Previously:

     Ranma, Minako, and Rei found their plan to infiltrate the estate
of Tyrian Sultana Vanka der Gris falling apart when it was revealed that
the lady of the house was not only in league with the Sisterhood, but also
intended to double-cross them.  In the ensuing chaos, Rei tapped into the
darkness she had thought buried with her days as a Sister to escape
Vanka's trap, while Minako faced her past and, with Ranma's help,
defeated the Sultana's guards.  Minako cracked open the Sultana's safe,
and the trio escaped with computer discs that hopefully contained info on
what the Sisterhood's plans were.
     Meanwhile, Mercury and Jupiter discovered that the truce with
Gareth's werewolves was getting complicated.  Gareth revealed that the
shifters of the city threatened to be caught up in some sort of religious
conflict as rumours of the history of the senshi circulated.  The White
Moon Princess might try to exert her authority over the shifters who
worshipped the moon, and he warned that if that happened, he would
take action.
     The Queen's cousin, Gar, revealed to be historical figure Garven
d'Or, had been alerted to the presence of the Crimson Queen's gate
beneath the palace, and ventured into Shadow Realm.  The Crimson
Queen's true identity was known to him, as they shared a past; she was
Hild, who had once been ruler of a demon realm in another reality.  He
offered her a trade; Fenrir, a powerful weapon lost to her ages before, for
a piece of equipment that had come from one of the ancient dimension-
spanning ships.  While she did not understand why he would seek such
a lopsided deal, the chance to regain a weapon like Fenrir was far too
tempting.  Their trade completed, he fled to Aethyr Realm, seeking the
mysterious crystal Osiren that imprisoned the Dark Lady, but found his
way blocked by his father, the mysterious creature known as Dragon.
     Hild, meanwhile, tormented the captive Peorth, who had served
the heavens in another life while Hild ruled the underworld.  Forcing
Peorth to use scavenged technology, Hild replayed the incursion into her
realm by Ranma and the senshi, only to discover that Ranma wielded one
of the few things that frightened her, a lost remnant of the ancient war: a
hyperlink key.  Enraged, Hild threw caution to the wind and decided to
hunt Ranma down and end any possible threat to her freedom.
     While Rei and Minako joined with Usagi to heal their emotional
wounds, Artemis found a sanctuary for the escaped Tyrian slaves that
Minako had released and Makoto discovered the dark secrets that bound
Yoshi and Rin's pasts.  In the darkness, Wynneth watched the minutes
tick down towards her ultimate plan, confident that the tide of events was
now inexorably leading to the result she desired.
     And Ranma, disturbed by the suspicion that the key had helped
him kill the nigh-invulnerable Arj, decided to try to replicate the strange
effect on his chi.
     With disastrous results ...
 
 
 
 

     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 18: Underworld
 
 

     Huge bolts of black lightning slashed through the air around the
ship, followed by peals of thunder so loud that I felt them in the soft,
vulnerable core of my gut.  Whatever I'd ended up in the middle of, it
was bad and getting worse.
     Story of my life.
     Still, the only thing that concerned me was the little girl and her
friends.  She was at the centre of all this, and if the key had somehow
taken me to where she was, then at the very least I wanted to get some
answers.  The raucous thunder had drowned out their voices, but as I
clung to the heaving bulkhead I could make out their words again.
     "Crimson Thorn was crippled by the attack," the bronze-skinned
woman told her, mouth set in an angry line.  "She spun into the rift.  In
her condition, I don't know if she'll make it to realspace."
     "It does not matter," the big guy gritted.  "Darsiensis is no more.
He is dead, along with his guardians, and his key is lost to Outside.  We
are the last."
     "And so I must finish what he began," the girl said calmly, her
voice carrying even through the howling winds.  Illianka, that guy'd
called her.
     "No!  That would leave you vulnerable!"  The man turned so I
could see his profile.  His eyes glowed bright red, his long dark hair
swirling in the wind.  His skin gleamed like polished metal, but it was
scorched in places, as was his armour.
     "That no longer matters," she told him.  Illianka had to look way
up to meet this guy's gaze, but somehow there was no question which
one of them was in charge.
     "Illianka, the war is over," the woman declared.  "Everybody
loses.  What more can we do?  It's the end."
     "There is one thing, Griffon."  The girl smiled then, and I
realized something.  No songs, no rhymes.  She was like she'd been for a
short time back in Aethyr.  In the moment, she'd called it.
     "Hey!" I shouted.
     "You will try to sever the remaining hyperlinks," the woman
called Griffon declared, a crooked smile on her striking face.  Her short
red hair danced in the gale, and she pushed at it impatiently with one
mailed hand.
     "Yes," Illianka said, smiling gently.  "All else may be lost, but if
I can break those links, I can preserve this sphere."
     "One lost sphere adrift in an ocean of darkness," the man spat.
     "My duty," she told him.  "My last duty.  And yours, my loyal
guardians.  You must go, hold them back.  I need time to finish what my
brother started."
     "Hey!" I shouted again.  They should have been able to see me,
but nobody was paying me the slightest bit of attention.  What the hell
was going on?
     "I am not going anywhere," the man declared arrogantly, drawing
himself up to his full height and crossing his arms.  The ship shuddered
again, and the three fought for balance.  He caught the little one as she
stumbled, and she smiled up at him, a smile far older than belonged on
such a young face.
     "You must," Illianka said softly.  Softly, but I could hear her, even
from here, even through the noise and the wind.
     "That witch crippled White Destiny ," the man growled back.  "She
cannot protect you.  We have not even been able to restore basic control
functions.  And none of the others have returned.  For all we know, they
are dead and only we remain."
     "Dragon," Griffon said, putting her hand on his broad, armoured
shoulder.  "She knows."
     Wait a minute.  What did she say?
     "I refuse to leave," he said, glaring at the woman as he bit off his
words with grim precision.
     Did she call him ...?
     "You must," Illianka said.  "Time grows short.  The Eye sees
naught, and the effect is spreading quickly."
     "I will not abandon you!"
     "Griffon?"  The girl turned to the bronze-skinned amazon, who
just shook her head wearily.  Then the woman went down on one knee
and took the little girl's hand in hers, bringing it to her lips.  Illianka's
hand looked lost in Griffon's armoured gauntlet.
     "I will protect you, my Lady Warden," she said.  "To the end."
     "I know," Illianka replied.  "Thank you, Kaneera."
     Griffon stood, turned, and strode to the far rail.  Then she
casually flung herself over the side.  That left just Illianka and Dragon.
But it couldn't be the same Dragon, could it?  Even though those eyes
glowed red, just like his had, this guy was human.  Well, sort of.  Just
what was happening?"
     "Excuse me?" I shouted again, pulling myself past the edge of the
wall and onto the open deck.  "Hey, you!"
     "I will not leave you," the big guy repeated, ignoring me.
     "You must," she said, taking his huge hand in both of hers and gazing
up at him.  No anger, no fear.  The storm was getting worse, and off to
the left I saw something big soaring through the air, something with
large, golden-bronze wings.  "My duty is not to survive.  It is to protect.
You know that, Dragon."
     "You have given up!  I will not tolerate that!"  He, unlike
Illianka, looked pissed.
     "Dragon," she said.  "I do not fear what is to come.  You have
always been there for me.  I know it is much to ask, but I need you to put
aside your feelings and be there again.  One last time."
     "No," he said, and his anger seemed to be draining away as he
stood there.  He crouched down and took her by her slender shoulders.
"Not the last time.  No matter what happens, I will return.  Do you
understand?"
     "I do," she told him, smiling that gentle smile again.  It was tinged
with sadness now, but it never faltered.
     "Then promise me you will wait for me.  I will not leave until
you do."
     She stared at him, the two of them buffeted by the gale-force
winds.  I wasn't sure why I could hear them so clearly over the thin
wailing of the storm, but that was far from the weirdest part of this whole
thing.  I took a step towards them, another, but they didn't acknowledge
my presence.  I was beginning to think that they never would.
     I was beginning to think that I wasn't really here.  Or that they
weren't.
     "I promise," she said.  Whispered, really, but I heard her as
clearly as though I was standing right next to them.  "Be strong, Xieter."
     "Always," he said, his fierce expression softening.  "I was first to
your service, and I swear I shall be last to leave it."
     That seemed to comfort her; for a moment, I could see a very
human expression on her face, one of vulnerability, need.  Then it was
gone, and he was standing.  With a crisp salute, he turned and strode
across the deck directly in front of me.  His glowing eyes never so much
as flickered in my direction as he walked to the rail and, as Griffon had,
leapt neatly over and into the storm.
     Moments later, something huge soared above the tempest-tossed
ship, and the form of Dragon circled us, climbing higher and higher.  So.
It was him, after all.  As he climbed, I squinted.  Through the barbed
black lightning and chaotic rainbow sky, I saw things far in the distance,
black jagged things.  There were a lot of them, and it seemed to me that
they were coming towards us.
     And that, far off, they were wailing.  The hackles on the back of
my neck stood up at that desolate sound, and my mouth went dry.
Fabulous.  Just fabulous.  What were the chances that these things would
ignore me the way everyone else did?  With my luck, slim and none.
     I dropped my gaze to Illianka again.  She was standing in the
middle of the deck, hands clasped together and head bowed.  I moved
gingerly away from the little shelter I'd had and towards where she stood,
only to be brought up short when she raised her arms above her head.
Between those slender hands hung a key, glowing fiercely against the
broken sky.
     No.  Not just a key.  My key.  The same key.  I knew it was the same
one, somehow.  I remembered what Dragon had said to me back in
Aethyr

     (SHE WAS WARDEN ONCE, AND NOW EVEN DEATH
OFFERS HER NO PEACE!)

     and wondered if I was really seeing the past, the time when this girl
had still lived.  Was the key capable of showing me this?  Or was it her
doing, somehow?
     I shouted to her again, but she didn't react.  Well.  Could she
ignore me if I touched her?  Time to find out.
     Or so I thought, but before I could move something stirred
around my neck.  The key, which had been hanging there, had begun to
glow, and as I watched it floated up in the air, mirroring the position of
the one Illianka was using.  I grabbed the key, feeling it pulse under my
skin, but I couldn't force it back down.  A blue glow began to solidify
around me, and through it I could see Illianka standing there, knew these
were her last moments alive.  Things moved through the blue haze, black
and hungry, and the sky split open with a sound like the world ending.
     I screamed into the wind, my battle cry swallowed by the sound
of reality shattering ...
     I blinked.  I was standing on grass, my throat sore, my hand held
above my head.  I brought it down slowly, my muscles aching as though
they'd been struggling against some incredible force.  I opened my hand,
stared dumbly at the key.  It lay against my flesh, dark and quiet.  A
quick look confirmed that I was still in the back yard, not on an airship
facing the end of the world.
     Whatever I'd just experienced, it wasn't here.
     It had ended a very, very long time ago.
     I tightened my hand around the key, feeling its smooth hard
surface press into my palm.  Was it the truth, what I'd seen?  If so, then
something made sense to me finally.  I couldn't find a gate from this
place because there weren't any.  Illianka had talked about breaking all
the hyperlinks to this place to protect it from something.  Somehow, I'd
gotten in, and now I wasn't getting out.
     So.  Gates, amplified chi attacks, and now seeing the past.  What
other surprises did this little thing have in store for me?
     And would I survive them, where Illianka hadn't?

***

     Setsuna heard Hotaru's voice and shook her head, focussing on
her friend's concerned expression.
     "What?" she asked.
     "I said, is anything wrong?" Hotaru repeated.  "You had the
strangest look in your eyes just then.
     "No, nothing," Setsuna assured her.  And she was quite certain
that was true.  Just for a moment, she'd thought she sensed something, a
tingling, prickling heat deep inside her body.  A sensation somehow
similar to what she felt when close to the Time Gate.
     But that was quite impossible, of course.
     She stood, stretched.
     Yes.  Quite impossible.

***

     Wynneth lounged indolently on the high-backed throne.  It had
been carved out of what appeared to be an immense gemstone of deepest
jet with lovely veins of pale green snaking through it.  Even she did not
know what sort of stone had been used in the dim recesses of the past to
make this commanding seat.
     She watched with idle amusement as her protege, once a Tyrian
noblewoman, revelled in the act of drinking the blood of her prey.  Cyrie
was a quick study, and the strapping young man beneath her moaned
with helpless pleasure as his life drained away.
     Still, Cyrie's inexperience was showing.  Only the most beautiful
mortals were privileged to taste the ecstasy of Wynneth's dark kisses, and
that rule extended to all her subjects as well.  Yet Cyrie, in her hunger
and haste, had chosen a man who, while hardy, was plain of face, verging
on ugly.  It was bad enough that Cyrie should have lowered herself to
feed on less than the best that the mortal world had to offer.  Worse still,
she was allowing her hunger to goad her into gorging herself on hot
blood, abandoning the predatory grace her mistress demanded.
     She was presenting quite a spectacle.  Wynneth supposed it was
fortunate in a way that Cyrie had chosen so poorly; it would have been a
waste to kill a thoroughbred.  At least, in so clumsy a manner.
     Wynneth did not intervene, however.  She had instructed Cyrie
once.  She wished to see just how far Cyrie would debase her gifts before
she decided on the depths of the new vampiress's punishment.  Ah, well.
The young ones often needed constant discipline.  Many did not survive
the early days, when bloodlust overcame their instincts for survival.
     And punishing Cyrie would be an amusing diversion as the last
hours of human domination ticked inexorably away.
     The far-flung strands of her web remained untangled.  Events
were proceeding as she desired.  In fact, things had turned out even better
than she could have hoped.  The girl who possessed the key had always
been the only x-factor in her plan, at least the only one of consequence.
Now that she knew the girl was allied with the White Moon Court, her
task had been made simpler.  The Warden would be drawn into her web
along with her allies.  Wynneth would simply have to wait for the strands
of her web to begin to twitch as her prey struggled against the inevitable.
     Wonderful.
     Her wraiths knelt in silent ranks around the periphery of the great
hall, and as Wynneth smirked with satisfaction a rustling seemed to pass
through their number, as if an intangible wave had swept over them.  In
the same instant she felt it, a sense of power that thrummed along the
underpinnings of reality, its song one of unbearable beauty, its purity
searing images into her mind's eye ...
     (wings black and gold)
     (a ship of desolate beauty)
     (the key the key THE KEY)
     Wynneth opened her eyes, the last traceries of that enigmatic fire
fading from her limbs.  She had slumped back against the throne; the
carved shape that topped it, the fanged head of a beast lost to the ages,
loomed over her impassively.  She felt disorientation, but no pain.
     The key.  Yes, but not the light which had burned her in the past.
This had been something other, a resonance of a power far greater than
that which she had experienced thus far.  She had known the key
possessed great secrets, hoarding them within its crystal depths.  But
those secrets were hers to unlock, hers and hers alone.
     Perhaps she had been hasty in dismissing this Warden as a threat.
Had knowing so much of how the tide of destiny flowed made her
complacent?  No, she was justified in her confidence.  No mortal could
stand before the coming storm.
     But that girl did possess the key, and her mindless thrashing
would generate ripples of uncertainty.  Not enough to divert an
inexorable tide, no, nothing could do that, not now.  What the Warden
could do was muddy the waters, make it harder for Wynneth to act with
precision, with absolute certainty.  And while a part of her welcomed the
challenge and the prospect of the hunt, if any possibility existed of the
Warden unlocking the key's full potential before the appointed time, then
she must be prepared to act.
     Wynneth rose with unearthly grace, all eyes in the chamber upon
her imperious form.  Even Cyrie had sensed that something was wrong.
She crouched over the now still form of the young man, eyes gleaming as
she watched Wynneth from her knees.
     "Go forth," Wynneth commanded, her throaty voice velvet-
wrapped steel.  "Go into the human world.  Watch for the girl, the one I
have shown you, the one who possesses the key, but do not reveal
yourselves.  I am to be informed the moment she is found.  Go!"
     The air was alive with the rustling of robes as her loyal servants
fled into the surrounding shadows, flying forth to do her will.  For a
moment, Wynneth considered stirring their hidden sisters to action ahead
of schedule.  The ensuing chaos might bring the Warden out of hiding.
     But she reconsidered almost immediately.  The Warden had
roused the power of the key, true, but the power she had sensed had been
fleeting and unfocussed.  Caution was warranted, but panic was not.
Unless events warranted, the schedule must remain unchanged.
     She strode across the cold stone to stand above Cyrie.  Wynneth
smiled as the pale-haired woman cringed beneath her.  That smile was
not, she knew, at all comforting.
     "You have disappointed me, Cyrie," she said softly.
     "Mistress," Cyrie whimpered, dark blood trickling freely down her
chin.  "I am sorry ..."
     "No, you are not," Wynneth replied.  "Not yet."
     And smiled again.

***

     Shadows lay deep across the cold crystal, clinging in billowing
layers like tenebrous spiderwebs.  In the deepest of these shadows she
waited, motionless and silent.  Something other had entered; she could
taste it on the hatefully stale air.
     It stopped, hesitating.  Hesitation was not one of her faults; she
struck.
     He shouted, tumbling back from the blur of her motion to fall
into a dim shaft of glimmering light, and only recognition stayed her
from a fatal blow.
     "You," she hissed softly, disbelief twining through her voice.
     "Banri," Gar said tightly.  "Don't you ever get tired of doing
that?"
     She didn't answer, pulling back slightly.  The blood she had
scented upon his entrance was his, she saw, and not the miasma of some
mystic predator which had somehow found its way to her Mistress's
resting place.
     "You look awful," she said at last.  "What happened to you?"
     "I had a disagreement with a wyrm," he gritted.  "A hand?"
     She reached down, grasping his wrist and pulling the big man
effortlessly to his feet.  His clothes were torn in places, burned in others,
and blood streaked the side of his face.  One eye was swollen so badly
that it was nearly shut, and to judge by the ugly purple swelling along his
side, he had some broken ribs.  Still, he bore the pain with a stoicism that
did not surprise her.  She remembered Garven d'Or well.
     "It hasss been a long time," Banri said softly.  "I trussst that
affection for my Mistresssss bringsss you?"  Menace, faint but
unmistakable, coloured her words.  It had, after all, been a VERY long
time, and relationships changed.  On the outside.
     Nothing changed, here.
     "A very lovely sailor girl brings me, actually," Gar muttered.  "I
..."
     "The princessss?" Banri hissed, hope blossoming in her chest.
"She ssssent you?"  Exaltation filled Banri's entire being.  The princess
had kept her promise!  She was, even now, seeking ways to free the Dark
Lady from her cold bondage!
     "Sent, sure," Gar winced, taking a halting step.  "Listen, I need to
see her."  He held something up in his left hand, and Banri frowned,
tongue flicking out between her parted lips, lightning-quick.  It tasted
like a thing of the Old Ones, and she was mistrustful of such devices.
Still, if it would help free her Mistress, then she would allow its presence.
     "Thisss way," Banri told him, striding quickly to the centre of the
chamber.  Gar followed, but much slower, and she waited with
undisguised impatience at the side of her Mistress's crystal cage.
     "You can free her?" Banri asked as Gar limped his way to her
side.  He did not reply for a moment, gazing down at the figure trapped
within the crystal.  A melancholy wistfulness displaced the grim
determination on his rugged, battered face, kindling fondness in Banri's
heart.
     "Ah, Dee," he muttered softly.  "Of all of them, you deserve
better than this."  Then he turned to Banri, his normally mischievous eyes
grave.  "I only know that I have to place this here," he told her, bending
stiffly.  The strange device did not react in any way as he placed it gently
atop the gleaming crystal, although she watched closely for any reaction.
     "That'sss it?" she demanded.  "What happenssss now?  How long
mussst we wait?"
     "I'm following a glimpse of the future," he breathed.  "Now you
know all that I do."
     Then he smiled.
     And collapsed.

***

     Dragon was a statue, power thrumming in the razor-edged lines of
his body.  He tried not to show his frustration; it had never helped, not at
any time in the past.  It certainly wouldn't help now.
     "YOU CAN LET ME GO NOW," he rumbled through his
clenched jaw.  "HE'S GONE."
     The slight girl only smiled indulgently, her hands still held out
towards him.  He had trouble focussing on her without going cross-eyed,
owing to the fact that she was standing on the long, tapered shelf of his
nose.
     "You should cherish him," she chided softly.
     "I SHOULD EAT HIM," Dragon snarled.  "SLOWLY.  WHY
DID YOU HAVE TO INTERFERE, LITTLE ONE?"
     "I?  You are the one who has interfered, Xieter.  He merely
follows the dictates of his heart."
     "HEARTS LIE," Dragon said curtly.  "TRAGEDY WOUNDS
THEM, AND IN THEIR GRIEF THEY LEAD THE UNWARY TO
MADNESS.  AND IDIOT OFFSPRING."
     "Was it so bad, to hope again?  Even if for so short a time?"  Her
gentle voice once would have brought him surcease from his pain.  Now
it only served to remind him of his many failures.
     "WHY WILL YOU NOT REST, LITTLE ONE?  YOU HAVE
GIVEN ALL THAT WAS IN YOUR POWER TO GIVE.  THEY CAN
ASK NO MORE OF YOU, OF ANY OF US."
     "Shall I leave them to wander in the dark?" she asked by way of reply,
and for a moment it was as though she was with him again, all of her.
Just for a moment, but ah, what a glorious moment it was.  "To wander,
lost and alone, without even a feeble light to guide the way?"
     "LET THE GODLINGS PROTECT THEIR WORSHIPPERS.
LET WARS COME AND GO.  LET SECRETS BE BURIED.  BUT
LET THEM DO IT ALL WITHOUT THE KEY, THE TOWER, THE
EYE.  THESE THINGS HAVE PASSED BEYOND THEIR
UNDERSTANDING.  I AM THE LAST GUARDIAN OF THESE
SECRETS, AND I WILL NOT SEE THEM DISTURBED.  LET IT
REST, ILLIANKA.  LET IT ALL REST."
     She was slipping away again, drawn by the inexorable pull of the
beyond.  The power holding him in place unravelled, but Dragon held
still nonetheless as the slight blonde girl pirouetted lightly on his nose.
     And she began to sing.

     "The Eye doesn't see,
     The Eye doesn't know,
     It was blinded a long time ago,

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

     But the Dark took his love,
     And left him alone,
     Lost and mournful and far from home ..."

     She leapt into the air, then faded from view.
     Gone, but not forgotten.
     Dragon sighed heavily, relaxing from the frozen stance she'd held him
in.  He shook his wings out carefully, craning his head this way and that,
then turned to look at the stark magnificence of the crystal palace that
floated at the edge of the Abyss.
     Gone, indeed.  The Osiren had granted his idiot son entrance.  He had
never understood the ancient edifices; they had stood upon this world
long before he had arrived, and if thoughts truly resided within those cold
crystal depths, he had never been able to divine them.
     He sighed again, his wings generating a cacophony that was
nearly music as he shook them one more time.
     Then his form glimmered, fairy light chasing itself around the
edge of each metallic scale, and he stood on the night-shrouded plain,
man-shaped and man-sized, his inhuman eyes filled with searing light.
      I won't, Illianka, he thought, staring out at the endless night
contained in the Abyss.  I can't.  Guardian no longer, I am nothing but a
big flying grave marker for a world that was supposed to be wondrous,
but could not endure.  Hope is poison.  I grant merciful death to such
foolish dreams.
     So stop asking what I cannot give.  Your duty is ended, and mine
as well.  I only hope that the promise you made me is not what holds you
here, away from the rest you have earned.
     He stood that way for a long time, clutching pain that had not
faded with time close to him, like an old friend.
     It still hurt, but it made him feel alive again .
     For a little while.

***

     The door opened on a scene of such idyllic beauty that it should
have been set in some sun-dappled forest glade, not a neat yet nondescript
bedroom.  Still, Michiru was momentarily breathless, a supple heat
blossoming low in her belly.
     Oh, my, she thought, gaze lingering on the three young goddesses
posed in a diorama of exquisite loveliness.  If only I had the time to
indulge myself.
     "Hi, Michiru," Usagi said lazily, glancing up from Rei's lap.  She
lay on her stomach, cheek resting on her crossed arms, the lithe line of
her back exposed by the low-cut silk nothing she was barely wearing.
Her unbound hair spilled across her slender shoulders, pooling around
both her body and Rei's in a shimmering golden curtain.
     Ladies," Michiru murmured, entering the room.  "I trust I am not
interrupting?"
     "Just basking in afterglow," Minako purred.  The girl was
kneeling behind Rei on the bed, her honey-blonde locks pinned up in a
loose mass atop her head, one stray strand falling in intriguing disarray
over her left eye.  She was busy brushing out Rei's long, sable mane with
a look of absolute absorption.  The top of her two-piece negligee was
cropped scandalously short, showing the underside of her breasts with
every breath.  The bottom seemed to be little better than a slender thong.
     "Sorry about the bathroom," Rei murmured, a mischievous
sparkle lurking deep within her violet eyes as she traced her nails along
the groove of Usagi's spine in languorous patterns that made the princess
wriggle and sigh contentedly.
     "I was wondering about that," Michiru confessed.  "How did you
manage to get it so thoroughly wet?"
     "Enthusiasm," Minako offered.
     "Abandon," Rei clarified.
     "We did kinda get carried away, huh?" Usagi asked, her meek
tone belied by the look of utter satiation on her lovely face.  Oh, Michiru
thought, to have been here just thirty minutes sooner.  She kept her
thoughts to herself, however, her expression faintly disapproving.
     "I should say so," she told the girls.  "I have never been one to
discourage the blowing off of steam at appropriate times.  However, that
bathroom is a total disaster."
     "No problem, Michiru," Minako said, treating the girl to one of
her trademark grins.  "When Artemis gets back, I'll get him right on it."
     "You do torment that cat, Minako," Michiru acknowledged.
"But making him clean up after your assignations?  How cruel."
     "We'll take care of it, Michiru," Rei assured her, evoking a bleat
of protest from Minako.
     "I am glad to hear it," Michiru replied, letting her gaze linger
again over the breathtaking view.  Not so long ago such a vista would
have been unthinkable.  These girls really had come quite a distance
since those early days.
     "How was your night?" Usagi asked, snuggling down into Rei's
lap before looking up at Michiru out of the corner of one crystalline-pure
blue eye.
     "Futile," Michiru admitted.  "Though I hear that the trip to the
Tyrian estate may have borne fruit."
     "Ami's working on that now," Rei said, watching Michiru as the
woman sidled over to the bed.
     "That hardly seems equitable.  You three bask, Makoto comforts
her fallen wolf, and Ami works?"
     "The girl loves her puzzles," Minako shrugged.
     "And it would be counterproductive to stand over her shoulder,"
Rei added, continuing to watch Michiru from under lowered lashes.  "It
only serves to make her self-conscious.  Don't worry, we'll stay on top of
her."
     "Oooo, now there's a mental picture," Minako smirked.
     "Indeed," Michiru murmured, reaching down to lace her fingers
in Usagi's unbound hair.  She slowly raised them, letting the incredibly
soft locks spill like liquid through her fingers and down onto Usagi and
Rei, then reached down to trace her nails over the nape of Usagi's
exposed neck.  "However little I enjoy spoiling such a lovely scene, I
should point out that we could be called to action at any time.  It might
be wise to exercise restraint for the rest of the night, all things considered.
Some things simply must not be rushed."
     "Voice of experience?" Minako asked, grinning again.
     "What if we invited you to join us?" Usagi murmured drowsily.
     "Ah, Princess," Michiru replied, heat slithering through the core
of her at that.  "I already have Haruka.  What would I do with three more
helplessly devoted suitors?"
     "That sounds like a challenge," Rei said softly, her dark violet
eyes peering up at Michiru from under long, sooty lashes again.  Michiru
returned the look with a smile that only hinted at her hunger.
     "Fire and water," she told the girl.  "They could not help but clash.
The results could be ... unpredictable."
     "Unpredictable can be most delightful," Rei replied, a dark edge in her
voice.  Indeed.  Seducing and then bedding Rei would certainly be
interesting.  Of course, although Rei was certain to be justifiably
confident of her skills, Michiru was no one to be trifled with in the
bedroom.
     Or out of it, for that matter.
     She let her fingers slide down the line of Usagi's back, treasuring the
soft moan that her touch elicited, finally lingering in the gentle curve at
the small of the girl's back as she held Rei's stare, allowing some heat to
build there as her fingers twined with Rei's atop Usagi's flawless skin.
     "Delightful," Michiru breathed at last, her voice low and throaty.
"Indeed.  A pity we do not have time to explore this further just now.
But as I said, there are some things which must be done ... properly."
     "Then we should pick this up at a later time," Rei said softly.
     "We will," Michiru promised, holding the girl's gaze just a little
too long.  Then she smiled, pulling her hand back to Usagi's vocal
dismay.  "But for now, there are matters I must attend to.  And you three
would be wise to get some rest.  With luck, we will have a target to strike
very soon."
     She was aware of their stares on her as she left the room, and put
a languorous sway in her hips, pausing at the door to toss her hair before
leaving.
     When the girls had been their charges, they had been, by unspoken
agreement, off-limits.  Well, the girls were all grown up now.
     And Rei had issued a woman's challenge.
     Michiru was not one to back down from such a challenge.
Interesting times ahead.  She smiled as she walked on down the hall.
     Yes, interesting times.  But business before pleasure.
 
***

     "Wow," Minako sighed, wrapping her arms around Rei's neck and
pressing her barely-clad breasts against the girl's back.  "Did you see
that?"
     "Michiru flirts all the time," Usagi nodded, sighing deeply.  "But there
was something different just now."
     "I believe," Rei said, amusement and desire tinting her words,
"that we have just been designated fair game."
     "Cool," Minako beamed.  "I so want her."
     ""I want to watch Michiru and Rei do that thing they were just
doing," Usagi said, her blue eyes sparkling.  "Where they seem to be
having a civilized discussion, but everything they say or do, every little
thing, just makes them hotter and hotter, until finally they rip each
other's clothes off.  I LOVE that!"
     "It was something," Minako admitted, breathing into Rei's ear.
She rubbed gently against the girl's back, the delicate friction of silk and
engorged flesh making her gasp, and Rei reached up to gently disengage
Minako's hands from around her shoulders.
     "If you keep doing that," she said softly, "we won't be getting any rest
any time soon."
     "I know," Minako sighed.  "Princess, order me to behave."
     "That is so hot," Usagi purred.
     "Hey, that's not helping!" Minako objected, her face flushed.
     "So why do I have to be the responsible one?" Usagi pouted.
"Rei, tell her to behave!"
     "I have a better idea," Rei told the girl, gently extricating herself.  She
finally managed to slide off the bed, tossing her hair back as she stood.  It
was nearly dry, flowing like thick heavy silk, and Rei favoured Minako
with a sultry smile.
     "Thank you, Minako," she said.
     "I know a way you can thank me," Minako replied, scooting
across the bed towards her, a wicked smile gracing her lips.
     "There are some things I want to take care of," Rei told her as
Usagi rolled onto her back kittenishly, watching them with lidded eyes.
"But I will definitely show you my gratitude later."
     "But," Minako asked, eyes wide with feigned innocence,
"whatever shall Usagi and I do alone?"
     "We could do that thing we did in the bath again," Usagi offered,
wriggling fetchingly.  Rei watched her, considering for a moment putting
off what she was about to do.  She shook her head, chastising herself
silently.  This interlude had been sweet, but Michiru was right.  This
sense of peace could be shattered at any time, and there were a few things
she wanted to do while there was time.
     "You could start," Rei said sternly, "by mopping up all that
water in the bath."
     "What?" Minako blurted, her outrage far more sincere than her
innocence had been.  "Why us?  You helped make that mess, Rei!"
     "True," Rei murmured, reaching down to cup Minako's face in
her hand.  She held the girl's startled gaze for a long, heated moment,
then let her fingers slowly trace across that soft, perfect cheek and down,
pausing to brush secret places with just the right amount of exquisite
pressure.  "But I."  Brush.  "Can be."  Caress.  "Very."  Stroke.  "Very."
Rub.  "Persuasive."
     Minako's eyes were wide, a crimson flush spreading down over
the swell of her breasts, and her breath was coming fast and hot.  "Oh,"
the girl breathed at last.
     "That's not fair," Usagi said as Rei went to retrieve the silk robe
that matched her ivory negligee.  The princess did not sound at all
upset about the injustice of Rei's demand; in fact, she seemed to be
enjoying Minako's predicament.  Rei suspected that Usagi fully intended
to further Minako's torment.  The girl was indeed far from the innocent
Rei had always believed.
     "I know," Rei said simply.  "I'm a bitch.  See you soon."
     Belting the robe tightly around her narrow waist, she paused to check
on Phobos and Deimos who still slept soundly, comfortably ensconced in
a drawer full of lingerie.  Then she blew a kiss to the two lissome blondes
and swept out of the room.

***

     When the knock came at the door, I was sitting on the end of the
bed, staring at nothing in particular.  Thinking about the key and what it
had shown me tonight wasn't getting me anywhere, and I sure as hell
couldn't sleep; a distraction was just what the doctor ordered.
     Or so I thought when I called that the door was open.
     I'd been half-expecting Minako, and dreading Hotaru.  Rei, however,
her I hadn't been expecting at all.  Watching her as she came into the
room, shutting the door behind her, made me feel painfully
self-conscious.  I was wearing only a pair of shorts and a tank top, and all
my exposed skin seemed to prickle as Rei came near.  Okay, not just my
exposed skin.  Hell, shouldn't I have been getting used to this by now?
     Her dark hair gleamed in the dim light of the lamp, looking even
darker against the white silk robe she wore.  She had a glass in one hand,
a dark towel in the other.  I stood up, tugging nervously at my shirt,
wondering if I was in some kind of trouble.  Again.
     "Hey," I said cleverly.
     "Hi," she replied.  "I was hoping to talk to you for a few minutes.
Is this a bad time?"
     "No, not really," I shrugged.  It wasn't like thinking about the
key was doing me any good.  Stuff like that was out of my league
anyway.
     "Good.  First, though, there's some unfinished business.  May I?"
She raised the glass she held in her right hand, and I could see that it was
full of water.  Cold water.  Damn, and I had just turned back.  Still, at
least she had asked first.  Minako would have just doused me.  Curious
about what she was up to, I shrugged and nodded.  Rei moved up to me
and upended the glass, and I went from looking down into her eyes to
looking up as cold water and the change trickled over my skin.
     "That really is quite amazing," Rei said softly, handing me the
towel.  I mopped the water off of my breasts, trying to act casual.
     "You get used to it," I sighed.  "So, um, what's up?"  Rei
reached out and plucked the towel from my hand, setting it aside.
     "Just this," she said.
     And kissed me.
     A shudder ran up my back as her lips slid across mine, slowly at
first, hungry but not demanding.  I breathed in her perfume, felt her hair
across the back of my arm and realized dimly that my arm had slipped
around her waist.  Her mouth was hot and sweet, skilled, making a kiss
into nothing less than a work of art.  Rei's fingers twined idly in the loose
hair at the nape of my neck as every bone in my body turned to molten
slag; I was fairly sure that I whimpered somewhere in there, although
whether that was just before or just after her tongue traced slowly along
the inside of my mouth I couldn't say.
     I only realized that I'd closed my eyes when I had to open them to
look at her.  Rei had pulled back, but her arms were still around me, and
I was having trouble thinking straight.  Her body felt good against mine,
warm and soft and curved in all the right places.  I remembered Minako
kissing me in the subway tunnel when we'd first met; that had also been a
surprise.  The two girls had very different styles of kissing, though, and it
struck me as ridiculously profound in that moment that girls should have
kissing styles.  Did I have one?  Why was I still holding her?  Was that
high-pitched hum in my head a sign that my brain had melted?
     "Um," I said softly.  "I, um.  Wow."  I stepped back, suddenly
self-conscious beyond measure.  One of my hands had been resting at the
small of her back, the other buried in her hair.  It was really soft, her hair,
and smooth.  And oh hell, was I in for it now.  How do I get myself into
these messes?
     "Uh, hey," I babbled idiotically, proving that some things never
change.  "What, uh, why ... I mean, not that I didn't ... because I did!
Really!  I'm just ..."
     "Like Minako, I feel that a kiss is a very effective way of
showing my gratitude," Rei told me.  Minako would have teased me.  Rei
just stood there, letting me have my space, but the way she seemed
utterly self-composed after laying a hell of a kiss on me wasn't helping
my mental state at all.
     "Gratitude?" I echoed.  "Um, you're welcome?  I mean, I don't ... I
didn't do anything that much."  I winced inwardly at that.  Sure,
Saotome, tell her that her kiss was for something trivial.  Idiot.  Now
she'd be all insulted, and when Minako found out, she'd be mad, and I
was going to be dodging thrown objects from angry women for a freaking
week.
     "No?" Rei asked, looking ever-so-slightly amused as she raked
her fingers through her hair before tossing it back over she shoulder.  If it
had been Minako, I'd have thought she was doing that on purpose,
knowing how luxuriant and touchable it looked when she did that.  But
Rei ...
     Well, okay, she was probably doing it on purpose, too.  She
tugged her glossy white robe into place, and I had a bad moment,
thinking of how I'd been the one responsible for the sash being loose and
the gap at her throat being wider than when she'd come in.
     "Ranma, do you remember when we lured the wraiths to the
warehouse?" she asked in her low, throaty voice.  "Do you remember
rushing in to break the contact between me and the wraith when things
went bad?"
     "Oh.  Well, yeah ..."
     "Do you remember breaking us out of Shadow?  Taking action at
the estate without hesitation, simply because Minako asked you to?  Do
you remember when I asked you to watch out for her when we went back
in?  Because I remember all those things.  And, in short, I wanted to
convey my thanks in a very personal and intimate way."
     "Oh," I said, feeling breathless.  Being the focus of Rei's
attention was a little dizzying.  "But, um, why did you turn me into a girl
first?"
     "No offense," she replied, tiny motes of light dancing in her violet
eyes, "but I much prefer kissing girls to boys."
     "Oh," I said again.  That's me, I like to find something that works and
stick to it.
     "However," she went on, that utterly self-possessed smile
lingering around the edges of her mouth, "that wasn't what I wanted to
talk to you about."
     "Oh," I remarked, wincing inwardly.  I was beginning to sound
moderately stunned, even to myself.  "I mean, uh, okay, so, what's up?"
My body was still humming with the aftereffects of that kiss, and I was
very aware of the fact that we were alone in this room, neither of us
wearing much at all.  My tank top had pulled tight across my breasts with
the change, and there was no way to hide the effect that Rei had had on
me.  Feeling self-conscious, I turned and sat on the end of the bed,
wishing for something to occupy my hands.  My hair brushed against the
small of my back where it was exposed by my cropped tank-top as I
moved, and I realized that I had the perfect excuse to keep my attention
focussed on something other than Rei.  Uttering an exasperated sigh that
was not entirely feigned, I pulled my hair over my shoulder and started
combing my fingers through the strands, separating it so I could tie it
back into its customary braid.
     "You should leave it down," Rei said, her voice thrumming
across the sensitive nerves inside my ear.  I swallowed; she was standing
close again.
     "I guess I'm just used to wearing the braid," I shrugged,
elaborately casual.  "Been doing it for years.  It's gotten pretty long, so,
you know ... more practical."  Rei moved around the bed, picked
something up from the small night stand, and then the mattress shifted as
she slid onto it behind me.
     "In that case," she breathed, "allow me."  I sat, stunned, as she
pulled my hair back, drawing her fingers through it, playing with it and
letting it fall.
     "Uh, yeah, I mean, that's okay ..." I babbled.
     "Oh, it's my pleasure," she assured me throatily as she began
brushing it out.  "With Minako around, I don't get to do this nearly as
much as I'd like.  It's sort of her trademark.  She'll be jealous."
     That was just what I was afraid of.  "You say that like it's a good
thing!" I protested.
     "Hold still," Rei instructed, tugging my hair gently, then making
a satisfied sound as I complied.  "Better.  So, Ranma, are you concerned
about what Minako might think?"
     "What's that got to do with anything?" I asked, feeling a hot
flush creep down my neck.
     "Everything, actually," Rei told me.  She leaned close, close
enough that I could smell her intoxicating perfume, could feel her breath
on my skin.  "Minako is what I wanted to talk to you about."
     "What ... what about her?" I asked.  My mouth was sandpaper-
dry as I spoke.
     "How do you feel about her?"
     My dials jumped right into the red at that, conversational red alert
sirens wailing in my head.  "What?  What do you mean?"
     "It isn't that difficult a question, Ranma.  You like her, don't
you?"
     "I ... I ...."  I sat there as she began braiding my hair, suddenly
glad I didn't have to look her in the eye.  Some part of me wondered if
she hadn't chosen her position knowing that it would be easier for me this
way, but most of me wondered what the hell I was going to say next.
     "Ranma."  Her voice was a soft, supple sigh, brushing through
my hair in a touch that was almost more intimate than fingers could
manage.  "You are a very strange person.  You face down terrors that
would send most people fleeing without hesitation, but the prospect of
admitting you like a beautiful girl fairly paralyses you."  Her hands
paused in their work, and I shuddered as her finger touched the delicate
skin at the nape of my neck and traced down lazily to the edge of my
tank top.  "You're blushing all the way down to your toes, you know."
     "You don't ..." I began, then stopped.  I felt hot, flustered.  Rei
didn't relent, though.
     "Don't what?  Understand?"  She resumed her work, her touch
deft and sure.  "You're right, I don't.  I suppose that comes from my own
arrogance."
     "I didn't say that," I mumbled.  Great, now I'd offended her.
     Or had I?  She laughed, a low sound that resonated in my belly.
"Oh, my dear, I can be honest about myself.  I am arrogant.  I lived my
life for a long time believing that I knew better than anyone else, you
know.  I'm aggressive and nosy, and I'm certainly not above involving
myself in the affairs of others.  Minako is a maniac, but she's our
maniac."
     "And you don't want to share her?" I asked slowly.  Talking
about stuff like this was not my thing, and frankly I didn't see where it
was going.  Was Rei going to tell me to stay away from her friend?  "I
thought everyone here was into that kind of thing."
     "Sexual politics are complicated, Ranma.  Make no mistake, the
more people you have involved together, the more difficult things can
become.  But that's not really what I'm getting at."
     "I guess I'm just dumb," I sighed when she didn't continue.  It
felt kind of nice, what she was doing, but that sensation was all tied in
with a whole bundle of others, like that belly-tingling heat, and the
certainty that I was doing something wrong, that someone would come
into the room and start screaming and throwing things.
     "You are not dumb," Rei told me, and it sounded like she was
smiling.  "But you are out of your element.  I don't know anything about
your culture really, only what you've told us.  So I don't know if your
reticence is considered normal where you come from, or whether it
springs from your loss."
     My heart spasmed.  "You mean Akane," I said.  My voice
sounded hoarse to my ears, distant.  Rei paused again.
     "Akane?" she asked.
     "My fiancee."
     "Oh.  I'm sorry, I ... didn't know."
     Genuine regret edged her words, and something loosened in my
chest, relaxing a tension I hadn't realised was there.  "Oh.  I thought you
meant ... I mean, I told Minako."  And I'd assumed, in that moment, that
Minako had told Rei.  I hadn't made it a secret between us, not
specifically, so why did it seem like I was relieved that she hadn't talked
to Rei about it?
     "Minako would not betray a confidence, Ranma," Rei
murmured, her hands weaving the braid once more.  Like she knew what
I was thinking.  Like she could see right through me.  Sometimes it felt
like everyone could see through me.
     "It wasn't.  A confidence, I mean."
     "Perhaps not, but I scarcely think it was an easy thing for you to
talk about."  I thought about the atmosphere between us on that night.  It
seemed like a hundred years ago instead of less than a week, me and
Minako up on that rocky point, drinking under the lighthouse.  "You
opened up to her.  She would not treat that lightly."
     "I know."  And I did, somehow.  She was pretty special, was
Minako.  So why was it so hard for me to admit that I liked her?  It was
like saying it would make it real, somehow.
     And I just couldn't.
     "Back to my point," Rei went on after a time.  "Let us say, for the
sake of argument, that you like Minako."
     "Okay," I said cautiously, trying to ignore the tidal rush of
sensation in my chest.
     "Have you given any thought to the long-term implications?"
     "Long-term?" I asked, blinking.  "Rei ..."  I sighed, stopped, tried
to get my thoughts in some kind of order.
     "I don't think I've ever spent much time thinking about the future," I
went on finally.  "There was a period of time when I settled down, but
that ... didn't last."  My throat tightened, and I paused.  Rei didn't remark
on it, for which I was grateful.  "And since then, I've lived day to day," I
said finally.  "I never really think about the future.  Not next year, or next
month, or next week.  Sometimes, I think that's the only way I could go
on.  Just get through every day as it came."
     "And now?"  Her voice was soft again, breathy, and I was glad I
couldn't see her eyes.  I didn't want anyone looking at me the way she
sounded.
     "Now?" I echoed hollowly.  "Now, I don't know.  I think I've
lived more in the past few days then I have in the past two years, and
that's gonna take some getting used to."
     "The question, Ranma, is how much can you get used to?"
     "Meaning?"
     "Meaning if you and Minako were to get together, what would
your expectations be?"
     "I really haven't thought about that," I confessed.
     "Could you share her?" Rei asked.  "With Usagi?  With me?  Or
would you want her to be yours, and yours alone?"
     Whoa.  Now there was a question.  Could I be with a girl who
was in love with other people at the same time as she was with me?  I
mean, these folks seemed okay with it.  Hell, they expected it.  It was part
of their culture, their society.
     I, on the other hand, wasn't.
     "I don't know what you want me to say," I mumbled at last,
trying to buy time.
     "I don't want you to say anything," Rei replied.  Damn, I wished
I couldn't feel that voice tickling down my nerves all the way to the pit of
my stomach.  "I want you to think.  Would you want her to give up
sleeping with other people?  Assuming she would, could you be happy?
You'd know she loved others, wanted them.  It would be like clipping the
wings of a beautiful bird so that she could be yours alone, wouldn't it?"
     "You're saying it's unfair to even consider it?"  I felt a flush of
irritation, something that was shading towards anger.
     "Just listen," Rei repeated calmly.  "What about the other side of
the equation, Ranma?  You with Minako, and with other lovers?  If you
embraced our ways, then the two of you could have a circle of friends
and lovers.  Both of you, together.  Could you accept that, be happy with
it?"
     "I don't know."  My voice sounded hoarse in my ears.  It had all
been there, of course, all of this.  Rei was just laying it out for me in a
way that I hadn't really considered.  Could I ask Minako to be mine?  I
mean, that was what people did when they were in love, right?  They
became a couple, they spent time together ... how did that bit go from the
wedding vows?  "Forsaking all others, 'til death do you part"?  That was
romance and love and the whole deal, wasn't it?  One man, one woman.
Those were the rules.
     At least, they were the rules I'd grown up with.  But Minako was
different.  Once upon a time, I'd have thought that a girl who was proud
of sleeping with a bunch of people, some of them also girls, was some
kind of crazy slut.  I mean, normal people just didn't do that, did they?
     But I was a long way from home.  And Minako?  She might be a bit
crazy, but I couldn't think of her as a slut.  Her deranged charm reached
out to the people around her, drew them in.  She was funny and bold,
outrageous and free, and her sexy aura was as much a part of her as her
dedication to her friends.
     Yeah.  I liked her.  I really liked her.
     But would that ever be enough?
     "There," Rei murmured, tying a slender cord around the end of
the braid.  Twitching the soft, unbound end of it across my cheek, she
leaned in and smiled at me.  "All done.  Braid and inquisition, I mean."
     "Rei ..."
     "Ranma, you don't owe me any answers," Rei said softly.  "And
gods know, this is a bad time for personal matters.  But if all goes well,
the crisis will soon be over, and I think you need to think things
through."
     "I will," I told her, hoping my inner turmoil didn't show on my
face.
     "Great," she said, sliding off the bed.  "Because Minako's my
friend, and I'll be very unhappy if she gets hurt."
     "Got it."
     "On the other hand," Rei added, tossing her hair back and giving
me a frank appraisal, "if you decide to, shall we say, go native, I see
many intriguing possibilities ahead."  She placed her hands on my
shoulders, fingers tightening pleasantly as she leaned down to stare into
my eyes from only inches away.  "You do fascinate me, Ranma Saotome.
I would like to get to know you better.  Keep that in mind while you
weigh your options.  A little incentive, if you like."
     Then she kissed me again, but this time it was soft, languorous,
nowhere near as hungry as the earlier kiss had been.  She pulled back,
her eyes sparkling darkly, and smiled.
     "Sleep on it," she suggested huskily.
     Then she turned and left, and I flopped back onto the bed, heart racing
so fast that I felt dizzy.
     My life just never got any simpler.

***

     "That Artemis," Minako scowled, hands on her hips.  "He's
going to get it when he gets home, I tell you."
     "Oh, come on," Usagi smirked.  "It's not actually his job to clean
up after you, y'know."
     "Who says it isn't?" Minako sniffed, surveying the passably dry
bathroom haughtily.  "It's his sworn duty.  He knows how bad I am at
this stuff."
     "You're not bad at it," Usagi teased.  "You just don't like doing
it."
     "Damn straight.  And that Rei!  She's got a lot of nerve, playing
Queen of the Castle like that!  Are we really going to let her get away
with that?"
     Usagi smiled at that.  It was a fabulous smile, sweet but at the
same time sexy, knowing even.  The girl moved across the bathroom with
a slow, slinky stride, gathering her hair up on top of her head as she sat
gracefully on the edge of the tub as if it were a throne.  She slowly
crossed her long, slender legs, kicking her foot idly as she arched her
back.  Minako watched the damp silk of Usagi's negligee pull taut across
her breasts with great interest.
     "Don't worry, Minako," Usagi purred, gazing at her from under
lowered lashes.  "I can handle Rei."
     And the incredible thing was, she actually could.  If Minako
hadn't known the two girls and had seen them on the street, she would
have pegged Rei as calling all the shots.
     "Oh, Princess," Minako sighed, falling to her knees before the
girl and bowing her head to kiss that bare, bobbing foot lightly.  "Rei has
been very naughty.  Please punish her."
     "You want me to punish her, do you?" Usagi asked, an
expression of aristocratic aloofness on her face.
     "Most sternly," Minako pleaded, rubbing her cheek against
Usagi's bare foot.
     "Well, she does deserve it," Usagi allowed idly.  "Running off
when there's work to be done.  There is something to be said for high-
maintenance women, Minako, but they don't clean worth a damn."
     "No, Your Highness," Minako agreed, parting her lips slowly
and letting them slide over Usagi's big toe.  She took the toe into the
velvety soft heat of her mouth, sucking lightly as she pulled back, letting
her tongue draw a slick line along its underside.  Usagi's delicate shiver
was a delicious reward.  Minako smiled, kissing her way to the sensitive
instep of the other girl's foot, pausing to nip lightly.
     "Careful," Usagi whispered, leaning forward to trace her
fingertips across Minako's cheek.  "We just got this bathroom cleaned
up.  It would be a shame of you had to do it all over again."
     "Me?" Minako squawked.
     "Well, you are the instigator here," Usagi teased.
     "That's it," Minako declared firmly.  "Punishment time, baby."
     "You forget," Usagi sniffed, "that I'm a princess."  She gazed
down at Minako with a mischievous gleam dancing in her eyes.
     "You forget," Minako replied solemnly, "that I know your
weakness."  She smirked as Usagi's eyes widened.
     "No ..." Usagi began.  But it was too late.  Minako reached up
behind the girl's knee and began gently prodding and tickling as Usagi
batted at her ineffectually.  Emboldened, Minako's fingers worked their
way up to Usagi's ribs and belly, always one step ahead of the giggling
girl's hapless efforts to block her.  Finally, breathless, Usagi toppled
forward into Minako's arms.  They sprawled onto the cold floor together,
rolling over each other in a luxuriant swirl of blonde hair, alternating
pale and honey, both girls laughing and pawing at each other.  They
finally fetched up near the door, Minako pinning Usagi with her body as
she mercilessly tickled the gasping princess into submission.  Tears of
laughter streaming from her eyes, Usagi writhed under her in a manner
that Minako found most fetching.
     "Okay, okay!  I'll duh-do it!"
     "Do what?" Minako asked, pausing briefly.
     "Clean the bathroom," Usagi squeaked breathlessly.
     "And let me watch you handle Rei?"
     "Oh, she'd kill muh ... eeee!  Yes, okay, OKAY!"
     "Promise?"
     "I promise," Usagi gasped.  "Oh, Minako.  Stop.  I'm dying."
     "I don't know," Minako murmured, staring down into eyes as
blue as her own.  "Idle hands, you know.  What ever shall I do with
them?"
     In response, Usagi reached up and grasped Minako's hands,
pulling them up gently to her lips, where she kissed them, gently and
thoroughly.  Unable to use her elbows to prop herself up, Minako found
herself lying on top of the other girl, only two thin layers of silk between
their heated flesh.  Usagi took Minako's index finger and drew it into the
pink softness of her mouth, staring boldly at the other girl as she
replicated Minako's earlier advances.
     "How's that?" she asked when she finally allowed the captive
digit to escape its sweet prison.
     "Much better," Minako sighed.  Usagi shifted, then winced.
     "I think you're on my hair," she told Minako ruefully.
     "We're a little tangled up," Minako admitted.  Gingerly, she
extricated herself from the silken snarl, gathering her hair back up into its
loose knot.  She stood and helped Usagi to her feet, plunging her hands
into the princess's pale gold locks and helping her tame them.  By the
time they returned to the bedroom, they had recovered from the tickle
fight, and Minako felt a welcome warmth suffusing her body.
     "Ah, fun," she sighed as they entered to find Rei had not yet
returned.  "I've missed it.  Things have been so crazy lately."
     "We haven't had enough time together," Usagi agreed.  "Any of
us."  Minako smiled as Usagi's arms wrapped around her from behind
and hot breath tickled her ear.  "Mina."
     "Mmmmm?"
     "Are you okay?  Tonight must have been hard for you."
     "Being with my girls," Minako assured her, reaching up to stroke
Usagi's cheek, "is the best medicine there is."
     "I hate that you had to go through that."
     "I didn't go through it alone, Princess.  That's what counts."
     "Hey, Mina?"
     "Yes?"
     "What's up with you and Ranma?"
     Minako blinked.  She hadn't expected that question.  Usagi
nipped her earlobe playfully and pushed her onto the bed, then crawled
onto the soft mattress beside her.  Minako turned so that she could face
Usagi, and they snuggled close together, limbs loosely intertwined.
     "What's up with me and Ranma," Minako repeated.  "Hoo, boy.
That's complicated, Princess."
     "Complicated isn't like you, Mina," Usagi said softly.  "You're
really falling for him, aren't you?"
     Minako chuckled softly.  It sounded a lot more melancholic than
she'd intended.  "It's funny, Usagi.  It seems like he's been a part of my
life for a lot longer than just days.  There's just something about him,
you know?"
     "I know," Usagi said.  "I've seen.  I've talked to him a few times,
tried to get him to open up, but he guards his heart the way people do
when they've been hurt.  You're the one he's easiest with."
     "Yeah?"  That thought made butterflies swirl drunkenly in her
belly.  Oh, Aino, she thought, you have got it bad.  "Still, you know, it's
hard for him."
     "I understand that.  It's just ... I've never seen you like this."
     "Like what?"
     "You always go for what you want.  Full speed ahead, throwing
caution to the wind, no regrets.  You're that way with everything, and I
love it."
     Minako basked in the intimacy of the moment, the closeness both
physical and emotional that they had woven around them.  She had
missed this, these simple moments when they could talk like this, like
sisters, sharing everything.  She never felt the need to put on a brave face
around Usagi.  The girl had always accepted her as she was.  That was
one of her gifts.
     "I'm kind of in unknown territory here, Usagi," she whispered,
twining her fingers with the other girl's and sighing happily as Usagi
squeezed her hand.  "He's not like anyone I've ever known.  I mean, I've
bedded rogues and rebels, bad boys and bad girls, and there've been some
pretty intense personalities along the way.  But I never felt out of my
depth before.  Ranma, he's ..."
     "Special?"  Usagi's eyes were filled with quiet understanding.
     "Yeah," Minako breathed.  "Special.  I'm afraid to push.  I'm
afraid not to push.  I'm just petrified that I'll screw this up.  And that's
not me.  You know?"
     "I know," Usagi told her.  "So just be you.  Hearts always find their
way, no matter what."
     "You," Minako teased gently, nuzzling Usagi's nose with her
own, "are the only person I know who can say something like that and
make me believe it."
     "I have sworn to use this power only for good," Usagi said
solemnly.  She held Minako's gaze for long seconds before they both
dissolved into giggles.  It felt good, it felt right.  It was the tonic they both
needed after so much drama and conflict.
     "Hey," Minako said when the giggle fit finally subsided enough
that she could speak again.
     "Mmm?"
     "Where do you suppose Rei got off to, anyway?"
     "Maybe she went looking for Michiru."
     "Oooo.  I wouldn't want to miss THAT show," Minako purred
lasciviously.
     "No kidding.  Geez, is that the time?" Usagi asked, her gaze
falling on the bedside table's small clock.
     "Yeah," Minako sighed.  "I suppose we should try to get some
sleep."
     "Not yet," Usagi told her, sitting up.  "I want to check on
everyone, maybe call Mamo-chan and see if he's having any luck.  And
you just know that Ami's sitting in front of the computer, totally into
some techno-babble-thingies.  We should make her a snack."
     "You are such a sweetie.  And I should check in with Artemis,
find out if he's heading back here.  But after that, Princess, we really
should catch some shut-eye.  I have a feeling we'll be needing it before
too long.

***

     Mamoru took a sip from his coffee, watching with feigned
indifference as headlights swept across the empty street to rush towards
him.  He only relaxed when he could make out the characteristic two
high-one low pattern of lights that indicated the car careening heedlessly
in his direction was a vintage Harrier.  The low slung car slid to a stop
next to his, the long tapered fins and beak-like hood scoop gleaming in
the diffuse radiance of the adjacent spotlights.
     Mamoru held up the grease-stained paper bag that sat on the hood
of his car as Yu popped open the gull-wing door and levered himself out
of the deep bucket seat.
     "Kran's chicken balls!" Yu crowed.
     "Extra spicy," Mamoru confirmed, shaking the bag.
     "Boys, everybody knows," a low voice came from inside Yu's
car, "that chickens don't got balls."
     Mamoru hid his surprise as Meaghan Piakesti pulled herself out
of the passenger side of the old road demon, still dressed as she'd been
when he'd seen her earlier.  Well, yesterday, technically, as it was
nearly three in the morning now.
     "Meag tagged along," Yu said without a trace of self-
consciousness.
     "Well, you did promise to call me if you came across something,"
Meaghan said lightly.  Mamoru could tell, though, that underneath that
audacious exterior she was wondering if her presence was welcome.
He'd called Yu, after all, not her.  Yu was his partner.
     And she hadn't just come because of the chief's little task force.
Mamoru knew his partner better than that.
     But for all his faults, Yu wouldn't have brought Meaghan here
just because he was trying to bed her ... or, knowing Yu, already had
bedded her.  So Mamoru gave her a grin with just a hint of that old Chiba
charm.
     "Hope you like extra spicy," he said.
     "Boy-ah, I AM extra spicy," she said primly, and they all
laughed.  Yu took the bag from Mamoru, then accepted a brightly-
coloured cardboard cup and peeled back the lid.
     "Sorry, Pi ... Meaghan," Mamoru said, recalling her earlier
admonition as she joined them leaning against the fender of his car.  "If
I'd known you'd be here, I'd have brought you a coffee."
     "Black, for future reference," she said, giving him an easy smile.
She seemed different away from the job, a little softer perhaps, warmer.
Some people were like that, they could leave the job behind at the end of
the day.  Unlike his mother, for instance.
     Meaghan intercepted Yu's coffee, took a sip, then made a face.
"Gods!" she spluttered.
     "Large triple-triple," Mamoru commiserated.
     "You want any coffee with that, Yu?" she asked wryly.
     "Leave me alone," he pouted.  "It's late.  I need my food groups."
Mamoru glanced back over his shoulder as the acrid smell of Kran's
lethal extra spicy sauce assailed his nose, barging in uninvited as Yu
opened the cardboard box.  Hastily-rigged spotlights pinned the haggard
police tower, which bore the indignity of having all its scars thrown into
harsh relief with the stoicism of an old campaigner.
     "Old girl'sh looked be'er," Yu remarked.
     "Yeah," Mamoru sighed as Meaghan bit tentatively into one of
the chicken balls.  "How was earlier?"
     "The bar?  Good turn out," Meaghan remarked, making a
satisfied sound as the chicken ball met her approval.  "Couple of folks
asked after you."
     "Everybody's on edge," Yu added.  "All this vampire talk was
bad enough, but now it's open season on cops?  And we've got the
military to deal with.  That ought to go well."
     "They're on our side," Meaghan pointed out, fastidiously
nibbling at her food.  Mamoru was amazed that she hadn't broken out in
a sweat yet; Yu's upper lip was beaded already.
     "Jurisdictional disputes are a bitch," Yu said with the air of
someone who knew all he wanted to about the topic.  "Coordinating this
thing is gonna be a nightmare."
     "One nightmare at a time," Mamoru said.  Yu offered him a
chicken ball, but Mamoru shook his head.  The coffee was bad enough.
Add spicy food to that at three in the a.m., and he'd certainly regret it in
the morning.
     "Speaking of which," Yu muttered, swallowing his mouthful of
magma-hot chicken bits and sucking the sauce off his fingers, "it's nice
that we're just some displaced cops taking a look at the old home base
and all, but how about the real reason we're here?"
     "I got nothing," Mamoru sighed, taking another hit off his coffee.
"The Weasel crapped out, Arsinus skipped town, and apparently
somebody punched Big Harkey's ticket last week."
     "Vampire related?"
     "Getting caught in the wrong bed related," Mamoru clarified.
"Nothing there."
     "Stoolies have such a brief shelf-life," Yu said with the philosophical
air of someone often disappointed by petty informants.  "I also came up
empty.  Everyone's running scared."
     "Damn."  Well, it had been worth a shot.
     "Meag, on the other hand ..."
     "What?" Mamoru sat up, nearly crushing his coffee cup in his
eagerness.
     "Hey, easy," Meaghan cautioned him, holding up the hand not
occupied with snatching another chicken ball.  Still not sweating, too.
Viernan hot blood would tell, he supposed.  "Now, we in ETF don't run
in the same circles as you guys," she began, eating the chicken ball as if it
were a delicate pastry and not a stomach searing fast-food abomination.
"But I do know people.  I'm not sure how useful this'll be, Mamoru.  The
parameters you gave Yu were pretty vague, you know?"
     "Parameters," Yu grinned.  "Gods, I love a woman who talks
dirty."
     "Illiterate bozo," Meaghan sniffed.  "Anyway, I know a guy in
Intel One, and he owes me a favour.  So I got him to do a search on stuff
that crossed their desks in the last six months.  You know how many pies
that lot have their fingers in, and this stuff isn't real official."
     "But, bless their paranoid little hearts, they keep track of all the
stuff their undercover agents dig up," Yu pointed out.  "Including
weirdness and rumours and assorted underbelly of the city stuff.  There
might be a lead in there somewhere."
     Meaghan dug inside her battered flight jacket and handed
Mamoru a rolled up sheath of papers held together with a wide blue
rubber band .  "If we could have gone through channels, I could have
gotten you more," she said apologetically.  "But off the record, I let him
know we were running an op here.  None of the names of the operatives
are in there, so you won't be able to follow up on anything you find with
them."
     "No problem," he told her, taking the copied reports gratefully.
"Seriously, thanks.  This might really help."
     "Or not," she shrugged.  "The task force's gone through that
stuff, I'm sure.  Looking for info on a group of beautiful women instead
of one probably won't make that much difference.  Listen, Mamoru, I
know that you don't want to give up your source, but if there's a chance
that this vamp has friends ..."
     "I wouldn't sit on that," Mamoru assured her, watching the
concern ease in her expression.  "These women may have some sort of
link to the vamp that they don't even know about.  Really, I'm grasping
at straws."
     "Straws are all we have to grasp at," Yu sighed, fishing the last
chicken ball out of the soggy box and eyeing it with indecent satiation.
"Ah, Kran, you've done it again."
     "Listen, boys, the guard detail is giving us the eye," Meaghan
remarked, gazing off towards the guard shack that protected the entrance
to the main garage.  "I'm going over, see if anyone I know has the watch.
Later, Mamoru."
     "See you, Meaghan.  And thanks again."  She waved, sauntering
off across visitor's lot, weaving now and then where the pavement had
been damaged in the attack.  Mamoru spared an appreciative glance as
she walked, and Yu slapped him on the shoulder with the hand that
wasn't stained with Kran's secret sauce.
     "Quite a woman, eh?" his partner grinned.
     "You get to see her dance?"
     "Oh, yeah.  Well worth the price of admission, my son.  And her
contact at Intel came through, too.  Knowing those reports, most of it's
garbage, but ..."
     "No, Yu, I appreciate it.  Really."
     "Yeah.  You know she went over there so we could talk."
     "A keeper," Mamoru grinned.
     "She's playing hard to get," Yu shot back.  "But I'm hard to
resist, so it's okay.  How's by you?  Everything okay on the home
front?"
     "Why would you ask that?" Mamoru asked warily.
     "Mamoru.  It's me.  I'm a freaking genius.  Plus, we've known each
other long enough that I know when you're brooding.  Is it Usagi?"
     Mamoru sighed, shrugging his shoulders and leaning back
against the cool metal of the fender.  "Not really her.  With everything
that's going on, her friends have been with her pretty much constantly."
     "Ah.  The ones you don't approve of."
     "That's not what I said," Mamoru objected.  Although it was
true, in a way.  Perhaps not fair, but true.
     "She hasn't had as much time for you," Yu nodded, rubbing the
backs of his knuckles across his chin.  "Her bed is full, I'm guessing?"
     "Kind of," Mamoru said glumly.  Either Rei or Minako, possibly
both, would be in it right now.
     "They won't share?" Yu asked with a wicked gleam in his eye.
     "Oh, that's not a problem," Mamoru assured him.  Minako, at the
least, would have no problems in that regard.  "It's just that I prefer a
little space between me and her friends.  It makes perspective easier."
     What he couldn't say was that he'd been close with them once, in
a previous life.  And still he wondered, if he hadn't trusted them so
implicitly, would things have turned out differently?  If he'd been
suspicious, even unreasonable, could he have changed the course of
events?
     In the end, though, he hadn't been able to save her either.  And it
might not have made any difference.  So why did anxiety feast on his
heart when Usagi was leading her girls into danger?
     "Perspective?" Yu snorted.  "Listen, pal.  You can't be rational
with women.  It just doesn't work.  I can see you're worried about her,
but come on.  She's a big girl, and despite a charming klutziness she's
pretty good at taking care of herself.  I swear your parents cursed you by
naming you the way they did.  You don't have to protect everyone."
     "It'd kill me if anything happened to her," Mamoru said, facing
Yu.  He knew that the honesty of his emotions was plain on his face; with
Yu, he could say something this raw and not be afraid.
     "I know.  But you need to give her space, man.  Smothering her
won't help."
     "You're right," Mamoru sighed.
     "And trying to get between her and her friends definitely won't
help."
     "Right again."  Well, he knew that.
     "Listen.  Bedroom politics can be deadly, Mamoru, but I've been
there.  Talk to her, suggest some ground rules, but by the gods do not
issue ultimatums.  That's death on relationships.  Trust me, I know."
     "Ground rules?"
     "Yeah, you know.  She has to make time for the two of you to be
alone together, especially if you two aren't sharing with the others.
Whether or not her friends can sleep in the bed with her while you're
there, whether you can have friends in bed while she's there ... trust me,
man, people think this stuff just happens on its own, but it takes work.
How many of these friends is she bedding?"
     Mamoru thought.  "Two that I'm pretty sure of," he said.  "But most
of the others, if not all, will probably be willing.  You know Usagi."
     "Yeah," he smiled.  "She does have a way about her, doesn't she?
Look, Mamoru.  You don't have to be the bad guy.  Just talk about it
with her, no accusations, let her know how you feel.  If anyone can
juggle ... um, how many?"
     "Potentially?  Eight," Mamoru said, counting all the senshi, but
leaving out Ranma.  For the moment.
     "Yeah, that's complicated," Yu nodded.  "But she could juggle
that many if anyone could.  It'd be easier if you had bed partners in that
group too, though.  No possibles?"
     Gods, he didn't want to think about that.  Or maybe the problem
was, he did.  "Anything's possible, Yu."  The older man laughed, and
Mamoru pushed off the car with his hips, stretching.  "Thanks for the
advice.  And the info."
     "Thanks for dinner," Yu replied, crumpling up the bag the food
had come in.  "I'm gonna go see if I can't get Meaghan to succumb to
my charms.  You get anything out of that mess ..."
     "I'll let you know," Mamoru told him, feeling badly that he
probably wouldn't.  Yu would want to help, but Mamoru was not
dragging his partner and friend into this mess if he could help it.
     Maybe Yu was right.  Maybe he did try too hard to protect
everybody.  But that was his nature, and he wasn't going to deny it.
     With a last look at the craggy police tower, Mamoru slid into his
car, started the engine, and headed back.

***

     "You know, Raine, a woman of your position should rest when
she can."
     Raine didn't turn from the window as Greely joined her in the
great hall, simply watching his reflection.  If she looked closely, she
could notice his limp.  He was very good at hiding it; his old injuries
must be playing up.
     "Is that what you used to do, Tam?"
     "Ah, my dear," he sighed, leaning against the broad stone
window ledge and staring out at the sprawling lights of the capital.
"That was a lifetime ago.  I was a much younger man then."
     "I notice, Lord Greely, that you didn't answer the question."
     "Busted," the older man grinned ruefully.  "As the younger folk
say.  No, to be honest, there were many sleepless nights.  Especially after
I became Her Grace's guard captain.  It was a lot of responsibility.  Been
reading reports?"
     "Yeah," Raine said, letting the word drain the air from her like a
deflating balloon.  "Military and police checkpoints are getting set up,
neighbourhoods are getting swept, intelligence is getting studied, and at
least forty people have been shot since nightfall for being in the wrong
dark alley or park at the wrong time.  Or, in one case, for trying to sneak
into their own house late.  The populace, they are getting twitchy."
     "And no sign of the vampire."
     "And no sign of the gods-be-damned vampire.  Priests can't find
her, cops can't find her, bloody V Division can't find her and I sure as all
the hells can't find her."
     "It helps to take it all on yourself," Greely said knowingly.
     "Ah, screw you, old man."
     "Best offer I've had all night."
     "I just feel so helpless," Raine said in a low, frustrated voice.  "I
should be able to do more."
     "Your people are properly deployed," Greely told her,
straightening.  His bearing in that moment spoke of his military
background, and there was steel in his eyes.  "Your lieutenants are
always within reach of Her Majesty's summons, the palace guard is alert
and prepared for any eventuality.  Must I remind you, Raine, that your
duty is not to find vampires or even to protect this city?  Your duty is to
protect your queen, and as long as you do that, then you will have
fulfilled your most important obligation."
     Raine nodded, turning from the window to face him for the first
time.  "Well spoken," she said grudgingly.  "And you're right, I do need
to be focussed on things I can do.  But I feel like there's a giant set of
gears driving the city, and they're starting to spin faster and faster, and if
no one gets a handle on them they're going to just fly apart."
     "A fanciful notion," Greely remarked, arching one eyebrow.
"Somewhat unlike you, Raine."
     "I like to wax philosophical on occasion," she grunted.  "A little
known fact, that.  Did you know that there was a marked increase in
plumbing problems in the week leading up to the Long Dark?"
     "I beg your pardon?"  She glanced at Greely, unable to tell if he
was more startled than amused by her question.
     "It's true," she told him wryly.  "Skip told me earlier."
     "Ah.  The intrepid Professor Lewdine has been reading the RO's
Crisis Codex," Greely sighed.  "Cross-referencing events that
immediately precede various crises in our history has, if I recall, been an
endeavour of limited success.  It seems unlikely, for instance, that the
kingdom's plumbers foresaw the Long Dark."
     "Yeah," Raine admitted, stifling a yawn.  "One of many, what'd he
call them, charming statistical anomalies.  And Skip says that there's
more raw data on the days leading up to the Long Dark than any other
event.  Since it was a completely unique event, though, it's hard to tell
what's significant and what isn't.  Monster attacks fell off dramatically in
the days running up to it, for instance, but we don't know why, or if that
fact is somehow related."
     "The problem, of course, is that we didn't know it was coming,"
Greely pointed out.  "So nobody was studying events looking for patterns
until afterward, and by then a lot had happened."
     "Bingo.  Skip says there aren't enough red flags to associate our
vamp's presence with any known events, though.  So that's something."
     "Or nothing."
     "Gods, Tam, don't make my head hurt any more than it already
does."
     "Sorry."  They stood there for a time, both staring out at the
lights.  Raine sneaked a look at Greely's profile, noting that the dapper
man seemed unaffected by the lateness of the hour.
     "I wish Gar was here," she sighed at last.
     "Now, there's something I never thought I'd hear you say,"
Greely declared, raising one eyebrow.
     "Don't get me wrong," she scowled.  "I still think he's a bloody
rogue.  She needs him here, and as usual he's off somewhere, probably
drunk and banging everything that moves.  I'm sorry, Tam, I know you
two go way back.  You once served his family, after all.  And it must be
difficult for him sometimes, having lived through that nightmare.  But
that doesn't excuse his behaviour, or the cavalier way he treats his
responsibilities.  I'll never understand your fondness for him, nor Her
Majesty's."
     "But?"
     "He can make Her smile when no one else can," Raine admitted,
rubbing the back of her neck with her palm.  "He helps keep Her
grounded.  I don't like it, but I can't deny it, either.  He's good for Her
state of mind.  Plus, when he actually does work, he gets results."
     "Been taking out Her frustrations on you, has She?" Greely asked
with disquieting insight.
     "Events have been weighing on Her of late," Raine admitted.
     "Well, it's a good thing Gar isn't here," Greely said with a wry smile.
"You very nearly paid him a compliment just then."
     "Look, Tam, I know you don't talk about the old days, but
you're the only one who knew him back then.  Was he always like this?"
     The question seemed to take the older man by surprise, and Raine
regretted it as soon as she'd finished speaking.  Tam Greely had been a
Royal Guardsman a long time ago, and his present title had been granted
as a result of the action that had ended his career, but his past in the
outland provinces remained shrouded in mystery.  People in royal circles
did not discuss the outlands.  They certainly did not talk about what had
happened to the members of the royal family who had been all but exiled
there years ago.
     "Let me put it to you this way," Greely said at last, just as she
was beginning to think he would not answer.  The whip-thin old
campaigner rose up on the balls of his feet as he talked, hands clasped
behind his back.  "Gar hasn't changed since the day we first met."
     "So he's always been a pain."
     "I'm afraid so."  A crooked smile graced the man's face, one
tinged with fondness but also with a shadow of pain.  Talking about his
past would never be easy for him, Raine knew.
     "That figures.  Listen, I'd better turn in.  Her Majesty'll be
having another early morning briefing, and I don't want to be yawning
my way through it."
     "Wise," Greely nodded in that calm, aggravatingly sage manner
of his.  Had Raine not known of his past, she never would have guessed
he'd ever been anything other than a royal advisor.
     "You coming?"
     "Oh, old bones don't always rest easily," he told her wryly.  "I
believe I'll putter about, see if I can't scare up some clue as to where
Gar's gotten off to.  I'm actually beginning to worry about him."
     "You aren't going to find anyone to talk to at this hour," Raine
snorted.  "Not unless you break curfew and venture out into one of his
favourite haunts."
     "That won't be necessary," Greely assured her.  "I know how his
mind works.  I owe him a favour, so perhaps I can repay it by getting him
back here before Her Majesty loses all patience."
     "Good luck with that, Tam.  Really.  Playing nursemaid to that
lunatic isn't a job I'd want."
     "Good night, Raine."
     "Good night, Tam."

***

     Setsuna closed the door quietly and crossed the room, lowering
herself into a plush armchair.  "You should get some sleep," she told the
room's occupant.  "It's late."
     "I'm not tired," Hotaru told her, not looking up from the files she
was examining.  Setsuna made no comment.  Hotaru certainly didn't
look tired.  In fact, she seemed energized, as if she drew vivacious energy
from the night itself.  Setsuna always worried when that happened;
thoughts of Hotaru's darker nature were never far from her mind.  But
there were no other warning signs, and so she kept her concerns to
herself.
     For the moment.
     She did glimpse, however, a telling photo in the pile of papers
that Hotaru slid into a worn manila envelope as she was sitting down.
Hotaru wasn't obvious about it, but Setsuna could tell her friend was
trying to keep her from seeing what she'd been looking at.
     And no wonder.  Hotaru's thoughts had apparently taken a
worrisome tack.  It was to be expected, really, ever since the revelation
that the vampire in question might be the same one who had violated
Hotaru's mother.  Hotaru had seized on that tenuous relationship with a
zeal that was disturbing, if not surprising.  For Hotaru Tomoe, the
appearance of this vampire represented a chance to face the demons of
her past.
     And exorcise them.  With prejudice.
     Setsuna worried, though, that this burning need for revenge
would blind Hotaru to everything else.  She also worried that Hotaru
would try to take the entire responsibility for destroying this creature
upon herself.
     Which would explain the file she'd been perusing.
     Setsuna made no mention of what she'd seen.  She knew better
than to try to argue with Hotaru, especially about this.  It would be far
more prudent to stay alert and to be prepared to help her friend when the
moment came.
     "So, have you found anything useful?" she asked.  She couldn't
help but notice that some of the files had red borders on them and were
marked TOP SECRET.  Hotaru did seem to have access to material that
most people did not, courtesy of her highly placed sources.
     "Nothing so far," Hotaru told her absently.  "I've been hoping to
find some reference to this vampire in the records from before the Long
Dark.  If we knew who she was, we might be able to figure out where she
would go to ground.  No matter how powerful she is, she has to hide from
the sun.  And she'd want someplace secure, somewhere she felt safe."
     "You think she has followers in the city."  It wasn't a question.
     "Followers?"  Hotaru looked up, dark eyes filled with loathing as
the lamplight picked out gleaming highlights in her raven hair.  "Blood-
drugged slaves, more likely.  Once they were under her spell, they'd do
anything to protect her."
     "But she could be anywhere," Setsuna sighed, closing her eyes
and feeling weariness rise like an implacable tide.  "This is the largest
city on the entire continent.  Finding one person is not going to be easy."
     "She will not remain in hiding for long," Hotaru said in a low voice.
"After all, her hunger has already driven her to feed.  Unfortunately, that
may not help us unless we catch her in the act.  There should have been
some trace left on the victims, a mystic residue that could help track her.
But the priests and mystics examining the victims from the both the bar
and that church have been unable to sense anything of the vampire at all
on her victims."
     "I hadn't heard that," Setsuna said softly, sitting up in her chair.
"That may explain why she was so bold."
     "She's toying with us," Hotaru breathed, her voice tight.
"Manipulating others into doing her bidding, giving us tantalizing
glimpses and then vanishing like a ghost.  There has to be a way to draw
her into the open."
     "It'll be light soon," Setsuna said, unsettled by the hard-edged
gleam in Hotaru's eyes.  "We certainly can't draw her out into the
daylight.  And if we're right, she'll have what she wants by midnight
tonight.  Whatever that is.  That brings us back to the Sisterhood."
     "Any progress with those discs?" Hotaru asked, some of the
hectic light fading from her gaze.
     "Last time I checked, Ami was still hard at work.  You know her,
she won't stop until she solves the puzzle.  And Mamoru just got back.
Apparently he got some files from a friend in the department.  He's
sifting through them, looking for anything that might be Sisterhood
related.  That's a longshot, but it's better than sitting on our butts
waiting."
     "They can't hide from us forever," Hotaru said with a dark
conviction that was nearly predatory.
     "They don't need to," Setsuna reminded her.  "Only for another
day.  We'd better hope that Ami has some luck with those discs, or we're
going to have to do something drastic."
     "Like asking the princess to forget about her promise?" Hotaru
asked, raising one perfect eyebrow.
     "The police can't find the vampire," Setsuna sighed, "but with
their resources, maybe they could track down the Sisterhood."
     "I'm surprised you would even consider going against her,
Setsuna."
     "I'm considering asking her to be pragmatic," Setsuna replied,
rubbing her eyes and yawning.  Damn, she needed some rest.  "I must
admit, I don't hold out any great hopes for getting her to change her
mind, though."
     "Well," Hotaru said with a wry smile, "at least you finally know
how I feel.  She won't go back on her word.  You know that."
     "Yes, I suppose I do.  So let's hope that it doesn't come to that."
     Hotaru leaned back in the chair, steepling her fingers and turning
slightly to stare out the window.  "Hope will only take us so far, my
friend.  If nothing breaks by the time the sun rises, then we're going
hunting.  And if we have to kick in every door in this city, we are going
to find what we're looking for.  I will be damned if I'll just sit here and
let this witch ruin any more lives."

***

     "Wow," Haruka remarked as she sorted through the paperwork
in front of her.  "Who knew that beautiful women were involved in so
many shady dealings?"
     "Men," Mamoru told her.
     "For shame, Mamoru," Michiru chided.  "That is a cynical and
bitter viewpoint."
     "It's hard to be optimistic," he told her, "at this hour of the
morning."
     "Point," Haruka admitted.  Mamoru sipped his coffee and rubbed
the bridge of his nose with his thumb and forefinger.
     "Well," Michiru murmured, looking up from the table.  "I find it
hard to believe that a group of the Sisterhood's finest seductresses
engaged in a series of snatch and run robberies in clothing stores in the
market area over the past month."
     "Doesn't seem their style," Mamoru admitted.  "Nor does
running a casino and hotel scam where they pretend to be an advance
party for famous entertainers like Yuki Oh, Mas Trenta, even the Regal
Rock Revue."
     "Is nothing sacred?" Haruka sighed.
     "Apparently not," he told her glumly.
     "Think the Sisterhood might have bought thirty cases of Machti
assault rifles?" Michiru asked.
     "That REALLY doesn't seem their style," Haruka snickered,
flipping through the pages.  "Oh, but I can beat that.  This guy here's
been selling military toys, according to this.   No assault rifles, but he did
sell a Rhino IV to a guy who claimed to be a priest of Rittner."
     "I don't think even a god of war advocates buying hot armoured
vehicles," Mamoru snorted.
     "He did have some female clients," Haruka went on.  "Sold them,
get this, Viernan shifting camouflage netting, a Bander armoured car
with plow blade attachment, and a Massovelli Waterbug.  What in the
hells is a Massovelli Waterbug?"
     "The military used to use those," Mamoru told her.  "They can
lay down temporary bridges.  Useful if you're assaulting an enemy
position across a river."
     "Or reviving a sealed goddess?" Michiru asked.
     "Not likely.  Here's a good one.  Six women who looked, and I
quote, like freaking supermodels, unquote, took this poor old fool for six
exotic sportscars.  Huh.  No Ferengettis, though."
     "Ferengettis?" Haruka asked, perking up.
     "The Nightmistress seems to have a weakness for expensive
cars," Mamoru told her.  "She had a Ferengetti, a Shadow I think, before
Usako flattened it."
     "Usagi wrecked a Ferengetti?" Haruka squawked.  Michiru gave
Mamoru a long-suffering look.  "I mean, those cars are art!  They're
hand made by Kensi Ferengetti and his best people!  There are probably
only about fifty in the entire kingdom!"
     "When good cars happen to bad people," Michiru sighed
dramatically, earning her a glare from her partner.
     "Well, she didn't get it from this guy," Mamoru shrugged, "but
given her taste for luxury automobiles, I'll put him in the 'possible' pile."
     "Realistically, what should we be looking for?" Michiru asked as
she riffled through the pile of reports in front of her.
     "It's hard to say," Mamoru told her wearily.  "This is part of
police work, ladies.  Sometimes something jumps out at you.  Off the top
of my head, though, I'd say be looking for something the Sisterhood
would use for this ceremony of theirs.  Drugs, slaves, possibly real estate.
They have to perform it somewhere, after all."
     "Think they needed two hundred counterfeit Ni-So watches?"
Haruka muttered.
     "Does anyone need two hundred counterfeit Ni-So watches?"
     "So I should keep looking?"
     "Good idea."

***

     Rei glided along the darkened hallway, bare feet making no
sound as they sank into deep carpet.  She'd always loved this time of day;
the sun would be up soon, but right now everything was quiet, still, and
utterly peaceful.  It would be easy to forget, in an atmosphere like this,
the dangers that lurked all around.
     She was not the only one awake.  The light had been on in the
kitchen, and quiet voices as she'd passed the door indicated that Haruka,
Michiru, and Mamoru were awake, at least.  Probably Hotaru, as well,
although given their mutual antipathy it seemed unlikely that Mamoru
and Hotaru would be working in such close quarters.
     Rei did not tarry to find out what they were working on.  If they
found anything, they certainly would not keep it secret.  A quick check of
the house had found Setsuna lying on a couch with Luna curled up on
her legs in one room, Makoto snuggled into the curve of Yoshi's body in
another.
     Ranma slept alone, and poorly, at least to judge by the short time
she'd watched him.  Rei considered waking him, but decided against it.
Nightmares left one terribly vulnerable, something she was painfully
aware of.  She might very well have overstepped the bounds of his
cultural propriety by saying as much as she had to him, but she had
decided that it was necessary, and did not regret it.  But no one could
take the
next step for him.  It was up to Ranma to decide how much he was
willing to let any of them behind the walls he had built up around his
heart.
     At any rate, her concerns at the moment lay elsewhere.  She
padded through the darkened house until she reached the room where
Ami toiled away on the discs from Vanka's safe.  Faint light limned the
bottom of the door, blue-white and harsh, and Rei knew that Ami was
still planted in front of the computer.  The lithe priestess opened the door
quietly and peered inside.
     Just as she'd surmised, Ami was sitting there, head in her hands,
making small, frustrated sounds as she glared at the screen.  A plate sat
on the table next to the desk, empty save for crumbs.  At least Ami had
eaten a meal.  Rei was quite certain that the girl hadn't rested.
     Rei moved up beside Ami's chair, taking care not to startle the
girl.  "Good morning," she said softly.
     "Mmm," Ami breathed noncommitally.  Rei looked down at the
screen and grimaced.  Computers were far from her best thing, and the
symbols on the screen were so much gibberish to her.  Unfortunately,
Ami did not appear any more enlightened.
     "Not going well?" Rei asked sympathetically.  She did not want
to hang over Ami's shoulder while the girl was trying to work, but she
knew full well that, left to her own devices, Ami would neglect herself as
long as the answer to the puzzle eluded her.
     "No," Ami mumbled.  "These symbols are linked with some kind
of mystical encryption key.  I can't make heads nor tails of it, never seen
anything like it.  Nothing I've tried works, not even transforming and
scanning them with my visor."
     The girl's frustration was blunted by fatigue, and Rei knew her
assumption had been correct.  Ami had become engrossed in this puzzle
to the exclusion of all else.
     "Have you slept at all, Ami?"
     "Nuh-uh," Ami muttered, nudging her glasses up on her nose
with one finger as she stared disconsolately at the screen.  Sighing, Rei
raked her hair back with her fingers, tossing it over her shoulders in a
heavy cascade of sable silk.  The motion caused her robe to pull tight
against the swell of her breasts in a way that Rei judged to be heart-
stopping, yet Ami paid not the slightest attention.  Typical.  Still, Rei
found her vanity pricked by Ami's inattention; she had long been aware
of her striking beauty, and had become quite accustomed to stares and
admiring glances.  Accustomed, yes, and if truth be told, she had even
come to regard such reactions as her due.
     Frankly, she just did not like being ignored.
     Rei slipped behind Ami's chair.  The girl was wearing blue
sweatpants and a rumpled white t-shirt, and Rei rested her hands gently
on Ami's shoulder's for a moment, feeling a twitch shudder through the
tight muscles there as Ami reacted to the unexpected touch.  Then Rei
leaned forward a bit, running her thumbs down the muscle behind Ami's
shoulders and kneading firmly.  Ami's gasp was sweet to her ears, and
Rei smiled as the girl arched under her hands.
     Ignore THIS, she thought wickedly.
     "Oh," Ami breathed.  "Rei, don't ..."
     "You're tight," Rei breathed, letting the edge of a low, sensual
purr creep into her voice.  She leaned in more, kneading harder at the
same time as her posture brought her silk-restrained breasts against
Ami's back.  Ami made a sound deep in her throat, and Rei resolved in
that moment not to stop until the girl was limp as an old dishrag.  Ami
was tougher on herself than anyone else could have been; her failure to
decode the discs would curdle like old milk if it was allowed to.
     "Relax," Rei crooned.  "Damn it, girl, you are a bundle of knots.
Have you even moved from this chair since you sat down?"
     Ami made no reply, for in that moment two things happened.
First, Rei slid her hands along Ami's shoulders, letting her thumbs ride
up the back of her neck and squeezing again with exquisite firmness.
     And second, a whisper of magick skittered across her skin.
     Ami yelped, jumping out of the chair so abruptly that Rei
stumbled back, falling unceremoniously on her shapely ass.  Rei just sat
there for a moment, stunned, as Ami bounced up and down in clear
agitation.
     "Ami?" Rei asked.  "What's wrong?  Did I pinch a nerve?"  She
knew she hadn't, but perhaps by being so tactile she'd pushed a button
that the reticent girl hadn't wanted pushed.  Giving Ami an out would
save her from having to articulate anything awkward or embarrassing.
     "Did you see that?" Ami blurted, pointing at the screen, then
turning to look down at Rei.  "Rei, what are you doing down there?"
     "Nothing," Rei grumbled, shaking her head.  Honestly, Ami could be
exasperating sometimes.  She climbed to her feet and tugged her robe into
place.  "And no, I didn't see anything."
     "It's gone," Ami said, shaking her head.  "But it was there, just
for a moment.  I SAW it, Rei.  And I felt ... something."
     "Magick," Rei nodded.  "I felt it too.  Did you trigger something
on the disc?"
     "I wasn't doing anything," Ami said, running her fingers through
her dark hair, tousling it in a manner that was all the more fetching for
being completely artless.
     "I was," Rei said, fighting the urge to be petulant.  Ami seemed
to have completely forgotten her in the excitement of her breakthrough.
Geniuses, Rei thought darkly.  They're all the same.  Then something
occurred to her, and she let her temper fade as quickly as it had come.
     Ami was still staring at the screen, taking her glasses off and rubbing
the bridge of her pert nose as if she could bring back what she'd seen.
"Ami, can I ask you something?"
     "Mmmm?"  Distracted again.  Rei sighed and moved so that she
was partially blocking Ami's view, which caused Ami to blink owlishly.
"What?"
     "Ami," Rei repeated.  "Listen.  Could we have affected what you
saw on the screen?"
     "We?"
     "You and I," Rei said softly.  "That magick was just a touch, but
it felt familiar to me.  I think we raised that synergistic power between us
again."
     "What?"  Now she had Ami's attention again, and a pink flush
coloured the girl's cheeks.  "You mean, like ... no.  That couldn't be."
     "You enjoyed my touch," Rei pointed out, and the flush on Ami's
face darkened.  "Come now, Ami.  This is important.  Your body is
stressed, your senses dulled.  It's only natural to feel something if
someone gives you a shoulder rub, right?"
     "I guess," Ami said slowly.  Rei was willing to bet that Ami
hadn't had many shoulder rubs.  She was the polar opposite to Minako,
after all.
     "So we may have accidentally stirred that power."
     "So easily?"  Ami didn't sound comforted by that thought, and in
truth, neither was Rei.  Could this have something to do with the
unleashing of her own shadow earlier in the night?  She had loosed her
darker urges against Vanka, and such shadowy desires were hard to leash
once they had tasted freedom.  Still, she strove to be comforting.
     "It was just a touch," Rei pointed out.  "But the point is, why
would that allow you to see something you hadn't seen before?  Is there
Shadow Magick involved?"
     "I don't think so," Ami mused, turning her attention back to the
puzzle.  Rei's tension eased as Ami's self-consciousness slipped away.
"It was more like ... like seeing patterns.  The way I do in Aethyr, when I
see spells or energies attain a form that can be interpreted.  I don't ...
sorry, I'm not explaining this very well ..."
     "No," Rei breathed.  "No, I think I see.  You mentioned this
before, seeking secrets and such on your dives.  Ami, could the effect of
our powers combining allow you to see such things in the real world?"
     "You said yourself that what we did has never been done."  Ami
shook her head slowly.  "I just can't say, not for sure.  But if Vanka used
some sort of ancient magick to encode these, it would explain why
nothing I do has any effect."
     "Then we may be able to break the code," Rei said.
     "Maybe," Ami mused, already mentally engaged with the new
problem in typical Mizuno fashion.  "Taking the discs to Aethyr
probably won't work, not without the computer.  And there's the odd
time factor.  An Aethyr port?  There's one in the basement ..."
     "That's just your magick," Rei pointed out.  "The reaction came
only with both of us."
     "Um," Ami said, stopping mid-stream.  "Um.  What exactly are
you proposing, Rei?"
     "I propose that you sit," Rei said, letting her finger trail down the
front of her white silk robe.  "And then we try to replicate what just
happened."  Yes, she thought, put it in nice, clean, scientific terms.  Ami
would be more comfortable that way.
     "All right," Ami said, but she was clearly hesitant.  Rei stepped
closer to the girl, taking Ami's hand in hers before the girl could sit.
"Ami."
     "I'm sorry," Ami blurted.  "I'm being stupid.  Everyone's
depending on me to do the one thing I'm supposed to be able to do, and
I'm just letting everyone ..."
     "AMI."  Ami shut up, but Rei could see the strain was wearing
her friend down.  Ami had always been hard on herself, ever since the
beginning.  That was almost certainly in part because of the demands
Inme had placed on her while she'd been his ward, but regardless, to fail
at what she considered her strength, an intellectual puzzle, had wounded
her pride.  "You haven't forgotten what we talked about before, have
you?"
     "Of course not."  Ami's voice was low and she was blushing
again.  Rei squeezed the girl's hand gently, then let it go.
     "Good.  I promised to respect your limits, and I will.  You don't
have to do this."
     "If there's a chance to break this code, then I do," Ami told her.  Well,
she had a point.
     "You make it sound like such a chore.  I usually don't get that
reaction."  Rei kept her tone light, but Ami's eyes widened in alarm.
     "I didn't mean it that way!" she protested.  "Honestly, Rei!"
     "I'm glad to hear that.  But I hate the thought that you wouldn't allow
this if it weren't a life and death emergency."
     Ami looked stricken at that, and Rei wondered if she should have
simply kept quiet.  But no.  Circumstances kept forcing Ami close to her.
Rei wanted Ami to reach out to her of her own volition, just this once.  If
they were going to make magick, then they needed to do it together.
     Rei watched as Ami bit her lower lip and fidgeted while staring at
her.  The dishevelled girl genius seemed to come to a decision, and she
slowly reached up to grasp the neck of her t-shirt.  As Rei watched,
puzzled, Ami pulled it down far enough that Rei could see something tied
low and loose around Ami's neck, lying hidden under the shirt.
     A black silk scarf.
     Ami let the shirt go, her hands clasped together at her throat.
There was a fleeting glimmer of something in Ami's eyes, something just
a little wild.  Ami didn't speak, but neither did her gaze waver, and Rei
felt a slow, sultry smile spread across her lips.
     "Nice to have one close at hand," she breathed.
     "Just in case," Ami whispered.
     "Just in case," Rei agreed.  Well, that was an excellent start.
Warmth bloomed deep in her belly.
     "For when there aren't any emergencies," Ami said breathily.  "I
don't need one to let you touch me.  It's just ... a little scary."
     "Those butterflies in your belly aren't from fear, sweetheart," Rei
returned sleekly.  "Let's stir them up a bit.  Touch me."
     "Me?  Don't you want to, um, start?"
     "I am starting," Rei purred.  "Look at me, Ami.  Am I
beautiful?"  Ami nodded dumbly.  "Tell me.  Tell me you want to touch
me."
     "I want to touch you."  Ami's voice was small, breathy, but
certain.
     "Then do it."  They were facing each other, and Ami's hesitant
half-step erased what little space there had been between them.  Rei stood
patiently as Ami stood there, reaching her hand out slowly.  Ami's
fingertips grazed the smooth curve of Rei's cheek, continuing on to the
fall of her hair.
     "I love your hair," Ami sighed softly, her fingers hesitating.  Rei
tilted her head with delicate slowness, letting the silken locks slide over
Ami's hand, delighted at the way Ami's lips parted ever-so-slightly.
Ami's other hand was on her shoulder now as the first trailed down
through the lush curtain of hair, luxuriating in Rei's glossy sable mane.
That hand hesitated at the swell of one hip, the other tracing a path to the
open triangle of flesh at Rei's throat, and still Rei made no move to
reciprocate, merely allowing Ami to touch as she would.  Ami's breath
came quickly, her eyes wide and rapt.  Heat coiled between them, and
magick, but only the magick that two people made with their desire.
     "The discs," Ami whispered reluctantly.  "What about the discs?"
     "Sit," Rei instructed, staring into the sapphire blue depths of
Ami's eyes.  She noted with no small amount of satisfaction how hard it
was for Ami to pull her hands away, to turn her attention from the warm,
intoxicating beauty in front of her to the cold computer.  Ami had
acknowledged her desire.  Perhaps that would help them.
     "I don't know what to do," Ami said, frustration already creeping
into her voice as she faced the impassive eye of the monitor screen.  Rei
touched the girl's shoulders gently, old instincts showing her the obstacles
to her goal.  Ami was too task oriented.  She wanted to break this down,
perform the steps in their correct order so that she could achieve the
desired result.  Very orderly, very logical.  Not knowing where to begin
or how to proceed frustrated her; Ami did not like being so far out of her
element.
     At least, not yet.
     "This isn't science," Rei told her, pitching her voice low and
husky as she plucked Ami's glasses from her face and set them aside.
"It's art.  We have to feel our way through it.  Just go with the flow."  Rei
leaned forward, letting her hands slip off Ami's shoulders and slither
down her body.  Rei's hair swept over Ami's shoulder and arm until they
were cheek-to-cheek.
     "Now," Rei purred, turning her head just enough so that she
could whisper into Ami's ear.  "Relax."  Ami shuddered at the feel of
Rei's words insinuating themselves into her, and swallowed.  Rei's right
hand rested on Ami's leg, and she kneaded it gently while the left moved
to the girl's waist.  Resting there, Rei let her fingers stroke lightly,
gathering the folds of Ami's shirt, pulling the hem up as though she had
all the time in the world.  When the bottom edge of the shirt was finally
bunched under Rei's hand, she let her fingers slip slowly under it to be
greeted by the taut heat of Ami's belly.
     A gasp.  And a tingle.
     Yes.
     Magick time.  In more ways than one.
     "Did you see that?" Ami blurted, and the capricious sensation
slipped away again.
     "Ami.  Don't think so much."  Rei's whispers made the girl
shudder deliciously, and she began to trace circles with her nails on
Ami's belly.  "When it comes, just let it draw you in."
     "But I don't understand it," Ami replied, breathless.  "I don't
know how to control it."
     "You don't need to understand it," Rei murmured, nuzzling soft
flesh expertly.  "You don't need to fear it, either.  It isn't alien.  It's ours.
Remember the Abyss?  Ride the tempest with me, Ami."
     Rei nipped and kissed her way down smooth skin to the corner of
Ami's jaw, slowly widening the circle her fingers had established.  Ami's
breathing quickened, and as Rei's other hand ran idly along the edge of
Ami's thigh she once again felt that stirring.  It seemed to swell and ebb
along with her touch, and Rei found herself sensing the patterns, trying to
bring Ami's arousal to just the right point and hold it there.
     But there was the matter of her own arousal to deal with.  Rei's
breath caught in her throat as sweet tendrils of heat trickled along her
skin, threatening to undermine her control.  It might have been the taint
of Ami's exotic magick within her shadow that made what should be
familiar into something precarious and fraught with uncertainty.  Or it
might have been her recent unleashing of her shadow, or some
combination of factors.
     Whatever was causing it, sweet need coiled around her core,
burying its succubus fangs into the darkest part of her.  Rei gasped, and
Ami moaned in response, body stiffening under Rei's wanton touch.  Rei
was accustomed to using sexual desire as a tool, or a weapon.  Years of
Sisterhood training had engendered a personal discipline that allowed her
to keep her own hungers tightly leashed while evoking erotic need in
others, then using that lust to get what she wanted.
     This magick fed on lust, yes, but it was a double-edged blade.
Still, Rei couldn't stop.  Hells, she didn't want to stop.
     "Rei," Ami gasped.  "It's beautiful.  Look.  The patterns ... I can
see how ... oh! ... how they all fuh-fit ... together ..."
     Ami's hands shook as she reached out to the keyboard.  Jealous
desire flared in Rei, and she had to fight against the urge to drag Ami
back, to keep the girl's attention focussed solely on her.  Instead, Rei's
hand began to explore under Ami's t-shirt, meandering its way higher as
Ami's fingers flashed across the keyboard.
     "Is it working?" Rei breathed, nipping Ami's earlobe and
smirking at the tiny hard sharp spike of magick that resulted.
     "Oh, yes," Ami sighed, leaning back against the other girl as Rei's
fingers found the bottom edge of her bra.  "I see ... things.  Familiar ..."
     Ami trailed off, but her fingers kept moving.  So did Rei's.
     Rei was dimly aware that Ami seemed to be providing the
impetus to the mercurial beast they had roused; perhaps that was why Rei
had less control than the other times their powers had twined.  Part of her
wanted to seize control back.  Another, dark and unruly, sought to fan the
flames, to immerse her in the unfamiliar but exhilarating sensation of
losing control to another.
     Rei fought to balance everything, to keep Ami in the zone where
she could feed off of their synergy.  But gods, it was so HARD ...
     Rei pulled Ami's bra out from under the loose shirt.  She hadn't
been conscious of undoing it or pulling it off, or of Ami's hands leaving
the keyboard.  Bad.  Both Rei's hands slipped under the shirt now as she
traced the tip of her nose along the nape of Ami's neck, luxuriating in the
scent of warm girl, sweet hair, hot skin.  Ami tensed, her breath catching
in her throat as Rei's hands came up to the swell of her breasts, tracing
along the lower slopes, then circling, trailing skilled fingertips along
sensitised skin.  Rei's lips found Ami's other ear and played with it as her
wicked touch taunted, circling engorged nipples languorously.  Her
hands held the thin cotton of Ami's t-shirt  away from those nubs, denying
Ami the touch she craved, gently pressing the other girl back as her body
arched.
     "Carefully," Ami gasped, and Rei wasn't certain the girl knew
she'd spoken.  "Carefully."
     Yes.  Careful.  Just enough to keep this power where they needed
it, but oh, it was hard.
     Take her, darkness urged.
     Obey her, a sweetly depraved whisper inveigled.
     Rei growled deep in her throat, and Ami's body shuddered.
"Slower," Ami begged, her lovely face glowing with a fine sheen of
perspiration.  Rei's fingers circled closer to those nipples, then further
away again, the phantom desire coiling around their bodies in the still,
warm air.  Rei's robe had come undone, and she brought her own breasts
against Ami's back, nipples tracing delicious fire as she moved.
     "It's there," Ami crooned.  "I know those ... Phaeton's Faerie
Gaze!  And ... yessss.  Ah ... Rei ..."
     Hearing her name pleased Rei; it meant that Ami had not lost
herself in what she was seeing.  She rewarded Ami by finally dragging
her palms over Ami's achingly stiff nipples, first upwards from below,
then circling to create exquisite friction, then slowly down again.  Ami
cried out, and the magick flared once more, answering the siren call of
the two beauties.
     "Closer," Ami panted.  "Take me closer, Rei, please, I need ... I
need ..."
     "I know what you need," Rei whispered, her voice full of dark
intimacy.  She let one hand slide languidly down Ami's slick taut
abdomen, tracing the finely-twitching muscles there.  When she reached
the waistband of Ami's sweatpants, Ami's whole body bucked lightly,
and Rei pulled the girl back against her.  It was all around them, coiling
like a serpent, writhing and knotting and winding itself more and more
tightly, this magick, this passion, this thing that they had made.  They
were feeding it and feeding off of it, but it was not tame, and soon it must
be unleashed lest it consume them.  For the first time in what seemed like
forever, Rei was not certain of her ability to control fleshly lusts.
     "Ami," she whispered hoarsely, her long nails tracing the flimsy
barrier standing between them and Ami's heat.  Rei nipped the girl's
throat again, then covered it with tiny, white-hot kisses.  "Ami.  Soon.  It
has to be soon."
     "Yes," Ami hissed.  "I ... oh, Rei!  Ahh!"
     "Tell me," Rei instructed, stroking hot flesh, evoking gasps like a
musician playing her favourite instrument.  Her own heat was spiralling
higher, and Rei rubbed against Ami firmly, her mouth dry, her breath
beginning to turn ragged.  "Ami!"
     "More," Ami begged softly, lips trembling as she spoke.  "Just a little
muh-more ..."
     Rei's fingers slipped under the subtle tension of the elastic waistband,
sliding inside the panties and down over Ami's heat, then tightening
against it as her other hand kneaded its way to one nipple and Rei kissed
her way to the corner of Ami's mouth.
     That proved too much for either of them.  Rei came hard against
Ami, practically mounting her from behind, her unbound hair cascading
down over the seated girl as Ami went rigid in Rei's arms.  Ami's lips
parted as she threw her head back, and Rei covered them with her own in
a savage kiss, tasting Ami's pure, sweet cry of release, muffling it,
drawing it in and mingling it with her own.
     The climax crashed over them in an inexorable tide of sex and
need and pleasure and magick.  It ebbed slightly, swelled again, then
again, and again.  White hot molten pleasure washed away all rational
thought, leaving them beached on the sun-kissed shores of pure sensation.
     Rei shuddered, gasping, as she came back to herself.  She was
draped untidily over Ami's shoulder, pressing the other girl into the
chair.  Rei's knees had buckled, and she had to try three times to get her
feet under her.  Without any of her characteristic grace she turned Ami's
chair around and let herself half-sit, half-fall into the girl's lap.  She
braced herself there, straddling Ami, gazing down at her friend's sated
face.  Ami's eyelashes fluttered weakly against her cheek until she finally
opened her eyes to look up at Rei.
     "Wow," Ami whispered.
     "I never knew," Rei returned softly, "that computers could be so
much fun."
     Ami giggled at that, eyes as blue as the purest mountain stream
lighting up with delight, and Rei joined in, her own laugh lower, huskier,
but just as genuine.  Then she leaned down, her hair hanging around the
two of them, creating a small, intimate space.  Then she kissed Ami.
This time she was gentle, and Ami's lips parted without hesitation,
sliding, clinging, finally parting with a soft sound.
     "Okay?" Rei whispered.  Ami's muscles were still trembling
faintly, and the girl looked up at her from under lidded eyes.
     "Okay," she confirmed softly, face glowing with indecent satiation.
"I, um ... didn't think we'd have to, you know, go the distance."
     "Neither did I," Rei said softly.  "I'd have liked to have done things
differently for our first time."  The real question in Rei's mind was, had it
been Ami's first time?  Her instincts were good, and they told her that it
had been.
     "It was definitely memorable," Ami giggled.  The joyous tone in
Ami's voice made Rei smile, and she let her hands twine around Ami's
neck, fingers playing with the sweat-dampened curls at the girl's nape.
     "For both of us, love.  The combination of our magicks is proving to
be more complex than I'd first imagined."  Rei sighed and nuzzled the girl
gently, breathing in the perfume of Ami's skin.  "I'm sorry, Ami.  I really
thought we could make this work."
     "Oh!" Ami gasped, stiffening.
     "What's wrong?"
     "It did."
     Rei blinked, taking a moment to process Ami's words.
"Pardon?"
     "I ... damn, I need to reach the keyboard."
     "Do you want me to move?"
     "No, Rei, but I think you're going to have to."  Rei favoured her
with a sultry smile for that remark, and slid slowly off the girl's lap.  She
moved behind the chair, leaning over to wrap her arms around Ami's
shoulders, placing them cheek-to-cheek again.  This time, Rei's intimate
proximity didn't cause any awkwardness between them.
     "I think I know why our magick worked where nothing else did,"
Ami remarked, fingers stroking the keyboard expertly.  Rei thought idly
that she if she could teach Ami to touch her lovers with such deft and
sure strokes, the girl would be a force to be reckoned with.  The thought
made her smile.
     "You mentioned something," Rei recalled, running her fingers through
Ami's hair playfully.  "Phaeton's Faerie Gaze, you called it?  I'm not
familiar with that name."
     "I am," Ami told her, arching slightly into Rei's stroking fingers as
she worked.  "Because it's a glyph that I retrieved from Aethyr."
     "What?"
     "Uh-huh.  Remember how I told you that we went on dives
looking for anything interesting or valuable?  Well, I think that Inme
must have constructed some sort of mystical encryption program from the
elements of some of the glyphs we brought back.  Or, more likely, had
Saki Li do it."
     "And Vanka used it on these discs," Rei breathed.  "Small
world."
     "Maybe not," Ami said, and though her voice was soft, Rei
sensed something behind those words, something significant.
     "How so?"
     Ami hesitated, opened her mouth, then closed it.  Rei was puzzled
by the girl's sudden reticence; Ami wasn't the sort of person to dangle a
conversational gambit just to get a response.  Finally, the girl seemed to
come to a decision.
     "There were things that happened," she said at last, turning from
the keyboard to gaze into Rei's eyes.  "Back when I was diving.  Strange
things.  It's hard to explain, but ... well, consider.  Things that are
normally intangible in our realm, things that ended up residing only in
Aethyr, could be found in a sort of physical form that could be retrieved.
That form would persist within an active Aethyr port, and could be
transcribed or recorded or otherwise preserved."
     This was somewhat beyond Rei's experience, in spite of her
background in exotic magicks.  She merely nodded for Ami to continue.
     "But often," Ami went on, retrieving her glasses from the desk
and toying with them in a manner Rei found oddly enticing, "the
resulting phenomenon, be it a spell, or a mystic glyph, or even a
historical record, would retain some anomalous characteristics of Aethyr
Realm's otherworldly energies."
     "All right," Rei said slowly.
     "There were incidents when we retrieved things that were
dangerous.  Or, once or twice, so completely alien that we didn't even
know what they were.  Those were the worst."
     "What happened?"
     "Like I said, strange things," Ami told her, and for a moment Rei
was looking down into the haunted eyes of a young girl who had
witnessed far too much.  "Once, we brought something through, and the
earth started shaking.  Like an earthquake, only I heard later that nothing
registered anywhere else in the region.  The wind swirled around the
mansion in a series of small twisters, breaking windows and smashing
equipment.  And the feeling in the air, it ... I don't even know if I can
describe it.  Like something was there, pushing against us, trying to keep
us from bringing the thing into our world."
     Ami looked at her, a glimmer of defensiveness lurking deep
within her gaze, and Rei knew the girl expected to be ridiculed.  But Ami
had seen things and done things the rest of them could scarcely imagine.
And Rei knew firsthand just how important it was to have your friends
believe in you.
     "That sounds scary," Rei told her, making sure that her tone
wasn't patronising.  "But this program isn't like that, is it?"
     "Oh, no," Ami agreed, the cloud of apprehension dissipating
quickly.  "That's not what I'm getting at.  It's just ... there were other
times when I felt a shadow of what I'd felt that day, times when things
we'd brought into the world somehow made their way back to us.  And
by us, I mean always to the person who'd retrieved it.  For instance, a
spell that I'd found on a dive ended up back in my hands once.  The man
who'd bought it from Inme was injured when his car slid off a road, then
his son barely escaped from the house where it was being kept when it
collapsed.  Somehow, the crystal the spell was stored in must have ended
up out in the open.  One day soon afterwards I was working in the main
study.  A crow somehow got in, although usually all the windows where
we worked were sealed.  It flew around madly, ran into a wall, and fell
dead on the table in front of me.
     "And in its beak, it had that crystal."
     "Okay," Rei said.  "That is creepy.  What did the spell do?"
     "I don't know," Ami admitted.  "But when I touched it in its
corporeal form, I felt that it was dangerous somehow.  I hid it from Inme,
and later I disposed of it back in Aethyr."
     "And this happened more than once?"
     "Enough times that we didn't think it was just a freak occurrence.
Always with things that seemed to have very dangerous side-effects, or
retained a high degree of their Aethyric power signature."
     "So you DO think this encryption spell is dangerous?" Rei asked,
eyeing the computer screen warily.
     "Oh, no," Ami said.  "I mean, not that way.  But Rei, think about
it.  You and Usagi meet Ranma, who has the key.  Eventually, you all
end up in Shadow.  He gets you back, close to a mansion that Minako
once robbed.  It's owned by a Sultana who is conspiring with the
Sisterhood, who in turn are being manipulated by a vampire, and she is
using a mystical encryption scheme based on a glyph I retrieved from
Aethyr Realm.  Quite a chain of events, don't you think?  What if it's all
linked?"
     "You mean that the gods are somehow intervening?" Rei asked.
     "Not really.  Um, this may sound a little far-fetched," Ami said,
clearly hesitant.  Rei wondered what her friend could be getting at.
     "After the week we've had, Ami, there isn't much I would have
trouble believing," Rei assured her.
     "Are you familiar with the writings of Hirrigarth?  Or maybe
Latrul Kin?
     "A background in art, music, and literature was actually quite
helpful in my previous life," Rei told her wryly, fingers toying
languorously with Ami's tousled bangs.  "You are referring to their
stories of the Age of Heroes?"
     "Yes," Ami said, turning back to the keyboard.  "Specifically, the
war against the Shadow Kings."
     "Very heady stuff," Rei shrugged, trailing her long nails down
the nape of Ami's neck, just to hear the other girl's soft gasp.  "Heroes
and villains, struggles against great adversity, all very epic.  But I don't
see the connection."
     "Kin was really the one who gave it the most credence," Ami
murmured, writhing lightly under Rei's ministrations.
     "Oh.  We're talking about the spirit of Gaia, then?"  This was a
surprise.  She would not have expected a girl so strongly grounded in
science to speak of something so widely dismissed.  The notion was quite
an eccentric one, and not one that had any widespread scientific or mystic
credibility that Rei knew of.
     "Yes.  Supposedly, she actually spoke to some of the principals
involved in that time, which is completely feasible considering she was
their contemporary.  Where some of the incredible coincidences and more
outrageous turns of events are now dismissed as literary devices to add
suspense to the tale, her writings clearly state that there was an external
force at work.  The formation of the Crimson Tria, Horaven's being
forced to divert to Terrin Saeche by an unseasonable storm, Garven
d'Or's discovery of the Lance of Elements ... if even half of what she was
told is true, we are talking about an incredibly unlikely series of events
coming together to give a small band of champions a fighting chance.
     "And since the gods still hadn't returned to Gaia, Kin believed the
stories that the spirit of the world itself had intervened.  But Ami, there is
such thing as coincidence.  That's why we have a word for it.  And it is a
very old story."
     "Of course, I understand," Ami said, pausing in her work to look
Rei in the eye.  "But if you have ever researched any of the other writings
from that time period ..."
     "I haven't," Rei assured her.  Art and literature were one thing,
but research for its own sake was just boring.
     "There is an odd amount of support for some of the events
chronicled.  For instance ..."
     "I understand, Ami," Rei broke in gently.  "But even if we assume that
our world has a spirit that is aware of us, and that it has attempted to
guide human destinies in the past ..."
     "Not often," Ami interrupted, her eyes gleaming in the soft light.
Rei suppressed a sigh.  She'd seen that gleam before.  The excitement of
intellectual discovery was, in her experience, a pain in the ass.  "But Rei,
I believe that it was that very force which reacted to the most alien of the
artifacts we retrieved from Aethyr Realm.  What if there is a bigger
picture here, one that we're not seeing?  It would explain a great deal."
     "Okay," Rei nodded.  "So you think that the spirit of Gaia can cast
relics of Aethyr out of our world.  And it was somehow responsible for
sending this program back to you."  From anyone else, Rei would
dismiss this all as crackpot nonsense.  This was the sort of thing Minako
would love.  "But why now?"
     "I'm not sure," Ami replied, turning back to the computer and typing
madly.  "But what if the program was never a threat until it was used
to hide something that was a threat to Gaia herself?  What if what this
vampire plans to do with that key is far worse than any of us suspect?"
     "That's a disquieting thought," Rei breathed, watching the screen
as the gibberish characters began to move, swirling and stretching in a
most distressing fashion.  It made her dizzy to watch, and she closed her
eyes.  Not before, however, she'd noticed that Ami seemed unaffected.
     "No kidding.  If I'm right, then the stakes are even higher than we
thought.  We could be caught in a web of forces beyond anything humans
can comprehend.  But our role must certainly be to try and stop
whatever is going to happen.  You can open your eyes now, Rei."
     Rei did, and saw to her relief that the screen now bore normal
computer menus and icons.  "You did it, Ami."
     "We did it," Ami corrected her, smiling.  "We broke the
Sultana's unbreakable code."
     "Now," Rei said sleekly, "let's see what she was hiding."

***

     Makoto shifted drowsily, burrowing into the wonderful heat next
to her.  It was only when that heat rumbled sleepily that she remembered
lying down with Yoshi.
     She pried her eyes open, blinking in the darkness.  Under the
covers was like some sort of magical sanctuary, a place warm and safe
and intimate, where none of the troubles of a cold, harsh world could
reach.  She had ended up spooned in against Yoshi's long, rangy body,
and she sighed with absolute contentment as she snuggled against the flat
muscles of his chest.
     This was paradise.  How many times as a girl had she wished for
just this simple pleasure?  Curled up in the dark with Yoshi, basking in
his heat and the clean, sweet musky smell of him, she felt a pang of
nostalgia that was at once comforting and melancholic.
     After all, she wasn't a girl any more.  And Yoshi wasn't hers.
     "Hey," a low, throaty voice thrummed in her ear.  Yoshi's arm
slipped around her waist, his big square palm coming to rest against the
flat of her belly.  Makoto's mouth went dry at that touch, and she took a
moment before answering.
     "Did I wake you?"
     "Naw," Yoshi mumbled, moving against her artlessly.  Just the
casual intimacy of that full-body touch unleashed a storm of butterflies in
her stomach, and Makoto closed her eyes.  A dream, sure.  But a sweet
one.
     "Well, good morning, anyway," she sighed.
     "Not morning," Yoshi yawned, his breath a hot caress on the
back of her neck and shoulder.  The skin there tingled, and the butterflies
went from agitated to berserk.  "When there's sun, then it's morning."
     "Uh-huh.  How you feeling, tough guy?"
     "Little stiff," Yoshi grunted.
     "Don't rush things," Makoto murmured.  "That shoulder is going
to take time to heal."
     "Wasn't talking about the shoulder."  She could hear the grin,
and when he pressed his hips close she felt pressure against her buttocks,
velvety steel that made her gasp.
     "Stop that, you!" she blurted.  He laughed, a deep, masculine
sound, and moved to roll her onto her back.  She found herself looking
up into those pale gray eyes, visible in the pre-dawn gloom.
     "You should take responsibility," he rumbled softly, those eyes
filled with mischief and something else, something darker.
     "Yeah, right," she sniffed.  "Men always wake up like that."
     "For shame, Makoto.  This is all you."  He leaned in closer,
bringing the length of him against her, enveloping her in his warm scent.
His hair fell around his face in a cascade of pale silk, rumpled and
touchable.  Makoto fought the urge to reach up and run her fingers
through it, only because she knew when something was too good to be
true.
     "Quit fooling around, jackass," she said, exasperated.  "Or am I
going to have to handcuff you to a bed again?"
     He just stared down at her, the familiar planes and curves of his
face set in an expression that looked out of place there, solemn and a little
wistful.
     "I'm serious," he said at last.
     "I doubt it."  Makoto tried to laugh, but the sound caught in her
throat.
     "Come on.  Childhood friends finally getting together?  What
could be more romantic?"
     "This is about Rin, isn't it?" Makoto demanded, fighting to
ignore the weakness in her legs, the way her heart pounded simply
because of the sight of this man's parted lips and lidded eyes.  "You're
trying to protect me from him by throwing yourself at me.  That's just
like you, you great big dope!"
     Yoshi shook his head slowly, hair swinging sleekly with the
motion.  "I really did a number on you," he breathed, a kind of awed
wonder in his voice.  "You really think there's no way I could be serious
about this?"
     Makoto didn't.  Her heart had longed for him for so long, and
been shattered so many times, that she just couldn't.  He was trying to
protect her from herself, which was bad enough, but to use her feelings to
do it?  She was really starting to get pissed.
     "You ..." she began, trying to writhe out from underneath him.
     Yoshi cut off her tirade before it could begin, planting his mouth
over hers.  The kiss took her off-guard, and as his lips slid across hers, he
grabbed her free hand in his and pressed it back against the mattress
firmly.  Makoto's outraged howl came out as a low moan as the lithe
werewolf plundered her mouth with his, hot breath mingling intimately.
Her struggles quickly became languid as her world narrowed to this
moment, the smell of him, the feel of his hard body on hers, his silky hair
against her cheek.
     When he finally broke the kiss Makoto gasped for air.  His free
hand cupped her cheek and he ran his soft, skilled lips down her cheek to
nibble gently at the soft flesh near her ear.
     "I deserve to have you not believe my words," he whispered,
making her shudder as soft sibilants trickled into her body.  "But did that
kiss lie to you?"
     "What are you doing to me?" she breathed, wanting this but not
daring to hope that now, finally, he would choose to come to her.
     "I want to prove to you that I mean what I say, Makoto.  We've
both been through so much."  He kissed his way down her neck, and she
arched her back, a small animal sound catching in her throat.  "Just give
me a chance to show you."
     Her doubts were drowned in a tide of supple heat.  It wasn't fair,
of course; there was no way she could deny him while his mouth ravished
her throat, while her body was pinned under his.  But fair had its place,
and the heat of passion was certainly not it.  Twining the fingers of her
left hand with Yoshi's where it lay pinned to the bed, she reached up with
her right, plunging it into his hair and luxuriating in the softness of it.  He
moved over her, breath coming fast and hot, and she felt his hardness
pressing against the softness of her inner thigh.
     Darkness hung over them, the stormclouds of vampiric madness
and the twisted skeins Sisterhood scheming, but none of that could touch
her now.  Yoshi kissed his way up along her jawline to her face, then to
her mouth again, nipping playfully, not letting her fasten her lips to his.
     "Kiss me," she demanded, her whisper hoarse with need.
     "You'd be surprised how long I've been wanting to do just that,"
he replied, hunger roiling deep within his gorgeous gray eyes.  He arched
his hips, coming against her heat and smiling wolfishly at her gasp.  She
tightened her grip on his hair, slowly pulling his face nearer to hers.  His
chest was hard against her breasts, and she writhed impatiently, biting her
bottom lip as his mouth inched towards hers with agonizing reluctance.
     "Stop playing hard to get," she growled.
     "Patience," he grinned in return.  "I'm worth the wait."
     Makoto's nostrils flared, scenting him, and heat blossomed low in
her belly as she craned her neck up to claim her prize.
     And then the door opened, and Usagi popped her head in.
     "Mako-chan!" she called softly.  "Get up, Ami's ..."
     Makoto and Yoshi froze.  Out of the corner of her eye, Makoto
saw Usagi do the same.
     "Oh, shitburgers," the princess said primly.

***

     I woke up hunched over, blankets twisted around my legs and a
nightmare's fangs buried deep in my heart.  I hadn't screamed, though.
I'd screamed a lot, back in the early days.  Now the screams rarely made
it out of my mouth.
     Progress, of a sort.  Not waking in a cold sweat, trembling and
terrified, that would have been better, but some days I guess you just
make do.
     My blood pounded in my ears in time with my racing heart and
my panting breath.  That wasn't enough to block it out, though.  No, not
nearly enough.  See, it's worst when it's too quiet.  In the dark hours of
the night, when nothing's moving, when the whole world seems to be
asleep, that's when I can hear them.
     The voices.
     I guess they're not really voices.  Hell, they're not really REAL,
as far as that goes.  But in the still and the dark and the horrible, horrible
quiet, I hear them clearest, real or not.
     They rise up out of the abyss.  Yeah, that black old thing.  Memories
breed ghosts, and the abyss, that's where they live.  A part of me went
there on a day a million years ago, the last day of my life in the sun.
That part has never come back from it.  It lives there too, right on the
brink, as if it can't decide between leaving that treacherous edge behind
or just letting go and falling in.
     Out there on the abyss, maybe you can see forever on a clear day.
I don't know.  I've never looked.  I do know something, though.  When
it's quiet, you can hear the voices.  They're all the people you failed, all
the people you couldn't save.  All the people you loved and lost.
     And they're screaming.
     I can't take the quiet.  I need noise, action, something to drown it
all out.  To make it so I can't hear them.
     It's worst when it's too quiet.
     I pulled myself from the sweat-dampened mattress.  I wouldn't be
getting any more sleep, that much I knew from experience.  So I stood,
peeled off my tank top, and did some simple stretching exercises.  Then I
flowed into a few katas, trying to wash the sour tang of nightmare from
the inside of my head.
     Didn't work too well, as it turned out.  I had trouble
concentrating, my rhythm was off.  It felt like I had sand in my gears.
The rising sun bled bright crimson across the low clouds outside my
window, and I gave up on the katas and stared out at it.
     "Gonna be a storm tonight, young feller," I whispered, shivering for
no reason I could name.
     The knock at the door was light, but it still startled the hell out of
me.  The door opened and Minako stuck her head in.  She looked
indecently good, or maybe just indecent, her long hair tousled and her
eyes bright despite the hour.  I was willing to bet she hadn't woken up
alone and in the grip of night terrors.
     Maybe if you didn't sleep alone, a traitorous little voice mocked,
and I clamped down on it quickly.
     "Hey," she said, eyeing me up and down.  "Beefcake.  I
approve."
     "What?  Oh," I muttered, looking down.  I quickly grabbed my
shirt and slipped it on, enduring a heartfelt raspberry from Minako.
"What's up?"
     "The girl genius strikes," she announced.  "Come on, Ami's got
something to show us."
     Action.  My heart sped up, this time in simple anticipation, and
those haunting screams faded away.  This was what I needed.  This is
what I was built for.
     Action.
     I followed her through the house to a study that was on the
opposite side from my room.  Most everybody was already there, by the
look of things, and the fact that they were fresh out of bed, and dressed
accordingly, didn't help my blood pressure any.  Minako slipped in next
to me, her unbound hair brushing against my bare leg and arm.  I didn't
have to wonder if it was accidental.  I knew her well enough by now to
understand that if there was an opportunity, no matter what the
circumstance, I could expect her to be flirting.
     But I sneaked a glance at her profile, and my heart raced even
faster.  My talk with Rei the night before came back to me full force, all
the confusion and guilt and longing crowding to the front of my brain.
Minako caught me watching her and winked, striking a provocative pose,
and I looked away quickly, blushing so hard it was a wonder I didn't
haemorrhage or something.
     I couldn't deal with this now, either.  Complicated was bad.  I needed
something simple, clear cut.  Something to hit would be nice.
     Usagi and Makoto slipped into the room, accounting for
everybody except Rei's girls, who were apparently still recuperating, and
Yoshi, who probably had the same excuse.  Makoto was dressed much
like me, only she was wearing a dark green thong instead of shorts.
Usagi, who looked pretty demure next to her friend in a sheer silk robe,
was apologizing repeatedly for something, and Makoto was shaking her
head ruefully.
     "Now that we are all here," Hotaru declared with barely
concealed impatience, "perhaps we can hear the details of what Ami has
discovered?"
     "Rei and I actually figured it out," Ami said quickly, then
glanced over at Rei and blushed a deep, hot pink.  Why that was
embarrassing I couldn't say, but Hotaru didn't seem interested in who
got credit.  Of everyone present, only she looked like she had just stepped
into a mid-afternoon conference instead of a brutally early meeting.  Her
clothes and hair were perfect; Mamoru was also dressed, but his clothes
were rumpled and limp, as though he might have taken a nap in them.
     I watched Usagi go over to him and wrap her arms around his
waist from behind, leaning her cheek against his shoulder.  That simple
act was so casually intimate, yet it made my mouth go dry.  What would
it be like to have the privilege of touching someone that way, just
because you wanted to?
     Again Rei's words came to me, and I had to stop myself from
getting drawn into thoughts of relationships and such.  Damn it, I really
hoped Ami had found something for us to fight.
     "There was some really strange information on the discs," Ami
was saying.  "A ship's manifest, for instance.  And a schematic of sewer
and storm drainage tunnels close to the temple district ..."
     "We should check out those video files," Rei cut in gently.
"There are two, right?  They may explain how it all ties together."
     "The Sultana gloating?" Minako muttered.
     "Funny," Rei replied, "but hardly worth all this security.  Believe me,
there was no chance anyone but Ami was going to break this encryption.
Ami?"
     "Here we go," Ami said.  She pushed back so we could all see the
screen.  It was tight, but we crowded around as best we could.  I was less
than totally shocked when Minako took advantage of the situation to
press back against me.  I shifted, wishing fervently that I'd worn
something other than loose shorts.
     The screen went black, then some vague detail leapt into view.
The shot shook, spun, then steadied.  It had been shot at night and from
someplace high up, a rooftop or a window maybe.  I found myself
looking at a row of dark, grungy warehouses along a dock, everything
faintly hazy through a thin layer of tattered fog.  There was one boat tied
up down near the end of the dock, activity visible in the sickly yellow
pool of light thrown down by the battered lamps that hung despondently
above the dark wooden planks.
     It struck me that whoever was shooting the video had picked a
pretty good spot for it.  The buildings sheltered the boat and the dock
from view on one side, some sort of huge rusting hulk looming high on
the other.  From the look of it, you'd have been hard pressed to see what
was going on unless you were right on top of the action.
     "This looks like it might have been taken at the old shipping
yards down by Marlien's Cove," Mamoru said.  "Ideal for a ship that size.
The place is a maze, plenty of privacy."
     "And a haven for smugglers," Hotaru pointed out darkly.
     The shot zoomed in smoothly, getting closer to the action, and I
could see a name painted on the rust-streaked metal of the ship's stern.
Dreakin's Fog.  Meant nothing to me, and nobody else got excited about
it, either.
     There was a big black truck parked near the bottom of the
gangway that had been lowered to the dock.  A group of men were
loading it up with boxes and barrels as a couple of women in dark suits
looked on.  Nothing especially enlightening as far as I could see.  I mean,
sure, off-loading a ship in the middle of the night was probably
suspicious, but why take a video and stick it in a safe?
     "Dreakin's Fog is the ship listed on the manifest," Ami
murmured as we watched.  "Ran up from Manalac about a month ago,
with a cargo of exotic materials, mostly drugs."
     "Manalac is another smuggler's haven," Mamoru said.  "Right on the
border with Errith.  And everyone knows Tyria runs the Council of the
Islands, so they operate with impunity in the area.  And all up and down
the coast."
     "Makes sense," Rei added.  "Those drugs on the manifest are very
hard to procure.  Most of the plants only grow in the depths of Errith, and
expeditions into the jungle tend not to come out again."
     "That's not what stinks, though," Mamoru grunted, rubbing his
chin wearily.  "I mean, who in the hells files a shipping plan and manifest
when they're smuggling illegal exotic plants and drugs?"
     "If we assume that the ship was the Sultana's," Setsuna
murmured, crowding me from the far side and spiking my blood pressure
again, "then she could have made up the manifest herself, just for this
very purpose.  The people pulling the strings would have records to keep
track of their operations, I would think.  And the theory is that she was
setting up the Sisterhood, so the official manifest would be a fake, but
this one represents the real cargo."
     "Wait, here we go," Luna broke in.  A dark, expensive-looking
car was driving down the dock now, and the shot zoomed in even tighter
as it came to a stop behind the truck.  The driver's door opened and a
woman emerged, dressed in a dark suit of severe cut that did nothing to
hide her curves.  Short dark hair framed a face that wouldn't have been
out of place on a supermodel, all full lips, high cheekbones, and sultry
eyes.
     Sisterhood.  Definitely.
     "Mirra Jenndin," Rei said softly, gaze rivetted to the screen.
"The Nightmistress's right hand."  I saw Haruka and Michiru exchange a
glance at that.  Apparently, Rei was going to have to show off her
knowledge of the Sisterhood.  I hoped that wasn't going to lead to more
unpleasantness.
     Mirra opened the back door of the luxury ride, quite the dutiful
chauffeur, and a woman emerged.  Even though this was just a slightly
shaky video shot from a distance, I felt my mouth go dry at the way
Saekianna moved, giving Mirra an imperious nod and moving to the
front of the car.  There was no doubt that she was the woman in charge.
     "The Nightmistress," Mamoru said, frowning.  "And her number
one priestess?  That seems a bit risky for a bit of late night smuggling.
Those other women are Sisters too, aren't they?"
     "Yes," Rei said.  She hid her anxiety well, but I could feel the
rigid tension she was giving off.  It ruined her usual grace; apparently,
she was finding this difficult and unpleasant.  I didn't blame her.
     "So why haul out the big guns?" he pressed.  "Was there
something on that ship that was so important that she had to pick it up
personally?"
     "Check this out," Haruka said.  A woman had appeared at the top
of the gangway, tall with short, pale hair and dressed in pants, a blouse,
and a fur-trimmed coat.  Despite her height most of the men dwarfed her,
but the deferential way they cleared a path for her told me she was in
charge.  The captain, maybe.
     Behind her were two more big bruisers, dressed like the others.
What was really interesting, though, was the small, cloaked figure
between them.  The captain started down the ramp, and the bruisers
grabbed the smaller figure, roughly forcing it to follow suit.  Not a guest,
then.
     They reached the bottom, the captain and Saekianna nodding to
each other carefully.  When the cloaked figure caught sight of Saekianna
and Mirra it stopped suddenly, and the bruisers jerked it forward so
roughly that the hood fell back, revealing a woman in her late thirties
with short blonde hair and striking features.
     The captain turned to yell at them as the woman struggled wildly,
manacled hands emerging from under the cloak.  Saekianna merely
smiled wolfishly and strode forward, taking the woman's face between
her hands and forcing her into a kiss.  The smaller woman's struggles
began to subside almost immediately, and within seconds she'd slumped
into the Nightmistress's embrace.  Saekianna scooped the limp woman
up, traded a few sharp words with the captain, and then Mirra was
holding the door while her Nightmistress loaded the spellbound prisoner
into the car.  The camera lingered as the car left, then the picture went
dark again.
     "So," Hotaru said.  "A prisoner, so important that the
Nightmistress felt it necessary to claim her in person.  A slave?  That
hardly seems likely."
     "I think I know who she was," Mamoru said quietly.  Everyone
turned to look at him, including Usagi, who gazed up, puzzled.
     "You do?" she asked.
     "And so do you, Usako," he told her gently.  "Remember our talk
with Tyla?"
     Usagi frowned.  "You mean about the Sisterhood sabotaging a
meeting between Alieva's people and ... oh.  Oh, crap.  They didn't."
     "Would you two care to clue us in?" Michiru asked as Usagi's
eyes widened.  "What exactly have you figured out?"
     "My friend in the temple, Tyla, she was telling us about some of
the things the Sisterhood has done recently," Usagi began.  Her eyes
flicked to Rei momentarily, almost guiltily I thought.  "She was sure that
the Sisterhood was behind the disappearance of a head priestess from a
new temple in Errith."
     "A high priestess of Alieva," Makoto breathed.  "Yeah, that
would get Her Skankitude out in the middle of the night."
     While we talked, Ami had been typing away madly.  Things were
popping up on the screen, and an image from the video we'd just seen
appeared in a window.  It was the female captive, and when another
window appeared beside it, the same face appeared, although smiling and
relaxed.  It seemed that the Sisterhood hadn't cornered the market on
beautiful priestesses; this one was quite attractive, too.
     "Brenn Saksistra," Ami informed us, reading from what looked like a
newspaper article.  "Went missing in Killiantrasti just before taking over
the new temple there, just over three months ago.  Authorities have no
leads."
     "But what do they need her for?" I asked.
     "What else?" Makoto said, her green eyes narrowed with anger.
"For this ceremony they've got planned.  They're going to sacrifice a
high priestess of their enemy.  Aren't they?"  This last was directed at
Rei, who stood frozen in place.
     "Necromancy is dangerous, the darkest of magicks," she said
softly, shaking her head as if that would make it not so.  "It was never
our way to stoop to such depths."
     "They did plenty of terrible things when that Griitna woman was
in charge, though," Minako said, her tone gentle as she watched her
friend.  "To revive their goddess, can we really believe they wouldn't do
anything, no matter how desperate?"  She seemed to have ignored that
"our way" bit.
     "I don't know."  That admission seemed to hurt Rei.
     "If they are being manipulated by this vampire, I can easily
believe that a human sacrifice would be on the agenda," Hotaru said
flatly.  "But none of this helps us find them."
     "There's a second video file here," Ami pointed out.
     "Great," Minako muttered as Ami started the show.  "Maybe it'll
be a map to the Sisterhood's hide-out."
     The video was short, taken from inside a moving vehicle.  It
showed a street, a high wall, and then a drive guarded by a large, ornate
gate.  The gate was opening, a familiar dark luxury car waiting to exit.
     "Holy crap," Minako blurted.  "It is a map to their hideout!"
     "That address," Haruka said.  "11479.  And on an expensive
street.  Now if we can only ..."
     She trailed off as the vehicle carrying the hidden camera stopped
at an intersection.  The shot panned up, lingering on the street sign there.
     "How very tidy," Michiru said.  "11479 Regal Heights."
     "I guess the Sultana wanted to make it easy for Alieva's people
to find the Sisterhood," I shrugged.
     "Instead, she's made it easy for us."  Hotaru smiled.  It was not a
pleasant expression.  "Let's not waste any more time."

***

     Saekianna stood naked before the full-length windows.  Dawn
had broken to reveal a sky like an old bruise, roiling clouds filling the
horizon.  There would be a storm, a fierce one of she was any judge, and
that sooner rather than later.
     Well, good.  Let the heavens vent their fury on the night when the
Dark Lady's bondage was at last ended.  The pale beauty threw the
balcony doors wide and spread her arms to the sky, trembling with
excitement as the chill morning air rushed in, caressing every inch of her
flawless, naked form.  Her long, unbound hair billowed out like a cloak
and she smiled, breathing deeply, savouring the air as if it was the finest
wine ever made.
     Finally.  Baniesti was upon them, and with it, redemption.  The
Sisterhood would finally be once again what it had been created to be,
and the taint of all the old betrayals would be washed away.
     Rei, Saekianna thought, the smile wrenched from her lips by grief
and anger.  Why couldn't you have believed in me?  She will come back
to us, and you will be punished.  We could have greeted Her together,
like we always dreamed.  But you chose that White Moon girl.  You ...
     Her fists clenched, spasming with the force she exerted, but
Saekianna brought herself under control.  She was Nightmistress, and she
needed to be strong.  There was no room in her for recriminations, for
futile longing after what might have been.
     A knock at her door tore her from her reverie.  Saekianna turned
from the window, displeasure darkening her features.  Only a handful of
her people remained in the mansion, and none of them would dare disturb
her morning meditations without dire need.
     "Come," she commanded, and the door opened to reveal Yurina,
still in her filmy bedclothes.
     "Nightmistress," the Black Rose murmured, bowing.  "I regret
..."
     "Tell me."  Saekianna cursed herself silently as soon as the words
left her mouth.  She had allowed her inner turmoil to rob her of the quiet
elegance she cultivated in herself and demanded of others.  Still, rank did
have its privileges, and Yurina made no remark upon the lapse.
     She did notice it, though.  Of that, Saekianna had no doubt.
     "Sister Mirra has just reported in," Yurina told her, dark eyes
betraying nothing.  "Vanka der Gris has been hospitalised.  Her estate
was attacked in the night."
     Saekianna let those words sink in for a moment.  Then she strode
over to the ornate wardrobe that dominated on corner of the luxurious
bedchamber, opening the doors and beginning to dress.
     "What do we know?" she asked as she slipped on a luxurious blouse
of the finest Tyrian silk.
     "Very little," Yurina confessed.  "According to our sources, there
was widespread destruction within the main house.  There were many
casualties, including Garo and the Sultana's pet torturer."
     "Arj?"  Saekianna froze for a moment.  "Arj is dead?"
     "Indeed.  Killing him was certainly no mean feat.  His reputation was
well earned.  The guard force were also torn through as though they were
nothing."
     "The slaves?"
     "Escaped."
     Bad.  The pretty cat-slaves had seen her and her people at the
estate many times.  Vanka had not intended to ever set them loose; when
she bored of them, they would have been smuggled into Tyria.  Nothing
crucial had been discussed where they could hear, but this was still a
distressing development.
     "There's more," Yurina continued.  "The police entered the
estate after receiving reports of fighting and explosions.  They found Gan
guns, slaver equipment, and other ... shall we say, problematic materials."
     "Let the ambassador deal with legal issues," Saekianna said
flatly, buttoning her blouse and then sitting to pull on her boots.
Ordinarily she would have had a maiden on hand to act as a body
servant, but most of them, along with the bulk of the Sisters, were already
at the site, making certain preparations were all in order.  "Vanka?"
     "In a coma," Yurina informed her.  "Doctors are uncertain as to
why, since her physical injuries are not extensive.  There was a safe in the
office where she was found which had been opened and apparently
ransacked."  Yurina moved to the bed and knelt gracefully, her
manicured fingers lingering on the polished leather of Saekianna's boots
before holding them out.  Saekianna allowed the girl to assist her,
thoughts still racing.
     "I do not like coincidence, Yurina," Saekianna breathed.  "No,
not at all.  We needed her to secure the priestess and certain raw
materials, and now the only person outside the Sisterhood who has any
knowledge of our plans is attacked?  The timing is suspect."
     "The White Moon girls?  Could they have somehow linked us to
the Sultana?"
     "Rei may have deduced that we would need someone with
resources if our plans were to be carried out on any significant scale,"
Saekianna said grudgingly.  "Still, even if they made Vanka talk, she
does not know our true intentions."
     "And the safe?" Yurina asked, cupping her hands around the
second boot and sliding it on.
     "Vanka knows better than to keep anything incriminating,"
Saekianna said with certainty.  "And she only knew as much as she
needed to.  Even under the most rigorous interrogation, she could not
reveal what she does not know.  Still, I want the perimeter secured as a
precaution."
     "Sister Meredith is monitoring the situation closely," Yurina
murmured as Saekianna stood.  "Sister Jacyinthe is rounding up Bella,
Sarah, and Kisa.  We can be ready to go at a moment's notice."
     "Then dress yourself," Saekianna commanded.  "I will have
Meredith contact Itandra and Jules and have them meet us at the site
instead of here ..."
     A frantic knocking came at the door, and Saekianna's long, leggy
strides carried her there in a flash.
     "Nightmistress!" the petite blonde in the maid's uniform gasped.
"I ... Sister Meredith!"
     "Calm yourself, Sarah."  Yurina's rebuke was quiet but cutting,
and the Maiden clasped her hands over her full breasts, trembling.
     "I'm sorry, Nightmistress, but Sister Meredith says ... they're
coming!  The sailor girls, they'll be here in minutes!"
     Saekianna felt her blood run cold.  How?  How could those girls have
found her?  And why must their long-awaited victory face such obstacles
at every turn?
     Victory was slipping from her grasp like quicksilver, and only
immediate action could salvage their victory now.

***

     I had to hand it to the girls.  They worked well together.  They
sussed out the mansion's defences, came up with a plan, and
implemented it, all in less than a minute.  They hit the house from every
side simultaneously, tearing through the place like a small army.  Okay,
a small, gorgeous army in short, pleated skirts.
     They could have been a big army in gorilla suits for all the
difference it made.  Nobody was home.
     "You're certain?" Saturn asked again.  Of course she's certain, I
wanted to say.  She already told you twice.  How much more certain
would you like her to be?  But antagonising Saturn was probably not the
best idea ever, so I stayed quiet.
     "I've scanned everywhere," Mercury told her, sounding a little
plaintive.  "The basement was the only area that was shielded."
     "Some very interesting toys and whatnot down there," Uranus
sighed.  "But no people."
     "There are unmade beds in a couple of the rooms," Venus
pointed out, strolling into the posh main hall.  I had a feeling that she was
wearing her senshi uniform because Saturn was here.  Looked like I
wasn't the only one who didn't want to irritate the Ice Queen.
     "Perishables in the fridge," Jupiter added.  "Fresh produce, meat even.
 Stuff that doesn't keep long.  I'd say they expect to be back."
     "But when?" Sailor Moon asked.  "We can't just wait for them to
come home.  What if they don't show up until tomorrow?"
     "I don't think they left by car," Tuxedo Mask informed us,
appearing behind the princess.  "There are three cars in the garage,
including the one we saw in the video."
     "But they have gone," Saturn said flatly.  "That is what matters.
Our best lead, useless."
     "If I'd broken the code earlier ..." Mercury began, shoulders
hunched contritely.
     "You stayed up all night," Mars broke in, putting her hand on the
other girl's shoulder.  "And if it was anyone else, the disc would still be
encrypted."
     "Mars is right," the princess told her, giving the stricken girl a bright
smile.  "Everyone did what they could.  Come on, there could be a clue
here somewhere.  We should tear this place apart until we find it."
     "Time is wasting," Saturn said dismissively.  "These women are
too careful to leave anything useful behind.  We should pursue other
avenues."
     "We don't have any other avenues," Venus argued.  "Sailor
Moon's idea is the best we've got."
     It looked like Saturn was about to argue, but she stopped, took a
breath, and nodded.
     "Very well," she said, only a little grudgingly.  "As it happens, I
received a message from one of my sources shortly before Ami's
breakthrough.  I am going to have him meet with me.  His resources are
quite impressive, so that meeting may well produce a viable lead.  In the
meantime, you search the house for any clue, no matter how insignificant
it may seem."
     "Time is short," Uranus said.  "There are a couple of leads
Neptune and I can check, things that came out of those police files."
     "They're thin, but better than nothing," Neptune said with a
small shrug.
     "No effort is a waste at this point," Saturn said briskly.
"Everyone keep in regular contact.  We must be ready to mobilise at a
moment's notice."
     Nodding to the princess, Saturn turned and walked out.  Neptune
and Uranus had started for the door when Pluto announced to them, "I'll
come with you."
     "That's not necessary," Uranus assured her.
     "I think it may be," Pluto told her.  Uranus and Neptune
exchanged a look, then the tall blonde shrugged.
     "All right," she said.  "Let's go."
     "Princess," Pluto said.  "Good luck.  And let us know if you need
help."
     "No problem," Moon beamed as they left.
     "No problem, she says," Venus muttered.  "You realise they just
stuck us with clean-up, search-for-clues-that-probably-aren't-here duty?"
     "Where do you think they're going?" the princess asked, staring after
the departed senshi.  "Maybe we should go with them."
     "No, your idea was good, Princess," Mars assured her.  "If
there's a chance to find out where the Sisterhood went, we have to take
it."
     "There are spaces for three cars in the garage," Tuxedo Mask told
us.  "And they're all full.  Like I said, they probably didn't leave by car.
So how did they leave?"
     "You said the car from the video was in there," Mars said.
"What else?"
     "A black van and a black Scorpion," he told her.
     "Scorpion, huh?  That's Sass's style, all right."
     "So you think she was here?" Mercury asked.
     "After leaving her mother's place, she had to go somewhere,"
Mars nodded slowly.  "If they were keeping the priestess here, then this
place was secure."
     "There's an electronic security system," Venus said.  "A fairly
good one.  But it's not turned on."
     "So they left in a hurry.  Could they have known we were
coming?" Tux asked.
     "No cameras," Venus shrugged.
     "That you saw," he countered.
     "I'd know," she told him with that hell-raising grin.  It was
disturbing, just how much I liked seeing that grin.
     "If they left in a hurry, then maybe we can find something,"
Sailor Moon pointed out.
     "You know, something about this just feels wrong," Jupiter said.
"I mean, if they were keeping the priestess here, why isn't there more
security?  Or booby traps?  The place is a little too, I don't know,
normal.  I expected to be dodging death traps or something."
     "They'd want to keep a low profile," Mars told us.  "That's
probably why they avoided mystical shielding on the upper floors.  That
might draw the wrong kind of attention."
     "Really rich people sometimes use that kind of thing," Moon objected.
     "Yeah, it's a sure sign they've got something to hide," Venus
smirked.  "They get robbed first."
     "Oh," Moon said, then grinned.  "Oh!  I get it!  You ..."
     "So they shielded the basement, where they kept the nasty stuff,"
I pointed out.  "But if the police or a robber or anyone came in here,
wouldn't that just make them curious?"
     "Let's divide the house between us," Tuxedo Mask said as
everyone just shrugged.  "It'll go faster that way.  But we should search
in teams, in case the Sisterhood did leave us some nasty surprises."
     "Great idea," a voice came from behind us.  "You're lucky the rich
value their privacy, though.  Otherwise some nosy neighbour might
notice all the doors you kicked in."
     "Yoshi!" Jupiter blurted.  "What ... how?  You ...!"
     "Speechless, huh?" the werewolf grinned.  He ambled into the
room, and I watched him warily.  He'd gotten behind me and I hadn't
been aware of him until the last second.  I'd have to keep an eye on this
guy.
     "You're supposed to be in bed!" Jupiter scowled, apparently
having decided between anger and shock.
     "And Luna was supposed to be keeping an eye on you," Venus added.
     "I pretended to be asleep, and when Artemis got back, they decided to
keep an eye on each other," Yoshi shrugged.  "I slipped out.  I do
stealthy, you know."
     "And you followed us?" Mercury asked.
     "Didn't have to," he told her, grinning again.  "Wolves got good ears.
11479 Regal Heights.  Piece of cake."
     "But you came for nothing," Tux told him.  "Nobody's here."
     "But they were," he said, breathing deeply.  "Recently.  Very
recently.  Fresh scents, five or six.  That woman from the alley, the
Tyrian, was one.  And ... Lily."  He looked at Jupiter when he said that,
his pale eyes darkening.  Something passed between them, and she
looked away first.
     "Wait a minute," the princess exclaimed.  "Yoshi, can you track
them?"
     "Maybe," the lanky werewolf told her.  "Not if they got into a
car, but ... I can see if there are any places in the house where the scents
are strongest.  Places they spent a lot of time, maybe.  I'm telling you,
guys, there were people here within the last thirty minutes.  Maybe less."
     "Then we've got a chance!" Venus beamed.
     "Better than nothing," I agreed.  "So, uh, anything smell
suspicious?"
     "Sorry, champ.  For the detail work, I should get changed."  So
saying, he stripped off his t-shirt, tossing it to Jupiter, then pulled off his
boots.  Then, without the slightest sign of self-consciousness, he undid his
belt and slid his worn blue jeans down his legs, stepping out of them
easily and kicking them across the floor.
     "Hang onto those for me, would you?" he asked Jupiter
innocently, handing her his dusty black boots.  He wouldn't need her to
hold his underwear; he wasn't wearing any.  He just stood there for a
moment, buck naked.  The girls seemed to be enjoying the show well
enough.  Mercury blushed but managed to keep sneaking looks.  Even
Tux let his gaze linger.
     I just couldn't conceive of being able to strip in front of a room
full of people like it was nothing.  I turned away, embarrassed, only to
see Venus watching Yoshi closely.  Jealousy cut through the
embarrassment pretty quickly, and I found something else to look at.
Sure, I had no right to be jealous.  So what?  Jealousy isn't logical.  It
wasn't just that she was looking.  It was that she enjoyed the show.  I
thought about Rei's words again.  Could I ever share someone's heart?
     "Are you sure it'll be okay?" Jupiter asked as Yoshi shrugged his
shoulders.  I turned back and noticed the pink scar on his shoulder where
the bullet wound hadn't healed yet.  Would that hurt when he changed?  I
really didn't know.  Werewolves were kind of new to me.
     "Just don't crowd me," he told her easily.  "Full moon tonight,
makes the beast a little unruly."
     Then it started.  His skin bulged and rippled like there was
something moving underneath it, and things began to pop and shift
noisily.  Hair grew on his bare skin, lengthening as his spine bowed.  He
shook his head, falling to all fours, and Jupiter cried out as his injured
arm went out from under him on the polished floor.  Venus grabbed her
as she started forward, shaking her head and holding the taller girl back.
     The change happened fast, probably not more than ten seconds all
told.  When it was over, a huge gray wolf scrambled to its feet before us,
shaking its head and making a small sound, halfway between a sneeze
and a bark.
     "Okay," Moon declared, rubbing her hands together.  "Where do
you want to start, Yoshi?"  The wolf cocked its head and looked at her,
ears swivelling.  Only the eyes were the same, pale gray and too smart for
an animal.
     "He can't talk, doofus," Venus chided her.
     "Oh, yeah," the princess said sheepishly, scratching her head.
"Sorry."
     Yoshi put his nose to the floor and started moving in circles.
Then he was off, and for the next few minutes we followed him around
the house.  He went upstairs to a couple of bedrooms, including what was
clearly the master bedroom.  His path kept crisscrossing, his nails
clicking on the polished wood floors.
     "Why does he keep going back and forth like this?" I asked.
     "People lived here," Jupiter replied over her shoulder.  "They
would have moved back and forth a lot."
     "Fortunately, they probably weren't active at night," Mercury
added.  "This morning's trails should be fresher."
     "Can he tell the difference?" I wondered.
     "Between a fresh trail and one hours old?  You betcha," Jupiter
grinned.  She sounded proud.  Hell, maybe she was.  It was a pretty neat
trick.
     And useful.  Eventually, Yoshi led us to the basement door, then sat
on his haunches and looked at us.
     "They went down?" Mars asked, frowning.  "But we searched the
basement.  It's empty, and there are no other exits."
     Yoshi didn't move.
     "And Mercury scanned it," Venus added.  "It's a dead end."
     Yoshi licked his chops and looked bored.
     "Oh, all right," Jupiter sighed.  Shifting his boots to her left hand,
she used her right to open the door.  In a flash, Yoshi was down the stairs.
We traded looks between ourselves, but followed.
     The basement was broken up into three main sections divided by
hallways.  Yoshi darted down one of the carpeted corridors, showing no
hesitation now, and we followed.  The hallway we were in turned
partway down, and we lost sight of the big wolf.  The way we were
strung out through the hall made us vulnerable to ambush; even though
Mercury had declared the place safe, that didn't mean that I was going to
relax.  Hell, this was the Sisterhood.  There could be booby-traps.  Damn
it, there almost HAD to be booby-traps.  They wouldn't make it easy on
us.
     I passed a door that led into one of the other parts of the
basement.  It had been left open, and I could see rooms beyond the door,
a bed, and a wall with things hanging from it.  Things with chains and
clamps and collars and studs and I frankly really didn't want to speculate
on what it was all for.  Some things I was probably better off not
knowing.
     Yoshi stopped in front of a plain wooden door near the end of the
hall, picking one of his forelegs up and pointing his nose at it like a
hunting dog.
     "Very funny, wiseass," Jupiter snorted.  She didn't sound upset,
though.  Yoshi made room for Mars and Mercury, who examined the
door together.  We were in close quarters, and the two senshi had to
crowd together to work.  I thought Mercury was blushing a little, but that
was probably just my imagination.  Venus would have made her blush,
but Mars, she was all business.
     "There are no mystic defences that I can detect," Mars
announced.
     "Neptune and Uranus told me they checked each room visually,
on top of my scans," Mercury told us, sounding a little exasperated.
"They didn't find anything."
     Everybody looked at Yoshi, who predictably said nothing.
Wolves have good poker faces.  Who knew?
     Not me.  Mine's lousy.  I did know, though, that Saturn and the
others got to do something useful while we ended up standing around in a
basement.  It was a nicely finished basement, but it was still a basement.
     "So, we going in or what?" I asked.
     We went in.  Once again, the senshi used teamwork, covering
each other as they stormed the room.  Oddly, the old furnace that was
the room's sole occupant didn't put up a fight.
     This room lacked the pretty facade of the rest of the lower level.
It was in one corner of the basement, so two of the walls were bare,
showing the stone foundation.  The other two were unfinished drywall,
and the floor was bare concrete.  There was a set of shelves against one of
the inner walls that held totally mundane things like an old can of yellow
paint, a broken hose, a box of light bulbs and some rusty tools.  The
battered, ancient-looking furnace watched us impassively, squatting in
the corner like a tired sentinel.
     And Yoshi went right over to it, his nose to the floor.  Then he sat
and looked at us.
     "Riiiiight," Venus nodded.  "They're hiding.  In the
FURNACE."
     "That thing's gotta be a hundred years old," Moon added.
     "And it's not even working," Tux said.  "Look, the old vents are
cut off near the walls.  Someone upgraded the furnace at some point and
just left the old one down here."
     "Yoshi," Jupiter said.  She still didn't sound angry, just confused.
Yoshi reached out his furry paw and planted it against the side of the
furnace, giving us that gray-eyed wolfy stare.
     "Oh, come ON," Venus muttered.  "No offense, pal, but you
might be able to hide two people at most in that monster, and that if they
were very friendly.  But how would they get in?  That little fuel hatch is
too small, and it looks rusted shut.  Anyway, Mercury would know."
     "It's just a furnace," Mercury said apologetically, her eyes wide
behind her blue-tinted visor.  "Tuxedo Mask is right, it hasn't been used
in a long time."
     Yoshi turned his gaze to Jupiter.  Asking for forgiveness?  Or just
wondering if she would stick up for him?
     Then the hair on my arms started to stand up, and I had my
answer.
     "Everybody out," Jupiter said.
     "Whoa, hold on ..." Venus began.
     "Screw that," Jupiter snapped.  "Everybody out, NOW."
     The air thickened with power, and we got out.  Fast.  I wondered if
Sailor Moon would order her to stop, but she didn't seem inclined, and I
was pretty sure Jupiter wasn't going to listen to anyone else.
     "Let her get it out of her system," Venus sighed softly as she
squeezed by me, managing to get most of her body pressed against mine
in the process.  Then we heard the shout.
     "FIRE IN THE HOLE!"

***

     Saekianna paused, cocking her head.  It was hard to tell over the
cacophony of rushing water, but it seemed to her that she'd heard a faint
sound, echoing through the tunnels.  The sultry woman shook her head
and continued on through the wide subterranean passage, leading her
small band past the noisy drain tunnels.  The din had subsided to almost
nothing when Meredith called them to a halt.
     "They have reached the tunnel, Nightmistress," the Sister informed
her.  Even the dim, yellowed light of this dank place looked gorgeous
where it picked out red-gold highlights in the priestess's thick straight
hair.
     "Impossible," Jacyinthe declared, but her eyes were wide.  "The
entrance was masked thoroughly.  There was no clue left behind ..."
     "Enough," Saekianna commanded.  Three Sisters, plus Yurina
and three Maidens.  Not good odds in a fight.  Right now, she needed
information.  "Meredith, what do you see?"
     "Jacyinthe?"  Meredith held out her hand, her gold-tinged eyes
losing focus as her comrade grasped the proffered hand.  The two Sisters
stood still for a moment, and Yurina took advantage of the pause to slip
closer to Saekianna.  The Black Rose was dressed in a dark robe which
had been thrown over her negligee; she truly looked like an exotic
blossom in this dingy place.
     Meredith's skills had warned them of the enemy's approach.
Now Jacyinthe showed them all what Meredith saw.  An image appeared
in the air, ghostly but clear, from a viewpoint close to the ground.  Sarah
gasped and Kisa grabbed Bella's hand as the image showed them five of
the hated sailor girls, including the princess herself and the traitor.  Also
present was Tuxedo Mask and a rangy, dark-haired boy with dangerous
eyes.  Saekianna recognised him at once; he had stolen V from her at the
moment of her victory, then interfered again when she'd had the wolf at
her mercy.  Yes, she owed that one a long, exquisite punishment.
     But it was the last member of the group that shed light upon their
predicament.  A gray-eyed blonde stood before the group, head raised,
gazing up and down the narrow walkway that extended from the bottom
of the access shaft.
     "Yoshi," Yurina murmured.  "He is tracking us by scent."
     "That is new," Jacyinthe frowned.  "There was no mention in our
intelligence of these girls using shifters."
     "Indeed," Saekianna replied, sparing only a brief glance for
Yurina.  "That could explain how they found the entrance to the
tunnels."
     "What shall we do, Nightmistress?" Sarah asked, fear robbing
her of the supple, pleasing grace that had been painstakingly ingrained
into her.
     "An ambush," Meredith offered.  "My magick gives us a tactical
advantage."
     "Respectfully," Yurina said, opening her fan with a practised
flourish, "direct conflict does not favour us.  We must play to our
strengths."
     "A familiar refrain, Yurina," Saekianna told the girl with just a
hint of reproach.  "However, you do have a point.  We must use all our
advantages.  Guile may yet prevail where force will not."  She thought
for a moment, painfully aware that the enemy was moving towards them,
cutting their lead by precious seconds.  The nature of this underground
world had made the use of traps inadvisable; she was going to have to
improvise.  "Bella, come here."
     The petite girl moved to Saekianna's side obediently.  Her mass of
coal black curls contrasted starkly with the white cloak she wore over her
own bedclothes, and Saekianna was pleased to see that, though clearly
frightened by the unexpected crisis, Bella maintained her composure.
The Nightmistress let her fingers slip inside the heavy fall of the
expensive cloak, where they traced their way across the full swell of
Bella's breasts.  Within the sweet crevice of the girl's cleavage she found
what she was looking for.
     "Always dependable," Saekianna murmured with approval as she
drew a small, teardrop-shaped vial from its hiding place.
     "I live to serve, Nightmistress," Bella replied, bee-stung lips
parted as she arched slightly at the other woman's touch.
     "Kritlind extract?" Meredith asked, brow furrowed.
     "A bedchamber dose," Jacyinthe pointed out.  "Not nearly
enough for all of them."
     "Indeed," Saekianna said softly, holding the tiny vial up to the
tired light.  "This will require just the right location to be useful.  Come,
let us make haste.  We will teach the White Moon girls that we are not to
be trifled with."

***

     Mercury was still apologising when we reached the bottom of the
shaft.
     "Look," Venus said, sounding exasperated.  "It wasn't your fault.
The glamour on that old wreck was top notch.  No scan would have
shown anything but the inside of an old furnace."
     "I didn't sense anything, either," Mars pointed out.  "Someone went to
a lot of trouble to insure that shaft would remain hidden."
     "Stop beating yourself up," Moon added, trying for stern and
failing miserably as she clapped her hand on her friend's shoulder.  "If it
wasn't for you, we wouldn't have even found the house."
     "It wasn't just me," Mercury said quickly, glancing at Mars, then
away.  Damn, it looked like she was blushing again.  The girl needed to
learn to take a compliment.  "Breaking the encryption on the Sultana's
disc was a joint effort."
     "We're just lucky that she was such a treacherous bitch," Venus
said with obscene cheer.
     "So?" Jupiter asked, ignoring the banter.  Yoshi had turned back to
human, since climbing down a ladder in wolf form would have been
tricky.  He breathed in the air, looking around.  There wasn't much to
see; the stone tunnel we'd ended up in was fairly roomy, even bigger than
the old subway tunnel I'd been in days ago with Mars and V.  We stood
on a narrow walkway that ran along the curved wall.  Another just like it
ran along the opposite side, separated from us by a river of dark water
that ran through the tunnel to a level just below the walkways.
     "So, I'm thinking that with all the recent rain, we're lucky it isn't
flooded," Yoshi shrugged.  Lucky wasn't the word I would have used,
mind you.  The tunnel was dark, dank, and smelled of mildew and moist
decay.  The old stones that made up the curved walls of the tunnel were
damp and discoloured, with moss growing in some places, and the
constant rush of water meant that we had to raise our voices slightly just
to talk.  At what seemed like random intervals, old lights cast pools of
feeble illumination from behind battered cages high up on the walls.
     Our side still had a battered metal railing, but the damned thing
was so rickety that I wouldn't have counted on it to keep me out of the
water.  Yoshi took his clothes back from Jupiter, dressing quickly.
     "They went that way," he told us, heading down the tunnel.
     "What in the hells exactly is this place?" Venus muttered as we
walked.
     "I'm not certain," Mercury admitted, not sounding happy.  "We
went pretty deep.  We're way under the utility and sewer lines, that much
is certain.  I've checked the archives, but this line doesn't appear on any of
the schematics in their database."
     "No big surprise there," Venus said.  "I don't think that even a
tenth of the old schematics and drawings in the city archives have been
transferred.  And a lot of the older stuff has been lost over the years ..."
     "Often on purpose," Tuxedo Mask pointed out wryly.
     "Oh, yeah," she replied.  "Secrets are valuable.  There are
probably hundreds of miles of old tunnels under Saeni, maybe more.  Old
smuggling tunnels, sewer lines, subways and bolt-holes and old military
bunkers and utility accessways ... rumour has it that there are even huge
subterranean chambers with entire sections of city still intact, areas that
sank during the time when the Genrous stronghold of Vasta Min fell."
     "It has never been confirmed that Vasta Min stood here,"
Mercury said disapprovingly.  "And most of the old rumours about what
lies buried under the city are just that, fanciful stories with no basis in
scientific fact."
     "Hasn't anyone ever tried to, I don't know, map this stuff?" I
asked, intrigued in spite of myself.  "I mean, all these forgotten tunnels
and chambers and things."
     "Oh, it's been tried," Tux told me, smiling mirthlessly, his blue
eyes hard behind his mask.  "The most recent attempt involved a special
police task force.  That was an unmitigated disaster.  It's dangerous
underground.  Communications are tricky, and scanners unreliable."
     "The ruins of Vasta Min," V said to me in a conspiratorial tone.
"Their magickal emanations interfere with communications and
electronics as you go deeper ..."
     "It is no such thing!" Mercury snapped, sounding seriously
irritated.  "Honestly, must you believe every crackpot, half-baked
conspiracy theory?  Early cities built here used quarillium in structures
and defensive walls, and the buried remnants block or scatter scans and
communication.  That's all."
     "That," V said solemnly, "is what the crown wants you to
believe."
     "But we're okay," I said, hoping that was true.
     "I can't scan too far ahead," Mercury admitted.  "The interference is
bad and likely to get worse.  I wouldn't be surprised if communications
go out soon, too.  We told Artemis that we'd check in if we found the trail
down here, but we've already gone too deep.  I can't raise anyone on the
surface.  We may have trouble talking to each other if we get separated,
so we should stay close."
     "No worries," Yoshi told us.  "The nose won't let us get lost.
And they'll have the same handicaps you do.  I'll hear them or smell
them long before they know we're near."
     We moved along the walkway, the faint rush of water bouncing
off the stone walls.  Despite all the talk of subterranean dangers, I saw
nothing scarier than the occasional rat in the dank water.
     "Hey," Venus murmured, crowding me a little from behind and
murmuring in my ear.  "You take me to the nicest places."  I managed
not to twitch as her hot breath tickled sensitive flesh.
     "What's that supposed to mean?" I asked, hoping I didn't sound
defensive.  After what Rei had said the previous night, I had been
thinking about Minako a lot.  Maybe it showed.  That was all I needed.
     "Well," she pouted prettily, "first there was that abandoned
subway tunnel, and then an alley, and of course Shadow Realm, and now
a sewer?"
     "I didn't actually take you to any of those places," I pointed out,
my voice echoing faintly off the stone walls.
     "My point," V stated, striking a triumphant pose.  "You never
take me anywhere!"
     "That wasn't actually your point ..." I began.
     "We should pick up the pace," Tux interrupted.  "They'll get
away."
     "We have to be careful," Mars argued.  "I'm definitely worried about
traps."
     "It's unlikely they know we found this place, though," Mercury
admitted.  "If we're too careful, we risk losing them."
     "I agree," Moon said.  "But everyone just be alert."
     We moved faster after that, although Mars didn't seem happy.
Given that she knew more about the Sisterhood than any of us, I was
inclined to trust her judgement, but we really didn't have any choice.
     "This is a pretty dismal escape tunnel," Venus muttered as we
jogged along.  "Not really their style, huh, Mars?"
     "I'm not sure it is an escape tunnel," Mars said, that wary look
still lurking in her eyes.  "We haven't come across any other access to the
surface, no alternate routes, nothing I would want in an emergency.  It is
serving them as one right now, but I think this tunnel has another
purpose."
     "Like what?" I asked.  "I don't see those women spending a lot of
time in a place like this."
     "Yeah," V snorted.  "They might break a nail or mess up their
hair."
     "It is customary to manipulate others into doing as much dirty
work as possible," Mars conceded.  "But it can't be coincidence that the
mansion had access to this tunnel.  For one thing, it made deadly traps in
the house itself unnecessary.  Under cover of the shielded basement, they
could spirit the priestess away if anyone came calling."
     "Maybe they used these tunnels to get around, too" I mused.
"Nobody'd be able to spy on them down here, not like Vanka at the
docks."
     "If they had ever suspected that Vanka had footage of them with
that priestess, she would already be dead," Mars said darkly.
     "Good point," Venus nodded.  "And where would they want to
go in these tunnels, anyway?  The temple district?"
     "Maybe," Mars nodded, her eyes flicking away to scan the tunnel.
She didn't seem to like this line of inquiry much.
     "Remember, the disc we retrieved from the Sultana's safe had
schematics of the sewers under the temple.  This tunnel is under those,
but it may allow them to connect with the other network," Mercury
pointed out.
     "We can ask them in person," Yoshi said with a thoroughly wolfish
grin as he looked back.  "These scents are getting fresher.  We're no more
than a couple minutes behind them."
     Tension wound through the spaces between us.  What would
happen when we caught up to the Sisters?  Could the princess make them
listen to reason?  Would they believe the truth?
     I was betting no.
     Yoshi surged ahead, disappearing around a bend in the tunnel.  I
was near the rear, and as soon as I lost sight of him and Jupiter, I felt the
hairs on the back of my neck start to prickle.  I just knew that trouble was
near, and I broke into a run.
     Then I came around the bend, and saw the first snag in our plan.

***

     So.  Vanka had meant to betray them, had she?  Saekianna shouldn't
have been surprised; she knew better than anyone that Tyrian nobility
survived by exploiting every opportunity.  The only true surprise was
that the treacherous witch had somehow discovered their safe house.
What else might she have found out?  What secrets might, even now, be
in the hands of their enemies?
     Well.  Troubling though this revelation was, the situation could
be easily rectified.  Even now, the enemy was approaching her trap.  Her
plan was hastily constructed, but it had the advantage of being quite
simple.  After the enemy was distracted, she would wait for her best
opportunity and then strike, taking out as many as she could as quickly
as possible, dividing their forces.  Then she would lead any that survived
toward the site, where she would have the advantage.
     Victory was only hours away.  She would not be thwarted.  Not
now.
     Closer, she thought, stroking Banri's gleaming jet coils languidly.
Come closer, foolish girls.  You believe you are the huntresses?
     Your arrogance will be your undoing.

***

     We should have seen it coming.  Really, we should have.  So why
didn't we?  Well, maybe it was because we were tired, or maybe it was
just that we figured we finally had the Sisterhood right where we wanted
them.
     Funny how fast things can turn.
     I noticed the sound of rushing water getting louder even before I
made it around the bend.  I soon saw the cause.  The tunnel we were
following led into a wide circular chamber from which it split up, forking
into four different directions.
     Snag.
     The water was definitely running faster here, foaming around the
slick stone where the tunnels split off.  At least two of the tunnels looked
to go deeper, angling down steeply into the gloom, and the turbulent
water seemed to drain down through partially submerged shafts that led
deeper underground.
     "Damn!" Mars shouted over the din.
     "No worries!" Venus beamed, leaning closer.  "Check out wolf-boy!"
     Yoshi had ventured out onto the cracked stone platform at the
centre of the chamber and just shook his head, shouting something to
Jupiter.  Then he got down close to the floor and started sniffing.  Okay,
it looked a little strange, but at least we wouldn't have to split up.  I had
to admit, having a werewolf along was proving to be very useful.
     We moved out cautiously, looking for any sign of ambush.
Fortunately, we had a clear view of each of the tunnels, and Mercury was
still scanning.  Even if they'd been expecting trouble, it would be next to
impossible for them to sneak up on us.
     Yoshi was still sniffing the ground, and Jupiter crouched down
next to him, putting her hand on his shoulder.  Yoshi turned to her, and I
had my first inkling that something was wrong.  Something about his
expression ...
     Then he pushed her down and jumped on top of her, and I had my
second inkling that something wasn't right.  Ranma Saotome, Master of
the Obvious.
     I couldn't hear her, but she seemed as shocked as anyone else
when Yoshi buried his nose in the crook of her neck, hands on her
breasts.  What the hell?  Tuxedo Mask and the princess rushed to her side
and tried to pull Yoshi off of Jupiter, but he wasn't having any of that.
Casually, he reached up and grabbed Tux, throwing him with ridiculous
ease across the platform and close to the far tunnel entrances.  Tux spun
in the air, landing on his feet.
     And came face to face with Saekianna der Kae.
     It was hard to say which of them was more surprised, but in a
flash the Nightmistress spun and took off into the gloomy tunnel.  Tux
was after her like a shot, and the princess hesitated, still trying to wrestle
with Yoshi.
     "Go!" Mars shouted.  "Don't lose them!"  Moon nodded and
raced after them as Mars and Mercury grappled with Yoshi from above,
Jupiter from below.  He'd managed to tear the front of Jupiter's uniform
open, and her very full breasts were in danger of popping right out.
Jupiter didn't seem hurt or scared, mostly pissed off as she tried to get
Yoshi under control without hurting him.
     "You two follow them!" Mars shouted as I moved in to help.
"We'll handle ..."  She broke off, eyes widening as she glanced back at
me, and I ducked just in time to avoid something sharp that sliced
through the air just where my neck had been.  I rolled, came up to find
we'd been flanked.
     How?  How had they gotten behind us?  Yet not only were they
there, at least five of them, but I hadn't sensed them at all.  It was Yurina
who'd nearly taken my head off; she smiled sweetly, brandishing an
ornate fan that apparently had a very sharp edge.  Venus had been caught
off-guard by another, a red-head who had a length of silk wrapped tightly
around the blonde senshi's neck from behind, choking her as a third
woman lunged in with a gleaming knife.
     It was all hitting the fan, but all I could see was that knife and
Venus's face, dark and bruised-looking as her air was cut off.  I caught
Yurina with a kick as I rocketed past, sending her careening into a petite
girl with long, curly hair.  They both went down as I rolled, catching the
Sister's knife hand just before she could plunge the blade into Venus's
chest.  I wrenched her arm, using my momentum to spin her around and
throw her off the platform.  She shrieked, clawing at the edge and
keeping herself from going over.  Too bad, but for now I had bigger
problems.
     The Sister that had Venus smirked at me, crouching behind her
captive as she yanked even harder on the noose around the senshi's
throat.  "Move," the red-headed woman shouted above the water, "and I'll
break her neck!"
     Swell.  But if I didn't move, Venus was going to die anyway.
Her eyes were wide as she clawed weakly at the bright cloth that was
cinched around her throat.  I caught motion out of the corner of my eye
as the two I'd knocked down got back into the fight, while another
slipped around the red-head, a wild look in her eyes.
     Then a narrow spear of flame knifed through the air, catching
Yurina full in the back as she raised her fan.  There was a burst of orange
fire, then nothing.  I gaped at Mars, who'd abandoned her efforts to
restrain Yoshi and had moved closer.  She shouted something that was
lost to the roar of the water, swinging to fry the girl that had been with
Yurina.
     That wouldn't help Venus, though; the Sister holding her was
using her as a shield.  I knew I needed to do something, before I could
act, Venus's hand slipped clumsily over her shoulder, finger outstretched.
There was a flash of golden light, and her assailant was gone.  I lunged
forward, catching her as she crumpled to her knees.  As I did, I saw
something strange wafting to the stone behind her.  It looked like a crude
paper doll with odd symbols drawn on it in bright red paint.  A single red
hair had been tied around it, and a neat hole was burned through the
doll's head.
     Before I could even think about what that meant, stone exploded
around me, sharp shards stinging my face.  I wrapped my arms tightly
around Venus, trying to shield her from the debris.  I caught a quick view
of the scene as I stumbled back.  Mars was lying on her back near the
broken edge of the platform, Mercury was clinging unsteadily to a
crumbling support, and Yoshi and Jupiter were gone.  Seconds later,
Mercury fell into the water and disappeared as well.
     Mars was struggling to her feet, only to freeze as her gaze fell on
a form standing in the entrance to one of the far tunnels.  It was
Saekianna, somehow in a totally different tunnel then the one I'd seen
her in earlier, with Tux and the princess nowhere in sight.  She was
already drawing her arm back to unleash her whip again, and Mars
started to bring her hands up.  Unfortunately, Saekianna was faster, and
her whip lashed out us in a blur of motion; Mars managed to roll out of
the way of the attack, but the mystic coils shattered the stone beneath our
feet before any of us could react.
     I tried to jump to safety before she could attack a third time, but
Venus was still dead weight, and my footing disappeared as the
remainder of the platform crumbled into gravel.  I plunged into the icy
water, the change tingling over my skin in the wake of that chilly rush.
We went under and were immediately taken by the current.  The tunnel
was deeper here than I'd expected, and I clung desperately to Venus as we
were pulled into the dark.

***

     "Still nothing?" Luna asked as she slipped into the room.  It
wasn't an actual request for information; the nervous way that Artemis
was pacing back and forth across the kitchen floor told her all she needed
to know on that front.  Still, as conversational gambits went, it seemed as
good as any.
     "Nothing," Artemis told her distractedly.  At least he stopped that
infernal pacing, giving Luna an opportunity to take him by the hand and
lead him to a chair.
     "Sit," she said gently.  Worry gnawed at her as well, but she had
long since learned that it was not helpful to dwell on what she could not
control.  Destiny would continue to lead Usagi and her girls into danger.
All she could do was trust in their training and power and, most
importantly, in their dedication to each other.
     "I don't like this," Artemis grumbled, barely perching himself on
the edge of his chair.  He raked his fingers nervously through his long,
pale hair, glancing at the communicator that rested on the table.
Oblivious to his yearning, it remained stubbornly silent.
     "That tunnel must have gone pretty deep," Luna stated, sitting
next to him.  "As soon as they can contact us again, they will."
     "I wish they hadn't split up," Artemis said glumly.  "I'd feel
better if Saturn and the others were with them."
     "You'd better not ever let Minako hear you say that," Luna
retorted.  "She'd skin you alive, you stupid tomcat!"
     "I know," he sighed, finally rewarding her with one of his wry
grins, albeit a weak one.  "Hells, I know how resilient she is, and I know
they can handle themselves.  And I wanted Hotaru to trust them as much
as you did, Luna.  I just have a bad feeling about this one."
     "You and me both," she told him, taking his hand again and
squeezing it.  "Did you call Uranus?"
     "Yeah.  I told her what was going on, but they were already
pretty far from the house by then.  They could have gone back, but the
others were already out of contact by that time.  If there's more than one
tunnel down there, they might never hook up with the princess.  And if
the Sisterhood pops out of their escape tunnel, we want to be able to
contact Uranus and her group and direct them to the action."
     "Which will be impossible if they're underground," Luna
nodded.  "So it makes more sense for them to stay where they are."
     "Uh-huh.  Plus, they're checking something out.  Uranus wasn't
specific, but Pluto seems to be worried about something, worried enough
that she's taking Uranus and Neptune with her."
     "Well, hopefully Saturn's meeting will give us something
concrete," Luna said.  "We're so close now.  Once Sailor Moon and the
others corner the Sisterhood, we'll finally have a chance to stop this
vampire's plan."
     "Yeah, that ought to go well ..."  Artemis broke off, cocking his
head quizzically.  "You hear that?"
     As she was shaking her head, a soft thud came from the rear of
the house, and Luna's eyes narrowed.  "Well, I heard that," she said
softly.  "You don't think ...?"
     Artemis motioned her to be quiet, and stood.  She followed suit,
both of them moving with feline grace and stealth that attested to their
dual nature.  Artemis grabbed the comm off the table, then moved to the
drawer and quietly retrieved a pair of large, wickedly sharp knives.
Trying to calm her racing heart, Luna accepted one, meeting Artemis's
gaze with a composure that she didn't feel.  Had one of their enemies
somehow discovered this place?  And if so, what chance did the two of
them stand?
     Still, they were guardians to two of the senshi of the White Moon
Court.  If this place had somehow been compromised, they had a duty to
find out what they could and report to the others.
     Shadow-silent, Artemis slipped across the floor, preceding her
into the hallway.
     And when she heard his cry of alarm, she abandoned all stealth
and heedlessly followed.

***

     I propped Venus against the cold wall, feeling her shoulders
shake under my hands as she coughed up the last of the rank water.
     "Okay?" I asked.  I couldn't see anything in this absolute black,
but somehow I knew she was giving me that game, hellraiser grin.
     "Super," she gasped.  "Come for the strangulation, stay for the
drowning.  Where are we?"
     "Out of the water.  Beyond that, I got nothing."
     "The others?"
     I shook my head, then remembered that she couldn't see me.
"Sorry.  Things went to hell pretty fast.  Sailor Moon and Tux are still up
there."
     "Damn."  I heard a faint, high-pitched whining noise punctuated
by static.
     "Can you contact them?" I asked.
     "Nuh-uh.  Still too much interference, I guess ... wait.  Hello?"
     As Venus spoke, I shifted my weight slightly.  We weren't alone
down here.  Someone, or something, was moving close by.  I didn't want
to stand and lose Venus in the dark, but I couldn't afford to be caught
flat-footed.  I leaned forward, eliciting a startled squeak from the girl as I
accidentally bumped her cheek with my nose.
     "We've got company," I hissed as she began to fuss.  "I'm going
to break back towards the water.  Can you get us some light?"
     "Light?  What an excellent idea," a familiar voice said.  Bright
orange flame burst upwards close by, throwing the oppressive darkness
back with a wave of warm light.
     "Hey, sexy girl," Venus beamed.  "You're a sight for sore eyes.
That must have been your comm I was getting."
     "Yes," Mars replied, joining us.  "I didn't want to give my
presence away until I was sure who else was here."
     The flickering light that hovered above Mars' upraised palm
revealed that both girls were soaked, but otherwise looked okay.  The
warmth from the fire was welcome as it chased away some of the chill
that permeated this place.  Venus shivered and sneezed, a small,
somehow delicate sound.  Then she shook her head and gathered up her
long hair where it lay plastered against her.
     "So, any sign of the others?" she asked as she began wringing out
her hair.  Water pattered onto the cold stone as she spoke, and she
wrinkled her nose endearingly.
     Yeah.  When, exactly, did I start to find everything she did
endearing, anyway?
     "None," Mars informed her, crouching down to bring the fire
closer to us.  "But they'll be okay.  Mercury is like a fish in the water,
and Jupiter will keep Yoshi safe.  Like Ranma did with you."
     She looked at me as she said that, her eyes impossibly dark in the
tawny fire light, holding my gaze with a look of approval that held
something else, something deeper, hotter, full of dark promise.  I
stammered, trying to find something to say, and Venus laughed
delightedly.
     "You embarrassed Ranma, Mars," she chided.  "That's my job."
     "How far down did we come?" Mars asked, finally letting me off
the hook.  Venus was still watching me, amusement dancing with the
motes of fire light in her eyes.
     "Not sure," I admitted.  "We were shooting down that tunnel, and
then we just popped out.  The wall was broken.  We fell into another
channel or something."
     "Yeah, in total darkness," Venus added.  "That was a trip.  I
didn't know up from down.  Ranma pulled us out."
     "Did he now?"  That look was back, even more intense, and I
remembered Rei's show of gratitude from the previous night.  Suddenly,
I wasn't cold anymore.
     "I've got good balance," I mumbled, standing with exaggerated
casualness.  "But the question is, where exactly are we?"
     "Help me up," Venus said, holding out her hands.  I grasped her
wet gloves and pulled her to her feet.  Astonishingly, Venus managed to
fall against me in the process.
     "Oops," she said softly, leaning against me.  "Lost my balance.  Not as
good as yours, I guess."  She smiled apologetically, taking her sweet time
in breaking contact.
     Yeah.  Definitely getting hot in here.
     Venus moved away, then held her hand up.  Her whip appeared
from nothing, gleaming with a soft golden radiance as she spun it lazily.
The circle of light around us spread out slowly, revealing more of our
surroundings.  The floor was made of dark stone tiles that had been fitted
together so that they formed a nearly seamless surface.  The stone surface
of the wall was lighter in colour, and smooth, stretching up to the ceiling
which was out of reach of Venus's light.
     "Well, I came out the way you two did," Mars began.  "But I
caught a ledge near the break in the tunnel wall, and climbed down back
there."
     "In the dark?" I asked.  "That must have been hairy."
     "I've had more fun," Mars admitted, looking around warily.  "But
when I reached the ground, this was the only way I could go.  The wall
back there was jagged and rocky, like there'd been a cave in."
     "Okay," Venus nodded.  "And the water's that way."
     "Wide," I told her.  "And deep.  And still flowing somewhere."
     "Right.  So we follow this wall," Venus declared.  "This is man-
made, so hopefully there's an exit somewhere."
     "Just another of the city's extensive labyrinth of forgotten
tunnels," Mars muttered.  "We could wander for days, even weeks."
     "We don't have days," I pointed out.  "We've got hours."
     "And the Sisterhood is up there somewhere," Venus pointed out as we
started walking.  "We can't let the princess fight them alone."
     "You're worried about Usagi, aren't you?" I asked her,
prompting a wry smile.
     "We all worry about Usagi," V admitted.  "But she's not just the
sweetest girl ever, you know.  She's a powerhouse, magickally
speaking."
     "And she has Mamoru with her," Mars added.  "He puts the
'protect' in 'overprotective', but give him his due.  He would move Gaia
itself with his bare hands to keep her safe."
     "I still don't get how they turned the tables so quickly, though," V
mused, frowning prettily.  "Distracting us that way was smart, but it
seems to me that they used a small dose of something nasty in the best
possible spot.  A little love juice right where a werewolf would have to
sniff to see which way they'd gone?"
     "They had to know Yoshi was with us," I nodded.  "But how?"
     "Meredith," Mars said.  "It had to be."
     "Meredith?" V asked.
     "The redhead that tried to strangle you."
     "Ah.  Quite lovely, from what I saw.  Good upper body strength."
     "Also a user of Talisman Magick," Mars told us.  "Those
doubles were her work."
     "I was wondering about them," V confessed.  "I've never actually
seen talismans used before.  A strand of hair and a drop of blood?"
     "Usually," Mars nodded.  "But she can also do animals.  There
could have been rats or bats or something watching us the whole time we
were in the tunnel.  Their auras must have been masked by the weird
magickal emanations down here, so I didn't sense them."
     "So the Sisterhood knew we were on their trail," V groaned.  "And
that Yoshi was tracking them.  That's how we lost the tactical
advantage."
     "They must have hidden some talismans in the tunnel," Mars
went on.  "Meredith animated them after we passed, so they could attack
our rear flank in the confusion."
     "That's why I didn't sense any chi, even when they were right on
top of us," I added.
     "Right.  Now that I think of it, Meredith may have had one or
two of her little dolls flying around the neighbourhood.  That could be
how they were alerted to our arrival.  By the look of things, they only just
got out before we arrived.  The only good news is that Tux and the
princess are chasing a fake."
     "They are?" Venus asked.
     "You missed it, but the Saekianna that took out the platform and
dumped us in the drink appeared in a different tunnel," I said.
     "Exactly," Mars told us.  "Our people are chasing a decoy, but at
least they aren't in as much danger.  The doubles don't possess the
magick of the original, so they are limited in what they can do."
     "Still very useful," Venus grumbled, rubbing at her throat.
     "True.  I should have considered the possibility, but, Talisman
Magick is quite a rare talent.  Meredith was the only Sister so gifted back
in my day, and I never considered that she might be there."
     "Why not?" I asked.
     "Because," Mars told us gravely, "she was one of Griitna's
lieutenants."
     "Crap.  Are you serious?" Venus blurted.
     "I know there was a purge when Sass took over," Mars said.  "I
assumed that all of Griitna's followers were victims of it.  Somehow,
Sass must have convinced some of them of the truth."
     "Unfortunately for us," Venus sighed, then sneezed.
     "Cold?" Mars asked, stopping.  She motioned us closer, and
suddenly a wave of hot air was rushing over me as the flame in her hand
rose higher.  It was wonderful, and Venus basked in the heat, turning and
sighing happily.  Mars' hair billowed in the wave of hot air as she shook
her head, and Venus quickly followed suit.  My braid felt heavy and
waterlogged, but I didn't want to undo it, so I let it lie.
     "That's nice," Venus murmured.  "Too bad we don't have time to
dry our clothes.  Walking in wet ... hey.  Hey, yeah."
     There was a blaze of light, and suddenly Venus was standing
there in her Mistress V outfit.
     "Yeah," V nodded, doffing her cap and combing her still damp
hair with her fingers.  "Much better.  Hey Mars, why don't you try?
Setting three."
     "Excuse me?"
     "When Artemis and I put the battle maid costumes into
everyone's henshin rods, I gave you a little present.  To make up for the
lingerie incident.  Go on, try it."
     "Listen, you lunatic, if I end up wearing nothing but stockings
and earrings, you are going to be one sorry girl."
     "Just try it," V wheedled.  "If you don't like it, you can change
back."
     Mars still looked wary, but the lure of dry clothes won her over.
I knew how she felt.  I'd have given a lot for dry underwear just then.
Mars' little blow drier trick had taken care of the worst of the water, but
my clothes were still damp and chill against my skin.
     Mars held out her hand and fiddled with her henshin rod when it
appeared.  Her body glowed briefly, then the light faded.
     Whoa.
     Her new outfit was quite something, all right.  The dark skirt was
long, slit high on both sides to reveal mesh stockings and high heels.  The
top consisted of two parts; leather as supple as silk hugged her curves
from her narrow waist to her shoulders, cut around the curve of her
breasts, while the pale sleeves of her ivory blouse were loose except
where they gathered to tight cuffs at the wrists.  The high-collared top
was open at the throat, showing what was, for something designed by V,
a modest amount of cleavage.
     "Not bad," Mars remarked, turning to check out her new outfit.  I
noticed that the black gloves she now wore had designs in red on the
back, one a six-pointed star in a circle, the other a circle with an arrow
poking out of it at an angle.  The narrow choker at her throat had the
same silver skull device as V's cap, I noticed.
     "Just a little something I worked up for you," V said airily,
clearly pleased by Mars' reaction.  We set off again, following the wall, V
leading the way with her whip throwing out a shimmering halo of golden
light.
     "So those clothes are dry," I remarked, a trifle jealous.  "Even
though your other ones are wet?"
     "If I transformed back, my street clothes would be dry," Mars
said.  "I wonder if my fuku would be?"
     "I don't know," V replied.  "Remember Jupiter that time in the
old theatre?"
     "Her uniform was torn up," Mars pointed out.
     "So?" I asked, curious.  "What happened?"
     "Well, even if our outfits get damaged, they're fine the next time
we transform," V told me.  "This one time, we were in a fight and
Jupiter's skirt got shredded, just completely torn off.  So after we finish
the troublemaking critter but before we go looking for the nest, she
figures she'll just transform for a second, then change back.  Instant outfit
repair."
     "Only it didn't work," Mars noted wryly.  "It seems to take some
time for our clothes to repair themselves.  Ami actually did some
experiments to try and figure out just how long."
     "Seems to vary depending on the damage," V said.  "In case you
were wondering.  And less time for the skirts or collar or ribbons, more
for the bodysuit and gloves and boots."
     "She never tried it with water, though," Mars noted.  "I wonder
..."
     In front of me, V stopped, changed briefly back into her Venus
outfit, then returned to the black leather.
     "Yuck," the blonde senshi grimaced.  "Still wet."
     "Strange," Mars mused.  "I wonder exactly how this works?"
     "Even Artemis doesn't know everything about the henshin rods,"
V shrugged as we went on.  "For instance, I've lost a couple of these caps
since I've been doing the Mistress V bit.  But if I'm not wearing them
when I change back, they don't disappear."
     "I know.  You gave me one, remember?  I've still got it at
home."
     "Weird," I agreed.  V stopped abruptly, and both Mars and I
tensed, although I didn't sense anything.
     "What?" I asked.
     "I just thought of something," V said, turning to give me one of
her reckless grins.  "Your clothes are still wet, huh, Ranma?  Probably
pretty uncomfortable."
     I watched warily as she pulled that Crescent Compact thingie out
of the air.  "No," I said.  "No way.  I'm not trooping through monster
infested tunnels wearing just my gitch.  Or someone else's gitch."
     "Gitch?"  Mars raised one elegant eyebrow in cool amusement.
"I'll have to remember that one."
     "Nothing extreme, I promise," V said, fiddling with the gleaming
compact.  "Now, where ... ah.  Here we go.  Try this."
     She held out the compact, trying her level best to look innocent.
Given that she was dressed in form-fitting glossy black leather and
looked about as innocent as distilled sin, she did a fairly decent job of it.
I sighed and reached out my hand.  As the warm metal touched my hand,
I felt a rush of something over my skin, like a cool adrenaline rush on a
muggy day.
     I looked down and blinked.  "Hey," I said.  "Not bad."  Once
again, V had come up with something that was pretty restrained.  I was
wearing some sort of soft, snug shirt and matching pants topped by a long
coat.  The coat was cut back where it reached my hips, so that even
though it was tightly fastened, it wouldn't restrict my legs.  The double
row of fasteners, along with the detailing, looked vaguely Chinese to me,
and I wondered if there was a place like China here in this world.
     The whole outfit was black, the detailing red, and if the coat fit so
snugly under the breasts that it pushed them up a little provocatively,
well, at least I wasn't showing any skin.
     "You like?" V asked.
     "I like," I said, trying a few high kicks.  The outfit was
surprisingly easy to move in, like it had been made for martial arts.
Which, for all I knew, it had been.  "Thanks."
     "I must say," Mars murmured, "that I'm impressed by your
uncharacteristic restraint, V."
     "Well," V said with a sultry smile, "I intend to have you both
make it up to me later, after this is all over.  Now come on, let's catch
some bad guys!"

***

     "You should talk to him," Mercury whispered.  Jupiter sighed
softly, hugging the damp t-shirt she wore over her ruined fuku.  She
debated telling Mercury that whispering was pointless; even at this range,
Yoshi would be able to hear them.
     "I tried," Jupiter replied.  "He doesn't want to talk.  He blames
himself for falling into their trap."  Again, she added silently.
     "It wasn't his fault," Mercury protested.
     "I know.  Let's just move on, okay?"  In truth, Jupiter was more
worried than she wanted to let on.  The discussion she'd had with Rei
haunted her, gnawing relentlessly at her focus.  What if Rei was right?
What if Yoshi's reaction to the Sisterhood's magick had something to do
with being abused?  He'd just had his nose rubbed in it again, and
although he hadn't become violent, her shredded uniform top bore silent
witness to the harsh truth.  His self control had been shattered, and if they
hadn't been dropped into the water, how far might he have gone?
     "I still can't raise the others," Mercury said after a time.  "And I
can't detect anyone else.  There's simply too much interference."
     "We'll find our way back," Jupiter said simply.  "We are heading
up, right?"
     "The slope is pretty gentle.  We need to find stairs, or a ladder or
something, but so far my scan range is just too limited."
     Jupiter's reply was cut off when she saw Yoshi stop and roll up
smoothly onto the balls of his feet.  She tried to ignore the heat that
rushed to the surface of her chilled skin at the sight of his feral,
effortlessly animal grace and the way the muscle moved under the bare
skin of his back.  A quick glance at Mercury revealed that the smaller
girl was equally affected by the sight.  Jupiter sprinted forward, only to
be brought up short by the rangy werewolf's upraised hand.
     "Yoshi?" she called softly.
     "Air," he replied, his voice equally as soft.  "Wind, from up
ahead.  Scents.  We're not alone."
     The two senshi eased up beside him in the tunnel.  If there was a
breeze, it was so soft that Jupiter couldn't even feel it, but she trusted
Yoshi.
     "Sisterhood?" Mercury asked, scanning ahead.
     "Not human," Yoshi replied, a throaty growl edging his words
and sending a delicious shiver down Jupiter's spine.  "Monsters."
     Monsters?  Just what the doctor ordered, a nice, uncomplicated
fight with something that only wanted to kill, not humiliate, defile, or
enslave.  Jupiter sneaked a look at Yoshi's face, her heart constricting in
her chest.  So much pain lurked in those pale gray eyes, and she wanted
to wash it all away, make it better.
     "Hey," he said softly as Mercury edged ahead, trying to get a fix
on this new problem.
     "Yeah?"  Her heart raced at having been caught staring, but his
expression didn't change as he glanced at her, then away.
     "Remember when I told you not to kill Lily?  Well, I'm re-thinking
that policy."  With that he moved ahead, leaving Jupiter to stare
after him in despair.
     Oh, Princess.  Why did you have to promise to save these people?
Do they really deserve your compassion, when they can wound
someone's heart so carelessly?
     Seething with grief and anger, she hurried to catch up to the
others.

***

     We moved fairly quickly through the darkness, guided by V's
light.  For a monster-infested underworld, this place was pretty quiet.  No
piles of old bones, no slavering monsters, no fiendish deathtraps.  Only
dark and damp and the constant sound of water, sometimes flowing, now
just a distant drip.
     I was pretty disappointed, actually.
     V kept up a stream of snappy patter and bad jokes.  I was starting
to know her well enough to realize that this was her way of dealing with
her apprehension.  We still hadn't heard anything from the others.  Mars
was faintly irritable in response to V's overtures, something that the
blonde didn't seem to take personally.  They were pretty used to each
other's moods, I guess.
     They could worry all they wanted to about the others, but our
situation wasn't especially great.  We were lost in the dark with no way
of knowing where exactly we were or where we were going, and it was
probably only a matter of hours until the Sisterhood's little party got
into full swing.
     Frankly, we needed a break.
     "Look," I said as V stopped, staring at the wall we'd been
following.  "A break."
     "Well, it's a door, anyway," V conceded.
     "What does that say?" Mars asked.  V obligingly increased the
spin of her whip, and as the golden light bled out further into the dark, I
could see that what I'd taken for stains on the smooth wall were actually
letters.  The paint had faded so much that I couldn't tell what colour
they'd originally been, but they were still legible.

                JUNCTION G-15 RED

     Something was scrawled underneath the large block letters in
what looked like spray paint, the bottoms of the letters drawn down in
liquid drips that had long since dried.

     quake, o faithless, at the trembling of the skies
     our curse upon the light, to make not the sun to rise
     and the darkness of the ages contains not our fury

     And below that, another bit of enigmatic graffiti in faded red
paint adorned the wall.  This one was just one word, and though it was
hard to be certain by looking at the scrawled letters, I had the impression
that it had been left by a different hand than the one that had written
above it.
     "What's this supposed to mean?" I asked, checking out the words
on the wall warily.  "Some kind of riddle?"
     "It's from a poem," Mars said.  "An old and somewhat
disreputable one, at that."

     "'Banish'd from earth and sea and sky,
       Tho' abandoned and forgotten, our rage cannot die,
       Our wrath awaits you in dark places, festering, nameless and
       mad.'"

     V gave a theatrical flourish as she finished speaking, grinning at
Mars' expression.  "Not just another pretty face," she told the other girl.
     "So this is just the lair of some crazy poet?" I asked as the two
stared at each other.  I couldn't tell if they were going to start arguing or
making out, but neither option would be especially helpful.
     "Doubtful," Mars said, turning to me.  "This poem is very old, as
I said.  It refers to the myth of the Underlords."
     "The temples and the crown would like you to think it's just a
myth," V broke in, waving her finger in the air.
     "First Vasta Min, now the Underlords?  Mercury was right,"
Mars said, clearly exasperated.  "You really are a magnet for deranged
conspiracy theories."
     "But it says to make the sun not rise, or whatever," I said before
things could go further.  "Is that the Long Dark?"
     "Bingo!" V smirked.
     "You can read anything into old myths and legends," Mars
argued.  "Any apocalyptic prophecy speaks of darkness or the end of
days or the sun never rising again.  There's never been anything to link
this particular myth to the Long Dark or any other historical event."
     "But what are the Underlords?" I pressed.  Something about this
place was making me feel uneasy.
     "Supposedly," Mars said, glaring at V to stop her from speaking,
"they were the gods of Gaia in a period before recorded history.  When
the new gods arose or arrived or were born, depending on the version you
hear, they managed to defeat the Underlords and cast them out of the
world."
     "And they erased all trace of their rivals from Gaia," V broke in.
"All temples and shrines, all record of their names."
     "Conveniently," Mars remarked haughtily.  "Only this poem,
'Despair of the Underlords', and a brief passage in Virriluno's Codex of
Power make any extensive reference to them."
     "And yet, they continue to hold fascination for people, even
today," V pointed out, waving her finger under Mars' nose.
     "If the gods were trying to erase all knowledge of the Underlords
from existence, then they did a pretty bad job," I said.  "Since people still
know about them."
     "Even the gods aren't perfect," V told me.  Her blue eyes
sparkled in the golden light of her whip; she really got off on this ancient
secret stuff.  In moments like this, it was easy to believe that her parents
had been an archeologist and a historian.  "The originals of these two
books were found over a thousand years ago in a buried storehouse of
knowledge that escaped even the Genrous.  Anyway, I don't think the
gods would really care if people thought they got where they are by
beating other gods.  As long as the Underlords' names are lost, they can
never be summoned back to Gaia."
     "So says the legend," Mars agreed.  "It also says that their wrath
lies in poisonous pools of curdled magick around the world, and only
their names can defend against those forces.  Makes a great ghost story."
     "A world," V said softly, that exhilarated light suffusing through
her face.  "An entire world as an ancient castle haunted by the ghosts of
gods.  Man, that's FANTASTIC."
     "It's a great story," Mars repeated patiently.  "But for centuries,
the gods have told their followers that it just isn't true, and there's never
been any shred of evidence outside two old books to prove otherwise."
     "Yeah, but what about that other word?" I said as V opened her
mouth to argue.  "Maybe that's one of their names?"
     "What?" Mars asked, frowning.  "What other word?"
     "The one under the verse," I said.  "See?"  I turned and pointed at
the wall.
     There was nothing there.
     It took me a moment to grasp exactly what was going on.  The
space on the wall under that bit of old poetry was blank, just worn gray
stone.  But it hadn't been.  I'd seen the word there, painted in red.  I'd
SEEN it.  No way had I made up such a weird word.
     "Ranma?"  V was using the cautious tone of voice you used with
people who saw things nobody else saw, and I gritted my teeth.
     "It was there!" I shouted.  "I saw it, when you lit up the wall!"
     "Do you remember what you saw?" Mars asked, moving closer
to the wall and crouching to examine it.
     "A really weird word.  Takzvyrmishammir," I said.  As I said it, I felt
a pulse of heat against my skin, over my heart, short and intense but
unmistakable.
     Oh, swell.
     "Takzvyrmishammir?" V repeated.  "What is that, Norvinan?"
     "No," Mars said, running her fingertips over the wall.  "I don't think
so.  I don't recognise it at all.  Here, Ranma?"
     "Yes," I told her, silently grateful that she was taking this
seriously.  I was beginning to doubt myself.  No.  No, I HAD seen it.  It
had been there, right there, big as life.
     "Nothing," Mars said at last.  "I never saw it.  V?"
     "Nuh-uh," V replied.
     "You know what it means?" I asked.
     Neither of them did.  Hell, maybe it didn't mean anything.  Maybe that
pulse meant that the key had let me see it, or had created it just for me.
Neither prospect was especially comforting.
     "You think that could really be the name of one of the
Underlords?" V asked.  She wasn't bothering to hide her excitement.
Yeah, she'd have made one hell of an explorer.
     Mars rose from her crouch, tossing her hair back over her
shoulder with a lithe, practised motion as she turned to us.  "Who knows?
I'm more curious as to why Ranma saw a word in a language he doesn't
know.  At the moment, though, we have other things to worry about.
How about that door?"
     I felt a strange sense of relief when the girls turned their attention
to the old steel door.  Something about that word had made the key react,
and anything to do with the key was trouble.  As long as it was only
trouble for me, then fine.  I didn't want to drag the others into it, though,
not if I could help it.
     And a dark, forgotten tunnel under the city was no place to be
fooling around with the unknown, Underlords or no Underlords.
     "This lock is pretty old and rusted," V said after examining the
door closely.  "And although the city's premier cat-burglar could
probably finesse it anyway ..."
     "We're in a hurry," Mars finished for her.  "So, the direct
approach it is."
     Blowing the door off its hinges was no challenge for V.  The good
news was that, at the end of a short hallway, we found stairs leading up.
Up was good.  We climbed a fair distance, then ended up in another
tunnel, this one wide and dry.  And lit.
     "Magestones," V remarked, letting her whip dissipate into a
cloud of golden fireflies.  "Cool.  Takes me back to our first date."
     "We ended up escaping from a rampaging giant lizard by falling
into an abandoned subway tunnel," I reminded her.  "And you thought I
was the enemy.  It was hardly a date."
     "Well, our first kiss, then," V said sleekly, giving me a lingering
look from under coquettishly lowered lashes.  My face grew hot at the
memory, and I made a show of studying the dimly glowing magestones.
     "You blush too easy," V snickered.  "It isn't even a challenge."
     "Oh, be quiet," I grumbled.
     The tunnel seemed to slope gently, so we chose the route that
would take us up.  We walked three abreast, and I realised that V was
right.  This was a lot like our trip through that other tunnel.
     "Isn't it funny?" V remarked as we walked.
     "What?" Mars asked.
     "I was just thinking of trias."
     "In what sense?"
     "Well, they're pretty prevalent in myths and stories, not to
mention historically.  And look at the three of us.  We seem to keep
ending up together.  Maybe we're some sort of fated tria."
     "Okay," I said.  "I'll probably regret asking, but what's a tria?"
     "Trias are groups of three people thrown together, or drawn
together, by fate, chance, maybe destiny," Mars told me, her dark eyes
glancing over at me as we walked.  "It's a sort of romantic notion in our
culture, an idolised bonding of three hearts."
     "Like the Pirate Queen," V sighed breathily, "and Kirjan and
Pesna.  She could never have carved a kingdom out of the wild border
without them at her side."
     "So the poets would have you believe," Mars said dryly.
     "Mars!  You're too beautiful to be a cynic!"
     "Beauty has nothing to do with it," Mars said patiently.  "I was
just saying that those old songs and stories are fairly certain to have been
embellished over time."
     "What about Dennan, Tris, and Liir?  Or the Crimson Tria?
How about Kirwan Po and the Ellis brothers?"
     "Lest we forget," Mars murmured with a slow, sidelong glance,
"Travos, Dasma, and Alieva were once considered to be one of the most
celebrated trias ever.  That one did not end well."
     V made a small, offended sound.  "The point," she said, raising
her chin haughtily, "is that you can't just declare yourself a tria.  Destiny
must have a hand in these things.  And look, here we are again.  Makes
you think, doesn't it?"
     It was making me think, and those thoughts were spiking my
heartrate.  "Uh, but you're already senshi," I pointed out, hoping my
nervousness didn't show.  Was I being offered something, some sort of
commitment?  I glanced over at Mars and found her bottomless violet
eyes fixed on me, a slight, enigmatic smile on her lips.  I just knew she
was thinking of our conversation from the previous night, and I looked
away quickly.  I did not want to deal with this now.
     "That doesn't mean we couldn't also be part of a tria," V told me.
"I mean, you just never know about these things, right?"
     "Relax, Ranma," Mars said softly.  "She's just yanking your
chain."  Mars seemed to sense that this was cutting pretty close to the
emotions she'd stirred up only hours before.
     "Huh.  Scoff if you must," V sniffed.  "If it is fated, then it will
be.  You'll see."  She seemed to be enjoying this, and I realised that
maybe Mars was right.  V was just teasing and flirting.  It was stupid of
me to take everything so seriously.
     "You believe in fate?" I asked.
     "She does when it suits her," Mars noted.  "Like when she wants
to be part of a hot tria."
     "Well, look at us," V said.  "We are one DAMNED hot tria,
kids."
     "We could just be a hot trio," Mars pointed out, smiling.
     "Nuh-uh.  I want the whole thing.  To overcome complications of
legendary proportion, to struggle against seemingly insurmountable odds,
all in the name of friendship, passion, love ... come on.  Who doesn't
want that?"
     She had a point.  It sounded like a fairytale.  It sounded like the
way your life should be.  It sounded ...
     It sounded too good to be true.  I'd struggled against
insurmountable odds once, after all.
     And lost.
     "How are we ever going to find the others?" I asked, mostly to
change the subject.  "These tunnels are like a maze."
     "Let's just worry about getting out of here first.  Then we can
concentrate on finding the others.  I'll feel better when we can contact
everyone again," V sighed, running her gloved fingers lightly along the
smooth stone of the wall.  "When we make it to the surface, we might not
even know where to look if the comms are still blocked."
     "If we make it to the surface," Mars said after a pause, "we
should head for Alieva's temple."
     I glanced at her, trying not to be obvious.  There was a tension in
her body that hadn't been there just a moment ago, and I couldn't tell
why.
     "What for?" V demanded.  "The princess ..."
     "I think I might know what the Sisterhood is planning."  Mars kept
staring straight ahead while V and I absorbed that.  I watched V open her
mouth, pause, close it again.  The play of emotions across her face was
quite fascinating to watch; I wondered if my face looked the same.
     "Well, don't leave us hanging," V said at last.  Her tone was
light, bantering, but there was a wariness in her eyes.  The way Mars had
broached the topic did not bode well.
     "I didn't really consider it until we found that tunnel under the
mansion," Mars began, still avoiding our eyes without being obvious
about it.  "And the only reason I didn't mention it then was that it really
didn't seem that important.  We were right on their tail, and it looked like
we were going to catch them ..."  She broke off and grimaced, giving us a
rueful look.  "I, of all people, should have known better than to
underestimate them."
     "We all thought we had the upper hand," V said, waving her
hand dismissively.  "There'll be plenty of blame to go around if we don't
catch them.  What about the Sisterhood's plan?  You said you know
what it is."
     "I suspect," Mars corrected.
     "Fine, fine.  Suspect what?"
     Mars took a deep breath.  "There was a plan in the works when I
left the Sisterhood, a plan to assault Alieva's main temple here in Saeni."
     "Okay, that's just crazy," V broke in, waving her hands around.
"I mean, Alieva's order has political power, wealth, resources, and lots
and lots of people.  The Sisterhood couldn't hope to destroy them.  Even
if they did manage to slaughter every priestess in the temple, Alieva's
order is spread all over the continent and beyond.  The repercussions ... it
would be suicide.  Every temple in Altua would be screaming for your
heads."
     Mars didn't seem upset by V's interruption, giving us a ghost of a
smile.  It was bittersweet, that smile.  "V, my love, you are forgetting just
who you are dealing with.  Wholesale slaughter isn't the Sisterhood's
style.  Oh, they were never above shedding blood if it was necessary, but
you are absolutely right.  A direct confrontation with the White Order
would have been a disaster.  No, this plan was more subtle."
     "I can't imagine it would be easy for the Sisterhood to use any of
their usual tricks, though," I said.  "I mean, from what you've said, the
two groups have been practically at war for hundreds of years.  Alieva's
people know their enemy's tactics."
     "Quite right," Mars told me.  "That was why a new approach was
needed.  Basically, the plan required two things to make it work.  One
was a new type of spell.  It was called Siren's Breath, essentially a gas
cloud that could be directed to infiltrate and envelop.  The contents of the
cloud would be an extremely potent mixture of magicks and drugs, the
most potent the Sisterhood could concoct.  The raw materials are difficult
to acquire in any quantity, hideously expensive ..."
     "And let me guess.  They were on the manifest from that ship?"
V prodded.
     "Some of them," Mars sighed.  "Of course, plants from Errith are
valued by the Sisterhood, so it's not unusual that they should be getting a
shipment. The size of the shipment was a little unusual, but there is this
ceremony they have planned, so ..."
     "Got it.  You didn't put two and two together right away," V
said.  "But Mars, no matter how potent the drugs and spells, a decent
wind-mage would shred that little gas cloud before it got close.  Unless ...
you were planning to sneak it inside?  A tanker truck?  No, wait, a blimp
... balloons!  Big balloons!  Ooooh, parade floats!  You were going to
stage a parade!"
     "The sewer tunnels?" I asked, cutting off V's wild speculations.
     "Exactly," Mars told me. V stuck out her tongue.  "But we
obtained schematics of those tunnels, and it quickly became apparent that
the temple was not vulnerable from that approach.  There are detection
spells all through those tunnels.  Not even Siren's Breath could traverse
them and get inside the temple compound."
     "So the plan was a failure?" I asked.
     "The plan needed to be refined," Mars admonished me, her eyes
gleaming with what looked disturbingly like excitement in the dim light.
"For instance, did you know that once, about one hundred and fifty years
ago, a storehouse of old documents was found in an excavation here in
Saeni?"
     "Sure," V piped up.  "The Vengisti dig.  Lots of stuff from way back,
when Saeni was still surrounded by smaller cities.  West Durry, Fastka,
Upper and Lower Blyetown ... the stuff was gold, at least to historians.
There was stuff there that had been lost or forgotten for centuries."
     "Indeed there was," Mars told her.  "Including some charts of old
flood tunnels, military tunnels, even early subways and underground
canals."
     "Hold on," V said, holding her hand up, palm out towards Mars.
"Trust me, babe, I know a thing or two about the history of this city.
Nothing like that was found in ..."  I watched her, fascinated, as the
certainty drained slowly from her features, realization slowly ebbing in to
take its place before being washed away by outrage.  "No.  No, you
didn't."
     "It was a little before my time," Mars said simply.  "But yes, the
Sisterhood most certainly did."
     "They stole the charts?" I asked.
     "Seduce some archeologists, drug some watchmen, bribe a
magistrate," Mars shrugged.  "Before anyone knew the find was going to
be as significant as it was, manipulating the scene was easy.  The
reigning Nightmistress saw the value of such documents, incomplete
though they were, and spirited them away.  Only a few people had seen
them, and they were easily silenced."
     "So the Sisterhood has a map of the tunnels under the city?" V
demanded.  I wasn't sure if she was outraged because of the theft of
historical information, or because she wanted access to it.  I was forced to
admit that the second option was far more likely.
     "None of the charts had references to existing landmarks," Mars
told her, "so their usefulness was limited.  They went into the
Sisterhood's archive of secrets, to be puzzled out at a later date.  But the
Sisterhood had their fingers in many pies, and mapping those tunnels
wasn't a high priority.  Then the Dark Lady fell in battle, and the
archives were scattered.  They have only been partially reconstructed,
mostly within the last thirty years."
     "The tunnels?" V prompted as Mars fell silent.
     "One of my early tasks as a novitiate was to try and find some
reference in old writings that would allow us to determine just where
under the city the charted section of tunnels lay," Mars told her.  "That's
where I first got the idea."
     "Idea?"
     "To assault the White Order's temple."
     There was a moment of stunned silence.
     "Waitaminute.  IT WAS YOUR PLAN?"
     "I wasn't just a Sister," Mars told her with just a hint of hauteur.
"I was one of the most respected and feared priestesses in Her ranks.  I
did things that others said couldn't be done.  Audacious and bold one
moment, subtle and cunning the next.  I was one of the few favoured to
succeed the Nightmistress, you know."  V just stared at her, and Mars
shook her head.  "You really don't get it, do you, V?  I embraced the life.
I was wicked and cruel, and I enjoyed the way it made me feel.  I enjoyed
the way the others treated me, like I was something special.  Nobody
crossed Sister Darkeyes."
     "But you changed," V argued.  "You left."
     "I left because my ass was on the line," Mars pointed out.  "I didn't
change, not really.  Not before Usagi.  If it wasn't for her, I might never
have chosen a different path."
     "Still, you did choose," I said.  "Nobody made you.  That has to
count for a lot."
     "Yes, but Ranma, I worry that she's blinding herself to the truth.
I was that person.  I did those things.  Pretending that my past never
happened won't change anything."
     "Well, I don't want to change you," V said hotly, pushing past
me to stare Mars in the eye.  "And she doesn't, either.  You may be a
pain in the ass, but you're our pain in the ass.  Don't sell us short,
darling.  We're in for the whole package."
     Mars stopped, and she and V made the cool tunnel air heat up
with their close-quarters gazes.
     "She never asks about it," Mars said softly.  "She's hiding from
the truth, and I'm afraid that will end up hurting her."
     "You moron.  She's not hiding from it.  SHE JUST DOESN'T
CARE.  That's how she is.  You don't need to protect her.  You just need
to believe.  She'll do the rest."
     The air got hotter, the gazes lingered longer, and I knew how this
was going to end.  Sure enough, they ended up in a long, passionate kiss,
and I ended up turning to study the wall with great interest.  I mean, what
do you do if two girls just start kissing in front of you?  Well, if you're
either of those two, you'd at least watch, and probably join in.  Me, I was
still getting used to this whole public affection thing.
     "I can't believe you didn't watch," V's voice came from behind
me.  I blushed even brighter red, scowling as I turned.  V's eyes gleamed
with that quicksilver mischievous charm of hers as she slowly
disentangled herself from Mars.
     "I ... you ... because ..." I explained succinctly.  "Mars, you never
told us the rest of the plan."  Okay, yeah, I changed the subject.  Man, V
just enjoyed teasing me way too much.
     "Ah, yes," Mars said.  We started walking again, matters of the
past apparently settled for the moment.  "I was mentioning refining the
plan.  You see, if I could find a tunnel that nobody knew about, one
below or relatively close to the storm sewers beneath the temple, the plan
could work.  It would require time and precision, but essentially the plan
was to brew a huge amount of Siren's Breath, possibly more than one
batch.  Then I would create small bore holes into the sewer tunnels from
those positions."
     "But there are detection spells in those tunnels," V objected.
Mars reached out and pinched her butt, eliciting a squeak from V.
     "Quiet, you.  Yes, there are, but they are located at intervals.  If I
could bore a small hole into just the right section of sewer tunnel from
below, the cloud could travel through it and then up through the
plumbing or any small opening into the temple without ever having to
cross a detection spell."
     "And then what?" I asked.  "I mean, if you weren't going to
mount an attack, why go to all that trouble?"
     "Why?  Quite simple, really.  To humiliate our old enemies.  The
Siren's Breath would leave them rutting madly on the ground like
animals in heat, bereft of all reason.  They'd be unable to do anything
else.  The spectacle alone would have been worth it.  And, in the ensuing
chaos, my plan was to infiltrate the compound, take some pictures, and
perhaps something valued by the Order.  The Codex of Light, perhaps, or
Alieva's Staff.  That would have given the Order quite the bloody nose,
and to the other Sisters, I would have been a dark goddess, the woman
who screwed those bitches in their own temple.  Pulling off something
like that would have made me damned near untouchable within the
Sisterhood."
     I stared at her.  Mars seemed to shine with an inner light that was
barely contained by her pale skin, and in that moment I believed that she
could have done it.  Listening to her tell the story, I almost wished she
had done it, crazy as that was.  And so, captivated by her, I said the only
thing that I could think of in that moment.
     "Man, I am so glad that you're on our side."
     There was another pause, and then V started laughing.  Mars
grinned, an endearing expression completely at odds with the sex-goddess
aura she'd been putting out only moments ago, and she slung an arm
around my waist, squeezing me.
     "Me, too," she said.
     "Yay, group hug!" V crowed, throwing her arms around both if
us.  I felt something as we embraced, something more than the comfort of
physical closeness.  It was a warmth, a comfortable feeling, intimate
without being sexual.  Well, purely sexual, anyway.  It made me wonder
if there was anything to V's talk of trias.
     "All right," Mars laughed at last.  "So now you know the whole
sordid tale."
     "You never perfected the Siren's Breath, right?" I asked.
     "True, but Sass could have.  She knew about my plan.  The only one,
actually."
     "And if they finally found a tunnel they could use, then they
could be putting your plan into action," V mused as we started walking
again.  "But why?  Embarrassing the crap out of the White Order won't
get them anything now, will it?"
     "They could incapacitate most, if not all, of the temple's
defenders," Mars mused.  "Allowing them to penetrate the main temple.
This ceremony of theirs, it very well might gain power from being
conducted on ground sanctified to Alieva.  I can easily believe that Sass
would want to desecrate the White Order's holiest sanctum.  In fact, she
might do it just for the thrill.  It's risky, far bolder than the Sisterhood's
usual style.  But Sass and I were much alike.  I can see her doing
something like this."
     "Okay, but something doesn't add up," I said.
     "What's that?" Mars asked.
     "If they're going to be in the main temple compound, why go to
all the trouble to kidnap a high priestess from a temple in another
country?  I mean, if they're just going to sacrifice a priestess, wouldn't
there be plenty available?"
     "That's a good point," V said.  "Maybe they wanted her for
something else.  Like her knowledge of the layout of the temple and the
compound.  She might have known stuff that would help them in their
attack."
     "Maybe," Mars said.  She didn't seem convinced, though.
     "It doesn't really matter," V went on.  "We get to the surface,
warn the others, stop the ceremony, and there's no problem."
     "I'm glad it's going to be so simple," Mars replied with a wry
smile.  "It's hard to say how long we've been down here, but time is
passing.  We only have hours to find the Sisterhood and stop this
ceremony from taking place.
     "Plenty of time," V beamed.  "We'll just ..."
     I sensed it suddenly, the disturbance in the air, and my first instinct
was to drop.  But instead I grabbed V with one hand, Mars with the other,
and pulled them down with me.  Just in time, as it turned out.
     Stone shattered, and I rolled away from the rain of razored
shards, coming to my feet facing back the way we'd come.  The creature
was hard to see, clinging to the ceiling and cloaked in shadows, but its
eyes gleamed bright green in the gloom.
     Great.  Just what we needed.

***

     "Anything?" Jupiter shouted as she ran.
     "Lost it again!" Mercury said, frustration evident on her face.
"But it was stronger that time!"
     "Great!  A direction would be nice!"  Jupiter spun, cupping her
hands and unleashing a barrage of lightning back down the tunnel.
Snarls and high-pitched shrieks came in response as blue-white light
flashed and snapped through the air.  "By the way, they're still back
there!"
     "I noticed!"  Mercury gritted.  Their nightmare flight through the
maze of passageways seemed to have been going on forever, and Jupiter
felt the encroaching burn of exertion in her muscles.  Even senshi had
limits to their stamina; if they didn't at least find a defensible position
soon, they were going to be overrun.
     They rounded a curve in the narrow passageway to find yet
another junction of four tunnels, Yoshi standing in the centre.  He was
partially transformed, fur covering his arms and legs, and he raised his
elongated snout into the air, baying a challenge to all comers.  Jupiter
was worried; this close to the full moon, the bloodlust of the beast would
be close to the surface.  Being trapped in a hopeless battle against a
seemingly unending tide of monsters might just push him over the edge.
     "That way!" Mercury shouted.  Yoshi caught her arm as she ran
by, pulling her up short with effortless ease.
     "No," he growled, his voice guttural but still comprehensible
through his physical transformation.  "More that way.  There."
     The tunnel he pointed to seemed to slope down again, and
Mercury opened her mouth to argue.  Jupiter just nodded and took off
down the tunnel.  If Yoshi said go that way, then that was the way to go.
With Mercury's scans hampered by the subterranean interference,
Yoshi's nose was all that had kept them ahead of the swarm of creatures.
Froptin, Mercury called them.  Jupiter had been silently calling them
much less scientific names for some time now.
     They were only as long as her arm, and she could easily have
handled one.  Or a dozen, for that matter.  But they must have stumbled
upon a nest or something; there were hundreds of the things.  Their
armoured hides made them resistant to harm, they seemed able to eat
their way through anything, including rock, and they were fast.
     And, apparently, tireless.  The air burned in her lungs as she ran
into the darkness, Mercury just behind her now.  This was insane.  They
needed a plan, an escape route, hells, she'd give a kidney for five minutes
to rest and think.
     "Wind," Yoshi snarled, and surged ahead of them.  Wind?  An
exit, maybe?  Jupiter poured on the speed, pounding down the narrow
throat of stone.  Pale luminescence limned the end of the tunnel, and she
fixed her entire focus on that point.  Their salvation lay just beyond.  It
had to.  There was no way they could have come through so much just to
die in the dark, killed by a swarm of mindless eating spider/worm/slug
things.  That just ... it just wouldn't be FAIR.
     Thirty feet.  Twenty.  Ten.  She burst through the mouth of the
tunnel, and only Yoshi's quick reflexes saved her from careening to her
death.  Seconds later, he snagged Mercury as well, and the three of them
teetered on the brink of an abyss.
     "Oh ... hells," Mercury gasped, staring down into the bottomless
dark.
     "I hate ... this fucking ... place," Jupiter panted, trying to catch her
breath.  Her damp t-shirt was riding up where Yoshi's furry arm had
grabbed her, and she tugged it down automatically as she surveyed the
situation.  They had emerged into a large cavern.  It looked natural, as if
it had been carved from the rock by water over the ages, the ceiling
somewhere high above them, cloaked in darkness.  There were patches of
pale light cast by some sort of lichen or moss that clung to the rough
stone.
     The smooth tunnel floor extended about ten feet past the end of
the tunnel, then stopped in a ragged line.  Beyond that was only darkness.
It spread out to each side as well, but not far.  Sometime in the past, there
might have been a way across this chasm.  Now it was simply the end of
the line.
     "There!" Yoshi exclaimed.  "Look!"
     Jupiter followed his gaze, and at first saw nothing.  But as her
eyes adjusted to the gloom, she made out a series of dark lines extending
out into the dark.
     "What?  What is that?" Mercury wheezed.
     "Quick, seal the tunnel!" Yoshi bawled.  Jupiter whirled, calling
on her reserves of strength.  She could hear the skittering noises growing
louder from within the tunnel, knew the things would be on them soon.
Letting out an ear-splitting battle-cry, she unleashed a devastating
barrage of lightning bolts.  They danced down the length of the stone
corridor, actinic flashes lighting up the walls and ceiling in a staccato
rhythm as power met cold rock, and conquered it.  The noise was
deafening, and a cloud of fine dust and small rock swept out towards
them finally as Jupiter let her hands drop, shoulders heaving with
exertion.
     "Nice," Yoshi grinned.  His face was shifting, becoming more
human as he moved along the narrow ledge towards the shadowed form
to their left.
     "That won't ... hold them long," Jupiter gasped.
     "It didn't last time," Mercury agreed.  "Oh, my word.  Is that
what I think it is?"
     Jupiter edged along the ledge, hoping it was solid.  Falling into
some dark abyss was less mortifying than being eaten by monsters, but
only slightly.  Then she caught sight of their supposed salvation, and she
groaned aloud.
     "A rope bridge," Mercury said with delighted wonder.
     "Someone must have been using these tunnels sometime in the
past," Yoshi said, "and set up a way across this gap."
     "Yeah, like six hundred years ago!" Jupiter snapped.  "Look at
that thing!  It's ancient!  You don't actually want to go across that, do
you?  We can't even see the other side!"
     "Our options are extremely limited," Mercury pointed out,
kneeling and examining the points where the rope bridge was anchored to
the stone.
     "Am I the only one here who's ever seen a movie?" Jupiter
asked, aggrieved.  "Come on.  'Journey to Vassalasta?'  'Captains of
Underearth?'  All eight of the Quentin Marsh movies, for heaven's sake!
When you go out onto a rickety old rope bridge, it breaks!  Always!  And
usually you have to dangle from it while fighting some six-armed lizard
man with a pocketknife!"
     "He only had four arms," Mercury pointed out.  She looked up,
saw Jupiter's expression, and flushed.  "I liked those movies," she said
defensively.
     "Me, too," Yoshi said.  "Come on, Makoto ..."
     "Jupiter, remember?"  At least the fighting seemed to have distracted
Yoshi from his self-loathing.
     "Ah.  Sorry.  Look, we don't have a choice, here.  I'm heaviest, I'll go
first.  When I get to the other side, I'll call out, and you guys can cross
one at a time."
     "Those froptins are boring through that rock right now," Mercury
added.  "We don't have time to worry about what might happen."
     Well, she had a point.  "All right, all right.  Let's hope the thing
was built to last.  Yosh?"
     Yoshi nodded and moved up to the edge of the bridge.  Cold air
rushed up from the darkness as Jupiter peered carefully over the edge,
and she shivered at the lonesome sound of fitfully creaking rope.  She
wasn't especially afraid of heights, but not being able to see what was
below them, or even on the far side, made it seem as though they were
suspended in an oasis of pale light in an endless sea of darkness.  The
overall effect was spooky, and the knowledge that a swarm of hungry
fropto-whatsits, or whatever the hells they were called, were even at that
moment tunnelling towards them didn't help matters any.
     The bridge shuddered and swayed as Yoshi ventured out onto it,
and Jupiter's heart seized painfully in her chest.  The lithe werewolf
didn't hesitate, however, gripping the two ropes that ran at chest height
and edging out into the darkness.  Mercury sneaked a peek at his bare
back; it was quite a view, Jupiter had to admit.  After his latest
transformation, very little remained of Yoshi's worn jeans, and what
there was clung tenaciously to the firm curves of his butt.  Yes, definitely
a sight worth lingering on.
     The sound of small rocks skittering down the caved in tunnel
behind them drew her attention back sharply.
     "Already?" she blurted.
     "Relax," Mercury said.  "It's just the rocks settling.  It should
take them at least ten minutes to dig their way through that mess."
     "Are you sure?" Jupiter demanded as another tiny rock fall was
triggered in the gloom of the ruined tunnel.  A glance over her shoulder
showed her that Yoshi was nearly out of view.
     "Of course," Mercury assured her.  "Look, at this range I can ..."
     Jupiter tensed as Mercury stopped talking and frowned at her
tiny, handheld computer.  "What?"
     "Um," Mercury explained.
     "What?  What are ...?  Hey.  Why is that flashing red?  Red is
bad, right?  RIGHT?"
     "This behaviour is really atypical," Mercury said plaintively.
"From what little has been documented about them, they shouldn't be
swarming like this, and they should definitely not be pursuing us so
relentlessly.  According to my files, this sort of behaviour is characteristic
of their mating season ..."
     "They're horny?" Jupiter howled in outrage as more and more
stones started cascading down the rock face.  "You have got to be
freaking KIDDING ME!"
     "No, they shouldn't be mating now!" Mercury insisted.  She
seemed to be taking the little bastards' refusal to play by the rules
personally.
     "Not ten minutes?" Jupiter winced as the volume of rock moving
continued to increase.
     "Would you believe fifty seconds?"
     "Of course I would, because the gods hate me.  Run?"
     "Run."
     They turned together and crossed the space to the rope bridge in
seconds.  "We can't all go out on this thing at once," Jupiter gritted.
"We just can't."
     "We can't wait," Mercury told her urgently.  "Once they break
through, they'll be all over this bridge.  We've got to get to the other side
and cut the bridge."
     This will not end well, Jupiter thought darkly.  "Okay, you first."
     "What?  No!"
     "I'm heavier," Jupiter said as patiently as she could.  "You get as
far as you can, then I'll start across.  No time to argue, just go!"
     Mercury opened her mouth, closed it, nodded.  "Don't wait too
long," she pleaded, reaching out to squeeze Jupiter's hand.  Then she was
out on the bridge, carefully making her way out into the darkness.
     "Hey!" Yoshi's voice came faintly from the gloom.  "Not yet!"
     "Change of plans!" Jupiter shouted back.  We've got company!"
Then she turned back to watch the tunnel mouth, counting off the
seconds in her head.  She meant to give Mercury and Yoshi as much time
as possible before adding her weight to the tattered gossamer construct
that spanned the chasm.  If the bridge failed, then they might stand a
chance if they were close enough to the far side.
     Jupiter stood her ground, cold sweat running down her back and
tickling the nape of her neck as the tiny rockfalls became more
numerous, joining together in a cacophonous symphony of falling stone.
Finally she thought she heard the skitter of claws, and knew she could
wait no longer.  Turning, she stepped onto the first weathered plank.
     The bridge creaked ominously, and what had appeared to be a
gentle sway when observed from the stable perch of stone was far more
unnerving when experienced from this perspective.  Gripping the corded
rope, she moved as quickly as she could.  The planks that formed the
floor of the bridge were uneven, crooked in places, completely missing in
others.  As the pale light from the lichen faded, her footing became even
more treacherous, but still Jupiter pressed on, waiting for the vibrations
that would tell her the voracious creatures were swarming onto the bridge
behind her.  The cold sweat running down her back began to itch, as
though trying to burrow back into her flesh.  Step after step she moved,
aware that she'd lost sight of Mercury already, and that her own sight
was fading.  How far did this damned chasm go?
     Finally she paused, risking a look back.  The sight that greeted
her nearly caused her to stumble, and her grip locked down on the rope as
her eyes widened in disbelief.
     She could see the creatures, more every second, clustering on the
stone shelf in the dim light of the lichen.  They were not, however,
venturing out onto the bridge after her.  No, apparently her day was
going to get to end in an even more special nightmare.
     They were chewing through the ropes.
     The little freaks were all over the points where the bridge was
anchored, attacking the rope with fangs and claws in a frenzy of activity.
The ones that couldn't reach the ropes were the worst, though.  They
were all lined up on the ledge to either side of the bridge, and Jupiter was
absolutely certain in that moment that they were watching her.  They
were watching her while their comrades chewed through the ropes, and
they were waiting for her to fall.  Like they knew.
     Like they understood.
     Gods, these things were just stupid monsters.  They weren't
supposed to be able to THINK.
     Do some thinking yourself, a little voice told her, and she broke
her stunned reverie in that second.  Attacking them would be pointless;
her lightning would just do the job for them.  Instead she whirled and
began running heedlessly into the dark, and she shouted at the top of her
lungs as she did so.
     "GUYS!  RUN FOR IT, THE BRIDGE IS COMING DOWN!"
     She got maybe ten steps before the entire bridge gave a lurch.
She stumbled and fell against one of the handrail ropes, grabbing for it
frantically as she began to tumble into space.  Jupiter managed to get her
arm wound around it as she fell headlong across the loose planks.  A loud
crack echoed through the darkness, and the bridge lurched again,
swinging drunkenly.
     And then she was falling.

***

     "I don't like it," Haruka muttered as she parked the car in the
narrow lot.  "They've been out of contact too long."
     "There's nothing we can do right now," Setsuna replied.  "When
they come back up, they'll contact us."
     "If we had stayed, we would have been able to go in with them,"
Haruka pointed out.
     "Twenty-twenty hindsight, love," Michiru sighed.  "How could
we know that they would find a hidden tunnel?  The real question is, why
are we here?"
     "Follow me," Setsuna instructed, getting out of the car and
heading into the trees.  The once tidy park showed the effects of years of
neglect, trees and brush wildly overgrown.  That suited her purposes just
fine.  Even though there were few people around, she did not want to risk
being seen.  She slipped through the heavy undergrowth, transforming in
the deepest gloom before emerging from the trees on the far side.
     "This is all very mysterious, Pluto," Uranus grumbled as she and
Neptune joined her.  "But don't you think it's time you told us what
we're doing here?"
     "Saturn is not going to meet her contact," Pluto told them.  "At
least, not yet."
     "She's coming here?" Neptune asked, surveying the scruffy line
of hedges that faced them with faint distaste.  "Why?  This
neighbourhood may have been quite nice once, but it's long since fallen
on hard times.  Most of these houses look abandoned."
     "There," Pluto nodded, and set off across the trash-filled ravine
that separated the houses from the old park.  She sprinted neatly up the
other side of the slope and leaped the hedge, ending up in a backyard that
still had most of its fence.  Uranus and Neptune were right behind her.
     "Pluto," Neptune said.  It was clear from her tone that her
patience was waning.
     "She'll be here soon, I would think," Pluto said, shifting her grip
on her keystaff.
     "What is this place?" Uranus asked.  The house that slouched
menacingly over the yard had once been, like the rest of the
neighbourhood, quite upscale.  Now the windows were boarded up and
the weathered building gave off a stale aura of neglect.  Pluto stared up at
the uneven roofline and felt a strange sadness.  It had all gone wrong
here, in this place, years ago.  She had no doubt that the misfortune that
had befallen this entire neighbourhood had had its genesis in this very
house.
     "This?" Pluto replied.  "This house once belonged to the Tomoe
family.  Yukari Tomoe died here."
     "This is the house?" Neptune asked, tucking her hair behind her
ear as the wind picked up.  She gazed up at the mouldering old wreck,
her eyes shadowed.  They all knew what had happened to their friend in
this place, but only Pluto had actually been to the house.  Until now.
     "What are you doing?"  Pluto turned to see Saturn's face, eyes
wide with shock as she took in the scene that awaited her.  She had come
to the back, as Pluto had guessed she would.  There were still people
skulking in this ruined place, poor, desperate, drug-addled folk who had
made this their last stop before the grave.  Saturn would have wanted
privacy.
     "I think the question, Saturn, is what are you doing here alone?"
Uranus asked.  There was no trace of recrimination in the tall blonde's
voice; they all understood why Saturn had chosen to come here alone.
     "The link between this vampire and you gnaws at your soul,"
Pluto said quietly as the others watched.  "You believe that she came
back here, to the house where she killed your mother.  It is just the sort of
twisted thing such a creature might do, Saturn.  But you are not going in
there alone."
     Pluto waited for the anger, but it didn't come.  The fading shock
left only a resigned look on Saturn's face as she tromped across the flat
yellow grass to where they stood.
     "How did you know?" Saturn asked her wearily.
     "You had a file on your desk when I came in this morning,"
Pluto told her.  "You were looking at an old picture of this house.  I
know you don't pine for days of childhood innocence, Saturn.  I know
you.  I knew what you would do."
     "Stay outside."  It wasn't the sort of curt command that they had
all heard Saturn utter in the past.  It was soft, almost plaintive.  It hurt to
hear, but Pluto couldn't say yes.
     "No way," Uranus spoke up.  "If that creature really is in there
..."
     "The sun is up," Saturn argued.
     "The old ones can move around just fine during the day,"
Neptune said evenly, "as long as they avoid the light.  If the vampire is in
there, Saturn, you are not facing her alone."
     "We are your friends," Pluto told her gently.  "You never have to
face anything alone."
     "This place," Saturn began.  She stopped, looked way.  "It's not a
good place."  Her violet eyes were stained by deep shadows, and Pluto
was certain that Saturn had not returned to this house since the day she
had left.  But neither had she sold it; the title remained in her name.  It
seemed that, no matter how her past haunted her, Hotaru Tomoe was
unable to let it go.
     "I know," Pluto told her as the others moved to stand beside the
woman responsible for bringing them together.  "But you are a good
person, and nothing in there can change that."
     Saturn stood there for a moment, in the shadow of her childhood,
head bowed.  Pluto wondered if her friend would try to argue, but it
seemed that Saturn realised the futility of that action.  When she raised
her head again, her features were composed.
     "Very well," she said softly.  "Let's get this done."
      As one, they turned and climbed the decrepit old steps, and
opened the door into darkness.
 
 
 
 
 
 

End chapter 18