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 17: Gods and Demons
 
 

     Minako knelt on the floor, her arms wrapped around her body.
The pain was fading, but not the terrible lassitude that had gripped her.  It
was as though no time had passed, as though everything that had
happened since those dark days had been a fleeting dream.  On some
level she had feared this very thing, of course.  She had thought to
confront her demons and vanquish them, but horribly, her strength and
will had fled, leaving her frightened and powerless.
     Had she thought she would walk in here and strike down the
tormentors?  Had she believed that they no longer held any power over
her?  How wrong she had been.  They haunted her still, rode her, and
now she would pay the price for her arrogance.  The two guards stood to
either side of her, guns trained on her as Karla looked down, the
pain-giving gauntlet held at the ready.
     "I'd thought you would be tougher," Karla murmured derisively.
She didn't recognize Minako, of course.  At least, not yet.  But Minako
remembered her, and a fine trembling trilled along the muscles of her
bowed back.  "But look at you.  As soon as events turn against you, my
pretty one, you just fold up like a cheap card table.  The mighty
Sisterhood?  You're no better than that rabble."
     Minako could see the demi-humans out of the corner of her eye,
huddled in the corner.  No one was paying any attention to them, but they
made no move to revolt or escape.  Minako remembered how it had been,
having her spirit worn down to the point where it all seemed hopeless.
She knew how they felt.
     Beaten.  Worthless.  And small.
     "Still, better safe than sorry," Karla went on.  "We have our
orders, after all."
     Giving up so easily? a voice mocked her.  So much for the great
Minako Aino.  Flaunting authority, living life on the edge?  Brash, sexy,
and fearless?  Give me a break!
     Shut up, she thought.  I can't.  I ...
     You lead them here, you stupid bitch, the voice taunted.  You
lead them into this, and now you're just going to renounce all
responsibility while you lay down and give up?  What about Ranma?
What about Rei?
     No, she thought.  I didn't mean for it to happen.  I ...
     What about your duty, and all the promises you made?  To
Artemis, to the girls?
     No.
     To your PRINCESS?
     "Red or Black, Lady Karla?" one of the guards asked from a long
way off.
     Usagi?
     "Oh, I think Red," Karla replied, a smirk in her voice.  Minako
couldn't see her, her head bowed, eyes closed.
     All those words about faith and love and duty and ...
     With her arms wrapped tightly around her body, her left hand
was under her right arm and vice versa.  With a blood-red tide rising
within her, Minako extended the index finger of each hand.  Something
pulsed in her head, images, thoughts, feelings.  They went by quickly, all
save the last one.  She saw the gardens of the palace, the walls breached,
the Earth full in the night sky, her princess standing valiantly before the
coming tide.
     Just before the end.
     The bubble burst, and golden beams of light shot out from each
finger, knifing up to catch both guards full in the chest.  Before either
man could fall, Minako launched herself up from her abject crouch, a
wordless cry tearing free from her throat.  The top of her head caught
Karla under the chin, snapping the woman's head back and sending her
sprawling.  Minako dropped onto her, driving her fist into the woman's
face again and again, that cry coalescing into the distilled essence of fear
and loss and rage.
     By the time she could stop herself, Karla lay still, her face
bloodied and raw.  The air burned Minako's lungs as she gasped, sweat
running down her back and trickling along the edges of her hairline.
     That's right, the little voice in her head said, the scornful edge
gone now.  Get up, Minako.  Always get up just one more time than you
fall down.  Earn your attitude, and keep your promises.
     Get up.
     She stood, her legs shaky as she wiped the sweat from her
forehead with the back of one hand.  Damn.  Things had gone bad so
suddenly.  But why?  Why had Karla attacked them?  Why ...?
     "Ranma," she whispered.  Faintly she heard the sounds of
struggle.  She ran to the ragged hole in the wall, peering frantically
through the haze of dust.  "Ranma!"
     "I got this guy!" a cry came back.  Incredulous, she realized that she
was watching the lithe red-head bounding around in the next room,
hammering Arj repeatedly.  The hulking torturer seemed merely
staggered by Ranma's attacks, but at least he had been driven to the
defensive.  "I'll keep him busy while you get them out of here!"
     "Hang in there!" Minako shouted back.  She turned back to the
room, taking in the frightened demi-humans.  Most of them were still
huddled in the corner, but the girl in the white lingerie was at the side of
the hanging boy, ineffectually clawing at the manacles which held him
aloft.  She saw Minako's attention shift to them and froze, but she did not
back away.
     "Please," she whimpered.  "Don't hurt him any more.  He did it
to protect me.  Please, please, please."
     "It's all right," Minako told her, advancing slowly.  "You're all
getting out of here.  Come with me."
     "No!" one of the boys shouted.  "Don't listen, Elza!  It's a trick!"
     "Like before," the other boy muttered, staring at his hands.  "Like
those other times.  Like that.  Just ... like that."
     "The Mistress is testing us," one of the girls whimpered, falling to
a heap on the floor, her tail curling around her shapely behind.  In other
circumstances, Minako might have found the sight appealing.  Now,
though, she could only stare in dismay.  She knew how badly these poor
unfortunates had been treated.  And their refusal to believe her made
sense.  The Sultana would have twisted everything, dangling false
opportunities for liberty, then punishing those who tried to grasp them.
That was part of the process of breaking their spirits and making them
believe their was no hope, no escape.
     Minako knew.  She understood.  To them, nothing would seem
too outrageous, not even a fight that appeared to kill two guards and beat
the Sultana's overseer to a pulp.  They had been taught that freedom was
an illusion.  They wouldn't trust her.  They wouldn't ...
     She looked down at her hands, a strange feeling of elation
building in her chest like heat lightning.  That's it, that little voice said
softly.  It was her voice, of course.  It always had been.  That's it.  You're
free.  And you know what you have to do.
     Yes.  She did.  She needed to show them that salvation was at hand.
And she had an idea of just how to do that.  Minako turned to the
trembling slaves, a smile rising unbidden to her lips.
     "Sometimes, I'm a sexy priestess," she told them, taking a step
forward, that elation causing her blood to throb just under her skin, full
of delicious heat.  "And sometimes, I'm a sultry dancer."  Her fingers
moved across the Crescent Compact, triggering a costume change, and
suddenly she was standing before them in her Club Kiss outfit, complete
with ears and tail.  "But really, I am ..."  Another change swept over her,
and she welcomed the feel of supple leather, reached up to trace her
fingers across the brim of her cap.  The slaves looked at her, confusion
and fear tainting their feline eyes.
     Until one of them spoke.
     "Mistress V," she whispered.
     "That's right, kitties," V beamed.  "And this is a jailbreak!"  The
room shook as if from an explosion, and in the distance V heard Arj
bellowing in pain.  She had to hurry; Arj was not only part troll, he had
often boasted about having been engineered by forbidden sorceries as a
child, altered into a brutal killing machine.  Ranma would not be able to
hurt him enough to stop him for long.  V took two long-legged strides,
firing her gleaming golden beam through the chain that held the bleeding
young cat-boy suspended.  She caught the limp youth under the arms,
held his unresponsive form as the girl named Elza brushed his long hair
back, tears streaming down her face.
     "He was just protecting me," she mumbled, her voice choked by
grief.  "They hurt him because ... he wanted to ... to protect ..."
     "It's okay," V told her gently.  "They won't hurt him any more.
I promise."
     At that moment, she became aware of the sound of booted feet
hurrying down the corridor, and moments later a number of armed
guards burst in, led by that bastard Garo.
     "Take them!" Garo shouted, and the Gan guns came up.  Black
or Red, Lady Karla? the guard had asked.  V had tasted both in her time,
and she wasn't about to be subject to their touch again.  She thrust out
one gloved hand towards the guards as Elza screamed, and a storm of
shimmering golden hearts smashed into the men, scattering them like
leaves before the tempest before they could unleash a single shot.
     "Lick me, Garo!" V shouted with deranged glee, forcing her
power out until every soldier unable to duck back through the doorway
had been thrown through the wall with bone-breaking ferocity.  She
clutched the stricken boy to her with her free arm, trying to swallow past
the dry lump in her throat as she stared at the fallen soldiers.
    An insanely powerful euphoria kept bubbling up inside her.  It was as
though, now that she had finally broken free of this shadow, she was
invincible.  A dangerous feeling, perhaps, but she needed it just now.
One of the guards rolled through the shattered doorway, and she nailed
him with a beam that dropped him in his tracks.  A second and third
rushed in together, and she snared them with her whip, sending them
crashing into the far wall with bone-crushing force.
     And then there was Garo.  Garo, the guard captain, tough and
strong and ruthless.  He had discarded his Gan gun for a more
conventional sidearm, apparently deciding that stopping her was more
important than taking her alive and unharmed.
     Smart man.
     He fired off the first couple of shots fast, sacrificing accuracy in
order to try and force her to take cover.  To V, though, it was as though
the rawboned guard captain was moving in slow motion.  The shrieks
and cries from the demi-humans didn't distract her, the shots didn't
frighten her.  She turned her body so that the limp boy was partially
shielded, bringing her finger to bear on Garo as he brought his gun to
bear on her.
     In the end, she wasn't certain whether he fired or not.  She
thought he did, but her beam lanced out at the same time, a shimmering
golden streak that entered the barrel of Garo's gun.  The gun exploded in
his hand, and he shrieked, falling to the floor in an untidy heap.  He
rolled over, guttural sounds emerging from his throat, or what was left of
it.  Metal shrapnel had torn into his neck and face, and there was a great
deal of blood.  V watched his struggles, watched them falter, then cease
as he slumped to the floor and lay still.
     An ugly death, yes, but still merciful compared to what they
would have suffered, taken as captives by the Tyrians.  She felt no
compassion for him, none at all.  He looked so much smaller than she
remembered, so much less invincible.  They all did.  She might have
stood there marvelling at that very fact had not a timid touch on her arm
brought her gaze back to Elza, who had not left her side, only crouching
in terror as the gunfire had erupted.  One of the boys was standing beside
her now, his ears twitching madly as he gazed at her with an intoxicating
mixture of adoration and worship.
     "Mistress V?" he asked softly.  "I'll take him.  He's my fuh-
friend ..."
     "It's good to have friends," V smiled.  The boy was rangy, all
smooth, lithe muscle, with waist-length hair the colour of warm
butterscotch.  He scooped his wounded friend into his arms, Elza close
by, and V turned her attention to the others.  A couple of them had
ventured near, the others still gazing at her as though she were a goddess
descended from the heavens.
     And maybe I am, V thought.  What I wouldn't have given to see
what they've seen, someone come in and strike down the hated slavers.
Well, they'll see a lot more before I'm done.  They'll ...
     A terrible thought struck her just then.  "Oh, shit," she whispered.
     "Mistress V?" the boy asked, his eyes going wide.  She ignored
him, raising her hand to her earring.
     "Rei?" she called, triggering her comm.  "Rei, come in.  Rei?
Oh, Rei, please answer!"
     But she didn't.
     "Come on, kitties!" V barked, turning to sweep the ragged group
with her commanding gaze, all hesitancy forgotten.  "Time to go!"

***

     "Interesting toys," Vanka murmured.  On her desk were the few
personal effects she had taken from Rei, including her earring comm and
her henshin rod.  "But you won't be needing them.  I must say, however,
that I am impressed.  I have seen men half again your size take a jolt like
that and stay flat on their backs for hours.  That resilience will come in
handy."
     Rei didn't reply.  Her body still tingled and burned from the
effects of Vanka's little surprise, but that was nothing to the corrosive
anger that ate at her gut.  She'd thought to play this woman, and instead
she had been played.  Had she lost so much of her edge?  Had she, in
embracing her senshi side, doomed herself and the others?
     Rei knelt before the hateful bitch, wrists bound behind her back
by cold steel cuffs.  She might be able to stand, but it would be difficult
to fight like this.  And Vanka caressed the coils of her whip, smiling as if
reading Rei's mind.  The Sultana would almost certainly like nothing
better than for Rei to resist her.
     Think, Rei gritted silently.  She sent men after Minako and
Ranma.  You have to warn them.  You can't just sit here.  Think!
     Rei had tried to communicate with the twins, but something was now
blocking her link.  Just another factor that she hadn't taken into account.
She'd thought that she had weighed the risks.  She had been certain, in
her arrogance, that she could handle the situation, even knowing
Minako's secret.
     And now this.  They would end up in some slaver's market, and
that was if they were lucky.  If they were unlucky, Vanka would turn
them over to the Sisterhood.  And with Baniesti looming, Usagi would be
left vulnerable, just when she needed them the most.
     If only she could transform, she might be able to break these
restraints.  But her henshin rod might as well have been on the moon as
on that desk.  Vanka pushed off the desk with a gentle undulation of her
hips, swaying over to where Rei knelt gripped with impotent fury.  The
pale-haired noblewoman brushed the coils of her whip across Rei's
cheek, then reached down to grip the girl's chin and tilt her head back so
that Rei was forced to meet her gaze.
     "Such temper," Vanka breathed.  "Ah, Rein.  I am going to take
my time with you.  It has been too long since I have had a real challenge.
I tire of the restrictions of this city, this kingdom.  Your queen is a mere
girl who knows nothing of the true nature of power.  Perhaps one day, the
Domina can give her a personal lesson.  The way I intend to school you
and your friends."
     Rei's teeth ground together as she fought the urge to spit.  Vanka
merely smiled, glorying in Rei's humiliation.  She walked a slow circle
around her captive, trailing her fingers through Rei's long sable locks.
The coiled whip brushed against Rei's bare arm, and a tiny bolt of pain
flared there as Vanka triggered a momentary surge of its neural charge.
     "Nothing to say?" she asked sweetly as Rei continued to stew.
"I'll soon change that.  Or maybe ... maybe you'll just sit there as I make
your friends sing.  What do you think?"
     "I think you're making a big mistake," Rei whispered, tossing
her dishevelled hair out of her face and glaring up.  A blackness was
rising in her, and she welcomed it.  It was familiar, this wanton, feral
shadow.  Once she had gloried in it.  And back then, you were never laid
low, it whispered seductively.  Back then, you would have been the one
standing.  You never knelt, not to anyone.  Make her pay for her
insolence.  Wipe that smirk from her vapid face.
     Make her pay.
     "Such wild spirit," Vanka sighed breathily, grasping a handful of
Rei's hair and gazing down into her eyes again.  "Cry out your defiance,
little one.  Scream it to the winds, to the sky.  Howl it for me."  Vanka
leaned close, her perfume enveloping Rei like a caress.  "While you still
can," the woman finished with a wicked smile.
     Then something shook the entire building, a gentle, far-off thud.
Vanka stood up, a tiny crease forming between her eyes.
     "I wonder," she mused, "if your friends are putting up more of a
fight then you did?"
     Rei didn't reply.  Hate filled her, anger and venom and baleful,
red-eyed maleficence.  And in the midst of it a light flared, a tiny pinpoint
of white hot energy.  A light that could cast deep, dark shadows.
     Instinct ruled her in that moment, and Rei bent double in one
smooth, mercurial motion, thrusting her bound wrists up behind her back,
high into the air, her motion unerring, guided by something deeper than
instinct.  The light came to her, found her, freed her.
     Yes.  At last, free.
     And very, very mad.

***

     V skidded to a halt, raising her arms to shield her face as the wall in
front of her exploded into a blizzard of dust and debris.  Arj stumbled
through the opening, arms flailing as he bellowed, sweat cutting streaks
through the dust that caked his hulking form.  Ranma slammed into him
repeatedly, bouncing off the human tank like a deranged ping-pong ball.
Arj tried to crush the red-head, but Ranma changed her trajectories from
moment to moment, spring-boarding off the floor, walls, and even the
ceiling to change her angle of attack so quickly that Arj could not keep
up.
     Which was fortunate, in V's view; if Arj managed to catch the
little red-head in a bear hug, there wouldn't be much left to bury.
     Ranma's final attack pushed Arj back into the far wall, and
before he could recover Ranma sprang back, summoning her chi.  It
formed a swirling, electric blue aura around the girl's body, causing her
unbound scarlet hair to dance as if caught in some eldritch zephyr.  V
blinked; for just a moment, it had seemed to her as though there was
something coalescing within Ranma's battle aura, a definite shape.  But
it was gone before she could be certain it had been there, and the
resourceful fighter unleashed a powerful chi-bolt that drove Arj through
the already weakened wall.
     "Nice!" she shouted.  Ranma flashed her a grin, and V saw that
the girl's top was on the verge of flying open.  Apparently, those clever
little hooks had not stood up to the stress of Ranma's hyper-kinetic
fighting style.
     "I'm gonna make sure he stays down!" Ranma shot back.  "Get
them out of here!"
     "Finish him quick!" V urged as Ranma dashed through the hole
in the wall.  "Rei might be in trouble!"
     "Got it!" came the reply, followed by Arj's vocal displeasure and
the sounds of things breaking.
     "Come on, kitties," V said, turning to the awestruck group behind
her.  "That's our way out."
     "But Mistress V," Kayle protested, shifting the limp body that he
still held cradled in his arms.  Kayle, as it turned out, was the name of the
yummy lad with the masses of tawny hair.  V also thought it might be
possible to crack an egg on young Kayle's ass, something she had forbore
to speculate openly upon only due to the seriousness of their current
situation.  "We can't get out that way."
     "There may still be more guards somewhere, sweetie," V replied.
"We need to make our own exit."  So saying, she focussed her power and
blew out the wall at the far end of the hall.  It exploded outward with
gratifying drama, sending stone and mortar sailing through the darkness
beyond.
     "Awesome," one of the girls whispered.
     "Betcher ass it's awesome," V told them.  "Now, everybody
sticks close to me until I get you through the wall.  Then you head for
that address I gave you."  They nodded solemnly.  The address would
take them to one of her safe houses, which was the best she could do for
them now.
     "But what about your friend?" Kayle panted as they ran towards
the mansion's new exit.  "Will she be all right?"
     "Ranma?  Don't sweat that, gorgeous.  She's a tough nut."  Of
course, so was Arj, but once she found Rei, V would be more than happy
to make certain that Arj never bothered anybody ever again.
     They dashed through the cool night air, V scanning the area
around them for guards.  They remained unmolested, however.  It
seemed the sudden ruckus had drawn all of Vanka's bully-boys inside.
     Perfect.
     V skidded to a halt on the carefully manicured grass, her stiletto
heels leaving deep grooves.  She cupped her hands and summoned her
power, then unleashed it on the imposing wall.  The result was, once
again, quite gratifying.
     "You'll be okay?" she asked as the ragged group moved by her.
     "We'll stay out of sight," Elza promised as she helped herd her
comrades through the hole.  "Don't worry.  We ... we can't thank you
enough.  I ..."
     "Not now, sweetie," V told her firmly.  "Work to do.  I'll check
on you later.  Now go!"
     She sent the lithe cat-girl on her way with a firm pat on a firmer
derriere, then turned and sprinted back across the grass.  Rei could take
care of herself, V told herself as she ran.  The girl had always been self-
reliant to the point of aloofness.  There was no way she would have
frozen up the way V had in there.  Yeah, Rei must be okay.  Absolutely.
     But V couldn't fight off the creeping feeling of dread in her belly.
This whole thing had gone bad without warning, and she didn't like the
fact that Rei was out of contact.  She needed to find her.  Then they could
help Ranma finish off Arj and get out of there.
     Something fluttered down out of the sky, and V dropped and
rolled, her heart hammering.  She came up into a crouch, finger extended,
only to stop herself as she realized what she'd seen.
     "Phobos!"  The diminutive girl spiralled raggedly to the grass,
landing in an untidy heap.  V ran to her, scooping the doll-like form up
gently.  "What's wrong?"
     "A barrier," Phobos mumbled, her eyes glazed.  "Can't buh-
break through ..."
     "Rei?  Where's Rei?"
     "In trouble," a voice came from off to her right.  Deimos was
crawling across the grass, her black wings twitching fitfully.  "We used
all ... our strength.  To help ..."
     "Go," Phobos whispered, her eyes seeking out V's.  "Please.
Help her."
     V nodded, setting the girl gently beside her twin.  Whatever
barrier was keeping the twins out, it didn't affect her.  She ran inside the
building, her fears now realized.
     Rei, she prayed silently.  Be all right.  Just hang in there.  I'm
coming ...

***

     Tiny shards of the table flew through the air like daggers, and Rei
felt a sting as they slashed at her bare skin.  She welcomed the pain,
though, drew it in and added it to the swirling morass of darkness coiling
within her.  Vanka drew the whip back, circling warily through the
shattered ruin of her office.  Rei revelled in the destruction that
surrounded her; the large, plush office had been reduced to a miniature
battlefield.
     And still Vanka could not finish her.
     Blood flowed from Rei's lower lip, and she tasted it slowly,
letting her tongue linger as she met Vanka's dark gaze across the no-
man's land of broken desks and wrecked furniture.  Her smile unnerved
the proud noble, she saw.
     Good.
     "An interesting trick, that beam," Vanka growled throatily.  "After I
restrain you, you'll have to tell me how you managed it."
     "You don't understand yet, do you?" Rei asked softly as she
circled away from Vanka, finding her footing with absolute certainty
despite never taking her eyes from the other woman's.  "You had all the
advantages, yet you failed to strike the finishing blow.  Now I will teach
you not to trifle with your betters."
     "Brave words," Vanka sneered.  It was a pretty good sneer.  Rei
hadn't seen too many better.  But in the end, style wouldn't help this
woman.  Nothing would.
     Rei watched with disdain as Vanka increased the whip's power
for the third time since they had begun sparring.  Slavers generally used
such whips at low power settings.  They were effective at inflicting pain
on slaves without causing unsightly physical damage.  Apparently,
Vanka was finally coming to the realization that half-measures were not
going to suffice against Rei.
     "Are you really a Tyrian noblewoman?" Rei asked lightly,
sidestepping an untidy sprawl of broken binders and paper.  "Unable to
handle one unarmed woman?  What would your Domina say if she saw
this travesty?"
     "You'll be able to ask her yourself," Vanka replied, her sinister
smile exuding malice.  Their delicate mirror dance had brought her
within range of a toppled file cabinet, and the woman stooped like a
striking hawk, scooping something from one of the burst drawers.  Rei
had thought that Vanka would try to hold her off with the whip until help
arrived, but it appeared the woman had other ideas.
     Now she had a gun.
     And not just any gun.  Rei recognized the barrel design with its
protective and guidance sigils.  It was a Gan gun.
     She smiled.
     "Just out of curiosity," Rei murmured, tossing her hair back over
her shoulder, "Red or Black?"
     "Redjells," Vanka smirked.  "Not only will you be restrained, but
your body will be subjected to intense, unbearable pleasure.  You think
your pride will protect you, bitch?  I've seen barbarian kings reduced to
tears by the embrace of these little darlings.  I'll enjoy hearing you beg,
Rein."
     Rei didn't deign to reply.  Instead she spread her arms, throwing
her head back.  By blood and by power, she intoned silently.    I summon
thee.  Bound by my will, answer to my command and lend me your
strength ...
     Vanka fired.
     Rei felt the Redjell hit, staggering slightly as it spread over her
chest, tendrils immediately slithering over her body.  She didn't allow it
to distract her, though.  Instead she lowered her head, locking gazes with
Vanka again.
     "Azakaru!"
     Her shadow came to her.  It was wild, dark, savage.
     And jealous.
     Tendrils of shadow twined with those of the Redjell, slowing its
advance.  Fire burned along Rei's nerves, pleasure so intense it was
nearly painful, but she resisted its heat.  This was not new to her, after all.
Calling on her training, she exerted iron discipline, staying in control.  If
she panicked now, or even lost her focus, she would suffer the most
humiliating defeat.
     Her bare flesh was patterned with scarlet and ebony as two forces
fought for control.  She could feel a long, oily strand circling her throat,
making its way towards her mouth.  Rei controlled her breathing
carefully, although not without effort.  Vanka was watching her, eyes
wide, and Rei felt some satisfaction at the thought that the woman had
never seen anything like this before.  Of the few Sisters who could
command Shadow Magick, only she and Saekianna could have pulled off
anything like this.
     And she would pull it off.  Deep within her, Rei could sense the
core of her own personal darkness.  She had spent a great deal of time
trying to bury that part of herself, but as she reached for it in desperation,
she realized the truth.  It had never been buried very deeply, had never
been very far from the surface.  Senshi she might be, but the darkness
which had tainted her life had also sustained her.
     And she needed it now.
     That narrow tendril was still inching towards her lips, seeking to
invade her; it was not alone.  Others snaked down her body, slowed but
not stopped by the presence of her shadow.  Another woman might have
panicked, but Rei had been forged in the Sisterhood's fiercest fires.  She
would not be bested, not by some witless fucking sorcerously engineered
blob of ooze.
     Inky blackness coiled, within and without.  She stood in the midst
of the tempest and she was unafraid.  As a girl she had called this
darkness to her, knowing that it might consume her.  Others had fallen,
but they were weak, flawed.  Not her.  Rei had tamed the shadows,
leashed them.  They were hers to command in every way.
     Her hair rippled and flowed around her as though caught in some
phantom wind, a cloak of living night.  All over her body, her shadow
extended its gossamer fingers to ensnare the writhing, squirming Redjell.
Rei looked down, meeting the blank, mindless eye that emerged from the
body of the thing.  It had no conception of what was happening to it,
unable to take any action to protect itself as Rei's shadow drew it in,
absorbing it.  The eye disappeared last, sinking into the merciless dark,
and Rei laughed aloud, the sinuously sweet laughter of a dark angel.
     "No," Vanka whispered, and Rei was greatly gratified by the fear
in the woman's eyes.  "No, that's not possible.  What are you?"
     "I'll show you," Rei replied, her voice filled with dark promise.
     Then the lights went out.
     Vanka shrieked.  Rei was certain that those who had suffered at
this woman's hands would have loved that sound.  She certainly did.  She
flowed through the sudden darkness, becoming just another shadow as
Vanka fired the Gan gun again and again, sending the foul oozes
splattering harmlessly against the walls.  None of the shots came close to
Rei, who stalked her prey patiently, savouring the fear that tainted the air
now.
     The gun clicked empty, and Vanka threw it into the dancing shadows
cast by the guttering fire.  Rei heard it clatter somewhere off to her left,
and smiled.  Would Vanka remember the whip she held coiled in her
other hand, or would she just run?  Rei glided through the shadows,
watching as Vanka regained control, putting her back to a wall and
switching the whip back to her right hand.
     So.  She was made of tougher stuff indeed, this Tyrian Sultana.
Well, no surprise there.  And just as well, really.  Rei was spoiling for a
fight.
     "I always suspected that you Sisterhood bitches were holding
out," Vanka spat, eyes searching the darkness.  "Well, we'll just have to
do this the old fashioned way.  Believe me, Rein, I have earned my
reputation.  You will regret this."
     "We shall see," Rei replied.  The office was spacious, but hardly
big enough for Rei to hide in for long, even in the dark.  With that in
mind, she had chosen her position, and as she expected, Vanka reacted
immediately to the sound of her voice.  The woman unleashed a vicious
strike in her direction, the charged whip slashing though the air with
deadly force.
     It appeared that Vanka was no longer concerned with taking her
in one piece, or even necessarily alive.  No matter.
     Rei slid forward through the cloaking darkness, just another
shadow as she flowed past the strike with mere inches to spare.  Like a
dancer she guided her body through its movements, snapping her head
forward to send her hair snaking towards the whip before the woman
could pull it back.  Long locks of sable silk snared the extended lash, and
Rei grabbed the ends, using her hair as a noose to pull the woman
off-balance.  Sweeping in low, Rei struck at Vanka's wrist, using her
sleek snare to pull the whip free from Vanka's grip as the woman cried
out in pain.  Rei pressed her advantage, the next steps in her shadow
dance bringing her up behind the woman, catching her in a submission
hold.  Vanka struggled, but now she was the prey, and Rei was in her
element.
     "Vanka," Rei crooned.  "Vankaaaaa."
     "You will never escape!" Vanka spat, straining against her
captor.  "My guards will cut you down!"
     "If your guards were coming, they would be here by now," Rei
murmured softly, her mouth close to Vanka's ear.  "And I have nothing
to fear from them.  Now.  Let us talk, you and I."
     "Bitch," Vanka snorted.  "I am a Tyrian Sultana.  Do you think
you can make me tell you anything?  Save your parlour tricks and street-
slut come-ons for the lower classes!"
     "Vanka," Rei purred, sliding her left hand up the woman's rigid
body to the crook of her neck.  Rei ran her fingers lightly across her
tender lip, collecting fresh blood.  The sticky blood was black in this
gloom, as though even her very blood was shadow.  "Do you know what
the oldest forces of human magick are, my dear Vanka?"  Rei reached up
and drew her fingers down the woman's cheek to her mouth, smearing
blood there in a ragged trail.
     "Blood, Vanka," Rei whispered into her captive's ear.  "Blood ...
and sex.  You will talk, Vanka.  You will SING."
     Rei grabbed the woman by her hair, spinning her roughly.  Vanka
gasped, beginning to struggle.  Then her gaze met Rei's.  And she neither
spoke nor sang.
     She did, however, scream.

***

     "Arj," I said.  "Can I call you Arj?"  Arj replied by scooping up a
very solid desk with one hand and hurling it at me.  I slipped by the
careening chunk of furniture, letting it sail by the tip of my nose to
shatter against the far wall.
     "GRAAAAAAH!" Arj declared.
     "Yes, Arj strong like dump truck," I agreed.  That was an
understatement.  Arj could soak up damage like nobody I'd seen since
Ryouga.  He was insanely strong and had enough fighting skill to make
him a menace.  He had taken everything I could throw at him and come
back for more.  I faced the pointy-headed behemoth at the end of a trail of
absolutely devastated rooms, my breath burning in my chest, sweat and
trickles of blood coursing down my body, my fancy Sisterhood get-up in
tatters.
     Man, I was having a blast.
     A part of me, a very small part, knew I should be more worried
about Rei and Minako.  But hell, those two could take care of
themselves.  A bunch of gun-toting thugs and some snotty slave trader
weren't going to be anything more than a bump in the road to the girls,
and anyway, I couldn't very well leave this particular bit of business
unfinished, could I?
     No.  No, I could not.  I recalled the terrified look in the eyes of
those kids.  They'd been reduced to nothing, mere property for this
supposed noblewoman and her cronies.  The way they'd been dressed left
no doubt as to what sorts of things they'd been forced to do.  And when
they refused to lick the lady's boots, old Arj was always ready to use his
strength to hurt them.  I knew the look in his eyes.  He liked the hurting.
Guys like him, they lived for it, for the screams, the tears, and the
begging.  Oh, yeah, I was willing to bet Arj was all about the begging.
He probably ate it up with strawberries and cream, then went back for
seconds.
     "I will break you," Arj rumbled, his voice full of broken gravel,
proving my theory that Arj was nothing if not predictable.  Muscles
bulged under skin that gleamed like dull steel, and the tendons in his
neck could have supported a bridge.
     "No, Arj," I replied, shifting my weight slightly to mirror his own
movements.  "You break small, scared, defenceless cat-girls.  You break
people who can't fight back.  It might have escaped your notice, you
being not too bright, but I am fighting back."
     "But you can't hurt me," Arj countered.  His grin held the sleepy
look of a starving man thinking about a deluxe beef bowl.  "You can't
stop me.  Soon, you'll run out of strength.  After all, you're only a little
girl.  And then I'm gonna tear the rest of those brazen rags off that hard
little body and show you how I keep small, scared girls in line, bitch."
     He was sizing me up, getting ready to rush me.  If he caught me
in a hold, he'd crush me; I had to keep him at a distance while trying to
find a way to take him down.  But a knot of fever-heat had tied itself
behind my eyes, way down deep, and as I held Arj's piggy gaze I smiled
back at him.
     "Arj," I said.  "I wish you hadn't called me that.  Cause I really,
really hate being called that."
     My first shot caught him flush in the nose.  It was a good shot,
and it hurt him, but there was no satisfying crunch of broken bone and
cartilage.  I flipped back, then landed a series of punishing kicks into his
midsection, dancing around him at full speed.  Rage fuelled my strikes,
but Arj soaked them up, even managing to clip me with one of his arms.
That hit was enough to send me pinwheeling through the air; I crashed
through a wall and into another room before I could recover.  I'd been
lucky to hit an interior wall, and not the stone foundation wall that the
desk had hit.
     I climbed back to my feet as Arj came plowing through the hole
I'd made, bellowing like a drunken bulldozer as he bore down on me.
His eyes promised pain, pain and humiliation.
     He probably thought I'd run.
     I probably should have.
     But I didn't.  I could sense the difference between hot and cold
chi, and even if I'd had the space to try the Hiryou Shouten Ha, I wasn't
having any luck keeping my chi cold.  Except ...
     Except there was something there, a cold core in the heat of my roiling
chi.  It was a strange sensation, like having cold tinfoil in your mouth, or
squeezing a hot dough ball with a cold, slushy centre, or walking through
hot mud and sinking through to ice.  Or maybe it wasn't like any of those
things.  That didn't matter, not really.  What mattered was that, even
though Arj had shrugged off every chi blast I'd hit him with so far, I was
going to give him another one.
     That was the thought I had as I unleashed the power within me.
Sliding into a stance, I was surrounded by a blazing blue glow as I drew
that energy closer, something I had done many times before.  Time
slowed down; Arj was coming, and I was going to meet him with
everything I had.  Time to see just what our boy was made of.
     Something was different, though.  The strange icy shard remained
within my chi like an uncharted undercurrent, changing the flow.
Something burned the inside of my right wrist, either with fire or intense
cold, but I couldn't be distracted now.  Arj seemed intent on flattening
me, and I called up all my reserves, cupping my palms, extending them.
     There was something around me, a haze, almost a shape.  It
swirled within my chi, hovering at the edge of comprehension, and part of
me burned to bring it into focus even as the rest didn't want to
acknowledge it.
     Arj saw it, too.  His piggy red eyes widened, and he actually
slowed.
     I didn't.
     Frigid music rippled along nerve-endings ablaze with heat,
drawing my whole being along the path of my chi-bolt.  It had never been
like this before.  Exhilaration so intense it was nearly pain screamed
through my head, and I rode it into Arj, over and through him, grabbing
him and hammering that impervious body with all my rage.  He
screamed then.  Arj the tormentor, the torturer, the creature who revelled
in cruelty and rape, at last was forced to taste fear.
     Sweat dripped into my eyes.  I shuddered, wiping it away with
the back of my hand.  Everything was quiet.  And pretty dark, too, except
for the sparks coming from beyond the wall I'd just blasted Arj through.
I stared down at my hands in the shadowed gloom, my throat coated with
sandpaper and my muscles trembling.
     "What the hell was that?" I whispered.  The energy that had
flowed through me had quieted now, but even in the aftermath I was
aware that I had just done something that I had never done before.  That
had been no mere chi blast.  Mere?  Damn, a chi blast was a hell of a
technique to begin with!  What had I called up?
     My only clue was the faint burning I still felt on the inside of my
right wrist.  The key resided there, under my bracer; there had been no
way to hide it in the outfit I'd been wearing, and I hadn't wanted to wear
it openly.  The key reacted to my chi, yes, but it had never reacted to
offensive uses before, not like this.
     What had it done?
     Only one way to find out.
     I moved through the gloom, being careful of my footing on the
debris-strewn floor.  The jacket I'd been wearing was totally shredded
and I discarded the remains; they were more of a distraction than
anything else now.  The torn mesh bodystocking was still hanging in
there, but not by much.  Still, what I saw when I eased through the
newest hole in Vanka's expensive house drove all thoughts of modesty
right out of my mind.
     Arj lay sprawled in a tangle of spitting electrical cables, coated
with dust and blood.  One of his legs was bent at an angle that should
have been impossible, and chunks of concrete slid off his heaving chest as
he coughed and stirred.  By the size of the indentation in the far wall,
he'd hit it with tremendous force, taking out the entire electrical panel
before collapsing under a rain of cold stone and live wires.
     Couldn't have happened to a nicer guy.
     The ceiling creaked ominously, and I stayed by the hole, looking
down at Arj.  That ceiling could come down at any time; I had a feeling
that Vanka was going to have some explaining to do to her insurance
agent.  Assuming I didn't get my hands on her first.
     "Bitch," Arj gasped.  "You ... luh-hittle ... BITCH."
     "Arj," I said softly, "you are what I like to refer to as a slow
learner."
     "Come here," Arj grunted, peering up at me with the one eye that
wasn't obscured by blood.  "I'm not done ... not done with you.  Not
yet."
     "That so?" I asked lightly.  The supports that held up the floor above
us had been damaged, several of them had splintered into sharp wooden
teeth that hung above Arj.  He seemed unaware of his predicament, or at
least unconcerned.  His one good eye lingered on my breasts, barely clad
in black mesh, and his grin made my stomach twist into an ice-cold knot.
     "I know," he grunted.  "I know what you need.  Arj will fix you.
Stuck-up bitch.  Won't be so big when I get through with yuh- you ..."
He broke off into a painful coughing fit, blood bubbling at the corners of
his mouth.
     "You fixed them all good, didn't you, Arj?" I asked.  I was
thinking of the cat-girl in the torture chamber, the one with the white
lingerie.  She'd had bruises on her thighs and the insides of her legs,
bruises the size of Arj's huge hands.
     He smiled.  He kept right on smiling while I thought of all the
others who had suffered because of him and those like him.  He smiled
while I thought of those who treated people like their rightful prey.  He
even smiled while I thought of another creature, one who'd kept Akane
alive until the last.  I tried to never think about what it might have been
planning.  I tried, but sometimes, in the darkest moments, that thought
haunted me, rode me, made me crazy.
     "Arj."  His one eyes swivelled, found me.  Incredibly, lying
broken and surrounded by live wires, he licked his lips as he ogled  me.
"Arj.  Listen."
     "Bitch."  He laughed, a wet, throaty sound, blood forming a foam
around his mouth.
     "Arj.  When you get to hell, you may see the thing that ate my
father and killed the girl I loved.  When you do, tell it Ranma Saotome
sent you."
     Then I picked up a piece of wall the size of my head and hurled it at
the unstable ceiling.
     The ensuing collapse was really spectacular.

***

     V eased through the hallway, stealthy as a shadow.  She'd been
careless enough for one day; she was pretty sure she had accounted for all
the household guards, but pretty sure wasn't good enough.  This entire
escapade had gone bad on them, and it was now time to regroup and bail,
intelligence on the Sisterhood be damned.
     She wondered if Ranma was responsible for the lights going out.
There was much less noise from down below than there had been, and V
wanted to go check on the red-head.  But Rei still wouldn't answer her
comm, and V's anxiety kept increasing with every room she checked.
Whatever had happened to give them away, Vanka's people had reacted
swiftly.  Had the woman herself taken Rei off-guard?
     V knew just what level of depravity and cruelty Vanka was
capable of.  Rei could be in real trouble.  She had to find her friend, fast.
This was, after all, her fault.  What had she been thinking, coming back
here?  Hells, not only coming back herself, but bringing the others?  If
anything had happened to Rei ...
     V paused, eyes narrowed.  In the pale shafts of illumination that
fell through the high, arched windows of the hall, she saw a door further
down the hallway that had been smashed.  A wedge shaped piece still
clung to the bottom hinge, but the rest had taken a terrible hit.  Not from
fire magick, either; there was no sign of charring or burn damage.
     Resuming her slow stalk through the clinging dark, V advanced
on the door, power simmering just under the fragile barrier of her skin.
She dreaded what she might see within that room, but that dread was
tempered by a welcome glow of anger.  It had been a long time since she
was able to feel anything but fear when she thought of Vanka.  Anger
was better.
     Actually, acting on her anger would be the best thing of all.  But
if Ranma and Rei suffered for her folly, then it would be a hollow victory
indeed.  V drew in a slow breath as she flattened herself against the wall
outside, thrusting all those distractions from her mind.  First nail Vanka,
she told herself.  No worrying until the enemy has been dealt with.  You
know the rules of engagement, girl, it's time you started following them.
You're no amateur.  Now.  One.  Two.
     Three.
     She burst into the room, going low as she swept her extended
finger from left to right, seeking a target.  The large room was a wreck,
the walls gouged, the furniture shattered.  From her vantage point, she
could see only one person, silhouetted against the window.  She trembled
on the edge of action, but familiarity dwelled in the stance, the line of the
body, the high cheekbones, the sleek sweep of the knee-length hair,
firelight picking out cool violet highlights there.
     "Rei!" V blurted, standing.
     "Always making an entrance," Rei replied.  Her tone was even,
but there was something else lurking in her throaty voice, something dark
and hungry.  V took a step forward, another, then stopped.  A shape lay
on the floor at Rei's feet, and even before V summoned her whip to cast a
golden glimmer through the room she knew who it must be.
     "Vanka," she said, surprised at how even her voice was.  There
had been a time when she could not even speak the woman's name
without her chest tightening in the beginnings of panic.  "Dead?"
     "No," Rei remarked, her face still cloaked in shadows.  "But she
is ... unwell.  I was questioning her, and I seem to have gotten somewhat
carried away."
     Rei's face was still shadowed, but in the soft light of her whip V could
see the girl's hand.  Shadows slithered there, alive with voracious
serpentine hunger, and the girl's gut tightened.  "Rei, I was calling you.
Why didn't you answer your damned comm?"
     "It's over there somewhere," Rei said dismissively.  Yeah,
something was definitely not right.  V followed the negligent wave of
Rei's shadow-wreathed hand and moved to the ruin of a large desk.  The
light of her whip showed something gleaming on the floor, half-buried
amongst the debris.  V knelt, plucking Rei's earring from the rubble.
There was something else there, too.
     Rei's henshin rod.
     So.  Things must have gone badly, for Rei to have been stripped
of these items.  And she had defeated Vanka with only her Sisterhood
abilities.  V stood, picking her way across the wreckage-littered floor
until she was nearly within reach of Rei.  The closer she came, the
stronger her misgivings; something prickled across her skin where it was
exposed, an aura of power that radiated like fever heat from Rei's
shadowed form.  There was something almost sinister in the set of Rei's
body as she watched V, and V had to remind herself that this was her
friend.  Rei would not hurt her.
     "Rei, are you all right?" V asked at last.
     "Quite," Rei replied, her voice a husky purr that sent shivers
skating down V's spine.
     "What in the hells happened?"
     "Vanka needed to be taught a lesson," Rei told her, moving toward V
with a sensual grace that tightened things low in the blonde's belly.
"About power.  Dominance.  And submission."
     Shadow clung to Rei's lithe form as she prowled lazily across the
room, loathe to release the sultry siren from its embrace.  It was like
watching water recede from a swimmer's body, only V quickly realized
that not all of the shadows had drained away to pool in the room's deeper
gloom.  Inky tendrils of shadow still writhed over Rei's pale skin, their
sinuous dance exerting an undeniable pull.  V felt her pulse throbbing in
her throat as her heart raced at the sight.  Rei had always evoked desire;
now, though, that erotic heat was spiced with a razored edge of menace.
     V had never wanted Rei more, and the fact that she had forgotten
where they were, even if only for a moment, was bad.  The fact that Rei
also seemed to have forgotten was worse.
     "Did she tell you anything useful?" V asked, her mouth dry.  Rei
moved closer, her smile caressing V's most delicate places with knee-
weakening skill.
     "She begged," Rei breathed.  "To stop.  Or not stop, it wasn't
actually very clear."
     "Damn it, Rei!  She has the answers we need!  This is why we
came here!"
     "Is it?" Rei asked.  They were face to face now in the gloom-
shrouded office, surrounded by destruction.  V managed not to shudder
as Rei's perfume enveloped her, a scent of sex, sin, leather, and bessin
root oil.  "I think maybe you came here for another reason."
     "What do you mean?" V demanded.
     "You needed to slay a demon," Rei said with a sly smirk gracing
her glistening lips.  "A demon that still haunted your past.  And you
have, I can see it.  The chains that bound you have been broken."
     "Rei," V said.  It was difficult to speak; Rei's eyes seemed to be
drinking her in, and her heart was pounding.  "Vanka.  We need ..."
     "I know what you need," Rei whispered, her hands coming up to
frame V's face.  Long nails trailed up the blonde's cheeks as Rei moved
against her, tossing V's cap aside carelessly, ignoring V's half-hearted
protest.  V gasped softly as Rei's fingers combed through her hair,
luxuriating in it, then twining in it and drawing her closer.
     The air was hot, heavy with the scent of desire.  V's hands were
on Rei's shoulders, but she couldn't seem to push the other girl away.
She couldn't even remember why she wanted to as Rei's lips slid along
her cheek slowly, seeking the tender flesh of her throat.  V whimpered as
that succubus mouth drew her earlobe into its velvet forge, then Rei's
breath was snaking into her ear, seeking to melt any resistance that
remained.
     "Let us celebrate our victory," Rei purred, one hand still buried
in V's mane, the other tracing delicious patterns at the small of her back
as Rei's breasts pressed against hers.  "I want you.  Now.  In the enemy's
sanctum, while she lies there, utterly defeated.  Let us consecrate this
place with our heat."
     Heat, yes.  Rei's mouth was at her throat, her chin, then on her
lips, and V moaned as she was kissed deeply.  Yet still something nagged
at her, an irritant which would not be denied.  Why?  V had always
desired Rei's attentions, her unbridled passion.  Why couldn't she just let
herself fall under Rei's spell?  Consecrate Vanka's sanctum with their
lust?  There was something darkly appealing about the notion.  With the
enemy defeated, just the two of them ... just ... two ...
     Two?
     V gasped, pushing Rei roughly away from her, panic lending her
strength.  Rei was taken off-guard, the hunger in her bottomless eyes
quickly replaced by fury.
     "What are you doing?" she asked, curling her lacquered nails
like talons.
     "Ranma!" V blurted.  "Rei, Ranma's in trouble!  He's fighting
Arj!"
     "One opponent?" Rei sniffed with a contemptuous toss of her
head.  "I hardly think that will prove a challenge for her."
     "Arj is no ordinary man!" V snapped.  Her entire body still
radiated heat from Rei's embrace, and she still felt the draw that the
sable-maned seductress was exerting.  Damn her!
     "And Ranma is no ordinary fighter," Rei replied, lips curling into
a bewitching smile.  "Still, as long as our scrappy Ranma is a red-headed
spitfire, I have no objection to her joining us."
     "She won't be joining anybody if we don't help her!" V cried.
"Rei, snap out of it!  We've got to go help her!"
     "Help who?" a voice asked from behind her.  V whirled in
surprise, nearly falling.  The sight that greeted her made her heart leap in
her leather-clad chest.
     "Ranma!  You're okay!  And half-naked!"
     "Er, yeah," Ranma said sheepishly.  V ran to her, grabbing the girl in
a fierce embrace and lifting her off her feet, spinning her around while
ignoring the red-head's protests.
     "I can't believe it!" V grinned.  "What happened?"
     "Arj got what was coming to him," Ranma said softly.
     "There's been a lot of that tonight," Rei said, and V turned to
glare at the priestess, who was watching them with undisguised interest.
     "Rei, what's the matter with you?" she growled.
     "There is nothing wrong with me," Rei assured her, beginning a
slow strut towards them.
     "This mission has gone right into the toilet, and you don't even
seem to care!" V declared hotly.
     "Why should I?" Rei asked.  The shadowy patterns on her skin
seemed to have grown to V's eyes, and were writhing in a way that
seemed entirely predatory.  "We won.  Our enemies lie at our feet, love.
That is what matters."
     "What about our mission?" V pressed.  "What about our
princess?"  Rei stopped then, a crease appearing between her eyes.
"Have you even wondered where Phobos and Deimos are, Rei?"
     Rei blinked, and it seemed to V that those inky tendrils slowed in
their undulating dance.  "The girls?" she asked, frowning.  "I ... I can't
sense them."
     "They're stuck outside," V said.  "There's a barrier.  They're
worried about you, Rei.  And so am I."
     "Stay here," Rei commanded, sweeping past them and out of the
room in a swirl of alabaster and midnight.
     "Sure," V muttered at the empty doorway.  "Nice talking to
you."
     "Um," Ranma said.  "Shouldn't we ...?"
     "Let her go for now," V sighed.  "Trust me, she shouldn't be
around either of us until she gets her head together.  Especially you, Red.
So much for the errant gust of wind, huh?"
     Ranma flushed, suddenly self-conscious.  Wearing nothing but a
tattered skirt and the remains of a mesh bodystocking was a very good
look for the busty red-head, and normally V would have taken more time
to appreciate the view.  But right now there was one last chance to maybe
salvage something from this mess, a mess she had been mostly
responsible for.
     "What are you doing?" Ranma asked as V stooped to pluck her
cap from the wreckage-strewn floor.
     "It looks like this was Vanka's new office," V told her.  "I'm
having a thought, Ranma.  Come on, help me search."
     "For what?"
     "I'll know," V said with a wry grin, "when I find it."

***

     Rei stopped in the downstairs hallway, leaning against the wall.
Her breathing had grown ragged, but when she finally lifted her hands,
they were clean.  Trembling, but clean.  Her shadow had been forced
back, once more tightly bound under her control.
     She laughed, a short, harsh bark of a sound in the still air.  She
had believed that her dark side had been buried deeply, interred along
with her time as a priestess of Dasma's order.  That particular grave,
however, had been far shallower than she had realized, a fact that
tonight's festivities had made painfully clear.
     She shivered.  The power had sunk back within her, leaving her
feeling naked, vulnerable.  That was one of the insidious aspects of
calling her shadow to the surface; it brought a great many things with it
when it rose from the murk.  The shadow granted not only certain
abilities of Shadow Magick, but also confidence, certitude, arrogance.
Shadows were not constrained by conscience or uncertainty, and
constantly inveigled the caster to sate their appetites, be they for violence,
or pleasure, or any form of indulgence.
     Rei had let her shadow slip its leash; that had been the only way
to defeat Vanka.  As it turned out, she had loosed more than just the
shadow, however.  All those old feelings, the sense of being a goddess, of
being entitled to everything she could take, all of it had returned in full
force for the first time since she'd come to this city.  It was not that she
was unaware of what was happening; she simply hadn't wanted to stop it.
     You thought you had put all that behind you, eh, Sister
Darkeyes?  Well, guess again.  Scratch the surface and find all the old
darknesses still right there under the skin.  Rei pushed off of the wall,
raking her fingers through her hair.  Gods, how had they done it?  The
history of the Sisterhood told of the Mistresses of Shadow Magick who
had once been a power within the order.  They had worn their shadows as
raiments, flowing cloaks that sheltered them, swallowing light even at
mid-day.  They had been able to form weapons from their own shadows,
supple whips, sinuous and self-aware snares that could resist mundane
weapons.  They could pass through Shadow Realm at will, and most of
all, they had wreathed themselves in living shadow at all times.
     So much of the lore of Shadow Magick had been lost in that final
battle.  What remained was a pale echo of what they had once
commanded, and yet even that tempted the soul, whispering seductive
promises of freedom, freedom from the rigid rules of humans, freedom to
rage and feed and slake every thirst of flesh and will.
     "But you should have known better," she whispered into the
darkness.  Her voice sounded hollow to her ears.  V and Ranma could
have been in trouble, had been if the state of Ranma's clothing was any
indication.  And V had been facing her demons here, braving a haunted
past, facing darkness with courage.  All while Rei had given in to her
own darkness.
     Damn it.
     Rei stormed down the hallway, almost wishing for a stray guard
to cross her path.  That only lasted until she realized that she had
neglected to retrieve her comm and henshin rod.  Idiot, she berated
herself.  Are you really a senshi?  If you don't start thinking straight,
your luck is going to run out.
     Rei had been planning to use the front door, but it appeared that
someone had made their own exit out of this hallway.  She moved
gingerly, picking her way along the rubble strewn hallway towards the
ragged hole in the wall.  Why had she told V and Ranma to stay upstairs,
anyway?  Well, if she was honest with herself, that was because she had
needed the time to regain control, and she had been a little bit afraid of
what would happen if those two were near her.  V had been a lush vision
in glossy leather, and Ranma ... Ranma had practically been glowing
with raw vitality.
     Now that she was in control, though, she couldn't just call them
to come down, since she had left her comm behind.  That thought led to
another; the Outers were on their frequency now.  If she had called for
help earlier, she might have ended up showing her darkest face to those
women as well.  She had a feeling that this was not the time for Hotaru
and the others to come face-to-face with that particular sight.  Or, gods,
Usagi.  Please, she thought, never let her see me that way.
     Rei eased out into the night, moving cautiously.  She had given
rein to her huntress side earlier, but now it was time to act like prey.
They would be fortunate to come away from this fiasco with nothing
more than bruised pride, that was for certain.
     Crossing the grass, she felt the barrier as she passed through it.  It
clung to her skin like dry old spiderwebs, and she fought the urge to
grimace.  Whatever it was, Vanka must have triggered it somehow from
the office, for it had not been there when they'd entered.
     Once through the barrier, Rei could immediately sense distress
emanating from the twins.  She found them huddled together at the base
of an old cherry tree, unable to stand.
     "Are you two all right?" she asked gently as she knelt.
     "Rei-sama," Phobos breathed.  "You're safe."
     "We told V to find you," Deimos mumbled, slumped against her
twin.
     "She did," Rei murmured.  "It was you, wasn't it?  You managed
to break through the barrier with that shot and free me."
     "We couldn't come," Phobos whimpered.  "I'm sorry, Rei-sama
..."
     "Hush, now.  You did fine.  You saved me, girls."  It had taken a
lot out of them, though, Rei could see.  She reached down to scoop the
diminutive girls up when something caught her eye, a sliding swath of
blue light racing along a section of wall down towards the front of the
grounds.  Rei recognized it, and her gut tightened.
     Damn.  The police.

***

     So here I was, half-naked, sifting through the rubble of an office
which belonged to a Tyrian noblewoman.  Said noblewoman was lying
unconscious on the floor, showing no sign of moving anytime soon.  V
seemed to have been infused with manic energy, Rei had gone all the way
to the dark side, and we hadn't managed to find out anything except that
the Sisterhood had been doing something with the Sultana.
     Boy, do I know how to have fun, or what?
     Still, V had recovered from earlier.  Okay, maybe I thought she
was overcompensating a little, but that was her business, not mine.  I
didn't want to pry, but the silence was getting uncomfortable.
     "Uh, what happened to the slaves?" I asked finally, choosing a
conversational gambit that seemed safe.
     "Huh?  Oh, I sent them somewhere safe.  And they weren't
slaves."
     "They weren't?"
     "Slavery is illegal in the kingdom, Ranma."
     "Then why were they there?" I asked, scowling at the memory of
the tableau we'd walked in on.  "They sure as hell didn't look like they
wanted to be."
     "If I had to guess," V grunted, rummaging through the debris,
"I'd say they were soft markers."
     "Soft markers?  What's that?"
     "One of the many dirty little secrets of the city's underbelly,
Ranma my dear."  V tossed aside a twisted metal drawer and glanced
over at me to see if I was paying attention.  When she caught my gaze,
she gave me a wry smile.  That smile didn't reach her eyes, though, and if
I wasn't the smartest guy in the world when it came to people, I at least
had learned when to shut up and listen.
     So I shut up.  And I listened.
     "You see, Ranma, there are plenty of dealings in this city that are,
shall we say, below official radar.  And sometimes deals go bad, or fall
through, or debts are incurred.  One way to buy some time in a case like
that is to give a soft marker to the person you owe the debt to."
     "You can give someone a person?" I asked, a chill that had
nothing to do with my lack of clothes..
     "One or more," V nodded, an ugly twist of her lips flashing across her
face briefly.  "Depending on just how deep you've gotten in, and how
bad-ass the folks you're into are."
     "You just said that slavery is illegal," I growled.  "So why would
anyone let themselves be treated like that?"
     V stopped what she was doing, straightening up and tossing her
hair back.  She fiddled with her cap for a moment, conveniently hiding
her eyes in the process.
     "It's a hard world, Ranma," she said at last, her voice soft but full of
complicated emotion.  Or maybe it wasn't so complicated.  Maybe I just
didn't want to think about it.  "People offered as soft markers are usually
in a bad position.  There are places in the city, clubs that cater to the
extreme and bizarre.  Girls and boys who are too young or can't work in
a licensed club for some reason often end up there.  The owner of such a
place certainly wouldn't be above offering his staff as a marker for his
debts without asking them to volunteer."
     Yeah.  This definitely wasn't getting any better.  She hadn't come
right out and said it, but then, she didn't have to.  I remembered our
famous fireside chat of a few nights past.  There are some less
discriminating places where the law isn't followed so closely, Rei had
said, or words to that effect.  The pieces were all falling into place, and
the picture was not a pretty one.  There was a tightness behind my eyes,
and I suddenly really wanted to go back and dig Arj up so I could beat on
him some more.  But that wouldn't change anything, not now.
     So I shut up, and I listened.
     "And demi-humans, like this group we rescued, they get treated
even worse than humans," V continued, taking off her cap and polishing
the brim with her glove.  She seemed to need to talk about this, so I let
her.  "They usually have, not only beauty and grace, but healing abilities
engineered into them that allow them to suffer terrible physical abuse
without risking permanent damage to the 'merchandise'."
     "Engineered?" I asked before I could stop myself.
     "Demi-humans were originally created through sorcerous
engineering by the Genrous," V told me.  "Mostly as pleasure slaves.
And the Genrous were rough with their toys."
     "Oh."  My stomach curdled.
     "Anyway, with soft markers, if the debt gets paid off, then the
markers are returned.  The person owed the debt picks the marker, and so
usually the prettiest and most valuable get taken.  That's good in a way,
because the person who lost you likely wants to pay off the debt and get
you back, if only for your earning potential."
     "And if the debt doesn't get paid off?" I asked.  I didn't want to,
but we'd started this, and I had the feeling that it needed to go right to the
end.  Kind of like lancing an infected boil.
     "The markers are forfeit," V said, her voice terribly soft.  "None
of this is at all legal, Ranma, but it goes on all the time.  Vanka, now,
she's a special kind of sadist.  She ... word has it that she sets up owners
of underground clubs and other people who have what she wants.  She
manipulates them into deals that seem lucrative, then has her contacts
screw them.  That way, they end up leveraged and short of cash, or they
lose a shipment they were handling on consignment, or something like
that."
     "So she picks the target, gets into business with him, and secretly
screws him so she'll have an excuse to take these soft markers," I said
slowly.  I was starting to wish Rei had left a piece of Vanka for me.
     "Bingo," V said with a dry, mirthless chuckle.  "What a piece of
work, huh?  Of course, I knew about this beforehand.  And I didn't tell
you.  I ..."
     "It's okay," I said awkwardly.  I wanted to do something, hug
her, make her feel better.  But I just couldn't.  There was still a distance
between me and other people, a chasm that might just always surround
me.
     "No," V said flatly, anger flashing behind her deep blue eyes.  "It
isn't okay, Ranma.  You had to cover for me, Rei got in way over her
head, and all for what?  Damn it, it has to be here somewhere!"
     "What?" I asked, suddenly feeling a creeping dread weighing
down on my chest.  Was she going to cry?  Man, I hoped not.  I was just
hopeless when they did that.
     "Evidence!" V blurted, heaving debris aside.  "Something,
anything, to make this not have been  for nothing!  If there's something,
she would have kept it close, and I want it!"
     I watched her sudden fury, wanting to help, pretty sure that I
couldn't.  I wished Rei would come back.  Even if she was all dark and
shadowy, I was sure she would know what to do, what to say, to make V
feel better.
     "Well," I mumbled, "if she kept it in that filing cabinet, it's
probably on the floor somewhere."  I gingerly nudged a twisted metal
drawer with my toe.
     "She wouldn't keep anything important in something as unsecure
as a filing cabinet," V fumed.  "She'd ..."  I looked over to find her
frozen in mid-sentence, eyes wide.
     "What?" I asked tentatively.
     "I'm an idiot," V said, sounding dazed.  "I mean, as the city's
premier cat-burglar, I know where people keep valuable things."
     "Banks?" I asked weakly.  Well, at least she seemed to have
calmed down again.
     "No," she said absently, navigating the room's gloom-shrouded
perimeter.  I watched in amazement as she tore a crooked painting off the
wall and tossed it impatiently aside.  "Not something you want close at
hand.  You keep it in a ... ah-hah!"
     A ah-hah?  Oh, wait.  She'd pulled another painting down,
something ugly as sin and probably valuable, to reveal a safe in the wall.
Well, that was a start.  Assuming that Vanka had any information on
what the Sisterhood was up to, and that she kept that info written down.
But hell, having something to focus on seemed to have distracted V from
the situation, so I kept my doubts to myself, moving over by the window
and pulling down the remnants of the torn drapes.  Torn?  The damned
things were nearly shredded.  Still, I managed to salvage a strip big
enough to tie around my breasts.
     But purple?  Ugh.  Really not my colour.
     I watched V size up the safe for a moment.  I half expected her to
cut it open with her beam, but instead she took out that crescent-shaped
thing she'd used earlier to change my outfit.  It flipped open, hinged at
the points of the crescent, to form a circle, and she placed it against the
door of the safe surrounding the dial.
     "Wouldn't it be faster to just blow it open?" I asked her.
     "Oh, sure," she muttered, her attention on the strange device.
"But that could end up destroying whatever's inside.  Boy oh boy, she
didn't scrimp on this baby.  A Kessler-Kartin Type III, with some nasty
enhancements.  This is high-end."
     "Can you open it?"
     She turned then, giving me one of her patented smiles, the ones
that oozed confidence and sex appeal.
     "Do greckins shit in the woods?"  I stared at her blankly, and her
eyebrow twitched ever so slightly.  "Yes, Ranma.  That means yes."
     "Got it."
     She sighed and turned back to the safe.  "Hmmmm.  Well, well.
What's this?  Something's not right here.  I can smell it."  She fiddled
with her gadget, then made a little sound of triumph.
     "That was fast," I said.
     "Oh, I haven't even started yet," V told me.  "This thing is
definitely the real deal, my friend.  These steel pinwheels are dummies,
booby-trapped.  There is a set of crystal pinwheels overlying them.  I
nearly missed those, but they're the real locking mechanism.  But how
...?  Ah.  Yes, yes yes yes.  Viscount Luriastimont."
     "Bless you."
     "He was a guy I robbed," V replied.  "Real scumbag.  But smart.
Ranma, check the skank of the house.  See if she's wearing any rings."
     I crouched down beside Vanka's unmoving body, flushing as I
realised that her blouse was open to the waist, revealing all her assets.
Having mine waving around hadn't bothered me, but seeing hers made
me blush.  Go figure.  Oddly, she didn't look as though she'd been in
much of a fight.  There was a faint red smear near her mouth which
might have been blood or lipstick, but other than that she didn't even
look bruised.  I wondered what Rei had done to her.
     I recalled the vibe she'd been giving off last time I'd seen her, and
wondered if I really wanted to know.
     "She's wearing four," I told her after a brief inspection.
     "Is one of them silver with some kind of opaque stone in it?
Probably with intricate little curlicues all around?"
     "Yeah, there's one like that.  You want it?"
     "No, don't remove it from her hand.  That would be bad.  Just
hoist her on up here, would you?"
     A strange request, but what the hell.  I grabbed the limp woman
under the arms, blushing again as I accidentally groped her in the
process.  She didn't react at all, though, and I caught her around the waist
and slowly moved her close to the safe.
     "Yeah," V nodded as she took Vanka's hand.  "I thought so.
Very nasty."
     "What is?"
     "Another booby trap," she murmured, raising the woman's hand
to the dial.  She touched the pale green stone of the ring to the centre of
the dial, and I heard a faint chime.  V gave her head a little toss, dropping
Vanka's hand.  "Bingo, again."
     "Uh," I said as she peered intently at her gadget, "what should I
do with her?"
     "Ah, just put her anywhere," V sniffed.  I sighed and began
looking for a clear place to lay Vanka down, only to have V reach out
and push the unconscious woman's body out of my arms.  Caught by
surprise, I could only squawk as Vanka's body tumbled heavily to the
floor, landing in an ungainly heap.
     "Hey!" I blurted.
     "Looks good on her," V shrugged, obviously unconcerned.
Having witnessed the secrets of her little torture chamber, I wasn't too
inclined to feel sorry for Vanka, but roughing up an unconscious woman
wasn't my style.  I scowled but held my tongue as V pulled the dial out
until it clicked, then began spinning it slowly.
     "We've got to get out of here!" Rei announced, bursting in
through the door and nearly giving me a heart attack.
     "Not yet," V replied dismissively.  "Got something here."
     "The police are outside," Rei snapped.  "They'll be in here any
time!"
     "Big deal," V returned without any apparent concern.  "We've
got enough time."
     "V!"
     I was glad to see that Rei's shadow was back on the floor where it
belonged.  She seemed to be back to normal, but V didn't even look up at
her friend, continuing to work on the safe.
     "This is an impressive little safe, Rei.  The answers we're looking
for may be in here."
     "That won't help if we're caught!"
     "Geez, Rei, where's your sense of adventure?  I used to do this all
the damned time.  Once, I went out the window just as the cops were
opening the door, no more than a second ahead of them.  To make it as a
cat-burglar, you've gotta have nerves of steel."
     "And a brain of mush?"
     "I'll go distract the cops," I said before an argument could break
out.  The girls stopped sniping and turned to look at me.
     "It's too dangerous," Rei said flatly.
     "Good idea," V said at the same time.  Rei glared at her.
     "Look, I'm fast enough that they won't even be able to get a good
look," I told them.  "I'll lead them away from you, buy you some time,
then meet you back at the car."
     I turned to go, but Rei called me back.  "One thing," she said
brusquely.
     "What?" I asked, expecting a lecture.  Instead, she reached
around me and tugged at the loose ends of my makeshift top, whipping it
off with a flourish.  She looked down at my full breasts, and although she
didn't smile I thought I saw a flash of something deep in the darkness of
her eyes.
     "Now," she said archly, "you're a distraction.  Go."
     Well, I had nothing to say to that.
     I went.

***

     V slowly turned the dial, feeling that old familiar rush.  Breaking
into things was a lot more fun than most people would have suspected.
This particular safe was a very expensive model, not to mention
something of a challenge.  It required just the right amount of pressure to
move the crystal pinwheels instead of the steel ones; a sure touch was
her only salvation.
     "Ranma will buy us a little time," Rei said from behind her.
"But not much.  We can't stay."
     "I have no desire to stay," V muttered.  "We can leave as soon as
I get this open."
     "V," Rei said, sounding exasperated.  There was a moment of
silence.  "Mina.  Tell me this isn't about ego."
     "What's that supposed to mean?"
     "It means you want to hurt Vanka, and since I beat you to it,
you're going for the next best thing.  You want to take something
valuable to her."
     "Don't give up your day job," V snorted, frowning at the
Crescent Compact's display.  "If there's any evidence of what Vanka was
doing with the Sisterhood, my money says it's in here.  Isn't that what we
came for?"
     "And we could ask the lady herself if I hadn't gotten out of
control, is that what you're trying to say?"
     "Damn it, Rei!  Why do we have to argue about this now?
Forget all the mistakes we made tonight, if we can score here then it will
all have at least been for something, right?"  V turned to look at her
friend, who showed no trace of the dark hunger that had ridden her
earlier.  Rei's deep violet eyes seemed haunted, though, holding V's gaze
with an uncharacteristic reluctance.
     "Maybe we should take her with us," Rei said softly.
     V hesitated.  Turning the tables of Vanka appealed to her, so
much so that she knew she couldn't be objective.  "Bad idea," V sighed,
shaking her head.  "There are a lot of cops out tonight, what with the
curfew thing and all.  Carting a comatose kidnapped Tyrian noble
halfway across the city could be a bit tricky.  Anyway, I want her right
here when they bust in, surrounded by illegal Gan guns and Jell rounds,
slaver gear and gods alone know what else."
     "V, how secure is that safe?" Rei asked after V had turned back.
     "I can get in, if that's what you mean," V assured her.
     "It's not," Rei replied, moving closer.  "I mean, if there actually
is some evidence, something incriminating, would she be confident
enough of her security to keep it in there?"
     "This is a very sweet little unit, Rei," V said as she worked.  "It's
tied into the building's superstructure with hardened steel rods that are
laced with protective glyphs.  Try to cut the safe out of the wall, and you
lose whatever is inside.  That's just for starters.  It can't even be opened
unless the owner personally presents a coded ring before entering the
combination.  If that ring isn't presented, or is taken off the owner's hand
first, the contents of the safe are destroyed.  I've only ever seen two other
safes of this type, you know.  A lot of paranoia went into the making this
puppy."
     "I see," Rei breathed.  "I wonder ..."
     "You wonder if Vanka was careless enough to keep records of
illegal activities?" V inquired sweetly.  "She does like her trophies, that
woman.  And she has flouted kingdom law for a long time.  Her
arrogance may have made her careless."
     "Mine certainly did," Rei replied with a bitter smile.  V glanced
at her and frowned.
     "Come again?" V blurted, astounded.  "You can't tell me that
you think you blew our cover?  It must have been me, Rei, I know that
..."
     "It wasn't," Rei assured her, raking her fingers through her hair
as she spoke.  "You see, from the time we arrived I was watching Vanka.
And I continued watching her as we talked, using all my training to stay
alert for a change in behaviour, a tell, anything to indicate that her
attitude towards me had changed.  That would tell me that something had
alerted her to our deception, and I would have acted immediately to
neutralize her and warn you."
     "She got the drop on you, Rei," V said, her gaze softening.  "It
happens.  You're only human, you know."
     "I am aware of my limitations," Rei admitted.  "But that's not the
point.  In my arrogance, I failed to account for one thing.  And that is
what nearly got us taken."
     "I don't get it," V frowned, turning from the safe to face Rei fully.
"You're saying she never showed any sign that she caught on to us.  So
how could you have known?"
     "She never did catch on to us, Mina.  That's the point.  Even while she
had me at her mercy, even when we were fighting, she kept referring to
me as a Sisterhood bitch.  She thought we were what we claimed to be."
     "Then why?  Why attack us if we were emissaries of the Sisterhood?"
     "She attacked us BECAUSE we were emissaries of the
Sisterhood," Rei replied. "Vanka revealed to me that she had been doing
business with the Sisterhood, dangerous business.  She made reference to
a transaction that would get her entire house destroyed if it was linked to
her."
     "Gods, what would be worth that risk?" V mused.
     "I'm not certain.  There are any number of things that the
Sisterhood could have supplied her with," Rei confirmed.  "Forbidden
magicks, illegal drugs and chemicals, brainwashing political opponents.
Regardless, when we showed up with our trumped-up suspicions ..."
     "We didn't realize she actually had something to hide," V said slowly.
"Holy crap, Rei!  What?  What was it?  Was she going to double-cross
the Sisterhood?"
     "I think so," Rei said.  "If so, she may have kept something that would
incriminate the Sisterhood, something that would cause great harm to her
enemies."
     "And that something could be in here," V breathed.
     "Perhaps," Rei cautioned.  "If there is any evidence at all.  But if
there is something that dangerous in there ..."
     "No sweat," V said, a preternatural calm settling over her like a
shroud.  "I'll be careful."
     "And quick?" Rei asked, glancing at the window.  "More lights.
There isn't much time."
     "Then shush and let me concentrate," V mumbled.  Hmm.  Yes,
there.  That was the second pin engaged, and now back ... yes, this was
tricky, but fortunately she had encountered such a system before.  Hah!
Vanka was planning a double-cross?  That didn't surprise V, not in the
least.  Well, Her Ladyship would drop a load in her thousand-crown
riding pants when she woke up to find her safe empty, wouldn't she?  Ah,
to be a fly on the wall when that happened!
     "Got it," V announced.  Triumphantly she turned the handle to
open the door.
     And felt a tiny tingle of magick.
     Paranoia, indeed, she thought blackly.  She probably would have
missed that magickal signature in her civilian guise; for damn sure, she
wouldn't have been able to hurl herself to the side in time.  As it was, it
was a near thing.  The door to the safe burst open as V rolled across the
floor, catching sight of something from the corner of her eye.  Wincing as
she rolled over broken wood and part of a lamp, she came to her feet
ready for trouble.  A loud siren had started whooping throughout the
house, its tone strident and piercing.
     Marvellous, V though.  A back-up alarm with an independent power
source.  But what was that magickal booby-trap?
     "Gods," Rei breathed.  She was unhurt, but the expression of
wonder mixed with revulsion on her lovely face intrigued V, and she
moved closer and looked at the floor.
     "A special little surprise, courtesy of the Sultana," Rei said flatly.
     "Whoa," V gaped.  "Is that a Jell?"
     "I think so.  But I've never seen anything like it," Rei remarked,
keeping her distance.  The Jell was far larger than any V had ever seen.
It was also neither red nor black.  It was an unpleasant snot-yellow
colour, and it made disgusting liquid noises as it writhed.  Had V not
been transformed, the Jell would have caught her, holding her helpless in
its foul embrace until someone arrived to investigate the alarm.
     But it hadn't.  Instead, it had fallen to the floor.
     And landed squarely on Vanka.
     V watched the thing ooze around Vanka's limp form, wrapping
her body tightly with its mucous-coloured tentacles.
     "V," Rei said.  "The safe.  Are there any other surprises?"
     There weren't.  Within the cramped confines of the safe resided
only one object, an oblong black case of the sort commonly used to store
computer discs.  V removed it gingerly while Rei stood ready, both of
them alert for more trouble.  When V had the case in her hands, she let
her breath out slowly.
     "All right," Rei said, raising her voice to be heard over the
raucous siren.  "Let's get out of here!"
     She ran to the doorway, and V followed, hesitating only for a
moment to cast a last look back at Vanka, who was getting to know her
new friend very well indeed.
     "Looks good on you, bitch," V whispered.
     Then she was away.

***

     "That could have gone better," Jupiter grumbled.  Mercury
agreed silently.  Then again, she thought it might have gone far worse, as
well.  She was beginning to have a sneaking suspicion with regards to
Gareth's intractability.
     "Well, Gareth did agree to help," Mercury sighed as they walked
along the street.  They were taking a roundabout path back to the bike.  It
wouldn't do to be observed by a curious shifter, after all.  They had more
than enough problems to deal with.
     "You'd have thought we asked him for the world itself," Jupiter
said in disgust.
     "Or the moon," a voice said from the shadows.  They both
jumped, and a deep-throated male laugh resonated all around.  "Relax,
lovely warriors.  We have a truce, after all."
     "Gareth," Jupiter said, a dangerous edge in her voice.  "You
nearly got yourself fried just then.  You ought to be more careful."
     "Funny," Gareth replied, moving out of the darkness with a grace
that belied his size.  "I was just thinking the same thing about you."
     Rin emerged from the alleyway in Gareth's wake, and Mercury
fought the urge to watch him move.  Gareth possessed a nearly primal
male aura, but Rin ... she could see why Jupiter had trouble resisting Rin.
There was something deeply compelling about him.  It wasn't just his
physical beauty, although that certainly was a draw.
     "Gods," Jupiter sighed, rolling her eyes theatrically.  "Is the
entire pack going to follow us home like strays?"  Mercury noted the
tension in Jupiter's shoulders, however.  She was not happy at the sudden
reappearance of the pack's two highest ranking members.  Mercury
couldn't blame her.
     "You speak like someone used to being worshipped," Gareth
remarked.  There was a dark undertone to his words; Jupiter bristled, but
Mercury knew that this was no mere verbal goad.  She was certain that
her suspicions had been correct.  Time to indulge her curiosity.
     "Ewargin, it is said that your people worship only the White
Mother," Mercury said softly.  A peculiar stillness fell over the two
shifters.  Jupiter, taken off-guard by the abrupt shift in mood, could only
stand and stare.  Mercury prayed that her friend would allow her some
room to work.  This could be a delicate matter.
     "There are none who are not pack who name me thus, girl,"
Gareth said.  His voice was a basso rumble, that gorgeous eye staring
down at her.  There was fire there, hot pride and cold steel.  She met that
gaze unflinchingly.
     "I offer no disrespect," she replied, aware of Rin's gaze on her.
     "It is not a matter of respect."  The hard-edged planes of the big
man's face cut the very night air around him.  Mercury could feel his
roiling aura, feral and barely contained by his flesh.  "How do you come
to know such a thing?"
     Many secrets were whispered in the mad places, the bad places,
the lost places where a young girl had wandered.  That was not for
Gareth to know.  But memory served here, with but a little
embellishment.
     "There were tribes of shape-shifters who made their home in the
deepest forests of Farside," Mercury said, her demeanour placid.  "Their
ferocity as warriors and love of the forest made them much beloved of the
queen, and her huntmaster was always Ewargin of one of the tribes."
     Cool power rippled over her skin, raising a prickle of gooseflesh
at the nape of her neck.  "So," Gareth breathed, his eye narrowing.  "You
truly claim to be daughters of the moon."
     Mercury was peripherally aware of Jupiter's startled glance at
Rin.  Ah-ha.  So that was it.  Jupiter must have recounted the truth of
their past to Rin, unaware of what the ramifications might be.
     "I claim nothing," Mercury told him, careful to show no anger.
"It is simply truth.  Whether your people are truly descended from the
shapeshifters of our time, I cannot say."
     "But you can say that you are the Handmaidens of the White
Mother," Gareth replied.  His voice had gone even lower, a soft, purring
growl slinking menacingly through his words.
     "You believe we mean to undermine your authority with your
people?" Mercury asked, knowing how small she seemed next to the
hulking shifter.
     "Not that I believe you, but any challenges to my authority, little
girl, and your pretty princess will bleed."
     Mercury's eyelid twitched.  It was a tiny motion, but she knew
that Gareth took notice of it.  She had to crane her head back to meet the
man's eyes, but she did not give way before him.
     "Though she is the true and only daughter of Queen Serenity, our
princess demands no fealty from you or your people," Mercury replied,
her voice so soft it was nearly a whisper.  Gareth twitched, raising his
hand to his face.  It came away wet, and he frowned.  "She may even,"
the senshi continued gently, "share her late mother's fondness for
shifters."
     A loud metallic rattling began to echo up and down the street,
starting as a faint clatter but rising quickly to a raucous cacophony.
     "Speaking for myself, however," Mercury continued, eyes
narrowed, "I believe I have taken an intense disliking to your face."
     All up and down the street, sewer grates and manhole covers
chose that moment to explode skywards.  Gareth's eyes widened and his
body went rigid.  Reflexively, he took a half-step back as solid columns
of water blasted into the night air.  There was an unholy noise as solid
metal rained to the ground, shattering asphalt, concrete and, in one
thunderous impact, an unfortunate newspaper box.  Mercury had not
moved, but Gareth's aura no longer prowled over her skin.
     "Congratulations, Gareth," Jupiter drawled, a crooked grin on her lips.
"You've made her angry.  That's a rare feat.  Two things, my friend.
One, nobody threatens our princess.  Nobody."
     "And two?" Gareth asked.  No longer did his gaze hold anger and
contempt.  He regarded Mercury with a gratifying wariness now.
     "Two?  You might want to apologize," Jupiter said softly.
     "Indeed," the big man breathed, his eye flicking to the solid
columns of water that towered above them, filled with elemental malice.
"Your point is taken.  Very well, Sailor Mercury.  I have mis-spoken.  I
would no more countenance a threat against my people than you would
against yours.  Therefore, I offer my apology to your princess."
     "I am certain she would accept it," Mercury replied, her eyes
boring into Gareth's face.  "She is, by nature, magnanimous."
     "And you are not?"  She knew Gareth would not back down any
more than this, but having given rein to her temper she was now loathe to
call it back.  Surprisingly, it was Rin who broke the deadlock.  He moved
up beside her, moving with that supple animal grace and making sure she
could see him the entire way.  Then he went down on one knee and took
her left hand, drawing it to his mouth.  He bent his head over her hand,
letting his glorious mane of russet hair spill over her arm, and even
though Mercury knew she was being charmed she had to fight the urge to
shudder.  The lithe shifter kissed the back of her hand, and her flesh
tingled even through her glove.
     "I, as well, offer my most abject apologies," Rin murmured,
tossing his hair back in a motion that sent a glossy liquid shimmer though
it.  Mercury didn't know whether to be outraged at his transparent
attempt to defuse her anger or charmed by his roguish delight at the heat
they were generating.
     "Is it your job to smooth over Gareth's provocations?" Mercury
asked.
     "Sometimes," Rin admitted.  Gareth laughed, a low, husky
sound, and Mercury let the water go, the columns growing ragged, losing
their cohesion and collapsing noisily to the ground.
     "He is quite good at it," Gareth snorted.  "Pays to be a ladykilling
pretty-boy.  Some days."
     "Gareth, you don't really think we're trying to get worshipped by
your people as goddesses, do you?" Jupiter asked.
     "I believe Gareth is more concerned about what might happen
when his people find out we really are reincarnated from the old White
Moon Court," Mercury told her.
     "There have already been rumblings," Gareth admitted.  "Your friend
taking possession of that girl who bore the spirit of a cat was noticed by
all present, you know.  As was the fight between my people and yours the
other night.  But, just so we understand each other, I am the Ewargin
of this pack.  This hunt for the Sisterhood, this is undertaken in order to
defeat our mutual enemy.  Once the vampire is dust, this truce is over."
     "Are you sure that's what you want?" Jupiter asked, looking
grave.
     "I am sure," Gareth answered, looking down into Mercury's eyes
again, "that I do not need legends of the old moon interfering with how I
run my pack.  I have seen your power, girl, and I am a man who respects
power.  But if there is any attempt to extend your authority over the
shifters of this city in the name of the White Mother, then there will be
retribution, swift and terrible."
     "Gareth," Jupiter began, warning clear in her voice.
     "He is not threatening you," Rin said, that mocking half-smile
not reaching his eyes.  "We are not the only pack in this city.  There have
been rumblings among the others as well, minor for now, but ..."
     "But we were made to serve once before," Gareth finished for
him.  "We will not be conquered again.  Tell your princess that, ladies.
We answer the call of the White Mother, but we will not answer hers."
     "As I said, the princess claims no dominion over the shifters,"
Mercury replied evenly.
     "Then there won't be any problems, will there?"  The gleam in
Gareth's eye said he didn't believe that, though.  He had delivered the
message he'd wanted to deliver, and Mercury was quite sure that this was
far from over.  Once the vampire was dealt with, the senshi might find
themselves unwittingly in the middle of a religious schism that could tear
the shifter community apart.
     Jupiter moved up beside her as the two men faded soundlessly
back into the shadows, sighing loudly.
     "Well, this is just great," she groused.  "Can't our lives ever be
simple?"
     "I guess not," Mercury shrugged.  "Best not to worry about what
we can't change, at least for now.  We have the cooperation of Gareth's
people in looking for the Sisterhood.  That's what we came for."
     "And you got the message across to Gareth," Jupiter said with a
small smile.  "Me, I was just going to fry his ass.  Wait until Usagi
hears."
     "It wasn't that big a deal," Mercury objected, her face flushing
with pleasure.
     "Sure it was," Jupiter told her, clapping the smaller girl on the
back.  "Man, I love listening to you talk!  Countenance this, fealty that.
And   'I believe I have taken an intense disliking to your face'!  That was
classic.  I thought you were gonna flatten old one-eye."
     "For a moment," Mercury confessed, her heart finally beginning
to pound now that the moment was past, "so did I."

***

     "Hotaru, calm down," Setsuna said.
     "I am calm," Hotaru snapped, then stopped with visible effort and
took a deep breath.  "All right, fine.  Calm.  See?  Now, let's take it from
the top.  You let the girls all go out on these reckless jaunts?  Without
supervision?"
     Hotaru," Setsuna sighed, "we didn't let them do anything.  It was
Usagi's choice.  And they don't need supervision.  You have to start
trusting the princess's judgement in these matters."
     "No, I don't," Hotaru growled, sounding cross.
     "Anyway, what were they supposed to do while you were gone?"
Setsuna went on, blithely ignoring her friend's temperamental outburst.
"At least this way, we might accomplish something useful."
     "I don't like our resources being stretched so thin," Hotaru
protested, pacing briskly through the study.  "Especially at a time like
this."
     "I know you worry," Setsuna said, her tone gentle.  That brought
Hotaru up short.  The dark-haired woman took another deep breath,
letting it out slowly.
     "None of them can go up against a vampire," Hotaru said at last,
not turning to face Setsuna.
     "They aren't looking for the vampire, they're looking for the
Sisterhood," Setsuna reminded her.  "When we fight the vampire, it will
be with a united front.  But we can't play it safe, Hotaru, not with so
much at stake and time running out."
     "You're right," Hotaru said, sounding glum.  "I know you're
right.  I just wish I could protect them, keep them close.  But my track
record is a little spotty, isn't it?"
     "I love that you worry about them."  Setsuna moved up behind
Hotaru, placing her hands on the woman's shoulders.  "But they are very
capable.  Now is the time for them to shine, just the way you taught
them."
     "The way we taught them," Hotaru replied, reaching up to place
her hand over Setsuna's.  "You have a point, I must admit.  But there is
another matter here, you know.  This stranger."
     "Ranma," Setsuna acknowledged.
     "I do not approve."  Hotaru's tone shifted, becoming darker.
     "Of his presence?"
     "Usagi trusts too easily.  But I was actually referring to the fact
that he is out there with that key, the one thing we know the vampire
wants."
     "We had that discussion already, Hotaru.  He would not give it
up, and Usagi sided with him.  They tried to use it as bait and failed, so it
is unlikely the vampire could be lured that way again.  For now, I
believe we should let the matter rest."
     "Talk to me, Setsuna," Hotaru said, turning to face the dusky-
skinned woman.  "You touched that key, and it affected you.  Why?"
     "I am not certain," Setsuna admitted.  "It seems to be the source
of the distortion that has neutralized the Gate of Time."
     "Does that mean it is somehow linked to the gate?"
     "I am not aware of any artifacts which are directly linked to it,"
Setsuna said, frowning.  "None save my staff.  Still, there are many
mysteries surrounding the gate.  Its origins are lost in the mists of the
past.  I do not know who made it, if it was indeed made at all and not
something that has simply always been.  I also do not know why House
Pluto came to be its guardians."
     "I wonder if Ranma knows anything about the gate?" Hotaru mused.
 "He, too, is surrounded by mystery and uncertainty.  Not only his past
and this odd curse, but just what the key is and how he came to possess it.
Those mysteries may explain why the vampire wants the key, and in this
case knowledge is definitely power.  I need answers."
     "I believe your, shall we say, direct approach earlier has lessened
any chance that Ranma might be forthcoming," Setsuna noted dryly.
     "And you think it is acceptable, allowing him to keep such
matters secret?"  Hotaru looked at her, incredulous.
     "I think that another tack might be more successful," Setsuna
clarified.  "He seems to have grown closer to Minako and Rei than to the
others.  Perhaps one of them could draw him out on the matter."
     "And by 'draw out' you mean seduce, I suppose?"  Wonder of
wonders, Hotaru actually smiled, albeit thinly.
     "Go with your strengths, I always say," Setsuna replied, answering
Hotaru's smile with one of her own.  "Which reminds me, did you have
any inkling about Rei's past?  I mean, a Sister of Shadows, Hotaru.  That
might have gone far worse than it did, back in the early days."
     "I didn't," Hotaru confessed.  "And you're right.  But then, there
are days I look back and wonder that we managed to come as far as we
did.  If we weren't faced with such a grave crisis, I would sit back with a
drink and toast whatever capricious fates allowed us to draw such
radically different girls together."
     Setsuna was about to make a reply when she spotted someone
moving through the hallway.  "Artemis!" she called.  The pale-haired
man stuck his head through the doorway.
     "Yo!" he replied cheerfully, jamming a battered fedora onto his
head.  The hat effectively covered the crescent moon symbol on his
forehead.  Luna had threatened to burn it on more than one occasion, but
so far Artemis had managed to keep his favourite hat out of the fireplace.
     "How is our guest?" Hotaru asked.  Ah, yes.  Another of many
unexpected surprises from their little sisters, Setsuna reflected wryly.
     "Sleeping," Artemis replied.  "Luna's watching him.  I got a call
from Mina."
     "Trouble?" Hotaru asked, tensing.  Setsuna didn't bother to ask.
If Minako had been in trouble, Artemis would have gone into full
mother-hen mode without prompting.
     "Not really," he remarked.  "I have to handle something for her.
She did say that they found something at the estate, computer discs or
something.  Looks promising, anyway, but she thinks Ami ought to have
a look."
     "Excellent news," Setsuna said.  Hotaru seemed pleased as well.
     "Be careful out there," Hotaru told him.  "The police are stretched
thin, but they are setting up roadblocks between districts."  Setsuna knew
that enforcing a full curfew would be a logistical nightmare in a city as
huge as this.  Some areas would be easier to police than others.
     "No worries," he said with an easy grin.  "I'll be back before you
know it.  But what can I tell you?  Those girls came through in the
pinch!"
     "Marvellous," Hotaru sighed as Artemis disappeared out the
door.  "An optimist."
     "His optimism seems justified, though," Setsuna pointed out.
"We may have finally made some progress."
     "And you would like to say 'I told you so', no doubt?"
     "Nonsense," Setsuna said dismissively.  "But with Ami and
Makoto checking with the shifters, Usagi and Mamoru at the temple, and
Michiru and Haruka consulting their oracle friend, I think we stand a real
chance of stopping this vampire's plan."
     Of course, the real question then became what the vampire would
do when her plans were thwarted.  Setsuna glanced at her friend and
suppressed a worried frown.  Once the immediate threat was out of the
way, Hotaru would go back to pursuing all avenues to tracking this
vampire.  Tracking, and killing.
     But if this creature really was the one who'd attacked Hotaru's
mother before the Long Dark, then she had survived much.  She
definitely was not going to be an easy target.

***

     Kendra noticed Raine's stare, but it took a few moments for her
to realize just why the captain of her guard was watching her.  It was
Galiraithe; not its presence, but the fact that Kendra's hand kept straying,
seemingly of its own accord, to stroke the sword that hung from the back
of her throne in a sheath that Raine had located for her.
     She couldn't help it.  Kendra half believed that the sword was
going to vanish as mysteriously as it had appeared, and was constantly
reassuring herself by touching the smooth sheath.
     Raine was worried, but then, Raine always worried.  In this particular
case, it was the mysterious reappearance of the legendary Sword of
Queens that had the lovely captain in a temper.  As powerful a weapon as
Galiraithe was, Raine distrusted anything that smacked of divine
intervention.  Kendra could hardly blame her for that.  When
supernatural forces, be they from the gods or somewhere else, took a
hand in the lives of mortals, there was no telling what the result might be.
     Kendra wasn't giving the sword up, though.
     She sighed as Hors Bunter, Minister of Defence, finished giving his
report on the progress of the transfer of troops into the city.  It would be
nearly three days before all the military personnel she had detailed for
this duty were in place, but those already on hand were being deployed
immediately.
     Much to the displeasure, she noted, of High Commissioner Yuko
Shizuku, who, as the senior police official in the city, was faced with the
daunting task of coordinating her people with the military.
     "Thank you," Kendra nodded to Bunter.  "Commissioner
Shizuku, I see you've brought the action briefings with you.  Touch on
the high points, if you would."
     The stocky woman nodded, but her sour mien was at odds with
the woman's normally equitable nature.  "Of course, Your Majesty," she
said, shuffling the folders that lay on the table in front of her.  Kendra
knew that Shizuku would not need the reports; the woman was legendary
for knowing everything that went on within the Metro Police.  "Echo
Command reports six people killed earlier this evening in a Tier shoot-
out.  Rival clans.  Their anti-gang squad is handling it, Commander
Crestis is quite concerned that this could be the beginning of a power
struggle in the underworld.  I am keeping close tabs on this matter.
Mobius Command, we lost an officer during a high-speed pursuit when
her cruiser was hit by a tanker truck.  The family has been notified.  An
arrest has been made in the serial arson case as well, detectives have a
confession already."
     "Excellent," Kendra said.  "That is very good news.  Has Chief
Fennier been informed?"
     "He has," Shizuku acknowledged.  "SFD is as happy as anyone
about that particular bit of news.  Let me see, Shadow Command reports
wide-spread looting in the Jade Corridor earlier today, that area has been
brought under control as of 2130 hours but things remain tense.  Also,
they are receiving rumours of people going missing in the club district.
There are a lot of transients and such in that area, so it's hard to get an
accurate read, but Commander Kiyotsugu is concerned.  The club district
and the Triangle are a perfect feeding ground for this vampire."
     "Have her put some people on that," Kendra said.  "Perhaps our
vamp has a favourite type of victim.  Gods know, we could use a break.
Marine Command?"
     "Some shifter activity on the docks, territorial squabbles.  Hasn't
spilled over to civilians yet, and we are keeping an eye on it.  Also, two
freighters were damaged by marine monsters in the past two days.  One is
leaking fuel into the harbour, and repair crews are refusing to go out
without police escort.  I scarcely blame them, but we are having trouble
with manpower, as you know.  The other is Tyrian registered, and the
ambassador herself has been most vocal in registering her displeasure."
     "What would she have you do, arrest the beast?" Raine muttered.
     "She demands that resources be diverted from less important
matters to protect valuable shipping," Shizuku informed them with a
mirthless smile.
     "Indeed," Kendra said, toying with her braid.  "I suppose I will
be hearing about this at length."
     "Perhaps not," the commissioner replied, her smile turning wry.
"Highview Command.  I only received this report a short time ago, and
details are still sketchy, but there was an incident at the estate of a Tyrian
noble tonight."
     "Incident?"  Kendra sat up a little straighter in her throne.  The
Tyrians were a necessary evil in her city and her kingdom, but that did
not mean she had to cut them the slightest bit of slack.
     "Yes, Majesty.  There were reports of a disturbance at an estate on
Silverleaf Drive, shots fired and explosions.  The estate was damaged last
month in what was apparently a natural gas explosion."  Shizuku's tone
communicated just what she thought of that explanation.
     "Ah, yes.  The Sultana der Gris, if I recall."
     "You do, Your Majesty," Shizuku replied, smiling slightly at the
obvious distaste in the queen's tone.  "Officers from Highview Command
entered the estate to investigate these reports after being accosted by an
unidentified female.  They found the household guards beaten, at least
five of them dead."
     "What?" Raine exclaimed, leaning forward.
     "There was widespread destruction within the main house,"
Shizuku went on.  "Signs of a wild fight.  The Sultana was found in an
upstairs office, unconscious, although her injuries did not appear serious.
There was a safe in the office which had been emptied."
     "I should think," Kendra said blackly, "that the Sultana has some
explaining to do.  I will not have the Tyrian Sultanate bringing their
private little wars for position to my kingdom."
     "The Sultana will have more explaining to do than you think,"
Shizuku replied, her gray eyes twinkling.  "My men found Gan guns on
the premises, in the possession of the guards as well as near the Sultana's
body.  As well as Jell rounds."
     There was a moment's silence in the room as that statement sank
in.
     "Is the ambassador aware of this yet?" Raine asked, a feral expression
on her face.  Raine shared her queen's distaste for the Tyrians and their
customs.
     "No, but she will be soon," Shizuku told her.  "And she will have
much to answer for.  We have prohibited weapons within the estate of a
Tyrian Sultana, plus slaver equipment, torture devices and restraints ..."
     "Slaves?" Kendra asked.  There was no mistaking the quiet
menace in her voice.
     "No, Majesty," Shizuku told her.  "But we found manacles in
one room, hanging from the ceiling, along with several dead guards and
one very badly beaten Tyrian woman.  There was wet blood on the
manacles."
     "This was no common break-in," Raine opined.
     "Vigilantes?" Kendra asked.
     "Possibly," Shizuku told her.  "If so, the operation must have
been carefully planned and carried out with nearly military precision.
We found no sign of the intruder or intruders.  The one who accosted the
first unit on the scene was very strong and fast, and apparently naked.
We have no description other than that, unfortunately."
     "Who is handling the investigation, Yuko?"
     "Inspector Lynne," the commissioner replied.  Kendra nodded.
Lynne was an excellent choice, smart, meticulous, and well-versed in
navigating the labyrinthine flow of political power.  She would get to the
bottom of this, and she would make the charges stick.  And when she did,
Kendra would find some way to reward her.  Catching a Tyrian noble, a
Sultana no less, with Gan guns and slaver equipment in her city would
give her a very big hammer to use against the Tyrians.
     "Excellent.  Tell her that I wish to be kept up to date on the
progress of the investigation.  Any resources from Foreign Affairs that
she might need will be made available to her."
     "I will pass that on, Your Majesty."
     "So.  That brings us to Central Command."
     Shizuku nodded, squared her shoulders, ran her fingers through
her close-cropped hair.  "Numbers are still coming in," the commissioner
said at last.  "But as of this hour, fully sixty percent of personnel
operating out of 55 Division are reported as dead, wounded, or missing."
     Silence again.  Kendra had known it would be bad, of course.
Still, the figures were sobering.  There were casualties among the
reinforcements from other divisions, plus the bounty hunters who had
died, but 55 Division's operational capability would be crippled.
     "The tower has been shut down while safety crews check it for
structural integrity," Shizuku went on.  "We've moved all our vehicles
and what equipment we could to the police maintenance garage at Ivor,
that's only four blocks away.  We're doing what we can."
     "This is bad enough," Raine said quietly.  "But what do we do if
it happens again?  Our police resources are stretched thin, even with
troops coming in to the city."
     "Could it happen again?" Bunter asked.
     "That is a very good point," Greely nodded, stroking his beard
thoughtfully.  "There should be a recovery period, should there not?
Some period of grace, at the very least.  I mean, look at how many of the
bloody things died in the attacks on the market and the tower."
     "The monsters took a lot of people with them," Raine said
darkly.
     "Good people," Commissioner Shizuku added dourly.
     "The question is valid, however," Kendra stated, turning her gaze
to the one member of this emergency council who had yet to speak.
"Which is why I've asked you here, Professor.  As head of RO's research
branch, do you have any insights?"
     "Well, it certainly seems reasonable that the monsters would have
been affected by these incidents," Professor Lewdine said.  Everything
that Skip Lewdine said was replete with vigorous hand gestures and
arm-waving, and this was no exception.  He was young to be such a
highly regarded scientific advisor, barely thirty, although his looks and
demeanour made him seem far younger, boyish really.
     "So we can expect a recovery period?" Greely pressed.  The two
were a study in contrasts, Greely with his neatly trimmed gray hair and
goatee, and Lewdine, his rounded cheeks framed by wild masses of hair.
     "Majesty," Lewdine said, taking his glasses off and turning them
over in his hands absently.  "The problem here is that we understand so
little about the, the, the ecosystem of monsters."
     "Gods, Skip, the question isn't that complicated," Raine sighed.
They were all tired; Lewdine was one of the few people Raine usually
showed any affection for.
     "But it is," Lewdine protested.  "For years we thought that
monsters were just a type of animal, breeding in the, er, ah, accepted
way.  That is to say ..."
     "I am familiar with the concept in question, Professor," Kendra
said dryly.  Lewdine flushed, his naked eyes meeting hers for a brief
moment before falling to his glasses, which he began to polish madly
with his untucked shirt.
     "Yes, of course, Majesty," Lewdine nodded.  "But in recent years, we
have attempted to understand more about these creatures as a way to
avoid the yearly problems.  Commissioner Shizuku's people were
involved in Project Nestegg ..."
     "We provided the muscle, yes," Shizuku grunted.  "We began the
latest foray into this problem in the off-season almost four years ago.
The idea was to find breeding grounds, nests, whatever, and deal with
them before the spring troubles could begin."
     "But we've never found anything like that," Lewdine went on, sticking
his glasses back on.
     "Monsters have to create off-spring in some manner," Greely
pointed out.
     "We know that dragons lay eggs," Raine said quietly.
     "And that there are at least a few types of these unholy
abominations that implant their eggs into human hosts," Shizuku added.
Kendra knew that the jagged edge in the woman's tone had been earned;
Shizuku had witnessed that horror up close, back when she'd been
commanding the very first project to try and root out the monsters at their
source.  Kendra wondered if the good professor was even aware of that
debacle; he had the security clearance, but Skip Lewdine had a lot of
things on his plate these days.
     "The point," Greely said, his words as clipped and precise as his
bearing, "is that we have never seen so many of the creatures gathered in
one place before.  Thus, we have never managed to inflict such heavy
losses on them before.  Is it reasonable to assume that we have lessened
their numbers?"
     "I would not feel comfortable making such a statement,"
Lewdine pointed out, conducting an invisible orchestra as he spoke.
"You see, if monsters do not breed as animals, they may have more in
common with other creatures of the magickal realms.  Like elementals,
for instance ..."
     "Are you seriously suggesting that there exists, somewhere, a
realm full of nothing but different types of monsters?" Raine asked,
incredulous.
     "Which spill into our world regularly?" Shizuku added.  The
lines on her face were drawn into a stony mask.
     "It is only a theory," Lewdine expounded, waving his hands
dismissively.  "There is no evidence that I've seen to date, however,
which would lend it any particular credence over, say, Professor Syens's
intriguing master matrix idea, which states, quite controversially I might
add ..."
     "All right, Professor," Kendra said.  Her voice was quiet, laden
with the events of the day.  Her hand strayed down to Galiraithe's hilt
again.  She looked at the small group of people, all of whom were
watching her now.  "Apparently, we cannot assume that we will be given
a respite from monster attacks, despite the battles of the last two days."
     "That's what I said," Lewdine pointed out, nodding emphatically.
"This Silkaine's Siren, though, may be invaluable to us.  It can attract
monsters.  Perhaps it can also drive them away."
     "I should like nothing more than to use that cursed sphere to
protect this city," Kendra informed him.  "Have you made any progress
with it?"
     "I asked Gar for some people, but he hasn't responded yet.   Er,
speaking of which," Lewdine said brightly, running his fingers through
his thoroughly dishevelled mop as he blinked owlishly, "where is Gar
anyway?"
     "That," Kendra said darkly, "is an excellent question, Professor."
     Seeing her expression, Lewdine wisely chose not to pursue that
particular line of questioning.
     Kendra sat back, scowling.  Yes, her cousin had definitely gone
too far this time.  Off gallivanting around while danger beset her
kingdom from all sides?  When he finally showed his patented roguish
smile, she was going to put Galiraithe right through it.
     No excuse would suffice for this, no matter how creative.

***

     Gar sighed, running his fingers lightly through the air over the
pattern.  So.  The past had great big teeth, it seemed, ideal for when it
came back to bite one squarely on the ass.  He'd known, though, right
from the moment when Saturn had told him, that this was what he would
find.
     A Shadow Gate.  So she'd known, even then.  Or had planned so
far ahead that she might as well have known.  Whatever the case, he
couldn't leave things as they were.  It was as though he could feel the
weight of history, destiny, and prophecy, all racing towards a point where
they would collide.  Gar had a nasty feeling that he was going to end up
standing on the aforementioned point.  Even so, that wasn't what scared
him the most.  No, it was what came after, in the time where vision had
not reached, that was by far the most worrisome.
     He raised his hand over the intricate pattern, moving it through
the air.  The lines broke like stale old noodles, crumbling to powder, then
to nothing.  There.  That was that.
     The wards he'd placed around the chamber would ensure that it
was not used again, at least not without his knowledge.  You know
you're getting old, Gar, he told himself ruefully, when you get
outmanoeuvred so thoroughly.  Sure, the palace had not existed the last
time he'd been here, but that shouldn't have mattered, wouldn't have if
she hadn't taken so many precautions.  When did she shield it?  How long
had she been using it?  Had she created that particular memory with him
in this place just so he would be loathe to return after she was gone?
     Ah, well.  What was done, was done.  Time to go.  He strode to
the centre of the chamber, the pale glow of the magestones casting
multiple shadows around his feet.  He breathed in, out, drawing power to
him.  It had been a while, that much was true.
     "Just like riding a bike," he muttered into the cool, dry air.  "You
never forget how."
     He reached out along the twisting, twining paths that lay just beneath
the skin of the world, navigating them with a talent he had always
possessed. A talent which, he had come to realize, almost no one else did.
The air danced with motes of light that swam, fluttered, and finally
coalesced into a circle that hung before him.  No sense in putting it off
any longer.  Gar stepped through the portal.
     And into Shadow Realm.
     The chamber on the other side was also cut into the rock,
although it was far larger, the roof disappearing into high, dancing
shadow.  Instead of a steady, pale glow, he walked into the flickering
golden wash of torchlight.  Gar looked down, noting the Shadow pattern
under his polished boots.  It was no longer linked to its twin; it would
prove useless for travel between the two realms now.
     She would have other paths, of course.  She'd had a long time to
cover all her bases.  Well, that was not his problem, at least not in the
short term.  He just needed to get what he'd come for, negotiating with a
canny foe without overplaying his hand.  Yeah, piece of cake.
     Gar stood there, waiting.  He was certain his arrival would not go
unnoticed, and didn't want to provoke any precipitous action.  That
wouldn't benefit anyone at this point.  At any rate, he didn't figure he
would have to wait long, and he was right.  No more than ten seconds
after he materialized within the circle, the shadows at the door flickered
and flowed, disgorging a figure cloaked in scarlet and black.
     "A man," a female voice came, mocking.  "Delivering himself to
the court of the Crimson Queen.  If you wanted to surrender yourself so
badly, you should have used the front door."
     "But Mara," Gar said.  "I've always been a back-door man."
     The cloaked figure jerked, freezing in place.  Slowly, she lowered
her hood, revealing masses of curly blonde hair and sharp features
dominated by almond-shaped eyes and a cruel mouth.  There were odd,
triangular markings on her cheeks and forehead which gleamed with
power in Gar's vision.
     "Oh, shit," Mara whispered.  "Gar?  Is that really you?"
     "In the flesh," he acknowledged with a grin.  "Sorry, I don't have an
appointment.  I do need to have a word with her, though."
     "Gar, you moron!" Mara spat.  "How did you find us?  And why did
you come here?  Are you insane?"
     "Aw, come on," Gar grinned disarmingly.  "I just want to see her.
For old time's sake."
     "It was you," Mara said slowly, advancing across the smooth
stone floor.  "You sent those people here today, didn't you?  An advance
party.  What are you up to?"
     "No freebies," he admonished, wagging his finger.  People, eh?
Saturn's lovely senshi, no doubt.  "What I have to say is for her ears.
You'll just have to wait, cupcake."
     Mara stood at the edge of the circle for a short time, just looking
at him.  Her expression was hard to read; certainly, she seemed to have
conflicting feelings about his appearance.  Finally, though, her shoulders
slumped slightly under the cloak and she sighed.
     "You're still insane," she muttered.  "I guess some things never
do change.  All right, Gar.  Come on.  If I don't bring you, you'll just
cause a bloody ruckus."
     "That's the spirit," Gar told her switching from disarming grin to
rakish smile.  He stepped out of the circle and followed Mara to the
doorway, and into the narrow passageway beyond.  The walls were rough
and unfinished in appearance, torches lighting the way to a wide area at
the end of the passage.  Gar noted with some relief the glimmering lines
of a transfer ward on the polished stone floor there; he would not have
wanted to climb stairs all the way to the surface.
     Of course, he thought as he followed the subdued Mara into the
chamber, he should have known better.  There was no way the woman
he'd come to see would exert herself in such an unseemly fashion.  No,
that one would never work up a sweat.  Well, save in the pursuit of her
own pleasures.
     "You're looking well," Gar said as magick tingled across his
skin.  Mara gave him a sidelong glance laden with jumbled emotions.
     "Gar, I always kind of liked you," she sighed.  "And you know,
maybe she did take advantage of your inexperience back then.  But you
wanted to play in the big leagues, as I recall.  And you got burned.  It
happens.  Why not just let it go?  It was a long time ago.  This, this is just
stupid, bracing her here.  Why don't you just go home?"
     He stood there, towering over Mara, and realized she was serious.
The blonde spitfire was offering to risk the displeasure of her queen to
give him a chance to run.
     "You're all right, kiddo," he said at last, his grin wry now.  "But
you're forgetting something.  I don't have a home, not really.  Just like
you."
     "Fine," Mara said, not sounding surprised.  The stone
passageway was gone; a high-ceilinged hall lay beyond the chamber now.
"Then let's get this over with.  After you, big guy."
     Gar walked out into the hall.  There was a flight of broad,
shallow stairs in front of him, a heavy, iron-bound door to his right.
Mara gestured to the stairs and he climbed them.  At the top he passed
through a set of solid-looking double doors covered with glimmering
symbols and through a high, vaulted archway the led  into an even larger
hall.  This one had passages and archways leading into it from many
different directions and on many different levels.
     It also had occupants.
     Succubi moved from place to place, most walking, some flying
through the incense-tinged air to reach balconies that overlooked the
great hall.  His presence was noted almost immediately, and the intensity
of the stares which fell upon him would have daunted an ordinary man.
     Hells, he wasn't an ordinary man, and even he found it a little
unnerving.  Passion and desire he could deal with, even hunger under
most circumstances.  These unearthly beauties, though, could destroy
even him with their insatiable appetites.
     But what a way to go ...
     "Well, well," a voice purred from above.  There was a rush of
wind, and a lithe, curvaceous form dropped with feline grace to the floor
in front of him as others began to move towards him.  "What have we
here?  Mara, you have outdone yourself.  He is exquisite!"  She tossed
her long mane of black-streaked blonde and gave Gar a frank assessment
with her exotic golden eyes.
     "I'm taking him to see the Crimson Queen, Arianne," Mara said
curtly.
     "You must have other, more pressing duties," Arianne
murmured, sauntering closer.  "The Velvet Guard will take over from
here."
     "Yes," another added, her skin milk-pale where Arianne's was
tawny.  "We will take good care of him ..."
     Time to nip this in the bud, Gar thought.  He held his hand out
before him, and suddenly the sweetly scented air was heavy with power,
and the bitter metallic tang of eldritch fire.  Shrieks and shouts rose into
the great hall as the succubi scattered before the manifestation of power.
     "You enjoyed that," Mara whispered accusingly.
     "They treat me like a piece of meat," Gar replied, pouting.  "It's just so
... demeaning!"
     "Moron," Mara breathed, moving in front of him.  "As I said,
ladies," she announced loudly, "I am taking him to see Her.  She
will be most displeased if anyone interferes with this man before She has
a chance to speak to him."
     "What about after?" a voice called into the sudden silence.
     "That," Mara scowled, sparing Gar a dark look, "will be entirely
up to Her."
     She set off across the hall and Gar followed.  The other succubi
fell in behind, albeit at a safe distance.  Well, Gar, he thought, you're all
the way in now.  I hope you know what you're doing.  Admittedly, there
was a lot that could go wrong here.  Even if he managed to get what he
wanted, his path remained perilous, not to mention uncertain.  And all
this for the sake of a distant memory, and the words of a ghost.
     Yeah, when you got right down to it, he really was kind of an
idiot.
     Their procession had picked up even more hangers-on by the time
they reached a set of towering doors guarded by two succubi.  Being the
cosmopolitan individual that he was, Gar deduced that this was the
throne room.  Mara marched up to the two and said something in a low
voice.  One of the guards, dainty horns rising from tousled dark bangs,
gave him a lingering stare.  The other seemed less thrilled by his arrival,
but regardless of any reservations she might have had, she and her
partner ended up pushing the doors open at Mara's behest.
     Gar followed the blonde into a chamber that was absolutely
awash in opulent decadence.  There were deep nests of luxuriant furs
scattered around the polished marble floor, nearly all home to lounging
succubi.  Long tables held trays of delicacies and bottles of wine; Gar
knew that succubi enjoyed indulging in all manner of food and drink,
although they could survive solely on the energies of their prey.
     Fires crackled in deep pits set into the walls, adding heat and light
to the perfumed air.  Everywhere precious metals gleamed, or lush
tapestries caught the eye.  And, of course, there were the men, men of
every description.  Some lay bonelessly in the deep piles of furs, some
attended the tables as if in a daze.  All of them were enthralled by their
captors, as if the very sight of these unearthly beauties was a drug that
they could not bear to be without for even a moment.  Poor bastards, Gar
thought.  Totally beguiled.  They would give themselves willingly to
their mistresses until nothing of their vitality remained, and most of them
would never fight, would never want to.
     But he wasn't here for them.  Indeed, if he wasn't very careful, he
might just end up joining their number.  Instead he strode boldly across
the mirrored sheen of the marble floor, boots thudding firmly on polished
stone as he approached the raised throne that dominated one end of the
chamber.  It appeared to have been made of the bones of some great
creature, its ribs visible where they poked out of the metallic fabric of the
backrest.  A huge skull topped the throne, and Gar thought it a bad sign
that he couldn't identify what sort of creature it had come from.  It was
even a worse sign that the throne's occupant had probably killed the thing
herself.  It was just the sort of thing she would do, after all.  She did like
her trophies.  Like the two men that crouched at her feet, lithe and
beautiful, the cream of the crop.
     Yeah, this was going to be all KINDS of fun.
     Mara came before the throne, falling to one knee, her head
bowed.  "My Queen," she intoned.  "I found him in the chamber beneath
the palace."
     "Indeed."  That one word held all the dark, erotic promise of a
thousand nights in one syllable, and Gar felt his mouth go dry.  Great, he
thought.  She's still got it.  The woman who lounged indolently in the
great throne, one leg slung over the arm, was more compelling than any
of her succubi.  Her skin was dusky, a warm cafe au lait that gleamed
smoothly in the golden light.  Her glossy platinum hair was bound up in
complex patterns, framing the arresting planes of her face with its
calculated silken disarray.  Crimson leather and silk, trimmed with black,
sheathed the long, lean length of her, barely containing her full breasts,
revealing as much as it hid.  The woman's body seemed to have been
poured from distilled desire, intoxicating and utterly flawless.  Her
cheeks and forehead bore marks like Mara's, only hers were six-pointed
stars.
     "Ah, Hild," Gar said, keeping his tone light and bantering.
"Lovely as ever, I see.  The royal life agrees with you."
     "Flatterer," Hild replied, silver bracelets tinkling musically as she
described a lazy arc in the air with one slender hand.  "But then, you
always did have a sliver tongue."  Her slow, syrupy smile told him she
was not referring only to his gift with pretty words.
     "Majesty," Arianne spluttered, clearly unimpressed with Gar's overly
familiar manner.  "You know this ... man?"
     "Gently, Arianne," Hild replied, her merest glance freezing the
outraged succubus in place.  "This is Garven d'Or.  He and I are old and
dear friends.  Isn't that right, Gar?"
     "What can I say, Hild?" he replied, his tone light.  "One day I wake up
and your side of the bed is empty.  You're gone, along with a bunch of
stuff that doesn't belong to you.  You don't call, you don't write, ..."
     "I did warn you, lover," Hild murmured huskily, her hand
straying down to stroke the long, bronzed hair of one of her pets.  The
man's eyes were lidded with pleasure as Hild ran her nails lightly over his
scalp, her gaze never leaving Gar's.
     "That you did," Gar admitted, planting his hands on his lean hips,
aware that many pairs of eyes followed that movement with great
interest.  "And life with you did turn out to be just as complicated and
dangerous as you promised."
     "Ah," Hild purred.  "So you HAVE missed me.  And finally
you've come for a visit."
     "It's not like I haven't looked for you, you know," Gar shrugged.
"Of course, in the early days I just wanted to kill you."
     A shocked silence fell over the watchful succubi.  Mara looked
like she wanted to be anywhere else but between the two of them at that
moment.  Smart girl, Mara.  Always had been.  But Gar knew he had
nothing to gain by lying.  Bold action was required, and bold action he
would take.
     "Spurned lovers can be a trial," Hild acknowledged, no sign of
her famous temper spoiling her languid grace.  "I suppose I have you to
thank for the excitement here today?  It is so rare that we have visitors
these days.  Had they stayed, I would gladly have offered them the
hospitality of my Court."
     "Yes, your Court," Gar mused.  "Funny thing, that.  I mean,
you're not even a succubus, yet here you are, in charge of the whole kit
and kaboodle."
     "And why not?" Hild returned, that enigmatic, self-satisfied smile
still lingering around the edges of lush, perfect lips that glistened blood-
red in the golden light.  "Once, I was undisputed monarch of my kind.
We were worshipped in our own right as devils, demons, seducers and
soul stealers.  Until THEY conquered us, made us their tools.  And even
then, I was the best."
     "Hild the Ship-Killer," Gar said softly.
     "Ship-Seducer," Hild replied, that smile fading at last.  "Ship-
Subjugator.  Why destroy what you can possess?"
     "Why bother with either?" Gar asked.  "The war is over, Hild.  It
ended a long time ago.  Why not let old ghosts rest in peace?"
     "Is that was this is about?" Hild asked, her smile returning.
Now, though, it held a razored edge, dark and dangerous.  Careful, he
thought.  Step careful.
     "No."
     "I think it is."  She swung her leg down from the arm of the
throne and sat up, pushing her boy-toy away dismissively, ignoring his
distressed whimper.  "Are you waiting for a summons, Gar?  Does duty
hold you?  She will not know you, Gar.  You are a half-breed, unworthy
of her regard even could she see you.  And you owe her nothing.
Nothing at all."
     "Desidinder is the last relic of that time," Gar said, aware of the
stiffness that robbed his words of their glib cadence.  "I told you back
then, I have no illusions about her.  You should just leave her be."
     "I simply want my due," Hild crooned, leaning forward to give
him a heart-stopping view of the depths of her cleavage as she gazed
down from her high throne.  "Call it ... unfinished business."
     "What would it change?" he asked her, angry at himself for being
drawn into this discussion again.  It was as though no time had passed,
and they were lying abed, sweat drying on their skin as their innate
natures drew ever brighter sparks of conflict.
     "Poor Gar."  She pouted down at him, maddeningly desirable,
and he felt blood rush to his face.  And lower, too.
     Damn her.
     "I'm not the one chasing the past," he informed her, hardly aware
now of Mara or the others.  This was between the two of them, as it had
always been.
     "Aren't you?  Those petty godlings had no place for the likes of
you, did they, Gar?  They tried to destroy you, once upon a time.  You
are unique, and so you seek meaning in your life.  I alone understand,
lover.  You want to preserve the remnants of our distant past, a time you
did not even experience, because it is in your blood.  You are slave to the
machinations of those who made us their tools, used us in their wars!
Forget about them!  They have never had any place for you and they
never will!  Join me again, Garven d'Or.  Together we will claim the last
remnants of power from that time, and together we will carve out a place
for ourselves.  This, all this, is only the beginning.  One day I shall once
again be the undisputed Mistress of the Underworld, and I will bedevil
those godlings, challenge their 'rightful' dominion over the mortal realm.
They will rue their arrogance before I am done with them."
     Firelight danced in tawny highlights that slid across her perfect
skin.  Her eyes held him, and he realized that he had quite forgotten how
compelling she could be.  Yes, Hild made a perfect succubus queen.
After all, she embodied desire, beauty, danger, an erotic hunger that
would consume its willing victims.
     And he was very nearly one of them.  But in one thing, Hild was
more right than she knew.  Duty burned in his blood, and if it was a duty
that had no right to compel him, well, what of it?  He answered the call
regardless.  If she must follow her path to its end, so must he.  And those
paths had diverged a long, long time ago.
     He called power, knew she saw it.  There was a rustling as the
succubi reacted, but Mara only watched him, aware as her mistress was
that his portal was close at hand now.  Escape, not attack, was the order
of the day.  Even his portal would not lead him from this place back to
Gaia; her wards were strong.  He had come here knowing that, though,
and his route of escape had been planned.  It would only work once, but
it would only have to.
     He would not be returning here.
     "So," Hild sighed, leaning back in her throne.  Disappointment
robbed her of none of her compelling beauty.  "In the end, you cannot let
go."
     "That's why I came," he said.  "For a little piece of the past.  One
that you took with you.  A certain crystal control core module?"
     "That old thing?" Hild asked.  He actually seemed to have
surprised her, although she quickly regained her composure.  Nothing
shook Hild, not for long at any rate.  "Come now, Gar.  You don't expect
me to believe that you actually hunted me down after all this time just for
that mouldy old artifact?"
     "I did.  It was ... important to my mother.  I told you that."  And
that was true, as far as it went.
     "Yes, you did," Hild acknowledged lightly.  "But your mother
was local, and mortal.  She never saw the inside of one of our ships.  I
never gave that old bedtime story of yours much credence, Gar."
     "It mattered to her, not because she knew what it was, but
because of my father," Gar told her.  Deftly, he wove truth with
deception.  If Hild suspected what he was after, she would never give it
up, no matter what.  And if he had once regretted lying to Hild about his
mother, it was certain that particular falsehood made what he was trying
to do at least possible.
     "Well," Hild shrugged.  "That may be so, Gar.  Still, why should
you care about such a thing?  I probably couldn't even find it anymore."
     Her turn to lie, but he let it go.  "I want it," Gar told her.  "It will help
me to reconcile with my father."
     That's twice in one conversation I surprised you, he thought as
her emotions showed through again.  That must be some sort of record.
     "That is simply insane," she said at last, lovely eyes narrowed.
     Privately, he agreed.  "You said it yourself," was all he said aloud.  "I
don't belong anywhere.  I've made my decision, Hild.  Is it so much to
ask for?  I don't know what you wanted it for, but I would be willing to
bet that it has long since served its purpose.  So why not give it back, for
old time's sake?"
     "What sentimental nonsense," Hild sniffed.  "Anyway, as I told
you, it's been ages since I've even seen the thing.  It appears, Gar, that
you've wasted your time."
     "On the contrary, Hild," Gar said, favouring her with a crooked
smile.  "Over the years I've spent my time very wisely, looking for pieces
of the past just like you seem to have.  So I can tell you that I don't expect
you to just help me for nothing.  I come willing to offer you a trade."
     "Indeed?" Hild murmured, one slender eyebrow rising.  "And
what have you that would induce me to give up such a treasure?"  She
gave him the breasts again, both barrels, and Gar felt his eyes struggling
to wander in spite of himself.
     "Just a minute ago, it was a mouldy old artifact," Gar reminded
her doggedly.
     "It is a unique mouldy old artifact," she allowed.  "And you
know how loathe I am to give up something that I possess."
     Yes, he did know that.  When Hild set her mind on acquiring
something, she did not rest until it was hers.  He remembered when she
had set her sights on him.  Maybe it was ego that made him believe that
she had been after more than just that old module.
     Maybe.
     But when he held the box up in his hand so that she could see it,
he knew he had her.  The gleam in her eye narrowed to a point, and he
felt the force of her entire aura focus upon him.  He drew his portal even
closer, trembling on the edge of escape.  She might attack, but although
Hild was powerful, she must know that he could slip away before she
could stop him.  And she would not want to risk losing this.
     "Where did you find it?"  Her voice had dropped to a husky
whisper, the hunger in it sending delicious thrills down his back.  Once,
she had spoken his name in that tone, and he had come to her willingly.
     "That's not important.  I'm willing to deal, Hild.  This ought to
show you how serious I am."
     It did, indeed.  He sensed the succubi edging closer to the throne,
but a brusque gesture from Hild sent them scurrying back.  She stared
down at him, wetting her lower lip with the tip of her tongue, a slow,
sensuous motion.  The same old Hild, with the same old bag of tricks.
But this time, he would not be distracted.
     "Let me see it," Hild breathed, somehow showing him even more
cleavage.
     "You may not even be able to find my module," Gar shrugged
elaborately.  "Maybe I should leave, give you time to find it."
     "Mara," Hild said.  Her voice was still low and syrupy, but Mara
snapped to attention as if Hild had shouted.  Of course, had Hild been
driven to shout, someone likely would have died.
     "My Queen," Mara replied, her gaze lowered deferentially.
     "Fetch it here."  There was no question what she was referring to;
Mara nodded and slipped away.  Gar kept his expression bland, but his
defences were layered, interlaced, and at full strength, and escape
hovered like the trembling surface of a soap bubble.  He knew Hild
would sense all this; in fact, he was counting on just that.  A fight would
be costly, but she would know that he had no intention of fighting on her
turf.  If she raised a hand against him, he would merely disappear.  She
might never find him, and even if she did, she would risk losing her prize.
     Gar was wagering that she would not take that chance.
     Of course, with Hild one was never entirely certain.
     Moments stretched by with agonizing slowness, the weight of
dozens of stares upon his back.  Gar didn't move, giving Hild an
expression that was as imperturbable as he could make it.  Sweat trickled
down his back, and he desperately wanted to scratch his nose.  Hard to
look imperturbable while scratching your nose, he thought ruefully, and
held still.
     Finally, after what was certainly no more than two minutes but
seemed like two hundred, Mara returned, emerging from the shadows
behind the throne.  In her hands was a cloth-wrapped bundle about the
size of two fists.  Mara stepped up to the base of the throne and stopped.
Hild inclined her head, that simmering hunger still lurking in her every
movement.
     "Show me," she repeated, and this time Gar did as he was bid,
opening the carved box to reveal the gleaming ring nestled within.  With
the box open, Hild could sense the ring, would know it was what it
appeared to be.  At the same time, Mara drew back the heavy silk cloth to
reveal the crystal control core module .  Its surface gleamed a dull silver,
not a scratch visible anywhere.  That was not surprising; it had never
shown any signs of age or wear, not as long as it had been in his family.
     "Well?" Gar asked at last.  Hild's covetous stare masked a mind
that delighted in plots and schemes, he knew.  Speed favoured him in
this.
     "Mara," Hild said.  Mara moved closer, stopping only an arm's
length away.  Gar met the blonde's eye and smiled slightly.  Mara's
expression was grave, and her gaze held a watchful wariness that would
have been at home in the eyes of a wild animal.  While her dedication to
her queen was not in question, Gar knew that Mara was once again
painfully aware that she was between a rock and a hard place.
     "Together?" she asked softly.
     "Much as I hate to give the impression that I'm not a trusting
person," Gar replied, "you betcha."
     She reached out, as did he.  They ended up linked for a long
moment, her hand on the box, his on the module.
     Then they drew back, the skin on the back of Gar's neck
prickling painfully.
     Time to go.
     "Until next time," he called.  Hild's eyes, though, were not on
him as he faded back through his portal, but on the box in Mara's hands.
She didn't even fire off a parting shot, verbal or magickal.
     It was enough to make a man feel unloved.

***

     The throne room was empty now, save for Hild and Mara.  Hild
had even given her latest pets to Arianne and the Velvet Guard for their
enjoyment.  After all, she had a much better toy to play with now.  She
held her hand up, turning it to and fro while she admired the play of light
over the slender ring's surface.  When held just right, the sinewy form of
a wolf seemed to somehow appear just under the surface, it's profile
etched in coruscating layers of light.
     "Ah, Fenrir," Hild sighed.  "At long last, I have you again."
     "With him, we could easily smash the Black King and his
troops," Mara breathed.  "Total victory will be ours!"
     "Tut-tut, Mara," Hild admonished, not taking her eyes off the
ring, still captivated by the liquid glide of light.  "That would be
premature."
     "My Queen?" Mara said slowly.  "I ... but isn't this just the sort
of opportunity we've been waiting for?"
     Hild laughed then, a low, liquid sound.  She noted the tiny shiver
that enveloped her most loyal minion as she absently checked her wards.
Yes, their privacy was ensured.  Excellent.
     "Mara, the Black King is not without his uses.  After all, without
the threat he and his bully-boys present, the lovely succubi would never
have flocked to me, never have accepted me as their queen.  I gathered
them when they were scattered.  I gave them defences against the incubi
hunting parties.  I gave them back their pride, made them a force to be
reckoned with.  They love me, and fear me.  But peace, Mara, peace
would not serve our Court well."
     "I understand," Mara acknowledged, bowing her head.
     "Do you?"  The question was idle, but beneath the words lurked
the idle menace that kept Mara on her toes.  The blonde demon did not
disappoint her queen and mistress.
     "We cannot remove the Black King," Mara said softly, "until we
have another enemy to fight, another threat that we must stand united
against."
     "Very good, Mara," Hild smiled.  "Yes, once we are ready, we
can adopt our next adversary.  Perhaps one of the temples of the hated
godlings.  They would never suspect that I am behind the succubi.  Of
late, only the youngest of them pay any attention to the mortal realm at
all."
     "You will fight them for the hearts and minds of the humans?"
Mara asked.  The prospect excited her, as Hild had known it would.
Once they had duelled with their opposite numbers in just such a manner,
for just such a prize.  Although, in truth, the prize had mattered less than
the struggle.
     "Hearts and minds," Hild echoed.  "And souls.  But we must use
stealth and guile, Mara, at least for now.  The day will come when we
have replenished ourselves.  The succubi serve me, and there will be
others.  Perhaps the incubi as well, when their king lies dead at my feet
and danger threatens us all from without."
     She continued her game, describing lazy arcs in the air with her
hand, until Mara finally broke the silence, her voice quiet, respectful, but
tinged with concern.
     "Gar's appearance worries me, My Queen."
     "Does it?" Hild asked, as if the matter were of no import.
     "He must be linked to those humans who intruded upon our
realm today," Mara went on doggedly.  "What if humans begin coming
here again?"
     "There were few humans who possessed the power to cross to
Shadow," Hild shrugged languidly.  "Almost all were of the Sisters of
Shadows, and they have been neutralized, neutered."
     "Gar was fond of Dasma," Mara remarked.  My, she was
talkative today!  "If he were to find out that you were the one who set
Alieva against Her ..."
     "He will not find out," Hild said, her gaze falling upon Mara at
last.  "Dasma lies sealed, and with the loss of the deepest secrets of
Shadow Magick, my realm is inviolate.  Still, your concerns are not
entirely without merit, Mara.  We should endeavour to find out what we
can about our unwelcome guests.  The report was, shall we say, sketchy,
but it does not sound as though they used Shadow Magick to escape."
     "Gar possesses the power to move between realms," Mara
pointed out.  "As we do.  It seems likely that he was responsible."
     "Perhaps," Hild conceded, that tiny smile playing at her lips.  "It
is curious, however, that he should take an interest in Shadow Realm all
of a sudden.  Don't you agree?  And then there is the matter of these
cursed blood wraiths that have appeared of late.  Perhaps it is time that
we took to the hunt, dear Mara, and swelled our numbers with those who
might otherwise trouble my hard-won sanctuary."
     She rose from her throne, descending to the floor and striding
boldly into the shadows that lay around it, her scarlet and midnight cape
swirling around her sinuously.  Mara followed, and Hild could sense her
minion's excitement.  Finally, it seemed that things were on the verge of
moving forward.  Once again they would be a force to be reckoned with.
     Ah, how she missed the old days.
     They descended through the passage which few had ever
traversed.  Hild's inner sanctum lay at its end, a place which she guarded
jealously.  Her protective magicks slid over her skin like a lover's touch
as she passed, rippling around Mara as they had been instructed to do.
Hild was looking forward to showing off her new acquisition.  As for
Gar, well, his sudden reappearance had piqued her interest.  Seducing
him hadn't been all business, after all.  And a queen could certainly use a
king, especially one with powers such as those Gar possessed.
     Of course, she would have to punish him for his impertinence.
Sending humans into her realm, cutting off one of her gates, and forcing
her to give up a treasure were all acts she would need to hold him to
account for.  Of course, she had other gates, many in fact.  Even though
she could cross into the mortal realm without them, she did not care to
leave such a trail.  Shadow gates were safer, far more anonymous.  And
the treasure he'd bargained for had long since ceased to be useful to her,
having already lured that which she'd sought.
     But impudence could not be allowed to run rampant.
     Ah, such interesting times, she thought as the doors to her
sanctum lit up with traceries of sliver fire and parted at her approach.
Such very interesting times indeed.
     It was difficult to gauge the size of the room beyond the doors at
a glance.  There were soaring pillars, niches and nooks, and soaring
crystalline constructs that might have been art or advanced technology.
As it happened, many were both.  Hild breezed through the chamber,
though, accustomed to the fantastic sights which were her due.  She
skirted the fountain, reaching out to trail one hand through the
breathtakingly cold water as she held the other up to the shifting curtain
of light that hovered above the arching flow.
     Ah, such a very fine day.
     With Mara trailing, she at last came to a high, shallow alcove.
Within, a Y-shaped form hung in the air.  Hild wave her hand negligently
and a gauzy curtain of gleaming dewdrops drew aside, revealing her
greatest treasure.
     The girl's wrists were encircled by bright silver metal bracelets,
engraved all around with mystic runes and glyphs.  Nothing touched the
outside of those glowing metal bands, yet they kept those wrists captive
as securely as though they were set in concrete, pulled up and away from
the girl's body.  Her boots hung just above the polished floor, the inches
that separated them from that solid purchase as good as miles.  Hild
stepped forward, enjoying the way the girl's body twitched at the sound of
slender spiked heels upon the cool stone floor.
     "Ah, Peorth," Hild said, her voice silky.  "I have another job for
you."
     The girl's head remained bowed.  Her glossy black hair hung in a
shoulder-length curtain that shielded her face from view, but that flimsy
silken barrier could not protect her, and they both knew it.  Her hair was
longer in the back, a lush waist-length tail that Hild twined her fingers in,
leaning closer to her captive.
     "So," she whispered.  "It's to be obstinacy today, is it, my pet?
How charming."
     Peorth made no reply.  Hild was not terribly surprised.  This was
a very old dance between the two of them, and she knew the steps well.
Mara had asked her once why she didn't simply break their old adversary
completely.  Hild had not deigned to answer, but in truth, she enjoyed
their little sparring sessions.  And it would have been too easy, after all.
No, she didn't want Peorth as a broken doll, obedient and without will.
She wanted something else, and she was confident that she would get it.
     After all, she had nothing but time.
     "I have something for you," Hild murmured, her breath stirring
the hair next to Peorth's ear.  She held her hand beneath the girl's face,
palm up.  Nestled in her palm was a small, smooth ovoid, its surface
gleaming ebon.  This, too, was part of the dance.
     "Take it away."  Peorth's voice was small, soft, but firm.  In the
beginning she had reacted much more strongly, but over time she had
learned that she merely needed to refuse every time the offer was made.
Hild knew that this little ritual puzzled her favourite possession; if Hild
chose to force the issue, there was no chance that Peorth would prevail.
The captive seemed unable to comprehend Hild's confidence.
     No matter.  Peorth might have been of Heaven rather than Hell,
but she and Hild were not so different.  An eternity of slavery awaited
her; could that be preferable to accepting a Dark Angel?
     No.  It would take time, but the ex-goddess would accept her
place in Hild's Court.  After all, the old order was gone.  They had both
served another power, willingly or not, and now there was nothing left of
their old lives.  Peorth could have fought indefinitely had there been any
ray of hope, of this Hild was certain.
     But there was none.
     As if to emphasize that point, she closed her hand slowly around
the dark egg.  This was by no means unusual.  Peorth's reaction when she
saw Hild's closed hand, however, most certainly was.  Her lithe body
stiffened, and Hild savoured the sharp gasp that sight elicited, stroking
the girl's hair possessively.
     "Fenrir," Peorth hissed, catching sight of the new ring that adorned
Hild's slender hand.
     "Ah, yes," Hild murmured, as though she had quite forgotten.
"Lost all these years, I have finally welcomed my wolf back into the fold.
Of course, I had to trade a slightly used crystal control module for him,
but that had served its purpose."
     Peorth was like stone under her hand, her breath coming in
ragged gasps.  That particular piece of the past had been responsible for
Peorth's present predicament, after all.
     "Well, I am in a good mood, as you might imagine," Hild went
on.  Mara stood quietly in the background, waiting, watching.  Peorth
didn't respond.  "Ah, but someone has ruined my pleasure, dear Peorth.
They came to visit my realm, but then left without stopping to say hello."
     "Good," Peorth spat.  Her head came up at last, dark eyes
meeting Hild's.  Yes, there it was, the defiance she so treasured.  How
could Mara think Peorth would be better off without it?  It was a
treasure, a gift.  Replacing it with adoration would be a masterwork.
     "Temper, pet, temper," Hild chided gently.  "It has been so long
since anyone has come calling.  I want to know more about my guests."
     "I don't," Peorth said, her chin rising almost imperceptibly.  The
sight of Fenrir seemed to have put some steel in the girl's spine today.
How delightful.
     "Really?  But while they were here, we were graced by the
presence of a certain phantom ship."
     Peorth's lips trembled, but she said nothing.
     "Wouldn't you like to see her, even if only second-hand?" Hild
coaxed, her fingers tracing the nape of Peorth's neck.  "Come, interface
with the sensor grid for me, and let us see what we captured of the day's
festivities."
     "Go to hell," Peorth whispered tightly.
     "You forget," Hild whispered back.  "I came from Hell.  I ruled
there.  And I rule here."  Hild pressed her mouth against Peorth's, and the
captive girl struggled, making small trapped sounds in her throat.  The
diamond-shaped marks on her cheeks and forehead glowed briefly as
Hild's power flowed through the heated merging of soft lips, and finally
Peorth's angel was forced to come forth.
     Gorgeous Rose emerged from Peorth's back, tossing her head
skittishly.  Gleaming chains of mithril bound the angel, pinning her
raiment of thorny vines tightly, but still her alabaster wings twitched, as
though she could free her mistress, or herself, from this mystic bondage.
Long blonde hair hung down into the angel's face as she glared down at
Hild, hiding her fear under a mask of seething fury.
     Hild drew back from Peorth.  "Mara," she said.
     Gleaming halos of purest jet appeared, each about a foot across.
They circled Gorgeous Rose, and Hild savoured the panicked keening
that rose into the air as the angel began to struggle in earnest.  Her futile
resistance soon ended as ebon tendrils burst from the rings, each
burrowing deeply into her body.  Peorth and her angel cried out in
unison, arching back as the hungry probes bore in.  Within moments it
was done and Peorth hung limply again, sweat beading on her trembling
body as Gorgeous Rose writhed, caught like a lovely butterfly in a
tenebrous spider's web.
     "Excellent," Hild murmured, stroking Peorth's cheek languidly.
"Now, then.  Search for activity in the area northwest of the palace,
Peorth.  From about mid-day on should do."
     Another black ring, this one big enough for a person to stand in,
appeared and hung in the air before them.  The space within it was filled
with technicolour static, and Hild sighed.
     "Focus, Peorth," she said, and her voice brooked no resistance.
Gorgeous Rose gasped sweetly, and a picture began to resolve.  Hild
smiled.  The salvaged components of the sensor grid were another
treasure that had not been easy to come by, and they would have been
useless without a goddess to interface with them.  Controlling one,
though, allowed Hild to utilise the other quite nicely.
     "Much better," she declared as the image finally became clear.  "There
were a great many of my succubi in the vicinity, as well as one incubus.
If the grid captured any of the action, it should not be difficult to find ...
ah.  There."
     Hild and Mara watched eagerly as a lone incubus appeared,
soaring through the air with typical arrogance.  Peorth followed him as
several succubi gave chase, handling the array easily.  As was only
natural, considering it had been salvaged from her ship.
     Things began to get interesting when the incubus flew over a
group of people on the ground.  "Stay with that group down there," Hild
instructed, and the picture moved away from the muscular incubus to
focus on the small knot of humans.
     "What are those uniforms, my Queen?" Mara asked.
     "They are similar to those once worn by the guardians of the
White Moon Court," Hild remarked.  "Apparently the styles of that time
have not been totally forgotten."
     "I should say not," Mara breathed as the girls fought with an
impressive array of magicks.  Hild watched, intrigued.  It appeared that
Arianne had not been exaggerating the humans' power after all.  Most
interesting.  Had Gar truly been behind this?  He would remember the
old White Moon Court, after all, and wouldn't be above invoking
whatever power its distant memory might still wield over the petty
mortals he associated with.
     Something flew up out of the group, and Hild sighed.  Maia.  The
traitorous little bitch had joined with humans?  How desperate she must
have been.  But then, she would have known the terrible fate she would
suffer if Hild had gotten hold of her.
     And indeed, Maia actually fought her sisters fiercely, soaring
through the air with lethal speed and frantic strength.  Still, as Hild
watched, she could see the humans being overwhelmed.  Besides the
sailor girl outfits, there was a blonde in leather, a delicate, raven-haired
beauty who hid from the battle, and a rangy youth who fought with
impressive combat acumen.  Their efforts were impressive, if ultimately
futile.
     Then Peorth gasped.  Ah, Hild thought.  Here it is.  The succubi
faltered, their attention turning to the sky above them, and Peorth shifted
the view without being bid.  After a long, vertiginous moment, the view
steadied on a dark shape in the sky.  Despite herself, Hild felt a twinge of
that old resentment.  That those so-called gods and goddesses should
have served so willingly galled her.  Had they not, things would have
been different.  Very different.
     It hung there, majestic even in dereliction, a haunted old remnant
of the war that had left only them and this place.  The ensign of the Eye
flew from her highest mast, but Hild was unimpressed.  Had the Eye
seen, had It known, there would have been no war.
     And the so-called gods would not have lost.
     Then a soft chime sounded, rapid and demanding.  Hild frowned.
"Peorth, what is that?"
     Peorth didn't reply, and Hild turned her gaze to the captive girl.
And froze.  Peorth's eyes were wide, gleaming with unshed tears.  The
sight of Desidinder had affected her, of course; Hild had counted on its
capricious appearance and disappearance driving her to further despair.
     But something else was happening.  Peorth was shocked.
Shocked, but not alarmed.  Astonished, yes, but not afraid.  Hild scowled,
grabbed the girl by the chin.  "Peorth," she repeated.  "What is that?
What are you detecting?"
     Peorth met her eyes.  "It's nothing," she said softly.
     A lie.
     Peorth had lied to her.  Hild was too flabbergasted at first
to even be angry.  This was not part of the dance.  Peorth had caused
them to stumble, be thrown off-balance.  That had not happened for so
long that Hild simply could not believe her ears.
     But the shock did not last long.  Growling deep in her throat, she
cupped the girl's face, her thumbs resting on the diamond marks that
adorned Peorth's high cheekbones.  "Peorth," she said, her voice a soft,
sinister hiss.  "Show me what that is."
     "No," Peorth replied.  Her eyes were alight, and for the first time
in ages a subtle aura surrounded the girl, the same one that she had
possessed when Hild had taken her.  It made her seem like a goddess in
truth, and Hild felt a tide of white-hot fury rise within her to spill out in
an implacable wave.
     "SHOW ME."  Power arced through Peorth's body, and once
again the goddess and her angel screamed in unison.  Peorth resisted,
though, fought back with frantic strength that Hild would not have
believed she still possessed.  Hild increased the intensity of her attack;
that, coupled with the writhing tendrils that violated Gorgeous Rose,
pushed Peorth to her limits.  In the past, that would not have been
necessary.  After all, Peorth had nothing to fight for, not really.
     So why?  Why was she resisting so fiercely?
     Still, the outcome was never in doubt.  The dark probes ensured
that Peorth could hide nothing from them.  As Hild stared down into the
captive girl's unfocussed eyes, she heard a strangled cry from behind her.
     "My Queen," Mara gasped.
     "What do you think you are doing, Peorth?" Hild breathed,
clutching the now limp girl's face between her hands.  "What do you
hope to accomplish by this?  I thought we had progressed beyond the
necessity of ugly disciplinary measures ..."
     "My Queen," Mara repeated.  Hild whirled, gathering power to
lash out at Mara for daring to interrupt her.  What she saw, though,
stayed her hand.  She stared into the ring, and for a moment, just the
briefest of instants actually, she felt a twinge of unfamiliar emotion.
     Fear.
     The rangy youth stood in the centre of the image, black coat
streaming out behind him in the wind.  Something hung between his
cupped hands, glowing the same colour as the aura of chi which
surrounded him.  That object pulsed brighter and brighter, and she could
see a faint image in the space around the boy, as though another picture
was leaking through.
     "Freeze the image."  Her voice was so soft it almost couldn't be
heard.  The image froze, though.  Apparently, now that Hild had seen
this, Peorth realized the futility of further struggle.  "Closer," Hild
demanded.  The image swelled until the boy filled the ring, his long braid
coiling sinuously around his body, sapphire eyes tinged with stormcloud
gray staring out at them.  But Hild had eyes only for the object that hung
suspended between his hands.
     "A hyperlink key," Mara said hoarsely.  "But that's impossible.
The Warden was killed and the key lost ..."
     "Show me the boy," Hild said curtly.  The readouts changed from
merely the visual, showing a multitude of data about the displayed
image.  Hild felt that cold, unfamiliar sensation snaking through her gut
again, and it enraged her.  If it were not impossible, she would have
accused Peorth of altering the data.
     "He's HUMAN?" Mara gaped.  "Mortal?"
     "Warden," Peorth gasped.  Even though her body trembled, she
smiled, her eyes gleaming.
     "No mere human could be Warden to a key."  Hild's words were
encased in razored ice, yet she could not look away from the ring.  "And
he is human.  So how did he trigger the key's power?  It must have been
an accident, some sort of confluence of circumstances.  Go deeper,
Peorth."
     Nothing.  Snarling, Hild rounded, placing her palm against the
diamond mark on Peorth's forehead as Gorgeous Rose keened in fear for
her mistress.  "Obey me!"
     But Peorth would not obey.  Hild was forced to compel her once
more, unleashing power into the captive girl until she could no longer
resist.  Then, at last, the scan unfolded, going even further beneath the
surface to show the truth of things.
     "No."  It was one word, but Mara's voice contained fear and
disbelief, and Hild turned back to the ring.  There it was, laid out for
them to see.  Yet it was impossible.  It could not be.  Everything she
knew told her that this could not be.  She stared, nearly mesmerized by
what she saw, and it took long moments for the sound she was hearing to
register.
     Laughter.
     It was hoarse, faint, but it was laughter nonetheless.  Peorth had
not laughed in a very long time, but apparently she had not forgotten
how.
     "S-synchronization rate ... at 71.3 percent," Peorth informed her with
bitter, breathless delight, as if Hild could not see what was in front of her.
     "Liar!" Mara shouted, fists shaking with rage.  "You're lying,
Peorth!  At that rate, he'd be able to use the key!  He could open a gate,
he could ..."
     "Mara."  Whatever emotion crept into Hild's voice, it stopped
Mara's tirade dead in its tracks.  Hild stared at the image, looking into
the face of legend, of something that should not be.
     No, she thought.  I will not allow it.  I will not go back to being a
tool.  It was ended.  It was ended, and it shall remain ended.  I swear it.
     "Queen Hild," Mara said, her voice tight with apprehension.
"What ... I mean ... what will we do?"
     "Summon my lovely servants," Hild whispered, tension roiling
the air around her.  "Summon them all.  They will pursue him to the
human realm, hunt him, FIND HIM."
     "But my Queen," Mara replied as she fell to her knees
obediently, "if he is truly a Warden, what chance have they?"
     Hild strode forward and grabbed Mara by her curls, hauling the
demon roughly to her feet.  "He is not a Warden," Hild breathed,
wrapping Mara in quiet menace.  "You will not say otherwise.  Ever."
     "Of course, my Queen."  Mara's stillness was that of prey caught
in the talons of a huntress.
     "Gather them," Hild went on, her face so close to Mara's that
their noses were nearly touching.  "They are to find the boy."  Then she
let Mara go, so abruptly that she stumbled and fell sprawling to the floor.
Hild held her hand aloft, letting her newest ring catch the light and throw
it back.
     "They will find him," she repeated.  "And Fenrir will kill him."

***

     It was a weird car ride back.
     I wasn't sure what was going on between Rei and Minako.  All
night they'd been going from tense to okay and back with no rhyme or
reason that I could see.  Now things seemed to be okay again, but they
weren't really talking.  Rei sat in the back, holding Phobos and Deimos
in her lap.  The twins were asleep, something about having expended all
their strength.
     Yeah, sure.  They hadn't had to go running through the
neighbourhood with their assets hanging out, leading a bunch of twitchy
cops on a wild goose chase.  Expended their strength, my ass.
     Minako drove.  Okay, let me rephrase that.  Minako drove like a
normal person, not like her.  No squealing tires, no narrow misses with
other traffic, no heart-stopping moments.
     Yeah, all was definitely not right.
     Except that I was now dressed.  Good thing I'd left my clothes in
the car.  We had to pass two police checkpoints, and even in this city I
think a half-naked girl would raise a few eyebrows.  The cops didn't
bother us much, though; we told them we'd been holed up for the day
and were only now trying to get home.  Nobody pressed us too hard for
details.  Seems they were worried about nastier things than us.
     It had been late when we'd set out, and now it was well past
midnight.  The lights were still on when we pulled into the curving
driveway, though.  It had been a long day, but it didn't look like it was
over yet.
     "Hey!" Usagi bellowed, charging out the door as we were
emerging from Minako's little sportscar.  "Are you guys okay?"
     "Uh, yeah," Minako told her as Usagi gave her a fierce hug.
"Shouldn't we be?"
     "Mamo-chan heard that the police ended up at that estate!" Usagi
said breathlessly.  "And it was a disaster!  Everything was smashed up
and the lady of the house was found in a coma and her safe was empty
and there was a naked red-head who broke a police car ..."
     "Hey!" I blurted, interrupting her tirade.  "Half-naked!"  Usagi
stopped and looked at me.  "Only because Rei stripped me," I went on.
"Er, of the curtain I was wearing.  You know what, never mind."
     "Your hair looks nice like that," Usagi told me, moving to hug
Rei.  She was careful not to crush the twins in the process.
     "Uh, thanks," I said.
     "Okay, everybody inside," Usagi commanded.  "I want to hear
what happened."
     I thought about Minako and soft markers, and Rei covered with
shadows, and thought that was unlikely.  I wondered how much the girls
would tell her.  Me, I was going to stay quiet.
     I'd said more than enough already, judging by the smirk Minako
was giving me.
     Setsuna was in the living room when we came in, drinking tea
out of a plain-looking mug.  She smiled at us as if she was glad to see us.
Which, for all I knew, she was.
     "Welcome back," she said.  "I understand you had some
success."
     "That's not what I understand," Mamoru sighed, walking in from
the other side of the room.  "It sounds like you guys staged the entire
Sidhe Wars in there.  I thought your plan was to use stealth?"
     "Would you believe the plan didn't work out the way we'd
hoped?" Minako asked meekly.
     "I would," he said, looking at each of us in turn.  "There are at
least five confirmed fatalities, and everybody else requires
hospitalisation.  Including the Sultana."
     "Hey!" I snapped.  "We didn't tear the place up for laughs, you
know!  Do you have any idea what that woman was doing in there?"
     "According to a friend of mine who was in there," Mamoru
replied, unbuttoning the collar of his shirt, "enough prohibited weapons,
Jell rounds, illegal drugs and slaver equipment to keep a person in prison
for about a thousand years.  Which, I have to tell you, tempers any
disapproval I might have otherwise had.  The only thing they didn't find
were slaves, although they're pretty sure there were some there as
recently as tonight."
     "Let's say, hypothetically, that there were," Minako said,
flopping onto the couch beside Setsuna and bouncing the dusky-skinned
woman with the force of her arrival.  "And that, hypothetically, we could
find them.  Could their safety be guaranteed if they testified about what
happened?"
     "I could look into that," Mamoru said, rubbing the back of his
neck with his hand.  "But let's be realistic.  With the political climate the
way it is, chances are that the Sultana will never see the inside of a jail
cell."
     "What?" Usagi cried, dismayed.  "But she's guilty!"
     "And she's not attached to the embassy," Minako scowled.  "So
how does she get immunity?"
     "Politics makes the world go round," Mamoru told her.  "It ain't
pretty, kids, but it's true."
     "Aren't there talks later this month with the Tyrians about
renewing our mutual defence treaty?" Setsuna noted.
     "Yeah," Mamoru said glumly.  "And a couple of high-level trade
talks as well."
     "She can't just get away with this!" Usagi cried.  "Mamo-chan,
that isn't right!"
     "I'm with her," I said.  "You didn't see those kids."  Funny how I
thought of them as kids.  They hadn't been much younger than me.  But
then, I'd left childhood far behind me a long time ago.
     "Look, the police will do what they can," Mamoru said.  "But
I'm predicting that some stuff will go on behind the scenes, we'll get
some concessions in treaty talks, and the Sultana will go home.  Her
underlings, now, they'll probably take the fall.  Her overseer, for
instance, who looks like she lost an argument with a bus."
     "The slaves?" Minako asked.
     "Off the record?  Keep them out of sight," Mamoru said.  "If they
surface in relation to this case, I doubt they'll live to testify."
     "These Tyrians sound like scum," I said, feeling a familiar buzz
in my gut.  "The more I hear about them, the more I want to hit one of
them.  Repeatedly."
     "Their society is based on strength, cruelty even," Rei told me.
"They believe in a structure, order.  Unfortunately, they also believe in
enslaving those who lack the power to resist them."
     "And we need them," Setsuna sighed.  "Without our relationship
with Tyria, however strained it may be, our border situation would be a
disaster."
     "This is too complicated for me," I declared.  "I can't hit political
stuff."
     "You want to hit something?" Mamoru asked.  "A warrant has
been issued for the man believed to be the Sultana's chief torturer and
enforcer.  Half-troll, incredibly tough.  I just got off the phone with a
source of mine from Intelligence Branch.  Back in Tyria, this guy was
famous for enforcing the Sultana's will.  If he's done even half of what the
Intel boys believe, then he is a very evil and incredibly dangerous man.
They say he's been illegally modified with sorcery, and is damned near
unkillable."
     "Goes by Arj?" I asked.  "Big, fast, strong, smart like rock?"
Everybody looked at me, and I gave them a ghost of a smile.
     "Yeah," Mamoru said slowly.  "They didn't find him inside."
     "Then they didn't look hard enough," Minako said.  She sounded
obscenely cheerful.  I was very glad.
     "Isn't that who you told me Ranma was fighting, Minako?" Rei
asked lightly.
     "For the record," I said, walking out of the room, "the only thing
I hate more than torturers is rapists.  And that guy was both.  Unkillable?
Maybe those guys just weren't motivated."
     Then I went to the kitchen to get something to eat.

***

     Silence.
     "Do you guys have any idea," Mamoru said slowly, "how many
people have tried to kill this Arj?  I'm talking about pros, bounty hunters,
even rival nobles.  How did ...?"
     "I saw some of it," Minako said, feeling a warm tingle inside.
"All I can tell you is, never piss Ranma off."
     "Mamoru, what are the chances of connecting us to the crime
scene?" Setsuna asked.
     "Well, the girls were disguised," Mamoru frowned.  "And, to tell
you the truth, the investigation will concentrate more on what we found
inside than on who attacked.  Frankly, everybody is betting on a rival
from home hitting the Sultana while her guard was down."
     "Did they have any trouble with the Jell?" Rei asked.
     "Jell?"
     "The one on Vanka."
     "There was no Jell," Mamoru replied, looking puzzled.  "She
was found unconscious and unresponsive.  There were Jell rounds found
in the room with her ..."
     "What do you suppose happened, Rei?" Minako asked.  They
had left the Sultana in the embrace of that Jell; had it gotten bored and
wandered off?  But Jells were not that smart, they attacked whatever they
hit and stayed there, feeding off the victim until removed by an external
force.
     "It was some sort of new type," Rei shrugged.  "Maybe it was
unstable, and simply collapsed after a while."
     "If it's still there, forensics will find it," Mamoru promised.
"They're going over the place with a fine-toothed comb."
     "As long as they're careful," Minako said.  She hated to think
what other surprises Vanka might have left behind.
     "But you did find something?" Usagi chimed in.  "I mean,
Artemis said something about discs."
     "Right here," Minako grinned, producing the case.  "I want Ami
to scan it before I open it, though, in case there are more nasty surprises."
     "They should be back soon," Setsuna remarked.  "At any rate, it
is very late.  We should all get some rest.  If something breaks, then we
may not have another opportunity for some time."
     "I think I'll put the girls to bed and have a bath," Rei announced.
Minako watched her friend leave the room surreptitiously.  A bath, eh?
     Perfect.

***

     He found them skulking behind the hedge that encircled the old
house, clustered tightly together.  Artemis sighed to himself, crouching
on the tree branch and trying to decide how to proceed.  This was out
there even for Minako; sure, she revelled in her role as dark angel of the
city's underbelly, but taking in a group of strays?
     He could see them clearly, his feline night vision showing him a
mixed group of demi-humans clad in sexy outfits.  They were part cat, a
popular mix for pleasure dolls, and if Minako had sprung them from the
estate of a Tyrian, then Artemis had no doubt they'd been poorly used.
     Well, he couldn't stay up here all night.  With soundless grace, he
made his way to the ground, then transformed into his human form.
Strolling along the narrow, cobblestone walk that led past the house, he
paused opposite the place where the strays hid.
     "Hey, kids," he said in a soft, friendly tone.  "My name's
Artemis.  Mistress V sent me to meet you."
     Silence.  He knew they were there, but they didn't so much as
twitch.  Yeah, trust was going to be in short supply with this bunch.  He
sighed, moved down the walk to the steps that led to the front door.  He
stood there, bathed in the buttery yellow light of the outdated fixture,
knowing that they could see him plainly.  Then he doffed his battered
fedora, showing the crescent moon on his forehead.
     "She told you I'd have this, right?" he asked.  Silence dragged
out, and he was about to speak again when something stirred in the
shadowed lee of the hedges.
     "Is she coming?"  The speaker was a lithe youth, his fine-featured
face framed with masses of hair, the colour uncertain in the low light.
     "Not tonight, I'm afraid," Artemis told him, keeping his
expression open and friendly.  "She's dealing with the cleanup from
tonight's mission."
     "You're her sidekick?"  This from a girl who emerged from
behind the lad, her ears twitching.  As a cat, Artemis recognized the
tentativeness demonstrated by those demonstrative ears.  "Her loyal
minion?"
     Artemis felt his eyebrow twitch.  "Er, I guess you could ..."
     "Mistress V is so cool!" the boy blurted, his eyes fairly brimming
with adoration.  "Just like Lovely Justice Angel!"
     "Uh ..."
     "Sometimes she's a sexy priestess, and sometimes she's a sultry
dancer, but really ..." the girl began.
     "She's Mistress V!" the boy finished triumphantly.
     Gods, Artemis thought darkly.  She used that corny TV show line
again?  And these kids ate it up.  I'm going to have to have a talk with
that girl.
     "That would make you like Tama-tora, right?" the girl added,
clasping her hands together.
     "Er, that's right," he said, teeth clenched.  The comedy relief cat-boy
sidekick?  Oh, he was so gonna get her for this.  "I'm Mistress V's
sidekick.  Tama-tora to her Lovely Justice Angel.  And I'm here to get
you settled while she, um, fights evil."
     At that, the others slowly emerged from their shadowy hidey-hole.
There were two other boys, one being carried by the other, and five other
girls.  Artemis unlocked the front door and disarmed the security system,
then beckoned the group to follow him inside.
     "How badly is he hurt?" he asked as the last of them slipped
through the door.
     "Huh?  Oh, um, he'll be all right," the boy carrying the injured
demi-human replied.  "Karla wanted him hurt for disobeying, but not
permanently damaged.  She knows how to hurt us without damaging
valuable merchandise.  And we heal fast."
     Artemis winced inwardly at the matter of fact way the lad spoke
of being tortured.  "Okay, why don't you set him on the couch there, for
the moment."  He did so, and Artemis went to take stock of the
household supplies.  This small, two story house had several advantages,
like being set off from the surrounding houses by high hedges.  It was
also on a dead-end street, with train tracks behind it, giving a good view
in every direction from the roof.
     He checked the kitchen, finding plenty of canned and dry foods,
but nothing fresh.  Well, no surprise there.  This place was meant as an
emergency hideout, one of many Minako had set up.  It would do as a
home for wayward demi-humans, though, at least for a while.
     He sensed someone entering the kitchen behind him and closed
the cupboard, turning slowly.
     "Hi," he said.  It was the first girl to greet him, the one in the
daring white lingerie.  Hardly anything to be running around the streets
in, but as far as he had gathered they hadn't had much choice.  There
were clothes here that would probably suit the girls, although the three
boys might be out of luck.
     "Um," she said, her eyes shifting around the small but clean
kitchen.  "Artemis?"
     "That's right," he said.  His face hurt from smiling so much, but
he sensed that even a scowl might send this lot scurrying for cover.
     "I'm Elza," she said, clasping her hands demurely in front of her.
That motion had an interesting affect on her barely contained breasts, and
Artemis struggled to keep his eyes on hers.  They were green and gold,
very lovely, and her tail twitched in a quirky, rapid rhythm.
     "How's your friend?" Artemis asked.
     "He will be fine," she said, her voice soft.  "He's ... a trauma, you
see."
     "You mean he's hurt?"
     "No," she said, her voice dropping even further, as though she
were about to say something unspeakable.  "He's, you know, fresh.
Specially made for ... rough treatment."
     Gods.  Artemis got that reference.  Fresh meant the boy hadn't
been born, but engineered directly.  And, in this case, he'd been made
even more resilient than the others, so that he could heal from nearly any
abuse his owners heaped upon him.
     "Elza," Artemis said gravely.  "Are you sure he's fresh?  Very few
people still possessed the knowledge to create demi-humans after the fall
of the Genrous.  And it's very illegal.  I've never heard of anyone still
doing it in this day and age."
     "Oh, yes," she said, her eyes wide.  "Only Kayle, Toris, and I
were born.  The others are all fresh.  There's a place in the Triangle that
gets our kind that way sometimes.  It's difficult and expensive, I hear, but
they make a lot of money off of special orders."
     Artemis felt his stomach clench, but he kept his disgust off his
face.  Elza was likely to think any disgust was directed at her, and he
didn't want that.  Still, to think that such things were going on here, in
this city, sickened him.
     "Well," he said at last.  "There are bandages and things in the
medicine cabinet of the upstairs bathroom.  Just in case.  I should show
you around anyway.  There are some clothes here that you can wear."
     "Will this not please her?" Elza asked, biting her full lower lip
fetchingly.
     "Her?"
     "Mistress V," Elza said, writhing in place.  "If we are to serve her
..."
     "Whoa!  Time out!" Artemis blurted, causing Elza to twitch.
"Elza, she got you away from those people because they were using you.
She would never make you serve her that way."
     "But we want to!" Elza cried, clearly distressed.  "I mean, we
have to do something to thank her, and ... and we ... we only know how
to ... serve."
     Mina, how do you get me into these things?  "Listen, Elza, she
will be tickled pink that you are grateful.  But Mistress V doesn't need
servants."
     Elza moved closer to him, and suddenly Artemis found himself
enveloped in a cloud of sweet perfume as her arms twined around his
neck.  "We have nowhere else to go," the curvaceous cat-girl whimpered,
eyes glistening wetly as she pressed her body against his.  Artemis fought
against the provocative sensations as she nuzzled him gently.  "Please,
Artemis.  Tell her that we will serve her in any way she desires.  She will
not regret keeping us."
     Artemis carefully disengaged the warm, cuddly girl from his body,
holding her at a safe distance.  "You don't get it, kiddo," he said gently.
"You're free.  You don't have to serve anybody.  She'll let you stay here
as long as you need to, until we can find you a job or something."
     "But," Elza breathed, tears welling up in her eyes.  "But we don't
know how to do anything!  We served clients in the club, and then the
Sultana and her guests.  The fresh ones have never known any other life,
and the rest of us have no family, no homes.  If we can't serve her, what
will happen to us?"
     "Don't be afraid," Artemis said, reaching out to brush her tears
away.  "Mistress V rescued you from that place, didn't she?  She's not
going to abandon you now.  She'll think of something."
     "She will?" Elza asked in a very small voice.
     "You betcha.  But there is something you can do for her right now."
     "Really?  What is it?"
     "You can tell me all about the people who came and went at the
estate while you were there.  Can you do that for me?  For her?
     "Yes," Elza said, nodding emphatically.  "Let's go get the others.
Between us, we probably saw everything that went on in the Sultana's
home."
     Yeah, Artemis thought as he followed Elza out of the room.  I'll
just bet you did, kiddo.  I'll just bet you did.

***

     Rei had just finished filling the tub when the door to the
bathroom opened.  She was not at all surprised to find Minako standing
there, giving the room an appreciative perusal.
     "Have you noticed," the blonde asked, "that everyone we know
has a really decadent bath?"
     "Not everyone," Rei replied easily.  "I've seen Mamoru's
bathroom.  Standard tub and shower combo."
     "Eh," Minako shrugged.  "Men, in my experience, don't get
baths like we do.  That looks wonderful."
     "Are you referring to the bubbles?" Rei inquired, gesturing at the
steaming bubble bath.
     "Partly," Minako said with a crooked smile, letting her gaze
wander over Rei's naked body.  "I was thinking that you might need
some help, washing that mane of yours."
     "That would be nice," Rei said with a smile.  Well, they did need
to talk, and now was as good a time as any.  She stepped into the deep,
high-sided tub, sinking slowly into the water.  It was nearly too hot to
bear, and Rei sighed as the scented water enveloped her, leaching the
tension from her body.  She lay back, turning her head to watch Minako.
     The blonde shimmied out of her clothes with the erotic grace of a
dancer.  Rei watched with mixed emotion, knowing that some of that
skill had been earned at a high price.  But then, so had hers, and Minako
was not the least bit shy about showing hers off.  It would be rude not to
watch.
     And a shameful waste, as well.
     Minako bent down, giving Rei an excellent view of her toned
buttocks, then straightened and tossed the last of her clothes into the
corner in a casual move that was pure Minako.  Rei's silk teddy and robe
were neatly folded, of course.
     Rei watched as Minako went to the well-stocked shelves beside
the vanity and found some long, lacquered wooden hair pins.  The girl
twisted her lush blonde locks up into a silken disarray on top of her head,
pinning the unruly mass in place.  Rogue strands of blonde silk hung
down in places, a fetching effect that Rei knew was deliberate, but was
charming nonetheless.  Then Minako rummaged around until she came
up with shampoo and conditioner.
     "How's the water?" she asked as she came over to the tub.
     "Lukewarm," Rei murmured.  "Jump on in."
     "Sit forward, sexy thing," Minako grinned, eyeing the steam.
Giving a put-upon sigh, Rei did, and Minako slipped into the tub behind
her.
     "Wow!" Minako gasped.  "Oh, man, that's good!  You give great
tub, Rei."
     "Do you know, I've never been told that before?"
     "Criminal."
     Minako reached around Rei, plucking the spray nozzle from its
holder and pulling its flexible hose free, managing to bring her full, wet
breasts against Rei's back in the process.  After getting the water to a
decent temperature, she wet down Rei's hair, combing it back with her
fingers.  Then she gathered it up, pouring a generous amount of shampoo
into her hands and working it into the gleaming wet locks.  Minako
worked her fingers through the sudsy hair, her long nails raking Rei's
scalp until Rei found herself purring with contentment.  Being pampered
was a sensual pleasure that Rei definitely missed.
     But this wasn't just about pleasure.  "Minako," she murmured,
her eyes closed and her head back.
     "Mmmmm?"
     "About tonight."
     "Lot's of ground to cover there, Rei," Minako said wryly, not
pausing in her ministrations.
     "Yes, I suppose so.  Let's start with my behaviour earlier."
     "Come on, Rei.  I wasn't worried."
     "You should have been," Rei said softly.  Minako did pause then,
leaning forward.  Rei opened her eyes and turned her head so that her
gaze met Minako's.
     "Rei, I trust you," Minako said.  Her expression was open, frank,
with none of the mischievous playfulness she usually used to defuse
serious moments.
     "That means a lot to me, Mina," Rei breathed, feeling a small but
potent smile creep to her lips.  "But I want you to listen to me.  You can't
trust a shadow, not even mine.  Shadows have no concept of propriety.
They simply want, need, desire.  They are not bound by anything
remotely resembling a conscience, and to give oneself over to such power
is to lose sight of everything.  It is like a drug, one I thought I'd kicked."
     "You didn't lose sight of everything, Rei," Minako said softly, her
breath tickling the side of Rei's throat.  "I brought you back to your
senses by invoking friendship.  Our princess, remember?  And your
girls."
     "You shouldn't have had to bring me back to my senses at all," Rei
pointed out.  "I knew how hard it was for you to be there, how
dangerous.  You had to face down your demons alone, and then you had
to face down mine.  That is far more than you should have had to
shoulder alone."
     "I wasn't alone," Minako told her, wrapping her arms around
Rei's narrow waist and nuzzling the girl.  "Between you and Ranma, you
kicked the living shit out of my demons.  I guess that makes me a lucky
girl, right?"
     "You are entirely too well-adjusted," Rei said, her throat
tightening, "for someone who has been through what you have."  She
reached up to stroke Minako's cheek gently, and the blonde's eyes
lidded.
     "Look who's talking," Minako replied, her voice breathy.
"Anyway, I'm just too crazy to know that I should be messed up.  Or too
messed up to know I should be crazy.  Or something."
     Rei drew in a deep breath, glorying in the warm, humid,
perfumed air.  Minako's bare skin brushed against hers under the water,
slick and silky, and Rei wanted nothing more than to let matters take
their course.  But there was more she wanted to say, and she knew,
perhaps better than anyone, that sex was not always the best way to get
close to someone.
     "Tonight was one miscalculation after another," Rei murmured,
tracing her nails down to the curve of Minako's lips.  "We got lucky,
Mina.  Next time we might not."
     "Sure we will," Minako sighed, kissing the tips of Rei's fingers.
"As long as we always stick together, in the end we'll be fine."
     "I couldn't have said it better myself!" Usagi crowed.  Rei's eyes,
heavy with pleasure, snapped open and she glanced at the doorway.
     "Hiya, Princess," Minako purred.  "I was just washing Rei's hair.
It's a threat to public order, you know."
     "I've often thought so," Usagi said kittenishly, crossing the room
in a slow strut that held Rei's gaze.  Usagi reached up to undo her
odango, letting her hair fall in a sheer curtain of blonde silk that wreathed
her lithe form, nearly reaching the floor.  "So, what does that make
mine?"
     "I'll write some poetry about it," Rei murmured throatily, "to tell
you."
     "Really?"  Usagi squirmed with delight.
     "Oh, yes."
     "Hey, Princess," Minako chimed in.  "Want to give me a hand
with this?  I'm talking about a few things I'd like you to hear."
     Usagi's smile lit up the room.  Rei could feel it deep in the core of
her, and it was as though something that she hadn't even been aware of
relaxed deep inside.  It wasn't the flirtation that evoked that particular
smile, Rei knew, but the implicit trust in Minako's voice.
     "There are some things about tonight that we both have to tell
you," Rei added, pulling her hand from the luxuriant embrace of the
sudsy water and holding it out to Usagi.  "Join us?"
     "Always," Usagi beamed.
     When she took Rei's hand, all officially became right with the
world.

***

     "He's still asleep," Luna said softly as Makoto stood in the
doorway.
     "Yeah," Makoto replied.  "I'll take over, Luna.  Thanks for
looking after him for me."
     "You're welcome," Luna replied, standing and stretching.  "I
think I'll go see how Usagi made out."
     "You should change out of pussy cat form first," Makoto
cautioned.  "Ranma is in the house somewhere."
     "Ah, yes," Luna sighed.  She shivered, then her form glowed,
twisting and shifting until she stood erect, dark waves of hair cascading
down over her yellow dress.  "Better?"
     "Less likely to give the guy a heart attack," Makoto smiled.
     "Did you have any luck?"
     "We'll see if anything develops," Makoto told her.  "The most
promising lead is those discs Minako brought back.  Ami's looking at
them now."
     Luna nodded, whispering her good-bye, then slipped out.
Makoto shut the door behind her, then walked over to the bed, unzipping
her leather riding suit and shrugging out of the top to reveal a truncated
tank top.
     "All right, she's gone," she sighed, looping the sleeves loosely
around her waist and sitting on the edge of the mattress.  "You can stop
pretending to be asleep."
     Yoshi's eyes opened beneath rumpled bangs of pale blonde silk,
and he smiled ruefully.
     "I wasn't in the mood to make polite conversation," he told her.
     "I get it.  How you doing, champ?  Let me take a look at that
wound."  Makoto pulled the blankets down, revealing one smoothly
muscled shoulder.  She gently pulled the tape away from the skin, peeling
the gauze soaked in fey root back to reveal the wound.  To her surprise,
there was only a faint pinkish circle to be seen, with none of the dreadful
black lines that had marred Yoshi's flesh.
     "Stuff is great, huh?" Yoshi murmured.  "Counters silver
poisoning, lets my body heal nearly as fast as normal."
     "Huh," Makoto replied.  Bent over Yoshi this way, she was
enveloped in his drowsy warmth and the sweet, musky male scent of
him.  His long hair lay on the pillow in a touchable silken spread, and she
suddenly felt the need to touch him so intensely it was like an ache.
Swallowing hard, she replaced the dressing and moved to sit up.  Yoshi's
good arm reached up at the same time, and he grasped her hand gently.
     "Hey," he said, his voice a soft, husky purr that sent a delicious
shudder down her back and into her most intimate places.  "Everything
okay?"
     "I need to ask you something," she said, fighting against the need his
body had evoked in her.  This was an old struggle, one she was
accustomed to, but that fact did nothing to make it easier.  He looked up
at her, gray eyes quizzical.
     "That sounds serious."
     She wet her lips tentatively.  "Maybe it is.  I went to talk to Rin
tonight, about getting the pack to help us out.  Under this whole truce
thing."
     "I bet that was fun," Yoshi said, his tone souring.
     "Especially after it turned out that Gareth took a personal
interest," she said, watching alarm sharpen the werewolf's gaze.
     "What?  Makoto ...!"
     "Shhh.  Let me finish.  We got the agreement we wanted, but
something came up during the formalities that surprised me."
     "I wish you wouldn't deal with those people," Yoshi said, his jaw
tight, his voice nearly petulant.  "Damn it, Makoto, their first loyalty will
always be to each other.  You know that!"
     Makoto took a deep breath.  Now that the moment was here, she
wasn't certain she should push.  But she wanted to know, and the
simplest way to find out the truth was to ask.  "Is it true that you and Rin
used to be friends?"
     Yoshi stared at her.  The question had taken him off-guard, that
much was clear; Yoshi could be stubborn or silent with the best of them,
but lying was not his strong suit.
     "He told you about that?" the young shifter asked finally, his
voice soft and tinged with bitterness.
     "Gareth actually brought it up," Makoto shrugged, putting her
hand on Yoshi's pillow and leaning over him.  "I just couldn't believe it.
Yosh, you never mentioned this to me."
     "It's ancient history," Yoshi snorted, turning his head to look at
the wall.  "Dead and buried."
     "The way you guys act, I'd never have imagined that you were
once friends," Makoto said softly.  It hurt to look at the expression on
Yoshi's face, and she regretted bringing it up.  She cradled his face with
her palm and turned it so that he was forced to look at her.  "I'm sorry,
Yosh.  Forget it, okay?"
     "No," he sighed, some of the tension going out of him at the sight
of her face.  "No, now that it's out, Rin will just make you jump through
hoops to hear the story.  And I know you, you won't be able to let it
rest."
     He levered himself up with his good arm, grabbing the pillow and
stuffing it behind him against the headboard so he could sit up.  Makoto
made disapproving noises, but he waved her off impatiently.
     "See?" he grunted, moving his injured arm tentatively.  "Good as
new."
     "You're a bad liar, Yoshi."
     "Yeah, yeah.  Okay, here it is.  You remember I told you about
Rin's old man?"
     "Yes," Makoto nodded.  "He was Tier, got bitten and went on the
run."
     "Right," Yoshi sighed.  "He never had any pack affiliations,
always hid himself.  Rin was born a shifter, his mother died soon after he
was born.  It was just Rin and the old man, until the day the Tier caught
up to them.  Then it was just Rin.  A kid on the streets of the big city, no
pack, no family, just an empty belly and the beast on a very slender leash.
Sound familiar?"
     "Sounds like you," Makoto said softly.
     "Yeah," Yoshi sighed.  "It does, doesn't it?  I ran away after our
pack fell under that sorcerer's influence, sickened by what they did, but
on the street, nobody cares why you're alone, right?  Alone is alone.
Alone is vulnerable.  Alone is prey."
     He stopped, stretching his legs out beneath the blankets, closing
his eyes for a moment.  That let Makoto study his face, the high
cheekbones, the wide eyes, the full, kissable lips.  She could guess that
Yoshi, without the rangy power he'd gained as a man, had been almost
pretty as a boy.  On the streets, that was not a safe thing to be.
     "So I found him one day, getting the crap kicked out of him by
some guys.  He'd been dumpster-diving behind this restaurant, and these
guys took offense.  Didn't want the riff-raff hanging around, even if all he
was doing were eating garbage."
     "And you helped him."  It wasn't a question.
     "The great brotherhood of the dispossessed," Yoshi snorted.  He
smiled, but it was a smile full of broken shards of emotion.  It hurt to
look at.  "So we got beat up together, but we got our licks in.  Even
a kid can be a handful when he turns furry.  Anyway, we sort of fell in
together.  Birds of a feather, you know?"
     "A wolf and a cat?  That's an odd pairing."
     "We were just kids," Yoshi shrugged.  "Pack politics didn't
matter to us, Makoto.  We were our own pack.  We stuck up for each
other, fought together, watched each other's back.  As far as I was
concerned, that was what it was all about.  If my family ever found me,
they'd pull me back into the pack, put me under the control of that
psychopath, and you know I swore I'd never let that happen.  No, this
was a real pack."
     "Yeah," she said softly.  It didn't help, knowing this story did not
have a happy ending.  "So how did it end?"
     "We were about twelve," Yoshi sighed.  "Got into a scrap with
some local gang kids.  Over a girl, as it happened.  Anyway, at that point
we had a bit of a rep around the neighbourhood, and nobody wanted to
mess with a couple of stray shifters.  But somebody caught the fight, and
he was impressed.  His name was Gareth, and he had just brought
together two ragged packs under his control.  He looked at Rin and he
liked what he saw.  He started, I guess courting Rin is the best way to put
it.  Rin was a cat, and he belonged in the fold, or so Gareth thought.  To
belong to a pack, that was something Rin wanted.  I guess he wanted it
more than I ever knew."
     "But Gareth had no use for you," Makoto said sadly.
     "Rin could join, but only if he turned his back on me," Yoshi told
her, his voice low and heavy.  "And, short version, he did.  End of
friendship.  To him, I'm just some velpurg.  To hear him talk, you'd
never know he used to be one too."
     "I'm sorry, Yosh."
     "Yeah. Sorry.  The pretty-boy made his decision, Makoto.  He
threw our friendship away to get what he wanted.  Remember that the
next time you want to trust the guy, okay?  Remember it."
     "Yoshi."
     "I should go."
     "No way!" Makoto blurted.  She reached out as Yoshi made to
rise, her hand ending up flat against his firm chest.  Heat blossomed
under her skin, and suddenly it was hard to swallow.  She met his gaze,
hoping that she wasn't blushing.
     "Come on, Makoto."
     "Nuh-uh.  The guy that gave us the fey root said that you ought
to stay in bed for at least 48 hours.  I figure if I can keep you off your feet
until morning I'll be ahead of the game."
     "Morning, huh?" he asked, the beginnings of a smile playing at
his lips.
     "That's right, so lie down," she ordered, pressing lightly against
his chest.  His flesh seemed to burn hers, but there was no pain in that
fire.  Yoshi slid down onto his back willingly, but as Makoto pulled her
hand back he reached up with his good arm, sliding it around her waist
and pulling her down on top of him.
     "Hey!" she exclaimed.  "Damn it, I'll squish your shoulder!"
     "I've got you," he replied, his voice a rumble in his chest.  He
pinned her lightly against his bare chest, and her cut-down tank top
offered little protection from that feral heat.  She found herself staring
into Yoshi's gorgeous gray eyes from only inches away, her hands sliding
up to the pillow, ending up in the silken tangle of his hair.
     They stayed that way for long moments, her heart pounding in
her throat as his smile grew with syrupy slowness.  He knew the effect he
was having on her, and he was enjoying her discomfort.
     "I'll stay in this bed until morning," he whispered, his breath
caressing her face intimately, "if you stay with me."
     "It's not nice to tease," she whispered back, knowing she should
pull away, knowing she wouldn't.
     "It's only teasing if I don't intend to follow through," Yoshi told
her.  Her expression at that made him laugh, a low, warm vibration that
nuzzled the delicate flesh of her breasts through her thin top.
     "You're in no condition to be making promises like that," she
said weakly.
     "I heal fast," he whispered back.  "Look, I'm just saying sleep in
here beside me.  That's all."
     "You promise?" she asked, hoping her disappointment remained
hidden.
     "I only promise for tonight," he breathed, moving to run his nose
along the side of her neck where he paused to breathe in her scent.  "After
that, you are fair game.  The only way I'll stop chasing you is if you tell
me to."
     "Flirt," she sniffed, tugging a lock of hair playfully.  They had
flirted before, of course, but the past had always been between them.  Did
she dare to hope that this time would be different?
     To the hells with it, she thought, a breathtaking recklessness
taking hold of her.  Tonight we can keep each other warm.
     Let tomorrow take care of itself.
 

***

     Gar sighed, picking himself up off the grass and dusting off his
clothes, which had turned to a loose black swordsman's outfit that dated
back centuries.  The transition had been as rough as he recalled, but only
his pride had sustained any injury.  He paused a moment to take in the
unearthly beauty of night in Aethyr.  There was no moon, no stars, but
streamers of gently glowing mist stretched across the canopy of the sky,
casting a gentle glow over the landscape.  It looked like a lovely
fairyland setting, crying out for an ethereal maiden clad in gossamer
moonlight, or perhaps a lithe bard armed with lute and sword.
     Fairyland settings, in Gar's experience, were never as peaceful as
they might appear.  And in Aethyr, danger and beauty walked together,
inextricably twined.
     He shrugged his shoulders, setting off across the long, luxuriant
grass.  The light was more than sufficient to allow him to move at a good
pace without falling on his face.  The forest would pose more of a
problem, however; underneath the canopy of exotic trees, the shadows
were far deeper.  Not that it mattered much.
     What he was looking for wasn't in the forest.
     There were sounds in the warm night air, distant for the most
part, and with a pang Gar realized he'd missed this place.  It had been far
too long since he'd been back.  Far too long since he had dared to return
to this place.
     Then he crested the gentle hill he'd been climbing, and for a
moment he couldn't think at all.
     It was as beautiful and forbidding as he remembered, its crystal
spires soaring high into the night, wreathed by glimmering mist.  The
backdrop of the Abyss seemed a natural frame for Osiren Black.  It might
have been made just to reside in this very spot.  It possessed a lonesome
grandeur, certainly, desolate yet somehow unperturbed by its absolute
solitude.
     Gar shook off the sense of wonder that this sight had awoken in
him and set off down the hill.  Well.  Saturn's information had been
good, not that he'd doubted her.  Still, it was one thing to know it would
be here, quite another to actually see it.  His heart began to beat faster as
he jogged down the slope, thinking of what he would find within.  If he
was lucky, he would reach the edge of the Abyss unmolested.
     Unfortunately, he was only about half way to his goal when the
glowing mists were torn asunder like wet tissue paper.  A thunderous
roar split the night air, and wind swept across the plain, battering him
like a huge fist.  He staggered, raising an arm to protect his face.  Then,
as quickly as it had begun, the tempest stopped.
     Gar looked up warily.  And up.  And up.
     Jewelled eyes stared back from a huge, wedge-shaped head, their
crimson glow baleful beacons in the night.  Gar's blood seemed to
congeal into an icy slush, but he mustered a smile nonetheless as he
straightened.
     "Hi, Dad," he said.
     "LITTLE FOOL," Dragon rumbled, his voice resonating in
Gar's bones.  DO YOU THINK TO INVOKE SOME SENSE OF
FILIAL AFFECTION IN ME?"
     "Naw, that time when you nearly killed me and told me never to
approach you again kind of got the point across.  Ah, good times, huh,
old man?"
     "YOUR ENDEAVOURS IN THE MORTAL REALM DO
NOT CONCERN ME, BOY.  BUT DO NOT THINK I AM
UNAWARE OF WHY YOU HAVE COME.  THE COLD, SLOW
DESIRES OF THE CRYSTALLINE CITADELS HAVE ALWAYS
LED MERE MEN TO DISASTER."
     "The Osiren didn't call me here," Gar said, standing very still as
he gazed at the gleaming eyes that hung far above him.  He fought
against the simmering anger that wanted to bubble up from its fragile
cage.  Anger would avail him nothing against Dragon, no matter how
justified it was.  "This is something that has to happen."
     "DO NOT SPEAK TO ME OF PROPHESY, LITTLE FOOL,"
Dragon roared.  All of the night sounds had stopped; they might as well
be the only two beings in Aethyr now.
     "This isn't prophesy," Gar shot back.  "Before she died, before
she hid the key away from you, my mother saw something in the Time
Gate.  Something that is finally happening."
     "NOTHING GOOD CAN COME OF THAT CURSED
DEVICE, BOY," Dragon hissed, his voice dropping and somehow
becoming even more menacing.  "ONLY CATASTROPHE.
BEGONE."
     "Then why did you help them build it?" Gar cried.  It burst out of
him, and in that moment he could not have sworn that he hadn't wanted
this to happen.  It had been ages since his childhood, but the scars earned
in that time ran deep, and for all that he was a powerful being in his own
right, they haunted him still.
     "Answer me!" he shouted as Dragon sat there, towering above
him like some great gleaming statue.  "They couldn't have built it
without your help!  My mother told me that you wanted to go back, to fix
things ..."
     "BOY."  The word rolled through the plain like thunder, and Gar
staggered at the force of it.  "THERE WAS A TIME WHEN I WAS
POSSESSED BY A CERTAIN MADNESS.  BOTH YOU AND THE
TIME GATE ARE PRODUCTS OF THAT MADNESS, AND BOTH
OF YOU WERE GRAVE MISTAKES.  THE GATE CANNOT BE
DESTROYED.  YOU CAN.  GO NOW."
     "It was her dying wish!" Gar shouted, a fine trembling heating up
in his muscles.  "Doesn't that mean anything to you?  She saw
something, enough to tell me what to look for!  If I do what she said,
maybe I can stop whatever is coming!"
     "YOU CANNOT.  USING TEMPORAL GATES CAN BRING
ONLY DESTRUCTION AND MISERY.  I TIRE OF THIS, BOY.
LEAVE MY REALM AND NEVER RETURN."
     "Your realm?" Gar asked, bitterness warring with incredulity in
his voice.
     "I NAME IT SO, AND NONE DARE GAINSAY ME," Dragon
rumbled, shifting his weight.  "LEAVE THIS PLACE, OR I SHALL
DESTROY YOU."
     "Like you did my mother?" Gar asked.  His words were soft, but
they carried to Dragon's ears.  There was a long moment, heavy with a
dreadful weight.  It seemed to Gar that he could feel the strands of history
that bound their fates together tightening, drawing them at last to the
centre of some great, hugely complex web.
     "Maybe it has to end like this," Gar said at last, nearly giddy with
the force of events reaching their climax.  "But I'll be damned if I'll give
up on this, you damned lizard.  You took my mother, my childhood, my
birthright.  You can't have this.  It was her dying wish, and I'm going in
there.  Even if it kills me."
     Dragon did not move as Gar recklessly called power to him,
letting it fill the air between them, tasting its eldritch tang on the back of
his tongue.  Father and son they might be, but there was no love between
them, and Gar had no illusions about Dragon's intentions.  His only
chance, and a minuscule chance it was, was to hit first, hit hard,  and try
to slip by Dragon to the shelter of the Osiren.
     "SO, YOU HAVE MY BLOOD AFTER ALL," Dragon growled
at last.  "I ACKNOWLEDGE MY RESPONSIBILITY FOR THAT
BLOOD.  VERY WELL, I SHALL GRANT YOU A WARRIOR'S
DEATH, BOY."
     "Bring it," Gar grinned ferociously.
     And the air filled with power.

***

     Night.
     Wynneth threw back her head, letting the darkness caress her like
a wanton lover.  So close now, the culmination of all her planning, so
close she could touch it.
     "Come here, Cyrie," she commanded.  She did not raise her
voice.  That, of course, was unnecessary.  Cyrie emerged onto the wide
stone balcony, moving with a subservient grace that pleased her new
mistress.
     "Ah, you are so lovely," Wynneth murmured, taking the
woman's face in her hands and gazing down on her.  Cyrie shuddered at
her touch, eyes lidding with pleasure.  "Soon, I will be a goddess, and my
will shall rule all.  Does that excite you?"
     "Yes," Cyrie whispered.  There was a wildness to the woman, the
frantic edge of the hunger that drove the young ones.  At times, that made
them difficult to manage.  When newly turned, many vampires were
destroyed because that hunger overrode all other instincts, even that for
self-preservation.  "All should worship you, Mistress."
     Wynneth turned, gazing out through the night at the distant lights
of the city.  They sparkled so serenely, those lights, ignorant of the new
order that swelled beneath the fragile skin of the night, trembling with its
desire to be birthed.  It was not only the denizens of this human city who
toiled in blissful ignorance, however.  All those remnants of the old order
continued to flail pointlessly, unaware that their fate was already sealed.
     She did not worry about details, not now.  No one, not even
Wynneth Vesra de Morgana, could foresee every single detail in a design
of this magnitude.  But then, that was simply not necessary.  Events had
been set in motion, and sheer momentum had taken over.
     All would be as she desired.
     So why had she felt that odd chill earlier?  It had been almost a
sense of foreboding, and for a moment she'd been certain that the cursed
light of the key would blossom into nova-brilliance in her mind's eye.
The feeling had passed quickly, but the uneasiness had lingered.  It was
as though she had once known that feeling, but had somehow forgotten
exactly what it presaged.
     Enough.  Anxiety was for lesser beings.  In less than twenty-four
hours, her unwitting pawns would perform the masterstroke of her grand
design, and nothing would prevent that from happening.  Nothing could
prevent it.
     "Mistress," Cyrie whispered, turning her face into the wind like a
hunting dog scenting for prey.  "I thirst.  It burns.  I want to taste fresh
blood."  Cyrie extended her hands, her blood-red nails lengthening like
tiny daggers.  Yes, her pet was feeling the need, all right.  Wynneth
wondered how long it would be until the fey powers of a creature of the
night made Cyrie feel powerful once again.  She wondered how long
until the woman rebelled against her rule.
     Not that it mattered.  Wynneth was one of the oldest of her kind,
and she knew every sign, every trick, every single subterfuge that a new
vampire might use to subvert her mistress's control.  Soon there would be
more new ones, and they would all discover that her will was law.
     "I may consider allowing you to hunt with me," Wynneth replied with
an indulgent smile.  "If you remember your lessons."
     "I am to bring only the most beautiful victims before you," Cyrie
said immediately.  "Only the most perfect humans are worthy of our dark
kiss."
     "Yes," Wynneth purred, pleased.  "There can be art in destroying
beauty, pet.  Or defiling it, debasing it.  Even in devouring it, making it
eternal.  But as their goddess, my subjects will learn that I will not abide
ugliness in my presence.  The best of them, flawless and exquisite, shall
be permitted to serve me.  The rest shall toil on my behalf, raising
monuments to my glory.  You are a woman who appreciates beauty,
Cyrie.  Will you enjoy seeing me enslave those you once served?  The
Sultanas, your Domina?"
     "Glorious," Cyrie breathed.  Her dark eyes were unfocussed, a
beatific smile upon her full lips.  Yes.  Even now, Cyrie dreamed of using
her new power to dominate those she had once bowed before.  Well, that
could be useful.  And if Cyrie ceased to be useful, then she would be
destroyed.  But either way, she was the first of a new breed.  Wynneth
had gifted very few with her blood over the millennia, but soon that
would change.
     "They will make devoted followers, I am certain," Wynneth
crooned, her earlier trepidation forgotten.  "As you have.  Now come,
and let us see how apt a student you are, lovely one.  Let us go forth and
visit terror on the city on its last night of mortal rule."

***

     "Lose your shoes?" I asked.
     "Would you believe I'm communing with the spirit of Gaia?"
Mamoru replied.  I looked down at his bare feet, planted firmly on the
cold grass of the back yard.
     "Yeah, sure," I shrugged.  "That's not even the weirdest thing I
heard all night."
     "Was that Michiru and Haruka getting back?"
     "Huh?  No, Ami and Makoto.  Setsuna and Usagi are talking to
them.  I don't know where Minako and Rei are."  Okay, that was a little
fib.  I'd seen Rei going into the bathroom.  I'd put money on Minako
joining her before very long.
     "You should get some rest," Mamoru told me, walking over to
the back step and sitting down.  I sniffed the cool night air and looked up
at the sky.
     "Yeah, I guess," I said.  "Kinda waiting to see if anything
breaks."
     "Uh-huh.  The waiting gets to you, doesn't it?"
     "Yup."  I stood there a moment, then turned to him.  "Uh, hey,
Mamoru.  Can I ask you something?"
     "Sure."
     "Does tonight put you in a bad spot?"
     "What do you mean?"
     "You know.  Knowing that we broke into that mansion and
messed things up.  I mean, you're a cop.  Even if they were bad people,
this vigilante justice thing has got to burn your butt, right?"
     He stared at me for a good five seconds or so, then burst out
laughing.  Then he stood up, shaking his head, but the smile didn't leave
his face.
     "Okay, what?" I asked, more than a little annoyed.
     "It's just ..."  He stopped, rubbed his palm over his face.  "Ah,
man.  I just forgot that you've never seen it.  Trust me, Ranma, I'm no
one to be lecturing on the perils of vigilante justice.  My alter-ego has
operated outside the law on a few occasions, you know."
     "Alter-ego?  Tell me you don't wear a skirt."
     "No skirt," he promised.  "Check this out."  He produced a red
rose, spun it through the air in front of him.  His body seemed to glow for
a moment, then the glow faded.
     "Sharp," I said.  Mamoru was wearing the full tuxedo, including top
hat, cape, and mask, that he'd worn when fighting Saekianna alongside
Usagi.  Cool power radiated from him, the sort of aura that told you this
guy was trouble.  He bowed, then did the change thing in reverse.
     "Ta-daa," he said.
     "No kidding," I replied.  "So you're one of the masked lunatics
who runs around the city?"  So his outfit hadn't just been an emergency
disguise, like the girl's battle maid outfits?  But then, Minako had called
him tux boy.  And when you could kill monsters with a rose, I guess you
got to wear whatever the hell you wanted.
     "Sometimes."
     "Isn't that hard?  I mean, you're a cop.  You're supposed to
uphold the law and stuff."
     "Yeah," he said, giving me a wry smile.  "And I do.  But Ranma,
laws can be limited, imperfect.  Like you've seen tonight, with that
Sultana.  Politics and corruption can hamstring even the best laws and the
most dedicated law officers.  Sometimes I have to go places the law
doesn't allow to get things done."
     "Doesn't that get, well, complicated?"
     "Oh, yeah," he told me, eyes gleaming in the dim illumination.
"It certainly does.  It can be very tempting to rationalise every situation
where the law is limited.  But I do what I think I need to in order to
protect the people I care about.  No matter what.  You understand?"
     I met his gaze, and in that moment I felt we understood each
other very well indeed.
     "Yeah," I said softly.  "I do.  When your people are in trouble,
you do what it takes."
     "Absolutely.  There is a lot I don't know about you, Ranma, but I
trust my instincts.  And they tell me that tonight, you did what needed to
be done.  Don't get me wrong, I'd far sooner see Arj rotting in a cell for
the rest of his misbegotten life.  But sometimes we don't get to choose
how things work out."
     "You really think she'll walk?"
     "Unfortunately, I do.  The crown can use her for leverage, and do
a lot of good with that leverage.  But I doubt the people she hurt over the
years would see it that way."
     "I'm not sure I see it that way," I told him, my jaw tight.
     "Yeah," he sighed.  "Welcome to the fight.  Listen, I'm going to
check on things.  You coming?"
     "Naw," I told him.  "Gonna get some air."
     "All right."  He climbed the steps and went inside, leaving me
alone with my thoughts.
     And the key.
     I drew it out from under my shirt and let it hang.  What had
happened back there?  How had I powered up my chi-bolt to take out Arj
that way?  One thing was for sure, the key was responsible.  But could I
do it again?  Should I, without understanding what sort of forces I was
unleashing?
     Well, the second question I could definitely answer.  Any
technique that had that much power was something I couldn't afford not
to have.  Especially if a big fight was coming.  So.  I took a breath, let it
out.  Then again.  Letting the key hang, I slipped into a stance,
summoning my chi into a battle aura.  I didn't focus it on the key; I
didn't want to dowse with it, nor was I anxious to get the vampire's
attention.  No, I just wanted to see if I could replicate the feeling I'd had
just before unleashing the attack that finally punched Arj's ticket.
     I slowly brought my hands together, letting my chi build.  The
key began to dance, like a piece of straw caught in a strong wind, and my
eyes were drawn down to it.  Damn, something was happening!  But
what?  This was new.  This ...
     I blinked, looked up.  The grass was gone, as was the back yard.
I was standing on a metal deck, and all around me was noise and activity,
dim but getting louder, clearer, as the world came into focus around me.
     I looked up.  The sky had gone insane, a swirl of colours
smashing themselves against each other in a deadly, chaotic dance.  The
floor under my feet shuddered and shook, tossing me against the nearby
wall.  Opposite me was a railing, and beyond that lay only crazy sky.
     Cursing, I clawed my way along the wall.  Somewhere,
something shrieked in pain and terror, a sound that made my skin prickle
and my hackles raise.  Had I somehow managed to trigger a gate?  But
how?  That shouldn't have happened.
     And more importantly, how was I going to get back?  Or would
I?  Maybe I'd just disappear out of the back yard, and they'd assume I'd
run away.  I didn't want that.  I didn't want them to think I was a
coward.
     I didn't want Minako to think that ...
     I reached the edge of the wall, gripping the cold metal with my
hand as I pulled myself forward.  I hung there for an instant, trying to
take in what I was seeing.  There was more of that sky, a dizzying sphere
of riotous insanity all around us.  That made sense now that I could see
the shape of things, though.  I was on an airship.
     And I wasn't alone.
     There were three people just ahead of me, two taller ones in
armour shielding someone else, someone smaller.  One of the two had
smoke rising from his body, long dark hair tossed by the wind.  The other
was a woman, and I could see her face.  Her skin was a shiny gold-
bronze, and her eyes glowed green in the uncertain light.
     "No, Illianka!  You can't!" the man shouted, and then they
parted and I saw who they were protecting.  She was small, a mere girl.
A girl with blonde hair and robes, and haunted, faraway eyes.  A girl that
I knew.
     My spooky little songbird.
     Aw, hell.
 
 

End chapter 17
 
 

     Supplementary notes: Hild, Mara and Peorth are all characters
from Kosuke Fujishima's Ah!Megamisama (Oh My Goddess).

     Lovely Justice Angel is a very thinly disguised A/U version of the
venerable Cutey Honey, created by the legendary Go Nagai.