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 15: Tangled Threads of Fate
 
 
 

     Pluto breathed in the dank, malignant air, her eyes searching
through gloom tainted by blood-red light.  There was nothing to see,
only shadows and the pervasive tatters of mist that lay carelessly strewn
everywhere.
     "So," Uranus said softly, joining her in the narrow doorway.
     "So," Pluto agreed, suddenly weary.  She leaned on her
keystaff, turning her gaze to her comrade.  Uranus's eyes were
uncharacteristically sombre.
     "Rei was one of Damsa's Sisterhood," Uranus went on after a
time.  "Funny, I can see it somehow."
     "Yet we did not see it," Pluto pointed out.  "We discovered
what we could of our little sisters' pasts, but there were always things
we did not know."
     "You remember the early days, though?  Rei and Usagi?"
     "Yes," Pluto sighed, nearly smiling in fond reminiscence.
"They were like oil and water, those two.  Rei always seemed to resent
having to protect Usagi back then.  It makes sense in retrospect, of
course.  Rei knew Usagi was raised by the White order.  That should
have made them mortal enemies."
     Uranus moved, placing the lanky length of her body against the
far side of the empty door frame and looking into Pluto's eyes from
only inches away.  "I suppose the question is, what now?"
     "We need to find a way out of here," Pluto told her.  "Shadow
Realm is reputed to be a very dangerous place, and I for one am not
anxious to meet any more of its denizens."
     "I meant about the princess and Rei," Uranus told her.  "Which
you well knew."
     "Did I?  Ah, Uranus.  Some things we cannot do for others.  If
this secret yet resides between Rei and her princess, then they must
resolve it themselves.  Unless you are suggesting that Rei cannot be
trusted?"
     "I trust Rei with Usagi the way I trust Michiru," Uranus told her,
eyes gleaming.
     "High praise."
     "The highest.  All right, Rei and Usagi have to work this out
themselves.  I concede the point.  What about the Sisterhood?"
     "They seem convinced that we mean to thwart their efforts," Pluto
sighed.  "At least, if that girl is any indication."
     "Mmm.  The Black Rose, eh?  A haughty little thing."
     "But dangerous," Pluto cautioned, feeling heat rise to her face at
the memory of Yurina's body pressing against hers.
     "Oh?" Uranus murmured, leaning closer to breathe in Pluto's
scent at the crook of her neck.  "Is that the little enchantress's scent on
you, Pluto?  Don't tell me you fell victim to her captivating charms?"
     "Oh, shut up," Pluto snapped irritably.  She felt stupid enough
about that, even though she'd had no way to know what the girl was.
But Yurina had obviously considered her a threat; she could easily have
played upon Pluto's sympathies and gained her trust that way.  Her
actions demonstrated enmity verging on hatred for the senshi, as well as
desperation.
     Ignoring Uranus's smirk, Pluto pushed past her into the gloom
of the narrow passage.  "At least we know why the girls changed their
outfits," she muttered to Uranus.  "The Sisterhood must be gunning for
senshi."
     "Come to that, Venus was wearing her uniform in the alley, I'm
certain of it," Uranus remarked.  "She changed once she got here.  I
wonder if she is distancing herself from her senshi identity?"
     "Too many questions," Pluto sighed.  "Let's try to keep
focussed on getting out of here for the moment."
     "Sure," Uranus shrugged.  "But right now, Hotaru and Usagi
are out there, and probably together.  Tell me that thought hasn't
crossed your mind."
     "It has," Pluto admitted.  "And Hotaru is still haunted by what
happened between them.  But I have confidence in the princess.  If
anyone can get through to Hotaru, she can."

***

     It was a very nice house, tastefully furnished with the odd
hint of sophistication like the intricately carved statue on the
gleaming stone mantle.  Not as large or as nice as Hotaru's mansion,
but certainly a far cry from being a shack.  Usagi prowled the living
room, noticing the titles on the music cases beside the expensive
stereo, the racing gloves on the small shelf by the door, the slightly
worn violin case on the plush seat built into the curve of the bay
window.
     She'd had no idea that Hotaru owned more houses than her
mansion.  This wasn't just a safe house, though; it was apparent that
someone spent time here.  There were signs of Michiru and Haruka at
the very least.  It made her a little sad, somehow, that they had kept
this a secret.
     Then she laughed at herself.  They had kept much larger
secrets, after all.  This was nothing much, really.  And it had turned
out to be a lucky break, much closer than Hotaru's place.  Still, she
wondered if Hotaru had more houses around the city.  And if so, why
she needed them.
     "Usagi," Luna called.
     "In here."
     Moments later, Luna entered with Artemis close behind her,
both in feline form.  Luna leapt nimbly into Usagi's arms, and the girl
sighed happily as Luna curled against her chest, purring.
     "I hear that Ami communicated with Rei," Artemis
remarked, jumping up onto the back of the couch.  "How are we
going to get them out of there?"
     "I'm not sure," Usagi confessed, worry beginning to gnaw at
her once more.  "I'm hoping Ami can come up with something.
How's Yoshi?"
     "Resting," Luna murmured, eyes closed.  "Makoto is
hovering over him, won't leave his side.  The fae root seems to be
working, anyway.  Hotaru doesn't think he's in any danger."
     "Hotaru knows about silver poisoning?" Usagi asked,
surprised.
     "Hotaru knows about a lot of things," a voice said brusquely,
and Usagi whirled to see the woman herself standing in the doorway,
a severe frown marring her features.  "What Hotaru doesn't know,
however, is why you and the others are feuding with Dasma's
Sisterhood.  Or why you were all running around in those ridiculous
maid outfits.  Or why you care so much about a strange girl who
thinks she is a cat.  Or why Ami seems to have experienced a spell of
Shadow Magick.  Or even why there is a werewolf with a silver
gunshot wound lying in one of the spare bedrooms instead of in a
hospital.  She would, I assure you, like to know all about these
things."
     "She isn't the only one," Michiru added as she came into the
room from another entrance, followed by a subdued Ami.  "Setsuna
and Haruka are trapped in Shadow Realm, along with the others.  I
think, Princess, that it's time we had some answers."
     "I know," Usagi said quietly.  "That's why we were meeting,
remember?"  She walked to the middle of the room and stopped.
Hotaru's disapproval was intense, like a dark aura that lent dreadful
weight to the air in the room.  Since the beginning, Usagi had wanted
very much to please the older woman, to live up to her expectations.
Now, though, there was something between them; they were both
haunted by the memory of that night when Hotaru's dark nature had
taken over.
     They needed to talk about that.  But with Hotaru, it was
always business first.  And she had a point; they did have a right to
know.
     Luna jumped down, transforming to human form, and
Artemis followed suit.  They stood close to Usagi, and Ami crossed
over to join them.  Usagi nearly shook her head in despair; here they
were, showing physically how deeply polarised the two groups were.
That was part of the problem.
     "So," Hotaru said coolly, her hair brushing the tops of her
shoulders as she looked from one face to the next.  "I am waiting.
Who is going to start?"
     "I am," Usagi said, taking a deep breath.  Hotaru's pain was
clear to Usagi, and she knew that her mentor was masking that pain
with irascibility.  But things had changed between them since Usagi
had left Hotaru's house that black night.  Usagi was no longer the
student seeking approval.  She had brought her senshi together, and it
was time to assume the mantle of princess in her relationship with
Hotaru as well.
     "Perhaps we should start with how you managed to get the
Sisterhood after you," Hotaru prompted as Usagi gathered her
thoughts.
     "There's no need to be snide, Hotaru," Usagi replied, keeping
her voice even.  Getting emotional would only make Hotaru treat her
in the manner to which she was accustomed, as the young, untested
girl she had trained.
     "Excuse me?" Hotaru shot back, eyes flashing and voice
filled with shards of ice.
     "I decided to come to you because the Sisterhood will also be
targeting you," Usagi went on, resisting the urge to drop her gaze
from Hotaru's.  "We did not 'manage' to get them after us.  They
decided that we might be a threat to them because of our association
with the White Moon.  Apparently, they decided to deal with us
before that threat became a reality."
     "This woman from the alley, the one Rei mentioned, is a priestess of
Dasma?" Michiru asked, moving to sit down with her characteristic
grace.  It was hard to tell, but Usagi thought she detected approval in
those sea-green eyes at her handling of the situation so far.
     "Saekianna der Kae.  She's the Nightmistress," Usagi told them.
"Apparently, she thinks she can break the seal on Dasma.  And she
thinks we want to stop her.  And if she's after us, she'll be after you guys,
too."
     "And so you decided to confront her," Hotaru said flatly.
     "Not exactly," Usagi replied, taking a deep breath.  "You see,
she bought the club where Minako works because she appears there
sometimes as a senshi.  When V showed up one night, they fought.
The Nightmistress saw through V's glamour."
     "She knows Minako's identity?" Michiru gasped.
     "By this point, Ami is the only one who's identity is still
secret," Usagi admitted.
     There was a moment of terrible silence, that weight curdling the
air like the precursor to a thunderstorm.
     "Damn you," Hotaru hissed.  "How could you be so careless?  Didn't
I teach you better than that?  And that irresponsible idiot girl!  Minako
decides to show off as usual, and now because of her all of you are in
jeopardy!"
     "Shut up!"  Usagi clamped her jaw shut, face hot as she tried
to reign in her temper.  Hotaru stared at her, eyes wide, and even
Michiru seemed shocked.  "You have no right to say that about her,
Hotaru," Usagi went on, a faint tremble of anger tainting her words.
"You have no idea what we've been through.  Minako was fighting
for us, to keep things from falling apart.  She did what she always
does, and she has nothing to be ashamed of.  In fact, I'm very proud
of her.  I was on the verge of losing Rei, of giving up on everything and
everyone, but because she took a chance we were able to come together
again.  Maybe she's not like you, but she's as loyal and dedicated as any
of my senshi, and she deserves better than to be talked about that way!"
     Silence reigned again, broken only by the ticking of the grandfather
clock in the foyer.  Usagi felt her anger ebbing, but she still held
Hotaru's gaze with her own, defiance in every line of her slender body.
They were her senshi, and by all the gods she was proud of them, every
single one.  Hotaru had given up on them, had let them go and not tried
to get them back.  Those girls were Usagi's now, not hers.  And she
would not allow them to be degraded by anyone.
     She felt a blossom of warmth as Artemis slipped his hand into hers
and squeezed it gratefully.  It must have hurt him to hear Hotaru
put Minako down that way, but he held his tongue and let her talk.
     "Princess," Michiru said gently, sifting her weight on the
couch.  "I appreciate your loyalty to your girls, but you have been
placed in grave danger by Minako's actions."
     "You're wrong," Usagi told her as Hotaru stood frozen.  "I was the
one who caused it to start.  I went with Makoto to challenge Saekianna
over Rei, not understanding the truth.  That angered her, and she started
targeting my friends, which is how Minako ended up unemployed and
Makoto had to fight Yoshi.  We came together to fight back, and that's
how we discovered the truth."
     "What truth?" Hotaru asked tightly.  There was still tension
clinging to her, but she had neither exploded in rage nor walked out,
which Usagi thought was a good sign.
     "The Sisterhood is worried because they believe we will try
to stop their ceremony on Baniesti, which is tomorrow night.  But
we've discovered that they are being manipulated.  This ceremony is
a sham."
     "How do you know that?" Michiru asked.  Usagi thought that
Michiru was trying to keep the discussion calm and civil, and part of
her appreciated that.  But the other part wanted to have it out with
Hotaru once and for all.
     "We found Dasma's resting place," Ami broke in calmly.
"And spoke with her guardian."
     "Ami!" Usagi hissed with a sidelong glance.  Ami just smiled
at her, no fear in her eyes.
     "You found where the Dark Lady is sealed," Hotaru said
slowly, looking from one girl to the other with scepticism writ plainly
on her face.  "And where, exactly, is that?"
     "Aethyr," Ami told her.  "I found Osiren Black on one of my
trips there."
     "Your ... trips.  There."  Michiru was looking at Ami as if
she'd never seen her before.
     "Ami confided to us about her ability," Usagi told them, fighting the
urge to fidget.  "We all had secrets, you know."  This she directed at
Hotaru, who flushed and actually turned away.  "And since Ami is
willing to share her secret, yes, we went to Aethyr and found Dasma's
resting place.  And her Guardian, Banri, told us that the Sisterhood
could not possibly be doing what they think they are."
     "Is Shadow Magick another of your secrets, Ami?" Michiru
asked softly.  "In the car, on the way here ..."
     "No," Ami said.  She opened her mouth to say more,
hesitated, then closed it.
     "And this girl," Hotaru added tightly.  "Lily?  Jupiter shouted
out her name before unleashing an ill-advised torrent of power.  Or
are you going to take issue with that evaluation as well?"
     "I understand why she reacted the way she did," Usagi said
evenly.  She did not want to get into this with Hotaru, but she did agree
Makoto's actions had been reckless.  Knowing the reason for Makoto's
anguish, though, Usagi found she could not truly fault her.  "She didn't
think, but none of us could have predicted what would happen."
     "Princess, we still need to get the others back," Michiru broke
in.  "I appreciate the secrets that have been entrusted to you are
delicate, but if there is anything that can help us, then you must see
that you can't keep that to yourself."
     "If there was anything, Michiru, I swear that I would tell
you," Usagi replied.  "I want them back as badly as you do."
     "I have an idea," Ami said.  Usagi glanced over at her
surprised.
     "You do?"
     "Rei contacted me in the car," Ami told them.  "I believe she
could because her shadow and mine mingled while we were in
Aethyr.  Maybe I can contact her in the same way."
     "But you can't control your shadow," Usagi protested.  "And
you can't go back to Aethyr!  What if Dragon is still there?"
     "I don't need to go back," Ami reassured her.  "What I need
is some space.  I'm going to construct an Aethyr port."

***

     "I have no wish to be involved in this!" Yurina shouted for
the umpteenth time.
     "Sucks to be you!" V called back.  If Mars thought she was
going to sit and babysit Yurina while things got ugly, she was
seriously mistaken.  V darted through the narrow stone corridor,
pulling the disgruntled Black Rose along at the end of her golden
whip.  Yurina stumbled, but V didn't slow; she'd already told the girl
that if she fell, she was going to be dragged.
     There was noise from up ahead, in the chamber that lay at the
bottom of the stairs from the surface.  Had they been discovered?  If
so, her strength would be needed.  Her power had proved very
effective against the beasts of Shadow which had attacked Uranus
and Ranma.
      V careened around the corner and paused a moment, trying
to make sense of what she was seeing.  Ranma was lying on his back,
being straddled by a woman with masses of flame-red hair and black
wings.  Mars had thrown herself onto the woman from behind and
was struggling with her; even as V watched, Mars slapped a ward over
the woman's mouth, where it stuck fast, forming an effective gag.
With her free hand, Mars seemed to be tracing patterns on the
woman's skin, pausing to jab stiffened fingers at different points while
chanting under her breath.
     Which didn't make any sense.  Pressure point techniques
were more a martial artist's forte than ...
     V blinked.  She wasn't.  She wouldn't.  Not that.
     But it appeared she was.  Ranma looked dazed, barely
struggling as the two women grappled over him, and as V slid along
the wall she finally got a good look at the woman's face.  She
possessed an unearthly beauty, not the refined loveliness of the Black
Rose but a lush, primal allure.  Even from where she stood, V could
feel the woman's draw like heat on her skin.  When she saw the small
horns on her forehead and the tail that lashed at Mars as they
struggled, she understood what they were dealing with.
     A succubus.  Wonderful.
     V let her whip slide free from Yurina's wrists, then used it to
trip the indignant Black Rose.  Spinning, she encircled the furious
succubus with her whip, pinning her arms and wings in gleaming coils.
Mars continued her attack, and to V's astonishment it seemed to be
working.  The succubus's struggles weakened, and finally Mars
pulled her off Ranma and let her fall to the ground, where she lay,
panting.
     "Good timing," Mars sighed as she leaned back on Ranma's
legs.  "Hey Ranma, you still with us?"
     V moved slowly, keeping both the succubus and Yurina in
sight as she checked Ranma out.  His blue eyes were glazed, and
from the look of his pants he had felt the effects of the succubus's
bewitching power up close and personal.  His shirt was torn, showing
shallow scratches on his taut chest, and as he struggled to sit up Mars
moved off his legs.
     "How you feeling, Ranma?" V called out.  He frowned, then
glanced at the snared succubus and scrambled back across the floor.
Deimos, who had been circling around the ceiling, flew down to land
on Mars' shoulder.
     "What," he gasped.  "What the hell.  Is.  That thing?"
     "A succubus," Mars told him.  V was ready for trouble, but
the succubus seemed unwilling to fight now that she was
outnumbered.  Her tawny skin was covered with scratches and
smudges of dirt, and her already brief outfit was torn in a few places.
     "And a hungry one, it would appear," Yurina sniffed from
where she still sat on the cold stone.  "Chances are she has seen very
few human men in this place."
     Mars went to the succubus, crouching down and wrapping
more wards around her wrists to bind her tightly.  The flame-tressed
creature barely managed to resist, and V wondered just what effect
Mars' attack had had on the succubus.  "Let's get her back to the
chamber," the senshi said briskly, then turned her attention to the
succubus.  "If you try anything funny, you'll be dead before you
hit the floor.  Got it?"
     Green eyes smouldering with impotent fury, the succubus nodded
once.  Mars motioned to Yurina to get up, and the group moved back
towards the underground chamber, Yurina walking before Mars, then
the succubus, with V following and Ranma trailing.
     "Hey," V said in a low voice.  "Everything okay?"
     "I guess," Ranma replied, not meeting her eyes.  "It, ah, she
... surprised me.  That's all."
     V knew that wasn't all.  The succubus might very well have
used her mesmerizing aura to lure Ranma close, then tried to take
him.  V knew how much trouble poor Ranma had with just talking
about sexual matters; he wasn't going to want to admit the urges this
beguiling creature had made him feel.  So she let it ride, and soon
they were back in the chamber.
     "Apparently we picked the wrong time to check out the
surface," Uranus noted, scowling as she caught sight of the new
captive.  "And what have we here?"
     "Let's find out," Mars suggested.  She walked up to the
succubus and tore the ward from her mouth, causing the red-headed
fury to yelp.  Then the succubus began shrieking a torrent of verbal
abuse that made even V blanche.  Mars reached out and poked her
fingertip at a point below the succubus's collarbone, then another
between the full, barely-contained breasts.  The captive gritted her
teeth and tossed her head, but at least she shut up.
     "Better," Mars said softly.  "Much better.  Now.  I'm going to
ask you some questions, and you're going to answer them.  If you
call for help or try to draw attention to us, one of these lovely ladies
will kill you.  Clear?"
     The succubus laughed, a husky, velvety sound.  "You
needn't worry about my friends, lovely enchantress, for I have none.
I am a fugitive."
     "What's your name?" Mars asked as Pluto and Uranus
moved closer. V kept the succubus on a short leash, but the woman
seemed to have accepted the reality of the situation, although she did
cast a longing look at Ranma.
     "Maia," the succubus replied, her lush, blood-red lips curling
with exquisite care around each syllable as her eyes followed Ranma
around the chamber.
     "Pay attention, Maia," Mars said sternly, grabbing the
succubus by the chin and yanking her head around.  Maia hissed,
showing white teeth and tiny, needle-like fangs.  The pupils of her
brilliant green eyes were elongated, like a cat's, and her crimson
tresses formed a wild, leonine mane around her body, constrained
only by the coils of V's whip.  Her black wings resembled Deimos's,
but unlike the tiny guardian she possessed a slender tail that jutted
from the base of her spine.  That tail writhed with obvious agitation,
coiling around Maia's shapely legs like a snake until V sent out a few
more coils to contain it.  Mars was standing pretty close, and V didn't
want the succubus getting any ideas.
     "You said you were a fugitive," Uranus remarked.  "Who's
after you?"
     "The Black King and his minions would love to have me,"
Maia said sullenly.  "Anyone cast out of the Crimson Queen's court
doesn't stand much of a chance around here, not for long."
     "These courts are unknown to me," Pluto murmured.  "Are
they courts of this realm?"
     Maia stared at her.  "You are ignorant of this place?" she
gaped.  "Such lovely yet foolish mortals, why don't you just walk up to
Her palace and offer yourselves on a plate!"
     "The Crimson Queen is a succubus?" Mars pressed.
     "The most powerful of us," Maia nodded sullenly.
     "And so the Black King would be an incubus, I suppose,"
Uranus sighed.
     "The incubi and succubi are always at war with each other,"
Maia said, shrugging as well as she could within the confines of V's
whip.  "Raiding parties often pass close to here.  I was out hoping to
pick off a straggler."
     "So you could feed," Mars said softly.
     "Feed?" Ranma asked, looking a little pasty as he looked
down at the scratches on his chest.  "Like, on us?"
     Maia threw her head back and laughed until V jerked the
whip tight.
     "Ranma," Mars said, "she might have wanted to taste your
blood, but succubi and incubi don't eat human flesh.  By feed, she's
referring to draining strength from a victim through sexual congress."
     "Er, yeah?" Ranma asked slowly.
     "They seduce humans and draw strength from them," V
clarified.
     "We can feed upon the essence of captive incubi," Maia said
with a feral smile.  "Or even other succubi who have incurred the
displeasure of the Crimson Queen.  But nothing compares to the
essence of a human.  Come boy, I will show you pleasures such as
you have never imagined.  You will recover your strength in time."
     "I don't think so," V said sweetly, jerking the whip again.
     "So these two courts fight for control of Shadow?" Uranus
asked, drawing Maia's attention back to her.
     "This part of it, at least," Pluto mused.  "But this is strange.
Succubi and incubi are not native to Shadow."
     "They're not?" V asked.
     "No," Pluto said.  "There used to be places in our realm
where they lived, venturing out to find human prey.  But that was a
very long time ago, and now they are quite rare."
     "Gee, too bad," V cracked, glaring at Maia.  The succubus was
watching them all carefully, as if looking for a weak link to exploit.
     "We were banished here by the Genrous lords during their
reign," Maia told Pluto.  She appeared, to V's eyes, to be acting
almost flirtatiously, slowly wetting her full lips as she let her eyes
wander over Pluto's lithe form.  If she couldn't have Ranma, it
appeared she would settle for one of the others.
     "That makes sense," Mars nodded.  "They would have
distrusted your ability to enchant and befuddle the senses."
     "They set a trap," Maia shrugged.  "Most of the succubi and incubi
were drawn to it and trapped here, and so now we live in this place.
Dangerous place, Shadow, full of nasty things.  And very few humans
come here anymore.  The Queen keeps tight control of her humans, and
of the Shadow Gates.  We ..."
     "What?" V blurted.
     "Shadow Gates?" Mars demanded, stepping closer to the
flame-haired succubus.  "The Queen can use Shadow Magick?"
     "No," Maia said cagily.  "But she knows how to get to your
world.  And I know, too."
     "You're lying," Uranus said flatly.
     "Yeah," V sneered.  "If she could go, she wouldn't still be
here, would she?"
     "I know how!" Maia repeated, gaze flitting from one woman to the
next.  "I just can't do it alone!  But I'll tell you what I know.  We can ...
we can make a deal."
     Her gaze drifted to Ranma again.  V sighed and yanked the
whip so hard that Maia yelped, nearly falling backwards.  The red-
headed succubus glared at the senshi, who merely smiled in response.
     "Relax, toots," V growled.  "He's not on the menu."
     "I just want to be let go," Maia muttered.  "Once I tell you
what I know, you let me go and we don't cross paths again.  Deal?"
     "Tell you what," Uranus said, tapping her forefinger against
her lip idly.  "Once we are standing at this Shadow Gate, then we let
you go.  Otherwise you could just fly off to the Crimson Queen and
rat us out."
     "I told you, I'm a fugitive," Maia grumbled.  "I can't go
back."
     "Why not?" V asked, curious.  Maia, however, would not
respond.  Mars huddled with Pluto and Uranus for a moment, then
glanced over at V, who shrugged.  They had nothing to lose, did
they?  Now that they knew the area was lousy with incubi and
succubi, all of whom would be more than happy to ravish them until
they were mere physical shells empty of vitality, it was more important
than ever to find a means of escape.
     "You tell us what you know," Mars told Maia.  "When we
reach this gate, then we let you go."
     "How do I know you'll really let me go?" Maia pouted.
     "It's the best deal you're going to get," Mars shrugged,
studying her fingers.  "Otherwise, you're a liability and we have to
deal with you.  Permanently."
     Maia growled deep in her throat.  "All right," she said at last.
"I'll tell you.  But I want to sit down, my feet are killing me.  And
my wings.  Can't we do something about this?  There are six of you,
after all, and I'm a lover, not a fighter."
     "Seven," Deimos huffed.
     "I'm not with them," Yurina added sweetly.  Mars walked
over to V and murmured into her ear, and V sighed.  The golden
whip snaked up, drawing away from the succubus's body.  Maia
sighed happily, stretching her black wings and then tucking them in
tightly against her back.  Then she went and sat down on a bolt of
silk near the Black Rose, who watched her without fear.  As Maia sat,
Yurina picked up a nearby bottle and opened it, pouring some red liquid
into a battered metal goblet.  Then, still kneeling, she demurely offered
it to the rumpled succubus, who gave her a slow, lingering glance.
     "Nice to see someone's got manners," Maia scowled, allowing the
petite beauty to hold the goblet to her lips and drinking deeply.  Yurina
seemed unintimidated by the succubus; she took the goblet and refilled
it like a pleasure girl serving a paying customer.
     "Well?" Mars asked.
     "Here's how it works," Maia said, pausing to take another
drink.  "The Queen has a circle drawn on the floor of a room deep
under her palace.  It looks like this."  Maia was wearing what looked
like a corset of shimmering green metallic fabric, and she gestured
towards it with her chin.  Undaunted, Yurina delicately reached down
into the deep cleft between Maia's full breasts, drawing out a folded
scrap of parchment.  Deimos fluttered over and took it from the girl's
outstretched hand, returning it to Mars.
     "Is copying that why you're a fugitive?" Pluto asked.
     "Geez, that's a personal question," Maia sniffed, allowing Yurina
to give her another drink.  Mars unfolded the parchment, and V peeked
over her shoulder.  She saw what was drawn there and instantly her
mouth went dry, a tingle of fear skittering up her back.
     "Maia," Mars said, her voice quiet but definitely not happy.
"This is just a standard Circle of Veneration.  Even though it has the
proper Shadow Glyphs inscribed, it is not a gate.  At most, it could be
used to summon a person's shadow or maybe a shade of the dead."
     "Yes, yes," Maia mumbled, giving Yurina a grateful look as the
girl continued to tend to the captive succubus.  "Magick
mumbo-jumble."
     "Jumbo," Deimos sniffed quietly.  "She's untrustworthy,
Lady Mars."
     "Listen," Maia said, her eyes blazing.  "That's why it works.
You see, if you make a circle like that here, in the same ... um,
relative something ... er ..."
     "Wait a moment," Pluto breathed.  "Shadow Realm is
supposed to mirror our own."
     "Yes ..." Mars said slowly.
     "Right-o!" Maia beamed.  "Like, the Queen's palace is
supposed to be in the same place as the human Queen's.  Although
I've never gotten to go through, so I couldn't say for sure."
     "So you're telling me that if two of these circles are in the
same place in different realms, they can be used to form a bridge?"
Mars asked.  "I've never heard of that."
     "But I suppose it could work," Pluto added.  "One circle can
summon the insubstantial from this realm, remember.  Two circles,
separated only by the barrier between Shadow and our realm ... it very
well might work."
     "Yeah, but wouldn't we have to know where another circle
was?" Uranus pointed out.
     "The Sisterhood would have one," Mars said with a look at
Yurina.  "Worshippers of the Dark Lady, as well as adepts in
Shadow Magick, usually have one in their homes.  I don't suppose
you'd care to tell us where we could find such a place, Yurina?"
     "Certainly," Yurina replied primly.  "After midnight
tomorrow, I will be more than happy to deliver you to the
Nightmistress.  And our newly awakened goddess, of course."
     "Maybe you need a little persuasion," Uranus said darkly.
     "Forget it," Mars sighed.  "It will take too long to get her to
talk.  Believe me, I know."
     "I know where one of these is," V said quietly.  The memory was
not one of her fondest, but she put aside her unease.  This was too
important.  They still had to stop the Sisterhood from performing the
ceremony, not to mention finding this vampire.
     "You do?" Mars asked, clearly astonished.
     "It's just one unpleasant surprise after another," Uranus said
wryly.  "Tell us it isn't in your bedroom, pussycat."
     "It's in an estate," V informed her, failing for once to rise to
Haruka's flirtations.  "In the Highview district.  If the layout of the
city is the same as home, I'll be able to find it."
     "Highview," Pluto said darkly.  "That would take us close to
the palace.  Which, in this place, is occupied by the succubi and their
queen."
     "Well," V shrugged, "I didn't say it was a perfect plan.  If
anyone has a better one, than I'd like to hear it."
     "Oh, Maia," Mars said sweetly.
     "What?" Maia asked, suspicion tainting her voice.
     "I'll bet you know the area around the Crimson Queen's
palace pretty well, don't you?"
     "No way," Maia sneered.  "You have no idea what will
happen to me if they catch me.  At least you'll die in ecstasy.
Eventually.  My death will be exceptionally horrible.  No, thanks."
     "Our deal was that we let you go once we reach a gate,"
Uranus pointed out.  "We're still sitting here.  Do you really think
we'll let you go?"
     "Anything's better than what that bitch will do to me," Maia
sniffed.
     "Anything?" Mars asked slowly.  "Even what, say, the Black
King would do to a captive succubus?"
     Maia froze, and V could see that the threat had teeth.
     "Hey," Maia said.  "Hey, now."
     "I guess we're in a kind of no-man's land here," Mars went
on.  "So if we can't head into the succubi's territory, we could head
the other way."
     "You don't want to get caught by incubi!" Maia protested.
     "Not us," Uranus grinned, leaning down to gaze into the
captive's eyes.  "Just you.  We could leave you somewhere where
you'd be found.  I mean, since you don't want to go with us."
     "You evil bitch," Maia said, sounding like she was equal parts
appalled and impressed.
     "You," Uranus told her, "have no idea.  So?  I really hate this
place, red.  What's it going to be?"
     "All right," Maia said at last, eyes darting around the room.
"I escaped from the Velvet Guard once, I can do it again."
     "Velvet Guard?" V asked.
     "Her enforcers," Maia spat.  "They do Her dirty work.  In
return, they get to play with the slaves and even venture with Her into
the human world."
     "Swell," V said.  "I take it you won't object if we kill any we
come across?"
     "Not at all," Maia replied, seemingly cheered by the thought.
     "Our best bet is stealth," Pluto cautioned.  "We will have to
come close to the enemy's stronghold.  And it is possible they will
detect our attempts to use this magick circle.  We will have to stay
together and move quickly."
     "I've got to get a look at the area from up high," V
announced.  "See if I can get my bearings."
     "I'll come with you," Mars said quickly.
     "Yeah, that sounds like an idea," Ranma added with a wary
glance towards Maia.  Together the three of them trooped out of the
chamber, leaving Uranus and Pluto to watch the prisoners.
     "Okay, what's up?" Mars asked as Deimos jumped from her
shoulder, winging ahead.
     "What do you mean?" V asked airily.  She knew what was
coming, and she had her strategy all worked out.
     "This estate," Mars pressed.  "The one with a circle.  What is
it?  And, more importantly, how did you know about it?"
     "Come on, Mars, how do you think?  I robbed the place," V
said with a wink.  V had always been an accomplished liar when the
need arose, and she put just the right amount of casual disregard into
the reply.  There was no way she wanted to tell Mars the truth.
     "Robbed it?" Ranma echoed.
     "I was a cat burglar, remember?" V told him with a wicked
grin.  "I found all sorts of interesting things during my late-night
perambulations, hon ..."
     "And this estate just happened to have a Circle of Veneration
dedicated to dark magicks," Mars said, eyes narrowed.  Damn that
girl, always so suspicious.  But V knew that the best lies mixed in just
enough truth to divert the eye from the weak spots.
     "I suppose it's not unusual to find one in the home of a Tyrian
noble," V allowed.
     "What?" Mars blurted.  "You robbed a Tyrian noble?  Are
you insane?  Do you know what would have happened if you'd been
caught?"
     "Well, being turned over to the police would have been the
least of my concerns," V said nonchalantly.  "Kind of why I targeted
the place, you know?  I despise that typical Tyrian arrogance.  They
flout our laws, why shouldn't they pay?"
     "You are unbelievable," Mars muttered darkly, shaking her
head.  "If you'd been caught, you'd be in a slave market in Tyria by
now."
     "Coulda, shoulda, woulda," V breezed cheerily.  "Say, Mars,
correct me if I'm wrong, but when you were scrapping with Maia the
wonder wench back there, was that technique you used what I think it
was?"  V gazed deeply into Mars' eyes, wanting to get off the subject
of the Tyrian estate before Mars decided to press the matter any
further.
     "Oh," Mars said, almost looking abashed.  "That.  Yes, it
was."
     "Technique?" Ranma said, perking up.
     "The Siquiein," Mars replied, albeit reluctantly.
     "You told me it was for punishment," V pointed out.
     "Well, it is useful in that regard," Mars sighed.  "Especially the
twenty-three minor forms.  The major forms, however, were devised as
a way to combat and subdue succubi."
     "Cool," V said, tugging at the brim of her cap.  "There much call for
that?"
     "There are certain potions and spells which require the blood
of a living succubus taken in the throes of passion," Mars admitted.  "It
is rumoured that the secrets of the Siquiein were given to the Dark Lady
by the same mysterious stranger who passed on the art of the tattoo
Yurina bears.  I can't imagine that this Crimson Queen would be
pleased to find either Yurina or myself in her realm.  Succubi like to
do the controlling, not the other way around.  During our training, we
were warned that they kill mortals who possess this knowledge to keep
it from spreading."
     "Lucky for the Sisterhood that succubi aren't a power in our
world right now," V pointed out.  "Though if Maia is telling the truth,
the Crimson Queen has been visiting us on the sly."
     "She's smart," Mars mused.  "Keeping a low profile.  If
creatures like succubi attracted the same kind of attention that
vampires once did, they'd be hunted to extinction.  As it is, there are
no real policies for dealing with them, at least in the kingdom, because
they're so rare.  Some people even believe they are total myth."
     They emerged into the red-tinged darkness, and V began
casting about for a vantage point.
     "There," she said softly.  "That'll do.  If we're still near where
we were when we got thrown here, this should not take long."
     "All clear, Lady Mars," Deimos announced, flying down to
meet them.  "For the time being, anyway."
     "Mars, can you and Deimos keep watch from here?" V asked.
"I'll take Ranma up there.  That way I'll be covered."
     "Caution," Mars said ruefully.  "I approve."
     V blew the pair a kiss as she led Ranma along a narrow alley
towards a nearby square.  The thought of the Tyrian estate was
constantly in the back of her mind, and she kept it there.  Discipline,
Aino, she told herself sternly.  Don't let fear control you.  This has to
be done, so do it.
     "This technique," Ranma said hesitantly.
     "Hmmm?" V murmured.
     "The Siquiein.  It really works against these succubuses?"
     "Succubi.  And yes, as you saw, it does," V told him.
     "Do you think she would teach it to me?" Ranma asked.  V
took one look at his earnest expression and started laughing.
     "What?" Ranma demanded, cheeks reddening.
     "I was just ... picturing that," V snickered.  Ranma apparently
did not grasp just what the Siquiein was.  Still, this had possibilities.
Apparently, Ranma had been unnerved by his encounter with the
unearthly carnal powers of the succubus.  And the thought of Rei
teaching Ranma the Siquiein gave V a pleasurable tingle that
momentarily chased thoughts of the estate away.
     "Never mind," Ranma mumbled.
     "No, I think it's a good idea," V said encouragingly.  "I'll ask
her for you, if you like."
     "You will?  Hey, thanks," Ranma beamed.
     "You got it.  Now, you take up station here and watch my
backside.  Literally AND figuratively, of course."
     "Got it.  Hey," he said as she turned to go.
     "Yeah?" she asked.
     "About this estate," he said.  "That was a good story you told
Mars, and I guess your business is your business."
     V gaped at him.  She had convinced Mars, but it had never
occurred to her that Ranma, of all people, might sense she was lying.
She stood there a moment, unnerved by his steady gaze, but just as she
opened her mouth to issue a flippant denial of any knowledge what he
was on about, he held up a hand.
     "All I want to know is this," he said, eyes blazing in the odd
light of Nemesis.  "How serious should I treat things when we get
there?"
     V watched him, an odd lump forming in her throat.  When, not
if, they arrived.  He did not doubt her ability, and for this she was
grateful.
     "Ranma," she said sombrely.  "You know the way you treat
the monsters in the city?"
     "Uh-huh."
     "Well, there are guards in this place.  Treat them as monsters.
Do not, under any circumstances, allow yourself to be taken prisoner."
     "Got it," he said with a faint, crooked grin, and she was
pleased to see that he did.  "Okay, go do your thing."
     She turned to go again, then turned back and pressed her
mouth against his, lingering close to the softness of his lips before
finally pulling away to gaze deeply into his startled sapphire eyes.
     "In case nobody's ever told you this before, Ranma," she
whispered, "you're one in a million."
     Then she was gone, the taste of him burning softly on her
mouth.

***

     "Princess," Michiru said warmly.
     "Hey, Michiru," Usagi replied, tugging on one of her
ponytails.
     "How is Ami coming with her portal?"
     "She's getting there," Usagi assured the older girl.  "Have you
seen Hotaru anywhere?"
     "She's in the study," Michiru told her, suddenly watchful.
"Why?"
     "I need to talk to her.  Things need to be brought out into the
open, you know?"
     "I do," Michiru replied with a smile.  "And I'm glad to see
you taking the initiative.  Just ..."
     "What?"
     "I know things have been uncomfortable, Usagi," Michiru
sighed, moving closer to the girl.  Usagi felt a rush of memory as she
was enfolded in Michiru's delicate perfume; she had missed being
around the Outers.  "And I know that Hotaru hasn't helped things, but
I would ask you to remember that this has been hard for her, too.  Her
shame over what happened runs deep, and she deals with that by
cutting herself off from everyone, and from her own feelings.  She's
my friend, and I haven't been able to help her with this.  I know,
Princess, that you can."
     "You have a lot of faith in me, Michiru," Usagi said ruefully.
"I've never been too good at talking to her."
     "Your feelings for her will lead you, little one," Michiru
assured her, brushing a lock of blonde hair out of Usagi's eyes.  "That
is your greatest strength.  I'm going to check up on Ami.  Good luck."
     "Thanks," Usagi said with a grateful smile.  She watched
Michiru move gracefully down the hallway, then turned and went
looking for the study.
     I should have asked her where it was, Usagi thought as she
poked her nose into the kitchen, laundry room, pantry and two spare
bedrooms.  Finally she opened a door and found herself in a cozy
room.  The wall opposite the door was mostly window, showing the
pale light of the day through translucent curtains.  One wall was
dominated by a large stone fireplace, and the other two contained
bookshelves.
     Hotaru was standing beside a small, tidy desk, hands clasped
behind her back as she stared moodily out the window.  She turned as
Usagi entered, and the younger girl was stricken anew at how lonely
Hotaru always seemed to look when caught unawares.  The woman
took a lot on herself, and even though she trusted Michiru, Haruka,
and Setsuna, Usagi sensed that she shared very little of her burden.
     "Is it time?" Hotaru asked curtly, that mask of cool
detachment falling easily into place.
     "No," Usagi replied, closing the door behind her.  "I just
wanted to talk to you."
     "Alone?" Hotaru asked, bitterness lending a harsh edge to her
words.  "Well, you always were a slow learner."
     The words struck home.  The last time Usagi had been alone
with Hotaru had been in a room much like this one, only larger.  And
that encounter had ended very badly.  For both of them.  Usagi sensed
that the bitterness in Hotaru's tone wasn't directed at her, but rather
inwards at Hotaru herself.  Usagi had run away and ended up in the
arms of her loving senshi, in the end.  But Hotaru? She still had to live
with her personal darkness and its destructive hunger.
     Usagi wanted very badly to just hug Hotaru, to take the
woman in her arms and tell her that everything would be all right.
Then she remembered Michiru's words, and felt something within her
unknot.  This was not a complicated situation, not really.
     She strode across the floor and flung her arms around Hotaru's
neck, hugging the woman fiercely.  Hotaru stiffened, clearly caught
off-guard by the impulsive act, but Usagi didn't mind.  She had been
carried in Hotaru's arms before, and remembered this warmth, this
scent.  Glossy highlights gleamed in the woman's dark, shoulder
length hair, and Usagi's nose bumped one of Hotaru's long sliver
earrings as she squeezed the woman tightly.
     "Hotaru," she whispered, "I really missed you.  You smell like
home."
     A small shudder went through Hotaru's lithe frame, and Usagi
heard the tiny gasp that escaped the woman's iron control.  Usagi let
out a happy sigh, resting her head on Hotaru's shoulder, remembering
all the small kindnesses that this stern woman had let show since
taking her in.  Even as she'd tried to remain the remote authority
figure, Hotaru had let glimpses of her more tender nature show
through just often enough that Usagi knew the ice-queen was a facade.
Usagi had been able to see that this woman had to fight to present the
world such a cool front, and now she knew why Hotaru tried to hide
herself.  But she did not have to hide from Usagi, not anymore.  The
truth did not frighten Usagi, nor did it repulse her.  Hotaru was Hotaru,
vampiric blood notwithstanding.
     So Usagi stood there, clinging to Hotaru, eyes closed.  And
finally, after what seemed like hours, she felt the tentative touch of
Hotaru's hands on her back.
     "Idiot," Hotaru whispered, her voice thick.  "Look at you.  No
thought for your own safety.  Didn't I teach you better than that?"
     "I don't need to be protected from you, Hotaru," Usagi replied
drowsily, nuzzling the woman's shoulder.  "I trust you with my life."
     Hotaru shuddered lightly, her hands hovering lightly at Usagi's
shoulders.  "No matter how good your intentions, you can't ignore the
truth," Hotaru breathed at last, her hands tightening gently but firmly
and pushing Usagi away far enough that the girl was forced to meet her
gaze.  Those bottomless violet eyes had finally melted, deep currents
swirling in a maelstrom of emotion.  "I am dangerous to those around
me, Usagi.  I always will be.  You can't change that with one of your
smiles, or your belief that everything will work out in the end."
     "You tried to tell me to go that night," Usagi replied softly.  "If I had
listened, things would have been different.  No matter what, Hotaru,
I'll always love you."
     Unlike Hotaru, Usagi had never experienced any hesitation in
expressing her feelings.  She knew that Hotaru was grateful for her
words and her demonstration of affection, even if she couldn't easily
show it.
     "Even after what I said?" Hotaru asked, her voice hoarse.
"Even after ... this?"  And she gently brushed her fingers against Usagi's
throat, which had once borne the mark of Hotaru's fangs.
     Taken by whimsy, Usagi hugged the woman again, this time
rubbing herself along the length of Hotaru's body and letting her
mouth rest against the taut flesh of the woman's neck.  She let her lips
part, and gently nipped the skin there, tasting salt as she flicked her
tongue playfully across it.  Then she pulled back with a giggle,
enjoying the Hotaru's shocked expression, and the hot flush on the
woman's alabaster cheeks.
     "There," Usagi purred coquettishly.  "Now we're even.  But
Minako is going to be so jealous that I've gotten further with you than
she has."
     "You little ..." Hotaru blurted, seemingly unable to decide
whether to be offended, shocked, amused, or titillated.  "You've been
hanging around Minako far too much!"
     "So?  She desperately wants to seduce you, you know," Usagi
confided, keeping her hands laced around Hotaru's neck and letting her
fingers play with the soft fall of hair.  "Well, not just her.  We do sort of
have an unofficial competition to see who will be first to bed you."
     Now, at last, amusement had definitely won out.  Usagi had missed
that expression on Hotaru's face.  "You girls have been talking to
Michiru again," Hotaru sniffed.  "Seducing a woman properly is not a
game for those who lack subtlety or patience, a lesson Miss Aino would
do well to learn."
     "I'll pass that along," Usagi told her, feeling a surge of exultation.
Hotaru was back; not cold, disciplinarian Hotaru, but the wry,
sometimes sarcastic Hotaru who had found them, trained them, and had
sat up all night the first time they'd ventured out without her.  This was
the woman Usagi had always wanted to impress, the woman she'd
always wanted to make proud.
     "Princess," Hotaru said softly, staring down into Usagi's eyes.
"You can't fix things so easily, you know.  This doesn't change what
happened.  It doesn't change the secrets, or the things I said.  Not
everyone is like you.  To forgive something so dark is not easy.  I hope
you can understand that.  Things will still be difficult."
     "You may be surprised," Usagi told her.
     "I have already been surprised," Hotaru sighed, a shadow
passing through her gorgeous eyes.  "Shadow Magick and Aethyr
ports?  It seems there is a lot I did not know about you."
     "We all had secrets, Hotaru," Usagi told her, willing the
woman to understand as she continued to cling to her.  "That was what
nearly tore us apart.  But it doesn't have to be that way."
     "You really do believe that, don't you?" Hotaru asked, shaking
her head and sending the blunt edge of her hair sliding over the backs
of Usagi's hands.  If it had been Minako, Usagi would have accused
her of doing it deliberately.
     "I know that I have a duty to all of you," Usagi replied, raising
her chin slightly.  "I have to be worthy of being the princess.  Everyone's
depending on me, so I have to do my best and not let them down.  It
would be easier if I had your help."
     "My help?" Hotaru echoed, mouth twisted into a wry grin.
"Usagi, I saw what you and your girls did at the police station.  You
have learned well the lessons you were taught.  Not only that, you
have inspired your girls to greater heights than I ever could.  I could
order them, but only you could command their unswerving loyalty."
     "Big trouble is coming, Hotaru," Usagi declared, her cheeks
warm from the uncharacteristic praise.  "We have to fight it together."
     "Nothing would please me more, Princess," Hotaru told her
with a small, genuine smile that kindled a glow in Usagi's heart.
     "Good.  Then let's go get our girls back and make a plan,"
Usagi beamed.  She let her arms slide from around Hotaru's neck,
grabbing the woman by the hand and pulling her from the room.
"Together, Hotaru, we can do anything!"
     The look on Hotaru's face in that moment was worth more
than all the gold in the kingdom.

***

     "It's quite something."
     Michiru looked at the circle Ami was inscribing on the basement
floor, marvelling at its beauty.  Ami looked up from her work, brushing
her hair from her eyes absently.
     "Michiru," she said.  "I'm, um, nearly done."
     "So I see," Michiru said warmly.  She approached the edge of
the circle, stopping and crossing her arms.  "Mind if I watch?"
     "No," Ami replied softly, cheeks turning pink.  The girl had
always been so easily flustered.  Michiru felt something of a bond with
her; they were, after all, the only two senshi who shared an elemental
power.  But Ami's shy reticence built a wall between the girl and others.
Usagi had breached it, somehow, and eventually so had Makoto, of all
people.  It still seemed hard for Ami to talk to others, though.
     "Usagi is talking with Hotaru," she informed the girl.  Ami
stopped, looking vaguely alarmed.
     "Is that ... I mean, Hotaru seems pretty upset," Ami said, worry
clouding her deep blue eyes.
     "Ami, Usagi told you about Hotaru's past, didn't she?" Michiru
asked.
     "Yes," Ami nodded, dropping her gaze.  "It was ... a terrible
thing that happened to her."
     "Yes, it was.  And it haunts her.  As do the events of that night.
Ami?  You must be angry with us.  With me."
     "No," Ami protested, but it was a reflex from a girl who never
wanted to cause a fuss.
     "I always tried to get you to open up to me, to trust me,"
Michiru went on, her voice soft.  "And, all that time, I kept such a thing
from you.  But you must realize, Hotaru is my dear friend.  She asked
us to keep her past a secret, and so we did.  I never wanted to hurt you."
     "I understand that," Ami replied, finally looking Michiru in the
eye.  "I do, Michiru.  I know it must have been hard.  Having secrets can
be ... a terrible burden."
     "Indeed," Michiru murmured, taking in the Aethyr port that
Ami was constructing.  "And here I thought I'd figured you all out.
Hubris, I suppose."
     "Why didn't ...?"  Ami broke off, biting her lip, and for a
moment Michiru thought that the girl would not continue.
     "Ami?"
     "Why didn't you ever come after us?" Ami asked at last, and
her eyes brimmed with turmoil when they rose to Michiru's once more.
"You gave up on us, after everything you said when you brought us all
together."
     Michiru wanted to go to the girl, to put her arms around her.
But Ami wouldn't respond well to that; she was the opposite of Minako
when it came to touching.  "We didn't give up, Ami.  I swear that we
didn't.  It seemed like the right thing to do, after what happened.  You
all needed some space ..."
     "We were all alone," Ami said quietly, and there was a depth in
her eyes that startled Michiru.  "Hotaru didn't come for us, and neither
did you.  Usagi came.  She came and brought us back together, and she
fought for us.  We fought for each other.  We aren't Hotaru's senshi any
more, Michiru.  We're Usagi's, because she earned the right to lead us.
Is Hotaru going to understand that?"
     Michiru was impressed with the girl's composure, and she
smiled.  They had all grown so much in such a short time, emerging
from their trial by fire stronger than before.  It touched her heart, and she
wished Haruka was here to see it with her.
     "She knows, Ami," Michiru breathed.  "I think things are finally
the way they should be.  But we all need to work together, Ami.
Together we are more than we are apart.  There are still raw emotions
between us, but I believe that we can heal those wounds.  Do you?"
     Ami looked up at her, thoughtful.
     "Yes, Michiru.  I believe that, too.  But it won't be easy."
     "Nothing worthwhile ever is, Ami," Michiru told her.  "And
there is nothing more worthwhile than all of us being together again."

***

     Makoto leaned over the bed as Yoshi stirred, smiling with
relief as his eyes opened, cool gray fixing on her slowly.
     "Hey," he said at last, voice rough.
     "Shhh," she murmured, taking a glass half-full of water from
the nightstand.  "Here, drink some.  Slowly."
     She tipped the glass up and he drank, then let his head fall
back against the pillow.  She mopped the little bit of water that had
spilled with a cloth, careful not to put any pressure near his injured
shoulder.  Then she tenderly brushed soft strands of blond hair from
his chiselled face.
     "So," he said hoarsely, a shadow of a grin flitting about his
mouth.  "Did I win?"
     "What do you think?" she shot back, a little more harshly than
she'd intended.  "You were shot, moron.  With silver.  You're lucky it
isn't worse."
     "No hospitals," he sighed, a grateful smile melting her brief
anger.  "You're the best, Makoto."
     "You could have died!" she gritted, her hands knotting into
fists.
     "You know the deal," he said, reaching up to grasp her fist in
his hand.  His grip was weak, but she didn't try to shake it off.
"They'd find me there.  They'd take me back."
     "I wouldn't let them," she swore, her throat tight.  "I'd never
let them."
     "You did the right thing," he told her, squeezing her hand.  "It
doesn't feel too bad, either.  Fae root?"
     "Yes," she said, letting her head hang so he wouldn't see the
tears that had welled up in her eyes.  He wouldn't be fooled, of course,
but he'd pretend not to see since she didn't want him to.
     "Nice work," he rumbled softly.  "Not easy to come by,
though.  You been keeping a supply?"
     "Rin," she said, meeting his eyes.  "Rin told me where to go.  I
don't know why he would help you, but he did."
     "Huh," Yoshi breathed.  "Yeah, that's Rin, all right."
     "What's that supposed to mean?"
     "His old man wasn't born a cat," Yoshi told her, closing his
eyes for a moment.  "He survived an attack.  Once upon a time, Rin's
old man was high in the Tier.  You didn't know?"
     "No," Makoto said softly.
     "Well, he had power and position, but the Tier doesn't do
business with shifters.  They certainly don't tolerate having a shifter
that knows secrets about their organization."
     "But it wasn't his fault!" Makoto objected.
     "These guys aren't big on fair play," Yoshi said dryly.  "Rin's
father, he went on the lam and survived for years by coming here.
One day, though, the Handymen found him.  They gunned him down
like an animal in broad daylight.  Used silver, natch.  Rin saw it from
where he was hiding.  He doesn't have much use for those who hunt
us with silver."
     "Oh," she said softly.  She had never wondered much about
Rin's past.  He'd always just struck her as a man who was used to
getting what he wanted.  It occurred to her to wonder how Yoshi knew
so much about Rin's past, but before she could ask she noticed the
sombre look in his eyes.
     "What is it?" she asked.  "What's wrong?"
     "Before I was shot," Yoshi said slowly, his pale gray eyes
searching her face, "I saw someone in that alley, someone I never
expected to ever see again."
     "Lily."  Her voice was flat, and Makoto absently marvelled at
how she could utter the girl's name without screaming.
     "So," he sighed heavily.  "I missed the end.  She dead?"
     "Got away," Makoto scowled.  "With the rest of the
Sisterhood trash.  But don't worry, Yosh.  I'm going to hunt the bitch
down and finish it."
     "Yeah," he breathed sourly.  "I know you are."
     "What's that supposed to mean?" she demanded, leaning over
him.  "That bitch killed my friends!  Your friends!"
     "Makoto, listen to me.  I knew Rufus a lot longer than you
did.  He played out of his league and he paid the price.  Lily was a liar
and a tramp, but she didn't kill anyone."
     "I can't believe I'm hearing this!" she blurted, icy shock
sheeting through her.  "Not from you, Yoshi!"
     "Listen to me, dammit!"  He grabbed her hand again with his good
one, and she was struck by the fever heat of his skin and the weakness
of his grip.  "What are you going to do, Makoto?  Huh?"
     "I'm going to do what I have to," she hissed, trying to pull her
hand free without hurting him.
     "You're not snot-nosed Makki anymore," he returned, his eyes
boring into hers.  "You're not a street-rat.  You know better than that
now."
     "What's this righteousness all of a sudden?" she cried, her
stomach knotted as she stared down into Yoshi's wan face.  "You
didn't hesitate back then, did you?  You were all too anxious to help
me track down that weasel Emmus!"
     "Oh, yeah," Yoshi whispered.  "Yeah, I was.  Because I stood
there too, Makoto.  I saw the bodies.  I smelled them.  I helped bury
them.  And I wanted that guy, too.  But I never should have let you do
it."
     "It was my duty," she said, stung.  "You know ..."
     "You want to know what I know?" he gritted, the tendons in
his neck standing out against the skin.  "I know that you blame
yourself.  You always did.  You still do.  You've clung to it all this
time, Makoto.  All this time.  And I let you kill that guy.  For revenge.
I put you on that path because I thought it would lay your demons to
rest."
     "Yoshi ..."
     "Dammit, girl!  Killing to protect yourself is one thing.  Cold-
blooded, man, that's something else.  It does something to a person, it
leaves a scar on your soul."
     "You did the right thing, Yoshi," she told him, confused and
frightened by his self-loathing.
     "No I didn't!  Dammit, Makoto, I was just a punk kid myself!
I had no freaking idea what I was doing!  I put you with that gang, I
put you there at the centre of the bullseye with a bunch of messed-up
kids that were never going to live to be adults, and you know why,
don't you?"
     "Stop it."
     "Because I'd been put through the blender, that's why!  I
couldn't trust the system, I was betrayed by my family, and the best I
could do for you was to give you an old abandoned rathole that was
freezing in the winter and unbearable in the summer!"
     "You saved me," she told him urgently, her voice thick as
tears began to burn.  "You did!"
             "Did I?  Makoto, I had no business dragging you into that.  I
knew Lily was trouble from the start, and it didn't take me long to
figure she'd end up playing Rufus for whatever she could.  I even
warned him, you know.  But the guy had rocks in his head, especially
when it came to women.  He just wouldn't listen."
     "She wouldn't have been there if it wasn't for me!"
     "If it hadn't been her, it would have been something else.
There were always guys on the street who were born losers, Makoto.  I
liked Rufus, but he just wasn't smart enough.  And hells, I wasn't
much better.  I didn't know what to do, so I let it alone.  Figured
maybe he'd get taught a lesson.  And then, THEN, what do I do in the
end?  I let you kill that guy.  In cold blood."
     "It wasn't cold," she whispered, a tear falling onto Yoshi's
chest.  He reached up tenderly to wipe it away, some of the bitter old
bile finally exorcised from his eyes.
     "I failed you," he said, voice wistful and forlorn.  "Everything
I did for you only made your life worse, and that was worst of all.  So
listen to me, Makoto.  She's not worth it.  Tracking her down after all
these years and killing her, it won't change anything, it won't bring a
single person back.  All it will do is leave another scar on your heart,
and I couldn't bear that."  He cupped her cheek in his hand, thumb
wiping at a tear which had coursed down her face, and she grasped his
wrist lightly.
     "I can't just let it go," she breathed, closing her eyes and
clinging to him.  "That can't be the right thing to do, to just let it go.
It can't be."
     "I'll tell you what's right," he replied hoarsely.  "Forgiving
yourself, that's right."  She laughed bitterly.  "I'm serious, Makoto.
You liked her and trusted her, and that isn't wrong.  She betrayed you,
not the other way around.  You didn't know.  So stop blaming yourself."
     "Just like that?" she asked in a small voice.  "Just stop?"
     "Yes," he said gently.  "Stop hating yourself.  Stop blaming
yourself.  You've carried this for way too long, little girl.  Put it
down."
     Makoto leaned down and rested her head on Yoshi's uninjured
shoulder, closing her eyes as his warm scent engulfed her.  His hand
came up and slipped around the back of her neck, and she gave a
tremulous sigh.
     "She should have to pay," she whispered.
     "I agree," Yoshi murmured, his voice a pleasant rumble in his
chest.  "But maybe she has been paying.  The look in her eyes when
she saw me, Makoto, she looked sick.  Just sick."
     "Afraid," Makoto sniffed.
     "Guilty," he clarified.  "And if she can feel guilt, then I have
to think she must be paying for what she did in some way."
     "Is that enough for you?" she asked, rubbing her nose against
his shoulder.  "Really?"
     "Maybe not," Yoshi sighed.  "But it's a start."
     They lay like that for a time, then finally Makoto stirred.
     "Emmus arranged things," she said softly.  "But he didn't kill
them alone.  Those others, Yoshi.  Did you?"
     "You know the answer to that, Makoto," he said, and his voice
was heavy with things that such a young man should never have to
know.
     "Scars," she mumbled.  "You keep trying to save me from
pain and heartbreak, but what about you?"
     "One thing at a time, Makoto," he told her, stroking her hair.
"One thing at a time."

***

     "Chief?"  Mamoru stuck his head in the door, stopping when he
saw that the room was occupied.
     "Yu with you?" Kaede Amagi asked.  When Mamoru nodded
she motioned him in and told Yu to shut the door.
     This was not the chief's office.  It was, apparently, the room
where old office furniture went to die.  There were stacks of broken
office chairs, a copier with its electronic guts hanging out, and a coffee
maker that may have predated the first Sidhe Wars.  Unfortunately, the
chief's office was in a part of the tower that had been badly damaged.
     Kaede sat behind a cluttered table that seemed to have decided
to put off collapsing for the time being.  One arm was in a hastily rigged
sling and a bandage adorned her forehead, but her eyes were clear.
Mamoru took a quick inventory of the room's other occupants.
Detectives Grissi and Flect he knew, giving them friendly nods.
Sergeant Carri was a twenty year veteran of the force, a woman who
commanded respect from everyone who knew anything of her record.
Stu Kayasami he knew, was a decorated officer, efficient and very
capable, if not especially well-liked by his peers, including Mamoru.
And Meaghan Piakesti, of course.
     "All right, that's everyone," the chief sighed.
     "Oh, boy," Yu enthused wryly.  "Are you recruiting us to be a
new vigilante super team, Chief? Do we get codenames and
everything?"
     "Yours should be "Slutboy", Yu," Grissi snickered, his dark
eyes lingering on the blond detective.
     "As it happens, I did call you all here to recruit you," the chief
said.  That shut everyone up.  Mamoru stared at her.  This day had been
a trial for everyone involved, and now that emergency services had
finally showed up in force the division was beginning to return to some
sort of running order.  But Mamoru could not think of anything so
important that the chief would want to meet with them now, with dead
and wounded still being pulled from different parts of this building.
     "Recruit us for what?" Kayasami asked.  He alone looked as
though he had not crawled through debris in the last hour, the overhead
lights gleaming on his gold tie pin.  "Something that does not have the
approval of Central Command, I take it?"
     "You take it correctly," Kaede conceded.  "Hear me out, people.
This is strictly off the record, and I know I can count on the discretion of
everyone here."  Mamoru frowned.  This was strange, and by the sudden
tension in the air of the cluttered room, the others agreed.  Still, he
agreed that everyone present could be trusted to keep quiet, save
perhaps Kayasami, but it was the chief's call.
     "Lay it on us, Chief," Yu said quietly.
     "We got hit today," Kaede began, her eyes darkening.  "Bad.  We lost
a lot of our people to this thing.  And by now, you've all heard the news.
Martial law.  Curfews, expanded powers for the police, and the presence
of military personnel on the streets for the duration of the emergency."
     "They are blaming the vampire," Kayasami said in his brusque,
no-nonsense way.  "Do you take issue with the Queen's assessment of
blame, Commander, or with her response?"
     "Gods, Stu," Yu said dryly.  "How tight is your ass, exactly?"
     "That will do," Kaede commanded before the verbal jousting
could begin in earnest.  "To answer your question, Detective, I really
don't have an issue one way or the other.  My issue is with politics."
     "You think the palace decided to cash in on this attack?" Grissi
asked.
     "Sure," Piakesti told them.  "A nice, high profile incident, and a
vampire's to blame.  None of the usual hand-wringing over invocation
of the EMA, and they don't have to admit that they've been chasing
their tails trying to track this bitch."
     "If it helps get the vamp, I could care less," Kaede told them.
"But whatever happens, we are going to be out of the loop.  If Royal
Operations or the expanded task force gets the vamp, we may never find
out the truth of what happened here.  So I have a request to make of all
of you.  This division is under my command.  The people who died here
today, they were my people.  The citizens who were slaughtered, they
were my responsibility.  I cannot just sit back and not know the truth.  I
will not."  She leaned forward, her gray eyes gleaming as she picked
each of them out in turn.  "All of you have come through for me in the
past.  As of now, I am going to put you all on special assignment."
     "I'm already tagged for the vamp task force," Flect spoke up,
her voice deeper than her petite frame would have indicated.  "Mamoru
and Yu as well."
     "I'll take care of that," the chief promised.  "With the EMA in
force, the task force will have as much manpower as it needs."
     "And what do we do, Chief?" Mamoru asked.
     "You, my friends, you hit the streets.  You dig, you ask questions,
you talk to contacts.  You find out the truth.  I want to know who was
behind this.  All that blood, all that destruction, it could very well be on
somebody's hands.  If it was the vamp, then fine.  But I'm an old
campaigner, and I know full well that there are agendas and egos
involved here.  I wish it weren't so, but I have it on good authority that
RO removed something from the main tower earlier."  Mamoru glanced
at Yu, who gave him a poker face in response.  The chief had been
standing next to Blessiruth, but Yu had not been able to get anything out
of the dapper wind-mage.
     "You think the palace will keep us in the dark?" Piakesti
scowled.
     "I think that they'll tell us what they think we need to know,"
Kaede replied heavily.  "But I need to know this.  I can't let it go.  I
won't.  That's why I need you.  There is nothing illegal here, kids, but it
is at least irregular, and if Central finds out there could be repercussions.
If you feel that your time would be better spent assisting the task force, I
won't force the issue.  This is a volunteer gig."
     "I'm in," Yu said simply.  The others, even Kayasami, all
agreed.  The chief smiled gratefully.
     "All right," she said softly.  "Keep in mind, this may lead back
to the vampire.  If it doesn't, it will lead someplace dangerous.  I don't
want any dead heroes.  Meaghan?"
     "Chief?"
     "Dasidan Masters will be out of action for a few days at least.
That means you are in charge of the ETF team.  If this rabble finds
anything, I may need to call on your people for back-up."
     "We'll be ready, Chief," Piakesti promised.  "Count on it.
Whoever did this, they're going to pay."
     "I appreciate this," the chief sighed, shoulders slumping.  "All of
you."
     "Count on us, Chief," Yu told her.  "This is our division, too,
and these are our people.  We'll find out what in the hells went on."
     "Good," Kaede Amagi said with a fierce smile.  "Because when
you do, there is going to be a reckoning like this city has never seen."

***

     I hated this place.
     I hated the weird red light from the moon Mars called
Nemesis.  I hated the bad-ass creatures that lived here.  And I hated
having to be anywhere near Lily or Yurina, or whatever her name
was, and most of all I hated succubuses.  Succubi.  Whatever.
     I glanced back and caught Maia looking at me the way a
starving man would look at a roast.  I didn't much like that look.  I'd
considered trying to find some water and changing into a girl, but
Mars had said that it would be handy to have at least one male if any
incubi attacked.
     Swell.
     If their power was anything like Maia's, we could be in
trouble.  I remembered being knocked to the ground by her.  I
remembered the feel of her against me, a scent that seemed to reach
into the darkest part of my brain, unleashing a raw sexual need I
hadn't known I possessed.  Mostly, I remembered having no control,
not wanting to fight back against her.  That was the creepiest part of
all, seeing all the openings for close-quarters strikes yet being unable
to lift my arms, feeling white-hot need in my belly as she growled in
her throat.
     Okay, I wasn't exactly experienced in the area of sex, but the
memory of that encounter gave me shivers, and not the pleasant kind.
Part of me wanted to kill Maia.  Part of me was afraid that, if I got
that close to her, I wouldn't be able to.
     The memory was unnerving, but there was a part of me that
had liked it, and I think that scared me most of all.
     I forged ahead, scouting our path.  Three times now we'd had
to hide to avoid flying patrols of succubi.  Maia and Yurina had been
thoroughly threatened, but apparently neither of them wanted to be
caught by the Crimson Queen any more than we did, and both were on
their best behaviour.
     Deimos fluttered up to me, landing on my shoulder as I crept
through the deep shadows around a block of buildings.  The ones in
no-man's land had been stone, but as we neared the palace more of
them were made of dark crystal and marble.  I didn't get this whole
thing about the city reflecting Saeni, but I was leaving the spooky stuff
up to the experts.  Just give me something to hit and I'd be happy.
     "V says you're getting too far ahead," Deimos said, clinging
easily to my coat.
     "She worries too much," I said curtly.
     "Hey, tough guy," Deimos snapped.  "The girl is worried
about you.  Try to appreciate it, would you?  It's not her fault you're
upset about that whole succubus thing!
     "I'm not ...!" I began, then bit my tongue.  Hell, truth is I was
still feeling the humiliation of having been so easily bested.  If the
others hadn't come along, I wouldn't have been able to fight her off.
And Deimos was right, there was no sense in taking my frustration out
on everybody else.  But logic was one thing, feelings something else
altogether.  So I shut up, and Deimos sighed.
     "Whoa," she said suddenly, looking ahead.  "What's that?"
     I couldn't tell, not until I got closer.  Then my stomach clenched.
     "Call the others," I said, my mouth dry.  Soon they joined us, Mars
and V first, then the others.  Maia's wrists and wingtips were bound with
Mars' wards, but I still didn't trust her.
     "An arm?" Uranus scowled, looking at the thing in front of me.
     "Yeah, human," I told her.  "Female.  And I think I know
whose.  Recognize that gun?"
     "Jade."  Yurina's voice was quiet, breathy, and when I looked at
her I saw her eyes were wide, her cheeks colourless.  I felt bad in that
moment; I hadn't thought of how seeing this would affect her.  She was
only human, after all, and she'd known this girl, been friends with her
maybe.  Certainly they'd been comrades.  I'd started thinking of her as
the enemy, somehow beneath contempt.  And it was easy, so easy, to
think that way.
     Mars knelt carefully by the severed arm.  The flesh at the shoulder
was ragged, torn, like by teeth or claws.  Not much blood around the
arm; I wasn't sure if that was a good sign or a bad one.
     "Shell casings," Mars noted, looking around.  "Lots of them.  She
emptied the gun, looks like."
     "I didn't know the Sisters used guns," V said, glancing at the
arm and then away.  The fingernails of Jade's hand were still perfect,
long and painted, as if she'd been on her way to a party.  It was eerie,
really, looking at an arm that way, divorced from the person it had
belonged to.  It didn't look real.  But it was.
     "She failed her test," Mars sighed.  "She was a Maiden.  And the
Sisterhood uses whatever tools they can.  But it looks as though having
a gun didn't help Jade."
     "Lady Mars!"  Deimos had been wandering, and now came
winging back at full speed.  More trouble.  Just what we needed.
"Come!  Quickly!"
     We went, Uranus and Pluto keeping the prisoners between them
as the rest of us went ahead.  When we rounded the corner, at first I
wasn't sure what we were looking at.  There were white mounds
scattered across the ground, like huge egg sacs or something.  When we
got closer, I had a flash of deja vu as I spotted a pasty arm jutting from
one of them.
     "What in the hells?" V muttered.
     "Body bags," Uranus told her, frowning as she took in the scene.
"Full.  About fifteen, I'd say."  Some of the bags were split, but they
didn't look as though anything with teeth or claws had been at them.
The one with the arm had split along where the zipper ran along the
side.  Weird.
     "Look at this," V exclaimed, crouching by the end of one of the
bags.  "This tag is marked SPD."
     "From the police morgue?" Pluto mused.  "That makes no
sense.  How did they get here?"
     All eyes turned to Maia, who scowled.
     "Don't look at me!" she snapped.  "I only like live men!  Dead
ones are no damned fun!"
     "Could your Crimson Queen have gone to the human world to
steal bodies?" Mars asked.
     "Sure," Maia shrugged.  "But why bother?"
     "Why indeed?" Pluto mused.  "Perhaps some Shadow beasts
answered the Genosphere's call and brought trophies back with them.
Another mystery, but for now we must concentrate on our plan.  Let's
continue."
     V and Mars headed out, with Deimos as lookout.  I glanced
back, catching Yurina as she looked back over her shoulder in the
direction of what was left of her friend.  Her eyes, usually so composed,
looked sad, and I couldn't help but feel a twinge.  I knew what it was
like to lose friends.
     And what about the others from the alley?  Had Saekianna
ended up as something's lunch?  Yurina had to be wondering that, but
when she turned back so I could see her face her features were carefully
composed again.
     We left the bodies where they lay.  What the hell, they were
already dead, and risking exposure by trying to bury them would have
been stupid.  I did wonder about the attack on the police station, though.
Had some monster taken the bodies and brought them here to eat later?
If so, I didn't want to meet it.  Jade might have, and if so it was probably
not still hungry, but I wasn't willing to take that chance.
     But in my mind's eye I saw another girl, one who'd lay stricken in a
pool of blood, waiting to be eaten by the thing that had chowed down on
my father.  So Jade was one of the Sisterhood.  She'd still been human.
If I met the monster that had killed her, I'd make it pay.  That was how it
was for me.  That was how it was always going to be.  For all the people
the monsters killed.  For all the pain they caused.
     For Akane.
     Forever.
     There was no activity where I was.  I had no idea how many
succubi there were, but from the amount of activity I'd seen they
seemed to mostly live in and around the huge palace with its soaring
crystal spires.  I moved through the clinging shadows and streamers of
mist, keeping my eyes open for succubi or Shadow beasts, but things
remained quiet.
     I caught up to V and Mars huddled at the end of a long narrow
laneway that emptied onto a broad boulevard.  We were leaving the
zone of closely packed buildings, and it looked like we would have to
spend at least some time moving through exposed areas.  Me, I wasn't
too thrilled about that.
     "Ranma," V murmured as I moved up to their position.  "Any
sign of trouble?"
     "No," I admitted.  "But I don't like the feel of this, not at all."
     "You're not the only one," Mars told me as Deimos jumped
over to her mistress's shoulder.  "Pluto is more than a little
concerned, as well."
     "Because traditionally, incubi and succubi were solitary predators,"
V remarked.  "They would haunt areas where they could pick off lone
travellers, or appear in the woods at night to lure the unwary into their
embrace."
     "All this about a Crimson Queen and a Black King is
troubling," Mars added.  "Pluto says she's never heard of either group
forming anything like a court before.  Yet we know that this Crimson
Queen even has her own personal guard.."
     "Yeah, the Velvet Guard," V noted.  "Cute name.  They sound
like a garage band or something."
     "For one succubus to have the power to rule over the others,
though, means there must be more to her than meets the eye," Mars
said grimly.  "Just how much power does she wield?"
     "Don't care," I pointed out.  "I just want to get out of this
place."
     "That's the spirit," V said with a wry smile.  "Unfortunately,
for us to have a chance at escaping, we have to go that way."
     She pointed out across the broad roadway, and I grimaced.
There were what looked like a series of walled estates stretching away
from where we were hiding, but there would only be limited cover
from airborne eyes.  In the real world, there would probably have been
trees and foliage, but I hadn't seen any here yet, just buildings that
nobody lived in and streets that nobody used.
     Creepy.
     Mars sent Deimos to fetch the others to our position, and soon they
arrived, Maia and Yurina still being kept in a cautious cordon by the
two senshi.
     "This is as close as we can get," Mars pointed out.  "From
here we have to pass through a pretty open area.  V?"
     "This will be Willowdan Way," V said, gesturing at the broad
road.  "Our best bet is to cut through that estate there, straight over to
Regal, then follow Regal up to where it intersects Vicintia.  Vicintia is
a smaller, tree-lined ... well, I guess no trees.  But from there it's not
far."
     "What can we expect on the estate grounds?" I asked.  "Any
guards, dogs or whatever?"
     "Nobody lives out here since the last big raid," Maia
answered, trying to catch my eye.  I deliberately turned away to study
the road.  "Too hard to defend.  There shouldn't be any activity at all.
I can't make guarantees about the Shadow beasties, though.  They
sometimes come this close to the palace.  They're a hungry lot, as
you've seen."
     "Okay," I told V, putting the image of that severed arm and those
body bags out of my head.  "I'll go first, jump the wall.  If it's clear I'll
open that little gate there and give you the signal."
     "If it's not?" Mars asked.
     "I'll lead any troublemakers away," I said easily.  This was
more my area of expertise; keep your sex demons and priestesses, just
give me something to fight.  At this point, I'd even take some of those
Shadow beasties.
     "I could go," Deimos pointed out.
     "You might not be able to open that gate," Mars frowned.  "It
looks pretty heavy.  Anyway, there aren't any birds here, so you
wouldn't be completely safe."
     "Oh, there are plenty of things that would eat her in one bite,"
Maia pointed out cheerfully.  Mars glowered.
     "So I'll go," I said again.  "I'm fast, and I can get the gate
open.  The longer we stay here, the more chance that something bad
stumbles across us.  If we end up fighting ghost doggies like before,
the ruckus will draw attention a lot sooner.  We're close enough to see
the towers of the palace, you know."
     There was a general sense of agreement, so I readied myself,
edged to the verge of the lane, then sprinted across the road, trying to
take in everything at once.  The air was cool, without the scents of our
world, and quiet.  I reached the high wall and sprang over neatly,
dropping to a soundless crouch on the other side.
     Nothing.
     The area was deserted.  There was a big main house, a smaller
house behind it, and a couple of sheds or storage buildings.  There
were ornamental pools and such as well, but there didn't appear to be
water in them.
     I waited for a few moments, but nothing moved, and finally I
eased along the base of the wall to the gate.  It wasn't even locked; the
handle turned easily.  I braced myself, expecting a metallic screech
from the long-unused hinges, but when I eased the door open it moved
both silently and easily.  A break.  How about that.
     I took a good look around to ensure that all was still quiet,
then signalled to the others.  The shadows were so deep that, had I not
known they were there, I never would have suspected the laneway was
occupied.  Good news again.
     They began crossing the street, V in the lead, then Mars, Maia,
Uranus, Yurina, and finally Pluto.   Silently I willed them to move
faster.  It would have been so much easier without the prisoners, but
nobody trusted Maia enough to let her go before we were gone from
this place, and her knowledge of the area might still be useful.  And
Yurina?  I had no idea how they were going to convince her that her
people were being used.  The best idea was probably just to show her,
but with Dragon all unhappy and stuff, I wasn't sure another trip to
Aethyr was a good idea anytime in the near future ...
     V was only about twenty feet away when I saw it.  Frantically
I began waving my arms, and when her head came up sharply I
pointed.  Something was moving through the air in the distance, low and
slow but coming our way.  I didn't think we'd been spotted yet, but we
definitely would be if we didn't do something.  V brushed by me at a
dead run, flattening herself against the inside of the high wall.  Mars
was next.  Maia stumbled; her hands were still bound behind her back
by Mars' fancy wards, and the tips of her wings were stuck together as
well.  That was bad, since it looked like she was trying to spread them
to help her balance.  Uranus sped up, grabbing the red-headed
succubus before she could fall and half-carried her through the gate.
     I could see forms now, three of them sailing through the air.
They were still too far away to make out any details, but I thought
they looked female.  Succubi, then.  Hardly unexpected.  Something
was wrong with that picture, though ...
     Aw, shit.
     I increased the urgency of my waving, and Pluto seemed to
sense that there were only seconds now before she was spotted.  She
slung her staff with one hand, speeding up to grab Yurina.  Long legs
flashing, she scooped the girl into her arms and carried her easily across
the intervening space, skidding through the gate and thrusting the girl
against the wall as if she had become red-hot.  Yurina stumbled, then
slid down the wall, giving Pluto a strange look as she did so.  I closed
the gate as much as I dared, then joined the others huddled against the
high wall of dark, smooth stone.  V shot me a look, but I put my finger
against my lips.
     We waited, barely daring to breathe.  There was no sound, no
wind, nothing but the tension that sang in the spaces between our
bodies.  It seemed that we were too close to both Maia and Yurina for
comfort, but both seemed less than inclined to risk capture by trying
anything cute.
     I tried to work out about how long it would take them to reach
our position.  I didn't want to jump the gun; if I popped out to check if
they were gone just a little too soon, we'd have an ugly situation on
our hands.
     As it turned out, though, I needn't have worried about that.
They quite obligingly flew almost directly over us.
     I felt the tension ratcheting up a few notches.  If any of them
looked down, they'd see us.  As it was, they seemed more intent on
checking behind them, which was probably why they hadn't spotted us
on the street.  They continued on, dark hair streaming behind them as
they sailed silently through the crimson light.  I didn't take my eyes
off them until they had flown out of sight.  It was some time after that
before anyone spoke.
     "No wings," Uranus breathed.  "Not succubi?"
     "Those?" Maia spat.  "Hah!  Blood wraiths.  They've been
passing through our territory recently.  Driving the queen mad, I bet."
     "She's not the only one," Mars said darkly.  Then she glanced
at Yurina, and didn't say anything more.
     "That was close," V sighed, taking off her cap and shaking her
hair out.  "Man, what I wouldn't give for a few trees.  This
neighbourhood is lousy with them, you know.  Cover's great."
     "Do you usually classify neighbourhoods by how much cover
they have?" Uranus asked with a raised eyebrow.
     "Come on, people," Pluto said softly.  "We can't stay here.
It's too exposed.  We're committed now."
     "I'll take point," I told them.  Before I could go, however,
Mars gave a soft cry and fell back, bumping Maia.  Maia had no one
to catch her this time; Uranus, Pluto, and V all moved to catch their
fellow senshi, leaving  Maia to fall with an ungainly squawk, nearly
landing in Yurina's lap.
     "Mars, what is it?" V demanded as Deimos leapt into the air
and spread her wings.  It became quickly apparent what was going on,
though, as Mars' shadow shrank and inky tendrils began to writhe
across the girl's pale skin.
     "Ami," Mars gasped.  "She's reaching out ... she ..."
     Mars closed her eyes, and Uranus supported her from one side,
V from the other.  Pluto noticed that I was keeping an eye on our
prisoners, and busied herself with scanning the sky.  As V whispered
urgently to Mars, I noticed something.  When Maia had fallen, her tail
had ended up across Yurina's lap.  That didn't seem to bother Yurina
at all; in fact, as I watched, she took the tail in her hands and began
stroking its length slowly.  Maia stiffened, but made no attempt to pull
away.  Slowly her eyes lidded and a faint flush rose to her cheeks.  She
seemed like a cat getting its ears scratched.  Kind of.  She definitely
enjoyed it, that was for sure.  I couldn't think of a reason to tell
Yurina to stop, but watching was definitely beginning to make me
uncomfortable.
     "Lady Mars!"  Deimos's voice called my attention back, and I
watched as Mars straightened up, smiling gratefully at her fellow
senshi.
     "Sorry," she murmured.  "That took me by surprise."
     "Us, too," V grumbled.  "What's up?"
     "She managed to make contact with me," Mars told us.  "I had
time to let her know where we were heading.  I'm thinking it might
not be a bad idea to have reinforcements waiting when we get back,
just in case."
     I noticed that she said "when", not "if", we got back.
Optimism really was a grand thing.  I also noticed that Maia had
moved her tail, though she still looked like she might start purring at
any second.
     "You told them to be careful, right?" V asked, more sharply
than she should have.  I was beginning to have a very bad feeling
about this place we were going to.
     "They aren't going to enter the estate, if that's what you
mean," Mars replied, looking puzzled.  "Relax."
     "I'll relax when we're out of this place," V grumbled, walking
away a short distance.
     "Hey, folks," Uranus muttered, looking up at the bloated
crimson moon high overhead.  "Time's wasting.  Let's get this show
on the road, shall we?"
     I took the point again.  Not only did we have to look out for
succubi, incubi, and Shadow creatures, now the vampire's wraiths
were here, too.
     I was with V on this one.  The sooner we got the hell out, the
better.  Our luck had held so far, but it was bound to run out sooner or
later.
     Hopefully much, much later.

***

     Ami shook her head.  The dark, erotic sensations had returned in
force, burning sweetly within her flesh, and she swallowed hard as she
fought to rein them in.
     "So?" Hotaru asked.  Ami took in the sight of Usagi and Hotaru
standing side by side, and she was struck again by how easy they
seemed in each other's presence now.  Just how Usagi could have
managed such a thing she did not know.  Ami had no talent for talking
to people, for healing their hurts and drawing out their light.  That was
pure Usagi.
     She was glad, though, that the princess had gotten through to
Hotaru.  Judging by the look on Michiru's face, she shared Ami's
feeling on that matter.
     "They have a plan," Ami told them, forcing herself to
concentrate as she walked out of the Aethyr port.  The fey desire burned
fitfully, but if Ami concentrated she could keep it under control.  Still,
what would she do if it refused to subside on its own?
     "A plan?" Hotaru asked, a tiny frown gracing her lips.  "What
sort of plan?"
     "I was only able to get a little of it," Ami confessed.  "But
apparently, they think they can cross some sort of bridge to an estate in
Highview.  I have the address."
     "Why would there be a bridge to Shadow Realm in an estate in
Highview?" Michiru asked.
     "That I don't know," Ami told them.  "But Rei wanted to have
us nearby in case there was trouble."
     "Then nearby we shall be," Hotaru said simply.  "We'll take
two cars.  Come on, ladies."
     Hotaru seemed pleased at the prospect of getting the others back,
but as Ami followed them upstairs, worry gnawed at her.  Rei had made
reference to prisoners, Sisterhood no doubt.  And Ami had sensed Rei's
mental state; the priestess was worried as well.
     "Ami?" Usagi murmured.  "Everything okay?"
     "I'll feel better when the others are back with us," Ami told her.
"What about Makoto?  Should we bring her?"
     "Yoshi seems to be doing okay," Usagi smiled.  "Artemis and
Luna can watch him.  We should all be there when the others return, in
case they need help."
     Ami nodded.  As it turned out, they met Makoto at the top of the
stairs.
     "We've got a lead!" Usagi crowed.  "We're going to get the
others!  Come on, Mako-chan!
     "Get them?" Makoto asked, frowning.  "From Shadow?"
     "From where they're going to cross!" Usagi beamed.
     "They indicated that there might be trouble," Ami added.  The
look in Makoto's eyes at that chilled Ami; the girl obviously thought
that trouble meant the Sisterhood, and Ami recalled her friend's voice as
she'd shrieked Lily's name.  What would they do if one of the prisoners
was that girl?
     "Trouble, huh?" Makoto said softly.
     "Artemis and Luna will take good care of him, Mako-chan,"
Usagi told her, touching the girl lightly on the arm.
     "He's awake, Princess," Makoto replied with a tired smile.  "It's
okay.  I'll get ready."
     Ami watched Makoto walk away, frowning.  Now that Yoshi
was out of danger, Makoto was going to want revenge on the
Sisterhood.  That was likely to cause another clash between her and Rei.
     "Ami," Usagi said, startling the girl out of her reverie.  "Don't
look so worried.  Everything is going to be okay now."
     Ami wasn't so sure, but she didn't want to worry her princess.
"I'm sure you're right," was all she said.

***

     Things started going wrong pretty much as soon as our
objective was in sight.
     "You're sure that's it?" I asked again.
     "I'm sure," V muttered, staring disconsolately at the ruins.
We stood ranked before the tumbled remains of the outer wall, staring
at the heaps of dark stone and crystal.  The main house was nothing
more than a big pile of crap, and according to V the circle we were
looking for had been in the basement.  So, unless we wanted to spend
some time digging, it looked like our escape hatch was a no-go.
     "So now what?" Uranus wanted to know.  "We can't get
back?"
     "Not this way," Mars sighed.
     "So unless we want to break into the palace, we're stuck?" V
asked.
     "You don't want to break into the palace," Maia said, looking
a bit panicked.  "Seriously.  That's crazy talk."
     "Well, we don't want to stay here," Mars began.  I cocked my
head.
     "Hey," I said.
     "We should get off this street," Pluto stated, looking around.
     "Hey," I repeated, a little louder.  "Anyone else hear that?"
     That got their attention.  Everyone fell silent, and the faint
sounds began to get louder.
     "Everybody move!" Uranus instructed, but it was too late.
Four succubi came soaring over head at high speed, and they spotted
us, quickly circling back.  One raised a gleaming metal curlicue to her
lips and blew, producing a loud, piercing wail.
     We ran towards the crumbled wall.  It would provide at least
some shelter from aerial attack.  As I looked up, though, I saw that
more were already on the way.  It turned out that they were chasing
something, and the ones above us scattered as a winged figure
swooped down, coming to a stop in the air above where we were
sheltering.
     So this was an incubus.  He was a big boy, all right; heavily
muscled but not too bulky.  His skin was pale, his long hair the same
black as his wings, and a pair of horns protruded from his forehead,
curling back like a ram's.  He was wearing what looked like a
loincloth and a loose vest, and some jewellery, but nothing else.  From
his vantage point he looked down at our group, pretty much dismissing
me as his black eyes flicked from one woman to the next with obvious
hunger.
     "So," he said.  Next to me, V shivered for no reason I could
see.  "Maybe this is my lucky day after all."
     "Forget it!" one of the flying succubi sneered.  There were
now at least a dozen in the air over us, all milling around.  Their
agility in the air would make them difficult to hit, that much was
clear.
     "The only place you're going," another added, tossing her
blonde hair smartly, "is to the foot of the queen's throne.  In chains,
intruder."
     "These morsels are all ours," added yet another flying beauty
with short, spiky dark hair.  This one carried a whip in one hand and
what looked like a weighted net in the other, and I realized that all of
the succubi were armed.  The incubus wasn't, but he didn't seem
worried.  In fact, he looked to be having the time of his life.
     "Come now!" he shouted with dark humour.  "So many of
you to catch one incubus?  Clearly you acknowledge my abilities,
ladies!  So I tell you what.  I'll just take two of the girls.  You keep
the others, plus the boy, and the captive, of course."
     "Maia," one of them hissed, her golden eyes picking our
unwilling guest out from the group.  "Well, our queen will be pleased.
We will feast tonight, my sisters.  I care not what happens to this oaf,
but I want the humans alive and unharmed.  And the boy," she added,
staring down at me, "is mine."
     "Let me go," Maia said urgently.  "I'll fight with you."
     "I don't trust you any farther than I could spit you!" V
snapped as the succubi traded insults with the lone incubus.  He was
right about one thing; they were in no hurry to charge him.  Waiting
for reinforcements?
     "If they catch me, it's a slow and very painful death," Maia
insisted.  "You don't have to trust me to know I'll fight them!"
     "Or turn on us," Uranus said darkly.
     "We can't just stay here and fight," I interrupted.  "They'll be
sending more troops.  We need to escape and find someplace to hole
up."
     And then it was too late for talking.  Shrieks filled the air as
the succubi suddenly dove, some heading for the incubus, others for
us.  V's beam lanced up into the air, flame following, and the succubi
abruptly pulled back.  The incubus merely laughed and took off over
the buildings with four of them in pursuit.  That left only eight for us,
but even as I had that thought I saw a large group fly in from the
direction of the palace.
     Damn.  More every second.  If we tried to run, they'd have a
free shot at us.  And we had no place to run to.  A plan would
definitely be good.  Definitely.
     Maia was still whining, promising to be good and fight for us,
but nobody was listening.  Frankly, I was all for cutting her loose.  I
didn't like having her around, and if she ran like I figured she would,
at least some of them might chase her.
     Now the groups were breaking up, the succubi whooping and
shrieking with maniacal glee as they soared through the air.  There
were enough of them now that it was hard to keep track, which was no
doubt the plan.
     "Well?" Uranus asked, watching the milling creatures
carefully.
     "We try to take them all out," Pluto replied, gripping her staff.
"That's they only option I see."
     One of the winged furies suddenly dropped towards us,
veering off at the last moment.  She had been a decoy for two others
who had swooped in while she held our attention, and Pluto and V
shot at them but missed.
     The little vixens were good.  They must have been used to
hunting prey on the ground.  And now even more were appearing to
join the fray.  This was going to get hairy.
     For the next few minutes they harassed us, swooping down to
try and draw fire.  I was pretty sure they were just sussing out our
defences; we were in a pretty good spot, but we couldn't hold out
forever.  I racked my brain trying to think of a plan.  The best I could
come up with was to split up into pairs and try to make a break for the
tangle of no-man's land, where we'd first appeared.  Of course, that
would leave Maia and Yurina to fend for themselves; Maia I wasn't
worried about, but Yurina was still human, no matter what she'd
done.  I wasn't going to be leaving her for the monsters.
     Two succubi swooped down low in front of us, shouting cat-
calls, and as Mars tried to hit one something came spinning in from
another angle.  It was one of those weighted nets, and as it hit her the
weights whipped around, wrapping the mesh tightly around her body.
She fell, and as V tried to run to her a long whip snared her arm,
nearly pulling her up into the air.  I sprang, tackling her to the ground
and pulling the whip loose as Uranus drove the culprit back, but now
they were closing from all sides, nets and whips falling in an attempt
to tangle us up.  I hauled V to her feet and we started flinging energy
into the sky as Pluto tried in vain to loosen the net from around a
struggling Mars.  I noticed Deimos right in there, trying to pry the
strands away from her mistress's body to no avail.
     "Pluto!" V shouted.  "Switch with me!"  Pluto was standing
near me seconds later, dark energy erupting from her staff as V knelt
and used her tightly focussed beam to cut at the net.
     Another net spun down at us, only to be shredded by Uranus's
attack, but still they came on, a storm of them coming from every
direction.  Something blurred by me, and I saw Maia, free from her
bonds, flying up into the fray.  A glance back showed Yurina
crouched near where Maia had been.  When she saw me, she smiled
and waved her sharp nails languidly.
     "Oh, I suppose now I am really in trouble," she sighed becomingly.
Well, she had a point.  Things weren't going to go particularly
swimmingly for her no matter what happened.
     And Maia was actually fighting, wresting a long pike from one
of the attackers and wounding her with it before swiping at another.
Mars was free now, but as she stood a succubus dropped nearly on top
of her.  V caught the attacker in the face with a blast of light, and the
creature flew back, shrieking.  That had been close, though, and they
were getting closer all the time.  Sweat trickled down my back, and
not all of it was from exertion.  I didn't want to end up as a playtoy for
a bunch of demon women.
     Options, though, seemed pretty slim.  I increased the ferocity
of my attacks, but a whip caught Pluto around the throat, and Uranus
had to grab her to keep her from being pulled away from our group.
A net caught V around the arm, and she flailed at it as more dropped
towards her.  Mars flung fire and wards all around as Deimos acted as
lookout, watching her blind side.  Long nails raked at my hair, and I
reached up and got a momentary purchase on the arm, twisted, heard a
scream.  Then that one was by me, and another dropped down,
flinging a flask of dark fluid at my eyes.  I ducked that, coincidentally
dodging a net that I hadn't seen coming.  I nearly tripped in the fallen
net though, righting myself in time to see Pluto on the ground with a
golden-skinned succubus on top of her, Uranus fighting one hand to
hand.
     They were all over us then, everywhere.  I fought with all the
viciousness I possessed, which was a lot more now than was once the
case, trying to ignore the hungry heat that rose in me at their nearness.
I managed to open an area around myself, but they were swarming us,
trying to take us down without doing any serious damage.
     We were losing.
     And then I heard it, even through the din of battle.  A faint
sound, naggingly familiar.  A sound like ... singing?
     Oh, yeah.  Now was a good time.  Clearly.
     One of them lunged at me, and the sight of her, the smell of
her, God, it made my blood burn.  Part of me didn't want to fight them
at all.  But there was another part inside me, the part that had never
stopped, not since that day I'd held a dying girl in my arms and promised
her, promised to never give up.  So I grabbed the succubus by the hair,
hammering her in the face and then throwing her into the crowd, my
heart racing from an elixir of unholy desire mixed with sheer terror.
     Nearby I could see V, her hat gone, a whip wrapped around
her throat.  The succubus with the spiky hair had her in a death grip
from behind, and was licking the blonde's ear as her gloved hands
tightened on the whip, cutting off V's air.  The senshi was clawing
weakly at the coils of the whip, but her struggles were fading fast.  I
launched myself through the crowd, rolling over the back of one
succubus moments before she was decked by Uranus, elbowing
another aside with a satisfying crunch.  I spun, sending my foot
straight out over V's shoulder, and the dark-haired succubus only had
time to grunt before she was gone.  I grabbed V, tearing the whip from
her throat.  She coughed and gagged and I supported her, lashing out
with elbows and feet as I tried to move us closer to the others.
     "Ranma," she whispered, supporting herself on my shoulder.
     "Don't talk!" I shouted.  Off to one side, a huge gout of flame
rose, making the screeching furies fall back.  They could retreat as
many times as they needed to.  They knew they had us; it was only a
matter of time.
     "Ranma," she repeated, voice hoarse and dry. "Look!"
     The noise level was subsiding now, and several of the succubi
took to the air again.  Suddenly blessed with space to breathe, I
glanced up to see what she was pointing at.
     And froze.
     It drifted through the sky of black and crimson, a phantom that
had defied all efforts at capture or understanding.  Its sleek hull
gleamed with odd quicksilver highlights in the bloody moonlight, dark
splotches ruining the liquid rush with their stark presence.  A
figurehead was visible on the bow, and I could see that the flag still
flew, that standard bearing the symbol of the Eye.
     The succubi saw it, too.  And they fell back, fear spreading
among them.
     "The Eye," they whispered, voices hushed with fearful
reverence.  "The EYE."
     Several flew up, but none approached it.  The rest split their
attention between us and the phantom airship, acting as though they
were unsure of how to proceed.
     "Lies!" cried one succubus, soaring to the front of the crowd.
She was the one who'd called dibs on me.  Her eyes were golden, her
lush hair gleaming metallic wheat-blonde streaked with black.  Even
from here, that traitorous part of me felt her pull, and I actually had to
bite down on my lip until it nearly bled to pull my eyes away from hers.
     "But Arianne," one of them muttered.  "That standard.  It is a
thing of the Eye."
     "A trick!" Arianne sneered.  "A petty glamour!  The Eye
doesn't see, the Eye doesn't know!  Its power is long past!  Will you
let ancient tales keep you from hot man-flesh?  From the winsome
cries of proud sorceresses?  Come, sisters!  Our prey awaits!"
     And they were gathering themselves to charge, but in that
instant I knew she was going to start singing again.  I just knew it.
And I knew one other thing, too.  I reached into my shirt and pulled it
out, letting it hand in front of me.  My feeling had been dead-on; the
key pulsed with light, beating rapidly in time with my heart.
     And I heard her.
 
     "The Eye doesn't see,
     The Eye doesn't know,
     It was blinded a long time ago,

     But the Wardens still know,
     And the Wardens still see,
     And now there's one who's found a Key."
 

     Wonderful.  Still, the spooky little songbird had distracted the
succubi for the moment; now, how to use that distraction?  The
succubi seemed suddenly leery of the key, but the longer I stood there
not doing anything with it, the stronger Arianne's case would become
in the eyes of the others.  They wouldn't attack Desidinder, but that
fact wasn't going to help us at all.
 
     "The Key sheds its light
     And that light leads the way
     Out of the darkness and back to the day,"

     Great, a new verse.  Just what I ...
     Hang on.
     I stared into the pulsing key as Uranus and Pluto held a
whispered conference.  I only barely registered their actions, though.
A thought had come to me, triggered by the song.  I had no idea if it
would work, and there were dangers to using the key, especially in
this place where the vampire's wraiths could go whenever they
wanted.  I knew one thing, though.  Any chance was better than none
at all.
     There was a moment of silence.  The ghost girl or whatever
she was had stopped singing, as if she'd told me what I needed to
know.  And maybe she had.  The succubi were still afraid, but even
though they couldn't take their frustrations out on Desidinder they still
had us, and Arianne was busy whipping them into a frenzy.
     It was now or never.
     "Hey, ladies!" I shouted.  "I got a message from the great Eye!
It's really, really pissed off!"  And I held the key out in front of me,
cupping it in one hand, holding the other over it.
     "Pretty lies from pretty man-flesh!" the one called Arianne
crowed.  "Will you let the boy taunt you, sisters?  Take him!"
     They surged forward, but I was ready.  "Everybody stick
close," I called over my shoulder, noticing that Maia was still alive
and had landed behind us.  Then I had eyes for nothing but the key.
     I summoned my chi, letting it arc between my hands the way I
did when preparing a chi-bolt.  But I didn't release it, just kept letting
it grow in intensity.  The key reacted, lifting into the space between
my hands slowly, its light blazing brighter and brighter.  That
shimmering blue nimbus began to expand past me, not illuminating a
gate as it had in the past when I'd travelled between worlds, but at the
very least creating a wicked lightshow.  The succubi cried out, their
charge dissolving into chaos as they broke away from the expanding
glow, each unwilling to be the first to see if it was harmful.
     I felt prickly heat all over my skin and pain began to throb at
my temples, but still I fed chi into the small space between my hands,
bathing the mysterious crystal in it, and it continued to blaze until it
seemed like I held a star before me.
     And then it happened.
     "Look!" V cried.  In the space before me, the dead black dirt
began to waver, and something appeared.  Grass.  Green, wonderful
grass faded into existence in a growing circle around me.  It was like
watching a photo develop or something, and the effect was spreading.
I gritted my teeth, aware that my aura was radiating in intense waves
around my body.  I couldn't stop now; I had no idea how much was
needed to break through.
     Someone didn't care to wait, though.  I heard shouting behind
me, then something streaked past me, disappearing into the watery
vision of well-tended grounds that was spreading like ripples from a
stone in front of me.  It had been Maia, and she had been carrying
Yurina.
     I didn't care much about that one way or the other.  There was
only one thing that mattered to me now.
     They had flown into the blue glow and not come out the other
side.  It was working.
     "She's getting away!" Mars shouted.
     "Screw it!" I yelled back.  "Everybody through, now!  I can't
hold it much longer!"
     Mars was past me with Deimos flying at her side, then Uranus
and Pluto.  The succubi were shrieking in rage, flying around in
ragged circles, some apparently blinded by the light, all clearly afraid
to approach it.
     "Ranma!"  V was at my side.  "Come on!  We've got to go!"
     She was right, but I felt something in that moment, and I tore
my gaze from the unreal scene before me to look up.  Through the
glow I saw Desidinder floating serenely through the air, a small
blonde girl standing at the rail.  Several of the succubi had apparently
decided that the ghost ship wasn't so scary after all, and were rising up
through the air, apparently intent on tearing apart the small,
vulnerable girl.  I could tell, even from that distance, that she was
looking at me.
     And I knew she was smiling.
     V had me by the arm, shouting into my ear.  She very
carefully did not try to move me, which was probably a very good
thing.  But I couldn't move.  It was as though holding the key at this
level of power, which I had never tried to use with it, I could feel
along a plane that I had never experienced before.  And so I felt it
before I saw it, the rush of power, the elemental fury, the heat and the
pressure and the presence.
     Then I saw it, silhouetted against Nemesis's bloody light.  A
shape in the sky, huge, winged, gleaming in places as if made of
metal.
     Dragon answered the shrieks of the succubi with a challenge
that shook the ground itself.
     It was time to go.

***

     When it came, it came with a force so great that Wynneth's
body snapped back into a trembling arch.  Her feet jerked across the
stone floor in a staccato dance, and her hand closed so tightly over the
crystal goblet of blood she had been sipping that the shards were
driven through her flesh.
     The vampiress convulsed in agony, dropping to the floor as the
world went away from her in a searing nova of blue light.  She knew
nothing but the pain and the sounds of her own screams echoing from
the cold stone walls and into her ears.
     The actinic blue energy seemed to slice through her, and she
became distantly aware of other screams rising from within her,
horrified, frightened, inhuman screams, screams separated from her
own thoughts by the bisecting blade of that hateful light.
     Inside the maelstrom of pain and brilliant, furious fire, she
suddenly knew one thing.  It was a small thing, but it came to her
when all other thought and will had abandoned her in that fearsome
vortex of light.  The screaming voice, the little voice she heard
sometimes inside her head, was not hers.
     Wynneth did not know that she had made this realization
before.  Nor did she know that she would no more recall it this time
than she had any of the others.
     Nor was she aware that, even had she retained this tidbit of
knowledge, it would not have made any difference.  Not now.
     Events had been brought to the brink.
     It was far, far too late to back away now.

***

     V stumbled, falling to the ground as blue light filled her
vision.  Her body tumbled across, not hard black dirt, but soft and
fragrant grass.  She lay still a moment, gasping for breath.  Someone
knelt beside her, and as her vision quickly cleared she realized it was
Ranma.  A wild smile leapt unbidden to her lips.
     He had done it.  They were free.
     Fire shot into the air, along with a fierce ball of black energy.
Shaking her head, V got to her feet and looked around.  They were
alone in a landscaped grove, the blue light gone.  None of the succubi
seemed to have made it through with them ...
     Damn.  It came to her just who the others must be shooting at,
and she searched the sky, but saw nothing.
     "Where did she go?" Uranus demanded angrily, hands raised.
     "That way, I think," Mars replied, shaking her head.
"Deimos, go!  Try to track her but do not make contact!"
     Deimos nodded and, moments later, had flown away and out
of sight.
     "Well, damn," Uranus said in disgust.  "I'm sorry, guys.  I
saw her behind us, but she'd been fighting the other succubi.  I didn't
expect her to do anything like that."
     "Expectations would have been pretty meaningless," Pluto
remarked wryly with a glance at Ranma.  "I don't say this often, but I
have absolutely no idea what just happened."
     V was about to enlighten her when she froze, the bottom
falling out of her stomach at dizzying speed.  If they had come from
Shadow Realm to their own in the same space as they had been
occupying, then they were ...
     "Hold it right there!"  Several men emerged from behind a
high, shaped hedge.  V knew it was the corner of a maze, knew what
lay beyond it.  She also knew that the weapons they held so
confidently were illegal in Altua.  Gan guns fired special spell rounds
that could either kill or incapacitate a target; both objectives were
accomplished in painful, inhumane ways.
     She knew she had to act, but for a moment, a horrible,
nightmarish moment, she just couldn't speak, couldn't breathe,
couldn't do anything but fight the urge to scream.  The others had
hesitated as well, clearly unwilling to use lethal force against estate
guards carrying out their duty.  That would be their undoing.  She had
to ... had to ...
     Ranma moved.  V jerked like electricity had been shot through
her; as usual, saying Ranma had moved was like saying the sun was
bright.  From kneeling with his head down, clearly spent, he exploded
upwards into the air, braid trailing him as he flew like an arrow.  One
of the guards spun to get a bead on the lithe martial artist as the others
covered them, but he had reckoned without Ranma's weirdly creative
tactical sense.  Instead of reaching the apex of his jump, where he
would be vulnerable, Ranma had aimed for an overhanging tree
branch.  He spun in the air, his feet hitting the branch, and instead of
flying high into the air, the feral boy used the branch to launch himself
at the guards.
     The one who had been tracking Ranma got a shot off, but only
hit the branch.  V saw the spell-bolt erupt into a blob of oily black
which instantly sent tendrils snaking along the branch, wrapping it in a
foul embrace.  The shot had galvanized the others, who scattered while
the guards had to choose between the two threats.  Ranma was the more
immediate problem; he hit the guard who had fired like a rocket,
flattening the man and sending his weapon pinwheeling through the
air.  Ranma spun and came up beside a second guard, who tried to
turn.  The Gan guns were long, though, and Ranma caught the barrel,
wrenching it out of the man's hands and cracking it over the
unfortunate guard's head.
     One of the guards managed to fire a shot in the direction of the other
senshi, then Ranma was in their midst.  There had been six guards, and
two were already down.  V started to move, cursing her momentary
weakness, but before she could get anywhere near the fight it was over.
The last guard sailed over her head, coming off on the bad side of an
encounter with a tree limb before slumping to the ground.
     "What is your problem?" Uranus gritted, advancing on
Ranma.  "That was unnecessary!  We could have talked our way out
of that!"
     "I don't think so," Ranma said calmly, looking at V.  She
remembered their conversation in Shadow and felt a warm flush wash
some of the vestigial cold away.  He had trusted in her word, just like
that.  The boy was a keeper.
     "Uranus," Pluto said as the blonde prepared another verbal
salvo.  "Come and look at this."
     Uranus glared at Ranma even as she moved to join the dusky-
skinned woman.  V and Ranma followed suit.  The shot that the guard
had managed to get off had missed everyone but hit a large statue on a
pedestal near the back of the grove.  Mars and Pluto were standing a
respectful distance away with expressions of distaste, and V soon saw
why.
     A similar black blob to the one on the tree branch had
hit a statue that appeared to be of a woman wearing some
sort of feathered headdress/mask and very little else.  The blob
had extended writhing tentacles which had wrapped around the
statue's naked limbs and neck.  Even as they watched, oily black
tendrils snaked up to the cold marble lips and tried to enter as others
flowed over sleek thighs and sought out ...
     "Okay, ewww," Ranma blurted, turning a brilliant shade of
crimson.  "What is that thing doing?"
     "What it knows how to do," Mars replied softly, eyes narrowed.  A
thick bulge of black remained on the abdomen, and as they watched a
single horrid eye appeared there, staring out at them with vacant malice.
     "Those were Gan guns," Pluto said in a low voice.
     "And they were loaded with Blackjells," Mars added.  "Very
nasty."  As they watched, Mars produced a ward and flung it at the
dreadful creature, hitting it in the eye.  Ripples went through the awful
black flesh and the tendrils began to recede, clinging stubbornly to the
stone victim for as long as possible until it finally fell free.  Then Mars
unleashed a sheet of fire upon the thing, and V watched with
satisfaction as it shrivelled up and fell in on itself, reduced to black
powder.
     "Another one on that tree branch," Ranma pointed out, and
Mars went to deal with it.
     "We should get out of here," Uranus muttered.  "I don't like
this one bit."
     "Agreed," Pluto nodded.  "We can drop a bug in the ear of the
local police about this later."
     They went to the nearby wall and jumped over.  Mars quickly
rejoined them, leaving another pile of black dust in her wake.
     "Let's go," she said curtly, striding past and flinging herself
over the wall.  V felt the girl's anger, and hoped it wasn't directed at
her.
     "Okay?" Ranma asked, and she felt a surge of absurd
gratitude at such a simple question.
     "Sure," she told him.  "Come on, let's get out of here."
     One smooth jump took her to the top of the wall, and she
glanced back to check for pursuit.  From this vantage, she could see
the main house, and to her surprise she saw it had been badly damaged
by something; fire, perhaps.  A large section was blocked off by
scaffolding and tarpaulins and seemed to be under repair; the damage
was not as extensive as it had been to the analogous structure in
Shadow, but it was bad enough.
     "Come on," Ranma called as he sailed past her.  "Company's
coming."
     In the distance she could hear sirens, and part of her wanted to
hang around and wait for the police to arrive.  But she knew from
experience what money and political influence could do.  Against
accusations from a bunch of costumed nutbars who at best would be
considered vigilantes, the weight carried by the lady of the house in
certain circles would be more than sufficient.
     Turning, she jumped down, joining the others.
     Daylight was wasting, and they were no closer to finding the
answers they needed to stop either the Sisterhood or the vampire.
     But at least they were alive, and free.

***

     It was good to be out of Shadow, but everybody still seemed to be on
edge.  Rei had questions for Minako, and Minako in turn was avoiding
Rei's gaze.  Deimos kept fluttering around, alternately ecstatic that she
could communicate with Phobos again and despondent that she hadn't
managed to find Maia.  Haruka was sharing her guarded gazes between
Rei, Minako, and me.  Setsuna may have had questions for the other
senshi, but at the moment she was interested in me alone.
     The others were already on their way, leaving us to hang
around this nearly deserted café with nothing to do but wonder what in
the hell had just happened.  Setsuna didn't appear content to wonder
quietly, leaning across the table to fix me with a disconcertingly direct
stare.
     "I have never seen anything like that crystal you used," she
said.  "And Crystal Magick was quite prevalent back in the White
Moon Court."
     "Oh, uh, yeah?" I managed cleverly.
     "And it almost appeared," she went on, "as though there was
some link between Desidinder and what happened.  I have heard many
tales of Desidinder's appearances, but the girl who sang that odd song
has never, to my knowledge, been linked with them.  A warden, she
said, and a key.  A key to open what?  Oddly enough, that crystal of
yours resembles a key somewhat, and it did open the way from, how
did it go?  'Darkness to day'?"
     "You know ..." Minako began brightly.
     "May I see it?" Setsuna went on.  I felt the full intensity of her
personality focussed on me, and it was making me pretty damned
nervous.  Also, I couldn't think of a good reason to say no.  The lone
employee had disappeared into the back, and everyone at the table had
seen the thing already.  Shrugging, I let my coat fall open.  My shirt
was still torn down the from where Maia had clawed me, but the
wounds were superficial, just scratches really.  I fished out the key,
which I had hung back around my neck, and let it dangle.
     "Setsuna," Rei murmured.  "Maybe this should wait until
later."
     "I am getting the impression," Setsuna replied absently as she
peered into the crystal depths, "that time is growing short, Rei.  And
this matter intrigues me.  Powered only by chi energy, this artifact
broke the barrier between Shadow and our realm.  It also seemed to
react to Desidinder.  I would very much like to hear more of it,
Ranma, and its history."  So saying, she reached out and touched the
key with her fingertip, crimson eyes narrowed thoughtfully.
     But not for long.  As her finger touched the surface of the key
she stiffened, eyes snapping open wide as her body went rigid as stone.
Then she let out a pained shriek, jerking back so forcefully that she
fell from her chair.  On the floor she curled into a ball, hands clasped
to her head and gasping raggedly.  Haruka shot to her feet, glaring as I
fell back in shock.
     "What did you do?" the blonde shouted, furious.
     "Nothing!" I protested.  "I didn't ... she just touched it!"
     Minako reached over from beside me and touched the key,
cupping it in her hand as Rei and Haruka knelt beside Setsuna.
     "Nothing," Minako announced.  "It's kind of warm, but that's
all."
     "Nothing to see here," Rei said briskly as the waitress poked
her head out of the back, drawn by the commotion.  "Migraine.
We've got it."  The girl looked unconvinced, but withdrew, clearly not
anxious to have to deal with anything more challenging than serving
teas and biscuits.  Haruka had pulled Setsuna's head into her lap and
was trying to talk to the woman.
     "What is it?  Setsuna, what's wrong?"
     "Gods," Setsuna gasped.  "That ... really ... hurt."
     "I don't understand," Rei frowned.  "We've touched it before.
Ami even scanned the key.  Nothing like this ever happened."
     I opened my mouth to say something, but just then someone
entered the shop through the front door.
     "Setsuna!"  A woman with shoulder-length hair as black as
Rei's ran forward, kneeling beside the others and taking Setsuna's
hand in hers.  "Are you all right?  What's wrong?"
     "I'll be fine, Hotaru" Setsuna assured her wanly.  "Just
proving that whole curiosity killing cats thing."
     Usagi was close behind, gasping as she caught sight of the
fallen woman.
     "Setsuna!"
     "I'm fine," she repeated, sounding a little stronger as Haruka
helped her to her feet.  "It was just the shock."
     "The shock of what?" Hotaru demanded, seeming to notice me
for the first time.  "And who is this?"
     "Not here," Setsuna interrupted before anyone could say
anything.  She gave me a rueful look.  "This should indeed wait until
we get back."
     "I ... very well," Hotaru said slowly, sending me another
distrustful glare as I tucked the key back inside my torn shirt.  "I must
tell you, ladies, I am very anxious to hear what transpired after you
disappeared from that alley."
     "Me, too," Usagi added, wrapping her arms around Rei and
kissing her lightly on the lips.  "I was worried."
     "A-HEM," Minako coughed.
     "About everyone," Usagi added, turning to embrace Minako.
The two blondes shared a lingering kiss that made Haruka grin and
Hotaru sigh.
     "Business before pleasure," Hotaru said brusquely.
     "Yes, Hotaru," Usagi replied obediently, but she stuck her
tongue out playfully behind the woman's back.
     Together we trooped outside.  There were two cars waiting, a
sleek red job and a larger, luxurious sedan with windows as dark as
the midnight paint.  A sophisticated beauty with waves of light green
hair and a light trenchcoat reclined against the fender of the red car,
smiling a tiny little enigmatic smile.  Makoto and Ami stood nearby.
Ami seemed to be trying to talk to Makoto, who looked sullen and
uncommunicative.  Then Ami looked our way, flushed, and looked
away quickly.
     It looked like it would be an interesting drive back.

***

     Wynneth awoke in a circle of her wraiths, all moaning
despondently as they surrounded their fallen mistress.  They parted for
Cyrie, who scurried up with a goblet of blood and knelt solicitously.
     "Mistress," the pale-haired woman whispered, submissively
offering the goblet.  "Were you attacked?  I ... we saw nothing.  I do
not ..."
     "Silence."  The word came out as a hoarse whisper, but
instantly silence settled on the chamber like a heavy cloak.  Wynneth
grasped the goblet and downed the still-warm blood; her latest victim
had lasted just long enough, it appeared.  She preferred drinking hot
blood from the throat, but she had been teaching Cyrie different
methods of bleeding a victim earlier, and apparently the stupid cow
had thought this approach would please her.
     Well, she would learn.  Wynneth drained the blood in one
long, hard pull, licking the last drops from her full lips and casting the
goblet away.  Her strength was returning and she rose with inhuman
poise, her minions kneeling as they watched their goddess rise.
     That had been unexpected.  She had felt her toy's discharge of
power in response to an attack, but apparently the reaction had been
stronger than she had counted on.  The girl with the key had clearly
used it within the confines of Shadow itself; not just used it, she had
summoned levels of power far beyond what Wynneth had previously
sensed.
     This could be troublesome.
     (No, she flails blindly.  She cannot stop what is to come)
     Wynneth tensed a moment, rubbing at her brow.  The
aftermath of the key's searing light pained her, that was all.  And her
inner confidence spoke truly.  Her plan had been spun out over
centuries, and the moment of fruition was close at hand.  The inertia of
the years carried all forward inexorably, and not even power such as
that wielded by the Warden could stop the climax she desired.
     "Cyrie," she said imperiously, striding through the worshipful
throng.  "Attend me."
     Cyrie fell in behind her immediately, and Wynneth smiled
cruelly.  Yes.  For now she commanded only these few pets, but soon
the entire world would cower at the foot of her blood-red throne.  They
would offer fealty to their new goddess, sacrificing the pinnacle of
beauty and power to her as their cries for succour went unheard.
     And soon, no power that existed would be able to stop her
ascension.  Not the White Moon Princess's, and not the Warden's.
     In the end, they would all worship her.
     Every last one.

***

     Rei knew it was coming, and instructed Deimos and Phobos to
go see Artemis and Luna.  The twins left her, albeit reluctantly, and
she lingered outside as the others went in.  All but Makoto.  The tall
girl walked over to Rei with slow, purposeful strides, anger leaking
through her cool facade.  Rei let her come.  It was best if Makoto took
the initiative.
     Light flashed behind Rei's eyes and pain lanced sharply
through her cheek.  She stumbled back, high heels catching on the
edge of the raised stones that lined the walk, and she ended up on her
ass in the flower garden.
     Let her take the initiative, Rei thought darkly as she rubbed
her cheek where Makoto had hit her.  Marvellous idea, Rei.  Really
splendid.  Makoto stood above her, barely reigning in her temper, and
Rei knew she had to be careful of her words.  This was going to be
difficult.
     "Do you feel better?" Rei asked softly, keeping her own
temper in careful check.
     "No," Makoto replied, fists trembling at her side.  "I just keep
feeling worse and worse."
     Rei nodded, then got up, brushing herself off.  She wondered if
Makoto was going to hit her again, but the lanky girl just watched her
with eyes brimming with wounded fury.
     "I swear that I didn't know," Rei said, meeting Makoto's gaze
and holding it.  "If I had known that Lily and Yurina were one and the
same, I would have told you."
     "You did things like that," Makoto said, and Rei felt a stab of
pain tear jaggedly through her chest.  "Didn't you?"
     It wasn't really a question, but Rei nodded anyway.  "I did
horrible things, Makoto.  I told you all that."
     "I guess I just never understood before," Makoto told her.
"Not this way.  Not like I do now."
     "I can't change what I was, Makoto.  Only what I am.  And
you can't change the past, either."
     "Let's talk about the present, then," Makoto said, stepping
uncomfortably close to the girl.  "What went on in Shadow?  Phobos
was going on about Deimos chasing a succubus and some girl called the
Black Rose.  Was she talking about Lily?"
     "Yes.  We found her in Shadow and brought her with us.  We
..."
     "Brought her with you?  Isn't that cozy?" Makoto scowled.
     "If you want to say something, then come out and say it!" Rei
snapped.  "But don't play games with me, Makoto!  We were open,
all of us, with each other.  We deserve better than veiled
insinuations!"
     Makoto seemed momentarily taken aback by Rei's outburst.
Rei, for her part, regretted losing her temper, but constantly defending
herself was becoming tiresome.  Either Makoto could accept her past
or she couldn't.
     "You could have killed her," Makoto said finally.
     "No, I couldn't," Rei replied.  "Usagi made a promise to
Banri.  Remember?"
     She saw Makoto frown, then the girl's lovely green eyes
widened in comprehension.
     "That doesn't mean ... she can't expect ..."  Makoto was
sputtering, her anger finally lanced.
     "Our princess gave her word," Rei said softly.  "And we are
bound to serve her.  Whether she understood the consequences or not,
Makoto, Usagi promised Banri our aid.  For now, you must put aside
your revenge.  I'm sorry."
     "Damn it!  Because of that witch, Yoshi got shot!  With a silver
bullet, Rei!  He could have died!"  Makoto blazed, body rigid and
trembling.  "Know this, Rei.  Whatever Usagi promised, I can't stand by
while my friends are hurt.  I won't."
     "Neither will I," Rei swore.  "You may not believe that, but it
is true."
     Makoto stomped away, then stopped near the front door and
stood, head down.
     "Do you really expect me to just forget about Lily and what
she did?" the lithe girl asked at last.
     "No," Rei told her, chest tight.  "I expect you to put it aside
and do your duty.  Not for me, but for Usagi.  There are more important
issues for us now, things that must be seen to.  We can't let our
personal lives take precedence, no matter how urgent our own troubles
seem.  I've forsaken my past for her, Makoto.  Can you do any less?"
     Makoto didn't answer, disappearing through the door, and Rei
slumped as a horrible weight dragged at her entire body.  Her past
would never lie quietly, it seemed.  It just kept rising like some movie
zombie, shambling through her life and tainting all her treasured
relationships with its sweetly scented corruption.
     Now Hotaru and the others would be waiting for explanations,
while the Sisterhood schemed and the vampire skulked.  Rei needed to
talk to Ami about the strange new path their magicks had taken, and
to Minako, and Usagi.  The delicate dynamic of their group was under
tremendous strain, but events were denying them the time to tend that
fragile web.
     Wouldn't it be ironic, Rei thought morosely, if we beat all our
enemies, yet tore ourselves apart in the process?

***

     "Everything is going to be just fine," Usagi was telling me,
rubbing my shoulders like I was a prizefighter about to enter the ring.
"Just don't mention ..."
     "The Outsider," I nodded.  "I got it, Usagi.  Really."
     She smiled.  She'd been smiling at me a lot.  Apparently,
hearing that I'd gotten the others out of Shadow had earned me her
eternal gratitude.  Of course, she was a pretty friendly person to begin
with, so maybe it wasn't just that.  She did seem worried about this
Hotaru, although she was apparently the only one.
     "Princess," Setsuna said, coming up to us outside the living
room.  "What did you say to Hotaru?"
     "What do you mean?" Usagi asked, looking from Setsuna to
Haruka and then Michiru, the girl we'd met outside the café.
     "It's been quite some time since I've seen her this at ease,"
Haruka grinned.  "You two must have had quite a talk."
     "Oh, that," Usagi said, blushing prettily.  I blinked.  At ease?
If what I'd seen was Hotaru at ease, I'd have hated to see her tense.
     "At any rate, she is waiting," Michiru added.  "We should get
on with this.  Apparently, we all have a lot to catch up on."
     "Indeed," Setsuna nodded, looking at me.
     "Er," I said.  "Are you okay?  I mean, I'm sorry about what
happened.  It never affected anyone that way before, honest."
     "Oh, I believe that," Setsuna said with a strange smile.  "I am
even willing to hazard a guess as to when you came into possession of
that little artifact.  Was it, perhaps, about two years ago?"
     My shock must have shown on my face, because she laughed,
a low, throaty sound.
     "Um, what's going on?" Usagi asked, sounding puzzled.
     "Your friend apparently holds the secret," Haruka said dryly, "as to
why the Time Gate is currently unusable."
       We must have both looked blank at that, because she
laughed, too.
     Hey, guys," Minako called.  She was walking towards us with
Rei, and I could tell right away by the angry red mark on Rei's face
that someone had hit her.  It didn't take much to guess who.
     "What is the matter with her?" Usagi cried, reaching up to
touch the tender spot on Rei's pale cheek.  "I'm going to give her a
piece of my mind!"
     "Save it," Rei sighed.  "It's not like you can spare it, you
know."
     "It's not funny, Rei!"
     "I know," Rei said glumly.  "But that's Makoto's temper,
Usagi.  And you have to admit she's got reason to be pissed off."
     "Will she not be joining us, then?" Michiru asked.
     "She's checking on Yoshi," Artemis told them.  He, Luna, and
the twins joined us.  Artemis stood next to Minako, Luna close to
Usagi, and the twins landed on Rei's shoulders.  I wondered if Ami
and Makoto had guardians like the others.  Nobody had mentioned
any.
     "I'll go ask her to join us," Haruka said.
     "Haruka ..." Usagi began, eyes wide.
     "Relax, kitten," Haruka grinned, taking the smaller girl by the
shoulders.  "I'll be gentle.  I promise."
     She strode off down the hall, leaving us all standing there.
     "Ami and Hotaru are already inside," Setsuna remarked.
"I've just come from seeing the rather remarkable portal that Ami
constructed in the basement, and I must say I'm looking forward to
this conversation.  Shall we?"

***

     "That Usagi?" Yu asked.
     "Yeah.  She was just letting me know where she is," Mamoru
told his partner as he stuck the phone in his jacket pocket.
     "Good idea," Yu sighed, taking his glasses off and rubbing his
eyes.  "Things have quieted down since this morning, but it's a good
idea for all little bunnies to stay safe in their beds tonight.  Things are
going to get worse before they get much better."
     Mamoru privately agreed, but he also knew that Usagi wasn't
playing it safe.  That just wasn't her style.
     "Look, Yu, I'm going to go check up on her, try to put
together a plan of action," Mamoru said as they walked along the
wrecked street.
     "Okay.  Listen, you get hold of something hot, you call me,"
Yu replied.  He looked rakish as the wind blew his long blond
ponytail around, like some fey adventurer, his face all angles and
planes in the dying light of day.  Mamoru felt a sudden surge of
affection for his partner and friend.  They had gone through a lot
together, and even more in just this one day.  Either one of them could
easily have died, but fighting together and surviving had only
strengthened their bond.
     "Hey, boys.  I interrupt a mushy moment?"
     "Meaghan," Yu said warmly.  Piakesti was out of her uniform,
wearing worn jeans that looked soft as silk as they hugged her curves
and a black t-shirt under a battered leather jacket with an old AAN
patch.
     "Hey, Piakesti," Mamoru greeted her.  "I never got a chance
to say it, but good work today."
     "You, too," she smiled.  "And call me Meaghan.  We're off
duty."
     "Altuan Air Navy?" Yu asked, raising an eyebrow.
     "My mum," Piakesti said, a trace of pride in her voice.  "This
was hers.  Brings me luck."
     "I've seen you fight," Yu shot back.  "You don't need luck.
Caution, yes, but not luck."
     "Have you seen me dance, bucko?  'Cause some of the squad
is going to get together at Keiran's to raise a couple of the hells as well
as a few cold ones.  We've done all we can here for today, except toast
the fallen.  You two are invited."
     "Thanks, Meaghan, but I've got to check on my girlfriend,"
Mamoru told her.  "I don't like to leave her alone with things this
crazy."  Which was true, as far as it went.
     "Lucky girl," Piakesti remarked, her dark eyes lingering on
his.  "Listen, it's none of my business, but since you're going to take the
chief up on her offer ..."  The wind gusted again, ruffling her short hair,
and she brushed a few locks out of her face impatiently.  "Take this.  I'd
appreciate a call if you get hold of anything."  Mamoru took the
proffered card, which bore only the letter M and a phone number.  "Gets
around official channels, if you get my drift.  This thing we're into may
not be illegal, as such, but it could land the chief in real hot water if it
got out."
     "I'll be sure and let you know if I get anything good," Mamoru
replied.
     "What about me?" Yu protested.
     "You," she said, "can have one if you buy me a drink."
     "Wow," Yu grinned.  "You're cheap."
     "And quite possibly easy," she shot back.  "Come on, pretty
boy.  If you dance half as good as you fight, this may be your lucky
night."
     "Don't wait up," Yu called over his shoulder.  Mamoru smiled
and waved as the two walked away through the debris-strewn
sidewalk as the faint sounds of clean-up crews drifted on the cool
night air.
     There was something about the proximity of death that made
one appreciate very primal needs, he thought.  Like food, and sleep,
and sex.  For a moment he wished he was going to the bar to drink and
mourn together with the others, but the moment passed and he began
walking to his car.  There would be time for that later, for him.  In the
here and now, there were things he could do that the others could not,
things that might bring an end to the evil that had brought all this
misery.
     He reached down, feeling the cloth wrapped bundle in his
pocket.  Yes, with any luck, he would soon be on the trail of the ones
responsible.
     And he would make them pay for this day.  In full.

***

     In the end, the girls hit all the high spots.  They left out a lot of
the details I'd heard the other night, of course.  There was no mention
of Ami's captivity inside Inme's crooked little operation, just the fact
that she could make and use Aethyr ports.  Rei introduced Phobos and
Deimos and admitted, over Usagi's objection, her past association with
the Sisterhood.
     That caused something of a stir.
     Minako's cat-burglar past was also left out of the discussion, as
were the specifics of Makoto's hatred for Yurina.  The girls did
manage to convey the most important details, though.
     "So, let me just see if I've got this straight," Hotaru said at last,
standing with her arms crossed and looking us over.  "Due partly to
Rei's past, the Sisterhood of the Dark Lady has discovered the
identities of all of you except Ami.  The Sisterhood also intends to
neutralize the senshi, ALL senshi, as potential threats to their revival
ceremony tomorrow night at the height of Baniesti."
     "Except that the ceremony is some sort of elaborate trap or
ruse," Setsuna added, leaning against one side of the mantle.  "Which
you know because you all travelled to Aethyr realm and found the real
Dasma and her guardian."
     "And promised to aid her," Hotaru added with a dark look in
Usagi's direction.
     "Indeed," Setsuna nodded.  "Leaving aside the advisability of
interfering in the affairs of the gods, you have literally no idea how to
accomplish such a thing."
     "I, for one, am still unclear on the role Ranma plays in all this,"
Michiru murmured.  She looked up at me from where she sat on a
small loveseat with Haruka, and I tensed.  This could be trouble.
     "Ah, yes," Hotaru mused, turning her disconcerting stare on
me.  "This boy, who has been made privy to our secrets, and possesses
powerful crystal magick.  I am most interested to hear just how this
came about."
     I opened my mouth with no idea what I would say, only to
jump as cool water splashed over my head.  I turned to see Minako
standing behind me, a bunch of flowers in one hand and an empty vase
in the other.
     "Do you have to keep doing that?" I asked, aggrieved.
     "I could watch it all day," she told me impishly.
     "You see, you've met Ranma before," Rei said dryly, giving
Minako a look of exasperation mixed with fondness.
     "On the rooftop," Haruka breathed, studying me closely.
"With the shifters."  I realized that she was staring at my chest; as a
girl, the tears in my shirt were suddenly a bigger problem than they had
been, and I crossed my arms while trying not to be obvious about it.
     "Now that is a new one on me," Setsuna said in a low voice,
leaning forward to examine me closely.  That was even more
embarrassing, but at least the topic of my past had been temporarily
derailed.  I wondered if that had been Minako's intent, then dismissed
the idea.  The girl just liked causing mischief.  There was certainly
nothing deeper than that involved.
     "Yeah, well," I said, embarrassment making my girl voice even
higher than usual.  "It does take some getting used to."
     "I saw Ranma in a vision," Rei told them, stepping forward to
draw attention to herself.  "And when we met, he ... that is, she, helped
us.  Circumstances drew us together, not the least of which was that
Ranma can see through our protective glamours as if they weren't even
there."
     "Ours as well?" Setsuna asked.  I shrugged.
     "I recognize you all from the rooftop," I admitted.
     "Interesting," Setsuna replied.
     "And are you also a fugitive from the Dark Lady's servants?"
Hotaru asked archly.
     "Only since I took Minako away from the Nightmistress," I said.
Hotaru seemed taken aback at that, and Haruka smiled.
     "Did you, now?" the tall blonde asked, looking from me to
Minako.
     "Haruka and Setsuna have seen the crystal key that Ranma
carries," Usagi added with a look at Rei.  Rei nodded, and Usagi took a
deep breath.  "Well, our investigations have turned up something else
that you should all know about.  Apparently, the vampire is interested
in the key, and has been trying to draw him out to get it."
     "The vampire?" Hotaru asked.  I tensed; as a martial artist, I
was used to reading people's body language.  Hotaru had just gone
totally still; something about her posture pushed my needles into the
red zone.
     "The incidents with trains and ships and things, and the airship
here earlier in the week," Ami added.  "We have determined that those
are likely linked to the vampire.  She has been following Ranma ..."
     "What is your link to her?" Hotaru demanded.  Well, at least
we weren't talking about this Outsider thing, but from the feverish fire
in Hotaru's eyes, I knew this topic wasn't much better.
     "I don't have a link to her," I protested.  "All I know is that she
seems to want this key."
     "She wants it," Hotaru hissed, looking at my chest.  "And we
have it."  I wanted to inform her that we didn't have anything, it was
mine, but Rei interrupted.
     "That's what we thought," Rei told her.  Hotaru seemed to
have trouble focussing on anything but the key, but Setsuna got it right
away.
     "You used the key to bait a trap," the woman declared, running
her fingers through her green-black hair.
     "What?"  That had gotten Hotaru's attention.  "You what?"
     "We thought we could ..." Usagi began.  Hotaru pushed past
me roughly, grabbing Usagi by the shoulders and shaking her.
     "You IDIOT!" she shouted.  Makoto started towards Hotaru,
but Minako cut her off neatly.  "Have you taken complete leave of
your senses?  Do you even realize what could have happened to you?
DO YOU?"
     "Yes, Hotaru," Usagi told her calmly.  The blonde princess
didn't seem at all upset by Hotaru's loss of composure; in fact, it
almost seemed to reassure her.
     "No, you don't!" Hotaru gritted.  "What if you'd been bitten?
What if she had captured you?  How could you do something so
damned reckless?"
     "Hotaru."  Usagi reached up and touched Hotaru's cheek in a
gesture that was at once fond and tender.  Nobody else had moved; the
two were the centre of attention.  Usagi's touch seemed to calm Hotaru
somewhat, but the woman's slender shoulders still heaved as she stared
down into Usagi's eyes.
     "You have no idea the depths of depravity she would plunge
you into," Hotaru whispered.  "Death would be a mercy denied you.
How could you risk it?"
     "Because that is my duty," Usagi told her, and I thought the
girl might be tearing up just a little.  "But we weren't reckless, Hotaru.
Everyone was there with me, and we had a plan.  We lured her wraiths,
not her.  At mid-day.  Rei and Ami blocked their escape, Minako
bound one, we destroyed the others, and then we tried to question the
captive."
     "A pretty sound tactical plan, kitten," Haruka said with clear
approval.
     "Impressive," Michiru added.  "But something went wrong, I
take it?"
      Hotaru and Usagi still had eyes only for each other, and I
could sense a bond between them.   It wasn't like the bond she shared
with her girls; it struck me as more mentor/favoured student, or big
sister/little sister.  Whatever it was, all of Usagi's girls were relaxing
now.  I remembered hearing about the feud between the two groups,
but Usagi's actions seemed to be healing it.  It was weird.  I could
almost feel the force of her personality in the air, the draw of her.  She
really was a princess to these girls, and maybe she was on her way to
becoming a queen.
     "This vampire is old, and very powerful," Rei said finally, in
answer to Michiru's question.  "Even with the sun at its height, she sent
her power through her Shadow wraith and broke my hold on it."
     "You took a terrible risk," Hotaru said, her voice tight and full of
barely contained pain.  She was still speaking to Usagi, framing the
girl's face with her hands as she spoke, but I felt as though her words
included all of them.  "I wonder if you realize how terrible."
     "She has to be destroyed," Usagi replied firmly.  "Before she can
ravage any more lives, like she did yours."
     "We are not certain that this is the same vampire," Setsuna
cautioned.
     "And that does not matter," Hotaru added sternly.  "A creature as
dangerous as this is not to be underestimated.  You were lucky this
time, Usagi.  Next time, she will face us all.  United."
     "Yes," Usagi beamed, and now she was crying, a little.  "All of
us."
     It was a greeting card moment, all right, and everyone seemed
touched.  But I still had the key, and Hotaru and the others were still
going to want to know more about it.  I didn't think the girls would be
able to keep this whole Outsider thing a secret forever.
     And what was going to happen to all this happiness and good
will when that secret came out?

***

     "How is he?" Minako asked.
     "Sleeping," Makoto replied.  "He seems to be resting easy."
     "That's good."  Minako trailed Makoto into the kitchen.  The
taller girl sat down at the pale wood table and propped her chin in her
hands, sighing heavily.
     "You do know that we dodged a big bullet back there just
now?" she asked Minako wearily.  "About Ranma and you-know-
what?"
     "I know," Minako admitted.  "But I'm just so happy to see
Usagi and Hotaru together like this, I can't even worry about that
now."
     "Well, worry soon," Makoto grumbled.  "It won't take Hotaru
that long to check her sources.  As soon as she does, she's going to
want a war council, and by then she might just recall some of the
questions she had.  She's definitely going to want Ranma's key if it
makes good vampire bait."
     "Uh-huh."  Minako walked around behind Makoto's chair and
stood there, slipping her hands up the girl's lithe back to begin
kneading her shoulders.  Makoto tensed, stifling a groan.
     "Knock it off," she grumbled.
     "Knock what off?" Minako asked innocently.
     "You're charming me again."
     "Me?" Minako murmured sweetly, leaning forward so her hair
fell down over Makoto's shoulder.  The tall girl's green tank top left
her arms bare, and she shivered at the sensation.
     "Yes, you," Makoto replied, then groaned aloud as Minako
dug her thumbs in.
     "So how you doing?" Minako asked softly.
     "Yoshi's going to be okay," Makoto replied.
     "That's not what I meant, and you know it.  Come on, Makoto.
Seeing her like that was a shock, I know.  You couldn't have ever
dreamed of meeting her again that way.  I've seen you mad before, but
that scared me."
     "I don't want to talk about Lily," Makoto said, her voice low
and even.  Her shoulders were rigid, hard as stone now, and Minako
sighed.
     "You shouldn't have hit Rei," she breathed, not stopping her
ministrations.
     "Is that what this is about?" Makoto asked defensively.
     "It's not about taking sides," Minako chided.  "Rei didn't know
about Lily.  If she'd known, she would have told you.  You know that,
right?"  Minako gave Makoto a little shake.
     "Yes," Makoto mumbled finally.  "I just saw her and ... it all boiled
over."
     "You took your frustration out on her, and that wasn't fair."
     "Fair?" Makoto asked bitterly.  "Nothing about this is fair,
Minako."  She started to rise, but Minako pushed the girl down firmly.
She wasn't going to let Makoto stay angry.  Makoto's temper was
quick, but unlike Rei's it could be managed, gentled, leaving the girl in
a more receptive state of mind.  This situation could not be allowed to
fester.
     "Sit."  Minako let her thumbs rest against the back of Makoto's
neck, feeling the heat of the skin there.  She was a very tactile person,
loved to touch people while she was talking to them.  The simple act of
touching connected people in a way mere words didn't; Minako knew
she could reach Makoto.  Not as easily as Usagi could have, but she
could do it.
     "What do you want, Minako?" Makoto asked, sounding dead
tired.  Minako sympathised, and massaged the girls shoulders again
with sure strokes.
     "I want you to stop beating yourself up over this thing," Minako
replied simply.
     "You and Yoshi both," Makoto said irritably.  "Don't psycho-analyse
me, okay?  I'm not ..."
     "If you hadn't been so mad at yourself, you never would have
lashed out at Rei like that," Minako pressed, bending forward again.
"You know I'm right.  Seeing Lily brought it all back, and knowing that
she's part of the Sisterhood just made it worse after all we've been
through recently.  We caught up to her in Shadow, you know."
     "I heard," Makoto said heavily, but she wasn't trying to leave
any longer.  "I suppose she gloated about how gullible I'd been?"
     "No," Minako replied, her voice gentle.  "It was nothing like
that.  Her mission was never to hurt any of you, just to get that ring."
     "You believe that?" Makoto snorted.
     "She had no reason to lie, Makoto.  Remember that Rei told us
how the old Nightmistress manipulated the Sisterhood?  Yurina was
sickened by the waste of life.  She is our enemy, but she isn't a
monster."
     "She lied to me to get into our hideout.  She lied and I believed
her, and they all died."
     "I know, sweetie," Minako whispered.  "But it wasn't supposed
to be that way.  She is guilty of betraying you, and that is a terrible
crime.  But those deaths, she didn't plan them or carry them out.  I admit
she deserves payback."
     "But I shouldn't kill her, right?" Makoto asked, and now that
bitterness was blade-sharp.  "Because Usagi promised Banri, or
because it would just be wrong.  I should just forget about it?"
     "Listen to me," Minako said, moving so close that her body
pressed against Makoto's back as she worked.  "I am nobody to lecture
on moral behaviour.  You know that."
     "I didn't mean it that way," Makoto muttered, sounding wounded.
     "I know.  Look, Makoto.  Suppose Ami hadn't gotten Inme
back then like she told us.  Suppose she had just escaped?"
     "Minako ..."
     "Just listen, okay?  Suppose she had escaped, and today she
saw him in town.  And so she started tracking him down.  She started
planning the things she was going to do to make him pay.  She was
going to corner him, and then, hey, maybe flay him alive with high-
pressure water.  Or use her senshi strength to break all his bones, one at
a time.  Or shoot water into his mouth until he exploded ..."
     "Minako!"
     "Cold-blooded," Minako went on.  "Ice cold revenge.  Would
you let her do those things?"
     "Of course not!" Makoto blurted, craning her head to look up
at Minako.
     "Of course not," Minako agreed, wrapping her arms around
Makoto's neck and leaning down until her head was on the girl's bare
shoulder.  "Not to protect Inme, but because it would do something to
her to carry out such an act.  It would damage a special part of her,
maybe beyond ever being healed.  You would stop her because you
couldn't bear to see her do that to herself, no matter how good the
reason.  That's how I feel, Makoto.  I don't want you to hurt yourself
that way.  I want you to always be our Makoto."
     Her cheek resting against Makoto's shoulder, Minako closed
her eyes and listened to the rhythm of the other girl's breathing, the
subtle harmonies of her body.  Makoto smelled faintly of her usual
perfume, as well as leather and a faint floral smell that Minako
couldn't identify.
     "Oh, Minako," Makoto breathed at last, reaching up to stroke
the silken fall of the blonde's hair tenderly.  "How can I just do
nothing?  They deserve better."
     "They get better," Minako replied drowsily, nuzzling Makoto's
shoulder.  "They helped make you what you are, and every time you
go out there and save people's lives, you honour their memory.  You
can't change what happened, not even with her death.  And I know
you.  The less clear-cut her role, the more it would hurt you if you
killed her.  The people who fired the guns, they were guilty.  The man
who planned it, he was, too.  And her?  She made it possible, but she
was just another pawn to them.  At worst, she was a liar and a thief.
And me, I've been both."
     "You're not like her."  Makoto's voice was soft, and that
terrible anger seemed to have loosened its fangs from Makoto's heart.
     "Maybe not," Minako sighed.  "But I did some pretty
unsavoury things to get by, once upon a time.  And Rei was like her
once.  A lot like her.  And look at her now.  Maybe Yurina isn't beyond
redemption.  People can change."
     "Yurina," Makoto remarked, her voice heavy.  "Her real name,
I suppose."
     "Uh-huh.  You know, in some ways she reminds me of Rei.  I
think that's why Rei gets under your skin so easily and always has,
because she reminds you of Yurina.  That same sleek, arrogant beauty,
the cool, unshakeable self-possession ..."
     "Rei doesn't get under my skin."  Petulant.
     "Does.  She makes you nuts sometimes, and it's funny, because
for someone who reads people so well, I don't even think she knows
she's doing it."  Minako turned her head and nuzzled into the crook of
Makoto's shoulder.  She could tell that Makoto was smiling now, just a
little.
     "She is still our enemy," Makoto said at last.  "And the
Sisterhood is still coming after us."
     "And if they give us no choice, we will have to use all our
power to defend ourselves, and our princess," Minako agreed, letting
her hot breath fan across the vulnerable skin of Makoto's throat.  "But
until then, please?"
     "Yoshi already asked me," Makoto told her as Minako raised
her head to drink in those verdant green eyes.  "I won't kill her.  Not in
cold blood.  But I do believe it will come down to a fight, and then all
bets are off."
     "That's my girl," Minako beamed, kissing Makoto on the
cheek.
     "And I will apologize to Rei," Makoto added with a put-upon
air that didn't fool Minako for a moment.  "I guess it's unfair to dump
this on her just because Lily was also a Sister."
     Minako twined her fingers in Makoto's lush, silky ponytail and
kissed her on the mouth, a long, sweetly passionate kiss that left both
girls breathless by the time it finally broke.  "Thanks, tough guy," she
whispered, eyes alight.  "By the way, Yurina isn't really a Sister.  She
..."
     "I don't need to know all the tawdry details of their
membership," Makoto snorted. "Look, I'm going to go find Rei before
Hotaru gets things going again, okay?"
     "'Kay," Minako agreed, not letting Makoto loose as the girl
stood up.  "You know, you are one tall drink of water, girl."
     "It's a good thing," Makoto grinned as Minako slowly let her
hands slide away, with maximum groping, "that you weren't trying to
charm me."
     "If I'd turned on the charm, babe, you wouldn't be going
anywhere but my bedroom right now."  Minako felt a twinge as soon as
she let fly with the flirtatious remark, recalling Yurina's revelation that
she had seduced Makoto.  The taller girl only gave her a measuring
look, however.
     "I'll remember you said that," was all she said.
     And then she walked out of the kitchen, leaving Minako with a
warm glow inside.

***

     "Impressive."
     Ami jumped a little, and looking over her shoulder at where
Rei stood at the bottom of the stairs.  Rei smiled apologetically.
"Sorry, Ami.  Didn't mean to startle you."
     "It's all right," Ami replied, a trifle breathless.  "I just didn't hear you
come down."  She was kneeling before a complex pattern drawn onto
the floor, and Rei walked over to join her.
     "It is impressive, though," Rei remarked, her eyes lingering
over the geometric beauty of the intersecting circles and lines.  She
knew it was a functional portal, but a part of her appreciated its sheer
aesthetic beauty.  Another part of her marvelled at the mystic forces it
could channel.  "It looks different from the one at your place."
     "It's simpler," Ami shrugged, concentrating her attention on the
portal.  "I was in a hurry."
     Rei knelt gracefully, tossing her hair back like a heavy cloak as
she settled beside the quiet girl.  The way Ami was avoiding her gaze
told her that things were not well, and that saddened her.  It seemed as
though her past had claimed another victim.
     "I wanted to talk to you," Rei said finally, when Ami remained
silent.  "But maybe this isn't a good time."
     "There are no more good times, Rei," Ami told her, still staring at the
pattern on the floor.
     "Everything okay, Ami?"  Ami did not immediately react, which
Rei thought a bad sign.  The girl had a tendency to brood, and
sometimes got so far inside her own head that it was hard to reach her.
     "Makoto's pretty upset with you," Ami replied at last.  "About
Lily."
     "She made that clear," Rei remarked, absently fingering her
sore cheek.  Ami did not seem to notice.
     "It just adds another dimension to our fight with them, doesn't
it?  And I'm worried that Makoto might do something reckless.  The
pain in her voice back in that alley, it made the hair on my neck stand
up."
     "I wish I could make that better, Ami.  I really do.  The truth is,
Lily did betray Makoto's trust, but she told me she had nothing to do
with the deaths of those kids.  I believe her."
     "Makoto won't care, will she?"
     "I hope she will," Rei sighed.  "But nobody likes to be
manipulated like that.  Her grudge runs pretty deep."
     Ami said nothing, but she seemed fidgety, and Rei realized that
something else was bothering the girl.  She didn't seem to want to meet
Rei's gaze, and she crossed her arms, shoulders hunched.
     "Ami?"  Rei's voice was soft in the cool air of the basement.
She longed to reach out and touch the girl, but Ami's reticence hung in
the air like sour perfume.  "Please talk to me.  I can sense that I'm
making you uncomfortable.  I thought that things were better after we
talked last time."
     "You knew her back then, didn't you?" Ami asked after a brief
hesitation.  "Lily, I mean."
     Uh-oh.  "Yes," Rei said cautiously.  "Although her real name is
Yurina."
     "I saw her in the alley, just before things went bad," Ami went
on doggedly.  "She looks like you, kind of."
     Rei's heart plummeted, but she tried to keep her tone even.
"We were alike in a lot of ways," the raven-haired girl admitted.
"That's what's bothering you, isn't it?  If she could do those things,
then I could, too."
     "She used her beauty and her skills to earn Makoto's trust,"
Ami blurted, clasping her hands together and thrusting them between
her knees.  "That was how you used to be, too.  I just ... I'm scared."
     "Of me?" Rei asked, feeling that pang in her heart once more.
     "I can't help wondering," Ami whispered forlornly.  "If it's so
easy for you to give up all your old habits."
     "I'm not a Sister any more, Ami," Rei insisted.  "Do you really
think I'm trying to manipulate you?"
     "Then why did you come down here alone?" Ami asked, her cheeks
flushed as she turned to glare at Rei.  The girl's normally reserved blue
eyes blazed with a feverish light that startled Rei with its intensity.
"Why are you sitting next to me, doing ... what are you doing, Rei?
You promised not to push me!  Are you playing with me?  Tell me the
truth!"
     Ami seemed close to tears of frustration, and Rei was
completely bewildered.  For a moment she turned her senses inwards;
could she have been trying to subtly compel Ami without even meaning
to?  But no, her powers were all tightly leashed by discipline and
training.  So what was going on?
     "Ami, I promise you I am not toying with you," Rei said softly.
"I don't understand what's wrong."
     "What's wrong is the way you sound," Ami fairly wailed, "and
the way you look and suh-smell ... what did you do to me?  My shadow
crawled all over me, and it was like fingers on my skin, like you were
tuh-touching me, and now that you're here it's WORSE ..."
     Realization hit Rei with a force that left her breathless.  She had
deliberately tried to link her shadow to Ami's, outside of the confines
of the Aethyr port's structure.  And it had worked.  Apparently, it had
worked all too well.
     As an adept, Rei had been forced to immerse herself in an
arduous regimen of study and self-discipline before she could even
attempt to summon her shadow.  Darkest desire resided within
shadows, and left unchecked, that sensual hunger would roam freely
over a body.
     It had not occurred to Rei that Ami's shadow might be
somehow unleashed in such a way.  Rei had only been trying to touch
Ami's shadow the way she had in Aethyr, in order to reach the girl.  But
according to Ami, her shadow had come to her flesh in a manner only
an adept at Shadow Magicks should have been able to manage.  Rei's
shadow must have left its influence within Ami's somehow, despite the
partial protection afforded by the girl's Aethyr abilities.  Desire had
simmered under Ami's skin since then, kindled into full wakefulness by
Rei's proximity.
     And Ami, driven to distraction, thought Rei was doing this
deliberately.
     "Ami, I didn't realize ..." Rei began, reaching out towards the
girl.
     "Don't touch me!" Ami cried, wrapping her arms tightly
around her body.  She did not try to move, however, and Rei knew that
Ami was fighting against an unfamiliar hunger.  That was not a fight
the girl could keep up forever, though.  And if she lost control, it would
be a humiliating and traumatic experience for a girl whose emotional
scars ran so deep.
     "Ami," Rei said softly.  "You are feeling an effect of Shadow
Magick.  Your shadow has only ever been an anchor for you, leashed
by the portal.  But now a part of it has been tainted by my power.
That's why you're feeling this way, and why being close to me is
making it more intense."
     "How do I make it stop?" Ami asked, her eyes still wide as she
stared at Rei with mingled fear and desire.
     "I have an idea," Rei told her.  "But I need you to trust me.
Like before, in Aethyr.  Take my hand."
     Ami stared at Rei's hand as though it might grow fangs at any
moment.  Her hand began an abortive motion towards it, stopping,
starting again, then withdrawing slightly.
     "I'm afraid to," Ami said hoarsely.  "These feelings, they're so
hard to control.  If I touch you, I might lose what little control I have
left.  I can't even trust myself anymore!"
     "No," Rei told her.  "But you can trust me.  I told you last
night, sweet Ami, that my skills of dominance are exquisite.  I won't let
you lose control, Ami.  I will never accept your desires unless you give
them to me freely.  We are going to tame this demon, Ami.  Together.
I know you can't trust someone unless you can feel safe with them, but
you must know you will be safe with me.  I won't let you fall, Ami."
     Rei saw her words reaching Ami through the panic and the
need, and she waited patiently until Ami finally reached out, grabbing
her hand tightly.  Rei stood, drawing Ami to her feet as she did so, and
Ami ended up standing so close they nearly touched.  The girl
trembled, as if her body was being drawn to Rei inch by painful inch by
an inexorable force.
     Rei held onto Ami's hand and pulled the girl gently into the
Aethyr port, where she got her first surprise.  Even though the port was
not active, Rei felt a brush of magick across her skin as she crossed the
perimeter, cool and deep, not at all like either her Shadow power or her
fire magick.  She had never felt the influence of the Aethyr port before
this.
     Apparently, the mingling of their powers had been even more
intimate than Rei had suspected.
     Rei led Ami to the middle of the circle, feeling the faint alien
rhythm of the portal's call swirling around them.  Ami allowed herself
to be led, stopping before Rei and looking up into her eyes.
     "What now?" Ami asked breathlessly.
     "Take my hands," Rei told her, smiling confidently.  "And hold
on."

***

     "And he's afraid of cats!" Usagi was saying cheerfully.  "I
mean, not just shifter-cats, but pussy-cats!  It's so cute!"
     "It's not really," I grumbled.  Usagi was telling Setsuna about
me with careless cheer, managing to hit the high points without ever
mentioning anything incriminating, like anything that rhymed with
'Outsider', for instance.  Her typical bubbliness seemed to be pleasing
Setsuna, who paid close attention.
     "Fascinating," the dusky-skinned woman murmured.  "Ranma
is quite an interesting fellow, all right.  Or should I say girl?"
     "I'm a guy," I told her.  It got old, having to remind people
about that all the time, but then I guess Jusenkyo curses took a lot of
getting used to, especially if you'd never seen one before.
     "Indeed," she replied, apparently amused.  I followed her gaze
and realized that my coat was hanging open, and the slashes in my shirt
had been widened by the pressure of my breasts pressing against the
torn material.
     "Gack!" I explained cleverly.
     "Yeah, it's weird," Usagi said sagely.  "You can see she
doesn't wear a bra, even though she's pretty stacked ..."
     "I'm a guy!" I shot back.  "I can't go around wearing a bra!"
     "That would look a little strange," Setsuna agreed, and now I
got the definite impression that she was trying not to laugh.
     "Something manly," Usagi mused.  "That supports breasts."
     "Generally, that would be a man's hands," Setsuna told her
with a mischievous twinkle.
     "Any guy that tries it is going to regret it," I promised.
     "Ranma's shy," Usagi declared.  The idea seemed to delight
her.
     "Only compared to people around here," I shot back.
     "Are people typically more reserved where you come from?"
Setsuna asked, and I nearly flinched.  Every innocent remark led us
back to my past, and didn't know enough about this world to lie
convincingly about where I might have come from.
     "Oh, he doesn't like to talk about home," Usagi interrupted,
waving her hands expressively.  "He's the black sheep of the family, or
something."
     "Ah," Setsuna said.  Her eyes met mine, and I had the feeling
she wasn't fooled for a moment by Usagi's babble.  She didn't pursue
the matter, though, and Usagi began an account of how I went into the
Nekoken, complete with hand gestures and sound effects that was
finally interrupted when Haruka stuck her head in the doorway.
     "Usagi," she smiled.  "There's someone here to see you."
     Usagi yelped and shot out of her chair, running full-tilt towards
the door.  Unfortunately, she didn't seem to notice the low coffee table
and ended up sprawling onto the floor untidily.
     "Ouchie," she grinned, leaping to her feet and dashing from the
room.
     "Some things," Haruka muttered, shaking her head, "just never
change."
     "And that is all for the best, I think," Setsuna told her.
     "Uh, so who's here?" I asked.
     "Mamoru, of course," Haruka told me, coming in and joining
us.  I was suddenly aware that I was alone with these two, and my
flimsy story about being a family black-sheep wouldn't stand up to any
serious examination.  "She must have called him earlier and told him
where to find us."
     "I thought you all used to live together," I said, hoping to keep
the discussion away from me.
     "Yes, but not here," Setsuna remarked.  "Hotaru's place is
much bigger."
     "This is Michiru's house," Haruka told me.  "Although we
don't spend much time here anymore.  We're usually at the mansion."
     "It was handy, though," Setsuna added.  "We needed
someplace to bring Yoshi that was nearby.  He doesn't know who we
are, although it appears he knows about the girls' identities."
     "Uh, well, I don't know," I shrugged.  "I guess he knows about
Makoto because of what happened at her place.  He met her friends, so
he can probably guess at least some of the others."
     "And you?" Setsuna went on.  "Apparently, you are not
affected by our disguise glamours.  So you recognized all of us when
you saw us."
     "Yeah," I muttered, uncomfortable.  "I mean, the girls seemed
so confused at first that I recognized them out of uniform.  I just didn't
know I wasn't supposed to."
     "Indeed," Setsuna sighed.  "And thus the problem.  You are
aware of all our identities."
     "Which is one reason why the Inners have been keeping you
close, I expect," Haruka pointed out, her eyes straying to my chest.  I
shifted, trying to pull my coat closed without being obvious.  Judging
by the look on Haruka's face, I was not terribly successful.
     "Usagi speaks highly of you," Setsuna went on with a faintly
disapproving look shot in Haruka's direction.
     "She does?" I asked.
     "Oh, yes.  As do all of the others I've managed to speak to
about this.  And you comported yourself admirably in Shadow.  Still,
this is an awkward situation."
     "I understand, believe me," I told her wryly.
     "Do you?" Setsuna asked, leaning forward in her chair.  "You
are privy to our lives, Ranma Saotome, but you are still an outsider."  I
almost flinched at that word, until I realized that she meant it in its
mundane context.
     "There are certain bonds that exist between senshi," Haruka
went on, all trace of lasciviousness gone now.  'It can be difficult to be
on the outside of that, looking in."
     "Mamoru could tell you better than we how that feels," Setsuna
declared.  "He has felt the sting of exclusion more than once.  Even
though he was part of our past lives, he was not part of our court.  At
times, it is as though he and the girls compete for Usagi's attention."
     "And her affections," Haruka said, her eyes flickering briefly at
the thought.  "She manages it very well, because she's Usagi.  But
there have been strains between him and the girls over the princess
since the beginning.  It can't be an easy situation."
     "Well, but he's Usagi's boyfriend," I noted.  "I don't have that
problem."
     "Perhaps," Setsuna said with an enigmatic smile.  "Still, the
relationships between them are complex.  It will be very hard to fit into
such a close-knit web of friendship, rivalry, love, lust, frustration and
affection."
     "We want to strangle them sometimes," Haruka admitted
cheerfully.  "And we like them."
     "Still, there is no question of you leaving in the near future,"
Setsuna told me quietly.  "Not only because you know our secrets, but
also because you have something that the vampire wants.  And that
means we finally have a way to draw her out."
     "She's been killing people to get my attention," I replied
evenly.  "I want this creature dead as much as you do.  More, even."
     "That's hardly likely," Haruka said, and I wondered if they
knew the girls had been told Hotaru's history.
     "I lost my family to monsters."  They fell silent at that.  "I hate
them.  They kill people and destroy lives, and they don't stop unless
someone stops them.  Me, I have no problem hunting a monster like
this down.  So don't worry about it.  After we kill this thing, then we
can talk about where I go."
     "That sounds fair," Setsuna nodded.  I felt sure that these
women didn't trust me nearly as much as the Inners did, and would
probably be watching me pretty closely.  Which was fine by me.  If
they could help us get this vampire, I'd be happy.
     "Ladies," Michiru greeted us, sweeping gracefully into the
room.  She, like Rei, seemed to move in an aura of sleek sensuality,
making every simply movement into something breathtaking.
     Which is why I didn't correct her on the "ladies" remark.
     "What has Hotaru found out?" Setsuna asked.
     "Well, for starters, emergency measures have been enacted,"
Michiru told us.  "This in response to the attack on the police today."
     "Interesting," Setsuna replied, eyes narrowed.
     "More than you know," Michiru went on.  "The Minister of
Justice released a statement declaring that there is a vampire in our fair
city, and that said vampire was behind the attack."
     "Shrewd," Setsuna said with a thin smile.  "Now they can make
the vampire's existence public, and they have expanded powers to hunt
it down.  Nobody in this city is going to challenge the enactment of
martial law if a vampire is involved, especially not after the insanity at
that police station."
     "But the Sisterhood caused that," I protested.  "And this isn't
going to do anything about them."
     "No," Michiru told me.  "But we are.  Hotaru wanted me to get
some information from Rei.  Where is she?"
     "I'm not sure," Setsuna admitted.
     "Hey, hey," Minako crowed, breezing into the room in a swirl
of black leather and blonde hair.  "I'm back."
     "You were gone?" Haruka asked.
     "Meanie," Minako pouted.  "Yes, I went to the car to get a new
t-shirt for Ranma.  Although I do like the view ..."
     "Thanks," I said firmly, jumping up and grabbing the proffered
shirt.
     "Have you seen Rei?" Setsuna asked her.
     "She might be in the basement," Minako shrugged.  "The door
was open and I heard voices from down there."
     "All right.  I'll ..."  Setsuna was cut off by a cry of distress.  It
sounded like Rei, and immediately everyone was on their feet.
     "Downstairs?" Michiru asked.
     "Downstairs," Haruka confirmed.
     And off we went.

***

     "Okay, what's the problem?" Makoto asked the two tiny
winged girls.
     "She wants to know what the problem is," Deimos sniffed, her
black wings fluttering in a manner that appeared far too lazy to allow
her to hover the way she was doing.
     "You hit Rei-sama," Phobos said, biting off her words as she
glared at the tall girl.
     "She might let you get away with stuff like that, but we're not
gonna," Deimos added with a scowl.
     "Look, I was angry," Makoto explained as patiently as she was
able.
     "About this Black Rose, I know," Deimos shot back.  "I don't
see what your problem is with Rei-sama.  She kept the little witch in
line, didn't cut her any slack."
     "It isn't Rei-sama's fault that the girl escaped," Phobos added.
"A rogue succubus snatched her away during the fight."
     "And you know, she doesn't want to kill you," Deimos told
her.
     "Oh, really?" Makoto asked, incredulous.  "She told you that,
did she?"
     "Well, she was upset when she thought you were dead,"
Deimos recounted.  "Because after popping your girl-sex cherry she
became very fond of you, and wanted to make you her kept girl.  But
apparently you're too honest for complicated sexual intrigue or ...
GACK!"
     Makoto stormed past the two guardians, her face burning.  Rei
hadn't mentioned that Lily had spilled that particular secret, and even
though a part of Makoto knew Rei had probably been sparing her
feelings in spite of everything, the rest of her was thoroughly pissed.
     A kept girl?  Her, consort to a depraved dark priestess?  She
didn't know what made her angrier, the knowledge that Lily had said
that or the fact that, once upon a time, she had been so infatuated that
she might have been tempted.
     Might? a wicked little voice taunted her.  She brushed it aside,
hearing a pitched argument as she clattered down the stairs.
     "What?" Deimos squeaked.
     "Have you ever even HEARD of diplomacy?" Phobos snapped
back as they followed Makoto down the wooden stairs.  "Honestly, you
always say the first thing that comes into your head ..."
     "Well, it was true!"
     "That's not the point!"
     Makoto ignored them, building up a head of steam as she
stepped off the bottom step and straightened to her full height.
     "Rei!" she bellowed.  "I want to ..."  She trailed off, extended
finger wavering as she took in the scene before her.  An Aethyr port had
been etched onto the floor and it glowed softly, filling the large barren
room with soft golden motes of light.  That alone would have been a
sight to give pause, but at the centre of the pattern stood an even more
arresting tableau.
     Rei and Ami stood so close their bodies were pressed against
each other.  Their heads were bowed, foreheads touching and eyes
closed.  Ami's left hand was in Rei's right, her other twined in Rei's
lush sable mane, which was billowing as if in a phantom zephyr.
Ami's blouse was unbuttoned, and Rei's free hand was resting between
Ami's breasts.
     As if this erotic tableau was not shocking enough, shadows
snaked over both girls languidly, creating mesmerizing patterns
wherever bare skin was visible.  Makoto gaped for a long moment; her
noisy entry didn't seem to have fazed the girls at all.  Then heat rushed
to her face again, a distant rushing sound in her ears.
     Urge to forgive fading fast, she thought dimly.  I must not kill
anyone.  Really.  I must not ...
     Screw it.
     REI!" she bellowed, advancing in full fury.  She stomped
across the cold concrete floor, fists knotted as she went, all her attention
on the two girls.  After all that had happened today, this was the
absolute final straw.  Makoto had had enough; all conciliatory thoughts
that might have survived Deimos's verbal blunder had been erased by
this sight.  Makoto was going to teach Rei what happened to girls who
manipulated their friends.
     At least, until she reached the edge of the portal.
     It was like walking into hot, syrupy lust.  The air itself seemed
to wrap around her skin, oozing sweetly into every crevice of her body
in an instant.  Heady perfume filled her senses and she gasped like a
swimmer who had stayed down too long and barely made the surface.
     The next thing she knew her senses were slowly clearing and
she was sitting on her butt on the cold concrete, staring blankly at Rei
and Ami.
     "Yoo-hoo," Deimos cooed, waving her arms in front of
Makoto's eyes.  "Anyone home?"
     "What happened?" Phobos asked, staring at the glowing circle.
     "I'm not sure," Deimos said with a wicked smile.  "But I'd
guess she got a full taste of Rei-sama's heat, 'cause the high beams are
on."
     Phobos followed her twin's gaze and tossed her head
disdainfully.  "You see?" she snapped.  "This is what I'm talking
about!"
     Makoto ignored them both, still trying to catch her breath.
"What in the hells," she gasped when she could talk, "are they doing?"
     "Not really sure," Deimos admitted.  "But it looks like a blast."
     The glow began to fade, and Rei's hair settled as the phantom
wind died.  Finally the two girls looked up, still in their intimate
embrace, their eyes meeting.
     "Better?" Rei asked softly.
     "Yes," Ami breathed, her eyes wide and worshipful.  "That was
... Rei, I didn't know we could do that."
     "I'm beginning to wonder just what limits there are to what we
can do together," Rei replied, her face and Ami's so close a sheet of
paper might not have fit between them.
     "Yeah, me too!" Makoto hollered irately.  Both girls jerked,
turning to see Makoto sprawled on the floor.  Ami flushed and stepped
back from Rei abruptly, dropping her eyes and hastily buttoning her
plain white blouse.  Makoto got slowly to her feet, trying to shake off
the clinging remnants of that incredibly sweet sensation.  "What exactly
was that about, Rei?"
     "Makoto!" Ami blurted, face cherry red.  "She was helping
me!"
     "That isn't what it looked like to me," Makoto growled.
     "You know," Rei shot back thinly, "this is getting real old,
Makoto.  I know you've got sex and betrayal on the brain, but that
doesn't mean you have to take your temper out on me every single
time!"
     "Yeah, I hear Lily spilled the beans," Makoto growled.  Heat
suffused her, but it was a cleaner, purer heat than that of desire she had
felt earlier; this was anger, an old friend.  "Bet she had a good laugh
over that."
     "She did not," Rei frowned.  "Look, Makoto, I'm well aware of
your opinion of the practices of the Sisterhood.  But do you really think
I would coerce Ami into something depraved?"
     "I know Ami, and she has never been the type of girl to dabble
in dark sexual arts!  What in the hells were you doing to her?"
     "Makoto!" Ami cried, and her embarrassment was painful to
see.  But Makoto wasn't going to stop.  Ami might be too timid to
stand up to Rei, but she wasn't.
     "There was an unforeseen side-effect of the combination of our
powers, if you must know," Rei said, her tone definitely frosty as she
advanced on Makoto.  "Or are you going to accuse me of being a liar
now, too?"
     "Don't play the martyr!" Makoto blazed.  " I tried to walk into
that circle, and it was like a Tyrian cathouse on a Saturday night!"
     "Stop it!" Ami cried plaintively, but both girls were riled now,
and Makoto wasn't going to back down.  Apparently, neither was Rei.
     "Desire is part and parcel of my power, Makoto, and I make no
apologies for that."  Rei came face to face with Makoto, clearly not
intimidated by the other girl's height.  "It is always going to be.  That
doesn't mean I'm like them."
     "Doesn't it?  I'm so sick of these twisted hungers!  They're like
a poison that's polluting our lives!  Sex priestesses and vampires and
now succubi?  Maybe you think you can handle it all, but what if
you're wrong?  What will you do if something happens to Ami?"
     "I would never let anything happen to her," Rei breathed, cold
fury in her dark eyes.
     "Maybe you believe that," Makoto snapped.  "But I'm starting
to worry about your judgement, Rei!"
     Ami was between them in that instant, trying to push them both
back.  Makoto knew that she had probably pushed too far, her mouth
running ahead of her brain fuelled by anger and long nights of worry.
The fact that their enemies remained maddeningly elusive, denying her
a direct confrontation with her tormentors, only boosted her agitation.
It was all topped off by her humiliation at the ease with which a lovely
girl had fooled her, using her own nascent desires against her.  Fair or
not, Rei represented the very soul of that wanton desire, and in the face
of that Makoto found herself lashing out.
     "Gods, what now?" a voice cried.  Makoto glanced up guiltily
to see Usagi barging towards them.  Ami couldn't make the two girls
give ground, but Usagi was always like a force of nature, and would
not be denied.
     "I don't believe this!" Usagi shouted, her face red.  "I finally
manage to make up with Hotaru and get us all together, and now this?
What on earth is the matter with the two of you?  No!" she blurted as
Makoto opened her mouth.  "You know what, I don't want to hear it!
The two of you need to get locked in a room until you fight or screw or
do whatever it takes to get this out of your systems!"
     Makoto was struck speechless by Usagi's vulgar proclamation,
and by the look on Rei's face she wasn't the only one.
     "But Usagi," Makoto began plaintively.
     "No buts!  Look, how bad can it be?  Did one of you drink the
other's blood?  No?  Well, I could make up with Hotaru, so you two
can get along at least that well!  And to be at each other's throat now,
of all times?  This is hardly the time to be fighting with each other!"
     "I'm sorry, Usagi," Rei said, eyes downcast.
     "Me, too," Makoto muttered contritely.
     "Usagi, it was my fault ..." Ami began.
     "Nuh!  No way!  Nuh-uh!  I don't want to hear it!" Usagi said with
uncharacteristic sternness.  "I love each one of you.  I trust each one of
you, with my life, with each other's lives.  So nobody has any reason to
be doubting each other.  Not unless you want to doubt me.  So?"
     Usagi stood there, and Makoto had a flash of a woman in a
white gown, hair like Usagi's but pale as ice, her eyes narrowed with
determination.  Usagi had thrown the odd tantrum in her time, been
obstinate and contrary and just plain snippy.  But this was not like any
of those times.  In this moment, Usagi looked like her mother, Queen
Serenity, when she was truly angry.  Her anger was no flash of
temper over something trivial; it was deep and austere and righteous,
her very presence regal and steeped in authority.  Makoto could not
remember why the queen had been angry, but she remembered clearly
never wanting to be the one to provoke one of her rare displays.
     "Of course we don't doubt you," Rei told her softly.
     "Then this ends now," Usagi replied, glaring at each of them in
turn.  "Everybody is frustrated and worried, but I won't have you all
taking it out on each other.  Now.  If we can get on to some important
business, Mamoru has a request."
     Makoto looked up, realizing for the first time that Mamoru was
standing at the bottom of the stairs.  Beneath a tumble of dark hair his
sapphire-blue eyes were watching Usagi with frank astonishment.  It
was clear he was as taken aback as the rest of them at Usagi's burst of
royal vexation, but she thought she saw approval there as well.  He
strode across the floor to join them, and Makoto thought he looked
tired.  It must have been a terrible day for him.  He had certainly
known some of those who had not survived the attack at the police
station, and Makoto felt a surge of sympathy for the man.
     "Mamoru?" Usagi said quietly.  Not Mamo-chan?  She was
still in regal mode.  Makoto realized that her own anger had evaporated
in the face of Usagi's, and her problems no longer seemed quite so
urgent.
     "What do you need from us, Mamoru?" Makoto asked.  He
glanced at her, then away.
     "Actually," he said, turning to Rei.  "I was hoping you could
help me ..."

***

     Rei unfolded the square of cerulean silk that Mamoru had
handed to her carefully.  She would far rather concentrate on this than
be chewed out by her princess again.
     "You didn't touch these with your bare hands, did you?" she
asked as she examined the contents.  There were several shards of
splintered wood inside, rough-grained and unfinished.
     "Of course not," he replied.  "I've had lots of experience with
magickal forensics.  I wouldn't risk contaminating the evidence."
     "Good," she murmured.  Silk made a good insulator for
psychic impressions as well; there was a good chance she could get
something from the wood.  "Where did this come from?"
     "Uh-uh," he cautioned.  "I'm not leading you.  Just tell me
what you get."
     Rei smiled; Mamoru hadn't been exaggerating about his
experience in these matters.  Very well, then.  She knelt on the cold
floor, close to where she and Ami had been sitting when she'd first
come down.  She arranged the square of silk in front of her as she tried
to calm her inner turmoil.  Makoto's angry accusations and Usagi's
recriminations were not making that easy, and having so many people
standing around waiting for results did nothing to help her state of mind
either.
     Then Phobos and Deimos joined her, alighting on her
shoulders, and immediately she found her focus drawing down tighter
and tighter.  She regulated her breathing, blocking out all distractions
as she strove to achieve a receptive state.
     Finally, she was ready.  Moving with careful deliberation, Rei
reached out and took one of the pieces of wood into the palm of one
hand, cupping the other under the first.  The wood seemed to tingle and
buzz in her hand, and she knew that it had been close to a violent death.
There was no mistaking that sensation.
     But there was more.  It had been part of ... a coffin?  Yes, a
rough pine box.  She could nearly see it in her mind's eye now, stained
and soiled from the damp earth.  She pushed deeper, wanting to see
more.  For there was more there; sometimes divining an object was
labourious, interminable work, but the forces around this wood were
strong, and recent.
     Rei closed her eyes, breathing deep and slow.  There was a
body within the shabby box, and she steeled herself for the sight of it.
But as details slowly began to emerge from the misty nothingness of
her vision, she felt her heart quicken.  Something else was here.  A
cloying perfume, and a presence, coiled like a snake beneath the
surface of everything.  Rei's throat went dry as the presence whispered
across her skin.  Even as a memory, it held power, menace cold and
hunger cruel.
     And she knew it.  She had felt it, only that morning.
     A fine tremble skittered through her kneeling form as the vision
came on ever stronger.  The woman was wrapped in an aura of power,
the vampiress's power.  Rei remembered its terrible pull, felt it now
again yearning to take her in its ravishing embrace and make her its
own.
     There was light, and the sound of splintering wood.  Images
jumped, but Rei was seeing the coffin open now, and the woman within
revealed.  She did not look dead; in repose, she possessed a rare beauty,
all pale skin and hair.  The only blemish upon the pallid vision was the
appearance of tiny twin puncture marks on the column of her throat.
     And Rei knew her.  Or rather, she knew the curve of her nose,
the arch of her brow, the line of her chin.  And something horrible
loomed now, so huge that her inner eye could not encompass it but was
aware nonetheless.
     There was a face, a grizzled old man with tufts of white hair.
     ("Opened the box, old man?)
     It was coming, cresting.  Not just the death, but the darkness
behind it ...
     (Saw what you shouldn't have?)
     A wave so immense that it triggered an atavistic fear in her ...
     (Poor old man.)
     A tide of darkness, inexorable and implacable ...
     (Bet you taste bad ...)
     And the truth crashed about her and carried her before its
primal fury.
     Rei cried out ...

***

     When we reached the bottom of the stairs, we found Mamoru,
Makoto and Ami standing around near a pattern on the floor that
looked like the smaller one at Ami's place.  Rei looked to have
collapsed in Usagi's arms; she was even paler than usual, and though
her eyes were open she didn't appear to be looking at anything.  Usagi
had wrapped her arms around the girl and kept calling her name while
Phobos and Deimos clung to her shoulders, touching her face with their
tiny hands.
     "What happened?" Setsuna demanded.
     "We don't know," Ami told her.  "Rei was divining something
..."
     "Something HE gave her!" Deimos said blackly, giving
Mamoru a glare that could melt steel.  I remembered what Setsuna had
told me about Mamoru feeling the sting of the girls' bond.  It looked
like this was going to be one of those times.
     "Mamo-chan, what was that?" Usagi asked as she continued to
hold Rei tightly.  "What did she see?"
     "I don't know," he assured her, watching Rei carefully.  "It
came from the scene of Wasa's murder, but I didn't expect anything
like this."
     "Neither did I."  Rei's voice was raspy, and before she could
say anything else Usagi was smothering her in kisses.
     "You idiot!" the princess wailed between smooches.  "Don't
scare me like that!"
     "Princess," Rei said softly.  "Let me up."
     "You should rest," Usagi began, but Rei shook her head firmly.
     "There's no time," the dark-haired girl told her.  Ami stepped
forward, and the two helped Rei to her feet.
     "What was it?" Mamoru asked her, ignoring a scowl from
Usagi.  "Did you see what killed Wasa?  I want the truth, Rei.  Even if
it was a Sister."
     "Mamoru!" Usagi blurted.
     "It's worse than that," Rei told us, still holding on to Ami and
Usagi.  Minako crowded past me to stand near the others, nudging
Makoto as she went.  Makoto, for some reason, seemed reluctant to
join the others but did move a little closer.
     "You should not push yourself, Rei-sama," Phobos insisted.
     "I have to, little one," Rei said with a wan smile.  Then she turned
her gaze to Mamoru, her eyes dark pools in her pale face.  "Mamoru,
the coffin that this came from.  It belonged to Cyrie der Kae, didn't it?"
     "Yes," Mamoru said, and I noted the tension in his shoulders.
"Yu and I were checking up on her in the computer, and it tripped a
flag.  We got detailed to bring her body in for routine check."
     "But you never saw the body."
     "No," he replied, brow creasing.  "What are you getting at?"
     "Cyrie died violently," Rei sighed as Usagi slipped her arm
around the girl's narrow waist.
     "It must have been horrible," Minako said sympathetically.
     "You don't understand.  She wasn't marked.  Not disfigured,
nor decayed.  She was whole, untouched.  Except ..."
     "Except for fang marks on her neck?"  I turned with everybody
else to see that Hotaru had joined us.  Standing at the bottom of the
stairs, he might have been a statue for all the emotion she showed.
Only her eyes gave anything away, and I didn't look too long.
     "Yes," Rei nodded.
     "Impossible," Makoto blurted out.  "You said she was
murdered months ago!  She couldn't stay in her coffin that long, could
she?"
     "No," Mamoru agreed.
     "And yet she did," Rei told us with a desolate expression that
told me the worst was yet to come.  "I felt her power, the vampire's
aura.  It permeated that space, held Cyrie in the place between death and
undeath.
     "This vampire must be ancient," Setsuna breathed.  "No
vampire victim has ever stayed in the ground past three days."
     "Swell," I muttered.  More spooky crap to deal with.
     "How could she rise?" Mamoru asked, anger radiating from
every pore in his body.  I knew the anger wasn't directed at Rei, but
rather at himself.  He'd brought the coffin in, knowing it was targeted
because of his investigations, believing it was safe.  "It was daytime!  Is
this bitch really that strong?"
     "No," Rei replied, wrapping her arms around herself as if she
were cold.  "No, Cyrie didn't rise.  Her wraiths came.  They killed the
old man and took the body."
     "Shadow wraiths," I said, understanding dawning.  "The other
bodies, the ones in Shadow ..."
     "Yes," Rei said with a humourless smile.
     "They were covering up what they did," Minako said slowly.
"But ..."
     "Oh," Ami breathed.  "Oh, no."
     "What?" Usagi asked, still clinging to Rei.  "What is it?"
     "It's everything," Rei told us, her voice breathy.  "Minako, you
asked me last night if Saekianna would have come to this city if her
mother had still been alive.  If we assumed that someone wanted the
Sisterhood to come here ..."
     "Whoa.  Hold on," Makoto protested.  I felt a cold chill inside
my skin, its fingers going down deep.  I was getting it.  Oh yeah, loud
and clear.
     And it was bad.
     "How far back does it go?  How much of this did she plan?"
Rei asked the silence.  "The heart of the labyrinth was in shadow.  She
could have easily gone there and planted lies for Saekianna to find.
Gods, Griitna.  She might not have been a traitor.  What if she was
under the vampiress's power all that time?"
     "The Sister with the sphere," Minako said.  "Rei, you said she
looked like she wasn't in control.  What if the sphere wasn't doing it,
but ..."
     "Why?" Mamoru asked, his voice low and lethal.  "Why would
she?"
     "She couldn't afford to have Cyrie's coffin opened," Rei
replied, pulling away from the others and drawing herself up.  "It could
link her to Saekianna, and thus to the ceremony.  She gained control of
the Sister with the sphere and attacked the police station as a diversion.
Her wraiths dumped the extra bodies in Shadow.  If Cyrie's body was
the only one gone, suspicions would be aroused.  This way ..."
     "The rest of the attack," Mamoru gritted.  "It was direct, brutal.
That part was the only part that was different.  They were quick,
efficient.  Yu and I weren't even that far away when they did it.
DAMN IT!"
     Usagi rushed forward and grabbed the enraged man by the arm
as he turned to storm out, holding him back.
     "No, Mamo-chan!" she cried.  "Not alone!"
     "Listen to her, Mamoru."  Everyone froze at the sound of
Hotaru's voice.  "You cannot face such a creature by yourself, no
matter how deep your grievance, no matter how personal.  From my
lips, these words must surely carry some weight, no?"
     He said nothing, and she looked at all of us standing there in
the cool dim basement.
     "So," Hotaru nodded.  "We face not two separate problems, but
one larger one.  Larger, perhaps, than even we know.  The mistresses of
manipulation are themselves being manipulated by this creature.  The
question is, to what end?"
     "No," Usagi said, and all eyes went to her.  "It doesn't matter
what she wants," Usagi went on, still holding Mamoru's arm.  "What
matters is that we stop her.  If we can stop the Sisterhood from
performing their Baniesti ceremony, it will screw up her plans but
good."
     "But first we have to find them," Rei pointed out.
     "Then let us begin," Hotaru said briskly.  "This creature has
brought enough suffering to our city.  It is time someone stopped her.
Permanently."
     "We have no idea where they are," Minako said.  "It's a big
city, you know.  Where do we start?"
     Hotaru turned and looked right at me.
     "We go," she said quietly, "to the source."

***

     "Ah, Yurina," Saekianna murmured silkily.  "How is our
guest?"
     "I believe she is ... sated, Nightmistress," Yurina replied,
snapping open her fan and fluttering it languidly before her face.
     "Come, now, our Black Rose.  Is that disapproval I hear?  How
churlish, considering that she saved you from the White Moon girls."
     "She is a creature of her appetites, Nightmistress, and thus not
to be trusted," Yurina stated.
     "Oh, I do not trust her, have no fear.  But she may yet prove
useful.  And controlling her will not prove difficult.  Shall we?"
     Saekianna led the way, Yurina trailing behind.  The girl
seemed none the worse for wear, although she had brought the unhappy
news of Jade's fate.  Still, they had gotten off lightly, at least in
Saekianna's opinion.  The traitor and her friends might have killed
Yurina outright.  That they had not was proof to her that they had
intended to inflict upon the girl the torments reserved for those of the
Sisterhood who fell to the hated White.  It would have pained her to
lose the Black Rose so close to the moment of their triumph.
     "It surprises me that the traitor tried to sway you with such a
weak lie," Saekianna mused as they walked along the wide hallway.
Maidens in house dress bowed as the pair passed.  No Sisters were in
evidence.
     "Perhaps it was merely the opening gambit in a larger scheme,"
Yurina replied smoothly.  "She believed me beaten, after all.  Foolish,
really.  I cultivated an ally beneath her very nose.  She has become
tainted by the White Moon's influence, Nightmistress."
     "Indeed," Saekianna said, perhaps a trifle more curtly than she
had intended.  She did not wish to speak of Rei's tainting; it brought to
mind her own continuing impotence in the face of the White Moon
Princess's power.  "It is curious.  I recall you using the name Lily on
only a handful of occasions.  You stopped using it after a mission to
this very city, did you not?"
     "Indeed, Nightmistress."  Yurina's dark eyes were cool,
impenetrable.  "Death followed those whose lives I had touched then,
and I chose to abandon it."
     "Mmmm.  Curious, however, that you cannot recall anyone
from any of those missions who might bear you such a grudge.  Jupiter
called you by that name, and she was quite intent on killing you.
Assuming that she is indeed one of the Tsukino girl's friends ..."
     "I have reviewed the information you provided," Yurina told
her, inclining her head regretfully.  "Yet I can find nothing to stir my
memory.  I was as surprised as you when that girl called my name."
     "Unfortunate."  Yurina gave no trace of her thoughts away,
hiding all behind that lustrous facade of the delicate flower.  Still,
Saekianna would have suspected her of lying, save that there would be
nothing to gain by it.  "Well, she will tell us, in time.  Once our Lady is
revived, the White Moon girls will soon fall to us."
     "I saw Mirra just a short time ago.  She is looking well,"
Yurina said, running her lacquered nails along the edge of her fan
lightly.  "It appears all is nearly in readiness for tomorrow night."
     "We must not grow complacent," Saekianna cautioned.  "Our
enemies are many, and powerful.  If they were to learn of our plans, the
ceremony might be disrupted."
     "Mirra was confident that all would go as planned," Yurina
told her with a small smile.  "It seems unlikely that the White Sisters
would send anyone to the site.  They will be taking precautions at the
main temple, as always."
     "Bolstered by our recent feints," Saekianna added with a
sensation of savage glee.  "They will not dare venture out during
Baniesti, for fear of our tactics.  Little do they know their fortress
mentality will prove their undoing."
     They came to a door, and Saekianna grasped the polished brass
handle and entered without knocking.  It was a simple room, dominated
by a large, sumptuous bed.  The air was thick with the musky scent of
sex and soft, feminine moans, and Saekianna smiled in spite of herself.
Six Maidens were sprawled across the bed and its occupant, all naked
and, by appearances, quite spent.  In the middle of the bed, with a limp
girl in each arm, lay the succubus, Maia.
     Her skin glowed with a sheen of perspiration, her sinuous tail
slick with other fluids as it slithered over bare flanks, eliciting gasps
and moans anew.  Her cat's eyes, narrowed with pleasure, fixed on
Saekianna as she entered, and her lush lips parted in an inviting smile.
     "Your hospitality is faultless, oh high priestess," Maia purred.
"Your girls possess quite impressive skills for mere human women."
     "I am glad you are enjoying your stay.  And as to the value of
my hospitality, it is merely proof that I value my Black Rose highly,
Maia," Saekianna replied.
     "Still, it is too bad that you don't have any men about.  I do so
miss the feel of sweet man-flesh," Maia sighed, stroking the dishevelled
hair of the blonde on her right tenderly.
     "I am certain that something can be arranged," Saekianna
promised.
     "What about your priestesses?  They have quite a reputation,
you know.  I should very much like to test their skills," Maia went on,
a predatory gleam in her eye.
     "I regret that all of them are quite occupied at the moment.  We
have a very important ritual coming up, and I can not afford to have
any of my priestesses feeling, ah, drained.  You understand."
     "What about you, then?  You are uncommonly comely," Maia
grinned, arching her back slightly so that her breasts jutted to excellent
effect.
     "After tomorrow night," Saekianna promised her, "there will be
no further ... restrictions on our relations."  Which was true, just not in
the sense that Maia thought.  "After which, perhaps you will wish to
discuss the matter of Shadow Gates?"
     "Well, you know," Maia yawned, "being on the run and
deprived is bad for the memory."  She stretched, her tail coiling around
the neck of the brunette on her left, it's tip tickling the girl's mouth.
Her eyes did not open, but the girl's tongue crept out and began playing
lazily with the serpentine tormentor.
     "Don't worry," Saekianna said deferentially, hiding her
contempt for the brazen creature's lack of subtlety.  "I am sure that,
after you taste what the Sisters of Shadows have to offer, your memory
will improve greatly."  Slave to your hunger, she thought scornfully.
Grow comfortable and unwary.  Soon you will tell me everything I
wish to know.
     "This ritual," Maia asked, eyes lidded with pleasure as the
brunette took the tip of the wandering tail into her mouth.  "It must be
very important."
     "Oh, believe me," Saekianna beamed.  "Afterwards, there are
going to be changes.  A great many changes."

***

          Kendra hated Larissa's Watch.
     Oh, the view was spectacular, no doubt of that.  From the
lofty heights of the main deck one could gaze out over the sprawling
metropolis that was the kingdom's capitol city as it wrapped its
tendrils lazily around the convolutions of the shoreline.  Once upon a
time, as a young girl, Kendra had loved to watch ships ply the seas
and skies from this vantage while creating flights of fancy around
their voyages.
     But those days were long ago and far away, ended in this spot
along with her mother's life during the Long Dark.  Kendra had felt
too young then to assume the mantle of Queen; there were still days
she quailed under those burdens, although there were none who knew
that.
     Well, almost none.
     "Gar," she muttered under her breath.  The man stood at the
rail overlooking the harbour and the glittering sea beyond, red-gold
hair rippling in the stiff breeze.  His hands were braced on the stone
rail, worn smooth by touches uncountable over the centuries.  She
stood at the top of the narrow stairs and glared across the windswept
stone, reigning in her temper as she watched the play of muscle in the
big man's back under his tight tunic.  It wouldn't help matters if she lost
her temper with Gar; her distant cousin was one of the few people at
Court who could twist her around with ease, alternately charming and
infuriating her with his roguish ways.
     The wind caught her hair as she crossed the smooth stone,
and she was glad that she hadn't bothered to undo her braid after her
workout.  Gar didn't look up as she approached, although she was
certain he knew she was there.  Gar was a troublesome devil, but
underneath it all lay a keen mind that missed nothing.
     "You've never seen her ghost up here, have you?" Gar asked
before she could speak.  Kendra felt her temper flaring again, and she
gripped the rail tightly.
     "'By the light of the moon, in the dead of the night', quoth
she," Kendra muttered.  "I have forbidden anyone to be up here after
dark, Gar."
     "What's to fear, love?" Gar asked, turning his ladykiller eyes
on her.
     "I'm not afraid," Kendra gritted.  "And you may remember
that I am the bloody Queen, you lout!  What do you mean by leaving
that message?  Never mind that you sneaked into my bedchamber,
but bringing me up here at a time like this? Gods, Gar, you really try
my patience sometimes!  Do you have any idea what's going on in
my city?"
     "I have not forgotten, my Queen," Gar said, some of the ease
leaving his eyes.  "But there are other matters for you to attend just
now.  Matters that require the presence of a queen."
     "There are a great many matters that require my presence," she
snapped.  "Matters of state, matters of diplomacy and war, and even my
bloody supper, which I've yet to eat.  Perhaps I'll even get to bed one
of my consorts tonight, although that seems less likely by the hour.  So
you can imagine just how pleased I am to play games with you, Gar.  I
tolerate you because you get me results, and because you are my
favourite cousin, but by the gods do not push me!  My unaccountable
fondness for you has its limits!"
     "You never answered my question," Gar said as she whirled sharply
to go.  Normally she would have brushed him off, but there was
something in his voice just then that gave her pause.  Gar was rarely
serious; when he was, she paid attention.
     "What question?"  She was snippish, but Gar seemed unaffected by
her display of pique.
     "Her ghost," Gar said.  There was none of that teasing mein
that so delighted and enraged her.  Gar stared down at her as if
searching for something, and in spite of herself Kendra felt uneasy.
Gar had never been intimidated by the young queen, and for once she
wished she could bully him as she did most of her Court.
     "A ghost is just a shade, Gar," Kendra said, her voice softer
than she had intended.  "It is not my mother, not really.  My mother
gave her life to bring back the light.  It serves no purpose to come
here and wait for a phantom to appear."
     "There is much about the world that we don't understand,
Kendra," Gar replied, his gaze meeting hers and holding it.  "Even
though we suppose, in our arrogance, that we have mastered science
and magick.  Even the gods are not omniscient."  He moved,
extending one hard, muscled arm to point at a discoloured patch near
the centre of the stone platform, clearly visible in the light of the full
moon.  "She died there, at the centre of forces nearly beyond
comprehension."
     "Gar," Kendra breathed, her throat tight.  "I was there,
remember?  And I do not speak of this."
     "She sings sometimes, in the night," Gar went on, his eyes
gentle but implacable.  "And she walks the watch that was renamed
in her honour, as if guarding us from something."
     "I know," Kendra whispered, fighting off a shiver as she looked
away, over the lights of her city.  And so Gar had is answer.
     "Last night she appeared," Gar told her, moving closer.  He
was an imposing man, and his frame blocked the wind as he towered
over her.  "But she didn't sing, and she didn't walk the watch.  She
stood there, in the spot where she died, and she drew her sword."
Kendra remembered that blade well.  It had served every queen of
Altua since the first had carved her kingdom out of an untamed
frontier and held it against all comers.  It was named Galiraithe, and
her mother had been holding it when she'd died.  It had vanished that
day, never to be seen since.
     "She never does that," Kendra said slowly.
     "No," Gar agreed.  "She does not."
     "And then what, Gar?  What did you see?"  Forgotten was
the fact that Gar had defied her edict and come to the watch.  There
was something here, a link to her mother, to the past, to the kingdom
which was now hers to protect.
     "She raised it," Gar told her, "and pointed it at the moon.
And darkness overtook the watch, although the night was clear.  And
then the moonlight returned, but she was gone."
     "Ghosts," Kendra said, shaking her head to free herself from
the spell of the past that she and Gar had cast around them.  "I am not a
little girl, Gar.  I have no time for ghost stories."
     "I have to go," Gar told her.  "And you need to stay."
     "Why?"  Anyone else would have felt the sharp edge of her
tongue, or worse, for giving her an order like that, but she felt
something now.  Gar had brought her here for a reason; something was
up here in the cool spring air with them, something heavy with
foreboding.
     "Because you are Queen," he said simply.  "And I think that,
whatever she wants, it is a matter for queens and nobody else."
     And he walked across the stone platform and disappeared down
the stairs.
     Kendra just stood there, shaking her head in disbelief.  How
like him.  How very like him to do something like this.  It infuriated
Raine, and she had begged her Queen many times to allow her to teach
the knave a lesson.  But as Queen, Kendra had found that it was
sometimes very important to have someone who could lend perspective
to her position.
     Still, if this turned out to be some elaborate practical joke, she
was going to have that boy on the first ship to the Wastelands.
      Kendra walked the watch for a time, listening to the wind's
tales, arms wrapped around herself.  Up here there was nothing to block
the wind coming in off the water, and it was quickly becoming
uncomfortable.
     She paused at the rail, cocking her head.  What was that?
Singing?  She looked out towards the old lighthouse on Graaven's
Point, and for a moment she thought she saw something, an airship
perhaps.  But no; it was dark, and no airship could fly this close to the
city without lights.  Her patrols would be all over any smugglers before
they got this close.
     But that was singing, wasn't it?  A snatch of tune, a young
girl's voice ...
     Gone.
     She sighed.  This was idiotic.  She was hungry, she was tired,
and she badly needed the attentions of at least one, if not more, of the
ten men and women who were her devoted consorts.  Kendra turned to
go.
     Her mother was there.
     It wasn't just that her ghost was there.  She had, after all, seen it
before.  But this tall figure, her auburn hair worn in a long braid that
was the twin of Kendra's, was looking at her.  Was, somehow, seeing
her.
     "Mother?"  It was a little girl's voice, the voice of a girl who
had believed her mother would reign for decades as she grew up and
learned all her advisors and teachers could teach her.  It was the voice
of a girl anguished by her mother's death, resentful of the burden
placed upon her at such a young age, and, at her heart, lonely.
     "Mother?" Kendra repeated.  Her mother's lips moved, but
there was no singing this time, no words the substance of autumn
leaves.  Just the wind, and the look in those eyes.  It was mournful, yet
proud; it was as though her mother really was seeing her as she was
now, grown up and Queen in her own right.
     But that was impossible.
     Then her mother turned, drawing the ghostly Galiraithe and
brandishing it high, the slender tip pointing the way to the silvered
moon.  Kendra swallowed hard; it was not for a queen to be afraid of a
mere shade.  She strode across the cold stone towards her mother's
ghost, wondering what would happen if she tried to touch it.
     The answer to that question was to elude her.  The watch grew
dark, even though the sky remained clear, and Kendra felt a cold shiver
of foreboding slither through her body.  Such magicks as this were not
to be taken lightly; something powerful was abroad in the night,
something old and deep and wild.  The young queen stood her ground,
trying to see through the unnatural gloom, but it was as though a heavy
blanket had been pressed against her eyes.  She could see nothing.
     Then, finally, the darkness lifted, details coming into focus
again.  Her heart began to slow, and she saw with a mixture of relief
and disappointment that her mother's ghost had vanished, just as Gar
had described.  But then, what had she thought would happen?  An
opportunity to talk to her mother one last time, to say all the things she
had been too young to articulate, all the things she regretted never
saying?  Madness.  How could she even ...
     Kendra's heart spiked painfully, and her mouth went dry.
There, on the discoloured spot where her mother's ghost had stood,
something now lay.  She knew what it would be even as she slowly
advanced, knew even before she could see it clearly, could make out
the arcane engraving upon the blade.  But it was not real to her, not
until she grasped it by the hilt and lifted it.
     Galiraithe fit in her hand easily, lighter than she would have
thought, almost warm to the touch.  She held it before her, wonder and
terror swirling in her eyes where they were reflected in the polished
mithril and silver blade.
     "What is it, Mother?" she whispered.  "How did you return her
to me?  And why now?  What is coming?"
     But her words netted no reply, merely the cold whistle of the
night wind, and something that sounded like a distant snatch of a small
girl's voice, singing.
     In Altua, Saeni, on the last night before Baniesti.
 
 

end chapter 15