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 20: Big Bad Wolf
 

     V scythed her beam through a charging group of attackers,
reducing them to a pile of fluttering paper dolls with ease.  The tenor of
the battle was beginning to change.  For a while there they'd only
managed to hold their own, but now she could see gaps in the ranks of
the murderous talismans.  A wave crashed through another group,
carrying them into one of the golems, then lightning flared, destroying the
entire lot at once.
     "Release me!" Carlina pleaded.
     "We're sorry, the hottie you've dialled is not currently in service.
Please hang up and try your call again.  This," V announced cheerfully,
"is a recording."
     "I can help you!"
     "Oh, so now you want to help us?"
     "Right now, we share a common foe.  Surely you must see that!"
     "Duck."
     Carlina's eyes widened as V pointed her finger, and the
dishevelled blonde priestess ducked as a golden beam of light seared the
air, taking out a snarling replica of Yurina.
     Jupiter, V noted, had taken out more than a few of those.  And if
she'd enjoyed it, well, so what?  Maybe it was good therapy.
     "You are a madwoman!"
     "You say that like it's a bad thing.  Move."
     Carlina danced aside as V met another charge with lethal force.  Yeah,
those damned little dolls were vicious, but the senshi knew how to
defend against superior numbers.  And that was all the little buggers had
going for them.  Their weapons were only good for close-quarters
combat, and while they showed a willingness to use them, they had not
gotten the opportunity.  The ambush in the tunnels had taught V to be
wary of these things, even if they were just copies.
     "Damn you!"
     "Yeah, yeah.  Listen, we want to reason with the Sisterhood, not
destroy them."
     "You cannot reason with them!"
     "Look who's talking," Mars snapped as she laid down a
defensive wall of flame to prevent two clusters of faux Sisters from
flanking them.  "Having a conversation with a zealot is pointless, V.  Her
mind is made up."
     "Zealot, am I?  What about those tanks?  What did the
Sisterhood have in there?"  Mars ignored Carlina's angry question,
turning her attention back to the fight.  Yes, one crisis at a time.
     It was obvious that there was some ugly history between Carlina and
Mars, or rather, Rei.  That would no doubt be another emotional train
wreck, but they didn't have time to deal with it now.  Mercury and Jupiter
were keeping the golems at bay, and the ranks of the talismans were
seriously thinning.  V now had an opportunity to try to find Ranma.  She
was worried that he might find some real Sisters and get in over his head.
     Then the floor erupted in a geyser of stone and steam, and she
decided that she should start worrying about herself.  Carlina cried out
and started to run; V braced herself to reel the woman back in, but before
she could do so, the floor under her feet cracked ominously.  With only a
second to react, V let go of her whip, sending Carling sprawling in one
direction as she rolled away in the other, just in time to avoid another
explosion.
     An attack?  But where was it coming from?  She turned, trying to
see through the billowing clouds of steam.  Or was it steam?
     "Mars!" she shouted, dodging a charge from a golem.  "Is this
Siren's Breath?"
     "No!" Mars replied.  "It's just steam!"  Okay, good.  Just another
Sisterhood death trap.  No sweat.  "Where's Carlina?"
     "Over there somewhere," V admitted.  "I had to let her go ..."
     "Hey!"  V's heart gave a happy little jump as Ranma's voice rang
out over the din.  She spotted him up on the catwalk where Saekianna
had been.  Assuming that one had been real, of course.
     "Hey, handsome!"  Back in boy form and looking as gorgeous as
ever, she saw.  He leapt to the floor with that knee-weakening, pantherish
grace of his, and within seconds he was battling at her side.
     "Two questions!  What's a mana generator, and would it be bad if
one exploded?"
     "It produces power!"  V told him.  "And yes!"
     "Then we gotta get out of here!  Like, right now!"
     A wave of swirling water smashed through two golems as they
tried to flank Mars, and V grabbed Ranma, pulling him along behind her.
Somewhere off to the left the wind had begun to pick up.  Carlina.
Hopefully, she kept herself occupied with fighting the Sisterhood's
pawns.
     "Mars!  There's an old mana generator down here and it's going to
blow!"
     "Saekianna?" Mars replied, glancing at Ranma.
     "Yeah!  Listen, we gotta hurry!" he urged.
     "Trouble!"  Deimos picked that moment to streak in through the
dust and steam filled air, circling tightly around Mars' head.  "Inquisitors
in the tunnel we came in through, they'll be here any minute!"
     "It looks like there's a way out over here!" Phobos called from across
the room.
     "Right, time to go," V declared as another point in the floor
buckled and began to spew steam.  Somewhere nearby, a low noise had
begun at the threshold of audibility, slowly increasing in volume and
pitch.  V and Mars combined their attacks, clearing a path to where
Jupiter and Mercury were fighting.  Mars waved Deimos close, said
something that V couldn't hear, then sent the tiny guardian away.
     "Warning Carlina?" V asked as they ran.
     "She probably won't listen," Mars said shortly.  V hid her grin as
best she could.  Whatever bad blood was between those two, Mars wasn't
going to just leave the Vestra to die.  Once upon a time, she might have.
Okay, given what Rei had said about her past, make that probably would
have.  But the girl that Rei was today was proof that Carlina was wrong
about the Sisterhood.  Whatever their past conflicts, things could change.
     "Trouble!" Mercury shouted as they drew near.
     "We know!" V told her.  "It's a mana generator and it's overloading!
We gotta get out!"
     "That way!" Mars added.  "There's an exit!"
     V and Ranma kept the rear flank secure as the others
concentrated their power to cut a path through an attack that seemed to
be growing more frantic.  It was as though the golems and talismans
knew that the end was near.  Which, V figured ruefully, they probably
did.
     The low noise was rising to a tooth-vibrating shriek, and V had
the feeling that time was running out.
     "Mercury!  How bad is this gonna be?"
     "Depends on the size of the generator, fuel state, all kinds of things!
I didn't detect it earlier, it must have been shielded!"
     Swell.  V ducked her head as something streaked overhead, but it
was only Deimos, returning to her mistress's side.  They had punched
through the concentrated ranks of attackers, and now they raced ahead of
the screaming mob, V pausing only momentarily to throw a flurry of
attacks back.  It slowed them, but not much.  Talismans and golems
didn't have much regard for their personal safety, after all.
     "There!" Phobos exclaimed, flying ahead to guide them.  More
explosions filled the air behind them, a wave of smoke and steam
overtaking the pursuing enemy and obscuring them from view.  The
ground began to shake, and V took a moment to glance over at Ranma as
they ran.
     "You take me to the nicest places!" she shouted, riding the
adrenaline rush of danger and imminent death.  Ranma's dark-edged grin
made her heart flutter.
     "Race you!" he shot back.
     And they raced along the razor's edge, with destruction snapping
at their heels.

***

     "What's that noise?" Sailor Moon shouted.  Yoshi was clutching
his head with his free hand; whatever it was, it was hurting his head far
worse than it was hers.
     "I don't know!" he gritted, face contorted.  "But it's coming from
that way!"
     "Which way does Maia's scent lead?" Tuxedo Mask asked.
     "Both ways!" Yoshi told him.  "We'd better get away from
whatever that is, folks!  It's getting worse by the second!"
     The princess wasn't about to argue with that.  Hopefully,
whatever it was, none of her friends was anywhere near it.  The three of
them began making their way up the tunnel as fast as they could; a little
of Tuxedo Mask's strength seemed to have returned, but she was till
limping badly.
     The noise continued to rise to an unearthly shriek, far beyond
what Moon would have thought possible.  Whatever it was, it just kept
getting worse and worse.  And now a wave of damp heat washed over
them from behind.  She staggered as Yoshi came to an abrupt halt.
     "What's wrong?" Tuxedo Mask gasped.  They'd come a fair
distance, but not far enough for Moon's liking.  That sound cut through
her body like a rusty knife.
     "Scents," Yoshi said, turning.  "From back there.  It's ..."
     Moon heard it then, voices rising over the din.  She barely had
time to turn before something streaked out of the gloom at them.  Moon
cried out, raising her hands defensively, but it was by her in a flash, a
shape like a tiny girl with black wings ...
     Deimos?
     Then someone was shouting her name, and Mars was scooping
her up and carrying her up the tunnel.  There was a flare of pain, but it
subsided quickly, and Moon lay her head against Mars' shoulder, letting
her friend's warmth seep into her as they ran.  Behind them she heard the
snap of Jupiter's lightning and a sudden rush of water, and then there was
a rumbling as if the tunnel was caving in.
     Then the ground shuddered, and the entire tunnel began to shake
violently.  Mars fell to her knees, shielding Moon with her body as small
fragments of rock spun through the air, pinging loudly off the walls.
Moon clung to the other girl, eyes shut tightly as though that could
protect her from harm.  The noise rose to a deafening roar, and a choking
cloud of dust washed over them.
     Then, just when it seemed that the chaos would never end, it
began to taper off.  Moon realised that she could hear people coughing
and cursing, and all around was the faint sound of rock shifting and
clattering to a stop.  Reluctantly, she pulled her face away from Mars,
gazing up into a pair of lovely violet eyes set in a dirt-smeared face.
     "You're okay," Moon said, then coughed lightly.
     "Everybody made it," Mars told her, looking around.  Yoshi and
Tuxedo Mask were close by, Jupiter and Mercury next to them, with
V lying on her back a short distance away, Ranma sprawled beside her.
Both were laughing for some reason.
     "Guess caving in the tunnel was a good idea," Jupiter gasped.
     "That," V added breathlessly, "was a big boom."
     "At least it probably took care of all the talismans," Ranma said,
shaking his head.  "How you guys doing?"
     Moon sagged into Mars' arms, letting weariness settle on her
like a wet tarpaulin.  Mars' gaze came back to her, and Moon watched
her friend's eyes widen as she got a good look at her princess.
     "What happened?"  Mars' sharp exclamation drew the attention
of the others, and Moon felt herself laid out gently on the cold stone, her
head pillowed in Mars lap.
     "Princess!" Jupiter cried.  "You're bleeding!"
     "Not too bad," Moon muttered, closing her eyes for a moment.
"You should see the other guy ..."
     "Let me see," Mercury said crisply.  Moon opened her eyes to see
all of her girls hovering over her, and warmth flooded her body, washing
the aches and pains away.  Her girls were safe.  That was what mattered.
All of her people were okay.
     "This is very nasty, Princess," Mercury said softly as she
examined the wounds on Moon's leg and side.  "One of these cuts is very
deep.  And you've got two cracked ribs.  It must hurt."
     "A little," Moon admitted in a very small voice.
     "Tough guy," V said, her voice thick with concern as she reached
down to brush strands of hair out of Moon's face.
     "The Sisterhood?" Mars asked.  Moon felt a pang at the guilt in
those deep violet eyes.
     "A succubus," she replied wearily.  "Maia.  She attacked Tuxedo
Mask."
     "Crap," Moon heard Ranma say from behind them.  "You okay,
man?"
     "Yeah," Tuxedo Mask replied curtly.  "Just weak.  Her injuries
take precedence."
     Moon just lay there helplessly.  The sound of his voice revealed
volumes to her.  She wanted to ease his emotional pain, to tell him that
everything was all right.  It wasn't his fault, after all.
     But how could she make him believe that?  Mamoru had always
been there, always protected her when she'd needed it.  It had taken her
some time to realise just how important it was to him that he be able to
protect her.  And she loved him for it, but nobody could protect those
they loved from every hurt, every tragedy.  He would carry every failure
as a scar on his own heart.
     And she didn't know how to heal those scars.
     "Hey, Princess!" a voice announced.  Moon looked up to see
Deimos circling over her, insouciant grin firmly in place.  "Ow, that
looks painful."
     "You should see the other guy," Moon said solemnly.
     "All right!  Always give better than you get, I always say!"  At
least someone liked her line.
     "You never say that," Phobos contradicted with a sniff.
"Mistress, this tunnel seems to lead  to the surface."
     "You two fly on ahead," Mars instructed.  "Scout the area.  The
Sisterhood may still be nearby."
     "We should get out of here," V said as the twins streaked away
up the tunnel.
     "Agreed," Jupiter grumbled.  "I've had enough of these bloody
tunnels to last me a lifetime."
     "All right," Mars said.  "Let's get to the surface and contact the
others."
     Mars stood, still cradling the princess in her arms.  Moon thought
about telling Mars that she could walk, but her leg still throbbed
painfully.  And, in all honesty, she liked the feeling of being carried.
Things had gotten hairy for a while there.  Wasn't she entitled to a little
pampering, now that everybody was safe?
     Then she caught sight of the look on Tuxedo Mask's face as
Mars carried her past, and the warm, intimate feeling of being fussed
over was replaced by a pang of guilt.  He was already jealous of her girls,
and of Rei in particular.  This was not going to help.
     Gods, she thought, I hope this day doesn't get any more
complicated.

***

     We made our way through the tunnel, ending up in another maze.
Fortunately, the Sisterhood had been through here before us, and Yoshi
was able to guide us through it.  When we reached a door that led us out
into what looked like an abandoned old subway tunnel, there were sighs
of relief.
     "This is part of the metro transit system," V said with the sort of
joy usually not reserved for discussions of subways.  "It should lead us to
an active line, and from there outside."
     "This way," Yoshi said.  He was still supporting Tux, who didn't
seem to want to look at anyone.  Not that I blamed him, if what I thought
had happened to him was true.  I'd been face-to-face with a succubus in
Shadow, and if V and Mars hadn't been there, I might have ended up like
him.  Or worse.
     "So there really were Sisters in that control room?" the princess
asked me.
     "A couple," I shrugged.  "But they got away, and with the whole
generator-exploding thing, I don't think we'd get back in there to pick up
their trail."
     "It would be cold by now, anyway," Mars sighed.
     "Come on, kids," V broke in, moving up to smile at the princess,
still ensconced in Mars' arms.  "Maybe they got away, but we forced
their hand.  We screwed up their plan!  They had to abandon it!  Score
one for the good guys!"
     "About time, too," Jupiter grumbled.  She was in a pretty good
mood for someone wearing half a fuku and with one arm back in a
makeshift sling.  Seeing Yoshi safe probably had a lot to do with that.
     "I don't know," I said, drawing a black look from V and a pained
one from Jupiter.
     "What's this?" V demanded.  "Doubt?"
     "They gave up pretty easy," I said cautiously.  "I mean, this was
their big chance, right?"
     "There was nothing easy about that mess!" V shot back.  "Anyway,
their master plan depended on nobody knowing what they were up to.
They needed to stay hidden until midnight, so they could strike hard and
fast.  When they knew we were on to them they did the only thing they
could, hunker down and see if we survived the water.  And when we were
still a threat, they laid a trap to get rid of us.  It was too late to change the
plan, but at least they could try to get us out of the way for next time."
     "I guess," I said.  I hoped she was right.
     "Ranma does have a point," Mars said.  "Phobos, Deimos, once we
reach the surface, I want you to circle the area.  I can't believe that the
Sisterhood will let this go."
     "Do you think the people in the temple are okay?"  Sailor Moon
asked the question in a deliberately off-handed sort of way, but I could
tell she was worried.  Apparently, I wasn't the only one to share that
insight.
     "We don't know how much of the gas got through, if any," V
told her.  None of us in the know had shared the details of the Siren's
Breath attack beyond the basics, or Rei's role in conceiving it.  I had a
feeling that the girls would want to broach that subject cautiously, and
without Tux around.
     "Hey!  A door!"  V whooped and bounded ahead, beating us to
the door set into the side of the tunnel.  Behind it lay stairs, and we
climbed eagerly, all of us anxious to put this place behind us.  I couldn't
help but brood over the Sisterhood, though.  I knew that they avoided a
head-on fight whenever they could, but was it possible that we'd
completely ruined their plan?  Or would they go ahead anyway, even
though Alieva's temple was now alerted?
     They wanted this pretty bad.  I wasn't willing to bet they
wouldn't do something crazy.
     The stairs led to another door, one which let out into a narrow
tunnel with pipes running along the ceiling.  We only had to troop a short
distance through that before we found ourselves on a subway platform.
     "Whoo!" Jupiter shouted.  "Civilisation!"
     "Not quite," Mercury said.  "This platform isn't finished.  I think
it's part of the Parkglen line.  Yes, look, there.  That sign."
     "Allertas Circle Station," I read.  "So, uh, you know where we
are?"
     "You bet," V grinned as Phobos and Deimos soared through the
open space of the partially tiled platform.  The tunnel that lay beyond had
rough walls and lacked even the sparse lighting that the platform was
equipped with.  "This is part of the subway extension that was being built
from the university line.  Ran into a bunch of political and financial
problems a couple years back, and everything's been on hold since.  Big
scandal.  One of many in the naked city.  Dirty politics, dirty money, and
a lot of stuff sitting around waiting on inquiries and investigations."
     "As long as we can get out," I said.
     "People have been getting in," Yoshi pointed out.  I followed his
gaze and saw some graffiti on the wall.  The hairs on the back of my neck
stood up, but it was just ordinary graffiti, informing us that Goober
Sucked Ass and Des hearted Miki.  No weird messages in unknown
languages, or ominous old poetry.  Cool.
     We made our way up the broad stairs to a shell of a building on
the surface.  The gates at the entrance had been chained and padlocked,
but we dealt with that easily, and then we were outside in a trash-strewn
lot hidden behind high wooden fencing.
     "Artemis?" V called, touching her earring.  "Can you hear me?"
She laughed, spinning in a neat pirouette, which I guessed meant yes.
"Yeah, it's me!  Oh, quit worrying.  We're all fine.  Well, a little banged
up in some cases, but ... what?  What?  Slow down, tomcat, what's up?"
     Mars' eyes narrowed, and Jupiter cursed.  I guessed that the girls
were getting the play-by-play while we stood around, waiting for an
update.
     "What?" I asked finally.  "What's going on?  The Sisterhood?"
     "Lots of stuff," Jupiter told me, holding her good hand up to her
earring.  "Reports of trouble in the temple district, no surprise ... um,
something about power outages and fires, too.  And a flock of wyverns at
City Hall?  Damn!"
     "Saturn and the others are dealing with that one," V told those of us
not in the loop.  "Lots of big trouble, apparently.  Chaos all over the
place."
     "Could it be the Sisterhood?" Moon asked as Mars reluctantly set
her on her feet.  V was talking rapidly, catching Artemis up on the
situation since we'd gone underground.
     "Maybe," Mars admitted.  "This sounds like something designed
to cause the maximum amount of pandemonium, distract from their true
objective."
     "What's that, Artemis?  An overpass collapsed where?" V was saying.
     "Bad," Mercury muttered.  "That's a major interchange for the
area.  Police and military ground units will get bogged down in the
resulting snarl."
     I looked at the sky.  It was filled with dark, surly-looking clouds,
all in a hurry to go nowhere in particular.  It was going to storm any time
now, and that would only add to the madhouse that the city was turning
into.  Maybe the Sisterhood had a back-up plan after all.  A big one.
     "Yeah, I understand," V was saying.  "Look, Artemis, we chased
the Sisterhood out of the place they had their stuff set up, but Alieva's
temple still may have gotten hit with that spell they were working.  We
need to know how bad, and if the Sisterhood is on site.  You'll get there
ahead of us, can you guys scout the area, see what's going on?"
     "You don't think they'll still try to carry out their plan?" Mercury
asked, aghast.  "It relied on total surprise, and we blew that element right
out of the water."
     "They are desperate," Mars countered. "I would not put anything
past them at this point.  They really have nothing left to lose.  Phobos,
Deimos, meet up with Luna and Artemis near the temple, look for any
sign of the Sisterhood.  Do not approach too closely, this Siren's Breath
spell is very dangerous."
     The tiny twins transformed into birds and flung themselves into
that turbulent sky as V finished filling Artemis in on the plan.
     "So?" Yoshi asked when she was done.
     "Things are getting crazy out there," V said, shaking her head.
"The power outages are widespread, affecting most of the core of the
city.  Traffic signals, communication, a lot of stuff is screwed.  Artemis is
having trouble getting any info on just what's caused it, and word is
police and fire crews are running around all over the place."
     "Convenient timing," Mars said curtly.
     "So we are definitely talking about the Sisterhood, then?" Mercury
asked her.
     "We won't find out anything standing around here," I stated.
Talking was useless in a situation like this.  We needed to know what
was going on.
     I ran across the yard, dodging around old piles of pipe and stone
and the carcass of an upended wheelbarrow with no wheel, pausing only
to kick open the hinged board that served as a door onto the site.  The
door didn't put up much of a fight; from the look of it, it was an old
campaigner that had been booted in many times before.
     The street outside was moderately busy, the subway construction
site flanked by a vacant lot on one side and an intersection on the other.
Across the street was a canal, and past that broad boulevards and what
looked like some sort of sprawling garden, with soaring towers and
clusters of ornate buildings visible behind it.
     "The temple district," V told me.
     "We're going to have to be careful," Mercury said, touching her
glowing visor.  "That Vestra may have reported our presence in the
tunnels by now.  The presence of Sailor Senshi ..."
     "Vestra?" Moon broke in excitedly.
     "Uh, Carlina someone," I told her.
     "Oh, wow!  Carlina Val Cassanda?  She's incredible!  One of the
youngest priestesses ever to make Vestra, and she commands an elite unit
of the Crusade!  Beautiful, elegant, just the perfect example of the
temple's teachings!  You met her?  Really?"  The princess fairly vibrated
with delight at the mention of Carlina, who was apparently famous or
something.  Maybe that was part of being a Vestra.  I still didn't know
what a Vestra was; some kind of paramilitary religious rank, maybe?  I
couldn't help but glimpse Mars' face, though, as Sailor Moon beamed at
me as though meeting this Vestra had endowed me with some measure of
wonderfulness myself.  Mars looked like she had bitten into something
sour and rotten, and she turned away quickly so that Moon wouldn't see.
     Oh, yeah.  Some bad blood between Mars and this Carlina, and
now Moon was the Vestra's biggest fan?  That was just going to be all
kinds of awkward.
     But later.  We had bigger problems now, especially if the
Sisterhood was really going to be crazy enough to try and carry their plan
out.  Hell, Saekianna had gotten a couple of her girls to sit on top of a
mana generator that was working up to an explosion, and the three of
them had kept us there a until the last minute.  They obviously weren't
drawing the line at dangerous or reckless when it came to plans.
     "What's that?" Mars asked.  She was looking away from the
canal, and I followed her pointing finger.  There were a whole lot of
small black dots swirling around beneath the bruised clouds some
distance away.
     "Not sure," V said, frowning.  "Police fliers?  If traffic on the ground
is that bad ..."
     "Too small, and too many," Mercury pointed out.  "Anyway,
with the weather closing in, most aircraft will be grounded.  The winds
are already treacherous and getting worse by the minute."
     "They're over Memorial Stadium, by the look of it," Mars added,
apparently happy to be talking about something other than Carlina.
"Another monster attack?"
     Whatever reply I was about to make died in my throat as the
shapes twirled easily in the air, coming together.  I froze as something
began to take shape in the air, something familiar.
     The key.  They were forming the shape of the key.
     "Ranma!" V shouted after me as I took off at a dead run.  But I didn't
stop, didn't even pause.  Something was out there, issuing me a challenge.
The vampire?  It had to be.  She'd already killed countless people just to
get my attention.
     Well, she had it.  But she wasn't going to be able to handle it.

***

     Luna crouched behind a low ornamental wall, tail twitching in
agitation.  Behind her was a temple dedicated to Gayandra, Mistress of
Muses and Patron Goddess of Art and Creativity.  Several robed students
stood at the main gate, gaping at the spectacle unfolding across the broad
boulevard at the White Order's temple complex.
     Luna didn't blame them for keeping back.  Patches of dark
purplish mist crawled along the once orderly grounds like things alive,
and everywhere they went chaos reigned.
     "Holy shit," Artemis gasped as he ran up to her.  "It's happening
all over the place.  Look over there!"
     Luna didn't need him to tell her to look.  Inside the gates was a
scene out of a fever-dream.  The ground was littered with white robes,
some torn by the force and haste with which they'd been discarded.  The
robes were far from the worst of it, though.  Everywhere she looked
people were coupling madly in twos, threes, or even writhing groups.
Some were naked, some partially clothed, but the one thing they all had
in common was the pure, animalistic lust which drove them.  They gave
no regard to where they were or who might be watching, gave no regard
to anything beyond their own primal need.  They sprawled across the
cold ground, leaned against walls, even clawed at each other in an
ornamental pond.
     Mindless sex was the order of the day, but for all the moans and
grunts and cries, for all the biting and groping and actual, all-out
screwing, the scene was remarkably devoid of any eroticism whatsoever.
It was desolate somehow, devoid of any shred of intimacy or desire.  The
affected people, male or female, simply grabbed the nearest warm body
and started coupling madly.
     "Gods," Luna whispered.  "What have they done?"
     "If we thought things were bad before," Artemis replied grimly,
"it'll be all-out war now.  Forget sanctions from the Council of Temples,
forget kingdom law.  The White Order is going to go all-out apeshit on
the Sisterhood, no matter what the cost."
     Luna couldn't disagree.  Here were the finest the White Order
had to offer, scholars and priests and mages, all ensconced within their
main temple, and yet their enemy had managed to breach their most holy
sanctum and drag them down into the muck.  She watched as a group of
robed figures dashed from the high arched doors of the main temple itself.
The leader, a short girl in novice's robes, gestured wildly.  Her spiky
black hair stirred, and tiny whirlwinds appeared around her, slowly
growing in size and spreading out.  Several patches of purple mist
approached, only to be sucked up into the miniature cyclones.
     Students, Luna realised with horror.  The Order had brought everyone
into the main complex to protect them, including the young students, the
trainees, the novices.
     Novice this girl might be, but she was acquitting herself admirably in
the midst of chaos.  She tried to keep the mystic clouds at bay while the
others made a valiant but futile attempt to separate the affected.  Finally a
slender lad raised his hands and doused a nearby group with a conjured
wave of water.
     They didn't even pause.
     More people were appearing from all over, including a handful of
priestesses, and behind the temple's spires Luna saw another, much
larger wind funnel filled with dust and purple mist.
     "Bad," Artemis said in a low voice.  "But it could be worse."
     "What?  How could it possibly be worse?" Luna demanded.
     "The Sisterhood," Artemis told her, eyes flicking around the
grounds.  "If they attacked in force now, they could inflict significant
casualties.  So where are they?"
     Now, that was a good question.  Luna saw two black forms
darting overhead, almost certainly Phobos and Deimos.  From far down
the main boulevard there was more activity as the other temples
mobilised to investigate the disturbance, and even as she stood there the
inner gates began to swing closed.  The walls around the temple were
hardly without defences, both mystic and mundane; Luna suspected this
move was to keep anyone from witnessing the ongoing humiliating
carnage as much as for defence.
     But of the Sisterhood, which had inflicted this blow upon their
enemies on the brink of Baniesti, there was still no sign.  Far from
reassuring her, that thought merely congealed into a cloak of dread.
     Those women had done this for a reason.  What were they up to?
She and Artemis hadn't gotten very many details from the others, after
all.
     "When will the girls be here?" she asked.  This would be hard on
the princess.  She had friends in the temple organisation, including Tyla,
who was certainly within those walls even now.
     "Uh," Artemis said.  "There's been a development on that front,
actually."
     "What sort of development?"
     "A Ranma charging headlong into trouble development ..."

***

     Hild stood before the hovering image of wanton destruction, a
faintly nostalgic smile playing upon her ripe crimson lips.
     "Ah, Peorth," she sighed expansively.  "Such sweet irony.  Do
you know, it was only yesterday that I was chastising Mara for
suggesting I turn Fenrir loose upon the Black King?"  She turned, taking
in the bound form of her favourite toy.  Peorth had resisted her again
today, but that was to be expected.  Soon, however, the captive goddess
would see the death of that glimmering hope, the boy who had
inadvertently rekindled her desire to fight.
     Very soon.
     "Well, you see," Hild went on, ignoring the girl's sullen glare,
"at the time I was thinking only of the delicate balance I have created
here, in my new realm.  The arrival of the key, Peorth, that changes
things.  That changes everything.  You understand, don't you?"
     "Yes," Peorth murmured, her chin rising slightly as she met her
captor's gaze.  "More than you do, I think."
     "Oh, really?" Hild asked, casting one last idle glance at the
smouldering remains of the savaged stronghold of the incubi.  The few
survivors were scattered and would pose no threat to her while her
succubi were gone.  Fenrir was every bit as effective a weapon as she
remembered.
     "There is a Warden again," Peorth went on, her eyes shining with
the strength of her hope.  "And a key.  He may have come here from
beyond the Zero Limit."
     "Oh, my," Hild breathed, turning the full force of her derisive
amusement upon the girl.  "That's the thread of hope you've chosen to
cling to?  You were there, my dear.  You saw space and time rent
asunder by forces beyond the control of even those you served.  There are
no longer any worlds beyond this sphere's Zero Limit.  This is it, Peorth.
This is all that remains."
     "It is possible," Peorth maintained, stubborn beyond all reason.
"Some worlds may have survived, somewhere."
     "Don't be childish," Hild said, her voice dropping to a soft
susurration that was no less sinister than the harshest bellow.  She stalked
slowly across the polished floor, fixing Peorth with a gaze as venomous
as her tone.  "We both know that is a fairy tale.  We are women of the
world, you and I.  Let us speak of the harshness of reality, shall we?"
     "You are afraid," Peorth replied.  Her voice had gone soft as
well, as Hild stood before her, imperious and indomitable.  "Afraid that a
Warden will bring you to account for what you did."
     "Is that so?"  Hild stopped with her face only inches from
Peorth's, eyes lidded.  "Poor Peorth.  You simply refuse to acknowledge
the truth, even when it is staring you right in the face."
     "Truth?" Peorth breathed, not blinking, refusing to drop her gaze.
"I have seen the truth, Hild.  He bears a key, and that he has managed to
call forth even some of its power proves he is more than he appears.  He
has taken up the mantle of a Warden.  He IS a Warden."
     "Then," Hild whispered, reaching up to trace the tip of her finger
teasingly down Peorth's cheek, "why has Dragon not flocked to his
side?"
     Peorth twitched, her eyes widening, and Hild let her smirk grow
as her finger continued on its way, tracing one long nail across Peorth's
trembling lips.  There it was, there in her eyes.  The first traces of
uncertainty, of doubt.  Hild pressed closer, her free hand sliding around
Peorth's waist.
     "That's right," Hild crooned.  "The one being who could not
mistake the presence of a Warden would be the only surviving Guardian,
would it not?  But Dragon is not at the pretender's side.  If fact, it seemed
to me that Dragon was angered when he appeared here, not by my
succubi, but by the use of the key.  He struck at the very ground where
the pretender had stood, but did not bother with my succubi at all.  I
think, my dear, that he does not approve of the pretender's using such a
dangerous artifact any more than I do."
     "You don't have to kill him."  Peorth's breathless pleading was
sweet ambrosia to Hild, who continued to stroke the girl's cheek as her
captive fought for her composure.  "He may ... he could tell you where he
found the key!  Hild, he may know something valuable!  The location of
more artifacts ..."
     "Perhaps," Hild sighed breathily, running her free hand up
Peorth's lithe back and twining her fingers in the silken fall of the girl's
hair.  "But I'm afraid that it is simply too dangerous to take chances with
the lad.  Once I have the key, perhaps I will track down his lovely
compatriots and question them."
     "Hild."  The demon queen watched in fascination as the captive
goddess wet her lips tentatively, leaning forward to reduce the already
narrow gap between them to nearly nonexistent.  "You keep saying you
want my cooperation, my fealty.  If you spare him, then ... then I will
swear to serve you."
     Hild stared into Peorth's eyes, gleaming pools under sooty lashes
that had filled with promise, with possibility.  One dusky finger traced
back up Peorth's smooth cheek, stopping to linger at the diamond-shaped
mark that adorned the girl's forehead.
     "Peorth," Hild breathed.  She cupped the girl's face in her hands,
pressing her lips briefly against that mark, letting her mouth linger
against the heat of the goddess's skin.  Then she pulled back slightly,
seizing Peorth's gaze with her own once more.
     "Ah, Peorth," she said, her voice soft and husky and full of mirth.
"You have tempted me.  Me, the Mistress of Temptation.  Well done.
You will indeed make a fine dark angel one day.  But as long as this
hope, flimsy though it may be, exists, you will never truly belong to me."
     "I'll do anything," Peorth said, her voice hoarse.  Above them,
Gorgeous Rose struggled in her eldritch bondage, keening fearfully at her
mistress's words.
     "Yes, you will," Hild told her.  "In the end.  Now, I believe it is
nearly time.  Let us check in on Mara."
     Peorth screamed in defiance.  She struggled.  She fought.
     But in the end, Hild had her way.
     As always.

***

     I bounded over a stalled car, running along the tops of several
more for a distance until I found open road again.  The power was off
here, just like V'd said.  The traffic lights being out accounted for some
of the traffic chaos, but not all of it.
     No, as I got closer to the place where the sign of the key hung in
the air, I found clusters of abandoned cars jammed up close to hastily
rigged roadblocks.  But the cars were empty, and so were the trucks
festooned with military markings.
     Not good.
     The recent monster troubles, along with the weather, seemed to
have kept a lot of people off the streets, but there still should have been
some people in this neighbourhood.  Everybody seemed to have run off,
though.  At least, I hoped that they'd run off.
     The alternative was ugly.
     I ran flat-out down a long street that looked to end at a big, round
building with a domed roof.  Some sort of stadium, Mars had said.  I was
close enough to see three police cars in front of it; one was upside down,
the other two sitting at crazy angles, half on the broad, shallow steps that
led up to a series of arches.  Their lights still spun, but all were empty.
     That wasn't the only evidence of the trouble that had swept
through this street.  The storefront windows were almost all broken,
leaving a dull silvery litter of glass like autumn leaves all over the wide
sidewalks.  There was a ten storey brick building where the street I was
on met the street that skirted the edge of the stadium.  There'd been some
sort of steel tower on top of it, maybe for radios or tv or something.  Now
it was hanging, twisted, over the edge of the roof.
     I slowed, rational thought finally beginning to punch through my
adrenaline rush.  With everything that was going on, wasn't the timing
of this too coincidental?  This couldn't be some kind of Sisterhood
scheme, could it?  No.  They didn't know anything about the key.  This
didn't look like the sort of destruction the monster rampages caused,
either.  It wasn't random enough.  Power cut, roads blocked, people all
gone?  This was deliberate.  Smart.
     The vampire.  Had to be.  So why was I suddenly so uncertain?
     I was close enough now to make out the forms in the air over the
stadium, breaking the symbol of the key and flying around in the wind as
they sighted me, long hair streaming behind them.  Wraiths.
     No.  Wait a minute.
     "Ranma!"  V caught up to me as I slowed, stiletto heels skidding
on the pavement as she slid to a stop next to me.  I still couldn't get over
how she could run in boots like that, when it looked like she should
barely be able to walk.  "Damn it, Ranma, wait!  Don't go in there
alone!"
     "This is meant for me," I said, not turning to look at her.  She
caught me by the arm and swung me around, surprising me.  Her eyes
blazed with fury under the brim of her cap, and she pushed up close, so
her barely restrained leather-clad breasts pressed against my chest.  For
once, I could see that there was nothing flirtatious in that move; she
glared up at me, poking me in the chest with her index finger to
punctuate her words.
     "Hey!  You are not in this alone!  I thought we were clear on
that!  Unless you think you're protecting me?"
     "Um, no," I said, taken aback by her vehemence.  "I just ... the
key ..."
     "Forget about the key!  Use your head, Saotome!  It's a trap.  A.
TRAP.  Duh!"
     "Uh ..."
     "There is a time to charge headlong into a trap, pal, and this ain't
it!  We're dealing with a vampire here, dumbass!  Remember?"
     "Actually," Mars said from behind us, "we're not."
     "Not that that's good news," Mercury added.
     Jupiter was bringing up the rear, running awkwardly with her arm still
in its sling.  I saw no sign of Sailor Moon, Tuxedo Mask, or Yoshi, but
right now more pressing matters held my attention.
     "We're not?" V asked, turning to look at Mars without moving
back from me.
     "Look," Mercury said tightly.
     We looked.  More forms were soaring through the air above the
stadium, circling around us, pouring out of broken windows and off of
rooftops, but now we could see that they weren't wraiths, like I'd first
thought.
     Succubi.  Hundreds of them.  They spread their wings and glided
lazily over us, hooting and cat-calling as they began to flock in from
everywhere.  The sky was full of them, more than we'd fought in
Shadow.  A lot more.  And we hadn't been doing so hot against that
group.
     "Crap," Jupiter said.
     "No kidding," I said, mouth dry.  "Hey, uh, where are the
others?"
     "Yoshi was boosting a car for them," V said, her anger at me
momentarily forgotten as she took in the situation with eyes narrowed.
"No way they could run this far."
     "Maybe it'd be better if they stayed back," Jupiter said, eyes
narrowed.  "Yoshi's not in the best frame of mind right now, and Tux,
well, if he fought a succubus, I think it's obvious who won."
     "Yeah," V said softly.  "Unfortunately, I think we're going to
need them."
     "The succubi must be responsible for blocking the approaches to the
area," Mercury said, scanning.  "If the police see the pattern in the sky
and try to reach the stadium, they're going run into a lot of obstacles."
     "I called Uranus," Jupiter added as the five of us drew closer
together, staring at the predatory beauties as they circled us.  "They're
having trouble getting through as well.  The situation with the wyvern is
bad, but they'll head this way as soon as they can."
     "Why aren't they attacking?" V asked softly.  "What are they
waiting for?"
     Good question.  We didn't have to wait long for the answer.
     "Well, well!  It looks like you got our invitation, boy!"  I turned
to look up at the front of the stadium.  The facade was full of ornate
stonework, including gargoyles.  Fortunately, these ones weren't likely to
attack me like the last bunch I'd seen, since they were only statues.
There was someone perched neatly on the head of the biggest, ugliest
stone gargoyle, though, looking down at us with a smug smile.
     She didn't seem to be a succubus.  No wings, for one thing.    She
wore a dark crimson and black bodysuit covered by a long black cape
with a red silk lining.  Her hair was blonde and wavy, her eyes narrow
and tilted at the edges.  There were two marks on her forehead, forming a
V shape that lent her a slightly sinister air, with matching triangles on her
cheeks.  She seemed in complete control of the situation, though; a lazy
gesture, and several succubi swooped down to flank her, perching
gracefully on ledges and statues.  One of them eyed me, her lush lips
curling into a hungry smile.  I took in her tawny golden skin stretched
tight over sleek curves, long tumbled waves of black-streaked metallic
blonde hair and, of course, those piercing golden eyes.  There was a
pleasurable tightening down low in my belly, and it was suddenly hard to
breathe.
     Arianne.
     "He is so comely," Arianne murmured, her throaty voice the
same bedroom purr that I remembered.  "Surely, Mara, it would be a
crime not to enjoy him."
     "Do you want to tell the Crimson Queen that you find her orders
inconvenient, Arianne?" the one called Mara asked casually, not taking
her eyes off of me.  Arianne pouted in a way that made my breath catch
in my throat, but didn't argue.  Neither did any of the others.
     "So, Mara," I called up, meeting the blonde's gaze.  "This is
quite a party you're throwing.  You wanted my attention?  Well, you got
it."  The circling succubi radiated a heat that pulsed deep inside me, but
this woman possessed none of their sexual pull.  That was good.  A nice
clean fight, that was something I was looking forward to.
     "Your attention?" Mara asked, tittering.  "Don't flatter yourself.  We
just need your presence, boy.  You see, the Crimson Queen is offended
by your pretension.  It's sad, really.  If you'd just let that nasty old key
stay lost, you might have lived a long life.  You probably don't even
know what a Warden is, do you?"
     "Why don't you enlighten me?" I asked, feeling the beginnings of
a snarl tugging at my mouth.  I tried not to think of where the people
were who'd been here when the succubi showed up.  Everywhere I went,
it seemed that disaster followed me.
     I was getting very sick of it.
     "Oh, you're about to be enlightened, punk," Mara said with a
sunny grin.  "But I'm not the one who'll be teaching you your lesson.
Meet Fenrir."
     I felt V tense beside me, but all I had eyes for was the shape that burst
through the domed roof of the stadium.
     It sent huge, jagged shards  of the roof spinning through the air,
pausing to shake fragments from its fur before rising the rest of the way
into the sky.  The succubi scattered, giving the huge black form a very
wide berth as it turned with deceptive grace for something so big.  It hung
there in the sky, its furry head swinging around until a pair of baleful red
eyes pinned me like a bug.
     Fenrir was a wolf.  A huge, black, flying wolf.
     And as we stood there, Fenrir threw his head back.
     And howled.
     "The lovely girls are your to enjoy, Arianne," Mara said sweetly
into the stunned silence that followed.  "You may keep all that you catch.
 But I would not advise you to get between the Fenrir and his prey."
     Yeah.  What was that I'd been thinking about a nice, clean fight?

***

     Wynneth gazed down from the shadow-draped balcony, revelling
in the scene below.  The circle spanned the entire width and breadth of
the cold stone chamber, blood red lines connecting the contained patterns.
It was a work of the most sublime art, a mystic design that incorporated
powers lost to even the strongest of this world's magick users.
     Certainly the naked humans who found themselves bound within
the pattern's strands seemed unable to appreciate its magnificence.
Hardly surprising, that, but at least their screams and pleas for mercy
kept her amused.  They thought they knew fear, the fools.  They thought
they were acquainted with terror.
     Very soon they would learn how wrong they were.
     Wynneth let her gaze sweep over the doomed humans, full lips
curling into a sneer.  She had instructed her wraiths to bring her humans
full of life and vitality, and that they had done.  This lot, thirteen in all,
would make excellent sacrifices.  They were, however, a dreadfully plain
lot, even verging on ugly in a few cases.  Wynneth prized beauty in all
things, most especially her prey.  She would have punished her pets for
bringing such rabble before her under ordinary circumstances.
     Now, though, she simply let contempt spill from her as she gave
the circle one last glance.  These wretches were beneath her, that was
true, but that was for the best.  Unworthy to know the dark pleasure of
her merest touch, they could still serve her with their lives.  It would have
been a waste to use the cream of the crop in this spell, despite how much
more aesthetically pleasing the sight would have been.
     No, the most beautiful mortals would be saved to know the privilege
of serving her, their dark goddess, in her new order, filling her temples,
kneeling at her feet.  Ugliness would have no place within her sight; still,
there would always be a need for an underclass, drones to do work too
dirty and unpleasant for her chosen ones.
     In Wynneth's world, beauty would be venerated above all else.
All the ugliness that humans had allowed to flourish would be washed
away by the implacable gales of change.
     And on the topic of storms ...
     She closed her eyes, lips twisting into an even wider smile as she
sensed the nearness of a familiar darkness.  Yes, it should make landfall
within the quarter hour, providing the final impetus for her spell.  The
people of this city would be very busy in their last hours, running hither
and yon to fight new fires as they broke out, never knowing where the
true danger lay.  Not until it was far too late.
     The web of shadows quivered as one of her wraiths arrived, and
Wynneth swept into her bedchamber in a swirl of sable hair and
alabaster flesh.  Her wraith fell to its knees before her, head bowed to the
cold floor.
     "I trust," Wynneth murmured, running the edges of her talon-like
nails along the exposed nape of her wraith's neck playfully, "that you
have a good reason for disturbing me at this critical juncture?"  She
hoped for a moment that it did not; the circumspection she had been
forced to observe these last weeks was dreadfully tedious, and it would
provide some minor diversion to torment her creation before destroying
it.  "The girl with the key, you have found her?"
     "No, Mistress," the wraith hissed softly.  "Something other.  Shadow
trembles.  The Crimson Queen summons one of her old allies and strikes
against the incubi.  She has laid waste to their stronghold."
     Wynneth frowned.  That insolent creature, Hild, always seemed
to have some scheme in the works.  Still, Wynneth cared little for the
machinations of the self-proclaimed succubus queen.  In the end, Hild
would serve her, along with every single one of her pretty pets, and all
the toys that the demoness had hoarded over the centuries would belong
to Wynneth.  Assuming she survived the coming storm.  It was ironic,
really.  Hild thought herself a mistress of manipulation, yet she was blind
to the big picture.  Making herself queen to a motley collection of exiled
succubi?  That was strictly small-time.
     She would have to show more initiative in the future if she
wanted to please her new dark mistress.
     For the moment, though, that matter was beneath Wynneth's
notice.  She grabbed a handful of dark hair and lifted the terrified wraith
into the air without apparent effort, holding it in front of her at arm's
length.  It gasped but otherwise did nothing that might be construed as
resistance.
     "Is that all?" Wynneth asked, her tone a mixture of haughty
arrogance and boredom.  "That hardly seems worth disturbing my rest,
pet."  She drew the captive wraith closer, letting her lips part in a soft hiss
to reveal her gleaming white fangs.  The wraith's scarlet eyes were wide,
held by the power of her mistress's terrible gaze.
     "No, Mistress," the wraith said, speaking so quickly that the
words nearly formed a logjam behind its cruelly ripe lips.  "The
demoness  ... she sends her emissary forth, into the human city!  And her
subjects, Mistress!"
     Indeed?  Now this WAS curious.  Hild was a canny woman; she
had needed to be, to survive all this time.  The godlings would no doubt
seek to destroy her if they knew of her continued existence; she knew too
much of the old times, and she did not serve them.  Hild had managed to
stay hidden for ages, always acting from behind the scenes.  So why risk
sending her forces into the human world like this?  And why now?
     It was that last question which troubled her.  Wynneth disliked
coincidence.  She was aware, however, that the confluence of forces
currently occurring could draw in other factors, rogue elements.  It
simply would not do to have her plans affected in any way, certainly not
by a second rate demon queen.  Hild had served her needs in the past,
albeit unwittingly, and Wynneth was loathe to destroy such a useful
pawn.  But Hild knew just enough to be dangerous.
     Wynneth needed to know what the woman was up to.
     She was barely aware of the noise her wraith made when she
dropped it.  It huddled at her feet as the nearly naked vampiress stalked
through the high-ceilinged bedroom, her hair swirling like a nest of
silken snakes.  Wynneth reached out to her pets in the city, letting her
vision skim through them, seeking Hild's emissary.
     It did not take long to find.
     Wynneth felt a sudden prickling surge of displeasure within her
cold, perfect flesh as she saw the chaos that Hild was wreaking.  That
smug little witch, what did she think she was doing?  What could
possibly be the purpose of sending what looked like all her succubi into
the human city, along with one of the twelve Great Beasts?  Although the
disorder might end up serving Wynneth's purpose, it vexed her that she
did not know what had driven Hild to abandon caution in such a manner.
     Then her wraith drifted closer to the action, and Wynneth's
indignation suddenly began to boil, condensing into seething fury.  There,
on the ground beneath the milling fray, she caught sight of them through
the eyes of her pet.
     Senshi uniforms.  Not all the girls were so clad, but the blonde in
leather had been at the erstwhile ambush, albeit in a more familiar
uniform.  And Wynneth recognised the aura of the sable-maned senshi
fighting beside her instantly.  The haughty Shadow user.
     Hild was hunting the senshi?  Her reasons were immaterial, of course;
the senshi were not her prey.  Wynneth had a previous claim, and she
would brook no interference.
     The vampiress's nails hooked into claws as her perfect features
contorted into a cry of rage.  She wanted those girls.  She needed them.
     It was time to set in motion the next stage of her plan.
     She reached out to a knot of slumbering minds, kindling them to
full wakefulness, then to a roiling maelstrom of rage.
     Hild would soon learn not to trifle with her betters.

***

     "He still hasn't shown up?" Skip Lewdine asked, appalled.  The
senior lab supervisor, a coolly competent Reinan woman named
Mariko, shook her head briskly.
     "No sign of him," she confirmed, the overhead lights gleaming on
the lenses of her fashionable glasses and picking out glossy highlights in
her tightly-bound raven hair.  "This is a new low for him in the area of
irresponsibility.  I cannot fathom why Her Majesty is so fond of him."
     "His entire branch of the family died in that incident in Haakan
Province some years back," Skip remarked, surreptitiously checking out
Mariko's curves under her impeccable white lab coat.  "And he came
here soon after her mother's death.  Maybe she just identifies with him
because of their shared loss."
     "Nevertheless, Professor, the man is incorrigible," Mariko sniffed.
Skip winced; Mariko insisted on addressing him formally, simply
ignoring all his overtures at anything approaching personal intimacy.
Professor made him feel old.
     Still, he had vowed to find a way to pierce Mariko's armour, and
the matter at hand might help.  The woman was relentless when it came
to solving puzzles placed before her; her intellectual ferocity was one of
the things that attracted him to her.
     "Well, he wouldn't be of much help here, anyway," Skip sighed,
running his hands through his already mussed hair.  He glanced over at
the windows that separated them from the containment lab, where
white-suited bodies bustled around a raised pedestal.  "How are we
coming with our new toy?"
     "The Genosphere is no toy," Mariko told him, her tone
containing as much rebuke as was proper for her to use with the head of
the RO's research division.  Skip sighed again.  The woman had mastered
the art of being completely businesslike at all times.
     "Okay," he said, giving her the full-on boyish grin.  "Point taken.
But we've got an artifact of the Genrous here.  This is a rare opportunity
to study their magickal tech.  So.  What have you found out?"
     "It's round," she said shortly.  He blinked.
     "It's ...?"
     "Round," she repeated.  "And blue."
     "And people say you don't have a sense of humour," he teased,
relaxing.  Yup, the boyish grin.  Got 'em every time.
     "I," she said, taking off her glasses and pinching the bridge of her
nose, "am not joking.  So far we have had no luck determining the inner
workings of the artifact.  At all.  Our scans won't penetrate the surface,
and while it does possess a magickal aura, we have been singularly
unable to determine how it works."
     "Great," Skip muttered, wandering over to the window that
overlooked Containment Lab 2.  "So my report to Her Majesty can read,
"Ball-shaped, extremely magickal, blue in colour."  Like she's not in a
bad enough mood as it is."
     "I'm sorry, Professor," Mariko said, touching his arm lightly.  Skip
brightened.  Ah-hah.  Progress.
     "Oh, don't worry," he beamed, turning to look into her eyes.  Her
deep, dark, gorgeous eyes, framed by long lashes, pools of mystery in a
delicately lovely face.  Her ...  "I, ah, have some ideas.  Perhaps you'd
like to give me a hand with them?"
     "Of course, Professor Lewdine."  Was it his imagination, or was there
a little charge in the air between them?  Of course, knowing Mariko it
could be chalked up to scientific curiosity, but that was a start.
     Before he could investigate that particular matter further,
however, Skip's attention was drawn by a flurry of activity inside Lab 2.
Lights flashed on control panels, and even through the reinforced glass he
could hear an alarm wailing insistently.
     "What is it?" Mariko demanded breathlessly.
     "Did you authorize any contact with the artifact?" Skip asked,
frowning, all thoughts of flirtation suddenly banished.
     "Of course not!" Mariko blurted, cheeks colouring.  "Your
orders were explicit, Professor, scans only!"
     "There seems to be an energy reaction ..."  Skip trailed off as a
dark stain appeared on the surface of the sphere, swirling around like
some sort of oil slick.  Two techs wheeled a portable scanner closer to the
sphere, directing more scans at it as the phenomenon spread, increasing in
both speed and size.
     "What is it?" Mariko breathed, rapt.  "Professor?"
     "No idea," Skip admitted.  "Let's get in there and have ... a ...
look?"
     As the young scientist watched, astounded, the black swirl slid,
spun, and coalesced on one side of the sphere.  Something began to
emerge from the surface of the crystalline artifact where the slick lay,
penetrating the surface as if it were liquid.
     Something that looked like fingers.
     The fingers were followed by a hand, a pale, slender arm, and
then ...
     And then the lithe, lethal form of a ruby-eyed wraith.
     "Shit," Mariko said primly, startling the transfixed Skip.  The
wraith hung in the air, surveying the astonished science team with what
looked like satisfaction.  They backed away from her slowly, but what
Skip saw next made him wheel and run for the phone mounted on the
wall near the hall that led to that lab.
     A second slick had appeared on the sphere's smooth surface.
     Mariko's scream brought him up short.  He turned, mouth going
dry at the sight of the dark red fluid that had sprayed in a fan-shaped
pattern across the window in front of her.
     "Mariko!" he shouted.  "Get back!"
     The lab was surrounded by reinforced glass and magickally
protected.  They would be safe, but the team inside needed help.  Damn
it, this was bad.  Very bad.  They'd brought those things inside the
palace's defences, and now ...
     A second panicked shriek from the normally imperturbable Mariko
made him jerk around again just as he reached his goal.  He turned,
frozen for a moment by what he saw.  It didn't make sense, but somehow
the she-wraith was outside the glass, rising from the floor in front of
Mariko, glistening lips parted to reveal gleaming white fangs.
     No.  He saw it now.  Not from the floor.
     From Mariko's shadow.
     Oh, hells.
     Skip stumbled forward, slammed the red mushroom-shaped
button beside the phone and then, as the security alarm began to whoop
urgently, he grabbed the nearest object, a metal coatrack, and ran
towards Mariko.

***

     This coffee, Kendra thought blackly, needs something stronger than
cream and sugar.  Like a shot of Tyrian whiskey.
     There was no doubting that her plate was full.  The hunt for the
vampire was consuming time and resources and yielding nothing but
frustration, casting even the most routine missing persons reports in a
sinister light while jittery citizens jumped at shadows.  And, occasionally,
shot at them.
     And as if the ongoing attempts to ferret out the vamp's enigmatic
intentions and current location weren't enough, all the hells had chosen
today to break loose.  A sudden storm was bearing down on the city,
catching the Royal Weather Service with their pants down.  That usually
meant magick, and the consensus was that the storm was a rogue spin-off
from a sidhe weather warstrike in the southern islands.  Nerine's temple
was standing by to blunt the storm's fury if necessary, but weather
manipulation was tricky at the best of times, and avoiding direct
intervention was preferable.  Reports were still coming in regarding some
sort of incident at Alieva's temple, and indications that Inquisitors had
been deployed meant the likelihood of a very ugly Baniesti showdown
had finally materialised.
     Gar would no doubt be smug about having called that one.  At least,
for as long as it took her to strangle him.
     But all these matters had been nudged aside by the latest spate of
monster troubles, and Kendra leaned forward, eyes sweeping over the
horseshoe shaped consoles of the palace's operations centre.  She didn't
have to be here, of course; she could receive instant updates no matter
where she was.  But being here, in the very nerve centre of operations for
the city, made her feel plugged into things, part of the vital flow of
information that was the lifeblood of the capital's emergency services.
     That, plus as long as she was here, she could put off having to sit
in an interminable cabinet meeting.
     "This does not have the characteristics of a typical monster attack,"
Commissioner Shizuku was saying, frowning at the glowing display that
rose above the nearest station.  The muted chatter in the dimly lit control
centre had taken on a tension that meant disorder was becoming
widespread.  "Look, these power substations were hit virtually
simultaneously, and the collapse of the Drake Parkway overpass was
more than little convenient, especially when coupled with the fact that the
drawbridge at Leaminton has been raised and jammed.  Access into more
than a dozen districts is now nearly impossible by road, given the chaos
on the ground.  This has the hallmarks of intelligence, certainly more
than animal cunning."
     "We can't dispute, Commissioner, that there are presently at least
fifteen wyvern redecorating City Hall," Minister Bunter interrupted,
causing an ops technician to duck as he waved his burly arms
negligently.  "And wyvern, unlike their cousins, are not smart.  Vicious,
yes, but not smart."
     "Maybe we're looking at another attack like the one at our tower?"
Shizuku hazarded, loosening her tie surreptitiously.  Informality was rare
in the presence of the Queen; Kendra thought about telling her to just
take the damned thing off, but that would make the woman feel self-
conscious, so she just suppressed a sigh and listened.
     "That at least was contained.  There are no less than three fires
burning out of control around the city, and monster attacks flaring up
everywhere," Raine retorted from her position beside Kendra, staring
down at a sheaf of reports.  "Our resources are already spread thin.
Response to all these new calls is taking too long."
     "My people are headed to City Hall in force," Hors Bunter
rumbled.  Kendra thought the man looked like a great big bear, not in a
genial sort of way like some big men did, but constantly ruffled and
surly, filled with vague menace.
     "That may not be necessary," Tam Greely broke in smoothly as
he entered the room, glancing briefly at the numerous monitoring
stations.  "Majesty, my apologies for being late.  I was unavoidably
detained."
     "Indeed."  Kendra's patience was already strained.  "I take it you
do not bring good news?"
     Greely obviously knew what she was talking about.  "I have not
located Gar," he confessed, stroking his neat beard reflexively.  "In truth,
I am beginning to become concerned."
     "Your pardon, Majesty, but I am curious as to why Lord Greely
thinks a military strike against a rampaging flock of wyvern will not
prove necessary."  The Minister of Defence seemed to have taken
Greely's comment as some sort of personal insult, glowering down
balefully at the slender man.  Greely, for his part, only smiled a polite
little smile, apparently unfazed by Bunter's churlishness.
     "I have just received a report," he told them, "that four sailor
senshi are currently on the scene."
     "Scantily dressed, overpowered hotheads are no substitute for
trained soldiers," Bunter sneered.
     "That's as may be," Kendra interrupted.  "But we are hardly in a
position to be turning our noses up at help.  Minister Bunter,
Commissioner Shizuku, we need to coordinate our efforts.  If this is
indeed a directed attack, we need to know who is behind it and what their
objective is."
     At that moment, the senior ops supervisor, a veteran named Fujioka,
waved Raine over to the main station.  Kendra watched the two checking
one of the tabletop displays as Greely moved to her side.  More monster
attacks, and the senshi in the middle of things?  Could this have
something to do with Gar's absence?  He did have a relationship with
that Saturn woman, after all.  She wanted to broach the subject with
Greely, but she was loathe to discuss the activities of her cousin in the
presence of all these people.  Gar would just have to wait.
     Gods.  This coffee needed a whole damned bottle of Tyrian
whiskey.
     "Majesty," Raine reported crisply.  "We have just received a flagged
report from a metro patrol unit in District 21.  Reports of winged females
in the sky, and ... a giant, flying wolf."
     "A giant, flying what?" Kendra asked, nonplussed.
     "Well, that's new," Greely said slowly as Shizuku moved to the station
and picked up a handset, speaking in low tones.
     "I'm sorry, Majesty, Division has lost contact with the unit," she
reported after a moment.  "I'm deploying fliers to the scene and
instructing them to get me more information on ..."
     A strident klaxon raked the air, and immediately the doors burst
open to admit two of Raine's guard teams.  They crisply took up station
around the room while Raine checked her comm.  Kendra let her hand
stray to Galiraithe's sheath as she waited with ill-disguised patience.
     "Security breach, Lab 2," Raine announced.
     "The Genosphere?" Kendra asked.  It had to be.  What in all the
hells was Lewdine doing down there?
     "Guard detail is right outside the doors, Majesty.  They ..."
     Raine winced, pulled her comm away from her ear.  Kendra
heard a burst of static, what sounded like screaming, and then silence.
     "Damn," Raine whispered, then raised her comm again.  "All
units, this is Captain Griev!  Alert Level 1 is now in effect within the
palace, secure all stations!  Morris!  Take your team and get down to Lab
2, now!"
     "What is it?" Bunter asked as Raine moved to the security station,
throwing the display up where Kendra could easily see it as she accessed
the palace security grid.
     "I don't know," Raine said grimly.  "I'm trying to get us the camera
feeds from the lab ..."
     The glowing display flickered, came back, then flickered again.
     Then the lights went out.

***

     Yoshi shifted the stolen truck into off-road mode, engaging the
four wheel drive and cutting up onto the sloped grass median.  Moon
watched with trepidation as the truck tilted, sliding partway down into
the gully that ran alongside the blocked road.
     "Are you sure we can make it?" she asked, gripping the worn,
cracked dashboard with one hand, Tuxedo Mask's hand with the other.
     "No sweat," Yoshi told her.  He cut the wheel hard, just as she
thought they must surely tip over, and tromped hard on the accelerator,
taking them back up past the pile of smashed cars.  With a series of
jarring thuds, the battered old truck clambered over the rough ground and
back onto the road.
     "You were right about the truck," Tuxedo Mask said quietly.
Moon spared him a glance.  His colour was improving, but she could tell
he still felt weak.  And her leg still throbbed as razored shards of molten
pain shot through it every time she moved.  As much as she wanted to be
in the thick of things with the others, neither she nor Tuxedo Mask could
keep up.
     Reduced to stealing a truck to get to the scene.  Borrowing, she
amended hastily.  After all, they weren't going to keep it.  They ...
     It hit them like a tidal wave, an unearthly howl that rolled over
the truck with a force that was nearly physical.  Yoshi swerved, mouth
wide in a scream that she couldn't hear.  The truck careened madly
across the road, caroming off of an abandoned van before mounting the
curb and punching through a plate glass window and shuddering to a
halt.
     The sudden stop jolted Moon, and she cried out as agony lanced
up her injured peg and through her side.  Through the spiderwebbed
cracks of the windshield she could see a scattering of magazines across
the rusted hood of the old truck; they'd fetched up in a bookstore.
     "Yoshi?"  She saw that the lithe shifter was hunched over the
wheel, face buried between his arms, shoulders heaving.  They hadn't
been going that fast, but it seemed like he'd been hurt.  "Are you okay?"
She reached out for him, but as her hand neared his shoulder he jerked
back, pulling the steering wheel free with the force of the motion.
     "DON'T TOUCH ME!"  His scream was deep, distorted not
only by panic, she saw in that moment, but also by a deeper change.  His
face was twisting, changing even as she watched, bulging as the wolf
inside literally began to tear its way out.  Tuxedo Mask wrapped his arms
around her and pulled her back into him, trying to shield her, but he
needn't have bothered.  With one careless motion, Yoshi's left arm shot
out.  The driver's door spun away through the shop like a rocket, and
Yoshi was out of the truck, running across broken glass in his bare feet.
     Moon cried out again, but Tuxedo Mask held her tight.  Chasing
Yoshi would have been useless in any case; although his feet were
lacerated by the glittering knives of broken glass, he never slowed in his
headlong flight.  The change overtook him, and by the time he reached
the street, he was in full wolf form, streaking out onto the deserted street.
     "What was that?" she gasped.  Her side hurt where Tuxedo Mask
was holding her, but she didn't ask him to let go.  Not yet.
     "I don't know," he replied grimly.  "I've never seen a change so
abrupt.  Wild, even."
     "The moon is full," she said, but he shook his head.
     "It's more than that. That sound scared them."
     "Them?"
     "Listen."  She did, and in the silence she could hear them, their
voices raised in a chorus of howls that blended together in the distance,
creating a mournful song.  Wolves.  No, she realised with wonder.  Not
wolves, not here in the city.  Werewolves.  So many.
     And they were terrified.  Some part of her knew this, a part
buried deep inside her.  There was an instant where she could feel the
bow slung across her shoulder, could smell trees and soil and the sharp,
cool wind, could hear the voices of wolves in the crisp air.
     Then the moment was gone, but it left behind a certainty.
Something had come to their city, something lupine.  Something wild.
     Something very, very bad.
     "Princess?"
     "The others," she said, trying to slide across the seat.  "That
sound, Yoshi was running away from it.  It's up there, where they went."
     "Wait ..."  But she couldn't wait.  They'd gone on without her,
and now her girls were in danger.
     She nearly tumbled from the truck as she slid to the space left by
the missing door, but Tuxedo Mask caught her arm and steadied her.
     "Together," he said, catching her gaze with his own as she looked
back at him.  "We go together."
     She nodded, grateful.
     And took his hand.
     When they reached the street, however, a surprise was waiting for
them.  Yoshi, in wolf form, stood stiff-legged in the street, staring intently
at the sky.  His fur stood out from his body, a bushy aura of snarling
lupine apprehension.  One look told her what was behind the unearthly
howl that had caused Yoshi's panic.
     "Gods," she whispered.  "What is that?"
     "I've never seen anything like it before," Tuxedo Mask told her,
watching the wolf soar easily through the cloud-stained sky.  "But that's
where our people are."
     Moon nodded, limping forward.  She was surprised to see Yoshi
take two stiff, shaky steps along with her.
     "It's okay, Yoshi," she said softly.  "We'll go.  You can stay
here."
     "No, he can't," Tuxedo Mask corrected her as Yoshi's gray eyes
watched them warily.
     "What?  But ..."
     "Makoto is there," Tux said, watching Yoshi.  "So he's coming."
     Moon glanced between the two, struck by the silent
communication that was possible between males in such moments, even
when one of them was a wolf.
     "Then let's go," she said, reaching up to trigger her comm.
"They're going to need our help."

***

     My feet skidded on the broken asphalt as the twisted remains of a
car went pinwheeling across the roadway.  It hit with an explosion of
metal and glass, but I'd already changed direction, sprinting across the
road to leap onto a crooked light pole.
     Fenrir followed, leaving devastation in his wake.
     Nothing I did seemed to slow him down.  So far, the massive wolf
had shrugged off chi-blasts, senshi attacks, parked cars, trees, and
everything else that got in his way.  The ground around the stadium
looked like a war zone, and the ongoing firefight between the senshi and
the airborne succubi filled the air with sizzling magick and swooping
predators.
     This was not going well.
     I reversed direction quickly, snapping my body into the air as
paws the size of cars plowed into the ground where I'd been standing.
Fenrir howled, enraged, as I bounded over his head.  Great.  I could make
him mad, I just couldn't seem to hurt him.
     The giant wolf wheeled around, his tail sending the crushed
corpse of a delivery truck flying with ridiculous ease as his glowing red
eyes sought me out once more.  Fenrir the Wonder Pooch didn't seem
especially concerned with any collateral damage he might cause while
trying to squish me, which had one advantage.  The succubi had to keep
their distance from us, or risk becoming dog chow.
     Unfortunately, that meant that none of the others could get very
close to me, either.  I kept catching glimpses of them as I moved; they
were managing to hold off the succubi, but I didn't think they'd be able
to do that for much longer.  There were just too many of them.
     Now would be a good time for a plan.
     And I had one.  Okay, maybe plan was a grand term for it.  I had
an idea.  All right, a guess.  My guess was that Mara was somehow
controlling Bowser.  He'd come when she'd called, after all.  Failing that,
Mara served this Crimson Queen, and should know if Fenrir had a
weakness.  Okay, might know.
     What it boiled down to was that taking out Mara seemed like my
only shot for turning the tables here.  Of course, to do that I'd have to get
to her.  She didn't have wings like the succubi, so hopefully she couldn't
fly.  Still, if I tried to reach her I was going to be exposing myself to a
whole lot of hungry, sex-starved harpies.  So really, it was about as
sensible as any of my plans.
     But first things first.  I needed to get ahead of Fenrir before I could
worry about reaching Mara.  I dodged across the torn-up remains of the
road, heading in a ragged line towards the stadium.  Maybe, if I could get
inside, I could buy myself a few minutes to regroup.
     A ball of churning, corrupt-looking ruby energy streaked down
from the sky, smashing into the ground ahead of me.  I managed to stop
in time to avoid being hit, but the force of the blast tore open a nearby
fire hydrant, and a torrent of icy water hit me in the chest, throwing me
back to tumble across the pavement.
     "Oh, my," Mara's voice came from above.  "That's an interesting
trick."
     Great.  Apparently, Mara had decided that Fenrir could use a
hand.  I braced my hands on the ground, trying to lift myself up as water
dripped from my long, red braid.  A dark form loomed over me, and
Mara laughed as V screamed my name.
     I rolled up to my feet, flinging myself back with frantic strength
as Fenrir's rank hot breath washed over me. I managed to scramble away
from the charging wolf, but his bulk shattered the roadway where he hit,
showering me with shards of stone and rock.  I was bleeding from a
dozen small cuts as I backpedalled furiously, trying to pick out Mara's
position through the chaos.
     "My, what a pretty little thing you are," Mara taunted.  She was still
perched on the head of that gargoyle, way up above the upper level of
windows, and she looked like she was having the time of her life.  "Do
you think that Fenrir will take pity on you if you look small and
helpless?"
     No, I really didn't.  Looking up into those gleaming red eyes, I
was pretty sure that Fenrir had never been introduced to the concept of
pity.  Or, if he had been, he'd promptly eaten it.
     This was bad.  All around me was nothing but chaos, shrieking
succubi and wreckage and frantic senshi, and it was all I could do to stay
ahead of Fenrir.  Sooner or later I was going to slip up, and with a
monster like this one mistake was all I would get.  I needed to regroup,
work out a way to get at Mara.  I needed a breather.
     A breather.  Yeah, that was what I needed.  And there it was,
right in front of my nose as I dove away from Fenrir's next charge and
barely escaped another bolt from Mara.  I scrambled across the buckled
roadway, surging panic giving me strength as I lifted my arm and
concentrated my chi.  Growling under my breath, I summoned a small
bolt, flinging my hand out as I ran.  The blast hit its target, sending the
heavy metal manhole cover spinning into the air like a tossed coin.
Fenrir bayed, a high, furious shriek, and the earth shook as he got turned
around and started bearing down on me again, closing far too quickly for
my liking.  I timed my approach exactly, though, and dropped into the
dark hole in the middle of the road seconds before the cover came
crashing back down.  Man, that was loud, especially in the confined
space, but not loud enough to drown out Fenrir's howls as I landed in the
water that ran quickly through the large storm sewer line.
     Well, this pipe was smaller than the one we'd followed from the
mansion, but it was more than big enough to walk in.  The locals
apparently had a thing for spacious underground access, but I wasn't
going to start complaining.  I splashed my way through the murky water,
intent on putting some distance between me and Fenrir.
     Right.  I had time, a little, anyway.  I didn't want to take too
long; Mara might get bored and sic Fenrir on the girls.  If I could have
gotten down here before that incident with the fire hydrant, I could have
changed out of sight.  I didn't think there was any way Mara or her goons
could connect me boy-type me with girl-type ...
     Crap.  Could'a, should'a, would'a.  No good now.  Think,
Saotome!
     Mara.  She was the key.  Okay.  I took a deep breath of dank,
cold air, let it out.  Okay.  Take out Mara.  If she stayed where she was,
then I could follow this sewer line.  It seemed to run in the general
direction of the stadium.  I could use it, get inside, and take her by
surprise.
     Yeah.  A plan.  Simple, direct, subject to change as necessary, but
a workable plan nonetheless.  Just as I was about to throw myself a
parade for being so damned clever, the ground shook so violently that I
nearly fell face-first into the rushing torrent.  I managed to catch myself
in time to see the tunnel caving in behind me in a rain of dirt and rock,
the din pounding me like a fist.  A huge, furry black paw plunged
through the roof of the tunnel, trailing dust and shattered stone as it
probed the tunnel for soft, yummy morsels.  Finding none, it withdrew,
only to reappear about twenty feet on the other side of my position
seconds later, accompanied by more dust and rock.
     Damn it, how had he found me so fast?  Could he actually smell
me all the way down here?  Or maybe those glowing eyes could see me?
Hell, for all I knew Fenrir had x-ray vision and a spleen that shot laser
beams.  It didn't matter.  What did matter was that he was narrowing the
field, and my advantage had just turned into a great big liability.  I had
no room to manouevre down here.  So I did what any self-respecting
lunatic would do.  When he drew his paw out of the second hole, I ran
forward, reasoning that he wouldn't expect me to come out of a hole he'd
just made.  Okay, it was thin, but it beat standing there and waiting to get
squished.
     I leapt up, using my hands and feet to spring from one side of
the ragged hole to the other as I made my way rapidly upwards, waiting
for that big black paw to make an encore appearance.  It didn't, though,
and when I reached the surface, it was quickly apparent why.  Fenrir had
his paws full.
     I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised, all things considered.  I
really should have known that she wouldn't just stand idly by.
     "V!  YOU STOP THAT RIGHT NOW!"
     V whooped in what sounded like pure delight as Fenrir pulled at the
gleaming golden chain she had looped around his throat.  She dug her
heels into the back of his massive neck, trying to hold the rampaging wolf
back like the super-insane blonde maniac that she was.  V had managed
to get Fenrir's attention, true, but whatever success the element of
surprise had lent her efforts was short lived.
     Just like she was about to be.
     I watched in horror as Fenrir reared up with a roar that rattled the
few remaining windows on the street, tossing his head violently and
hurling V into the air like a rag doll.  Her cap flew off, and long blonde
hair spilled loose as she pinwheeled through the air, losing her grip on the
chain in the process.  Fenrir spun neatly and lunged forward, jaws agape,
streamers of spittle flying as those razor-sharp fangs snapped shut.
     I got there first.
     My momentum carried us past Fenrir's lunge, as I'd planned, but
it was a near thing.  A damned near thing.  I landed with V cradled in my
arms, and started running while Fenrir stopped to process the fact that his
doggie treat had gone AWOL.
     "Heya, gorgeous," V purred, her unbound hair blowing against
my cheek as she cuddled against me.  "What kept you?"
     "V, you moron!" Mars shouted as fire splashed against Fenrir's
furry butt.
     "I second that!" I gritted, trying to convince my heart to stop trying to
burst out of my chest and run away.  "What the hell were you doing
back there?"
     "Keeping Fenrir from digging you up like a bone.  But I wasn't
worried," V murmured, staring up at me from under her lashes.  "I knew
you'd show up in time.  It's getting to be a habit with you."
     I stared down into those eyes, filled with blue and amusement and
heat and sex and more heat and breathless excitement, and I couldn't
deny it.  She was enjoying this.  She was actually enjoying this.
     Of course, with V in my arms, I was enjoying it a little, too.
     Fenrir spun, for some reason not on fire despite Mars' best efforts.
V tapped my arm and I nodded, letting her jump free as I reached the
curb.  My heart decided to stay and simply race a little at the ease of our
unspoken rapport; that helped make up for the sudden lack of V in my
arms.
     Oh, boy, I didn't like where this was going.  Or, worse yet,
maybe I did.
     We split up, running in different directions.  I was pretty sure
Fenrir would keep following me, but I never got a chance to test that
theory, because at that moment we finally became not the only
people in the city officially concerned about the giant wolf issue.  Yes,
the police had finally made the scene and decided to communicate their
extreme displeasure to Fenrir with rapid fire cannons mounted on the
bulbous noses of small aircraft that might have been some sort of
helicopter except that they didn't have a big rotating blade on top.
     I didn't want to sit and wonder if the two horizontal rings on
stubby wings made these things helicopters or not.  What was important
just at that moment was that the three police heli-fliers, or whatever they
were, had managed to draw Fenrir's attention away from me.  I turned
and sprinted across the broken surface of a roadway that had seen better
days, taking cover in a tattered storefront.
     The store itself was empty except for some mannequins in various
states of disrepair, limbs strewn across the floor like some bizarre yet
bloodless nightmare.  I preferred the bloodless version; my nightmares
sometimes included memories of the streets of Tokyo, littered with limbs.
That vision was anything but tidy, and I thrust it back into the darkness
as it tried to rise up at the worst possible time.
     Focus, Saotome.  Focus.  People are counting on you.
     I stepped over the shards of glass which had once been the shop
window and watched the police buzz Fenrir, shooting all kinds of bullets
into him with their six-thousand calibre Anti-Monster Defence Force
Mega-Cannons, or whatever the hell they were.
     They should have scraped up some of those radar-dish heat rays
that the army always used in those old Godzilla movies or something.
Fenrir wasn't looking too impressed by the guns.  As the police swooped
by him, he shook off the hail of bullets like they were a spring rain, raised
his big ugly furry head, and bayed that ear-shattering howl of his.  I
shuddered in spite of myself.  That was not a happy sound.
     "Oh, good," Mars said acidly as she dashed into the darkened
storefront, throwing a fireball to discourage a squad of succubi that had
been diving at her.  "They made him mad."
     "I can't believe those guys are flying in this weather," V added as she
dashed in from the other side.  She'd actually retrieved her cap, or used
her transformation magick to make another one.  "All air traffic should
be grounded with that storm so close.  It looks like all the hells are going
to break loose any minute now."  A flash of lightning over a nearby
building punctuated her statement, but when I saw it strike a succubus in
mid-air I realised it was probably just Jupiter.
     "How are the others?" I asked as Fenrir leaped into the air and
took off after the fliers, causing a large group of succubi to scatter.
     "Okay so far," V told me, holding her finger to her earring for a
moment.  "Unlike in Shadow, we have cover here.  That helps reduce the
threat from marauding succubi.  A little.  And Fenrir is making it harder
for them to manouevre freely.  They seem to be settling for keeping us
pinned down until the main event is over."
     "What about the princess and the guys?"
     "Trying to reach us, but the threat of succubus attack is slowing
them down," Mars announced, craning her neck to peer out into the
bruised gloom.
     "Listen, those guys won't be able to keep Fenrir busy for long," I
said.  "So here's what I think.  Mara seems to be calling the shots.  We
need to find out if she's controlling Fenrir somehow, maybe squeeze her
for info."
     "Like Mars did with Maia?" V asked with a wicked gleam in her
eye as she shot me a sidelong glance that made my face heat up.
     "Mara doesn't seem to be giving Fenrir instructions," Mars told
us.  "And she isn't holding any sort of control element that I could see."
     "Maybe not, but we gotta do something!" I gritted.  "And she's my
best guess for our next move."
     "I guess so," Mars said softly.  "Heads up.  With Fenrir out of the
way, those succubi look to be getting ready to rush our position."
     Swell.  "Okay, you guys cover me while I go for Mara."
     "It's too far!" V protested.
     "That's why you're going to be covering me," I said.  I was
hoping that using a reasonable, matter-of-fact tone would compensate for
the complete insanity of my idea.
     "Hey, Ranma," V countered.  "How's this?  I'll be reckless, you
come rescue me.  That's worked so far, right?"
     "Sorry, this time I'm taking the lead," I told her.  "Here I go."  I threw
myself out onto the street before I had time for second thoughts.  This
was all about me, after all.  Me and the damned key.  I had to end this
before anyone else got hurt.  I ran full-out through the stiffening wind,
dancing around the scattered wreckage that littered the street.  The
succubi were swarming, but a sudden barrage of attacks kept them busy
and off my back for valuable seconds as I ran.  There.  Mara was still
sitting on her perch, surveying the destruction with obvious satisfaction.
A pillar of smoke was rising from somewhere off to the left, and I had the
sinking feeling that at least one of the police fliers had gone down.
     More lightning, sheets off it, off in the distance.  Not Jupiter this
time.  The wind was rising steadily, the sounds of battle whipped around
into a cacophony of background noise, and still Mara hadn't noticed me.
     Lucky.
     Or not.  Her vantage point offered her a clear view of the plaza in
front of the stadium, but she seemed to be preoccupied with something.
Yeah, right.  She was more interested in scrapping succubi than looking
for me?  Not likely.
     I was being suckered.
     I heard V's cry of alarm above the din just as I skidded to a stop,
looking skyward.  There, almost directly above me and at least a couple
of hundred feet up.  Fenrir.  No more fliers; those demonic red eyes were
fixed on me, pinning me to the pavement like a bug.
     "Oopsie," Mara said sweetly.
     She wasn't ignoring me anymore.

***

     Wynneth drew her hand lightly down the swell of her breast,
smiling faintly.  There.  That ugly, sterile lab was now painted a lovely
shade of crimson.  And her girls had wreaked some wonderful chaos
inside the palace walls.  A couple of them were even bringing her
souvenirs.
     That was all secondary, however.  They had accomplished their main
objective; the palace was in chaos, their attention turned inwards against
any threat to the Queen.  What was important right now was dealing with
Hild's minions.  Wynneth focussed on the wraith who had the sphere,
peering through eyes that revealed the walls of an alley with a glimpse of
dark, turbulent sky beyond.  That narrow slice of sky was dotted with
winged lovelies, although from this vantage point there was no sign of the
dark bulk of Hild's wolf.  It was a fascinating creature; Wynneth
wondered idly if even a Great Beast would answer the sphere's call.
     She had created more wraiths, who were even now close to the
scene of the battle, albeit in Shadow Realm.  Again she reached out,
touching her loyal servants, commanding them.  A flock of her wraiths
slipped into the alley, surrounding their sister, then as one they rose into
the air, clearing the buildings.
     In seconds, Wynneth had a clear view of the area.  Unfortunately,
without a human to focus the sphere's power, it would not be possible to
project the control effect.  That meant that her wraiths would have to fly
directly into the fray so that Wynneth could channel power directly to the
sphere.  Unfortunate, but unavoidable.
     "Closer, pets," she murmured, a sharp smile gracing her lips as
she felt her anticipation build.  Ah, Hild, she thought smugly.  You
should have stayed hidden.
     "Closer ..."

***

     Her succubi were indulging themselves, but that was all right.
Even if they hadn't managed to snare one of the girls wearing the
uniform of the old White Moon Court, they were keeping them, and any
others who wandered too close to the scene, pinned down.
     What really mattered was the boy.  His attacks had proven
impotent, and Fenrir had continued to press the attack.  In desperation, it
appeared the boy had used some sort of magick to transform into a girl;
Peorth's scans indicated that it was no mere glamour, but an actual
transformation.  Fascinating.  Still, her plan had worked so far due to the
element of surprise.  The forces of the human city were in disarray due to
the actions of her succubi, not to mention some fortuitous weather and
the usual monster problems.  Kill the boy, take the key, get out before
anyone got a handle on what was happening.
     Classic.
     "The target is out in the open, my Queen," Mara announced.  "Fenrir
is moving in.  We have him now.  Er, her.  Whatever."
     "Excellent," Hild said, stroking her cheek idly.  "I ... Peorth, what is
that?"
     A soft chime had begun to sound, and a small window opened
within the first one.  This window showed a gaggle of dark forms rising
from behind a plain brick building.
     Wraiths.  The same damnable wraiths that had been intruding on
her territory of late.
     "Where are they, Peorth?" Hild demanded, her languid mien shed
effortlessly.  Peorth showed her obediently, perhaps hoping that Hild
would be distracted from the matter at hand.
     Close.  They were close to Mara's position, close to the fight.
What were they after?
     Then another window opened, and Hild's eyes widened.
     "Silkaine's Sphere," she breathed, taking in the display.  "What
are they doing with that?"  Damn.  This could be trouble.  Artifacts like
that had been made in a different time, often without any thought to the
consequences of their existence.  This particular artifact had long
outlived those who had created it, but Peorth's scans showed that
everything Hild had pieced together about it over the centuries was true.
Great power had been harnessed by the Genrous to make the thing.
     And it appeared that someone was about to turn that power
against her.
     "Mara!" she snapped.  "You have an additional threat incoming!
Send as many of my succubi as you can to intercept them.  Do not let
them interfere!"
     "Yes, my Queen!"
     Hild chewed on the corner of her thumbnail, brow furrowed.
Damn it, why now?  She only needed about thirty more seconds and the
pretender would be dead, the key in her grasp.
     Fly, she silently commanded.  Strike down my enemies.  Our
enemies ...
     Yes, she thought, a smile rising unbidden to her lips.  Yes, our
new enemy.  The threat we must unite against.  How very ... timely.
     Twenty seconds.

***

     Nowhere to run, nowhere to hide.  Those cops were gone from
the sky, probably dead.  Screeches and whoops rose up all around on the
wind as the succubi swarmed, and behind me I heard V shouting
Jupiter's name.  Panicked.
     We were losing.
     It was only a matter of minutes, maybe less.  We couldn't hold
out here.  We were fighting on Mara's terms, hers and her boss's.  They
were holding all the cards, and it was my fault.  Not just because I had
the damned key, but because I'd gone off half-cocked, charging in
blindly, and dragged the others with me.
     So, okay.  No more running.  No more hiding.  There was no hiding
from this, after all.  They'd kill me, yeah, kill me for the key, but from
what Mara had said, they'd keep the girls alive.
     Save them.  Save them for last.
     That red tide started to rise way back in behind my eyes at that
thought, mad and bad and unreasoning.  All the people who'd been here
were gone, maybe dead.  Like the airship passengers, and the cops at the
police tower, and all the others.  So many people dead, so many others
having to go on, their lives destroyed carelessly by all these maniacs and
their goddamned schemes.  They didn't care who got hurt.  They didn't
care about anything but themselves.
     And I was sick of it.
     Mara was saying something, but I couldn't hear her now.  All I
could hear were the cries of the embattled senshi, the wind, and the
pounding of my pulse in my ears as my eyes met Fenrir's across a couple
hundred feet of empty space.
     This needed to stop.  I needed to stop it.  Arj had taken everything
I could throw at him, right up to the last, and even though I didn't
understand the power that had been my trump card, it was our only
chance now.  What happened to me didn't matter.  Not so long as this
was ended.
     The tide slammed against the inside of my skull, hot and
elemental, rising around the suddenly cold shard of key energy.  I let the
power build more and more as Fenrir's jaws gaped wide in a mocking,
lupine grin.
     You think this is funny?  I snarled silently as the cries around me
softened, merged into the nameless chorus of terror and loss that haunted
my nights.  You think THEY'RE funny, all the people down in that
abyss?  I'll show you.  Come on, Bowser.  Come and get me.  Let's make
some noise, you and me.
     Because the truth is, I can't take the quiet.  I need noise, action,
something to drown it all out.  To make it so I can't hear those voices any
more.  Accusing.  Pleading.  Lamenting.
     Make it stop, I thought as I let the power slip its leash and
continue to rise without regard for my safety.
     Just make it all stop ...

***

     V dug her heels into the pavement, her whip stretching up to
Jupiter's ankle.  Two succubi were trying to bear the senshi's limp body
aloft, and more were swooping in to join them, hooting and catcalling.  V
knew her back was open, and she felt a crawling sensation on the skin
between her shoulder blades as her sense of self-preservation demanded
she take cover.
     But she couldn't, of course.  If she let up for even an instant,
Jupiter would be gone.
     Then something hit her from behind and she lost her footing,
clinging to the gleaming coils of her whip as long, black wings battered
her body.  The sinuous harpy wrapped her arms and legs around V's
body and began to pull her into the air as well, whooping with delight as
V fought to keep her grip on her friend.
     Things, she had to concede, weren't looking so good.
     When the succubus suddenly released her, V fell heavily to the
ground.  The impact knocked the wind out of her, and for a moment she
was afraid that her concentration had been so badly shattered that her
whip had dissolved, but moments later she found herself being dragged
across the broken pavement.  Grimly V clung to the whip, trying to focus
through the pain as chunks of ragged asphalt battered her body.
     Then a beam of brilliant light flashed across her vision, and
Jupiter was falling.  V scrambled to get her feet under her, hurling herself
forward clumsily and barely managing to break Jupiter's fall by
wrapping her arms around the girl's body and rolling them over the
mangled roadway.  They fetched up against the despondent remains of
someone's previously expensive luxury sedan, V gritting her teeth against
the flares of pain along her ribs and back.
     She cradled Jupiter in her arms, eyes darting in every direction as
she tried to figure out what to do first.  There was blood trickling from a
shallow cut on Jupiter's forehead, and the girl's eyelids flickered fitfully.
She wouldn't be able to make it to cover on her own, and V wasn't certain
she could carry the girl to safety and keep the marauding succubi at bay
at the same time.
     Although maybe she wouldn't need to.  Another bright flash lit
up the sky, and this time V was able to see the cause; the princess had
arrived.  Peering around the edge of the upended car, she caught a quick
glimpse of Sailor Moon and Tux across the plaza, sheltering in a
storefront much as she and Mars had not long ago.  Close by, a furry
form was crouched low to the ground, its ears pinned back against its
skull.
     Yoshi.  And he was frozen in place, staring up into the sky at
something ... oh.  Fenrir.  Yeah, bad wolf mojo right there ...
     "V!  Can you hear me?"
     "Mars?  Yeah, gorgeous, I hear you!"
     "I see you and Jupiter.  Get ready to move, V.  Ranma's doing
something."
     Ranma?  She'd lost track of him in the confusion, and the blonde
senshi craned her head carefully, yelping as a column of water knifed
through the air and caught a succubus that had been diving toward her.
Silently she thanked Mercury, shifting her grip on Jupiter and pulling the
lanky girl close.  This would be a lot more fun if you were awake, she
grumbled silently as she laced her fingers together under Jupiter's full
breasts.  Now Ranma, if you just ...
     Shock derailed her train of thought, and V's eyes widened as she
finally caught sight of Ranma.  He, or rather she, stood out on the
cracked cobblestones that formed a plaza in front of the stadium's main
steps, the tails of her black coat and her braid sailing in the wind, her
gaze turned skyward.  No mystery as to why the succubi were staying
away from the red-head; Fenrir was hanging in the sky above her, the two
staring at each other like gunfighters in some sort of insane showdown.
Nobody would risk getting between those two.  At least, nobody sane.
     That wasn't what caused liquid ice to slide under her skin,
though.  The red-headed spitfire was clearly getting ready to go toe-to-toe
with the lupine juggernaut, energy swirling around her petite frame.  V
had seen Ranma's chi form a battle aura before, but something was
different this time.  The rippling energy usually formed undulating waves
around Ranma's body, but now jagged spikes of power were slicing the
air.
     And that wasn't all.  Something was lurking within the blaze of
Ranma's chi.
     V blinked, rubbed at her eyes.  No, it was definitely there.  She'd
seen something similar in Ranma's battle aura during the fight at
Vanka's mansion, a quick glimmer of motion.  She'd dismissed it then,
but this time she was certain.  The shape became more and more solid as
Ranma's chi continued to flare, forming a tempest of blue-white energy
around her body.  A low, feral growl erupted from Ranma's throat,
slowly ratcheting up to a fierce challenge delivered to the heavens.
     Fenrir answered.
     "Ranma!" V called, suddenly afraid for no reason she could name.
"Hey, Ranma?"
     Ranma didn't answer.

***

     Boy, girl, whatever this ersatz Warden was, he wasn't getting
away from Fenrir this time.  Mara soared into the sky above the fray,
following Hild's instructions.  Ah.  There.  The interlopers were coming
towards them fast, and in numbers.  Mara shouted instructions to several
milling succubi, leading them straight at this new threat.  The vanguard
of the wraith attack split into a cloud of shadowy figures, closing with the
battle-hungry succubi.  Mara dodged them expertly; the information she
was getting told her where the greatest threat lay.
     There.  A cluster of wraith stayed close together, protecting one
of their number.  That would be the one with this sphere Hild was talking
about.
     "Yes, I see her, my Queen," Mara announced, spinning and
unleashing a series of churning balls of crimson energy at any wraith
foolish enough to venture near her.
     "Destroy these nuisances," Hild's voice commanded imperiously.
"And Mara."
     "My Queen?"
     "The key is the priority.  But that sphere is a prize, as well.  A
reward to the loyal succubus who brings it before me."
     Like I didn't have enough on my plate, Mara thought sourly as
she regarded the impromptu aerial dog-fights that had broken out above
the ruined stadium.  "Of course, Queen Hild," was all she said.
     "And another reward for a live wraith.  I am curious as to their
intentions."
     "Naturally," Mara muttered under her breath, climbing away from a
knot of three of the foul things.  "Why don't you ask for the entire
kingdom while you're at it?"
     "Did you say something, Mara?"
     "No, my Queen," Mara blurted, heart skipping a beat.  Careful,
Mara, she told herself.  Concentrate on the matter at hand.
     She arced up, over the immediate fray, and saw her chance.  A
cruel smile graced her lips as she unleashed a furious volley at the small
group of wraiths guarding the sphere.  The wove through the air
gracefully, staying ahead of Mara's vicious attacks.
     Just as she planned.  Things were so chaotic, Mara was certain
they had no idea she was herding them towards a point of her choosing.
If she acted quickly, they might all be crushed by Fenrir's attack.
     Grinning now, she pressed the enemy with all her strength.

***

     Raine's eyes flickered across the room, bathed in the dim glow of
emergency back-up lighting.  The staff were close to being overwhelmed
by calls from all across the city, reports of shooting, fires, and general
chaos, and the sudden switch to the back-up systems, while smoothly
implemented, was certainly not helping.  Commissioner Shizuku had
just been informed that communication had been lost with her fliers
investigating the flying wolf, and the police monitors were awash with
officer down calls.  Several military squads were out of contact, their
fates unknown, fires were being driven by the rising winds, and there had
even been reported sightings of Desidinder.
    All very dire, but Raine's main concern was the palace itself.  She
pressed her hand to her earpiece as reports continued to come in, keeping
her emotions in check with the discipline required of the Queen's
Captain.
     "These wraiths are hitting us all over the palace," she informed
Queen Kendra.  "They pop up without warning and do the maximum
amount of damage, then vanish.  All stations are locked down, but they
managed to wreck the main power room.  Back-ups are fully engaged,
and all generator stations have triple guard contingents."
     "Can you contain them?" the Queen asked, Galiraithe sheathed
in her hand.
     "Not so far," Raine admitted.  "The palace's perimeter wards
would keep a Shadow creature out, but we don't have any sort of Shadow
Wards inside the palace itself.  Not since ..."
     "Yes," Kendra said curtly.  "No Sisterhood to set them.  And
none of the other defences are slowing the things down."
     "My people have accounted for eleven of them," Raine informed
her.  "Morris says the lab cameras showed sixteen coming out of the
sphere before the power drop."
     "And Professor Lewdine?"
     "It was a real mess down there," Raine said, savouring the anger that
blossomed in her belly.  "They found his lab coat, soaked in blood, and
some ... remains."  Skip had been a good guy, and she would miss him.
He'd deserved better.  She'd heard the retching in the background when
Morris had reported in, as hardened Royal Guardsmen were faced with
what the wraiths had left behind.    "Not all lab staff are accounted for,
though.  We're still searching for survivors."
     "These wraiths serve the vampire," Kendra said grimly.  "Those
unfortunate enough to survive may have been taken."
     "Our geomagnetic wards are ancient and powerful," Greely
interjected.  "The wraiths needed the sphere to get in.  How would they
take prisoners out again?"
     "They have the sphere," Raine reminded him.  "Maybe they can
use it to get out."
     "Assuming they intend to leave," he returned.  "Captain, what are
the chances this is a precursor to an attempt on the Queen by this vamp?"
     "I'm taking the threat seriously," Raine told him.  "But it doesn't
make any sense.  If she had forces lying in wait, why use them now?
Nighttime would favour her."
     "Captain!" Fujioka called.  "We've got a video feed from traffic
cameras near the old stadium, and I think you need to see this!"
     "What now?" Raine muttered.  "Chief, throw it up on my station,
okay?"
     The display blossomed above Raine's personal station, and she
was aware of the stares of her Queen and Lord Greely as she checked out
the images from those cameras, her confusion turning to shock as she
realised what she was looking at.  A giant, flying wolf indeed.  That was
understating things just a bit.
     "Gods," she whispered as the camera panned over the carnage, settling
on a lithe young red-headed girl.  "What is going on out there?"

***

     "That's it," Hild crooned as she watched the action.  Fenrir let
loose a howl of fury and began to dive down upon the hapless pretender,
as Mara led an airborne assault on the wraiths.  "Smash them, my loyal
subjects.  Smash them all.  Smash them for your Crimson Queen!"
 
***

     Wynneth stood cloaked in shadows, her eyes closed, talon-like
nails hooked as she touched the minds of her pets.
     "Hurry," she commanded.  "Drive the witch's flunkies away
from my prey.  Bring the sphere to the heart of the struggle and we shall
let Hild's pretties taste its fury.  Faster.  Faster!"

***

     V didn't know what to think.
     The fury of the succubi attack had subsided just as it seemed they
couldn't hold out any more.  The reason, though, was at best a mixed
blessing; they had flocked to the sky to defend against attacking wraiths.
     But she couldn't think about that now.  There were still more
than enough succubi down here to be a threat.  And Ranma was still
facing down Fenrir.
     As V watched, Ranma's hands slowly came up, and the shape
that coiled through her chi came with them.  V could almost see it now,
moving through the blaze of light with serpentine grace.
     Like something alive.
     "V!" Mars shouted over the comm.  "What's going on out there?
What in the hells is she doing?"
     V just shook her head.  Whatever this was, she'd never seen it
before.
     Fenrir's unearthly cry split the turbulent heavens, and the great wolf
finally shifted his bulk and began to dive down at Ranma, who stood
unflinching as her chi continued to build.  Then, with a savage battlecry
of her own, the young martial artist unleashed her attack.
     And V finally saw what had been lurking in Ranma's
incandescent aura.
     It coiled along Ranma's outstretched arms, erupting forth in a
blaze of chi.  It WAS chi, but it had form, the long, slender form of a
serpent ...
     No.  Not a serpent.
     A dragon.
     And not just any dragon.  Its form was that of one of the
legendary Storm Dragons, gone from the face of Gaia for so long that
little remained of them but myth.
     "What in the HELLS?" V gasped.
     Fenrir knifed down through the air, Ranma's chi-dragon rocketed
up.  Between them a small knot of dark figures appeared, slipping away
from a volley of crimson fireballs, apparently unaware that they had
wandered into a far greater peril.
     They were right at the point where the two forces would meet,
and they had only seconds to dodge.

***

     A strident alarm began to sound, and Peorth's eyes widened as a
red-bordered window opened in the main view.
     "Peorth?"
     "I don't know," Peorth said, eyes wide.  "An energy surge on the
ground ... there!"
     The pretender.  But what ...?
     Hild's gaze flickered over the display, taking in the torrent of
data.  Impossible.  This was impossible.  This ...
     "Fenrir!  CRUSH HIM NOW!"

***

     Ranma's graceful chi beast hit the charging Fenrir full-on, right
about at the point where the wraiths had been.  There was a brilliant
flash, and V was buffeted by a wave of cold air that hammered her like a
moving wall.  Crying out, V wrapped her arms protectively
around Jupiter as the car they were using for shelter was sent spinning
away.  Despite V's efforts, the pair ended up tumbling backwards, V's
long hair swirling around her face as she skidded on her  back across the
broken pavement, holding Jupiter tightly.
     Somewhere above her, the skies were rent with a hideous shrieking.

***

     Mara grimaced, gingerly rising from the remains of what had been a
perfectly serviceable desk before she'd collided with it.  Shaking shards
of broken glass out of her hair, she limped across the wrecked office to
the gaping wound that had been a perfectly serviceable window before ...
     Well, before whatever it was that had just happened, she
supposed.  The glowing dragon construct had hit the diving Fenrir
full-tilt, and a wave of displaced air had rushed out from the point of
impact, scattering Mara, the succubi, and the wraiths with impersonal
ease.  But it hadn't been JUST displaced air; Mara had seen the wave
coming, glowing with some sort of magickal energy.  A pinpoint of light
had flared where the two forces had collided, too bright to look at, and a
ring of blazing rainbow coruscation had been flung outwards from that
point to spread across the bruised sky like a ripple in a pond, sweeping
everything before it.
     The sphere?  Mara had herded the wraiths and their toy into just
the right spot, and the aerial chaos had kept the enemy from realising
their peril until it was too late.  It had seemed like a good idea at the time,
but then, that described a lot of Mara's plans.  She winced as she
considered her options.  On the one hand, she had dealt with the wraiths,
and the result had been impressive.  However, the result had been
unplanned and thus, as far as Mara was concerned, likely to get her in
trouble with the boss.
     Not to mention the fact that she wasn't sure the sphere had
survived the experience.
     Mara reached the window and looked out into the plaza, and
suddenly the fate of the sphere was the furthest thing from her mind.  The
scene that was unfolding there was so bizarre that she simply stood frozen
in place for long moments, dumbstruck, before it occurred to her that she
needed to report this.
     "My Queen?" she called.  "Uh.  Majesty?  Queen Hild?  Hello?"
     No answer, just static.  Oh, crap.  That's what she got for depending
on technology.  She lowered the comm strapped to her wrist, watching
the savage struggle unfolding between Fenrir and the Warden's dragon.
     Yeah.  Hild might not want to call the kid a Warden, but
secretly, Mara wasn't so sure.  He had a key, didn't he?  And Peorth said
he had at least partial synchronisation with it.
     Wardens were powerful, unpredictable, and all-around bad news.
     And this one had just stopped the legendary Fenrir dead in his
tracks.
     Maybe rushing back out there wasn't a great idea.

***

     V swept the dishevelled curtain of hair out of her face clumsily,
taking stock of her injuries.  Bruises and minor cuts, it felt like.  Could
have been worse.  She rolled Jupiter over, gratified to see that her friend
seemed to be okay.  Or, at least, no worse than she had been.
     V stiffened as a dark shape loomed over her, relaxing a moment later
as a dark goddess extended her hand down, concern pooling in the
darkest violet eyes V had ever seen.
     "You guys okay?" Mars asked.
     "Yeah," V told her, grabbing the proffered hand and letting
herself be pulled to her feet.  She managed to stumble into Mars as she
stood, smiling an insincere apology as she did so.  "You?"
     "I'm okay," Mars told her.  There was a smear of dirt on one of
the girl's perfect pale cheeks, blood on her left leg, and the white body of
her uniform was streaked with dirt as well.
     "Black," V told her, running one gloved hand down her corseted
body.  "Doesn't show the dirt."
     "I'll make a note," Mars assured her breathlessly.  "Any clue what
Ranma just did?"
     Ranma.  V stepped back, looking around until she spotted the
red-head, standing right where she'd been before, seemingly unaffected
by the titanic clash.
     "Nope," V admitted.  "But she's still doing it, huh?"
     "Yes," Mars said tersely, turning her gaze skyward.  Ranma's
aura still blazed, connecting her to the sinuous form of her chi-dragon.
Said dragon had wrapped its coils around Fenrir and, as they watched in
wonder, proceeded to bury its fangs in the great wolf's throat.
     The reaction was immediate.  Fenrir let loose a ragged, high-
pitched shriek of pain, writhing within the constricting coils, pawing
desperately at the air.  The pair weaved back and forth, their struggles
causing them to smash into the side of one of the nearby buildings,
sending masonry and broken glass raining to the street below.
     "Ranma!" V cried.  Mars grabbed her by the arm as she started
forward.
     "Don't," Mars cautioned her.  "I don't think it's safe to go out
there."
     "But Ranma ...!"
     "If you break her concentration, you could do more harm than
good!" Mars said in a low, urgent voice.  "She seems to be doing okay.
Maybe we should try to attack Fenrir now, while he's hurt."
     "Yeah, but what if we hit Ranma's dragon?" V asked dubiously
as she watched the entwined combatants flailing around in the sky above.
"Could it hurt her?"
     "I can't say," Mars confessed, her brow furrowed as she followed
V's gaze.  "I've never seen chi used this way before.  How long can she
keep it up, I wonder?"
     V was about to reply when Fenrir's struggles finally gave him
enough slack to clamp his jaws on one of the coils of Ranma's dragon.
In the street, Ranma stiffened, a shriek of fury and pain tearing itself from
her throat. The two airborne combatants broke away from each other,
Fenrir rising up high above the street, the dragon settling back down
around its mistress in a blaze of roiling chi.  It looked to V like Fenrir's
fur was matted in places with dark fluid.  Blood?  If something could
bleed, it could die.
     But shifting her gaze back to Ranma, she saw dark droplets
pattering to the ground beneath the girl, and caught her breath.  Fenrir
hadn't just hurt Ranma by attacking her dragon, she had drawn blood.
     What would happen if Fenrir destroyed the dragon?
     Ranma growled deep in her throat, pivoting on the balls of her
feet.  As V watched, uncertain what to do, Ranma ran across the broken
roadway and launched herself into the air, howling like a banshee.  Fenrir
answered with a howl of his own, lunging forward.  At the apogee of her
leap, Ranma thrust her hands forward again, summoning the phantom
wyrm and sending it snaking out in a flash.
     "Grab something!" Mars shouted, crouching over Jupiter's prone
form. V looped her arms around a nearby light post, watching Ranma
unleash another of those awesome attacks.  Could this be how Ranma
had killed the invulnerable Arj?
     The charging dragon caught the wounded Fenrir's throat in its
jaws, twisting in the air as the wolf yelped again.  The force of their
collision washed over the three senshi, sending debris flying through the
air and breaking the few windows which had survived up until this point.
     There was a deafening crash, and a cloud of dust was whipped into the
air by the rising winds.  When V could raise her head, she saw that the
battle had smashed its way through the wall of the stadium, the
combatants disappearing inside.
     "Wha's all th' noyze?" Jupiter muttered, staring blankly up at
Mars.  "Hey, wha' yu dooin?"
     "Time to wake up, sleepyhead," Mars informed her gently.
"You're missing everything."
     "Damn!" V exclaimed.  "My comm's busted.  I can't raise anyone."
     "Me either," Mars informed her as V craned her neck, trying to
catch sight of the other senshi through the dust and smoke.
     "You take Jupiter and find the princess, I'll go after Ranma," V
declared.  The sounds of battle from within the stadium had risen to a
mad roar, and V tried not to imagine just what was going on.  She
ignored Mars' sudden protest, rising and sprinting across the shattered
road.
     Praying she wouldn't be too late.

***

     "Peorth!  Restore the view NOW!"
     "I can't," the captive goddess protested, her eyes fixed on the
multicoloured static.  "I don't know what's happening!"
     Hild growled deep in her throat, fixing Peorth with a glare that
would have sent the girl to her knees if she'd been unbound.
     "Fix.  It."
     "I ... I don't understand," Peorth stammered.  "It's like there's
been some sort of effect on the sub-etheric plane itself, a complete
disruption ....
     "Mara!  Mara, report!"  Hild scowled at the comm link as it
blithely spit meaningless static back at her.  "Peorth.  I want an
explanation.  Now."
     "Look at this," Peorth breathed.  She had called up the images of
the last moments before contact had been lost, and Hild watched as
glowing lines and symbols flashed across the image.  "That sphere, it's
incredible.  Those readings ..."
     Hild grabbed Peorth's hair and jerked the girl's gaze
unceremoniously to hers.  "This," the demon queen hissed, "is no time to
indulge your curiosity, Peorth."
     "Of course," Peorth said quickly, breath catching in her throat.  "But
look!  The sphere was caught between Fenrir and the Ward ... the chi
attack," she hastily amended as Hild's pale eyes clouded with anger.
"And here, at the moment of impact ..."  Peorth ran the images forward
slowly, the underlying forces now visible as glowing lines of force.
"There!  You see that?"
     Hild did.  A surge of energy from the sphere, far greater than she
would have expected.  And there, beneath the power spike, a resonance
wave, feeding into the field.  That signature ...
     "Silkaine," she breathed.  "You lunatic."
     "What?"
     "The sensor module Mara carried.  How much data would it have
captured, Peorth?"
     "It was operating at its highest setting," Peorth told her, a tinge of
pride slipping into her voice.  "Our technology is ..."
     "Mine, now," Hild interrupted, running her thumb idly over
Fenrir's ring.  It was still warm; whatever had happened, Fenrir was still
out there.  "See if you can trace the source of that underlying wave."
     Hild watched Peorth work as seconds ticked away.  There was no
way the boy could best Fenrir, of course, but she did not like being deaf
and blind at this critical juncture.  Almost all of her forces were over
there, and she could not find out what was going on.  A lesser woman
might be ... worried.
     "There," Peorth announced.  "The sphere was linked subspatially
with a subterranean source, deep under the city.  It looks like the other
source was within ... some sort of structure?"
     "A tower," Hild sighed, a feeling of dread settling over her.
"Silkaine's stronghold within Vasta Min.  The rumours were true."
     "Hild?"
     "Silkaine linked the sphere to his Halo Generator, and now ..."  Hild
stared pensively at the last readings captured by Peorth's sensors before
everything had gone dark.
     "Wait.  Vasta Min?  These intact structures are part of a Genrous
stronghold?  And those readings, if they are some sort of deep subspatial
gate system ... it was operational!  All this time!"
     "At a very low level," Hild conceded.  "But now the destruction
of the sphere has blown the damned thing wide open.  If the human queen
thought she had monster problems before, she is in for quite a nasty
shock."
     And having witnessed Silkaine's madness first hand, Hild wasn't
entirely certain that her realm would be spared the consequences of this
new development.

***

     Peorth watched Hild's back as the imposing woman turned to the
static-filled screen, apparently lost in thought.  It was fortunate for her
that Hild had other things to worry about at the moment.  That gave her
some time to marshal her thoughts.
     She couldn't be certain.  Of course she couldn't.  Even back
before the cataclysm that had stranded them here, in this last, lonely
sphere, those stories had been ancient.  Frankly, they were less than
reliable accounts, more like myths, legends even.
     But it made a kind of sense.
     He's taken up the mantle of a Warden, she had said, and indeed,
the boy had done that.  But he was not as they had been, those Wardens.
No, his blood was human.
     But.
     It was possible that THEY had been human, or at least closer to
humanity than the Wardens.  Records from the period between the
disappearance of the Keymakers and the rise of the Wardens were
sketchy, unreliable, as chaos had overtaken civilisation.  But the stories
had always fascinated her.
     They had travelled through the mists of war and chaos, legendary
regulators who had stood against the encroaching darkness, holding it
back with uncommon valour and unflinching determination.
     Nobody knew who they had been, where they had come from.
Some said they were the true offspring of the Keymakers, and not the
Wardens who had eventually brought order and light back to the many
worlds.  Others claimed that they were bequeathed keys by the Eyes, in a
desperate attempt to prevent the hyperlink net from falling to Outside.
     In truth, there had been little hard evidence to be found about
them.  Some stories claimed there had been nine clans, some said twelve.
Some claimed they held dominion over certain beasts, even riding them
at will or summoning them to battle.
     And one account Peorth had dug up in her meanderings through
the Great Archive had claimed they could summon the aspect of their
patron beast through the key itself.
     As the boy had done.
     She'd seen it in those last moments.  If there was any truth to
what she'd found in her investigations so long ago, then this boy was
something older than a Warden.  Something wilder.
     Takzvyrmishammir.
     Fist of the Tempest Dragon.
     A legend from out of time, returned.
     Or so it would appear.  But the last readings she had managed to
get before something had severed all communications had been
worrisome.
     The boy was human.  And the power he'd called up, while
fearsome, was very dangerous for a mere human.
     He very well might not survive it.
     Grimly, Peorth renewed her efforts to break through to the scene
of the battle.
     Praying that it would not already be too late.

***

     Wynneth gradually became aware that she was screaming.
     Her mouth snapped shut, eyes wide as she stared around her.  She
was sprawled, half naked and twined in her lustrous hair, seized with a
terrible emotion which should have had no purchase in her heart.
     Fear.  A terrible dread, the sort which haunted small children as
shadows danced upon the walls of their bedrooms.  Wynneth Vesra de
Morgana was an ancient vampiress who stood upon the brink of
godhood, yet in that moment she was transported to a place and a time
that she had all but forgotten.  Even she had once been a child, and had
known this fear.
     Something bad wanted her.
     Throwing her head back, she unleashed a cry of savage defiance.
What was this madness?  She was Wynneth, and she feared NOTHING!
     (it hunts)
     NOTHING!
     Her wordless cry brought her wraiths to her side as she rose,
cloaked in shadows and sable tresses and blackest fury.  Something had
happened, something she had not seen clearly.  Hild's presumptuous
foray into what would soon be Wynneth's capital had had dire and
inexplicable consequences.  None of her pets from the scene of the fight
responded to her call, which meant they had been destroyed.
     But the senshi had survived.  She knew this to be so.  The
inevitability of her destiny could not be changed; those girls would be at
the appointed place at the appointed time.  But Hild had somehow
     (made you afraid)
     interfered, and her punishment would be the stuff of legend.
     "Go to this place," Wynneth hissed, her eyes glowing with a
baleful ruby light as she regarded her faithful minions.  "Report what you
find.  FLY!"
     They flew.  Wynneth whirled, carried through the shadowed
chambers by her righteous fury.  She could feel it, the storm, its pulse
beating within her like the vital, primal pumping of precious blood.
     It was time.  Hild's reckoning would come, but first things first.  This
moment would not be delayed any longer.  Wynneth strode out onto the
wide stone balcony, spreading her arms as she smiled down at the
sacrifices enmeshed below.  Whatever they saw in her smile made the
poor dears begin to scream shrilly, and Wynneth took a moment to revel
in their helpless struggles.
     I do not feel fear, little humans.  I inflict it.  I am everything you
have ever been afraid of, every shadow in the night, every sound from
just out of sight, every formless, inescapable dread.  All your science, all
your magick, all your faith and love and hope, the foundation of your
supposed superiority ... none of it can save you now.
     She began to chant, a low, melodious sound that wound its
sinuous way through the high-ceilinged chamber.  Humans had one great
innate strength that had always turned the tide in battles with vampires.
They were great in numbers, far greater than any vampire army had ever
been.  But that advantage was more tenuous than they might believe.
Most of them were mere drones, limbs of the great beast of man.
     Cut off the head, and the limbs simply thrash without direction or
purpose.
     The ravishing vampiress reached out to the spell she had
wrought, and called forth the darkness.

***

     Raine was no stranger to either of the evil twins of frustration and
chaos, but this was reaching levels beyond even her ability to cope with.
     "Captain?"  Kendra sounded like she was about to start executing
people, starting with whoever was closest.  Raine could scarcely blame
her, all things considered.
     "Majesty, I've confirmed that all wireless communication is out.
Likewise all our crystal scanning gear.  We are deaf and blind."
     "That, Captain, will not do," the Queen informed her tersely.
"How did the wraiths manage this?"
     "How should take a back seat for the moment, Majesty, all due
respect," Minister Bunter rumbled, straightening up from where he'd
been shouting fruitlessly at a dead comm set.  "Our tactical abilities have
been severely compromised by an unknown force.  We must assume this
is a prelude to an all-out attack."
     "On the palace?" Greely prodded.  "Our defensive wards haven't
been affected, have they?"
     "No," Raine confirmed as a runner bustled into the room, giving
the chief a verbal status report.  "The palace remains the safest place in
the city.  My teams have accounted for twelve wraiths thus far, and no
further attacks have been reported."
     "But the sphere itself has not been found," Kendra pointed out.
     "We should send runners out to our staging area at the armoury,"
Bunter insisted.  "Call in reinforcements."
     "Captain!" one of the techs called, waving a black handset
triumphantly.  Raine was at his side in a moment, the heavy handset
pressed to her ear.
     "Griev," she announced.  "Morris?  That you?"
     "Yes, Captain!" Morris's voice came, scratchy but audible.  "The
crystal repeaters in the back-up system aren't working at all, even though
they check out as okay.  I tried this as a last resort."
     "We have communication?" Bunter asked, tugging the tight
collar of his uniform tunic open as he eyed the handset greedily.
     "That's the old watch system," Greely told him, an incredulous
half-smile on his lips.  "There are sets at stations all over the palace
compound, all hardwired to a manually operated central station.  Dead-
simple stuff, no boosters or repeaters.  But it hasn't been in use for years,
except for ..."
     "The Victory Day call, yes, Tam," Kendra interrupted.  "Raine?"
     "Guard forces are manning the watch stations," Raine told her.  "We'll
be able to coordinate palace defences, at the very least."
     "Do we know how widespread this problem is?" Bunter asked,
drawing himself to his full height.  Deprived of a chance to communicate
with his troops, he had reverted to his usual disgruntled mein.
     "At least the Highview area," Shizuku announced, entering the
operations room quickly, her uniform jacket slung over her shoulder and
sweat beading on her brow.  "I tried the radio in my car and got nothing,
flagged down a patrol cruiser at the gates, they can't raise anyone either,
not from as far out as Grenadier Way."
     "This could be troublesome," Greely frowned.  "What could have
done this?"
     "Whatever it was, it cut off our feed from the stadium," Shizuku
retorted.  "I instructed my people to round up a team and head over there.
I want to know what happened to my fliers."
     "If that little slip of a girl was holding her own against that mutt,
then I'm certain armed gunships are in no danger, Commissioner,"
Bunter rumbled.  Privately, Raine wasn't so sure.  The jerky shots they'd
seen had revealed what looked like a war zone, and while the consensus
had been that the girl had been utilising chi techniques, that last
tantalising glimpse had shown something very unusual.  Raine was well-
versed in combat techniques, and she'd never seen chi take on what
looked like a distinctive form before.
     A shrill ringing, tinny and discordant, drew her attention, and
Raine snatched up the handset.  "Morris?"
     "Captain!" Morris shouted.  "Report from the south tower watch
station, Jensen reports that she can see monsters in the streets down along
the canal.  Lots of them!  Soldiers at the east end are trying to hold them
back, but it doesn't look good!"
     Damn.  How were they supposed to be able to dispatch police and
military to trouble spots?  She was tempted to dispatch the Guard's own
air wing to give her an overview of the situation around the city, but the
weather was getting worse by the moment.
     "And explosions, Cap!  From the east, near Glendonndri Market
... hang on ..."
     "Morris?"  Raine was painfully aware of all the eyes on her as
she waited, one slender thread connecting her with the outside world.
Distantly, she heard the low rumble of thunder.  The damned storm was
breaking.
     "Captain!  Report from Kalli's Watch.  It's the storm, Cap.  Something
... something weird in the clouds ..."

***

     Uranus leaned back against the cold stone wall, trying to ignore
the rubbery feeling in her legs.  This was definitely turning out to be one
of those days.
     "Well?" she asked hoarsely, cool air burning in her lungs.
     "That did it, I think," Neptune told her wearily.  The smaller senshi's
uniform was stained and torn, and her long hair was matted with sweat
and dirt.  The collapse of the east wing of City Hall had crushed the last
of those loathsome wyvern, although their escape had been a little
too close for comfort.  Judging by the sudden silence, Saturn and Pluto
had accounted for all the creatures on their end.  The park around the
venerable building was empty, everyone with a shred of common sense
having long since fled.  Smoke and dust billowed into the air from the
ruined structure behind them, only to be shredded to dusky tatters by the
rising wind.
     Uranus raised her hand to her earring, frowning as only static
greeted her attempt to contact the others.
     "Marvellous," she sighed.  "I think I fried my comm."
     "Mine's out, too," Neptune told her.  "Strange.  Jamming,
maybe?  We passed that military checkpoint down by the bridge."
     "Maybe," Uranus said.  "Gods, what a day."
     "I need a bath," Neptune muttered ruefully, holding her slender
arms up and surveying her dirty uniform with haughty disdain.  Uranus
leaned over and brushed a few rogue locks of soft hair out of her
partner's face, a crooked smile gracing her lips.
     "We both do," she said in a low, bedroom voice.  "And you heard
Artemis.  The girls blew the Sisterhood's plan out of the water.  We may
get some down time after all."
     "I'd feel a lot better if we knew where they were," Neptune
replied, her eyes as tempestuous as the storm-tossed skies as she gazed up
at Uranus from only inches away.  "The last we heard, they were running
off to check some new emergency."
     "Welcome to the big city, toots.  Always a new emergency."
     "We should make sure Pluto and Saturn are all right."
     "You should kiss me first."
     "I'm filthy."
     "I know.  I love that about you."
     Neptune elbowed her lightly.  "That's not what I meant."
     "Regardless ..."  Uranus broke off, leaning back to stare across
the park.  "Neptune."
     The smaller girl picked up on the change in her partner's body
language even before she spoke, and moved back to follow Uranus's
gaze.
     "What," Neptune breathed, "is that?"
     Uranus simply shook her head.  She had no idea.  It was big,
twenty or thirty feet high, and at least five times that in length.  The
creature looked vaguely insectoid, with long, multiply-jointed legs along
its gleaming body, eight or tens sets, it was hard to tell.  The carapace
was shiny, coruscating with the colours of a trapped rainbow even in the
gloom, and its triangular head possessed wicked-looking mandibles.
     Uranus had seen some fearsome creatures appear in this city, but
although some of them were rare, they were at least a known commodity.
Monsters had, over the centuries, been catalogued, studied, made less
fearsome through simple expedient of being known, named, and to a
certain extent, understood.  This was something completely new.
     "It's looking at us," Neptune whispered.
     "Maybe," Uranus replied softly.  "I don't see any eyes.  Maybe it
tracks by scent, or sound."
     "Doesn't look friendly, though."
     "Not so much.  Let's retreat slowly, find Saturn and Pluto before
we start hunting bugs."
     Together, they began to move away from the creature, heading
back towards the smouldering ruin that had once been City Hall.  The
colourful behemoth didn't react at first, simply standing where Uranus
had first seen it.
     Then, with unbelievable speed, it charged.
     If she hadn't witnessed it, Uranus would not have believed that
something so large could move with such speed.  It knocked over a
sturdy maple like a mere twig, coming straight for them, uttering a low,
melodious sound that was strangely delicate for something so big.
     They split, running in opposite directions with the wordless ease of
long-time partners, the ground shaking as the menacing insect bore down
on them.  Gathering her strength, Uranus flung her hand out and threw a
bolt at the thing, her attack churning through the air to slam directly into
the creature's flank.
     With absolutely no effect.
     Uranus barely had time to register the way its carapace
shimmered brightly at the point of impact before the thing spun, one of its
lightning-quick legs catching her across the chest and hurling her through
the air.  Light flashed behind her eyes, and she was dimly aware of the
sensation of falling, then of impact.
     It didn't hurt.  That seemed wrong, somehow.  Pain, panic,
urgency, all of these things seemed so far away, distant and unimportant.
     Unimportant until she heard the screams start.
     Neptune.

***

     V clambered over a broken slab of concrete, drawn by the sounds
of fighting from inside the stadium.  She still couldn't raise anyone on her
comm, but the clash between Fenrir and Ranma had cleared the skies, at
least for the moment.  If she could grab Ranma, maybe they could slip
away and regroup before anyone was the wiser.
     Then she could kick his ass for doing such a stupid thing in the
first place.
     First, however, she had to get him away from Fenrir.  Okay, first
she actually had to find him, but judging from the howls and sounds of
destruction, he was just ahead.
     She found herself inside a narrow concrete corridor, and began
running, heels clicking loudly on the unadorned concrete.  The hole that
Fenrir and Ranma had made had collapsed and was a twisted mass of
steel and concrete, but the stencilled signs on the walls told her that upper
bleacher maintenance access was just ahead.  She put on a burst of speed,
reaching a plain steel door and burning the lock out in seconds.
     Gonna single-handedly keep the kingdom's locksmiths in
business, she though ruefully as she hauled her aching body up the stairs.
She crested the top and stopped, literally breathless at the vista that lay
before her.
     The interior of the stadium was trashed.  It was hard to tell how
much of that had happened when Fenrir had torn his way out through the
roof, but any part of the interior which had survived the initial strike had
now been flattened, torn up, or knocked down.  Dust hung in the air in
thick clouds beneath the partially wrecked dome, but movement quickly
drew her eye and the combatants burst into view.
     Ranma spun neatly above the savaged turf, springing away as
Fenrir's bulk slammed to the earth in the spot she'd just been.  Both
Ranma and the wolf were streaked with blood, and both seemed enraged
beyond all reason.  V's heart clenched painfully as Ranma twisted and
leapt high into the air; Fenrir had anticipated the move and planted his
huge paws into the ground, skidding to a stop and opening his massive
jaws wide as Ranma arced towards him.
     "RANMA, LOOK OUT!"
     Ranma did not look out.  The red-head, in full thrall of a fierce
battle fury, merely cocked her arms back, and her chi flared brightly.  As
V watched, that serpentine dragon formed again, coiling around the lithe
girl's body.  Ranma fell from the sky, twisting and sending her dragon
plunging with her, its glowing jaws agape as it rocketed down to meet
Fenrir's challenge.
     There was a terrible roar as chi-dragon met wolf, and even this
far away she was sent staggering back by the force of the collision,
falling across a set of red seats up here in the nosebleed section.  Down
below, dirt and concrete spewed into the air, obscuring the scene as it
billowed out across the ravaged landscape.  V grabbed a handy wooden
armrest and regained her footing, moving back to the edge of the
walkway, trying to stare her way through the haze.  The noise had
stopped, except for the pattering of clods of dirt and stone raining down.
Good news, or bad?  She wanted to call out, but suddenly her mouth was
dry, her throat tight.  Sweat trickled down her spine under the remains of
her leather, and her heart hammered as the sudden, eerie quiet stretched
out into interminably long seconds.
     Call him, she told herself.  He could be hurt, or ... he could be
hurt.  Call him.
     But a tiny voice in the back of her head insisted on asking a terrible
question.
     What if he doesn't answer?
     Biting her lip, she leapt over the railing that separated this section
from the one below it and began running hell-for-leather down the steep
stairs toward field level.

***

     "Princess!"  Mars skidded across a carpet of broken glass,
ducking inside the demolished storefront.  This place had once sold sports
memorabilia and jerseys and the like, but the inventory had fared quite
badly in the face of recent events.  Her beloved princess hadn't fared
especially well, either, and Mars felt a resurgence of white-hot fury at the
thought of what Moon had gone through.
     "Wow!" Moon gasped, scanning the sky above the plaza quickly.
"Whatever Ranma did, it sure cut down on the traffic up there.  Where'd
they all go?"
     "Who cares?" Jupiter gasped.  She was walking on her own
again, but Mars could see she was still in pain.
     "They'll be back," Mars agreed grimly.  "We need to get out of
here before this place turns into ground zero again.  Succubi and wraiths
and Fenrir and this Mara character?  That's just not fair."
     "Yoshi!"  Jupiter knelt gingerly as the gray wolf limped forward,
favouring his right front leg and leaving bloody pawprints on the scuffed
linoleum.  He butted his head into her, nearly knocking the laughing girl
over.  Mars noted the blood smeared on his fur and the fine trembling that
seized the werewolf's body.  Yoshi was scared, and Fenrir was no doubt
the cause.
     "Any news from the temple?" Moon asked, eyes wide.  Mars
hesitated, torn by the worry in her friend's eyes.  She wanted to lie, but
they'd all find out sooner or later.
     "It's bad," she told Moon as gently as possible.  "The girls report
that the effect is widespread, and ... ugly."  And it was my plan, she
added silently.  Once I would have rejoiced at this outcome, Princess.
That was who I was.
     "The Sisterhood?"  Tux's voice was raspy as he pushed off the
wall, standing unsteadily behind Moon.
     "No sign," Mars replied.  "They needed to use their trump card
or lose the chance, but they aren't stupid enough to attack the temple
now.  The In ... the Crusade knows about their plan, and the element of
surprise was only supposed to give them a chance to perform their
ceremony.  We stopped that."
     "The Sisterhood is still a threat," Mercury opined, coming out
from the back.
     "Yeah, but we bought ourselves time," Jupiter said.  "The
vamp'll have to come up with a new plan.  We won!"
     "If this is victory, we'd never survive defeat," Mars grumbled.
"V is still chasing Ranma and Fenrir.  We need to get them and escape."
     "The storm will break any moment, by the look of it," Mercury
said pensively.  "That will give us some cover against the succubi.  But I
think we have a problem.  Is anyone's comm working?"
     None were, and Mercury nodded.
     "Thought so," she said glumly.  "My visor is completely jammed,
too.  I can't get any tactical data at all.  And we can't call Saturn and the
others for back-up."
     "The stadium," Tux rasped.
     "What?"  Mars could see the man clinging to his self-control with
nearly superhuman effort.  It was obvious what had happened to him, and
just as obvious that she was the last person he would want to talk about it
with.  But wallowing wasn't his style; she could see in his eyes that he
had a plan.
     "There is a city maintenance road under the stadium," he said
tightly, gathering the tattered remains of his jacket around his lean form.
"It leads to the garage over by the train station."
     "Under?" Moon asked weakly.
     "Not too far under," he reassured her.  "We make a run for it,
grab Ranma and V, and slip away.  I've worked security detail at the
stadium before, I know how to reach the access ramp."
     "We won't have to worry about attack from above," Mercury
nodded approvingly.  "And we should be able to shake off pursuit long
enough to disappear."
     Privately, Mars wasn't so sure.  Fenrir had apparently found
Ranma in a sewer, after all.  But it was a plan, and a plan, even a risky
one, was better than no plan.
     "Let's do it," she said.  They moved to the front of the store,
scanning the skies for trouble.  The plaza was empty of attackers, the sky
a dark, nasty purplish colour gravid with elemental fury.  It was now or
never.
     They set off across the plaza at a run, or as close to it as they
could come.  She took the lead, Mercury following while supporting the
princess, Jupiter lending her uninjured shoulder to Tuxedo Mask.  Mars
ached to take the princess in her arms, to protect her, but she could just
imagine how Tux would react to that in his present state.  And, truthfully,
she couldn't blame him.  No, best leave her personal desires out of things
for the time being.  Her selfish desires had caused quite enough trouble
for one day, after all.
     They were nearly three-quarters of the way across the plaza with
no sign of trouble save for the raucous sounds of fighting within the
stadium rising above the howling winds when Mars hesitated.
     "What in the hells?"
     "What?" Jupiter shouted into the wind.  "Succubi?"
     "No!" Mars shouted back.  "Look!"  She pointed., and the others
turned.  In the distance she could see Highview rising above the
surrounding city, the palace crowning those heights like a jagged crown
upon the land.  The clouds above the ancient palace were roiling,
spinning into a black and purple vortex in the sky.  Lightning flashed
within that maelstrom of wild energy, the forked lances increasing in
frequency until the discharges were nearly constant.
     "Gods!" Moon cried.  "What is that?"
     "No idea!" Mercury returned, frustration clear in her voice as she
tried to scan the effect, only to find her visor still useless.  As Mars
watched, awestruck, the effect grew larger and more violent, seeming to
draw the primal rage of the storm into it.  Sound washed over them, not
thunder but a horrific noise that raked across the most vulnerable part of
her heart and soul, the enraged screams of the lost, the forgotten, the
betrayed.  Mars had never seen or felt anything like it, but she was
certain that this was something wrong, an abomination, something
antithetical to everything they held dear.
     And it was getting stronger.

***

     "Report!" Kendra snapped.  More guards poured into the room as
Raine pressed the clunky black handset to her ear.
     "Some strange effect in the sky over the palace, Majesty.  Maybe
a funnel cloud forming ..."
     Kendra stood in one smooth, graceful motion, all worry of
monsters and wraiths and even vampires gone from her mind in an
instant.  She stared down at the unadorned sheath that she held in her
right hand, forgetting to breathe as it seemed to grow until it occupied her
entire field of vision.  Distantly aware that all eyes had turned to watch
her, she reached her left hand down to touch the hilt of the Sword of
Queens.
     It was warm.  Vibrating.  No, pulsing.  Power trembled there,
unfamiliar yet intimate, and she felt a dizzying sense of deja vu, as
thought she should know this feeling.  Or always had.
     You know what to do, she thought, and she did.
     Queen Kendra unsheathed Galiraithe, and silvery light filled the
dim control centre.
     She stared into the blade's light, seeing the dance of symbols
within that mystic steel, rumoured to have once been part of an ancient
ship of great power.  Knowledge danced there, power, a siren's song that
could draw her in and drown her soul for all eternity.
     Were she a lesser woman.  But she was Queen, and her duty
would not be denied.  Shed tore her gaze from the blade, then slowly
raised her eyes to the ceiling of the room, cold certainty shooting through
her like arctic lightning.
     "Nameless," she whispered.
     "Majesty?"  Tam's face was ghost white, but she had no time.
     It was coming.
     "Raine!  CLEAR THE WATCH!"

***
     The chaos in the sky only increased as Mars and the others
watched, awestruck.  Bruised clouds churned into a furious vortex of
power and violence, rising above even the ferocity of the storm itself.
Mars' hair streamed out sideways, caught in the rising gale as she raised
her arm against the rain of litter and debris tossed up by the howling
winds.
     "Mars!" Mercury shouted, moving closer to be heard.  "Could
that be the Sisterhood?"
     Mars shook her head.  This was beyond any kind of spell or
summoning that she had ever witnessed.  Not far away, a small group of
succubi rose up from beyond a low-rise office building.  They had no
eyes for the group of senshi, though.  One look at the skies above the
palace and they fled, streaking away as fast as they could fly.
     So, Mars thought grimly.  Not the Crimson Queen's doing,
either?  Then who?
     There was only one candidate left, and the thought was not a
pleasant one.
     The vampire.
     As Mars and the others watched, horrified, the display of
elemental fury grew even more intense, the incessant lightning turning
from actinic flashes to bolts of dead black.  Those terrible lances of
power momentarily  formed a pattern within the maelstrom, something
clearly artificial, but before Mars could register the details the tide of
madness reached a stomach-churning crescendo.
     And then the dead black lightning drew together at the centre of the
effect and smashed down upon the palace.
     The palace's shields stood out against the onslaught briefly, a
fierce silver-white dome limned against the vile pulsing of black, and
Mars had time to hope that the magicks that protected the Queen would
prove equal to this unspeakable attack.  That hope was crushed quickly
as the writhing blackness smashed through those wards, shattering them
into spinning shards of spent energy.  The corrupted lightning poured
down from the centre of the eldritch pattern, shearing through the
extended finger of Larissa's Watch before crashing down upon the
fragile-looking spires of the palace itself.
     Those gathered in the plaza could only watch in horror as the palace
walls crumbled under the force of the attack, stone that had withstood
centuries of war and disaster slowly collapsing into a huge cloud of dust
and smoke that billowed out over the seat of the kingdom's power.  The
black discharges of power danced among the obscured ruins for long
moments, slowly diminishing as their fury was spent and the sky above
the city was once again given to the mundane fury of the storm.
     Mars stood with the others, stark disbelief on her face as she
watched one lone spire begin to lean, then collapse with a sort of liquid
grace into the smoking ruin that had been the most well-defended place in
the entire kingdom.
     None of them spoke.
     And a cold rain began to fall.

***

     Outside the storm was breaking, but V had eyes only for the spot
near the centre of the field where Ranma had disappeared.  Plunging
headlong down the stairs, she finally reached field level where she easily
vaulted the low retaining wall and forged her way onto the torn-up
remains of the artificial turf.
     Outside, nature's fury was erupting, but in here it was suddenly
quiet, and V fought down a sudden surge of panic.
     Why was it so quiet?
     Then the dust began to settle and dissipate, and something moved
out there in the middle of the field.  Something human-sized, and V found
herself laughing in relief and release.  Yes, there she was, climbing out of
a shallow crater as tiny motes of yellow light rose up into the air and
vanished.  Of Fenrir, no other trace remained.
     Ranma had done it.
     "Ranma!" she called, waving her free hand wildly.  "Hey!  Over
here!"
     Ranma stopped in her tracks, gaze shifting to follow the sound of
her voice, and V tried not to grin, but she just couldn't help herself.
Okay, Ranma needed a dressing-down for charging blindly into this nasty
little trap, but that could wait.  For now, she just wanted to savour the
moment.
     "Not bad!" she called, walking forward with a little extra swing in her
hips.  "Maybe we could get you a job as dogcatcher, huh?"
     Ranma moved forward, and a vague unease began to condense
along the flesh at the back of V's neck.  Something wasn't right here.
     "Ranma?"
     The red-head didn't reply.  Her clothes were torn and bloodied, and
blood trickled down her face from a shallow cut above one eye, but
Ranma didn't react as it coursed down her cheek and began to drip from
the end of her chin.  In fact, Ranma wasn't reacting to much at all.
     Her eyes.  V froze, her skin suddenly two sizes too small.
Ranma's eyes were open, but there was nothing of the person V knew in
there.  Those stormy gray-blue eyes were filled with nothing but
insensate rage, and right now that rage had found her.
     Chi flared around the red-headed girl's body, and V's unease
went swiftly from vague to urgent.
     "Ranma!  It's me, V!  It's ME!  Come on, fight's over, Ranma,
Fenrir's gone!  Whoa, hey STOP ...!"
     She had time to wonder if those eyes were the ones Rei had seen
in her vision.
     And then V's world was filled with the sight of an onrushing dragon,
blazing with brilliant blue fire.
 
 

End chapter 20