Previously:

     Separated by the Sisterhood's attack, the group struggled to reunite.  Both Yoshi's senses and
the strange synergistic power that had grown up between Mars and Mercury aided the groups, but an
unexpected complication entered the fray.  Inquisitors from Alieva's order, tipped off by Vanka der
Gris' treachery, entered the tunnels and encountered the senshi and, assuming them to be part of the
Sisterhood plot, immediately engaged them in battle.  Rei's past dealings with their leader
complicated matters even further, but the arrival of Phobos and Deimos created a diversion that
allowed V to take Vestra Carlina hostage.  Meanwhile, the Sisterhood unleashed the rogue
succubus, Maia, on Moon and Tux.  Tux fell under her spell and the princess was forced into a
fierce battle for her lover's life ... and her own.  Wounded, she nonetheless managed to kill Maia and
rescue Tux.
     The rest of the group encountered the Nightmistress who, realising the jig was up, had
already unleashed her attack on Alieva's temple, apparently out of sheer spite, and slipped away in
the ensuing chaos.
     Escaping from the city's perilous underground, the victorious group ran straight into another
problem; a swarm of succubi had isolated part of the city and lured Ranma to them in order to take
the key for their mistress, Hild.  Mara ordered the succubi to keep the senshi busy while the wolf,
Fenrir, killed Ranma.  The battle raged fiercely while Wynneth, realising that the senshi were about
to fall to Hild, decided to intervene. She used the Genosphere as a trojan horse, unleashing her
wraiths within the palace and then attacking Hild's succubi.
     Ranma, driven to the edge by despair, used the key to call up a power he did not know he
possessed, a Storm Dragon made from his chi. That construct wounded Fenrir and destroyed the
Genosphere, scattering the airborne succubi and wraiths but causing untoward consequences,
including a communications blackout.
     At that point Wynneth unleashed a power she had summoned with the coming storm,
smashing the palace defences and levelling the seat of power for the entire kingdom.  Ranma, lost in
a berserker rage, remained unaware of this development as he managed to destroy Fenrir. Then, out
of control, he turned is rage on an unsuspecting Mistress V ...
 
 
 
 

     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 21: Zero Hour
 

     V tried to shout, but the breath had been driven from her body by the force of the impact.
Black dots swam in from the edges of her eyes, doing some sort of demented water-ballet all over
her field of vision. Still, after a few moments things began to register.  Things like the way the
torn-up field was receding beneath her, along with the savagely beautiful silhouette of Ranma's
dragon.  Her unbound hair streamed down from her head, trailing behind her.
     She was upside down.
     And flying.
     The broken roof of Memorial Stadium came into view, then fell away below her smoothly.
V shook her head, sending ripples through her hair as it streamed in the cold wind.  Someone's
shoulder was pressed into her belly, and an arm held her legs tightly.
     Rescued, and just in the nick of time.  But who?
     Her hectic ascent slowed, and V gasped as the arm holding her legs loosened, allowing her to
begin sliding.  She squawked loudly, but was unable to grab on to anything as she was
unceremoniously dumped. The storm-bruised sky spun wildly, righting as fingers grabbed her wrist
in an iron grip.  The battered senshi spun, hanging from the hand of her rescuer, who peered down at
her with a calculating look.
     "In Niffleheim," Mara said wryly, "we had a word for how things went down here.  We
called it a clusterfuck."
     "You saved me," V gasped.  Things were still a little scrambled, but there was little doubt in
her mind that taking the brunt of Ranma's attack would have been catastrophic, if not fatal.
     "So I did," Mara agreed, curls whipping around her narrow face as the gale rose and a
sudden torrent of rain slashed across them in an icy sheet.  "Now you get to return the favour.  Make
a little deal with me, as it were."
     V wasn't fooled by Mara's bright smile.  This wasn't likely to be a deal she wanted to make.
Craning her head to look down, she considered her options.  Slim, she thought glumly, meet none.
     "What kind of deal?"
     "Look, blondie, here it is.  Everything's gone into the toilet here. I got one chance to stay off
my Queen's shit-list, and that's if I bring her that key.  So you help me, and I help you."
     "You want me to help you kill Ranma?" V asked slowly.
     "Don't look at me like that," Mara snorted.  "Your so-called friend would have killed your
tight little ass back there."
     "He's out of control!"
     "An excellent reason to ice him," Mara pointed out.  "Her. Whatever.  Look, you tell me his
weak spot, I punch his ticket, he doesn't kill you, my boss doesn't punish me."
     "That's insane!  No way!"
     "Blondie, I don't think you're seeing the big picture here," Mara sighed.  "You guys have
bigger problems right now than some punk-ass kid with a hyperlink key.  Or did you miss the
show?"
     V had no idea what Mara was talking about until the woman rotated in place, causing the
sprawling cityscape beneath them to turn until V was facing towards the sea.  It took her a few
moments to process what she was seeing.  She was looking towards the tempest-tossed waters, out
across the city, but something was wrong with the view.  There. Where the spires of the palace
should be was only a tattered pall of smoke rising into the roiling skies.
     The palace.  It was ...
     It was GONE.
     "What," V whispered.  "What ... gods, what did you DO?"
     "Wasn't us," Mara informed her casually.  "Somebody else called up some very nasty mojo
to pull that little stunt, and the prospect that they might not be finished doesn't exactly fill me with
joy.  So, one last time.  Do you help me, or do I drop your pretty blonde ass and go pick another
candidate to play 'Let's Make Mara's Day'?"
     V swallowed.  Hard.  The palace had been destroyed.  Ranma was caught in the grips of
some sort of berserker rage, and none of the others could help her.  Frankly, things didn't look so hot
for her.
     So she did what she usually did when reason and planning failed.
     She did something batshit crazy.
     "Time for Plan B, Mara!" she shouted, extending the finger of her free hand.  The golden
streak of light sizzled through the air inches in front of Mara's face, causing the woman to shriek and
flinch.  It also caused her to loosen her grip on V's wrist.
     V twisted, breaking the woman's hold.  This better work, she thought as she started to fall, or
my improvising days are over.  Tucking into a ball, she rolled over, summoning her whip as she
turned.  When Mara came into view again, she hurled the gleaming length of it up with terrified
exhilaration, catching Mara low across the shin and crowing with delight as the shining links slid
down and encircled the startled woman's ankle.  V felt the tension through her back and shoulders as
she swung at the end of her whip, but that was okay.  There was no way she was letting go.
     "You are one crazy bitch!" Mara shouted, face flushed with rage and fear.
     "You have no idea," V grinned, heart still trying to pound its way through her black leather
corset.
     "You're not safe down there, dumbass!" Mara gritted, extending her hand, palm down.
     "Ah ah ahhh," V cautioned, pointing her free hand up.  "You don't want to do that, Mara."
     "You shoot me and you'll fall, moron."
     "True.  But if you shoot me, I'll fall, too," V countered.  "In that case, I'd have nothing to lose
by shooting back.  If I go, I'm taking you with me.  So let's go down.  Slowly."
     Mara stared at her, frustration stark on the planes of her narrow face.  With a little distance
between them, V could counter any of Mara's attacks, ensuring they both fell to their deaths.  And
Mara knew it.  V was counting on Mara's sense of self-preservation to end the stand-off.
     She wasn't counting on Mara having another trick up her sleeve.
     The air above the woman began to glow, and a strange pattern resolved itself out of
nothingness.  With a smirk, Mara soared up through the centre of the pattern.
     Taking V with her.

***

     The rain quickly intensified, plastering Mars' hair against her scalp as the wind drove it at
them in sheets.  The sight of the seat of the kingdom's power crumbling under the assault of darkness
had left them all shaken, but there was nothing any of them could do about it now. They had their
own priorities.
     She led the small group towards the stadium, Mercury bringing up the rear.  The more
injured members of their group stayed in the middle, flanked protectively by the blood-matted gray
wolf.  Mars hoped the sudden chaos, coupled with the breaking storm, would keep the succubi at
bay.  They were in no condition to deal with another attack right now.  They needed to get V and
Ranma away from Fenrir and make good their escape.
     It was hard to hear anything over the din of the pounding rain, and the brittle snap of thunder
wasn't helping in that regard either.  With the comms still out, Mars had no idea what was happening
inside. Hopefully, V had managed to calm Ranma down.
     Otherwise, this was going to be unpleasant.
     They entered through the hole that Ranma and Fenrir had made, helping each other climb
over the loose debris.  At least it was dry inside, and Mars made another attempt to raise V.
     Nothing.
     "Any idea what's affecting our comms?" Jupiter asked as she carefully shook out her sopping
ponytail.
     "Maybe it's related to whatever manifested itself in the storm," Mercury speculated.  Silence
greeted her words.  None of them had said anything about what they had witnessed.  There was, it
seemed, nothing to say.  The attack had crushed the palace utterly in seconds, and for all their
power, there was nothing the senshi could do now.  The palace, and everyone in it, was beyond any
earthly help.  They were not.
     At least, not yet.
     "This way," Mars said finally, wringing water out of her sodden tresses.  The spattering of
drops on the floor only accentuated the quiet; in here, away from the ragged hole in the wall, the
storm's fury was blunted by heavy concrete and steel walls.
     Quiet?  With Ranma fighting Fenrir?
     Dread began nibbling at her gut with tiny, ragged teeth as she ran along the narrow corridor,
the others following behind.  Yoshi moved up beside her, limping but obviously game, but Mars
didn't need the wolf's nose to know where V had gone.  A steel door hung open ahead, the lock a
melted mass of metal.  Mars darted through the doorway and sprinted up the stairs, nearly losing her
footing on the loose concrete that littered the narrow risers.  She caught herself, though, and made it
to the top, skidding to a stop high above the field.
     The devastation was truly impressive.  Brightly coloured seats had been flung hither and
yon, steel railings were shattered, and the playing field was a battleground of raggedly plowed
furrows and smoking craters.  Rain poured in through the ruptured roof, forming a bizarre indoor
weather pattern, but the falling water was the only movement to be seen.
     "Holy crap," Jupiter muttered as she made it up to the top.  "What a mess."
     "What's going on?" the princess asked from below them.  "Are they all right?"
     "Good question," Mercury said in a low voice as Tux struggled to reach their position with
Moon still in his arms.  "Anyone see them?"
     Nobody did.  Mars scanned the field quickly, looking for any sign of their fellow senshi.
Dread provided a painfully real image of a crumpled form, black leather streaked with red, lying
broken on the ravaged field, but it quickly became apparent to her that V was not down there.
Neither was Ranma.
     The absence of bodies loosened fear's grip, but not by much. There were holes and wreckage,
places where a human body might lie hidden.  Fenrir, on the other hand, could not hide so easily.
     And of the unearthly wolf, there was also no sign.
     "Yoshi, wait!"  Jupiter jostled Mars as she tried to grab the injured wolf before he leapt down
to the seats below, but Yoshi evaded her easily despite his injuries.  Cursing while cradling her
injured arm, Jupiter clambered clumsily over the bent railing and followed.
     "Mars?"
     "No sign," she called back to the princess.  "Of any of them."
     By the time they had all reached field level, Mars' unease had grown to something
approaching frantic worry.  Mercury and Jupiter had spread out, but there was no attack, no
ambush, no Fenrir.
     And no V, no Ranma.
     Nothing.
     "My scanner still won't work," Mercury growled, frustration clear in the line of her back as
she tried to scan the area.  "I can't find them!"
     "Scents are confused," a deep, gravelly voice informed them. Yoshi was standing on the far
side of the largest crater, partially transformed back to human.  He towered over Jupiter, his face and
limbs still covered with shaggy fur.  He turned his beast's eyes on them, shaking his head as though
to dislodge bad thoughts.
     "Can you find them, Yosh?" Jupiter asked.  She, too, seemed to be perturbed rather than
reassured by the absence of evidence.  Had Fenrir done something with their friends?  Or had the
succubi returned?
     "The wolf," Yoshi growled, a bestial tone tainting his words.  "Its scent is all around, but
most strong in there."  He nodded curtly to the huge crater, then gave a twitchy half-shrug, moving
quickly away from the torn-up floor.  "V, her scent comes down to here, and then ... nothing."
     "It just stops?" Mercury asked.  Yoshi nodded.
     "Ranma was close, there," Yoshi continued, moving at an easy lope across the artificial turf
of the stadium floor.  "Went out through there."
     Mars frowned.  A large hole had been smashed in the far wall, leading out into the storm.
     "So, what?  Fenrir grabs V, Ranma pursues?" Tux asked.  Mars could see the obvious strain
in the man's stance, hear it in his voice.  That was no great trick, she knew; the others were no doubt
aware it as well, but no one wanted to suggest he put the princess down.  She certainly wasn't going
to. Coming from her, such a suggestion would only serve to harden his resolve.
     "But why?" Mercury asked as they moved toward the gaping wound in the concrete wall.
"Could Ranma have hurt Fenrir badly enough to cause him to retreat?"
     "Well, Ranma was hurting him," Jupiter pointed out.  "Even when we weren't.  Maybe the
wolf got smart and ran."
     "Taking V wasn't smart," the princess told her.  "Ranma won't stop chasing Fenrir if he has
V."
     "Funny," Jupiter said with a wry chuckle.  "We've known the guy for such a short time, but I
agree with the princess.  Ranma won't give up if V's in trouble."
     "And neither will we," Mars said.  They had reached the hole in the wall, and peered out into
the storm.  Visibility was limited and getting worse by the second, but there was no sign of Ranma or
V, much less the huge wolf.  Fortunately, there was no sign of Mara or her succubi allies either,
which meant that now was as good a time as any to slip away.
     "This hole isn't big enough to have been made by Fenrir," Mercury mused, examining the
shattered concrete.
     "Maybe not, but something went that way," Jupiter told her, gesturing at a snapped tree and
two crushed cars with her good arm.
     "Then we follow," Mars said simply.  They stepped carefully through the hole into a small,
partially sheltered alcove.  There would be a decorative garden here later in spring, but now there
was only sodden dirt verged by winter-brown grass, scattered chunks of concrete flung in a
fan-shaped pattern out onto the street.  Rain, driven by the howling winds, managed to reach them
even there, and Mars knew that the storm would end up being a mixed blessing.  It would neutralise
the succubi's aerial advantage, but it would also hamper the group's efforts to locate their friends.
     "The rain is going to wash his scent away quickly," Yoshi rumbled.  "I'll see how far I can
track him."  With that, he was gone into the teeth of the storm.
     "We should get moving," Mars said.  "Put as much distance between us and this place as we
can before those damned succubi come back.  I'll take the point."
     "No," Mercury said.  Mars blinked.
     "What?"
     "I'll take the point," Mercury told her.
     "Look, your tactical advantage is neutralised with the interference," Mars began, frowning at
Mercury's uncharacteristic intransigence.
     "True," Mercury admitted.  "But look at that storm.  Fire magicks will be at a severe
disadvantage out there.  Both my power and Jupiter's are unaffected, even enhanced.  Lots of natural
water and lightning.  Jupiter is hurt, so I'll take the point."
     Mars opened her mouth, closed it as she heard Jupiter stifle a laugh.  She wanted to argue.
Of course she should go.  She always took point.  Plus, she was worried about Ranma and V, and
she ...
     Damn it.  Mercury was right.  If she was honest with herself, she knew Mercury was right.
But it galled her, and she had to fight to swallow the argument that rose to her lips.  Judging by the
look on Moon's face, Mars was not the only one astonished by Mercury's takecharge
pronouncement.
     That's what I get for stirring her up, Mars thought ruefully. Sometimes I miss the days when
I could intimidate people.
     Mercury gave her a sweet smile and even winked before sprinting out into the storm.  Jupiter
didn't bother to hide her grin as she waited a few seconds, then followed.  Mars tried not to be
irritated by the situation.  Characteristically, she failed miserably.
     "Fine," she said, aware that her tone was verging on petulance. "Princess ..."
     "I've got her," Tuxedo Mask informed her.  Mars' famous temper flared at the sight of the
pair.  Despite her earlier resolution not to say anything, it was obvious that Tux was running on
fumes, and with her pride pricked, she found herself abandoning tact.
     "We need to move fast," Mars snapped.  "Just let me take her, would you?"
     Moon looked from one to the other, clearly torn.  Tux, for his part, met Mars' glare with an
icy stare of his own, and Mars could have sworn she smelled the heavy scent of roses in the
rain-laced wind as he straightened.
     "I said I've got her," he repeated, his bearing in that moment recalling his regal heritage.
"You just watch our backs."
     With that, he shifted the princess's battered form in his arms and did something Mars would
have sworn impossible.  He ran out into the icy rain, moving with his usual speed and grace.
     Mars stared after the pair, her wounded pride and temper forgotten in the moment.
Impossible as it seemed, there was no sign that Tux had recently been the victim of a succubus's
appetites.  It should have been at least a full day before his strength returned to anything near
normal.  He had clearly been running on pure grit and stubbornness, and she gave him credit for
that, but she'd fully expected to have to carry both of them before long.
     The warm scent of earth and flowers lingered, and as she prepared to follow the others,
something caught her eye.  She turned, then knelt to get a better look at the ground where Tux had
been standing.
     There.  The impression of his footprints.  As she watched, fresh shoots of green grass pushed
up through the sodden earth, filling the shape of the man's footprints in seconds.  Several small
flowers pushed up in the wake of the grass, growing several inches high and blooming before her
astonished gaze.
     "What in the hells?" she whispered.  In truth, she knew little of the basis for, or extent of,
Tux's powers, but she'd never seen anything like this before.  He did seem to have some link to Earth
Magicks, what with his roses and all.  Had he somehow drawn strength directly from the earth itself?
And why did he seem to have been unaware he was even doing it?
     Troubled for no reason she could really articulate, she stood and set off after the others.

***

     "So much," Mara said cheerfully, "for mutually assured destruction.  I take it you know
where we are?"
     V swallowed the lump that had formed deep in her throat, hoping her fear didn't show.  The
sight of Mara silhouetted against the baleful light of a swollen Nemesis told her all she needed to
know.
     She was in deep shit.
     "So," Mara continued, clearly taking V's silence for assent, "there's no need for histrionics,
right?  Your last visit to our neighbourhood was pretty wild, at least from what I saw.  This time
you're all alone, and if anything happens to me, well, there goes your ticket home.  So let's be
reasonable, okay?"
     "Sure," V said, her mouth dry.  "I can do reasonable."
     "That's what I like to hear!"  Mara's voice was full of joviality, but V didn't miss the
undercurrent of malice.  There was no way she could trust this woman, demon, whatever she was.
The best she could do was play along, try to turn the situation to her advantage.
     Oh, yeah, she told herself sourly.  Trapped in Shadow with a murderous woman of unknown
abilities who wants me to give her Ranma on a platter.  No way to contact the others, and even if
there were, Ranma was in the grip of some sort of berserker rage, half of the team was injured, and
they really had no way of reaching her here anyway.
     On the plus side, it wasn't raining in Shadow.  Not a cloud in the blood-tinged sky.
Whoopee.
     "But you know," V went on, maintaining her bead on Mara, "if I tell you what you want to
know, what's to keep you from just stranding me here anyway?"
     "You don't trust me?"
     "Nothing personal.  I have deep-seated issues with trust," V assured the smirking woman.
"But you see where I'm coming from."
     "Oh, sure," Mara replied.  "But, see, agreements, contracts if you will, between my kind and
mortals are sacrosanct.  If we make a deal, I'm bound to it as much as you are."
     "Gods," V breathed, eyes widening.  "You ... you're worse than a monster.  You're a
LAWYER."
     Mara unleashed a clear, genuine peal of laughter at that as V struggled to take in the details
of her surroundings without losing her focus on her captor.  They had drifted lower in a lazy arc,
towards the roof of the stadium.  Oddly, there was damage to this version similar to that inflicted by
Fenrir ...
     Whoa.  Wait a second.
     "A lawyer," Mara chuckled.  "Damn it, blondie, there's no reason to be insulting."
     "Sorry," V said sweetly.  There, in the periphery of her vision, a pall of smoke and dust
rising into the sky.  Yeah.  Okay.  Time for the Mistress V Special, Mark II: wild improvisation with
a side order of looney, hold the odds.  Because it had worked so damned well the first time.  "It's just
that, well, you were talking about needing Ranma to placate your boss ..."
     "So?"  Mara's inquiry seemed casual, but V wasn't fooled.  The woman was canny and on
her guard, despite having all the advantages.
     "Well, I don't think that's going to be an issue any more," V pointed out.  "What with the
attack on the palace and all."
     "I told you, we didn't ..."  Mara trailed off, comprehension flitting through her narrow eyes,
and she wheeled, something akin to panic taking hold of her expression in the space of a heartbeat.
     Two things happened nearly simultaneously.  First, Mara's gaze fell upon the smoking,
shattered ruin of the Shadow palace, off in the distance behind them.
     Second, V released her whip and thrust her free hand out, sending a storm of tiny, gleaming
hearts knifing through the still, dank air of Shadow and into Mara, taking advantage of the
momentary distraction to blast Mara's slender form, sending it pinwheeling loosely through the sky.
     V didn't have time to admire her handiwork, though.  She tucked herself into a ball as she
fell, spinning to bring the roof of the stadium into view.  They had drifted closer to the dome, true,
but the drop was going to hurt nonetheless.  She barely had time to brace herself before the gray
dome rushed up to meet her, the force of the impact driving the breath from her in a rush.  V rolled,
losing her bearings as she struggled to draw a breath.  Her legs were numb, black spots danced
around in her eyes and the sky spun crazily.
     She was down.  And she was rolling off the damned curve of the dome.
     V tried to slow her descent, but her body didn't want to obey, and the battering from her
tumbling wouldn't let up.
     Then it did, and she was in free-fall again.  Desperately she flung out her hand, catching a
glimpse of the roof's edge through a storm of blonde locks.  Grabbing at as much of her scattered
concentration as she could, she threw all her strength into summoning her whip, sending it snaking
out.  For a heart-stopping instant she was sure nothing would happen, but a string of familiar
gleaming motes finally coalesced into the sinuous form of salvation as she plummeted, and the whip
slithered up to wind around the neck of one of the gargoyle statues.
     At least, she hoped it was a statue.  If it was real, she was going to be in even deeper trouble,
something she hadn't thought possible only moments ago.  V gritted her teeth and drew the whip
slowly tight, letting her momentum carry her body into an arc along the side of the stadium's wall.
Just snagging the gargoyle would have probably pulled her arms from their sockets; as it was, she
held on for dear life, gasping for breath as she swung in a long arc, her body spinning at the end of
the whip and bouncing two or three times off the cold concrete wall..
     After a few long, dizzying swings coupled with delightful, bone jarring impacts, she had
regained enough of her faculties to extend the whip and lower herself to the plaza below.
Thankfully, the gargoyle was indeed every bit as inanimate as its counterpart on the other stadium,
and as her boots hit the ground V murmured a quick thanks to the goddess of bravos and
madwomen.
     But there was no time to waste.  She had to get out of this plaza; it was wide open, devoid of
cover.  Fighting to get her breathing under some semblance of control, V half-limped, half-sprinted
to the far end of the open plaza, ignoring the itch that had begun to crawl along the flesh between her
shoulder blades.  Even if her sucker-shot had KO'd Mara, there were plenty of other dangerous
things in Shadow, like wraiths, and the strange beasts they'd fought before.  And that wasn't even
taking into account the horrors that could be lurking here unbeknownst to lovely blonde senshi; after
all, until recently, nobody had realised that this Crimson Queen had created a court of succubi here.
Not to mention the Black King.
     By the time V reached cover, it felt like an army of ants was skittering down her back.  Way
to give yourself the screaming heebiejeebies, Aino, she thought blackly as she plastered her back to
the wall of a narrow alley.  Shadows were deep here, and V weighed the danger of moving deeper
into the alley against the threat of aerial attack.  Succubi had filled the sky before that explosion
scattered them like so many leaves, but V had no idea how great a percentage of the Crimson
Queen's forces they represented.  Any succubi that hadn't been in this realm's palace might still be
lurking about.  Not to mention incubi emboldened by their rivals' misfortune.
     Or the vampire's wraiths.  Yeah, the alley would do just fine.
     Cautiously, V summoned a short length of whip and set it to spinning.  She didn't want to
create too much of that golden light.  In this place, light would draw attention.  No, just enough to
reveal any hazards was the way to go.
     She snorted.  Hazards.  Like, for instance, being trapped in Shadow Realm with no way out?
Yeah, that might qualify.  Grimly, V pushed on, orienting herself as she reached the far end of the
alley.  She had a rough idea of where Mara should have landed.  Assuming that the woman had been
incapacitated by V's attack, the best plan of action was to find her before she recovered and force her
to take them back out of Shadow.  Okay, it was a pretty thin plan, but right now it was the only
thing standing between V and the gnawing sense of panic uncoiling from her gut.
     Had the others even seen what had happened to her?  When the dust settled, they would look
for her, but it would never occur to them that she might be here.  What then?
     V thought of the strange link that Rei and Ami shared and felt a pang of jealousy.  What she
wouldn't give for that link right now.  And how weird was it that Rei and Ami, of all people, were
linked in such a way?  Their powers were diametrically opposed, not to mention their natures, and
anything involving mind-blowing sexual ecstasy?  That was Minako territory, all the way.
     Her comm still wouldn't work, which was no surprise.  She knew from experience that she
wouldn't be able to sense Artemis's presence, although that didn't stop her from trying.  She was cut
off, alone.  Even Ranma ...
     Ranma.  What had happened?  That chi manifestation had been glorious, terrifying, and the
only thing capable of stopping Fenrir.  But what had it done to Ranma?  Was he okay now?  Would
he be looking for her?  Maybe that key, whatever it was, could help him find her here. It had gotten
them out last time, after all.
     And she had no doubt he would search for her.  They had known each other for such a short
time, but V felt the bond that was developing between them.  Ranma might be all reticence and
wounded distance on the outside, but he was the kind of man that followed his heart with a
vengeance.  And V knew that, however confused that boy was, she had taken up residence his heart.
     And when he finally found her, she was going to kiss him until his spine melted.  Then she
was going to let him find a way to make it up to her for almost eating her with his chi dragon.
     Those thoughts helped distract her as she flitted like a ghost from shadow to shadow, staying
close to the high walls of the buildings here, using her whip for light only when absolutely necessary.
As the minutes crawled past, her chances of finding Mara before something found her danced further
and further from the realm of reasonable.
     And then something grabbed her from behind.

***

     Cold.
     It chased me out from wherever I'd been with its dull, frigid ache, and dimly I thought I
might have been feeling it for a while.  Then wet joined the festivities, and a whole raft of physical
sensations came riding along just behind.
     I pulled in a shaky breath, another.  Opened my eyes.  I was lying on pavement, wet
pavement, and frigid lines of rain were drilling into my back, hitting the ground so hard that they
formed a mist where they bounced back up.  It was hard to move, took forever to get my arms to do
what I wanted, which was to lift me off the ground.
     I was lying in the middle of a street.  Water ran down my face, coursing maliciously from the
end of my nose as I peered around blearily.  I'd woken up in some pretty strange places in my time,
but rarely one as bleak as this.  Not to mention that I felt like I'd had every ounce of strength rung
out of me, with freezing water rushing in to fill the void.
     This wasn't good.  At least there was no traffic, I thought fuzzily as I tried to muster the
strength to get up.  It would suck to get run down in the road after ... after ...
     After what?  What the hell had happened, anyway?  Disjointed images flickered across the
inside of my skull, fighting, running, the usual crap ...
     Fenrir.
     I'd thought it had been cold before, but this new frost settled into my soul, where the mere
physical misery couldn't reach.  I struggled to reach my knees, fighting off drowning waves of
light-headedness and nausea.  It had all been going bad, the succubi, the giant wolf, Mara, all of
them. So I'd ...
     I'd what?  I remembered hopelessness, despair, and above all, anger.  I'd wanted to strike
back against them, all of them.  Had I? Fenrir had been charging, and I'd tried to reproduce whatever
effect I'd used against Arj.  Things got hazy, then.  It all seemed vaguely dreamlike, unreal.
     And now I was here, caught in the teeth of a wild storm, no stadium, no Fenrir, no senshi.
     Alone.
     My heart started racing.  Alone.  Where was everyone?
     Gone, the little voice in my head mocked me.  All gone.
     No.  Just like before.  Just like ... like home ...
     Or are you still home?  Did you ever leave?
     I fell back on all fours, driven down by the storm's fury combined with sudden dread.
     Maybe you passed out on the street in Nerima.  Rescue, another world where your friends all
survived, where you weren't a failure, what a sweet dream ...
     "No."  My voice was lost in the drumming rain, the snarling wind.
     And then travelling, finding lovely senshi who befriend you, take you in?  And want to share
you in ways you can't imagine?  Really?  What a pleasant dream to pass the last moments of your
hopeless life ...
     A feeling of unreality settled over me, the comforting detachment somehow familiar.  There
were flashes of memory, of wandering alone, of bodies and carnage and fighting ...
     "NO!"  I came up again, shuddering, clawing at the rain like a madman.  And maybe I was
just that, a madman, the last madman in Japan, maybe the world, lost in a fever dream and waiting
for the end. They'd find me soon, follow the screaming, and then I could go down fighting, and it
would end, there'd be peace and I could rest ...
     It was like I could feel it happening, the cogs and gears of my mind just starting to spin out
of synch, thought and memory jumbling, getting dim, getting LOST.  And for a moment, I just
wanted to stay there and let it happen.  I was vaguely aware that this particular madness had fallen
on me once before, after Ukyou had died (years ago? Seconds?).  And I'd been left alone.  Was still
alone.  Had always been ...
     Something was digging into my waist.  That shouldn't have seemed important, but the
sensation cut through the mental fog, demanding attention.  Fingers made clumsy by cold scrabbled
weakly at the waistband of my pants even as I wondered why I was bothering.
     Why ...?
     The outline was curved.  A metal crescent, tucked against my skin.  I'd put it there, when ...
     Minako.  Her Crescent Compact.  She'd made me dry clothes.  I gasped, and it was like
pulling the world back into me along with the cold and the wet.
     She was real.  It was all real.  Wake up, Saotome.  Wake the hell up, GET the hell up, right
NOW!
     I shook my head, water spattering off my sodden hair.  I was still shaking, but not just from
the cold.  I'd been right on the edge of something, something very bad, that ever popular abyss,
maybe.  And I'd been that close to sliding over the edge.  A part of me had wanted to.
     But now I was back.
     "V?" I called.  My voice was hoarse, weak, and I could barely hear myself over the din of the
storm.  I staggered to my feet after two attempts, nearly falling the second time.  Standing there,
swaying, I knew I was in bad shape.  It wasn't just being drenched in icy rain, either.  I had all the
strength of a wet noodle.  Whatever I'd done, it had drained my reserves.
     But had it worked?
     "V!  Mars!  Princess?  ANYBODY?"
     Nothing.  Damn it.  No sign of Mara, the succubi, or Fenrir.  Had the others escaped, or had
they been captured?  And where the hell was I, anyway?  I turned slowly, realising that even though
I was in the middle of a city street, there'd been no traffic at all since I'd woken up.  The buildings
around me seemed run down, maybe even abandoned.  It reminded me of the neighbourhood V,
Mars and I had passed through after escaping the subway tunnel, the one near the border to the old
city. But, for all I knew, the city was full of mostly abandoned areas like this.
     None of which helped me.  All I really needed to know was where the others were, and there
didn't seem to be any indication of that. If I'd had one of those little earring communicators, I could
have called them, but that was not happening.  Hell, without knowing where I was, I couldn't even
find my way back to Minako's place.  Or Ami's house, since that was likely where they'd go.
     If they were okay.
     I shook my head fiercely and immediately regretted it as a wave of dizziness hit me.
Dwelling on things I couldn't control would get me nowhere.  Doing something, anything, was better
than doing nothing.
     I turned slowly.  There.  That way felt right, somehow, a faint sense of rightness like a
half-forgotten memory.  Maybe it was nothing, but it was all I had.
     Gathering the few wits I had left, I wiped the water from my eyes and set out through the
raging storm.

***

     V struggled as she was pulled into darkness, stumbling against something yielding, warm.  A
hand was clamped over her mouth, and as she and her assailant were propelled back to a sudden stop
against a wall, a strangely accented voice hissed into her ear.
     "Merde!  Stop struggling, they'll hear us!  Please!"
     V froze, and in that moment something flashed by outside the doorway she'd been pulled
through, a winged form bathed in crimson light and flying only feet above the ground.
     A succubus.  And moments later, another.  As V balanced the threat outside against that of
her unknown benefactor, the very air seemed to tremble with the force of a cry that resounded just
below audibility, grinding atoms of air against each other.  V had no wish to know just what was
capable of making such a sound.
     She very nearly found out anyway.  Something blocked out the corrupt moonlight, and
although she could make out no details, the embattled senshi's senses cried out at its nearness.  It was
huge and yet seemed to move without making any sound at all.
     Until it unleashed another of those dreadful cries.
     And then it was gone.
     "A mixed blessing," that exotic voice breathed hotly into her ear. "It is tracking the succubi.
They will not have time to search for us."
     V pulled the slender hand away from her mouth, spinning neatly as she put some space
between her and the stranger.  A shadowed form slumped against the bare wall, hands held up in a
placating gesture, making no move to attack.  Which made sense.  As V's racing pulse finally began
to slow, she realised that this woman had saved her life. Had she continued on, she'd have run
headlong into the succubi, as well as whatever Shadow beast was hunting them.
     "Who the hells are you?" V hissed, mindful to keep her voice low.  Safety, in this place, was
certain to be nebulous and fleeting.
     "A friend," was the reply.  The woman moved slowly away from the wall and into the
uncertain light, and V let her, keeping a respectable buffer of space between them.  She was dressed
in unusual clothes of a style V had never seen before.  The two women were of a height, the stranger
wearing her glossy dark hair in a smooth, shoulder length cap, a long ponytail falling in back to her
ankles.  She was slender and well-built, and her face ...
     V stiffened, bringing her hand up as those aristocratic features were revealed.  Adorning the
pale skin of the woman's forehead was a diamond marking, with similar patterns on each cheek.
And V had seen markings not totally unlike those before.
     "You're like Mara," V said flatly.
     A torrent of verbiage in a flowing language V had never heard before erupted from the
slender beauty's mouth.  "I am nothing like Mara!" she spat, her eyes catching the crimson light as
she raised her chin haughtily.  "And I never will be, no matter how Hild tries to tempt me!"
     "Right," V said slowly.  The woman's anger seemed genuine. "Uh, sorry.  Those markings on
your face ..."
     "We are opposite numbers, Mara and I," the woman told her, a bit stiffly.  "But come.  We
must not tarry here.  I used what little strength I had managed to hoard in my escape, and they will
be searching for us."
     "Us?"  V raised one eyebrow.  "Look, lady, thanks for the help and all, but I have problems
of my own right now.  We should split up ..."
     "Non!  You must listen ..."  V stepped back instinctively as the woman wrapped her arms
around her body suddenly, a soft cry escaping her lips.  A soft light suffused the small, sparsely
furnished room as a form coalesced from the woman's back, and all of V's suspicion and wariness
was forgotten in an instant.
     "What in the hells?"  Her voice sounded faint to her ears as she gaped, awestruck.  The
female form that rose behind the stranger was wreathed in pale radiance and something more, a
sense of rightness, of purity and goodness that pushed at more than just the physical darkness of
Shadow.  Blonde hair tumbled around angelic features, the eyes which sought out V's deep and kind
but burdened with a sorrow that the senshi wanted, in that moment, to banish, no matter what it
took.
     Especially if it had something to do with the dully gleaming chains wrapped around that
glimmering form.
     "Rose," the woman gasped, reaching up to touch the bound spirit. "It's all right.  Calm
yourself."  The phantom named Rose keened softly in response, and V found herself drawn towards
the pair inexorably, all suspicion forgotten.
     "What happened?" V whispered.
     "Rose is part of me," the woman replied, her voice tight.  "By binding her, Hild has bound
the greater part of my power."
     That name again.  "Hild?"
     "Mara's mistress.  The succubi call her the Crimson Queen."
     "Oh.  Her.  Yeah, I've heard she's bad news."
     "You have heard correctly."
     "Listen, uh ..."
     "I am Peorth."
     "Call me V.  I can try to cut through these chains with my magick."  Peorth shook her head.
     "Pure mithril," she informed V.
     "Say, there's some kind of lock here," V breathed, moving for a better look.  "I've never seen
anything like it before, but ... well, locks are kind of a specialty of mine.  If I had my tools, I could
try to get it open."
     "Nothing would please me more than to be free of this bondage," Peorth told her as Rose
reluctantly disappeared back into her mistress's body.  "But right now, time is short.  The Warden is
in terrible danger ..."
     "What?  How do you know about him?"  Without Rose's influence, V felt suspicion
beginning to worm its way back in.  What in the hells was going on?
     "I was Hild's prisoner," Peorth told her.  "She used my link to captured Aesir technology to
watch you the last time you were here, and again when Mara attacked you earlier.  But when the
sphere was destroyed, we lost contact ..."
     "Sphere?  What sphere?"
     "An artifact constructed by a Genrous named Silkaine," Peorth replied, a trace of impatience
tinging her words.  "Listen to me, there is little time!  Your friend, the Warden, has called up a wild
power he may not be able to control!"
     "You're not kidding," V muttered.
     "I was fortunate to escape," Peorth told her, edging towards the doorway.  "Hild's stronghold
was hit by some unknown force.  I didn't think anything in Shadow could breach her defences."
     "The palace in our world was destroyed," V said, her stomach knotting as she recalled the
sight.  "Mara said that she didn't do it."
     "Yes," Peorth mused.  "Catastrophic effects in your world can be translated into this one,
although the degree of effect seems random. Hild's palace was not completely destroyed, but the
damage was great enough to free me and separate us long enough for me to escape.  I can't imagine
what could have damaged the human queen's palace that badly, though.  Still, Hild will soon have
her few remaining forces searching for me.  And, assuming Mara or the succubi brought you here,
they will be looking for you as well.  It is fortunate we found each other."
     Yeah ... yeah."  V's skin prickled lightly as a happy thought came to her.  "Hey, Peorth.
Mara actually brought me here through a portal she generated.  Can you do that, too?"
     "Ordinarily, I could get you home," Peorth said.  "But my power is almost completely
neutralised.  Although ..."
     "What?  You have an idea?"
     "Indeed," Peorth said after a long moment.  "Come.  We must hurry."

***

     Mara winced as she pulled herself from the remains of the wall she'd hit on her way down.
Damn that girl!  She was sneaky, and damned strong, too.  Mara'd barely been able to pull together
a shield on the way down.  Even so, she'd been knocked senseless.  No telling how much time had
passed.
     Her trump card was gone.
     Damn.  She didn't have the key.  She didn't have the sphere.  She didn't know what had
happened to the succubi who'd been with her. Fenrir was toast.  And Hild's palace had suffered
significant sympathetic damage from the attack in the other realm.
     Hild was going to be in a truly foul mood.  And she had a way of taking those moods out on
her loyal minion.
     "Man," Mara gasped, slowly climbing to her feet.  "This day just keeps getting worse and
worse ..."
     So.  What to do?  Return to the palace and face the music?  Nope, not yet.  Back to the
mortal realm, then?  Huh.  Warden or not, the kid had broken Fenrir, and now he was consumed by
battle rage.  No way was Mara going up against that.
     That left searching the area for the blonde cupcake.  Mara owed her some payback, and if
she gave Hild a playtoy who was personally acquainted with key-boy, that might help her case.
     Shaking dust and small bits of rock out of her hair, Mara gave her clothes a desultory
dusting and took to the air.  She didn't hold out much hope of finding V in one piece.  Even if the
crazy minx had survived the fall, Shadow was a very dangerous place.  As the minutes dragged on
with no trace of her quarry, Mara began to despair.  This was starting to look like a waste of time.
V might already be dead.
     Or not.  There, a ruckus on the ground.  Pulse speeding up, Mara grinned and rocketed
groundwards.  As she came close to the empty boulevard, though, she saw something quite
unexpected.  A woman was fleeing down the middle of the street, a human woman.  Behind her, a
pack of Shadow Hounds tore at their prey, a snarling wraith.
     Weird.  It looked to Mara like the wraith had brought the woman through, only to get
ambushed.  In fact, the Hounds overwhelmed the creature even as Mara watched, several of their
number breaking from the pack to pursue the woman.  With prey's uncanny instinct, she chose that
moment to look back and scream.
     Yeah, Mara thought with grim amusement.  That'll help.  Still, she altered her course,
swooping down to snag the woman a few seconds before the Hounds would have brought her down.
Mara held the woman tightly around the waist, soaring high above the street and out of reach of the
hunters, who bayed their displeasure.  Mara grinned and gave them the finger.
     "What ... oh, gods," the woman gasped.  "Gods.  Who are you?  What is this place?"
     "First time in Shadow, huh?" Mara asked casually.
     "Shadow?"  The woman's eyes were glazed with shock.  She was quite beautiful, Mara
noted, even in her current state.  Her glasses were askew across the bridge of her aquiline nose, her
raven hair had begun to escape from a tight bun, and her full lips were parted with panicked gasps.
She wore a white lab coat liberally sprayed with red, and Mara was quite certain that it was blood.
And not the woman's, either.
     "I'm Mara.  And you are?"
     "Muh-Mariko.  Indis."
     "So, what's your story, Mariko Indis?"  She was a looker.  The succubi would be more than
happy to have her as a pet.  That, however, would not help Mara with Hild.  And Mara had no doubt
that, whatever damage the palace had suffered, Hild would have survived.  The woman was the
consummate survivor.
     "The lab," Mariko said slowly.  Their bodies were pressed together, and Mara could feel the
woman's heart against her own chest, vibrating like the wings of a hummingbird.  "Oh, gods, they
killed Professor Lewdine.  He tried to stop them.  With a coat rack.  He tried ... they killed him."
     "Yeah, I got that part.  Tell me about this lab, Mariko."
     "What?  The lab?  In the palace.  We were studying the sphere, and they came out of it.
Wraiths.  They shouldn't have been able to do that.  And they killed.  Everyone.  Almost."
     "Not you."  A lab in the palace?  Interesting.
     "The thing, that wraith, it took me," Mariko said, breathless.  Her eyes began to focus on
Mara's face.  "It brought me here.  To its mistress. I think ... I think she's the vampire.  I think ... but
those things attacked, and ..."
     "Mariko, you work with stuff like the sphere a lot?"
     "What?  Why, yes, I ... I'm the senior ... I work under Professor Lewdine."
     "Not any more.  I assume that's him all over your pretty lab coat?"
     "Oh, gods," Mariko whispered, looking down.  "This can't be real.  This ... who are you?"
     "You know a lot about secrets, I'll bet," Mara mused.  Not what she'd been after, but better
than a kick in the ass with a frozen boot. "Magickal tech, stuff the human queen got her hands on."
     "I don't know what you mean."  Mariko's eyes were wide, but she finally seemed to be
getting her bearings.  Too late, girl, Mara thought.  You've already spilled too much.
     "Sure you do.  You know, I work for a woman who could probably use someone with talents
like yours.  Or you could go back down with them."  Mara tilted, feeling the tension arc through
Mariko's body as the ground came into view below, Hounds still snarling around the scattered
remains of the wraith.
     "Please."  Mariko closed her eyes.  She didn't want to see. That was good.  That was very
good.
     "Well, then," Mara beamed.  "Let's make a deal."

***

     "Raine, wake up."
     Raine didn't want to wake up.  She felt like a hundred pounds of shit in a ninety pound bag.
She tried to shoo the voice away, but although it was gentle, it was certainly insistent.
     "Raine.  You are needed."
     "Greely," she mumbled.  "Go away."
     "I assure you," her friend said, his tone as dry as the Wastelands, "that will not be a problem.
Raine, listen.  You need to find Gar.  The Queen needs him near.  It's very important.  Remember
that."
     "Tam, I don't want to hear that."  Gar would be lucky if she didn't skin him alive, that
scoundrel.  He ...
     "Raine."
     Her eyes opened.  Or one did.  There seemed to be a problem with the other one.  She was
lying on her back, and Raine felt a moment of panic, as though she had forgotten something very
important, something crucial.  She blinked rapidly, and the face that came into focus above her
wasn't that of Tamiten Greely, but of Queen Kendra.  Was she sleeping in Kendra's lap?  Raine tried
to spring to her feet, but she only made it a short was before collapsing back down, coughing.
     "Easy," Kendra said, helping ease her back down.  "Take it easy, Raine.  I'm not sure how
bad your injuries might be."
     Injuries?  What in the hells?
     And then it came rushing back, and Raine reached up, ignoring how her hand shook as she
gripped the young queen's shoulder and pulled herself up.  Something had attacked the palace.
Morris had been reporting from the watch, and then ... and then what?  A deafening roar, light and
heat, a jumble of sensations.  Raine's head swam for a moment, and she raised her other hand to
touch her face.  A makeshift bandage covered her left eye.  Or what was left of it.  Which, it seemed
to her, was not much.  Damn.
     And they weren't in the control room anymore.
     "How bad?" she asked, looking around carefully.
     "Whatever hit us, it blew through the palace's defences," Kendra told her, still supporting
Raine.  "I can't even imagine what kind of power that took."
     "The others?"  But she knew already.  Greely.  That hadn't been a dream.  She'd lived in this
city too long to mistake a parting message from a shade of the dead.
     Goodbye, old man.  I'll miss you.
     "Raine, we were deep inside the palace.  Everything was coming down.  There's no way
anyone survived.  Tam, all my ministers, the staff, the guards ... they're all gone."
     It was too much to take in, and that was a small mercy.  All her guards, handpicked and
trained by her.  Hinari, that girl in the kitchen who always got her Kennarian tea.  Yaster Fenni,
whose teasing she secretly enjoyed every time their paths crossed.  Too much.  She was Captain of
the Royal Guard, even if that force currently consisted of only her.  And there was a job to do.  She
took a deep breath.
     "But we're alive," Raine noted.  "How?"
     In reply, Kendra pointed to something lying beside her on the smooth rock.  Galiraithe.  The
blade seemed to almost shimmer in the dim yellowish light.
     "I don't understand, Majesty."
     "Whatever power hit us, Galiraithe reacted to it," Kendra said, her eyes dark as she gazed
down at the legendary blade.  "It surrounded me with a glow, and the wave of darkness ended up
punching me down through the floor.  Far down, by the looks of it.  You threw yourself at me as the
roof started to collapse, which is the only reason you're alive."
     "I see."  Incredible.  There were many legends surrounding the sword carried by every queen
since the kingdom had been founded, but Raine had never heard of anything like this.  "Galiraithe
protected you."
     "Only me," Kendra said, her voice edged with anger.  "None of the others."
     "Majesty ..."
     "They were right there, Raine!  Greely was only a few feet away! I could have grabbed him,
too!  Or ..."
     "Apparently, it doesn't work that way," Raine said firmly.  "And that is not your fault."
     "Don't lecture me, Raine."
     "Then don't dwell on what might have been."  Raine gave the young queen a level stare.
"We've all experienced the vagaries of great power in our lives.  Why do the gods save one but not
another?  Why are some judged worthy to wield great magicks, while others labour in mediocrity?"
     "That's not the same!"
     "Maybe."  Raine shook her head, instantly regretted it.  "Ow."
     "You caught the edge of the shock wave," Raine said immediately, reaching out to steady
the other woman.  "And I lost my grip on you when we reached bottom."
     "Bottom."  Raine looked around at the curved walls.  A tunnel beneath the palace.  But not
the one she should have been looking at.
     "This isn't one of the emergency access links, is it?"
     "No," Raine said.  "It isn't."  She climbed slowly to her feet, taking inventory of her injuries
as she did so.  She was a mass of bruises, and it felt like she might have a cracked rib or two, but the
runes inside her battered breastplate had already kicked in, helping mask the pain. Those spells
would heal lesser injuries, but they were limited in power, meant for emergency battlefield use.  And
no healing rune would help her eye.
     Still, she could stand, and she would be able to function.  That was what mattered.
     The tunnel they were in was smaller than the main links that ran under the palace and served
many purposes, mostly in times of war. Their existence was not widely known, but they were still
heavily patrolled, and access to the palace's lower levels was controlled through a single chokepoint.
     This tunnel had to be below that network.  The soft light came from magestones set in the
wall, and Raine considered the possibilities
     "Most of the tunnels from the First Sidhe War were sealed long ago," she said at last.  "I
think this has to be one of those.  Maybe it was missed, or deliberately left off the maps of the time."
     "Where does it go?"
     "Well," Raine said, looking behind them, "we can't go back."  If there'd still been access to
the surface from that way, it was gone now. Whatever force had let them survive the descent to this
level had brought the tunnel down behind them.  It was completely choked with rock.  "If this is one
of the old accessways, it would have been mainly used as an escape route during siege."
     "Well," Kendra murmured, moving up beside the battered captain, "let us hope that's still the
case."
     "Hmmm."
     "What?"
     "Most of those tunnels led either to the harbour or to the eastern districts.  We should hope
for the former.  Otherwise, we're in for a long walk."
     Raine automatically checked her gear as she worked the kinks out of her battered body.  Her
guns were in place, as well as the extra ammo.  And her sword as well, which was good.  Her
armour was dented and scratched, but not pierced; the runes were still doing their work.  Her rib was
barely an itch now, and her knee, which felt stiff, was similarly benefiting from the runes inside the
high boots she wore.
     "Raine."
     "Majesty?"
     "Something broke the palace defences.  It very well may be waiting up there for us."
     "Well, Majesty," Raine grunted, adjusting the bandage over her eye.  "That's why you have
me."
     "I knew I kept you around for a reason.  Can you walk?"
     "The Grievs are made of stern stuff, Majesty."
     "That's why they make such excellent guardsmen," Kendra said with a faint smile.
     "Indeed we do.  Come on, Majesty.  The enemy's taken their shot.  Now it's our turn."
     Steeling herself against the unknown threats of this forgotten burrow, Raine set off into the
gloom, the young queen at her back.

***

     The world was drenched in icy rain and cloaked in a raging gale, but Yoshi stood in the teeth
of the storm as though it was a calm day in the first blushes of spring.  Jupiter felt a rush of heat
under her sodden skin at the sight of him, naked and rain-slicked, easy, feral grace radiating from his
rangy form even when standing still.
     In that moment, she ached for the warmth of her bed, his heat beside her.  Or on top of her ...
     Bad, she told herself sternly.  Focus.  V and Ranma are still missing in action.
     Shaking her head, Jupiter sluiced the water out of her eyes with one gloved hand and moved
out to meet the werewolf.  His wounds seemed to have closed, and the rain had washed the blood
away.  Silver hadn't been used; he'd be as good as new in no time.  Her shoulder still hurt like hell, a
dull, rotted-tooth throb, and she envied him his ability to heal.  Senshi healed pretty quick, but not
that quick.  She had a day or two before she'd be back to normal.  Still, she'd taken her arm out of
the makeshift sling for the moment.  She wanted the mobility if it should prove necessary.  It'd hurt,
but she was willing to pay that price.
     A low flat industrial building sat off to one side of their position, a warren of small streets in
front of them.  A small, boarded up building, little more than a shack really, slumped wearily at the
nearest intersection, and beyond that, a wasteland of old stone and brick warehouses crowded the
narrow streets.
     This neighbourhood had seen better days, that much was certain.
     "Hey, Yosh," she called.  Even with the din of the rain, he had almost certainly heard her
coming, but she didn't want to spook him.  It had been a hard day.
     All around, she added silently.
     "He went straight through there," Yoshi said, not turning. "Never turned from this path.  He
knows where he's going."
     "Or he's following Fenrir," Jupiter guessed.
     "No other scents," Yoshi stated.  "And now Ranma's is completely washed away.  I'm no
more good to you."
     "Yoshi ..."
     "I have to leave."  He turned to her, and Jupiter saw why immediately.  He'd reverted to full
human form, but there was a wildness in his pale eyes that she well knew.  Yoshi was dangerously
close to the edge.
     "The moon?"
     "I can feel it," he told her, a rough edge lurking in his words. "Stronger than usual.  The
lunar alignment, it's unpredictable for us.  I have to go."
     Stay, she wanted to say.  But he couldn't.  She could protect him from many things, but not
from himself.  Even if it was hard to accept, she had learned long ago that it was the truth.  "Be
careful," she said instead.
     He stepped forward, catching her off-guard, and then she was pressed against the lean
muscle of his chest, head tilted back as he kissed her.  It was hot, his mouth, hungry, and she could
taste the untamed need in that intimate contact, desiring to break its leash and consume them both.
But even in that moment of careless passion, when his hand slid around her waist to draw her near
he was careful not to bump her injured arm.
     Jupiter thought she might whimper as the kiss re-ignited her earlier thoughts of bed and
intimate heat, but all too soon Yoshi tore his mouth from hers and was gone, running into the
sheeting rain.
     "Whoo-hoo!" a cry rose from behind her.  "Hot stuff!"
     "Princess."  Jupiter's brow furrowed slightly as she watched Tux and Moon emerging from
the storm.  She certainly hadn't expected them to be so close behind her.  And the way Tux was
moving, easily yet coiled with dangerous grace, was a surprise to her.  The succubus had left him
about as strong as a ratty washcloth, but he was certainly looking his old self now.
     "He got something?" Tux asked as they drew near.
     "He had to leave," Jupiter told him.  "The moon.  It's getting too strong.  And the rain's
washed Ranma's scent away."
     "Damn."
     "But Yoshi says he never deviated.  Straight line, all the way. We can keep following this
path."
     "Easily enough," Moon added, clinging to Tux's shoulders. "Wherever the path leaves the
street, something smashed holes in fences. And buildings.  And everything else that got in the way.
But why would Ranma do that?"
     "You two stay here a minute," Tux said, his eyes suddenly narrowed.  "I'll be right back."
     "Trouble?" Jupiter asked as he set Moon gently on her feet.  Tux just shook his head and
vanished quickly into the shimmering gray rain.
     "I love a man with broad shoulders," the princess sighed, leaning on Jupiter for support.
     "Me, too," Jupiter admitted, recalling the feel of Yoshi's broad back under her hands, hot
even through her gloves.  "How you doing?"
     "Okay," Moon told her.  She'd changed her outfit back to her fuku, but her leg still looked
bad.  Jupiter was sure she was lying about being okay, but let it go.  The princess wouldn't rest until
they found V and Ranma.  And she wasn't alone.  "Mercury?"
     "Up ahead, I guess," Jupiter shrugged, supporting the bedraggled princess with her good
arm.  "I hope we catch up to V and Ranma soon. Even in senshi form, this rain's damned cold."
     "They're okay," the princess told her firmly.  "I know it."
     Ever the optimist.  Jupiter wanted to believe that was true, but she was beginning to have a
bad feeling about the path they'd been taking. Before she could articulate her suspicions, though,
another familiar form emerged from the storm.
     "What's happening?" Mars asked, raking her long, wet hair back with both hands as she
approached.  Jupiter fought the urge to scowl.  She and the princess looked like drowned rats, yet
somehow Mars managed to appear sleek and elegant, as though she'd just emerged from under some
tropical waterfall like some wanton nymph.  Water glistened on her limbs and seemed to bead
lovingly along the edge of her high cheekbones.
     I hate the way she does that, Jupiter thought darkly.
     "Yoshi had to go, Tux is checking something, Mercury's out in front," the princess
summarised.
     "No sign of the others, then?"
     "Afraid not," Jupiter sighed, fighting the urge to be irritated.  It seemed she spent an
inordinate amount of time struggling not to be irritated with Mars, although this was a comfortably
familiar irritation, and not the anger that had grown up between them of late.  Which was something,
anyway.
     "Hey!"  Mercury appeared from out of the storm just then.  Jupiter had thought that Mars
looked good wet, but Mercury strode up to them clad in tamed rainwater, a fey sprite dancing across
the storm tossed urban landscape.  And neither of them was wearing the remains of a tshirt over their
tattered fuku.  "Where's Yoshi?  Did he lose the trail? Because the damage continues that way."
     "Yeah, he had to leave," Jupiter said, trying futilely to keep the rainwater from running into
her eyes.  "The trail is clear?"
     "For a little ways," Mercury told her.  "It heads into the old towers near Femguri Park."
     "Yeah," Jupiter said, her earlier misgivings returning.  "Ranma's heading straight into some
bad territory.  If we don't catch up soon, we're going to end up in the Zone."
     "You don't suppose he's following something there?" Mars mused. "Fenrir?"
     "Oh, please, let's hope not," the princess moaned.  "That's all we need."
     "Bad news," Tux declared, leaping down from a nearby streetlight and damned near giving
Jupiter a heart attack.
     "What now?" she growled.  Bad weather, missing friends, injured comrades ... how much
worse could it get?
     "There's a police street post just up by the old bypass.  Pretty well fortified, I hoped to find
someone there, get some info."
     "And?" Mars asked.
     "They're pulling out," he told them grimly.  "It's not just your comms.  Citywide
communication is down, wireless anyway, and most phones, but they got through to 78 Division,
near the river.  There are reports of monsters appearing all over the city."
     "This is news?" Jupiter asked archly.
     "New monsters, types nobody's seen before.  Details are sketchy, but some of them are
reported to be extremely resistant to magick."
     "Oh, swell," Jupiter muttered into the silence that followed. "Any around here?"
     "The post's senior officer hasn't seen any, but they have orders to retreat to Division, help set
up a secure perimeter.  There's wide-spread panic in some areas ..."
     "They hear about the palace?" Jupiter interrupted.
     "Yes," he replied heavily.  "That's not helping matters."
     "Okay," Mars said.  "We need to get moving as fast as possible. Mercury and I should flank
the main path, looking for any sign of Ranma or V, while you guys go right up the middle.  If we get
separated, we meet at the old Twin Towers Bridge at the outskirts of the Zone."
     "Sounds good," Jupiter said.  This time, Mercury didn't bring up Mars' tactical disadvantage.
Dangerous or not, they needed to speed things up.
     In silent agreement, they turned and vanished into the raging storm.

***

     V dropped into the narrow courtyard, flattening herself against the cold stone wall.  Peorth
was already there, her eyes anxiously scanning the blood-tinged sky for any sign of trouble.
     "So far, so good," V panted.  They'd been going all-out for some time, putting distance
between them and the area where V had shaken Mara off.  "I kind of expected more pursuit."
     "Hild sent almost all her subjects across with Mara," Peorth said absently.  "To corner the
Warden.  Given the state of her palace, she's certainly holding most of those who remain back to
guard her treasures from scavengers.  She hoards mysteries, and she hates to lose something she's
acquired."  The woman gave V a smile tinged with wry amusement. "Like me."
     "So she will be hunting us."
     "Hunting me, cherie.  I doubt she knows about you yet.  Yes, she'll keep what few succubi
she can spare dogging my trail until she can take up the chase personally."
     "How insulting," V breathed with a crooked smile for her new comrade.  "She values those
other treasures more than you."
     "Not so," Peorth admonished.  "But she probably feels she can afford the time to secure her
other treasures because, no matter how far I flee, I cannot escape her realm.  And I know enough of
Shadow from my years as her tool to avoid its many snares."
     "But you said ..." V began, breaking off as Peorth ducked through a high, arched gateway
and sprinted along the outer wall.  V followed, shadowing the other woman until they reached a
narrow street fronted by four storey buildings.
     "Hey," V gasped.  "Slow down.  If you can't leave ..."
     "Not on my own," Peorth agreed, her slender shoulders heaving with the exertion of their
latest run.  "But with you, we have a chance."
     "Me?  I'm no Shadow Witch, Peorth."
     "No, you are the next best thing, V.  I observed your power during the earlier fight.  It is
based in Light, the antithesis of Shadow. Your power is especially effective against Shadow
creatures ..."
     "So what?  If Mars were here, maybe we could find one of those Shadow patterns and cross
back, but I can't just carve a hole in Shadow Realm!"
     "Not quite," Peorth informed her, lips curving into an enigmatic smile.  "But you are not far
from the truth.  The relationship between Shadow and your plane is not well understood, but I can
tell you that the two realms have drawn closer together, perilously so, since the death of the Azakaru
Queen."
     "The Azakaru have a queen?  I didn't know they even had gender," V blurted.  "And she
died?"
     "Murdered," Peorth told her.  "How, I cannot conceive, for the Azakaru are an ancient race,
believed to be as old as the Osiren or the Phantom Guard.  And part of the natural order of Gaia."
     "Who did it?"
     "Even Hild could not discover that," Peorth said wryly.  "But it happened fourteen years ago.
Just before the event your people call ..."
     "The Long Dark."  V's mind raced.  Mysteries.  She loved them, and longed to pick Peorth's
brain further.  What was Peorth, anyway? Mara's opposite number?  If Mara was some sort of
demon, did that make Peorth an angel?
     "Since then, the barrier between Shadow and your plane of existence has been weakened.  It
is possible to cross even without Shadow Magick.  Not safe, but possible."
     "I'm listening."
     "We need a place where Shadow is held, drawn by forces beyond this realm, into a pool of
rawest darkness.  Unleashing an antithetical magickal force with enough power should sunder the
barrier."
     V opened her mouth, closed it.  Banri.  The fake Banri.  Jupiter's lightning attack had hit it,
and they'd been thrown into Shadow.  So that was why ... wait.  That meant the fake Banri was
actually some sort of Shadow artifact.  That damned vamp again.
     "Sunder the barrier," V said slowly.  "I think I've encountered this sundering recently.  It was
not gentle."
     "Indeed," Peorth replied.  "The transition would be violent.  Our options, however, are
hardly ..."
     A sharp crack split apart the cool, dead air, and both women jumped as the sound rolled over
them.  Something was rising into the sky in the distance, and V gaped as it roiled, coalescing from a
shapeless morass into a huge face, hundreds of feet high.  It was a woman's face, haughty and
beautiful, mocha skin contrasting perfectly with hair of purest platinum, and on her forehead and
cheeks were the ubiquitous markings, this time six-pointed stars.  Those perfect lips parted, and a
word thundered forth, an auditory avalanche that cascaded across the sterile landscape of the
Shadow city.
     "PEORTH!"
     V felt the cry in her bones, and even as the last echoes died away she realised she was still
shaking.  The apparition's mesmerising eyes swept the ground all around with an intensity that
loosened the senshi's knees and threatened to drop her to the ground.  V clung to the wall, trying
three times to speak before she finally wet her dry lips and managed to croak, "Hild?"
     "Yes," Peorth hissed.  "She has finished stitching together her defences, and now she'll come
for me.  Quickly!"
     Peorth set off at a dead run, no longer clinging to the tenebrous shadows of the city, and V
followed, panic lending her feet speed.  She had no desire to meet this Crimson Queen in person, not
after that little display.
     "How far?" V shouted.  Even though Peorth had a head start, V quickly caught up to her.
     "Not far," Peorth replied grimly.  She appeared to be trying to look in every direction at once
as they raced down the narrow street. They had come to an older neighbourhood, one that in the real
Saeni would have been noisy and full of squalor and activity, much of it illegal. This place was still
far enough from the barren zone bordering the Old City to be inhabited, but close enough that no one
lived here who had any place else to be.
     Here, though, the streets were eerily empty, the buildings mere setpieces for some deranged
play staged for the amusement of something old and mad.  V found herself wishing for the cover of
the storm, but here the skies were naked and Nemesis held sway unchallenged.
     "This is going to work, right?" V panted as she ran, reaching back to grab Peorth's hand and
drag her along.
     "Oh, I don't think ... that will be the problem."  Peorth's breath came in quick gasps as they
pushed themselves to the limits.
     "Meaning there will be a problem?"  V didn't much like the sound of this, although she was
hardly surprised.
     "Unleashing your power against the sinkhole ..."
     "Sinkhole?"
     "Just listen!  The resultant clash of forces ... damn! ... will catapult us through the barrier,
but ... the reaction will be violent.  We may end up ... quite far from the point ... where we enter.
And we may become ... separated."
     "Got it," V said.  Jupiter's assault on Banri had separated them, come to think of it.  And not
all of them had been sent through.  "If that happens, I'll find you ..."
     "The most important thing is ... to find the Warden ... and make certain he is safe," Peorth
gasped, showing the strain of their constant flight.  "If I ... cannot find you, I will wait ... at the Peace
Fountain at ... noon tomorrow."
     "Wait," V said, tossing a glance back at Peorth.  "Protect Ranma from what?  He beat Fenrir
..."
     "From himself!" Peorth cried.  "Here, in here, quickly!"
     They veered down a narrow, crooked laneway between two shabby fences and came out in a
small courtyard surrounded by blank stone walls.  In the middle of the yard was a circle of stones
about two feet high.  It was an utterly unremarkable looking old well, and they skidded to a stop in
front of it, hearts still racing.
     "Peorth, I don't understand.  Ranma ..."
     "Your friend is not ... properly a Warden," Peorth blurted between gasps.
"Takzvyrmishammir.  Wild one ..."
     That word.  That was the word Ranma had seen in the tunnels.  V grabbed Peorth's shoulder,
excitement rising.  This woman had answers, more than the rest of them anyway.
     "What?  What does that mean?" she demanded.
     "As I feared.  He ... does not know ... none of you ..."  A sound like thunder rolled through
the air, starting as a low grinding in the soft parts of the body and ratcheting up quickly.  Whether it
was Hild or something native to Shadow, it was getting closer and V was willing to bet they didn't
want to be here when it arrived.
     "No time!  We jump in, you ... unleash as much ... power as you can!" V stared into the well
for only a moment, but that was long enough for her to see that those stones were filled with a
viscous darkness that looked like oil, thick enough to touch.  She had no desire to throw herself into
that.
     But staying here meant death.  Or capture by Hild, which seemed to frighten Peorth more,
and which would surely mean V would never see her friends again.  And they needed her.
     Ranma needed her.
     She grabbed Peorth's hand, shouted a warning, and hurled them both into the narrow maw of
the old well.
     And unleashed a furious storm of clean golden light.
     The effect was immediate.
     The universe groaned like an old wooden staircase, then V was buffeted, spinning through a
confusion of fleeting sensations her mind could make no sense of.  She was aware that Peorth's hand
was no longer in hers, then she was hit by a wall of rain as she tumbled to the ground, sliding across
sodden old grass to fetch up roughly against a wall of splintery wood.  V lay there for long moments
as the icy rain hammered her skin, trying to shake the aftereffects of the transition.  The reaction had
been violent, she sensed that much was true, although she seemed none the worse for wear.  The
brunt of the forces unleashed had been borne by something else, perhaps the fabric of the barrier
between the two realms.  A question to be pondered another time, not while lying in a muddy puddle
...
     V blinked rapidly, her thoughts falling back into some semblance of order, or what passed
for order in her mind at any rate.  She put her hand against the wood, which turned out to be the wall
of a rather ramshackle old shed, and climbed slowly to her feet.
     Rain.  She'd made it back.  But where was Peorth?  V called the woman's name, but there
was no response.  Damn it.  Peorth knew things, knew about Wardens and keys and
Takzvyrmishammir, whatever in the hells that was.  Ranma would want to talk to her, gods knew
he'd have questions.
     Unless he was still in marauding berserker mode.
     And had that been what Peorth had meant by protect him from himself?  Would she know
how to break Ranma out of his newest altered state of mind?
     First things first.  V keyed her earring and tried to call the others, got only static.  Damn it,
the comms were still out.  She tried again on all frequencies but got nothing, not even on the police
or public bands.
     Crap.
     V leaned back against the shed wall and closed her eyes, trying to sense Artemis.  If he was
close enough, she'd be able to feel his presence.
     But again, nothing.
     Damn it all!  She'd made it back, escaped the perils of Shadow for the second time in as
many days, and that had to count for something. But she'd lost Peorth, and now she was lost herself
in a raging storm with no way to contact the others.  And Ranma could still be running around the
city in a blind rage.  He could hurt someone.
     Or be hurt himself.
     Frustration rose up, and it took all her willpower to force it back, hold off its imprecations as
she tried to think.  Go back to Ami's house? Or Michiru and Haruka's?  But she didn't even know
where she was, although by the look of it she was still somewhere in the eastern districts of the city.
Think, Minako, think.  Use that head of yours for something other than a perch for stylish hats.
Something is jamming all communication, and Ranma doesn't have a communicator anyway.  I
probably couldn't even track the transmitter in his coat if I had ...
     Stop.  Wait.  Hold the damned phone.
     The Crescent Compact.  That handy little jack of all trades gizmo might save the day yet.  If
Ranma was still wearing the costume she'd made him, and he had been last she'd seen, then maybe
there was a way. Fumbling at her ear, V unclipped her earring comm and held it out in front of her,
letting it dangle from her gloved fingers.
     It had been Artemis's idea, of course, the canny old alley cat. She'd once needed a way to bug
a target and track it, and he'd found someone to lay a sympathetic magickal spell on her comm and
the compact using V's blood.  She'd been able to plant the earring on an unsuspecting target and
follow using the compact.  The one part of the spell sought out the other part, dead simple and not
detectable by electronic devices or even most magickal sweeps.
     And the best part was, it should work both ways.  Whatever was jamming the comms
shouldn't keep the damned spell from working.  She hoped.
     V held the earring out with one hand, using her teeth to pull her other glove off.  Then she
touched the earring with her bare finger and intoned the spell trigger.  The earring gleamed dully in
the gray light, and just as she thought it wasn't going to work, it began to twitch, then swing, then
spin in lazy circles.
     And finally, it stopped, pointing straight out into the storm.
     "Boo-ya!  Who da man?" V whooped.  The earring wouldn't give her a distance, but at least
it gave her a direction.
     Hang on, Ranma.  I'm coming.

***

     I ran like hell as Buster finally got tired of throwing glowing balls of energy at Jaws and
decided to go the more direct route.  Howling loud enough to be heard over the storm, Buster tore
part of the top two stories off of a nearby building and threw them like they weighed nothing,
staggering his dance partner.  Nice to know something could hurt old Jaws, I suppose.
     Pieces of the abused building rained down around me, adding a little fibre to the plain old
water variety rain that I'd thought, foolishly, was making me miserable.  Apparently, I didn't know
what miserable was.
     And, just as apparently, I wasn't on speaking terms with smart. Drawing Jaws away from
that ragged little convoy of vehicles had been as much instinct as anything; those people had been
sitting ducks, fleeing the neighbourhood in anything that would move.  I still felt like a limp noodle,
and there was no way I'd be replicating what I'd done earlier against Fenrir.  Even if I wanted to,
which I didn't.
     Finding Buster had been a bit of good luck, if getting one monster to duke it out with another
in a shitstorm could be considered luck.  I thought about that as I ran and decided that if I made it to
the big round stone building at the middle of the town square then I'd consider it lucky. If Buster and
Jaws squished me while going the distance with each other, my Nobel Prize for Genius would
probably get revoked.
     I dove as a big chunk of ragged stone dropped from the sky, sliding easily across the
rain-slicked street and rolling to my feet as the monster-generated hail of building exploded against
the ground, sending fragments everywhere.  I was tired and wet and cold, but I'd been all those
things before, and none of them trumped my training.  My legs found their way under me and I was
running almost before I could think of the need, heading towards a very solid looking wooden door
as Jaws and Buster got funky in the rain.
     I expected my impact with the door to hurt.  I didn't expect it to be thrown open at the last
minute, or for hands to reach out and pull me inside.
     Gosh, I love surprises.
     The high-ceilinged entryway was cluttered with shadows and gloom, and it took me a few
seconds to make out the details of the person who'd pulled me the last few feet to safety.  She was
fairly tall, wearing some kind of light armour that had been through a war or two and a makeshift
patch over one eye.  Judging by the smear of darkness on her cheek, the patch was a recent addition
to the ensemble.
     She pulled me over by a window that was little more than a narrow slit in the stone, where I
could see that the dark smear was definitely blood.  A second woman waited there, watching the
action outside.  She wore a dark blouse and matching pants of some expensive looking material, her
hair pulled back and hanging in a braid nearly as long as mine.  Stray wisps fell across her forehead,
where she wore a thin metal circlet with a small, gleaming gemstone.  Must have been purely
decorative; too flimsy to be armour.  Unless, I supposed, it was magickal.
     It definitely didn't go with her sword.  The blade seemed to glimmer in the half-light, and for
a second I thought I saw patterns shimmering deep in the metal.  And felt, just for a moment, an
answering pulse from the key lying against my chest, weak enough that I was left wondering if it
had even happened.
     "What were you thinking, miss?" the second woman asked, not taking her eyes from the
action.  "You should be in hiding."
     "Jaws was gonna lunch on a caravan of refugees," I told her, my breathing returning to
normal as I wrung rainwater out of my braid. Damn, I was soaked through.  "So I thought I'd
distract him, give them a shot at the road."
     Both women turned to stare at me.
     "Jaws?" the one with the eyepatch asked incredulously.
     "And Buster," I said.  "Jaws is the low-slung dude with the eight legs and the big teeth.  And
those rainbow scales.  Buster's the big dude with the horns and the glowing fireballs."
     "Daemonfire," the swordswoman corrected me.
     "And I'm Ranma," I added.
     "Charmed," eyepatch grunted.
     "And you?" I asked.  Both women froze again, storm sounds mixing with horrendous
screeching in the background.
     "Pardon?" the swordswoman asked, her eyes wide.  They were pretty, those eyes, and they
wore surprise well.
     "Your name?" I prompted.  She was probably in her midtwenties, beautiful in a way I was
starting to take for granted in this city, but she seemed to be having trouble remembering her own
name. Trauma, maybe.  Eyepatch opened her mouth to say something, looking pissed for some
reason, but the other woman cut her off with a look.
     "My name," the swordswoman said with an enigmatic smile, "is Kendra.  And this is Raine."
     "Nice to meet you," I said.  Kendra blinked, like she'd expected me to recognise her name or
something.  Famous bounty hunter, maybe?
     "You," Kendra said quietly, "are not from around here, are you?"  For some reason, this
thought seemed to amuse her.
     "Nope," I grunted, pushing forward to sneak a peek out the narrow window.  Slot.
Whatever.  "Come on, you clowns, kill each other already."
     "You ... don't you know this is?" Raine blurted.  Great, Kendra was famous.
     "Nuh-uh," I muttered, not bothering to turn around.  "Sorry."
     "Quite all right," Kendra assured me.  "Now is scarcely the time, at any rate."
     Neither Jaws nor Buster showed any inclination to stop fighting, and they were quickly
laying waste to the dilapidated buildings around us.  I figured that it was only a matter of time until
they got to this one, and although it looked sturdy I wouldn't place any bets on it surviving the Jaws
and Buster Show.
     I turned from the window to see the two women watching me, Raine with exasperation and
Kendra with something that could have been amusement.  I could see that, in addition to twin
pistols, Raine had a sword as well, shorter than Kendra's and scabbarded crosswise at the small of
her back, but she hadn't bothered to draw it.  Kendra's blade drew my eye again, and I marvelled at
the way the light seemed to flow inside the metal.  The key flared again momentarily, kindling a
spot of warmth in the exhausted void in my chest.
     "Nice sword," I told her.
     "Powerful," Kendra corrected me.  "But not nice."  That dry amusement vanished in an
instant, and I saw loss in her eyes.  I knew that look well, and decided not to pry too deeply into how
they'd come to be in this desolate part of the city.
     "Ranma, is this the Parkoset Tower?" Raine asked.
     "I have no idea," I told her.  Raine blinked.  Clearly, that had not been the answer she'd been
expecting.
     "Well, which district is this?"
     "Um, don't know."
     "You don't know?"
     "I'm new to the city," I said.  Plus, I spent half the bloody day in a blackout, not something I
was keen to talk about.  Minako, where the hell are you?  "What's your excuse?"
     "We were underground!" Raine shot back.  Whoa.  Kendra may have had her sword out, but
I watched the way Raine moved when she was pissed and knew she was dangerous, even with one
eye.
     "Oh," I said.  "Say no more.  I've been underground.  This city's crazy enough up here, with
the monsters and the vampire and succubi ..."
     "Succubi?" Kendra broke in sharply.
     "Oh, yeah.  Tons of them.  And wraiths.  And a giant, flying wolf."  I glared at her, daring
the woman to accuse me of lying.  I should have known better.
     "You," Raine said, moving in to get a better look at me.  "You're the one, aren't you?  That
hair, the clothes ..."
     "Raine?"
     "She was the one on the monitor, before all the comms went down," Raine murmured,
looking at me with a new respect.  Or wariness. "At the stadium."
     "Oh.  Um, yeah, that would have been me," I admitted.
     "Your construct was impressive," Kendra said.  "I must admit, I don't believe I've seen
anything like it."
     Construct?  I opened my mouth to ask her what she meant, but the Jaws and Buster Show
chose that moment to come back from commercial break with a bang.  The entire building shook,
small bits of stone raining down on us as we scurried away from the outer wall.
     "Okay, we need to find a way out of here," Kendra announced. "Find a guard station or
someplace with working communication, hook up with the largest force we can find."
     "I've been out in that mess for hours, and I can tell you it's really not good out there," I told
her, eyeing the wall as I waited for another impact. "Most sensible folk are in hiding, and the streets
are full of monsters. And then there's the weather.  That storm is fierce."
     "And not natural," Kendra pointed out, as if that made any difference.  Natural or not, wind
and rain and lightning ruled the city now.  That, and the monsters.
     "Plus, the sun has set," Raine sighed.  "Full dark won't help matters. Perhaps it would be
wiser to hole up here until morning.  This is a defensible position, and we can always retreat back
down to the tunnel if things get bad."
     "No, Raine," Kendra said firmly.  "I won't hide here while people are dying."
     "I'm responsible for your safety," Raine shot back.  "And I'm telling you that running around
out there in the dark, in a conjured storm, on Baniesti of all nights ..."
     "It can't be helped," Kendra said with an air of finality.  I wondered if Raine would press the
issue, but apparently Kendra got the final say.
     "Then we need to know if this place has a back door," I said.
     It did.  Apparently, Raine was familiar with the layout of the tower, even if she didn't know
if it was the Parkoset Tower.  I probably should have asked them some questions, but to tell the truth
I was a little preoccupied.  The dark thoughts that had haunted me when I'd woken up in the street
threatened to seep back into my head as I worried over all the bad things that could have happened
to the others.  And one question kept surfacing above all others.
     Minako, where are you?
     Then Raine eased the door open, and all thoughts of Minako were momentarily driven from
my mind as a ball of howling teeth and claws tried to charge inside.
     Just as the roof caved in.

***

     "Left!" Phobos cried.
     "Right!" Deimos insisted.
     "That's not helping!" Artemis gritted, wrestling the car around a narrow, rain-slicked corner.
The back end broke loose and started to slide, forcing the pale-haired Mau to spin the wheel quickly,
wrestling the car back under control.
     "But I'm sure she's that way!" Deimos growled, clinging to the collar of Artemis's leather
coat as the car finally shook itself from the teeth of the skid and careened through the gloom. "They
all are!"
     "Not all," Luna said sharply, and Artemis felt a familiar pang of worry.  The twins were
having trouble maintaining their link with Mars, but one fact had gotten through loud and clear.
     V was missing.
     Ranma seemed to be pursuing her, but so far the others hadn't found either of them.  And all
of Artemis's attempts to reach them had been thwarted.  Roads had been blocked or flooded and
bridges destroyed, forcing them into countless detours.  Hours slipped away and they seemed no
closer to reaching the searchers.
     And the weather was only one of the problems.
     "Look out!" Luna cried, and Artemis tromped hard on the brake pedal, bring the small car to
a shuddering halt.  The road ahead was filled with debris, but that wasn't the issue.  No, they'd nearly
driven right into another monster.  This one was huge, and clad in those strange rainbow scales that
shimmered even in the storm's gloom.
     Fortunately, someone had found the monster before they had.
     The flashes of light showed Artemis where several heavily armed police officers were
raining rounds onto the howling hulk from positions in the surrounding buildings.  He just had time
to consider that the beast seemed more enraged than actually hurt when two hulking forms lurched
out of the grayish curtain of rain, flanking the monster neatly.
     "What are those?" Phobos asked, close by his left ear.
     "Police armour," Artemis said with a savage grin as the two heavy mechs opened up on the
creature with their cannons. "Wolverines."
     "Oh, that's gonna leave a mark," Deimos breathed as the monster was pounded by heavy
weapons, tracer rounds continuing to pour in from the surrounding buildings.
     "Score one for our side," Luna said with unmistakable satisfaction.  They'd seen such
monsters too frequently in their nightmarish drive across the city; they seemed to be everywhere.
Apparently, the authorities had finally managed to mount a counteroffensive.
     "We're not getting through here," Artemis sighed, slamming the shift into reverse and
accelerating, leaving the wild fight to fade into the downpour.  "Let's try the Queensway.  It's wide
enough that we should be able to get around any abandoned vehicles or collapsed buildings."
     "Artemis," Luna said softly, reaching over to place her hand over his where it rested on the
stick shift.  "She'll be okay."
     "Thanks," he replied, not taking his eyes off the road.  "But I'll feel a lot better when we find
her."
     Spinning the wheel neatly, he set off in a new direction, looking for a path through the storm.

***

     Digging my feet in, I strained at the slab of rock with all my might, deep red pulsing around
the edges of my vision.  It groaned, twitched, and finally overbalanced, falling away with a crash
that was lost in the din of the storm.
     Luckily, the entire back of the tower hadn't collapsed.  The walls had provided some cover
and kept me from getting crushed.  As for the others ...
     There.  Kendra was balanced neatly on a pile of shattered stone, her blade gleaming
wickedly in the deep gloom.  It cut our new friends as easily as it cut the curtain of rain, and she laid
about her with a series of short, lethal strikes that kept the howlers at bay.  There had to be a dozen
of them at least, with four more lying on the ground in pieces.
     Flashes of light off to the left, and there was Raine, her sword still sheathed but those
wicked-looking guns in each hand.  As she fired, shimmering symbols appeared momentarily at the
end of each barrel. Magick guns.  Cool.
     And effective.  She was covering Kendra's flank as the swordswoman mowed through the
newcomers.  They worked well together.  Professionals, as I'd thought.
     Then I saw it, a man-sized bundle of razor-sharp death leaping at Raine from her blind side,
the side with the ragged eyepatch, coming out of the rain and dark fast, too fast.
     Training.  When there's no time for thought, training takes over. A chunk of rock was in my
hand before I could think of the need and I spun, using strength and momentum to fire it straight and
true.  Raine caught the motion but had no time to react before the chunk of stone was rocketing by
her head.  By the time she turned, the thing was on the ground, not moving.
     She nodded, called something that was lost in the storm, moved to put her blind-side against
the remnant of the tower's rear wall.  Smart, and not easily shaken.  Good combo.
     Then the ground started shaking, and I realised that I was still inside the narrow vestibule
that led to the back door.  And the dynamic duo that had brought the house down was still rolling
around in the tower, fixing to finish what they'd started.
     I tell you, I was starting to regret ever having introduced those crazy kids.
     Panic gave me the strength to jump clear of what remained of the back hall, and I rolled
through the icy water, catching a glimpse of the wrestling titans as lightning slashed the darkness.  In
that moment, the whole world was blue-white, and I could see dark forms scuttling away from us.
The howlers had had enough, apparently.
     I could relate.
     I got to my feet and backpedalled, Kendra and Raine joining me. The dark shapes thrashed
inside the rapidly disintegrating tower, falling stone obscuring the scene.
     "Being inside two collapsing buildings in one day must be some kind of record," Kendra
spat, raising her voice over the din of the wind and rain.
     "Three is my record," Raine shot back.
     "Swell!" I gritted.  "What say we don't push our luck, huh?"
     "Uh-oh," Raine replied.  I followed her gaze to see a dark shape looming over the edge of
what remained of the tower's wall.  Two bulbous orbs of eyes glowed softly in the darkness, staring
down at us, cold and alien.  Something was in its mouth.
     Buster's head.
     "Run," Raine suggested.
     We ran.
     Jaws let loose with a weird, ululating cry that cut easily through the storm, and then the
chase was on.  The street behind the tower was fairly wide, verged by old industrial parks.  Not
much in the way of cover, only a twisted ribbon of old chain-link fence off to the left that wouldn't
slow Jaws down for more than a second.
     But running down the middle of the street wasn't much of a plan. Jaws had heaved his bulk
out of the wreckage of the tower and was bearing down on us fast, big as a semi and moving like
he'd had rocket fuel for breakfast.  Making a stand here was suicide.
     "Split up!" I shouted.  Raine gave me a thumbs up, turning to snap a couple shots over her
shoulder.  I went left, Kendra right.  Raine kept running down the street.  Not exactly what I'd had in
mind, but I soon saw the method to Raine's madness.  Jaws kept on going after her, leaving his
flanks exposed as he rocketed past us, and I caught a glimpse of Kendra's quicksilver blade through
the blur of legs.  Then came a shriek that rivalled the thunder, and Jaws was skidding to a stop,
spinning quickly.  I could see something dark dripping from his flank. Buster hadn't made him
bleed, but Kendra had.
     Damn.
     Of course, now she had our new friend's undivided attention. Flashes in my peripheral vision
told me Raine was still shooting, but those pistols were just too small to bring down something like
Jaws, magick or not.  Kendra held her ground, knowing that Jaws would run her down in seconds if
she tried to flee.  Still, that sword was looking awful small next to Jaws.
     So I charged.
     I still didn't think I could manage a chi-blast, but I'd be damned if I just stood there and did
nothing.  Two quick jumps took me up that long, spiky tail, and then I was running up Jaws' back,
shouting like a lunatic.  The damned scales were slippery as hell, and it took all my concentration to
keep moving forward without falling off.  Especially when Kendra lashed out at Jaws again, making
the dumb critter rear up. Rain lashed my exposed skin, Jaws bellowed, and as I reached his wide
head he came down again and I knew I was going to fall.
     So I jumped, focussing all of the energy of my fall into my fist, and I struck a spot between
and just below Jaws' bulbous eyes.
     And boy, did he feel that.
     This time he didn't bellow, he shrieked, and I threw myself forward as he bucked furiously,
clearing that gaping mouth by inches at least and tumbling across the cracked pavement.  Water
sheeted away from me as I slid, then a hand grabbed my wrist and pulled me to my feet.
     "You are insane!" Kendra shouted as we ran.  "But thank you!"
     I just nodded, not wasting breath on talking.  Behind us, Jaws was spinning in circles, tail
lashing dangerously.  Geez, who knew such a big monster could be such a sissy?  Still, he was
shaking it off already, and I was thinking that we needed to take advantage of this distraction.
     Apparently, I wasn't the only one with that thought.
     "That way!"  The rising wind nearly drowned out Kendra's cry, but I looked where she was
pointing and saw Raine running ahead of us. Now that her friend was relatively safe, Raine had
stopped shooting and ... what?  What was she doing?
     When we got closer, I could see what she'd found.
     A car.
     Raine had the car running by the time we reached her, which was lucky considering that
Jaws had recovered and was, apparently, very angry.  Of course, I'd never seen Jaws anything but
angry.  Maybe for him, this was normal.
     Kendra yanked the passenger-side door open and jumped in.  I had time to register that there
was no back seat before she pulled me in on top of her.  Awkward.  But hey, she managed not to
stab me in the process, and that was probably harder than it sounded with a sword in one hand in
those close confines.
     "Go!  Now!" she shouted.  Raine went.  The car fishtailed as we rocketed down the deserted
street, gaining speed and control at roughly the same rate.  The door had slammed shut as we took
off, and I was squeezed against Kendra in the low seat.  I wriggled until I could see out the tiny back
window.  Jaws was still back there, but at least now we had a shot at getting away.
     "Are those what I think they are?" Kendra asked.  She had managed to wedge her sword
between the seats, the blade jammed into the narrow cubbyhole in the back, which should keep
everybody's blood on the inside.  I turned back to see that she was pointing at some black, fuzzy
things hanging from the rear-view mirror.
     "Yes," Raine said, flipping the wipers on full speed.  That didn't help much.
     "What?" I asked, squinting.  "They look like fuzzy dice or something."
     "They are," Raine said.  "Black dice, red dots.  It's a gang thing.  This car belongs to the
Doom Riders."
     "That would explain what it was doing out here," Kendra said, trying to find space for her
feet and mine in the footwell.
     "It does?"
     "This part of town is an urban wasteland," Kendra said, turning to look at me.  We were
awfully damned close in this seat, me mostly in the woman's lap, and her rain-soaked louse clung to
her body provocatively.  For the first time in hours I felt warm.  "On the border of the Badlands that
lead up to the Old City.  Perfect for conducting business in private."
     Raine cursed and jerked the wheel, and I half-fell on top of Kendra. Yeah, definitely warm in
here.  I pushed myself back up, trying to keep my hands in safe areas.  Kendra didn't take advantage
of the situation, not like a certain blonde of my acquaintance would have.
     "Sorry, Ma ... my friend," Raine muttered, exchanging a quick glance with Kendra.  "I can't
see squat."
     "Can you get us off this street?" Kendra asked, grabbing the headrest of our seat and trying
to spot Jaws behind us.  "I think we're heading towards the White Orb."
     "The what?" I asked.
     "It's the river at the edge of the Badlands," Raine replied.  "And I'm trying, but there are a lot
of small streets in here.  We don't want to get caught in a dead-end or whhhaAAAAAGH!  Damn!"
     She spun the wheel again, and the small car nearly spun around before she managed to
regain control.  As the front of the car ended up pointing back down the road, though, the headlights
showed me a glimpse of Jaws, still giving chase although no longer hot on our tail. Hadn't given up
yet.
     Raine got us out of the spin and floored it, opening up some more distance between us and
the persistent monster.  Unfortunately, the street we were on chose that moment to end at a T-shaped
intersection.
     "Right!" I shouted.
     "Left!" Kendra cried at the same time.
     Raine went left, sliding through the turn while clinging grimly to the wheel.  A flash of
lightning gave me a glimpse of Jaws following us through the intersection, taking out the one forlorn
ancient traffic light on his way through.
     "This is insane!" Kendra spat.  "We'll kill ourselves trying to get away, find a place where
we can fight this thing!"
     "I know what you're thinking," Raine growled.
     "Is that so?"  I could feel the tension in Kendra's body as she spoke.  No great trick, that.
The way her wet blouse clung to her, I could feel pretty much everything.
     "Yes.  It may have protected you from whatever hit the palace, but may I remind you that
many people have died over the centuries while wielding Galiraithe, including your mother?  I have
one duty right now, and that is to keep you alive!"
     Okay, I officially had no clue what was going on.  But before I could decide whether to push
for details, dark shapes loomed in the pale glow of our headlights.  Something had knocked most of
a building into the narrow, winding street we were following, and Raine barely had time to throw us
into a tight turn.
     We burst through a gate made of mismatched sections of planks and plastic and careened
across a cracked lot that seemed to be where piles of junk went to retire.  Raine slalomed the car
through obstacles that loomed up out of the storm, taking us deeper into the yard.  Off to our left was
a long, low building with the same desolate look of abandonment as everything else in this
neighbourhood , but it wouldn't provide us much in the way of shelter.  That tower we'd been in had
been far tougher than some old warehouse, and it hadn't been able to stand up to Jaws.
     We were reaching the back of the lot, and that was not good news.  There was another fence,
and beyond that, darkness.
     "Raine!"
     "I know!  Wait, I've got an idea!"
     That was good, because something was creating a hell of a commotion behind us, and I
didn't need three guesses to figure out what. We passed the end of the warehouse and Raine cut
behind it, the headlights sweeping across the fence.
     "There!" she shouted.  "They've got one!"
     One what?  I saw a gate, leaning drunkenly in the middle of the fence, and something
gleaming on the cracked pavement ...
     Steel?
     Jaws chose that moment to plow through the side of the warehouse behind us, apparently
having decided that it was quicker to go through than around.  Raine sped directly at the gate, and as
we braced for the impact I realised what I'd been seeing on the ground.
     Railroad tracks.
     Raine got us lined up with the tracks and then we hit the gate, the little car lurching and
nearly going out of control as the old chain-link gates flew open.  The car started to shudder badly
and I thought we'd broken something, until I glanced out the window as another sheet of lightning
threw the world into stark blue-white relief.
     There was a ravine behind the warehouse, a swollen creek at the bottom.  And we were
crossing it.  On a railroad bridge.
     We bounced madly as Raine pushed the little car across the narrow bridge.  Raine was the
only one wearing a seatbelt; Kendra and I clung to each other and managed some pretty inventive
curses.
     Then there was a thud and we were back on an even surface.  I gasped and pulled myself
back up in the seat, trying to see where we were.  Details were blurred by rain and dark, but we sped
down a narrow alley between what looked like two buildings, then we slid out onto another street.
Looking out front, I could see that we'd lost a headlight, probably going through that second gate.
Also, the hood was bent up on one corner, and there was a crack in the windshield.
     "These little Tritons were built for speed, not toughness," Raine gritted as if reading my
mind.  "And with visibility like this, I can't open her up."
     "Maybe we lost it," Kendra said hopefully, using my shoulder as a brace as she craned
around for a view out the back window.
     Just in time to see a dark shape crash through the near side of one of the buildings we'd just
squeezed between.
     "Oh, you've gotta be kidding me!" I wailed.  "This guy just will not give up!"
     "Wish I could say the same for the car," Raine announced.  I glance her way, saw a bloom of
red lights on the dash.  Oh, that wasn't going to be good news.
     "Raine?"
     "Damn!  We must have clipped the fuel line!"  No sooner had the words left her mouth than
flames began to lick up from under the hood.
     Swell.
     "Ladies," Raine said, her face grim, "we've got to bail."
     "There!" Kendra cried out.  "Look, a bridge!  Get us that far, Raine.  Maybe we can drop
this thing into the river!"
     By the time we reached the bridge, fire was oozing out all around the edges of the battered
hood, fighting with the rain for a foothold. There were concrete barriers flanking the old drawbridge;
it looked like they'd once blocked access, but had been pulled aside by heavy equipment.  We
coasted between them onto the bridge until we were just over half way across, then Raine hit the
brakes and we piled out, putting the car between us and Jaws.
     For all the good that would do.  The damned fire was dying down already, and one flaming
little sports car wasn't going to slow down a juggernaut that plowed through buildings.
     "Can we take out the bridge?" I shouted over the storm.  I wasn't sure I could muster a
chi-blast yet.  Maybe one of the others had something in reserve.
     Or not.
     "Can't you conjure that construct again, like at the stadium?" Kendra asked.  I shook my
head.  Whatever construct I'd used, it had left me drained.  I wasn't going to be doing that again
anytime soon.
     "It looks like there's a control booth on that end!" Raine yelled, pointing.  "In one of the
towers!  Maybe the drawbridge controls still work!"
     I doubted it, but that was more plan than I had.  Except jumping into the river and swimming
for it, and one look at the swollen, raging waters told me just how great an idea that would turn out
to be.  Raine sprinted across the bridge with Kendra at her side as I caught sight of Jaws, revealed in
a nightmare strobe of lightning.  Closer.  And closer.
     I gritted my teeth and tried to summon up some chi.  Even if Raine made it to the booth,
even if by some miracle the bridge still worked, she'd never get it up in time.  I had to take out the
far side of the bridge.  Come on, Saotome.  Come on!
     No good.  Whatever I'd done back at the stadium, it had exhausted all my reserves.  I just
didn't have the strength to fire off my chi.  So here came the monster, and my best plan was to get
back on his head and try to hurt him enough to distract him.  I braced myself to dodge; as fast as he
was going, I should be able to at least get around him.  Unless one of those legs caught me.  Or the
tail.  Or ...
     Or unless a brilliant beam of light lanced down out of the sky and hit him in the head.
     Jaws skidded on the wet roadway and onto the bridge, bellowing loudly enough to rival the
thunder.  The beam seemed to have just bounced off his scales, but it had at least distracted him.
And as he opened his mouth, a storm of golden light smashed into his maw, turning that bellow into
an ear-splitting shriek of agony.  Jaws reared up, head whipping from side to side, and I saw
something dark running from between those huge, curved fangs.
     Shot him in the mouth.  Just like the salamander in the old subway tunnel.
     It had to be her.  It had to be.
     Jaws thrashed, and a flurry of golden lances fell all around him, slashing at the bridge deck.
A queasy shuddering threw me off my feet as the far side of the old drawbridge shifted, then slid
gracefully out of sight with a grinding roar, carrying the wounded beast to the river below.
Cautiously, I crawled forward to the edge. Our side of the bridge didn't seem in any danger of
falling, but I wasn't keen on taking any chances.
     The water churned and swirled below.  Of my old pal Jaws, there was no sign.  Either the
fall had killed him, or the current had carried him away.  Either way, good riddance.
     I stood and turned back, my heart thudding against the inside of my chest.  I could make out
motion on one of the towers that stood at the far end of the bridge, and then a lithe form was sailing
through the air, landing neatly on the roof of our smouldering ride.  I took in the long legs, the
blonde hair, and the crooked, devil-may-care smile, and raw joy hit me like a shot of adrenaline.
     It was almost scary.
     "Mistress V one," she intoned, striking a pose where she framed her eye with a sideways V of
fingers.  "Monster, nothing.  Boo-yah!"
     I didn't think.  One moment I was standing there, the next I was on the roof of that car,
sweeping her up in my arms and spinning her around in circles.  It was a miracle we didn't fall off, I
suppose, but mundane thoughts were for later.  Right now she was here, she was real. Soaked and
slightly bedraggled, but real.  V looked startled by my sudden burst of enthusiasm, but that didn't
last.  She leaned in and planted a kiss on my mouth, brief but hot, and I let her.
     "Damn it!" I shouted when she pulled back..  "Where the hell have you been?  I was
worried!"
     She looked down at me, and it seemed to me she was trying not to smile.  "Where have I
been?" she demanded.  "I suppose that means you're going to tell me you don't remember what
happened?"
     "Happened?"
     "At the stadium?"
     Oops.
     "Um," I said, searching those blue eyes for a clue.  "Actually, no ..."
     "Uh-huh.  Not that I'm complaining, but are you gonna put me down any time soon?"
     I realised I was still holding her in the air.  Funny, I didn't feel so exhausted any more.  I set
her gently on her feet, and V took off her cap and whacked me on the head with it.
     "Ow!" I said.  "What was that for?"
     "Trust me, you earned it," she said sternly.  "Just because you don't remember why I'm mad
at you doesn't mean you're off the hook. You're going to have to make this up to me."
     "Okay."
     "I'm serious!"
     "Me, too," I said, and I was.  I was so glad to see her that I'd have done whatever she wanted.
"Um, what exactly did I do, anyway?"
     "Later," she sighed theatrically, tugging her cap back on over her wet hair.  "Come on,
introduce me to your new friends.  I hope they're friendlier than the one I just dropped in the river."
     We hopped down to see Raine and Kendra coming out to meet us.  They were staring at V as
though leather-clad blonde maniacs didn't drop out of the sky to save the day regularly.  Sucked to
be them, apparently.
     "V, this is Raine," I said as we crossed the deck to meet them.  "And Kendra.  They ... OW!"
I rubbed the side of my head.  V had hit me much harder this time.
     "You idiot!" she shouted, cheeks flushed.
     "What?"
     "You can't call her that!"
     "What, Kend ... OW!  Will you stop doing that?"
     "Mistress V, also known as Sailor Venus, at your service, Majesty," V declared, sweeping
off her black cap and offering a low, graceful bow.  "I apologise for my friend's clumsiness, she
meant no disrespect.  Ranma is an outlander.  She's also moderately insane."
     "So I've seen," Kendra said.  She seemed amused.
     "Majesty?" I asked, rubbing my head as I looked from Raine, who seemed pleased, to
Kendra, and back again.
     "As in the Queen," V said, fixing me with a glare.
     "The Queen?  Like, as in THE Queen?"
     "That would explain why she's wearing a crown," V pointed out archly.
     "That's a crown?" I asked, peering at the slender circlet Kendra wore.  "I expected a crown to
be, well, you know, bigger.  Pointier."
     "Your life must be difficult, dragging her around," Raine said with a crooked grin.
     "You have no idea, Captain," V sighed.
     "Captain?"
     "Of the Royal Guard ..."  V broke off, eyes widening.  "Wait. The palace.  It was attacked,
destroyed!  How ...?"
     "Did we survive?  There is a story there," Kendra told her.  "But that is a matter for another
time.  For the moment, only you and your friend know I still live.  I must return to take command of
my forces."
     "I passed a group of police trucks back that way," V told her.  "They were recovering
something from the river, looked like a crashed flier.  If we get you there, they can escort you back
into the city."
     "You're not coming?" Kendra asked.  Well, even soaked to the skin, I suppose she had a
certain poise, but still.  I mean, how was I supposed to know she was the Queen?  She might have
said something.  Geez.
     "We need to find our friends.  Unless you know where they are?" V asked me.
     "I thought they might be with you, actually," I told her ruefully.
     "Swell."
     Of course, our first problem was getting back to the other side of the river.  V spotted an old
light pole at the entrance to the bridge, and used her whip to snag it.  We each grabbed the whip in
turn and crossed hand-over-hand, then V made the leap, landing neatly beside us.
     Showoff.  If I hadn't been so drained, I could've done it that way, too.  V led our small group
along the road that followed the river, all of us on the lookout for more trouble as the blonde senshi
caught me up on the high points of the fight at the stadium.  Still, the torrential downpour seemed
less oppressive now, and the cold and the wet didn't weigh on me the way they had only a short time
before.  Now, it seemed, everything was going to be all right.
     That thought was comforting but also a little scary.  It brought me right back to where I
always seemed to end up; namely, what now? Nothing could change unless I wanted it to, and there
was the problem.  I didn't know what I wanted.  Or I did, and I was afraid to go after it, which was
certainly no better.  But every time I glanced over at V, all I knew for sure was that I was happy she
was here.  The thought of glancing over and not seeing her was a cold and lonely one.
     It had been thoughts of Minako, after all, that had dragged me back from the edge not so
long ago.  But wallowing in the complications of my personal life, of my guilty desires and whether
or not I could ever be entitled to happiness again, these things were a luxury that would have to wait.
For now, apparently I'd beaten Fenrir, but we were still wandering in a storm that wasn't entirely
natural, with all communications out, and the others might still need our help.
     "A succubus queen living in Shadow," Raine scowled.  "That's a new one on me."
     "Us, too," V said.  "I must say, she seems unpleasant from a distance.  I wouldn't want to get
to know her up close."
     "Perhaps she was responsible for the attack on my palace," Kendra said.  We had to raise our
voices to talk over the drumming of the rain, even walking clustered close together.
     "Her minion denied it," V told us.  "Which makes sense.  She lives in the Shadow version of
your palace, and it got it pretty hard by the attack.  Not completely destroyed, mind you ..."
     "The destruction of our palace was total?" Kendra asked.  It looked like those words had
physically hurt her, and V spared her a long glance.
     "I'm sorry," she said after a moment.  "You didn't know?"
     "We escaped underground," Raine said.  "I guess we hoped that maybe the attack was
focussed, or ... well.  No survivors?"  She was all business, even though she had to have hoped for
some good news.
     "I'm sorry," V said again.  "That's unlikely.  I saw it from the air. Nothing's left."
     We walked on in silence for a time, and just as I thought nobody was going to pursue further
conversation, Kendra spoke up.
     "V, I have a question.  Please feel free not to answer if it is too personal."
     "Ask away, Majesty.  It isn't often I get to chat with the Queen, after all."
     "These rumours about you and the other sailor girls, they claim that you are linked to the
White Moon Court of legend in more than just name."
     "There are rumours about us?" V asked, apparently delighted.  "I wholeheartedly approve."
Kendra smiled, and if she wasn't honestly delighted by V's personal brand of charm, she certainly
was good at faking it.  "But seriously, Majesty, that part is true.  We are all reincarnated from the
defenders of the White Moon Court."
     "Remarkable."   For the first time since I'd met her, the shadows seemed to retreat fully from
Kendra's eyes.  "You actually lived through that time, nearly eight thousand years ago!  The things
you must have seen!"
     "None of us remembers everything about our past lives," V shrugged.  "But I can tell you, if
you think a full moon is beautiful, try standing in a garden at night with Gaia high in the sky.  Now
that, Majesty, is a sight to behold."
     For a moment I sensed a kinship between the two of them, two women who loved mysteries
and secrets and unravelling the hidden gems of the past.  Wouldn't it be nice, I thought wistfully, if
they could just go out and dig up all these old ruins around the city without any vampires or demons
or plots?
     "How did only a handful of you come to be reincarnated, though?" Raine asked, tugging at
the sodden bandage over her eye. "And why here, why now?"
     "That we don't know.  Queen Serenity must have done it, I suppose, given us a second
chance."
     "And you've acquitted yourselves quite well, from the reports. Although the collateral
damage attributed to some of your escapades is, shall we say, extensive."
     "Trust me, Captain, we did you a favour taking out Beryl and her goons," V grinned.  "Well
worth a little property damage."
     "That would probably depend on whose property it is, V."
     "Maybe.  But she came from the same time we did, and the lady carried one hell of a
grudge."
     "Have you ever considered lending your expertise to the Royal Archives?" Kendra pressed.
"They have many old documents and artifacts from that time period.  It would be fascinating to get
the perspective of someone who lived then on the history we've pieced together."
     "You know, Majesty, I just might take you up on that."  V seemed genuinely intrigued.
"Hey, is it true your people actually found the old spaceport at Carnica?"
     "No," Kendra said.  "Wait, you mean Carnica really existed?"
     "Oh, yeah, it was real.  A shining gem of a city, Gaia's capital and home of the royal family
back in the day."
     "Fascinating ..."
     "I hate to break this up," Raine said, insincerely in my opinion, "but there are lights up
ahead."
     Bright spots of blue-white light stood out in the darkness, clustered around the river, and we
moved toward them.  It was open here close to the river, and we had to lean into the wind as it drove
sheets of cold rain at us with what seemed to me to be deliberate malice.  Raine suggested that we
approach carefully, since police operating in this area would be skittish at the best of times.
     Sounded good to me.  It would suck to survive both Fenrir and the Jaws and Buster Show,
only to get shot by a nervous cop.  So we walked along the middle of the street four abreast, trying
hard to look harmless, as the fuzzy glowing spots resolved themselves into lights mounted on trucks.
     Then we heard someone shouting something unintelligible over the din of the storm, and
Raine motioned us to stop, putting herself between Kendra and the dark shapes moving towards us.
Two of them stopped a distance away while the third came closer until we could make out his face.
     He wore round glasses spotted with rain and his blond hair was slicked against his head.
Pinned to the front of his trenchcoat was a badge, gleaming dully in the uncertain light, and although
he wasn't holding a weapon I was betting the two behind him had us in their sights.
     "Nice night for a walk, folks!" he shouted jovially.  "What brings you out here?"  He
checked me out briefly, then let his gaze linger on V. Well, a girl wearing fetishy black leather all
slicked down with rain was worth lingering on, I suppose, although I felt a twinge of jealousy at his
frank interest.  V certainly didn't mind.  She doffed her hat and shook out her wet hair, which fell
obligingly down to her knees.  Then she gave the man a smile that would have disarmed me.
     "You're the police?" she asked, raising her voice to be heard.  I thought the badge made it
pretty obvious, but he just smiled back as though they were meeting in a warm, dry office.
     "DS Otohari," he replied easily.  "Who's asking?"
     "Ah, fame is fleeting.  Does the name Sailor Venus ring a bell?"
     "That it does, miss.  The outfit's new, though, isn't it?"
     "It's my foul weather gear," she told him merrily.  "This is Ranma. We've got a couple of
people with us you're going to want to talk to."
     "That right?"  His body language shifted subtly, as if he'd been expecting trouble and was
about to find it.  Raine stepped forward, hands away from her guns, and nodded.  Otohari's eyes
went wide, then slid behind Raine and went even wider.
     "Your Majesty!" he blurted, snapping off a sharp salute. "Captain!  Thank the gods!  We'd
feared you lost with the palace!  I ... how did you escape?"
     "That is a story for later," Raine told him, and he grimaced.
     "Of course, please excuse me."  He shrugged out of his trenchcoat and stepped forward,
offering it to Kendra with a courtly bow. "Majesty?"
     Kendra smiled gratefully and turned, allowing the man to help her on with the coat.  The
rain quickly soaked his light dress shirt, but he scarcely seemed to notice.
     "Thank you, Detective Sergeant Otohari," Kendra said, rolling up the sleeves.  The coat was
too big for her, but she certainly didn't seem to mind the gesture.
     "Yusaku Otohari, at your service, Majesty.  Come on, let's get you to the trucks."  He
motioned to us and we started walking toward the lights at the riverbank.  The two who'd
accompanied him turned out to be a tall bald guy and a smaller woman with dusky skin, both
dressed in what looked like military gear and carrying assault rifles.
     "Yu?" the woman asked as we drew close.  "What have we got?"
     "Sergeant Meaghan Piakesti, Trooper Yota Karn," Otohari began.  Piakesi's gaze slipped
over me, lingered on V with far less approval than Otohari had shown, and found Raine and Kendra
at the same time as her partner.  They both snapped to attention with eyes wide, saluting crisply as
our escort went on with a smile, "I believe you know Her Majesty?"
     Okay, I thought as V shot me a smirk, so everybody recognised the Queen on sight except
me.  Give a tourist from way out of town a break, already.
     "Gods, is it really you?" Piakesti gaped.  "Majesty, we didn't expect ... I mean ..."
     "I understand, Sergeant," Kendra assured her.  "Believe me, I almost can't believe it myself."
     "Captain, ladies," Karn rumbled.  The guy was built solid, and had a voice to match.  "We've
got some spare gear in the trucks.  I'll see if I can scrounge up some coats."
     "What I really need is a gun," Raine informed him.  "Unless you've got spare rounds for
these?"
     "Not exactly standard issue," he said, checking out her dual pistols with a critical eye.  "But
I'll set you up with something, Captain. And, uh ..."
     "We're fine," V said sweetly as he gave us a dubious look. Nodding, he turned and ran ahead
of us.
     "We certainly didn't expect to see anybody out here who wasn't up to no good," Otohari told
us as we walked through the downpour.
     "What exactly are you doing this far out?" Raine asked him.
     "Before communications went out, we got several reports of fliers going down," Piakesti
answered, shrugging off the torrential rain like someone used to foul weather.  "My ETF squad was
dispatched to track down two that had been seen heading out this way."
     Fliers.  I wondered if they were part of the group that had been fighting Fenrir.
     "The storm quickly rendered aerial searches useless," she added, "and with this widespread
jamming, we couldn't locate their emergency beacons."
     "I'd been chasing around the area already, and I saw one of them go in," Otohari added.  "I
got there just behind a couple uniforms from 86 Division, and just ahead of some very nasty
monsters.  We had to run deeper into bad territory.  Luckily, we ended up hooking up with
Meaghan's group."
     "That third truck is from a marine squad," Piakseti told us, pointing.  We were close enough
to see the vehicles clearly now, two big armoured trucks with police markings and small gun turrets
on top, and a third truck, dark with a high, squarish cab and a boxy rear.  "They took casualties
trying to get back downtown, so they hooked up with us."
     "The flier went in the water?" Raine asked, and Otohari nodded. "How's the pilot?"
     "Damned lucky," Piakesti said, then stopped.  "Uh, beg your pardon, Majesty."
     "Raine swears far worse for less reason, Sergeant," Kendra assured her with a gracious
smile.  "You were saying?"
     "The flier ended up in the river, and with all the rain recently, the water's high and fast," the
smaller woman went on.  I was impressed by how easily Kendra put people at ease.  Maybe that was
something you had to know how to do when you were the queen.
     "Long story short, pilot was stuck in the middle of a raging river with the water rising,"
Otohari grinned, reaching up to slick his hair back from his face.  "But we're almost done fishing
him out, and then we're heading ... well.  Where exactly will we be taking you, Majesty?"
     "You say communications are still out, hmm?  Then I think Rystenhaos.  Raine?"
     "Good choice," Raine nodded, rain running from the tip of her nose.  "It's set up as an
emergency command centre, centrally located, easily defensible."
     "Right, then," Otohari said as Karn came running back with an armload of gear.  Otohari
took the gear and handed Raine a gun like the ones he and Piakesti were carrying, and a cloak which
she slung over her battered armour.  He handed V and me folded rain ponchos with a green and
black camouflage colour scheme, and we accepted.  "Majesty, why don't you and your people wait
in that truck?  We'll be done here momentarily, and then we can get under way."  He motioned to all
of us, and V cocked her head.
     "Thanks for the offer, Sarge," she said.  "But me and Ranma have got to cut out.  We're not
done for the night."
     "You're going back out in this?" Otohari asked, appalled.  "Gods, why?"
     "We have friends out there," she said simply.  "They're looking for us, and we've got to find
them."
     "It's dangerous," Raine frowned.  "You should really come back with us.  Your friends won't
go far in a storm like this."
     "Oh, yes they will," I said.  "They'll be out there until they find us."  I thought of Usagi and
the others, and knew that was true.  They wouldn't give up easily.
     "Ranma speaks the truth, Captain," V beamed, slapping me on the back.  "Your Majesty, we
leave you in good hands."
     "Venus," Kendra said, stepping forward to take the blonde's hand in hers.  "Thank you.
Your timely assistance saved us all from a very sticky situation."
     "My pleasure, Majesty."  V gave Kendra one of her wicked smiles, and I had a bad moment
waiting for the blonde maniac to grab the Queen and sweep her into a passionate kiss.  Or maybe
just grope her. But apparently even V had limits, and she settled for raising the Queen's hand to her
mouth and kissing the knuckles lightly.  Even that was probably a little much, judging by Raine's
scowl, but Kendra seemed delighted by V's impish gesture.
     "And you, Ranma," Kendra said, turning to me.  "You have my thanks as well."
     "I wasn't really that much help with Jaws," I shrugged.  And that wasn't modesty.  I'd done
what I could, but I hadn't been anywhere near a hundred percent, and my efforts had been mostly
diversions.
     "You are too modest, Ranma.  But I was thinking more of how you protected my citizens by
luring those two beasts into battle with each other, placing your own life in jeopardy in the process."
     "Oh," I said, suddenly aware that everybody was staring at me. "That.  No problem, Ke ... er,
Your Majesty.  I've got a personal hate on for monsters."
     She leaned close to me, a secretive smile on her lips.  "Don't be so formal, my outlander
friend," she said in a low voice that the others couldn't hear.  "Kendra will be just fine."
     And she winked at me.  So I smiled back, and she turned to V.
     "If you two need anything, don't hesitate to let me know," she said.  "I owe you both.
Identify yourself to the guards at Rystenhaos, they'll get a message to Raine."
     "Thank you, Majesty," V beamed.
     "Yeah, thanks."  With that, Kendra and Raine got into the back of one of the armoured
police trucks, more heavily armed cops in fatigues clustering around.  There was a palpable sense of
excitement emanating from these guys, and they didn't look like the type to be easily impressed.  I
was guessing that finding the Queen alive had really shaken them up.
     I still wasn't clear on exactly what had happened to the palace, but it must have been bad
enough that nobody had expected the Queen to survive.  I'd have to ask V about it later.
     As we walked away a thoroughly waterlogged man in a fight suit was being helped up from
the riverbank, and by the time we reached the spot where we'd first met Yusaku Otohari, the lights
had been retracted and the trucks were rolling out, the Queen safe inside, on her way back to
civilisation.  And a nice warm, dry bed, no doubt.  I sighed as the cold rain continued to torment me,
the rain poncho providing only minimal protection.
     "I hope they'll be okay," V said, watching the truck lights as they vanished into the storm.
Most of the street lights in this area were dark, and she conjured a short length of glowing whip to
provide us with light to see by.
     "I hope we'll be okay," I shot back.  "What are we going to do now?"
     "Like I said, find the others.  We'll backtrack your trail, head towards the stadium.  If we
can't find any sign, well, we'll blow up that bridge when we come to it."
     "Great," I grumbled as we headed back the way we'd come.  It was just for show, that
grumble.  As long as we were going together, I couldn't care less what the plan was.  Although being
dry would be an improvement.  And fed.
     "So," I said, sneaking a peek at her rain-slicked profile.  "I noticed you left out a lot of
details with Kendra."
     "Being in the Queen's good books could be useful in the future," V said, giving me a
mischievous smile.  "Having friends in high places and all that.  But there are some things I'd rather
not tell the highest authority in the land."
     "Like?"
     "Like how I intend to boost some wheels as soon as humanly possible.  I am NOT walking
all the way back!  I've already walked across half the world today.  Anyway, it'll be faster finding
the others that way."
     She sure could rationalise.  "So you never did tell me what happened," I prompted.  "At the
stadium, I mean, when I did ... whatever I did."
     "You," she informed me gravely, "formed a big dragon out of your chi.
     "A what?"
     "And not just any dragon, a Storm Dragon.  And attacked Fenrir with it.  But you went into
kind of a berserker state.  Your first attack knocked all the wraiths and succubi out of the sky, then
you and wolfie ended up inside the stadium, where you crushed him.  Then your big chidragon tried
to eat me."
     I gaped at her.  Whatever I'd been expecting, it hadn't been this. "I ... attacked you?"
     "Yeah, but Mara saved me," V said breezily.
     "Gah ... wuh?"
     "For her own purposes.  Did I mention I spent most of the day in Shadow Realm?"
     "No," I said, feeling cold and a little faint.  I'd attacked her? "No, you left that detail out."
     "Hey!" V said, whacking me with her cap again.  "Snap out of it! Don't worry, I fully intend
to get you to make this up to me, so don't go feeling guilty.  I'm the one that gets to make you feel
guilty, okay?"
     "Is that supposed to make sense?"
     "It makes perfect sense," she sniffed, flicking water from the brim of her cap and perching it
back on her head.  "By the way, I met someone who knows about you."
     "What?  What do you mean?"
     "Her name is Peorth, and she was a prisoner of the Crimson Queen.  She helped me escape,
and she knows things."
     "What kind of things?"
     "That word you saw, Takzvyrmishammir, for one.  Wild one, she said.  And that you had
called up more power than you could control, which I can personally vouch for.  She seemed
familiar with the whole Warden thing, at any rate."
     "Where is she?"  I felt a surge of excitement that pushed my guilt rudely aside.  Someone
with answers?  That was something I'd never expected to find!
     "Not sure.  I think she made it through with me, but we were separated.  I know where she'll
be tomorrow, though.  Until then, we find the others and find someplace warm and dry to sit and eat
and drink and revel in the fact that we stopped the Sisterhood, screwed up the vamp's plan and saved
the Queen.  Quite a day's work, huh?"
     "When you put it that way, yeah," I said, struck, not for the first time, by her indomitable
spirit.  "I guess it has been."  My stomach gurgled noisily then, and I realised that I'd been running
all over the damned city for most of a day.  It was night now, and I was cold, wet, and tired.  And
hungry.  V's plan sounded like paradise to me.
     "So let's go find the others," V grinned.  "Come on, race you!"
     I mustered the energy to chase her a short distance, finally catching up near the old
drawbridge where we'd started.  V shook her head, rain pattering off the brim of her cap.
     "Weak, Saotome," she chided.  "Where's that old Ranma drive?"
     "Beating Fenrir really took it out of me," I said, fighting the urge to lie down in the street and
catch my breath.  That would have been undignified, and lying down in the street once a day was my
limit anyway.  "I feel like a wet noodle.  Emphasis on wet."
     "That why you didn't unleash the dragon on Crazy Legs?" she asked, nodding towards the
remnants of the bridge."
     "His name was Jaws," I informed her.  "And yeah.  I couldn't even muster a simple
chi-blast."
     "Well, how long did you keep up the dragon-thingie after I was gone?"
     "No idea," I confessed.  "I just, ah, woke up lying in the street with no idea where I was."  Or
what was real, I added silently.  That memory chilled me even more than the rain's sodden misery.
     "What street?"
     I thought back to the streets I'd passed right after waking up.  I'd hoped to spot a familiar
name, but there were only a handful of streets I'd recognise, and none of them had appeared as I
walked.  "Um, I saw a lot filled with old buses not long after I started walking.  Looked like people
had been living in them."
     "Coloured awnings, an old streetcar near the front of the bunch?"
     "Yeah."
     "Wow," she said with a low whistle.  "I know that place.  It's north of Beckersly.  If you were
running full out all the way there from the stadium, no wonder you're pooped.  Tell me something,"
she said as we started walking again, the rain drumming down on us steadily.  We had to raise our
voices to talk, but I was used to it by now.  Even the constant jagged forks of lightning and their
attendant thundercracks were becoming routine.  "Past that bridge is no man's land all the way to the
Old City.  That's the area where we came up from that old tunnel, you know.  Why'd you come this
way?"
     "I'm not sure.  I just felt ... something, like this was the way to go.  I thought maybe Fenrir or
Mara had taken you this way, I guess."  I gave a half-shrug, a little embarrassed at my inability to
articulate what I was thinking.  And I couldn't shake the feeling that came over me every time I
thought about attacking her in a blind rage.  What if I'd hurt her?
     "A feeling?  How long were you going to follow some feeling through this shitstorm, tough
guy?"
     "Until I found you," I said without thinking.  Because, hell, it was true, wasn't it?  My first
rational thoughts had been of her.  Moments later, V wrapped her arm around my waist and pressed
her lips against the corner of my mouth.  Her lips were warm, and soft, and they clung there for a
long moment in a kiss that wasn't passionate, but was definitely too warm and lingering to be
sisterly.  Cold rain trickled down our faces, but I hardly noticed.  Then those lips were next to my
ear, and hot breath carried a soft whisper deep into my head.
     "I missed you, too."
     Then she was walking beside me again, but suddenly I felt like I could take on the world.
And like I would, if she asked me to.  She wanted me to make that little chi-dragon mishap up to
her?  Absolutely. I'd find a way, do whatever she wanted me to.  Anything to have this feeling.  Even
though we were walking through a nearly deserted urban wasteland on a hellishly stormy night, I
felt a contentment that was nearly scary.  Okay, it was scary.  Mostly because I knew that I could
have the happiness she was offering me.
     All I had to do was ask.  And I still wasn't sure I could.
     Be honest, a little voice nagged me.  It's not that you can't ask for what she's offering.  It's
that you don't think you deserve it.  Not when everything you ever loved is dead and you couldn't do
anything to stop it.  And what if it happens again?  Can you risk loving if it might mean losing?
Would you survive?
     I swear, my brain hates me.  I walked on, grimly determined to ignore the familiar old
refrain that ate away at the fleeting happiness I'd felt.  Was it so wrong to just want to be happy for a
little while?  Without vampires or succubi or priestesses or monsters or nature itself popping up to
kick the crap out of my world?
     "Hey," V shouted, moving a little ways away.  "Check that out!" I snapped out of my
self-pitying reverie to see that we had reached the place where Raine had brought us back to the
street after crossing the train tracks.  The corner of some old factory had taken a direct hit from Jaws'
shortcut, and V seemed to be looking inside.  Before I could tell her that I knew perfectly well what
had caused the damage and that, if we stopped to look at every damaged building between here and
the stadium the trip would take us ten years, she dashed off through the storm.
     Damn it.
     I caught up to her at the opening in the wall.  The old factory was brick on this side, a couple
of old roll-up doors facing the street we were on.  V seemed much more interested in the dark
interior, though, which looked to me to be cavernous, dark, and empty.
     "You feel that?" she asked me with a grin.
     "Wet and cold?  Yeah.  Can we go now?  It's a long walk ..."
     "Magickal residue," V said as though I hadn't spoken. "Whatever smashed this wall tripped
some sort of defensive ward."
     "An old security system?" I shrugged.  I didn't see how it mattered.  There wouldn't be
anything left in a place like this worth taking.  Like all the buildings around it, it had clearly been
abandoned for years.
     "Nope.  Come on."  Summoning her whip again, V moved inside, and against my better
judgement I followed.  Well, what else was I going to do?  After finally finding her, I wasn't about to
lose her again.
     Getting out of the rain was almost disorienting for a moment, what with the sudden absence
of water drilling into my head and face.  I followed V, wringing water out of my braid.  The
drumming of rain on the roof provided a steady background sound, but none of that water was
getting in, at least not here.  Thank heaven for small favours, I suppose. V and I took off the rain
ponchos and set them aside.
     "Looky here," V crowed, bending down.  I moved closer, only to jump back as a low
mechanical moan ratcheted up quickly, followed by several blooms of light around us.
     "Well, well," V mused, standing with her hands on her hips. "Isn't this curious? Someone's
been up to no good."
     No good?  I looked around the cavernous space, darkness pushed back reluctantly by
portable lights on short metal poles.  There wasn't much to see, just two big trucks parked beside
each other.  Each truck had a flatbed trailer behind it, but as I moved closer I could see that, except
for a couple of tarpaulins and some wide yellow straps of thick canvas, the trailers were empty.
     "Okay, I'll bite," I said.  "What's the penalty for illegally parking trucks in an old building?"
     "Ranma, Ranma, Ranma.  You need to learn to think with a more larcenous facility."
     "'Larcenous facility'?  Who even talks like that?"
     "Look," V said, taking off her cap and shaking out her wet hair as we spoke.  "This is what
is known as a bad part of town.  The only people who come here are the desperate and the crooked.
And the desperate can't afford trucks.  Also, they don't need trucks because they don't have anything
big enough to need a truck to move."
     "Erm, okay," I said, trying to decipher V's convoluted logic and sentence structure.
     "Ergo, somebody is up to no good," V continued, walking slowly around the massive
vehicles.  "They brought something in on these trucks, hid the trucks in this unassuming craphole
building, and rigged the place with defensive wards to keep away other crooked folk."
     "What about the desperate?"
     "The desperate have to be the really desperate to come this close to the river," V shrugged.
"Nobody in their right mind crosses over into that blighted place."
     "We did."
     "By accident."
     "Hey, and Rin and his people were there.  We never found out why, did we?"
     "Probably hunting something," V sighed, reaching up to open the door of one of the truck
cabs.  "Shifters play dangerous games sometimes."
     I watched for a few moments as V rummaged around inside the cab, until I realised that I
was staring at her butt sticking out of the door.  And that she was undoubtedly aware of the view she
was presenting.  Really, the girl was too much.
     "Find anything?" I called.
     "Nope," she replied, her voice muffled slightly.  "Pretty clean. Suspiciously clean, you might
say."
     Swell.  She hopped down and headed to the other cab.  "Say, I don't suppose you can drive
one of these, can you?"
     "Me?  No, I can't drive," I told her.
     "Too bad.  Fortuna dropped a couple of perfectly good trucks in our laps, and I sure don't
want to go back out in the rain and walk all that way.  A Triton like the one you guys burned up on
the bridge would be perfect."
     "Apparently it was a gang member's car, at least according to Raine.  Maybe the trucks are
theirs, too."
     "Maybe.  Hey, I suppose I could try driving one of these.  There's no traffic out there, after
all.  What's the worst that could happen?"
     Putting those words together with V was, in my limited experience, just asking for trouble.
Before I could say as much, though, I felt a prickling sensation, an awareness of someone close by.  I
grabbed V from behind before she could climb into the second cab, quickly putting my hand over
her mouth and whispering into her ear.
     "Company."
     She nodded and we moved quietly to the front of the cab, our feet hidden behind the big front
wheel.  Maybe the gang members had finished whatever criminal activity they'd been engaged in and
had gone looking for their car, only to find it gone.  And now they were here to check up on the rest
of their stuff.
     Well, bring it on.  I was tired of monsters.  Give me some good old fashioned punks to fight.
     We could hear footsteps now over the sound of the rain, and I signalled to V, holding up a
finger.  Just one of them, approaching from the far side.  She nodded, indicating that I should take
the low road and she'd take the high.  Silently, I slipped around the front of the cab, hugging the
clunky chrome grill as V climbed the cab, surprisingly nimble and quiet in those high-heeled boots.
I guess running wasn't the only thing that was easy in ridiculously impractical footwear generated by
magick.
     The footsteps were closer now, slow and deliberate.  I waited patiently, choosing my
moment, and leapt out just as V sprang over the top of the truck with an earsplitting cry.
     Which immediately turned into a whoop of joy.
     "Hey!" Jupiter spluttered as the blonde senshi bounced forward, wrapping her arms around
the taller girl's neck and peppering her face with kisses.  "Gods, woman, all right, all right!  I'm glad
to see you, too!"  Jupiter rolled her eyes, but I could tell she was pleased.  Or relieved.  Maybe both.
     "I see you finally found her," she said to me.
     "Yeah," I said.  "How about you guys, everyone okay?  No succubi or wraiths on your
tails?"
     "Nope," she said, gently pushing V away as the hug turned into a grope.  She was still
wearing Yoshi's t-shirt over her uniform, although she'd taken off the makeshift sling.  I could tell
she was still favouring that injured shoulder, though.  "But you could have waited for us, Ranma.
Gods, what happened?"
     "Well," I began.  "I ... hey.  How did you know I found V?  I mean, how did you know that
she wasn't with me the whole time?"
     "Yoshi followed your scent out of the stadium.  Just yours."
     "Oh.  Well ..."
     "Hang on," Jupiter interrupted.  "Let's get everyone together out of the rain, save you having
to explain it all over again.  Or, better yet, let's find someplace warm, with a hot bath and cold beer."
     "And food!" V crowed.
     "Oh, food," I sighed, my stomach gurgling again.
     "Hold that thought," Jupiter said, retreating to the big gaping hole that led out to the street.
Within five minutes, everyone was there, and there were hugs all around.  Everybody was wet and
cold and hungry, but mostly okay.  Tux seemed pretty well recovered from his run-in with the
succubus, while the princess looked like she'd been through a small war, but things could have been
worse.
     So why did I still feel this vague uneasiness?
     "I was worried about you guys," Moon wailed, hugging V tightly.  "I was afraid that
something terrible happened!"  When she finally released V, she turned around and grabbed me in a
hug.  Taken off guard, I gingerly hugged back, a little embarrassed, but also pleased. It was so like
her to include me.
     "But you didn't give up," she said, looking into my eyes and smiling one of those wonderful,
warm smiles of hers.  I hated to shut that smile down, but I couldn't let that slide.
     "It was my fault that V was in trouble in the first place," I admitted sheepishly.
     "Which is why you're going to do unspeakable things to my lissome body all night!" V
crowed.
     "What?"
     "You promised to make it up to me, remember?"
     "I was thinking, like, flowers and a card!"
     "I don't think they make a 'Sorry I Almost Ate You' card," V sniffed.  "That calls for dinner,
probably jewellery, and a night of depraved passions.  For starters."
     I was going to shoot back when I realised that everyone was staring at us.  Moon stepped
back into Tux's arms as my face grew hot.
     "What in the name of the gods are you two talking about?" Mars asked finally.  She slicked
her wet hair back from her face, looking irritated for some reason.  Well, being wet and cold was
some reason, I guess.
     "So Ranma did the whole killer chi-dragon thing," V began.
     "Which was boffo cool!" Moon chirped.
     "It kinda was," Jupiter agreed.
     "But it was kind of a berserker thing, too," V went on.  "And after Fenrir got his ticket
punched, Mister Chi-Dragon started eyeing me like I might be good to eat."  It seemed to me that V
was downplaying what had happened, playing it for laughs.  Of course, I didn't remember what had
happened, so I really had to take her word for it.  At any rate, there was no malice in her recounting
of the incident, which I was grateful for. I felt bad enough about it already, even if no actual harm
had been done.
     But what about next time?  Ha.  As soon as she'd told me I'd attacked her, I'd known there
couldn't be a next time.  Whatever this technique was, it was too dangerous to be used if it wouldn't
let me differentiate between friend and foe.  Even in the Nekoken, I hadn't attacked Minako or Rei.
     "So Mara plucks me from the scene before things can get awkward," V went on.  "And takes
me to Shadow to meet her boss.  But I escape ... imagine incredible acts of derring-do at this point in
the story," she said in a quick aside.  "I meet up with some sort of angel woman who helps me
escape.  Then I find our Ranma, wandering through this hell-hole in the company of our Queen.  He
saved her, you see."
     "I didn't save her," I said as the stunned group turned from V to me in unison.  "Exactly.  It
was sort of a group effort."
     "That's not funny, you two," Tux scowled.
     "I'm not joking," V said breezily.  "Tell them what you call Her Majesty.   Go on, tell them."
     "I don't ..."
     "He calls her Kendra!" V exclaimed, throwing her arms in the air.  "If you can imagine!"
     "That's her name!  I didn't know she was the bloody Queen, did I?  She might have said
something, like, I don't know, 'Hi!  I'm the Queen!  Worship me!'"
     "Her picture's on all the money, you know!"
     "Well, I'm broke!"
     "Wait!" Mars snapped.  "Hold it!  Are you two serious?"
     "Rarely," V grinned.  "But just now, yes."
     "The Queen survived the attack on the palace?" Moon gasped. "Really for real?  How?"
     "I'm guessing those old stories about escape tunnels weren't just stories," V said.  "Captain
Griev was with her, but no one else got out."
     "And they ended up here?" Mercury asked, incredulous.  "Why here?"
     "I didn't ask," V shrugged.  "We were busy fighting Jaws. Ranma's naming the monsters
now, by the way."
     "Jaws?"
     "It fit," I said weakly.  The noise, the banter, the barely suppressed laughter ... yeah.  This
was warm.  This was fun.  I wanted this, and that scared me.  But for now, for just this moment at
the end of a long, nightmarish day, I wanted to enjoy it.  Just for a moment.
     Except I couldn't, not completely.  That niggling sense of foreboding just would not lie down
and die, not even with the others all here.
     "Hold on," Mars said firmly, holding her arms out to V like a traffic cop.  "Just wait.  I'm
confused.  You got out of Shadow ..."
     "With help."
     "So you weren't following her?" Mars asked, turning to me.
     "I thought I might be," I muttered.  "But, ah, I guess not."
     "So where were you going?  Your trail was straight from the stadium, I mean dead straight.
You smashed parked cars, signs, utility poles ... even through walls.  It's lucky that you ended up in
this part of town considering all the damage, but the point is that you seemed to have a definite
destination."
     "The chi-dragon likes squalor?" V shrugged.
     "But it obviously wore off," Mars persisted.  "And you kept going on almost exactly the
same path.  If you weren't following V, where exactly were you going?"
     "Are you going somewhere with this?" Jupiter asked, clearly puzzled.
     "I see what Mars means," Mercury nodded.  Of all the girls, she seemed least bothered by the
wet.  "Ranma's path leads toward the Zone. If he had kept going, he would have eventually reached
the border of the Old City."
     "Exactly," Mars said, the lights gleaming on her rain slicked skin.  "Coincidence?  Or is this
new power of yours somehow connected to that place?"
     "I don't know," I confessed, aware that everyone was watching me again.  "I just ... I woke
up feeling that something was wrong.  I had to go the way I was going to find it."
     "Maybe it was V," the princess suggested, leaning back against Tux and sighing as his arms
wrapped around her shoulders.  "You sensed her even though she was in Shadow."
     "No," I said, frustrated at my inability to express what I was sensing.  "I still feel it when I
think about it, like a ... pull, I guess.  Like something is out there, that way."  I pointed, my finger
finding the direction unerringly, as though talking about it made it more real.
     "Something like what?" Tux prodded.
     "I don't know."
     "The vamp?" Mars asked, lovely eyes narrowing.
     "I don't know!  I just ... I feel it, that's all.  Ever since I woke up from this dragon thing."
     "Before," Mercury said softly.
     "What?"
     "You felt it before you woke up.  You started going that way while the power still had
control of you.  That must be significant."
     "Aw, geez," Jupiter groaned.  "Don't tell me you guys want to chase out into that rat-infested
craphole in this weather?  We stopped the vamp's plan, chased off the Sisterhood, escaped Fenrir and
the succubi and the wraiths and now you want to do more?  It's late.  Can't we call it a night?  The
princess needs home to a warm bed and a good night's sleep."
     "I'm okay," Moon said quickly.  I glanced at her ragged bandages and found that statement
pretty damned unlikely.  Still, she had surprising grit under that likeable goofball exterior.
     "Baniesti is less than an hour and a half away," Mercury mused before anyone else could
suggest calling it a night.  "Can we really be complacent?  I mean, could the Sisterhood still pull off
their plan?"
     We all looked at Mars, who did not seem happy to be answering questions about her former
comrades again.
     "We had to make certain assumptions about the nature of this spell they were going to
attempt," Mars said finally.  "Such as that it would take a great deal of planning and logistics, which
it clearly did. And that it was going to be performed in Alieva's temple, perhaps gaining some
advantage in desecrating a place of power."
     "Also right," V pointed out.
     "They managed to unleash their spell on the temple, but far too early.  There's no way they
could brew more of that gas, and even if they could, the Crusade is all through those tunnels now.
The White Order is on high alert, the element of surprise has been lost.  There's just no way to
mount a successful attack of the temple, not with the resources at their disposal."
     "What about someplace other than the temple?" I asked.  Listening to Mars, I had started to
feel ... I don't know.  Something.  Like she was shining a light around a dark room, allowing me to
catch brief glimpses of the answer, just disconnected pieces of the puzzle.  But I could put it
together.  I had to.  Now that it was out in the open, I felt an increasing sense that something was
wrong, that we hadn't averted disaster, and that time was running out.
     But why?  Why did I suddenly feel this way?  Had using the key's power the way I had
opened some door in my head?
     Now there was a pleasant thought.
     "There are other places holy to the Order, but that temple is the centre of worship for all
Alieva's followers," Mars said.  "Look, this is getting us nowhere ..."
     "No.  Wait, wait, waitwaitwait."  I snapped my fingers rapidly. Something.  Listening to
Mars talk had made an association, something important.  Something ...
     "Maybe Ranma's got a point," Mercury said.  "Think about it. That attack on the palace
wasn't like anything we've ever seen.  That magick was primal, incredibly powerful."
     "If the Sisterhood could have called down a force like that, they wouldn't have hit the
palace," Mars assured her.  "They'd have flattened Alieva's temple."
     "This Crimson Queen, then," Tux said.
     "Not her," V told us.  "I missed the actual attack, but the result was some pretty extensive
damage to the palace in Shadow as well as here, and the Crimson Queen was pissed."
     "The vamp."  Jupiter was scowling.  She didn't like where this was going.  Well, neither did
I.
     "Part of her plan, maybe?" V guessed.  "Take out our government, leave us leaderless while
the Sisterhood does ... what?"
     "If she could command that kind of force, why would she need the Sisterhood?" Moon
asked.
     "We're just going around in circles," Mars sighed.  "We don't have enough information."
     "Yeah, we do," I gritted, walking in a tight circle.  "It was ... it was ...
     (some old texts and things)
     "Usagi!" I blurted.  She jumped.
     "Um, what?"
     "You said it!"
     "Huh?"
     "That night, after we got back from Aethyr, we were eating!  What did you say?  It was ...
dammit!"
     "Was it about pancakes?" Moon asked meekly.  "Because I like pancakes.  And cheese."
     "Ahhhgh!"  I grabbed my head, willing the thoughts to come.
     "But not together," she added quickly.
     "Nice going, princess," V sighed.  "You broke his brain."
     "It was Usagi," Jupiter pointed out.  "How serious a conversation could it have been?
     Think, Saotome.  Think.  Old texts ... what had Mars just said? Something about, um, places
holy to the Order ...
     (Alieva's new temple has some old texts and things)
     Wait.
     (that were found in the dig at Goultera Isle)
     YES.
     I grabbed the slender blonde by the shoulders, the connections falling into place at long last.
"Yes!  That's it!"
     "Pancakes?" Moon asked, her blue eyes doubtful.
     "What?  No, the temple!"
     Blank looks greeted that statement.
     "No, I mean ... listen!  Usagi was talking about some old stuff from a dig on Goultera Isle
..."
     "Oh, yeah, I remember," Moon nodded, smiling.
     "The Order moved it from the old temple after the Long Dark, right?  They had to abandon
it.  So what about that temple?"
     "They abandoned that temple for a reason," Mars pointed out.  "The old temple district was
right in the middle of things when the Old City appeared.  All the old temples that survived had to be
forsaken. Everything on the far side of the White Orb River was.  It's just too dangerous."
     "It's still there, though," I pressed, certain somehow that I was onto something.  "Right?"
     "That temple is on a small island in the middle of the Kinnisballi River," Moon said.  "But
it's right on the border of the Old City.  It would be crazy to go there."
     "And anyway, wouldn't the temple have been decommissioned or something if they were
abandoning it?" Jupiter added.
     "Desanctified," Mars said.  "And yes, I'm certain it was."  But now she seemed uncertain, as
the seed of my idea took root.
     "Wait a second," V mused.  "That temple WAS the centre of worship for Alieva's order for
nearly a thousand years, right up until the Long Dark.  It's certainly a significant place in the history
of the Order, even if it isn't a temple to Alieva anymore ..."
     "I think Ranma's onto something," Mercury said.  She was staring at the screen of her
handheld computer, the light flickering across her face almost eerily.  "I can't access my remote
systems, but I can still access local memory.  This map of the city shows that Ranma's path from the
stadium leads straight through the Zone and towards the border of the Old City.  And, from what I
can see, if he'd kept going, he'd have ended up at this little island right here."  She tapped the screen
with her gloved finger, and I could see the tide turning as everyone pondered this new information.
     The temple, I thought, almost drunk on the rush of sensation.  I almost had it.  Something
else about the temple ...
     "Brenn Sikstra."  I'd spoken the name aloud without even realising it as the last piece fell
into place, and everyone stopped and looked at me.  Except for Tux, who was, for some reason,
peering under the trucks.
     "The priestess the Sisterhood kidnapped?" Jupiter asked.
     "A High Priestess," Mars breathed.
     "Oh," Mercury said softly.  "Wait."
     "Yeah," V said.  "I see where you're going, Ranma.  We assumed they kidnapped her for her
knowledge of the new temple, or even maybe to sacrifice her in this ceremony.  But what if they
needed her for some other purpose, like ..."
     "Like to re-sanctify that old temple," I finished for her.  Oh, hell.
     "That's crazy," the princess blurted.  "She wouldn't!"
     "They had plenty of time to break her," Mars countered.  "By now, I would assume they
could make her do whatever they want.  And remember what we assumed about this ceremony?
That it would take place in Alieva's temple to draw power from desecration, and that it needed to be
near a source of wild power like the magicks of the Old City."
     "Near?  It'll be as close to the Old City as you can get without being in it!" V spat.  "Damn!
That's a crazy plan!"
     "But what about the attack on the present temple?" Mercury asked.  "They went to a lot of
trouble to pull that off."
     "The White Order adopted a fortress mentality for Baniesti," I said.  "It's like martial arts,
you use your enemy's strength against them. The Sisterhood ensures that their enemy can see an
attack they are expecting, and keeps their attention on the new temple and away from the old one."
     "And gets to dedicate an act of debasement to their newly resurrected goddess," Mars added.
     "It all fits," I said, feeling a rush of adrenaline now that I'd finally dug the memory out of the
dark recesses of my head.  "They never had to hold the temple long enough to perform the
ceremony, it was just a diversion.  The real action is taking place out there."  I pointed towards the
drawbridge, blinking as I spotted Tux still prowling around the trucks.
     "I think these are another piece of the puzzle," he announced, turning to look at us.
     "The trucks?" Jupiter asked.  "Seriously?"
     "Judging by the oil leak under this cab, these trucks have been here a while," he told us.
     "So?" I asked.
     "These trailers are the sort used to transport heavy equipment. Like, for instance, a Bander
armoured car and a Massovelli Waterbug."
     Silence.  "Huh?" I said finally, feeling stupid all of a sudden.
     "The files I got from a sergeant in the ETF, they listed a bunch of stuff our intelligence
division had come across in the past six months, crooked or hinky stuff their people had dug up that
involved a group of beautiful women.  And there was a reference to a weapons dealer selling just
such a group a Bander equipped with a plow blade and a Waterbug, along with some Viernan optic
camouflage gear.  I didn't think there could be any connection, but now ..."
     "What would they need that kind of stuff for?" I asked.  I didn't even know what any of that
was.
     "The roads are largely impassable past the bridge, especially if you want to go all the way to
the border.  The Bander could clear a path, and the Waterbug is a bridging unit.  If I recall correctly,
the causeway to the island is partially collapsed, so they'd need a way across."
     "Holy crap," Jupiter said as we all stood there, exchanging stunned looks.  "This is for real,
isn't it?  We didn't stop them at all."
     "Not yet," I said grimly.  "But this thing isn't over, not by a long shot."

***

     "How are they?" Saturn asked, flicking stray raindrops from the tip of her nose.  The space
under the garage deck was sheltered from the storm, a welcome respite.  Still, the rain had its uses.
It had washed away the gore from the monsters she'd slaughtered.
     "Uranus is still unconscious," Pluto told her.  "Neptune ..."
     "The bleeding's stopped," Neptune said hoarsely.  The normally elegant girl was a mess, her
uniform badly torn and blood-stained.  Still, they'd all survived worse.  Uranus' head wound
concerned Saturn more.
     "Just when I thought nothing could surprise me," Pluto sighed. She watched Neptune
carefully.  The wounded girl had insisted on holding Uranus's head in her lap, even as she herself
was propped against the cold concrete wall.  Typical, Saturn thought.  If she could walk, she'd insist
on carrying her, too.
     "Indeed."  Saturn shrugged, trying to pretend that she was merely uncomfortable in her wet
clothes.  In truth, though, it was her skin that seemed to tight.  Wild darkness was loose in the night,
and it called to her, making her feel twitchy and on edge.  That was the last thing she needed, of
course, so she just squared her shoulders, slinging the Silence Glaive across them easily.
     "Whatever those new monsters are, we're lucky they aren't as resistant to your glaive as they
are to energetic magicks," Pluto went on. "How does it look out there?"
     "Quiet, for now.  I killed three more of the beasts."
     "Then we should try to get these two back home."
     Saturn nodded.  She'd suggested a hospital for Uranus, but the hospitals they'd passed had all
been in a state of complete chaos, and Neptune was certain that they could take care of their
comrade themselves.  She was probably right, but the first order of business was to get to shelter.
The going was slow, as they kept encountering trouble everywhere they went.
     "You should go looking for the princess and the others," Neptune said, not looking up from
her partner as she gently stroked blood-stained hair back from Uranus' pale face.  "They might need
help."
     "We can't contact them," Pluto pointed out.  "We have no idea where they are."
     "Unfortunately, Pluto's right," Saturn said.  "And it'll take both of us to carry you two.  For
now, you are the priority.  The princess is in good hands.  She's been wanting us to trust her abilities
and her team, and we simply have to do that now."
     Saturn knew the truth of everything she'd just said, but still she wished they could go looking
for the others.  There'd been some sort of huge magickal discharge just after Uranus and Neptune
had gone down, wild energies washing over her like a dark flood.  She hadn't gotten a good look, but
it seemed like it had originated in the clouds of this wild tempest, striking somewhere in the
Highview area.  If only the comms were working, she could try to get some information.  She didn't
like being out of contact with Moon and the others, especially not with this vampire running around.
     At least they'd heard about the foiling of the Sisterhood's plan before losing contact.  At this
point, any good news was welcome.
     Saturn dismissed her glaive and bent down to pick Uranus up. The lanky girl moaned softly,
but her eyes didn't open.  Damn it.  You're going to be okay, Haruka.  You have to be.  I need you.
     Neptune didn't object as Pluto hoisted her, which told Saturn how badly hurt she must be.
Ordinarily, getting either of these two to accept help from anyone was a major chore.
     "Ready?" Pluto asked, scanning the darkness around them.
     "Ready," Saturn confirmed.  "Stay close."
     Together, they charged out into the turbulent night.

***

     The storm was, if anything, even more vicious than it had been, sheets of lightning
backlighting the cityscape with eerie flashes of hard bluewhite.  Discussion of taking the trucks had
been nixed pretty quickly.  I pointed out that the bridge was toast, and Mars added that we could
certainly expect the Sisterhood to have boobytrapped their route, much like in the tunnels.  With that
admonition in mind we'd split into two groups, flanking the road.  Tux and the princess took one
side with Mercury and Jupiter.  Mars, Venus and I took the other.  If we did encounter trouble,
hopefully we could come to each other's aid.
     Still, it was late.  Midnight, and Baniesti, was about an hour and a half away, and we had a
lot of ground to cover, so we couldn't afford to be as cautious as we would have liked.
     We could see in places that the road had been cleared, burned out hulks of cars pushed aside
or piles of rubble flattened.  Still, it looked as though they had taken some pains to keep their route
from being obvious to the casual observer, not that there was such a thing in this part of town. If we
hadn't been looking for it, we might not have noticed.
     "Makes sense!" Mars shouted over the storm when I told her my thoughts.  "They must have
been at this for weeks, maybe longer, they wouldn't have wanted to draw attention to themselves!"
     "Maybe that's why Rin and his gang were here that day we met them!" I shot back.  "They
realised someone was in their hunting ground!"  She shrugged.  It was as good a theory as any, and
it wasn't like we were going to be asking them.
     Still, it didn't sit well with me, knowing that the Sisterhood had put one over on us.  We'd
thought that we had broken this thing wide open, that we had stopped the vampire's plan in its
tracks.  That witch must be laughing at us, running around the way we'd been.
     Well, I intended to have the last laugh.
     We took as direct a route as we could, hurling ourselves through the tempest recklessly, all
of us aware that time was ticking away.  The night was lit intermittently by the nightmare strobe of
lightning, huge jagged forks tearing at the air with vicious abandon.  It was like the storm was
another monster set loose on the city, a huge one that wanted to tear the night apart.
     This was a monster we couldn't fight.  So we endured it.  And we ran.
     We found a gaping crater in the road less than twenty minutes later.  There were pieces of
something scattered around the hole, and thankfully the rain had taken care of most of the messy
gore.  Still, the sight was anything but pretty.
     "Booby trap?" V asked as we slowed to take a look.
     "More than likely," Mars agreed.  It had been big, whatever it was, and now it was scattered
over half a city block.  I was suddenly very glad that Mars had warned us against taking the road.  If
I'd had any doubts, this certainly erased them.
     V signalled the others on the far side of the wide boulevard, and we were off again.  There
was little time for idle chat, so we concentrated on making our way through the storm-wracked
darkness, expecting an attack at any moment, whether from the Sisterhood or just some wandering
creatures.  Even when no attack came, we had to deal with near zero visibility and treacherous
terrain.  Everything seemed to conspire to slow us down and hold us back, while the minutes ticked
relentlessly away and Baniesti drew closer and closer.
     We were passing through what had once been a residential neighbourhood full of high,
narrow stone houses.  I remembered the place where we'd come out of the tunnels, before we'd run
into Rin. Mars had known the neighbourhood; she'd lived there before the Long Dark.  That thought
brought an unpleasant reality home to me.  These streets had once been full of people, not so very
long ago.  Families had lived here.  Now this entire part of the city was dead, abandoned.
     Just like my home.  Somewhere out there, the streets of my Nerima still existed, empty of life
and love and light.  Would someone run through them one day, like this?  And if they did, would
they spare a thought for the people who had once lived there?  Or would they just see an empty,
barren place left to the mercy of time and ruin?
     My gut churned at the thought.  We had to stop this from happening again.  We had to.
     The houses ended, the buildings that still stood becoming bigger. Apartment blocks, maybe;
some of them had fallen over the years. Or been knocked down.  The street we were following
merged into a bigger one, still going our way, and we kept moving, parallelling its route. From time
to time our groups would signal each other, V and the princess creating small flares of light.  I didn't
think they had to worry about being spotted by anyone, not in this mess, but they were careful
anyway. With all the comms still not working, we had to improvise.  Hell, we couldn't even call
Saturn and the others for help.
     We were on our own.
     Having to stay off the road slowed us down some.  Once V miscalculated a jump and ended
up flailing in an icy pool of murky water, and later I slipped off a rain-slicked stone and tumbled
across the sodden ground, but we were far luckier than we had any right to be. Nothing spotted us as
we ran, and the Sisterhood seemed to have kept their traps on the road.  Icy rain drove into our faces,
the wind howled constantly, and lightning kept ruining my night vision, but quitting was not an
option, so I just kept moving.
     The exhaustion I'd felt earlier was still with me, but it had faded to being just part of the
overall misery that I was immersed in.  Wet, cold, hungry, and tired.  It certainly wasn't the first time
I'd been all of those things at once.
     I nearly bowled V over as she came to a sudden stop, my feet skidding across wet ground as
I slammed on the brakes.  Mars was standing on the verge of a wide plaza, shoulders heaving with
exertion.  It seemed like we'd been running through the storm for hours, caught in some unending
nightmare, and I had a sudden panicky premonition.  She was going to tell us that it was too late,
Baniesti was here.
     "We're close!" she shouted instead.  "This is the gateway to the old temple district!  We'll
have to be careful!"
     "There's no time!" V shot back.  "It must be nearly midnight!"
     I saw Mercury arcing through the air behind us, backlit by a sudden volley of lightning.
Seconds later, the others had joined us, Moon cradled in Tux's arms.  I eyed her leg critically.  It had
been pretty torn up in that fracas with the succubus, it was no surprise that she couldn't run the
whole way here.  What was surprising was that Tux could have carried her after what happened to
him.  He must be a fast healer.
     "Something's strange up ahead!" Mercury shouted, pointing. "See that?"
     I squinted through the storm.  Was it lighter up there? Marvellous, that was all we needed.
     "Forget that!" Jupiter snarled.  "The air feels heavy!  We're real close to the border of the
Old City!"
     "Just under twenty minutes!" Mercury announced.  "We need to move!"
     "I'll take the lead!" Mars announced, her voice nearly tattered by the wind.  "Look for traps!
But their most defensible position will be at the causeway!"
     Right.  No time for subtlety, not now.  A full frontal assault by a small group of people
who'd been chewed up and worn down by the day's events, against a force who had the defensive
advantage and time to prepare.
     Big time fun.
     We charged forward, and in less than a minute we saw why it had appeared lighter ahead of
us.  We passed through a curtain of rain and wind into a landscape lit up beautifully by a full,
silvery moon.  I gaped up at the sky, completely at a loss for words.  Above us the sky was clear. We
stood in the eye of the storm, an unnaturally perfect circle of calm ringed with roiling cloud and a
solid wall of rain.
     The land sloped away from where we stood, scattered buildings on either side of the broad
roadway.  The area had been dominated by low buildings dotted with towers and spires and
surrounded by walls that looked more decorative than anything.  From our vantage I could see the
wide river in the distance and the cluster of buildings crowning the island in the middle of it.
     The centre of the calm appeared to be located directly above the biggest building on that
island.
     "Oh, this can't be good," I groaned.
     "Crap," Jupiter spat.  "Just when we need cover ..."
     "Split up again," V suggested.  "They can't have trapped this entire area.  We converge on
the causeway from two directions."
     "Be careful," Moon cautioned her.
     "No time for caution," Tux told her grimly.  "V's right, we need to hit them fast.  Time is on
their side."
     He met my eyes and I nodded.  The Sisterhood had considered the senshi a threat, and might
be prepared for them, at least as prepared as they could be.  The two of us were the variables in this
equation, me more than him, since I had to assume he was a known associate of theirs.
     Mercury and Jupiter joined Tux and the princess, heading right. Mars, V and I went left.  It
was nice to be out of the rain, and any other time this place would have been eerily beautiful, these
abandoned buildings overgrown with grasses and ivy, all lit up by that gorgeous moon.  Now,
though, I expected Sisters to pop out from behind every wall, and that silvery light left us terribly
exposed.
     "What should we expect?" I asked Mars as we ran.
     "The ceremony must be in the main temple," she replied, skipping lightly across the uneven
ground.  "The Sisters will be there. The Maidens will be tasked with defence."
     "So no magick?"  That was good news.
     "Don't get cocky," Mars cautioned.  "They have a variety of skills, admittedly mostly useful
in close quarters, but still, they are dangerous."
     "Too much ground to cover out here," V noted from my other flank.  "There'd be no way to
booby-trap all this territory.  Smart money says they use the defensive advantage of the river."
     "Agreed," I said.  "That causeway's a problem.  If we try to cross they'll be able to pick us
off."
     "Well," V grinned, "we'll just have to cross that bridge when we come to it."
     "Funny," I sighed.
     In spite of the calm, I felt something like a charge in the air.  It might have been the
ceremony the Sisterhood was preparing, or maybe the influence of the Old City.  I could see it on the
far bank of the river, the buildings markedly different in design from anything else I'd seen, all
smooth stone and gleaming crystal, delicate fairy towers linked by narrow bridges.  It was a fantasy
city abandoned and left to ruin. We were very close to it, and the way everyone talked about it I half
expected the ground to open up and eat us whole.  But we went on.  After all, we had no choice.
     Hot blood pushed back the exhaustion I'd been feeling, the scents of the night carried by a
cool, gentle breeze.  In spite of myself I felt that old, familiar excitement.  Confrontation was
coming, no way around it. And I was, at heart, a fighter.  I was always at my best when the chips
were down.
     We ghosted through the ruins, crossing the distance to the island with reckless speed.
Nobody attacked us, though, and while the Sisterhood might have trapped the road, we didn't
encounter any nasty surprises.  Which, frankly, didn't shock me.  V was right, there was too much
ground for them to have covered effectively.  I was betting they'd saved what resources they had,
used them to keep anyone from crossing that causeway.  It was what I would have done in their
place; the river was high and rain-swollen, and that causeway was the only practical way to reach
the island.  Looking at the set-up of buildings over there, I was willing to bet that Alieva's pretty
temple complex had started life as some sort of fortress.  Who could say what threats might have
faced a temple a thousand years ago?
     The river ran high and turbulent, but even if it had been calm I wouldn't have wanted to be
trying to cross in a boat.  We'd be sitting ducks.  Yeah, the place was perfectly suited to holding off a
last minute attack against even a numerically superior force, which we weren't. There were plenty of
nooks and crannies to shelter the defenders, and I knew better than to hope they hadn't spotted us.
The Sisterhood had already proven they were cunning, devious, and paranoid.  They'd be watching.
They'd have seen us.
     They'd be ready.
     Or so they would believe.
     "I'll draw them out!" I shouted as we broke past the last cover, a long, low building of white
stone.  It was already starting as I took it all in, that low buzz in the back of my head.  This wasn't
any weird key magick, no mysterious words only I could see.  No, this was all me, seeing the layout,
how it would go, how they'd probably attack ...
     And what I'd do.  Yeah, that might work.  There to there, and then ... well, then I wing it.
Find the openings, exploit them.  The girls would cover me, I didn't have any doubts on that score.
     The Sisterhood were expecting magick.  They'd have based most of their strategy on
defending against the senshi, and that made sense. What they wouldn't be expecting was a one-man
wrecking crew.
     Named Ranma Saotome.

***

     V gaped as Ranma broke ranks and streaked towards the point where a cracked, overgrown
drive swooped down to the causeway.  The lithe redhead seemed to have found her second wind.
And lost her mind.
     "No, Ranma!" Mars shouted, but to no avail.  "What is that idiot doing?"
     "No idea!" V confessed.  They put on a burst of speed, but Ranma had a head start, crossing
the unruly park that verged the river with careless ease.  What was he thinking?  Was this some sort
of penance for attacking her with his chi-dragon?  That would be just like him, the big dope.
     They could see the huge, ragged gap in the causeway now, about a quarter of the way over,
with no sign of that Waterbug thing Tux had mentioned.  Maybe the Sisterhood had already
removed it to make access harder.  Whatever the case, she could feel hostile eyes on her, making her
flesh tighten and tingle.  It was bad enough that they were this close to the Old City, a place that had
swallowed both the storied Magefire Club and Baronji's Rangers without a trace, but the Sisterhood
believed that this was their chance to release their beloved Dark Lady.  They would do anything to
succeed.  No drugged lipstick or poisoned hairpins this time, this one was for all the marbles.
     She saw the first flash from the dark recesses of the island's taciturn face, and cried out as
Ranma tumbled to the ground.  Her heart only started to beat smoothly again when she realised he'd
been dodging the shot; Ranma was up and running in one smooth motion, and then the night was
alive with fire.
     Well, Ranma had certainly succeeded in getting the island's defenders to reveal their
positions.  V and Mars returned fire at the muzzle flashes, only to discover that the Sisterhood had
used their preparation time wisely.
     "Damn!" V spat as ripples spread through the air where her beam hit the wall.  "They've
warded all hells out of those positions!"
     "It'll take us time to breach those defences," Mars confirmed as her fireball had no more luck
in penetrating the defensive shield.  They continued to charge, catching sight of their comrades
closing from the far side, but Ranma outstripped them all, and V realised queasily that the gunfire
was concentrated on him.
     But somehow, Ranma danced through the deadly hail, actually making it out onto the
causeway as he continued his supple, graceful advance.  It would have been breathtakingly beautiful
if it hadn't been so frightening to watch.
     "We've got to break through!" Mars shouted to her as they ran. "There's no cover on this
side, we'll be cut to pieces if we stay here!"
     V agreed, wishing silently for Saturn and her handy Silence Wall technique.  But they were
on their own.
     Ranma dodged sideways suddenly, rushing out into that gap in the causeway without
pausing, and also without plunging into the water.  V realised that the aforementioned Waterbug
must be there after all.  Hadn't Tux mentioned something about optic camouflage?  Although that
kind of thing drew a huge amount of power, and there was no sign of a power source ...
     But time for that later.  Right now, Ranma had crossed the broken gap in the causeway and
was still charging, drawing an increasing amount of fire, and it seemed to V that the defending fire
was growing sloppy, panicked even.  A surge of excitement lit her up inside.  They'd expected a
battle on their terms, these women, but Ranma had rattled them, charging into the teeth of their guns
with no magick, just that dauntless spirit and sheer physicality that bordered on the supernatural.
     Of course, she should have known that guns would be the least of their defences.
     The flashes nearly blinded her, one at each end of the causeway, and she stumbled, crying
out.  Pain jolted its way through her body as she sprawled across the ground, but instinct brought her
back to her feet quickly.
     The causeway was burning.
     From end to end, eldritch flames bright with greenish corruption seared the night sky,
clawing their way at least forty or fifty feet above the weathered stone.  V felt a moment of blessedly
dull incomprehension before the horror of the sight fell in on her with nearly physical force.
     "RANMA!"
     She started forward, recoiling as something buzzed close by her face.  Then Mars was
pulling her back, shouting something in her ear. There were more shots, and then explosions all
around them.  V caught scattershot glimpses of the others, Jupiter sending a solid stream of lightning
across the river, Mercury holding a wall of water in a swirling shield around herself and the princess,
sodden earth being flung skyward by explosions before raining down on them.  Mars threw them
both down behind the remains of an old wall that was no more than knee-high, the stone worn so that
no sharp edges remained.
     "I thought all the magick users were inside!" V shouted, worming around so she could see
Mars.  "You said the defenders would be Maidens!"  Hating the accusatory tone in her voice, but
unable to still it.
     "The spell must have been pre-set!" Mars shot back.  "Not Sisterhood. They probably hired
it done, money or favours ..."
     V didn't need to use her imagination to guess what sort of favours the Sisterhood could offer.
"Did you see him?  Did Ranma make it off the causeway?"
     "It started at the ends, ran up the edges," Mars said grimly, sneaking a peek over the top of
their scant cover.  "So fast, I couldn't see ... but he must have, V.  He's so quick ..."
     Quick, yes.  But worn out by the day's events, and unfamiliar with magick.  Would he have
been quick enough?  And even if he was, the raging river would be carrying him away, towards the
sea.
     Or to the other side, maybe.  The Old City, from whence no traveller ever returned.
     No.  Ranma was a survivor.  Okay, maybe he was a guilty survivor, throwing himself
constantly into harm's way with no regard for his own safety, but that guy had come through battles
that would have killed most fighters.  Like Arj.  Like Fenrir.
     He had to be okay.  He had to be.
     "Look!  Mercury's signalling!"  V was facing the wrong way, but Mars could see the others.
The explosions seemed to have stopped, but that green fire burned with gleeful malice, covering
every inch of the causeway with its hungry tendrils.  A very good trap, that.  If they'd all been on the
causeway when it had been triggered ...
     But Ranma's mad advance had either triggered the spell or had caused one of the defenders
to panic.  Saving them, but he ...
     Stop it.  Focus.  He's okay, he has to be, now focus.  The others need you.
     Mars nodded to her, one curt motion, and they were up together and running.  The others
had formed up in line with the end of the causeway, Jupiter and Mercury flanking the princess, Tux
standing behind her.  The gunfire had almost completely stopped; maybe the defenders didn't think
they needed to bother anymore.  Nobody was getting across that deathtrap, not now.
     And time kept spinning by them, inexorably.  Tick.  Tock.  How long to Baniesti now?
Only minutes.
     Tick.
     Tock.
     "Cover me!" the princess shouted, holding her sceptre aloft.  V felt it, Moon's gathering
power dispelling some of the clotted, curdled energy of the Old City and the malicious
incandescence thrown off by the Sisterhood's booby trap.  Crouching, Mars and V unleashed a
furious barrage of covering fire on one side of the causeway, Mercury and Jupiter on the other.
     And the princess lowered the boom and let fly with all her might.
     The pure white beam hit the profane flames with a nearly physical force about ten feet above
the surface of the causeway, the two energies fighting for dominance for two seconds, three.  Even
concentrating on protecting the princess, V could see that those unholy fires were loathe to give up
even an inch of their domain.
     But the princess pushed them back.  Slowly at first, then with gathering speed, the debased
fires were forced to give way.  The princess's form seemed to shimmer, clad in silver-white under the
light of the full moon, and that beam of incandescent light would not be denied. And when the
princess had pushed them all the away across, those unnatural fires guttered and died, sullen in
defeat.
     "Fast!" Mars cried to V.  "And ready to go over the side if the fire returns!"
     They were off and running.  V was certain that the trap spell had been defeated, but there
was still the matter of the defenders.  They could still turn the causeway into a killing zone.  She and
Mars streaked across the weathered causeway, which seemed untouched by the twisted fires which
had burned there.
     The Waterbug was visible now, parked on the middle of the causeway with a web of cables
anchoring it to the stone.  It was covered with gently sparkling netting of some kind.  If that was the
optic camouflage, it hadn't survived the fire.  The vehicle didn't look good, either.  The wide metal
treads on both sides had cracked and slumped away from their wheels, and the metal skin was
melted.  V was uncertain as to whether anyone could have survived such incredible heat inside what
was essentially a metal can, but she paused for a heart stopping moment t look in through the now
glassless windows.
     The interior was worse than outside, seats unrecognisable, everything blackened and
charred.
     But no body.
     Mars was pulling away, and V turned and ran.  The plates that the Waterbug had extended
across the gap were still in place, although there were a few small gaps at the far end.  They, like the
stone surface of the causeway, didn't appear damaged, but V wasn't going to trust them. The
Sisterhood wouldn't have been able to cross such a gap, but she certainly could.  She leapt, covering
fire from the others smashing into the defensive wards at the far side, dropping to stone again and
running flat out.
     No sign of a body.  Unless he had been totally consumed by that eldritch firestorm, Ranma
had not fallen here.
     Hope, that was all she asked for.  Just a little hope.
     She reached the far side behind Mars, and together they charged for the main gate as the
others crossed behind them, staggering their crossing, Mercury and Jupiter covering Tux and Moon
as they bounded across.  But something was off.  V saw that the gates were open.  And that wasn't
all.
     Had anybody even been firing as they'd crossed?  She thought the answer was no.  Had the
defenders fallen back, leaving the invading senshi to face another trap?
     Mars shot her a brief hand signal and V nodded, propelling herself through the gap in the
gates first.  Several sights greeted her in rapid succession, each more bizarre than the last.
     There had been some sort of trap mechanism behind the gates, but it lay, half collapsed,
across the broad boulevard.  And the defenders hadn't fallen back at all.  They were still there.
     Scattered like matchsticks before a storm, disarmed and unconscious.
     Ranma.
     Her heart soared straight up, kissed her brain madly, then spun around with careless joy.
Not only had he somehow survived, he'd broken through their defences, blown through the pretty
gunners, and pushed on.  In moments, Mars was at her side, and V saw the other girl quickly reach
the same conclusion.
     "Holy shit," Mars said softly.
     "Yeah," V grinned.  "Come on.  We've got a ceremony to stop!"

***

     Going under the causeway had been a better idea than I'd first anticipated, what with all the
neato-keen evil green magick fire and whatnot.  The gap between the end of the temporary bridge
and the jagged stone had been just big enough for me to get through before the flames reached me.
Down underneath the causeway, I'd had to cling to slick stone only a few feet above the raging
waters.  Slippery, sure, but I'd been motivated, and I'd worked my way from one tiny handhold to the
next while that fire continued to burn up above, throwing ugly green light out onto the waters.
     I've had better times.  I nearly went into the water twice, but I finally made it to the other
side and slithered up onto the shore.  No sign of the defenders , but they were there.  I'd noted where
the flashes had been coming from.  The gaps in the wall were narrow, too narrow for me to get
through.  Looked like it was the front door.
     The gate had symbols all over it, protection against magick maybe.  That would explain why
none of the senshi's attacks were getting through.  They didn't stop good old-fashioned force, though.
I launched myself at the solid-looking wood, unleashing a fierce barrage of strikes, hundreds of
punches hitting the same spot over and over within seconds.  Someone had fixed these old gates
recently, but it had been a very long time since they'd been up to the job of keeping out somebody
who seriously wanted to get inside.  My attack splintered the old wood, and I was through before
they knew what was happening.
     For a few seconds there was chaos as they tried to draw back from the wall to engage me.
That was all I needed.
     The further I pushed through their defences, the clearer two facts became.  First, these
women were willing to throw everything they had at anyone trying to stop them.  And second, they
had tailored their efforts, consciously or not, to stop magickal powerhouses like the senshi.
     Me, I'm an entirely different kind of animal.
     I still thought that the island had once been more fort than temple, but the walls and gates
were mostly for show now.  Or had been, back before the Long Dark.  The Sisterhood had done a lot
to make the approach defensible, but the area from the outer wall to the main complex was mostly
wide open, just some scattered outbuildings and old gardens run to riot.  No, they'd counted on being
able to hold the causeway if company came calling, and if they'd triggered that fire trap a little
sooner, maybe they'd have managed it.  But I figured that the little minxes had wanted to catch as
many of us on the bridge as they could, drawing first blood for their Dark Lady.
     They'd come close, too.  And now I was in a bit of a bind.  The causeway was impassible,
and even though I'd taken out the gunners, there was no way for the others to reach me.
     I was on my own, and midnight was sailing into port, almost at the dock.  So I made a
decision.  I headed for the main building, its high pale walls stained with decrepitude and age.  They
would have wanted to leave this area free for a rapid retreat from the wall if necessary, setting up a
second defensive line further inside.  It looked like that high archway was the only way to reach the
centre of the main temple complex.  That would be it.  Another creative Sisterhood deathtrap.
     So I didn't go there.
     The tangles of vines and bushes cast uncertain shadows all around, and the twisted trees
gave excellent cover for a single person moving fast across the broad garden.  Did the women in the
main building know their defences were breached yet?  I thought no, but I wasn't counting on
anything.  And it didn't matter much, not really.  I couldn't afford to be careful.  They didn't have to
hold us off indefinitely, just delay us a little while longer.
     Time was as big an enemy as those women were.
     I slipped through the dappled, moonlit shadows of a huge, gnarled tree, knowing that the
approaches would be watched, hoping they'd be expecting a charge by a crowd of senshi.  I was
wearing black, which helped, although some hot water would have been nice right about then.  As
sanguine as I'd become about my curse, I could have done without the red hair.
     I'd angled away from the main gate, and my heart fluttered madly as I streaked across the
last open space to reach the wall.  Not hesitating I leapt, my foot finding purchase in the ornamental
detail that wound around the temple proper.  I pushed myself up, catching myself on another narrow
column a few feet above the first.  Back and forth I sprang, rising higher each time, until I was
within reach of a third floor window, a gaping, glassless hole.  Hurling myself forward, I grabbed the
wide stone sill and flipped neatly inside.
     Surprising the hell out of the lovely blonde who was standing there.
     Her full lips parted to cry a warning and I caught her with a quick, savage chop from the
edge of my palm.  She crumpled, and I caught her and the crossbow she'd been trying to swing
around, lowering them both to the floor gently.  Lucky, Saotome.  She must have been watching the
main approach, not seen me moving through the trees.  If she was any good with that crossbow,
things could have gotten very nasty for me.
     In an instant I was running down the dimly lit corridor, a ghost being trailed by a long red
braid.  There would be more of them, I knew. How many?  Given Mars' estimation of how many
Sisters and Maidens there were all told, and how many I'd taken out, I didn't think there could be
many.  Six to ten, twelve at the most.  I had surprise on my side, but probably not for long.  If
communications had been working, they'd probably already know their wall positions had been
taken out.  As it was, I couldn't count on them remaining ignorant for long.
     Turned out, I was more right than I knew.
     The night came alive with light and sound, and I knew that the others had somehow made it
across the river.  Of course, they'd managed to run into something nasty, judging by the sudden
ruckus, and I wanted nothing more than to turn around, throw myself out the nearest window, and
go help them.  For a moment, I almost did.
     But I swallowed a ball of hot fear and apprehension and forced myself to head towards the
centre of the temple.  If I didn't get to the Sisterhood in time and stop the ceremony, all of this would
have been for nothing.  Those girls were tough, and they knew what they were up against.  They'd be
okay.
     Please, let them be okay.
     There was another shock that thrummed through the old stone of the temple, then a loud
crack from outside.  The senshi had run into what I hoped had to be the last line of defence.
     If it wasn't, I'd know in less than a minute.
     I didn't come across any other defenders in the corridor as it wound its way to a wide, spiral
staircase.  I leapt up and rode the broad rail down to the main floor like a surfer, rolling across the
tiles as I reached the bottom.  There was no one there to greet me, though someone had been in the
vast lobby not long before.  There was electronic equipment behind a makeshift barricade, radios
maybe, and a pair of binoculars that someone had dropped, breaking one of the lenses.
     And what else?  Nasty surprises?  I thought not, not here where they might have to retreat
right through their own traps.  No, the last, nastiest surprises would be up ahead.
     No way out but through.
     I crossed the cold tile in a series of quick jumps, limiting my exposure and time on the floor
in case I was wrong about the traps.  The Order's decorator had liked to do things big; the inner
archway could have accommodated a city bus with lots of room to spare.  From there, it was a
straight run to a set of huge, ornately carved wooden doors.  One of the doors had fallen or been torn
down at some point, and lay in three pieces on the dark dusty tile.  The other door still stood, though.
And it was now decorated with something other than carvings.
     Brenn Sikstra, I presume.
     The entire door was wreathed in thorny vines and drowning in lush black roses.  The
priestess hung from them in the middle of the door, arms outstretched, like a sacrifice.  Or a
warning.
     And she wasn't alone.
     "That is far enough, lovely," Yurina called out, her voice and bearing far too alluring for a
woman who was on the verge of slashing a helpless hostage's throat.  Dark lashes hooded those
gorgeous eyes as she looked down on me from her perch, held aloft by those writhing vines. With
one hand she held the unconscious woman's head back, baring her throat to the edge of that wickedly
sharp fan.
     Damn.
     "Listen to me," I replied, knowing it was useless.  She wouldn't listen, but I had to try.
Risking my life was not the same as sentencing someone else to die.  "This ceremony isn't what you
think, Yurina.  You have to stop this.  If the vampire wants it, it can't be good!"
     "I must say I am impressed," the petite beauty said softly, not acknowledging my words in
any way.  "You not only found us, you reached this place.  You will make a worthy offering to our
Dark Lady. And if you survive her wrath for each of our sisters you have killed ..."
     "We didn't kill anyone!" I shouted, remembering the princess's promise to Banri.  "We're
trying to save you!"  Not that she would ever believe that.  Time, Saotome.  The clock is running.
Think, genius. How do I get through that door?  I was too far away from them, and Yurina's blade
was pressed to the tender flesh of Brenn's throat, never wavering even the slightest.
     "No, sweetness," Yurina purred, crossing her legs in a way that made me feel sweaty just
watching.  Inappropriate, yes, bad timing, sure, but damn, these women could twist a man up!  "We
will save you.  Your service to our Lady will be your salvation."
     Two more women emerged from the open half of the doorway, and I hoped that they would
distract Yurina long enough for me to act. No such luck, though.  Both of them had guns, the trim
brunette carrying a nasty looking rifle with a big-ass clip, the tiny blonde a pistol.  Neither of them
pointed their guns at me, though.  They spread out, flanking Yurina and aiming square at the
helpless priestess.
     Damn again.  I could have dodged them if they'd opened fire on me, but this?  I was
hamstrung.
     What's it going to be, Saotome? my inner voice asked, gently mocking.  You're the hero, pal.
Something bad is going down on the other side of that door, something real bad.  You don't know
what, not for sure, but you know it has to be stopped.  The vamp has killed before, all those innocent
people across the kingdom, just to draw you out.  How many more will she kill?  And will you
sentence this innocent woman to die to stop even more death?  Can you make that decision?
     Can you?
     I couldn't.  I wasn't cold-blooded enough, even if the math worked out, one life for many.
There was only one thing to do.  I had to get those weapons pointed at me.
     But then the dark-haired girl said, "Yurina, it's time," and the vines writhed and coiled,
lowering Yurina and her hostage to the ground with eerie grace.
     "Well, then," Yurina murmured, giving me one of those kneeweakening gazes.  "Won't you
come in?"
     What?
     They moved to the door, the two women staying apart but keeping their guns trained on
Brenn as the roses carried her and Yurina through the doorway.  They withdrew moments later to
shield the two Maidens as they followed.
     I tensed, but it was a wasted effort.  The vines slithered back up the door, stilling until they
looked like just any other plant.  I was suspicious, sure, but hey, I'd been invited in.  It would have
been rude to refuse.  I started forward, ready for anything.
     Expect, maybe, the fireball that streaked past me and blew the damned door and all those
roses to pieces.
     "About time!" I shouted, springing forward before the flaming pieces of door had finished
falling.  I rocketed through the gap, ready for gunshots, for magick, for anything.
     Or so I thought.
     The centre of the temple complex was a large amphitheatre, open to the night sky.  The
ranks of benches fell away in shallow steps to a large, open area that had probably once held a
podium or, considering where we were, an altar.
     Now it held something that stopped me in my tracks, knocking the breath out of my gut like
a punch.
     There were a handful of Maidens scattered around, and I noted vaguely that, although they
all seemed to be armed, none of them were bothering to point their weapons at me.  Brenn Sikstra
was still in peril, which I supposed was their insurance policy against me harming them, but I barely
spared a thought for her.
     The Sisters were all down in the circle.
     Calling it a circle was a pretty gross oversimplification; it was a pattern, really, like Ami's
portals, an outer circle and then an inner, with circles and lines inscribed between those two lines,
and more within, a vortex of lines and shapes and circles connected, flowing twisting.
     Like a living thing.
     Mars and V burst through the doorway behind me, and it took them all of three seconds to
take in the situation, the curiously nonthreatening Maidens and the assembled ranks of the
Sisterhood in their ceremonial circle.
     Spaced evenly at points around the main circle, between the inner and outer borders, were
smaller patterns, and in each pattern stood a Sister.  They wore robes, but they really needn't have
bothered.  The scarlet silk robes were open in front, hoods thrown back, and it was clear that all
these women were naked underneath.  Arms outstretched, they chanted, a low, sinuous sound that
twined around the queer thrum of power that tainted the air here.  And in the centre of the pattern
stood the Nightmistress herself, a flawless goddess fallen to sin.
     None of these things, not the weird feeling in the air, not the Maidens' behaviour, not even
the sight of all those naked women, had stopped me dead, though.  It was the circle itself.  Even as
Mars and V, in unspoken accord, unleashed a fierce volley of attacks against the circle's border I
was struck by the malice of the thing, the twisted beauty, the malevolent hunger that it radiated.
     And the Sisters' expressions of wild joy.
     They didn't KNOW.
     Both Mars' fire and V's beam hit the edge of the circle, flared, and were ... absorbed, I guess.
Which didn't surprise me, or Saekianna either.  She threw her head back, pale hair streaming in the
rising wind, and laughed, a sound of pure, unfettered delight.
     "Not good enough!" she called, mocking us.  "Try again, please."
     And they did, with no greater effect.
     "What the hells is that thing?" V asked as they moved apart.  I heard footfalls coming fast
from behind us as Mars replied that she had no idea, and I had a terrible thought.
     They didn't see it either.  Not really.  Not as I saw it.
     "Our triumph is at hand!" Saekianna crowed as Jupiter and Mercury joined the attack.  "Fall
on your knees, traitor!  Fall on your knees and beg Her for forgiveness!  Perhaps it isn't too late!"
     And she laughed.  She laughed because she didn't see.  They were in it and they couldn't see,
none of them.  The senshi were attacking, but they didn't really see it either.  I thought of the way I
could see through the senshi's disguise magicks and wondered vaguely if anyone else saw what I did.
     "My God," I said, my voice hoarse.  "Can't you see it?  CAN'T YOU SEE WHAT YOU'VE
DONE?"
     That got some attention, but while Saekianna smirked, it seemed to me that my sudden
scream had rattled one or two of the nearest Maidens.
     "Ranma?" V said, clearly alarmed.  "What ...?"
     "Break the circle!  V, we have to break that circle!"
     "Too late, pretty girl," Saekianna taunted.
     "You've got to get out of there!" I shouted.  "You've got to get out, it's hungry and it's going
to EAT YOU ALIVE!"
     I wasn't aware that the princess had arrived until a brilliant silverwhite flare of energy
streamed down from my left, smashing into the invisible barrier formed by that foul circle.  I had an
instant of hope as Sailor Moon brought her power to bear, hope that was buoyed when the others
joined in, but that hope faded as I saw the thing simply absorbing all the energy thrown at it.
     "Try the ground around them!" V shouted.  I didn't bother to wait and see the result.  Time
was heavy on my back, its rancid breath tickling my ear.  It had chewed its way through most of the
night, and it had no intention of slowing down.  I want a midnight snack, kid, it snickered.  Midnight
snack, get it?  DO YA GET IT?
     Oh yeah.  I got it.  Jumping down to a lower level, I grabbed a large, ragged chunk of pale
rock and heaved it off the ground with all my might.  Muscles screaming, I got a grip and started to
spin, arms pulled outwards as the stone chunk tried to escape.  Once around, twice, three times,
faster each time.  On the fourth turn I let it go with a wild cry, sending the makeshift projectile
hurtling down towards the circle.  It ate energy; let's see how it felt about big-ass chunks of sharp
and hard.
     The stone spun end for end as it arced down towards the assembled Sisters, but none of them
seemed especially worried.  Sure enough, when it hit the edge of the circle's aura it just stopped.
Didn't bounce, didn't shatter.  Stopped.  Dead.
     As I watched, panting from the exertion, the stone began to erode. It was like watching time
gnaw away at the chunk in super fast forward. Streamers of dust peeled away from the surface and it
shrank like ice under hot water.  In seconds, it was gone.
     "Is that your best?" Saekianna taunted.  She wasn't even paying any attention to me.  Her
derision was reserved for the princess, whose continued attacks splashed uselessly against the circle's
edge.
     "Please, you have to stop this!" Moon pleaded.
     "Listen to her, Sass!  Something's not right, can't you feel it?"
     "Oh, very soon, traitor, everything will be more right than it has been in my lifetime!"
     That thrum was rising, and I felt trapped, helpless.  I grabbed the key under my shirt and
squeezed it, hoping for ... I don't know. Something.  Anything.  Spooky Ilianka to show up, another
super secret attack from the wonderful land of the key, an appearance by the almighty Eye.
Anything.
     But there was no rhyming, no phantom girl, and any attack made from my still weak chi
would be easily swallowed by that hungry circle.
     And then a sound rolled across the amphitheatre, reverberating in my abused muscles and
tired bones, a sound I didn't recognise for a moment.  Then I realised what it was as a second
followed the first and the Sisters let their robes slide free to stand naked under the moon.
     A bell.  Tolling midnight.
     Baniesti.
     The Maidens, all but forgotten, were gathered in a loose knot off to one side.  I suppose they
could have tried to kill us, but why would they bother?  As far as they were concerned, we were
about to get our comeuppance, courtesy of one very pissed off goddess.
     I think the first screams clued them in to the change of plans.
     Writhing madly, the naked priestesses rose into the air, one after the other, their expressions
rapidly changing from bliss to a mixture of pain and terror.  Only Saekianna stayed on the ground,
but as we watched a dark form materialised in the air around her, instantly wrapping her in its
gleaming midnight coils.
     Banri.  The fake one.  The Nightmistress of the Sisterhood bucked and fought, but she could
not break free, and as her priestesses rose higher and the circle's glow changed from soft blue-white
to a febrile debauched scarlet, her eyes met mine for just a moment.
     She knew, now.  She knew we'd been telling the truth.  And she knew it didn't matter
anymore.
     It was too late.
     A third bell.  Time seemed to be slowing, stretching like taffy around us as events kept
pushing forward.
     Another scream, higher, and I caught a glimpse of streaming blonde curls and a tear-streaked
face.  One of the Maidens, running towards the circle as the others stood, stunned.  Yurina thrust her
hostage at the girl beside her and hurled herself in pursuit, crying the girls' name.
     I didn't think, I just moved.  Whatever it was inside me that recognised the malice of that
circle also knew that touching it was the end.  The blonde girl didn't know that, or in her desire to
save her friends, simply didn't care.  And she had too much of a lead, they both did.  I was too tired,
too slow, too late.
     Not gonna save anybody tonight, eh, boy? Time mocked me, taking a brief pause from its
midnight snack.  Always just a little ... too ... late?
     Damn it.
     "Vi!  Take my hand!"  The blonde reached the circle, her hand stretched up to catch the foot
of the writhing, dusky-skinned woman nearest her.  With reckless disregard for her own safety, she
tried to pull the Sister from the circle's embrace.
     It welcomed her in.
     "NO!" Yurina screamed, and whatever I felt about the Sisterhood and their methods, the
pain in that scream cut at my heart.
     The blonde spasmed, caught in the circle's maw, her lips parting wide to unleash a scream of
pure agony as her body was pulled up and in. Yurina leaped, not stopping, not even slowing, trying
to reach into the circle's glow and pull the girl free.  Even though she must have known it was
useless.
     I caught her around the waist and spun her away with only inches to spare between her
outstretched hand and the edge of the glowing circle, my skin crawling from the nearness of that
awful spell.  The petite woman fought madly, bucked and kicked and writhed, but I wasn't about to
let her go.
     "It's too late!" I shouted in her ear, trying not to think about the way she smelled or what
might be on the fingernails she clawed at me with.  "Damn it, you can't help her now!"
     "Let!  Me!  GO!"
     "You want them to watch you die?" I snarled, spinning us so that she faced back towards the
other Maidens.  Her struggles tapered off, but her body trembled in my grip, and her hair, partially
loosed from its careful swirl, brushed my cheek.  Shoulders shaking with the force of her ragged
breathing, she finally stopped fighting me, choking back what sounded like a sob.
     "Release me," she whispered, her voice tight and full of unshed tears, and I did.  I was
between her and the circle now, and hopefully she had regained control.  I saw Mars halfway
between the princess and me, apparently having had the same thought I did, and then I saw V turn to
the circle, horror clawing at her face.
     I didn't want to know.  I didn't, but I was who I was and so I had to look.  I turned to the
circle, where the women's cries had choked off into low, mewling sounds.
     Something was rising from Saekianna's shadow at the centre of the pattern.
     Of course.  Fear and rage coiled around and around in my gut as the vampire rose smoothly
behind the trapped Nightmistress, taking the helpless woman in her arms as she regarded us all with
a lazy smile.  She was all pale skin and glossy black hair flowing like night given form, her flawless
physical perfection just so complete that it was somehow unreal.
     But she was all too real.  A growl caught in my throat, and I summoned my chi, letting it rise
in a battle aura.  I'd hit the damned circle with everything I could still muster.  I'd ...
     My aura was pulled away as fast as it rose, drawn into the circle, and I gasped as cold
weakness began spreading through me.  I let my aura dissipate, stunned at how sudden it had been.
This thing ate chi even easier than magick.  Because, I realised numbly, chi was nothing but pure
life force.  And that was what this thing really was for, stripping the life from those trapped in its
tendrils.
     Damn it!
     We were finally face to face and I couldn't touch the murderous bitch.  She was slowly
killing these women, and I couldn't do anything.  I wasn't sure if the red in my vision was from the
circle's corrupt light or the blood pounding in my head.
     "You!  Let them go!" Mars shouted, fire flaring around her.  "Come out of there and fight
us!"
     "Are you so anxious to be mine, pet?" the vampire said, and her voice was as alluring as the
rest of her, a perfect sensuous purr, far too beautiful to be the voice of evil.  It wasn't right that evil
should be seductive.  "Patience.  All of you will kneel to me, very soon."
     "Stop it!" Moon cried, sheltered in Tux's arms as the vamp's gaze swept up to her.  "Please!
Why are you doing this?"
     "Princess."  It was a low susurration, that word, and the undertones made Tux tighten his
grip on his lady love.  "How wonderful to see you again.  How like your mother you are.  If only
Serenity had joined me, none of this would have been necessary."
     "What?"  The princess's eyes were wide pools of blue in her pale face.  "What do you ... how
do you know about Serenity?"
     "Ah, but I have not introduced myself," the vamp said, her full, blood-red lips curling into a
predator's smile.  "And of course you would not remember me.  You were far too young when last I
laid eyes on you. I am Wynneth Vesra de Morgana."
     "Impossible."  Mercury's voice was soft, but that one word carried through the space between
bell tolls.  "The de Morgana were the ruling family of House Saturn."
     Shock rippled across the faces of all the senshi as the Maidens stood frozen, their dream
turned abruptly to nightmare.
     "You were reincarnated with us?" the princess blurted.
     "Oh, you foolish girl," Wynneth smirked, her medusa tresses slithering over Saekianna's
trapped form as she nuzzled the priestess's throat with playful malice.  "Reincarnated?  I have
endured all the years, from then until now.  Waiting."
     "Gods," Mars breathed.
     "Your gods have forsaken you, pet.  I rule here now.  I will be your new dark goddess, and
all shall offer me their undying devotion," Wynneth crooned.  "Prepare for my coming.  I expect
great things from all of you."
     "Wait!" I shouted, pulling the key from under my shirt.  "You want this, don't you?  Huh?
You've been looking for this?"
     Oh, I had her attention now.
     "You," she breathed.  "Not the boy ..."
     "Come out," I taunted, waving the key.  "You want it so bad, come out here and get it!"
     "Ranma, no!" V cried, but Wynneth's eyes just narrowed as she stared at me, hate replacing
that cruel amusement for the first time.  The bells were still tolling somewhere, but the sound was
low, distorted, and it seemed to have been going on for too long.  How many left?
     "Oh, I will come for you, girl," Wynneth hissed as Saekianna writhed weakly in her grip,
eyes wide but seemingly unable to cry out. "You will have no place to hide in my kingdom."
     "Now!" I shouted, holding it high.  "Right now, witch!"
     "Hold that anger close," she crooned.  "I won't want you to break too easily, pretty.  I will
take that from you, and you will serve me faithfully.  Until we meet again, sweetness."
     She gave me a wicked smile, and I knew my gambit had failed.  I had what she wanted, but
she wasn't coming after it now.  Either she couldn't leave the circle, or she wouldn't.  She seemed
pretty sure that she'd get what she wanted, sooner or later.
     She wouldn't come out, and I couldn't go in.
     Damn her.
     Her hand cupped Saekianna's jaw and she slowly drew the woman's head back, exposing her
throat, luxuriating in the moment as the Maidens screamed in denial.  Shots rang out, but they had
no more effect than the spells or my impromptu missile, and for a moment I thought I would have to
hold Yurina back again.  Instead, she cried out her Nightmistress's name, no seductive purr in that
voice now, just raw pain.
     The last toll of the midnight bell finally faded in the night air, wobbling away to nothingness,
and Wynneth lowered her full lips to the throat of her pawn.  She knew we were all watching, and
that we could do nothing.  It was horrible, that feeling of impotent rage; the people assembled here
could bring an unreal amount of power to bear, but we were all helpless to stop what was happening.
If only we'd figured it out sooner, I thought numbly as Wynneth bit down on that tender flesh,
Saekianna's body arching back savagely at the contact.
     If only ...
     Wynneth pulled her mouth away from the pale flesh of Saekianna's neck, droplets of blood
spinning through the air like tiny jewels.  The keening power of the circle exploded in that instant, a
wave of blackness rushing outwards, and the last thing I saw was the vamp's mocking smile and the
glistening blood on those red lips.
     And then I was falling.
     I hit the ground hard, a wall of rain dropping on me like an avalanche.  Disoriented, I slid
along the sodden grass until I tumbled to a stop, clambering to my feet and shaking the sense of
unreality off me with some difficulty.
     The temple was gone.  Everything was gone.  And it was raining again.  For a moment I felt
sanity slipping away, like earlier when I'd woken in the street.  But this was different.  I knew this
was real. Wynneth had triggered her spell, and somehow I'd been thrown clear of the temple and
back into the storm.  Shaking frigid rain from my face, I cast about for the others.
     This did seem familiar, somehow, and after a moment I had it.  It was like when Jupiter's
attack on the fake Banri had thrown us into Shadow.  We'd been separated then, too.  Maybe the
vamp's spell was like that, designed to send us, maybe the whole damn city, into Shadow.
     Wait.  There was something, that way.  It was hard to make out through the unabated fury of
the storm, but I thought I could see a reddish glow rising through the churning clouds.  If that was
the temple, then all I needed to do was head back.  The others would go there, and if the vamp's spell
was over, then maybe I'd finally have a shot at her.
     I set off, trying not to think of the screams of the Sisters as they'd struggled like insects in a
spider's web, or the raw pain when the Maidens had called out to their comrades.
     We'd failed.  We were supposed to save the Sisterhood from themselves and prevent the
ceremony, and we'd failed on both counts. Whatever the vamp had set out to do, it was done.
     So now what?
     Now, I thought grimly, I need to find this vamp.  And punch her ticket.  And if I can do that
chi-dragon trick with the key again, I won't bother worrying about coming out of it.  All I want is
just one shot at her.
     Just one.
     Turned out I was right about the others.  V was the first to show up, and somehow that didn't
surprise me.  She asked me if I was all right. I said yes.  We both knew it was a lie, but what the hell.
We weren't dead, and that was something.
     Jupiter and Mercury showed up together, and by the time we found Tux and the princess I
knew we were back on the same road we'd taken to get to the temple in the first place.
     We found Mars at the edge of the storm, where the rain stopped. She was staring wordlessly
up into the sky, and we stopped beside her to take in the view.  The needle of crimson light that had
risen from the temple was still hanging in the air, but it had no presence now, no force. It was just a
fading afterimage.
     The damage had been done.
     "Are we in Shadow?" I asked at last.
     "I don't think so," V answered when nobody ventured an opinion.  "There are still plants,
trees.  And rain.  It wasn't raining when I was there.  I don't know if it does rain in Shadow."
     "Right," I said.  "But isn't that ...?"
     "Nemesis," V finished for me.
     The moon was red.  But of course, it wasn't the moon really, not OUR moon.  The baleful
bloody eye of Nemesis rode high in the sky, gazing down in madness on all that Wynneth had
wrought.
     "What did she do?" Jupiter asked at last.
     "Whatever that was, it fed on their souls," Mars said, her gaze fixed on the island.  "It used
them as fuel for the spell."
     "Mars," the princess said softly, reaching out to touch the girl's shoulder.  "Maybe ... maybe
it didn't kill them.  Maybe ..."  She trailed off helplessly, looking around at us.  She wanted to hope,
but nobody was biting.  We'd all seen it.
     "So, what do we do?" Jupiter asked at last.
     "We go back," I said.  "And kill the bitch."
     With that, I started down the hill, following the same path we'd taken before.  Wordlessly,
the others followed.  We couldn't save the Sisters, not now.  The Maidens, well, if they'd been
thrown clear like we were, hopefully they'd have enough sense to run.
     I was hoping the vamp wouldn't have that much sense.  If the spell was done, I was betting
I'd be able to reach her, and even though I felt like death warmed over, I intended to give everything
I had left to take her out.
     I could still hear them screaming, inside my head.  It wasn't just the pain that had made the
sound so horrible.  It was the jagged edge of horror that came from knowing they'd been used all
along, that they were the dead-end of the Sisterhood's long years of struggle to free their goddess.
And there, right there at the end, when they finally knew the truth, they were utterly helpless to do
anything about it.  Just like us.
     Unlike us, though, they'd paid with their lives.
     We reached the river and found things just as we'd left them.  We crossed the causeway in
staggered groups, but we needn't have bothered taking any precautions.  There were no defenders
shooting at us this time. And inside the walls, weapons still lay scattered around where the Maidens
had been stationed, but their unconscious bodies were gone. Scattered by the spell, I hoped.
     The alternative didn't bear thinking about.
     Taking precautions, we stormed the amphitheatre at the centre of the temple, but the
precaution turned out to be unnecessary.  Wynneth was gone.
     The Sisters were not.
     We made our way slowly down the broad steps that led to the circle, its light gone now, and
with it the sense of malice I'd felt before. It was a dead thing now.  Just like Dasma's priestesses.
     V moved up and motioned me back as Mars stepped up to the circle.  She stared down at the
naked form that lay in a crumpled heap there, traced one hand through the air and murmured
something too low to hear.  Then she moved on to the next.  And the next.
     I watched her for a few moments, then turned my attention back to the bodies, my fists
clenched at my sides.  There, one of the women who'd been at the parking garage when I'd snatched
V from Saekianna. And there, the redhead from the tunnels, her eyes open but sightless, skin
unnaturally pale.  There, the another from the tunnels, with the long braids, and next to her the same
face, eyes open and sightless.  A twin sister.  Sisters who were sisters, how about that.  And over
there was Mirra, the one who'd been in the video with Saekianna, her second in command.  The
blonde Maiden still lay next to the dusky-skinned woman she'd tried in vain to save.
     They'd been our enemies, these women.  They'd attacked us, messed with our heads, caused
worry and heartache for the girls, and just generally done their level best to destroy the senshi.  But
seeing them like this, all I felt was a numb grief.  They'd just been pawns.  If it hadn't been for
Wynneth, our paths might never have crossed.  We certainly wouldn't have come into conflict.  They
hadn't deserved this.
     Mars walked from body to body, offering what seemed like a blessing to each one. She
known them, most if not all, served with them, maybe even been friends with some of them.  This
had to be hard for her. I noticed that Mercury and the princess had moved in to begin covering the
bodies with their discarded robes, giving some dignity to the dead.
     It made me angry that we could do so little for them.  That anger curdled in my gut, and I
just stood there, wishing the vamp would pop out of the shadows, or even some of her wraiths, so I'd
have something to hit.
     "Hey," V said softly from beside me.
     "We screwed up," I breathed softly, body rigid with tension.  "Too little, too late."
     "Yeah," she answered.  "Wheels within wheels, feints and fakeouts.  But this isn't over,
Ranma.  We'll find this Wynneth, and we'll make her pay."
     "I'm just so sick of it.  So many people ending up dead, so many lives destroyed.  For what?
What the hell does she want?"
     "Hey," Jupiter murmured.  "You guys notice who's missing?"
     She nodded toward the centre of the burnt-out circle, and I frowned as I realised that she was
right.  Saekianna's body wasn't there.
     "She wasn't caught up like the others," V mused.  "Banri trapped her, and Wynneth used her
blood to trigger ... well, whatever happened at the end."
     "You think she might still be alive?" I asked.
     "Gods, I hope not," Jupiter muttered.  V and I were both staring at her, and she flushed.  "I
didn't mean it like that, you guys!  But if she's alive, the vampire has her.  Not only will she have to
live with knowing she led her people to their deaths, but the vamp will make her into a playtoy."
     "Or turn her," V sighed.  "I'll tell you one thing, the city won't be big enough for those
Maidens to hide in.  Sooner or later, the vamp will break Saekianna and make her spill her guts.
The Sisterhood won't have any secrets from her."
     "So, what about this House Saturn thing?" I asked at last. Nobody had brought it up yet, and
I hadn't wanted to be the one, but it was the elephant in the room so to speak.  The two senshi looked
at each other.
     "If she was telling the truth ..." V began.
     "Yeah.  If," Jupiter snorted softly.
     "We'll have to tell Hotaru."
     "And won't that be fun?"
     I watched Mars complete her blessings above the last of the bodies and just stand there.  I
knew she'd noted Saekianna's absence, and she could guess as well as we could what that might
mean.
     "Hey," V said, squeezing the other girl's shoulder.  "How you doing?"
     "I can't leave them like this," Mars said, her voice low.  "I'm going to bury them.  I owe them
that much at least."
     "Sure," V nodded.  "We'll help."
     "I'm not doing it here.  They wouldn't want to be buried in Alieva's temple.  I'm taking them
off the island.  All of them."
     "Okay," I said.  There had to be at least forty of them.  This would take a while.  But she
was right, we couldn't just leave them there, naked and vulnerable under that creepy red light.
     It took some time.  Neither the princess nor Jupiter could really carry anyone, so they stayed
on the shore as we ferried the bodies out one at a time.  The ground was soft, and Mercury used her
power to scoop out deep graves all along the base of a low, worn wall.  We laid the wrapped bodies
in the graves side by side, and as Mars named them, V carved their names into the stone with her
beam.
     In the end, we were all bone tired and dirty, but I felt better somehow. We'd done all we
could do for the dead.
     Now we had to help the living.  And that meant finding this Wynneth and stopping her
before she could destroy more lives.  Even if we had no idea how we were going to do that.
     "It's a long walk back," V sighed, placing her hands at the small of her back and stretching.  I
looked at the wall of rain in the distance. The storm still raged, which certainly wasn't going to help
matters any.
     Tux scattered some roses on the long grave, and Mars nodded her thanks to him.  Then we
took one last look at the final resting place of Dasma's Sisterood.
     "Rest," Mars said after a long moment.  "We couldn't save you, but we will avenge you.  I
promise."
     After that, there was nothing left to say.  We turned and started back towards home.
     "Damn," I sighed to V as we walked towards the silvery curtain of rain.  "It must nearly be
morning.  It should be getting light soon."
     "Let's hope so," she said, something dark and turbulent clouding her eyes.  I got her point.  If
Wynneth had been around fourteen years ago ...
     But hell.  No sense worrying about that until we had to.  The rain was still cold and hard,
and the wind still howled, and the thunder and lightning still raged.  So many people had died, but
the world kept right on going.  It shouldn't have surprised me, not after all the loss I'd experienced,
but somehow it seemed as though there should have been some acknowledgement of the tragic
events we'd seen.
     We found Brenn Sikstra lying on the wet ground near the road about fifteen minutes after
re-entering the rain.  She was unconscious but breathing, and we wrapped her in Tux's cape.  Mars
insisted on carrying her.
     The Maidens had vanished into the storm.  If they were smart, they'd started running and
wouldn't stop until they reached another continent.  But if I'd been them, I guess I'd have wanted
revenge.  Either way, I didn't think we were on their radar anymore.
     A surprise waited for us near the drawbridge.  Artemis, Luna, and the twins were parked
there, apparently trying to figure out a way over. The reunion was joyful, and that thawed some of
the ice in my chest. Artemis fussed over V, Luna hugged Moon fiercely, and the twins flew straight
to Mars and clung to her like they knew what had happened. Which, by now, they probably did.  We
gave them a brief update on the Sisterhood's fate and the identity of the vamp.
     That caused a stir.
     Minako's car wasn't very big.  After some discussion, it was decided that the princess should
get to ride back, along with the injured Brenn.  Jupiter argued her injuries weren't that bad, but
Moon told her sternly that she was coming as well, and the taller girl finally agreed. Tux got to
drive, with Artemis and Luna changing back to cat form and riding along.  I didn't watch that part.
Cats still give me the heebie-jeebies.
     The rest of us were in for a walk, although the others promised to meet us on the road as
soon as they could.  We thought about the truck cabs as we passed the old warehouse, but none of us
could actually drive one.  V thought about sheltering inside the building, but Mercury felt that it was
best to get as far away from the Zone as possible, so we ended up walking.  V and I had left our rain
ponchos there earlier, and we picked them up on the way out.  Okay, we were already soaked, but
they certainly couldn't hurt, right?
     The storm's fury seemed to falter as we walked, and by the time we reached the spot where
I'd woken in the street, it had become just a downpour.  It was still cold and miserable, but we
couldn't do anything about it, so we just had to endure.
     We started to see signs of life soon after, and by the time Artemis arrived in Mamoru's car,
we were seeing spotty traffic, as well as the odd person braving the weather.  It felt damned good to
be out of the rain, and the girls changed back once they were in the car, which gave them dry
clothes.  I felt envious, until I realised I was still using V's gizmo.  Sure enough, my other clothes
reappeared when I took it out of my waistband. Dry, which was wonderful, but not as heavenly as
the coffee and doughnuts Artemis had with him.
     "Dropped the priestess at the emergency room," he told us as he drove.  "It was easy, what
with all the chaos.  Things are still wild out there.  The others are back at Ami's already.  That
jamming hasn't faded, so comms are still out.  That'll make it harder to get the word out about the
Queen, but word'll spread.  And that's good.  Folks are on edge."
     We drove by a small diner, and I looked out the window to see a heavy-set man wearing a
battered, shapeless hat staring up at the sky, rain running off his broad face.  That sight filled me
with unease, and after a moment I realised why.  Even with the rain, it should be lighter.  It still
seemed to be full dark outside.  I caught sight of the clock on the dash then, and knew the unspoken
worry had become a very real issue.
     "Artemis," I said, licking my lips.  "Is that clock right?"
     "Yeah," he said grimly.  "It's right."
     Well, I certainly felt like I'd been up for twenty four hours and then some.  But nine
twenty-three?  I turned around to look into the back seat, where the three girls were sitting quietly.
Minako met my gaze, giving me a small, pained smile.
     "Well," she said, taking a sip of her coffee.  "Now we know what the vamp's spell did, huh?"
     "Yes," Rei said, staring out the window.  "And right now, all across the city, people are
waking up and wondering what's going on."
     "They won't be wondering for long," Ami said, cradling her coffee.  "And that's when the
panic will start."
     "This is going to be bad, isn't it?" I asked.
     No one answered.  They didn't have to.  They'd all been through this once before, after all.
     The Dark had returned to Saeni.
 

***
 
 
 

     Epilogue:
     Wind scoured the blasted landscape, clawing at anything foolish enough to challenge it.
Streamers of dust flowed like water, forming shapes that seemed almost to be gravid with some
fleeting meaning, then breaking up before finding new ephemeral mysteries to tantalise with.
     Not that there was anyone to witness these transitory wonders. This place was far from the
inhabited planes, and nothing that lived had ventured here for a span of time that was almost
inconceivable.
     But now the dust and the wind were not the only inhabitants of the desolation.  Lying in the
middle of the plain was a shallow depression, like a crater.  Whatever had made it was gone, but not
gone long, for the depression had not yet been eroded to the sameness of the surrounding landscape
by the implacable wind and the hateful dust.
     The impact had left something behind, though, soon to be buried like all the other signs that
anything had ever lived here.
     Scattered shards of dark crystal.
 
 
 

     end chapter 21.