Previously:

     Ranma's attempts to discover more of the secret workings of the
mysterious key result in his witnessing a moment in history; or rather, the
last moments of Illianka, last Warden to wield the key.  He glimpsed a
great cataclysm approaching her ship, and the bond between the strange
girl and her last guardians, a woman named Griffon and a man who, it
turned out, was the enigmatic being known to Ranma as Dragon.
     As the night wore on and Baniesti drew nearer, everyone sought
solace and comfort in their own ways.  Rei, Minako and Usagi enjoyed
each other's company, Makoto watched over an injured Yoshi, Mamoru
met with his partner Yu and ETF Sgt. Meaghan Piakesti, and Setsuna
worried that Hotaru's darkness was rising one more.
     Ami's attempts to decode the discs retrieved from the Tyrian
Sultana's residence met with no success, at least until Rei showed up.
The synergy that had been created between Ami's Aethyr abilities and
Rei's Shadow magicks allowed Ami to see the underlying patterns in the
magicked encryption ... but only if she and Rei called up the synergy
through intimate means.  Their passionate encounter brought the two
girls closer, and also showed Ami the truth about the encryption: It was
based on work she had done for the villainous Inme.  And she suspected
the appearance of this particular glyph system lent credence to the idea
that there were forces at work beyond mere coincidence.
     Gathering the others, the group quickly found that the discs
contained incriminating evidence against the Sisterhood, including proof
that they had kidnapped a High Priestess of Alieva.  Setting off to the
mansion on the discs, the senshi, Ranma, Tux, and Yoshi found a hidden
passage into the city's treacherous underground labyrinth, and set off in
hot pursuit of the Sisterhood, determined to prevent them from
unwittingly doing the vampire's bidding.
     The Nightmistress led six of her Sisters and Maidens though the
tunnels, using stealth and trickery to lay a trap and separate the group.
Now Tux and Moon unwittingly pursue a fake Saekianna, while Ranma,
V and Mars fight monsters in one tunnel, with Jupiter, Mercury, and
Yoshi facing death on a rope bridge over a black gorge.
     And all the while, the vampire's plan comes closer to fruition ...
 
 
 
 

     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 19: Down Town
 

     Luna took in the scene before her, wondering how upset Rei
would be if something unfortunate were to happen to Phobos and
Deimos.  Cats and birds, after all, did not mix well.
     "You two?" she spat.  "You scared us out of our wits!"
     "That right, Artie?" Deimos asked insouciantly.  She was standing on
the prone man's chest, hand on her hip as she gazed down into his face.
Phobos was still hovering in the doorway to the room where Rei had
spent the night, and to Luna it looked as though the winged girl was
trying not to smile.
     "You startled me," he muttered sheepishly, pale cheeks flushed.
"That's all."
     "That's NOT all!" Deimos shot back, stamping one tiny booted
foot.  Luna scowled as the sliver of the girl's stiletto heel dimpled the
front of Artemis's shirt.  "Where is Rei-sama?"
     "We woke up and couldn't sense her," Phobos added, sounding as
though that was Artemis's fault.  Luna shook her head, coal-black curls
bouncing around her face as she strode forward and grabbed Artemis by
the hand, pulling her sprawled partner to a sitting position.  Deimos,
rudely dislodged, spread her black wings and fluttered into the air,
spitting a string of very inventive curses.
     "The girls got a lead on the Sisterhood," Luna sniffed, ignoring
Deimos's outburst.  "They ended up following them underground, and
we've been out of contact since."
     "Underground?  That's dangerous!" Phobos blurted.
     "And without us!" Deimos added, clearly offended.
     "You two were still out when they left," Artemis said as Luna
helped him up.  She didn't see why he bothered to mollify the trouble-
making twins; she and Artemis were quite used to being left out of things.
     "She's done quite well all this time," Luna told the two hovering girls,
crossing her arms.  "I'm certain Rei will manage somehow."
     "Well, I'm certainly not just going to sit here and wait," Phobos
fumed, her delicate features set in a stubborn scowl.
     "Yeah, only a simp would do that!" Deimos added.
     "What?"
     "Um, maybe I should let you two out the back door," Artemis
said, quickly stepping between Luna and the irate twins.  She heard him
giving quick directions to the house where the senshi had gone, then the
sound of the door opening and closing.  When he came back, she had
calmed down.  A little.
     "Feisty little gals, huh?" he asked weakly. "Oh, come on, Luna
..."
     "I want to go."
     "Er, what?"
     "Go," she repeated firmly.  "Out.  There."
     "You want to follow them?  But ..."
     "I want to be in the thick of things," she told him, grabbing his
hand and holding it.  "Like old times.  We don't need to stay here to
coordinate things, Artemis.  We can do that from the field."
     "Well, yeah," he said slowly.  She knew she wouldn't have to try
very hard to convince him.  Artemis had always loved being in the
middle of everything, even more than she.  "But we don't know where to
go."
     "We'll start with that house," she told him, already heading down
the hallway.  That old excitement was coming back, a tingle in the pit of
her stomach that she hadn't even realised she had missed.  "If they come
up anywhere near it, we'll be able to reach them quicker if we're there."
     There was only so much the two of them could do, but Luna
would be damned if she would sit at home and wait for her princess and
all the girls.  If there was anything she could do, she wanted to do it.
     No more waiting around.

***

     The years had been unkind to this place, but the physical rot was far
from the worst of it.  A bleak taint hung thick in the air, a greasy psychic
residue of grief and despair and, underneath it all, madness.
     Pluto grimaced as her boots stirred up a noxious fog of mouldy
carpet and dust.  It was clear that no one had been in this house for a very
long time, and ordinarily that would have made her suspicious.  After all,
no other houses in this neighbourhood had escaped the predations of the
desperate, the drug-addled, and the just plain mad denizens of this
abandoned wasteland.  At the very least, the place should have been
vandalised and shown signs of occupation.  No tragic history should
have sufficed to keep the mouldering wreck unmolested.
     And no tragic history was.  No, Pluto understood exactly why the
old Tomoe house had remained sacrosanct.  There was something here, a
foul aura left by the vampire's act and the ensuing madness that had
ruined this place.  Even the most desperate of people, driven to the
furthest reaches of degradation and despair, could sense it.  And even
they wanted nothing of such a place, although Pluto doubted they were
consciously aware of why they avoided it.
     Saturn had been right.  This was, quite simply, a bad place.
     "Empty," Neptune opined, circling around through an open
sitting area.  The wallpaper was dark, stained with mildew and other, less
easily identifiable signs of decay, and it was peeling off the walls in
places.  Most of the furniture was gone, probably sold off by Hotaru after
her father's death.  All that remained was desolation.
     And faint, pulsing madness.
     "Here," Uranus said, her low voice carrying in the thick, sour air.
Pluto and Neptune joined her in a doorway near the front of the house.
Saturn, Pluto noted, hung back.
     The room Uranus was staring into was large, with dark wooden
beams running across the room just below ceiling level.  The dim,
gloomy light that ventured warily inside through the chinks in the
boarded-up bay window showed that this room was as barren as all the
others on this floor.  There was something of interest here, though, and
Pluto understood why Saturn did not want to look.
     There, still tied around the middle of one of the beams.  The rope
hung down a few inches, the end frayed.  Apparently, the police or
paramedics or whoever had cut Hotaru's father's body down had left this
little souvenir behind, and no one had ever removed it.
     "The vamp isn't here," Uranus said softly, so that Saturn couldn't
hear.  Privately, Pluto agreed.  Vampires were vain creatures, given to
surrounding themselves with decadence and beauty in order to feed all
their appetites.  Only the newest, most feral vampire would be forced to
live in squalor like this, and their quarry was far from freshly turned.
     "We'll check upstairs anyway," Neptune added.  Pluto only
nodded, watching as the two climbed the creaking stairs, mindful of the
possibility of structural failure.
     "I should have burned this place to the ground."  Pluto started a
little at the sound of Saturn's voice, low and toneless.
     "I'm surprised that you didn't," Pluto confessed, turning.
     "She wouldn't be upstairs, you know."
     "She's probably not here at all."  But Saturn was right, the vamp
would not be resting above ground.  Far safer to shelter where the sun's
rays could not reach.
     "I'm going to check the basement."
     "You don't have to, Saturn.  I'll go ..."
     "No!"  Saturn froze, and Pluto fancied that she could see the
woman taking hold of her emotions, reining them in tightly.  "No.  I will
handle this, Pluto.  You wait here."
     Saturn was a strong woman, a commanding presence, someone
who always seemed to be in control.  Pluto knew that very few people
were privileged to know this woman as she did.  For all her strength and
apparent aloofness, there were times when the vulnerable girl that had
once been Hotaru Tomoe could be seen, even through the layers of
emotional armour and psychic scarring.  When that happened, Pluto
could not help but want to reach out to her friend, to try to protect her.
And even though Hotaru had always made a show of disdaining help,
there was no doubt in Pluto's mind that her friend ached for the gentle
touch of compassion.  She might not be able to admit it, but Saturn
wanted to be cared for, cared about.
     "I understand," Pluto told her, choosing her words carefully.  "You
need to face your demons, Saturn.  But you don't need to do it alone."
     "I don't want you down there."  Saturn's tone was commanding,
but deep inside those violet eyes a scared young girl clung to her sole
defence, a brittle facade of cold arrogance.
     "Do you really think," Pluto asked gently, "that I don't know
what we'll find?"
     Saturn didn't reply, but some of the tension went out of the set of
her slender shoulders.    It would be a relief, Pluto reflected, for those
shoulders not to have to bear so much weight alone.
     "I don't want you to see it," the woman said at last, softly,
dropping her gaze so that she would not have to look Pluto in the eye.
     "You are not going down alone," Pluto repeated, reaching out to
place her hand on Saturn's shoulder.  "If for no other reason than the
outside chance that our vamp could really be down there.  Saturn."  She
squeezed the shoulder, smiling gently.  "Hotaru.  I've seen you at your
darkest, remember?  I've seen you fight your demons, and win every
time.  All that's down there is ancient history.  It doesn't change anything.
It doesn't change you, and it won't change how I see you.  I promise."
     "Very well."  Saturn took a deep breath, let it out slowly, tension
thrumming through her lithe frame.  Her gaze locked with Pluto's once
more, and she seemed resolved, at least.  "Let's get this over with."
     They had a surprise waiting for them, however, when they made
their way back through the house to the hall where the basement door
was.  The door stood open, and there were fresh tracks in the dust.
Tracks that had come down the narrow back staircase, tracks that had
been made by boots.
     I should have known, Pluto thought ruefully.  Saturn's eyes
widened, then narrowed, and Pluto wondered if there was going to be an
explosion of their leader's famous temper.  For her part, Pluto could only
wonder how Neptune and Uranus had moved through the decrepit house
so silently.
     "I see nobody trusts my judgement," Saturn gritted.
     "That's not it," Pluto assured her, pushing the door wide.
     "Hey," Uranus's voice came from below as her foot hit the first stair.
"I think the two of you need to see this."
     Pluto could tell from Uranus's tone that this would not be pleasant.
 Steeling herself for the worst, she followed Saturn down the stairs.  The
basement was a stark affair, bare concrete walls and floor with bare bulbs
for light.  The bulbs were dark, of course.  No power here, not for a very
long time.  But there was more than ample light to see by, and Pluto
paused at the bottom of the stairs, grip tightening on her keystaff.
     Candles.  Hundreds of them, casting an incongruously warm
glow over the slabs of bare concrete.  Their flickering flames picked out
tiny points of silver on the large cage that had been bolted to the floor,
and Pluto's heart twinged as her gaze swept across the manacles that
hung from strong chains near the back of the cage.  They were the right
size to fit a young girl's slender wrists, those cruel things.
     She'd known that Hotaru's father had imprisoned her when the
bloodlust had come, but the thought of her friend chained up and locked
in a cage in this cold, dank place, that hurt with an intensity that was
physical.  Saturn had not wanted any of them to see this.
     In truth, Pluto could scarcely blame her.  But the past was, it
seemed, the least of their worries.
     "The candles lit when we came down," Neptune told them.
     "A simple spell," Uranus shrugged.  "Saturn ..."
     The slender woman did not reply, only staring fixedly at a spot on the
floor near the back wall.  There was something lying there, and it took
Pluto a moment to puzzle out what the small, lumpy shape was.  Then
recognition hit, and her stomach curdled at the shocking cruelty that must
lay behind such a gesture.  The cat was small, only a kitten really, its fur
standing up in rough tufts all over its fragile body.  Its eyes were partially
open and glazed; it had not been dead for more than a few days.
     It was black and white.  Had Hotaru's first cat been black and
white?  She thought it probably had.  And had this tiny, stiff corpse been
drained of what little blood it contained?  Pluto would have bet on it.
     Not that she had to.  There was something else, taped to the wall
behind the forlorn remains.  A brittle-looking piece of newsprint hung
there, a greeting card of some sort beneath it, a discordant splash of
colour and forced cheer in this dark place.  Pluto moved closer, noting
the careful way that the other two watched Saturn.
     The newsprint was an obituary.  She did not need to see the name
in bold type at the top of the page; the picture of a slender, dark-eyed
beauty told her whose death the notice had heralded.  Yukari Tomoe had
indeed been a beautiful woman.  The card beneath the death notice,
though, was an even crueller counterpoint to the reminder of a life taken
too soon.
     CONGRATULATIONS! the card exhorted over a cartoonish picture
of bright pink balloons.  IT'S A GIRL!
     Saturn's cry of rage split the air seconds before a cacophony of
metal on metal.  Pluto could only watch as her friend demolished the
solidly built cage with sharp, vicious swings of her glaive.  The din was
deafening, but that hardly mattered.  She had no words for Saturn,
nothing to salve the horrible memories that had been dredged up and
rubbed into still-raw wounds.  She winced as Saturn easily demolished
the last remaining wall of that stern prison, sending neatly halved steel
pipes flying across the basement with the fury of her swing.
     "Saturn," Uranus said as the clattering of steel died away.
Pluto's ears still rang with it, and she wondered at first if Saturn simply
couldn't hear them.  "SATURN."
     "Laughing," Saturn spat, her slender shoulders trembling with fury.
She spun, and Pluto saw the pain and rage in those violet eyes, a look
that reflected old scars reopened.  "She's laughing at me.  All this,
everything, my whole life, my mother, it was just ... just a GAME!"
     Oh, hells.  Darkness was never very far beneath the surface for
Hotaru Tomoe, Pluto knew.  Could something like this call forth her
vampiric nature?  Was that what this creature had been counting on?
     "Saturn," Uranus repeated.  She took a step towards the enraged
woman, then another, speaking in a low, soothing tone, as one would to a
wounded animal.  "Listen.  Look at me."
     "I'll kill her," Saturn whispered, her normally pale face flushed.
"With my bare hands."
     "This vamp wants you rattled," Uranus went on, holding her
hands out to the sides.  "She wants you pissed, so that you'll be reckless.
Don't give her what she wants."
     Saturn's shoulders heaved as she tried to control her breathing,
and her hand still shook where it gripped the shaft of her glaive, but
Uranus had gotten her attention.
     "Hotaru," Pluto said softly.  "Listen.  You are not what she tried
to make you.  You have fought to be more, fought your entire life.  Don't
let her blind you to that."
     "She's trying to drag you down," Neptune added, stepping up.
"But we're not going to let that happen."
     "You need to stay focussed," Uranus said, looking down into
Saturn's smouldering eyes.  "So we can find this vampire and destroy
her.  Before she does any more harm.  Before she ruins any more lives."
     Saturn turned away, and Pluto held her breath, hoping that they
had gotten through to her.  After a long, tense moment, she stalked over
to the stairs, simmering fury lending her a predatory grace that was as
beautiful as it was unsettling.
     "Come on," Saturn said curtly, not looking back.  "There's nothing to
help us here."
     They watched her disappear up the stairs, and as one began to
breathe again.
     "It's one thing to know," Pluto sighed at last, surveying the stark,
cold basement.  "But to see it ... and that creature.  She unearthed
Hotaru's past, just to hurt her.  Such cruelty."
     "It's worse than that," Uranus said, running her fingers through
her icy pale blonde hair.  "The cat.  She knows at least some of Hotaru's
past."
     "She's been back to the city," Neptune nodded.  "Checking up on
her experiment?"
     "That's a chilling thought," Pluto muttered.  "Clearly, she's still
interested in Hotaru."
     "We have to keep her from finding out that Hotaru is a senshi,"
Uranus said.
     "It's far simpler than that, love," Neptune murmured, casting a
look back at the tiny ball of fur on the floor.  "We have to find this bitch,
and we have to kill her.  Quickly."

***

     "I'm beginning to understand," I panted, "why people avoid
going underground."
     "You know," V said hoarsely, leaning over with her hands braced
just above her knees as she gasped for breath, "that last one ... I think ...
he liked you."
     "The one with the sticky tongue?" I grimaced.  "He was trying to
eat me."
     "I think we're clear," Mars announced, leaning heavily on the
stone archway as she peered back down the latest corridor we'd sprinted
through on our Underground Saeni Spring Tour.  Her hair hung down
around her face as she bent over, and she combed it back with her fingers,
shaking it out as she stood.  She and V made it look easy, fighting and
running and whatnot with hair down to their knees, but I was glad that I
wore mine in a braid.  I'd just find it too distracting.
     I watched V take her cap off and shake her blonde tresses out,
too, and realised that I was distracted anyway, just by their hair instead of
mine.  They were like some sort of action/adventure shampoo
commercial.  It took me a while to realise that V knew I was watching
her and was just preening for my benefit.  I looked away quickly,
blushing.  I wasn't sure why, though, as I listened to her giggles drift
through the air like soap bubbles.  It wasn't like she minded me
watching.
     And, if I was honest, it wasn't like I minded, either.  Problem was, I
just couldn't seem to be honest about this stuff.  I wondered if there was a
way to learn.  Because Rei had been right; I needed to start thinking
about what I was going to do.
     But not now.  Things had been hairy for a few minutes there, but
we'd fought our way through Captain Tongue and his friends, and it
didn't look like they were following us anymore.  Still, we had things to
do, things that took precedence over my problems dealing with women.
Hot, sexy, flirtatious women with a penchant for scandalously sinful
clothing and even more daring behaviour ...
     I shook my head, appalled at myself for losing focus so easily.
Maybe V could juggle sex into every situation, no matter how dire, but I
needed to get my head in the game.  That ambush back there had nearly
taken us by surprise, and we couldn't let that happen again.
     "Okay," V said, tying a loose knot in her hair and perching her
cap back on her head.  "So, we're not going to be eaten in the next few
minutes.  But we're just as lost as we were before.  So, sportsfans, what
now?"
     "I want to try something," Mars said, pushing off the wall.  We
were in a fairly wide chamber, a sort of intersection of tunnels.  Two of
the four doorways had been sealed up with bricks, leaving only the one
we'd entered by and the archway opposite.  We could probably break
through the sealed doors, of course, but I wasn't anxious to do that.  After
all, they'd probably been sealed for a reason.
     "What, here?" V asked as Mars walked to the middle of the
round stone chamber.
     "Our choices aren't exactly unlimited," Mars replied, dark eyes
flicking over to V, then to me, deep and filled with unknowable secrets.
     Unknowable? something deep inside mocked me.  Maybe not, if
you only ask ...
     "This isn't the best place," I said, mostly to take my mind off this
latest flood of hormone-induced heat.  "Two entrances to watch."
     "Time is our enemy, Ranma.  We can't afford to wait until a
perfect opportunity presents itself."
     "So, what's the plan?" V asked.  Her tone was that deliberately
casual drawl that meant she was ready and willing to try anything.
     "Communication," Mars said simply.  "We need to let the others
know about the temple and the Sisterhood's plan.  I've tried to contact
Phobos and Deimos, but I'm not getting anything.  Either they're still
recovering, or this underground interference affects our link as well as
our comms."
     "So, what?  You're going to yell really, really loud?" V grinned.
     "No, I'm going to summon my shadow, and I'm going to try and
forge a link to Mercury."
     Silence.  Yeah, Mars had done that once before, true.  But every
time she did the spooky shadow thing, people seemed to get creeped out.
Well, okay, I got creeped out.  But V didn't seem entirely happy, either.
     "Could that work?" V asked, sounding a little wary.
     "It worked once before."
     "Yeah, but your powers were boosted by being in Shadow,
right?"
     "Presumably," Mars admitted, meeting V's gaze evenly.  "But
having done this once, the link may be easier a second time."
     There was no reason for me to think that she was lying about this.
Hell, magick wasn't my thing, really.  But somehow, I thought Mars
wasn't being totally honest, and it struck me again how I was coming to
know these girls well enough to sense things like this.
     "Well, it's worth a try, I guess," V shrugged.  I was sure that V
sensed what I did, but she didn't seem suspicious or anything.  Which
made sense; she trusted Mars.  And I did, too.  Whatever she was hiding,
it was nothing sinister.  Was it?  Hell, I wanted to trust her.  The way
she'd come to me last night, taking the time to talk to me about those
things, that had really changed my view of her.  I'd thought she was a
little stuck-up and cool before, but now I found myself liking her.  She
was different from V, sure, less flamboyant, just sort of self-possessed.
All things considered, she was pretty cool.
     Of course, that little voice piped up, maybe that's why she had
that little talk with you.  She was a Sister, she knows how to get people to
like her, to be on her side ...
     I clamped down on that thought.  Hard.  I watched her talking to
V, asking for more light, and as that tawny golden glow crept over her
face I had a flash of insight.  One of the things that kept Rei at arm's
length from other people was almost certainly that insidious little doubt.
Everyone knew what she'd been now.  Did they ever wonder, just for a
moment, if she was manipulating them?  Even if they didn't really believe
it, they probably did wonder, even if just in passing, as I just had.  And
she knew it.  Hell, maybe she wondered sometimes herself.  That sort of
thing would always be there, ready to poison any relationship.
     Of course, there were also people who managed to find ways to
constantly show their affection for her.  I watched V size up her friend,
smiled in spite of myself as the blonde leaned in to whisper something in
Mars' ear, letting her hand linger on the girl's shoulder.  Maybe that was
why those two were such good friends.  They were so different, but they
really did complement each other.  I'd heard the whole opposites attract
thing all my life, but I'd never really believed it. Maybe there was
something to it, after all.
     V and I stood back-to-back, keeping an eye on the two entrances
to our little sanctuary as Mars started her chant.  Even though I'd seen it
before, I still felt that little surge of disquiet as her shadow started to
move, slinking around her feet before slithering up onto her skin.  I didn't
think I'd ever get used to something like that, and I found myself
wondering how it felt.  Was it cold and damp, like something dreadful
and otherworldly?  Or did it feel natural, like a part of her?
     Both V and I were catching the show while watching our
respective doorways, and neither of us spoke as the shadow came to its
mistress obediently.  Mars raised her chin, letting her head fall back
slowly, and her hair flowed as if caught in a light breeze.  My eyes kept
trying to follow the flow of inky tendrils as they slid like black mercury
into the deep cleavage of her dress, and I had to force myself to look
away.  Now was not the time to get distracted.
     Even if she was very distracting.
     V bumped my butt with hers, and I just knew she was grinning.
"Quite a show, huh?  I wonder what it would look like if she was
naked?"
     "Geez, would you focus?" I grumbled.  Great, that was a mental
image that wasn't doing anything to help my already wandering eyes.
     "Oh, I am focussed," V purred.
     "I meant on the door."
     "I'm multi-tasking," V shot back.  "Some sights just should not
be missed."
     Well, she had a point there.  My eyes crept back to Mars,
standing absolutely still, hands palm-out at her sides.  The shadowy
tendrils were still winding languorously over her pale skin, but there was
something else now, a faint glimmering within the shadows that I seemed
to catch from the corner of my eye, even when I was looking directly at
it.
     Something was happening.

***

     Jupiter's world spun crazily as she tried to breathe.  Body-
slamming solid stone was bad enough at the best of times, but at least if
there was light you could brace for the impact.  She clawed blindly for
purchase with her free hand; if her arm hadn't been caught in the coils of
the rope bridge, she would have been jarred loose by the impact and
fallen for certain.  As it was, the hot pain in her arm made it hard to tell if
she was slipping.
     Finally, Jupiter managed to wedge the fingers of her free hand
into the rope where it was biting into her trapped arm.  Doing so made
the pain spike, sending hot slivers into her shoulder, and she bit her lip to
keep from crying out.  Flailing with her feet, the battered senshi managed
to stop herself from twisting at the end of the rope, and each breath she
managed to drag in was deeper than the one before.
     She took stock of her situation.  It was hard to tell how far she'd
fallen, but she wasn't going anywhere for the moment.  Of course, there
was no way of telling how secure this rope was up at the top.  It could be
fraying even now, waiting to plunge her to her death.  Her trapped arm
was on fire; if she was lucky, the shoulder was only dislocated.  Climbing
out of here with one good arm was going to be interesting.
     Mercury.  And Yoshi.  She hadn't heard any screaming.  She
didn't want to consider the possibility that one or both of them had failed
to make it across before the bridge had collapsed.  She swallowed, trying
to slow the triphammer pounding of her heart, trying to find enough
breath to call out to them.
     And if no one answers? her inner voice asked.  What then?  What
if you're all alone?
     She tried to pull herself up with her good arm.  She made a little
progress, but the jagged slashes of hot agony in her other arm robbed her
of strength, and she was forced to lower herself back down.  Damn.  If
she couldn't get her trapped arm free, then it wouldn't matter that she
hadn't fallen.  She'd be stuck here.
     Gritting her teeth, she told herself to ignore it all, the pain, the
gnawing worry about her friends, all of it.  Just get up there, she intoned
silently.  Take care of the rest later, but first things first.  Get your ass out
of this mess.
     Her boots skidded along the rough stone, searching for footholds
to help boost her up.  Pieces of the bridge were still attached to the rope
she was clinging to, and she brushed at them as they swung past her in
the dark, girding herself.
     Mercury and Yoshi are okay, she told herself.  But they may be
hurt.  They need you.  And the others do, too.  And the princess.  She's
out there with the Sisterhood.  You're not leaving her alone, girl.  You
don't get to hang here and whine about how tough it is.  You are one of
HER senshi, and you are not finished until you know she is safe.
     Now MOVE.
     She moved.
     Oddly, when the weight came off her injured arm it hurt even
more.  Jupiter bit her lip again, in the same place as it turned out.  The
taste of blood was unpleasant, but not nearly as much as the pain
screaming through her arm and shoulder.  Wedging her boots into small
cracks and irregularities in the stone, she raised herself up even more,
finally prying her arm free of the tangled remnant of the rope bridge.
     A small gasp of pain escaped the prison of her gritted teeth as the
arm flopped down to her side, and tiny specks of multicoloured light
floated around in her eyes, but Jupiter held on tight until the pain passed,
taking a sudden wave of nausea with it.  Now, all she had to do was
figure out how to climb an unknown distance in the dark with one hand.
     Piece of cake.
     She wound the rope around her forearm once, gripping it tightly.
Then she moved her feet up, found a higher purchase, and boosted herself
up a few inches.  Once her knees had straightened, she loosened her grip
enough to slide her hand quickly up the rope.  Then she repeated the
process.
     And again.
     And again.
     A few inches at a time.  At this rate, she thought grimly, it'll take
me a week to get to the top.  And I don't have that kind of time.  None of
us do.
     "MAKOTO!"
     She froze, her heart leaping straight up into the bottom of her
throat.  Yoshi!  His voice had come from above, and as she craned her
head back she could see faint light above her.
     "Jupiter!  JUPITER!"  And Mercury, too!  She tried to answer,
but it took her a few tries to draw a deep breath.
     "HERE!" she shouted at last.  There was a moment of silence
while she hung there, relief nearly overwhelming the pain in her arm.
Nearly.
     "I SEE YOU!" Mercury's voice came at last, echoing hollowly.
"HANG ON TIGHT AND WE'LL PULL YOU UP!"
     Now that's a plan, Jupiter thought, nearly giddy with delight.
Beats all the hells out of climbing three inches at a time, anyhow.
     She kept her feet braced against the wall, and when the rope
started to move, she walked upwards.  She could feel the strain in her
legs, but the pace remained slow enough that she had no trouble keeping
up.  Her arm sent shards of pain shooting through her body every time
she moved it or bumped it, which was far more often than she would
have liked, but there was that whole thing about beggars and choosers.
     The light at the top was brighter the next time she looked, and she
could see the edge of the cliff.  Told you, she thought with almost
childish satisfaction.  The movies never lie.  Those damned rope bridges
always, ALWAYS, fall.  Even if they sometimes need a little help ...
     The rope jerked, then she was sliding back down the wall.  She
cried out, trying to dig her boots into the unyielding stone, only to be
yanked to a stop just as she thought she might plunge all the way down.
The sudden stop made her lose her footing, and her body swung into the
wall, jarring her bad arm.  The pain was instant and searing, the intensity
making her head swim and her stomach churn.  For a moment, she
thought she might pass out or at the very least lose her grip on the rope.
She spun for long moments at the end of that coarse lifeline, her arm
abraded above her glove where the rope looped around it.
     Finally she managed to force the pain back, scrambling wildly
with her feet until she managed to get them braced against the wall.  Her
shoulder burned, her lungs ached, and her head felt like there was a
blender inside of it set to puree.
     But she was still here.
     "Makoto!  Are you okay?"
     It took her a few tries to find her voice.  "You probably shouldn't
do that again," she managed to croak.  Her voice wasn't very loud, but
Yoshi's keen hearing apparently was up to the task, because he replied
immediately.
     "Sorry!" he called.  "It's Mercury!  Something's happened to her!  I'm
not sure how to explain this ..."
     "Pull me up," Jupiter gritted, her mouth dry.  "Quickly."
     "We should go slow!" Yoshi argued.  "You could ..."
     "Yoshi, gods, just get me up there!"  Mercury was in trouble.
She needed to be up there.  After a moment, she heard Yoshi's reply.
     "Okay.  You hold on tight, now."
     She could have kissed him in that moment.  Okay, she could have
kissed him in most moments, but the fact that he'd decided to trust her
judgement rather than argue meant a lot to her.  When they got out of
this, she'd see to it that he found out just how much.
     The rope began moving more quickly than before.  Yoshi was
obviously giving it everything he had, and she stumbled once or twice as
she tried to keep up.  But she didn't ask him to slow down.  Jupiter
gripped the rope with all her strength and ignored the pain in her arm, the
fatigue in her legs, and the way her vision was blurring.  She needed to
get to the top and, by all the gods, she was not going to stop until she got
there.
     A golden glow limned the top edge of the cliff, and as she got
closer she could see Yoshi's hands reeling in the rope, then his leanly
muscled arms, and she closed her eyes and willed her own muscles to
work.  Moments later those big, strong hands were grasping her wrist and
pulling her to safety.  She wanted to collapse against him, to lie spent
with her head against Yoshi's chest and listen to the thudding of his heart
as his scent surrounded her and his arms cradled her.
     But she couldn't.  Gasping, she pushed at his chest with her good
hand, looking around wildly, not noticing the details.
     "Mercury," she whispered frantically.  "What ... where is she?"
     "Right there," Yoshi said softly, holding her back.  "But I don't
think you should touch her."
     "What happened?"  Jupiter tried to break free, but Yoshi
restrained her, gentle but firm.  Mercury was sitting not far away, her
back to the wall next to a broken door.  Golden light spilled over her, and
Jupiter squinted, trying to see if her friend was hurt.
     "One minute everything was fine," Yoshi told her.  "The next she
stopped pulling.  Her knees just buckled.  I tried to catch her, but when I
touched her ..."
     "What?" Jupiter asked, alarmed.  Mercury wasn't moving, just
staring into space, her eyes unfocused, lips parted.  "Yoshi, tell me!"
     "It was weird," Yoshi murmured, helping her to stand and move
closer to the stricken senshi.  "Just before she fell, I caught a scent, real
strong.  Your friend, Mars.  And when I touched Mercury ..."
     "It felt like liquid sex on your skin," Jupiter breathed.  Mercury
wet her lips slowly, and Jupiter felt an unreasoning anger build behind
her eyes, pushing back the pain from her arm and the comforting heat of
Yoshi's bare chest.
     "Yeah," Yoshi admitted.  "I've never seen anything like this
before."
     "I have," Jupiter gritted.  In the light from the doorway, she could
see her friend's shadow writhing on the stone floor despite the fact that
Mercury wasn't moving.  Within it, odd patterns seemed to glimmer.
     Then the shadow moved up onto Mercury's skin.

***

     ami?
     I'm here, rei.
     are you okay?  it felt like you were panicking.
     your timing was a little bad.  gods, this feels so good!
     we strengthened the bond last night, I think.
     is that what they're calling it now?
                    <giggle>
     rei, did you just giggle?
     of course not.  I don't giggle, ami.
     you did ... oh, gods, it's so hot.  I want ...
     ami, focus.  control it.  we're in trouble here.
     sorry.  yes.  uuuhm ... yes.  sorry.  are you alone?
     no.  ranma and minako are with me.
     makoto and yoshi are here.  a little banged up, but we're good for
the moment ...
     listen, I think the sisterhood is planning to attack alieva's temple
from somewhere in these tunnels ...
     !!
     what was that?  ami?
     tunnels!  rei, do that again!
     do what?
     when you thought of tunnels, I saw ... I felt ... yes!  that!
     I don't understand, ami.  what is it?
     tunnels!  you've seen a diagram, a schematic ...
     yes ... wait.  you can see that?
     a glimpse, a ... do it again.  try to think of them ... oh, that's good.
     ami.
     sorry.  it's stronger than ever, it's like you're touching me
everywhere.  aren't you ...?
     I feel it too, sweetness.  I'm just better at control.  the tunnels?
     that's good.  mmmmm, good ... oh.  oh, my.  rei, I think I might
be able to cross reference this with the recordings I've been making.  we
might have been in one of these sections.
     you can do that?
     not just another pretty face.
     no, you aren't.
     ohhhhhhhhhh, GODS.  that was ... if you do that again, I swear
I'm going to ... you know.  okay.  can you give me any reference points
from where you are?
     forget us, ami.  stopping the sisterhood is the priority.
     okay, but it would be better if we could hook up.  you know them
best.  and it might help me correlate things.
     um. junction g-15 red?  that's all I've got ... ami!  that's
depraved!
     gods!  you saw that?
     saw, sensed ... and filed away for future reference.
     you wouldn't ...
     I would.  and I'd be damned good at it, too.
     we have to stop talking about this, or I WILL lose it.  can you,
uh, call me back?  in, say, ten minutes?
     shouldn't be a problem.  ami?  be careful.
     you, too, rei.

***

     Mercury blinked, focussing on the concerned faces of the two
people in front of her.  She took a breath, trying to fight down the last
remnants of her link with Mars.  Gods, it was so sweet!  How could Mars
control sensations like this?  How did she not drown in the sweetness?
     Then she blinked again as memory rushed in, pushing the intoxicating
fire away from her raw nerve endings.  "Jupiter!  Oh, I'm so sorry!  It
came on suddenly, and I ... I couldn't hang on to the rope!"
     "I know," Jupiter said, giving her a wan version of her usual grin.
"I'm just glad you're okay."
     "But you're hurt!"  Mercury climbed to her feet, calling up her
visor and checking Jupiter's arm.  Her scans showed that the shoulder
was dislocated all right, with some damage to the surrounding muscle.
It must hurt like all the hells.
     "We should pop it back in," Jupiter said when Mercury informed
her.
     "That'll be very painful," Mercury said, aghast.
     "She's right," Yoshi said.  "The sooner, the better.  Waiting's the
worst part."  He wrapped his arms around Jupiter from behind, holding
her tightly against him, and the ghost of desire slid across Mercury's skin
like liquid silk as she watched the two stand together.  She shook it off,
though, and held up her hand as she reached down and tore a strip off the
bottom of the t-shirt that Jupiter still wore over her tattered uniform.  She
carefully folded the cloth into a thick pad, then gave it to Jupiter and told
her to bite down.
     Yoshi did it quickly, but Mercury thought she heard the faint
grinding of bone on bone before Jupiter's muffled cry drowned it out.
Then Yoshi's strong arms were supporting the green-eyed senshi as
Mercury quickly scanned the shoulder again.
     "Perfect," she said, watching with sympathy as Jupiter spit out
the makeshift gag, gasping heavily.  Enlisting the aid of Yoshi's claws,
Mercury removed the bow from the back of her own fuku and fashioned
it into a makeshift sling.
     "Good as new," Jupiter told her as the smaller girl put the
finishing touches on the sling.  Mercury looked up into those deep green
eyes and let her fingers linger on the edge of the sling.
     "Don't push yourself, okay?" Mercury said softly.  "That must
still hurt."
     "I'll be fine," Jupiter assured her, and was very nearly
convincing.
     "So, what happened?" Yoshi asked, standing close behind
Jupiter.  His concern for her seemed to have driven his own troubles from
his mind.
     "Those rotten little farknuts ..."
     "Froptins."
     "Whatever.  They drove us out onto the bridge, then they chewed
through the ropes!"
     "What?"  Mercury was flabbergasted.  "Do you know what this
means?"
     "They're off my Winter Solstice card list, for starters," Jupiter
scowled.  Yoshi grinned, and even Mercury was cheered by the return of
her friend's characteristic irascible humour.
     "They acted together," Mercury corrected.  "There is a theory
that harrigurs, a distant cousin of the froptin, can form collectives.  Like
some insects in a hive.  They have a queen, and share a link much as ..."
     "We interrupt this broadcast of 'Wonders of Nature' to bring
you a news flash," Jupiter intoned.  "Who cares?  They tried to kill us!"
     "They would have, if you hadn't warned us," Yoshi told her,
squeezing her good shoulder gently.  "I was going so fast in the dark that
I barrelled right through that door.  Good thing the wood was rotted."
     "So," Jupiter said.  "Now we know that the movies speak the
truth on the perils of rope bridges.  How about you tell us what the
shadow has to say?"  Mercury nodded, summoning her visor again.
     "All right," she said.  "But let me work while we talk.  I may
have a way out of here."

***

     "You really think she can do that?" V asked as we walked.  The
tunnel was becoming darker, with those handy glowing stones getting to
be fewer and fewer.  Soon, one of the girls was going to have to start
providing light again.
     "She seems to think so," Mars said.  "And knowing Mercury, I
wouldn't bet against it."
     "Mars, I don't like this.  Magickal synergy is tricky at the best of
times.  Just ask Jupiter."
     "Jupiter can do this kind of thing, too?" I asked.
     "She's talking about the reaction between Jupiter's lightning and
Banri," Mars told me.  "A chaotic and uncontrolled synergistic reaction,
to be sure."
     "Synergies are always chaotic," V argued.  "And unpredictable.
But usually something goes boom."
     "Not this time."
     "No, Mars, this time you and Mercury are getting inside each
others' heads.  She saw your memory of the tunnel schematics, saw it
clearly enough to try and match it to her records.  That doesn't scare
you?"
     "V, anything new can be frightening.  And you know I wouldn't
take this risk if it weren't necessary."
     "I know you wouldn't risk Mercury if it weren't necessary," V
grumbled.  "You'd take a lot more risks if it was just you."
     "So we're heading towards her?" I asked.  I really wasn't
following the whole synergy thing, except that it meant we might have a
shot of getting out of this maze.
     "No way to tell," Mars admitted.  "But this was the only safe
route to follow, and I don't want to stay in one place too long."
     "We mostly went down from where the Sisterhood ambushed
us," I mused.  "We might not be too far from where we started, you
know."
     "Yeah, but we have no idea where that place is from here," V
said, brushing at a stray lock of hair with her gloved fingers.  "Damn it,
I'd feel better if we could contact the princess."
     "We'll find her," Mars assured her.  "And we'll put a stop to the
Sisterhood's plan.  All in a day's work, right, girls?"
     "Uh, not a girl," I pointed out.
     "Ah, yes," she murmured, giving me a lingering look that swept
up and down my body.  "I keep ... forgetting."
     That would have freaked me out, once.  I could still remember
how traumatic it had been back then, finding myself in a girl's body.  Ha.
Traumatic.  If this curse had been the most traumatic thing to happen to
me, I'd have gotten off lucky.  Nothing like losing everything in your life
to give a guy a little perspective.
     "She means you're hot," V said helpfully.  "That's H-A-W-T,
baby."
     "I couldn't have put it better," Mars sighed.  "Okay, it's been
about ten minutes.  I'm going to try again."
     We stopped under one of the glowing stones.  The light was pale,
but apparently more than enough for our purposes.  That made me
wonder.  How much light did Mars need, anyway?  I mean, if there was
no light, then we didn't cast shadows, right?  Or did magickal shadows
follow their own rules?
     Well, it didn't matter, because we had light, and Mars had no
trouble doing her thing.  We watched her sit there in the middle of the
tunnel while we kept watch.  She didn't stir, but the air around her
seemed to hum with a sound just below the threshold of hearing.  That
hum resonated pleasantly in the pit of my belly and ... other places.  I
couldn't imagine what it would feel like to be in the middle of it, but
Mars showed no sign of the effects.
     "Think this'll work?" I asked V softly.
     "Damn straight," she said without hesitation.  "Ranma, one thing
you'll learn about us.  We always find a way to make it work.  Always.
Between us, we can lick any problem."
     "The Sisterhood knows we've found their tunnel," I replied after
a moment.  "If they're smart, they'll assume the worst and be waiting for
us to hit their set-up."
     "They're smart," Mars said, opening her eyes.  I watched with
undisguised fascination as her shadow flowed back down her skin, finally
pooling on the stone beneath her where it belonged.  "They won't make it
easy for us, but we have the advantage now that they can't hide.  They'll
have to try and defend their position."
     "Mercury has a way out?"
     "She thinks so.  Junction G-15 Red was on the drawing.  She
thinks she knows where we are, and how to get up into the level we were
originally in."
     "Wait a minute.  How come you didn't say anything about old G-
15 when we were there?"
     "I didn't remember it," Mars shrugged, taking V's hand and
pulling herself up.  "I spent a few months studying those plans, but there
were a lot of them, with a lot of cryptic notations."
     "So Mercury not only picks these images out of your memory,
she sees them so clearly that she sees things you don't even consciously
remember?"
     "Apparently," Mars said.  V stared into her friend's eyes for a
long moment while I watched.
     "That's a pretty close link," V said at last.
     "Point taken," Mars replied, her voice soft as she gently retrieved
her hand.  "But we use all tools at our disposal, right?  Do I second guess
you when you're breaking into safes?"
     "As I recall, yes," V pointed out.
     "One time," Mars said with a slow smile, filled with sultry heat and
clearly intended to distract from the matter at hand.  "V, you of all people
shouldn't be lecturing anyone on being reckless.  And anyway, now is
not the time.  We need to hurry.  There are still hours until nightfall, but
the more time the Sisterhood has to prepare, the harder this will be."
     "So lead on."  V motioned gracefully, and Mars set off down the
tunnel in the direction we'd come.
     "We need to go through one of those bricked up arches," Mars
told us as we broke into an easy run.  "Hopefully, the passage beyond
will be accessible."
     "What about Mercury and her group?" I asked.  "Could she
figure out where they were?"
     "Not for certain," Mars replied.  "They crossed a bridge that
wasn't on any of the drawings.  But they did find an area with electrical
power.  They're going to follow the lights, see if they can find where it
feeds from."
     "Better than nothing," V said.
     Yeah.  Better than nothing.  But even if those lights led
somewhere, time was a-wasting.  And with every tick of the clock, I
couldn't help feeling that we were getting closer and closer to disaster.
     And I'd been through enough of those to last me a lifetime.

***

     "Ventilation shaft?" Yoshi mused.
     "Or drainage," Mercury shrugged.  "At any rate, the wiring goes
up through there."
     "But not us," Jupiter sighed.  "That shaft is way too small."
     "And far too long," Mercury added.  "We wouldn't be able to widen
it.  It'd take forever."
     "Where do you suppose the wires go?" Yoshi asked.  "All the
way to the surface?"  Mercury glanced at him.  A glance was as much as
she could manage; Yoshi was quite beautiful, his long blond hair falling
in disarray over the sculpted lines of his broad shoulders.  Maybe it was
the aftereffects of her link with Mars, but just the sight of the handsome
werewolf, naked to the waist, made her want to walk over and run her
hands over the rippled muscle of his abs.  Distracting didn't begin to
cover it.
     So she concentrated on more mundane matters.  "I don't think
so," she said.  "But maybe to one of the lower subway systems.  They
could tap into one of the power substations there."
     "None of these lights are burned out," Jupiter said, looking back
the way they'd come.  "Someone must have been down here maintaining
things, right?"
     "So how do they get here?" Yoshi went on, nodding.
     "Well, this wall looks to be a dead end," Mercury said, calling up
her visor.  That infernal interference seemed to have lessened somewhat,
but her tactical abilities were still severely compromised.  She hadn't
forgotten that Saekianna had somehow gotten close to them while she
was supposed to be keeping watch.  That failure galled her.
     But her fortunes, it seemed, had turned.  "Wait.  I think there's another
tunnel beyond this wall.  There may be a hidden door of some kind.  Help
me search, guys."
     In the end, Mercury's visor revealed a suspicious area on the
stone wall which proved to be the trigger.  The entire section of wall
swung out easily, and they stepped into the new tunnel.
     "Secret passageways," Jupiter said, shaking her head as they
surveyed the new tunnel.  "How very 'Castle of Professor Horror.'"
     "Makoto," Yoshi sighed, "you watch too many damned movies."
     "Yosh, when I'm transformed, call me Jupiter, okay?  It really
helps with the secret identity thing.  And at least I didn't say it was very
'Invasion of the Face-Eaters'.  Because even I have standards."
     "Good to know."  Mercury watched with a pang of jealousy as
the two bantered easily.  She was certain that Jupiter was working hard to
keep Yoshi from thinking about what had happened just before the
Sisterhood had attacked.  The werewolf's concern over Jupiter's injuries
had clearly overshadowed his own self-loathing, at least for the moment.
Still, they were good together.  What right did the Sisterhood have to
jeopardise something so precious with their schemes, anyway?
     "So, which way do we go now?" Jupiter asked, wincing as she
moved her injured shoulder while peering around them.  They were on a
kind of stone landing, one tunnel sloping up from one side and down
at the opposite end, with a third extending off opposite the hidden door
they had just passed through.
     "I'm not sure," Mercury admitted.  "I have no reference points to
use.  I think down is out, though."
     "Wait," Yoshi said.  A strange tension thrummed through his
body, and Mercury watched with fascination as he prowled the flat stone
landing with feral grace, muscle sliding easily under his taut skin.
     "I could watch him all day, too," Jupiter whispered in her ear.
Mercury jumped.  She hadn't realised she'd been so obviously entranced,
and she blushed furiously.
     "You've got to stop being so shy, Mercury," Jupiter teased.
Mercury said nothing, only wondered what her friend would say if she
knew about the searing hot passionate encounter she'd shared with Rei
the previous night.  That thought made her flush again, and Jupiter
chuckled.
     "I'm working on it," Mercury told her primly.  That made Jupiter
laugh, and Mercury felt a twinge of guilt.  She was keeping secrets, after
all.  But that guilt didn't last.  Most days it seemed that all the others
were giving free rein to their passions, and she was quite certain that none
of them felt guilty about it.
     "Scents," Yoshi said, his voice a low, throaty rumble that made
Mercury shiver deliciously.  "Familiar."
     "What?" Jupiter asked, all business now.  "Where?"
     "Follow me."  And he was gone, running full-tilt up the slope of
the tunnel.  Jupiter cursed.
     "Damn it, Yosh!  Wait!"  But he was gone, and Jupiter started to
run after him, only to grimace as the motion jostled her injured arm.
     "Careful!" Mercury cried.  "You'll ..."
     "Go after him!"
     "No!  Jupiter, I'm not leaving you alone!"
     "Damn it, he's not done beating himself up over what happened!
If he catches any of those women, I'm not sure he'll be able to hold
himself back!"
     That was trouble.  Usagi had made a promise, after all, and no
matter how vile their tactics, Mercury had to believe that Yoshi would
regret it if he killed one of them.
     Regret would do no good, however, if he couldn't control
himself.
     "Wait!" Mercury exclaimed.  "I can scan up to the top of this
tunnel.  He's stopped, and he's alone."
     "Come on, let's get up there!"  Gritting her teeth, Jupiter broke
into a jog.  Mercury wanted to do something to help, but Jupiter was
stubborn.  And tough.  And if it had been her lover, Mercury wouldn't
have listened to reason, either.
     She followed.
     A surprise awaited them as they reached the top of the slope,
however, a somewhat familiar tableau.
     "Hey," Jupiter gasped, cradling her injured arm against her body
as she reached Yoshi's side.  "Isn't this ...?"
     "Where we started?  Yeah, it is," he said, his gaze fixed on the
rushing water.  The stone platform they'd crossed earlier was gone, of
course, shattered by Saekianna's whip.  The tunnel they'd originally
come through was across from them now; they must be standing above
the drainage lines that they'd been swept down.
     Mercury surveyed the scene carefully.  There was no sign of the
Nightmistress or any of her people, of course; it had been too long since
the attack.
     "The scents are still lingering in the air," Yoshi confirmed.  "This
is the place, all right.
     "I think we can reach the tunnel that bitch was in," Jupiter said,
her voice a low growl.  "Maybe we can still track her.  Catch up to Tux
and the princess."
     "Problem," Mercury said.  "She was actually in two tunnels."
     "Say again?"
     "You and I were busy with Yoshi," Mercury began, then bit her
lip and glanced at the werewolf.  He was still staring out at the water,
though, and gave no visible reaction.  "So, uh, I guess you saw Tuxedo
Mask and Sailor Moon chase Saekianna down that tunnel."  She pointed.
"But what you missed was when she reappeared over there and took out
the platform before we could react."
     "She sacrificed her own people," Jupiter spat.  "They went into
the water with us.  What kind of woman does that?"
     "Actually, she didn't," Mercury told them.  She quickly related to
the others Mars' warning about the talisman magick that had been used
against them."
     "So that's how they pulled it off.  Man, those witches have got a
lot of tricks up their sleeves, I'll give them that."  Jupiter shook her head,
anger simmering in those blazing green eyes.
     "So your people were chasing a decoy," Yoshi muttered.  In a
flash he moved, exploding into action so quickly that Mercury jumped.
He landed on the broken stone at the entrance to the tunnel Sailor Moon
had followed the others into, and carefully began sniffing the air.
Mercury opened her mouth to call out a warning, but Jupiter nudged her,
giving her a tiny head shake.  Mercury nodded reluctantly.  Yoshi knew
as well as any of them the risks of getting another close-up snootful of
whatever the Sisterhood had dosed him with.  Bringing it up again would
just be adding insult to injury.
     "Like I thought," he announced, raising his voice to be heard
over the sound of the water.  "These talismans, they've got no scent.
They look like people but don't smell like 'em.  Your guys went down
here, but that woman never did.  She must have gone this way."  He eyed
the distance to the next outcropping of stone, then unleashed one of those
gorgeously lithe leaps, making the jump look effortless.
     "Yeah.  Yeah, she definitely went down this one."
     "So?" Jupiter asked.  "Do we go after the princess, or the bitch?"
     "If Sailor Moon is following a decoy, we have to let her know,"
Mercury said, torn.  "She and Tuxedo Mask could end up lost, or
trapped.  But we can't afford to let the Nightmistress just go.  If there's
any chance of finding her, we have to take it.  There's too much at
stake."
     "Can you get close to the area under the temple?" Yoshi asked.
Mercury jumped again.  The shifter moved with eerie stealth; she hadn't
noticed him return to their side.
     "I think so," Mercury told him.  "With the tracking data I
accumulated from when we entered the tunnels, and what Mars gave me,
I'm pretty sure I can get us close."
     "Then you two take the bitch," he said, "and I'll track your lost
lambs."
     "What?  Yoshi ..."  Jupiter grabbed his arm, and though she tried
to hide it, Mercury could tell her friend was as torn as she was.  Alone,
Yoshi would be more vulnerable.  But while they had a job to do, they
couldn't abandon their princess.
     "Relax," he told her, taking her hand and gently pulling her close.
"It'll be safer this way.  Now that they know about me, they could have
set another trap, taken precautions against being tracked by scent.  This
decoy won't have bothered.  I'll find your princess and her man and
come charging in at the last moment with the cavalry.  Okay?"
     Jupiter looked away, and he gently took her chin and drew her
gaze back to his.
     "Okay?" he repeated softly.  Mercury felt acutely uncomfortable,
an intruder in a moment of intimacy, and she looked away as the two
shared a moment of unspoken understanding.
     "You better be careful," Jupiter whispered at last.
     "That goes double for you, Makki," he said.  Then he pulled her
in, mindful of her injured arm, and they shared a long, lingering kiss
while Mercury found some fascinating rocks to study.
     "Hey," Yoshi said at last, his voice low and throaty.  "Mercury."
     "Yes?"  Mercury hoped she wasn't blushing too much as she
turned to meet his gaze.
     "Take care of her, okay?"
     "Hey, you big galoot!  I can take care of myself, you know!"
     "I will," Mercury promised.  She could tell that, for all her
protestation, Jupiter was pleased by Yoshi's words.
     "See you two later," the blond werewolf promised.
     Then he was gone.
     "You think they're okay?" Jupiter murmured, gazing longingly
down the tunnel.
     "Sailor Moon and Tuxedo Mask?  I doubt a decoy will give them
much trouble.  They're probably on their way back here now.  Yoshi will
meet them half-way."
     "Yeah, you're probably right.  Still, I wish we were going after
them."
     "She'd want us to do this, Jupiter."
     "I know.  That's why I'm doing it.  Come on, let's go throw a
big-ass monkey wrench into the Bitch-terhood's plans."

***

     "Who do you think they are?" Neptune asked softly, sheltered in
the small copse of trees at the edge of the property.
     "Hard to say," Uranus replied, staring intently.  "Definitely not
police.  They're being far too stealthy, for starters."
     "Sisterhood?"
     Now, that was a possibility.  Maybe they'd finally caught a
break.  But it didn't feel right, somehow.  These people moved with
military precision, not at all how Uranus expected the Sisterhood to act.
     "You're both wrong," a voice informed them, and Uranus
actually jumped, spinning in place, Neptune at her side in a flash.
     "Damn it!" Uranus snapped.  "Artemis, do NOT do that!"
     "Sorry," the little white cat said with cheerful insincerity, his tail
flicking in sharp little patterns as he looked up at them.
     "We didn't expect to see the two of you here," Luna added,
oozing around a nearby tree with liquid feline grace.
     "We decided to check the house again, see if we could contact the
girls from the tunnel entrance," Neptune told her.  "And what exactly did
you mean when you said we were both wrong?"
     "We got close enough to hear what was going on," Artemis said
with more than a trace of smugness.  Oh, we're never going to hear the
end of this one, Uranus thought ruefully.  "Cats.  Silent, stealthy, as
intangible as shadows, the secret weapon in the arsenal of ..."
     "Oh, stop it," Luna sighed.
     "Come on, I had a whole thing working there!"
     "They're White Order," Luna told them, rolling her eyes.
"Alieva's Crusaders."
    "Wait," Uranus said, raking her pale blonde hair back with
gloved fingers.  "How did the Order find out the Sisterhood was here?"
     "That I don't know," Artemis admitted.  "Bad luck?"
     "Far too coincidental for my tastes," Neptune scowled, the
tempestuous clouding of her stormy eyes giving Uranus a delicious
shiver.
     "Wait a minute," Uranus said, holding her hand up.  "Just wait.
What if ...?"
     "What?" Luna prompted.
     "I'm just thinking.  Now, if I'm a Tyrian Sultana ..."
     "Meow," Neptune purred huskily.
     "Oh, get a room, you two," Artemis sighed.
     "Later," Uranus promised, more to Neptune than Artemis.  "But
the Sultana der Gris was double-crossing the Sisterhood, yes?  At least,
that's the working theory.  It makes sense that if she was going to lead
anyone to the Sisterhood, she would want to ensure that they were
completely wiped out.  Thus ensuring that they never got a chance to
indulge in their legendary penchant for vengeance."
     "But she never got the chance to rat out the Sisters," Artemis pointed
out.  "Unless ..."
     "Unless she had already seen to it that the information on those
discs would reach the Order if something happened to her," Neptune
finished.
     "Or she had already put her plan in motion," Uranus added.
     "I miss the days when we just wrecked entire streets throwing magick
at pompous guys in ugly uniforms," Artemis sighed.
     "No doubt," Uranus said.  "But if the Order has seen a copy of
those discs ..."
     "Then we won't have to worry about the Sisterhood," Artemis
said brightly.
     "The Knights of Her Shining Crusade," Neptune mused.  "I
wonder ..."
     "What?" Luna asked.
     "Yes," Uranus agreed softly.  "We should assume the worst."
     "What are you two talking about?" Luna demanded, her feline
eyes moving from one senshi to the other impatiently.
     "There has long been rumoured to be a hidden dagger sheathed within
the ranks of the Crusaders," Uranus told her.  "Dedicated to the
preservation of the White Order.  At any cost."
     "Aw, come on," Artemis scoffed.  "The Inquisition?  That's
tinfoil hat stuff."
     "No," Neptune murmured.  "It's not."
     Silence.
     "You know that?  Like, for a fact?" Artemis blurted.
     "The Inquisition does exist," Uranus told him.  "And they are
every bit as ruthless as the stories say."
     "And if the heads of the Order saw a chance to finish the
Sisterhood, they would definitely send their Inquisitors."  Neptune stared
off through the trees, and Uranus knew where her partner's thoughts had
wandered.  Yes, the Inquisition existed, and had definitely earned its
reputation.
     "This is nonsense!" Luna cried.  "There's no way that such a
thing is true!"
     "Shadowy groups exist within most of the temples," Uranus told
the cat with a mirthless smile.  "Publically they may maintain a civilised
facade, but the history of infighting and treachery between different
religious factions is a nasty fact of life.  It may have been driven
underground by the kingdom's secular law agencies, but it still exists."
     "Please," Luna said beseechingly.  "Uranus, you must never say
such things to Usagi.  She adores the Order, they practically raised her
..."
     "Luna," Uranus interrupted.  "It isn't really up to us.  If the Inquisitors
run into our people down there, the result is out of our hands.  Still, the
senshi are a known group in this city, with no affiliation to any religious
groups.  They should be all right."
     "As long as the Inquisition doesn't discover Rei's true identity,"
Neptune said darkly.
     "Oh," Artemis said in a small voice.  "That would be not good.
That would be very not good."
     "The tunnel entrance was hidden," Luna pointed out, whiskers
twitching.  "You all missed it the first time through, right?"
     "For a chance to finish the Sisterhood, that lot will tear that place
apart," Uranus countered.  "We must assume that, sooner or later, they
will find this tunnel.  Any idea where it is?"
     "Basement furnace room is all V told me," Artemis said.  "But
..."
     "Look!" Luna hissed.
     At first, Uranus wasn't sure what Luna had seen.  Through the
trees, she could see that the one door that was visible from their
position had opened, a cloaked figure leaning out to talk to a grim
looking man who'd been walking the perimeter.  Without warning, two
small black shapes plummeted from the sky and sliced through the air,
rocketing past the startled men and into the house in a flash.
     "What in the hells?"
     "Phobos and Deimos," Artemis groaned.  "I guess they made it
here after all."
     "What can they do against all those Inquisitors?" Neptune asked
as robed and cloaked figures seemed to materialise all around the house,
running to cover the exits.
     "With any luck, they'll just look like a couple of birds who flew
in by accident," Artemis said.
     "Speaking of luck," Uranus said softly.  "Ours is running out.
They look like they're starting to search the perimeter.  We've got to pull
back before we're discovered."
     "What about the girls?" Luna asked.  "This could mean trouble for
them, especially if they end up in a crossfire between groups."
     "We're not abandoning them," Uranus promised.  "But we need a
plan.  Saturn is meeting with her contact now.  Maybe she can get us
some info on access to this tunnel.  Failing that, we call the police and tell
them of suspicious activity at this location."
     "Mention coffins and nighttime activity, and you'll have all the
police you'd want," Artemis chimed in.
     "Good thinking.  You two stay and watch the house.  This may well
be the only access to the tunnels they entered.  At the very least, it's an
access point they can be sure of.  The Order went in here, they'll likely
come out here as well.  If there's any sign of trouble, get the police here
right away and worry about the fallout later.  We need to check in with
Saturn and Pluto, but we should be back shortly."
     "Good luck," Artemis called softly.  Uranus gave him a wave as
she and Neptune slipped away from the widening search.
     Luck.  Yes, that would be a nice change.
     Unfortunately, the luck waiting for them was all bad.

***

     "She has arrived, Nightmistress."  Meredith kept her expression
neutral, but it was not difficult for Saekianna to sense the woman's
disapproval.  She did not trust their new ally.  Nor should she.  The
creature was a slave to her appetites, clearly unreliable.  Still, as a tool
she could prove useful.
     "Ah, there you are, Maia," Saekianna said smoothly.  The flame-
haired succubus peered around the chamber with obvious distaste before
allowing her gaze to settle back on the Nightmistress.
     "What a dump," the succubus announced.  "This whole
underground set-up you've got here is pretty shabby, not like that nice
mansion."
     "A temporary condition, I assure you," Saekianna replied.
Maia's insolence fairly begged for retribution, but Saekianna stayed her
hand.  Let the succubus run her lovely mouth while she could.  If she
proved her worth, then Saekianna would tolerate it.  If she failed, well,
what was lost?  Maia would buy them some time at the very least.
     "Nightmistress ..." Meredith whispered.  Saekianna stilled her
protest with a subtle gesture, merely watching as Maia's lips curled in a
subtle moue of distaste.
     "Big," the succubus commented, nodding at the chamber around
them.  "All these pipes and tanks and things. What's it all for?"
     "Oh, just a little surprise for our enemies," Saekianna told her
dismissively.  "It's all quite mundane, really.  At any rate, it doesn't
concern you, my dear.  I have a favour to ask of you."
     "Really?"  Saekianna smiled, ignoring the bored disinterest in Maia's
voice, simply taking the bewitching creature by the arm and guiding her
towards the far wall of the spacious chamber.  She surreptitiously pressed
a certain point just above the succubus's elbow as she did so and was
rewarded by an ever-so-slight quickening of breath by her companion.
     "Oh, I know you've done much for our order already, returning
our Black Rose to us," Saekianna murmured throatily.  "But I think
you'll enjoy this."  She stopped, using her grip on Maia's arm to turn the
succubus so they stood face-to-face.  The succubus really was quite
stunning, masses of bright red hair framing her lush body in silken
disarray, tawny skin drawn smooth and tight over flawless bone
structure, all topped off by the otherworldly touches of tiny horns, wings
and a tail.
     "I thought you were too busy to entertain me personally," Maia
crooned, moving closer.  An ordinary woman might have been snared by
the creature's primal allure, but Saekianna's training was more than up
to the task of maintaining control.
     "Ah, such a tempting offer," she told the eager succubus with a
lingering gaze.  "But events conspire against us, and I must attend this
place.  No, I actually have another task in mind. Do you know what lies
back there?"
     "Certainly," Maia sniffed, glancing in the direction of
Saekianna's extended finger.  "Another dark, dank, cold tunnel.  I came
in through it."
     "Ah, yes.  But about a hundred feet down that tunnel is a fork.  The
one you came down leads to the surface.  The other, ah, at the far end of
that other tunnel, my dear Maia, is another chamber.  My people have
been leading a couple of troublemakers around in these tunnels for some
time now, and soon we will draw them there.  My resources are spread
thin, but if you could deal with this matter for me, I would be most ...
grateful."  She punctuated the request by brushing a stray lock of hair
slowly back from Maia's cheek.
     "This isn't more of those sailor girls, is it?" Maia asked
suspiciously, feline eyes narrowing.  "Because those little bitches are a lot
of trouble, lady."
     "There is one," Saekianna admitted.  "Along with her consort.  A
very beautiful man who favours a tuxedo."
     "A man?" Maia asked, wetting her lower lip slowly with the tip
of her tongue.  "Beautiful, you say?"
     "Tall," Saekianna breathed.  "Hair dark as night.  Deep blue
eyes.  Lithe and supple of limb, with a strong chin and a mouth best
described as kissable."
     "Her consort.  She won't give up a prize like that without a
fight," Maia grumbled.  But her resolve was weakening, and Saekianna
knew just how to seal the deal.
     "He is worth the fight," she told the succubus, reaching inside her
jacket.  "But I have something here that will give you the advantage."
Slowly, she drew a long, slender case from inside, opening it to show the
contents to Maia.
     "A flower?" Maia blurted.
     "A black rose," Saekianna corrected her, smiling to hide her
displeasure at Maia's disdain.  "I have placed some strong enchantments
upon this flower.  Catch her by surprise and throw it at her.  This rose
will neutralise the girl very effectively.  Then you can take your time
with her consort.  I assume you can handle a single man without much
trouble?"
     "Of course," Maia said haughtily.  She reached out and took the
case, closing it smartly.  "And when I'm done with him, I just kill the
girl, right?"
     "If she is bound by the rose, she will be helpless," Saekianna
murmured in a low, compelling voice as she traced the low-cut edge of
Maia's brief top teasingly, her long lacquered nail raking flawless flesh,
casually evoking the fires of desire.  "Bring her to me and I will reward
you greatly."
     "And her consort?" Maia asked with ill-disguised hunger.
     "He will be yours to keep," Saekianna promised.  "He can be the
first member of you new harem.  In return for the girl, I will find you a
rich hunting ground where you can claim as many men as you wish
without fear of discovery."
     "Lady, I'm your girl!" Maia grinned.  "This sounds like the
beginning of a beautiful partnership!"
     "Good hunting," Saekianna called softly as the eager succubus turned
and dashed down the waiting tunnel.  Maia waved once, and then was
gone.
     "Do you really think she can do it?" Meredith asked as she came up
beside Saekianna, casting a distrustful glance after Maia's retreating
form.
     "I do not know," Saekianna confessed.  "But I tell you this,
Meredith.  I let arrogance blind me once, and the White Moon girl's
power was more than I could handle.  Yurina is right, direct conflict does
not favour us here.  I, of all people, should have remembered that our
strength lies in cunning and deception.  Let the succubus distract them.  If
she succeeds, then that girl will be ours, and I will not have had to risk
any of our people at this critical juncture.  If she fails, what have we
lost?"
     "Of course," Meredith murmured, her coppery hair falling in a
sleek curtain as she inclined her head.  "Your wisdom will lead us to our
moment of victory, Nightmistress.  I will have those two fools in position
when the succubus arrives."
     "Excellent.  And sign of the others?"
     "Not as yet.  They may have perished in the tunnels."
     "Perhaps.  But I would not count on that.  These girls have
proven to be tenacious foes, Meredith.  And if the traitor lives, she may
find her way here.  I do not wish to sacrifice this element of our plan
unless it is absolutely necessary."  Saekianna strode over to one of the
gleaming metal tanks that seemed so out of place amongst the rusted old
pipes and ancient machinery.  "It will be so glorious, Meredith.  Those
rigid, self-righteous witches will be rutting on the ground like animals,
defiling their most sacred site!"
     "Just as they deserve," Meredith said softly.  "Let them suffer for
all of our Sisters who have fallen to their Inquisition."
     "Yes," Saekianna said, cupping Meredith's pale face in her
hands.  "Soon, Meredith.  Soon we shall begin a reckoning that will have
every priestess in the White Order trembling at the coming of night.  The
Sisterhood shall rule the shadows once more."
     And they shared a passionate kiss there in the dank pit that lay far
beneath their enemy's stronghold, as midnight crept ever closer.

***

     Sailor Moon moved up along the wall as the caped form ahead
waved.  It should have been a thrill, working so closely with Tuxedo
Mask, but her heart was clouded with worry.  None of the others had
followed her, and she couldn't raise them on her comm.  Tuxedo Mask
thought they had likely ended up pursuing a second group of Sisters, and
that sounded reasonable.  They wouldn't have to be very far away to be
out of contact down here.
     Still, she worried about them.  Her fondest wish would have been
to go back, but she couldn't do that.  She'd made the decision to chase
the Sisterhood down here, and now that she had Saekianna's scent, so to
speak, she couldn't let her go.  She had a promise to keep, after all.
     Besides, if she screwed this up, Saturn would have an embolism.
     "Relax," Tuxedo Mask whispered as she drew close to him.
"They'll be fine.  They're all together, Princess."
     "I know," she breathed, brushing her hands over his cape,
wishing for a moment that the thin barrier of her gloves would evaporate.
"I know, I need to focus."
     "I expected her to try and reach the surface by now," the lithe
man frowned, checking the tunnel around the corner.  "If I'm right about
her trying to lead us away from her people, she may have chosen a tunnel
that has no surface access.  She may even have picked one she's
unfamiliar with.  That would explain why we've been able to keep her
off-balance."
     "There's a big cavern down there," Moon noted, peering around
the corner.  "We better hurry, or we'll lose her."
     "She wants us to rush," Tuxedo Mask cautioned.  "Remember
who we're dealing with.  She's no match for you, much less both if us.
She knows that.  She'll try to draw us into a trap, but if that cavern is as
big as it looks then we'll have a chance to catch her in the open.  Then we
can bring her down."
     "Remember my promise," the princess urged softly, taking his
hand in hers.
     "I haven't forgotten," he assured her, warming her with his smile
as he squeezed her hand.  Then they were moving again, assuming their
staggered formation, each hugging a different wall as they moved.  Moon
sensed that this nightmare chase was drawing to an end, and she fought
the urge to just charge in, guns blazing.  Tuxedo Mask was right.  They
couldn't afford to be careless, not with this enemy.
     The rough-hewn walls gave way to smooth stone as they neared
the entrance to the cavern, and to Moon it seemed as though the entrance
was entirely too regular to be natural, almost like a doorway.  Tuxedo
Mask reached the door first, surveyed the scene, and waved her forward.
They moved through one after the other, flattening against the wall.
     "What in ... what is this place?"  Her voice was small, swallowed
up in the gloom, as she gazed in awe at the desolate scene that unfolded
before her.
     "It's a trainyard," Tuxedo Mask said.  He sounded equally
dumbfounded by what they were seeing.  A jackstraw tumble of old train
cars spread out before them, some twined with the rusted old remnants of
metal rails.  It was like some sort of mystic train garden, neglected and
forgotten.  High above them rusted steel beams cris-crossed the ceiling in
a broken web, huge lighting arrays still hanging in some places.
     "It's huge," Moon murmured breathlessly.  "What is such a place
doing down here?  Could it be ... part of Vasta Min?"
     "Don't start believing Venus's fairytales, Princess," Tuxedo
Mask admonished.  "This place is old, but not that old.  The design of
these trains, I haven't seen anything like them outside of a museum.
Look at that."
     She squinted.  There were pools of pale light scattered through
the chamber, raw lumin ore by the look of it.  Not as bright as refined
magestones, but it would do.  "What does that say?"
     "WDTS," he told her, his eyes restlessly scanning the broken
windows of the nearest trains for any sign of trouble.  "West Derry
Transpo Services."
     "West Derry?"
     "It was one of the twenty-two districts that made up the old
capital city," he told her, flashing her that crooked grin again.  "An outer
district, wiped out during the first Sidhe War."
     "Oh."  Moon was not given to intellectual flights of fancy, but
in that moment the weight of centuries was a tangible pressure upon her
skin.  "Then all this ...?"
     "Somehow survived the upheaval intact, and was buried," he
nodded.
     "And she's out there, somewhere," Moon sighed.  "We'll never
find her in all that."
     "We're not giving up," he replied, and his determination buoyed
her, gave her strength.  How was it that she was constantly surrounded by
people who supported her and gave her hope?  She must just be the
luckiest girl in the world.
     "But where do we start?"
     "We've got room now," he told her.  "Enough of this cat-and-
mouse game.  Let's flush her out."
     "How?"  The princess felt as though Saekianna's eyes were on
her, peering out from the ruins of any of a dozen old train cars, filled with
roiling hatred and jealousy.  Tuxedo Mask moved closer and spoke in a
low voice, brief and to the point.  She nodded as he moved away again,
making it impossible for Saekianna to attack them both at once.  Not that
Moon thought the woman would attack, not out in the open.  Mars had
been very plain about one point; the Sisterhood was not big on fair fights.
Saekianna knew she couldn't match Sailor Moon for sheer power.  She
would run if she could, try to find a time and a place that favoured her.
     Well, Moon wasn't going to let that happen.  She was going to
stop the Sisterhood and save them from the vampire's scheming, whether
they wanted to be saved or not.
     She pulled off her tiara, quickly sizing up the shot.  She never
really thought about a throw; in her opinion, thinking about such things
too much just got in the way.  Instead, she snapped her arm out straight,
sending her enchanted tiara knifing through the dark, dank air.  A golden
shimmering disc flew up straight and true, scoring a direct hit on the
rotted metal that had managed to hold up one of the derelict light clusters
for so very long.  The lights separated from the overhead grid with a tired
metallic groan, then plunged straight down like some ruined high-tech
flower.
     The clamour when it hit was impressive, as she'd intended.  It
also hit an open space rather than any of the train cars, which was
likewise quite intentional.  There was no point in crushing Saekianna, no
matter how tempting that notion might be.  Still, Moon took a brief
moment to appreciate just how neatly she had pulled off their little plan;
she half wished Saturn had been there to see it.
     "There!" Tuxedo Mask shouted as she snatched her returning tiara out
of the air.  As broken glass and metal blossomed through the air, falling
with a discordant crash, they saw Saekianna break from cover behind a
sagging old train engine with a faded number on its side.  She sprinted
across the debris-littered stone, heading for a cluster of bedraggled
passenger cars, and Moon and Tuxedo Mask set off in hot pursuit,
spreading out to flank her.
     This is it, Moon exulted.  We've finally got her!
     She never saw her attacker.  One moment she was closing in on a
fleeing Saekianna, the next something struck her in the back.  Instantly
she was enveloped in a tangle of thorny vines, crying out as she stumbled
and fell.  A dark shape soared silently over her head, but she only caught
a glimpse of it as she tumbled along the hard stone, ending up on her
belly where she lay, dazed.
     Something was wrong.  It wasn't just that the whip-like vines
had tightened around her body, making it impossible to move.  There
was also the strange numbness that had swelled within her body. Tuxedo
Mask's shouts seemed to come from a long way off , and even though she
could tell he was in trouble, Moon found she could barely even struggle.
Delicious lassitude overwhelmed her, tried to drown all thoughts of
resistance as an intoxicating perfume enveloped her in a warm, thick
fragrance.
     That was when she saw the velvety black petals of the first
blossom.
     Black roses.
     Footsteps echoed sharply on the stone, drawing nearer.  Not
Tuxedo Mask's boots, but the sharp staccato report of high heels.  She
tried to look up, painfully aware of just how vulnerable she was, but her
gaze got no higher than the expensive boots that came to a stop right in
front of her face.
     "Well, well, well," a throaty voice came from somewhere above.
"That is a very suitable posture for you, little girl."
     "You," Moon gasped weakly.  The gleaming black boots shifted as
Saekianna crouched down.  Moon felt a dull, distant pain as the
Nightmistress grabbed her by the hair and lifted her head so that their
gazes met.
     "How rude," the woman purred, an expression of dark delight
looking right at home on her cruelly beautiful face.  "In future, I will
teach you to address your betters with respect, girl."
     "Tuxedo ... Mask," she managed to say.  "He ..."
     "Oh, your ex-consort is being cared for," Saekianna informed
her.  "The succubus gets him and I get you.  Quite an equitable
exchange, yes?"
     Husky laughter caressed her as the woman stood, pulling Moon
upright with dismissive ease, as though the captive girl were no more
than a pile of old laundry.  Get it together, Moon thought blearily.
You're in big trouble here.  And Mamo-chan, too.  But the best she could
manage was a weak writhing that only served to amuse her captor.
     "It's quite impressive that you can manage to resist even that
much," Saekianna told her, using her grip on the girl's hair to pull her
close.  Mesmerising dark eyes stared into her from mere inches away, and
the princess found herself succumbing to their compelling pull.  "But the
dark enchantments on our roses can bind even the most stubborn prey."
     "You don't understand," Moon whispered.  "I ... promised ..."
What had she promised?  Why was she even here?
     "Shhhh.  Don't worry, my pet.  Just relax," Saekianna crooned,
placing her finger gently over Moon's lips.  "From now on, you live only
to serve me."
     Teetering on the brink of sweet darkness, Moon wanted to just let
go.  She craved that oblivion with an intensity that was nearly sexual; it
was a need that dominated her entire being.  To just let go and drown in
perfumed slumber, could anything be more wonderful?
     Her eyes were lidded, heavy, and Saekianna's face was blurring.
This was right, wasn't it?  It felt so good, it must be right.  It must be ...
     Somewhere far beneath the alluring swells of the intoxicating
dark, something stirred.
     Rei?
     It prickled, a sensation that seemed to be far away from her, but
...
     Minako?
     She could feel it.  Not everything was numb.
     Mako-chan?
     This was warm.  And bright.
     Ami?
     And getting brighter.
     Mamo-chan?  Everybody ... everybody's counting on me.  That's
right.  I can't just give up.
     I can't.
     Saekianna's face snapped back into focus, and Moon was aware
of the pain of hundreds of tiny thorns puncturing her skin, matched by the
sudden stab of agony in her head and neck as Saekianna used a handful
of blonde hair to jerk her captive's head back.
     "What's this?" the woman hissed.  "What are you doing?"
     There was only one answer Sailor Moon was willing to give.
Focussing on that tiny spark of light, she kindled it with hope, fuelled it
with the voices of her loved ones.
     And then she let it loose.
     She felt the nimbus of light more than saw it.  Warmth suffused
her body, rippled along her nerves and radiated outwards, bathing
everything in purifying luminescence.  In that moment, it was as if she
could feel all of her senshi, their essences so close she could reach out
and touch them.  They supported her, loved her, gave her strength.
     It was incredible.
     Moon blinked.  Why was she looking up?  That was the ceiling,
wasn't it?  She blinked again, only realising after she sat up that she
shouldn't have been able to do that.  She lowered her gaze, wonder
rendering her speechless.  Her body thrummed with the faint afterimages
of power and the pinprick roadmap that numerous tiny thorns had left
across her skin.
     Something gave easily as she put her hand down, and a sweet,
heady scent rose up around her, warm spring perfume in this cold and
barren place.  Raising her hand, she stared at the flower cupped there,
then down at all the others that lay under and around her.
     The roses.  They'd broken her fall.
     And their petals had all turned to glistening, perfect silvery-white.
     "Awesome," she whispered.  As though the sound of her own
voice had broken the spell, she felt reality crash over her in a jagged
wave and leapt to her feet, cherishing the familiar tendrils of heat that
radiated from the ginzuoshou at her chest as she summoned her sceptre,
swung it around frantically.  It took her a few moments to realise that
Saekianna had disappeared.
     Or had she?  Sailor Moon's eyes were drawn to something lying
on the ground not far away, and she moved closer she saw that she had
not imagined it.  Saekianna was gone, but here lay a crude paper doll,
inscribed with mystic symbols.  Twined around it was a single long
platinum hair.
     Some kind of trick, a fake Saekianna?  Had they been chasing a
shadow all this time?  That was the Sisterhood's speed, after all.  But that
would keep.  Right now, she had more urgent matters to attend to.  There
was no sign of Tuxedo Mask, and from what the doll-Saekianna had
said, he was fighting a succubus.  Or was that a fake, too?
     Sailor Moon took off towards the nearest cluster of wrecked
trains.  Tuxedo Mask would have cautioned her, told her to be careful,
but she couldn't bear the sensation of dread that had coalesced in her
belly.  He was in danger, she knew it.  She had to find him.
     There were signs of struggle: a black top hat that lay mortally
wounded on the ground, squashed nearly flat, three red roses embedded,
stem-first, into the side of an upside-down caboose, and further on, a silk-
lined cape hanging, discarded and torn, from a jutting length of rusty rail.
     But it was only when she made her way deeper, past a pair of
engines which had been rammed together nose-to-nose that she heard the
sounds.  Low.  Guttural.  Animal.
     She poured on the speed, burst into a large clearing amidst the
derelicts, and stumbled to a halt.  No, she thought numbly.  No, this can't
be.  It just can't.  Please, don't let this be true.
     Tuxedo Mask lay on his back, arms flung out to the sides.  His
tuxedo jacket was missing, and his white shirt was torn open, exposing
the lean muscle of his chest.  The drugged, vacant look in his eyes was
bad enough, but the creature straddling him was far worse.
     So this was a succubus.  She straddled the captive man's hips,
and although her luxuriant mane of crimson hair pooled in concealing
waves around the point where their bodies were joined, the way she was
moving her lush body in a slow, sensuous rhythm that left no doubt as to
what she was doing.
     "Ah," she sighed, her lips parting moistly as her lidded eyes met
Moon's across the intervening distance.  "So the fake priestess couldn't
hold you, hmmm?  Figures.  Ah!  Oh, ummm.  Don't mind me, cutie, I
started without you."  The succubus raked long, crimson nails along
Tuxedo Mask's naked chest, drawing blood, then raising them to her lips
and lazily licking them clean.  "Nothing tastes like a man," she moaned.
     "You," Sailor Moon whispered.  The numbing horror she'd felt
at her first glimpse of this wicked tableau was finally fading, dissipating
quickly in the face of a rising fury unlike any she'd ever felt.  "Get off of
him."
     "Ah-ah," the succubus breathed as Moon began to raise her
sceptre.  The nails of her free hand lengthened into scarlet daggers, and
she positioned them above Tuxedo Mask's arched throat.  "Let's not
have any unpleasantness, Princess.  Lose the magick stick, or pretty boy
loses his head.  Or maybe something just as important."  Her other hand
snaked down to the point where her hips straddled him, and her tongue
snaked out to trace a wet trail across her lips.  "And girlie, that would be
a crime.  So, what's it going to be?"
     Rage battered at Moon's self-control, fed by the fact that the
creature didn't even pause in her sinuous dance, only smirking as she
pinned the semi-conscious man to the ground, threatening to kill him or
worse even as she performed a sick parody of the act of lovemaking.
There was no compassion in those feral feline eyes, only hunger, and
Sailor Moon understood that this winged harpy would do what she
threatened without hesitation.
     There was simply no choice.
     "Good," the creature crooned as Moon let the sceptre hang
loosely at her side.  "Now throw it over there.  Easy.  We wouldn't want
loverboy to lose his heads, now, would we?"
     Impotent fury curdling in her gut, Moon tossed her weapon far
out of reach, eliciting a smug smile from the ravishing succubus.
     "Excellent," she murmured.  "Now ..."  She tensed, arched, and
her captive cried out, a sound of mingled pain and pleasure that tore at
Moon's heart.  This was cruel, too cruel, but even in the moment of
climax the succubus's ravenous gaze never slipped, never left her.
     "My," she sighed at last as Tuxedo Mask lay still beneath her,
breathing laboured and ragged.  "Four times already.  He's quite a vital
young man, your consort.  And beautiful.  You'll notice I took the mask
off.  I wanted to see his face."
     "I did what you said," Moon gritted.  "Now let him go."
     "Well, here's the thing," the succubus replied, stretching so that
her full breasts threatened to burst from the tiny top that restrained them.
"I'm still hungry.  You see, succubi feed on the essence of their lovers,
and I've been starved for a very long time.  Punishment from the Crimson
Queen, nearly drove me mad, like you care.  At any rate, a starved
succubus is a dangerous succubus, more for her prey than anything else.
I've fed very deeply on pretty boy here, more deeply than I have in a long
time, and if I bring him one more time right now, I may very well kill
him.  And that would be a terrible waste."
     "Then let him go," Moon repeated.
     "Having your man certainly took the edge off," the succubus
admitted, running her hand teasingly over his bare, heaving chest.  "So
I'll tell you what.  You take his place.  You let me feed on you, and I'll let
him recover."
     "You'll let him go?"  It was a dumb question, but Moon wanted
to keep her talking.  As long as she was talking, there was hope that
something would happen, some opportunity would arise for rescue.
     "No," the succubus purred, leaning forward and running her
fingers through her captive's dishevelled dark hair.  "But I'll keep you
both, instead of turning you over to the Nightmistress."
     "You're Maia," Moon said.  "The one who escaped with
Yurina."
     "Ah, my reputation precedes me," Maia said sleekly.  "So, do we
have a deal?"
     "All right," Moon said meekly.  "Just don't hurt him."
     "Good girl," Maia smirked.  Rocking forward, she gently
disengaged herself from the overcome man with a soft liquid sound,
whipping her top off with one smooth motion as she stood.  Naked, she
shook her hair back and flexed her wings, taking a slow step towards
Sailor Moon.  "Don't look so apprehensive, precious," she purred.  "It
won't hurt.  In fact, it will be the most intense pleasure you've ever
experienced.  After I'm done with you, you won't want an ordinary lover
ever again."
     Moon watched the statuesque huntress move, tawny skin
glistening with sweat in the soft light.  Naked, she was stunning, like a
dark goddess risen to tempt the righteous, corrupt the incorruptible.  She
was sweet sin given form, moving with the languid grace of a hunting
cat.
     All Moon wanted to do was smash the bitch.
     "That's an unpleasant look," Maia chastised her.  "And here I
am, doing you a favour.  I think you should greet me on your knees,
girl."  Her playful smile hardened, emerald eyes glinting like chips of ice.
"So go on.  Kneel."
     Sailor Moon fell to her knees, clasping her hands over her chest
and bowing her head as the seductive witch drew closer, step by
maddeningly slow step, deliberately drawing the moment out.  Moon bit
her lip, keeping her gaze fixed steadfastly on the stone floor in front of
her, until finally Maia's boots came to a stop there.
     "Too bad," Maia breathed.  "You're not even going to put up a fight?
 You'd better entertain me in some other way, girlie."  Her scent was
sweet, a musky perfume that reached past the rational part of the mind to
insinuate itself directly around the darkest heart of desire, inflaming wild
lust with contemptuous ease.  If Tuxedo Mask's scent was on her, Moon
couldn't tell.  It was Maia, all Maia.
     Long nails caressed her chin, slipping under to force her head back
until their gazes met, huntress and prey.  "Now," Maia lilted sweetly, full
lips parted as she let her gaze linger on the kneeling girl's submissive
form.  "Let's get you out of that ugly dress."
     "As you wish," Moon whispered.
     There was a flash of light, and for a split-second Maia was
thrown off-balance.  That was the moment Moon had been waiting for,
and she did not let it pass.
     Focussing her fury, she struck, slamming her body into the succubus
and throwing the lethally lovely female back.  Maia stumbled but did not
fall; she was terribly strong, and recovered from Moon's attack with
distressing speed.  The senshi barely managed to slip by her opponent,
evading Maia's wildly grasping hand and jumping clear, landing between
the succubus and Tuxedo Mask.  Unfortunately, that meant her sceptre
was still far out of reach, but right now protecting Tuxedo Mask was her
priority.  If Maia got to him again, the princess would be forced to
surrender.  And then they would both be in very big trouble.
     "Interesting trick," Maia growled, turning to face her.  Moon
plucked the white rose from her lapel, glaring at the succubus from
behind her mask.  Minako, she thought, I owe you big time for this little
present of yours.
     "You mess with one Tuxedo Mask," Moon announced boldly, "you
mess with us all."
     "Catchy," Maia sniffed, taking in Moon's new tuxedo-clad form.
"But changing your costume isn't going to make a difference, girlie.
Still, I like it when pretties play hard to get.  Makes my blood run hot."
     Maia smiled that smug, hateful smile, and Moon chose that
moment to snap her arm out sharply, sending her white rose whirling
through the air in a blur.  Maia dodged with unsettling speed, but the
transformed tiara still managed to strike a glancing blow, tearing a shriek
of pain from the succubus.  Moon flipped backwards and was at Tuxedo
Mask's side when the rose returned to her hand.  She spun, standing
protectively over her fallen love, while Maia straightened from a crouch,
disbelief on her face.  Disbelief and a long, bright line of blood, Moon
saw with no little satisfaction.
     "You," Maia breathed, raising her fingers to her face and staring
at the blood that came away on them.  "You little bitch.  You CUT me.  I
was going to treat you nice, but now ... now I'm gonna skin you ALIVE!"
     As Maia raised her voice to a hysteria-edged shriek, Moon
unleashed her rose again, this time throwing far wide of the charging
succubus.  The spinning rose glanced off a train car and ricocheted,
slashing across Maia's back and sending the scarlet-maned succubus
stumbling.  The rose caromed off a second car and returned to Moon's
hand; she spun, preserving as much of the momentum as possible, and
unleashed a third attack.
     This time, Maia fled, turning tail and launching herself into the
air, disappearing behind a jumble of old train cars.  Moon snatched her
rose out of the air and turned, grabbing Tuxedo Mask by the wrist and
pulling him up.  She fought not to look at the scratches on his chest or the
way the front of his trousers had been pulled open.  Focus, she told
herself firmly to keep jealous rage from erupting as she gently pulled his
pants closed over his vulnerability.  First things first.
     Slinging his arm over her shoulder, she half-carried, half-dragged
the man towards the nearest shelter.  Only once he was safe could she
fight that deranged harpy.  Clasping the pale rose in her teeth, she fought
to get closer to her goal, trying to look in every direction for Maia's next
attack.  The creature was far stronger than she'd expected.  Could it be
that Tuxedo Mask's stolen vitality was the cause?
     The toppled train cars seemed to hover just out of reach, like one
of those nightmares where you run and run but never move, but as
horrible as this situation was, it was all too real.  She lurched into the lee
of the wrecked cars, legs burning, lungs on fire, and set her stricken lover
down as gently as she could.  Wiping the sweat out of her eyes with the
back of one gloved hand, she scanned again for Maia.  Nothing.  She
supposed she should have been glad, but she couldn't bring herself to
believe that Maia had given up.  Steeling herself, she slipped her arms
under Tuxedo Mask's body and slid him into a sheltered alcove formed
by the buckled metal.  It would be nearly impossible for Maia to find him
here, especially if she had to fight off Sailor Moon.
     "Usako."
     "Mamo-chan!"  His face was horribly pale and wan, his voice
breathy.  She grasped his hands in hers, relief making her dizzy.
     "I'm ... sorry," he gasped.
     "Don't!" she said sternly.  "Don't apologise to me!  This isn't
your fault!  She did this to you, and I'm going to punish her for it!  You
have to stay in there for now, okay?"
     "Be ... careful," he choked out.  "She's strong ..."
     "Don't worry," she whispered.  "Just stay safe."
     She leaned down and kissed his pale lips tenderly, then pulled
herself away.  She wanted to stay with him, but he wouldn't be safe that
way.  The fake Saekianna could have sent a message to the real one.
Maia could be bringing help.  Moon couldn't huddle in a corner and feel
sorry for herself.  She needed to be ready.
     When they came, they would find her waiting.
     She slipped through the gloom, moving as silently as she could
over the hard stone.  No sign of Maia yet.  Good.  She crept cautiously up
to the edge of one badly sagging wreck of indeterminate origin, peering
around the corner.
     There.  That was the spot.
     But her sceptre was gone.
     Damn.  Maia was enraged, but still thinking clearly enough to
snag Moon's weapon.  This was not helpful.  She slipped around the
corner of the flattened car, hoping to find a decent vantage point.
     Instead, she found Maia.
     "There you are," Maia said with grim delight.  "Looking for
this?"  She waved the sceptre negligently, the tip of her tongue stealing
out to lick at the streamers of blood that oozed down her face.
     "If you leave us in peace, I'll let you go," Moon pledged.
"That's the best offer I can make you.  I promised to help the Sisterhood.
Nobody said anything about you."
     "Fuck the Sisterhood," Maia said brightly.  "And fuck you, too.
You want this back?  I'll give it to you.  Oh, yes.  I'll insert it someplace
very painful and give it to you GOOD.  I'm gonna to teach you a lesson,
little girl.  One you'll never forget.  And then I'm gonna do your pretty
boy-toy until he's just a husk."
     "You," Moon snapped, flushing, "are not going to touch him
again!"
     They moved as one, Maia flinging herself into the air, Moon
moving laterally, then flinging her rose.  Maia dodged, swooping through
the air like a hunting hawk, then pinning her wings back and diving.  She
caught Moon with the sceptre as she passed, and pain blossomed in the
senshi's side as she fell.  Rolling frantically, she regained her feet, casting
about for her rose.  It gleamed softly where it had ended up embedded,
stem-first, in the hard stone.  She ran and dove for it, but Maia was there
again, and again she was thrown clear.  Moon landed heavily, rolling
across the stone, her hat flying off as she tumbled, hair loosed in a silken
blonde storm.  Scrambling to her feet, she launched herself through the
air once more.
     This time she managed to snag the rose, but had to drop flat as
the vengeful succubus sliced through the air, nearly taking her head off
with the next swing.  Moon clawed at the rock, gasping for breath, and
half-ran, half-crawled to the edge of one of the old train engines.
     Her side hurt every time she breathed, and she tensed as Maia let
out a blood-chilling shriek, circling her position lazily.  Moon knew she
didn't have time to catch her breath; she broke for the next car as Maia
dove, screeching like a banshee.  Moon barely managed to throw herself
prone, sliding under the shelter of an ancient passenger car as Maia made
her pass.  Pain, immediate and hot, seared in a thin line along her leg, and
she cried out, pulling herself the rest of the way underneath the rusting
hulk.
     One of Maia's dagger-like nails had cut a line through her fishnet
stocking, opening a cut across her calf.  It throbbed hotly, and it was
bleeding nicely as well, but she couldn't afford the time to try and
bandage it.  She needed to keep Maia occupied, focussed on her.
 As long as Maia was hunting her, Mamoru was safe.
     As Moon cast about for her next bot of cover, something thudded
against the top of the car, then something else, then a series of tiny
impacts.
     I don't like the sound of this, she thought, and scrambled out the
far side.  She sensed motion above and ran, only seconds ahead of the
lighting array that plunged directly onto the car, exploding in a shower of
steel and glass as it pulverised the hapless hulk.  Moon cried out,
throwing herself down as shards of old glass and metal sliced through the
air.  She hit the ground, tried to rise, failed.  There was pain along her
ribs on her right side now, as well higher up on her bad leg and on her left
arm.  Get up, she thought frantically.  If you don't, she'll kill you.  Get
up!
     "Nice, eh?" Maia crowed from above.  "I got the idea from you.
Oh, THERE you are.  Gee, chickie, you're nice tuxedo's all bloody now.
What a shame.  Guess we'll have to get you out of that."
     Moon ran.  Her twice-injured leg throbbed, but she managed to
careen around the edge of a jumble of steel, heading for the remains of a
corrugated metal shack.  She needed a few moments to catch her breath,
come up with a plan.  But Maia wasn't going to give her a break; the
succubus dove down at her, and although Moon managed to dodge the
attack, the movement sent a sharp spike of agony through her leg, and
she fell.
     Scrambling desperately to her feet, Moon ran for her life.  Once
upon a time she had been a normal girl, scared, untried, and would not
have been able to take this.  The fear, the pain, the knowledge that
Mamoru's safety depended on her, all of these things would have crushed
her beneath them, leaving her a sobbing wreck.  But she had come far
since being introduced to her destiny, and if she was still much the girl
she'd been, she was also more.  And she had many people to thank for
that, but none of her girls were here now.  It was all on her.
     And she was not going to give up.
     I can do this, she chanted silently.  Risky, yes.  All or nothing,
sure, but there's no choice, is there?  So do it, Usagi.  Be the White Moon
Princess.
     She careened around a twisted pile of old rails, saw the scattered bed
of pale petals ahead of her.  She'd come full circle, and still Maia harried
her from above.  Moon charged forward, diving through the tangle of
flowers as Maia knifed through the air, swinging the purloined sceptre
with savage force.  Moon plowed through the fragrant carpet as the
sceptre whistled over her head, hands outstretched like a diver ready to
enter the water, then stumbled quicky to her feet.  Twisted metal was all
around, but nothing close enough to reach, not injured as she was.  Maia
was circling the winded girl like some beauteous vulture, crowing with
delight as Moon glared up at her through a tangle of blonde tresses.
     "I can't believe the Nightmistress is afraid of you," Maia taunted,
rising up high above her, wings spread like some angel of doom.  "You're
nothing special.  You're just a little girl.  No wonder your boyfriend was
so easy.  He craved a real woman."  She posed provocatively in the air,
her naked body all tight, tawny skin and lush curves.
     "Shut up!" Moon snarled.  Don't, she told herself.  Don't let her
distract you.  He didn't want to.  She's a succubus.  She made him.
Don't ...
     "Oh, did I strike a nerve?" Maia sneered.  "Too bad, girl.  You
just can't compare with the charms of a real woman."
     "Shut!  UP!"  Lies!  All lies!  He loves me, he LOVES me ...
     Yes.  Yes, he did.  And love was more powerful than anything.
Even hate.
     "Is that all you can do?" Maia taunted.  "Cry like a child?  A real
woman would fight for her man, but I guess you know there's no contest.
I know!  Why don't you just admit defeat?  Admit that you're not
woman enough for a man like that, and I'll let you go!  What about it,
kid?"
     "I said ... SHUT UP!"  Her left hand was cupped over her breast, and
she snapped it out with all her strength.
     Too slow.  Maia dodged the fluttering white rose easily, glee
sparkling in her feral green eyes.  Then she dove towards Moon, now
defenceless, determined to cripple the girl before the rose could return.
     "Die!" she shrieked.
     You first," Moon shot back.
     And threw the white rose tiara in her right hand.
     Believing that she had goaded the princess into wasting her one
chance, Maia had committed herself completely.  Even so, she frantically
tried to dodge the real attack, and her agility very nearly saved her.  The
spinning white rose slashed across her left shoulder instead of striking her
dead on, knifing straight up and severing her wing on its way through,
sending her spiralling wildly towards the ground.
     And Sailor Moon.  Maia crashed heavily into her, forcing the air
from her lungs and sending them both sprawling across the stony ground.
Moon tried to draw breath, forcing her hands under her body.  Her arms
trembled with fatigue and shock, long locks of her hair hanging down
into her field of vision.  She seemed to be one huge bundle of pain of all
different flavours, from cuts to bruises to abrasions.  But she wasn't
finished.  Tuxedo Mask needed her.  Her senshi were missing.  And she
had a promise to keep.
     So she forced herself to her knees, the world wobbling
capriciously as she managed to draw in one breath, then another.
Gritting her teeth, she got one foot under her and managed to stand.
     Just in time for Maia to charge her.
     The enraged succubus howled shrilly, swinging the sceptre she
still had in her hand in a vicious arc.  It caught Moon across the ribs with
a new nova of white-hot pain, driving the battered senshi back into the
side of an old maintenance car and nearly knocking it over with the force
of the impact.
     "You cut my face," Maia hissed, fangs bared as she pinned Moon
with her body.  "You cut off my WING!  I'M GOING TO TAKE YOU
APART PIECE BY PIECE, YOU PRISSY ... LITTLE ... BITCH!"
     Sailor Moon didn't bother to reply.  She didn't have to.  As the
two women paused, bloodied and battered, some semblance of rationality
seemed to penetrate Maia's killing fury.  The succubus's gaze shifted
slowly down, to the sceptre that was still trapped under Moon's arm, and
in that moment her eyes widened with alarm as she realised that the
senshi had wrapped her hands around the shaft of her weapon ... a
weapon whose point was pressed into Maia's belly by the weight of her
own body.  Moon shivered as the ginzoushou resonated with her sceptre,
her power seeking a path of release.
     "You hurt my man," Moon whispered into Maia's rapidly
mounting panic.
     Light.
     The blazing nimbus caught the blood-soaked succubus in the
chest, flinging her straight back.  Limned by brilliant, sliver-white light,
Maia screamed as she was flung through the nearest train car like a stone
through tissue.  Her screams diminished as she punched through at least
half a dozen more, finally slamming into the base of a twisted pile of old
trains that towered at least forty feet into the air.  The weirdly contorted
mountain of metal, shaped long ago by unimaginable forces, shuddered
with a piercing metallic scream, swaying almost gracefully before
collapsing on the unmoving form of the succubus.  The unearthly
cacophony rose up to the lofty ceiling, triggering a minor rain of
damaged lights and fragments of girders.  Moon watched with awe as the
twisted metal forms just seemed to continue to fall like some sort of
nightmarish waterfall of ancient steel and glass, stretching out in a way
that was just unreal.
     When the unearthly din had finally died away, leaving only faint
echoes from the far reaches of the huge cavern, Sailor Moon fell to her
knees, planting the end of her sceptre against the ground to keep herself
from falling on her face.
     "Well," she whispered to no one in particular, "that was fun."
     She hadn't been in a fight like that since Beryl and her goons.  As
the last vestiges of her adrenaline rush faded, all she wanted to do was lie
down and sleep for a week.  But she couldn't do that, not yet.  Her leg
throbbed in two places, her ribs sent jagged spikes of pain into her side
when she breathed, and she felt like a week old dishrag.
     So much for the glamourous life of a princess.
     "I was promised parades," she gritted as she used the sceptre to
lever herself unsteadily to her feet once more.  "And fancy dress balls,
and a harem and luxury.  That's it, I want my money back."
     She began to hobble across the hard, cold stone, stifling sobs of pain.
Gingerly, she detoured to retrieve her white rose from where it had fallen,
knowing that if the Sisterhood showed up now, the fight would be over
before it began.  Nobody came, though.  They were alone down here, in
this bizarre, time-lost graveyard of trains.
     It took her some time to return to the place where she'd left her
stricken lover, but when she finally had his hidey-hole in sight, her heart
spasmed, taking a two or three beat time-out.
     Tuxedo Mask had left his safe haven and was crawling across the
cold rock on his hands and knees.  Moon cried out, hobbling as quickly
as she could to his side where she fell to her knees, ignoring the pain
caused by that sudden motion.  The battered senshi threw her arms
around her man and pulled him close to her, disbelief, worry and plain
old exasperation fighting for the privilege of having the first go at him.
     "Where are you going?" she demanded, her voice high and shrill
even to her ears.  "You shouldn't be out here!"
     "You were ... in danger," he mumbled breathily, beautiful blue eyes
glazed and hardly able to focus.  "I could never just ... lie there."
     He reached his hand up to her cheek and she caught it in hers,
rubbing her face against his palm before kissing it gently.
     "This time," she breathed, "you were the one who needed
protection."
     Then the floodgates burst, and she was kissing his face
frantically, her arms around him, tears coursing down her face freely.
     "Hey," he said hoarsely.  "What's with ... the crying?"
     "Shut up," she sniffed in between kisses.  "I'm a girl.  I'm
allowed."
     Remarkably, he did shut up.  Moon nuzzled the crook of his
neck, holding his body tightly against hers.  That detestable woman's
scent was still on him, and Moon felt anger threatening to rear up again.
She wanted to go dig Maia up and beat on her some more.  It was
unfamiliar, this hatred, and a more than a little frightening.  Mostly,
though, she was consumed with relief that Tuxedo Mask was safe.
     He lay limp in her arms, and she sensed a distance there, not
anything tangible, but disturbing nonetheless.  Mamoru had always cast
himself as her protector, and she had a moment to wonder what this
would do to him, what sort of wounds such a terrible humiliation might
carve into his heart, his pride as a man.  And whether she could heal such
wounds.
     Whether he, in his pride, would let her.
     There was a sound from behind them, and she moved before she
could think of the need to, long hours of training guiding her actions.
Her sceptre swung around to point at the source of the sound, and her
heart hammered as she looked down its length.
     "Uh, hey," Yoshi said, holding his hands out.  "That's you, isn't
it, Sailor Moon?"
     "Yoshi?"  Her arm trembled, and she lowered it, pulling the
surging power back into herself once more.  It was hard to do; her control
was shaky at best, and Yoshi came very close to taking the full brunt of
everything she had left at point-blank range.
     "Yeah," the blond werewolf said, still holding his hands out carefully
as though aware of how close he had come to getting fried.  He was
naked except for a badly torn pair of jeans, but he seemed to be
unharmed, although his body glistened with a fine sheen of sweat.
"Gods, what happened to you two?  It sounded like someone was fighting
a war down here.  Kinda looks that way, too."
     "Something like that," the princess said, smiling with sudden relief so
intense it was nearly painful.  "Where are the others?  Are they with
you?"
     "No," he told her.  "I'll fill you in, but we have to get moving.
Your people are after the Sisterhood, and they're going to need all the
help they can get."

***

     "Well?" V asked.
     We emerged cautiously into the new tunnel.  The one we were
leaving had been small and cramped; if I'd been in boy form I'd have
probably hit my head.  This new one, though, was big.  You could fit a
four-lane road in it, and the roof was high enough to accommodate
tractor-trailers with room to spare.
     "If Mercury's right, this will lead us in the direction we need to
go," Mars said, surveying the new tunnel.  This one was dark, and V had
to pull out her whip to give us enough light to see by.
     "If she's right?"
     "Well, she mentioned that the route we were taking would bring
us to a straight tunnel," Mars said with only a momentary hesitation.
"She didn't mention it being so big."
     "So we could be lost," I sighed.
     "This whole Mercury seeing your memories thing is a little
hinky," V agreed.  "We might not be where she thought we would be."
     "We have to trust her judgement," Mars said, her eyes dark pools
in the soft golden light of V's whip.  "Come on, V.  This is Mercury.
Even her educated guesses are ten times more reliable than most people's
certainty."
     "You've got a point there," V admitted.  "Okay, so which way?"
     "Right," Mars said.  We set off down this new tunnel at a run, all
of us ready for any more trouble.  We hadn't run into any more scary
monsters since our last communication with the others, but I couldn't
help remembering how a salamander had once chased the three of us into
a tunnel not even as big as this.  There was plenty of space in here for
very big monsters.
     "If she was right about our relative position, we should reach a
cross tunnel in a few minutes," Mars told us.  "From there, it's a fairly
straight run through the temple district.  Hopefully, that line will lead us
straight to the Sisterhood."
     "Where we three will fight their entire organisation," V chimed
in.  "And emerge victorious."
     "First things first," Mars shot back.  "We've still got to find them."
     "And after that?" I asked.
     "We wing it," Mars shrugged.  V snickered.
     "Sexy, I believe I'm rubbing off on you!" the blonde senshi
crowed.
     "Imagine my delight," Mars said wryly.
     Within two minutes, we had reached what seemed to be the end
of the tunnel.  V hoisted her whip, surveying the scene warily.
     "What in the hells is this?" she demanded.  "It just ends?  Why
have such a big tunnel way down here, especially one that doesn't go
anywhere?"
     "Once upon a time, maybe it did," I shrugged.  This whole thing
was beginning to frustrate the hell out of me.  I was tired of wandering
around in the dark, unable to even find the enemy, much less fight them.
The clock was ticking and here we were, chasing our tails while the
Sisterhood got ready to launch an attack.
     "Wait," Mars said.  "What's this?"
     She walked into the circular chamber at the end of the tunnel and
crouched down.  Without having to be asked, V moved closer, and I
could see that something had been drawn on the smooth stone floor.
Another mysterious poem, complete with a strange word that only I could
see?  My gut clenched at that thought.  I wanted enemies I could fight,
not spooky mysteries that made no sense.
     But as it turned out, I needn't have worried.  At least, not about
poems and that sort of thing.  No, what was written on that floor was
something entirely different, if no less disturbing.
     "Is that what I think it is?" V asked in a hushed voice.
     "Can you get me more light?" Mars asked by way of reply.  V
increased the length of her whip, revealing more of the design.  It was
two circles, one inside the other, with symbols inscribed in the space
between the two, and lines and symbols etched in the middle.  Looked
magickal, I suppose.  I was hardly an authority, but if it was just artsy
graffiti, I didn't suppose the girls would have been so tense.
     "That is what I think it is, isn't it?" V said.  Her voice was
uncharacteristically grim, and Mars nodded.
     "A Circle of Veneration," the crouching senshi replied.
"Dedicated to the Dark Lady."
     "So the Sisterhood's been here?" I asked.  Hot damn, time to
fight at last."
     "I don't believe so," Mars said, standing.  "Normally, it wouldn't
be so big, for starters."
     "Unless, maybe, it was being used as a gate between Shadow and
here," V said, skirting the edge of the pattern.  "You could transport a
whole lot of succubi in a pattern this big."
     "Whoa," I said.  "Hold on.  This is the circle thingie that we were
looking for when we were over there?"
     "The very same," Mars confirmed.  "Maia claimed that they
could be used to bridge the two realms if they existed in the same place in
each realm.  This must be one of the Crimson Queen's secret back-doors
into our world.  Nobody would stumble across it down here."
     "But how did it get here in the first place?" I asked.
     "No sense worrying about that now," Mars told me.  "We should
just eradicate it.  The next time the succubi want to go hunting, they'll be
in for a nasty surprise."
     "Hey!" V called.  She'd wandered to the far side of the pattern,
and stood with her whip high.  "I found a door over here!"
     We skirted the edge of the pattern, but in the darkness Mars
stepped on the edge of it.  She jumped back immediately, and I stopped,
dropping into a defensive crouch.  When she just stared at the pattern I
relaxed a little, waiting as she crouched down again and passed her hand
over the perimeter of the circle.
     "What's wrong?" I asked.
     "There are traces of energy here," she replied slowly.
     "What is it?" V called over.
     "I'm not sure," Mars said.  "It could be some residual Shadow
energy from the last time the gate was used."
     The hair on the nape of my neck started to prickle.  "Any way to
know when that was?" I asked.  The prospect of fighting a bunch of
hungry succubi in a dark tunnel made me more than a little nervous, even
though I wasn't currently in guy form.
     "No," Mars said, frustration tainting her words.  "I've never seen
a Circle used this way before, so I have no way of knowing how long the
energies linger."
     "Hopefully it wasn't recent," I said, eyes straining to pierce the
darkness.  "If this Crimson Queen is ticked that we messed up her turf,
she might have decided to come over here and return the favour."
     "I doubt it," Mars told me, running one gloved hand over the pattern
lightly.  She made a languid gesture, and part of the pattern seemed to
crumble and vanish, presumably rendering it useless.  "Keeping a low
profile has protected her for a very long time.  I've never heard any
rumours about succubi and incubi living in Shadow or coming here.  But
we can't be too careful.  V, might they have gone through that door?"
     "Nope," V informed us as we came closer.  "See?  Badly rusted.
Nobody's been through here in a long time."
     She was right.  The old metal door was recessed into the stone
wall.  The hinges and lock were solid rust; there was no way to open it
short of taking the thing down.
     "This is the way we were going," V said.  "What do you think?"
     "She didn't mention a chamber," Mars said slowly.  "Or a door."
     "It's either this," V said, waving a hand at the stubborn portal,
"or go back.  I say we should at least look."
     "Good idea," I agreed.  I turned, pivoted on one foot, and
snapped a kick.  My foot caught the door squarely, blowing it out of the
frame like it was made of tissue.  Though rusted, there was still a fair
amount of resistance.
     "Show off," V murmured.
     "We just needed to get through, right?" I asked.  But the look she
gave me made me feel warm and tingly all over.  Okay, maybe I had
been showing off.  A little.
     "Another tunnel," Mars said, peering inside.  "What an enormous
surprise."
     This one ran straight in the direction that the big one had,
although it was far smaller.  We'd have to go through single file again.  V
went first, Mars second, and I brought up the rear, walking over the
crumpled door and proceeding briskly through the new tunnel.  This time
we only walked for about a minute before we came to another door.
There was thick dust on the floor of the tunnel; we were the first people
to have walked through here in a very long time.  That made sense to me,
since the second door was even worse off than the first one.
     This time V was the one to show off, and the smoking ruin of the
door toppled slowly outwards, revealing a tunnel beyond, one with lights.
We stepped out carefully, looking both ways.  This tunnel was much like
the one we'd started in, with old lights high up the walls and plenty of
bends and twists.
     "Wait," Mars said, holding one gloved hand up in a sudden
gesture.  "Do you feel that?"
     "What?" V asked.
     "I think ..."  She moved down the opposite wall, holding her palm
a few inches from the wall, eyes closed.  Then she stopped and a patch of
wall flickered unsteadily.  As we watched, a black and red ward appeared
on the stone, and Mars lowered her hand.
     "The Sisterhood?" I asked.
     "Yes.  They warded the tunnels they were using.  So ..."
     "So we're back in their tunnel!" V crowed.  "All right!  She did
it!"
     As V threw her arms around Mars triumphantly, I turned and
raised my face hesitantly into the cool, damp air.  Surely that wasn't ...?
     "C'mere, Ranma!"  A pair of leather-clad arms wrapped around
me from behind, and for a few seconds I had my hands full trying to keep
from getting groped.
     "Okay, okay!" I blurted.  "Good news all around!"  I squirmed
free, secretly a little disappointed that she let me go so easily.  Yeah, I
really didn't have the hang of this whole knowing what I wanted gig yet.
Why didn't I just let her grope me a little, or even hug her back?
     Coward, a little voice taunted.
     I couldn't disagree.
     Then, as I watched, the loose tendrils of blonde hair blew back
gently from V's beaming face, and I remembered what I'd been curious
about.
     "Wind," I said.  "There's wind down here.  Coming from that
way."
     We all stared down the tunnel for a moment as the gentle breeze
eddied around us for a few moments, then died away.
     "Weird," V said.  "Wonder what caused that?"
     "I'm not sure," Mars told us.  "But by my reckoning, or more
accurately Mercury's, our destination should lie the opposite way."
     That seemed like good news, but we had only walked a few steps
in the direction Mars had indicated when a wave of sound rolled over us,
echoing hollowly through the tunnel, a series of sharp cracks strung
together like beads on a necklace.  We flattened against the walls, ready
for yet more of the city's weird and wonderful underground carnival, but
the noise died out as quickly as it had come.
     "What the hell was that?" I demanded.
     "You know, it kind of sounded like ..." V began.
     "Jupiter's lightning attack," Mars finished for her.
     And just like that, they were off and running.
     I managed to catch up to them at the first corner.  All caution
seemed to have gone right out the window, but I couldn't blame them.
They knew their friends were in trouble.  I'd have done the same.
Technically, I was doing the same.  I just hoped that this time we didn't
get stuck with talisman decoys.
     Soon we could hear what sounded like fighting, although the
crazy echoes off the tunnel walls distorted the sounds.  There was
shouting, a sound like water rushing, then that lightning whip-crack noise
again.
     And then a scream.
     "Mercury!" I heard V shout.  She pulled ahead, running full-tilt
into whatever trouble the others had found.  I wanted to tell her to be
careful, but I knew that'd be futile.  Mars surprised me, though, by
putting on a burst of speed and pushing past V, racing hell-bent around a
curve, the blonde senshi close behind.
     Seconds later I joined them.  The tunnel made a sharp turn about
twenty feet ahead of us.  The area at the turn was shrouded in gloom, but
I could see Mercury lying on her back, struggling frantically as
something glowing white and gold wrapped tightly around her body.
Jupiter was standing over her, face briefly lit by the lightning she
frantically flung down the section of tunnel that we couldn't see.  Her
uniform was in tatters, and it looked like she was wearing the remains of
a t-shirt over her skirt.  She also seemed to be favouring one arm.
     Before we could react, there was a sudden intense blast of wind
that we felt even from our position.  It caught Jupiter and flung her back,
sending her crashing heavily into the rock.  She cried out in pain,
crumpling to the floor in an untidy heap.
     It was at that point that Mars and V threw themselves into the
tunnel, unleashing twin attacks to defend their fallen friends.  I threw
myself into the fray, not knowing what sort of creatures we might be
facing.
     Imagine my surprise when I discovered they weren't monsters at
all.  There were eight or ten of them; it was hard to tell, the way they
were milling around and covering each other.  Four tall guys with hoods
that shadowed their faces carried long staves like they knew how to use
them.  There looked to be four women as well, only two of whom carried
staves.  All wore matching robes.
     The ninth woman, who stood boldly at the front of the pack, was
clearly in charge, and not because her robe had a gold sash and a shiny
cowl.  The brief glimpse I got of her showed a woman utterly confident
not only in her own abilities, but also in the authority she commanded.
With long, wavy blonde hair and aristocratic features, she'd have
probably been beautiful if she hadn't looked so pissed.
     Okay, she was still beautiful, but the speed and accuracy with
which she flung something straight at us showed that underestimating her
would be a bad idea.  Whatever it was, it gleamed white and gold as it
flew, just like the thing that had trapped Mercury.  It never reached us,
though; Mars flung her arm out in a motion that mirrored the blonde's,
and her black and red ward hit the projectile in mid-air, stopping it dead.
The two wards fell to the stone floor of the tunnel, twining around each
other in a way that was nearly, well, sexual.
     That was when I began to suspect who our new friends were.
     "Grab Mercury!" V shouted in my ear.  I turned and scooped up
the fallen senshi, carrying her around the corner.  The lights in the corner
had been destroyed in the fighting, resulting in the gloom I had noted
earlier.  One advantage to that was that it made us harder for the enemy
to see clearly, so at least we had something going for us, little though it
was.  V slung Jupiter's uninjured arm around her shoulders and
half-dragged, half-carried the dazed girl to safety as Mars covered us
with a gout of flame.  Wind rushed down the tunnel again, and the
raven-haired senshi cursed as her flame was sent back toward her.  She
barely managed to dive around the corner in time to avoid it.
     "Okay, this is bad!" V shouted, propping Jupiter up and
examining her quickly.
     "Oh, you think?" Mars snapped, picking herself up and moving
closer to me.  "Ranma, hold her still, but mind that Capture Ward."
     I did, which was easy, because Mercury's struggles were getting
weaker.  Her eyes were glassy and her face pale, and I wondered what the
Capture Ward was doing to her.  Mars hesitated for a moment, then
thrust one of her own wards against the glowing coils.  She held it there
for long moments, lips moving as though she were chanting under her
breath, until finally the glowing ward twitched, shuddered, and uncoiled
like a broken spring.  It ended up on the ground, a charred strip of
ordinary looking paper.  Mars's ward fared about the same, and she
dropped it quickly.
     While Mars examined Mercury, V was crouched at the corner,
snapping off shots at the enemy.  I let Mars take Mercury from me,
watching as she cradled the girl in her arms and lowered her face,
speaking softly to her fellow senshi.  I slid across the tunnel to Jupiter.
     "You guys are a sight for sore eyes," the tall girl gasped as I
crouched beside her.
     "Timing is everything in this business," I told her lightly.  She looked
even worse in good light, and I didn't much care for the way she was
cradling her shoulder.  She'd definitely been injured.  Something hung
around her neck, and I was pretty sure it was a make-shift sling.
     "Where's Yoshi?" V called from her position.
     "We sent him after Tux and Sailor Moon," Jupiter told us.  "We
crossed their trail a ways back, thought they should know they were
chasing a fake."
     "So, uh, about these guys," I began.
     "They caught us by surprise," Jupiter said, shaking her sweat-
soaked hair back out of her face and motioning me to help her up.
"Tried to take us down."
     "But who are they?" I pressed as I grabbed her good arm and pulled
her to her feet.
     "The White Order's Shining Crusaders," V growled, firing off
two quick shots before ducking back.
     "That's the public face," Mars said in a low, venomous tone that
caused us all to turn to her.  "They're Inquisitors."
     "Come on," Jupiter said, leaning against the wall of the tunnel
and moving her injured arm carefully.  "That Inquisition stuff's just an
old wive's tale.  These guys are definitely Crusaders.  Check out the
robes."
     "Their leader is Carlina Val Cassanda," Mars went on.  "She used
to be assigned to temple operations in Gisdea.  Looks like she got
promoted."
     "You know this maniac?" V cursed, pulling back as tightly
focussed blasts of wind battered the rock around us.  Bolts of magickal
energy followed that attack, and Jupiter moved up to help V hold off the
Inquisitors.
     "Oh, we go way back," Mars said with a mirthless smile.  Then
she cupped Mercury's cheek, her expression softening.  "Okay?" I heard
her whisper.  Mercury nodded, and Mars put her forehead against the
other girl's for a moment.  I expected Mercury to be uncomfortable with
that gesture, but she accepted it easily, even going so far as to reach up
and brush Mars' hair back with her fingers.  Maybe this whole shadow
link thing they had going on had eased the usual reticence I'd seen
Mercury display.  Frankly, I wasn't keen to give it much thought right
now.
     "We're not going to be able to hold them here long!" V shouted from
the corner as more golden balls of energy slammed against the far wall,
sending shards of stone flying.
     "Can't we talk to them?" I asked.  "I mean, if they're enemies of
the Sisterhood ..."
     "The Inquisition isn't sent in when diplomacy is called for," Mars
informed me, joining us at the edge of the tunnel.  "They are utterly
ruthless when it comes to dealing with the Sisterhood."
     "Well, we're not the bloody Sisterhood!" Jupiter gritted, thrusting her
good arm around the corner and firing off a lightning bolt.
     "They'll take us down first, sort things out later," Mars told her.
"And if I'm captured, they'll find out that I was Sisterhood.  Hells, I've
already used Sisterhood wards against them."
     "What would they do to you?" I asked.  The haunted look in her
eyes in that moment spooked me; I'd seen her in many moods, but I think
that was the first time I'd seen her afraid, not for her friends, but for
herself.
     "I won't be taken alive," she said, and the fierceness in her voice made
me take a half-step back.  "No matter what."
     "No problem."  I was as surprised as anyone that those words
came from Jupiter, who glanced back at her fellow senshi, green eyes
calm.  "They don't get you without going through us, right?"
     "Damn straight!" V grinned.  Mars seemed at a loss for words in
that moment, and Mercury surprised me again by hugging the girl from
behind.
     "Well," Mars said finally, gruffness disguising her sudden
emotional vulnerability, "we still need to get out of here.  The Sisterhood
is that way."
     "Can we bring the tunnel down?" V asked.  "Buy some ti ...
yow!"  She fell back as a fierce barrage of magickal bolts hammered the
corner, smashing the rock there, followed by another blast of wind.
     "This tunnel was carved out of bedrock," Mercury said, scanning
quickly.  "It will be hard to cause a cave-in.  And it won't hold them for
long."
     "At this point, I'll take what I can get," I muttered.  There wasn't
room for all of us at the corner, and I was getting antsy about being kept
out of the fight.  Still, I had to keep reminding myself that this fight
wasn't the important one.  The Sisterhood was ahead of us, maybe all of
them, ready to unleash a ceremony that was linked to the vampire.  We
just didn't have time for this.
     "Okay!" V cried as the din from the Inquisition's attack rose
again.  "On three!  One!  Two!  THREE!"
     We all let fly with our respective attacks, concentrating on the
same spot on the ceiling.  We slowly fell back, keeping up the pressure,
and finally rock rained down, sending a wave of dust billowing around
us.
     "Well?" Jupiter coughed, waving her hand in front of her face.
     "Not bad," Mercury conceded, scanning the rock fall that
blocked the tunnel between us and the Inquisition.
     "Let's hurry," Mars called out.  "We need as much of a lead as
we can get!"
     That made sense to me.  We all set off back the way we'd come,
running for all we were worth.
     "So, here's a question," V panted as we ran past the tunnel we'd
come through.  "What are the White Order's Crusaders, or Inquisitors, or
whatever, doing down here?"
     "No way it's coincidence," Jupiter replied.  She had slipped her
arm back into the sling and was cradling it against her body as she ran.
Even with her long legs she seemed to be having trouble keeping up, but
she never complained.
     "So they found out about the Sisterhood's plan, and they're going
to stop it?" I asked.  "I don't see the problem."
     "The princess promised to help the Sisterhood," Mercury
reminded me, casting quick glances back over her shoulder as she ran.
     "That's going to get sticky," Mars said grimly from just ahead of
me.  "The Inquisitors are merciless in their pursuit of the Order's
enemies.  If they see an opportunity to crush the last remnants of the
Sisterhood, they won't let anything stand in their way."
     "So our beloved princess gets to choose between fighting against
the White Order or betraying her promise?" V said breathlessly.  "Oh,
that's just ..."
     A wave of air washed over us from behind, followed by a heavy
whump that shook the tunnel slightly.
     "I'd say they got through already," Jupiter growled, skidding to a
stop.
     "We've got to keep going!" Mars insisted as the group came to a
ragged stop.
     "Another cave-in?" V asked hopefully.
     "We need something more substantial," Mercury muttered,
shaking her head.  "If we let them chase us, we'll end up running right
into the Sisterhood's lap."
     "Ideas?" V asked.  Unfortunately, we seemed to be right out of
those, and so we threw another road block in the path of the oncoming
bloodhounds.  Then we set off again, but we'd only made it around two
curves before a deep concussion and a burst of wind told us they'd made
it through again.
     "This is crazy," V gasped.  "We've gotta do something!"
     "We can't fight the White Order," Mercury protested.
     "Why not?" Mars asked her.  Nobody spoke for a moment while
glances were exchanged.
     "But ... they're the good guys," Mercury said.
     "That's a little simplistic," Mars told her, dark eyes glinting.
"They are capable of deeds that you can't even imagine.  Believe me, I
know."
     "Okay, fine," V blurted.  "No white hats or black hats, but the
Sisterhood is going to sacrifice them to a vampire, knowingly or not, and
we can't let that happen!"
     Silence.  Mars took a deep breath, let it out.
     "You're right," she said simply.  "We have to stop this, no matter
what.  The stakes are far too high."
     Then light flashed around her body, and she stood there in her
civilian form, wearing dark pants and a deep violet cropped top.
     "Uh," I said cleverly.  "They'll be here any sec ..."
     "Mars," V said, aghast.  "REI.  What in all the hells are you
doing?"
     She didn't answer, chanting under her breath.  I heard the word
"Azakaru", and her shadow suddenly flowed up onto her body.  Oh,
yeah, THIS was going to help.
     "Carlina hates me," Rei said, turning to us.  "And with good
reason.  And I can ... get under her skin.  I can use that to keep her here,
at least for a time.  Use that time well, find the Sisterhood."
     "No!" V cried.  "Quit the martyr bullshit, Rei!  What happened to not
being taken?"
     "Trust me, V.  I won't be taken."  There was something dark,
almost savage, in Rei's eyes, and I wondered exactly what she intended
to do.  Some kind of Sisterhood magick?  Was Rei about to turn around
and head back down the dark road she'd abandoned?
     "We're not leaving you!" Mercury agreed, her eyes filled with a
blaze of blue fire.
     "Duty to our princess above all else," Rei told her gently, turning her
back on them, something like regret in her eyes.  I could already hear
faint sounds of pursuit approaching us.  We didn't have much time.
     Rei started down the tunnel, only to be brought up short by a
hand that fell on her shoulder.  Jupiter yanked, not bothering to be gentle,
and Rei stumbled, her eyes wide as she was hauled around to face the
taller girl.
     "Moron!" Jupiter shouted.  "Do you think this'll change
anything?  Will it make up for any sins you committed back then?"
     Rei's pale face stared to flush, and her eyes sparkled dangerously.
"You ..."
     "You're just trying to make yourself feel better!" Jupiter plowed
on, shouting into the girl's shadow-patterned face.  "This is the easy way
out, Rei, and you're not taking it!  I'm bringing you back to our princess
if I have to carry your selfish ass there myself!"
     They stood nose to nose for a second, and I remembered all the
crap that had gone down between them since Rei's past had been
revealed.  It had been hard for Makoto to trust Rei, but now push had
come to shove and the lanky senshi had thrown her cards on the table.
     And I thought that Rei liked what she saw.
     It was then I thought I saw something else, a flicker of surprise that
flitted across Rei's face and was gone almost before I registered its
presence.  Rei leaned in quickly, her lips grazing Jupiter's cheek and
lingering close to her ear for a long moment before she pulled away.
She'd whispered something to the taller girl before she whirled in a veil
of midnight silk and strode boldly away from us, and Jupiter watched her
go with a pensive look on her face.  The Inquisitors had rounded the last
curve and had us in sight now, and nobody knew what to do.  Except,
apparently, Rei.
     "CARLINA VAL CASSANDA!"  Her shout carried through the
dank air as she strode boldly toward the white-robed Inquisitors.  Only
the two hooded guys with the staves were visible, the others sheltering
behind the rock against a counterattack or trap.  "COME OUT AND
FACE ME WOMAN TO WOMAN, LINA!  IT'S NOT LIKE YOU TO
HIDE BEHIND ATTACK DOGS!"
     "She's crazy!" Mercury hissed.  "We can't let her do this!"
     "I'm not leaving," V whispered, her arm extended towards the
two Inquisitors.  "No way.  Not gonna happen."
     I wasn't about to argue with V.  Mostly, I guess, because I agreed
with her.  What Rei was doing was just crazy.  And it was going to be for
nothing, because none of us were going anywhere, and for her to expect
us to bug out and leave her to face the music was just nuts.  Me, I'd lost
enough people in my life.  I wasn't leaving anyone behind.
     Not again.
     "Cover me," I breathed.  "I'll grab her.  I'm fast enough ..."
     "No," Jupiter said in a low, even voice."
     "No?" V asked, incredulous.  "You can't be thinking about
leaving her?  You just said ..."
     "Just listen," she muttered quickly as a tall figure stepped into
view between the staff-wielding enforcers.  "When she gives the signal,
close your eyes.  Got it?"
     "Why?" V asked, suspicious.
     "I," Jupiter informed her, green eyes narrowing as they took in
the scene unfolding before us, "have no bloody idea."
     Swell.
     "You."  Carlina's voice suited her.  It was smooth, cultured, the
kind of voice that went with expensive cars and designer dresses and
hoity-toity fancy balls.  The expression on her face as she saw Rei,
though, there was nothing high-rent about that.  That expression was pure
urge-to-kill stuff, raw, primal, and full of plain old garden-variety hate.
     Yeah, this was going to be all kinds of fun.
     "Ah, there you are," Rei said sleekly, taking a few more steps
before stopping.  She was at least half-way between us and the
Inquisitors; if they started shooting those magick bolts, she was going to
get her ass caught in the cross-fire.  While it was true that the lovely
Carlina hadn't ordered her people to wipe us out just yet, it was my
humble opinion that this plan sucked.  Big-time.  I started looking around
for an angle, something, ANYTHING.  Come on, Saotome, you're
supposed to be good at improvising.  Think of something.
     "You," Carlina repeated, and if she'd looked seriously pissed before,
now she was caught between shock and fury.  Fury, although starting
late, was making a strong finish as her peaches-and-cream skin flushed a
bright pink.  Those long blonde waves started to ripple and stir, telling
me which one of the enemy was throwing all that wind around.
     "Vestra Val Cassanda," one of the cloaked men said, his voice
surprisingly normal for such a big guy.  "Please give the order."
     "Stand your ground!" the blonde priestess snapped imperiously, her
fury-filled eyes never leaving Rei's face.
     "Oh, they made you a Vestra of the Order," Rei said, striking a
pose with one hand on her hip carelessly.  She might have been talking to
an old acquaintance she'd met on the street for all the concern she
showed.  The rest of us made up for that by quivering with tension.
     "What is she doing?" V breathed.
     "Don't know," I whispered back.  "Got a clear shot at the
muscle?"
     "Betcher ass I do, darlin'."
     "And attached to the main temple," Rei went on, tossing her hair
haughtily.  "Quite an honour.  I'm surprised that anyone would entrust
you with so much responsibility after Carlua, though."
     "You witch," Carlina spat, rage contorting her lovely features.
"Do you know how long I've waited for this moment?  To have you in
front of me ..."
     "That's sweet, Lina," Rei purred.  "I've thought of you, too."
     Uh-oh.  I really didn't like where this was going.
     "It must have amused you terribly," Carlina snarled.  "Playing
your games, weaving your web of deceit.  Frustrating me at every turn."
She took one step towards Rei, then another, and I noticed uneasily that
her hands were clenched at her sides into trembling fists.  And the wind
was starting to rise.
     "Not every turn," Rei taunted.  That was when I saw it.  A slender
tendril of her shadow was slithering across the stone, its movements
stealthy yet somehow predatory at the same time.  I didn't like the look
of it.  Fortunately, nobody else seemed to have noticed in all the
commotion, and as I watched it jerked suddenly to a stop like a dog
reaching the end of its leash.  It curled and twined for a few moments,
then reluctantly oozed back to Rei's feet.
     Now what the hell was that all about?
     "Oh, yes," Carlina retorted, taking another step towards her
tormentor, clearly unaware of the hungry shadow that had been stalking
her.  "Laugh, bitch.  Laugh at me.  Go on, I dare you."
     "Vestra, please!"  More of her people had taken up station behind
her, ready for action but unwilling to put their leader in any more danger
than she was already in.  Which made Rei's plan seem sensible, until you
took into account that Carlina was quickly approaching the breaking
point.
     "Feeling sorry for yourself, Vestra?" Rei asked, her tone turning
chilly as she put a snide emphasis on Carlina's title.  "Tell me, how many
Sisters did you have to torture to get that promotion?"
     "I'll wipe that smirk off your face, Darkeyes.  I'll teach you to
trifle with your betters."
     "Like you taught Ginni?  And Halla?  And Jil?"
     "Vile little strumpets," Carlina spat.  "You and all your ilk, you
are tainted by the Dark Lady's madness."
     "Is that what you tell yourself?" Rei asked her, voice absolutely
glacial now.  "Is that how you sleep at night?"  I saw the mysterious
tendril appear again, moving quicker this time, only to be reeled in just as
fast.
     Wind started tugging at my braid as Carlina stopped, only about
a half-dozen paces from Rei.  "I am not the one who should have trouble
sleeping," the white-robed woman hissed, blue eyes dark with rage.
     "I've seen your handiwork, Vestra.  You dare claim that we're
the ones tainted by madness?  I could have killed you, that last time.  I
nearly did.  But I thought you should suffer as much humiliation as you
heaped upon your victims."
     Oh, man.  This was REALLY not the time for the two of them to
be doing this.  I wondered what sort of history lay between them.
Considering what sort of things Rei had supposedly done as a Sister, I
was pretty sure this little get together was going to explode in fairly short
order.
     "They were savages!" Carlina shouted.
     "You're nothing but a zealot!" Rei spat back.  "You haven't changed
at all!"
     "That's right," Carlina said venomously, her shoulders tight as
she brought her hands up.  "I haven't.  I still strive to be the Sisterhood's
greatest fear.  They have preyed upon the righteous for far too long.  I
will destroy them all, Rei Darkeyes.  Starting with you."
     And so another brilliant plan goes into the toilet, I thought as time
seemed to slow down.  This one didn't even last as long as the let's-catch-
a-wraith plan.  I tensed, ready to move as the wind began to buffet my
body.  Rei was still between us and the other side.  Beautiful she might
be, but I was beginning to suspect she wasn't the senshi's greatest tactical
genius.
     And then something small and fast knifed through the air from behind
the White Order's people, and Rei shouted, "NOW!"
     I closed my eyes just in time.  Light hit me with a force that was
nearly physical, and I threw my arms up as the world went white even
through my eyelids.  I heard cries of shock and alarm from the other side,
and the wind died off as suddenly as it had begun.
     "Come on!" someone was shouting as the light died away, and I
opened my eyes, blinking away faint blue afterimages.  Confusion
reigned for a few seconds, but it looked like the White Order had been
taken completely off-guard.  They were stumbling around, clearly
unwilling to risk shooting blindly with their leader in the line of fire.
     Sweet.
     I started running, most of the others in front of me.  Something
shot through the air next to my ear, arcing neatly to Rei's shoulder, and I
suddenly realised just what had happened.
     "Rei-sama!" Phobos cried with delight.  The black-winged
Deimos followed, hovering in the air next to me as I dodged quickly
around a sharp bend in the tunnel.
     "We're baaaaaaaack," she sang.
     "Miss us?" Phobos added sweetly.
     "You're timing is great," I told them sincerely.  "Things weren't going
so good."
     "Our Rei-sama had everything under control," Phobos said with
utter certainty.  Yeah, sure.  Pissing off a very powerful priestess to
distract her?  Oh, yeah, everything was definitely under control.  Me, I
was feeling better already.
     And then I noticed that V had fallen behind.
     And then I noticed WHY V had fallen behind.
     "GAH!" I shouted.  "V, are you out of your MIND?"
     "Is that a rhetorical question?" she shot back.  My shouting had
attracted the attention of the others, and now everyone had stopped to
stare in utter astonishment.
     "You're kidnapping the Vestra," Rei said slowly as Phobos and
Deimos landed on her shoulders.
     "Apparently," V nodded.  I stared at the robed woman who hung
limply over V's shoulder.
     "Why isn't she moving?" I asked.
     "Glass jaw," V told me.  "Hang on a sec."  Then she turned back
towards the curve of the tunnel and cupped her free hand to her mouth.
"HEY!  DIMWITS!  WE'VE GOT YOUR BOSS!  IF YOU FOLLOW
US, THE VESTRA GETS IT, SEE?"
     Then she turned back to us with a satisfied smile and started
jogging down the corridor.
     "Whoa, hold on!" Jupiter cried.  "We're taking hostages now?
We're still the good guys, right?"
     "No hats, remember?" V told her.  "Oooo, wait a minute.  I've
got one, and it's black ..."
     "V!" Rei snapped.
     "Look, that little lightshow won't hold them for long!" V shot
back, exasperated.  "And even if it would, I'll bet there are more coming!
We can't go charging into the Sisterhood's lair with these guys hot on
our trail.  We'll end up rushing into a trap or getting caught in a
crossfire."
     "You have no idea how much I hate to say this," Mercury said,
clearly hesitant, "but V makes a good point."
     "Thanks," V said with a crooked grin.  "I think."
     "We should at least keep moving," I suggested.  We all set off again,
light flaring as Rei, now free of shadow, transformed once more, this time
into her senshi gear.  V summoned her whip, winding the gleaming coils
around the unconscious priestess.
     "So what are we going to do with her?" Jupiter asked, nodding at
Carlina.
     "The enemy has a gas cloud attack," V pointed out.  "She is a
wind witch.  That could work to our advantage."
     "She'll never help us," Mars pointed out tightly.
     "Rei isn't here now," V replied.  "Mars is.  And if she's between us and
a mystic cloud, I think her sense of self-preservation will kick in."
     "You'd better hope so," Mars said grimly.  "Because she is not an
opponent to be taken lightly.  Mercury, you and I should take the point
and check for traps.  Jupiter, how's your shoulder?"
     "Fine," Jupiter said.  I was pretty sure she was lying.  She moved
her arm tentatively, but I didn't guess she was the type to cry about her
injuries in the middle of a fight.  I liked that.
     "All right, you back us up.  Ranma, can you guard the rear?"
     "He can guard my rear," V smirked.
     "Only if you stay ahead of him," Mars sighed.  "V, look, we should
leave her.  She's a liability.  She's fanatically devoted to the Order ..."
     "She's our trump card," V shot back.  "Look, we thought we had
a sure thing today, and we blew it.  We need every edge we can get down
here.  If we run into more of her people, we'll need her as a bargaining
chip."
     "We can't afford to waste time fighting Alieva's people," I
added.  "We need to find the Sisterhood and shut them down."  V's plan
was crazy, but that was just her style.  And, crazy or not, she had a point.
That was why I agreed with her.  Really.  Even though butterflies went
berserk in my belly when she shot me a grateful smile.
     "Fine," Mars sighed.  "But you're carrying her until she wakes
up.  I just hope to all the hells this doesn't blow up in our faces.  Let's go."

***

     Saturn's boots threw hollow echoes across the dirty tiles as she
walked through the papered-over glass doors.  The swimming pool inside
was empty, drained before the ill-fated renovation that had left this once
high-scale fitness centre half finished and bankrupt, and untidy piles of
building materials mouldered away like a scattering of toadstools on a
forest floor.
     Hardly as exotic a locale as the Royal Gardens, but she'd met
Gar in less pleasant places.  And, given its continued state of legal limbo,
this building was a safe and private place for a mid-day meeting.  Such
mundane surroundings were almost a balm upon the raw psychic wounds
opened by the visit to her childhood home.  She had spoken no more of it,
and none of the others had pressed the matter.
     Which was just as well.  Saturn did not want to talk about her
past.  All she wanted was to destroy the vampire.  Utterly.  And she
would do whatever it took to see that happen.
     Saturn stopped as a slender figure stepped from around a
tarpaulin draped scaffold; it was apparent by the way that the man moved
that he knew she would not be pleased by his appearance.
     "Lady Saturn.  I have heard a great deal about you."
     "Indeed," Saturn replied, surreptitiously signalling Pluto, suddenly
glad the woman had insisted on coming along.  "Odd, then, that you are
unaware of how much I dislike being trifled with."
     "I assure you, my good lady, that I am doing nothing of the sort.
Ah, and another of your number," the man continued as Pluto appeared
suddenly, flanking him from the other side.  "Such beauty and grace
makes even an old heart beat faster.  Ah, but where are my manners?"
He doffed his hat, revealing his face for the first time as he bowed his
head, first to Saturn, then Pluto.  "My name is ..."
     "Lord Tamiten Greely," Pluto finished for him.  "Advisor to Her
Majesty.  A highly placed source within the palace, Saturn.  I am
impressed."
     "Lord Greely," Saturn said, regarding the man critically, "is not
my source."
     "Ah, yes," Greely said apologetically.  "I must confess to
misleading you, ladies.  An abhorrent act, but desperate times, yes?"
     "The message I received was sent through secure channels."
Saturn felt her tension echoed in her glaive as she took in the scene,
calculating where attackers might be hidden and where a strike was
likely to come from.  Had Gar betrayed her?  Or had the Queen tired of
the cat-and-mouse game between her spymaster and the senshi and
decided to take a direct hand?
     "It was, indeed," Greely noted, holding his hat by the brim and
brushing it against his dapper gray trenchcoat.  "Only Gar or I could
have sent that message.  And I have never before interfered in Gar's
activities, but circumstances have forced my hand."
     "What circumstances?"  In spite of herself, Saturn was intrigued.
Greely appeared to be sincere, and as far as she could tell, he was alone.
Could this be a sign that Gar's investigations had borne fruit?
     "Gar is missing," Greely replied, his narrow face set in a sombre
expression.  Saturn sighed, her nascent hopes fading quickly.
     "Gar has always struck me as a rogue and a scoundrel," she told
the slender man.  "I scarcely think that failing to come home one night
constitutes an emergency, Lord Greely."
     Greely inclined his head slightly by way of reply.  "You are, of
course, correct.  Gar is all that you say.  But I have known him for a very
long time, and I can tell you that he would not abandon this kingdom or
Her Majesty in a time of crisis.  I know Gar was meeting with you last
night, Lady Saturn.  After that meeting, he was to meet me in regards to
ongoing investigations regarding the current crisis.  He did not return,
and I have been unable to contact him."
     "Is that unusual?" Pluto asked.  Greely turned to face her.
     "In such circumstances?  Extremely.  And so I must ask.  Did Gar
actually meet with you, Lady Saturn?"
     Greely's courtly manner was disarming, but Saturn reminded
herself that she needed to remain alert.  All she really knew was that this
man, a highly placed advisor within the palace, had sent her a message
only Gar should have been able to send.  Whether he was telling the truth
remained to be seen.  However, answering his question would not likely
jeopardise anything at this point.
     "We met," Saturn confirmed.  "Briefly.  I actually asked him to
check into some matters for me.  I take it you heard nothing of that?"
     "I am afraid not," Greely replied, appearing genuinely remorseful
that he could not be of more help.  "You were apparently the last person
to see him.  Frankly, I am growing ... concerned."
     Saturn cursed silently.  So Gar had never gotten around to
initiating a search for the Sisterhood?  Despite his cavalier manner, he
had always held up his part of their dealings in the past.  And she had
impressed upon him the urgency in her request, given the link between
the Sisterhood and the vampire.  Perhaps something unpleasant HAD
befallen him.
     "This Gar," Pluto said softly.  "If I suppose he is highly placed
within the palace, then perhaps his investigations led him too close to this
vampire?"
     "I dearly hope not," Greely sighed.  "The vampire could learn
much from a man of his experience.  And that would indicate that her
target might be the palace, even Queen Kendra Herself."
     "I am sorry, Lord Greely," Saturn announced.  "But I cannot
shed any light on Gar's disappearance.  When I left him, I was under the
impression that he was going to act on some information that I had given
him."
     "Perhaps you could share that information with me?"  Greely's
tone remained deferent, but his eyes gleamed with the firm light of a man
who had faced trouble before without blinking.
     "I am afraid that is out of the question."
     "I see.  I realise that I have not earned your trust, ladies, but I
must impress upon you that a grave threat faces this kingdom ..."
     "You, Lord Greely, need not lecture me on the threat that a
vampire poses."  Saturn's voice was glacial, but Greely merely nodded.
     "I see.  If you should come into any information pertaining to
Gar's whereabouts, or anything you would ordinarily pass on to him, I
can be reached in the same manner as he.  I ask you to keep the lines of
communication open.  For the sake of the kingdom."
     "I will consider your request.  Now I must take my leave.  I have
pressing matters to attend to, and without the intelligence that Gar
promised me ..."
     "Of course.  If you change your mind about the information Gar
was working on, please contact me immediately.  We are all on the same
side.  Ladies."  With a courtly bow, Greely took his leave, his boot heels
echoing on the tiles as he walked with slow, measured steps to the door
and slipped out.
     Strange.  And distressing.  Perhaps it should not have surprised
her that Gar had shared so many details of their professional relationship
with higher-ups in the palace, but she had always regarded him as a sort
of lone wolf, operating without any regard for procedure or protocol.  In
the end, even a character like Gar served at the Queen's pleasure.  She
would do well to remember that.
     "Perhaps we should consider his offer," Pluto said quietly,
coming to stand near Saturn.  "If he can help us ..."
     "He serves the Queen," Saturn retorted.  "I have an ... understanding
with Gar.  He would have something to lose if he betrayed me.  This
man does not.  I cannot risk him going to Her Majesty with anything that
I tell him about the Sisterhood.  No, we must proceed on our own, Pluto.
As always."
     And I dearly hope, she thought blackly, that I do not come to
regret this decision.  I have kept your promise, Princess.
     I hope it was worth it.

***

     "So, this is it," I said.
     "Looks like it, V agreed.  We watched as Mars and Mercury
checked out the doors that blocked off the tunnel.  They looked new,
those two big metal doors, and tough.  Breaking through them wouldn't
be easy.  But hey, why should things start getting easy now?
     "So the Sisterhood is on the other side?" Jupiter asked,
positioning herself so that she had a clear shot at the imposing black
doors.
     "There's a chamber," Mercury confirmed.  "I can't scan far
enough inside to tell if there are people ..."
     "I think it's safe to assume that this is what we've been looking for,"
Mars said, crouching down and holding her palms out just inches from
the dark metal.
     "So we bust in and, what?  Convince the entire Sisterhood to
surrender?"  Jupiter looked about as happy at that prospect as I felt.
     "If you truly believe that these witches will listen to reason, then
you are either insane or deluded," Carlina announced sullenly.  When
she'd first woken up, she'd had lots to say, and she hadn't been buying
V's version of events.  V had quickly tired of trying to tell her the truth,
and simply made it clear that, if the air in the tunnel began to stir at any
time, Carlina was going to be sorry.  She'd backed that threat up with an
impressive demonstration of what she could do; Carlina had taken one
look at the stone wall after V's beam hit it and decided to refrain from
telling us all that damnation awaited.
     I was very glad.  And, apparently, the darkness and chaos of the
original encounter had kept her from seeing Mars's face when she'd
thrown the ward.  The fact that Rei Darkeyes had been with us was
probably going to keep us off Carlina's Christmas card list, but at least
she had no idea that Mars and Rei were one and the same.
     A small break, but at this point I'd take whatever I could get.
     Anyway, V's plan, if I could dignify it by calling it that, had worked
so far.  The Crusade, or Inquisition, or whatever we were calling them,
hadn't made any attempt to catch up to us yet.  Mars believed that they
were bringing in reinforcements for an overwhelming strike; she was
certain that Alieva's people would not abandon one of their own to a
group they believed were allied with the Sisterhood.  That was the only
thing Mars and Carlina seemed to agree on.
     Still, we hadn't needed to fight off any more attacks, and Mars
and Mercury had located and disarmed three traps as we approached the
doors.  Now it was show time, and I found myself less and less optimistic
about stopping the Sisterhood peacefully.
     "I've been insane and deluded in my time," V remarked with
incongruous cheer, tugging on the gleaming whip that held the captive
priestess.  "But we are doing this, sweetheart.  We have to."
     "If you are truly not instruments of the Sisterhood, then I beg you
to listen to me now."  The blonde woman stared at V, then me and
Jupiter, her wide eyes filled with utter sincerity.  "Rei Darkeyes has lied
to you.  She has manipulated you.  Whatever she has told you cannot be
believed.  She is leading you all to your deaths if you are lucky, worse if
you are not.  Release me, and I will see that no harm comes to you."
     "I don't know what your history is with Rei," V shot back,
careful not to look down the tunnel at Mars, "but she's changed.  She
isn't a Sister anymore."
     "They do not change," Carlina told her with such calm
conviction that I wanted to believe her.  Hell, if I hadn't known the truth,
I probably would have.  She was that convincing.  "I know.  I have
offered salvation to many of their number ..."
     "You mean you've tortured them," Mars said flatly, not looking
up from her work.  "Mentally and physically, trying to get them to
denounce the Dark Lady.  Trying to break them."
     "Why will you not listen?" Carlina cried as V shot Mars a warning
look.  "The promises of a Sister are sweet, her whispers intoxicating, but
in the end you mean nothing to her!  Nothing!  You are no more than
pawns in their games!  Those they cannot seduce with their beauty, they
control through their dark arts.  Which was it with you?"
     "I'm getting the urge to hit you again," V announced casually.  I
glanced at the purplish bruise on Carlina's jaw, framed by dishevelled
blonde hair.  The priestess stopped talking, but she met V's glare with
calm eyes.  She really thought she was saving us.  Just like the Sisterhood
really thought they were releasing their goddess.
     Yeah, everybody was right and nobody was wrong.  Talking wasn't
going to get us much of anywhere.  Usagi could make all the promises
she wanted to, but I hadn't seen sweet reason solve a lot of problems in
my time.  Fighting, now, that was my style.  Always had been.  And I
knew, in my heart, that we were going to have to beat the Sisterhood,
beat them completely, if we were going to stop what was happening.
Hopefully we could do that without anyone dying.
     But I wasn't counting on it.
     "So?" I asked.  "What are we dealing with?"
     "I can't find any defensive spells or wards on these doors," Mars
said.  "That doesn't seem right."
     "Let's just stand back and blow them," Jupiter shrugged, wincing
slightly as she moved her injured arm.  "They probably know we're
coming, so we don't have to worry about the element of surprise.  I say
we use overwhelming force against their so-called soft power."
     "Their powers and tactics are strongest when used subtly, that's
true," Mars said, standing and tossing her hair back and planting one
hand firmly on her narrow waist.  "But don't underestimate them.
Remember the ambush in the tunnel.  We had superior magickal forces,
but they used their skills to distract us and take us out of action in a
matter of seconds."
     "Mars, how many people are we talking about?" I asked.
     "Assuming that all Maidens and Sisters are involved, probably
between sixty and seventy people," Mars said grimly.  "Not much more
than that, I wouldn't think."
     "That's it?  That's the entire force they can raise?" Mercury asked.
     "We have disrupted their recruitment quite effectively in recent
years," Carlina said with a note of pride.  "Our numbers are in the tens of
thousands across this kingdom alone.  Their followers skulk in the dark,
and they number fewer than a hundred.  We can wipe their stain from the
world today, in one final blow."
     "You know, you'd be a total hottie," Deimos remarked, "if you
weren't such a nutbar."
     "You mean zealot," Phobos added.
     "Zealous nutbar?"
     "That works."
     "Time's wasting," I said as Carlina looked at us with mingled pity and
frustration.  "Let's just do this thing."
     And the doors swung open.
     "Nice," V remarked into the silence that followed.
     "For the record, that wasn't me," I told her.
     "Yeah, I guessed.  Mars?"
     "I didn't do anything, either.  It looks like an invitation."
     "You would be fools to accept it," Carlina protested.
     "Hey, we came this far," I said.  "We can't turn back now.  This
disaster isn't going to stop itself, right?"
     "I still can't scan very far inside," Mercury told us, clearly frustrated.
But I'm not detecting any traps.  Or any people, at least close by."
     "They're in there," Mars said.  "And they're waiting for us.  We
need to ..."
     "Blah, blah, blah," I sighed, and charged through the doors.  I
mean, seriously.  They could talk about this thing all day, but that
wouldn't change anything.  The Sisterhood won fights by knowing their
enemy.  Well, they might know the senshi, but they didn't know me.  I
had the best chance of surviving any nasty surprises they had waiting.
     The room past the doors was wide and long, with square columns
scattered around the mostly empty space to support the ceiling.  They
provided the only cover, but they were spaced far enough apart that I
didn't foresee any problems with getting past them.  There was a distant
throbbing and clanking, like some sort of heavy equipment at work, and
the occasional hiss of steam escaping.  There was machinery nearby, and
it was working.
     "Damn it!" Mars hissed from behind me.  "That was reckless!"
     "No kidding?" I asked idly.  "Guess I'll have to change my motto
from 'Live Safely', then.  Too bad, I just got it embroidered on all my
boxers."
     "Phobos, Deimos, scout ahead, one quick pass," Mars instructed,
ignoring me.  V snickered, though, while Jupiter just rolled her eyes.
Phobos and Deimos streaked through the air, Deimos turning to wink at
me as she passed.
     "We should spread out," V said.  "Mercury, anything?"
     "Not yet.  But the chamber opens up ahead."
     "So, let's go," Jupiter said.  She and I angled to the right, Mars
and Mercury to the left.  V came up the middle, a seriously disgruntled
Carlina in tow.
     "This is madness," the priestess protested.
     "Honey, for us, this is downright rational," V told her.  "Now
hush."
     We moved forward, checking around the shabby support columns
as we went.  Nothing.  Not even a mouse or bat that could have been one
of those talisman thingies.  Maybe this wasn't it, after all.  Maybe we'd
come all this way for nothing.
     Then the twins came zipping back, and I knew we were in the
right place.  Mars started moving more quickly, and we followed suit.
Useful scouts, those little flying vixens.
     We came to a point where the ceiling rose dramatically, creating
a larger chamber.  There were old, rusty pipes running through this area,
some with little puffs of steam escaping from them.  This was the source
of the noise, all right.  Two things really stood out, though.  One was the
shiny metal tanks and pipes that were clustered way over against the far
wall.  The other was the narrow catwalk that ran high up on that same
wall.  Or rather, the person on it.
     Even from here, there was no mistaking Saekianna der Kae.
     "Welcome!" she called, her voice slightly hollow in the wide
open space.  "I've been expecting you, ladies!  But what's this?  You've
brought guests?  Why, I believe that's a member of the Holy Inquisition!
And ..."  She trailed off, her gaze flicking to me and staying there.
     "I see you remember me," I said.  Several sets of eyes sought me
out then.  I probably should have remembered to mention to the others
that Saekianna and I had met before while I was a girl.
     "From the club."  Some of the manic cheer had gone out of her
voice.  "Small world."
     "If I told you that this whole plan you're following was set up by
the vampire and that we came to help you, would that make any
difference?" I asked.
     "You are not a very accomplished liar," Saekianna told me,
waving her finger in the air.  "The best lies incorporate a shard of truth."
     "It is true," Mars called out.
     "Do not speak to me of truth, traitor!"  Saekianna's face
contorted into a mask of lovely rage.  Marvellous.  Hopefully, Carlina
didn't clue in to just why the Nightmistress would call a senshi traitor.
Fortunately, she was looking a little preoccupied.  Well, actually, looking
like she'd like to get loose and strangle Saekianna with her bare hands.
Apparently, we were having a special on insane hatred today.
     I shifted slightly on the balls of my feet.  This whole thing was
just wrong.  There would be an attack; the only question was where it
would come from.  And whether we were going to stand here and wait for
her to make her move, or if we were going to move first.  I voted for first,
but the princess's promise to Banri limited our options somewhat.
     So, I either went for the woman, or the tanks.  I couldn't do much
with the tanks, but if I took out Saekianna, then I might be able to get a
handle on things.  V had kept the White Order off our backs by capturing
Carlina.  Maybe I could do the same if I grabbed the Nightmistress.  Hell,
it was worth a try.  There'd been stairs up to that catwalk at the far end,
but someone had trashed them, judging by the twisted pile of metal that
lay on the stone underneath it.  That might slow some people down, but I
was not some people.  I wanted her, and I was going to get her, stairs or
no stairs.
    "Your schemes have been uncovered," Mars was saying.  "These
tunnels are full of the Order's people.  You must see that this is futile,
Saekianna.  Isn't that why you sent the others away?"
     The way she smiled stopped me just as I was about to spring.
Something was wrong.  There was still a trap here, one we hadn't seen,
and she was getting ready to spring it.
     Or already had ...
     I turned.  She'd given us all something to focus on, and focus we
had, just like when Yoshi had gone after Jupiter.  I expected to see
talisman doubles sneaking up behind me, their presence masked by the
magickal interference in this place, murder in their eyes.
     Instead, I got big rock guys.
     They were stepping right out of the stone walls, hulking figures
made out of dark stone.  They were only roughly human-shaped, but they
seemed to have the equipment to get the job done; they had legs for
chasing us down, and hands for smashing flesh.
     They didn't have mouths to scream with, though.  I faded back
fast, catching the closest one with a chi blast that tore it in two.  That
didn't matter much to the rest.  There were at least a dozen back there,
with more coming all the time.
     Then Saekianna gestured, and the air was full of ... confetti?
     No such luck.  What looked like hundreds of little pieces of paper
fluttered lazily through the air, only to shimmer with a faint green glow.
Seconds later, women were falling all around us, landing on their feet
and immediately attacking whoever was nearest.  Those damned
talismans again.  Insta-army, just add magick.
     Of course, it was an army of just seven different people copied
over and over, but that wasn't helpful to us.  What was helpful was that
these copies were limited to physical attacks, at least according to Mars.
     And I didn't have to worry about hurting them.
     Time to get busy.

***

     Yoshi tried to stay focussed on the job at hand, but his thoughts
kept returning to Tuxedo Mask.  He'd seen the man's face before the
tuxedo-clad Sailor Moon had retrieved his mask.  The policeman, the one
from his building.  He hadn't smelled the same, although it wasn't like
with Makoto, who just smelled like a different person as Jupiter.  No,
with this guy, it was more like his natural scent was masked somehow.
He smelled faintly of earth, and roses.  But Yoshi remembered his face.
     The man's physical injuries were quite superficial; certainly,
Sailor Moon had fared far worse in that regard.  But it wasn't physical
pain that wanted to drag Yoshi's thoughts back again and again.  It was
the look in the man's eyes.
     Yoshi knew that look.  He'd been much younger the first time he'd
seen it, staring back at him out of a pale face in a filthy, broken mirror.  It
was the look of a man who'd had his own desires twisted and used
against him, who'd been helpless to stop what was happening to him.
Shock and self-loathing lived in such a look, dark hatred curdled by
impotence and searing the soul with caustic rage.
     Your own personal darkness always knew where to sink its fangs
for maximum effect.  Yoshi knew that.  They were old companions, the
darkness and him.  And now the darkness had made itself at home in this
man's heart.  Hey, how ya doin', don't mind me, I'm just here to make
you feel dirty and weak and worthless, think I'll put my feet up and stay
awhile.
     Yeah, that darkness.  No medicine could touch the clammy decay
that ate at you, spreading its taint everywhere.  There were things that
could dull the pain for a while; Yoshi knew most of them.  Drink or
violence or faceless sex, these were distractions that had served him well
over the years.  Self-destructive?  Maybe the head shrinkers could say
stuff like that, but who sweated psychological abstractions when a rip-
roaring bar fight made you feel in control, or a bottle of amber whiskey
gave you a few hours sleep?
     It had taken him a long time to walk to the edge of the darkness,
and for most of that time he hadn't been sure he was walking towards the
light at all.  He'd kept moving just because it was something to do.
Maybe it would be easier for this guy.  It had only been once for him,
after all.
     But even as he thought that, Yoshi knew it wasn't true.  Sailor
Moon's injuries might look painful, but each of them would be inscribed
on Tuxedo Mask's heart, where they would fester long after her physical
hurts had healed.  Naked and degraded, had he been forced to watch as
the girl had fought for her life?  Yoshi thought he probably had.
     The succubus would have liked that.
     Yoshi would have liked to say something, anything, to make it
better.  But there was nothing to say.  And he knew, as a man, that it was
kinder to say nothing at all, to act as though nothing had happened even
as the sweet musky scent of sex clung to the weakened man in a cloying
cloud.  Perhaps Sailor Moon could help him, later, when they were
finally alone.  Poets and philosophers and singers of songs, they all
seemed to agree that love could heal the soul.
     Yoshi, he wasn't so sure.  But lately, he was thinking more and
more that it might be time to find out.
     "How much farther?" Sailor Moon asked.  She was bearing up
remarkably well, Yoshi thought.  These sailor girls were tough.  Torn
strips of Tux's cape had been fashioned into crude bandages and wrapped
around her injured leg, but still she limped.  That didn't stop her from
supporting Tux's weight as they walked, though.
     "Not sure," Yoshi told her.  "But her scent is still strong.  She
definitely came this way."  His tracking ability had lead them to the
tunnel which the succubus had used to attack, and Sailor Moon decided
to backtrack Maia's trail, reasoning that the Sisterhood had sent her after
them.  This way, they stood a good chance of catching the Sisters
between Jupiter and Mercury and their group.
     For all the good that would do.  Tux could barely walk, and
Sailor Moon was favouring her side on top of limping.  Still, she
wouldn't let Yoshi take over, stubbornly supporting Tuxedo Mask
herself.  He'd felt a hot stab of jealousy at that, watching them together.
Would his life have been different if he'd had someone like that?
     Enough with the self-pity, he told himself harshly.  Focus.  We've
got to find Jupiter and the others if we're going to stand a chance of
stopping the Sisterhood.
     He would be faster on his own, of course.  But he wasn't going to
leave these two.  In their condition, they'd be dead meat if they ran into
any kind of opposition.  And Yoshi wasn't going to be able to look
Makoto in the eye if he let anything happen to her friends.
     "Whoa," he said softly, holding his hand up.
     "What?" Sailor Moon hissed.
     "Shhhh."  He listened, cocking his head.  There, again.
     "Trouble?"  They were the first words Tuxedo Mask had uttered
since Yoshi had found them, his voice tight and raspy.  The guy clearly
had no illusions about how much use he would be in a fight.
     "Fighting," Yoshi said, tension arcing through his body.  "Up
ahead.  Not close."
     "Then we'd better hurry," Sailor Moon said firmly.  Yoshi
watched as she forged ahead, still supporting Tux as she climbed the
gentle slope with tenaciousness that was, frankly, just astounding.  What
could drive a little girl like that to keep going when so much was stacked
against her?
     You know the answer to that, he told himself.  Her friends.  She
won't abandon them.  Can you do any less?
     He couldn't.  At the very least, Makoto was still out there.  He
stepped up, taking Tux's free arm and sliding it over his shoulders.
"Come on," he said, taking most of the man's weight.  "Or they might
not save any for us."
     His eyes met Tux's for a moment, and they shared a silent,
powerful moment of mutual understanding.
     Then the moment was past, and they moved forward, towards the
tempest.

***

     Did you ever just have one of those days?  I mean, if it's not one
damned thing, it's another.  First came the rock monsters, or whatever
they were.  Did I mention that they reformed after being smashed?
     They reformed after being smashed.  Nice, huh?
     Then there was the talisman army.  The same seven women
coming in wave after wave of heart-stoppingly beautiful suicide attacks.
Maybe I could take them on without holding back, but these talismans
didn't have any sense of self-preservation to speak of.  Add to that the
fact that there were literally hundreds of them and they just kept coming,
and things started to look a little bit bad for us.
     And up there, watching it all, was the Nightmistress herself.  So
far, I hadn't noticed us having any particular luck with saving her from
the vampire's schemes.  Frankly, I was going to have to go out on a limb
and say that this plan sucked.
     "This plan sucks!" I announced as I threw Blonde And Cute into
Tall Redhead, taking out Long Braids and two other Blonde And Cutes
in the process.
     "Ya think?" V shouted.  She was unleashing a series of
attacks with her right hand, her left still holding Carlina in a gleaming
whip.  "Mars, how many of these can she make, anyway?"
     "Not this many!" Mars growled, throwing a sheet of flame out in
a ragged arc.  A crowd of talismans shrivelled and were blown away, but
three of the stone men advanced on her, undeterred by the fire's heat.
"She has one of the twins augmenting her power!"
     "Your knowledge of the enemy is impressive," Carlina said,
looking more than a little harried as she ducked behind V, still bound.
"Release me, and I will help you fight them!"
     "We kind of want them alive," I told her, catching a Yurina's fan
arm and throwing her into Dark Curls and Tall Redhead before spinning
to kick a Saekianna back.  "Um, we do still want that, right?"
     V said a very bad word, sending a storm of golden hearts
smashing through the advancing stone figures.  They were shattered, but
even as I watched the pieces began drawing back together.
     "There is a master ward controlling them!" Carlina exclaimed as
lightning flashed across the chamber.  "Unless you find it and destroy it,
they cannot be stopped!"
     "She's right!" Mars replied.  "And it has to be on a stone surface
somewhere!  Mercury, can you try to locate it?"
     Mercury's reply was lost in the din, and two small figures rose
into the air beside Mars.
     "We'll find it, Mistress!" Phobos declared.
     "Leave it to us!" Deimos added.
     "Be careful!" Mars called, but they were already gone.
     I fought, trying to stay close to the others.  If we got separated, we
could easily be overwhelmed by the swirling mob.  As it was, we were
barely managing to hold our own.
     I caught a glimpse of Saekianna through the melee, watching us
with an amused expression from up above.  Why was she just watching
us?  Shouldn't she be trying to escape?  Or attack?  Or even release the
gas in those tanks before we could stop her?
     And where were the others?
     That was a sobering thought.  Caught up in the ambush, I'd just
been reacting, throwing myself into the fight, but now it struck me.
There were only seven talismans here, the same ones we'd encountered
earlier.  Why?  Hadn't Mars said that the entire Sisterhood was going to
take part in this ceremony?  So where were they?
     Something was wrong here.  I didn't know what, but somebody
did.
     So I figured I'd go ask her.
     "V!" I shouted as another storm of golden hearts mixed with
flame cleared a space around us.  "Keep them busy for a bit!"
     "What?  Why, where are you going?" she demanded.  I didn't
answer, just hurled myself through the air, spinning to land in the path of
a charging stone soldier.  I had to give it to whoever came up with this
spell; for big hulks made of rock, these guys sure could move.
     Not quite fast enough, though.  I slipped under the swing of an
arm the size of a small tree trunk, grabbing it with both hands as I slid
past.  I planted my feet, strain tightening through my arms and back as I
used the faceless hulk's momentum against it, spinning it around once,
twice, then launching it along the stone floor like a big, flailing stone
bulldozer.  The sliding behemoth took out every talisman-Sister in its
path, clearing the way towards Saekianna's perch.
     "Ranma!  NO!"
     No?  I hesitated, confused by the alarm in Mars' voice, until I
realised that my genius plan had one teeny-tiny little flaw.  The stone
slugger's trajectory had flattened every attacker in its path, all right, but
it still had plenty of juice left over.
     And it was headed straight for one of those big, shiny tanks full of
Siren's Breath.
     Aw, crap.
     A loud, hollow bonging noise rang out through the chamber as
the hapless hulk punched clean through the side of the tank like it was
made of tissue paper.  I watched helplessly, a sinking feeling riding my
stomach down into my toes like and express elevator to hell.
     This was going to suck.
     But then, completely contrary to the way things usually went in
my life, I actually caught a break.  Stoney the Expendable Rock Dude
started struggling inside the tank, trying to extricate itself so it could
come back and try to kill me again, bending jagged metal out of its path
with thick stone fingers.  This took some time, and while it was taking
some time, nothing else was happening.
     Okay, the wild melee was still going on, true, and I dodged several
lovely talismans as the senshi tried to regroup and guard each other's
backs.  But the one important thing that was supposed to be happening
wasn't happening.  There was no gas.  None.  The damned tank was
empty.
     All riiiiigh ...
     Uh.  "Mars, is that gas invisible?" I shouted, suddenly feeling like
an idiot.
     "No!" she replied.  "The tank's empty!"
     "Yeah!" I crowed.
     "No, that's bad!  They knew we were coming, they already
deployed the gas!"
     "Very good," Saekianna gloated from above.  "While you fight this
pointless battle, our enemy has already been laid low!  Did you think we
would wait for you to stop us?"
     Actually, I kind of had thought that.  "I thought they were
waiting until tonight!" I shouted, unleashing a chi bolt to smash Stoney
before it could reach me.
     "Apparently, we put a kink in that plan!" V called back.  "Looks like
they decided to use it before we could stop them!"
     Maybe.  But we hadn't won anything yet.  I charged across the
floor, sprinting through the opening I'd made before the surging mob
could fill the space again.  I was beginning to notice flaws in the talisman
girls now; there was a blonde cutie with no nose, and a Tall Redhead
whose hands were missing fingers.  Maybe the Sister creating all these
dolls was finally reaching her limit.
     Me, I wasn't waiting around until she ran out of steam.  I ran
straight at the point where the two back walls met, leaping into the air at
the last moment.  My foot hit one wall, and I pushed up, the other foot
striking the opposite wall seconds later.  Back and forth I went, dancing
up the corner until I could flip over the railing onto the landing.
Saekianna der Kae was standing there, and she turned to face me, a sneer
on her lips.
     Yeah, right.  As if I was going to fall for that.  I moved slowly
along the metal catwalk, watching her cautiously.
     "So," she purred with a venomous smile.  "Couldn't wait to die,
hmmm?"
     "Save it," I said shortly.  We were being kept busy.  Why?  So
the Sisterhood could escape?  They knew their cover was blown, but they
weren't going to just leave quietly.  So what was the deal?
     There.  I stopped as Saekianna said something insulting.  The
Saekianna facing me wasn't giving off any chi.  But someone on the
other side of the wall from us was, and they were very close now.  There
was no obvious door here, but I was betting that didn't mean anything.
     I pivoted, lashing out with a slashing kick.  The wall here wasn't
really stone; it gave easily, and someone cried out as the hidden door
crumpled and fell inwards.  I was through the opening quickly, ending up
in some sort of control room full of pipes and banks of dials and screens,
some old, a few shiny and new.  Pipes and gauges didn't interest me,
though, not like the occupants of the room did.
     Tall Redhead was there, kneeling on the floor in the middle of some
sort of complex magickal circle.  Long Braids was behind her, hands on
Redhead's temples, and as I came through the door, Redhead threw a
handful of paper talismans at me.  The flash of light as they changed was
accompanied by a strangled cry from Redhead, and she slumped back
into the other woman's arms.
     "Meredith!" Braids cried out.  Huh.  It seemed that the puppeteer
had finally reached her limit.  I grabbed two of the dolls coming at me,
spinning in one smooth motion and throwing them at the fake Saekianna,
who, true to form, had been coming in behind me.  They all went over the
railing together as I used my momentum to spin back around.  The other
talisman doubles were twitching on the floor, not fully formed.
     So much for that.
     But there was another person in the room besides Tall Redhead
(Meredith, I corrected myself) and Braids.
     Saekianna der Kae.  The real one, this time.
     And she did not look happy.
     "Heya," I said.
     "Ranko, wasn't it?" she replied icily.  Her icy was as cold as her
sultry was hot, and I knew this was a bad woman to have mad at you.
     "You remembered," I said.  "Look, let's get right to it, okay?
I'm not here to fight.  I'm here because we're all in the middle of some
crazy vampire's plan, and we need to stop it."
     "You are here," Saekianna countered, "because you are a pawn
of that White Moon girl.  Isn't that so?"
     "Can you just forget about your grudge for a minute?" I growled.
Okay, I was a fine person to talk about grudges, but still.
     "Oh, I will not forget," she replied softly, her eyes burning with so
much hate that I wanted to look away.  "That girl has taken something
precious to me.  Rei was mine, girl.  She was glorious, the only girl
whose shadow could match my own, and your beloved princess has torn
her down, debased her beauty, her strength, her fire.  And now our Dark
Lady will be forced to destroy her.  Better she should die here."
     Oh, boy.  I didn't like the sound of that.  No, not one bit.  I sized up
the room, longer than it was wide, full of nooks and cabinets and places
to hide nasty surprises.  I had a really bad feeling that, if I made one
misstep, I might not live to regret it.
     "We just need to talk," I said reasonably, judging my chances of
reaching her before she could react.  "There are things you need to ..."
     She summoned her whip in a flash, and I moved an instant before
it slashed through the space I'd been standing in.  I hadn't forgotten the
way that thing had shredded stone back in the tunnels.  Banri, fake or not,
was a very dangerous weapon.  Yeah, Saekianna was in no mood for
talking.  I was going to have to beat her first, then I could make her
listen.  That was the only way.
     "Nightmistress!" Braids cried, cradling Meredith's weakly struggling
body in her arms.  "We cannot replenish the ranks of talismans!  The
sailor girls ..."
     "Silence."  That word shattered the air as effectively as the whip
had, and Braids shut up as Saekianna's cold eyes tracked me.
     "It'll be over soon," I told her, looking for an opening.  I couldn't let
Braids get behind me.  And the others, where were they?  There'd been at
least seven of them before.  "Inquisitors in the tunnels, your dolls getting
their paper asses kicked, and your secret plan blown all to hell."  If I
could make her mad, I could get her to commit herself.  Maybe.  "Looks
like you lose."
     "Not to the likes of you," Saekianna replied haughtily.  She spun,
wielding the whip expertly, weaving an intricate defence in the air.
Shifting position, she put herself directly between me and her people.
Damn.  Meredith was still moving, but seemed only barely conscious.  If
I could knock her out, would the talismans stop?  I didn't know enough
about magick to even be able to guess, but if some of the others could get
up here we'd stand a better chance of taking this lot out without killing
anyone.
     "The vampire killed your mother, you know," I said abruptly.
Get her off balance, Saotome.  Get her talking.  Anything, just make her
drop her guard.
     "Then she deserves a medal, yes?"  Saekianna gave me a glacial
smile, sliding slowly sideways, forcing me to match her.  I couldn't say
what kind of priestess she might be, but she certainly knew how to handle
that whip.
     "That's pretty cold ..."  I'd been building up my chi, and I let fly
with a bolt mid-sentence, charging her in an all-or-nothing attack.
Unfortunately, Banri's gleaming coils blocked my chi-bolt.  I'd really
been hoping that wouldn't happen.
     She danced through a liquid motion and the whip snaked through
the air, moving with blinding speed.  Committed, I tried to land a shot,
but even though I managed to ghost past two attacking coils, the third
caught me a glancing blow across the chest, throwing me the length of
the room as it drove the air from my lungs viciously.  My body collided
heavily with a row of pipes, and suddenly water was gushing around me
as I fell to the floor.  I scrambled on the slick stone, winded and
off-balance, trying to gain purchase, knowing she was lining me up for
another shot.  A tingle swept my body as the heat from the water soaked
into my clothes.
     Then our eyes met and, for an instant, she hesitated.  It wasn't much
of a hesitation, but it was enough.  My reflexes had saved me many times
before, and they were up to the task again.  I rolled, did a fast
hand-spring, and we were facing off again, this time with most of the old
control room between us.
     "You," she whispered, Banri's hovering coils making sharp,
jittery motions.
     "There's a lot you don't understand," I told her, blessing that
water for being hot.  Her momentary hesitation at the sight of me had
saved my ass.  And Minako's gadget had automatically adapted my new
clothes to my male body.  Cool.
     "I understand," Saekianna hissed.  Man, if looks could kill.  But
I'd finally gotten under her skin.
     "Nightmistress!" Braids called.  There was a hatch in the wall,
and Braids was halfway through it, supporting Meredith.
     "Go," Saekianna told her curtly.  "This one is owed a reckoning for
his actions."  Banri lashed out at me, and I countered by grabbing a
length of the broken pipe that was hanging from the ceiling behind me
and batting those deadly coils away as hard as I could, the impact
resonating down the length of steel and into my hands.  Me and
Saekianna, one-on-one?  Fantastic.  She couldn't keep me at bay forever.
     Of course, she could cheat.  As I followed the flow of Banri's
coils, trying to find a moment to strike, she flung something at me with
her left hand.  I spun away frantically as a black rose embedded itself in
the wall behind me, gritting my teeth against the sudden wave of heady
perfume.  Focus, Saotome.  She's tricky.  Do not let her get the upper
hand.  She's tough, but she's not the fighter you are.  Force her to try and
match your speed, create an opening.  And take her out.
     "Please, Nightmistress, there is no more time!"
     No more time?  That kicked the old brain into gear as I slid sideways
across the wet floor, spinning the metal pipe in a tight, vicious defensive
spiral before me.  Had the talismans finally fallen?
     No.  That wasn't it.  But that thought led to another, pushing
impatiently through my battle hungry senses.  If it was so important to
get away, why had they stayed in the first place?  The others were gone,
the gas released, so why had these three stayed behind?  They could have
been long gone before we reached this chamber.  Hell, without their chi, I
might never have found it.
     There, behind Saekianna.  That control panel, it looked to have
lots of new parts on it.  Including those lights, the ones that were flashing
red.  And those dials, with needles quivering in the zones that were also,
coincidentally, red.
     Idiot.  The talismans and rock monsters weren't there to kill the
senshi.  They were just another distraction.  Keep them busy, keep them
fighting, until ... what?
     "What did you do?" I demanded angrily, glaring across the space that
separated us.
     "So, finally you see the trap," Saekianna murmured with a venomous
smile.  It looked like she'd gotten a handle on her temper.  Bad news.
"But too late, BOY.  Far too late."
     With that, she spun and lunged with feline grace for the hatch.  I let
the long pipe slide through my hands, grabbing it at the far end and
flinging it at her.  It spun so fast it looked like a silvery disc, but Banri's
coils deflected it before it reached Saekianna, sending it rocketing noisily
across the room, and then she was through the hatch and I was running
for the closing gap.
     "That mana generator will overload in moments," Saekianna
called as I lunged.  "If you leave them, perhaps you can save yourself!"
     Her husky laughter was cut off with a loud thunk as the hatch
slammed shut, and I hit it with my shoulder, bouncing off in a shower of
greenish sparks.
     Ow.  Some kind of defence, magick maybe.  Hell, make that
probably.
     I glanced at the dials and lights.  Only seconds to decide,
Saotome.  Was she lying?  They do that, the Sisterhood.  Could be a trick
to keep me busy, stop me from following.
     No.  She wanted a piece of boy-type me, wanted it bad.  I'd stolen
V from her back at the club.  I'd taken something she wanted, and she
was not a woman who let something like that go.  No, she'd only gone
because she had to.
     Shut it down?  Who was I kidding?  I was a genius at fighting.
And breaking things, but what if breaking all this stuff didn't stop this
mana generator thing?
     Go after her?  I could get through that hatch, given enough time.
Saekianna was the key to stopping this whole vampire nut-case scheme.
I knew what Saturn would say if she were here.  She'd say do it, the big
picture, a city in peril, blah blah blah.  Those girls can take care of
themselves.  They'll get out in time.
     Sure.  And it would make sense, all perfectly logical.
     But.
     I'd left a group of people behind once before, when things had
gone bad.  I'd thought they'd be all right while I went running into
danger.
     They hadn't been.
     I couldn't leave them behind.  I couldn't take it if something happened
to them.  I couldn't ...
     I couldn't survive that.  Not again.
     The sound of the hatch slamming still hung in the air as I turned
and flung myself out onto the catwalk and back into the fray.
     Please.  Please don't let it be too late.
 
 

End chapter 19