will come with me and protect me from the creatures in this
place.  We will find a way back to our world, and then I will make a
gift of you to the Nightmistress."
     Nightmistress?  Pluto tried to move, to stand, but that heat
had taken root at the base of her spine and was licking along her
nerve endings, making coherent thought difficult.  The girl cast a
covetous glance at Pluto's fallen keystaff, then turned her attention
back to the drugged senshi.
     "You are in a pretty cooperative state of mind right now, but
unfortunately while you have been rendered docile, that limits your
usefulness as a bodyguard," the girl said sleekly.  "But I have
something that will rectify that.  Give me your hand."
     The girl pulled something from inside her dress, a ring of
some dark material.  Pluto fought the urge to do what the seductive
beauty commanded, but her tormentor only laughed, a low, throaty
sound that resonated in the pit of Pluto's stomach.
     "Very good," the girl crooned.  "But such displays only fire
my ardour.  You bitches have caused us so much trouble, you know.
Now you will get what you deserve."
     She crouched down, taking Pluto's wrist firmly and pulling
one hand to her.  Pluto gasped, trying desperately to fight.  Her
muscles would not obey her, though, and the girl easily pried the ring
finger free from Pluto's loose fist.
     "I am going to enjoy this," the girl whispered, her dark gaze
meeting Pluto's beaten one.
     Then a dark boot flashed across Pluto's vision, and the girl
was gone.  She blinked, trying to make sense of what she was seeing
as she began to fall forward.  Someone caught her, and Pluto had
a glimpse of glossy black leather, lots of blonde hair, and a black
officer's cap.  Pluto blinked foggily at a pair of mischievous blue
eyes.
     "Bitch," Venus announced cheerfully, "you took the words
right out of my mouth."

***

     V brushed Pluto's hair back gingerly, looking down into
those crimson eyes.  They were drugged, befuddled, and V knew that
Pluto had fallen victim to the girl's treachery, just as she had not so
very long ago.  V eased Pluto to the ground, barely sparing a glance at
the dead horror lying in the roadway.  If there were more like that
around, and there almost certainly were, then they needed to find
shelter.
     But first things first.
     She stood, tossing her hair back as she advanced slowly on
the fallen girl.  She still looked appallingly comely, even huddled on
the cold, cracked stone, cradling her jaw and glaring.  Still, it gave V
a flush of pleasure to see the little witch finally getting her just
desserts.
     "Well, we meet again," V said, watching the lovely brunette
the way she would have watched a venomous snake.  "I never got a
chance to thank you for that kiss in the club, you know.  That's
something you should know about me, darlin'.  I always pay my
debts.  Now, stand up."
     The girl's dark eyes flickered briefly, and V knew she was
looking at the ring she had been about to put on Pluto's finger.  It lay
on the ground far out of her reach, though, along with her ornate fan,
and V just smiled, pointing her index finger at the fallen beauty.
     "Sweetie, I'm not in a very good mood," V informed the girl.
"So get your ass up before I write my name on it in gold fire.  'Kay?"
     With a look that could have melted steel, the girl rose.  V
thought the little witch's hauteur was adorable, considering the bruise
that was already beginning to purple on one pale cheek.  If this
chickie thought her sneaky Sisterhood crap was going to get the best
of Mistress V twice, she was sadly mistaken.
     "Very good," V beamed.  "You can follow simple directions.
Now.  Where are we and why did you bring us here?  Wait, scratch
that.  Tell me how to get back first.  The rest can wait."
     "I don't know," the girl said sullenly.
     "You're lyyyy-iiiiing," V sang, pointing again.
     "No," a voice came from behind her.  "She's not."

***

     Mars surveyed the scene with a sense of dread in her belly.
As if things weren't bad enough, now there was this to deal with.  It
wasn't just that Yurina had apparently come very close to luring
Pluto into her trap.  Mars had been close enough to see who Jupiter
had been aiming for back in that alley, and that scream of white-hot
rage still echoed in her ears.
     This was going to be ugly, no two ways about it.  It would
take all her skills to keep a lid on things.  Of course, that meant using
her old, familiar skills to manipulate her friends, and the very thought
gnawed at her.  But by doing nothing, she placed them in even
greater danger.
     Oh, Princess, she thought wearily.  You have no idea what
you've gotten us into.
     "Mars!" V exclaimed.  "You are a sight for sore eyes.  As
usual."
     "How's Pluto?" Mars asked as she strode across the
weathered stone with confidence she didn't feel.  Yurina watched her
come, venom curdling the lovely darkness of her eyes.
     "Floored," V sighed, giving Mars a rueful smile.  "Courtesy
of ... oh, what was your name again?  We were never formally
introduced.  It was Lily, wasn't it?"  V was smiling, but there was a
dangerous edge to that smile.  So.  V hadn't missed Jupiter's target,
either.  That wouldn't help.
     "V," Mars murmured.  "Not now, okay?  First things first."
     V gave her a look, one that mixed puzzled with angry and
threw in some defiance for good measure.  "Not now?  What in the
hells ..."
     "Come on, Pluto," Mars urged, helping the dusky-skinned
senshi sit up.  "What was it?  The kiss?"
     "Um," Pluto mumbled, obviously still groggy.  She was very
cooperative, though, and Mars suspected immediately that Yurina
had used a combination attack on the woman.  "I guess.  I ... my
neck.  Something ... a prick ..."
     Mars carefully swept Pluto's long hair back, finding what she
was looking for almost immediately.  So.  The drug in Yurina's
lipstick, mixed with another on a ring, or perhaps her fan.  Judging by
the effects, Mars figured she knew what had been used.
     "She'll be able to walk in a couple of minutes," she told V.
"Come here and watch her, okay?"
     "What's up?" V asked softly as she crouched by Pluto,
propping the wobbly woman up.  Ordinarily V would have taken full
advantage of such a situation, but now her narrowed eyes were fixed
on Mars.  "That woman is ..."
     "Yurina Delacatta," Mars finished for her.  "The order's
reigning Black Rose.  And a very cunning and dangerous adversary."
She stood, walking slowly to where Yurina stood stiffly, slender
fingers lingering over the purpling bruise on her pale cheek.  "But as a
Maiden of the Rose, she possesses no magick.  She did not bring us
here,
and cannot get us home."
     "So where is here, exactly?" V asked.  Mars glanced up at the
crimson moon that hung above them, its virulent light poisoning the
landscape.
     "Welcome," Mars said grimly, "to Shadow Realm."
     "Shadow Realm," V repeated slowly.  "What are you, serious?
Didn't we have this discussion earlier?  You said nobody in the
Sisterhood could call a Shadow Gate!"
     "Speaking to outsiders of our secrets?" Yurina said, her voice
soft and yet scathing at the same time.  "There is no end to your
perfidy, is there?"
     "I don't think it was a summoned gate," Mars said evenly,
her implacable gaze fixed on the alluring beauty, who seemed
unconcerned with her position.  "Jupiter's power reacted somehow
with Sass's whip, creating a momentary rift."
     "And such appalling familiarity," Yurina added.  "Is it not
customary to be more formal with the names of people you have
betrayed?"
     "You're on thin ice with a comment like that, my dear," Mars
retorted, a hard edge in her voice.  "Now, come here."
     Yurina did so, moving with that gossamer grace that pervaded her
every gesture.  Mars could sense V's gaze on her back, knew that her
friend was aching to take her frustrations out on Yurina.  Mars wished
she could let her.  Judging by the ring lying not far from her left foot,
if V had been a little bit later Pluto would have been firmly on Yurina's
leash.
     "V, you may recall me telling you about the Maidens," Mars
said casually, walking a slow circle around Yurina as the girl came to
a stop in front of her.  The girl stood still, head held high as she waited.
Direct conflict was not a Maiden's strength, not even the Black Rose's;
Mars knew the girl would wait for her opportunity.
     "Sure," V replied, blue eyes shadowed by the brim of her cap.
"Lovely, sneaky, the whole soft power thing.  So?"
     "So you might think," Mars went on, "that without her fan
and that ring, Yurina has been disarmed.  That would be a foolish
mistake."  So saying, Mars reached out to pluck the long, lacquered
pins from Yurina's intricately bound hair.  Yurina stood absolutely
still as her long raven locks spilled sleekly down her back, her
rosebud mouth set in something just slightly too refined to be called a
sneer as she kept her dark eyes fixed on Mars.  Those eyes were filled
with anger; not the sort which explodes and spends itself, but the sort
which simmers, held close to the heart where it nurtures dark and
venomous blossoms.
     "For instance, this innocent looking hair pin," Mars went on
blithely, holding up one of the two, "is coated with a substance called
teruan.  Teruan is not dangerous on its own.  In fact, a poison
detection spell wouldn't even blink at it, and if you pricked yourself
with this lovely pin you would suffer no ill effects."
     "So?" V asked.
     "Ah," Mars went on, turning the pin over in her gloved
hands.  "But on Yurina's lips is another substance, called verithe.
Useful stuff, comes from the blossom of black dragonlilies.  Hard to
come by and harder to extract, unless you know exactly what you're
doing.  You've experienced the effects of verithe personally, V.  But
mix it with a prick from this hair pin, and instead of a slow-acting
drug that leaves the victim helpless, you get instant paralysis."
     She had V's attention now, she saw with some satisfaction.
"That's the thing about verithe," Mars went on.  "It has a variety of
effects when mixed with certain types of exotic drugs and poisons.
The other hairpin has a rare plant extract that, when combined with
verithe, causes a seizure which mimics a heart attack."
     "But she has this verithe on her mouth," V pointed out.
"Even if she's taking an antidote, isn't she at risk?"
     "The Sisterhood exposes its members to tiny amounts of their
most common drugs from a young age," Mars told her as Yurina
continued to try and stare a hole through Mars' body.  "This builds
an immunity.  If you're immune to the effects of verithe, you are
unaffected by the synergistic effects of any drug that reacts with it.
Like I said, useful."
     "Okay," V sighed.  "So we strip her naked and take her toys.
I get it."
     "That would not suffice," Mars chided.  "For instance, look
at her hair.  Isn't it lovely?" Mars brushed her hand languidly through
Yurina's thick, luxuriant hair, the glossy sheen flowing like viscous
oil.
     "Yeah, very nice," V frowned.  "Mars ..."
     "Do you know what gives it that sensuous shine?  Oil
extracted from bessin root."  Mars cupped thick locks in her hand,
letting them spill through her gloved fingers like liquid silk.  "More
interesting and useful stuff from the jungles of Errith.  Has quite an
intoxicating fragrance, for starters.  Prolonged exposure in close
quarters, both breathing the scent and absorbing traces of the oil
through bare skin, renders a person pliant and agreeable to suggestion.
Quite useful for closing the deal on a reluctant victim who is intent on
resisting one's charms."
     "Um ..."
     "And these nails," Mars added, grasping Yurina's wrist and
holding one slim hand up so V could see it.  "Lovely manicure, no?
Nice subtle polish."
     "Let me guess," V said wryly.  "Mixing the thumb and pinkie
creates a powerful explosive slash floor polish."
     "Let's just say you don't want to get scratched," Mars said
simply.
     "I get it, Mars."  V was beginning to sound aggrieved.
     "Do you?  V, you do not turn your back on her.  You do not
get taken in by her demure appearance.  You never, NEVER, assume
that she is not a danger.  All right?"
     "Which means we're taking her with us," V sighed.
     "We are," Mars confirmed, letting Yurina go.  The exquisite
enchantress stood still, making no effort to lash out at Mars.  That
didn't surprise the senshi; she knew that Yurina would bide her time,
looking for the right opportunity.  "Yurina, stay here a moment.  I
need to speak with V."
     "Have I a choice?" Yurina asked softly.
     "None," Mars replied, meeting and holding the girl's gaze.
"Needless to say, if you give me any trouble I will punish you."
Mars gripped the girl's chin in her hand and stepped closer, eyes
boring into the girl.  "And you know," she whispered, "what my
training is.  I was always better than you, more creative and far more
cruel.  I want you alive, Yurina, but you don't want to push me.  I
know how to keep you in line."
     That black anger still simmered in Yurina's eyes, but there
was fear there as well.  Yurina did know full well that Mars was
capable of doing just what she claimed.  Mars, for her part, knew that
Yurina took her threat seriously.  For now, that would have to do.
She strode across the stone to where Pluto leaned against the low
stone wall, staff in one hand.
     "Better?" Mars asked solicitously.
     "Yes," Pluto told her with a sidelong glance.  "But I have
some questions ..."
     "I expect so," Mars sighed.  "But I'm afraid they'll have to
wait.  Watch her, would you?"  With that, Mars led V off a short
distance, out of earshot of the other two.
     "What's all this, Mars?" V demanded in a half-whisper.
     "Just like I said," Mars retorted.  "I want you to treat her like
the threat she is.  Don't start thinking that you've got her figured out.
She's dangerous."
     "She's also Lily, isn't she?" V hissed.  Mars knew what V
wanted.  She wanted to know if Mars had known about this, had kept
it secret.  That tore at Mars' heart, but she kept a lid on her emotions.
     "Apparently," Mars murmured.  "And that's the problem."
     "Oh, ya think?"
     "Listen!" Mars snapped.  "Yurina is a member of the
Sisterhood, right?  And you do remember the promise our well-
meaning princess made to Banri?"
     V's mouth opened, closed, and realization dawned in her
lovely sapphire eyes.
     "We have to protect her?" V squeaked.
     "We have to try and help the Sisterhood," Mars admitted.  "And I
don't want her to know she has that kind of leverage.  The others may
be here somewhere.  If Jupiter sees her, she'll try to kill her on sight.
We can't let her."
     "But Mars ...!"
     "I know!" Mars gritted.  "Look, for now we just have to keep
this thing from getting any worse, okay?"
     V looked over Mars' shoulder at Yurina, standing like a
noblewoman awaiting her suitor.
     "Boy," the blonde muttered, "you don't ask for much, do
you?"
     "I demand only the best from you," Mars replied, eyes
gleaming.  "And I always get it."
     "Flattery," V sighed, but there was a coquettish edge to her
smile.  "Now I know I'm in trouble."
     "Come," Mars said.  "We need to find some shelter.  I don't
want to be interrupted."
     "Interrupted?  What are you going to do?"
     "You'll see," Mars promised.  The group re-formed, Pluto walking
behind Yurina and keeping a very close eye on the girl.  They moved
cautiously down the street until they came to a doorway.  Within was
a windowless shell, bare of furnishings.  Two weathered torches clung
to rusty wall sconces.  V secured the flimsy door while Mars
summoned flame to light the torches.  They sputtered at first, but then
caught and gave off a warm light that filled the stone chamber.  Pluto
continued to watch Yurina carefully, and Mars was confident that the
senshi would not be taken unawares again.  Still, Yurina's presence
was a concern.  The girl would subtly sow discord and try to turn every
situation to her advantage.  Unfortunately, Mars needed her.  That girl
was her only link to the Sisterhood and their planned ceremony.
     "Okay, so why are we here?" V asked, surveying the bare
room.
     "I have an idea," Mars told them.  "I'm going to see if I can
contact Mercury."
     "What about the twins?  Your link with them is pretty
strong," V pointed out.
     "I've tried.  There's nothing."
     "Am I missing something?" Pluto asked.  "Why Mercury?"
     "That's a good question," V agreed.
     "We're in Shadow Realm," Mars told them calmly.  "Since
our comms aren't working and our senshi magick won't help, we
have to try something else ..."
     "No.  No way."  V stepped up to her, blue eyes ablaze.
     "You haven't even heard the plan yet," Mars declared.
     "I don't have to hear the plan to know that it's going to be
dangerous.  Like this morning in the warehouse dangerous, perhaps.
Mars, what if something goes wrong?  We're a long way from home,
babe."
     "Ladies, if it wouldn't be too much trouble, might you clue
me in?" Pluto asked wryly.
     "She is speaking of Shadow Magick," Yurina murmured
demurely.  Mars spared the helpful little minx a glare as Pluto's brow
furrowed.
     "Shadow Magick?  But Mars, that's not an aspect of your
power.  Is it?"
     "It's a long story," Mars told her
     "Careful, love," Yurina purred, her eyes narrowed with
delight.  "This one has a long history of keeping secrets."
     "V?" Mars said softly.  A moment later, a gleaming whip
snaked out to wrap around Yurina's slender throat like a glowing
leash.  Yurina stumbled back, eyes wide, and V spoke to her in low,
hostile tones.
     "I've had about enough out of you," the leather-clad senshi
growled.  "So shut your mouth, or I'll shut it for you."
     Yurina regained her poise, at least as much as was possible
with V holding her at bay in such a manner.  She merely glared at
them, obviously deciding to bide her time.
     "Mars," Pluto pressed.  "How dangerous will this be?"
     "I'm going to summon my shadow," Mars told her.  "One of
the first tests any adept faces is taming her own shadow.  Don't
worry, I've done it many times."
     Her words were comforting, but beneath her confident facade
Mars was truthfully a little apprehensive.  Mundane shadows were
supposed to have their deepest roots in Shadow Realm itself.  There
was a chance that something could go wrong.  However, it was a
chance worth taking.  She considered reversing her transformation as
she had done earlier, but in truth her magicks were closely bound to
her, and she had no fear of synergistic effects.  Usagi was not here to
see, and Mars doubted V would be shocked by the sight.  And Pluto?
Nothing seemed to shock that enigmatic beauty.
     "I still don't see how that will help us locate the others,"
Pluto said as Mars prepared herself.  "Or what it has to do with
Mercury.  Surely you aren't going to tell me that she's a Shadow
Adept, too?"
     "Not hardly," V replied.  "I think I get it, though.  Her
shadow and Mars' got a little intimate.  Is that what you're thinking,
babe?  Shadow mojo to the rescue?"
     "I'm hoping I can create some sort of link," Mars confessed,
closing her eyes and summoning power to her.  It was effortless, and
she gasped at the nearness of it.  Yes, she was going to have to be
very careful here.  Still, the magicks contained within her shadow had
been intimately intertwined with those of Mercury's in Aethyr realm.
That might let her reach out to her fellow senshi.
     "By blood and by power, I summon thee."
     Silence filled the stone chamber now as the others watched
her, waiting to see what would happen.  Mars felt her shadow swirl
and roil with an intensity that might have been frightening had she
not experienced something even wilder within the mysterious realm
of Aethyr.
     "Bound by my will, answer to my command and lend me
your strength.  Azakaru!"
     She felt it in her nerves and blood as her shadow coiled
around her like a contented cat, coming quickly, anxiously even, at
her call, sending dark pleasure sliding along her flesh like a lover's
touch.  Her discipline allowed her to resist the siren call, however, and
opening her eyes she saw the others watching her, waiting.
     "Invoking the name of the Azakaru," Pluto said darkly.
"That is not something to be done lightly, especially not here.  Do
you even know what they are?"
     "Of course I do," Mars told her coolly.  "But the Guardians of the
Dark Border are ancient beings, rumoured to be older even than the
gods themselves.  As guardians of the intangible, they hold sway over
not only phantoms, shades, and ghosts, but also mortal shadows, and
must be invoked to summon one in such a manner."
     "Whatever," V broke in.  "Can you reach Mercury?"
     Wait," Mars told her.  Then she closed her eyes, focussing on
her shadow which waited, anxious to serve her will.
     Find, she commanded.  She pictured Mercury in her mind,
then Ami.  The force of the memory was nearly physical as she
recalled the feel of the girl in her arms in Aethyr, the scent of her skin
and hair, the heat of her.  Find her shadow.  Reach out to it.  Touch it.
I would taste her darkness.
     Mars' shadow trembled on her skin, and she could feel it
questing about, tendrils reaching in directions unknowable.
     Reaching ...

***

     Ami tried not to jump as Phobos climbed onto her shoulder
from behind.
     "How's it going?" the tiny girl asked, gripping Ami's shirt as
she leaned forward.
     "I've been over these readings again and again," Ami sighed
softly, setting her portable scanner on her lap and stretching as much
as her seatbelt would allow.  "I just can't tell for sure."
     "We need to know where the others are," Michiru said
tersely.  She was driving Minako's car; it struck Ami that, although
she'd seen Michiru and Haruka in cars many times, Haruka had
always driven.  Ami hadn't even known that Michiru could drive.
     "We'll find them," Makoto said in a low voice that Ami
didn't much like.  She glanced over her shoulder at where Yoshi lay
sprawled between Usagi and Makoto in the narrow back seat.  It
couldn't have been comfortable, but nobody was complaining.
     "How is he?" she asked.
     "We did what the guy said with the fae root," Usagi replied.
Ami noted that she was watching Makoto carefully.  "We change the
dressing every two hours, and we wait.  That's it, I guess."
     "That boy should be in a hospital," Michiru declared flatly.
     "That's not an option," Makoto shot back, tenderly brushing
a stray lock of hair from Yoshi's face.  "I'll take care of him."  Michiru
did not look happy at that, but declined to comment further.
     "How much longer, Michiru?" Usagi asked, leaning forward.
     "Not long," Michiru told her, giving Makoto another pointed
glance.  "Hotaru will have checked out the safe house by the time we
arrive.  There will be questions to be answered, Princess.  A great
many questions."
     "Don't worry, Michiru," Usagi replied, reaching out to
squeeze the slender girl's shoulder comfortingly.  "We'll get them
back."
     Some of the tension seemed to leach out of Michiru's face
then, and Ami marvelled at how Usagi often knew just what to say.
Still, she wasn't at all certain that they could reach the others, at least
not if they really were in Shadow.  Usagi seemed to think that Ami's
power would be of some use, but that was because she just didn't
understand.  An Aethyr port was useful for one thing only: getting
into Aethyr.  Other realms were beyond Ami's reach.
     I'm going to let her down, Ami thought miserably.  She
thinks I can find the others for her, and I'm not going to be able to.
Everyone's depending on you, Ami.  You're supposed to be so smart.
Come on, think!
     "Ami?" Phobos whispered.  "You okay?"
     "Yes," Ami told the girl with a wan smile.  "Just ... thinking.
You still can't reach Rei or Deimos?"
     "No," the girl murmured disconsolately.  "I just don't know
what to do."
     "We'll think of something," Usagi announced fiercely.
"Come on, guys, don't give up before we've even started!"
     Michiru remained tense and Makoto didn't look up from her
ministrations.  Ami wanted to comfort her friend, wanted to get her to
talk about what had happened.  Had she really seen that girl, Lily,
back in the alley?  If so, then it seemed Lily was a Sister.  And that
meant there were rough waters ahead for all of them.
     Ami leaned back, rubbing her eyes.  Michiru's driving was
cool, precise, unlike Haruka's brash style.  Ami knew that Michiru
was worried about her partner, but she was keeping her emotions
under pretty tight rein, her eyes veiled as she watched the road.  Ami
thought about the fearless blonde woman, pictured her in her mind's
eye.  Michiru and Haruka went together effortlessly, something that
Ami was more than a little jealous of.  It was inconceivable to her that
they should be separated in any permanent fashion.  Their relationship
had been one of the few constants she had felt she could count on, a
fact she had not even realized until now.
     And Setsuna?  Her strength had always been tempered by
kindness, her knowledge by wit.  What was happening to her in
Shadow?  Was she all right?  Were the senshi together?  Ranma was
still missing, as was Rei ...
     The thought of Rei brought a sense of the girl to Ami so
strongly that she nearly gasped.  She remembered the things Rei had
said to her, the dangerous, thrilling intimacy they had shared in
Aethyr, the heart-stopping moments when Rei had begun flirting with
her, the outrageous yet beguilingly tantalizing offer that Rei had
made to her.  She breathed Rei's scent, felt the teasing brush of her
hair, the heat of her breath ...
     She opened her eyes, heart pounding.
     Rei?
     ami?
     Ami's mouth went dry.  Makoto and Usagi were talking, but
their voices sounded far away to her, as if the car extended for miles
behind her.  On her shoulder, Phobos's grip tightened and her gaze
was directed down at Ami's feet.  The girl followed that gaze, almost
afraid of what she might see, yet strangely exhilarated.
     Her shadow was moving, twitching fitfully on the floor.  And
within it, glimmering faintly, were eldritch traceries, fragments of a
pattern Ami knew well.  It was her Aethyr port.
     But that was impossible.  She wasn't in contact with it.  And
... and ...
     Gasping, Ami closed her eyes.
     (There are no rules for this, Ami.)
     Something trembled within her, magick.  Her magick.  She
had always thought of her powers as distinct things, had always
sought to categorize them, file them into the proper slots.
     (It's never been done.  We have to work it out, just you and
me.)
     Rei had shown her something else.  She had trusted Ami, had
shown her that the rules could not always stand in the face of will, of
determination.
     Of need.
     Ami brought Rei into her thoughts again, everything that was
her fellow senshi.  Her cool, sleek demeanour, which had always
intrigued Ami even as it intimidated her, the girl's stark beauty, her
sharp temper, her rare displays of mischievous humour.  She sought
to draw close to her everything that made the girl what she was, and
then, ignoring common sense, which told her that this was simply
impossible, she called out into the void.
     Rei?  Rei, can you hear me?
     Something shifted within her, like her centre of gravity
changing.  Coolness slithered over her skin, then heat blossomed
within as that phantom caress trailed over the deepest, darkest part of
her.  That heat felt like skilled fingers, smelled like lustrous sable
hair.  It touched a part of her that she rarely acknowledged, a dark
wildness that Ami could scarcely comprehend belonged to her, and
stroked it until it purred like a kitten as it coiled sinuously around her
flesh.
     It was Rei, it had to be.  Nobody else had ever touched that
part of her.  As her fey nature stirred restlessly, aroused from its strict
confines, Ami sensed vistas opening to her.  The way was there, if she
would but look ...
     Rei, please answer!
     ami?  ami!
     Rei!
     Relief flooded through her, momentarily overwhelming the
maddening pleasure, and she nearly laughed aloud.
     ami, listen.  I don't know how long we can do this.  where are
you?
     In Minako's car.  Yoshi was hurt and we had to get him medical
treatment.
     you're not in shadow?
     No!  Are you?
     yes, but we're okay so far.  who's with you?
     Usagi, Makoto, and Michiru.  Oh, and Phobos.  Artemis and
Luna are with Hotaru.
     setsuna and minako are here with me.  we're all okay for
now.
     What about Haruka?  And Ranma and Deimos?  We can't
find them, they must be there somewhere!
     okay.  we'll find them, ami.  then we need a plan to get back
to
     Rei?
     Ami gasped, shuddered.  The warmth was replaced by a
marrow-freezing rime frost for a moment, and she jerked, opening her
eyes to find her arms wrapped around herself.  The car shuddered to a
stop, Michiru's sea-green eyes wide as she stared at Ami.
     "What happened?" Usagi demanded, practically climbing
over the seat.  "Ami, are you okay?"
     "Rei-sama," Phobos whispered.  "She was here."
     "What?" Michiru demanded.  "Ami, what did you do?  What is
going on?  There were shadows all over your skin!"
     Ami took a deep, steadying breath, trying to ignore the rogue
desires
that still burrowed beneath her flesh, causing heat to blossom in
intimate places.
     "I've got news," she said breathlessly.

***

     Mars gasped, losing her balance as the world settled rudely
around her.  Pluto caught her before she could fall, steadying her with
firm hands.  Mars smiled her thanks and stood up, brushing her hair
back over her shoulder.
     "What happened?" V asked anxiously.  "Are you okay,
Mars?"
     "Fine," Mars told her.  "It appears I may have offended the
Azakaru after all.  At any rate, something broke the connection."
     "It worked?" Pluto asked, raising an eyebrow.
     "It did," Mars said, unable to keep a triumphant smile from
creeping to her lips.  "Our Mercury has unplumbed talents lurking
within that meek exterior, my friend."
     "Only because she won't let me plumb them," V
wisecracked.
     "And there is good news," Mars continued.  "They aren't in
Shadow.  The princess, Saturn, Neptune and Jupiter are all safe.
They were getting medical treatment for Yoshi."
     "Artemis?  Luna?" V pressed.
     "Safe, as is Phobos," Mars assured her.
     "So Uranus must be here somewhere," Pluto nodded, eyes
narrowed.
     "And Ranma," V added.
     "Who?"
     "You've already met hi ... well, we'll discuss this later,"
Mars said as she saw Yurina taking in everything.  "Right now we
know we're looking for three of our own."
     "I notice that you make no mention of the Nightmistress,"
Yurina said softly.  "Have you driven her so completely from your
thoughts, the woman you once shared so much with?"
     The gibe stung, as it was meant to.  "She's chosen her path,
Yurina," Mars said stiffly.  "She would not accept my help, even if I
offered it."
     "And if she needs your help, Sister Darkeyes?  Will you bother
to offer it?  Or will you abandon her to this place?"
     "You," V snarled, "talk entirely too much.  Come on, let's go
find the others.  Then we can concentrate on getting out of here."
     Mars nodded, but Yurina's words wouldn't leave her be.
She'd had feelings for Saekianna, after all.  Deep, passionate feelings.
Her loyalty was to her princess, but was she so cold that she could
ignore what had been between her and Saekianna completely?  Could
she stand by and let the woman she'd once been closer to than anyone
else die?
     She prayed she would not have to find out.

***

     I peeked around the edge of the building, checking if the way
was clear.  What I had at first taken for birds had turned out to be
something else, something nastier.  Having no idea where I was or
what had happened, I figured maybe scoping out the lay of the land
wouldn't hurt.
     I was glad now that I'd done that.  The three "birds" were
close enough for me to see them now.  They mostly looked like
human women, except for the wings.  And the horns on their heads.
And tails, there were tails, too.  And whatever they were, they
weren't much on clothing.  Of course, after what I'd been seeing of
late, some exposed skin didn't shock me much.  Even if some of it
was red, and some green.
     They didn't notice me, flying overhead and disappearing into
the distance.  That was good, but frankly I had no idea how many
more of these things there might be.  Given how my life tended to go,
I was going to go ahead and assume they were unfriendly.  Ranma
Saotome, one of the great optimists of all time.
     I slipped down along one of the hulking stone structures and
found a narrow laneway that afforded me some protection from any
airborne eyes.  I still didn't know what had happened.  Jupiter had
freaked out, shouting out the name of that girl.
     Lily.  The same Lily from her story?  Smart money said yes;
that would explain why she'd been so reckless, so consumed with
fury.
     But after her power had filled the alley, then what?  I pulled the
key out, letting it dangle as I examined it.  It didn't look any different.
Could all that power have jump-started the thing somehow?  Had I
ended up in yet another world?
     For some reason, that thought made my chest feel tight.  Hah!
For some reason, I thought blackly.  Good one, Saotome.  Be honest
for once.  If you've moved on, then you're right back to square one.
No friends, not a single person on the entire planet that even knows
you exist.  And you're going to miss those girls.  Maybe some of
them more than others ...
     I shook my head, feeling a coldness descend over me.  It hurt a
little, that razor-sharp chill, but it lent me a sort of detachment at the
same time.  I recognized it, of course.  It was the wall that I had built
up over the years on my own.  I just hadn't realized until that very
moment how much of it had melted.
     Get a grip, Saotome, I told myself sharply.  Playtime is over.
It couldn't last, not for you.  It's time to get back to reality.  You've
got to survive, and to survive you've got to fight.
     That's the only thing there is for someone like you.
     I slipped down the narrow lane, high windowless wall of gray
rising above me to cut off the sky.  It was dark down here, but I could
see enough to make my way through to the other side.  I almost
preferred the dark to that red-tinged light anyway.  There was
something creepy about it, like old spiderwebs clinging to my skin.
And the mist smelled musty and old, like it had been here for a very
long time.
     I felt that old, familiar distance settling about me, and
welcomed it.  Only a fool abandons his defences so easily, a little
voice mocked me.  It was better before, wasn't it?  No risk of pain, of
loss, of abandonment.  Live from battle to battle and ignore the
mindless chatter of all that didn't matter.
     Ranma Saotome, man of ice.  Yeah.  Ice didn't ache inside.
Ice was cold, and smooth, and hard.  And if you held it, after a while
your nerves went numb and you didn't feel anything at all.
     Ice.
     I reached the other end of the lane, already beginning to
assess everything in tactical terms.  There were strange looking stone
buildings everywhere, spread around me to form a sprawling city.  But
they didn't look like ordinary houses.  Some of them had no windows
or doors.  Some of them were falling down.  And there were no people.
     But there were roads.  And there'd been those flying demon-
girls.  Where there was one monster, there would be more.  Maybe
this world was like my home, a place overrun by the dark.  If so,
there would be no haven that was safe for long.  I needed to use the
key, see if there was a Gate nearby ...
     That was when I heard it.  A high, thin shriek cut through the
air like a dentist's drill, making the hairs on the back of my neck
prickle.  I heard a rumble, and somewhere off to the left a plume of
dust rose as stone crumbled.
     Trouble.  I could avoid it, but it would be helpful to know
what I was up against.  Moving quickly and keeping to the abundant
shadows, I sped along narrow thoroughfares, my footfalls soundless
as they drifted over smooth stones.  My long coat billowed around
me, bringing thoughts of Minako ...
     Focus.  Damn it, FOCUS.
     There.  I came to a point overlooking a small square and put
my back to the cold stone, waiting for some of the dust to settle.
There were things moving out there, a group of them.  I couldn't see
them clearly through the dust, but they appeared to be attacking
something.  Maybe they were feeding.
     Just as long as I wasn't on the menu, I had no objections.
     Then a form burst from the billowing dust, and my heart
clenched so sharply I actually gasped.  I caught a glimpse of a sailor
outfit and blonde hair as she sprinted across the square, leaping easily
over something that might once have been a fountain, spinning
through the air.
     It wasn't her.  Her hair was short, not a long, luxuriant mane, and a
very pale blonde instead of the deep rich honey-blonde of Minako's
long locks.  Practical, but ...
     Dammit, Saotome, are you sitting here rhapsodising about the
freaking colour of a girl's HAIR?  Get your ass in gear!
     My chest felt tight again, like I couldn't breathe, and there
was a rush of sensation so intense I felt dizzy.  But I shook it off; that
wasn't Minako out there, but it was a sailor senshi.  She was one of
the ones from the rooftop earlier, and if my key had suddenly
activated back in that alley then it was my fault she was here.
     And frankly, things weren't going so well for her.
     I saw the things soar out of the dust at her.  They looked like
sooty sheets with red eyes and ragged mouths.  They flew around in
the air easily, without wings and showing only the roughest
approximations of limbs.  The blonde stopped, raising her hand.  A
ball of scintillating energy coalesced there, and with a snarl she
hurled it at the attacking creatures.
     Then I learned two things.
     One, the creatures were the source of that really awful sound
I'd heard earlier.
     And two, the senshi's attacks were passing harmlessly right
through them.

***

     "Well?" Saekianna demanded.
     "I do not understand it, Nightmistress," Bella replied.  "There
is no sign of either Yurina or Jade."
     "I made it back to the alley," Vi panted, leaning her hands on
her knees as she gasped for breath.  "Nothing.  All gone."
     Saekianna gritted her teeth, fighting to contain her fury.
Time after time victory was dangled before her, only to be snatched
away at the last moment.  How much could she be expected to
endure?
     "If those girls have Yurina and Jade, our plans are
endangered," Bella murmured, her expression carefully neutral.
     "They would never talk," Vi said hoarsely, still catching her
breath.
     "The traitor was once a Sister," Bella pointed out cautiously.
"She knows our ways.  She may be able to ..."
     "Enough."  Saekianna did not raise her voice; she did not
need to.  The two immediately fell silent, their eyes on her, gazes
filled with a mixture of adoration, need, and wariness.  "Even she
will not be able to break our Maidens easily or quickly.  We must get
back to the others and prepare a scrying.  Yurina and Jade must be
located."
     Rescued if possible.  Silenced if necessary.  That was how it had to
be.  Still, despite their differences, Saekianna did not want to lose
Yurina.  The girl's performance of her duties as Black Rose of the
order was beyond reproach.
     Saekianna regarded her signet ring carefully as she led the
two girls back towards the car.  Banri had shown a flash of power
beyond anything she had yet seen back in that alley.  There was no
doubt in her mind as to what had happened.  She and the others had
been thrown through Shadow Realm itself, if only briefly.  Banri's
aura had been powerful enough to, under the right circumstances,
open a rift into Shadow.
     Neither Bella nor Vi seemed to have considered that Yurina
and Jade might not be captives of the hated senshi, though.  What if
they had remained trapped in Shadow?
     Saekianna rubbed the ring idly with her thumb.  Well, there
was no sense in pointless speculation.  She would know the truth
soon enough, and then she would formulate a strategy.  One thing
was for certain, however.
     The ritual would take place in just over twenty-four hours.
And she would personally deal with anyone, friend or enemy, that
jeopardized it.

***

     "At least your attacks are having some effect," the senshi
gasped as she moved to cover my flank.
     "Yeah," I said.  "Super-keen.  But the things ain't dying."
     It was true, my chi-bolts seemed to hurt the creatures, making
them keep their distance for the moment.  But they didn't bleed or
fall, and most importantly they didn't die.  I'd tried hitting them with
pieces of broken stone, but the heavy shards had simply passed right
through the things like they were made of smoke.  The creatures, on
the other hand, could clearly hurt us; one of them had left deep
gouges in the stone behind me when I'd dodged its charge.
     Maybe if I kept it up, they would become too hurt to continue,
or too scared.  I wasn't sure we had that kind of time, though.  Those
flying demons or whatever they were could come to investigate the
ruckus, or other monsters might show up.  You're the great
improvisor, Saotome, that little inner voice nagged.  So improvise.
     I wanted to tell that little inner voice to go take a flying leap,
but I was busy.  And what the hell, it had a point.  Hiryuu Shouten
Ha might be effective, but there were too many of them; if I tried to
draw them into a spiral, I was going to get swarmed before I got
halfway done.  And chi attacks weren't cutting it.  The senshi's
magick was even less effective.  And they could touch us, while we
couldn't seem to touch them.
     Think, damn you!  Think!
     They charged us again, splitting into two groups.  We had to
dodge, and I let another barrage of chi blasts go.  That scattered them.
Chi might not kill them, but it hurt them enough that they didn't want
to touch it.  But they reformed quickly, and I could see what their
strategy was.  They were trying to wear us down, get us moving and
off-balance.  A simple plan, but one that could work if we kept on as
we were.  We needed to retreat, regroup, and come up with a plan.
     "We've got to get out of here," the blonde said just then.
"We're sitting ducks, and they're trying to cut off our retreat!"
     "I guess so," I replied, trying not to sound too eager.  "Let's
head for ... look out!"
     Three of the phantom beasts had broken off during the last
attack and hidden behind the broken wall of the building behind us.  I
hadn't noticed that there were fewer of them until it was too late; now
they were coming at us from behind as the others once again attacked
our flanks.  I couldn't drive off three groups at once.
     Bad.  Very bad.
     "Move!" the blonde shouted.  Together we jumped, splitting
up in mid-air.  That bought us a few seconds, but not much.  One
group went after her, two concentrated on me.  I was the greater
threat.  Yay me.
     I danced away from the creatures as they tried to surround
me.  They were nimble in the air, but I was faster.  Of course,
couldn't keep this up forever and they showed no signs of getting
tired.  Maybe they didn't GET tired.  Ever.
     I spun, jumped.  A perfect Shi Shi Hokodan?  That might
work.  At the very least, it would hit all of them at once with a lot of
heavy chi.  Of course, it would hit the senshi as well.  And that was
assuming I could pull it off.
     They darted around me like angry wasps, slashing through
the air.  I dodged one, tagged another with a blast that sent it fleeing,
leapt over a third.  The blonde senshi was in tight off to my right, and
didn't see the creature knifing towards her back.  I opened my mouth
to shout a warning even as I continued my own desperate defence.
     Then a beam of bright golden light slashed across the thing as
it opened its mouth wide and extended ragged claws, preparing to tear
into the girl's undefended back.  It screamed, somehow creating a
sound worse than anything that had come before, and tumbled to the
stone in two pieces which came to a stop and lay there, smoking for a
few seconds before they turned to black soot.
     The beasts broke off their attacks, rising in the air to meet this
new menace, one that could kill them with one blow.  One that stood
proudly atop a low parapet.  One that was dressed all in black, glossy
leather.
     One whose hair really was a very nice shade of deep, honey-
blonde ...
     My heart raced.  Ice, as it turned out, could be melted with
enough heat.
     "That's right, boys," her husky voice rang out. "There's a
new sheriff in town, and things are gonna be different around here.
Now grab some sky, varmints!"
     Shadow beasts had no sense of humour.  They did, however,
seem to have some sense of self-preservation.  Faced with V's power,
they fled like dead leaves in an autumn wind.  V was having none
of that, however, not now that she was in the spotlight.  She thrust out
one gloved hand, and a storm of golden hearts filled the air, cutting
through the fleeing creatures effortlessly.  They fell in a shrieking
horde, smoke rising from bodies that had suffered no visible injury
from the other senshi's attacks or from my chi.
     Finally it was quiet, and I took my hands from my ears.  Man,
what a racket!  V didn't seem to have minded, though, leaping down
nimbly and making her way over to us with a self-satisfied smile.
Behind her, I saw two women emerge from the ever-present gloom.
One was another senshi with dark olive skin and long, green-black
hair.  She carried a slender staff.  I didn't get a good look at the other
one
before V came up to me.
     "Hey, gorgeous," she smirked, making my pulse tapdance
like a crazed hummingbird.  "Did you miss me?"
     My mouth was strangely dry, and that tight feeling was back
in my chest, but this time I didn't mind so much.  "Well, things have
been kind of boring without you around," I managed to say, even
though I felt oddly lightheaded.
     "Aw, you sweet-talker," she said with a jaunty wink.  Then
she walked past me, but as she passed I felt her hand on my butt.  She
squeezed, I yelped.  I may even have jumped a little.
     "Sweet," she murmured under her breath as I flushed hot
pink.  Then she crossed to the other senshi and stood there, hip
cocked and arms crossed.
     "Uranus," she said, drawing the girl's name out.  "Admit it.
You were impressed.  Come on, Neptune's not here.  You can admit
it."
     "Venus," Uranus said with a wry smile.
     "Mistress V," V corrected sternly.
     "Indeed," Uranus acknowledged.  "How ... fitting.  Very well, I was
impressed."
     "Really?" V asked with a slow, molten smile.
     "Oh, yes.  In fact, I take back all the bad things I ever said
about you."
     "You said bad things about me?  When?"
     "Oh, in various briefings, sessions, meetings.  In bed.  Over
breakfast.  At ..."
     "You bitch!  I can't believe it!  What things?"
     "That's all in the past," Uranus assured her, blue eyes
sparkling.  "That's an interesting outfit, by the way."
     "Don't change the subject!"
     "Not even to how stunning you look?"
     "I'll allow that," V declared, brightening.  "Stunning?"
     "Oh, yes," Uranus said, moving closer and running one
fingertip along the brim of V's hat teasingly.  "You'll have to give
me the template for that design, love."
     "I'll think about it," V said, tilting her head back to look the
other woman in the eye.  "If you make it worth my while."
     "It's not for me," Uranus told her in a low voice.  "I think
you'd agree the sight alone would be worth the price of admission."
     "You could get her to wear it?" V asked, eyes widening with
scandalised delight.
     "For me, yes.  For you ... well, if you made it worth my while
..."
     "I'm glad you two are enjoying yourselves," the dark-skinned
senshi sighed.
     "Pluto," Uranus said, her eyes sweeping the area.  "And
Mars, too.  And another stranger.  Where are the others?"
     "Safe," Mars told her.  "They're back home, worried about
us."
     Worried.  Yeah.  Now that the befuddling effect of Minako's
entrance was wearing off and I could breathe normally again, I
noticed the third girl.  She looked a little like Rei with her straight
black hair and pale skin, although she was more petite, almost
delicate.  That wasn't the really interesting thing, though.  No, the
really interesting thing was that I'd seen her before, on top of that
parking garage when I'd rescued V, and again a little while ago in the
alley.  Jupiter had blown a gasket and called her Lily.
     She was one of the enemy.
     "Well," Uranus was saying, a confident grin on her lips.
"Aren't you going to introduce me to your lovely acquaintance?"
     "You can turn off the charm," V told her, voice suddenly
cooling dramatically.  "She's one of the bad guys."
     "The Black Rose of Dasma's order," Pluto clarified.  Uranus
stopped, frowning.
     "Since when do we care about temple politics?" she asked.
     "Since you've been trying to prevent the revival of our
goddess," Lily remarked, her voice low and throaty, as sensual as I
would have figured from one of them.
     "We're doing what now?" Uranus asked blankly.
     "It's a long story," Mars sighed.  "And now is not the time.
Shadow Realm is ..."  She broke off, eyes widening.  "Ah-HAH!"
     Before I could ask what she was looking so pleased about,
something black plummeted from the sky towards us.  I cursed my
sudden lack of caution; the flying demons were back!
      But it wasn't a demon, it was a bird.  A crow, to be exact.  It
spread its wings wide, braking in the air in from of Mars in a flurry of
glossy black feathers.  Then, in a flash of light, Deimos appeared,
hurling herself into Mars' arms.
     "Rei-samaaaaaa!"
     "Hello there, little one.  I've been calling you," Mars said
softly.
     "I know," came Deimos' muffled voice as she nestled happily
in her mistress's cleavage, wriggling like a kitten.  "I tried to answer,
but you couldn't hear.  And Phobos, I can't find her!"
     "She's safe," Mars assured the girl.
     "Did I miss a memo or something?" Uranus asked Pluto,
eyeing Lily warily.  "The Sisterhood, crow-girls, and Shadow
Magick?"
     "I think our little sisters have the cliff notes," Pluto replied
wryly.  I caught her looking at me and turned away, pretending to
study the sky.  Then I remembered why I might really be looking up
there.
     "Uh, hey," I said.  "All this noise and fun might have
attracted those flying things from earlier, you know?  Maybe we
should find a place to lay low."
     "Flying things?" V asked.
     "Many bad things here, mistress," Deimos added
emphatically.  "The skies are not safe!"
     "So, it appears we have a starting point for our plan," Uranus
sighed.  "Everybody, start looking around for shelter."
     Mars went to collect Lily, who seemed unperturbed by being
a prisoner.  V strode over to me, and my heart started acting like a
ping-pong ball again.
     "Come on, handsome," she said, slipping her arm through
mine.  "We'll check this way."
     In such close proximity to her, I was rendered pretty much
speechless.  Considering just how articulate I generally was around
women, that was probably just as well.

***

     They found a narrow stairway that led down beneath a squat,
hulking structure, and a cautious investigation revealed a long
corridor carved into raw stone.  It led to a series of chambers that
appeared to have been used for storage at one time; there were many
interesting treasures squirrelled away in one of the larger rooms.
     Uranus went scouting to ensure that they had alternate exits
to use, should it become necessary.  V happily began ransacking the
chamber as Mars walked the perimeter.
     Mars had learned Shadow Magick as a girl, had steeped
herself in its mysteries as part of her training.  Shadow Magick, after
all, was highly regarded by the Sisters.  Those who wielded it
commanded respect amongst their peers, even fear.
     But she had never imagined she might one day find herself in
Shadow Realm itself.  Not much was known of the realm itself, or of
its mysteries.  She regretted that lack of knowledge now; the others
would be counting on her training, and there was nothing she could
tell them.  Her mystic senses were awash in the magicks of this place,
making it hard to pick out any particular threat.  Still, she had to try.
     "Okay, I've found two other paths to the surface," Uranus
announced as she returned.  And it's a good thing we got down here.
I saw wings headed this way, lots of them.  Didn't stick around to get
a good look, though."
     "Okay, we'll lay low for a bit," Mars said briskly.  Well,
unfriendly company was a problem.  She didn't want to chance trying
to use Shadow Magick to contact Ami again, not with enemies in the
area.  They would just have to hunker down and wait.
     On the plus side, the chamber contained some real treasures.
V had found some large bolts of what looked like expensive silk, and
was busy making soft nests on the floor for them to lounge on.
Spotting Mars, she grinned and hoisted a bottle of something.  Mars
fought the urge to smile.  That girl could find sensual decadence
anywhere.
     "So," Pluto sighed as she eased herself down into the folds of
one of V's impromptu silk lounges.  "It appears we have some time
on our hands.  Perhaps now would be an opportune time to catch up
on things."
     "Maybe not the best time, really," Mars noted, glancing
sideways at Yurina.  Deimos, sensing her mood, shot the Maiden a
glare of her own.
     "Come now, Sister Darkeyes," Yurina chided gently, finding
some silk for herself after noting V's total lack of inclination to
provide her with a place to sit.  "Surely you are not concerned with
my presence?"
     "On the topic of her presence," Uranus added, "why do we
suddenly have a problem with the Sisterhood?"
     "They think we want to put the kibosh on their goddess
reviving party tomorrow night," V muttered, studying the seal on the
bottle as though it might hold the secrets to the universe.
     "Which is quite ironic, considering that they aren't doing what
they think," Mars added.  "They are being manipulated, you see."
     "Sister Darkeyes," Yurina sniffed.  "Surely you can do better
than that?  As a Sister of Shadows, you were capable of much more
intricate, not to mention believable, deceptions.  Have you really slid
so far?"
     "Sister," Uranus said to Pluto in a dry, conversational tone.
"Not just a term of endearment."
     "I had guessed as much," Pluto returned, watching the
unfolding drama with opaque eyes.
     "Keeping secrets from your friends, Sister Darkeyes?" Yurina
inquired sweetly, venom only showing in the luxurious depths of her
dark eyes.
     "Yurina," Mars gritted.  She knew there was no point trying to
put the genie back in the bottle; Pluto and Uranus had heard enough
between them to blow the lid off her past.  But Yurina was not done.
     "Such modesty," Yurina continued, smoothing her long skirt
with fastidious motions.  "After all, you were not just any Sister."
She turned to the others, eyes gleaming with barely sheathed malice.
"She was extraordinarily accomplished, drawing the attention of all
within the order from a young age.  Her cruel, dominant nature made
her the darling of the Maidens, and much sought after as a partner and
lover by the Sisters.  She seduced and destroyed our enemies with such
flair that few could match her, save perhaps her favourite lover, our
new Nightmistress.  Of course, she betrayed her beliefs once.  You
should be mindful, in case history repeats itself."
     "Come on, Mars," V scowled, setting the recalcitrant bottle
aside.  "Let me strangle her.  Just a little bit."
     "No, V," Mars replied.  She felt light-headed with the urge to
do violence to Yurina, but that would be a mistake.  She had trained
with this girl, had worshipped and whored and betrayed with her, and
she knew the point of Yurina's machinations here.  If she attacked the
girl for telling the truth, it would make her look weak and guilty to
the others.  Yurina could not attack any of them directly, but she
would be only too happy to drive a wedge between them.  Uranus and
Pluto did not know the whole story; Mars would have given much to
know what they were thinking at that moment.
     But Yurina had a point.  Rei Hino had been a Sister of great
renown, a girl not to be crossed.  She was no longer a Sister, but it
was still unwise to cross her.
     "Tell me something, Yurina.  Why did you take the Black
Rose?"
     Yurina became still, even that malicious light deep within her
eyes paling.
     "As a Sister, you were quite highly regarded as well," Mars went
on.  "You possessed Shadow Magick, as well as elements of Crystal
Sorcery and lethal skills with the fan-blade.  You were up for your
final test when I left.  I asked Saekianna one night of the girls of our
old block, and you can imagine my surprise when your name came
up.  You, daughter of a line that had produced many Sisters and even
one Nightmistress, you of all people gave up being a full-fledged
Sister with a shot at the highest circle of power to be Black Rose.  I
never would have pegged you for it."
     "You underestimate the position of the highest of the
Maidens," Yurina replied, but Mars saw that a patina of stiffness had
settled about the beauty's slim shoulders.
     "Wait a sec," V interrupted, clearly delighted by anything that
discomfitted Yurina.  "She's a Maiden now, but she was training to be
a Sister?  So she chickened out on this final test?  Or wait, better, she
failed it!"  V pointed a triumphant finger at Yurina, whose eyes were
only for Mars.
     "Neither," Mars said, returning Yurina's gaze with a faint
smile
     "You speak of our secrets to outsiders," Yurina said in a low
voice.  "Your punishment will be ..."
     "My punishment is not your affair, Yurina," Mars told the
girl sharply, eyes narrowed as she moved to stand above the Black
Rose.  "And I've already spoken of my past to my friends.  But to
answer your question, V, Yurina passed her test."
     "Then why isn't she a Sister?" V asked.
     "Because," Mars answered, "she took the Black Rose.  You
see, when training to be a priestess of the Dark Lady, girls go through
several stages of training.  The actual title of Sister of Shadows is not
conferred until she has completed her final training and has passed one
final test.  That test is administered by the Black Rose of the order."
     "So then, why did you say she 'took the Black Rose'?  Did she
cheat or something?" V asked, eyes alight as she watched Yurina
squirm ever-so-slightly
     "The final test," Mars went on, still holding Yurina's gaze
with the force of her own, "is a duel of flesh and power between the
aspiring Sister and the reigning Black Rose."
     "An ... intimate duel?" V breathed, eyes widening.  Pluto and
Uranus remained silent, watching the drama unfold.  Ranma looked
like he wanted to be anywhere but there.
     "Indeed," Mars replied softly as she walked slowly around
Yurina.  "Very intimate.  If the aspirant bests the Black Rose and her
own desires, she becomes a full Sister.  However, if she loses, she
tastes the sweet venom of the Black Rose."
     Mars stopped behind Yurina, reaching down to let her gloved
fingers rest on the fullness of Yurina's breast.  The girl made no
objection, remaining motionless and expressionless, even as her anger
formed a palpable aura around her petite body.
     You may recall that I told you there were once thirteen
Nightmistresses," Mars went on.  "But there has always only been one
Black Rose, ever since the Sisterhood was created to encompass
Sisters and Maidens.  To have that title, one must possess a singular
artifact of magickal power.  Right here, Yurina now has that artifact: a
very lovely and intricate tattoo of a black rose.  This tattoo has passed
from Black Rose to Black Rose since it was first created, for it is
unique.  Legend has it that the art of creating it was given to the Dark
Lady during the reign of the Genrous.  The ink used contained
succubus blood, and the tattoo was etched into living flesh by a
mysterious woman as repayment of a debt to Dasma Herself."
     "Um," V said.  "That being the case, are you sure you should
be standing there?  I mean ..."
     "Relax," Mars assured her.  "That tattoo can only be invoked
by the untamed heat of passion and desire and the touch of flesh to
flesh."
     "And what does it do," Uranus asked, breaking into the
panorama created by the three women, "to those who fail the test?"
     "If a would-be Sister's self-control fails in the face of the
Black Rose's siren song, then the Black Rose sends a part of her tattoo
onto the defeated woman's flesh," Mars told them, a tiny prickle of
heat flushing along her spine as recalled her own trial by sexual fire.
"There it blooms into a simpler rose tattoo, marking her.  It also seals
any magicks she might possess."
     "What?" V blurted.  Mars knew what the girl was thinking; if
she had fallen to Saekianna that night, then she might even now be
powerless.
     "Indeed," Mars said, inclining her head.  "Girls who fail the
test can still serve as Maidens, but their aspirations to power within
the order are done."
     "It was not always thus, that magickal power was a
requirement to serve Her at the highest levels," Yurina said, a trifle
sullenly in Mars' opinion.
     "But you said she passed," Pluto pointed out.
     "Ah, yes," Mars nodded, stepping away from Yurina.  "She
did.  But you see, there is one other oddity to the Black Rose tattoo.
If the bearer is defeated in such an intimate duel, the victor has the
choice to take the Black Rose herself.  The Black Rose does strip a
woman of her magick, but it bestows its own powers, as well as the
title of Black Rose."
     "And she," V sniffed, jerking her head at Yurina, "did that?"
     "Yes," Mars nodded.  "Apparently so.  I am thinking that
Griitna had something to do with that, didn't she, Yurina?  Saekianna
offered no insight into your decision, but I think you had begun to
wonder about her even then, just as I had."
     "You dare compare us?" Yurina snapped haughtily.  "You
ran, abandoning those to whom you had sworn your allegiance.  I did
what needed to be done."
     "So you sacrificed for the greater good of the order," Mars
mused, moving around the girl again.  "Sass did tell me that the Black
Rose had been instrumental in Griitna's downfall.  Your loyalty to the
Sisterhood has never been in question, Yurina.  I was simply surprised
when I heard that you had taken the position.  Martyrdom was never
your calling, after all.  I wonder, was it worth it?"
     There was silence.  They were all watching Mars and Yurina
now, even Ranma, who had been so quiet that Mars had nearly
forgotten he was there.  Deimos perched quietly on his shoulder;
Mars wondered idly why she had chosen to go to him, and not one of
the others.
     "I suppose you will insist on enlightening us with your opinion?"
Yurina said at last, looking up at Mars from under lowered, sooty
lashes.
     "It's odd, Yurina," Mars went on.  "We worked side-by side
on more than one occasion, but I never recall you ever using the
name Lily."
     There.  She had brought Yurina to where she wanted, turning
the girl's attempts to throw her off-balance back on to the Black Rose.
Yurina sat very still, fingers curling in her lap, wrinkling the sheer
fabric of her dress.  She was probably wishing for her fan; she had
always carried one, ever since Mars could remember, and loved to
toy with it as she thought.
     "That was one of the few times," Yurina said at last, just as Mars
was beginning to think she would not reply.  "But if you are suggesting
..."
     "I am suggesting, "Mars broke in, "that you kept your
knowledge about Makoto and Yoshi from your Nightmistress.  Why
was that, Yurina?  Why didn't you tell her what you knew?  That's
what I don't understand."
     Yurina looked up at her again, then stared out across the
chamber, a gentle furrow appearing in her brow.  Her hands fidgeted
again and that rosebud mouth parted as the girl gently nibbled her
full lower lip thoughtfully.  Mars knew Yurina was trying to appear
winsome, and was in fact succeeding.  It was probably just habit;
Mars knew from experience that automatically trying to manipulate
those around you was a hard habit to break.
     "You are wrong," Yurina said at last, raking her fingers
through her unbound tresses in a thoroughly distracting manner.  "I
did
not attempt to mislead the Nightmistress.  I simply did not make the
connection."
     "Come on, Yurina," Mars said with a humourless laugh.  "I
remember all of them, every single one.  And so do you."
     "I had not forgotten about that mission," Yurina informed
her, delicately arched nose in the air.  "But I recall the gangly tom-
boy that the others called Makki.  I knew her real name was Makoto,
but that is hardly an uncommon name.  Certainly not enough for me
to make a connection to a girl named Makoto Kino."
     "Not even when she was helped to escape by a werewolf
named Yoshi?" Mars pressed.
     "You are forgetting something," Yurina informed her,
watching Mars as she paced slowly.  "I believed that the girl I had
known was dead."
     "Too bad for you," V cut in, an ugly edge to her voice.
"Your guys missed one."
     "Nothing would make you happier than to believe that, I am
certain," Yurina replied coolly.  "Why, I am scarcely human, nothing
more than a monster who revels in pointless death."
     "But it was pointless," V countered.  "Because your goddess
wasn't the one giving you your orders, was she?"
     Yurina took a long look at Mars, clearly realizing just how
much the former Sister had revealed.
     "I believed, as we all did, that we were following our Lady's
will," she said at last, her voice low as she gazed off at the flickering
torches.  "Had She called for their deaths, then I would have obeyed,
as is my duty.  My quest, though, was merely to ferret out the ring
and retrieve it.  A simple enough task for me, all in the cause of
drawing ever closer to the heart of the labyrinth.  But in the end, it
was all merely some vulgar errand commissioned by low men for
money.  Griitna made us their tools, and those ragged lonely outcasts
died for nothing."
     Yurina fell silent, and Mars felt a curious kinship watching
her.  They shared a past, after all.  As a Sister, she had done many
things in the name of her goddess, deeds that, no matter how black,
had been performed willingly, all in the service of Dasma.  Except
they hadn't really been in Her service.  The Sisterhood had been
reduced to lackeys of the weak and greedy, skills that had been passed
to them in the name of liberty from oppression debased by the greed of
one they had trusted.
     "So in the end, you chose to fight Griitna by taking the
position of the Black Rose," Mars said into the ensuing silence.
     "My predecessor may not have been actively complicit in
Griitna's scheme, but at the very least she did not avail herself of the
prestige and influence of her position," Yurina murmured.  "Even
when it became clear that a schism was developing within the order.
And so I chose, when the time came.  I have never regretted that
decision."
     "And the Black Dragons?" V asked.  "Do you regret them?"
     "What if I do?" Yurina sighed wearily, turning her gaze to the
brash blonde.  "It changes nothing.  I saw the look in Yoshi's eyes in
that alley, when he saw me standing there.  And the look in hers.
Your friend wants her revenge, and the truth will not dissuade her."
     "Let's not worry about that right now," Mars said.
     "That," Yurina replied with a faint smile, "is exceedingly
easy for you to say."
     "We'd better scout the surface again," Uranus said briskly.
"Whatever our plan ends up being, we aren't getting back home by
just sitting around here."
     "I'll come with you," Pluto said, and together the two slipped
out through the far end of the chamber.  Mars knew they wanted to
talk about what they had heard, but that was the least of her worries
just then.
     "I'll go, too," Ranma added.  He shot a brief look at Yurina,
then left by the same doorway the others had used but turned the other
way.  Deimos glanced over her shoulder and winked at Mars as she
rode the reticent boy's shoulder.
     "Should I leave you two alone?" V asked, glancing from
Mars to Yurina and back.
     "Why?" Yurina asked, that razor's edge peeking out of her
silken tones once more.  "It appears that the traitor has kept nothing
from you.  All of our secrets are laid bare to outsiders."
     "There is more going on here than you think, Yurina," Mars
told the girl.  "Believe it or not, I don't want to see the Sisterhood
used again.  But that's just what's happening.  We've met the real
Banri, and she has asked us to discover the truth behind what's
happening."
     "She's telling the truth," V added, but Mars could see that
Yurina was not convinced, showing them a faintly amused smile.
     "How convenient for you," the girl said softly.  "The only one
who knows the truth ..."
     "That's how it was last time, Yurina," Mars said darkly.
"And nobody believed me, not until it was too late."
     "You dare accuse the woman who fought to salvage our
order, who stood her ground when you ran like a craven coward?"
Yurina's dark eyes flashed tempestuously, her chin raised as she
pinned Mars with a glare.
     "Hey, now," V growled, eyes narrowing.  Mars held up a
hand to forestall any precipitous actions.
     "She's being manipulated," Mars told the girl.  "You all are.
That fake Banri, whatever other powers she gained, they were never
in the labyrinth.  I know.  I saw.  Griitna had the key, Yurina.  She
would have used anything she found there."
     "You're wasting your time, Mars," V sighed.  "She's not
listening.  Maybe she'll feel more talkative when we dangle her in
front of Jupiter.  Then she can reap the rewards of betrayal.  You
know, Yurina, I've never seen her this angry.  You must have really
done a number on her."
     "Believe what you will," Yurina replied with a haughty air.
"I did not have to seduce her to accomplish my sacred task ."
     "Whoa, back up," V blurted.
     "Seduce?" Mars blinked.  "You ... she ...?"
     "Ah," Yurina breathed.  "So she did not tell you all of the
tale, then?  Well, well.  Perhaps you do not understand the depths of
her fury after all.  Yes, she brought me to the others, and at first I
treated her as a big sister.  But then, so did many of the others.  She
was never an object of desire like some of the other girls.  She had
embraced her image as a tomboy, all long legs and quick temper.  And
she was carrying a torch for that pretty werewolf, who squandered
himself on trash."
     "You seduced Makoto?" V repeated.  "She's not even into
girls!  What did you do, dose her with something?  An aphrodisiac
fingernail?"
     "Such insults are not necessary, Miss Aino," Yurina said
coldly.  "I told you, it was not part of my appointed task.  I do not
need to force women into my bed.  She was more than willing.  After
all, just because none of the others had bothered to look beneath the
bruises and scratches to see the raw strength and beauty that lay just
beneath the surface did not mean I had to ignore it."
     "I get it," Mars said heavily.  "She didn't only bring you into
the gang, she opened up to you.  She let you see a part of herself that
she kept hidden from the others."
     "And you took advantage of her," V scowled.  "Why bother?
It wasn't, as you keep saying, part of your mission."
     "Why?  Because I liked her," Yurina replied simply.  "I am capable
of such fondness, you know.  Her heart was being broken, watching
Yoshi carry on.  I decided that her first time should be sweet, not some
hurried coupling with a drunk, horny gang kid who laid her because
he could not afford a whore."
     "Her first time," Mars sighed, shaking her head.  "Oh, this
gets better and better."
     "One night she staggered in, having been beaten trying to
steal some food," Yurina went on, her features softening ever-so-
slightly into an expression of reminiscence.  "I took her into her room
and cleaned her up.  I made the first overtures, true, but she was more
than responsive.  After that we carried on together, a secret yet torrid
affair, and she began to bloom before my eyes.  I could see she was
something special.  I came very close to taking her with me when I left
you know.  It is hardly uncommon for Sisters to keep concubines close
to the temple, after all, and I could easily afford it.  Once we'd left the
city, she would have been out of contact with the others, and the truth
of
my mission would not have had to come between us.  I would have
taught her social graces, kept her in a fashion that she could only have
dreamed of."
     "Instead, you got all her friends killed," V said flatly.
     "I did not know that would happen," Yurina insisted.  "I
knew naught of why the ring was important, only that I had been
tasked with its retrieval."
     "But you didn't take her with you," Mars said, suddenly
weary.
     "In the end, I could not," Yurina sighed.  She gave Mars a look,
one that told her that they were women of the world and they both
understood that fairytale endings were rare.  "She was a very direct
girl, very honest.  She would not have flourished in the rarified
atmosphere of temple politics and sexual intrigue that are so much a
part of our lives.  In the end, I decided to leave her behind.  I thought
that her newfound confidence in her own sensuality might help her
win her werewolf and give her the happiness she desired."
     "Instead, you made her hate herself," Mars declared, voice heavy.
     "I have deliberately destroyed the hearts and wills of many in
the service of the Sisterhood," Yurina remarked coolly.  "As have you,
Sister Darkeyes.  So you know I have no need to lie when I say that I
did not wish her ill."
     "The hell of it is, I believe that," Mars nodded.  "But her
hatred of you must run even deeper than I had imagined.  She knows
that you're in the order now, and she is going to think it was
deliberate.  All of it."
     "Including seducing her," V groaned.  "Especially seducing
her.  Oh, this is marvellous."
     "Desire is a cruel mistress," Yurina said serenely.  "I have
accepted the risks that come with my life.  It is simply ironic that in
this case, I sought only selfish pleasure and instead did damage far
beyond what I could have imagined."
     "Yurina, you have to listen," Mars told the demure beauty.
"What happened back then was a tragedy, and we're facing a bigger
one now.  The Sisterhood is heading for disaster, I can sense it.  I
know you don't believe me, but what if I could prove what I say is
true?"
     "Mars?" V asked, frowning.  "What are you thinking?"
     "We get out of here," Mars said grimly.  "And we show her
Osiren Black."
     "Oh, boy," V muttered, as Yurina watched them with what
looked like polite disinterest.  "So, we get out of Shadow, somehow
keep Makoto from killing Lily here, and take her to Aethyr?"
     "And then get her to convince the Nightmistress to put off the
ceremony tomorrow night," Mars finished.  "Simple, no?"
     "How very droll," Yurina sighed, looking more than ever as
thought she wanted a fan to flutter.  "All I have to do is believe that a
traitor and a band of girls serving the White Moon have discovered
what the Sisterhood has been unable to all this time.  Why, you are
halfway to convincing me already."
     "Look ..." Mars began, then stopped dead.  Her link to
Deimos was somehow deadened, or perhaps overwhelmed was a
better term, by this place.  She felt something in that moment,
however, a spike of emotion.
     Trouble.
     "Watch her!" Mars snapped, and over V's protests she ran
from the room, senses questing for the source of the problem.  As she
ran, she sensed Deimos's presence more clearly, feeling the little
guardian's anger and alarm.
     It appeared that their luck had finally run out.
 
 
 

end chapter 14